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.

Thursday, 19 June 2014


I’ve paid my money to Caledonian MacBrayne and had twelve wonderful days exploring the Small Isles (Eigg, Rum, Canna, Sanday and Muck).  I’ve heard cuckoos and corncrakes, dodged great skuas doing their Hitchcock impressions, climbed An Sgurr, visited little museums of island life and met some very interesting people.

The Hebrides have a long tradition of poetry and I particularly wanted to visit Canna House.  It was the home of John Lorne Campbell and his wife Margaret Fay Shaw, whose great contribution to Gaelic culture was to collect a vast amount of material – songs, poetry, folk lore, traditions, history, photographs, recordings.

Canna House has a very personal feel.  It is as if its inhabitants have just popped out for a few hours to help with the harvest and might return any time.  There are a couple of hens scratching around and their last cat is still alive and well on the island.  The rooms are full of their pictures, furniture and ornaments and there is music open on the wedding-present Steinway grand that Margaret managed to shoehorn into a tiny corrugated iron cottage on Barra when she was first married.   It is not hard to imagine the many guests who were welcomed to Canna House – crofters who came to play billiards, scholars, artists, scientists and writers who all came to talk, argue and be inspired, visitors from the Outer Isles who had known Margaret since the 1920s (she died at the age of 101 in 2004 - an inveterate chain-smoker to the end!)

The poet Kathleen Raine (initially brought by the painter Winifred Nicholson) came several times, a fugitive from her intense one-sided romance with Gavin Maxwell.  She wrote some occasional poems for the Campbells.  “A Valentine” lists the characteristic furnishings of the house, including “The cat-clawed Chippendales and the dog-haired cushions”.  I imagine her sitting on the white bench in the garden, pen and paper in hand. 

The Scottish poet, Helen Cruikshank, was another visitor.  Margaret first met Helen on Barra and invited her to join a rather damp picnic.  When Margaret recited lines from a poem she had enjoyed and learned by heart years ago (“I met a man in Harris tweed/As I went down the strand”) Helen was surprised and delighted – “I wrote that!”, she said. 

In the hall of Canna House there is a framed illustrated poem (“Margaret Fay Shaw”) by the Scottish writer Angus Peter Campbell and half a mile down the road at the dairy museum there is Hugh MacDiarmid’s  translation of part of the 18th century Gaelic poem “The Birlinn of Clanranald” by Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair.  Alasdair lived and worked on Canna for a while.   It is said that he composed part of the poem while lying under an upturned boat at the head of Canna harbour – one way to get some peace and quiet.  I found a leaflet about Alasdair with translations of his poems by Ronnie Black and Derick Thomson.

The Campbells were remarkable people.  Margaret was a determined American, a gifted pianist, who fell in love with Gaelic music and went to live on the island of South Uist in her 20s.  She lived in a small crofter’s cottage and collected the material which eventually became her book Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist.  She was an excellent photographer and sold pictures of Hebridean life to the British press.  Both Margaret and John worked ceaselessly to preserve the land, wild life and culture of the Hebrides.  After their marriage they lived for a few years on the island of Barra and then bought Canna and settled there.

The house is full of their books, papers, recordings (the earliest on wax cylinders!), photographs, films and diaries.  A Gaelic treasure trove, some of which has yet to be catalogued.  There is plenty of work for the archivist, Magda (who knew the Campbells from her childhood), and her part-time assistant, Kirsteen, both of whom are full of enthusiasm for their work.   When Margaret first went to the Outer Hebrides she was entranced by everything she saw and heard (though a bath at the Lochboisdale Hotel was appreciated now and then).  It was only some years later that she realised that she and her husband were chronicling a disappearing way of life. 

While visiting the Small Isles I re-read my copy of Laughing at the Clock by Aonghas MacNeacail, a gifted contemporary Gaelic poet.  The book has Gaelic originals and English translations side by side.  The words from “poet’s congress, at the house of chida-san” could apply to the Campbells’ lives in the Hebrides:
            “among yellow fields of corn
              a harvest of words
              ascends to the sky,

              a great shoal of blackbirds, singing”