The Lye

lye

Careless Green

By Roz Goddard

 

sang the song of nails and chain

and the iron forge smashed on its

iron plate, and men – soft machines

themselves – stood hip-wise

to the street and called to passing

girls; and the cut snaked grey

under the bridge and secrets stayed

in the bricks of tunnels, stolen kisses

and fumbles out of the mid-day heat.

 

And mothers hung the wash over

raggedy gardens and there was the

strangeness of your neighbour’s house,

gobs of liver in enamel bowls,

peculiar sideboards and silent fathers by

firesides, dreaming; rose petals that

came to nothing, glass umbrellas

and collared doves who circled, came back,

then took off forever,

as only some of us did.

 

Editor’s Comments

This poem is taken from Roz Goddard’s superb pamphlet, Spill (Flarestack Poets). In it, the narrator takes us through a quintessentially Black Country setting with its forges, close-knit neighbours and canal bridges. What Goddard does brilliantly is mix the odd and the off-kilter with the everyday, domestic and familiar. The men are traditional; hard-workers, gardeners, silent, but also daydreaming sentimentalists – they’re soft machines themselves. This off-kilter or threshold space is where secrets get caught and stored, where formative romantic moments occur, where only few take off and never return. Goddard’s trump card is her idiosyncratic details, like a series of snapshots, each building part of a series of unknown and potentially unending tales. There is something unending about this poem – we’re looking forward and looking back. The images float, like her collared doves, between nostalgia and the future, between domestic and wild, between beauty and strangeness.

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Darlaston

Hemmed

By Harry Gallagher

 

darlaston

Hemmed in, she and Valparaiso
were never on speaking terms.
In a world smaller than her eyes, so
isolated in her yearning

for more than table setting
and a part time typing job. He
smiles once weekly when she lets him
cackhand his way round her body.

Children gone to the factory,
husband gone to the dogs.
Dreams gone the way of flesh, she
burned them with the fireside logs.

Amid these pottering blackstreets,
in clipclop tracks she found her trap.
Wrapped up tight in shipcanal sheets,
held her breath and never came back.

 

Editor’s Comments

Harry Gallagher is a poet from the North East of England. Much of his work is inspired by his experiences of industrial life and post-industrial upheaval. He’s spent a lot of time in the Black Country and this poem came about during a span working in Darlaston. In a recent chat with Harry, he told me: “I quite liked the town but there was just a feeling I had that if you were stuck amid heavy industry and you felt out of place, then it was a very long way to the sea. As if the canal was a clue to a whole other world that, back in the 1800s/early 1900s, would remain forever out of your reach”. Hemmed tells the story of heartbreak, isolation and disillusionment –  from a personal and domestic sphere as well as the wider social one. His images are simple and direct, like L S Lowry’s snapshots of everyday life. The message, however, is brutal, gut-wrenching and tough to swallow – you’ll find this trope in much of Gallagher’s work, he’s a poet who’ll gi’ yo’ a proper cogwinder wi’ ‘is lines!

You can find out more about Harry Gallagher’s poetry here.

Broad Street Canal Bridge, Wolverhampton

Untitled drawing (7)

Histrionic water

By Heather Wastie

 

In Wolverhampton,

fish take me by surprise.

 

Looking down from Broad Street Bridge,

then from the towpath edge

 

I need an explanation

for such unexpected clarity,

 

a long exposure of minnows,

lush reeds and sulky sediment.

 

It’s ironic, says the cut water,

I have been cleansed

 

by a vandal-induced stoppage.

Tearfully the water speaks:

 

It was you who saved me

from oil slick, effluent, blackened

 

polystyrene icebergs, mattress tangled

shopping trolleys, half inched bikes,

 

malicious metal spikes,

contents of living rooms tipped.

 

I was soap sud soup with beer bottle croutons,

peppered with cans and the odd chunk of meat.

 

You saved me from scum,

from smothering polythene,

 

wire running red, the callous garrottes

of those who would see me dead.

 

I fear the onset of duck weed.

You saved me to be stirred.

 

 

Editor’s Comments

For many, the Black Country is associated with plagues of smoke, industry and industrial decay, conurbations of urbanised space. In this song of ecology, Heather Wastie reminds us of the greener side to the region. In this, the canal thanks its guardians for their conservation efforts, saving it from the soap sud soup and beer bottle croutons. In this thanks, we’re also subject to the wrongs we’ve done and continue to do – the heritage of our ecological ignorance. The reader steps down from the hustle of the city and is surprised by the clarity and lush of the picturesque, sitting right in the heart of Wolverhampton. It’s no mistake that the main voice of the poem is nature itself, the canal itself – Wastie uses the Romantic traditions of giving sublime authority to the spirit of nature. The narrator of the poem, much like the reader and those who stumble over these patches of rural beauty, is overcome by the vision. As the final line concludes, you saved me to be stirred. 

Heather Wastie has strong links with the history of canals. In summer 2016 she began touring a double bill of theatre, poetry and song, Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways, with writer and actor Kate Saffin (Alarum Theatre). In 2017 the company was awarded Arts Council funding to support a 15 week 50 show tour between April and August. The show will continue touring in 2018. She has recently completed a poetry commission for The Ring project / Canal & River Trust in Worcestershire, telling the story of the restoration of the Droitwich Canals.

Find out more about Heather here

Wren’s Nest

Nan Sunday

by Lee Armstrong

wrenner

We never minded the
misnomer, to us the name was always
Sunday; Nan Sunday, licensed to make tea.
But it was Saturday afternoons we strained
uphill in one of Dad’s asthmatic bangers –
starts first time, just needs the right amount of
choke – a cargo of fish and chips and a
doorstop loaf from Singh’s.

Wheezing our way to the
top o’ the Wrenna, the streets receded
into quarry; a limestone bald-spot in a
comb-over of council-houses.
‘Wren’s Nest’ was reserved for foreigners;
the fossil hunters and nature walkers who
performed strange rituals on
rocky outcrops.

By the time we stopped,
She’d be stood in the
doorway; head bobbing above the
parapet of green privet. Moon-faced, cheeks
a watercolour pink. Guardian at the
last bastion of carbolic soap and the
beef dripping piecey; keeper
of the crocheted doily.

We watched the wrestling
while the grown-ups stitched tales of
people we barely knew; like characters
in some half-forgotten book. Every
sentence a Black Country sol-fa:
dow, bay, cor, yow, goo, day, gi.
Language bent out of shape; hammered by
tongues on time-old anvils.

Whistled by the kettle,
she’d disappear into the kitchen,
where a sink-full of whites soaked for
eternity, and a mangle dreamed of museums.
Then return with a fistful of china,
fingers like thick sausages, forearms
crying out for a tattoed anchor.
A teapot carrying a teapot.

We got the call on a Sunday night,
As if she had a point to prove.
A thousand shibboleths laid to rest.
Consigned to memory. Compressed in rock.
But I go there often these days, that sudden
yearning for grey paes, or trilobite
words that escape from the cairke-hole,
like crumbs of DNA.

 

This evocative poem is the work of Lee Armstrong, a Dudley based writer, currently studying at Newman University in English and Creative Writing. We at WtBC, are thrilled to be one of the first to present his work to the world.

Much like the famous fossils on the Wrenna, Armstrong gives us a glimpse of time stood still – of history both personal and social. He takes us all to Sunday Tea at Nan’s, a nostalgic and cosy realm of homecooked foods, of wenches who are as tough as they are loving. In doing this, Armstrong avoids Betjeman-esque tweeness and oversentimtality, instead allowing the images, and their contradictory companion images to do the ‘spaykin’. There is real joy in his playfulness of language too – the ‘asthmatic banger’ that just needs the ‘right amount of choke’, the ‘crotcheted doily’ that sits amongst ‘stitched tales’. What is most beautiful and exciting about this piece is the fusion made between the vernacular, heritage, landscape and memory. The space shared between ‘grey paes’, ‘cairke-hole’ ‘trilobites’ and ‘time-old anvils’ acts as a poetic discussion of an almost undefinable, invisible Black Countryness – one we natives know very well, but struggle to set down. Armstrong sets it down – it’s part-mythic, part-historical, part-freeflowing, part-fossilised. Keep your eyes peeled for more from this incredible talent, his future in literature looks very bright.

The Cut

A tour through the towpaths with Liz Berry

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Come wi’ me, bab, wum to Tipton-on-Cut, starts Liz Berry’s poem – a call, from a knowing voice, to investigate one of the most significant sites of the region. The cut, it’s everywhere and nowhere – perfect territory for Berry, who leads us, through her poems, into these haunting sites and to experiences of transformation or epiphany – often preceded by passing through something mucky, animalistic, feral.

In the main, the cut is probably seen as a place of leisure and pleasure – dog walking, fishing, boat trips, family bike rides, but it shares this sense of wholesome enjoyment and domesticity with its sense of history and heritage.  We get this in Berry’s “Tipton-on-Cut” where Telford’s fabled waterways with their mix of old pubs, the church, parklands also hold the crumbling altar of BDF Steelworks. It’s evident in “Goodnight Irene”; over the canal bridge, the Baptist Chapel / still brave on the cut […] past the marlpit, the warehouses, / the Indian shop, the streets left to squatters, their pebble-dashed terraces emptied by time.  

Another clash is between the wild, untamed, natural with the constructed, manufactured, manmade. The canal networks were forged with drills, digging, labour and engineering, but what was also created was habitat, eco-systems and, curiously, those odd places where the wild and the natural tangle with the industrial. When we think of the landmarks of the canals we think of grasses, water birds, wild flowers, but also old glassworks, ruined steelworks, industrial estates, locks and gatehouses. We think of housing estates and parks, but also woodlands, and also railway tracks and motorway junctions. Canals are places of graffiti and litter and places of conservation and natural beauty. Liz Berry’s poetry works with these clashes too. In her poem, “Gosty Hill” the space is shared between the natural – Iris, Rose of Sharon and Vixen, Mole, Adder – and the manufactured – Ocker Hill, Engine Arm, Withymoor Pit. Berry fuses the organic and manmade too, in “Black Delph Bride” the cut becomes a being: Black Delph, Black Delph, my girl she floats,  / her bridgesmaids: eels and voles and stoats.

So, we get the clash and often fusion of green space and grey space, rural and urban, manmade and natural, tame and wild, safe and unsafe, passive and active. In Berry’s hands, the cut is a strange thing, constantly shedding its skin, constantly building, demolishing and rebuilding.  She writes of the unnamable, slippery, in-between, spaces for transformation. Take the old tribal cliche of a young child being sent out from the village into the wild to prove their self, to earn their place, to become adult. They leave the tribe and complete a task, returning as adult. But, in that moment they are between states, no longer child, not quite adult. The subject needs that odd, off-kilter time-space to transcend their role. This is the very roots of narrative – transformation, transition, revolution. They are places away from the safe, structured world and its systems and rules. They hold the possibility of subversive, transgressive, rebellious activity.

This is why we see so much transformation and rites of passage in Berry’s poems. It’s no accident that “Gosty Hill”, with its mix of green and grey, is the site where I baptised mah wench as well as where I’ll be waitin at Delph Run with brick in me ond. The same can be said of “Tipton-on-Cut” where, after being led passed the drinkers, the workers, the sites and sounds we end in bacchanalian reverie as we lie on ower baltied bellies on the towpath / to sup the moon, like the head of a pint, / from ower cut.

The cut can be seen, especially in Berry’s visions, as arenas of shape-shifting, coming into being, of transformation and the carnivalesque.

Dudley

20170830_131619

Two Extracts from two Anthony Cartwright Novels

 

We thought we’d do something a little different with this blog post and give our readers the opening sections of Cartwright’s first novel and his most recent novella. What we get here is literary time travel – one author, 13 years apart.

 

Extract from Afterglow, Tindal Street Press, 2004

The bag of flesh and blood was slippery in his gloved hands. Luke took the long plastic sack and held it aloft with his left hand and plunged the knife into it with his right. Half a pig – half frozen, ice crystals glistening in its pink marrow – tumbled onto the bench and splattered his overalls with blood and preservative. He took the side of meat at either end and turned it again and lifted it to the machine. It was like wrestling a giant bar of soap. He got the thing into position and plunged the blades down into the meat. There was a grinding sound and the familiar low thud of the cut flesh dropping out onto the conveyor belt. Down the line a dozen pairs of hands picked up the pork chops and arranged them in plastic cartons before placing them back on the belt. After he’d checked everything was clear of the machine he released the handles and stepped back to begin again.

 

Extract from The Cut, Peirene Now! No.2 Peirene Press 2017

 

The young woman runs burning along the side of the marketplace down, the High Street, away from the fountain. Away from the Fountain and the cool, litter-strewn water. She is tall, long-legged. Her hair is ablaze and flames spit from the unravelling scarf towards the motley crowd of people who give chase. Someone is screaming, but it is not the woman. She breathes fire. There is the slap of cheap sandals on the pavement behind her.

‘Stop her,’ someone shouts. ‘Just fucking stop her’.

A man runs at the edge of the crowd, a camera on his shoulder, filming, does not stop the running woman. The procession ripples across shop windows and puddles from the earlier rain.

Then she falls, arms and legs and flames, and the men and women and kids crowd around her, with their heads bowed, their arms across their faces against the smell of burning hair, burning flesh. The scarf melts into the young woman’s face. The people roll her on the ground, with some sense of what to do. What to do if a woman comes running through the market on a Friday afternoon in the middle of England with her head on fire.

 

Editor’s Comments

Anthony Cartwright uses the rich and deep-rooted social structures and culture of working class Dudley to explore wider political issues and social concerns. His fictional adaptations of Dudley and its inhabitants become the microcosm for questions of class, race, alienation. He explores these issues by depicting cultures and characters that are in transition, in flux, that are borderless. The action in his novels trace lives and cultures that need to re-establish their sense of place, class and history. In this exploration, Cartwright delivers storyworlds full of uncanny and abject experiences, specifically in the way he treats descriptions of Dudley and in the challenges facing its inhabitants. Place in his work is much more than a backdrop to the action, it is almost a being itself that imbues those that inhabit it with its energies. Characters find themselves in a post-industrial landscape, where the hallmarks of the past are both a pleasant reminder and a constant source of bitterness at its loss – an inseparable bond with the characters, a bond that is full of longing and full of threat, something that is repulsive and attractive in equal measure, and most of all, something that is constant but cannot be grasped at. What Cartwright conveys in his work is the region in its post-industrial state. A state where communities struggle with the breakdown of their way of life. This is what the reader faces – the unpicking of the fabric of safe, communal life and from that, the inevitable release of the repressed.

Peartree Lane Industrial Estate

industrial

Carl the Cockroach. 

By Mike Aston. 

 

“…Yeah, Curl, he’s officially a retard. We’ve got paperwork to prove it and everything.” Carl lights his cigarette, and tilts the packet toward me, enquiring with raised eyebrows. 

“Heath?” I take one, and light it. “He’s two. How the fuck can they tell that early?” We lean against the wall next to the works entrance, looking out at the collection of affordable cars tucked neatly into little marked out boxes on the carpark. 

“Three. And he can’t even talk yet.” 

“He might just be a bit slow. Doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with him.” 

“Nah, mate, It’s not just the talking. I got a bollocking from the bird that runs the nursery…” 

“The one with…?” 

“… the great tits, yeah. He’s been biting the other kids. The parents have been… Has that drain cover been nicked as well?” Most of the drain covers on the trading estate had been taken, presumably to be melted down for scrap by Gypsies. Dangerous Brian had blown his front tyre when he’d driven over an exposed drain a couple of years ago, and had declared war on “The robbing Pikey bastards”. He had spent the following three nights sleeping in his car, with a cricket bat on the passenger seat, just daring a gypsy to pull up on his carpark, looking to thieve any more of his drain covers. In fairness, Dangerous had actually calmed down a lot since they took out a chunk of his brain, along with the tumour that had taken residence there. Dangerous drifted through the remaining six months of his working life in a permanent state of inebriation; alternating between recycling his favourite fishing anecdotes, and reminiscing on his Sunday league days.  

“Pikeys, man. They’ll lift anything.” I flick the freshly blackened match across the carpark, it drops straight into the exposed drain. “Get in! Maybe he just doesn’t like other kids.” 

“He don’t know they’re there, until they’ve got a toy he wants.” Carl runs a hand over the receding grey stubble barely covering his head. “Oh yeah, remember I told you that he’d fucked the T.V?” 

“Driving toy tractors across the screen. You might have mentioned it once or twice.” 

“We had to buy a new one, so I say to Shell, I’m putting this cunt on the wall where he can’t reach it.” 

“Okay.” 

“So we get this telly; 55 inch, it’s beautiful, Curl. I put it up, right, and we’re sitting there and everything’s fucking sweet, watching the Villa, like, then Bang! This fucking tractor comes flying across, right into the screen.”  

“Ouch. Can’t you just take the tractors away?” 

“He’d just find something else to wang about. It’s bad, kid. I don’t know if I can deal with it. I’m telling you, if he can’t function in society by the time he’s eighteen, I’m taking him over the cut and drowning him.” He flicks his own cigarette. A wind kicks up while it’s in mid-flight, sending the butt on a curved path, and bringing it to rest on the spot where Bernie had run over the cleaning lady two years before. 

I loved Bernie Mansell, I had never worked with anyone like him. He was a highly skilled machinist, but at the same time he was terrible at his job because he always had better things to do in his head. Bernie’s exploits were absolutely legendary, like the time he made a drunken pass at his own mother-in-law… on his wedding day; or the time he turned up to a very formal dinner for the company M.D’s retirement, dressed as Spongebob Squarepants. No? How about the time he drilled through his own penis while putting up shelves? Some of the lads called him “Mongol”, which I didn’t really like; not from any particular sense of moral superiority, but because Bernie’s daydreaming was a consequence of wanting more from his life than drilling holes in bolts for a living. He had refused to become just another drone. Just like I did… Do… Just like I do. Bernie had the last laugh though, he met a very wealthy woman from California on Second Life, and had since married her and moved to Santa Barbara, where he now spends his days pottering around with various, insane Bernie-style projects; my favourite being his proposed Pukka Pie shop on the Las Vegas strip. Because a hot Balti pie is just what you want when the mercury is tickling ninety. 

“A bit harsh, maybe?” I avoid eye contact, blowing smoke straight up into the air. Spend enough time with Carl, and you’ll learn that he lacks even the most basic social filters. It pops into his brain, it comes out of his mouth. “I’m telling you, he’s just a bit slow. How many autistic kids do you remember going to school with, can you even think of one?” 

“Nah, Curl, but they didn’t know…” 

“Bullshit. So suddenly they’re all over the fucking place? We’ve got six kids between us on this shift…” Carl has his two lads, my two, and Scotch eggs has two boys. Both of them are autistic; but then that’s typical Scotch, always has to go one better, the ginger prick. “…Are you telling me that half of the population is autistic? It’s bollocks, kid.” 

“Easy to say when you don’t have to spend the rest of your life looking after the retard.” Carl takes another cigarette from the packet. I look at my own which is only half smoked. “Oh, shit! Did I tell you what he did the other day?” Carl’s face brightens. It always did when he had a story to tell, and Carl the Cockroach told some of the best. I smile anticipating the inevitable. “Ewan wouldn’t let him have the racing wheel to play Mario-Cart, right, so Heathy went up into Ewan’s room, and pissed all over his Skylanders.” 

“Oh my God!” I try to keep a straight face, but I’m soon laughing and Carl joins me with great enthusiasm. “That’s amazing.” 

“The missus didn’t think so. We didn’t find out until we were putting them to bed so they’d been soaking in piss for quite a bit. She scrubbed them, but they still stink. Heathy don’t give a fuck, mate.” I smile every time Carl mentions his wife. He once told me she’d had a dirty dream about me, so naturally I mention it every chance I get. I open my mouth to do so… 

“What are you doing out here?” Roland the Rat-boy’s head appears through the open work’s entrance. “Get back inside, your shift doesn’t end for another ten minutes.” Rat-boy had been allocated the name within five minutes of his first day. His front teeth were far too long, and rested on his lower lip, resulting in a permanent double indentation. He hid away his shifty little eyes; eyes that never missed anything he could use against you, behind the thick lenses of his blue framed glasses, which hooked over the very large ears that jutted out from either side of his very round, but flat-topped head. Aesthetically he was the perfect hybrid of human and shaved rat. Yes, he’d been given the name within minutes of entering the shop floor, but what we didn’t know was that he would spend the following ten years earning it. When you make your living in a pokey little shit-hole of a factory in Dudley, you do whatever you can to breach that boredom barrier and get yourself through the day. This might be by staging tests of masculinity with the other lads; like who can push the forklift truck the furthest with the break on; or finding out who can build the most effective projectile-firing-weapon using only items that are around their machine; or the limb numbing dead-arm contests, where you take it in turns to punch each other in the arm until one of you gives in and has to buy lunch for the rest of the week. This is how we made our working lives bearable, but these were also the things those verminous little eyes would see. And everything those eyes saw, Dangerous Brian would know about.  

“And yours doesn’t start for another ten minutes, so wind your neck in, Ratty.” My cigarette is reunited with the match in the drain. Two for two. I’ve been doing this for too long. Carl’s leaves his fingers, and flies in Ratty’s general direction. It strikes the doorway just above his head, raining hot ash onto him. 

“Yeah, fuck off, Rat-boy. You ain’t my supervisor, you big eared prick.” Carl the Cockroach presents Roland the Rat-boy with a couple of fingers. Ratty’s face burns red, then disappears back into the factory. “Fucking nob-jockey. Day I leave here, I’m gonna put his teeth right for him… Shit, that the time? I’ve gotta punch out, the missus is picking me up this morning.” 

“Give her my love.” I laugh. 

“Thin fucking ice, Curly Watts.” Carl runs through the factory entrance, and I follow at a more leisurely pace.  

I enter the locker-room, and am immediately slammed by the thick atmosphere of stale, sweaty ball-sack that has bookmarked the beginning and end of every one of my working days for the last fourteen years. Kebabs is in there, beautifully named because he does nothing but pretend to look busy, walking round-and-around the factory very slowly all day, like a pillar of kebab meat rotating in the chippy. He’s peeling the lycra cycling suit from his hairy mid-fifties body. The suit is soaked through with sweat.  

“Morning, Curl. Have a good one last night?” Kebabs places the offending item of clothing on the radiator to dry.  

“Same old shit, mate.” I hover by the door to the shop floor, to enable a quick getaway once we’ve concluded our morning routine. “Going to the game this weekend?” I quickly realise that I’ve just commenced what could be a protracted conversation. I wince slightly, and privately berate myself as Kebabs takes me meticulously through his plans for Saturday. I feel the hairs in my nose begin to burn, as the cycling suit cooks nicely on the radiator. Kebabs, wearing only a pair of black socks, and grey briefs with dark pools forming in the undercarriage, stands with his foot perched on one of the benches in the centre of the room. His briefs had long since twisted into a thong during his ride to work, and he doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to correct them. 

“Thank fuck that one’s over.” Carl pushes his card into the slot in the top of the machine. It beeps. 

“I’ve got to get off nights, man.” I do the same. It beeps again. 

“You’d miss the money too much, kid.” 

“You mean my missus would. Fancy a pint this afternoon?” We exit the building and step out onto the carpark. 

“Can do. I’ll meet you in The Cross at about half-two.” Carl the Cockroach looks across the carpark, and sees his wife, Michelle, and the boys. One of the rear doors opens, and Heath drops out. He charges across the carpark to his dad. “Heeyyy, Little Heathy!”   Carl darts forward the last few yards and scoops him up, making jokey choking sounds as Heath clings to his daddy’s neck for all he’s worth. I look over to Michelle. She waves at me, so I reciprocate with a wink, and grab my crotch. Her face goes red. She tries to hide in her phone. She is unsuccessful. “Oi! You wanna fuck off, mate.” Carl calls over his shoulder, laughing as he joins the rest of his family in his own affordable car. 

 

Editor’s Comments

In this part horrid – part hilarious short story Michael Aston provides an intimate portrayal of life in a factory. This results in a story that is full of laughter and joy, and full of exhaustion and bitterness. What springs forth in this piece is an often over-looked, working-class, masculine realm – a culture and community of bravado, banter and unfiltered expression, but within that is a brotherhood that is able to laugh at itself, regardless of the weight of the topic at hand. What Aston does brilliantly in this piece is express the kind of socio-political rhetorical experiment that male working-class cultures take part in – where the seemingly offensive or politically incorrect fuses with humour and good intentions, allowing them to tackle issues of race, disability and gender politics in a way, and with a lens, that is rarely given the intellectual scope it deserves.  Yes, they may be silly. Yes, they may say things we don’t want to hear. They also raise questions about life that many other commentators don’t think to ask.