My cultural touchstone is My Mother on a Seat Outside a Hospital by Peter Sansom. It’s a poem that tells the story of the death after an accident of Peter’s mother’s first husband, the man she was married to before Peter’s father. After the accident it takes the man “days to die” in hospital, but on the last day, prompted by a “sixth sense”, Peter’s mother and her sister, who are “young women, girls they call themselves”, get up too early for the bus and walk for twelve miles to the hospital to visit him outside the normal visiting hours, setting off in the dark and arriving in the daylight. When they get to the hospital though it is still very early and Peter’s mother and her sister are too shy (“young women, girls they call themselves”), despite being grown women with children, to cause a fuss, or ask for special treatment by “bothering anyone so early.” So instead they sit and wait on a bench outside, while inside:
dies on a ward already awake
that she might have visited after all.
It’s a great poem, and my favourite poem. Every time I read it I find something new both in how it is written and what it means and connects to. But what I think connects it to the north is literal. It was written by Peter Sansom, who lives and works in the north. Peter has been writing, editing and publishing poetry in Huddersfield and Sheffield for more than 25 years, and he is the editor of a poetry magazine called ‘The North’ , which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. ‘The North’ isn’t about The North though, it is about whatever is printed on its pages, poems written in and about anywhere in Britain, and the world. But Peter’s skill, energy, learning and generosity created a centre of poetry reading, writing and publishing in England that was located first in Huddersfield then Sheffield. His skill and generosity as an editor and creative writing teacher has probably helped thousands of new writers to find their voice over the last 25 years, not least Simon Armitage, who learned how to write, and wrote much of his fantastic first book ‘Zoom!’ in creative writing workshops run by Peter. I don’t know if those thousands of writers share a northern voice – I can see that they might do, drawing on common experience – but I do know that having a centre like that in the north was a lot more convenient to get to on the train. Peter would have created ‘The North’ if he’d lived in Southampton. I just thank my lucky stars he went to Huddersfield Poly and stayed in the town for the next 20 years.
Whether we have one or many centres is something that maps directly onto the political, economic, social and cultural geography of Britain, and that question connects My Mother on a Seat Outside a Hospital with what I almost chose as my cultural touchstone, which is Access Space’s graphic novel Grow Your Own Media Lab . Access Space is a media lab in the centre of Sheffield that re-uses second hand computers, along with open source software, to make a welcoming space for sharing knowledge and skills, and for using technology creatively: “networked technologies only truly empower when they enable people to create. To do this without boundaries people may need to repair, re-engineer and re-imagine technology”.
Grow Your Own Media Lab is the story of a place, and a way of working, and it has influenced people in the UK and worldwide, not least Brazil, to set up their own media labs following the same principles. It only takes half an hour to read, cover to cover, and even if you aren’t planning to open a media lab, it’s a great introduction to technology as a space for what Lisa Roberts from We Love Technology calls “creative misuse”, a space that anyone can play around in. Once you’ve read it, even the copyright notice at the start will be a revelation, and how many books can you say that about? Grow Your Own Media Lab, like My Mother on a Seat Outside a Hospital, says that we can have as many centres as we want, we just need to make them.