Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Writing Round The Mining Institute

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.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Ghosts of the Restless Shore

Ghosts of the Restless Shore now has a website and a beautiful, bespoke book cataloguing all of the artists' work.

(c)Tim Collier

For those who don't know, Ghosts of the Restless Shore, previously operating under the working title, Walking Through the Sands of Time, was a multidisciplinary art project I worked on, in 2014/15, alongside Mike and Tim Collier, Rob Strachan, Sam Wiehl, Geraldine Reid, John Dempsey and Stephen Whitle. Ghosts, whose genesis was in four days of public walks last summer along the Sefton Coast, from north Liverpool to Southport, is the umbrella project, if you like, for my own, recent pamphlet, The Coast Will Wait Behind You.

As the website details, and as the recent exhibition at The Atkinson Gallery in Southport showed, Ghosts was, as its full title suggests, a collaborative interrogation into the 'space, place and memory' of this particular stretch of North-West coast. It was a hugely rich and rewarding endeavour to be a part of, not least because I produced what I feel is some of my strongest work to-date, but also because it was a brilliant opportunity to be immersed in one of England's most remarkable coastlines: a place brimming with natural and social history; with shifting sands and hidden curiosities in abundance.

Do, if you feel inclined, seek out a copy of the book and my pamphlet: I'm sure it will inspire you, too, to walk the restless shore and investigate its charms and mysteries.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Botanic and brews: the Poets of Belfast

I’d like to talk a little bit about my PhD research, and quite a lot about Belfast, which I visited for the first time this week. I hope not to sound too solipsistic.

There is a strong and inclusive poetry community in this city, which stretches back a long time, through poets such as Louis MacNeice, Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon, to newer names, such as Sinéad Morrissey and Leontia Flynn, and to those newer-still, such as my hosts/drinking buddies/suppliers of fine, Northern Irish hospitality: Stephen Connolly, Manuela Moser, Padraig Regan and Tara McEvoy.

Queen's University

 I apologise that the “older” of those names were supplied rather arbitrarily. I do not mean to offend, but it really would be specious to reel off every Northern Irish poet I could. The latter four – Stephen, Manuela, Padraig and Tara – were part of the reason I was in Belfast in the first place: for the first Northern Bridge conference of the academic year. (Actually, Stephen technically wasn’t, though he’s also doing his PhD at the Heaney Centre, so it’s fine).

Northern Bridge, as some of you will know, is a Doctoral Training consortium and partnership between Queen’s, Newcastle and Durham Universities. They are very kindly funding me for the next three years to undertake my own PhD, with big get-togethers at the partner institutions being ideal opportunities to network/drink dandelion wine into the small hours.

Upon arriving in Belfast, and thanks to the wonders of social media, I received tweets from both Padraig and Stephen, first welcoming me to their city, then subtly suggesting that I might want to knock the official conference dinner on the head and attend a poetry open-mic instead. Cue apology to the Northern Bridge directors: I’m sure your Italian was gorgeous, and I appreciate the offer, but listening to poems and reading my own to a sympathetic audience is me networking, honestly.

Jo Clement reading at Bookfinders. 60 people in this room, 50 turned away at the door. Incredible.

 I met Stephen, Tara and Padraig in the Woodworkers on Tuesday night (Aye, I was that man who had to go up to each table and ask “do you know Stephen Connolly?”) Handily, on my second request, Tara told me he was just at the bar and would be back soon. The Woodworkers is basically to Belfast what Lady Grey’s is to Newcastle: one of the new breed of craft beer bars which have popped up across all UK cities in the past few years, but one in which honest conversation – and not pretentious wankers quaffing ten pound bottles of Mikkeller – still dominates.

Fast-forward to Wednesday night, conference meal skipped (after the free wine reception, obviously) and a short walk to Bookfinders. Padraig, Tara and I had had coffee with owner, Mary Denver, earlier that afternoon. Taking up Stephen’s plea to seek out Muldoon’s Selected, I asked Mary if there might be a copy lurking amid her shelves and pile of boxes. “I know I have one somewhere, Jake, I’ve definitely seen it recently.” She promised to dig it out, and, true to her word, it was waiting for me on the counter at 11am the next day. Five pounds, with a Club biscuit and a cup of tea.

A gem of a place.

For thirty one years, Mary has been proprietor of Bookfinders, but it is probably safe to use the oft-deployed (and, hence, weakened) term and call her a living legend. Queen’s English Society have been running open-mics in the back room of her shop for years now. Everyone has been through: Michael Longley and Ciaran Carson locally; Hannah Lowe not-so-locally. If the walls of Bookfinders could talk (and, in a way, they do, with their framed images of famous writers), they’d tell of lost evenings and candle-lit readings. Poets incanting poets; wine being spilled and slugged.

As is to be expected with a combination of a hangover, four hour’s sleep and being made to converse about your own research after a fairly dire continental breakfast with a load of archaeologists, my enthusiasm to discuss ‘space, place and landscape’ at 11am was about as strong as my desire to eat my own fist. Apologies to all the NB archaeologists, but discussing the poets who’ve graced the packed nights of Bookfinders was much more up my avenue.

I gave Mary a copy of my new pamphlet, thanked her for her kindness, payed for Muldoon, and headed back to the conference and to what turned out to be a stunning talk by Professor Richard Clay, on re-coding space. *Tangent claxon* Mixing Thomas Spence’s radical messages carved into coins with the street art chicanery of Sowat and Lek’s Paris mausolée – a mass street art exhibition in a disused supermarket originally squatted by a group of Romani people – Clay told us how graffiti artists, radicals and self-styled street artists reconfigure public space and attitudes towards ownership and hierarchy (now, via social media) in often tiny, but sometimes large, acts of space re-coding, which is not vandalism, he asserts.

Boundary Brewing: re-coding beer.

 After that, I was full: brain a heavy sponge, hangover in full-swing, belly grumbling from low-grade croissant consumed four hours earlier. So, Jo Clement and I retreated to Belfast’s other great book shop: No Alibis, which – as the name implies – is a crime fiction specialist, but should be better imagined as a safe haven for book readers and thinkers of all credence, age and background. I picked up one, two, then three books (would I have stopped? No, but my bag was already full to bursting, and I had a flight to catch), approached the counter, whereupon I spotted a signed poster by Boundary Brewery.

“Is that a Belfast-based workers co-operative craft brewery?” I enquired, placing my to-be-purchased pile on the bench.

“Yes, it is. Are you getting these?”

“Aye, please.”

“Well, I’m going to make your day!”

David then handed me and Jo a bottle each of Boundary’s IPA, which we dutifully supped while he showed us some of his more beautiful tomes; for instance, Michael Longley’s Sea Asters, complete with pen and ink illustrations by his daughter, Sarah. Beautiful as the book was, £110 on the card would have been – I don’t want to say ‘something I’d come to regret’ – but perhaps slightly unnecessary.

JC, JC, David.

 David’s wife/business partner, Claudia, also showed Jo a limited-edition they’d published by a crime writer, complete with its own set of bespoke engravings. Jo being a Bewick enthusiast, the delight on her face was evident. She was then diligently aided in searching for poetry collections incorporating engravings (ones that didn’t cost three-figures) while children and their families browsed around us and 80-year-old men brought in orders and women asked if they could advertise for their local markets.

I wanted to end with a quote: some perfectly suitable line from one of the names I mentioned at the start, but the truth is I don’t know one. My knowledge of Irish Literature, being an Englishman (though, wey, I’d say Geordie), is akin to Patrick Cotter’s thoughts in his introduction to the Young Irish Poets edition of Poetry Magazine (September 2015): “The Irish know more about Britain than the British know about Ireland, and Irish speakers in Ireland know more about the world of their monoglot Anglophone compatriots than the latter do about the discourse taking place in the minority Irish-speaking networks and communities.”

Though I only half agree with this statement (for the whole Geordie issue alluded to above, though for which I will, on this occasion, spare the reader from) I wanted to use it because while I think it is half wrong, it is definitely also half right: there is a very strong and very rich community of poets here. Manuela and Stephen, who run The Lifeboat series of readings, and who are branching further into pamphlet production next year, are just one example of many; Mary’s Bookfinders and No Alibis being two more. There is a sense, I think, that Belfast takes its poetry seriously. Not like it’s a duty, but something similar, civic pride, perhaps. In any case, it is both heartening to witness and a joy to behold. I look forward to getting more involved with it the next time I’m in the city, which I expect will be soon.


Monday, 14 September 2015

To Bede and Back: Stringing Bedes (2)

Beside the A19
“You are nobody to the hills or thick boughs heavy with greenery. You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the path, the caress of long grass and the freshness of the wind. When you walk, the world has neither present not future: nothing but the cycle of mornings and evenings. Always the same thing to do all day: walk. But the walker who marvels while walking (the blue of the rocks in a July evening light, the silvery green of olive leaves at noon, the violet morning hills) has no past, no plans, no experience. He has within him the eternal child. While walking I am but a simple gaze.”

-          Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking

Sunday starts in the car park of The White Ensign. At the top of the pub, as decoration more than functioning weather vane, is a ship. Before today, I have never seen it. I’ve driven past this pub, which now doubles up as a curry house, down King George Road, one of the main arterial roads connecting South Shields, hundreds of times, and I’ve walked down it many times, too. But to stand here, look up, and notice that it has a ship on its roof? I’ve obviously not stood here and just looked before.

Photo credit: Keith Parker
In a week’s time, I will be in Portland, Oregon; in a fortnight, Whistler, British Columbia; in three weeks, Vancouver; in a month, Cheshire. In four weeks I will travel further than Bede likely ever travelled in his lifetime.

Now,  looking back, I am thinking of all of this, twenty nine days after looking up at the replica ship on top of the pub, which is roughly half way between St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s, typing these words from a laptop in my flat in Chester, two more days before I once again travel: this time only 180 miles – but still, compared to Bede’s time, a considerable distance, which I will make much, much quicker than he could ever have envisaged – back to South Tyneside.

There’s a quote I’m looking for, but can’t find. Or a mantra; something discussed over both legs of Stringing Bedes and an idea that I’ve been mulling ever since. It goes something like this: the mind travels slower than the body; the mind may still be in a place the body has left behind.

Walkers on Cleadon Hills
I’ve been back in the UK just under a week. The jet-lag has been horrendous. Travelling out a month ago, landing in San Francisco, I was relatively unscathed. All sorts of theories, tips and advice abound as to how to avoid – or mitigate – jet-lag (East/West is best; sleep whenever you can/don’t sleep at all; eat these foods/don’t eat these foods, etc.) but the simple fact is that if it’s going to get you, it’s going to get you. At each intersection on my trip up the Pacific North West coast of the USA and Canada, I have left a part of my mind behind. Somewhere over the Atlantic, a portion of my brain is still suspended thirty thousand feet above the clouds.

So, in 2015, being a Westerner (as a Brit, watching news of the refugee crisis from hotels and B&Bs in North America, you quickly realise that your most important possession is your passport – that ticket to cross borders more or less at will) you can travel at all sorts of speeds, in all sorts of vehicles, covering great distances very, very quickly. We take this for granted, but what does it mean? What might the opposite – stopping in a place, or moving through it very slowly – mean for us?

On both legs of the Stringing Bedes walks, we stopped near the entrance/exit of the Tyne Tunnel to listen to the traffic. Once you’re on foot, and used to being on foot (ten minutes, an hour, you’ll soon feel your own rhythm), the presence of even a single car passing on a quiet suburban road sounds too much. Alongside the A19, the traffic is an onslaught; a physical shock to the senses. It becomes something absurd, actually. You begin to wonder, having picked wild cherries and plums from the streets, what it means to see giant Lidl trucks carrying pre-packaged, processed foods to be sold from huge refrigerators in shops across the region. You begin to wonder where all of the taxis can be taking people; where everyone is going and why they have to get there so quickly.

The mandatory trolley
Much of this dissipates, of course. You go to Tesco and the banquet of items laid out before you is more amazing than it is grotesque. You fill up your car (and if you do this in the States, you suddenly understand why the automobile is King), drive away, and the acceleration at your feet feels good.

But can moving slowly, at a walking pace that chimes with the heart’s rhythm – periodically stopping, not saying anything, not checking a phone and trying to clear your mind of the mental to-do list that keeps plaguing you and focusing instead on the call of a Chiffchaff – can that feel as good?

Bede himself may not have been a great traveller (we have some evidence that he visited the Holy Island of Lindisfarne), but his monasteries at Wearmouth and then Jarrow were founded upon a connectedness to the landscape that was not simply parochial: in seeking learning and enlightenment, the Abbots of Wearmouth-Jarrow looked, and often travelled to, Europe, bringing back bibles, sacred objects and sometimes even visiting scholars from places such as Rome, all for the benefit of their church communities. It is thought that portions of the glasswork in the monasteries may have come from the Mediterranean, where skills, techniques and resources were more abundant. The monasteries, with their strategic positions near the mouths of both the Tyne and the Wear, not only supported domestic trade and transport, then; they connected Northumbria to a wider European identity.

It really does smell like pineapple!
At all points during this project, it has been important to cross-refer our own thoughts and actions with those of the age of Bede. In traversing an ‘interpreted environment’, we do so knowing that we tread in the footsteps of all of those that come before us, bearing our own baggage. But how do we see Bede in this landscape, which we rightly assume to be very different to how it was in the seventh century? One of the ways, I think, is what we take away from it, with us, when we’re elsewhere. Along the route of the walks, I enjoyed the learning curve of the local flora and fauna. At the start of the walks, for instance, I had never heard of Pineapple Weed: didn’t know what it was, never mind how to identify it. After repeat sightings, however, I began to see it ‘automatically’. So much so, that by the end of the final walk I was, just as Keith Bowey had shown me a month earlier, readily picking it up and surprising people when I told them to crush it in their fingers and smell for the aroma of pineapples. I went on to see Pineapple Weed at various places along the Pacific North West coast: from the cliff tops of Harris Beach in Oregon, to the summit of Grouse Mountain in Vancouver, I seemed to be followed by these tiny, yellow weeds. And in a small way, I felt connected to Bede, because it was along Bede’s Way, a place I have spent large parts of my life, that I first learned about something apparently small and insignificant, which when witnessed in an entirely alien environment, made me feel connected.

On a beach in Northern Oregon, alongside a stretch of road that I can now barely remember except for its name – highway 101 – between small towns that I have little recourse to memorise other than for their coffee, their gas, their free toilets, I found Sea Rocket. Along the small formation of dunes at the Northern edge of Seaburn Beach in Sunderland, you can find the same genus of dune plant, nestled into small mounds of sand, tiny pink flowers jutting from rubbery stems. It is likely, in moving between the twinned monasteries, that Bede and his monks and abbots, having landed on this beach after sailing a coracle out of the Tyne and south down the coast past Marsden and Whitburn, would have encountered the very same plant.

Sea Rocket
As mentioned in the first of my Stringing Bedes blogs, periods of contemplation were a key element of the walks. Contemplation, though perhaps not as marketable as the somewhat zeitgeist trend for mindfulness, is a rare commodity in today’s hectic world. Perhaps because of the somewhat frenzied nature of my final hours on the last walk (I had to cut it short by two hours in order to get to the airport in time, whisked back in ten minutes – in a car, of course – to collect my bags in South Shields. What had taken just ten minutes in my Mam’s Peugeot had on foot taken four hours), and possibly because some part of my consciousness is still confused as to whether it should be in North America or the North of England, it has been a challenge to begin to do what this project’s namesake intends and string together coherent thoughts about Bede and his significance for a contemporary audience.

Invariably, my response turns towards my art form: poetry and writing. I consider some of the broad themes identified by both the other artists on the walks and the variety of people who joined us at one point or another. Looking back and recalling those discussions, it strikes me that the word ‘sense’ is perhaps the biggest brush stroke I could start from. I intend the double meaning, for the landscape is first sensed – we notice and attune to patterns in colours, recurrent soundscapes and smells – before it is made sense of. As children, we run excitedly onto the beach and dig our hands into the sand with a feeling of awe and wonderment as we reveal a receding layer of water below. We do this long before we understand anything to do with the sea, its currents, groundwater, tides or gravity. Our current sense of the world, however, tells us that the opposite is true: that we apply sense – logic, rationale, reason – to a landscape before we react to it ‘emotionally’. Take this, amongst many, examples, from Hawaii. It is one of countless stories of indigenous resistance to ‘rational’ science and the ‘sensible’ economic doctrine which seeks to augment everything with commodifiable use or value.

Lying in Cornthwaite Park in Whitburn, belly full of sandwiches and fruit, three, maybe four miles in my legs, sun warm but not abrasive on my face, the sound of the sea in the near distance lapping at the shore, the laughter of kids playing on the swings, I thought, is this not a moment of tranquillity that Bede would have been proud of? Yes, instantly transported to 2015, he would have been baffled, probably even terrified, by how the extent to which his world had changed, but lying beneath the trees in the park, the same sky above him, he might have just felt at home.

Looking south to Roker Pier from Whitburn Steel
Stringing Bedes: A Poetry and Print Pilgrimage is a Heritage Lottery Funded project exploring the landscape between the twin monastic sites of St. Paul’s, Jarrow and St. Peter’s, Wearmouth. Combining artistic responses to public walks with heritage and educational activities, its aim is to illuminate the world of Bede for a contemporary audience. I blogged about the first part of the project here, and further information can be gained at subsequent community heritage events, the first of which takes place on Wednesday 21st October at Roker Methodist Church in Sunderland.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Review: Everybody's Gone to the Rapture

Yaughton, Shropshire, 1984. “It’s all over”. Kate is “the only one left.”

And that’s how Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture begins: our protagonist – is it Kate, a spectral version of her, or someone, something, else entirely? – looking down from the gates of the observatory to fictional Yaughton below, its church spire and cluster of houses, an idyllic mid-summer glow inviting us in.

For a game in which we technically see no people; only their after-images, occasionally witnessed as ethereal snatches of whirling light, or hear their voices reverberated back to us through payphones and achingly anachronistic bricks of mobile phones, Rapture does an incredible job of detailing a cast of characters in an entirely believable mid 80s English village. Yaughton may be fictionalised – something between the Shire and Midsomer – but it feels like a place we’ve all been to, or seen on a post card, or heard an old Uncle sentimentally pine for. Immediately, the game brings to mind the recent ITV drama, Broadchurch (the ‘event’ having already happened); later I was put in mind, depending which locale of Yaughton I witnessed, and in which light, of everything from Stephen King’s Misery to Fumito Ueda’s Ico. Invariably, though, such comparisons do the game no favours; Rapture shines – and my, how it shines – because there is nothing quite like it, on TV, in film, literature or on console.

The fact that the game is set in 1984, obvious Orwellian nods aside, is not just an aesthetic choice on the part of developers, The Chinese Room. Yaughton’s mid 80s cast of parochial characters, their village hall with its production of Peter Pan (surely another nod?), their two quaint pubs (‘ale and a curry: £2’, advertises The Seventh Whistler), their pre-curve, pre-sleek cars, their fat televisions, their lack of internet, their... insular, squabbling village-ness, all of it feels deliberate. This is not a game that would have worked in contemporary London, or Tokyo, or just about any other city, for that matter.

Normally in a review, one would expect some recounting of the plot by about this stage. But here’s the thing: with Rapture, it’s all already happened. And that’s the beautiful simplicity of the game: you’re free to piece it together, liberally, as you drift around (and, make no mistake, you do drift, entirely ghostlike, in every sense) through deserted Yaughton, with its kitsch holiday camp and two-platform train station and not entirely un-Red Riding Hood woods, trying to work out what the Hell has happened to everybody.

For some, this momentum – or its absolute lack – has been too much of a barrier to the game’s enjoyment, but surely that misses the point. Yes, you can’t sprint; yes, you can move a little bit slower than dream pace if you hold down R2, but why would you want to? The real joy of Rapture is in the details: spending time exploring the houses, reading the signs in the bus shelters (items needed for fete; meeting to protest new observation tower; cast members needed for Peter Pan, etc.); marvelling as the light catches the canopy of leaves as the sun tilts and angles.

Drifting through the game – and there really is a sense that one does, a la Guy Debord’s Situationist Theory, ‘dérive’ through this landscape – the experience becomes more and more intense just as it becomes more and more lonely. While the player learns more – of the various characters and their back stories, their prejudices and their relationships – increasingly these revelations and plot twists, minor sub-dramas unfolding like snatched episodes of The Archers, begin to feel obscure, meaningless, and, ultimately, irrelevant. Even as the narrative shifts towards its ‘climax’, with the two central characters, Kate and Stephen, and their complicated motivations and actions spiralling towards the dénouement, the overriding sense of Rapture is that none of it matters; everything that has been will always be, and may be again.

Here, of course, is where the game’s various nods to astrophysics and philosophy could be mulled over, twisted, and mulled over again. Would we, in listing, probing and arguing over potentially limitless theories, ever reach a satisfying conclusion? I think not.

I ‘finished’ the game in around ten hours, but I suspect a second, and even third or fourth, play through would be an enriching experience, as I’m almost certain I didn’t reveal all of the ‘clues’ or find out all of the characters’ persuasions.

My enduring memory of Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture will be its superb blend of audio-visuals: the way, hovering between rugby posts, you half hear the game that played out days, weeks before; the way that air-raid sirens drift on the wind just as trails of light from the bombers they were warning against hang in the air like ribbons; the way payphones burr from incandescent red boxes and you approach them, never quite knowing where from, when or how the message has come to you. It’s the way you genuinely feel a chill on your spine as the balls of light, orbs of power, approach you and you tune and twist them, manipulating echoes of shrill then din, past voices back through their star gates, their portals. It’s the way you feel spooked yet comforted the first time it goes dark as you walk through the woods and tiny balls of light rise like stoned fireflies; or how the silhouette of the windmill catches against the universe of stars beyond and the brightness and otherworldliness of all the lights, strung out but coalescing, as you ascend the observatory.

When the final credits rolled, I put my controller down and closed my eyes as the choral soundtrack – that gut-wrenching, hallucinatory music which peppers so many of your encounters in the game – started up again. I sat back, not quite knowing what I’d experienced, but feeling a heady mixture of elation and sadness that it was over.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Stringing Bedes (1)

“I see things better with my feet.”
-          James Holman

Cleadon Hills rarely looks this busy, this buzzy with people. I’ve seen it like this a few times: in the depths of December, when families bring sledges up to fly through snow, and for the Sunderland (International!) air show, in July. Winter brings memories of home-made sledges ranging from kids caccooned in builders’ merchant bags of hardcore plastic, bouncing down the hills, to the makeshift ski/board my sister made out of an old pair of Rossignols and a timber pallet from my Dad’s business, and which my cousins sat on to howl with laughter down to the fields below. Fingers numbed, bums damp with ice. Hotter climes bring the planes: Euro Fighters tearing open the sky; Spitifres and Hurricanes, more modest, reminding us of battles past, conjuring another England, another Britain, at war, somewhere beyond the sea, the great North Sea, whose flat blue-greyness sits solid at the back of it all.

© John James Addison

But this image, courtesy of John James Addison, conjures something older still. The couple – and I assume it’s a father with his daughter, as she looks at least twenty years his junior, though I cannot be sure – were one of a few anachronisms on the first weekend of walks for Stringing Bedes: a Poetry and Print Pilgrimage. Commenting on standout visual moments on the walks, one of the participants noted this couple, in their old-fashioned attire. A suit, on a July day, on Cleadon Hills! Others went further, noting that the scene on the hills – families with dogs, with children young and old, people walking, lying, milling, being social yet in thrall to something beyond (the planes) – reminded them of a scene from Lowry. I think that’s spot-on: here we had discernible groups of people, diverse and spread out, but cohesive in their regard for the spectacle of otherness, flying machines to the South-East over Sunderland. Artist Mark Todman said that this was the first point during our walk where we weren’t going against the tide: people were walking back over from Whitburn, towards us. Two hours earlier, in Roker and Seaburn, in a dream-like state of bubbles and Hello Kitty dolls and funnelled Taylor Swift hits, it felt that we were an outcast group of survivors, going against the whole flow of humanity, thousands of people, hot dogs and candyfloss in hand, camped out on the beach, waiting for the roar of engines, acrobatics between the clouds.

© John James Addison

At Cleadon windmill, I read my poem ‘Spelks’, which pays homage to a relatively unknown piece of folklore set on these hills: the story of Elizabeth Gibbon, heartbroken daughter of a local nineteenth century landlord, who kills herself after being forbidden to see her lover, a local sailor, or in some stories, a pirate. I prefaced the poem, which I’d read only three days earlier in London, by being thankful that this audience, by and large, would understand the two dialect terms in the poem: ‘spelk’ and ‘chare’. Chare, of course, being the Geordie word for an alley, in this case Sandy Chare, which we’d just walked along in Whitburn. Something strange happens when you read a poem aloud: its meaning transfigures, becoming – I think – a different experience to that of reading silently from the page. When the poem is read in situ, so to speak, it is further transfigured: the aura of the physical site adds permeance to the words being spoken. When I finished reading the poem, a young girl could be heard asking, through the gaps in the bars of the gate that prevents people getting inside the mill, “Who are you?” It was a pertinent question for us, followers in Bede’s footsteps, as the man himself posed in AD 731, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a very similar question to his people: who are you, you inhabitants of this island? The more you dwell on it, in light of ongoing referendum and devolution debates and Eurozone policies, the more important it becomes. Who are you, and who are we?


Writing blogs in this way, which I’ve now done a few times, thanks to my walks along the Sefton Coast last summer, it quickly becomes apparent that thoughts tumble into other thoughts; quotes and lines of poetry and ideas all spiral outward, and before long it becomes difficult to sift for the accurate meanings and intentions of the piece. Editing becomes even more necessary. One such line that has just popped into my head is that by David Shook, who says that “Poetry has a responsibility if not to contradict the dominant narrative of society, then to bring it into question.” I found the quote, accidentally, because I was searching though Sean O’Brien’s volume of essays, Journey to the Interior: Ideas of England in Contemporary Poetry, for this quote:

“It could be objected that ‘England’ and ‘Englishness’ are not in themselves helpful ideas, that they resist clarification and contain too many internal contradictions, that the best way to understand a maze is perhaps to not go into it in the first place. But as I say, I am already inside the maze, imaginatively speaking, and have been at least since first I began to read and write poetry over forty years ago. My concern is with the workings of the imagination, which is not quite the same thing as the facts. The contradictions and paths into the mire and the grimpen, the dead ends and false trails, are part of the imagined England in which we live.”

I wish to discuss those ‘facts’. O’Brien is right: the facts of an English identity – indeed, the facts of nearly anything – are not the same as the ‘facts’ the writer creatively, liberally, uses and which the reader imaginatively interprets. During the walks this weekend, I was struck, as were many of my fellow walkers, by how little we know of Bede’s autobiography; how uncertain we are that he ever even walked this route, which we have spent an entire weekend tramping, and will spend many more months mulling over and transfiguring into poems and artworks. And the maze. Yes, it is labyrinthine. The little girl asking, “Who are you?” is me asking “Who am I”; is George Osborne telling us who we should be, who we should despise; is poets and writers and artists and rebels up and down the land saying “fuck you very much”; is Bede and his fellow monks, in centuries past, studying and thinking and writing on the banks of the Wear and the Tyne, pondering this great question, this series of questions: “Who are we, and how do we fit into this island and its past and future?”


To pepper the walks with thoughts and ponderings, to set conversations going between strangers, and to contemplate the ‘meaty’ topics of Bede’s mammoth oeuvre, walk leader Keith Bowey ensured that each participant was furnished with a ‘contemplation card’ at the start of the day, which they were to keep secret and mull over, until after lunch, when they were instructed to pick a partner and discuss their ideas. The source of the quotes was eclectic, covering everything from Auden (‘As I walked out one evening’) and Neruda (‘The child’s foot is not yet aware it’s a foot’) to Tristan Gooley (The Natural Explorer) and Wilco Johnson (‘Caught up in a jam...’). Furthermore, the contemplation cards exercises were built upon by five-minute contemplation spells: moments of silence, at given points along the route, in which we were told, simply, to stay silent and contemplate.

One of the most pertinent of these contemplations occurred in Primrose, Jarrow, on Sunday. Myself and four or five of the other walkers stood on a little wooden bridge above the Don. I stared at a Crack Willow tree, shivering in the breeze, and thought about the course of the little tributary of the Tyne below my feet.

Just as we were nearing the end of our collective ponderings, a young family approached the bridge. The first intrepid explorer, a boy of about five or six, dressed in a Spiderman onesie, stopped short of the bridge, mouth slightly parted in the way that can only say “I have no idea what this means.” His expression was mirrored perfectly by his late-twenties parents, who crossed the bridge with a polite “Alright, there”, but with faces that reeked of absolute bafflement. Who were these people, their looks said, and why on Earth are they simply stood here, silently, at half past three on a Sunday, staring down into this river?

Another significant, but very different, moment of contemplation took place on Saturday, at Bede’s Cross in Roker. Bede’s Cross, a monument erected in 1904, is often mistaken for a War memorial, or even worse, is ignored entirely. I must admit that despite having walked, cycled and driven along Roker promenade several hundred times in the past, I’d not noticed it. Which is a shame, because it is a magnificently intricate piece of public art which pays homage to one of the region’s most important sons. It seems that several thousand other people all missed it on Saturday, too. Surrounded by Spongebob Squarepants balloons and Army propaganda (quick, pilot the helicopter and pretend you too are scouting for insurgents in Syria!), the proud cross, standing some twenty-odd feet into the air, went unnoticed, mired as it was between a makeshift climbing wall, some portaloos and the back of Army HQ and its generator. Ignored, that is, by all but us: sixteen walkers, pilgrims paying a trip to this cross overlooking the sea, admiring the beauty and detail of the stonework, pondering over the words from and to Bede, considering the anachronism of its significance – its testament to peace and harmony – amidst cynical attempts to corral the youth of the North-East (remember, this is still the region of England with the highest level of unemployment) into careers as little more than canon-fodder. If all of that sounds deeply subjective and unashamedly biased, it’s because it is. David Shook is right: what is poetry if not to contradict the dominant narrative of society? As we cling to the military industrial complex, and as the baggage of our Empire status precedes us, are not moments of contemplation, moments of reverence for the diversity of life, at sites such as Bede’s Cross not more important now than ever before?


This, of course, leads neatly on to the question of faith, or religion, and how – and if – it fits into this project. Right from before the walks even took place (and remember, we’re only halfway through: places are still available on our return leg in August!), we were keen to stress the inclusivity of the project. We welcome people of all colours, creeds, genders, beliefs and anything else you can put an ‘s’ suffix on to. Speaking at the start, in front of St. Peter’s, Keith declared himself an atheist, but it was obvious that such binary concepts were not going to hold firmly very long on this walk. Introducing my part in the walks, I read a short passage from the Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow:

“A year later, on Egfrid’s advice or, more accurately, at his command, Benedict [Biscop] chose seventeen monks from the community with the priest Ceolfrith as abbot to form the nucleus of a new foundation at Jarrow, dedicated to the apostle Paul and built on the understanding that the two houses should be bound together by the one spirit of peace and harmony and united by continuous friendship and goodwill. As the body cannot be separated from the head, through which it receives the breath of life, and as the head dare not ignore the body or it would die, so neither was anyone to attempt to disturb the brotherly love that would unite the two houses just as it had bound together the two apostles, Peter and Paul.”

I read it not only to ground the geographical specificity of the walks in a historically documented context, but to suggest that it was the community of the era, the working together and accepting differences, that made the two sites significant and showed that perambulations of the route, both historic and contemporary, were and are inextricably bound up in encountering challenges, differences of opinion and multifarious scenarios in which the spirit of goodwill and peace would be championed above all else. As a person interested in what a working socialism might look like in 2015, in light of Corbyn-gate, I am fascinated as to how the act of walking (no problem that can’t be solved by a good walk) might help us to put some flesh on to the bones of these ideas and how we might move forward together, physically and mentally, from this era of the Self-above-all-else.


The University of Sunderland’s WALK (Walking, Art, Landskip and Knowledge) research group, out of which this project, loosely, was born, was also cited at the beginning of the walk, as the group stood on the North bank of the Wear, adjacent to the National Glass Centre. Here, it should be noted that ‘Landskip’ is not a typo of ‘landscape’. Landskip is a Dutch word, which stems from that nation’s belief that we exist within and part of our landscapes; that they aren’t just objects to be rearranged or disposed of or otherwise utilised (for personal, collective, national or any other kind of ‘gain’, in a neoliberal sense). Keith reminded us that, in Bede’s day, we would have been standing in the river, as only centuries of river and land management, and the subsequent and intensive industrial processes of shipbuilding and the like, meant that the course of the Wear and its estuary was altered to lie lower down, as we know it today. Academically speaking, this accretion of layers ties in very neatly to the research I am about to begin for my PhD, but outside of the niche boundaries of my own interests, the concept is an interesting one, and its subtleties were to be found throughout the route.

It is important at this stage to say a word or two about the route: where it is; what it passes through, over and under; and, perhaps most significantly, how both specialists and the public might approach and engage with it now and into the future.

Bede’s Way, formally, was introduced by Sunderland and South Tyneside Councils in 2004, working in partnership with the church communities of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s. Spanning a twelve-mile course between the twin monasteries, it takes in a huge range of environments in a relatively small area. From the former shipbuilding capital of the world on the banks of the Wear to the rolling sands of Seaburn and Roker; to the coastal village of Whitburn; on through Cleadon Hills and down into the southern edges of South Shields; it then winds a zig-zag course through the heart of South Tyneside, following the flats of Whiteleas and Boldon, through the historic Boldon Colliery, along and over the A19; then the undulations of Hedworth and Primrose, all adjacent to the river Don, before winding up at Jarrow Slake (‘Jarra Slak’; ‘Jarrow’s Lake’) at the south banks of the Tyne, beside the current industrial trajectory of the North-East: Port of Tyne, where Nissans from the nearby factory in Washington are loaded onto ships and all sorts of goods, including coal – yes, coal, coming into the Tyne! – arrive and are ferried off to the arteries of the rest of the region and country.

That’s the (kind of) touristy blurb done: what I’m really interested in are the Go-To-Bed-At-Noons, the Linnets which used to be miners’ cage birds; the thousand-year-old farm – Newton Garth – recorded in the Boldon Book; the smell of diesel from the A19; the haunting image of the rope tethered to the viaduct at Brockely Whins, where once coal wagons would have shunted black diamonds from deep below the Great North Forest onto South Shields. I want to know more about Pineapple Weed and Pellitory-of-the-wall; Purple Toadflax and Black Medic; Yellowhammer and Redshank. I want to get to know the young lad and his sister (daughter?) who politely stopped for us in Station Burn nature reserve, the engine on their mini quadbike ticking over, his “Nee bother, mate”, before he kicked the throttle and sped off towards Simonside. I want to be there, next year, for the 1,300th anniversary of Ceolfrith setting forth across the Wear and down to the Humber to board a ship to Rome, Codex Amiatinus in hand, to present to the Pope.

We walk again in August, will you join us?

Monday, 27 July 2015

Slow Summer: The Rialto issue 83 launch

Cover = beaut

The Rialto do things properly. Their magazines, their pamphlets, their launch events. All are carried off spectacularly well. I’d been trying for years – yes, actual years – to get a poem between their esteemed covers, and now I’ve managed it: between the pages of this beauty, in fact — number 83, co-edited by Rishi Dastidar and Holly Hopkins.

Last week’s launch event was the stuff dream poetry nights are made of. From the venue (the upstairs of the King and Queen pub in Fitzrovia, London, complete with assorted brewery memorabilia, cheap pints of St. Austell ales and an anachronistic but no less imposing view of the BT tower, hallucinating away in the semi-darkness of the balmy, summer evening) to the other poets (John Clegg summoning the ghost of spooks past; Rachel Piercey declaring her love for captains; Alex Macdonald re-imagining Hagiwara’s philosophies) there were four more of them, equally as captivating, had me wanting to find out more, or revisit their work.

Revisiting seemed like something of a theme for the evening, personally. Several of the poets reading and in the audience were familiar to me, for one reason or another. Holly and I met on an Arvon course in Shropshire a few years ago, as did John Sayers, whose poem features in the issue. Hannah Lowe, one of the other readers, I know from Newcastle, despite the fact that she’s lived back in London now for ages. But new friends were made, too; new poetries discovered; new connections forged over dregs of ale, old ones rekindled over talk of poetry and its ability to bring people from around the country – from around the world! – in to the function rooms of pubs, to celebrate words.

This latest issue of The Rialto carries the addendum ‘slow summer 2015’, and it certainly feels like a slow summer, post-election. I’ve noticed, in my early delves into the vast repository of poems in this issue, some recurring themes, but I never thought that fat, or grease, would be an image threading together many of the narratives in a poetry magazine! John Challis’s poem (and John is a good mate from Newcastle, so this may read subjectively), uses it evocatively in his poem ‘B Road Lay-by’ (‘Wind down the window: onions fry in lard/a finger-thin beef burger whispers on a grill.’) which is neatly placed within the magazine opposite Mark Russell’s ‘Hitching Through Normandy’, which opens ‘Loic sliced onions and garlic so thin/they were transfigured, stripped naked, damp’. The reverberations between these and other poems are subtle, but they do quantify something that both Michael, Rishi and Holly mentioned during the evening: that pulling together a poetry magazine is a lot more intricate, and often a lot more serendipitous, than you might first think.

I’m looking forward to finding more threads and associations as I read through this slow summer. I was chuffed to be asked to read in London for the launch of such a great magazine, and even more chuffed when the acceptance note that came through to say that they wanted my poem. ‘Siegfried Sassoon at Formby’ will appear soon in my new pamphlet, so cheers, Rialto, for incubating some of that work for now!

In fine comapny