Working class voices are often underrepresented in poetry. James Foley of the International Socialist Group interviews Rab Wilson, a pioneering voice in contemporary Scottish poetry, who writes in the Lallans Scots dialect to narrate the working life of miners and rural labourers.
Rab Wilson has established himself as one of Scottish poetry’s unique voices. Writing – and speaking – in Lallans Scots, his rhymes reflect on the social effects of deindustrialisation through memories of the harsh conditions – and the banter – of rural Ayrshire’s pit life. His poetry, he says, is a form of social revolt: although he has gained respectability as the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association’s “Robert Burns Reading Fellow in Reading Scots”, he urges poets to “bite the hand that feeds them”.
I caught up with Rab at his home in New Cumnock after viewing his documentary, Finding the Seam, which he describes as a personal poetic journey into the decline of the mining industry. “Kirkconnel, New Cumnock, Auchinleck…all these villages are only here because of coal,” he says. “Socially and economically, it made these local communities.”
Rab took an apprenticeship with the National Coal Board, and lived through the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. He started writing verses in chalk on the shaft walls, “just ripping the piss…folk in the pits were always writing daft rhymes to wind each other up”. He has subsequently worked as a psychiatric nurse, and today lives in a very respectable bungalow on the outskirts of town overlooking a new windfarm development. But if this sounds like embourgeoisement and adaptation to post-Thatcherite Britain, you’d be dead wrong.
“The Tories didn’t give a second thought to the social catastrophe they were creating,” he told me. “You’ve ended up with massive unemployment, health and social issues, endemic drug and alcohol problems, family breakdowns – the whole social fabric has collapsed.
“Thatcher knew what she was doing. By shafting the miners, one of the most potent forces for social and progressive reform was removed.”
Several decades on, there is a thriving industry in mining-related nostalgia, and the issue is suffused in sentimentalism. One example of this is the model colliery and pit village in the open-air “museum of the North”, Beamish, which contains cosy recollections of working class life that could easily be drawings on a chocolate box.
But as a resident of New Cumnock, Rab is only too familiar with the horrific conditions of pit life. In 1950, 128 miners in the Knockshinnock Colliery were trapped deep underground in unbearable conditions as the local community fought to rescue them. Like the Chilean miners’ accident, the incident caught the attention of world news media: it was “a truly remarkable story of how ordinary men worked tirelessly in a race against time and the forces of nature to achieve one of the most dramatic and remarkable rescues ever attempted,” according to Pathé News. Tragically, 13 men perished in an accident that is still commemorated in New Cumnock.
The Knockshinnock Disaster highlights the perilous conditions that were part of the mining experience. The dangers of pit life fostered a close-knit culture of solidarity, and intense antagonism between proprietors and workers. “The miners were always a very volatile workforce because they were treated so abysmally by their bosses,” Rab recalls. “They were so badly treated that they were often ethically compelled to use strike actions, and these strikes were great acts of heroism in their day.”
Since coal was the energy that propelled British industrial domination, the miners who endured low pay and a parlous existence have often been at the centre of great historical struggles. Miners were the driving force behind the General Strike of 1926; and their strikes in 1973 brought Ted Heath’s Tory government to its knees following the Industrial Relations Act.
However, these events have inspired surprisingly little in the way of literary and poetic responses. While the General Strike is a major theme in Hugh MacDiarmid’s remarkable modernist epic, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, these are the reflections of a middle class journalist inspired by Communist ideals. Although the miners were renowned for their autodidactic spirit – and despite their singular role in British history – very few authentic literary voices have emerged from the pits.
An exception is Joe Corrie, who worked in the West Fife coalfields, a socialist voice whose poetic gifts inspired even the notoriously right-wing T.S. Eliot to call him “the greatest Scots poet since Burns.”
Rab Wilson cites Corrie and Robert Burns as among his predecessors in the Scottish radical tradition. “Joe Corrie’s work is brilliant,” he says. “It’s a major tragedy that his work is not properly collected in an anthology. But you’re not going to get the right-wing, Tory press publishing Corrie.”
The poetic establishment is something of a bugbear. While he cites approvingly Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead, and James Kelman as authentic voices of working class Scotland, I can sense that Wilson is somewhat troubled by the somewhat effete and middle class ambience of Scottish poetry. “There is still a working class voice out there,” he concedes, “but the powers that be don’t want to publish it.”
Part of the problem, he adds, is the way poetry is taught. Whereas Wilson’s poetic endeavours are part of a struggle to anthologise authentic working class voices and to confer a cultural tradition that has been forgotten in post-Thatcherite Scotland, many people do not see poetry as a spontaneous expression of their ideas and surroundings, but as a means of imitating the techniques of “great poets”.
“Unfortunately, a lot of modern poets are churned out by the creative writing workshops, which train you in a certain way of thinking and a certain way of writing,” he observes. “There’s a lot of poets, even some good poets, who’ve never had much experience of the real world.”
As a mental health nurse, Wilson has observed Ayrshire’s social decline at first hand. The land of Robert Burns is today beleaguered with endemic social issues as a result of mining closures. Preserving local voices, and shaping the emergence of new literary talents, is central to keeping these ravished communities alive.
For young people in the West of Scotland today, the prospects of industrial employment are fairly slim. Increasingly, the lower echelons of the service sector – catering, shops, and call centres – represent a sort of grim economic destiny for this generation – providing they can stave off unemployment. Having recently worked in Tesco, I ask Rab whether a shelf stacker could produce working class poetry to rival Joe Corrie.
“Probably,” he laughs. “The human spirit will always survive – if it can survive Auschwitz, it can survive call centres and Tesco. The problem is that modern work is so full on – it’s not like Robert Burns working on a farm, when you had time to think.
“But maybe stacking shelves in Tesco is quite a conducive environment to be a poet. In fact, now that you mention it, I think I’ll volunteer myself to work in Tesco for six months as their poet in residence.”
No doubt they’d be delighted to have him. A historical voice in an age that has forgotten how to think historically, Rab Wilson is exactly what our supposedly post-industrial industries need.