‘A few days in Newcastle, talking with fellow performers at the ‘English Journey’ event, attending a screening (and later an Indian meal) with Kenneth Anger, and walking to Morden Tower and along the Tyne. The Tower, bellying out over a narrow alley, set against the old wall, is unrecorded by heritage plaques. A Chinese arch signals a street of restaurants and the St James’ football stadium. There are so many ghosts, some of them loud, some moving discreetly like shadows. Alan Moore is delighted to meet Tom Pickard, on his return to the original city of his imagination: he collects a copy of ‘Guttersnipe’ for Mel, his wife, who is back in Northampton. She says that Pickard, when she discovered him in San Francisco, wrote the sexiest prose in England.’
SAGESONG: A text for Gateshead performance
‘Poet appointed dare not decline…’
I build a raft of books. A paper nest to split finger pads and drip a bloody wake of words, behind us, on thick water. Against a ball of mud in the throat: Sagesong choked or hooped in tight brass. I spit colliers’ phlegm and shattered hubcaps. Doctor-fathers at the pit gate. The held silence of a Quaker Meeting House. Pebbles clattering in a fast stream.
I build a raft of sea-books, to make my drowning sure. Better than concrete boots for the sinking. Water, so cold and clear at source, thickens to reeking soup. In Norfolk I saw trees grow upsidedown in sand, henges or rings, like the negative of a longboat, a Viking burial. In Lindisfarne they are houses.
I build a raft from gospels and traceries, serpents in relief on stone crosses. Beasts mashed from pulp and from poets: Bunting, MacSweeney, Pickard, Griffiths. Time served in cells and cells splitting open to hungry light. Rivets, driven through the paw, rust to coral. An hour gathers them in, memory-libraries for creosote and pitch, skin for a black sail. You do not know this place and this place does not know you. Foolish to speak. To spoil a slow pint. Bunting cautioned against verbiage. Cut cut cut. ‘Vision is lies.’
First, I came for love. And then for books.
the fire-crowned terrain
as the sea burns
You can’t burn your boats when you live inland…
we cluster & suck.
BROTHER WOLF, a Turret Book, in red and black. I remember, when I first met Barry, he told me how he laboured over this Chatterton repossession, day after day, setting and resetting. He came over the water to Hackney, trailing stories of Kensington and Cambridge. We were walking towards the canal they have now drained for cosmetic Olympic work: fish dead, coots peddling in shallows. The place was the place he had left behind. You could see him split like John Clare. And how on the road north, trudging after a dead muse, another self tears up the roadside grass for your dinner. The iceman shadow.
There is so much land in Northumberland. The sea
Taught me to sing
The river to hold my nose. When
It rains it rains glue.
Northumbria. Bunting tells us what this meant, the proud scale, running from coast to coast, a kingdom, not some heritage parlour, or ruff of postcards. People from the south vanished, eaten by the bite in the soil. I knew a bookseller, a decent, quiet man who sat by the bars of his electric fire in the clammy English Midlands, chewing his pipe. When some ghost of success, stock that could actually be sold, impinged on his private cave, he ran north: Northumberland. A lighthouse. He was never heard from again.
Sparty Lee, was it? Cottages, owned by Barry MacSweeney’s aunt, where poets gathered to read and fight: 1967. I was not there. You’ll find the history now on an estate agent’s website. Or an obituary by Nicholas Johnson in a broadsheet. ‘He taught many Creative Writing students at Hertford College of Further Education how to decipher the Racing Guide from a Newspaper…. A new generation of English poets met head on for “Sparty Lea Poetry Festival”. Sparks flew and Sparty Lea – like Morden Tower – set the benchmark for pollination of radical poetics.’
Pollen Nation: Northumbria. Fossil-dust of ancient crop circles. Pearl barley. Barry’s much-loved marigolds, watermint and borage. I was not there. Never invited to this town – and later, never able to come: always on the road, walking with fetches, or hunkered down in a 40-year Hackney bunker. The books, by then, had become walls, beds, tables. Cash. Tom Pickard ate them, smoked them, they bailed his charge. And kept him, always, close. ‘Better a thief than a fool,’ the Greeks say.
Pickards’ bellying Tower: Tom and Connie. I raid archive, I reive the Middlesborough image hoard to find a clip of Professor Eric Mottram, in the Tower, shocked by the cabin-like proportions – how so much could have happened in so tight a space. It reminded him, this sleepwalker, of past-times on the North Sea, a war-convoy heading for Russia. Arctic chill recollected in a decommissioned Whitechapel synagogue: the warm tape-recorder spooling on his lap as he dozes through another performance piece, and the poet snuffs out the ritual candles to improve the dark.
Mottram gave an interview entitled Our Education is Political. ‘In Zurich I was learning German with a Polish countess, whose family had known Rilke… I really remember as a small boy, just remember… what I remember is seeing the headlines – I must have been something like six – but I really do remember seeing the headlines – of what was called the Jarrow March… Bill Griffiths, whose poems I published for the first time, is one of the most extraordinary poets, with a range of abilities. It is an utter scandal that this man doesn’t have huge grants and have a job somewhere, I mean he’s living on doles… He lives in Seaham.’
Ted Lewis: Jack’s Return Home. Filmed, by southrons, as Get Carter. ‘It’s nearly full light now. From where I am I can see the sweep of the river for a good twelve miles and to my right, inland, the glow of the steelworks is pink against the grey sky…I scan the yard. There is no sign of Eric… The water round me is becoming streaked with thin red lines that swirl slowly towards my feet… And between us, beyond my feet, half in the water, is the shotgun, what’s left of it, twisted and black, still smoking, the smoke curling up into the grey morning sky…’
I wasn’t here, I was not invited. I did not invite myself. I went to Durham, several times, and in the snow I saw that great black plug of rock as an English version of Kafka’s Castle. I wrote a script called Carry On, K., in which all the minor parts would be played by fabulous English grotesques. Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Connor, Kenneth Williams, Bernard Bresslaw, Charles Hawtrey. Whinnying, sniggering, braying against sense and sensibility, neutered, mules of the irrational and perverse. I read in pubs and backrooms, with the patronage and hospitality of poets, Ric Caddel and Jackie Litherland. Chris Torrance brought his penny-whistle from Wales. Outside, drinkers from the hills went naked.
The Pickards, meanwhile, were importing Americans, who repaid the favour. Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Dorn and the rest. ‘The Lord Mayor,’ Pickard said, ‘had a frigate-launching on the Tyne to attend and she invited Dorn to accompany her. The invitation didn’t include me.’
Dorn wrote to his mentor and friend, Charles Olson.
‘The launching was spectacular, they made an incision in the bottle of champagne with a diamond cutter but it still didn’t go bust the first time. But when she did go away I was standing lined right up with the runners and saw it all, very slowly at first so you could hardly notice and then all at once fast, into the Tyne… The band struck up with a rousing version of that tune from Bridge on the River Kwai… Then we all went into the company’s reception room as ten thousand Jarrow workers streamed out of the gates for home…’
‘Dorn stayed on for a couple of days,’ Tom reported, ‘and we took him for a lunch-time drink with Basil.’
‘Basil Bunting,’ Dorn wrote, ‘is a fine old man, very funny the way he’ll stare at you with this silly grin on his face, up close, and you think he hasn’t got it until suddenly he makes his answer. A real, seedy old gent, but very straight. I like him immensely…’
June I972, a few weeks before the birth of our first child, this was where I had the instinct to come; my own birthday, I remember, in Bamburgh. We had the use of the communal mini-van for this trip to Holy Island. Anna was so close to her time that she had, in good part, to be heaved and rolled on the dock after the crossing. I’ve had a soft spot, ever since, for the pushing of that little humped car across the causeway, against the incoming tide, in Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac. Which indeed it proved to be, in terms of his later career: he calls it his favourite film. Beckett and Pinter synthesised, in an absurdist translation, with actors from everywhere, and producers who would go on to facilitate Witchfinder General for Mike Reeves. Out on the Farne Islands, gulls swooped and dived, in the wrong movie. But this was the right place, powerfully so. While Anna rested on a bench, I saw a warm brown shadow move. And I followed. You are closer to Scotland here, my roots, than to London. Closer to Norway. To the Polish wastes. Our daughter was named Farne and I wanted her, when that question came up, to be christened at the ruined abbey: if anywhere. But they declined, residents only.
5 March 1978. When it comes to it, we try to respect the rules of ritual, the community of this Hackney church, its tiny congregation. One or two of the old folk have come along, the vicar is in flow. There was close attention to what was happening, no holding aloof, when Brian Catling heard a soft click against the stone. A man called Harry had slumped, coughing out his teeth, which bounced once on the aisle, before Brian swooped with a large red handkerchief. He got Harry out to the porch while the vicar carried on with the dipping and marking. News was brought through, in whispers, that this elderly and faithful parishioner had died. The ceremony now became a double-event, memorial tribute and welcome; one valued member of the flock departing and a new soul joining the Christian fellowship.
Not long after this, so it was rumoured, the vicar’s wife, mother of numerous children, left the adjoining vicarage to enlist in a Stoke Newington lesbian commune. Our son and our younger daughter were not christened.
My mistake was in taking Anna, in the later months of that pregnancy, to another Polanski film: Rosemary’s Baby. The dim corridors of a haunted brownstone apartment block recalled, many years later, in the beached boat-building, Marine Court, where we had our south coast flat. Not a rivet on the whole craft. Cancerous concrete. An upper-deck of radio masts and photovoltaic scanners inducing epilepsy and involuntary flashbacks to Marilyn Monroe in Niagara. Television sets erupting with waterfalls. The hubris of demolishing a prized Georgian terrace to pastiche a phantom ocean liner, the Queen Mary. While the hunger marchers head south on their long road to London.
Fools think the train will do, take the strain of journeyman prose. Prostituted topography. They see the north through a misted glass. And they see it thin. Locals cultivate cataracts.
JB Priestley (1934): ‘I have a very distinct recollection of taking a great dislike to the whole district, which seemed to me so ugly that it made the West Riding towns look like inland resorts… The centre of Newcastle, in which we had now landed, had a certain sombre dignity… It was still raining, though not hard; and the whole city seemed a black steaming mass… ‘
Paul Theroux (1983): ‘It had the poisoned & dispirited look of a place that had just lost a war. It was an area of complex ugliness – not just the dumps full of gulls and cows, and the weak defiance in the faces of the teenagers – it was also the doomed attempts at survival: the farmer ploughing a small strip behind an abandoned factory, and the garden allotments of sheds and overgrown enclosures, cabbage and beans, geese and pigs, vegetables and animals alike dusted
with fine smut and looking cancerous. It was like a sight of China – black factories & narrow, necessary gardens, and a kind of visible helplessness. It was one of the dreariest landscapes I had ever seen.’
I came on the train too, packed hard against an impatient man in a dark suit, bristling with laptops and electronic tagging devices. He complained loudly about our conversation, the anecdotes of poets and bookmen. ‘Other people, business people, use this service. Show some consideration.’ He rammed his glistening black-leather appurtenances into every available or unavailable cranny. I sneaked a look at his screen. Graphs and fiscal reports gave way to action porn, whitemen with guns zapping beards and suntans. He was a tax cop, coming to asset-strip a failing Gateshead enterprise. Ten minutes out from Newcastle, he snorted into his mobile, demanding a car. The station was ranked with welcome parties and fleets of taxis. As we drove away, we saw him, puce now, screaming into his hand, about the limo that had wisely decided not to put in a appearance.
Tin men on hills, arms spread wide, like Peter Schmeichel trying to block a penalty. Commissioned angels knocked up in the shipyards to protect motorway shopping malls. Failed angels, coated in development blubber, plunging from multi-storey car parks. Fire demons out on the moor. ‘I am the nightmare,’ said Barry. Who met Bobby Robson on the train and had a great session, so he claimed, competitively quoting Dylan Thomas. Forty miles from heaven.
Priestley got it right in the end. He found his guide.
‘It was my bookseller friend who took me down the Tyne. The rain had gone but the morning was cold and rather misty, I had nothing to do most of the time, but stare through the window of a saloon car… We began by running down the old Quay Side as far as we could go… These were mean streets. Slatternly women stood at the doors of wretched little houses, gossiping with other slatterns or screeching for their small children, who were playing among the filth of the roadside… If TS Eliot ever wants to write a poem about a real wasteland instead of a metaphysical one, he should come here…
We had to cross the derelict shipyard, which was a fantastic wilderness of decaying sheds, strange mounds and pits, rusted iron, old concrete and new grass. Both my companions knew about this yard, which had been a spectacular failure in which over a million of money had been lost. They had queer stories to tell of corruption in this and other yards, of lorry-loads of valuable material that were driven in at one gate and signed for, and then quietly driven out at another gate, of jobs so blatantly rushed, for show purposes, that in the last weeks wooden pegs were being used in place of steel rivets… I do not know that anywhere on this journey I saw anything more moving and more significant than that old patched boat, which hung for years on the davits of a liner but is now the workless men’s Venture, creeping out with the tide to find a few fish…’
Make a map of sound: hammers on iron, axe blades on bone. Naked women dancing on beaches. Coal chutes and broken shotguns. They love their poets and bridle them with poverty, drive them out. At the finish, Priestley, sick with self, his long absence from London, stumbles on the secret recipe.
‘In Gateshead, on our way back, we passed some little streets named after the poets, Chaucer and Spenser and Tennyson; 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 complicated sniggering rhymers, but a lad with such a flame in his heart and mouth that at last he could set the Tyne on fire. Who would rush to put it out?’
I walked all morning in weak sunshine photographing horsehit on the road. But I did not reach the sea. ‘They only listen,’ Tom said, ‘when you think they aren’t.’
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