Just back from Grasmere, where Amanda and I went for the opening of the exhibition ‘Alfred Heaton Cooper (1863-1929): A Painter’s Journey’ at the Heaton Cooper Studio.
Julian Cooper: behind him, W. Heaton Cooper’s watercolour of the Hardanger Falls
A. Heaton Cooper was a fine painter in both watercolour (where his work has something in common with Turner and Ruskin) and in oils (where he approaches Post-Impressionism). He had a wonderful sense of colour and light, and was devoted to the landscapes of both Norway and the Lake District. But he was also an excellent, lively and tender portrayer of people.
He came from a poor background in Bolton, and made his own way and supported his family entirely by his own work. And he was the found of the Heaton Cooper dynasty – including his son W. Heaton Cooper, who illustrated so many classic books about the Lakes and whose watercolour landscapes are still hugely popular (though a bit bland for my taste) and grandson Julian Cooper, the adventurous and innovative painter of mountain forms and textures in Cumbria, the Himalayas, the Andes and elsewhere.
Some of the many sketchbooks and photographs on display
‘A Painter’s Journey’, mounted to mark Alfred’s 150th birthday, is a splendid show: one wall is full of his Lakeland work, the other of his Norwegian paintings, and there are fascinating displays of sketchbooks and photographs. The sketchbooks are a particular delight, offering spontaneous drawings of people and turn-of-the-century landscapes, including a wonderful, graphic and rapidly-sketched panorama of a charcoal-burners’ camp in the Westmoreland woods.
We met lots of old friends there: not only Julian and his wife, painter Linda Ryle, but also Angela Locke, the Cumbrian poet and novelist with whom I’m setting up Lakeland Writing Retreats, where from next May we’ll be offering creative writing courses in the Lakes. It was good to see novelist Chris Burns there too. Altogether a very happy occasion, and the next day we managed to get a good walk up to Easedale Tarn in cool but pleasant weather.
With poet and novelist Angela Locke: together we are setting up Lakeland Writing Retreats
If you can get to Grasmere before 3 November, when the exhibition closes, do go and see it. It’s a very intimate and inspiring display of work by an underrated artist who is also an important part of Lakeland history.
When I completed The Opium-Eater, my biography of De Quincey, I thought his story was told. Little did I know that in 2013 he would be vividly brought back to life as the dynamic hero of an action thriller set in Victorian London.
De Quincey: back to fight crime after 154 years
David Morrell, creator of Rambo (see his 1972 novel First Blood) has done an excellent and ingenious job of creating De Quincey as a credible fictional character, closely based on authentic biographical sources, and set him to work pursuing a serial killer through the London of the 1850s.
Morrell has immersed himself in every detail of his setting. Police work and prisons, street life, taverns and prostitution, crime-scene procedures, political high-life and chimney-sweeping: it’s all there, recreated with all the sounds, smells and discomfort of an overcrowded, insanitary nineteenth-century metropolis, where a vicious psychopath is recreating the series of murders described by De Quincey in his epoch-making essays ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’.
Naturally De Quincey himself becomes a prime suspect, because the murders seem to be following the sequence of the essay he published many years before. If he is to stop the murderer in time, he will have to escape the clutches of the corrupt and stupid police who are holding him as the likely culprit. And – to make him look all the more guilty, as well as rendering it harder for him to think, plan and act – De Quincey has to contend with his lifelong opium addiction. A recipe for a nail-biting (and at times stomach-churning) suspense, created by an acknowledged master of the action thriller genre.
Morrell has taken great pains to base his De Quincey on what is known of the real man. He makes the Opium-Eater’s dialogue – thoughtful, a touch pedantic, and full of sharp insights – exactly right. And he creates De Quincey’s daughter, the tough-minded Emily, as a resourceful feminist with ideas and plans of her own: a worthy companion for her adventurous father.
Morrell makes De Quincey’s crime-fighting intelligence and imaginative knowledge of how the criminal brain works completely credible, and in tune with the fact that De Quincey’s stories and his essays ‘On Murder’ are important elements in the early pre-history of crime fiction, still influential today. And if De Quincey in Morrell’s fast-paced and violent action thriller seems a touch fitter and more athletic than I imagined him, well, it’s great to find my old friend in such good shape!
Murder as a Fine Art is a breathlessly good read which will delight De Quincey addicts, entertain lovers of Victorian fiction, and grip anyone who enjoys the very special flavour of murder in the foul and fascinating labyrinths of Victorian London.
The Temenos Academy in London is offering a new kind of course (or maybe a very old kind) this autumn: a Foundation Course in the Perennial Philosophy. Please take a few minutes to watch this video and if you are interested, or know anyone who might be interested, please pass it on. You can contact Temenos at www.Temenosacademy. org.uk
With Blake’s coloured illustrated copy of Young’s Night Thoughts: photo by Paul Burrows
Last week I spent an unusual hour at the John Rylands Library in Manchester’s Deansgate. The library currently has an outstanding exhibition of work by William Blake – chosen, amazingly, from the John Rylands’s own collection. These are not Blake’s famous illuminated books, but rather the many books by other people which he illustrated. There’s a magnificent range of superb, original images – including not only one of the very few hand-coloured copies of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts but also a copy of Thornton’s translation of Virgil’s Eclogues with Blake’s magical wood engravings, which in turn inspired the enchanting landscapes of Samuel Palmer, who was Blake’s pupil in the latter’s last years. There are also many other works by Blake and copies of early facsimiles of the challenging Illuminated Books. A beautiful exhibition.
A page of Blake’s wood engravings for Virgil’s pastorals as translated by Thornton
I’d been asked to choose one item from the Rylands’s collection to talk about in an interview for the University’s magazine, Unilife, and I chose the Night Thoughts, so photographer Paul Burrows had the tricky challenge of photographing me and the book (which couldn’t be taken out of it glass case for the occasion)! He managed to do it by natural light, and despite all the challenges of the reflective glass surface of the case. Here’s one of his excellent pictures, a tribute to how well he solved the technical problems and produced a picture which even I can enjoy looking at.
You can download issues of Unilife here: http://www.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/news/unilife/
I’m just home from what must be the world’s most magnificent and delightful poetry festival. It’s the International Poetry Festival of Granada, held each year in Nicaragua’s most historic and beautiful city, and this time I was lucky enough to be invited. I knew it would be exciting but I truly had no conception of what it would really be like.
Nicaraguans have a genuine and universal love of poetry, and the week was packed with events ranging from the open mics which ran for hours every day with audiences consistently around 50 or 60 people listening intently to local poets, to the enormous evening readings where poets from more than 60 countries read their work (with Spanish translations) to audiences that filled the city’s main plaza and must have numbered thousands.
And as if the readings weren’t enough, on Tuesday 19th (as every year) there was the city’s Poetry Carnival – a vast colourful procession of bands, dancers, poets and everyone else, led by an elaborate horesdrawn funeral carriage, carrying the coffin of Arrogance and Insensitivity! And, of course, the parade stopped at every street corner through the city for short readings by countless poets.
Highlights of the Festival were splendid readings by Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal: a priest, Liberation Theologian, love poet, champion of indigenous cultures and hero of the campaign to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship, he was a charming and modest figure in loose blue trousers and white smock, his bushy white hair escaping from under a black beret. He read his famous ‘Oracion para Marilyn Monroe’ (‘Prayer for Marilyn Monroe’), and his touching and profound poem about the song of the cicadas which emerge from their 17-year sojourn underground only to sing and die: ‘En Pascua resuscitan las cigarras’ (‘At Easter the cicadas come back to life’) and other poems which are nationally known in Nicaragua but a marvellous new discovery for me.
With Ernesto Cardenal at the book fair
There were also overwhelming performances (see video below) by Raul Zurita, who has written a kind of modern Divine Comedy on the recent traumatic history of Chile; and a characteristically delightful, intense and picturesque reading by Gioconda Belli, again a heroine of the Sandinista revolution – whose devotion to the arts and education as well as to democracy is the foundation of this amazing event – a festival to which richer countries would never dream of giving such resources but which this small country gladly offers to the world.
Just listent to Raul Zurita’s poetry as music if you don’t know Spanish, and share his extraordinary lament for the sufferings of his country under Pinochet’s dictatorship, in which he was arrested, tortured and exiled.
The Friday night reading, when with a succession of other poets I suddenly found myself up in the lights on the platform, reading into the beautifully-tuned sound system and gazing over a sea of faces stretching into the warm distance of the beautiful colonial Plaza, felt like flying. There was a magic in the moonlight, the vast, warm, appreciative audience, the sense of speaking – almost singing – the poems, English and Spanish, into this beautiful living space. Maybe that’s what it’s like to play a rock festival.
I was delighted to meet Gerry Cambridge, Scottish poet and editor of The Dark Horse magazine, for the first time, and also the fine New Zealand poet and publisher Roger Hickin. The three of us spent a good deal of time together, and also with the Taiwanese poet Yang Ze and the Icelandic poet Gerdur Kristny… I could go on, because it was the most wonderful opportunity to make friends and hear the most diverse poetries from all over the world. And as a bonus my old friend Ken McCarthy (www.kenmccarthy.com) came over from Guatemala for a couple of days to hang out, browse the bookshops, hear the music, marvel at the Carnival and enjoy the poems.
Roger Hickin, New Zealand poet and publisher
Other poets whose work I loved included Gemino Abad (Phillippines), Margaret Randall and Jerome Rothenberg (both USA), Peter Boyle (Australia)… I could go on. And then there was the food. And the wonderful Phillips Montalban reggae band one night. And the great Mexican salsa orchestra another night. And the trip through the islands on Lake Cocibolco. And the tropical heat, and the scarlet and purple bougainvillea flowers, and the misty volcano in the background, and the Toña beer, and the Flor de la Caña rum. And the magnificent kindness, hospitality and efficiency of our hosts.
Shuffling off the plane at Manchester Airport this morning at 8.30 it was England that seemed, for a moment, like a dream. It’s not often one gets the chance to experience so intensely. Thank you Nicaragua, thank you Granada. In the slogan of the Festival, ‘Poetry is the Song of the Cosmos’; and it really did feel true.