Monday, 11 December 2017

FRIENDS OF THE GRAVES (for the Birtley Belgians)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgE9ltf_Az4
























‘Never forget that you are a Birtley Belgian.’
(Ida ‘Anderland’ Dergent)

This is the story of the Birtley Belgians,
the shellers from hell,
the wandering men
and the women they wed.
You can say goodbye to your friends.

These are the remnants of Elisabethville,
the shattered relics of battered soldiers,
the shards of savagery,
the empty shells of discarded folk.

This is what’s left of the carnage,
the last of the war effort,
the smiles of the children
and the severed limbs.
This is the story of the Birtley Belgians.

From Flanders and Wallonia they came
leaving beloved roots behind
to do their bit for the ritual slaughter,
to bring up well their sons and daughters
to dance and sing
under the hails of bullets.

Fishing for sunshine in the Ijzer brook,
kicking stones on the Rue de Charleroi,
the Birtley Belgians
planted their seed on Durham ground
and made do
and made explosive dreams.
What more can we tell?
‘Home is made for coming from,
for dreams of going to
which with any luck
will never come true.’

Sweating in uniform
on assembly lines,
pulverising their brains
to keep the powers that be in power,
they were strong
and at the same time weak
and screamed and cried
like anyone.
This is the story of the Birtley Belgians.

They’re gone now,
blown to dust
in the festering fields,
memories strewn over the way
to fertilise another day
with the same weary mistakes
and thrusts of love.

I can see the boys in the Villa de Bruges
slaking their frustrated fantasies
to drown the horror
and the girls
seductive behind the huts
in between
the grind of daily production.

Let me take you
up the Boulevard Queen Mary,
along the Rue de Louvain,
knock on the door of number D2
and blood will pour
and the ground will open up,
‘mud will take you prisoner’
and devour all those years.
This is the story of the Birtley Belgians.

You can hear their singing on the North Sea wind,
hear them in Chester le Street and Liege,
the brass band and orchestra
drowning out the distant pounding.
In and out of trouble,
we will always dance.

An accordion wails across the little streets,
the Three Tuns welcomes the living.
And at the crack of dawn
and in the battlefields of evening clouds
we will remember them,
in the words of the Walloon poet Camille Fabry proclaim:
‘Our thoughts fly like arrows back to the land of our birth.’

This is the story of the loss of lives
for causes we scarcely understand
but for love and grandeur too
and for the little Belgian children
and the joyous games they play.
This is the story of the Birtley Belgians.



KEITH ARMSTRONG


The Birtley Belgians emigrated from Belgium to Birtley, County Durham during World War 1 to build an armaments factory and lived in their own specially created village.  
Named after the Queen of the Belgians, Elisabethville itself became Little Belgium - a colony of 6,000 people, of boules and of boulevards.

It had its own hospital, cemetery, school, church, nunnery and Co-op; only Flemish and Walloon were spoken.

The Birtley factory was to the north of the town, British built but entirely Belgian run. By 1916 it gave work to 3,500 men, 85 per cent disabled in some way, with 2,500 family members also housed in the adjacent iron fenced village. 


The poem was commissioned by the Birtley Belgians Euro-Network in 2015 in association with Borsolino and Berline Belgian Drama Groups.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

ELEPHANTS IN TUEBINGEN

















































Such a postwar circus, 
swill of pigs and drawn out cold war,
the bleeding never stops.
Under the straw,
the claw of a miserable history
grabs down the years
at the young who are innocent
of all the butchery and whoredom.
Imperial Germany is a fagged out colonial office,
a sweating prison
of bashed up ideals,
a broken clock
covered in ticks and leeches.

The animals have escaped
and invade the Market Place.
Elephants sup at Neptune’s old fountain,
spurt out the foam of stagnant days, 
trunks curling to taste the Neckar water.

This Tuebingen is a surreal pantomime:
barmaids swing from ceilings,
policemen hang from their teeth.
Frau Binder throws them buns.

And our Max Planck is a dream inventor.
Some boffin of his crosses a peach with a tulip,
the genetics of a bayonet in a breast.
The menagerie moves on to the Castle,
a giraffe nibbles at a church.
The sun gnaws at the clouds.

Like a clown,
I leap to down beer.
And a hideously sweet lady cracks a whip
and flashes her milky thigh at me.
It is no good.
I cannot raise a glassy smile anymore.
This circus is a tragedy.
The animals are sad 
and rotten
with the stink of carnage,
seeping 
from your television screens.



KEITH ARMSTRONG

Monday, 13 November 2017

FOR MY MOTHER AND FATHER































THE BIRD WOMAN OF WHITLEY BAY

(FOR MY MOTHER)


She is out feeding the birds,
on the dot again,
in the drizzle of a seaside morning;
the seed
cast fom her hand
to the jerking beak of a cock pheasant.

She is alone
in a flock of dark starlings,
scattering crumbs to make them shriek.

She is a friend of spuggies,
gives blackbirds water.

Her eyes fly across the garden
to catch a quick robin,
to spot a wee wren,
to chase a bold magpie.

She is innocence,
she is a lovely old lady;
still giving,
still nursing.

She deserves heaven,
she deserves a beautiful nest
to dream out her last hours
in bird song;
in the rich colours of music,
in the red feathers of sunset,
she is my mother,
she is a rare bird
who fed me beautiful dreams.

Thank you for letting me climb
with the skylarks.

Thank you
for the strength of wings.


 

KEITH ARMSTRONG
 


SPLINTERS

(FOR MY FATHER)

You picked splinters
with a pin each day
from under blackened fingernails;
shreds of metal
from the shipyard grime,
minute memories of days swept by:
the dusty remnants of a life
spent in the shadow of the sea;
the tears in your shattered eyes
at the end of work.
And your hands were strong,
so sensitive and capable
of building boats
and nursing roses;
a kind and gentle man
who never hurt a soul,
the sort of quiet knackered man
who built a nation.
Dad, I watched your ashes float away
down to the ocean bed
and in each splinter
I saw your caring eyes
and gracious smile.

I think of your strong silence every day
and I am full of you,
the waves you scaled,
and all the sleeping Tyneside streets
you taught me to dance my fleeting feet along.

When I fly, you are with me.
I see your fine face
in sun-kissed clouds
and in the gold ring on my finger,
and in the heaving crowd on Saturday,
and in the lung of Grainger Market,
and in the ancient breath
of our own Newcastle.



KEITH ARMSTRONG

 

‘This is one of the poems I'll never forget. I see the struggling of my own dad in your words.
Thanks for your fine poem.’ (Klaas Drenth)

‘Beautiful poem. Loving, moving memories. Most excellent Keith.’ (Strider Marcus Jones)

‘Love the poem Keith. That’s my dad.’ (John McMahon)
 

‘Beautifully visual Keith, nice to share your memories.’ x (Annie Sheridan)
 

‘Lovely poem, loving memories too.’ (Imelda Welsh)
 

‘So, so good, Keith - I'll share this, if you don't mind.’ (Kenny Jobson)
       

Monday, 6 November 2017

WALLACE'S RIGHT ARM BY DR KEITH ARMSTRONG


 





































On 23rd August 1305, William Wallace was executed. At that time, the punishment for the crime of treason was that the convicted traitor was dragged to the place of execution, hanged by the neck (but not until he was dead), and disembowelled (or drawn) while still alive. His entrails were burned before his eyes, he was decapitated and his body was divided into four parts (or quartered). Accordingly, this was Wallace's fate. His head was impaled on a spike and displayed at London Bridge, his right arm on the bridge at Newcastle upon Tyne, his left arm at Berwick, his right leg at Perth, and the left leg at Aberdeen. Edward may have believed that with Wallace's capture and execution, he had at last broken the spirit of the Scots. He was wrong. By executing Wallace so barbarically, Edward had martyred a popular Scots military leader and fired the Scottish people's determination to be free.

WALLACE’S RIGHT ARM

Wave goodbye ye oafs of culture,
let your rootless dreams drift away.
History has come to drown you in blood
and wash up your empty schemes.

Yon tottering Palaces of Culture
are seized by the rampaging sea.
They are sailing back to the Equator
to burn in a jungle of fear.

Three hundred million years me lads,
unseen from these high rise days:
an ice sheet thick as an ocean,
all those hours just melted down.

Into rich seams of coal,
tropical plants were fossilised;
the sandbanks grew into sandstone
and the mudflats into shale.

And the right arm of William Wallace
shakes with wrath in this firework night.
It is waving goodbye to your history,
it is saying hello to Baghdad.

All the brains of your Labour Party
are stashed in a carrier bag.
Down Bottle Bank in the darkness,
you can hear Wallace scream in a dog.

And will you hang, draw, and quarter my home street?
Will you drop bombs on the music hall?
You have taken the bones from our loves
and taken the piss from the Tyne.

So give me your arm Good Sir Braveheart,
I’ll take it a walk through the park
and I’ll use it to strike down a student
with an empty shell of a soul.

And I’d give my right arm to make ships,
my left to stoke dreams alive.
And I will dance on in the brilliance of life
until oppression is blown away.


KEITH ARMSTRONG

Sunday, 29 October 2017

THOMAS SPENCE - THE HIVE OF LIBERTY








































https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IMy-h2re3g

 


(AFTER THE NAME OF THOMAS SPENCE’S BOOKSHOP AT 8 LITTLE TURNSTILE, HIGH HOLBORN)


I am a small and humble man,
my body frail and broken.
I strive to do the best I can.
I spend my life on tokens.

I traipse through Holborn all alone,
hawking crazy notions.
I am the lonely people’s friend.
I live on schemes and potions.

For, in my heart and in my mind,
ideas swarm right through me.
Yes, in this Hive of Liberty,
my words just flow like wine,
my words just flow like wine.

I am a teeming worker bee.
My dignity is working.
My restless thoughts swell like the sea.
My fantasies I’m stoking.

There is a rebel inside me,
a sting about to strike.
I hawk my works around the street.
I put the world to rights.

For, in my heart and in my mind,
ideas swarm right through me.
Yes, in this Hive of Liberty,
my words just flow like wine,
my words just flow like wine.




KEITH ARMSTRONG










Tuesday, 24 October 2017

OUR SPITTAL - POEMS: KEITH ARMSTRONG PHOTOS: TONY WHITTLE


































































































































































Tammy Spence he had no sense,
he bought a fiddle for eighteen pence
and all the tunes that he could play
was ‘O’er the Hills and Far Away’.
From Cow Road to Hud’s Head,
Toppye Knowe Stone and Spittal Point,
we have dredged the coal
and snapped up fish
with ‘Lovely Polly’ and all.
We have ground the corn and bone,
found the iron and cured and smoked.
We have worshipped Bart and lifeboats
and prayed to Paul and John.
We have staggered on in rain and nonconformity.
We have lurched along old shores,
drowned the thirst of sailors
with the rattling old Town Bell and the tunes of jolly Jack,
whistled and fiddled away
in the bright Red Lion light.
Jesus Light of the World,
we are the history in the barrel,
in the soaring wind
and in the foaming waves:
it is our blood,
it is our bread,
it is our Spittal,
our mirrored past.


TALES OF SPITTAL

This small space
for tall tales,
the leprous tongues of centuries,
hospitalised gossips,
words drifting out of ward windows
on a dripping wet afternoon.
Church reduced to a hung silence,
closed hearts
ready for a drink.
And there’s this man
like a tea leaf in the corners
of the Blenheim or the Red Lion or The Albion.
He’s gagging for a chat about the old days,
it’s on the lips of driftwood,
swirling in the blown down days.
Tug the fruit machine,
wallop down a pie-eyed dream.
The ghosts of Victorian ladies
hiss along the promenade
as we are hit in the face
with sepia breezes.
They come from North Sea places
and from Kelso,
Selkirk and Hawick,
they ripple the surface of the sea
and the leaves in the border forests.
Take the ancient waters,
sips of iron and sulphur,
bathe yourself in history and grime.
Pellets of sleet,
hail a watery charabanc drive,
run a hot bath
down the prom prom prom.
And let the keen and callous wind
whip up the skirts of the Tweedside girls,
so you can dance for your lives.
We are the Spittal folk,
the old Pierrots,
our songs are shattered
on ancient rocks.
Our children skip through the clutter of news.
Bless them,
bless young hearts.
Splash in Bishop’s Water,
in fishing places,
songs of herring and of salmon.
Spittal Rovers
sing again.
Leap for breath
in the ways of Spring.
RICHARD MENDHAM’S SPITTAL TIPPLE
Yon tippling illiterate Spittaler,
that smuggler of drunkenness,
thief and copier of the night.
Across the lines of sobriety,
you lurched,
carving a living
from rich streams
of whisky.
Dodging water bailiffs across rooftops,
creeping down trap stairs,
you and your gang
of fleetfooted drunks
shifted illicit dreams.
Eyes glinting in hidie-holes,
disguised in black cloth and gowns,
you sparked like bar-flies in the dark.
Dancing round brightly,
skipping school lightly,
laughed in your dens of warm cackle.
Shook the village with laughter,
gave the rude sign to Berwick,
pranced till they caught you,
hung you high
from your rafter
for daring to test
the stone-sober law.

*Richard Mendham - 1830s Spittal smuggler and counterfeiter who was tried and executed at Jedburgh in the presence of Sir Walter Scott, Sheriff of Selkirkshire.


DRINKING IN SPITTAL
See me fall out of The Elephant bar,
where I’ve been drinking with salmon.
Spittal foaming from my open mouth.
Lame, maimed, drunken,
dissolute, boisterous and poor,
I have become intoxicated by parties of pleasure.
I have strayed from the Holy Island to Brandy Well,
become awash in luggers of boozers,
staggering on smugglers’ sand.
Gin, brandy, tobacco and silk,
let me cleanse myself in the morning light,
take the clean waters of Jesus.
Walk to the Hallowstell,
past the lepers’ huts,
for drops of holy blood,
strip away with bare hands
this ugly scorbutic humour.
Clean the beaches,
clean Spittal,
clean my weary soul.
I will launch myself
into a seawater bath
and blow hot and cold
with the seasoning.
Calybeate waters of Spittal,
salts of pure iron,
you have me
chained to your heavy drinking cup.
Let my lovely heart sing
with children and larks.
Let me go plodging
in daffodils.


GIRL IN A SPITTAL WINDOW


Glancing moment,
chance look.

I was wondering

where to go,
what to do
in the seaside fret.
I am growing 
misty with dreams:
welcome to my Spittal World.
I am little in this universe,
the sun is falling,
the stars are poised.
The window cleaner
will come in the morning
and wipe yesterday 
away.



KEITH ARMSTRONG












The coastal scenery around Berwick is very fine, with rocks and cliffs, only occasionally interrupted by small bays and harbours. The nearest bathing beach to the town is in the little seaside resort of Spittal, to the south.



I was very impressed by the picture you and Tony created of Spittal.

It struck me that it was in the very best traditions of photo-journalism -

Picture Post recreated for the electronic age.   I thought images and text 

showed great respect and sensibility.





JOHN MAPPLEBECK (Bewick Films)