Gently disintegrate me
Said nothing at all.
‘Enter a Cloud’, W.S. Graham
Outbound, a flight to the Continent, a short haul at low cost. We climb, level, and cruise, the conditions are optimal, full occupancy, fuel efficiency, no turbulence. I have a small window on the north of England, the reservoirs of the Derwent Valley, all of it shrinking, scaled to print, an island and its souvenirs. A few minutes later, a thin white filament mists the view, blanketing the shires and the passing of the shires. The connection is lost. I try to shake out the cramp in my shoulders and thighs. I resettle in my seat and pick up a book. I do not open it, but stare at the foredge, the pages rippling from head to tail, a wave that wasn’t there before, is it cabin pressure, I think, is it altitude. I look out of the window, and see gaps in the cotton, the stitches trailing off, Lincolnshire or Norfolk, stretching to a coast. At the land’s edge, rapid shifts of colour, then the blue, the first few turbines, blade over blade, their whiteness cresting as they wheel, the mudflats dark, another blue, another wind farm, 88 rotors in a rhomboid grid, the clean lines of Sheringham Shoal, a long lease in the territorial sea. Then the blue alone, the empty lanes of the German Ocean, the international cumulus, and a book drifting from my fingers. Offshore, offline. I slide in and out of Europe and the slow descent. When I come around, we are level with the landing strip. Dry air. A standstill, then sounds of dispersal, thirst, all the devices waking up.
Increasingly, our experience of connectivity is predicated on networks, systems and processes that we seldom grasp or see. While this is not an entirely new phenomenon – the dots and dashes encoded by Samuel Morse in the early years of electrical telegraphy were rapidly taken up by long-distance transmission lines, first overland, then undersea – the scale, ubiquity and complexity of our communications infrastructure has grown in inverse proportion to its visibility. If I think of connectivity, I’m likely to be thinking of glitches, of delays: the streaming media that buffers or skips; the email service that slows before a message is sent. I’m unlikely to be thinking of a data centre in Iowa or Oregon, a million square feet of client storage in a monochrome shed, or the thousands of miles that my email might travel, server to server, to complete a journey of a few seconds. Speed erases distance and the thought of distance. Our transactions, our memories, are everywhere and nowhere – at home, at work, on the move – enabled by technology that is everywhere and nowhere; the bundles of optical fibres beneath our streets, the unmarked mobile phone masts we scarcely notice at the roadside, the GPS satellites in semi-synchronous orbits. It’s embedded in the ground, in the sea, in the air, and, like most of our infrastructure, we only shift our attention to it when something goes awry.
J.R. Carpenter’s The Gathering Cloud (Uniformbooks 2017) develops this theme and, in many ways, develops from it. The project appears to have been seeded by a ‘prolonged spell’ of ‘catastrophic’ weather; the winter storms that swept through south-west England in early 2014, resulting in the inundation of the Somerset Levels, widespread power cuts and evacuations, and considerable disruption to transport, notably the breaching of the railway line at Dawlish by a coastal surge, washing away the sea wall and track ballast, leaving the rail suspended in mid-air. Further storms and cliff falls delayed the track repairs, to the extent that the link to Plymouth and Cornwall was broken for two months; during this period of closure, the vulnerability of the Riviera Line was frequently discussed in both local and national media. Carpenter tracks the reports, and is ‘struck by the paradox’ apparent in the effort to conjure ‘invisible forces such as / wind and rising temperatures’ – which can only be inferred from their effects – ‘through the material / of language’. The work that follows might be described as a journey to the heart of this paradox. Through a series of ‘modifications’ – textual fragments ranging from classical antiquity to the present day, arranged in hendecasyllabic verses – a record of theological, philosophical, scientific and cultural theories and observations about the weather unfolds. On each page, we are oriented by an idea of the cloud, the gradual refinement or expansion of its symbolic and taxonomic values, and the sense that something has been added to our store of knowledge. Despite the broadly chronological movement, in which the atmospheric hypotheses of Aristotle and Lucretius are abandoned in favour of the ‘divine’ skies of Christian mysticism, then overwritten by the meteorological studies of the Enlightenment, overtaken by the white steam of the Industrial Revolution, and overshadowed by the dark plumes of modern warfare, this is not a straightforward journey from obscurity to lucidity.
For most of human history the heavens
have served as a source of legitimacy,
providing meaning and orientation.
The sky is compass, calendar, map, and clock.
The ‘new methodological nomenclature’ devised in 1802 by the amateur meteorologist Luke Howard, which introduced the tropospheric terms that we still use today (cirrus, cumulus, stratus), enriches our descriptive vocabulary but does not dispel metaphysical doubt. ‘Clouds resist ontology.’ Weather is a process. Our attempts to grasp or represent this process through language are, inevitably, frustrated by the fact that it is, by definition, changeable. While the legacy of Howard’s On the Modifications of Clouds is foundational to our understanding of the skies, atmospheric terms are, even now, more commonly invoked as symbols of incognisance; Carpenter pauses to reflect on the origins of ‘the cloud of unknowing’ (the medieval text of this name also gives us ‘the cloud of darkness’ and ‘the cloud of forgetting’) and the ‘fog of uncertainty’ (or ‘fog of war’). We encounter the German philosopher Martin Heidegger in 1918, serving as ‘a weatherman on the western front’, ‘scanning the sky’ for propitious data, his observations determining ‘the deployment / of artillery, aircraft, and poison gas.’ From these wartime experiences, he distils a rhetoric of ‘vigilance / as a paramount ethical duty’; the discord is amplified by his later evasions and denials regarding his apparently compliant involvement with the Nazi Party. It’s a pivotal episode in the complex enquiry pursued throughout the first half of the book, which might be summarised as a subtle, sustained exploration of cognitive dissonance: in particular, the conflicts between language and comprehension, objects and their representation, data and its use. This enquiry becomes more urgent and explicit in the title sequence of The Gathering Cloud, in which the terminology of the skies is radically reframed for an age of networked computing and virtual storage. We enter The Cloud, a discreet, diffuse ecosystem with its roots in weather forecasting and wireless decryption, the scale of which is now influencing the weather itself.
The Cloud is an airily deceptive name
connoting a floating world far removed from
the physical realities of data.
The Gathering Cloud began life as a digital project, evolving through performances and online. The web-based version is animated by a series of interactive collages, in which the engravings of cirrus and stratus that accompanied Howard’s On the Modifications of Clouds are gradually recast or obscured by images of nature and consumer technology ‘appropriated from publicly accessible cloud storage services’. These hybrid ‘plates’ are reproduced in the book, albeit emptied of colour and movement, which endows the print version with a different complexion and an unmistakable pathos. Similarly, the hyperlinks that ‘thread’ the verses of the six screen collages are dead on the page, their lost functionality denoted in ghostly grey (the 56 ‘keywords’ orphaned by this transition – from ‘aerosol’ to ‘wind’ – are listed as ‘An Index of Objects’, which lies somewhere between preface, found poem, and incantation). The effect of this presentation is twofold: it is both an intimation of a fading or failing connection to our ‘physical realities’, and an invitation to make our own connections between (and beyond) the texts. Howard’s ‘painterly’ descriptions of clouded skies (‘shrouded in a gloomy distance’) are juxtaposed with data about data:
Data centres worldwide use thirty billion
watts of electricity annually.
Most of that is spent on avoiding downtime.
Guarding against the event of grid failure
banks of generators emit diesel exhaust.
Throughout the sequence, the production and consumption of data is weighed, counted and measured in terms borrowed from the world that the expansion of The Cloud endangers; we surmise its proportions, indirectly, from the millions of snapshots of cats and sunsets uploaded and shared daily or ‘stored forever in Cloud formations’. Virtual specimens are ‘captured and tagged’ in a global image bank that runs on fossil fuel. Ironically, the habitat and species decline to which the maintenance and growth of the ‘power-hungry’ server farms contributes is partly driven by the fear of loss; much of the personal data that we hoard in The Cloud is ‘archaic, obsolete’, but we cannot bear to let it go. ‘We have saved too many memories to lose.’ One of the reasons why The Cloud’s users – ‘ordinary consumers’ – are unable (or unwilling) to recognize that ‘data is physical’ is that ‘the scale of the cloud’ is hard to depict, and hard to imagine. While it may be true that its ‘infrastructures / are successfully hiding in plain sight’, we cannot see The Cloud (except, perhaps, at its edges), or step back from it; like weather, it is both intimate and vast (towards the end of the sequence, we learn that ‘vastness’ shares its etymology with ‘waste’). However, as Carpenter frequently reminds us, clouds are not weightless, and neither are they ‘pure’: think of an early steam train, ‘engulfed in a cloud of its own making’, the air loaded with particulates. Think of the clouds we ‘exhale on a cold day’, dense, dispersing, then gone.
The Cloud is an increasingly essential
element of infrastructure powering
industry, government, finance and commerce,
as fundamental to us as plumbing and roads.
What makes The Gathering Cloud such an interesting, rewarding and valuable book is its skilful and creative reading of the cultural, environmental, and technological patterns that have given rise to the digital cloud, and which it now shapes in turn. The ‘waste’ and ‘vastness’ that define this phenomenon are illustrative of its vulnerability to crisis; it is difficult to map the contours of an artificial cloud ‘that constructs itself through pure fluctuation’, but it is not hard to conceive of a point at which its mass becomes unsupportable. Infrastructure is made visible in the moment of its failure. The book’s timelines are twice interrupted by undated sequences of photographs of the Dawlish coast, marking the occasions (in 1859 and 2014) when the water ‘broke through the line’, overwhelming the seawall and railway. Thirty-two images, high contrast, low contrast. We don’t see the catastrophe, only the shifts of light and perspective, the horizon scrolling between sea and sky, the distance sharpened or softened by cloud.
Images: 1. Cloud study by Luke Howard, c.1803-1811; 2. The Gathering Cloud by J.R. Carpenter (Uniformbooks); 3. The Gathering Cloud by J.R. Carpenter (web-based version).
A related essay on J.R. Carpenter’s Ocean of Static will appear on this site in the near future.
Midway between Barnsley and Doncaster, in a shallow pocket of the Dearne Valley, the soil is cleared for shelter, the ditches sluiced and scraped, excavation, engineering, seeding grass, drawing water, the levels rising inch by inch. Acres of new space, clawed out of old space. Adwick Washlands is a recent addition to the RSPB’s landscape portfolio: the site is so new that Google Maps has yet to catch up with it, the aerial view still showing a collection of arable fields. One of several satellite reserves clustered around the RSPB’s Old Moor wetland hub, it’s an ‘open’ site: no lockable gates or visitor centres, no hides or screens, and a permissive footpath that runs through the centre of the wetland, linking Bolton-upon-Dearne to the village of Harlington. It’s not so much a destination as a place of transit, for local residents exercising their dogs, and for migrant birds, including lapwings, redshanks and little egrets.
When Matthew Clegg and I were invited to lead a poetry walk through Adwick Washlands on National Meadows Day (as part of the 2017 Ted Hughes Poetry Festival), the basis for a dialogue – with the landscape, and with each other – was far from clear. Previous walks for Longbarrow Press had developed from an existing relationship with, and knowledge of, a particular locale and its routes. Neither of us had visited the Dearne Valley reserve, or even heard of it (though Matthew had grazed its southern boundary – albeit unwittingly – while living in nearby Mexborough). Early in 2017, I made two attempts to familiarise myself with the site. On the first of these, I walked for three miles in the wrong direction, only glimpsing the wetland in the moments before my train pulled into the station; on the second, the reserve was the terminal stage of a 25-mile trudge in chilly, damp weather, and I lacked the resources to see or think or feel my way around it. Over the months that followed, however, the washlands absorbed more and more of my time, until I began to see this ‘new space’ as an extension (or a displacement) of my own parish.
On paper, it’s initially tempting to think of it as an ‘intentional edgeland’: however, edgelands arise by default, not design, and are usually indicators of neglect, or decline, rather than care and renewal. Adwick Washlands is a thoughtfully planned, developed, and managed space. One of the features that I was keen to reflect in the design of the event was the porosity of the site: the soft borders with the neighbouring estates and farmland, and, within the reserve itself, the movable frontiers of land and water, constantly renegotiated as the levels in the washlands rise and fall. There are, too, fewer boundaries between people and wildlife than one might expect in a RSPB reserve: in an illuminating email, Heather, the site warden, emphasized the ‘close encounters’ with nature that the openness of Adwick makes possible, with birds regularly feeding next to the paths. Hopeful of a few encounters – or, at least, sightings – on our walk, we took care to plot informal halts along the route, before and after the scheduled readings, leaving enough slack for the audience to pause, should they wish: to question, converse, listen, or observe. A breathing space.
It’s Saturday 1 July, and I’m tracking the movement of people and vehicles through a narrow car park off Furlong Road, south-west of Harlington. As I pace a hundred feet of tarmac to the meandering Dearne and back, it occurs to me that most of our poetry walks have taken river or canal bridges as their starting points. If pushed, I’d say that each rendezvous had something to do with expedience, the elevated crossing as urban landmark; pushed further, I might reflect on how the bridging of water creates a (literal) suspension of the commonplace, and how the intersection of two elements (earth and water) can amplify our attention to chance, and change, as it passes through a third element (air). This morning, the air is unremarkable, unmoved by wind, rain or sun; above it, a taut film of white cloud that flattens the perspective, muting our assembly, a company without shadow. Dominic Somers, the festival producer, arrives and unpacks the colour from the boot of his car; a pair of orange aprons, and four orange flags on long sticks. These are not field signs, or battle standards, and we are not a formation, but the pigment sets me wondering. After distributing the flags to their bearers, Dominic introduces himself, the ethos of the programme, and this, the final event of the festival, before handing over to me. I recount some recent expeditions to the edges of the valley, including ‘A Navigation’, a canal walk led by Matthew Clegg and songwriter Ray Hearne, and Helen Mort’s ‘poetic wander’ from Denaby Ings to Sprotbrough, ending or beginning, like today’s excursion, within sight of the Dearne. This presents Steve Ely, the festival director, with an opportunity to share the first report of the day: the flight call of a kingfisher, overheard near the bridge, a reminder of Ted Hughes’s belief that human actions invoke, or summon, energies or spirits. Matthew closes – or opens up – the preambles with a short extract from Thomas A. Clark’s aphoristic prose poem ‘In Praise of Walking’, a set of variable clauses or ‘steps’, central to which is the proposition that ‘a walk is its own measure, complete at every point along the way’. After a minute or two of these, we’re tuned, calibrated, keen to depart, to step into this ‘mobile form of waiting’.
The path to Adwick Washlands runs parallel to the road for 800 metres, the routes partitioned by a dense screen of trees; then a sharp turn west, the trees darkening, a white horse, a small, orderly stables, the pastures falling back in long, thin strips, a copse, losing form and restraint, until, after seven minutes, the roughness gives way to clean edges, and the outline of the wetland fills the view. I step onto a large, flat stone at the path’s edge, and, as I wait for the audience to compose itself, survey a yarn of pylons to the west, a scattering of poppies, a silage pile. Within this field, I try to visualize another: the open cast colliery that once occupied, and exhausted, the land to the north. Several decades ago, it was restored, and drainage was put in for agriculture. Using its powers of compulsory purchase, the Environment Agency took over the site, based on the contour lines – the line to which the water would naturally fill – and it became an active washland once more, one of several flood plains throughout the Dearne Valley. The RSPB now leases the land from the Environment Agency, and manages it as a wildlife reserve.
Old space, new space. In a site like this, the changes of use and of appearance aren’t always apparent: there’s little here to suggest that this was, until recently, a ‘working landscape’, the grassland and wetland concealing the scars of industry. We can, however, detect a few clues that this is a ‘new space’, in which the ratio of wildness to regulation, and leisure to utility, is still being worked out. I mention how, on an earlier visit, I’d paused to read the signs in the wood our group has just passed through, stating that the grazing of livestock is prohibited; it wasn’t clear who had put them up, though. I close with a few words on the history of English land law, and a few short poems:
The map and ruler,
carving the common for none
but the tithe-owners.
I abdicate the stone to Matthew, who sets against these straight edges a vision of ‘mucky sandy boys’, roaming the valley in defiance of prohibitions, their ‘fat treads’ ploughing up footpaths and fields. On the page, ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’ is, in part, an exploration of ‘open form’, its lines short and irregularly indented, a shifting pattern of refusal, swerving and skidding, scuffing up the white space. Out here, the ‘rude’ rhythms are cranked and revving, a ‘swarm’ that chokes the air, then vacates it, leaving a ragged trail of exhaust:
cuts into revs
that bite and hurl
The whiff of ferality lingers over the next reading, which takes place a few hundred feet along the track, at the edge of a small, roughly disc-shaped pond. To enter this space, which is split by a boundary ditch, we must cross a tiny bridge; as we reassemble on the other side, the land in a small declivity, there’s an undeniable sense of separateness, and an adjustment of scale. Matthew addresses our ragged crescent, half of us standing, the other half seated on large blocks of quarried stone. He speaks of folklore, of familiars, of the wodwo, first glimpsed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and (almost) fleshed out, centuries later, in an eponymous poem by Ted Hughes. A wodwo is a ‘marginal wild man’, and, as Matthew emphasises in his introduction to Hughes’s poem, a ‘creature of the provisional’; the path he takes, ‘nosing’ after ‘a faint stain on the air’, is jumbled and erratic, but his absorption in (and by) the natural world, framed by unanswerable questions (‘I seem to have been given the freedom / of this place what am I then?’), allows him to revise his perspectives. Resisting conclusions, he resolves only to ‘go on looking’. I take up the theme of landscape as an imaginative resource, and consider its changing status as a physical resource. In the space of several decades, drift and open cast mining depleted this area. The search for energy is now changing direction, with renewables tapping into sources above ground: solar and wind. I gesture to the north, near Barnburgh, a cluster of blades skimming the hillside. I share my impressions of the Isle of Axholme, 20 miles north-east of here; the site of England’s largest onshore wind farm, with 34 turbines rising from the flatlands. However, the turbines are just one part of the resource infrastructure. The poems that have developed from my recent visits also reflect on other changes in the use, and appearance, of the land, including the growth of biofuels, and the consequences for biodiversity:
Yellow on yellow.
Every field has resistance
to spray, spoil and stress.
Let go. The monoculture
will raise the monoculture.
Accompanying us on today’s walk is the conservationist and writer Laurence Rose, who, along with Steve Ely, ventures some thoughts on the design of the pond; its rounded shape, and central stand of reeds, suggest that it is intended for great crested newts, who are known for their circular mating rituals. It provides a backdrop for the final three poems at this site, drawn, like ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’, from The Navigators, Matthew’s second collection. Each of these short poems explores a different modality of water – flowing, standing, and stagnant – and the life that exists in, on, or through them – weeds, leeches, bacteria. The last of these is ‘Dunn Street: Abandoned Lock’:
of bile-green algae –
We recross the bridge, the path drawing us further into the wetland, a subtle weave of shrubs and trees that gradually breaks down as we approach the centre of the reserve, the hedges losing height, the gaps closing in. The first lake, sketchy at its eastern edges, lengthens into a complete view, the water levels considerably lower than on earlier visits. Laurence identifies an unusual coot with signs of albinism. Steve spots a handful of avocets, and charts the recovery of a species that was, until the middle of the last century, extinct in the UK; even a few decades ago, they were rarely sighted outside of Havergate Island, a marshy RSPB site in Suffolk. Today, they’re almost commonplace, the health of the Adwick population assisted, in part, by the recent installation of a four kilometre anti-predator fence throughout the reserve. While the wetland has been successful in encouraging breeding, many of the fledglings have been predated; a consequence of this being an ‘open’ site. Since this line of defence was created, the young birds appear to be surviving. The ‘internal border’ runs the length of the narrow track that branches from the main path, terminating in a semi-circular stone wall, where we gather for the third reading. This wall is the reserve’s central viewpoint: a soft curve, framing and focusing the wet grassland and wading pools, inviting us to take in the washland in a single, slow sweep. Given the extent to which this area has been transformed over the last five years, it’s odd that a wall should strike me as the most conspicuous intervention, but perhaps I’m responding to the symbolic value of the structure: a reminder that this is also a human habitat. The ideas of movement and stillness that anchored Matthew’s last reading inform the next selection, in which I revisit the Isle of Axholme, adjusting the angle to meet the ‘dynamic’ array of a wind farm at full speed:
Amcotts is moving,
a bladed wetland, curving
fibre and resin.
My stance shifts, the pattern torn,
tiny cuts in the distance.
As I’m reading the last few poems, my voice starts to dip; a lapse of projection, a loss of altitude. I’ve been half-listening to something else, and, in the few seconds between my voice falling silent and the answering applause, I hear it, we hear it, in full: high above us, circling the grassland, an exultation of skylarks (some weeks later, I discover that male skylarks sing at higher frequencies near wind farms, due to turbine noise). Steve remarks on their volume, their number, how these sounds and sights have been shrinking in areas where pesticides are used. Matthew ruminates on migration, before introducing his version of King Hoopoe’s speech from The Birds. In Aristophanes’s play, Hoopoe summons a council of birds – a global assembly, with representatives from field, tree, marsh and sea – to discuss the problem of ‘destructive’ mankind. Matthew’s version updates the speech for an era of corporate power (or ‘corporatocracy’), exhorting the ‘raiders of the farmer’s furrows / liberating seeds and barley’ to ‘picket all the corporate glaciers’ and ‘join the V, the flying delta, / sing my song of featherlution’. The second poem constructs a quieter, more intimate space, in a setting which, like our viewpoint, has contemplation written into the design. ‘Brigand’ is narrated by a member of the eponymous South Yorkshire motorcycle club (Matthew makes an interesting distinction between a club and a gang, and their respective codes; unlike the ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’ we met earlier, the Brigands observe rules, on and off the road). We encounter him as he is taking a break from the ‘revs’ and ‘white lines’, making the short journey on foot ‘to a hide at Denaby Ings’ (another Dearne Valley wetland, managed by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, two miles south-east of here). As ‘a lush trawl of sound’ filters from the lake to the slatted shelter, it becomes apparent that this act of listening is also an act of dismantling (the coots, doves and ducks preparing a path to ‘two minutes’ silence’) and of disarming (once an aid to hunting, the hide is now a means of avoiding disturbance to wildlife, and has a similarly calming effect on its visitors). The porosity of the structure is integral to these processes, emboldening a jay to ‘flit’ a ‘toy windmill’ in and out of the hide, and harbouring the sound of ‘gnats / teasing at the edge of buzz’, while
the clatter and creak
is me donning my helmet
and wrapping this up.
Before we leave the viewpoint, Steve crouches to the wall, inviting us to look closer: while the top rows of stone are bonded with cement, the lower layers are perforated with holes and crevices, allowing insects and small animals a passage through the viewpoint. We straighten up, thread back along the narrow track, single file, conversation breaking out, the gaps between us widening, then narrowing, the wetland tilting in and out of sight.
We rejoin the main path, west for 500 metres, the river wall rising in the south, a reminder that this site is part of a larger system. It’s a little after 12.30pm. The white cloud that stretched across the morning is now looser and thinner, the light comes and goes, printing and erasing our shadows on the path. As we near the western edge of the washland, I bear left, and guide the group along a rough, grassy track that seems at odds with the well-kept arable land to either side. On our right, a corrugated silo collapses into itself, the roof long since weathered to air; fifty metres ahead, a handful of small, grey structures lie in an ellipsis, the track fissuring and fading as we close in. This was a heavy anti-aircraft gun site, established in 1942, in response to the Sheffield Blitz of 1940-41; it was built to protect the city’s industries, and the local colliery, and was part of a network of defences including Old Moor (now a 250-acre RSPB reserve). I don’t mention any of this, not yet; it seems better for each of us to encounter the site for ourselves, to spend a little time exploring it without direction or discussion. After several minutes, we assemble in the centre of the third emplacement, the easternmost point of Station H17. Dominic fishes a carton of Tunnock’s caramel wafers from his rucksack; the box is raided and emptied. As Matthew is shuffling his script, Steve emerges from a concrete and breezeblock chamber, and announces a find: a swallow’s nest in the rear shelter. We adjust our positions, and keep our distance from the entrance. Matthew opens with some thoughts on the importance of maintaining a connection with fertile ground; for him, this includes the derelict or disowned spaces that nurtured his curiosity and creativity as a teenager, and that find an echo in the space in which we’re now standing. The poem that exemplifies this connection is set on the edge of East Leeds, within earshot of the former Vickers factory, where Challenger tanks rolled off a mile-long production line until the 1990s. ‘Because I was Nobody’ is also an affirmation of the value of anonymity in a world that, increasingly, insists on status and visibility:
Once, I stumbled down a mound
into a herd of cows. The heat of them
was like a drug. All I wanted was to stand
feeling their breath all night. They let me try
because they knew I had nothing. Was nobody.
The introduction to the next poem develops the links between self-discovery and outward exploration, with an emphasis on how children can inhabit and transform a landscape with their imagination. In Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, Matthew intuits a similar process at work; the poems (or ‘versets’) conflate the persona of Offa, the Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia, with that of the young Hill, and, in turn, sieve half-forgotten cultural legacies through personal mythologies, each layer excavated through the other. ‘Hymn VII’ recalls ‘the day of the lost / fighter: a biplane, already obsolete and irreplaceable, two inches of / heavy snub silver.’ The near past, in the child’s eye, is as unreachable, and yet apprehensible, as the England that vanished with Offa.
Slowly, we adjust our orientation within the gun site, until we’re facing east, looking back at the field lines we started out from. I give a brief account of the station’s history, and the defensive positions to the west, noting that this chain of anti-aircraft sites is now an open corridor of nature reserves; we reflect on the remaking of a landscape, once shielded by barrage balloons and batteries, into a protected habitat for migrant birds. Around the time that the regeneration of the Dearne Valley was gaining ground, Station H17 was registered as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, which, perhaps, lends some perspective to our ideas of the ‘near past’. There are gaps in its history, leading to some conjecture about what happened here and when. We don’t know exactly when it was built, or when it was armed. A book of signatures records that it was staffed by women (operating radar, communications systems, and other support roles) and men (operating guns). As far as we know, not a single shot was fired from the battery.
Above us, the E-shaped command post, half-buried in higher ground, is flooded, seams of debris and dross beneath the surface. Further down the track, the Nissen hut, used as an ammunition store, is split and sinking, open to the sky. It may be listed as a monument, but what we encounter on the ground is an almost feral waste. We’ve ‘strayed’ from the ‘official’ path to reach this site. The track and the station are not maintained in any formal sense; it’s not clear who owns this space, or if there is any right of public access; yet there is clear evidence of recent human activity. We can see how this might offer a retreat or refuge for youngsters from nearby estates; it’s walkable, but unsupervised; defended, but porous; if you needed to hide, or make a quick getaway from any part of the site, you could do so.
Standing up, we take in the new houses to the west, the infrastructure, the surrounding fields; sitting down, against the emplacements, the estates disappear from view, and the site becomes a microhabitat, a portal into the near – or distant – past, a palimpsestic space for actual and imagined story and incident, a theatre for improvised play. I read a short sequence of poems that explore these ambiguities (‘The field is a front / standing in for another / we will never see’), followed by some passages from East Wind, an account of a night-time ‘manoeuvre’ on the east coast that is also a fragmentary memoir of collective walking, led by Malcolm, a Wiltshire farmer and adventure support officer:
Malcolm would have sent us cross-country, the woods and contours had specific values, a knowledge that we moved through. I pretended to use the compass in my pocket, black arrow, red needle. In time it became a pretend compass. I learned to read a map by fixing a position and rotating the map around me. I made everything the north.
The prose extract runs out on the approach to Withernsea, trailing half-remembered scraps of the Chivalric Code. At the eastern edge of the emplacement, a drift of birdsong, a ripple of wind. A brief pause, then a final poem:
No cross, no colour.
The fields marked and abandoned
by flag and flower.
On the way to our last stop, I talk with Tracy, who spent her childhood in this area, and has recently returned; earlier in the walk, she’d made some helpful, timely corrections to my geographical overviews (in which I discovered that the colliery was not where I thought it was), and is now filling in the few blanks in her own knowledge, piecing the landscape together. 300 metres north of the gun site, at the junction of wetland, track and farmland, we reach a set of cattle gates, on which we prop the orange flags that have fluttered above our heads for the last few hours. A brown hare, spotted by Steve, darts between the gates and disappears. We look back at the wetland, the fields to the north, Goldthorpe to the north-west, the pylons, the turbines, the edge of the Lowfield estate. I mention my interest in post-war urban planning, and some of the housing projects that have appeared in the last few decades. The last few poems that I read allude to a development on a flood plain in west Swindon, a short distance from my childhood home, a patchwork of ‘new space’ that was paused (and only recently restarted) after the 2008 financial crash:
The new settlement
starts without us. We won’t live
to see it finished.
Our presence has been noted by the resident cows, who wander over from the water’s edge to eavesdrop on our readings. Laurence points out that the livestock are part of the management; these highland cattle thrive in fenland, and help to graze the watery landscapes. A concern with ecology, ecosystems, and species decline informs Matthew’s commentary on the work of Peter Reading, a keen birder whose poem ‘Afflatious’ is both a catalogue and a celebration of several decades of sightings, taking a leisurely route from recent observations in America and Australia to the site of a formative experience:
And I’d say (if I entertained
such mawkish conceits) that on each
of these afflatious encounters
my soul ascended like that
Skylark I watched as I lay
and dreamed through a summer morning
in a sweet pasture in Shropshire
on an upland when I was younger.
And, high above us, circling the grassland, an exultation of skylarks.
Matthew closes the event with a final axiom from Thomas A. Clark – ‘A day, from dawn to dusk, is the natural span of a walk’ – which serves as a preface to a poem from his sequence Edgelands, a record of a simple moment of unforced attention:
Pink dusk. Along this B-road
starlings have colonised
20 yards of power-line.
Their song is a kind of current,
the current, a kind of song.
Poems featured in the walk (and this essay) can be found in the following collections (click the titles for further excerpts or details): ‘Because I was Nobody’ and ‘Edgelands’ appear in West North East by Matthew Clegg; ‘Brigand’, ‘Dunn Street: Abandoned Lock’, ‘Hoopoe’s Cuckoo Song’, ‘In the 70s’, ‘Long Weeds’ and ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’ are taken from The Navigators by Matthew Clegg; the poems and prose extracts by Brian Lewis appear in his pamphlets East Wind and White Thorns.
An earlier essay and recording, ‘The Hide’, documents a visit by Matthew Clegg and Brian Lewis to the Denaby Ings hide referenced in the poem ‘Brigand’.
Thanks to all who attended the walk on 1 July 2017. A special thanks to Emma Bolland, Matthew Clegg, Steve Ely, Laurence Rose, Dominic Somers, and the RSPB.
‘Snow White / Rose Red’, Emma Bolland
6.53pm. We fold into the New Barrack Tavern, first Emma, then me, the double doors closing on the dark. In the second half of the 19th century, an earlier incarnation of the Tavern bustled with soldiery, the line infantries of Warwickshire, Rutlandshire, Bedfordshire, quartered at Hillsborough, a few streets away. It survived the closure of the barracks in the 1930s, and was one of the few pubs left standing after Penistone Road was converted into a dual carriageway in the 1980s. These days, much of its trade comes from Sheffield Wednesday fans, visitors to the greyhound stadium, and regular music and comedy nights. Tonight, though, it’s barely breathing. Perhaps it’s the early hour, or the early January slump, or the wind and rain that’s been racketing through Sheffield since the weekend. I think back to the last time I sat in one of the city’s pubs, an evening in The Blake, three days before Christmas, the end of a year of starts and stops, a year without flow. A small table, the poets, and me, we talk, I express a desire to work quickly, to work quietly, we talk, an event in January, perhaps, ahead of the cultural seasons, outside of the festival circuits. A night walk. We’ve spoken of this before, but it’s taken ten years of slow journeying through South Yorkshire – the itinerary always new, the poets and participants always changing with the landscape, the path always naturally lit – to see it as a possibility. The factors that discouraged us in the past – the uncertainties, the risks – are the factors that are now pushing us forward. Before we can talk ourselves out of it, we set a date, sketch a potential route, and renew our vow. Three weeks and six days later, at the end of an afternoon’s anxious weather-watching, our group reconvenes in the Tavern, accompanied by a dozen people who have signed up to the walk: we are 3, then 4, then 7, then 11, then 18. Having spent the last 40 minutes slowly filling the lounge area, we take our leave, and spill into the night.
In this country, the culture and literature of urban walking has, for many years, been monopolized by London and the solitary white male; after dark, these terms are almost synonymous, the archetypal ‘night city’ re-walked and rewritten by those at liberty to do so, from Charles Dickens to Bradley Garrett. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit remarks on the absence of women from the histories of walking, observing that ‘most public places at most times’ have not afforded them the same privileges of anonymity, of detachment, of drift; this inequality is, of course, magnified by night, as are its potential and actual consequences. Collective walking practices can offer some respite from self-policing, clearing a path for exploration, exercise, and recreation, though we might also question the balance of freedom and circumscription in group activity. As a practical solution to the problem of male dominance, harassment and violence in public space, it’s limited and imperfect; as a creative response, it is, arguably, helping to change the narrative of the street (and, indeed, the ‘wild spaces’ which are similarly ‘off-limits’). In the UK, contemporary women artists and writers who have used night walking as part of their practice include Clare Qualmann, co-founder of the Walking Artists Network (and, with Amy Sharrocks, co-curator of Walking Women, a series of walks, talks and events that took place in London and Edinburgh in 2016), who co-led the participatory ‘live art’ project walkwalkwalk (2006-2010, with Gail Burton and Serena Korda) which included a series of midsummer and midwinter night walks through East London; Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre, whose work with the residents of Southwark estates in 2008 and 2009 encompassed night walks, ‘night salons’, and night rides with cyclists; and Emma Bolland, whose collaborative research project MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall (2012-2013, with Judit Bodor and Tom Rodgers) revisited and re-examined sites in Leeds made notorious in the 1970s and 1980s by Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’. The site visits, undertaken in both daylight and darkness, prompted a series of reflective essays and presentations by Bolland, in which she recounts her own experiences of walking these locations in the early 1980s, at night, alone, ‘shitfaced on spirits and speed’. She speaks of Ripper-era Leeds as ‘a battleground for the reclamation of territory’, with incompetent and prejudiced police and media on one side (advising women to avoid the city’s streets after dark, and distinguishing Sutcliffe’s ‘innocent’ victims from those defined by their work as prostitutes) and campaigning feminist organisations on the other (notably the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, who organised the UK-wide Reclaim the Night women’s marches held on 12 November 1977 in response to the police’s suggestion of a voluntary curfew). Emma is with us tonight, documenting our departure from the pub, its brick island receding as we drift north, then east, passing car dealerships, blade manufacturers, fencing specialists, a soft rain starting up, the casino etched in red, the lamp lights counting down, three, two, one, here is the bridge, a view of the river, and slowly we find each other in the dark, copper wires hissing overhead, thinning out between breakers yard and graveyard.
7.51pm. Wardsend Cemetery is the only burial ground in Britain with an active railway line running through it, ferrying scrap and finished steel to and from the works at Stocksbridge, six miles north-west. The trackbed is laid parallel to the River Don as it passes through north Sheffield, and also runs close to Club Mill Road, a rough, potholed lane that forms a corridor between the railway and the river, and on which we’ll be walking for the next hour. With the light almost gone, I gesture at the other path, the stone steps at my back, the hillside memorials. For years, Wardsend was a byword for neglect; that the site has recovered is largely due to the efforts of the Friends of Wardsend Cemetery, a historical society and conservation group. One of its members is here tonight. I attempt to introduce him, but the company is in blackout, the bodies without contrast, and I cannot read his position. I attempt to introduce the four poets – Angelina D’Roza, Pete Green, Chris Jones, Fay Musselwhite – who are somewhere in this blind assembly. I step back and let them, and the night, do their work, lighting the scripts with a torch. Angelina’s is the first voice we hear, her ‘Song of Silence’ reminding us that ‘there is no / such thing as silence’, only an almost-silence and an almost-darkness circling each other, neither separable nor ever quite meeting. ‘The Storm Lamp’, a tale of fire and flight, is next; taken from a longer work-in-progress, Chris’s vision of civil unrest and survivalism, set in a Sheffield of the near future, defamiliarises the city by degrees, and, perhaps, finds an echo in the decentred dark. Before we leave Wardsend, Fay reads ‘Not thistledown’, a refusal of the customs of death (‘Don’t […] sing me to the flame’) that also touches on the process at work in parts of the cemetery, its headstones displaced by trees, ‘bone-work in oak root’s way’. With ‘the rinse of rain’ reflected in the torchlight, we file past a clump of boulders and through the vehicle gate.
8.13pm. From Wardsend, the Don flows on a south-easterly turn for 400 metres, the lane at its side, before pulling away, a humming on the west bank, strobe and glare, the power station on the curve, the college and its floodlit fields. The lane straightens out, due south, smaller paths forking east and west. We gather at one of these forks, looking up at the railway embankment, the morning’s snow still clinging to the ridge, then down at our boots, the puckered ground, part gravel, part water. Fay’s ‘Boulder’ (‘pulled from the river’s bed’) leads into a longer reading from Angelina, including two new poems (‘Shore’ and ‘Lullaby’) that speak of the light before dawn, rootlessness, seas, and rivers, and ‘Fairytale No. 13’, which seems to anticipate the expansion of these themes, faithful to the small hours, their tonal shifts, ‘the rush of the weir / after rain’. At this point, it’s difficult to tell the current in the overhead wires from the drizzle speckling our jackets and hoods. We shuffle on, the hum tailing off, the rain picking up.
8.28pm. We stop again, a few metres short of the metal barrier that marks the northern boundary of an industrial estate. I scan the shadows for Pete, call him forward, then realise he is standing next to me. He introduces an excerpt from Sheffield Almanac, ‘a poem in four chapters about rivers, rain, relocation, and regeneration’, a seasonally-themed survey of a city at a crossroads between a steel-plated past and a post-industrial future. Chapter Three of the Almanac brings the relationship of Sheffield’s waterways to the growth of its manufacturing base into sharp focus, noting that the ‘five rivers forever outspan’ the achievements of the industrial age, the Don, the Loxley and the Rivelin still ‘driving down through limestone, carving grit’, while the waterwheels and millstones they once fed now moulder (or, conversely, are restored and reframed as tokens of heritage). The torch passes from hand to hand. Fay recounts her own creative exploration of the Rivelin (in the long poem ‘Memoir of a Working River’) and the Loxley (in ‘Flood Triptych’, on which her next two readings draw). ‘Long Fallow’ picks through the ‘wattle-growth’ of an idle backwater of the Loxley, vehicular debris intermingled with ‘oxalis, sycamore and dandelion’, the remnants of a forge still visible in ‘the under-dank’. It invites us to contemplate ‘a scarf, a shoe, a sock’, ‘clothes / like and not like those washed out from grinders’ homes.’ On the night of 11 March 1864, the Loxley Valley was flooded by the water from the newly built Dale Dyke Dam, which collapsed while it was being filled; after wrecking Loxley Village, Malin Bridge and Hillsborough, the flood continued into the centre of Sheffield, and on to Rotherham. We’re standing some 30 metres east of the Don, perhaps 300 metres north of its confluence with the Loxley, ninety degrees of impact, destruction and debris to the south and west. We cram through the metal barrier, a lane through the industries, there are lights, there are sounds, the work going on, shot blasting, steel fabrication, auto repairs, a radio sings to an open window, metal on metal, remake / remodel. The pace slows, the group breaks into smaller groups. Emma takes more photographs. There are rubber speed ramps, a vehicle gate that splits the lane in half, another ridge of rubber speed ramps. The units and yards flatten out. As we reach the last barrier the light abandons the lane. Almost darkness, almost silence.
8.44pm. We gather in the space between the asphalt road and a derelict, railed-off building, trees outgrowing the sagging brick. This is the site of a former silver mill, which one of our party dates to the 18th century. Although we can’t see it, we’ve also drawn level with the junction of the Loxley and the Don; in 1864, the silver mill would have stood directly in the path of the flood. Fay picks up where she left off, with ‘Factory’, the second poem in her ‘Flood Triptych’, which speaks of ‘the silted scuffle of industry unravelled’, a site disowned by the money that made it, the ‘ruptured brickwork’ since retaken by birds, buddleia and bees. Angelina steps forward to read ‘Magnolia’, her third new poem: six lines, ‘two trees’, each the other’s measure, ‘one is distance / one displacement’, the home and its wild state, a window fractured by a branch. The reading concludes with ‘Post-Industrial’, a poem from Chris’s sequence ‘At the End of the Road, a River’, which developed from a series of walks that Chris took along several miles of the Don, from Middlewood to Meadowhall, in 2005. The poem is set in the east of the city, but conjures a similar landscape of riverside trade, of ‘pallets’ and ‘bay-loading gates’; we glimpse the ‘last man’s shadow slip[ping] the fence / as machines break into silence’. The road ahead, like the crumbling plot, is curtained by a low metal fence, holding back the disorderly copse. As the copse peters out, so does the fence, the river surprising us, sidelong and dark.
9.02pm. 300 metres south, Club Mill Road meets Sandbed Road, the latter climbing uphill, west, while our road meets another line of boulders, and sodden debris fly-tipped on the turn. Against this backdrop, Chris opens with ‘Drift’, a poem written over 12 years ago, in response to this location. At that time, the junk was being tipped into the Don – ‘a typewriter scrolling water’ – and while the health of the river has since improved, the bankside clutter persists, cast-off cushions and mattresses, ‘the wasted attempts at home’. As Chris gives way to Pete, the waters seem to draw close, swollen by three days of rain, sleet and snow. Six months previously, Angelina and Pete had led 20 people over Sheffield’s bridges, high above a wide, shallow Don, a city at ease in t-shirts and shades. Pete reads a poem that he read on that summer’s day, an affirmation of resourcefulness and persistence in the face of precarity and impermanence, a tribute to a ‘waterboatman-sculptor’ whose riverbed works we’d encountered on an earlier walk along the route. ‘Dan of the Don’ also gives us decline and renewal (and decline) in microcosm: Dan’s ‘relic stacks’, the art assembled from ‘the / lapsed pomp of / manufacture and shipment’, will be dismantled by a rising river during the winter months, after which the materials will be recovered, new ‘stanzas of brick’ will emerge, and the cycle will repeat. With Fay’s ‘Flight from Cuthbert Bank’, we turn from the Don to the incline of Sandbed Road, pared, in the dark, to a simple slope, all ascent and descent. The poem recounts a slow, indirect pilgrimage to the site of the former pigeon lofts of Cuthbert Bank, a few streets west of the corner on which we’re standing, the pigeons’ flights gradually fading from the ‘memory maps’ that linked hillside to hillside, the districts of Upperthorpe and Parkwood now divided by ‘the six-lane race’ of a dual carriageway. From these derelict ledges, the poem restores their release and return, recolours the valley and the sky above, imagines a flock
of men released by work clocks, to rise above
day’s end, the valley’s din, legacies of grind,
to hold the small bulk, feel its heat
pulse through feathers in cupped hands,
and send those tiny hearts and lungs
to claim their reach of sky.
9.15pm. The end of Club Mill Road, and the end of our road, the short span of Hillfoot bridging the river. We edge into the light, the glare from Penistone Road, a single lamp for the long-dead Farfield Inn. Fay reads ‘Road’, the last journey of a companion animal, the ‘dark dog days’ on ‘the old steel road’; Chris follows with ‘Otter Cliff’, reaching back into apocryphal etymology (the Sheffield district of Attercliffe supposedly deriving its name from the otters that once dwelled on the banks of the Don), and looking forward (since the poem was written, sightings of otters on the Don have steadily increased). Like ‘Otter Cliff’, Angelina’s ‘Ball Street Bridge’ is set further downstream (by half a mile or so), extending our view of the river, summoning mallards and gudgeon, an ‘ore-heavy stream’ glinting as the moon rises. The moon tonight is new, though we don’t see it; the night is colder and wetter than when we started, my hands numb with the shuffling of torch, umbrella and sound recorder. I introduce Pete, who, after thanking everyone present, introduces the final poem: ‘Night Walk by the River Don’, part dream, part drift, peopled by ‘hostelry ghosts / of the Farfield Inn’ (which, we learn, has apparently been sold in recent weeks), and the river, with us to the end, ‘still flow[ing] / when nobody is there’. Apart from us, the streets are empty; another storm is closing in. We turn, for the last time, to
a lane flanked dense with thickets,
the freakish Don below, a carriageway
of bustling currents.
Longbarrow Press is planning further night walks for 2018; details will be posted on our Events page in the coming weeks.
The following publications are currently available from Longbarrow Press (click the titles for further details): Angelina D’Roza’s debut collection Envies the Birds, Pete Green’s pamphlet Sheffield Almanac, Chris Jones’s second collection Skin, and Fay Musselwhite’s Contraflow.
Emma Bolland: ‘Snow White / Rose Red’ (2012), ‘Lines of Desire’ (2012), ‘Trespassing Knowledge’ (2014) (two essays and a presentation reflecting, inter alia, on themes of trespass, darkness and night walking in the MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall project)
Brian Lewis: ‘The Cut’ (on the landscapes of Owlerton), ‘Haunts’ (on Andrew Hirst’s Three Night Walks), and ‘Parallel Lines’ (on Angelina D’Roza and Pete Green’s ‘Vanishing Point’ city walk)
Rebecca Solnit: ‘Walking After Midnight’ (from Wanderlust: A History of Walking)
Friends of Wardsend Cemetery
Chris Jones: At the End of the Road, a River (interactive map of the River Don project, with poems and recordings)
The Night Walk Project (with a recent interview with Brian Lewis)
The following Twitter accounts are recommended: @thelrm (run by Morag Rose, who organises regular collective psychogeographical drifts in Manchester); @wildernessflash (Lone Women in Flashes of Wilderness, a collaborative project by Clare Archibald exploring women’s thoughts on & experiences of aloneness, darkness & wilderness); @ClareQualmann
A special thanks to all who attended the walk on 17 January 2018, and to Emma Bolland for taking the photographs that accompany this essay.
I walk forward turning round, like the pilgrim
who carries a mask on his back.
Tokaido Road, Nancy Gaffield
The Greek polymath Eratosthenes (276 – c.194 BC) was nicknamed ‘Beta’ by his peers: for all his erudition and accomplishment in mathematics, astronomy, geography, poetry and philosophy, he never ranked first in any one field. Despite this, he became the first person to calculate the earth’s circumference. He also devised a 365-day calendar, and invented the leap day; estimated the distance from the earth to the sun; and created the first map of the known world based on parallels and meridians. This imaginary grid of intersecting lines, dividing the earth’s surface into climate zones and political regions, was a breakthrough in the field of cartography, and is now regarded as the cornerstone of geography. It introduced the concepts of latitude and longitude that would be refined over the next two millennia, via chronometers, telegraphy, radio, and GPS: a global system for measuring and organising distance, direction, and time itself. Many of these refinements took place in the 19th century, a period of unprecedented – and rapid – technological change, in which the pace of life accelerated with each discovery or invention. In Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge, Rebecca Solnit highlights two innovations that, in very different ways, altered our perception of landscape through their grasp of speed, and laid the foundations for the century to come. One of these was the passenger railroad; the other was photography.
Eadweard Muybridge was born Edward Muggeridge in Kingston-upon-Thames on 9 April 1830, several months before the Liverpool and Manchester Railway conveyed its first passengers, and several years before the first daguerrotypes appeared. Solnit’s book opens in a different time and place: four decades later, four thousand miles west, the scene of a photographic experiment with a galloping horse. The horse, named Occident, belonged to Leland Stanford, president of the Southern Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies (and, in his last years, co-founder of Stanford University). Stanford had commissioned Muybridge to make a series of photographic studies that would settle the question of whether all four hooves of a running horse left the ground at the same time – a question that could not be answered by the human eye. Whereas earlier, slower exposures preserved only the blur of motion, Muybridge’s new technique, combining faster shutter speeds with quicker emulsions, captured movement as a sequence of still images. These ‘motion studies’, launched in California in 1872, would preoccupy him for the rest of his working life, and lead to the development of cinematography. In the closing stages of a century-long campaign to ‘annihilate time and space’ (as the technological imperative was dubbed by the first railroad passengers), Muybridge emerges as ‘the man who split the second, as dramatic and far-reaching an action as the splitting of the atom’. As Solnit notes, however, the impulse behind the industrialisation of images and the acceleration of transport, splitting moments and shrinking distances, did not remove humanity as fast or as far from the past as we might think.
Before Muybridge embarked on his motion studies, he was an accomplished landscape photographer, documenting the American West, and Yosemite Valley in particular (after the mid-century gold rush, and before the completion of the transcontinental railroad). His stereoscopic prints of the Yosemite wilderness, which responded and contributed to an increase in tourism in the area, enact a physical distillation of time, in both process and subject: the long exposures on glass plates, and the ‘deep time’ of the park’s geology. Geology was a relatively new science, its discoveries partly stimulated by the rail and mining industries on both sides of the Atlantic, with cuttings and tunnels exposing sections of rock and fossils. The scale and remoteness of Yosemite, and other hitherto ‘inaccessible’ terrain, was now intimate and attainable, via the portals opened by shutter and steel. Muybridge and the railroad companies were manufacturing ‘new’ yet ‘timeless’ landscapes for a European American audience. The railroads, and the privileged views they offered, had been achieved at the expense of the Native Americans who lived and worked in the lands that the rails sliced and reordered. Their time, and its traces, would be purged from the mainstream accounts of this Edenic West and its pioneers (Muybridge, however, was almost unique among his contemporaries in depicting Yosemite as an inhabited place, and the figures in his landscapes are often Native Americans). Amid the turmoil and haste at the technological and territorial frontiers, the standardisation of time that swept east and west with the railroads (radiating from the UK, where Greenwich Mean Time was adopted as ‘railway time’ in 1847, with American and Canadian railroads embracing a meridian-based system in 1883, and Europe thereafter), and the irregular physical and temporal fractures that convulsed this newly joined-up world, the Victorians were stealing backward glances at an ‘ideal landscape … formed of a wholeness that was no longer theirs’. These landscapes were not so much encountered as contemplated; glimpsed from a train carriage, or revisited as framed images. The glass in the frame is both window and mirror.
Between the dawn of the passenger railway and the drying of the first daguerrotypes, the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Andō Hiroshige was printing The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido. Ukiyo-e (or ‘pictures of the Floating World’) was a genre in which portraits and urban scenes (popular with the nouveau riche merchant class) had predominated since the 17th century. Towards the end of the Edo period (1603-1868), the focus had shifted to landscape, and Hiroshige’s work in this field (along with that of Hokusai) is one of the reasons why Japanese art engaged and influenced Western critics and artists later in the 19th century. The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido is a series of woodcut prints made by Hiroshige after travelling on the Tokaido road in 1832. Established at the beginning of the Edo period, the Tokaido (or ‘Eastern Sea Road’) was a coastal route linking Edo (now Tokyo) in the east with the imperial capital of Kyoto in the west. Most of the journeys along its 319 miles were made on foot; women were not permitted to travel alone. Among those who walked the Tokaido was the poet Basho, whose experiences on the road led him to develop the new form of haibun, combining haiku with prose in a series of reflective accounts (starting with Nozarashi Kikō, or Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones, in 1684, and culminating ten years later in Oku no Hosomichi, or The Narrow Road to the Interior). While Hiroshige’s landscape prints are similarly faithful to the slow time of the Tokaido, they also highlight some recent cultural changes: the influence of Western perspective, notably the horizontal picture plane, and the popularity of meisho (‘named places’, or ‘famous views’), linked to a steady growth in domestic tourism. Each of the 55 prints in the Hōeidō edition (1833-34) is named for one of 53 government post stations (the ‘stations’ of the title) and the road’s eastern and western terminals; the post stations, arranged along the length of the Tokaido, offered respite to officials and travellers. We encounter these figures in Hiroshige’s prints, and in Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road (2011), a sequence of poems that both inhabit and depart from the ‘floating world’ mapped out by the artist.
Tokaido Road’s 55 poems are titled and arranged in parallel with the itinerary of ‘named places’ that we trace through the woodcuts. The engagement with Hiroshige’s work is maintained and developed, print by print, from embarkation to arrival; on one level, the book is an ekphrastic expedition, the poems guiding us through a Tokaido of the mind, the landscapes composing themselves anew. Gaffield’s achievement, however, is to absorb and distil the spirit of each print, and the spirit of each place, rather than simply recreating the series in a different medium. This act of distillation makes space for other perspectives, tones and voices, but leaves the coordinates intact. The first poem (‘Nihonbashi’) invites us to consider our bearings: ‘All places exist in relation to Nihonbashi. Everything / begins here.’ We are on the middle of Tokyo’s central bridge, or ‘kilometre zero’: the start of the Tokaido, and the point from which all distances in Japan are traditionally measured. It is a bridge of meetings and partings; birds fly south, rats descend to the river, and ‘sandaled carriers’ reluctantly lead the journey to the west. Although our course is set, we become aware, in these first few poems, of the role of chance (signalled by a hand of cards), and of that other companion, change:
Change comes. First the earthquake,
then B29s. These hills
lopped for landfill. He tips the boatman
and wishes he’d stayed home.
We are moving through scenes from Hiroshige’s ‘floating world’, the use of the simple present tense (in almost every ‘frame’) endowing each prospect with clarity, freshness and continuity. One way in which our encounters with the landscapes of the poems differ from our experience of the prints is in the layering of space: it is simultaneous (or non-linear) in the picture plane, and sequential (and consequential) on the printed page, each line expanding into the space opened by its antecedent. To speak of the layering of time, however – in both the poems and the prints – is to acknowledge uncertainty and complication. We might consider Hiroshige’s woodcut of Kawasaki, for example, and ponder the width of the river crossing in the lower third of the print, before contemplating Fuji to the east, a white peak on the far horizon. The thought of distance (how far is it to Fuji?), the thought of duration (how long before Fuji passes from view?). In the poems of Tokaido Road, we are, ostensibly, passing through Hiroshige’s time, the days before photography, before railroads, before ‘standard time’. Yet we are also – in the same moment, the same stride – passing through the time of ‘the earthquake’ (undated, but possibly the Ansei-Tokai quake of 1854), ‘B29s’ (the ‘Superfortress’ that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki towards the end of World War II), and the postwar proliferation of ‘landfill’ around Tokyo Bay, levelling hills, erasing views. We do not accelerate through these moments of ‘change’, do not apprehend them with anticipatory or retrospective detachment: the time, and pace, of the poem is that of Hiro’s slow river crossing, with which it closes. These moments are not anachronistic; they are simply part of the composition. Elsewhere in the collection, we find occasional references to bus stops, railways, photographs and telephone numbers; brief, subtle, but unmistakeable. The effect is not so much a shift in linear time as a shift in perspective, which softens the distinction between time and space, and, in turn, suggests that the passage from east to west is not merely a one-way journey:
Travellers on the Tokaido
centuries. Fuji doesn’t change.
Perspectives shift throughout the book in other ways. Whereas Hiroshige’s visions of the Tokaido are restricted to a fixed landscape orientation (in the Hōeidō edition), Gaffield employs a range of forms, including sonnets, haibun, and prose poems (and, frequently, unrhymed tercets and couplets that are, to varying degrees, kin to haiku, Imagism and lyric poetry). This approach, allied to an equally varied cast of personae, constantly refreshes our contact with the road, setting up discrete ‘views’ at each station that keep the hills, lakes, trees and rivers in sight; the crossings that mark the stages of the Tokaido. It also permits us to accompany the travellers, albeit briefly, on their interior journeys, to share the contemplative moments that are forged in, yet distinct from, the time through which they pass:
I am almost never here
in these old prints, but look harder,
closer, and I’m everywhere.
Gaffield’s ‘reframing’ of each scene enacts a peculiarly immersive intertemporality (itself a form of intertextuality): we are part of the moment (we are present), and part of its layering (amongst other moments). A significant factor in this immersion and layering is that the images are apprehended by touch, taste, smell and hearing as much as they are by sight. The picture frame dissolves as we enter a ‘summer evening / succulent with crickets and the peonies’ / perfume.’ Our passage through these sensory fields is periodically attended by an unnamed ‘I’: sometimes the voice of the river, sometimes, perhaps, that of the artist, and, walking the faintest, thinnest line ‘between memory and imagination’, the poet, or a version of the poet. It is the latter who appears, at times, to invite us to step out of Hiroshige’s picture, to consider how it ‘divides neatly in two’, to see the pine trunk as a compositional detail, ‘draw[ing] a line / down the middle of the print, / halfway mark between Edo and Kyoto.’ In ‘Totsuka’, we step back further still, to witness the stages of the woodcut: the drawing, the cutting, the inking, and the pressure that delivers ‘a mirror image’. The prints journey through time – as souvenirs of travel, as worthless postwar ‘wadding’, as recovered artefacts – and we journey through them, and into another time. The time of the Tokaido is intact, even if its landscapes are not: obscured, broken or diminished by development (with most of the old road lost to railways, expressways and other infrastructure), haunted by events outside the frame:
I lie back and try not to think
of August 6, 1945,
rather observe the pine plumes,
the blue hills of Kyoto.
Gaffield’s second full-length collection, Continental Drift (2014), is, in part, a meditation on these events, and their consequences for ‘place’ (as habitat, resource, homeland, spirit). Outwardly, the book is a different kind of project (and object) to Tokaido Road, one that employs different methods and structures. It’s arranged in four sections, three of which comprise discrete (but related) poems, with a greater openness of form than its predecessor. In each section, themes of migration and displacement (voluntary and involuntary, human and nonhuman) and our vulnerability to ruin (quiet and slow, sudden and terrible) occur and recur. There is a concern with the processes of ‘landscaping’ (particularly in the American West) and, more obliquely, with the ‘wear’ of time. ‘Vor Langen Jahren’, placed in the middle of the first section (Crossing the Water), hints at the geocultural shifts taking place:
Crossings and starting over.
to cheap and fertile
Here, and elsewhere in the collection, the movement is westward. ‘Vor Langen Jahren’ is one of several poems that allude to the European colonisation of the Americas (and its legacy), the erasure and re-inscription of ‘someone else’s’ landscape through language: ‘When they got to the new world / they called each place by the old names.’ There is a deepening sense of ancestral loss, of site and speech undone by persistent, unpredictable change, of larger forces outpacing the human heart. In ‘Adam Laments’, we glimpse the wastage and its wake:
Tableaux of ravage continuing
past hope and tearing
train from the track,
sphere slips from its axis.
The poem’s title suggests a double image: a vision of the Edenic West, and the loss of this vision. A partial recovery is effected with the simple iteration of the body’s measures (‘The palm is the width of…’), but the tone is unmistakeably elegiac. The lament is taken up in Crossing the Water’s final poem, ‘Stabat’, where it is offered to ‘those who go down / into the sea.’ Even here, the borders are shifting or effaced, as the water ‘covers the earth’, and the unnamed, unnumbered dead are displaced in its ‘vortex’. The poem draws much of its power from a withholding of particulars: we might think of the losses borne by low-lying coastal communities, the recent casualties of storm surges and tsunamis, but recall, too, the victims of the Atlantic slave trade, the dead and dying dragged from below deck and thrown overboard.
The sea is also a central presence in the first few poems of Inclusions, the second section of Continental Drift. It is itself (‘The sea is self-sufficient’) and an index of distance, passage, inheritance, its light ‘silver’ by day and ‘flashing’ by night, signalling comfort and warning, continuity and instability. This duality is reflected in the poems that follow, which hinge on images of mirrors, portals and thresholds (‘a foot / inside the door’, ‘an aperture to the exterior / world’). Even on ‘solid’ ground, ‘objects, persons, places’ are brought to the edge of ‘quagmire’, of disappearance and forgetting. Among the few constants in these landscapes of ‘trauma’ and flux is the shadow (of language, of self, of history), which, as we draw inland, to known and named locations, seems to darken and lengthen. The last five poems of Inclusions make a sweep of the American interior, with ‘Things the mind already knows’ and ‘Mappa Mundi’ navigating by the stars (and stripes) of two notable 1950s artworks (respectively, ‘White Flag’ by Jasper Johns, and The Americans by Robert Frank). A thick, portentious ‘storm cloud’ billows at the edge of Johns’ ‘open field’, before dissolving into ‘a plume / of smoke’; in the second poem, the speaker contemplates the simple geometric lines of a ‘T and O map’ (into which the three continents of the known world were divided in medieval times), before tracing its curves and angles through the postwar highways and cityscapes of New Mexico and New Jersey, a journey that ends with time and space slipping out of joint, and a wish to ‘get back to 1959, / get our bearings.’
As we near the end of Inclusions, the settings are pared back, the tone becoming more urgent: prairie, sand, and dust disturbed by talk of ‘Manifest Destiny’ and ‘MAD’ (the ‘mutually assured destruction’ theory of nuclear deterrence). The wind picks up. We attune to its ‘vortices’, its ‘directional forces’, to the sound it makes, to all that it carries, unseen. At the heart of it all, nuclei, orbited by electrons. Motes and rain. The image of ‘a stable structure’ flashes up, then the outlook dims:
nothing stays in its proper place
unsettled landscape nuclear
if you don’t
want to know
look away now
The arc of Inclusions has brought us to a critical point, the last words of its last poem (‘Dust’) preparing the ground for the third (and longest) section, Po-wa-ha. A single, 24-page poem, Po-wa-ha (the flow of ‘wind-water-breath’ in Pueblo cosmology) opens in the arid plains of New Mexico, during the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848 (a war that would test the limits of ‘manifest destiny’), in the traces of a journey made by Susan Magoffin, a diarist and trader’s wife who took to the Sante Fe trail in the wake of the invading U.S. army. After witnessing the postnatal cleansing ritual of a Native American woman, she gradually fades from the desert landscape, which remains the poem’s epicentre: we see the Navajo passing through, the ‘overlanders’ following, hefting firearms, spreading tuberculosis, depleting the resources of ‘the High Plains’. Increasingly, we are aware of the layering of time in this ‘peripheral, / incandescent’ place, and the hastening of events, as Whitman’s credo (‘For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’) cedes to the prayers offered to ‘an atomic god’. The U.S. military has cleared the European settlers from ‘the Valley of the Shadow’, absorbed its shifting, unstable ground into the sprawling White Sands Missile Range, and designated it the Trinity Site, where the first nuclear weapon is detonated on 16 July 1945. A ‘new form of energy’, a new technological frontier, unveiled against the backdrop of ‘the Rio Grande rift, geologically young and dynamic’. The deep time of this depositional terrain is being used up by the heat and ‘searing light’ of the Manhattan Project (‘sand thereabouts turns to glass earth trembles’). Local time is brought to a standstill:
Later no one sniffing the trace of air
. who you were only
the thud of the stopped
The naming of Trinity is attributed to the project’s chief architect, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, on being asked about its origins by General Leslie Groves some years later, cited a few lines from ‘Hymn to God, My God, In My Sickness’ by John Donne: ‘As west and east / In all flatt maps - and I am one - are one, / So death doth touch the resurrection.’ In Donne’s sonnet, the oneness of ‘west’ and ‘east’ is explained by the fact that the world is round, and that its extremes touch the same longitude: his final, westward journey (‘by these straits to die’) will terminate in the east. Gaffield’s poem makes use of another Holy Sonnet by Donne (‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’), also in Oppenheimer’s mind when naming the test site, in which the speaker beseeches his God ‘to break, blow, burn, and make me new.’
After the clock stalls at Trinity, we are shown not so much a sequence of discrete events as a dark continuum, intermittently lit by infernos, in which we glimpse the ‘piston-driven locomotion / cavorting with historical residue’. The poem ramifies like a cloud, drifting east of the test site, ‘going back / to connect the dots’, to China, to the Nanjing Massacre of 1937-1938, its cold suspension, where ‘time stands still’, then further back, to the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, east and west, the frontier shifting, to August 1945, a ‘kindly breeze’ propelling it to the ‘kindled’ cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ‘burning / like autumn leaves’, the cloud become ‘tornado’, a vortex of wind and flame. At ground level, in the cities of ‘paper’, we see human shadows, burned into pavements and walls, the images exposed in a moment of radiation. Printed ghosts. Heat, ‘travelling at the speed of light’, has stopped time for these cities. Slowly, Po-wa-ha drifts back to the New Mexico plains, its ‘old river’, its ‘old trails’, its dead, the ‘red rain’ mingling with ‘red dirt’: ‘you are in the desert / and it is in you’.
The fourth and final section of Continental Drift comprises six short poems that ruminate on the work of ‘place-making’, recovery, and repair. The Lay of the Land begins with ‘Unconsolidated debris’, a ‘dream’ of a moraine landscape that could be North American, but which, in its vision of ‘a land destroyed / by water’, also evokes the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima in early 2011; the section, and the book, ends with ‘[Es]cape’, a prose poem reflecting on the loaned and recollected ‘landscape[s] of childhood’, in and from which language is learned, and to which a ‘farewell’ is now offered. Between these terminals, we pass through the stages of shakkei, or ‘borrowed scenery’, a Japanese garden design concept with four categories: ‘distant borrowing’ (which, in the poem ‘Disharmonic folds’, ‘takes in / the mountains / the foothills’), ‘adjacent borrowing’ (‘the woods and the fields’ nearby), ‘upward borrowing’ (of skies, which bear the ‘occluded front’ of ‘Grey zone’, a poem in which we also glimpse the Tokaido or ‘Eastern Sea Road’, and the ‘weather’ of surface-to-air missiles), and ‘downward borrowing’ (‘of mosses and lichens, fallen masonry’). ‘Place-making’ draws on this borrowing: it is expressed through ‘multiple acts of remembering’, near and far, above and below, always working with ‘the lay of the land’. In a ‘palimpsest’ of damaged, disappearing or endangered landscapes, ‘there is never a complete return’; yet it is to the memory of these places that we must ‘return borrowed things’. In its crossing of borders, its leave-taking and letting-go, ‘[Es]cape’ recalls the closing poem of Tokaido Road:
There is no clear boundary
between memory and imagination,
memory carries a trace
of place, giving us presence
in absence. Imagination
mends the holes.
I let you go, my blue
familiars, cross the bridge
Gaffield’s most recent publication, Meridian (2016), also pursues the theme of departure and return, and is itself a departure. Like the earlier Zyxt (2015), which uses the Fibonacci mathematical sequence as a syllabic constraint (with interesting, and varied, consequences for the sound, shape and pace of the poems), it showcases the pamphlet’s potential as a space for experiment, a working-out of new paths. Both pamphlets take south-east England as their starting point, their respective openings also framed by similar ideas of direction or place: ‘Blown / in this / far north’ (Zyzt), ‘Everywhere there are signs / of the North’ (Meridian). While Zyxt is reconciled to its Canterbury setting (albeit released into a sense of historical excursion and circular pilgrimage in its ‘journey of a thousand years’), Meridian sets (and declares) an outbound course: it charts the Greenwich Meridian Trail from East Sussex to the reference line’s historic origin at the Royal Observatory (while this journey ends in Greenwich, the pamphlet appears to be the first instalment of a larger work-in-progress, which will regain the trail at the Thames, and follow it to the Humber).
We start from an unidentified square of ‘Ordnance Survey Map 122’, on the outskirts of Peacehaven, where the meridian enters the English Channel, and where the trail itself begins. We are ‘walking in/walking out’, every ‘turn’ a step towards, and a step away, ‘looking / for the gap / in the hedge’, attentive to ‘thresholds’ and ‘apertures’, the changeable porosity of land:
in the season of absolute light
. before harvest
. prefaces the closing down
While the line of longitude is straight, the trail, like any footpath, is not. Meridian is in constant motion, and much of its vigour and surprise is traceable to an ongoing negotiation between the grid and the ground, the ‘mental map’ and ‘physical topography’, the abstract and the particular, the past and the future. Presence and absence. This is apparent in the design of the poem, which unfolds, page by page, like a scale map of perception, the events and thoughts coterminous (and lateral), testing the sheet’s dimensions:
What is a line
. the trace of
. a moving point
. a procedure
. framed in astragals
. beaded glass
The expanded ‘field’ of the long poem (arguably, Meridian lies somewhere between a long poem and a sequence, but seems closer to the former, in tone and structure) allows the work its heterogeneous sweep: it takes in fragments of song, the poetry of Niedecker, Whitman and Pasternak, snatches of TV dialogue, film flashbacks, the public texts of memorial, monument and museum, ‘the roll call of the dead’, all of it gathered or recovered through the act of walking, the continuous present. There is always a voice within earshot, a familiar refrain, a new prospect; and there is always, in this northward ‘thinking forward’, a keen awareness of elsewhere, of distance, of separation and convergence:
I imagine the lines of longitude as
twin ropes of a swing
in the left hand is Sussex
in the right the 105th Meridian West
UTC-07:00 Mountain Time North
Two meridians, ‘Two Continents’. We hold the ‘ropes’ of both for a little while, the 105th passing through New Mexico and Colorado, before ‘cut[ting] free’, the ‘night terrors’ close behind:
don’t look back through black glass
. or you will plunge
. into terrae incognitae
Unlike the Tokaido, the Greenwich Meridian Trail is a new path (albeit one that is animated by an ancient concept), and one that, in part, makes use of recent technology to enable an older, slower way of travelling. The secular pilgrimage of Meridian closes with a handful of scenes from the Royal Observatory, its historic chambers, its antique clocks and telescopes, the tourists ‘with one foot in the east / another in the west’, the ‘walnut-panelled’ Star Room and its ‘ever expanding universe’, and questions, urgent, unanswerable questions:
and if I’m not at sea
. what is this
And the meridian, now 102 metres east of its marking strip, the universe still expanding.
Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road (CB Editions) is available here; Continental Drift (Shearsman) is available here. Click here to read three poems from Continental Drift. Gaffield’s Oystercatcher Press pamphlets (Zyxt and Meridian) are available here and here.
Click here to view a gallery of Hiroshige’s prints for The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido.
You can read a selection of extracts from Rebecca Solnit’s Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge (2003, published in the U.S. as River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West) here.
In the act of falling forward, we instinctively recover: the tilting mass vaults the grounded limb, the head holds itself level, one foot corrects the other. In walking, we find equilibrium, a rhythm that keeps the mind in step with the body, the same rhythm that, at times, enables the ‘trance-like suspension of [the] normal habits of thought’ (Robert Graves). The centuries-old path that it prepares for poetry, trodden by ‘walking poets’ such as Bashõ and Wordsworth, is accessed by a kind of meditative movement, detached and immersed, rarefied and regular. One of the peculiarities of the contemporary urban environment, with its perceived obstacles to reflective states and untrammelled passage, is its capacity for making (and remaking) the conditions in which ‘moving with thought’ can occur. That these conditions exist in our towns and cities is largely accidental, and incidental to the decisions of urban planners and developers. They arise from the street’s flux and spate, its variable frequencies of jumble and drift, the unexpected visual, auditory and other stimuli that sustain and renew the ‘trance’ of ambulant reverie. With each step, the body rights itself, the mind adjusts its balance, there is contrast, the near and the peripheral, the familiar and the unfamiliar, there is juxtaposition and flow.
For nearly 10 years, I’ve been exploring these ideas with the poets of Longbarrow Press, through a series of public walks in predominantly urban landscapes. The first of these was devised by Matthew Clegg, who, seeking a creative alternative to the conventional ‘pub launch’, invited a small audience to accompany him on a four-hour meander through north Sheffield to mark the publication of his sequence Edgelands (2008). It was midsummer, yet the light levels were set to late autumn, the heat close to zero. Damp ground, dismal skies, soaking us from Owlerton to Oughtibridge. By the time we reached the Birley Stone, a medieval marker on an inland cliff, the Edgelands script had reverted to pulp. None of this mattered. The weather was an atmospheric filter for the poems, the acoustic changing at each reading stop, Clegg’s images and rhythms nuanced by dense air and dripping leaves. It also seemed to draw our small group closer together, moved by a sense of common endeavour, some of us sharing ideas and observations, others walking in companionable silence. We parted with new understandings, of the poems, the landscapes, and ourselves: as participants and contributors, crafting an experience through a collective act of heightened attention.
Since then, we’ve led more than a dozen walks in Sheffield (and further afield), including Moving with Thought (2012), a workshop disguised as an open-ended exploration of the varied terrain between Shalesmoor and Parkwood Springs. It was here that Clegg introduced the concept of ‘juxtaposition and flow’, as a means of reading and navigating the city – its cross-currents of sounds and scents, its clash of textual and pictorial signs – and as a compositional method, with many attendees incorporating their ‘found material’ (site safety directives, advertisements, graffiti) into poems asking questions of the built environment. Other walks have traced the lines laid down by water (notably Fay Musselwhite’s Contraflow series (2014-2016), in which she narrated the lives of the Rivelin, a former ‘working river’, from birth to post-industrial recovery) and history (the first of these, a six-hour winter hike led by Rob Hindle, reconstructed the route taken by the Luftwaffe on the first night of the Sheffield Blitz, the walk coinciding with its 70th anniversary). The path isn’t always linear, though. When Longbarrow Press was invited to propose an event for the 2017 South Yorkshire Poetry Festival, we saw an opportunity to refresh and refocus our approach, to start with a blank page, to improvise from scratch. For ‘Vanishing Point’, led by Angelina D’Roza and Pete Green, we began with a single physical feature – the Cholera Monument, a hillside memorial just east of Sheffield city centre – the end point of a journey for which we had no route map, no origin. What we did have was a working knowledge of the city’s intersections, its rivers and bridges, tram lines and termini, and their role in reframing our perspective: the sightlines shifting where the axes meet. In the weeks leading up to the walk, we reshuffled poems, sounded the locations where the readings might take place, and settled on a point of departure. In the last few days, we made further cuts to the script, shedding several poems and their stops, sensing a need to create more space for movement, reflection, and, implicitly, chance; the unplanned, unexpected moments that allow these events to breathe, the fleeting counterpoint of the street.
It’s just after 11am on Sunday 28 May. I’m standing on the west side of Lady’s Bridge, looking upstream, checking names and faces against the details on my list. Two people booked on the walk haven’t turned up. Two people who haven’t booked appear in their place. We take a call from someone who has surfaced in Kelham Island, half a mile north-west, and needs directions. ‘Follow the river’, we tell her. I welcome the audience, numbering 20 or so, and introduce Angelina and Pete. I sketch the route we’ll be taking, our gradual ascent of the city, offering a glimpse of our conceptual framework, the plots, planes and parallel lines of public infrastructure, a horizontal and vertical mesh. It’s enough. The audience will join the dots, make their own connections, find their own vanishing points. I close by remarking that we’re on the oldest bridge over the River Don, a survivor of the 1864 and 2007 floods, linking Waingate to the Wicker. As we’re about to set off, we’re joined by our lost companion, who’s raced the water from Kelham Island. We round a corner, file along Nursery Street, and step down to the river. Our venue for the first reading is a pocket park, a tilted ellipsis of grass and concrete that meets the bank in a small, tiered semicircle. Pete descends to the edge, his back to the water, and opens with a discussion of the area’s historical and modern juxtapositions, perhaps traceable to the bridging of the Don (which formerly divided the town’s wealthy and poor districts). Since the demolition of Castle Market, the contrast is even more striking; low-rise budget stores and pawnbrokers dwarfed by the crown court, the magistrates court and the police station, overlooked, in turn, by the glass towers of Irwin Mitchell and other law firms. Against this institutional backdrop – part of which is reflected in the water, red brick facades rippled by passing ducks – Pete reads the first of several extracts from his Sheffield Almanac, in which the layering of social class and the rebranding of the city in its ‘Year of Making’ are absorbed into a multifaceted, MacNeiceian meditation on the personal and political currents that determine where we end up. Angelina responds with three river-themed poems from her collection Envies the Birds, including ‘Ball Street Bridge’, a moonlit, sepia-toned ode to the ‘unshifting’ mallards that ‘perch the weir’, as seen from the vantage of the eponymous span, half a mile upstream. She also reads ‘Fairytale No. 13’, which subtly introduces the motifs of flight and falling that will recur and swell in the closing stages of the walk. After the third poem (a version of Montale’s ‘Cuttlefish Bones’), we rise from the riverbank, and double back to Lady’s Bridge. As we make our second crossing, one of our number talks of how, after two decades of walking the city, she is still discovering it. We thread along a thin, uriniferous corridor, the riverside passage to Blonk Street that lies parallel to Castlegate, terminating in the shadow of a sixteen-storey residential block. I point out the junction of the two roads, and, just below this, the junction of two rivers: the Sheaf, crawling out of a brick culvert, and the Don, swallowing its dark tributary. The confluence used to form part of the boundary of Sheffield Castle; the Sheaf, like the castle, has all but vanished from the landscape (the only other point at which it surfaces in the city centre is at Pond Hill, in a 100-foot gap between rail and road infrastructure).
We switch pavements at Blonk Street, the road bridging the river as it widens and turns, and we turn with it, into a feeder lane for a hotel car park, the Don spreading out below, sweeping north-east. At the halfway point, we halt, and consider the unpavemented road, yellow lines flush to the low stone wall. As Angelina prepares to read, we attempt and abandon a linear formation, then a ragged crescent; divided, after the first stanza of ‘Stone Walls and Snowgates’, by the passage of a silver Mazda. We regroup, sharp as a sickle, and Angelina starts over:
An angler wades in teetering like a goose
slips on loose silt
churned by the Don.
It’s an apposite choice, and not only for its theme and setting (the poem closes with a vision of ‘the ore-brown walls of Tommy Wards’, just around the next bend, the next weir): like ‘The Bench’, which follows it this morning, displacements and gaps are integral to its design, white space and ‘tinny crash’, autumnal and crisp. On this summer’s day, the gaps are tested by cars, bristling and slow, chafing the edge of the group. We don’t budge. The poems absorb the bustle. Not for the first time, I think of brittle readings in hushed rooms, the listeners not enrapt, but twitchy, the thread unpicked by the least interruption: latecomers, coughs, creaking chairs. Out here, the engine noise is part of the texture, and the river’s wash is part of the texture, and the voice focuses our attention: it does not exhaust it. One touch of nature / makes the whole world kin. A week before, I’d stood here with Pete, thinking and talking through the route, numbering the path. We gazed at the Don for a few minutes, remarking on the depthless waters, the flat islands of weed and sediment, and the strange vertical outcrops of brick, around four feet in height, making little breaks in the flow. I wondered if they might be remnants of industry, the last links to some long-gone works, but they seemed too fresh, too idiosyncratic. A few hours later, I returned, alone, and encountered their maker, in knee-high boots, wading out to the middle of the river. This was Dan of the Don, who, it turned out, has been visiting this stretch of water for a year or so, scavenging the shallows to make his free-standing sculptures. I listened as he chatted with passers-by on the north bank. A low-lying stone and brick circle, made in 2016, was reclaimed by the Don over the winter months, sinking back to the riverbed as the waters rose. The new works were part of an ongoing cycle of reclamation, a seasonal remaking. Later that evening, I share my discovery with Pete; a few days later, he sends me a new poem hymning the ‘relic stacks’, which he reads in sight of the sculptures. Dan isn’t here today, but we picture him as he calibrates
the precarious weight
of all we inherit,
expresses the lot in teetering
stanzas of brick.
As the group disperses, my eyes refocus, zooming in to a wall above the water, overlooking the north bank. I recall how, ten years ago, Chris Jones was commissioned to write a sequence of poems for this wall, marking the Don’s cultural renewal, signalling the start of a river path to Meadowhall. The poems were to be etched in sandstone, the commission funded as part of the newbuild development. The financial crises of 2008 halted the project indefinitely: the buildings were completed, but the poems were never installed. Chris read the haiku and tanka there anyway, as part of a city walk in late 2008, framed against blank, buff stone. The wall is now coated with graffiti. For a moment, I entertain a vision of the wall, and the building it supports, crumbling into the Don, to be reassembled by Dan before the current takes it apart. And I think of the intersecting lines of the last ten years’ walks, criss-crossing the long loop of Castlegate, Lady’s Bridge, the Wicker, the needle’s eye to our invisible thread.
We leave the river, and make the two-minute journey to the canal basin, the start of a four-mile navigation that runs parallel to the Don, before joining it at Tinsley. Five years earlier, Matthew Clegg led a different audience through the locks; the towpath isn’t part of today’s itinerary, but we glimpse its origins as it passes under road and rail. Our readings at Victoria Quays are split by the water, with Pete assigned a position on the north side, halfway between the Straddle Warehouse and the pedestrian swing bridge. The stone arches that frame the basin are a reminder of another lost terminus: Sheffield Victoria, formerly the main railway station, which, like the cargo port, was ideally placed to serve the city’s markets. Both the port and the station closed in the early 1970s. After a period of neglect, the site and many of the buildings were redeveloped for business and leisure, with the latter especially prominent on the broad north quay, a chain hotel’s familiar bulk rising above the arches, open-fronted cafés and bars softening the proposition. The regeneration and ‘repurposing’ of space is addressed in the third part of Sheffield Almanac, which Pete reads at the quayside, acknowledging the clashes and contradictions, the moments of vision and the short-sighted demolitions, the sense
That a growth and reinvention mostly
Built on shabby chic emporia, animation studios,
Coffee shops, won’t ever exorcise the ghostly
Whirr and scrape of lathes that inheres in the joists.
Crossing the swing bridge, we touch down on the south quay, the basin lined with narrowboats, asleep in their moorings. Slowing as we near the Straddle, we take note of the clump of offices to our left, a redoubt of corporate lawyers and tax advisers. It’s midday on a Sunday, but the windows show a handful of workers at their desks. Angelina sets up at the edge of the basin, and introduces ‘About the Human Voice’, a ruminative prose poem that opens a channel between slower, older forms of communication and the technologized present, revisiting themes of distance and memory, words and music, sound and its mediation. Communion, then confession, ‘in the corner of some backstreet cathedral, tealight bidding prayers blowing in the sanctified cross-breeze.’ As Angelina speaks, the air is coloured with struck bells, the sound blowing in from an unseen tower, east or west, hillside or town, none of us can place or name it. As she stops, it stops. We step out of the quays, drifting from cobbles to tarmac, and make our first ascent of the city.
A footbridge winds around the parkway, lifting us over the roundabout, drawing level with the middle storeys of Exchange Place, car parks, offices, hotels, and, further off, an older world, aslant in the gaps. We climb to Park Square, a green island floating above several lanes of traffic, junction and plateau. As we near the centre, the engine noise falls away, filtered by the trees. The path skews to a grass bank, where Angelina stands, a short distance, a slight elevation, the canted decks of Park Hill rising behind her, every panel coloured in, a chequered skyline. She reads ‘Fairytale No. 17’, one of several new poems we’ll hear today, testing the idea that the city is preserved in the act of leaving it, each erasure undone by an internal equilibrium of absence and recall: ‘Because I am no longer there, the market still stands…’ Park Hill is there, ‘the brutalist flats that have been bought and sold with a marriage proposal’, and it is not quite there, the story of it almost lost, an advertisement for itself. We rejoin the path, the incline, and scan a trackbed spanned by lateral wires: Park Square is an overground junction, too, the tramway splitting the island into sectors, west, south and east. As the three lines intersect and divide, so do we, darting between passing trams, blue route, yellow route, half the audience cut off. Once we’ve regathered, south of the tracks, we tune ourselves to Pete, adjusting our focus, trams rattling behind him, and a long, low thread tapering east: the overhead cables to Meadowhall, withering from sight, converging at some distant point. The poem is ‘To a Person Employed to Stand on the University Roundabout at the Evening Rush Hour Holding a Large Advertisement for Domino’s Pizza’, a vision of Sheffield, self-consuming and consumptive, that complements Angelina’s questioning of our ‘bought and sold’ futures and pasts, the elective, the involuntary: ‘We are one with you / and you with us: ingesting the city…’
We leave the island by the southern exit, crossing to a narrow footway at the edge of the tramway, curving as it uncouples from the junction, then, as the footway switches sides, straightening for the quarter-mile walk to the train station, South Street to our east, Sheaf Street to our west, one above, one below, each measuring the other. The unrehabilitated remainder of the Park Hill estate is softened, then screened, by tall trees, an incomplete pattern, the hill broken up. Beneath the footway, a short drop from a graffitied wall, we see the tracks spilling out from the railway bridge, meeting and parting, narrowing, spreading, seeking a platform. We are two abreast, overtaking, falling back, caught in overlapping dialogue. At the station bridge, we turn from the city, and take the metalled steps to South Street Park, an open, rounded green with terraced seating, a viewpoint cut into the hill. Whereas the last few stops were divided by infrastructure, the amphitheatre invites a single, central point of convergence: the audience in a semicircle, the poets at the circle’s origin, Pete, then Angelina, speaking of optimism, youth, shifting horizons. The height shelters the voice, cupped and crisp in the park’s disc, it softens the rail and road noise below. As we listen, we pick out landmarks, the town’s chock and jostle, its towers, cranes and spires, pins on a lateral plane.
Our path rucks, steepens, winding us in to Clay Wood Bank, a last road crossing, our final ascent, the terminal ground. Over 400 victims of the 1832 cholera epidemic are buried near this ancient woodland; a memorial, built in 1835, stands at the edge of the public gardens. We gather at the base of the stone marker, some of us squinting at its neo-Gothic pinnacle, others staring back at the city, drawing breath after the climb. I mention that I’m partly drawn to the monument for what it isn’t: it doesn’t commemorate military conflict, honour the crown or nobility, or elevate the wealthy. Financed by the Board of Health, it is, perhaps, a reminder of municipal failure, arising from poor sanitation in the town’s industrial quarters, close to the River Don. For Angelina, the Cholera Monument and the surrounding woodland are a place of imaginative refuge and flight, and the point from which her last, extended reading departs, taking in ‘Fairytale No. 9’, ‘Winter Beds’ ‘Marginalia’ and ‘Cuttlefish Bones’ (all from Envies the Birds), and three new poems of displacement, transit, borders, three letters home. She delivers these from the steps of the monument, facing west, ‘the city shrunk to a manageable size’, one prospect conjuring another, the distant monolith of the Hallamshire Hospital:
What I saw in this view,
in the off-white, sterile distance
those years I worked here, I don’t know.
At the edge of our hearing, birdsong, sent down from treetops either side of the memorial, feathering each poem. It continues as Pete beckons us for the final reading, which he gives a few feet from an information board, obliging us to turn from the monument, and look out to the city. It’s a suitably panoramic backdrop to the concluding part of Sheffield Almanac, its themes of disaster and renewal, community and hope, a remembered future ‘unfolding / Like a map veined dense with second chances / To find yourself’. As the Almanac nears its end, and the personal, political and topographical threads converge, two people wander into the frame, unseen by Pete, then another two, surveying the board, surveying the town, quietly, respectfully, and we follow their gaze, leaning forward, looking back at where we’ve come from.
Angelina D’Roza’s debut collection Envies the Birds is out now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book. Her recent contribution to the Longbarrow Blog, ‘About the Human Voice’, appears here.
Pete Green’s Sheffield Almanac is now available from Longbarrow Press; click here to order the pamphlet. A recent essay by Green addresses issues of civic identity and civic pride, and examines Sheffield’s status as a ‘City of Making’. Click here to read ‘Model City’.
Matthew Clegg and Brian Lewis lead a walk through RSPB Adwick Washland on Saturday 1 July (National Meadows Day) as part of the 2017 Ted Hughes Festival. Click here for more information and to book tickets.
A special thanks to all who attended the ‘Vanishing Point’ walk, and to those who contributed the photographs that accompany this essay.
North of the railway line that links the East Leeds suburb of Crossgates to the commuter village of Garforth, a ripple of flags and fixtures, spotless signs, developers’ colours, staked in rolls of turf: the joined-up housing, tipping from the west, leaking into the low-rise, light industrial district of Barnbow. To each gap, each leftover lot, a phased release, an orderly settlement. New homes, new streets, a woman’s name in every lane and avenue, Ethel Jackson, Amelia Stewart, Olive Yeates, neat lawns and driveways, there are no roads east of Maggie Barker. Screened from The Limes, parallel to the railway, a thin, grey park: in the park, a grey shed, its vaulted frame stretching to one-third of a mile, the bulk receding, then vanishing.
It was said of the factory at Barnbow that the parts would go in at one end and come out the other as tanks. Between 1983 and 1990, the Challenger 1 was built here, then, from 1993, the Challenger 2, after the site was acquired by Vickers Defence Systems in 1986, who designed and constructed a new plant for its production. For nearly fifty years before its privatisation and sale to Vickers, the Barnbow complex was operated as a Royal Ordnance Factory, one of a number of state-owned ROFs established as part of the late 1930s rearmament programme. ROF Leeds wasn’t the first munitions factory in Barnbow, though; the government had built one at the outset of the first world war. Officially known as National Filling Factory No. 1, it absorbed 313 acres of the Gascoigne estate, an area criss-crossed by defunct coal pits, the main site lying north and east of the railway sidings that, decades later, would make way for ROF Leeds. Within a few months of becoming operational, Barnbow’s output had increased to 6000 shells per day, making it the most productive British shell factory of the war. This was achieved with a 24-hour, three-shift system and, by October 1916, a workforce of 16,000, 93% of whom were women and girls. Conditions at Barnbow were difficult and dangerous, especially for those who handled explosives, the workers sheathed in smocks and caps, their skin yellowing from exposure to cordite. At 10pm on 5 December 1916, several hundred women had just started their shift, including 170 working in one of the fusing rooms. At 10.27pm, an explosion levelled the room, leaving 35 women dead, and many more injured and maimed. The details of the accident were withheld from the public until 1924, when the land was returned to Colonel Gascoigne, who sought, and received, compensation for the requisitioning of his estate. By now, most of the filling factory had been demolished; a new, short-lived colliery was constructed, reusing some of the factory buildings, and several parcels of land, described as ‘waste’, were later put up for auction by the colonel. Over time, the railway spurs, the filling sheds, and the pit workings were dismantled or abandoned, spikes and shafts now dents and hollows, rough ground softening to the gaze, plantation and grass, arable lots, the works effaced by landscape.
The word landscape arrived in England with the Anglo-Saxons (as landscipe or landscaef), and, in its earliest sense, referred to a system of manmade spaces, or the ‘shaping’ of land to which people belonged. From the late sixteenth century, it is increasingly identified with the usage borrowed from Dutch painters, landschap, a term descriptive of ‘natural’ scenery, and suggestive of framed pastorals. The idea of the picturesque begins to inform the making of the landscape itself, and is a significant factor in the rise of the ‘English garden’ a hundred years later; planned idylls, commissioned by wealthy patrons, laid out in the grounds of private estates. While the excesses of the Romantic period have largely fallen away – the grottos, rotundas and mock ruins that proliferated in eighteenth-century parks and gardens – our attachment to an idealised, ‘painterly’ view persists. The eye is drawn to a simple arrangement of lake, grove, and gentle slope. It is nature, it is ‘naturalistic’, and the labour that made and maintains it is absent or discreet. We overlook (or, perhaps, applaud) the settled artifice: without it, there is no ‘view’. Conversely, the working landscape – in its industrialised, technologized, contemporary form – is seldom recognised as landscape, but, rather, as a disturbance of soil, a distortion of perspective, each visible modification and intervention an act against landscape. Environmental objections to new ‘works’ are often linked to aesthetic concerns; occasionally, the latter predominate, as can be observed in public opposition to the siting of pylons and wind turbines (with an emphasis on visual impact apparent in many campaigns). Sightlines are interrupted by wires and blades. The ‘idyll’, if it exists, is endangered by infrastructure projects. And yet, for all our discord and unease, the working landscape belongs to us, and we to it; its history is part of our history. The narrative of a single site, its changes of use, is recounted through generations, passing into folk memory, local lore. What happens to these sites, and their stories, when the labour and the landscape have exhausted each other?
Karl Hurst’s photographs of the former collieries of South Yorkshire (and other parts of the county shaped by its heavy industry) explore this state of ambivalence: the undeclared thesis of the project is that the terrain itself is caught between renunciation, remembering, and renewal. The images in the series (collectively titled Recovered Landscapes) are presented without locational or situational information, or, indeed, any details that might help us to understand what kind of work took place on these sites before they were deindustrialised (and, to all appearances, depopulated). This is, I think, intentional, the suspension of context an echo of the process that Hurst is documenting: the decoupling of the coalfields from the communities that the collieries made viable. Whether fenced or unguarded, disused or reclaimed, we are to infer that these places no longer belong to the people. A recent essay by Hurst offers some clues to his thinking; he visits the site of the former coking plant at Orgreave, 100 acres of which has been redeveloped as a technology park, and a further 300 acres designated as ‘the Waverley Community’, a mixed residential / commercial estate with lakeside views (and an annual ‘service charge’ of £150 per household). He searches the area, its signage and maps, for some ‘official acknowledgement’ of the Battle of Orgreave, a decisive moment in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, and, arguably, the event with which the name of the parish is most closely identified. He finds nothing, no murals or monuments, and concludes that the development is a deliberate act of cultural erasure, of which the renaming, or rebranding, from Orgreave to Waverley is the most troubling symptom. The name is the legacy; without it, the link to the landscape is broken.
Displacement, estrangement, and the weakening of the bonds of work, class, and community have been prominent themes in Hurst’s work for some years, and comprise the burden of his poem cycle The Frome Primer (2007). The title, suggestive of geographical specificity, is a riddle, a bluff; while the project was initially sketched as ‘a view of the south from the north’, there is nothing of southern England in these poems. Like the images of Recovered Landscapes, the poems are untitled, the locations unidentified. Here, too, the effect is a loss of particularity, a sense of attachments (to people, places) worn thin, wearing out. The ‘older world’ to which the speaker (or speakers) belonged has declined, and is being dismantled, the surviving fragments (‘the backs of weavers’ houses’, ‘the abandoned giant works’) suddenly out of place. The lineage of skilled manual work, of which he is part, is tapering and fraying, its blunt lessons (‘it’s no good knocking / even the straightest nail / into a crooked wall / with a crooked hammer’) now passing, obliquely, into parable or fable. This world, its work, cannot be handed down. The world that replaces it is defined by precarity, ‘scavenging’, the austere resourcefulness of its new arrivals, sustaining themselves by ‘tak[ing] hems up / and rak[ing] coiled leaves out / of drains’, or ‘smoking […] black tobacco / and sourcing the cheapest cuts’. This precarity and rupture is not unique to the ‘surrendered’ city, as the seventh poem makes plain. It is one of only two poems in The Frome Primer to depart from the first person, and the only poem in which the focus shifts to the land itself (a ‘working landscape’ in South Lincolnshire, the cycle’s sole concession to topographical orientation). The flat farmland is evoked in unusually lyrical terms:
In the blue bean rows near Boston
Chou Li bends to a black stork.
Low mists veil the fields, Chou Li
straightening to the horizon, caught
in transparency. Imagine Emperor Huizong
at work here, hinting at willow with delicate
calligraphy and rendering a quiet nobility
from the work, white persimmon
hanging in the cool morning.
Glance again now after this clarity,
like grief, grey fluke blooms on the beans,
the itinerant labour gang, in transit, dispersed.
In times of scarcity and uncertainty, our relationship to landscape, as a resource, is often reframed, impelled by the makeshift and the fugitive. Fay Musselwhite’s sequence ‘Adventures in Procurement’ (in her 2016 collection Contraflow) opens with ‘Firewood’, in which the darkened edges of an unnamed ‘southern city’ are scouted and foraged by a small, shadowy group, raiding newbuild sprawl and rebuilt townhouses for scrap wood, rummaging through skips for discarded pallets and planks, gathering ‘armfuls’ of timber to feed their squat’s hearth. This is work that subsists on the byproducts of work, sustaining itself through the surplus and waste of land and labour. The poem and the sequence are set against the backdrop of England in the late 1980s, a period in which industrial relations were deteriorating, and home ownership was increasing. ‘Firewood’ contrasts distant reports from the ‘battlegrounds’ and ‘barricades’ further north – the news aflame with ‘licks and lashes [that] make light of a community exposed’ – with eyewitness accounts of neighbourhood gentrification:
[…] streets colonised by stair shifters, roof raisers,
bay window chasers, home owners performing
their open house surgery, bedrooms waiting
in polythene wings.
The land is divided, carved up by legislators, developers and speculators, the era’s combustible politics and economic imbalances leaving parts of it a no-man’s-land. Stepping into this breach are the protagonists of ‘Adventures in Procurement’: predatory slum landlords, small-time traders, itinerant musicians and crafters, each of them testing the market for its gaps, its weaknesses, exhausting the seams and cracks, then moving on. The line between legal revenue and illicit trade is repeatedly – perhaps deliberately – blurred in ‘Smokeless Zone’ and ‘Wearing the Trousers’, the ‘pulse of merchandise’ racing from ‘storefront harbour’ to ‘laid-up trailers’, before slowing at the ‘spy-holes’ of flats frequented by dealers and users, in which we find the eponymous anti-heroes of the last poems in the sequence, ‘Tales from Min’s’ and ‘Leon’; their territory shrinking to a handful of cornered rooms, raided and wrecked, in turn, by police and gangland enforcers. It’s a strain of precarity – debt and disquiet – that drags the individual ever inward, obliging a withdrawal from the street, from its contested ‘turf’, from the land itself. The recollected misadventures of ‘Leon’ are framed by two vignettes in which he appears to have escaped – or has been extracted from – the ‘splintered wreckage’ of his old life. We find him in the woods, stirring broth over an open fire, adjusting to the rhythms of a self-sufficient ‘forest settlement’, the nearest road vibrating ‘at the edge of sound’. Here, too, he is outside of the formal economy, rethinking and remaking the relationship between hand and tool, recognising it in ‘each tenderness / of muscle’, grateful for the ‘echo of toil that melds him to the land’.
This idea – that labour engenders a uniquely intimate bond with one’s environment – is realised, freely and fully, in ‘Memoir of a Working River’, the 18-page centrepiece of Contraflow. The poem reimagines the industrial growth, decline and eventual restoration of the Rivelin Valley, a woodland vale in north-west Sheffield, and the fast-flowing river that carved it out, made it fit for work, and gave it its name. Its human and nonhuman elements – the mills, forges and dams that harness the water, the men who maintain the riverside industries, the valley’s ecology – are absorbed into a single, fluid narrative, the story of an ‘old man’, half-river, half-human, tracking the Rivelin’s physical and historical journey from its moorland source to the city’s edge, slipping between mortal and riverine states along the way, each shift marking a change of fortune. The landscape is undone and remade, the young river’s slow, persistent scratch first giving it form and direction; as it matures, the water is ‘yoked’ to the wheels that drive the expanding industries, contributing to the city’s prosperity, and, in turn, depleting the health of the valley and the men who work there; then, as ‘retreating trade’ gives way to returning trees, the old man ‘detoxes’, his ‘scarring’ and ‘choking’ relieved by dredging and conservation, the residues of work – ‘slathered wheel-gape, spindle, stray grindstone’ – preserved and assimilated to the river path, the valley now a site of heritage and leisure. Perhaps the most salient aspect of the poem is its vision of embodied labour, the levelling of human and natural resources, the worker and the water put to the same wheel and, as a consequence, being consumed alike, losing their discrete identities, their ‘nature’, their unlikeness. Iron particulates flake from the grindstones, catching in throats, weakening lungs: downstream from a ‘spark-shed’, the old man encounters a grinder, ‘doubled over racked in rasp-spasms’, who
tells how he offers blunt steel to grit
till it’s flayed by resistance to its leanest edge
how each day he enters the valley
more of it enters him.
In the 1970s, the UK became the world’s first post-industrial society. The transition from an economy defined by the primary and secondary sectors (agriculture, mining, manufacturing) to one increasingly reliant on the emerging tertiary (or ‘service’) sector was reflected in the changing appearance of the country’s landscape, with fewer people employed on the land or in heavy industry, and more offices, distribution centres and retail parks appearing at the edges of towns and cities. The new sector’s complex variables (both economic and cultural) meant that a flexible labour market was essential, and employment agencies became instrumental in placing people in this new space, and in new (and often short-lived) roles. For some, this offered a path out of difficult, dangerous (and now declining) work, with opportunities for career development. For others, the path seemed to lead nowhere. Matthew Clegg’s Lost Between Stations (2000, revised 2011) chronicles ten years of displacement and indirection at the end of the millennium, ‘a period of dead-end jobs, intermittent unemployment, and employment training schemes’. Structured as ‘a poem in 7 fragments’, we first encounter its speaker in a call centre in metropolitan Leeds, ‘all at sea’ in an open-plan office, floundering in telemarketing. With each ‘fragment’, we drift further from the centre – the supposed promise and purpose of the city’s business district – and into the social and geographical margins: the graffitied estates of Hyde Park and Burley, the gleaming villages (or exurbs) of Scholes and Barwick. One of the motors of this picaresque narrative is the influence of Homer and Derek Walcott; Clegg draws on the energy and imagery of The Odyssey and Omeros to navigate the systems and circuits of the built environment, a landlocked voyage in which ‘the kerb is a jetty / And the ship a bus, stopping and starting, / Twisting and turning across this city.’ The ‘matrix of buses and trains’ is not so much a means of proceeding to a (known) destination as a device for chance exploration and encounters, disrupting routine and expectation, allowing ‘the drift / Of conversations’ and ‘coincidence’ to nudge the traveller ‘at every change’. This is how the city’s landscapes enter the poem, glimpsed in the gaps between low-status, casual jobs, between ‘the University’s ghetto / Of loans and potential’ and the run-down ‘precincts and tower blocks’ of the outer suburbs, and between the ‘stations’ of class and community. It’s the moments of dislocation that reconnect the speaker to his surroundings: a night walk along the Kirkstall Road, where a retired mariner revives his consciousness with stories and songs from the other side of the world; a summer staffing the itinerant portal of an ice-cream van, the prospect shifting from pitch to pitch; and two confrontations with the police, one damaging, the other disquieting. In each episode, the problem of work is shadowed by the problem of worklessness. The latter predicament informs Clegg’s sequence Edgelands (2008), which shifts the focus to the varied terrain of north-west Sheffield, and slows the movement to walking pace. Whether by compulsion or choice, the protagonist finds himself making circuits of his locale, its rivers and woods, car parks and public parks, industrial estates and residential estates, his observations coloured by a recent, and painful, separation. We are to infer that ‘the far edges’ to which ‘something is pushing him’ are not only cultural and geographical, but also psychological and financial; his straitened circumstances are reflected in the neglect and impoverishment of much of the terrain that he walks, its roads ‘cruelly scarred with welts / and divots’, the verges littered with hubcaps, windshields, cans and bottles. The texture of the working landscape seems brittle with age, the ground exhausted and inert, the human traces fading out:
These desolate gravel roads
connecting landfills, factories,
are bleached white by midsummer.
Bin bags under sun-kilned mud
clench, obdurate as fossils.
South of the railway line that links the East Leeds suburb of Crossgates to the commuter village of Garforth, a patchwork of irregular fields, uneven pasture interrupted by sparse hedges, stands of trees, rough tracks, the shaved square of Crossgates Cricket Club marking the railway’s intersection with Austhorpe Lane. Rumoured to be the site of coal mining in the 19th century, much of the area is now ‘scraggy grazing land’, the setting of Matthew Clegg’s poem ‘Because I Was Nobody’, in which the teenage speaker finds respite from ‘job club’ and the pressures of life on the estate. To the north-east, five hundred yards above the railway line, the former National Filling Factory No. 1, its ‘foundations, earthworks, and demolished and buried remains’ designated as a scheduled monument in 2016, one hundred years after the explosion at Barnbow. To the north, the former Vickers tank factory – inactive since 1999, and, since then, intermittently used as a storage depot for retail goods and cars – now approved for demolition, the extraction of a 150,000 tonne seam of coal beneath the site a precondition for any subsequent redevelopment. To the north-west, the new Limes estate, most of its houses detached from their neighbours, the blank streets in memory, a handful of munitions workers, named twice over, Ethel Jackson, Amelia Stewart, Olive Yeates, Maggie Barker.
Karl Hurst’s photographs of the South Yorkshire coalfields can be viewed as part of Hurst’s Flickr photoset. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (writing as Andrew Hirst) are available here.
Click here for details of Fay Musselwhite’s debut collection Contraflow.
Matthew Clegg’s publications include Lost Between Stations, West North East and The Navigators. The short film for his poem ‘Because I was Nobody’, filmed on location in East Leeds, can be viewed below:
The third West North East audio podcast, recorded on location in Crossgates, East Leeds on one afternoon in May 2014, focuses on the poems ‘Because I was Nobody’, ‘Blood and Ice Cream’ and ‘The Last Workday Before Christmas’, each of which marks a specific location in the suburb: a cow field, the car park of the former Vickers tank factory, and platform 2 of the railway station.
The city-states of ancient Greece had a name for their artistic, political and spiritual centre: the agora, an open, expansive ‘gathering place’, in which the polis would assemble for military duty and listen to consular speeches. Over time, the political function of the agora was moderated by its use as a marketplace, with merchants setting up their stalls between colonnades. The later Greek verbs agorázō (“I shop”) and agoreúō (“I speak in public”) reflect the dual life of the agora as a commercial and civic space, and, perhaps, embody an idea (or ideal) of interdependency. It’s an idea that I’d like to explore, and affirm, while also paying tribute to some of the people and collectives whose inspiration and support has been invaluable to me (and to Longbarrow Press) this year. In England (if not the UK), the cultural and political narrative is, all too frequently, one of mute, impersonal, frictionless transactions; disconnection, dispossession, division; a retreat into echo chambers and virtual exclaves. There’s a case to be made for this, of course, and the claims that our public discourse has been cheapened, that our civic spaces have been eroded. It’s not the only story, though.
Longbarrow Press was founded in 2006, and was initially funded with some of the income from my job as a financial services administrator. When I left the security of a full-time (albeit poorly-remunerated) employed position in 2012, to relocate from Swindon to Sheffield and to give my full attention to Longbarrow’s development, I’d barely addressed the question of the press’s economic survival (or my own). My savings wouldn’t last forever, and the prospect of working entirely from home, with little of the routine association with which I’d become familiar in an open-plan office, was faintly alarming. Slowly, I began to make contact with people in my new surroundings, and further afield, picking up bits and pieces of freelance work. Among the first of these projects was Place & Memory, a creative professional development programme devised and mentored by Judit Bodor, Emma Bolland and Tom Rodgers (aka Gordian Projects), taking eight Leeds-based artists into the city for sessions of collective site research, documented through a range of media (photography, film, audio, drawing, found objects, poetry and prose. Some of this material appears in a book). I was recruited as a sound recordist for the project, and found myself spending more and more time at Inkwell Arts in Chapel Allerton, north Leeds, where the group was headquartered. Inkwell is a community-focused arts space, cafe and studio complex on the site of a former pub, renovated and adapted over several years, offering structured support for creative individuals as part of their recovery from mental health issues. The cafe and gallery is the hub, a bright, open, accessible room, enabling conversation between friends and strangers, planned and unplanned encounters. After the project drew to a close in summer 2014, I found that I missed the artists, the staff, the space. Fortunately, I was invited back at the start of this year, working with a new intake of artists to develop websites showcasing their creative CVs and works-in-progress. Most of the sessions were 1-1 tutorials, with space for discussion, application, and growth, the focus and pace varying from one hour to the next. Invariably, I’d be asked at least one question to which I didn’t have an immediate answer, and we’d work out a solution together. There was a sense of shared discovery in each of these encounters: listening, looking, learning. The mentoring programme spanned three months, time enough to rethink my ideas about dialogue, project development and workspace.
A week or so after leaving Inkwell, I returned to Leeds for the opening of Shoddy, a group exhibition organised and curated by disability rights activist Gill Crawshaw. The exhibition was both a collective exploration of reused textiles (alluding to the original meaning of ‘shoddy’: new cloth made from woollen waste, a process patented in West Yorkshire) and a creative challenge (or rebuke) to the government’s ‘shoddy’ treatment of disabled people. Fittingly, the venue was the former premises of an Italian clothing wholesaler, now ‘repurposed’ by Live Art Bistro, a Leeds-based, artist-led organisation. The preview was packed, and, unlike some that I’ve attended, the work on display was central, not peripheral, to the occasion. And it was fresh, the thinking and the making, shaped from recycled materials, installed in a secondhand space. Felt. Cloth. Polythene. Paper. Yarn. Natalia Sauvignon’s ‘Beautiful but Deadly’, a sculpture utilising woollen remnants, plastic plants, seashells from the east coast, human hair. ‘Shoddy Samplers’, a duo of embroidered textiles by Faye Waple, juxtaposing the early and later usages of ‘shoddy’ (as noun and adjective). A collaborative, multi-sensory wall hanging by Pyramid of Arts, incorporating marks, stitches and woven parts from each of its members. All the leftovers from the marketplace, the scraps and offcuts, gifts passing from hand to hand. A few months after the first Shoddy exhibition, Gill hatched another, to be held at Inkwell in August. She had a small budget for a print publication, drawing on texts and photographs from the first show, and asked me if I’d be interested in taking on the design and editing work. I said yes, and we met to discuss the brochure spec. We agreed that the Shoddy booklet should aim to meet the accessibility criteria of the exhibitions. Translated into print, this meant taking care to ensure that the page layouts were interesting, without presenting obstacles for readers with visual or cognitive impairments. We settled on Futura, a clean, modern sans serif typeface, for the headline and body text (the latter in 12pt throughout); paragraphs flush left; black body text with blue titling; wide margins; minimal italicisation. Although I’d spent several years refining my approach to design with many of these questions in mind, it was the first time I’d asked them in the interests of something other than my own aesthetic. A printed page, like a public place, should invite us in, without clutter or impediment; once inside, it should enable us to navigate, to apprehend each part and to make connections, to read the space between columns. Gill, assisted by volunteers at Inkwell, arranged the Shoddy display with good sightlines, texts and labels at a height accessible to wheelchair users, and a clear, inventive visual narrative from wall to wall. As with the first show, it developed from a sense of community, affirmed and renewed by the audience at the opening night at Inkwell, and in the days that followed. People gathering, talking, drinking coffee, tea, taking in the work.
I picked up the Shoddy assignment the day after Hillsfest, an ambitious arts weekender for North Sheffield, conceived and directed by Karen Sherwood (founder of Sheffield’s Cupola Gallery) and staged in my own community of Hillsborough. I’ve reflected on my part in the festival (as curator and MC of the spoken word programme) in an earlier blog post, but I’d like to restate my appreciation for Karen, and acknowledge the extent to which her ethos (as a gallery owner, arts entrepreneur and community organiser) has influenced my own. Sheffield is, by common consent, a welcoming city; Cupola has always been among its most welcoming spaces. Visitors are greeted with free coffee (and, if they’re new to the gallery, a brief tour) and immediately put at ease. The work on display is as varied, challenging and thoughtfully presented as you’ll find in any contemporary art space, and it’s framed by warmth, not cool detachment. Karen, it must be said, is a resourceful, effective salesperson (a key factor in the survival and growth of Cupola over the last 25 years), but she has no appetite for persuading customers to buy things that they don’t need. People trust her judgment, and, in turn, learn to trust their own. At first, I wasn’t convinced that I had all the skills required for the Hillsfest role, but Karen believed that I was equal to the task, so I came to believe this too. It helped that the festival team felt like a small community, working for the benefit of a larger community, one nested inside the other. It’s important to me and, I think, to others, that these principles of openness and interdependency should be to the fore in every Longbarrow event, shared within the collective and with the audience. Our long-running series of poetry walks (the most recent of which took place in the Rivelin Valley a few months ago, led by Karl Hurst and Fay Musselwhite) is, among other things, a space for conversation, conviviality, companionship. The landscape invites us to listen, to catch fragments of observational detail, musings on ecology and history, anecdote and conjecture. We all learn, even (or especially) those of us who have been walking these paths for years, we all gain. I don’t think of ‘the local’ as something to be fetishised, monetised, or, for that matter, disparaged. I don’t understand the recent use of ‘community’ as a pejorative term, a prefix that limits or weakens a project or initiative. It tells me that there’s something at stake. A few months ago, I took part in the Small Publishers Fair at London’s Conway Hall, organised by Helen Mitchell. It was the second year that Longbarrow Press had taken a stall at SPF (sharing, once again, with Gordian Projects); as in 2015, I was struck by the sense of common endeavour, mutual interest and support that prevailed throughout (which some might find unusual in what is, ostensibly, a marketplace). We might attribute this to several factors (none of them predominant): the character of the artists and publishers, selected by Helen; her calm, friendly, positive influence, sincere engagement and focused direction; the volunteer teams; the audiences, some of whom I’d encountered at previous events, who brought their conversations to our tables, and made the exchanges reciprocal, not transactional; and the Conway Hall itself, built in 1929 by nonconformists (the Conway Hall Ethical Society now advocates secular humanism), and still an important gathering place for political and cultural events. It was Helen who made me aware of the hall’s history as a meeting place for collective walks; the society’s members would congregate at 25 Red Lion Square, then set out for Bloomsbury and Clerkenwell. In the heart of the city, yet altogether local. A community in itself, and a place for communities to gather, from near and far.
It was the spirit of the Small Publishers Fair that had called me back for a second year, and which I now sought to muster in Sheffield. On the last Saturday of November, I presented an Independent Publishers Book Fair at Bank Street Arts, in the city’s Cathedral Quarter, with the support of Tom and Andrew at BSA and Emma Bolland (who was also staffing the Gordian Projects stall at the fair, and curating a programme of talks, readings and projections in the evening). I’d participated in two previous book fairs at Bank Street Arts, and wondered if a one-day event, along similar lines, might be viable; Tom and Andrew were immediately receptive to the idea, and put their creative and technical resources at our disposal. The opportunity to invite presses whose work I admired was a privilege; happily, almost everyone I contacted was able to take part. The line-up comprised mostly Sheffield-based (or Sheffield-affiliated) publishers and artists – And Other Stories, enjoy your homes, Gordian Projects, Joanne Lee, Longbarrow Press, The Poetry Business, Tilted Axis Press, West House Books – with others from further afield: Bradical (Bradford), Comma Press (Manchester), Jean McEwan (West Yorkshire), Peepal Tree Press (Leeds). This was the balance I’d hoped we might achieve: artists’ books, poetry, fiction, art writing, literary criticism, zines; a showcase for some of the work being published in Sheffield, while making (or renewing) connections with fellow practitioners in the north of England. As well as being a one-day ‘marketplace’, I wanted the fair to offer an opportunity for creative exchanges, unhurried conversations, surprise and reciprocity. I knew that everyone I’d invited would have something to contribute, and I was especially pleased that Jean McEwan and Bradical (who shared a table on the day) were able to take part. Jean is a collage artist, a maker of zines and ‘altered postcards’, and founder of Wur Bradford, an art and social space in a stall in Kirkgate Market, central Bradford. The stall hosts printmaking and zine-making workshops, art parties, community dialogues, informal education sessions, artists’ talks, and more. Bradical (who I first met at a Wur Bradford event) have been an important part of this development, challenging Islamophobia and stereotyping through pointed and playful zines and actions, and sharing Jean’s DIY ethic and strategies for engagement. Jean has invited me to speak at a couple of Wur Bradford events in the past few years, and I’m always humbled and inspired by the creativity, generosity, and energy in the room. On Saturday 26 November, these forces were at work at Bank Street Arts, in the dialogues and discoveries, the acts of friendship and solidarity. Jean said something about the inherent value of being in a room with people, of simply talking with them, and I remembered something else that she’d said, that validation was nothing to do with status, or sales, that it is something that happens in the act of exchange. I thought of my mother, now in her late 70s, staffing the Lawn Community Centre Christmas Bazaar that same day, in Swindon, many miles south. The community centre was a group sketch in the 1970s, and was eventually realised in 1999, on the site of an extinct pub. The intervening decades were spent fundraising, campaigning, organising, and challenging indifferent councillors (who maintained that the project was futile, then declared it a success shortly after it opened). Through it all, the community association kept their nerve, their humour, their belief. I watched them, a child of the estate, helping out with jumble sales and recycling drives, I saw what they could do, working together, supporting each other.
Finally, I’d like to thank someone whose support and creative stimulus has been invaluable throughout 2016, as it has been for several years; the artist and writer Emma Bolland, without whom many of the people, places and projects mentioned in this piece would almost certainly be unknown to me. There is no debt, only reciprocity, and work continuing.
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. He tweets (as The Halt) here. The second edition of East Wind, a pamphlet comprising three prose sequences and one haiku sequence, is available now from Gordian Projects; click here for further details.