Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Tuesday Poem Review: Kendal Poetry Festival


I've had a fabulous weekend at the Kendal Poetry Festival - one of the Lake District's newest literature festivals, put together by poets Kim Moore and Pauline Yarwood.  I'm completely exhausted because this was one festival where I wanted to spend every minute I could glued to my chair, and it was a thirty mile each way journey through the Cumbrian fells to get there!
Kim on the left and Pauline on the right
The range of poetry was fantastic and it was good to see so many young poets, just starting out on their journeys, taking part.  The Dove Cottage Young Poets were involved in almost every event, reading alongside the household names.  Believe me they are frighteningly good!  18 year old Hannah Hodgson was the Young Poet in Residence,

and there was also a Young Musician in Residence, trumpet player David Griffiths.

There was strong showing from Florence Jones, Eleanor Miekle, Elizabeth Briggs, Bethany Latham, Emily Humble and Chimwemwe Chirwa. I expect we'll be hearing some of these names again in the future.  The encouragement of young talent is one of the most valuable things that the Wordsworth Trust is doing.
Some of the headline acts, Clare Shaw, Andrew Forster, Mir Mahfuz Ali, Fiona Sampson
Hilda Sheehan, Helen Mort, Greta Stoddard and Ann Sansom
The first event was led by Andrew Forster and Jane Routh.  Nature Poetry in a Time of Crisis was very well named on the day the English voted for Brexit. There was a fascinating discussion on the place of Nature - or Eco - poetry in the current world and Andrew read a beautiful selection from his latest collection, Homecoming.

Helen Mort read from her knock-out collection No Map Could Show Them, just published. The poems are inspired by the history of female mountain climbers, who are sometimes metaphors for something else.  Helen is a brilliant and entertaining reader as well as one of the most accomplished contemporary poets.  She was reading alongside Mir Mahfuz Ali, a Bengali poet living in the UK, whose poetry is unashamedly political, addressing violent events in the Middle East and closer to home - events he has first-hand knowledge of, since a bullet damaged his vocal chords.  His first collection Midnight, Dhaka, has had brilliant reviews.

On Saturday there were writing workshops with Ann and Peter Sansom of the poetry business, who also read together in the evening, and an open mike event hosted by the Dove Cottage Young Poets. One of my favourite readings was the afternoon session with Clare Shaw and Hilda Sheehan.  Hilda reduced the audience to helpless laughter and Clare moved us to tears.  They are both fabulous performers - totally owning their work and pitching it to the audience with expert, confident delivery. Hilda Sheehan has a new collection out, The Night my Sister Went to Hollywood (Cultured Llama Press) and Clare Shaw's latest collection is Head On  published by Bloodaxe.   The night finished with a lively open mike slot at the Brewery Arts Centre - Verbalise -  another event sold out!
Hilda Sheehan

Clare Shaw
Sunday dawned wet and cold, but the trek to Kendal was still worth it.  Hilda ran a workshop in the sculpture exhibition at Abbot Hall, working around the surreal art work of Laura Ford.  Then Fiona Sampson talked about her research into the life and work of Mary Shelley - not the cipher who was married to Percy Bysshe - but a feisty, brilliant girl whose writings would change the literary world. Frankenstein is as profound and relevant now as it was when it was published.
Greta Stoddard
The main reading in the afternoon was given by Fiona Sampson reading from her latest collection The Catch, but the show was stolen by Greta Stoddard who stood up and read quietly, seamlessly with hardly any comment or explanation, through poems from Alive Alive O - an exploration of grief that is both moving and uplifting at the same time.  Her work has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize and the Costa Book Award and I suspect she's going to be collecting more prizes in the near future.  If you haven't encountered her work before (like me) then it's well worth seeking out.

And then it was stumbling out into the grey damp evening to find my way home, my head full of words and buzzing with new ideas and my wallet empty after the temptations of the book stall and the pens and notebooks and other essential poetry-phanalia.  I hope that Kim and Pauline get the funding to run a festival again next year, because this one was a knockout!  Just what we needed in this rural backwater, where you have to travel a long way to listen to poetry.  I recommend getting your tickets early for next year's event as the readings sold out very quickly this time.

Next week I'll be featuring poems by Kim Moore and Pauline Yarwood, who modestly refrained from reading anything of their own all weekend.


Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Necessity of Kindness

 The events of the past few days make one nostalgic for the relative innocence of the 60s and 70s, where young people wanted to 'make love not war' and believed they could.  But, while we were trying to seduce the world with music, cannabis and flowers, the corporate crocodiles were sharpening their teeth and claws and preparing to become social, economic and political assassins. Which goes some way to explain the mess we're in.


People are not less kind than they were before Thursday's referendum.  The result has simply given expression to what people have been feeling for a long time.  Like lancing a boil, it will be messy for a while, but the underlying condition needs to be dealt with. We must not demonise those who voted in a different way to ourselves, or blame the Leave voters for their wish to inflict harm on an establishment that refused to listen to their distress.  In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, there's a moment when the monster cries in agony "I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend." Misery, anger, frustration and inequality, fueled by Austerity, provoked by Corporate Capitalism at its worst, produced the referendum result.  Now, without recriminations, we have to find a constructive way forward.

From a Green, environmental point of view we need to get back to smaller, locally based economies - trucking food and goods across the world ruins the environment, is expensive and wasteful, and does no one any good except the corporate interests who benefit. We have to think positively about growing our local economies and making sure that the vulnerable in our society are properly cared for.  During the past two decades particularly, this has not happened and these sectors have been seriously neglected. But this more domestic approach to politics shouldn't mean that we're not also continually looking outward, and trying to be compassionate members of the world community. After all, no referendum on earth can take us out of that! We still depend, absolutely, on each other.


I believe in absolute equality, regardless of gender or ethnicity.  As for religion, provided your beliefs don't involve harming anyone, you're welcome to them. And I believe passionately in keeping our doors open, while there is any food on the table at all, for anyone who needs it more than me.  Most of us have too much stuff, we eat too much, drink too much - we could share more and we have to in such an unequal world.  The world we're looking at is not the same one we were living in even 20 years  ago.  There are big decisions to take, some of which are going to be painful.  We have to think about spending money on the necessities of existence, education, health care, new green infrastructure, rather than weapons to wage wars that create more refugees, and more misery. Climate Change has become one of the biggest threats to life on this planet (and that includes us) and solutions are going to entail more sacrifices to the comfortable way of life we've become accustomed to. Like Dr Frankenstein, we have created monsters and let them loose in the world.

But in the immediate moment, the reality is that we are now in the politics of nihilism, which involves tearing down everything in the the hope that something better emerges.  Let's all work together to make sure it does.  We need a really strong vision and a collective will to get us out of here. The squabbling among the spoiled brats on the front benches, on both sides of the house, disgusts me and has seriously dented what confidence I ever had in the political process.  Meanwhile, let us treat each other with kindness.  We're going to need good friends and neighbours in the days ahead.


Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Tuesday Poem: What Kind of Times are These? by Adrienne Rich


There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.

“What Kind of Times Are These”. © 2002, 1995 by Adrienne Rich, from The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950-2001 by Adrienne Rich. Used by permission of the author and W.W. Norton, Inc.

This poem says it all, so I won't add anything, except Rich's own words:  "Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage".  She died in 2012.  If you'd like to hear Adrienne Rich reading this poem herself, please follow the link below. 








Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Mixing with the Mitfords at Alconleigh

Asthall Manor 'Alconleigh' from the churchyard
I seem to have had a very literary week - starting with the Brontes in Yorkshire and ending with the Mitfords in Oxfordshire.  I've just spent the weekend at Asthall Manor, near Burford, which was the family home of the Mitford sisters and the template for Alconleigh, the fictional house in Nancy Mitford's novel Love in a Cold Climate.  I've looked at the fireplace where Uncle Matthew hung his First World War entrenching tool, sat in the ballroom, but failed to locate the Hons cupboard which is now probably a bathroom.
My own ensuite, complete with antique weighing scales
It is the most beautiful house, owned now by Rosie Pearson, who opens it up every other year for a big sculpture exhibition in the house and gardens. Neil was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the exhibitors, alongside some really big names, such as Peter Randall Page.

The gardens are legendary - about six acres of land running down to a water meadow, with mixed formal parterres and wild planting that spills over onto the paths.  There are wild flower meadows and woodland.
Poppies, cornflowers and daisies - oh,  and a few sculptures!
The sculptures are scattered through the landscape so that you come upon them as a surprise - it's like a treasure hunt.  The exhibition is called OnForm, featuring an international group of sculptors, 50% of them women, and it's open to visitors for a month. Full details here.

On Saturday 18th June, poet TamarYoseloff is going to be doing a poetry workshop in the gardens, called 'Sculpting the Line', at 14.00 in the afternoon.

Some of Neil's work was between the big sculpted box hedges.


We were given one of the Mitford bedrooms, the Blue Room, with big bay windows, surrounded by climbing roses overlooking the church.  It was very special for me - I loved Nancy's novels and have always been fascinated by the different, and rather tragic, lives of the sisters.


There was poetry beside my bed and in the wonderful antique bathroom next door. Add in the most delicious vegetarian food and the kindness of strangers and it was a weekend to remember.
Skinny dipping in the lily pond
All the travelling and dashing about has taken its toll though. Neil snapped me at the end of a long day looking rather blurred!



On Form - Asthall Manor, Burford.



Friday, 10 June 2016

A Week at Wuthering Heights with Compass Poetry Magazine

I confess I am all Bronte'd out.  I have reclined on Emily's death sofa, gazed from Cathy's famous window, sat on the rock where she had her love scene with Heathcliff, and wandered around the Top Withens ruined steading where Emily imagined her farmhouse to be situated.
Emily's sofa, from the BBC film set
the stepping stones at Ponden Kirk, where Cathy and Heathcliff met

Top Withens, which Emily chose as the location of Wuthering Heights, and both Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath wrote poems about. 
There's a curt plaque at Top Withens, posted  by the Bronte Society saying basically that Wuthering Heights this house is not.  And it isn't.

Emily used Ponden Hall as the model for her house, and Anne used the same house for Wild Fell Hall.
Ponden Hall - the real Wuthering Heights and Wild Fell Hall


Ponden Hall is just below Heathcliff's rock, a short walk from Top Withens.  It's the house the Bronte children sheltered in when they fled from the famous Crow Hill Bog Burst that caused such fear and consternation back in 1824.   Ponden is the house whose library they used to visit, to read books they couldn't get anywhere else.
Cathy's window, Ponden Hall
In one of the rooms is the window that Emily apparently imagined the ghost of Cathy knocking on, begging to be allowed in.
The Heaton family plaque at Ponden Hall

The reason we know it was Ponden Hall, is because both Mr Bronte and Charlotte's best friend identified it as the original for Wuthering Heights - Emily simply shifted its location up onto the moor at Top Withens.  The Hall was owned by the notorious Heaton family (Mr Bronte refused to bury one of them in the graveyard at Haworth) and Branwell was a frequent visitor. Branwell described the main room at Ponden in one of his own stories and it matches Emily's description of the Heights. So there's lots of evidence for the association. Some people think it must be the original for Thrushcross Grange - but it simply isn't grand enough.  It is a small manor house that has grown out of a working farm and doesn't even have a drawing room.  One of the most beautiful historic houses I've been in for a long time.

Julie and her husband Steve, who live at Ponden Hall, open it up for bed and breakfast and are very happy to host courses there - the food was fantastic and the atmosphere, especially for a writers' retreat, was electric!  If you want to go on a writers' week, I can also recommend the Compass Poetry retreats, run by Compass Magazine editors Andrew Forster and Lindsey Holland - we had a fantastically productive time there.

BBC film set  of Haworth in the process of demolition.

We went (courtesy of Steve) to visit the BBC set for the new series on the Brontes (written by Sally Wainwright).  They have had to relocate it up onto the moors because the Parsonage is now completely surrounded by houses - when the Brontes lived there the moors came right to the door.  So they've built the Parsonage, the school room, the church, graveyard and part of the main street up on the moors, out of MDF, plywood, plastic and scaffolding.

It looks spookily like the real thing, though minus the more recent extension to the house and the trees that were planted in the graveyard.
The real thing - Haworth Parsonage

Then Julie took us to Haworth Parsonage - she used to be a guide there so knows everything there is to know about the house and its history and the contents of the archives.  We learned a great deal we didn't know.  The Parsonage has just acquired the original dining table that the Brontes used, where they wrote their books.  The furnishings are all original and the decor is exactly as chosen by Charlotte, using samples of paper and fabric she sent to friends. No photographs allowed inside, unfortunately.

Steve took us walking on the moors, among the curlews and skylarks and the ghosts of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, but also of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.  It's a landscape of mythology and poetry, and I loved every moment of it.

A stone called 'the chair' which the Brontes sat on, but Charlotte didn't carve her name!

The Bronte Falls

I've been able to get a lot of writing and editing done and it's been a brilliant week, in some very good company.




Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Tuesday Poem: Helen Mort, 'An Easy Day for a Lady'

The Grepon  Simo Rasenen, Wikimedia

The Grépon has disappeared. Of course, there are still
some rocks standing there, but as a climb no longer
exists. Now that it has been done by two women alone,
no self-respecting man can undertake it.
– ETIENNE BRUHL, 1929

When we climb alone
en cordée feminine,
we are magicians of the Alps –
we make the routes we follow
disappear.

Turn around
to see the swooping absence
of the face, the undone glaciers,
crevasses closing in on themselves
like flowers at night.

We’re reeling in the sky.
The forest curls into a fist.
The lake is no more permanent
than frost. Where you made ways,
we will unmake:

give back the silence
at the dawn of things.
Beneath your feet,
the ground
retracts its hand.

• From No Map Could Show Them by Helen Mort (Chatto, £10 or Kindle £5.49).



The Guardian Saturday poem

I’m loving the Guardian’s weekly poetry series, and I loved this one enough to want to share it.  The collection is a Poetry Book Society recommendation.

If you want to watch the stomach churning Grépon 'traversée', click here. 

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Appleby Horse Fair . . . From the Horse's Mouth!

As I write this blog, I am completely hemmed in by horses.  Horses to the left of me, horses to the right of me ...  I popped out to the shops for something and came back to find my carefully constructed barricade had been removed and replaced by a gigantic Ute, a horsebox and 3 horses cropping my front lawn.  The fence around my back garden is being used as a hitching post and the river has become an exercise yard and washing facility for horses, harnesses and buggies.  Earlier there were several naked men having a bath in the weir complete with shampoo - not a photo you can post to Facebook!!! But it certainly makes for an interesting life.
Woke up to this beautiful view
It's the historic Appleby Horse Fair, and gypsies (or Romanies) come from all over Europe to meet up, trade horses and generally have a party. A small town usually three and a half thousand strong swells to more than thirty thousand as tourists flock in to watch the fun.  The sun is shining and it's hot, which is good news for a town that is looking to make money after the devastating floods of last December.
Difficult to get out of my driveway at the moment!
It all looks very romantic, but - as with everything - there's a dark side.  There are 2 RSPCA officers outside my house on a permanent basis.  Because I live beside the river at a place that has extensive grassy banks, it's the prime spot where the horses are brought to be spruced up for the Fair and to get a bit of free grazing. To say it's lively down here is an understatement! But besides  seeing some really beautiful horses, you also witness ill-treatment.
These young foals are in very poor condition and one had a terrible cough.
Yesterday, while the RSPCA were off for lunch, I saw a very young foal being dragged uphill because the buggy it was tied behind was being driven too fast and it couldn't keep its feet. But how can you expect young lads to be kind to animals when they too have been treated roughly?  Various children's agencies have a presence up on the main camping ground for very good reasons.  Two days ago I saw (and heard) a little boy no more than 4 being thrashed by his father, for some misdemeanor,  who continued to whack him about the head because he was crying.  'If you don't stop,' he was told, 'we'll leave you behind.'  And I thought of the little Japanese boy whose parents had made the same threat and then carried it out.
Tied to my fence for more than 12 hours, rescued eventually
It's all very sad because it feeds the stereotype image people have of travelling people. The traditional gypsies here, the old Romanies, are very nice and are appalled by the way their alternative life-style has been adopted by people who want to live beyond the law, but don't want to observe their own strict codes of behaviour and honour. They are also talking about their children and grandchildren feeling 'alienated' by an intolerant society that herds them around and even prevents them living legally on land they actually own, unless they can get planning permission - which is rarely ever granted to gypsies.
A strong RSPCA presence
Some of these Romany families have been here for 500 years, but the head gypsy says they're still treated as unwanted immigrants. Alienation breeds violence and contempt for authority and increases the likelihood that people will consider themselves outside society and its rules and regulations.

I've been thinking about this a lot, with the up-coming referendum.  Both being out of and in Europe hasn't exactly created the wide, inclusive society that has always been my ideal and which I always thought was the post-second-world-war goal. One where there is room for everyone - heaven knows there's enough food on the table, or would be if supermarkets didn't throw it all in the bin.

Must stop ranting - I've just seen a horse (Irish I think) eating one of my newly-planted rose bushes, so I'd better get back on guard duty.  I will, of course, treat it very gently!