Work - 'The innocence of radium' by Lavinia Greenlaw and 'Nine to five' by Roger McGough

Julie Blake


This lesson (or couple of lessons) is designed to explore two quite different poems on the theme of the world of work. Roger McGough’s poem appears quite simple and jaunty, but is more amenable to darker interpretations than the tinkly piano accompaniment on the recording might initially suggest. The activity suggested provides a creative approach to exploring its split structure and what the re-sequenced phrases might signify. Lavinia Greenlaw’s poem perhaps makes more demands, but these are richly rewarded by memorable images such as the female factory worker painting her teeth and nails with (poisonous) luminous paint for a laugh, and the chemist’s body pumped full of radium taking its own x-ray. Both invite serious consideration of work.


For students to: Encounter different experiences and attitudes towards the world of work as expressed in some contemporary poems Experience poetry aurally in the high-octane form of the two poets’ recordings Explore interpretations of the poems’ meaning and form through critical, creative and collaborative activity with others

Resources needed

Poetry Archive recordings of Lavinia Greenlaw reading 'The Innocence of Radium', and Roger McGough reading 'Nine to Five' Copies of the two poems for each student, as well as copies of just the first four stanzas of McGough’s poem A data projector and internet connected computer

Teaching sequence of activities


‘Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need’ (Voltaire, Candide). Invite students to consider the extent to which this is true. Some questions for discussion might include: Does work save us from boredom? If not, why not? Does it save us from vice? Does it save us from need? Does it save us from anything else? Saving us from our worst selves is one thing, but does work have any wholly positive benefits? Does work damage us in any way? If students are struggling to relate to the world of work, try substituting the word ‘school’. You could close by inviting students to write their own pithy quotation on what work does to us, and sharing some of these out loud.


The Innocence of Radium Start with a pre-reading group activity to get students exploring some of the poem’s key words. Each group is given one of the clusters of ten words below: Cluster 1 - adjectives: alone, candlelit, dangerous, dark, delicate, green, kind, luminous, perfect, proud Cluster 2 - nouns: blood, chemist, doctors, faith, ghost, innocence, job, moonlight, radium, skeleton Cluster 3 - nouns: brush, clockface, factory, fingertips, infidelity, jaw, joke, paint, secret, x-ray Cluster 4 - verbs: blamed, broke, checked, dared, developed, diagnosing, drained, exposed, fixed, jumped Cluster 5 - verbs: laughed, measured, painted, pronounced, removed, snapped, stolen, stroked, struggled, watched Encourage students to think about what these words suggest about mood, situation, speaker and story. Invite predictions about the poem under these headings. Then listen to the recording a couple of times with copies of the poem too, inviting immediate responses and closer exploration of the poem. You could discuss any surprises, or gaps between predictions and poem. Nine to Five Do not give out the poem to start with, but build up to it. Start with the title ‘nine to five’ and give students a minute to jot individual written responses, then share with a partner. Then read the first line only and invite pairs to jot responses, before joining up with another pair to share responses. At this point, read and show the first part of the poem, just the first four stanzas. Model annotating the first stanza to explore the advantages the speaker lists of the nine to five job and what these tell us about the speaker, e.g. ‘biscuits in the right hand drawer’ suggests a desire for order, knowing where everything is, and also a desire for ordinariness in the plainness of ‘biscuits’. Invite students to annotate as many of the rest of the reasons as they can, starting with the ones they find most interesting/curious/funny/weird. In a whole class plenary, share some responses and discuss what impression they have formed of the speaker and his/her fantasy. Next invite students to cut the first four stanzas up into words and phrases (you could prepare this for them), and mix them around to create a poem that starts with the same line, but explores the idea of the nine to five differently. Share readings of student poems and then listen to the recording of McGough reading his poem (complete with tinkly piano accompaniment). How do their poems compare with his?


Listen again to the recordings of the two poems. What do these poems invite us to think or feel about the world of work, and to what extent do students agree?

Extension Activities

Build out from the McGough poem to creative writing in any form that starts with the phrase ‘what I wouldn’t give for…’ and focusing on students’ hopes, dreams and fantasies for the future. Or take a contemporary news story about industrial injury or factory conditions and transform into poems.

Further Reading

Build outwards from the Greenlaw poem to David Copperfield’s stint in the blacking factory in Dickens’ novel. Go further and invite students to compile an anthology of literature about the world of work.

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