I learnt a new word yesterday. I don’t often learn new words. Not because I’m very clever and I already know everything but rather because I’m very stupid and never pay attention. The word, picked up from webcomic XKCD’s April Fool’s Day prank, is ‘umwelt’. It’s not a very pretty word, I’ll give you that. It sounds like a German sausage, or a caveman stubbing his toe. XKCD described it as ‘the idea that because their senses pick up on different things, different animals in the same ecosystem actually live in very different worlds’. I like this, and I can see how it works in our everyday lives as well – how it’s relevant to our existence, and our understanding of things.
Take the debut single by The Lake Poets, for instance. ‘City By The Sea’ is a bright and slightly bittersweet song about being from Sunderland. Though it might not be a real hub of British folk music it is home to Martin Longstaff, who is to The Lake Poets what E is to Eels or Mark E. Smith is to The Fall. We met once, some time back, when Martin came down and played at our Folkroom gig. We bonded over music and over Sunderland. It’s strange, and lovely, that in some sort of self-perpetuated Baader-Meinhof situation, I find Martin teaching me about umwelt only the day after I learnt about it.
You see, like Martin, I have an association to Sunderland. I’m not from there, and neither are any of my family; in fact I think the first time any of us went to the city was in the early noughties. We were there because, for reasons not really interesting enough to explain, my mother and I (those two Sussex natives who never visited the city until 2002) are supporters of Sunderland AFC. We cheer when they almost steal three points from Manchester City, and shout at the TV when the captain Lee Cattermole does something particularly dickish (which is, as far as I can tell, most matches). We even take pleasure when Newcastle lose to Brighton. We are Sunderland supporters.
So when I think of Sunderland, I think of football. I think of my few visits to the Stadium of Light – perched on the edge of some great chasm, like a giant structural echo of John Cusack at literally any point in the film 2012. I think of the fat, rowdy locals sitting topless in the stands on a November afternoon with S, A, F or C painted on their hairy pot bellies. I remember the trips around those footballing visits. The boarded up windows of the dying shops, or the aching rows of terraced houses that crawl their way over hills. I remember the grey skies and grey water of the North Sea. I remember the bitter coldness. I remember my sister throwing up on the roof of the National Glass Centre (which, it should be noted, is also glass and thus affords a vaguely terrifying view to any patrons of the centre happening to look up at that moment in time). I have an affection for Sunderland, perennial underdog, but I can’t help but think of it as kind of… grim.
What’s strange about this all though, is the effect a different perspective can have on a place. What’s strange about it all, I suppose, is umwelt. The Lake Poets’ single is a lovely affair. ‘City By The Sea’ and its b-side ‘Small Town’ both share the same theme – Martin Longstaff’s affinity for his hometown. On top of Springsteen-harmonica and light, breezy vocals is a message that is both at odds and entirely in tune with my memories of Sunderland. Martin feels the same coldness as I did, remembers the same run-down places as I do. “A town where it’s freezing/A town where you wind up dead” he sings on ‘Small Town’.
Nevertheless, even though Martin sees the exact same world as I do – no rose-tinted vision, no sentimental dishonesty – his experience is an entirely different one. He loves this place. He accepts all the flaws and he admits that he needs to be there. “Its shores and its waters have become a part of me/And when I die it’s where I want to be”.
I can’t recommend The Lake Poets highly enough – their single is a wonderful, warm and affectionate love letter to Sunderland. As a pair, ‘City By The Sea’ and b-side ‘Small Town’ offer a complete portrait of the city seen through the eyes of one of its most caring, accepting but ultimately hopeful children. If only everyone’s opposing view points were this affecting, we’d all live in a much cosier world.