Tag Archives: Marianna Dudley

Mechanical Ballet: Shipping and the Port of Tyne

By Marianna Dudley

There was a term for the precise movements of the cranes and containers we saw during our tour of the Port of Tyne, though I didn’t know it at the time: ‘mechanical ballet’. Cranes lifted shipping containers from the boat guided by the accuracy of the human eye in the crane – the driver who sits alone, and without a toilet, for twelve-hour stretches in the cab high above – and dependent on the strength of machinery to place them on the truck beds below. A delicate, powerful, and hypnotic dance, with the port and river as the stage. Is it the humans, or the machines, who are the protagonists?


Cranes at Port of Tyne. Photo: Marianna Dudley

This question is explored in Terminal (2009), a short film by Jörn Wagner. Without narrative, it captures the movements of a busy port, a never-ending choreography of loading and unloading. It is described as ‘depicting a human-created world void of humanity’ as ‘machines seem to move of their own volition’. It is a beautiful visualization of the enormous scale of operations at ports such as the Tyne.

However, the lack of humans in the ‘ballet’ doesn’t chime with my own observations of port life (made during a Power and the Water project visit to the Port of Tyne, Thursday 5 June 2014). People give the machines scale, and, often, movement. Without them, a port resembles an ordered Lego set, everything brightly and primary coloured. To ignore the humans that drive the machines does a disservice to the long history of the docks, organized labour, and working class port culture. My grandfather was a docker in Liverpool, and his stories – unloading the first crates of bananas post-WWII; accidents with the menacing hooks that dockers wielded like an extension of their limbs – were in my mind as I watched the crane make its manoeuvres.

The advance of technology has almost – but not completely – mechanized the port. The crane drivers do an immensely skilled job. They are the prima ballerinas of the dance, with lorry drivers and engineers on the ground making up the corps de ballet. People are still needed, but they must work in sync with – and reliant on – the power of the machines, unlike real ballet dancers, who rely solely on their steely, strong bodies and each other to glide and jump across the stage. A parallel could be drawn here, however. The port has mechanized in modern times due to technology. Ballet in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first has developed a taste for leanness and strength that pushes dancer’s bodies to breaking point, and which has come under recent scrutiny in the Channel 4 documentary Big Ballet. Among other things, modernism rejected history and ornament, and believed that design and technology could transform societies. The modern working port, and the modern dancer’s body, are (post) modern models of strength, efficiency, and (arguably) beauty.

To many inhabitants of the city of Newcastle, there is also tragedy in the port’s history. In 1881, the Tyne was second only to the Mersey in the quantity of goods exported from Britain, and was responsible for 1/9 of the total of UK port exports. In 1923, 22 million tonnes of coal were shipped from the Port of Tyne. Today, the Port of Tyne does not feature in the top ten busiest UK Ports. The idiom ‘like carrying coals to Newcastle’ may still be in common use but in reality, mounds of coal imported from Russia line the dockside, bound for the domestic market.

However, the Port isn’t dead. In 2011 (the last available figures from the Port of Tyne website), 450 men brought 5.3 million tonnes of goods through the port in 2011. The dynamic of the human-river-machine network here has fundamentally changed, but, crucially, it remains.


Ship repairs yard, Port of Tyne. Photo: Marianna Dudley

The Port of Tyne is responsible for navigation on the tidal river (from Wylam to the sea) and publishes a shipping history of every ship loading and unloading in the port. Name, origin, destination, agent and International Maritime Organisation (IMO) numbers – the unique seven-digit number assigned to ships under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) – are all detailed. SOLAS was first passed in 1914 after the sinking of the RMS Titanic, to ensure standardized provision of lifeboats and other safety equipment on board ships. IMO numbers have been operational since 1987 as a prevention against marine fraud, and are the maritime equivalent of a car number plate.

The Port of Tyne shipping list is more than a schedule. It is a functional choreography of the mechanical ballet that unfolds 24/7 on the docks. To take one example, the Hydra, sailing under the Dutch flag, arrived from Anchorage in Alaska on 7 June, 2014. The ship paused at the dock, was unloaded by men and machines, and sailed on 10 June for Peterhead, Scotland. This is one scene from an act of thousands, all unfolding in the Port of Tyne and dispersing around the globe. From the Bahamas, Stavangar, Panama and Gibraltar, the ships docking at Port of Tyne maintain a connection between the northeast and the international endeavor of maritime trade, as they have for centuries of trade on the river.

Taking the wheel on the Tyne

Project member Jill Payne taking the wheel on the River Tyne. Photo: Marianna Dudley

These connections have shaped the city and its people. Steve and Dave, captain and first mate of the Clearwater Clean Tyne vesselwhich clears the river of debris, first went to sea in the merchant navy. As they took us on a trip downriver, they reminisced about tours of eastern Africa and Brazil, while gamely letting Jill, Carry and I take the ship’s wheel. The Port of Tyne is a mechanical ballet with performances and protagonists that are local and global. What holds it all together is not just the complex computer systems registering cargo, or the network of trains and trucks dispersing commodities across Britain, but the river, and the people of the port.

Just don’t tell the lads they are ballerinas.



(i) Thanks to James Wright, Environmental Officer for Port of Tyne Authority, for his presentation and guided tour of the port facilities.
(ii) Stephen Moss,‘Tamara Rojo: Ballet Dancers don’t enjoy the pain. We’re not masochists’, The Guardian 13 June 2011; Big Ballet, first broadcast 6 February 2014, Channel 4 (UK)
(iii) See, for example, The V&A’s guide to modernism: http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/m/ modernism/
(iv) Proceedings of the RiverTyne Improvement Commissioners’ (1881)
(v) Stafford Linsey, ‘The Port of Tyne’, in David Archer (ed.), Tyne and Tide: a celebration of the River Tyne (2003), 172-189.
(vi) Department for Transport, ‘UK Port Freight Statistics: 2011 Statistical Release’ (September 2012)
(vii) httkp://www.portoftyne.co.uk/business-divisions/marine-and-environmental- services/shipping-movements/shipping-history/ 

The Severn Bore – anything but

By Marianna Dudley

I had done my Bore homework (checking the timetables, watching YouTube videos, even logging in to Bore surfers’ forums to get the latest gossip of where to watch and surf the river wave).  But, by the time the crest of water surged into view from our riverbank viewing point at Arlingham, all prior knowledge fell away during what was a much more exhilarating, raw and absorbing experience than I had prepared for.  A moving wall of water, surging against the downstream flow of the river at a conjuncture of time and tide, channeled by the land either side until, with nowhere to go, the energy behind the surge forms into a wave?  This truly was a natural spectacle.

Preparations for the Bore

Carpark preparations at Arlingham. Photo: Marianna Dudley

This was the second Team Power and Water trip to watch the bore, and my first.  Over the next two years I am investigating our seemingly insatiable and imaginative need to turn to water for recreation, and the hardy river surfers of the Severn are a group that I want to connect with, talk to, and understand in a historical context.   I grew up in Cornwall and have surfed for years; I know the unique rewards of climbing into wetsuits and braving cold seas through winter. But, stood, shivering, on the riverbank watching men dressed head-to-toe in

Walking to the river

Getting down the riverbank is tricky. Photo: Marianna Dudley

rubber sliding, inelegantly but necessarily, on their bottoms down the muddy bank and entering the brown river water, I admit that I wondered why they did it.  (Note: I counted forty surfers in the water at Arlingham.  Some drifted over from the village of Newnham on the opposite bank; but all those who left from Arlingham were men.  There was a level of ‘blokey’ camaraderie, and plenty of back-slapping and greeting of (old?) friends.  I’ll be looking into the dynamics of the river surfers’ relationships with each other as well as the water; the ‘who’, as well as the ‘why’ and ‘where’.)

Severs enter the water

Surfers make their way out to the water. Photo: Marianna Dudley

The men sat on their longboards in waist-deep water, and we spectators chatted amongst ourselves. I’d estimate that there were at least as many of us watching as there were in the water.  Over the river at Newnham, there was a visibly larger crowd. Cameras and phones were poised to capture the last 5* Bore of the year (there is in fact another one in September, but it happens at night).  It was 08.19 in the morning, and we’d brought packed breakfasts and flasks of tea.  Some people had binoculars, and someone else was filming with a camera set on a tripod (the latter was positively identified, enventually, by Alexander – though we didn’t want to interrupt him – as Antony Lyons, an environmental artist who is currently a Leverhulme Trust artist in residence at the University of Gloucestershire’s Countryside and Community Research Institute, where he’s working on a project entitled ‘Sabrina Dreaming (Severn Estuary Tidelands)’). There was a sense of occasion befitting a sporting event.  Then someone remarked ‘There it is!’, and all focus turned to the water.

 Bore begins to pick up surfers

The Bore begins to pick up the waiting surfers. Photo: Marianna Dudley

It moved fast. It picked up the surfers and propelled them upriver at a speed that almost shocked me.  It was noisy, a wall of sound as well as water. It churned and changed form, the wave forming clean faces in some sections where it passed over sandbanks, crumbling at other places into a broiling brown-white mess of water.  The surfers were carried by this liquid energy, arms waving as they tried to keep their balance.

Line of surfers

The surfers line up as they pass Newnham church. Photo: Marianna Dudley

At one point, they lined up beautifully just as they passed us, gliding in harmony. Shortly after, most of them were off their boards and beginning the most difficult stage of their journey: that from river to shore, paddling against the surge rather than riding with it.  One man we chatted to said that his personal record was surfing a 3-mile stretch. The pitfall of success when surfing the Severn Bore is that the farther you surf, the further you have to trudge back to your car in a cold and clammy wetsuit.

After the wave itself passed, the spectacle wasn’t over.  Water rushed across the riverbed and filled it.  It was also a very high tide; the riverbank couldn’t contain the water, and it eked over to fill the grassland before coming to a stop at a man-made embankment (there to protect the farmland and houses behind).  Eyes tuned to watch the water now picked out floating logs, debris and seabirds moving, for a change, upriver.

Aftermath of the bore

Aftermath: the river floods the embankment. Note the submerged bench in the middle ground. Photo: Marianna Dudley

The experience of the Severn Bore was a sensory display of the power of water, and of the human determination to harness some of that energy for pure joy. It occupies a place in the local calendar (timetables are published yearly), but the regularity of its occurrence hasn’t diminished the excitement of experiencing it.  People travel to see (and surf it), and those who don’t are still able to view it.  This year, a Sky News helicopter filmed aerial footage of the bore – by 4pm two days after the event, it had received 374,829 views on YouTube. I enjoyed the commentator’s observation that it was a bit like the Grand National, cheering on the surfers and willing them not to fall. This bore is a phenomenon in many ways, nature being just one.

Returning surfers

The surfers return to their cars, and waiting friends and families. Photo: Marianna Dudley

The humanities and Engaging with Government

By Marianna Dudley

The Power and the Water is an environmental history project.  We are investigating how our twenty-first century understandings and experiences of place and community have been shaped by historical environmental processes. But, in creating the project and shaping its research path, thoughts of current and future environmental challenges were never far away.

We want, from the outset, to connect our research into the pasts of our project sites with possibilities for their futures.  Working with external partners such as Northumbrian Water and engaging with local independent experts such as Dr Jim Rieuwerts (a sough historian working with Carry and Georgina in Derbyshire) is helping us identify research questions and think about how our research will be useful for government, energy and utilities companies, heritage bodies, and local interest groups. Our interest in water management and infrastructure feels particularly timely in the wake of the extensive flooding here in the Southwest and other parts of Britain.  Now, questions of the impacts of climate change, discussions of best practice and planning for the future in water management and infrastructure, and the evident power of water to impact on lives and livelihoods have made many of the issues we are investigating part of widespread public debate and put them firmly on the policy agenda. The AHRC-Institute for Government’s ‘Engaging with Government 2014’ course that Post Doctoral Research Assistant (PDRA) Carry van Lieshout and I attended in London 11-13 February couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Institute for Government (IfG) sits just off the Mall, deliberately close to the centres of power in Whitehall. The UK’s leading independent charity and think tank promoting more effective government, it works with cross-party and Whitehall governance to increase government effectiveness and promote good policy making, with an emphasis on the use of evidence to support policy. As academics, the key way to influence or engage with policy is by presenting our research as evidence to inform decisions.  The course taught us that it matters how we go about doing this, and imparted some techniques for doing so. Being aware of the changing political landscape, for example, is helpful: crisis points and changes of office create windows of opportunity, for it is at these times that new approaches are often taken, and policy-makers are looking for experts (us!) and new ideas.   It also matters how our research itself is presented.  It must be accessible, succinct, direct – and, with the preference of civil servants for statistics – full of usable data.  For us arts and humanities scholars, this presented some issues that we worked through over the course –  more on which later.

Jill Rutter is programme director at the IfG and led the course, which was specifically for Arts and Humanities scholars working in areas with the potential to engage with policy. Before working at the IfG, Jill was director of strategy and sustainable development at DEFRA; previous civil service roles include policy lead on tax, development and local government finance.  She was able to explain to us the structures of government and processes of policy-making that are necessary to know in order to engage meaningfully with decision-making.  This crash-course in the theories and realities of politics and policy-making was one of the most useful aspects of the course.  What was made clear, across the three days, was that in order to be heard by civil servants you have to know who to target.  You essentially have to do your homework by mapping out where the power lies, and who makes the decisions.  This is one area of engaging with government that we, as researchers, should all be able to do.  We are well-versed in doing our background reading and establishing key research questions.  By extending early project research to include stakeholder mapping – identifying key figures and networks in your subject or case study area – not only are you better placed to connect with relevant decision makers, but you have a usable working picture of relationships and decision-making in your area that can aid your research too.  Stakeholder mapping in this respect is a win-win exercise that I suspect many of us do to some extent anyway, but that benefits from a rigorous and focused approach.

IfG brought in a range of people working at the heart of government to speak to us, including Stephen Aldridge, Director of Analysis and Innovation at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Stephen was convinced of the importance of the humanities (especially history) to his Department’s policymaking, but recognized that there was a heavy preference for statistical evidence. If government ultimately wants neat stats and big data, how can we – who work with narrative, long-term change, visual and textual documents, testimonies and case studies – hope to register on the short attention span of a time-harried civil servant?

There are ways, and the responsibility lies with us.  We need to make it easy for non-academics to quickly understand our research.  By quickly, I mean, in a paragraph. Producing regular newsletters and blog posts (tick) creates a flow of information through which we can create an audience for our work, from stakeholders we already work with to those we think should be taking notice. But in this form of communication, brevity and clarity are key.  We can (and do!) save methodological concerns and academic debate for journal articles and extended dialogues. When we take our work into the public, non-academic sphere, things like presentation and design can also make a real difference to how it is received, and are worth budgeting for where possible.

If we are looking to engage with government and gain a voice in decision-making processes, we must be prepared to raise our own profiles as academics. We are looked to as experts in our field.  A public profile and willingness to engage with media outlets are part of this. The IfG’s director of communications, Nadine Smith, impressed upon us the power of networking, through twitter – gaining info on public lectures, events etc. – and in person.  Though using social media was a predictable suggestion, the reminder to use it proactively (seeking out key figures, gaining public voice) and intelligently (directing people to our website and blog posts, where they can learn more about our project) was useful. The course achieved the impossible, and got me to finally join Twitter: @DudleyMarianna; project feed: @envirohistories.

Hearteningly, several speakers confirmed the value of a good case study.  We already know this: part of the previous, AHRC-funded ‘Local Places, Global Processes’ research network (part of the Researching Environmental Change programme) was to explore why the local can convey global narratives such as climate change in a meaningful way. This new project, having grown out of that research network, is enacting those convictions by placing local case studies at the heart of the research methodology.  But it is great to hear that those within (or with the ear of) government agree.  This is an area, I think, where arts and humanities scholars have a real chance of communicating change and perceptions of change, where numbers and data cannot.  Case studies, connecting pasts and futures, the local with the global, the personal with the societal and environmental, are the secret weapon in our toolkit.

The last word on this (bearing in mind my point about brevity) I give to Wayne Martin, a philosopher whose Essex Autonomy Project is influencing how government deals with issues of patient autonomy in mental healthcare.  Wayne gave us a masterclass in how to connect with multiple external partners and influence policy.  Yet, he said, at the end of the day it comes down to one thing:  good research.  Really, really good research.  Because if we are researching the things that matter, producing work that deserves to be heard, and working hard to make sure it is disseminated, then people will take notice. And that, I think, we can all do.

With thanks to the AHRC and the Institute for Government for running the course; and for Jill Rutter, for delivering it with indomitable energy.


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