Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works

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This is a poem from James K. Baxter called ‘Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works’ about when he worked at the Chelsea sugar refinery in Auckland in 1969. Hone Tuwhare found the job for him, but he was soon fired. The poem is reproduced from the ‘independent socialist’ magazine New Zealand Monthly Review of Dec./Jan. 1970. The sugar works is still open, although many of the jobs have been mechanised.

 

chelsea sugar

Oh in the Stonegut Sugar Works

The floors are black with grime

As I found out when I worked there

Among the dirt and slime;

I think they must have built it

In Queen Victoria’s time.

 

I had the job of hosing down

The hoick and sludge and grit

For the sweet grains of sugar dust

That had been lost in it

For the Company to boil again

And put it on your plate;

 

For all the sugar in the land

Goes through that dismal dump

And all the drains run through the works

Into a filthy sump,

And then they boil it up again

For the money in each lump.

 

The bricks are held together by dirt

And the machines by rust

But I will work in any place

To earn myself a crust,

But work and never bow the head

As any grown man must.

 

And though along those slippery floors

A man might break a leg

And the foul stink of diesel fumes

Flows through the packing shed

And men in clouds of char dust move

Like the animated dead.

 

To work beside your fellow men

Is good in the worst place,

To call a man your brother

And look him in the face,

And sweat wash the sweat away

And joke at the world’s disgrace.

 

And sweet on Auckland harbour

The waves ride in to land

Where you can sit at smoko

With the coal heaps close at hand

And watch the free white gulls a while

That on the jetty stand.

 

But the Clerk and the Slavedriver

Are birds of another kind,

For the clerk sits in his high glass cage

With money on his mind,

And the Slavedriver down below

Can’t call a slave a friend.

 

Instead they have (or nearly all)

The Company for a wife,

A strange kind of bedmate

That sucks away their life

On a little mad dirt track

Of chiselling and strife.

 

But work is work, and any man

Must learn to sweat a bit

And say politely, ‘O.K., mate’,

To a foremen’s heavy wit

And stir himself and only take

Five minutes for a shit.

 

But the sweat of work and the sweat of fear

Are different things to have;

The first is the sweat of a working man

And the second of a slave,

And the sweat of fear turns any place

Into a living grave.

 

When the head chemist came to me

Dressed in his white coat

I thought he might give me a medal

For I had a swollen foot

Got by shovelling rock-hard sugar

Down a dirty chute.

 

But no: ‘I hear your work’s all right’,

The chemist said to me,

‘But you took seven minutes

To go to the lavatory;

I timed it with my little watch

My mother gave to me.’

 

‘Oh thank you, thank you’, I replied

‘I hope your day goes well’.

I watched the cold shark in his eye

Circling for the kill;

I did not bow the head to him

So he wished me ill.

 

The foreman took another tack,

He’d grin and joke with us,

But every day he had a tale

Of sorrow for the Boss;

I did not bow the head to him

And this became his cross.

 

And once as he climbed a ladder

I said (perhaps unkindly) –

‘I’m here to work, not to drop my tweeds

At the sight of a Boss; you see,

The thing is, I’m not married

To the Sugar Company.’

 

As for the Company Union,

It was a tired thing;

The Secretary and Manager

Each wore a wedding ring;

They would often walk together

Picking crocuses in spring.

 

You will guess I got the bullet,

And it was no surprise,

For the chemists from their cages

Looked down with vulture eyes

To see if they could spot a man

Buttoning up his flies.

 

It’s hard to take your pay and go

Up the winding road

Because you speak to your brother man

And keep your head unbowed,

In a place where the dismal stink of fear

Hangs heavy as a cloud.

 

The men who sweep the floors are men

(My story here must end);

But the clerk and the slavedriver

Will never have a friend;

To shovel shit and eat it

Are different in the end.

chelsea sugar refinery

 

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~ by vomitingdiamonds on 07/08/2015.

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