Grevel Lindop

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

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

 

 

Lakeland’s Weirdest Monument?

On Saturday I finally found something I’d been looking for, on and off, for the past 20 years: Longmire’s Rocks. I’d heard they were somewhere on the eastern shore of Windermere, near Whitecross Bay, and I’d mentioned them in my Literary Guide to the Lake District, admitting that I hadn’t seen them myself, and suggesting that readers try to find them. But I’d never tracked them down, and no one else seemed to know where they were, or even if they still existed.

Carved rock. with wooden steps from Cragwood behind

The path from Cragwood comes down wooden steps at back; note carved rock in foreground

But with a revised Third Edition of my Literary Guide to prepare for publication this spring by Sigma Press, I decided to make one more effort. I put out a call for help, and it was former Lake Ranger Tony Hill who told me where to look. So on Saturday I went to see them. Longmire’s Rocks are a group of natural rock slabs on the lake shore. In the 1830s an eccentric stonemason from Troutbeck, John Longmire, used to spend his spare time carving beautifully-lettered inscriptions about all kinds of things into these rocks.

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You can just make out Wordsworth’s name, and what looks like ‘John Bolton, Storrs Hall’ on this rock

There are people’s names – poets (Wordsworth, John Wilson, Walter Scott), inventors (James Watt, Dr Jenner of vaccination fame), and political slogans about the national debt, the Corn Laws and other topics. All perfectly carved in letters as big as your hand or bigger but jumbled together higgledy-piggledy with no particular order. You get to them, it turns out, by taking the path towards the lake from the back of the car park at the Cragfoot Hotel (the owners don’t mind if you go quietly through the grounds following the path, but please park at Brockhole Visitor Centre unless you’re staying at the hotel). When you get to a low wall with a gap, take the left fork in the path and you will reach the lake shore by some wooden steps. The inscriptions are there.

'National Debt £800,000,000' - inscription with encroaching leaf debris

‘National Debt £800,000,000’! But you can see how the carvings vanish under leaves and debris. See lower down for Tony Hill’s photo of more of this rock, clarified with chalk!

Many of them are now covered with fallen leaves, moss and other natural debris, but you can still see enough to get the idea. A few volunteers with stiff brooms and carefully-wielded trowels could unearth a lot more, I’m sure. Apparently the rocks were quite a tourist attraction in the Victorian period but have been largely forgotten since. Anyway it was well worth the visit. Bizarre, beautiful and a bit eerie, these slightly crazy, lovingly stone-cut words in their lonely setting by the Lake are a strange and evocative sight. Let’s hope they are not completely forgotten, and that someone will occasionally give them a cleanup.

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Parry, the polar explorer, is commemorated here, along with poet John Wilson and others I couldn’t manage to read!

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The ‘National Debt’ rock, photo courtesy of Tony Hill, who added chalk to make it clearer. There is much more, but it is all gradually being buried by natural process.