Cuddy Ducks and Little Pickies

It’s 20 years since small-pipe virtuoso Chris Ormston and I wrote our Northumbrian music and dialect poetry collaboration The Wund an’ the Wetter for the launch of the collected poems of Fred Reed (Iron Press) at the Northumbrian Language Society’s annual Reed Neet celebration. Chris’s tune for our piece is called Mind Yor Language. Since then it’s been featured on BBC Radio 3, we’ve performed it together across two countries, from my Scottish birth city of Aberdeen, to village halls in Lincolnshire, and I’ve taken the words farther afield, from the Fisher Poets’ Gathering in Astoria, Oregon, USA, to a cafe poetry event in Prague.

When The Wund an’ the Wetter was first published as a book and CD by Iron Press, (with a beautiful cover painting by Seahouses fisherman-artist Andrew Rutter), one reviewer claimed that I had invented most of the words. In fact, those words were collected from transcripts of interviews with Northumbrian fishermen which I’d made over the previous ten years. The rhythm and structure of the poem were derived from common phrases, such as ‘Theer’s no much wetter gans ower their heeds’ (meaning, ‘They don’t miss much’) and ‘Come wi’ the wund an’ gan wi’ the wetter’ (meaning, ‘Easy come, easy go’). There is probably more directly quoted speech in that poem than in any other I’ve written.

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Since then I’ve continued to write in dialect from time to time, particularly when quoting conversation with a Northumbrian speaker. Although I’ve never pretended to be a native speaker myself, I love the expressive sounds of the dialect, which often make you feel the meaning of the word before you understand it intellectually. I’ve often written and spoken of two birds, for example. Of the ‘gormer’ and the ‘pickie’, which is the light, deft tern, and which the cumbersome, dark cormorant? It’s obvious: the quick, sharp vowel sounds and plosive ‘p’ and ‘k’ evoke the tern, the drawn-out vowels and ‘heavy’ ‘g’ and ‘m’ sounds, the cormorant. It is as if some kind of synaesthetic sound-sense mapping occurs in the brain.

We are all aware of the erosion of local dialect in the late 20th and early 21st century, through the ubiquity of national and global media – TV, music, the web – and the disappearance of traditional ways of life, like shepherding and coble fishing. I have no nostalgia for what was an often intolerable past, particularly for women. But I do feel that, along with the old words, we are losing something vital of our history, our sensitivity to our environment and our sense of identity – of who we are and where we are heading. The Wund an’ the Wetter explores this.

Besides The Wund an’ the Wetter, other fishing poems in The Lost Music and Two Countries, and the interviews I edited in The Bonny Fisher Lad, I’ve also written several essays about Northumbrian coastal dialect, and contributed my 30-page word-list to the late Dr Bill Griffiths (Northumbria University), which he used extensively in his book Fishing and Folk. He included it as Appendix 1 of that book. In addition, I have the honour of being President of the Northumbrian Language Society, which exists ‘to promote, preserve, research, publish and enjoy’ the dialects of Northumberland, Tyneside and NW Durham.

You can hear me perform The Wund an’ the Wetter with Chris Ormston at this year’s 52nd Northumbrian Gathering in the Chantry Museum, Morpeth, on Saturday April 27th 4-5pm. Do please come along if you can and, if you care about the dialect, please consider joining the Northumbrian Language Society. You might even try entering one of the dialect writing or speaking competitions.

If you can’t make that date, you can catch us again at ‘Iron Or’, the Fourth Iron Press Festival, in St George’s Church, Cullercoats at 7.30 on Saturday June 22nd.

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Arctic Tern, from The Lost Music (Katrina Porteous)

In the meantime, here’s another, much shorter and more recent, dialect poem. It was Highly Commended in the 2018 Winchester Poetry Festival, judged by the wonderful Black Country poet Liz Berry, and appears in the competition anthology ‘The Blaze in Father’s Breath’. It’s about another Northumbrian bird, the eider or Cuddy duck. Said to be named after St Cuthbert, who protected the birds when he lived on Farne, they were known to Beadnell fishermen as ‘Culbert duck’ or ‘Cubby’. At this time of year the smart black and white drakes pair up with the females, wooing them with soft, camp cries: ‘Whooo!’ Later, all the drakes sail off to sea, leaving the females to bring up their offspring communally. In years gone by I would sometimes see a dozen or so Cubbies with a nursery of around a hundred ducklings bobbing in the sea outside my window. But in recent years their numbers have declined. I’ll be lucky to see two or three ducks with a dozen or so young this spring. It’s still a very special sight, and I wrote this poem, Cubby, to celebrate them: