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‘On Sizewell Beach’ by Blake Morrison and a new writing prompt from Ben Rogers

Sizewell is a small fishing village just north of Aldeburgh, though perhaps best known as a site for nuclear power.  The presence of the nuclear power station is felt in Blake Morrison’s ‘On Sizewell Beach’, a poem full of local detail, including mention of the unusually named (and allegedly haunted) Vulcan Arms pub.  However, the occasion of a near tragic accident ends up superseding the creation of “a poem about nuclear catastrophe”.

At Poetry in Aldeburgh: Blake Morrison reads as part of ‘Hinterlands’ alongside Anne-Marie Fyfe on Friday 4th November, 7-8pm in the Jubilee Hall


On Sizewell Beach

There are four beach huts, numbered 13 to 16,
each with net curtains and a lock.
Who owns them, what happened to the first twelve,
whether there are plans for further building:
there’s no one here today to help with such enquiries,
the café closed up for the winter,
no cars or buses in the PAY AND DISPLAY.
The offshore rig is like a titan’s diving board.
I’ve heard the rumours that it’s warmer here
for bathing than at any other point along the coast.
Who started them?  The same joker who bought
the village pub and named it the Vulcan,
‘God of fire and metalwork and hammers,
deformed and buffoonish, a forger of rich thrones’?
Whoever he is, whatever he was up to,
he’d be doused today, like these men out back,
shooting at clay pigeons, the rain in their Adnams beer.
And now a movement on the shingle
that’s more than the scissoring of terns:
a fishing boat’s landed, three men in yellow waders
guiding it shorewards over metal-ribbed slats
which they lay in front of it like offerings
while the winch in its hut, tense and oily,
hauls at the hook in the prow, the smack with its catch
itself become a catch, though when I lift
the children up to see the lockjaws of sole and whiting
there’s nothing in there but oilskin and rope.

I love this place, its going on with life
in the shadow of the slab behind it,
which you almost forget, or might take for a giant’s Lego set,
so neat are the pipes and the chain-mail fences,
the dinky railway track running off to Leiston,
the pylons like a line of cross-country skiers,
the cooling ponds and turbine halls and reactor control rooms
where they prove with geigers on Open Days
(‘Adults and Children over 14 years only’)
that sealed plutonium is less radioactive than a watch.

One rain-glossed Saturday in April
a lad from Halesworth having passed his test
and wanting to impress his girlfriend
came here in the Ford he’d borrowed from his father
and took the corner much too fast, too green to judge
the danger or simply not seeing the child
left on the pavement by the father – no less reckless –
who had crossed back to his Renault for the notebook
he’d stupidly forgotten, the one with jottings
for a poem about nuclear catastrophe,
a poem later abandoned, in place of which
he’d write of the shock of turning round
to find a car had come between him and his daughter,
an eternity of bodywork blotting out the view,
a cloud or an eclipse which hangs before the eyes
and darkens all behind them, clearing at last
to the joy of finding her still standing there,
the three of us spared that other life we dream of
where the worst has already happened
and we are made to dwell forever on its shore.

from The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper (Chatto & Windus, 1987)


Writing Prompt: Witchfinder General

Hysteria and the turmoil of the English Civil War fuelled the dramatic rise of Suffolk-born Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General, who in a ruthless swathe of killings between 1644 and 1647, mainly around East Anglia, was possibly responsible for more executions of so-called witches than any other witch-hunter in English history.  Aldeburgh itself was swept up in the mass witch-hating panic, and in 1646 the Burgesses of the town hired Matthew Hopkins and his crew to clear the town of witches, for the then princely sum of £6.  Prior to their hanging, the accused women were imprisoned in the Moot Hall, now the site of the Aldeburgh Museum.

A key text that supported the hunting and extermination of witches was Daemonologie (1597), written by King James IV of Scotland (James I of England), which began: “The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaues of the Deuill, the Witches or enchaunters, hath moved me (beloued reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine.”  Matthew Hopkins cites Daemonologie in his own text The Discovery of Witches (1647), in which he outlines his methods for investigating witchcraft, and also attempts to deter mounting criticisms of his questionable justice, and defend against the idea that a witch-hunter merely seeks “to fleece the country of their money”.

Whether the backdrop be the English Civil War or Brexit Britain, fear can be a driver for suspicion and hostility, fuelled, as Blake Morrison says, by the “hatred of otherness”. Today’s task is to write a poem in the voice of a character who (real or imagined) might be feared, demonised and possibly targeted, someone who represents an aspect of this idea of “otherness”, and you should use as an epigraph for your poem text taken from either Daemonologie or The Discovery of Witches. Whether or not the character you write about is deserving of fear is up to you.

You can find Daemonologie by King James I here

and The Discovery of Witches by Matthew Hopkins here.

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Nick Rowland