Monday, 13 October 2014

Everything We Have Ever Missed


The above, a collaboration between photographer Alastair Cook and poet John Glenday, arrived over the weekend. It is one of a series of work made by Absent Voices - an artist-led project. I like artist-led projects. They suggest energy, freedom, collaboration, all things I think can lead to beautiful, important work

This book is quiet, layered and insistent. The photos are double exposures, close-framed abstract pieces. They glimmer with alternative ways of seeing simple views. They are fixed and fluid, shadowy and concrete, of nature, of industry. I love the geometry of them. I love the snatches of light, the hinting at preciousness and life, at where humans stand next to or inside nature. I love the in-focus out-of-focus of them. I run my hand over them (printed on thick weighted, matt paper) expecting textures. Somehow feeling texture.

For every three photos there is a poem, each without a title - why have numerous titles when the book title is so achingly beautiful?  The poems may be regularly placed on the right hand page but there is nothing else regular about them. Form is played with. Sometimes informative, almost conversational in tone, in others I hear liturgies, a surefooted trail, even-fingered playing, real stories, mythic people. The poems find the gaps in the pictures and prise them wider. They speak literally to the image and then slide away, into that white space of their pages, taking me with them to my own world, to see the microscopic, the patterns, the abstract symbolism within how things layer upon each other, how they cast shadows, new life upon each other,

Absent Voices has been devised to explore and preserve in words, picture, song and sound, the legacy of Greenock's once mighty sugar industry. I only know Greenock as a standard port in the almanac, for calculating tides in the SW Scotland, This book brings that place, its history, to me, and in doing so shows me another way of seeing my place, its history, my history. What a gift!



Sunday, 5 October 2014

Counting fifty millionths of a nanosecond...

flotilla
I'm involved in a wonderful project for Manchester Literature Festival: Tales from the Towpath. It is based around the waterways of Manchester, and, unsurprisingly, the story is all about water... I don't mean water simply as environment, but the threat that is facing water. The biggest issue I think is that no one knows what the consequence is. Yes, we know seas are warming, becoming more acidic, and that obviously threatens the marine life already balanced to the chemical make up of the sea, but what actually will happen is really anyone's guess.
Our story is not concerned with the sea, per se, but the water in the canals and rivers of Manchester. (Although you could argue, that just as all oceans are the same body of water, the cycle is delicate and connected) There is a prophetic element in our story, dealing with the various possibilities of what will happen to our water in the future.
We found research about water memory suggesting that water is more fragile than we'd suspected, to the point where the hydrogen bonds within its molecular structure can be broken down within fifty millionths of a nanosecond. This has potentially disastrous outcomes when you consider the ongoing degradation of plastics - what generally ends up in the water: be it canals, drains, the sea. All the plastics that have been made are still in existence in some form. Plastic breaks down and breaks down to microscopic particles, but as yet it has not completely disappeared. Water, fragile as some suggest, is vulnerable to this morphing of plastic. In some, possibly not too distant, future it may no longer be written as the familiar H2O compound but a new unfamiliar descendant. Cue mythological creatures that have adapted to such an environment....
The story trail opens tomorrow, Monday 6th October and runs, for free self-guided tours, for the duration of the festival, until 19th October. There is a performance on Friday 17th October, at Castlefield Basin on a traditional narrowboat, which will be a first for me 

Monday, 22 September 2014

Wide-Eyed and other Risks

A Pilgrimage to San Isidro. Francisco Goya

As friends will attest, I'm a pretty private person. A statement which,  perhaps ironically,  I find exposing.

We all are, in some way. I was thinking about how I try to avoid presenting my vulnerability this weekend, as I'd been invited to a party to celebrate 30 years of Wasafiri. I was planning to be in London as it happened, so accepted the invitation.

I suspected I wouldn't know anyone there, with the exception of deputy editor Sharmilla Bezmohun. How would that be? How would I be? The image of my wandering around, glass in hand, looking at art instead of talking to people, loomed large as I traveled to the October Gallery, absorbing myself in being of the atmosphere rather than simply being. Feeling detached, self-conscious... those attributes to exposure that when I considered it I had mainly felt when I'd been alone or in known company in nature: lost cycling in Spain, uncertain how to read the sea on the boat.

Those experiences and others arose from exhaustion often, a couple of times from the sense of the sublime perception that probably I was susceptible to because of exhaustion. Certainly this trip to London I had found particularly wearing. Work has been pretty full on - lots of different projects to juggle without enough slow time to work on my own poetry - which I think did not form a sound, solid basis for a trip to our hectic, stimulating, polluted capital.

I read the Female Eunuch when I was 15/16 and the only thing I carry from it - consciously - is Greer's declaration that 'there is no such thing as security'. Yet I am forever shrouding myself in something that feels like it: a veneer of purpose, understanding, connection.

The images of models that bombard us in public spaces or pages of magazines are, predominantly, images of women looking vulnerable: eyes wide, lips soft. Vulnerable, in this idealised state, is considered attractive. Of course they aren't vulnerable. They are made up, posed and studied, which means they don't make that emotional connection to me that true vulnerability might.

Yet to accept that state, hold it in a public place, be without the armour of social confidence and knowledge is an altogether different proposition. I had experienced that recently, perhaps only once before. In Goya's Black Paintings gallery in the Prado in Madrid I couldn't stop crying. I didn't care who watched me. We were here for the paintings rather than each other. And I had the paintings as a reason I could cite for the tears if anyone pointed or looked at me in horror or kindness.

I've been reappraising some poems recently. Looking at where I mask the vulnerability within them, as if suddenly fearful or doubtful of presenting this 'naive', 'simple', 'honest' perspective. And cutting these masks off to see how the poem stands. The poem below is an example of one. The first version (three verses) appeared in the latest version of The North. The second has the mocking adolescent voice removed. I find the second far more risky to me as the poet, but also far more moving as a poem. Since the poem is about itself and not me, then surely I ought to let it move without the corset/plating that is its social costume.



(As for the party: I did know one other person - who I hadn't seen in yonks, so had a great conversation with her. And met someone else who was a joy to discover. I also found Owusu Ankomah's enormous canvases perfectly absorbing...)

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

IMAG0266
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 ...