charles rangeley-wilson – writing about fishing, travel, rivers, conservation

The Weird of Billy No-Toes


I am honoured more than I can say to print here a poem by Will Burns, inspired by a character described in my book Silt Road, an unlucky adzer called Billy. Adzing – or bottoming – was one of the most difficult and dangerous of the many operations that went into the making of the Windsor Chair. There were bodgers and bowyers and sawyers and framers, staining boys and caning girls. But few lost their digits as readily as the adzers, who day after day stopped over to cut out the receptive bottom-shaped hollow in the seat of the chair. They used a razor-sharp tool, an adze, which was like an axe turned through ninety degrees. Billy No-Toes was the name of one Wycombe bottomer and very few, it was said, had all ten after a few years in the job.

The Weird of Billy No-Toes
by Will Burns

If there were things
cut off or somehow cropped,
the growth not stunted

but foreshortened with violence,
it could be toes, it could be
table legs.

It could be beech limbs
broken off and turned.
Or it could be breath

itself, here deep in the wood,
that is short.
A warning or a fraction

of what a man might carve
away from himself. Remake –
a chair perhaps, a new name.

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