Elegy for a working man

Towpath poem
Elegy for a working man

George Newton

When he was first ill

I sent a card; later,

shunted between home

and hospital, chrysanthemums,

remembering in his old workshop tales

of quiet allotment evenings, young fellows -

gate-propping, not given to swank -

unbent slowly over plump, fiery blooms.


I got no reply to either,

didn’t expect one.

A closing of ranks,

that dark-suited Sunday sternness

rooted in chapel traditions,

straighter than pew backs

and hymns sung from memory.

A workman easy before God.

This Methodism learned from nights

spent late over clean ledgers,

clear copperplate columns.


But he turned a blind eye

to my working on the Sabbath,

no mention on Monday morning

back in old cardigan, faded corduroy,

purposeful through his Aladdin’s cave

of things saved. Sawing sometimes,

hammering often, wood screws, washers

nails, always an oil can to hand.

A deftness with rope, bowlines,

taking up slack, slip knots

half hitches and slow tautening

hand over hand.

Hiking, weight-lifting, wrestling, boxing

in his twenties, taking the best punch, he said,

slamming it back; a physical man, teetotal,

straightforward. Muscle checked by chapel, and hands

roughened, reverent, dwarfing his prayer book.

Back then summer meant swimming

outdoors and cool cream sodas.

In winter ice skating, hot blackcurrant

sipped in Pop Hornby’s temperance bar,

but this winter……..


how could the cold

How could it weaken and break?


This winter, dead leaves

pile against the locked garage door

unbrushed up. This winter,


I am trying to write to his widow

something real, vital, genuine, not

scavenged from shop-bought sympathies.

I doubt that she will understand

my need to recreate the heat

of his striding across the yard,

coloured where he caught the sun

just to the collar, shirt sleeves rolled up,

going somewhere - always that:

in his manner a hint of swagger

tempered by a job of work to be done.



Written in memory of an old friend and mentor.

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