By Martin Heslop and Helen Tookey.
To The End of Things is a narrative sequence of audio-visual poems begun during a residency at The Elizabeth Bishop House in Nova Scotia in September 2019. The work uses sounds recorded in Canada, films made in north-east England, early recordings of Nova Scotian Gaelic songs, and Martin and Helen’s writing. It was made in response to vivid, evocative land- and soundscapes on either side of the Atlantic, both still echoing with the remnants of industry, the marks it has left and the effect of its loss on the people that live there. Parts 1 – 5 were released by the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts (NCLA) in November 2020. The work is best experienced on headphones.
In September 2019, writer and composer Martin Heslop and poet Helen Tookey spent a two-week residency in Great Village, Nova Scotia, in the house where Elizabeth Bishop lived as a child. They wrote poems and prose pieces, fragments, notes. And they collected field recordings and sounds: waterfalls, rivers, cave-drips; crickets under pylons, in blueberry fields, by the shafts of old mines; the creaking and cracking of a wooden church during a hurricane; the harmonium and all the bells in the house; the turning mechanism of a lighthouse beam, abandoned radio-sets. They were recording the present and searching for possible futures, but also looking to summon the buried histories of the place.
Back home they made films, visiting and revisiting the Durham and Northumberland coast, Parys Mountain on Anglesey, South Gare on Teesside – places similarly scarred by the presence and now the loss of industry. Over the past year, they have been weaving these sounds into the films, creating new conversations, across the Atlantic Ocean.
Using sound and film, their poems and their voices, entwined with early recordings of Nova Scotian Gaelic songs gathered from the archives of the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University, Helen and Martin are creating a series of audio-visual poems – a narrative sequence – weaving together the experiences of a woman trying to navigate an uncertain and unfamiliar landscape, and the voice of a man who is of this place, but of a different time. This man is the draegerman of the mines, the rescuer, and he tells of the underground world he remembers, recalls voices of those he rescued and those he could not. They are both deciphering the landscape, coaxing it back into language.
Parts one to five were released in November 2020, with the second half of the story to follow in the New Year.
With thanks to NCLA, The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia, particularly Laurie Gunn; Jane Arnold at the Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University; and Liverpool John Moores University.
In Part 1 – ‘Se Ceap Breatunn Tir Mo Ghraidh’ was written and sung by Dan Alex MacDonald who was eighty-five when this recording was made in Framboise, Cape Breton in 1969. (Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University, reference T-107)
In Part 2 – ‘An Innis Àigh’ was written by Angus Y. MacLellan while he was the lighthouse keeper at Margaree Island Lighthouse. It was sung by Raylene Rankin and recorded in East Margaree in 1976 when Raylene was just fifteen. (Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University, reference T-1772)
In Part 4 – ‘Cumha Tìr A’ Ghuail’ was written by Angus MacFarlane and featured in Smeòrach nan Cnoc ‘s nan Gleann, a collection of Margaree poetry published in 1939. This recording is sung by Mary Margaret Maclean of Whycocomagh, Cape Breton. (Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University, reference T-2030)