On the ninth of November 2018, climbers Paul Evans & Mark Goodwin performed together at the Kendal Mountain Literature Festival.
The following cycle of seven
poem-photo-combinations is drawn
from that experience.
All photos are by Nikki Clayton.
to say a
to tear an
caught in a
edy or trag
as a bran
dow light as
our own I
and even as won
even as now a
est reflected gest
tence has lit
Artist Paul Evans has collaborated with a number of Longbarrow Press poets in recent years; click here to view the paintings, drawings and poems for the Seven Wonders project. His main website can be found here.
Mark Goodwin’s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017) and Rock as Gloss (out from Longbarrow Press in late January 2019). His fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. Click here to visit the Steps microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
Out in the Channel, the dead water
shines like melted wax. Behind in the dark
is England; ahead in the dark, France
and everything untold.
A raw winter’s afternoon. A track peters out into stones and earth, a slight slump in the middle of fields. Pylons step across the dun-grey landscape. We can see maybe two miles in each direction, a horizon of copses, hamlets, farms.
This is – more or less – where my great-grandfather Albert Brown was killed. We don’t know exactly: he wasn’t an officer, so the diary entry has only a few details, including the pencilled word ‘killed’, at the end of the brief record for the 26th February 1917. He was 37 and had been in France about six weeks; he left Annie to bring up six children.
His body wasn’t found. The buzzing pylon and surrounding scrub don’t feel like markers: we’ve just run out of track. We stand freezing for a few seconds, my dad and me; then we go back to the car.
The villages are ancient and they aren’t. Aerial photographs from 1918 show nothing but dark weals; yet here are hedgerows, huge trees, honey-stoned cottages and walls. Graveyards cluster along the lanes, the same stone cut into trim slabs and lined up, almost touching. Everything is small and close: 100 graves in a garden plot; six villages in a ten-minute drive. A dozen fields run down to the Ancre. I look at the maps from 1914, 1916, 1917. The villages disappeared but the red lines were more or less the same. Men came up that road, year after year, and were killed. When it was finished people came back, rebuilt their houses, planted trees, ploughed the land again.
Around Ypres, over the border in Belgium, farmers call it the Iron Harvest. Each year their ploughs uncover munitions, barbed wire, remnants of rifles. Sometimes the flotsam of older conflicts turns up – lead and iron from the Napoleonic Wars (known, until 1918, as the ‘Great War’) and the Hundred Years’ War.
Digging down takes me through horrors in the cultural strata. Wilfred Owen (who fought in the same fields as Albert) and David Jones; Napoleonic Frankenstein and his monstrous progeny, Goya and his; the macabre paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, who lived in the shadow of the Hundred Years’ War (three million killed); and Thomas Malory, knight, possible veteran of France, probable career criminal. Here is a rough-stitched portmanteau of French romances and Celtic myth, spun with Christian morality and nationalism for the domestic market; and at its core, capacious and contradictory, the heroic, doomed quest of a fading empire. Bones jut out of the earth: men sent to fight someone else’s battles. Those returning tell horror stories, or stay silent.
In his introduction to Malory’s Works, Eugène Vinaver is confident that Thomas Malory fought, not only in the Hundred Years’ War but later (on the losing Lancastrian side) in the Wars of the Roses. These events, along with the long list of indictments and imprisonments, make him something of a Falstaffian figure. In this context, the Tale of the Sankgreal appears to occupy the same political ground as Shakespeare’s Histories: an attempt to curry (or, in Malory’s case, rekindle) political favour in turbulent times.
The narrative, unwieldy as it often seems (ellipses and non-sequiturs abound), can be summarised around a basic theme: the attempt to resurrect national unity of a once-great polity in the face of fading influence and factionalism. The Shakespearean seed-sowing in the first pages makes it clear not only that something is rotten, but that we are invited to anticipate a tragic arc. Gawain, as Arthur’s nephew (and first champion), feels duty bound to announce the quest to find the Holy Grail with which the maimed king can be healed and the waste land made whole again. There are signs and wonders but also personal and political intrigues, centred round Launcelot (the current beste knight of the worlde) and his illegitimate son Galahad, newly arrived at court and stirring difficult emotions in his lover Guinevere. Arthur fears the worst – his grete sorowe lies in his reckoning that
my trew felyshyp shall never mete here more agayne.
A doomed adventure, then – but one in the course of which the destiny of the nation is played out through the lives and reckonings of individuals. A mask of confusion is sustained through a range of contemporary literary conventions (dream visions, ‘miracles’, and predestined occurrences) – as well as events and moods which for a modern audience bring to mind Gothic (revivalist) novels, grand guignol theatre, Bergman backlighting (school of Malory’s near-contemporary Brueghel), or the ketchup and screams of Hammer films. Whether following the dismal trails of the knights over heaths and through forests, entering the ghost ship with Percivale (where his dead sister lies, having sacrificed herself to the Grail’s thirst for blood), or witnessing the ‘elevation’ of the berserker Galahad, we are consumed by a dreadful trajectory. The achievement of the Grail by the pure means death; failure means a return to a home that is unchanged – and yet which is now estranged by the experience of those that undertook the quest. When Launcelot and Bors embrace in the final scene, we see them with a modern sensibility – as survivors of trauma.
Europe was full of wanderers
and sickness: men who’d tracked
the Grail roads and found only wastes
and dark versions of themselves.
A picture on the cover of a book, Forgotten Voices of the Great War. The book is full of personal accounts; but it was the cover, hand-coloured, that got me. Three injured soldiers walking towards us through a wrecked landscape, their faces bearing witness to horrors we can never know. They could be the ‘champions’ of Malory’s Quest who return, damaged but alive, to tell their tales of prowess, ultimately to fall quiet, broken, perhaps, by survivors’ guilt. In that story it is those who don’t return – Galahad and Percivale in particular – who are most celebrated: pure, heroic, ‘whole’ men whose sacrifice is the ultimate, ennobling destiny.
The soldiers in the photograph – two British, one French – walk in step, arms linked in fellowship. What binds them – the shared experience of war – won’t help them in their return to the everyday. The felyship of the Round Table, that necessary prerequisite to soldiery, cannot ultimately make a kingdom whole:
And ye have sene that they have loste hir fadirs and
hir modirs and all hir kynne, and hir wyves and hir
chyldren, for to be of youre felyship.
Albert signed up in 1915, before the slaughter of the Somme brought in conscription. It’s easy to imagine how a community can persuade its lads to go to war (or at least, ensure that any act of objection is made in the face of wholesale disapproval, even disgust): but a working, family man in his thirties? The 2/5th wasn’t a Pals battalion; nor was it likely, at the time of his enlistment (it was a Territorial battalion), to involve front-line service. The initial optimism of 1914 had begun to harden into a grimmer view: the sense was growing that the war would be long-lasting and attritional. In all likelihood, it was with a more general sense of ‘doing his bit’ that Albert joined up. No longer an adventure, it was still a just cause: in fact, as the casualties continued to mount, men still at home would have felt an increasing responsibility to play their part.
At home he dreamed of this:
his brothers’ bodies cast
on the mud, piled like logs
for the earth’s winter.
Edward Thomas was the same age as Albert when he was killed at Arras a few weeks after him – and he enlisted at a similar time. He had prevaricated, his conscience wrestling with a sense of, if not duty, then fellowship: an identification with his fellow countrymen and the physical connection with territory which is central to his poetry – and which provides a deep and enduring bond between him and his ‘tribe’. Most Englishmen in the early twentieth century had not travelled abroad, and had no sense of shared identity with ‘foreigners’. If the chain of events which led to war was political, it was nationhood, an emotional concept based on a sense of belonging – and, necessarily, not belonging – which provided an army. Though much is made of the power of community coercion – the Pals, the white feathers – millions of men joined up voluntarily in 1914–15 to protect their own against the ‘other’.
It is argued that the period of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) saw the emergence of the idea of English national identity and the nation state, exemplified by the spread of vernacular English as an expression of national confidence. Though this view centres on the second half of the fourteenth century, focusing on the writing of Chaucer and Langland, it reached its fulfilment with Caxton’s printing of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in 1485. Although the conflation of vernacularity and national identity can be seen as simplistic, Malory’s overtly nationalistic schema – the ‘matter of Britain’ identified as a heroic quest to restore a broken realm – is persuasive.
Those three wounded comrades emerging out of the waste land trigger, then, an identification across five hundred years of nationalist politics which draws its soldiery from an idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’. It goes on. The current rise of populist demagoguery and vicious nationalism across the West is but another, depressingly familiar tide, made possible by the limitations of human memory: those with direct experience of Western war grow old or are dead – so we are stirred by bugles more than we are appalled by horror, or feel it as physical fear.
In 2014 the Telegraph published a remarkable series of photographs by Thom Atkinson. Inventories of War: Soldiers’ Kit from 1066 to 2014 showed how little had changed in what British infantry took with them into battle – until the development of automatic weapons in the early 20th century. The similarities of both arms and personal items provided further correspondence, for me, between the wars in Malory’s fifteenth century (and by extension, how he considered the experience of Arthur’s knights) and the First World War. I have interleaved the sections of The Grail Roads with short comparisons as a way of maintaining a sense of identification between the conflicts.
We drive down to the river, follow it through villages and hamlets: Miraumont, Baillescourt, Beaucourt. The road turns uphill at the station towards Beaumont Hamel, where Albert camped the night before his death (and where those of his fellows whose bodies were recovered are buried). We are banked below the open fields to our right, formerly cut by the tangle of trenches, climbing gently to the pylons at the front line. A green lane tracks along to our left. It is quieter and warmer here. The regimental diary reports the advance of Albert’s regiment on 25th February down this road ‘and thence to Front Line… Shelling of Battalion Sector by evening normal.’ The same continues the following day, with ‘Shelling of ‘B’ Co’s Sector’.
CASUALTIES: KILLED, 4885 Pte A. Brown, ‘B’ Coy, 3475 L.Cpl J.W. Pearson, ‘D’ Coy […]. WOUNDED, 3363 Pte W. Hope, ‘B’ Coy, 3703 Pte H. Hastelow.
The Grail Roads is the third full-length poetry collection by Rob Hindle. A beautifully produced 144-page hardback, it is available from Longbarrow Press for £12.99 (+ P&P). You can order the book securely by clicking on the relevant PayPal button below.
The Grail Roads: £12.99 (hardback)
Rob Hindle is the author of several collections of poetry, including Some Histories of the Sheffield Flood 1864 (2006), Neurosurgery in Iraq (2008), The Purging of Spence Broughton, a Highwayman (2009) and Yoke and Arrows (2014). Five long poems and sequences, collectively titled Flights and Traverses, appear in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing (2013). The Grail Roads is his first full collection with Longbarrow Press. Click here for further details and to read poems from the book.
an introduction to Doorways Gather
I lived a childhood in a typical old Leicestershire red-brick farmhouse. So to go to, and to go inside another old typical red-brick farmhouse – that had been deserted many years before – was bound to rebuild various rural childhoods and cause an array of layers of childhoods … and squeeze them through various degrees of haunts’ angles. One haunt’s interference can boost another haunt’s signals, or it can cancel. It all depends upon aligning care-filled angles made by corners & the oblongs of doors & ways. And it so very much depends on the angle with which we hold one haunting up to the light, as we bring another haunting in front of it, or behind it. And haunt-waves – which we call sound – are always dependent, utterly dependent, on whether the air that transmits them is being breathed or not …
And as we snap from one place to another – as we change dimensionally – we may or may not notice our existence’s transiting judder(s) …
Not long ago I went down into the cellar of my parents’ old Leicestershire red-brick farmhouse to make a field-recording. I tapped various bottles and also blew into their necks. I dabbled my fingers into the little puddle that is always there at the bottom of the stairs, where-water-has-settled-in-a-dip-where the quarry tiles have slumped ( a change to the cellar’s physical substance, a transformation that probably finalised its position decades before I was born ). My son’s Collie god, that so reminds me of one of the gods of my childhood, heard my underground percussion via the cellar’s sky-light and so, as gods do, replied to my noise as if hearing a prayer. That field-recording of that place in that time has been laid beside another-that video recording of another that-place in another that-time, and so those-layers have now bled out unfathomable times … that have somehow wept … together … and merged into some organised kind …
And many years before the field-recording I made of my mum’s & dad’s cellar – in one part of a Leicestershire – and before the video that artist Martyn took from the light that had been kept in that deserted farmhouse – in an other part of a Leicestershire – I had made a poem in a large barn in the Morvan of France, just to the west of the Côte d’Or escarpment …
And that House At Out poem – its text once barned in a book – has recently passed through my voice’s sound to be placed beside – and yet also so very much within – the fields of a video & an audio recording at
[To experience the full sonically-detailed jaunt please wear headphones.]
Martyn Blundell is an artist and film-maker. His other film-collaborations with Mark Goodwin can be viewed here. Mark Goodwin’s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017) and Rock as Gloss (out from Longbarrow Press later this year). His fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. Click here to visit the Steps microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
Not long ago, I stumbled into a website that sported an article titled ‘What Marketing Can Learn from Conmen.’ [i] There was something brazen about it that carried the stink of our times – this stage of capitalism that some people refer to as ‘late’. I was working on a poetry sequence about the confessions and self-justifications of a small-time conman, and had been looking for examples of how the psychology of manipulation is hard-wired into our culture. As I once heard someone remark: we all work in sales, now. Only the other day, I spotted an article published on The Guardian’s Academics Anonymous website that touched on the kind of false premises some universities can employ to lure students into postgraduate study. When far more people are graduating from PhD programs than the academy will ever employ, is an institution speaking in bad faith when it implies the qualification is ‘vocational’? Presumably, one lesson that marketing can learn from conmen is about the relationship between deception and self-deception. Find out what someone wants to believe. Find out how they are inclined to deceive themselves, and that’s where you will have leverage. It’s a simple and powerful principle. Even intelligent people can deceive themselves. Coleridge said: ‘men’s intellectual errors consist chiefly in denying.’ [ii] He knew.
The state of happiness we call a fool’s paradise is based on a person’s not knowing or denying the existence of potential trouble. It’s possible to view our deregulated global economy as one of the most spectacular fool’s paradises ever staged. In 2005 I remember sitting in a pub with an intelligent friend who was telling me how the new economics had defeated the cycle of boom and bust. Three years later, proliferating interest-only mortgages had collapsed the global markets, and Gordon Brown was bailing out the banks with public money. In The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis ascribes this to a combination of stupidity and something verging on institutional fraud: stupidity because investors fooled themselves into believing the winning streak could never end, and fraud because institutions did not accurately or transparently price the risk of their financial innovations. We are often reminded how important it is for society to be built on hope, but it seems we must also be reminded that ‘hope [can] be hope for the wrong thing’. [iii] In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Gordon Gecko defines insanity as the repeated pursuit of a goal that you know is doomed to fail. In the face of this, scepticism is clearly called for. Joseph Conrad called it ‘the tonic of minds, the tonic of life, the agent of truth – the way of art and salvation.’ [iv] Are we still not getting enough?
My interest in conmen is partly personal. When I was 16 or 17 my mother met a man who lured her into marriage with the promise of a better life. After investing her divorce settlement and her savings into his property development business, she was eventually left responsible for his debts when he absconded. Just before the end, she had glimpsed his mental instability, and intuited his darker intentions. She had tried to warn the bank against loaning him any more money, but they proceeded anyway. She tried to warn his business partner against further investment too, but he had already gone too far to contemplate turning back. This was the first conspiracy of denial I’d witnessed up close. My mother was declared bankrupt, evicted from her home, and thinking she had nowhere left to go, resorted to desperate measures. A year before these events, and on the brink of their separation, I remember sitting in the passenger seat of his Jaguar Saloon as he told me he would always look after my mother’s interests, and that everything would be OK. I wanted to believe him, so I did. Afterwards, I felt like I’d followed my mother up the Congo. Nostromo, Conrad’s epic of the corrupting power of material interests, became my favourite novel.
2016 was a fruitful year for anyone combing world events for material to create a cast of Shakespearean villains. Certainly, the news presented us with a gallery of public grotesques that art would struggle to rival. It was a good year for the ‘crooks and tarts’ of political manipulation. Just before Trump’s election, and our own Brexit Circus, I had been reading about the 19th century conman, Gregor MacGregor, a man Roger Cook refers to as the greatest conman of all time. As The Guardian reported in October 1823:
‘Some months ago Sir Gregor MacGregor, a person of whom we do not choose to say all that we think, induced a number of persons, chiefly Scotch, to emigrate to a settlement which he gave them to understand was formed, and in a flourishing condition, on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras. The most deceptive statements were published respecting the country for which these poor people were thus induced to relinquish their homes: it was described as a land flowing with milk and honey, abounding with all the good things of life to such a degree that a man was sure to make his fortune in a very short time.’
MacGregor was a military veteran and adventurer – a stylish and glamorous figure, wishing himself to be known as ‘His Highness, the Cazique of Poyais’. Once exposed in Britain, he claimed to have been the victim of fraud and embezzlement himself. He travelled to France and attempted to repeat the scam – very nearly succeeding in sending another ship of colonists to ‘Poyais’.
The ‘Cazique’ of my own sequence is a much smaller figure – if not always in his own mind. He is somewhere between American Hustle’s Irving Rosenfeld, and my mother’s second husband. The latter, if he is to be believed, was also the damaged survivor of a deprived childhood. His mother suffered mental illness, and his father absconded, never to re-appear. He even claimed to have been abused in a military prison, after he went AWOL from the Royal Navy. When I first met him, I thought his eyes had a sad, mesmeric quality, and I was impressed by how carefully he appeared to choose his words. He passed onto me his love of rock music’s transformer artists – especially David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust pomp, and Lou Reed in the early 70s. The character I’ve tried to create also shares this love, and I’ve added to it a fascination with Milton’s Satan, and Shakespeare’s Iago and Edmund the Bastard. My ‘Cazique’ is part anti-hero, part trickster, and part fallen angel. A genie of deception and self-deception, he recognises how our own world is in thrall to ideals of truth, but still unable to live entirely by its strictures. He speaks honestly about deception, and sometimes spins deceit out of his truth. He appeals to be saved or reformed, but cannot entirely overcome his addiction to seductive facades, or quite abandon the pleasures of the chase. What else does he have?
Some years ago I found a documentary about the great Australian comedian Barry Humphries. It focused on his relationship with one of his own character creations: Sir Les Patterson. This particular grotesque had origins both inside and outside the mind of Humphries. On the one hand, Patterson is a composite of various Australian political figures – vain, chauvinistic and crass – and on the other, he is a cutting taken from Humphries’ own psyche: everything that his creator tries to suppress in himself – the smoking, the drinking, the shameless promiscuity. Creative practice proceeds from both the outside in, and from the inside out. I confess that when my creating writing students assert that their character creations are entirely separate and external to themselves, I worry that they are speaking like those who fear social rejection, should their psyches be exposed in any way to judgement. If so, perhaps they are wise. We live in a period of growing political polarization. In Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion [v], the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out how this threatens to descend into dysfunctional tribalism. He warns us against our tendency to use our reason more in the manner of a lawyer trying to prosecute or defend a case, and less like someone impartially seeking understanding. In this kind of climate, we can be too quick to judge. My ‘Cazique’ is certainly a composite of external figures, but he also taps into the devils that sit in conference inside my own mind – waiting for when I am weak or desperate enough to listen. Since I have been infected with Joseph Conrad’s tonic scepticism, I find it hard to believe that any writer is not occasionally tempted by demons of seduction or manipulation. I’m with Baudelaire: there’s a whole menagerie inside our skulls!
I thought long and hard about the spirit in which I should approach this sequence. I’ve studied two masters: Peter Reading’s career-long panoply of found voices – voices ‘observed’ and pasted from our flawed social fabric; and Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, created from mutilations of his own personality – alter egos generated by the cracked prism of his hidden psyche. Reading is the clinical observer of social phenomena, and Pessoa is the occult medium conversing with the internal world. The Taoist in me wishes to walk a path between the lure of both – just as I wish to walk a path between scepticism and compassion. I am moved by Albert Camus’ ‘Create Dangerously’ [vi], a speech urging the modern writer to proceed in the spirit of understanding: ‘Instead of being a judge, he is a justifier. He is the perpetual advocate of the living creature, because he is alive.’ No doubt this is the spirit that Camus employed to present his anti-hero in The Outsider. In trying to understand the psyche of my ‘Cazique’ – his gamut from victimhood to villainy, riches to regret – I’ve also tried to find a means to structure and dramatize the life of a living creature – not just another straw man for the judgement bonfire.
Logos: Speeches for Two Occasions
That’s the f*ckin’ art of becoming somebody who people can pin their beliefs and their dreams on.
– Irving, American Hustle
Are the games we play really so different?
What would you do in the name of survival?
Dress above budget to make an impression?
Amp up the grades of those exams you bungled?
File off the burr of your whatever accent?
Doctor your interests, the place of your schooling?
Miss out the fact that you dropped out of uni?
Claim as your glory the work of a colleague?
Inflate your status by name-dropping others?
It seems to me, now, we serve the same mistress –
and this is the code we have to adhere to:
you need to get creative if you want to level the field.
You can’t make a sum unless you invest one.
If your bait is too big, no-one will trust it.
It has to be small enough to believe in,
but just ripe and round to make the mouth water.
Whatever it is, you have to present it,
and make sure it doesn’t blow up or spiral.
Ideally don’t play with more than one target;
take your time choosing, and learn to spot someone
who needs you to help them push for promotion
to a league just above their natural level.
If you follow these rules, things will run smoothly:
the more cautionary noises you sham, the more they’ll want to play.
[i] This has since been taken down.
[ii] S.T. Coleridge, Anima Poetae, 1895
[iii] T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker III’, from Four Quartets, 1943
[iv] Letter to John Galsworthy, 1901
[v] Penguin, 2013
[vi] Create Dangerously, Penguin Modern: 17, 2018
Cazique is the third full-length poetry collection by Matthew Clegg. A beautifully produced 96-page hardback, it is available from Longbarrow Press for £12.99 (+ P&P). You can order the book securely by clicking on the relevant PayPal button below.
Cazique: £12.99 (hardback)
Gently disintegrate me
Said nothing at all.
‘Enter a Cloud’, W.S. Graham
Outbound, a flight to the Continent, a short haul at low cost. We climb, level, and cruise, the conditions are optimal, full occupancy, fuel efficiency, no turbulence. I have a small window on the north of England, the reservoirs of the Derwent Valley, all of it shrinking, scaled to print, an island and its souvenirs. A few minutes later, a thin white filament mists the view, blanketing the shires and the passing of the shires. The connection is lost. I try to shake out the cramp in my shoulders and thighs. I resettle in my seat and pick up a book. I do not open it, but stare at the foredge, the pages rippling from head to tail, a wave that wasn’t there before, is it cabin pressure, I think, is it altitude. I look out of the window, and see gaps in the cotton, the stitches trailing off, Lincolnshire or Norfolk, stretching to a coast. At the land’s edge, rapid shifts of colour, then the blue, the first few turbines, blade over blade, their whiteness cresting as they wheel, the mudflats dark, another blue, another wind farm, 88 rotors in a rhomboid grid, the clean lines of Sheringham Shoal, a long lease in the territorial sea. Then the blue alone, the empty lanes of the German Ocean, the international cumulus, and a book drifting from my fingers. Offshore, offline. I slide in and out of Europe and the slow descent. When I come around, we are level with the landing strip. Dry air. A standstill, then sounds of dispersal, thirst, all the devices waking up.
Increasingly, our experience of connectivity is predicated on networks, systems and processes that we seldom grasp or see. While this is not an entirely new phenomenon – the dots and dashes encoded by Samuel Morse in the early years of electrical telegraphy were rapidly taken up by long-distance transmission lines, first overland, then undersea – the scale, ubiquity and complexity of our communications infrastructure has grown in inverse proportion to its visibility. If I think of connectivity, I’m likely to be thinking of glitches, of delays: the streaming media that buffers or skips; the email service that slows before a message is sent. I’m unlikely to be thinking of a data centre in Iowa or Oregon, a million square feet of client storage in a monochrome shed, or the thousands of miles that my email might travel, server to server, to complete a journey of a few seconds. Speed erases distance and the thought of distance. Our transactions, our memories, are everywhere and nowhere – at home, at work, on the move – enabled by technology that is everywhere and nowhere; the bundles of optical fibres beneath our streets, the unmarked mobile phone masts we scarcely notice at the roadside, the GPS satellites in semi-synchronous orbits. It’s embedded in the ground, in the sea, in the air, and, like most of our infrastructure, we only shift our attention to it when something goes awry.
J.R. Carpenter’s The Gathering Cloud (Uniformbooks 2017) develops this theme and, in many ways, develops from it. The project appears to have been seeded by a ‘prolonged spell’ of ‘catastrophic’ weather; the winter storms that swept through south-west England in early 2014, resulting in the inundation of the Somerset Levels, widespread power cuts and evacuations, and considerable disruption to transport, notably the breaching of the railway line at Dawlish by a coastal surge, washing away the sea wall and track ballast, leaving the rail suspended in mid-air. Further storms and cliff falls delayed the track repairs, to the extent that the link to Plymouth and Cornwall was broken for two months; during this period of closure, the vulnerability of the Riviera Line was frequently discussed in both local and national media. Carpenter tracks the reports, and is ‘struck by the paradox’ apparent in the effort to conjure ‘invisible forces such as / wind and rising temperatures’ – which can only be inferred from their effects – ‘through the material / of language’. The work that follows might be described as a journey to the heart of this paradox. Through a series of ‘modifications’ – textual fragments ranging from classical antiquity to the present day, arranged in hendecasyllabic verses – a record of theological, philosophical, scientific and cultural theories and observations about the weather unfolds. On each page, we are oriented by an idea of the cloud, the gradual refinement or expansion of its symbolic and taxonomic values, and the sense that something has been added to our store of knowledge. Despite the broadly chronological movement, in which the atmospheric hypotheses of Aristotle and Lucretius are abandoned in favour of the ‘divine’ skies of Christian mysticism, then overwritten by the meteorological studies of the Enlightenment, overtaken by the white steam of the Industrial Revolution, and overshadowed by the dark plumes of modern warfare, this is not a straightforward journey from obscurity to lucidity.
For most of human history the heavens
have served as a source of legitimacy,
providing meaning and orientation.
The sky is compass, calendar, map, and clock.
The ‘new methodological nomenclature’ devised in 1802 by the amateur meteorologist Luke Howard, which introduced the tropospheric terms that we still use today (cirrus, cumulus, stratus), enriches our descriptive vocabulary but does not dispel metaphysical doubt. ‘Clouds resist ontology.’ Weather is a process. Our attempts to grasp or represent this process through language are, inevitably, frustrated by the fact that it is, by definition, changeable. While the legacy of Howard’s On the Modifications of Clouds is foundational to our understanding of the skies, atmospheric terms are, even now, more commonly invoked as symbols of incognisance; Carpenter pauses to reflect on the origins of ‘the cloud of unknowing’ (the medieval text of this name also gives us ‘the cloud of darkness’ and ‘the cloud of forgetting’) and the ‘fog of uncertainty’ (or ‘fog of war’). We encounter the German philosopher Martin Heidegger in 1918, serving as ‘a weatherman on the western front’, ‘scanning the sky’ for propitious data, his observations determining ‘the deployment / of artillery, aircraft, and poison gas.’ From these wartime experiences, he distils a rhetoric of ‘vigilance / as a paramount ethical duty’; the discord is amplified by his later evasions and denials regarding his apparently compliant involvement with the Nazi Party. It’s a pivotal episode in the complex enquiry pursued throughout the first half of the book, which might be summarised as a subtle, sustained exploration of cognitive dissonance: in particular, the conflicts between language and comprehension, objects and their representation, data and its use. This enquiry becomes more urgent and explicit in the title sequence of The Gathering Cloud, in which the terminology of the skies is radically reframed for an age of networked computing and virtual storage. We enter The Cloud, a discreet, diffuse ecosystem with its roots in weather forecasting and wireless decryption, the scale of which is now influencing the weather itself.
The Cloud is an airily deceptive name
connoting a floating world far removed from
the physical realities of data.
The Gathering Cloud began life as a digital project, evolving through performances and online. The web-based version is animated by a series of interactive collages, in which the engravings of cirrus and stratus that accompanied Howard’s On the Modifications of Clouds are gradually recast or obscured by images of nature and consumer technology ‘appropriated from publicly accessible cloud storage services’. These hybrid ‘plates’ are reproduced in the book, albeit emptied of colour and movement, which endows the print version with a different complexion and an unmistakable pathos. Similarly, the hyperlinks that ‘thread’ the verses of the six screen collages are dead on the page, their lost functionality denoted in ghostly grey (the 56 ‘keywords’ orphaned by this transition – from ‘aerosol’ to ‘wind’ – are listed as ‘An Index of Objects’, which lies somewhere between preface, found poem, and incantation). The effect of this presentation is twofold: it is both an intimation of a fading or failing connection to our ‘physical realities’, and an invitation to make our own connections between (and beyond) the texts. Howard’s ‘painterly’ descriptions of clouded skies (‘shrouded in a gloomy distance’) are juxtaposed with data about data:
Data centres worldwide use thirty billion
watts of electricity annually.
Most of that is spent on avoiding downtime.
Guarding against the event of grid failure
banks of generators emit diesel exhaust.
Throughout the sequence, the production and consumption of data is weighed, counted and measured in terms borrowed from the world that the expansion of The Cloud endangers; we surmise its proportions, indirectly, from the millions of snapshots of cats and sunsets uploaded and shared daily or ‘stored forever in Cloud formations’. Virtual specimens are ‘captured and tagged’ in a global image bank that runs on fossil fuel. Ironically, the habitat and species decline to which the maintenance and growth of the ‘power-hungry’ server farms contributes is partly driven by the fear of loss; much of the personal data that we hoard in The Cloud is ‘archaic, obsolete’, but we cannot bear to let it go. ‘We have saved too many memories to lose.’ One of the reasons why The Cloud’s users – ‘ordinary consumers’ – are unable (or unwilling) to recognize that ‘data is physical’ is that ‘the scale of the cloud’ is hard to depict, and hard to imagine. While it may be true that its ‘infrastructures / are successfully hiding in plain sight’, we cannot see The Cloud (except, perhaps, at its edges), or step back from it; like weather, it is both intimate and vast (towards the end of the sequence, we learn that ‘vastness’ shares its etymology with ‘waste’). However, as Carpenter frequently reminds us, clouds are not weightless, and neither are they ‘pure’: think of an early steam train, ‘engulfed in a cloud of its own making’, the air loaded with particulates. Think of the clouds we ‘exhale on a cold day’, dense, dispersing, then gone.
The Cloud is an increasingly essential
element of infrastructure powering
industry, government, finance and commerce,
as fundamental to us as plumbing and roads.
What makes The Gathering Cloud such an interesting, rewarding and valuable book is its skilful and creative reading of the cultural, environmental, and technological patterns that have given rise to the digital cloud, and which it now shapes in turn. The ‘waste’ and ‘vastness’ that define this phenomenon are illustrative of its vulnerability to crisis; it is difficult to map the contours of an artificial cloud ‘that constructs itself through pure fluctuation’, but it is not hard to conceive of a point at which its mass becomes unsupportable. Infrastructure is made visible in the moment of its failure. The book’s timelines are twice interrupted by undated sequences of photographs of the Dawlish coast, marking the occasions (in 1859 and 2014) when the water ‘broke through the line’, overwhelming the seawall and railway. Thirty-two images, high contrast, low contrast. We don’t see the catastrophe, only the shifts of light and perspective, the horizon scrolling between sea and sky, the distance sharpened or softened by cloud.
Images: 1. Cloud study by Luke Howard, c.1803-1811; 2. The Gathering Cloud by J.R. Carpenter (Uniformbooks); 3. The Gathering Cloud by J.R. Carpenter (web-based version).
A related essay on J.R. Carpenter’s Ocean of Static will appear on this site in the near future.
Glen Arnisdale & Gleann Dubh Lochain, March 2018
[…] without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
After days of snowy & iced ground, after abrupt ups and steep downs, we turn from the mountains’ tops … and so we now walk along, we walk a longa gentler un dulating ground down in the glen. The sting of fast-thrust snow specks in the face is already from some other story. Down here in this nestling Glen Arnisdale spring suddenly begins. Sunshine unfurls its newest of oldest gestures. Our rucksacks are smaller, and our boots not so big. We need no crampons nor axes. It is like a well-earned holiday, this warm day, after the early starts for high cold tops. And holy it is as some unidentified bird pours her or his or its voice through and across the loveliness of Glen Arnisdale. This song is nearly thrush, but it is not thrush. And when we see the bird flit from tree to tree … its jizz, its gestures, its motion is not of a bird I know. I then, at that moment, or probably another moment I made or make from memory, at that some moment I remembered – I remember – how a poet called Peter Riley wrote, writes, will write … that he felt (feels) something about a place named Alstonefield mattered, mattered so very much …
Such inexplicable matter, and mattering happens for some version of me – here or there – in a Glen Arnisdale …
Behind us, as we walk east, is Loch Hourn’s mouth, open to The Sound of Sleat. (And beyond the south shore of that slot of sealoch, and its sprung expression of mixed waters – fresh & salt – stands the almost fabled Rough Bounds of Knoydart, tops snow-glossed and east flanks silvered.) In front of us, to east, Glen Arnisdale’s wide pasture ends in a tight throat where River Arnisdale is squeezed between rock-knolled hill-ground. And through this throat-gate we pass into Glenn Dubh Lochain, with its two damned reservoirs, its two black lochans, set prettily and smoothly in some newly revealed scape of tangled textures. Spring’s sunlight shatters glee gorgeously sad across these dark foils. We try to stalk otters along these lochans’ frilly banks, but we see nothing, no signs at all, but I notice how I hope I am watched …
And further on, and where this hidden glen t-junctions, and where burns merge, and where little pylons carrying power-lines pass, their frames’ movements through this place defined by their actually staying still within it … here, at this juncture, there are some ruins. The larger house has been sky-opened, and young rowans grow on the battlements of its crumbling. And the much smaller equally sky-seen & sky-tortured roofless one-roomed cottage to the north-west of the bigger wreck, this residency is occupied by a plant-being, an old thick-trunked rowan … and all four walls of the raw open interior are peopled by glistening green ferns …
I never arrived at this place as much as I never left. The little pylons, and they are little, they are children pylons in comparison to the ones I know in Leicestershire, but they are also mountaineer pylons, their smallness their fury, these beautiful pylons delicate as birches … and the mature rowan growing ever older boxed in its sky-roofed cottage …. well, my self’s (or an other’s) really having existed and not existed here or else where is as …
of pylons whilst
a stoic rowan plays
that dance’s tune
with its buds
Photographs by Nikki Clayton and Boz Morris. Mark Goodwin’s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017) and Rock as Gloss (out from Longbarrow Press later this year). His fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. Click here to visit the Steps microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
Midway between Barnsley and Doncaster, in a shallow pocket of the Dearne Valley, the soil is cleared for shelter, the ditches sluiced and scraped, excavation, engineering, seeding grass, drawing water, the levels rising inch by inch. Acres of new space, clawed out of old space. Adwick Washlands is a recent addition to the RSPB’s landscape portfolio: the site is so new that Google Maps has yet to catch up with it, the aerial view still showing a collection of arable fields. One of several satellite reserves clustered around the RSPB’s Old Moor wetland hub, it’s an ‘open’ site: no lockable gates or visitor centres, no hides or screens, and a permissive footpath that runs through the centre of the wetland, linking Bolton-upon-Dearne to the village of Harlington. It’s not so much a destination as a place of transit, for local residents exercising their dogs, and for migrant birds, including lapwings, redshanks and little egrets.
When Matthew Clegg and I were invited to lead a poetry walk through Adwick Washlands on National Meadows Day (as part of the 2017 Ted Hughes Poetry Festival), the basis for a dialogue – with the landscape, and with each other – was far from clear. Previous walks for Longbarrow Press had developed from an existing relationship with, and knowledge of, a particular locale and its routes. Neither of us had visited the Dearne Valley reserve, or even heard of it (though Matthew had grazed its southern boundary – albeit unwittingly – while living in nearby Mexborough). Early in 2017, I made two attempts to familiarise myself with the site. On the first of these, I walked for three miles in the wrong direction, only glimpsing the wetland in the moments before my train pulled into the station; on the second, the reserve was the terminal stage of a 25-mile trudge in chilly, damp weather, and I lacked the resources to see or think or feel my way around it. Over the months that followed, however, the washlands absorbed more and more of my time, until I began to see this ‘new space’ as an extension (or a displacement) of my own parish.
On paper, it’s initially tempting to think of it as an ‘intentional edgeland’: however, edgelands arise by default, not design, and are usually indicators of neglect, or decline, rather than care and renewal. Adwick Washlands is a thoughtfully planned, developed, and managed space. One of the features that I was keen to reflect in the design of the event was the porosity of the site: the soft borders with the neighbouring estates and farmland, and, within the reserve itself, the movable frontiers of land and water, constantly renegotiated as the levels in the washlands rise and fall. There are, too, fewer boundaries between people and wildlife than one might expect in a RSPB reserve: in an illuminating email, Heather, the site warden, emphasized the ‘close encounters’ with nature that the openness of Adwick makes possible, with birds regularly feeding next to the paths. Hopeful of a few encounters – or, at least, sightings – on our walk, we took care to plot informal halts along the route, before and after the scheduled readings, leaving enough slack for the audience to pause, should they wish: to question, converse, listen, or observe. A breathing space.
It’s Saturday 1 July, and I’m tracking the movement of people and vehicles through a narrow car park off Furlong Road, south-west of Harlington. As I pace a hundred feet of tarmac to the meandering Dearne and back, it occurs to me that most of our poetry walks have taken river or canal bridges as their starting points. If pushed, I’d say that each rendezvous had something to do with expedience, the elevated crossing as urban landmark; pushed further, I might reflect on how the bridging of water creates a (literal) suspension of the commonplace, and how the intersection of two elements (earth and water) can amplify our attention to chance, and change, as it passes through a third element (air). This morning, the air is unremarkable, unmoved by wind, rain or sun; above it, a taut film of white cloud that flattens the perspective, muting our assembly, a company without shadow. Dominic Somers, the festival producer, arrives and unpacks the colour from the boot of his car; a pair of orange aprons, and four orange flags on long sticks. These are not field signs, or battle standards, and we are not a formation, but the pigment sets me wondering. After distributing the flags to their bearers, Dominic introduces himself, the ethos of the programme, and this, the final event of the festival, before handing over to me. I recount some recent expeditions to the edges of the valley, including ‘A Navigation’, a canal walk led by Matthew Clegg and songwriter Ray Hearne, and Helen Mort’s ‘poetic wander’ from Denaby Ings to Sprotbrough, ending or beginning, like today’s excursion, within sight of the Dearne. This presents Steve Ely, the festival director, with an opportunity to share the first report of the day: the flight call of a kingfisher, overheard near the bridge, a reminder of Ted Hughes’s belief that human actions invoke, or summon, energies or spirits. Matthew closes – or opens up – the preambles with a short extract from Thomas A. Clark’s aphoristic prose poem ‘In Praise of Walking’, a set of variable clauses or ‘steps’, central to which is the proposition that ‘a walk is its own measure, complete at every point along the way’. After a minute or two of these, we’re tuned, calibrated, keen to depart, to step into this ‘mobile form of waiting’.
The path to Adwick Washlands runs parallel to the road for 800 metres, the routes partitioned by a dense screen of trees; then a sharp turn west, the trees darkening, a white horse, a small, orderly stables, the pastures falling back in long, thin strips, a copse, losing form and restraint, until, after seven minutes, the roughness gives way to clean edges, and the outline of the wetland fills the view. I step onto a large, flat stone at the path’s edge, and, as I wait for the audience to compose itself, survey a yarn of pylons to the west, a scattering of poppies, a silage pile. Within this field, I try to visualize another: the open cast colliery that once occupied, and exhausted, the land to the north. Several decades ago, it was restored, and drainage was put in for agriculture. Using its powers of compulsory purchase, the Environment Agency took over the site, based on the contour lines – the line to which the water would naturally fill – and it became an active washland once more, one of several flood plains throughout the Dearne Valley. The RSPB now leases the land from the Environment Agency, and manages it as a wildlife reserve.
Old space, new space. In a site like this, the changes of use and of appearance aren’t always apparent: there’s little here to suggest that this was, until recently, a ‘working landscape’, the grassland and wetland concealing the scars of industry. We can, however, detect a few clues that this is a ‘new space’, in which the ratio of wildness to regulation, and leisure to utility, is still being worked out. I mention how, on an earlier visit, I’d paused to read the signs in the wood our group has just passed through, stating that the grazing of livestock is prohibited; it wasn’t clear who had put them up, though. I close with a few words on the history of English land law, and a few short poems:
The map and ruler,
carving the common for none
but the tithe-owners.
I abdicate the stone to Matthew, who sets against these straight edges a vision of ‘mucky sandy boys’, roaming the valley in defiance of prohibitions, their ‘fat treads’ ploughing up footpaths and fields. On the page, ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’ is, in part, an exploration of ‘open form’, its lines short and irregularly indented, a shifting pattern of refusal, swerving and skidding, scuffing up the white space. Out here, the ‘rude’ rhythms are cranked and revving, a ‘swarm’ that chokes the air, then vacates it, leaving a ragged trail of exhaust:
cuts into revs
that bite and hurl
The whiff of ferality lingers over the next reading, which takes place a few hundred feet along the track, at the edge of a small, roughly disc-shaped pond. To enter this space, which is split by a boundary ditch, we must cross a tiny bridge; as we reassemble on the other side, the land in a small declivity, there’s an undeniable sense of separateness, and an adjustment of scale. Matthew addresses our ragged crescent, half of us standing, the other half seated on large blocks of quarried stone. He speaks of folklore, of familiars, of the wodwo, first glimpsed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and (almost) fleshed out, centuries later, in an eponymous poem by Ted Hughes. A wodwo is a ‘marginal wild man’, and, as Matthew emphasises in his introduction to Hughes’s poem, a ‘creature of the provisional’; the path he takes, ‘nosing’ after ‘a faint stain on the air’, is jumbled and erratic, but his absorption in (and by) the natural world, framed by unanswerable questions (‘I seem to have been given the freedom / of this place what am I then?’), allows him to revise his perspectives. Resisting conclusions, he resolves only to ‘go on looking’. I take up the theme of landscape as an imaginative resource, and consider its changing status as a physical resource. In the space of several decades, drift and open cast mining depleted this area. The search for energy is now changing direction, with renewables tapping into sources above ground: solar and wind. I gesture to the north, near Barnburgh, a cluster of blades skimming the hillside. I share my impressions of the Isle of Axholme, 20 miles north-east of here; the site of England’s largest onshore wind farm, with 34 turbines rising from the flatlands. However, the turbines are just one part of the resource infrastructure. The poems that have developed from my recent visits also reflect on other changes in the use, and appearance, of the land, including the growth of biofuels, and the consequences for biodiversity:
Yellow on yellow.
Every field has resistance
to spray, spoil and stress.
Let go. The monoculture
will raise the monoculture.
Accompanying us on today’s walk is the conservationist and writer Laurence Rose, who, along with Steve Ely, ventures some thoughts on the design of the pond; its rounded shape, and central stand of reeds, suggest that it is intended for great crested newts, who are known for their circular mating rituals. It provides a backdrop for the final three poems at this site, drawn, like ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’, from The Navigators, Matthew’s second collection. Each of these short poems explores a different modality of water – flowing, standing, and stagnant – and the life that exists in, on, or through them – weeds, leeches, bacteria. The last of these is ‘Dunn Street: Abandoned Lock’:
of bile-green algae –
We recross the bridge, the path drawing us further into the wetland, a subtle weave of shrubs and trees that gradually breaks down as we approach the centre of the reserve, the hedges losing height, the gaps closing in. The first lake, sketchy at its eastern edges, lengthens into a complete view, the water levels considerably lower than on earlier visits. Laurence identifies an unusual coot with signs of albinism. Steve spots a handful of avocets, and charts the recovery of a species that was, until the middle of the last century, extinct in the UK; even a few decades ago, they were rarely sighted outside of Havergate Island, a marshy RSPB site in Suffolk. Today, they’re almost commonplace, the health of the Adwick population assisted, in part, by the recent installation of a four kilometre anti-predator fence throughout the reserve. While the wetland has been successful in encouraging breeding, many of the fledglings have been predated; a consequence of this being an ‘open’ site. Since this line of defence was created, the young birds appear to be surviving. The ‘internal border’ runs the length of the narrow track that branches from the main path, terminating in a semi-circular stone wall, where we gather for the third reading. This wall is the reserve’s central viewpoint: a soft curve, framing and focusing the wet grassland and wading pools, inviting us to take in the washland in a single, slow sweep. Given the extent to which this area has been transformed over the last five years, it’s odd that a wall should strike me as the most conspicuous intervention, but perhaps I’m responding to the symbolic value of the structure: a reminder that this is also a human habitat. The ideas of movement and stillness that anchored Matthew’s last reading inform the next selection, in which I revisit the Isle of Axholme, adjusting the angle to meet the ‘dynamic’ array of a wind farm at full speed:
Amcotts is moving,
a bladed wetland, curving
fibre and resin.
My stance shifts, the pattern torn,
tiny cuts in the distance.
As I’m reading the last few poems, my voice starts to dip; a lapse of projection, a loss of altitude. I’ve been half-listening to something else, and, in the few seconds between my voice falling silent and the answering applause, I hear it, we hear it, in full: high above us, circling the grassland, an exultation of skylarks (some weeks later, I discover that male skylarks sing at higher frequencies near wind farms, due to turbine noise). Steve remarks on their volume, their number, how these sounds and sights have been shrinking in areas where pesticides are used. Matthew ruminates on migration, before introducing his version of King Hoopoe’s speech from The Birds. In Aristophanes’s play, Hoopoe summons a council of birds – a global assembly, with representatives from field, tree, marsh and sea – to discuss the problem of ‘destructive’ mankind. Matthew’s version updates the speech for an era of corporate power (or ‘corporatocracy’), exhorting the ‘raiders of the farmer’s furrows / liberating seeds and barley’ to ‘picket all the corporate glaciers’ and ‘join the V, the flying delta, / sing my song of featherlution’. The second poem constructs a quieter, more intimate space, in a setting which, like our viewpoint, has contemplation written into the design. ‘Brigand’ is narrated by a member of the eponymous South Yorkshire motorcycle club (Matthew makes an interesting distinction between a club and a gang, and their respective codes; unlike the ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’ we met earlier, the Brigands observe rules, on and off the road). We encounter him as he is taking a break from the ‘revs’ and ‘white lines’, making the short journey on foot ‘to a hide at Denaby Ings’ (another Dearne Valley wetland, managed by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, two miles south-east of here). As ‘a lush trawl of sound’ filters from the lake to the slatted shelter, it becomes apparent that this act of listening is also an act of dismantling (the coots, doves and ducks preparing a path to ‘two minutes’ silence’) and of disarming (once an aid to hunting, the hide is now a means of avoiding disturbance to wildlife, and has a similarly calming effect on its visitors). The porosity of the structure is integral to these processes, emboldening a jay to ‘flit’ a ‘toy windmill’ in and out of the hide, and harbouring the sound of ‘gnats / teasing at the edge of buzz’, while
the clatter and creak
is me donning my helmet
and wrapping this up.
Before we leave the viewpoint, Steve crouches to the wall, inviting us to look closer: while the top rows of stone are bonded with cement, the lower layers are perforated with holes and crevices, allowing insects and small animals a passage through the viewpoint. We straighten up, thread back along the narrow track, single file, conversation breaking out, the gaps between us widening, then narrowing, the wetland tilting in and out of sight.
We rejoin the main path, west for 500 metres, the river wall rising in the south, a reminder that this site is part of a larger system. It’s a little after 12.30pm. The white cloud that stretched across the morning is now looser and thinner, the light comes and goes, printing and erasing our shadows on the path. As we near the western edge of the washland, I bear left, and guide the group along a rough, grassy track that seems at odds with the well-kept arable land to either side. On our right, a corrugated silo collapses into itself, the roof long since weathered to air; fifty metres ahead, a handful of small, grey structures lie in an ellipsis, the track fissuring and fading as we close in. This was a heavy anti-aircraft gun site, established in 1942, in response to the Sheffield Blitz of 1940-41; it was built to protect the city’s industries, and the local colliery, and was part of a network of defences including Old Moor (now a 250-acre RSPB reserve). I don’t mention any of this, not yet; it seems better for each of us to encounter the site for ourselves, to spend a little time exploring it without direction or discussion. After several minutes, we assemble in the centre of the third emplacement, the easternmost point of Station H17. Dominic fishes a carton of Tunnock’s caramel wafers from his rucksack; the box is raided and emptied. As Matthew is shuffling his script, Steve emerges from a concrete and breezeblock chamber, and announces a find: a swallow’s nest in the rear shelter. We adjust our positions, and keep our distance from the entrance. Matthew opens with some thoughts on the importance of maintaining a connection with fertile ground; for him, this includes the derelict or disowned spaces that nurtured his curiosity and creativity as a teenager, and that find an echo in the space in which we’re now standing. The poem that exemplifies this connection is set on the edge of East Leeds, within earshot of the former Vickers factory, where Challenger tanks rolled off a mile-long production line until the 1990s. ‘Because I was Nobody’ is also an affirmation of the value of anonymity in a world that, increasingly, insists on status and visibility:
Once, I stumbled down a mound
into a herd of cows. The heat of them
was like a drug. All I wanted was to stand
feeling their breath all night. They let me try
because they knew I had nothing. Was nobody.
The introduction to the next poem develops the links between self-discovery and outward exploration, with an emphasis on how children can inhabit and transform a landscape with their imagination. In Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, Matthew intuits a similar process at work; the poems (or ‘versets’) conflate the persona of Offa, the Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia, with that of the young Hill, and, in turn, sieve half-forgotten cultural legacies through personal mythologies, each layer excavated through the other. ‘Hymn VII’ recalls ‘the day of the lost / fighter: a biplane, already obsolete and irreplaceable, two inches of / heavy snub silver.’ The near past, in the child’s eye, is as unreachable, and yet apprehensible, as the England that vanished with Offa.
Slowly, we adjust our orientation within the gun site, until we’re facing east, looking back at the field lines we started out from. I give a brief account of the station’s history, and the defensive positions to the west, noting that this chain of anti-aircraft sites is now an open corridor of nature reserves; we reflect on the remaking of a landscape, once shielded by barrage balloons and batteries, into a protected habitat for migrant birds. Around the time that the regeneration of the Dearne Valley was gaining ground, Station H17 was registered as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, which, perhaps, lends some perspective to our ideas of the ‘near past’. There are gaps in its history, leading to some conjecture about what happened here and when. We don’t know exactly when it was built, or when it was armed. A book of signatures records that it was staffed by women (operating radar, communications systems, and other support roles) and men (operating guns). As far as we know, not a single shot was fired from the battery.
Above us, the E-shaped command post, half-buried in higher ground, is flooded, seams of debris and dross beneath the surface. Further down the track, the Nissen hut, used as an ammunition store, is split and sinking, open to the sky. It may be listed as a monument, but what we encounter on the ground is an almost feral waste. We’ve ‘strayed’ from the ‘official’ path to reach this site. The track and the station are not maintained in any formal sense; it’s not clear who owns this space, or if there is any right of public access; yet there is clear evidence of recent human activity. We can see how this might offer a retreat or refuge for youngsters from nearby estates; it’s walkable, but unsupervised; defended, but porous; if you needed to hide, or make a quick getaway from any part of the site, you could do so.
Standing up, we take in the new houses to the west, the infrastructure, the surrounding fields; sitting down, against the emplacements, the estates disappear from view, and the site becomes a microhabitat, a portal into the near – or distant – past, a palimpsestic space for actual and imagined story and incident, a theatre for improvised play. I read a short sequence of poems that explore these ambiguities (‘The field is a front / standing in for another / we will never see’), followed by some passages from East Wind, an account of a night-time ‘manoeuvre’ on the east coast that is also a fragmentary memoir of collective walking, led by Malcolm, a Wiltshire farmer and adventure support officer:
Malcolm would have sent us cross-country, the woods and contours had specific values, a knowledge that we moved through. I pretended to use the compass in my pocket, black arrow, red needle. In time it became a pretend compass. I learned to read a map by fixing a position and rotating the map around me. I made everything the north.
The prose extract runs out on the approach to Withernsea, trailing half-remembered scraps of the Chivalric Code. At the eastern edge of the emplacement, a drift of birdsong, a ripple of wind. A brief pause, then a final poem:
No cross, no colour.
The fields marked and abandoned
by flag and flower.
On the way to our last stop, I talk with Tracy, who spent her childhood in this area, and has recently returned; earlier in the walk, she’d made some helpful, timely corrections to my geographical overviews (in which I discovered that the colliery was not where I thought it was), and is now filling in the few blanks in her own knowledge, piecing the landscape together. 300 metres north of the gun site, at the junction of wetland, track and farmland, we reach a set of cattle gates, on which we prop the orange flags that have fluttered above our heads for the last few hours. A brown hare, spotted by Steve, darts between the gates and disappears. We look back at the wetland, the fields to the north, Goldthorpe to the north-west, the pylons, the turbines, the edge of the Lowfield estate. I mention my interest in post-war urban planning, and some of the housing projects that have appeared in the last few decades. The last few poems that I read allude to a development on a flood plain in west Swindon, a short distance from my childhood home, a patchwork of ‘new space’ that was paused (and only recently restarted) after the 2008 financial crash:
The new settlement
starts without us. We won’t live
to see it finished.
Our presence has been noted by the resident cows, who wander over from the water’s edge to eavesdrop on our readings. Laurence points out that the livestock are part of the management; these highland cattle thrive in fenland, and help to graze the watery landscapes. A concern with ecology, ecosystems, and species decline informs Matthew’s commentary on the work of Peter Reading, a keen birder whose poem ‘Afflatious’ is both a catalogue and a celebration of several decades of sightings, taking a leisurely route from recent observations in America and Australia to the site of a formative experience:
And I’d say (if I entertained
such mawkish conceits) that on each
of these afflatious encounters
my soul ascended like that
Skylark I watched as I lay
and dreamed through a summer morning
in a sweet pasture in Shropshire
on an upland when I was younger.
And, high above us, circling the grassland, an exultation of skylarks.
Matthew closes the event with a final axiom from Thomas A. Clark – ‘A day, from dawn to dusk, is the natural span of a walk’ – which serves as a preface to a poem from his sequence Edgelands, a record of a simple moment of unforced attention:
Pink dusk. Along this B-road
starlings have colonised
20 yards of power-line.
Their song is a kind of current,
the current, a kind of song.
Poems featured in the walk (and this essay) can be found in the following collections (click the titles for further excerpts or details): ‘Because I was Nobody’ and ‘Edgelands’ appear in West North East by Matthew Clegg; ‘Brigand’, ‘Dunn Street: Abandoned Lock’, ‘Hoopoe’s Cuckoo Song’, ‘In the 70s’, ‘Long Weeds’ and ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’ are taken from The Navigators by Matthew Clegg; the poems and prose extracts by Brian Lewis appear in his pamphlets East Wind and White Thorns.
An earlier essay and recording, ‘The Hide’, documents a visit by Matthew Clegg and Brian Lewis to the Denaby Ings hide referenced in the poem ‘Brigand’.
Thanks to all who attended the walk on 1 July 2017. A special thanks to Emma Bolland, Matthew Clegg, Steve Ely, Laurence Rose, Dominic Somers, and the RSPB.