Is this the place?

Over the years I’ve done a whole series of pieces in collaboration with visual artists including Bridget Jones (not that one), David Annand, David Edwick and David Paton. I don’t know why so many of them are called David. I’ve worked on a variety of sites from Darlington to Ambleside, and Newcastle to Dumfries, but I’ve never really pulled this work together in terms of presenting it clearly as a strand in my writing. Yet collaboration, whether with artists, musicians, or other poets — whether on shared projects or through translations — is an important part of the way I see myself working.

Why I haven’t explained that coherently must rank alongside why I write in Scots but live in England, and why my books aren’t a neat exposition of two or three themes that everyone can see are punchy and/or contemporary, ie I’m otaku, a withdrawn solipsistic geek who likes to make up artificial families he can then sulk about. But if you’ve come to this site through any of my writings you already knew that. The point is I wish, in WS Graham’s immortal phrase, to ‘try to be better’. Hence this.


This first posting is about a project I did as part of Graingertown’s public art initiative in Newcastle city centre. This was ‘Tyne Line of Txt Flow,’ which you can see in Thornton Street, off the Westgate Road, a collaboration with artists Carol Sommer and Sue Downing completed in 2005.

Here’s what the official site says:

‘Tyne Line of Txt Flow is a 140m long stream of text. The text comes from Roman messages found locally, printed text from the time of King Charles the 1st and text messages collected in 2002 on the day of the Newcastle Sunderland derby. These are identified by translation into SMS text form. William Herbert has written a response making reference to the Skinner Burn flowing under the street.’

There are a number of reasons why this brief description is accurate but infuriating, but I am now capable of confining myself to two. ‘Found locally’ implies they were lying already edited in the street, and their inclusion was somehow self-evident. ‘William Herbert has written a response’ implies I had nothing to do with the finding locally (and that my name is ‘William Herbert’). You can perhaps guess my peeves, which relate to a suspicion that occasionally crops up in dealings with the visual arts, that language is not felt to be interesting in itself, and all that text-based projects really need is ‘some words’ as a kind of design element. (This also manifests itself in the half-digested theoryspeak which crops up in lesser galleries’ press releases.) 

The artists came up with the great idea of having a continuous strip of steel set into the pavement, and wanted to work with text messaging (then devised a wonderful series of imaginary icons to illustrate my text, including Roman underpants and pixellated pints of ale). But first of course I had to come up with some words, and a binding concept. I settled on uncovering points of technological shift which might be equivalent to text messaging, but these had to be local to the North East. I wanted the text to reflect on how the whole way we communicate can suddenly alter through such techological breakthroughs, and whether that fundamentally affected our personal interrelations and indeed our sense of personality. Communication, not just between individuals, but between historical periods, became a ‘hidden river,’ equivalent to the Skinner Burn, now tidily flowing underground .

In the Roman period texts were sent between forts on Hadrians Wall (and possibly across Northern Europe) on thin strips of wood. These were the emails of their days, and the foremost collection in the world is in Vindolanda.

In the Dark Ages, the production of the Lindisfarne Gospels, the codex amiatinus, and Bede’s History of the English People, all from a couple of tiny monasteries in the North East, changed the way we thought about books and indeed the knowledge that could be gathered in them. To continue the techno analogies, these were laptops compared to the gatherings of text that had preceded them.

Then, on the outset of the English Civil War, Newcastle again became a centre of change when King Charles’s court had to shift up north. Naturally, part of the king’s attempt to maintain authority was dependent on his ability to issue and distribute proclamations — and so the first printing press to hit the North East arrived shortly after. From pivotal moments like these to the first newspapers, pamphlets, and finally mobile phones, somehow doesn’t seem like quite so large a leap.

So my job, as I saw it, was to select and edit key snatches of text from each of these periods, ‘translate’ them into txt, and write the linking poem which, arguably, made this feel like a single flow of human communication. Meanwhile Carol and Sue gathered some fantastic current text messages I also edited into shape. Here’s the result:

Write messages

the hidden river also flows/

it carries news like goods that few/

might value: how like us they spoke/

the underground, forgotten folk

[Roman head icon]

Masclus 2 Cerialis Hs king , Hi . PLS , my lord , gv instructions on WotU Wnt us 2 du 2moro . R we all 2 rtrn W the standard , or just ½ of us? My fellow soldiers av no beer . PLS OrdA sme 2B sent

[beer icon]

post-its of timber found in a bonfire/

six feet under an old Roman fort/

slices of writing as thin as prosciutto/

slivered from birch for scribbled reports

[Roman head icon]

the Brittones , RathA MNE of Em cavalrymen , R Nked . Dey Dnt Uz swords , nor du D Brittunculi mount 2 ThrO javelins

[buttocks icon]

notes to those brothers, your tent-mates, your mistress/

moans to the Emperor ordering a Wall/

lines between slaves who were running your households/

pleas to commanders for leave or for ale

[Roman head icon]

Ive sent U 2 pairs of sox Frm Sattua , 2 pairs of SandLs N 2 pairs of underpants

[underpants icon]

these were the messages texted by legions:/

invites and undies and ‘nasty wee brits’/

bored officers’ wives all scrawling on alder/

in ink made of carbon and gum and your spit

[birthday cake icon]

Claudia Severina 2 her Lepidina , Hi . I Snd U a warm invitation 2 cm 2 us on SEP 11th , 4 my BDay celebrations , 2 MMD Mor Njoyable by Yr presence . gv my Hi 2 Yr Cerialis

[viking helmet icon]

Synods of sparrows, otters and whales/

transcribing gospels, pandects, tales/

that pulled our minds with vellum sails/

the vikings sank with greedy gales

[sparrow icon]

D presnt Lyf of mn upon Erth SEmz 2 M , n comparison W DAT Tym wich S unknown 2 us , Lk 2 D swift FlyT of a sparrow Thru D Hous wherein U sit @ supper n winter , W/yr ealdormen n thegns , yl D fire blazes n D midst , n D hall S warmed , Bt D wintry storms R raging abroad

[monk icon]

dark Age laptops built by monks/

from calfskin, lapis, gold and quills/

illuminated Lindisfarne/

powerpointing Holy Will

[book icon]

Eadfrith , Bish of Lindisfarne , originally Rote DIS B%k n Onor of God n St Cuthbert n D Hol Co. of saints who’s relics R on D Isle

[skull and crossbones icon]

N AEthelwald , Bish of D islanders , bound it on D O/side n CoverD it . N Billfrith , D anchorite , wrought D ornaments on D O/side n adorned it W Au n W gems n gilded silver , unalloyed metal. N Aldred , unworthy n most miserable +:-( , glossed it n En W D hlp of God n St Cuthbert

[monk icon]

Benedict that went to Rome/

brought first things back: stained glass and books;/

Cuthbert’s cold feet walked on Farne/

dried by otters, obeyed by rooks

[whale icon]

The (O–< flood threw DIS whalebone on 2 D fir mountain.The ghost king Wz 😦 Wen he swam On2 D gravel

[monk icon]

Ceolfrith put his geography tome/

in a whalebone box and swopped it for land;/

Bede in his cell saw our island whole,/

Britain was encompassed by his hand

[sparrow icon]

D sparrow , FlyN n @ 1 door n immed Ot @ NothA , whilst Hes Witn , S safe Frm D wintry tempest; Bt Aftr a short space of fair Weather , he immed vanishes Outa yr SyT , passing Frm winter N2 winter again . So DIS Lyf of mn appears 4 a Lil yl , Bt of Watz 2 Follw or W@ went B4 we Knw Nil @ all . F , Thus , O king , DIS Nu doctrine tells us Smt Mor CertN , it SEmz justly 2 DzrV 2B followed

[crown icon]

from Charles the First to a medical crank/

from the newspaperman to Gateshead’s Crusoe:/

butter, a Button and fresh-turned earth/

was the mix that made the presses grow

[printing press icon]

We av a LPT Hre W all Hs trinkets , N DIS day I MD ReD 4 D king’s hand a proclamation 4 D importation of butter; Itz NW printing , so R 400 of D former proclamation of pardon 2 D Scots

[kilt icon]

though a bishop preached his right was divine/

his troops still ran on humbler grease/

and so a press came to the Tyne/

for Charles’ pardons and headless pleas

[crown icon]

I Knw Der Wr severall errata’s in’t Bt did not Tnk it Wrth WyL 2 amend . F U don’t sell DoZe \O/ rtrn  ’em . this Saywell S bad N Lo N pockett N N debt wou’d B willing 4 D $ 2 Instruct him . Yr spectacles hase bn mended MNE daies ago & lyeing by M F you’ll ha’ ’em sent Dey Shll

[printing press icon]

the bookish editor Button sent/

Newcastle’s first paper to Daniel Defoe/

with a note that said ill of his printer, Saywell:/

he thought that man Friday untrustworthy, low

[spectacle icon]

EARTH-BATHING , or Animal purification , ftrengthening , or vegetation , Dats , immerfing or placing D Nked Human Bod , ^ 2 D chin , or lips , or RathA CoverD ^ OVR D Hed , Bt LevN D Iyz N nofe uncovered 4 feeing N breathing freely , N frefh dug ^ Erth , or N D s& of D Sea-shore, 4 3 , fix , or 12 hours @ 1 Tym , N repeatedly , hath bn recommended , N actually practifed , W conftant , N W infallible fuccefs , by Sea-faring Foreigners , as Wel as by D natives of gr8 Britain

[duck icon]

the Earth Quack buried himself in the dirt/

with two naked ladies up to their necks/

then published that loam would restore you to health/

if scurvy should scourge or nervousness wreck

[skull & cross bones icon]

I can hear St James’ park wots the score ?

[football icon]

Heidihi pineapplepie I’m on me way !! Hyper girls on a mad mission 2 batgirls house yippeeeeee !!

[bat icon]

Hi aimee. Say happy bday 2 ruth 4 me

[birthday cake icon]

the texts that flow from then to now/

carry constants in their tow/

we hide pollutants that we know/

can kill the pleasures put on show

[beer icon]

FanC a drink in the gosforth ? Bit of a school reunion

[school tie icon]

There’s this lad sitting opposite me on da bus n I think its ian . He’s got a seaton burn jumpa

[skateboard icon]

Hiya Carly its Kayleigh . Wat time do u want to meet in town and where . How bout at the haymarket where all the skaters go at the statue at 12 txt bak

[angel icon]

wars’ memorials mourn the spores/

of brutish acts we all contain/

their angels read from pages scored/

with pity like a face with pain

[bottle icon]

Lurkers doin little ol Wine drinking me for 4quid inc a fight by 40 yr blokes who shd no better – bargin – city of culture here we cum

[fist icon]

Hey sparky have a look at the league cos Sunderland r Blow

[football icon]

birthdays, drink and football scores/

these are the troops that guard our doors/

declining empires, civil wars?/

history’s for screaming bores

[spectacles icon]

Sorry I did’nt cotton on that it was difficult 2 talk I’m getting slow in my old age . U can get me any time but no worries

[heart icon]

theres only one makem singin

[football icon]

Hello luv ! Hope your nails R goin well ? The match finishes at 2 so I shud B on time . I’ll see ya soon, cmon toon !! Love jona xxxx

[heart icon]

but text machines that help us float/

through time as though our words were boats/

can also bring us thigh to thigh/

shrink distance to behind the eye

message sent

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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1 Response to Is this the place?

  1. I could spend all night perusing the pages of your blog. Fascinating, educational, entertaining and, of course, beautifully written.

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