Poetry in progress

Anyone who has put pen to paper will know the delight and pain of the creative writing process. Geoff and I began this project expecting to meet older people with diverse interests and experiences of living in rural Northumberland but it still comes as a surprise that already I have met two individuals who write poetry. Both find the written word is an important way to express their emotions, both express their frustration when they ‘haven’t got it quite right yet.’ It has been inspirational for me to spend time with George, ex-miner aged 96, as he talked about this poem in progress.

Poem about Colours

I sit in my old battered deck chair
With my back to the red castle.
A bright blue sky
floating gently overhead.
Watching young men
on the village green
In   their whites
playing cricket.
I close my eyes
hear the gentle sounds
of ball on bat
Then the harsh
when out.



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Voices of place: the shepherd and the miner

Conversations meander naturally. We cover a lot of of ground, not all on topic for our project, but fascinating nevertheless. Here are some extracts from one day’s sessions that reveal contrasting lives in twentieth century Northumberland. But both speak the language of the place.


Tom followed in his father’s footsteps as a shepherd. His father also used to look after cattle brought over from Ireland.

Tom’s first job was in the Duke’s parks at Alnwick.

Later the family moved up to Kirknewton on the north side of Cheviot.

He then moved over to lower ground near Doxford to look after pedigree Suffolk sheep.

More on the Suffolks, valuations and gatherings in the Cheviots.

And taking the flock across the A1 – the Great North Road.

Wartime agricultural changes in the Parks.

And the loss of woodlands.

Cheviot Shepherds – a roll-call.

All gone.


George is now 96: he was a miner based in Blyth and when he was a youngster, before the first world war, his dad was a professional footballer. He paints and writes poetry now.

On meeting his wife.

Poem: going to work.

Money for blood.

Poem: black world: and on.

More blood for money.

The Bevan boys ask for the netty.

What life’s about now.

My Northumberland.

Thank-you Tom and George for your worlds expressed.


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‘Everyone is entitled to their own opinion’

Geoff and I spent a fascinating bit of time with a ninety six year old ex-miner. Trying to capture his approach to life, these are some of his words shaped into a short monologue.


Everyone is entitled to their own opinion

Nobody should force their opinion on me,
I won’t be told what to think.

Worked down the pit
from school till I was fifty two.
When I first met my wife,
they wouldn’t let me in her house
because I was a miner.
She was very upset,
It made me very angry.

They were a canny group of men
down the mines.
We got on well,
looked out for each other.

After I left the mine
we ran a care home for children.
I still hear from some of them now.
Never had a bit of bother with them,
Used to keep them active.

I don’t remember my parents ever
Really talking to me.
We were very green
I didn’t know what a sissy was.

I love to walk,
But I’m not countrified.
I’ve no interest in birds
I like painting butterflies.

It’s since I retired,
I like to write poetry
About being down the mine.
And I like to paint
About being down the mine.

I think about it a lot now,
We were paid piecemeal wages.
When I look back
I think we were treated like slaves.

I’d be alright here if my wife was still alive
But now, there’s no one that I connect with
You cannot just reach for the skies
You’ve got to fit in.
Sometimes I go to the pub,
meet up with three old blokes
and the four of us just sit there
and grumble.
(He says with a grin)


Posted in Voices, Words | Tagged , ,

birdsong therapy?

When Romi and I originally talked about this project, we were exploring the idea of creative sessions for people living with dementia. Romi has a lot of experience in this area and I’m sure she’ll be talking about her practice in her own blog posts. We didn’t manage to raise the funding for our early iteration of the project and in due course began to think in wider terms about old age, then the lives of the elderly in a rural context – our immediate environment (see here).

Now this really caught my imagination. I’ve been involved in music for all of my working life, but music in the widest possible sense. In the earlier phase of my life playing and recording all sorts from pop through to free jazz and intuitive composition. Then drawn to birdsong through it’s inherent musicality and the sense of evolutionary symphony in the collective voices of a woodland or moorland scene. I’ve also been drawn to the acoustics of particular places and the way this can enhance the character of whatever sounding goes on within that place – something that a studio recording engineer works hard to create with digital reverbs, delays and other elaborate signal processing.

For me soundscapes have an inherent potential musicality to them – it’s the listener that makes music out of the sound he or she hears. And if you’ve skipped that as a platitude, pause: try the exercise in this essay on Aeon – you’ll be amazed: ‘Why we love repetition in music‘.

Now, though I’ve never been involved in music therapy, I’ve been aware of the ideas connected with it. At around the time I was developing my nature recording work, a study in the USA gave rise to the much-publicised and often misinterpreted ‘Mozart effect’. Research by Rauscher, Shaw and Ky published in 1993 suggested that listening to music by Mozart enhanced ‘spatial-reasoning’ performance. Though only temporary, while listening to the music, it was sometimes reported in the media as boosting IQ, with the implication that this improvement was a lasting effect.

And as I was at the time being swept away in discovering the world of birdsong, with all its subtle intricacies, and the rather simpler, but no less emotive voices and sounds of other creatures, I wondered what effect natural soundscapes might have in a similar situation. I was impressed by a sense of emergent order in ‘choruses’ from the natural world, even where many different species were involved – without denying the Darwinian tenets that implied each individual’s performance was all about promoting itself. Bernie Krause’s ‘niche hypothesis’ has always intrigued me, though it lacks any robust analysis.


And I’ve always wondered if this sense of order, the emergent quasi-symphony produced over evolutionary time, might be analogous to the structural patterning in the kind of music that the researchers had found to be effective.

And while we were developing our ideas for this project, I came across an article in the Guardian with the headline ‘Musical interaction brings harmony to dementia patients’. Manchester University were managing a pilot project exploring the possibility that interactive music sessions could have beneficial effects reducing agitation and medication in patients, while improving mood and posture. Again I was enthused by the idea of trying out nature sounds in a similar way. More on music therapy here from Musability.

There is scattered interest in the potential of nature sounds for therapeutic use. According to the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, recordings of bird song have been ‘successful in reducing stress among young patients going into surgery’ at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool in the UK. In 2014 psychologists at Pennsylvania State University have discovered that ‘sounds of nature played back even from a recording aid in recovery of a positive mood after going through a negative experience.’

And psychologists at Surrey University are investigating how bird sounds can contribute to attention restoration and stress recovery.

Coming back to where we started, this appeared in the Guardian last week: “Although many of the nearly 850,000 people in the UK with dementia are seen, their voices are seldom heard.”
Rebecca Ley – There is life after a dementia diagnosis.

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It’s such a shame …

It’s such a shame

The village has changed completely, I’d say it was in the past ten years.

There used to be leek club and darts team; always something on the go.

Now, if I look out of my kitchen window, I can’t see one house that is lived in.

So many houses are holiday homes; over sixty percent of the village, one of the highest in the country.

You know they built those new houses, by the beach, two hundred, I think, but only eight of them are lived in.

Such a waste; it’s exploitation.

People just wanting to make money, it’s very disappointing.

Visitors can be so rude, so unfriendly; there is no sense of community, I’d move today if I could.

But it’s too hard at our age; he gets confused anywhere new.

We’ve always loved the sea; sitting by the harbour, that’s our favourite thing.

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sound connections

So what is someone who is primarily a sound recordist (wildlife and natural soundscapes, at that) doing interviewing older people in Northumberland?

Well, yes, I have done an awful lot of nature sound recording over the last 25 years – and before that, arranging and recording music. However my interest is not so much just making the recordings, but using sound to communicate with people. And there are two rather distinct ways in which sound weaves through this project.

Firstly I’m recording what our respondents have to say. I love the sound of voice and what it expresses of an individual, whether that be a great black-backed gull trumpeting on the harbour wall at Seahouses, a singer putting their heart into the delivery of a song or someone talking casually about their life and feelings, with all their idiosyncracies of language, accent, dialect and emotional articulation. In where we belong I’m building the material to compose a kind of collective soundscape poem from the recordings, that reflects older life in this rural area.

Secondly I’m particularly interested in how our respondents relate to the natural world – the landscape, countryside and wildlife here in north Northumberland. How does this aspect of the world contribute to their desire to live here (or otherwise), their enjoyment of the place and their sense of home? And in this I’m using sound as a way of engaging and stimulating thoughts and feelings about places and scenes. I have a large library of specific and ambient recordings from all over the area – from the Cheviot moors and valleys, farmland and woods, riversides and marshes, through to the varied habitats along the coast. And I’m trying to play our respondents extracts that I think will be relevant to them, that will have meaning for them and take them to the particular place, or somewhere else in their minds. I’m exploring the potential of using ‘natural’ sound as a medium for associative communication and emotional stimulation.

Straightaway in the first session there was a nice moment of affirmation when I played a small extract from a dawn chorus in Holystone woods and one of the ladies ‘felt the air’.

I’m not only playing ‘pure’ nature recordings in our sessions: people are in there too, in various cultural settings. I’m thinking of them as scenes and all the scenes have a rural context: a small fishing village harbour on a summer morning (with fishermen preparing for a trip out to sea); children playing in a village garden at a birthday party; children singing in a village church at christmas. Whatever the particular recording, I’m thinking in terms of the soundscape; my feeling is that a less focused, less objectified acoustic stimulus can make a broader sweep through our minds and memories. Though when we do come across someone with a strong affinity for the natural world, or possibly even music, I may play a choice individual songbird.

What is important is that the sounds I play convey the feel of being somewhere – somewhere else. Many of our respondents have restricted mobility, so it’s a way of getting beyond the four walls of wherever we’re holding the session – usually rooms with something of an institutional atmosphere. Taking them somewhere personal, individual and subjective.

And I think there’s also an element of novelty. I’m not sure that many of our respondents, if any at all, will have listened to soundscape compositions, or have considered listening to recordings of nature for pleasure.

Romi has her own particular interests and methods of working and we feel the two rather different but inter-related approaches should create an unusual and rewarding framework through which we can guide our conversational sessions and encourage our respondents to express themselves and contribute their voices and experiences to the collective work.

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Side by Side

This is a short poem that came out of a conversation with two women in their eighties, sat together at Bell View. It’s all their own words, edited into a poetic shape, in an attempt to capture the similarities and contrasts in their views and experiences.

Side by Side

I was born in London, public school, spoilt,
The family house is an embassy now, in Kensington
Came to Northumberland thirty years ago, liked it, stayed.

I was born in Gateshead, came to Warenford when I was seventeen
Loved it, never went back.

I joined the RAF, flew in a Dakota, evacuating wounded soldiers.
The things I’ve seen, faces blown off, didn’t have time to think about it.

I joined the Women’s Land Army, worked in the fields,
exercised the horses, digging potatoes, whatever needed doing,
made good friends.

Trained as a nurse, then occupational therapist, had children,
got rid of the husband, ran a restaurant for while.

My husband died when he was thirty three, but I always knew,
left me with two lovely children, one does my shopping.

Sometimes I get very bored, ask myself ‘What’s the point’?
My mother lived till one hundred, God, I hope I don’t.

We’re very lucky, we’ve got the countryside, we’ve got the coast.
Live in lovely village, lovely pub, friendly people,
I feel quite humble, we have so much.

I come here once or twice a week, we’re well looked after.
I come here once or twice a week, we’re treated well.

Posted in Words