Emma Lee reviews ‘Making Tracks’ by Katy Wareham-Morris

‘Making Tracks’ Katy Wareham-Morris
V Press
ISBN: 978-1-8380488-0-8

 

The poet’s father used to work at the Longbridge Factory, making cars for MG Rover. The factory was in a long decline before its eventual demise and, in writing these poems, Katy Wareham-Morris has drawn on interviews with her father, promotional material produced by St Modwen who managed the site, pledges made by MPs to support those who would lose their jobs and others who tried to save Longbridge before its closure. ‘Making Tracks’ is a collection of poems as social witness and testimony to those who worked at Longbridge and their families over its nearly 100 years of history.

While still a teenager, Katy Wareham-Morris’ father had a choice between two jobs in ‘Internal Vacancy’

‘Be the office boy at your beloved Villa – a dream job. You had one lined up at Rover too, days and nights and Grandad said, “You don’t want that” so you turned it down and the Manager and Union Rep tried to persuade you. Vehicle Scheduling – one for the olduns. Hold on, you were young, a good bloke and they needed someone to pick up new systems and something called a computer. They were thinking ahead. You had one week to decide whether to take the job at your beloved Villa or days and nights supplying the shells with orders and sending them to the track and Grandad said no to both: “That ain’t no money.” In the end you said, “You don’t have to be brilliant for Vehicle Scheduling.”’

The teenager settled for a steady job and the beginning of a thirty-six year career at Longbridge, traced in ‘Metamorphosis’ which starts,

‘You were ruled by the track that sliced through the factory,
that carved the operating chaos of your life,
me too, by the blood in my arms –
the cartographic lines drawn in the grass laid before me

to keep it moving, to keep them and us alive.’

And ends,

‘It never stopped – your brain like my brain
loudly crashing to the beat of your fast feet
dancing on my heart, growing from the middle,
multiplicities dropping into additional software
for brand new computers, your quick hands
finished processes same place, same time, every time.
The machine making machines work.
That conveyor bridge demolished first.’

Longbridge became not just a place to work but part of the community. Local families tied their fortunes to the factory’s – not just in a financial sense, but also in the ability for the community to thrive, for families to grow and the next generation to find employment. But as the factory began its decline, alternative uses for the site were forward. Property management company St Modwen put forward ideas, in ‘The Heart’, a title taken from St Modwen’s proposal ‘What we are doing is putting the heart back into Longbridge’, which starts with statistics and continues,

‘6. and a flagship youth centre called ‘The Factory’
offering innovative and creative activities

7. on a stunning three-acre urban park with free parking
available for up to three hours

8. building communities, using the rich heritage while
looking to the future

9. a stronger, more prosperous

10. place to call home

I say to the kids, whilst we eat our Marks’ sandwich, “This is
where Grandad used to build cars.”’

The proposal’s focus on first-time buyers, young families and youth centres appears to shift attention away from the site’s original and lengthy purpose of building cars. The poet feels it important that the same youth understand their legacy. What the site had achieved and sustained before their time. This contrast between the old, Longbridge, and the new, shiny shopping malls, is revisited in ‘Thursday, 7th April 2005’, presumably the date when it finally shut,

‘Gloom spread its plumage beyond Longbridge borders, the world fell in its nest. 5 years, 14 years, 25 years, 36 years and 2 minutes in the dole office feeling 2 inches tall. Just bear with it, good will come in the shape of Sainsbury’s and the eternal night shift that no one wants, stacking stinking pet food and pop

‘Any company would be glad to have a workforce such as that. Suffocated whilst waiting for the golden egg, the bird wouldn’t rise again. £10 million here, £40 million there, task forces, hotlines, training, regeneration zones, CV creators, support packages. Rover sneezed and was gone.’

Workers with long service records suddenly unemployed and finding their skills no longer required, no equivalent jobs to transfer to, when the only jobs on offer were shelf-stacking in new supermarkets. Low-skilled, low waged jobs are no replacement for higher-waged skilled workers. It doesn’t matter how much support you can get in retraining or applying for jobs if the jobs aren’t there. The final poem, ‘(re)cord’ reiterates the purpose of ‘Making Tracks’ as a history record,

‘I can’t promise that this is true
or love or some kind of

or you and me immortalised
by history, writing into time
as if it makes it

I think it already was alive
still is in

more than just a story’

It continues beyond the extracted quote. The poem underlines how history can quickly become a dry list of statistics if the people behind the statistics become forgotten, if newer generations don’t record oral histories from the previous generation. There’s a danger of collective memories being cast aside. Katy Wareham-Morris’ generation becomes caught in the middle, not willing to lose childhood memories, knowledge of parents and grandparents but also raising the next generation who grow up only knowing of Longbridge through history books. Books that are not good at recording the working class lives. That’s where the success of ‘Making Tracks’ lies. It combines social history with factual history, it’s a record of what the Longbridge plant meant to the families of employees and a collection of poems which makes for rewarding reading.