Brian Herdman (British Working Class Poets)

Brian Herdman

Brian Herdman is originally from Manchester, UK, now living in Plymouth.. He was born into and grew up in a Catholic, working class household just after the 2nd World War. His father,a labourer, and his mother, a housewife and cleaner were originally from Belfast and the politics of that troubled city have dogged him ever since. He has travelled extensively and spent seven years teaching in Gansu Province, NW China

He has written poetry and short fiction most of his life but only recently, since retirement, taken it more seriously. He is now an established performer on the poetry and spoken word circuit in south-west England. He remains surprised by life.


His Life


he used to be a Telegram boy.

14, already out of school, working.

his peak cap and uniform, dark blue, red cording

dashing round the streets on his bicycle:

these urgent messages,

births, marriages, sickness, deaths.

long gone those long days.


he whistled as he worked, sang as he worked,

loved to work

always happy as the lark in the sky as he worked

always singing,

work gave him a reason

“Telegram, Mrs …”

sometimes a penny for good news,

sometimes only tears.

“Any reply?”


a life already slipping away from him, pulling him asunder,

the rug from under his feet

never since so securely fixed,

but always a smile, a laugh, a song.


back home, he would reach into the larder for a pint of milk,

press down the foil with his thumb,

slip it off guzzle it down in one

wipe his mouth with his sleeve

and, Ah, he’d exhale


and you look at him now, as he is,

drooling in his armchair, bound in continence pads.

his memory stuttering and fading,

the years ploughed into his face.

this is my life, he said,

looking around the demented armchair-fillers

in the lounge pooling their stares

into the vacancy at the centre of the room.

this is my life.


I knew then he was alive –

in himself, I mean –

still working on it, still there staring

into a future shrivelling into the paisley

swirls on the carpet of the care home,


still there, yet away

with his fractured thoughts, his history,

he was trying, as I too try,

as we all try,

to convince ourselves

I am here

it’s not over.


Valentine’s Day


I never knew my dad

I was five months old when,

on the morning of St. Valentine’s Day 1947

the sky heavy with snow,

he left the two-room slum

he shared with me, my brothers and mum

to labour on the railway

and never come home.


I never knew my dad

from the Falls in Belfast before I was born

he took us to build a new life under new law

in another place another slum

my brothers, not yet me, and Mum


I never knew my dad

but the coroner said

he appeared to lose his head

in the white and black

when he stepped onto the track of

the Southport to Manchester excursion.


I never knew my dad

or what he was worth:

three hundred quid, the Railway said,

for compensation and sent a cheque

with a mandatory note of commiseration.


and so, behind windows jagged with soot frozen

our lives were consigned by industry’s thumb

to poverty and isolation,

my brothers and me and mum

in our two-room, Moss Side slum


I never knew my dad

barely a year back from Burma mud

did he hold me?

I guess he did, though men

were somewhat different then.

did he think it was worth it that day on the tracks,

points frozen

hands hammered blue,

sky pressing down,

worth the mosquitos, monsoon and artillery fire

of a forgotten war to return to this toil

for a family and a home on foreign soil

in a two-room slum and a life on the run

from the Lagan’s drag and bigotry’s gun?


not for me, not for my wife,

not for my sons, that life.

hold your breath

a tick

and it’s gone.

is that what he thought as he swung a ton?

did he get you a card, mum, on Valentine’s Day?


I never knew my dad

or what he had to say

never learnt from him what it means to be a man

now I don’t believe in nations, nor the six counties

nor in saints or heaven’s bounty

but our mum, she gathered us up

and took us to bed for comfort on

St Valentine’s Day to pray

and hold us close through all that day,

through all our lives that Valentine’s Day.


was it worth it, dad? Was it worth it,

now seventy-three years have come,

done their damage and gone,

for the five months together

in a two-room, Moss Side, rat-run slum.


things are getting worse

dogs are more tragic than Hamlet

bred to make us happy

in return they ask only companionship

and each day we leave them alone

and they don’t know that we don’t know either

that the prisons we build for ourselves

are the same our fathers built

constructed from the same hard stuff

that each day we measure the depth of our grief

and say we’ll talk about it later

when this is over

when we get home

that there is a world out there

outside these walls

where another youth chokes

on his first cigarette and spits

on his father’s grave

where a married man leaves the house

for work one fine morning then

takes a different route

to a lonely space at the back of the garage

with the oil and the rags and the tools

to fix things that never fix things

but only countenance them

put a brave face on them

like the dog that waits

jaw spread on the floor

for the key in the lock

and if it doesn’t come

that there is nothing we can do about it

that the sky will always outrun us


First two are in his collection, 78 45 33, published by Shoals Of Starlings press in the South-West of England. The third poem, "His Life", is new and not yet published.


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