Tuesday, 21 May 2019
Cees Nooteboom, a leading Dutch literary light, wrote a novel translated as ‘In the Dutch Mountains’. I heard that some culture vulture sought a copy in a bookshop over here and was directed by the assistant to the TRAVEL SECTION!
I’ve travelled a lot all over The Netherlands, sometimes with the help of awards from Northern Arts/Arts Council and The British Council, and there have been times, trundling over the endlessly flat polder landscape, that I’ve been just gagging for a mountain or two.
‘Flat', you might say, but not uninteresting if you've got an eye for detail - and that applies to the cultural scene as well as the landscape.
From the hectically cosmopolitan and fast talking Amsterdam to the windswept northern city of Groningen to the carnival atmosphere of Den Bosch in the south, I’ve travelled with poetry in my pocket to give a series of readings and to network madly with mad Dutch poets.
I’ve crashed down in a squat in the former Dutch Foreign Office in The Hague and read there in the basement of the ex-Intelligence Ministry. I’ve performed at three in the morning in the Cuckoo Club in Groningen where, in a sparse yet merry audience, an old hippie glared at me from a murky corner with a hamster in a cage on his knee. I’ve read in a Circus tent in Rotterdam on a Sunday afternoon accompanied by my folk-roots mates ‘The Whisky Priests’, a doped rhino eyeing us suspiciously from its cage as we unloaded our gear.
And then there was the night in Den Helder in a pub so full of drunks that even my Northumbrian Piper was heckled. That same trip, I shared the balcony of a bar with a large stuffed swan, bellowing out my poetry to the punters down below like a demented seagull. Oh and then there was the Beer Museum in Breda, crammed to the rafters with wild and drunken Brabantians on a barmy Sunday afternoon. They roared during the set by ‘The Whisky Priests’ and they roared during my poetry too, so much so that I lost my voice and had to collect it from behind the bar later.
And then there was Utrecht where I had my jacket stolen in a cafe before the gig, passport, bank card, air ticket, glasses, and all. After a visit to the Police Station, it was down to the venue where, after borrowing some reading glasses from a member of the audience, I took the stage in fighting form. The show must go on!
In Newcastle’s twin city of Groningen, a place I’ve come to love after 20 visits or so, I performed at the Werkman College at a poetry breakfast, part of Dutch National Poetry Day, and I can recall, one wet and windy day, bumping into a pack of Frisian farmers drunk as rats. ‘And what do you do?’ bawled one in my left ear. ‘I’m a poet!’ ‘A poet!’, he mocked, ‘we milk cows!’, demonstrating, graphically, with his fingers the milking technique. Must get myself a real job I thought.
There’s a marked difference between north and south. There are carnivals down south in a warm and Catholic spirit. North seems bleaker, even gloomy, though Groningen keeps going all night, as I know to my cost. But try the Den Bosch Carnival in February, which I’ve only just returned from, and you’ll see how crazy The Netherlands can be. The symbol of Den Bosch, just over the border from Belgium, is, of course, the frog. So watch out for mobs of blokes in green tights belting out ‘When the Saints’ on their trombones. Not surprising, therefore, that it’s the home town of the legendary Hieronymus Bosch whose statue peers down on the leaping Carnival revellers, including myself.
And as for Amsterdam, well all of life is there, the nether regions bared for all to see. One Groningen city poet told me that ‘they should bomb Amsterdam!’ Now that’s real national rivalry for you! Yet to me it has a magic - just stay a few times on a Prinsensgracht canal boat or in a mice-ridden tiny-staircased flat or in the dowdy Hotel Utopia reeking of dope, as I have done, and you’ll know what I mean. Or take a jar or two at my Amsterdam local ‘The Karpershoek’, across the street from the throbbing Central Station, and you’ll mix with typical moustached Amsterdammers and Ajax fans, as well as New York cops on holiday rubbing truncheons with re-invading German tourists, guys from Bolton in search of cheap viagra, artists chewing the latest postmodernist cud, sweaty bricklayers, and sweaty social workers - well, and the odd crazy poet too.
So you can sense that my study of Dutch culture has been pretty thorough and, of course, ongoing, with plans for me to be back there for more readings. But it’s not one way traffic - poets and musicians from Groningen have performed in Newcastle and Groningen official city poets have visited here for readings and meetings with Newcastle’s Lord Mayor, as have teachers from the Dutch city's Werkman College. Well, it’s what twinning’s all about, isn’t it?!
Extracts from poems:
I was flown by a Dutchman through a Starry Sky
across the polluted Sea.
I was twinning in a different land
with a song book in my hand.
The train tore across the frozen dykes
as the old town swarmed with bikes
and I thought of Vincent scraping spuds
and Rembrandt spitting blood.
This dark Carnival of frogs and trombones,
leaps from the graves of beggars and cripples;
this dualist fantasy,
this Oeteldonk nightmare,
where even the sewer rats dance
and the River Dieze drinks to high heaven.
I once saw a man who looked like you,
staring at me like a hag of a gargoyle
at the bar of the Bonte Palet.
He was a dribbling grotesque,
the kind you find among the monsters and workmen astride St. Jan’s.
A member, no doubt, of Our Lady’s Brotherhood,
he lived in a dream world,
a glutton for punishment,
ogling a lusty Brabant girl
with his popping, panting, eyes.
He was throwing genevers down his throbbing canal,
drinking at the confluence of Dommel and Aa;
he had brown paint on his hands so I knew it was you,
Master of Alla Prima.
You feed off tourists
on floodlit transparencies
broken by rippling houseboats.
You stay drifting in memories of the Indies;
a small piece of momentary beauty,
prettier than Amsterdam,
more shapely than Holland;
a true Swan
of the World.
In the Hotel Utopia,
we’re as happy as mortal sin.
You can hear an old man crying
through the City din.
There’s a tap that’s always dripping,
and walls that are paper-thin,
and, in this Hotel Utopia,
we’re really dreaming.
Tuesday, 7 May 2019
statue of poet ludwig uhland - photo by peter dixon
The partnership with County Durham and the City of Tuebingen in South Germany was established in 1969.
Poet Doctor Keith Armstrong, who gained his doctorate at the University on Durham in 2007, following on from Bachelor's and Master's degrees there, first visited Tuebingen in November 1987 to give readings and talks for a period of three weeks. Since then he has travelled to the city some 40 times and helped arrange for Durham and North East poets, musicians and artists and their counterparts in Tuebingen to visit their respective cultural twins.
TO HELP CELEBRATE THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE OFFICIAL TWINNING, KEITH WILL RETURN TO TUEBINGEN FROM JULY 3RD TO 7TH 2019 AT THE INVITATION OF THE CULTURAL OFFICE IN TUEBINGEN WHEN HE WILL APPEAR AT THIS YEAR’S BOOK FESTIVAL TO READ FROM HIS LATEST TUEBINGEN POETRY AND FROM THE TUEBINGEN/DURHAM LITERARY ANTHOLOGY ‘WORD SHARING’ (WITH GERMAN TRANSLATIONS RENDERED BY CAROLYN MURPHEY MELCHERS).
HE WILL TRAVEL WITH NORTHUMBRIAN PIPER CHRIS ORMSTON AND WILL BE JOINED BY TUEBINGEN PERFORMERS AND FRIENDS FOR THE OCCASION.
-- Mi. 3.7.19: Cafe Piccolo / Affenfelsen: Auftaktveranstaltung zu "50 Jahre Partnerschaft Tübingen - Durham" mit ACOUSTIC STORM, Keith Armstrong und piper Chris Ormston (Durham) und Akkordeonspieler Peter Weiss (Tübingen), 19 Uhr
-- Fr. 5.7.19: Kulturhalle: Tübinger Bücherfest mit Keith Armstrong und piper Chris Ormston, 21 Uhr
From poet Tom Hubbard: Well done Keith! You've achieved a lot there and back at base. Keep me posted with your work and travels!
HERMANN HESSE IN THE GUTTER
Tübingen Poems (1987 to date)
In this unique poetry selection, poet Keith Armstrong from the North East of England reflects on over thirty years of visiting Durham’s twin city of Tübingen in Baden-Würtemburg.
Armstrong worked for six years as a Community Arts Development Worker in East Durham and studied at the University of Durham for fifteen years, culminating with his doctoral award in 2007.
In his youth, he travelled to Paris to seek out the grave of poet Charles Baudelaire and he has been making cultural pilgrimages abroad ever since. He has toured to Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Poland, Iceland (including readings during the Cod War), Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Ireland, Spain, Sweden, Czech Republic, The Netherlands, Cuba, Jamaica and Kenya.
His poetry has been translated into Dutch, German, Russian, Italian, Danish, Icelandic and Czech.
These poems reflect his love of Tübingen and the friends he has made there.
‘Now we are all able to read these poems. We are happy that Keith Armstrong has realised a long nourished idea with this unique publication. It shows the attraction and radiance which Tübingen has with a sensitive visitor from far away and it shows the liveliness of our connection with our English twin County Durham in the domains of words and music.’
‘This poet is someone who in his biography and work inseparably unites wit and long gained knowledge, enthusiasm and great talent, pluck and social commitment....This is a man who conquers, with his poems and charms, pubs as well as universities. He has always been an instigator and an actor in social and literary projects, an activist without whom the exchanges between the twin towns of Durham and Tübingen would be a much quieter affair.’
‘Different poets have different triggers to set off poetic imagination and a main one for him is finding himself in a city street and invoking great spirits who once lived, loved and drank there. This unique publication brings together poems written over twenty years in this 'special town'. I almost think he has earned consideration for a Keith-Armstrong-Strasse - and he is the ideal subject for a civic statue!’
PRICE £5 ISBN 1 871536 23 5
ORDERS (ADD £1.50 POSTAGE PER COPY) TO: NORTHERN VOICES COMMUNITY PROJECTS, 35 HILLSDEN ROAD, WHITLEY BAY, TYNE & WEAR NE25 9XF, ENGLAND. TEL 0191 2529531.
INTRODUCTION TO KEITH'S BOOK:
People warn you against the profession of poet,
Also against playing the flute, the drums, the violin,
Because riffraff of this sort
So often tend toward drinking and frivolity.
I first visited Durham’s twin city of Tübingen to give a series of poetry readings for three weeks in November 1987.
I proceeded to fall in love with the place.
Having now been there over thirty times and written all of these poems about it, I am still trying to work out just what it is, what peculiar magic, that draws me back.
Gunter Grass once said that ‘In Germany you’re always noticing how present the past is’ - and he, especially in the light of recent events, should know.
A lot of that past is ugly, we all know that. Just visit the memorial on Gartenstrasse to the burning down of the synagogue on Kristallnacht to remind yourself. And, of course, the Wall is down, its loss followed inevitably by all the grand schemes and tragedies that grow in its great shadow.
Yet, in Tübingen, I have always detected the lovely whiff of beauty.
I have found it all over town - in the glint of a girl’s hair, in the light on The Neckar, in the sweep of cobbled streets, in the trill of the blackbirds on Corrensstrasse, even in the candlelight of a favourite bar 'The Boulanger’.
Of course, it’s a university city, ‘a town on a campus’ some have said, and that gives it a somewhat ‘bookish’ air, which I have found inspiring - and not only because I have been a guest poet at its Bücherfest on a few occasions.
The ghost of Hegel stalks The Boulanger’ still, the young Hesse’s boots clatter up Lange Gasse at night, Hölderlin slips by in a ‘poetry boat’ - and, yes, Goethe continues to puke here!
I have ‘crashed’ all over Tübingen’ - under the old beams of Lange Gasse 18 (‘The Old Slaughterhouse’) with the church bells clanging in my brain; in a lonely basement on Gartenstrasse, in an idyllic hillside villa - and I always head back for more.
I have performed my poetry on a poetry stroll along the river and into town, as well as in the Castle, the University, the Public Library, in the Uhland and Kepler Gymnasiums, behind the Church, at an Erotic Cabaret, a Poetry Slam, in the Club Voltaire, in bars all over town, from a punt on the river, in the Hölderlin Tower, the Hesse-Haus, the D.A.I, the Jazz Kellar, at the nearby Theatre Lindenhof, on regional radio - still I can’t get enough!
I can remember bowling round the town with poet Julia Darling and finding a bag of coat hangers in a shop doorway, then walking into an art gallery through its open window and giving out the coat hangers in question to a bemused crowd at an exhibition opening before we left, minus coat hangers, through the window again. They all thought that this was ‘a happening’! I suppose it was, in a way.
I have joined in with the mania of the annual Stockerkahnrennen boat race in the heat of June, wandered through trees along the Platanenallee with a lovely lady, and slid drunk along Tuebingen gutters in white winters. I have seen this twinned place in all its moods and seasons, shared its glories with a bizarre selection of poets and musicians from Durham and North East England and, all the while, arranged literary exchanges, with a range of Tübingen poets and musicians visiting Durham, culminating in a unique joint anthology ‘Word Sharing’ published by the Kulturamt in 2007.
Many’s the time I’ve enjoyed lunch at the Wurstküche or Neckarmüller with Margit, Carolyn and Karin, shared a glass with the lyrical poet Uwe Kolbe in Weinhaus Beck and sat under the tree with the stalwart Otto Buchegger, sipped ale with rocking Jürgen and mates in the Cafe Piccolo, indulged in literary breakfasts with talented young poets, savoured fine wines and dinners with Carolyn, Christoph and Carmen at Corrensstrasse 45. The list, my friends, is endless.
I have measured out my life in Tübingen days and here are the poems to prove it. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have enjoyed living, breathing and singing them.
See you again soon - back in The Boulanger’! Have the drinks waiting for me!
Dr Keith Armstrong.
Like a sunflower my soul has opened wide,
In love and hope. Oh spring,
What is your will, when shall
My thirst be satisfied?
I see the cloud drifting, the river flowing,
And deep into my veins I feel
The golden kisses of the sun are going;
My eyes, bound by a spell,
Are drunken and seem to slumber...
Oh, does my heart not know
What memories it weaves
Into the twilight of the gold-green leaves?
The nameless days of long ago!
For the record, here's a list of those who have made it happen so far:
Tuebingen visitors to Durham since 1987:
Carolyn Murphey Melchers, Karin Miedler, Gerhard Oberlin, Uwe Kolbe, Johannes Bauer, Eva Christina Zeller, Simone Mittmann, Florian Werner, Juergen Sturm, Mary Jane, Wolf Abromeit, Christopher Harvie, Eberhard Bort, Marcus Hammerschmitt, Henning Ziebritzki, Andy and Alessandra Fazion Marx, Otto Buchegger, Tibor Schneider, Sara Hauser, Anna Fedorova, Yannick Lengkeek, Manuela Schmidt, Florian Neuner, Andrea Mittag, Matthias Kaiser.
Durham visitors to Tuebingen since 1987:
Keith Armstrong, the late Michael Standen (Colpitts Poetry), the late Julia Darling, Andy Jackson, Fiona MacPherson, Katrina Porteous, Marie Little, Ian Horn (Colpitts Poetry), the late Alan C. Brown, Linda France, Jackie Litherland (Colpitts Poetry), Cynthia Fuller, Margaret Wilkinson, Jez Lowe, the late Jack Routledge, Gary Miller, Matthew Burge, David Stead, Hugh Doyle, Peter Dixon, Paul Summers.
FURTHER INFORMATION: NORTHERN VOICES COMMUNITY PROJECTS TEL. 0191 2529531.