Tuesday, 31 December 2013


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 Strasbourg!

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.

Thursday, 26 December 2013


There's mony a man loves land and life,
Loves life and land and fee;
And mony a man loves fair women,
But never a man loves me, my love,
But never a man loves me.
O weel and weel for a' lovers,
I wot weel may they be;
And weel and weel for a' fair maidens,
But aye mair woe for me, my love,
But aye mair woe for me.
O weel be wi' you, ye sma' flowers,
Ye flowers and every tree;
And weel be wi' you, a' birdies,
But teen and tears wi' me, my love,
But teen and tears wi' me.
O weel be yours, my three brethren,
And ever weel be ye;
Wi' deeds for doing and loves for wooing,
But never a love for me, my love,
But never a love for me.
And weel be yours, my seven sisters,
And good love-days to see,
And long life-days and true lovers,
But never a day for me, my love,
But never a day for me.
Good times wi' you, ye bauld riders,
By the hieland and the lee;
And by the leeland and by the hieland
It's weary times wi' me, my love,
It's weary times wi' me.
Good days wi' you, ye good sailors,
Sail in and out the sea;
And by the beaches and by the reaches
It's heavy days wi' me, my love,
It's heavy days wi' me.
I had his kiss upon my mouth,
His bairn upon my knee;
I would my soul and body were twain,
And the bairn and the kiss wi' me, my love,
And the bairn and the kiss wi' me.
The bairn down in the mools, my dear,
O saft and saft lies she;
I would the mools were ower my head,
And the young bairn fast wi' me, my love,
And the young bairn fast wi' me.
The father under the faem, my dear,
O sound and sound sleeps he;
I would the faem were ower my face,
And the father lay by me, my love,
And the father lay by me.
I would the faem were ower my face,
Or the mools on my ee-bree;
And waking-time with a' lovers,
But sleeping-time wi' me, my love,
But sleeping-time wi' me.
I would the mools were meat in my mouth,
The saut faem in my ee;
And the land-worm and the water-worm
To feed fu' sweet on me, my love,
To feed fu' sweet on me.
My life is sealed with a seal of love,
And locked with love for a key;
And I lie wrang and I wake lang,
But ye tak' nae thought for me, my love,
But ye tak' nae thought for me.
We were weel fain of love, my dear,
O fain and fain were we;
It was weel with a' the weary world,
But O, sae weel wi' me, my love,
But O, sae weel wi' me.
We were nane ower mony to sleep, my dear,
I wot we were but three;
And never a bed in the weary world
For my bairn and my dear and me, my love,
For my bairn and my dear and me.

Algernon Charles Swinburne


Monday, 16 December 2013


She is out feeding the birds,
on the dot again,
in the drizzle of a seaside morning;
the seed 
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;
still giving,
still nursing.

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.

Thank you
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.

Hi Keith

Thanks for this beautiful poem.

Tim G

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.

All best

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.

Lovely poem!
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. 

Catherine Graham

Hi Keith loved the poem


Thanks for your beautiful poem Keith. I must write something special to my mum. 


Friday, 6 December 2013


To Newcastle

I met a man the other day-
A kindly man, and serious-
Who viewed me in a thoughtful way,
And spoke me so, and spoke me thus:

"Oh, dallying's a sad mistake;
'Tis craven to survey the morrow!
Go give your heart, and if it break-
A wise companion is Sorrow.

"Oh, live, my child, nor keep your soul
To crowd your coffin when you're dead...."
I asked his work; he dealt in coal,
And shipped it up the Tyne, he said. 

Saturday, 30 November 2013


If I Don’t Sing the Blues (Some Mean Old Blues)

Well, the man on the sax
He’ll crack up, paint it black,
If I don’t sing the blues (2)

And the man on the skins
Why, he’ll rub it in
If I don’t sing the blues (2)
Some mean old blues

And the man at the keys
He’ll look daggers at me;
And the man on guitar
He’ll feel below par;
And the man on the bass
He’ll go tripping his face
If I don’t sing the blues,
Some mean old blues…

G. F. Phillips

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

THOMAS SPENCE (1750-1814)

93 Woodburn Square, Whitley Lodge, Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear NE26 3JD  Tel. 0191 2529531                                                                             

It’s good to welcome the establishment of The Thomas Spence Trust, founded by a group of Tyneside activists intent on celebrating and promoting the life and work of that noted pioneer of people’s rights, pamphleteer and poet Thomas Spence (1750-1814), who has born on Newcastle’s Quayside in those turbulent times. 
Spence served in his father’s netmaking trade from the age of ten but went on later to be a teacher at Haydon Bridge Free Grammar School and at St. Ann’s Church in Byker under the City Corporation. In 1775, he read his famous lecture on the right to property in land to the Newcastle Philosophical Society, who voted his expulsion at their next meeting.
He claimed to have invented the phrase ‘The Rights of Man’ and chalked it in the caves at Marsden Rocks in South Shields in honour of the working class hero ‘Blaster Jack’ Bates,  who lived there.
He even came to blows with famed Tyneside wood-engraver Thomas Bewick (to whom a memorial has been recently established on the streets of Newcastle) over a political issue, and was thrashed with cudgels for his trouble.
From 1792, having moved to London, he took part in radical agitations, particularly against the war with France. He was arrested several times for selling his own and other seditious books and was imprisoned for six months without trial in 1794, and sentenced to three years for his Restorer of Society to its Natural State in 1801.
Whilst politicians such as Edmund Burke saw the mass of people as the ‘Swinish Multitude’, Spence saw creative potential in everybody and broadcast his ideas in the periodical Pigs’ Meat.
He had a stall in London’s Chancery Lane, where he sold books and saloup, and later set up a small shop called The Hive of Liberty in Holborn.
He died in poverty ‘leaving nothing to his friends but an injunction to promote his Plan and the remembrance of his inflexible integrity’.

The Thomas Spence Trust organised a mini-festival to celebrate Spence in 2000 when it published a booklet on his life and work, together with related events, with the aid of Awards for All. 
Trust founder-member, poet Keith Armstrong has written a play for Bruvvers Theatre Company on the socialist pioneer which has been performed at St. Ann’s Church and other venues in the city.

Now the Trust has successfully campaigned for a plaque on the Quayside in Newcastle, where Spence was born. The plaque was unveiled on Monday June 21st 2010, Spence's 260th birthday, with a number of talks, displays and events coinciding with it. 

A book and launch events are planned for September 2014, the 200th anniversary of Spence's death, in Newcastle upon Tyne at the site of the commemorative plaque and in the Red House on the Quayside and in London near the site of the Hive of Liberty, Spence's bookshop in Little Turnstile, Holborn.

Further information from: Dr Keith Armstrong, The Thomas Spence Trust, 93 Woodburn Square, Whitley Lodge, Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear NE26 3JD. Tel. 0191 2529531.


On behalf of The Thomas Spence Trust and Newcastle City Council, I’m delighted to welcome you here today to unveil a plaque in honour of that great free spirit, utopian writer, land reformer and courageous pioneering campaigner for the rights of men and women, Thomas Spence. Myself and other members of our Trust, especially Peter Dixon and Tony Whittle, with the support of people like Professors Joan Beal, Alastair Bonnett and Malcolm Chase and activists like Michael Mould, Alan Myers and Councillor Nigel Todd, have campaigned for well over 10 years for some kind of memorial to Tom Spence and it is with great pride that we assemble here with you today.
We know that Spence was born on the Quayside on June 21st 1750, 260 years ago to this the longest day and Summer Solstice. We know that his father Jeremiah made fishing nets and sold hardware from a booth on Sandhill and his mother Margaret kept a stocking stall, also on Sandhill, but it has not been possible, all these years on, to pinpoint the exact location of Thomas Spence’s birthplace, which is why this plaque has been installed here at Broad Garth, the site of his school room and debating society and where he actually came to blows with Thomas Bewick because of a dispute over the contentious matter of property. Bewick gave Spence a beating with cudgels on that occasion but, surprisingly enough, they remained lifelong friends. As Bewick said of Spence: ‘He was one of the warmest Philanthropists in the world and the happiness of Mankind seemed, with him, to absorb every other consideration.’
In these days of bland career politicians, Spence stands out as an example of a free spirit, prepared to go to prison for his principles - the principles of grass roots freedom, community and democracy, for the human rights of people all over the world.
Spence mobilised politically in taverns in Newcastle and later in London. That is why this afternoon, after this short ceremony, you are all invited to join us across the road in the Red House to raise a glass for Tom and to hear informal talks, poems and songs in his honour. You can hear further talks on Spence tonight at the Lit & Phil, courtesy of the Workers’ Educational Association, and next Monday at Newcastle Library, along with a display of his works, and, if you like, you can join some of us at Marsden Grotto, South Shields, tomorrow lunchtime, where Thomas first chalked the phrase ‘The Rights of Man’ on a cave wall, to raise another glass for this man who in his own words ‘dared to be free.’
This plaque puts Thomas Spence on the map for all of those pilgrims who hold human rights and political freedoms dear. It does not trap his free spirit rather it gives his life and work fresh wings.
Thanks to you all for coming this afternon on this proud day for The Thomas Spence Trust, Newcastle City Council and the citizens of this great city of ours.

Sunday, 17 November 2013


This is a special man
who spends his life entirely
searching for clues to all of it
outside the teeming box.
He rants from the obscure corners
where no one else dares,
rummages down lanes 
where most folk fear 
to walk,
looking for a special meaning,
a hint of a jewel 
in the pervasive rubbish.
A walk with him 
will lead you
into beautiful gardens,
alternative libraries
and abstract galleries.
His voice
is his own 
unique instrument,
dulcit in the sun
of blooming vineyards
and birdsong.
His thoughts
the universe
with their original
Listen to him,
to the deepness
in his soul,
to the reverence
in his wise and seaching eyes.