I realised recently that, as this is the first real Birmingham-themed poem I wrote, I’ve found myself reading it at basically all the events I’ve been involved with in the course of my Laureateship so far. It’s a sort of historical love story with a twist, inspired by the tour I went on a few years ago now at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. For some reason, although audiences are often very kind about it, no one has seemed particularly interested in publishing it, so I figured I might as well share it here! The only word in there that may be confusing is ‘lemmel’ (I’ve also seen it spelt ‘lemel’) – a term from the jewellery trade meaning scrap gold, sweepings left on the warehouse floor.
Smith & Pepper Factory, 1951
May the good god of shiny things
look fair on Harry Martin, seventeen,
his turn-ups turned away by Mr. Smith
who’d clocked the danger glinting in their folds.
What shame, to say he lived for dust;
that tucked, like pens, behind his Brylcreemed peak,
were egg-shell specks of fourteen-carat gold,
his hair a nest of loot;
which might explain his hopeful gleam
all hours beneath the howling radio,
the screaming belts, the thud of blanking dies,
and even his composure at the shriek
when Patty caught a kiss-curl in the belt —
shearing her free, returning to his peg,
her scalp less ruby-red, more Tamworth ham.
For which of us has not been tempted by
that old wives’ tale of hard-earned alchemy:
a jeweller’s apron, shaken, melted down,
yielding the gold to buy a wedding suit?
And who would not wish to be lemmel?
To see the shorn-off shavings of the years
reformed into an ingot, solid, pure —
a lifetime’s precious salvage totalled up,
made more than worth its weight in what we’d lost.
These are the blessings sent to Harry Martin,
clutching his off-cut prize down Branston Street,
not knowing that his lungs, at seventeen,
have started to collect their own fine spray;
the rust-red treasury of jeweller’s rouge
he smuggles out beneath his clothes the day
he cashes in, swaps packets at the pub,
ducks in a neighbour’s shop and buys two rings.