Grevel Lindop

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

Night Fishing With Tom Rawling

I’ve just spent some time on the River Esk in the western Lake District, night-fishing for sea trout. To be completely honest, I wasn’t doing the fishing: that was left to the highly-skilled fisherman and guide, Finlay Wilson of Fish Wild (www.fishwild.co.uk). Also present, and the keystone of the whole enterprise, so to speak, was Matt Thompson, of Rockethouse Radio (www.rockethouse.co.uk) with his high-tech recording equipment.

As you’ll deduce from the above, I was the simpleton of the team, there only to observe, describe, and introduce. Also to engage Fin (an impassioned and eloquent talker himself) in conversation about the mysteries, and the psychology, of fishing.

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Late Night: Fin chooses the right lure (photo by Matt Thompson)

We were making a programme for BBC Radio 4 about the Ennerdale poet Tom Rawling (1916- 1996), whose work has been rediscovered fairly recently and is attracting increasing attention. Rawling used to fish on the Esk with his friend Hugh Falkus, the 2oth century’s leading expert on sea trout.

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Cragg Cottage, where Tom Rawling used to stay as guest of Hugh Falkus

 

Rawling (whose final book of poems was The Names of the Sea-Trout, published in 1993), wrote about farming and fishing in Cumbria as no one has done in recent times: his poems are tactile, incantatory, vivid and full of feeling. The programme, to be called Night Fishing, will combine sounds from our night of fishing with recordings of Rawling reading his own poems.

The hours on the river, watching twilight and then darkness fall, the moon rising, the black patterned shadows of the leaves overhead against the starry sky, and the sea trout jumping – often three or four feet into the air above the river – were amazing. And (with some help from a local fisherman, Andy Robinson), we did catch some fish.

I don’t yet know the time and date for the broadcast but I’ll put it on this blog as soon as I get it. In the meantime, here’s one of Tom Rawling’s poems – one we didn’t use in the programme but still one that gives the sense of the mystery, strangeness and intensity of night fishing.

 

ONLY THE BODY

 

Long after midnight,

Only the body pouring

Into the water world

Though the rod through the line

Through the searching lure,

Conjuring a trick

For sea-trout eyes.

 

The stars are cold and clear,

The ruse transparent.

I wade in deeper,

Share with the fish

Its lateral line

The current’s push;

My fingers fifteen yards away,

Coaxing feathers

To nicker and sway.

 

A breath touches my cheek,

Grows to a breeze

Ruffles the pool,

Brings a drift of cloud.

The lure comes alive.

 

A soft pluck;

Then the barbed point

Bites deep,

Holds fast in gristle.

 

Through the hook through the line

Through the rod’s kick

In my palm,

Only the body throbbing.

 

For more about Tom Rawling and Ennerdale, just put ‘Rawling’ in the search box on this blog.

Tuesday Night at the Leopard

leopard[1]A really delightful evening yesterday, giving a reading at the Stanza poetry group in the Leopard Hotel, Burslem – a lovely old pub, full of character, which I’m told features in Arnold Bennett’s fiction. (Burslem is near Stoke on Trent, in the ‘Potteries’ – one of Bennett’s ‘Five Towns’.)

The group was immensely welcoming, and provided an ideally attentive, involved, and questioning audience for the poems: one of those occasions when you rediscover your own poetry by sharing it with people who really respond and understand.

John Williams was a marvellously intelligent chairman, and after the reading he stimulated a fascinating discussion that made me think a lot about language, about the way different poets look at the world, and about what the real subjects of my poems are.

Is it true that most of my poems are about relationships? Is it true that I use a lot of metaphors but very few similes? Am I really contented with language, or am I one of those poets who find it insufficient and struggle against its limitations? Well!

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The discussion made me ponder on my own work and the directions it might take, as well as where it’s been in the past. And it was followed by group members reading their own work, which we all joined in to discuss. A thoroughly rewarding and creative evening.

So huge thanks to the group; and do take a look at their excellent website, which is at www.leopardpoetry.wordpress.com

‘CIGAR’ – from Packet to Prize

On Tuesday I went to Tunbridge Wells, where my poem ‘Cigar’ had won second prize in the Kent and Sussex Poetry Society Open Competition. I’d entered at the last minute, without much expectation of anything happening, so was delighted and a bit startled when I got the news a couple of weeks ago.

The Kent and Sussex Poetry Society, a wonderful body that has existed since the 1920s (when it was founded by Vita Sackville-West, I’m told) gave me and the First Prize winner, Andrew Soye, and other prize winners a superb meal (sadly Jo Bell, who won third prize and with whom I read a few weeks ago in Manchester, couldn’t be there). Afterwards the judge, Pascale Petit, gave an exciting reading: superb and very powerful poems, some of them not yet published in book form.

Later I remembered how my poem was written – I was actually having a cigar, as I occasionally do, and the poem came when I had nothing to write on. So I dismembered the cigar packet and wrote on that. I’m sure other poets have grabbed bizarre bits of paper or card in similar circumstances rather than lose a poem! (Please write and tell me if you’ve done this, and maybe even send a scan!)

So I thought it would be fun to show the actual bits and pieces that got the first draft scribbled on them. Here they are below, with the final version of the poem following – quite a bit changed, as you’ll see if you bother to decipher the scribble! Sorry I can’t position the bits better, but I’m limited by the way the blog format works: it won’t let me put things just where I’d like them!

CIGAR

It would have, unrolled, a small book’s

surface area. My first was a gift

from the man at the next table

of the pavement café at the Hotel Inglaterra.

He worked, he said,Cigar.01 (2)

 

at the Partagás factory, where they read

the newspaper aloud all morning,

and in the afternoon novels and poetry

while, adept as conjurers’,

the workers’ hands rip, stuff and wrap. More words

went into it than I shall ever draw out.Cigar.02

 

The tobacco-god is a bird with scarlet plumage

and mother-of-pearl eyes. His four

attendants are the green

spirit of the fresh leaf, the brown of the dried,

the red spirit of fire and the blue of smoke.

 

The red visits only for flaring instants;

is fickle, demands nurture. The green

is memory and imagination. The blue

is a girl dressed in feathers: lapis, lavender, sky.

When she kissesCigar.04

 

her tongue is sharp as seabrine, chocolate, chilli.

She says the word tabaco is Carib,

from a language whose last speaker

has been dead four hundred years. But the brown

 

lives in my hand this moment, brittle

and crisp as a chrysalis. Filtered

through his crushed spirals,

molecular poems thread themselves

into my genes, become part of the air I breathe,

the words I speak. Both of us end in ash.Cigar.03

 

Lois Lang-Sims (1917-2014)

On Monday I went to Canterbury for the funeral of Lois Lang-Sims. It was a beautiful service, held in the ancient crypt of the Cathedral –  the ivory-white stone of the Norman columns polished by the touch of thousands of hands over almost a thousand years, the carvings of birds, animals and plants on the capitals as crisp and vivid as ever, and the whole quiet contemplative space lit by candles.

Like most people, I knew Lois first of all as a follower of Charles Williams (1886-1945), the poet and theologian whose biography I have just finished writing.  For Lois, who died on March 11 at the age of 97, was perhaps the last of Charles Williams’s ‘disciples’ – those who, for a time, took him as their spiritual teacher. She will be known, therefore, to many people as the co-author of Letters to Lalage, in which she added her own commentary and reminiscences to Williams’s letters to her, written in 1943 and 1944.

But Lois was more than simply a follower of Charles Williams. She was a writer and spiritual seeker of considerable stature. Another of her teachers was the Buddhist scholar Marco Pallis with whom, as with Williams, she eventually broke – for Lois was nothing if not independent-minded. One of the first English people to become aware of the sad plight of the Tibetan refugees who fled to Nepal and northern India after the Chinese invasion of 1959, she helped to found the Tibet Society, the first charity dedicated to helping them, becoming a friend of the Dalai Lama and other senior Tibetan lamas.

Her Tibetan adventures are depicted in a beautifully-written volume of autobiography, Flower in a Teacup. This, and an account of her earlier life in A Time to be Born, form one of the finest British autobiographies of the twentieth century and richly deserve to be reprinted. Having worked as a guide for visitors to Canterbury Cathedral, she was also the author of Canterbury Cathedral: Mother Church of Holy Trinity, a discursive account of the Cathedral, its history and its significance, as well as of One Thing Only: A Christian Guide to the Universal Quest for God and The Christian Mystery: An Exposition of Esoteric Christianity.

I met her in 2001, when I went to record her memories of Charles Williams. She lived then in a care home in Hove, where, as a devout mystical Christian, she spent much of her time in prayer and contemplation. She was surrounded by her books, and by the photographs of people from her childhood who had become, for her, archetypal figures of deep spiritual significance: her mother and father, her beloved nurse ‘Old Nan’, and an adored elder brother who had died during her infancy.

She was still beautiful; and her mind was clear and incisive, as it remained to the end. We stayed in touch, and she eagerly read every draft chapter of my biography of Charles Williams, responding with helpful comments and fascinating discussion. She continued to write essays, and to read widely. Biography was her favourite genre: she was something of an expert on Gandhi’s life, and in the last few months was carefully reading Ian Kershaw’s recent life of Hitler, developing her own theories about the psychological forces which had led Gandhi to good and Hitler to terrible evil.

Towards the end she grew too weak to write, so we talked on the telephone. (I like to think that she was able to read the final chapter of my book about Charles Williams, which I sent her on 13 February.) Asked about her health in those last months, she would exclaim ‘Oh, I’m crumbling away! But don’t worry, my dear, I’m looking forward to death. I really can’t wait!’

Hypersensitive, opinionated and argumentative at times, she nonetheless radiated love and intelligence. I found her a delight and an inspiration. And she has probably left much literary work greatly deserving of publication. I hope that a late essay of hers, ‘The Simplicity of Faith’, will be published in Temenos Academy Review in 2015.

 

A Walk to Skiddaw House

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Far Wescoe: apparently the cottage where poet WH Auden often stayed in the 1930s

A good walk on the lower slopes of Skiddaw this week. After driving up to Cumbria for work, I managed to fit in an afternoon on the fells – first time this year – and actually got some sunshine.

I decided to take a look at Wescoe, a hamlet centred on a large farm. There’s a literary connection because W.H. Auden’s parents had a cottage here and Auden took refuge in it when he got back from the Spanish Civil War in 1937. It was here that he wrote most of his famous poem ‘Spain’, as well as other excellent early poems such as ‘It was Easter as  I walked in the public gardens’.

As far as I can work out, the cottage must have been Far Wescoe – the white one opposite the post box. When I first came here back in the 1980s, looking for the house, I asked around and eventually met an old man who told me, yes, ‘Doctor Auden used to have a cottage here’. He’d never heard of the poet W.H. Auden, but he remembered Auden’s dad, the Birmingham G.P.! Oddly, that made me feel much closer to Auden himself.

From Wescoe I took the lane north-west – partially flooded in places, and I got the predictable bootful of water – which soon becomes a footpath heading due north parallel to the beautiful (and beautifully-named) Glendaratarra Beck, which is down in a deep wooded gorge but gradually comes up to meet the path as you go.

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The lane heading for Skiddaw House (Great Calva in the distance).

I didn’t have a huge amount of time so I simply carried on up to the small bridges over the beck (where someone has just built a new but not intrusive stone building housing, I think, some hydroelectric equipment which I hope isn’t going to interfere with the beck itself) and followed the path up to Skiddaw House.

Skiddaw House is one of the bleakest and most remote houses in the Lakes – a former bothy, now a Youth Hostel (it was closed when I got there so no chance of a cup of tea). It’s a wonderfully grim place, and the larches planted as wind protection have long been reduced to spindly skeletal remnants by the ceaseless prevailing wind.

Skiddaw House is the setting of just about my favourite episode in the whole of Hugh Walpole’s Herries Chronicles, the duel between John and Uhland Herries in The Fortress in which Uhland shoots John and then commits suicide – a horrific  scene but brilliantly written and very suitable for this grim, remote spot.

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Skiddaw House: bleak and lonely but weirdly romantic

 

Given more time, I’d have turned due West and returned via Skiddaw summit, but sadly time was limited and I just returned direct to Wescoe. The consolation was a wonderful view over to the Newlands valley and Causey Pike in front of me as I came down.

I haven’t done a lot of walking this winter owing to persistent minor ailments and family business, but I’m hoping to get up to the Lakes at least once a month henceforth and will try to post about where I go each time. And if you fancy a creative weekend in the Lakes in May 2014, take a look at www.lakelandwritingretreats.co.uk and think about joining Angela Locke and me for a stimulating break!

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Towards Newlands – Causey Pike just right of centre, late afternoon sunlight