Kenny in his Kilt
I was in correspondence with Kenny shortly before his death in August 2023 and he sent me the following poem that he had written.
The Captive Rat by Kenny Phillips
Here am I trapt in a cage
Still gettin’ o’er my ain outrage
Tae think that me wi’ much experience
Should pey the price tricked only yince.
But then again I must admit
At that time I felt a tad unfit
My adversary was Norman Vallance
He led me mony a merry dance.
He had been a skilled gemkeeper
And long time weys of Nature seeker
Noo he leads the Ayrshire Patrol
Sharin’ a’ he kens on Pest Control.
I was born near Dalgarven Mill
And feedin’ there took my fill
But grinding stanes unsettled me
So aff I set completely free.
I followed the Bombo and the Dusk Burns
Tae visit the various ferms by turns
Fae auld Blair Castle tae Wheaty Falls
And Cleeve Cove fossils near Ashyfaulds.
Alick, I watched ye getherin’ fruit
Tae make delicious bramble jelly
And unner the stanes ginnel for troot
And laugh each time ye tickled their belly.
Jimmy Wallace wi’ boys and much clatter
Transferred fifty troot tae the Blue Watters
Fae the Dusk doon below in a pail
Sclimbed up the hill withoot much scail.
Each troot wrigglin’ and still alive
Was gently slipt intae paradise.
The clear watter contained much feedin’
And that wis a’ the troot were needin’.
Big fat minins were the main fare
And hunners o’ tadpoles added mair
In a few short years they became five pounders
And everybody thocht they were real sounders.
Yae fine day by lucky accident
My smelling nose picked up your scent
Near some auld kilns that made quick lime
And followed you tae Bowertrapping mine.
Alick, frien, you left me a crust
Atween the pit props and coalface dust
And here we seemed a rare pair
Sharin’ a bite o’ humble fare.
Crawlin’ aboot on hauns and knees
Cramp would aften yer muscles seize
Watter dripping doon the walls
Soakt through yer stinkin’ overalls.
Lying lengthwise on yin hip
Yer carbide lamp could barely lit
The twa feet seam o’ precious coal
Extracted wi’ much costly toll.
On your hunkers ye stopped tae rest
Tae ease the cramp and heaving chest
Nae heicht tae staun ablow the ceilin’
Or bandage knuckles skint and bleedin’.
I ask you, Alick, to forgive me, please
For helpin’ spread the Weil’s disease
Like you, I suffered the bitin’ flaes
Hidin’ among oor woollen claes.
Brocht up fae the mine a’ dishevelled
Norman set my cage on dross he levelled
Noo he’s gien me an hour’s grace
Tae clean me up and wash my face
In warm sunshine my een are bricht
My coat is shinin’ and I’ve lost a’ fricht
Nae mair being chased by cruel young brats
Wi’ sticks, ferets, bulldugs and tomcats
The time we spent was short and brief
And I hope oor pairtin’s no wi grief.
I can relax here jist noo at my leisure
And think richt back on you wi’ pleasure
I sit up stracht my whiskers tae brush
And listen tae a pheasy and thrush
Norman makes shair my end will be quick
With finger and thumb and only one flick.
But Alick, my frien, I don’t envy thee
Fae yer hard wark ye canna flee
Graftin’ awa’ tae feed wife and weans
Risking yer life and broken banes.
The flaes that spread the Weil’s disease
will still be bitin’ aroun’ yer knees
Doacters can cure you o’ many ills
But lingerin’ pneumoconiosis defy their pills
Ye’ll cough up blood and blackened lung
Much worse than by a bee being stung
Strugglin’ for braith ye’ll fade away
Wi’ excruciating pain till the last day
The coal ye howk causes climate change
The economy will fail on a wider range
Being made redundant will be dreaded
And worse, trying for Universal Credit.
I was quite taken by the poem and tale it told and sent him an email saying that I had known him since the 1960’s but hadn’t known he was a miner. His reply read as follows:
“The background to my poem is: I was born in a miners Raw in the Peesweep, Dalry. Most of the farms and mines in Dalry belonged to the Blair Estate. The heir to the Estate, Miss Blair, collected money for every ton of coal dug but was discomforted by the occupiers watching her travelling to the kirk on Sundays in her pony and trap and she got all the windows moved to the rear of the houses, when the houses were then called Peesweep or Turned or Blair.
During the 2nd world war I lived in a single end in a tenement with 8 families in Smith Street. Dalry, with my parents and 3 sisters. The miners were asked to dig for victory and when a new mine was opened at Bowertrapping, Dalry, one of my cousins in New Cumnock came with a pal to work the night shifts and return home at the weekend. When we went to school in the morning, they slept in the bed which never got cold. No miners baths at that time. Outside cold tap or zinc bath in front of the fire. Carbide lamps.
My grandfather and uncles were all miners. My grandfather was reputed to be one of the hardest workers but he died in his fifties with pneumoconiosis. I watched my mother’s uncle die, fading away to six stone and coughing his lungs up. Only his spirit kept him going. I vowed then never to become a miner.
I trained as a Sanitary Inspector and Meat Inspector. Norman Vallance. a former gamekeeper became the top Pest Control Officer and he taught us all the skills used to catch and dispose of pests. He could kill a rat instantly with a finger and thumb breaking its neck. When meat was de-rationed in 1954 I was appointed as Meat Inspector in the three slaughterhouses in Kilwinning, Saltcoats and Largs. Near the Kilwinning slaughterhouse was a large henhouse infested with rats, which was not responding to the new magic Warfarin treatment. We sat in the office eating our pieces one lunchtime discussing the problem. Warfarin takes 3 days to fill the lungs with water instead of blood and the unsuspecting rats drown . We decided that these rats were obtaining compensatory blood with spillages at the slaughterhouse. Norman reverted to the old poisons and the infestation soon cleared up. 50 years later, I read a PhD paper coming to the same conclusion. Doctors keep prescribing Warfarin as an anti-coagulant but I have always resisted using it.
Rats can carry fleas infected with Weil’s disease and Miners are prone to be infected with the disease transmitted by the fleas. Seeking out the rats can involve dangerous locations.
When I was Burgh Surveyor in Stewarton, I was introduced at a Public Health Conference to Willie Cunningham, Chief Sanitary Inspector of Clydebank, Red Clydeside. He said, “They are all communists in Stewarton”. My reply was, “I am the only one”.”
He was a quite amazing man – I kept finding out wee bits from time to time but when his life has been laid out as he did there for me in August this year I was surprised again and the breadth of his experiences and the depth of his thinking. It came then with no surprise to hear that there would be no funeral, he wanted to donate his body to Glasgow University. Some man.