What We Are Doing On Our Holidays

We’re going back to Blighty in June to see friends and family and to buy copious amounts of the things you can’t get in Ireland – notably Wensleydale cheese and corned beef. I’ve managed to set up some poetry gigs to read (mostly) from ‘Following Teisa’ while we are there, so here are the details.

Sunday 12th June. Reading with guest poet Stephen Moran – host Pauline Sewards.Torriano Meeting House, 99 Torriano Avenue. London NW5 2RX, 7.30pm

Monday 13th June. The Director’s Cut! The festival version! Thanks to the great Bob Beagrie, we are hosting a performance of the WHOLE BOOK with six voices joining me in a one-off, never-to-be-repeated event. “@CrossingtheTees presents a stunning cabaret evening on Mon 13/06 in the gorgeous surroundings of the reference library, including the launch of my collection Following Teisa. Multiple performers will play the many voices of the river Tees.” Booking details here!

Thursday 16th June I will be reading some extracts from the book as part of the regular open mic night at The Old Well pub, 21 The Bank, Barnard Castle, from 8pm.

Saturday 18th June. Words on the Wall, at the County Hotel, Hexham, doors open 2.30pm for a 3pm start. Reading with Sarah Wimbush and Rowan McCabe. Lots to like!

Tuesday 21st June Ouse Muse, at the Eagle Bookshop, 16-20 St Peter’s Street, Bedford, MK40 2NN 7.45pm.

I’m so looking forward to these readings – I would love to see you there!

Who IS She?

Are we obsessed with rivers, in English poetry? Matthew Stewart, in his Roguestrands review of my book ‘Following Teisa’ says:

“From Wordsworth to Oswald, water in general is perhaps more present and prevalent as a symbol, an image, a leitmotif or even a theme in itself than in other countries. This might well {be} because the poets in question are living on an island or in a dodgy climate, of course.”

From Michael Drayton’s Polyolbion (1612), through Pope’s Windsor Forest (1704) and Wordsworth’s sonnet sequence The River Duddon (1820), to Alice Oswald’s Dart (2002), the British have been writing about rivers for hundreds of years. I’m aware of poets writing long poems right now about the Medway and the Clyde. Anne Wilson’s poem Teisa – A Descriptive Poem of the River Teese: Its Towns and Antiquities’, fits into that sequence after Pope but before Wordsworth, in 1778, and has something of Pope’s style about it. It’s all rhyming couplets and muses, and appeals to Teisa herself, the genius loci of a feminine river.

We know roughly nothing about Anne Wilson. She wrote this poem and had it published in Newcastle. We don’t know whether she sold copies or just gave them to her friends. We don’t know for certain where she lived or what kind of life she led, but from her comments about families she knew, and tasks she undertook, I’m guessing she’s from the upper part of Teesdale, around Middleton and Eggleston. For example she talks about gathering fuel on the hillsides below High Force (line 125 ff):

“Toil lost its force, when you, my love, was by,
Thy stronger arm, still ready to apply
When mine unequal to the task was found
As we were wont in yonder heathish ground
To dig out fuel for the winter keen;”

This is no gentlewoman. She’s out there on the hillside with her husband, taking part in manual labour. Later in the poem she refers to ‘Lycidas’ (line 400). He was the hero of Milton’s eponymous poem which is an elegy to a friend who died too young. Anne Wilson’s Lycidas is her husband, who seems to have left her a widow at a young age. She speaks of her circumstances saying ‘in a hir’d house all my days are spent’. She is not a homeowner but perhaps a tenant or a lodger, or a widow living with extended family. In other places in the poem she talks about cheesemaking, herb‑gathering and land drainage. Lines 252-300 are really interesting to me, a former home cheesemaker. Wilson looks over the shoulder of a housewife in Cotherstone who is making cheese. She describes the cheese itself, then the heating of whey in what is essentially the process of ricotta-making. This ‘curds and whey’ is then processed further, by draining off the acidic liquid as ‘whig’, a refreshing drink for the poorer people. Of course, a rather marvellous cheese is still made in Cotherstone and I hope that indicates an unbroken history of cheese in the Dale.

Wilson is in tune with the issues affecting the working-class. Somewhere on Morritt’s land below Barnard Castle, some land is drained. Wilson describes exactly how the ditiches are dug, and notes, ruefully:

“This plan wou’d each land-holder but pursue,
England a paradise we then might view
Not then wou’d her own sons, like exiles, seek
More lands to till beyond the foaming deep
Lovers of agriculture all might here
Employment find throughout the circling year”

These days environmental concerns would argue against her, but her sympathies with the farmers’ need to make a living is clear. In her article ‘Writing against the Current, Anne Wison’s Teisa and the Tradition of British River-Poetry’, American academic Bridget Keegan points out Wilson’s rather radical sensibilities. At one point Wilson rails against the cruelty of hunting. In other places, Keegan finds evidence of an anti-authoritarian spirit, even an English rather than British nationalism. But we still don’t know who Anne Wilson was. If I were living in Teesdale now I’d be asking for access to the musty ledgers of village churches to find traces of her there. Wilson is not such a common name in Teesdale. (Thank goodness she wasn’t called Watson, there are dozens of them!). Looking through online parish records, we do find some possible candidates. Here is a plausible timeline:

• 26th June 1727: Anne Allason, born to Richard and Elizabeth Allason in Middleton in Teesdale
• 23rd December 1747: Anne Allason marries William Wilson (born 1722), also from Middleton
• 28th October 1760: William Wilson dies
• 24th September 1788: Wilson, Anne, widow, dies

This would mean Anne was married at twenty and widowed at thirty-three, which seems to fit. She publishes her poem at the age of fifty, and dies at sixty-one.

And with that one poem, Anne Wilson appears in an obscure corner of English literature, and then fades immediately from view. Keegan notes that there also exists a verse drama by one ‘Ann Wilson’ called Jepthah’s Daughter, published in London in 1784. We don’t know whether or not that was our Anne. I hope it was. I happened to note that Anne Wilson mentions the poet Abraham Cowley in Teisa (line 385), and Ann Wilson mentions him in the preface to Jephthah’s Daughter. Coincidence? I don’t know.

Teesdale became quite famous in 1813 when Sir Walter Scott published ‘Rokeby’ a long and dreary (IMHO) poem about the English Civil War. In the tourist guide ‘A Tour of Teesdale, including Rokeby and its Environs’ by Richard Garland, published by Thomas Wilson and Sons of York, 1815, this reference is made to Anne Wilson’s ‘Teisa’ (surely no relation?).It’s very clearly her book that is being referred to but her name is never mentioned. How rude!

Garland is quoting Shakespeare here, which Anne Wilson would have appreciated.

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and give to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Act 5, Scene 1

Keegan calls Wilson a member of the ‘labouring classes’ which might be true, but these are also incontrovertible facts; she had enough education and access to books to have read a lot of poetry, she had enough leisure time to have written a 1600 line poem, and she had enough money to have her poem self-published, presumably at her own expense. More than that. we don’t know, although I like to picture her taking her manuscript up to Newcastle by horse and carriage, with great excitement for seeing her work in print. When trying to position her in society, Wilson’s own words are significant. She decribes the town of Middleton as the home of ‘people neither splendid, rich, nor poor’; the middling sort, in fact.

Keegan also wonders about Wilson’s subject matter. She states ‘That she should also privilege regional over national geography makes her work even more important for its era.’ Having also noted that Wilson was of the ‘labouring classes’, that should not come as a surprise. Wilson didn’t ‘privilege regional… geography’, she could only write about what she knew, and she had probably had no opportunity to travel widely; it is amazing to me that she had travelled as far as the mouth of the Tees, forty-five miles downstream.

Keegan also notes that;

“…eighteenth-century nature writing valued the local only if it functioned metonymically for the national. Emphasis on the regional of and for itself relegated an author to perpetual minor status.”

Oh, Anne Wilson. It was ever thus.

“Fair Teisa’s Winding Stream Invites my Lays”

The book is out in the world – sort of. We’re living in strange Brexity Covidy times where there seems to be a shortage of paper and maybe also a shortage of non-isolating print workers; it seems that lots of people’s new books are experiencing delays. But Amazon in the UK can do print-on-demand copies of Following Teisa and I’m told the bulk stock of print copies will be with us in a week or so and available from my publisher, Kathleen Jones at The Book Mill. Thank you to my early Amazon reviewers, and to Nicola Jackson, who listed my book as a “Book of the Year” in the current edition of Poetry News. I’m blown away.

It is so frustrating trying to promote a book about north-east England when I’m living in Ireland – awful timing on my part.The poetry community is very regional. After moving up from Oxfordshire in 2014 and leaving all the poets who knew me in the south-east, I began all over again and made poetry friends in Durham, Teesside, Newcastle and Cumbria. Now I’m starting all over again in County Dublin where I know nobody. Thank goodness for trusty Zoom, which we are using to have a launch tonight. The glorious Rob Francis and Sarah Doyle are reading with me, for which I’m most grateful.

I’m planning to be in England for a very special reading in Middlesbrough at the Crossing the Tees Festival on 13th June, and hoping to squeeze some additional readings either side of it in some kind of book tour. So if there is a poetry night that you would like me to read for, please let me know.

There are more thank yous to do. In particular, to my publisher Kathleen Jones at The Book Mill and to the North Lakes Stanza, who reviewed chunks of this poem at their meetings in Penrith, to Jo Bell, Bob Beagrie, and John McCullough for reading the whole thing and saying nice things on the book cover, and especially to Holly Magdalene Scott, who did the amazing illustrations that add so much to the quality of the book. All I can do now is hope you enjoy this journey down the River Tees.

Peg Powler by Holly Magdalene Scott

Psychogeography

Trentham Colliery in 1983. This site is now home to Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium.

I write poems about places. and their effect on people. Some of what I write is about the natural world, and some is about the human landscape. Having grown up on the periphery of Stoke on Trent I had an interest in industrial landscapes. I’m interested in what Paul Farley and Michael Symmons-Roberts call “Edgelands”; in wilding and rewilding, climate change, archaeology and the anthropocene. In 1983, my parents bought me my first SLR camera and I went walking around the city taking photos of old buildings, shard-rucks and marl pits. Many of the places I photographed have now been bulldozed and replaced with endless retail parks – who can be doing all this shopping when so many skilled and well-paid jobs have been lost?

A pot bank at the side of the A50 in Stoke.

My overwhelming impression of the Potteries of my childhood is that everything was brown. There was so much brick, so many old kilns, condemned housing and cobbled back lanes. In 1968, the City had more derelict land than anywhere else in England.

A shard-ruck, or spoil heap, at Doulton’s bathrooms. I think that is the old Victoria Ground in the distance.

I’m not sure I really understand the concept of psychogeography, as defined by Guy Debord:

“the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”

and I don’t feel much like a ‘flaneur’ either – it sounds too louche, too purposeless, and too enjoyable. But I know that the city I grew up in has had an influence on me and I look at everywhere I have lived since through the eyes of a ‘Stokie’. I think of the literal heaps of spoil we put up with and thought were normal, of the time I saw Longton Brook and its overhanging trees festooned with multi-coloured toilet paper after some sewage disaster, of the wasteland and unofficial playground at the end of our street which was known as ‘The Dump’ where the ruts of old railway sleepers were still visible on the ground from one of the branch lines Beeching ripped up. And I write about the suburbs – all the cheek-by-jowl living of the urban environment combined with the countryside’s nothing-to-do.

Find Your Byline

One of the great things (the only great thing?) to come out of the whole Brexit debacle is the rise of Citizen Journalism via the Byline Times network. Most regions of the UK are now covered by Byline Times, and I have started to write for North East Bylines since I washed up on the far side of the Irish Sea. My big idea was this – here are two countries which, despite their size disparity, have a lot in common in terms of geography, climate, language and culture. Until a hundred years ago they were in fact part of the same country, thanks to Britain’s appetite for colonisation, which led to some similarity in law and governance. Of course things have diverged with a century of Irish independence, but maybe we could regard Ireland as a sort of “control” – what the UK might be like if it hadn’t been seized by a coup of rabid populist multi-millionaires. So in my Alastair Cooke style “Letters from Malahide”, I’ve been doing some “compare and contrast” articles about the difference between the two countries. I’ve also added a few poems to the “Poetry Corner” feature. All my articles and poems can be found here.

I recommend you follow your local Bylines, which you can find here. Maybe you might also contribute to your regional discussion.

Wildgoose

Sally Evans’ first novel.

Two cousins, one male, one female. Two poets, whose literary lives are bound up together. Sally Evans’ novel begins at Morecambe Bay, where the totemic wild geese first appear, and shifts to Newcastle, then Edinburgh, with forays to Skye and Durness in the far north of Scotland. The story begins in earnest in the mid-1960s and is evocative of the poetry scene of the north-east of England; Basil Bunting, Hugh McDiarmid and Morden Tower all make cameo appearances. Poetry weaves through the lives of Eric and Maeve, but this is mostly Maeve’s story – of the inequality of women poets, of the constraints of motherhood, and of a long poem that is written, and deserves to be published.

Evans hails from the Lake District and is now a bookseller in Callander, Scotland. The history and geography of this novel are very familar to her. It makes me want to read more poetry of this time and place. I am going to search for my copy of Briggflatts.

This may be the best novel about poetry since AS Byatt’s Possession, and it’s much more believable. Both the storyline and the setting make it a remarkable book and a terrific read.

Wildgoose is published by Postbox Press, the literary imprint of Red Squirrel, where you can order your copy.

Writing in the Pandemic

Some people decided, at the onset of Covid-19, that they would read Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Albert Camus’ La Peste. I did the opposite. I retreated into the gentle world of Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street and Isabel Dalhousie novels. I read not much else, poetry or prose, and I wrote next to nothing. However, eventually one poem emerged. Because I love watching online of videos of cute animals, I noticed all the stories about animal behaviour in lockdown. The poem I wrote about that became the title track of a little booklet mostly about animals, for a series of hand-made publications by Kazvina (Karen Little) in aid of the Broken Biscuits animal charity. Karen produced booklets for eight poets and I was very proud to be included. The other poems in The Animals in Lockdown include newts, nuthatches, yellowhammers, cats, and dragonflies.

Here’s the title poem.

The Animals in Lockdown

The mountain goats have noticed something’s wrong.
Their anxious hooves trot into town
tap-tapping on our tarmac. They’ve come to browse
verges and hedges, keeping down

the wildness, which they know distresses us.
In clearwater harbours, dolphins nose
the prows of empty boats drifting at anchor.
Songbirds note the silence in the air.

A fox sniffs for contagion, scenting only spring,
he knows we’ve gone to earth. He has
mixed feelings about this. The dogs
who shepherd us on our permitted walks

leave smell-messages for each other, asking
‘Lads, what’s going on?’ And here at home,
my cat tucks me into bed each night, checking that I’m safe.
All through the night, she listens for my breathing.

Ninety Miles and More

Why did we move from the (now infamous) Barnard Castle, across the Irish Sea to Malahide, in North County Dublin? It’s always the same reason. Work. I didn’t have a job, and my husband was made redundant (Imagine! His expertise is in the sterile filling of injectable biotech products – e.g. vaccines – into vials ready for injection…) so we both job-hunted in the UK in 2019/20 and found nothing, which I think is an indicator of the damage Brexit is doing to the UK economy. Then a headhunter approached him about a job in Dublin, where there are LOTS of jobs in pharma / biotech manufacturing, so as of July 2020, here we are.

This happened just as I had got to the end of writing Following Teisa, my pamphlet-length poem about the River Tees. I thought the house move would scupper any attempts to have it published, but I have been lucky enough to attend Poetry Society Stanza meetings in Penrith, led by Kathleen Jones, who runs The Book Mill. She saw many sections of this poem develop over the last few months and has so kindly agreed to publish it as a book. We are at the exciting stage of formatting the text, commissioning some original artworks, and choosing a cover – of which more in later posts. I hope to be able to support the launch and publicity for this book in person, or on Zoom – the technological saviour of the last 18 months without which many of us would have been totally bereft.

High Force on the River Tees

In the process, two sections of the poem-that-is-ninety-miles-long have been fortunate. The first section: ‘Teeshead to Cow Green’ was first published in Reliquiae (Vol 8 No 1, Corbel Stone Press 2020). ‘The Tees Roll’ section was commended in the Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2020. These sections were both included in Not Past But Through – Poems About Rivers from Grey Hen Press 2021, edited by Joy Howard.