Sunday, 26 July 2015

THE AIRDRIE BOYS

Kirkcudbright is a small homely town in South West Scotland.  It’s built on a grid pattern and the terraced houses are fronted with an attractive mix of stone and pastel-coloured render.  Once a busy fishing harbour on the tidal Dee estuary off the Solway Firth it now promotes its “Artists’ Town” status.  Don’t expect St Ives, but there are plans to convert the rather down-at-heel town hall into an art gallery of national significance by the summer of 2017.

Every summer the town hall hosts a major exhibition.  This year it’s “The Airdrie Boys” – John Cunningham and Dan Ferguson – and this week I went to see the exhibition.  The two painters were born a year apart, both were educated at Airdrie Academy and Glasgow School of Art, both served in the armed forces in the 1940s and both did considerable stints of teaching – they could have been twins if Dan Ferguson had grown a beard!

John Cunningham’s work is immediately attractive with its bold brush strokes and bright colours.  His strength is his paintings of the West coast of Scotland and the islands.  I particularly liked the pictures of South Uist and Colonsay.  They made me wish I was there, standing on the white shell sand on a brilliant summer day (that piercingly clear light of the islands when the sun finally appears).  There were other landscapes, still lives and portraits, including some of the poet and academic, Alan Riach, John Cunningham’s nephew.  A few of Alan’s poems were reproduced for the exhibition, including the atmospheric “Calderbank nostalgia” looking back in imagination at a boyhood escapade of climbing on a shed roof –
    “You can see –
      All the way to Africa!”

I enjoyed Alan Riach’s description of Cunningham’s still life paintings: “Always they look fresh, depicted in that moment when you might stand and pause, take in what is presented, anticipate the prospect of a crisp apple or a succulent pear.  Give thanks, sing praise, take pleasure.”

That quotation captures the upbeat quality of Cunningham’s work which contrasts with the edginess of Dan Ferguson’s pictures.  Ferguson’s paintings are darker in colour and content.  He was an artist who experimented, took risks.  There were mystical canvasses with rainbows and angels and turbulent semi-abstract pictures (“Culzean Landscape” and “Breaking Wave”) where thickly applied paint physically enacted the storms it depicted.  Ferguson taught in schools in Glasgow’s East End and was profoundly moved by the experience.  “Dolly Walker”, “Scrap Yard”, “Back Court” show Glasgow’s mid 20th century urban deprivation – they are impressionistic portraits of people and places, complete with gang boys’ graffiti.  They reminded me of the Glasgow paintings of Joan Eardley, friend of the poet, Edwin Morgan.

Alan Riach’s “Elegy for Don Ferguson” picks out the painter’s use of shadow:
     “Your death is there to make the worth
       of colour, tone and emphasis –
       when shadows fall, they never fall in black ...
       Dan, stop my words.
       Tonight for you, I’ll think of all
       the colours of the world, moving.”

I drove back via Laurieston to see the red kites and Castle Douglas where I had a very sticky cake in a café.

“The Airdrie Boys” can be seen at Kirkcudbright Town Hall until 30 August (daily 10 – 5). 
More information at: 

Monday, 20 July 2015

GARDENS NEVER KEEP STILL

A few days ago I met up with an old school friend and her daughter at Dalemain, where we spent a happy afternoon wandering through the five acres of gardens. 

From the Georgian Terrace border we could look across to the fells, whose solid structural outlines contrasted with the profusion of tumbling summer flowers.  The Rose Walk was a delight of scent and colour – “the roses / Had the look of flowers that are looked at” as T S Eliot wrote in Four Quartets.  They leaned over the path towards us and I could almost hear them saying look at me.  Round the corner was “The moment of the yew tree” – the deep green needles of the yew hedge pricked with the small flame-red flowers of a nasturtium-like climber.  We sat for a while in the Gazebo, half-hidden behind a veil of clematis.

In the semi-wild garden we saw a few of the Dalemain blue poppies – late stragglers hanging on after the main flowers had seeded.  This garden has a charm of its own with the recumbent giantess and the topiary dragon (which I first mistook for a hippo).  There is an old summer house down by the Dacre Beck.  What a lovely place to write, I thought.

It’s said that a garden is the only work of art that never stays the same.  The semi-wild garden has a feel of work in progress – the topiary not quite grown enough, spaces cleared but not yet planted up, the summer house slowly disintegrating into the wood.  On the Georgian Terrace a rogue sycamore had shot up a metre high in the middle of a rose bush.  It was reassuring to see the occasional weed in these not far from perfect gardens.

Sometimes when I am out walking along old field paths and tracks I come across ghosts from earlier gardens – daffodils by a roofless gable, a cat’s cradle of feral rhododendrons by cracked stone steps, or deep pink escallonia blossoms almost obscuring a collapsed wall.

When I was a child one of our favourite family walks was to the top of Mynydd Anelog near the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula.  The path passed an isolated house high up on the slope of the hill.  We always peered over the fence at the beautifully tended cottage garden. 

His life

I took it for granted every year –
hollyhocks staked to cane masts,
nasturtiums snagged like tangled flags,
rows of potatoes lush by the outhouse
and at dusk a breath
of night-scented stock.

It was the way fuschia petals
splashed crimson
against lime-washed walls,
the sea threw back
a glow of roses and lupins
and outside the fence
heather and gorse
brashed the granite rocks
as I climbed to the cairn
where I could see
oil tankers, container ships
and on a clear evening
right out to Ireland.

It seems at first a mistake –
something has wrecked the field bank,
sheep-wire rolls in a ravel of rust,
windows are blind sockets
in the skull of the house

but at the back
among broken jam-jars,
a pocked enamel saucepan,
nettles and a smell of cat piss
suddenly I see
a thousand yellow flowers
senecio greyii
an old man’s farewell.

© Mary Robinson 2011
(First published in Gardeners’ World magazine June 2011)


Monday, 13 July 2015

CELEBRATING THE OUTSIDER

Alun Lewis was born 100 years ago this month.  A blue plaque has been unveiled on the house where he lived in South Wales and there is to be a conference on his writing at Aberystwyth University in the autumn.

An email from Literature Wales alerted me to this anniversary, so I flicked through several anthologies on my shelf to find ... nothing.  A search on the internet brought up "All Day It Has Rained", "The Peasants", "Karanje Village", "Goodbye" and "Postscript: for Gwenno".  I was pleased to discover that there is a Collected Poems, edited by Cary Achard.

Alun Lewis was born in the village of Cwmaman near Aberdare in the Cynon Valley on 1 July 1915.  His parents were both teachers and he won scholarships to grammar school and university, although his three brothers worked in the coal mines.  After working as a supply teacher he joined up ("I've been unable to settle the moral issue satisfactorily").

He was always an outsider - a Welshman writing in English, a pacifist who joined the army, a writer whose work was published in the war years but was ecclipsed by new postwar names.

Two of his poems, "Raider's Dawn" and "Song of Innocence" were published in the beautifully illustrated Caseg Broadsheets of Welsh Poetry.  His idea of creating low-priced publications led to the establishment of Caseg Press by Brenda Chamberlain and John Petts at Llanllechid near Caernarfon (Brenda Chamberlain is best known for her classic book on Bardsey Island, Tide Race).  Other writers published in the broadsheets series included Dylan Thomas and Lynette Roberts.

Alun Lewis's best work was written during the war in which he felt himself a misfit - "I always write against the tug of war and the horror and tedium of it."  His poem, "All Day It Has Rained" conveys that tedium.  It was written while he was stationed with the Royal Engineers at a military training camp.  The poem details the natural world and the activities of the soldiers:

"And we talked of girls and dropping bombs in Rome,
 And thought of the quiet dead and the loud celebrities
 Exhorting us to slaughter, and the herded refugees."

In the last verse he describes his most important memories, including walking with a "shaggy patient dog" in the steps of the writer Edward Thomas, one of the poets of the First World War "till a bullet stopped his song".  It was a bullet that stopped Alun Lewis's song too - fired from his own gun in Arakan, Burma in 1944.

But before this there were books - Raider's Dawn and Other Poems and The Last Inspection (short stories) both published in 1942.  After his death Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets: poems in transit (with a forward by Robert Graves who had encouraged Lewis and whose son had died in Arakan) and Letters from India were published.

In India and Burma Alun Lewis served as an army intelligence officer.  "The Peasants" is set in India:
"Across scorched hills and trampled crops
 The soldiers straggle by,
 History staggers in their wake.
 The peasants watch them die."

Fifty years after his death Alun Lewis's poems were finally gathered together into a Collected.  In a review (The Independent 27 February 1994) the late Bill Scammell wrote that the poetry reminds us "that 'war poet' is a contradiction in terms".  Why should we read him now? asks Scammell.  "Because his concerns are still ours."


Monday, 6 July 2015

BAA - THE POETRY OF SHEEP

Yesterday I went to an exhibition of patchwork quilts.  Beautiful, intricate work, many hours in the making.  The quilts reminded me of Margaret Atwood's brilliant novel Alias Grace where each section is named from a patchwork design.

In one room was a demonstration of needle felting with skeins of Texel wool.  I thought of a poetry discussion I led last week in which the subject of sheep poems came up - rather as an aside.  The only sheep poetry I could think of on the spur of the moment was by David Scott.  Anyone who has seen our native Cumbrian sheep will recognise them in "Herdwick" - "their Quaker grey heads", sheep who travel "at a tinker's pace, their wagon of rags / splashed with ochre".  In his companion poem, "Flanking Sheep in Mosedale" he writes of the sheep "strewn like crumbs / across the fell".

I turned to R S Thomas, a poet who spent much of his life amongst sheep farmers.  I found his early "The Welsh Hill Country" where the sheep are "arranged romantically in the usual manner / On a bleak background of bald stone" but to get that far in the poem you must first encounter "The fluke and the foot-rot and the fat maggot."

Sheep poems tend to be more about sheep husbandry than sheep - for example Norman MacCaig's "Sheep dipping" in which a man ticks (note the pun) "in a glossy book / the tally of the just baptised".

Gillian Clarke is a sheep farmer as well as a poet.  She has a short sequence of sheep poems in Five Fields from "Flesh" ("the wethers walk to their death") to the new life of "A Difficult Birth Easter 1998" (juxtaposed with the news of the Northern Irish peace negotiations) and "A Very Cold Lamb".  My sheep farming friends can identify that moment when lambs start "warming to the idea of staying alive".

The foot and mouth epidemic hit Cumbria particularly hard.  Another shepherd poet, Josephine Dickinson, devoted much of The Voice to chronicling the outbreak.  "Good Friday 2001" juxtaposes - to devastating effect - Biblical phrases about the paschal lamb with descriptions of the sheep cull.

A lighter touch (but not light-weight - she has a Simone Weil epigraph) is Kerry Hardie's "Sheep Fair Day" with its arresting opening sentence: "I took God with me to the sheep fair."  I found the poem in the popular anthology Being Alive.

In midwinter I am often wake before dawn (not difficult this far north!).  On a frosty mornings I notice the sheep next to our house huddled together in a flock in the middle of the field.  I assume this is some instinct to avoid hedges where foxes might lurk.  Also safety in numbers - closing ranks against possible predators.  Michael Longley notices a similar phenomenon in "The Fold" (from A Hundred Doors):
     "Why would the ewes and their lambs
       Assemble as though hypnotised
       Around the cottage?"
In the poem the "darkness and quiet" are "folding / All the sheep of Carrigskeewaun", and their wool provides a comfort blanket for his granddaughter, Catherine, "asleep in her crib / This midnight, our lambing time."  (My favourite sheep poem)

But, despite a long tradition of the Pastoral in English literature, I don't think any writer has quite captured the sheepness of sheep.  By contrast Thom Gunn writes convincingly from a dog's viewpoint in his "Yoko" and Les Murray from the point of view of cattle in "The Cows on Killing Day" (you can find this poem at www.poetryfoundation.org).

After writing this post I discovered that Candlestick Press had published Ten Poems about Sheep.  It includes two of the poems I mention and confirms my suspicions - "very few poets actually write about sheep" (Neil Astley in the introduction).  There is scope for more sheep poems.