Wednesday, 20 August 2014


Having friends to stay is the perfect reason for taking time out and visiting places I've never been to before.

One day last week we went to Dalemain near Ullswater.  An afternoon was not long enough to enjoy the house and gardens.  I was particularly delighted to see Lady Anne Clifford's day book on display. Centuries after her birth in 1590 Lady Anne is still regarded in Cumbria as something of a local heroine, even a proto-feminist.  It took decades for her to gain her inheritance and when she did she embarked on a busy schedule of building and repairs to her own property and to various churches.  She was one of those redoubtable independent-minded noblewomen born in Queen Elizabeth I's reign.

Her day book was open and showed the entries for the last days of her life, when she was clearly house-bound but considered it important to record the hours (or get her secretary to do it for her when she was too frail).  You can buy the diaries of Lady Anne in paperback but to me there is something very moving about seeing not just the words but the original manuscript.

I have the same feeling when I see Dorothy Wordsworth's journal in the Dove Cottage Museum - open at the day of her brother William's wedding to Mary Hutchinson.  Dorothy's emotional turmoil is revealed by the scored out lines describing wearing her future sister-in-law's wedding ring on her finger all through the previous night.

In his poem "On Visiting Keats House" David Scott describes how Keats's letter to Fanny takes him by surprise - "the brown ink of the poet's handwriting:/ neat, round and vertical", the "postscript full of dashes/ and torment" and the recollection of the ring which Keats sent to Fanny "which she hid under her glove".

The power of original ink and paper.  It's as if the past bursts into the present and the centuries fall away.

Monday, 4 August 2014


Sometimes I wonder if the meaning of life consists in moving physical objects from one place to another.
My son with the strong organising gene has been home for a week.  Together we tackled a job I had been putting off for ages – sorting the den/box room/glory hole/junk room.  We found a few treasures to keep and put them into clearly labelled lidded plastic boxes.   But mainly we persevered with a major decluttering task, sorting stuff for recycling, charity shops, ebay.  We steeled ourselves to be ruthless and found it a liberating experience.  If we hadn’t used something or looked at it for a couple of years we threw it out.  The room was transformed into a storage facility with space for actual storage instead of a no-go area because you couldn’t get beyond the doorway.
But there were other things I thought might turn up but didn’t – the spare keys to a car I no longer own, a watch I was sure I had put in a drawer a couple of years ago.  I thought of Elizabeth Bishop’s brilliant, unsettling villanelle “One Art” which begins “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”   
Somewhere in the universe there must be a black hole swallowing odd socks, coat hangers, paperclips – those things that no matter how many I buy always seem to diminish in number.
Today I called to see a friend who is moving house tomorrow and, by a strange co-incidence, this morning I read Lorna Goodison’s poem “One in a Long Line” (from Oracabessa).  It’s a wonderful poem from a great collection.  It’s about “sojourning women” – the Virgin Mary fleeing into Egypt (New Testament), Hagar cast out by Abraham (Old Testament), Khadija, the very successful merchant who became the first wife of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.  The poem is a reminder that being on the move is part of life for so many women:
            “Held always before you examples
              of sojourning women going far
              for substance of things hoped for.”
“Nothing stays put” as Amy Clampitt says in her poem of that title (apart from anything else, one of the best shopping poems ever).  “All that we know, that we’re/made of, is motion.”

Wednesday, 23 July 2014


It’s open gardens season again.   On Sunday my neighbour’s garden was open, and, having seen some of his early pioneering work on a difficult site I was keen to see how his garden had progressed. 

He has transformed the steeply sloping ghyll into a series of beautiful viewpoints, each colourful planting giving a glimpse of the next group of flowers and shrubs further on.  Wild flowers and self-seeded plants rub informal shoulders with garden plants and shrubs given him by friends.  The whole effect blends beautifully with the surrounding fields and woodland.  The garden incorporates two ponds fed from the stream.  
Afterwards there were teas in the village hall and – not sure how we got onto this topic – I ended up talking to two literary friends about touring theatre performances we had seen in the county.  Brilliant theatre companies (some now defunct), actors who are now famous, plays by Shakespeare, Brecht, Hare.  I realised after a while what we were talking all the time in the past tense.  And I realised the reason – Arts Council cuts.  While we do have a fine theatre at Keswick, Cumbria is a huge county and there is hardly any high quality touring theatre here now. 
On Tuesday of last week I was at one of the Grasmere summer poetry readings run by the Wordsworth Trust.  The first Grasmere reading I ever went to was in 2001.  I had long been an admirer of Gillian Glarke’s poetry so the opportunity to hear her in person was too good to miss.  I was not disappointed – she was a most inspiring reader and her explanations of her poems enabled me to appreciate them at a deeper level.
Last week Philip Gross opened his reading with – a smile.  He looked so happy to be able to share his work with us.  It was an immediate connection with the audience.  I smiled back – I hope everyone else did too! 
Over the years I’ve been to many Grasmere readings and it’s been fascinating to see how different poets present their work.  Andrew Greig and Helen Farish recited from memory, only occasionally glancing at the page – very good for eye contact and projecting their voices.  Robin Robertson plunged straight in without preliminaries.  David Morley included audience participation.  Josephine Dickinson brought along a harpist and the ethereal music acted as a counterpoint to her spellbinding reading.  There have been translation events too – Persian Poets a couple of years ago were very moving and I enjoyed Menna Elfyn’s bilingual reading earlier this year.
Poignantly memorable was Seamus Heaney’s visit four years ago.  He read for an hour in the dim light of St Oswald’s church, his soft Irish voice penetrating deep into our hearts.  The evening had an elegiac quality I only fully recognised later – it was Heaney’s valedictory to Grasmere.
Another unforgettable reading was Paul Muldoon’s in 2003.  I find some of Muldoon’s poems quite demanding on the page, but when he read them aloud all the difficulties disappeared and the poems became absolutely clear.  That was the evening an elderly gentleman asked “Why is this poetry?”  The implied  criticism in the question goaded Muldoon into a response which lasted about twenty minutes and was the most powerful defence/definition of poetry I have ever heard.
At poetry readings I have discovered the work of several poets previously unknown to me.  I have bought Collected Poems, Selected Poems and single collections.  A good poetry reading is “soul-food”, as Scots Makar Liz Lochead said at Grasmere in 2012.  

It’s therefore particularly disappointing to hear that in the latest round of Arts Council grants/cuts the Wordsworth Trust’s contemporary literature programme was a loser – to the amount of £80,000.  I hope the Trust will find innovative ways to continue to bring contemporary poets to Grasmere – we need that soul food.›Culture›Arts funding

Friday, 18 July 2014


High summer in Cumbria.  The ground holds the sun’s warmth well into the evening.  The dog and I go for a walk and we notice that the cornfield along the lane has been combined today.  The dog heads for the open gate.  A few crows are inspecting the straw for pickings.
Walking is free-flow thinking time for me.  Just before I came out I checked my email and saw the news report of the passenger plane shot down over the Ukraine.  A routine flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.  I can’t get that report out of my head.
For the first time in months we take the path across the field to the old farm track.  I notice a hot air balloon floating surreally above the landscape.  A tractor and trailer turn off the track and leave a cloud of dustmotes illuminated by a beam of sunlight cutting across the roof of an old corrugated iron barn.  A few swallows are skimming the air for flies.  A pair of house martins raised just one brood under the eaves of my house this spring – then disappeared.  Last year there were eight noisy nests raising serial families through the long hot summer.
Grasses and wild flowers are seeding prolifically.  A few days ago I saw a charm of goldfinches (what a wonderful collective noun!) working a field edge.  In the cycle of the seasons, plants grow and die.  But day after day we hear of human lives suddenly and violently cut short.  Every news report from the Middle East details more deaths. 
In the next field the combine is still busy.  The hazard bleeps sound as the machine reverses at the end of each row. 
On Tuesday evening I went to hear the poets Philip Gross and Robert Hass read at Grasmere.  How distant this seems from the horrors of the news.  Poetry can give no answers, cannot make sense of such things – and it would be glib and unrealistic to think it could.  But during conflict, violence and oppression poetry has always been composed.  We are still reading the poetry of the First World War.  Poetry was important during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  Poetry is important in the Middle East today.  For me what poetry does is somehow make things a little less unbearable, as if to communicate in words is an assertion of our common humanity. 

We walk back and I sit in the summer house to write this down while the evening air grows cooler and the light begins to dim.

Monday, 7 July 2014


The big one this year is the anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, or the Great War as it was called when it was actually happening.  As we know only too well the horrendous war to end all wars sowed the seeds of another world war not that many years later.  But the anniversary has given us an opportunity to look again at writers and artists of that period, including the gifted poet and musician, Ivor Gurney, who was composer of the week on Radio 3 last week.  Several of his compositions were specially recorded for the programme.  Gurney is at last getting the recognition he deserves.
Other literary anniversaries this year include one hundred and fifty years since the death of John Clare, and one hundred years since the birth of two very different poets, Dylan Thomas and Norman Nicholson.  Anniversaries are for remembering but also for re-evaluating.  Hearing Gwyneth Lewis speak about the influence of Welsh cynghannedd poetic forms on Dylan Thomas was a revelation to me (Radio 3 The Essay).  It explained so much about the diction of his poems and the structure of his language.
On Saturday in the beautiful setting of Isel Church in the valley of the river Derwent (Wordworth’s same river) a variety of speakers contributed to an afternoon celebrating the anniversary of Norman Nicholson.  Irvine Hunt, Nicholson’s good friend and his literary executor, spoke about “Knowing Norman” and gave a warm personal portrait of the poet.  Nicholson’s second cousin, Doreen Cornthwaite, read out some of the poet’s letters and spoke of the importance of archiving a writer’s work.  Her cousin, Freda, read the poem “Cornthwaite”, giving it the added resonance of a shared family name.  Kathleen Jones spoke about the work of a biographer.  Her book The Whispering Poet has revealed a considerable amount of new material about the poet’s life.  Phil Houghton read three of his own poems written in response to Nicholson’s work.  Antoinette Fawcett spoke about the work of the Norman Nicholson Society which has done much to encourage the celebration and re-evaluation of the poet’s writing.  Finally Martyn Halsall talked on Nicholson’s faith, including a perceptive analysis of the first “Shepherd’s Carol”. 
There was much to think about and a realisation that there is a lot more to explore in the work of Norman Nicholson.  What Saturday proved was that there is a great interest in and enthusiasm for our other Cumbrian Poet.

Sunday, 29 June 2014


“A life built around making the spaces to write”

That was the description of writer Christian McEwen in a recent Scottish Poetry Library podcast.  Christian was talking about the difficulty of - and the necessity for – finding the space for creativity.    I recommend listening to this wonderfully inspiring interview. 

Creativity requires both physical space and emotional space.  Christian spoke about her desire from a very early age for a private space of her own.  At the age of seven she took over a disused garden shed, lugged in her bookshelves and made it a place to write her first stories.   She talked about the need to protect the delicate growth of a new idea, to free the imagination from the mental influences of family and friends, to pay attention to hearing, touch and scent, not just the ubiquitous images and sounds which assault our eyes and ears in the contemporary world.  It was inevitable that Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space would get a mention - that quirky and wonderful book about how intimate spaces are essential to the imagination.  

As I write in my summer house I think of the words hafod and shieling, the Welsh and Scottish (via Norse)  names for a summer house.  On maps they are marked high up in the mountains or near remote coast lines.  When I find them they are often in reality only humps in the ground, overgrown turves, a few stones.  These were working summer houses - places where people went in the summer, taking their cattle and sheep with them, away from the fields of crops.  There would be grazing for the livestock, a stream or pool for water.  The long mild days, light until almost midnight, would be a time for cheese-making, peat cutting and perhaps a little romance, away from the restrictions of township life.  I wonder if it is a faint collective memory of this transhumance way of life which makes some people long to get away to the mountains and the sea in summer.

David and Claudine Mackenzie, who farmed on the Isle of Mull at Ballygown (the same house where I have stayed several times), described reconstructing a shieling in the hills above the farm.   It was a place to  stay for a summer break when they couldn’t afford a holiday.  It combined work and leisure – they lined chick boxes with sphagnum moss, did some botanical research and drank a little whisky.   I think they also did some writing as David describes the experience in Farmer in the Western Isles - “The gentle and constant movement of life on the summer mountain tops only reveals itself to those who sleep and wake there”.

By contrast my summer house is only a few yards’ walk from the back door.  I use it from early March to late October.  It’s my “Think box”, designed by my architect son when he was still a student and built by him and his brother from rough-cut wood from the local saw mill and recycled planks.  The wooden floor extends out to raised decking overlooking a miniature valley where a small stream trickles down on its watery way to the Solway.  The decking faces west and double doors open right out on this side so that the afternoon and evening sunlight shines in, filtering through the leaves of a chestnut tree.

This is where I come to write, read, and eat solitary meals when no one else is around (or watching yet more sport).  Sometimes the old black and white cat comes in for a while.  Inside is a wooden table and a café chair.  There are pebbles for paperweights, some pottery bowls made by the children at school and a line of horseshoes cast by the Clydesdales and fell ponies when they worked on the farms round here.
It is not silent – always there are birds – a pigeon cooroocoos, a blackbird starts up in alarm (the cat’s about again), a buzzard mews high up over the wooded ghyll.  Most days there is the drone of tractors and farm machinery and in fine weather the voices of people out walking or cycling along the lane. 

But there is no one else in my summer house.  I only bring the task in hand – writing to work on, research to do, a book to read.  There are no distractions and no to-do lists, no unanswered letters that eye me accusingly.  There is no radio, no phone.  I forget my watch.  I work on into the midsummer evening, citronella candles flickering to drive away the midges, a hurricane lamp to prolong the light. 

Go to and follow the links to Connect and Podcast for the Christian McEwen interview.  Jennifer Williams, an excellent interviewer, asks the questions.