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.”