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(thanks to Jo Bell)
I wasn’t ever good with tools
so it was by pure chance I ended up with steel,
my native mettle,
albeit this was Wales and not where I was born,
another city furnaced, hammered, turned
with iron tongues - at least it was.
Passed through many hands,
my spanners would still work,
or just about -
the boxes stretched, the handles smooth,
despite a thousand dents -
to check that nuts still moved.
And then my mates insisted that I try
my hand at fixing,
start to learn the mysteries of how
tight to turn the screw,
of what goes where and when,
of making all secure.
So I became a chancer,
an improver then, officially,
I could tell with just my fingers
seven-sixteenths from half an inch,
and more or less by sight or weight
how long the tubes I held.
These were mainly ferrous black,
all pitted and worn down,
slipped through your hands
like polished wood and years,
or else still grey and galvanised,
zinc crystal glyphs all round.
They come in all lengths, as required,
from one-foot butts to twenty-ones,
two-inch diameter, four mil thick.
When topping out a long one,
with eighteen feet balanced overhead,
if you lose it, let it go.
Fittings I’ve sung about elsewhere -
doubles, singles - wrap-over and bivalve -
swivels, spigots, sleeves
and SGB’s in cumbersome two parts,
each with their different uses
and making do when right one can’t be found.
Grip the bolts between your fingers
and you can carry ten or more,
chuck them underarm, don’t bowl,
but never catch them coming down
and, when they’re too high up to throw,
use a bucket, gin wheel, rope.
And let’s not forget the decking -
boards of every length to fit the span,
mostly thirteen foot but sixteen’s possible at times.
The shorter ones were sawn, or broken when no saw -
use the spade end of a putlock
to chop a line of dents then break its back.
The newer kind are clean and wholesome
though rougher on the skin,
the old ones stained and greasy
are easiest to slide
but when they’re really almost past it,
look out for splinters going in.
It’s dirty manual work, but bracing
when everything is going as it should,
we use so many different tools when needed
or, when we haven’t got one, improvise -
two spanners, bubble and tape measure
are the ones that mark us out on site.
It never cured me of my fear
of heights, of making a mistake,
I wasn’t what you’d call a good one,
or one who got the hardest jobs,
but learned to cope despite that mostly
and managed to survive until today.
I got the callouses to prove it,
along with blisters, bruises and some scars.
My hands are smooth now, except for shadows
of where those hard materials once passed.
As that poet said “Even chafing is a kind of touch”
so I’m glad that I can say as much.
* From ‘The Slow Machine’, her verse memoir of living on a narrow boat, broadcast today on BBC Radio 4.