Friday, 14 November 2014

Don't make a scene

Back in 2011/2012, I put on a series of shows in Oxford with Rob St John under the name Adventures Close to Home.

The gigs were mostly all ages, with touring artists and local supports, often in unusual settings (usually art galleries and churches). 

This month Rob, along with Bartholemew Owl (who promotes gigs in Edinburgh under the name The Gentle Invasion), will publish Don't Make a Scene, a how-to zine detailing everything you need to know to put on DIY, underground gigs in your town or city (or village - there is an article on promoting gigs in smaller towns or rural spaces).

DMAS has contributions from a number of DIY promoters from around the UK: Glasgow, London, Bristol, Sheffield, Newcastle and many more. These contributions cover all the nitty gritty of promoting, from how to write a budget, to what you need to know about licensing law and even a beginners guide to sound engineering.

Based on my experiences with ACTH in Oxford, I'm honoured to have contributed a section on how to publicise DIY gigs - the 'promoting' part of promotion, covering posters, web publicity, ticket sales etc. The zine is absolutely fantastic. It's a huge treasure trove of information, and a beautiful object too: riso printed on recycled paper, with pictures from a range of talented illustrators throughout. 

You can read more about Don't Make a Scene here, and order a copy for only £5 including delivery here.
A selection of posters for ACTH gigs

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Humberhead Levels: my talk at the Tetley

Last month I spoke at the Lots of Planets Have a North launch at the Tetley, Leeds (as mentioned here). I read a shorter version of my piece in LOPHAN. The event was great - the audience were lovely, the hosts were wonderful and the other talks were fascinating. And my mum came! Which is a nice benefit of events being in Leeds. I have a feeling the publication has sold out, but you can read the abridged version of my contribution, on the Humberhead Levels, below.

Claire Biddles & Emma Jackson introduce the publication; Tessa Norton's 'At home he's a tourist'; and me on the Humberhead levels. I stole these pictures from Claire's twitter.

"Where I'm from is not commonly included in the Yorkshire canon, and it has never been part of our county's iconography. It's not the rolling pale-gold-and-green York stone of the Dales, nor the crags and chimneys, satanic mills and dark valleys of the Pennines, those black terraces clinging tenaciously to wet rock. Neither is it the stolid (often dismissed as grim) smoky post-industrial coal and steel of Sheffield, Rotherham and Barnsley, though it is closest to these in both geography and spirit.

My part of Yorkshire is sparse and wet, flat and low. It's predominantly agricultural; a landscape of ploughed mud, cut deep with long straight dykes and dotted by clay villages huddled close to the earth. It's peaty and damp, an endless horizon punctuated by bulrushes, pylons, orphaned scraps of woodland, looming cooling towers (so many cooling towers!) and an abundance of windmills. Largely below sea level, our fields rise and sink only faintly. Lakes and puddles pool where farmers wish they wouldn't. In summer we are green on green on green, and in winter we are brown-grey mire under white-grey sky.

This is a Yorkshire of mud, not of stone. Our homes are clay built, and occasionally (as with mine) sit next to the waterlogged pits they were dug from. Our journeys are flat and thick with slowing sods. My childhood memories are made up of thick clags of clay, a matter that sucks you in until your boots are stuck fast and you need to be rescued, or builds up around your feet until they are as big as footballs and as heavy as anvils.

The soggy ecology of this place is evident in our toponyms:
Gilberdyke, Swinefleet, Yokefleet;
Fishlake, Fenwick, Trumfleet;
Sykehouse, Ferrybridge, Barmby-on-the-Marsh.

Spittlerush, Rushymoor, Thorpe Marsh;
Willow Bridge, Clay Lane, Flaxfleet;
Sour Lane, Between Rivers, Ings.

The suffix –carr (Bessacarr, Fen Carr, Balby Carr, Wrancarr, Potteric Carr, Flashey Carr, and so on) typifies the region. Carr is of Old Norse origin, and means wooded fen or swamp. Ecologically, this part of Yorkshire is similar to The Fens that sit to the south, yet with a more northerly climate and a more northerly culture. As the southerly swampy regions are commonly called The Fenlands, if we were better known, perhaps outsiders would refer to our northern swamp as The Carrlands.

Despite its cultural invisibility, this low, wet region of northern England is not some small local anomaly. This distinctive environment is about 800 square miles, a vast area of South and North Yorkshire and a good portion of North Lincolnshire too, yet our culture and environment remain largely unknown outside of our sludgy boundaries.

Once the bed of a huge glacial lake, this is a unique and important English ecosystem. It is, in fact, only thanks to ecologists that we have a regional moniker at all: to those interested in English ecology, this expansive low region of Yorkshire is called the Humberhead Levels. To everyone else, it doesn’t exist.

As a child, I’d flick excitedly through travelogues and books of regional recipes and folklore, keen to find out more about the history and legend of my home. Disappointed, I’d put them back as they skirted from the East Anglian Wash to the moor and dale of North Yorkshire as if nothing existed in between.

Unlike most travel and regional writers, Daniel Defoe, in his famously detailed 18th century Tour Through England and Wales, at least justifies his decision to bypass the Humberhead Levels entirely: “[T]ravelling into these parts being difficult, and sometimes dangerous, especially for strangers, we contented our selves with having the country described to us... and with being assured that there were no towns of note, or anything to be called curious.”

If you’d like to view these “difficult and dangerous” parts on a map, they stretch eastward from the line of the A1 Great North Road, and northward from Retford up to the York satellites of Escrick and Sherburn-in-Elmet, with an eastern boundary at the source of the Humber estuary.

Although predominantly agricultural land, the Humberhead Levels encompasses the relatively small urban agglomerations of Selby, Goole and Doncaster. These are the kind of unremarkable towns rarely visited by outsiders. There will be a local department store recently closed or clinging to life, a New Look but not a Blackwell’s. Most Humberhead Levellers live not in these towns, but in villages scattered between with angular Norse names: their homes bordered on all sides by ponds, canals, rivers and dykes.

The Humberhead Levels also covers those parts of North Lincolnshire surrounding Scunthorpe and the Isle (an island no longer) of Axeholme. In my heart and forever, these Lincolnshire areas are northern climes: ecologically and culturally indistinguishable from their Yorkshire cousins, this part of the world is well north of Sheffield, yet because of its postcode is often (and in my opinion wrongly) consigned to the Midlands.

Much like the fens of Cambridgeshire and East Anglia, our swamp-and-lake environment has now been almost entirely drained. The beginnings of this mammoth drainage effort were made in the 1600s, the first in England by Cornelius Vermuyden, the Dutch engineer more famous for his latter works reforming the East Anglian fens.

This expansive 17th century drainage project went hand in hand with enclosure, social unrest, riots, violence and murder. Ancient villages were flooded to create lucrative agricultural lands. Sluces and banks were sabotaged, and Dutch drainage workers and commoners alike were killed.

As with the wider patterns of enclosure, by the 19th and early 20th century the political push for drainage had become more organised, and with a series of Drainage Acts, the trammelled Levels landscape was formed. Nowadays Windmills – used, Dutch style, to power pumps in the great drainage efforts – are still a common landscape feature, hulking awkwardly and uselessly in people’s gardens, bulky reminders of the struggle to civilise the watery landscape.

In the populace too, ghosts of that old otherness arise, and anarchism and obduracy remain. In 2007, when extensive floods deluged a Levels area north of Doncaster, the local narrative eerily mirrored the (widely unknown) events of the tumultuous 1600s. Angry local residents were convinced, despite little proof, that the powers that be had purposefully surrendered their homes to the water, in order to protect recent investments in expensive new civic buildings.

This is a political edgeland, and has been since over a millennium ago – as far back as AD600 we were the soggy, porous, inhospitable margin between ancient Northumbria and Mercia, unclear as to which kingdom we belonged. It was a decisive ancient battleground, the original Penda’s Fen. We’re still liminal now, an odd boundary set between north and south, defiant, proudly unglamourous and largely content to be unknown."

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Lots of planets have a North launch at the Tetley, Leeds

Image courtest of Kate Dunstone, who designed the book

Lots of planets have a North, the anthology of writing and art about the north of England that I mentioned in this post, is going to be out very soon.

To celebrate the book's launch there will be an event at the Tetley gallery in Leeds next Friday (the 26th September), which will run from 5 to 7pm.

The Tetley contemporary arts gallery in Leeds
There will be a series of talks from a number of contributors to the book, including (but not limited to) myself, artist Claire Biddles, urban geographer Emma Jackson, photographer Casey Orr and one of my oldest friends and favourite writers Tessa Norton. I'm going to be talking about Yorkshire's most overlooked landscape, the Humberhead Levels, and the others will cover a huge range of topics encompassing everything from teenage hairstyles to bus cannibalism.

Come along! The event is free, the talks will be fascinating, and if you haven't been to the Tetley yet it's a great gallery and well worth a visit.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Historical Animal Geographies at the RGS

Hagenbeck's Tierpark, a revolutionary approach to captive animals, as told by Jan-Erik Steinkrüger. Picture courtesy of

Last week I attended the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society, where I presented in a session called "Historical animal geographies: tracking traces in the archive". The session, which was convened by two geographers from Edinburgh University (Ben Garlick and Julian Baker), was all about the difficulties that geographers interested in animals have when dealing with events in history. This is because most historical sources aren't really interested in the life courses and fates of the animals they touch upon, so archival records of animal lives are always patchy at best.

Many of the presentations talked about different sources for animal geographers who are interested in getting a historical perspective on the human relationship with, or life courses of, long-gone animals. My presentation was one of these, looking at the ways in which we can use cattle society herd books to tell the geographical stories of cattle moving around the world and how their lives, environments and physical characteristics have changed over time. Unusually for me, I did the presentation as a Powerpoint, which means I can't now share it online. I do however intend to get around to converting it to Prezi and putting it up here and on, so watch this space.

In lieu of that, I'm going to do something I haven't done on this blog before: that is, I'm going to talk about other people's research instead of my own. The entire animal geographies session was so interesting that I'd like to share a little bit about all the presentations I saw, with a link to the people that presented, so any readers interested in animal geographies can learn more about these fascinating stories. So, in no particular order, here are a selection of academic studies of animal geographies that you may find interesting - I know I did.

First off, Ben and Julian who thought up and convened the session. Ben's presentation talked about the reintroduction of Ospreys to Scotland, focusing on the human interventions of nest building. This gave a fascinating example of the intimate ways in which humans and these wild birds interact, plus really interesting revelations about the role of nest building in Osprey culture. Julian's presentation on the other hand looked at the role played by elephants in colonial India, reminding us of the important part played by animals in human politics.

A wide range of animals were covered in the session, including fish. John Clayton of Cardiff University told us the life-and-death story of Clarissa, a record-breaking carp that was caught in the South of England in 1952, then lived out the rest of her life (until the 1970s) in the London Zoo. Another fascinating zoo story came from Jan-Erik Steinkrüger of Bonn University, who explained the Victorian shift from the taxonomic display of zoo animals in cages toward the use of fake panoramas (complete with ha-has and hidden fencing) planned to look like the animals' natural habitat. I have used a picture Jan-Erik shared of perhaps the first of these modern-style zoos, Hagenbeks Tierpark, to illustrate this post.

Edward Cole, from the University of Glasgow, used esoteric journal The Oologists' Record to frame a fascinating talk about the role of egg collecting in early 20th century conservation, and Jana Sprenger of Georg-August-Universität Göttingen went further back in time to talk about the fight against wolves in pre-industrial Germany. Last, but not least, was a charming and interesting paper by Philip Howell from the University of Cambridge about the impact of the blitz on domestic dogs.

As well as these absorbing topics, I'd also like to briefly mention the work of Kelsi Nagy, another Oxford DPhil student. Kelsi didn't present during the session, but I really enjoyed meeting her and chatting about her work - also on cattle. Kelsi runs a blog, World Cowgirl, that is a great read for anyone interested in the role of animals in food production. She's also edited a book (with Phillip David Johnson), Trash Animals, which looks at the natural history of some of our least popular animal companions.

Lots of fascinating sources there, which I hope you enjoy as much as I did!

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Painting a bleak picture

The Telegraph recently published an article about fishing down the food chain in the English Channel, which claimed that cod, haddock and skate were fast running out in the area - you can read it here.

A skate in a net. Image courtesy of The Telegraph.
The article referenced a study, published in PLOS one,  that used longitudinal landings data to show that finfish were fast being replaced by shellfish in the Channel ecosystem, as stocks of the species higher up the trophic scale dwindled.

I've had some experience of working with longitudinal landings data in the past, and found these to be extremely tricky customers, so I wrote a response to the article. This was published in this week's Fishing News with the headline "Painting a bleak picture".

Fishing News is subscription only, but you can read the full text of my comment here. You can also read a further comment piece on the research by Jason Hall-Spencer, one of the Plymouth University academics who authored the paper, over at The Conversation.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Article in the Ecologist

Just a quick post because an article I wrote a while ago for The Land was recently reprinted (do you still say reprinted for online publishing?) on The Ecologist.

It's been ever so slightly updated since The Land version. You can read it online over at The Ecologist website -

Friday, 16 May 2014

Lots of planets have a north

I wrote one of the contributions for the book Lots of planets have a North, which is edited by Claire Biddles and Emma Jackson and will be available to buy in the summer. It's a wide ranging compendium of photography, art, literature, poetry and non-fiction, all about the North of England. My piece, which I'll share more about later, is about the particular cultural ecology of the mysterious Humberhead Levels, a large and largely forgotten area of Yorkshire.

Lots of planets have a North poster. Designed by Kate Dunstone, who also designed and typeset the book.
The book will be launched later in the summer, but if you don't want to wait until then, you can pre-order (and get lots of other lovely goodies) via Kickstarter. There will also be an event this Saturday at the legendary Sparkle Horse in Glasgow where you can meet some of the contributors (not including me), enjoy some Northern English music, and take part in raffles, quizzes and competitions.

To find out more about the book, and get a sneak preview of some of the other submissions, you can visit the Lots of planets have a North website.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Lamlash Bay: Scotland's first no-take zone

I spent February this year in Scotland talking to a lot of different people about marine protected areas. During my trip, I visited a very special and interesting place: Lamlash Bay on the east coast of the island of Arran, which has Scotland's first (and currently only) no take zone.

Lamlash Bay, photo by David Ross
A no take zone is an area that is closed off to all fishing, all removals from the sea, and any activity that could damage the sea bed. Area based protection isn't rare in Scotland - there are a number of European protected areas of sea (such as Special Areas of Conservation, and Special Protection Areas) and there will soon be nationally protected areas of sea (Marine Protected Areas). However, these areas are very different to no take zones, as they only require special planning processes for any activities to take place in the protected area, rather than banning activity outright.

The Lamlash Bay no take zone was the brainchild of keen divers living on Arran in the 1980s. In 1984, the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Act changed the nature of fishing around Scotland's coasts dramatically. Before the act, very little mobile gear (gear that is dragged or towed, often across the sea bed, such as trawls and dredgers) was allowed within 3 nautical miles of the Scottish coastline. The act loosened these rules, and the divers on Arran were alarmed by what they felt to be the negative consequences of this legislative change - when diving around the islands, they seemed to encounter significantly less life and biodiversity than they had before the Act.

One of the divers was a regular visitor to New Zealand, and while there, noted there was a number of marine reserves - why not start one of those in Arran? This was the beginning of a voluntary group, Community of Arran Seabed Trust (the beautifully acronym-ed COAST), dedicated to creating a marine reserve for Arran.

For the next 20 years COAST campaigned, and a no take zone was created by the Scottish Government (ironically, using the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Act 1984) in September 2008. Since that time, COAST has continued to monitor the no take zone and the wider health of the seas of Scotland and the Firth of Clyde. They also offer advice and guidance to other UK communities interested in establishing marine reserves. 

COAST put in a third-party proposal for a National marine protected area, covering the whole South Arran coastline, to be considered in the first tranche of Scottish national MPAs. This was put forward for consultation in 2013, and the results will soon be announced by the Scottish Ministers.

If you are part of a coastal community, and would like to see a marine reserve in your area, COAST will happily provide you with advice based on years of experience. If you're thinking of taking a holiday in Arran (and you should, it's beautiful!) COAST often organise activities such as beach cleans you could get involved in - just check their facebook page for details.

If you'd like to keep up to date with Arran COAST's activities, you can visit their website, or follow them on twitter.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Article in The Land

I wrote an article about the UK fisheries quota system for the current issue of The Land magazine. You can read it online, order a physical copy, or subscribe at The Land's website.

Friday, 7 February 2014


I'm out and about doing fieldwork at the moment, and am keeping a micro-diary of interesting things I see using a new Instagram account.

It's more personally oriented than work, so there will be less about food production and more about folklore, fashion and craft (and over the next month, lots about Scotland!). If that's your kind of thing you're very welcome to connect and say 'hello!' over there.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The UK and the CFP: a legal history

Here's a presentation I gave for University of Bristol Law and Geography students on the Common Fisheries Policy on the 28th of January. I've also included lots on the new basic regulation (implemented on the 1st January 2014) so if you've not quite got your head around that yet it might be a useful resource!

 I've tried to make it as comprehensible as possible without me talking over the top, but if you have any questions, feel free to get in touch.