A History of Feeling: Dreams & Nightmares

Arc of the Hammer

…and I watched my father wield the unbearable
weight of the hammer—pounding volcanic dust in
a cavern of hell.  Spits of hot ash glowed like coals
in his vest, the hard graft of the foundry marking
him out—scars and welts tattooed on his arms and chest—
but Michael was always available for hire.
I listened to the wretched cranes groan and shriek in
the darkness—swinging great vats of molten metal
above his head. From a fire, I saw him escape,
gasping for air in the dense smoke, searching blindly,
groping his way along the walls, as he staggered,
dazed, out of the burning hangar, his clothes ablaze.

Later, choking and spluttering, I heard him speak
with my mother, counting the dead while he recalled
the list of casualties—shattering the silence
with news of Thomas, his brother. In the kitchen,
trails of newspaper were laid to contain the black
ash on the souls of his boots. Helping him remove
his smoldering rags, she held back the tears, while he
stripped for his bath. Peering through the door-jamb, I saw
a pile of clothes where they had fallen—smouldering
and threatening to combust. His huge frame sank into
the tub, head angled downward, coming to rest like
a rock which had been quarried between his shoulders.
And that night I saw how my father had been cowed.
Forty years the horn had wailed him home—then at dawn
it wailed for his return. Each shift he punched his card,
reported for duty, kept in synchronized step
with a company of men as they moved as one.
In the hollow of his ear lodged a hornet’s nest—
the dull hum and dissonant whine of production
vibrating in his bones. Day and night Michael
toiled with the machines at the face of the furnace,
serving the system well, until it laid him off
with a fake gold watch taken from the public purse.
He was replaced. And quickly his mind unravelled.

The clock on the wall stopped. Each day promised little
more than another day quite devoid of purpose.
The dreams of a younger man were declared dead on
the factory floor. Counting the days and the months
and the final years, he heard the same obsessions
rattle like dice in his head. For the deafening
roar of the machine and it’s hideous face had
taken hold of him long ago—forged him much as
the smithy shapes a random piece of iron on
the anvil—until he could hear neither the sound
of his own voice, or feel the immeasurable
void open up as he stepped through the factory door.

And now it is the turn of our generation
to be undone—not by the screech of cogs turning
like screws in the head—but by a juggernaut
grinding to a halt: we will see out our best years,
not as role models, but symbols of apathy
as we while away the days and years on the dole—
our mouths and bladders working only as a sluice
while the dreams we had are mere embers smoking in
the ashes. Hunger will be the close companion
of the new born. For the dried, lifeless breasts of mothers,
much like the Autumn leaves starved of light and shriveling
on the branch, are much more than the mark of seasons.

Look at the town schizophrenic, dumbed down by his
daily cocktail—wandering aimlessly in this
Thorazine haze. Look at our beloved infants—
who once spoke with such innocence—cowering in
unspeakable fear. In absence of song and joy
children sob themselves to sleep. Young mothers refuse
to rise from bed, unable to hear the daily
news which is always bad and unbearably cruel.
The same old film reel is wound behind her eyes—
a spool of thought unravels—the world’s gone mad!
The narrative yields no relief. Deceit and lies
pass as currency in Parliament. Old stories

of everlasting life fill the pulpit. Be good!
So mother remains entirely mute—even when
her lips part to form the word …. the lone word she tried
to utter throughout her life. If she dares throw up
a stifled scream, she is lulled into this deep sleep,
beguiled into a long but restless lassitude
from which it’s much too late to stumble from her dreams.
It’s the way the drunks stagger outside her window,
slumped against the walls of filthy slums. She listens
to feral cries echo on littered streets while packs
of wild dogs sniff out the last stray bitch in heat—
mounting her in such rapacious fits of desire.

Inscrutable signals draw some beyond the walls
of the Keep, but many succumb. The hard man rails
against the tremors—the seismic shift of mood—
against a system which makes him numb. Cries echo
from the watchtower, in blind alleys, for lives stillborn
before the human heart begins to beat. Serving
a long sentence, light and darkness merge. He resists
the urge to arrest the slide and swing happily
by the neck from the stair railing. For others,
sullen blocks of grey granite hold their gaze—staring
back at them—absorbing each hysterical scream
as tense fingers tighten their grip on the trigger.


It is the shadows cast by flare stacks–vomiting
up trails of grey vapour—spitting smoke and fire.
Deep inside itself the land shudders. High above,
the contrails form a crossword—spreading a yellow
hue across the sky—while down in the valley burns
an orange flame, lighting the lonely streets, where a black
harvest coughs its way up from stinking drains: glue bags,
needles, cigarettes butts, a green-moulded shilling—
putrid smell of dead vermin. Beggars are knocking
on the door, begging to be let in, their loose rags
flapping in the wind. An interminable ache
fills the junky’s vein—to escape from the projects,

graffiti, schemes, the present and persistent urge
to maim or murder her neighbour. Our homes crumble,
dogs are brawling, derelicts recoil in self-loathing—
sloughing off the night’s dead skin. Afraid, not a word
passes the lips of the kids while mum kneels and prays
for a fix. In the winter light, children are quick
to rise and fill the day, foraging for mere scraps
of food lying within their reach. They take the bus
to school—to a desk at which to rest, to sleep, to dream.
Industry collapses, banks hoard cash, creditors
whisper on the stair—homes must go—the habitat
bulldozed for another luxury round of golf.

But the nefarious hand of the billionaire
which casually signed that slip of paper should have
substituted a knife for his platinum pen—
or slashed our throats with a razor—for he cut out
our tongues. He rendered mute the voices of our youth.
Where are the seamen, their scrawny legs dangling like
a gull’s above the swell—chipping rust from the hull—
songs eddying back and forth on the evening tide.
Some live out their lives suspended, always in hope
the cycle will turn full circle. Some hunt down cheap
palliatives, easing their way to the very edge.


So many indictments due. So many questions. Who
processed forty years of executive orders,
stayed at his post without a break, only to be
fired for arriving late? What terror made him crouch
beneath his desk—gibbering about the limits
of resistance—of short circuits blowing inside
his head. On how much paper did this poor man choke
before those fucking bureaucrats showed him the door?
A fait accompli; you’ll work your way through the pile: note,
collate, pass, file, receive. You’ll function as a slick
machine—you’ll exceed times-twenty last month’s targets—
or we’ll put you out to grass! But lest we forget

the other hands rendered up for profit and gain,
consider the young mother who spilled her daily
dose of methadone and instantly went insane.
What of the dispossessed, some jack-knifed on the steps
of the world’s theatres—with whom will they break a loaf
of bread—share the reasons for their constant sorrow.
Not with YOU Thatcher! YOU, born with the cold eyes
of Caligula—swiveling hip and buttock
like a courtesan. YOU who wiped out opponents
with that bold stare of calculation—or seduced
those who could replace you—with those
red lips reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe.

YOU subverted the Age of Enlightenment—tore
up Locke’s claim that we are free and equal—
declared a standard Poll Tax for both the grand duke
and the common man. YOU said we have the right to
be unequal. And society is dead! YOU
conjured up a timely diversion, banged hard on
the drum of war, prodded the junta with your spear—
stretched the ‘exclusion zone’, whipped up a tidal wave
of jingoism, sent in hunter-killer subs—
torpedoed the peace—sank the Belgrano and swept
two hundred and seventy-five men to their death.
But for YOU, it was a boon in ratings and votes.


Provoked by this attack, we deciphered the news,
trying to separate hard facts from the censored stream
of fiction. Staring at the screen, we held our breath,
counting in scores the coffins draped in union jacks—
listening to the sombre notes of a trumpet.
It had all been a perfect ruse for the public,
until the Sheffield took a flying fish which smashed
a hole above the water line. Casualties rose
like columns of smoke in the South Atlantic sky—
and while the parents mourned their sons consumed by fire,
YOU discussed with ministers who will survive
the slaughter—and ultimately—those who will die.

So we drew from the dole the monthly pittance and
endured the sound of Tebbit squawking from his box—
“Get up! Get on your bikes and find some bloody work”.
But we had scoured the foundries and the shipyards,
factories and woodyards—moving from Grangemouth
to Greenock—yet the only work available
required we sacrifice our lives. I remember
that winter, the young man alone in the park—
spinning round and round on a carousel—singing
the words of a nursery rhyme, crunching on some
pills, killing the pain while he killed some time.
The inexplicable was etched like a scar on

his face, and I remember that brutal void in
his eyes that opened up like the desolate space
around him. Like many young men who waited in
this suspended state, his idle hands quivered and
shook with uncertainty, until he sat down at
noon to self-medicate. But the postman coming
up the path with a giro in his bag always
offered up some brief respite, relief for the slow
sedentary queue shuffling up in line who are
unable to speak of their shame—the sense of loss—
but once every fortnight they grip the pen and sign.

Yet it had been in this very town, from the red
ash parks, we had chased a ball, shaping a well worn
path through the easy sway of wheat and corn. Green fields
moved as one in windswept pastures—and there were no
regrets for yesterday—and no hopes dependent
on tomorrow—there was only the steady gaze
of the eternal sun on the silver waters
of the reservoir. We gulped back inhibitions,
stripped off our clothes and giggled—our naked arms as
brown as the speckled eggs we had plundered from one
unguarded nest. We roamed the hills, jam jars dangling
from our waists, hunting elusive bees—looking for

a hive of golden honey. We flexed our muscles
and wandered on a wild rush of adrenaline,
weaving our way merrily through the spring barley—
climbing steep slopes over the ridge of the central
valley, taking the high trail to the hard edges
of adolescence. By dusk, Mum had tucked us up
in bed, and as we slept, we dreamed of infinite
possibilities breaking for us in the dawn.
And this great mystery, which had always been an
inscrutable puzzle, was now so simple—
as easy to navigate as that old rope bridge
we took across the gully of our late childhood.

A hail of snow petals fell from the cherry trees,
white blossoms floated in the weightless air of long,
hot summers while we plotted a distinctive course
on the chart, a rite of passage through the tempest
ahead—the incomprehensions of puberty
and inherent promise of youth. But a virus
wormed its way through that brief gestation. The people
became servile and were neutered like dogs. Deprived
of vigour, young boys prowled the schemes—marking the lines
of their territory in large letters and bold colours YGB
trying to define their lives in music—by brute
force of masculinity—in the power of

a clenched fist, by the flash of knife’s blade. And the rats
ran wild in our own season of discontent, streets
filled up with rubbish—dreams were vandalised and smashed
to pieces—stabbed in the corridors of power.
The wounds opened. Strange rituals and new habits formed—
and the bleeding was handed down from father to
son, from mother to daughter, and this haemorrhage
took its natural course, bleeding out our will to
live, to hope, to dream. One man, we’ll call him J.M,
paced the floor, back and forth, as he listened to
the music, chain-smoking—piecing together bits
of the puzzle—the fragments of his past—as his

feet paced the boards into the present. The clock chimed.
He begins to gnaw on his bloody finger nails.
The track of time seized him: this is his future!
He cracks open the back of the vial, picks out
the paper strip, moulding the bennies into tight
balls, swallowing them in one gulp of black coffee.
The elevator takes him up—a sudden rush
through space—high above the undertow. Floodgates
open—he is alert. An electrical storm
sparks in his skull. There’s a spontaneous flash
of insight. He is weightless—just as he was in
his childhood—wandering the hills, roasting chestnuts,

in the leafy hollows of Polmont Wood. Dwelling
on this nameless ache for abstraction, he prepares
one more strip, seeking much more than the limits of
mere existence. Carefully, he swings the slender
arm of the player across the vinyl—gently
lowering the needle into the grooves—hiss of
static rising in the air. He listens intently
to the lyrics of The Pretender as each word
vibrates like a tuning fork. Speaking directly
to him, the singer recalls Johnie’s narrative
mode—his own brief history of feeling— his dreams
and his bloody nightmares: how his calloused hands were
used as spare parts, arms, legs, were processed for construction,
his acrobatic tongue—being the most valuable
part for some—served a loyal apprenticeship to
his trade union. But now he hears the sound of his
own voice—and the distinct echo of the men whose
lives had filled the margins. He stares out the window
and a deep sorrow takes hold of him. He develops
a vantage point, a new way of seeing, to cope
with the hunger—insatiable hunger. The words
sharpen the edge of his existence. The red eye
of his cigarette glows in the dark. He’s thinking.
That’s what he does! He’s thinking. There’s no need to speak—

for that role lies with the singer. Now it is time
to take a journey back through the years of troubled
youth, the lean years, the slow, aimless, drift of his life—
desire to escape the cycle, the destructive
course of boom and bust. His mind is loosening
from its moorings—for he recalls that rig breaking
free of its anchors. Alarm! Panic! Blue fireballs
exploding—streaks of incandescent light aglow
on the surface of the sea—a great shower of
meteors blazing paths across ocean and sky—-—-
and the scorched heads of dead men bobbing up
and down in the boiling slick. He can still hear
the wretched screech of metal as it collapses
and melts in the furnace—shell of the rig turning
over like a giant turtle, desperate cries
of men adrift in the distance of his nightmare,
widows kneeling at the pews, shrouded in prayer,
mothers weeping for sons lost at sea— last to be
taken by one more ferocious blast. The solemn
whisper of a novena is offered up for
the dead… Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with
you, blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed are
the fruit of thy womb, Jesus… He can hear the sound
of that cannon rifle through the rig—a sudden
burst of light—those working men bowled over like pins…
the inquest… big business closing it’s ranks around
the money… barristers whispering, discussing
strategy, diving stocks, depreciative value
of the men they lost. The grieving names did not stand
a chance, for big business had bought a young QC,
who took a hatchet to their claims. And every job,
every man, was temporary, but those machines,
those monstrous machines endured—and for those grateful
hands which turned them—greased, cleaned, fixed and honed—this system
turned every man to stone. On the TV screen his
eyes begin to rest, listening to the miners chant …
The miners, united,

will never be defeated…

The miners, united,

will never be defeated…

Now the brass band is knee-deep in mud. A clenched fist
is thrust up like a blunt club. They raise the red flag,
whetting Thatcher’s appetite for class war, batons
drawn—mounted cops ram the thin line of resistance,
full force of charging horses breaching the gap in
defense, the snarling leap of dogs—flash of white teeth—
hail of bottles, petrol bombs, rain down on the State
while Scargill rants in rebellious tone at the stance
of the Iron Lady. Both are charged by God-like
omnipotence, believers in their own power,
believers of their own press, posing in the glare
of flashlight—two attack-dogs straining at the leash—
baiting one another, toying with the hungry
paparazzi, waiting for soundbites, determined
to raise—bury—in one verbal stroke, the rotting
corpse of socialism.
As always, the harbingers of Spring were vocal,
peewit-call of Lapwings—their sudden, tumbling
fall to earth, the raucous tapping of some ardent
woodpeckers—just loud enough to nudge those who still
remained asleep. The pervasive heat of the sun
began to leaven the last residues of snow
from the living woods. At that time, on the hard edge
of the old town, two men, Joseph and Benjamin,
began to make their way out of a cul-de-sac—
dreaming of a journey to some distant shores at
the world’s end. The brothers scaled a long border
fence in place—the line of divergence—cutting off
wasteland, old tenements from new money—the trimmed
verges and manicured lawns, high-rise suites sprouting
boundaries—dividing the rubble of their common
aspirations from the stone portfolio which
rose up above the brothers like a monolith—
its shadow sprawling out across the reclaimed land.
Both men stared up at the intractable pillars
spreading east and west, unable to comprehend
how such schools, churches, docks and factories could be
swallowed up so quickly. But like there descendants
who had, so long ago, made their way from the wild
highlands of Sutherland, traveling by horse and cart
south to the port of Glasgow, trading for passage,
then climbing the gangway of the next freighter bound
for the New World, the vast prairies—the eternal
promise of which Columbus spoke—they too had dreamed
of this fabled land. This citadel on a hill
had cast a spell on the hungry crofters—calling
the expendable, the dispossessed, to set sail
on the cold salt waters of the north Atlantic—
to erase from their history the cruel purpose
of the Clearances—to join these bold pioneers
in pursuit of happiness. But now it was time
for Joseph and Benjamin to choose their own path.
Some weeks later, they found themselves haggling over
the last sticks of furniture as they sold up to
a ward of nurses who sensed the potential for
a bargain. Keen to barter, the women quickly
surveyed the flat, starched whites rustling on bare skin—
eyes roaming in the corners of each room. One sale
drew an excited cluck, while matron, blessing her
good luck, strutted across the floor with the larger
goods, chattering on the stair as she made her way
to the waiting truck. Joseph looked out the window,
listening to the coos of pleasure in the busy
street below. This rite of passage—this final act
was one of renewal—a time of becoming.
Benjamin imagined the luminous sphere of
western stars in the heavens—white lanterns set off
in the night sky—he could see the dazzling city
lights of Boston glowing on the Back Bay, a hub
of activity, as young and old—from the most
distant parts of the earth—set foot on the streets as
witness to the “fresh, green breast of America.”
In the foreground, he could hear the cooling towers
of the vast complex hiss, he could see the sky turn
orange, and the last light of the day fade out on
the horizon. But he could still hear the echo
of his brother’s voice from the past. At the table,
they had broken a stale bread—divided the crusts
and shared their visions of America. Autumn
light was smeared almost as thin as the salted lard
in which they dipped their bread. A profound longing had
settled in them—perceptible in the rising
and falling rhythms of both voices. And solemn
promises were made to each other—fair return
for their labour—and an offering to father.
But for the older son, too much had already
been endured and suffered in the silence of his
own counsel—too many sleights, many injuries
to carry in such a fragile mind. Murderous
fantasies began to take hold of him, beguiling
in their power—a lonely place to which he may
lure Daniel and slay the shadow of his father.
They would make passage along the eastern seaboard—
first to Boston, then on to New York. Sailing by
the Statue of Liberty, a torch flaming in
her right hand—stone tablet resting in the other,
they will gaze upon the urban sprawl of this great
metropolis, steel, glass, marble, stone—a sea
of people—a huge entity glimmering on
the shores of the Hudson like a bright star.