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.

Borrowdale Magic

Borrowdale has been particularly beautiful the past couple of weeks, with the alternation of hot sun and occasional showers: the oak forests have looked lusher and greener than ever, and with the valley fields being reaped for hay and silage the air has been full of the fragrance of camomile and cut grass.

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Eagle Crag in mist: looking north from Stonethwaite

Amanda and I have just come back from Seatoller, enjoying our favourite walks to Castle Crag and Watendlath, and discovering some new delights: a highlight this time was following Langstrath Beck further than usual and finding the beautiful and rather hidden-away little waterfalls: something we’d missed before despite visiting Borrowdale over more than twenty years.

Here are a few pictures of places we’ve enjoyed recently.

 

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Stockley Bridge, Seathwaite

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Waterfalls in Langstrath Beck

 

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

DREAMS OF GREAT MEN

If your working life is much concerned with a famous person, it’s probably inevitable that you will occasionally dream about them.

images[1]A few years ago at the Dartington Festival, I bumped into Andrew Motion and we spent an evening chatting. Andrew was Laureate at the time, and somehow we got onto the subject of dreams. I asked him if he’d ever dreamed of previous Laureates.

Only once, he said. He’d dreamed he went out of his house, and parked by the kerb nearby was a white van. On the side of it was written:

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH: PLUMBER

Underneath was painted a neat image of a rainbow, and the motto:

The sounding cataract
Haunted him like a passion.

– lines adapted, of course, from ‘Tintern Abbey.’ Andrew later made a poem out of the dream.

images[1] (2)My dear friend Pete Laver, who died on Scafell aged 36 back in 1983, worked as Librarian at Dove Cottage. He too had his Wordsworth dream. Pete dreamed that he met the great poet (whose books and papers he spent his waking hours conserving and cataloguing) and asked him the question he’d always wanted to put: ‘Mr Wordsworth,’ he said – and you need to know that Pete wasn’t normally the deferential type, he was into punk rock and wore badges saying ‘Anarchy’ to work – ‘Mr Wordsworth, what is your personal favourite among your own poems?’

Wordsworth’s reply was: ‘Stanzas Suggested in a Steamboat off St Bee’s Head’ – which, as anyone who’s read their way through Wordsworth will know, is almost certainly his worst, and definitely his most boring poem.

‘And,’ said Pete, ‘I just couldn’t tell if he was joking!’

To complete a trio of dream encounters, when I was finishing my biography of Thomas De Quincey I dreamed that I met him. And I asked him something that had never crossed my mkind while I was awake: I asked him if he’d read Alice in Wonderland – not a bad question to put to the old opium-eater, I now think.

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De Quincey said ‘Yes, I’ve read it.’
‘And what did you think of it?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ said De Quincey, ‘I enjoyed it; but I learned nothing from it.’

And that was that. I’m still wondering what he meant.

NORMAN NICHOLSON – AN ESSENTIAL POET

I was in Millom on Monday, to record a conversation with Eric Robson (of Gardeners’ Question Time fame) about Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson. We walked out on the nature reserve at Hodbarrow – former site of the Millom ironworks and the haematite (iron ore) mines that gave rise to them.

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Norman Nicholson

Eric is making a programme for BBC Radio 4, to go out in early January around the time of Norman Nicholson’s centenary. Nicholson (1913 – 1987) was certainly the most important Cumbrian poet of the twentieth century, but I’d say his writing was valuable and excellent in a wider perspective, whether you’re interested in Cumbria and the Lakes or not.

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Sidings and blast furnaces at Millom haematite works – now vanished.

He’s very much identified with the small coastal town of Millom – which from the 1850s until 1968 was a hub of heavy industry, with mining, iron smelting, and ships mooring at the quay to take pig-iron all over the world. Nicholson spent almost his whole life in the town, stubbornly (perhaps neurotically) refusing to move away. I say ‘almost’ because he had a couple of years down south in a TB sanatorium in his late teens. It may have been the experience of this frightening illness that led him to stay, lifelong, at home: that, and becoming somewhat institutionalised during those years when his airy hut at the sanatorium was his entire world and he was hardly allowed to get out of bed.


But he wrote about the town, its inhabitants, and the nearby landscape and geology of the Lakes in a unique way. Rather than  spreading wide, he dug deep, and he found a way of talking about the unyielding facts of the land and the rock, and the ultimate decline of the industry he had known, which is memorable and unique.

In ‘Millom Old Quarry’, he looks at a hole in the ground and, guided by an older inhabitant, sees the houses that were built from it:

 ‘They dug ten streets from that there hole,’ he said,

‘Hard on five hundred houses.’ He nodded

Down the set of the quarry and spat in the water

Making a moorhen cock her head

As if a fish had jumped. ‘Half the new town

Came out of yonder – King Street, Queen Street, all

The houses round the Green as far as the slagbank…’

Nicholson says ‘I saw the town’s black generations / Packed in their caves of rock’ – and he imagines it all going back again, buried once more:

All that was mortal in five thousand lives.

Nor did it seems a paradox to one

Who held quarry and query, turf and town

In the small lock of one recording brain.

During his lifetime people wondered why Nicholson didn’t move. His London publishers, Faber, were grudging about his work, and didn’t produce a Collected Poems until well after his death, when readers lobbied for it.

But now it’s evident that it was his artistic mission to function as that ‘one recording brain’. He did something no one else could have done, showing us a world that is now largely gone but remains fully human and valuable, and also chronicling its disappearance.

When Millom ironworks was finally demolished, Nicholson wrote

They cut up the carcase of the old ironworks

Like a fat beast in a slaughter-house: they shovelled my childhood

Onto a rubbish-heap. Here my father’s father

Foreman of the back furnace, unsluiced the metal lava

To slop in fiery gutters across the foundry floor

And boil round the workmen’s boots…

But Nicholson was also an environmentalist before the word existed. He wrote about the damage done to land and people by industrial exploitation; he believed that ultimately man must became ‘farmer rather than miner; cultivator rather than exploiter’. He wrote a protest poem about the Windscale nuclear accident (at the present-day Sellafield); and when they cleared away, too drastically he felt, the remains of Millom’s derelict industrial heritage, it wasn’t just the pits and foundries he lamented:

It’s hard to tell there ever was a mine: pit-heads

Demolished, pit-banks levelled, railway-lines ripped up,

Quarries choked an d flooded, and all the lovely resistance

Of blackberry, blackthorn, heather and willow grubbed up and flattened.

An expert botanist, he felt that nature could repair herself better than mankind could. Hating pollution and ugliness, he also believed the National Trust should preserve some mines, factories and pitheads, so that future generations could appreciate the achievements and struggles of the industrial age.

His little  prose book Provincial Pleasures is a miniature masterpiece: looking at the town in twelve essays, one for each month of the year, he shows the interconnected lives of the inhabitants, the wildlife, the daily work, the intrigue, the small psychological and spiritual dramas of a tiny provincial town in the late 1950s. Even as he wrote, supermarkets and chain stores were moving in and Britain’s first motorway was being built. He captured a world perfectly and delightfully.

But his work isn’t just a matter of nostalgia. Eric Robson asked me ‘Is Nicholson a great poet?’ No, I said. He isn’t Shakespeare or Dante. But he’s an important poet. He has vivid colloquial language, he has an extraordinary, individual and deep perspective – man in the environment, man living on, through and up against geology. He showed how a poet can take the most ordinary-seeming place and make it extraordinary – in such a way that every reader looks at his or her own place and sees it freshly and more vividly. Not a great poet then – but an essential poet.

A new biography – the first – is about to appear from Kathleen Jones; I’ve read it and it is excellent, so I’ll put in a link for it here, before I stop: