Helen Tookey: At Tynemouth

I can hardly believe that Read Regional 2015 is over already. It seems barely any time at all since we, the RR2015 authors, were being marshalled for publicity photos on the imposing staircase at the University of Northumbria, making nervous jokes and trying not to be the one person who blinked at the wrong moment.

I wrote in my first blog piece for RR that one of the things I was most excited about was the chance to visit a part of the country – the North East – that I didn’t really know; and that has, indeed, been a real highlight for me. My trips north also seem to have mapped the extremes of weather that might be included in an English spring. When I travelled up to Sunderland, winter still seemed to have a grip on proceedings even though it was the day of the spring equinox. Before the poetry workshop I ventured down to the river. It was cold, with a bitter wind coming off the sea; but at Panns Bank, where the road and rail bridges cross the Wear, I found all kinds of interesting things. An information board told me about the history of Sunderland, Monkwearmouth and Bishopwearmouth, and I learned that the name Panns Bank derives from the huge pans for extracting salt that used to line the riverbank at that spot. Walking down the steep steps to the dockside, I found a bright mural painted onto the retaining wall, an advertisement for S.P. Austin & Son, shipbuilders (founded, I later discovered courtesy of Google, in 1826; closed, 1956). The mural showed the salt pans, the shallow keel-boats that carried the coal, and a much brighter and bluer sky than the one that I was currently looking at. Later that morning, it would also be pretty cold in the back kitchen at Pop Recs, where Anna Woodford and I were running the poetry workshop; but the place was soon warmed up by the sheer creative energy of the Cuckoo Young Writers’ group, who came up with some wonderful ideas and pieces of writing: chopped-up copies of the Metro yielded results ranging from Ashbery-esque surrealism to succinct skewerings of One Direction, Jeremy Clarkson and UKIP.

By the time I visited Newcastle, on 10 June, it felt like high summer. A highlight of this trip, as of several others, was the opportunity to read alongside John Wedgwood Clarke, and to enjoy listening to his rich explorations of the language, the ways his poems get inside the nature and history of words and things. Although none of the RR events physically took me to the North Yorkshire coast, I very definitely feel that I’ve experienced it, through John’s beautiful evocations of the shoreline and its creatures

I had deliberately left myself a whole morning, following the reading the previous evening, to explore Newcastle and its surroundings; and since the weather was so inviting (and also because I’m slightly obsessed by underground and light-rail systems) I took the Metro out to Tynemouth. This, again, is a coastline I wasn’t familiar with, and I was struck by its beauty – the clean pale sands, the clear, cold water reflecting the cloudless blue sky. The North East is also, of course, a place where the long past still seems very visible, and the poem below tries to convey something of my experience of Tynemouth priory. I definitely want to come back to the North East for a longer visit to explore some of the many other historical sites that I haven’t yet seen.

I have thoroughly enjoyed taking part in Read Regional 2015 and I’m very grateful to New Writing North for having invited me.

At Tynemouth

Here on the headland the wind whittles away
at blind arcades, broken wall-ends of nave
and crossing, choir and chantry.
                               So bleak
in winter, here they sent backsliding monks
to learn the harsher virtues: sore throats
from the sea-frets, tedious diet of boiled fish,
and the sight of ships driven onto the Middens,
crews pleading in plain view and no means
of effecting rescue. No ringdove
or nightingale is here; only grey birds
nest in rocks and prey upon the drowned.
See to it, dear brother, you do not come
to this comfortless place.
                         Today, a soft breeze
ruffles neat grass. South of the chapel
the town’s dead have forgotten the kniving air,
the sting of salt; but here too the wind
has worked, riddling sandstone, tracing over
and over birth-dates and death-dates, worming hollows
for fingers, miniature caves like the burrows of martins,
riverbank swallows –
                   indifferent worker,
the wind carves its lovely illiterate script
without purpose or schedule, all the time
in the world at its careless disposal.

Helen Tookey, 2015