It’s morning and it’s just the two of us
in the Transit crew-bus, driving out to work,
past dew-hung spruce, in this neck of the woods.
The floor is strewn
with chainsaws, chains, tools, grease-guns, tubes of grease
while the whole van stinks of sap and two-stroke mix.
I would screw my oil stained Maxproof coat up
into a ball
and try to grab some kip but today I just can’t sleep.
And it’s not the jolting over pot-holed roads
or the flare of light that’s keeping me awake –
I’m worried sick.
Geoff is smoking pre-rolled Holborn roll-ups
by the barrow-load. He flicks the greasy butts
out of the narrow window slit and says,
frankly, not much.
The towering Sitka spin by, blue and gorgeous
in the warmth of the brilliant, early morning sun
and it’s all so picturesque that I am overcome
with a desire
to unburden, to share. So I brace myself and say:
Here, kid. What’s thu want?
I think I might have got me girlfriend pregnant.
There. I did it.
He changes down a gear, furrows his brow,
sucks once on his rolly and then speaks:
It’s nowt clever, lad. Rats do it every six weeks.
I was hoping
for something a little more reflective,
some empathy, a sympathetic ear perhaps,
but you have to admit it puts things
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2004. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2004 was Hamish Whyte.
I heard Tim Turnbull read this at a Shore Poets reading. PC or not, it made me laugh. And formally, it’s well worked out, with a nice use of dialect and the colloquial.
‘Getting in Touch…’ was started in the late nineties and I took such a long time to arrive at the version published in The Rialto that it is difficult to recall the exact process so I will try to give some context to how and why it came to be written. It is part of a continuing series about work generally and the forestry industry in particular. I was involved in forestry for about twenty years (longer if you count helping my uncle cut rails on a mobile sawbench in my teens) so the subject is bound to crop up fairly regularly.
The impetus for this poem came from several sources. When I wrote the first draft I was in my thirties, living in London, starting a degree and working weekends and any spare time on motorway contracts (mostly chemical weeding, which is horrible). ‘Getting in Touch…’ was my idea of a pastoral nostalgic vision. I appreciate that the uniform, mono-cultural, commercial forests of upland Britain aren’t everybody’s idea of an idyllic setting but when you’re humping up and down the side of the M20 in a rubber suit with twenty-five litres of poison strapped to your back it can look pretty attractive.
I was working alone mostly and missing the camaraderie of the gangs and the humour and friendship of my old forestry colleagues. When I started work on the Forestry Commission there were a lot of felling gangs but these have been largely superseded by harvester processors and other single operator machines. It might seem an odd sort of nostalgia but the advice proffered in the poem, though terse and apparently unhelpful, is better than the isolation this late manifestation of industrialisation brings.
When I wrote it most of my work was designed for the stage. I took part in slam competitions and did a lot of readings. On the performance poetry scene there was a proliferation of drama students who would demonstrate their versatility and right-on credentials by performing dramatic monologues which featured hilarious proletarian oafs (usually music-hall Cockney, generic Yoncishire though Glasgae or Rhonnda were not unknown). These one dimensional portrayals of working class masculinity were supposed to embody all that was crass, insensitive and bigoted in the world. The title came while sitting through one such offering.
The first versions were free verse affairs which were not quite satisfactory though I couldn’t say exactly why. The problem was that the ‘rats’ gag is so good you can get away with fairly sloppy writing on stage. The conversation is reported nearly verbatim with adjustments only for metrical purposes. As I became used to handling different poetic forms (I only wrote songs from 1980 to 1994) I returned to the poem again and again and gradually tightened up the lines until I found a structure I was happy with and which seemed to have the right balance of authority and conversational quality.