Warming His Coals
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My entry to the Stanley Spencer Poetry Competition run by the Cookham Festival, celebrating its 50th anniversary and Spencer's 125th. It is about Spencer's 'Shipbuilding' paintings.


Frank was the Furnace Man, earnest and warm
The firebox of Shipbuilding, heat where there’s cold
He’s Chalmers by name and embraced for his charm
Stoking the fire made him strong in the arm
His gift to his workmates whatever their roles
Was letting them dry with a seat on his coals

Leading the horse with the pipes on its cart
The plumber bears tubing that’s bent on his shoulders
Each part in its place and a place for each part
Piecing the puzzle that’s function and art
So tired from a shift lugging piping and poles
Get snug by the fireside and dry on the coals

Shaping the sheets to the curve of the keel
The carriers, hammerers, pourers and benders
On chains on the crane they are steering the steel
Standing and crouching, they lie and they kneel
They sweep up the debris, step over the fenders
And warm off the wet on the Furnace Man’s embers

The burners lie scorching on plates, the teenagers
Who torch along chalk lines with care and control
Their goggles protect oxyacetylene angels
One takes a break from the sweat and the dangers
He’d better be back when the foreman patrols
Then finish his day sat on Frank Chalmers’ coals

Tending the brazier where rivets are cast
The heater-boy heats while the holder-on holds
He’s crouched in the pipe while they bolt up the mast
Hammering, fastening from first until last
It’s riveting work dropping bullets in holes
At the end of your shift, come and sit on the coals

Arcing and sparking and lying and stretching
The artist is masked and reflects in its surface
Men welding the hull, with each man in his section
Women were welding but only made sketching
Unsoak by the cinders, absorb for your purpose
The heat that remains of the day in the furnace

Sitting at sewing machines stitching the sails
Attired in the fabric and draped in the folds
The cloth’s with the women, the rope’s with the males
Riggers unwinding the twine wound in bales
It’s cold and it’s damp from a day in the rolls
Get toasty and roast on the Furnace Man’s coals

Working with pencil and charcoal not brawn
Recording the lives of the labouring souls
The face of the sketcher is pale as it’s drawn
Painter’s near fainting, brought in to be thawed
He’s welcomed, he’s wet through the holes in his soles
Solidarity, Stanley, come share in our coals

Template of process from parts into ship
It’s built for the wartime, robust as a tank
Beheld by a woman with baby on hip
Sealed by the caulkers for ocean-bound trip
The ship went to war and it probably sank
Too far from Port Glasgow and Furnace Man Frank