Friday, 29 April 2011


I’d dance and skip and play
On my fiddle and guitar all day.
Across the vales and dales,
My peacock’s feathers I’d display.

And I’d never forget my roots,
The springs that ran through my boots.
In my mind and ears and eyes
And in my native skies.

For Poland was my cradle,
England is my nest.
And Durham is the quiet place
Where my weary bones shall rest.

I’d flit from Court to Court
And mingle with every sort.
From Kings and Queens to Pawns,
Whatever the morning spawned.

And the women I’d admire
Wherever I found the fire.
I chased their skirts and their smiles
For all my livelong miles.

For Poland was my cradle,
England is my nest.
And Durham is the quiet place
Where my weary bones shall rest.

Keith Armstrong

(From ‘Where My Weary Bones Shall Rest’ written for Durham County Council, with music by Andy Jackson and Benny Graham)

Joseph Boruwlaski ('the Little Count') (1739-1837), Travelling performer and memoirist

Boruwlaski was born into impoverished lower gentry in Poland. At 3 feet 3 inches tall and styled as 'Count Boruwlaski', he was exhibited around the salons and courts of Europe. He moved to Britain in 1782 where, for a charge, he would 'receive company', holding a breakfast to which the public could come and be entertained with music and exaggerated tales of his adventures. He was briefly taken up by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and George IV but high society tired of him and, after travelling the country, he retired to Durham. 

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

from 2006! - intro to 'radical north east'



‘Can Tyrants hinder people from singing at their work, or in their families? Sing and meet and meet and sing and your chains will drop off like burnt thread.’

(Thomas Spence)

‘The older lads in the pit had a habit of ballad singing. It was seldom that they knew a ballad right through but they used to sing snatches of ballads and songs at their work and these fastened themselves in my memory.’

(Joseph Skipsey)

‘Geordieland’, we are given to understand by the City Fathers, is undergoing a cultural rebirth. The banks of the Tyne are pampered with a gushing stream of Lottery money, the new Music Centre rubs shoulders with the new Gateshead Hilton. We ‘Geordies’ aren’t so thick after all. We don’t just jog like manic lemmings to South Shields each year in ‘The Great North Run’ but we’re wired for Beethoven and Damien Hirst as well.
Gone are the grubby pits and the dorty back lanes, this a new and dynamic place rising from the squalor of the cloth-cap and the doleful whippet.
The Geordie-joint is buzzin’, we’re even thinking of joining Europe now. So who needs History when you can Party?
And then we have the self-styled ‘Geordie Intelligentsia’, the true proclaimers  of ‘Geordie Genius’, who wallow in an analysis built actually on mythology and inflated regional pride.
So we have, by way of example, the genius Bunting hauled from obscurity by the romantic Pickards operating from their beloved Morden Tower Poetry HQ in a haze of Geordie dope and literati splendour. The stuff of legend! But how much of it is true and how many people know or care? Who really believes in their own bones and hearts the tale of the good St. Cuthbert?
Do they celebrate our glorious Christian heritage doon the Bigg Market of a Friday? Are the Lindisfarne Gospels Alan Hull’s best work?
Even our esteemed Novocastrian academics can’t put their finger on the derivation of the ‘Geordie’ but still we’re proud to be one aren’t we? The most likely roots of the term derive from Newcastle’s opposition to the Jacobite uprisings and the city’s loyal support for the monarch. So much for a progressive culture then!
The new Music Centre will allow the classical ‘Northern Sinfonia’ to share digs with the traditional ‘Folkworks’ outfit. You see there can be no contradictions in ‘Third Way Geordieism’, the cultural boat has come in and we’re all aboard and happy to enjoy ‘the buzz’ created for us by our Glorious Municipality and its entourage of quango-speakers and cultural money-grubbers. All aboard you poets, musicians, thespians, and public art workers! There are grants to be had and we need the loot to fund our coffeehouse lifestyles, we need the tingle of ‘Success’!
In proposing a different look at things through the prism of a Radical North East anthology,
I am seeking to argue that there is a heritage of dissidence in the region and that this needs to be kept alive if there is to be any real vitality and space for argument on the banks of Tyne, Wear, and Tees. To do this, we need to uncover what is truly challenging and subversive in our culture, what is not only local but of universal significance. My own sense of this goes back to the Border Ballads and on to 17th and 18th century Newcastle, to the times of Thomas Spence and Thomas Bewick and Swarley’s Club, where poetry and song spoke for the underclass and sedition was in the air, side by side with the beautiful craftsmanship of Bewick and his school.
We have others from the grass-roots like Joseph Skipsey and Jack Common who offer a more radical insight than the romance of Cookson or the school of ‘Larn Yersel Geordie’.
We need to see our regional pride in world terms to give it a balance with the culture of others. Whilst I would expect the anthology to have a strong focus on working-class and indigenous culture, a culture which the City Fathers would prefer to skate over, we need to to look at this in the context of race and gender, nationalism and multi-culturalism. We need to see how us ‘Geordies’ can celebrate the world.
So the vision is of a refreshed grass-roots culture built on the positive bricks of the past with a sense of a regional universe rejecting cultural imperialism and asserting cultural democracy.
Dialect is important but not hand in hand with feudalism. Folk-singers can be as inspired by the Chilean Victor Jara as much as by Derwentside’s Tommy Armstrong.
I support the Campaign for a North East Assembly but as a stepping to empowerment at a local level not as an extra arm of the Labour Party, which to my mind has become culturally sterile and opportunist in using culture to paper over the gaps in its own political ineptitude.
Not long ago the City Fathers were scarcely bothered about the Arts now they’re a gravy train for inward investment. We need to challenge this use of the Arts to promote Business and the relationship between the two. We need to return the Lottery money to the people.
We are suggesting that the way forward is through a conflict of ideas based on an historical perception of our regional identity. If a Radical North East anthology can contribute to such a debate then it will be worthwhile.
‘In Gateshead, we passed some little streets named after the poets, Chaucer and Spenser and Tennyson Streets ...... and I wondered if any poets were growing up in those streets. We could do with one from such streets; not one of our frigid sniggering rhymers, but a lad with such a flame in his heart and mouth that at last he could set the Tyne on fire.’

(J.BPriestley, English Journey, 1934)

‘Watch me go leaping in my youth
down Dog Leap Stairs,
down fire-scapes.
The Jingling Geordie
born in a Brewery,
drinking the money
I dug out of the ground.’

(Keith Armstrong)
                                                                                     KEITH ARMSTRONG

Friday, 22 April 2011


(for K.)
The nightjars and their allies
have their heads down in the woods today,
dreaming of wild nights,
a chance to sing on the flickering wing.
And you my dark-haired songstress
could writhe naked on a bed of their feathers
as I touch with my aching fingertips
the tips of your sprawling bliss
in all that lushness between the trembling trees.
For you are dusky,
silky-tailed and
you are my European Nightjar
churring as I make you
spring to life in shivers of moonlight.
White-throated and golden,
star-spotted and black-shouldered,
you straddle your strapping limbs around me,
wrap my leaping heart in charcoal ribbons,
fly me screaming in a flock of black birds
and drench me
with jars of night song.


Thursday, 14 April 2011


He pounded the cobbles
of the Castle Garth,
bowling along
with his brain hanging over his neck
and his belly
looming over his huge pants.
His overeducated head
weighed a ton
and bore down
on an arse
fattened on home-made pies.
He was carrying a plan
for the working classes
but forgot his heart was too small,
dwarfed by his huge mouth
and an expensive ego.
He had a board meeting to go to,
the big fart,
and he sweated grants
as he blundered along
to the narrow alley.
He was far too broad of beam really
but he was late for everything,
including his funeral,
and thrust his plates of meat
onto the slippery steps.
History closed in on him,
the Black Gate,
the Keep,
as if to tell him
it wasn’t his,
as if to say
‘get out of my town’.
He squeezed himself onto this narrow stairway
and, like his poetry,
got stuck.
He couldn’t move
for his lack of lyricism.
The Fat Man
was firmly lodged
on Dog Leap Stairs
and the crows
began to gather
to swoop
and pick
the bloated power
from his face.