I’ve been involved this year in Write Around The Toon, a student-led project which places PhD Creative Writing students at Newcastle University in cultural venues across Newcastle and Gateshead to undertake writing residencies. I first took part in the project in 2012, at the request of Viccy Adams, when I spent time at Bessie Surtees House on the Quayside. This time, as a full-fledged student, I asked the project organiser, Joanne Clement, if I could – along with Bernie McAloon – take up a residency at The North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers, to give it its full title.
The Mining Institute (TMI) is an amazing building on Westgate Road, slap bang in the middle of Newcastle, 2 minutes walk from Central Station. Adjacent to, and effectively twinned with (though, there were ructions, I was cryptically told) the Lit and Phil next door, TMI is an example of Victorian splendour and a monument and memorial to industry not just in the North-East of England, but across the world. As well as being a repository and source of information for mining in times past, it continues to be used for contemporary studies into mining and offshore drilling, as well as various other engineering projects, and it is – to put it bluntly – an absolute joy of a place to behold. It’s a huge, huge shame, then, that relatively few people know about it.
My visit, in early November, was my first, and I very much had what Jennifer Hillyard, TMI’s librarian, described as the “wow” look on my face as I first stepped foot into Neville Hall. The view that greets the first-time visitor really is one to make the mouth drop agog. After coming in from a typically balmy Geordie day (read: hoyin’ it doon), and being welcomed with a cuppa tea, I quickly settled into my day of enquiry and writing. Jennifer showed me around the building, introducing me to the tracts, a store cupboard containing items of varying miscellany, gifted or donated to the Institution over the years, and of course to the lecture theatre with its magnificent semi-circular arrangement of seats overlooking the lectern and a wall of past presidents beaming out at you from their sepia frames.
Back in the main hall, sat with a fresh brew at the huge, communal table, I began ploughing through the tracts, amazed at the wealth of information and medley of mining-related literature they contained. Wrap your head around these ‘Questions For Mining Students’, below, as an example of just one of the wonders to be found. Even the ‘Elementary Stage’ baffles me: “Q1.—How is the ore-bearing character of lodes affected by variations in the nature of rocks forming the wall? Give some examples.”
It didn’t take long before I began writing, fairly aimlessly at first, into my notebook. Having spent the morning talking with a variety of characters – the cleaner, who greeted me; Jennifer, the librarian; two volunteers who were painting the doors downstairs; Simon, the secretary; and a BSc student from Sunderland University, doing his dissertation on Northern coalfields, and being ably assisted by the cavernous knowledge of one of the Institute’s members – it quickly became apparent that TMI is a place bound together by its community and acts as a space, literally and figuratively, in which to think, ponder, research, study, perform (a local circus act were rehearsing for a performance while I was there) and, if you like, simply be.
Coming in from the wind-whipped street and settling down to work for the day in TMI, I felt incredibly fortunate. Not only to be in such a space, of solitude and learning, of indebtedness to an aspect of the past of this place I come from, but a space which simply values people sitting and getting on with their own silent acts of study, repair, research or collaboration.
Having been shown an assortment of Davy and Geordie Lamps, donated to the Institute, I soon began to think about the Miner’s Lamp which belonged to my Great Grandfather and which still has pride of place on the windowsill in my Grandparent’s house in South Shields. Much of my PhD research is concerned with representing the past in the present – a process of ‘palimpsest poetics’ which features in my thesis title – and it was only a matter of time before I had to embrace, as far as the North-East is concerned, one of the Elephants in the room of that past.
Seamus Heaney, in Finders Keepers, discussing the work of Geoffrey Hill in a chapter called ‘Englands of the Mind’, says that:
“Hill’s celebration of Mercia has a double-focus: one a child’s-eye view, close to the common earth, the hoard of history, and the other the historian’s and scholar’s eye, inquisitive of meaning, bringing time past to bear on time present and vice versa.”
The poem I ended up writing, ‘Forst’, hopes to achieve Heaney’s multiplicity of time, bearing – simultaneously, perhaps – onto the past and the present. I use two Geordie dialect words – ‘forst’ (first) and ‘marras’ (mates/equals) – in combination with a more standardised English language structure. Readers, or listeners, of my poem will note that the dialect, combined with non-dialect words and phrases, often in complex patterns of consonance, make it a tough thing to read or listen to. Without going into a detailed assessment of my use of stressed or unstressed syllables and rhyme schemes or their lack, I will just say that the inconsistency in dialect throughout the poem is something that I have been quizzed about. But this is how we talk (taa’k), isn’t it? I’m proud to still call myself (caall mesel) a Geordie, or a Sanddancer, but I realise that I (aa) don’t speak the way my Great Grandfather would have done, his life spent beneath the earth in South Tyneside, with his marras, hewers and putters. I’ve never been down a pit (unless you count the replica drift mine at Beamish), and here I am doing a PhD in Creative Writing, for God’s sake. Nicholas Moore, me Great Granfathaa, could never have dreamt of such an existence!
So, the poem is an ode, of sorts, to the past: an acknowledgement of where I’ve come from and how the working lives and their associated traditions (the New Year ritual of first footing didn’t, as far as I can ascertain, reach any further south than County Durham) of the people in this area that birthed me have come to bear on the reality of my present. Which is what I think The Mining Institute does: it serves as a time capsule, in a way, chronicling the documents, maps, diaries and logs of mines and miners, yes, but it also functions in the present day as a place for learning to continue to flourish. A living genealogy.
Joanne kindly made a recording of me reading ‘Forst’, which will be up on the Write Around The Toon website soon. Sadly, I was unable to be filmed in situ within the venue, though Bernie was, and you should take a deeks (have a look) at her film, which explains her own research into the effect of mining in parts of County Durham on the lives of its women. Additionally, why not make a visit to TMI yourself? You never know what you might find, beneath that great statue of the Institute’s founder, Nicholas Wood.