Last autumn, following the 26 Wordstock festival, Michelle Nicol took the train home to Newcastle. At Wordstock she had heard Michael Burdett’s talk about photographing people listening to Nick Drake’s Cello Song.
In the kind of serendipity that I love, these influences – train journey, Nick Drake songs – came together. Twitter helped make connections because 26 member in Scotland, Sandy Wilkie, responded to Michelle’s enthusiastic tweets. They hatched a plan for a 26 project that would involve a train journey from Newcastle to Glasgow with 26 stops along the way. Each writer would be randomly paired with a train stop and a Nick Drake song and asked to respond.
I loved the idea, and I love Nick Drake’s music. I suggested one of his most beautiful songs as the title for the project, which became 26 Under a Northern Sky.
I was paired with a Northumbrian town called Haltwhistle and the song Which will. The song is about choice, appropriately enough. I researched Haltwhistle, discovering that it’s close to Hadrian’s Wall and that the name means ‘the coming together of two rivers with a high place between’. Other interesting stories emerged, including the discovery in the 19th century of Roman coins. I was also interested in the proximity of the coal field that was mined over the last two centuries. Two millennia of history stretched out.
The final piece of the jigsaw, for me, was my recent reading of Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake, written in a version of Old English from the time of the Norman conquest. I decided to try writing in that ‘shadow tongue’.
My writing for 26 Under a Northern Sky is The Haltwhistle Triptych. You can read it – and the other pieces by 26 writers – on this website http://26underanorthernsky.org.uk/ There’s some beautiful writing there, well worth dipping into.
Unfortunately I couldn’t make the train journey last week, when writers travelled from Newcastle to Glasgow reading their work at each station. I provided a mobile phone recording of myself reading my triptych of three sestudes – it was played as the train came to Haltwhistle. Thanks to Tom Collins who took the photograph of my reading…I hope you’ll be able to hear that here