Grevel Lindop

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

Three Books for 2015

 

By sheer chance, I have three books coming out in the coming months: two new ones, and one fully revised and updated. It wasn’t planned that way, but that’s how the timing has worked out.

I’ll be giving talks and readings related to all of them this autumn: once I have full details I’ll post a new ‘Readings and Talks’ page with times, places and other details.

In August, Sigma Press is bringing out the 3rd edition of my Literary Guide to the Lake District. The book, which won Lakeland Book of the Year award when first published, is a comprehensive guide to where authors have lived or stayed and what they have written about the Lakes from ancient times up to the present.

Besides thorough coverage of places connected with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome and all the usual suspects, it deals with the Lakeland places visited by D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas and countless other poets, novelists and writers. Plentifully illustrated, and with maps, it’s geographically arranged by area so you can follow its routes, or browse in it as you travel. Or just enjoy it as armchair tourism!

For this new edition I’ve re-checked the routes, added new material and rather than try to give opening times I’ve added the web addresses of places open to the public. I’m proud that the book on first appearance was described by Melvyn Bragg as ‘a treat’ and ‘a book-lover’s feast’. I think the new edition presents it in its best shape ever. I’ll put ordering details here as soon as I have them: design has been finalised and proofs returned but I see Sigma haven’t got the book in their online catalogue yet. Maybe there’s a delay? Updates as soon as I have them!

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In October, OUP are publishing my biography Charles Williams: The Third Inkling. as there’s a lot of information about the book on the web already, I’ll just quote from the publisher’s description of the book:

Novelist, poet, theologian, magician, and guru, Charles Williams was an extraordinary and controversial figure who was a central member of the Inklings – the group of Oxford writers that included C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Williams was the strangest, most multitalented, and most controversial member of the group, and his friends and admirers included T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and the young Philip Larkin. This biography draws on a wealth of documents, letters and private papers, many never before opened to researchers, and on more than twenty interviews with people who knew Williams. It vividly recreates the bizarre and dramatic life of this strange, uneasy genius, of whom Eliot wrote: ‘For him there was no frontier between the material and the spiritual world.’ The book also sheds light on the characters of the period, and adds surprising new dimensions to our knowledge of the Inklings.”

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And in November, Carcanet Press are publishing my collection of poems, Luna Park. This collects my poems from the past seven years or so, together with a prose essay about my visit to the extraordinary city of New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Here’s an outline of the book:

“Drawing on themes of magic, dreams and the nocturnal, Grevel Lindop’s new collection of poems ranges in subject from the hidden histories of words to the folklore of yew trees, and in place from a haunted English library to a derelict Australian funfair and the streets of Mexico City. Including ‘Shugborough Eclogues’, a twenty-first century take on the country-house pastoral, and sequences on the darker and brighter aspects of love, Luna Park deploys an original viewpoint as well as a wide range of traditional and modernist skills in verse. The book ends with ‘Hurricane Music’, Lindop’s prose memoir of a visit to New Orleans in the aftermath.”

 

St Patrick’s Cave

 

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St Patrick’s Cave: interior, with view out to sea

Just back from Anglesey, where we stayed near Camaes Bay with our grandchildren. There’s something magical about Anglesey: a strange, subtle and beautiful atmosphere that feels as if you’ve entered an enchanted Otherworld.

Much of the countryside looks dull from a car; but get out and walk a hundred yards and you’re in fields and woods that seem out of another era. It’s as if nothing has changed for centuries, and you can just step into it. I always find it very inspiring for poetry too.

Having meadows and seacliffs right next to each other is wonderful too. You go from sheets of bluebells and blossoming hawthorn thickets to sheer cliffs with lichen-covered rocks and clumps of seapinks, with a sheer drop to the sandy beach,  in a mere footstep or two.

St Patrick's Cave Anglesey

The cave mouth is the dark shape left of centre. The Dalai Lama, visiting a few years ago, said it was the most peaceful place on earth!

This time we stayed in an old house beside a church built in the mid-5th century. Just round the corner and down the cliff face was St Patrick’s cave – where the saint is said to have taken refuge after shipwreck. It looked precarious but I soon found out that it was easy enough to climb down the cliff into the cave. A wonderful place to meditate! And, as local legend says women used to go to a sacred spirng there to wash their faces and become more beautiful, it seems likely that in preChristian times it was sacred to a Goddess – no doubt Bride, the Celtic Goddess of springs and wells. A magical place!

 

GEOFFREY HILL LECTURES ON CHARLES WILLIAMS

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Charles Williams, poet and critic (1886-1945)

Professor Sir Geoffrey Hill framed his valedictory lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry earlier this month with a discussion of Charles Williams’s 1930 book, Poetry at Present – a fascinating choice because, to me at least, this is the weakest of Williams’s three critical books. Nonetheless Hill managed to fasten on a brief passage about the nature of poetry which he then used as a standard for judging poems, and applied it to the work of Larkin, Edward Thomas and others.

I was delighted – and not merely because he recognised Williams’s brilliant critical acumen, which has been overlooked for so long – but also because he raised doubts about the quality of several of Larkin’s poems, as I have done recently (though with reference to different Larkin poems) in the journal PN Review, in a discussion of James Booth’s recent biography. I’m sure Larkin is currently overrated, good though some of his poems are, and it’s encouraging to find Hill taking the same view.

images[1] (3)The lecture is well worth listening to: it winds around and you may think he is rambling, but in fact it all turns out to be very cogent, and his final point is impressive and even devastating. After coming back to Williams, and the perceptive quotation from which he began, Hill quotes the choreographer Mark Morris as saying ‘I’m not interested in self-expression but in expressiveness’. He’s absolutely right.

If you’d like to listen to a podcast of the lecture, just click on this link (from the Oxford English Faculty page)  here.

Doña Oxford

Went to an amazing gig last Saturday by a band I’d never heard of before – the Doña Oxford Band. They played at Matt ‘n’ Phred’s, Manchester, and they were wonderful: a variety of rock, boogie-woogie, soul, R’n’B and maybe other styles – all of it powered by the superb piano playing of Doña Oxford herself.

Doña, a New Yorker, is one of those musicians who just thinks with total spontaneity through her keyboard. The powerful, inventive phrases just flow out of her. Even during the sound-check, when she was merely tinkling around on different registers of the keyboard, the little momentary improvisations made you want to shout for more. And when she launched into her set, powered by a driving rhythm section and the sharp, inventive, idiomatic guitar-playing of  xxxxxx the music was electrifying.

I often don’t stay till the end at Matt ‘n’ Phred’s, but this time I stayed until the band finished at 1.30 a.m. or so and I would gladly have stayed for more.

To try and characterise things a little in terms of the familiar, Doña’s keyboard playing ranges roughly between Jerry Lee Lewis at one end (rock, boogie) and Dr John at the other (elements of New Orleans and ‘stride’, Professor Longhair somewhere in the background). And she sings about as well as she plays – and to give a range again, I’d say maybe from Gladys Knight across to a bit of the Bessie Smiths. And yes, Doña has a notably powerful voice, and no trouble at all playing intricate piano while she sings.

Frustratingly I can’t discover the names of the other msuicians in her band: not on her website, not anywhere. Maybe the personnel changes often? All I can say is, her guitarist accompanied seamlessly and also solo’d in styles that range from the Chuck Berry-esque to prog-rock impro (but never going on too long – in fact he leaves you wanting more); the drummer gave powerful, intricate, latin-tinged percussion that gives exactly the accent and drama needed; and the bassist was inventive and sonorous, always powering and bouncing the music along but shading the music with plunky, twanging accents from time to time. As a bonus she just happened to be a gorgeous dark-haired brunette with the longest legs and the shortest skirt I’ve seen for a long time. Irrelevant? I don’t think so; stage music is also a kind of theatre, and the band’s look is impeccable, from the pale, stubbly, waiflike presence of the guitarist, to the powerful, Mama’s-gonna-sort-ya-out superwoman dynamism of Doña herself. And the two backing singers were totally professional – the right harmonies, the right musical emphases, the right hint of emotional drama – and they danced all the way through.

Doña Oxford is playing keyboards at the Stockport Plaza on Monday 4 May with what seems to be another band called Albert Lee and Hogan’s Heroes. And if you want to see her with her own band, in a more intimate setting, Doña says they’ll be back at Matt ‘n’ Phred’s (Manchester) in November. There  are a range of other dates, UK and US, on her website at http://www.donaoxford.com/index.htm You should think about going.

 

 

Lance Cousins (1942-2015)

Today I must pay tribute to my dear friend and teacher, Lance Cousins, who died in Oxford on 14 March.

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Lance Cousins (foreground) with his teacher, Nai Boonman (behind)

Lance was the most remarkable person I’ve ever met. A Buddhist scholar and meditation teacher, he was an unforgettable character and a constant source of amazement, amusement, wisdom and inspiration. Think of Gandalf in a green jumper with a mug of coffee in his hand and you will have some idea.

I first met Lance when I joined the Manchester University Buddhist Society in 1975, soon after arriving to work at the University. I had noticed him before I knew who he was: a quiet, bearded chap who came into the senior common room looking very alert and moving quietly: there was something cat-like in the way he padded about.

Once I joined the Society I realised that he was its motivator: he had taught Charles Shaw, who was my own first teacher in meditation, and Lance himself came to all the Society’s weekly talks by visiting speakers, and afterwards would join in fascinating discussions which ranged far and wide, on all kinds of things, philosophical and personal. He was ready with apposite, amusingly-expressed advice for anyone who had a problem but he could also quote from the ancient texts.

He also became the focus of a group of friendly academics who would spend hours in the Common Room debating everything in the world over coffee: a group of true philosophers that tended to include Harry Lesser, John Kane, Philip Alexander, Tony James, Norman Calder and others. The flow of ideas, questions, knowledge and humour was marvellous.

Over the years that followed I came to know Lance as an incomparable teacher. The meditation he taught, the stimulus of his teaching, and the example of his presence completely changed my life and gave it a new focus.

He was mainly a teacher of Samatha, a traditional method of meditation using the in-and-out breath as an object, which he had learned from his own Thai teacher, Nai Boonman. But he was far from limiting himself to ‘Buddhism by the Book’: he’d been trained in the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky tradition; he was an expert astrologer who drew up a birth chart for me and many others; he knew a great deal about the Kabbala and encouraged his meditation students to learn about that as well. He was also very well-read, and could discuss almost any author in English literature and, of course, most fantasy and science fiction of which he read a great deal (and I believe wrote some himself).

In due course, as well as supporting and stimulating the Manchester University Buddhist Society, Lance was the main mover in establishing the Samatha Centre (later the Manchester Centre for Buddhist Meditation) in Chorlton, and then, with other senior teachers and Trustees, the national Samatha Centre, Greenstreete, in the Welsh Borders.

At the same time he ran study groups of Buddhist texts either at his house or at the Centre, and these meetings, often going on until well after midnight, were endlessly illuminating. Lance had a fresh, humorous and profound angle on everything, and he would also listen carefully and give full attention to what others had to say. In fact he insisted that others had their say! Of course we didn’t always agree, and at times I found him infuriating! All part of the fun and the learning process.

He moved to Oxford some twenty years ago and after that I saw less of him but whenever I visited we would have long and happy chats about all sorts of things, and I would always get wise insight into whatever problem, difficulty or stage of life I might be going through. Lance’s kindness and learning increased over the years and somehow he seemed to grow older, not just physically, but in wisdom as well. It was as if he’d started off six years older than me but ended twenty-six years older. Spiritually I have to say that he was my father. I will never meet anyone like him, and it is daunting to realise that now he is gone and we must do what we can to go on with the work, or some aspect of it, without him.

There are no words to express my gratitude and I know hundreds of others feel the same.

This is a rough and hasty tribute but the best I can manage at present. For more information, photos and tributtes, go to www.samatha.org.uk/lance-cousins