‘Understories’ with Whalebone

This is such a wonderful project! I’ve been working with hugely talented band Whalebone for the past 18 months, building a collection of poems and music with them, all focused on telling the new lore of Shropshire. We’re proud to have Arts Council England support.

Here are urban – and rural – myths, and tales just out of living memory.  They are the common uncommon.

Discover Shropshire’s last wolves and cloggers, its haunted roundabouts, pigs, railway lines and long-memoried oak trees, not to mention the boy who burrowed under a church.

Whalebone and I will be offering free daytime performances of Understories between March and July 2019 in Shropshire libraries. Click here to see the Gigs and Tickets page on Whalebone’s website. As well as these gigs, there is a CD featuring 10 new tracks and a poetry pamphlet available with 14 of my poems. These are available to buy at the gigs and from Whalebone’s website right here.

Understories is a delightful, grounded and musical collection of poems that reminds us – through its brightly singing stories – how history is ravelled around memory, community and habitation: that ‘this is living, this is.’ Professor David Morley, winner of the Ted Hughes Award

Jean Atkin gathers her ‘common : uncommon’ hoard of Shropshire stories, memories and folk myths to magick them into strange, beautiful, haunting poems. Atkin’s language is delicate, precise, filmic: she brings worlds together, honouring the dead.  Unsurprisingly, these lilting, imagistic poems are being set to music: they are ideally suited for performance. Spanning the seasons of human life, Understories is a stunning achievement. Pippa Little (Carcanet, Arc)

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Troubadour of the Hills does Radio 4’s Ramblings!

On a glass-clear day at the end of January, I set off with David Armitage of Malvern Hills AONB, Karen Gregor, producer of ‘Ramblings’, and the one and only, marvellous, Clare Balding. We were taking a poem for a walk, as part of Ledbury Poetry Festival‘s Troubadour of the Hills project,
which is a joint venture between the Festival and Malvern Hills AONB. Also with us were Dimitri Houtart (BBC Head of Rural Affairs) and Peter Sutton, translator of ‘Piers Plowman’. Our programme will be aired during the new series starting mid February. Watch this space for the exact date!

We left from Hollybush car park and turned south, skirting Ragged Stone Hill on a path through the woods to its west side. Here we paused (to get our breath) and I read –

I’m lit along the wood-edge. 
Blond light off corn stubble,
a sky full of rain and light. 
In one ear, press of hide on saplings, 
the unseen deer retreat

Raggedstone, steep, sallow

Then we climbed to the ridge, and Peter Sutton told us about the Malvern Hills known to William Langland back in the 14th century, and the connections still to be found here.

We greeted a friendly golden retriever who was obviously a Ramblings fan, then stopped before the fine views of Chase End Hill. So I read –

Banked with shades and shadows
winding up inside a slope
the deep lane remembers everything
forgets remembers.
I misremember everything, I know

Chase End Hill, white cumulus, concrete trig

At this point I have to admit that we missed the turn in the wood (talking, talking) and so yes, we actually did lose Clare Balding on the Malverns. She was extraordinarily nice about it, (she was just extraordinarily nice, in fact), and we did retrieve the situation within a few minutes, and made our way down to show her the extraordinary meadow ants field.

Here Ramblings’ director Dimitri sprang to and saved a sheep who was cast on her back, and meantime we mused on the internal intricacies and simplicities of anthills.

We walked on to reach Hollybed Common, where Karen produced a welcome bag of doughnuts, Clare asked the geese to be quiet and they instantly were – and then I read –

A bellwether sheep 
leads a long file past me,
roman nose to soiled tail.
They beat the cloven common
into the common

Hollybed, pale, trodden

From there uphill to The Gullet, with its dark lake under the ancient rocks of the quarry.

Here I read –

Come out at the car park 
red car, yellow car, sweet,
seedy blackberries. 
Rain runs down me, 
down the hill, and down the hour

The Gullet, fogged, viridian

And we climbed (some more) up through the throat of The Gullet to reach the ridge below Midsummer Hill. And up again, past natural windows in the bare trees, showing us glimpses of Hollybed Common far below, and long, clear views away to the Lickey Hills and the Cotswolds. On top of Midsummer Hill the wind was fresh, and the views in every direction utterly breath-taking.

I read –

The hills are always here. 
They wear away. 
They stay, grip close 
the patience of the igneous.
Their fossils sit me out

Midsummer Hill, bedrock, bowl-sky

Troubadour of the Hills

Happy New Year! It’s 2019, and the Troubadour of the Hills project is filling my thoughts.  It’s such a lovely poetry job to be asked to do.  The project is a joint venture for Ledbury Poetry Festival and Malvern Hills AONB, and it was launched on National Poetry Day in October.  I’ve already done some schools work, taking local children into the woods under the Malverns to make poetry – and there are more walks and workshops coming up before Ledbury Poetry Festival in July.

I’ve written my first commissioned poem for the project.  It’s based on a 7 mile circular walk, which you can plot on the map by following the poem. Here it is.

One uncertain history

Wide horns and white
medieval flanks.
Heavy as sighs,
the park cattle linger
by a shrinking pool.

Bromesberrow, oaked, milky

I’m lit along the wood-edge.
Blond light off corn stubble,
a sky full of rain and light.
In one ear, press of hide on saplings,
the unseen deer retreat

Raggedstone, steep, sallow

A bellwether sheep
leads a long file past me,
roman nose to soiled tail.
They beat the cloven common
into the common

Hollybed, pale, trodden

Come out at the car park
red car, yellow car, sweet,
seedy blackberries.
Rain runs down me,
down the hill, and down the hour

The Gullet, fogged, viridian

The hills are always here.
They wear away.
They stay, grip close
the patience of the igneous.
Their fossils sit me out

Midsummer Hill, bedrock, bowl-sky

Banked with shades and shadows
winding up inside a slope
the deep lane remembers everything
forgets remembers.
I misremember everything, I know

Chase End Hill, white cumulus, concrete trig

You can find a recording of me reading it on Ledbury Poetry Festival’s website here, and please do contribute your own poems about hills to the same page. There are lots there already, and we’re really enjoying them!

Wishing all kind readers of this blog a happy Solstice, a merry Christmas – and all warm wishes for a peaceful, kinder, saner 2019!

 

‘A rain of sixpences and hunger’ – watch the video

We made a little video for ‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo’ – do share, do tell us what you think!

We’re starting to spread the word about ‘Understories‘ – a new poetry and music collaborative project between myself and musicians Charlotte Watson, Steve Downs and Sarah Ibberson of Whalebone.

Understories band photo portrait

Understories’ explores the new folklore of Shropshire.  Here are both rural and urban myths, tales just out of living memory and tales re-told.   They are the common uncommon.

We’ll be performing the new show in 2019.  Join us to discover Shropshire’s last wolves and cloggers,  its haunted roundabouts, railway lines and oak trees, not to mention the boy who burrowed under a church.

This poem, ‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo’, explores the story of a rising by ironworkers in 1821, as they protested against draconian pay cuts.  It happened in what is now Telford.  It’s a classic tale of abuse of labour in the interests of profit, and it ended in the deaths of several of the strikers with many further injuries to women and children involved in the protest.

The name ‘Cinderloo’ was coined at the time, following the notorious events at Peterloo slightly earlier. The Cinder Hills was the local name for the slagheaps.  The site of the struggle is now overlain by Telford Forge Retail Park.  Plaque needed, I think.

 

 

‘Understories’ – my new collaborative project

I’m really very pleased to see my poem ‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo‘ published this week on Peter Reynard’s excellent blog, Proletarian Poetry.

‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo’ explores the story of a rising by ironworkers in 1821, as they protested against draconian pay cuts.  It’s a classic tale of industrial abuse of labour, and it ended in the deaths of several of the strikers with many further injuries to women and children involved in the protest.

cinderloo

For the last eight months, I’ve been working on ‘Tom Palin’ (and another nearly twenty poems) in collaboration with the wonderful musicians of Whalebone – Steve Downs, Charlotte Watson and Sarah Ibberson.  Whalebone create eclectic instrumental music with guitar, bouzouki, mandolin and fiddle – their work’s been described as ‘delightfully and defiantly guilty of trespass across musical borders’.  Having now seen them make new music in response to a wide range of my poems, I’m in awe of their skill and imagination.  It’s been perhaps my most satisfying and challenging ever collaboration.

What we’re working on is ‘Understories‘ – a brush with the new folklore of Shropshire.  Here are both rural and urban myths, tales just out of living memory and tales re-told.   They are the common uncommon.

We’ll be performing the show in 2019.  Join us to discover Shropshire’s last wolves and cloggers,  its haunted roundabouts, railway lines and oak trees, not to mention the boy who burrowed under a church.

We’ve got a final recording of ‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo’, which at the moment you can listen to via Proletarian Poetry.  I’m trying to fix the tech…

JA recording with Whalebone
Here I am, recording…

 

My poems in the Agenda T S Eliot issue

I really am very proud to have two poems in Agenda’s special T S Eliot issue this month.  Thank you Patricia McCarthy for including them!

Agenda Feb2018 (1)

‘In Yellowhammer Weather’ was written at The Hurst, near Clun, a couple of years ago while on a week’s walking and writing retreat led by David Morley.  We explored Clun’s tiny, idiosyncratic museum, in which I found an (early 20th century?) photograph of local farmer Frank Collins ‘on his favourite horse, Polliwig’.  Walking later along the banks of the Clun river, and hearing the chatter of the yellowhammer in a hedge, the rhythms of the poem began to come together in my head.

Agenda Feb2018 (3)

‘How We Rode After Haytiming’ is a memory from my childhood in Cumbria, when I rode with the next door farmer’s grandchildren on a raggle-taggle of grass-fed ponies.  After the hay had been cut in June, six acres of inviting stubble lured us down to race the ponies across Long Field.  The poem was first written several years ago, and then it hung around because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

Agenda Feb2018 (2)

 

A blog for ‘The Dark Farms’

Some years ago, I became fascinated with the Galloway Forest.  It’s a remote, depopulated region in south west Scotland, hundreds of square miles with scarcely a road across it, and a diminishing number of working farms on its inhospitable hills and moors.  It’s become a place famed now for its dark skies, and it’s visited by astronomers and those curious to see a sky without neon.  I’ve very belatedly set up a blog to record my explorations and the poems that came out of them.  Click here to have a look.

I grew up in rural Cumbria, among small family farms, and so recognised that what I saw in 2011 in the Galloway Forest was disappearance.  The disappearance of the hills under the conifer forests which were mass planted there in the 1950s and 60s, and the disappearance of small farms, some overwhelmed by the new conifer forests, and many more slowly abandoned as hill farming has become so uneconomic that only the oldest are still farming, often without the assets to retire.

So I went looking for the ghosts of stables, and cart-sheds, and sheep rees (the Galloway word for a sheepfold).  I went looking for the ghosts of placenames and farm names.   I found places where the severe weather has reduced cottages to a threshold stone and a hearth stone.  Cottages overtaken now by birches and brambles.  I found a rural museum with a black leather bull mask and a necklace of horse’s teeth.  A farmhouse with its windows bricked up – truly a Dark Farm.

I took the photographs at the time, on days of being savaged by midges, falling into peat clefts, wading upland burns where the O.S. map still marks the place as a ford, long since washed away.  The poems were published in 2012 in pamphlet form by Roncadora Press, enhanced by Hugh Bryden’s rich artwork.

Celebration Day for Impressions of the Past

DSCF5280

At last this wonderful project has come to its end.  To celebrate the months of workshops, walks and community, we held a celebration party at Poles Coppice, the site of the Oak Palisade and the Poetry Bench.

Around 55 people turned out to share food, fun, stare over at the Iron Age ramparts on Earl’s Hill, find the clay roundels they’d designed, and the words they wrote.  We read a few poems, and crowded round the installations.

Over 150 people contributed to ‘Impressions of the Past’ – thank you to each and every one, and special thanks from Ruth and me to Huw, Mike, Betul, Bob Gibson, Jim Sadler, Nigel McDonald and Joe Penfold.

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