Friday, 25 July 2014

A New Vocabulary

'Mussel Wreck', provenience unknown 

“For us to live and die properly, things have to be named properly. Let us reclaim our words.”
-          John Berger

Ragwort; Sorrel; Seaforth Docks; Horsetail; Sea Holly; Gatekeeper butterfly; Seaforth and Litherland; Sea Plantain; Dune Helleborine; Kirkdale; Bootle New Strand; Ainsdale; Alt; Rest Harrow; Dove’s-foot Cranesbill; Dark Green Fritillary; Ravenmeols Dunes; Myxomatosis; Sea Kale; Yellow Rattle; Ionic Star.

These are just some of the many pronouns that have been rattling around inside my head while walking between Liverpool and Southport. New words; words I’d not heard in a long, long time; words I’d never heard before.

It started on the train line: the Merseyrail from Chester to Moorfields on the Wirral Line, then on the Northern Line up to Waterloo, Hightown, Freshfield... New places; unfamiliar names. The strangeness of holding a railway line’s worth of places in your head: Hooton, Capenhurst, Rockferry. Wondering what the ‘Rake’ suffix – Eastham Rake, Bromborough Rake – means. The comparing the places to those on the Metro line: Fellgate, Pelaw, Heworth... Green Lane, Birkenhead Central, Hamilton Square; Hebburn, Jarrow, Bede. Bede so named because the famous scholar was born on the banks of the Tyne at Jarrow, or ‘Jarra’, if you’re using its colloquial name. Fellgate, because it borders Gateshead, where trees were felled to make room for new Tyneside hovels. Hebburn, misspelled, because they meant to call it ‘Heaven’, and it’s up there, opposite giant cranes and vestigial docks, above the Tyne, which has went 180, most improved river, abundant in Salmon.

But these new words, these new places, these new flowers and birds, what do they mean? A litany of names: some understood, others strange and new and spoken in an unfamiliar tongue: Scouse, that pseudo Irish lilt, a million miles from Geordie, but also not so different at the same time. Northern, warm, specific. I have friends who’ve had and/or wanted elocution lessons: to lose their regional accents. I’ve known people to vilify the Geordie and Scouse accents – and others – but what does a droll, RP monotone say of where you’re from; of what you’ve seen, known and done; of how you identify with the world and give it your own personal inflection, the idiosyncrasies of what it means to belong to where you belong?

On Ainsdale Sands

A tangent. Where was I? Sefton, with its huge horizons, its East Anglian-esque endless skies. Walking. At Ainsdale we find shipwrecks, swallowed by the shifting sands. The Ionic Star, The Pegu, The Mussel Wreck (real name unknown, identified tokenistically by its skin of shellfish). We philosophise on the gas rig and the wind farms out in the Irish Sea. Power. Fuel. Nuisance. They spoil the view of the Gormley statues but they keep the lights on, the cookers cooking, so we tolerate them, and we debate as to how green they really are, how big their footprint is, their effect on birds and fish. We discuss jetsam: the plastic bags that turtles think are jellyfish, autopsies revealing Tesco carriers in the guts of the choked beasts. Poor buggers, but we like our supermarkets. Convenience. We worry that if the high tide line is anything to go by, the rest of the sea must be a mess: plastics floating on and on; oil tankers cleaned out in the sea, so long as they’re over 12 miles off the coast, because we like oil, or oil companies like clean tankers, and we like petrol and petrochemicals, and it’s a story, and this coast is a story, but not just one: hundreds, thousands, sometimes present when a storm moves the sands the right way, sometimes hidden, forgotten.

We find Common Crabs, Sea Potatoes, Dead Men’s Fingers and Mermaid’s Purses. We find an Ocean Quahog, thought to be one of the longest living organisms on the planet. Time glacial; time the click of fingers. “You’ll carve your names into the Paupack cliffs”, wrote The Menzingers, “to read them when you get old enough to know/that happiness is just a moment.” Boom. One of the best lyrics ever written, because it’s true.

We find ancient footprints in the mud slacks. Children who played here, when this was a lagoon and you could walk to North Wales, 6,000 years ago. Prints of deer hooves. Prints of Aurochs, huge, primeval cows, thought to grow up to 11 feet high, extinct now. Gone from memory and biology but their marks remain, at low tide, when the wind is right.

At Ainsdale we pass the hollowed-out husk of the old Toad Hall nightclub: memories of fumbling in the dry ice, first pints of lager. Southport beach, made famous for its raves; its west coast sunsets; Californication with Mad-chester pill heads. Waking up in the dunes to the sound of the sea lapping at the shore. The Toxteth riots, 81’. Ten years later, Meadow Well: a North Shields council estate, the same sort of things: heat, fury, heroin; injustice, racism, resentment. We think of a few summers back: Britain baking under a July heatwave; Sports Direct looted; cars ablaze. Another story, but the wrong one, the narrative out of kilter. Nothing to hang on to, so why the fuck not?

Jetsam glove

Another walk: Whiteleas, South Shields, led by Mike Collier – turfs reversed: me back on my home soil, him away from his native Crosby – and natural historian Keith Bowey, the old Sunderland to South Shields railway bright with Rosebay Willowherb. The kids coming up to us on their bikes, screaming: “Mista, mista, there’s a dead man!” Thirty-odd, Adidas-clad, slumped on the steps from the John Reid Road down to the old railway line. Evidently been on it all day. Comatose. Proper paralytic, like, but breathing, alive, just. “Aa just wanna sleep it off” The kids’ odd delight at finding him, and finding him not deed. The sadness of the situation: wrecked at 6pm on a Wednesday. Nowt to hang on. Jobs going, unemployment rate in the North East still the highest, Thatcher’s dream, ex-industry towns’ nightmare. Lone Rangers at Tyne Dock. Meth heads and cage fighters. Winskells and The Golden Lion turned into flats. Buy-to-let. Help to buy. Credit not care. An Owen Hatherley wank fest, but there’s not much to romanticise in dog shit and fly-tipping and the terminal decline of the once common-as-muck garden Sparrow. “You know you need to worry”, says Keith, “When your common species are failing.”

Back at Southport. The sound of vacuous pop music blowing on the wind from Pontins. Gypos camped up in the carpark of The Sands pub. Full cliché tick-list: Jack Russel, shoeless kids, van advertising paving services. Then the Kingfisher, darting above the pond. A rare sight, but not impossible. Later: Emperor Dragonflies and Sand Newts; a poetry reading in the dune auditorium; more Natterjacks.

Coming in to Southport, over the salt marsh where the boardwalk lies ragged and ruined in the grasses, washed away in the storms last year. The sea is objective in its destruction, its capacity to give life. They want man-made storm defences, they want their beach back, grassed over as it’s starting to become, because it’s a cycle and this coast is always shifting. Time isn’t static, time is the slow pour of honey. But we want, and we want now. 4G. Fibre broadband. Three clicks and it’s in your basket, two days it’s on your door mat. Never leave home again: fit us to drips; suckle at the tit of late capitalism and take a selfie. Make the ‘OK’ symbol and TweetWhatsappSnappchat it. Bounce it off the satellites spinning round us. Make the world look small, finite, precious. Make yourself look huge, infinite, endless. Hang on to it, it’s a story.

Ruined boardwalk, Southport

“On Margate Sands/I can connect/nothing with nothing.” Thanks, Elliot, you wordsmith, you harbinger of how we poets feel alone on the beach trying to draw it all together, trying to find something to shore up against. But I can connect these things, tangentially. We need to have our eyes washed before we can see. Polemic much? Maybe, and to jump rather cack-handedly from poetry to psychology, here, at length, is Abraham Maslow, on ‘belongingness’ [Yes, that is a word]:

“We still underplay the deep importance of the neighbourhood, of one’s territory, of one’s clan, of one’s own ‘kind’, one’s class, one’s gang, one’s familiar working colleagues [...] I believe that the tremendous and rapid increase in [...] personal growth groups and intentional communities may in part be motivated by this unsatisfied hunger for contact, for intimacy, for belongingness and by the need to overcome the widespread feelings of alienation, aloneness, strangeness, and loneliness, which have been worsened by our mobility, by the breakdown of traditional groupings, the scattering of families, the generation gap, the steady urbanisation and disappearance of village face-to-faceness, and the resulting shallowness of American [or Western] friendship.”

A lot to digest, I do realise. Let’s thicken the broth, though. Jeppe Graugaard, writing in a similar vein to W.G. Sebald, whose seminal work, The Rings of Saturn, I have recommended to several people while walking the Sefton Coast, talks about interconnectivity; trying, to hack up an old metaphor to see the wood and the trees. He writes:

“Viewing history as an entanglement of lived experience, we might see it as an arc, without discernible beginning or end, intersecting our horizon at both corners of our eyes. A great galaxy of lines of flight shooting across the night sky. Looking at our place within this arc we would see a coalescing of lines turning round on themselves, biting their own tale off to disappear in a firework of circles, large and small, marking the death of a friend, the ending of a language, a life form, a way of being.”

A bit zany, a bit new-age, a bit ‘what the fuck does that have to do with me?’ but I think he has a point: our lives are not just a scattering of random experiences. The bloke passed out in Shields after days (weeks, months, years?) on the piss is not just another potential case for the Samaritans and other charities, stretched beyond breaking point, he is a man unmoored in his locale, devoid of hope, devoid of community, turning to the demon drink. And I know that alcoholics and vagabonds and outcasts have existed at the best and worst times in human history; I’m not claiming that he is simply a product of the post-industrial North, a casualty of austerity. To say that instances of sadness and desperation like that are solely the logical outcome of the thin edge of the wedge that is the Coalition government’s agenda is tantamount to seeing the news today that Britain’s economy is now bigger than it was before the recession started in 2008 and immediately and simply thinking that can only be a Very Good Thing. This is not a binary argument; the world is more complex. The thickets are alive with butterflies and bugs, Swallows and Swifts, but there are cans of Tuborg in the Tufted Vetch, canisters in the Codlings and Cream.

So near, so far away

But look, heavy politics isn’t why this blog started, and written as it has had to be written over two days, at two separate points in time, two different mindsets, has – I fear – weakened its denouement, which I must surely be arriving at. Sadly there are few linear narratives. I can think of inumberable brand names, but only four types of grass, and only because I was told. False Oat, Cocksfoot, Timothy, Yorkshire Fog. Tansy grows wild, is an aromatic herb used traditionally to purge scurvy. A microwave, when thrown twenty feet from a bridge, spills wires and plastics the colour of bad graffiti. Meadowseet smells like vanilla. The Ringlet butterfly, previously only found as far North as Yorkshire, has been pushed up here because of a changing climate. Heavy politics.

Place. That’s the word I want. Out walking recently, talking to the people I’ve talked to, seeing the things I’ve seen, and having spent a lot of time mulling and mulling some more, I realise that my attachment to place-based narratives isn’t simply the aesthetic choice I’d previously assumed. And of course walking four days through Sefton was always going to be different to walking two hours through Whiteleas, and so I apologise if this blog post – which for the sake of convenience on social media I will no doubt market as a specifically Sefton blog – is not what you’d expected if you’d read my first. But, like I say, the world is more complex than that, and these walks have set thoughts burning in my head, and for the first time, truly, in about two years, I’ve been utterly gripped by just writing, and thinking, and writing some more.

So, to go back to Berger and that epigraph, I am reclaiming my words. By learning about all of these strange and exotic flowers, birds and butterflies, I am reclaiming the richness of the world; a world that can seem so flat, so monotone. And I am making myself smaller, more humble. I am fitting in to my place within the arc — or trying to.

Gas rig on horizon

Walking through Whiteleas, Keith, who grew up in the area and remembers the days – not so long ago, we’re talking 40-50 years, 2 generations ago, max – when people would go out and pick blackberries, or make nettle soup from foraging trips, or build dens at those liminal edgelands, between the bottom of the garden and the start of the railway line. “All of this is so close to people”, he tells me, “but so far away.” He’s right. Yes, there’s a sentimentality to this, and at worst there might be a tendency to romanticise the past in a way that makes it more sugar-coated than it actually was. I, for one, am not suggesting a return to a forgotten halcyon age. The world has changed. But there is something sad, surely, in those lost dens; those people (me!) who would probably smirk at the idea of eating wild food; and those who walk these paths day after day with their big Bulldogs, past fly-tipped fences, not knowing, or caring, about the old railway sleepers that used to sit beneath them; or how Rosebay Willowherb came to prominence along the lines, blown along by the carriages’ wind; or how common garden birds are disappearing because the flies that were previously attracted to the cabbages that we grew at the foot of our gardens are disappearing, because it’s easier and cheaper to fly food in, laden with pesticides, from the other side of the world. And already there’s a sentimentality; a Mary Berry-endorsed faux Dig For Victory; an image of 50s postcard Britain, emerging from War, battered but not beaten.

So there are no answers. Many of us can’t, won’t or shouldn’t go back to those times, and I think that’s right, because I think a desire to do so trivialises the scale of our present situation. We can look back for advice, yes, but to want to retreat into a golden age is, to me, cowardly. It’s all gotten too polemic, this: the end is in sight and it’s a whimper, not a bang. Sorry.

I’ll be writing – have already started, in fact – new poems about both the Sefton walks and, as ever, continuing to write about the North East, Shields in particular, which, me and my mates always joke, is reassuringly shit; the permanence of that is a comfort, of sorts. And that sounds flippant (because it is), but it also says a lot about what I’m hoping to articulate: which is that we should maybe just be happy with what we’ve got, with the things on our back doors, so alien, so beautiful, so unique when we really take the time to look but which we’re so often unaware of,  because they don’t sing and dance or jump out at us from screens. Take to the beaches and the back lanes, people, the old mineral lines and the dunes: tell us what’s there, rename them, re-claim them to say what’s exceptional about them and to you and where you’re from, and sing your fucking hearts out about it. It may be our best hope.*

Dunes forming around fishing nets and other jetsam.

*I think I wrote something very similar in my teenage book of pop-punk lyrics. Some things don’t change.

Monday, 14 July 2014

The Wild Coast of Sefton

“Frying eggs smell like hope”, I wrote on Twitter, from a greasy spoon in Formby at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning, waiting to join the rest of the group for day two of Walking Through the Sands of Time, a four-day series of artist-led walks along the Sefton Coast, from Crosby – famous for Antony Gormley’s beach-men, Another Place – to Southport, some twenty miles north.

After a hiccup-free first day of travelling, taking 90 minutes from the door of my flat in Chester to the meeting point at the car park by the Marine Lake in Crosby, I was perhaps being a bit complacent thinking I could repeat the same feat of good fortune on day two. I was: Merseyrail, like many transport networks, operate less frequent services on the day of rest. I managed to get away by 9, only 15 minutes later than the previous day, but my second mistake swiftly followed, when I found myself at Kirkdale, heading towards Ormskirk, not Hightown, the day’s designated meeting point.

I hastily left the train, half-scoffed banana in hand, making a 180° trundle over the footbridge. Next train not for 17 minutes. Hmm. I was keen not to be late – or much later than I already was – so I asked a bloke in the waiting room if he had a local taxi number, in the vague hope that I could stump up a fiver and not be terminally late. “Metro Cabs are the best, mate, but I can’t remember their number. Trade-unionised, though, so you get the best rates. Sorry, pal. You from the North East are ya?” Cab was going to knock me back fifteen quid and take as long as the back-tracked train journey, so I sat, waiting for the yellow and grey carriage to roll in and get the day started, staring across the platform, cursing myself for not knowing the name of the ubiquitous lilac bushes that had followed me up the line, from Bache to Birkenhead. Buddleja, I later (re)learned.

Cue the Greasy Spoon, and directions from the weekend girl, whose instructions to “just keep going through the forest” turned out to be about as accurate as anything I’ve ever received in that department. I slurped the last dregs of tea and made my way towards Lifeboat Road, and the delayed start to the day.


There are three cities in the UK which, to my mind, are nearly one and the same: Newcastle, Liverpool and Glasgow. While all have their differences and idiosyncrasies, there are three, key shared characteristics which I think make them startlingly similar: their proud river heritage; their love of football; and most importantly, the spirit of their people. In this case, I want to think about the river: the Mersey, gushing out into the Irish Sea, bordered for much of its length by the Wirral, and famed for its ships and dockyards. When you get the train out of Moorfields on the Northern Line, you pass a landscape of old tobacco factories and grain silos; cavernous old docks are watched over by wind turbines and recycling depots. And the train speeds through Bootle New Strand and Seaforth and Litherland; and you see great Victorian pubs with weeds in their gutters; and you see rows of tumbledown houses where shipyard workers used to call home; and you see more modern social housing, with row after row of trampolines and ladder-clad Transit vans parked outside. And if you’re from Newcastle (or Glasgow), but in this case Newcastle, you feel like you’ve just got on the Metro to the Coast at Monument and whizzed through Manors; and at Byker you’re looking down at the Ouseburn and its vestigial chimneys; and at Wallsend you’re looking at the same rows of Victorian terraces, with their identikit trampolines and barbecues; and at Tynemouth you go underground again, briefly, as the train chugs by the James Knott Flats, you think of similar 30s structures at Bank Hall and Blundellsands; and depending on where you are, you either look West or East and there’s sea: thick, grey and apparently motionless; and beyond it, a Northern sky, with its clouds the colour of concrete and its punctuation marks of wind farms, or marker buoys, or cargo ships.


Sefton. 1995. Brookside Close. Jimmy Corkhill; Tin’ead; double-denim. These are the things I associate with this coast — a TV exec’s 90s pastiche of life in Liverpool. Which is to say that really, I associate nothing with this part of the world. If you’d asked me a week ago what was between Liverpool and Blackpool on the North West coast I’d have shook my head. Not a Scooby. This is why we walk: why we butter our sandwiches at 8am on a Saturday; sausages and dippy eggs for breakfast. Why we Google map the area and try on for size the place names on our tongue: Formby, Ainsdale, Southport. But none of that prepares us. Until we stand on the wild coast, sand in our shoes, sunburn on our hamstrings, we don’t really know what’s here, nor what it means, could mean.


“I’m setting out, armed with curiosity rather than expertise, to pay a different kind of attention to what I see” writes Jean Sprackland in her preface to Strands, her ‘year of discovery’ on the Sefton Coast. “I hope to cut through the blur of familiarity,” she continues, “and explore this place as if for the first time. Some of my finds may be real surprises, and others more predictable; but I shall pick them up and hold them to the light, regardless.”

Oh, Jean, what am I doing here, at half past eleven on a Sunday morning, in a sleepy commuter belt, searching for a path I don’t really know, to meet people I don’t really know, to trundle over more sand dunes that I don’t really know?

These are the questions I ask myself on Lifeboat Lane, Formby, by St Luke’s Church, which I later learn was once nearly entirely covered in sand during a particularly fearsome storm. It’s a story you’d think more than just a bit hyperbolic, until, on Ravenmeols Dunes, you see the size of these beasts. Piles of sand, netted in Marram and Sea Holly, as high as my four-storey apartment block. This is when you begin to believe the submersion of St Luke’s, drowned in sand, proper biblical.

Formby lies below sea level. It relies on mountainous dunes and rigid Pines. Formby smells of wind-whipped sand and money: Gerrard and Rooney both have houses here; Shearer lived in the area during his tenure at Blackburn Rovers. Rivers, football, people. On a lamppost, I spot a warning sign for a rogue-trader, known to have conned locals into dodgy swimming pool installation. Your average cowboy brickie, he is not. Google Earth Formby and you’ll see a lot of blue rectangles in gardens. Trampoline country this is not.


In the 1955-56 season, Manchester City beat Birmingham City in the FA Cup Final. What’s remarkable about this game is not so much the score line, but the fact that Manchester City’s goalkeeper, Bert Trautmann, played the last fifteen minutes of the game with a broken neck. Football trivia aside, what you learn at Hightown, if you’re being guided by natural historian John Dempsey, that is, is that only metres back from the high tide line of the beach, half hidden beneath Pyramidal Orchids and Sea Buckthorn, lies the remains of Fort Crosby, where Trautmann was interned as a prisoner of war during World War Two. And two or three miles north, covered in a different kind of thicket – that which comes in a mist from a paint can to expresses social discontent – is a store house for Operation Starfish, when, during the War, dummy fires would be lit in the country to resemble the shape of nearby port cities, the thinking being that enemy bombs would drop early, ideally causing plumes of sand rather than plumes of munitions, and bodies.


And you stand and watch the tide roll out, which it does quickly, the markers growing by the inch every minute, erect like giant fly swatters or cocktail sticks; and on the wind you hear the crack and whizz of bullets from the rifle range at Hightown; and at Altmouth the lazy boats slumber into marshes as the breeze strums their riggings in cowbell clatter; and a few dog walkers litter the coast, along with the rubble of blitz-bombed Liverpool and cooking oil drums chucked overboard from some distant tanker in the Atlantic; and the skyline of Liverpool, its cathedrals and Radio Tower, are silhouetted to the South as the wind makes a marathon dash for the Mersey and you think of the opening scenes of Atwood’s dystopia, Oryx and Crake, all howling winds, jetsam and distant, empty skyscrapers; and the clouds lift, the sun opening them like blinds, to show you Hoylake, Flintshire, Snowdonia. And you stand, with your face to the sea, arms at your side like the Gormleys, asking yourself what it is you’re shoring up against, out here, on the wild coast of Sefton.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Walking Through the Sands of Time

Over two weekends in July – the 12th and 13th and 19th and 20th – I will be taking part in WalkingThrough the Sands of Time, a series of artist-led walks that will help people to explore the natural beauty of the Sefton coastline, following a path of just shy of 20 miles from Waterloo, Merseyside, to the RSPB centre in Marshside, Southport.

There are still places available to join the walks, where participants will be encouraged to contribute to the resulting artworks, offering their thoughts and feelings on the route and its landscapes and what they come across. As well as being welcome to take part in the physicality of the walks, there will be opportunities to be guided in photography, sound artistry and writing about place under the tutorship of myself and the other artists and guides: Mike and Tim Collier, Rob Strachan and the local expertise of natural historian, John Dempsey.

As I take part in these walks, I will update accordingly with any writings and pictures, eventually bringing into life some new work about the area. As I’ve never been to the area, I can’t really add anything else yet, so stay tuned for my first foray into Sefton and its sands. As a Sanddancer, I’m sure I’m going to be in my element!

To book places on the walks, or for more information, please phone The Atkinson on: 01704 533333.