Monday, 22 December 2014

This Log is Reserved

This may look like a scummy high tide line, but for some of us it's the tide we've been waiting all year for - wood! Finally - after a 12 month hiatus - driftwood has returned to the beach. And we've been making merry with it. Some trunks too big for us to haul in, so we had to take the chainsaw out on to the saltmarsh to quarter one in situ to barrow it back to the house. Still it was ridiculously heavy - with calorific fuel and seawater. So smooth it must have been out there for weeks if not months... And it'll take months to dry out.

Our excitement was uncontainable as we spent both mornings, post high water, over the Solstice weekend spotting, chaining and carrying wood back home. So too for others. Towards the lighthouse and abbey were stacks of wood dotted along the seawall. And on one return trip, with two long branches balanced on either shoulder, I met Bob, whose chainsaw was one size up from ours which meant he was able to claim the humongous tree that lay, stripped of all bark, on the skear.

We grinned wildly at each other, bounty swaying in the 25mph of wind, acknowledging the dearth of wood all year. I asked if he'd heard of the biomass station further north that rumour claimed was snaffling all the driftwood - encouraging organised gangs to see the juicy wood as cash, turning another part of nature into a commodity. No, he hadn't. Besides, the north coast of Walney is littered with the stuff - it's just accessing it that's the problem...

Then he asked if the stacks at our feet were mine. No, but possibly Mary's, I said. They looked the kind of size she could carry, when she was down walking her dog. She was neat like that. I often find washed up buckets full of plastic tied down with rope on the skear that she'd collected and would slowly bring back to the bin at the car park. Well then, said Bob, we'd best leave them for her.

His chain had come loose so he'd had to leave the rest of the log until tomorrow, and if someone else got to it meanwhile, good luck to them. Then he dropped the long spindly branch he'd been holding and told me to add that to our pile.

I like this attitude of there being plenty for all. After all right now it does feel like that. Enough to be able to honour people's 'reserved' tag. I'm writing this at the point of another high tide, watching more branches wash in, biding my time for the water to recede so I can head out again, itching to get out there now, even though the water's too high and trying to accept that someone might get there before me, but from what I can see, nobody could carry all of that in one armload...

Monday, 8 December 2014


The skear is what we call the promontory where the lighthouse sits, the bank formed by the two rivers, Lune and Cocker, flowing into or out of the bay.

It is a name I accepted on my first hearing. I liked its sound and use it almost daily - to describe where I've seen birds, a particular colour of water, amount of seaweed... It has a Norse feel to the word. Then, while researching old maps relating to the Time and Tide project with a librarian, he mentioned Hall End Skear. I asked what he meant by skear. A causal island, formed by tides, he said without hesitation. There are three just off Morecambe in the bay. Although with the channel movements not all are visible now.

I felt knocked back. Our skear is not a skear. It is a spit of land that always remains attached. However, despite this information, I can't change what I call this section of the bay. It has a lovely harsh searing sound to it. A cut, a long slicing that could also be used to describe birds in flight: a skear of swans, perhaps.

As it's not in my Oxford dictionary, I googled skear. No mention of the tidal island, although between the images of cars, parties and heartbeats, there are images of coast. And, more interestingly, some old maps appear. When I look again, these are only of Morecambe Bay, and one in Cambodia.

So I'm now using a word that does not describe what I want it to, that does not seem to have the lineage I believed it had, that is so local it seems to have a random surfeit of meanings to everyone else - scroll down and you'll see a picture of Obama swearing!

But by continuing to use it I may embed this meaning further. You now know it, if you didn't before. Skear. Make of it what you will.

I received the following info through a work email: "It seems to me quite possible that the word comes from the Norwegian 'skjær', meaning small rocky coastal islets. The Shetland 'skerries' come from the same root.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

An Internal Spectacle

These are retinal images of my eyes. The white is the optic nerve and you can just about see the gloomy dark pinpoint of my pupil (I think). This post is nothing to do with eyes, rather what goes on inside us that is an invisible spectacle. Although they're beautiful, aren't they? I'm sure I'm not just saying that cos they're mine...

I've been thinking about this for a while, ever since after the two shows I gave at the end of October I went to see the NT encore screening of Frankenstein and came away full of awe at the high end production of the show: the sprawling ceiling of lightbulbs that flashed on at various points. The dazzle and different shapes were so simple and yet clearly so very expensive. 

And then at the Sympoetry at the Scottish Poetry Library Thomas Lux was forecasting poetry will become as popular as opera... I don't agree. Poetry will always be the poor cousin, have the perfect face for radio etc etc

Poetry doesn't have the budget for big spectacle. Often it can barely hire a small upstairs room for a reading. Even the TS Eliot awards, however plush the Queen Elizabeth Hall is and good the lighting and amplification, comprise of people walking up, reading and leaving the stage. There are live literature performances but I've yet to see or hear of one that has displayed a 'spectacle'.

My shows, one on a narrowboat and one in a black box, felt obviously inadequate buy comparison to Frankenstein, not even the sequinned jacket I wore for Sealegs lifted that sense from my shoulders after the event. Until I realised - of course! - the spectacle is the combustion that happens to the individual. The absorption of words perdings our emotional or sensory or intellectual bullseye. This doesn't even happen that often, to me: the target is so precise. 

That's not to say the production and performance of poetry needn't be given an elegance or beauty or style that is integral to the poetry. There needs to be an acknowledgement the poetry is being held in a physical space rather than a book, that the words have a different entry point to the listener, a different relationship (fleeting for one). 

I was saying elsewhere how my confidence in my work is so much greater when I stand behind it and speak it to people rather than read it off the page to myself, or imagine others reading it. I think it's because then it occupies me, the space between me and the listeners as well as them. As if I'm hearing the words for the first time, enjoying their sound, amongst the other listeners. 

As ee cummings said, it's as if I'm hearing with 'the ears of my ears awake'. And if that's happening, I'm not looking for external lightbulbs. 

Thursday, 13 November 2014

There is no Night

Constant daylight creates its own mystery –
the moon is up there somewhere.
At the end of the jetty it’s impossible
to gauge how deep the water. 
A child's lifejacket hangs on the dinghy’s oars. 

Obviously there is plenty of night as we hurtle towards the winter solstice. It's as good as dark at five o'clock. All the more reason to construct a new pamphlet set in the Finnish summer, where there is no escape from light. The earth turns. We spin with it.

It's a simply stitched booklet, blue card, grey font, illustrated with a wandering moose and a sliver of birch bark. Birch was the Finnish stuff of everything back in the day: caps, boxes and shoes, nudging me to use it somehow in the construction. It burns hot, so is the wood of preference for saunas.

The pamphlet came together reasonably quickly over a couple of days of faddling with shape, layout and illustrations. It's absorbing work, trying to translate the mood and themes of a poem into the vessel that will carry it into the world. The final version is the most simple. I had beads, more pages and illustrations in previous attempts, none of which sat right with the text. This clean, sparse feel holds the poem perfectly.

It's a long poem, in two sections, exploring love, of another and of the self, and how that plays with union and independence, absence and presence. It's melancholic, tender and hopeful.

Because it all came together rather unexpectedly I've made five to take with me to Hebden Bridge where I'm reading next week - 7pm Wednesday 19th November at The Bookcase, now the unofficial launch night. If you'd like to pre-order a copy let me know. I can get more made and a paypal button sorted next week.

There is no Night. Illustrated card, Tracing paper sleeve cover with silver birch bark detail. Handstitched binding. £5 each (+50p p&p) here

Monday, 3 November 2014

Time and Tide

I'm involved in a WWI project, using archival coroner's reports to explore the effect of the war on the people of Morecambe Bay: Time and Tide. The reports I've read register the deaths of munition factory workers, drowned sailors, suicides and far more domestic accidents that could and do still happen now. 

I was invited on board after the project had secured funding, so had no part in its creation. When I first read the reports I felt very uncertain at the prospect of using these tragedies as inspiration for new writing. These were people's lives and deaths, not simply writing exercises or discussion points. It felt extremely important to hold these reports (that are public, available for anyone to read) with huge compassion and an attempt of understanding lives that are, in some ways so different from ours today and yet are wrapped up with the same concerns: love, pride, friendship, loyalty... 

They lived at the whim of their time: war thundering on hundreds of miles away and yet shaking their communities and daily lives. Without the immediate horror of the battlefields the impact felt in Morecambe Bay (and anywhere on the home front) would have been somehow more shocking - impinging on, what seemed, almost normality: at least the backdrop was familiar. It is this infringement upon people adapting to a necessarily new situation: new jobs, changes of roles, rations... adapting as well as humans do - that feels so shocking. Of course it reverberates now, as ever, as people the world over have to subsume the shock and outrage of war to be able to feed themselves, their families, to survive. 

Looking out my window onto the blue waters of the Bay, at the reflected sky in the muddy sands, it feels as though the landscape can't do anything but hold what has come before: the horror and the mundane, big and small, near and distant. Sometimes we see it, sometimes not. And that's what makes this project valuable: we're looking.

Friday, 24 October 2014

A Narrow Stage

The Tales from the Towpath performance was a marathon - all thirty three feet of the narrowboat's aisle: three shows in one evening. The first was still in daylight, the second two after dark, which was when the show really came alive. We had the most minimum of lighting, and as we read the story of Tib, Dan and ... (best not spoil the story as caches and zap codes are up until the end of the year at least), I was reminded of reading under bedcovers at night, and how totally absorbing and encompassing that was for my imagination.
Whatever I was told, or, in this case, was telling, seemed totally believable. And so it seemed to our audiences. They all entered into the spirit of building the possibilities of what and who could evolve from the original premise.
IMG_0081We had one rehearsal in situ although had the boat's dimensions taped out for a day previously. Add people dotted up and down the stage and we were really dancing in the crowd. Making the most of the boat's length was always central to our performance (arff arff), to bring the intimacy of the spoken voice close to everyone there, which may be uncomfortable for some, but I am sure they'll all have left with certain phrases and images spinning in their heads.
Inevitably the lighting emphasized this, focusing on our IMG_0048mouths in the main, freeing me, at least, to forget the external, my physical presentation, and pour all energy and focus into the voice and its delivery. The contained space of the narrowboat added to this aural dynamic, as well as providing a challenging screen for Helen to project images and text on to. Wood everywhere - what a wonderful acoustic.
Each performance had a very distinctive character - perhaps created by the audience's personality, aided by the start time. This difference really altered the peaks and curves of the story, where the humour or sorrow emerged, and, perhaps most crucially, how much detail we got on opening a lock. One day. Next project.

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...

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

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.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Another Sign

An altogether different sign. I pass this once or twice a week. It's tucked inside an 's' bend. Revealed and passed inside half a minute. Its fleetingness makes it all the most precious. It's the sign that attracts me particularly: how many information signs we read these days that use a serif font? The sign seems less informative for it, more chatty, perhaps. Its lay-out turns it into a poem. It could be a Thomas A Clarke poem. I love that white column on the right hand side. Somehow it turns the text into the caravan, next to... 

The shed. Which has its own shed. Who can turn their back on an outbuilding? Especially one as worn and loved as this. How far back does it go? What passions and fixations have occurred here? 

Everything is answered by reminiscence. As the corner passes I know everything: what the caravan looks like, its sea view, the field it's in (of course it's a field!), the books in the caravan, the caravan paraphernalia in the shed awaiting repair, the tools in the shed, the bare light bulb, the dog who used to sleep in the doghouse now buried behind the shed... It's a heady combination of a Tom Waits' song and a childhood holiday.  

Monday, 12 May 2014

In Good Weather the Sign Outside...

It's finished. I'm not quite sure when I started fiddling with the folds and design for this, but I wrote the first draft of the four pieces in December, originally for a hypertext story.

I'm pleased with it. Hypertext was a way to give the story multiple timeframes: present, past, imagined present and future. The folds that hide and reveal stories and semi-opaque end papers that add to the layering provide a similar presentation for the stories and their context in time.

The letterpress cover adds a weight. I don't mean gravitas, rather a physical weight superimposed to the text. Also on some of the covers the ink is slightly smudged or echoed from the rolling back of the printing press, added a send of movement and water. However the cover appears, each one makes a lovely contrast to the endpapers of semi-opaque photographs.

This is a limited edition of forty-eight. Fifty would have been cleaner, but that's the number of covers made and everything else follows the law of letterpress. There is variance within the forty-eight. I've used two different colours for the internal pages: teal and cobalt. So please if you have a preference, do state it.

I would call it a Puzzle Pamphlet if that didn't suggest you might find either crosswords or jigsaw pieces inside.

It will be available to buy here. If you're interested, and want to haggle, I've decided to work off a sliding scale of prices, email me to negotiate. They will also be on sale at the Rubber Band Benefit Gig on Thursday 22 May, 7.30pm start at the Gregson Centre, Moor Lane, Lancaster.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Getting Lost and Surviving

Last Saturday Hymas&Lewis performed a preview show of Sealegs to a small invited audience at the Maritime Museum in Lancaster for some catchy feedback to help us sharpen the marketing of it. I feel a bit too close to the piece to be in the best position for articulating clear handles. 'Getting lost' came up several times. Getting lost and it being okay to be lost...

I thought of this getting lost business again over the weekend when I was servicing the winches on the boat. The above picture is of just one winch : its 20 parts (not including the screws and cap that hold it all in) that needed to be dismantled, cleaned, greased and reassembled. There were moments when I was washed over by the cold fear of incomprehension - when I thought I'd lost one of those tiny springs on the left of the picture - when I tried to slide the washer over the shaft and it kept bending precariously - when I couldn't slot the wobbling plastic key into the shaft, nor hold it in place. The entire operation had to be performed with hands and fingers thick with waterproof grease. And, of course, on a boat on water, into which anything could fall and be lost forever.

As I was greased up and puzzling, memories of a recent interview kept surfacing. Or rather the gaps from the interview: the things I didn't say, that I'd wanted to say. The fluency and articulation of ideas and aspirations that slipped my mind in that room were, on the boat, sliding back into focus. A common-enough excruciating experience.

Of course I'm now at the point of not really remembering exactly what I did say, still it feels necessary to pinpoint my focus for the coming months, and declare it:
To deepen my communication and collaboration with fellow artists
To become more fluent in communicating ideas - from the micro to macro and how they connect - especially verbally
To create a broad range of alliances between artists/writers to develop work
To explore how I can consolidate all my 'parts' to become a cohesive motivating 'engine'
To maintain my enthusiasm for those parts, and honour both the more recent additions (celebrant) alongside the older (editor).
To finance myself equally as artist and producer.

Good luck to myself and all future collaborators (including those who sail with me!)

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

On Hares and Haring

I love hares.
I love suddenly seeing one scampering across a field in a rare sighting of camouflaged elegance.
I love how they run: part fox, part deer.
I love how they disappear in the middle of a field for as long as I try to find them, then reappear suddenly, as if magicked from nowhere.
I love how they run in circles in play with others, sometimes so close they become one. I have mistaken two charging in spirals for a retriever. It reminds me of the story of the tiger that ran so fast around around it melted into pancake mixture. (Not this pancake story)
I love spotting them crouched, black-tipped ears akimbo, motionless in the middle of a field, and waiting for them to feel safe enough to charge low to a dyke.
I love catching sight of one through the window, as it lollops up the lane towards the saltmarsh, hind legs coiling and extending in slow loops.
I love trying to keep up with them through my binoculars racing the fields - creating a tense energy standing still.
I love how they're not kept as pets like rabbits.
I love that I live in a place where they live, even if it means I find them ripped dead, killed by people who don't love them but see them as sport and don't respect them enough to eat them, but leave them flung aside or strung up on fences as a trophy to their dogs and therefore them.
I love and therefore I pain. I anger therefore I love.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Letterpress and [more] Rubberbands

The next pamphlet is in mid-production. I've made its cover using letterpress. Only nine words and it took the best part of a day to print forty. From the perspective of someone used to pressing a number, any number, for print and away they go (rather than someone who has been used to handwriting manuscripts) it made me re-evaluate the imperative of communication, the weight of every word. How necessary was something to say if it was going to take all day to say it? This small pamphlet came out of a coinciding of the first of the big winter storms here, in December 2013, which was the biggest for us and ill-health. It feels pretty important, or at least valuable.

Letterpress, also, cuts down on potential faffing. Once the block was made I knew it was going to have to be pretty awful for me to change the layout of the words. Fortunately it wasn't. In fact I like it very much. The ink colour and places where it did and didn't take to the card please me greatly. I love the imperfections through the print run.

Getting the right amount of ink on the block, as evenly as possible, and not allowing it to double fuzz as I rolled over the letter was serious work. You can tell I'm a little harassed by my hair - totally absorbing work too. So maybe the hedge-backwards look is a combo of the two

The weight of the roller was just delightful, how it trundled across the letters so tightly packed into their block. I'm a keen pastry maker (and eater) and this was better than any rolling pin I've had the pleasure to use.

Plus some top facts:
> The origin of upper- and lower case comes from where the respective letter racks were positioned (above and below each other).
> Mind your ps and qs - because they're next to each other in the boxes and are reversed they can be easily confused (as can bs and ds but there is c between them for storage)
>Wrong end of the stick comes from setting your words the wrong way along the stick (which holds each line of lettering) so read back to front.

I was told more but had too much going on in my head that day to hold on to them. Besides I suspect it's far more interesting if you've grappled physically with these concepts...

So with the covers printed (not yet folded) I've only to decide the colour of the inside card, the images for the tracing paper and how many rubber bands to use for each before I'm ready to roll them out on Thursday 22nd May - alongside Astrid Alben and Claire Dean - at the Gregson Centre, Moor Lane, Lancaster. 7.30pm onwards... All welcome

Monday, 31 March 2014

The Seemingly Inevitable Tragedy of Blackbirds

For the third consecutive year blackbirds are renovating the nest in the Shed of Shame. They seem to think it's a perfect spot. It is in a sturdy shelter. However, there are two problems with it.

1. We keep the freezer here, so almost daily I go in and send mister blackbird into spiraling paroxysms against the stone wall in the far corner. He gives me the jitters and for a few seconds we're both incapable of knowing what to do beyond flutter and flap either physically or mentally. I've worked out the best thing to do is crouch down just inside the doorway so he can see me and know it's safe to fly over me and out. Missus blackbird is not so agitated in her response to me. I think perhaps it's because in the past she has had to sit on the eggs while I enter potter and leave, so even when they don't yet have eggs she has developed a more sanguine approach.

2. The second downside to nesting in the shed is that the entrance and exit is the hole of an old cat flap. We don't have a cat, so that doesn't pose a danger, but once the chicks have outgrown the confines of the shed (shitting on everything in it in the process) they need to hop through the square hole to the outside. I can only imagine the awe and surprise a chick must experience when they discover this whole new enormous world of light and movement and expanse the moment they hop from the shed to the stone sets outside. At least, whatever they are experiencing, they stop still for several seconds on the sets before launching off to somewhere more sheltered. Yes, the sets are terribly exposed.

The worst occasion witnessed was a wee chick last year bouncing off the hole's ledge, into the light, pausing long enough for a sparrowhawk to swoop down and snatch it away. F's instinctive response as witness was to charge the sparrowhawk on its upward flight, chick in claw. Naturally it dropped its bounty before escaping the clod-hoofed human. The chick fell to the ground, not dead, barely alive, to writhe, misshapen, bloody, in a tangle of down and bone, on the sets.

The price of interfering with nature writ large. Again

Friday, 14 March 2014

The Rubber Band Benefit Gig

I put a call out on Facebook a while back for blue or green rubber bands and have done quite well - receiving a varied selection of colours within the spectrum. These are, I think, for the next pamphlet: In Good Weather the Sign Outside Reads Danger Quicksand. A long title for a small selection of prose poems. And it may yet change. As may my intended use of rubber bands. I had such an enthusiastic response to the call out I got greedy and wondered if, instead of using one per pamphlet, I could use two or three - indulge the rubber band thing.

I haven't even decided on the cover as yet - although think (again only think) it'll be using letterpress - and need to find the right materials. I'm feeling more and more certain that the spine needs to be using at least three rubber bands. So for a print run of 50 I'm going to need a hell of a lot more bands.

Hence my idea for a blue rubber band benefit gig.

I'm organising a reading in May for myself and a couple of writers I've not read with before - a poet friend up from London and a short story writer from Lancaster I really admire - just waiting on confirmation of the venue - and would like to use the occasion to launch this new pamphlet. It'll be a pingy springy cohort of creative thought and imaginations, so it seems entirely appropriate for the event to be a repository of unwanted blue and green rubber bands.

Anyone who donates an as yet unspecified number of bands gets a free copy of the pamphlet. The number will depend on how long it takes me to put the pamphlet together and therefore the final rrp.

If you have any spare blue/green rubber bands and would like to either simply donate them or (if you've enough - tbc) trade them in for a limited edition pamphlet - publication date mid May - then please get in touch.

If you'd like to know more about the gig I'll be posting up details as soon as the venue confirms... which hopefully will be very soon...

All rights to change my mind on the make up of the pamphlet - hence any connecting offers - completely and utterly reserved.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Shrove Tuesday

photo: Sue Gill
Pancake day tomorrow and a conga eel has washed up on a recent high tide at my bay-neighbour's shore.

I'm not sure who else she's told about the eel and since I'm not invited to her shrivening supper, and I'm sure you haven't been either, it's quite safe to reveal what I think she'll serve up, as she's one for enjoying extensive menus and ceremony.

I suspect, she like me is, relieved at the thought of some practical flotsam again, something we can do stuff with. Weeks have passed, many of them stormy, since we've had any usable firewood wash up. I don't know why. Plenty of trees must have come down in the winds and there can't have been that much of an increase of people snaffling them upriver for their own burners. Possibly councils have been more vigilant about cutting down trees with the storms, or the by-pass has required a more thorough felling programme.

Either way it's pancake day and it's no coincidence a five foot long eel washed up on her beach, which, while dead, still looked as though it had had a healthy life and, more importantly for her plates, a sturdy circumference.

She didn't ask, but clearly she'd need ideas for toppings for the gluten free pancakes. I'm no gourmet but am happy to chat, over our virtual fence, about possible flavour combinations:
For savoury - creamy mash and black peppered onions or beetroot roasted with cumin seeds provide good contrast especially one as starter and one as main, the first complementing the eel's fattiness and the second cutting through it. Obviously no extra salt is necessary. Toasted coconut meringue and whipped pineapple cream would make a cleansing, palate freshening dessert. Or of course the unbeatable lemon and sugar.

Slice thickness is quite crucial for the success of each dish: the thinner the better, for crispiness rather than flobbiness, apart from the mash/pepper which would be elevated by a good 12mm steak beneath it.

But she's a woman of her own devices. I wouldn't put it past her to make a shin high pair of wellies from it, if I didn't already know she wasn't a wellie-wearer.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Writing Process - Blog Tour

I was asked to participate in this blog tour by Jean Atkin. Its purpose is to share current activities, link writers to their wider community and to spend a little time considering the latest project - which could be either to tantalize readers or to give me the opportunity to chew over what exactly I'm doing. Either way, we get four questions to structure the post around:

Right now I'm working a new artists'-pamphlet. It began life as a hyperlinked story about the first of the big storms to hit us here back in December 2013. It has four interconnected pieces - maybe prose poems, maybe prose - that spin off from the moment of the high water. I stumbled upon a nifty way of presenting the pieces in a fold-out booklet, but have been struggling with upping the juice of it a little more. It just didn't quite cut the mustard. I'd set quite a high bar with Sea-creatures. So I've been faffing about illustrations, images, and paper weight and texture and am ready to test drive another prototype with tracing paper. I'll let you know the outcome...

How it differs from other work of its genre is a tricky question, especially since it's not finished. I suspect I'm too close to my work to be accurate and I don't know everything that is out there to compare myself to. Plus, I'm not sure comparing myself to 'other work in its genre' is that helpful - it's a job distinct from this blog. I went to see Inside Llewyn Davies at the weekend and found it even more affecting than previous Cohen Brothers' films. It's about being good but not good enough - or rather not being deemed good enough by the big say-sos in the music industry. Throughout the film there are comparisons made with other folk singers who all are given the break that Llewyn Davies really wants and perhaps needs more than they. And yet he couldn't sing in any other way. He was being true to his heart and self. That was what made the film so painful.

I write about the sea because I'm fascinated in how long can I write about it and find something new to say; how long will I keep myself interested? Keep others interested? A dangerous challenge to have set myself...

As for my writing process. Ha. Tom Chivers was complaining about the same old three questions he gets asked when interviewed for Penned in the Margins: (1) what do I think about performance poetry vs spoken word, (2) how does my writing affect my editing, (3) what am I looking for? And because it was on Facebook there were a bunch of sarcastic questions in the thread that followed which have completed clouds my thinking around this innocent question. So I'll write about my booklet-making process which is new to me so I haven't talked about ad infinitum... I'll have a poem or selection of poems that I think deserve being made into an object, clustered and built up somehow. Then I try to think how they can be best presented as a concrete thing. It's like turning words into a sculptural form. I want to enhance the poems, make the act of reading them bring out their themes and engage the reader more in the physical origin of them. It also acts as a great excuse for not writing new things. I'm busy developing existing work.  

Next week, hopefully, the blog tour continues with Naomi Foyle, novelist, poet and intellect extraordinaire, and Maya Chowdhry, art-activist, poet, playwright and digital explorer.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Fourfold: Space and Creativity,-2.410641&spn=0.024554,0.074759&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=33.764224,76.552734&hnear=River+Ribble&t=h&z=14
Lancashire, while boggy, has barely been afffected by the recent flooding and I'm grateful. One of my most favourite things in the world is to walk by a river in the direction of its flow. Walking yesterday I mentioned this to F, who being a philosopher cited Heidegger's concept of fourfold as a possible explanation.   

The drawing together of sky/earth/divinities/human to create a fullness of place chimed with my experience of the river. A river - in fact all bodies of water - has that extraordinary quality of reflecting the sky, being from the sky and being located on earth.

Maybe this is why we are so drawn to living close to rivers, as well as that sense of movement and the renewing qualities of a river, this deep union of nature and culture overrides any practical advice of not building near them.

And to step further along the flow of thought, I found this enchanting idea in an article on Heidegger's fourfold by Peter Critchley. It, on talking about fourfold in dwelling space, highlighted the sense of bounded space "not that which something stops but... that from which it begins its presenting" : the potential of a space that has been enclosed for a particular use is made more potent by its boundary. This definition of space is ours for the making. I'm thinking more more creatively and metaphorically than the Enclosures.

I'm thinking of how I use the boundary of a riverside: for writing - the flow I'm connected to; for contemplation - its light glancing off new thoughts; for talk - the sluicing an ideal punctuation; for celebration, even - being lifted by its movement: apparently shamen in Madagascar use rivers as entry routes to their sacred sites as part of a ceremony, which makes perfect sense to me. We already use walking down aisles as the entry point to a ritual, a river (when not in flood) is a more expansive aisle, more undulating, offering more time to consider what lies ahead.

Maybe this riverside walking is more integrated to the everyday than the idea of ceremony suggests. Maybe it's one of those quiet rites we perform on a regular basis, that leaves you changed from when you started, that elevates your sense of self in the world, that deposits a thought, an accompanying emotion, in you. Maybe I need more research.



Saturday, 1 February 2014

More Wood More Wind

They say wood warms you twice. I reckon it warms five times: just not all cosily tucked up on the sofa.

First: Collection - which actually falls into two stages of warming. The driftwood round here can come in the size of tree trunks that need chainsawing in situ - perhaps into three or four logs. Then we barrow them home, which can be half mile of wheeling along the seawall. 

Third: Chaining. It's a job neither of us like, but free fuel is not something to turn up your nose at. For the past few weeks we've been watching our chopped wood supply sink, saying "when it stops raining we'll get out the chainsaw out...". It hasn't stopped raining - or at least not when we're both around to get stuck in.

Except this morning - bitterly cold, yes, 30mph wind gusts, yes, but glorious sunshine too. It was an opportunity to grasp with both hands - after coffee, chat, crumpets and a little essential weekend lounging.

We haven't been so cornered by the weather before - only a few nights' worth of wood left to burn, we couldn't wait for the 'winter winds' to calm down. Besides, it was May when that happened last year. South westerlies have the clearest line to howl across the garden. (I'm trying to grow a windbreak but need a windbreak for that to have a chance to grow). There's not a lot of shelter. We positioned the saw-horse upwind, the wood piled downwind and begun the slow, rather shouty task of slicing through ivy, avoiding nails, fingers and legs. No give in the wind to allow us to loiter. Always there's the disappointment of finding what appeared a massive juicy log is actually rotten as hell and while has some calorific value is deemed 'summer wood' if not discarded.

Fifth: Chopping. Because we're dealing in tree trunks what we saw is too dense for the stove. It needs splitting to have half a chance of burning well. Out with the chopping block and axe. Given we've already spent a hefty amount of time hauling wood from the garage to the saw-horse, sawing it, barrowing it down to either the woodshed to stack or the chopping block to axe, we're already pretty pooped.

With the wind now gusting to 40mph, welding an axe takes some strength to keep its aim precise. And there's no best place to position myself in relation to wind/chopping block/wood/wheelbarrow. Wherever I stand the wind hampers - catching the axe - buffeting my back - overturning the barrow - scattering splinters. I don't think I've ever found chopping as hard work as this morning and there's no relief in pausing. The wind still pummels. It's cold standing still, chilling the sweat. 

And while it's good there's loads of wood it's a bastard too. I have no memory of warmth, comfort or any physical recollection of why I'm doing this except the inherent knowledge I must I must. As one block splits I remember how my dad loved this job. He'd spend what seemed like hours swinging his axe, probably tapping into some base instinct, which I can't find, not in my icing toes, my numbing fingers nor, disappointingly, in a graceful arcing swing of an axe-welding natural.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Night Sound

A windless night, closer to the longest night than we are now, a good hour after the milk lorry trembled the house in its nightly pound to the farm, I was in the bathroom, readying for bed. The bathroom in our cottage is behind the kitchen, towards the sea. In fact there at high tide, as it was, there's possibly only ten or twenty metres between the bathroom wall and the sea.

What I heard at first sounded like a car reversing, a long way off. Further than the car park, locked up now anyway. But there was no long way off for a car to reverse, only the sea. For reasons I can't now explain I was convinced there were lights attached to the sound. Regular, intermittent soundings. Big, deep, hovering and slightly thrumming, as if more vibration than sound, as if operating on another sound wave to the one I usually hear on.

I heard bats calling once. Without any batophone. It was, again, late at night, and two of them swooped over my head and knobbled - the closest I can come to describing their echolocation - to each other. Apparently my attunement to high frequency sound happened to coincide with the lower one they employ for calling to each other.

This was a far bigger sound. One that filled the air, the way thunder does. But intermittent and sharper. It really did sound like something parking. It sounded above the water, rather than in it, the sharpness gave it that sense. Although the vibrations did suggest water maybe being disturbed. As I leaned closer to the wall the stronger the sound, and its vibration, felt. Oddly regular. Insistant. I called F. Again I called. Urgently. Already the silences between the sounds were lengthening. I called out again. Quickly. But too late the sound had sunk away. The emptiness of the night seemed, at the moment F arrived in the bathroom, far far bigger than the five mile wide bay, black as it ever is.

Monday, 13 January 2014


The days are slowly lengthening, minute by minute, dusk by dusk, which is perhaps why when I went to lock up the car park the other evening there were two cars parked up, facing the sea. It wasn't raining. The wind was gusting in at about 40mph from the south, buffeting the side doors, but barely affecting the water. Its tide was low, distant. Mud gleamed faintly. Light fading. The sun had set, unspectacularly, and clouds were clustering at the horizon, without too much definition, grey filled the sky, with a strange flatness. The moon appeared and disappeared.

In one car a lone man had his flask out, propped behind the steering wheel, his gloved hands wrapped around a thermal mug. In the other a slightly older couple, wrapped up in scarves and hats, only their noses visible, didn't look as if they were making any move to get out. Both engines were running, headlights off, with less than another car's width between them. There was no apparent communication between the two sets of occupants.

I stood for a second, leaning into the wind to keep myself upright and motionless, and turned to look at the view they were both watching. Or were they studying it? Or not even seeing it really? In that light the sea spread as a loose canvas before us all, offering a sight that could be interpreted as anxious, dismissive, angry, romantic or something else entirely, depending on what we'd been doing earlier. What had they been doing then to bring them here now? Still they sat, staring at the disregarding sea as if they were infatuated teenagers again. And I stood there, getting colder as the wind ate my fingers and ears, giving them one last minute of whatever it was, before I'd ask them to leave.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

The Doll on the Beach

Another high tide - 10.1m yesterday, due again today - brought more wreck onto the shore road between us and the farm. Although the tide was higher than December's surge, the wind strength was less and, perhaps more crucially, had more south in it, so gusted parallel to the shore rather than bringing great hammering waves onto it.

What it also didn't bring was the plastic crap of before. The salt marsh and sand was piled with seaweed this morning, it was also strewn up the seawall and, further round the shallow bay, higher up on the road. Except, in the middle of all these greybrowns bladders, a bright mop of purple tangles attached to two yellow mounds caught my attention amongst the shale and weed. It was a doll, face down, undressed but for knickers and the yellow sock boots; arms and legs spread out and, obviously, quite motionless. The sight of her knickers and sprawled limbs was pitiful. A little more seaweed and she would have been invisible. But she wasn't. She was a point of day-glo cuteness, her purple curls still bouncing about her head. When I turned her over, as if to check a pulse, her overly large eyes were both still in place, although one cheek was torn, her mouth was there, small and straight. A foot was hanging off with a strange plastic spring coiling out from her leg, like some mangled bone.

I couldn't leave her there, and tucked her into a plastic box I'd freed from the fence and brought her back home. Back in the environment of cars, wellies, water butts and bins, she became a soggy discarded toy. One I didn't want either, so I threw her, without much more thought, into the wheelie bin.