What at couple of days!
One day I sat side by side for four hours with the hawk-eyed John Maughan - Design Manager of HPM Printers - entering the what seem to be thousands of final amends on the first printer’s proof of Shrugging Off The Wind our Easington Book. The next day the final penultimate proof is checked yet again by Avril and Gillian and myself. We still still find more amends. And yesterday back sitting beside John to enter these final-final changes. John has the eyes of a hawk and spots minuscule further improvements.
This is the sign off day, when we have to say that it is all OK and the print run can start. One holds one’s breath at this point. Gillian has told the writers that if anyone now finds a typo or any mistake they can take us out for a slap up lunch as a penalty.
Next Monday will be a big day for the group. That’s when the whole group will visit HMP Printers to witness a thousand copies of their book begin roll off the machines. More about that event on my next blog.
I have to say the book is looking brilliant. Amazing! This is how it came about.
Nearly a year ago I agreed , alongside my friend and colleague Avril Joy, to mentor the Easington writer’s group through their Tall Tales Lottery Project. We were in for lots of surprises. First there was Easington itself. I knew this village had a strong association with the history of mining, especially its crucial involvement in the 1984 Miners’ Strike. We also knew that – in common with most mining districts – it had lost its mines and with that its central livelihood and its working energy.
But only when we went to Easington to work with Mary, Susan, Mavis, Ann, Agnes, David, Terry and Joan, did we realise the sheer beauty of this place, with its long beaches and inlets, its wooded denes and everywhere the sea rising up before you, demanding your attention. Of course nowadays there are no pit gantries and great black pit wheels but – as at least one poem in the book shows – these icons of a bygone age are missed and are still seen to have had their own unique beauty.
This beauty is reflected in specially commissioned art work by Fiona Naughton and superb black and white photographs by Fiona and Mavis Farrell - one of the writers who turns out to be a very fine photographer,
The other special delight has been the sheer character, energy and originality of the writing. As these unique writers worked through the year with open minds, the quality of their writing grew enormously. They have embraced the difficult challenge of transforming fact into fiction and have written pieces which contain gold nuggets of truth for all of us, whether or not we come from Easington.
The stories ranged widely from well-researched historical tales , to tales of Easington before even the railways arrived, to heart-felt narratives based on Easington’s mining heritage alongside contemporary tales of the disaffection of the young and the social consequences of the lost industrial base. Here also are well-wrought ghost stories and poems of lyrical quality that reflect the poignant beauty of the landscape and its meaning for Easington people. Humour and occasional roguish insight lace many of the stories a visceral sense of lives really lived.
The book will get a great send-off at its launch at Easington Welfare Centre on Saturday 6th March. More about that anon.
In the meantime here’s a sample. Perhaps you’ll read it over your coffee…
Beacon Hill draws Joe to it like a lodestone. He lies as still as a sunbathing hare in the short tough grass on the hill’s brow. The thin earth on this bony skull of land has a bitter-sweet sap smell. This is his place. He’s on top of his world here. The sea guards it from the east, stretching north beyond Seaham and then south where the land drops and the flights that tip waste from the three pits of Easington, Horden and Blackhall stretch like blackened skeletal fingers across the shore. He puts his ear to the ground and listens to the pulse of the limestone rock beneath him, and hears the pull and push of the sea, which sounds like womb sounds, and it makes him feel safe.
Joe has the ‘sight’. He sees things that aren’t there to others, ancient memories that echo through the bones of this hill. He knows it better than a history book at school. It gives him a sense of belonging to this land. He knows these things while he waits for his friend Tom.
Tom is wise in a different way from him. He shows Joe fox tracks and bird nests warm with eggs. He points out the up-and-down flight of the green woodpecker and spewed up owl pellets they find near fence posts. These two teach each other the things they know, but Tom finds it hard to be like Joe. It doesn’t come natural, he says.
‘Let’s go get a Jackdaw instead,’ says Tom.
‘Me mam won’t let us have a wild bird in the house. It’s unlucky.’
‘Aw! That’s nowt. Keep it in the shed, man. Come on, I know where there’s a Jackdaw’s nest – the young’uns’ll not have their full feathers on yet. They’ll be just right to take.’
They ride imaginary horses, as boys do, away down the slope of the hill, to clop down the wooden steps that lead to the railway line, then over and up the other side. They stop with a ‘Whoah there’ and dismount on the cliff top above Boaty’s Bay. Then they slither down the narrow path cut into the side of the cliff to the beach below. Joe grabs onto clumps of grass to slow down and to save himself from falling head first.
They stand on brown sand struck with sun-bleached rocks and stare at a jut of land that probes amoeba-like to the sea. This is where the jackdaw’s nest is: right at the top of a two-hand-span crack that splits the limestone cliff-face to the height of ten men. The fractured rock-front is sheared off while the top narrows and threatens like the spine of a dragon’s back as it snakes to the land. From where the boys stand the monster’s curves covered by cruel brambles seem like sleeping green velvet.
‘Don’t do it, Tom! It’s too high.’ Joe can’t bear to look at how far above the ground it is. He turns and skims flat pebbles across a smooth sea, counting five, no, six leaps with his best one.
‘It’ll be all right man. I’ve done it before.’ Tom starts to climb the cliff. He seems to know what he’s doing. He reaches, his hands grasp rock and feet jam into cracks. He hoists himself higher and higher. He’s almost there when a jackdaw screeches out of the split limestone and starts to attack him. It swoops and swerves, mobbing Tom who curls himself to the rock face trying to hide. ‘Help. Help. Joe! Do something.’
Joe throws stones. They miss. He waves his hands and screams. ‘Get away, get away.’
The jackdaw flies at Tom. It claws at his head, wings flapping, shrieking.
This time Joe’s stone finds its target. The bird retreats to a rocky ledge, to caw-caw its anger. Its evil black tongue sticks out of a gaping beak. And outstretched wings menace the air like Dracula’s cloak.
‘I can’t move, Joe. I’m frightened. I want me dad. Help.’ Tom wails.
Joe looks around, hoping to see someone, anyone who could help. He yells at the top of his voice. ‘HELP…. HELP…’ His voice bounces back to him from the cliffs; the thin echo of his words mock him. The only other sound is the sea that whispers a quiet in-tide to where the boy stands.
Then he’s startled by a movement where the Jackdaw sits. He sees a withered woman sitting on the ledge. She smokes a clay pipe, taking long sucks on the stem. It’s covered with froth like the cuckoo spit that hides the froghopper’s spawn. She has a spiteful look in her eye. She spurts a vicious stream of tarry spittle towards Tom. She waits.
Joe’s heart pounds, threatening to split open his chest. There’s not much time. He knows that the witch-woman wants Tom to fall. He can’t let that happen.
Trying to remember Tom’s movements, he reaches upwards. His hands grasp rock and his feet jam into cracks. He drags himself bit by terrible bit higher up the cliff-face. He daren’t look down. He daren’t even look up. He asks God to help and promises he’ll go to church on Sunday. He tries to match his ragged breath to the ebb and flow sea - sounds that usually make him feel safe.
His fingers feel again for security in the rock. ‘I’m coming Tom! Hold on.’ He says the words almost to himself.
At last his hand touches Tom’s foot. ‘I’m here. I’m here Tom. You’ll have to move up again. Go on, I’m right behind you. We can’t go down, the tide’s in.’ He doesn’t say there’s a witch-woman who waits for one or both of them to fall.
He hears Tom crying. ‘I can’t Joe. I’m scared. That bloody bird. It was going for me eyes.’
‘The bird’s gone. Honest’. He hopes Tom can’t see the Jackdaw from where he is. ‘You can do it. Come on. Move! ’ He pushes his friend’s foot. ‘We can’t stay here all day, Tom. I want me dinner, I’m famished.’
Tom releases a sobbed breath that’s almost a snort. It is this that gets him moving.
Now they crab-crawl, upward then sideward, making a tortuous way to the top. Finally they slide on their bellies over the cliff’s dragon- spine down a grass slope until they are back on the beach, just above the high tide mark. They look at each other and each recognises the terror in the other’s eyes. Joe’s freckles stand out stark against his white face.
Then they start to laugh and their laughter sounds crazy. They rush home, their imaginary steeds left forgotten to graze in the field at the top of the cliff at Boaty’s Bay.
The jackdaw circles its nest as it caws its victory. Of the witch-woman there is no sign.