Sunday 29 March 2020

Living Water Ways: Navigating Lockdown, Remembering Máiréad

Lockdown seems to be psychologically transformative. The famously grumpy guy on the street I live on is now doing pensioners’ shopping; people whose social media I follow for news and politics are, for the first time, posting photos of birch buds unfurling. Personally, I seem (hopefully briefly) to have lost the ability to read extended prose. I'm drawn so frequently back to screens, that focus is hard to sustain - dragged into news of what still seems an even balance of extraordinary generosity and unnecessary cruelty. Instead, I’ve been taking seriously my daily 'one form of exercise' and getting my literary fix almost exclusively from short bursts of focus on poets.

And the practical effects of lockdown have been - for me, so far - less severe than expected. Although I had several dream events lined up for the spring and summer (from an ocean conference in Newfoundland, to a long Irish sea voyage in a tiny wooden boat, and a talk in the Highland Park distillery) most events have been transformed into other kinds of collaboration, with generous people finding ways to turn cancellation to adaptation. My bigger projects – which would have involved setting off for extensive Atlantic travel in June – have simply been turned back-to-front. My usual habit is to start by travelling in the most unplanned way possible, gaining access to new areas of interest by talking to people, then allowing the perspectives I picked up to inform how I read back home. For Afloat: Small Boats and Sea Spray I’ll be doing the reverse: burying myself in books - mainly about the cultures of Atlantic Greenland and Canada (particularly first nations) - for most of 2020 and taking to the sea in the project’s final phases. My very first trip for Afloat happened during the storms of February, wandering the Irish coastline and meeting with boat builders...
It involved some extremely invigorating, almost camera-wrecking, storm paddling in the kayak:
Material gathered during that week will sustain me for some time (possibly for an essay or article soon, just need to decide what/where).

And there’s plenty to look forward to too. The paperback for The Frayed Atlantic Edge comes out in May (alongside the US release). This would've been accompanied by a book tour. I have a few weeks to think up ways to create online equivalents, which I hope will include poets or musicians (as most of my favourite events last year did). It was nice to get the cover design this week, the paperback reinventing the hardback design…
…with the nice added feature of quotes from reviews:
And the verdict of the committe of the Highland Book Prize, for which The Frayed Atlantic Edge is up alongside the work of three of my favourite authors (Roseanne Watt, Kathleen Jamie & Ali Smith), will be announced on May 9th.
There's also been purpose to be found in new kinds of project that will make good use of mine and other people’s time. I haven’t set foot in my secondary school, Glossopdale Community College, since I left, but will now be judging two essay prizes for the pupils. My own second-year undergrads at the University of Birmingham - 249 of them, studying historical theory - have had their summer exam cancelled (they’d already written an essay which would've been 50% but is now 100% of the mark). So I’m turning the payment from a cancelled book event into credit with an online bookshop as the prize for an essay competition. This will hopefully provide those of them who want it with both something to focus on and some writing practice over the next two months. They can choose their own prompts, but the only thing that seemed fitting to give as an example, in this crisis-ridden moment (and with 2020 also the International Year of the Tree) was 'What kind of times are these, when to talk about trees is almost a crime, because it implies silence about so many horrors?' (Bertolt Brecht). Discuss.’

This brings us back to getting outdoors, among the trees, for ‘one form of exercise a day’. I’ve been for one run this week, but my running shoes are falling apart so badly that my feet ended up full of twigs. So I’ve headed out in the kayak almost every evening. To kayak locally I’d usually drive a few miles and throw the boat onto the Severn or the Avon. Instead, I’ve been putting it straight into the canal by the house (these two are photos from last summer, hence the people and lights in the pubs). 
Some days, I’ve been heading backwards and forwards along the 2 mile stretch between locks to practice technique and build speed. I’ve never really treated kayaking as workout before, and never paddled with earphones in. Pushing the speed, while switching musical genres every 4 miles (yesterday was Salt House’s, Huam, Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda, Richard Dawson’s 2020, and Allegaeon’s Apoptosis) has felt surprisingly escapist and indulgent. 

But the real interest has come from local exploration: finding the ways that midlands canals and rivers link up. This has meant passing along waterways behind houses in Worcestershire villages that occasionally have large piles of toilet rolls packed into glass-doored back rooms. But more often, it has meant confrontations with emboldened nature on these living waterways. I’ve never seen so many kingfishers or defiant-looking herons…
…and the roe deer, muntjacs & foxes have been out in force:
I’ve found nests of long-tailed tits and grey wagtails…
…and the evening light has often been exceptional:
The weather has transformed day by day. Lockdown began with bright, still days of surprising warmth. But then winds rose until even the canal had waves and snow flurries. This quickly-shifting weather has been staggeringly evocative of the places I can’t be. Rounding a corner into a sudden burst of headwind, it was impossible not to imagine the rolling waves that were conjured by a similar breeze on the Atlantic coast of the Isle of Lewis:
At the same time, spring has been happening out of the window of the room I work in. Like last year, wrens are nesting on the windowsill, so I’m hoping for more of these ridiculous faces before too long:
The best new addition this year is that ducks are nesting on the pond I dug last spring.
Since I’m using the garden for a bit of extra exercise, I’m hoping occasional offerings of oats will be enough to mean we coexist without them deciding against raising ducklings here. That would make for the purest form of lockdown entertainment.

And the sense of investment in small pleasures and displeasures has been one of the most striking things about this strange time. Being emotionally destabilised and uprooted has meant that music, weather, and the actions of other people and species all seem to have exaggerated potential to swing feelings in wild directions. Seeing small acts of generosity is a source of disproportionate joy, as is cheering on those companies who put the wellbeing of employees above next month’s balance sheet. But witnessing anything uncharitable on social media suddenly feels more immediate and damaging than it usually would.    

I think the deeply-felt immediacy of such small things is where poetry has come in handy. I’ve found myself filtering these experiences through the imagined eyes of people who see more clearly than I do, whether that’s favourite poets like Gillian Allnutt, Vahni Capildeo and Moya Cannon (whose new Donegal Tarantella has accompanied me on several kayak trips), or poets I haven’t read for years, and not even liked much in the past, such as John Ashbery. For the first time I’m seeing the logic of Jon Lerner’s view that ‘Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence’; although I still think that’s far truer of many other writers (or even - possibly - that contemporary poetry does this better than poetry used to in Ashbery's heyday?), it’s certainly the characteristic I’m finding most valuable in things I'm reading now.

One event this week brought a particularly intense mix of feelings. This was learning of the passing of Máiréad Robinson. The email I received described Máiréad perfectly: ‘a powerful intellect who exuded kindness at every step’. There’s no doubt that she and her husband (the cartographer Tim Robinson) were one of the great cultural power couples of our age and also exceptionally generous with their time and knowledge. The body of ideas they produced, since arriving on the Aran Islands with just a suitcase in the 1970s, might amount to a richer appreciation of a place than exists for anywhere else in Ireland or Britain – as rich at least as even Nan Shepherd or George Mackay Brown. The Robinsons learnt Irish together and collaborated intensively on the rediscovery of the sophisticated and beautiful forms of Irish coastal living that were just beginning to be appreciated, after a long period of dismissal and neglect, in the 1970s and ‘80s. These were expressed through annotated maps and books of extraordinarily poetic prose. 
You can read more about this work in an excellent interview conducted by Pippa Marland on the Land Lines website entitled, with a typically Robinsonesque turn of phrase, 'Adequacy is for Archangels'.

I first met Máiréad and Tim when kayaking down the west coast of Ireland in 2017. I’d recently read some paragraphs in Tim’s writing in which he praised Connemara hospitality, so I felt emboldened to drop in. When I rang, the night before arriving, it was Máiréad who answered and embraced the idea of a visitor, however damp and unwashed. She made sure I didn’t want to arrive before 10am (because, she said, they were looking forward to an indulgently slow start) and told me the timing was ideal because they’d just been given more eggs than they could possibly eat themselves.

I slept, the night before I met the Robinsons, on the bleak low peninsula of Slyne Head in heavy rain. Here's looking back the morning after:
So when I arrived at their door on the pier in the tiny village of Roundstone I was even less presentable than usual. This is a house from whose windows every coming-and-going of small boats in the bay can be observed...
...with a garden where black guillemots perch on the high, windbreak walls, and gulls drop crabs in the flowerbeds:
The warmth of the welcome was glorious. I’d expected to stay for about an hour, have a short chat and, if I was lucky, a lunch. But we went visiting – dropping in both on favourite people and favourite coastal places – and it was nine hours later by the time I set off again. It was, no doubt, one of the happiest, most story-filled, days of the journey: a reminder that meeting your heroes doesn't always fall short of even the most exaggerated expectations. I wish I'd asked to take their photo that day.

A few weeks ago I visited Máiréad and Tim in the home they’d moved to in London, and once again found myself immersed in a world of fabulous stories and a generosity that, even in West Hampstead, felt embedded in coastal tradition (where culture was shaped by the principle that everyone coming from the water must be warmly welcomed, because sending someone back to sea could be their undoing). We talked about tiny details of the construction of particular boats, and about individual Connemara singers and how their geographical origins shaped the inflections of their songs: the living water ways of Carna, Inishnee and Lettermullen. The same comment, whoever made it, would draw a small, wry smile from Tim and a glorious big guffaw from Máiréad – perfectly expressive of the ways in which she was the outward-looking, gregarious element in their collaborative balance.

Then, two weeks ago, I was asked to give the opening talk at a morning devoted to the significance of the Robinsons’ work at the Clifden Arts Festival in September. I'd looked forward to hearing the witty and wise voice of Máiréad at the other end of a phone while  piecing together the things I’d say. The sad thing about the timing of Máiréad’s passing is that her legacy, amid so many current crises, might not immediately get the recognition and celebration it deserves. I hope some ways can be found – now or when the virus threat subsides – to honour her influence on Irish and UK culture. For now, I’m going to ask permission to call my second-year students’ essay competition ‘The Máiréad Robinson Prize'. And my thoughts will very much be with Tim.

The only prose I’ve successfully read this week has been Robinson writings that conjure their personalities, especially the late essays and the early Stones of Aran books. They’ve sent me on wilder shifts of emotion than anything else – feeling intensely the privilege of having had some small glimpse into the Robinsons’ world. One thing I’m entirely convinced of is that we’ll weather our current storms in the best possible ways if we all strive to be just a little bit more Máiréad Robinson.

Monday 10 June 2019

Turning Tides & Breaking Waves: A Year of Beginnings & Endings.

Last week, the first copies of The Frayed Atlantic Edge arrived in the post & the book actually became real. I’m totally in awe of what the people at Harper Collins have done to turn my words & photos into something far more beautiful than I ever could have imagined.

It's a magical reminder of a dizzying year among cetaceans - whether hundred-strong pods of dolphins, or single whales, sometimes a little too close for comfort...

...& among rare birds: overflown by long-tailed skuas... 
...& paddling among sparrow-sized little auks...
...a year with dozens of nights in my little waterproof sleeping bag, on beaches, cliffs & mountains...
...& waking up to find myself just another of the dozing ocean animals: 
...but because this summer is something of a life crossroads, this feels like the moment to post a very different blog than usual - writing about more personal things than in any past piece & reflecting on the context the book came out of. In particular, this is a post about the end of a relationship & the prospect of stepping into the next stage of life separately from the person I’ve done almost everything with for the last twenty years.

The book is dedicated to Llinos...

...& there are several ways in which it couldn’t possibly have existed without her influence. One is that she’s an exceptional kayaker, whose fearless example has got me round countless ocean-ravaged headlands I wouldn’t otherwise have had courage for. Another is that I would never have become attuned to the infinitely rich literatures, histories & politics of Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Shaetlan & Cornish – which are so big a part of the book - without her. She’s a first-language Welsh speaker, brought up on the Llyn Peninsula coast, with a fierce sense of the politics of language & culture.

That's why the wording of the dedication is as it is (for those viewing on small screens, 'For Llinos, who taught me to love big seas and small languages').

The two of us met at secondary school & got together the year before our A levels. This is us at that time, on our first trip to Scotland:

For several years we did lots of mountain trips together, carrying tents or bivvy bags through the Highlands & Islands and wandering through the Alps. At that point, both of us were intending to be professional musicians (Llinos is now bassoonist with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, as well as a frequent guest principal with the Royal Opera House, while I abandoned professional music for history & writing). We managed to go to the same university, then somehow even to get jobs in the same city - which, as a musician & a university lecturer, isn’t always straightforward.

Then, in 2009, Llinos was involved in a life-changing car accident. She was in intensive care for several days, in hospital for six weeks, & in a wheelchair for several months afterwards. The long-term impact was that she can’t walk for more than a few minutes a day, so the mountains were suddenly closed off to us.

That was the first time we ever considered kayaking. We bought a little inflatable boat…
…and took it on some ridiculous trips. One of the very first was through the wild tidal waters round Bardsey Island. What possessed us to begin like that, I have no idea. (It's fitting, though, that the section of The Frayed Atlantic Edge that's about the Bardsey poet Christine Evans is perhaps my favourite part of the book). 

We found beautiful places to spend time where we could launch onto the sea from the door each morning:

And we quickly realised that we were deeply, deeply in love with this small-boats-at-sea lark: we upgraded to sea kayaks, surf kayaks & other properly ocean-worthy vessels. 

This being Llinos’ main outdoors pursuit, & a uniquely versatile way to travel & adventure without using legs, she quickly became an aficionado not just of gentle seas but of exactly the kind of conditions that cast terror into the hearts of many kayakers. Over the years I’ve ended up with countless pictures of her plunging joyously through horrendous conditions: 

Now, kayaking is a huge part of her life: she’s part of the Team GB Paralympic squad, training several times a week. Here she is in the national championships:

Little would either of us have guessed, when we picked up that first inflatable kayak, that a few years later Llinos would be a Paralympic kayaker & I’d be forming a large chunk of my life & career around long-distance ocean kayak trips like this one:
Naturally enough, when it came to doing the journey marked on this map, Llinos joined me for some stretches. We had a particularly glorious few days kayaking the coast of County Mayo, with a voyage out to the Stags of Broadhaven (a set of spectacular sea rocks several kilometres offshore) which has stuck in my memory as the most inspiring rough-sea kayak I’ve ever done: eight hours immersed in spray, battling with a savage, beautiful sea. This was taken, leaning from the edge of the cliff, looking down from a Stag at Llinos on the water…
...all day, seals surged up to us out of seafoam. In the cold ferocity of the gale it felt miraculous that this was a natural habitat of warm-blooded creatures, and it was strange and wonderful to realise how different their perspective on this everyday maelstrom must be...

The next photo is Llinos cruising some of the steep & unpredictable swell: to me this is a far scarier picture than any of those in surf above – one look at it just brings back how demanding the task of keeping balance on these particular waves was. They're many metres high: in viewing this picture, imagine the watery abyss between these two visible crests. Then imagine plunging, like a skier, down the slopes, before clawing your way back up the mountain of water building rapidly in front of you. And think of the waves of different scales crossing and clashing: ski slopes shifting in every dimension and only the thinnest shell of carbon fibre to separate you from their writhing...
And we sat out Christmas during the trip on the Coigach & Assynt coastlines, kayak plans thwarted by storms, & Christmas dinner blowing across the beach: 

While all this was going on, however, we were each gradually realising that our visions of the future, and our plans for our ideal lives, weren't as compatible as we'd once thought, and that neither of us would necessarily be happy in the future the other wanted. So, around a year ago, we came to terms with the idea that, while staying the best of friends - and kayaking partners - we'd need to pursue separate futures. We're still full of respect for each other's choices, and committed to not losing what allows us to work so well together on the water: the strangely similar attitude to the idea that moments of oceanic wonder are worth almost any degree of hardship, and that the battle with a turbulent sea is, in and of itself, a thing of extraordinary beauty.
All this means that The Frayed Atlantic Edge - with its dedication to Llinos, & her immense influence on its perspective – stands as a monument to what was the richest & most wonderful of relationships. It’s a strange feeling to be going into the next stage of life uncoupled from a partnership that has defined our identities since we were teenagers. But for both of us the future feels like an adventure…