Wednesday, 8 February 2017

'What could be the meaning or use of such love?': Thoughts towards a verticality of South Tyneside; the pre-poem; and an old-new model of sustainability for Cleadon.

“I suspect that writing a poem can be as much about the storing up of the energy before the poem’s written down as about the casting of it on to paper. One can have a strong sense of a poem being there, even when there isn’t anything there. Spooky.

That’s Jake Polley, T.S. Eliot prize winner, on what he, or I, might term the ‘pre-poem’. In thinking about my collection to-date, I’ve begun noticing a few things – most of which, you’ll be relieved to hear – I won’t be harping on about now. Patterns, cadences, repetition. Images have started recurring, as have phrases and sometimes single words. Sites, too, have drawn me back. One such site is Cleadon Hills. Now, depending on who you ask, this is either: part of South Shields, part of Sunderland, or wholly, and entirely irrefutably, part of the independent Republic-to-be, Cleadon. One, none or some of these things are true. (That’s why they call it Creative Writing, y’knaa.)

Me reading 'Spelks' at Cleadon Mill (Pin), proving that the mill, and I, am real. No fake news here, folks.

I’ve written about this before. Ego alert! My poem ‘Spelks’, which I think from the privileged position of a few years of hindsight is still a good poem, ostensibly documents and bears witness to the heartbroken Elizabeth Gibbon, daughter of a late nineteenth-century mill-owner, Thomas Gibbon, who, refusing her courtship to a local sailor (or, in some stories, pirate) is said to have driven the young girl to an early suicide.

There is evidence that the mill and farm buildings were still productive until the mid-late 1800s, with further suggestion, thanks to our friend the Boldon Book – the Domesday Book of the North(East) – that there may well have been a functioning mill of some description on the present day site since 1183. Given the prospect – only around 2KM from the North Sea, at an elevation which must be several hundred feet above sea level – it is entirely understandable, from the point of view of even rudimentary physics (poets’ physics) why you would choose to site a windmill here. The catchment area, too, must have been advantageous, certainly until around the late nineteenth-century. As Cleadon Park, the ward of south Shields that my parents have resided in for over fifteen years having moved from Harton, is largely comprised of early twentieth-century housing stock, we can safely assume that for most of its life, the mill ground wheat down to flour for sale exclusively in Cleadon Village, or at most to parts of Boldon and the then much more Tyne-centred South Shields. (Whitburn and north Sunderland, as I will describe later, had/have their own mills, thus presumably further limiting the economic viability of Cleadon Mill). While the exact parameters of to whom and where the mill supplied its wheat is unknown, its physical proximity to the sea, its elevation and equidistance to the growing nucleuses of the rivers Tyne and Wear, must have guaranteed centuries-long, farm-to-fork flour production. ‘We Sack ’em, yay bak(e) ’em’ is a slogan the future Cleadon Milling Company are welcome to (for generous royalty payments, obvs.)

'Plug' and 'Pin' shown within red circle in South Tyneside.

Same view, zoomed in. 'Plug' (Water Tower) in red; 'Pin' (Mill) in yellow

So far, so floury. ‘What does this have to do with poetry?’ You may well be asking. In 2015, when I walked Bede’s Way, and into 2016 when I delivered talks and read poems based on it, my mind was continually drawn back to the site of the mill (and the yet-to-be-discussed water tower). Partially this is because, within the confines of the Stringing Bedes walks, Cleadon Hills marks the approximate halfway point. Culturally and linguistically, too, it marks for me and many others a point of convergence: Cleadon sitting within Tyne and Wear, this is what I often refer to as the ‘hinge’ of the county; the place where Geordie meets Mackem, where Wearside meets Tyneside, where ‘bewk’ becomes ‘buke’ (or sometimes, in plain English, ‘buck’, as they say in Cleading, their ‘ing’ suffixes always annunciated, unlike their heathen ‘in’-ers’ to the north and south.) TL;DR: Cleadon ‘posh’, South Shields ‘common’.

The highest point in South Tyneside, visible for miles, Cleadon Water Tower, designed by Thomas Hawksley and built sometime in the mid-eighteenth-century (I can’t find a precise date),  is actually a chimney for the steam-powered pumping engines which sat at the base, drawing water from deep within the magnesium limestone ridge that characterises the geology of this flank of the country. An act of parliament in 1852 created the Sunderland and South Shields water company, as a response to the proliferation of waterborne diseases such as cholera. By the 1970s, however, with the opening of the Derwent reservoir, the tower and pumping station became redundant. (Much of the information here I have effectively copied verbatim from South Tyneside Council’s ‘Cleadon Hills Conservation Area’ plan of March 2007, freely and easily available online: file:///C:/Users/Acer/Downloads/Cleadon_Hills_CA_Character_Appraisal_(March_2007).pdf) The tower still stands, dormant yet imposing, with the former pumping rooms and outhouses converted to apartments and houses. What I find particularly interesting about the site, which henceforth I will take to include both the Water Tower and Mill, is that they are remnants of a time in which two of humanity’s most basic needs, water and bread, were met locally. It is far beyond the scope of my research to carry out any further archaeological, historic, sociological or anthropological studies into the site, but its continued presence in the landscape – as more-or-less intact structures – continues to fascinate me and get my mind firing towards the pre-poem.

Cleadon Mill (Note the Water Tower in the background)

Cleadon Water Tower

Actually, other sites within only a five-mile radius begin to further stoke the mind’s boiler. Two additional mills – Whitburn and Fulwell, both no longer functional, though the former is at least superficially ‘all there’ and the latter is, apparently, set to be restored – and a lighthouse (Souter, the world’s first electric lighthouse) speak to me of two things this part of the world is most famously associated with: the sea (and by extension water and water courses: the Tyne and the Wear and assorted tributaries and commerce) and the hills (mainly in the form of the extractive industries, which of course were dominated by coal mining, reaching a peak in the early part of the twentieth-century). An additional vista below, now lost, shows the Westoe Crown colliery shaft. Closed in 1993 (I was five: I don’t really remember it), the impression one must have had looking south to north on the day it was demolished, with the ghostly backdrop of Tynemouth Priory a few miles behind, must have been, truly, one of an era coming to a close.

Souter Lighthouse, Whitburn

Fulwell Mill, Sunderland, as it looks today

Whitburn Mill

The sense of verticality in South Tyneside, then, is a vestigial one, but one kept half alive by former industrial and civic buildings and their after-image. It strikes me that whether it’s a water tower (chimney), mill or lighthouse, or indeed a shaft leading into the earth, the place that I’m from was, until recently, dependant on man’s ability and willingness to ascend or descend; to coerce from the crust of the earth up to the surface the raw materials of life: water, fuel and food.

All of this has a ring of genesis (Genesis?) about it, does it not? Possibly that is one pre-poem thought: an inkling that some kind of religious, or quasi-religious meta-narrative might be the one in which to (re)frame The Site As Origin. Another might be socio-political. As the tip of the iceberg known as food scarcity has been in the news recently, it seems pertinent to think about the site as a potential place of self-sufficient food production and even alternative currencies and employment models. What might the socio-economic benefits, not to mention the long-term cost-benefit coefficient, be to Cleadon, and South Tyneside, of a fully-reinstated water tower and mill? Lacking anything beyond a very rudimentary knowledge of ground water and bread making, I daren’t speculate too far, but it strikes me that the ‘Plug and Pin’ have at least the capacity to catalyse a new, localised micro-economy of water provision and bread making. The environmental benefits, surely, would be obvious? Which is all fine, in theory (if not at all in practice), but how about culturally?

Westoe Crown pit head, gan doon in 1993

Much of our literature draws on and reinterprets myth and legend. Eliot drew heavily on fertility rituals in The Wasteland, for instance. What would a literature of this specific place look like? For a start, it is worth noting the ease with which not only literature of this type, but discourse more generally, can become too parochial, sycophantic or niche to matter. For Wendell Berry, however, the Kentucky farmer-come-writer, being rooted in a specific locale lends his work credence. Writing from his homestead in Port Royal, he says, among other things:

“The test of imagination, ultimately, is not the territory of art of the territory of the mind, but the territory underfoot. That is not to say that there is no territory of art or of the mind, only that it is not a separate territory. It is not exempt either from the principles above it or from the country below it. It is a territory, then, that is subject to correction – by, among other things, paying attention. To remove it from the possibility of correction is finally to destroy art and thought, and the territory underfoot as well.”

Berry’s writing is concerned with place, citizenship and identity. But not in the abstract: always attuned to the actuality of tending his land, and watching the slow decline of rural America, his concerns are, for lack of a better phrase, real. Here he is, musing philosophically on his ‘calling’; his vocation as a farmer-writer:

“After more than thirty years I have at last arrived at the candor necessary to stand on this part of the earth that is so full of my own history and so damaged by it, and ask: What is this place? What is in it? What is its nature? How should men live in it? What must I do?”

An ‘American Sage’, according to James Rebanks (author of the excellent The Shepherd’s Life) Wendell Berry’s philosophy of knowing-yet-not-knowing appeals to my current ruminations about the site, my interpretation of it, and how I can live in it, if only partially or temporarily. Elsewhere in The World-Ending Fire, the new volume of essays from which I’ve taken these quotes, Berry differentiates between the aestheticsisation of a landscape for artistic ends and the kind of deep knowledge that comes from living in and in-tune with it. I realise that, aside from the technical and financial implications of retrofitting a mill and well to be contemporary producers of wheat flour and water is not only hugely problematic, it is also not the real point of my work. Clearly, as the Transition model has shown us, these kinds of schemes are much needed as we enter the world of declining fossil fuel reserves and a damaged climate, but they are not without drawbacks. My question or concern is focused on the cultural potential of the site: how might we look through the past layers of these hills as a place of localised production, to a place of leisure, to a future place yet-to-be-determined? How does the prose become poetry; the thought become meaning?

Really, I suppose like Berry I am asking: How might I know this place – Cleadon Hills, with its mill and water tower, its fulcrum-like vantage between the Wear and the Tyne – and write about it with reverence and respect? How might I at once frame and distort it – make it strange, beguiling, new – while simultaneously desiring of it the potential for a more equitable, just and connected mode of living? As Berry says, ‘Why should I love one place so much more than any other? What could be the meaning or use of such love?’

One with a bounding dog, just to finish

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