Introduction to “Late Autumn Sunlight”
An introduction, in fact, to a pair of collaborationists who need no introduction. There cannot be many parts of Britain where a local scene is so well caught by poet and artist together. Were it not for Martin Newell and James Dodds today’s East Anglia, and especially coastal North-East Essex, would, like so many places, be identified in the usual generalised terms of a commuting area, plus some inviting tourist language. But they will have none of this and between them they have for a long time now revealed the true nature of their homeland. Martin Newell casts a protective eye over it. There is nothing he cannot see and nothing he cannot value. Although his vision is proprietorial, he wants to share it. He has a genius for relating the past to the present and not making all kinds of things sound out-dated. His poetry is an inventory of the region. He does not deal in “by-gones” but in what connects. He is affectionately caustic, witty and moving, a great local voice which, via a stream of work in The Independent, is listened to far and wide. He has always possessed a sad ear for decline, for the running-down but not the vanishing of things, and Late Autumn Sunlight is a subject which suits him. It is wry, funny, profound, a signpost to what could so easily be missed, wonderful sights, unique detail, views which change the reader’s perspective. Which is what poetry is for.
Martin Newell could not have found a better sharer of his vision than James Dodds. His strong lino-cuts provide a perfect accompaniment to the words but rightly do not attempt to illustrate them. Where the poet lists the real natives, the real activities of his corner of the world, the artist takes its harbours back to their essentials of shipping, storytelling, worship and domesticity. The populations of Aldeburgh and Wivenhoe are captured — walled-up, almost — between soil and sea. James Dodds also captures that freedom of the coast which makes sailors and fishermen another race. Both he and Martin Newell have a wary delight in local legends and Late Autumn Sunlight contains an extract from Black Shuck, to my mind a masterly re-telling of Eastern England’s ghostly dog tale. shuck makes the Hound of the Baskervilles sound like man’s best friend. The Newell version, with Dodds’ pictures, is classic folklore and not to be missed.
Martin Newell’s East Anglia tumbles about untidily, and points a finger at contemporary suburban standards. “Where is your soul?” he consistently asks. It is a question we have to answer. Is it in theme parks, in the tarted-up pub, at the rat-race? James Dodds’ east Anglia is crafted in shipyards, farmyards and workshops, including the studios of its many artists. These were for him during his youth the places where skill came from hands, not words. A shipwright tells his apprentice, “I shan’t say noth’n. You watch me” Newell and Dodds show how close they are in this first poem of their latest book. Their work is a combination of doing and dreaming. Its pace is set to some extent by the poet’s bike and by the slowed-up discipline of the linocut. Nothing flashes past them or is dashed off. There is contemplation. East Anglians are returned to their roots, non-natives given a delightful crash course on what these coastal counties really are, on what made them.
Frequently local writers and artists go over the old ground, the famous names and villages, the much repeated customs and the tourist routes. But not here. Martin Newell “sings” what both East Anglia and its visitors would never see. Modest lanes, ordinary people, not “characters”, the minutiae of life, marvellously personal sightings of birds and plants are brought to our attention. He is a poet who says, “Look at what you are missing!” James Dodds’ work is an act of love which incorporates a sturdy reality and legend. His small coastal towns are anchorages for other things as well as ships. Martin Newell has more to say about the latest inhabitants than the oldest inhabitants, and caustically. He sees East Anglia under constant invasion by one horde or another but able to hold its own. Humanity and its detritus ultimately touches his heart. So here is a two-man guide to the edges of Norfolk, Suffolk and particularly to border-line Essex; some poems and pictures which will make us look at them differently.