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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
The unsung heroines of North East England’s fishing communities
A talk on Zoom forNew 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.
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).
The Coble and Keelboat Societyaims 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.
The FisherPoets Gathering 2022
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
“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 OuterHebrides 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.
“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.
In the run-up to the COP26 climate change conference in November, the Living-Language-Landproject 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.
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.
Aldeburgh Poetry Festival
Friday Nov 5th 2021
9:00 – 10:00pm
After Dinner Poetry Reading Online
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.
I’m currently working with my old friends Adam Fowler and Anna Scott-Brown atOvertone 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 inUnder 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.
I’ll be reading from ‘Sea Change’ and other poems from the Durham coast with Phoebe Power at the Charles Causley Festival online on Saturday 24th July 4.15-5.15pm.
I’ve always admired Causley’s work and was so excited that one of my first poetry readings on BBC radio, in 1998, was supposed to be an edition of ‘Fine Lines’ with him – sea poems from Cornwall and Northumberland. Sadly, Causley had to withdraw for health reasons. We had a couple of long, memorable telephone conversations about poetry, fishermen, school children and the sea. For this online event at the festival in his name, nearly 25 years later, Phoebe and I were asked to film our readings in advance. I took the opportunity to record mine at Easington and Horden on the Durham coast on the coldest June day for years. Tune in to hear me struggle against a North-easterly gale. I recorded most of the poems inside the Easington pit cage monument, to escape the blast. This event is free and we’ll appear live online to answer questions.
If you’d like to hear more about the Durham Coast and ‘Sea Change’, Phoebe Power, illustrator Rose Ferraby and I feature on the July 15th / 17th edition of ‘Open Country’ on BBC Radio 4, ‘Time and the Tides’, produced by the brilliant Sarah Blunt. It’s available HERE in perpetuity.
Singer-songwriter Sean Cooney chose our programme for ‘Pick of the Week’ on Radio 4 on Sunday 18th July. It’s available HERE until August 15th and our section starts at 27 mins 20 secs.
If you’d like to know more about my poetry, including my work on the Northumberland coast where I live, and my science poems, written for a musical collaboration with my much-missed friend, the composer, the late Peter Zinovieff, I talk about it for the Poesie App HERE.
Much of my work over the last three decades has focused on an area of the coast 50 miles north of the Durham area – north Northumberland, where I live. During the 1990s I was extremely fortunate to spend a great deal of time with some of the last of the traditional coble fishing community, whose culture and way of life stretched from Berwick on Tweed to the Humber. The fisher people I knew in the villages of north and central Northumberland spoke a very distinct language, rooted in Anglo Saxon. I talk about this in an edition of The Verb on BBC Radio 3, broadcast on July 9th. The programme is hosted by Ian McMillan and also features Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’, and linguist Dr Diane Nelson of Leeds University. It’s available HERE until 7th August.
The full version of the poem I read in this programme, ‘The Wund an’ the Wetter’, is published by Bloodaxe Books in ‘Two Countries’ . They also publish my other fishing poems in ‘The Lost Music’. Audio for ‘The Wund an’ the Wetter’ is available as part of the eBook edition of ‘Two Countries’. Copies of the original book and CD, with Northumbrian pipe music by Chris Ormston, are still available from IRON Press HERE.
My work on the culture and language of the Northumberland coble fishing community, and how this relates to a sustainable ecosystem, features in more detail in my recent talk for Leeds University Centre for Endangered Languages, Cultures and Ecosystems.
The coble fishermen from Berwick to the Humber fished in their youth as their grandfathers had – a way of life which had been sustainable over many centuries. The 21st century has much to learn from such traditional ways of life, and I’m keen that my poetry should help to encourage this idea. The Community Interest Company Food and Drink North East and GRUB Productions have produced this beautiful short film to promote the NE fishing tradition and sustainable fisheries, using my poem ‘Plenty Lang a Winter’ from ‘Two Countries’ (Bloodaxe Books 2014).
I am so very sorry to confirm news of the death of friend and collaborator Peter Zinovieff, composer, inventor, librettist, geologist, computer scientist and profoundly inspirational man. My heart goes out to his wife Jenny and to every one of his family and friends.
Over the last eleven years, Peter has enjoyed a fantastic late summer of creativity, made possible by Jenny. It has been the greatest honour to have been one of the artists to have worked with him. For those who have found their way to this post wanting to know more about Peter’s work, please check out his brilliant collaborations withLucy Railton and Aisha Orazbayeva. Peter and I made five multichannel pieces, Horse (2011), Edge (2013), Field (2015), Sun (2016) and Under the Ice (2021), together with The Long Line (2018), a small installation for computer and voice. We were always so eager to start the next project that little of this has made it onto the web. I do have Peter’s own stereo reductions of our pieces, and will try to make more available over the coming weeks.
Reflecting on how ahead of his time Peter was, a reader has written in The Guardiancomments: ‘Hardly anyone today is thinking about practical links between music, metaphor, computing, and semantics in the ways he did.’ I completely agree. Music, metaphor, semantics, computing – andgeology. All of them sparking off each other in Peter’s work, from his early experiments in A.I. to The Mask of Orpheusto the work of his last ten years. What a mind. And how lightly he carried it. He had the imagination of a poet with the incisiveness of a scientist, and was endlessly generous in sharing those gifts with others. He inspired so many of us with his marvellous gift for life, and was simply so much fun to be around.
Beneath Antarctica’s frozen surface lie vast mountains, valleys, lakes and volcanoes, landscapes more difficult to visit than outer space. ‘Under the Ice’, my new 30-minute poetry performance with electronic music by Peter Zinovieff, is a collaboration between poet, composer and scientists from Northumbria University’s Cold and Palaeo-Environments team, which takes the listener on a journey to this unseen world.
Intended for the non-scientist, ‘Under the Ice’ explores the science team’s cutting-edge research: the ‘remote sensing’ techniques used to investigate this secret landscape and to discern the movement of glaciers – in particular Pine Island Glacier and Thwaites Glacier, crucial to the understanding of climate change.
Scientists studying glaciers observe Earth’s smallest and largest phenomena: microscopic clues in the bedrock provide evidence of the glacier’s advance and retreat over vast timescales; air bubbles in ice cores reveal the composition of the atmosphere over hundreds of thousands of years; radar and satellite data supply information about the dynamics of the glacier and the ice sheet which feeds it.
What You Will Hear
For those interested in the science or in the structure of ‘Under the Ice’, here’s a little more detail from the poet’s perspective. (Please forgive any mistakes — they are all mine!). Our piece is in six sections. Part 1, ‘Slip’, is music only. Part 2, ‘Crack’, begins with an overview of Antarctica, the processes by which its ice sheets ‘endlessly replenish’ themselves, and the hidden, ‘inaccessible underworld’ of the continent’s bedrock. The poem goes on to explore the nature and role of ice on Earth, and the role of Thwaites Glacier in particular as a precarious buttress to Antarctica’s Western ice shelf. This section ends by imagining Antarctica without its ice – a state which has existed in geological time but not (yet) on a human time scale. Sediment cores taken from the seabed near Pine Island glacier shows us that 90 million years ago the vast continent was ice-free and forested. Catastrophic climate change has happened many times in geological history. Scientists studying Antarctica’s ice sheets are trying to understand more about the processes involved. This rocky world, for so long hidden beneath ice sheets, can now be mapped and ‘made visible’ by means of remote sensing techniques.
Part 3, ‘Float’, introduces a number of those techniques. They include satellite imaging such as LANDSAT, aerial mapping by drone, ‘LIDAR’ (light imaging and ranging), and ice-penetrating radar used to map the bedrock. A ‘fifth eye’, the human one, interprets the information gathered by these methods.
Part 4, ‘Crunch’, begins with lines about Beryllium-10, a Cosmogenic Nuclide used in dating techniques to determine the rate of the ice sheet’s thinning and recession. Beryllium-10 forms as a result of bombardment of the rock’s surface by cosmic rays which originate from high-energy supernova explosions. It is used to measure the age of moraines and glacially-eroded bedrock surfaces, and the extent of past ice sheet cover. The poem then moves on to a section about the interaction of glacier and bedrock, called ‘Basal Shear’. Glaciers flow downhill in response to their driving stresses, which arise from the weight of the ice and gravity. ‘Strain’ is the deformation of glacial ice in response to this stress. Basal Shear is the stress which causes the ice to deform and the glacier to flow. Basal shear stress varies across the glacier bed because glaciers flow over highly uneven, variable surfaces.
This section ends with a short verse called ‘Invisible Mending’. This is a response to research by Dr Kate Winter, Baillet Latour Antarctic Fellow at Northumbria University, who was based at Princess Elisabeth Research Station in December 2018 and 2019. Kate’s research centres on iron-rich sediments, carried by glaciers from inland areas of the Antarctic to the Southern Ocean, which are thought to encourage the growth of microscopic phytoplankton. These help to reduce Carbon Dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. As ice sheets thin in response to climate change, sediment delivery and production could increase. It is really uplifting to hear this positive story amid so much bad news about the climate.
Part 5, ‘Fall’, begins with a poem about ice cores. Deep ice cores drilled from Antarctica contain bubbles of air 800,000 years old, a record of Earth’s atmosphere and climate change over eight ice ages and at least one mass extinction. According to the British Antarctic Survey, these ice cores show that atmospheric CO2 levels are 40% higher than before the Industrial Revolution, and that the magnitude and rate of this increase is almost certainly unprecedented over 800,000 years.
This section of the poem moves on to reflect on wave-forms on vastly different scales, from the immense planetary ‘waves’ of glaciation, to the tiny radio waves which humans use to penetrate the ice and map its bedrock. It is only in the intermission between geological waves of glaciation that conscious life has been able to develop on Earth. A section about the interpretation of data and the algorithms used in Numerical Ice Sheet Modelling is followed by a final reflection on planetary forces, such as atmospheric and oceanic currents which connect the smallest and largest phenomena. Warm ocean currents ‘hauled south’ undercut Thwaites Glacier, weakening it, with potentially disastrous consequences for the Western ice sheet. The closing lines of the poem return to remote sensing and information-gathering techniques, reflecting again in awe and wonder that human consciousness is able to gather and interpret this information. Where ice is ‘ubiquitous’ in the Universe, the ability to understand it seems vanishingly rare – possibly unique.
The final section of our piece, Part 6, ‘Melt’, is music only. Here’s a screenshot of Peter’s music for ‘Under the Ice’:
Music for ‘Under the Ice’
Peter Zinovieff’s music for ‘Under the Ice’ is intended for multi-channel live performance. Covid has postponed that possibility. In our Zoom webinar premiere, kindly hosted by the Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, I will perform live to a stereo reduction of Peter’s music; so what you will hear will be a very different version of our piece. ‘Under the Ice’ was written during lockdown in 2020-2021, and all our collaborative work has been done remotely. While it could not be foreseen that its creation and premiere would be entirely remote and machine-mediated, it seems oddly fitting. The science, after all, focuses on ‘remote-sensing’ techniques in an inhuman environment. Everything about this piece is ‘remote’.
Neither Peter nor I has ever been to Antarctica, but Peter’s music for ‘Under the Ice’ is all derived from real sounds sampled from Antarctic glaciers by those who have. These include Kate Winter’s own recordings, as well as samples kindly contributed by sound artist Chris Watson and by Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow, Philip Samartzis (RMIT University, Melbourne). Many thanks to all three for their contributions.
‘Under the Ice’ is the 5th live performance piece Peter and I have made together. Our previous pieces include ‘Horse’, ‘Edge’, ‘Field’ and ‘Sun’, the last three written for Life Science Centre planetarium, Newcastle. We also made ‘The Long Line’, an installation with fisherman and singer John Dixon and other members of the Northumbrian fishing community, for Historic England’s ‘Immortalised’ exhibition in 2018.
My performance on 23rd will be accompanied by a selection of satellite and aerial images of Antarctica, which I have compiled with support from NUSTEM. These images are courtesy of NASA, ESA (ISS), EUMETSAT, Imagens CBERS-4 / DSR-OBT-INPE.
‘Under the Ice’ premieres on 23rd June, 7.30pm, as part of an online event hosted by the Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere. The event also includes an ‘open mic’ on the theme of science. Tickets are £5, with five free tickets available to those experiencing financial hardship.Please click HERE to book.
Science, Imagination and Poetry
A panel discussion for York Festival of Ideas.
How can science, poetry and imagination combine to enrich each community’s ideas?
Expert speakers include poet-priest Malcolm Guite; violinist and composer Anna Phoebe; poet and historian Katrina Porteous; and internationally-recognised expert in interdisciplinary studies, Sam Illingworth of Edinburgh Napier University. The event is chaired by Tom McLeish, a physicist, interdisciplinary leader and writer from the University of York.
Very many thanks to the Society of Authors and to committee members Moniza Alvi, Drew Milne, Grace Nichols and Deryn Rees-Jones, for selecting me, in the illustrious company of Susan Wicks, Paula Claire, Maurice Riordan and Kei Miller, for one of this year’s Cholmondeley Awards.
This year has been such a tough one for everyone. Just getting through can sometimes mean losing sight of the creative life so essential to wellbeing. My feelings about being shortlisted at this particular moment are therefore especially acute.
I’m joyous because this award is completely unexpected. I’m always honoured when anyone takes the time to read my work. The fact that this recognition comes from other poets is especially important. Some of my poetry is intended for the local community that inspires it; some (like ‘Under the Ice’) to ‘translate’ the work of a science community to a non-scientific audience; some to conjure the ‘voices’ of a place to a radio audience, perhaps washing dishes or driving down the motorway. I studied History, not English Literature, at university, and since then I’ve mostly remained outside a ‘literary’ or academic setting. So this endorsement is a tremendous boost to confidence.
I’m simultaneously reflective because, as poets, we share a responsibility. Many things we once took for granted now feel uncertain: the quest for truth, for example; our delicate relations with one another; our precious, precarious ecology and place on Earth. This award from the Society of Authors strengthens my resolve to meet those responsibilities with every tool in a poet’s shed, as part of an invisible community. Thank you!