On 16 May 2022, I posted the first in a series of unnumbered, threaded Tweets, a series that I’d intended as a short, reflective summary of several hours spent staring out of train windows. Four days and 84 Tweets later, the series reached its end, more drift than thread.
The following piece is based on the thread of 16 May and gathers almost all the constituent Tweets, with some revisions throughout, in the order in which they first appeared. Each unit is of Tweetable length (280 characters or fewer).
On Saturday 14 May, I travelled to Kent for a performance of Wealden by Nancy Gaffield and The Drift. The first stages of the journey, from Sheffield to Ashford, were by rail. The final leg of the journey, from Ashford to the village of Fairfield, was made on foot.
The journey began at 4.45am when I left the house and started walking to Sheffield railway station with a rucksack full of books. The train was scheduled to depart at 5.30am. The walk to the station usually takes around 55 minutes. This is how every journey begins.
My solution to the scheduling problem was to run 100 yards, then walk 200 yards, until I had made up the time difference, which was somewhere east of West Bar. Fall back, push forward, fall back, push forward. I arrived at the railway station at 5.26am and raced to platform 8.
The 5.30 service to London St Pancras stretched out along the length of the platform. I looked for Coach M. The long train was actually two short trains stapled together with no gangway connection. Coach G, Coach K, Coach D, the letters out of sequence. At 5.28am I found Coach M.
The carriage was quiet, almost empty, one or two passengers settling in. The tannoy glitched and fizzed and the train manager announced that the service would be diverted and delayed due to a broken-down train between Chesterfield and Derby. The long slow slide into the south.
The staff are doing their best, I thought, half the network is falling apart. The train departed Chesterfield on time and then stopped and started and stopped in a series of landscapes that I didn’t recognise and couldn’t place. I slumped forward and fretted about my connections.
I slumped back and fretted about the difficulties ongoing since March, a sense that the joints of my work were broken, or that I had simply lost touch, a fault in the head, or the heart, and seeing no way to start, no way to finish. The train pulled into Derby 31 minutes late.
In less than an hour, the arrival time at St Pancras had been revised from 7.36 to 8.00 to 8.10. I would not now make the connection for Ashford. I hadn’t thought that delay might also be momentum, but it’s there, I can see it, running in reverse. It is not of my own making.
I thought that I should do some work so I picked up a customer query arising from the deterioration in postal services between the UK and Germany since the abolition of VAT exemption on low-value goods in 2021. A package, mailed on 27 April, had still not reached its destination.
I checked another email and then another and realised that there was very little that I could do about either of them. I looked out of the window and stared at a field in what I supposed was now Leicestershire, a field that I should have been staring at 33 minutes earlier.
We were passing through a data mesh, a map that was updating in real time, almost in real time, setting us forward or back to the nearest minute, the status frozen then refreshed. 6.50am. Another field. Mist in the hollows, caught in the early light.
I am thinking of Wednesday’s readings at The Fat Cat, the first Longbarrow event to happen indoors, in person, in company, since October 2019. The audience was neither small nor large. The room had ventilation and an unforced sense of connection. Pete read first, then Alistair.
The poems – Hemisphere, Essay on Spam – touched on the role of emerging technologies in shaping our experience and understanding of the world, from mapping to mailshots, screens to satellites, and what it means to compete for resources when the most valued resource is attention.
I was in a room with people I hadn’t seen for years and we were all listening to the same thing at the same time. At the end of the evening it occurred to me that the only electrical appliance we’d utilised for the event was Emma’s adjustable desk lamp.
I don’t dislike technology. We’ve used laptops, projectors, PA systems, portable stereos, phones and dictaphones in our events. At the very least, it adds another layer to a performance. It also introduces the possibility that something might go wrong. Disruption, delay.
For the online launch of Hemisphere, Pete created a Google Earth folder with the places of the poem, and screen-shared the transitions between these places as one extract cued into the next. With each transition, the software or the signal would lag by a few seconds.
It didn’t seem to affect the reception of the work. We had to wait, all of us, we had to wait for the technology to catch up with the poem. I don’t know if this is what Pete had intended but it made sense. Leicester, this is Leicester, the next stop is Market Harborough.
I gathered up my train tickets and got out of my seat and walked through the carriages in the opposite direction to the direction of travel, which is not natural, and stopped at the threshold of the first class carriage, and raised my tickets to get the conductor’s attention.
The conductor left the carriage and met me in the vestibule. ‘I’m supposed to be on the 8.10 from St Pancras to Ashford’, I said, and left the sentence unfinished. He took the ticket from my hand and took a Sharpie from his pocket and started to write on the back of the ticket.
He was diligent, and slow, we both knew that a thick-tipped pen was not the best implement for the job. After a minute he was done. He handed the ticket back to me and said, ‘Any problems, show them this’. I thanked him and walked back to my carriage, moving as the train moved.
I sat in my seat and examined the ticket on which the ink was still drying. There were four lines of text. The first two lines explained that the delay was the fault of EMR. The third line was a code that I couldn’t decipher. The fourth line had a signature and a service number.
The train stopped at Market Harborough and left a minute later. The delay had stabilised at 40 minutes. I tilted my face towards the window and closed my eyes, light flickering over the lids, is this Northamptonshire, have I ever set foot in it, should I look out or let it go by.
A few people got on at Kettering. After a minute the train set off. Behind me, a hammering at the carriage door and a low moan, I couldn’t see who was making the sounds, his English was limited but his predicament was plain. ‘Door not open.’ The conductor turned and walked back.
The conductor asked the passenger what the matter was. He was supposed to change trains at Kettering for an onward service to Luton, where he was due to catch a flight later that morning. But the door hadn’t opened, and now he was stuck on a train running non-stop to London.
It wasn’t clear why the door hadn’t opened. Where the fault was. Mechanical or electrical or manual. The conductor spent a few minutes with the man, writing out a new itinerary, change at St Pancras for Luton, you won’t need to buy another ticket, you can still catch your flight.
He took it all in and left the carriage. The conductor had done what he could and the man seemed reassured by the guidance but I still felt bad for him as we accelerated through Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, how many stations, how many miles between them.
Belgravia, London, 22 years ago. I am sitting in the reception of a fourth-floor office a few blocks from Victoria station. It is a Tuesday, warm, bright, a little after 9am. I am called into a small interview room. I walk through the door and wait to be invited to sit down.
I am being interviewed for the role of Conference Producer. This is the culmination of several months of posting out CVs printed on a Canon StarWriter 30 in an attempt to get a job in the Creative and Marketing Sector before it is too late. I am 27. It is already too late.
It is a panel interview, conducted by two people, they introduce themselves and then ask the first question. I am unable to answer the first question, or the second question, as the stammer which I thought I had left behind in adolescence has decided to sit in on the interview.
Somewhere around the fourth or fifth question I manage to bring the stammer under control, with a technique I learned at the age of 14, but the interviewers have lost interest in the words before they are out, and so have I. There are no more questions.
I leave the interview room and leave the building. I feel useless, so I walk around Westminster, looking for a place where I can donate blood, then realise that it doesn’t work like that. I walk around in my suit for another 10 hours. At 11.30pm I catch the last train to Swindon.
At 00.15 the train pulls into Didcot and by the time it pulls away I am asleep. I wake up 20 minutes later as the service is leaving Swindon. There are no good options. I could spend the night at the next station, which is Chippenham, or try to walk home, 20 miles without a map.
I disembark at Chippenham and rapidly confirm what I already knew which is that there are no more trains to Swindon tonight. I consider hitching but I don’t know where to start from. After 10 minutes I walk to the taxi rank and enquire about the fare to Swindon. It is £40.
I agree, because I don’t know what else to do, and get in the taxi, and pass the journey thinking about money, money that I didn’t have, spent in pursuit of a career that I didn’t want. It might have been worse, I think, I might have got the job. Years adrift in the same place.
The train passed under a road bridge and then another and the rails switched and locked and I knew that St Pancras was winding us in. I shouldered my rucksack and counted my tickets and I thought of the man at Kettering, he had his work cut out, would he make his flight.
8.19am. A standstill and a long pause. The door panel lit up and I pressed it twice and stepped down to the platform and walked through the open ticket barriers and past a roped-off concourse, a queue without a line, two hundred people waiting to board the train we had just left.
They would be late too. Our delay was their delay. I could see it in their eyes. They knew. I squeezed onto the escalator and spent the descent trying to remember where the Southeastern platforms were and when I stepped off at ground level I realised that I didn’t know.
I turned left and kept walking until I met the first set of ticket barriers and scanned the destination board overhead and drew a blank on Ashford. This was Thameslink, not Southeastern, Brighton, not Dover. The ticket office gave me directions, second left, up the escalator.
I stepped off the escalator and turned right for the platforms, numbered 11-13, the 8.37 boarding at platform 12, calling at Stratford International, Ebbsfleet International, Ashford International, Folkestone West, Folkestone Central, Dover Priory. I walked to the end and got on.
8.30am. I sat down and took from my rucksack a bottle of water and Emma’s iPad Mini, a first-generation model, released in 2012, now discontinued, unsupported, obsolete. I signed into the iPad and opened Gmail and messaged Emma to let her know where I was and that I loved her.
The message hung in Drafts, picked out in red, I stared at it for perhaps a minute then realised that I hadn’t connected the iPad to the onboard wi-fi. I ticked the Terms and Conditions box without reading the Terms and Conditions and the email completed its transition to Sent.
I continued to stare at the screen as the train left the station. My seat was facing away from the direction of travel, I knew that I would see nothing of where we were going, only a little of where we’d been, it seemed appropriate, somehow, to be hauled backwards into Kent.
The train was clean and fast and new and in no time at all we had stopped at Stratford. I understood something of how we had got here, one part north to four parts east, but what came next was a blank. I had walked both banks of the estuary and now I couldn’t put them together.
I didn’t know which side of the river we were on, had we crossed under the Thames at Greenwich, would we be passing through Rainham or Erith. Would it make any difference if I knew. The Apple Maps app would take an age to load on the iPad and we would be somewhere else by then.
The window misted and blurred and as it cleared I saw my features gliding into wire and glass and aluminium. If Ebbsfleet International was actually Ebbsfleet then we were two miles south of Swanscombe Marshes, designated as a SSSI in 2021, and the intended site of a theme park.
Swanscombe Marshes is one of just two places in the UK where the critically endangered distinguished jumping spider is found. A corridor that links Dartford to Gravesend, its grassland, scrub, wetlands, grazing marsh and saltmarsh are habitats for rare plants and breeding birds.
The London Resort application was withdrawn earlier this year, citing various factors, including the classification of Tilbury as a Freeport, the SSSI designation, and the need to re-engage the local community. The company plans to submit a revised application later in 2022.
Opposition to the theme park and resort, led by Buglife, Save Swanscombe Peninsula, and others, remains firm. The campaigns are not over. It must have been 2002 when I last walked out there, Stone to Northfleet, the jetties, buoys and radar station, so much that I didn’t see.
So much that I didn’t remember. The wire and glass and aluminium were swept up and replaced with parcels of development land, some opened, some labelled. I miss Kent, even as I’m going through it, I miss the idea of Kent, my idea of Kent, scrawled on the back of an envelope.
Seventeen years ago, slogging cross-country to Hythe, trouble with the MOD, the camps and ranges, then overnight on the coast, it was still winter, rain, wind and a black bin liner, more trouble in Lydd, and the last 10 miles with a split boot. That’s another story, an old story.
I still had the map that I used then, OS Landranger 189, reprinted with minor changes 2004. I took it out of the rucksack, it was the map of today’s walk, Ashford to Fairfield, a walk I had not taken before. It was not the journey of Wealden. It was a journey towards Wealden.
Wealden is a semi-improvised work in three sections, corresponding to the woodland, wetland and shingle of High Weald, Romney Marsh and Dungeness. The poems developed from Nancy Gaffield’s walks in this landscape, a landscape defined by change, uncertainty, and loss.
The music, created by Amelia Fletcher, Darren Pilcher, and Rob Pursey, was also embedded in the landscape, at times literally, with Darren using bracken and shingle as the basis for his sound loops. The piece would not be permanent but would change with each performance.
Wealden was performed twice in 2019, and recorded in March 2020, shortly before lockdown. A CD and a pamphlet were published by Longbarrow Press later that year. Today’s performance, in a 13th century church at the edge of the marsh, would be the first in almost three years.
We seemed to be nearing Ashford. I looked again at the map and realised that I had only the faintest sense of where the sound mirrors were, somewhere between Dungeness and Lydd, so I thought, or further north, further east, there was nothing in the legend, no symbol, no text.
Sound mirrors were developed in the late 1920s as an early warning system for enemy aircraft. A number of these concrete dishes were built along the east coast, but were never used, due to the invention of radar in 1932. The experiment was abandoned and the dishes left to rot.
The mirrors near Lydd are among those still standing today. While obsolete, they are not useless. They appear in the third section of Nancy’s poem (‘marooned on a man-made isle’) and in a photograph taken by Rob that resurfaced on the cover of the Wealden CD.
I don’t know if the mirrors were built too late, or too soon, or if they were always out of time. The early radar team acknowledged the contribution of the 1920s experiment to systems planning: linking stations, plotting movements, measuring distance, direction, speed.
9.10am. I folded the map and put it back in the rucksack, along with the other things I’d taken out, the water, the snacks, the iPad mini. We were getting in on time, or a few minutes ahead of time, our arrival in Ashford seemed to take the train manager by surprise.
I knew that I wouldn’t remember Ashford when I walked out of the station. I’d measured the distance to Fairfield with a ruler, a walk of twelve inches, ten miles, I knew that I would not be walking the length of a ruler. I knew that I could have taken another train to Appledore.
Appledore station was two miles across the marsh from Fairfield. It was arguable that my motive for slogging from Ashford with several kilos of books on my back was to save £5 in train fare but also I wanted to walk towards the horizon of Wealden without ever quite arriving.
I wanted to walk the work back into the landscape that it was made of and from and for. There would be a gathering and a short talk at Fairfield Church at 4pm, followed by a collective walk across the marshes to Brookland Church, where the performance would take place around 7pm.
This end of this thread is not a walk. We’d never get there. Imagine the walk for yourself. The wrong turns, the unscheduled stops, the miles ahead. Here is the route on Google Maps. It is approximate, see how the line stops dead at the military canal, then starts over again.
Here are some photos from Fairfield and Brookland, taken with Emma’s obsolete iPad Mini.
2.46pm. Brack Lane, looking towards St Thomas a Becket Church, Fairfield.
2.51pm. Dry ditch, Fairfield.
2.53pm. Dry ditch, Fairfield.
2.54pm. St Thomas a Becket Church, Fairfield.
3.29pm. St Thomas a Becket Church, Fairfield, facing south-east, towards Lydd.
4.04pm. Altar, St Thomas a Becket Church, Fairfield.
4.15pm. Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey of The Drift narrating the histories of Romney Marsh, St Thomas a Becket Church, Fairfield.
4.41pm. Procession from St Thomas a Becket Church, Fairfield, to Church of St Augustine, Brookland.
4.42pm. Procession from St Thomas a Becket Church, Fairfield, to Church of St Augustine, Brookland.
6.51pm. Church of St Augustine, Brookland.
7.46pm. Nancy Gaffield (out of shot) and The Drift performing ‘Wealden’, Church of St Augustine, Brookland.
7.47pm. Nancy Gaffield and The Drift performing ‘Wealden’, Church of St Augustine, Brookland.
Click here to read ‘Walking, observing, listening’ – a wide-ranging interview in which Nancy Gaffield and The Drift reflect on the making of Wealden – on the Longbarrow Blog. You can read a further interview with Amelia and Rob of The Drift (conducted by Glenn Francis Griffith) here.
26 March 2021. 3.25pm. There are new metal barriers at the main doors of the vacant ground floor office/retail unit on St James’ Row that looks out at the cathedral. The entrance of the unit is set back and elevated and the barriers have been installed to prevent homeless people from sheltering in the recess. The unit, which is advertised as a high profile unit, has been empty since 2018. A recruitment agency, Office Angels, was based there for some years, pink and blue fascia panels, the windows frosted with halo motifs. There used to be another recruitment agency next door, on the corner of Church Street, I forget the name, they moved on around the same time, perhaps earlier, it wasn’t empty for long. The Christian Bookshop moved in. It’s still there, no it isn’t, the fascias and vinyls are missing. White text on a blue field, it wrapped the windows and the boards, I can still see it, if I turn away, the hard, compressed block lettering. I glance back and the lettering is gone. This must have happened when I wasn’t looking. I stare through the windows, no stock, no furnishings, then I stare at the windows, newly papered with contact details. In the months following the move the frontage was bare, just A4 printouts with the name of the shop tacked to the glass, a form of signage, you could work it out from the books on display. They had moved from their old West Street premises next to Carson Stationery & Print. The shops were easily confused as their window displays were unshowy and the exterior decor was a similar shade of blue. I don’t remember when I first set foot in Carsons, it might have been 1996, 1997, I needed some coloured acrylic and they had it. It was a good place for trying things out and thinking about form. It was calm and unhurried. There were trays of Clairefontaine paper, sold by the sheet, loose envelopes of various sorts and sizes, packs of unbranded white card that I used as a base layer for a set of Longbarrow postcards. I picked up other things there, things that were not immediately useful, things that I knew would be useful in time. There was a narrow aisle set aside for wordless contemplation. It became my favourite shop. I went back in 2018 to buy a storage box and found the block under scaffold and Carsons and the Christian Bookshop closed. There was nothing in the window of the stationer to say where they had gone. There was no online sales afterlife. You’d think that it would help the Christian Bookshop to have an address on Church Street, within sight of the cathedral, but it doesn’t seem to have helped them here. The parent organisation is CLC which is short for Christian Literature Crusade. At some point in my childhood I was given a copy of the bible, I don’t remember when, or by whom, I later discovered that I had not been given the bible but a bible, it was a rubbish bible for children. The Evangelicals and their literature were everywhere. I accepted another bible out of obligation. The problem with books that are accepted or bought out of obligation, of course, is that they tend to go unread. You accrue more books in consequence. I don’t know what happened to the second bible. I didn’t spend much time with it. It was hard to know where to start with an unfinished book. Only the front of the cathedral is visible from Church Street, the back end sinks into a slope that levels out at Campo Lane. I understood its position on the slope when I visited the Crypt Chapel and the vaults. I wasn’t alone, I was there with Emma and my mother, we took our time in the nave and the transepts. It has been built and rebuilt many times over and there is no definitive cathedral. There were diagrams and timelines to help us piece it together, the facsimiles and fragmentary versions of itself. We stepped out in soft autumn air, into a flat paved square that I sometimes think of as a piazza or plaza, when the light is in its last flush.
3.30pm. On Church Street I instinctively turn right for the rear entrance of TK Maxx and then I remember that TK Maxx is closed. It isn’t TK Maxx that I want, I wouldn’t know where to start, I am thinking of the short cut via the shop floor to Orchard Square. The short cut is not a right of way or a permissive path, it doesn’t exist out of hours, it is part of a pattern of use. It can take a minute off a journey. Another cut runs parallel to the square and its shops, accessible at all times, though it is frequently congested with parked lorries and commercial waste bins. It is named Orchard Street but it is little more than an alley. Early in March last year, a few weeks before the city shut down for the first time, Fay Musselwhite sketched out a possible route of a poetry walk with me and Matthew Clegg and Orchard Street was the second stop on the route. We spent a few minutes at the fire exits. The alley had always been of little interest to me but it made sense to make it part of the walk. The act of stopping had changed its meaning. A few weeks later, the walk was postponed indefinitely and the meaning of the alley and the city changed again. I check my instinct and turn left, around the central barriers that divide the tram lines from the bus lanes, and hurry along the old Palladian row, grand buildings trying to look inconspicuous, minimal markings, flagless flagpoles still fixed to the roofs. It was some time before I realised that the Company of Cutlers had its headquarters here. It’s so discreet. I reach the end of the row and skirt the temporary vehicle barriers at the edge of the shopping precinct and head towards Boots, there are several doors, the entrance is now the exit and it takes a few moments to find a way in. The store is not busy. I am here to buy a toothbrush, I quickly find what I am looking for, medium, blue, a pack of two. I think that I should buy something else, as I’m here, but nothing comes to mind. I look for a till. There are no staffed tills in sight and the few staff that I can see are attending to a self-service till that has had to be taken apart. I join a small queue for the self-service tills, the people in front of me are patient and quiet, the people behind me are respectful in turn. After a few minutes a self-service till becomes free and I scan the pack of toothbrushes. I decide to pay with cash so I feed a note into a slot in the machine and the machine does something that I cannot see and then falls silent. It is a judgement. I think that the transaction has failed but a coin appears in a tray and a receipt falls out of the terminal. The receipt tells me that I could have earned 36p in Advantage Points if I had an Advantage Card which I don’t. I leave the self-service area, the terminal screens partitioned by full-length transparent screens, and leave the shop via an entrance that used to be an exit. It is a short walk to Marks & Spencer, a minute on Fargate. The doors are both entrance and exit and I ease my elbow against the nearest one. I make a diagonal path to the greetings cards on the ground floor and look for an Easter display. I make two circuits of the racks but find nothing. I call to an assistant, from a short distance, she guides me to the Easter cards which are with the other Easter things at the edge of the food hall. I thank her and flick through the rack, it is a limited range, I pick out a card with rabbits on the front. I take the card to the payment area and an assistant invites me to step forward. She is friendly and efficient, there is an art to customer service, there is an ethos that I remember, that the service is the same, whether someone is spending £0 or £1 or £100. The card is for my mother. I will post it to her tomorrow. I don’t know when Easter cards became part of our lives, perhaps it started with the move to Sheffield, it was a way of keeping in touch, an occasion without an occasion. Something to remember. The card is left blank for the message and the message is the handwriting, nothing more.
3.40pm. It is only as I step out of Marks & Spencer that I remember the other thing that I meant to pick up in Boots, a pack of assorted plasters, various sizes, fabric, clear and waterproof, there were none in the house when I last looked. I’m not going back for them. I consider WH Smith from a passing distance, on the other side of Fargate, I remember the last time I called in, a few weeks ago, I was hoping to find a book for my mother, for her birthday. I did not have a particular book in mind, I thought that I would stand in front of the books and scan them slowly until a book, a particular book, suggested itself. I walked into the shop and turned left for the first floor book department and stopped in front of a set of blue collapsible barriers at the foot of the stairs. I then made three circuits of the ground floor to see if there were any books on display between the cards and stationery and magazines. There were three books, a cookery book, a fitness book and a slimming book. I picked them up to see if any other books were hidden underneath but there weren’t. The ground floor was empty apart from several members of staff and a man in a thin black jacket who stood reading the magazines from cover to cover. We would all leave with nothing. I used to be a regular at the Swindon branch, once or twice a week, when I couldn’t find a use for my lunch breaks, the short walk from my office to Smiths, what was I looking for, I never found it, slowly but surely I wore out the carpets. I was aimless but looked purposeful in my blue shirt and smart trousers and customers would often mistake me for an assistant. Unless I was due back at the office I would try to help them with whatever it was that they needed help with, where are the ballpoint pen refills, oh, I see them now, where are the ink cartridges, you’ll find them at the end of the next aisle. My father would have known the shop as well as me and he didn’t work there either. They still stock the things he used to pick up there, the multo-ring stamp album refills, 25 quadrille leaves, the same brand, the same packaging, but he is no longer around to weigh them in his hands. He started several stamp albums for each of us, my brothers and me, when we were small. The albums grew as we grew. He didn’t make a fuss about it, or try to force our interest. There were periods when I forgot that it was happening. He was building something that we would come to value later in life. I had a Stanley Gibbons International Stamp Album, a dark brown vinyl cover with coffee cream etchings of the world and its people. Or some of its people. A few leaves of stamps issued in France or Germany would be followed by just one or two stamps for all of Guinea or Guinea-Bissau or perhaps none at all. We knew that this wasn’t the whole story, the only story, the gaps told a different tale. There was no way to complete a stamp album. It was an atlas of cancellations. Years after my father died, my mother and a philatelist neighbour started to sort through the loose, unbound stamps that my father had left behind. Some of the mint British stamps had more value as postage than they did for collectors so my mother put these into little packets and posted them to my brothers and me. Many of them were commonplace, I knew this, yet it was hard to use them as currency. I let them go, one by one, on letters and parcels that I had taken particular care with, to be handled with care and opened with care. The last few I held back. I have them still, a 13p stamp that reproduces a fragment of medieval embroidery, a 29p stamp from a series on the theme of insects with a bush cricket against a yellow background, and a 13p stamp with protons, electrons, and neutrons, the single word ELECTRICITY, and a distant institutional building at the edge of a printed plain. I don’t know why I kept these three. They were all that was left. That’s enough.
‘Last Collection’ is an excerpt from a work-in-progress that draws on an afternoon’s walk around the city of Sheffield.
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press.
There are no roads between the 25 settlements of Nunavut and no roads connecting Nunavut to other places. If you want to go there, or if you’re there already and you want to travel from place to place within the territory, you’ll need to fly or sail.
Quite often I wonder about ‘isolated’ places – what it’s like to live in them, how their seclusion might feed into the way their people think and feel. So when I learned about the lack of transport to and within Nunavut, I was intrigued. The words There are no roads to Nunavut suggested themselves as the promising first line of a poem.
I wrote a few lines more and then stopped. How can you write about Nunavut if you’ve never been there? For that matter, how can you even go there if you suffer from anxiety about flying or sailing? What if you can’t afford a ticket, or you can’t get away because of your family or your job?
I thought about all the literature of place that I’d enjoyed reading over recent years. So much of this stuff was based on leisurely visits to places like Alaska, Greenland or Canada. Places that would be impossible for someone like me to reach. Even Scandinavia, Ireland, and the Hebrides seemed to belong to another world, which was closed off to me.
This writing was made possible by talent but also by a favourable alignment of the stars. The authors’ domestic, professional, financial and psychological circumstances all fell into sync, allowing them to travel far enough and long enough to confer credibility on the text.
Much of this work is wonderful, and my life would be diminished without it. But when any body of literature is produced by an unrepresentative social subset there will be consequences. It’s bound to be limited in perspective. And it’s likely to have an excluding effect, as people outside that subset look in and feel there’s no place for them there.
An excellent recent anthology of memoir-based place writing is Ground Work, edited by the admirable Tim Dee.  One chapter describes a cottage in a picturesque and remote part of Karelia, a region spanning the present-day border of Finland and Russia. The author, a professor at a British university, explains that “as a family, we have often spent our summers here”.
Even while I continued to enjoy the writing, as a reader from a working-class background something inside me braced and tipped at this point. Triggers like this were essentially the reason why, as a young person, I lost any sense of a potential place for me in the literary world and gave up writing poetry for 20 years.
Class is far from the only component of identity where barriers emerge – in place writing, as in society. In his introduction to Ground Work Dee laments that he “failed to find anything other than white contributors”. Jessica J Lee, editor of The Willowherb Review – a journal dedicated to diversifying the social composition of nature writing – reflects:
It’s… a bit of a chicken and egg problem. If writers of colour in particular don’t see themselves reflected in publishing, writers considering entering the field might not pursue it. With nature writing, I think, that’s a particularly acute problem. Because it’s not just the publishing barrier; it’s the nature barrier, the fact that communities of colour don’t see themselves represented in natural spaces or in environmental movements. We have such low numbers statistically of people of colour visiting national parks, which compounds the issue. 
The poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie goes a step further in sketching out a recognisable stereotype of the place writer:
…when a bright, healthy and highly educated young man jumps on the sleeper train and heads [to Scotland], with the declared intention of seeking ‘wild places’, my first reaction is to groan. It brings out in me a horrible mix of class, gender and ethnic tension. What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! 
Place writing has issues, then, with the social composition of its authorship, and there are good reasons to try and address these. Meanwhile, if you’re a place writer and your circumstances mean Nunavut is out of reach, what are your options? One is to shift the focus and follow the old dictum of writing about what you know.
Kevin Boniface’s Round About Town  is a diary of observations made by the author while on his delivery rounds as a postal worker in small-town Yorkshire. His human tableaux are neatly sketched, but the real art lies in the author’s restraint. The scenes are sometimes charming, often absurd, occasionally dysfunctional, and Boniface leaves you to decide which is which.
For another example, Gareth E Rees’s Car Park Life  is a sort of post-psychogeographical survey of, as the title suggests, car parks up and down Britain. You can’t quite tell where his self-deprecation ends and the serious stuff of social observation and history begins – which can be a bit disorientating but is completely apposite.
Both of these are engaging reads, representing place writing at its most vital and relevant. But I’d already written about what I knew. My first pamphlet of poetry, Sheffield Almanac,  is an extended study of the place I’m more familiar with than any other. Its observations came from several years of walking Sheffield’s hills and rivers, sitting on buses and in pubs, absorbing the voices and currents of the city.
And while Sheffield has the M1 and the A57, there are no roads to Nunavut. This continued to fascinate me (in the old sense of the word, which implies a certain helplessness and compulsion). I wanted to write about Nunavut. And I didn’t know how, because I had never visited the place and quite possibly never would.
Then I remembered the most beautiful book in my house – the Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky  – and its devastating subtitle “Fifty islands I have not visited and never will”.
In her preface Schalansky writes of growing up in totalitarian East Germany, where Olympic athletes were the only citizens allowed to leave the country. Inspired by a nature documentary about the Galapagos Islands, she reaches for an atlas. Her finger crosses the Atlantic to South America and traces the coastline around Tierra del Fuego, before her mother points out the short cut of the Panama Canal: “And thus I undertook my first voyage round the world.”
Schalansky goes on to characterise the appeal of isolated locations and explore the deeply nuanced nature of both the making and the reading of maps. For the extreme islomaniac, compelled to obsess over places like St Kilda and Tristan da Cunha, reading an atlas is a transaction predicated on a desire which can never be fulfilled. And if its end is impossible then this frustrated desire becomes an end in itself:
This longing will always be great, far greater than any satisfaction to be had by attaining what is desired. Give me an atlas over a guidebook any day. There is no more poetic book in the world.
Entries in the Atlas of Remote Islands comprise historical anecdotes which may be fact, fiction or a bit of both – but to dwell on the issue of veracity, Schalanksy says, would be to miss the point.
All text in the book is based on extensive research and every detail stems from factual sources. I have not invented anything. However I was the discoverer of the sources, researching them through ancient and rare books and I have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover.
Here was my lightbulb moment. What if I returned to my Nunavut poem having taken a leaf from Schalansky’s book? What if I continued to write about the place, but in a new way, which would acknowledge that I’d never been there?
There was no need, I realised, to write as if I regularly hang out in downtown Iqaluit and hope nobody would notice that I was faking it. Instead I would embrace and even foreground the fact that my knowledge of Nunavut was second-hand. Rather than ancient and rare texts, I would transform and appropriate material from Wikipedia, YouTube and Google Earth. I would acknowledge that these sources might be unreliable, and make it part of the poem.
Over time my poem would acquire a protagonist who was journeying westwards around the northern hemisphere. Beginning in the Outer Hebrides, he would sail to Iceland and Greenland, travel on to Canada and Siberia, and return to Europe via the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. The narrative would go into detail about the landscapes and people he would encounter. It would refer occasionally to the limiting circumstances of his life back at home. And it would suggest, in one or two places, that the entire trip was necessarily imagined or virtual.
Hemisphere is available now as a short book published by Longbarrow Press. It won’t rectify all that is unrepresentative and skewed about the perspectives of place writing. But among its several concerns is an invitation to consider who is allowed to write about places. Consider this invitation extended to you.
 Jonathan Cape, 2018
 ‘Fresh Voices in Nature Writing’, interview with Five Books
 ‘A Lone Enraptured Male’, London Review of Books vol. 30 no. 5, 6 March 2008
 Uniformbooks, 2018
 Influx Press, 2019
 Longbarrow Press, 2017
 Penguin, 2010
Illustrations by Abi Goodman.
Hemisphere is published by Longbarrow Press as a 48-page ‘short book’, with illustrations by artist Abi Goodman. You can order the book securely by clicking on the relevant PayPal button below. Click here to read the first section of Hemisphere. Join us for the online launch of Hemisphere on Thursday 2 December 2021 (7.30pm start, free); click here to register.
A film-poem called All At Once ( from A 2020 )
Over the last few years or so – and especially during that span of time named 2020, when selves were so fixed into such small zones of living … and far too many were dying – I read and read about ‘place’. I’ve been ‘digging in’ to what it is – or what it might be – that gives us our moments … of breathing. And towards the end of Jeff Malpas’s Place and Experience – A Philosophical Topography I found these words by the German film auteur Wim Wenders (from In Defence of Places):
We all suffer, in this 21st Century, from an intense amount of exchangeable images and exchangeable stories, and a terrible withdrawal from first-hand experience. It leads, slowly but steadily, to an ongoing loss of reality, and to the loss of belief once more, in the story-telling capacity of places. According to the indigenous people of Australia, places die if they are not kept alive, and so do we, along with them.
And at the beginning of Place and Experience Malpas quotes from Wordsworth’s Michael:
If from the public way you turn your steps
Up the tumultuous brook of Greenland Gill
. . . one subject which you might pass by,
Might see and notice not. Beside the brook
Appears a struggling heap of unhewn stones!
And to that simple object appertains
A story . . .
During 2020, I also received some extraordinary images from film-maker Henry Iddon – they were of the English Lake District bereft of people. (The resulting poem and film-poem follows below.) And although I am someone who has frequented the Lakes’ mountains and crags since I was a child, and has since lamented the overcrowding – and loss of ‘loved’ places caused by the inundation of what can too easily seem to be just one conglomerate tourist mind (of which some part of some me is a part) – Henry Iddon’s footage of un-peopled (s)p(l)aces shocked me.
There are for us, it seems, so many competing futures. So many glances this way or that, and so many story––––lines … leading away … so many images of ‘brave new worlds’ to be explored … and promises of no ‘final frontiers’ … meanwhile here on Earth … so many scenes of a planet being desecrated. But planets cannot be desecrated – only peoples’ places can be. And we do not live – survive! – on a threatened planet, we only threaten our place on it. Something utterly unknown to us – beyond our pale stories – beyond our crowds of fluttering hopes, and beyond what we now call our ‘planet’ – ‘something’ so other to us could so easily go on without our consciousness of it … and beings beyond our imaginations will evolve after us. The only certainty is: places exist for us only as long as there are people to breathe them.
All At Once
the lake beneath
hills, vales & trees
along the margin
of a glance
see the way
in their heads
but little thought
along the margin
of a glance
of a glance
and solitude’s dance
all at once
a person there
along this margin
a person and
see edges of
and dark gaps
All At Once – film poem by Henry Iddon & Mark Goodwin:
Mark Goodwin‘s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017), Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), and 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.
Henry Iddon’s lens-based practice concerns finding new ways, and reasons, to look at environments and places. His aim to produce work that is multilayered and that can educate and inform audiences. Lens-based work has been mediated and disseminated through traditional wall hung exhibitions, installations and workshops, book works, news print publications, online and through film screenings. His work is in various public collections including The Wordsworth Trust, Grundy Art Gallery, North West Film Archive, University of Tucson Library, Library of New South Wales. Click here to visit his website.
Somewhere in Tethys’ salty darkness,
in spurts of milt and billowing roe, eels
are birthing their posterity, a spore-storm of eggs
in uncountable centillions, each buoyed
on its micron of oil.
The European Eel is a book-length poem focused on the lifecycle, natural history and conservation status of the European eel (Anguilla anguilla). In this essay, I will discuss the origin and development of the poem, its place in the context of contemporary writing about nature, and the research hypotheses that emerged to shape its distinctive form, content and presentation. In writing this piece I’m giving an account of my own work and process. This brings with it the triple risks of pomposity, self-aggrandisement and giving positive reviews to your own work, so I’ll apologise for those things in advance.
The European eel is a critically endangered fish that until the 1980s made up to 50% of the piscine biomass in some Western European river systems. In England, eels were staples of the national diet
until well into the 20th century and were so common (and valuable) that many estates and individuals paid their rents and taxes in eels. Over the last fifty years, European eels have experienced a catastrophic decline, with recruitment of young eels to some catchments reduced by 99%. The species was added to the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix II in 2007, and to Annex B of the EU’s Wildlife Trade Regulations in 2009, both listings having the effect of banning international trade in the species. In 2013, the European eel was red-listed as a ‘critically endangered’ species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). The reasons for the eel’s decline are still not fully understood, but include a range of anthropogenic factors, including pollution; the impact of the absorption of chemicals, drug metabolytes and heavy metals on the fish’s physiology and reproductive capacity; commercial over-exploitation; drainage of marsh and fen; intensive management of waterways; fragmentation of river catchments by weirs, dams and hydro-electric plants; debilitation by introduced parasites; and the impact of global warming on ocean currents and spawning conditions.
I have a longstanding relationship with the European eel. As an inept schoolboy angler in the late 1970s it was the only fish I ever caught, even when my mates were hauling in pike, perch, barbel, chub, etc. In 1977 I was bitten by an eel, which creates a sort of Peter Parker/Spiderman relationship between me and the eel—perhaps it made me a were-eel—I do go missing in the darkmoon. And of course, my eely surname is often given slippery etymologies deriving from Old English—‘eel-island’ or ‘eel place’ or ‘eel-like’ or ‘eel-catcher’. Bearing all this in mind all this autobiographical eeliness, it is perhaps surprising that it took me so long to get around to writing about eels.
The European Eel developed out of the praxis I developed in the writing of my pamphlet Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah: The Song of the Willow Tit (which, like The European Eel, is superbly illustrated by P.R. Ruby). In 2017 I became aware that the Willow tit, a species I was familiar with in my youth, had declined by 94% in less than 50 years and as a result had been red-listed by the IUCN. Motivated to find out more, I re-acquainted myself with the species as a birder in the field, contacted conservation professionals in the RSPB, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and Back from the Brink, and conducted what was effectively a literature review of work focused on the species. I also attended Willow tit-focused meetings and conferences organised by Back from the Brink and developed my own ‘guerrilla’ conservation and habitat management work. In the process I became something of a lay specialist (and a rough and ready citizen scientist) in the species. Alongside this engagement with nature and conservation, poems began to emerge, quite unexpectedly. The poems ultimately resulted in Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah: The Song of the Willow Tit, which was published by Wild West Press in May 2018. The pamphlet was launched at YWT Carlton Marsh in South Yorkshire, a relative stronghold for the species.
Nature Writing Fit for the Anthropocene?
In the writing of Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah, it dawned on me that I had stumbled on a method that had the potential to provide the basis for a kind of writing about nature that had the potential to be ecologically and ethically credible in the context of the Anthropocene and the age of the Sixth Extinction. The last decade has seen a significant increase in creative writing about the natural world in a range of genres, including creative non-fiction, collections of themed essays, autobiographically derived work, fiction and poetry. Much of this output has been marketed under the banner of the ‘New Nature Writing’, a term coined by Jason Cowley in a 2008 edition of the literary magazine Granta that highlighted the rise to prominence of authors including Mark Cocker, Kathleen Jamie and Robert Macfarlane. However, a review of the wider literature marketed as (new) nature writing in recent years indicates that the engagement with the natural world that characterises some titles is relatively superficial, with some authors seeming to use nature simply as a sympathetic backdrop to the main themes and content of the writing—journeys of self-discovery, trajectories into family issues, overcoming trauma and similar. Although many of these books are very well-written and moving pieces of literature—without doubt, good books—the extent to which they can be considered ‘nature writing’ per se is open to question, given that their primary focus is generally on the central human protagonist rather than the natural object and, crucially, that the level of knowledge and experience of the natural world demonstrated is sometimes limited or incidental. There is also a sense in which some writing branded as nature writing is pastoral writing in the traditional, escapist sense—in which jaded, troubled or sick central characters resort to nature to be healed or edified—contemporary versions of the Idylls of Theocritus. This protagonistic mode often lacks the ethically driven commitment to conservation and knowledge of the natural object that is surely required of writing about nature in the crisis of the Anthropocene. Bearing those considerations in mind, the experience of writing Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah helped me develop three research hypotheses during the planning of The European Eel that consciously informed the writing:
- Grounding nature writing in scientific research, ecological commitment and direct, sustained experience of the natural object will provide the basis for writing about nature that will have scientific as well as literary credibility and will have the potential to contribute in an informed way to debate about the ecological and human crises of the Anthropocene.
- Writing that emerges from an engagement with scientific research, ecological commitment and direct, sustained experience of the natural object will show the influence of those factors in the writing itself, in the foregrounding of the natural object, the nature of the language used, the forms and structures adopted and in an expression that seeks to create its effects as much by the artful deployment of empirically and experientially derived knowledge as by rhetorical means.
- It is possible for writing emerging from the processes implied in the previous two hypotheses to nevertheless demonstrate a sophisticated and reflexive artistic subjectivity that constitutes affective, non-didactic art.
Researching The European Eel
I resolved to intensively study European eels and once more become a kind of ‘lay specialist’, so that I might be an evangelist for the species and perhaps even make a modest contribution to raising awareness of its plight. Accordingly, before beginning the actual writing of the poem I undertook the following research:
- I conducted an extensive review of the relevant scientific literature—over 30 books/monographs, over 200 journal articles and dozens of technical webpages, not merely focusing on the eel, but its environments and contexts—river systems, ocean currents, ocean floor bathymetry, weather systems, angling, the eel in culture and society, the eel in culinary contexts, and even astronomy as it impinges on the eel.
- I met and corresponded with several leading academics working in the field of fisheries science, biology and conservation, including Dr Matthew Gollock of the Zoological Society of London, Professor Paul Kemp of the University of Southampton, and Dr Bram Houben of Nederlands Ark. I also attended several conferences, including one sponsored by the Environment Agency, the UK organisation charged with maintaining the ecological health of our waterways.
- I took part in scientific/conservation work related to the European eel, surveying eels in the river Roding in London with Norwegian biologist Hette Hultmann and consulting with Pete Wall of the YWT, who introduced over 100,000 elvers (young eels) to the RSPB reserve at Old Moor, near Barnsley.
- I conducted amateur field research along the rivers Severn and Ouse and on several small streams of the Don catchment, successfully testing a hypothesis I had developed that eels were able to thrive in very small streams. Bram Houben very kindly gave me a tour of some of the sites along the Dutch Rhine where he is leading a rewilding project, including the reintroduction of beaver, otter, and sturgeon.
- I trapped (and released!) several eels, and I kept one of them in an aquarium for three months, observing its behaviour daily, before returning it to the place where I had caught it.
This work began in the autumn of 2018. I began writing The European Eel in the autumn of 2019. I completed the poem in March 2020.
She perceives only light and darkness now,
the spatial acuity of predatory vision
a redundant inefficiency: six thousand
black and fasting miles to the spawning grounds
of the southern Sargasso, over the edge of the Nares Abyssal,
south-east of the Bermuda Ridge.
The Structure of The European Eel
The poem imagines the life-story of a single, representative European eel—the one I caught in the Frickley beck on 12 May, 2019, kept in an aquarium for observation and released back into the beck on 30 August, 2019. With stunning banality, I named her ‘little eel’. Her life story as narrated in the poem is representative of every European eel that survives to reproduce. All European eels are spawned in the Sargasso Sea (a huge area of the North Atlantic Ocean broadly south/east of Bermuda). After two days the eggs hatch into microscopic larvae or leptocephali, which drift on the currents of the North Atlantic Gyre for two and a half years, eventually growing to around 7cm in length, the attainment of this size coinciding with the time they reach the European continental shelf. At this point they metamorphose into glass eels—tiny transparent eels—and ascend into estuaries and rivers, where they develop pigment and become elvers. Most eels are born sexually indeterminate, but as the elvers grow larger and become so-called yellow eels, they take on definitive sex. Male yellow eels tend to stay in estuaries and the lower reaches of rivers and generally grow to no more than 50cm in length—usually closer to 40cm. Female yellow eels travel further up the river systems and can grow to 120cm or more, although 45–100cm is more typical. A yellow eel is essentially a feeding machine. They live for years in their waters, growing until they are physiologically ready to transform again, this time into silver eels. The morphological changes eels undergo in ‘silvering’ are designed to adapt them for oceanic travel, and in the autumn of the year of silvering, they begin their journey back to Sargasso to breed, a journey that probably takes around six months—possibly longer. Male yellow eels tend to silver after around 8 years in freshwater. Females silver after about 15 years. However, some yellow eels achieve great age without silvering—captive ones, generally females, have lived for over 80 years.
With great good luck, ‘little eel’ began silvering in my aquarium. This enabled me to create an indicative timeline of her life. Assuming she was an ‘average’ female, she would have entered the Humber estuary fifteen years previously, in the spring of 2004, and thus would have been spawned in the Sargasso in the spring of 2001. After I returned her to the beck, in August 2019, ‘little eel’ would have continued her transformation, and probably would have begun her migration (‘descent’) in the heavy rains of late September, travelling along the Frickley beck to the Ea beck; from there into the river Don; from there into the Dutch River; from the Dutch River into the river Ouse at Goole; from there into the Humber estuary at Blacktoft; from the Humber into the North Sea beyond Hull; from the North Sea to the Channel, and from there out into the open Atlantic to the Azores, from where she would complete her journey to Sargasso by means of the North Atlantic Gyre. Arrival in the spawning grounds would be sometime between April and June 2020. There she would complete her transformation, mate, spawn and die. (All eels die immediately after breeding and spawning.) The reconstructed lifecycle, timescale and journeying of ‘little eel’ provides the tripartite structure of the poem:
- Oceanic hatching and journey to Frickley beck
- Capture, three months in my aquarium and return to the beck
- Migration to Sargasso, spawning and death
The content of the poem—the lifecycle of the European eel, embodied in the imagined life of a representative eel—effectively decided the form of the piece. It is a monological epic, with ‘little eel’ as the hero. This represents a departure from my usual practice, as virtually all my longer poems are dialogical and polyphonic. The form emerged spontaneously as a direct consequence of the decision to focus on the natural history of the natural object. But I wasn’t just interested in maintaining a close focus on the eel. I was also keen to discharge what I saw as an ethical and pedagogical responsibility to showcase the wider geographical, topographical, oceanographical, ecological (and so on) context of the eel’s incredible story—one of the greatest stories in nature, truly awesome, awe-inspiring and humbling—and to inventory the huge range of threats eels face, which include: fragmentation of river systems by weirs, dams and sluices; dredging of rivers; drainage of wetlands; debilitation by introduced parasitic nematodes; various forms of pollution, including cocaine metabolytes in sewage, which makes eels hyperactive before killing them, and oestrogen, also from sewage, which turns a disproportionate number of sexually indeterminate eels female, impacting on the species’ reproductive ability; over-exploitation of elvers for food (now illegal, but there is a significant underground trade, with elvers being worth more than their weight in gold), particularly for South-East Asian markets; disruption of ocean currents caused by global warming. The poem narrates the eel’s lifecycle, epic migration and natural historical context in a paradoxical panoramic microdetail—because only in doing so can justice be done to—and for—this astonishing fish. Anything less diminishes.
It is interesting to test the poem that emerged from my research and planning against the three research hypotheses I developed. Again, I’m evaluating my own work, so the reader should conduct a hermeneutic of suspicion.
My first research hypothesis asserted that grounding the writing of the poem in scientific research, ecological commitment, and direct, sustained experience of the natural object would provide the basis for writing about nature that would have scientific as well as literary credibility, and might therefore contribute in an informed way to debate about the ecological and human crises of the Anthropocene. I think the poem vindicates the hypothesis. The engagement with research that informed the piece is clear, as is the ecological commitment. The natural object is foregrounded, protagonism is limited to the structurally necessary middle section, and the piece is, I hope, not exploitative or parasitic. The poem has the potential to educate and inform the poetry reading public and be an adjunct to scientific research.
The second hypothesis asserted that writing emerging from an engagement with scientific research, ecological commitment and direct, sustained experience of the natural object will show the influence of those factors in the foregrounding of the natural object, the nature of the language used, the forms and structures adopted and in an expression that seeks to create its effects as much by the artful deployment of empirically, experimentally and experientially derived knowledge as by rhetorical means. Again, I feel that the poem vindicates the hypothesis. The poem is replete with scientific and technical language to the degree that a distinctive register is achieved, and the engagement with research that underpins it echoes through its structure and language. The natural subject is foregrounded, in a largely non-anthropomorphic manner. The poem’s epic monology, a deviation from my usual dialogic, polyphonic practice when composing longer poems, emerges directly from the ethos and praxis implied in this hypothesis.
The third hypothesis asserted that it is possible for writing that is shaped by the first two hypotheses to nevertheless demonstrate a sophisticated and reflexive artistic subjectivity that constitutes affective, but non-didactic art. I believe that the principles embodied in the first two hypotheses led directly to the vindication of the third hypothesis, in the specific and unexpected sense that the decision to imagine in detail the lifecycle of the European eel paradoxically highlighted the elisions, lacunae and uncertainties in our knowledge of the species, and created in me an overwhelming sense of its enigma and otherness. This produced a speculative expression that infuses a religious or spiritual aspect into what began as a strictly scientific project and broadens the focus from the European eel to the cosmic context of life on Earth. I’ll conclude with some reflections on this unexpected development.
Artistic expression is not like academic expression. The artist is never in full, conscious control of the upwelling of utterance—even if the work is planned, researched and mapped-out according to self-imposed didactic and formal constraints, as was The European Eel. The artist cannot be merely the executive automaton of their blueprints and intentions—which in any case, are in a state of continual development as the unconscious and unexpected repeatedly intervene to enrich, warp and thwart the project. There has to be space for spontaneity, for the transformative imagination. Luckily for me, because so much of the lifecycle and ecological context of the European eel is unknown or merely hypothesised—that is, as much defined by absence as by presence—it leaves lots of space in which the imagination can roam. As I have said earlier, the subject matter seemed to demand epic monology and the identification of a representative European eel as a hero. Those were technical and structural choices. But in imagining the lifecycle and journeying of the eel so fully, in so much detail, in the context of its presenting absences, the piece slowly transfigured into a form of occult conjuration—out of its ontological tohuwabohu a questing omniscience conjured the eel—and there it is, in its absolute fullness—as it’s never been, and almost certainly isn’t. My intention to render a scientific account of the life-cycle and journeying of the European eel paradoxically led to the development of a supplanting shadow narrative born out of science’s inability to provide a complete or satisfactory account of the life of the eel—or for that matter the purpose and nature of life itself, of the nature of the Universe, or satisfactory answers to what theologians call ‘ultimate questions’—questions that deal with meaning, values and purpose—which remain essentially dark. They can’t tell me what I want to know. Thus, the internal pressures of the poem’s dynamic force it to become speculative, generative, religious—where rationality and empirical evidence falls short, irrationality and imagination step in. As the poem progresses, the eel is increasingly presented as uncanny—an alien, supernatural being, literally from another dimension. Aleister Crowley’s technique for Astral Projection began with him visualising an image of himself, which he called his ‘Body of Light’, into which he magically projected his consciousness. Using this vehicle, he could then travel through space and time. In The European Eel I have created a ‘Body of Dark’ for the eel and projected the species into it. As the poem travels through spacetime, the method and expression become more or less overtly gnostic—uncovering what is hidden, revealing secrets and asserting vision and meaning.
The European Eel is published by Longbarrow Press as an 80-page hardback, with illustrations by award-winning artist P.R. Ruby. You can order the book securely by clicking on the relevant PayPal button below. Click here for further details about the book. You can also read an extract from The European Eel here.
The European Eel
Steve Ely’s poetry publications include Oswald’s Book of Hours (Smokestack, 2013), Englaland (Smokestack, 2015), Incendium Amoris (Smokestack, 2017), Bloody, proud and murderous men, adulterers and enemies of God (The High Window Press, 2018), Jubilate Messi (Shearsman, 2018), Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah (Wild West Press, 2018) and Lectio Violant (Shearsman, 2021). He has also published a novel, Ratmen (Blackheath Books, 2012), and a biographical work, Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made in Mexborough (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield.
I would like to share my feelings for stone & wood. Especially the shapes that they can make together, and that in turn can make memories solid … and though such memories will weather, their crisp shapes don’t diminish.
To climb is to ‘place’ – very carefully – one’s feet & hands & body. This placing of parts of one’s self so as to fit stone holds or tree branches makes a series of very small but intense places. Places that one visits with touch. The old friend of a rock-hold, or that companion crux made where a certain branch meets a certain trunk. In winter that crux holds a small cold pool of black water one-knuckle-deep, and in summer it is a dusty socket. And that rock-hold, green and treacherous all winter, then suddenly in spring … it gives back to you its edges & friction. Such holds are places in miniature, and because they are miniature they are condensed. So potent.
Wood & stone make good company. I think of parts of Burbage Edge, in the Peak District, where gritstone & oak commune, or Gardom’s Edge where the woods & grit do impressions of each other, affectionately mock each other’s shapes & textures. Places where lichen makes faces at us whilst the upholstery of moss invites us to recline.
One of the very best places I know for becoming involved with the trysts of rock & wood is in Charnwood, Leicestershire. And there is one particular spot, one intricate landscape in miniature, not far from an active monastery called Mount St Bernard Abbey. The focus of this place is Oaks Pinnacle – a small but elegant balancing of one block atop another, accompanied by a young robust oak tree. The rock is ‘weathered Precambrian slate agglomerate’, and is as good as mountain rhyolite. It has that same immediate deep ancient buzz of hardness that so lets a climber feel the intensity of their so very brief moments upon it. The horizontal break below the perched block allows light to pass through the pinnacle. You can see and feel why such a location would be revered as magical. No doubt Druids made their place here in the ancient past. And the monastery nearby, no doubt, was placed in honour of the religious charge already given to the ground hereabouts. Apparently, one should not hang around Oaks Pinnacle at dusk. One should go home, seek shelter, and leave the old gods to haunt themselves. But just before twilight, and whilst the bells of the monastery are tolling, just as the fall of light to the west slants its last orangely through the companion oak’s branches … it is irresistibly beautiful …
The main climb, some 6m in height, is called Central Route. In the guidebook – Leicestershire Climbs – this little route is given a grade of Very Severe, not at all hard by modern standards. It is also given three stars, to signal its fine aesthetic qualities. Central Route – such an obvious name, as indeed this VS rises … centrally … bisecting the pinnacle’s algae-coated north face. And although on some evenings I’ve thought of other names for it, such as Oaks Oddity or Druidic Agglomerate, in the end, it being so prosaically and classically named is actually potent. This matter-of-fact label – Central Route – is typical of many Victorian climbs, so often named simply for their obvious features … and such no-nonsense, masculine ‘taxonomy’ has been carried on into later decades. And so here, in Leicestershire, this prosaic tag echoes poetically bigger climbs on far greater crags to the north or the west, waiting in the mountains that I have missed so much of late. There is here for me a concentrated whiff of elsewheres that only thickens the thisness of here. There is of course no abseil required to escape this pinnacle’s summit … one’s body is invited to simply step into the branches of the close oak and so descend via wood.
The rub of skin on bark, or the rub of wood against stone. Just as sleep tips us. Just as our bed becomes vertical and we feel ourselves fall gorge
ously into the space of s leep below us …
… the old familiar resistance of stone’s touch and the s way of pliant branches, the storms that w ear away parts of our world and also the breezes that gently rattle twigs … they come along with us into our sleep … and we dream of them … and our dreams c reak …
So many years ago, as a very young man, I dreamt, rather vividly, and then wrote a poem. I dug it out the other day, reminded of it by Nikki’s photo at the start of this piece – an image of such a long conversation of wood with stone. I never got round to publishing that poem … it feels as if it has been waiting. The poem is dedicated to a close friend – Jonny Mitchell – who back in the 80s was one of Leicestershire’s climbing activists. Jonny still climbs every now and again on Peak District gritstone. He was closely involved with the climbing development of The Brand – a quaint & pretty old slate quarry in Swithland, actually situated in the expansive garden of the one-time Lord Lieutenant of Leicestershire. In 1988 Jonny put up, directly above the old quarry’s pool, a three-star climb, which he named Splash, and graded as Extreme 3. A tryst between climber, slate & water! When I climbed with Jonny, in the 90s, he was also a tree-surgeon, and so he was as much at home in trees as he was on rock. On a number of occasions we went tree climbing in Leicestershire. And sometimes we would trespass across Charnwood’s precious properties in search of, what climbers call, Crag X. A Crag X is a crag of the imagination – that as-yet unfound gem that has somehow been missed by generations of climbers. In all climbing areas, and throughout time, there are always rumours of actual Crag Xs … with actual projections of solid climbs. I’m daft enough to still look out for such crags in Charnwood … and often in woodland I’m fooled … the lines of trunks & the crack-like squiggles of branches morph into the beckoning form of some fantastic buttress …
Anyway, these are memories, and are as much defined by crisp lines as what has been worn away. Here is that poem … made in another world in another time:
for climbs in woodland, found
the curved puzzling limbs of beech –
smooth skinned and ladder-easy but
punctuated with sudden cruxes. We greened
our hands on algae’d willow, balanced
on bendy branches, risked
willow-wood’s swift crack. We read
many meanings of leaves, named
all the names we knew
we’d climbed amongst. We jumped
from one woodpecker-pocket to the next. We clung
to the blank challenges of trunks. Thrutched.
Weeks later I dreamed we’d scoured
an expanse of sloping woodland
tree-to-tree to identify
criss-cross promises of branches.
Then suddenly we stumbled on it – a new crag ! It stretched
a mile or more along a scarp amongst
a crowd of guardian trees.
We whooped. We ran
to touch its rock. We found
the whole crag
was carved hard woods.
The word crux for a climber denotes the most difficult part of a climb. However, the crux formed by a branch meeting a trunk more often provides an easy hold, and so, in the poem the use of the word crux is ambiguous. Trees can, however, and often do, have difficult moves, or cruxes in the climbing sense.
Here is the route description for Central Route, from Leicestershire Climbs:
Central Route 6m VS 4c ***
A superb route going direct up the middle of the front face. Sharp holds lead you to a horizontal fist-jamming break. You can see daylight through this break. Finish by laying away up the sharp crack. [The first ascensionists are not given in the guidebook.]
And here is the description of Jonny’s climb, in The Brand:
Splash 21 m E3 5c ***
The climb takes the discontinuous flake crack in the wall to the left of Rhythm Collision from a nut belay 1.5m to the left (Rocks 3 and 4) at water level. Move diagonally right and climb the flake crack (in situ wire). J. Mitchell and E. Jones, June 1988.
Pages from the original 1993 Leicestershire Climbs guidebook can be found via the following links. The guidebook, especially regarding The Brand, includes interesting general historical information.
Oaks Pinnacle: http://www.leicesterclimbs.f9.co.uk/OakspinnacleI.htm
Photos, of Oaks Pinnacle & miniature environs, by Nikki Clayton.
Mark Goodwin‘s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017), Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), and 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:
Back in the early 2000s I was commissioned to write a performance piece for Signposts, Sheffield’s one-time Literature Development Agency. I created a sequence of poems for two voices entitled ‘Beyond the City’. One character is a widower who is marking the anniversary of the death of his wife by returning to favoured Peak District haunts; the other speaker is a young woman (Jenny) who, after coming to terms with a failed relationship, is about to leave Sheffield to teach English abroad. The parallel narratives take place over a twenty-four hour period: we follow the two individuals as they negotiate the city and its outer edges on foot, by car, bus and aeroplane. The poem ends with Jenny peering out of an aircraft’s window as the city disappears from view.
On reflection, I can see that my current project, Little Piece of Harm, draws on a number of tropes from ‘Beyond the City’, giving the current project impetus, structure and focus. How far I repeat myself as a writer is something that preoccupies me, not wanting to live in a creative cul-de-sac – but I understand I have a ‘trove’ of themes that I knowingly keep dipping into. In the short term, this clustering of motifs acts as a positive organising principle: after all, poetry books hang together better if they are threaded through with recurring or overlapping ideas and images. The worry for any poet is if you keep writing the same kind of poem, or repeat the same mannerisms and verbal tics in work over and over again.
Little Piece of Harm takes place over the course of an afternoon, evening and into the morning of the next day. In the first half of the sequence, Pete, the narrator, traipses along roads and over fields partly in reaction to the town centre being in lockdown. He then gets a taxi back toward the industrial, eastern quarter of Sheffield. Consequently, Pete walks back into the city centre and catches a bus home just after dawn. All along, our narrator meets people who have things to say about the pivotal event of the day: the shooting of a policeman. In between talking to these citizens, he has time to reflect on the fact his wife has moved back home to Toronto taking Finn, their son, with her.
I have often written about men who are troubled by their circumstances, usually because they have lost or forfeited loving relationships. In ‘Beyond the City’ Joseph is mourning the loss of his wife. In the prison poems I wrote after spending a year as a writer-in-residence at HMP Nottingham, men often reflect on the absence of women or consider ways they can connect with partners who are ‘over the wall’. In another narrative-driven poem, ‘Every Time We Met’, the main character, Ed, reestablishes contact with Greg, an old associate, so he can see Leigh again (Greg’s wife) who he had a longstanding affair with. This lack of companionship is a theme that undeniably percolates through my work. I attribute this focus to putting different kinds of masculinity under pressure, exploring its vulnerabilities, and I think I use the absence of a partner as a wider interrogation of the idea of ‘home’ too. I’ve focused for many years on notions of what constitutes the idea of home for a wide range of people. In Little Piece of Harm this equation is further complicated by the fact that Pete is missing his wife and son. One of the things I ask myself in this sequence, which I haven’t done before at length in a fictional form, is what it means to be a parent, or perhaps more fundamentally, what it means to be a good parent and citizen.
Sheffield is a central character in both ‘Beyond the City’ and Little Piece of Harm. I know this is something I keep returning to, the city’s environs. It is a creative itch that I’ve been scratching for over twenty years now. I was asked recently about Little Piece of Harm leaning on particular Sheffield references (place names in particular) and the role of the local/parochial in poetry. Part of my reply focused on the concept of believability and that I needed some level of specificity to help me conjure the world I was writing about. I also said how much I admired the work of the Yorkshire poet Stanley Cook, who explored less fashionable areas of Sheffield (and South Yorkshire) in a range of his poems from the second half of the twentieth century.
I was particularly pleased that, although they are not mentioned by name, I stitch two rivers into the fabric of this new sequence: the Rivelin, and the Don. The Rivelin rolls into Sheffield from the west of the city; the Don flows southwards toward the centre of town, then bends eastwards toward the flatlands of East Yorkshire. Pete and Niamh cross the Rivelin when they pass over ‘Hollins Bridge’ in the poem ‘Someone Else’s Child’. Pete follows the Don (via the Five Weirs Walk) back into the city when he gets dropped off by the taxi driver near Meadowhall shopping centre later on in the work. For what it’s worth, I could trace Pete’s entire journey over the afternoon and evening of the narrative if you gave me an OS map of the city. That kind of specificity helped me write the pieces. More importantly, one of the reasons why I return to and focus on particular locales in Sheffield is that the majority of the characters are tied or bound to the city by deeply ingrained memories. The sequence oscillates between the here and now (about eighteen hours of time in present tense) and memories that tail back years. The city is a palimpsest that provides texture and depth to individuals’ comprehension of place, and to the overall narrative of their lives. My characters’ ‘views’ are configured, metaphorically speaking, by the patterns of house lights across the hillside, and the street lamps that thread the midnight plain.
I’ve written extensively about the Don before in the sequence ‘At the End of the Road, a River’ (2005). I said I would never write about prison again after writing a long poem called ‘Sentences’ about a poet and his relationship with a drug dealer on remand, but in ‘The Window’s Dam’ George talks about his experiences of teaching a particularly infamous con painting when he was just out of college. I think, in practical terms, I drew on whatever I could to write this extended sequence – narratives I had considered before in other contexts and settings, and new material, new preoccupations. If I was to trawl the deep waters of influence, thinking about what shaped my choices and designs here, I would have to say that the image of the lone figure criss-crossing the city must derive, in part, from a very old fixation on Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s perpetual motion machine. Mixed in with this must be the impact that Paul Muldoon’s poem ‘Immram’ had on me when I first read it as a teenage boy: his piece employs the vocabulary and motifs of hard-boiled detective fiction to depict a quest narrative. This was one of the first poems I read that made me consider how contemporary poetry could be playful with form, diction and narrative.
As much as I would like to show you my clean ‘workings out’, the various answers to questions about influence and causation are scrunched up on my desk or crumpled in the waste-paper basket. I suppose what I hope for is that in revisiting themes and ideas I can tap into creative variations rather than circle toward blunt repetition. ‘Beyond the City’ is in so many ways a different creature from Little Piece of Harm, but it is also a trial run for my latest sequence of poems, with just a seventeen-year gap in between. Now that this project has been put to bed, I’m going to move on and write something completely fresh, contrasting, brand new – or, perhaps more realistically, something new and familiar to me at the same time.
Images by Emma Bolland.
When I settled on the opening line of ‘Blue Abandoned Van’, the piece that kicks off Little Piece of Harm (‘Rhyme all the ways a city battens down…’), I already had an inkling that I wanted to write a sequence that incorporated a range of poetic forms. As part of my preparations for the project, I decided that each piece would be written around the ‘scaffolding’ of rhyming structures. I have always been taken by rhyme and form: my earliest ‘proper’ poem was a sonnet; my first published poems (when I was a teenager) were rhyming quatrains. It’s something I’ve been doing for over thirty years, though it’s worth reflecting why I decided to adopt different stanzaic forms as a way of conveying the stories in this narrative.
In general terms, I do think that the properties of rhyme help drive along the story I want to tell. The third poem in my sequence, ‘Someone Else’s Child’, is written in terza rima, triplets of rhymes that figuratively hold hands from stanza to stanza. One of the reasons I chose to adopt this design for this particular story is because I was influenced by a Seamus Heaney poem (‘I had come to the edge of the water’) from his sequence ‘Station Island’. His piece recounts the death of a friend who was gunned down by terrorists after opening up his chemist shop in the middle of the night. Heaney’s (longish) poem zips by in the telling: partly because the rhymes cascade from one stanza to the next, those end words acting as a puttering motor that power the narrative along. The rhymes also have an element of finality about them or closure, pushing the work toward its inescapable climax. I wanted to replicate that sense of edginess and agency in my poem where a woman needs to go into school to confront her son about his potentially dangerous actions. I think the formal design of terza rima, how it makes you run on the lines and in doing so harness a persistent iambic beat, also enacts the rhythm of walking too. The two characters in the piece, Pete and Niamh, are walking down into the valley then uphill again as they converse: the formal pattern of the verse captures this embodiment of movement.
I also wanted to employ different formal structures because I hoped it would widen the tonal range of the sequence, make me explore the nuances of characters’ idiolects from poem to poem. I thought a distinctive patterned approach for each piece would mean that I would have to find new voices, new ways of articulating these significant happenings: most of the poems involve Pete, the narrator, meeting someone new on his journey around Sheffield and engaging with this bystander, this witness. For what it’s worth, pragmatically, I drew up a list of forms that I could employ – rhyming couplets, sonnet, ottava rima, rhyme royal, the Spenserian stanza, triplets and so on. When I came to begin a poem I rummaged through the forms I hadn’t used already and also reflected: how will this poem sound if I use this rhyming pattern, that prosodic template?
Without wanting to turn this into a trainspotter’s guide to English Literary Forms, the process of using these designs did make me think about antecedents I could draw on for help (or just for sustenance) as I was writing my poems. It was interesting that I kept returning to Romantic models of versifying as I went along: so, for instance, when I came to rhyme royal (stanza structure: pentameters adopting ABABBCC rhymes) I looked at Wordsworth’s peripatetic poem ‘Resolution and Independence’ for guidance. It’s also no coincidence (in terms of the thematic focus of the poem) that Pete comes upon an outlier, a woman who has turned her back on the city, in much the same way as Wordsworth’s narrator comes upon a leech gatherer out on the moors in his own heuristic encounter. When I was wrestling with the Spenserian stanza (stanza structure: pentameters adopting ABABBCBCC rhymes) I stood admiringly in the foothills of John Keats’s ‘The Eve of Saint Agnes’ – gazing up at its lofty heights. Though it’s not a lover who appears from out of the night when I riff on Keats’s cinematic poem, but a tetchy, exhausted policewoman. By the by, I thought it would be fitting for my narrator in the poem ‘A Wintering Bird’ to come on – by surprise – a taxi in the middle of the night (in the middle of nowhere) using the blueprint of Keats’s ode (stanza structure: pentameters adopting ABABCDECDE rhymes) to steer me through this chance meeting.
How successful I was in terms of modulating the tonal range of these dialogues I’ll leave up to my readership. On a compositional level, attempting all these different forms did help me persevere and work through the task at hand. At its most extreme, writing in a range of forms did actually change the way I drafted my work. The Spenserian stanza was certainly the hardest rhyme form I took on – just in terms of the abundance of rhymes I had to find from verse to verse. Usually, I pick out my rhymes as I go along – I look no more than two or three lines in front of where I am ‘standing’, to negotiate what I am going to write next (a torch-beam approach to advancement) – but with the Spenserian stanza I worked out all the end rhymes for each nine-line stanza first (on the right hand side of the page) and then in-filled the lines with ‘interstitial’ detail. Basically, you have to map out what you are going to say in each stanza before you begin the journey – it’s a ‘belt and braces’ approach I may well attempt again in the future.
On reflection, another reason why I formulated this catholic approach to design is because I enjoyed testing myself within these formal structures: the writing process was engaging, perhaps you could even say fun. I may be looking back now more dewy-eyed than the reality of it all, but I can say, hand on heart, that having this variety of forms did help me build an extended, multi-vocal narrative. The process took more years than I would care to mention – partly due to not having a clear idea what I was writing about at the beginning of the project. But one of the key things that helped me through this endeavour was enjoying the drafting process; perversely, the more difficult it got to create sense and structure, the more pleasure I had in finding new lines of progression. You have to extract gratification from the process of composition, however stuck the needle, or else there is no point in doing the writing.
I should also highlight here that not all of the poems in the sequence rhyme. One of the most pleasing aspects of developing Little Piece of Harm was finding a ‘compartmentalised’ but flexible way in which Pete could correspond with his estranged wife on the other side of the planet. I ended up devising these ‘renga’ texting pieces (after the classical Japanese form) where Pete and Kate make contact intermittently with each other via their cell-phones. I’ve also included a prose poem, and the final extended piece in the sequence is a ‘blank verse’ letter written by Pete to his son, Finn. I suppose the notion of the letter (or email) highlights how we all use forms/formats to frame those tangled, complex communications we impart to each other. Paradoxically, the formal structures I have employed here provide an open space for the utterances, speeches, conversations that spill out of the sequence, and allow for distinctive, individual voices to emerge as Pete circumnavigates this part-silenced, part-voluble city.
Images by Emma Bolland.
Usually I come to longer poems with a good idea of where I am heading in terms of the overall design of the project. I don’t go so far as to have post-it notes pinned to the wall detailing actions scene by scene, or graphs that outline the trajectory of a character’s situation, her mood and feelings. Because these longer pieces have been discrete or manageable enough to carry around in my head, I have always worked toward designated points in each sequence where key incidents occur. These markers act as narrative hinges on which I hang the rest of the story. For most of my projects, when I begin shaping the poems into some sort of order, I do have an end point, a definitive climax in mind.
With Little Piece of Harm I didn’t have this ‘safety net’ nailed in place. There were themes or ideas that I knew I wanted to incorporate in a longer sequence of poems. I did carry around this notion I wanted to write a ‘novel’ in verse. I have a lot of admiration for Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate – a scrupulously plotted, engaging narrative written in ‘Pushkin’ style sonnets. A couple of years ago I read Ben Borak’s verse-novel Donjong Heights and was impressed by its coupling of bespoke rhyming and narrative drive over the course of one hundred and fifty pages. I knew from early on in the planning of my project I wanted my story to take place over a continuous twenty-four-hour period of time. In terms of setting, I planned to write a sequence that explored the geographical reach of Sheffield, how its urban settings (main artery roads, shops, factories) rub up against what you might describe as rural landmarks (rivers, woods, fields) and vice versa. I have considered this kind of cross-pollination before in my sequence ‘At the End of the Road, a River’ where I tracked the route of the River Don as it flows through various terrains, though predominantly along the streets and factories of northern and eastern Sheffield. In this new work, I wanted to explore the city’s western outlook of hillsides, woods, ridges and reservoirs.
The plotting of Little Piece of Harm is a much more haphazard or partial blueprint to reconstruct. Early on, I established that I wanted to kick-start the storytelling by focusing on an event that would literally stop a city: after some deliberation, I decided on the shooting of a policeman as the ‘inciting incident’ for the sequence. How much this was going to be a central concern I didn’t know. Was this a terrorist incident? How much of the aftermath of the killing, the police search, the movements of the gunman, was I going to elaborate on? Essentially, I knew I wanted this act of violence to be a catalyst where the characters we meet in the story reflect on moments of crisis, departure or resolution in their own lives. Most of us come upon episodes of violence, premeditated or not, through the medium of social media or via our television screens. When I am confronted with these extraordinary situations, wherever they happen in the world (but particularly – perhaps more myopically – in Britain), I often think about how I would react if placed in the vicinity of an attack. At the same time, I reflect on what is important to me – my family, the relationships I have with a wider community of friends – as a way of coming to terms in my own mind with such terrible, life-changing acts.
Running parallel with this ‘major’ news story in the poem, I wanted to conjure up this narrator who is looking outward at what is happening to his city but is also preoccupied with personal issues of his own making. We see Pete – who acts as the chronicler for the majority of the sequence – walking out from familiar suburban streets into countryside, meeting people along the way, and talking to them, unbidden or not, about pivotal moments in their lives. Pete’s own story is addressed obliquely to begin with. I must admit I was working through the details of his own backstory as I was developing the sequence: it took me a number of years before the full nature of his own failings and disappointments came into focus. The structural issues that I had to keep returning to though were tying together the two dominant narrative designs: the shooting of the policeman (and how people reacted to this brutality), and Pete coming to terms with the fact that his wife and young son have left him to return to Canada.
How I came to some understanding whereby I found a way of tying together the ‘macro’ events with Pete’s own personal discomfort is perhaps best relayed through the original ideas I had for poems at the start of the project. The first two poems I had a tangible grasp of – that I knew I wanted to include in the sequence – involve a woman who attempts to intervene when she realises her son has taken a knife into school, and in the other piece, a man who talks about the labours and sacrifices of supporting a son as he grows up and finds his own way in the world. Looking back now I can see that both ‘Someone Else’s Child’ and ‘The Speed of Light’ are united by underlying themes that play out through the rest of the sequence. Both characters talk to Pete about what it means to be a parent – what they have invested in their children and how their lives have been shaped by these familial responsibilities. Not every poem repeats this same pattern (‘A Wintering Bird’ for instance looks at the relationship from the child’s point of view, thinking about a parent’s alienation) but the care and time and patience of looking after another individual is a significant thread that holds Little Piece of Harm together. I have to say this realisation didn’t come to me straightaway – that what I was writing about, really writing about, was not so much the big concerns of potential terrorist incidents and public trauma, but more private considerations associated with home life and family histories. When I came to understand this was the fundamental principle that governed the design of the story, it meant I could address all aspects of the sequence with more certainty, imagination and clarity.
When I look back at my original plans for the poem, I feel that one or two of those initial aims – like writing a novel in verse – haven’t been met (it’s a novella at best). But that doesn’t really matter. Some of the issues I considered substantial at the beginning of the project are not as important to me now: I have become increasingly circumspect about the shooting being defined as a terrorist incident, for example. All of the characters have their own opinions about the shooting and its aftermath, and this is the message I have carried with me through the writing process: we all create our own interpretations of events as a means of supporting core narratives that underpin and illuminate our own lives. When I came to terms with – and understood – the key themes that I was addressing, Pete’s predicament and journey made much more sense to me: I could find a way of ‘filling in the gaps’ in his story, writing those final poems that brought the public news of a killing with his own private shame together.
This is the first in a series of three blog posts reflecting on the development of Little Piece of Harm. The second and third posts will appear on this site in the coming weeks.
Images by Emma Bolland.
to climb through
the way of
that way or
with a tractor
as snow cleans
that the dark
( through the clear
or is it
sky’s will al
just as light
Photographs by Nikki Clayton
Poems by Mark Goodwin
The photographs were taken on 10 February 2021, during a walk that began & ended at the medieval village of Old Ingarsby, and took in the medieval villages of Quenby & Cold Newton. The photograph with the church is of the village of Hungarton, approaching from the south.
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:
Saturday 19 December, 1.05pm. I was born two weeks late. I don’t remember this, of course, it is not the sort of thing that you remember, yet I remember being told this, the first time I was told this. I have been late ever since. School, paper rounds, every job I ever had. Some years ago I resolved to correct this by setting my watch 13 minutes fast. The trick doesn’t work, it has never worked, the brain does the maths. I am still 13 minutes late for everything. I am late now, as I climb Walkley Lane, past the dead winter deck of La Plata Social Club, past R A Leggett Newsagents and its dark display, past Walkley Food & Wine, once Keliz off licence and convenience store, then Pops off licence and convenience store, then it closed, there was a rethink, a smart, aspirational refurbishment, tasteful grey tones and a minimal typeface, Walkley Wine, it seemed all set to go, but it never opened, it got stuck, now it is Walkley Food & Wine, in red and white, the main signage, yet still the grey frontage of Walkley Wine, WW on the small projecting corner sign. On a wall panel headed OPENING TIME the hours of the days. TUE is TEU. I was going to call at Fay’s with a card, this was going to be my first stop, I have to skip it, I will come back, it is local. I turn left up the hill and onto Walkley Road. It is mild. I felt it as I left the house, the first wave, it is too mild for December. All the lights strung up in windows and gardens seem out of place and out of season. I turn back uphill, a right turn on Freedom Road, I almost don’t see the household recycling site, it diminishes every few months. The bottle banks have gone. A complaint from a neighbour, perhaps, that would do it, the sound of breaking glass. Uphill, still, I remember the house number but not the house, here it is, not where I expected. I follow the path round and knock on the kitchen door. I hear Ruth’s voice, then a scramble for keys, I step back, she appears, then goes away, she returns with Matt. We spend a few minutes catching up. I seem to be apologising for various things, for the unscheduled visit, for missing a project deadline, for the little time that I am spending on their doorstep. We exchange gifts and good wishes. Uphill, the same hill, left onto South Road, the house that used to be a post office, the house that used to be a pub. All the pubs in Walkley seemed to disappear within the space of a few years, one by one, they were picked off by property developers. The only pub left standing was The Rose House. I went there once, with Andy, and Matt, we didn’t stay long. It is still here. Beeches is still here, now incorporating a post office, Gerry’s Bakery is still here. I take a right at Fir Street, this should lead me to Chris’s house, I said I’d be there at 1.30pm. It is 1.35pm. I tell myself that I will make time, I will make up the time. I scramble up the hill and turn left at the brickwork of the long-disused public convenience at the junction with Heavygate Road and scramble up another hill to my right and there is Chris, in the doorway of his house, the door wide open. It is 1.40pm. My breath is heavy so I take an extra step back. We talk of the days ahead, of Christmas, of plans rewritten, scaled back, abandoned. Chris is between appointments and so I leave him and turn back down the hill, the incline is sharp and I nearly slip on a clump of wet leaves stuck to the cobbled slope. I wonder how many walks I have taken along Northfield Road this year, errands, deliveries, collections, so many of them have led me to or through Crookes. At the turning for Cobden View Road I pass the site of a community garden torn up by developers, this happened without notice, the loss is still protested in graffiti on the hoardings. The shops seem to be thriving, there are short pavement queues here and there, then I remember that there is almost no-one inside the shops. Everyone is waiting their turn. I step into the road to avoid the pavement queues, the shops thin out and the queues recede. The Ball is still encouraging its patrons to book ahead for Christmas meals. It has been closed for weeks, all the pubs have been closed for weeks, the signs have been left up to show how it could have been. And here is Noah’s Ark, which has not been spared, and here is the Old Grindstone, always changing hands, I took my parents here in 1995, I was new to the city and I didn’t know where else to take them, I’ve not been back since. And here is the junction, the downward slope, the last of Crookes and its mile-long spine.
2.05pm. Every road leads down. Short, long, steep, curving. I take the turning that I always take, the turning for Taptonville Road, a long street, a long perspective that widens on the descent. There is a cottage on the nearside corner that I often stop or slow for, at the edge of what might have been spacious grounds, a large estate. I imagine it as a lodge, a gatehouse, I imagine its pent snugness. A wreath on the door. The pavements and gutters are thick with leaf-litter. The trees are not street trees, they are confined to private gardens, the trunks lean into the light and the branches overhang. I stray into the road, the traffic is light, intermittent. I pass Broomhill Community Library and the clinic that dealt with my dental emergency in late January. I don’t know what I expected from an emergency dentist, I hadn’t visited a dentist in more than 20 years, this was the reason for the dental emergency. It was much like any other dental appointment except that it was 9.30am on a Sunday and the atmosphere in the waiting room seemed heavier than usual. Two of the people in the waiting room were a couple, it was his appointment, she had been urging him for months, he wouldn’t make time, and now look at him. He seemed disinclined to speak, and I was disinclined to speak, as my mouth was numb with anaesthetic, so she spoke, and I nodded. As she spoke she knitted little blue gonks, they had a purpose, she did tell me, I don’t remember what it was. She said that he was a haulier and that for months he had been trying to manage the pain with anti-inflammatories. Sixty-hour weeks driving lorries on Nurofen Plus. She spoke of his shyness, this surprised me, the tenderness in her voice. I can never remember how to cross Fulwood Road so I wait until the cars have stopped and run. When I turn into Glossop Road, its glass-fronted boutiques and parlours opaque and indeterminate, I think about the soft industries, the small businesses, that there is still a demand for touch, the personal touch, in a time without touch. I can’t see how it can work, it doesn’t seem viable, it is a question of scale. I turn right onto Westbourne Road. At the first house on the left a group of five or six people stand around the open boot of a black Land Cruiser. There are gift bags on the ground and in the boot and it appears that some sort of exchange is taking place. I keep to the left, the pavement is narrow, it is studded with small black bollards that inhibit parking. The road curves and drops and widens and it is all downhill south. I think that the detached, regular houses on the right must have been part of a scheme, the contrast with the properties opposite is sharp, they are larger, the houses on the left, set back in dark gardens, screened by stone walls and hedgerows. Absently, I explore the back of my mouth with the tip of my tongue, until it finds a molar’s socket, empty since March. I come out at Brocco Bank and glimpse the western edge of the botanical gardens while hurrying past the roads for Endcliffe that have Endcliffe in their names. I think that I have passed the botanical gardens at least a dozen times this year, not once passing through them, it was not on the itinerary, and now the year has gone. I look up at the clock tower of St Augustine’s and wonder why the time is 13 minutes out and then realise that it isn’t. At the foot of Brocco Bank I step slowly around small clusters of pedestrians and pedestrian infrastructure. I forget to look out for the Porter Brook, flowing west to east, as it slips below me and behind me.
2.25pm. There used to be a toll gate at Hunter’s Bar. Today it is a roundabout with four exits, and, it seems, it is still customary to pay your way into or out of the area. Everything is moving slowly. I can’t tell if the lines ahead of me are queues for the shops or queues to get past the queues for the shops. Half a dozen people are waiting to be let into Sheffield Makers, they are patient and courteous, the shop has a system in place. I can’t see inside so I make a sketch of crafted decorations, handmade jewellery and recycled accessories and hold it in my mind for the few seconds that it takes for me to turn the corner into Sharrow Vale Road. There are queues in threes and fours at the artisanal takeaways, the deli, the cafe. Things are brought to the open doors, no-one goes in, no-one goes out. I cross the road but I don’t quite leave it, I stick to the broken white lines of the parking bays to avoid the pinch points on the pavement. I see groups of three and six and seven near the galleries and framing shops. The gatherings seem casual, close, uninhibited. I try to shut down the judgements before they start. I try to turn the judgements on myself. I start to turn south onto Cowlishaw Road, the long, low buildings of the Pine Works, it all sinks as I move up the slope, the Lescar is somewhere at the back, I can’t see it from here. It is always further off in my mind. There are blue and black bins spilling over the terrace boundaries and onto the pavement. It’s a Saturday, it isn’t a bin day, still I expect to see lorries. It is bin day somewhere. The road levels out at the intersection with Psalter Lane and I come to a halt at the pedestrian crossing. As I wait for the lights to change I take out a sheet of paper from the breast pocket of my fleece. The sheet is folded into eighths, half of them blank, half of them filled with small black script, some of the script is struck through. I take out a black Bic biro from the left pocket of my trousers and start to add something to one of the eighths but then think better of it and strike it out. The lights change. I cross into Kingfield Road, straight and long and secure, and let go of the thoughts I had thought my way through. At the end of Kingfield Road I turn right at the intersection and come out on Kingfield Road. I take off my rucksack and take out the map and try to work out where I have gone wrong. After a minute or so I realise that I have not gone wrong, I am meant to be on Kingfield Road and this is a continuation of Kingfield Road, although it bears little resemblance to the first Kingfield Road and is pointing in another direction. I don’t know who decides these things. Ahead of me, on the descent, a people carrier slowly reverses from a driveway to the street. There are people in the car and people on the pavement. I cross the road, a similar scene two doors down, I take myself into the gutter. A few of the large, detached houses are having work done to make them larger, skips and portakabins skewing the pathways and the driveways. A female blackbird at the edge of the gravel. A sudden sharp pain in my right temple. It will pass, I think, it is usual on these walks, it is expected, it passes. I look up and find that I am finished with Kingfield Road. I recognise the street opposite without knowing its name. It isn’t part of the route but I need to know more. The street sign tells me that Meadow Bank Avenue is a private road, that parking is for residents only, that there are speed ramps, that the road is slow. The road has prominent features, two fixtures at the top that mark it from the highway, stone gateposts without a gate. I can’t tell where it ends. The road is unadopted, there are others like it around here, there may or may not be a right of way.
2.50pm. I turn from Meadow Bank Avenue and realise that I am no longer running late as I no longer have a schedule. No one is expecting me. The signs of The Union remind me to turn left onto Machon Bank Road, the pub name is spelt out in capitals at the side, title case on the corner. It seems lonely. I walk alongside it for a few seconds, someone still cares, a smart, seasonal window display, someone has taken the trouble. The road drops, the roofs are staggered on the descent. Most of the properties are terraced, thin stone fronts, there is some divergence from this, you see this on Sheffield hill streets, subsidence, voids, some of the older houses will have had to be taken down. A few upstairs windows are open. I think of the heat and the heat escaping. Although I no longer have a schedule I still have deliveries to make, I won’t knock, the deliveries are silent. Machon Bank Road turns into Machon Bank Road. I don’t take out the map because I remember what happened with Kingfield Road and Kingfield Road, the road is the same yet not the same, I trust myself to follow this. I pass a postman stepping up to a house with a bay window and a red front door. This is not his first round of the day, I don’t know this for certain, it’s not as though I can ask him. The plain white backs of cards pressed against the glass. I am sending and receiving more cards this year, not all of them have got through, some are at the mail centres, some will be out for delivery. We want people to know that we are thinking of them. That we haven’t forgotten them. The houses give way to a Sainsbury’s Local and a Sainsbury’s Local car park. There are cards that I don’t send, I don’t have the addresses, I don’t know where the people are. There are cards that I don’t send because the people are no longer among us. I am thinking of them but the thoughts have nowhere to go. Machon Bank Road ends in a crossroads, Sheldon Road ahead, Moncrieffe Road to the left, Nether Edge Road to the right. I take a right. The small businesses are lined up opposite, Bombshell, a hairdresser, Edge, a dentist, Zeds, a grocer. The last shop on the block is Cafe #9. I came here with Rob Hindle ten years ago, there were eight of us, we had been walking for a few hours, we had been stopping on frozen ground and listening to the long wake of the Sheffield Blitz. This was a scheduled stop. Rob’s sequence, premiered in snowy woods and fields on the 70th anniversary of the Luftwaffe’s first bombing raid, drew on his earlier walks through the south-western edges of the city, and on the city archives: the contemporary reports, the eyewitness accounts, the testimonies. We heard more from these voices as the city drew closer, extracts from the memoirs of survivors, inventories of damage and loss. It is harder to imagine today. It is 10 years further off, it is 10 degrees warmer, and the gaps in the city have been filled in. I am still thinking about the closed cafe when I reach the closed pub, the Byron House, where I stop to see where I am on the map. After a short interval I hear raised voices from the pub, no, I hear one voice, there is a second interval. Here is the turning. I went through the addresses in my address book earlier and found that I hadn’t updated it in years. Or is it that I add addresses but do not take them away. I have six addresses for a friend who moved house six times in six years. I couldn’t bring myself to cross the old ones out. Or strike through the addresses of people who have died. Here is the house. It is a friend, not a close friend, but a friend whose year has ended in difficulty. It is a small thing and I don’t know if it will help but I have written a card. There are warm white lights in the window, there is someone at home. I hear the card land in the hallway and I turn back down the road.
3.10pm. I grew up without rivers. There were lakes, and a canal that didn’t work any more, but nothing flowed. Years later, I learned of the River Ray, a tributary of the Thames that passes to the west of my hometown. It runs in a northerly direction from Wroughton, on my father’s side, through Rodbourne, on my maternal grandparents’ side, to a mile east of Purton, on my mother’s grandmother’s side. I have glimpsed it only once or twice in adulthood and have never tried to follow it. It is a faint and minor constellation at 1:1 scale, an idea of navigation that is not for navigation, a pattern that I can read on the map but not on the ground. This is in my mind as I reach the top of Nether Edge Road and try to work out a way down. If I cut through the wood I might end up in the allotments, the terraced slope of Brincliffe Edge, I might lose the outline. I take a sharp right turn onto Archer Road that doubles back on the descent, the Scouts at the end of one driveway, a car park at the end of another, before levelling out at the junction with Edgedale Road and straightening to the east. The street is not familiar. I must have cut through Edgedale Road before, terraces to the north, semis to the south, nothing stands out apart from the sheltered or self-contained housing development, set back from the road in layered greenery, that stands out because it has been designed not to stand out. Although the street is not familiar, I remember how it ends, the junction with Abbeydale Road, the shops in both directions, the pedestrian crossing to the right. The signal is halfway to green and I step into the road. There is very little traffic, are the lights automatic, how do they know. I remember this, too, a left onto Langdale Road, it is short, the road that I need is at the bottom of this road. No right turns for vehicles, left at the corrugated autocentre, the same flagpole, a different flag. It used to be a chequered racing flag and now it is a union flag, or half of a union flag. The other half is missing, worn away by wind, nothing more than wind. I pass the autocentre and am at the end of Rydal Road and here, below the white railings, is the river. I turn right onto Little London Road and walk against the river which means that I am walking into the south. After a hundred feet the road and the river cram under a railway bridge and the pavement thins to almost nothing, I straighten my back and quicken my step, I am listening for oncoming traffic as the stonework darkens. On the other side I take a moment to look at the river before it turns away from the road. I have lived in the city for long enough to know that this is the Sheaf, the dark river, its course obscured by culverts or industry. It is hard to follow, it is never far from the railway, it is glimpsed in passing. I don’t know if anyone else calls it the dark river. Perhaps the Don is the dark river. Perhaps it’s the Porter, which meets the Sheaf underground, beneath the railway station. I started to think of the Sheaf as the dark river when Andy and I used to walk alongside it at night, the short stretch via Halfords and the car wash and the trading estate, under the railway bridge and over the footbridge, we’d end up at the Sheaf View, we’d walk back the same way. I remember the exposed bed and moonlight glinting off metal debris. I tried to record Andy reading some poems there, it wasn’t successful, he turned his back to the Edirol, still reading the poem, we tried again, voices and footsteps beneath the iron footbridge, we tried again, a southbound train overhead. I wanted to come back at 3am and record the poems but it didn’t happen. I turn from Little London Road to Aukley Road, a sharp fork uphill, I can’t quite remember how to get to Chesterfield Road from here. The hill is lightly wooded to my left and I see the shape of a hairpin at the top and I follow it into an unnamed road with a white rail running down the middle. At the end of the rail is Chesterfield Road. On the other side of the carriageway another white rail marks the foot of a steep, narrow passage, a short cut to Cliffefield Road. I climb the steps halfway and stop to take in the city below and find that I am out of shape. The next delivery is somewhere off this road, it is J.R. Carpenter’s This is a Picture of Wind, the order came through yesterday. The customer is going away for a few days, will it be delivered by Monday, of course, I reply, I will make sure of it.
3.30pm. I can’t even post something through a letterbox without asking myself if it might have been done better, the angle, the length of the drop, what to do when meeting resistance from brushes and springs. I let it go and I find the lane that leads from the corner of Cliffefield Road to a southwestern edge of Meersbrook Park. I know nothing about the park and I have never set foot in it. I enter under leafless winter canopy, not too heavy, the trees help with orientation, they are part of the design, the extended line, space enough to make sense of the branching paths. The path to my left is for the walled garden. I take the path straight ahead, a view of the park as it opens out from the hill, there are other paths criss-crossing the green slopes. I see people, sitting, strolling, singly or in pairs, children at a distance. A great sweep on the descent. I take a satsuma from my rucksack and peel and eat it as I walk. The descent is shorter than I’d expected. I leave the park through an open gate, I face the street, the streets leading off. I don’t know which side of the park I am on so I slip the rucksack from my shoulder and take out the map. I turn to page 133 and find that I am north-west when I should be north-east. I take a right and then tell myself to take another right on reaching the end of the first right, right right, Brook Road to Meersbrook Park Road. It is quiet. I pass a small white camper van, decorated with stickers or stencils, open the door and you’re home. A left onto Cross Park Road, a large detached property on the corner, an outbuilding that I mistake for a house. Something isn’t right, the windows whited out, is it done with, is it derelict, it doesn’t take long for a building to come apart. At the end of Cross Park Road I stop to look for Suzannah and Will’s card and then I look around for Suzannah and Will’s house. The street looks much the same as when I last visited except that it is in Christmas colours. It will be dark soon, I don’t have to read the sky, it only takes a few minutes. I post the card without fuss and turn right at the gate and right at the end of the street. Towards the bottom of the hill the terrace starts to break up, a flat-roofed, single-storey Unit 17 wedged between 63 and 69 Valley Road, number 67 is missing, it ends with Mastercast Fire Surrounds and a courtyard out back that I can’t make out. Ceiling Rose’s, Coving Plain & Ornate, DaDo Rail. I don’t know why I bother. A vast and empty car park and a nondescript building with numerous small windows, it all belongs to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, this is explained in a transparent panel attached to the car park gatepost. As I pass the Meersbrook Enterprise Centre, a range of modern office and business units from 200 sq ft to 2,000 sq ft, I am reminded of the financial advisers for whom I used to provide remote administrative services, many of them working out of buildings like this. The letters of authority, signed by their clients, photocopied or faxed or emailed, to be actioned with urgency. When the letters had been processed I would store them in a box and then the box would be sent to an off-site archive. All of my work from those years has been destroyed, long since, in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998. Bag supplies, roofing supplies, hand tools. The buildings get smaller and fewer and the numbers run out at the corner.
3.45pm. Valley Road meets Chesterfield Road at an obtuse angle, this isn’t obvious at the time, it’s only there when you look back. There is a large Lidl opposite with ground level parking and I wonder what was there before. You could ask that question anywhere. I used to ask it of myself as I walked the streets that I’d known for decades, I’d turn a corner and see a new hotel or a new showroom, what had it taken the place of, what had we lost, where did it go. Sometimes it would come to me, days or weeks later, there used to be a garage there, an old post office. As I take a right turn I glance at the wall that divides the far pavement from the Lidl car park. A section of the old wall has been integrated into the new wall, there is no plaque, no date, no foundation stone. It is hard to let go. I head north. Many of the businesses on this side of the road are closed, or appear to be closed, some are still trading, discreetly, warily. I am overtaken by a man who makes for the doorway of a coffee shop, he catches the eye of the proprietor, a transaction ensues, wordless and familiar. A grocer, a takeaway, a long-dead bakery. As I near the end of the block I pause at the windows of Rails, a store for model railway enthusiasts, also Dinky, Meccano, Scalextric, etc. It is spread over several units with matching panels of hand-painted signage above the shopfronts. A handful of customers are inside, at the counters, at the displays, at a distance. I am almost moved to join them but I don’t because it is not part of my world. It was part of my father’s world, I imagine him there, taking his time, a smile or a half-smile on his face. Some years after he died, my mother said that he had very few toys as a child, the late 1930s, the 1940s, and so he collected Matchbox cars later in life, Models of Yesteryear, they filled the little corners of the house he had built, the high shelves above the bookcase, the recesses in the attic. It had never occurred to me. It wasn’t nostalgia for a time that he had lost, or a time before his own time, but a space that he made for a time that he had never had. I cross the junction with Albert Road and notice the railway bridge opposite, the trains are running parallel, the Sheaf must be on the other side of the tracks. Chesterfield Road is now London Road though it still feels like Chesterfield Road. I pass The Red Lion, which is grey, and then, a minute or so later, The White Lion, which is green and black. A few more lights in the distance. Next to The White Lion is Ponsford, a furniture showroom, and Ponsford, a furniture showroom, and Ponsford, a furniture showroom, infinite recursion in black and white. The scale is not apparent from the south and the end is not the end. The terrace runs out but Ponsford runs on, via a covered walkway that lifts the business over Well Road, linking the second floor of the older premises to a new purpose-built showroom with parking at the rear. I have never bought any furniture in my life, apart from a secondhand desk which cost £20 in 1999, and which I still use today. A low bridge ahead, the railway turning right, the Sheaf following, running under light traffic on London Road, overtaking the mainline at Greyspace Flooring, meeting and parting in the blind spots of the city.
4.00pm. This is the eastern edge of the antique district, or the dead centre of the carpet district, or the outskirts of the fabric district. I can’t see any antique shops or carpet shops or fabric shops from here but the patterns were printed in my mind, some years ago, and I can’t edit them. I know that the patterns weren’t set down straight and that I could walk around for an hour without finding any carpets. I know that I could set off in any direction and be proved wrong. I know that the constellations will fall apart when I’m not looking. Here is an antique shop, the doors are closed and windowless, the paintwork a shade redder than the neighbouring Machine Mart. It is not clear if the antique shop is still trading in general antiques, the signs on the window glass encourage this idea. A newer sign, nailed to the brickwork above the shopfront, states that it is militaria, nothing more, JUST MILITARY in a military stencil typeface. There’s no point in arguing with a military stencil typeface. There is a lot of London Road to get through. Just ahead are the turnings for Queens Road and Wolseley Road, everything widens at the intersection, everything stops, the queueing traffic and the mounted lights. I am on the wrong side of London Road and I have to use three Pelican or Puffin crossings to get myself back on track. When I cross the last set of lights I am rewarded with the display window of GULL’S FABRICS, you see, I was right, I am always half right. Tool hire, a mini market, Asline Road branching off, to the E-Bike shop and the U-Mix Centre. London Road veers left. I pass Hearth and Home and Baitul Mukarram Jame Masjid mosque and then I realise that I should have taken Asline Road for the next delivery, the last delivery. It doesn’t matter, I can find my way back. Everything branches east. Royal Apartments at the corner, closed curtains, open windows, is the heating stuck, are the windows stuck. The light is starting to go and the landmark buildings come into their own. Highfield Trinity Church is first, stone stacks, the local vastness. I glimpse a similarly-sized ex-church opposite, set back on Highfield Place, skylights where the slates were. At Highfield Library, another Victorian corner building, I stop to read the words chiselled into the portico: THAT THERE SHOULD ONE MAN DIE IGNORANT WHO HAD CAPACITY FOR KNOWLEDGE, THIS I CALL A TRAGEDY, WERE IT TO HAPPEN MORE THAN TWENTY TIMES IN THE MINUTE, AS BY SOME COMPUTATIONS IT DOES. I cross the junction with St Barnabas Road to a furniture centre, which is called Furniture Centre, then cross to the west side of London Road to the half-open shops, Erbil Barber, Amigos Mexican Kitchen, closed or closing shops looking back from the other side, Jay Jay’s Army Surplus, Foam & Upholstery Supplies. On the corner with Grosvenor Square I nearly miss the window I was looking for because it’s not on the itinerary. I thought that it was done for when I passed it in late April, and again in late June, and it looks done for now, but it isn’t, not yet, not today. It’s a single unit, tucked between Chikoo’s Peri Peri and Treatz Dessert Parlour, SHEFFIELD TRANSPORT MODELS in the upper half of the sign, initial caps and petite caps, Model Railways & Transport Books centred in the lower half, dark blue text in an off-white field. The small display at the front of the window is gone. I try to remember how it looked in June, the remains of a tableau, a partial layout, one track, one tree, a few bushes, a church half-buried in sand. A paper background of hills, forests, lakes, the scenery bleached pale blue by sunlight. There is nothing in its place. I know that the shop is not done for because the man who stood behind the counter in April and June, sorting through paperwork, perhaps, or fulfilling online orders, is here today, in similar clothes, in a similar attitude. I step aside from the window as I don’t want him to see me looking in. The light is on inside the shop, it doesn’t reach much further than the counter, but I can make out the titles of the books and magazines stacked up behind the glass door. Waterways in Europe, Dictionary of Rail and Steam, The RAILWAY magazine. I see myself flicking through the books, not for the books themselves, but for the postcards, notes, and letters that might be tucked inside, accidentally, incidentally, or intentionally, then forgotten, unseen, unread, the letters to the future.
4.10pm. As a child, I would faint, now and then. It happened in school assemblies, scout parades, I didn’t make it out of the cubs, it wasn’t for me. The first time it happened, I was at a loss, the adults were at a loss, what happened, is he OK, is he going to be OK. I wasn’t hurt. The floor was hard but there wasn’t far to fall. I wanted to know how long I had been out. A few minutes, someone said. It became useful, for getting out of things, assemblies, parades, standing in silence for what seemed like hours, marking time. The uniforms were always too tight, the collars and the ties, it happened for a reason, it wasn’t a bluff, they would say that I changed colour in the last few moments. It’s also true that I didn’t want to be there. It was hard to fall in line. The last time it happened, I was at a temporary blood donation centre, this was a few decades later. I’d just given blood, but it wasn’t the blood, that part had gone well, I was resting, I decided it was time to leave, I gathered my things and stood up and I fell into a faint, a dead faint. I wanted to know how long I had been out. A few minutes, someone said. You should sit down and wait here, there’s tea and biscuits on the table. I’d tried to walk before I could stand. I keep going, north along London Road, towards The Moor, towards town, then stop, I am forgetting the delivery, the last delivery. I turn back at Clarke Square and cross to the junction with Alderson Road, there is a pharmacy on the corner, there are yellow metal signs, weighted down with sandbags, COVID Testing Centre in black with black arrows. The arrows are pointing south-east, the road is the same. I need to be south-east then north-east then east. The test site isn’t far, a minute or less, I hear the generator as the traffic falls back. I see the white tents and the white portakabins. The test site is in a car park, it is a walk-through centre, there is no parking in the car park. There are metal barriers, concrete blocks, traffic cones. The layout is similar to the walk-through centre that Emma and I visited in October, in Burngreave, a few miles to the north-east. Emma had made the appointments just a few hours before we set off. We didn’t know how long it would take on foot so we left as soon as we could and walked for an hour or two in steady drizzle and arrived half an hour early. No-one was going in or coming out. It was a few moments before we realised that the site was open but no-one was using it. A supervisor scanned our QR codes and another supervisor beckoned us into a portakabin. It didn’t seem to matter that we were half an hour early. We sat in our partitioned spaces and familiarised ourselves with the steps in the booklet and then we put ourselves through the procedure. The supervisor was on hand throughout, tactful, discreet, attentive. We put the swabs in the vials and the vials in the zip-lock bags and the zip-lock bags in the biohazard bags and then handed over the biohazard bags to another supervisor before leaving the site. Then we walked home. It rained on and off. I can’t remember what we talked about, were we anxious, relieved, reflective. Neither of us kept a record. I turn left onto Woodhead Road, terraces on one side, long low windowless walls on the other. I see the Copthorne Hotel in the middle distance and the Railway Hotel in the near distance. I’ve never set foot in the Railway Hotel, it’s opposite the United ground so I think of it as a match pub, United Fans Only. It must let people in at other times but I have never seen the doors open. When I pass the Railway the Copthorne comes back into view. I look left along Bramall Lane, losing the focus as the Copthorne meets the stadium, I think of the time when Andy and I were walking back from town. It was late, past midnight, a taxi pulled up in front of us, and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry got out of the back. Andy stepped over and embraced him like a long-lost cousin, though we had only seen him an hour before, onstage, at Plug. There was no hesitation in the embrace and I admired that. Funny. To think of Scratch at the Copthorne. To think of embracing anyone now. I look right and left and there is nothing coming so I cross straight into Cherry Street and look out at the empty Blades car park. I haven’t been here in two years or more. This is where so much of it started, this is where we sat and talked, mostly it was Andy who did the talking, I listened, I went away and came back with sketches, we worked on them together. This is why I can never throw anything away. It is dusk. It was always dusk. The poems were shaped at dusk, they were spoken at dusk. All the poems come back at once in his voice. The ginnel gate is unlocked, someone has nailed a mailbox to the slats, that wasn’t there the last time I was here. I could have sent letters. There are differences at the back, I can’t say for sure, a fence or a wall has come down or gone up. There is a light in the kitchen. I knock, and wait, then knock again. No sound, no shadow. Perhaps he’s gone to the off-licence. Perhaps he’s editing his photographs, the headphones on, a roll-up on the go. The letterbox is smaller than I remember but the parcel will get through. I wait until I hear it make contact with the kitchen floor. The chequered linoleum. Not here. Anywhere. Bills stacking up. A year in arrears.
Sheffield, 19 December 2020.
‘Second Delivery’ is a ‘winter postscript’ to Lockdown Walks, a series of posts that appeared on the Longbarrow Blog during April 2020; you can read the fifth instalment here.
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; click here for a full list of our current hardbacks and to order titles.
To fully experience all the dark details (& certain tiny spots of light), please view by clicking on a photo and then selecting ‘View full size’ (which can be found at the bottom of the pane in the lower right-hand corner of the window.)
a bag a
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Photographs by Nikki Clayton
Poems by Mark Goodwin
Bradgate Park, Leicestershire, 31 December 2020
Many people would consider that they know the English landscape like the back of their hand, and that it remains, at its crux, unwavering. Many believe they hold its constituent parts as a truism, its wayside flowers, its arable crops, its domesticity. Yet, as I hope to show in this short essay, this surety is often predicated on ideas of conquest, elitism, and a disregard of history.
The dandelion is no less exotic than the rhododendron, yet the latter is treated with reverence, the former disdain. The line between feral and cultivated is often a blurred one, co-dependent on time or cultural norms. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than with the rise of botanical culture in Victorian England. The need to dissect, name, classify, and manage species is often at the heart of our understanding of nature. Yet what are considered native species often have much longer and tenuous histories. The rose and the poppy, for instance, are respectively Chinese and Sumerian in origin. Yet over time both have become quintessential in English national iconography. How and why certain species have gained their current classification and status says a great deal about how as a nation we treat nature. Non-cultivated species are often considered weeds. Simply escaping the confines of glasshouse or garden and adapting to a different climate can reduce a plant’s aesthetic or culinary status. In general, the stronger its ability to adapt to a wider setting, the less it is valued.
Before discussing In Domicile as a series of photographs, I want to analyze Victorian attitudes toward nature in a little more detail. It was during the Victorian period that botany began to proliferate as a scientific pursuit. This should not be confused with the simultaneous rise in horticulture. The difference between the two illuminates the gender-specific roles increasingly assigned within natural history in during this period. The proliferation of Victorian taxonomy in everything from the culinary arts to racial theory became a predominantly masculine pursuit. The following quotation makes clear the class, gender, and imperialist divisions of botanical culture:
‘Plant hunters such as Ernest Henry Wilson scoured the Chinese landscape for plants that would do well in the British climate. In Sichuan Province alone, there were thousands of new species to choose from. Rich Victorians couldn’t get enough of these botanical status symbols as they tried to outdo one another by filling their gardens and glasshouses with unique plants… Although the bounty of 19th century plant hunters benefited our gardens at home, they thought very little about the impact plant collecting had on the origin country. Expeditions to bring home exotic flora were intertwined with British imperialism and the expanding power of European empires.’ (source: Kew Gardens).
This, along with increasing urbanization and the optimal use of countryside for the purposes of production, clearly shows how the burgeoning middle classes came to view nature as something to objectify, display, and contain. The earthy, uncultivated or unclassified mass were seen as bawdy, crude, or vulgar. A side note here is that the words weed and wood have a singular Germanic etymological origin. The fear of woodland disseminated through fairytale and myth continues into the present, and increased exponentially during the Victorian period. Furthermore, the Latinate vocabulary of Victorian scholars would often relegate common anglicized names to a lower status. As is shown in this beautifully rendered drawing by Albrecht Dürer, this was not always the case.
Early Victorian photography is difficult to assign to convenient categories. The cumbersome and expensive nature of photographic equipment dictated how images were produced, and by whom. Extremely slow shutter speeds often gave rise to rather staid and lifeless images modelled on pictorial anachronisms or scientific realism. There were, of course, moments of greatness within these parameters and it is not my intention here to denigrate Victorian photography as being of historical interest only. The experimentation of William Henry Fox Talbot or Anna Atkins, for example, have a lasting power and an aesthetic vitality that continue into the present.
As the era progressed, the technology advanced, and by the turn of the century cameras had become both more widely accessible and portable. This in turn led to a transformation in photographic possibilities. The informality of the snapshot, photojournalism and street photography were all born to some extent through the camera becoming smaller, lighter and more affordable. An example of this shift from the end of the Victorian period throws an interesting light on the conceit of professionalism, science, and materiality fostered by the Victorians. The series of five photographs generally known as The Cottingley Fairies have raised debate almost since their inception. Taken by two young girls, they engender issues around authenticity, objectivity, and photography. The last photograph in the series (shown below), if taken as genuine, shows how the uses of photography had progressed during the period. By ‘genuine’, I mean that the photograph was straight out of the camera and not re-touched in a studio setting. That, indeed, is where confusion lies: if the photograph is ‘real’, it must therefore indicate that the fairies themselves are real. The underlying assumption is that photography is a wholly objective representation of its subject which, of course, we know now to be at best a falsehood. The ‘case’ was immediately wildly debated among varying pseudo-scientific bodies all looking to either discredit or legitimize the images.
What this professionalism misses, however, is photography’s encounter with fantasy. Its truth is the partial turned worldly by the viewer’s desire to substantiate the real. What the photograph also reveals with its blurred over-exposure is that nature has more resonance than science can account for. The Victorian period saw a shift away from realism in the pictorial arts, in Turner’s impressionistic brush strokes or Samuel Palmer’s primitivism, for example. A rising interest in folklore and animism counterbalanced the mechanical and scientific base of photography. The Cottingley girls later described the photographs as ‘pranks’ and spoke of how their father banned them from using the camera, as it was in their hands, he said, akin to telling lies. The truth is the light falling on a tiny piece of ground and accidentally caught mid-flow, of how amateurism or accident might reveal an unintended, different kind of truth.
The dichotomy between ‘being there’ and objectivity is played out through photography more than through any other medium. Movies follow the moment from its inception to its close; painting at the point of its execution. Photography dares to represent its ‘being there’ as singular, limited, unique – a particular thing in a particular setting captured in an instant. The narrative aspect of a photograph often lies beyond its frame. That which came before and after is only a supposition. Distilling varying elements that occur simultaneously is perhaps the key to understanding the shift away from photographing nature as objective. The later abstract experimentation of Minor White in America or Bill Brandt’s starkly minimalistic approach to landscape disrupt both the presumption of naturalism and objectivity.
A good example of this shift in contemporary photography is the French-born artist Jean-Luc Mylayne. Mylayne’s singular subject matter is birds. However, his complex multi-layered images are not demarcated through an ornithological framework. His specially-made lenses capture multiple focal points of a given scene in a singular image. It is sometimes unclear where the point of interest in his photographs exists, and that’s the point. Instead of rendering nature as a static scientific tableau, Mylayne captures a brief swirl in an ever-fluctuating routine. The blurs and dashes seem more akin to the speed of bird life than slowing them to specimens trapped in cages or mounted in museums. Mylayne often takes days, weeks or even months to capture an image and this reliance on time before and after is something that Victorian botanical photography often eschewed, choosing rather to photograph plants in idealized perfect conditions.
I began the series In Domicile with the idea of photographing one tree over the course of a year. However, it didn’t quite turn out that way. As I began these early trysts, I realised that much of the subject matter had been supplanted through time and that many species co-existed with others not necessarily native to them. It was only then that I began to focus on the jostling of managed and feral spaces. I began to spread time equally between parks, scrubland, verges, woodland, etc. Most of the environments I visited lay within an urban setting and many of the species had all the characteristics that are often ascribed to weeds.
As much as time, the location of nature is often what defines it. Wild fennel tenuously clinging to the edges of a car park doesn’t quite have the resonance of the same herb growing on wild Italian slopes amongst olive and lemon. But its ability to adapt to its surroundings is what I find more fascinating. Following the light and seasons as plant life itself does, and learning also to acclimatize (physically, technically and emotionally), I found new and unexpected relationships in and between things. Most of what I photographed here barely registered prior to being amongst it. It appeared like the secret world of Cottingley directly to an instinct long buried under convenience and familiarity yet there all along hiding in plain sight. The space between things often seemed as interesting as the subject itself and I began to develop an aesthetic of tenuous balance between sky and fauna akin to what might be described as after the Japanese style. This was only one aspect of the decision-making process, however, and countless other influences (too many to detail here) were also at play. Many came about organically through a series of choices to tonally counterweigh each pictorial element. What the process reveals is that nature is not benign or passive and aesthetic choices are not simply dictated by the subject being rendered objectively. A myriad of minute decisions goes into distilling a tiny fragment in the life of the subject. The subject is not wholly defined by it.
Click here to view the full series of In Domicile.
Earlier this month, Longbarrow Press published Wealden, a collaboration between poet Nancy Gaffield and The Drift (musicians Darren Pilcher, Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher), inspired by the marshes, woodlands and shingle of southern Kent. This interview (conducted by Longbarrow Press editor Brian Lewis) took place in November 2020.
BRIAN: Wealden is the first release from The Drift, and it also marks a new collaboration (with Nancy Gaffield). How did you become aware of each other’s work, and how did the collaboration come about?
ROB: Amelia, Darren and I had been making music together for a while as The Drift. It was an ongoing experiment, but it was always focussed on the local landscape for inspiration — metaphorically, and literally. Our experiences of the empty spaces of the marshes, the dense woodland and the deserted beaches were in our minds as we played. We thought of the deep loamy bass as the subsoil, the loops of abstract sound as the rugged flora, and the occasional higher-pitched elements — like the fiddle or the harmonium — as fleeting glimpses of wildlife, weather events, or other people. On a literal level, Darren was bringing bits and pieces of bracken and shingle into the rehearsal room as the ingredients of his sonic loops. (He should explain how that works!) Perhaps flippantly, we referred to the music as ‘Marsh Dub’. Original Dub Reggae has a spaciousness, and a repetitiveness, that becomes mesmerising and immersive. A lot of this music was made with very basic equipment, and sonic effects were created using analogue sources and very basic pre-digital reverbs and delays. That’s what we were doing too. We would improvise sections of music, play them and then throw them away. We weren’t too bothered with the idea of trying to make any of it permanent — like I say, it was an ongoing experiment. So, this was the strange little world that Nancy was introduced to! I had met Nancy because I was trying to find a way of getting US poet Stephanie Burt over to the UK for our Words and Music at the Skep festival — there was no way we could afford it on our own. Nancy was able to get the University of Kent at Canterbury (where she was a lecturer) to come on board — Stephanie would also give lectures at the University, and the costs were shared. This was great. But even better was the discovery that, as a poet, Nancy was exploring landscapes too, finding ways of expressing them — their ecologies and their histories — in poetic form. We decided it would be good to see what happened if she took a closer look at the landscapes we’d already been inspired by. And to see what happened if the two expressions — the verbal and the musical — were combined.
NANCY: Composer Matthew King, with whom I’ve worked on various music/poetry projects, introduced me to Rob Pursey. As Rob said, we met in the first instance to discuss how we might combine resources on a words and music festival in order to bring Steph Burt to Kent. We started talking about our respective interests and discovered we had so much in common. A few days after that meeting, Rob contacted me to ask about a possible collaboration. Of course, I said yes! I have worked with musicians previously, but not in this free-form way. What intrigued me about The Drift was that the music does not proceed from a written score, but begins with sound phenomena that are shaped into a composition in tandem with the words.
BRIAN: What was it about this particular landscape — or landscapes — that suggested a collaborative and creative response? Was there a sense of collective exploration and discovery as the project developed?
NANCY: Nearly everything I write is concerned with landscapes, from Tokaido Road (CB editions, 2011) to Continental Drift (Shearsman, 2014) to Meridian (Longbarrow, 2019). I had just finished Meridian, a poetic response to the landscape of eastern England where the Meridian line crosses (N/S) from Peacehaven in East Sussex to Sand le Mere in Yorkshire, and I was eager to explore more closely the area where I live (Kent). Despite having lived in Canterbury for 30 years, I had never explored Romney Marsh or Dungeness. When I heard that this area was described as ‘the only desert in western Europe’, I was sceptical, and yet there is something desert-like about this landscape. It has to do with the way the light bends and reflects, and the deceptiveness of distance. My recent writing concerns deep time and ecological matters, and it’s all there in that place: the strata — geological, cultural and historical — that have been laid down over the course of one brief millennium. The history of the Weald and the marshes is a microcosm of human history and of climate change. It was so exciting to share our discoveries as the project developed and to learn about the way a musician responds to landscape.
AMELIA: When Rob and I moved to the edge of the Weald around 7 years ago, from central London, we started to explore our new surroundings, and were genuinely bewitched by the landscape, and its history and geology. A few examples: how the entire shape of the land changed with the great storm of 1287; how much of the land sits behind a sea wall, threatened by rising sea levels; the beautiful concrete sound mirrors, tributes to ambitious failure; the nuclear power station at Dungeness, lasting beyond its expected life, framed by sea, sky and shingle; Fairfield Church, standing alone on the Marsh, the village that once sat alongside it now long gone. Nancy writes about these, and more, in Wealden, and I think we have all deepened our connection with this place. Even Darren, who was brought up here! Rob and I have been in bands for years, but we have been more used to writing songs than creating ambient textures. For this piece, we did experiment with a few different approaches, but the music we have developed just seems true to the place.
BRIAN: Wealden was first performed in May 2019, and the studio recordings were completed in March of this year, shortly before the first lockdown. How did the work evolve and change over this period — from the initial discussions, drafts, and rehearsals?
DARREN: Initially we shaped the music very quickly. It was an instinctive, very human process. Nancy’s words brought structure and we soon created musical parameters in which to improvise and expand. Much remains in flux. The journeys are fixed but within every track / poem are scenes left open for improvisation with the scenario of each performance space influencing our choices. I have a bank of existing audio samples from the landscape that are at my disposal throughout; these can be manipulated and executed in infinite ways, informed by the mood in the room, audience or occasion. Textures and ambience, unique to each performance, are also added live. Recording and looping a mix of organic percussion, foraged natural materials and traditional folk instruments on-the-fly adds new layers. Instrumental expression from Amy and Rob circulates fresh variation on melody. All of these factors see Wealden continue to evolve and change through each performance.
AMELIA: It’s true. As a semi-improvised work, it is slightly odd to have a particular version now preserved in aspic, via the recording, when it was just the variant we happened to play that day. I’m very glad we managed to do it just before lockdown though! I also really enjoyed the process of developing the piece, with such great lyrical ideas to react to musically. I don’t think I’ve ever previously listened and thought so hard while creating music.
BRIAN: Nancy, you’ve adapted existing work for musical settings, including reworking your Tokaido Road as the libretto to Nicola LeFanu’s chamber opera. Could you say a little about the experience of starting from a ‘blank page’ with this project?
NANCY: That’s an interesting question. Adapting an existing work to fit the requirements of an opera was a real challenge. Although there are some similarities between poem and libretto (emotion, compression, sharp imagery), there are more differences. In Wealden, I am writing primarily in the lyric mode, my natural mode. There was no requirement for the words to be set to the music. For the libretto, narrative and dramatic modes were also required, for example, characters acting in powerful scenes along a narrative arc. Essentially the libretto exists to inspire the composer, with the poet being in a secondary role. I was very fortunate to work with Nicola LeFanu, as she is very experienced. I learned a lot, but I do prefer to start with a blank page. Wealden started with walking, observing, listening, opening up all the senses to this landscape, then noting down impressions, creating a word bank, pages and pages of notes and phrases, reading about the area (its history, geology, flora and fauna), talking to people, more walking and exploring, determining a form, and then beginning. I arrived at our first session with the seven poems of Part I, but the other two parts evolved more organically in line with the music.
BRIAN: Amelia and Rob, your interest in — and engagement with — poetry, and its intersections with music, closely informed the programming of last year’s Words and Music at the Skep. Is this kind of collaboration (between poets and musicians) a new experience for you? Were you conscious of any precedents (and/or anything you wanted to avoid)?
ROB: Since Amelia and I moved out to Kent I’ve been very aware that we have enough space here to invite people in — for social events, to work on creative projects, or to hear musicians and poets perform. We are quite a long way from London, and there is a lack of live music, or theatre in the area. At the time, we were also looking after Amelia’s elderly mother, as well as our two kids — so if we wanted to watch or participate in anything, it needed to be very local. I was impressed that the folk musicians down the road in Tenterden kept up their culture in a local pub once a month — they were people who just got together to sing on a regular basis. Not really my kind of music (though I am getting keener on it), but it was inspiring to see that all they needed was a half-decent venue. Me and Darren converted an old barn at the bottom of our garden (now known as ‘The Skep’) into a scruffy, rugged venue. We put in a decent PA, Darren created a bar and a stage out of old wood, and acquired stage curtains that were being chucked out of a nearby village hall. He’s got a really good eye, and the Skep is a lovely place to be. One of the benefits of being in the middle of nowhere rather than in a city is that local people will come and see things out of curiosity. They don’t see themselves as members of an exclusive cultural tribe — liking only this kind of music, or only that kind of art. If something is happening, it’s worth checking out. So, the ambition with ‘Words and Music’ was to bring together musicians and poets, but with a view to entertaining locals as well as any poetry and indie aficionados who might turn up. And that’s how it turned out — we had a nice mix of people. Some people heard poetry performed live for the first time in their lives. Meanwhile, some poets got to taste the excellent local beer for the first time in their lives. In terms of mixing pop music and poetry, I’ve always been equally keen on both. The former sometimes suffers from dismissiveness: it’s not seen as proper Art. The latter suffers from perceptions of aloofness, difficulty and exclusivity. Both attitudes are absurd, but very entrenched. At Words and Music we got the musicians to play quietly, so their lyrics were audible — and appreciated. The poets performed in the same relatively informal space as the musicians: I like to think that this helped the audience feel at ease with an unfamiliar art form. And this was the environment where we performed Wealden for the first time. Amelia, Darren and I had not ever worked with a poet before, and I think it’s safe to say we were nervous when we had to perform Wealden live. Was this combination of elements going to work? Would the audience be confused? Would Darren be able to create his sound loops under pressure in the live environment? There was a lot to be anxious about. Anyway, it worked. Maybe it was the influence of the local beer, but the audience really liked it. And perhaps most pleasing of all, some local people, for whom the topographical references in Wealden were very familiar indeed, really loved it. I felt that we had succeeded in making a song about their landscape, and it rang true for them.
AMELIA: We should mention that we do hope to hold Words and Music at the Skep again. We had booked a festival for May this year, with a really amazing line-up of poets and musicians, but of course it had to be cancelled. The performers kindly recorded short performances on video, so we could hold a mini online version. Which was great, but not the same.
BRIAN: Finally, how have the landscapes of Wealden changed for you as a result of creating this work?
NANCY: If anything, I am even more excited by this landscape than I was before. Each time I visit, I find something new. Also, the season, the weather, the time of day, events in the wider world, all of these affect the way you view it. I am not finished with this landscape yet.
ROB: During the second lockdown I went back to the marshes and to Dungeness and shot some material to create a film that accompanies the poetry and soundscape. (Making the film was a way of compensating for the fact that we can’t currently perform live.) Down there on my own with a camera, I think this was the occasion I really fell in love with the place — I was looking at it more clearly, with our music and Nancy’s words ringing in my ears. I felt immersed in it.
All photographs by Rob Pursey.
You can read a further interview with Amelia and Rob of The Drift (conducted by Glenn Francis Griffith) here. All four Wealden collaborators — Nancy, Darren, Amelia and Rob — discuss their relationship to this corner of England in an interview conducted by Marie-Claire Wood for the Alternative Stories and Fake Realities podcast series. Click here to listen to the podcast.
Join Nancy Gaffield and The Drift for an online film screening of Wealden, followed by a Q&A, on Thursday 3 December (6pm – 7.30pm). The event is free, and booking is essential: click here to book (via Eventbrite).
‘Lines That Echo’, Rachel Smith
At the corner of Bank Street and Scargill Croft the wheeled luggage stops moving. It takes a moment for the arm to grasp this, stretching and jerking. I scan the pavement for obstructions. It is difficult, I cannot bend, I find nothing. The pavement is clean and flat. I tilt forward, the luggage tilts forward, the wheels drag, then turn, I let go, straightening, the trolley slumps back into its bulk. Three strides, stop, repeat. I see the cobbles and the long drop and some bits of Crown Court at the end of the drop and I stop again and look back at where I started, 100 feet to the east.
Always, it is slow, going from door to door. I think back to when I started, the paper round on weekdays and weekends, everyone had a paper then, the first hour picking and marking and building the round, the second hour under the weight of it, a PVC bag and its awkward strap, shifting it from shoulder to shoulder, in and out of closes and crescents. I’d get my stride back at the end, an empty bag in one hand, wondering where the weight had gone. It was £2 on a Sunday, a lot of money then. It still is. The print on the fingers, the black marks on the shoulders.
A few weeks before Christmas, I receive an email from John. John has closed the arts centre he founded 10 years ago and is clearing the building. The books that lined the walls of the café are now surplus to requirements and he wonders if they might be of use to me. I am not sure that they will be of use to me, but I agree to collect them, I apply the terms ‘poetry community’ and ‘redistribution’, I propose dates for collection, I express confidence that a use will be found. I will call round shortly after 2pm on Monday. I will bring a large rucksack and some carrier bags.
Around the time that John was acquiring premises in Sheffield, shortly before the economic crisis of 2008, I was employed in a low-status administrative role in the financial services industry. Unbeknownst to my colleagues and managers, I was also running a secondary business from under my desk, a small poetry press with a turnover of approximately £23 per annum. The idea for the press had originated in the misuse of office equipment a few years earlier. As the building never seemed to close, and the printers and copiers were unmonitored after business hours, I began to design and make little pamphlets on the machines, a pocket library in a filing cabinet.
It is shortly after 2pm on Monday. I am staring through the gridded sash of a Georgian terrace, there is John, no, he turns away, I am tapping and waving. After a minute the noises and gestures scratch through his side of the glass and he lets me in. The central gallery space is bare apart from some drifts and heaps in the middle. I take a few steps towards them and see that they are books, bagged and boxed, skewed and listing. I start to add them up, perhaps 250 in all, excluding magazines, the little magazines. Where’s your car, asks John. You won’t be able to manage all these.
The sessions with the copiers were late, irregular, there were toner spills and paper jams, sheets in the wrong order. A stack of clean print and a heap of discard. After clearing the printers and worktops and tables it would be 10pm, 11pm, midnight. Some of the scrap would be left for recycling and the rest I took away. On the way home, passing through the commercial districts, I would post the surplus pages through the doors of solicitors, hairdressers, building societies, estate agents, travel agents, a sonnet, canto or haiku for every tile and mat, the loose leaves behind me, slowly running down the discard, shedding paper through the night.
You won’t be able to manage. Why don’t you take some now, and come back for the rest. He means well. It’s fine, I say. I have brought a large rucksack and some carrier bags. I have also borrowed my partner’s suitcase, into which I am stuffing boxes of various sizes and a few of the larger books, not all of it is poetry, the collection also includes works by Leo Tolstoy and Peter Stringfellow. The suitcase will not close. I remove the Stringfellow and a cricket memoir and it zips shut. As John looks on, I cram the remainder into my rucksack and four carrier bags, two for each hand.
It is personal, the thought of choosing a book, the act of buying a book. When I receive orders for books that I have published, I consult a map to see if the address lies within a walking distance, and if it does, I walk the book to its purchaser. Then I walk back. This is how I think with the city, this is the Sheffield that I piece together from wrong turns and blind bends, from Wadsley to Woodseats, Walkley to Wincobank. One by one, the books find their way to their new readers, another Sheffield in their wake. Always, it is slow, always, it is slower than I think.
The rucksack is solid and straining at the buckles. I can’t hoist it onto my back, so I squat, slipping my arms through the shoulder straps, then rise to my feet, setting my spine against the frame. Something isn’t right. I gather all four carrier bags in my right hand, grasp the suitcase handle with my left, and try to make all this appear normal, reasonable, viable. John looks on, restating his concerns, I could call you a cab, let me call you a cab. The suitcase drags, one wheel good, one wheel bad. It’s fine. I haul everything through the narrow exit and the door closes for the last time.
The first time I set foot in Bank Street Arts was sometime in the autumn of 2008, I think, there was something happening, an exhibition or a reading, the centre hadn’t been open for long, it was hard to find and when you did find it you couldn’t be sure if anyone would come to the door. Over the next few years, each part of the building came into use, the uses often changing, artists’ studios, public galleries, a café, residencies, readings, performances, book fairs. It didn’t always run smoothly, but it was an outlet, a community, a space of making. Now it has closed, without a word it has closed.
I take three steps with the rucksack, suitcase and carrier bags, enough to put myself out of sight and earshot of John, and slump against a wall. This is a mistake. One of the carrier bags is swollen with Magmas and Rialtos and something called I Bought a Mountain. The handle is weak. I lift it onto the top of the upright suitcase and twist the plastic grips around the metal rod, making a loose knot, the bag will be supported by the suitcase at rest and in motion. Well done, I think to myself. I regather and rebuckle, and carefully tilt the suitcase handle. Seconds later, the bag falls off.
The spaces of the city are always coming into use, or falling out of use. Or so it seems. I think of Bank Street Arts, and I think of Bloc, CADS, Cupola, DINA, Furnace Park, the Nichols Building, 7 Garden Street, 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.
I reattach the bag to the suitcase and tilt everything forward. Three strides, stop, repeat. Sometimes it is the suitcase that stops moving and sometimes it is me. After 10 minutes I reach the junction of Bank Street and Queen Street, the main road divided by New Street to the north, Figtree Lane to the south. The light is going. I squint at Figtree Lane, little more than a ginnel, it winds around the cathedral and into the city centre. I could take a tram from there, I think. Then I see the cobbles and the slope. No. Also, the tram is an extra 70p from the centre, think of that.
The bookshops, anyone could walk into the city bookshops, it was never clear how they kept going, and then they were gone. Alan Hill Books, Rare and Racy, the left-wing store on Surrey Street, the idea of them always seemed more solid than the shelved stock, yet only the stock survives, somewhere, still, it must survive somewhere. Someone knows where it is. Every now and then you’d call in and see the new acquisitions near the counter, boxed or unboxed, a complete run, someone’s collection, you knew that you were seeing the best of the libraries, you wouldn’t see them as they were, at the end, before they were broken up.
My palms burn. I see the sign of the Three Cranes, half-lit, a few feet above me. There is someone in the doorway, slouching, smoking. One of the plastic bags is losing the internal reinforcement from its handle, in a few moments it will be useless. I quicken my pace, I do not want to fall apart under the sign of the Three Cranes, let me sort this out. I make it to the corner of Queen Street and Northchurch Street. Mail Boxes Inc, no, Mail Boxes Etc. Some builders are staring from a scaffolded building. They are not laughing or pointing. After a minute they go back to their work.
When I was very small I founded a library. The library comprised six books that I no longer had a use for and six books that I claimed to have written or was going to write. I circulated the list among a handful of friends and invited them to subscribe to the library. No-one joined. The list went missing and I lost the books I hadn’t written. I didn’t want to write a book, I wanted to see the books lined up with my name on the spine, Brian Lewis, Brian Lewis, Brian Lewis. I wanted the mobile library to come and take them and for people to write in them.
It is 500 feet from Mail Boxes Etc to the end of Queen Street. With 250 books and the little magazines, it takes 15 minutes, half of this stoppage. At the turning for West Bar I stop again and remove some of the larger books from a Sainsbury’s carrier bag and stuff them into the suitcase. The suitcase will not close. I try again, the suitcase closes, then opens in a different place. My shoulders ache. I shuffle everything to the pedestrian crossing and press the button. A black cab slows for a roundabout, its roof sign lit up. I am saving the books, I think, but for whom, for what?
I reach the second pedestrian crossing, linked to the first by an island of white rails, I am moving with difficulty, the traffic impatient. I follow the National Emergency Services Museum round the corner and into what is not yet Gibraltar Street. The pavements are deteriorating. I put my body behind the deadweight of the suitcase, push not pull, the wheels seize and I pile into the frame. It is embarrassing. I try to remind myself that poetry has value, I pass Yorkshire Decorators Centre, Shakespeares, no, The Shakespeare. I stop at a builder’s skip to adjust my rucksack. I fall back and the drawstring opens. The books have had enough.
I have had enough. I drag the rucksack and the suitcase and the carrier bags along the last few yards of Gibraltar Street and cast them down at the edge of a mini car park. I prop myself against a wall with the hand that doesn’t hurt. There is frost on the pavement, there are books on the pavement, two or three paperbacks tipped from the carriers. One of them is The Bus to Hope by Brian Lewis. The cover depicts the author lurking behind a Henry Moore figure, his big laughing face framed by the arm and torso of the bronze, the parkland receding. I flick the pages and wince.
Then I pick up The Art of Seduction by Robert Greene. The title, embossed and gilded, is laid within a vertical pink slit, the slit offset with midnight blue trims. The gilt is fading. The cover tells us that Robert Greene is the author of the International Bestseller The 48 Laws of Power. I open the book. It is badly designed on cheap stock. It employs six typefaces and advocates cruelty. It is heavily underlined and circled throughout, in black pen, the thin paper scored in agreement. One of the highlighted passages contains the word ‘stategy’. There are 500 pages of this. The moral right of the author has been asserted.
I don’t know what to do. My hands are not working properly and the tram stop is another quarter of a mile. I stare at the carrier bags and their broken handles. It occurs to me that I could leave them here, in the mini car park, among the weeds and nettles. I could find my way back to them tomorrow. They will be safe here for the night. I hoist the rucksack onto my shoulders, I have nothing with which to hoist it, I fall over and right myself, then slowly set off with the suitcase, the library in hand, another on my back, slipping in and out of alignment.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in the DW Cities: Sheffield anthology, edited by Emma Bolland (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019). The contributors to DW Cities: 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
Click here to read ‘On Cities, Solidarity, Loss, and Hope’, Emma Bolland‘s account of the second launch of the DW Cities: Sheffield anthology.
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. His publications include East Wind (Gordian Projects, 2016), an account of a walk across the Holderness peninsula, and White Thorns (Gordian Projects, 2017), based on a series of walks through the Isle of Axholme.
A year ago, I was sitting in the audience of a poetry reading at the Ted Hughes Poetry Festival (Mexborough). The gifted poet Raymond Antrobus had just described ‘Deaf School’ by Ted Hughes as ‘an assault on the deaf community’. I listened carefully for an explanation, but I don’t recall Antrobus offering one that day. In the interval I wanted to talk to someone about this episode, but it didn’t feel right, and an opening didn’t occur. I was disappointed: discussion might have been interesting. I later discovered that Antrobus had published a redacted version of ‘Deaf School’ in his collection The Perseverance. This version has power as an act of raw deconstruction, but the poem that follows it (‘After Reading ‘Deaf School’ by the Mississippi River’) is a considerably more nuanced and imaginative riposte to Hughes. In a review of The Perseverance, Martyn Crucefix states that he once refused to teach Hughes’ ‘Deaf School’ (when asked), endorsing the view that it is ‘patronising and presumptuous’ (Antrobus actually implies that Hughes is not ‘wise’). I can imagine that Hughes’ bulletin from the 70s felt perfectly acceptable back then, but our own times demand different codes – especially in relation to marginalised groups. I’ve since gone back to Hughes’ lesser-known poem in search of evidence of an assault on a community. ‘Deaf School’ is a weird poem, and it is actually quite hard to pin Hughes’ position down. If the poem has any value (and I think it has some), perhaps it rests in certain undercurrents, operating on a less immediate level.
One thing is certain: I can’t know what it feels like to be someone from the deaf community reading Hughes’ poem, and I shouldn’t presume to. Many years ago, I was asked to facilitate a collaboration between deaf and hearing storytellers, and had visited the Royal School for the Deaf (Derby) in order to raise my awareness. The woman I spoke with offered me a great deal of practical and ethical advice, but didn’t stop there. Sensing my naivety, she leaned over and emphasised something important. The deaf community is a proud community, and many individuals in that community see themselves as belonging to something more civilised and humane than (the often discriminatory) mainstream society. Under no circumstances should I appear to patronise. I got the impression that she was warning me for my own good, not for the protection of deaf storytellers. Things have moved on since 1979, when ‘Deaf School’ was published in the ‘Earth-Numb’ section of Hughes’ transitional volume, Moortown. I have no wish to invalidate other perspectives on this poem – but I do want to engage with them.
Possibly, one of the hardest things to swallow about the poem is its position of highly detached observation, and the way in which this (privileged?) poet could be seen to be colonising a subject he has no right to wade into. Furthermore, the movement and facial expression of the deaf children is compared to that of animals. They are ‘monkey-nimble’, and ‘fish-tremulous’. Their faces are ‘small night lemurs caught in the flash-light’. This is highly vivid description, fairly typical of Hughes in his revelatory, observational mode. In some contexts, comparing (aspects of) a child to an animal might not seem respectful – except Hughes belongs to a line of poets (Blake, Whitman, Hopkins, Lawrence) who often venerate animals above humans. He frequently employs them as symbols of a more intense and authentic mode of being. If he describes the deaf children as ‘alert and simple’, simplicity is not necessarily an undesirable quality in the Hughes universe. Cerebral intellectuals were more likely to feel the lash of his contempt (see ‘Egg-Head’). In ‘Starlings’, it is the ‘distracting devils’ of human complexity that get in the way of writing poems. His poetry aspires to the simple, pure alertness of the bird. For Hughes, language itself is a kind of animal. The poem is a sort of creature.
Is ‘Deaf School’ callous because it arrogantly describes the children as ‘lacking a dimension’ (i.e. response to sound), defective in comparison with the superior fullness of the hearing? Is Hughes ‘othering’ deafness, or presenting it as less than human? Again, I don’t find an answer easy to formulate. It strikes me that Hughes’ account of what it feels like to have hearing is no less strange than his account of what it looks like to be deaf:
Their selves were not woven into a voice
Which was woven into a face
Hearing itself, its own public and audience,
An apparition in camouflage…
According to Hughes, to hear oneself speak is to embark on a process that leads to artifice, self-consciousness, narcissism, concealment and possibly deceit. The poem does seem to tie in with Hughes’ 1970s obsession with the inadequacy of language to fully express the self. His apprehension of deaf children is deployed in the service of a wider argument. They become a symbol of humanity in general – the essence is beneath the skin, beneath language.
Perhaps Hughes is guilty of marking the deaf children as defective, but there is still something else nagging me. If Hughes has objectified the deaf children by comparing them to lemurs, has he not also made the ‘apparition’ that hears his own voice equally strange. Is that ‘apparition’ a subliminal figuring of himself? The normalcy of ‘hearing’ feels equally scrutinised here. It reminds me of a science fiction story one of my MA students submitted. She presented a culture where speech was viewed as Satanic deceit. The people of this culture preferred the purity and authenticity of body language.
Unfortunately, Hughes’ evocation of the physical process of signing does not quite fit into a purity / authenticity thesis. In fact, his awkward evocation of this mode of communication is even more unnerving and contentious. The deaf children speak with a ‘machine’ that is external to their ‘hidden’ selves. The space this machine extends into is ‘alien’. Their hands (like their bodies) are ‘like the hammers of a piano’. Here Hughes seems to flounder, as analogy after analogy doesn’t quite capture the complexity of this mode of being: ‘a puppet agility’ with the ‘blankness of a hieroglyph’, ‘a stylised lettering / spelling out approximate signals’. This certainly ties in with the notion of a wider argument. If sign is portrayed as a machine that falls short, the language of Hughes’ poetry is also an unwieldly apparatus that fails to quite capture the essence of deafness and sign. Whatever Hughes’ daylight argument on deafness is, his poem is leading him (and us) into complex terrain. But the question still remains: does Hughes have the right to use the deaf children to explore this wider obsession with language?
The deaf children’s faces are described as ‘simple lenses of alertness’. In truth, it is Hughes who is most often a watcher – a wolf-watcher who wishes he could do better, and step into the skin of the wolf, taking ‘us’ with him. ‘Deaf School’ reaches such a pitch of hyper-watchfulness that poetry forgets to listen to its own voice (and diplomatically censor itself, perhaps). It free-associates analogies and images like an octopus grappling with a bar of soap. (‘Second Glance at a Jaguar’ does something similar.) The poem is as hyper-visual (and externalised) as Hughes’ vision of sign. The phrasing of the last stanza is perhaps unfortunate. Hughes tell us that the face of deafness is in ‘darkness’, ‘concealed and separate’. Maybe it is. I’m in no position to say. What the poem actually seems to enact, however, is that the face of deafness is concealed from the observational mode of writing Hughes is employing here.
Ironically, Hughes (the private man) was someone who often chose to keep his self / psyche ‘concealed’ and ‘separate’ for most of his literary career. One price he paid for this was what hostile parties projected onto his ‘apparition in camouflage’. Was the man arrogant, or was he emotionally wounded? (Ok, a person can be both.) Hughes does not seem (to me) to be consciously assaulting deafness in ‘Deaf School’, but he might be taking liberties with it as a subject. In his defence, he seems to muster all the watchfulness and mental energy he can in order to push through neat and superficial modes of expression. In fact, I detect a latent affiliation with the ‘separate’ or ‘concealed’. If his poem falls short in an attempt to cross a (perceived) gulf between the deaf and the hearing (or the children and the man), it succeeds at reminding us how potentially strange both modes of being are. It is not exactly a heroic failure, but it doesn’t seem hopelessly callous either. A journey into strangeness is exactly what I’d expect from the writer of Gaudete and Crow. On balance, I think ‘Deaf School’ deserves both criticism and a degree of open-minded re-reading. It’s a flawed poem, yes, but it could yield an interesting discussion.
Photograph by Warren Draper.
Sunday 23 August, 6.45am. I scrabble at the back of a kitchen cupboard and separate three margarine tubs from the stack in which they were stuck. The lids are loose, somewhere in the unit, I count out three and close the door. Then I stuff everything into a threadbare rucksack and leave the house. I think that I am putting the thoughts behind me as I head east along Holme Lane, there is very little traffic in either direction, no tailbacks at the intersection. I pass Subway and Wilko and Lloyds and make a diagonal crossing of the garage forecourt. I bend to the newspaper stand, then realise that my face is uncovered, I unbend and unpocket a fabric mask and attach it to the front of my head. As I bend for the second time, another man leans into the newspaper stand, he is perhaps 60, 65, his face is uncovered, he pauses, mid-lean, then takes two or three newspapers from their plastic compartments, pauses again, then walks through the door of the kiosk. I take a newspaper and follow him into the kiosk and stand behind him in the queue. I make judgments about his character while I wait. When I am called forward by the cashier I discard the judgments and present the newspaper for payment. I ask the cashier how she is, she is concerned about the scaremongering in the newspapers, this is the word she uses, scaremongering, she points at a headline, it warns of food shortages, a winter crisis, worse to come. ‘People will start panic buying again’, she says. I nod, half-heartedly, it is a weak gesture, I have nothing to say. I leave the kiosk and leave the forecourt. I have stopped keeping proper records in the last few months, the accounts are full of holes, but I remember that Emma and I came this way a month ago, we met our friend, Helen, in the avenue that was still an avenue, we walked to the park, the three of us, the park at the end of the street. We made a slow circuit of the paths, north, east, west, south. We passed the lake and Helen was talking of the Canada geese that live on the lake, its small islands, she hears them from her house, yes, we said, we hear them from our house. As Helen was talking I was thinking that we hadn’t seen her for months, we had seen very few friends in months, yet the time that had passed had been marked by the geese. I would look up from the back garden and see the overhead formation, a few minutes after Helen, or a few minutes before, east to west, west to east. She said something else, that they were in training, that they were practicing flight. A long journey ahead. I don’t know if the geese are migratory or sedentary. We couldn’t imagine it, or I couldn’t, not really, the thought of the Labrador Sea, the long haul.
A blight in the palm,
a season without colour,
a field without work.
I am still heading east but the impetus is broken, I will have to start from somewhere else, I think back to where I left off. There is a wide empty stretch between the garage and the casino and I let my thoughts slow to almost nothing. The images, too, are slower, smaller, fewer, I sort through them as they come, I set all of them aside but one. It is a photograph of my father, which I saw for the first time only recently. It is a photograph of a photograph. The original photograph sits in a silver frame, the edges of which are visible in the photograph of the photograph, the photograph of the photograph was taken by one of my two brothers. I don’t know who took the original photograph. I don’t know when it was taken, or where. I know that this is my father, at some point in his National Service, which dates it to the early 1950s. I think that the setting is somewhere in south-west England. The image is sepia-toned, I can’t be certain of the colours of my father’s clothes, the trousers are dark, the shirt is a lighter shade, khaki, olive, sage, I remember that my father was colour-blind. The shirt has two pockets, buttoned on the right, unbuttoned on the left, and the sleeves are neatly rolled to the biceps. In the photograph he stands with his left hand on his hip and his right hand on his knee, the knee is bent, he is bracing his right foot on a boulder or a tree stump. There is light at his back. Perhaps it is summer, late spring, early autumn. He has a fine, pencil-thin moustache, it is partially obscured by shadow, as are his eyes. This makes it hard to read his mood. Is he at ease, is he distracted, is he impatient to get back to work. His work, as I recall, was the renovation of dilapidated army accommodation, he was a carpenter, assigned to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, this was the use they put him to, that and the lorries, the fleet repairs. On my left, the casino car park, then the casino, five months closed, it reopened a week ago. I count six or seven cars in the car park, there is no-one in the parking booth, there is no-one at the entrance, there are waves of distorted sound thudding into the rear of the building, like bad cabling, like wires shorting out. On my right, Hillsborough Fencing and its frayed union flags. I remember the wrong turn I took some years back. I crossed the street and took a right at the flags, a short walk to the dead end of a trading estate, the concrete yards and padlocked gates of suppliers and dealers, no through road. I had no business there and so I turned back. I think of Roy, my father’s cousin, who died earlier this month. He would have seen no end of estates like this, or perhaps the same few, repeatedly, he worked in haulage, I don’t know where his work took him. After he retired he spent much of his time helping to restore the waterways near his home in Oxfordshire. He was a volunteer with the East Vale branch of the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust and, for many years, the Branch Work Party Organiser. I can picture him there, in his element, the van, the gear, everything at hand, pressing on, he is cheerful, pragmatic, resourceful. It is a time out of season and the picture is in colour.
It is not finished,
the work is never finished
or left unfinished.
Here are the first bramble bushes, the road turning left at the power station. It is so quiet, the hum is low, level, unbroken. I could stop here and pick blackberries, that would be enough, but I did that last week. I want to see the slopes. I pass through the last section of Livesey Street, the greyhound track behind a concrete fence, the power station behind a metal fence, and somewhere the greyhound track meets the Cadbury Trebor Bassett site, I can’t see the join. The road ends in a bridge and the bridge unlocks the River Don. I look the water up and down, north-west, south-east, it takes a moment for the eyes to adjust. On the north-east bank I see a man asleep. He is seated on a bench, overlooking the river, fully dressed and approximately upright, his stance aslant to the left. I imagine him waking, at intervals, he starts, he sets himself right, then falls back into a tilt. The bench was installed earlier in the year by the Friends of Wardsend Cemetery. I walk up the cemetery’s steps, into the cemetery’s shade, the path is clear, the place feels cared for, it is more than just maintenance, upkeep. The stones have been set right, as far as possible, the ground is tended. The Friends have spent years mapping this site, clearing the knotweed, helping to make inscriptions legible, putting names to unmarked burials, guiding descendants to the graves of their ancestors. The dead are remembered in each act of care. The path and the shade and the graves run up against the railway bridge, a steep climb and a fast drop, a scattering of graves on the north-east side of the railway line. I forget that this is also part of the cemetery, the railway came first, the churchyard was full, the new acres are the overspill. I cross the bridge and turn left, away from the cemetery and the railway, it is uphill sharply. I stop at the foot of the steps cut into the slope and take one of the margarine tubs from my rucksack. Do I start at the top of the ridge, then work my way down, or ascend gradually, harvesting as I go. I decide to start from where I am. There are some brambles just up ahead, the ridge path straightening after the turn, I slow down and take a look. I see the flattened grass, the bent branches, someone got here first, before the storm. What’s left is rotted or unready. I look again, beyond the outer branches, I turn the leaves back, there are ripe blackberries on the underside, a good size. Still they are few and the bushes are strung out along the ridge. This will take time, I say to myself, but I have time. As I go, I think of Roy, of my last visit to his house in Oxfordshire, four years ago. He wasn’t well even then, but he was no less himself, gentle, kind, good-humoured. After a few hours I said goodbye and turned left at the gate, then took the footbridge over the A420. It was late August, the blackberry season nearing its end, it comes earlier in the south. I stopped in a field near the dual carriageway and filled two boxes in twenty minutes. It rained. It rained on the rolling farmland and it rained on Harrowdown Hill. It rained on the Thames Path and on the sections where the path ran out. I cut the walk short on the outskirts of Oxford and caught a bus back to Swindon. I looked out from the top deck at the land I must have looked out at from childhood, all those Sunday afternoons, and I recognised almost none of it. I thought of the miles that my father must have clocked up in South Oxfordshire, the visits to the Mattingleys, the Murrells, the building work that ran on for weeks, there were no blank spaces in the Vale of the White Horse, he could read it back to front. In half an hour I have filled half a box.
You wouldn’t see it, and yet
you prepared the ground.
I step back from the edge of the slope and stare out at the bushes that skew from the hillside. The best are out of reach. There was rain in the night, it gets into everything, I am soaked when I lean in. I climb the slope, crossing from left to right, from bramble to bramble, there is very little for the taking. The path forks in two, one track on the level, another on a gradient, I see brambles in the fork. I poke around in the brambles and set my rucksack down. Roy was the best man at my parents’ wedding, I know this because my mother told me, two weeks ago, it is something that I think that I thought that I knew, but I didn’t, not really, I have to be reminded. I remember that he was there at the end, though, for my father, at or near the end, perhaps a week or so before he died. There was a suddenness, things were moving very quickly, and there was Roy, with his easy, familiar manner, there was no awkwardness or reserve. I remember that it cheered my father. I saw the years fall away. I pick up my rucksack and move on from the brambles in the fork, I settle on the upper track, the gradient. I can hear the machinery at the Bassett site, I can see the white clouds assembling. One or two emergency vehicles on Penistone Road. I can’t tell if they’re southbound or northbound, they slip through earshot in seconds. The ground levels out to a grassy plateau between Owlerton and Shirecliffe, there are more brambles ahead, a bank of allotments somewhere behind me. I set the rucksack down again. I am thinking of the last journey I made with my father. It was a Tuesday afternoon in early August, I had arranged an early departure from the office, I had agreed to meet him at his allotment. I don’t remember if he asked for help or if I volunteered. It was my first visit to the allotment in two decades and possibly his last. He was there ahead of me, I saw the car parked at the end of Barnfield Close, I knew that he’d paced himself accordingly, spared his energy for the labour, the short drive there and back. I opened the gate and walked through. I couldn’t remember which allotment was his, then I spotted him at the far end of the plot, the third one along, or the fourth, they were numbered, I’d forgotten how large the plots were, it was a job of work in the summer. I waved, then made my way to the end of the plot, was he retrieving something from the shed, was he filling a bucket with water. He told me that he had walked over to the new B&Q across the road, it had opened that summer, he thought he would take a look. He overheard a conversation between a customer and a manager, neither of them was getting anywhere, neither of them had an answer for the other, the thing, what was the thing, where would you find the thing. He intervened, gently, he was able to show the customer what they needed, what it was, where it was, the manager offered him a job, so he said, he joked about this, he was still making jokes. We spent an hour or two there, on the plot, working separately, then working side by side. I picked the blackberries, it was all I knew, what else was there, runner beans, broad beans, carrots, much of it under nets, I don’t recall. I was there to keep an eye on him. I was there to help out, I wanted to make myself useful, but I was also there to keep an eye on him. I think he understood this. He understood what was happening, that the days were shortening, though none of us knew how many days were left. It was important to him, the plot, I knew that, but I didn’t know that it would be important to me. I didn’t know how difficult it would be to hand the allotment keys back to the council, the plot that he had tended for over 30 years. I carried them around for a week before giving them up. I make a circuit of the plateau, the second margarine tub fills slowly, here is another clump of brambles. The white clouds lose their shape in the valley. Once or twice, in my father’s last weeks, I paused at the threshold of his room. An open door. I wanted to ask him how he was, how do you start a conversation like that, what would I have said, what would he have said. I can’t fill in the blanks. That afternoon at the allotment, we harvested twelve kilos of blackberries. It didn’t seem to matter that he could no longer taste them. We carried them to the car and stacked them in the boot. Just before he closed the door, he surveyed the haul, then glanced back at the plot. ‘Good job’, he said.
i.m. Raymond Lewis (d. 23.08.2007) and Roy Murrell (d. 06.08.2020)
Photograph taken in Owlerton, north Sheffield, 28 August 2020.
Introduction by Lord ‘Broc’ Howk
Over the years, the Greater Bradgate Range of Leicestershire has yielded strange journeys. The territory is laden with ghosts, mostly in the form of venerable oaks with their crowns chopped out – reminders of poor Lady Jane Grey, that very young and innocent queen, who after her nine days of royalty was beheaded. And there is also Old John himself, that old beer mug of a folly atop one of the grander peaks. In the wrong light one can hear the whinnies of the tortured horses that galloped around the race circuit that encircled Old John’s prominent lookout. They weren’t really tortured, but by gods we can imagine the racket. And none of this, of course, is believable – rather it requires a particular kind of faith, a particular way of looking at things aslant. And the same too can be said for the miniature mountaineering to be found in the park. It does not require a sense of adventure, and anyway adventure is a word that fell off a bygone cliff … o so long ago! … but also it died of late on the moors, roasted on one of those dreadful disposable BBQs. Yes, poor old adventure, just another extinct bird! But where was I? … And then there was the Sliding Stone with its oaken snail, just about to eat the pretty stand of birches … No? … No! … Ah, yes, the sense required to enjoy the rock and soaring mountains of Bradgate … well, it is a sense of other that is required, and a sense that what doesn’t make sense can be sensed – can be felt. Yes, this is a grand outdoorsness, a vast wilderness of condensed values, one where a red stag is just as big as a stag beatle … perhaps the drummer, Ringo, rather than the really famous bugs. Anyway, enough of me … let’s get stuck into Bradgate.
THE GREATER BRADGATE RANGE IS AT LAST OPEN AGAIN
As long as Mountaineers respect ancient Pagan traditions and don’t actually stand on summits, expeditions are now allowed. Sir Christopher Lichen commented:
‘This is great news for the great climber who longs for a great place!’
… All I can remember from Bradgate was the deer and Old John. Is that base camp? …
… I didn’t say I’d got a new range of kit! It might of sounded like it – but I actually said: “And what better way to go but dressed in a new Range”, so yes, I didn’t specifically say ‘kit’, and ‘range’ can refer to a range of things, including kit, granted, but in this case we …
… Well spotted! Yes, base camp is where the ghosts sat around chatting about Lady Jane’s skull. We had to move the mess tent because the local Charnwood porter refused to cook in it. Mind you, there was a very strange sensation in that tent …
… but in this case we are talking about being dressed in a mountain range, a tiny mountain range. There is also the word ‘range’ as related to ‘reach’ – and as you can see I’m making a really long (st)reach to finish Old John …
… Little Braggers looks about my grade …
… Look, I was actually expecting you to pick me up on the number of routes, not question whether or not I’d created a new range of outdoor clothing … the point is, it is not how we dress, or what we dress in, but where we dress … a range of bright colours, of alp …
… Yes, Little Braggers is only 296 ft long! Much shorter than the rest, however, it actually has one of the hardest moves in the range – there is a thirty foot pitch of completely gleaming stone, incredibly slippery … as if some giant mollusc had slid across it …
… a range of bright colours, of alpenglow, can be cut to a romantic jaunt and easily slipped over young muscles, or alternatively one can simply watch one’s own shadow dress itself in the late stone of day. By the way, do you like my bald patch in this topo? – it is a site, a …
… it … it is a site, a place of its own, somewhere to pitch a memory … and sleep snug under the rattling canvas of bygone ravens, their lovely inky blue wings shivering against the flight of a tiny mind-sized mountain … no, I will not take it back, it, the sentiment of stone, it …
… it … the sentiment of stone, it … cements my sentience …
FOR THE LITTLE CLIMBER AT HOME IN TINY MOUNTAINS
WE ALSO HAVE A NICE RANGE OF BRIGHT COLOURS,
TO HELP THE LEICESTERSHIRE MOUNTAINEER STAND OUT
… No, that’s not true at all. You must not say that! Look, take the Yeti for example, that was entirely invented by the great 1930s mountaineer, Eric Shipton. Having said that, yes, there is in Bradgate something … a thing rather large and strange. I did see this thing once, but it defies visual description. In fact it was more of a feeling – a dark trickle of hairy hissing, and yet soundless, and not actually felt. You see, even though I do so love the place – it is probably where I first scrambled on rock, as a toddler, and the park for me is indeed a bowl of embers, each ember a memory glowing – but still there is something very Englishly dark there …
… I have balanced along the Bradgate Dragon Back – a great pleasure of walking a miniature mountain spine. I have with my love sat out more than one New Year’s Eve, both of us perched at high altitude, with frostbitten fingers, but glad to be clinging to life … just as the great slab of the calendar tips … watching the lights of Leicester shimmer far below us … and the jubilant fireworks sprout like miniature war. I have explored the oaken wonders of the figures here, with my little children – I have entrusted both my kids to the arms of the park’s oaks. I have watched the grainy cine film of my grandparents hand-in-hand walking – before I was born – down by the River Lin. And my love & I have lovingly cursed the ‘naughty badgers’ that have so often during their snoofling in the dark scratched off the garments of the ground in search of their sustenance … leaving their tell-tales of rucked turf … and freshly disturbed soil. And all these moments gleam gladly through me, and I cup the bowl of legends, I cup it with my ears! … just as the woodpecker yaffles by day or the owl sculpts by night …
… But yes, there is no escaping, by climbing nor walking, not by going across nor up … there is something dark laid down here … below us all … for actually, there is something dark laid down under all England … no mountain is ever conquered … but certainly minds can be … and souls can
… fail … and bodies can break …
HORRORS OF LEICESTERSHIRE, POSTCARD #5
Note, according to Wikipedia: Bradgate Park (local pronunciation: /ˌbrædɡʌt/) is a public park in Charnwood Forest, in Leicestershire, England, northwest of Leicester. It covers 850 acres (340 hectares). The park lies between the villages of Newtown Linford, Anstey, Cropston, Woodhouse Eaves and Swithland. The River Lin runs through the park, flowing into Cropston Reservoir which was constructed on part of the park. To the north-east lies Swithland Wood. The park’s two well-known landmarks, Old John and the war memorial, both lie just above the 210 m (690 ft) contour. The park is part of the 399.3 hectare Bradgate Park and Cropston Reservoir Site of Special Scientific Interest, which has been designated under both biological and geological criteria.
The visible geology in Bradgate Park ranges from some of the oldest (Precambrian) fossil-bearing rocks in England to the youngest (Quaternary). They include rocks with some of the oldest known developed forms of fossil animal life in Western Europe.
All original photos by Nikki Clayton.
Image manipulation by Mark Goodwin, from original photos by Nikki Clayton.
Thanks to Jo Dacombe & Chris Jones for their responses to the Bradgate topo, which are included in the ‘conversation’ below the topo.
Thanks also to Boz Morris … for banter !
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:
At the start of this century (centuries ago) … the little girl was sad to leave the house she’d started her life in. Her daddy said to her, one night at bedtime: “Look in your palm – there, a little Bittesby … imagine it, kept in your hand. And look, you can see twists of smoke wriggling from the chimney.”
Dad asks me to photograph the splitting driveway, the warehouse, the planted embankment and the old cottage. The warehouse looks like a wave, I think, stopped in time, high crested and mighty, sloping towards us.
A man, who measured out his days in places, who said of himself only what his places said of him … after an ill-ease had swept away ways, he crouched in lengths of imagined grasses, and craned his neck, and stared up at a wave of time … the way the rusty lock & the bright key, together in the sky, fight/fought like crow & kite. Impossible. Impossible to imagine. It will never happen. O the open sky, wider than any open door. It brings all. Here is (or was or will be) a man whose place name is his names’ places, the man whose ways measure spaces … in or out … and there is a man too … there … a way away … but the gap cannot be reached across.
We must not touch. This dis
placement, here, this dis
ease, here, or
distances … kept … and …
There is litter in the trees of this once rural home – the window-view from within the front room would now be one of a digger-made mound. We walk in the garden and the warehouse-wave hides behind the house. My memories of this place all come from pictures – I know that where I stand right now is where once I sat in my father’s lap, on a bench, as Tess stood happy as flowers. How odd, to be now taller than my dad, to be watching him stare up at the long chimney and the bees that have made it their home.
A man made of places places his selves in a weather-faded crisp packet in the garden at the back of a lost country cottage, a cottage miniaturised in a young woman’s palm. He has also made of himself a miniaturisation, one of an array, a scale, a measurement of selves … condensed. No harm, he only places these selves of him there/here, in this plastic enclosing, to keep the rain off, should it come, he stays here/there to keep his selves dry. And now he (and his various ways) stare into the pin-sharp eyes of the mouse who has also crept into the crisp packet with him. And this mouse, with those sharp-lit eyes precise as stars … whispers, gently and kindly to him:
I am John, a poet of a kind. May I share
with you, and your kind, this new enclosure,
this further tightening of mind? It hurt when
they first parcelled all the open ground and owned
it. And it hurts still, to find all the fields
of your heart tightened into a plastic packet.
Let’s make peace – you & I – lets both nourish our
selves with honest sorrow, for what chases you
here is worse than the rat, the weasel or the cat
after me. Such a tiny, invisible particle, a protein
-something … such a new hunter …
I was one when I lived here. Mum did the dishes with me on her back. Dad had a writing office upstairs. Minnie and Jez, who are now buried here, were free to roam fields and hunt mice. We had fires in the garden and Mum and Dad had friends over and Dad was the one who could get me to sleep. I don’t remember any of this and yet somehow it lives in me as I stand here now. The day is bright, Dad is contemplative. I look at the cottage and want to tell him it looks like a museum piece – I don’t. Moss sniffs the earth and pisses on the uncut grass. I wish I had more to say about this cottage and my time here but I don’t. I’ve no memories, only feelings. This is the patch of ground, the corner of earth, where I took my first steps, first breaths, first baths and shits and burps and giggles and tears and dreams – where I smeared yogurt on my face, unaware of the ‘I’ that had a face and oblivious to the yogurt that smeared it. Everything is everything when you’re one – I didn’t watch, I saw, unable to label and name. They called me ‘The Bead’ for my wide eyes, that now weep. I don’t remember this place, but it’s where I started and its essence lives in my root.
I found a ball of grass among the hay
And progged it as I passed and went away
And when I looked I fancied something stirred
And turned again and hoped to catch the bird
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheats
With all her young ones hanging at her teats
hear how normal creeps
up quiet streets
across fields falls
like shadow rising
up a lane
how strangeness flees
as normal’s almost
noiseless glide hides
sudden arrival here
is normal this
cat made of mist circles
round your ankles
then wraps itself
about your feet
one day you walked
your fields your
is your keep
I’m jerked out of reminiscence by a pair of striding legs glimpsed through the over-grown garden hedge. I sense trouble immediately and have no doubt it’s someone coming to check us out, tell us it’s private land and that we ought to clear off. Dad turns the corner and meets him first. The man barks something like: “What are you fellas up to, then?” Dad says “There’s no need to worry,” and explains how, decades ago, he used to live here, with me. The man’s a security guard, suited and booted in black, he has a tattoo on his face wrapping his right eye and a dark beard – this suddenly says to me: ‘I’ll fuck you up’. I want to write about him, now, as if he was a horrible cunt but in reality he was actually decent and friendly. He explained that we couldn’t be here, and in fact this cottage, he said, would be ‘flattened’ very soon. Once the COVID-19 lockdown was done a bulldozer would come through here, and drive right over the cottage and flatten it. He said that over and over again. The cottage – ‘flattened’. The farm buildings down the lane – ‘flattened’. All to be turned into warehouses. I looked at him and said: “I didn’t know that … I was one when I lived here.” Why did I say that to him? As if he might say: “Oh, well in that case I’ll put in a word and see if they can save it for you!” He wasn’t keen on it being knocked down either, but not because of how much it meant to me – he didn’t know about that. He said something about how it would have done for him and his family whilst he managed the security on the warehouses.
She looked so odd and so grotesque to me
I ran and wondered what the thing could be
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood
Then the mouse hurried from the craking brood
The young ones squeaked and as I went away
She found her nest again among the hay
The water o’er the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun
My dad said nothing. “You’re a tired old collie!” the man declared to my dog. “You wanna put her on a lead round here, the guard dogs will tear her to pieces, you’ll have a dogfight on your hands.” He escorted us out of the garden, down the lane and back into the fields where we had come from. We kept our COVID-19 social distance, and my dad said to him that he would shake his hand, but of course, we don’t do that anymore. I didn’t want to shake his hand. I wanted to live in this memory where I was born, I wanted to make it brilliant and rich with life. Later, I wept for the rabbit warrens that would be buried, the birds and insects that would be lost, the graves of Minnie and Jez that would be covered … and the beautiful bees in the chimney pot. I didn’t say any of this to my dad at the time. I joked about the security guard and swallowed all my pain. But inside, deep, in that root I felt the beginning of something, a spark of something – perhaps vengeance, or justice, perhaps a hope for the home I didn’t remember? All I know at the moment is – this land will be covered in glaring warehouse blocks, and those blocks will cover part of my root.
Photos by Louis Goodwin
Contemporary map image adapted by Mark Goodwin from osmaps.ordnancesurvey.co.uk
The sonnet that has been split in two within this piece (in bold italics) is John Clare’s ‘Field-Mouse’s Nest’.
Louis Goodwin is soon to resume his actor training, but via socially-isolated webcam. He will be 21 this August.
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:
Day twenty-seven. 3.30pm. A clear blue cloudless day, which means that nearby yards and gardens are in use, which means music through open windows, which means that I can’t think clearly. Tish tish tish tish tish tish tish tish. It’s no use sitting at my desk so I resolve to go out even though I don’t particularly want to go out. I stand back from the desk, at which I have achieved nothing, and attempt to tie the laces of one shoe while balancing on the other foot. This takes longer than it should and longer than it would have taken if I had tied the laces while sitting down. After a few more minutes I find my house keys under a drift of receipts and I pocket the keys and go downstairs. Outside the light is turning the street to dust. I turn right, looking down the length of Holme Lane as it faces Malin Bridge. There is more dust, at the corners of each terrace, in the sills and the steps. There are weeds, at the junctions of drainpipes and pavements, in gullies and in grates. There is wind everywhere. I cross from Loxley New Road to Loxley Road and see the turning for Wisewood Lane, I have never walked on Wisewood Lane, I think, this is the day for it, at least I will be able to say that I went for a walk on Wisewood Lane. As I turn onto Wisewood Lane I am no longer certain that I have not walked on Wisewood Lane. I pause to contemplate the church on my right, I have seen it before, from a distance, it is disagreeable, it has to do with the proportions. I dislike the brickwork and I dislike the cross. An information board tells me that it is Saint Polycarp’s Church. I don’t remember a Saint Polycarp. I walk up Wisewood Lane, not knowing if I know it or not. Did I come this way that night I was supposed to meet Rob, I think, we’d agreed to meet in a pub somewhere around here, he’d given me directions, it was dark, I couldn’t find anything, I ended up almost back at my house, eventually I called him, we did meet, I was half an hour late. It must have been 2014 or 2015. I continue walking along Wisewood Lane but when I look at the signage at the next bus stop I find that I am on Hallowmoor Road. I don’t suppose it makes much difference, I think, it’s not as though I’m going anywhere. Uphill. Through gaps in the suburb I glimpse other suburbs. I glimpse the suburb of Old Heath in Colchester where a year of my life passed in the early 1990s. The terrain was flat, not hilly, and the terraces were longer, and the gardens were scruffier, but the feeling was the same. I couldn’t find my way out of the estate, I couldn’t find my way to the street at the end of my street. Was it sloth or fear that held me back, or simple incuriosity, I was no wiser at the end of the year. Here is a crossroads, I decide to keep going, Hallowmoor Road to Rural Lane. The Wadsley Jack is just ahead, did I come here once, was this where I met Rob, did I come here with Matt, years before. I pass the main entrance, a green Post-it note gummed to the door, and some rough script, a phone number for deliveries, how does it hold on in this wind. This looks like a turning for the common, Stour Lane, there’s the Rose & Crown at the top, I did come here, though I don’t remember how, I was here with Matt, with Rob, at different times. Here is the path into Loxley Common, I know that I have been here, I would have walked it with Matt, I have no recollection of it. I don’t know what to look for. The path between fields is narrow and I wait at a field gate to allow a family to pass at a distance. I look down at a plastic drainage pipe embedded in the earth. Access Land. The horizon is getting thicker and I see trees up ahead, birch trees, white birch bark. I hear voices of children, parents, dog walkers, runners. I don’t want to be here any more and so I start to look for a way out, turn left, I think, keep turning left. I go further into the wood where the paths run out and find a hollow and another hollow beneath the hollow. The roots of the trees seem to go down and down and in time this becomes a way. I still hear voices but they seem to be coming from somewhere else. I remember why I couldn’t leave Old Heath, why I couldn’t find my way to the street at the end of my street, because I knew it didn’t lead anywhere, because I knew I would have to turn back after ten minutes, because I couldn’t walk out of my life. The voices have stopped and the light has fallen away and it is just me and the hollows and the shadows. Then a chainsaw or a mower starting up and the lines of the land coming back, a tumbledown drystone wall, wooden telegraph poles, the end of a lane.
Day twenty-eight. 6.40pm. Nothing has changed in weeks. As I pass Hallam Glass & Glazing I realise this isn’t altogether or even partly true, there has been change, the resurfacing of the main road over several nights, the frequency of the garden waste collections, the flowers that still flower at Hillsborough Place. The weather and the light. Sometimes it seems that it is only the weather and the light that change. Clear and dry with moderate wind. The windows of Gee Vee Travel are still patterned with green and orange posters advertising early spring excursions to Llandudno and Sidmouth that didn’t happen. I don’t think I know anyone who books with Gee Vee Travel but I know that someone must have been looking forward to getting on a coach with them. Now everyone is left behind. I pass the weir and look back at the weir, the river is losing speed, losing power. I count one person waiting for a tram to the city. I am finding it hard to see the street afresh. There is cool evening light at the shopping precinct, there is no-one else on the stairway to Morrisons, I descend to the entrance unnoticed. The list comes out and I try to get the disappointment over with. I am surprised to find spaghetti, at the back of a dark shelf, and what might be peas. I have not been listening to the sounds from the overhead speakers but it is now the turn of Simply Red, it is hard to ignore, it is a special sort of pestering. It is like an advertisement for prophylactics at the end of a funeral service. It is the staff I feel for, having to put up with this, and I am back on the floor at the Co-op, in Old Town, in Swindon, in 1988, stacking fruit and vegetables in the fruit and vegetable department for £1.72 per hour. I signed up for the early short shifts, 6.45am to 8.15am, as the manager would not be around to see me arriving 15 minutes late and leaving 15 minutes early, and also the muzak had not been switched on. I also worked Saturdays, a long shift with the muzak, instrumental cover versions of Dire Straits and Spandau Ballet, sometimes at the wrong speed. We hatched a plan to break into the control room and destroy the cassettes but none of us could work out where the control room was. Often I would volunteer for car park duties which involved collecting trollies that had strayed to or beyond the edges of the car park. Often I would hide at the edges of the car park. Often I would fail to collect any trollies. I worked there part-time for almost two years and never quite grasped what it was that was expected of me. The lettuces would rot under the display lights and the manager, Norman, would instruct me to remove the outer leaves and put the diminished lettuces back on display. This would go on until there was no lettuce left. Every Saturday an elderly lady by the name of Mrs Rogers would appear, and with gentle but artful persistence she would tell the story of the decayed vegetables in her bag that she had purchased a week or two previously, it was the same story every week, she somehow made it new for us each time, we would prepare a bag of fresh replacement vegetables and label it FREE and direct her to the exit. I couldn’t work out how the store made any money or why it took up so much space.
Day twenty-nine. 3.15pm. Yesterday it occurred to me that no-one had bought a book in over a week, and then someone did buy a book, someone on the other side of Sheffield. This is welcome for many reasons, not least of which is that it provides me with the opportunity for a walk. It is also an opportunity to reflect on my failings as a publisher. I package the book and put it in my rucksack, along with a map and some water. I open the front door and step into the street and narrow my eyes against blinding dry dust. I make this three days of wind and I don’t know how many days of no rain. When I try to walk in it the pressure is so great that I wonder if it is the weather, this new weather, that is emptying the streets. I reach the weir and turn the corner and somehow walking south-east is simpler, it is not so effortful, I keep walking and soon forget that I am walking. There is music in the overhead tram wires that I have not heard before. There is no one to share it with. I won’t remember a note of it. I pass the Hillsborough Hotel, which is not in Hillsborough, and notice that most of the white sans serif letters and numerals have fallen off the side of the pub, this must have happened in the last few weeks, when no one was looking. It occurs to me that it is almost 14 years since the founding or the launch of Longbarrow Press, I’m never quite sure which, or perhaps neither, but the first event took place on 27 April 2006. It was also the first poetry event I had attempted to host, no, I am forgetting an evening at the Lescar, that didn’t go well either, but people were very kind, people are always very kind, it was autumn 2001, we had booked the back room for an evening with Andrew Hirst and Brian Lewis. I had decided to present new material which I hadn’t yet written and by the time I arrived at the venue I had been awake for 35 hours. There were about 15 people in the audience. Andy and I took turns to hide from them until the event was due to start. The room was very dark and the stage was very bright. I stepped onto the stage and shuffled to the microphone and stuttered a few words of welcome and a beer glass on a narrow ledge at the entrance to the room was dislodged by a passing bar worker and it shattered where it fell. I paused the introduction and stood on the stage in silence as the bar worker left the room to find a dustpan and brush. A few minutes later the bar worker returned, with a dustpan and brush, and knelt to the floor, and began to sweep the glass shards into the dustpan, very carefully, very slowly. No-one spoke. After ten minutes the bar worker left again and I attempted to introduce the event, and Andy, and lastly myself. I don’t remember how the readings went. What I do remember is someone in the audience likening Andy to a bald Hitler and the closing minutes of the event being sabotaged by an Elvis impersonator who very much wanted to use the stage to read his own work. We eventually reached a compromise whereby we agreed that he could use the stage after we had left the room. The big Tesco on Infirmary Road has introduced a one-way system inside the store, I discover this as I walk through the car park, it must be very complicated as two stewards in tabards are having to explain it at great length and volume to each customer as they move through the queue. I cut across the unnamed park that lies between Tesco and the Ponderosa and aim for the subway at Netherthorpe Road. I come out on the other side and take the short flight of steps that leads to the student flats off Upper Allen Street. There are construction or maintenance workers hauling cables out of a van and strips of flame retardant sheeting hanging from the sides of the buildings like sterile dressings. I wonder why I have taken this route and then I remember where it leads. I cross Broad Lane to St George’s Terrace, almost without looking, there is next to nothing coming off the roundabouts. The university district is left and right and front and centre. One day this will be a city-state and Sheffield will collapse into the suburbs. Always the hunger for space, every so often the map is redrawn, the university expands in every direction. Today its machinery is suspended and the only people I see, pausing or passing, are utility workers or taxi drivers. I walk down Regent Street, between the Innovation Centre and the School of Health, and turn left onto Pitt Street. At the end of the street I stop and take several steps back and look up at the pub. It is smaller than I remember, I think that I must think that every time. Through the decorative glass and the curtains I can see that the lights are lit on the ground floor, though it is mid-afternoon, and the pub is closed. I look up at the first-floor windows. This is where Longbarrow Press was launched, on 27 April 2006, in the upstairs room of The Red Deer. We had taken some time to get to this point, it would have been late 2004 or early 2005 when the thought of setting up a press occurred to us, Andy and me, I have his letters in a box somewhere, one half of the correspondence. Neither of us really knew what this would entail. Andy had some ideas, and I had access to a network of laser printers and copiers in the office where I worked, this became a secret life, a double life. I spent around 18 months experimenting with materials that I didn’t quite understand, textured paper that didn’t hold the print, glue that warped card, yards of hessian fabric that wouldn’t fold properly, and photocopies of photographs and copies of the copies. The prototypes were rubbish and I didn’t know why. This is what happens when you try to teach yourself and have nothing to teach from, it would be years before I grasped kerning and ligatures and the rest. By early 2006 we had two titles that we felt were ready: The Frome Sampler, a boxed edition of postcards with poems by Andy and photographs by me, and Nobody Sonnets, a hessian wallet containing poems by Matthew Clegg and etchings by Andy. We booked the room for the launch and I drafted some copy for publicity and Andy designed a flyer for the event. I’m not sure what happened next. I had set some time aside for the production of The Frome Sampler, it was a difficult object, the hinged box was built up through layers of board and paper and glue, if the elements were even slightly misaligned the object failed and had to be abandoned. It seemed easier to make the postcards first and return to the boxes later. There was also the matter of the Nobody Sonnets and the hessian wallets. The launch was on a Thursday and I was still behind with production on the Tuesday evening. The following morning I got up at 3am to resume work on the postcards and the wallets and at 9am I phoned in sick to the office. This will buy me time, I thought, I can make ten boxes in time for the launch, that should be enough. Later that afternoon I began to sort and trim the materials required for the boxes. By the evening I was ready to make the first one. After several hours, working through the night, the layers were flat and the glue had dried on the hinge. I laid the postcards inside the box. The recess was too shallow and the lid wouldn’t close properly. It was 3am. I calculated that if I kept going and worked flat out I could make perhaps three boxes before leaving at midday to catch my train to Sheffield. This wasn’t ideal but at least it was something. I kept going and worked flat out. Shortly before midday I gathered the postcards and the prints and the hessian wallets and the other materials and left to catch my train. The train journey from Swindon to Sheffield was three or four hours and I settled in at a table seat and got the unfinished materials out and set about them with craft knife and ruler and glue. The train pulled into Sheffield and I disembarked with a muddle of bags and made my way to Andy’s house, we had arranged to meet there before the launch, we would review our plans for the event, fine-tune our introductions, relax in each other’s company. I knocked at the back door and entered through the kitchen. We said hello, I don’t think we sat down, I think we stood there in the kitchen. ‘How many copies of the Nobody Sonnets do we have for tonight?’ he asked. ‘Ten or eleven’, I replied. ‘OK. How many copies of The Frome Sampler?’ ‘Well, we’ve got plenty of postcards’, I said, ‘they’ll look really nice on display at the back of the room.’ ‘But how many boxes have you finished?’ ‘One.’ ‘One?’ ‘One.’ We set off for The Red Deer shortly after 6pm. The walk took around 20 minutes but seemed to take much longer. The silences were worse than the attempts at conversation. We arrived at the pub an hour before the event was due to start and made our way to the upstairs room. The room was creaky and poky and wonky and the opportunities for displaying even small objects were limited. There was a varnished mantelpiece above the fireplace and we decided that this would be a good spot, we could exhibit our wares at a decent height, such wares as we had. We carefully propped one of the precious hand-made hessian editions of the Nobody Sonnets at a slight angle between the mantelpiece and the wall, took a few steps back, then watched as it slipped into a gap between the fireplace and the mantelpiece. I kneeled to the base of the fitting to see if there was any way of prising it open and retrieving the edition but there wasn’t. Shortly after 7pm a few people wandered in. By 7.30pm the room was full. I introduced the event, it was not a good introduction, it was an introduction given by a man who had been awake for over 35 hours, with no experience of public speaking, backing into a corner, the angle formed by perfectionism and amateurishness. Here is our first publication which you can’t buy or touch. The readings were good. Andy’s set was entirely untouched by the day’s troubles and it lifted me out of the hole I’d fallen into. This is why we’re here, I remember thinking. I hadn’t heard Matt read for several years, perhaps since the late 1990s. It was mesmerising. I wondered if it was a fluke, if I was making too much of it in my sleep-deprived state, but almost every reading of his that I’ve caught since then has been outstanding. I wondered what his secret was. Eventually I worked out what it was, the secret, it was hard work and preparation, it was craft, it was care, it was the art of creating a space for a performance, a space that could absorb chance interventions, whether good or bad, without dither, arrogance, ingratiation or flash. I didn’t understand this at the time, of course. We won and lost an audience that night, or I did, it took years to build it up again. Andy came close to walking away that day, and he did walk away, amicably, some months later, it was difficult to run the press with so many miles between us. I decided to keep going until I could work out what the lesson was. I was less and less troubled by failure but I was growing tired of leaving things unfinished. The wind is dying down. I walk up to the door of The Red Deer. Someone has taped a note to it, instructions for deliveries, someone must be taking things in.
Day thirty. 4.30pm. ‘I’m going for a walk’, I say to Emma, she is exhausted from a day of Zoom meetings and tutorials, the voices throttling with the bandwidth, the faces freezing and unfreezing and never quite catching up with themselves. A friend emailed me to suggest that I use Zoom for Longbarrow readings but I don’t want to make hostage videos. Also I would have to tidy my desk. I unlock the front door and step out of the house. There is the wind, again, and there is more traffic than I had expected, and how would I know, when did I last leave the house at 4.30pm, when did the post office last keep regular hours. I should have kept a traffic census, these last few weeks, it would tell its own story. At Hillsborough Place I slow down for the tulips, they have lasted well, they are going now, they have gone as far as they can go. I hit the junction at speed, sprint past the distanced queue at Wilko and run clear of Lloyds Bank, the road forks at Regent Court and the light shows through Owlerton. Within each walk we carry the idea of another walk. I try to remember the first time I came here. It was late 1995, I had just moved to Sheffield, I was living in Walkley, I couldn’t settle, I left the house and walked without direction for half an hour, it was dark and I didn’t know where I was. I was out of my depth. I forgot about Owlerton and Hillsborough until Matt moved here ten years later and I found the place again, first through Matt’s poems, and then through our walks in the wake of the poems. And then Matt left the area and I moved in. There is a queue of traffic on Owlerton Green. I can’t hear anything from Swann-Morton (Penn Works) or Swann-Morton (Cobb Works). The electronic billboard next to the parish church is broadcasting a rainbow that is based on the rainbows that have been appearing in windows, the text reads #heroes, the colours of Owlerton Stadium outspread behind the billboard, red yellow green blue. There is another queue of traffic leaving Livesey Street. I pass the casino car park and take a long look at a dozen white and orange traffic cones stacked next to the little yellow booth in front of Napoleons. I used to yearn for a yellow booth, a chair and a few books, the car park my horizon. The present shrinks to a small blind spot. The substation straight ahead. Are the power lines louder today, louder than the last time I visited, that time I couldn’t hear them for trying. This landscape has often stood in for other landscapes, landscapes that I couldn’t get to, so much so that I often forget that it also stands for itself. I cross the Don and take the first steps into the cemetery. There is darkness briefly and light as the path meets the railway bridge, there is more light uphill. I think of Emma when I am on these winding slopes, I think of our walks here and our walks anywhere, she rescued me, and the press, by reminding me that there was a life beyond it, by showing me a life beyond it. A red admiral on the stony path and blackbirds in and out of the bushes. This is one edge of Shirecliffe, toughened by a line of concrete drums a few metres from the drop, looking out over Wadsley, Owlerton, Hillsborough, the parks, the Wednesday ground, Mondelez Cadbury Trebor Bassett. I sit on one of the concrete drums and dangle my legs over the side. I think of yesterday, I couldn’t look at the city, the landlocked city. It could only show me its past. It is easier to view it from here, to imagine it not as it was, but as it might be. A lone runner on the path behind me. A bird that I can only picture through its song. A low, sustained note from a factory below, like a foghorn, the white steam in suspension.
Sheffield, 19–22 April 2020.
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; click here for a full list of our current hardbacks and to order titles.
This is the final instalment of ‘Lockdown Walks’. The first instalment can be found here; you can read the second, third and fourth instalments here, here, and here. Photographs taken in Owlerton, north Sheffield, 22 April 2020.