by Katrina Porteous
with accompanying photographs by Nigel Shuttleworth
and paintings by James Dodds
“She 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.”
The 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.
Today, 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 beyond that.
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 individuals.
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.
Jardine Press Ltd 2007
140 x 210mm, 48pp
Hardback with Jacket: £10.