Eggs from chickens at Nene Valley Boats
Quiet, aren’t we? That’s because we’ve actually been doing some work instead of just messing about on the river. After our trips together in May by narrowboat, canoe and on foot, we’ve had a few weeks of reflection and first-draft creativity.
Each of the three Jos – storyteller, poet and visual artist – has been doing her own research to feel her way into our collaboration, ready for our first performances in October and November (of which more later). Visual artist Jo Dacombe has been back on the banks of the Nene with photographer Kate Dyer, foraging for ideas and images which will inform her input to the performance. Jo Blake has been doing lots of research.
Bleary-eyed birders at 5am
For me (Jo Bell) the writing itself has brought good meaty challenges. When this project was first mooted as ‘a journey in the footsteps of nature writer “BB”‘ I had some qualms. I like to be outdoors, but I’m no nature writer. An archaeologist by trade, I expected my contribution to be more about heritage and landscape. But a dawn chorus walk with poet/birder Matt Merritt turned into a small epiphany. As Jo Blake and I talked about ways into our performance, we were often drawn back to birds.
For Jo Blake, birds unlock a wealth of story-telling traditions; skeletons on which to build stories about the Nene. For me, they give me voices to inhabit, or moments on which to focus my poems. In the voice of a kingfisher or heron or even an egg, I can interrupt Jo’s fluid, river-like narrative with short interjections and refrains. Now that my own boat Tinker is on the move again, I have plenty of raw material flitting about on the canal bank or quacking noisily outside the front door. I’m also reading up on Northamptonshire dialect – how many of you know what half sharp or ikey mean, what it is to chelp, or what an eckle or a fligger are? I now know the gestation period for a heron in the egg. I know how very dull is that great work of the fourth Lord Lilford, Notes on the Birds of Northamptonshire and Neighbourhood. But the results are starting to appear. Here’s a fragment of a poem about…. which bird?
….A run, a zip, a scoot, a zoom, a crossbow shot
a firebrand, a sting, a dash, a nip, a sprint;
the river’s knuckle-duster flashes its little fist,
comes cherry-knocking at the door of dusk –
and you, open-mouthed as a fish on the hook:
no-one there when you look.
The show (called Riverlands) will not be all about birds and creatures. There is plenty of human interest, and at least one rather rude poem about anglers. But because the material is unusual for me, I’ve been pushed into experimenting with new forms and styles. In late July I spent a week with other writers at Lumb Bank, and tested out the piece which I hope will open the show. It wasn’t, as you might say, fully fledged. But I felt the crack of an egg, and something inside it struggling to get out.
Our timetable has changed slightly owing to circumstances beyond our control. We will definitely be touring next spring and summer, but the scheduled autumn performances may be delayed. Keep them pencilled in for now – we hope to perform at Aldwincle Church, Northants on Saturday 29th October (evening) and Sunday 30th October (4pm): and then at the Fishmarket, Northampton on Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th November. More info soon!