Wednesday, 28 November 2012



The historic Mining Institute on Westgate Road, Newcastle is a gem of a building ideally suited to literary and arts events. With this in mind, in addition to the Institute's regular series of talks and lectures, an exciting programme of community arts events will start next year. These events have been put together by the Mining Institute's new writer in residence Dr Keith Armstrong of Northern Voices Community Projects.


Wednesday January 16th 2013 7.30pm.

Northern Voices Community Projects Annual Award event. Presentation of annual Northern Voices Community Projects Joseph Skipsey Award  and commemoration of the Hartley Pit Disaster with poems and songs. This event launches Dr Keith Armstrong's writing residency at the Mining Institute and will also mark the 45th anniversary of the death of Newcastle writer Jack Common and the 110th of his birth, with readings from his works and songs by local folk group 'Kiddar's Luck' and by Gary Miller. Plus readings from a Manifesto for Northumbria.

Tuesday September 3rd 2013 7.30pm.

Northern Voices Community Projects. A special event to mark the 110th anniversary of the death of Tyneside pitman poet Joseph Skipsey (1832-1903) with songs and readings.

Other events will include a celebration of the mining heritage of North East England in poetry and song; and special folk music events, with famous guests, in the historic Lecture Theatre. Details to be announced in 2013.


Doctor Keith Armstrong – Poet and Scholar

Born in Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne, where he has worked as a community development worker, poet, librarian and publisher, Keith Armstrong, now residing in Whitley Bay, is coordinator of the Northern Voices Community Projects creative writing and community publishing enterprise which specialises in recording the experiences of people in the North East of England. He has organised several community arts festivals in the region and many literary events featuring the likes of Yevgeny Yevtushenko (in 1976 at the Mining Institute), Douglas Dunn, Barry Hines, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Katrina Porteous, Adrian Mitchell,Benjamin Zephaniah and Liz Lochhead.
He was founder of Ostrich poetry magazine, Poetry North East, Tyneside Writers' Workshop, Tyneside Poets, East Durham Writers' Workshop, Tyneside Trade Unionists for Socialist Arts, Tyneside Street Press and the Strong Words and Durham Voices community publishing series.
He has recently compiled and edited books on the Durham Miners’ Gala and on the former mining communities of County Durham, the market town of Hexham and North Tyneside.
He qualified as a Chartered Librarian at Newcastle Polytechnic and was employed in this field at Newcastle University Library, Blyth Public Library,International Research and Development Company (I.R.D., Newcastle), Merz & McLellan Consulting Engineers (Killingworth), Gateshead College and Sunderland Libraries, before becoming a community worker with Newcastle Neighbourhood Projects (part of Community Projects Foundation), research worker with Tyneside Housing Aid Centre, and then Community Arts Development Worker (1980-6) with Peterlee Community Arts (later East Durham Community Arts).
As an industrial librarian at IRD., he was christened 'Arts & Darts', organising an events programme in the firm incuding poetry readings,theatrical productions, and art exhibitions by his fellow workers, as well as launching Ostrich poetry magazine using the firm's copying facilities and arranging darts matches between departments!
He has been a self employed writer since 1986 and he was awarded a doctorate in 2007 for his work on Newcastle writer Jack Common at the University of Durham where he received a BA Honours Degree in Sociology in 1995 and Masters Degree in 1998 for his studies on regional culture in the North East of England. His book on Jack Common 'Common Words and the Wandering Star' was published by the University of Sunderland Press in 2009. 
His poetry has been extensively published in magazines and he has performed it throughout the world. In his youth, he travelled to Paris to seek out the grave of poet Charles Baudelaire and he has been making cultural pilgrimages abroad ever since. He has toured to Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Poland, Iceland (including readings during the Cod War), Denmark, France, Germany (including readings at the Universities of Hamburg, Kiel, Oldenburg, Trier and Tuebingen), Luxembourg, Hungary, Italy, Ireland, Isle of Man, Spain, Sweden, Czech Republic, The Netherlands, Cuba, Jamaica and Kenya.

As writer in residence at the Mining Institute, Keith will not only organise a programme of events but will also look at ways of exploring the amazing archives of the Institute in exciting and original ways.

Poems by Doctor Keith Armstrong:


‘What was it there on Hartley heap, caused the mother and child to weep?’ (George Cooke)

Cold January’s gripped our throbbing hearts and torn them.
Still the sea rolls on.

This earth’s bowells stink of our loved one’s deaths,
the air tastes foul.
Still the sea rolls on.

They don black gloves,
drag out the bodies one by one.
The death-stained faces seem to smile.
Still the sea rolls on.

We are the widows of Hartley,
our men and boys are dead,
our lives cracked open,
damp corpses in our beds.
Still the sea rolls on.

We clutch cold messages from Dukes and Queens,
we wipe the coal dust from our widowed eyes.
The coffin makers’ heavy hammers beat,
keep time with lapping parlour clocks,
and still
the sea rolls on,
still the sea rolls on.

Still the sea,

we are the widows of Hartley,
our men and boys are dead.

Take away your stumbling words and




You picked splinters
with a pin each day
from und er blackened fingernails;
shreds of metal
from the shipyard grime,
minute memories of days swept by:
the dusty remnants of a life
spent in the shadow of the sea;
the tears in your shattered eyes
at the end of work.
And your hands were strong,
so sensitive and capable
of building boats
and nursing roses;
a kind and gentle man
who never hurt a soul,
the sort of quiet knackered man
who built a nation.
Dad, I watched your ashes float away
down to the ocean bed
and in each splinter
I saw your caring eyes
and gracious smile.

I think of your strong silence every day
and I am full of you,
the waves you scaled,
and all the sleeping Tyneside streets
you taught me to dance my fleeting feet along.

When I fly, you are with me.
I see your fine face
in sun-kissed clouds
and in the gold ring on my finger,
and in the heaving crowd on Saturday,
and in the lung of Grainger Market,
and in the ancient breath
of our own Newcastle.

a commemoration in words and images to mark its 150th anniversary

The Hartley Pit Calamity of 1862 was the first large scale mining disaster of Victorian times. The extent of the Calamity, together with the spreading of news by rail and telegraph, brought this tragic event in rural Northumberland into the homes of families throughout the land on a daily basis.
The reaction from the public, together with the interest shown by Queen Victoria, kept the story in the press for more than a month. Just as evidenced in 2010 in the Chilean mine rescue, the public were gripped by the horror of men trapped underground and the heroic efforts made to rescue them.
This new book from Northern Voices Community Projects, compiled and edited by Dr Keith Armstrong and Peter Dixon and commissioned by North Tyneside Council, was launched at the Mining Institute in January 2012 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Calamity. With historical documents and images, alongside poems, songs, stories, photographs and drawings by local people, it formed part of a series of events and activities intended to ensure that the story of Hartley is not forgotten.
EMAIL  k.armstrong643@btinternet.com


Read more about Doctor Keith Armstrong and Northern Voices Community Projects:


Friday, 23 November 2012



Ye’ve worried yorsel til yi can’t
Keep yor mits from yor mooth,
Yor eyes hev grown dark
Wiv lang leukkin’ oot,
Ye’ll fidget an’ fret, little feul
Till yor pale as a cloot –
Can’t yi trust us a bit?

He shud ha’ cum sooner, he’ll not
Cum noo like whaat he said;
He’s got a new fancy,
Some babe he deceives.
Aa’ll nivvor forgive ‘im his lies
As lang as Aa lives – 
Ah! hadd on a minute!

Aa’m cumin’ an’ Aa got mi fare
An’ a bit mair te tyek
Ye aboot, an’ dee us a show
Ye nivver wud like me te cum
Hyme broke, well ye know – 
Ye’d leuk doon at that.

Mebbe a week or two mair,
An’ then mi fedggetty lass,
Aa’ll cum an’ tumble ye
Tight in me arms.
An’ howld ye theor haard.
Till ye can’t get yor breeth
An’ yor eyes leuk up dancin’
An’ yi sweaor it’s yor deeth
Te hev such a lad.

Jack Common 1903 – 1968

Sunday, 18 November 2012


Early September,
ice begins to grip our hearts.

Ash from a long smoke, the city lies.

Ghostly images of our fathers rise,
drift in the blood-thick smog.

The traffic snarls,
dead bodies rot and clot in our veins,
dust blown into cul-de-sacs.

8.45, a Thursday night,
a senile couple stagger in from the mist.
They order half pints,
the old man sniffs,
his eyes the faint grey of a wintry sky.
The old woman’s face is ruddy, bloody,
creased like the neck of a tortoise.
She mumbles to him
and he mumbles back.
‘Liar!’ she shouts.
‘Quiet!’ he says and raises a hand in warning.
‘Liar!’ again,
‘Liar!’ again
but louder she cries.
‘Sharrup you old bag!’
‘Liar!’ she cries,
‘I gave you a pound!’
‘No!’ he replies.
‘Liar, you liar!’
‘Quiet you bag!’

They sip their half pints and rise.
He steps outside.
We hear his stick tap.
She shuffles, bow legged, to the door.
A pool of urine gathers round her feet,
she trails it out into the street.

They are lost in a whirl,
a merry-go-round.

I see their desperate hands grope in the night,
flail against the glass outside.
Blood spatters windows,
runs to the earth,
seeps and nourishes birth;
birth of new dreams,
new schemes.
It seems,
a new sense of fear is born.


Thursday, 15 November 2012

Ballad of Tommy Oliver


 Cofie’s spear plunged into the wooden heart.

Was the five bob body on the beach the start

For Tommy Oliver? He won the hand

Hands down, cards played and laid there on the sand,


Scooping his earthly reward. Cullercoats

Born, dad a captain, so inevitably

Tommy, as young man, removed to Hauxley,

Faced down the North Sea and took to the boats.


But when it was too wild for the fishing

With rain reigning and gale-forced waves lashing

Tormented cobles, Tommy it was then

Who showed himself first amongst drinking men.


He rode wild horses foaming pints of ale

Through every inn and pub in High Hauxley,

Troublesome as a cabbage in a chimney:

Tommy first and Tommy last was the tale


Until the deep, deep spear thrust of illness

Balanced his life on the tip. His distress

At discovering mortality was

Palpable, being possessed by fear because


He had drunk away the hours of his life

By the glassful. To repent, to right this wrong

Tommy summoned the reverend Armstrong

To his mortal bed. A mere withered leaf


In autumn he was and winter pressing,

But, with a simple prayer and a blessing

He’d give himself up to the ebbing tide.

Cofie’s spear though, the spear in his side,


Lanced death, and Armstrong drew him from the edge

Of the gaming table and public bar

And the willing girls who went far too far,

Into a new life of chapel and pledge.


Tommy forswore the sea for horse and cart

And as monger of fish and faith he’d start

With a hymn then sing his wares: “Fish maybe

A penny or two, but salvation’s free.”


From fishing village to pit row he went

In blue reefer, jersey and clerical hat,

Everywhere people pointed and said, “That

Is Tommy Oliver whom God has sent.”


With Wesleyans and Sally Ann’s he’d preach

Praying it was never too late to reach

Those who had fallen and those on the slide

From Amble northwards and south to Tyneside.


After three score years passed and ten and one,

Preaching in Benwell a whole weekend long,

He slipped away during a sacred song:

How folk mourned for Tommy Oliver gone.


Bourn back to Amble in sound of the sea

Where once he’d grasped the spear of destiny

As Cofie had done, leaving Woden slain,

Tommy Oliver had done so again.


                                                Dave Alton

Tuesday, 13 November 2012


They’re going to illuminate Scotswood,
make floral entrepreneurs in Elswick.
Someone’s set fire to our Arts reporter,
it’s another Cultural Initiative.
Sting’s buying the Civic Centre,
they’re filling the Baltic with tanks.
The Sage is changing its name to onion,
Shane’s pissed on the classical conductor.
They’re floating quangos down the Tyne,
the bonfire will be at Shields.
They’re bringing tourists to witness miracles,
the Chief Executive will strip for money.
They’re blowing up the Castle Keep
to build an installation.
They’re giving the locals more public art,
it’s something to rhyme with.
They’re taking live theatre to the cemetery,
the vicar will write an Arts Council poem.
Steve Cram’s taken up painting
to stop his nose from running.
The river will be made into an ice rink,
we can play with our boats in the bath.
Let New Labour bomb Iraq,
they’re making a museum of politics.
Stuffing glass cases with old principles,
the head hunters are out and about.
It’s cultivated jobs for the boys and the girls,
they’re putting the Arts into centres.
Drain the music from our souls,
we have to be grateful to be patronised.
Their self-righteousness grins from on high,
let the bombs fly and rockets rip.
We can enjoy some more tamed Art,
say cheerio to your history.
They’ve wrapped it up in moth balls,
thank God for the boys from the south.
They’ve saved us from self-government,
we’ve missed out on the Love Parade.
This City of Culture got lost in the end,
the Angel glowers over us though.
Thanks again City Fathers,
it looks uglier every day. 
You’ve reinvented our culture for us,
you’ve rendered it meaningless.
Guts ripped out,
we touch our forelock to your glorious Lords.
From the orifice of the Deputy Prime Minister
leaks the corrupt emptiness of your manifestos.
The aching past of the working man
has become the death of England.
Let us hail you from NewcastleGateshead,
a city you made up for yourselves.
Let us watch your empty schemes plummet,
let us learn to dance in community again.
We are Geordies naked with a beautiful anger to burn.


Thursday, 1 November 2012

There Are Tall Tales Told of Northumbria

Here are men who drink their own weight in beer,

Women not quite so much, but pretty near.

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

People live on whippet pasties and fags

And carry totem coal in plastic bags.

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

Public service serves the corporate good;

Tescopolis rises where Gateshead stood.

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

Old folk songs are sung in this corporate age,

Preserved behind glass, safely in the Sage.

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

Once its own Gospels are reinstated,

Lindisfarne will be illuminated.

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

Mention unemployment, Westminster squirms;

North East still bears the curse of loathsome wyrms.

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

Artists of Ashington, portrayed as quaint,

Their images glossed with dramatic paint.

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

Leisure and party-time have set folk free,

Are shopping malls new hives of liberty?

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

Hiking Cheviot high above the fields,

Curlews soaring, adders nipping at your heels.

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

Morpeth Gathering, folk speaking in tongues,

Drone of pipes and unaccompanied songs.

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

At The Bridge Hotel sits a motley cast,

Quietly haunted by Tyneside poets past.

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

By St.James’ and Stadium of Light the

Rivers Tyne and Wear flow into the same sea.

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

Should Scotland opt for petty national pride

Might peles and bastles once more see reivers ride?

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

Woodthorne and Beamish, rebuilding the past;

How far into the future can this past last?

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

Durham Cathedral’s weighty sacred stones,

Built on foundations of a single saint’s bones.

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

At Big Meetings miners once vented their rage;

For years there’ve been no mines, only heritage.

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

The Great North Road leads the way south, and yet

Those who leave don’t do so without regret.

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

There are droll tales told of Northumbria!

There are small tales told of Northumbria!

There are old tales told of Northumbria!

There are bold tales told of Northumbria!

Those who leave don’t do so without regret.

There are tall tales told of Northumbria!

                                                                      Dave Alton