REVIEW: People’s Landscape on the Durham Coast

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12 October

St Chad’s College Chapel

Elvira Parr

On a sun-filled, crisp autumn Saturday morning, in the picturesque setting of St Chad’s College Chapel, we joined Phoebe Power and Katrina Porteous to fittingly discuss the beauty of County Durham, where both poets, in partnership with the National Trust, recently undertook a writing residency.

The opportunity to explore the relationship between people and place through an immersive, collaborative project was hugely appealing for both poets, they reveal. Once home to the biggest coalmines and blackest beaches in Europe, the stretch from Seaham to Horden is a testament to the possibility of change, as demonstrated by the phenomenal Turning the Tide clean-up project 20 years ago, which Porteous herself took part in.

However, much of Power’s fascination with Durham’s coast came from the “legacy of coal” that still remains and which presents the coastline as an intriguing contradiction of both damage and recovery. “The beach is divided”, she reads from her work, “a toxic mirror” reflecting the success of the present but also threatening the return of the past. Porteous’ poetry similarly warns against dangerous complacency, with reference to “some ancient outrage no one can remember now”. The mines may no longer be down the road, but their practices, of course, still remain elsewhere.

It is perhaps unsurprising that an event so rooted in landscape and nature would turn to a discussion on our current environmental crisis and the lack of sufficient action. Yet, when a question from the audience sparked discussion on the intrinsically political nature of poetry, Porteous tells us that any politics in her work does not intend to draw conclusions or enforce a specific agenda. Her aim is simply to record what is there, then look amidst the “quarry” of notes for what “gleams and shines”, for what feels necessary.

Still, rather than any kind of environmental statement, the primary inspiration for both poets was East Durham’s ever-present community. From a stroll along the beach with father and son to conversations with the children of Easington Guides and Brownies and Cotsford Junior School, both readings served as an invaluable reminder of the importance of this landscape to residents both old and new. Contemporary culture, Porteous argues, doesn’t place nearly enough importance on our emotional investment in place. This landscape, these towns, these beaches and cliffs are a true part of the people’s identity.

No wonder, then, that such efforts have been made to both preserve the beauty of the coastline and to present it so authentically through Power and Porteous’ affecting work. The danger of such an attachment, of course, is that we assume the right to take advantage; to unthinkingly abuse nature without considering the repercussions. Whilst crisis and uncertainty continue to dominate our current world narrative, Saturday’s event nonetheless assured me, at least, that there is still legitimate cause for hope. “There are things happening”, Power assures us,

“Just look”.

This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.