Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Seventy Miles an Hour

70mph was the windspeed when I took this picture from inside my window last Thursday at HW. At 9.9m, it was a particularly high tide, the highest we'd had since September, coupled with the wind coming from the north west, water breached the seawall. 70mph - Force 12 - the highest on the Beaufort Scale - 'Hurricane'.

On a boat you take the angle between yourself and three different objects to find where they intersect and so where you are. Conversely a combination of three elements last Thursday at 1224 erradicated, in one sense, where we were. There was no distinction between lane and sea, nor glass and water (except without the glass I'd have been wet).

Two things caught my imagination:

1. While the wind was 70mph with us, a mile or so inland at Cockerham village apparently it was 56mph. That's a drop of 14mph over a few fields, a handful of trees and even fewer buildings: 20% taken by these small barriers. Which seems like a lot to me.

2. I wrote two poems over two days. Unprecedented since my month at Hawthornden.This may have had something to do with the loss of defined location.

I don't know if there's a connection between the two. If there is, it's been swept away, shredded and lost to the saltmarsh, tide, sodden fields or someone's back garden.

I might find it amongst what I'm slowly clearing up from the storm: burst balloons, beer cans, pop bottles, foam packaging, crisp packets, dummies, plant pots, bottle tops, car-parts, shrink-wrap, buckets and more drink bottles. To be fair we've also scored some very burnable pieces of wood: future merriment to be had from between the degrading party props. These are, obviously a lot heavier and hard to haul free than the far more plentiful past-it plastics. The future often is.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Intermission: Chasing Lou Reed

When Lou Reed died in October I couldn't get stop thinking of him, of him dead, of his music, his face, his being dead, thoughts that kept popping up when I was in the most un-LouReed places.

Initially I imagined it was because he was my first musical hero to die - when I was old enough for death to impact - then perhaps because he meditated and practised tai chi, or because of the absolute rightness I felt when hearing of he and Laurie Anderson being a couple. And while these play a part, I actually think the weight of my response is due to how I encountered him: not through the usual route of my older brothers, but with my best friend.

We were fifteen. It was 1982, Harrogate, Yorkshire, which actually made it 1972. We hung out in town on Saturday afternoons, in charity and second hand book shops, and at the record stall in the market basement, eyeing up boys. There we stopped being 'we'. I wasn't fussed, but my best friend had fallen for this tall boy-man, with deep brown eyes, cliff-edged cheekbones and a sharp haircut. He wore a leather jacket with a face spraypainted in ice blue onto its back.

We stalked the jacket-wearer in the way only teenage girls can. And discovered he worked at the local paper. One of his colleagues was in an amateur dramatics group. We joined the group, learnt his name, that he was a photographer, that his colleague was only a colleague who knew him but clearly wasn't a close friend, that the face on his jacket was of Lou Reed, that he was a huge fan.

We didn't give up. We had enough information to hatch a plan. We researched Lou Reed - it turned out the jacket image was from Transformer - and decided to cut out the middle man, go straight for goal. As I say, we were no longer 'we'. I was going for goal on my friend's behalf. I believed in her dream. Saturday after Saturday we scuttled through town, until we spotted him. With the conviction of all laws of nature and romance being on my side, I strode up, and called out his name. He stopped, turned, looked at me, at my friend some paces away, with a surprised smile, raised eyebrow, and waited. I ploughed on, as I knew I had to, explained I knew his colleague, who'd told me of his amazing Lou Reed collection, and, could I borrow Transformer?

For reasons I've never asked, he agreed. He suggested he leant it to his colleague who'd pass it on to me. The same week we set it on her Decca box record player, nervous at what we'd find, then blown away by this neverbeforeheard explosion of rhythm, playfulness and easy to learn lyrics that we listened to over and over and over. And she probably listened to over and over, after I'd gone home. Having done my job, I stepped out of the chain, and his colleague passed Coney Island Baby to my friend. Berlin was handed over directly.

I'm not sure why, but it still took a party at my house, organised especially, to which his colleague was asked and asked to ask him, for him and my friend to seal her obsession (and his obvious if more 'cool' enthusiasm). They started going out, stayed together beyond my first romance fizzling, and my next, and next, ending up married and having two sons. The last I heard, they were still together.

Thursday, 14 November 2013


A little over a year ago I was flipped by a retreat with Deryn-Rees Jones and David Morley. While I was whingeing to Deryn about how my current writing felt irrelevant and naive she tore off a piece of paper and gave it to me. It was the above. We both laughed. And yet it seems to have underpinned my latest small publishing project. I took the permission to heart, trusting what I wrote so much I've collected ten of them together and made another pamphlet for them.

I am a bit nervous because some of the poems follow well-trodden ground: basking sharks have been written about by Kathleen Jamie and Norman MacCaig, mackerels by Mark Doty, jellyfish by Doty and Marianne Moore, to name just a few from the top of my head. What more do I think I can add?

I fear there's arrogance in presenting these poems. But what I suspect has driven me to do so is the fondness I have for them: their simplicity, and how they encapsulate encounters with these remarkable creatures I've had over years of sailing. I couldn't continue to write about the sea and not its inhabitants. Or those I've imagined I've seen. There are more sea-creature poems than those I've collected in this pamphlet, but these, well, they're my favourite memories, which might not be the best rationale to give to an editor, but, since I'm editorial director of this particular publication too, what I say, goes.

Sea-Creatures takes a different form from Lune. Obviously: they're different poems. Although I enlisted the help of Hugh Bryden again, sending him a rough what what I'd done so far and he sent back suggestions as to what he'd do if it were his pamphlet. Which included some lovely ideas I've encorporated. I've also passed the selection through a couple of colleagues (as well as individual poems being milled by my writing group) who I trust to give fulsome feedback, so it has been through an editorial process.

The binding is more fiddly than Lune. So I've made only 16 copies for starters, which might suffice. Hymas&Lewis have a local outing next week, which will be a low-key launch for the pamphlet and I'll get a sense from then how they'll go down. That I'm pleased with them is a great start. Trying to fix a monetary price to them is a whole other ordeal.

The pamphlet is available to buy, at £6 (inc p+p) or £5 if you come to the gig :/

Tuesday, 5 November 2013


I wrote a while back about Hymas&Lewis's new work in progress. The piece is almost finished, with the more limbo-inducing name Sealegs - that phenomena of our brains adapting to motion, which induces dizziness, disorientation and sometimes seasickness, the transition into the other world of being at sea.

We're performing a 20 minute excerpt of it in Lancaster on Thursday 21 November, which I'm all a jitter about. The whole piece is approximately 50 minutes so it was an interesting exercise to extract 20 minutes that held a sense of the narrative, without giving everything away, and was coherent enough to pull the audience into our seaworld.

It's the first long piece we've made together, and while it has very different componants (of poetic styles and instruments - voice, guitar, concertina and shruti) the themes, refrains and loose narrative do ensure a journey through the piece.

The connecting narrative is of my first encounter of sailing, a baptism by fire in the South Pacific. This was over twenty years ago, so it's interspersed with shanty-like reflections on other sailors, a maritime legacy as it were, and the detail of life on board: the claustrophobia, expanse, freedom, comradship, and bloody hard work; anxiety, boredom, tension.

All this is delivered, we hope, with a strong dose of humour, synchronicity, passion and empathy. Certainly these were present in the devising, so should be present in the performance. Like actually having sealegs, the show's intention is to be consuming and illusory, playful and intense, an experience once felt not forgotten.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013


We rent our house. It doesn't feel too precarious given our landlady is a farmer, who on the whole are pretty stable people. But it isn't 'ours'.

Over the past few years I have steadily worked the garden, turning it from a brambled thrash of nettles into a fruit, veg and flower welding space fit for humans, birds, butterflies and bees. Mainly I've been given plants, or found ones growing under their own direction - like the snapdragons and foxgloves above. I'll buy the veg seed, but reap the investment within months with those.

It wasn't until I decided to pay someone to install a rabbit proof fence earlier this year (and boy has it been brilliant) that the temporary nature of the garden really hit me: spend all that money and we could be asked to leave in a couple of years. Renting brings home the notion of us as stewards of the land. And here, on the coast, even more so. I've talked before of the twenty year protection plan the Environment Agency has promised for the seawall. If they keep to their promise (which I'm not confident of), in another thirty there could be no garden here, maybe an undermined house.

So I face working for a present and a short-term future environment. Anything beyond is unknown. As it is in most cases, except we fool ourselves with notions of 'freehold tenancies' and 'in perpetuity'. And it infiltrates my thinking and aspirations. It can stymy would-be projects but knowing I can't commit to a wallpapering, new cooker, sunlounge-future is also liberating. We are restricted on what and how much we spend on 'improving' the place. Whatever or whoever happens to the garden there are plenty of creatures benefiting from my work now, as well as my own mental health.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

A most vocal collaboration

© Hamsik Simonian
So we've reached the bridging period between tours at Arc, three weeks break before Ivana Milankov comes over from Serbia with her translator. In the past two weeks I've zipped around the UK with the Tamil poet Cheran and his translator, Lakshmi Holmstrom, the German Ludwig Steinherr, punctuated with brief appearances by New Zealander CK Stead and UK poet Michael Hulse, followed in the second week by Armenian poets Violet Grigorian and Hasmik Simonian and the Catalans Josep Lluis Aguilo and Manuel Forcano. Inevitably I'm floating on a cloud of exhaustion and satisfaction.

Joys and disappointements, of course:

Our first venue of the tour turns out to be a short cut for police on the beat and their toilet stop, so hosting their walkie-talkies and the dyson-a-like hand driers in the toilets. Both poets and readers rise above the challenges to raise the flag on the tour.

During his very brief stay in Hebden Bridge, Cheran reveals he is the editor of a Tamil language collection of Sylvia Plath's poems which leads to arranging a dawn visit to her grave in Heptonstall before the 0750 train to Birmingham.

A man is taken ill on this train, to be eventually wheeled off by paramedics. Anything can happen at anytime.

We meet Lakshmi Holmstrom in Birmingham for a translation workshop, with the delayed train and Cheran's interview I don't manage to buy her lunch until she is beyond eating it, yet still magnificently holds court for two hours on her process of translation and goes on to read in the evening.

We have commissioned Hafsah Naib to document the tour. She arranges to meet Ludwig Steinherr at the library, but because his phone cannot receive calls I dictate a four part message on directions for him. He arrives hot and flustered to be asked to calmly pace outside the library for the film.

On the train to Cheran's London reading, the following morning, he gets a phone call from a novelist saying she can read that evening, what time should she turn up? We discuss and make several phone calls to double check this is okay and how the event might be rejigged to accomodate.

With Cheran off to the BBC and Lakshmi having lunch with a friend, I get three whole hours by myself - most of them are spent dealing with email enquiries about the event that evening, others later in the week and responding to the wonderful if incredulous news the Armenians have been given their visas to fly at the weekend.

I meet Hafsah just before the evening event at Russell Square. She buys me soup. This small gesture - of someone doing something for me - makes me feel even more weary than I'd realised I was after only three days on the road, looking after everyone else.
We're probably over capacity at the October Gallery for Cheran's event, but given the venue is at the top of two flights of narrow stairs I don't have the heart to turn people away and squeeze just a few more chairs in.

Everyone who passes me on the way out is thrilled by the event, the variety of speakers and performers, passing on thanks and appreciation. This is what makes everything worthwhile, particularly since this event had been a nightmare to fix up, pretty much from the outset.

Then I forget to bring Cheran's case downstairs after the event, meaning we have to wait another half hour before we gain access to the room to release it.

I arrive at my friend's flat where I'm staying for the night to no answer on her bell. I slip into the apartment block but still no answer on her internal bell. I can hear the t.v. so ring, knock, pace, sit on the carpet outside her door. Because of a day spent taking phone calls and sending text messages my phone is dead. After forty minutes I ask some nieghbours if I can borrow their phone to ring home to ask him to phone the friend who might be dead... Still no answer. So the neighbours suggest all three of us hammer on her door. She answers. I keel into bed.

The train journey from London to Edinburgh is spent organising Armenian flights, promoting the last two of Cheran and Ludwig's readings, finalising logisitics on these and taking bookings for the workshops which are part of the tour.

Cheran talks to Scottish PEN members about his experience of exile from Sri Lanka (twice, the first to Holland, the second to Canada during the civil war), and then is joined by Ludwig Steinherr for a reading. The small audience makes for an avid listnership.

The train journey back south to Manchester is spent on phone and email finalising the Armenian travel arrangements that couldn't be made until we knew for sure they were coming. They'll leave Yerevan in two days time so everyone needs to know what is what before they fly out.

A lunchtime reading with CK Stead and Michael Hulse for the Manchester Literature Festival has a warm and good-sized audience. I am relieved only to be introducing the event. No reading English language versions, no Q&A. Day five is manifesting itself in my articulation. Although I love the lunch we share after the reading before heading home (is the latter the reason why?)

My day at home is spent piecing together bits and pieces for the following week, answering queries, printing out itineraries for the writers due to arrive over the next couple of days.

The Armenians land an hour and half late and then into signal failure causing chaos at Kings Cross. The first few hours of my day off are eaten up by liaising with Ilkley Festival who are their hosts for the evening and their chaperone from the airport.

I also discover why it's been so difficult finding them a budget hotel in London for Tuesday evening - it's the World Cup qualifier... After some persistence I get lucky.

I meet the Armenians and Catalans in Hebden Bridge for a joint reading. I am not MCing, just reading this evening. The joy of listening to new languages being read is immense. What can be taken from music and inflexion beyond sense is uplifting.

Back down to London, the next day, to get the Armenians into their hotel and across town for the evening reading. They're exhausted, probably haven't recovered from their 24 hour flight/train-nightmare out. We skirt some Polish supporters but are too early for the majority of the crowds. The bookshop is wonderful. My colleague for the reading is already there, relaxed and enthusiastic. Out of 1000 emails we have an intimate audience that turns the event into a soiree, a discussion on the role of poetry in Armenia and its politics. Violet tells me she perfers this to the large audiences of previous events - the chance to talk about poetry is as important as reading it.

And that is our time together. The next day they head up to Wales, then will leave the UK next week. It feels too short.

I meet the Catalans, Josep and Manuel, and Arc colleague Ben, at the European Bookshop for their reading at 6pm. Another small audience, which they say they don't mind: they expect it as poets. But I feel responsible and disappointed. Again the targeted mailouts and reminders haven't worked. We are working in a niche of a niche whose audiences are elusive.

We head for Manchester the next morning. First for a recording session at Radio 3's The Verb in the afternoon. Both Manuel and Josep have very good English but this doesn't stop them from showing increasing nervousness in the pre-show chat with Ian McMillan and other participants. I feel like their mother, silently fretting for their well-being, willing them to be brilliant. They are. The show is recorded, which takes the pressure off, they read beautifully, and are articulate and thoughtful in what they say in response to Ian's questioning. I spend the hour straining to keep my mouth shut - because even though Ian has said he likes people to interject and join in while others talk, no one does really and I'm not even meant to be there.

An hour off before we walk across town to the Cervantes Centre. I am optimistic for a reasonable audience but what greets us blows me away. Standing room only by the end of the evening. The poetry has been paired with the launch of a photography exhibition and the room is buzzing with illumination, images, voice and music. The poets are given a raptuous response, and I feel I can leave them satisfied, knowing they've had this audience, this most generous reception from the Cervantes. They're off to Wales and then Sheffield Festivals for their final two readings.
It's inevitable audiences are varied, just as the tone of the readings vary from venue to venue, day to day. I come away thinking, again, what matters is the quality of engagement. And while there is no column for that in the ACE activity report, while we have no idea how many people will come back to an international poetry event another time, to be told by one audience member that even though she doesn't speak Catalan she could understand what the poets were reading by the pauses, stresses and intonations of their speech, suggests this cross-cultural interaction is alive and fecund. I also judge success on how well the poets have engaged with people, and what they have taken away with them. I hope to hear from them on that in a few weeks...
The Verb with Josep Lluis Aguilo and Manuel Forcano top right

Saturday, 5 October 2013

A Silent Collaboration

Back in April Andrew Forster of the Wordsworth Trust asked me (and 13 other Cumbrian/Lancastrian poets) if we'd take part in a collaborative project initiated by the Lakes Collective.

They were working on pieces specifically for an exhibition in St Oswald's Church, Grasmere and wanted poems that related, broadly, to an aspect of St Oswald’s or Grasmere. Each of the poems was then be given to a member of the Collective who'd produce a piece of art/craft inspired by it.

It's always nice to be asked for a poem. And I said yes. I couldn't make the arranged talk by the Minister of St Oswald's so went alone to wander around the church, and discovered this poem in it.
 A Silent Poetry
What the relic is to the original,
this church to its God,
a word contains its thought.

To question demands more,
like arch on arch offering more light
than plaster. Faith is speechless.

Only air distinguishes between
the layering of rushes
and feathers on a wing.

The same air turns yews to music
to shade to silence
to the brimming of this breath

so everything before and beyond
is lost, so deeply here,
like the towering river, its bells

water and rope, running
through our fingers, cannot
be held or stopped

to be named or sung
except by the blackbird
pulling worms from the grass

too busy to look up. It takes flight
as brother, sister,
a shadow overhead, underfoot.
John Wordsworth is called 'a silent poet' on his headstone, otherwise I'm not too clear anymore where this poem came from. But I still liked it and was happy to read it at the launch of the exhibition last Friday at the church.
What I wasn't expecting was the effect of the exhibition. The work created in response to all the poems was beautiful. More moving was hearing the artists talk about the poems they'd selected and how they'd responded to it, emotionally then creatively.

'A Silent Poetry' had been chosen by the painter Joy Grindod. She spoke so eloquently on her engagement with the poem's images of the elemental existing in environment, how the poem's play with air had led her to consider the lichen in the graveyard. She photographed the lichen and painted small plates of layered acrylic and paper that created these exquisite abstracts that she then stitched into a beautiful, roughpapered book.
We talked about lichens, clean air and the space of the abstract image, while turning the thick pages. She hadn't realised the title was born of the gravestone's epitaph, which made a pleasing serendipity. It was extraordinary to touch someone's reading of a poem. Usually, obviously, the only response I get is words or facial expressions. So to be able to linger over this thoughtful manifestation was thrilling and incredibly moving that someone had taken the time to read, reread and consider the words I had set down.

While Joy was the artist who solely worked on 'A Silent Poetry', two others used it as a starting point. Bookbinder Helen Golding Miller spoke of her delight to work with such small books, used as she is to working with family bibles and other large restoration projects. She ended up making a book of each poem, detailing how the shape, subject and sounds of the poems all informed the design of each book. And Sue Brophy, a jewellery maker, designed this necklace from the poem, taking the arches and light as the main feature of the poem and thus the necklace. Again, this reconfiguration of lines and images of a poem into a sculptured object was fascinating to hear about. It reinforces my conviction of poetry as sculptural, of the unexpected delights of collboration and of the blossoming that happens when we communicate.

Of course there are all the other poems and their individual responses - of cushions, cupboards, boxes, sculpture, ceramics, hats and paintings that are spread about the church, creating this inaudible dialogue between words and object. A hum that fills the rafters and beautifully displays the union between sacred and practical, idea and thing, one person to another.

The exhibition is on in St Oswald's until 9th October.

Friday, 27 September 2013


I read somewhere recently in a recent survey of uk roadkill the most common victim were blackbirds. Sorry, I can't find where and when I searched I found an Independent article saying it was badgers - a discrepancy which could led this post down a very different route. Blackbirds, though, are slow responders to danger, which means they will more often than not leave it to the last minute before the fly 'out of the way' of traffic, aka fly across the path of passing cars.

Only a few months ago I killed one. It was a strange event: shocking and cartoonesque. I was driving along the A6. A blackbird suddenly swooped across my path. A single black feather spiralled up over the bonnet and away. I drove on. The lack of thump made it worse, and I was haunted by the sight of the feather for the rest of my journey. The fourteenth way of looking at a blackbird.

All roadkill is a result of overpopulation. The encroachment of humans on the wildlife population of the country.  I mentioned the 25% / 50 year disaster in my last post.

I find it absolutely stunning that this is not considered newsworthy. Instead our tv adverts hammer on about sofas and cereals. Our news focuses on how man kills man or currently, 'recovery'. Is it because David and Boris think they can escape it in bunkers? Do they disbelieve it? Is it too boring for an electorate to engage with? It obviously won't sell papers.Talk on the Today programme this morning was frustration with the policitians for arguing over scientific evidence while there is no discussion over economic policies that do/don't respond to climate change.

Fifty years. That's in the lifetimes of many many parents. Why aren't more people talking about it? I know Facebook is not thermometer of public opinion but when I first posted this information in a status update it passed virtually uncommented upon. I posted a picture of my first tomato harvest and received double the amount of interest. Surely these people overlap in their concerns? Is it because it's a hopeless case?

I am truly perplexed.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

No Benches in Amazon

I was in the bookshop at Salts Mill at Saltaire yesterday. For an hour. There is much space between bookshelves, many books are set front facing, benches line the walls, and staff do not ask if they can help. Their salespoint is central and big should you need any. 

I mooched along shelves of picture books, books on textiles, dipped into The Poetics of Space, a craft book on making minibooks, natural history books, kids' books (one I loved and scanned my mental list of under three year acquaintances whose birthday was imminent - about a rabbit who says poo bum) philosophy and poetry books. I took some notes, jotted down titles and authors, got over stimulated, then excited at what I would do when home. 

Eventually we collapsed in the cafe for lunch. We'd bought two books. And talked about buying more cheaper online, getting them secondhand. Blah blah. Nothing to help the bookseller's cause. Nothing to stop to world domination of Amazon. And yet while there I kept thinking this wonderful slice of the afternoon could not have happened if all we had were ebooks.

I read ebooks. They're very handy for someone who thinks she needs to take six books on a three hour train journey, just in case... But I also completely value and recognise my need for physical connection to a book, for being able to physically flick pages, run my fingers across a picture or line, and take in the different sizes and textures of a book display. All this, to an extent, can be done online at home. But not being at home shifts my antennae so I stumble upon titles that surprise me. Not being at home, sitting on an unfamiliar bench dipping into the third chapter of a book I may not buy within the hour, sharpens my receptivity to what I read. 

I need to take something of it away with me, I need to lodge what I read and subsequent ideas. Not possessing it makes it more vital to use or store for later use. And if it proves to be absolutely relevant to what I come to do then I will hunt it out (probably online, I'm not perfect). I want to keep my focus, not to graze on everything the internet promises. I want my grazing to be physical, as I wander from the natural history to the craft section. (Perhaps the physicality is inevitable since I'm engrossed in making another poetry pamphlet, using more delicious paper and card, incorporating charts and tearing.)

Jonathan Franzen's Guardian piece on technoconsumeriam, particularly within the book industry chimes with my own disgruntlement towards the trumpeting of technology as definer of what is published over its role as provider. A friend tells me optimistic talk amongst techies is that within 50 years we'll be living through avatars. I presume if this is the case (and if there's truth in carrying on as we are will lead to of all speciesbeing extinct in 50 years*) we'll be 'living' in worlds designed on second generational memories of this physical world. A water vole? You'll have to use an otter instead.

*Prof Veronica Strang, an environmental anthropologist specialising in water

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

On the Cusp

The geese are inching their way back. I've seen three skeins in the last ten days - of maybe twenty or so birds in each. Not so many for starters - we get arrows of hundreds when they come proper - but it's a clear seasonal marker, despite the swallows still hanging on. I'm told the ones that are still here now will probably not make it back to Africa for winter. So not such a good thing to have summer stretching out a little longer, for them at least.

And of course the sileage is being harvested. The starlings go crazy for the lime bright fields and, it seems, once they've eaten enough from the soil, they come to bounce on our roof to shake out grubs from the tiles. And shit all over it and the ground surrounding the house. So while we miss out on the yellows and golds of the early autumnal shift, we do get white.

Then, last week, there was metaphorical change, with Seamus Heaney's sudden (to the unknowing) death. Another realignment, a coming to terms with unstoppable movement. Seconded by David Frost two days later.

Heaney wrote so beautifully on death. In 'The door was open and the house was dark' he talks of feeling 'a not unwelcoming | emptiness' after a friend's death. There is nothing but it is 'not unwelcoming', suggesting it is something worth being alert to. Memories, reflection, understanding the relationship, the absence, perhaps. But nor is it welcoming. The space is in suspension, as are the emotions contained in it.

This cusp is an odd place to stand - or fly if you're a swallow about to depart - being neither one thing nor another, not in one place of another, a balancing act depicted in so many of Heaney's poems. What a fitting, final act of this poet to depart at the border between summer and autumn.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

The Underbelly of Light

This is not sunset, but the unusual sight (for me) of sunrise. Made more special by it being over Ailsa Craig in the Clyde. We took the boat up there last weekend for its (and hopefully our) summer holidays.

It is the reward for climbing out of my berth at 4am, after 90 minutes sleep. Apparently the sky had its first glimmer of light soon after 3am. The photo is slightly misleading as the clouds have tempered the sky's shock of yellow, a seam that crinkled over the Galloway hills, to the southeast of us, bruising them into definition, far darker than Ailsa Craig appears here. But they don't have the benefit of the sea's reflection to send them mauve.

We alternated for most of the twenty hour trip, from Whitehaven in Cumbria, between sail and motor. The dawn brought wind, grazing the sea's surface to create a shadowy texture that both caught and absorbed the growing light, making for one of those oddly opposing experiences, like eating meringues. This one being lumpy and smooth rather than crispy and chewy.

With the retreating dark, came a sense of relief, normality, that almost offset the exhaustion, at least fooled me into thinking I might not be as tired as I thought. This didn't last long. By 8am I'd slipped back into a bunk for a brief top up before we neared Girvan.

I've been commissioned to write on this transition from dark to light for a sequence of poems for a library project. Which worries me, as I don't see it too often. But seeing the clouds drink the rising sunlight, so it drizzled pink at their base, rather than glowing yellow, got me wondering about the relationship between the two. Whether it can ever be totally dark. I'm not sure I've experienced that.  Not at sea, nor in the desert.

For my eyes to become accustomed to it and see at the least muffled shapes, even if in some way they have been illuminated by memory and imagination, there must a degree of light. This dark, under stars, moonlight or manmade beacons (in channels, on buildings or as satellites) offers a freedom to shift our relationship with where we are, more gaps to fill, perhaps. It's another form of R.E.M. a place of dreamy possibilities and inhabitants. Or just not enough sleep?

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Plugging In

With the power station, caravans and wind farms on our doorstep, and the university, nuclear submarine trackers and Blackpool visible in the distance I'm reminded of modern life daily. And while many of these sights might not be considered attractions their presence makes the beauty of the estuary more realistic and therefore deeper somehow than it would be without them, than it probably is in most visitors' photographs, which, I imagine, in the main focus on the Victorian lighthouse or the Bay itself, the sands, or Bowland fells. This draw to natural beauty is deeply ingrained. Why else would we call completely unnatural environments 'Bluewater' (shopping), 'Freshwater' (property), or 'Westfield' (more shopping)?

The man-made sights act as bearings. Where I stand as I spin round to clock them all is where they intersect. I am fixed by them. In some way they have made me. They distinguish me from the two women lighthouse keepers who lived here before me. And as much as I like to align myself with the 'natural' elements of the world, and do find a strength and vitalisation from it, I am as much 'artifice' or man-made as I am animal.

Maybe that's too flippant. It would be impossible to measure the parts that make me in percentages, and to declare myself equally spread between them, and perhaps it is too dismissive of the deep inherited memory of ancestors that makes up my instincts. Even so, I'm glad to be shaken from my tendency for Romanticism, and be forced to stare at what one friend called the giant battery of Heysham every day. After all, I also enjoy being able to plug in.


Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Creative Swimming

So the weather wasn't what we might have expected from the south of France this year, but that didn't stop me from swimming every morning before breakfast. Not a lot would. Waking up two lengths into a swim is a delicious and gentle way to start a day, especially when that day involves a workshop, several one-to-one sessions and eating a substantial breakfast, lunch and dinner. Getting up and into my swimming costume doesn't give me time to bail out, and increases the meditational aspect of a genteel breast stroke, limbs still soft from sleep, eyes unfocused. The house is quiet but for Moira and Regine preparing breakfast so I can generally make it down into the water without having to speak.

The creative benefits of exercise have been well documented. Many writers have spoken of going for a walk when they are stuck or unsure of how best to express themselves. In the past I've been an ardent cyclist - jumping on my bike for an hour's spin around the fells at home to shake free that elusive thought. Wherever we find ourselves there's somewhere to walk - I like the sound of Will Self's current project of walking from his house to the different London airports...

After twenty or thirty minutes in the pool I'd climb out hungry. Not just my stomach empty, but brain washed of dreams and mind unanticipating the day. I don't ever count how many lengths I'm covering, instead I count strokes: eleven one way and eight 'downhill', back to the shallow end. A manageable repetition: short and simple before I turn and begin again at one.

It's more frog stroke than breast stroke, more breathing than swimming, more asleep than awake, a transitory zone that bridges bed and breakfast, in which more happens than I can possibly imagine. As with that pause before writing, this space before each workshop allows a consolidation of thought, a focusing of the  theme of the workshop ahead and a bringing together of past reading experiences, past discussions and past writings that not only propel me slowly through the water but into an unboundried space for the workshop.

The groups at the French House Party are always a mixed bunch: novelists, memoirists, short story writers, experimentors and dabblers. So the more fluid I can be in terms of references, memory and silences, the better any group discussion will be. By better I mean more multi-voiced and stimulating for everyone there, including me. After all, I'm still learning too.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Where is everybody?

Remember the old British Ariways adverts (drawn by Jo Lawrance)? On days when the sky drops to cover Heysham 2 and the flies cluster on the window panes it feels the same around here.


But of course just because you can't see people doesn't mean they're not there or there's no community.

I've written of the car park which brings regulars to the waterside: birders, twitchers, cyclists, dog walkers who share sightings and local chat. Unlike a more urban neighbourliness, paths are crossed far less regularly, names are not known, common passions are perhaps greater. Strange alliances are formed over many years.

Our need for connection is strong enough to forge these relationships despite their tenuous natures, just as we anthropomorphise virtually everything around us: animals, hills, trees, clouds. We instinctively layer meaning and significance upon our surroundings and those in it, adding previous experiences to present encounters.

In this sense nothing is clean. I'm not attaching a positive value to the notion of 'clean', in fact 'clean' could suggest something devoid of organisms/life. I like spiders' webs, the long grasses at a lawn's edge, the muddy waters between me and another person, in which I can't help but feel something of what they feel: be it joy or grief.

A neighbour died this week. I've known him for four or so years. We had the locality in common, our love for it. Not that we discussed it much. It was implicit between us, in our more idle chat about the fishing season, cows, milk subsidies, the wind. And I think that was what we liked in each other as much as whatever else it is that draws us to certain people. The ground on which we stood, the air we breathed was held in mutual admiration and love, and through that we connected. Before I moved here I'm not sure what would have brought us together. Probably nothing. Now he's gone, I'm not sure what separates us. He isn't a distinct living individual anymore. Being less defined allows him to permeate more. Perhaps Obi-Wan was right

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Shed of Danger

I've mentioned The Shed of Danger in a previous post. The small shed built into the corner of the seawall is even more dangerous now. The other week the brick walls and corrugated roof dropped by a foot, the wood plank that's wedged diagonally across its interior must have slipped somehow. It's still wedged, keeping the remaining pieces of wall upright, but with more bricks lacing the ground around it and those still making up the wall far more gappy it feels time for a rename: The Shed of Peril. A smaller but more threatening structure.

What makes it particularly frustating is that there is still wood in there: bits of pallet and furniture, a couple of tree trunks, I daren't retrieve. Every so often I'll wade through the nettles and lust after the unobtainable wood. Just like a teenage girl with boys. There's a certain thrill in peering at the roof, the walls and working out how I might safely snaffle some pieces before acknowledging there's no way I'm going in. Like the school disco.

Originally this was the oil shed, where they kept the oil for the lighthouse. There's an arched doorway (now bricked up) in the wall nearby, providing a shortcut to the lower light. Over the winter a little owl was roosting here, although I've not seen it recently. And now it's bedecked with apple blossom, footed by bluebells, making it seem almost Romantic in its wreckage. A folly.

The sensible thing would be to pull it down. Which isn't going to happen. That it looks exactly the same as it did, apart from being a foot or so shorter, draws me back again again. My surveillance of it is another reason for braving the nettles. Will it drop lower and lower, as if sinking below ground? The old fishhouse was partially below ground to keep the fish cool. Somehow the building (so far) has retained its integrity of four walls and a roof. It's just editing itself for a change of purpose. One that doesn't involve five foot high people.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

I might forget but my body never will

Delayed by the strong easterlies of March and April we've only just put the boat back together. I chose the surprisingly relaxing job of untangling the lazy jacks (above) for my starter. These two lines hang either side from the mast to the sail cover on the boom, to make sure the main sail flakes neatly into itself when released rather than needing people to catch and fold it as it falls (as we did in the 'olden days'). Two pulleys and three small clips hang from the one loose end so it's a slow job freeing it from itself, tangled from having been washed. The cord is smooth and easy running, which makes a huge difference to the job.

It was pleasant sitting in the cockpit letting the cord slip through itself, slowly lengthening. It's an assault course for the fingers and eyes, a reverse macramé, the loose sensation of slipping with a river current that required little thought, more physicality. It's a rare boat job that doesn't have a low tremour of anxiety to it. Even mousing lines out of the boom or mast - tying the working rope to a smaller one and pulling it free so the track is still evident for when you need to return it - comes with a sense of worry that I may lose the knot half way down the mast, so pulling the small mousing line free and losing the ability to rethread the reefing lines or halyard.

This being the boat the relaxing job ends soon enough. The lines have to be attached to the pulleys two thirds of the way up the mast... 10 metres up. Even with someone else hauling me on two halyards in a climbing harness as I cling to the stays, the spinnaker halyard and mast, the ascent is nerve-racking. Not so much muscular as mental.  

Do not look down. There is no need to look down. As I rise. And with three people pottering about on deck each wobble of the boat is amplified as it is reverberates up the mast. At least standing on the spreaders to reach the pulleys meantsI feel a little more securely braced against the boat, and takes away the cut of the harness into my thighs, but my fingers are cold and need all the focus I can muster to co-ordinate to untie the end of one cord from my belt, thread it through the pulley, and tie it back to my belt, twice, to bring them back to the deck so we can raise the lazy jacks and therefore the sail cover. My right leg begins to shake uncontrollably, a minute tremour that prevents any load bearing. I press myself harder against the mast until I can shot Done! and am smoothly returned to deck.

As with seasickness, as soon as I'm on solid ground, the shakes cease. Stored invisibly in my muscle memory for the next time.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Breeze. Breathe. Draft

Flurry. Flutter. Blast. Blow. Puff. Gust. Squall. Tempest. Gale. Cyclone. We have lots of names for wind in its various states (not to go into the Beaufort numbers). More specific name are tied to particular places. I particularly like tramuntana, found in north eastern Spain. You'll know when that hits.

Some people are more affected by wind than others. One friend who visited was so distressed by the wind here, she didn't want to be out in it. And even though I'm invigorated by the warmer varieties (especially when on land), I've been tested recently.

Non-stop wind through March roared in like a lion but still hasn't gone out like the lamb of folklore. Everything is looking pretty hammered, flattened, bleached. And with the change in sea temperature, and then air pressure, we're told to get used to it. The preference for dykes over trees here enables it to scoot across the fields unhindered. So every act takes that much more energy and focus to be undertaken. It's as if every decision is being double checked: is it absolutely necessary? Worth the effort? Standing still requires concentration, awareness. 

And perhaps that's what I love most about the wind. It defines me, in a way that swimming also does. But better: I don't have to get wet. In strong winds, air flutes around my body, sharpening my awareness of where I end. I am most clearly shaped when walking into or away from a 25mph wind. Muscles are active. I am a walking channel, a solid mass in the middle of huge movement. And unlike seeing shadows and silhouettes of myself I can feel it in my limbs, in the front and back of my body, along my jaw. It reinforces me.

Which feels similar to my reasons for writing, or creating anything: gardens, meals, clothes. I have, I suppose, a kind of extreme low level body dysmorphia, which possibly isn't the right term, but will have to serve here. My body image is flawed by my not being fully aware of definition. I am not contained by my physical self. And when I feel bigger, I create. Writing, for example, is a way I can manifest myself into something other more cleanly, or perhaps I mean with a cleaner definition. It has form. It is the shape of my overflow. Conversely there are times when I shrink, so overwhelmed I don't write. When we bought the boat, for example, I didn't write for almost the entire year. Being responsible for something so alien, potentially scary, meant inhabiting my own body took all my effort just to function. To function well, I had to fit myself comfortably. To manage the excess of myself, I have to put it somewhere else.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Intermission: Review

A timely and thoughtful review of 'Lune' by Billy Mills on Sabotage:

"Lune: a leash for a hawk; fits of lunacy; a crescent formed by the overlapping of two circles; a crescent moon; a river whose tidal estuary is at Plover Scar, Lancashire; a poem in five sections by Sarah Hymans printed as a neat concertina or gatefold pamphlet, subject of this review.  ...

Lune is a rich addition to this contemporary pastoral tradition: part narrative, part evocation of land- and sea-scape, part metaphysical meditation on what the world is and what it is to be in that world. The title in the first instance derives from the river, but the other definitions of lune that I referred to in the opening paragraph of this review all seemed to me to come to bear on the poem as I read it. The sea is a leash, limiting the walker’s range of movement, the pull of the moon is what creates that intertidal space, the bay’s crescent is formed by sea and land intersecting, and these are all things the poem brings to our mental vision."

You can read the full review here.Or, even, buy it here

I like the timing, given the subject of current posts being the landside of the Lune.

Monday, 18 March 2013


There's a t-junction nearby known as Bonkers corner, derived from Bank House Corner. Bank House Farm being at the end of the lane. That particular Bank House is still there. There were at least three other Bank House Farms (Upper and Lower included) around here once. Plenty of embankments.

Most of the farms have kept the names of their tenant farmers from years ago. So Tomlinson and Gardener's Farms don't have the Tomlinsons or Gardeners living there anymore. The previous inhabitants are as part of the landscape as the buildings. Waymarkers, inscribed on maps.

So when people moved into School Villas (down the road from where the old school was) and changed it to 'Chick Villas', it seemed a casual disregard, almost insulting, of the place. As if their smallholding of chickens took precedence over the previous role of the house. I don't know if someone said something, but a month or so later, the new plaque was removed and the old name reinstated. I might be imaginging the curse, but I always thought it bad luck to rename houses.

Crook Cottage, however, neighbour to Crook Farm, was originally Mill Cottage (housing the nearby Abbey's mill). Perhaps it was sold to the farm after the abbey was dismantled for family or workers and so became Crook. Crook Farm is so-named for its location in the crook of the estuary.

Our place is called Lighthouse Cottage, despite the (replacement) light having been demolished in the nineties. The old fireplace still stands in an external wall, and the stone flags that would have been the foundations of the light are still, in part, visible. But no light. In name only.

As with the fields, layers of past activity and residents are sometime evident, other times not. Not everything can remain to honour the past. There isn't the space. As with memory, the reasons for forgetting can also be lost.

It's a kind of hording, reminding me of an attic crammed with old clothes, photographs, toys and momentos. Does my clinging to names, suggest a reluctance to allow it to become past? Aware my own presence here could be lost, like the mill. And yet, I've renamed all our outbuildings: the shed of shame, the shed of danger, the garage of retirement (already renamed to the garage of redemption), creating new histories in the small time we've been here, despite their previous purposes of housing fishing tackle, cows and the lighthouse oil. I'm busy making a new cartography for the place. An aural map, which of course will always be incomplete.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Slack and other Fields

Ironically, the inland houses are more likely to be flooded than those on the seawall. Their cellars wash out every few years. All the land round here is reclaimed, dyked; the reedbed long since cut down for grazing cattle. Over a couple of square miles lie ten or so farms, some of which, no longer farming, have been divvied up into two or three houses. Fields grow on or just above the water table. The sea wall, alternatively, is butressed, raised a little higher.

This is most obvious after heavy rain when the fields gleam with huge swashes of water, and  curlews, especially, crowd the mud, pecking for whatever has been lifted by the wet. Shallow pools stretch where the old dykes were, dividing the smaller fields. Swans spread across two fields this year, with maybe as many as fifty in each most days. I like the sight of them and sheep sharing the land. It adds a surreal quality to my notion of 'coast': more blurred than otherwise. Transitory.

As are the fields themselves. I saw a map of local fields. Each had a name, given for its soil type or relative location. The field opposite us is called Slack Field, where slack is used to mean a "soft wet area of low-lying land that sinks underfoot, poor drainage, soil is unfit for cultivation but can be cut and dried and used for fuel".

Other names: Dead Man’s Butts, Chapel Hill, Salt Coat Piece, Long Greet, Lower Greasy Pike, Higher Greasy Pike, Little Barn Field, Mill Pasture Meadow, Little Rough Mill Pasture, Further Moss Field.

The map is obsolete. These fields have been dyked together but these names conjure small histories. In less than a square mile were over seventy named fields. The map is undated, but is from before the lighthouse was built in 1847.

Naming something is a peculiar habit that both connects and distances us from it. Connects by the thought process of defining a thing’s quality. And distances us in the way language (code of the intellect) does from physical entity. Either way, and both, what had been fairly nondescript fields become containers of history from when the Abbey was a vital part of the landscape, pre 1534.

Everything shifts round here, more so than many places. The bay's turf and channels have swung in patterns for the past centuries, and its people have never been too worried about this, knowing it's ‘twenty yard one way, twenty yards another’. But now everything is unknown. In a recent, wonderful piece on the weather Richard Mabey calls British weather whimsical and claims climate change will increase this 'whimsy'. Just as meteorologists can't forecast exactly what change will occur, nor can oceanographers. Sea levels will rise, obviously in some places, surprisingly in others. Coastal erosion around here could mean the deepening of dykes, the loss of still-working farms, equally it could mean the silting up of localised coves. Ultimately, nothing is known.

Monday, 25 February 2013


reproduced with kind permission from Jackie Morris

Not only do people come here to admire the sunsets and snowbuntings. But also to course hares. At night. The 'sport' is to send dogs chasing hares across the fields. Once killed, the hares are strung up on the barbed wire at field gates as trophies.

With March coming, we'll feel the resulting decline even more keenly than we have during the winter months when often they'll hop out of the dykes onto the road to zig-zag in front of the headlights, partly to confuse the preditor, and partly due to being dazzled by the beam.

One of the calls of spring is their running ragged circles around and around the fields, across the saltmarsh, chasing each other like kids. They run so closely, tagging tails, almost, I've mistaken them for labradors, seemingly so large. And of course the more famous image is of them on their hind legs, rearing up to a height of a small child, boxing.

They're a popular subject for paintings. Symbol of our meagre wild. But art rarely captures the lean energy of the creature: their scrawny bodies, wide ears, and that lope of theirs when they're poking about the fields. Their image is often domesticated, made more cuddly than they are. By far my favourite artist of hares is Jackie Morris, above). Part deer, part fox, solitary and metamorphosing colour through the year, hares have a mythological quality. More often than not, these portraits sadden me: sport three - art nil.

The hares around here, I'm told, are unusually large for brown hares. The exposed flatlands perhaps necessitate a tougher build. When not playing centre field, they keep to the dykes and hedgerows, warmer, sheltered lines. Despite being able to run upto 45mph, their young are more exposed to machinery and digs because they nest above ground. Plus their reaction to danger is to freeze.

The salt marsh is the safest place for them. No one would want to set their dogs chasing across their with its irregular sump holes that could so easily break a foreleg, or two. Their colour matches the grasses perfectly. And the tufted scape means their silhouettes are not so obvious. At least to human eye.

Apparently the hunters come from Manchester and Barrow, this being one of the last places around the NW to find so many hares. What really irritates me is how stupid these coursers are. Not only in an ecological sense, but for the sustainability of their own pleasure. Erradicate the hares over their ability to reproduce and bang goes that entertainment. The farmers don't like the hare coursers because of the danger to their cattle – startled, the cows and sheep can easily fall into a dyke to drown. £1000 lost per cow (the police have a rural officer dedicated to overseeing the area, contactable on 101).

Late last summer a guy knocked at the door, asking who the landowner was here. I told him various farmers and asked why. He was from Manchester and had a marsh harrier he liked to exercise by picking off unwanted rabbits. He was about three weeks too late for our infestation (either a fox or mixy had beaten him to it). I haven't seen him again and suspect he didn't meet with much luck – either permission-wise or rabbits.

Just last week we met a hunt on the lane. A pack of about 20-30 dogs and the same number of huntsmen/women. Red jackets, black boots, whips, the lot. Lambing time seems a odd time to allow a hunt on the fields round here. They said they were 'scent-hunting'. I didn't ask (I should have) how they controlled the dogs to divert once the scent grew strong and close. How can they?

It's the first hunt seen around here within the living memory of my neighbour Ralph, who's lived here for 88 years. I hope it'll be at least another 88 before they're back. Blatent or shady, I don't know which hunt is worse.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Genius Loci

taken by Bob Parkinson c 1950

"Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind." said Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

And when you fall in love with a place, rather than a person, there's so much more evident history and physicality to excavate and obsess you, to occupy mind and body as you connect with it and understand it more. It is inevitable through action, perhaps, to grow roots into the present and history of a place, attempt to preserve those and shape its future. And I suspect I'm more shaped by being in a place than I am by being with someone. There is a larger force/presence there. A greater, more constant physical interaction between myself and place. Is it this physical connection that feeds the deeper one?

I moved here two years ago, and before that cycled here regularly for over ten years, and before that, when I was twenty-odd, cooked up a dream to live in a lighthouse. I suspect this is the nearest I'll get to that. No light except the one in the channel is here now, but the cottage remains on a slightly elevated piece of land, and despite having been partly washed away once, is standing tall, if crooked, still.

Apparently the first keeper, Frank Raby, built the cottage when his family out grew the four rooms below the wooden light. He built the stone walls straight from the inland room, and when he'd gone so far realised he was about to hit the road, so cornered it slightly to accommodate the size he wanted. It was only one storey then. More children (or grandchildren perhaps - the family was here for 100 years) gave rise to the second storey.

I discovered this last year when I met Bob Parkinson, who lived and worked this and then the replacement steel lighthouse until he was 29 years old, for the first time. I'd wondered why it had the odd bend ever since moving in. The solving of the mystery didn't diminish my feelings for the place, rather generated a deeper sense of knowing it, of carrying (if unable to share) its history. Giving me a stronger sense of connection. I grew up in a house that was built by my great grandfather, lived in by my grandparents and parents. I think this experience has sharpened my attachment to 'home', attuned me to wanting to know a home's history.

Bob came round the other day. Maybe the stamina required to live here before double glazing and central heating, when the lights still needed daily tending and self-sustainability wasn't so much a middle class lifestyle choice as 'what you did', has ensured his deep attachment to the place. Exposed to whatever weather whistled off the Irish Sea, bolsters the dependency between whoever lives here, and must increase the value of 'home' faced with such ferocity.

But I think there is more to it than practical allegiance between people and stone and cement. I think it epitomises our animal need for security, our scenting a nest. Out here, in the barely changing landscape (up until the recent drastic change in sea temperature/level), the changes we make remain evident for longer. Bob's life is set in the earth, walls, outhouses, path and imprinted deeper, as I bear witness.

We walked around the house and then up the garden while he pointed out where the garage was; how the fish house was sunk below ground to keep it cool; where the lighthouse ladders hung on the seawall for easy access to the light; how the washhouse was larger then than now and the pig they kept in it; where the well was and how their water pump had pipes into and out of the house, with two troughs to collect water from; the shed he built for his motorbike; the new stones where the house had been washed away, rebuilt and reinforced. 

As we wandered, his walking stick as airbound as earthed, I drank his memories, nodding like some chick being watered by their parent. In the larger scheme of community, he is the parent. I am carrying the (non-genetic) baton of place. While I grow vegetables, a blackthorn hedge, prune the apple trees, wipe the moould from inside the house, I am also learning about the house, the Rabys, Bob's time here in comparison to mine, alongside mine, almost as mine. 

Beatrice Parkinson, Bob's mother, was celebrated by Pathe News (below). Bob's role of lugging paraffin oil and lighting the lamps before or after school was overlooked for the sake of the 'newsworthiness' of her being the only femal lighthouse keeper in the UK, I suspect. But no place can be fixed as one person's. We all have the responsibility to light its beacons.

Monday, 11 February 2013


It is the time of geese migration. Earlyish in the morning, hundreds, thousands of them sweep and honk across the farmland towards the bay. I always hear them first, always think 'what's that?' then look up, away, and spot their blurry bent line a mile or two across the fields. They don't stop here, which is maybe a good thing, but disappear into the opposite side of sky.

There are a number of ways people disturb the birds around here (and therefore me): sending dogs onto the sands, regardless of the waders out there, or maybe because of them; humans walking out towards them isn't much better, just slower; quad bikers hoon over the sands of Sunderland Point, which affects not just the birds but the integrity of the sands; every so often we have a couple of paramotorers hanging about overhead, low, slow and noisy noisy; yet things are far worse at Spurn Point, where they're struggling with the pros and cons of windfarms built across migration routes, and the news has gone quiet on what caused the vaseline coated guillemots and puffins on the south coast.

Birds do stop here, braving the human invasion, polluted mussel beds and warm water from Heysham power station. Plovers (happy to be corrected, they're always a distance away) fly low over the water's edge, usually in bright white contrast to the surrounding grey sea, and flash in that fish-like way of turning to vanish, the entire flock, out of sunlight, then cut back again into view, in the same clustered form. Mesmering. As are the lapwings that will suddenly fling themselves upwards, like ash catching on the wind, in some telepathic agreement. The herons, only poke about at low tide it seems, so are always too far away to awe at. Unless I accidentally send one up from a dyke at a field edge, its pterydactyl wings sending me back to some ancestral time of my deep imagination.

I'm not a birder or twitcher (although they come here in numbers, last time for a dowitcher), just easily gobsmacked, snared by beauty and happy to crank back my neck and gawp.  

Monday, 4 February 2013

Car Park

I'm not talking painted bays or a three storey... This car park, before it was a car park, would have been a bicycle park, and before that, a farm track leading to a field. Although I wonder if it ever was just a track.

Visitors would have come here when the lighthouse was built in 1847 (with compensation money from the railway company that built the bridge further upstream so finishing Lancaster's career as a port). The lighthouse marked the channel to Glasson Dock, just another couple of miles upstream. As well as a marker for boats, lighthouses also act as beacons for landlubbers to walk to, acknowledge as journey's end, land's end and leave.

It is still is a farm track, one that bellies out just above the shingle beach/marsh opposite the lighthouse. A slither of gravel, puddles, broken bricks and silt. A beauty spot. Tyres and feet keep the field verges back.  Despite the wind-hammered fence posts, every so often either broken in half or at skewed angles from the ground, the wiring keeps most of the cattle in the field - apart from a sheep or cow each year or so.

(The cow that appeared last summer lay bloated on the beach for a couple of days before it was hefted away. A sheep, the summer before, rotted down to bones still strewn amongst the marsh.)

I like the car park. I like the improvised nature of it; that the farmer accepts the tradition of visitors coming to look at the waders, lighthouse, sunsets; that he doesn't seal the road so the pot holes grow year on year (you wouldn't park there in a car with low suspension); that what has drawn the visitors also brings crap to threaten its beauty; that it is locked every night to give the oystercatchers, dunlins, lapwings, herons, curlews, godwits peace from the walkers and their dogs. On low tide at sunsets the birds are all out, calling come here, go away, come, go ... as if they've pulled out whistles, horns and tooting streamers for a nightly party, I'm univited to, somewhere just beyond, low, in the dusk. An invisible avian metropolis, diminishing with the marsh year on year.

Monday, 28 January 2013

High Water

At 1151 today we have the highest high water for a fortnight.

9.2m isn't the highest this month (that went to 9.8m on the 12th) but the water will still suck at the sea-wall below Crook Farm. As I write the wind is southerly, so, coming off the shore, it leaves the estuary surface pretty flat. Which bodes well for the lovely insistant slurp of a unbullied high water. The waders disappear as the marsh submerges, so the bluring edge of grass and water is pretty much the only focal point. At a low-ish high water (a really low HW is around the 7.2m mark) much of the saltmarsh is still visible at the foot of the sea-wall, seemingly afloat from land, its true nature revealed. Even at low water (1.4m this afternoon) the marsh's sump holes are dark and sinister. And today there will be some grassheads visible where turf turns to shingle. Bouyant and surreal.

All very absorbing. And safe. The Environment Agency, after some persuasion, has agreed to protect the seawall this eastern side of the estuary for another 20 years (with the clock already having tocked for two years, we're down to 18). The other side of the estuary, Sunderland Point, has not been so ... what? Lucky? Argumentative? Economically viable? Whichever - they do not have agreement or financial aid to protect their sea defences, despite the efforts of My Coastline.

The Point has retreated by 75 metres since 1848, and with ice melt we can only assume that will quicken. Although with Morecambe Bay's peculiar channels and shifting sands, prediction for coastline behaviour is difficult. There is a village on the peninsular, of 30 odd houses. Some up for sale. I spoke to an engineer recently and apparently the government (and local council) is encouraging a stragetic retreat. The link above details the significance of Sunderland Point, but the main difference between here and there is that we've had a seawall in place for centuries, Sunderland Point has not. The seawall this side of the estuary is mainly built from the old sandstone that once made up Cockersand Abbey a leper hospital turned Presbyterian Abbey from the 12th Century.

The narrative from leprosy to sea defence is a poem that has eluded me for the past two years. I watch the sponging of tide and marsh at many high waters and suspect it's a subject that'll never settle into lines. 

Monday, 7 January 2013

If you can't improve on silence...

It's that time to look back on the past year and consider the coming one. The biggest project I was involved in, in 2012, was the Arc Ventures tour of 10 poets from 8 different countries around 28 UK venues in three weeks over October and November, reaching over 1000 people. It was the culmination of approximately six months' work. Exciting, fascinating, enriching and exhausting.

However, for my own creative work it was far quieter: I wrote a bit. Edited more. Read more. Retreated for a writing week. I am coming to the end of stage one of the sea project that has been absorbing me for the past few years, trying to look at it from different perspectives rather than the close up creation one. The impetus to write anything new is low.

One of the highlights of last year was a week-long silent retreat. An expansive and thrilling experience of resettling into myself, a reaquaintance with that part of me that seeks connection: with other people, with my environment and with my 'self'. I barely wrote through the week, just a few notes.

There is an obvious connection, to me, between these two points: silence and stillness can both engender ideas and let them go. Writing to process ideas, emotions and connections is something I undertake without too much questioning. It is how I am. Just as a child, I used to make sculptures and pictures from the shells, pebbles, twigs and bits and pieces I found around me. It was, as writing still is, my play - as well as my way of being in the world.

As a child one of the rules of our household was if you can't improve on the silence, don't. Harsh, perhaps, but more and more I come back to it, in writing terms. Considering all the words written out there, the world is a very very noisy place. And noise is far more bearable if it is melodious, or rhythmical: I prefer hammering over a chainsaw, a curlew to a great tit, lyric to narrative poetry. But most of all I prefer silence.

Where I live, on windless days I become aware of the deep silence around the house. Like blackness, it can be opening and limitless, also containing. Neutral. Not just a blank canvas, but a score in itself, that deserves a considered harmony, or counterpoint, layered upon it. And that requires deep listening, patience... while keeping rhythm and momentum. Stillness is, in the main, only apparent.