Local lads lounging around boats strewn
haphazard in front of homes, like stolen cars.
Work comes and goes: ironstone hacked in tons,
then steel, kept the world turning, until, here,
it stopped. But you are young and think you own
the sea. The mackerel crowd beckons, and at night,
lobsters wave their claws, surrender to your pots.
How sudden, the summer squall, and you are lost,
hair streaming in the greedy waves, too far
from shore, the village glimpsed a final time
your life as short and vivid as a leaping fish.
I was born in Egypt, and moved around a lot as a child and young person. I came to Newcastle in the 70s and have lived in the north ever since – mostly in Darlington, a town which can’t make up its mind whether it’s in Durham, North Yorkshire or Teesside. This shiftiness suits me, but, like it or not, I am a northerner now.
You may track us wild, rutting among pulled up lines,
buttercupped in Summer on embankments of unlinkingness,
beside your roads paying their toll of tarmac to Winter.
Each pothole would prise laughs from the navvies, steam
hissing from sinews; each clack of a pick like the click
of a kettle. Not that they’d know one end of a plugged-in
boiler from the other. The tea they supped was served up
with a whistle from a funnel’s sooted black mouth.
An arm bridging borders, built by might, set with spit,
undone by slight of soft hand and calculating digits.
We drank as the shoreline lapped at Plashetts’ last stand.
I was born and raised in Middlesbrough, an impossible – and impossibly Northern – town! I now live further North in Cullercoats and if I’m being honest, far too much of my output is rooted in Northernness – what it means to be from here and how it affects the way we all interact with the world. My recent collection Northern Lights is effectively a collective love-letter to the people of the North East. This poem looks at the history of the still-visible former Border Counties rail line linking Northumberland to Scotland, now partially under Kielder Water.
Our horizon had wheels. Tunnels emptied beneath our feet.
Coal seamed through our community like bone – its history
written on the leftover women, children and men.
Grandad grew roses – their beauty strange against his skin,
petals making angels against his rough coat. At night, his
stalks of rhubarb sang their growing songs, haunted the glass
with spindled ghosts – sat tart and sugared upon our tongues,
cutting through the stodge. Everything here was tied to the pits.
Their death was told on picket lines. There was only dust left.
I dreamed of Scarborough spilling in miniature
from the cliff. I saw the sand and seafront shops. I smiled.
I was born in the north, live in the north and love the north passionately. I grew up in the Dearne Valley in South Yorkshire and as a teenager witnessed the miner’s strike and its aftermath. Our holidays were cheap and cheerful trips to surrounding seaside places such as, Whitby, Bridlington and Scarborough, where I was married. To this day, when I hear brass band music (I used to play in the Barnsley Metropolitan Youth Band) I burst into tears, the feelings and memories are so strong.
Ask, why I carve feathers to the spike of knives
when men are too busy to read. I should be bricking
windows into arrow-slots; should be bending
yew to longbows. The year roars with blood,
the murder of faith, and enemies close, closer.
Kings hammer mistrust into swords, demand
battle songs, and the world deafens with terror
of one’s neighbour. I turn to words.
Their little lamps will outlive my flicker,
that of lords, and of this current fear. I grind
gall, vinegar, hone my quill. Feed the dark age with light.
I come from the DIY ethic of punk. Originally from the south, I left home at 18. Drawn by the gravitational force of the North, I found a natural home in its attitude of can-do, will-do, screw-you-if-you-say-we-can’t do. There’s something in the water. Maybe it’s the radical histories, because it is here that I’ve discovered my words and how to scrawl gobby ink across the page. Strength; not in adversity, but in resistance.