Between Stations – Crossing the Tees

This June Crossing the Tees Book Festival returns for 2017! The library services for Stockton, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Redcar & Cleveland and Darlington are thrilled to once again present the Book Festival for the Tees Valley. As always, there will be something for all of the family to get involved with including plenty of talks, exciting events and kids activities.

On Monday 12th June you can see the first ever performance of poet, Andy Willoughby’s Between the Stations at Middlesbrough Central Library.

The multi media performance is based on Andy Willoughby’s critically acclaimed long poem Between Stations. Andy is on the train between Middlesbrough and Saltburn reflecting back to a journey he made to Siberia with Finnish beat poets whilst passing the remnants of the last steelworks of Teesside. It is a journey given added poignancy by his own survival from cancer.

Andy investigates what it means to be caught between stations in an existential as well as a physical way. A former poet laureate of Middlesbrough Andy has published several books of poetry that draw on local history, travel and mythologies both modern and ancient.

To find out a little bit more background I had a chat with Andy in the room he shares with fellow writer/lecturer Bob Beagrie, high up in Middlesbrough Tower in the University of Teesside.

Q: Can you tell me a bit of background about the Library event, please?

AW: I am performing a show based on my book, Between the Stations. I have been working on the show for a year with film maker Dan Perry and an English and a Finnish musician. So I have been working on it with Anton Flint and Masi Hukari, a Finnish Rockstar. They have composed me a soundtrack and I am performing with the soundtrack and the film for the evening.

I am also going to invite a couple of local poets along to read their travel poems.

Q: Why is it called Between Stations?

AW: Because it is about being between stations, literally. On two trains. It is about a long journey I made to Siberia years ago with the two Finnish poets Kalle and Esa (Hirvonen) to a literary conference in Siberia they invited me to out of the blue in a bar at 4 o’clock in the morning and I said I’d go and I went. (laughs..) It is about remembering that journey while going from Middlesbrough to Saltburn.

I got very interested that on a 25 minute journey you could remember a 6 day journey. Time is not as linear as you think. I did a shorter version of it but then Andy Croft said can you write a full book. And I said yes, of course I can. But it didn’t really come until the steel works closed down because when I was going through the steel works knowing that the blast furnace was finally closed that made it a lot more poignant. So, then the whole thing came together and I wrote the book which is just one long poem, really.

If I did the whole long poem for the show, my show would be 4 ½ hours long. To create the show we did an improvised version in the railway workers park in Helsinki. It was built by the unions. I did it in the bandstand there one afternoon. Massi, Ted and me went down and gave an improvised the performance for the whole book and that is how long it took. Their fingers were bleeding in the end ( Andy laughs).

I worked out what would work on its own for about a 45/50 minutes show.

Between Stations means more than that as well. I had just recovered from cancer when I wrote it. It is also that Catholic thing of being between the stations of the cross. But also the stations of being and nothingness, like the steel works. It was interesting with me riding through the entire history that had died.  But still being alive.

I didn’t know anything before I went to Siberia about the tribal peoples of Siberia but we went to this place called Khanty-Mansiysk where the Khanty and the Mansi still live. They are tribes that were recorded by the Romans so they are pre Roman, ancient tribes. They have a Finno-Ugrian language like the Finns and Estonians. Those languages came originally out of the Ural mountains, as did Hungarian. So there were professors there from all those countries.

There were also some Native Americans there. I met a really interesting Native American guy called Rocktree Boy. He has written one of the most famous Native American memoirs. They were really connecting with these tribal peoples of Siberia, with Shamanic religions that had all been suppressed under Stalin.

But when I got to Siberia I noticed there was Dorman Long written on the rail tracks. The Siberian railway is mostly Middlesbrough steel but not a lot of people know that because it has never been something celebrated. We have celebrated Sydney Harbour Bridge but we don’t celebrate the fact that we built the Trans Siberian Railway, or lots of it. So that felt synchronistic that I was there.

Also in my book (but not in my show) a couple of local English teachers kidnapped me from the conference and asked if they could abduct me with permission beyond the reach of the authorities. They took me round all the town and showed me poor bits of town and they took me to the sacred hill over the town, where the Ob and Irtysh rivers meet and flow into the Arctic.

On top of that hill was a huge steel monument, like a huge yurt, not called a yurt, it is a chum, like a wigwam. I asked what it was. They told me that is what Stalin built to celebrate the iron miners. I said, why? They said they were all Khanty and Mansi people but under communism they all got pulled off the land and shoved down the iron mines to work.

So, there I was all the miles from Eston, next to a hill, like Eston hills, that had been full of iron. The irony wasn’t lost on me.

But then I went to the top of the monument and from the top of the monument I could see for 10 000 miles in every direction across the Siberian Steppes, which was just amazing. In the distance was the taiga, the forest. It is not very difficult to see how a million people could disappear there.

Q: in the Wilderness?

AW: It is just endless. We cannot experience that in England anymore, maybe on North Yorks Moors you can sometimes see a vast, desolate landscape.

In my book I am chronologically going to the stations along our line and reflecting things in my head about, flashing back and forward. Flashbacks to the Siberian journey and being out in Siberia and meeting loads of people.

Q: So people going to this event..

AW: …They can go on my travels with me. They might recognise the journey from Middlesbrough to Saltburn but hopefully I will focus on a few historical things that they will find interesting. And on the ride to Siberia I was with these crazy Finn poets. So, it was really exciting. That part of the book has got lots of beat writing in it and it is comic and manic and to weigh up against the reflective, local stuff.

It is a balance; my show is funny as well. It is important to stress that there is lots of absurd comedy in it, even though I am taking quite a serious historical subject. There is no point in giving people a long, boring message. It is a mixture of humorous travelogue and full on poetic moments of remembering and history.

Q: And very much multimedia, too?

AW: Yes it is definitely multimedia definitely, with lots of angles, we talk about football and about iron and Bob Dylan. On the train I am talking to Bob Dylan because all I had with me on the train was Blonde on Blonde on cassette. I grabbed two things as I walked out the door, my Walkman but I forgot to take any other cassettes. And the only other thing I grabbed was William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.

On the train I have got the shades of Blake and Russian poet Mayakovsky and also Bob Dylan is following me around with his sunglasses on whispering in my ear every now and then. On a manic journey where we couldn’t really order anything except vodka, milk and dried bits of squid.

There was a translator with us for a bit but he fancied a girl on the train so he disappeared and we just had to get by with the Finns and the tiny bits of Russian the four of us had. It was hilarious.

Dan Perry did our MA but he has also got his own production company Dan Perry Productions.  He has made a few shorts and been to Cannes. I thought it would be really interesting to work with him. So Dan and me went to Finland and took a younger poet, Julie Egdell, who had done our MA. She is performing bits of her show that she has coming out later this year.

It was a good adventure and a proper collaboration. I took Dan to Finland to interview the Finnish poets, so I have got the giant heads of the Finnish poets talking behind me on the screen, as well as me talking. So, it is multi voiced, it is not just my voice. So, it is interesting, experimental, film, comedy, poetry travelogue.

It is the debut of my full work with the film, the finished show. I am putting in for an Arts Council grant to take it out nationally and internationally. I just did it in Estonia, not Eston! They loved it in Estonia, there were 20 000 people deported to Siberia in one night.

So, when I do it round here everyone is going to identify with the little journey through the steelworks and when I do it in Europe, we are the exotic bit and the part they understand is about Siberia train.

Q: And it is important here now because the steel works closure is still all too recent.

AW: It is on the nail. The first drafts were written when they had that temporary shut down a few years ago but it wasn’t enough for me to push it through as a full poem. Then I had cancer and recovered from it and the steel works were closed and with those two things I thought I have enough for a book now.

I am doing a play called Salamander Songs with two other writers. We have done lots of research with steel workers. We have written a play that also has some music by Anton Flint as well. That will be performed at Redcar on 9th and 10th June. We are doing it with Redcar Drama Lab. They are an organisation I helped to set up of former Teesside performing arts graduates trying to get their first experience. I helped them set up an organisation with MA graduate writers and playwrites and performing arts graduates and a few people from the community. I thought there was room for a local theatre company like that, that could help develop new plays. We did the Seaside Shorts Festival, the year before last with that group. There were about ten shorts by different writers, mentored by experienced writers.

On this play I have mentored the other two writers but we have all worked together and written a play and they are going to put it on 9th and 10th June, at Tuned In.

Q: A great venue within sight of the blast furnace.

AW: We are talking about looking at the empty black furnace. In the play three different men go down to look at the blast furnace, they can’t leave it alone after it has closed. And it tells their stories with their families.

The Salamander is referring to what the steel workers call what they put in the furnace in the first smelt and they leave in. The slag in the bottom. It is always in there. They never drain it out. It is what keeps the furnace hot. But it is impure. Then above that comes the ironstone, with coke on top and heat it up. The iron flows out and the salamander stays in.

I got fascinated by the idea that they called it a salamander, a fire lizard. I thought what if he was a character, with sentient abilities.

We have recorded some sections on film with the actor Bill Fellows playing the salamander. Then on stage our team of actors from Redcar Drama Lab will perform the play. But Bill has three monologues in it, which allows us to tell more of the tale. Then you see the way it affects three different steel workers. One has a flashback to the steel strike of 1980.

They left the salamander in this time at Redcar. To mothball it they have to take the salamander out. So, it can never be revived. The death of the salamander is the death of the steelworks.

It is a moment in history and you have to record it with art and interpret it. Hopefully the group can raise some money to take the play up and down the iron seam and maybe travel to other steel towns. Maybe abroad, linking to the rust belts of the world. On my project (Between Stations) I got an Arts Council grant to create the film and the show. I feel like it is important historical as well as artistic work.

I am asking a lot of questions in Between Stations like What becomes of us in these places? Who listens to us in these places? What is left of these places that made all the wealth, now the thing that made the wealth has gone? I am asking a lot of really hard questions and I am asking a lot of really hard questions about identity as well. Like who are we?

I was able to find parallels I wasn’t expecting to find between here and Russia. Thing about how the industrial revolution transformed the lives of all those people but also destroyed all the tribal lands. Then here it saved all these people who came in from the Empire, who were starving.

There is a lot of thought about identity, what Teesside identity is made of. All the steelworkers were telling me, especially the blast furnacemen, we didn’t care where anyone came from, anyone in that job has everyone else’s back. That is the most important thing. A lot of the original steel workers here came from Ireland.

I am not preaching. I am asking. What about this, what about that? I might be ranting but I am not preaching.

Between Stations Live – Monday 12th June

Performance starts 7pm. Cost £5

To book tickets online click here

Crossing the Tees Festival