‘I was working class plenty too; I was not ultra proud of it, not ashamed of it. It was there whether I like it or not, and if sometimes there had been avenues for escape then I must have missed them’ – (4)
Patrick McGeown, the first surviving child and eldest son of Irish immigrants, was born in 1897 in the village of Craigneuk, Scotland. Patrick’s memoir, ever honest and attentive, chronicles his journey all the way from boyhood into manhood and beyond. His story is an authentic depiction of a working man’s life sprinkled with unintentional humour, reminiscences of hard work and moments of insightful recollection that can only come from a man who has lived a life striving for independence.
Patrick’s memoir, aptly named, ‘Heat the Furnace Seven Times More’, accounts a lifetime of knowledge and service to working within Britain’s blistering furnaces. Whilst also giving a nod to his religious roots, his memoir acts largely as an evocative, first-hand historical account of steelmaking in the 20th century. Patrick poetically juxtaposes the unexpected art of labour with the ‘daily burden of tiredness and boredom’ (8) that accompanies the job. His vivid and imaginative descriptions of working conditions allow for readers to delve into a life, that many of us, would never have had the chance to experience. The memoir illustrates the strains, brotherly bonds and pride of working class men in the 20th century.
The memoir is split into 22 chapters each one looking into a different aspect of his live. In the beginning chapters, Patrick speaks fondly of his childhood despite his family’s financial hardships: ‘everytime a boarder entered Peter and me had to sleep on the floor. It didn’t disturb us much, in fact I seemed to sleep better that way’ (20). He goes on to detail his schooldays and the trouble he would get into being of Irish decent in a Scottish town. He also pays tributes to the values his loving Irish mother instilled in him from an early age: ‘with my mother’s prompting I would keep thinking of [Irish women] as gentle saints, even if they weren’t all scholars’ (22). It is in these youthful chapters that we see the personality in Patrick’s writing flourish. The tone is warm and humorous yet to the point and doesn’t dwell on details that he deems insignificant. These childhood memories provide a true understanding into what makes him the man he becomes.
Patrick’s memoir is refreshing. Rather than solely focusing on the blissful, unproblematic days of childhood like so many other working class writers, Patrick recounts his life with the good, the bad and the ugly. In his later chapters he speaks of the hardships of the Second World War, the struggles of the Miners Strikes and the truths of domestic violence in working class regions. Patrick delves into these topics devoid of sentimentally. It seems as though the memoir, especially in his later chapters, offers a chance to express his opinions on historical events and culture. Patrick’s memoir is also devoid of bragging and rhetorical grandeur. Patrick captures the generalisations of the working class whilst providing a unique insight into specific nuances that are individual to him. It is these individual accounts of collective working class events that makes his memoir so intriguing.
We see Patrick evolve from a young boy who lacked courage to a strongminded and educated man and thus by the end of the near 200 pages, feels like we possess a bond with him. In his final chapters Patrick writes of his journey into writing. It is in these pages that we truly see the determination and character of Patrick.
493 MCGEOWN, Patrick, Heat the Furnace Seven Times More (Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., London, 1967), pp.192. Other edn., with an introduction by Asa Briggs, Readers Union, London, 1968, pp.192.
MCGEOWN, Patrick, Heat the Furnace Seven Times More (Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., London, 1967)
Image 1: Photograph of the front cover of Patrick McGeown’s published memoir. Retrieved from: https://pictures.abebooks.com/MWBOOKS1/md/md227972004.jpg
Image 2: Photograph of the front page of the Sunday Express 10 September 1939. Retrieved from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/special_report/1999/08/99/world_war_ii/430178.stm