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Memories of the Mine, Roger Woddis:

The call of England, home and beauty
Led him to labour underground;
Young as he was, he did his duty,
Unsung, unhonoured and uncrowned.

No bugle summoned him to glory,
Nor did he hear the cannon's roar;
The hero of a different story,
He fought another kind of war.

Today the memory still lingers
Of fortune lying on the mat,
The day that fate put forth her fingers
And drew his number from the hat.

And then, beyond the weeks of training,
The pit-cage dropping like a stone,
The ache, with nerve and muscle straining,
That penetrated to the bone.

Though forty years have left him older,
There's no forgetting even now
When danger hovered at his shoulder
And there was sweat upon his brow.

What could be the meaning of mat here? A decorative floor covering? A floor pad to protect an athlete? I can't imagine what it is here.

Why would "fortune lie on the mat"? Is that some idiomatic expression?

"A big amount of money lying on a decorative floor covering" looks nice but odd.

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    +1. I know you've been around this site way longer than I have and obviously know this, but your question is an excellent example of why context is so important. Without the actual poem, I would have guessed that "fortune lying on the mat" in a poem referred to a fortune from a fortune cookie on a paper placemat at a Chinese restaurant. Something like First date, almost done; / fortune lying on the mat. / Lucky number? 2.
    – 1006a
    Dec 10, 2016 at 7:55
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    Wow, am I really alone in reading it as the goddess Fortune defeated by Fate, as a defeated boxer or wrestler lies on the padded floor? Dec 11, 2016 at 0:06
  • No, you are not really alone. There's the guy who thinks Fate poked Fortune in the eye as she "put forth her fingers" when reaching for the hat that Fortune was wearing at a rakish tilt. The manuscript has a stricken line "Is there an optician in the house???"
    – TimR
    Dec 11, 2016 at 10:53

3 Answers 3

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The mat in this case is a doormat, and fortune refers to the boy's fate or luck, rather than 'a big amount of money'.

The subject of the poem was most likely a Bevin Boy - young British men conscripted to work in the coal mines of the UK during and after WWII, to compensate for the coal miners who had been conscripted into the armed forces. Around 48,000 young men, who would otherwise have been conscripted into the armed forces, were sent underground between 1943 and 1948.

Bevin Boys are often known as the "Forgotten Conscripts", which fits with the opening verse of the poem, describing a young man who served his country, even though he wasn't on the front lines. As does the selection process - to make the process random, one of Bevin's secretaries each week, from 14 December 1943, pulled a digit from a hat containing all ten digits, 0–9, and all men liable for call-up that week whose National Service registration number ended in that digit were directed to work in the mines, with the exception of any selected for highly skilled war work such as flying planes and in submarines, and men found physically unfit for mining. This selection process seems to be described quite literally in the next lines of the poem.

Today the memory still lingers

Of fortune lying on the mat,

The day that fate put forth her fingers

And drew his number from the hat.

"Fortune lying on the mat" most likely describes the day his conscription notice was mailed out to him, the envelope lying on the mat inside the front door.

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A doormat.

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In context, "fortune" is probably a figure of speech, referring to a letter containing a job offer (working in a mine). The letter itself is not "fortune", but it represents the man's good fortune to have received a job.

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    You're right about the doormat; however, the poem is about the so-called Bevin Boys, men who were conscripted into England's mines instead of being drafted into the military during WWII. Apparently, a secretary literally drew numbers from a hat each week to determine which draftees would be diverted to the mines (the lines right after the ones in the question). So the "fortune" on the mat was the letter from the government, which by a stroke of (bad?) luck sent the poem's subject to the mines instead of the front lines. More about the program here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bevin_Boys...
    – 1006a
    Dec 10, 2016 at 6:29
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    ...and also here (including the poem from the OP): healeyhero.co.uk/rescue/Bevin/bevin.htm. Feel free to include any of this in your answer.
    – 1006a
    Dec 10, 2016 at 6:29
  • @1006a Wow, that goes a lot deeper than I thought. mike's answer seems to cover that, but I'll leave this up as a "naïve" (i.e, without historical context) reading of the line.
    – user27353
    Dec 10, 2016 at 17:49
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Being conscripted to work in a coal mine (instead of being conscripted into the army, or instead of not being conscripted at all) might be seen as a stroke of bad fortune. Therefore, an alternative interpretation is that mat refers to a figurative boxing ring, in which Fate has defeated Fortune. The Wikipedia article doesn't say so, but the surface of a boxing ring is commonly referred to as a "mat".

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