Land of Three Rivers anthology launch, Gateshead, 2017
Music and poetry collaborated to produce an unforgettable night showcasing the north-east’s regional pride and identity at the Sage in Gateshead on Friday, where musicians, dancers and schoolchildren combined to help launch a new Bloodaxe anthology.
Why unforgettable? Well, a surprise guest at the concert organised by noted Northumberland pipes player Kathryn Tickell and her Magnetic North East organisation to launch Bloodaxe’s Land of Three Rivers anthology of poetry from the north-east was actor and singer Jimmy Nail.
He read lyrics from a song by Sting, ‘Island of Souls’, which is in the anthology, and then sang his hit song Big River, about the decline of industry on the Tyne, after being persuaded to by Kathryn Tickell. It was the first time he had sung it more than 10 years, he said. ‘Big River’ is also in the anthology, edited by Bloodaxe’s Neil Astley.
The book would make a great stocking filler, compere and north-east actor Vicky Elliott told the audience: “Mind you, you would need a big stocking. Or you could use it as a weapon.” Jimmy Nail paid tribute to “a reference [work] for generations to come. So, well done, Bloodaxe!”
Land of Three Rivers includes poems about Roman life, mediaeval Northumbria, the region’s industrial heritage, and the present day, and encompasses traditional songs and some modern-day pop songs in its sweep. The first poems of the evening, performed by Vicky Elliott and Kathryn Tickell’s father Mike Tickell, included UA Fanthorpe’s ‘Caedmon’s Song’, about the first English poet whose name is known, from the 8th century, and ‘John North’, by the late Vin Garbutt, whose song includes the anthology’s title: “In the Land of Three Rivers / I’m longing to be / Where the Tyne, Wear and Tees / Meet the North’s rolling sea.”
Later there was a sequence of related poems, at least in the titles - ‘The Blazing Grater’ by WN Herbert, a sceptical take on the Olympic torch being paraded through the north-east; the Tyneside anthem ‘Blaydon Races’, written by 19th century music hall singer George Ridley; and Fred Reed’s quizzical ‘Brazen Faces’, about Newcastle United’s Toon Army: “A bunch of hooligans ti blare / Aall wi’ brazen faces / Ti mek folks wundor whaat the future / O’ the human race is.”
Kathryn Tickell picked out Katrina Porteous’s ‘The PIgeon Men’ to read, which was accompanied by an elegaic segment of film:
Are turned to the hand-stitched patchwork of crees, sheds, fences,
The secret shacks
And small doors cobbled from sleepers and iron sheeting
Hauled up from underground. It was pit-work
That made them ache to be out here in the sunshine
Among the birds.
A group of schoolchildren sang Wilfred Gibson’s ‘Fallowfield Fell’; also performing were Star and Shadow, young exponents of the Northumbrian rapper sword dance; Baltic Crossing, five musicians from England, Finland and Denmark, who got the audience to join in the anthologised ‘The Keel Row’, about boats that transported coal along the Tyne and Wear; Sunderland singer-songwriter Martin Longstaff, who also heads, if not personifies a group rather confusingly, in the context of the evening, called The Lake Poets; and Kathryn Tickell’s own group of fizzing young musicians Superfolkus, which rounded off the concert. Martin Longstaff led the encore with another of his songs, which ended, fittingly, with the word “proud”.
Neil Astley should be proud of this comprehensive anthology, complete with copious and educational notes, even if we have come to expect such brilliant editing from Bloodaxe. It deserves a fuller review, which Write Out Loud will hopefully provide in due course.
I had come along as part of a family visit that had been arranged around this concert launch – and I wasn’t disappointed. Looking out through the Sage’s glass at the glistening big river rolling past, it was a view to match that of the Thames from the Royal Festival Hall in London ... if not surpass it.