A tribute drawn from Roger's memories of his days as poet in residence at Sunderland Polytechnic.... 




Singing the North


A course of old stone runs across one of the streets behind the Poly. The lip of a wall invites you to look over. Below is the line of an old railway, a blank white scar behind the houses. It was Bill Martin who taught me to read such signs. As we walked on Tunstall Hill, he would show me where the line used to run from Silksworth Colliery down to the South Docks, a slow-moving procession of coal trucks they would hang off as small boys, hitching a ride to school.

Bill suspected that the pithead lay under the artificial ski-slope of the new Sports Complex. When he talked, the landscaped areas around the ring road recovered their contours and I began to make sense of the names on the signposts, glimpsing the intricate pattern the pit villages had made in the days when each had its own band and marched behind its own banner at the Big Meeting.

Below this history lay the other, the monastic settlements of the seventh century that had left St Peter's there on the riverbank, in the shadow of the Boilermakers' Social Club, and its sister monastery at Jarrow under the bright blue necks of the shipyard cranes.

The monasteries came first and the towns grew up around them, a process of development preserved in Sunderland's very name: the sundered land, cut-off, outside the monastery wall, on the other side of the river. But to Bill there was no division: the primitive Christianity of the monasteries had surfaced again in the close community of the pit villages and their long political struggle. In his poetry he tells the story of the slogan bread, the loaves brought by miners to their comrades on strike and laid out in slogans on the hillside, and asks 'What kingdom without common feasting?' Or remembers the Big Meeting of 1951, the year of the Easington Disaster, and the 'thronged, comforting hush' when the banner, draped in black crepe, was carried down onto the racecourse. Such moments become images of for the sense of community we need to develop, intimations that 'Here and here is the Kingdom'.

As we drove around the North East conurbation, picking our way across the motorways to the

 Folk Club at Birtley on a Wednesday night, or crawling in three lanes of traffic to the Irish Centre in Newcastle on a Friday, Bill would tell me about the places we passed: Cuthbert's coffin had rested here on its way to Durham; George Stephenson built a gravity railway down that bank; Tommy Hepburn, one of the union movement's martyrs, was buried just down there.

Sometimes, in an undertone that slowly grew into a chant, like someone starting to sing under their breath and gradually gaining confidence, he would give me the outline of a new long poem. There would come a strange moment, as feature after feature of the land we were by-passing was picked out and caught up into his rapture, when the road I was following seemed to dip and climb over Bill's voice and I realised I was driving across one of the song-lines of the North.


Roger Garfitt