Wednesday, 8 February 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleadon Mill (Note the Water Tower in the background)

Cleadon Water Tower

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

Souter Lighthouse, Whitburn

Fulwell Mill, Sunderland, as it looks today

Whitburn Mill

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

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

Westoe Crown pit head, gan doon in 1993

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

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

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

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

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

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

One with a bounding dog, just to finish

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

New Misos

A quick update regarding two new poems which have been published online recently. ‘M56Hymn: 20.01.2017’ appears at New Boots and Pantisocracies, Bill Herbert and Andy Jackson’s excellent blog, first set up to document the outcome of the 2015 British General Election and since morphing into a wider take on the new un-real politic(king-off).

Manifest: The Leas’, appears today in the new edition of MISO, the Magazine of Literature and Languages. I’m in the fine company of Sophie Collins, Adam O’Riordan and Martha Sprackland, which is ace, and the journal’s editor, Caroline Jones, set it up off the back off her Creative Writing MA at the University of Chester, where I did the same course. So that’s canny. Do have a deeks at both. Chee-az.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The North-East as an 'Alternative Centre': Thoughts Towards a Literary Genealogy of Bernicia

Freud said that ‘Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me.’ In establishing a literary genealogy of the post-1960s North-East, this thought has recurred.

Part of my research puts forward the case for the North-East being an alternative centre. When I started this project, and indeed as I reach its (approximate) halfway point, I continue by following a driving impetus, or research question or statement, namely: ‘[...] Poems belonging to the palimpsest of North-East England’. The ‘palimpsest’ part has become overbearing and cumbersome, so I am wearing it sparingly, but the ‘belonging’ part, and of course the ‘North-East’ part, are fundamental.

What do we actually mean when we speak about ‘the North-East’? I cannot stress enough the importance of  accuracy. To people south of the Tees, west of the Pennines or north of Berwick-upon-Tweed (and here, of course, I am falling into my own trap of vaguery), there is a fair chance one word dominates. Sweeping up millennia of conflicted histories, varied topographies and contested cultural niches into a homogenous, catch-all term, ‘Geordie’ tends to cover it. Which is both helpful and very, very reductive. Being more philosophical (this is a doctorate of philosophy, y’knaa) the ‘North-East’, as both a geographic location – the northeasternmost segment of England – and as an abstract concept prone to the worst stereotypes – Geordie, the tab-smoking, Broon drinking radge-pot – is only helpful to a point. After that, you’re going to have to zoom in and be more specific.

If Newcastle-upon-Tyne can be considered the capital of an alternative centre (indeed, rightly or wrongly, fairly or unjustifiably, it is widely regarded as the region’s capital already), then it goes, surely, that its literatures must also have a point of focus. In the poetry of the last half century written in and/or about the region, no star shines more brightly than Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts. With national and international acclaim for Bunting growing, thanks partially to Don Share’s authoritative Faber edition of the Poems appearing last year, and aided by the tireless work of many Bunting scholars, both in this region and country and abroad, it is fair to say that there has probably never been a better time to consider – indeed reconsider, as I’m doing – Bunting’s ascendancy and position as a literary heavyweight tied to a regional core.

Let’s pause. Remember – as I periodically have to tell myself – this is not a Literature PhD. More pertinently, I am not writing solely about Bunting. In reality, my work on him will take up at most 15% of my overall thesis, more likely 10. This means that both concision and accuracy are of paramount importance. It also (necessarily) opens the door to other figures in the regional, literary cohort, of whom I venture William Martin is one of the most neglected. Those who are au fait with the workings of a Creative Writing PhD will be aware that, depending on institutional guidelines, usually around 30% of the work should be devoted to a critical study germane to the creative project. The mathematicians among you may have deduced that, if I’m writing 10,000 or so words on Bunting, I will probably only have a similar amount to spare on Martin, leaving me a scant 10K – effectively an undergraduate dissertation – to devote to other writers. Quite what I’m supposed to do with those words is for me and my supervisors to decide, but it seems pertinent to consider how Bunting and Martin (overlapping shades of grey, or, more fittingly for Northumbria, gold and burgundy) have, in the work of contemporary regional poets, gone on to exert influence.

In the map, Basil Bunting, identified by a cigarette symbol (he loved tabs), is indicated in the locations most relevant to the Northumbrian aspect of his life and work: Scotswood, where he was born in 1900; Wylam, where he moved in 1956; and Washington New Town, where he moved (and was deeply unhappy) in 1977. Zooming the map out, Brigflatts Meeting House in Sedbergh, Cumbria, links the place (one ‘g’) to his most famous poem, Briggflatts (two ‘g’s).

William Martin is identified by the red-orange colour. Tunstall Hills, noted by the mountain symbol, are to Martin what Brigflatts was to Bunting (a primal site, festooned with cultural, sexual and spiritual significance); and Durham Cathedral (which of course was also important to Bunting) is flagged for its status as both a place of holiness tied directly to Cuthbert (thus linking Martin into the deeply-rooted creed and iconography of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria) and the end/beginning point of his (bi)-annual pilgrimage through the east Durham coalfield, which itself was also a symbolic act of solidarity with the miners, whose own genius loci found – and finds, even sans mining – its locus in the shadows of Durham Cathedral at the annual Miners’ Gala.

The green symbols indicate my primal sites in and around South Shields. The two religious buildings are St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s, monasteries in Jarrow and north Sunderland respectively. Note that the home icon, where my parents (and to a large extent I) have lived in Shields for 15 years, falls on the route that Bede would have taken between St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s, bisecting flatlands, hills and coastal terrain through what we might now call the edgelands of South Tyneside. Notions of bisection, cross-referencing, superimposition, stratigraphy, recursive language and conceit are to be found in the work of all of these poets, so it is helpful to conceptualise of them all cartographically (if not topographically) to gain a sense of how they relate to one another in a landscape.

A single, yellow icon represents the poet Peter Armstrong, a friend of Martin’s; and on the zoomed-out map, over on the Solway Firth in Cumbria, a purple bird points to the current home of Tom Pickard, whose biography especially, but own poetry to some degree, is inexorably bound up with Bunting’s.

In anticipation of a likely viva voce question – Why are no female writers considered? – I have thought to append an additional map. I haven’t, but in it you would be pointed to many female poets who live and work in the region. The somewhat parallel work of Joanne Clement, a friend and peer in the School of English at Newcastle, is of note for her study into Thomas Bewick, as is Bernadette McAloon for her representation of female voices in mining communities. Additionally – and this is not a complete list; I realise all lists are reductive; please don’t shout at me – I would recommend: Anne Stevenson (connected to Martin and a host of other North-East poets); Catherine Ayres; Jane Burn; Christy Ducker; Katrina Porteous; Joan Johnston; Tracy Gillman; Kris Johnson; Degna Stone and Mandana Ghoyonloo. I would also point to Red Squirrel Press, ran by Sheila Wakefield, who published my first pamphlet; and to a tertiary figure, James Kirkup, whose proud homosexuality, at least for a small-c conservative audience of the late 1950s/early1960s was often considered blasphemous (and, I would speculate, formed part of the reason he found solace abroad). A whole other PhD could be written on all of these topics, but Joanne, Bernadette, Mandana, Tracy and Kris in particular (being colleagues at Newcastle) have or are all doing great work on their own and related topics and you ought to look it up immediately. The others are women whose work I admire and whose names are mentioned because they spring immediately to mind as rotating deliberately around the centre point of Newcastle. I am simply not writing about them because: A) I am not doing a literature PhD and the scope of my criticism is limited; and B) because the all-male poets I am looking at also happen to write the poetry I admire and will be of benefit to my study.

Now, scale. Zoomed out further, a few things become apparent. First: these poets were and are operating a long way from London. Second, and in a sense I am reaching for this, willing it to be self-evident, there appears, in what I am terming (not without risk) the ‘supra-North’, to be a territoriality that cannot be entirely serendipitous. When the current government speak of the Northern Powerhouse, and people in South Shields, Sunderland and Ashington get annoyed because they really mean Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, you can empathise with the sentiment. Okay, now I really am pushing too tenuously toward the political (and I love the North-West, having spent over a decade here, on and off), but I think my point stands: there is a gravity, peculiarity and independent spirit to this part of the world – old Northumbria, Bernicia, whatever you want to call it today – that still applies. Around an alternative centre (Newcastle), a cluster of poets have and continue to gyrate. Positioning my own work in relation to theirs, and thus claiming a poetic case for belonging to the region, is tantamount to an act of political signalling, of course, but it is one I am proud to make.

How far all of this fits into the workings of the so-called literary establishment is probably the subject of another post, but it is worth dwelling, briefly, on Bunting’s case. The critic Peter Quartermain said: ‘Basil Bunting’s writing is inevitably political; he is a northern nationalist and his writing is profoundly subversive of the literary establishment.’

There will be some who will read this and disregard it. Possibly I am outdated and out-of-touch, but I wonder. I don’t need to spout off about and justify the region’s many fine, literary establishments and traditions. Everything from the success of Vera to Alexander Armstrong’s presidency of The Lit & Phil to the Poetry Book Society’s recent rebirth and subsequent move to Newcastle corroborates my point: that the North-East is a great place to read, write and critique books, as well as a great place to live. My concern or fixation, and hence the justification for this whole PhD, is not the mechanics of how those processes continue; but how my own work negotiates – earns – a place within it all. I am keen for literariness, in its widest sense, to thrive in the region, and I have and will support it however I can, but right now I am interested in this place as a site, on to which my own poems can be mapped; and how, in mapping them over other poets, I continue a dialogue which has been going on since at least Cædmon first wrote about these wind-swept shores in the seventh century.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Thoughts on Bunting's 'bastard language': Geordie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Deeside Dérive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Dark Mountain Issue 10: Uncivilised Poetics

The Darkness Around Us Is Deep

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 23 October 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must think about these things.

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

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

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

The Word, South Shields

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

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

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

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

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

View from inside The Word

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

I get the impression we are all tired.

Have you thought today about collective convalescence?

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


On the inside looking out