Digging

From my seat at the café window, tucked into the bend in a side street off Leith Walk, I have an uninterrupted view onto the main thoroughfare.  The Walk has double lanes of traffic, cycle paths, and a broad pavement.  It’s a route through which most Edinburgh residents, at some stage of the year, will pass.  Top to tail, it is probably about a mile.  The top end (closest to the city centre) isn’t actually called Leith Walk — its name changes every few hundred yards, almost as frequently as the buses that run up and down.  Lined with shops, cafés, and every service imaginable, Leith Walk has, in the almost three years that I’ve lived here, been in a permanent state of deconstruction and disarray.  Scores of men wearing yellow vests, boiler suits, hard white hats with the sound mufflers flipped up, and faces etched by the elements are perpetually at work on this street.  Here’s what I see from my corner position: a man tipping hot tarmac from a wheelbarrow while his partner bends, reaches and rakes it smooth.  Then comes the roller, hissing and steaming, flanked by a sturdy man with a wide, hard-bristled brush sweeping the sides clean.  Behind, a grey-stubbled operator of a mini digger gouges out a hole into which a sprightly, skinny worker, wearing a green balaclava under his helmet, jumps and begins to dig in the old-fashioned way, shovel in hand.  Other than the pasty that one of them eats from a paper bag (the blue and orange Greggs logo is clearly visible), this process can’t have changed much in fifty years.

As I watch, I remember how, only last week, I sat on the top deck of the Number 49, snailing my way east to south, from the Foot of the Walk towards Summerhall, desperate to be there by midday, bemoaning the navvies for slowing me down and wondering if I’d be quicker opting for Shanks’s pony.  On this occasion, I’m in no haste and as I study the unglamorous scene and thankless work it comes to me: road digging is a noble tradition.  For much as we complain about roads being dug up, we’d complain more were they pot-holed and uneven, and more again were we the ones to be toiling in the wind and rain.

There was a time when digging roads was an occupation dominated by the Irish (at one stage there were 6,559 Irishmen digging up London, apparently – keep reading, you’ll come to it).  Digging is referenced by Percy French in his song, The Mountains of Mourne, where he used the old trick of the letter home from the guileless, green, unworldly son who has turned to road digging to make ends meet: “Oh, Mary, this London’s a wonderful sight, With people here working by day and by night, They don’t sow potatoes, nor barley nor wheat, But there’ gangs of them digging for gold in the streets.  At least when I asked them, that’s what I was told, So I just turned my hand at this diggin’ for gold, But for all that I’ve found there, I might as well be, Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.”  (Stop rolling your eyes, I love it!)

The Mountains of Mourne is a far cry from Heaney’s celebrated poem, ‘Digging’, which isn’t about road digging at all, but I don’t think that matters, as Heaney is, nonetheless, presenting his appreciation and reverence for those who dig.

‘By God, the old man could handle a spade.

 Just like his old man. 

My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.’

How can a man who digs be anything but honest and decent?  Isn’t that what Heaney’s saying?  He’s putting them on a par with the poet and bard, maybe even above.

‘…the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

We dig to plant, grow, eat and survive and we dig to bury our dead.  We dig trenches from which to fight wars, then afterwards we dig foundations upon which to build memorials to the fallen.  We dig to mine for coal and gold and jewels, digging our way to fortune, and we dig tunnels and passages to escape the misfortune of incarceration.  They even tried to get the Irish to dig their way out of the Great Famine, and many of our ancestors died digging their way to a bowl of food – straightforward philanthropy didn’t seem to be in fashion at that time.

So now when I see men in the street digging in the freezing cold battered by horizontal rain, men engaged in honest, physical work that’s probably doing their back in, I think they are heroic.  As did Christy Moore, who has the best tribute of all to those who dig — God forgive me, but I think it even beats Heaney.   And it mentions Annauscal, the Kerry village where Tom Crean (Antarctic Explorer, one of the greatest Irishmen who ever lived) came from, and you can be sure that Crean knew his way around a shovel.  Bless all those who dig.

Don’t Forget Your Shovel, Christy Moore

Don’t forget your shovel if you want to go to work.
Oh don’t forget your shovel if you want to go to work.
Don’t forget your shovel if you want to go to work
Or you’ll end up where you came from like the rest of us
Diggin’, diggin’, diggin’

And don’t forget your shoes and socks and shirt and tie and all.
Don’t forget your shoes and socks and shirt and tie and all.
Mr Murphy’s afraid you’ll make a claim if you take a fall.
(“How’s it goin'” “not too bad”)

And we want to go to heaven but we’re always diggin’ holes.
We want to go to heaven but we’re always diggin’ holes.
Yeah we want to go to heaven but we’re always diggin’ holes.
Well there’s one thing you can say…we know where we are goin’…
(“Any chance of a start?” “no” “okay”)

And if you want to do it…don’t you do it against the wall.
If you want to do it…don’t you do it against the wall.
Never seen a toilet on a building site at all.
There’s a shed up in the corner where they won’t see you at all.
(“Mind your sandwiches”)

Enoch Powell will give us a job, diggin’ our way to Annascaul.
Enoch Powell will give us a job, diggin’ our way to Annascaul.
Enoch Powell will give us a job, diggin’ our way to Annascaul.
And when we’re finished diggin’ there they’ll close the hole and all.

Now there’s six thousand five hundred and fifty-nine paddies
Over there in London all trying to dig their way back to Annascaul
And very few of them boys is going to get back at all…
I think that’s terrible.

Don’t forget your shovel if you want to go to work.
Don’t forget your shovel if you want to go to work.
Oh, don’t forget your shovel if you want to go to work.
Or you’ll end up where you came from like the rest of us
Diggin’, diggin’, diggin

 

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