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.