Friday, 26 October 2018


I stepped back in time when I entered the kitchen.

The floor was paved with huge slabs of slate, about a yard wide.  A coal fire was burning in the grate of a black range.  I noticed the baking oven and a fire crane holding a soot-encrusted kettle.  No sign of a tap - the water had to be carried in from a mountain stream which ran nearby.   A Welsh dresser, filled with willow pattern plates, took up most of one wall  - I suspect it had not been moved into the kitchen but built there.   On the worn wooden table there was a large Bible, the front page inscribed with the names of children born into the family.  A grandfather clock ticking in the corner made no impact on the passing of a hundred years.

On Saturday I visited Yr Ysgwrn (near Trawfynydd), the home of the poet, Hedd Wyn (Ellis Humphrey Evans).    The house has been lovingly preserved by the Snowdonia National Park authority.

In Wales the moving story of Hedd Wyn is well-known.    The gifted poet died at Ypres in 1917.  Before his death he had sent off a poem for the Welsh national eisteddfod, and subsequently the poem won the highest honour (the chair) for a poem in traditional Welsh form.    At the awards ceremony the winner's name was called three times, then the empty chair was brought in draped with a black cloth.  By a strange coincidence the craftsman who made the chair was a Belgian refugee who came from a place not far from Ypres.  The chair has pride of place in what was the old parlour at Yr Ysgwrn.

The film Hedd Wyn (1992 Welsh, with English subtitles), based on the poet's life, won several awards and was the first Welsh film to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in the US.

On Sunday I went to the latest exhibition at Oriel Plas Glyn y Weddw at Llanbedrog.  I was fascinated by the work of James Laughton who is showing a series of oil paintings entitled Copper, Slate and Stone.  

These are pictures of old quarries and mines at Nefyn, Trefor, Nant Gwrtheyrn, Dinorwig and Parys.  The old workings are enormous, and although man-made seem to be the work of giants.  A tiny lime-washed farmhouse is perched above the great space of the open cast copper mine.  A pair of ravens tumble above the vertiginous depths of the mine.   He has captured the eerie silence of such abandoned chasms where the only sound is the plink of a drop of condensation hitting a pool or the occasional clatter of a stone rearranging itself in a quarry.

What James Laughton does best is light - this is what makes his pictures so outstanding.  I was not surprised to learn that he admires the work of Turner.  In 'Corridor, Dinorwig' shafts of light are reflected in the greenish-blue water that has collected in the mine.  Another picture shows the blinding light at the end of a railway tunnel in the same mine.  He catches the way sunlight breaks through storm clouds to illuminate so briefly the rock face of an old quarry.  It is as if the light has a texture like gauze, that could be dispelled at a touch.

I read in the Guardian this week that this shattered landscape is to be nominated for Unesco world heritage status.  Michael Ellis is quoted as saying: 'Gwynedd's slate landscape is hugely important.  Its vast quarries and mines have not only shaped the countryside of the region but also countless buildings across the UK and the world.'

There's a ghostly enchantment about James Naughton's paintings of the old workings, a strangely beautiful devastation.

Hedd Wyn's home         
Plas Glyn y Weddw gallery
James Naughton           

Thursday, 18 October 2018


Skiddaw sulked under its cap of cloud, but as I drove over Dunmail Raise the weatherscape changed.  The late afternoon sun lit up the Vale of Grasmere and the slanting light chiselled each rock on the fellside into sharp relief.  Every shade of autumn was visible - from the iron oxide brown of the dying bracken to the delicate gold foil of silver birch leaves.

I was in Grasmere to read at the launch of This Place I Know, the new anthology of Cumbrian Poetry edited by Kerry Darbyshire, Kim Moore and Liz Nuttall, and beautifully produced by Handstand Press of Dent.  Lovely cover design by Angie Mitchell.

The Jerwood Centre was fully booked.  After brief introductions including some opening words by Grevel Lindop (who wrote the foreword to the anthology) about 20 of us read in the sacred room lined with the Wordsworth Trust's collection of manuscripts and books.  And (here's a first for me) - we were live-streamed on Facebook for anyone who couldn't get there to watch.

What a wonderful evening it proved to be - both for readers and the (very attentive) audience.  I want to single out two readers in particular: Hannah Hodgson and Josephine Dickinson.  Hannah read her brave poem 'The Fells Whispered Goodbye'.  Hannah is one of the youngest poets in the anthology but, due to an incurable illness, she is no longer able to climb the fells and come home with 'earth clinging to my boots'.  The last verse of her poem is very moving:
   'The fell wrapped its arms
    around my shoulders,
    whispered "goodbye" in the wind
    and let me go.'
Josephine Dickinson read her concrete poem 'Snow'.  On the page the poem is a blizzard of small print with no spaces between the snow-words.  Josephine read it in a fast whispered voice with occasional gradations in volume.  Sometimes the words were recognisable but often not - it was a snowstorm of sound and we were captivated by the originality of the poem (or should I call it a poetic installation?).

This Place I Know throws its net wide.  There are poems by 92 writers in the anthology (if I've counted correctly).  The editors made the decisions on which poems to include and the book is not meant to be representative of the work of individual writers, rather it is meant to be representative of contemporary writing about Cumbria .  In this it succeeds excellently, giving us an extraordinarily varied selection (you will not get bored reading it!).

The contents of the anthology give an answer to Robert MacFarlane's words (from The Old Ways) quoted on the opening page:
   'What do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else?'
This Place I Know costs £10
Go to the Wordsworth Trust's Facebook page and you should be able to find Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum's streaming of the event.
17 November at Maryport Literature Festival
18 November at Kendal Mountain Festival

Friday, 12 October 2018


Upper Close, Lower Close, Cank Hill, Middle Cans, Park Close, Far Close.

Those were the names of the fields on my parents' small-holding in Warwickshire.  The names were on a plan in the deeds and they were in daily use.

'I'm going to move the cattle onto Cank Hill.'
'Can you help with the potatoes in Lower Close?'

Upper Close had an old marl pit in one corner where the cattle would shelter in bad weather.  A stream ran along one side of three of the fields, weaving in and out of our neighbour's property so that livestock on both sides of the fence could have access to fresh water.  Middle Cans had a side entrance to a badger set (the main part of the set was further up the hill behind our land).  Cank Hill was too steep to mow but it had a gate onto the road, a useful short cut when walking up to the village.  Far Close was always boggy and meadowsweet flourished there in the summer.  Park Close was only separated from its adjoining field by straggly overgrown pear and apple trees.  The humps and hollows in the grass may have been a remnant of medieval ridge and furrow cultivation.

When I moved to Cumbria I noticed that one large agricultural estate had nailed numbers to gateposts - no fancy field names for their contract tractor drivers.

I've been reading Jim Carruth's collection Black Cart (Freight Poetry 2017).  The book is beautifully designed and has footers running along each page.  In the first section the footers are the names of the fields of High Auchensale, Jim's family farm.   In the second they are the names of types of grasses (no mention of the ubiquitous rye grass) and in the third the names of farms which have given up dairying and sold their land.

The book is part record, part celebration, part lament for a farming generation.  Jim Carruth grew up on the family farm near Kilbarchan, not far from Johnstone, Renfrewshire, and Glasgow's outer edges.  There are similarities with the rural backgrounds of Seamus Heaney, Gillian Clarke and Les Murray.  Jim Carruth (born 1963) writes about mechanised farming but is also aware of post-war changes (Clydesdales superseded by tractors) and more recent events (the foot and mouth outbreak).

The book is truly pastoral [to do with flocks and herds], in a tradition that goes back to classical times (epigraphs from Virgil preface each section).  A quote from Les Murray on the back cover states 'It is the hope of Jim Carruth to restore agricultural writing and the depth of its detail'.  I like that phrase 'agricultural writing'.  It avoids the romantic and idealistic overtones that have accrued to literary concepts of pastoral over the centuries.

 The front cover flap of Black Cart describes the book as 'a love poem to a rural community'.  The collection is not nostalgic but elegiac - 'a moving testament to a lost generation of family, friends, farmers and farms.'

What comes across to me most strongly in Black Cart is the poet's bond to the people of the land and their bond to the land itself (field names included).

Monday, 1 October 2018


Perugia, Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria

I found it in a basket of eggs.

I struggle with religious art: the repetitive subject matter, so many pictures in which the only women are Madonnas or Magdalenes, so much iconography I don't understand.  I feel like an alien in a strange land.  I need something that can connect me to this world so many centuries before my own.

I think of Dante, contemporary with some of the paintings I am looking at in the gallery.  He wrote from the viewpoint of medieval Christianity but was strongly critical of individual popes and clerics and of the abuses and hoarded wealth of the church.  This doesn't help me relate to the paintings with their lavish use of expensive pigments and gold.

But then I notice a small narrow panel, depicting the Nativity.  it was painted in 1425 by Rossellio di Jacopo Franchi.  The Madonna is standing, looking serious.  Joseph is seated with a puzzled expression on his face.  It is as if both of them are struggling with the shock of parenthood for the first time.  They appear to have had words - hardly surprising given their inadequate accommodation.

The ox and the ass put their heads above the manger, from which the infant Jesus seems to have slipped.  The animals' portraits are as realistic as those of the human figures.  I imagine a farmer fondling the hair on their foreheads as he shuts them in the stable after a day's hard work.

To the right of the scene two shepherds have turned up.  They wear knee-length tunics and tights, a functional fashion so everyday in the 15th century that it has become today an instantly recognisable cliche of amateur pageants and plays.

The brief (? too brief) description beside the panel states that it is a predella, that is, a painting along the horizontal frame at the bottom of an altar-piece.  Originally it would have been dominated by the important, now absent, middle part of the painting.  But, being at a lower level, the predella would catch the eye of the worshipper going to receive the sacrament.

One of the shepherds is carrying a wicker basket, a present for the Christ child.  I look closely and see that it is a basket of eggs.  Perhaps the eggs were destined for the next day's market and the shepherd had grabbed them impulsively, feeling he should bring something and that was the only thing he could think of.

What a wonderfully practical gift.  The holy family - no room at the inn - would have been forced into self-catering, Mary had to keep her strength up and there were all those visitors to feed.  Soon they would have to flee into Egypt - there might be a few boiled eggs left to take on the journey.

No doubt there is some iconographic significance that I have missed - the eggs as a symbol of the resurrection maybe?  But I like to think that a woman kneeling to receive the host on her tongue in 1425 would have been as charmed by that basket of eggs as I am so many centuries later.