Lockdown Lights: On Exchange Flags

Back in old glory days, long since forgotten,
The flags here were smothered in snowy white cotton.
Soft as a carpet beneath merchant feet
King Cotton was plenty, King Cotton was cheap
It came by the Mersey, it came by the seas
By white canvass aloft in the westering breeze.
By Liverpool sailors, nimble and yar
Tough as mahogany, weathered as tar.

It came from the rivers, it came from the mud
It came from the kick and the stick and the blood
It came from the work line, the whip, the plantations
It came from the fracture and breaking of nations.
For cotton is gentle, fragile and light
Cotton is pure and pristine and white.
But the commerce of cotton, darker than death
Would barter your soul and crush your last breath.

It went by the engine, the steam and the rail
It went by the hundredweight, bail over bail
It went by Manchester, Bury and Preston
Blackburn and Bolton, and Darwen and Nelson
Where there’s brass for the boss, and poor spinning Jenny
Works hour by long hour for less than one penny.
Where the air is so thick it smothers the lung
And thundering loom drowns the Lancashire tongue.

Cotton by boll, by bag and by bale
For smocks and for shirts, for duck cloth and sail.
Cotton for mills, for ships and plantations
Enriching mill owners, impoverishing nations
Cotton for tyranny, hardship and slavery
Cotton for unions, resistance and bravery
Back in its glory days, long since forgotten
It came by the Mersey, that snowy white cotton.

Written and provided by Greg Quiery (20 Aug 2018), poet, historian and author.

Lockdown Lights is an open source project, collecting community stories about people’s experience of the lockdown during the 2020 Coronavirus restrictions. The project was funded by the Irish Government’s Emigrant Support Programme Covid-19 relief fund. We would like to thank all the participants and the Irish Government for their support.

This poem was offered specifically in relation to the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 following the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA on 25 May 2020. Black Lives Matter. Full stop.