March 3, 2014 § 5 Comments
150 years ago this month, the collapse of the newly completed Dale Dyke embankment in the Loxley Valley above Sheffield led to what remains the most devastating event of its kind in the UK. As part of local commemorations I’ll be talking about the Sheffield Flood and reading a few poems this coming Thursday at Weston Park Museum; and next week, I’ll be discussing the making of this poetry with a student group. All of which has made me consider how I responded to the subject in writing what was to become my first pamphlet, Some Histories of the Sheffield Flood 1864 – and how my approaches to writing, and any common themes, have developed – or been sustained – in my work since then.
One of the persistent themes has been landscape: and in particular, human occupation in, movement through, absence from, a place. From ‘Ozymandias’ to Planet of the Apes to the cairn of unopened food cans left by the doomed expedition of the Erebus, I have always been fascinated by remains, vestiges. So, ten years ago, I took a group of students to places in Sheffield where older inhabitations jutted through, or persisted in, the landscape: the iron age fort at Wincobank, with its wide views east over Meadowhall and the M1 to the flat lands and power stations along the Trent; the General Cemetery, worn stones to Chartists and Cholera victims leaning in the damp shade; and the old market, neon-lit, smoky and stale. We also walked up the Don to Neepsend, a brick settlement of factories and narrow streets. On one wall, about 7 or 8 feet above the pavement, was a small plaque, indicating the height of the Sheffield Flood of 1864. I went home, logged on and started digging.
This process is often the other way around. My father’s excavations of his family’s past have started a strand of thought which has led me out of the door in search of traces: not, necessarily, in order to tread the footsteps of an ancestor; more, perhaps, to put myself in that landscape: to feel the ache of an emigratory walk, the confusion of drift or flight. This ‘action research’, however, is what gleans and motivates the writing. The sense of a place and its bones – whether poking through a nettle bed or flickering on screen – are what does it.
I started with the Flood thing down in the town and worked upstream. The history was so littered with people, I made the poems without looking up. Only when I’d almost finished did I go up the valley to Dale Dyke Reservoir and walk through the woods. It seemed perverse, not to have been there before: but then, there is just the water and the trees. The past is washed away completely.