Grevel Lindop

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

Where Have I Been? And no thanks to BT…

If you’re one of the many thousands who have been diligently following this blog in its first couple of weeks, you might wonder why it stopped in its tracks around 11 December. Here’s the short version.

On 11 December our daughter moved house. Amanda called BT and asked them to terminate our daughter’s phone line. Instead, the geniuses at BT cut off OUR line.

We spent two weeks fighting to get reconnected. We were bounced between call centres in Scotland, India and Essex. We spent a fortune on mobile phone calls. Sometimes we had to queue for 20 minutes to get an answer. Sometimes we got cut off by BT’s own computers.

Many of the Customer Service people were hugely well-meaning but they admitted that BT’s system simply wouldn’t let them reconnect us. The computers defeated them every time. Two days ago we got a land line again; only we didn’t have our original number, so no one knew where to call us. Today – Christmas Eve – we finally got our old number back. Wonderful.

However, in the meantime the cancellation of our landline had resulted in the loss of our broadband connection. We are told this can’t be reinstated until 3 January at the earliest. Until then, to get on the internet I have to trek to the public library. Even then I can’t upload material. So no pics in this blog until after 3 Jan.

Am I going to complain to BT? You bet. The disruption and inconvenience have been massive and the cost significant. Am I going to leave BT for a different phone company? You bet. Am I going to buy a wifi-enabled laptop? I am.

And in the New Year I’ll be back with – at last – the post about Julian Cooper’s great show of quarry paintings at Brantwood, news of Manchester salsa events, pieces about Alaskan poet John Haines and Ennerdale (Cumbria) poet Tom Rawling and much more. And a link to the spot about Tarot history and divination which I’m broadcasting on the BBC World Service around New Year. Plus the usual wonderful pics. Thanks for your patience! Have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Sorry, Blackpool!

Well, I promised to report on the Towering Inferno salsa event at the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool yesterday. Oh dear. By 8 pm the freezing fog was so thick that visibility was down to zero in south Manchester, and we heard it was just as bad further north. I didn’t fancy the drive up (nor the drive back down a possibly icy fogbound motorway at 3 a.m.) So we stayed at home. Call me chicken if you like. Though I’d prefer pollo. Well, you win some you lose some. El mani es asi as they say in Caracas.

Shiver me timbers! we never made it to the Tower

Shiver me timbers! we never made it to the Tower

Chris McCully, James Fenton: Manchester Poetry Evening

Chris McCully: poetry, fishing, and fine conversation

Chris McCully: poetry, fishing, and fine conversation

I had tea at the Cornerhouse with Chris McCully, who’s over from the Netherlands for a couple of days. Chris is a polymath: fine poet, serious fishing writer (he has a book on the way about sea trout ecology, on which he’s a leading expert), scholar of Old English poetry and historical linguistics. He writes regularly for Trout and Salmon magazine, and teaches linguistics and literature at Groningen University.

We’re planning to write an article together about Tom Rawling, one of the finest Lakeland poets of the 20th century and (like Chris) a scientific specialist on sea trout, who worked with Hugh Falkus, the famous naturalist and fisherman who revolutionised knowledge of these enigmatic fish. Not that I know anything about fishing: that’s Chris’s department. (Come to think of it, so is poetry. So where do I fit in?)

We walked down to the neo-Gothic splendours of the John Rylands Library for a reading by James Fenton. Fenton, a taciturn and hugely impressive man, gave a powerful reading, starting with his elegy for the much-missed poet and editor Mick Imlah, who died, after far too short a life, in January 2009. Fenton’s elegy (due to appear in tomorrow’s TLS) was almost classical in its poise, brevity and intensity.

Janet Wilkinson, Rylands Director, talks to Michael Schmidt (centre) and James Fenton (right)

Jan Wilkinson, Rylands Director, talks to poet and publisher Michael Schmidt (centre) and James Fenton (right)

Fenton went on to read a selection of his poems, with a particular emphasis on poems about war, on which he writes with peculiar intensity. He was a foreign correspondent in Cambodia during the last years of its war, so he knows the truth at first hand.

Much of Fenton’s poetry draws on traditional ballad forms, as modified by Auden and Kipling. Sometimes this can be immensely forceful though at moments it also, I feel, slightly flattens out subtleties. The ballad form is a dangerous friend. I asked him afterwards if he was conscious of the dept to Kipling and he said he was, but pointed also to Brecht, a model I hadn’t suspected. But it made sense. There’s a direct, unashamed and sometimes bitter plain-speaking in his rhymes that many contemporary poets would be afraid to use.

De Quincey and Rob Morrison at Dove Cottage

Dove Cottage: De Quincey lived here from 1809 after Wordsworth left

Dove Cottage: De Quincey lived here from 1809 after Wordsworth left

I went up to Grasmere yesterday: a special occasion. Thomas De Quincey (the ‘English Opium-Eater’) died 150 years ago that day, on December 8 1859. To mark the occasion, and to celebrate the fine new biography of De Quincey by my old friend Robert Morrison, the Wordsworth Trust decided to recreate ‘a winter’s evening at Dove Cottage’ just as De Quincey loved it, and recorded it in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater: a roaring fire, candlelight, an ‘eternal teapot’ and ‘a decanter of ruby-coloured laudanum’ – though yesterday mulled wine served as a very acceptable substitute. And of course the weather was terrible, just as De Quincey liked it. After all, as he said, why pay for coals and candles if you’re not getting a proper winter for your money?

Rob was signing copies of his new De Quincey biography

Rob was signing copies of his new De Quincey biography

Rob’s biography – the first since my own life of De Quincey came out in 1981 – is a great read, as well-written as you’d expect from a scholar of De Quincey, one of the best-ever prose stylists. And it’s packed with new information about the extraordinary life of England’s most famous literary drug addict. I’ll slot in a link to the book right here: it’s highly recommended. Ideal Christmas present, in fact.

A new life of De Quincey was much-needed because when Rob and I and nine other editors researched our 21-volume edition of De Quincey’s complete Works in 2000-3, we dug up so much new information that I knew my biography was now out of date. Rob took on the job and has produced an amazingly fresh story full of insights that even I never dreamed of.

Dove Cottage Wordsworth Trust Morrison De QuinceyRob and I discussed De Quincey – his addiction, his dreams, his wonderful writing, his phenomenal memory, his part in the making of modern literary biography, and many other aspects – with a moving crowd of around a hundred people in those candlelit cottage rooms where De Quincey lived and wrote, where he met Wordsworth for the first time, and where he dreamed of (or did he really meet?) the terrifying Malay addict who so unexpectedly knocked at his door one day.

If you were there, I hope you enjoyed it all. If you missed it, you can still catch Rob, when he gives the Bindman Lecture, ‘Thomas De Quincey and the Lake District’, at the Wordsworth Trust on Saturday 12 December at 3 pm. See www.wordsworth.org.uk for details.

Afterwards I dropped in for tea and mince pies with some old friends, Tim Melling and Liz Cooper at Nab Cottage, Rydal, where De Quincey courted Margaret Simpson, the beautiful daughter of a local farmer. Nab Cottage, a fine traditional Lakeland farmhouse on the shore of Rydal Water, is now a B&B and language school ( www.rydalwater.com and www.nabcottage.com ). They told me that during the recent floods they had water coming under the door (the house is right between the lake and the slopes of the fell with consequent water runoff) but it didn’t get serious and everything is now fine. Though it was pelting with rain outside as we talked!

Nab Cottage still has a small built-in writing cupboard with fold-down

Tim and Liz relax in the 'Opium Den': once De Quincey's writing space?

Tim and Liz relax in the 'Opium Den': once De Quincey's writing space?

desk, and since De Quincey owned the place briefly in the 1820s he may well have written there. Tim and Liz keep the room decorated as an ‘Opium Den’ in his memory.

They also got out their copy of the fascinating game Transformation which they tell me originated at Findhorn. Although it’s a board game it seems to provide real-life challenges and counselling for players, and they tell me it can actually change the lives of people who play it. I wasn’t able to stay long enough to play it (Liz tells me she has trained as a ‘facilitator’ to play the game in enhanced mode with people who seriously want to transform!) but I heard enough to want to give it a try. I’m putting a link in, but this is not an arbitrary plug because I am buying this myself. I delight in any spiritual/psychological/divination-type thing, and this one looks really good . If anyone out there has played Transformation and can write a comment about it, please get in touch; I’d love to hear from you!

Best Cuban Salsa Night Outside Cuba?

For months I’ve been telling everyone who’ll listen that the best and most authentic Cuban salsa night in Manchester is Republic of Salsa. Last night (Saturday 5 Dec 09) I felt totally vindicated. It was pure dynamite: seriously, the best salsa night I’ve been to anywhere outside Cuba.

Lorraine mixes her salsa magic

Lorraine mixes her salsa magic

I’ll go further. Last time I went to Republic of Salsa I just caught myself heading for the bar to pick up another Cristal, and realised that for the past few minutes I’d truly slipped into thinking I was back in Havana. These club nights are that good.

Last night was a solid feast of Cuban beats: non-stop hardcore bailable Cuban salsa tracks at the son and timba edge of things, with enhanced edge and depth added by Jack McCarthy playing congas up there alongside the DJ deck. (He also had a set of timbales but mysteriously never seemed to touch them). Plus the usual garnish of reggaeton, bachata and merengue. The sound-system was superb, and the Irish Club’s new (or resurfaced?) dancefloor, which started off feeling a bit sticky, wore in nicely as the evening went on.

A rueda moment: !Arriba!

A rueda moment: !Arriba!

The session kicked off with Lorraine organising a huge beginners-friendly rueda and relentlessly heated up from there on.

The place was heaving and people danced their feet off. There was that intent, glistening, hypnotised, sweaty feel you get in Havana around two in the morning – though here it set in about eleven p.m. And pretty much everyone on the Manchester salsa scene was there, including two of the contenders for ‘coolest guy in the city’ in the form of Cuba Cafe’s Mo-ji and Baby Salsa’s Andre. Mo was resplendent in black beaded Native American buckskin and a shiny top hat; and Andre forsook his usual pose of pensive observer to dive in and dance by the hour. The sheer friendliness of everyone was tangible: laughing, smiling, kissing, grabbing hands. Was it possible, I wondered, that Chorlton really was becoming an outpost of Cuba?

Andre and Mo-ji: Cool or what?

Andre and Mo-ji: Cool or what?

Maybe the Irish Club’s refurbished bar and table area are a little too smart for the purist. I used to feel the tatty plaster and horrible curtains added to the sense of authenticity, giving the place that inimitable not-touched-since-1959 Havana look. But the newly smooth ceiling made a great arena for the lightshow. And for those who miss the grainy black-and-white Cuban movies on the rear wall, Lorraine tells me they’ll be back as soon as the new projector has been installed.

Jack McCarthy on Congas (and who's that beautiful girl?)

Jack McCarthy on Congas (and who's that beautiful girl?)

Republic of Salsa (promoted by Mancuban Salsa and Baby Salsa – see Facebook) runs first Saturdays of alternate months, so the next one should be 6 February. Do not miss it. This is a total-immersion Cuban dance experience you won’t find anywhere else. One day people are gonna wish they’d been there. You can. All you’re waiting for now is February.

Though if you can’t wait that long, you might still get to La Habana for New Year: check out key2Cuba.com

I’ll be reporting on Rohan Brown and Mojito live at the Tower Ballroom Blackpool (Fri 11 Feb) straight after the event. Watch this space! And if you still don’t have the two best albums by the best Cuban band, see below!