Monthly Archives: March 2014

Poetic Junketings

It’s a common perception that poets spend all their time scribbling away in lonely garrets. Well, some of the time that’s true, but we also love a good social occasion; and you’ll find that groups meeting to workshop their poems, as well as festivals and readings can all be fairly uproarious affairs.

One of the highlights of the social year for poets is the annual gathering in the Ballroom of the Savile Club in London, when the winners of the National Poetry Competition and the winner of the Ted Hughes Award are both announced and invited to read to the assembled company of literary glitterati. Wine flows freely, we are constantly plied with canapés, we applaud the fortunate winners, meet up with old friends and make new ones. It all makes for a very jolly evening.

This year I was particularly struck by how far the Poetry Society has travelled in the last few years. The sticky period is now well in the past and there is a wonderfully positive and Judith Palmer 5supporting atmosphere. Much of the credit for this goes, of course, to Judith Palmer and her excellent staff. They have worked tirelessly to bring off an amazing transformation and are to be congratulated not only on the way they have put right things that were wrong, but have also launched out into new and exciting endeavours.

The Ted Hughes Award was set up by Carol Ann Duffy when she became Poet Laureate, and
Carol Ann 4generously offered to donate her annual honorarium from HM the Queen to fund the £5000 prize each year. It is a little different from other prizes, honouring both excellence and innovation in poetry. This year the prize was won by Maggie Sawkins for her multimedia live literature production, ‘Zones of Avoidance’, which explores and reflects on her daughter’s descent into drug addiction.

You can read some of Maggie’s poem on the Poetry Society website; but here’s a taste:

I’m reading ‘The Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ – Maggie Sawkins reduced 4
I want to understand what drove my daughter out in the snow

with no coat or socks, in search of a fix.
I want to understand what divinity led her

to set up camp in the derelict ‘pigeon house’
after running out of sofas to surf.

For those of us who write, our writing is often a way of trying to make sense of experience, attempting to understand ourselves, other people and the world as well as to celebrate it.

Linda France cropped 6Congratulations, too, to Linda France, who has won the 2013 National Poetry Competition for her poem ‘Bernard and Cerinthe’. With well over 12,000 entries, the winning poem is likely to be a bit special, and Linda’s poem certainly is. I’d like to insert an extract from the poem here, but it all hangs together so beautifully that it doesn’t feel right to take bits out. So buy the latest Poetry Review and read this wonderful poem in full. Congratulations should also go to the three judges, Julia Copus, Matthew Sweeney and Jane Yeh who undertook the mammoth task of reading all those thousands of poems. Obviously judging poetry competitions is always subjective, but it is impressive that these three were unanimous in their choice of first prize.

Two prizes of £5000 each on one night makes it sound as though poets get a cushily life; but the reality for the vast majority of poets is that, apart from a trickle of financial reward from publications, small competition wins and readings, love and satisfaction are the main rewards they are likely to reap for their all-absorbing commitment to writing. But on an evening like the one I’m describing here, there’s also the fun of being part of a lively and talented community and spending an evening with like-minded people for whom poetry matters immensely.

Words by the Water 5


After a busy, but relaxing, holiday in the Lake District, attending events at the Words by the Water Festival, I’ve returned to a mountain of urgent work; so this final blog of the festival will of necessity contain slightly less information about the talks and readings than some of the earlier ones.

Claire Langhamer & Paul reduced

To continue where I left off last time, on Friday morning Claire Langhamer (pictured left with Paul Brassley) talked about The English in Love, quoting such diverse sources as Agony Aunts and the Mass Observation Archive of 1937.

I then moved on to a session on George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Rebecca Mead 1 reducedWhen I was booking tickets, I was somewhat surprised that this event was the one that nearly sold out on the first day. Rebecca Mead, who is now a journalist on the New York Times, was interviewed before a capacity audience in the Studio. She outlined how her early life followed, to some extent, a similar pattern to that of George Eliot’s, as she escaped a small rural community (in Rebecca’s case by going up to Oxford). Middlemarch was initially serialised, and Mead shared an amusing anecdote about a bishop at the time being discovered at a conference reading the latest instalment of Middlemarch which was tucked into the hat on his lap.

Lynn Segal 1 reducedWe had received news by this time that Melissa Benn was unable to share the session on  ‘Ages of Feminism’ with Lynne Segal because her father was very ill. We were therefore not over-surprised, though we were extremely sad, to hear that morning that Tony Benn had died. Lynne Segal was up to the challenge of filling the allotted hour, and she spoke movingly about the disappointment of observing the state of our country and politics now, after both Socialism and Feminism had fought so hard for something better.

Jeremy Hardy 2 reduced

I had not heard the comedian, Jeremy Hardy, before, and enjoyed his event, ‘Not Raving but Frowning’, that evening. I reserve the right to suggest that the ‘f’ word was used rather too frequently and often unnecessarily; but the act was very good and Hardy came across as a delightful, sensitive, politically acute and very funny person.

The subject of Linda Colley’s talk, ‘United Kingdoms’, has a special interest in this year when Linda Colley 2 reducedpart of our United Kingdom is at risk of secession. Colley guided us back through some of the landmarks of our various unions: 1536 – between England and Wales, 1603 – James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England, 1707 – Parliamentary union, 1800 – GB and Ireland, 1922 – United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. She pointed out that all of these unions took place in periods of war, whereas times of peace tend to produce calls for reorganisation and separatism. She also reflected on the present increasingly obvious North-South Divide; and there was some discussion with the audience about the possibility and value of Regional Assemblies.

Paul McMahon reducedOn Saturday afternoon, Paul McMahon spoke on the subject of ‘Food Glorious Food’, based on his book Feeding Frenzy in which he addresses the question of whether it is possible to feed the world’s population as it rises to nine billion by the middle of this century. He assured us that there is enough land and enough water to allow sufficient food to be produced. At present one in eight people on the planet is hungry and one in five is obese; there is land degradation, flooding and erosion; the prices of raw commodities are rising, and consequently so are food prices; in the US, 40% of the grain crop is used for biofuel; there is growing competition from the East, and speculation causes problems. McMahon advocated 1) helping small farmers in poor countries, 2) putting ecology at the centre of food production, 3) making financial markets work for food security and 4) learning how to ‘love’ high food prices. I was disappointed that no mention was made of vegetarianism. It has been acknowledged since at least the 1960s that if people would reduce their consumption of meat, there would be easily enough food to go round.

Germaine Greer reducedI had heard Germaine Greer lecture before and been impressed by her, so went to her talk on ‘The Rainforest Years’. Greer was not as incisive as last time I heard her, but it was interesting to hear a little about her work to restore a sixty hectare area of Queensland in Australia, which she took on as a challenge and as something where she could have an effect. Greer’s love of and knowledge of zoology, and her passion for the environment, are both impressive.

Colin Tudge 2 reduced

On Sunday morning Colin Tudge spoke on the subject his latest book, ‘Why genes are not selfish and people are nice’. I’ve done a little work in this area myself, so was keen to hear what Tudge had to say. Tudge has been involved in the Campaign for Real Farming, and urges an enlightened agriculture. He also believes that life in all its forms is intrinsically cooperative, and that therefore cooperativeness is the best survival tactic.

I would like to have stayed in Keswick to hear the talk on ‘Malala’ later on Sunday afternoon, but it was imperative that I got home that night so I had to give that one a miss. The last presentation I was able to attend at the festival, therefore, was given by Pedro Ferreira on ‘Einstein, Relativity and Perfection’.

Pedro Ferreira 1 reducedIt was good to end on a real high. Ferreira, who is a Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford, is another of those wonderfully bright academics who are such a joy to observe and listen to. He was bubbling with excitement about the news that was going to break the next day about Gravitational Waves – predicted by Einstein 100 years ago – and he explained something of the research and discovery to us. In a talk ranging over General Relativity and our modern understanding of gravity, Quantum Mechanics, Dark Matter and little green men, I suppose this highly personable Portuguese scholar was bound to lose me from time to time; but he never made his audience feel stupid, or risk losing our attention.

Congratulations to Kay Dunbar and Stephen Bristow on another great festival. We thoroughly enjoyed the events, and also revelled in our wonderful position on the shore of Derwentwater and our daily walks to the theatre. The scenery changed every day: we watched as the snow on the mountains gradually diminished, we observed the lake water encroach on our van in the storm and then return to its proper bounds, we ate outside when the sun shone, saw enough daffodils to keep Wordsworth happy for many a year, and we enjoyed spending time with lots of old and new friends.

photo

Words by the Water 4: a brief visual interlude

As I shall be without internet access for the next couple of days, my final blog on this year’s Words by the Water will not be posted until I return to civilisation.

So, by way of something different, here is a small taste of some of the beauty we’ve encountered outside the portals of the Theatre by the Lake this week.

Snow on mountains reduced

wood hand sculpture reduced

lichen 1 reduced???????????????????????????????

tree cup reduced

silver birch reduced

Radical reduced

Keswick church & fells reduced

Large stone at Castlerigg reduced

Lake view reduced

 

Little daffodils reduced

misty lake reduced

H beside Windermere 1 reduced

gnarled tree reduced

Words by the Water 3

Derwentwater reduced

After the storm on our first night here — with six inches of rain overnight — we’ve been enjoying fantastic weather for the last few days, with nearly all meals now taken outside. Also hugely enjoyable were the two talks by amazingly bright and charismatic speakers on Tuesday: Tom Holland and George Monbiot.

Tom Holland (pictured here with Stephen Bristow) has recently translated the whole of Herodotus, so his talk was entitled Herodotus Tom Holland & Steve reducedand the Ancient World. His portrayal of Herodotus, the first historian, as a precursor of Google might have been a little fanciful, but in terms of following threads within the Histories, going off at tangents to investigate and pursue something of current fascination and skimming to find the bits of most interest, there were certainly some parallels.

Herodotus was writing between 440 and 430BC, and he lived in Ionia, in modern-day Turkey. His stories of the Persian Wars were what first attracted Holland to him at the age of 11, and Holland has loved his work ever since. It took him six years to translate the Histories, taking one paragraph every day without fail, regardless of holidays or any other excuses for not writing.

I must admit to being a fan of George Monbiot’s, so was delighted that he was featuring at the George Monbiot 3 reducedfestival. From the applause at the end of his talk it was evident that I wasn’t the only one to appreciate his entertaining and informative lecturing style, his wide-ranging interests and his quirky sense of humour.

George was talking about his recent book, Rewilding: the talk began with elephants, proceeded through hedge-laying, upland farming and the ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ and took in  a range of megafauna, farming subsidies and reforestation. His main thesis is that we should be returning the country — or at least a good part of it — to forest, and that the (beautiful) bare fells of the Lake District, with their attendant extensive sheep-farming, are bad for the environment. He would also like to re-introduce some to the species of fauna that we’ve lost, such as beavers and pine martens. I hadn’t realised before that the presence of pine martens can actually increase the incidence of red squirrels. Apparently they were introduced into Ireland some time ago, and as they chase squirrels, the greys cannot get away from them while the lighter, more agile, reds are able to find protection at the ends of branches; so the greys are diminishing while the reds are increasing.

Monbiot’s message, which was characterised by hope rather than pessimism, is one of positive environmentalism. There were Lakeland farmers in the audience who were not happy about Monbiot’s approach; but Monbiot is a deep thinker who not only has something of a feral nature himself, but is also blessed with a huge brain, extensive knowledge and a charming manner, so while it is possible to dispute some of his ideas, I think we should all hear and reflect upon what he has to say.

We took the day off on Wednesday, and as the sun was beating down we decided to walk all round lunch at Mary Mount reducedDerwentwater. It’s a distance of a little over nine miles, but there’s a good spot for lunch half-way round where, yet again, we were able to eat outside. The terrain has been improved since the last time we trekked round the lake, so the walking was not difficult, and it was certainly a day for shorts and tee shirts. We were surrounded every minute of the day by so much beauty, both in the countryside through which we passed and also in the individual trees, flowers and lichens that we stopped to admire on the way.

David Leigh reducedWe still had the energy to return to the theatre for the evening where we had a lecture about WikiLeaks by David Leigh, the former Guardian correspondent who co-authored the book about WikiLeaks with Luke Harding. This was followed, after an interval, with the film The Fifth Estate, which was a dramatised portrayal of the phenomenon of WikiLeaks and of its instigator, Julian Asange.

Richard Harries reducedMoving on to Thursday evening, I went to hear Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, talk on the subject of his latest book, Modern Art: A Friend of Christianity? I’ve lectured many times myself on the subject of religious art, so was interested to to hear what he had to say and to see which works of art he chose to show. One of the attractive features of his presentation was that he allowed us some silence in which to engage with the pictures, instead of talking the whole time. We were treated to a wide range of artists to support Harris’s thesis that modern art is the friend of Christianity rather than its foe.

The final lecture of the day was a tour de force by Simon Thurley, author of The Building of England, who guided us through a Simon Thurley reducedhistory of England through architecture. He describes himself on his website as ‘an historian, archaeologist, curator, writer, broadcaster, museum director and heritage crusade’ and he appears to be an expert in each of these fields. He is now Chief Executive of English Heritage. Instead of tracing the history of architecture through chronology, dynasties or styles, Thurley does it through the people who built and used the buildings: what they built, why they built them, and what the buildings tell us about those people. Rather than an exegesis on columns, then, or the appropriate names given to stylistic changes, we had flying shuttles, steam engines, fire grates, the Black Death, the rise of Britain’s (especially London’s) dominance in the world and population decline and increase — all absolutely fascinating, and delivered with verve and panache.

It is impressive how Kay Dunbar and Stephen Bristow manage to attract such wonderful scholars and speakers to their festivals; and it is a great privilege to be able to sit at their feet to listen and learn.

 

Words by the Water 2

The sun, happily, reached the north west on Sunday, so since then we have been able to sit beside the sparkling lake – which has now returned to its proper bounds – enjoying the peace. The snow on the mountain tops has still not disappeared, so I imagine it’s still pretty chilly up there. The only sounds are the rattling woodpeckers, the lapping of gentle waves and the honking of many geese. Sometimes the geese take off in noisy panic in the middle of the night – but we are certainly not short of sleep in this deep peace.

Michael Rosen 1 reducedThe first speaker at the Theatre on the Lake on Sunday was Michael Rosen who was talking about his book ‘Alphabetical’. This was hugely enjoyable: both informative and highly amusing. The session got quite noisy as the theatre kept erupting in laughter; but in between the hilarity he presented many gems he had discovered in the course of his research. The ground covered ranged over the Phoenicians, The Grimms Brothers, Beowulf, Yiddish and the Beaker people; and such was the enjoyment all round that Michael was not able to stop, nor the audience to tire, so he ran well over time. I tried to resist buying his (rather expensive) book, but when I saw a signed copy still sitting on the book stall the next day, my resolutions melted and it is now taking up room in the van.

Charlotte Higgins 2 reducedI had heard Charlotte Higgins lecture before, on Boudicca, so went to her session on ‘Under Another Sky: The Romans in Britain’. Quite a bit of the presentation was taken up with information about the archaeologist and scholar Robin Collingwood, who was born in Coniston, and Edward Williams Byron Nicholson, the librarian at the Bodleian Library at the beginning of the twentieth century. Charlotte also talked about, and showed slides of, the Tullie House helmet discovered in 2010, which is now in the Crosby Garrett museum. Unfortunately, because single bronze items were not covered by the Treasure Act of 1996, the helmet was privately restored before being put on the open market; and even to someone with no claims to expertise in the period, it was pretty clear that the restoration was something of a catastrophe.

For my dose of poetry for the day I went to the reading by Don Paterson: ‘A Life in Poems’. Don Don Paterson croppedis a good poet, with a great flair for rhyme and a facility for sonnets and ballads. His strong Scottish accent allied to the soft acoustics meant some gems were missed, but it was an interesting and varied reading. I think Don probably revels in the image of a ‘grim Scot’, and there were not many giggles in the hour. His description of Dundee as so awful that in the competition for City of Culture it ‘lost to Hull’ did, however, raise a few laughs. He does not want to write in Scots as it is a dead language; and one charming piece of information I brought away with me was that there are 63 words for ‘coughing’ in Scots.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Lakeland poet Norman Nicholson, who was born in Millom and lived in the house in which he was born for his whole life; so Sunday evening was taken up with a celebration of his life and work. Kathleen Jones has written a biography of Nicholson, ‘The Whispering Poet: A Tribute’, to coincide with this anniversary, and the talk with which she introduced the event was fascinating and charming enough to persuade anyone to buy her book.

Kathleen Jones 1 reducedKathleen showed the influence of Methodism on the poet’s development, the part played by various friends and relations, the effect of the two years Nicholson spent in a sanatorium when he contracted TB in his teens, and his passion for the environment and what would now be called ‘green issues’. After a short interval, Neil Curry, a local poet and friend of Nicholson, gave a reading and a talk for a further hour, with more information about Nicholson. Given that we’d already had nearly an hour on the poet, this second talk could, perhaps, have benefitted from being a little shorter – though Currie offered us plenty of interesting material and it was good to hear some of the poems.

The evening finished with a video extract from a 30-year-old South Bank Show on Nicholson which showed Nicholson reciting some of his poems — not to mention an extremely young-looking Melvyn Bragg introducing the programme.

Ewan Clayton 1 reducedI attended only one event on Monday: Ewan Clayton, the calligrapher, talking about his book ‘The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing’. An enthusiastic speaker with a wide range of experience and expertise made for a fascinating lecture which covered handwriting, Xerox, typewriters and fountain pens. Among the nuggets I brought away with me were the following: in 2012, there were 6.1 billion mobile ‘phone subscribers; 14 million bic pens are sold daily; fountain pen sales increased by 50% last year; in the light of recent security breaches, typewriters, instead of computers, are increasingly  being used for top secret intelligence; and it’s predicted that in 2017 50% of all computers will be tablets. Ewan was optimistic about the future of handwriting, and suggested that we should be using all the tools at our disposal, rather than favouring one or other.

A at Castlerigg 3 reduced

Then it was off to enjoy the more active delights of a Lake District bathed in warm sunshine. We walked up to the Castlerigg Stone Circle, which is reputed to be the oldest stone circle in Europe, dating from over 3000 BC. It is certainly beautiful and has a wonderful atmosphere, set on a round flat plateau and encircled by mountains.

If you look carefully, you’ll see the snowy peak of Helvellyn peeping through from behind the other hills.

Castlerigg stone circle 3 reduced

Words by the Water

The fact that Words by the Water is one of my favourite festivals is partly due to the fact that it always has a wonderful range of talks and readings, covering the arts, sciences, history and culture. The other reason is that we stay in the most beautiful campsite on the shore of Derwentwater, where the water laps the grass a few metres from the van and we walk across the grassy hill to the Theatre by the Lake each day.

Apres le deluge reduced wet exit reducedAh yes, ‘the water laps the grass a few metres from the van’ … That’s in a normal year. This year there was a mighty storm on our first night, and when we woke (after much buffeting through the small hours) the water was only a few feet from us, and there was a huge puddle just outside our door.

… But it was still beautiful, and we were perfectly snug in our little van.

Leaping over or sloshing through the puddles we made our way to the Theatre by the Lake and settled into the festival.

The first event was ‘A Love of Poetry’ by Louis de Bernieres. I hadn’t Louis de Bernieres reducedrealised before that this novelist also writes poetry. He spoke interestingly about his family history, and his ancestor coming over from France in the time of Louis XIV, when Protestants were being persecuted in France, and subsequently fighting on the side of William of Orange in the Battle of the Boyne.

Jolyon reducedThe festival includes some short introductory presentations of half an hour, and Jolyon Mitchell gave one of these on the subject of Martyrdom, which is the title of his most recent book. The presentation was illustrated with slides of varying horror, ranging over modern martyrs right back through history. Half an hour was unsatisfactorily short for this talk, which was, of necessity, rather rushed. However, it left us with plenty of interesting questions for reflection and discussion.

Blake MorrisonMy final treat of the first day was a reading by the poet Blake Morrison. The title of the event was ‘News that Stays News’, which was appropriate for a poet who began writing poetry years ago, went on to write prose (in particular the biographies of both his parents) and has now returned to the poetry fold. Many of his poems have a political angle and he also covered floods, coastal erosion, happiness and relations. Blake has a new collection coming out next year, but while waiting for that he has published a pamphlet of poems all of which start with the words ‘‘This poem ..’ in recognition of the fact that poets so often introduce their poems at readings with these words.

It is not possible to go to all the events in a festival as it would break the bank and render one’s Spout Force falls reducedlegs entirely useless, so we took a few hours off on Saturday to explore. We had hoped to visit Wordsworth’s house in Cockermouth, but unfortunately it was not due to open until the following day – though we did watch a wedding party arrive for their celebrations. More successful was the walk up to Spout Force waterfall, which has clearly benefitted from the months of wet weather.

Princess Michael of Kent reduced

We were back in Keswick in time for the evening presentation by Princess Michael of Kent on her historical novel, ‘The Queen of Four Kingdoms’. Rather than outlining the story of the book, Princess Michael talked fluently for an hour about the historical background to the time of Yolande of Aragon. Illustrated by a number of pictures, some of which, such as those from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, dated from the same period, this was a fascinating introduction to a slice of French history; and it introduced some facts both about Joan of Ark and about the Battle of Agincourt, which were unfamiliar.