A new book is always exciting. This one, Sea Change, is extra special, because it’s a collaboration between four artists. Here is prose and poetry by Forward Prize winning Phoebe Power, poems from me, richly-coloured geological collages by illustrator, archaeologist and cultural geologist Rose Ferraby, and design and production by writer, poet, editor, lecturer and creator of beautiful, tactile books, Luke Thompson, who, together with Sarah Cave, runs Guillemot Press in Cornwall.
Founded in 2016, Guillemot celebrates ‘the simple, thoughtful and beautiful’, a love of edges and what is hidden beneath the surface. Now here’s a bit of personal history. Luke Thompson was a founder editor of The Clearing, an online journal publishing extraordinary new writing about place and landscape. The very first issue of The Clearing, in August 2013, featured excerpts from my radio poem, The Refuge Box (now published in Two Countries, Bloodaxe Books 2014). The print on that page from The Clearing is by Olivia Lomenech Gill. The Clearing is published by Little Toller Books, based in West Dorset, and Little Toller inherited work from Common Ground, the environmental and cultural charity which first coined the idea of ‘local distinctiveness’. Common Ground were a great influence on my own work and thinking from their foundation in the early 1980s, and I contributed to their encyclopaedia, England in Particular. So the vines and tendrils of my association with Guillemot Press stretch back a very long way.
Sea Change came about following an invitation from Luke Thompson and David Woolley to read at Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival in September 2019. Phoebe Power was reading at the same event, and the two of us had just completed a short residency on the Durham Coast for New Writing North and the National Trust. This was part of the National Trust’s ‘People’s Landscape’ celebrations, and involved a commission to respond to the 11-mile coastal stretch from Seaham to Hartlepool, now designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but once the site of several of Durham’s last deep coal mines. Notorious in the past for its ‘black beaches’ and perhaps the worst-polluted landscape in Europe, in the late 1990s it underwent an immense transformation, with the removal of 1.3 million tonnes of colliery spoil in a multi-agency clean-up, ‘Turning the Tide’, for which I was writer in residence. Phoebe and my sequences responded to the commission’s invitation ‘to look beyond’ that recent history, and imagine future prospects for the area. That work became the text of Sea Change.
Phoebe’s sequence Once More the Sea, in her own words, ‘journeys along the coastline via community centres and colliery waste, pebbles and plastic, Byron and beach-cleans, starfish and sea-glass.’ It was in part developed from conversations with local groups, including young people and ex-miners, and moves fluently between verse and prose, narrative and lyric. A generation older than Phoebe, with a life-long connection to that part of Durham, my response is quite different; but in the course of our collaboration we found much to share, not least our environmental concerns. As the book developed it was beautifully and sensitively fused together by Rose Ferraby’s glorious illustrations which, in her words, ‘echo the rich layers of human voices and geological matter found in the poems…and in the landscape of the Durham Coast. The collages gather fragments of material, texture and form, using the colour palette of the coast.’ Rose is an exceptionally generous and responsive illustrator, who has worked with Luke, Sarah and a number of Guillemot Press poets over several years, and we can’t wait for Covid restrictions to lift so we can all meet properly. In the meantime, with the lovely design, materials and production values of Guillemot Press, we all feel that Sea Change is a really special book.
For me, both ‘Turning the Tide’ and this new commission were also personal. I don’t often write autobiographically, but here is part of a conversational piece which I wrote in connection with Sea Change:
My grandfather was a miner in East Durham and my mother’s family still lived there when I was a child. My memories are of a deeply conflicted landscape, still largely agricultural: the windswept beauty of the Magnesian Limestone grassland, ancient lanes deep in hawthorn, old farms and secret, garlic-smelling wooded denes, contrasted with towering pit-head gear, blue heaps and soot blackened red brick rows of impenetrable villages. The coast itself was a hellish no-man’s-land of black slurry dumped from endless overhead conveyors. The landscape seemed brutalised. The people I knew there were conflicted, too: proud to belong to a mining community, but determined that their sons should work elsewhere.
We used to visit my widowed Nan, and my mother’s sister, who married a miner and had a daughter a little older than I. We played on the black cinder path which ran between two villages, the miners’ pigeons wheeling overhead. I remember feeling very loved and safe there. What I didn’t know was that the Council had designated many of the villages ‘Category D’, which meant that they were actively encouraged to die as the coal ran out. The impact that had on people’s lives was tremendous. In my mother’s family that was especially true for the women. My mother and her sister had qualified for grammar school but, as girls, could not go. Nevertheless, my mother moved away; travelled all of eight miles into a different world, to Durham; became a nurse, married a doctor. I grew up with more advantages and became the first person in my mother’s family to go to university. I felt an unbridgeable gulf between my own experiences and a community that I viscerally loved, and that depended on an industry whose effects on people and landscapes I loathed. At the same time, there was for me a suffocating intimacy in the close-knit mining village. Here was another tangle of contradictions. We do not talk much about class these days, but it is deeply written in the DNA of this country.
As writer in residence for ‘Turning the Tide, I spent time in the villages of Easington Colliery and Horden 20 years ago. That residency, unlike this short one, spanned two years, and involved collecting stories and quotations from local residents, providing research for information panels, writing lines for Michael Johnson’s sculptures at Seaham and for Easington Colliery memorial garden, and creating poems for an exhibition and book. Some of that work forms the ‘Coal Roads’ section of Two Countries. Here’s a poem from ‘Turning the Tide’, with a photograph from Seaham by Keith Pattison:
Our aim for Sea Change was different. We were looking ahead, and sought out young people for their views. I visited a Youth Centre with Phoebe, and later a heritage project, a community fair and a primary school. I wanted to explore what a new generation carries forward from a strong cultural identity when the industry at its very heart is gone. That East Durham landscape is charged for me with love, with the human and environmental cost of unequal economic prosperity, and above all with the restorative powers of nature. A microcosm of where we all come from, it bears the worst scars of 20th century fossil fuel dependence, and opens out on long horizons, edges, promises – our messy, partially-successful struggles to move towards a greener, more sustainable future.
Here’s to that future. In the meantime, Sea Change is open for pre orders on April 2nd, price £10 + p&p. Please join Phoebe Power, Rose Ferraby, Luke Thompson and me online on April 22nd for a free event at 7pm to launch this very special celebration of the Durham Coast.