Toasting underground champions: a poem crawl

Ian Duhig celebrates in prose and poetry navvies, barmen and a man buried alive

 Donegal navvies employed by Waddington and Sons, 1910.

Donegal navvies employed by Waddington and Sons, 1910.

 

My experience of travel since the Covid rules relaxation here after lockdown has involved a strange mix of feelings, somewhere between claustrophobia and release, a particular self-consciousness about breathing but also a renewed appreciation of those who built our road and rail networks.

Recently, while engaging in what Erving Goffman defined as “civil inattention” on a journey, I was looking down when the term “Underground Champion” floated up from my memory, only remembering later where it came from, but stirring reflections on the many kinds of underground champions and background heroes and heroines that have made our world, with Brecht’s lines:

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
(A Worker Reads History)

As to where the phrase came from, an article in the Irish Examiner last year alerted me to the fact that a memorial for the original Underground Champion, Mick Meaney, had been planned in Cork, celebrating the man who held the world record for being buried alive.

Mick Meaney celebrates winning the world record for being buried alive. Photograph: RTÉ
Mick Meaney celebrates winning the world record for being buried alive. Photograph: RTÉ

Hopes of an early boxing career were ended by a hand injury which also made work on building sites difficult, so he worked as a barman until boxing promoter (among many other things) Butty Sugrue came up with a new way for Mick to be a champion. Mick’s ordeal and triumph would take place just up the road from where I lived in Kilburn and he became a hero not just locally, but far beyond. I celebrated Mick in a song called The Ballad of Broken-Handed Mick for an Australian band which ends:

We’re wastes of time and space and skin,
we’re losers and we’re sinners;
remembering broken-handed Mick
reminds us, so are winners.

I also wrote this poem.

The Seed of God
While the Parisian rioters tore up paving stones
to find the beach, I tore up Kilburn High Road
to find the world’s media packing Keane’s yard
where Mick Meaney lay under its London clay,
breaking the world record for being buried alive.

I was fourteen and delighted by Meaney’s abuse
of mouthy American rival, Country Bill White,
on a live BBC link just before Songs of Praise.
Irish lout, some said. But this was 60s Kilburn
and Mick Meaney was meaning it for all of us.

Butty Sugrue was behind it all, who I once saw
pull a bus up Kilburn High Road with his teeth.
Now he’d fixed them in his naïve barman Mick,
and dubbed him ‘The Underground Champion’.
Butty promised immortality and Butty delivered.

He couched his press pitch in religious imagery:
Mick was 33, Christ’s age when harrowing Hell;
he slept in his coffin like a monk in Butty’s pub
who laid on a wake, the parish priest’s blessing,
and a ‘Last Supper’ eaten to popping flashbulbs.

While Mick was invested under Keane’s yard,
‘The Gorgeous Gael’ Jack Doyle sang hymns;
Mick rose again after three score and one days,
flourishing his crucifix as if the sword of Christ
to hosannas from the London Irish Girl Pipers.

“It’s called the ‘Seed of God’,” said his daughter,
Mary, “Something that can make your heart soar,
and your eyes come alive. He would often return
to that time and place where he broke the record,”
as I again, unearthing this memory, dusting it off.

I read of plans for a memorial to Mick in Cork:
his image set in a path as if rising from the earth
that made a champion of a broken-down boxer.
I asked around for news, but turned up nothing.
A Cork poet suggested, “Maybe they buried it.”

Meaney buried alive

Darach Ó Catháin sings Óró sé do bheatha 'bhaile

But Mick’s achievement will never stay hidden:
the Seed of God was planted and no man’s hand
nor ignorance can keep it from the sun for long.
Let us shout Mick’s praises from our lowest pits:
let us shout his praises with our foulest mouths.

Secretly though, what he was doing filled me with anxiety at the time and since; I have always been a bit claustrophobic, possibly connected to my early enthusiasm for the short stories of Poe, but also due to tales of tunnel collapse and slow death that haunted the imagination of friends whose fathers laboured underground. A poem in my first book, Babylon, quotes a workman interviewed after one collapse of Brunel’s Thames Tunnel:

I seed them Hirishers
tumblin’ through the harches
screachin’ “Murther! Murther!
Out with them bloody lights!”

Somehow, a superstition had taken hold among the project navvies that water leaking through the roof would pour in seeking lanterns, which they blew out immediately there was a breach. I don’t know why the idea of being drowned slowly while trapped underground should be any worse in darkness but it felt like that to me and versions of these terrible scenes certainly flooded my nightmares.

Navvies having a dinner break c1890 in a culvert during work on the Hury Reservoir dam in Yorkshire. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Navvies having a dinner break c1890 in a culvert during work on the Hury Reservoir dam in Yorkshire. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Navvies monument, Otley. Photograph: Ilkley Gazette
Navvies monument, Otley. Photograph: Ilkley Gazette

I was reminded of this when I travelled recently on the Harrogate Line between Horsforth Station and Arthington Viaduct which passes through the Bramhope Tunnel. This was built between 1845 and 1849 by the Leeds and Thirsk Railway, who also erected the monument in Otley churchyard to the 24 men who died on the project, in the shape of the tunnel’s North Portal, a bizarre Gothic revival castellated fantasy and a Grade II listed structure. Working conditions were terrible for more than two thousand navvies who came from the north of England, Scotland and Ireland, as was frequently the case in these great railway projects, with their living conditions not much better in hastily-erected bothies or shanties. Drink would numb the pain and steel the nerves of navvies returning day after day to the treacherous rock face.

The Bramhope Worm
Seven major faults at the crux
risked the tunnel and its rocks
constantly poured down water
as if from their inside weather.

Men lowered down an airshaft
in buckets, working candle lit,
got thirty bob a day like night
for twenty tons dug each shift.

Engineers cut an empty worm
beneath the ridge and dressed
it in white stone, but it turned:
twenty-four navvies were lost.

The railways honoured them
in the cemetery with a model
of a Bramhope Tunnel Portal,
exalting what killed the men.

There, worms lack a clothing
of limestone, skin on nothing,
nor bore through white space:
that’s this poem, my soft face.

Drink also fuelled the often-sectarian fighting there, and when the contractors cut off the beer supply there was another kind of riot, as would very likely have occurred in many modern rail and road building projects since. The Leeds pub The Albion (now gone) down by its Armley railways was so iconic it was actually the template for the N Gauge Builder Plus railway model accessory in the 1970s. In all honesty, although I wrote a poem with its name, the place was a bit grim:

. . . a place for drinking religiously,
for silent prayer and meditation;
beside it, Mo’s Bar felt undank
and warm the Slaughtered Lamb.

Yet its stout was black and comely,
shipped from Dublin not London,
dark as Kedar tents or the curtains
of Solomon. In a thin glass darkly

that bore King David’s gold harp,
or its like, the light and the dark
separated, as first at God’s word,
so, for a moment, my pint’s head,

untouched, was a host below me,
the colour of a new, thirsty page.
The Albion squared these circles
and I drank to its alchemical ink.

Very different was The Roscoe in Chapeltown, a tiny bar of immense sociability and musical talent on show every week. This attracted the Irish now navvying on roads as they had for canals and railways in the past, Leeds branding itself then as “The Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Moving up from London, I felt after being nurtured on music in places like The White Hart and The Favourite that I was pretty au fait with the good stuff, but Leeds had and has a terrific Irish music scene and although this poem about it only mentions the great Darach Ó Catháin, there were many other wonderful musicians to be heard there as well. Nevertheless, Darach was special, highly rated by Ciaran Carson and more recently, David Wheatley. He collaborated with Seán Ó Riada and recorded with Ceoltóirí Chualann.

Róisín Bán
The M1 laid, they laid us off.
We stayed where it ran out in Leeds,
a white rose town in love with roads,
its Guinness smooth, its locals rough.

Some nights we’d drink in Chapeltown,
a place not known for Gaeilgeoirs,
to hear Ó Catháin sing sean-nós –
Ó Riada gave him the crown.

Though most were lost by ‘Róisín Dubh’,
all knew his art was rich and strange
in a pub we drowned in our black stuff
when we laid the Sheepscar Interchange.

Pulped books help asphalt stick to roads
and cuts down traffic-sound as well;
between the lines a navvy reads
black seas of words that did not sell.

Guinness appears here as it does in the final entry to this poem-crawl which may even contain something you don’t know about that mythic brew, its secret colour. Although I don’t drink at all now, I well remember the magic it wrought on a tired or shy mind, enacting wonderful transformations of quotidian company and environments.

Navvies force the Metropolitan Line through a London street in the early 1860s. Photograph: SSPL/Getty Images
Navvies force the Metropolitan Line through a London street in the early 1860s. Photograph: SSPL/Getty Images
Navvies mixing concrete during the building of London’s Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground railway, which opened on January 10th, 1863. Photograph: SSPL/Getty Images
Navvies mixing concrete during the building of London’s Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground railway, which opened on January 10th, 1863. Photograph: SSPL/Getty Images

Drink can certainly harm some people, me among them, but not everybody, and if bar staff may not exactly be underground champions, they are social champions in the background. I’ve done the job myself and met old hands among my colleagues who possessed unique knowledge gleaned from their passing clientele, much as the priests at Delphi are said to have done. They also knew how to defuse difficult situations with a few well-chosen words, jokes or anecdotes. For this they suffer abuse, poor wages, tied accommodation and sometimes violence. I toast them last but not least.

Ian Duhig. Photograph: Adrian Pope
Ian Duhig. Photograph: Adrian Pope

Ruby Anniversary
Dining out for their anniversary,
they waited for a table at the bar,
rowed about lateness, an old war,
a cold war: the peace too was icy.

So the barman invited the couple
to watch a trick of his for a laugh:
he pushed an empty shot glass up
to its brim into a half-empty, half-

full Guinness and had them draw
closer until, in sunlight, they saw
the meniscus ring was ruby, what
seemed black and white, was not.

I started with a barman, Mick Meaney, and ended with one, my round. Next time you’re in a bar, notice who serves you, forget the uncivil inattention and smile, maybe go so far as to say, “Have one yourself”.
Ian Duhig’s New and Selected Poems is due from Picador later this year and will include Babylon, The Albion and Róisín Bán.

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