Monday, 24 September 2012

A Column for a Deist (For Mark Akenside)

You, who deserted Tyne for Thames, became
Dissenter from dissenters on choosing
Physic rather than faith and saw Reason
Enough to ally with Pope against Church
In all tendentious denominations.
Time now to kindle interest in your verse,
Those pleasures of the imagination
You measured in lines precise as scalpel
Incisions, going to such lengths to cure
Souls and instruct those willing to become
Students of wisdom’s anatomy. For
Enlightenment driving away shadows
From darkened minds revealed revelation
As inferior to experience.
Nature is the sacred text the poet
Reads and draws out the lessons modern eyes
Can clearly see for themselves, however
Difficult appears the poem at first.

                                                Dave Alton

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Mark Akenside, Poet of the Imagination

Mark Akenside, poet and fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, was born at Newcastle upon Tyne on 9th November 1721, close by the Quayside, near the pub that now bears his name.

The Akensides were dissenters, his Presbyterian father a butcher. As a result of an accident with a meat cleaver Mark was left slightly lame. He attended the Royal Free Grammar School of Newcastle and a private dissenting academy.

Aged 18, he was dispatched to Edinburgh to study theology with the intention of becoming a Presbyterian minister. His studies were financed through a fund established by the Tyneside dissenting community.

However, Mark was a dissenter in a rather broader meaning of the word and he quickly abandoned theology for the more worldly study of medicine. He did, though, repay his grant.

Before going to Edinburgh he had already developed a talent for poetry. During a visit to Morpeth in 1738, he began working on “The Pleasures of the Imagination” which was to become an extensive didactic poem.

His dissenting background emerged in other ways: as a political, if somewhat unfocused radical, Dr. Johnson commented that Mark had an, “…eagerness to subvert and confound…” but without necessarily with any particular objective in mind.

 He also dissented from the dissenting denominations by becoming a deist. Deism emerged during the eighteenth century enlightenment as a response to traditional Christianity.

Deists base their belief in God on reason and experience, not revelation and scripture. They claim Nature as their bible; that it operates according to laws as discovered by science it is reasonable to postulate the existence of the lawmaker.

The radical Thomas Paine, was a leading exponent of Deism which was also the religion of the USA’s founding fathers such as Jefferson and Adams. It was natural for a freethinking young poet to gravitate in such a direction.

In 1740, Mark Akenside moved back to Newcastle, but although he described himself as a surgeon it seems he didn’t actually practice. He did continue to pursue his poetic ambitions.

By 1743 he’d established a growing literary reputation and he moved to London. There he came to the favourable notice of Alexander Pope, a fellow poet and deist.

Subsequently, after gaining a medical degree at Leiden in 1744, he went on to become a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and, eventually, principal physician at Christ’s Hospital.

Akenside became embroiled in disputes characteristic of the literary milieu of eighteenth century London. He published poems of a satirical nature and a slim volume entitled, “Odes on Several Subjects”. His 1746 “Hymn to the Naiads” was well received.

With advancing years and a burgeoning medical career Mark began to develop a more conservative outlook. By the time George lll came to the throne, he had became a Tory. This led to his appointment as the queen’s physician. He died on the 23rd June, 1770.

As a poet, he gained a good reputation that has, over the intervening years waned somewhat. However, his command of blank verse is beyond question and is a good representative of didactic poetry, a form no longer much favoured.

Nonetheless, Mark Akenside deserves to be recognised as a considerable figure in Tyneside’s literary heritage. Although he may have ended his life a Tory he had a radical strain within him. Perhaps his natural radicalism can be illustrated by the following poem. 

For a Column at Runnymede
Thou, who the verdant plain dost traverse here

While Thames among his willows from thy view

Retires; O stranger, stay thee, and the scene

Around contemplate well. This is the place
Where England's ancient barons, clad in arms
And stern with conquest, from their tyrant king
(Then rendered tame) did challenge and secure
The charter of thy freedom. Pass not on
Till thou hast blest their memory, and paid
Those thanks which God appointed the reward
Of public virtue. And if chance thy home
Salute thee with a father's honour'd name,
Go, call thy sons: instruct them what a debt
They owe their ancestors; and make them swear
To pay it, by transmitting down entire
Those sacred rights to which themselves were born.

Mark Akenside

Wednesday, 19 September 2012


Keith Armstrong of ‘Northern Voices Community Projects’ looks at twinning exchanges and recounts a few stories along the way

‘Ein bier bitter – und ein Martini for the wife’ demanded ‘the lad’ from Peterlee Cricket Club of the German barman in the twin-town of Nordenham. Spotting ‘the lad’ was of English extraction, the barman, in near impeccable style, politely enquired ‘Sweet or Dry, Sir?’ ‘Just the one!’, our ‘twinning boy’ snapped back, sensing a German plot, returning triumphantly to his stool in the town’s ‘Beer Akademie’, thinking how well he’d handled a potentially tricky diplomatic situation.

As Peterlee’s Community Arts Worker, having eavesdropped this touching exchange, I thought to myself ‘So that’s what twinning is all about!’ As one of the co-ordinators of the initiative, I felt I was entitled to wonder just how the twinning link had transpired and was it worth all the effort. This was back in 1980-6 and times were hard in the mining communities around Peterlee. People’s minds were concentrated on survival; ‘twinning’ could hardly be considered paramount. But it played a small part in expanding horizons. By 1986, I’d made 8 visits to Nordenham with different groups and individuals, including the Youth Drama Workshop, the East Durham Writers’ Workshop, and the local band ‘the Montgolfier Brothers’ (ex-‘DTs’, ex-‘Sick Note’, ex-‘Death By Trombone’!) for many, this was their first excursion to foreign shores, and it changed them, they occasionally fell in love, and cried when they had to leave Germany. Who would have thought?
Naturally, there was method in the developmental madness. It was meant to change attitudes, get the ball off the Durham island, develop links, forge exchanges, and generally broaden political and cultural understanding. Not that it was plain-sailing, of course. I well remember a night out with ‘the Montgolfier Brothers’ around several local bars, ending with an extended toasting session with a man with a monocle and a scar down his cheek who we promptly christened ‘Uncle Herman’. Uncle Herman declared a passion for British Scientists and offered Schnapps all round for every such scientists we could name. I think a general state of collapse was declared after the toast of ‘Michael Faraday!’ and Kenny, the bass guitarist, was, as legend has it, woken early the next morning in a local shop door-way by the drip-drip of a window cleaner’s wash-leather! Yet the band bounced back and gave several outstanding performances in the town’s schools and in the community centre. Their single at the time ‘Things That Go Bump In The Night’ quickly became a cult hit in Nordenham.

And the there was the coach-tour round the town with Frau Ehleman of the Rathaus (Town Hall) as our guide, a very enthusiastic and kindly lady with an unfortunate way of constantly popping a microphone! Not only was this, however, her phrase-book unique. As the coach rolled away from the Rathaus, we were pleased to have pointed out for us, in rapid succession, ‘the field of the dead cows’ and ‘the house where you can buy the women’. By way of explanation, it transpired that there was pollution in the soil, from a local factory, and, further down the road, was situated the local brothel. And we’ll never forget the unique invite to go ‘mud-walking’ the next morning!

So we weren’t short of the odd moments of humour, though, in fact, we did get through a lot of hard work, with the Writers’ Workshop performing, with translation, their poems and songs in the town’s schools and at an Anti-Nuclear rally. General political and cultural discussion was always encouraged and usually ensued. During the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, the twin-town of Nordenham sent parcels of food and toys to the striking miners and their families and made financial contributions to the ‘Save Easington Area Mines Campaign’. And we vividly remember heading the Nordenham May Day procession and visiting local factories there. Our delegation generally stayed in twin-town homes, a gesture which was usually reciprocated when our friends from Nordenham trade unions and peace group visited us in Peterlee.
Many of the twinning links in North East England are with Germany and French towns and our positive experience of Nordenham has led myself and others connected with ‘ Northern Voices’ to seek to develop further links, building on this success to overcome the negative feelings local people often have of such connection, viewing them as council ‘junkets’ and the like. Whilst this ‘junketing’ does still go on, there is scope for getting involved in promoting more constructive political and cultural dialogue with our twinning partners, especially more significant in the changing European landscape. Indeed, in recent years, through the good offices of Durham’s Euro M.P. Stephen Hughes, poets and musician from ‘Northern Voices’ performed at the European Parliament in Strasbourgh!

The town of Tübingen in Southern Germany has been described as ‘a town on a campus’, given that out of a total population of 77,000, 25,000 are students and 8,000 employees of the University. So that the nature of its twinning with County Durham is distinctly academic compared to the more industrial nature of both Nordenham and Peterlee. It has also a somewhat richer history in a number of ways – Hegel studied there, the eccentric poet Friedrich Holderlin lived there in his Tower for 30 years and expired there, and Hermann Hesse, the writer, worked in a bookshop there in his formative youth. To this extent, the town’s Cultural Office was interested in a literary link and ‘Northern Voices’ was, therefore, invited, and funded, by Durham County Council’s International Exchange Officer to pioneer a literary connection in 1987. since when, 11 successful visits have been made, featuring poets, and musicians in the folk and jazz idioms. Readings have been staged in schools, pubs, and at the University, and reciprocal visits to Durham by Tübingen poets ant the University ’s Anglo-Irish Theatre Group arranged. We have also participated in discussions on regional culture in the new Europe. In both the twinning examples highlighted above, the links forged have led to anthologies being published. To accompany a visit by East Durham Writers’ Workshop to Nordenham in 1986, a bi-lingual pamphlet, ‘North Sea Poems’, was produced and, in the cases of Tübingen, a joint bi-lingual anthology ‘Poets Voices’, featuring poets from both Durham and Tübingen, was launched in the Holderlin Tower in June 1991.

Other interesting twinning links which ‘Northern Voices’ has pioneered in the cultural field are those between Newcastle upon Tyne and its Dutch Counterpart, Groningen, and between Wear Valley and Ivry-sur-Seine (just outside Paris). And ‘Northern Voices’ remains committed to this area of cultural work now and in the future. This might have a lot to do with our being based on the North Sea Coast. Certainly, in my own case, not only did my father graft in the shipyards for forty years or so, and his father before him, but his tales of his Merchant Navy days and of travels to Rio, Cape Town, Lisbon and so on truly inspired me as an impressionable youth and this excitement in travelling has carried over into my cultural activities. As a founding member of ‘the Tyneside Poets’ group back in the 1970s, I vividly recall the links we developed with our Icelandic counterparts, and, in particular, our visit to Reykjavik during the Cod War of 1976 when I performed my epic poem ‘Cod Save The Queen’ (!) to an audience of over 200 excited Icelanders. This was followed by a visit in 1980 to Georgia in the then Soviet Union. After one late night session with a worker-writers’ group in the steel-works town of Rustavi, I coined the following short poem:


Last night we swapped our shirts
They didn’t fit our bodies too well
But they fitted our mood

Such memories stay with you for the rest of your life. They change you. And whilst I’ve dwelt exclusively on international links, I recall with fondness the twinning of Greenwich and Easington Councils during the ’84 Strike and the links we developed then. So it can happen within our little island too. And it’s fun. That, after all, is what twinning’s all about! Try it.

Sunday, 9 September 2012


Dobson and Grainger
were Giants of Men.
Men of Mark,
with huge hands,
they tore this town
in two.
Rebuilt it,
hauled in
rail lines,
puffed steam
into gleaming

Miracle workers
they were,
Walkers on Tyne.
So we gather in the tales
of our Great Historians.
But what of the true grafters,
the blistered and
the bruised?
What of the People
buried underground
beneath the library shelves?
What of the quiet men and women
who really built this town?


Friday, 7 September 2012

Garden Quintet


Yes, we slept in the garden, all that bread
And wine we’d shared. So softly blew the breeze
Like a love-struck virgin’s sigh through the trees:
How could we know he’d be so soon dead.

It was a strangely dreamless sleep, as though
A pause had been called. He begged us to rouse
And we did, but quickly fell back to drowse
Even as he wept. Just how could we know

The imminence of events? All he’d taught,
That we should look to creation and see,
Come to trust the truth of what we thought,

Was the way through which we could all be free
From taking the word of others. We ought
To have awakened, but we dozed, but not he.


Eve pressed the crook of her elbow across
Her eyes, resting her narrow naked back
Against the tree, surely leaving a track
Of rough bark on her skin. Being at a loss

Over quite what he should do next, Adam
Wondered: he could go down to the fountain
And wash the juice from his fingers. There again,
The stickiness felt like blood of a lamb,

But how did he know this? She wasn’t weeping,
Just closing out the garden, hoping blindness
Might be a comfort. Or, pretend sleeping

And he might let her alone. Better dress
Quickly and hurry away, no creeping
Though, to imply she’d something to confess.


The roots go down to the very centre,
Drawing goodness up from the endless dead,
While the topmost branches reach out and spread
Towards fathomless space they can’t enter.

At his own instigation there’s a god
Hanging there, or so his followers claim,
Though why a deity should choose to maim
Himself is unresolved. There comes the odd

Crow or two, ready to peck out his eyes,
But some say they are really bringing him
Advice on the world of truth, world of lies.

Overhead the clouds gather, light grows dim:
Perhaps beneath a million distant skies
Disbelief’s suspended on such a whim.


As he had done, she wept. With the grotto
Being empty, folly though it was, all hope
Seemed vanquished. Keeping faith might be a trope
And little more, but still she had to know

What had happened to him. He had promised
To meet her there, though no one else believed
He’d show. Had she really just been deceived?
She’d not doubted for a moment when they’d kissed.

Then, there’s someone in the garden, she’s sure.
Hope, like glistering spring sun, intercedes
And she goes up to him calmly, with pure

Intent. He’s kneeling, occupied with weeds
“Who are you?” she asks. His eyes are azure:
“I’m the gardener who simply sows the seeds.”


There, just there, is precisely where it stood.
Kids were warned, of course, “Do not eat the fruit!”
But, well-meant prohibition does not suit,
Especially when it’s for their own good.

Damn the precocious young! So, no choice then,
Axe sharpened and set to the trunk. Who knows
How long it took, or the number of blows?
Then, finally, “Timber!” Government men

They were who came, offered a decent sum
As it had, for them, plenty enough length
To spare to cut and fashion a crossbeam.

Certainly sturdy, it would take the strength
Of two to shift it. Made into a frame,
It was used once to crush a Hyacinth.

                                                Dave Alton

Tuesday, 4 September 2012


The Mayor is bothered
about the litter in my brain;
the dross of poems
spilled out onto bar floors
and the fishy streets of Groningen.
He prowls the gutters
of my verse,
seeking to tidy up
the rhymes
and times I slopped
erotic images
between the lines
of council meetings.
The detritus
from lost poetry readings
gathers up
in windy corners
on this market day,
curled up
into sodden memories,
dark with crumbling print.
This city’s flags
to flap proud,
in the rampant northern breeze,
fingers of lost empires
at laughing girls
and daring boys
dashing headlong
over stinking bones.
You will not make me clean,
I am a dirty poet
whose head aches
with dark subversive thoughts.
I am not tidy,
my very speech
remains unruly
as a mad professor in the Huis de Beurs.
I will mess up your streets
with a dynamic anarchy
until a true democracy
makes a clean breast of things
and the road-sweepers
and dreamers
of the Vismarkt
share a green and wondrous world.