A network of bright lines falls over experience, like a field system, breaking the grip of totality as the wave breaks on the shore or the air on the mountain side.
A few years ago, Longbarrow Press published The Ascent of Kinder Scout by Peter Riley, a re-envisioning (or a re-walking) of a Peak District landmark; a prose poem (with a parenthetical verse section) that blends cultural history, personal memoir, natural description and anti-austerity invective. It commemorates the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932, a collective act of civil disobedience that, arguably, gave us the National Parks legislation in 1949 and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000, establishing walkers’ rights to travel through common land and open country. It is also a requiem for the welfare state, the purported dismantling of which frequently interrupts the poetic reverie; this makes for a meditation that is certainly timely, if uneasy. The concern with access and equity – and with community and communication – is never far from the surface of the poem, with an implicit invitation to consider what these terms might mean today:
It could all be wiped out at any moment by a falling aeroplane or a Tory axe, this town and all its chat. So it is also necessary to be able to get out, to maintain a summit line in secret, to be still up there in image, spinning on the crest under the moon. Forest! Forest! Moors and mountains! Electronic networks! be there to protect the forsaken.
The ‘town’ is not named, but we might think of it as one of the settlements on the edge of the Peaks, or, further north, perhaps one of the towns in the Calder Valley, where Riley is now based. One of the reasons why the Kinder plateau became a focus for the right to roam movement in 1932 was that it offered working people respite from the polluted, congested industrial towns and cities to the west and east of the Peak District. Since then, of course, the manufacturing sectors have declined or disappeared in many of these towns, with the economic consequences of deindustrialization still manifest today. We might infer from this extract that the viability of these communities is now decided by transport infrastructure and broadband speeds; with bus services under seemingly permanent threat in rural areas, and library services closing all over the UK, access to the ‘electronic networks’ becomes increasingly important in determining our access to, and experience of, place. Digital technology is how many of us now encounter places that we cannot afford to visit. However, access to this technology is far from universal. A little over 80 years ago, Kinder Scout was the sole province of the Duke of Devonshire and the grouse-shooting gentry. The right to roam physical territory has since been established, but no comparable rights of access to digital space exist; in an age in which almost everyone is expected to register online for basic services, many are digitally excluded.
I’d like to recount some of my experiences as a member of a digital community, in my capacity as editor of Longbarrow Press and in my own walking and writing practice. Longbarrow Press was launched in 2006, exploring the possibilities of print through a range of non-standard publishing formats (maps, posters, matchboxes), while pursuing alternatives to the conventional poetry reading (multimedia performances, installations, poetry walks). However, the press lacked even a basic web presence for the first five years of its existence. With hindsight, it’s possible to argue that this allowed us to establish an aesthetic and an ethos – and, indeed, an audience, a community – independent of digital agendas and conventions. At the time, though, it felt like an obstacle to our creative development and to our audience development. Publications could only be advertised and sold at events, or via a small-circulation email list. Events were advertised through paper flyers, the distribution of which was ad hoc and erratic. There was nowhere to encounter our work online, with only brief sightings populating the search results. I’d like to think, though, that this extended period of digital obscurity, while awkward, gave us time to devise the form that the Longbarrow website, and its associated outputs and platforms, would eventually take: what it would need, and what an audience might need from it.
The Longbarrow website went public in spring 2011. One of the reasons for the lengthy delay was that I was both inhibited by my lack of technical expertise, and too stubborn and tight-fisted to entrust the job to anyone else. I’d assumed that there would be a lot of coding involved, and costly set-up charges and maintenance. After a friend introduced me to WordPress, and showed me how to create a simple, effective, self-administered site, I realized that the expertise could be acquired gradually, on a need-to-know basis. I spent the first few hours formatting text, then added a few photos, then embedded a few links. Within a couple of days, I had a competent, well-designed site, focusing on new and ongoing projects while doubling as an archive for several years of Longbarrow essays, interviews and photos. However, I was more interested in exploring the creative potential of this new resource; in making new work that could be crafted with digital tools and disseminated online.
Around this time, I’d also invested in an Edirol digital audio recorder, a lightweight, high-quality device with which I’d begun to make recordings of poets reading their work in varied settings, from waste ground to churches, moorland to sea caves; reflecting and, I think, enhancing the engagement with place that has been a feature of our collective working practices from the outset. Within a few months, I had a small archive of these recordings, but little incentive to edit them, and nowhere to put them. The website gave me the motive and the resource; I taught myself the basics of editing on Audacity (free, open-source audio software), signed up to SoundCloud (on a free account), and began to upload the first few tracks, and also to embed these on the Longbarrow website. What I hadn’t realized was that SoundCloud was (at that time, at least) also a digital community (something that Longbarrow poet Mark Goodwin, who has curated a number of SoundCloud groups, was quick to recognise; these groups include air to hear, in which the exploration of poetry-and-sound (and poetry as sound) is to the fore, as is Mark’s support for his fellow makers). Before long, SoundCloud users in Germany, Canada and Australia were listening and commenting on our recordings, seemingly unprompted by us. For me, it was particularly significant that perfect strangers, half a world away, were encountering this side of our work: the recordings are documents of the poets at a particular time, in a particular place, with the external conditions (weather and traffic, for example) determining – and audibly part of – the ‘flow’ of the work. It meant a great deal that someone in Arizona could hear a recording that we’d made under a pylon in Hillsborough just a few days before, with the crackle of rain falling through the power-line. Each of these recordings is a field in itself.
Shortly afterwards, I also picked up an inexpensive digital movie camera, and started to make a few short films for Longbarrow, encompassing performance footage, landscape studies and animated stills, which were uploaded to Vimeo and embedded on the Longbarrow site. As interesting as this was, and useful in the development of our practice, I found the process less absorbing than the audio work. Perhaps I was disengaging from the moving image; perhaps I was looking for a different kind of immersion. In late 2012, Matthew Clegg and I travelled to Flamborough Head on the East Yorkshire coast, where we spent a morning recording a sequence of poems in a sea cave. Along with the recordings of the poems, we also captured Matt’s considered reflections on the sequence, and his improvised responses to the conditions in the cave: the shifting light, the colours in the chalk and in the rock, the tide-swell breaching the cave-mouth. On returning to Sheffield, I spent two days sifting three hours of material for a thirty-minute podcast, with an accompanying essay by Matt, both of which were uploaded to the Longbarrow website (and reposted here). The extended format of the podcast invited us to rethink our ideas about structure, time and the experience of ‘place’. I was conscious of the artifice brought to bear on the recordings; although I’d refrained from interfering with the natural acoustic that we’d discovered in the cave, I’d changed the sequencing of the fragments of commentary, with Matt’s closing remarks now appearing at the start of the podcast, for example, and the rest of the material was reordered according to the narrative that I – or we – sought to present. And it worked. After two days of lengthy, intensive editing sessions, we were able to share the portable, constructed space of the sea cave. The art of the podcast – indeed, of any editorial work – is in concealing the process. The mess and clutter of process is cleared out of the field; the resulting work is an artifice of trance assembled from moments of trance. If the listener’s ear is disturbed by glitches or clumsy edits, then the trance of listening is broken and the cave, the field, the place, disintegrates, becomes digital dust.
Since then, we’ve continued to develop the podcast series, with field visits to Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, West Yorkshire, and, last August, Denaby Ings nature reserve, a wetland site in South Yorkshire where Matthew Clegg and I spent an afternoon listening to rain beating on the metal roof of a bird hide, the damp air folding around us like sheets, lending an unexpected intimacy to the recording. One of the reasons why I enjoy working with the Edirol is that it’s unobtrusive; unlike a film camera, it doesn’t disturb the visual field, and it doesn’t project a visual field. Towards the end of the afternoon’s recording in the bird hide, I’d almost forgotten it was there. On this occasion, however, I also decided to take some images, documenting the process and the place, and these found their way into a Longbarrow blog post reflecting on the experience. For me, it’s important that our work online – the podcasts, the essays, the short films – should have a value in and of itself, rather than as part of a promotional strategy; it’s also important that this work should remain free and accessible to all (the aforementioned issues around digital exclusion notwithstanding). Obviously, if we are to survive as a press, then we do need to sell books, but the sense of exchange – of reciprocity – within the digital community is much more valuable. When I think of the digital community with regard to Longbarrow and my own practice, I’m usually thinking of Twitter; for the last five years, it’s been a vital part of our audience engagement, making connections with people we would almost certainly not have encountered otherwise, and, just as importantly, whose work and friendship we have enjoyed in return.
I’d like to close with some reflections on the part that Twitter has played in the development of my own writing practice. In August 2010, I set off for a three-day walk along the east coast of England: Felixstowe to Lowestoft, a meander of 80 miles or so. Breaking a habit of several years, I left my camera at home; my only recording instruments were pen, paper and a text-only mobile phone. Although I hadn’t attempted any creative writing for several years, I began composing haiku on the hoof; drafting them on scraps of paper and then, as night fell, typing them directly into my phone, texting the poems to a handful of friends. A few years later, I decided to revisit these poems – a sequence of 20 or so – at around the same time that I set up a Twitter account for my own work. As many users have observed, haiku is ideally suited to Twitter. The formal constraints of the poem (17 syllables) are neatly enveloped by the constraints of the application (140 characters): a field within a field. It therefore seemed a natural step to rework the sequence online, posting one poem each day. Some poems were revised; some were left unrevised; some poems were omitted; new poems were drafted and included. Revisiting the work also prompted me to revisit the territory I’d walked a few years previously. I fished out the Landranger maps I’d used on the journey: mediations of place that, over the course of three days, had in turn been mediated by the place itself – rain-wrinkled corners, impacted mud, insect traces and other imprints and residuum of Suffolk. After mining the physical map for its memories, I turned to Google Maps. Without realising it, a process of sorts was beginning to evolve.
I set off for a walk, usually on or near the east coast of England, usually somewhere between 12 hours and three days. There’s something in the eastern counties that is especially conducive to rhythm and trance; a depth of field apparent in the flat landscapes, the earth finite and low, the sea a distant border. I don’t take a smartphone, or a camera, but I do carry maps, paper and pen. A few days or weeks after the walk, I will often find myself with the beginnings of a sequence of poems. This moves me to reexamine the notes I have made, the maps I carried with me, and the digital version of the landscape, the multiple layers of Google Maps, satellite images, spatialized street views. The poems that develop from this process are where the physical, paper and digital territories intersect. The haiku and tanka are then posted on Twitter, a kind of public sketchbook for this purpose, the drafts digitally dated and assimilated to the timeline, absorbed by an expectant field, then parcelled into a sequence of fields. Although the paper and digital maps do intersect in the making of the poem, I’m very much aware that they can’t be reconciled; the land features and the retail tags are discrete, neither belonging to the other, the bounded, furrowed sheet of print, the scrolling, scalable screen. The paper map, of course, can only hold so much text, can only support so many symbols. The digital map – non-linear, multi-dimensional, multi-platform – is constrained only by bandwidth. Clickable fields of harvested data, bright icons in embedded space, colour-coded clusters in the digital estate. We imagine ourselves moving through this territory, and we do move through it, pitching and rolling through Street View, pivoting around blurred faces and license plates. And yet the privileging of commercial data on Google Maps often seems to overwhelm the territory itself, even in rural and suburban areas.
Wichelstowe, in Swindon, Wiltshire, is a new urban extension to the south of the town, built on a flood plain between a former branch railway line and the M4. The infrastructure works started in 2006, but the development was paused in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and partially restarted a few years later. Of the planned districts of West, Middle and East Wichel, only the latter has been built, a housing project comprising around 800 homes, most of which were completed by 2012. Surveying the first two, on foot, we encounter no buildings or foundations, only hooded lights, roads blocked by concrete cylinders, signage for places that still don’t exist.
In the ‘Street Map’ view of East Wichel, we find a network of roads, evidence of settlement, businesses and services named and located: The Bayberry public house, East Wichel Community Primary School, Kevin Jones Psychic Medium. Four years after the first residents moved in, there are still no shops on the estate; there is, however, a new Waitrose half a mile to the west, and a short stretch of restored canal, marking the boundary of what might, one day, become Middle Wichel.
In the ‘Satellite’ view currently on Google Maps, the screen has frozen on the old territory, still caught in pre-development: a binary ghost, haunting the landscape, the field system yet to be dismantled by Taylor Wimpey. It is 2008, 2009, a timeline breaking off, the new development yet to be authenticated. Digital space disinvests from physical space. The streets are white lines that fade out as you close in; the bricks sink back into the ground. The fledgling community is erased.
Down from the old line,
sunk in clay: parcels of land,
projecting the plain.
The home is approved
in outline, in plan. It takes
years to colour in.
Still wrapped, the stop lights
and idle rubble: lost maps
of Middle Wichel.
A bridge to nowhere,
abandoned to a wide-skied
The new settlement
starts without us. We won’t live
to see it finished.
We could walk out there,
take stock: the fens filling in,
the sky building up.
An earlier version of this text was presented at Digital Re-enchantment: Place, Writing & Technology, a one-day symposium convened by Dr David Cooper (Department of English, Manchester Metropolitan University) at Great Hucklow, Derbyshire, Saturday 11 June 2016. My thanks to David Cooper and Helen Darby of MMU, and to my fellow speakers: Clare Archibald, Emma Bolland, David Borthwick, Sarah Cole and Charles Monkhouse.
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. He tweets (as The Halt) here. The second edition of East Wind, a pamphlet comprising three prose sequences and one haiku sequence, is available now from Gordian Projects; click here for further details.
Click here to listen to the Longbarrow audio podcasts discussed in this piece.
It’s occurred to me lately how many years I’ve been honing and flexing the parts of my mind I write poetry with, and how transferable the craft skills I learned as a child and in early adulthood have proved to be. With this in mind, talking to someone who runs for fun has revealed shared strategies for sustained focus.
I’ve always read, and written a bit, but my childhood creative apprenticeship was in sewing, knitting, crochet, macramé, embroidery, patchwork, any kind of textile alchemy. By the time I was nineteen, I understood the rudiments of several processes, and felt at times like a stream of whirling ideas about colour, texture, line; with an urgency to try making the things I could see and sense in my mind.
Materials were begged, found or bought cheap: friends brought me interesting cast-offs, and charity shops were quite idiosyncratic back then. One of the best things was going on missions to Wilton Carpet Factory, where they sold end-lengths of wool too short for their looms, in the vast range of hues and tones required by carpets. I was enthralled by the subtle distinction, visceral contrasts, and journeys of gradation evident in the colours. Skeins were randomly mixed, so I’d always bring home surprises, some of which became treasured shades that ran out too soon.
Commissions were sometimes for specific designs: occasional wedding outfits, a cover for a pub piano; while most orders for jumpers, other knitted clothing, cushion covers and bedding, were for the design as well. Waiting their turn were my own projects, often generated in part from demands made by commissions, these were where necessary experimentation took place. I was on the dole with no children: if little else I had time, and a free flowing mind, each to do what I wished with.
I’d be up at the crack of midday, eager to get on with whatever was current, to see last night’s work in daylight, to master the next difficulty. My fascination with materials and processes, and the growing field of their possibilities were both purpose and reward. My drive was to express in a garment, or surface design, the flavour or tone of a notion, scene or story that I’d glimpsed in a barely accessible region of my own primordial swamp – by that I mean the colours and textures evoked by emotions and memory, some real, some conjured from personal and cultural sources.
That much of what I made had practical and aesthetic value, and that people liked it, was validating, meant it didn’t pile up too much, and must’ve helped with my sense of purpose. But really, that seemed faint and far away compared with the actual work, the thrill of flexing my creative muscle, striving to translate the inside of my head into things in the physical world: the colour palette on a pair of socks, the cut of a jacket, the tone of a freestyle patchwork. My partner through some of this time commented on the serenity in my face and posture at work, especially when at the sewing machine. What I remember feeling is that I was doing precisely what I was supposed to be doing.
At the helm of the craft that carried me, I was channelling my energies in their natural direction, learning how materials behave, honing skills, experimenting, and especially learning from when experiments go disastrously wrong. If I was learning then I wasn’t failing, whatever the thing in my hands looked like. This was the first time I’d experienced my brain laying down new information of its own free will, then keeping it alive by addition and adaptation, and it felt as though I’d found a way of letting more oxygen in. I fully realised that the mind is a muscle not a sponge – it’s not for filling up and squeezing out, but for flexing and bringing to bear on things.
State education in this country seems unwilling to seek out, validate and explore what pupils bring to the art room or creative writing class. Instead it imposes rigid and spurious templates for ‘creativity’, then only evaluates whether or not the rules have been followed. Art can’t be made under these circumstances: tools and techniques need to be tested, then taken on board accordingly. To make a thing that offers truth in a usable form requires us as artists to retain full access to our inner selves – our hopes, fears, emotions – as that’s where we source our unique materials.
As we mature, the journey is sometimes distressing, and I found the practical elements of craft helpful in this, by keeping me grounded while I risked going about in my own murky interior. Attention to rhythms, like knit one purl one for so many rows, protected me from getting burned by some of the coruscating demons I was colour-conjuring. It’s as though the physicality of the craft absorbed some of the energy, and stopped me becoming overwhelmed by my strongest responses to the world; let me look at my own fear, for instance, without being afraid, afforded the space to hold it away from me, draw from it without indulging it. To knit a jumper for someone to wear, the knitter needs to not be overcome by rage, lust, or any emotion. By the same notion, to write a poem to send out in the world for others to use, the poet must master shame, grief, or rapture, while writing. Years later, a chance viewing of Tony Harrison, on TV, explaining the craft of sonnet building, was one of the sparks that led me towards writing.
Defining ‘craftsmanship’ might demonstrate how these skills transfer. To paraphrase Coleridge, craftsmanship is the best available materials brought together in an arrangement best suited to the use of their finished product. Those materials include the craftsman, who melds tools and materials from her own mind with those in the workshop, some of which are uniquely adapted or made from scratch, to create something she believes the world needs – otherwise she might not be a craftsman but some kind of charlatan.
So craftsmanship is the antithesis of shoddy goods made quickly for profit or status. In writing, I want to make something that didn’t exist before, and I want it to cast my own light on a shared human experience. Crafting a poem isn’t taming timber or chipping away at marble: the material is word, the craft is in negotiating between sound and meaning, the only muscle to wield is the mind.
Walking the dogs by the river, we often see runners; in the last few years my sister Mary, visual artist by trade, has become one. For her it’s meditative, about feeling part of the land. Talking about it, we find parallels between running as meditation and poetry as craft: she trains and flexes muscles in her body as I do in my mind, and for the same reasons.
A runner who runs alone only competes with himself; a poet writes his own poems the best he can, and must be his own most rigorous critic. Like me with writing, my sister’s not asking for it to be easy. Here’s an extract from a piece she wrote about running by the River Rivelin in Sheffield: she’s just forked left off a main path, and says –
I especially like this part of the run because the path changes; it narrows and undulates round quick corners, tree roots everywhere, as well as rocks, and brickwork forming curved tunnels where the run-off water re-joins the river. You have to really watch where you place your feet and I like this focus, hearing my breath coming hard but steady, concentrating on every step.
Sometimes, for me, writing feels like this – I’m in my stride, words bounce along for a line, maybe several, sometimes a whole stanza, and more. When I miss my footing, I go back, find surprisingly apt solutions, carry on, as if in my own backyard. Then in the next draft I tease out connections and meanings that I never thought I’d the skill to bring to a poem, and by the next draft it’s starting to sing. An explanation for this kind of flow is that I’m applying what I now know – what I’ve found hard before and struggled to learn has become available, it’s in my mind’s muscle-memory and can be deployed to greater effect than before.
But there’s always more to learn, that flow won’t last long, and new depths soon become shallow. The next obstacle will require another kind of path: the only poems I know how to write are the ones I’ve already written.
The running analogy holds for when the writing again begins to flag. At the river, I sometimes see a runner walking. I don’t like to see it as they look out of place in their running gear – as though dressed up and out, but not up to it. However, this is a stage of the process: the runner has run as far as she can, pushed herself still further – just to that next tree, then the next one, dragged up the energy from somewhere, nearly made herself sick, and now needs a break. This option of walking is very useful: it’s a thing a runner can do to stay on track, stay on the river path, keep propelling himself through the material, keep his muscles moving, warm and supple, all this while temporarily unable to perform what he’s there to do, due to a snag in terrain or energy supply, but after a while of this walking, he will be able to run again.
Similarly, when I get stuck in a poem, I just write dull for a while. I know it’s dull, yet when I try to sharpen it nothing works, my mind’s muscle isn’t toned for it. If it’s the poem I’m supposed to be writing, then it will take off when the muscle is ready. “Memoir of a Working River”, which runs to twenty pages, forced me to dig out new resources to stay with the project, especially as it piled up behind me and seemed worthwhile.
For as long as I’ve understood the Rivelin’s history I’ve wanted to write it as poetry, yet for years my efforts stumbled, led only to short poems of smaller journeys. So, fail better… I kept trying, and eventually tricked myself by beginning where I wanted the poem to end, wrote fifty odd lines, got stuck again, and this time, those lines alone would not make a poem. But I was onto something, and though I didn’t know how, I pushed on for the sake of what I’d written, and for the tale that needed telling.
At such times, I recall a runner walking and write dull for as long as it takes. If I can’t admit it’s dull while it’s costing the same effort as past gems, then I’d be afraid of writing dull forever, so I must acknowledge this and stagger on. Some of the output is useful – a word or phrase, narrative progress, a solution for some half forgotten problem, but the lines on the page are leaden. Nevertheless, I’m by the river, and in motion; soon I’ll learn what I need to go further.
To alleviate the drear, and tickle the muscle, I actively read poetry that seems spurred by the same energy as what I think I’m doing; this helps me tune to that energy. The competitor in me hates this: how come these guys can do it and I can’t? So I shut that voice up, like the walking runner, when another runner passes her, must rinse it from her mind. The poetry I’m reading is published; I wasn’t there while it was made. I didn’t see the poet walking by the river in her running gear, her hair all straggled, mud splattered up her aching calves; listening to the same stuff in her head, fighting the urge to give up and go home; and at the same time waiting, hoping, willing herself to be ready again to drive on. With both disciplines, staying with it is the only way, and when the flow kicks in, whoosh – what a payoff.
My sister started running with a friend who, when she slowed, would grab her wrist and pull her along, forcing her to run further before taking a walk break. My sister hated this, as I would. But it must be like being told by a respected fellow poet that you probably need to redraft a section or line of your poem, when you know how long it took you in the first place, and don’t believe your mind’s muscle can work harder, write it any better. Yet the giver of that advice believes you can, as the wrist grabbing showed my sister that her legs could run further, and she’s grateful to her friend for risking verbal abuse at the very least, by encouraging her to risk trying harder.
When I’m at home, alone, working on my poem, I have to grab my own wrist and pull myself on. Forget the fear of not being up to it. The poem’s arriving, whatever the sacrifice I must learn all I need to deliver it, keep going till it’s done – this time to another, further tree. The marvellous thing is, as poets, we do this in private. So, I snuggle into my writing chair, exposed only to the terrifying rigours of my own mind.
Fay Musselwhite’s debut full-length collection Contraflow is available now from Longbarrow Press. Visit the Contraflow microsite for further extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
Disrupting the Lexicon Location Myth
I recently received a rejection slip from a respected publisher that has resonated much more deeply than I had envisaged. The knockback didn’t bother me so much as the reasoning behind it. The body of work was a series of photographs then titled Recovered Landscapes: Reclamation of the South Yorkshire Coalfields. The publishers basically said that there is no or little commercial interest in these landscapes, that they are invalid, obsolete, without a criterion that fits the current publishing climate. Friends suggested that I drop the specific locational moniker and resubmit them as a more generalised way of treating landscape. But to do this would risk losing the essential value of what I was trying to achieve – namely, that something deep within the regional psyche was being lost through the treatment of post-industrial sites and the value system that surrounds them.
Having work rejected because the work isn’t of an industry standard is one thing, but the dissemination of its values through the market is another. Part of the problem is that of exoticism; of displacement chic. If you replace South Yorkshire with the Russian or South American coalfields, interest increases, and value increases. I think of John Clare, who suddenly and irrevocably became absent through his absolute insistence on describing what he knew and his fateful attachment to his own microclimate. I guess, in deep introspection, Clare wanted to preserve what he felt to be already over, though few wanted to hear it as it hardly fitted prevailing sensibilities. However, I think it goes much deeper than this and into our expectations of what cultural values are and what purpose they serve. I will return to this as the essay progresses.
Too often in today’s climate, cultural hegemony is cultivated through a seemingly ad hoc mixture of arts festivals, commercial galleries, managerial processes and academic interventions into spatial politics. What has become harder, and to some extent impossible, is to work outside of these frameworks. A priori positivist assumptions about ‘community’ often head up these processes and their adherents. Empirical knowledge of social or event planning bypasses more deep-seated resentments of and dissatisfaction with cultural ‘re-presentation’. Added to this is an accelerated reliance on digital topographies (through sat-nav, gaming terrains, Google earth, etc). The end effect is often a geopolitical dysmorphia, a fantasy world. The ordinary, caught as it is between the sublime and the banal, is often erased and replaced with heritage green space, business or retail parks, faux-archaeological aesthetics, or is simply fenced off and marked as an absence, reflecting the value of keeping sites empty as fiscal or cultural currencies. Rarely in the former coalfields has land been left to naturalise as a post-industrial site. The management of landscape through extraneous principles is nothing new; however, when photographing the region, my criteria have increasingly been informed by the questions ‘by whom’ and ‘for whom’. Photographing the former site of Denaby Main colliery, and its subsequent use, highlighted the failure of consultancy and multi-agency bodies to understand the deeper needs of the site. The deliberate depoliticisation of the region is also evident in its restructuring. For example, the site of Orgreave coking plant (scene of the worst mass brutality conducted during the bloody 1984-85 miners’ strike) has now been re-named as the softer-sounding and benign ‘Waverley’. To date, no official acknowledgment or representation of the conflict has been made on the site. What seems clear is that the region has a diverse set of meanings and histories and its future value must attempt to try to accommodate this range in a meaningful way.
Before continuing with a discussion of the points raised above, I want to describe what I mean by the ordinary. To create work en plein air in a contemporary setting is deeply unfashionable and is often seen as anachronistic. Counter to this are a plethora of site-specific works that seemingly reveal personal and geopolitical histories, or documentary works aiming to capture event-specific ‘decisive moments’. I have used ‘ordinary’ in this context to mean work that neither reveals a particular important event, nor uncovers a familial or archival particularity. Some of these sites might even be described as ‘non-sites’, places where nothing happens very slowly. Absence of meaning and the ordinary seem perfectly syntagmatic of a region that has had its major resources continually disputed and exploited until little remains but traces: scars and residues. It is the condition of these remains at this particular time that interests me. The future and the past are other photographs, other representations; any meaning here should be through what is visible as a surface.
It is important in this context to distinguish between the normal and the ordinary. Normative values have a systematic relationship to the production and dissemination of agreement criteria, of validating work through its ‘usefulness’. On the other hand, ‘ordinary‘, in best usage, might include the disregarding of official (and often arbitrary) boundaries, the use of land as playful, or as an absence of distinctions between urban and rural, ruin and foundation. Here the categorical dichotomy between the sublime and banal also begins to loosen. If sites are only validated through their context (crime scenes, accident sites, historical human activity etc) then the suggestion (and presupposition) is that all other criteria are supplementary. However, the ordinary falls short of these criteria; for example, in plein air photography, conditionality plays a major part in the methodology of production values. The weather or time of day isn’t secondary here, but essential. This ‘it was as it is’ attitude isn’t quite as benign as it first appears, though. I will go on to discuss how I completed the series of photographs, and what such close scrutiny of the value systems and dissemination of landscape might imply within a broader context.
On reflection, I think the series has a couple of things going against it in the prevailing climate. Firstly, as I have suggested, the series is primarily focused on absence. The human element in the photographs is secondary and often invoked as a negative principle. To create work that isn’t human-centric and doesn’t show the species as benevolent or flexible doesn’t fit with utopian or community values. Secondly, the medium itself becomes problematic inasmuch as the series aims to create its meaning, not through the singular ‘important’ definitive image but through a series of non-specific variants. The ordinariness of landscape not being shot at its most beautiful angle or at the poles of dawn or dusk aims to suggest a non-partitioned, plain version of the world and not a locus we head toward as a point of interest. When I discussed this series at a gallery opening, someone suggested to me that the reason that many of these sites are screened from the casual passer-by is because people don’t want to see them. This seems reason enough to show them.
As the series developed and extended, I began to focus less on the coalfield sites themselves and more on their peripheries. The idea of momentarily catching a landscape without any presupposition began to appeal to me deeply. As the focus shifted from the specific to the commonality of waste ground or scrub, I realised that although all landscape isn’t treated equally that doesn’t mean all landscape isn’t equal in and of itself. So eventually I dropped the original title and began to divest the images of any bias of particularity I could. By refusing meaning, landscape itself can be disruptive. Photography as a lacuna is doubly bound to re-present the point of interest as facile, as of no great significance: whether you choose to look or not, it’s there. The series attempts to put a strain on our presence as passive viewers of landscape by pushing its absence onto our own, refusing along the way such overworked terms as ‘banal’ or ‘sublime’. The non-identification with landscape as picturesque or sublime searches for its imagined communities elsewhere. The process of being in the landscape itself finds its exegesis in the limits of identification and not in co-opting its value as a regulatory system of materialism. It is this ‘tramping’, wandering quality that the series aims to acknowledge. How much ‘use’ this quality can be put to remains to be seen.
Karl Hurst’s photographs of the South Yorkshire coalfields will be exhibited as part of The Ted Hughes Poetry Festival 2016 (Mexborough, 24-26 June); click here for further details. Further images in this series can be viewed as part of Hurst’s Flickr photoset.
Three essays on photography (under the series title ‘On Liminal Spaces’) appeared on the Longbarrow Blog in 2015; the first essay (‘Reflections on Impracticality’) appears here, the second essay (‘Meditation on Carl Wark’) appears here, and the third essay (‘Winter Hare at Alport: A Theory of Disappearance’) appears here. Karl Hurst’s Flickr photosets can be viewed here. Boxed editions of prints are available from his Etsy site. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (writing as Andrew Hirst) are available here. His sequence ‘Three Night Walks’ appears in the walking-themed poetry anthology The Footing (Longbarrow Press).
Last night, in the middle of a city in the middle of the desert, I was listening to music at my friend’s apartment when Jackson Browne came on. It’s a few years since I heard “Late for the Sky”. It’s one of Nick Hornby’s 31 songs, and he says when the album came out in 1974, he was too into punk to have time for delicate Californian flowers with pudding-bowl haircuts and songs about marital discord. It was a couple of decades later that his own marital discord gave him a sense of what shaped these songs. The intro of “Late for the Sky” is instantly moving. But now it’s like I’ve never heard the lyrics before, how deeply sad and felt they are: “looking hard into your eyes / there was nobody I’d ever known / such an empty surprise to feel so alone.” That’s the thing about endings. The past gets rewritten, you get rewritten (I am no one you’ve ever known). Shared stories no longer match up, so you lose yourself and your past as well as an imagined future. And now it’s dark outside and I’m listening to Jackson Browne in the middle of a city in the middle of the desert.
I write about the desert sometimes. This is the second part of a poem called ‘Fairytale No. 9’:
He said his country had only two seasons,
all or nothing, no spring or fall.
He longed to see snow
but I told him how leaves brittle
and burn up in love for the trees,
sacrifice themselves – little drops of blood –
to lie over exposed roots, warming them
from the early frost.
Autumn, I said.
Outside, sand and sky were all one colour.
He turned back from the still heat
asked me to write
this new word on his hand.
I love England for its seasons. I have something good to say about them all, but what makes them magical are the visible changes that are most associated with spring and autumn, the little drops of blood, and the shoots that are just now turning the garden green in my absence. It’s a good backdrop for a fairy tale, all that transformation.
In my poem, change comes at a cost, a “sacrifice”, and elsewhere, the speaker’s transformations are quite traumatic:
Heavy with buds, I took to bed, dreamt
of being a woman –
the weight of nesting birds
on my chest was only grief, the body taking
its share of the pain.
I lost my silver bark,
its counter-light reflecting the names
of passersby cut into my ribs.
e.e. cummings’s “Spring is like a perhaps hand” appears to offer transformation without the pain, a gentle placing and arranging – “a perhaps / fraction of flower here placing / an inch of air there) and // without breaking anything.” – but so many carefullys can’t be what they seem … actually, we’re only looking through a window, while spring affects how we see the world. Somewhere else days are getting shorter. And somewhere else again, spring and autumn are barely words.
Change as part of a cycle only looks like change close up, doesn’t it? So it’s not always obvious that you’re going round in circles. In her short story, “Her Bonxie Boy”, Sara Maitland combines fairy tale, spring and science, using the method of charting seasonal bird migration with microchips that record light intensity; length of day tells latitude, and you can tell longitude according to the hours of sunrise/sunset, so you can work out where a bird was twice a day. Except when it’s equinox because days and nights are the same length across the hemisphere: “The vernal equinox is exactly when migratory sea birds are migrating. So, at the very moment I want to know most what they’re up to, they disappear. Vanish somewhere between winter and summer”. Is that what I’ve done? Have I disappeared? Have you forgotten me? I have a different name here, different job, clothes. I’ve shed many of the roles I used to have. Here I’m no one’s daughter, no one’s significant other. I’m still a (Skype) mother, but most people here would be surprised at that. Will this migration really bring transformation or is it just part of a bigger circle than I can see? Truth is I’ve held onto more than I’ve let go of, and if some days it hurts, I don’t know if it’s change that’s more painful or trying to hold still.
I wrote ‘Fairytale No. 9’ while thinking about Rebecca Solnit on pain and empathy (in The Faraway Nearby). Thinking about pain and touch as a boundary of the self: “Those who suffer are considered to be worse off than those who don’t, but those who suffer can care for themselves, protect themselves, seek change […] recover.” Hornby describes it as peeling away “yet another layer of skin (who knew we had so many, or that their removal caused such discomfort?), and thus allows us to hear things, chords and solos and harmonies and what have you, properly”.
Hornby adds that he wishes he still had those layers of skin, but when my son grew up I realised life is much longer than I’d imagined, and I wonder what it would be like to go through it and never change or be changed. In Ultimate Classic Rock, Michael Gallucci wrote, “[Browne] sang like someone who had the end of the world in his rear-view mirror and a wide open road in front of him”. In those chords and solos and harmonies and what have you, in “Late for the Sky”, I hear that potential for transformation, to see the open road more clearly for having the end of the world in sight. The lyrics, sad as they are, are about waking up. Once you see “the changing light”, you lose what certainty you thought you had, but what do you gain?
In Hope in the Dark, Solnit says change happens in the imagination first. You have to be able to imagine the possibility of a different future, before you can head towards it. And if you think that’s scary, that’s where the hope is. There’s no hope in certainty, only in the dark, and perhaps a little in the desert.
‘Fairytale No. 9’ appears in Envies the Birds, Angelina D’Roza’s debut full-length collection (available now from Longbarrow Press). Visit the Envies the Birds microsite for further extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the book (hardback, 80pp) via the relevant PayPal button below:
There’s a kind of line, of light, a thought line, which cuts through false histories and comes towards us from the devastated zones. […] And always the experience wrapped in the line is that of the work force.
The Ascent of Kinder Scout, Peter Riley
The reconstruction of post-war London is a story of displacement and drift. An estimated one million homes were erased from the capital during the Blitz, the rubble later reburied in pitches, mounds and the airfields of East Anglia. A smaller number of properties vanished under the auspices of the Slum Clearance Act, introduced in 1955, a revival of a programme interrupted by the Second World War. Before the bomb sites and bad houses could be scratched from the streets, before a vision of high-rise living could be built up from sketches, temporary solutions to the housing crisis were being pieced together at the city’s edges: the quick, new prefabs, plotted in 1944 and delivered within weeks of the war’s end, their concrete walls framed in timber or steel, the steel recycled from Anderson shelters. The Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act legislated for 300,000 prefab units for the UK, only half of which were built. The immediate demand for new homes, unmet by the recovering city, led the London County Council to adopt a policy of dispersal, relocating families from Inner London to satellite estates in the Home Counties, and further afield, to the designated ‘overspill towns’ and new towns of East Anglia, the South East, and settlements in the west. Like the East End evacuees of the 1940s, many of the rehoused Londoners would never return to the capital, the short-term plan drifting in the middle distance, the future dragging on, and the prefabs becoming fixtures, outliving their span, some still standing decades later, asbestos in the bungalow roofs.
Among the overspill towns was Swindon, 71 miles west of London, halfway between Reading and Bristol. Unlike a number of its counterparts in the South East, Swindon was not a new town. Recorded in the Domesday Book as Suindune, the Anglo-Saxon settlement, built on limestone and chalk, developed as a centre for barter trade, its growth accelerating with the construction of two canals in the early 19th century. A few decades later, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was authorised to build a central repair works for the new Great Western Railway a few miles north of the old settlement, resulting in further expansion, and Swindon’s transition from a market town to a railway town. With the works came a workers’ community, the first houses appearing in 1846, terraced cottages on parallel grids, a model village in Bath stone. The Mechanics’ Institute, formed in 1844, offered a series of evening classes, concerts and lectures in borrowed factory space, moving into purpose-built premises ten years later with the support of The New Swindon Improvement Company, a local co-operative. These organisations helped to make the railwaymen among the best-educated manual workers in the country. The Institute also established the UK’s first lending library, starting with a small collection of books gathered by toolmakers; and a health centre, built up through a subscription-based medical fund, that provided first the railwaymen, then other Swindonians, with a cradle-to-grave service that Nye Bevan later adopted as a blueprint for the NHS.
The town was still expanding in the 1960s, even as the power drained from the railway works, its role downgraded from locomotive building to rolling stock maintenance. The Pressed Steel Company, a car manufacturer, had rapidly overtaken the GWR works as the largest employer, rivalled by Plessey (electronic components) and Vickers (aviation), orbited by secondary industries. Many of the employees of these companies were Londoners, incomers, overspill, rinsed from the city; others had relocated from South Yorkshire, following Plessey’s decision to close its Rotherham unit and open a new factory in Swindon; and some were Polish refugees, temporarily quartered in POW barracks after the war, at the sharp end of the housing shortage. North of the railway works, the new estates of Pinehurst and Moredon saw their prefabs gradually replaced with brick houses; to the east, the even younger suburbs of Walcot, Park South, Park North, Covingham and Lawn, a mix of council and private estates. During this period of expansion, the borough council also offered support to small groups seeking plots of land on which to build their own homes from scratch. The land for these projects, provided by the council as part of an interest-free loan package, was mostly sourced in the east of the town, in the gaps between light industry and open country. In April 1961, a group of 14 men entered one of these gaps, a small piece of the Lawn estate, and started to dig out their settlement.
The Tenby Close self-build scheme included bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and plasterers. Among them was my father, a carpenter, newly married, employed by a local building firm, with which he would remain for the next 38 years. Under the terms of the scheme, the men were contracted to work on the site for a minimum number of hours per week, with any extra hours at their own discretion. My father worked all day on Saturdays and Sundays, and a few evenings during the week, the hours lengthening as the scheme developed. Throughout the two years spent building the close, my parents lived with my father’s mother in her council house in Wroughton, a large village south of Swindon, close to The Ridgeway, an ancient track that spans the Chilterns and North Wessex Downs, and Avebury, where the track has its origin, shadowed by chalk mounds and chambered barrows. It’s unclear if or how often my parents visited these landscapes, as most of their waking hours were spent at work. Towards the end of the self-build scheme, the men drew lots for each semi-detached house, an agreement drawn up to ensure consistency in their collective endeavour, to write fairness into the design. My father drew number 6. My mother joined him in decorating their new home, their first and only home, finally moving in during the cold spring of 1963. The total cost of the house to them was £2,000, including the land, the legal expenses, the laying of road. They’d reached it by hard work, applied skill, thrift, patience, love, at a time when this was enough, when the means were enough, and the ends were enough.
The first years fly, a son, then a gap, a second son, another gap, another son. The edges of the house soften, the work is continual, to adapt, convert and extend. The sitting room loses its partition, the attic gains stairs, windows, a bedroom. In time, it is followed by an extra garage, the other serving as a workshop, and a white room for white goods. Most or all of this my father does himself. The cupboards are built-in, the shelves recessed in the walls, dry glaze on dark timber. It is a deceptively plain craft, done without fuss or fetish, there are measurements, pencilled plans, materials sourced and cut to size, edges meet or do not meet, there are adjustments, slowly, millimetre by millimetre, the angle is made, and everything fits, and everything works. Nothing is left undone or unfinished. Outside of the house, the firm loads him with jobs, scattering the Wiltshire downs, some landing in Berkshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, but most of them in or near Swindon, new space, old space, set fast in concrete. A thought, in the 1970s, of setting up in business for himself, he and my mother discuss this, she would do the accounts, but the uncertainty, the insecurity, he will not put his family at risk. It is a thought put to one side. And he does not put his family at risk, he does not neglect them, he is gentle and giving with his wife and sons at the end of the worked hours. He takes us to the lending library, where we think for ourselves, to the swimming pool on Milton Road, a legacy of the medical fund, to the hides, forts and clumps south of Swindon. He builds, and the buildings stand. He builds a school, the comprehensive that my brothers and I will attend, a fact of which I am ignorant for years. I learn to build, with Lego and Meccano and then with bits of dark I find in the wardrobe, built into my bedroom wall, idle blocks of pitch. I climb inside and close the doors behind me. I am six or seven. I fold my knees and wait for the blackout, falling back to the war, to a time before me, a time before our house, a time before colour. I fall further, the wardrobe is a limestone barrow, action figures on the damp ledges. And I fall out of time, into space, the dust disc east of Mars, the asteroid rubble. On corrugated cardboard all the known planets line up, in felt pen, red, green and blue, each pleat stands for ten million miles. I scrunch my shut eyes and see a mass drift. Dim spheres, a field of gas giants, dots of light beyond Saturn. The wardrobe ends with Pluto.
All the men are gone from the close, now, my father among them. Several days after he died, my mother handed me a list, names and numbers, men my father had worked with. Names I’d never heard of, names from the 70s, some my father hadn’t seen in decades. My mother wanted them to know what had happened, that the asbestos had caught up with him, and to thank them for their help in the last months, their best recollections of their working conditions, the statements given to the industrial disease lawyer appointed by my parents. I called each number in turn, not knowing how to begin, how to introduce myself, how to find the tone. “It’s Ray Lewis’s son”, I would start, then stop. I knew what my father meant to my mother, my brothers, the branches of our family, neighbours, friends and acquaintances, but I hadn’t heard it from these men, men who perhaps knew him only slightly, but who now sounded as stricken as I felt. Mostly they wanted to thank him, as I did, for the things he’d done, and how he’d done them. He was not a man who sought credit or craved status. Whatever anxieties or disappointments he experienced in his life were shielded from his family. As far as careers advice went, his only wish for his sons was that they didn’t follow him onto the buildings. The most professional worker I ever knew, he was naturally suspicious of amateurs with expensive tastes, of confidence and bluff, but there was no bitterness in his voice. To be ‘made’, to be ‘self-made’, didn’t interest him. To ‘make something of yourself’ was not to elevate yourself above others, but to make yourself useful, to do your best, with the resources at hand. And he did this, I think, to the end of his short retirement, making dolls’ houses, restoring my brothers’ houses, tending his allotment, cleaning the neighbours’ gutters. The craft and the slog, never one without the other. Even when illness diminished his own resources, he was still working, and working for the best: showing us not what to build, or how to build, but that it was possible to build. On occasions after his death, I would visit the community centre in Lawn, the centre that my mother and other local residents had spent decades campaigning and working for and finally secured, and look to the cabinet he’d constructed in a corner of the hall, discreet and useful. It’s still there, of course, years later, loved and remembered.
i.m. Raymond Lewis
01.12.1934 – 23.08.2007
A map of the old city: off-white, off-centre, its grey pleats blurred in the upload. At the north-western corner, the road out darkens with the tramway, passing a congregational church, a cricket ground, and a black-edged barracks, before the tram is caught by its own terminus and the road splits at the river. This is Hillsborough, sketched in the 1880s, not yet incorporated within the City of Sheffield. Two decades on from the Great Flood, we see a handful of lanes, a suburb’s bare bones. We don’t see the recovering industry, the vanishing chapels, the new streets in their neat script, pencilled in at the century’s turn: Rudyard Road, Rider Road, Haggard Road, Kipling Road.
‘Kipling Road’ is the first poem in Rob Hindle’s sonnet sequence ‘Hillsborough to Middlewood, February 1931′. Published in 2013, it retraces a journey made by Hindle’s great-grandparents’ son, Harold, eighty years before: a journey of little more than a mile, a journey that will take him out of the city and into the West Riding. We are to infer that this itinerary is his last. The sequence is narrated in the first person, the poet steering himself, and us, through a world that is half-familiar and half-imagined, in the present tense, at street level, at walking pace. The two journeys – the poet’s, and the great-uncle’s – maintain a slight distance from each other, from the territory they move through, and from us. There is much that we do not know. We do not know if Harold’s departure was accomplished on foot, or by other means; whether or not it was made voluntarily. The sequence offers glimpses of thresholds – historical, physical, emotional – that may or may not yield to our touch. Yet it is this quality of indirectness that gives the work its intimacy; we sense more than we see, slowing, pausing, ‘feeling the air for a way in’.
No through road, no exit. Kipling Road is one of several blind alleys built on ground formerly occupied by the old tramway terminus, a corner of which will be reclaimed for the Hillsborough Interchange a century later. Two terraces, each of seven houses, odd numbers lined up against even numbers. At the dead end of the street, where the cars wait and turn, we find a grass slope banked against a stone wall; behind the stone wall, a higher breezeblock wall; behind the breezeblock wall, a tall wooden fence, above which we can make out the pitched roofs of bus shelters. Little else escapes the fence: a faint burr of engine noise, the hum of buses caught between arrival and departure. A single turret, sinking from sight as we near the wall. We can’t see the rest of the barracks, but they’re there, south and west, changed into retail, business, split-level parking, the cavalry gone, the infantry gone. The street, as we find it, is innocent of these comings and goings, it doesn’t know what happened to the parade ground. It won’t tell you what happened here last week. This isn’t public property, the windows and doors silent, shut, slanting the enquiry. It is sound, leaking from one side or another, that sets things moving, that primes this vision of flight:
Now there is the click of a back door,
the chitter of a budgerigar.
Then you are hurrying from one of these houses,
hair brushed, tangled feet booted […]
There is one way out of the terraces, a left turn, Kipling Road to Rudyard Road, a right turn, then the last few yards of Langsett Road, the Loxley beneath it, unscrambling from the weir, dark and diminished. The poems pick up the ‘bright thread’ of the tram lines, silvering the road from Hillsborough to Middlewood, its subtle incline, snagging when we pause to look around us, fading when we stop to look back. Shoppers and passers-by seem to take on the shade of the great-uncle, his ‘fumbling’, his ‘lurching’, closing in, disturbing the air. The direction is certain, the movement hesitant. East of the tram lines, the ‘thin green’ of Hillsborough Park, its dogs and dog walkers, distant and slow. North-west of the park, the tree-lined suburbs of Middlewood and Wadsley, hiding their separateness, their spread, their wealth. The tram lines run out and the city falls behind them. And here is memory, sharpening on these new edges, glancing off familiar details: the post box, the school,
the park where I rushed along one day, my mind,
gleeful and vicious, running after me. Middlewood,
childhood cant, that thing in all our cellars,
I shouldn’t have dared. I pay out my breaths
like twine, each step shortening.
Middlewood Hospital (formerly known as the South Yorkshire Asylum, the West Riding Asylum (Wadsley) and Wadsley Mental Hospital) opened in 1872 to accommodate the overspill from the West Riding County Asylum at Wakefield. Over the decades, it gradually expanded from 750 beds to over 2,000, with many of these requisitioned for emergency use by the War Office during World Wars I and II; this number was sharply reduced during the 1980s, as psychiatric patients began to be released into the care of their local authorities, and the hospital finally closed in 1996. Shortly afterwards, the site was acquired for residential development, the expansive grounds, superb views and good transport links making it the natural setting for an exclusive village, retaining many of the original structures; the old clock tower, restored and converted, now watches over the new apartments to the rear. It was here, a mile or so from Kipling Road, that Harold Hindle was brought in 1931, and it was here that he died in the following year. He was 27 years old.
The final poem in the sequence is an encounter with the redeveloped site, or, rather, those parts of the village accessible or visible to the non-resident: Kingswood Hall and Middlewood Lodge are locked away behind secure, gated entrances. In London Orbital (2002), his psychogeographical survey of the M25, Iain Sinclair addresses the rehabilitation of the former psychiatric hospitals and asylums at the edges of the capital; as the late 1980s property boom began to eat up more space, these dormant, unloved sites were reappraised for their proximity to the new motorway, offering rural character, seclusion and discretion. Buildings that were designed to keep people in – monitored by staff, unseen by the ‘outside’ world – were redesigned to keep people out. Purged of their ghosts, cleansed of their dirt, the estates assume new names, a selective heritage. We are not invited to poke around. Hindle leaves us at the gates of Wadsley Park Village, where
the locked front door gleams and the tiny cameras
look at everything. As I leave something clicks, twice:
tut tut. Through your eyes I see myself out.
‘Hillsborough to Middlewood, February 1931’ is one of five long poems and sequences by Rob Hindle (under the collective title Flights and Traverses) in the walking-themed anthology The Footing (Longbarrow Press, 2013); click here for more information about the book. Hindle reflects on the research and development of the poems and sequences in this essay. Click here to visit his website.
Listen to Rob Hindle reading ‘Kipling Road’:
We are entering the capital of a lesser empire
where the plans of our masters surface betimes —
pins on a map at the Ministry of Natural Calamities,
and the statistics like crisp new folding money.
‘Beyond hope and the Lea River’
East London, a March morning, the low zeros: the first spring of a new millennium, the last winter of the old century. I’m on the southeastern edge of Canning Town, looking at the makings of the new ExCel building, under construction near the site of the former Royal Victoria Dock. Opened in 1855, the Victoria Dock was scaled for a new class of steamships; with the Albert Dock (1880) and the King George V Dock (1921) extending to the east, the Royal Docks formed the largest enclosed docks in the world. By 1980, they were empty of traffic, outscaled by Tilbury’s sea-facing container port, the deep basin at the mouth of the Thames. The docks retain their water, the ownership transferring from the Port of London Authority to the Royal Docks Management Authority Limited in the 1980s. The docks retain their titles, and lease them to the new, unmanned metro, the Docklands Light Railway, rolling into the Enterprise Zone, phase by phase, station by station: Royal Victoria, Royal Albert, two stops, an elevated section, surveying the incoming stacks, the hotels and apartments, their flags of no nation. The private water, the corporate border. Shortly before the year’s end I bought a pocket A-Z. It is now useless, the names on the map have been removed from the ground, the white spaces that I came here to haunt have been coloured in. And this is where the map runs out, cutting the airport and regatta in half, two miles east of the meridian.
The water running to the west of the Royal Docks is the River Lea, formerly the Essex border, before the county boroughs of West Ham and East Ham were assigned to the London Borough of Newham in 1965. The borough’s eastern boundary is the River Roding, close to where the poet Ken Smith settled in the early 1980s; Smith, formerly of Yorkshire, Exeter, Pennsylvania and Kilburn, would remain in East Ham until his death in 2003. Shortly after the move, he began work on The London Poems, a series of twelve-line poems (each composed of three quatrains) that would form the centrepiece of his 1986 collection Terra. Fourteen of these poems were selected for The House of Numbers (1985), a pamphlet from Smith’s own Rolling Moss Press, accompanied by several photographs by Stephen Parr. The poems and the photographs show the docklands in profile, from the Isle of Dogs to Woolwich, its bad dreams of decline and redevelopment: oblique, caustic and dialectical by turns, the pamphlet has the urgency (and something of the appearance) of a samizdat report from an occupied sector. Observations are recast as allegory; sour jokes are embedded in government policy; enciphered conversations leak from the faulty electrics. A zone of transition, in which almost all transit is suspended, threaded and encircled by ‘miles of wire’, distanced and disconnected from the city it once served. A zone of enterprise, patrolled by snatch squads, paramilitaries and private militias, their allegiance shifting from contract to contract, shadowed by workless ex-soldiers, ex-dockers. The poems are sidelong dispatches, filed on the run, a dossier of riddles, rumours and rhetoric:
My friend Napoleon visits Farina’s Café.
There is no message. He meets no one.
It is mysterious because there is no mystery
but Napoleon is now in the house of numbers.
‘Beyond hope and the Lea River’
The naming of districts in The House of Numbers is metonymic, suggestive, spare; the pamphlet is not a gazetteer or street atlas of East London. No markers, no pins. The poems’ titles (‘In Silvertown, chasing the dragon’, ‘The meridian at Greenwich’) lead us to the edges of the territory. We are left to fill in the blanks. Smith hints at the number and nature of the ‘blanks’ that have been, or will be, created in the residential and industrial sectors; the cleared terraces, the derelict mills, the ‘slow workless docklands going cheap’. Dead and dying space, parts of which will remain dead for a generation, fenced off by prudent developers, before re-emerging as ‘new space’ at the turn of the millennium. The House of Numbers is not so much concerned with the topography of the spaces it reports from as it is with the relationships within and between these spaces, and, in particular, with the people that inhabit them. One consequence of the restructuring of the docklands was that it made the local population less visible; the transfer of some residents from low-rise terraces to tower blocks, the dispersal of others to the ends of the borough, and the gradual disappearance of shops, pubs and amenities left many streets as silent as the docks. As Smith observes in ‘Clipper Service’:
Now the natives are proud and scattered
and lonely in the high rises, living
as they always lived: thieving or work
when there’s work. There’s none now.
The erosion and displacement of these communities was a process, rather than an event. However, two episodes in the last century’s wars made a significant contribution to this process. London was an accidental casualty of the Luftwaffe’s early campaigns; a lone bomber, tasked with a hit on Tilbury, struck the East End instead. The ensuing cycle of retaliation led to the London Blitz, in which the Port of London was a prime target; the raids on the docks also damaged or destroyed neighbouring factories and a substantial amount of housing stock. Some of the most severe losses were sustained in Silvertown, a narrow strip of reclaimed marshland between the Royal Docks and the Thames. Silvertown took its name from the rubber factory established by S.W. Silver & Co in 1852; the company’s decision to open their works in the area may have been influenced by the fact that it was just outside the zone in which ‘toxic industries’ were prohibited (by the recent Metropolitan Building Act). With the development of the docks, other industries followed, including chemical works, flour mills and the rival sugar refineries of Henry Tate and Abram Lyle (merged in 1921). They were joined in 1893 by the Brunner Mond factory, which produced soda crystals and caustic soda. The company ceased production of the latter in 1912; four years later, the production area was still unused, which led the War Office to requisition it for the purification of TNT. On 19 January 1917, a fire ignited 50 tons of explosives, destroying the plant, a fire station, a school and a church, and damaging 70,000 properties. Seventy-three people were killed; more than 400 were injured. Thousands were left homeless. Parliament debated relocating Silvertown’s residents elsewhere, rather than investing in rebuilding; for the 600 houses that fell, 400 new houses were built. Two decades later, the town’s population and infrastructure were further reduced by the Blitz, with hundreds dying over the months of the campaign, and hundreds more dispersed through war service or evacuation, many of whom would never return to the area. Some of the blanks were filled in after the war, with prefabs and new shops, a decline slowed by partial reconstruction. And some of the blanks remained blank: the grounds of the devastated TNT plant still unbuilt and empty at the century’s close, shrinking from each renewal, a white, wrinkled scar.
And no one to remember. No messages
passed late at night across borders, by hand,
by word of mouth, we who are lost together
telling tales the prisoner spins the jailer.
‘The meridian at Greenwich’
The docks divide, west from east, Victoria from Albert, a swing bridge stuck between Canning Town and Silvertown, two lanes southbound, two lanes northbound. It is a fresh spring Saturday, four years and one hundred metres to the side of my first visit to the docklands. The ExCel frame reddens the west, its finish taking the morning light. The two hundred metres between the exhibitions centre and the bridge is a parking grid, white on grey, clean intervals flatten the waterfront, there are grades of supervision, enforcement and protection. All the bays are bare. I follow the guard rail to the swing bridge, passing under the tarmac lanes, to a marina chipped out of the Albert Dock. The east-facing rail has a heritage panel with an industrial plan of the dock area. A bunch of cellophane tied to the mesh, one or two stems sinking in the layers, a bleached card, a message I can’t read. Beyond it, the airport runway, the resurfaced wharf, wet lights of the corporate jets. I step back, to the brick octagon of the old pump house, to the steel ventilation pipes that curve from the deck. Preserved features. The first time I stood here, at the end of a whim, a space that no one belonged to. I didn’t think to ask what had happened and now there is no one I can ask. Out and overhead, the cars, the control cabin, the commercial aircraft.
A mile west of the Lea River, rising from the silt of the Isle of Dogs, stand the towers of Canary Wharf: a gamble on the site of the former West India Docks that, like the Royal Docks, closed for business in 1980. An abstraction that bankrupted its owners within months of completion; a symbol of the district’s rebirth, from the docklands to the Docklands, that cast long shadows over its residential neighbours; a city beyond the City, enabled by tax concessions and reduced regulations, recapitalized by a global consortium. A self-contained business district with its own border controls. The House of Numbers is a report from the interregnum, in shorthand: it shows the ground opening and closing in quick strokes, the gradual rebalancing of power. It anticipates the growth of public-private partnerships in delivering public services and infrastructure, the discreet outsourcing of security, the brash speculations of property developers. It records the weakening of bonds between communities and place, the qualitative and quantitative decline of municipal space and domestic space, slackened and shrunk to ‘cardboard apartments’. It also summons a defiant, inclusive ‘we’, the choral voice in almost every poem, nuanced and modulated by the multiple fractures of identity and territory, anonymous, polyphonic, the exhausted lament of a stateless tribe:
But we are all going away now
into some other dimension, we speak
a mirror speech there and count differently
and no one stands for the Queen any more.
‘In Silvertown, chasing the dragon’
The poems in The House of Numbers also appear in Ken Smith’s collection Terra (Bloodaxe Books, 1986) and in Shed: Poems 1980-2001 (Bloodaxe Books, 2002). A short film of Smith introducing and reading ‘Three docklands fragments’ (from the 1990 collection The heart, the border, also regathered in Shed) appears below:
A reading given by Smith at the University of Warwick in September 1984 also includes several poems from The House of Numbers; click here to listen to the archive recording (also downloadable as an MP3).