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

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