Day twenty-seven. 3.30pm. A clear blue cloudless day, which means that nearby yards and gardens are in use, which means music through open windows, which means that I can’t think clearly. Tish tish tish tish tish tish tish tish. It’s no use sitting at my desk so I resolve to go out even though I don’t particularly want to go out. I stand back from the desk, at which I have achieved nothing, and attempt to tie the laces of one shoe while balancing on the other foot. This takes longer than it should and longer than it would have taken if I had tied the laces while sitting down. After a few more minutes I find my house keys under a drift of receipts and I pocket the keys and go downstairs. Outside the light is turning the street to dust. I turn right, looking down the length of Holme Lane as it faces Malin Bridge. There is more dust, at the corners of each terrace, in the sills and the steps. There are weeds, at the junctions of drainpipes and pavements, in gullies and in grates. There is wind everywhere. I cross from Loxley New Road to Loxley Road and see the turning for Wisewood Lane, I have never walked on Wisewood Lane, I think, this is the day for it, at least I will be able to say that I went for a walk on Wisewood Lane. As I turn onto Wisewood Lane I am no longer certain that I have not walked on Wisewood Lane. I pause to contemplate the church on my right, I have seen it before, from a distance, it is disagreeable, it has to do with the proportions. I dislike the brickwork and I dislike the cross. An information board tells me that it is Saint Polycarp’s Church. I don’t remember a Saint Polycarp. I walk up Wisewood Lane, not knowing if I know it or not. Did I come this way that night I was supposed to meet Rob, I think, we’d agreed to meet in a pub somewhere around here, he’d given me directions, it was dark, I couldn’t find anything, I ended up almost back at my house, eventually I called him, we did meet, I was half an hour late. It must have been 2014 or 2015. I continue walking along Wisewood Lane but when I look at the signage at the next bus stop I find that I am on Hallowmoor Road. I don’t suppose it makes much difference, I think, it’s not as though I’m going anywhere. Uphill. Through gaps in the suburb I glimpse other suburbs. I glimpse the suburb of Old Heath in Colchester where a year of my life passed in the early 1990s. The terrain was flat, not hilly, and the terraces were longer, and the gardens were scruffier, but the feeling was the same. I couldn’t find my way out of the estate, I couldn’t find my way to the street at the end of my street. Was it sloth or fear that held me back, or simple incuriosity, I was no wiser at the end of the year. Here is a crossroads, I decide to keep going, Hallowmoor Road to Rural Lane. The Wadsley Jack is just ahead, did I come here once, was this where I met Rob, did I come here with Matt, years before. I pass the main entrance, a green Post-it note gummed to the door, and some rough script, a phone number for deliveries, how does it hold on in this wind. This looks like a turning for the common, Stour Lane, there’s the Rose & Crown at the top, I did come here, though I don’t remember how, I was here with Matt, with Rob, at different times. Here is the path into Loxley Common, I know that I have been here, I would have walked it with Matt, I have no recollection of it. I don’t know what to look for. The path between fields is narrow and I wait at a field gate to allow a family to pass at a distance. I look down at a plastic drainage pipe embedded in the earth. Access Land. The horizon is getting thicker and I see trees up ahead, birch trees, white birch bark. I hear voices of children, parents, dog walkers, runners. I don’t want to be here any more and so I start to look for a way out, turn left, I think, keep turning left. I go further into the wood where the paths run out and find a hollow and another hollow beneath the hollow. The roots of the trees seem to go down and down and in time this becomes a way. I still hear voices but they seem to be coming from somewhere else. I remember why I couldn’t leave Old Heath, why I couldn’t find my way to the street at the end of my street, because I knew it didn’t lead anywhere, because I knew I would have to turn back after ten minutes, because I couldn’t walk out of my life. The voices have stopped and the light has fallen away and it is just me and the hollows and the shadows. Then a chainsaw or a mower starting up and the lines of the land coming back, a tumbledown drystone wall, wooden telegraph poles, the end of a lane.
Day twenty-eight. 6.40pm. Nothing has changed in weeks. As I pass Hallam Glass & Glazing I realise this isn’t altogether or even partly true, there has been change, the resurfacing of the main road over several nights, the frequency of the garden waste collections, the flowers that still flower at Hillsborough Place. The weather and the light. Sometimes it seems that it is only the weather and the light that change. Clear and dry with moderate wind. The windows of Gee Vee Travel are still patterned with green and orange posters advertising early spring excursions to Llandudno and Sidmouth that didn’t happen. I don’t think I know anyone who books with Gee Vee Travel but I know that someone must have been looking forward to getting on a coach with them. Now everyone is left behind. I pass the weir and look back at the weir, the river is losing speed, losing power. I count one person waiting for a tram to the city. I am finding it hard to see the street afresh. There is cool evening light at the shopping precinct, there is no-one else on the stairway to Morrisons, I descend to the entrance unnoticed. The list comes out and I try to get the disappointment over with. I am surprised to find spaghetti, at the back of a dark shelf, and what might be peas. I have not been listening to the sounds from the overhead speakers but it is now the turn of Simply Red, it is hard to ignore, it is a special sort of pestering. It is like an advertisement for prophylactics at the end of a funeral service. It is the staff I feel for, having to put up with this, and I am back on the floor at the Co-op, in Old Town, in Swindon, in 1988, stacking fruit and vegetables in the fruit and vegetable department for £1.72 per hour. I signed up for the early short shifts, 6.45am to 8.15am, as the manager would not be around to see me arriving 15 minutes late and leaving 15 minutes early, and also the muzak had not been switched on. I also worked Saturdays, a long shift with the muzak, instrumental cover versions of Dire Straits and Spandau Ballet, sometimes at the wrong speed. We hatched a plan to break into the control room and destroy the cassettes but none of us could work out where the control room was. Often I would volunteer for car park duties which involved collecting trollies that had strayed to or beyond the edges of the car park. Often I would hide at the edges of the car park. Often I would fail to collect any trollies. I worked there part-time for almost two years and never quite grasped what it was that was expected of me. The lettuces would rot under the display lights and the manager, Norman, would instruct me to remove the outer leaves and put the diminished lettuces back on display. This would go on until there was no lettuce left. Every Saturday an elderly lady by the name of Mrs Rogers would appear, and with gentle but artful persistence she would tell the story of the decayed vegetables in her bag that she had purchased a week or two previously, it was the same story every week, she somehow made it new for us each time, we would prepare a bag of fresh replacement vegetables and label it FREE and direct her to the exit. I couldn’t work out how the store made any money or why it took up so much space.
Day twenty-nine. 3.15pm. Yesterday it occurred to me that no-one had bought a book in over a week, and then someone did buy a book, someone on the other side of Sheffield. This is welcome for many reasons, not least of which is that it provides me with the opportunity for a walk. It is also an opportunity to reflect on my failings as a publisher. I package the book and put it in my rucksack, along with a map and some water. I open the front door and step into the street and narrow my eyes against blinding dry dust. I make this three days of wind and I don’t know how many days of no rain. When I try to walk in it the pressure is so great that I wonder if it is the weather, this new weather, that is emptying the streets. I reach the weir and turn the corner and somehow walking south-east is simpler, it is not so effortful, I keep walking and soon forget that I am walking. There is music in the overhead tram wires that I have not heard before. There is no one to share it with. I won’t remember a note of it. I pass the Hillsborough Hotel, which is not in Hillsborough, and notice that most of the white sans serif letters and numerals have fallen off the side of the pub, this must have happened in the last few weeks, when no one was looking. It occurs to me that it is almost 14 years since the founding or the launch of Longbarrow Press, I’m never quite sure which, or perhaps neither, but the first event took place on 27 April 2006. It was also the first poetry event I had attempted to host, no, I am forgetting an evening at the Lescar, that didn’t go well either, but people were very kind, people are always very kind, it was autumn 2001, we had booked the back room for an evening with Andrew Hirst and Brian Lewis. I had decided to present new material which I hadn’t yet written and by the time I arrived at the venue I had been awake for 35 hours. There were about 15 people in the audience. Andy and I took turns to hide from them until the event was due to start. The room was very dark and the stage was very bright. I stepped onto the stage and shuffled to the microphone and stuttered a few words of welcome and a beer glass on a narrow ledge at the entrance to the room was dislodged by a passing bar worker and it shattered where it fell. I paused the introduction and stood on the stage in silence as the bar worker left the room to find a dustpan and brush. A few minutes later the bar worker returned, with a dustpan and brush, and knelt to the floor, and began to sweep the glass shards into the dustpan, very carefully, very slowly. No-one spoke. After ten minutes the bar worker left again and I attempted to introduce the event, and Andy, and lastly myself. I don’t remember how the readings went. What I do remember is someone in the audience likening Andy to a bald Hitler and the closing minutes of the event being sabotaged by an Elvis impersonator who very much wanted to use the stage to read his own work. We eventually reached a compromise whereby we agreed that he could use the stage after we had left the room. The big Tesco on Infirmary Road has introduced a one-way system inside the store, I discover this as I walk through the car park, it must be very complicated as two stewards in tabards are having to explain it at great length and volume to each customer as they move through the queue. I cut across the unnamed park that lies between Tesco and the Ponderosa and aim for the subway at Netherthorpe Road. I come out on the other side and take the short flight of steps that leads to the student flats off Upper Allen Street. There are construction or maintenance workers hauling cables out of a van and strips of flame retardant sheeting hanging from the sides of the buildings like sterile dressings. I wonder why I have taken this route and then I remember where it leads. I cross Broad Lane to St George’s Terrace, almost without looking, there is next to nothing coming off the roundabouts. The university district is left and right and front and centre. One day this will be a city-state and Sheffield will collapse into the suburbs. Always the hunger for space, every so often the map is redrawn, the university expands in every direction. Today its machinery is suspended and the only people I see, pausing or passing, are utility workers or taxi drivers. I walk down Regent Street, between the Innovation Centre and the School of Health, and turn left onto Pitt Street. At the end of the street I stop and take several steps back and look up at the pub. It is smaller than I remember, I think that I must think that every time. Through the decorative glass and the curtains I can see that the lights are lit on the ground floor, though it is mid-afternoon, and the pub is closed. I look up at the first-floor windows. This is where Longbarrow Press was launched, on 27 April 2006, in the upstairs room of The Red Deer. We had taken some time to get to this point, it would have been late 2004 or early 2005 when the thought of setting up a press occurred to us, Andy and me, I have his letters in a box somewhere, one half of the correspondence. Neither of us really knew what this would entail. Andy had some ideas, and I had access to a network of laser printers and copiers in the office where I worked, this became a secret life, a double life. I spent around 18 months experimenting with materials that I didn’t quite understand, textured paper that didn’t hold the print, glue that warped card, yards of hessian fabric that wouldn’t fold properly, and photocopies of photographs and copies of the copies. The prototypes were rubbish and I didn’t know why. This is what happens when you try to teach yourself and have nothing to teach from, it would be years before I grasped kerning and ligatures and the rest. By early 2006 we had two titles that we felt were ready: The Frome Sampler, a boxed edition of postcards with poems by Andy and photographs by me, and Nobody Sonnets, a hessian wallet containing poems by Matthew Clegg and etchings by Andy. We booked the room for the launch and I drafted some copy for publicity and Andy designed a flyer for the event. I’m not sure what happened next. I had set some time aside for the production of The Frome Sampler, it was a difficult object, the hinged box was built up through layers of board and paper and glue, if the elements were even slightly misaligned the object failed and had to be abandoned. It seemed easier to make the postcards first and return to the boxes later. There was also the matter of the Nobody Sonnets and the hessian wallets. The launch was on a Thursday and I was still behind with production on the Tuesday evening. The following morning I got up at 3am to resume work on the postcards and the wallets and at 9am I phoned in sick to the office. This will buy me time, I thought, I can make ten boxes in time for the launch, that should be enough. Later that afternoon I began to sort and trim the materials required for the boxes. By the evening I was ready to make the first one. After several hours, working through the night, the layers were flat and the glue had dried on the hinge. I laid the postcards inside the box. The recess was too shallow and the lid wouldn’t close properly. It was 3am. I calculated that if I kept going and worked flat out I could make perhaps three boxes before leaving at midday to catch my train to Sheffield. This wasn’t ideal but at least it was something. I kept going and worked flat out. Shortly before midday I gathered the postcards and the prints and the hessian wallets and the other materials and left to catch my train. The train journey from Swindon to Sheffield was three or four hours and I settled in at a table seat and got the unfinished materials out and set about them with craft knife and ruler and glue. The train pulled into Sheffield and I disembarked with a muddle of bags and made my way to Andy’s house, we had arranged to meet there before the launch, we would review our plans for the event, fine-tune our introductions, relax in each other’s company. I knocked at the back door and entered through the kitchen. We said hello, I don’t think we sat down, I think we stood there in the kitchen. ‘How many copies of the Nobody Sonnets do we have for tonight?’ he asked. ‘Ten or eleven’, I replied. ‘OK. How many copies of The Frome Sampler?’ ‘Well, we’ve got plenty of postcards’, I said, ‘they’ll look really nice on display at the back of the room.’ ‘But how many boxes have you finished?’ ‘One.’ ‘One?’ ‘One.’ We set off for The Red Deer shortly after 6pm. The walk took around 20 minutes but seemed to take much longer. The silences were worse than the attempts at conversation. We arrived at the pub an hour before the event was due to start and made our way to the upstairs room. The room was creaky and poky and wonky and the opportunities for displaying even small objects were limited. There was a varnished mantelpiece above the fireplace and we decided that this would be a good spot, we could exhibit our wares at a decent height, such wares as we had. We carefully propped one of the precious hand-made hessian editions of the Nobody Sonnets at a slight angle between the mantelpiece and the wall, took a few steps back, then watched as it slipped into a gap between the fireplace and the mantelpiece. I kneeled to the base of the fitting to see if there was any way of prising it open and retrieving the edition but there wasn’t. Shortly after 7pm a few people wandered in. By 7.30pm the room was full. I introduced the event, it was not a good introduction, it was an introduction given by a man who had been awake for over 35 hours, with no experience of public speaking, backing into a corner, the angle formed by perfectionism and amateurishness. Here is our first publication which you can’t buy or touch. The readings were good. Andy’s set was entirely untouched by the day’s troubles and it lifted me out of the hole I’d fallen into. This is why we’re here, I remember thinking. I hadn’t heard Matt read for several years, perhaps since the late 1990s. It was mesmerising. I wondered if it was a fluke, if I was making too much of it in my sleep-deprived state, but almost every reading of his that I’ve caught since then has been outstanding. I wondered what his secret was. Eventually I worked out what it was, the secret, it was hard work and preparation, it was craft, it was care, it was the art of creating a space for a performance, a space that could absorb chance interventions, whether good or bad, without dither, arrogance, ingratiation or flash. I didn’t understand this at the time, of course. We won and lost an audience that night, or I did, it took years to build it up again. Andy came close to walking away that day, and he did walk away, amicably, some months later, it was difficult to run the press with so many miles between us. I decided to keep going until I could work out what the lesson was. I was less and less troubled by failure but I was growing tired of leaving things unfinished. The wind is dying down. I walk up to the door of The Red Deer. Someone has taped a note to it, instructions for deliveries, someone must be taking things in.
Day thirty. 4.30pm. ‘I’m going for a walk’, I say to Emma, she is exhausted from a day of Zoom meetings and tutorials, the voices throttling with the bandwidth, the faces freezing and unfreezing and never quite catching up with themselves. A friend emailed me to suggest that I use Zoom for Longbarrow readings but I don’t want to make hostage videos. Also I would have to tidy my desk. I unlock the front door and step out of the house. There is the wind, again, and there is more traffic than I had expected, and how would I know, when did I last leave the house at 4.30pm, when did the post office last keep regular hours. I should have kept a traffic census, these last few weeks, it would tell its own story. At Hillsborough Place I slow down for the tulips, they have lasted well, they are going now, they have gone as far as they can go. I hit the junction at speed, sprint past the distanced queue at Wilko and run clear of Lloyds Bank, the road forks at Regent Court and the light shows through Owlerton. Within each walk we carry the idea of another walk. I try to remember the first time I came here. It was late 1995, I had just moved to Sheffield, I was living in Walkley, I couldn’t settle, I left the house and walked without direction for half an hour, it was dark and I didn’t know where I was. I was out of my depth. I forgot about Owlerton and Hillsborough until Matt moved here ten years later and I found the place again, first through Matt’s poems, and then through our walks in the wake of the poems. And then Matt left the area and I moved in. There is a queue of traffic on Owlerton Green. I can’t hear anything from Swann-Morton (Penn Works) or Swann-Morton (Cobb Works). The electronic billboard next to the parish church is broadcasting a rainbow that is based on the rainbows that have been appearing in windows, the text reads #heroes, the colours of Owlerton Stadium outspread behind the billboard, red yellow green blue. There is another queue of traffic leaving Livesey Street. I pass the casino car park and take a long look at a dozen white and orange traffic cones stacked next to the little yellow booth in front of Napoleons. I used to yearn for a yellow booth, a chair and a few books, the car park my horizon. The present shrinks to a small blind spot. The substation straight ahead. Are the power lines louder today, louder than the last time I visited, that time I couldn’t hear them for trying. This landscape has often stood in for other landscapes, landscapes that I couldn’t get to, so much so that I often forget that it also stands for itself. I cross the Don and take the first steps into the cemetery. There is darkness briefly and light as the path meets the railway bridge, there is more light uphill. I think of Emma when I am on these winding slopes, I think of our walks here and our walks anywhere, she rescued me, and the press, by reminding me that there was a life beyond it, by showing me a life beyond it. A red admiral on the stony path and blackbirds in and out of the bushes. This is one edge of Shirecliffe, toughened by a line of concrete drums a few metres from the drop, looking out over Wadsley, Owlerton, Hillsborough, the parks, the Wednesday ground, Mondelez Cadbury Trebor Bassett. I sit on one of the concrete drums and dangle my legs over the side. I think of yesterday, I couldn’t look at the city, the landlocked city. It could only show me its past. It is easier to view it from here, to imagine it not as it was, but as it might be. A lone runner on the path behind me. A bird that I can only picture through its song. A low, sustained note from a factory below, like a foghorn, the white steam in suspension.
Sheffield, 19–22 April 2020.
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. Longbarrow Press is continuing to fulfil book orders via its website during the COVID-19 pandemic; all hardback titles are post-free in the UK, and deliveries to Sheffield addresses are made on foot. Orders are prepared, packaged and posted in accordance with recommended hand hygiene and other preventive measures. Click here for a full list of our current hardbacks and to order titles.
This is the final instalment of ‘Lockdown Walks’. The first instalment can be found here; you can read the second, third and fourth instalments here, here, and here. Photographs taken in Owlerton, north Sheffield, 22 April 2020.
Day twenty-two. 6.45pm. I can’t think of anything to add to the shopping list and so I stop, for a moment, I listen to the birdsong just beyond the window. It is quiet again. I think my way back to the morning song and the sound that followed, I couldn’t place it, I thought it was the bins at first, there was no engine, no movement, only the sound of the road being scraped. Then men. Men shouting over the noise they had made. This can’t last forever, I thought, and it’s true, nothing can last forever. They were gone by 8.30am. I’d woken two hours earlier, I’d woken from a dream, this is the dream, the dream was me waking to find that my life was two percent smaller than when I had gone to sleep and it would no longer fit properly. It wasn’t meant to be written down. I pick up the shopping list and tuck it inside my wallet. Then I shoulder my rucksack and leave the house. I am leaving the house to get things for the house, things that will help us to stay in the house, things that will make us feel safe in the house. I pass a Wetherspoons that used to be a public baths and cross the road to a shopping precinct that used to be an army barracks. The barracks was redeveloped in the 1980s but the shape of it is still clear and there are little red and green plaques on the stone walls that explain what the stone walls were built for. If I stop outside Osteoporosis 2000 I can read of how it used to be a military hospital. Then I forget. The parade ground is now a car park but I tell myself that I can still see the parade ground underneath. There is only so far you can go in any direction. I reach the steps and start my descent to Morrisons, the upper levels disappear from view, it is harder to see the footprint. I walk around and through the modified entrance and pass a vinyl policeman stuck to the window of the entrance and a security guard to the side of the entrance. I wait at a distance as the man in front of me picks up a basket, I move forward, I pick up a basket from a different pile. I forget where the things are and end up with the magazines, I don’t touch them, the aspirational magazines. We can dream a future, we can turn to the past, we can be anywhere but the present. The things that I am after are at the far end of the store. I go through the list and find nothing that is on the list. Apart from sponge scourers. The aisles seem tighter than before. A man inches forward, another man inches back, we make ourselves smaller to survive.
Day twenty-three. 7.05am. The men came again last night. They were here at 11pm, I saw them through the window as I was settling the house, their vans parked on the south side of the road. The sound didn’t disturb me, light industrial tones do not disturb me, it’s a comfort, a dull wash of grey noise. When I step into the street I expect to see a new road but nothing has changed. The machinery has gone. A patch of dust, some dented signs. I look up the road, past Travis Perkins, and I think I see the section they have been working on, it stops just short of the dentist, the pinkish grey surface, a night’s work. I turn back and cross the road and head towards the garage. It is bright and warm but most of the street is still in shadow. The shadows are cast from the tall south terraces and reach almost to the north terraces, the street is a Victorian street, what were my first impressions. I remember trying to find out when my house was built as I was moving in. I remember finding something from the 1860s, a plan or a census, it might have been a little later, a little earlier. James Murgatroyd the bootmaker lived here for several decades, an ironmonger lived in the house next door, a confectioner lived in the other house next door, though perhaps not at the same time. I pass the Hallam Veterinary Centre. In one of the shadows I find 10p which I pick up and put in my pocket. I wait for a tram to round the corner and I cross the road and then I cross the intersection. The cashpoint at Lloyds Bank has been smashed in, the glass and the plexiglass, the pieces have been swept from the pavement. Two lengths of black tape are stretched across the terminal to make an X. When I get to the garage forecourt I take a few moments to navigate the newspaper stand as some of the newspapers are back to front and I don’t recognise them. I go inside to pay for the newspaper, the cashier and I exchange our usual greetings, I turn to go, she says something as I leave, I don’t quite catch what it is, I pretend to hear, I pretend to understand, it might be nothing.
Day twenty-four. 10.25am. I hear birdsong from the upstairs rear windows and I know that if I step into the garden it will be gone. I go downstairs and into the kitchen and stop to listen where I stand, at the rear kitchen doors, I do nothing but listen, even so it is gone. It is not that the birds have gone, it is not that the birds are not there. It’s the air shifting, I think, it can’t carry as much. I don’t know what I mean by this and so I let the thought go. I step into the garden and hear what sounds like a light aircraft and take several more steps into the garden and look up at the sky and at the end of the sky there is a light aircraft. It is going into the south with a banner stretched behind it. The morning is cloudless, bright blue overhead, the sun’s glare hits the banner’s length, it is a blank space, all I read there is light. The aircraft dips below the terraces and the sound dies out. I try to remember why I came downstairs, it seems obvious now, the birdsong at my window can only be heard from my window. I go back upstairs. What else do I hear from my window, the traffic at the front of the house, quieter in the last month, the neighbours in their yards and gardens, hanging out washing, taking in washing, the dogs in the streets, near and far. I am at my desk as I think this over and I turn to a book in which I find sound maps of the Outer Hebrides compiled by Cathy Lane. The sketches record some of the acts of listening, individual and collective, that have taken place throughout the islands in the time that she has spent there, the sounds are plotted from memory. I think I am looking at South Uist. I read the map anticlockwise, Corncrake 2006, Substation Hum 2008, Generator Hum 2006. I try to visualise an audio map of the terrace, the sounds I have accumulated at my desk, some of them suspended for weeks (the extractor chimney of the Chinese takeaway, the building work at the former hairdresser’s, people on their way home from the pub), some of them amplified (the voices of neighbours at a near distance, the vibration from the defective drain cover on the main road), some of them lost. I have to stop and think about this. I don’t even know my own street. I go downstairs. I go outside. I am going to the garage for the second time today, there were no newspapers earlier, perhaps there will be newspapers now, somehow I don’t think so. I stop at the derelict site where the end terrace used to be. The rear of the property is in bad shape, the stone, the brick, the slates. All that remains of the front and the middle are a steel beam and the first few courses of the side walls. The site has been like this since the 1980s. It used to be a cafe. It was burnt down for the insurance, but the insurance never paid out, because it was burnt down for the insurance. My next-door neighbour told me this. She told me other things about the site but I wasn’t listening properly. When I moved in seven or eight years ago the plot was defended by something like chipboard, in six or seven sections, all different sizes, motley and grey. A few years later the makeshift fence was replaced with heavier wooden panels, the owner had them painted orange, this soon became a canvas for local graffiti artists, the panels were repainted after a few months, the graffiti returned within weeks. The other thing about the site was that there was a tree, or several trees, that had taken root in the cellar, it was something to see when it was in leaf. In February the wooden fence was removed and the tree or trees were cut down and the site was secured with corrugated steel panels. All the work took place within a day, there was a large team, there seemed to be some urgency. What are you doing, I wanted to say, look at yourselves. I don’t know where the birds are now but they’re around here somewhere.
Day twenty-five. 6.45pm. The corridor in which I store the bins is overflowing with miscellaneous plastics that cannot be collected by the kerbside recycling service teams so I gather the miscellaneous plastics into a large plastic holdall that was originally the single-use packaging for a double duvet. There’s a recycling site at the back of Morrisons that accepts miscellaneous plastics. I will go there, then I will go to Morrisons, I have earned this. I manoeuvre the holdall over several thresholds and into the street. I lock the door, cross the road, and attempt to relax into a stride. It is still light, it is too light, it has been getting lighter since the late afternoon. Although there are very few people around I am feeling slightly embarrassed, no, ill at ease, the stage before embarrassment. The holdall is transparent and it is full of rubbish. I cross to the entrance of the shopping precinct and shift the holdall from hand to hand. I read the text of the red and green plaque on the stone turret that used to mark a boundary of the barracks and now marks a boundary of a retail complex. The plaque is titled TURRET AND WALL and offers a condensed history of the site and its uses. I am perplexed by a sentence that reads in its entirety THE ARMY LEFT IN 1930 AND WAS THEN OCCUPIED BY BURDALL’S CHEMISTS. There’s not much more to the plaque. As I pass through the precinct, I notice another red and green plaque on a stone wall, it is titled THE HOSPITAL. I start to read it and then realise that the text below the title is identical to that which appeared on the previous plaque. The precinct is covered with what I assume is a thermoplastic roof, a polycarbonate roof, I could be wrong or half wrong. The roof doesn’t quite fit and other features have been added to compensate for this. I look up at the anti-pigeon nets and anti-pigeon spikes. Then I leave the precinct and start to cross the upper level of the supermarket car park. The recycling site is left then left again, behind the petrol station and the main delivery yard, there are no signs or markings for the recycling site. I arrive at the recycling site and set down the plastic holdall and take bunches of miscellaneous plastics in my hands and stuff them into a large green recycling bin. When I have finished I notice other miscellaneous plastics at the foot of the recycling bin and I gather these in bunches and stuff them in the bin. Is it repetition that wears us down, I think. I look out beyond the bins and glimpse a section of the Don valley as it leaves Owlerton and crosses into Neepsend. The slopes of the valley are pegged by pylons. It seems that they have nestled there forever. When I was very small I would name each pylon that we passed on the motorway from the back seat of my parents’ car and count them in my head. Pylon. Pylon. Pylon. Pylon. Pylon. I felt that the pylons belonged to me, if only because no-one else seemed to want them. I was always so happy to see them.
Day twenty-six. 7.30am. The house is cold and the pavement is cold. There is a cloud that sometimes comes, off-white, thick, and low, it has come today, it flattens everything, it drains the streets of shadow, depth, and distance. I used to live for days like this. I used to set out early with a camera and photograph the crispness of the buildings under taut blank skies. I still have the photographs somewhere but I couldn’t say with any certainty where or when most of them were taken. It was part of what I was then. The street is very still, small sounds die without echo, houses are drawn tight and close. Some of the houses could do with some work, I think, my own house included. My father would know what to do. My father would have known what to do. I could go on like this, correcting myself, to think that I would know what my father would think, to think that I would know what my father would know. He never saw this street. He was five years gone when I moved here. I’d stopped taking photographs by then. I pass the Hillsborough Pharmacy and the facade of the Tramways Medical Centre. It is easy to imagine him here, stepping back to read the brickwork of the former depot, piecing it all together, how it was built, when it was built. I don’t have his knowledge, though, I don’t have his eye. I don’t know what he would have made of this street. It is no consolation to make an image of someone, to project a set of values onto that image, to see yourself reflected in that image. It is no good. The sky presses down on Cash Converters and its flat barbed roof. When things come back, they come back to me indirectly, I am often thinking of something else. I am thinking of a walk in central London, it was March or April 2007, a Sunday, a beautiful warm spring day. I remember walking from Paddington railway station to Kensington Gardens, I remember walking through the gardens, I remember thinking back to the thoughts that passed through me on the train, that the walk would be nice, that the walk would do me good, I remember walking out of the gardens, I remember walking on to Exhibition Road, to Onslow Square and Sydney Street, I remember that there was blossom on the street trees. I remember meeting my mother at the main entrance of the Royal Brompton Hospital. I remember taking the lift with my mother to the ward that my father was on. I remember that my father was asleep and that we talked quietly until he came round. I remember leaving the ward with my mother and eating with her in the hospital canteen. I remember walking her back to her lodgings and then walking myself back to Paddington. I remember the call that came two or three days later, a Tuesday or a Wednesday, it was the afternoon, I was in the office, I was at my desk, it was my mother, calling from the Brompton, the results were back, the tests, the biopsy, they had done what they could, but there was nothing more that they could do, nothing more that anyone could do. I remember that the call came to an end and I left my desk and left the office and walked down three flights of stairs to the street. The office complex was adjacent to the bus station and I took a moment to find a wall that I could lean against without anyone seeing me and I leant there for several minutes. Then I went back to the office and returned to my desk. A few minutes later I took a call from a financial adviser who was querying a delay to a commission payment of £30. I handled the query to the best of my ability, no, that’s not true, I handled the query in a perfunctory manner. It wasn’t until later that I thought of the calls that my mother had had to make, alone, that day, to my brothers, to other family members, starting from nothing, then dialling the number. It wasn’t until later that I thought of her, sitting with my father as they waited for the results, everything changing in seconds, having to leave my father on the ward, finding her way back to her lodgings. It wasn’t until later that I thought of the things she said after she brought my father home, how my father had listened to what the consultant had to say, what had happened, what would happen, and that he had thanked him, that he shook his hand and he thanked him, for everything that he had done. He knew what work was. He knew that the consultant had done his best. He knew what that meant. The thought is never far from me now. I pass the garden at Hillsborough Place and glance up at the cherry blossom tree. The branches are greening and the cherry blossom is gone. I look again and see the petals still clinging to the inmost and furthest branches, there are too many to count, little clusters and sprays. I don’t have a camera with me so I try to remember them as they are.
Sheffield, 14–18 April 2020.
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. Longbarrow Press is continuing to fulfil book orders via its website during the COVID-19 pandemic; all hardback titles are post-free in the UK, and deliveries to Sheffield addresses are made on foot. Orders are prepared, packaged and posted in accordance with recommended hand hygiene and other preventive measures. Click here for a full list of our current hardbacks and to order titles.
Day fifteen. 6.30pm. The road outside my house has been resurfaced overnight, or half of it has, the nearside lane. The material is light in colour, pinkish grey diluted, and is loose at the edges. The maintenance crew have left traffic cones at intervals along the terraces. They woke me up at 3am for this. I cross the road so that I am facing the oncoming traffic, there isn’t much but it is steady. Everyone is driving into the sun. At the gates to the flats above The Cake Shop and The Sugar Craft School someone has forgotten the code. They stop, step back, try again. I stand on the Walkley Lane bridge and make several attempts to photograph the weir in the evening light but the brickwork looks drab and the river looks drab. Above me, above the side door of Pizza & Co, a woman leans out of a second-floor window to make a telephone call. Everything seems so far away. I start walking to Morrisons and am suddenly anxious about shopping. I should have prepared, I think, but how do you prepare. What if the rules have changed. I arrive at the modified entrance, there is no one before or behind me, the security guard rocks on his heels. I make for the tinned tomatoes aisle. There are empty cardboard trays with the imprints of tinned tomatoes but no tins. This is reassuring, I don’t know why, no one likes to miss out. Imagine a person, imagine travelling to meet that person, imagine meeting that person. Imagine you are that person.
Day sixteen. 7.05am. I manoeuvre an empty green bin over the front steps, through the narrows of the house, and set it to rest on the gravel. Two weeks ago the garden waste collection was suspended. This week it has been reinstated. I don’t see the Veolia lorry arrive, but I hear it as it leaves, and then I hear the tram, is this the second one today, the vibrations as it passes, tremors in the kitchen, the house feels brittle. I leave the house again and set off towards the garage on Bradfield Road. The road maintenance crew reappeared at 11pm last night, I saw them through the window, their machinery parked beneath an ordinary moon. It is hard to know if the work is finished, again there is loose material, on the road, on the pavement, is this the cause of the vibrations. It doesn’t look right to me but what would I know. I wait for the traffic to clear at Hillsborough Corner, this is unusual, waiting for traffic to clear. Wilko has raised its shutters and set its plant displays on the pavement and it is not yet 7.30am. At the pedestrian crossing that links Wilko to British Heart Foundation there are two men up stepladders, one on each side of the road, cleaning or servicing or repairing the traffic lights. As I near the crossing I notice that they are Amey contractors. It should feel good to know that there are people maintaining the infrastructure, at all hours, but I don’t feel good. One of the men sprays a signal with a long-handled hose. The work draws attention to itself. I pick up a newspaper at the garage forecourt and shoulder the door of the kiosk. A plastic shield has been installed at the counter, there are little vents in the shield, it is still possible to have a conversation. The cashier is not wearing gloves. Perhaps there is spray behind the counter. Perhaps there isn’t. Think about everywhere you’ve been in the past month, everyone you’ve seen.
Day seventeen. 2.45pm. I have amassed an extraordinary quantity of carrier bags since 1993, albeit very few in recent years, and approximately one-tenth of this archive now lies scattered on the kitchen floor. I opened the archive in a search for three carrier bags with their handles intact. After several minutes, I select a Sainsbury’s bag and a Lakeland bag and a bag on which the branding is now illegible. I return the other carrier bags to a kitchen cupboard, there is some difficulty in closing the door, I mash the bags down with my tiny fist. The three carrier bags are stuffed into a rucksack and the rucksack is shouldered across my back. I leave the house, not for the first time today, I paid an unsuccessful visit to the garage at 7am, there were no papers, that’s not true, there were papers, they were the wrong papers, someone must have got to them. I am having to go further and I am coming back with less. At Hillsborough Place two men in orange overalls crouch at the open doors of a green telecommunications cabinet, there is some distance between them, it is hard to judge from here. At the tram stop a woman asks another woman if she is waiting and the second woman says no. I dislike shopping in daylight. It interferes with the rhythm of the day, perhaps it doesn’t matter now, the days have no rhythm. I reach the back of the Morrisons queue. It builds slowly and moves quickly. A man in khaki takes a trolley, he shakes his head, a grown man in short trousers, scowling, demanding that we take him seriously. I am waved inside, there is nothing new in the nothing, no flour pasta yeast spaghetti icing sugar risotto rice peeled plum tomatoes. Fifteen minutes later I set down my basket at the self-service counter. ‘Unchained Melody’ starts up in the overhead speakers, the Righteous Brothers version, it’s a nice enough song, a bit overdone. Hunger, touch. Then the behavioural announcement comes on, again, I think, that’s twice at least today, all I hear is the tone, waiting for it to end, the odd word slips through, distance, time.
Day eighteen. 7.15am. I have been doing jobs, little household tasks, for an hour or so. There is a point at which this ceases to be useful and it is necessary to leave the house. I set off towards the garage. The sky is always different even if the street is the same. This morning’s sky is soft white cloud stretched from end to end, the first few patches of eggshell blue, this will change, slowly or quickly, it will change when I’m not looking. It is Good Friday. I am thinking of another Good Friday, four years back, Easter was earlier then. I had come to the end of three weeks of uninterrupted work, not all of it satisfactory, three weeks shrunk to a screen. I got up at 4am and travelled to North Lincolnshire to start my walk at Ealand, because it had a train station, because it sounded like ‘island’, because I knew nothing about it. The train pulled in to the station shortly after 7am and I disembarked and walked up a lane and tried to work out where the village boundary was. I decided to make it the war memorial, enclosed by metal railings, orphaned by the ruin of the New Trent Inn, still marking the junction, a stone cross, plastic poppies. This is the village, I thought, and I walked into the village, it was still early, the lane was quiet. I looked at the windows of the houses as I passed, not through the windows, but at the windows, I saw printed posters facing out, advertisements of Easter services, the body nailed up, copies of the cross, colours fading under glass.
In every window
a crucifixion, the same
the pane, the numbered stations
dividing each reflection.
I never took to religion, or it never took to me, it didn’t add up, perhaps it was something to do with the way that the stories were handed down. In a village the size of Ealand it’s different, the scale is different, and it’s still going on. I got to the end of New Trent Street and stood in front of the Primitive Hall, the cross taken down, the nails left in the stonework. Then I walked on for another quarter mile and turned east at Outgate and glimpsed for the first time the wind farm at Keadby, the sun rising behind it, and it was all I wanted then, the village at my back, the track and the telegraph wires ahead, to walk toward the white thorns that crowned the lit horizon. I am thinking of this as I cross the garage forecourt and take a newspaper from the newspaper stand and pay for the newspaper and leave the garage. I look at the road, what is there, a slow-moving ambulance, a delivery van. A blankness until I reach the corner and the sound of maintenance, two men putting in a shift at the tram tracks, the power switching on and off.
Day nineteen. 12.45pm. I finish packaging the orders and put the orders in a rucksack with a map and some water. Someone in Crookes has ordered a book, this is a walk of one mile, someone in Totley has ordered two books, this is a walk of seven miles. I could post the books to Totley but the post is taking longer to get through and there are bank holidays in the way and I think that I need a walk of seven miles. I try not to think of it as a walk of fourteen miles, which it is, I try not to think about the walk back. I say goodbye to Emma and two minutes later I am at the weir. A man shuffles past with three large Heron Foods bags. Another man leans into the bridge, looking down at the weir, an open bread bag at his elbow, he is feeding the ducks or is he feeding the pigeons. I push uphill. Already I am finding it hard to be in the moment, any of the moments, nothing stands out, the broken glass on Stony Walk is only broken glass. It is warm, a little muggy, it is windy. I climb the steep and narrow ginnel from Walkley Bank Road to Walkley Road, I avoid the handrail, I avoid touching things that others might touch or might have touched. There are updates in the windows of every shop on South Road. The updates are not news, they were not news when they were printed, they are saying we remember you, please remember us. In the grounds of St Mary’s a clutch of red tulips. I turn right onto Springvale Road, upward to Crookes, I pass the streets where my friends used to live, I see strangers in their gardens, they have gone to the furthest limits of their houses. I find the first address and take out the package and knock and retreat to the street. A friendly person answers the door and we wave our acknowledgements across the gap. I continue uphill and reach the main street in Crookes, which is just called Crookes, imagine the confusion, and head south, everything else lies south of here, south or south-west. I know where I am going, Westbourne Road, Brocco Bank, Ecclesall Road, Ecclesall Road South, to Whirlow, Dore, and Totley, to the edge of the city, half a mile from the Derbyshire border. I know where I am going and I let my thoughts slide. I pass The Old Grindstone, I took my parents there in 1995, I had just moved to Sheffield, I didn’t know where else to take them. I pass Matt and Ruth’s old flat on Lawson Road, I used to hide there in 2012, it was the spring, I had moved back to Sheffield after thirteen years away, I was thinking that I’d made a mistake, moving back was not the mistake, the mistake was in me, I couldn’t explain it, I couldn’t get anything done, the things that I meant to get done. The Botanical Gardens is open, people wait their turn at the entrance, after you, no, after you. Endcliffe Park is open. I don’t see a way to close it, it is vast and porous. I hid there too, in summer 2012, a night walk through the Porter Valley, a night walk is a sort of hiding. I turn onto Ecclesall Road. That was how I ended the year, with a night walk, starting in Hull, a city I’d not visited since 1994, ending at Spurn Point, the mouth of the Humber. It was difficult, I remember that, I had a bad cold, the weather was foul, I was weak at the start and got weaker through the night. The path was barely a path. It hadn’t been walked since the summer, so it seemed, shin-deep grass on the embankment, sodden boots, slow, heavy steps. The moon came and went and I set my head against the wind and rain and then the sky cleared and I lifted my head to the moon above Sunk Island. I was scared. I was not scared of anything that might happen that night, of illness or injury or death, none of these things seemed likely. It was something else. I didn’t try to find the words for it at the time and now I can’t. There were no referents. I knew where I was going but I didn’t know where I was. The bright moon and the dark plain. It felt like something I wouldn’t come back from. I don’t mean that I thought that I would come back with something missing. But that I had cut myself off. That I didn’t know what I was going back to. That something was affecting my sense of scale. I cross the junction at Psalter Lane, where Ecclesall Road becomes Ecclesall Road South, three black O2 cabinets on the corner, are those fans whirring inside, the heat of them, the noise. I think of the last time I walked out here, I was delivering books, it was the fourth of January, there was illness in the family, the walk was a distraction. It was difficult to get the rounds done before dark. This is the thing, you go for a walk and your thoughts slide back, you take in less and less. I think I smell a barbecue and then I look up Brincliffe Edge Road and see a fire engine at the top. I walk a mile of Ecclesall Road South and then another mile. I measure the miles with thoughts of school, I almost never think of school, what went wrong. It was nobody’s fault. I just couldn’t envisage a future for myself, how to make a life, what would I do. The houses get bigger as the city gets smaller. How do you end up in a house like that, I think. The pavement runs out at Whirlow and I cross the road to where the pavement starts over then step back into the road to avoid three joggers and the air they leave behind. I pass a gated development with ENDYMION profiled on the gates and I laugh. I glimpse the edge of Dore Moor before turning onto Limb Lane, this is where we walked with Rob Hindle, the bus set us down just here, or close to here, a walk from Dore Moor to the heart of the city, the 70th anniversary of the Sheffield Blitz, it was the twelfth of December. Rob had written a sequence that reimagined the flight path of the Luftwaffe, that cold, clear, moonlit night, 1940, the city silenced, shut down. We were walking this route, walking back into the city, walking back through the poem. There was snow on the ground. The walk began in daylight and ended in darkness. So much of the city has been razed or rebuilt since then, The Moor, Arundel Gate, Fitzalan Square. I try to keep my mind on Dore, I see a brace of rabbits at the edge of a wood, here is the village, white blossom in the trees, burnt-out daffodils on the lawns, forget-me-nots in the vergeside. The road to Totley rises and falls. On Baslow Road a bus whips up dust and I close my eyes to the particulates. I stop to read an information board, it tells a story of Totley, that it was part of Derbyshire until 1935, it tells a story of G.H.B. Ward, founder of the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers. Engraved in the board is a quote, attributed to him, ‘the man who was never lost never went very far’. Yes, I think, until I start to think about it. I find the second and last address. I take out the package and knock and retreat to the driveway. A woman answers the door, she asks me about my journey, she thanks me for making the journey. We say goodbye, I hope you enjoy the books, I say, I will, she says. One of the books is The Footing, in which Rob’s Blitz sequence appears. It’s the last poem in the anthology. As I start back up the road the last lines come back to me:
Geese crowd the Wash, silver flats
full of their clamouring. Shadows ripple
over them, rows of crosses, another,
Day twenty. 4pm. A friend has ordered a book, Meridian by Nancy Gaffield. Good, I think, and he only lives up the road, a few streets away. I dress the book in light packaging and remind myself of the address. I ask Emma if she would like to join me, she says yes, we rummage through a pile of shoes and gloves and make our way out of the house. Soft grey skies, it is quiet for an afternoon, it is quieter than yesterday. We turn right, then right again, into Beechwood Road and its distant slopes. We notice an elderly man on the pavement ahead and step into the road. ‘Good morning’, Emma calls out, then catches herself, we all laugh, we share a joke. Post meridiem. Emma is taking note of the houses that we pass and is suggesting improvements that could be made to our house. Her suggestions are good and insightful but I am useless at DIY and fearful of change and Emma senses this in my silence. We laugh, we smile, it is a longstanding joke. We turn right onto Portsea Road, where the gradient levels out, then left onto Findon Street. I find the address and knock on the front door, I leave the package on a boundary wall, we both take several steps back. After a minute or two Paul appears from the back door. It is good to see him. The last delivery I made here was ten days ago, his supply of Marmite had expired and he was unable to source any jars in Sheffield, I found a jar in Morrisons and took it round to him. He reimbursed me with coins soaked in vinegar. We talk for some minutes, Paul and Emma and me, how are we managing, are we getting any work done, what will happen, what is possible. A few people pass by on the other side of the street. We talk a little more and then say goodbye, Paul goes back into his house, we turn back for our house. The windows on the streets have so much colour in them, the little posters, it is commonplace now, we don’t talk of it, we hardly notice it.
Day twenty-one. 7.15am.
A two-tone hopscotch
on the pavement of my street —
twenty-one scuffed squares.
Think of a number,
remember all this colour —
pathways after rain.
Sheffield, 7–13 April 2020.
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. Longbarrow Press is continuing to fulfil book orders via its website during the COVID-19 pandemic; all hardback titles are post-free in the UK, and deliveries to Sheffield addresses are made on foot. Orders are prepared, packaged and posted in accordance with recommended hand hygiene and other preventive measures. Click here for a full list of our current hardbacks and to order titles.
Day eight. 11.30am. I’ve stopped noticing. Somewhere ahead are the cars I’ve stopped counting. I count the book orders as they trickle in, not to lose track, another visit to the Post Office. I see the queues up and down Middlewood Road and it is clear that one of them is for the Halifax, another is for B&M, another is for Eve’s Fruit Stores, it is not clear which is which, however, you’d have to ask, the starts and the ends look the same. I wait at the door of the Post Office. I think about Sheffield’s flood maps and cholera maps, this was part of how I came to build a knowledge of a city in which I wasn’t born, in which I hadn’t lived, at a distance, first, then intimately. I think of the new maps that the people here are making, of the pharmacy, the grocer, the supermarket. How to navigate a shop. How to stand on a pavement. I squint at the door of the Post Office, there is no queue after all, I put my face to the glass and the door is opened from the other side. On the way home I make a detour via Hillsborough Place. Two neighbours are talking across the length of their street, they are discussing a shopping itinerary. ‘I’ll try my best, Shirley’. I stop at the modular planters that I stopped at yesterday. The tulips that I thought were losing their colour are not losing their colour, this is their colour.
Day nine. 7.05pm. I make an attempt at the washing-up then remember the thing I was trying to remember which is that there is no milk for the morning. The shops are opening later and closing early. I abandon the dishes and leave the pans to soak. I find the shopping list, a scrap torn from an envelope, some of the items were scribbled on it ten days ago, others have been added and crossed out and reinstated. I stuff the list in my pocket and leave the house. It’s still light. There are a few cars, they race up and down Holme Lane without slowing, there are one or two people, the one ahead of me is a man, the one who passes me is a man. The street doesn’t seem safe and it’s hard to say why. At Hillsborough Interchange there are no buses in the bays and no-one is waiting. I descend the steps to Morrisons where the entrance has been reconfigured with plastic barriers, this has been in place for a few days now, everyone accepts it. There are no staff to manage the queue because there is no queue and so I walk inside. I make three tours of the aisles, decelerating orbits, the things that are not on the shelves are not on the shelves, the things that are on my list will remain on the list. The people with trollies are moving with purpose. I am distracted by a packet of remaindered cheese scones, I stare at the packet, not quite taking it in. Cyndi Lauper is in the overhead speakers. I have an affection for the tune, always it surprises me, to hear it, to think of it. If you fall I will catch you I will be waiting. After a minute or so I lose my place in the song. When I go to the checkouts I find that half them have been taken offline, alternate terminals only, this is to help with distancing. It’s hard to know what the staff are thinking. I pack a few loose bananas into my bag and turn for the exit, keeping six paces behind the customer in front, you can relax now, he says to his phone, it’s the same for everyone.
Day ten. 7.30am. Every day there is a new rainbow. Today it is a double rainbow in an upstairs window, halfway along Holme Lane, two sheets of A4, one above the other. I am walking to the garage for a newspaper. All the traffic is going the other way, then the lights change at the tram terminus and the eastbound lane catches up with me. A slow flare, is it familiar, the red and yellow markings of a maintenance vehicle. I cross Hillsborough Corner and stop to read a poster in the window of Wilko explaining why it is open. Someone calls my name. I turn and see no-one, then turn again, it is Matthew Clegg, Ruth Palmer, they are framed in the entrance of the Hillsborough Exchange. We stand around and chat. Everyone feels out of place. I say that I am going to the garage. Matt and Ruth are going the same way, so we walk together and separately, this is awkward, we say. I see you’re writing a blog, Matt says, yes, I say, I’m running out of ideas though. We stop at the garage and Matt and Ruth say goodbye, where are you going now, I say, Iceland, they say. I stare at the newspaper display stand, half of the papers are missing, the other half are the Daily Mail or likenesses of the Daily Mail. I turn back, I will call in at the Hillsborough Exchange, I think. I try the doors and they open but everything is closed and the arcade is empty. There is 1950s rock and roll in the speaker system, it is unusually loud, there are no bodies to absorb it. I turn back to the doors, can I still get out, will someone be along later.
Day eleven. 11.50am. I have been up since 6am, which is normal, and lack energy and focus, which is not. I have lost all the thoughts and tasks that were not written down. Among the tasks that I did write down was the parcelling of books, this has taken up most of the morning, cardboard and Sellotape and Pritt Stick. I shake off the trimmings and go to the Post Office with the day’s orders. On Haden Street a man scales a ladder to a first-floor window and cleans the glass with a cloth. It is overcast, the light is soft and grey, the air is still. I turn into the next street and adjust my course, stepping into the road, making way for returning shoppers. Here is a man, a heavy bag in each hand, he looks done in. It’s all the waiting. At B&M Stores the queue has changed direction, stretching back to, and overlapping with, the Post Office queue. There is some confusion. Everyone in the queue stares back at the queue. I find my place in the Post Office queue, which is very short, and try not to look pleased with myself, what’s the word, smug. Some people are getting used to this, some are not. Some of us think we know better. A counter becomes free and I move toward it, hesitantly, not wanting to take up too much of the distance. On Tuesday the staff were wearing masks without gloves and today they are wearing gloves without masks. ‘This is a Large Letter’, I say, ‘and so are these.’ The parcels are labelled with postage and placed in a sack. I leave via a gap in the B&M queue and walk back the same way that I came. On Haden Street the man with the ladder has moved to the house next door, he is in his element, it is hard to tell if he is starting or finishing. The people here will have clean windows to look out of. Is it important, though, is it essential. What is essential, who is essential.
Day twelve. 12.50pm. I have several errands that I have been saving up, a round trip, a few miles of deliveries and deposits. I pack a rucksack with a map and some water and the things to hand over. What will it be like in the city, I think, will the city still be there. On Langsett Road I realise that I have not been this far east in almost three weeks. The Bamforth Street tram stop is just ahead. The trams were cut in half, then half again, then half again, the frequency dropping from 12 minutes to 20 minutes and finally an hourly service. A blue tram passes on the other side of the road, it is bound for Halfway, I count six passengers on board. The Masons Arms is secured and alarmed. I see people in the street, here and there, in ones and twos. Some of them are walking in the road, the traffic is light, is this for avoidance. Everything is moving very slowly. At The Wellington it hits hard, the things I didn’t do, the things that can’t be done. I think of all the things I will do when this is over and I know I won’t do any of them. I cross the roundabout to Shalesmoor and see the vulnerable premises that have been boarded up, which makes them look more vulnerable, and the message STAY HOME ESSENTIAL JOURNEYS ONLY on the electronic message sign above the eastbound lane. I can unpick the birdsong from the old furnace sites, and here is the Nichols Building, now a furniture depot, the furniture is FURTINTURE on the printed canvas. Every third car seems to be a police car or an ambulance. Is it that there are more emergency vehicles on the road or is it that there are fewer non-emergency vehicles on the road or. A second roundabout at West Bar, there used to be a town gate around here, then uphill, Silver Street, Paradise Street. I sometimes stand in Paradise Square and listen for the hum that rises from somewhere near Scotland Street or Solly Street. It tells me that I’m in the city. I don’t hear it today. I climb past the cathedral and around Church Street and into Fargate. I feel inside my fleece pocket for the cheque that Emma has asked me to pay in at Santander, it is there, the cheque, the bank card. The Santander website says that the Fargate branch is open until 2pm today. I draw level with the doors of the bank. It is closed until Monday. I shuffle over to a cashpoint, there is an option for deposits, it gladdens the heart. The machine sucks the card from my fingers and invites me to feed the cheque into a slot. I feed the cheque into the slot, the slot flashes green, a mechanism behind the slot whirrs and clicks and catches. There is a pause of several seconds. A message on the screen advises me that the cheque deposit has not been successful and that the cheque will be returned to me. The mechanism whirrs and clicks and catches, the green light flashes, then stops flashing. The cheque is not returned. After a minute the screen defaults to the transaction menu. After another minute I leave. Everything on Fargate is closed, no, that’s not true, Marks and Spencer is open, Poundland is open. There are no cars at Castle Square and just one or two stationary buses, engines off, stopped at their stops. The city is simpler without traffic. I follow the tram lines, High Street, Commercial Street, breaking off at Ponds Forge, scaling the steps to Park Square, an elevated junction where three lines intersect. I turn right at the intersection, as if I were bound for Halfway, as if I were a tram. I pause at the rear entrance of the railway station, there is no one going in or coming out, I step towards the Departures board, it looks like a full schedule, trains in all directions, all the services on time. I back out of the entrance and lean over a concrete wall and search the platforms below but I don’t see anyone. The steps to the amphitheatre and South Street are closed so I take the long, low path to Clay Wood Bank. The path climbs gently, then sharply as it meets the bank, there is another path into Clay Wood, steep and winding. A woman is picking flowers at the metal bike barriers, she waits for me to pass, I wait for her to pass. All this green ascending. The last time I was here was three years ago, a poetry walk, led by Angelina D’Roza and Pete Green, there were twenty of us, climbing the city from Lady’s Bridge, this was our last stop, Angelina reading at the foot of the Cholera Monument, Pete with their back to the city. Today there is no one but me and a woman, sitting on a bench, looking out towards Highfield and Nether Edge. I make a slow half-circuit of the monument, leaving the woman to her view, her moment. The interpretation board has gone but the plaque at the foot of the monument is intact. It tells me that the deaths from the 1832 cholera epidemic totalled 402, that the bodies are buried nearby, that the monument was raised a few years later. A light, fresh breeze ripples the air. I scan the skyline, its clutter, the SHU buildings, the car parks, the upscale lofts, a few suspended cranes, a city holding its breath. I step back from the edge and take the path for Clay Wood, I think it is the path, there are several paths criss-crossing the grounds. After a few minutes I am out of the woods and on Granville Road. I could not plot a clear route to my first delivery and this will be slow, I think, I have a Sheffield A-Z in my hand. Norfolk Heritage Park is closed. I turn south along Donnington Road where several cars are trying to reverse out of their driveways. I stop to look at a utility cover embedded in the pavement, it reads POST OFFICE TELEPHONES and is in good repair. The cemetery is somewhere on my left. At the junction of St Aidan’s Road and St Aidan’s Way I find a motionless bee. I crouch to the pavement and set my rucksack down. The only thing I have for it is water, I take out the bottle and pour half an inch into the cap, then carefully empty the cap on the asphalt. ‘Is it a dead bee?’ calls a woman from a house on St Aidan’s Way, she is standing on the threshold of her doorway, a small child just behind her. I look down at the bee, it is stirring slightly and making for the water, I look back at the woman. ‘It might be OK’, I say, ‘I’ve given it some water.’ ‘Bless you’, she says, and goes back inside. There is nothing more that I can do for the bee, I try to keep the thought of it close as I climb Brimmesfield Drive and Northern Avenue. An hour before I set out, I received a message from a friend, the message asked if I could deliver a book to a friend in Arbourthorne, I said yes, here I am at what I think is the house of the friend. I know nothing about the friend other than that he is a climber and has been self-isolating. I knock on the door, then take several steps back, I am wearing gloves. The friend answers the door and I hand the book over. The book is Rock as Gloss by Mark Goodwin and I mention that the poet is a climber and that the jacket artwork is by Paul Evans who is also a climber and do you know Paul. ‘Yes’, he says, ‘I know him very well.’ We say goodbye and I turn back up the road. A few doors down a radio blares from a garden, it is ‘Fast Car’, Tracy Chapman, the song is interrupted by a commercial. The map tells me to head south then west along East Bank Road. It is downhill now, there is not much to see, on the brick facade of the Lotus House someone has painted the greeting HAPPY 40TH JOEY. I nearly miss the turning for Daresbury Road, I take it, although I feel that I am turning back on myself, at the bottom I turn right onto Gleadless Road, I try to keep the navigation in my head. The sun comes out on the descent into Heeley. There are dandelions and what might be speedwell on the verges and in the gardens. There are rainbows in the windows. On the metal railings of Heeley Parish Church a canvas banner declares HOPE IN OUR VILLAGES TOWNS AND CITIES. I am always surprised to see The Sheaf View from any direction and here it is now, at the foot of the hill, empty kegs stacked up like silver ballast. Somewhere near the former Primitive Methodist Chapel a telephone is ringing, it is a landline, it sounds old, it seems to be coming from Thermax or Prosol. A train crosses the railway bridge, three carriages, two of them empty. I pass under the bridge and try to work out my second delivery, it isn’t far, Abbeydale Road near London Road. I cut through an alley and into a side street. I take out the parcel and check the address and cross into Abbeydale Road and there is the house. I knock on the door and another door opens and we say hello and I hold the parcel out at arm’s length and leave. That was easy, I think. On London Road I see a police car at low speed, a few minutes later I see another, I realise it the same police car, it is a patrol. I reach the bottom of The Moor and think that I will pay a visit to Sainsbury’s. There is a queue but I am half of it, we both look to the security guard, the security guard waves us in. Inside the floor is measured out in black and yellow hazard tape. I reach the chilled aisle and see Andy. ‘Andy’, I say, I have not seen him in over a year. I keep my feet behind the black and yellow tape. I ask him how things are and he asks me how things are. ‘Fine’, I say, ‘people are still buying books.’ ‘Well, there’s not much else for them to do’, he replies. I suppose not, I think to myself.
Day thirteen. 2.45pm. I have set myself an hour for today’s deliveries to run concurrently with today’s exercise. I leave the house and cross the road. The business post is piling up on the floor of the Holme Fish Bar. I adjust my step to avoid what I think is broken glass on the pavement, I look again, it is not broken glass, it is cherry blossom blown from the cherry blossom tree. I cross the river Loxley at Walkley Lane and look down at the weir, the section that collapsed in last November’s floods is still unrepaired, brickwork and debris clumped in the shallows. I start uphill. After several weeks of Sundays this doesn’t feel like a Sunday. It is all stopping and starting uphill, Stony Walk to Parsonage Street, Walkley Road to Heavygate Road. At the junction of Heavygate Road and Northfield Road someone has chalked the name HENRY. I turn into a cul de sac, it is also uphill, the top of the road seems distant from the bottom. I reach into my bag with a gloved hand and take out the jar of damson gin that Emma has made. Last Sunday morning I found a jar of yeast on my doorstop, it was from Jo and Chris, they knew we were running low. I leave the gin on the doorstep, knock, and take several steps back. Chris answers the door and we speak at length and at a distance. I stand in the street, behind the garden wall, my head alone is visible. He mentions his colleagues, how the illness has touched each of them in turn, we talk back and forth, of contingencies, compromises. We say our goodbyes. I turn onto Northfield Road and stop and sit at the bus stop and take out a postcard and start to write on it. I am writing to a friend who lives nearby and who has not left her flat for some time. I try to say something about the street that I’m on, what is happening. A man on the pavement is talking with a woman on a second-floor balcony. At the edge of the Bole Hills someone has launched a kite, there it goes, in and out of view. A few minutes pass and I become aware of a sound, a rhythm, it is regular, close, it must have been there all along. The bus stop is ticking. I stand up and walk around the bus stop, there are no devices, no mechanisms. I leave the bus stop and walk to the flats. The postcard seems flimsy and all that it says. Outside the flats a week’s washing hung out, drying in the communal court.
Day fourteen. 9.10am. A light rain overnight, the last traces on the pavement, in patches and puddles that the sun hasn’t got to. I am walking to Santander to sort out Saturday’s bungled cheque deposit on behalf of Emma. It wasn’t my fault, it was the machine’s fault, but I feel responsible. On Langsett Road, sunlight hits the asphalt and the tram tracks, it is blinding, the light is unbroken by traffic. There are new flags at the Hillsborough Hand Car Wash. I don’t think the flags mean anything, they are there to lend height and prominence to the forecourt, it has always lacked a canopy. It occurs to me that this would be a good time to hide in the grounds of the car wash as it is not in use. Why would I do that, though, why am I thinking like this. I try to think of something else instead. I am thinking of last year’s walks in Holderness and Lincolnshire and how the maps led me to believe that I would meet very few people on the rural and estuarine paths and how the maps were correct. It is another thing to encounter an absence of people where the people should be. A woman tries the door of Dibco Tools, which I often misread as Disco Tools, she can’t get in. On any other Monday this would be any other Monday. I turn into Gibraltar Street, there is a delivery at the door of Yorkshire Decorators Centre, a pallet of paint. Every other door is closed. I pass the cathedral just before the clock starts counting to ten and by the time I reach Fargate the tower is silent. At Santander there is a queue, an uneven curve, it tails off into the precinct. I expected a queue and so I start writing a postcard to my mother. Dear Mum, we’re fine, I hope you are too. I finish the postcard, someone in the queue is talking to someone else in the queue, they are talking about the town hall, they are saying that the flag is at half mast. I turn around and look up and it is true. None of us know what this means. I reach the front of the queue and the gloved and masked clerk asks me what I want. I explain that my partner’s cheque is stuck in the machine and that it was the machine’s fault. I then pass a sheet of paper to the clerk, these are her account details, I say, and these are her contact details. The clerk goes inside and does something to the machine and returns a minute later with the cheque. ‘We’ll get this paid in today’, he says. I thank him and leave the queue. There must be a post box around here, I think, there must be a collection today.
Sheffield, 31 March–6 April 2020.
Day one. 6.45am. It will be good to be out, I think. I am delivering a book to a friend on Roscoe Bank, a friend who has not left the house for several days. I lock the door and turn into the street, a man is walking on the other side, shuffling and staring, I don’t meet his gaze. The traffic is thin. I cross the road, then another road, there is nothing coming. I reach the banks of the Rivelin, I start to run, I am not a good runner. I sprint, then stroll. I reach the park. I pass a dog walker, a water play area, a shut cafe. The playground is unlocked and the heat from the soft rubber surfaces drifts through the gate. I pass the allotments and another dog walker. I cross a stone bridge over the Rivelin and climb the steps and slopes to Roscoe Bank. Uninterrupted birdsong. I am taking care not to touch handrails, gateposts, stiles or fenceposts. I reach the friend’s house and post the book through the door. Milk on the step, two pints, blue top. It is good to see deliveries. I leave and start back down the slopes and steps, there are a few more walkers now, one person one dog, also a young family, two adults two children, we nod from a distance. There are a few more cars on the road. It is 7.30am, a road sweeper passes slowly, brushing the kerb, a haze in its wake. In the display window of Towsure the question STAYING HOME THIS EASTER? I wait for the cars to pass and cross the street to my house.
Day two. 2.40pm. Someone in Stannington has ordered a copy of The Footing so I decide to walk it over, a round trip of six miles, a new route. I have the pavement to myself. I think about the intervals between vehicles, there are long, regular gaps. White car, white car, white van, white car. There is work going on at the river, I can hear it, Rivelin Cutlery, Slater Sheet Metal Ltd. I pause at the confluence of the Rivelin and the Loxley, the water rust-red with iron deposits. As I enter the valley park I meet a friend who is pushing a child in a stroller. We talk at a distance and he mentions the sale of his parents’ house yesterday, how the conveyancing documents had to be witnessed through glass, then signed at a stretch, the pen making contact with paper, but not the hand. The trees filter light and trap heat. The playground is locked and deserted, no it isn’t, there is a muscular man using the frame of a child’s swing as a pull-up bar, his actions are practised and calm. The gyms are closed, I understand that, but this doesn’t seem right. At the banks of the river some people are forgetting how to behave. Walking feels strained. I climb the same steps and slopes to Roscoe Bank that I climbed yesterday, then start to lose what I’ve learned, the road dips and I stop to check the map. I pass Liberty Hill and continue west, the road seems busy for a back lane, the cars don’t slow. None of the fields are at rest. There is machinery everywhere, starting or stopping. I pluck a blue flower from a stone bank, is it a forget-me-not, a blue flower with a yellow centre. At The Rivelin pub the WHATS ON board is wiped clean. I turn through Tofts Lane and find the steep footpath to Stannington. An electric fence divides the footpath from an uneven field. The field climbs with the footpath, the fence makes sparks in the heat, it is rhythmic, one two three four pause, then it is constant, like a dripping tap. I labour uphill, it grows faint, then stops. The path opens into a long, narrow field and I glimpse the western edge of Stannington above it. This is the first poem in The Footing, I think, a ‘high scrape / of heather and bracken’, I have stepped into it. I walk the length of another field and into Nethergate. The address is around here, there are gaps between houses and house numbers, I walk the crescent and back, I start again, I start to understand the crescent, I find the address. The person who ordered the book is at her window, she is painting her porch frame, we talk at a distance, she asks me about the route I took. After a few minutes I leave and she goes back to her work. I slip into the long field and watch the city breathe out and fall back.
Day three. 8.10am. I have run out of bananas and things so I leave the house in search of them. I turn east along Holme Lane and cross the road, diagonally to the chip shop, there is a notice in the window, handwritten on chip paper, DUE TO CORONA CLOSED TILL FURTHER NOTICE STAY SAFE. I pass more commercial premises, there are notices in almost all the windows, penned or printed. The 81 bus idles in its bay with three people on board. The windows of the tram stop barbers are boarded up, there is no message, there is no need. Usually, at this hour, Langsett Road can’t be crossed without signals, I count three vehicles heading into town, car ambulance car. There are great soundless gaps between people. I take the steps to The Parade, the local shopping centre, most of the units will not be opening today, I descend the steps on the other side, to Morrisons, the main entrance and lower car park, there is a queue, it winds around the side of the former barracks, I can’t see the end. After a few minutes I join the queue, a few feet from the secondary entrance, which is closed. The queue is largely made out of gaps, some of the gaps have trolleys in them, this helps to preserve the distance. Every few minutes we shuffle forward. The mood is relaxed but there is little conversation. This feels normal, expected, inevitable. As I near the head of the queue I see that people are being counted by the staff on the doors. One out, one in. Several people leave in close succession, some with trollies, some with bags, sanguine, defeated, absent. A man gives a thumbs up to no-one in particular. I am waved through and I grab a basket. I make for the mozzarella, there is no mozzarella, I go to where the oats should be, there are no oats, I repeat this for yeast, olives, tinned tomatoes, where have all the sweeties gone. There is no flour, obviously, I will never see flour again. There is floury residue on the flour shelf and I consider scraping it together to make a small biscuit. ‘You’re Beautiful’ is jammed in the overhead speakers, this stops after a while, it is followed by late-period Cliff Richard. My basket is empty. I go to the grocery section, there is much fruit, I take some bananas, apples, a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. There is no queue for the self-service checkout and no-one is standing on the social distancing floor stickers. I leave the store to meet a queue as long as the one that I left and the tower clock striking nine.
Day four. 11.30am. People in Ormskirk and Leicester have ordered some books so I spend the morning fiddling with cardboard and sellotape until I am satisfied with the geometrically correct packages. ‘I’m going to the Post Office’, I call to Emma. I go downstairs and enter the kitchen, I forget why I have entered the kitchen, I am going to the Post Office, I leave the kitchen, then leave the house. The roads are quiet, the pavement less so. The Post Office is three streets away and two of these streets are side streets. I start to sprint across Taplin Road, I almost nearly don’t quite see the car in my path, I stop myself in time, I am getting unused to traffic. I turn left into Middlewood Road. The banks are closed, the estate agents are closed, most of the shops are closed. The people on the pavement make the street look busy, there is no hurry, there is nowhere for them to go. I cross Middlewood Road and reach the doors of the Post Office. A poster taped to the glass states that entry is restricted to a maximum of two persons at any one time. A second poster states that opening hours are 9am – 1pm until further notice. Warily, I try the door, a member of staff beckons me with a nod, I step forward, I am the only customer. The air is heavy and flat. I put my parcels on the scale and try to complete my half of the transaction with minimal contact. I thank the staff, awkwardly, and leave. I cross the road to my local newsagent. My local newsagent is shuttered and taped to the shutters is a note that reads WE HAVE TAKEN THE DECISION TO PROTECT OUR HEALTH AND YOURS STAY SAFE ALAN KEVIN + FAMILY ALL STOCK HAS BEEN REMOVED FROM PREMISES. I cross back and pass B&M Stores, where an unsmiling man is stationed at the door, a small queue winding down to the street. I pass Eve’s Fruit Store, it is busy inside and out, an elderly woman glares at a nectarine. After a few minutes I am at the forecourt of the Jet Petrol Station on Bradfield Road. I take a newspaper from a display stand and go inside to pay. At the kiosk there is a conversation between a builder and the cashier, the aisle is narrow, I don’t know where to stand. The cashier signals to me and I move forward and pay. I step back and the builder and the cashier resume their conversation. I hear only the builder’s side, it seems that he is talking about his boss, this has not been a short conversation, he is summing up now. This is about the size of it, he says, this is what the boss is saying, in effect, he is saying I’ll stay safe at home while you go out and earn me money.
Day five. 2.30pm. Another book order, it is from Crosspool, a few miles south-west of here. I consult a map and consider possible routes and decide to walk out via Rivelin Valley Road. There are other routes, possibly easier, probably quicker, but I am liable to misremember them and stall at a junction, over and over, consulting a map. The traffic is light on Rivelin Valley Road. The pavement is made out of mulch, so it seems, leaves and twigs from tall trees that stand at regular intervals. Some of the trees still have handmade SAVE ME banners tethered to their trunks. The campaign is over, the banners are the memory of the trees that didn’t make it. Here is Hagg Hill and its bastard gradient. There is no pavement on either side of the road so I sidestep into a narrow verge to avoid the cars on their descent. I see a bridleway to my right and I take it, it is like a holloway, a sunken track with canopy cover, part of a network, branching west, supporting the allotments that terrace the hillside. The bridleway winds uphill, parallel to the road, I stop every few minutes to take in a different view of the suburbs below. Stannington rises and falls. I pass the alpaca farm with its alpacas and turn right along Back Lane where I find another mesh of allotments, everyone is here, it seems, bent over their plots, in little sheds and bowers, people come and go, distantly, singly. I find the address, there is no need to knock, the door opens and I step back, then I hand over the book. We talk briefly and wish each other well. I think I will take a different route home, I can work it out from here, I can pop into ASDA and pick up a few things. I follow a bend in the road then a bend in a bridleway and I am skirting the lower slopes of Crookes Cemetery. The bridleway is crowded, there are pinch points, a few of us pausing or slowing to maintain distance and flow. I see the pastel backs of Stannington View Road and the colours drip into the park like lollies. I turn into Mulehouse Road and draw level with the houses. Some of the residents are having a go at DIY and gardening, a woman is moving plant pots around her patio. The next street is silent, a bank holiday without the people. I enter Northfield Road, a Co-op on the other side, next to the Co-op a Sainsbury’s. There are distanced queues of roughly similar lengths outside both supermarkets. I stand at the back of the Co-op queue. It seems very dark inside. After 10 minutes I reach the front of the queue and after another 2 minutes a masked assistant unlocks the door and nods at me. I scan both sides of the first aisle, then the second, there are only six people in the shop, it is easy to maintain distance. The labels on the shelf tell me what I would find on the shelf if there was anything left on the shelf. There are two tins of Spam and no tinned fish. I give up, I leave with nothing, I don’t look back at the Sainsbury’s. It’s all downhill now, Northfield Road to Heavygate Road, South Road to Walkley Road. I think of calling in to see Chris and Jo, on the off-chance, then I remember that I can’t. I take a right down Highton Street and pass the house I used to live in, 25 years ago, it is in better shape than when I left it. There are plants in the windows and a new front door. In 1996 or 1997 a comet visited the sky above Walkley, was it Hyakutake or Hale–Bopp, it sat a few metres above the hedgerow. It was a good thing, to find it there in the evening, bright and indifferent, one of the few good things to return to. At the bottom of Highton Street there are thirty people queueing for ASDA. I calculate that it will take 30 minutes to get inside, I walk on. On the corner of South Road and Walkley Road I see a floral scarf wound tight around the loose wiring of a small mid-terrace. Was it lost, snagged, has someone tied it there? Is it supposed to be a sign, is it meant for someone?
Day six. 7.10am or 8.10am. Some of the clocks have gone forward without me and some of them have stayed where they are. I remove the large clock from the kitchen wall, wind it on by an hour, then replace it with difficulty. I punch the keypad on my battered phone and scroll through the dark display. The time is set for ten minutes ahead, or ten minutes fast, I do this because I am always ten minutes late. I walk out of my front door and look up and down the street. I think I hear an engine nearby but there is no movement on the road. I go back into the house for my camera and step back into the street. When I am sure that there is nothing coming I take the first photograph, facing north-east, towards Owlerton, then the second, facing west, towards Malin Bridge. Still no cars. The temperature has dropped again, perhaps three or four degrees, I see one or two flecks of something in the air. I leave the camera in the house and walk to the garage on Bradfield Road. There are no cars on the forecourt and there does not appear to be anyone inside the shop. I take a newspaper from the display stand, then use my elbow and shoulder to ease the shop door open. The cashier and I have a brief exchange, take care, I say, more than once, it is feeble in the mouth. I pass Lloyds Bank, then Wilko, then notice that the display area on the side of The Shakey that normally advertises drinks promotions has been replaced with a hand-drawn sign that reads MASSIVE THANKS TO THE NHS AND EMERGENCY SERVICES AND ALL KEY WORKERS FROM TEAM SHAKEY. I have never set foot in The Shakey but I have a long-standing admiration for the work ethic of their staff. I cross to Holme Lane, then cross to the south side, where most of the houses are. These are my neighbours who I’ve never met. In a ground-floor window the message STAY IN EVERYONE PLEASE AND NO ONE WILL GET THE VIRUS THANK YOU NHS FOR ALL THE HARD WORK EVERYONE KEEP SMILING in a child’s sloping script. In another ground-floor window I see THANKS ♥️ NHS across two sheets of lined A4. In a third window the glass is filled with THANK YOU NHS with the NHS at the centre of a heart and the heart centred in a field of hearts. It’s white acrylic craft paint, I think, they’ve done a good job, they wanted it to be remembered.
Day seven. 7.10am. It is black bin day. All the black bins are out in the street. I watch them from the window, then go down to the kitchen. When at last I leave the house, I find that the formations have been broken up, the bins are standing this way and that. I hear the wake of the Veolia lorry as it slows into Malin Bridge. I turn left, towards Owlerton, the traffic moving freely, no tailbacks at the junction. I pass the green space at Hillsborough Place, twelve metres by twenty metres, grass, shrubs, raised beds, three or four mature trees, large, irregular stones marking a boundary with the pavement, and, on the corner, half a dozen modular planters, black plastic, ex-municipal. The planters were formerly stationed across the road, between a bus stop and a Wetherspoons, nothing seemed to last there. The white and yellow daffodils are doing well, the tulips are letting go of their colour. There is a man I often see at work in this garden. He might live in the house next door and this may or may not be his garden. It is not a dog-walking green or a fenced-off park, it is maintained for itself, the visual amenity. The cherry blossom is still holding on to the cherry blossom tree. I cross Hillsborough corner into Bradfield Road, past Wilko, Lloyds Bank, the Jet garage, pausing at Star Upholstery, a sheet of A4 in the window, SHOP CLOSE BY ORDER OF PRIME MINISTER. I had not before now noticed the shop signage peeling out like dry transfer lettering. I pass a man, another man, then another, they all give me the same look, like I am going the wrong way. At Swann-Morton (Penn Works) a man in an orange gilet is talking with a man in a burgundy smock, there is a delivery in progress, everyone is keeping their distance. I cross over to Swann-Morton (Cobb Works) then cross the dual carriageway and into Owlerton. The lights are out at Napoleons and the casino car park is almost empty. A cement mixer rolls into Livesey Street, its drum rotating, turning right at Hillsborough Fencing. I stop to photograph the surviving sections of a mural that used to run the length of this road, along the outer wall of the speedway and greyhound stadium, twelve or more two-tone tableaux, spraypaint on brick and metal, scenes from local history, the Great Flood, the Bassetts factory, Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show. The mural runs out before it can turn the corner. The hum of the substation is quieter than I remember, I can barely hear it above the birdsong, am I listening too hard. All the while a trickle of cars toward Mondelez, a split site criss-crossing the River Don, it is business as usual, the rolling shifts, all in one, Cadbury Trebor Bassett. I stand on the bridge and stare down the length of the river. On the eastern bank I glimpse the outlying vehicles of the travellers’ camp that appeared on Club Mill Lane last summer. The footpath to Herries Road is closed and the graffitied gates of Cooper Car Spares are closed. The line of the river is a vanishing point into the south. I take the steps into Wardsend Cemetery, then the steep sloping path, it is overcast and early but the cemetery is filled with light. I come out of the trees and cross a railway bridge, the Stocksbridge line, a single track that cuts the cemetery in two. There is nowhere to go but up, steps hacked into the hillside, stopping every minute, the horizon in no particular order, the storage sheds, the breakers yard, the college and the casino, Hillsborough Park and the Wednesday ground, white smoke, dark water, last year’s leaves still clinging to the branches.
Sheffield, 24–30 March 2020.
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. Zyxt (Oystercatcher Press) is available here.
Update (February 2019): the full-length version of Meridian is published by Longbarrow Press on 8 February 2019. Click here for further details.
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.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours (1810)
A public park, a Sunday, a late July afternoon. I am standing at the edge of a path with Angelina D’Roza, a Roland R-05 recorder in my hand, a fourteen-line script in hers. We have been standing here for several minutes, listening and waiting, for the air to level, the wind to soften and fall, so that we might record her poem, ‘This Sea the Colour’. We can’t direct the wind, nor shelter from it; the tall trees that line the path seem only to amplify the gusts. Nor can anything be done with the voices trailing through the park, human, animal, they start, we stop, we start, they start. The poem is a desert poem. There are no children or dogs in the sonnet, no grass, no trees. No purples, no greens. If there is wind, it is not this wind that banks and twists between script and stereo microphone, chipping the tones, I watch the waveforms buckling, the white peaks. The park is not the desert. It is full – of sound, of weather – and we cannot empty it. We’ve nowhere else to go, and we’re running out of time. Think of a colour. We start again, title, first line, then the next, an orange thread paid out to the end of its spool, wound in, and out again, two takes, two tries. The thread is a measure, it is finite, it marks each difference in weight and tone, the poem’s elsewhere and its end. Somehow, in this managed, peopled place, a clipped corner of south-west Sheffield, we close in on the sonnet’s colour space, cadmium orange, soaking blue light, salt, sand and snow, a world of flakes and grains. It is ‘nearer and farther’, a speck made smaller, blown into air, land and sea. We listen to the fade.
The path lies within the Porter Valley Parkway, a sequence of green spaces laid out along the line of the Porter Brook, six miles of woods and water linking the Peak District to Sheffield city centre. We’re somewhere in the middle of this course, perhaps 50 metres from Shepherd Wheel, an ancient dam and grinding workshop, looking west towards Whiteley Woods. I’ve been here before, the thought comes, four summers back, four Julys ago, living on Cherry Street, close to the Porter and its confluence with the River Sheaf, the iron-rich brook trickling into brick conduits, a dark river made darker still. Four summers back, late evening, putting the house in order, the city behind me, finding the river at Pear Street, an embankment, a drop, the water hardly tinting the stones, and the walled greens of the General Cemetery to the south, railed offices and care homes to the north, then a schoolyard, a blank, grey quad and four sprayed walls, high contrast, purple overwriting red, yellow buffing into blue. Spent cans, squeezed tubes. The path climbing to Sharrow Vale Road, the Porter low, a brownout in culverts and bridges, everywhere and nowhere, the dry bright overground mix, residential and commercial, Porter Cottage, Porter Pizza, Porter Pets, the name spelled out in every colour, the lightless river. At the turning circle of Hunters Bar, the course untangles, a clear profile, the water making its own way through Endcliffe Park, close to the entrance, and I go to it, my west to its east. As the park narrows, the river widens, then straightens: a reflective strip, two streets out, bits of broken lamplight, I am reading it backwards. I run out of green, and into another roundabout, spinning off to Whiteley Woods, the next link in the municipal chain. Within a few hundred metres, the sides steepen, the tall trees close in, the streets and their electrics fall away. The park desaturates. If there is a moon, I don’t see it. I raise my right hand before me, but can’t place it. I have hearing, and touch, and I know that I am still with the path, and that the river is still with me. The word that comes is pitch, the wrong word, I know that this cannot be pitch, solid black in a suburban park, I know that the eyes can make adjustments. I pause, not quite stopping, and spin slowly. I wait for a reference tone, a stimulus, one bead of light, absolute threshold. The adjustments don’t happen. No shadow, no movement, no form. Not a speck. Only my spinning, which I stop. I take a few moments to find my bearings from the sound of water. I expect to feel fear, but there is nothing to feed it, the mind is flat, the dark is not disturbed. I stare straight ahead. There is no line, no plane, no vanishing point. I walk into it, the body aware, I realise that the arms are projecting, perhaps for balance, I find that I am disinclined to run. I walk, sounding each step, a thread spooling at my back, until the trees break down, and bits of orange sodium get in. The measures return, the bounds return. Sounds of a road in the south, interrupting the park, then the road itself, yellow on yellow. The mood turns. The park continues, the darkness is restored, and something snaps in the thin corridor, a thread, a thought, and I turn back, at the edge of Hallam Moors, near the Derbyshire border, a mile or so from Rud Hill, where the Porter rises from blanket bog, Redmires to the north, White Stones to the west.
In 1915, the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich exhibited Black Square at Marsovo Pole, Petrograd, as part of The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10. It was the first of four identically titled oil paintings that Malevich would produce; the subsequent versions, executed between 1923 and 1930, vary in size, but all recreate the arrangement of the original, a square of black pigment in an off-white border. Malevich conceived the first Black Square as a foundation stone of Suprematism, a short-lived art movement with an emphasis on basic geometric forms and a restricted palette; a ‘grammar’ in the service of ‘pure feeling’, and in stated opposition to the language of objects, objectivity, and representation. On encountering the work today, what is immediately apparent is that none of the versions are geometrically perfect. All four squares are lopsided, skewing into the borders. The present condition of the 1915 Black Square helps to explain why Malevich remade the piece for later exhibitions: even in reproduction, we see the acute deterioration of the flat plane (a process that was reportedly observed within a few years of the Petrograd exhibition, and exacerbated by decades of neglect by the Soviet authorities, decaying in archival darkness), oxidized, flaking, a distressed surface. Light and air have got to the oil, weakening the bond, the white ground exposed by the cracks. Recent X-rays of the painting show not one, but two, earlier compositions; the first of these is Cubo-Futurist, while the second, directly below the Black Square, is proto-Suprematist. Both of the overpainted works display rich, variegated tones, a field that now rises from the darkness, a field into which the Black Square decomposes. What was black is now midnight blue. The object is unstable, in both a physical and a phenomenological sense; the work that exists is no longer the work that was intended, and invites a form of cognitive dissonance when we attempt to reconcile the painting with its title. Malevich declared both the 1915 painting and the Suprematist movement as the birth of ‘a liberated nothing’, an achromatic ‘zero of form’ (though he would make use of colour in contemporary and later works, it’s interesting to consider this statement from 1920: ‘I regard white and black as excluded from the colour spectrum.’). This ‘zero’ is, in Malevich’s view, both empty and full, a ‘desert’ (to which he also likens the painting on several occasions) in which ‘nothing is real except feeling’. It is, perhaps, the idea of the black square that outlives its moment, an idea that persists through the later variations, an idea that, above all, is preserved in the title itself.
Black does not feature among the colours matched to the four temperaments in Goethe and Schiller’s diagram of 1798, though it is present in the four humours of Hippocratic medicine (as black bile, or melaina chole) from which their Rose of Temperaments is distantly derived (and is that dark, irregular blot at the centre of the colour wheel, the shade of dried blood, edging towards blackness?). It is also present, as a trace, in the poems by Chris Jones, Alistair Noon, Geraldine Monk and Helen Mort that comprise two-thirds of our new Rose of Temperaments (the first two poems, by Angelina D’Roza and A.B. Jackson, are discussed here). Each of the four sonnets is flecked with ‘black’ or ‘dark’. In Chris Jones‘s ‘Green’, it is the human eye, the organ of light perception and colour differentiation, in which the eponymous hue is located: a ‘pale green’, ‘born of black and yellow melanin’ (melanin, unsurprisingly, shares a root with melancholia: melas, ‘black, dark’). The apparent simplicity and certitude of the poem’s opening lines, which offer pigment as proof of heritage (‘pincered out to mark the Irish in him’), gives way to the speaker’s preoccupation with a greater exactitude, the iris distilled from mineral and vegetal shades, always between one green and the next, the light shifting with each refocusing. Here, many of the objects that mediate an idea of green are on the threshold of diffuse (rough) and specular (smooth) reflection: ‘oxidised copper’, ‘heavy bottle glass’, the ‘greenish blue’ of rippling water, a ‘jade porcelain’ bowl. They refine and refract. Alistair Noon‘s reworking of the sonnet foregrounds the dubiety of colour perception from the outset: firstly, by adopting a rhetorical strategy that calls into question the premise of the original poem (‘Sure? I thought they were brown, his eyes’); and secondly, in unpicking its light green stitching and introducing a darker thread. The shade ‘born of black and yellow’ is now ‘greenish brown’, a ‘muddier’ pigment that nudges the sonnet, by some degrees, towards red, the province of Noon’s own Rose of Temperaments poem. In ‘[red]‘, it ramifies outward, a season (summer) and a continent (Europe) taking the colour; and, at the edge of its range, a human subject, ‘lips and gums’ sensitized and ‘enstrawberized’, contemplating each sweep of the ‘radar-hard Med’. Chris Jones’s response to the poem takes the form of an indirect intervention, a parallel text; the body of the sonnet is left intact, but is tagged with footnotes, in which each reference to red is challenged or critiqued, a fourteen-point argument for ‘a greener tinge’ in every line (‘Surely ‘radar’s emerald’?’). As with Noon’s version of Jones’s poem, the opposition of the two colours is both dialectical and literal, to the extent that they threaten to negate or absorb each other. One is a viridescent portrait darkened by a crimson wash; the other is a red canvas in a green frame.
In some respects, red and purple are close neighbours. However, purple was not among the colours of the rainbow identified by Newton, or, for that matter, among those named in Goethe and Schiller’s Rose of Temperaments. It is a composite of red and blue (unlike violet, which is also between red and blue, but occupies its own wavelength of light, and is thus designated a ‘spectral colour’). In her ‘Purple’ sonnet, Helen Mort assigns it a complex value: it speaks of intimacy and estrangement, presence and absence, and of deferred, displaced pain (‘although you’re sure you never fell’), spreading and darkening through the poem, a memory that bruises from lilac to black. The effect is that of an eerie suspension, between unreflecting, abyssal wells (‘too deep and never deep enough’) and the still, shallow irises that stare out from the cover of a children’s book. The irises are violet, a symptom of ocular albinism, in which a lack of pigment in the pupil causes the iris to become translucent and reflect light back. The poem ends with a vision of these eyes: eyes that can only be ‘met’ in the act of closing one’s own, in darkness, in dreams. Geraldine Monk, representing purple (or violet)’s ‘complementary’ hue, restricts its influence to three lines of the octave in her version of Mort’s poem, in which the skin takes the burden: here, the bruise is ‘yellowing’, the epidermis ‘jaundiced’. The yellow of bruising and jaundice is attributable to an excess of bilirubin, which, in turn, refers us to the ‘yellow bile’, or choleric imbalance, hypothesised in the four humours, and which survives in Goethe and Schiller’s Rose of Temperaments. Their colour wheel places yellow on the cusp of the choleric and the sanguine, a state of division that Monk’s ‘Yellow’ acknowledges, ‘harmony and warning / wrapped into one everlasting opposition.’ The poem itself is, appropriately, between states: it is an eighteen-line sonnet, a form that dates to the 16th century (John Donne’s ‘The Token’ is an early example). Monk departs from the alternative rhymed quatrains usually found in the ‘heroic sonnet’, but retains its heroic couplet, by which the poem is summarized and concluded:
Whatever binds this colour to our eyes and hearts
we cannot part its salve and sting of ambivalence.
In Goethe and Schiller’s diagram, the traits and occupations associated with choleric and sanguine temperaments are, respectively, ‘tyrants, heroes and adventurers’ and ‘hedonists, lovers and poets’. Well-marked characters, in other words, demanding attention, as does this colour, above all others: ‘we pick you out yelling the origin of your name’. Etymologically, ‘yellow’ has the same root as ‘gold’ and ‘yell’: gleaming, crying out. Monk alludes to the status of yellow in ancient Egypt, and the belief that the skin and bones of the gods were made of gold. In this setting, they are ‘yellowing with eternity’: an ‘undying dying’. She also considers more recent (and notorious) cultural significations; in particular, the mandatory ‘badges of persecution’ that marked out the Jewish populations of Nazi Europe (a practice first introduced in the early Islamic world, and perpetuated through medieval and early modern Europe). This, the brightest of colours, the shade of ‘springtime sunbeams’, is steeped in sickness, too, and is always tilting towards opacity; as Goethe reminds us, it is ‘a light which has been dampened by darkness’.
A hotel lounge, a Thursday, a late September afternoon. I am sitting at a low table with Geraldine Monk, a Roland R-05 recorder in my hand, an eighteen-line script in hers. After some minutes surveying and testing the acoustics of the reception spaces of the Mercure Sheffield – the lobby, the long corridor parallel to the administration wing, the waiting area adjacent to the spa – we have settled into a padded nook, and are preparing to record her ‘Yellow’ poem. Sounds from the cafe terrace pass through the open doors: squeaking pushchairs, rattling china, and, under it all, the cascades of the Peace Gardens, embodying Sheffield’s rivers and molten steel, encircling the fountain, the white point. We make a first take, of which we are uncertain. We make another. Five lines into the sonnet, the town hall clock sounds its bells, a chime that travels to the end of the poem. We listen to the fade, then look up, for a moment, and look down again, at the small table, its black square, the small vase, its yellow flowers.
The development of The Rose of Temperaments, and the sonnets by Angelina D’Roza and A.B. Jackson, are discussed in ‘White Point’, an earlier blog post. Click here to access the index of all six sonnets commissioned for The Rose of Temperaments. Listen to Geraldine Monk reading her ‘Yellow’ poem at the Mercure Sheffield:
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.
Josef Albers, Interaction of Colour (1975)
I’m staring through the compact square of my office window at the brick wall of a neighbouring property. The double glazing has failed, misting the edges, blurring the foreground, but the brick fills half the frame, and the sun’s light hits the wall, and I say that the brick is red, the wall is red. Beyond the wall, a seam of cloud-strained blues, thinning as the afternoon frets at its tethers, the slow fade of a late English summer. I look again at the wall. It is not red, the brick is dull orange, rust brown, flame and soot. Each brick is unlike the next, each course unpicks the pattern, heat falling and rising, a stain, a bruise, a burn. The lower third is indistinct: fogged glass, coral smears. It is still a wall, a brick wall, but I can’t think of a colour. I google ‘brick red’, to find out what it means, and the image search sends back a gallery of sliced tones, taking in pastel pinks, chocolate browns, flat burgundies, dusty rose. Some of these are commercial paint, wallpaper and vinyl samples rendered as digital previews; some are tagged and coded RGB swatches aimed at web developers; and there are proprietary colour spaces, owned by Pantone and other corporations, in which tints and tones are assigned secure positions in a universal system, each colour a value, each value a constant, expressed in paint, plastics, fabrics and print. The Pantone Smart Swatch designates Brick Red as 19-1543 TCX. This is not, of course, the value that I see when I look out of my window, where the memory of clay has gone soft; nor can I match the neighbour’s wall to any of the search results, all of which claim, or have been claimed for, the authority of ‘brick red’, which now seems no more stable than the clouded blue or the misted glass. Perhaps the idea of ‘brick red’ is an idea only, a shade in the mind. Perhaps it can only exist in the space between two unlike things. Dull orange. Rust brown.
The six sonnets that comprise The Rose of Temperaments, a project conceived by artist Paul Evans and co-curated by Evans and myself, are, in essence, six responses to an invitation to think about colour, or, rather, a specific colour, arbitrarily assigned to each poet earlier this year: red (Alistair Noon), purple (Helen Mort), blue (A.B. Jackson), green (Chris Jones), yellow (Geraldine Monk) and orange (Angelina D’Roza). The original Rose of Temperaments was a colour wheel, devised by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller at the close of the 18th century, in which the spectrum was divided into four quarters and aligned with the traditional temperaments and their respective occupations (among them tyrants, teachers and philosophers). Goethe and Schiller’s annotations nudge the colour wheel beyond the realm of the abstract and the illustrative, linking hues to ancient humoral theory, developed by Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC), who believed that human behaviours and moods were caused by a surfeit or lack of blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. The Greek physician Galen (129 – c.200 AD) adopted and adapted the Hippocratic system for his typology of temperament, the categories deriving their names from the four humours: sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic. Galen also hypothesised the complementary pairing of ‘opposed’ temperaments, a ‘mix’ in which we might find balance or imbalance; these binaries are also implicit in Goethe and Schiller’s diagram, where the choleric (red/orange/yellow) is ‘opposed’ to the phlegmatic (cyan/blue/violet), for example. In Goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810), the symmetric arrangement of colours on the wheel reflects the ‘natural order’: ‘…the colours diametrically opposed to each other… are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands violet; orange [demands] blue; purple [demands] green…’
The question of how much orange might be ‘demanded’ by blue (and vice-versa) is particularly relevant to this project. Having allocated the six colours to the six poets, Evans then arranged them in reciprocal pairs (orange/blue, green/red, yellow/purple), in the spirit of Goethe’s Theory, and invited the ‘paired’ poets to ‘recolour’ a few lines of each other’s completed sonnets. In one such pairing, Geraldine Monk was tasked with adding a yellow tint to Helen Mort’s poem; Helen, in turn, might introduce a dash of purple to Geraldine’s sonnet. Both versions of each poem – the ‘original’ and the ‘recoloured’ sonnet – would be posted on the Rose of Temperaments website. It’s interesting to consider the status of these ‘recolourings’, especially in the light of the fact that Evans, whose previous collaborations with poets have emphasised his work as a visual artist (including the ongoing series The Seven Wonders, a ‘mediation’ of the Peak District focusing on new poems by ten writers, with drawings and paintings by Evans), has elected not to provide any images for the project. Arguably, the absence of illustrations serves to heighten each poem’s visual attributes and impacts, enabling post hoc ‘collaborations’ between the primary poet and the recolouring writer in the second versions of these poems; and, of course, between all six (or twelve) sonnets and their readers, the red of the poem and the red in my mind (or another red in another mind), the anticipation of the incoming green (too little? too much?). The act of reading becomes a (passing, unrepeatable) act of collaboration, the poem’s colour balance shifting in our minds with each encounter. When we contemplate a contemporary colour wheel, we see that there are no hard boundaries on the spectrum: one colour shades into another, with innumerable gradations between red and orange. Goethe and Schiller’s segmented Die Temperamentrose both simplifies and complicates the model: it is both a diagram of affective determinism, in which we find that red is for introverted rulers, and of indeterminacy, as we consider the influence of contiguous colours, and, in particular, ‘the colours diametrically opposed’. Our course (or temperament) may be set, but our position is always relative. The uncertainty of colour is, in many ways, the uncertainty of language.
The Rose of Temperaments unfolded over six weeks in August and September 2016 (coinciding with Sheffield’s Year of Making and the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind, for which the project was commissioned), a ‘primary’ sonnet appearing online every Thursday (with the ‘recoloured’ version following a few days later). The first of the poems to be made public was ‘This Sea the Colour‘, Angelina D’Roza’s ‘orange’ sonnet. It is prefaced with a tone borrowed from another poet (Tony Hoagland): ‘…this orange / and tender light // taking a position inside of me’. One more colour, a trace of which persists as the poem enacts its own shifts, toward the light of the shoreline, a promise of ‘distance’ and diminution (‘ a tiny blemish on a peach’), intimacy and absence. A moving border, on which nothing settles for long, and from which we consider the passing of seasons (the ‘pale orange snow’ and the ‘tan lines’). With only a few locational or directional cues (the land is a desert, the movement is northward), the gradations of orange become the contours of a place. The ’empty space’ is coloured in. In A.B. Jackson’s reworking, the salt shore is lightly mapped, its waters now ‘Persian-impossible’, and the last word is given not to orange, but to ‘blue’. It is hard not to think of ‘the blue of distance’ examined and explored by Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, the second section of which starts from the limits of the visible: ‘The world is blue at its edges and in its depths.’ It is blue that ‘disperses’ in air, ‘scatters in water’, and ‘does not travel the whole distance…’ The blue of distance is ‘the colour of an emotion, the colour of solitude and of desire, the colour of there seen from here, the colour of where you are not.’ This blue, that speaks to us of elsewheres, of longings, shades into A.B. Jackson’s own poem (‘The Blue‘), which opens on a different shore: that of ‘Low Point, Nova Scotia’, a named north, an island’s edge (Cape Breton, in the east of the province). The maritime setting is the pale blue to the ‘outlandish’ indigo of a lobster that surprises a ‘fishing boat crew’; its rarity (the deep blue resulting from a uncommon gene mutation) an omen of good fortune, the colour and the luck both preserved by the decision not to cook the creature (which releases the lobster’s red pigment). Angelina D’Roza’s ‘recolouring‘ of this poem is restricted to a single line, but one which also relocates the fishing crew 1500 miles south-west to ‘Orange Beach, Alabama’, on the Gulf Coast; another blue, another distance. The poem’s preoccupation with accident and augury takes on a darker tone when we remember that Orange Beach was on the edge of the Gulf area contaminated in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in 2010, the ocean basin bruising to black. Both versions invoke a hope, or plea, for ‘good hauls offshore / no fires below’: the thought of flame, its orange flash, returns us to Angelina’s ‘This Sea the Colour’ (‘of fire / and light’), to another shore, another Gulf.
Often, when I think of a colour wheel, I find that I am also thinking of a compass rose; the diametric opposition of colour and direction, the common centrifuge, the white point in the dead centre. Gradation and division. Is there, perhaps, a relationship between direction and colour? Since Newton’s original colour disc (circa 1670), there have been many circular diagrams, but no consensus regarding the orientation of the spectrum, no cardinal directions. Where might we find our north? Is it red? Green? Yellow? Or further off, somewhere between blue and orange?
Click here to access the index of all six sonnets commissioned for The Rose of Temperaments. Further reflections on the project will be posted on the Longbarrow Blog in the near future.
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.
After the storm the concrete pathways
through Hillsborough Park gleam like channels
easing their way through wide estuaries
of silt and sand ferrying moonlight.
‘Moving with Thought’, Matthew Clegg
Friday 24 June 2016, mid-afternoon. It’s Midsummer Day, I’m told, though parts of the internet dispute this. The air is, by turns, vacant, oppressive, turbid and flat. I’ve been awake since 3am, taking in and not taking in the result of the EU referendum, and its fallout: the Prime Minister’s resignation, the sinking pound, the waves of judgment and misjudgment. Dust rises and resettles. The news feeds are choked and refreshed. I slump to the screen, the browser idling, Twitter, Facebook, icons and tabs, thumbnails and microstates. The apparent collapse of certainties at a national level, the sense of a blank prospectus, seems to have emboldened some voices, entrenched others, and silenced many more. I trawl the timelines, picking out bits of mood with which I might agree or disagree, like or unlike. There are short, intemperate verdicts; denunciations and lamentations; feverish petitions; and questions, some rhetorical, some not. None of us, in our chambers and clouds, has any answers. We don’t expect them. What we hope for is contact, connection, the suspension of our unbelonging. What we find is a numbness, the blunt aggregates of reaction, sub-reaction and counter-reaction. Nigel Farage is not nice. Boris Johnson is a buffoon. I skim the bubbles, the pattern repeating, then mutating, a curdling froth at the edges. I have nothing to add, no contribution to make. The network slows and reloads. An interruption from another network finally breaks the cycle; a text message from a friend, reminding me of the Ted Hughes Poetry Festival launch in Mexborough this evening, inviting me to join them, to share the journey from Sheffield. I find that I have limited enthusiasm for company and travel, but even less for solitude and stasis, and so I accept.
The Ted Hughes Poetry Festival is now in its second year, thanks to the continuing efforts of Steve Ely, Dominic Somers, Ian Parks and a team of energetic volunteers. As in 2015, the festival hub is the Mexborough Business Centre, formerly the town’s grammar school, which Hughes attended in the 1940s. The atmosphere in the centre is relaxed, informal, welcoming. People gather in small, open groups, or drift from wall to wall, chatting amiably, greeting newcomers, setting up the bar and bookstall. In one corner stands Ian McMillan, who’ll be joined by two fellow Ians (Parks and Clayton) for this evening’s performance; he’s talking with photographer Karl Hurst, the two men exchanging thoughts on the legacies of the South Yorkshire coalfields, with a dozen of Hurst’s prints of these ‘recovered landscapes’ arranged on the wall behind them. I wander from fringe to fringe, picking up loose threads of conversation, eventually settling at a table with good sightlines, stage left. In all the overheard talk, there is scant mention of Brexit, though it can’t be far from the surface. One theme that does recur throughout the evening – onstage and offstage – is community: not in an abstract sense, or in worthy, dutiful proclamations, but as a lived and living thing, shared and particular, the point from which many of tonight’s poems, tales and songs begin. No-one exemplifies this more than Ray Hearne, a poet, musician and songwriter raised in Parkgate, a few miles south-west of Mexborough, who closes the Friday evening with a set largely drawn from his new album Umpteen. I’ve seen Ray perform in some varied settings over the last few years (including a walk along the South Yorkshire Navigation with Longbarrow poet Matthew Clegg, which Hearne and Clegg have reprised as part of this festival). His work always travels well, always connects, its geographical specificity a portal, and not an impediment, to feeling and understanding, its heritage a common heritage, if only we care to look for it. Ray invites us to add our voices to the choruses of several songs, and the songs add to us; although it’s late, the hall feels fuller at the end, more human. We make ready to leave, and I’m asked if I’d like to come back tomorrow, to help out with a few things; I say yes.
Saturday 25 June 2016, 10am. A small group has assembled near the foyer of the Mexborough Business Centre. Some of us have been issued with yellow aprons, bearing the festival logo, and canvas bags with shoulder straps, bags that I last used when I had a paper round in the 1980s. These bags are not filled with copies of the Daily Mail, but with poetry pamphlets. We are instructed to advance on Mexborough town centre and distribute as much poetry as we can carry to as many people as we can find. Duly laden, we march down a twisting bank in light drizzle, halting at our rendezvous, a bollard in the middle of the pedestrianised High Street. The bollard has been adopted by Bud, a laconic Milwaukeean now resident in Mexborough, who, it transpires, has been waiting for us for nearly an hour. Bud has volunteered to declaim Hughes poems via a portable PA system while the rest of us scatter the pamphlets. Unfortunately, his pitch is adjacent to several market stalls, and the traders have no need of amplification. He must battle it out with the fruit criers. Those of us in aprons disperse along the length of the street. We don’t know how the Saturday shoppers will read us, or the fistfuls of verse, but most of the people we speak to are receptive and friendly, and are happy to take a pamphlet; the few that decline are civil and cheerful. The stock runs down, sooner than expected. I notice that Clegg has disappeared, and decide to make a search of the side streets, to no avail. Minutes later, he reappears in the sky above Poundland, at the edge of the car park roof. Clegg, who is wielding a loudhailer, is joined by Karl Hurst, cradling a camera. The two men calibrate their equipment and train it on the street below. Something that might be an excerpt from Crow bounces off the stalls and shopfronts. A few people look up, trying to get a fix on the sound. More poems spill from the roof, in a loose, distant dialogue with Bud’s ground-level recitation. It’s hard to know what passers-by are taking from this, but it does seem to be changing the space, opening it out, making it a temporary theatre. As midday approaches, the performance winds down, and we regather ourselves for the walk back, pausing to chat with the youth teams at the cricket club opposite the business centre. The centre itself is now beginning to fill with the audience for the festival’s afternoon programme, encompassing readings, discussions and talks on Hughes; it’s at capacity for the evening performance, which features Cathy Galvin, Mick Jenkinson, Helen Mort and Frieda Hughes, the latter, it seems, making her first visit to her father’s old school, calmly conducting a passage through her work while absorbing the spirit of the place. There are some among us who can read this building from back to front: Ted Hughes’s former schoolfriends, involved in this project from the beginning, and who are now in their late 80s. I’m struck by the warmth in the hall, how the organisers, volunteers, poets and audience have used their wits to create a resonant space for speaking and listening. It’s a thought that I try to bear, intact, to Hillsborough, North Sheffield, where I’ll be coordinating a two-day programme of poetry, music and performance in less than two weeks.
Saturday 9 July 2016, 12 noon. I am frowning wordlessly at a frozen laptop and a faulty projector. Earlier in the year, I was asked by Karen Sherwood, founder and director of Sheffield’s Cupola Gallery, to curate the spoken word zone at HillsFest, a wide-ranging, ambitious weekend of art and music planned for Hillsborough Park. Karen visualised the festival as an opportunity to give something back to the communities – the residents, the local businesses – that have supported the gallery throughout its 25 years of existence. Most of the activities, installations and performances will take place in the sprawling, sloping park itself, some in tents and domes, others – like the chainsaw carving – on open ground. For the spoken word programme, we’ve been given the loan of the Bowling Green Pavilion, a modern, rectangular building that nestles in the park’s north-western quarter. Our performance area is the wood-panelled community room, with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the green banks and pitches. I want to make the best possible use of this space, this opportunity (deadlines and budgets permitting). To this end, I spend several weeks assembling a programme of poetry readings, live music, ensemble performances and illustrated talks. Both days are loosely organised around themes of cultural memory and heritage, with the accent on Hillsborough and the neighbouring districts. I don’t want to overdetermine the narrative, though; I want to leave enough space for the audiences to make their own connections between the constituent parts. In some respects, this task is made easier by the fact that a handful of speakers and performers were booked before I took on the role of lead programmer, none of whom I know. Apart from what I can glean from their technical requirements, I’ve only the least inklings of how their sets will look and sound. I like this. It adds an element of uncontrol; it also forestalls the possibility of the weekend becoming an extended Longbarrow showcase. By early June, the line-up is in place, leaving me to focus on the practical issues; working out how many microphones we’ll need, measuring the stage area, compiling details of the musicians’ PA inputs, anticipating the intervals between sets. The weeks pass in a blur of publicity, planning, panic. The weekend of the festival arrives, as does some decidedly mixed weather. This doesn’t affect the work in the pavilion, but it’s an obstacle for the artists, technicians, traders and volunteers setting up in the park. Artboat, a Hillsborough-based creative duo, have been working with several local schools on a series of ‘fantastical birds’, built to mythic scale and ‘flown’ into the park (with the help of the children) the day before. As I’m returning from an errand at the east entrance, I encounter Soo and Charlie from Artboat, working hard to secure the last of the birds against the approaching rain and wind. Wings fixed, we leave; I realise I’m walking in the wrong direction, so I double back, to see a mother and her young daughter paused before the giant bird, both lost in wonder and delight. It’s an image I’ll revisit over the weekend, a reminder of why we’re doing this. Reminders are useful when the rain soaks the park and everything in it, when the pavilion’s club members dispute our room booking, and when the laptop and projector I’m using for the talks develop irreconcilable differences less than an hour before showtime. I reboot and reconnect and get nothing but bleached, flipped and strobing frames, a perished lantern. I’m preparing to flee the scene when my partner Emma arrives with her laptop. Within a few minutes, we have perfect projection, rescuing the event, and me. The rain has stopped. We have the makings of an audience. I take the stage and introduce the first reader.
The first reader is Chris Jones, followed by another Sheffield poet, Shelley Roche-Jacques. Both are on fine form, but I’m tense and distracted, hunched over scraps of paper and bits of kit. I’m worried about overruns and glitches, and I’m anxious about the next performer, Stan Skinny. I know little of his act, other than that it is ‘wrestling-themed’, and that his costume and persona will be suitably brash. Stan has requested a small, square table for his performance, which I’ve promised to supply from the pavilion store cupboard; upturned, the table will convey the effect of a pretend wrestling ring. On the day of Stan’s appearance, however, the pavilion’s stock of square tables has mysteriously shrunk from 4 to 0. The cupboard is bare. Shelley leaves the stage, and I explain the situation to Stan. Together, we rummage through dusty shelves and dark corners; our search yields a metal panel, a handful of sticks, and a length of coloured rope. I pass a roll of gaffa tape to Stan, who does his best with the materials, improvising a wobbly, gnome-sized paddock before disappearing into the changing room. I place the flimsy compound on the stage and wait for him to reappear. After several long minutes, I’m given my cue to start the recorded fanfare, and a cartoon grappler with false features bounds into view: pacing the room, vaulting the chair-backs, baiting the audience and, as the music fades, executing a perfect leap onstage, into the dead centre of the tiny ring. Over the next half-hour, Stan’s character wears down the physical boundaries of the hall, and of the audience, a shouty moustache hell-bent on submission. The act has no connection to anything preceding or following it. What it does do is change the dynamics, for the speakers and the listeners, opening out the space and adding to the sense of possibilities. As ‘disruptive’ as the performance is, it’s effected a process of depolarisation, a rebalancing; there’s less resistance in the room. The audience seems more attuned, or retuned, perhaps.
Stepping into the aftermath is Amanda Crawley Jackson, presenting the first of today’s illustrated talks, which focuses on her work as director of Furnace Park, a derelict industrial site in Shalesmoor that Amanda and a cohort of volunteers have transformed into an outdoor community space; a wasteland seeding new projects, a workshop without a building. The talk introduces ideas of cultural salvage and renewal that will be developed in two further presentations this afternoon: Karl Hurst’s exploration of ‘abandoned space’ and collective amnesia in his photographic practice, which takes the industrial landscapes of his own childhood as a starting point (including Orgreave, a site that, in Hurst’s view, has been depleted, contested, abolished and forgotten); and a lecture by Dr Alexy Karenowska of the Institute of Physics, unpacking the pioneering work of digital archaeology, which enables not only the virtual reconstruction of long-vanished sites of cultural importance, but also the ‘resurrection’ of antiquities recently destroyed by ISIL, such as the Monumental Arch of Palmyra in Syria. The arch, dynamited in 2015, was recreated in Egyptian marble earlier this year, each age-old flaw captured by 3D modelling; the life-size replica was unveiled in Trafalgar Square in April, then sent on a tour of world capitals, before coming to rest in Palmyra itself. It’s a portable echo, a defiance of erasure, a testament of and to collective memory (the 3D model was compiled from hundreds of pre-2015 photographs of the arch, sourced from the Institute of Digital Archaeology’s Million Image Database). In all this, it’s the ideas that persist; the idea of a building that crosses borders, the idea of a small, local community supported by a larger, international community. The resilience of communities and cultures, their capacity to absorb change and welcome newcomers, is a theme taken up in readings by Suzannah Evans and River Wolton (the latter reflecting on Sheffield’s recently-designated status as the UK’s first City of Sanctuary for asylum seekers and refugees), and in a gutsy, moving performance by Ray Hearne. Saturday evening closes with a remarkable set by Sieben (aka Sheffield-based musician Matt Howden): a hour of looped, layered violin, both trancelike and visceral, Howden striking his instrument to create beats, scraping his stubble against the strings, ritual and mass straining through the PA, the energy spilling out of the pavilion. The house lights come up. I scan the room, recognising no-one, this is not the audience we started with. In and out.
Sunday 10 July 2016, 1pm. A clear, still day, and I’ve somehow caught up with my sleep, a full five hours. Easing into my role, I mention the activities in Hillsborough Park, including some that aren’t real, like fossil weaving and sponge racing. No-one seems to notice. Our first speaker, James Caruth, reads a poem for the pigeon lofts of the Penistone Road embankment, a mile south of the park: ‘abandoned crofts / of an island community’. Many of today’s performances and talks will orbit this territory, literally and figuratively. The same dilapidated, contingent structures appear in Fay Musselwhite’s poem ‘Flight from Cuthbert Bank’, the last poem of her afternoon set, in which an encounter with their ‘flaking roof terraces’ conjures a vision of ‘a flock / of men released by work clocks’, called, like the pigeons, ‘to claim their reach of sky’. As Fay notes, the walk that inspired the poem was led by Mark Doyle and Emilie Taylor in 2013, as part of their Unregistered project, a series of walks and workshops focusing on the ‘forgotten spaces’ between Wardsend and Parkwood Springs. Fay’s reading is preceded by a presentation from Mark, who recounts the aims and development of the project, shading in the ‘memory maps’ of North Sheffield with excerpts from interviews with former residents of Parkwood, the oral histories and short films effecting the partial recovery of a world many of them had left decades earlier. Haunting the same landscapes, though reaching further back in time, are Stewart Quayle and Ghosts of the North, with a suite of poems, ballads and tales that illuminates the lives (and deaths) of the people of Wardsend, encompassing the Great Flood of 1864 (which swept through the district) and the Great War, a flight from which many did not return. Visions of the Flood recur in Rob Hindle’s reading (and in Fay Musselwhite’s set, the two poets reimagining the devastation on the rivers Don and Loxley respectively); as the waters recede, we find ourselves in the Hillsborough of the 1930s, Hindle tracing the journey to the Middlewood Asylum made by his great-uncle, another one-way flight, the narrative slowing to walking pace.
It’s now early evening, and we’ve also taken in a reading by Elizabeth Barrett, the words and electronica of Michael Harding and Linda Lee Welch, and a set by Pete Green that links poems and songs on a northward trajectory. As we rearrange the stage for the next performance, I look out at the park, dimly aware of the exchanges and encounters in the grounds below, a faint chainsaw buzz at the north end, a slow, thudding blues to the south. A few people have gathered at the threshold of the pavilion, taking the air, refreshed by a brief, unexpected shower. One by one, I call them in. The next performance brings together two sequences by Matthew Clegg, in which the park and its environs feature heavily: Edgelands and Chinese Lanterns. Edgelands, which has evolved through numerous iterations in performance and on the page, is presented as forty tanka (read by Clegg and Karl Hurst) prefaced by a dictaphone recording of children and scooters at the edge of Hillsborough Park, made in September 2007, shortly after the sequence was written. The taped sounds seem to swell from, then die back into, the chainsaw drone. Chinese Lanterns moves further into the park itself, lifting our eyes to the ‘liquorice clouds’ rising from the nearby Bassett’s factory, lowering the gaze to the rain-glossed ‘concrete pathways’ that now ‘gleam like channels’, before coming to rest in a climbing hammock, ‘the sky a reservoir of darkest blue’. I recall how, in 2013, we’d discussed the possibility of hiring the pavilion for the launch of Clegg’s first collection, West North East, in which these sequences appear. This feels more appropriate, somehow; it’s both a homecoming for the poems, and the occasion of a transformation in the work, the porosity of the sequences echoed by our surroundings, the pavilion doors and windows open to the breeze and its music.
For the last two sets, the room sheds more layers, and gains in intimacy. The PA is scaled back; the blackout material (shielding the projections) is removed from the windows; the performers forgo the stage and set up a few feet from the audience. Sally Goldsmith appears first, threads of song and story running through and beyond her poems, shuffling hats, accompanying herself on squeezebox, a one-woman theatre. There’s a natural warmth and rugged humour at play, and an invigorating conviction, too, the spirited defence of common causes, common land. The final performance of the festival is given by Rommi Smith and Jenni Molloy, a collaboration-in-progress drawing on material from Smith’s Poems from Mornings & Midnights, reworking it as a dialogue for voice and double bass. It’s spellbinding, from the first note to the last, Rommi’s meditations on the hidden histories of jazz and blues women enmeshed with Jenni’s sublime improvisations. As we near the end of the set, Rommi falls silent, and the burden is carried by bass alone; in the spaces between the notes, we hear birds, their evening songs drifting through the open windows, Hillsborough Park at dusk. Although it’s almost nightfall, there seems to be more light in the room than when we started. There is applause, conversation, a moment of farewell. I walk with Rommi and Jenni to their car, and see Karen’s hi-vis tabard in the gloom, emerging from HillsFest’s makeshift control centre. That the festival happened at all is due to the skill, persistence, craft and unglamorous hard work of dozens of people, but Karen is the one who started it all, who kept it going, and who saw it through, however the odds were stacked. Her courage encouraged others. Whether the festival will happen again is a question for another day. For now, it’s enough to take in this last view of the site: the people dawdling towards the exits, the fantastical birds suspended beneath the trees, the smaller birds still singing from them, the sharing of labour and laughter, the pavilion at the park’s edge.
Thanks to the following people for their support for the HillsFest spoken word programme: Adrian Friedli and Steve Manthorpe (for their successful funding bid and initial steering); Mesters Events (for their excellent technical support); Emma Bolland (for staffing the bookstall, rescuing the projector, and countless interventions); Matthew Clegg, Chris Jones and Fay Musselwhite (for staffing the bookstall); all the performers and speakers; all the volunteers; and, in particular, Karen Sherwood, for making it happen.
A network of bright lines falls over experience, like a field system, breaking the grip of totality as the wave breaks on the shore or the air on the mountain side.
A few years ago, Longbarrow Press published The Ascent of Kinder Scout by Peter Riley, a re-envisioning (or a re-walking) of a Peak District landmark; a prose poem (with a parenthetical verse section) that blends cultural history, personal memoir, natural description and anti-austerity invective. It commemorates the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932, a collective act of civil disobedience that, arguably, gave us the National Parks legislation in 1949 and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000, establishing walkers’ rights to travel through common land and open country. It is also a requiem for the welfare state, the purported dismantling of which frequently interrupts the poetic reverie; this makes for a meditation that is certainly timely, if uneasy. The concern with access and equity – and with community and communication – is never far from the surface of the poem, with an implicit invitation to consider what these terms might mean today:
It could all be wiped out at any moment by a falling aeroplane or a Tory axe, this town and all its chat. So it is also necessary to be able to get out, to maintain a summit line in secret, to be still up there in image, spinning on the crest under the moon. Forest! Forest! Moors and mountains! Electronic networks! be there to protect the forsaken.
The ‘town’ is not named, but we might think of it as one of the settlements on the edge of the Peaks, or, further north, perhaps one of the towns in the Calder Valley, where Riley is now based. One of the reasons why the Kinder plateau became a focus for the right to roam movement in 1932 was that it offered working people respite from the polluted, congested industrial towns and cities to the west and east of the Peak District. Since then, of course, the manufacturing sectors have declined or disappeared in many of these towns, with the economic consequences of deindustrialization still manifest today. We might infer from this extract that the viability of these communities is now decided by transport infrastructure and broadband speeds; with bus services under seemingly permanent threat in rural areas, and library services closing all over the UK, access to the ‘electronic networks’ becomes increasingly important in determining our access to, and experience of, place. Digital technology is how many of us now encounter places that we cannot afford to visit. However, access to this technology is far from universal. A little over 80 years ago, Kinder Scout was the sole province of the Duke of Devonshire and the grouse-shooting gentry. The right to roam physical territory has since been established, but no comparable rights of access to digital space exist; in an age in which almost everyone is expected to register online for basic services, many are digitally excluded.
I’d like to recount some of my experiences as a member of a digital community, in my capacity as editor of Longbarrow Press and in my own walking and writing practice. Longbarrow Press was launched in 2006, exploring the possibilities of print through a range of non-standard publishing formats (maps, posters, matchboxes), while pursuing alternatives to the conventional poetry reading (multimedia performances, installations, poetry walks). However, the press lacked even a basic web presence for the first five years of its existence. With hindsight, it’s possible to argue that this allowed us to establish an aesthetic and an ethos – and, indeed, an audience, a community – independent of digital agendas and conventions. At the time, though, it felt like an obstacle to our creative development and to our audience development. Publications could only be advertised and sold at events, or via a small-circulation email list. Events were advertised through paper flyers, the distribution of which was ad hoc and erratic. There was nowhere to encounter our work online, with only brief sightings populating the search results. I’d like to think, though, that this extended period of digital obscurity, while awkward, gave us time to devise the form that the Longbarrow website, and its associated outputs and platforms, would eventually take: what it would need, and what an audience might need from it.
The Longbarrow website went public in spring 2011. One of the reasons for the lengthy delay was that I was both inhibited by my lack of technical expertise, and too stubborn and tight-fisted to entrust the job to anyone else. I’d assumed that there would be a lot of coding involved, and costly set-up charges and maintenance. After a friend introduced me to WordPress, and showed me how to create a simple, effective, self-administered site, I realized that the expertise could be acquired gradually, on a need-to-know basis. I spent the first few hours formatting text, then added a few photos, then embedded a few links. Within a couple of days, I had a competent, well-designed site, focusing on new and ongoing projects while doubling as an archive for several years of Longbarrow essays, interviews and photos. However, I was more interested in exploring the creative potential of this new resource; in making new work that could be crafted with digital tools and disseminated online.
Around this time, I’d also invested in an Edirol digital audio recorder, a lightweight, high-quality device with which I’d begun to make recordings of poets reading their work in varied settings, from waste ground to churches, moorland to sea caves; reflecting and, I think, enhancing the engagement with place that has been a feature of our collective working practices from the outset. Within a few months, I had a small archive of these recordings, but little incentive to edit them, and nowhere to put them. The website gave me the motive and the resource; I taught myself the basics of editing on Audacity (free, open-source audio software), signed up to SoundCloud (on a free account), and began to upload the first few tracks, and also to embed these on the Longbarrow website. What I hadn’t realized was that SoundCloud was (at that time, at least) also a digital community (something that Longbarrow poet Mark Goodwin, who has curated a number of SoundCloud groups, was quick to recognise; these groups include air to hear, in which the exploration of poetry-and-sound (and poetry as sound) is to the fore, as is Mark’s support for his fellow makers). Before long, SoundCloud users in Germany, Canada and Australia were listening and commenting on our recordings, seemingly unprompted by us. For me, it was particularly significant that perfect strangers, half a world away, were encountering this side of our work: the recordings are documents of the poets at a particular time, in a particular place, with the external conditions (weather and traffic, for example) determining – and audibly part of – the ‘flow’ of the work. It meant a great deal that someone in Arizona could hear a recording that we’d made under a pylon in Hillsborough just a few days before, with the crackle of rain falling through the power-line. Each of these recordings is a field in itself.
Shortly afterwards, I also picked up an inexpensive digital movie camera, and started to make a few short films for Longbarrow, encompassing performance footage, landscape studies and animated stills, which were uploaded to Vimeo and embedded on the Longbarrow site. As interesting as this was, and useful in the development of our practice, I found the process less absorbing than the audio work. Perhaps I was disengaging from the moving image; perhaps I was looking for a different kind of immersion. In late 2012, Matthew Clegg and I travelled to Flamborough Head on the East Yorkshire coast, where we spent a morning recording a sequence of poems in a sea cave. Along with the recordings of the poems, we also captured Matt’s considered reflections on the sequence, and his improvised responses to the conditions in the cave: the shifting light, the colours in the chalk and in the rock, the tide-swell breaching the cave-mouth. On returning to Sheffield, I spent two days sifting three hours of material for a thirty-minute podcast, with an accompanying essay by Matt, both of which were uploaded to the Longbarrow website (and reposted here). The extended format of the podcast invited us to rethink our ideas about structure, time and the experience of ‘place’. I was conscious of the artifice brought to bear on the recordings; although I’d refrained from interfering with the natural acoustic that we’d discovered in the cave, I’d changed the sequencing of the fragments of commentary, with Matt’s closing remarks now appearing at the start of the podcast, for example, and the rest of the material was reordered according to the narrative that I – or we – sought to present. And it worked. After two days of lengthy, intensive editing sessions, we were able to share the portable, constructed space of the sea cave. The art of the podcast – indeed, of any editorial work – is in concealing the process. The mess and clutter of process is cleared out of the field; the resulting work is an artifice of trance assembled from moments of trance. If the listener’s ear is disturbed by glitches or clumsy edits, then the trance of listening is broken and the cave, the field, the place, disintegrates, becomes digital dust.
Since then, we’ve continued to develop the podcast series, with field visits to Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, West Yorkshire, and, last August, Denaby Ings nature reserve, a wetland site in South Yorkshire where Matthew Clegg and I spent an afternoon listening to rain beating on the metal roof of a bird hide, the damp air folding around us like sheets, lending an unexpected intimacy to the recording. One of the reasons why I enjoy working with the Edirol is that it’s unobtrusive; unlike a film camera, it doesn’t disturb the visual field, and it doesn’t project a visual field. Towards the end of the afternoon’s recording in the bird hide, I’d almost forgotten it was there. On this occasion, however, I also decided to take some images, documenting the process and the place, and these found their way into a Longbarrow blog post reflecting on the experience. For me, it’s important that our work online – the podcasts, the essays, the short films – should have a value in and of itself, rather than as part of a promotional strategy; it’s also important that this work should remain free and accessible to all (the aforementioned issues around digital exclusion notwithstanding). Obviously, if we are to survive as a press, then we do need to sell books, but the sense of exchange – of reciprocity – within the digital community is much more valuable. When I think of the digital community with regard to Longbarrow and my own practice, I’m usually thinking of Twitter; for the last five years, it’s been a vital part of our audience engagement, making connections with people we would almost certainly not have encountered otherwise, and, just as importantly, whose work and friendship we have enjoyed in return.
I’d like to close with some reflections on the part that Twitter has played in the development of my own writing practice. In August 2010, I set off for a three-day walk along the east coast of England: Felixstowe to Lowestoft, a meander of 80 miles or so. Breaking a habit of several years, I left my camera at home; my only recording instruments were pen, paper and a text-only mobile phone. Although I hadn’t attempted any creative writing for several years, I began composing haiku on the hoof; drafting them on scraps of paper and then, as night fell, typing them directly into my phone, texting the poems to a handful of friends. A few years later, I decided to revisit these poems – a sequence of 20 or so – at around the same time that I set up a Twitter account for my own work. As many users have observed, haiku is ideally suited to Twitter. The formal constraints of the poem (17 syllables) are neatly enveloped by the constraints of the application (140 characters): a field within a field. It therefore seemed a natural step to rework the sequence online, posting one poem each day. Some poems were revised; some were left unrevised; some poems were omitted; new poems were drafted and included. Revisiting the work also prompted me to revisit the territory I’d walked a few years previously. I fished out the Landranger maps I’d used on the journey: mediations of place that, over the course of three days, had in turn been mediated by the place itself – rain-wrinkled corners, impacted mud, insect traces and other imprints and residuum of Suffolk. After mining the physical map for its memories, I turned to Google Maps. Without realising it, a process of sorts was beginning to evolve.
I set off for a walk, usually on or near the east coast of England, usually somewhere between 12 hours and three days. There’s something in the eastern counties that is especially conducive to rhythm and trance; a depth of field apparent in the flat landscapes, the earth finite and low, the sea a distant border. I don’t take a smartphone, or a camera, but I do carry maps, paper and pen. A few days or weeks after the walk, I will often find myself with the beginnings of a sequence of poems. This moves me to reexamine the notes I have made, the maps I carried with me, and the digital version of the landscape, the multiple layers of Google Maps, satellite images, spatialized street views. The poems that develop from this process are where the physical, paper and digital territories intersect. The haiku and tanka are then posted on Twitter, a kind of public sketchbook for this purpose, the drafts digitally dated and assimilated to the timeline, absorbed by an expectant field, then parcelled into a sequence of fields. Although the paper and digital maps do intersect in the making of the poem, I’m very much aware that they can’t be reconciled; the land features and the retail tags are discrete, neither belonging to the other, the bounded, furrowed sheet of print, the scrolling, scalable screen. The paper map, of course, can only hold so much text, can only support so many symbols. The digital map – non-linear, multi-dimensional, multi-platform – is constrained only by bandwidth. Clickable fields of harvested data, bright icons in embedded space, colour-coded clusters in the digital estate. We imagine ourselves moving through this territory, and we do move through it, pitching and rolling through Street View, pivoting around blurred faces and license plates. And yet the privileging of commercial data on Google Maps often seems to overwhelm the territory itself, even in rural and suburban areas.
Wichelstowe, in Swindon, Wiltshire, is a new urban extension to the south of the town, built on a flood plain between a former branch railway line and the M4. The infrastructure works started in 2006, but the development was paused in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and partially restarted a few years later. Of the planned districts of West, Middle and East Wichel, only the latter has been built, a housing project comprising around 800 homes, most of which were completed by 2012. Surveying the first two, on foot, we encounter no buildings or foundations, only hooded lights, roads blocked by concrete cylinders, signage for places that still don’t exist.
In the ‘Street Map’ view of East Wichel, we find a network of roads, evidence of settlement, businesses and services named and located: The Bayberry public house, East Wichel Community Primary School, Kevin Jones Psychic Medium. Four years after the first residents moved in, there are still no shops on the estate; there is, however, a new Waitrose half a mile to the west, and a short stretch of restored canal, marking the boundary of what might, one day, become Middle Wichel.
In the ‘Satellite’ view currently displayed on Google Maps, the screen has frozen on the old territory, still caught in pre-development: a binary ghost, haunting the landscape, the field system yet to be dismantled by Taylor Wimpey. It is 2008, 2009, a timeline breaking off, the new development yet to be authenticated. Digital space disinvests from physical space. The streets are white lines that fade out as you close in; the bricks sink back into the ground. The fledgling community is erased.
Down from the old line,
sunk in clay: parcels of land,
projecting the plain.
The home is approved
in outline, in plan. It takes
years to colour in.
Still wrapped, the stop lights
and idle rubble: lost maps
of Middle Wichel.
A bridge to nowhere,
abandoned to a wide-skied
The new settlement
starts without us. We won’t live
to see it finished.
We could walk out there,
take stock: the fens filling in,
the sky building up.
An earlier version of this text was presented at Digital Re-enchantment: Place, Writing & Technology, a one-day symposium convened by Dr David Cooper (Department of English, Manchester Metropolitan University) at Great Hucklow, Derbyshire, Saturday 11 June 2016. My thanks to David Cooper and Helen Darby of MMU, and to my fellow speakers: Clare Archibald, Emma Bolland, David Borthwick, Sarah Cole and Charles Monkhouse.
Click here to listen to the Longbarrow audio podcasts discussed in this piece.
There’s a kind of line, of light, a thought line, which cuts through false histories and comes towards us from the devastated zones. […] And always the experience wrapped in the line is that of the work force.
The Ascent of Kinder Scout, Peter Riley
The reconstruction of post-war London is a story of displacement and drift. An estimated one million homes were erased from the capital during the Blitz, the rubble later reburied in pitches, mounds, and the airfields of East Anglia. A smaller number of properties vanished under the auspices of the Slum Clearance Act, introduced in 1955, a revival of a programme interrupted by the Second World War. Before the bomb sites and bad houses could be scratched from the streets, before a vision of high-rise living could be built up from sketches, temporary solutions to the housing crisis were being pieced together at the city’s edges: the quick, new prefabs, plotted in 1944 and delivered within weeks of the war’s end, their concrete walls framed in timber or steel, the steel recycled from Anderson shelters. The Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act legislated for 300,000 prefab units for the UK, only half of which were built. The immediate demand for new homes, unmet by the recovering city, led the London County Council to adopt a policy of dispersal, relocating families from Inner London to satellite estates in the Home Counties, and further afield, to the designated ‘overspill towns’ and new towns of East Anglia, the South East, and settlements in the west. Like the East End evacuees of the 1940s, many of the rehoused Londoners would never return to the capital, the short-term plan drifting in the middle distance, the future dragging on, and the prefabs becoming fixtures, outliving their span, some still standing decades later, asbestos in the bungalow roofs.
Among the overspill towns was Swindon, 71 miles west of London, halfway between Reading and Bristol. Unlike a number of its counterparts in the South East, Swindon was not a new town. Recorded in the Domesday Book as Suindune, the Anglo-Saxon settlement, built on limestone and chalk, developed as a centre for barter trade, its growth accelerating with the construction of two canals in the early 19th century. A few decades later, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was authorised to build a central repair works for the new Great Western Railway a few miles north of the old settlement, resulting in further expansion, and Swindon’s transition from a market town to a railway town. With the works came a workers’ community, the first houses appearing in 1846, terraced cottages on parallel grids, a model village in Bath stone. The Mechanics’ Institute, formed in 1844, offered a series of evening classes, concerts and lectures in borrowed factory space, moving into purpose-built premises ten years later with the support of The New Swindon Improvement Company, a local co-operative. These organisations helped to make the railwaymen among the best-educated manual workers in the country. The Institute also established the UK’s first lending library, starting with a small collection of books gathered by toolmakers; and a health centre, built up through a subscription-based medical fund, that provided first the railwaymen, then other Swindonians, with a cradle-to-grave service that Nye Bevan later adopted as a blueprint for the NHS.
The town was still expanding in the 1960s, even as the power drained from the railway works, its role downgraded from locomotive building to rolling stock maintenance. The Pressed Steel Company, a car manufacturer, had rapidly overtaken the GWR works as the largest employer, rivalled by Plessey (electronic components) and Vickers (aviation), orbited by secondary industries. Many of the employees of these companies were Londoners, incomers, overspill, rinsed from the city; others had relocated from South Yorkshire, following Plessey’s decision to close its Rotherham unit and open a new factory in Swindon; and some were Polish refugees, temporarily quartered in POW barracks after the war, at the sharp end of the housing shortage. North of the railway works, the new estates of Pinehurst and Moredon saw their prefabs gradually replaced with brick houses; to the east, the even younger suburbs of Walcot, Park South, Park North, Covingham and Lawn, a mix of council and private estates. During this period of expansion, the borough council also offered support to small groups seeking plots of land on which to build their own homes from scratch. The land for these projects, provided by the council as part of an interest-free loan package, was mostly sourced in the east of the town, in the gaps between light industry and open country. In April 1961, a group of 14 men entered one of these gaps, a small piece of the Lawn estate, and started to dig out their settlement.
The Tenby Close self-build scheme included bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and plasterers. Among them was my father, a carpenter, newly married, employed by a local building firm, with which he would remain for the next 38 years. Under the terms of the scheme, the men were contracted to work on the site for a minimum number of hours per week, with any extra hours at their own discretion. My father worked all day on Saturdays and Sundays, and a few evenings during the week, the hours lengthening as the scheme developed. Throughout the two years spent building the close, my parents lived with my father’s mother in her council house in Wroughton, a large village south of Swindon, close to The Ridgeway, an ancient track that spans the Chilterns and North Wessex Downs, and Avebury, where the track has its origin, shadowed by chalk mounds and chambered barrows. It’s unclear if or how often my parents visited these landscapes, as most of their waking hours were spent at work. Towards the end of the self-build scheme, the men drew lots for each semi-detached house, an agreement drawn up to ensure consistency in their collective endeavour, to write fairness into the design. My father drew number 6. My mother joined him in decorating their new home, their first and only home, finally moving in during the cold spring of 1963. The total cost of the house to them was £2,000, including the land, the legal expenses, the laying of road. They’d reached it by hard work, applied skill, thrift, patience, love, at a time when this was enough, when the means were enough, and the ends were enough.
The first years fly, a son, then a gap, a second son, another gap, another son. The edges of the house soften, the work is continual, to adapt, convert and extend. The sitting room loses its partition, the attic gains stairs, windows, a bedroom. In time, it is followed by an extra garage, the other serving as a workshop, and a white room for white goods. Most or all of this my father does himself. The cupboards are built-in, the shelves recessed in the walls, dry glaze on dark timber. It is a deceptively plain craft, done without fuss or fetish, there are measurements, pencilled plans, materials sourced and cut to size, edges meet or do not meet, there are adjustments, slowly, millimetre by millimetre, the angle is made, and everything fits, and everything works. Nothing is left undone or unfinished. Outside of the house, the firm loads him with jobs, scattering the Wiltshire downs, some landing in Berkshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, but most of them in or near Swindon, new space, old space, set fast in concrete. A thought, in the 1970s, of setting up in business for himself, he and my mother discuss this, she would do the accounts, but the uncertainty, the insecurity, he will not put his family at risk. It is a thought put to one side. And he does not put his family at risk, he does not neglect them, he is gentle and giving with his wife and sons at the end of the worked hours. He takes us to the lending library, where we think for ourselves, to the swimming pool on Milton Road, a legacy of the medical fund, to the hides, forts and clumps south of Swindon. He builds, and the buildings stand. He builds a school, the comprehensive that my brothers and I will attend, a fact of which I am ignorant for years. I learn to build, with Lego and Meccano and then with bits of dark I find in the wardrobe, built into my bedroom wall, idle blocks of pitch. I climb inside and close the doors behind me. I am six or seven. I fold my knees and wait for the blackout, falling back to the war, to a time before me, a time before our house, a time before colour. I fall further, the wardrobe is a limestone barrow, action figures on the damp ledges. And I fall out of time, into space, the dust disc east of Mars, the asteroid rubble. On corrugated cardboard all the known planets line up, in felt pen, red, green and blue, each pleat stands for ten million miles. I scrunch my shut eyes and see a mass drift. Dim spheres, a field of gas giants, dots of light beyond Saturn. The wardrobe ends with Pluto.
All the men are gone from the close, now, my father among them. Several days after he died, my mother handed me a list, names and numbers, men my father had worked with. Names I’d never heard of, names from the 70s, some my father hadn’t seen in decades. My mother wanted them to know what had happened, that the asbestos had caught up with him, and to thank them for their help in the last months, their best recollections of their working conditions, the statements given to the industrial disease lawyer appointed by my parents. I called each number in turn, not knowing how to begin, how to introduce myself, how to find the tone. “It’s Ray Lewis’s son”, I would start, then stop. I knew what my father meant to my mother, my brothers, the branches of our family, neighbours, friends and acquaintances, but I hadn’t heard it from these men, men who perhaps knew him only slightly, but who now sounded as stricken as I felt. Mostly they wanted to thank him, as I did, for the things he’d done, and how he’d done them. He was not a man who sought credit or craved status. Whatever anxieties or disappointments he experienced in his life were shielded from his family. As far as careers advice went, his only wish for his sons was that they didn’t follow him onto the buildings. The most professional worker I ever knew, he was naturally suspicious of amateurs with expensive tastes, of confidence and bluff, but there was no bitterness in his voice. To be ‘made’, to be ‘self-made’, didn’t interest him. To ‘make something of yourself’ was not to elevate yourself above others, but to make yourself useful, to do your best, with the resources at hand. And he did this, I think, to the end of his short retirement, making dolls’ houses, restoring my brothers’ houses, tending his allotment, cleaning the neighbours’ gutters. The craft and the slog, never one without the other. Even when illness diminished his own resources, he was still working, and working for the best: showing us not what to build, or how to build, but that it was possible to build. On occasions after his death, I would visit the community centre in Lawn, the centre that my mother and other local residents had spent decades campaigning and working for and finally secured, and look to the cabinet he’d constructed in a corner of the hall, discreet and useful. It’s still there, of course, years later, loved and remembered.
i.m. Raymond Lewis
01.12.1934 – 23.08.2007
A map of the old city: off-white, off-centre, its grey pleats blurred in the upload. At the north-western corner, the road out darkens with the tramway, passing a congregational church, a cricket ground, and a black-edged barracks, before the tram is caught by its own terminus and the road splits at the river. This is Hillsborough, sketched in the 1880s, not yet incorporated within the City of Sheffield. Two decades on from the Great Flood, we see a handful of lanes, a suburb’s bare bones. We don’t see the recovering industry, the vanishing chapels, the new streets in their neat script, pencilled in at the century’s turn: Rudyard Road, Rider Road, Haggard Road, Kipling Road.
‘Kipling Road’ is the first poem in Rob Hindle’s sonnet sequence ‘Hillsborough to Middlewood, February 1931′. Published in 2013, it retraces a journey made by Hindle’s great-grandparents’ son, Harold, eighty years before: a journey of little more than a mile, a journey that will take him out of the city and into the West Riding. We are to infer that this itinerary is his last. The sequence is narrated in the first person, the poet steering himself, and us, through a world that is half-familiar and half-imagined, in the present tense, at street level, at walking pace. The two journeys – the poet’s, and the great-uncle’s – maintain a slight distance from each other, from the territory they move through, and from us. There is much that we do not know. We do not know if Harold’s departure was accomplished on foot, or by other means; whether or not it was made voluntarily. The sequence offers glimpses of thresholds – historical, physical, emotional – that may or may not yield to our touch. Yet it is this quality of indirectness that gives the work its intimacy; we sense more than we see, slowing, pausing, ‘feeling the air for a way in’.
No through road, no exit. Kipling Road is one of several blind alleys built on ground formerly occupied by the old tramway terminus, a corner of which will be reclaimed for the Hillsborough Interchange a century later. Two terraces, each of seven houses, odd numbers lined up against even numbers. At the dead end of the street, where the cars wait and turn, we find a grass slope banked against a stone wall; behind the stone wall, a higher breezeblock wall; behind the breezeblock wall, a tall wooden fence, above which we can make out the pitched roofs of bus shelters. Little else escapes the fence: a faint burr of engine noise, the hum of buses caught between arrival and departure. A single turret, sinking from sight as we near the wall. We can’t see the rest of the barracks, but they’re there, south and west, changed into retail, business, split-level parking, the cavalry gone, the infantry gone. The street, as we find it, is innocent of these comings and goings, it doesn’t know what happened to the parade ground. It won’t tell you what happened here last week. This isn’t public property, the windows and doors silent, shut, slanting the enquiry. It is sound, leaking from one side or another, that sets things moving, that primes this vision of flight:
Now there is the click of a back door,
the chitter of a budgerigar.
Then you are hurrying from one of these houses,
hair brushed, tangled feet booted […]
There is one way out of the terraces, a left turn, Kipling Road to Rudyard Road, a right turn, then the last few yards of Langsett Road, the Loxley beneath it, unscrambling from the weir, dark and diminished. The poems pick up the ‘bright thread’ of the tram lines, silvering the road from Hillsborough to Middlewood, its subtle incline, snagging when we pause to look around us, fading when we stop to look back. Shoppers and passers-by seem to take on the shade of the great-uncle, his ‘fumbling’, his ‘lurching’, closing in, disturbing the air. The direction is certain, the movement hesitant. East of the tram lines, the ‘thin green’ of Hillsborough Park, its dogs and dog walkers, distant and slow. North-west of the park, the tree-lined suburbs of Middlewood and Wadsley, hiding their separateness, their spread, their wealth. The tram lines run out and the city falls behind them. And here is memory, sharpening on these new edges, glancing off familiar details: the post box, the school,
the park where I rushed along one day, my mind,
gleeful and vicious, running after me. Middlewood,
childhood cant, that thing in all our cellars,
I shouldn’t have dared. I pay out my breaths
like twine, each step shortening.
Middlewood Hospital (formerly known as the South Yorkshire Asylum, the West Riding Asylum (Wadsley) and Wadsley Mental Hospital) opened in 1872 to accommodate the overspill from the West Riding County Asylum at Wakefield. Over the decades, it gradually expanded from 750 beds to over 2,000, with many of these requisitioned for emergency use by the War Office during World Wars I and II; this number was sharply reduced during the 1980s, as psychiatric patients began to be released into the care of their local authorities, and the hospital finally closed in 1996. Shortly afterwards, the site was acquired for residential development, the expansive grounds, superb views and good transport links making it the natural setting for an exclusive village, retaining many of the original structures; the old clock tower, restored and converted, now watches over the new apartments to the rear. It was here, a mile or so from Kipling Road, that Harold Hindle was brought in 1931, and it was here that he died in the following year. He was 27 years old.
The final poem in the sequence is an encounter with the redeveloped site, or, rather, those parts of the village accessible or visible to the non-resident: Kingswood Hall and Middlewood Lodge are locked away behind secure, gated entrances. In London Orbital (2002), his psychogeographical survey of the M25, Iain Sinclair addresses the rehabilitation of the former psychiatric hospitals and asylums at the edges of the capital; as the late 1980s property boom began to eat up more space, these dormant, unloved sites were reappraised for their proximity to the new motorway, offering rural character, seclusion and discretion. Buildings that were designed to keep people in – monitored by staff, unseen by the ‘outside’ world – were redesigned to keep people out. Purged of their ghosts, cleansed of their dirt, the estates assume new names, a selective heritage. We are not invited to poke around. Hindle leaves us at the gates of Wadsley Park Village, where
the locked front door gleams and the tiny cameras
look at everything. As I leave something clicks, twice:
tut tut. Through your eyes I see myself out.
‘Hillsborough to Middlewood, February 1931’ is one of five long poems and sequences by Rob Hindle (under the collective title Flights and Traverses) in the walking-themed anthology The Footing (Longbarrow Press, 2013); click here for more information about the book. Hindle reflects on the research and development of the poems and sequences in this essay. Click here to visit his website.
Listen to Rob Hindle reading ‘Kipling Road’:
We are entering the capital of a lesser empire
where the plans of our masters surface betimes —
pins on a map at the Ministry of Natural Calamities,
and the statistics like crisp new folding money.
‘Beyond hope and the Lea River’
East London, a March morning, the low zeros: the first spring of a new millennium, the last winter of the old century. I’m on the southeastern edge of Canning Town, looking at the makings of the new ExCel building, under construction near the site of the former Royal Victoria Dock. Opened in 1855, the Victoria Dock was scaled for a new class of steamships; with the Albert Dock (1880) and the King George V Dock (1921) extending to the east, the Royal Docks formed the largest enclosed docks in the world. By 1980, they were empty of traffic, outscaled by Tilbury’s sea-facing container port, the deep basin at the mouth of the Thames. The docks retain their water, the ownership transferring from the Port of London Authority to the Royal Docks Management Authority Limited in the 1980s. The docks retain their titles, and lease them to the new, unmanned metro, the Docklands Light Railway, rolling into the Enterprise Zone, phase by phase, station by station: Royal Victoria, Royal Albert, two stops, an elevated section, surveying the incoming stacks, the hotels and apartments, their flags of no nation. The private water, the corporate border. Shortly before the year’s end I bought a pocket A-Z. It is now useless, the names on the map have been removed from the ground, the white spaces that I came here to haunt have been coloured in. And this is where the map runs out, cutting the airport and regatta in half, two miles east of the meridian.
The water running to the west of the Royal Docks is the River Lea, formerly the Essex border, before the county boroughs of West Ham and East Ham were assigned to the London Borough of Newham in 1965. The borough’s eastern boundary is the River Roding, close to where the poet Ken Smith settled in the early 1980s; Smith, formerly of Yorkshire, Exeter, Pennsylvania and Kilburn, would remain in East Ham until his death in 2003. Shortly after the move, he began work on The London Poems, a series of twelve-line poems (each composed of three quatrains) that would form the centrepiece of his 1986 collection Terra. Fourteen of these poems were selected for The House of Numbers (1985), a pamphlet from Smith’s own Rolling Moss Press, accompanied by several photographs by Stephen Parr. The poems and the photographs show the docklands in profile, from the Isle of Dogs to Woolwich, its bad dreams of decline and redevelopment: oblique, caustic and dialectical by turns, the pamphlet has the urgency (and something of the appearance) of a samizdat report from an occupied sector. Observations are recast as allegory; sour jokes are embedded in government policy; enciphered conversations leak from the faulty electrics. A zone of transition, in which almost all transit is suspended, threaded and encircled by ‘miles of wire’, distanced and disconnected from the city it once served. A zone of enterprise, patrolled by snatch squads, paramilitaries and private militias, their allegiance shifting from contract to contract, shadowed by workless ex-soldiers, ex-dockers. The poems are sidelong dispatches, filed on the run, a dossier of riddles, rumours and rhetoric:
My friend Napoleon visits Farina’s Café.
There is no message. He meets no one.
It is mysterious because there is no mystery
but Napoleon is now in the house of numbers.
‘Beyond hope and the Lea River’
The naming of districts in The House of Numbers is metonymic, suggestive, spare; the pamphlet is not a gazetteer or street atlas of East London. No markers, no pins. The poems’ titles (‘In Silvertown, chasing the dragon’, ‘The meridian at Greenwich’) lead us to the edges of the territory. We are left to fill in the blanks. Smith hints at the number and nature of the ‘blanks’ that have been, or will be, created in the residential and industrial sectors; the cleared terraces, the derelict mills, the ‘slow workless docklands going cheap’. Dead and dying space, parts of which will remain dead for a generation, fenced off by prudent developers, before re-emerging as ‘new space’ at the turn of the millennium. The House of Numbers is not so much concerned with the topography of the spaces it reports from as it is with the relationships within and between these spaces, and, in particular, with the people that inhabit them. One consequence of the restructuring of the docklands was that it made the local population less visible; the transfer of some residents from low-rise terraces to tower blocks, the dispersal of others to the ends of the borough, and the gradual disappearance of shops, pubs and amenities left many streets as silent as the docks. As Smith observes in ‘Clipper Service’:
Now the natives are proud and scattered
and lonely in the high rises, living
as they always lived: thieving or work
when there’s work. There’s none now.
The erosion and displacement of these communities was a process, rather than an event. However, two episodes in the last century’s wars made a significant contribution to this process. London was an accidental casualty of the Luftwaffe’s early campaigns; a lone bomber, tasked with a hit on Tilbury, struck the East End instead. The ensuing cycle of retaliation led to the London Blitz, in which the Port of London was a prime target; the raids on the docks also damaged or destroyed neighbouring factories and a substantial amount of housing stock. Some of the most severe losses were sustained in Silvertown, a narrow strip of reclaimed marshland between the Royal Docks and the Thames. Silvertown took its name from the rubber factory established by S.W. Silver & Co in 1852; the company’s decision to open their works in the area may have been influenced by the fact that it was just outside the zone in which ‘toxic industries’ were prohibited (by the recent Metropolitan Building Act). With the development of the docks, other industries followed, including chemical works, flour mills and the rival sugar refineries of Henry Tate and Abram Lyle (merged in 1921). They were joined in 1893 by the Brunner Mond factory, which produced soda crystals and caustic soda. The company ceased production of the latter in 1912; four years later, the production area was still unused, which led the War Office to requisition it for the purification of TNT. On 19 January 1917, a fire ignited 50 tons of explosives, destroying the plant, a fire station, a school and a church, and damaging 70,000 properties. Seventy-three people were killed; more than 400 were injured. Thousands were left homeless. Parliament debated relocating Silvertown’s residents elsewhere, rather than investing in rebuilding; for the 600 houses that fell, 400 new houses were built. Two decades later, the town’s population and infrastructure were further reduced by the Blitz, with hundreds dying over the months of the campaign, and hundreds more dispersed through war service or evacuation, many of whom would never return to the area. Some of the blanks were filled in after the war, with prefabs and new shops, a decline slowed by partial reconstruction. And some of the blanks remained blank: the grounds of the devastated TNT plant still unbuilt and empty at the century’s close, shrinking from each renewal, a white, wrinkled scar.
And no one to remember. No messages
passed late at night across borders, by hand,
by word of mouth, we who are lost together
telling tales the prisoner spins the jailer.
‘The meridian at Greenwich’
The docks divide, west from east, Victoria from Albert, a swing bridge stuck between Canning Town and Silvertown, two lanes southbound, two lanes northbound. It is a fresh spring Saturday, four years and one hundred metres to the side of my first visit to the docklands. The ExCel frame reddens the west, its finish taking the morning light. The two hundred metres between the exhibitions centre and the bridge is a parking grid, white on grey, clean intervals flatten the waterfront, there are grades of supervision, enforcement and protection. All the bays are bare. I follow the guard rail to the swing bridge, passing under the tarmac lanes, to a marina chipped out of the Albert Dock. The east-facing rail has a heritage panel with an industrial plan of the dock area. A bunch of cellophane tied to the mesh, one or two stems sinking in the layers, a bleached card, a message I can’t read. Beyond it, the airport runway, the resurfaced wharf, wet lights of the corporate jets. I step back, to the brick octagon of the old pump house, to the steel ventilation pipes that curve from the deck. Preserved features. The first time I stood here, at the end of a whim, a space that no one belonged to. I didn’t think to ask what had happened and now there is no one I can ask. Out and overhead, the cars, the control cabin, the commercial aircraft.
A mile west of the Lea River, rising from the silt of the Isle of Dogs, stand the towers of Canary Wharf: a gamble on the site of the former West India Docks that, like the Royal Docks, closed for business in 1980. An abstraction that bankrupted its owners within months of completion; a symbol of the district’s rebirth, from the docklands to the Docklands, that cast long shadows over its residential neighbours; a city beyond the City, enabled by tax concessions and reduced regulations, recapitalized by a global consortium. A self-contained business district with its own border controls. The House of Numbers is a report from the interregnum, in shorthand: it shows the ground opening and closing in quick strokes, the gradual rebalancing of power. It anticipates the growth of public-private partnerships in delivering public services and infrastructure, the discreet outsourcing of security, the brash speculations of property developers. It records the weakening of bonds between communities and place, the qualitative and quantitative decline of municipal space and domestic space, slackened and shrunk to ‘cardboard apartments’. It also summons a defiant, inclusive ‘we’, the choral voice in almost every poem, nuanced and modulated by the multiple fractures of identity and territory, anonymous, polyphonic, the exhausted lament of a stateless tribe:
But we are all going away now
into some other dimension, we speak
a mirror speech there and count differently
and no one stands for the Queen any more.
‘In Silvertown, chasing the dragon’
The poems in The House of Numbers also appear in Ken Smith’s collection Terra (Bloodaxe Books, 1986) and in Shed: Poems 1980-2001 (Bloodaxe Books, 2002). A short film of Smith introducing and reading ‘Three docklands fragments’ (from the 1990 collection The heart, the border, also regathered in Shed) appears below:
A reading given by Smith at the University of Warwick in September 1984 also includes several poems from The House of Numbers; click here to listen to the archive recording (also downloadable as an MP3).
A bird I can’t name
trills like a rag on soapy glass –
a squeak with a chime in it.
Thin paths. Flat fields. No buildings, no machinery, no cover. The line of the river, yarning between thick green hems, two bridges, two crossings, the rain clipping our ears. We fix on the next step, and the next, puddles, ditches, stiles, lifting to a wooded embankment, a damp, porous corridor, the surface noise building up, cutting out, scratches and rips in the sound, minor roads to the north, a stepped slope ahead, the track recedes without us, falling out of the corridor, to a threshold, a shelter, an open-sided box on water.
We’ve come to this wetland, two miles east of Mexborough, to record poems from The Navigators, Matthew Clegg’s new collection. The poems that Matt has chosen for this expedition are drawn from the ‘contemporary’ movement of the book’s title sequence, which traces the recovery of the South Yorkshire waterways after decades of post-industrial decline, and their rehabilitation as places of leisure. It’s interesting, then, to discover that the shallow lakes of Denaby Ings nature reserve were formed as a result of mining subsidence, and that the wooded embankment that gives access and protection to the reserve is the line of the former Dearne Valley Railway, which used to bear coal from the local mines. Denaby Halt was the first stop on the Edlington-Wakefield passenger service, until the station closed in 1949; the site of the halt is only a few metres from our shelter, a simple, three-sided viewing hide, the eyeline drawing level with open water. Uncoupled from networks and schedules, this is still a place of waiting, of watching, of transport.
It’s also a place of listening. I’d anticipated a sound-bed of coots and terns, a lake-wide span on which Matt’s poems and commentaries might rest; perhaps some of the ‘honks’ and ‘trills’ caught by the narrator of ‘Brigand’, which takes this den as its setting, might also find their way into our recording. Today, however, the most prominent feature in the mix is rain, steadily building for the last hour or so, tracking our journey from house to hide, striking the roof above us. With no sign of it easing off, it’s clear that we’ll have to work with its rhythms, and maybe this is as it should be. Water is the element that moves through The Navigators, in all its fall and flow, linking the Cumbrian lakes to the rivers and canals of Yorkshire, sweeping on to the tide-pools and cave mouths of Flamborough and the open sea beyond. As we sit and listen to it beating on the metal frame of the hide, it takes on an industrial echo, a ghost of work. We’re only picking up a few discrete sounds from the environment that surrounds the shelter, which has the effect of making the space more intimate; oppressive, even. Without realising it, we’ve raised our voices, the downpour closing in; I reset the recording levels, taking them down, and down again, still peaking here and there. The rain has formed a second skin around the hide, audibly and visibly thick, a temporary curtain for the unwalled side of the structure, a blind at our backs.
Most of the podcasts that I’ve produced with Matt have been recorded on the move. The three audio works that we developed in response to his first collection, West North East, were structured and focused by the act of moving from place to place, ranging from a short, intensive walk through North Sheffield to episodic and exploratory forays in East Leeds and Flamborough. As well as enacting a sense of journey, the process and the recordings (under the collective title ‘Fugue’) invited interruption and juxtaposition, a miscellany of unplanned, unexpected episodes that either tested the recording (heavy traffic, heavy weather) or helped to shape it (the crunch of snow under boots in late spring). Making a recording in an ostensibly static environment, as we are doing today, presents different challenges. Dynamism and movement can only be captured in a ‘fixed frame’; we can’t stray from this place, can’t move towards the source of any sounds that might tempt us out of our makeshift studio. Given the prevailing conditions, of course, we’re unlikely to be tempted. We try to recall if we’ve attempted anything along similar lines to this; we draw a blank, then remember a morning spent in a sea cave at Flamborough Head, some three years ago, recording the twelve-poem sequence ‘Cave Time and Sea Changes’ which closes The Navigators. We reflect on the contrasts and parallels between the cave and the hide. In one, a vertical rift in the rock, revealing sea and sky, is also the means by which the tide creeps in, breaching one threshold after another, raising the horizon and limiting our access. In the other, a view of calm, inland water is framed by four regular, rectangular gaps in metal, arranged horizontally; the water that moves is vertical, and holds us in the enclosure, rather than driving us out of it. Each space has its own distinct acoustic, too, the natural echo of the cave seemingly a world apart from the artificial compression of the hide. As Matt observes, however, the hide has conductivity; the rain’s rhythms are transmitted from without to within, the metal roof sharpening the pitch. We lean into the swell.
The four poems Matt has chosen to read this afternoon are ‘Brigand’, ‘Mexborough, Water-Fronted Properties Released’, ‘ANGLERS REQUIRE PERMITS’ and ‘When They Next Make You Redundant’. We haven’t discussed the selection – the rationale, the relationship between poems and setting – which opens up a space for me to pursue threads and correspondences. In the glassy suspension of the hide, it seems that each poem enacts, or addresses, a surrender to drift. The narrator of ‘Brigand’, a member of the eponymous South Yorkshire motorcycle gang, seeks the trance-like detachment offered by the Denaby shelter, perhaps as a counterpoint to the noise and speed of the road. This is established in an act of attention – to the chafings and chants that rise from the Ings – sustained until the lake’s ‘lush trawl of sound’ subsides, and a bubble of quiet floats into the hut. The ‘drift’ in ‘Mexborough, Water-Fronted Properties Released’ spreads through sound, sense and form, as the marketed ‘properties’ of the poem’s found title (taken from a developer’s canalside hoarding, advertising new houses and apartments on the town’s eastern edge) are exchanged for the abstract properties of light, solidity and weight. The poem idles on the threshold of the concrete and the permeable, from which the rippled reflections of scaffolding are no more or less substantial than the ‘anchored / new-builds’. Organic and inorganic matter collects on the surface of the water; twigs and polystyrene converge, clot and scatter, the transitions preserved only by the passing eye. The spirit of haiku hovers over these lines, in their juxtaposition of images and contemplation of impermanence; Clegg takes this a step further, fragmenting the form, unmooring the words from orthodox lineation, setting them adrift in open space. We see the froth, the rippling wake, and it slows the pace of the poem. ‘ANGLERS REQUIRE PERMITS’ shifts the focus from water to land, and considers the unauthorised uses to which the land is put. It is unclear whether the ‘dumpsite’ of the poem occupies private or public space: the status of the site, the permissions that govern its use, and the materials accumulating there are in flux. We leave sofas and fridges ‘shedding form / and function’, becoming ash, becoming light. The fourth poem, ‘When They Next Make You Redundant’, hinges on the moment when the canal enters the river, drift yielding to current, gripping and directing ‘the steer of [the] barge’ as it moves through and beyond the last lock. The poem is a double sonnet, literally hinged, the first line of the second sonnet mirroring the last line of the first, the remaining thirteen lines wrinkling and refracting their counterparts (‘where canal steps down to the Don’ / ‘and the Don sweeps on from canal‘). The ‘current’ gives the poem its flow, and its charge; the river’s circuit is the ‘mains’ into which the barge is ‘plugged’, and the source of ‘the trip in [the] blood’. This is one of the central themes of The Navigators, modulated and developed throughout the book: water as a conductor of energy, energy as a conductor of change.
The rain fastens on the hide. As Matt brings each poem to its close, we pause in the gap that it leaves. The weather is nudging us inward; our exchanges are hesitant, brief and brittle, the downpour pushes us back. It doesn’t feel right to be talking in here. It’s hard to think. The trance folds around us. In some respects, the metal shelter feels more remote than the Flamborough sea cave. The cave was a contingent space, a brief portal in which it wasn’t possible to settle; the knowledge that it would be breached by other visitors to the coast, and the returning tide, demanded that we work quickly. Since settling into the hide, we haven’t seen another soul, or felt the ‘outside’ world’s pressure, clamour or pull. Matt reaches for his copy of The Navigators, thumb skimming past the book’s central section, from which today’s selection has been made, coming to rest on a page in the first section. The poem he’s picked out is ‘The Tang’, a short, single-sentence lyric, written for another time, another place. In its summoning of ‘electrons / ferried / by rain’, however, it speaks to this time, this place. As Matt reminds himself in an extemporised introduction to the recording that we make a few minutes later, it also speaks of the desire to lose one’s cover, one’s protection; to step out of the frame and into the storm, to be charged by its current. This exposed, unscripted moment finds a place in the resulting podcast, sparking with urgency. It’s echoed in Matt’s closing remarks, in which he expresses a hope ‘that the language [of poetry] might be able to conduct an energy from the world’. We gather up our papers and equipment and step over the threshold, out of the frame, losing the hide’s rhythm, other sounds edging into earshot, the leaves, the track, the nick and tear of distant traffic.
The Navigators is out now from Longbarrow Press; click here for more information. Listen to the Denaby Ings podcast below (poems in order of appearance: ‘Brigand’, ‘Mexborough, Water-Fronted Properties Released’, ‘ANGLERS REQUIRE PERMITS’, ‘The Tang’, ‘When They Next Make You Redundant’)
Matthew Clegg discusses the development of ‘Cave Time and Sea Changes’ in this 2012 blog post. Listen to the ‘Cave Time and Sea Changes’ podcast below (recorded in a sea cave at Flamborough Head in September 2012)
One of the poems featured in the podcast, ‘Mexborough, Water-Fronted Properties Released’, is also the subject of a new short film (based on footage of Pastures Road Bridge, Mexborough). Watch the film below: