Week 510: Never Any Good With Money, by Martin Simpson

This week’s piece was written by the folk artist Martin Simpson, and appears on his album ‘Prodigal Son’. As poetry it may be a bit rough and ready (and of course it’s better with the music), yet I find it very moving in the way it speaks for a whole generation of fragile, unfulfilled, war-torn twentieth-century lives, and also portrays a father-son relationship that will resonate with many. Certainly I see in his portrayal much of my own kindly but improvident father, a man who was deeply unsettled by any surplus funds that came his way and disposed of them as quickly as possible in slot machines or by improbable bets with the local bookmaker. Money, in the phrase of the time, ‘burned a hole in his pocket’, and this left my much thriftier mother to keep the family finances just about afloat, which she did by squirrelling away small sums from her meagre weekly housekeeping allowance into a complex system of secret purses hidden around the house. Thus, when a big bill like the annual rates came around (this being nominally my father’s responsibility) and he professed himself unable to pay it, she would produce her ‘rates purse’ with a triumphant flourish and the words ‘You’d better have this then!’. At which he would say, ‘Well, girl, what a good little manager you are!’, and she would glow with pride. Yes, I know – modern women everywhere will be tearing their hair out, but what can I say: it was a different world back then; he loved her and he played her and when he died of cancer at seventy after a lifetime’s heavy smoking she mourned him every day for twenty-three years.

‘Not hard enough for the hod’: not tough enough for physical labour, such as on a building site.
‘Norton’: a long-established make of motorcycle, much esteemed by some even if, according to the song, ‘they don’t have a soul like a Vincent 52’.
‘Split cane rod’: a kind of fly-fishing rod made of bamboo; I’m no angler but I believe these would now be regarded as a bit vintage, having been replaced by more modern materials such as carbon fibre.
‘Pirate King’: a song from the Gilbert and Sullivan opera ‘The Pirates of Penzance’.
’Fulmars’:  a genus of seabirds, breeding on cliffs and superficially resembling gulls.
’Eyebright’ a wildflower of the Euphrasia genus, formerly used to treat eye infections.
’Traveller’s Joy’: another name for the woody hedgerow climber wild clematis.

Never Any Good With Money

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office
Not hard enough for the hod.
You’d rather be riding your Norton
Or going fishing with your split cane rod.
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

When your grammar school days were over
It was nineteen-seventeen
And you did the right and proper thing
You were just eighteen.
You were never mentioned in dispatches
You never mentioned what you did or saw,
You were just another keen young man
In the mud and stink of war.

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office
Not hard enough for the hod.
You’d rather be singing the ‘Pirate King’
Or fishing with your split cane rod.
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

You came home from the Great War
With the pips of a Captain’s rank,
A German officer’s Luger
And no money in the bank.
Your family sent you down the coal mine
To learn to be Captain there
But you didn’t stand it very long
You needed the light and the air.

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office
Not hard enough for the hod.
You’d rather be watching the fulmars fly
Or fishing with your split cane rod.
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

When the second war came along
You knew what should be done
You would reenlist to teach young men
The booby trap and the gun
And they sent you home to Yorkshire
With a crew and a Lewis gun
So you could save your seaside town
From the bombers of the Hun.

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office
Not hard enough for the hod.
You’d rather be finding the nightjar’s nest
Or fishing with your split cane rod.
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

And when my mother came to your door
With a baby in her arms,
Her big hurt boy, just nine years old,
Trying to keep her from harm,
If you had been a practical man
You would have been forewarned,
You would have seen that it never could work
And I would have never been born.

There’s no proper work in your seaside town
So you come here looking for a job,
You were storeman at the power station
Just before I came along.
Nobody talked about how you quit
But I know that’s what you did.
My mother said you were a selfish man
And I was your selfish kid.

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office
Not hard enough for the hod.
And your Norton it was soon gone
Along with your split cane rod
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

You showed me Eyebright in the hedgerow,
Speedwell and Traveller’s Joy,
You showed me how to use my eyes
When I was just a boy
And you taught me how to love a song
And all you knew of nature’s ways,
The greatest gifts I have ever known
And I use them every day.

You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job,
Not steady enough for the office maybe
Not hard enough for the hod.
You’d rather be riding your Norton
Or going fishing with your split cane rod
You were never any good with money
You couldn’t even hold a job.

Martin Simpson