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For those in peril ... a heady brew of music, poetry and beer

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Music and poetry is generally a good mix. Add beer, history, and stirring tales of lifeboats, and you have all the ingredients for a heady brew. And so it proved at Newcastle’s Biscuit Factory art gallery on Sunday afternoon, when musicians Maurice Condie and Marina Dodgson, and poet Harry Gallagher performed Frets 'n’ Bows 'n’ Tales 'n’ Ales, a collaborative project that has been touring various north-east venues over the last couple of months.

It was Marina and Maurice who came up the idea of linking tunes and poems to the names of the beers produced by Cullercoats Brewery, set up by local couple Bill and Anna Scantlebury, who gave up their jobs to concentrate on brewing. There is a story behind the label on each beer that they produce – and it was those stories that Harry Gallagher illustrated in verse, and Marina and Maurice with fiddle and guitar.

Beers like ‘Polly Donkin’, which happened to be the stout that I was drinking. Polly was a Cullercoats fishwife, one of many who were expected to walk the eight or nine miles into Newcastle, carrying fish to sell on her back.  She was awarded the RNLI’s gold medal for her fundraising. Cullercoats brewery itself gives 3p to the RNLI for every pint sold, a donation that has so far reached £60,000.

embedded image from entry 127989 The name of the beer, ‘Grace Darling Gold’, recallls that of the 19th century lighthouse keeper’s daughter Grace Darling, who took part in the rescue of survivors from the shipwrecked Forfarshire in 1832, earning her national fame. As Harry’s poem tells it, she hated the media attention: “I’d rather be alone / up there in the lighthouse / with the flashin’ of the flame / than be splashed on front pages.”  

In keeping with the lifeboat theme, ‘Rocket Brigade’ refers to the rocket attached to a length of rope, that would be fired out to a stricken ship, to winch survivors back to dry land when conditions were too bad to row out. But sometimes ships caught in terrible storms were beyond the reach of the rocket. Such was the case of ‘The Lovely Nelly’. Harry told us how Cullercoats women, their men out fishing, hauled the lifeboat over land to nearby Whitley Bay, and “carried the rescued head-height”.  

There followed Harry’s lyrical poem ‘Sandpiper’ (“Beachcomber, sand shrieker, / quick picker, worm seeker, / old familiar wave leaper.”), his tribute to a bird regularly seen along the north-east coastline, but sadly declining in numbers even before avian flu. The beer? A “full-flavoured IPA”. The jaunty ‘Shuggy Boat Blonde’, as played by Marina and Maurice, accompanied Harry’s poem about the yesteryear seaside delights of Tynemouth, Cullercoats and Whitley Bay – “this coast of kings and giant ice creams, / of Spanish City queens, shuggyboat dreams, / of bulging creels and sun-blanched days.”

Harry responded to ‘Porthole Coffee Porter’ (“full of caramel and coffee aroma”) with a poem about the treacherous rocks below the Tyne at North Shields, “the middens’ jagged granules”, with the Collingwood monument keeping watch above the mighty river’s mouth. ‘Jack the Devil’ is a chestnut coloured ale, and was the nickname of John Bowman, a daredevil lifeboatman.

embedded image from entry 127991 ‘Old Scantlebury’ drew Harry into a description of Cullercoats history, its time as an artists’ colony, and how infamous local politicians were later involved in the demolition of historic cottages.

‘Watch House Winter Warmer’ is a tribute to the Cullercoats Watch House, a grade II listed building built in 1979 that housed the Cullercoats Volunteer Life Brigade, who looked out from there for vessels in distress. It’s now a community centre, and needs funds to carry out major repair work. Harry’s poem also pays tribute to the peace of the coastal village in the winter, when all the holidaymakers have gone: “You can dream your dreams / and I’ll dream mine.” As a southerner until three months ago, I had only known of Cullercoats from the Dire Straits song, in the back of my head since 1980, and included in the Bloodaxe anthology of north-east poetry, Land of Three Rivers.  

The coastline tunes by fiddle player Marina and guitarist Maurice were lilting, sometimes mournful or melancholy, sometimes wistful or uplifting, and always easy on the ear. Poet Harry, who helps wife Bridget with the monthly online magazine Up! and takes part in many other community activities, was a genial and assured host. There’s a booklet you can buy which contains Harry’s poems, the sheet music, and a voucher code to obtain an audio download of the 12 original tunes, and 10 poems. Music, poetry, and beer. I’ll drink to that!       



◄ Warm up with words at new poetry night in the north-east

Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in her Head: Warsan Shire, Chatto & Windus ►

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Uilleam Ó Ceallaigh

Tue 7th Feb 2023 10:35

An excellent cause, the RNLI.
I have been an avid watcher of Saving Lives at Sea.
Men and women who stare down death on a daily basis, on our behalf.
Whether we be at our work or our leisure, the likelihood of our needing them is all the greater because of the UK's geography.

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