Monday, 5 July 2010

Northumbria and London

I’m spending the summer in North Shields, Northumbria, about twenty minutes from the town center of Newcastle upon Tyne. North Shields sits about sixty feet above the river, and from Tyne Street (two minutes from my door) you can see about a mile to where it empties into the North Sea. I’ve made the walk along the promenade to Tynemouth, a seacoast town noted for the ruins of an abbey on the edge of a promontory above the waves. (Stevens once wrote a poem titled “Cathedrals Are Not Built By the Sea,” but certainly this abbey was, as well as the one in Whitby.) Camera enthusiasts will find more than enough targets to aim at—the lighthouse at the end of the jetty, weathered Gothic arches overlooking old graves, and the North Sea itself, usually calm with clouds massed at the horizon.

Back in North Shields there are two main lighthouses no longer used for the original purpose, one on Tyne Street and a second lower down on Fish Quay, where boats come in to unload the catch of the day. Restaurants there take advantage of this fact, and there are a couple of fishmongers where you can find a wide range of seafood to buy. Off Tyne Street there is a little park on Dockwray Square with a commemorative statue at its center. Instead of the obligatory civic leader or admiral, you find a slightly cartoonish rendering of Stan Laurel, a choice that puzzled me until I was told that Laurel had lived in the square when he was a boy, from 1897 to 1902.

I go into Newcastle at least twice a week, taking the Metro train, which lets you out at Monument Square, at the foot of a column on top of which stands the statue of the 19th century statesman Earl Grey. The vista down Grey and Grainger Streets is breathtaking, a handsome neoclassical architectural ensemble in tan limestone (which includes the Theatre Royal, shown above right), not like any other cityscape I know. Novocastrians (people who live in Newcastle) may, however, be too used to it, not quite realizing how unusual and beautiful it is. If I were on the City Council, I would urge passage of an ordinance strictly limiting the kind of signage permitted on Grey Street, especially the dissonant TO LET signs that project out from façades overhead.

Not far from the railway station is the venerable Literary and Philosophical Society, founded in the 18th century as a private "conversation club," eventually a library and lecture hall. The Lit and Phil, too, is a handsome structure, completed in 1822,with a large interior atrium and library stacks on two levels. The public can use it as a reading room and members are allowed to borrow books. There are lectures and literary events year round, in fact, I will be giving a poetry reading there later this month.

Since arriving I’ve seen friends I got to know last summer, in particular, Paul Attinello who is in the Musicology Department at Newcastle University, the poet Sean O’Brien and his wife Gerry Wardle, and the poet Toby Martinez de las Rivas, who lives in Gateshead across the river. During my first week here, Sean gave a magisterial reading at the Newcastle Library, the first time I've heard him, and an experience not to be forgotten. He has a wonderful reading voice, and there were touches of humor, without the usual pandering to the audience for laughs that mars so many readings. Then, a week later, Toby and I attended a reading that the Irish poet Paul Durcan gave at Newcastle University. As we filed into the hall, Sean introduced me to the Scottish poet W.H. Herbert, who actually is my neighbor in North Shields. In the past weeks I’ve also met the poet Alistair Elliot, a Newcastle resident for many years. Alistair has had a widely varied life, beginning with the fact that he was one of the British children sent for safekeeping to America during the Second World War. By coincidence, Alistair’s American host was Charles Merrill, father of James Merrill, whom I knew well in the 1970s and 1980s. Alistair has published many books of poetry and is also known as a distinguished translator, his version of Medea enjoying successful productions here and in New York several years ago. Finally, I met the poet Peter Bennet, who lives out in the country to the west of Newcastle. By another coincidence his publisher is Newcastle’s Flambard Press, whose managing editor Will Mackie rents me the house where I’m staying here in North Shields.

I had planned several trips back to London over the summer and have already made one of them. Two weeks ago I went down and stayed a couple of nights with my friend Kathryn Maris and her husband Herman Dietman, who live near the Regent’s Canal in one of London’s prettiest neighborhoods. Kathryn published her first book with Four Ways Press, but her second is scheduled with Seren Books over here. I had come down to take part in a launch of the Summer issue of The Wolf, which has an interview with me, accompanied by two poems. Kathryn came with me to the event, which was held at the Poetry Studio, upstairs from the Poetry Café on Betterton Street. It was good to see James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar again, also, James’s mother Mary and her husband David Shuttle. My co-readers were Anne-Marie Fyfe, who has a strange and haunting poem in the issue, and a young poet named Richard Parks. Poets who were there included the Canadian Todd Swift, whom I hadn’t seen for more than year, and the American poet Dante Micheaux, whose first book is scheduled with Sheep Meadow later this year. After the launch we all went to an Indian restaurant on The Strand, there since the 1940s I was told, its former clientele purportedly including Gandhi and Nehru. We were probably twenty at table, and it’s accurate to say that a spirit of celebration was in the air, dispelling any idea of poetry as a pursuit only for the massively serious and over-earnest.

Next day I went up to Hampstead to meet Leonie Scott-Matthews, who is in charge of the Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead. We wanted to get down to cases about the future production of my play. It’s titled Lowell’s Bedlam, the subject, that Robert Lowell’s stay in a mental hospital in the autumn of 1949. It’s my first play, written, in part, just to see if I could manage one. I’d published in all the other genres, poetry, novel, short story, essay, literary and art criticism, and travel writing. So there was only drama left. Now that I’ve begun to get the hang of it, I expect there to be other plays. Meanwhile, Leonie and I had a pleasant discussion about the history of Pentameters Theatre (the oldest in Hampstead) and about my play. I also saw one of her productions, a stage adaptation of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, very lively and well acted. We haven’t set a date for the first night, but I’m guessing it will be late this year or early next, depending on how long it takes to find a director and a cast. Something to look forward to. If theatre isn’t a brave new world to other poets I know, at least it is to me.

I’m back in North Shields, and the summer stretches ahead. Sean and Gerry came to lunch this past Saturday, after which Gerry and I had a nice walk around town, hitting some high spots like the local used book shop. While the Herberts are away in Crete, Sean and Gerry are staying at their place, which is a converted former lighthouse with views out over the river. Gerry and I finished up with a cup of tea in the little front garden, among fuchsia, geraniums, and poppies. We’ve been having wonderful weather, most days cool and sunny. It’s good to be here, and there’s more to come.


  1. I like following you as you make your way.

  2. I always thought it must be wonderful to live in a lighthouse, but, judging from the ones I have actually traipsed through, some can be rather close and stifling - much like living in the Statue of Liberty's head.