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.

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