Thursday, 1 December 2016

Thoughts on Bunting's 'bastard language': Geordie

As I read more about Basil Bunting for the critical portion of my PhD, and in preparing my paper this coming Saturday (which is only partially about Baz), I find myself getting irrationally-but-steadily-more-annoyed by the following quote, which he made in an interview recorded in 1981 (ed. Richard Swigg, re-quoted here from Don Share’s authoritative new Faber edition, The Poems of Basil Bunting):

“What is called “Geordie” is a bastard language, it’s a mixture mainly of south Northumbrian with the Irish that was brought in by the labourers who came first to dig canals, then to build railways, and finally settled down largely in the coal mines. So that a man from Jarrow is speaking what has a double origin in Northumbrian and in northern Irish.”

Are not all languages, and dialects, ‘bastard languages’ with, at least, dual origins? I understand and appreciate Bunting’s assertion that Geordie is a kind of hybridised mix of multiple ‘old’ northern tongues, forged both by necessity and serendipity in the mettle of the Industrial Revolution, along the banks of one of its great commercial rivers (the Tyne), but I detect a smug sense of superiority which seems to claim that a more authoritatively (because older) Northern vernacular lies behind it.

Sure, parochialism in its rawest sense is probably at play here: Basil Bunting was, as he was at pains to reiterate, a Northumberland man; and I am not. Bunting was not fond of the county boundary changes in the 70s, which would lead to the formation of Tyne and Wear, the metropolitan county borough which I have written and taken to be part of my address all of my life. And, yes, it’s true: certain partisans of the old county system still refuse to write ‘Tyne and Wear’ where ‘Durham’ or ‘Northumberland’ will do the job nicely thankyouverymuch.

Part of me thinks that this is all bollocks anyway: arbitrary borders, especially in as far as they are nearly always not real (certainly in the English counties sense), are part of this problem we now have of ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘here’ and ‘there’. They are ways and means of tricking us into pens; siloing our concerns away and signifying them as ‘different’, when more often than not they are ‘same’, or ‘similar’.

I’d still venture that most people outside of the region (Northumberland, County Durham, Tyne and Wear and the Tees Valley – the North-East) would still say – yes, simplistically, in too-broad-brush-strokes – that we all speak Geordie. This is not accurate and belies the richness, variation and tonal dexterity of the region’s many accents and dialects, but to John Smith from Kent or Jane Doe from Shropshire, whether we’re from Berwick or Billingham, we pretty much all – or might as well all – speak with what they perceive to be Geordie accents.

Basil, then, is right to point out the complex ways in which Geordie is an inheritance of Irish and Northumbrian; but I think he is also wrong in that Geordie also influenced and shaped the Northumbrian accent of today. If the Geordie accent ‘peaked’ during the Industrial Revolution, sometime between the late-nineteenth and mid twentieth-centuries, and has been ‘receding’, ‘softening’ (or, as I prefer, ‘evolving’) since the late 1980s, then we must also assume that its influence spread north and west, co-mingling and co-habiting with more traditional, rural Northumbrian accents in towns like Hexham, Morpeth and Alnwick.

Thanks in part to the surge in international broadcast media, the general trend towards globalisation of goods, services and labour, and the calculated and measured decline of the once-prodigious manufacturing bases around the three (main) North-Eastern rivers (Tyne, Wear, Tees), the North-East’s accents are undoubtedly not as strong as they were 30-plus years ago. I notice this in the variation between my own accent and that of my parents and grandparents, the latter of which would be termed the ‘broadest’.

In many ways this is common sense stuff; and I have perhaps, in writing this, become as finicky as Bunting in highlighting the whole issue. However, as somebody fiercely proud to be from South Tyneside, born a kick in the pants from Jarrow, whose lineage traces directly back to Irish labourers, and who ultimately draws his surname from that great Scottish-Gaelic pool, I say: ‘Aye, it’s a propa bastad language, and aa bliddy love it.’ I think the Geordie accent, which I am proud to retain a diluted version of (but which I can and do ‘ramp up’, depending on company, excitement and/or levels of alcohol consumed) is a beautiful thing and not mutually incompatible with any of the various Northumbrian tongues. Listen to folk in Seashouses, for instance: it sounds initially like something you’d hear in Shields or Whitley Bay, but it’s quite different, and I think that’s a great thing!

Two things for the record: first – I am not a linguist; second – I love Basil Bunting’s poetry dearly. The fact that Faber & Faber have finally put out this edition is absolutely mint. But my God, he was some boy of an antagonist when the occasion took him!

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Deeside Dérive

Despite doing a PhD in Newcastle, and writing about the North-East, I still live in Chester, a place I have frequented now, with some interruptions, for over ten years. In September 2006, as a plucky eighteen-year-old, I first came to this city; then in 2010, at the end of the taught portion of my MA, I moved back to South Shields, only to return to Chester for work in November 2013.

It is now November 2016 and much – and little – has changed. I have occupied six rented properties across two delineated periods: four as an undergraduate and MA student; two as a working professional/PhD student-come-freelancer.

The relationship you have to a place necessarily shifts and evolves. This is what I have been thinking about a lot, 15 months into being a student enrolled in an institution which I am regularly at (weekly, at present) but on paper (and not just for administrative purposes) am routinely 180 miles away from.

I’m meant to be writing a paper on Basil Bunting for a symposium at Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study on Saturday 3rd December. The weird thing – probably the weirdest thing – about going into doctoral study after having done a few years of ‘real’ work, is that you are largely your own boss, colleague(s), tea-making facilities, photocopier, diarist and teller of bad jokes and jeerer-on in times of challenge. You can ‘skive’ and nobody will know, except you, and you better damn believe that the walk you took this afternoon had some justification in your research. Oh, hang on, are you making a brew? Milk, no sugar, please.

This has nothing to do with Basil Bunting, the paper I’m meant to be delivering or the poems I’m meant to be writing. But… no, maybe it does.

‘Jake Campbell is a writer who divides his time between Tyneside and Chester’, I have just written in a poetry submission. ‘His practice-based research at Newcastle University is an investigation into the nature and identity of belonging in England’s North-East.’

Can we ‘un-belong’ just as much as we ‘be-long’? I have thought about this nearly constantly for at least the last year. Those of you who know me outside of the internet will no doubt have been bored by my frequent comparison of Newcastle (Tyneside) to Liverpool (Merseyside). For the last 18 months, travelling between Chester and East Boldon or Tyne Dock (on the Tyne and Wear Metro), I have emerged from Gateshead/Birkenhead (how serendipitous that both places carry the ‘head’ suffix?) and been startled by how very alike the two vistas are. Honestly, take the Merseyrail twenty minutes out of Liverpool, on the Wirral Line, heading south to Chester, and the view back across to the skyline of Liverpool will be staggeringly similar to that which you will witness when travelling out of Newcastle City Centre east through Gateshead towards South Tyneside. Nominally, this is to do with how the train tracks skirt the two rivers in a fortuitous mirror-like simulacra; but I think it is also a result of the cultural, industrial and socio-topographic foundations that both places are built upon.

I woke up in the middle of the night last night and I had no idea where I was.

Poet John Kinsella has a forthcoming book on Displacement. Polysituatedness, according to the pre-blurb on Manchester University Press’s website, ‘extends John Kinsella’s theory of ‘international regionalism’ and posits new ways of reading the relationship between place and individual, between individual and the natural environment, and how place occupies the person as much as the person occupies place.’ The book is not due until January next year, but I’m sure that Kinsella would recognise what I mean when I speak about ‘be-longing’ (with hyphen) and ‘un-belonging’ in not strictly binary ways. How much do I ‘long’ to ‘be’ in South Shields (or Chester) and how much is my not being there (being elsewhere) a symptom of (cause of) my un-belonging?

People – rightly – direct scorn at the super-rich buying up spaces in our cities and towns only to spend a fortnight of the year there while pricing out of the market the local, indigenous communities, often young people. From the Lake District to Vancouver to London, these issues have been prevalent for some time, and in some places – like Vancouver, who have put a 15% tax on foreign investors – a sense of civic appropriateness is beginning to take a stand.

Fleetingly in Shields and Chester, but nearly always transitory, to what extent are my interactions with these urban locales meaningful? I pay council tax to Cheshire West and Chester council (though, probably, I should receive a discount as I am a full-time registered student) and my rent currently goes to a landlord (whom, of course, I’ve never met) in another part of the city, via an agency. I buy food, beer, clothes and other things here: coffee, books, train tickets, but I don’t know my neighbours, no contractual obligation other than the one for my rented flat keeps me here, and I am lucky if I now speak meaningfully with or to anybody in the city who isn’t my partner. I don’t use the italics as a plea for compassion or understanding: I merely do so to highlight the fact of my displacement; what it engenders and how, nodding to Kinsella, place(s) inhabit a person, and a person inhabits a place(s) even when they are not there.

Walking around this place I can feel like a ghost. Severed from most economic commitments originating in the vicinity (incoming and outgoing); not answerable to any vocational authority in the city or region; and apparently-‘free’ to utilise the space of the city to my will, I am able to drift through various past edifices of the once-much-more-significant parts of my life.

This is exactly what I did this afternoon, as the sun began to sink over the river Dee. The Dee, rising in Snowdonia, north Wales, winds its way to the Irish Sea via Chester, holding this border city in a cupped embrace before dispensing itself into banked-up mud flats adjacent to, were it not for the Wirral Peninsula, that other great river: the Mersey. From the 14th Century, Chester was an important port city, linking the North-West to Ireland and the continent. However, the Dee began to silt up in the 18th Century (despite the excavation of the ‘New Cut’, effectively a straight channel to aid navigability) concurrently affording Liverpool, and the wider Mersey conurbations, the fortunes (quite literally) to expand. Chester, meanwhile, became, well, less developed. To the credit of historic and geophysical circumstance, the city the visitor sees today is advantaged principally because of its declining naval, marine and dockside infrastructure. This city, arbitrarily part of the North-West, feels so different to Liverpool, Manchester and, yes, Newcastle. Principally and superficially, that is because it is much smaller, but the knock-on effect of its not having had a prolonged industrial satellite, connected to its core riverbank, has meant that in contemporary terms, the city feels much more like present-day York, or even Oxford, Shrewsbury or other cities in the Midlands and South. No doubt the Shropshire Union canal stemmed the flow, so to speak, of the Dee’s misfortune, connecting the city – via North and Mid-Wales – to Birmingham and Manchester and forming vital trade links with two of the country’s hotbeds during the Industrial Revolution; but this is a place, I feel, where the identity of the body politic – insofar as it is comprised of myriad layers of affected meaning – is missing something, and that something is a historic manufacturing and nautical base.

On a visit to post-industrial Tyneside, or to use that clumsy portmanteau ‘NewcastleGateshead’, no doubt coined to ‘Coin’ the Blairiband New City (of New Labour), tourists may peripherally be aware that they are at the nucleus of a once-thriving place of industry, but they are likely more interested in, and steered towards, the new consumer-based norms of the Pitcher and Piano wine bar, or the Malmaison Hotel, or the Sage concert hall—all of them, and there are others, sites of spectacle and consumption: of alcohol, music, leisure. There is a reason Newcastle is such a magnet for Hen and Stag do’s: its watering holes are numerous, its hotels are ample and reasonably-priced, and at the back of it all, one can imagine oneself slaking the type of thirst that could only have been generated hammering rivets onto ships as the hoarfrost hung over the filthy river and the mercury plummeted below zero.

Needless to say, taking a stroll even a mile or two to the west or east, the scars of industry become much more stark, the money dries up and it – as Brexit has shown – becomes clear that maybe the task of replacing monolithic industry with haphazard service jobs hasn’t quite worked. I don’t wish to speak for much further west of the Tyne than Dunston Staithes, itself an interesting vestige of the Tyne’s prior might, but I do know the east of our beloved regional ‘capital’ very intimately. Take the right-angled bend around the river, to where Wallsend is in a staring match with Hebburn, and you will get an impression of what I mean. Travel a few miles further, to the Port of Tyne (yes, to be fair, it’s doing very well) it will become pretty evident that, while industry is still here to some limited degree, the deliberate conversion of waterside activity from production to consumption hasn’t at all been a balanced and smooth process. I am from a time and place where all but the vestiges of this industry remain, but even now, looking out over the mouth of the Tyne from the Lawe Top in South Shields or from the High Light in North Shields, it is possible to feel connected to the rhythms of work and commerce: where the Shields ferry carries commuters; where the DFDS ferry carries holidaymakers; where ships carry Nissans for the export market and coal and tea for further processing and distribution; and where, more philosophically, the ocean meets the river, England meets Europe, and in the intertidal and littoral zones, we become acutely aware of the ebb and flow of all life.

But we’re back in the North-East and I don’t think we were supposed to be. Are we? My writings about Chester are conspicuous for their absence. Bearing in mind that this place has dominated the majority of my adult life, it is strange that I have written so little about it. I am curious about that. Does perspective – distance – give meaning to place? Do we find symbolism, pattern and connection only from afar, or can we look for it in situ?

My role in Theresa May’s economy may well become more marginalised as the teeth of Brexit begin to sharpen. I hope that this will not become the case – that writing, the arts and academic research and curation remain valued as means of interrogating, exposing and challenging Who We Are And Why We’re Here (And Not There) – but, in a system clinging not by the fingers but I suspect only the fingernails, to the thermodynamically limited idea of perpetual economic growth, people who walk around cities at 3 in the afternoon and don’t even stop to buy a bloody coffee you cheeky git are likely to become ostracised and pushed to the margins. Or, so the case might go in one of Peter Frase’s Four Futures.

When, on my walk this afternoon, I reached the point where the Shropshire Union Canal expels into the Dee, and turned onto it to begin my home stretch, I was shocked not by the sheer physicality of the new student flats, which have been under construction for around a year, but by the massive marketing slogan draped over their nearly-finished outline.

‘THE TOWPATH: LOVE YOUR UNI YEARS’, beamed the marketing guff, in stark white on red. The word ‘fresh’ appears somewhat arbitrarily (one assumes a newly-built flat would not be stale) and there is of course direction to the adjacent marketing suite. Told to love (or do) anything, we tend to question the motivation and instruction. As it happens, I did and do love my uni years. I’m still in them, after all, but how should I feel – and here I am imagining that these flats were completed in the early part of 2006, on one of my visits to an open day at Chester – about being sold rhetoric which implores me to ‘love’ my uni years? Are not the years already slipping by before I have had time to consciously enjoy them?

For those not familiar with the site, let me briefly explain a) the controversy and b) the personal significance. The controversy is the same to be found in any university city: namely, a town and gown tension, exemplified by a burgeoning Higher Education sector; the ‘intrusion’ or ‘studentification’ of city spaces (usually but not always on the peripheries) at the expense of local and long-term residents; and the collusion of a private sector set to profit monumentally from often shoddily assembled buildings which will perpetually be rented to transitory residents, for short-term gains over a long-term timescale. Liverpool has these problems, Newcastle has these problems, Cambridge has these problems. It also has the benefits and, in a city like Chester, these are often overlooked. Before the early 2000s, there probably wasn’t what we would today describe as a ‘brain-drain’ in Chester, but certainly the University was far less developed (it was still a college of Liverpool, for a start) and places like Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham were probably much more appealing to the would-be student. I have nothing other than lived experience and anecdotal evidence on which to stake my claims, but take it as a fairly sound (if biased) thing of me to say that the University being here has made this a far better place to live.

You will have noticed that the b) personal significance of The Towpath development was implied towards the end of my last paragraph, but let me tell a short anecdote to add context. On the bottom right of that picture is the beer garden and part of the building of my favourite bar in probably the world or at least the city of Chester: Telford’s Warehouse. Named in honour of the Shropshire-born industrial pioneer responsible for much Great and Good work on the UK canal network in the 19th Century, the pub has been a staple part of my social and personal life for around a decade. About two hundred yards from where this photo was taken, on Whipcord Lane, my partner lived for three years as an undergraduate, and we would regularly take a short walk from the terraced house she shared along the canal to Telford’s, to sip pints of bitter and listen to people strum acoustic guitars (and, on one memorable occasion, a fifty-piece orchestra) at the bar’s still-going-strong open-mic night. This is the place I took my family for sandwiches and beer before and after graduation and it is the place where I have vomited after doing too many tequila slammers and the place where I have had foosball tournaments and planned the future and drank to absent friends and made new ones. One of my mates from home even once drove from Newcastle, to Chester, on a whim because there was especially pleasant guest ale on.

Now, you assume that I will tell you what has become synonymous with so many of these stories of gentrification: that the bar is under threat. In fact, no: actually, the opposite is true. Purchased outright by the owners this year, Telford’s, should it choose to embrace them and offer student deals while keeping true to its roots as a community pub for residents of the Garden Quarter, stands to be the new local of a several-hundred-strong army of freshers. People like me, ten years ago, and ten years later.

The way water courses rise and fall, whether over days or centuries, in line with tidal pull, pollution and other environmental and human-based factors, has always fascinated me. Strolling beside the Dee and the Shropshire Union canal today, I had in mind the thought that my connection to this place would seem to be ebbing. With no ‘work’ here and no other reason to stay than my partner’s job, it might be the case that, just as in 2010, we soon leave this walled city, with its views over to Wales. There is beauty here: of a traditionally British kind, yes – all Tudor buildings, lazy river cruises with high tea and compact cathedrals – and it is probably a beauty borne of historical, geographic and cultural happenstance. It is different to what I know intimately, in the North-East, and I don’t sit in places like Telford’s anywhere near as often as I ought anymore, but the student flats opposite are I think tied into that: they speak of a new generation of incomers (and some locals): people who will be paying a huge deal more than me, to study and live here, and who, maybe, might be from other riversides, and who might, in 2026, walk down by the Dee and think about what has flown away, passed on; and also what has remained, silted and shored up, safe, secure, permanent.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Dark Mountain Issue 10: Uncivilised Poetics

The Darkness Around Us Is Deep

Dark Mountain: Uncivilised Poetics is out now, including my essay, ‘What Kingdom Without Common Feasting?’ based on the work of the late County Durham poet, William Martin. The blurb at the back of the book poses a simple but (should-be) shocking abstract:

‘We are living through an age of turmoil: climate change, extinction, failed economics, stagnant politics. In such testing times, what’s the point of poetry? Uncivilised Poetics brings together a unique gathering of writers and artists to tackle this question.’

Since its inception in 2009, The Dark Mountain Project has been a steady stream of water in a drying world. Bold, confrontational, thought-provoking, the editors have never shied away from destabilising literature, artworks and commentary designed to force our eye on a changing world. Six years ago, many of the issues they raised – across their website, at their events and in their books and other publications – felt very much on the fringe. Pre-Trump, Pre-Brexit, pre-alarming climate change projections, these things felt incompatible. Now, in an ‘alt-right’, ‘post-truth’, ubiquitous-smartphone-use, hello-the-new-normal world, their work feels, well, compatible, urgent.

The current volume alone, despite a steep price tag (you’ll appreciate why when you get your mitts on it: it’s big and it’s beautiful), is worth purchasing just for poems, essays, artworks and spoken word recordings from contributors like Vahni Capildeo, John Kinsella, Nancy Campbell, Robert Montgomery, Harriet Fraser, Mark-bloody-Rylance(!) and many, many others.

I urge you to invest the money in a copy. Switch off your phone and computer, kill this blog, make a pot of tea, and be absorbed in this staggering anthology.

Sunday, 23 October 2016


Just had one of those weeks where you barely have time – in a metaphorical sense – to breathe. Sometimes, of course, it’s good to be aware of your breath: think mindfulness—a conscious drawing-to the mind the drawing-in of breath. Conversely, it’s often good to know, implicitly, that your lungs will continue taking in air, and your heart will continue pumping blood, and you’ll live and be able to crack on with commuting, working, eating and so forth.

What I’m saying is, a mad-busy (hectic, frenzied &c) week has come to an end and I can finally breathe in through nose, allow thoughts to compost, exhale through mouth.

A mixture of various decaying organic substances, as dead leaves or manure, used for fertilising soil.

I like the notion of old thoughts fertilising new ones. Tired words becoming fresh ones. Shabby situations being reinvigorated.

Yet, here we are, busy people: avoiding too-personal glances and garlic breath on the 8.07 Metro; thinking about work even on Saturday evening; wondering – wonder-ing – where the time goes/has gone.

Where was I? Yes. Sunday afternoon, catching up. I’m thinking in metaphors, you see, as I spent two days last week with a roomful of academics, thinking about, taking part in, and talking about critiquing my own and others’ doctoral work.

How are my words (spoken, written, ‘performed’) different in differing arenas? How do I talk at Gateshead’s Trinity Square, in public (“Gatesheed”) as opposed to in the semi-public-semi-private confines of an academic conference? (“Gateshead”). To what extent is “Gatesheed” – double-‘e’ as opposed to ‘ea’ – a ‘performance’, both by me, when I accent it, and by the residents of Gateshead, when they choose to accent it? Is there an argument – semantic, topographic, linguistic – for ‘heed’ sounding more appropriate than ‘head’?

These are the questions I ask myself, walking around wondering at the anachronistic public art sculpture, ‘Halo’, which appears to have crashed to earth in the exact place to frame fantastic selfies of Nando’s and Vue Cinema. How are our public spaces and thoroughfares managed to capture and maximise opportunities for advertising and sale; and conversely, how do those guided spaces, narrated in a top-down fashion to us, speak to – or mute – our dwindling public discourse?

'Halo' by Stephen Newby (2014) at Trinity Square, Gateshead

There is a line of thought – and I can’t remember to whom I should attribute this, but it is definitely not my idea – which proposes that the Halo belongs to the Angel (Of The North), and has ‘blown away’, presumably to land symbolically at Trinity Square for its significance as the site – a site: I don’t know the loco-significance of ‘Trinity’ to this part of the ’heed – of the three-pointed godhead. Gates-head. Goats-head. God-head. I don’t know. I div-not-knaa. Nee idea.

We must think about these things.

Meanwhile, in South Shields... The Word: National Centre for the Written Word (AKA South Shields Central Library, AKA “waste of taxpayers’ cash”, AKA “do the coonsil not reelize that books are aall gan online noo aneeway like”) has just had its opening. I went down on Saturday afternoon and was hugely impressed. My online interactions in the curious pseudo-third space that we think of as Facebook, had impressed on my mind a feeling that few of my fellow Sanddancers would make the effort to visit. Facetious comments on the Shields Gazette Facebook page aside, it was reassuring to note several hundred people in the building, already making use of the wide range of facilities, services and space.

‘Space’ is an interesting word to dwell upon. I suppose we can think across many tangents here, but I want to consider the space that a public library is, opens and affords us. ‘Affords’ is another interesting word, and ordinarily I would right click and select a synonym, but I think it doubly interesting that, in my quick-fire descriptive act of typing, I reached subconsciously for a word loaded with economic connotations. How is my mind a product of finance capitalism? How are these spaces – be they privately or publically funded(!) – spaces in which we can question or critique the logic of semantics, financialisation and consumer normativity?

When Hebburn’s new library received a RIBA nomination, commentators on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle Facebook page referred to it as “just a box”. Quite aside from disagreeing with architecture experts (for who needs those?), the insinuation was clear: unless the box in question is a profit-generating one, why should we tolerate it?

The Word, South Shields

Similar, disparaging comments about The Word can be found in abundance online and in general discourse right now. Go into The Wouldhave, South Shields’s Wetherspoon’s, and I guarantee people will tell you that it’s a colossal waste of money. They will repeatedly say, “Aye, but books are going digital now, why do we need more paper?” They will tell you that the council are backward-looking; that the building is “an eyesore”; and that what we really need, frankly, are more shops. “Why waste the money on this when we need affordable housing?!”

Are you aware that we are being directed into binary modes of thought? Can we tolerate new (social and private) housing stock simultaneously to a new library? Do you want Pepsi or Coke, Madam?

None of these comments are necessarily wrong. They may be foolhardy, or they may be made by the types of people to whom the transformative power of libraries – and books and the written and spoken word more generally – were never made available or encouraged; and South Shields probably does need more decent shops to stimulate footfall, but I refute, with every fibre of my being, the claim that this building was/is a waste of money.

Without even touching on the facilities, the resources (computers, WiFi, 3-D printers, as well as, no doubt, every hardback edition Catherine Cookson ever published) or the spectacular views from the top floor, I feel the need to say this as unambiguously as I can: South Shields’s new library is amazing and if the people of the town slander it without first going in, more fool them.

South Shield’s ‘old’ library will now ‘become’, presumably via a process of exacting retrofitting scrutinised by Her Majesty’s drones, the new Job Centre for the town. In the place of the current job centre, a cinema will be built. Whether this will receive council support is not for me to say or know, but one way or another, the regeneration of this part of Shields continues apace, and I wonder – while fully supporting The Word, with all of my vested interests – how north-west South Shields, around Harton Staithes, will look and feel in years to come. If, as in Gateshead, Vue (or Cineworld, Odeon or any other big, commercial multiplex) secures the contract, we can assume that Pizza Express et al will swiftly follow; and if this does happen, we can safely assume the ongoing corporate homogeneity of this enclave of North-East England.

View from inside The Word

These things are complex, which is why we must talk about them. But first we must find the right language, vernacular, tone.

I get the impression we are all tired.

Have you thought today about collective convalescence?

There’s a bookshelf, a free seat, a view of running water.


On the inside looking out

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Haliwerfolc 2: Poetry and Songs from the Seam

Joanne Clement and I have set up a blog to document our new poetry reading series, Haliwerfolc . Keep your eyes peeled for information about further events soon.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Pivots and Pips

PhDs skew your sense of time. I have alluded to the oddness of the academic year – as opposed to the calendar or financial year – before, and perhaps, as Jay Griffiths notes in her marvellous book, Pip, Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, all of these constructs of time are wedded ineffectually to modernity’s idea of a grand, linear narrative, wherein we progress in one direction through space-time. In any case, I have completed the first ‘year’ of my PhD, but in reality, despite having (successfully!) passed my Stage One APR (for those not in the know, this is basically the same as a probationary APR in a job: a semi-formal meeting in which you show evidence of how well you think you’re doing, and a panel either corroborates that or tears you to shreds) I have actually been working on it for just over ten months.

Great book, highly recommended

Ten months, twelve. Meh, this feels like a good time to reflect on where I’m at and where I might be this time next year, at the end of Stage Two (Oh, God). I started work on this project with a suite of poems based around the Stringing Bedes walks I co-led last year. Those poems’ early drafts were aired in the – largely – run-down church halls of South Tyneside, often to one man and his dog, and later reworked in meetings with Bill, Alex and Paul, and after (largely positive) scrutiny in my APR by Jake Polley and Margaret Wilkinson, so they feel like the most ‘complete’ of the thirty or so poems I have written so far.

A number of the poems I have written in the first year have gone on to be what I would term ‘linchpins’: poems that will hopefully be key, thematic concerns of the collection. One of these was ‘Each Pebble its Part’, which I wrote in collaboration for the Northern Landscapes exhibition which aired during the Newcastle Poetry Festival in May. Ostensibly a response to Bunting, the reason I think the poem was so important is that it allowed me the freedom to say, ‘Look, Basil, while I bloody love Briggflatts, your idea of what the North is is very different to mine.’ That poem was published fifty years ago. Half a century might not mean a lot, hundreds of years later, when critics are surveying a particular poetic tradition or movement, and I certainly wouldn’t be egotistical enough to suggest that anybody will be reading my poems in 2216, but writing Each Pebble... felt pivotal in that I became at ease putting enough distance between myself and Bunting to say that, while my work is indebted to yours in many ways, it is also very different.

Of course, the problem with saying a poem is a linchpin is by association it suggests that the others aren’t as strong. While it’s true that there are poems I have written that won’t make it into my final submission, never mind the manuscript for the collection, these poems are perhaps as important linchpins in their own right, for on reflection, they reveal where the writing shouldn’t be going, or where it’s failing, as much as where it is succeeding and making important and fresh statements.

Come to this, please.

I opened this post referring to time, and that is certainly something that is threading through the work already. In a supervisory meeting a while back, I was advised to look into the history of South Tyneside more; that perhaps in honing down from a fairly large geographical area (the North-East) to a smaller one, I might be able to say more succinctly what I want to say about being from this place. All of this was working, until the 23rd June, when you-know-what happened.

Like many poets and writers I know, I wrote a few things in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, one or two might still have legs in six month’s time. But it’s very difficult to write about such a pressing issue when it’s so fresh and so much is being pumped out about it. The annoying thing is that not writing about it feels just as bad, but I do wonder whether biding time might prove to be a more useful strategy.

Two other poems set outside of the region (Bell-end alert: one of them took second place in a prize...) also now feel like important moments not only in the collection, but I suppose in my thinking overall about my wankily-titled thesis and its claims to belonging and palimpsests and whatever else it claims (I do actually know what I’m doing. Honest). I don’t know if there’s a yardstick of time after which it’s OK to write about a place, but in my case it has certainly taken a full ten years to write poems about Chester and the surrounding area. Actually, both of the poems I refer to, along with at least one more currently in draft, are set in North Wales, and are predominantly concerned with the ‘elsewhere’. These are poems that attempt to counter the collection’s central impetus (that the North-East is the be-all-and-end-all); to unearth its anchor and perhaps show that maybe, just maybe, the sand it was wedged into wasn’t so secure to begin with. They are poems about the place-that-is-not-a-home-but-could-become-one-if-only-it-wasn’t-so-weird-and-oh-yeah-I-forgot-about-the-economics-of-home-and-in-truth-the-original-home-is-weird-and-oh-Christ-curveball!

All of that is pretty cryptic, isn’t it? Back to time: in the poetry world, things tick along at a glacial pace (or not, as terrifying recent news about the rapidly-warmingclimate shows), with poems often not appearing in journals for at least a year after they’re finished, and many more years in pamphlets or collections after that. So, yeah, maybe check back in 2020?

Monday, 27 June 2016

Such a local row/Changed, changed utterly

*EDIT* 29/06/2016, 12.30PM:

Honestly, what the Hell is going on? I won't post anything else until Ms Lewell-Buck's promised statement, but my Christ...

Original post of 27/06/2016 follows:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided; who owned
That half a 
rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting ‘Damn your soul!’
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
‘Here is the march along these iron stones’
That was the year of the 
Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

‘Epic’ by Patrick Kavanagh

At 7am on Friday morning last week, one hour ahead of Greenwich Meantime, I woke up in Venice, Italy, to prepare to take a flight back to Manchester. I had spent the previous five days, with my girlfriend, Kate, enjoying our first visit to one of Europe’s most well-known and well-loved cities. As we double-checked our passports and boarding cards, made sure nothing had accidentally slipped under the bed or been left in the wardrobe, we took the final opportunity to access free WiFi before we returned home, and were gutted to learn the breaking news that our country had decided, in the dead of night while we had been asleep, to exit the European Union.

We arrived at Marco Polo airport – a place far too small, hot and stuffy for the volume of tourists that utilise it – to an Italian news broadcast of David Cameron’s resignation. This was at around 9am, British time, and despite being unable to decipher the majority of the content, it was evident that in less than half a day, our county had begun to fall apart. This was a very different place to the one we had left on the 19th June, and we knew that the shit was only just beginning to hit the fan.

Venice, the city that gave us the great European traveller and internationalist, Marco Polo, when skies were bluer.

Fast forward a few days, to the Monday morning hangover after the extended weekend binge, and it’s clear that little, if anything, of what I have said in the preceding paragraph is hyperbolic. The Conservative Party has lost its cowardly leader and seems hell-bent on squabbling its way to ensuring that either Buffoon Borris or Anyone-But takes residency at Number 10 in the Autumn. Quite who this will be is, at this stage, anyone’s guess; but it is more probable that Tim Peake will discover rocking horses’ shit on the moon than it is that that person will actually deliver any of the so-promised money to those so-deserving public services.

For those whose research in the lead-up to the referendum constituted more than reading the Daily Express for five minutes in the queue at the barbers, it was abundantly evident that just because a few rich, white men plastered a tantalising figure on a big, fuck-off red bus, didn’t ever mean it was actually going to happen.

Alas, of course, this has led to the usual social media eruptions: both the justified and the childlike shit-slinging expected around these kinds of momentous events. All sorts of bollocks has been spouted on the blue-tops – I don’t really need to tell you much more about that – but it does bear repeating that ‘we’ Leavers are absolutely justified to Remain angry, upset and confused; that calling a Leaver ‘thick’ is not only condescending, it is deeply unhelpful; and that, above all else, we must, absolutely must, embrace the result, like the Weekend Warriors many of us are, and take our Resolve, firmly.

When the Vaporetto, the water taxi, I was aboard on Friday morning sailed away from the island of Venice into the open waters, its delightful spires and canals receding into the distance behind me, entering the choppy, tidal waters beyond felt massively symbolic and, well, frightening. I am shit-scared of what this vote will mean, in the short, medium and long-terms.

As we all did last Friday, I checked how my constituencies voted. The plural here is important, as I’m sure it is for many thousands of other people like myself who divide their time between at least two significant poles. In Cheshire West and Chester, where I voted at the last General Election and where I am ostensibly ‘resident’, a very narrow proportion – 50.68% – opted for the Leave vote. Chester is of course associated with WAGs, the Cheshire Set, the Duke of Westminster and being the prime shopping destination in the North-West, amongst other things. Put simply: it has money, and its Land Rovers and blinged-up residents puking Prosecco into the streets on Race Day aren’t afraid to show it.

But a mile or two south-east of the rapidly-expanding University, of which I am an alumnus of two degrees, lies the suburb of Blacon. Bordering the north-east Wales county of Flintshire (Leave: 56.37%), this large and often-forgotten enclave of Cheshire, commonly regarded if not factually then anecdotally as the most affluent county outside the Home Counties, was once the largest council estate in Europe. When I worked as a Volunteer Co-ordinator at the University of Chester from 2013 to 2015, I would always encourage my students to take up voluntary opportunities in Blacon: not out of some kind of Victorian act of philanthropy, but to help them see that, as they made their way to the city’s nightclubs on a Wednesday night for three years, just a few miles down the road to their glitzy new halls of residence were people whose very lives often depended on the generosity and support of social enterprises like the Blacon Community Trust. Ealier this year, BCT went into liquidation – a shocking indictment of the divide between the haves and the have-nots in this part of the country – but it’s okay because the Big Society is alive and well and we’re going to be stronger, more prosperous, and more in control outside of the devils of Europe with all of their shackles on our freedoms.

The Groyne Lighthouse, South Shields: blasting off to God-knows where

Despite all of my affiliations to this part of the country, I was naturally more eager to find out how South Tyneside had voted. A lot, and I really do mean a fuck load, of the conversations I had had in the months leading up to the vote in places in South Tyneside had centred around a bluntness which pointedly said ‘Out.’ I am all for a person consulting a number of sources, doing independent research and coming to a reasoned decision which is contrary to my own. However, what struck, and continues to strike me, is the simplistic conviction with which some people in Shields told – tell – me, forcibly and staunchly, ‘Out.’ A good proportion of this flat, monosyllabic invocation is followed by the clichés: ‘We can’t take any more’; ‘What have the government done for us, though?’; ‘Why should they, in Brussels, dictate our laws?’

A compelling argument by John Tomaney, Professor of urban and regional planning at University College London, which was published online last week by the Northern Correspondent, questions the usefulness of referendums. Tomaney says:

“Referendums come with problems. How can complex constitutional questions be reduced to simple “Yes” or “No” answers? Can citizens reasonably be expected to grasp arcane technical details? Citizens may end up voting on matters other than at hand, perhaps to punish the sitting government.

In South Tyneside, as in vast swathes of other areas of the UK (notably, those once-stable areas of industrial prosperity), the electorate have done just that: punished the sitting government. This has been a protest vote attached to no real protest; a rock hurled through a window with the hurler unaware of the address of the building or what the rock might subsequently damage when it’s smashed through the glass.

As a writer whose current (and likely future) practice is fundamentally concerned with trying to capture, via poetry, some sense of the zeitgeist (as well as the history and heritage) of South Tyneside and the wider North-East region, it is distressing to hear of places like Hartlepool, where 69.6% of people flicked the collective Vs.

Writers need to make money, so it is not cynical of me, but simply astute, to have vested interests in the impending opening of two new libraries/arts and cultural centres: The Word in South Shields and Storyhouse in Chester. As a citizen, this perhaps jars: my library(ies) should be free places of civic accessibility, in which critical debate, open dialogue, research and creativity are fostered.

In spite of its recent nomination as one of the UK’s best buildings at the 2016 RIBA awards, local feeling, at least on our good friend Facebook, towards Hebburn’s new £11m library is antipathetic, speaking of a wider local, regional, national and international malaise towards any “box” which does not generate revenue.

Hebburn Central Library: just a box?

How many local authorities do you know that have built not one, but two new libraries and a new swimming pool, amidst the longest, deepest period of economic uncertainty in post-war Britain? South Tyneside Council, when they open The Word later this year, will have done just that: proven investment, despite central government funding cuts, to both the educational and health and wellbeing developments of its residents, has provided facilities which local people do little but moan about, while rates of obesity soar and anti-intellectualism proliferates at a time when intellectualism is most needed.

I am not saying that a library or a swimming pool is a magic bullet: South Tyneside’s problems transcend both of those things; with roots of inequality stemming back to at least the 1970s. Nor do I think everything they do is wise: the car parking charges, frankly, are ridiculous and should be revoked instantly. At risk of sounding like a serial Shields Gazette angry-man-letter-writer, who, realistically, will pay to park in South Shields town centre to go shopping when there are no shops worth spending money in?

Haven Point swimming baths, South Shields

All of this brings me back to the referendum, with a sense of empathy for those who decided to vote differently to myself. When your once-thriving high street (King Street, South Shields – seriously: not the kind of welcome you want to a town) is little more than a chain of Greggs bakeries and Clinton’s Cards (here y’are, pet: have a cheese pasty and some mushy sentiment to make you feel better about yasel); when your homes are unaffordable or your streets tired and dirty; when you see crime and drugs and are affected by them; when your industry has long-gone, along with it your area’s binding sense of purpose; and all you’re left with is a zero-hours contract in a call centre, it’s not a surprise you will use your one big chance to yell a massive “fuck you very much” to the people in charge, half of whom probably couldn’t point to South Shields on a map.

If you want the bite-size video version of the utter disparity between the everyday person in South Shields and those people who claim to represent them from hundreds of miles away, look no further than this clip of arch-Tory, Jacob Rees-Mogg, canvassing in South Shields before last year’s General Election. I don’t know JR-M; I’m sure he’s a decent enough bloke and I don’t want to single him or anybody else out, but is it – honestly, genuinely – a surprise that people are at best reacting by voting to leave the EU, often with little to no understanding of what that means, and at worst turning to UKIP and even more scary factions of the far-right in order to vent their decades-long and largely legitimate frustrations?

A few libraries and leisure facilities aren’t going to get us out of this mess. Long blog posts by privileged people like me aren’t going to get us out of this mess. And, I feel I have to say it: a second referendum is not going to get us out of this mess. Democracy, like it or not, must be respected. If a second referendum were to be held (and the idealistic, opportunistic part of my brain says maybe, just maybe we can do all of this again in a month’s time and get a different outcome) there would be blood on the streets which would make the riots of 2012 look tame.

The fact is, we are now in the deep throes of that Monday morning hangover. This country, this England that I live in and am from, which was part of a ‘United Kingdom’ and a ‘Great Britain’ (though those labels will surely become as redundant as Hameron in the years ahead) is now, to quote Yeats, “changed, changed utterly”. Where we go now, how we adapt, what even happens for the rest of this year, is entirely up for grabs. It will be both fascinating and terrifying to watch and be a part of.

As a primer, as something to do to feel productive, to not just whine on Facebook, I have written a letter, copied openly below, to South Shields MP, Emma Lewell-Buck. I suspect that this referendum, which it goes without saying will be studied in history lessons by our children and grandchildren, has not only fractured this country permanently, it has become the catalyst for whatever prevailing order comes next and arises, Phoenix-like, from the ashes. The choices are never straightforward or binary, but it seems to me that, as individuals, constituents, workers, artists, dreamers, worriers and citizens of this country, we can continue fighting with each other and playing into the hands of the far-right, or we can seize this as an opportunity: to think about where we really want our country to be, both as the ‘independent’ nation it must necessarily now become, but as a small island on the outskirts of a changed Europe. I see democracy, social and environmental justice, and opportunity and fulfilment for all; it’s just right now, I see it through the billowing smoke of the burned-out husk that was, once, my united kingdom.

Dear Emma,

I am writing to you as a born-and-bred Sanddancer, a 2015 General Election Labour voter, and most of all, as a concerned citizen of this country.

At the referendum last week, I voted to remain in the European Union. I was, as I’m sure you were, shocked and saddened to learn that 62% of people in South Tyneside had chosen the opposite of me. The country now feels like a diminished and divided place: many of my family members and closest friends are gravely worried about its future as a result of this disruptive campaign and its already-apparent fallout.

A confession: though born in and from South Shields (and regularly back in the area to visit friends and family and attend meetings at Newcastle University, where I am enrolled as a postgraduate student) I currently live in Chester, having first moved nearly a decade ago to pursue my undergraduate degree, broaden my horizons and see a different part of the country.

Despite my current status as a non-South Shields resident, I retain immensely important familial and professional ties to the town and wider borough and region. I hope that will not dissuade you from answering two of the questions I have which stem from my anxieties about how South Shields moves forward in the future, given the current national context.

1.      Last summer, I paid £3 to elect Jeremy Corbyn as the party’s leader. I have not since committed any further – to joining the party – having been put off by the in-fighting and lack of stability that I have perceived in the past days, weeks and months. Do you support Jeremy Corbyn to remain your party’s leader, and if not, why not?
2.      Why do many of the people I speak to in South Shields tell me that the Labour Party is “out of touch” with the “ordinary, working person” of the town?

Emma, I am gravely alarmed that the 62% Leave vote in South Tyneside is just the beginning of bitter, spiteful resentment that may yet manifest in much more ugly terms. How do you propose to convince me to join the party and work with you, and/or your colleagues elsewhere in the UK, to unite and strive for a fairer society when it appears that your party is in absolute disarray?

I am immensely proud to be from South Shields; to be writing about it for my PhD thesis; to be involved in arts projects based in the town and the region; and to regularly visit my family, who are, and always have been, here. But I am worried that my fellow Sanddancers are rapidly losing faith in you and the wider Labour movement: I fear that this may drive them further to the right, into the arms of despicable ‘politicians’ like Nigel Farage, with his corrosive message.

Please, let me know what you intend to do to heal some of the evidently-gaping wounds that our hometown, and the wider country, is so divided over right now. I imagine that you may well direct me to my own MP, Chris Matheson in Chester, but the reason I am writing to you is that I am much more intimately connected to South Shields. To paraphrase the Birmingham poet, Roy Fisher, Shields is “what I think with”.

South Shields is somewhere I always enjoy returning to: for its stunning coastline, its delicious food, its arts and entertainment, its sport, and above all for the ‘craic’ of its friendly, multicultural population. But right now, when the majority of the people in the town appear to stand against the values I hold dear in a European identity, with all of its associated advantages, I’ve never felt more ambivalent about the place I still, despite everything, call home.

I look forward to your reply in due course.

Yours sincerely,

Jake Campbell.