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.