Tom Hubbard writes about Fife's folk culture, past and present
There are books which, discovered when you are young, remain a moral and artistic compass for you throughout your lifetime. In 1973 I bought a copy of The Penguin Book of Socialist Verse, edited by Alan Bold, and was intrigued by the presence there of a Scottish poet and dramatist called Joe Corrie. Alan’s selection was small – four pages in all – but powerful. He included the longish poem ‘Women are waiting tonight’, on the aftermath of an ‘accident’ at the pit with multiple ‘fatalities’ (my inverted commas round these words are doubtless advisable):
They will wait and watch till the dawn,
Till the wheels begin to revolve,
And the men whom they loved so well,
The strong, kind, loving men,
Are brought up in canvas sheets,
To be identified by a watch,
Or a button,
Or, perhaps, only a wish.
And three days from now,
They will all be buried together,
In one big hole in the earth.
The poem goes on to condemn the hypocrisy ad crocodile tears of the establishment members who turn up at the funeral, of those such as the MP ‘who voted that the military be used / When last these miners came on strike / To earn a living wage’, the pit owner who ‘vowed many a time / That he would make the miner eat grass’, and also the right-wing press which had thundered against the strikers but who now squeeze every last drop of phoney pathos on to their pages. In due course, they will return to their usual function of ‘storing up their venom and their hatred, / For the next big miners’ strike.’
Alan Bold’s biographical notes take up less than two lines: one suspects that at the time of the anthology’s publication (1970), the editor had little to go on, as Corrie’s life and work had receded into obscurity. However, in 1977, I learned that Joe Corrie had been active as miner and writer in my native Fife. Both my grandfathers had been down the pit. So I consulted the local collection in Kirkcaldy public library and copied by hand a good number of the poems appearing in the rare pamphlets published during Corrie’s lifetime.
Fast forward seven years and Thatcher was at her height, determined to hammer once and for all those uppity enough to challenge her ideology. The miners went on strike and her response was ruthless and, it turned out, terminal – not for her, but for her adversaries. It was time for Joe Corrie to come into his own, and suddenly the revival got under way. The 7:84 Theatre Company toured Scotland with Corrie’s now best-known play In Time O’ Strife, directed by David Hayman, and Linda Mackenney brought out her book-length selection Joe Corrie: Plays, Poems and Theatre Writings (7:84 Publications, 1985). In Time O’ Strife is set in a Fife mining community during the General Strike of 1926: it was electrifying to hear working-class Fife speech within the plush setting of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, in a kind of Brechtian dialectic of the familiar and the strange.
Around the same time, my friend William Hershaw and I served on the editorial board of a Fife-based magazine called Scrievins (Scots for ‘writing’). We got the go-ahead to devote a special issue to Corrie. I drew a portrait, in pencil, of our author and that provided our image for the cover. The first article in the Corrie feature was by Alison Hutchison, who supplied a useful summary of Corrie’s origins: ‘Joe Corrie was neither a Fifer nor from a mining family. When the Corrie family moved to Cardenden in 1896 from Slamannan, near Falkirk, Joe was two years old. His father had been a grocer and his mother, before her marriage, had been a farm servant in Wigtonshire. […] [T]his was a fairly common pattern in Cardenden at the beginning of the twentieth century. People came flooding into the area to work in the newly sunk Bowhill pit. Some of these came from exhausted pits elsewhere in central Scotland, but many of them had little or no experience of mining, they were just looking for work.’
Cardenden, located in central Fife, is now the collective name for a conglomeration of four former pit villages: from north to south (as also alphabetically), these are Auchterderran, Bowhill, the original Cardenden, and Dundonald. Though Joe Corrie would find himself in a vexed relationship with the conservative Scottish Community Drama Association, he had earlier enjoyed his collaboration with the Bowhill Players (later renamed the Fife Miner Players) who took In Time O’ Strife on tour to many Scottish locations, with mostly working-class audiences. Lack of financial backing led to the demise of the company in 1931. During the leanest of times, the Bowhill Players supported their community in practical as well as artistic ways, notably by running soup kitchens, those ancestors of today’s foodbanks.
Joe Corrie achieved a good measure of success in Germany, where his work was performed at Leipzig at the beginning of the 1930s, shortly before the Nazi takeover. My earlier allusion to Brecht might seem in keeping with this, but Corrie’s more naturalistic aesthetic has led rather to comparisons with Zola (of Germinal) and Seán O’Casey, with regard, respectively, to the mining communities and to the staged domestic interiors.
The revivals over the past thirty-five years have served to compensate – amply – for the neglect of Corrie over the half-century or so from the early 1930s. William Hershaw and his fellow performers have created a new Bowhill Players who engage in many gigs across Fife and elsewhere in central-east Scotland. In a poignant gesture to the original bearers of the name, William’s son David produced a CD which includes a re-issue of a 1929 Bowhill Players of Corrie’s short comic play The Miners’ Saturday Night, with the voices of Joe himself and his sister Violet. This, together with other tracks performed by today’s Bowhill Players, is obtainable from www.fraspublishing.co.uk as an insert in the pamphlet Joe Corrie: a Legend and his Legacy by the late Scottish playwright Donald Campbell.
A larger-scale production by our contemporary Bowhill Players is the CD The Joe Corrie Project: Cage Load of Men, complete with a booklet containing the texts and explanatory notes. The top-notch performances by the Players include such Corrie classics as ‘It’s Fine tae Keep in wi the Gaffer’, a song which (to put it mildly) maintains its relevance in our own time:
For mony a year I ha’e worked doon alow,
But never in pits that are wet or are low,
For I mak’ it my business wherever I go,
Aye tae keep in wi’ the gaffer.
Oh! it’s fine tae keep in wi’ the gaffer. [+ five more verses]
You hear this track and you could be forgiven for thinking that the poem / song seems to have composed itself. It could be mistaken for a folk song – but in a sense that’s what it has become: like Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom Come All Ye’ it’s one of these radical Scottish songs that invite audience participation.
In some of his writings Joe Corrie expressed an understandable aversion to institutional religion. As a young student in the early-mid 1970s I found myself looking to Russian literature for clues as to how to retain a humane Christ-based ethic that could blend with a socialist outlook. Initially I resorted to Tolstoy and that took me so far, but the stern simplifications of his old age – as I discovered much later – jarred with the subtle amplitude of his great novels, their ingenious structure or ‘labyrinth of linkages’. Dostoevsky was a very different writer but, again, his confused reactionary politics co-existed oddly with the psychological and philosophical depth of Crime and Punishment. I would argue that Dostoevsky failed to understand politics, but that he grasped the psychology of politics.
At which point we may turn to Willie Hershaw’s The Sair Road (Grace Note Publications, 2018) which presents Jesus as a Fife miner, is structured according to the Stations of the Cross, and which Derrick McClure has called ‘one of the outstanding works of contemporary Scottish literature’.
For Jim Aitken’s extensive review of The Sair Road in Culture Matters, please see here. I was struck by Jim’s reference to the ‘Grand Inquisitor’ chapter in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Here, Christ ‘had been condemned by the Inquisition for giving us all the freedom to walk “the sair road” with all that implies for us.’ The Grand Inquisitor puts it to Christ that people prefer security to freedom, and that the institution of the Church provides the former by infantilising the folk and guarding them from Christ’s subversive offerings. It is not only the right wing who have interpreted this chapter as prophetic of Soviet totalitarianism, but it is the right which has made an industry of reducing Dostoevsky (as also Adam Smith) to crass homilies serving its own ideological purposes.
The irony latent in Jim’s superb essay is that, in our own time, it is an authoritarian conservatism that values security over freedom, its media devoted to tacit if not covert propaganda and its middlebrow cultural products intended for passive, witless consumption. In contrast, Willie Hershaw and the Bowhill Players are reiving a Fife culture that was created by the folk and for the folk, both recording and animating its struggles, and giving new meaning in the twenty-first century as far-right conservatism elides into crypto-fascism, which becomes less crypto by the hour. Willie Hershaw and his brothers- and sisters-in-art offer the Sair Road’s freedom over Inquisitorial security, or to use the parlance of our own time, they stand for hope over fear.
To order The Joe Corrie Project please visit here.