The Susurrations of the Sea

When I listen to the constant low thrum of the sea from my house on the Northumberland coast, what strikes me most about it is its energy, its sheer force, which is often enough to shake the building. Sometimes I lie awake at night listening to it, and reflect on the role of the oceans across the whole planet – in climate regulation, geological process and in the creation and evolution of life on Earth. The rush of breaking waves makes me wonder at the fragility of our own species in contrast to the sea’s enormous antiquity and power, but I’m also excited by the opportunities which the sea presents for science to harness that power to overcome some of our present energy and climate challenges.

Two years ago, radio producer Julian May and I came up with the idea of making a programme together about what the sounds of the sea mean to different people who listen to it. I was to write a poem sequence that would link the voices of – among others – the fishermen of my youth, who remembered the days of wind-powered sailing boats, and the climate scientists with whom I’ve worked more recently. We originally intended to deliver the programme a year ago; but my own health problems and family circumstances intervened to throw us off schedule. As my friends will attest, this has been, and continues to be, an extremely challenging time.

Nevertheless, in spite of all obstacles, and largely thanks to Julian’s hard work, here it is at last – a programme with the many voices of the sea running through it, from the gentle whisper of tide over mud, to the steady roar of surf, to the thud of breakers crashing onto rocks.

You’ll hear the words of people who, more than most of us, listen to these sounds. Melissa Reid is a visually impaired competitive surfer at Porthtowan in Cornwall. The writer Lara Messersmith-Glavin, whom I first met at the FisherPoets’ Gathering in 2014, grew up on a salmon seiner, fishing out of Kodiak Island, Alaska. Lara recalls in an essay from her brilliant book Spirit Things how the sounds of the sea brought fear as well as comfort. David Woolf, Reader in Marine Physics at Heriot-Watt University, is based in Orkney, and works on wave energy projects. He tells the life story of a wave, and considers the role of the oceans in the climate crisis. Fisherman Stephen Perham, rowing his picarooner out of Clovelly harbour, shows how, when fishing for herring without an engine or any modern equipment, learning the sounds of the sea is essential.

The susurrations of the sea are culturally important, too, finding their way into language and music. At his piano musician Martin Pacey illustrates how Benjamin Britten captures these in his Sea Interludes, and how they reflect mood and character. For Stephen Perham as for me, the words people use to describe that sea are themselves sea susurrations.

Woven through the programme are excerpts from a new sequence of poems, which I’ve written in response to the sounds of the sea. They run through the half hour like ‘lippers’ (small breaking waves), a ‘hobbly’ (rolly) sea, or the ‘lift’ of an ocean swell.

Producer: Julian May

BBC Radio 4

Thu 15 Dec 2022 11.30 am

Mon 19 Dec 2022 16.00 pm

Listen to The Susurrations of the Sea after broadcast HERE

Julian May recording on the rocks at Beadnell, Northumberland (photo: K. Porteous)

There’s also still time to catch Briggflatts – A Northern Poetic Odyssey, a Sunday Feature, presented by Rory Stewart, produced by Andrew Carter, and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 27th November.

Described as a ‘neglected masterpiece of 20th-century modernist poetry’, Briggflatts is, in Bunting’s own description, ‘an autobiography’ – both of Bunting himself, and of the ancient Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, which in the 7th century AD stretched from the Firth of Forth to the Humber. At that time and in the centuries which followed Northumbria produced the Lindisfarne Gospels, and heroic historical figures from St Cuthbert to its last King, Erik Bloodaxe – all of whom feature in Bunting’s poem, where they are closely interwoven with echoes of Persian poetry featuring Alexander the Great.

I first encountered Briggflatts in school, and later read it more carefully in a workshop at the University of California, Berkeley, led by the Anglo American poet Thom Gunn, who hugely admired it. For reasons I have never quite fathomed, it has always troubled me. I agreed to take part in the programme to try to explore why that is. In the course of re-reading it, and learning more about Bunting’s own life story, I discovered how it reflects some of the contradictions in his personality and life. The love story upon which the whole poem is predicated took place – or ended – when Bunting was 15, and his beloved Peggy Greenbank just 11 years old. I find this disparity in age and background — and particularly her youth — extremely troubling.

I’ve always sensed an overbearing masculinity in the poem, which makes me uncomfortable. I feel that it does not give Peggy a real voice or a presence beyond the speaker’s needs. For me, this is symptomatic of a poem which lacks any connection with real, lived Northumbrian lives and voices. But that is never what Bunting intended the poem to be. The programme touches on these complexities. My own contributions are very brief, but the programme features more extensive and illuminating interviews with Bunting’s editor, Don Share; publisher Neil Astley; academics and writers such as Peter and Margaret Lewis and Mandana Mashayekhi-Ghoyonloo; Diana Collecott, co-founder of the Basil Bunting Poetry Centre at Durham University; Pamela Coren, writer and clerk of Brigflatts Quaker Meeting House in Cumbria; the historians Robert Colls and Michael Wood; and many others. I am grateful to Andrew Carter and Rory Stewart for the opportunity to take part in the programme, and to all at Brigflatts Quaker Meeting House (below) where the interview was recorded.

Listen to Briggflatts – A Northern Poetic Odyssey HERE

Brigflatts Quaker Meeting House (photo: K. Porteous)

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Signals

Signals from the Other

By Jennie Osborne

I first met poet Jennie Osborne on a writing course at Dartington International Music Festival in Devon, and was impressed by the musicality of her poetry and her striking collaborations with instrumentalists. Signals from the Other is her third collection. It’s a powerful, urgent book which, in her words, ‘explores our relationship with the other-than-human; animals, as individuals and species, plants and the whole planetary ecosystem, as well as our perception of the ‘something beyond’ that we call spiritual. The imminent climate and environmental catastrophe is present, explicitly or as a silent backdrop, in all these poems.’

‘Whatever time it is, is running out’. Yet these are poems which revel in life: ‘stacking logs   stoking the hearth / to comfort the chased and injured thing / that curls there shivering’.

I’m very honoured to be a guest reader, along with the wonderful Penelope Shuttle, at Jennie’s online launch event on Thursday 20th October, at 7.30pm.

Catch it live on Zoom: please contact publishers, Dempsey and Windle, HERE

Afterwards on You Tube HERE

Cover art based on textile design by Sophia Roberts.
ISBN: ​978-1-913329-74-7
Published by Dempsey and Windle, October 2022, RRP £10.50

Available HERE

BBC Radio 3 Words and Music – Northumbria

Available HERE until October 26th

A programme to celebrate the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the North East. This edition includes music from Alistair Anderson, Kathryn Tickell, Sting, Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Byrd, and poetry by Anne Stevenson, Basil Bunting, Sean O’ Brien, Jake Morris-Campbell and others. My own poetry is represented by two excerpts from ‘The Sea Road’ (Two Countries, Bloodaxe Books, 2014), ‘Howick’ and ‘Lindisfarne’, read by Zoe Hakin.

In a companion Radio 3 programme, Freethinking: The Lindisfarne Gospels and New Discoveries, available HERE, Jake Morris-Campbell reads his own newly commissioned response to the Gospels. In the course of discussion he refers to my poem, ‘Durham Cathedral’ (also in Two Countries) – although he attributes it to the late Anne Stevenson. Here it is, from the Bloodaxe anthology Land of Three Rivers. (Don’t worry, Jake, I forgive you! I’m glad you like the poem. It’s never a bad thing to be confused with such a marvellous poet as Anne).

Villages by the Sea

Series 3 – Craster

Friday September 30th 2022, 19.00

BBC Two and on iPlayer after broadcast HERE

Craster herring keelboats c1900, before the harbour was built (photo: Bill Smailes’ collection)

Archaeologist Ben Robinson visits Craster, a small village on the Northumberland coast, to find out how the family and village who both share the name have had their lives and fortunes intertwined for over 800 years.

The village sits on basalt rock called the Whin Sill next to the North Sea. Ben learns how, through the generations, the Crasters have used local resources to make their fortunes and in turn have changed the face and the fortunes of the village and the villagers.

Ben meets Michael Craster, who still lives in the family’s 850-year-old tower and is an expert on his ancestors. Ben follows the family tree and hears of various heads of the family such as the Georgian period’s Daniel Craster who developed quarrying in the village.

He also meets members of the Robson family, whose 4th generation business still makes kippers in the village’s one remaining smokehouse. And he talks to local historian Katrina Porteous about how the herring industry changed the long tradition of fishing from the village in the 19th century, and the impact it had on local women’s lives.

Craster women at the herring c1900 (Photo: Bill Smailes’ collection)

If you would like to know more about the history of fishing from Craster, please see my book ‘The Bonny Fisher Lad’ (Seaham 2003). It’s out of print but copies are usually available second hand on Amazon or eBay for under £12.

My more recent book ‘Limekilns and Lobsterpots’ describes similar fishing history from the nearby village of Beadnell, where the Craster family were also landlords in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s available HERE.

Please also see the ‘Fishing Heritage’ post on this blog in Jan 2022, my talk on women’s work in the NE fishing tradition HERE and my 2021 talk for Leeds University CELCE HERE.

I’ve loved the two previous series of Villages by the Sea, and it will be fascinating to learn more about Craster from this episode. It was great fun to meet Ben Robinson and his team, and an honour to be asked to take part. Many thanks to the family of the late Bill Smailes, who allowed me to use photos from his collection in the episode, and to Bill himself, his sister Bessie Morris, and to other Craster fishermen and their families, for all the first-hand information they gave me over many years.

Do please listen, and I hope you enjoy the programme, either locally or, later this month, nationally. Thank you.

Northern Drift

BBC Radio 3, Monday July 11th 21.30

Elizabeth Alker presents music and poetry from the Hebden Bridge Trades Club. Her guests are Northumberland poet Katrina Porteous and Leeds folk singer Iona Lane accompanied by fiddler Mia Scot.

Iona, Mia and I had a great night recording this session before an excellent audience in the Trades Club, alongside Liverpudlian poet Mark Pajak, who is featured on the July 4th edition of the programme. Look out on July 11th for Iona’s brilliant song about 19th century fossil-hunter Mary Anning.

The poems I read are:

An excerpt from ‘The Wund an’ the Wetter’, a poem in the dialect of the Northumbrian coble fishing community. The full poem is published in ‘Two Countries’ (Bloodaxe Books, 2014).

For more information on Northumbrian dialect see the Northumbrian Language Society, HERE.

For more about my work with the Northumbrian coble fishing community, please see my February 2021 blog post, ‘The Poetry of Fishing’.

#rhizodont. This poem appeared in ‘Many Hands’, with photographs by Jose Snook (Lindisfarne Peregrini Landscape Partnership, 2017). You can read it in the December 2021 ‘Fossils’ post on this blog.

‘Coastal Erosion’, a poem about the East Durham mining communities, from ‘Sea Change’ (with Phoebe Power, Guillemot Press, 2020). Available HERE.

This episode of Northern Drift is produced by Paul Frankl and will be available HERE on BBC Sounds for four weeks after broadcast.

Rose Ferraby’s cover for ‘Sea Change’

If you enjoy this programme you might also like ‘Sea, Sky, Stars’ with music by Alexis Bennett, HERE, and Guillemot Press Poets on Poetry and Collaboration, HERE, a Poetry in Aldeburgh podcast from 2021, featuring some of my work alongside Phoebe Power, Clarissa Álvarez and Petero Kalulé.

Unpossessable Country

Renowned North-East contemporary land and seascape artist Ruth Bond will be showcasing her artwork at The Sill National Landscape Discovery Centre at Once Brewed on Hadrian’s Wall from Tuesday 5th – Sunday 31st July 2022.  

‘Unpossessable Country’ is a collection of around 30 works by Ruth Bond, who began painting oils of Northumberland in around 2014, when her love of wild, wide landscapes and the emotional impact of changing light and weather inspired a change in career direction from an award-winning interior design business. 

Paintings which illustrate the beauty of northern light, land and the drama surrounding Hadrian’s Wall are exhibited at The Sill in celebration of Hadrian’s Wall’s 1900th anniversary, as part of the year-long Hadrian’s Wall 1900 Festival.  

I’m proud to say that the title of this exhibition, and of a number of Ruth’s paintings in it, are quotations from my long poem about the Wall ‘This Far and No Further’, which can be found in ‘Two Countries’. A longer quotation from that poem is featured on the wall of the YHA café in The Sill.

Cover photo by Julian Stallabrass, 1985

A Hut a Byens

Friday May 20th 18.00 – 19.30

Bamburgh Pavilion, The Wynding, Bamburgh, NE69 7DB

The Bamburgh Bones project has unearthed more than 100 skeletons from Northumbria’s Golden Age, buried in the dunes beneath Bamburgh Castle, and reinterred them in an ossuary in the 12th century St Aidan’s Church crypt. In 2021, nine poets visited that ossuary, to question what the buried past can tell us of the present and write new poems in response.

To celebrate the culmination of this project and the launch of a new pamphlet of poems, the poets –Catherine Ayres, Jo Clement, Kayo Chingonyi, Richard O’Brien, Jacob Polley and I – will read new poems inspired by Bamburgh. Copies of ‘A Hut a Byens’ are free and will be available at the event.

The Tide Clock in the wall of St Aidan’s Church crypt, Bamburgh (photo K. Porteous)

I contributed two new poems to the pamphlet, ‘the Tide Clock’ and the poem from which the anthology takes its title, ‘A Hut a Byens’. ‘The Tide Clock’ is a nursery rhyme inspired by the (possibly Anglo Saxon) ‘tide’ or ‘mass clock’, marking the divine offices, and incorporated into the crypt wall. ‘A Hut a Byens’ is written in North Northumbrian coastal dialect, which was spoken by fishermen a generation ago, and which was strongly influenced by Anglo Saxon. Although that dialect is now almost extinct, traces remain, ‘buried’ or ‘fossilised’ in local words and place names. For those interested in the dialect and its Anglo Saxon roots, please see The Northumbrian Language Society, HERE and HERE.

Please join us for the launch of ‘A Hut a Byens’. There will be a chance to sample the St Aidan and St Oswald pies, commissioned by Bamburgh Bones, as well as a celebration bottle of beer.

Register HERE

This event is part of a free conference hosted by Bamburgh Bones on Friday 20th and Saturday 21st May, as the culmination of the ‘Accessing Aidan’ partnership project, funded by the National Lottery.

In Search of One Last Song

July last year was a difficult time. My frail 93 year old father had just been discharged from hospital and I was flitting anxiously between my home on the coast and my parents’, 60 miles away. When a young writer called Patrick Galbraith contacted me to say that he was travelling around the country, talking to people with an interest in endangered bird species for his first book, and did I have anything to say about corncrakes, I didn’t immediately embrace the idea.

I’m no bird expert, just a poet whose work draws strongly on place. I’d recently finished a sequence of poems for an audio series with Geoff Sample, called ‘The Bird Roads’, exploring the birds around the coastal town of Amble, the animating spirit of the place. It had been a long time since I had heard a corncrake in the fields. I was more able to tell Patrick about the elderly fishermen I’d known a generation ago, who reminisced about corncrakes from their youth: the birds popping their heads up through the barley like periscopes, their call ‘like a football rattle’, as Tom Douglas, avid Newcastle United supporter, described it.

Patrick duly paid me a visit. I’m so glad he did. I might not have been able to tell him much about corncrakes, or even to give him a decent meal – I landed back from my parents’ less than an hour before he arrived. But as we walked to the harbour and through the dunes, we talked deeply about birds, and how they provide metaphors for our imagination and longing to escape. We spoke of the human connection to place, and about how little contemporary life values wildness and those connections that are so important to who we are. Although we only spent a few hours together, I felt as though I had met a new friend.

Patrick sought out artists, writers and musicians as well as naturalists and conservationists in his journey. He was exploring a cultural landscape as much as a physical one, in which human creativity is an expression of the natural world, and the threat to any particular bird species an impoverishment, not only of the landscape, but of the human spirit. This is a theme very close to my heart. I strongly recommend his book.

Patrick Galbraith, ‘In Search of One last Song’, is published by Harper Collins at £18.99. Available HERE.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

Sunday 15th May, 19.00

Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, Campus West, York

This year’s York New Music Weekend centres on the work of celebrated York composer Trevor Wishart, including the UK premiere of ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, an hour-long ‘comic opera’ in 8-channel surround sound. Loré Lixenberg’s vocals weave a labyrinthine thread through this exploration of the human predicament.

I’m very proud to have written and performed the Northumbrian language lyrics for the ‘forest path’ sections (see April 2020 post).

Tickets £10 (concessions £8 & £3).

Book HERE.

Hieronymus Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights

#naturepoetry

#birdpoems

#dialectpoems

Ukraine

Today I walked out to the Long Nanny burn in the Bay, and thought of British people in 1940, preparing for an invasion from Hitler’s Germany. Thank God, that attack never came. But the ruins of our concrete pill-boxes, tank blocks and barbed wire entanglements still lie buried in this peaceful place, together with the chassis of old motor cars, strewn on the beach to prevent gliders landing. From time to time, these signs of our troubled past emerge from the sand.

“Pick up a gun…prepare Molotov cocktails…donate blood…sign up to fight the cyberwar if you are a hacker.” As I write, that is what is asked of every citizen of the peaceful, democratic country of Ukraine, currently suffering unprovoked invasion by Putin’s armed forces – an appalling attack on the values of peace, democracy and freedom.

Peace is not a given. It requires vigilance, justice, and strength to defend it. In my view, the three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall have been long enough for many in the West to forget this. That statement applies across all NATO countries, not just our own. It is true in so many ways, from our undermining our own precious freedom of speech, to our acceptance of Russian money or gas, or our responses to Putin’s earlier aggressive acts – even, in the U.K., when he poisoned people on our own soil. Words cannot change anything. They cannot help Ukrainian people at this appalling moment. But I am a poet; so here, for what it’s worth, is a poem. We should never forget what it takes to defend peace and freedom. Or that the river constantly changes its course.

Photo: K. Porteous

From: The Lost Music (Bloodaxe Books, 1996)

Fishing Heritage

Can She Bait a Line?

The unsung heroines of North East England’s fishing communities

A talk on Zoom for New Bedford Fishing Heritage Centre USA

February 10th 2022

5-6pm UK time (12 noon EST).

In the traditional small-boat fishing communities of North East England, until the mid 20th century, fishermen relied on their wives and daughters for the unpaid, land-based tasks that kept the boat at sea. These tasks included gathering bait and preparing the long lines, each of which carried 1,400 hooks. It was also the women’s job to sell fish. American artist Winslow Homer travelled to England in 1881 and spent a year depicting these activities.

Alongside small-boat fishing, from the early 19th century the Scottish and English herring fishery became more industrialised. Some women gained a degree of economic independence in this fishery.  Following the herring shoals down the coast, they worked in teams, gutting and packing herring into barrels with layers of salt.

My talk will include real-life examples from both kinds of fishing, together with some artistic and poetic responses. Along the way we’ll consider what we can learn from fisher women’s lives about human relations to nature, place and sustainability.

Details of the Talk and Zoom link HERE

My work on the Northumberland coble fishing community includes poems in ‘The Lost Music’ and ‘Two Countries’, oral history in ‘The Bonny Fisher Lad’, and historical interpretation (with Dr Adrian Osler) in ‘Bednelfysch and Iseland Fish’ (Mariner’s Mirror, vol. 96, no. 1, Feb 2010).

My 2021 talk on the language of Northumberland fishing communities for the CELCE group at Leeds University may be seen HERE

The Coble & Keelboat Society

The Coble and Keelboat Society aims to preserve and promote the history of the inshore fishing tradition on the NE and Yorkshire Coast. I’ve been a member for about 30 years. In January this year, to my great surprise, the Trustees asked me to accept the office of President. I feel completely unworthy, but accepted in the hope that it might provide the incentive for me to write up more of what has been passed on to me by the people with the real knowledge and experience of fishing from cobles. Here’s a short essay I wrote for the CKS in response to this honour:

Charlie Douglas huddles by the stove in his tarred hut overlooking Beadnell Haven on a stormy January afternoon. He is telling me the story of Andrew Fawcus and his three sons, lost over a hundred years ago, when their coble capsized within sight of home. Their memorial stands, weathered now, and partially illegible, in Beadnell Churchyard. ‘Th’ was a lot a wund. Patterson had the sail reefed, y’ kna, so he didn’t hev ower-much sail on. But Andrew – Andrew Fawcus went away wi’ a full sail. Nivvor reefed hor, y’ kna. Went away for’ there, wund freshenin’…’ Charlie pauses, and hangs his head. ‘Ma gran’fetther telt me – him an’ Auld Foreman, Dick Haal an’ Jimmy Cuthbertson – a right night th’ put in, lookin’ for them. Ye cannot be ower-careful at the sea.’

Charlie told me that story about 30 years ago, around the time I joined the Coble and Keelboat Society. I was immersed in the life of the coble fishing community from Holy Island to Amble, a writer and poet finding inspiration in the people around me, many of whose memories stretched back to the ‘sailing days’. I made some wonderful friends at that time – Redford Armstrong and his sister Cathy, originally from Newbiggin; Bill Smailes from Craster; May Douglas and her brother-in-law, Charlie, at Beadnell. I was privileged to know each of them, too many to name; to listen to their stories and record as much of their knowledge as I could.

The coble fishing community that I knew has dwindled over the decades, replaced by a generation of younger fishermen who, while they preserve many of the same virtues, instincts and traditions as their forefathers, fish by necessity with less locally-distinctive boats, and in more intensive ways. This is, in important respects, great progress. Modern inshore fishing boats, with powerful engines, plotters, echosounders and radar, are safer than Andrew Fawcus’s sailing coble, and modern standards of living are far higher. I think especially of the women, who brought up their large families while gathering and ‘skeynin’ mussels, and baiting the 1,400 heuks of the long lines every winter’s day.

Without nostalgia, I try in my writing to express what I found so admirable about that older generation: their (not always harmonious) values of interdependence and community; their awareness of the importance of the past to the future; their intimacy with their fishing grounds; and, above all, the inherent sustainability of coble fishing – particularly long line fishing, hard as it was on the women. The coble was self-limiting by size, able to carry only small amounts of gear or fish, and – although poverty pushed fishermen into taking risks – unable to work in the worst weather. As we celebrate the fact that the hardship and acute danger involved in inshore fishing have diminished, we recognise that have lost some of the communality, sustainability and long identification with place that made the coble fishing tradition so unique. I believe that the CKS exists to celebrate these values, as well as the boat itself.

It is with deep humility that I accept the honour of President of the Coble and Keelboat Society. I could never hope to emulate the knowledge and experience of the former President, or of so many individual CKS members, many of whom know far more about coble construction and history than I do, or have practical coble sailing or fishing experience, which I do not. A Society is as diverse as its members, and its energy lies in all that those members bring to it. I hope that, as President, my role may be to pass on more of what others have given me. I feel enormous pride that the generation of fishermen and women whom I knew and loved, and who entrusted so much of their knowledge and wisdom to me, might be better remembered as a result of this honour. I thank them, and all CKS trustees and members, so much.

Photo by Dave Durward

The FisherPoets Gathering 2022

February 26th-28th

The FisherPoets Gathering, which takes place annually in Astoria, Oregon USA, is online again this year. Since my first visit there in 2014, I’ve been a huge fan. I feel enormous solidarity with the men and women of the American West Coast who make their living from the sea, and write and sing about it.

You can still hear a BBC Radio 4 documentary which I made about the Gathering in 2014. Listen HERE on BBC Sounds.

Treat yourself to last year’s Saturday night FisherPoets performances HERE. (Listen all the way through if you can. I’m on near the end, at around 2 hours 47 mins).

For more details of this year’s Gathering, keep an eye on the FisherPoets’ website, HERE.

Plenty Lang a Winter

Food and Drink NE is a Community Interest Company which aims ‘to build the North East’s reputation as a flourishing food and drink destination with local heritage, sustainability, innovation and community at its heart.’ Together with GRUB Productions they have come up with this beautiful short film, based on my poem, ‘Plenty Lang a Winter’, from ‘Two Countries’ (Bloodaxe Books 2014). Watch it HERE.

Guillemot Press Poets on Poetry and Collaboration

Podcast, January 10th 2022

Click on the heading to hear an introduction to and reading from the collection ‘Sea Change’ (Guillemot Press, 2021), which Phoebe Power and I gave as part of an online event for Poetry in Aldeburgh in November last year. Not fishing this time, but post-industrial social and environmental regeneration on the Durham Coast. Also taking part with a fantastic music and poetry collaboration are Clarissa Álvarez and Petero Kalulé.

Fossils

Open Country, BBC Radio 4 – ‘Reflections and Connections’

Thursday 30th December, 3pm

Repeated New Year’s Day, 6.07am

And HERE on BBC Sounds

A wildlife cameraman, a sea swimmer, a poet and a professional tree climber reflect on their relationship with their local landscape – sea, loch, rocky shore and woodland.

Producer: Sarah Blunt

The Carboniferous rocks on the Northumberland coast where I live were laid down in layers more than 300 million years ago. They record warmer and cooler periods, cyclical sea level rises interspersed with Ice Ages, and the gradual movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, as they drifted North from the Equator over aeons. Everywhere you look, these rocks are full of fossils: shells, and particularly crinoids, which sometimes resemble zips or teeth, and which were formed from the remains of an animal related to a starfish. Fossil crinoids break up into segments known locally as ‘St Cuthbert’s beads’.

Just down the coast, at Howick, a recent cliff-fall has revealed a much bigger fossil: that of a giant millipede, around 325 million years old, thought to have been as long as a car, and to have weighed about 50 kg.

Thirty years ago, after another cliff fall at Howick, the footprints of a large, lizard-like creature were revealed in the soft rock. Those footprints quickly disappeared, but gave valuable information about one of the first creatures to migrate from sea to land. This creature also lived more than 300 million years ago, much too long ago to be classified as a ‘dinosaur’, but the press at the time mistakenly referred to these as ‘dinosaur footprints’. I wrote this poem in response to a visit to those rocks:

About 20 miles to the north, at Cocklawburn, near Berwick, the exposed rock strata are older still. In 2007 the fossil of a ‘sarcopterygian’ (flesh-finned) fish, the rhizodont, was discovered there and dated to around 350m years ago. It was three metres long, lived in fresh water and had tusks and huge teeth which give it its name. A geologist friend tells me that all tetrapods, including humans, are descended from this group of fish. I wrote the poem #rhizodont, which I read on ‘Open Country’, in response to this discovery. The hashtag represents the latest step in our own technological evolution:

That evolution is going through a stage so rapid, it might be better described as a revolution. Computers were not part of domestic life in my youth. The digitisation of almost every element of human life over the past few decades may be one of the most profound, and certainly the quickest, transformations our species has ever undergone. Like many revolutions, it has enormous potential for better or for worse, or perhaps for both simultaneously. I’m fascinated by this – not least, by the parallels between the latest human technological revolution and the evolution of complex systems in the biological world. Our culture is, after all, part of nature. I’ve written about this recently in a long poem, Ingenious, which was commissioned for the ‘Inventive’ podcast series led by Professor Trevor Cox at the University of Salford. You can listen to it HERE.

Written in the months running up to COP26, Ingenious explores the idea that the very survival of our species depends especially on engineers. It’s inspired by an interview with young engineer Jack Haworth about his work on robotics at Sellafield nuclear site, especially his use of remotely operated vehicles. These allow for the exploration and mapping of contaminated areas of ‘legacy waste’ hazardous to humans, with a view to their eventual decommissioning. Series producer Adam Fowler and I edited Jack’s description of his work, weaving my poem around his words. Then Adam created the podcast’s fabulous, eerie sound design, derived from audio signals from a robot servo. The effect is haunting.

My poem explores remote sensing techniques already familiar to me from my work ‘Under the Ice’. It focuses on robotics in extreme environments on Earth, then in space; in particular on Mars, and in plans for industrial exploration of the Moon. It then explores the possibilities of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems – some of which are terrifying – and advocates for collaboration between the human and the machine; between logic and reason on the one hand, and physical senses and sympathetic imagination on the other.

Anthropogenic activities are balanced at a point where we may be engineering our own extinction, or our escape from it. Perhaps that could involve a cultural evolution of human-machine hybrids. We have important choices to make while we still can. The Salford team and I hope that Ingenious and the ‘Inventive’ podcast series will inspire young people to explore this subject and discover more.

Thanks to such scientific curiosity, technological innovation, engineering and computing power, we know far more now about the Earth’s processes and the planet’s place in the universe than we did when I was a child. It’s difficult not to feel overwhelmed and helpless. Human life is so miraculous, so fragile, and its impact so enormous. Population growth, industrialisation, biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, plastic pollution, climate change, sea level rise – these anxieties are real, and endless. I’m very fortunate to live in a place which invites reflection on these things. In the familiar Carboniferous rocks and sea shore landscape, I find comfort – not escapism, but perspective. The geological timescale reminds me that life on this planet is more diverse than we can ever imagine, that it existed for hundreds of millions of years before our species evolved, and that it will continue to exist after we are gone.

Our short-lived human species must do everything it can, through engineering, technology, politics and culture, to mitigate our impact on the planet. For me, that starts with appreciating everyday life immediately around me, human and non-human – not just in ‘beautiful’ places, but wherever I can get outside into nature. Grasping the joy of the present moment, and experiencing the natural world – not electronically, but through the physical senses – helps us to find meaning and connection with others in and through our connection to place. Listening, accepting the slower rhythms of nature, allowing place to speak to us – these habits, which lie at the heart of poetry, may also be small seeds, from which eventually may grow a less damaging, more stable, relation with our environment.

The Northumberland Coast Captured

Ruth Bond Fine Art

Book of Oil Paintings of Northumberland with Poetry by Katrina Porteous and Peter Rees

From Ruth Bond’s website

“Born under African skies, Ruth Bond has worked and travelled in many countries across the globe, absorbing cultures, colours, textures and especially the beauty of the natural world.

Over the last 18 years the combination of these have inspired her design work (she’s an award-winning interior designer) and now the light and the subtle colours of the coasts of Northumberland and the Western Isles of Scotland infuse her paintings, with some of the most dramatic skies and strikingly beautiful beaches in the world.

The Northumberland Coast Captured is a follow-on to Ruth’s first book – a sell-out – The Outer Hebrides Captured, a happy conjunction with the poet Peter Rees and Harris Tweed, and a result of many requests for a Northumberland volume.”

Alongside her oil paintings of the inspirational Northumberland Coast are more of Peter Rees’s poems, as well as some of my own (from Two Countries, Bloodaxe Books 2014), and a delightfully mixed bag of writings that include folklore, history, geology and songs.

Ruth writes:

“I believe that in order to paint I need to see and experience the places myself.”

“Colour has always been the most important element of my landscapes and seascapes, and the colours I discovered in the Outer Hebrides were astonishing almost beyond imagination. Attempting to capture these in my oil paintings has been a beautiful experience. There is so much to see it is impossible to capture everything in one visit, so I look forward to returning regularly.”

Predominantly working in oils, Ruth employs a technique that uses both palette knife and brush resulting in the richly textured, vibrant style for which she has become renowned.

An exhibition of Ruth’s work runs at Newcastle Arts Centre, 67 Westgate Rd, Newcastle NE1 1SG, from November 19th to December 24th.

The Northumberland Coast Captured is available there, or for £25 + £4 post and packing by emailing Ruth from her website HERE.

Environmental Poetry

Living-Language-Land

In the run-up to the COP26 climate change conference in November, the Living-Language-Land project invited contributions of words revealing different ways of relating to land and nature from minority and endangered languages around the world. All contributions have been created by the communities themselves. From these, the project is selecting 26 words which enlarge the lexicon, from which we can learn about our human place within nature.

Earlier this year I worked with the families of the Northumbrian fishermen and women who first inspired me, to submit the word ‘Coble’, the wooden boat traditionally used for inshore fishing on the NE English coast between Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland and the Humber in Yorkshire. We offered the word because a coble is more than just a boat. It represented a fishery which was sustainable over many centuries, and which brought human lives into direct, daily contact with powerful, unpredictable forces of nature.

I am delighted to be able to announce that ‘Coble’ is one of the 26 words which has been chosen. Although Living-Language-Land acknowledges that only a tiny fraction of minority and endangered languages from around the world can be represented in this project, it’s an enormous honour that the Northumbrian language, and the coble fisher way of life, should be recognised in this way.

You can read our contribution to Living-Language-Land, see some archive photos and film of cobles, and hear the word spoken, together with my poem The Marks t’ Gan By, HERE.

Living-language-land is funded by the British Council under the COP26 Creative Commissions  programme.

Northumbrian Coble (photo credit Katrina Porteous)

Three Poets from the North – Poetry of Place

Thursday November 4th 2021 at 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm

Online event from Northumberland Libraries

Join a trio of Northumberland-based poets – Linda France, Katrina Porteous and Anne Ryland – who will read a selection of poems that capture the spirit of place.

This event takes place during the first week of COP26, the UN Climate Change conference. Linda France is currently Climate Writer in Residence for New Writing North and Newcastle University. Anne Ryland has just published her third poetry collection, Unruled Journal (Valley Press), including many powerful poems of place, and I write about landscape in geological as well as human time-frames. So our poetry will explore the natural world and the climate crisis, together with the North; history, culture and language of communities; countries and borders.

Come along for a sensory experience of landscapes and reflect on the emotions they evoke, whether longing and foreboding, or revelation and joy.

Tickets are free but need to be booked in advance HERE:

Earth Days Numbered

The excellent Grey Hen Press has just published two pamphlets of climate change poems by older women poets, Earth Days Numbered and Counting Down the Days. I’m one of the poets represented in the first of these. The pamphlets show solidarity with a younger generation facing the current ecological emergency. Both are edited by Joy Howard and are available HERE for £4 each + £1 p&p.

Earth from the Moon (Photo credit NASA)


Aldeburgh Poetry Festival

Friday Nov 5th 2021

9:00 – 10:00pm 

After Dinner Poetry Reading
Online 

Free

Guillemot Press Poets on Poetry and Collaboration

What synergies can be created when poets work with others, particularly across disciplines? Join four poets from Guillemot Press, who in 2021 celebrated writing and working together to produce two stand out titles. Sea Change, by Phoebe Power, winner of the 2018 Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and Katrina Porteous, whose work was recognised in the 2021 Cholmondeley Awards, explores Durham’s ‘radical coast’ and the recent changes to this economically deprived former coal-mining region notorious for its black beaches. Marsh-River-Raft-Feather, by Petero Kalulé, whose debut collection Kalimba (Guillemot 2019) garnered international acclaim, collaborates here with Clarissa Álvarez in a bold innovative approach to writing about environments. The four poets in collaboration will read from their works and talk around the writing of these two pamphlets.

More about Aldeburgh Poetry Festival 2021 and its themes of ‘Place, Perception and Play’.

Register for event HERE

Inventive Podcast

December 1st 2021

I’m currently working with my old friends Adam Fowler and Anna Scott-Brown at Overtone Productions on an episode of the Inventive podcast series, which will go online on December 1st. Inventive is a brand new podcast series featuring engineers and writers mixing fact and fiction to create engaging and compelling stories. You can hear the first series, and episodes from the second series, HERE.

My poem-sequence for our episode is called Ingenious. It’s inspired by a fascinating interview with young engineer Jack Haworth about his work on robotics at Sellafield nuclear site, especially his use of remotely operated vehicles. These allow for the exploration and mapping of contaminated areas of ‘legacy waste’ hazardous to humans, with a view to their eventual decommissioning. Adam Fowler and I are now editing Jack’s description of his work, weaving my poem around his words.

I was inspired by several aspects of Jack’s interview. What first drew me in were parallels between some of the ‘remote sensing’ techniques he talks about, such as Lidar, and those used to map the unseen landscape beneath the ice of Antarctica, which I wrote about in Under the Ice. The idea of machines which extend human senses into ‘extreme environments’ where humans cannot go has long interested me, so Jack’s interview gave me a starting-point from which to explore the idea of tools which extend human senses and activities, not only in hazardous places on Earth, but even in space.

Engineering lies at the heart of everything we do. Written in the months running up to COP26, my poem explores the central idea that the very survival of our species depends especially on engineers. Our Anthropocene activities are balanced at a point where we may be engineering our own extinction, or our escape from it. Perhaps that could involve a cultural evolution of human-machine hybrids. We have a choice. What could be more important? We hope that Ingenious and the Inventive podcast series will inspire young people to find out more.

The Inventive podcast series is led by Trevor Cox at the University of Salford.

NUSTEM are developing curriculum support materials around the personalities and stories featured in the podcast.

For Ingenious, with Jack Haworth and Katrina Porteous, listen HERE from December 1st 2021

…Beyond the light of the Sun

Worlds that cannot support a life with water or oxygen

Wait for the robots’ mapping, drilling, mines.

If we are not there now, we will be. Soon.

Earth’s Moon. Photo credit NASA