James K. Baxter, "Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works"
 


These are two stanzas from a poem entitled "Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works" by
James K. Baxter (1926-1972) one of New Zealand's most famous poets.

Baxter, James K. (1972) Stonegut Sugar Works, Junkies and the Fuzz, Ode to
Auckland and other Poems, Dunedin: Caveman Press


Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works


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 and 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, 'OK, mate,'
To a foreman'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
And 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 the ladder
I said (perhaps unkindly) --
'I'm here to work, not 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.


                                                        1972