Border Lines

From London to Berwick: Culture shock? Oh, yes!

Breasts, buildings, herrings – keeping it real

On a magazine rack recently I spotted a headline about a celebrity who’d decided to have her breast enlargement reversed. For a wild moment I imagined turning up at my GP and announcing that I’d like my tonsils and adenoids back. Oh, and my bunions, varicose veins, wisdom teeth and dodgy womb. Not really in the same league as a celebrity’s breasts, and not really procedures I’d want reversed. However, reversal isn’t always a bad thing.

“For a wild moment I imagined turning up at my GP and announcing that I’d like my tonsils and adenoids back.” 

In the 60s/70s a new town centre was conceived for Ipswich in Suffolk. Its centrepiece was a concrete tower called Greyfriars which was designed to be a shopping, commercial and residential hub – a town within a town – with 950 parking spaces. It was hated and reviled by just about everyone pretty much from the day the plans were revealed. As a schoolgirl I walked past it every day and mum parked there when we went on shopping trips. Later my buddies and I put on too much make-up and tried to get into Tracy’s nightclub which resided within Greyfriars’ concrete catacomb. Greyfriars never achieved full occupancy and by 1984, about 15 years after it opened, it was largely demolished and replaced by a grassy area. How lovely to be able to grass over the mistakes of yesteryear. But total reversal is seldom an option and the burrs of history always seem to linger and attach.

Greyfriars under construction. (East Anglian Daily Times)

Greyfriars shops and roundabout in Ipswich Suffolk (East Anglian Daily Times)

I was lucky enough to catch the recent production of Northeast playwright, Ann Coburn’s ‘Get up and Tie Your Fingers’ at The Maltings in Berwick. Coburn’s play encompasses themes of loss, female independence, rites of passage, and community through the lives and experience of three herring lasses. The turning point of the play is the Eyemouth disaster of 14 October 1881. From a fleet of 45 fishing boats only 25 made it home safely. One hundred and twenty nine men and boys drowned in the storm. Many boats reached the harbour, only to be swept past and onto the rocks. The waiting women were unable to reach their men but close enough to see them die.

Herring girls in ‘Get up and tie your fingers’: Jean (Barbara Marten) and her daughter Molly (Samantha Foley) (British Theatre Guide)

“Get up and tie your fingers: A dextrous portrayal of the sheer brutality and hard graft of life along the east coast.

The play is a dextrous portrayal of the sheer brutality and hard graft of life along the east coast. In those days the cry of, ‘Get up and tie your fingers!’ brought female gutting crews pouring to the harbour to greet cobles laden with herring. The women’s fingers would be ready wrapped in strips of cloth to protect them from the curing salt and the gutting knives as they prepared and packed the silver darlings. Coburn’s play is also a joyful and poignant celebration of a time when these resilient herring lasses were independent and free to travel when most women weren’t and it encapsulates the visceral connection between living on the coast and making a living from the sea. It is all the more powerful and personal because as it travels from Musselburgh down the coast to Hastings – taking in Cockburnspath, Berwick, Kings Lynn, Hartlepool, Hull, Grimsby, Great Yarmouth, Margate and Folkestone  – it is partnering with a local community choir in each town.

Herring girls in Berwick-upon-Tweed (Berwick Record Office – also see Mouth of the Tweed)

And the marvellous ‘Follow the Herring’ exhibition is going with it. At the Gymnasium Gallery in Berwick, a full-sized knitted coble formed the centrepiece with a network of quirky and colourful local art, crafts, information, and personal stories swirled around it like a wave of beautiful flotsam. If you happen to be in any of the places left on the tour I urge you to catch this wonderful package.

But, would we go back to those days? Perhaps to abundant herring and the sense of community and shared purpose. But to the hardship and uncertainty? Probably not. Nevertheless the ripples of those times will thankfully remain in these parts because these are the stories of real people living real lives.

(A version of this post was published in The Berwick Advertiser on June 5th 2014)

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From London to Berwick: Culture shock? Oh, yes!

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