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.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Next Year in Jerusalem

‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.’
-          Søren Kierkegaard

Say things
Year after year’
-          William Martin, ‘Image Ark’

William Martin

On Sunday 5th June 2016, myself and five other walkers set out on a pilgrimage of around fifteen miles from Sunderland to Durham. Following in the footsteps of the late poet, William (Bill) Martin, and his friend and fellow writer, Gordon Brown, Marratide saw the rekindling of the flames of a walk which last burned to embers in 2008, two years before Martin’s death.

I was joined on the walk by a longstanding friend of Bill’s, the poet Peter Armstrong, himself a regular on the walks since their inception in the early 1980s; his partner, Christine; and friends, colleagues and fellow poets connected, if not by birth then by residency and/or literary association to the North-East: Jason Lytollis, Kris Johnson and John Challis.

The walk begins at Tunstall Hills, around two and a half miles south of Sunderland city centre. Significantly, Bill Martin was born and spent his childhood half a mile to the south-west, in Silksworth, and resided for the majority of his adult life in a house several hundred yards to the north of the hills, in the Tunstall/Ashbrooke area. Bill’s son, Graham, whom I’ve been in touch with for around four months now, agreed to meet us at the start of the walk, to give an overview of his father’s work and the symbolism and connotations of the route and its relationship to the poetry his Dad wrote.

Notions of ‘The Return’ – a recurrent motif in both Bill’s life and literary composition – were to be our starter and guiding principle. Graham spoke of how his father’s work was concerned with spiritual elements of the return, but also of wider environmental, social and divine connotations pertaining to the cyclical nature of being and its emblematic representation in artworks.

Upon request, I – we – were to carry a ram’s horn containing a small amount of Bill’s ashes, to be spread in the river Wear near the racecourse at Durham — a site doubly poignant for its being the last place Bill’s friend, Gordon, drew breath before throwing himself into the river. We would depart from the ‘Maiden Paps’, so-called for their representation in the landscape as the female Goddess, evoking fertility and maternal guidance, and traverse a landscape imbued and interpreted in myriad ways by the eyes of Bill Martin, a visionary poet, pantheistic in his outlook, global in his concerns, but firmly rooted – not bound by – the locale of the east Durham coalfields.

It is incredibly humbling to be asked to carry the ashes of a man you’ve never met to a site you’ve never been to, in absentia of family members. As Graham was unable to take part in the walk, though, and as he mentioned in his opening, it is perhaps fitting that a group, or troupe, of poets should be ordained with the task of scattering the ashes of another poet. A kind of taking the baton, lighting it, and passing it back to the place from whence it came: the river banks, the water, and eventually the harbour mouth and open sea beyond.

Looking north-east towards Tunstall Hills, Sunderland, parallel to the A19

Graham, quite understandably, was reluctant to recite any of his father’s poetry (“I didn’t do the walks because of the poetry”, he told us, “I did them because it was me Dad!”) but he did bid us farewell with a song, a verse from ‘Leafy Lonnen’, taught to him by his father, and recounted on the hills in a manner which can only be described as ‘hair-raisingly’. The refrain:

            ‘Up the leafy lonnen
with windows green as grass
call at my hinny’s door
she’s a bonny lass.’

How a walk can be a return when you’ve never done it before is something I contemplated – am still contemplating – for much of the route. Most of the walk follows former coal wagon ways, including the gravity railway line where, as a child, Bill would play. The vital significance of coal mining on Bill’s sense of identity and in his verse cannot be underplayed: born into a Methodist mining community in 1925, he lived during what was probably the peak of carbon extraction in this country, in a region which, even to this day, is still associated with black diamonds more than perhaps any other on earth. To follow, from the place he was born – an actual walled mining village in north-east Durham – the wagon ways that carried those spoils of labour from their bedrock below the ground, out of the parochial enclosure of the micro-local, on journeys towards commercial exchange at the sea ports of Seaham or Sunderland, and/or the railway mainline bisecting County Durham on its trajectory between London and Edinburgh, must have been an incredibly profound experience for Bill.

Much of Bill’s poetry is concerned with trying to situate his conception of the ‘Marradharma’ within pre-existing religious iconographies and creation myths. As a sort of manifesto to his verse, it is worth dwelling on a quote from Bill as to the mission of his work:

‘Poetry should be concerned with more than personal, domestic and confessional themes. Being [part of] creation, we are involved in the continuing search for a collective sanctus... if we reject elitism and ego-economic notions, we will find that ‘marradharma’ under our noses. Art is not a programme, neither is a poem a tract, but it is surely rooted in dharma.

So, it follows that the ‘Mothergate’, (the main roadway in a pit), should have vaginal connotations, evoking not only the fertility, birth and re-birth of the animal, vegetable and mineral, but the cyclical endeavour of the whole — man, woman, people, earth, spirit. In a world which, post-industrial as it now is, keenly felt and realised especially in the North-East since Thatcher, such concepts might seem gaudy or sentimental, but by considering Bill’s poems as we walked, I got the impression that those in our midst who were too young, or simply weren’t present, to appreciate the totality of a mining community mindset, somehow instinctively felt that these things haven’t just ‘vanished’, as so many commentators suggest; and that, maybe by cross-referring their vestiges (former wagon ways turned to bike and foot paths) we may be able to see in this world elements of former ones, and feel stronger, more bound together, for having glimpsed such a vision of wholeness.

Wholeness dovetails neatly into another aspect of the walk which Graham mentioned: common feasting. Traditionally, before the walks began, Win – Bill’s wife – would prepare breakfast, and the group would sit together in common feasting, to be fuelled physically for the spiritual journey ahead. Graham laughed when he recalled that, as the years passed, the lengths of these communal breakfasts also increased, so that quite often the party wouldn’t be seen in Durham until dusk was beginning to fall. Unfortunately for our group, no such communal breakfast was to be had before we left. Instead, the image of groups of men sitting in The William Jameson in Sunderland at quarter past nine that morning was the closest we came to observing any kind of collective sanctity, though it is debatable whether pints of lager on a Sunday morning in a Wetherspoons is actually conducive to any greater, spiritual cause.

Copt Hill Inn, now
Copt Hill Inn, then

Superfluous as it might feel to detail the precise itinerary of the route, it will be worth ruminating on certain sections. The first significant point, after the beginning, of course, was Warden Law, the highest point in east Durham, and our first sense of the scale of the landscape and its effect on how Bill wrote his poems. His ‘Wiramutha Helix’ sequence (Hinny Beata, 1987) appears to place the reader in the position that we found ourselves in, atop Warden Law, looking north. An image from the poem, below, serves to extrapolate my point: that first Bill must have spent many hours – years, even – carefully observant at and around this point before ‘joining the dots’, as it were, and conducting an outwardly-spiralling helix to link the physicality of a varied Wearside topography with associated mythical, spiritual and industrial points.  Personally, I find this hugely inspirational as both a method and mode of contemplation and creation: to bring the poem(s) forth almost literally from the landscape, and sequence or (re)order them into a shape that engenders in a reader a totally new conception of an otherwise everyday vista.

From 'Wiramutha Helix'

Next, and a mere quarter of a mile after lunch at The Copt Hill Inn (many Sunday dinners being served to conspicuously young families, a promising sign of the vitality of the traditional pub) we reached a glorious view of the Seven Sisters round barrow, thought to be a Neolithic monument. I counted six of the ‘sisters’, suggesting that inclement weather, or a rogue woodsman, has at some point felled one of them. My photo, below, is poor, taken as it was several hundred feet from the site and zoomed in on a smart phone, but it nonetheless depicts an image Bill Martin would have been drawn to for a variety of reasons.

Seven Sisters

Hetton Bogs (much better looking than sounding) was the next section in which the party felt particularly inspired. I’m always wary of the term ‘Nature Reserve’, with all its ecocidal ramifications and anthropocentric delineation, but giving them the benefit of the doubt, Sunderland City Council have certainly got something to be proud of in the reed beds, butterflies and orchids of Hetton Bogs. Peter recalled that a particular orchid, which he couldn’t remember the name of, used to grow along this part of the route and was prized by Bill not only for its beauty, but its links to spiritual and ecological iconography. We certainly didn’t see it if it was present, but that might be a result of the untrained eye. Ditto, a specific type of butterfly, which I have forgotten the name of, but which was also traditionally found around the Houghton skirts of the route, was not witnessed, leading to much discussion surrounding the alarming effects of climate change on natural systems in a short spell of time.

From Low Pittington and a stop outside the Blacksmith’s Arms, where shady dealings of some sort appeared to be happening between five heavily tattooed blokes and the boot of a Vauxhall Astra, several miles were spent within an otherwordly tunnel of trees as we wound our way to the edges of Durham. Recalling a walk in the 80s, during the miners’ strike, Peter told us about how Bill and Gordon witnessed at this point striking miners digging into the embankments, to carve out whatever limited, poor quality spoils of coal remained. Always in solidarity with the spiritual dimension of the miners and their plight, it is important not to forget that Bill was politically motivated, too, and sympathetic to their cause: the striving for fair pay and working conditions which always found its point of focus, annually, at the Big Meeting in Durham where the walk ends.

Blacksmith's Arms, Low Pittington

And on in to Durham: arriving in Dragonville, via a subway beneath the A1 motorway, the walk had gone, in a matter of metres, from a pleasant afternoon stroll surrounded by cows, fields of Rape Seed and ancient Oaks, to an industrial estate comprised of all of the industrial estate ubiquities: Carpet Right, Tesco, Argos. At this point, I recall a conversation with John where we discussed Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’s Edgelands, and how and why places like this – at the periphery of the rural and the urban, but not quite belonging to either – have become such rich sources from which poets draw inspiration. Perhaps it’s the Gilesgate Moor Hotel sitting next to the Solar Panel business; perhaps it’s the Aldi flanked by the curving fields; or perhaps it’s because, paradoxically, these anywhere-places can actually be comforting in their disquiet sense of repetition and replication that poets and artists can stake claim to ‘their’ Tesco Extra, with only its view of the spires of Durham Cathedral, or ‘their’ Screw Fix with its particular pile of pallets and fly-tipped piles of junk at the corner of its car park.

Onward we walked, knowing that this place had changed much and little since Bill last strolled through it. Half a mile out of Pelaw Wood, we were greeted with our first uninterrupted view of the Cathedral – a mighty prospect from any vantage point, but one less familiar, seen here from the east, as opposed to the more common view from the west, via the train line.

Found Poem?

Then, a blockade: the path closed ahead. This was particularly annoying and upsetting as it meant that the part of the river where we had been asked to scatter Bill’s ashes was entirely inaccessible, as the council were doing salvage and reclamation work on a landslide. Still, better to divert than be crushed by mud. As if appearing like the ghost of Bill Martin, a man appeared from the bushes, having taken the alternative route with his dog, to instruct us of the way round. I don’t remember exactly what he said because I was listening to his accent: that glorious Durham lilt, not quite Mackem, and not quite Geordie – something all of its own, drawn from the earth of this hilly place – which said, “Just follee the track”. Follee. Folly. Were we fools, to follee this path, or would we have been fools to’ve trespassed through the gates and carried on as originally intended?

Whatever the case, the diversion was a good one, serendipitously affording a stunning aspect of the cathedral. As we descended back down to the riverside, a tranquil scene which seemed set to an eternal loop of ‘life is but a dream’, played before our eyes, as rowers of various calibre and intention stroked the Wear; as young couples frolicked with ice creams along the banks; and everyone else either lay and sunbathed, or read, or just took in what felt like the first real day of summer, whistling ‘Row, row, row your boat...’

Durham Cathedral, from Pelaw Wood

Our penultimate stop (discounting the pub) was Durham Cathedral, where traditionally pebbles and stones picked up en route were laid at Saint Cuthbert’s tomb. Unfortunately, a group of Australian pilgrims had beaten us to it and were preparing for the choral evensong, meaning we had to go with plan-B and pay respects to another great Northumbrian: Saint Bede. For Bill, this aspect of the walk was of paramount importance, as not only did the route trace former industrial byways, it followed the procession of Cuthbert’s coffin as it was carried, finally, from Chester-le-Street to Durham. The significance of the offering of stones is mentioned in Bill’s poems, and their movement from site to site has religious sanctity across a number of cultures and associated pilgrimages, so it was, again, upsetting not to honour this aspect of the walk, but having read and wrote about Bede so much in the past twelve months, it felt like an honourable personal compromise to lay a stone, for and from Bill, to Cuthbert, via Bede.

Emerging from the Cathedral parallel to the south transept, which I’ve never done before, back into crystalline blue skies and the cobbled streets of South Bailey, knowing that we were entering the final stages of the pilgrimage, I felt really quite moved. As we walked to Presbend’s Bridge, Peter gauged the wind direction and speed. Unlike some of the bridges in Durham, this one is pretty high, and because bridges by their very nature have to be durable, it is also pretty thick. We ascertained the best side of it from which to make the scattering (south), removed the gaffer tape and cotton wool Graham had sealed the horn with, and thanked Bill and each other for accompanying us on the walk. I strained to reach my arm to its full extent over the thickness of the bridge wall, and tipped. At first the ashes whooshed east, back onto the bridge and towards the river bank, but then the gust dropped, allowing them to fall more or less vertically. In the seconds that passed, as they flowed from the ram’s horn which Bill first picked up thirty-something years ago, somewhere along the route we had just walked, a gentle breeze caught them in an updraft and they widened and fanned out into thousands of tiny dots caught between the surface of the eternally-flowing water and the glow of the early evening sun.

As all good walks do, this one finished with a celebratory pint. We walked the final metres along the banks of the Wear, Bill now at our side, to Framwellgate Bridge, where we rejoined the throng of early evening diners, students making their way to summer balls and shoppers kicked out of shops. The Head of Steam was where we finished, pints of Durham ale and Ox flavoured crisps set before us on the bench. Jason, unfortunately, had left by this point, but the remaining five discussed Bill’s poetry. Peter and Christine, who knew him very well and for a long time, talked about the bardic quality of Bill’s performances, and how his poetry, as Graham had implied that morning, deserves to be read by a much wider audience. As I went to leave, thanking everybody for joining me, Peter said ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’, adding that it’s what Bill always said at the end of his walks, because once you’ve seen Durham Cathedral in mid-summer, the only other place that could compare might be Jerusalem.

Bede's Tomb, with stones