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 C├Ždmon first wrote about these wind-swept shores in the seventh century.