Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Tuesday Poem: A Winter King - George Mackay Brown

'Now,' said the sea king
'Freight the death ship
With jar and tapestry and gold.
I must sail alone, very far.
It is time for a new saga to be told.'

The king was bronze-bearded, not sick
                           or meek-mouthed or old.
On the hull a bird had been cut,
Branch-beaked, a long gray wing.

Fishermen loosed the rope.
They sent the ship down the rollers
                          with a darkling shout
Under the voyager's star.

Copyright George Mackay Brown,
from The Wreck of the Archangel 
published by John Murray, 1989

I love this small poem from one of George Mackay Brown's last collections.  It takes me back to the Norse sagas and ancient poems like 'The Seafarer'.  In that poem, the wanderer endures unimaginable hardships at sea, alone, in winter, his hands frozen to the steering oar, his feet 'in fetters of ice'.  But the anonymous poet also records the 'sea-longing' that can't be resisted.

Forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð (and now my heart soars
ofer hreþerlocan,                          (beyond my breast,
min modsefa                                  (my spirit longs
mid mereflode,                          (to be on the flood
ofer hwæles eþel                          (over the wide whale-road
hweorfeð wide,                          (it soars
eorþan sceatas -                          (to every corner of the earth
cymeð eft to me                          (and returns often to me
gifre ond grædig;                          (eager and greedy;
gielleð anfloga,                          (the lone bird yells
hweteð on hwælweg                  (yearning for the whale-way
hreþer unwearnum                          (the unwearying heart

Mackay Brown's seafarer is obviously a Viking - the beaked ship, the funeral vessel laden with treasure, though this Norse king is neither old nor sick. The Norsemen were wonderful seamen and storytellers who colonised the northern hemisphere, including the Scottish Isles, while the Brits were still paddling around in corracles.  The poet came from Orkney, where he spent the whole of his life, and its history and archaeology was in his bloodstream. 60% of Orcadian men have Norse DNA and George Mackay Brown, in his prime, was beautiful enough to be a Viking himself.

But there are other myths at play in this poem too - the Winter King is a figure in many northern mythologies and has even found his way into the Arthurian stories. In some myths he is paired with the Corn Queen; in Scottish mythology it is Bride who brings the spring and summer. 

The whole collection, The Wreck of the Archangel, is centred around the sea and particularly around a 19th century wrecked Russian ship that was either called The Archangel, or came from Archangel.  The only survivor was a small boy, who features in the poems.  I particularly loved 'The Horsefair', which is the boy's account of a visit to the fair with 'Old Da' who has adopted him.  The collection includes 'The Scottish Bestiary'.  One of them, 'Moth', is a lyrical, vivid picture of life on the islands.

'The moth travels from pane to pane, in August
Wherever a lamp is set.

There's old Sammy playing his fiddle,
Such a rant
The sweet plea of the moth at the pane is lost.

In the next croft
Three children are reading their school books.
He thuds on the pane.
They are lost in labyrinths;  seaports, poetry, algebra.

Travel on, moth.
The wife is out in the byre, milking.
A fire-drowsed dog
Growls at the birring in the window. . . . '

I bought this collection second hand (thank you Abe Books), as it is out of print.  The poet is passionate about his homeland, and the vividness of the poetry could only have come from such a deep attachment and observation.  It made me want to visit Orkney's wild landscape and its prehistoric monuments, and to read more of Mackay Brown's work.  At the time when it was published, the poet Charles Causley said, "I don't know anyone writing in this particular genre today who comes within a thousand miles of him".  I've ordered his short stories - The Masked Fisherman, and I'm very tempted by his autobiography 'For The Islands I sing'. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Autumn in the Eden Valley

Reflections;  Turning trees in the River Eden
It's quite a while since I crossed the bridge outside the Mill and walked up the River Eden.  But autumn sunshine and colours tempted me out.  Most of the trees are still green, but a golden tinge is beginning to creep across the landscape.  This is my friend, the old heron, fishing underneath the bridge and keeping a wary eye on me.

It was a joy to be out with wonderful, stormy sky-scapes above the open fields.

Very well equipped in my red boots.  Note - no green wellies here!

A friendly face. One of the fields is full of heifers in calf.

There are berries everywhere in the hedgerows this year. Country folk-lore says this means a hard winter.  I sincerely hope not!

And I found a gigantic wild Verbascum, much, much taller than me, encrusted with seeds.

Then there were trees, leaning precariously out over the water; trees that have died, but not yet been swept away by the floods.  Some of them have been colonised by moss and grasses. I wonder if this one will still be there in the spring?

Finally I reach my favourite view - one I've been photographing all year, noting the changes.  A shaft of sunlight just illuminates the field as I get out the camera.  It may look beautiful, but these fields are unnaturally green in a marginal area of reclaimed land where they would once have been full of rushes and coarse moor grass like the fells behind them.  Fertilisers and weed killers create this manicured landscape, and the harmful run-off ends up in the river.  It's not so many years ago when a leakage from one of the farms up here killed every single living thing in the river.  We're still recovering, though the salmon population has never risen to its original level. It's very sad that even here in this rural paradise we continually have to contend with pollution.

Home again, where the Mill stands on the riverbank with its feet almost in the water.  It seems unimaginable that the river, in December 2015, reached half way up the building.  Inside, things are still in a ruinous state.  Like many others in the Eden valley, we are still waiting for essential repairs to the property.  Fingers crossed it won't be too long now! Luckily I live on the top floor.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Tuesday Poem: Grevel Lindop 'Cosmos'

 Between Orion and Gemini, an almost-full moon.
Wrinkled tidewater tilting at the lips of Morecambe Bay.

Galaxies of cow parsley edging the valley fields.
Slow explosions of lichen on the fellside boulders.

The long-armed yew gesticulating at your window:
ancient growth-rings cupping a still more ancient hollow.

Old glass: molten tremulous lungful of human breath
spun flat, cut to rippled squares, set in the dusty casement.

Grain of the living oak, stopped dead in your tabletop.
Cobweb at the table's corner a map of skewed co-ordinates.

Your table lamp fed by Heysham's uranium rods,
Haverigg's twinkling windfarm, buried cables along the Duddon Valley.

Your mobile: lit menu, notional time, no signal.
The mountain: against the black of the sky, a blacker black.

The labyrinth of your fingerprint: Chartres maze stretched to an oval.
The fieldpaths crisscrossing in the palm of your hand.

An ink-slick spreading in the pen's furrow:
gold keel ploughing an ocean of churned Norway spruce.

All of it drawn and drawn into the pupil's black hole,
the dark that cannot be seen, the space that is everything else.

© Grevel Lindop
Reproduced with the permission of the author.

We have some good poets up here in the north.  Grevel Lindop's new collection Luna Park, published by Carcanet in Manchester, is absolutely his best yet and marks him as one of the UK's major poets. The title poem, Luna Park, refers to a funfair in Sydney, Australia which closed in 1979 after a Ghost Train fire that killed six children.  It is 'a haunted theme-park of talkative ghosts'.  'Forget the Opera House, forget everything,'  the poem instructs the reader.  'What I remember/is Luna Park, unreachable behind/ chain link fencing and KEEP OUT signs'.  The poem is about more than a derelict funfair and a child's longing, it seems to represent everything that's beyond our reach. (Luna Park has since re-opened under new management and stringent safety restrictions).

Luna Park as it is now. 

I found it hard to pick out favourite poems.  The Maldon Hawk brought back memories of studying that marvellous Anglo Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon at university.   Grevel's poem is centred on the hawk, missing from the original narrative; 'I am a word forgotten from his story'.  One of the passages I loved from Anglo Saxon poetry was the account of the Vikings' landing in the marshes and their 'cold voices' carried on the sea breeze, chilling the hearts of those who listened on the other side of the water.  A line in Grevel's poem reminded me of this; 'the sea-wind tastes of death'.  In the tragedy of Maldon massacre, the hawk's handler meets his end and, 'Never again,/ child of the waste moor and the tufted woodland,/ will I perch on that wrist, grasp the bone beneath'.

Another favourite was 'Bed', somewhere I love to read and write ;-
'It's a great book.  Open the covers,
soft and floppy as the hide of a giant folio,
patched and stitched.  Inside are the stories
of our one thousand and one nights, the radiant
conceptions of our children, dreams and memories
neither time nor water will wash out
nor the wringing of hands.'

But the bed is also a boat 'wooden raft that tilts on the tides of sleep' and also '(forgive me love)/ it's a grave, the narrow space where each day's laid'.

This is poetry to read and re-read, lyrical, deeply intelligent, romantic (in the BEST sense of the word), literary and yet completely accessible.  If you haven't already read it - get it! You can get it on Amazon from £3.54. Or you can be good and go direct to the Carcanet site.

Luna Park
Grevel Lindop
Carcanet Press


Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Life and Work of Painter Winifred Nicholson

Having spent the weekend at Cockley Moor, the remote Lakeland home of Helen Sutherland, eccentric patron to artists and poets, it seemed only right to visit an exhibition of the work of one of her proteges - the Cumbrian painter Winifred Nicholson.   Winifred was born and brought up in Cumbria (Cumberland as it was then) and spent most of her life living in a remote farmhouse, Bankshead, not far from Hadrian's Wall.

'I have always lived in Cumberland,'  she wrote.  'The call of the curlew is my call, the tremble of the harebell is my tremble in life, the blue mist of lonely fells is my mystery, and the silver gleam when the sun does come out is my pathway.'   This is an apt description of much of her painting.

Her origins were very aristocratic - she was the granddaughter of the Earl of Carlisle and her childhood was spent running in and out of various stately homes in the North of England. She married fellow painter Ben Nicholson and they had three children before he left her for Barbara Hepworth.  Winifred didn't remarry.

I loved her words in diaries and letters (The Writings of Winifred Nicholson, ed. Andrew Nicholson, Faber & Faber, 1987).  Her paintings, though I liked them as prints on postcards or images on screen, didn't appeal to me so much in reality and didn't seem as interesting as her writings about painting. Maybe this is a personal thing - I don't do pretty and it's an adjective that could be applied to her paintings - particularly the still lifes.

It's an indoor life she paints - canvases looking out at the world through windows.  Flowers in pots and jars rather than growing naturally outdoors.  The wild Cumbrian landscape on her doorstep rarely makes it onto the canvas, though I loved her seascapes.

Scotland. The sea looking across to Eigg
I was also aware, working through her work chronologically, that there was little sense of development of her art during her lifetime - no feeling of talent being pushed against limits. Nor did the paintings seem to represent the feisty, articulate, very solid character that is apparent from words and photographs.   I wanted these pale and fragile images to be much more.
Charlotte's Shells 1933
But why did I feel like that?  Why couldn't I just accept that that was what she painted and leave it there?  Winifred was a woman of her time and place, not a trail blazing Georgia O'Keefe, or a Frida Kahlo.  She tucked herself away in Cumbria, rather than immersing herself in what was going on outside this little island.  She was inside, looking out. It was her choice.  'I love my loneliness up here on this hillside.  Not that I have not friends up here, but no one to talk to, not about anything that is worth talking about. . . I enjoy their company but they do not notice the painting on the wall, nor that I have hung up the one I have just finished . . . I don't find I need, nowadays, other people's eyes to inspire me.  . . All I need are the expression on the face of a crocus or on the face of the crescent moon waking me up looking in at my window - out of the mist and frost.'  (Letter to Ben Nicholson 1971)

Very rarely - only a handful of times - did she venture into abstraction.

 Cumbria was her great love - as it is mine.  'Sunlight in Cumberland after all the rain, it's like no sunlight anywhere else,'  she wrote, and it's true.  Particularly what she called the 'sideways light' of winter.  But it was summer that was her particular territory, both in word and image.
'The days are so long and lovely one hardly goes to bed.  The ashes are very pale and only just out, the air is fragrant and ethereally clear, and so still that any movement would break it like spun glass.  The only sounds are the mating cry of the curlews.  The earth is covered with sunlight and flowers, and so still and translucent like water.'

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Virginia Woolf on ageing - 'I am I, and must follow that furrow'

"I rasp.  I'm tart." Virginia in 1939 [Giselle Freund]
I disagree with Virginia Woolf so often, feel patronised by her sometimes, but also inspired by her. Mostly I feel empathy for the vulnerable woman, brought up on the fringes of the aristocracy, struggling to escape her origins and write ground breaking prose against the background of a class-ridden society that was also misogynistic to the core. A society where intelligent people still believed that women were scientifically inferior and that poverty and misfortune were somehow self-inflicted. She's a writer I return to often, particularly her diaries - opinionated, snobbish, selfish, barbed, but also mesmerising - such beautiful prose, such wonderful insights.  Today I read this, written in 1940, and it found an echo in me - feeling my age, the sense of racing time to some invisible Finish line just over the horizon.

"I detest the hardness of old age - I feel it.  I rasp.  I'm tart.

   The fool less prompt to meet the morning dew,
   The heart less bounding at emotion new,
   And hope, once crush'd, less quick to spring again.

I actually opened Matthew Arnold and copied these lines.  While doing so, the idea came to me that why I dislike, and like, so many things idiosyncratically now, is because of my growing detachment from the hierarchy, the patriarchy . . . I walk over the marsh saying 'I am I' and must follow that furrow, not copy another.

That is the only justification for my writing, living."

Virginia Woolf  'A Writer's Diary', Sunday 29th December, 1940

There's a wonderful collection of excerpts from Virginia Woolf's essays, 'Essays on the Self', published by Notting Hill Editions.  You can discover it at www.nottinghilleditions.com 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Tuesday Poem: Canterbury Poet of the Year 2016 awards

This year I was lucky enough to be shortlisted for the Canterbury Poet of the Year award and even more lucky to be one of the prizewinners (a bottle of bubbly!).  The line up was very impressive and the 14 poet shortlist included Pat Borthwick, Jane Lovell, US poet Catherine Higgins-Moore (who read by video link), David Attwooll (who sadly died just before the award), Brian Clark and Martin Cordrey.  I didn't imagine for a moment that I'd be one of the runners up.  The Poet of the Year 2016 is Jen Syrkiewicz for a magnificent poem called 'Love (Through Lidded Eyes)'.
This was my contribution, a tribute to my father.  It's a poem about loss and the feeling of abandonment that comes when someone you love dies. I wrote it at Ponden Hall on the Compass Magazine retreat.  It's a small, very simple poem, but the judges seemed to like it.


There’s redshank growing through the handle
of the spade he gave me, propped
against the garden wall because it proved
too heavy; a man’s weight – the grip carved
for the width of a man’s fingers, the shaft
measured for the length of a man’s leg.

The wood has bleached to grey after
a year’s abandonment to rain and sun,
the ash grain coarsened and split, the
metal rusted, and the linseed odour
of his garden shed, long gone.

Now it’s become a retro image
on a card for Father’s Day. My careless
weed sprouting where his hand should be,
some of his well-dug earth clinging to the blade.

© Kathleen Jones

There were some wonderful titles on the shortlist, my favourites being 'Last Seen At Blos Cafe While Waiting For My Bobotie Burger' (Brian Clark), 'I Had A Ticket To See Billy Collins . . .'(Martin Cordrey), and one of my favourite poems 'The Gap Year trek of Tracey Short' by Nancy Charley.  The Anthology is well worth getting hold of  which you can get by contacting the Festival organisers.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Off-Grid in the Southland

There's a reason why New Zealanders don't go round looking at their smart phones all the time - outside the towns (and sometimes in them) there's no signal.  And the further out into the bush you go the less likely you are to find one.  I've just been as far south as you can go in NZ without boating out to the islands and it was a blissful break from the incessant white noise of social media. Not that I don't love talking to my friends and finding out what everyone is up to! But I hadn't realised how much the internet fried the brain until I was completely without it.
Beach with sea-lion - the view from my bedroom window
The Southland is very beautiful - hills and wild bush, remote sheep and cattle stations, small communities, fast-flowing rivers, waterfalls, and miles and miles of stunning coastline.  You can find places where you can't hear human activity at all.  We rented a 'bach' directly on the beach of a small bay with the sea in front of us, and Manuka forest and virgin bush behind us.  Only the sound of the waves and the birds.
Bush with the strange ghostly shapes of Manuka
It's one of the areas where you can find the smallest penguin in the world - the Blue Penguin - and we were lucky enough to have them partying in the grass around the house.  They can be very noisy, but we didn't mind.  They are also very shy, but we kept falling over them on the path to the beach, however hard we tried to keep a respectful distance.  They were everywhere.
The rear end of a small Blue Penguin hiding in the bushes
We were only a short walk along the beach from the fossilised forest, which is more than 170 million years old.  You can climb out into what was once a swamp with cycads and tree ferns, felled by a flood and then buried in volcanic ash.  There are stumps


and even root systems, clearly visible.  It is like walking back in time.

There are also huge caves worn into the limestone cliffs by the huge seas that power up from the Antarctic.  The winds and the waves mean business here!

But it's the bush that is the real seduction.  Katherine Mansfield often described it in her stories - wild, mysterious, fertile, dangerous - the complete antithesis of the constricted colonial life of respectability and denial that her parents expected her to embrace.  In 'At The Bay' she describes it just as we saw it in the Southland.
'The sun had set.  In the western sky there were great masses of crushed up rose-coloured clouds.  Broad beams of light shone through the clouds and beyond them as if they would cover the whole sky.  Over head the blue faded;  it turned to a pale gold, and the bush outlined against it gleamed dark and brilliant like metal.'
Tree ferns against the sky.

A moss-covered tree in the bush, hung with vines and ferns.

The rain forest fringes are quite spectacular - teeming with life and echoing with bell-birds.

And on areas that have been cleared for farmland the shelter-belt trees make strange shapes against the wind.
Trees shaped by Antarctic winds.

The peace and quiet has been amazing. There has been no TV, no internet, no phone and very little human contact.  I'm quite reluctant to come back to civilisation!