Thursday, 15 February 2018

Open Letter to Professor Chris Day, Vice Chancellor of Newcastle University

Below is a now-open letter to Professor Chris Day, Vice Chancellor of Newcastle University, first sent at 11.10 am on Thursday 15th February 2018. The framing context is the planned strike action by University and College Union (UCU) members regarding changes to their pensions. Beginning with a one-day strike next Thursday, 22nd February, strikes will increase incrementally until week commencing 12th March, and/or until Universities UK (UUK) agree to further rounds of talks, thus allowing UCU-striking staff to return to ordinary teaching and administrative duties.

The UCU strikes are yet to make many ripples with local or national news, despite 60 ‘pre-1992’ institutions being involved. The wider scenario surrounding the dispute is difficult to comprehend, but boils down to proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) which would see the average UCU member’s annual retirement income cut by £10,000 a year.

I attended a meeting led by academics in the School of English yesterday where much of the intricacies and apparent rationale on the part of UUK for the changes were outlined. Gratifyingly, there was a mix of undergraduate and postgraduate students in attendance, testament to the bigger picture which overshadows the dispute: namely, a widespread – and growing – scepticism towards market fundamentalism pervading higher education.

Professor Day is hosting an open forum event on Friday, which I hope to attend. Having done so, and listened to his and the University Executive Board’s side of the story, I will report back. If you are a student – and not necessarily a student at one of the sixty universities taking industrial action – I would urge you to read up about an issue which, in the short-term could be hugely disruptive during the spring term, but more importantly in the long-term, could terminally wound lecturers’ ability and desire to carry out their important public roles as facilitators of knowledge exchange. My letter, in full:

Dear Chris,

I am writing out of grave concern for the current situation regarding the imminent strike action planned by UCU members. As a PhD student currently enrolled in my third year of study within the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle University, I feel obliged to state my solidarity with those colleagues who have been forced into these measures as a last resort. I, like them, hope that this predicament can be resolved swiftly and fairly.

I would be grateful if you could explain what actions you and the Executive Board are taking to ameliorate the situation.

As a postgraduate researcher supported by the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership (and not – yet – I should add, a UCU member) I have nothing to gain in the short- to medium-term in supporting the strike, but as a concerned individual – one who anticipates a future career within the academy – I am deeply uncomfortable with the proposed changes to the USS pension system. If seen through, these changes would not only make my own, and many colleagues’, retirement significantly more difficult, they would fundamentally undermine our collective endeavour as committed, knowledge-sharing intellectuals who strive, in numerous ways, to improve the world and our understanding of it.

What impetus has an Early Career Researcher to pursue a vocation in which it appears his or her talent, skills and critical judgements will slowly be eroded by draconian measures borne not out of academic best practice, but apparently-arbitrarily-arrived-at projections and worst-case scenarios?

As a born and bred Sanddancer and resident of South Tyneside, I am proud to attend my local university, Newcastle, where I enjoy the benefits of excellent facilities and the expertise of myriad world-leading experts, the majority of whom are committed to scholarly practice and lifelong learning in a co-operative environment. Newcastle University really is a huge asset to the North-East, but its benefits are not strictly financial. My suspicion is that, in not supporting the UCU members’ desire for further talks with UUK, you are only exacerbating the market-driven model of Higher Education which so many young people in our region and beyond have been burdened by and which so many academics – not to mention ‘ordinary people’ – have rightly criticised.

Reading the University’s Vision and Values, it is difficult to disagree with the sentiments. However, I feel that, without your support for the UCU members who only wish to divulge their specialism and share their passion with the next generation of students, Newcastle University cannot honestly claim to be a ‘civic university with a global reputation for academic excellence’.

I look forward to your open forum event on Friday, where I hope my concerns will be allayed and my friends and peers who have elected to take such drastic moves can get back to teaching their students safe in the knowledge that they – both students and teachers – are not being taken for granted.

At risk of lecturing somebody whose academic credentials supersede my own, I would just like to leave you with the following thought. Like all great institutions, a university is comprised of mutual relationships between people striving towards common goals. The success of those institutions cannot, truly, be measured by how profitable they are, but by the support structures they put in place to enable and encourage all of their members to dream big and achieve.

Yours sincerely,

Jake Campbell.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

"We're done here, chaps."

"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears..." View of 'archaeological graveyard', the Forum

I’ve just got back from Italy, where I spent a week with a number of other PhD students at the British School at Rome taking part in a pilot initiative to link the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership – comprising students from Newcastle, Durham and Queen’s (Belfast) Universities – with the BSR, a cultural and academic hub in the city, committed to bolstering mutually-beneficial links between the two nation-states.

This blog won’t dwell too much on the mission of the BSR, nor will it bore readers with superfluous details of the programme I took part in. Rather, I want to use this space to think aloud, as it were, about my experience as a first-time visitor to the ‘Eternal City’, carrying with me as I do the baggage of various identities: Professional North-Easterner; Poet; Creative Writing doctoral researcher; white, able-bodied male; &c.

Specifically, my intention is to use this post to dwell upon an incident which took place in the small hours of last Sunday morning—one whose symbolisms, cultural potency and ongoing political ramifications are tied indirectly with the aims and intentions of the programme and its contents; speak broadly to some of the hitherto mentioned intersectional identities; and in a roundabout way are germane to what I am beginning to term ‘Marradharmic Praxis’; that is, an International-Regional approach to poesis, extending William Martin’s search for social and spiritual equilibrium in late twentieth-century County Durham. There’s a fair chance that this won’t make an awful lot of sense immediately, but I think that’s part of the importance of sharing it. As ever, I welcome feedback, debate and the high likelihood of having to correct myself.

With apologies to Professor Helen Berry in advance, whose presentation and expertise I am about to make a hash of, I’d like to indulge retrospective interpretation of my own hastily-scribbled notes in order to frame the aforementioned ‘incident’ by situating it within a historical lineage opened up to me this last week by Helen’s fascinating presentation. This will be based on a very basic summary of a practice which gained traction in the late seventeenth-century, finding its zenith in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

I am, of course, talking about The Grand Tour, excursions involving young British men (and they were nearly exclusively all men) being chaperoned through Europe to arrive in the Mediterranean, where they would encounter for themselves the great works of art and Classical antiquity which entry into elite circles of aristocracy presupposed not only knowledge of, but direct engagement with. Because of the Napoleonic Wars, travellers reached Italy via peregrinations through the Alps, arriving in and touring through cities such as Venice, Florence and Rome in order to acquire through osmosis the kinds of connoisseurship that would grant them continued access to the most exclusive echelons of society upon their return. These young men saw themselves as the inheritors of the Greek and Roman world: they were public school-educated, extremely well connected, able to afford the company of a ‘Bear Leader’ (essentially an older guide whose chief purpose was to provide the types of ‘experiences’ one could not possibly seen to be having in the Home Counties, Gosh no) and they spent a year or more tramping around the continent picking up the good tastes (and discarding the inferior ones) that would stand them well for another few decades of privileged, bourgeois conversation in landed homes across the country.

While the more lurid ‘souvenirs’ they took home with them (not to mention the ‘gifts’ they left in their wake) might be the subject of another post entirely, it is worth considering the types of artworks these boys would purchase and later hang in their country pads, cultivating the kind of mutual back-scratching that such mementos signified. This Cappricio View of Rome with the Arch of Constantine by Viviano Codazzi is typical of the Baroque style so favoured by Brits of the time. Never mind that it represents an ‘impossible view’ of Rome (something which, personally, I don’t mind: in fact, skewed truth can be a blessing for poets), clashing architectural and archaeological elements incongruously, the point was to be seen: to be regarded as a well-travelled, tasteful member of an elite club, a collector of cultural capital who would be considered by others of a similar disposition as understanding what good taste signified and how it might be used to further the status-quo. Remember, this is the era of civic virtue and codes of conduct: a top-down approach to social stratification in which the elite and educated impose on to others the mores and manners of polite society.

Viviano Coddazi's 'Impossible View', so treasured by bourgeouis Grand Tourists
The Tribuna of the Ufizzi by Johan Zoffany, showing what Robert Walpole called a montage of "troublesome boys" indulging in the behaviours alluded to above

How funny, then, several hundred years later, to be encountering the descendants of the Grand Tourists in a bar in Rome. What follows is, again, an exercise in thinking-out-loud: an attempt both to try and process what happened, sure, but a way of reaching beyond; to thinking about how class backgrounds, social status and education and experience are always present, consciously and subconsciously, in the way we conduct ourselves in public, especially on foreign soil. The etiquette(s) we selectively deploy and the way we ‘choose’ to ‘break free’ of those parameters (or not—often such practices and taboos are performed in contradictory ways) form the focal point of what follows.

To cut a long story short, and spare the reader mundane scene-setting, here is an open question: What drives a man – a white, Englishman in his mid-late twenties, to scream directly into another man’s face (a man he has never met) a Millwall Football Club chant? Now, I’ll be honest, I do not recall what the chant was in any great detail, other than that it was about Millwall, a club well-known to have historic problems with football hooliganism. The ins and outs of this are beyond my frame of reference, and I do not wish to fall into the trap of painting all of their fans with the same brush (and, by extension, all British football fans: those kinds of simple narratives have been damaging enough in the wake of, for instance, the Hillsborough disaster), but no matter how apocryphal or unsubstantiated the claims and their skewing by media bias may be, we are still talking about a football club whose support base (or its extreme factions) is known for attracting, how to put this, rowdy tendencies. If a Millwall fan reads this and thinks any of what I have just said is unfair, do please get in touch: I would hate to read a partial account of, say, South Shields or Sunderland supporters.

Anyway, this story isn’t about football, or sport per se. The man in question had doubtless consumed large quantities of alcohol and I suspect will not remember scoffing in my face, nor receiving in reply a firm but fair shove away, which I admit was coupled with an impolite version of the aphorism, ‘go forth and multiply’. If, by some magical nexus of the internet, the young man in question does somehow end up reading this, I’d be more than happy to engage with him in polite discussion about why he really ought not to repeat his actions in, say, the Bigg Market, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

I suppose I’m interested in the reasons why his fellow drinkers, who had clearly assembled much earlier in the bar to watch the first two Six Nations rugby games, rushed to interject. Let’s rewind several minutes: before Mr Millwall shouted in my face, I had politely introduced myself to one of the rugby fans while ordering a drink at the bar. His reception was frosty at best: saying that he couldn’t understand my accent. I admit: when I’ve had a drink – and, for the sake of transparency, I had definitely partaken of several strong libations by this stage in the evening – my accent does thicken, but it’s hardly impenetrable and I was not introducing myself to an Italian with no prior contextual knowledge, but to a fellow Englishman with whom I wished to make acquaintance, perhaps partake in a bit of light chit-chat about the day’s egg-chasing.

The rest of this story hardly needs telling: it’s so fraught with stereotypes that only the eye-rolling emoji need stand in as suitable response. Nevertheless, compost... Following a bit of argy-bargy – the old hand shakes at dawn and “let me buy you a drink on that daft fellow’s behalf” routine – I left the bar. It’s worth pointing out at this stage that I was with two other Northern Bridge students, who I won’t name, but were also men in their mid-late twenties who, upon entering the bar with me some half-hour earlier, had expressed similar feelings of cynicism about the group of rugby fans and their quarrelsome tag-along. I think it is worth stating this as unambiguously as possible: I certainly made hasty value judgements about the group, in an inverted snobbish kind of way, but my sense of anticipation in these scenarios is usually prescient. Cutting the meat from the fat, events culminated in a heated discussion with some pushing and shoving. Having dared question why another man, part of the group but not really privy to the initial squabble, had deemed it acceptable to stand in front of a street-sweeper making provocative gestures and generally being a menace to an Italian civil servant (no doubt on minimum wage) keeping the square we were all enjoying looking fresh, I was once again approached and provoked, the clear and loudly-articulated basis of which was incredulity at my reckless impinging on a mere matter of fun and games. Let ‘banter’ be banter? Are my virtue signals on full-beam here; do I need to dim them?

Look, I’ve been a tit in public. Only last spring, in my own capital city, I was part of a group of several thousand South Shields FC supporters, converging on Covent Garden, drinking too much and generally causing a racket. Now, I don’t wish to, and couldn’t even begin to if I tried, speak for the other few thousand Shields fans present, but I certainly didn’t interfere with any public servants that night, nor did I scream my ludicrous chants mere inches from a bystander’s face. However, sour-tasting as these actions are, their undercurrents are more malicious still. Being pushed and shoved around a bit is cause for a strong cup of tea and a moment of reflection, but I wasn’t actually hit (and, I feel the need to say this clearly and frankly, did not hit out at anybody else) and also, thank God, no Italian law enforcement personnel witnessed the scene, which could very easily have escalated in all kinds of ways had it been perceived as more than the in-some-ways-ridiculous display of macho pea-cocking that it was. However, and I’ve had a few days to process this now, something much more invidious took place. The sub-text of which was to be found in, to borrow sardonically from conference proceedings, the closing remarks: that is, the young man who elected to be diplomat-in-chief and diffuse the situation by saying to me and the other two lads, de facto, “We’re done here, chaps.”

Bunch of Saveloy Dips outside Wembley: 21st May 2017

There are many, many things I could now say, most of them unpleasant. However, in the spirit of reaching out, let me unpack that phrase, “We’re done here, chaps.” Syntactically, it constructs an interesting structural arrangement: the placing of the collective noun ‘we’ at the beginning acts as a bargaining chip: the by-line being: “We’ve all been complicit in this silly little kerfuffle, and there’s no use dwelling on things when we will never reach a solution, so let’s all be on our way.” In practice, the diplomat meant to use the first-person ‘I’, but, owing to his no doubt first-class degree in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics), retained enough self-assurance to penetrate the lager-fuelled window of translucency sufficiently to deploy common rhetoric, thus diffusing the situation not for our benefit, but for the collective advantage of his fellow Grand Tourists. Better to call the whole thing off with a feckless admission of complicity than being pulled in front of a disciplinary hearing at Oxbridge and tainting the family name.

That’s not all. Let’s think of the meat in that proverbial sandwich: the “done here”. Shrugging off the incident as a mere hiccup in an otherwise-bountiful evening of banter, the phrase resonates so detestably for what it obscures: that is, our encounter here in this square, in which the behaviours and actions of the entitled are brought into question by the less-than-entitled, is being forcibly closed. Discourse is being shut down and there’s not a jot you can do about it, old bean. And then there’s that ‘chaps’, isn’t there? That wonderful piece of vernacular that contains all of the privileges and presences of the leisured class. “Chaps”, the diplomat might have said, “On this occasion you have been lucky: we have elected not to use physical force, not because we couldn’t, but because we are social media savvy and cannot possibly risk our names going viral in an altercation with three individuals at a lowly institution like Newcastle.” He might have gone on, “Chaps, your petty provincial concerns and academic persuasions matter nothing to our six-figure salaries, and as for the street-sweeper, push him in the Tiber and see what we care.”

Chaps, Chapettes, the Grand Tourists are alive and well and they are not about to check their privileges on the account of some measly, Northern PhD students. The problem for our Hooray compadres is that, via the academic discourses I am so heavily invested in, I can at least bring to attention the problematic nature of their conduct. I’m not naïve enough to think that, on the very slim chance one of the perpetrators reads this they will in any way change their behaviour, but it needs to be said regardless. At a time when our links with nation-states such as Italy become ever-more important, does it not behove of us to think more deeply about how we conduct ourselves; how we refract back to the (baffled) onlooking continent and world our better natures?

Perhaps, having had a week’s worth of in-depth tours of places like the Forum, the Lateran and Keats-Shelley House, by leading experts in their fields, my resentment towards the ignorant Chaps was magnified. I suspect that this could and will come across as me taking more than just one kind of moral high ground, but my time in Rome was predicated on the basis of being an amateur. Wishing to absorb and learn from art, architecture, archaeology, cuisine, language and politics, I came to Rome acknowledging the narrow-mindedness of my knowledge base on Romano-British relations, wishing to – and succeeding in – having my horizons expanded.

In our home nation, never mind in how we act when we’re ‘away’, civic discourse and politics are being eroded by buccaneering PPE graduates with little care for the ordinary person. I realise that that is quite a claim, and in some ways it is unrelated to the matter at hand, but a culture of entitlement was on display last Sunday so burly that it shudders to make me think that we are still being governed by the vestiges of those Empire-expanders.

The Italian Marxist theorist, Antonio Gramsci, (who, full caveat, I know little about), speaks about ‘common sense’ and ‘good sense’: the former being the norms and customs coerced onto a populace using ideology; the latter being – I think? – an individual’s agency and ability to grasp those inherited narratives for transformative social change. Again, my knowledge base here is slight, so I’d welcome input from critical theorists or Gramsci scholars. Anyway, the crux surely is the “We’re done here, chaps” line as (anti)Gramscian coercion-in-action? Not prone to violence (would a rugby league fan from Warrington have chinned me on the spot?), the collective Chaps imposed extreme ideology, vis a vis learned rhetoric, to simultaneously shrug us off and expurgate themselves of any transgressions.

In my critical work on the poet William Martin, I situate his neologism, ‘Marradharma’, as an important blend term or portmanteau which might offer a useful prism through which to examine and critique the modern and contemporary region. Predominantly, I am concerned with how this term can be used as tool, or framework, in poetics, but its potential to be applied across a range of humanities and social sciences contexts is profound. As humanities scholars, we are used to seemingly-throwaway ciphers like ‘the past in the present’, but I think Marradharma offers us a very potent tool for engaging with social change from not only the ‘bottom-up’ (as its socialist ‘left’ implies), but from the ‘top-down’, too (as its religious ‘right’ suggests). The term is, of course, contestable, which is part of its excitement, but it seems to me to contain the kinds of dynamism and inclusivity that a relational poetics – indeed, a relational re-public – ought to strive for. The past was certainly on display in the present in Rome last week. In so many ways, it was a pleasure and a privilege to ‘bridge the Tiber’, to bring to bear on contemporary Rome my own discipline and field of expertise, but then have it exploded by proximity to other vastly different frames of reference within the settings of a literally palimpsestuous city.

I genuinely don’t want to end this with a sarcastic comment, and I realise that the prospect of carrying on this discourse with those who so firmly blocked it is near zero, but something deeply troubling took place on that square in Rome, and I’m saddened that it had nothing to do with a Roman or Italian—just several English lads who, through ‘common sense’, might forever remain apart.

Monday, 18 December 2017

PhD Stock-Take

Having lost a full week to The Dreaded Lurgy last week, I thought I’d begin the wind-down to Christmas period with a stock-take. As a PhD is a slippery bugger, it’s almost impossible to fully itemise and draw up an inventory, but here’s a decent attempt as I go into my final, full* calendar year of study.

·         Poems drafted: 60+
·         Of which I’m satisfied: 30+
·         Collection length to-date: 47 pages (Well within the realms of ‘satisfactory’, but still a way away from ‘great.’ Howay.)
·         Critical component word-count: 26,000
·         Of which I’m satisfied: Impossible to discern, but I’d say two thirds of it is decent.

While this absolutely should not be thought of as a formal two-thirds report to RCUK, AHRC or Newcastle University, as doctoral researchers we are encouraged to be reflexive learners. So, as somebody in the business of words, let’s break down the slightly arbitrary quantitative data above and get at the meat:

·         I’ve drafted a lot of shit material. Most of the stuff sitting in my drafts folder will not see the light of day in the PhD, unless...
·         It is cannibalised. For poets, this actually-opportunistic phrase is one often applied to the process of allowing a stronger poem to subsume still-strong elements of an altogether weaker effort. Normally this process is chronologically typical: i.e. a ‘poor’ poem written six months ago, which I know is beyond help, can later yield some of its healthy limbs to prop up a poem that isn’t quite there. Occasionally the process is reversed, with the older model being revved-up by glitzier components from the newer model. In either case, it’s messy and sometimes the hybrid poem itself has to be rejected.
·         That said, I have written out (not for the first time), all of the poems I currently think contain merit and/or are thematically on-point (i.e. they speak broadly to my research questions) into one document, and that document is forty-seven pages long. Superficially at least, I have a collection which provides a skeletal outline of a thesis.
·         Combined with 26,000 words of critical prose (again, on paper) 80-90% of my PhD is written. Would I be happy to submit that in an emergency? I absolutely would not.
·         This is mainly because the major discrepancy with the project right now is the disharmony between the poems and the criticism. While two thirds of my criticism is, dare I say it, good, the final third of it is nebulous at best. This means that a substantial part of 2018 is going to be spent making those final 10,000 words sing from the same sheet as the first 20,000; and to extend the metaphor, the real magic will occur when I marry up those 30,000 words of criticism with a fuller collection and get the harmonies pitch-perfect**.
·         And I have to factor in a 5,000-word ‘bridging chapter’, in which I summarily connect the thematic collection (answering the research questions via a series of taps on the shoulder) with the critical exegesis (extending the research questions via a sustained dialectical extension of knowledge).
·         That’s all before doing the viva-voce: an oral examination in which I defend the shit out of a bunch of poems that I’ve spent three and a half years gestating.
·         Itself all having to fit ’round my wedding, in June.

Reading back work written in the past twenty-seven months, a few things become apparent. They were all outlined to me at the beginning of the PhD, and are largely ‘common sense’ phenomena, but nonetheless they bear reflecting on:
·         The stuff you write at the beginning of a PhD – like the stuff you write in the middle of  a PhD – is not going to excite you as much as the stuff you’ve just written. That’s only a problem for you: as far as the examiners are concerned, this was all written in one, extended session, thus explaining its academic rigour, its watertight referencing, its innovative extension of knowledge in the field and its coherence as a sustained piece of scholarly work of the highest calibre.
·         The person you are in the closing stages of a PhD is not the person you were when you wrote your proposal, therefore your original proposal is about as useful to you as the mild humour in a surreal joke about household appliances being made of chocolate. But, again, this is only your problem, so either do some retrofitting or recalibrate your research question(s) to fit the person you’ve become while you’ve written all those odd words.
·         Creative Writers only (the following may well apply in a tangential way to Fine Artists, Musicians and practice-based researchers generally, but I suspect it doesn’t apply to any other PhDs, including English Literature ones): the PhD is not the book. Repeat: the PhD is not the book. It might be the skeleton – of the poetry collection, novel or script – but it is not the book that the publisher will take.

*The current aim is to submit the PhD around this time next year. If I can get it in in October 2018 (when my funding expires), then great, but like all good PhD students, I will probably require a little extra time.

**It will not be ‘pitch-perfect’. Somebody once told me that a PhD isn’t a Nobel Prize, so there’s no way I’m busting a ball on the impossible.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

We'll Keep the Red Flag Flyin' High

I’ve never been to Coventry, Stoke-on-Trent or Swansea, and my only experience of Paisley was watching a play one snow-filled evening in early 2013. I’m sure all four places are as deserving of the title of UK City of Culture 2021 as Sunderland is. I won’t begrudge a non-North-Eastern winner, but being a Sanddancer, and therefore a cousin of the Mackems (as well as, for my sins, a lifelong SAFC fan) I am throwing my hat into the ring in support of Sunderland’s bid.

The Sunderland I first got to know over a decade ago is a different place to the city we see at the end of 2017. Thirteen years ago, in 2004, when I started travelling into St. Aidan’s sixth-form on the 35 bus from South Shields, the city was…well, it was an unknown quantity. Making the mile-and-a-half trek between Park Lane interchange and sixth-form in Ashbrooke, twice daily for two years, I began to see the place as more than just home to a football stadium. When I attended Roker Park as a very young bairn, and later matches at the Stadium of Light, there was no need to travel into the city centre itself, especially given that we were always heading home in a northbound direction. In the confines of the SoL (and Roker Park before it) both occupying sites to the north of the Wear, it is easy to forget that Sunderland is an iceberg: two thirds of it lying below the water line. I feel that, in the run up to the DCMS decision on the 7th December, Sunderland probably still occupies such a position for many people—especially those ‘down south’, but even those in the wider region. How many people in Newcastle, Northumberland, North Tyneside, Durham or Middlesbrough  – even Gateshead or Jarrow – have really spent much time in Sunderland? The facetious answer, and I’ve heard it all too readily, is that Newcastle has it all; why would you bother going to Sunderland? I think it’s important that we cease thinking along these lines: partisan tensions between cities which, after all are only thirteen miles apart, are not only old-fashioned and redundant, they are preventing the region as a whole making progress. It’s time to go diving.

Let me be absolutely clear and upfront from the beginning: Sunderland city centre, as well as some of its outlying suburbs, are still materially deprived. The reasons as to why are manifold and do not form the core concern of this blog, but let it be hypothesised that several things have (or, crucially, have not) happened. Recently, seven years of brutal austerity measures have cascaded down from central government to the Labour-ran local authority, Sunderland City Council, which, like so many other local authorities, has had its hands tied. Forced to make savings in one area at the detriment of another, there is resentment and confusion (Witness Brexit, and Sunderland being unfairly lauded as its ‘poster boy’). The same formula is true in Newcastle, as it is in other towns and cities up and down the land, but the consequences are felt most keenly in the North, Midlands and South-West. In Sunderland, the closure of local libraries, museums and domestic violence services – to name just three – are the direct result of this callous government and its lack of concern for ordinary people.

Secondly, the vacuum left by the calculated withering of once-thriving industries such as shipbuilding and mining (did you know that the Wear, not the Tyne, once produced more ships than any other river in the world?) since the 1980s has largely not been filled. The opening of Doxford Park, a 1990-designated Enterprise Zone four miles south of the city, has no doubt stemmed the flow of further emigration from Sunderland, but its physical remove from SR1 has had the knock-on of making the city, at 12 o’clock on any given weekday, void of sandwich and coffee-buyers. I’m not suggesting that a city’s entire economy can or should be propelled by a one-hour sales window of hungry office workers, but there’s a certain illogical premise to situating several thousand of your gainfully-employed populace away from the nucleus of the place they live and work in. The re-development of the Vaux site, then (derelict for a staggering 17 years) into mixed-use office, leisure and retail, can only be a good thing for a city which all-too-often feels like the shutters have been pulled down before closing time.

Sun rise, Roker Beach: A new dawn?

Right, no more negatives! In February this year, my partner and I moved to a flat just north of Sunderland, in the suburban village of Cleadon. Quick bit of history: originally a part of the city until the Local Government Act of 1972 created the metropolitan county of Tyne and Wear, Cleadon was then subsumed into the newly-formed borough of South Tyneside. This is why it still has an SR6 postcode (like neighbouring Whitburn) and Sunderland on the address, despite its bins being emptied in Shields. Equidistant to both Wear and Tyne, however (with its wealth coming from industrial magnates building grand homes here from the 18th century), Cleadon has always felt to me like a hinge point: the liminal space between Geordie and Mackem. As somebody writing a PhD about North-Eastern identity, this makes it an opportunistic vantage point: both for ease of access to the wider county and an ideal spot from which to observe, and participate in, Sunderland’s bid.

When my partner took a job at the University of Sunderland, at the City Campus on the south of the river, I once again started making regular journeys from South Tyneside into Sunderland. A drive of no more than five miles, I feel this year that I have been re-examining my former self. In 2004-2006, sat on the bus going over the Wearmouth Bridge, I had had time to build up resentment for the city and for the wider area. As a hormonal and fickle teenager, more interested in music made in California than Castletown, I had neither knowledge nor inclination to think critically about the myriad, complex reasons why this place seemed so destitute, and so my irrational brain made up its mind: Sunderland was irredeemable and I had to leave. That did, of course, turn out to be a brilliant decision: applying to UCAS in spring 2006, the University of Chester beckoned, and six months later I was 180 miles away in a delightful, middle-class haven in North-West England. I don’t think I ever considered what Sunderland and the North-East would be like over a decade later, nor how I would become actively involved in its creative economy and an ambassador for its cause.

When making the fatal mistake of reading comments beneath Sunderland Echo (and Shields Gazette and Newcastle Chronicle) articles outlining the development of the bid, I have been stunned to see the reactions of some people from Sunderland and the wider region. Ranging from at best antipathy to at worst stereotypical jokes about there being “more culture in a yoghurt pot – har, har”, there is a bizarre (mis-)representation from certain quarters that people would rather nothing happened. To me, that kind of mindset is probably an indirect result of the already-mentioned austerity, but it is not helpful and residents of Sunderland and the wider North-East region ought to realise that this bid has the potential of being transformative for the area. Speaking as somebody with vested interests in Higher Education, yes, but also as somebody who simply wishes the region’s universities to succeed, the following should be obvious: if your student populace (drawn from national and international pools) have further opportunities for work, entertainment and living after their degrees, more of them will feel inclined to stay, rather than feeling compelled by the all-too-understandable lure of ‘brighter lights’ in London or Manchester (or Newcastle).

I can see the appeal. Looking at flats earlier this year, I had initially wanted to be based north of the Tyne. Not necessarily in Newcastle (though I study there, so it would have been easier), I had in mind the feeling that Tynemouth or Whitley Bay would be excellent places to live. I’m sure they are: I have friends in both, and I enjoy visiting them. But, with my partner’s job being in Sunderland, it made sense to live nearer the Wear. When we found the flat in Cleadon, knowing it was a short walk to East Boldon Metro station (itself only a twenty-minute ride into Newcastle), I realised we’d struck very lucky. In a fifteen-minute walk from our front door we can be up on Cleadon Hills, one of the North-East’s most glorious areas of natural beauty, with stunning views over Wearside, Tyneside and right out into Northumberland, County Durham and North Yorkshire. In thirty minutes, or five in the car, we can be at some of the best beaches in the country: from Marsden in South Shields to Whitburn, Seaburn and Roker, there are miles of coastline here which, in my opinion, are much more varied than anything the north side can offer. The one downside to Cleadon is its lack of a decent pub. True, The Britannia does a cracking carvery, but The Cottage is not the bouncing boozer of five years back. But then, two miles away in East Boldon, there are an abundance of watering holes and eateries, especially for a small place. Highlights include the recently-transformed (from sad, sorry and smelly) Sleepers into Beggar’s Bridge, and the stunning wine bar come Charcuterie, Black’s Corner. At the risk of a) this sounding like a food and drink supplement and b) me sounding every inch a man on the precipice of thirty, let us re-focus.

Pop Choir at Fausto: Guaranteed to put a Geet Big Smile on your face

At the end of the summer, we began taking part in the pop choir at Fausto Coffee. Originally in a much smaller, end-terrace shop in Roker, Fausto moved around about the time we did, to a new, purpose-built unit on the seafront. Known for its eclectic range of sporting events and gigs (bike rides, sea-swims and morning fitness clubs sit happily alongside acoustic performances), Fausto is a community-driven café which, I’ve no doubt, would be the envy of everybody from Jesmond to Hackney Wick. Led by the Cornshed Sisters’ fabulous Jennie Brewis, pop choir’s short life has already garnered regional attention, with the group singing live on BBC Radio Newcastle (in support of the Sunderland 2021 bid), with a Christmas performance at Park Lane scheduled for the 16th December. While I haven’t been to every meeting (honestly, I’m feeling withdrawal symptoms having not been for a fortnight now), each Monday I do attend is a joyful opportunity to make new friends, drink good coffee and belt out the lyrics to George Michael and Tina Turner. My eighteen-year-old, NOFX-listening-self could scarcely imagine...

In the city’s other well-known coffee shop, on the other side of the water, Pop Recs has been going strong since 2013. Now onto its second location, the record store come coffee shop come performance space is a genuine grassroots marvel. Set up by the indie band, Frankie and the Heartstrings, and now operating from just around the corner to the bus interchange I used to miserably walk past, Pop Recs is the type of inspirational place that I wish my seventeen-year-old self had had access to. Of course, my seventeen-year-old self was swigging blue pints in Ku and gan mental to The Mercury League in the little room above Pure, so he didn’t miss out too much.

Walking through Keel Square a few weekends back (having attended an excellent, late afternoon performance by The Cornshed Sisters at Pop Recs), we went for a few drinks at some of the city’s newest establishments. The Old Fire Station, having recently undergone substantial structural and cosmetic surgery, is now a bar/restaurant and performance space that – when it’s fully kitted out with its auditorium – will be a fantastic asset for theatre-makers and audiences across the region. The place already feels like the cornerstone of a palpably-buzzing, upcoming cultural quarter, the middle of which is already home to what is known locally as the West End of the North-East: Sunderland Empire. With The Peacock and Dun Cow, two fine boozers brought back to their Victorian splendour, book-ending the area, it’s easy to imagine the light nights next summer being very well spent in this part of town. In fact, the Fire Station and Keel Square as a whole mark for me a bold statement of intent: with new street furniture, public art, fountains and clearly classy entertainment venues all in one space, the real question should be: ‘How much further can we go?’

As I said earlier, there are still some very worrying visible signs of deprivation in other areas of the city. But the feeling I have walking through Sunderland, and enjoying time on its stunning coastline, is that this is a city moving in absolutely the right direction. Whether or not that is enough for it to be crowned the UK’s next City of Culture on Thursday remains to be seen, but what is obvious is that there is huge momentum here and a growing pride across business-owners, artists, musicians and members of the public that Sunderland has the potential to be an absolutely terrific place to live, work and visit. Following Hull’s granting of UK City of Culture for 2017, interim reports already show impressive and wide-ranging benefits to the city, its wider economy and residents’ sense of pride. There is simply no way that, were Sunderland to be crowned the winner in 2021, our magnificent hotels, restaurants, shops, bars and assortment of other service industries wouldn’t gain. As a proud Sanddancer, I am certain this would also translate to increased revenue further up the coast, as well as incentivising tourists to spend time in our other fabulous towns and cities. Grumpy commenters: maybe you want to re-think your cynicism? If people in Newcastle – or Sunderland – don’t want to support that, then that’s up to them, but I’d urge them to brave the thirty-minute South Hylton Metro journey and see what’s on offer. And, if you live nearby and you haven’t paid the city a visit in a while, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Now, if only Chris Coleman can get the football team winning...

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Hospitalfield: A Creative Practice Symposium

Near the end of my weekend at Hospitalfield, the artist Michael Mulvihill said to me that, while he enjoyed hearing about everyone’s artistic practice and research, the opening up of the world of poetry had affected him the most.

For my part, I’d like to reverse-echo the sentiment: discovering the visual and musical arts has, for me, been a revelation. While the experience was at its most pronounced this weekend, with sixteen artists showcasing their works over a two and a half day intense period, I really mean to say that the past two years (and before that), via the opportunities that I have had to meet so many fascinating artists—some of whom I’ve collaborated with—has surely shaped my thinking and influenced my work in myriad positive ways.

Hospitalfield is the kind of place that is a joy to every one of the bodily and spiritual senses. From the culinary delights, to the coastal setting just outside Arbroath, to the pulchritudinous grounds, to the ornate and eclectic collection of paintings, tapestries and sculptures, the house is a fertile breeding ground for new ways of working as much as it is a place of solitude and contemplation.

The project of wife and husband duo, Elizabeth Allan-Fraser and Patrick Allan-Fraser, Hospitalfield occupies the site of a 12th-century Benedictine monastery, since transformed into a beguiling site of artistic splendour. Somewhere between country pile and contemporary gallery, but not really so much of either, Hospitalfield is a genuine one-off. The opportunity to have spent this weekend there, then, was a special one. Organised by Joanne Clement, the Northern Bridge Creative Practice completion symposium brought PhD students from across the Arts together, swiping us from our routines, asking us to address ourselves and the challenges and opportunities our works face in both dividuated and interdisciplinary ways.

For my own part, I was able to frankly discuss with practitioners at one (or several) steps removed from Literature, the concerns I currently have with my work: namely, will poetry of the margins stay in the margins; and to what extent can I, and should I, take steps to steer it?

These open-ended conversations took place, largely and thankfully, in the most informal ways: over drunken dancing to the likes of competition and co¥ᄀpt [Craig Pollard and Sean Cotterill, respectively], musicians not so much at the cutting-edge, but questioning where the edges even are. With Simon Woolham (and the ‘with’ is both instrumental to Simon’s practice and the rationale behind the weekend as a whole; a Harawayan ‘making-with’) it involved following the tracks of his practice: fusing seemingly-disparate artistic ‘hats’ into what I am calling in the most generous sense that of co-curator. His ‘Wythy’ [Wythenshawe] Walks blend citizen map-making with story-weaving in a way that questions where and how we tell tales. Which is a bit like the practice of Christy Ducker, whose first book-length collection, Skipper, draws largely on her Creative Writing PhD, in which she succeeds, splendidly, in de-ventriloquising the Victorian Northumbrian heroine, Grace Darling. Untrusting of ‘official’ accounts while equally suspicious of apocryphal claims, Christy’s poems perform biographic ‘rescues’, analogous with the daring life lived by Darling.

The weekend’s bounties extended further when we were introduced to the meta-narratives of Harriet Sutcliffe, who re-writes with precision and power the female experience back into the visual arts – Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery and Basic Design course – in a way that I’ve never seen. It also meant encountering the Geordie Iaian Sinclair: Michael Pattison’s dérives ’round the river Lea being some of the most pressing engagements with psychogeographic space I can remember. It meant seeing Rob Blazey playing an instrument that he’d not only learned, but conceptualised, designed and built. It meant hearing, in stunning polyphony, excerpts from Linda France’s wonderful new poems about Susan Davidson and the landscapes of Allen Banks and Staward Gorge. It meant wondering with Lisa Matthews where a poem starts and prose stops and how the writer, in electing to blur those boundaries, can create dazzling new commentaries on grief, marine life and un-packed-away holiday items. In Phill Begg’s case, it meant asking how the auditory can push the visual into new kinaesthetic realms in hypnotic and arresting ways. In Juliana Mensah’s, it meant writing luminous fiction in the spaces-between identities, creating wonder and puzzlement equally in the folds of race, gender and nationality. Similarly, for Andrea McCartney, it meant adopting a literal and figurative shadow script to trace the map-makers of conflict-ridden Ireland, quizzing narratives of power. In Sabina Sallis’s work, it meant wondering, on a large scale, how drawing interrogates myth and how that myth is bound up in the interdependent present and might be a solve towards our crises. In not-too-distant terrain, it allowed Michael Mulvihill to probe the hidden nuclear militarism via object-interfaces and popular culture references which situate the reader in a profoundly uneasy position, given the recent US-North Korea chest-bashing. And in Jo Clement’s work, it meant figuring out what we mean by ‘type’: in an alphabetical, anthropological and ekphrastic way, her poems delve deeply into the traces left by the Northumbrian engraver, Thomas Bewick, recasting them as important and beautiful way-markers for how we might live better lives now.

It was a real honour to spend the weekend with these people, who will all, I’ve no doubt, go on to great, great things. Hospitalfield, you’ve been a pleasure: I hope to be back soon.

Thanks to Sabina Sallis for this image.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Northern Rising: A North-East Poetry Social and a Milestone Issue for Butcher's Dog Before We Take a Break

I read at the first Northern Rising event at Ernest in the Ouseburn on Monday night. Billed as a ‘North-East Poetry Social’, and inspired by the bohemian happenings on Tyneside in the sixties (most notably the Morden Tower poetry readings, which famously re-kindled Basil Bunting’s poetic career and saw literary heavyweights from America pass through Newcastle), Northern Rising was a primer for how poetry nights, tied to a wider political consciousness, might function in the city in 2017.

Organiser Alex Niven spoke at the start, saying how he hoped that the events would ‘draw a circle around a moment’, allowing exciting conversations to begin, networks to be made and voices – be they dissenting, entertaining or belonging to categories altogether unclassifiable – to be heard. Putting poets of various backgrounds together in this way, and introducing them without the inflated biographical details which so often function only to affirm a slew of prizes or publications, Northern Rising is a democratic space for live literature and lively discourse. Questioning who poetry is for and how it might coalesce with the emergent socio-political paradigm, the night felt like an important one post-Grenfell, post-Brexit, and post- well, you get the picture. As Fruela Fernandez, the ‘featured’ poet, said: Poetry is both there and not there. In its shape-shifting guise, perhaps it speaks best to these turbulent times.

L-R: Me; Ryan De Leon; India Gerritsen; Patricia Robles; Fruela Fernandez; Grace Herring; Alex Niven

Look out for the next instalment on 13th November as this is set to be a regular fixture on the regional circuit: one which, I’m sure, will gather momentum very quickly.

The second event I want to talk about is last night’s launch of the tenth issue of Butcher’s Dog. I have been involved with the magazine since the start: in 2012, when, along with six other poets, it was agreed that a new magazine was needed to harness the energy of poetry being written in the North-East. Since then, Butcher’s Dog has enjoyed phenomenal success, collaborating with the Poetry School and enjoying the benefit of a run of exciting guest editors, each of whom have put an original stamp on the magazine as it's gone along. Unfortunately, not long after securing Arts Council funding, most of the editors moved to different parts of the country, which has meant, increasingly, each issue has been a challenge to put together, not least for Degna Stone, indomitable Top Dog and managing editor.

Butcher's Dog 10 cover by Mark Bletcher

With those logistical pressures in mind, and having reached a landmark issue, we have decided to put the Dog to bed for a year. Last night was both a celebration of the most recent issue, and a reflection on where we started out. It was really great to see new and old Dogs taking to the stage in Culture Lab, Newcastle, and to have the magazine so enthusiastically supported by the director of the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts, Sinéad Morrissey. The night was filled with poetic delights from contributors past and present: Roy Marshall had made a 400-mile round poetry road-trip from Leicester, bringing co-editor James Giddings and reader Suzzanah Evans with him; and Staurt Charlseworth had trained it up all the way from Norwich. Poets based in the region who’ve appeared in previous issues – Bernadette McAloon, W.N. Herbert, John Challis, Kris Johnson, Blaine Ward and Lisa Matthews – all read, and I was introduced to some phenomenal new voices: Lauren Garland, Rob Walton and Rowena Knight. For me, this is the ultimate joy of events like this: that they can stimulate community in a way that is genuinely uplifting and thought-provoking while resisting cliquiness.

Butcher’s Dog now enters a fallow year, but I reckon when it returns, it will be as – if not more – vital than five years ago when it was just a glint in a workshop group’s eye. For now, do get your hands on a copy of the latest issue, and, as Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s poem, ‘1 day old, 6.03 a.m.’, implores, ‘hold each other close’.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Singing The World: A Dawn Chorus at Cheeseburn

Singing The World

A Dawn Chorus at Cheeseburn
The Stables Gallery
26-28 August and 2-3rd September 2017

'Dawn Chorus, Cleadon Village' (detail), poem laser-printed onto beech wood, with the assistance of Fab Lab at Hope Street Exchange, Sunderland.

I have a new poem, ‘Dawn Chorus, Cleadon Village’, on display at Cheeseburn Grange Sculpture Gardens in Northumberland as part of Mike Collier’s exhibition, Singing The World.

The exhibition was inspired by listening to the dawn chorus at Cheeseburn—a choir of sixteen birds heard early one morning in May 2016. Together their songs, represented here variously as digitally-manipulated sonograms and musical transcriptions, form the basis of this show of screen prints, digital prints, relief sculpture and, in my case, poetry.

Lead artist Mike Collier’s work is shown alongside that of glass artist Ayako Tani; musician and composer Bennett Hogg; sound recordist Geoff Sample; and digital artist Andrew Richardson. The combination of sound and image, colour and light, form and freedom make Singing The World a really unique exploration into the dawn and evening choruses, which until I was asked to work on the project, I knew shockingly little about.

Mike Collier, The Dawn Chorus at Cheeseburn (2), produced in collaboration with Geoff Sample and EYELEVEL Creative, assisted by Tina Webb. The sixteen birds here are those Mike heard between 4.30 and 7.00am at Cheeseburn in May 2016. The circular images have been loosely adapted from Sample's sonograms and 'placed' on staves.

My poem captures the early-morning awareness of a burgeoning chorus of suburban village birdsong, transgressing the binary, reductive boundaries between nature and culture. It is the first time I’ve had work on display in Cheeseburn, and I encourage you to go and see the show, if not for mine and the other artists’ work then for the fabulous aspect of the gallery within Cheeseburn Grange. Set amid acres of beautiful landscaped parkland and gardens, the exhibition takes place in the Stables Gallery, but there is also a Hayloft space and chapel of St. Francis Xavier. Ten miles west of Newcastle, near Stamfordham, I can’t think of anywhere quite like this in the region – so close to the city yet most definitely in the country – where striking contemporary art is being shown in innovative ways.

Mike Collier, The Dawn Chorus at Cheeseburn (4). This is a seven-layered screen print of the sixteen birdsongs from the dawn chorus.

Mike Collier, The Evening Chorus at Cheeseburn

Singing The World is on display as part of Cheeseburn’s two open weekends: this bank holiday in August (26-28th) and also on the 2nd and 3rd September. Entry is free with a suggested donation, and I’m told that delicious refreshments are also available at the Stables café.

'Dawn Chorus, Cleadon Village', set on the wall of the Stables Gallery, Cheeseburn.

Ayako Tani, Pre-dawn Light. Borosilicate glass, heat-shrunk tubes, steel and a lighting unit. The opportunity to show work in the darkness of the Hayloft at Cheeseburn presented the artists with a unique opportunity to represent the transition from night to day, moving from darkness to light. Ayako's glass chandelier of birdsong signals the dawning of a new day.