Saturday, 26 March 2016



A hill-side

          winter thorns

© Mary Robinson 2015

Saturday, 19 March 2016


It was one of those strange coincidences.  Radio 4 devoted a whole poetry programme to the life and poetry of Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown in its Poetry Please slot on Sunday.  The following day I was listening to the beautiful lilting melody of ‘Farewell to Stromness’ on the car radio – the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, George Mackay Brown’s close friend, collaborator and fellow Orcadian, had died.

I’d been alerted to the George Mackay Brown programme by a friend but didn’t get round to listening to it until later in the week.  There was a good selection of his work, input from his biographer Maggie Fergusson, and even a reading of Edwin Muir’s classic poem ‘The Horses’.  I knew Muir had been born and spent his early childhood in Orkney but I had forgotten that he had also been Warden of Newbattle Abbey adult education college where he greatly encouraged George Mackay Brown. 

As I listened to the programme I remembered that George Mackay Brown and Peter Maxwell Davies had undertaken several collaborations together.  The composer was originally from Salford but he went to Orkney in the summer of 1970.   He started reading George Mackay Brown’s An Orkney Tapestry in his hotel room and immediately musical ideas started to form in his mind.  The next day he took the ferry to the island of Hoy where he met George Mackay Brown who was visiting friends at Rackwick.  It poured with rain.

When I went to Orkney some years ago people said ‘When you go to Hoy you must go to Rackwick’.  So I did.  Arriving at Lyness on Hoy by car ferry was a shock.  Abandoned Navy buildings were strung along the road -  a depressing scene of dereliction.  Thousands of naval personnel were stationed on Hoy during the Second World War (it was a vital defensive base, guarding the strategic route between the Atlantic and the North Sea).  But next day I went over to Rackwick.  The path passed Loch Sandy with its red-throated divers, climbed up to a pass between Hoy’s highest hills and then dropped down to a deep remote valley, beautifully light and green and facing south to the Pentland Firth.  There were a few scattered crofts, sheer rocky cliffs and a wide boulder-strewn beach.  I could see why people said I must visit Rackwick and I could see why Peter Maxwell Davies decided to live there and compose.

I heard Peter Maxwell Davies’ Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise played with great enthusiasm by the Northern Sinfonia a few years ago.  The piece was written after the composer had attended a Homecoming  (a traditional celebration for those unable to attend the wedding itself) for the Rendalls at Rackwick.  It’s great fun, especially the bit where the musicians are supposed to pass the whisky round and slump into a tipsy stupor.  The players revive and the dawn of a new day is symbolised by the dramatic arrival of a piper – on this occasion the piper was Evelyn Glennie, better known as a brilliant percussionist.

It was Rackwick that provided the inspiration for Peter Maxwell Davies’ setting of George Mackay Brown’s poem, ‘Lullaby for Lucy’.  The poem was written to celebrate the arrival of the first child to be born in Rackwick for over three decades.  It is an acrostic on the baby’s name, Lucy Rendall, the daughter of the couple whose Homecoming inspired Orkney Wedding.  The lullaby was performed at Lucy’s own wedding in St Magnus’ Cathedral, Kirkwall, in 2005.

Peter Maxwell Davies and George Mackay Brown collaborated on over twenty pieces.  Together they started and ran the St Magnus Festival, a festival which combines music and poetry.  Past participants have included Carol Ann Duffy, Seamus Heaney, Jackie Kay, Gwynedd Lewis, Liz Lochhead, Andrew Motion and Don Paterson.

There’s a Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown published by John Murray but my 2005 edition does not include the collaboration with photographer Gunnie Moberg, Orkney Pictures and Poems.  The short lyrical poems contain, in my view, some of his best work (and the photographs are stunning in their elegant simplicity).  Here’s the end of the prefatory poem, a fitting epitaph to composer and poet:

We may note, page by page, the new
And the old works of time; how all
     Fall into ruins, or go dancing
     Towards green April harps.
     Forever, somewhere are joy and dancing.

Sunday, 13 March 2016


At the end of a course on the Metaphysical Poets one of my students said, "Thank you for making me think".  It is very satisfying to stimulate the brain into exploring new ideas and perceptions.

That's what Words by the Water has been doing for the last 10 days.   There is a real buzz and long after a speaker has walked off the stage the discussions continue in the cafes and the foyer of the theatre.  Not for nothing is it called a Festival of Words and Ideas.

There's been a lot to take in.  Janet Denny gave an excellent talk on her book, The Man on the Mantlepiece, about the father she never knew.  Patrick Cockburn, the renowned Middle Eastern journalist based in Baghdad, gave us an intelligent, balanced and thoughtful view of the current situation in Iraq and Syria.  Alice Roberts gave an enthusiastic and engaging lecture on the Celts - with no notes.  Andrew Dickson shared his research about Shakespeare reading and performances across the Globe - reminding us that themes such as exile, war and divided families are as relevant today as they have ever been.  Particularly moving was his photograph of the Robben Island 'Bible' (a smuggled and disguised Shakespeare Complete Works) open at the page signed by Nelson Mandela where he had marked the lines in Julius Caesar -

Cowards die many times before their deaths:
The valiant never taste of death but once
... death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

The highlight of the poetry events was Grevel Lindop's reading from his latest (and best I think!) collection Luna Park.  It would have been good to have a bigger audience (but he was in competition with Dermot Turing and the film about his uncle, Alan Turing) but those who were there loved the reading.  Grevel was the judge of the biennial Mirehouse poetry competition and as usual the awards ceremony in the lovely surroundings of the garden barn at Mirehouse was a special occasion.  We heard all the shortlisted poems and the winning poem, "What We Learned in the Shorthand Room".  Many congratulations to Alison Carter.  The poem ends, "thin stroke, thick stroke, 'Love life', "Love life'."

Finally, the flood appeal reading was fun.  I started off fairly seriously with three watery poems but by the end Taffy Thomas (in his lovely storytelling garb) and Brindley Hallam Dennis helped us let our hair down.  Mike (alias BHD) read one of his Kowalski monologues and sent us home laughing.  From beginning to end all ten of us were well-behaved and stuck strictly to our allotted time of 6 minutes.

All this thinking and I'm festivaled out but I think the impulse of the last 10 days will stay with me for a long time.

Sunday, 6 March 2016


Or to give it its full title Peat Matters and Climate Science in the Northern Peatlands. 

It sounds a bit of a mouthful but it was a privilege to chair this session, the first of the Words by the Water talks this year.  University of Northumbria Geographer Professor John Woodward and artist Lionel Playford were engaging and informative speakers.  John Woodward led us gently through some of his research into the history of climate change (on a millennial scale) and the techniques he uses when taking samples from peat bogs and Antarctic glaciers.  Far from being an ivory tower academic he often collaborates, and his collaboration with Lionel Playford  has resulted in some stunning landscape paintings and collages.  Lionel has used some of John’s samples (peat and clay) as art materials. He is literally drawing with the landscape.  The range of warm browns results in evocative images of peat moorland.  The collages include scientific printed material superimposed on landscape images.  The exhibition is on in the Friends’ Gallery all this month and is well worth a visit.  (There’s a poetry connection here because Lionel collaborated with poet, Josephine Dickinson, and film maker, Alastair Simmons on Earth Journey which was exhibited at the festival in 2010).

On Friday evening we had our Eden Poets poetry reading.  Our chair Christopher Burns did his best to keep seven female poets in order and amazingly we all stuck to his six minutes each schedule.  I read three of my lighter Shakespeare poems, which take two minutes each.  As I was the last reader I was able to read my ‘Puck’ poem based on the Midsummer Night’s Dream stage direction ‘Enter Puck with a broom’ (my prop was a broom from B & M Bargains).  The audience listened to all of us and made appropriately appreciative noises every so often.  There wasn’t a lot of time for questions at the end but someone (male) asked about gender – Do you have to be female to be an Eden Poet?  Our convenor, Jacci Bulman, explained No, you don’t.  But we’ve managed to get rid of two male poets who came for a while (in fact they both moved away from the area).  It was encouraging that several members of the audience stayed behind to chat to us and bought books.  Quite a few people said how much they enjoyed the mix of subjects, styles and voices – no time to get bored!  A few of us unwound afterwards over a meal at an Italian in Keswick and a drink at the Square Orange (where years ago I did a short poetry reading with Chris Pilling in a break in the Keswick Film Festival).

The highlight of the next day was hearing John Gimlette speak on Sri Lanka, a place with several links to Western writers, including Leonard Woolf, who worked in the Ceylon Civil Service for seven years and wrote a novel set there called The Village in the Jungle, and Arthur C Clarke, the famous science fiction writer, who made his home on the island for over 50 years). 

John Gimlette spent a long time researching Sri Lanka and then travelled around it for three months.  His illustrated talk was fascinating and very professional (not all writers are good speakers!) and kept us enthralled by such a beautiful and enigmatic place.  He did not shirk from telling us about the bloody civil war but he also told us of advanced civilizations of the past and the wealth of wild life (7,300 elephants and the world’s largest concentration of leopards in a country the size of Ireland).  My interest was quickened because my family has personal associations with Sri Lanka.  My father was based there with the RAF during the Second World War until the surrender of Japan.  He moved round to different bases and spent all his spare time exploring the island, including climbing Adam’s Peak.  We have some photographs of the elephants that he used to move heavy gas cylinders (at one stage my father was making oxygen for troop ships bringing the wounded from Burma).  In 2008 one of my sons went for a month on a Durham university archaeological survey of the island and afterwards travelled round following in his grandfather’s footsteps.  His request to walk through an old RAF base now occupied by the Singhalese army was politely but firmly refused with a warm handshake.

It’s only a couple of days into the festival and there is plenty to look forward to before it finishes in a week’s time.  Tomorrow I have booked for Janet Denny’s talk on her book about her father, Amy Liptrot on her return to Orkney and Patrick Cockburn on the so-called IS.  Then Tuesday night is the flood fund raising reading in which I am taking part.  I’ll be opening the reading with a few of my poems.  There is plenty happening later in the week including Jim Crumley’s beavers (the animals, not the juvenile boy scouts), Grevel Lindop’s poetry reading and the Mirehouse poetry event.

I woke early this morning to find a very light snowfall frosting everything.  The fell tops were clear white peaks which looked nearer physically but more strange and remote in mood.  Light and shade were sharply etched and the lake ripples caught by the low sunlight looked like fractured glass.  It was one of those rare mornings when the sky is a pure winter blue and lifts the heart.

When the festival and the weather unite in this way Keswick is the perfect place to be. go to Leverhulme Project 2013-2015

Tuesday, 1 March 2016


St David's Day.  Only three days to go until the start of Words by theWater, the festival of words and ideas at Keswick.  I think that this year, because of the severe floods in December, Keswick needs the buzz which the festival brings to the town more than ever.   The festival has become an annual feature of the Cumbrian literary calendar and it's always exciting to see which authors are going to be speaking.

In the past few years there have been complaints about the shortage of poetry events so I am pleased to see that this year there are nine poetry events planned - and there is something for everyone.

The popular participation events, the Poetry Breakfast and the Mirehouse Poetry Competition, have been reinstated.  There are a variety of contemporary poetry readings from Grevel Lindop, Christopher Matthew (famous for Now We Are Sixty), and the Eden Poets.  Poets will join other Cumbrian writers for the flood fund raising reading.  Maggie How, Hideyuki Sobue and Gary Boswell will explain Wordsworth's influence and inspiration for their work.  Jonathan Bate will talk on Ted Hughes and Grevel Lindop will talk on Charles Williams.

Beyond the poetry I am looking forward to hearing, amongst others, Linda Cracknell on walking, John Gimlette on Sri Lanka, Amy Liptrot on Orkney, and Alice Roberts (yes, she of Coast fame) on the Celts.  So many talks, so little time!

One special event for me is Janet Denny's talk on her book The Man on the Mantelpiece.  I first met Janet about two and a half years ago and she told me she was writing a book about her father, a once ardent pacifist who ended up flying in RAF Bomber Command in the Second World War.  A year ago Janet was agonising over the cover design.  Now the book is out and it is a fascinating read.

The festival is always stimulating, frequently hectic (for me at least!).  There is the pleasure of catching up with old friends and the serendipity of meeting new people in chance conversations over coffee.

I hope to see you there!