From Geoffrey Hill to Patti Smith

Last week I spent an enjoyable couple of hours in Newcastle with Tyneside documentary film-maker Gary Alikivi, whose blog features interviews with a great variety of North East musicians, as well as artists and writers. Gary’s own work covers a wide range of Tyneside themes, including Irish, Russian and other international Tyneside connections, such as the writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, South Shields born Eileen O’ Shaughnessy, wife of George Orwell, and writer and artist Baron Avro Manhattan.

Gary skilfully compressed two hours of chat into a blog interview, ‘Some Kind of Magic’, which you can read HERE. He asked me about my early influences. There wasn’t time to go into great detail, but I did tell him about a few. Poetry – or playing with words as all children do – has been important to me all my life, and became more so in my teens. I had fantastic encouragement from my first English teacher at Durham High School, Mrs Wood. She was a great role model to me. Her son, the novelist and critic James Wood, has written about her in his New Yorker essay, ‘Lessons from My Mother’.

In the months between my university entrance exams and my first term at Cambridge in September 1979, I was still living with my parents, near Consett, where I grew up. In April 1979, Northern Arts paid for my place on a weekend ‘writer’s workshop’ in the Lake District. One of the tutors was the distinguished poet Geoffrey Hill. I was the youngest student there, shy, intense, writing awful, archaic, highly formal verse about unrequited love and feeling lonely in Consett. I’d never met any writers before. The heady mix of students and tutors was fantastic – I was discovering for the first time that there were other people out there with a compulsion to write.

Geoffrey Hill was immensely encouraging; gentle, paternal and patient. He read my awful poems and found things of value in them. He took me almost as seriously as I took myself. When he heard that I was preparing to read History at university rather than English he approved, although he added: ‘Better if it was quantum physics’. He told me that I was ‘much too thin-skinned’ to go into theatre, which I was considering; and, understanding my commitment to poetry, gave me the wisest advice of all: ‘Don’t teach!’ On the last night of the course he read from Mercian Hymns and his finest work, King Log, during a mighty thunderstorm. It was like listening to Zeus. Hill was an enormous influence on me at a very impressionable age, and we remained in touch for several years afterwards. I’ll always be grateful to him.

Around the same time I earned some spare cash shifting scenery, running errands and acting as an usher for the RSC during their first visits to Newcastle, at the Gulbenkian Studio in what is now Northern Stage. It wasn’t all Shakespeare. There were plays by Brecht, Edward Bond, David Edgar and Pam Gems, and I met many well-known actors, including Ian McKellen and Judy Dench, and others, like Ruby Wax, who later became famous names. The pay packet was tiny; but can you imagine an 18-year-old today being paid to run errands for a prestigious theatre company? There seemed to be more money for the arts in those days.

In August 1979 I had another errand-running job, on a summer school course for American students visiting Edinburgh Festival. I was given free board and lodgings in return for showing people how to get around the city, and standing in endless queues to buy show tickets for them. For me, the highlight of the whole Festival was hearing Patti Smith read from her poetry collection Babel, then being among a small group of girls who hung out with her briefly before her evening gig. Babel couldn’t have been much further from King Log¸ or Patti from Geoffrey Hill, if they had inhabited different planets; but they each represented something vital to me. Here I am, aged 18 and star-struck:

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It’s striking to me, looking back, how few of the ‘big names’ who inspired me were women. Plenty of women and girls studied poetry and wrote it. Few, it seemed, qualified as ‘leading poets’ in those days — whatever ‘leading poets’ might mean. The late ‘70s and early ‘80s were a very different time for young women. Patti Smith was therefore particularly important to me. From her album Horses onward she was one of my favourite poets — and she rocked.

Gary Alikivi brings all this together in his interview. He also touches on my two years in America, during which I encountered several other inspirational poets. At Berkeley I studied Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts with Thom Gunn and was taught poetry by the wonderful Robert Pinsky, whose ear for music helped me tune my own.

Then in the summer of 1983 in California I met Seamus Heaney, who became my tutor on the East Coast at Harvard in 1983-4. Boundlessly generous with his time and attention, Seamus read and commented on my still-awful poems with enormous care. It was at this time, aged 23, that I wrote the earliest poem in The Lost Music, If My Train Will Come’. Seamus recognised it as ‘one of those poems that comes as a gift, from nowhere’. At the end of my time in the States, when I was trying to decide my future, his advice to me was formative: ‘I think if you go home you might write the Northumbrian Under Milk Wood’.

I didn’t manage anything so ground-breaking or grand; but I did gravitate towards the fishermen and women’s dialect voices, and the authentic speech patterns of my chosen place. Thinking about all this, I feel extremely lucky to have received university education at a time when it was free, and to have travelled and encountered so many gifted poets, thanks first to Northern Arts, then to the Commonwealth Fund which supported my Harkness Fellowship, and to the Society of Authors, which funded my later Eric Gregory Award. I’ve had a great deal of support over the years, without which I would not have been able to develop my work.

Katrina Porteous, Lucy Brennan, Seamus Heaney, Amy Bartlett0002

          Coffee with Seamus Heaney and students, including poet Amy Bartlett (right), Harvard Square 1984

Gary brings the story up to date at the end of his interview, by asking about my upcoming gigs. One I’m particularly looking forward to with fiddler Alexis Bennett takes place on board the 150-year-old clipper ship Cutty Sark at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on Friday May 24th. It’s calledFrom the Coble Coast to Bantry Bay: the poetry and music of the Sea’, and you can book tickets HERE.

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Cutty Sark, where I’m performing with Alexis Bennett, Mick Delap and others on May 24th

Do please look at Gary Alikivi’s site. It contains some great interviews. And do please read ‘Some Kind of Magic’. Thanks, Gary, for giving me the space and the opportunity to think about some of the people who’ve been important to me along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

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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:

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In Collaboration

I love working with other artists. Collaborations are inspiring, allowing different perspectives and insights into other ways of working. I’ve been really lucky to have worked closely with a wide range of exceptional artists, from writing the Northumberland Millennium musical Tam Lin with composer and English concertina player Alistair Anderson, to creating radio poems like Dunstanburgh and The Refuge Box with BBC Senior Producer Julian May, to visual collaborations with photographers like Nigel Shuttleworth (The Blue Lonnen) and Jose Snook (Many Hands) and artists and print-makers like James Dodds (Longshore Drift) and Olivia Lomenech Gill (Horse).

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It’s also lovely when old work is given new life by other artists. I’ve enjoyed watching dancers interpret The Refuge Box (Dansformation’s Northumbriana), and hearing the National Youth Choir of Great Britain sing my words in John Casken’s setting, Uncertain Sea. Czech composer and jazz pianist Jakub Zahradnik has made memorable settings of my Five Sea Songs, and I’ve had lines inscribed in stone, bronze, pottery and stained glass by several artists, including Michael Johnson, Graham Taylor, Catrin Jones and Bridget Jones.

There are certain artists with whom I’ve worked often over many years. This year is the 20th anniversary of The Wund an’ the Wetter, a collaboration with Northumbrian piper Chris Ormston. You can see us together in Morpeth Chantry at 4pm on Saturday April 27th (part of the 52nd Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering), and at ‘Iron Or’, the Fourth Iron Press Festival, in St George’s Church, Cullercoats at 7.30pm on Saturday June 22nd.

Since 2011, I’ve created four performance pieces and an installation with electronic composer Peter Zinovieff, and we’re about to embark on our sixth piece, Under the Ice for NUSTEM’s ‘Exploring Extreme Environments’. For this, I’ll also be working in collaboration with Antarctic scientists. Our piece will premier at the end of 2020.

This year I also look forward to further performances with composer and folk fiddler Alexis Bennett, whom I met at last year’s Dartington International Summer School. We’ll be performing there again on August 4th, as well as on board the Cutty Sark at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, on 24th May.

I have two further exciting collaborations in the offing. First, I’ve written some words in Northumbrian dialect for electronic composer Trevor Wishartfor one movement of his latest large-scale work. I can’t say too much about this yet, as it won’t premier for some time; but I have heard Trevor’s setting and I love it.

Secondly, I’m one of the writers contributing to a limited edition series of essays inspired by poet Elizabeth Bishop, produced by fine-art bookbinder Kate Holland with prints by Tom Hammick. This lovely project has allowed me the opportunity to spend time re-reading and thinking about Bishop’s work, especially her magnificent poem At the Fishhouses, the subject of my essay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wild Northumberland

Lots of exciting things are happening in 2019. Although some details are still provisional, here are a few of them:

Saturday February 16th, 6pm-9pm

Wild Northumberland

Exhibition opening at Niche Gallery @ The Old Bath House

I’ll be reading poetry and signing books at the invitation of artists Paul and Katie Henery, at the opening of their latest exhibition, ‘Wild Northumberland’.

Paul is an award-winning wildlife painter and printmaker – he has won the BBC Wildlife Magazine Art Award and the RSPB Fine Art Award. Katie, his daughter, is a printmaker who also uses vintage maps, pen and ink and photography in her work. Their work is inspired by the wildlife, landscape and marine environment, with a particular focus on the Northumberland coast. 

My poems for the evening will reflect themes from their new work created this winter.

For more information, please see:

https://www.nichegallery11.com/

Niche Gallery, The Old Bath House, Radar Close, North Broomhill, NE65 9UJ

 

Saturday, March 9th, 11am – noon

Can She Bait a Line?

The unsung heroines of the North East’s fishing communities

Until the mid 20th century North East coble fishermen relied on their wives and daughters for the unpaid, land-based tasks that kept the boat at sea. This included gathering bait and preparing the long lines, each of which carried 1,400 mussel-baited hooks. It was also the women’s job to sell fish in neighbouring villages.

From the early 19th century some women gained economic independence in the more industrial summer herring fishery. Fisher lasses worked in teams, gutting and packing herring into barrels with layers of salt.

My talk will include some real-life examples, and we’ll consider what we can learn from fisher women’s lives about human relations to nature, place and sustainability.

 http://www.oldlowlight.co.uk/

Old Low Light, Clifford’s Fort, Fish Quay, North Shields, NE30 1JA

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Coble Sunbeam, Beadnell 1938 (photo credit David Horsley)

Friday May 24th

From the Coble Coast to Bantry Bay – Poetry and Music of the Sea

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The Blue Lonnen by Katrina Porteous with original music by Alexis Bennett.

The Blue Lonnen is an elegy in words and music for the coble, the traditional wooden boat of the English North East coast. Poet Katrina Porteous celebrates the last working examples of this lovely craft, and the traditions, culture and community which it embodied. In this newly-devised performance, her words are interspersed with original music by Alexis Bennett, created entirely from sounds made by the fiddle, played live and processed electronically.

Alexis Bennett lectures at Goldsmiths, University of London, has performed widely as a viola player with early music ensembles, and is well-known on the folk scene as a ceilidh caller and fiddler. As a composer he works primarily with poets, filmmakers and animators, and his music has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3, Channel 4, TCM and at major film festivals throughout the world.

Bantry Bay by Mick Delap

Bantry Bay is an exuberant sound piece for poetry and music that tells the story of the Bantry Long Boat, the oldest surviving ship in the French Navy, captured in Ireland in 1796 when a French invasion fleet was beaten back by the weather. Mick Delap traces this remarkable story from 1796 to the Bantry Long Boat’s 21st century successors, the Atlantic Challenge Gigs, via Commander James Wolfe, the Woolwich hydrographical surveyor who first charted Bantry Bay in the 1840’s. Bantry Bay uses a series of contemporary voices, mixed with the music of the time, to capture the feel of the sea 150 years ago. As well as Mick Delap, readers will include two leading Irish poets, Paddy Bushe and Theo Dorgan, in Greenwich specially for the Bantry Bay performance.

Mick Delap, long time Greenwich resident, is a poet and sailor who has first-hand experience of the waters of the West of Ireland, where the Bantry Bay sequence is set. He has published two collections of poetry, “River Turning Tidal” in 2003, and “Opening Time”, which includes his Bantry Bay sequence, in 2015.

 

August 3rd – 10th

Dartington International Summer School and Festival, Devon.

I’m delighted to be running my popular Poetry of Place course again this year, and to be performing in The Great Hall with Alexis Bennett on Sunday 4th at 5.15pm. Tickets go on sale in February. More details to follow.

 https://www.dartington.org/whats-on/programme/summer-school/

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Coble the Golden Gate leaves Beadnell Harbour, 1994. (Photo K. Porteous)

 

 

 

 

Horse Gallops Home

In 2011 electronic composer Peter Zinovieff and I wrote a half-hour performance piece for computer and voice, about the 3,000 year old Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire. Our piece, called Horse, was commissioned for Between the Ears on Radio 3, and recorded in performance at Sage Gateshead as part of the BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival. It was subsequently published as a limited edition artist’s book and CD, with fabulous illustrations by Olivia Lomenech Gill.

Horse is a site-specific piece and I always hoped that it could be performed in situ. Peter and I think of it as a voice of that Uffington landscape, mysterious and powerful.  I am now working on a proposal to make that vision happen. My aim is to use the dramatic sculptural landscape around the Horse as part of the performance, and to work with Uffington and the surrounding villages to produce an event rooted in the local community.

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In November, with generous support from the fantastic Double O charity, I visited Uffington, where I worked with every child in the school and, with the support of the Parish Council and Thomas Brown’s School Museum, produced a small-scale performance in the village hall. The aim was, first, to see whether Peter’s and my interpretation would resonate with the knowledge and experience of those who know and love that landscape; and, secondly, to elicit people’s response to the idea of an outdoor performance, and find out whether, with community involvement, it was worth taking forward

The visit was a resounding success. The children at Uffington Church of England School, under Mrs Bradbury’s inspiring headship, were a joy. I held seven hour-long poetry writing sessions, one for each of the year groups, from the tiniest 4-year-olds in Reception to Year 6. In total I worked with 110 children. Their poems in the voice of the Horse were imaginative and moving: ‘I got my eye from a beady-eyed bird.’My head came from the Big Dipper.’ In my chalk heart I have many secrets.’ ‘My eye looks forward, away from gory decades and into great futures…’  ‘I have been through many things, / My darling girl, what do you think my heart is?’

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The village hall performance took place on the evening of Wednesday 14th November to an audience of 34 people. I was delighted by the response, which was extremely positive. After it, we held a short public discussion of the plan for an outdoor event, including, as a possible precursor to the performance, a procession through the landscape involving children and local people. At the end I asked for a show of hands in support of the outdoor event. It seemed as if every hand went up. I also invited anonymous written comments. Some of these included:

‘You have expressed in your poem everything I feel about the Horse and its ritual setting on the downs. It is a very special landscape for me.’

‘The words and music made me see the White Horse in a completely different way…I was able to look out over the landscape and see seasons and centuries pass. Great idea to put it on in the Manger.’

‘Visceral, masculine, deeply earthy. Love the idea of a show in the Manger.’

‘I felt like I was listening to it being made.’

‘It is a very beautiful piece…Music and poem sound amazing together. I definitely think it is a good idea to have this performance outside.’

‘Your presentation was excellent, clear and exciting…Equally interesting was the music, exotic and challenging and inspiring concrete images to accompany the words.’

‘Love the idea of the event!’

The public discussion covered many practical suggestions which we now have to consider before taking the idea forward with our supporters, who include the National Trust (in-kind support) and our principle funders, the Double O charity. We have established good contact with Britchcombe Farm, who farm the hill and run a wonderful camp-site and tea room. Thanks to people in Uffington, we have now also made contact with Friends of the Ridgeway and the Ridgeway National Trail and Ridgeway Partnership, each of which has expressed interest and made very helpful suggestions.

White Horse Productions, the unincorporated not-for-profit ‘micro-association’ set up to manage Horse, will continue to take the project forward and to seek further funding in the New Year.

In the meantime, my huge thanks once again to everyone who made my recent visit possible: to Uffington Parish Council, Uffington Church of England School, Thomas Brown’s School Museum, to all my new friends in and around Uffington (you know who you are!) and – especially – to the Double O charity. Thank you!

Uffington 1Horse in Uffington Village Hall

2018 and 2019 – Looking back and ahead

For anyone interested in catching up with my other work, please click on the ‘archive’ section to the right or below this text. You’ll see that 2018 has been a busy year. School projects have included ‘Imagining the Sun’ at Newcastle’s Lit and Phil, the Poetry Society’s ‘Free Thinking for Schools’ at the BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival at Sage Gateshead, and November Club’s ‘Imaginary Museum’ with Tweedmouth Middle School, Berwick Museum and the Lit and Phil. I’ve given talks from Berwick to Cullercoats about women’s role in the Northumbrian fishing tradition, spoken on Radio 4 about the Northumbrian dialect, and begun to learn about Antarctic ice for a forthcoming NUSTEM science-and-arts project, ‘Exploring Extreme Environments’. Other highlights have included bringing ‘Sun’ to Durham Festival, leading a ‘Poetry of Place’ writing course at Dartington International Music Festival, and performing with folk fiddler Alexis Bennett in Dartington’s Great Hall, with Gloucestershire poet Patrick Mackie in Barter Books, Alnwick, and with Dr Keith Armstrong and a variety of poets from NE England and Tuebingen, Germany, at the launch of the Word Sharing anthology in Durham.

This year’s most exciting project arrived in early summer, when an idea which I submitted with Peter Zinovieff was selected as one of 10 prize-winners in a national competition to produce new memorials for Historic England’s ‘Immortalised’ exhibition in London in September. For this, Peter and I created a five-minute audio memorial to the Northumbrian fishing community, called The Long Line.

Next year promises to be equally busy, with further work on Horse, more collaborative science-and-arts projects, a second ‘Poetry of Place’ course at Dartington, and – in November – the publication of Edge, my latest poetry collection from Bloodaxe. Please watch this space!

In the meantime, thank you to anyone who has read this far. Wishing you all the very best for the coming Solstice, Christmas season and the New Year.

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The Sea’s the Boss

This November saw ‘Horse’ return to Uffington. That was an important step for me, and I’ll write about it in my next post. In the meantime, I paused on my journey home for two nights in Stamford, Lincs, for the 10th annual New Networks for Nature gathering, Creating Connections. I was introduced to this inspirational alliance of artists and scientists in 2010 by my friend, the writer and naturalist Mark Cocker, who first suggested the gathering and helped to found it.

Over the last decade I’ve felt our common concern with our human depredation of the planet becoming ever-more acute, our sense of the need to act, severally as well as individually, increasingly urgent. This year, Mark was discussing his latest book, ‘Our Place: can we save Britain’s wildlife before it’s too late?’, a heartfelt indictment of this country’s ecological complacency. Another brilliant friend, Adam Nicolson, spoke eloquently with Tim Birkhead about the loss of seabird numbers, the destruction of the marine environment, and the personal steps he has taken to protect razorbills, puffins, guillemots, fulmars and other nesting birds, by eradicating rats from his beloved Shiant Islands.

Wildlife film-maker John Aitchison has written a wonderful blog post, exploring the wider conversation of the gathering. What lies at its heart, he concludes, is love: ‘this sense of closeness to home is the key to conservation; persuading us to care enough to act, because we love most what we know best.’ I always feel this at New Networks: a shared love among very different individuals for the intricacies and complexities of wherever we call home. I am always stirred: disturbed by the urgency of the task before us. And I always feel simultaneously affirmed, in what otherwise often feels a lonely vocation. As John Aitchison says, we discover that what matters ‘is feeling connected, being part of something bigger’.

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This matter of nature, community, ‘home’ and our love for it, the indissoluble intertwining of human culture with the natural world, has always lain at the heart of my own writing. My early involvement with Friends of the Earth in the 1970s saw me severely reprimanded by my Cold War Headmistress for ‘disseminating communist literature’ at school. I was doing no such thing, only promoting the recycling of paper and plastics, questioning the desirability of the fast breeder nuclear reactor and the motor car, and urging my friends to love the earth at their feet.

In my 20s I was greatly influenced by the seminal work on ‘local distinctiveness’ of Sue Clifford and Angela King at Common Ground – prescient figures, who probably prepared the ground for the flowering of much of today’s ‘new nature writing’. The careful field research which I undertook during the 1980s, which later grew into my long poem, ‘Dunstanburgh’, was an exercise in the application of Common Ground’s values. My poems about the Beadnell fishermen, which some read as backward-looking, romantic or nostalgic, were essentially ecological:

       ‘Them greet muckle traa’lers – it’s nowt but greed.

        Whae, there’s nae bloody chance for the fish t’ breed…

        An’ the lobsters! Y’ bugger! In wor day

        W’ hoyed aa’ th’ berried hens away!’

(from: ‘Charlie Douglas’, The Lost Music, Bloodaxe 1996)

What I most valued in the inshore fishermen’s traditions – their intimate cultural knowledge of their local sea floor, and their heartbreak and anger at its ruin by newer, more industrial fishing methods – was a microcosm for all our human relations to place. ‘The sea’s the boss,’ Charlie Douglas used to say; meaning, we must respect the sea, and all nature, because our very lives depend upon it. Over the last nine years, during which I’ve had the honour of being an Ambassador for New Networks for Nature, I’ve spoken about this several times at the gathering, and many times beyond it, for example at the Andrew Raven Trust.

New Networks ranges far and wide in its subject matter and speakers; but at its heart remains the understanding that individual human beings and communities cannot be separated from nature; and that this is not a luxury but a fundamental connection – cultural, emotional and spiritual. It could not be more important. It’s no exaggeration to say that our survival depends upon it. How are we to protect and promote this essential value, while embracing capitalism and the liberal western democratic traditions most of us uphold? I can’t answer that question. At the latest gathering, Caroline Lucas and Barbara Young bravely focused our minds in their discussion of whether conventional politics has failed us. But I did not come away with any practical solutions.

For me, poetry, and perhaps most art, works underground, subversively, not by political activism or direct polemic, but as a mycelium, branching, spreading, preparing the soil from which those things will grow. New Networks affirms us in this vital task. Can we open people’s hearts to what matters – beyond price, beyond the marketplace – to the essential value of nature in and of itself – and understand that the Earth that we love is a complex system of which we are part, not centre? That we belong within nature, not the other way around? ‘The sea’s the boss,’ as Charlie used to say. Can we recognise that before it really is too late?

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Can She Bait a Line?

The unsung heroines of North Northumberland’s fishing communities

Public Talks in October and November

Most people have heard of the 19th century heroine, the Northumbrian lighthouse keeper’s daughter, Grace Darling. Fewer are aware of a different kind of heroism – that of the everyday labour of women in Northumbrian fishing communities over the centuries. Most Northumbrian coastal villages between Spittal and Hauxley were shaped by inshore fishing, which, like farming, was the occupation not of individuals but of whole families. Although fishermen were superstitious and it was traditionally unlucky for women to set foot in a boat, until the mid 20th century they relied on their female relatives for the unpaid, land-based tasks that kept that boat at sea.

In particular, all winter, as soon as the family coble was launched, the women set to work gathering bait for the next day’s line. For centuries, the long lines were the staple fishery, catching high-priced white fish such as cod and haddock. Each was nearly a mile long and carried 1,400 ‘heuks’, and each heuk was baited with a mussel, and often a limpet. It was left to the women and children to harvest these shellfish, carry them home in creels, and ‘skeyn’ or shell them before placing them on the heuks. It took real skill to bait a line. Each baited heuk was laid neatly in rows in a basket called a ‘swull’, so that the ‘sneeds’ which carried the heuks would not ‘fool’ (tangle) when the line was shot.

19 Kate Douglas Baiting lines, Beadnell

Kate Douglas baiting a line, Beadnell c1914

When the boats returned from sea, around dinnertime, the women carried the heavy wet lines ashore, and helped to sort the catch. Traditionally they then took over the next task, which was to sell fish in neighbouring villages.

Although fisher women’s lives were almost unimaginably hard well into the 20th century, from the early 19th century some younger women began to enjoy a degree of economic independence unusual for the time. This was due to the emergence, alongside the local economy, of the more industrial summer herring fishery.

Herring were caught at night, and were processed as soon as they were landed. Throughout the 19th century in the herring season, fisher lasses worked in teams of three, gutting and packing the herring expertly into barrels with layers of salt. As the shoals moved down the coast, the Scottish lasses travelled with them, staying in lodgings above the yard to supplement the local workforce. Many Northumbrian lasses joined them as they ‘travelled the fishin’s’. Away from family supervision, journeying as far as Great Yarmouth, unmarried girls from villages like Beadnell and Seahouses could enjoy wider horizons than those in farming communities just a few miles inland. Although hours were long, women often looked back with affection on the female companionship of the herring yard, and the relative freedom which it represented. It was certainly a great step from the near-slavery of the winter long lines – although one which also foreshadowed some of the problems which have beset fisheries in more recent times.

You can read a fuller version of this summary in The Cheviot magazine, issue 3, Winter 2016, available HERE.

I’ll be giving some talks about all of this, in the context of the centuries-long tradition of the Northumbrian fishery, with a few real-life examples; and considering what we can draw from these two models of female labour about wider human relations to nature, culture, place and sustainability.

All talks are open to the public. There may be a small charge.

Rothbury & Coquetdale History Society, Jubilee Hall, Rothbury. Friday October 19th, 7pm 

Coble and Keelboat Society, Crescent Club, Victoria Crescent, Cullercoats, NE30 4PN. Saturday October 27th, 3pm

Friends of Berwick & District Museum & Archives, Parish Centre, Parade, Berwick-upon-Tweed TD15 1DF. November 23rd, 7pm

Beadnell women at the herring c1900

Beadnell Women packing herring, c1910

For more Northumbrian fishing history, please see: Limekilns and Lobsterpots by Katrina Porteous