Reading: Murphy in Manchester by John Montague

John Montague (1929-2016), a friend of Samuel Beckett, connected the English and Irish tradition like no other. This is captured in the short poem with the resounding title ‘Murphy in Manchester’:

Murphy in Manchester
He wakes to a confused dream of boats, gulls,
And all his new present floats
Suddenly up to him on rocking rails.
Through that long first day
He trudges streets, tracks friends,
Stares open-mouthed at monuments
To manufacturers, sabred generals.
Passing a vegetable stall
With exposed fruits, he halts
To contemplate a knobbly potato
With something akin to love.
At lunchtime, in a cafeteria,
He finds his feet and hands
Enlarge, become like foreign lands.
A great city is darkness, noise
Through which bright girls move
Like burnished other children’s toys.
Soon the whistling factory
Will lock him in:
Half aroused memories and regrets
Drowning in that iron din.

Straight-forward but beautifully and precisely narrated account of Murphy, who came to Manchester to work in a factory. On the first day, he is a tourist looking at monuments to the new heroes of industrialization and the generals that came before. He discovers his reason for moving to Manchester in the knobbly potato (the devastating potato famine (1845-1852) is part or the Irish soul). What happens to his hands at lunchtime is interesting. I read it as a metaphor for a sense of being in control. He moved to a foreign land (England) out of free will. He feels so confident on that first day in Manchester that he, identifies with his actions with his faith. The hands he works with and and the feet that carry him become the promised lands he had dreamed about. He holds his destiny in his own hands – even stronger: his destiny is identical with his hands.

But he soon realizes that the city is darkness. He can admire the burnished girls but never play with them like he could not play with other children’s toys. His existence will be drowned in the factory with its iron discipline and iron noise (din) and there will be no time to reminisce his childhood, he will be ‘locked in’. Nowadays, we complain about being ‘locked in’ a mortgage; I can’t imagine how it feels to be locked in a factory worker existence with no chance of freedom and a knobbly potato as the only reward.

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