Day one. 6.45am. It will be good to be out, I think. I am delivering a book to a friend on Roscoe Bank, a friend who has not left the house for several days. I lock the door and turn into the street, a man is walking on the other side, shuffling and staring, I don’t meet his gaze. The traffic is thin. I cross the road, then another road, there is nothing coming. I reach the banks of the Rivelin, I start to run, I am not a good runner. I sprint, then stroll. I reach the park. I pass a dog walker, a water play area, a shut cafe. The playground is unlocked and the heat from the soft rubber surfaces drifts through the gate. I pass the allotments and another dog walker. I cross a stone bridge over the Rivelin and climb the steps and slopes to Roscoe Bank. Uninterrupted birdsong. I am taking care not to touch handrails, gateposts, stiles or fenceposts. I reach the friend’s house and post the book through the door. Milk on the step, two pints, blue top. It is good to see deliveries. I leave and start back down the slopes and steps, there are a few more walkers now, one person one dog, also a young family, two adults two children, we nod from a distance. There are a few more cars on the road. It is 7.30am, a road sweeper passes slowly, brushing the kerb, a haze in its wake. In the display window of Towsure the question STAYING HOME THIS EASTER? I wait for the cars to pass and cross the street to my house.
Day two. 2.40pm. Someone in Stannington has ordered a copy of The Footing so I decide to walk it over, a round trip of six miles, a new route. I have the pavement to myself. I think about the intervals between vehicles, there are long, regular gaps. White car, white car, white van, white car. There is work going on at the river, I can hear it, Rivelin Cutlery, Slater Sheet Metal Ltd. I pause at the confluence of the Rivelin and the Loxley, the water rust-red with iron deposits. As I enter the valley park I meet a friend who is pushing a child in a stroller. We talk at a distance and he mentions the sale of his parents’ house yesterday, how the conveyancing documents had to be witnessed through glass, then signed at a stretch, the pen making contact with paper, but not the hand. The trees filter light and trap heat. The playground is locked and deserted, no it isn’t, there is a muscular man using the frame of a child’s swing as a pull-up bar, his actions are practised and calm. The gyms are closed, I understand that, but this doesn’t seem right. At the banks of the river some people are forgetting how to behave. Walking feels strained. I climb the same steps and slopes to Roscoe Bank that I climbed yesterday, then start to lose what I’ve learned, the road dips and I stop to check the map. I pass Liberty Hill and continue west, the road seems busy for a back lane, the cars don’t slow. None of the fields are at rest. There is machinery everywhere, starting or stopping. I pluck a blue flower from a stone bank, is it a forget-me-not, a blue flower with a yellow centre. At The Rivelin pub the WHATS ON board is wiped clean. I turn through Tofts Lane and find the steep footpath to Stannington. An electric fence divides the footpath from an uneven field. The field climbs with the footpath, the fence makes sparks in the heat, it is rhythmic, one two three four pause, then it is constant, like a dripping tap. I labour uphill, it grows faint, then stops. The path opens into a long, narrow field and I glimpse the western edge of Stannington above it. This is the first poem in The Footing, I think, a ‘high scrape / of heather and bracken’, I have stepped into it. I walk the length of another field and into Nethergate. The address is around here, there are gaps between houses and house numbers, I walk the crescent and back, I start again, I start to understand the crescent, I find the address. The person who ordered the book is at her window, she is painting her porch frame, we talk at a distance, she asks me about the route I took. After a few minutes I leave and she goes back to her work. I slip into the long field and watch the city breathe out and fall back.
Day three. 8.10am. I have run out of bananas and things so I leave the house in search of them. I turn east along Holme Lane and cross the road, diagonally to the chip shop, there is a notice in the window, handwritten on chip paper, DUE TO CORONA CLOSED TILL FURTHER NOTICE STAY SAFE. I pass more commercial premises, there are notices in almost all the windows, penned or printed. The 81 bus idles in its bay with three people on board. The windows of the tram stop barbers are boarded up, there is no message, there is no need. Usually, at this hour, Langsett Road can’t be crossed without signals, I count three vehicles heading into town, car ambulance car. There are great soundless gaps between people. I take the steps to The Parade, the local shopping centre, most of the units will not be opening today, I descend the steps on the other side, to Morrisons, the main entrance and lower car park, there is a queue, it winds around the side of the former barracks, I can’t see the end. After a few minutes I join the queue, a few feet from the secondary entrance, which is closed. The queue is largely made out of gaps, some of the gaps have trolleys in them, this helps to preserve the distance. Every few minutes we shuffle forward. The mood is relaxed but there is little conversation. This feels normal, expected, inevitable. As I near the head of the queue I see that people are being counted by the staff on the doors. One out, one in. Several people leave in close succession, some with trollies, some with bags, sanguine, defeated, absent. A man gives a thumbs up to no-one in particular. I am waved through and I grab a basket. I make for the mozzarella, there is no mozzarella, I go to where the oats should be, there are no oats, I repeat this for yeast, olives, tinned tomatoes, where have all the sweeties gone. There is no flour, obviously, I will never see flour again. There is floury residue on the flour shelf and I consider scraping it together to make a small biscuit. ‘You’re Beautiful’ is jammed in the overhead speakers, this stops after a while, it is followed by late-period Cliff Richard. My basket is empty. I go to the grocery section, there is much fruit, I take some bananas, apples, a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. There is no queue for the self-service checkout and no-one is standing on the social distancing floor stickers. I leave the store to meet a queue as long as the one that I left and the tower clock striking nine.
Day four. 11.30am. People in Ormskirk and Leicester have ordered some books so I spend the morning fiddling with cardboard and sellotape until I am satisfied with the geometrically correct packages. ‘I’m going to the Post Office’, I call to Emma. I go downstairs and enter the kitchen, I forget why I have entered the kitchen, I am going to the Post Office, I leave the kitchen, then leave the house. The roads are quiet, the pavement less so. The Post Office is three streets away and two of these streets are side streets. I start to sprint across Taplin Road, I almost nearly don’t quite see the car in my path, I stop myself in time, I am getting unused to traffic. I turn left into Middlewood Road. The banks are closed, the estate agents are closed, most of the shops are closed. The people on the pavement make the street look busy, there is no hurry, there is nowhere for them to go. I cross Middlewood Road and reach the doors of the Post Office. A poster taped to the glass states that entry is restricted to a maximum of two persons at any one time. A second poster states that opening hours are 9am – 1pm until further notice. Warily, I try the door, a member of staff beckons me with a nod, I step forward, I am the only customer. The air is heavy and flat. I put my parcels on the scale and try to complete my half of the transaction with minimal contact. I thank the staff, awkwardly, and leave. I cross the road to my local newsagent. My local newsagent is shuttered and taped to the shutters is a note that reads WE HAVE TAKEN THE DECISION TO PROTECT OUR HEALTH AND YOURS STAY SAFE ALAN KEVIN + FAMILY ALL STOCK HAS BEEN REMOVED FROM PREMISES. I cross back and pass B&M Stores, where an unsmiling man is stationed at the door, a small queue winding down to the street. I pass Eve’s Fruit Store, it is busy inside and out, an elderly woman glares at a nectarine. After a few minutes I am at the forecourt of the Jet Petrol Station on Bradfield Road. I take a newspaper from a display stand and go inside to pay. At the kiosk there is a conversation between a builder and the cashier, the aisle is narrow, I don’t know where to stand. The cashier signals to me and I move forward and pay. I step back and the builder and the cashier resume their conversation. I hear only the builder’s side, it seems that he is talking about his boss, this has not been a short conversation, he is summing up now. This is about the size of it, he says, this is what the boss is saying, in effect, he is saying I’ll stay safe at home while you go out and earn me money.
Day five. 2.30pm. Another book order, it is from Crosspool, a few miles south-west of here. I consult a map and consider possible routes and decide to walk out via Rivelin Valley Road. There are other routes, possibly easier, probably quicker, but I am liable to misremember them and stall at a junction, over and over, consulting a map. The traffic is light on Rivelin Valley Road. The pavement is made out of mulch, so it seems, leaves and twigs from tall trees that stand at regular intervals. Some of the trees still have handmade SAVE ME banners tethered to their trunks. The campaign is over, the banners are the memory of the trees that didn’t make it. Here is Hagg Hill and its bastard gradient. There is no pavement on either side of the road so I sidestep into a narrow verge to avoid the cars on their descent. I see a bridleway to my right and I take it, it is like a holloway, a sunken track with canopy cover, part of a network, branching west, supporting the allotments that terrace the hillside. The bridleway winds uphill, parallel to the road, I stop every few minutes to take in a different view of the suburbs below. Stannington rises and falls. I pass the alpaca farm with its alpacas and turn right along Back Lane where I find another mesh of allotments, everyone is here, it seems, bent over their plots, in little sheds and bowers, people come and go, distantly, singly. I find the address, there is no need to knock, the door opens and I step back, then I hand over the book. We talk briefly and wish each other well. I think I will take a different route home, I can work it out from here, I can pop into ASDA and pick up a few things. I follow a bend in the road then a bend in a bridleway and I am skirting the lower slopes of Crookes Cemetery. The bridleway is crowded, there are pinch points, a few of us pausing or slowing to maintain distance and flow. I see the pastel backs of Stannington View Road and the colours drip into the park like lollies. I turn into Mulehouse Road and draw level with the houses. Some of the residents are having a go at DIY and gardening, a woman is moving plant pots around her patio. The next street is silent, a bank holiday without the people. I enter Northfield Road, a Co-op on the other side, next to the Co-op a Sainsbury’s. There are distanced queues of roughly similar lengths outside both supermarkets. I stand at the back of the Co-op queue. It seems very dark inside. After 10 minutes I reach the front of the queue and after another 2 minutes a masked assistant unlocks the door and nods at me. I scan both sides of the first aisle, then the second, there are only six people in the shop, it is easy to maintain distance. The labels on the shelf tell me what I would find on the shelf if there was anything left on the shelf. There are two tins of Spam and no tinned fish. I give up, I leave with nothing, I don’t look back at the Sainsbury’s. It’s all downhill now, Northfield Road to Heavygate Road, South Road to Walkley Road. I think of calling in to see Chris and Jo, on the off-chance, then I remember that I can’t. I take a right down Highton Street and pass the house I used to live in, 25 years ago, it is in better shape than when I left it. There are plants in the windows and a new front door. In 1996 or 1997 a comet visited the sky above Walkley, was it Hyakutake or Hale–Bopp, it sat a few metres above the hedgerow. It was a good thing, to find it there in the evening, bright and indifferent, one of the few good things to return to. At the bottom of Highton Street there are thirty people queueing for ASDA. I calculate that it will take 30 minutes to get inside, I walk on. On the corner of South Road and Walkley Road I see a floral scarf wound tight around the loose wiring of a small mid-terrace. Was it lost, snagged, has someone tied it there? Is it supposed to be a sign, is it meant for someone?
Day six. 7.10am or 8.10am. Some of the clocks have gone forward without me and some of them have stayed where they are. I remove the large clock from the kitchen wall, wind it on by an hour, then replace it with difficulty. I punch the keypad on my battered phone and scroll through the dark display. The time is set for ten minutes ahead, or ten minutes fast, I do this because I am always ten minutes late. I walk out of my front door and look up and down the street. I think I hear an engine nearby but there is no movement on the road. I go back into the house for my camera and step back into the street. When I am sure that there is nothing coming I take the first photograph, facing north-east, towards Owlerton, then the second, facing west, towards Malin Bridge. Still no cars. The temperature has dropped again, perhaps three or four degrees, I see one or two flecks of something in the air. I leave the camera in the house and walk to the garage on Bradfield Road. There are no cars on the forecourt and there does not appear to be anyone inside the shop. I take a newspaper from the display stand, then use my elbow and shoulder to ease the shop door open. The cashier and I have a brief exchange, take care, I say, more than once, it is feeble in the mouth. I pass Lloyds Bank, then Wilko, then notice that the display area on the side of The Shakey that normally advertises drinks promotions has been replaced with a hand-drawn sign that reads MASSIVE THANKS TO THE NHS AND EMERGENCY SERVICES AND ALL KEY WORKERS FROM TEAM SHAKEY. I have never set foot in The Shakey but I have a long-standing admiration for the work ethic of their staff. I cross to Holme Lane, then cross to the south side, where most of the houses are. These are my neighbours who I’ve never met. In a ground-floor window the message STAY IN EVERYONE PLEASE AND NO ONE WILL GET THE VIRUS THANK YOU NHS FOR ALL THE HARD WORK EVERYONE KEEP SMILING in a child’s sloping script. In another ground-floor window I see THANKS ♥️ NHS across two sheets of lined A4. In a third window the glass is filled with THANK YOU NHS with the NHS at the centre of a heart and the heart centred in a field of hearts. It’s white acrylic craft paint, I think, they’ve done a good job, they wanted it to be remembered.
Day seven. 7.10am. It is black bin day. All the black bins are out in the street. I watch them from the window, then go down to the kitchen. When at last I leave the house, I find that the formations have been broken up, the bins are standing this way and that. I hear the wake of the Veolia lorry as it slows into Malin Bridge. I turn left, towards Owlerton, the traffic moving freely, no tailbacks at the junction. I pass the green space at Hillsborough Place, twelve metres by twenty metres, grass, shrubs, raised beds, three or four mature trees, large, irregular stones marking a boundary with the pavement, and, on the corner, half a dozen modular planters, black plastic, ex-municipal. The planters were formerly stationed across the road, between a bus stop and a Wetherspoons, nothing seemed to last there. The white and yellow daffodils are doing well, the tulips are letting go of their colour. There is a man I often see at work in this garden. He might live in the house next door and this may or may not be his garden. It is not a dog-walking green or a fenced-off park, it is maintained for itself, the visual amenity. The cherry blossom is still holding on to the cherry blossom tree. I cross Hillsborough corner into Bradfield Road, past Wilko, Lloyds Bank, the Jet garage, pausing at Star Upholstery, a sheet of A4 in the window, SHOP CLOSE BY ORDER OF PRIME MINISTER. I had not before now noticed the shop signage peeling out like dry transfer lettering. I pass a man, another man, then another, they all give me the same look, like I am going the wrong way. At Swann-Morton (Penn Works) a man in an orange gilet is talking with a man in a burgundy smock, there is a delivery in progress, everyone is keeping their distance. I cross over to Swann-Morton (Cobb Works) then cross the dual carriageway and into Owlerton. The lights are out at Napoleons and the casino car park is almost empty. A cement mixer rolls into Livesey Street, its drum rotating, turning right at Hillsborough Fencing. I stop to photograph the surviving sections of a mural that used to run the length of this road, along the outer wall of the speedway and greyhound stadium, twelve or more two-tone tableaux, spraypaint on brick and metal, scenes from local history, the Great Flood, the Bassetts factory, Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show. The mural runs out before it can turn the corner. The hum of the substation is quieter than I remember, I can barely hear it above the birdsong, am I listening too hard. All the while a trickle of cars toward Mondelez, a split site criss-crossing the River Don, it is business as usual, the rolling shifts, all in one, Cadbury Trebor Bassett. I stand on the bridge and stare down the length of the river. On the eastern bank I glimpse the outlying vehicles of the travellers’ camp that appeared on Club Mill Lane last summer. The footpath to Herries Road is closed and the graffitied gates of Cooper Car Spares are closed. The line of the river is a vanishing point into the south. I take the steps into Wardsend Cemetery, then the steep sloping path, it is overcast and early but the cemetery is filled with light. I come out of the trees and cross a railway bridge, the Stocksbridge line, a single track that cuts the cemetery in two. There is nowhere to go but up, steps hacked into the hillside, stopping every minute, the horizon in no particular order, the storage sheds, the breakers yard, the college and the casino, Hillsborough Park and the Wednesday ground, white smoke, dark water, last year’s leaves still clinging to the branches.
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. Longbarrow Press is continuing to fulfil book orders via its website during the COVID-19 pandemic; all hardback titles are post-free in the UK, and deliveries to Sheffield addresses are made on foot. Orders are prepared, packaged and posted in accordance with recommended hand hygiene and other preventive measures. Click here for a full list of our current hardbacks and to order titles.
Photographs taken in Owlerton, North Sheffield, 30 March 2020.
I very recently received a pleasing email from Jack Cornish of Britain’s walking charity The Ramblers, related to their Don’t Lose Your Way campaign. It began:
Our records show that you’ve been busy mapping lots of squares – thank you for helping to uncover and save generations of lost paths and hidden ways. Together we’ve mapped over 50% of England and Wales.
I of course informed Ordrey, and she agreed that someone called Jack Cornish is perfectly named to announce that Cornwall is currently amongst the top three counties (along with Hampshire & Derbyshire) which can clearly be seen on this map of completed squares.
The said map (that you, dear reader, cannot at this moment – reading this – actually see) clearly and very satisfyingly shows how very many of Wales’ & England’s kilometre-squares have – by various volunteers across the lands – already been coloured in. Have been checked. Have been scoured for paths & ways of right that have slipped off our present tongues of ground. And Ordrey is invigorated to find that fresh old secrets will now – hopefully – grow back through her skin.
Jack Cornwall went on to congratulate me: You’re among our top mappers, and with your support we can tick these areas off in no time.
It is me who should be thanking Jack & The Ramblers. For the into-a-future opportunity to imagine mythical wanderings across a double map of present/past. And for the future possibility of a few more slivers of free ways for us to walk … more threads for us to tread among England’s pastures private. Anyway, I’m in danger of diverging from my original direction …
All this avid mapping activity on-line is not because I’m a political activist, you understand. It is simply because I’m someone (or even various ones) who(m(e)) really really like(s) to walk without being hindered. And also someone who can stare for hours-on-end-@ Ordnance Survey maps. So when the Ramblers very kindly gave me this opportunity to pore over contemporary & historical Ordnance Survey maps on-line, and to trace lost footpaths, and to tick off kilometre-squares in a deliciously satisfying colouring-in way … well …
… Ordrey yet again took me by the mind and led me along the streets of Tombland. Oh, yes – by the way – she calls it Tombland because so very much more is buried there than has ever been uncovered …
Click here for details of The Ramblers’ Don’t Lose Your Way project.
Sign the ‘Don’t criminalise trespass’ petition here.
A recent tweet-poem by Mark Goodwin illustrating the absurdity of criminalising the movements of virtually … everybody
Mark Goodwin‘s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017), Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), and a new collection, Rock as Gloss (Longbarrow Press, 2019), acclaimed by Andy Clarke in Climber magazine as ‘An exhilarating journey through the glorious variety of UK rock, including mountain rhyolite, eastern grit, Llanberis slate… a fascinating and rewarding collection that amply repays backtracking and re-reading.’ Click here to visit the Rock as Gloss microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
rise and taste
‘Mexborough, Water-Fronted Properties Released’, Matthew Clegg, The Navigators (Longbarrow Press, 2015)
Back in 2013, Ruth and I had moved to Mexborough in South Yorkshire. We were both working part-time – meaning, we wanted to earn enough money to pay our way, but we also wanted enough free time to maintain our creative projects. Someone had told us that rents in Mexborough were the lowest in the country. It took us completely by surprise when we discovered that Mexborough also had a budding poetry festival, organised under the umbrella of the Ted Hughes Project. I was enough of a Hughesian to know that the poet had once lived in a newsagent’s shop at 75 Main Street – roughly from the age of 8 to 18. I was also aware that he’d attended Mexborough Grammar School, where his poetic talents had been nurtured by Pauline Mayne and John Fisher. This is something of a hidden chapter of the Hughes biography – less mythologised by the man himself, and often completely omitted from high-profile documentaries about the poet. Perhaps Mexborough lacks the Brontean glamour of the Pennines; the mystique of Cambridge; or the pagan magic of Devon. It’s the poor relation in this family of places, and possibly the location claiming least credit for the role it played in making Hughes the kind of poet he went on to become. Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire by Steve Ely tells the tale.
The first Mexborough event that caught my eye was ‘Ted Hughes School Days’ (2016). It featured a discussion panel made up of men and women who attended Mexborough Grammar School when Hughes was a pupil. Memories shared were good-humoured and humorous, and the event was warm and surprisingly hospitable. Perhaps this South Yorkshire community feel was what affected me most. Back then, the prominent organisers were Steve Ely and Dominic Somers. Steve brought a scholar’s knowledge of Hughes in Mexborough, and a poet’s feel for the anarchic energies of the place. Dominic had a free-spirited approach to community engagement – and plenty of creative flair. If Steve brought deep respect for the Hughes legacy, Dominic added just enough irreverence to prevent literary rigor mortis from setting in. I decided to join the ranks. One year later I would volunteer at several festival events: some were conventional readings, some not.
the fly doesn’t care
Stanford M. Forrester, Haiku in English (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013)
I’d like to focus on one of the least conventional. Democracy of Words (or DOW) began as a participatory spoken word event in Mexborough High Street, on the Saturday of the Festival. Dominic Somers and Ray Hearne are the creative engines behind this, and Ray describes it as a ‘pop-up open-mic-cum-stand-up stunt in the open air. The idea is to move beyond familiar gestures of tokenism, and form an alliance of kindred minds, spirits and attitudes to devise some practical ways of inviting those with a commitment to the area, residents, partisans or passers-through, to dip their toes for an hour or two in the lapping waters of poetry, in all its choppiness.’ In short, the event offers a platform for poets and bystanders to perform in the street and to the street. Democracy of Words has opened its arms to page poets, spoken-word poets, singers, and the occasional beatboxer. It has welcomed performers not quite in their teens, and performers well past retirement.
Ray Hearne takes on the task of emceeing, and it’s hard to do justice to the skill and spirit he brings to the role. Ray is a poet and songwriter who cut his teeth as a floor singer in folk clubs. He has wit, warmth and the gift of the gab. Ray will usually begin by broadcasting the ethos of DOW to the street, before breaking the ice with the first performance. Volunteers will keep the momentum going, and this will build throughout the early afternoon. There is also a corolla of other activities: haiku are drawn on the pavement in chalk, volunteers will ascend to the carpark above Poundland and recite stanzas of poems through a megaphone to the startled street below. I have seen respected poets like Vahni Capildeo and Yvonne Reddick recruited to do this, and it has been interesting to witness fragments of Crow being floated from above, arresting the attention of grocers and Jehovah’s Witnesses alike.
One year, a worker on her break strolled out of B&M and told the world that she didn’t understand poetry. Immediately, Ray responded, coaxing an impromptu poem from her words. A further challenge was laid down for anyone to improvise poems about objects on sale. For Ray, Democracy of Words ‘offers a ground-level stage on which to perform, in permanent expectation of heckles or the possibility of passing abuse or brickbats – so the incentive is to be unpretentious though never patronising or supercilious.’ Ray manages this without strain or awkwardness. Poetry climbs down from its pedestal. Parts of the street step into poetry. Happenstance keeps everyone alert. The open interaction is an artform in itself.
The tall chimney
is cool now; the workshops
fill with art.
In October 2019 Democracy of Words took flight from Mexborough and migrated to three new locations: Elsecar Heritage Centre, Doncaster Market, and outside Rotherham Market Hall. Elsecar was a softer environment in which to pilot this new phase of the project. The space was semi-enclosed: cradled between bars, craft shops, art studios and industrial heritage. The weather was good and the atmosphere easy-going. A steady stream of poets and writers came along to support the event. As Ray says, ‘if poetry is robust enough to look after itself, human beings are not; all good teachers know that confidence is all, and any willing individual can be coaxed, nurtured and developed from the lowest of bases towards an appreciation of their own potential agency as a crafter or turner or manipulator of words. DOWists are amongst those trying to model by example.’ I talked to Tracey Dawson, who, in mid-life, had found her way into poetry through Ian Parks’ long-running Read to Write initiative in Mexborough. Ian had encouraged her to write and memorise poetry, and this led to one of the most unforgettable moments of the day: 25 lines from Beowulf, recited from memory – and in the original Old English. This from someone not involved in poetry for much longer than two years. It was stirring to hear those eerie vowels from the roots of our culture filling the space between stone buildings, under a clear October sky with Autumn changes threatening. Drinkers sat and listened outside the Maison Du Biere, smiling and perplexed. Later in the day I was chalking a haiku on the pavement slabs. It was by the Japanese poet Issa. An elderly bloke walked up to me: ‘In my day, you’d’ve been caned for doing that…’ The humorous old haiku master would have smiled. I composed a reply:
In Issa’s day
he’d be doing this
By the time we pitched up outside Doncaster Market, the sky was turning. But Saturday is still Saturday, whatever the season. Here the liveliness was turned up a notch. We were competing against the hurly-burly of weekend trade. There were busy ranks of market stalls, and simply more people scrumming around and passing through. The great thing about where we were pitched was the broad acreage of pavement. This meant plenty of space for chalking haiku, couplets, aphorisms and lines of poems. I’d just mangled a couplet from Tony Harrison’s ‘A Kumquat for John Keats’ on the slabs:
‘[Life’s] one part sweet and one part tart:
say where the sweetness or the sourness start.’
A couple of guys in their twenties bounced over and one of them asked me what the lines said. I assumed I was in the way, and stood back so he could see them better. ‘No, mate, I can’t read!’ He seemed unabashed, so I recited the couplet for him. He gave me the thumbs up and walked off, smiling. If I had Tony Harrison’s email, I’d write to him. It was like a scene out of a gentler, better-humoured ‘V’. Later in the afternoon a pensioner walked up to me to chat. He said, ‘my wife has a beautiful reading voice. She can recite the whole of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ from memory’. Ray tried calling her over to perform, but she was too shy, or distracted. Her husband told me, ‘her talents are wasted on this life…’ I wrote the phrase down, and watched them stroll away, wishing them a world ‘where the Bong-Tree grows.’
A busker blows tunes
for the rain to fall through.
The puddles applaud.
Rotherham was where we earned our Red Badge of Commitment. The trains were scuppered by floods. It rained flat-out all day. We pitched our stall by the entrance of the indoor market, trying to take a little shelter from the deluge. Water dripped from the concrete above and slid down the back of my neck, giving me the shivers Emily Dickinson claimed were the sign of true poetry. Eventually, the market manager came out and told us we were creating a hazard, so could we please move. I wanted to test the authenticity of this charge, so I walked around to another entrance, where I discovered ten large men huddling around the doorway, smoking old-fashioned cigarettes. Three DOWists were a hazard, ten large men sucking on fags were not. We took it in our stride and moved a little further out into the rain. We battled on, reading against the rain, incorporating the rain into our poems, breathing and thinking pure rain, spitting out rain. The market manager returned. ‘I’m sorry’, he said, ‘but you have no right to be here. You have to move on.’ Ray had clearly been in this situation before. He was calm but firm: ‘We’ve got permission from the council. We’re being paid to be here. Here’s the gaffer’s number. You can ring her if you want.’ It was half comical, half edgy, a real cowboy standoff – poetry against health and safety, verse versus commerce. Less committed artists than Ray would have surrendered. Dominic intervened, taking Ray out of the firing line, or the market manager out of Ray’s. He bargained with the bloke for twenty minutes, and achieved a compromise. A gazebo was erected for us to stand under. People slowly joined us under there. They read protest poems from the 1980s. They read surrealist poems. They read nonsense poems. They read survivor poems. They read poems of unknown categories. The afternoon ended with Dominic’s young daughters reading Ted Hughes in their clear Yorkshire voices. We had the full hawk, pike and otter banquet. Poetry held its line against the rain. The day was won.
In last week’s press, X
reviewed Y: One of the best
poets now writing.
In this week’s press, Y
reviews X: One of the best
poets writing now.
‘Nips’, Peter Reading, Collected Poems: 1 (Bloodaxe Books, 1995)
There are many reasons to feel excited about the contemporary poetry scene. There are also reasons why a person might become jaded. Poets often feel marginalised, or ignored. Not everyone can find a way into the cliques and factions, or feel at home in them once they have. It can be hard to keep up with trends. There are also the sensitive matters of standing and prestige to be processed, and many poets have a tale about feeling snubbed or patronised. I’ve been practising the art for 30 years, and there are still moments when I feel I am standing outside looking in, like Larkin ambivalently watching the dancers in ‘Reasons for Attendance’. Working alongside Ray and Dominic has been a re-fresh experience. There is nothing precious about Democracy of Words; but plenty to be valued. There is the pleasure of working with a supportive, non-judgemental group. There is the buzz of being in the street, watching happenstance splash against the day’s canvas. There are the moments of genuine interaction, when you encounter unlikely people with a private passion for poems. There is an energy that comes from other performers when they overcome their nerves or inhibitions, and share something authentic. Some of us need to return to street level, and test the power of language in the most direct and immediate fashion – where ego or elitism cannot shield us. As Ray puts it, Democracy of Words provides an opportunity ‘where some of those who purport to live by the word might test their resolve, read, perform, or offer some utterance to the passing world’. That passing world is as impartial a jury as you will find. There are few spoken word venues more inclusive.
After Elsecar, Ray and me sat outside the Maison Du Biere. I wanted to learn more about how Ray found the path he walks now. I heard a rumour that he’d abandoned a PhD in the 80s, so he could devote his energies to community art. He may not have those three letters after his name, but he does have a presence and a reputation in South Yorkshire that should carry as much weight. There won’t be a Ted Hughes Festival in 2020. Instead, the project will return to grassroots events. We have a new creative producer – Dan Ryder – and a refreshed desire to take the power of words outside the usual factions and structures, and back into the topsoil. An anthology of football poetry is forthcoming by our associate publishers (Wild West Press), and readings are planned in sporting venues across South Yorkshire. I’m hoping we can broaden the remit, and celebrate bowling greens, cricket pitches, and all the other grassy spaces where people escape their stresses and strains. As Ray reminds us: ‘the DOWist is always a guest on somebody else’s turf and is there to share pleasantries even when artfully provocative. The DOWist approach might be viewed by some as a kind of aesthetic rewilding, but it is simply reintroducing poetry back to its natural environment…’ I’m rolling that phrase up in my kit bag when I next leave the house. Thanks, Ray!
Matthew Clegg’s collections – West North East, The Navigators, and Cazique – are available now from Longbarrow Press. Click on the links embedded in the titles above for extracts, essays and audio recordings.
Photo credits: 1 & 3 by Dominic Somers; 2 courtesy of the Rotherham Reader.
I used to dream of a university. I used to look at the older men queuing in the bus shelter in Mersey Square Stockport in the 1950s and see each one as a lecturer and imagine a subject for them: that one’s Chemistry, that one’s History, etc. They were middle-aged workers going home. I had to ignore their clothes but their faces offered no resistance to this exercise. Now I dream of there not being a university. — Peter Riley 
On 25 November 2019, members of the University and College Union (UCU) at sixty universities across the UK began an eight-day strike. In Sheffield, we stood in the cold and rain, and talked of what the reality of ‘university’ had become, and of the possibilities of what ‘university’ could be. Several weeks before, I had booked an upstairs room at The Rutland Arms (a pub long frequented by students and staff of the art school) for the second launch of a book I had edited: the Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities Sheffield anthology.  In putting the book together, I had thought of ‘city’ as a concept to be contested, complicated, as an idea to be kept in flux, not least in the idea of city as anthology. In the introduction to the Sheffield anthology I wrote: ‘How do you write a city? How do you read it? What is the space of it inside the boundaries of the page? […] The texts produced are not the sum of it. Nor are they all of its parts. 
On 26 November 2019, the contributors performing at The Rutland were Linda Kemp, Rachel Smith, Brian Lewis, Pete Green, and Sharon Kivland. The evening was charged. Some of us—both readers and audience—had been on the picket line that day (at both of the cities’ Universities), and a battered, soggy placard, eroded by a day of relentless rain, had been pinned to the wall. Some of us were mourning the loss of the poet and activist Sean Bonney, who had died just earlier that month.  The readings were all extraordinary. Linda Kemp—dedicating her reading to Sean’s memory—read her long poem ‘…ideas become dangerous again…’ in which ‘Politics is writing / and there is no like about it,,’ and there is ‘the desire to construct a passionate everyday life’. 
That day, on the picket line, I had become aware of the conceptual space of ‘university’ as contested as if for the first time. Or rather, aware not just in an intellectual, neutral way, but in a visceral, passionate way. Aged 57, I had only a few weeks before taken possession of my first ever staff card, first ever staff email (both temporary, fragile, conditional). After an adult life spent on the fringes of academia—a lifetime of unpredictable and recurrent madness had kept a younger me in and out of different kinds of institutions, unable to get ‘proper work’—I had previously been ‘reduced’ to visiting, speaking, appearing, ‘passing’ as an academic. People were often surprised to find I was not a proper one, making assumptions based on—what? A stern face? An intellectual turn? The night before the strike I was terrified, crying. Just two weeks after starting some proper, longed-for teaching I would be on the picket line, a visible ingrate. But to not be—to cross that line—would be inconceivable. To stand on the picket line, to experience the disappointment of having (some) colleagues, managers, students walk into the building—some without a backwards glance, some with discomfort and shame written on their faces—was to consider the stripping away of passion, the wearing down of hope experienced by the tenured, long-term staff who now stood firm on the line, to consider that the decision that they took to strike was a much harder one than mine. The university that they had joined had changed. The space for enquiry, for thoughtful, discursive, reciprocal pedagogy, had been engineered into a space where workloads crushed them, took them away from their students, and where the students were seen by management merely as units by which income was accrued. At my university the dispute was about just this: working conditions that were destroying any meaningful manifestation of teaching and learning, coupled with the Sisyphean toil of REF, TEF, and other punitive acronyms. What was the space we now stood outside of? What was it we were fighting for? What was the space of our protest? In his contribution to the Sheffield anthology, an account of the rescuing of the contents of a library, Brian Lewis writes that
The spaces of the city are always coming into use, or falling out of use. [I think of] the new work made possible by and in those spaces, what did we do without them, what will we do when they’re gone. The links are broken, the histories wiped. It must be acknowledged, there must be a record. The spaces of the city did not appear or disappear by themselves, they did not find or lose their mark on the map without a fight. It was not for nothing. 
The picket line, cold and wet as it was, was also a space for hope, for noting not just those colleagues and students who crossed it, but also those who stood strong, all across the university. It was a space for friendship: I met not just academics from my department to whom I had not before spoken, but also those from other departments and disciplines: biosciences, languages, the business school. It was a space for transformative pedagogy, speaking to twenty-year-old students who had never experienced a picket line, didn’t know what an industrial dispute even was, didn’t know that their lecturers were paid for only twenty minutes to mark a three-thousand word essay, didn’t know that lecturers often worked fifty- and sixty-hour weeks, giving up their evenings and weekends to try and stay on top of their workloads, hearing those students say they supported us, and to see some of them join us on the line. To explain to casual and zero-hours staff that yes, they could join the union, that for them membership was free, and that yes, they could strike, and be supported: to have them take the card from your hand. It was a space for celebration: to wave at the bus drivers, taxi drivers, postal workers who beeped their horns in support. To stand up to those jeering ‘greedy lazy commies’ from across the street, and realise how quickly one is seen as ‘other’ when one stands up, placard in hand, to smile with renewed determination. To thank the passers-by who, unbidden, dropped giant bags of sweets into the strike fund bucket, brought hot drinks, bacon sandwiches. To thank the café over the road who let us use their loos and warm up (big up to Hygge, who were endlessly welcoming, and who also offer a free piece of fruit with every drink purchased). It was a space where there was possibility.
All these considerations persisted into the evening, both in the performances, and into the discussions that continued until closing time. Ideas of labour, ideas of education, ideas of community, resistance, and comradeship. As the university is destroyed, where might the spaces of meaningful pedagogy and enquiry be? Rachel Smith’s performance of ‘Lines that Echo’—reading and drawing into the text as she read—proposed that ‘still the library remains a stopping point on any line’,  and Pete Green’s ‘Pulp’ imagines a future city in which the people repurposed their communal spaces after all the public libraries have been closed, in which a pub is also a transformative space.
Bar staff go among the tables, set down pencils,
notepaper. The lights fall low.
Walls revolve, reveal banks of bookcases unseen
since the joint converted. Deprived
eyes fall on spines and titles, lap up possibilities.
A tenor sax fugues jazz.
Thirsting for print, the guests make for the shelves,
furtiveness half forgotten, seizing
on samizdat anthologies, a transgressive history
of needlecraft, the atlases
they only heard rumours of… 
We sat in the top room of The Rutland Arms, performances over, and talked of labour, of how our withdrawal thereof had suddenly made it visible (whatever the outcome of the strike) to management, to students. Sharon Kivland had travelled from London that day, and had got up at three o’clock in the morning to get the night bus to St Pancras station. She spoke of her fellow passengers on that bus, of the labour that is hidden from us, the night workers, largely people of colour, largely immigrants, exploited, paid peanuts, without whom the daytime world could not exist. We talked of what a university might be. What if it could be free again? What if anyone could go, regardless of prior qualifications? What if students could move freely between disciplines, study for as long or as short as they wanted? What if there were no grades, no awards? What if the purpose of learning was learning and life? Sharon had ended the performances (after an earlier reading of her contribution ‘Reisemalheurs’ which considers, via Freud, the anxieties of travelling between cities),  with a reading from Sean Bonney’s recent collection Our Death.  I can’t now remember the poem, only the feeling with which her reading filled the room: the feeling that even though something had died, we would, somehow, carry on. Later, when we were drunk with alcohol and with comradeship, she reminded us that for centuries people had come together as we had done in cities all over the world, gathering in small rooms just like the one at The Rutland, talking about what could be, about a struggle towards.
Onwards, comrades. Emma Bolland, 2020, X.
The Sheffield anthology, edited by Emma Bolland, was published in 2019 as part of Dostoyevsky Wannabe’s ‘Cities’ series, which includes titles from Bristol, Manchester, Santiago, and Paris, with Pittsburgh, Boston, Birmingham and Amsterdam due in 2020. The contributors to Sheffield are: Helen Blejerman, Angelina D’Roza, Daniel Eltringham, Tim Etchells, Louise Finney, Rachel Genn, Pete Green, Linda Kemp, Sharon Kivland, Joanne Lee, Elise Legal, Brian Lewis, A. B. G. Murray, and Rachel Smith. You can buy the book here: https://www.dostoyevskywannabe.com/cities/sheffield
Emma Bolland is an artist and writer who works experimentally with literatures, translations, script and screenwriting, performance, drawing, and the moving image. This includes an investigation of the problematics and ambiguities of an expanded understanding of translation—between languages and language codes, and between modes of writing, reading and speaking. She is a co-editor at Gordian Projects, a small press operating at the intersection of artist’s book, art writing, and archive, and a Specialist Visiting Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University for the MFA/MA/BA Fine Art.
- Peter Riley, ‘Untitled’, in XIV PIECES, Sheffield: Longbarrow Press, 2012.
- Emma Bolland (ed.), Sheffield, Manchester: Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019. The first launch of the book was held as part of the Off the Shelf literary festival in October 2019, with readings from Helen Blejerman, Angelina D’Roza, Louise Finney, Rachel Genn, Pete Green, Joanne Lee, and Brian Lewis.
- Emma Bolland, ‘FOREWORD; or, an Incomplete A-Z of Sheffield’, in Sheffield, Manchester: Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019, pp. 9–11.
- Sean Bonney (1969–2019) was a poet and activist who performed his work at protests, in occupations, in seminar rooms, on picket lines, in the back rooms of pubs and at international poetry festivals. His poetry has been translated into several languages.
- Linda Kemp, ‘…ideas become dangerous again…’, in Sheffield, pp. 131–40.
- Brian Lewis, ‘Local Distribution’, in Sheffield, pp. 185–95.
- Rachel Smith, ‘Lines that Echo’, in Sheffield, pp. 223–33.
- Pete Green, ‘Pulp’, in Sheffield, pp. 113–28.
- Sharon Kivland ‘Reisemalheurs’, in Sheffield, pp. 143–157.
- Sean Bonney, Our Death, Oakland, CA: Commune Editions, 2019.
My latest book with Longbarrow Press – Rock as Gloss – is full of various characters, some made of geology’s processes and others made of meat-&-bone, some wild animals & others animals of culture, and some of them entirely fictioned, and others drawn from the actual human world. At the very end of last August my partner Nikki & I enjoyed some time with one of the actual humans that Rock as Gloss engages with. The following is an expression of an afternoon of being with large pebbles (or little boulders) & Johnny Dawes (click on the images to view the caption to each photograph). Before we begin though, I will give you the note from Rock as Gloss’s Gloss of Rockery, that refers to Johnny:
Johnny Dawes is often described as a legend of British climbing. During the 1980s he produced the first rock-climbs to be graded E8 & E9 (the E standing for extreme). Dawes is an artist of sorts – a unique visionary & practitioner of movement-&-adhesion. He is also a profoundly gifted poetic climber-writer.
If You Go Up To Higger Today
Johnny is wearing a bright yellow t-shirt, a white golf cap, shorts, red socks, and also a pair of jaggedly-patterned-sportily-branded trail-running shoes. Sunshine sings off Johnny’s torso. The sky is wearing a bright blue sharp suit … uniform … but because of Johnny’s clownish brilliance, this precise sky is now all-ready relaxing … and laughing too … now our sky today wears a few white chiffon ruffles, and is even this very now suddenly waving gentle cloud-hankies … all sporting! … all so over the top, and leaving itself wide … wide open … open to be accused of being some kind of fop … way … way up … up its own farce … But this collaborating sky also makes a clean late August breeze hiss across Higger’s top, and gently weesh in Higger’s grasses, and then rub Higger’s grit with a blunter sound of air. And this is just simply beautiful, and utterly present. An invisible scurrying is a circling transparent cat settling on its cushion …
Johnny wonders if what we are doing today could be called ‘pebble-wrestling’, or perhaps ‘frictioneering’. He talks of the little helicopter that must land on each toe-tip step to show the places we can or must land our bodies’ intentions (but not our minds’!). The dark pellets of sheep-droppings, haphazardly spread in the grit-dust or presentation-placed on brillo-pad tufts, are part of a fairytale trail out of the maze, or better, deeper into it … into a place in which place is digested. And the mass of flying ants in the air, and some of them that grapple with my arm-hairs, these lusty specks are all taking part in Johnny Python’s Pebble Circus. And yes, of course, there is something irreverent and Englishly rude about this clown … but also he is hugely generous … his way of drawing passers-by into having a go at handless climbing … see the performer handing out gifts of precision standing, walking, running, and leaping … and all on un-cliffs, on nothing higher than his yellow-t-shirted chest. And none of the passers-by have a clue of just who the grit-wizard is … and the wizard loves that fact …
Often, over the years, I’ve walked across this top above Higger, the small boulders laid out like a colony of utterly still beings hunkered into deep time. And I have stood on some of them and also jumped from one to t’other. But today we get to see the stone’s secret textures. (And we realise that we could act ually believe that these stones were always wai ting for us.) Johnny is moving his head side-to-side, Bollywood-dancer-owl-style – he is showing Nikki how to see the rugosities rise and fall, and how footholds dance with what Johnny has understood as a particular kind of parallax, special to one who wishes to connect her-his-its-their mineral frame to that of the Earth’s … limitless genders …
Johnny is now gently plugged, by his feet, into a small tor that is fractal-exactly the same shape of the little cloud six or so thousand feet up in the blue and some nineteen miles north-north west of this gritty here. Stanage is way off at the back, a line of knuckles on a keyboard of geology, and just across the way opposite us Burbage is arranging absolute stillness at an incredible speed. Both edges partaking of and freely giving out the sweet silent sounds of what Johnny calls foot-notes. And here we are miniaturised amongst this thisness, focusing in on the grains of grit, and the most primitive of human gestures: that one where your throat wobbles to make … a gurgle sound that is hard to explain … yes, Higger is laughing with infinities of grit, and we are laughing with it … her … him … them …
This piece is massively informed by the insights & concepts of Johnny Dawes, who, over the last couple of decades, has been working extremely hard to condense and clarify his special understanding of stone & movement into artistic expression … but also into a series of clear instructions that can be shared with a variety of others …
Mark Goodwin‘s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017), Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), and a new collection, Rock as Gloss (Longbarrow Press, 2019), a category finalist for the 2019 Banff Mountain Book Competition. Click here to visit the Rock as Gloss microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
I finished walking last month, and now the writing’s done. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau claims that the act of “walking is a space of enunciation”. The word “enunciation” means declaration, assertion, elucidation, a setting forth. Meridian is all these things. Charles Olson’s spatial poetics—“I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America”—both grounds and alienates me. I will insert myself.
Most of what I write is written through research, and Meridian is no exception. Part I opens with an epigraph from Robert Moor’s book, On Trails: An Exploration: “The key difference between a trail and a path is directional: paths extend forward, whereas trails extend backward.” This helps establish the context in terms of presence and absence, of moving forward whilst remembering backward.
My first book, Tokaido Road, was informed by ekphrasis and research into Japanese woodblock print art, and particularly the artist Hiroshige. Continental Drift includes the long poem “Po-wa-ha”, which was informed by Susan Magoffin’s Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico, as well as Essays in Landscape Theory, The Untold Story of the Making of the Atomic Bomb, and books on New Mexico’s history and geology.
During the writing of Part II of Meridian, I discovered For the Time Being, a book of poetic journals edited by Tyler Doherty and Tom Morgan. As these authors define it, a poetic journal literally means “a making from the day” or “a day’s making”. Poetic journals are not reportage, but embodied experience, comprising descriptions of the environment (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches) along with gazelle leaps and associative connections in sound or sense. Journal writing can consist of poetry, fiction, non-fiction. Weather, season and time of day are essential elements—as are place names. Procedurally, it is documentary in both senses of the word: it documents first-hand experience in a specific place at a specific time, but it also incorporates and manipulates found text. It’s meditative and reflective, in the same way that walking is. It doesn’t know where it’s going or how it’s going to get there. It is a physical, emotional and intellectual engagement with the day. Meridian arises from the poetic journal.
I chose to write Meridian as a long poem. Various forms are employed: the epistolary poem, the acrostic, the prose poem, but mainly, an open field poetics predominates. In a similar way to Tokaido Road, the poem is arranged in the sequence of named places along the pathways and trails that are situated along the Greenwich Meridian line from Peacehaven to Sand le Mere. But unlike Tokaido, which was a journey of the imagination, this work is based on an actual journey where I walked sometimes a day at a time, sometimes two, and sometimes four. The movement was not east to west, but south to north. I chose a four-part structure, based on the series of guidebooks I used to map the walk, and within each part, the poem is subdivided by an Ordnance Survey Map. The work as a whole contains fragments of song and poetry alongside snatches of TV dialogue, information from guide books, film flashbacks, all gathered together through the act of walking. While I planned each walk, I never planned the content of the poem, which always emerged from the walk itself. Along the way, I made notes, took photographs, recorded sounds including my own voice and footsteps, collected information from churches, museums, local newspapers, the people I met. After each walk, I would assemble this information and begin to write up the day. This would normally take about a week. I started in July 2015, and finished in August 2017. The shortest walk was about 7 miles; the longest 21. I walked 21 miles on two consecutive days in Lincolnshire, where the countryside was so vast, and the distances so great, that I would walk for 6 hours without seeing another person or even a road. I walked in blazing sun, freezing fog, ice, hail storms, rain. Mostly I walked alone, with two exceptions. Kat Peddie accompanied me through part of Epping Forest. And at Waltham Abbey, I actually met, entirely by accident, Graham and Hilda Heap, the authors of the guide book I was using. They walked with me a couple of miles that day. At the end of each day’s walk, I would return home (when I was near enough to do so), but when I got too far away, I would spend the night with a friend or in rooms above a pub or a B&B (in Lincolnshire). I have walked on blisters that bled, and I lost five toenails.
Writers such as Zoe Skoulding (in her book Contemporary Women’s Poetry & Urban Space) and Donna Stonecipher (Prose Poetry and the City) consider the city as a space of experiment for women writers, but there has not been much attention paid to rural space. This relates to another aspect of psychogeography that remains critical to my work: the desire to raise awareness of the natural, ecological and cultural environment around the walker, and thus the act of walking is enunciation/declaration as political and critical response to the status quo.
Part III begins in winter. It’s titled “Hardwick to Boston” and is located in the Fens. The poem begins with December 5: “the day of fracture / time & everything / is out of joint”. It starts with a walk through the Fens in fog so thick that, in the absence of any visible landmark, I had to use a compass to find my way, and it ends in the spring with a hailstorm. The reading which lends this section cohesion is Paul Celan’s The Meridian essay, which I discovered at Christmastime. This is a complex and elusive text which is Celan’s manifesto on what poetry is after the holocaust. It was delivered on the occasion of his receiving the Büchner Prize in Literature (1960). Pierre Joris recently undertook the mammoth job of translating its four parallel versions from German to English. There are so many things to think about in this essay; you cannot exhaust it. For example, it seems to say that the poem lies in the future of remembering, where remembering occurs across specific coordinates of time and place. Thus, Part III is a haunted text. It ends with an ode to Celan’s Meridian and juxtaposes some of the phrases from his essay into my poem and its thinking about poetry in time and place. So Part III is both a walking poem and a statement of poetics.
As I was walking and writing Part IV (Boston to Sand le Mere) I discovered two more remarkable books. Tim Ingold’s Lines: A Brief History is a fascinating meditation on the multiple meanings of the word ‘line’ which takes in everything from forest tracks to genealogies. I preface Part IV with a sentence from his book: “The line, like life, has no end.” The other writer, Rebecca Solnit, I had known about, but had not read A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Both of these writers took me back to the start of the project, which was motivated, in part, by a fascination with lines.
In the beginning the poem originated out of the fear of getting lost. Solnit helped me to view this from a different perspective: “One does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.” She illustrates this quality with reference to the Pit River Indians who refer to a certain man as “wandering”. Under certain conditions of mental stress, when someone finds their life too much to bear, they will start to wander around the country aimlessly. She compares this to Virginia Woolf, who also knew despair, and it led her to fill her pockets with rocks and walk into the River Ouse. “It’s not about being lost but trying to lose your self.” Wheels within wheels. In Tokaido Road, there is a poem about Woolf. It is poem 50: Tsuchiyama. The River Ouse passes through Sussex; I walked along it during Part I. There is another, different River Ouse in Cambridgeshire; and yet another that empties into the Humber Estuary. This word “Ouse” derives from Celtic and means “water”. From now on, my pathways would be watery ones, leading me to the Humber Estuary, where several rivers flow, draining one-fifth of England. At the time I was walking, several disturbing events were happening, and these were weighing heavily as I walked, and so Part IV opens with a lament.
The trouble with ending a project like this is the reluctance to let it go. As I neared the end of the walk, I could hardly bear to finish it and both literally and figuratively kept dragging my feet. Should it find a publisher, that will be a final kind of letting go.
N.B.: this essay was first drafted in October 2017 (at the close of the Meridian project). Meridian was published by Longbarrow Press in February 2019 (see below for further details). ‘The First Cut’, a recent post for the Longbarrow Blog, reflects on the early stages of the project’s development; you can read it here.
Meridian, the third full-length collection by Nancy Gaffield, is available now from Longbarrow Press. You can read an excerpt from Part II here and a poem from Part IV here. Visit the Meridian site for further details and to order the collection; you can also order the book by clicking on the relevant PayPal link below.
Meridian: £12.99 (hardback)
Nancy Gaffield’s first collection of poetry, Tokaido Road (CB editions 2011) was nominated for the Forward Best First Collection Prize and was awarded the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize that year. Her second collection, Owhere (Templar 2012) won a Templar Poetry Pamphlet Award that year. Subsequent poetry publications include Continental Drift (Shearsman 2014), the chapbooks Zyxt (Oystercatcher 2015) and Meridian (Oystercatcher 2016), and a libretto, Tokaido Road: A Journey after Hiroshige (Shearsman 2014). Meridian is her first collection with Longbarrow Press.
Click here to read ‘Mirror Image’, Brian Lewis‘s recent survey of the poetry of Nancy Gaffield (by way of Eratosthenes, Solnit, Muybridge and Hiroshige) for the Longbarrow Blog.
What does the word sublime mean to you? For many, it connotes the grandeur of certain natural landscapes – rugged, mountainous vistas with the potential to inspire awe, and perhaps a sort of departure from the everyday. We inherit this understanding from the Romantics, for whom magnificent scenery offers a kind of transformative power which heightens the poet’s perception.
This power typically reveals connections between the poet, the natural world, human society, and sometimes a deity or immanent creative force. These connections are often profound and esoteric, and inaccessible except through this kind of sublime revelation. When the poet comes to mediate this experience into verse, their tone is typically one of wonder, their language ‘elevated’ far above the everyday.
In Wordsworth’s case the kind of scenery that offers an experience of the sublime is found in the Cumberland fells. Other Romantic poets look further afield – Shelley, for example, to Mont Blanc in the Alps.
This experience of the sublime might have been a long way removed from the everyday lives of most people in Wordsworth’s time. But this was at least a time when those lives were largely connected quite intimately with the natural environment. After two hundred years of urbanisation in the developed world, we find ourselves profoundly estranged from that natural environment and the Romantic sublime is less accessible to most of us than ever.
True, we can take walks in the countryside. We can visit the Lake District or (if we can afford it) the Alps. On those occasions when we are permitted to ‘connect with nature’, though, our potential experience of the Romantic sublime has been pre-empted by visual media. We’ve seen those places a thousand times in photographs, film and television. We can never perceive those landscapes in the same way as our forebears in the era before mass communication.
As a reader or a writer of poetry in 2019, then, you might be tempted to discard any notion of the sublime as an experience of place. Instead I would suggest looking somewhere different.
Wordsworth’s contemporary John Clare was born into the agricultural labouring classes and spent his life in the pleasant but unspectacular landscape of rural Northamptonshire. He found glimpses of the sublime not in majestic scenery but in the smaller details: the motion of a robin, or the sounds of thawing ice and snow.
Clare demonstrates how the sublime might be reconfigured in terms of both scale and location – from the grandiose to the humble, and from the notable to the obscure. In doing this he offers us some cues towards an understanding of how we might find a kind of transcendence in poetry (and perhaps other art forms) today.
When I come across this characteristic in new poetry, I think of it as a sort of ‘provincial sublime’. It’s typically located in scenes that are ostensibly mundane or inconsequential, often marginal in some sense, often where the natural and the built environment interact. They are obscure places. They may embody some kind of social, economic or environmental dysfunction. A sort of transcendence is attained in these locations through a particular gaze, which might narrow down to those small details or expand outward into an imagined or remembered wider landscape.
If you are watching a Boeing Dreamliner taking off from Heathrow for Singapore, there is no Romantic sublime to be encountered in the humdrum periphery of west London. But you might think about the hundreds of passengers on board, and conjure some riff on the grand sweep of humanity. You might consider the many intertwined processes – technical, industrial, financial, political and personal – that have combined to lift and propel this 250-tonne mass of glass, kerosene, titanium, and human flesh and bone over your head. You might reflect that these processes can also move backwards, and when Concorde served the route the same journey could have been made 40 years ago in half the time.
Or you might focus on the gentle swaying of the rosebay willowherb at the airport fence below.
Here are two poems, with very different tones but some similarities of form, which seem to me to relate to this notion of the provincial sublime. The first is from Natalie Burdett.
you’re blossoming new curves. A warm glow skims
them, ribbons out across your city roofs
from Selfridges’ bright aluminium discs
to flick around the library’s gold hoops.
At night a colder, more fluorescent sheen
accentuates your skyline’s harder-edged
old towers. Polished steel casts well-built beams
of light which flash back from wet tarmac beds.
Inside the markets people claim a space.
Chermoula chicken couscous in deep bowls
steams up the glass; revives, illuminates
the dust-grey faces, highlights natural tones.
Outside, down low where nothing shines at all,
a sycamore seed sprouts against a wall. 
Burdett’s Birmingham is a scene not of decline and dysfunction but of renewal. The distinctive “new curves” of the library and the Selfridges building are both 21st-century additions to the landscape. Although the expansive, rooftop-roaming gaze of the first two stanzas narrows down to a human level in the third, the celebratory tone remains, and the focus remains on the built environment rather than the natural. Neither prepare the reader for the quietly astonishing final couplet.
And that, in fact, is the point. The understated power of this closure derives precisely from its reversal of expectations. The richness and gleam of the regenerated cityscape, together with the convention of the sonnet form, invite the reader to anticipate an even grander, further-reaching finale. But the gaze becomes narrower still and, in a wonderfully surprising twist, shifts abruptly from the built environment to the tiny interloping organism from the natural world.
The bathos here is profound enough to prompt a reappraisal of what has gone before. Is the city’s much-heralded revamp somehow all in vain? Will human endeavour forever be overtaken by the natural environment that preceded it? Regeneration has been practised by urban planners only in the few decades of the post-industrial era – but nature has been doing it for countless millennia.
Matthew Clegg’s poem ‘Open to the Sky’ is rooted not in a city but an unnamed location, recognisably neither urban nor rural. There is no sign here of any form of regeneration, just glimpses of an inaccessible otherness.
Open to the Sky
England – my England – amounts to this:
a Hull-bound train stalling by a landfill;
gulls and crows scatter from the rubbish
and delay evolves into total standstill.
This is no more than I deserve, no less.
If I ever dream, the place is unable
to deliver. The big guy opposite
sucks on his Coke, bites deep in his burger.
He unwraps The Matrix DVD box set.
His balding fleece is endorsed by NASA.
We live on what we find. Like crows. Like gulls.
The sun ebbs and the landfill loses colour.
Lacking anything else, two teenage girls
take photo after photo of each other. 
If western society in the 20th century was characterised by social and technological advances in tandem, then perhaps the defining feature of the 21st is the way technology has continued to race ahead while social and perhaps cultural progress – like the train in Clegg’s poem – has stalled. Advances in technology are no longer driven predominantly by the need to solve a problem or improve society: some items and services seem to be developed and marketed simply because they can be.
It’s this disconnect between possibility and reality – “If I ever dream, the place is unable//to deliver” – that defines ‘Open to the Sky’ and sets its tone of matter-of-fact desolation. The girls’ cameraphone and the mention of NASA remind us what miracles can be achieved by human ingenuity, but the concept of space exploration makes for a sharply ironic contrast with this rickety, paralysed locomotive and the predicament of its stranded passengers.
In the end, while the adjacent landfill stands replete with rubbish, the stalled train comes to emblematise another kind of waste. Instead of merely salvaging scraps, how much more could all these passengers be doing now, had a functional railway already taken them to their destination, or a functional society delivered on their dreams? The image of the girls photographing each other just for something to do is not a reversal, in the style of Burdett’s closing couplet, but is equally arresting, even as it completes the sense of malaise. Outside of war poetry, it’s perhaps as complete and devastating a symbol of futility as you will ever find.
If we insist upon the notion of sublime that developed two centuries ago, in an utterly different world, then we’ll not find it in the poetry being written today in Yorkshire or Birmingham, or any other post-industrial setting. If, on the other hand, we understand the sublime to be defined by a sort of transcendence from one’s immediate surroundings – rather than necessarily by beautiful or majestic settings, and a tone of great wonder – then it is there for our taking.
‘Birmingham’ toys delightfully with our expectations, skipping adeptly between scales and scopes, and snatches us away from human vanity to point out the timeless endurance of nature. ‘Open to the Sky’ hints at a magnificence or redemption that is insurmountably elsewhere, offering a bitterly ironic kind of transcendence. In their different ways, in similar forms, both poems represent a model of the sublime that is perfectly attuned to our times.
 The “dust-grey faces” of the market people here reprise the “sleep-stupid faces” of factory workers in another study of the second city, by Louis MacNeice, dating from the 1930s and also entitled ‘Birmingham’.
 When cameraphones first became available, owners typically lacked ideas for their everyday use. For the technology to acquire a widely perceived purpose, a culture shift was also necessary; this followed later, when social media lifted some of the stigma around narcissism, as seen in the normalisation of the selfie.
 Regular users of Northern Rail, which serves the Hull region, will need no reminder that its fleet still comprises many obsolete Pacer units, built in the mid-1980s with an anticipated lifespan of 20 years.
Images by Pete Green. An earlier version of this essay was presented at Modern Nature, a two-day symposium (organised by The University of Sheffield) at The Hepworth, Wakefield, 25-26 April 2019.
Pete Green’s Sheffield Almanac is available from Longbarrow Press; click here to order the pamphlet. An earlier essay by Green addresses issues of civic identity and civic pride, and examines Sheffield’s status as a ‘City of Making’. Click here to read ‘Model City’.
Pete Green and Anders Hanson lead a walk through Sheffield’s Kelham Island district on Wednesday 3 July (as part of From Brooklyn Works to Brooklynism, a programme of exhibitions and free events). Click here for more information and to book tickets.