In Praise Of The Common Man – A Mindin O Joe Corrie

Black and white photograph of Joe Corrie in his miner’s working clothes,1923
Joe Corrie in his miner’s working clothes,1923

‘The Common Man’

I am the Common Man,
I am the brute and the slave,
I am the fool, the despised,
From the cradle to the grave.

I am the hewer of coal;
I am the tiller of soil;
I am the serf of the seas,
Born to bear and toil.

I am the builder of halls;
I am the dweller in slums;
I am the filth and the scourge
When winter’s depression comes.

I am the fighter of wars;
I am the killer of men;
Not for a day, or an age,
But again, and again, and again.

I am the Common Man;
But master of mine take heed,
For you have put in my head,
Oh! many a wicked deed.

MacDiarmid’s distinction between ‘harns and hairt’, and later insistence on a modern ‘poetry of facts’ purged of all hints of kailyard sentiment, can be seen to have led to a kind of intellectual poetry which was concerned with ideas rather emotions – a clever kind of poetry that was aimed at a bookish elite. The work of the poet and playwright Joe Corrie does not belong here. Corrie was the first Scottish writer since Burns to produce work which, in the words of Orkney poet George Mackay Brown, belonged ‘in the factories and towns and fields’. While he had an equal facility for writing in English, Scots, the language of the working class and the carrying stream of the Folk Tradition, was his natural medium. Corrie used it to express human concerns and dilemmas.

Corrie’s name is revered still among a passing generation of folk who grew up in the former mining communities of Central Fife. Corrie died in Edinburgh in 1968, by which point his literary fame during the troubled political times of twenties and thirties had long faded – like the once thriving coal industry he had set his plays in. Today he is thought of proudly as ‘ane o our ain’ by the Fife grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the General Strike generation (though he was actually born in Slammanan in 1894). They grew up hearing about him from an older generation but they might be the last ones to remember him. It is easy to assume that Corrie’s considerable success and influence as a radical writer were the result of the historical and political conditions and contexts that produced him.

Yet he is much more than a left wing firebrand stereotype. It is true that he had a difficult start in life. He was forced down the mine to work at the age of fourteen and he was mainly self-educated. His best known work In Time O’Strife is a play set during the 1926 Miner’s Strike that depicts the struggles of working class families coping with appalling conditions. But there is a lot more to the Joe Corrie story. For in many ways Corrie is not a political writer at all, and his non-alignment to either doctrines or groups, both political and literary, was the cause of his fall from favour that saw him struggle in the post-war years to make a living as a writer.

In the 1930s, T. S. Eliot referred to Corrie as the greatest Scots poet since Burns’, and he was compared by critics to Zola and D. H. Lawrence. His 1926 play, In Time O’ Strife, was performed in London, Leipzig and Prague. Decades before John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, Corrie presented characters who spoke in the same language as the audience in the theatre. He was the first British playwright to present authentic working-class Scottish voices on stage and for that alone he should be seen as an innovator. And for this he was very popular: at a May Day gathering on Glasgow Green a pamphlet version of his poems, Image O God, sold a thousand copies in half an hour. But following World War II, Corrie eked out a living turning out one-act plays for the popular amateur dramatic movement (Hewers of Coal and The Darkness remained perennial favourites) but he was never again in a position to complete a major work. Scotland lost a potential Ibsen.

The young Joe Corrie was working in pits from 1908 when his father became an invalid and there was no other breadwinner in the family. In 1910 his interest in theatre was sparked by a ‘Penny Geggie’ travelling company of actors who put up their tent at a farm nearby in Cardenden. By 1924 he was doing the acting himself, in Auchterderran Dramatic Club. Meanwhile, Corrie had managed to educate himself with help from Workers’ Education classes and by reading anything he might lay his hands on in Gothenburg libraries. He published poems in The Lochgelly Times and was paid £3 a week to write for The Miner’s Reform newspaper.

His breakthrough came when The Scottish National Players toured with two of his one-act plays: The Poacher and The Shillin’ a Week Man. Encouraged by this, Corrie wrote the three-act In Time O’ Strife at the end of the gruelling Miner’s Strike/Lockout in 1926. As a miner himself, he was one of the unemployed. The play deals with how the Smith, Baxter and Pettigrew families fare during the hardships imposed by the Strike and how their ethical, political and humanitarian ideals are stretched to the limit. He submitted the work to the Reading Committee of the Scottish National Players which was made up of many of the Scottish literary establishment of the day including John Brandane, William Jeffrey, and O.H. Mavor (James Bridie). They turned his play down in favour of a work by Neil Gunn, perhaps because of its grim realism (Willie Pettigrew’s wife starves to death during the play and, grief-stricken, he turns to alcohol).

Black and white photograph of seventeen men and women comprising the original Bowhill Players. Photo taken on tour in 1929
The original Bowhill Players on tour in 1929

Corrie then formed his own theatre company, The Bowhill Players, to perform his plays. The Bowhill Players included his sister Violet and brothers Jimmy and Bobby along with friends and neighbours from the miners’ raws. They performed in the mining village halls of West and Central Fife and you could get in by paying a nominal shirt button if you had no money. When the theatrical agent Hugh Ogilivie saw In Time O’ Strife performed at the Gothenburgh Hall in Bowhill he recognised its potential at once. A tour, including performances in Aberdeen, Ayr, Coatbridge, Dundee, Dunfermline, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Glasgow, Greenock, Hamilton, Kilmarnock, Leith, Paisley, Perth and Stirling played to packed houses as well as huge critical acclaim. The Bowhill Players turned professional but Corrie, who could be a thrawn man, never forgave what he saw as a betrayal by the Glasgow bourgeoisie and Bridie in particular.

In Time O’ Strife continues to be a relevant play. In the 1980s, during the last miner’s strike against Thatcher’s pit closures, the play was revived by the 7:84 Company. In 2013, a version revised by Graham McLaren and The Scottish National Theatre toured across the UK. The 2012 Theatre Workshop Scotland film Happy Lands was greatly influenced by it – and it was a moving and memorable experience for this author to see the play performed
in the debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament.

Donald Campbell, no mean playwright himself and dramatist of the Scottish Literary Renaissance and the Heretics group in the 1970s, explains Corrie’s importance to Scottish literature:

‘Joe Corrie did not write for an audience that attended first nights in evening dress, nor did he expect his plays to be subjects of university seminars. He wrote in the hope that, in his own words, “the audience, for at least one evening, will forget its slavery.”’

In doing so, he created a new audience for theatre entirely.

Effectively, Corrie remained an outsider. He was mistrusted by the mainstream for being overtly socialist, while hard left Marxists found his work dwelt too much on the individual and was not doctrinaire enough. It was the individual, and realism, that Corrie was concerned about. He had a facility with language which allowed him to express the thoughts and emotions of suffering people as is evident in his poem ‘The Image O God’ which juxtaposes the insect-like miner crawling underground with the infinite God who created his universe:

‘The Image O God’

Crawling aboot like a snail in the mud,
Covered wi clammy blae,
Me, made after the image o God —
Jings! But it’s laughable, tae.

Howkin awa ‘neath a mountain o stane,
Gaspin for want o air,
The sweat makin streams doon my bare back-banes,
And my knees aa hauckit and sair.

Strainin and cursin the hale shift through,
Half-starved, half-blin, half-mad,
And the gaffer he says, “Less dirt in that coal
Or ye go up the pit, my lad.”

So I gie my life tae the Nimmo squad
For eicht and fower a day.
Me! Made after the image o God —
Jings! But it’s laughable, tae.

Corrie, through his upbringing in mining communities, was conscious of the role played by strong resourceful women (he wrote a poem ‘Miners’ Wives’) in keeping families and therefore society functioning. His plays are full of such characters and in his poetry he is able to write about the lot of the working class woman with great pathos:

‘In Hunter’s Bar’

Standing in Hunter’s Bar ae nicht, gey fou,
A man crushed through the crood and searched ma face;
“Guid Christ!” he stammered out, “and is it you?”
I shook his hand, but him I couldna trace.

A thick set man wi wide and blinking een
And big cheek banes, a scar upon his broo;
A greasy jacket fastened wi a preen,
And ragged breeks, his knees baith shining through.

“Ye dinnae ken me, eh! – D’yae no hae mind
O Aggie Broon?” At the mention o her name
seemed tae sober aa at yince – “Aye, fine
Ye ken me – I’m the bloke wha stole your flame.”

And for a month his words swam in ma brain —
“She’s deid, of course, deid wi her seevinth wean.”

Corrie’s work is full of humour, another important coping strategy during tough times below and above ground, as we find in songs like ‘The Gaffer’ or the following hilarious satire which indicates clearly why Corrie could never be a party-joining man:

‘Rebel Tam’

When Rebel Tam was in the pit
He tholed the very pangs o’ Hell
In fectin’ for the Richts o’ Man,
And ga’e nae thoucht unto himsel’.

“If I was just in Parliament,
By God!” he vowed, “They soon would hear
The trumpet-ca’ o’ Revolution
Blastin’ in their ear!”

Noo he is there, back-bencher Tam,
And listens daily to the farce
O’ Tweeledum and Twedledee,
And never rises off his arse.

Corrie writes and speaks for a whole community, trapped in a cycle of material and cultural poverty by an economic and political system that crushes the spirit of the individual. His work is about keeping that spirit alive and this is why he is still relevant:

‘Cage Load of Men’

Just like a truck load of cattle,
Sixteen crushed on at a time,
The yawning abyss beneath them,
Awaiting the bottomer’s chime,
To leave all the glories of nature,
And toil in the muck and the grime.

Today we find ourselves in a more individualistic society that has moved further to the right in terms of its political outlook. Margaret Thatcher, who began her rise to power in Corrie’s twilight years, famously said “There is no such thing as Society.” For Corrie, society was everything. Communities and families were the foundation that his humanitarian beliefs were built on. Corrie was a great poet, a ground-breaking playwright but most of all an eloquent proponent of this traditionally Scottish idea.

A few years ago, in an attempt to keep Corrie’s legacy to the fore, with permission from Morag Corrie, Joe’s daughter and with funding from Fife Council, I reconvened the Bowhill Players as a folk music ensemble. A CD of Corrie songs and poems was recorded and performances took place at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In 2018 an exhibition will be held in the Lochgelly Centre in Fife to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Corrie’s death as well as further performances and readings from the expanded Bowhill Players, which now includes a drama division.

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William Hershaw

William Hershaw is a Scottish poet, playwright, musician and Scots language activist.

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