Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Still Life

My poem, 'My Granddad Buries King at Souter Lighthouse' features in the 2010 Cheshire Prize anthology, Still Life.

I was unable to make the launch event last week, which is a shame because the anthology contains some fabulous poets, many of whom I know very well. Still, my contributor's copy arrived yesterday, and a fine little book it is.

I remember entering the Cheshire Prize for Literature in 2007. Every year, the category of literature revolves between poetry, short stories and children's writing. Back in 2007, with the inflated ego that I expect can only arise from feeling enthused about having just started writing 'uber-contemporary poems': ones which don't rhyme; use swear words liberally; aren't about flowers and unrequited love; etcetera, etcetera, I entered the prize. Suffice to say, I didn't make the anthology.

Still, if my Granddad (coincidentally, the subject of the poem which did get in this year) was to be believed when I was typing the 2007 manuscript, it was the unrestrained use of the word 'fuck', and that alone which would invariably fail me. He was probably half right, and so it fills me with a sense of pride which I can only describe as being like a shot of Ouso: I know it's bad, but I have to swallow it anyway now it's here. That I got a poem into the anthology isn't solely because of its clean language, of course - I'd like to believe that since 2007, having seen a number of the writers who feature in the anthology year after year, read their poetry several times, and of course having completed my degree, my own writing has been charged; if the poetry community is a magnet, I feel like I've picked up some positive vibes (or verbs?) along the way just by being in the presence of 'established' writers. But now I'm mixing ouso and magnets into a metaphor which probably resembles something from my 2007 effort. Let's just say my writing has improved.

Mind, I shouldn't be the judge of that.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Surreal Shields

In Shields Sketches, his collaborative book with artist George McVay, James Kirkup notes the following: ‘[South Shields is] a town I have always considered the most surrealistic in Britain.’

On Tuesday evening I went to the second Annual James Kirkup Memorial Poetry Competition presentation ceremony and read poetry for the first time in my hometown. The prize, established two years ago to celebrate the life and work of the Shields-born writer, aims to champion new, forgotten and indeed established writers by publishing a pamphlet by the winner and a prize winners’ anthology for 20 odd runners up.

It was with some delight, then, that I read the email several weeks ago from Red Squirrel Press, the organisers of the event, informing me that I’d been selected as a runner up. In fact, when one of the judges, Kathleen Kenny, later informed the crowd that she’d been delivered a box of over 800 entries and told to get to work, I felt suitably humbled to’ve done so well.

Spirited performances by the three judges, Kathleen Kenny, Ian McMillan and Andrew McMillan, lent a well-judged amount of humour to this evening of tribute. The anthologised poets who’d made it across to the library for the event read their own poem and one by an absentee. The range of poems was fascinating ‒ proving Ian McMillan’s assertion that what these poems had in common was their ability to hold their own as fully-realised visions; to say to the audience, ‘I am worthy of winning this prize’.

For my part, my poem ‘Sunderland Stadium of Light, December 1999’ was selected for publication. A poem about urinary shyness is always going to be embarrassing to read in front of one’s family, particularly when much of the subject matter of said poem involves one’s father, but I gallantly strode into what a commentator later described as ‘something universal, that everyone can understand.’ I suppose if you can’t face reading these sorts of poems, you probably shouldn’t be writing them down in the first place.

The night was concluded in the self-proclaimed best pub within walking distance of the library: The Maltings. Much discussion was had with the Scots who’d travelled down, centring around Kirkup’s aforementioned claim, that South Shields is the type of place that feels, as one woman perfectly surmised, incomplete. We discussed everything from the price of the public toilets (free), to the ‘vanishing’ of old Marsden Village during the 60s. It’s always refreshing to hear people talk about your home town when it’s their first visit. New eyes see things differently; they do that elemental literary thing: they defamiliarise.

Interestingly, lots of the poems I heard were about place. From Kenny’s exploration of her dual lineage ‒ Newcastle and Ireland ‒ to McMillan’s remembrances of Barnsley as a lad, and of course the backing track of Kirkup himself, whose collection Marsden Bay was published by Red Squirrel, there was a presiding feeling that this type of poetry is important. I felt gratified, I suppose, reading a poem from my work-in-progress book which is all about Tyne and Wear, to be discussing critically the weirdness of this town that I inhabit, that will always inhabit me. I know I’m writing in a rich and deep literary tradition, and I’m aware that I have to bring that tradition on; put my own spin on it. Kirkup seemed to return to it in his latter years, let’s see if I can do him justice with this, my foray into Surreal Shields.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Archive for Change

On Saturday I went to the Archive for Change exhibitions in the West End of Newcastle. I have no connection to Scotswood, Benwell or Elswick, the suburbs that the pieces focused on, so perhaps in some ways I got more out of the events by knowing so little.
What struck me about getting the minibus 2 miles or so west out of Newcastle centre was how very, very different the area was. When one arrives into Newcastle City Centre from the south, particularly on the train, one is instantly struck by the Quayside. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration; its sheen, its captivating architecture, its very boldness, all, I think, make you feel that you’re in a thoroughly modern city; a city, if I might, which came to epitomise Blair’s vision, circa the early 2000s, of England in the new millennium (more about that in a later blog).

Travel 2, 3 or more miles either way down the Tyne, though, and things can polarise rather quickly. Just east of Gateshead lies the boundary division for the borough of South Tyneside. Riverside, the first place you will get to ‒ and remember, this is no more than 3 or 4 miles walk from cultural monuments like The Sage and The Baltic ‒ is Hebburn. It would be wrong of me to claim significant knowledge about Hebburn, too, but passing through it as I do quite often while at work, it is evident that the redevelopment of what I’ll call the centre of the Tyne, might as well never have happened here. In Hebburn, one could easily be convinced into thinking it was still the 1980s.

The same is also true, I’d say, of the areas I visited in the West End. The area’s problems, so I surmised from the videos, stem, at least in part, from a number of factors, but one of the major ones seems to be poorly-planned ‘regeneration’. Houses have been bulldozed, new ones built, only to meet the same fate mere decades later. Swathes of grass lie between ghost streets; literally roads where curbs stop at what once were people’s front doors.

Many of the locals’ stories were very touching: one family explained how the council had essentially put a compulsory purchasing order on their home, effectively overnight. When they asked their councillor what was going on, they refused to give clear details, stating blithely that their ‘plot of land’ was scheduled for development. This was, if I’m not mistaken, part of the council’s ‘Going for Growth’ campaign of the early 2000s. One is shocked, frankly, by this dehumanisation of land and space; this commoditisation of people’s homes, bundling them into figures, processing them through some mighty ‘growth’ calculator, pressing ‘go’, then realising, ten years down the line, that the numbers don’t match.

The response to all of this, at least in part, was the Archive for Change project. The amazing thing about these films was their sense of participation throughout. The filmmakers have clearly endeavoured to allow the local residents to take part in and shape the films as they saw fit. That the films were screened within the local community, my favourite location being the for-the-community-by-the-community Scotswood Diner, is testament to the overriding aim of the scheme: to re-democratise a sense of belonging. In many cases where people were displaced in Benwell and Scotswood, the council came across as a malignant, omnipotent and bluntly abstract force. Where the locals have strove to resist, the Diner again being a good example, shows that redevelopment cannot, indeed must not, be solely a top-down transition.

Before Saturday I knew, still do know very little, about this part of Newcastle, so it’s inevitably precarious writing about things like this; I fear that by trying to be objective, I may actually come off sounding like the councillors who so blatantly disregarded the human impact of their redevelopment plans. But I probably am always going to be objective; as I say, I have no emotional connection to the area. Thus, for me, the events were at once insightful, powerful and inspirational. Being in Scotswood at 11am on a Saturday morning, looking down to the Tyne, to Vickers, and above, Team Valley, with the Angel pinned on the distant hills of Gateshead, I felt like I sometimes do in Hebburn or Jarrow: that there are a lot of fantastic people here trying their best to get on with their lives, trying to construct meaning amidst what can, at their worst, be the self-serving, egotistical forces of developers and councillors.

My overall impression, then? These captivating, thought-provoking, smartly unsentimental films show that one of the best facets of any Art is its ability to galvanise people. Here in the West End, where some people were ashamed about telling others where they lived for stigmas of crime and violence, people are using the powerful medium of film and photography to reclaim their collective sense of identity, to put a meaningful narrative stamp on their lives. I sincerely hope that the council will look at this project and take heed so that future developments are based around a participatory system, driven by input from all sectors of the community.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011


Last Thursday I performed at the impeccable Take Ten at The Cumberland Arms. This was my first ‘gig’ since Shelter From the Storm (Trashed Organ) at The Bridge Hotel in January.
A literary friend (there’s a poncey term if ever I heard one) came over after my set and told me it’d been a while since she’d seen me read. It was true, I told her: I’d been having a bit of poetic down-time.

I read seven poems which formed, I hope, the freshest set I’ve done in Newcastle since I first started reading at home nearly a year ago. It’s good to have a break. When I first gigged back in the North East last May ‒ coincidentally at Ten by Ten, Jeff Price’s equally wonderful, preceding event ‒ I was bringing to the audience an unmarked poetic delivery. Make no mistake about it, in May 2010, my poems were fresher than Tyne water salmon.

‘Continual’ (I use the term loosely, as a poetic aspiration to the devotion of gut-busting folk-punk singer, Frank Turner) gigging from late July into December, though, left me feeling like…well, as if the audience had heard the one about the dog and my Granddad more times than was funny. They had. It was good doing ‘the circuit’: Pink Lane, Jibba Jabba, Ten by Ten, Poetry Jam, First We Take Manhattan, A Night of Poetry, Trashed Organ, my own Cellar Door, Free as a Bard, The Polite Room, many of these twice, but I started to empathise with the post-tour blues that can ail and even destroy a band after pedalling a new album.

So it was with a renewed sense of vigour that I returned to The Cumberland. I don’t wish to heavily critique my own set, but I am aware that I may be becoming a thematic poet; may be easily pigeonholed as the bloke who writes fairly oblique elegies about industrial demise, or if he’s not doing that, is looking wilfully into his family history. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that, but the gap in performances clearly made me see my poems from a new angle, from the spectator’s side of things. I’m going to muse on this more, but I think it can only point one way: write more, write about more.


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