I think I can say now, with confidence, that I am a northerner. I am not sure if I now feel this is something I have earned, having lived in the north for 40 years, or if I am reclaiming a Yorkshire heritage. My mother was from Hull and my father from Bradford, although, as it has turned out, I have lived in the north much longer than either of them did. I don’t want to fall into any of the traps or stereotypes that surround the notion of north. I don’t think I can claim to be gritty, and I rarely call a spade a spade.
Maybe it’s more to do with love. I love the north, especially the north east, for its landscapes, its coast and its skies. There have been times, especially when I first moved here from London to go to university in the 1970s, when I have resisted elements of extreme masculinity, insularity, and in some areas, the lack of diversity, that I found here, but the north has changed. Even so, I lament the fact that many of the north’s younger people find it necessary to move away, for work, for study, for adventure. Maybe this will change, or people will want to return at some point in their lives.
My 821 took Skinningrove as a starting point. Since moving from Newcastle to Darlington in the 1980s, my nearest coast became Saltburn. Later, I found Skinningrove and was intrigued by its remoteness, its beautiful beach, and the reputation it had for being a Wild West town by the sea. Nonetheless, I swam there several times, and anyone I met was always friendly, usually on their way to check a lobster pot or fish from the breakwater. I attended a bonfire night there once, which was amazing, with just a slight element of Apocalypse Now.
Later still, I came across some photos by Chris Killip, and a short film about photos he had taken in Skinningrove in the 1980s. The photos are utterly beautiful portraits of (mainly) the young men and their relationship with the sea. It was these photos, together with my experiences of swimming there that inspired the poem. There is a brief nod in the direction of Sailing to Byzantium by WB Yeats: the mackerel crowded seas, the title, of course, but also I was comparing (in my head) the anxiety that ageing brings with the tragic loss of young working class lives, and the differences in life expectancy depending on where you live and how.
Having the honour of judging this poetry competition with Lisa Matthews has been part of a personal realisation and acceptance. As we read through the pile of poems, the north fell into place like a magic jigsaw puzzle: poets celebrated all the things I loved, but also did not shrink from the real issues we in the north understand and live with. Poets found ingenious ways through the structure of the 821 to express this complexity, this ambiguity, but also this love. It was a very moving experience.
As we come to the last Canto, I hope readers have enjoyed our selection as much as we have enjoyed choosing and organising them.