Monday, 24 April 2017
Saturday, 22 April 2017
Photo by Tony Whittle
"They Shoot Horses Don’t They…"
A sunny day in back in the 1970s and there's a parade through the streets of Newcastle. I don’t recall the reason for it, some mayoral celebration or significant civic anniversary perhaps, but it was quite extensive.
There were floats and fanciful costumes, crowds along the pavements and amidst the slow moving, slightly unruly jollity, on the flat-back of a lorry, the Tyneside Poets, declaiming their verses through a loud hailer.
Amongst the collective of young bards was the father figure, a poet in his fifties who was as enthusiastic as ever he’d been. Alan C. Brown read with customary enthusiasm his poem inspired by a popular film of the day, “They Shoot Horses Don’t They…”
Alan was the link between the upsurge of poetic interest in the 1950s and a group of poets determined to take poetry out from the hallowed halls of academe to wherever it might find a hearing, the more unlikely the venue the better.
The spirit of originality suffused Alan who cared little for conforming to conventional thinking. This showed through in his combining being a practicing Christian with a political sympathy for Russia.
As a poet he had an enduring interest in Russian poetry, with the possibility that poetry could become a popular art form. While others of his generation may have acquired greater public acknowledgement, none could match Alan’s enthusiasm and capacity for poetry.
Being one of those young bards on the lorry, I have vivid memories of my time with the Tyneside Poets and the central role Alan played in it. Even after that original group dispersed, Alan persisted and kept things going, organising subsequent groups that bore the name.
Initially, Keith Armstrong and I set up the Poetry Tyneside blog to put work drawn from Poetry North East, the Tyneside Poets’ magazine, on-line. Alan’s poetry was and is an important part of that heritage.
They may shoot horses, but old poets read on until they can read no more. Alan C. Brown may no longer read, but it is a testimony to him that he will continue to be read.
The Poet’s Tongue
(For Alan C. Brown)
The poet’s tongue is in repose,
His ear shrouded in silence,
But though the voice has passed away
Words remain of consequence.
Time is versed in its own passing:
Rigour of mortis requires
Syllables be chosen with care
Before their moment expires.
What remain stays with the reading,
Way beyond fad or fashion.
His spirit lives though the verses
Penned with the ink of passion.
p.s. from Steve Walker:
This is a tribute to Alan C Brown, who was a tremendous encouragement and influence upon me as a young poet on Tyneside and a passionate believer that poetry had a power to transform lives and worlds.
Friday, 14 April 2017
Is there something divine in everyday life? Is there a source of human cognition and feelings? On 26 and 27 April, two young writers from the University of Tübingen will read from their works and discuss their influences and linguistic ideas. The writers come to Durham City in the context of a civic literary partnership that began in 1969. This event is organised by Dr Keith Armstrong, Northern Voices Community Projects. Manuela Schmidt studies study art history and anthropology and takes inspiration from “encounters and chats with people from all over the world with extraordinary world views, open hearts and minds; language barriers and dictionaries”.
Florian Neuner’s PhD is in Philosophy on Fichte and Hölderlin. His inspiration comes from “the shattered individual and intellectual; own demons of the subconscious. Is there something divine in everyday life? Is there a source of human cognition and feelings? Literature is a created furyhouse of human experience: a creation of space and a space of creation.”
The writers come to Durham City in the context of a civic literary partnership that began in 1969; further information about this partnership can be found here. Durham University and the University of Tübingen also share an evolving university partnership through the Matariki Network of Universities.
The readings will take place in Elvet Riverside 149 on Wednesday, 26 April from 4pm to 6pm and St Chad’s College Chapel on Thursday, 27 April at 6pm. All are welcome and there is no booking required. For further information please call Dr Keith Armstrong, Northern Voices Community Projects, on 0191 2529531.
Thursday, 6 April 2017
THE YEAR OF THE OX
It was 1789 the Year of the Great Ox,
the year the beast got loose in Paris,
when Whitley Bay was sleeping.
The year of the storming,
when John Martin was born in Haydon Bridge,
his heart breaking with painting visions;
the year of the slaying
of old regimes
when royalty hung in the slaughterhouse.
The Ox walked seven days,
like a doomed aristocrat
to have its tallow used to light the night,
to show the way
for the Rights of Man,
to sacrifice its beastly life
to keep a candle burning
and give us hope
and faith and charity,
a glint from God
and a gleam in Thomas Bewick’s eye
as he engraved the swollen moment
for all to see.
THROUGH THE EYES OF A GREAT OX
what could you see?
The mob grabbing your life,
and Tom Horsley’s butcher’s axe
hanging over your great spirit
as you valiently strode
the mucky road,
along the throbbing seashore,
through the pestilence of Tyneside,
its filth and flames,
its poisoned air and quack’s potions,
its Geordie beauty and debauch.
Edward Hall thought he owned you.
After a few beers, he thought the very universe was his.
But you, my sturdy fellow, were your own Ox
and could see the folly
of the swinish multitude
as it came to get you
to rip out your guts
and feed the Duke and Duchess,
and all their grasping subjects,
to satiate their appalling vanity.
You had more dignity than them.
You gave up your animal life
While Eddie Hall he died in pomp,
you, my massive beauty, were unselfish,
a Great Beast
full of love,
the very meat
of life itself
in all its morning glory,
in all its starry wonder;
the wide and beautiful sky
through the miraculous eyes of an Ox.
THE CONSTITUTION OF AN OX
It had the Constitution of an Ox:
Girth at the belly 10 feet 9 inches
Girth at the loins 10 feet 4 inches
Girth at the shoulders 10 feet 3 inches
Girth behind the shoulders 9 feet 9 inches
Breadth at the hips 3 feet
Breadth at the shoulders 2 feet 6 inches
Height at the fore-crop 5 feet 9 iches
Height at the loins 5 feet 11 inches
Height from the ground to the breast 1 feet 6 inches
Weight 216 stones 8lbs.
That was the Constitution of the Ox.
The track record, shape, volume, build, realm, history, cut and nub of it, the scale of things, the order of the Ox, the full measure of the beast drawn by Thomas Bewick for all of us in awe of it, in a world that never ceases, to astonish.
Wednesday, 29 March 2017
HOOKEY WALKER’S FAREWELL TO SHIELDS
(I wrote the following jeu d’esprit in the year 1852 and had it printed anonymously. It was meant to represent, with that spice of exaggeration permissible in such good natured squibs, the condition and aspect of the Shieldses – South Shields more particularly – as they struck a dispassionate resident in that remote era, before the local sanitary reformers had set about their Herculean task, towards the accomplishment of which they have since gone a great length).
Farewell to Shields, the filthiest place
On old Northumbria’s dirty face,
The coal-hole of this British nation,
The fag-end of the whole creation,
The jakes of Newcastle-upon-Tyne,
The banquet-house of dogs and swine,
The paradise of bugs and fleas,
And human vermin worse than these;
A mass of houses – not a town -,
On heaps of cinders squatted down,
Close to the river’s oozy edge,
Like moulting hens behind a hedge;
Huge ballast heaps, from London brought,
And here, like churchyard rubbish, shot,
Half-clad with scurvy blighted green,
Alone diversify the scene,
And furnish, when the weather’s dry,
An inexhaustible supply
Of dust, with every breath that flies,
To torture and to blind the eyes,
And, when it rains or thaws, a flood
Of sticky, stinking, coal-black mud,
Oft ankle-deep, in Claypath Lane,
Making the use of blacking vain;
Brick-yards, the nastiest smoke exhaling;
Green scummy ponds, a source unfailing
Of fell disease, foul middensteads,
Where everything infectious breeds;
Steam-tugs, whose smoke beclouds the river;
Chimneys, forth vomiting forever
All sorts of gas, to taint the air,
And drive the farmers to despair,
Blighting their corn, their quicksets blasting,
And all their prospects overcasting;
For scarcely even a weed will blow,
For miles around no trees will grow
In stunted copse or rugged fence,
Within their baneful influence,
And where stray birds have planted them,
In former better times, each stem
Looms on us, bare, black, mummied quite,
A ghastly and unnatural sight.
Streets, - if the name can be applied
To dingy lanes not ten feet wide,
Bordered by wretched tenements,
Let to poor devils at high rents;
Houses, on Dean and Chapter Land
Which, if not close packed, would not stand,
Whose perfect matches can be found
Nowhere within the empire’s bound;
Sewers, that only serve to stay
Stenches the wind will blow away,
And guide them to our outraged noses,
Concentrated in double doses.
When his sweet pipe Amphion blew
The enchanted stones together flew,
And formed a city. Widely famed,
Thebes by the Syrian Cadmus named.
Not such a dulcet origin
Had Shields, but to the cursed din
Of wheels and axles, saws and hammers,
And competitions thousand clamours,
It rose around St. Hilda’s pit,
For sooty fiends a dwelling fit.
Since Sodom and Gomorrah fell,
By bolts from heaven and blasts from hell,
Satan, with all the skill he wields,
Has formed no counterpart to Shields,
And, in futurity’s dark womb,
Laid up for Shields is Sodom’s doom,
For all that store of bitumen
Was not placed under it in vain.
He who perambulates the place,
Needs no uncommon skill to trace
The features of the inhabitants,
Whose instincts, appetites and wants,
It suits to such a nicety,
That nothing lacking they can see,
But shout “Hourrah for canny Shields”
And deem the Bents the Elysian fields.
Take from the mass a score or twain,
Honest in heart and sound in brain,
And all the rest are chaff and sand,
Fit only to manure the land,
Mill-horses, pacing round and round
The same eternal spot of ground,
To pick a paltry pittance up,
And smoke and snooze and eat and sup;
Gross gluttons, worshipping their belly;
Boobies, with brains of calf’s-foot jelly;
Creatures, whose souls are in their dress;
Base crawling serfs, idealless;
Crouching, dust-licking parasites;
Prim sanctimonious hypocrites;
Fellows whose lives are one long lie,
To meanly cloak their poverty,
Who, with the bailiffs at the door,
Turn up their noses at the poor,
And living upon shift, despise
The drudge from whom they draw supplies;
Magistrates, void of all pretence
To morals as of moral sense,
Leaving the beershop for the bench,
To send to Durham their own wench;
Lawyers, who know no more of law
But from their clients fees to draw;
Clergymen, dull and dry as dust,
In whom old women put their trust;
Doctors, a shallow, quackish crew,
But that, alas, is nothing new;
As for the so-called “vulgar rabble”,
One learns their status from their gabble;
They can’t be said to speak at all,
But jabber, croak, grunt, burr and drawl;
'Tis neither English, Scotch, nor Norse,
Though it partakes of all, and worse.
If brutes have souls, as some pretend,
And after death to Hades wend,
And learn to speak, I do expect,
'Twill be in the Shields dialect.
Farewell to Shields! I shout again;
A long and glad farewell! Amen!
I never liked the place, nor did
The place like me; but God forbid
I should bear witness false against it;
I have writ truth, and here attest it.
On board ship “Lizzie Webber”.
Written by William Brockie (1811 - 1890)
Born at the East Mains of Lauder where his father was the tenant farmer, William was educated at the Parish Schools of Lauder, Smailholm, Mertoun and Melrose as his father changed farms.
Starting work as a teacher - he was at Kailzie prior to 1843 - he decided to pursue his real love, writing, and in 1842 he set up the "Galashiels Weekly Review". He also wrote articles for other publications including the "Border Treasury". Before long he was the editor of the "Border Watch" which was to become the "Border Advertiser".
In 1849 he crossed the border into England to become editor of the "North and South Shields Gazette", later becoming editor of the "Sunderland Times" from 1862 to 1872.
During all of this time, he was also busy researching and writing, particularly in the field of local history and folk legends.
Amongst his best known works are:
"The Gypsies of Yetholm" (1884) for which he is best known in the Borders, "Coldingham Priory" (1886), "A Day in the Land of Scott", "Leaderside Legends", "Legends and Superstitions of the County of Durham"(1886) and "Sunderland Notables"(1894).
The Lizzie Webber was built in Sunderland in 1851-1852 and sailed from Sunderland to Melbourne 31-7-1852 arrived 4-12-1852.
Saturday, 25 March 2017
Photo by Tony Whittle
She is out feeding the birds,
on the dot again,
in the drizzle of a seaside morning;
cast fom her hand
to the jerking beak of a cock pheasant.
She is alone
in a flock of dark starlings,
scattering crumbs to make them shriek.
She is a friend of spuggies,
gives blackbirds water.
Her eyes fly across the garden
to catch a quick robin,
to spot a wee wren,
to chase a bold magpie.
She is innocence,
she is a lovely old lady;
She deserves heaven,
she deserves a beautiful nest
to dream out her last hours
in bird song;
in the rich colours of music,
in the red feathers of sunset,
she is my mother,
she is a rare bird
who fed me beautiful dreams.
Thank you for letting me climb
with the skylarks.
for the strength of wings.
Thank you very much for this poem. Ever since I have heard you reading it out at “Poems, Prose, Pints” it has been on my mind – it’s written in such a gentle and honest voice. The poem may be dedicated to your mum, but, as you said in the pub, it’s something you could say about all mums. I certainly feel reminded of my own mother, who died not so long ago, when I read the poem.
Thanks for this beautiful poem.
Dear Keith ! Thank you very much. You read this poem when you were here in Groningen. It moves me each time I read or hear it. Nice talking to you on the phone yesterday. All the best, yours, Henk
Thanks Keith - you moved me.
The Bird Woman of Whitley is a lovely poem, Keith. Beautiful tribute.
You amazing poet YOU
- thank you for that that poem - it deserves a very good moment, but I will translate it.
Keep sending them!
Good poem, Keith
Thank you, Keith, thank you –
For bringing a fulsome tear to my eye with the sad and beautifully-crafted The Bird Woman of Whitley. How amazingly coincidental and serendipitous that you should have numbered me amongst those privileged to receive it because, just this afternoon, I have put in the post to you my Christmas book (in Irish) An Nollaig sa Naigín (Christmas in the Noggin [my homeplace]), which has in it the story Céad Sneachta na Nollag (First Christmas Snow), which features my own mother feeding two birds, they being the Robin and the Wren!!!!
Bravo, my friend, and thank you for giving me the delight of reading so beautiful a poem.
Thats a nice poem Keith. Is that lady really your mum?
Thanks for sending me this beautiful poem. It really moved me. I have a special Mother too, she hasn't a selfish thought in her body.
Hi Keith loved the poem
Thanks for your beautiful poem Keith. I must write something special to my mum.