1919 CLEMENT ATTLEE

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In Limehouse, in Limehouse, before the break of day,

I hear the feet of many men who go upon their way,

Who wander through the City,

The grey and cruel City,

Through streets that have no pity

The streets where men decay.

Clement Atlee is trying to write a poem. It’s not going well. He knows what he wants to say. He feels a fire that he hopes might ignite others, but his words are wet and keep sputtering out. There must be better words than these.

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, by night as well as day,

I hear the feet of children who go to work or play,

Of children born of sorrow,

The workers of tomorrow

How shall they work tomorrow

Who get no bread today?

The more Clement uses the word ‘feet’ the weirder the word ‘feet’ seems to sound. Feet. Feet? This poem doesn’t need to be good. It just needs to be effective – he tells himself in the hope of feeling a bit better.

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, today and every day

I see the weary mothers who sweat their souls away:

Poor, tired mothers, trying

To hush the feeble crying

Of little babies dying

For want of bread today.

There is a knock on his door. Someone wants to see him about drains or nurseries or..

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, I’m dreaming of the day

When evil time shall perish and be driven clean away,

When father, child and mother

Shall live and love each other,

And brother help his brother

In happy work and play.


GAH! The last verse is the worst – and it needed to be the best. After the meeting the muse has fled. Clem doesn’t blame her. The path to hell is paved with well-intentioned meetings about social housing. Still, he half likes his poem. It won’t change the world, but it did change one piece of paper. Paper. Papers. There’s so many to read. There’ll be no time for poetry if he becomes an MP.

ALAN GILBEY

Clem Attlee did write this poem. He lived in Toynbee Hall. In 1919 he was Mayor of Stepney, Labour MP for Limehouse in 1922, Leader of the Labour Party in 1935 before becoming Labour Prime Minister in 1945.

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One thought on “1919 CLEMENT ATTLEE

  1. It’s not a great poem but it would be a cold fish who didn’t jump at the suddenness of the line “of little babies dying.” I quoted the whole poem in my book Clem Attlee because, though it may not be great poetry, it does the next best thing – it tells you how rotten the system is, and how the writer feels about it. Can you imagine Tony Blair writing anything like this? Francis Beckett.

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