Thursday, 18 September 2014

"Come here! Go Away!" what would the birds say?

On a day when 80% of eligible voters are expected to step out their door in Scotland and have their opinion counted, here at Cockersands we are experiencing a smaller thrust of opinions.

A small farm is applying for planning permission to build 42 chalets. It's a beautiful area and people want to visit. There is another caravan park next door, who have lodged an objection. As have 13 other members of the public and two parish councils. And there are still 21 days in which to object to the proposal. The letters make for stirring reading.

What I find interesting is the reasons cited against the application: everyone is giving the increased traffic on the single track, unframed road as the main reason to objection against the building - traffic not just from residents of the caravan site, but also during the construction.

What hasn't been considered, it seems reading the objections and original application, is the impact of these people on the SSSI site of the bay. The report on bats and barn owl mentions this status, and the presence of wild swans in an adjacent field. The flood assessment discusses the impact of flooding within the immediate area. The contamination control office recommends refusal. The arboreal consultant asks for some tree protection. But nobody, as far as I can see, has mentioned the increased footfall on the sands themselves. The wider impact.

The other week we had eight scramblers out on the sands. Eight high speed vehicles for an hour or so. They come, like many (including feeding birds), to the sands at low tide.

Perhaps this wilderness isn't as important as road infrastructure (certainly the council won't be as financially liable to maintain it as they are the roads). Nor is it as quantifiable. It wouldn't be - that's what makes it a wilderness. How many of these new visitors will walk out more than 500m from their chalet? In the vehicle parking section of the application the declaration is for no increase in parking. In which case the residents will have to walk. Which would, at least, keep the current objectors happy.

If not the herons, curlews, oyster catchers, lapwings, godwits, redshanks, wheatears, American golden plovers, long billed dowitchers, broad billed sandpipers, Kentish plovers, dotterels and buff-bellied pipits.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Falling for the Medlock

Back in the baking months of this gorgeous summer, I was researching with a colleague, Maya Chowdhry, for a project we're developing for the Manchester Literature Festival, Tales from the Towpath. It's a treasure trail of story episodes that are hidden along Manchester waterways and in iconic venues. I say hidden, some more so than other... the geocaches are hidden but the wee origami boat and performance (on the 17th October) will be most visible. 
The story revolves around the canals and rivers and the Medlock has particularly caught my attention. It appears and disappears throughout Manchester. Our research day was to follow the course of the River Medlock - find where it rose sunk. And for me, as an outsider to Manchester, to get a feel of the maze of culverts and open waterways this city straddles. We were on bikes so our ability to zip about the streets added to the thrill of the chase.
I can't reveal everything we discovered that day on this post as it would spoil your treasure trail hunting, but one thing safe to share is how fascinated I was with a river so shallow (and so cluttered with tyres, unpaired shoes and other rubbish) can hold such a potent place in my imagination. How the discovery of something I previously knew nothing about and is, for the most of my time in Manchester, out of view, can have such influence when I walk the streets. It seems to echo the pace of pedestrians overground: that very ordinary element of a city has suddenly been heightened. It's current, depth and hydro-dynamism is increased by its invisibility. Of course, this apparent absence is what love affairs are made of.
medlock tunnel

Monday, 1 September 2014

The imagination and reality of dreams

Just as we need dreams, we need to know when to let them go. Since my last post I've been tussling with that letting go. As I'm sure many boat owners do. It feels such a sad, irrevocable decision (it isn't of course). I don't know figures but could guess at approx 70% of boats in marinas not being used for more than a couple of weeks a year if that. I'm probably being generous when I consider all the boats in marinas and the lack of them in coastal waters.

It's pretty distressing to see a boat mouldy and mildewed from lack of attention or use, or worse, as the above is in Glasson Basin at the moment, sinking. Not just the waste of a boat but the slow and possibly irreversible degradation of all that fibre glass, plastic, antifouling paint etc etc  into the water. But if it's there, in someone's name, no matter what the cost, it's keeping the dream alive, the possibility that it could be used, with a bit of work, and sailed. Even if in reality the likelihood is pretty slim.

Books have a similar, if less contentiously toxic, symbolic value. How many on your shelves have you not read and, be honest, are unlikely to read? Or have read and won't read again, won't even look at again? I keep books on my shelves as a memory jogger, I tell myself, even though I don't have most of the novels I have read and loved over the years. Or books that I will read one day. I will. I will. I won't. They cluster around my rooms in a reassurance of experience, imagination and possibly of my cultural nouse. And yet where they really exist, come alive and nourish me is in my imagination. If I need the paper in front of me, surely they're not doing their job.

There's something perverse about my need to gather around me the manifestations of my interests or emotions. Yet that's what, in one way, I do by filling my immediate environment with stuff, and is one reason why I don't use an mp3 player: I don't like not seeing all those cd boxes. The stacks of boxes remind me of who I am: pieces of music that were important at times in my life, a spread out a sense of my personality to affirm myself with.

I think that's what my creative activities are about too. The release or manifestation of aspects of me I can't contain. Or don't want to contain. My ego being large enough to believe these bits and pieces of thinking or expression deserve to lie outside of my skin.

Why can't I trust this imagination (I'll use that as a hold-all word for dreams, memory, creativity...) enough to exist without material evidence? Is it about trust? Is it about letting go, understanding imagination is enough to be the enricher of self. Surely, it only needs evidence if I want to communicate it to people beyond my reach.

That was one of the joys of sailing. It was for me. Beyond crew there was no third party, no audience, I didn't need to tell anyone about it. And maybe that's why more and more I don't need the evidence of that self. I can find it in other forms - as and when I need it, for example, find other people with boats going where I want to go, like I would borrow books from a library - if the library still exists, just as if the winds remain benign enough to sail, if the Arctic still exists as a place to sail to...

Sunday, 10 August 2014

I sail therefore I am therefore I sail

I wanted a boat since I first fell in love with the sea and sailing when I was a naive, enthusiastic twenty one year old first experiencing life on board. (This is what Sealegs is all about.)

I got lucky: ie, had some spare cash when someone turned up, twenty odd years later, looking for people to co-own a boat. I also had the time and flexible working patterns to sail around Scotland and the Irish Sea for the past six years. Lucky, too, to have a strong enough friendship with the co-owners to sail with them.

Dreams are, of course, nebulous, capricious. And, six years on, I'm wondering how much I love having the boat, sailing it, whether I am the best owner for it: care enough for it.

I've written plenty about sailing: the joys, headaches, the creative manifestations that come from it. So you know it's a complicated beast. There are elements I love deeply:

Helming through a force 3 or 4 across flat glimmering seas, where I can lose sense of myself in the stretching out of water, sky, navigation, and possible glimpses of creatures ... When I am forced to connect deeply with the natural world.

Sharing the load of inching down a channel at night, looking for lit buoys, water depth and the overnight anchorage with people I trust and with whom I toast the phosphorescence sparkling off the stern.

Arriving anywhere by sea fills me with the pioneer spirit. Even Whitehaven.

But because of weather restrictions, the limited range of sea/land we can cover and, more problematically, lack of companionable crew, these highlights are becoming less and less frequent. Raising the number and frequency of downsides:
The not knowing anything about engines which does not shift no matter how much I try to learn
The stress of coping with weather changes, thwarting destinations, challenging decisions
The recurrent first day's seasickness
The difficulty of training friends while sailing
The being responsible for other people's lives, the boat I share with others

And the past couple of summers I've not done so well with weather or crew to enable long weeks of pootling, obeying wind whichever way it suggests. In short, luxuriating in the positives

There is conflict between idealism and reality. While saying I wonder how much I love having the boat, I know I absolutely love having my sense of self wrapped up with it. My love of sailing and boats has existed for longer than my not knowing anything about them.

"I am Sarah, I sail." sums up so much of my understanding of who, how and where I am in the world. And implicit (for me) behind that statement is "I am serious. I am committed. I co-own a boat."

The cost of owning a boat has been famously likened to standing in a shower tearing up fifty pound notes. If that gave me pleasure then it would be worth it (if I had an acceptable stash of fifty pound notes) but right now holding on to the boat brings guilt for not using it enough and weariness at the thought of using it. Where do I find the pleasure in that ratio?

I want to be committed to that sailing, co-owning, committed self, but right now - after a trip of choosing four hour sailing days over twelve hour days, after realising I am at the mercy of an engine I do not understand, after enjoying the days ashore more than the days at sea, after feeling dependent on sailors who do not want to sail anymore - I do not feel so certain about my commitment.

The shake of that certainty brings a shaking of my identity. As F said "We shore up our identity by what we do, by following our heart.'

Who am I if not a serious, committed sailor? I was one once... or was I? How much can I force myself to be that person still by holding on to the boat, at all costs? What use is having a sense of identity so reliant on what I do / have, rather than who I am? Something as intangible as personality surely does not need tangible components? It feels as ridiculous as claiming someone is untrustworthy because of their eyes, or sinister because they are left-handed...

What I do is a result of who I am. The who I am remains pretty constant. How it manifests changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes more radically. Sailing and co-owning the boat has changed me - shifting my understanding of the sea and weather. Not owning a boat wont undermine my appreciation of them, although will affect how I react to them, assuming I'm landlubbed. Ultimately, though, I'm as interested in understanding as acting on that understanding. There are plenty of ways of implementing understanding, the more understanding, the endless they seem ...

Monday, 14 July 2014


After seven months of waiting we scored our first piece of driftwood this morning. It's a juicy end to the unwanted deficit. Although I'm not expecting more to flood to the shore. Previous to the storms last winter, we were used to picking up one or two trunks a week for the fire. But for the last seven months nothing.

I don't know if the lack of driftwood is because of the new bypass being built from junction 34 of the M6, which is cutting into land either side of the Lune, and must have felled tens perhaps hundreds of trees, which would have naturally found their way downstream. Or if the works are collecting trees coming down stream as part of a health and safety element. Although I can't think all of the wood previously arriving here came from inland. Some of it was so stripped and smooth it looked as though it had been at sea for some time.

Whatever the reason, we'd been getting none of it. And this morning, walking back home carrying the front of this piece of wood on my shoulder, the weight, the nubbing of bark, the wet frondy seaweed and our slow, syncopated steps added to my sense of carrying a dug out canoe, a viking burial ship, being part of a procession, marking the end, the beginning, the turn of events. Yes, we were collecting our winter fuel three weeks after the longest day.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Geocache is Go

success! with Helen Varley Jamieson and Michelle Green
Last Monday I was introduced to geocaching. It sounded vaguely interesting: a game that involves searching for hidden containers called geocaches, with the help of a hint or clue and a loose location. These are presented within a geocache app. There are Muggles - people who aren't geocaching, who need to remain oblivious of what you're doing - adding an extra element of tension/secrecy/suspense.

So far so so interesting. I was learning about them because I'm one of a team of artists and writers making a treasure trail of story parts for Manchester Literature Festival in October: Tales of the Towpath, which uses geocaches as one element of its story for people to find and piece together during the festival.

Helen, the geocacher and digital artist of the team, decided the best way for us newbies to really get it was to search for one. I was happy enough to go along with the plan, although I was really anticipating what the piece of print we'd be making would end up being. However, that afternoon we were mucking about with digital aspects.

Through the app we selected one nearest to us in Manchester (there are millions of these things scattered throughout 185 countries) and were directed to a tree with a bird house in a park. Around which we walked and walked, all of us peering into tree branches, behind bushes, scuffing the grass, looking around a statue, poking at mounds, until I spied something that looked not quite right but not quite out of place either.* Found it!

In the thrill of finding the cache we forgot about Muggles and ooo'd and arhhh'd loudly, attracting the attention of the only other park visitor as we unraveled the log slip to add our names to finders list. But it was tremendously exciting. It was code breaking, physical exploration and highly tuned instinct all rolled together.

Suddenly the use of these as part of our story trail became vivid. In the hunt for caches, the canal and various venues in Manchester would rise into our story, into the imaginations of the trail hunters. We could leave items ('tradeables') in the cache, offer a three dimensional, physical as well as digital, experience, and hopefully recreate that excitement of discovery, of solving clues in the caches while the story unraveled for people on the trail.

What also appealed to me about the hunt was being sent somewhere I may not know and given a reason to scour it, to explore it with sharp eyes and a hunger. Regardless as to whether there is a tradeable in the cache (which is probably a tiny trinket), the thrill rests on the hunt; the search rather than the find; the process rather than the end. It's like the best of journeys - the getting there is as important as the eventual end point. Which is, after all, what stories are all about.

*In the interests of geocaching etiquette I can't tell you any more than this in case I spoil it for someone...

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Hare and the Short Story

This is not a great photo. But it is a photo of a leveret (why it's a little blurred: they run haphazardly on the road). Which makes it a good photo in the sense of it being hopeful and capturing something positive.

I started writing a short story yesterday. It has been burbling away for a few months, getting in the way of any poem writing, and this week was the week where I had enough time to get a first draft down. The idea for the story popped into my head, back in February, like an old memory. I instantly liked it and tinkered with how it could develop and shape over several weeks. Yesterday was the day I'd set aside to begin. I had already scribbled key points in my notebook but decided to sketch out a timeline of the plot before starting. Then to read a couple of Chekhov stories and perhaps some new prose poems from Ian Seed just to get me in the zone. Then there were the nasturtiums to sow before it was too late. Etc etc.

I'm not generally one for procrastinating. So it was an odd experience, especially as I was aware - after the Chekhov - of my aversion and kept asking myself why? It's over twenty years since I've written a short story. I didn't really expect to write another one, although they are my first love - both as reader and writer. I was aware, as I found some more plants to water, of being scared of all those words that would be needed to write the story. And how I was going to keep them taut and moving forward.

I did finally settle down and start - just as it was beginning to feel as though it was too late in the day to get anything useful down. That final threat of it not happening was probably enough to motivate me to write the first sentence and then the next. The bigger fear of it not being written.

Is it fear that motivates all my writing?

The leveret's run isn't so much haphazard as a tactic to avoid being caught by a predator. Fears that impel me to not write then to write are of failure and of responsibility or of incomprehension, respectively, (I write to work out my thinking much of the time - made obvious through this blog). Many of my past students wrote out of a fear of mortality. Then there is the fear of being invisible countered by the fear of shame or embarrassment in revelation. So it goes, until the piece is written and rewritten and the fear is forgotten in the love of language and accuracy of expression. Which is when the leveret jinks into the field and is off, away, blending into the environment, its physicality lost to muscle memory and exuberance of existence.