Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

CHARLES WILLIAMS: THE THIRD INKLING

I’m celebrating, because this week I sent off the final draft of my biography of Charles Williams to Oxford University Press – and a new collection of poems to  Carcanet Press. Both, I hope, for publication in autumn 2015.

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Charles Williams reading aloud: E.G. Pierce, 1936

I’ll talk about the poems in a future post. This time I’ll concentrate on the Charles Williams biography. It will be called Charles Williams: The Third Inkling because Williams was a central member of the Inklings, the informal group of Oxford writers whose best-known members were C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Charles Williams – poet, dramatist, writer of metaphysical thrillers, critic, theologian, biographer, occultist and amazingly charismatic lecturer – lived from 1886 to 1945 and is far too little known. His life is a fascinating one, and much of his work is well worth rediscovering.

And Williams is a writer to be reckoned with. Ruth Rendell nominated his metaphysical thriller All Hallows’ Eve as her favourite book on BBC Radio 4; Sir Geoffrey Hill in his Clark Lectures called Williams ‘a great critic’ and his book The English Poetic Mind ‘a critical masterpiece’; C.S. Lewis said of Williams’s Arthurian poems, ‘they seem to me, both for the soaring and gorgeous novelty of their technique and for their profound wisdom, to be among the two or three most valuable books of verse produced in the [twentieth] century’.

Charles Williams had an extraordinary life, and thanks to newly-opened archives containing thousands of letters, and more than twenty interviews with people who knew him, I have been able to trace his life in vivid – and, I think, highly readable – detail. We follow him from the poverty of his childhood in London, through his rise from humble proof reader to senior editor at the Oxford University Press, where he had a long and painful love affair with a colleague; we trace the gradual development of his poetic talent, alongside his involvement with Rosicrucian occultism – where the book allows you into the secret initiatory rituals Williams underwent – and on to wartime Oxford, where he becomes a close friend of Lewis and Tolkien and completes his remarkable late flowering as the twentieth century’s major poet of Arthur and the Grail.

Through good luck and the generosity of private owners, the book will reproduce almost forty drawings and photographs of Williams and his associates, many never published before and some only recently discovered. (Just as a taster, I’ve put one on this page – a drawing of CW reading aloud, by E.G. Pierce – a fine drawing never before reproduced as far as I know.) The book will answer many questions: it will clarify at last what his relationship really was with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; and it will recreate, from Williams’s own notes, much of the famous lecture on Milton’s Comus which led C.S. Lewis to exclaim that Oxford University’s Divinity School ‘had probably not witnessed anything so important since some of the great medieval or Renaissance lectures.’

Williams is the missing centrepiece from the story of twentieth-century British literature. At the start of his career he was associating with Edwardian poets Alice Meynell and Robert Bridges; later his closest friends included not only C.S. Lewis and Tolkien but T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas; he was an inspiration to young poets of the World War II generation like Sidney Keyes, Drummond Allison and John  Heath-Stubbs; and he drank in the Oxford pubs with Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. It’s an astonishing story.

I owe great debts of gratitude to innumerable people who have helped with the work, including former friends and students of Charles Williams (notably the late Lois Lang-Sims), Williams scholars including David Llewellyn Dodds, and the trustees and archivists of the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, Illinois, the two libraries that hold the major share of Williams’s papers. I was generously supported by both an Invited Visiting Scholarship at St John’s College, Oxford, and a Clyde S. Kilby Research Grant from Wheaton College, Illinois. The Charles Williams Society and the Society of the Inner Light also gave generous support. The many others who helped in so many ways are acknowledged in the book.

There’s much more to say, and of course there’s more work ahead = copy-editing queries, proofs to correct, indexing, and so on – but right now I’m heaving a big sigh of relief and looking forward to Christmas! I hope you have a wonderful holiday and a very happy New Year.

Tom Rawling on BBC Radio 4

This is just to let everyone know that our poetic documentary NIGHT FISHING featuring the poetry of Tom Rawling will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 4.30 pm on Sunday 2 November and again at 11.30 pm (yes, half an hour before midnight!) on Saturday 8 November. It will also be on the BBC i-Player.

For more about how the programme was made, please scroll down to the post just below this one. Happy Listening!Tom_Rawling[1]

 

Night Fishing With Tom Rawling

I’ve just spent some time on the River Esk in the western Lake District, night-fishing for sea trout. To be completely honest, I wasn’t doing the fishing: that was left to the highly-skilled fisherman and guide, Finlay Wilson of Fish Wild (www.fishwild.co.uk). Also present, and the keystone of the whole enterprise, so to speak, was Matt Thompson, of Rockethouse Radio (www.rockethouse.co.uk) with his high-tech recording equipment.

As you’ll deduce from the above, I was the simpleton of the team, there only to observe, describe, and introduce. Also to engage Fin (an impassioned and eloquent talker himself) in conversation about the mysteries, and the psychology, of fishing.

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Late Night: Fin chooses the right lure (photo by Matt Thompson)

We were making a programme for BBC Radio 4 about the Ennerdale poet Tom Rawling (1916- 1996), whose work has been rediscovered fairly recently and is attracting increasing attention. Rawling used to fish on the Esk with his friend Hugh Falkus, the 2oth century’s leading expert on sea trout.

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Cragg Cottage, where Tom Rawling used to stay as guest of Hugh Falkus

 

Rawling (whose final book of poems was The Names of the Sea-Trout, published in 1993), wrote about farming and fishing in Cumbria as no one has done in recent times: his poems are tactile, incantatory, vivid and full of feeling. The programme, to be called Night Fishing, will combine sounds from our night of fishing with recordings of Rawling reading his own poems.

The hours on the river, watching twilight and then darkness fall, the moon rising, the black patterned shadows of the leaves overhead against the starry sky, and the sea trout jumping – often three or four feet into the air above the river – were amazing. And (with some help from a local fisherman, Andy Robinson), we did catch some fish.

I don’t yet know the time and date for the broadcast but I’ll put it on this blog as soon as I get it. In the meantime, here’s one of Tom Rawling’s poems – one we didn’t use in the programme but still one that gives the sense of the mystery, strangeness and intensity of night fishing.

 

ONLY THE BODY

 

Long after midnight,

Only the body pouring

Into the water world

Though the rod through the line

Through the searching lure,

Conjuring a trick

For sea-trout eyes.

 

The stars are cold and clear,

The ruse transparent.

I wade in deeper,

Share with the fish

Its lateral line

The current’s push;

My fingers fifteen yards away,

Coaxing feathers

To nicker and sway.

 

A breath touches my cheek,

Grows to a breeze

Ruffles the pool,

Brings a drift of cloud.

The lure comes alive.

 

A soft pluck;

Then the barbed point

Bites deep,

Holds fast in gristle.

 

Through the hook through the line

Through the rod’s kick

In my palm,

Only the body throbbing.

 

For more about Tom Rawling and Ennerdale, just put ‘Rawling’ in the search box on this blog.

Borrowdale Magic

Borrowdale has been particularly beautiful the past couple of weeks, with the alternation of hot sun and occasional showers: the oak forests have looked lusher and greener than ever, and with the valley fields being reaped for hay and silage the air has been full of the fragrance of camomile and cut grass.

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Eagle Crag in mist: looking north from Stonethwaite

Amanda and I have just come back from Seatoller, enjoying our favourite walks to Castle Crag and Watendlath, and discovering some new delights: a highlight this time was following Langstrath Beck further than usual and finding the beautiful and rather hidden-away little waterfalls: something we’d missed before despite visiting Borrowdale over more than twenty years.

Here are a few pictures of places we’ve enjoyed recently.

 

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Stockley Bridge, Seathwaite

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Waterfalls in Langstrath Beck

 

Tuesday Night at the Leopard

leopard[1]A really delightful evening yesterday, giving a reading at the Stanza poetry group in the Leopard Hotel, Burslem – a lovely old pub, full of character, which I’m told features in Arnold Bennett’s fiction. (Burslem is near Stoke on Trent, in the ‘Potteries’ – one of Bennett’s ‘Five Towns’.)

The group was immensely welcoming, and provided an ideally attentive, involved, and questioning audience for the poems: one of those occasions when you rediscover your own poetry by sharing it with people who really respond and understand.

John Williams was a marvellously intelligent chairman, and after the reading he stimulated a fascinating discussion that made me think a lot about language, about the way different poets look at the world, and about what the real subjects of my poems are.

Is it true that most of my poems are about relationships? Is it true that I use a lot of metaphors but very few similes? Am I really contented with language, or am I one of those poets who find it insufficient and struggle against its limitations? Well!

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The discussion made me ponder on my own work and the directions it might take, as well as where it’s been in the past. And it was followed by group members reading their own work, which we all joined in to discuss. A thoroughly rewarding and creative evening.

So huge thanks to the group; and do take a look at their excellent website, which is at www.leopardpoetry.wordpress.com