Grevel Lindop

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

Winter Sunshine on Catbells

It looked like a grey cold day but Wednesday turned out to be pure gold. Having some work to do in the Lakes (on which see below) I went up a day early, planning a walk (weather permitting) from the Newlands Valley.

Catbells from Newlands

It was my first day out this year (I had pneumonia over Christmas and didn’t leave the house for a month!) and after scraping thick ice off the car in Manchester I was expecting near-hypothermic conditions on the fells. I had thermals, quilted shirt, multiple sweaters, gloves, woolly hat, the lot. So after parking at Newland Village Hall I put on my woollies and set off for the footpath up Catbells.

I soon discovered my mistake. The sky had already cleared and before I reached the foot of the path I’d shed the gloves, then the hat. Once I started on the slope, most of the rest followed. If I’d been certain of privacy (though I only met 4 people all day), I’d have taken off the long johns as well. By the time I reached Catbells summit, all I had above the waist was a thin t-shirt (plus bulging rucksack, of course) and it stayed that way until after 3 pm.

Derwentwater: the fells reflected in a perfect mirror

Derwentwater was a perfect mirror with hardly a quiver of air to stir the glassy surface. I kept north over Maiden Moor and along to the wonderfully solid and elegant cairn on High Spy, erected I suppose as a landmark by long-departed nineteenth-century slate miners.

Looking back towards Swinside: Catbells casts its shadow in low winter sun

Not Andy Goldsworthy, but Victorian slate miners: the cairn on High Spy

Then I took the path down (left, east) just before the tiny tarn – the point where this path leaves the main one is at about 232154 – down through the old slate workings. Not having taken this route before I hadn’t realised how weird and wonderful this little enclave is. The path twists and turns and sometimes follows long stairways of slate steps across the fellside.

There are fragments of derelict mine buildings and some extraordinary pieces of old mining equipment still standing about. You’d need to be extremely careful coming down here in poor light, or in a hurry, but it’s fascinating. I even found a tunnel entrance containing a snowdrift, still intact and hardly melted weeks after the departure of the snow. A natural ice-house. I wonmder how many weeks it will take for the snow to vanish completely?

Weird: snowdrift in slate mine

Eventually the path reached the beck, where I swayed precariously across on the wet boulders and found myself joining the main route alongside the foot of Castle Crag. By now of course I was steadily replacing the clothing I’d rejected earlier. And having (as always) underestimated the distance, I found myself finishing the walk in twilight, rewarded by the sight of a big warm-gold full moon rising behind Walla Crag with its reflection in the lake. A splendid walk, lit first by blazing sun and then by golden moon, and all in January!

Old winding-gear looks down into Borrowdale

Castle Crag, late in the January day

Full Moon rises over Walla Crag and Derwentwater

I stayed overnight at Sycamore Cottage, Ellonby (up near Greystoke): a small but delightful holiday cottage – I’ll put the link in just below in case anyone’s interested – which I was kindly lent by Nicky Godfrey-Evans of Cultural Tourism Training, who had asked me to come up and talk to trainee Tourist Guides, the following day, about literature. www.sycamorecottage.info is the link for the cottage! Do take a look.

These accredited Guides are required to know a huge amount about British life and culture, quite apart from their local knowledge (of Cumbria in this case). My brief was to give an outline of the history of English literature in the morning, and a more detailed history of literature in Cumbria in the afternoon. Quite a challenge – but an interesting one that turned out to be great fun.

So in the morning we whizzed from Beowulf to Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and the Man Booker Prize by way of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens et al; and in the afternoon it was Thomas Gray, the Wordsworth circle, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, Melvyn Bragg and so on. We had a few coffee breaks, and lunch. I met dozens of lovely and fascinating people. And I was completely hoarse. But it was a great day.

By the time we left the building (in Kendal) the weather had changed again for the worse, and I drove slowly back to Manchester in the thickest fog I’ve ever taken a car through. Fortunately it thinned out a little on the way down. But after a walk like that I’m not going to grumble about the weather.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Chorlton’s Rock’n’Roll History

Sister Rosetta, pioneer of rock'n'roll

BBC4 continues to put out some of the best music programmes on any channel. But last Friday’s offering, ‘Godmother of Rock’n’Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe’ was one of the all-time greats.

Sister Rosetta, who started as a 1930s Gospel singer from the USA’s deep South, graduated by way of nightclub singing at the Cotton Club and touring work as a jazz, blues and gospel soloist, to being a pioneer of Rock’n’Roll and one of the all-time great figures. yet she’s been almost forgotten.

Listening to her wonderfully percussive guitar style you could hear at once how much Chuck Berry learned from her; and the archive footage of her hugely energetic performances, full of movement, power and infectious delight, made it quite clear that she was a – if not the – key figure in the transition from Black gospel music to Rock. Popular music history needs to be rewritten to put this lady at the centre!

But the most amazing thing for me was to learn that, when her career (like that of many blues musicians in the US) had stalled in the early ’60s, she was invited to the UK by Chris Barber of all people – and that Granada TV invited her to perform at the disused Chorlton-cum-Hardy railway station about five minutes from where I live in Manchester. Just take a look at the clips! And more important, listen!

The rationale was something to do with freight trains and all that – the vague mythology of train tracks and the Blues. Whatever. Granada decked the old station out as a kind of Wild West scene, with a fake ‘Chorltonville’ sign which they must have thought sounded American. They put the band on one platform and the audience on the other, and delivered Sister Rosetta in a horse-drawn carriage. The horse is a typical piebald cob – a ‘gypsy horse’ of the kind you can see by the hundred at Appleby Fair every year. Her affection for the horse is typical of this immensely sweet and loving woman who seems to radiate kindness and warmth with every ounce of her being. Good to know, then, that the UK tour put Sister Rosetta back on the map and she remained a big star in Europe at least until her death.

We all knew Chorlton was special (Quentin Crisp died here, Badly Drawn Boy lives here, and of course it’s full of wonderful creative people) – but now we know it has a place in Rock’n’Roll history too. The station is about to reopen as a Metrolink stop. Maybe there ought to be a blue plaque on that platform.

Reflections on a Gift from Carol Rumens

Carol Rumens, poet and critic

One of the best and most unexpected things that happened to me last year came right at the end of 2010. To my amazement, Carol Rumens chose my poem ‘My Grandmother’s Opal’ as Poem of the Week on her Guardian Books blog. (In case you’re interested, here’s the link):

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/dec/27/poem-of-the-week-grevel-lindop

It was like a surprise late Christmas present, especially as Carol’s introductory essay gave a very sensitive and imaginative reading of the poem, of a kind I’d never imagined anyone would offer. It was quite difficult to believe it had really happened. And not the least surprising thing was that I’d almost forgotten about the poem myself. As it chanced, my wife Amanda was glacing at an old diary and noticed that I’d finished the poem in 1978 – more than half my lifetime ago.

Naturally that prompted all sorts of reflections – not least, on the question of whether I could write that poem now, if I hadn’t already. Obviously, in one sense not. I’m a different person, with different proccupations. But also, the ego naturally starts wondering ‘Can I write as well as that these days? Have I lost even whatever minimal skill with words I had then?’ There’s an irrational sense of needing to compete with a younger self.

But we can’t do that. All anyone can do is to write as well as they can (however they might define ‘well’) at a given time. A poem is made in the mould or matrix of not just a mind but a language, a culture, and a personal moment. There can’t actually be a competition, with oneself or others. Any poem that gets as far as being genuine is a species all by itself.

I also found myself wondering about form. On the few occasions when a poem of mine has been brought back from the past like this, for a critical discussion or an anthology, it has very often been a poem (like ‘My Grandmother’s Opal’) in fairly strict metre and rhyme.

In that particular poem I’d chosen a strict form (or rather, felt the need of it – you don’t really choose these things) – rhyming or half-rhyming quatrains – because I wanted the shape of the poem to be a bit like a faceted stone or piece of jewellery – quite highly polished. But Carol Rumens’s choice did make me wonder again whether poems in strict forms are more likely to survive through time, to be remembered, or just look reasonably good, after the lapse of some decades.

This could be because rhyme and metre are devices that help memory (that’s surely one reason they developed in the first place); so lines from such poems perhaps have a tendency to stick in the mind more than passages from free verse poems. I wonder also if, as the language moves on, speech rhythms change, and a free verse passage that seemed very effective at one time comes to seem less so; whilst a metrical passage gives more emphatic clues to the reader about how to stress and time the words?

I find myself that the free verse passages that stay in my memory are mostly ones that have the force of a proverb or aphorism – W.C. Williams’s ‘No ideas but in things’ or Whitman’s ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself…’ or R.S. Thomas’s man ‘nailing his questions/one by one to an untenanted cross’ – though even that last line is in fact metrical, so maybe it proves the opposite.

I write plenty of poems in free verse, but soetimes I wonder if I’m making them ephemeral for that reason. Yet, again, you can’t often choose the form of a poem (maybe you can sometimes? but if you do, that’s a different poem…). And some things maybe can’t be written about in metre. I wonder.

Anyway, thank you, Carol Rumens, for a choice that encouraged me and made me feel that all those hours of toiling away over my notebook in the evenings, in my dusty bedsit, back in the faded 1970s, had been worthwhile after all.

This week’s Poem of the Week, a witty comic salute to the New Year by Winthrop Mackworth Praed (a big mouthful of a name you don’t hear often enough these days!) is at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/jan/04/poem-of-the-week-winthrop-mackforth-praed

And Carol Rumen’s own website is at http://www.carolrumens.co.uk/