Monday, 28 April 2014


In the last week I have been north to Edinburgh and south to Millom. 


I went to Edinburgh to see the photographer with whom I am collaborating on an exhibition in Keswick next March.  We planned to meet in the Grassmarket.  As he was delayed by traffic (and an obstreperous swan on the road) I had an opportunity to browse in the Golden Hare bookshop, in West Bow.  

The Golden Hare is an independent bookshop, with carefully selected books "which offer thought-provoking content and beautiful design".  It also has a little gallery.  Everything is lovingly displayed and there is a good poetry section.  I bought Niall Campbell's Moontide (Bloodaxe).  Niall Campbell, who grew up in the Outer Hebrides, is the subject of a recent Scottish Poetry Library podcast.

Staying at the university bed and breakfast gave me the chance to take in another independent bookshop on my walk to the city centre the next morning - Looking Glass Books in the new Quartermile development on the site of the old Royal Infirmary, off Lauriston Place.  Looking Glass Books is in elegant modern premises and also has a cafe.  Food for thought.  Lots of comments about the books (someone has obviously read them!), and - like the Golden Hare - support for small presses (books you would never discover in the big chains).  A good poetry section - I couldn't resist the quirky Washing LInes (Lautus Press).


From Scotland's capital city to post-industrial Millom.  On Saturday I attended the Gala lunch of the Norman Nicholson Society to celebrate the centenary of the poet's birth.

To be precise we were in the LIghthouse Centre, Haverigg, a village just outside Millom.  The view from the windows was dominated by Nicholson's favourite fell, Black Combe. 
Good food, good company, interesting and moving speakers and the Holborn Hill Royal Brass Band.  Thanks to everyone involved in making a wonderful occasion.  A particularly nice touch was the pot geraniums and helium-filled red balloons for every table, a reminder of one of Norman Nicholson's best poems, "The Pot Geranium".

Norman Nicholson encouraged other writers and the society continues this encouragement.  At the gala lunch Philip Houghton read his poem "Echoes" and I reproduce it here with his permission. 

Here Phil uses "Scafell Pike" and reverses the view entirely.  Nicholson's "Scafell Pike" is a long thin poem about the highest mountain in England.  Phil says that in his own poem he looks "from Scafell Pike back towards Nicholson and his vantage point in writing the original poem. The poem ends by fixing Nicholson with a renewed permanence, after the longevity which he similarly affords Scafell".


Above a ghyll
On the Pike,
Towards the spire beyond his street
Peregrine-swept crag
Of this hallowed fell
Below, jag and crest
Of crooked lofts
Roofs of the town
Dormer peak,
The tallest room in Millom.

How sharp it seems,
Still here today,
Much more than plate-glass window
On the sky!
Condensing huff of inmates breath
Block out geranium and self –
A written strata of flowing verse
Topography an inch thick
By the willing eye.

Look again
In one hundred, a hundred and ten
Two hundred years
A poem. Prose
Where the chapel is;
Line and verse
Contain the ironworks,
Its stacks, the town,
Maybe its men;
But beyond where sea and sky mop up the day
The gravelled voice of fell-top seer,
Still here.

Phil Houghton
Copyright 15 March 2014

A contemporary poet stands at the place of Nicholson’s viewed subjects (this – the poem: “Scafell Pike”) and looks back at Nicholson from that vantage point, as though to echo his work back, across time, in this Centenary Year - and here, linked also to thoughts of the closing lines of the Nicholson poem:
Thomas Gray in Patterdale – “… and see/ The wide-eyed stranger sky-line look at me?”

Saturday, 19 April 2014


On Good Friday afternoon I decided on impulse to walk up Binsey on the western fringe of the Lake District.  It’s a short walk, under half an hour to the top by the usual approach from Binsey Lodge.  But this outlier, this freak of local geology, has a three hundred and sixty degree panorama from its summit.  It’s a good walk when you haven’t much time to spare but need a fix of fresh air.  If it is clear enough (it wasn’t) you can see the Isle of Man.

I walked up and westwards.   The grass on the lower slopes was replaced by heather with its still bare winter stems.  Skylarks flew up from the ground.  The male birds were singing high above me.  In the distance snow lay in north facing gullies on the highest fells.

At the summit I could see the complete circle – the coastal Cumbrian plain, over the tidal Solway to Criffel  and Galloway, the deeply indented Caldbeck Fells, the pale streak of Whitewater Dash, Skiddaw’s curving spine, then layer after layer of crinkled rocky ridges filling the horizon before falling away to the towns of West Cumberland and the coast again.  From this height Overwater, Bassenthwaite Lake and the pool at High Ireby were like miniature mirrors in a Sunday School’s Easter Garden, moss replaced by small plantations of dark green firs.  The landscape is full of the history and legends of early Christian saints – the churches dedicated to St Kentigern, St Bega and St Hilda, and across the water the association of St Ninian with Whithorn. 

I decided to prolong the walk and descend by the steeper south side of the fell coming out at the farm at Fell End.   This route is used infrequently and there is no path, just a case of picking the way carefully and avoiding putting the boot in a skylark’s nest.    Lambs were everywhere, soaking up the spring sun.  Then a short walk along a very minor lane back to Binsey Lodge where I had left the car. 

Last Tuesday one of my neighbours told me that he was going to walk at Ullswater to see the daffodils.  He reminded me that it was on that day, April 15, when Dorothy Wordsworth, walking with her brother at Gowbarrow Park on the shore of the lake, famously saw the daffodils.  She wrote about them in her journal and her brother used her journal entry for his even more famous poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud”. 

I realised (bit slow here) that is why the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry is held in the middle of April.  It’s a biennial event, initiated by Carol Ann Duffy and organised by the Wordsworth Trust.  Last week end was the third festival.  I didn’t get to everything but I enjoyed Sarah Corbett’s poems and Zoe Benbow’s drawings (Where we begin to look: Women and the Landscape), some of the varied evening readings and a lively Writing Motherhood session with Rebecca Goss, Carolyn Jess-Cooke and SinĂ©ad Morrissey. 

But for me, Menna Elfyn was the high point of the week end.  In conversation with Robyn Marsack, director of the Scottish Poetry Library, Menna talked about her life and read work by some of her favourite poets – including R S Thomas, Wislawa Szymborska, Mark Doty and Jane Kenyon.  I have known of Menna Elfyn for some time but never had the opportunity to hear her read.  She is an engaging reader, sharing her beautiful Welsh language poems and their English translations by Gillian Clarke and other Welsh poets.   Her generosity, subtle mischievous wit and her thoughtful originality all combine in poems which never failed to hold my interest.  Hearing the poems in their original language brought out Menna’s skill in and adaptation of the ancient Welsh art of cynghanedd (a combination of alliteration, internal rhymes and chiming sounds).

Zoe Benbow quoted Paul Klee’s definition of drawing as “taking a line for a walk”.  It’s a phrase that has been borrowed by poets and to me it’s an apt description of the process of writing poetry.

Monday, 14 April 2014


“To set something down is a way of understanding it”, says Dante in Stephen Wyatt’s current Radio 4 adaptation of the Divine Comedy (BBC Radio 4 Classic Serial, Sundays 3pm, repeated Saturdays 9pm).

Stephen Wyatt skilfully blends Dante, the middle-aged poet who narrates the poem, with Dante in old age, reflecting on his life and writing.  And so, painlessly, the listener is introduced to the historical and biographical background to the poem, notably Dante’s love for Beatrice, the political squabbles in Florence and Dante’s exile from his native city.  John Hurt’s voice is perfect for the older Dante.

Dante was the subject of Radio 4’s Great Lives last week.  The journalist Sarah Vine, a Dante enthusiast, and Claire Holness, professor of Italian studies at Leeds, talked about Dante’s greatness and his accessibility (don’t keep stopping to read the notes!).  I learnt that for Dante the three-fold journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise was merely the Commedia.  It was Boccaccio who added the Divina adjective, giving Dante’s work the title by which we know it today.  Sarah Vine and Claire Holness pointed out that the most memorable parts of the poem are the many characters Dante encounters in the course of his journey.

Because of these multiple characters the Divine Comedy is ideal for dramatisation – so many voices, so many personal stories to tell.  The poem also creates its own sound world – perfect for radio – the horrific cries and bitter regrets of those in hell for example.  The Medieval mind certainly knew how to make the punishment fit the crime.  There will, I am sure, be angelic music when we get to Paradise in the last episode.

But to me, the best part of the Divine Comedy is the relationship between Dante and his guide, Virgil.  Virgil is voiced by David Warner as a thoughtful matter-of-fact older man.  He has to deal with Dante the poet (played by Blake Ritson) who, despite being “at the mid-point of the path through life”, sometimes behaves childishly in his journey through the spiritual realms. Virgil’s “smile was kind,/As if aimed at a child that we can sway/With just an apple”.  Virgil gives patient answers to Dante’s persistent questioning.   Several times he has to speak firmly to Dante and tell him to pull himself together.  Virgil protects him from harm and extricates him from potential trouble.  Theirs is the close bond that develops between travelling companions. 

I started my second reading of the Divine Comedy in January (this time in the recent translation by Clive James).  I’ve been reading a canto each morning.  By a strange coincidence I finished the Inferno on the day my father died.  In the poem Dante calls Virgil “my master” to begin with, then “my guide” and “my friend”.  By the Purgatorio Virgil is calling Dante “my son” and Dante is calling him “father”.  When the time is near for their parting (Virgil has to hand over to Beatrice for the Paradiso) the sadness under the surface of the words is strong: “Don’t keep/A vigil any longer for my tongue”, says Virgil, “Move on.  You’ll never hear from me again”.  Dante does go on, walking through a beautiful forest, and encounters Beatrice.  He is overcome and turns to say to Virgil “Not a drop, not one/Of blood remains in me that does not shake”.  But “Virgil, who’d done so much for my sake,/Virgil my father, Virgil, he that came/For me ... now was gone.”

It is a picture of loss and grief so universal in human experience and yet still so moving.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014


Walking is not just a way of getting from A to B.   It’s not even about what you see along the way, though that’s important.  No, it’s a way of feeling, of understanding, of thinking. 

All this week Radio 3’s excellent late night (well, late for me because I am a lark, not an owl) series The Essay is devoted to walking and those comments above were from Ross Raisin who on Tuesday night described a walk in the Yorkshire Wolds (recently coined David Hockney country).  His talk included the niggles and hardships of walking as well as the delights.  He described something that has happened to me and other improvident walkers – arriving hungry at a village, expecting to buy a sandwich for lunch and finding that everything selling food has closed down.  He also talked about a persistent knee problem and the way he copes with it, not without humour. 

Sunday saw me heading with the dog to the Caldbeck Fells.  The days have passed the equinox and are gathering speed to make it to the solstice.  The clocks have gone forward.  The clear sunlight of early spring and the calm stillness lifts my mood.  It is, as they say in Shetland, “a given day”.

The moorland grass looks dry and withered.  I look along the streams on the lower slopes for marsh marigolds.  It’s a bit early yet, but there are still bright flashes of colour which catch my eye –
gold stars
school-room yellow
spring’s reward

Soon I pick up the song of a skylark.  I look up but can’t see it.  I am always amazed that such a small bird can voice a song which carries so far and so clearly.  Nowadays it’s a relief to hear a skylark in spring – their numbers have fallen to red alert conservation status.  So there’s at least one around here and hopefully more.  I meet a small group of walkers and we chat about – of course - the weather.  The song ceases.  But after the group has gone further down the valley and I have gone further up the hill I hear the song again – the same bird or another?

It’s not surprising that the magical sound of the skylark has been the subject of several poems by poets past and present.   I think of the ornate poem by George Meredith which inspired Vaughan Williams.  Sometimes I hear “The Lark Ascending” on the car radio in larkly improbable places (a supermarket car park off the Wigton Road in Carlisle, for example) and my mind immediately pictures the distant moors.

On Sunday I wrote in my notebook –