by Katrina Porteous
with accompanying photographs by Nigel Shuttleworth
and paintings by James Dodds
is the last link of the chain
That stretches away to sea, to the horizon.
She is the ruled line.
The end of the line.
There is no reason."
Northumbrian coble was built for sail. Its lines developed
over many centuries to respond as economically and efficiently
as possible to sea and wind, and everything about it had a
purpose. Its characteristic shape, with its deep 'forefoot'
and flat bottom aft, developed in response to the need to
launch from sandy beaches. For centuries, Northumbrian and
Yorkshire cobles served as the distinctive craft of the inshore
fishing industry from Berwick to the Humber.
no new cobles are built in Northumberland. The introduction
of engines changed the age-old relation between boat and sea
forever, subtly altering the coble's lines and ultimately
rendering it obsolete. Now, with every year that passes, fewer
cobles remain. The Blue Lonnen is an elegy in words and pictures
for the last working examples of this lovely boat, and for
the traditions, culture and community which it embodied.
Introduction by Adam Nicolson
Katrina Porteous's sequence of poems in The
Blue Lonnen is set, as her life is, on the spare and beautiful,
long-limbed coast of Northumberland, facing the North Sea.
Lonnen is the Northumbrian word for a lane, and the Blue Lonnen
is a path, paved with the crushed mussel shells from long
ago bait, which leads down through the fishermen's huts to
the sea. At the end of it, until very recently, lay a boat,
a coble, built and shaped for that shore and those seas, but
which has now, after a long and honourable existence, been
abandoned and removed, taken away in the end to decorate some
distant caravan park. That abandonment is the subject of the
sequence, a long and connected elegy, songs sung at the death
of something precious, once treasured, now gone.
But the title has another meaning too: the blue
lonnen is the way of the fishermen themselves, the blue path
which finds its way through the alien world of the sea, both
the broken surface and the unseen floor, using as its guide
and for its marks the inheritance of generations, stretching
back a thousand years to the Viking invasions, and doubtless
In these poems, the two blue lonnens, that beautiful
net of inherited understanding and the path with its abandoned
coble, play against each other, marry each other and diverge:
one, still, in Katrina's hands dazzlingly alive with energy
and love; the other fading, forgotten, ashore, once the embodiment
of the seaways, now a thing of sadness and even shame.
The collusion and coexistence of these two elements
is what makes these poems beautiful. Like all elegies, they
draw their life both from the life they record and from its
ending. The poignancy and the heartbreak are inseparable from
the beauty with which the old and disappearing things are
seen and heard by the poet. It is of necessity an intensely
concrete, physical engagement. There is nothing soft or mushy
here; instead, something as felt and heard as the crunch of
teeth into a green apple. It is the world of precise curves
and the carefully located thing, beauty emerging from discipline
not its absence. The hard-drawn sea and the dune-backed beaches
are as fine here as the bones of a cormorant's skull. And
she dispels the idea, so often maintained, that people who
live and work in such circumstances are indifferent to beauty.
That is not true because beauty itself fully seen for
what it is is a guarantee of goodness. The bonny boat
is a boat that sails.
Of course elegy is not enough. We can all feel
the frisson of this wonderful language still being alive while
the things and the habits and the knowledge to which the words
were addressed, and by which they were formed, are shrinking
and failing beneath them. These poems are in that way a set
of tide lines, the pieces left stranded by the ebb. But still,
after all, something good has been lost and that good thing
is the human landscape of the fished-in sea, a world of hidden
banks and reefs, the unseen rock lifting the swells into steepening
surf, a knowledge in the fishermen, which exists only in their
minds, never written or drawn, of the sea-bed realities beneath
them. Those connected realities are forms of memory and transmitted
knowledge, as if understanding itself were a crab-creeve,
sounding in the inshore waters off this coast with no other
instrument but the mind.
No new cobles are being built in Northumberland.
The old ones are routinely destroyed, and where each coble
required a whole community to crew and maintain it, the fibreglass
work-boats which have replaced them are often manned by single
It is the loss of that connection and that shared
inheritance which these poems lament, an elegy for a world,
and more than that for a form of relationship with the world,
which is disappearing as Katrina watches. Clenched nails rust,
strakes spring apart and the beautiful figure-of-eight of
the hull a phrase and a visual understanding of the
essence of a boat which Katrina shares with Nigel Shuttleworth,
the photographer, and with James Dodds, the painter
loses the taut perfection first given it by the fairing eye
of its builder. His only guide had been what looked right,
shaping the timbers to a pre-imagined form. That is what has
gone and that is a loss which is unalterably sad.
Press Ltd 2007
140 x 210mm, 48pp
Hardback with Jacket: £10.