The perennial danger of the small town literary festival is that it takes place solely within the confines of a conference centre / tent / town hall or other academic / municipal space. However well-advertised, accessible (geographically, financially) and welcoming, there is always then a potential for division between inside and outside. This becomes pronounced at Shorelines, which took place in Leigh-on-Sea Community Centre earlier this month, as a succession of speakers, poets, writers and performers – Iain Sinclair, Robert Macfarlane and Ken Worpole among them – discuss their various personal relationships with the sea and the shore. It all just makes you want to get outside! Thank goodness then for Justin Hopper’s Public Record: Estuary project, which finally gets us out and about on a dark, damp Southend evening.
Organised by publicly funded commissioning and artist residency body, Metal, Shorelines launched in 2011 as the first festival focused exclusively on sea-themed writing. The festival’s return to Southend-on-Sea for 2013 is curated by artist and writer Rachel Lichtenstein and launches with a Friday-night performance by Caroline Bergvall, which leaves visitors for the rest of the weekend buzzing with excitement. Unfortunately, we only arrive on the Saturday morning, fresh from a misty flat train trip from Fenchurch Street station. We’re also unable to return for the Sunday, which features some of the best speakers. Oh well…
Saturday’s speakers are all interesting enough in their own right. Chris Schuler gives a potted introduction to ocean navigation techniques of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (portolan charts, rhumb lines, Gerard Mercator and Jodocus Hondius); Sam Llewellyn tells of the motivations behind his founding of The Marine Quarterly – namely to look at the sea from the sea without resorting to trivialising it as ‘mere’ metaphor; writer Travis Elborough gives a popular history of seaside towns; and TV presenter Philip Hoare discusses the power of whales, and the possibility (floated by the likes of Harold Whitehead) that they not only have language, but a sense of self, and even religion.
Impenetrably inward-looking, it feels like
psychogeography as family holiday slide-show.
Highlights at this stage come in the form of a powerful and innovative eco-performance piece by Ruth Little of Cape Farewell, in which the dramaturg utilises the six motions of a ship – surge, yaw, roll, pitch, heave, sway – to explore the poetry and tragedy in our oft-exploitative relationship with the sea. “How do we value what we’ve already lost?” she asks, highlighting at the same time “the tragedy of the commons, when open sea means open access”.
Likewise, Mikhail Karikis’ account of the research process behind his film installation SeaWomen (on show at the same time upstairs) provides a genuinely fascinating insight into the lives of elderly Korean female pearl-divers and their special breathing technique known as sumbisori. “Each I is also a we at the same time,” he says: “a self already in relation.”
An evening of patchy poetry follows – from which the inventive, bowler-hatted brilliance of Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl stands out in the memory – and culminates in a rare live performance of Swandown. Back in 2011, Andrew Kotting and Iain Sinclair pedalled a white plastic swan over 160 miles from the Hastings coast to the canals of Hackney. It’s a project I’ve been keen to see for some time, but it’s sadly disappointing, with little, it seems, to say about the specificity of place, or the power of ritual, or the purpose of such a journey, or any of the things that it might have touched upon. Impenetrably inward-looking, it feels like psychogeography as family holiday slide-show. Kotting and Sinclair’s aimless on-stage pottering comes across as one of the more self-regarding of spectacles.
A more inclusive engagement with place comes in the form of Justin Hopper’s Public Record: Estuary, now available for free download. The work features contributions from a range of other poets such as Stuart Bowditch, Syd Moore, and local Southend band Lost Harbours. It’s an elegantly conceived collage of sundry tales and texts (nineteenth century newspaper obituaries, fisheries reports, Richard Jefferies) spliced together with contemporary poetry to form a kind of stratified archive of death and industry and the swelling unknowable violence of the sea.
From “St Clement’s honest cobbles” (rain-greased and treacherous) past dark-glowing pubs (the Mayflower and Ye Olde Smack), and up flights of wooden stairs, we’re led through Leigh in the dark and the cold. From across the estuary – a litter of assorted boats and buoys – light threads in long low lines, dividing charcoal sea from sky. As the moon hangs high above, a scuffle of clouds drifts swiftly by. “Wreathes of sea lavender”; “an ancient road mender”; “a light burning on the forestay”. Outside the Community Centre at last: where past lives flicker and twitch, rich with the language of locality and industry – going soon, or not long gone.