Grevel Lindop

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

LUNA PARK: NEW POEMS FOR 2015

I hope you had a good Christmas. Warm wishes for a Happy New Year anyway! In my last post I said I would write about the other book I’ve recently completed, along with Charles Williams: The Third Inkling. This is a new collection of poems, to be called Luna Park, and it will appear from Carcanet Press in autumn 2015. It’s currently available for pre-order at a discount, here:

http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781857549874

It’s my first full-length book of poems since Playing With Fire in 2006.

This time the themes have a distinctly ‘lunar’ tinge to them – hence the title. Many of the poems are set at night, or they deal with dreams, visions, ghosts, or the magical.

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‘Show Me the Moon’ by Linda Cooper – cover design for ‘Luna Park’ (note the ‘no title yet’ space filler – only temporary!) Design by Stephen Raw.

Not that the title comes directly from moon matters. Luna Park was actually the name of a derelict funfair I was shown when I visited Sydney in 2001. It was beside Sydney Harbour and it fascinated me: all those slightly battered rides and attractions slightly dilapidated and shut off behind chain link fencing. It stuck in  my memory.

But it struck me that ‘Luna Park’ could also be a name for the territory of the moon and all things connected therewith. And I found the delightfully strange painting reproduced above by my friend the Cumbrian artist Linda Cooper and realised it would make the perfect cover image. Looking at it, you don’t necessarily see the cat at once, but then you follow the woman’s eyes and see that there’s a black cat and she is pulling back the curtain to let it see the moon. Fascinating.

I’ll put in a couple of poems from the book below. The first, ‘Cosmos’, was written when I was sitting up late at night in my room in a farmhouse in the Duddon Valley in the Lake District. It was first published in the magazine Resurgence, chosen by my friend Peter Abbs, the poetry editor.

 

COSMOS

Between Orion and Gemini, an almost-full moon.

Wrinkled tidewater tilting at the lips of Morecambe Bay.

 

Galaxies of cow parsley edging the valley fields.

Slow explosions of lichen on the fellside boulders.

 

The long-armed yew gesticulating at your window:

ancient growth-rings cupping a still more ancient hollow.

 

Old glass: molten tremulous lungful of human breath

spun flat, cut to rippled squares, set in the dusty casement.

 

Grain of the living oak, stopped dead in your tabletop.

Cobweb at the table’s corner a map of skewed co-ordinates.

 

Your tablelamp fed by Heysham’s uranium rods,

Haverigg’s twinkling windfarm, buried cables along the Duddon Valley.

 

Your mobile: lit menu, notional time, no signal.

The mountain: against the black of the sky, a blacker black.

 

The Troytown labyrinth of your fingerprint: Chartres maze stretched to an oval.

The fieldpaths crisscrossing in the palm of your hand.

 

Ink-slick spreading in the pen’s furrow:

gold keel ploughing an ocean of churned Norway spruce.

 

All of it drawn and drawn into the pupil’s black hole,

the dark that cannot be seen, the space that is everything else.

 

The second, ‘The Maldon Hawk’, was suggested by the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, in which an Anglo-Saxon nobleman sends his falcon  to fly free while he himself goes to battle with the Norsemen. If he survives he will call the hawk back; but we know he won’t survive. The poem gives the hawk’s view. It was first published in an anthology of poets with Oxford connections called Initiates, edited by Jane Draycott, a poet I greatly admire.

THE MALDON HAWK

he let him þa of handon   leofne fleogan

hafoc wið þæs holtes,    and to þære hilde stop

                     – ‘The Battle of Maldon’, 991 AD

 

And so, dismissed, I rose on a wingbeat

over horses already scattering to the wood,

unwanted as men turned to their war.

Vassal set loose from his master’s service,

blameless outlaw freed to the houseless wild,

circling, I watched thickets of metal and leather

crowd the shallows of the deepening tide.

Now as I scour the air my heart divides

between longing for a man’s call and the wideness of the world

where I got honour by my endgame, pleasing nobles

in the hour when the bright dove fled the man-flung hawk.

I pivot at flight’s apex but will not return,

though my jewelled eye sees each ring on his corselet

catch sun as he merges into the mass,

death-besotted warriors on their way to darkness.

Gladly I would stoop a last time into his language

but already battle’s whirlpool sucks him in, his face downward,

nameless and eyeless among the iron helmets.

I am a word forgotten from his story.

He is a landmark fading from my sight.

Men had seemed to have some special knowledge:

now the sea-wind tastes of death, they rush towards it –

whether to sing with saints or feast with battle-fellows

or lie at a tree’s root until the world ends

they know no better than I. Never again,

child of the waste moor and the tufted woodland,

will I perch on that wrist, grasp the bone beneath.

 

 

CHARLES WILLIAMS: THE THIRD INKLING

I’m celebrating, because this week I sent off the final draft of my biography of Charles Williams to Oxford University Press – and a new collection of poems to  Carcanet Press. Both, I hope, for publication in autumn 2015.

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Charles Williams reading aloud: E.G. Pierce, 1936

I’ll talk about the poems in a future post. This time I’ll concentrate on the Charles Williams biography. It will be called Charles Williams: The Third Inkling because Williams was a central member of the Inklings, the informal group of Oxford writers whose best-known members were C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Charles Williams – poet, dramatist, writer of metaphysical thrillers, critic, theologian, biographer, occultist and amazingly charismatic lecturer – lived from 1886 to 1945 and is far too little known. His life is a fascinating one, and much of his work is well worth rediscovering.

And Williams is a writer to be reckoned with. Ruth Rendell nominated his metaphysical thriller All Hallows’ Eve as her favourite book on BBC Radio 4; Sir Geoffrey Hill in his Clark Lectures called Williams ‘a great critic’ and his book The English Poetic Mind ‘a critical masterpiece’; C.S. Lewis said of Williams’s Arthurian poems, ‘they seem to me, both for the soaring and gorgeous novelty of their technique and for their profound wisdom, to be among the two or three most valuable books of verse produced in the [twentieth] century’.

Charles Williams had an extraordinary life, and thanks to newly-opened archives containing thousands of letters, and more than twenty interviews with people who knew him, I have been able to trace his life in vivid – and, I think, highly readable – detail. We follow him from the poverty of his childhood in London, through his rise from humble proof reader to senior editor at the Oxford University Press, where he had a long and painful love affair with a colleague; we trace the gradual development of his poetic talent, alongside his involvement with Rosicrucian occultism – where the book allows you into the secret initiatory rituals Williams underwent – and on to wartime Oxford, where he becomes a close friend of Lewis and Tolkien and completes his remarkable late flowering as the twentieth century’s major poet of Arthur and the Grail.

Through good luck and the generosity of private owners, the book will reproduce almost forty drawings and photographs of Williams and his associates, many never published before and some only recently discovered. (Just as a taster, I’ve put one on this page – a drawing of CW reading aloud, by E.G. Pierce – a fine drawing never before reproduced as far as I know.) The book will answer many questions: it will clarify at last what his relationship really was with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; and it will recreate, from Williams’s own notes, much of the famous lecture on Milton’s Comus which led C.S. Lewis to exclaim that Oxford University’s Divinity School ‘had probably not witnessed anything so important since some of the great medieval or Renaissance lectures.’

Williams is the missing centrepiece from the story of twentieth-century British literature. At the start of his career he was associating with Edwardian poets Alice Meynell and Robert Bridges; later his closest friends included not only C.S. Lewis and Tolkien but T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas; he was an inspiration to young poets of the World War II generation like Sidney Keyes, Drummond Allison and John  Heath-Stubbs; and he drank in the Oxford pubs with Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. It’s an astonishing story.

I owe great debts of gratitude to innumerable people who have helped with the work, including former friends and students of Charles Williams (notably the late Lois Lang-Sims), Williams scholars including David Llewellyn Dodds, and the trustees and archivists of the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, Illinois, the two libraries that hold the major share of Williams’s papers. I was generously supported by both an Invited Visiting Scholarship at St John’s College, Oxford, and a Clyde S. Kilby Research Grant from Wheaton College, Illinois. The Charles Williams Society and the Society of the Inner Light also gave generous support. The many others who helped in so many ways are acknowledged in the book.

There’s much more to say, and of course there’s more work ahead = copy-editing queries, proofs to correct, indexing, and so on – but right now I’m heaving a big sigh of relief and looking forward to Christmas! I hope you have a wonderful holiday and a very happy New Year.

JUAN FORMELL: A LIFE DEDICATED TO MUSIC

 

If you ever came anywhere near salsa, as dancer or listener, or ever went to Cuba, you will have heard the music of Juan Formell, who died on Thursday 1 May.

He was the leader, composer and bass player for Los Van Van, the greatest Cuban band of the past fifty years and arguably the greatest Cuban band ever. The style of music he created with Los Van Van – a blend of rock and jazz creatively integrated with Afro-Cuban rhythms and structures over a base which is essentially son – was unmistakable and influenced every other artist who has worked in the mix of styles and sounds we now know as ‘salsa’.

A modest presence with short grey hair who combined a quiet, concentrated manner with a genial, welcoming smile, he was an unmistakable presence whenever the band played, and was largely responsible for both the wit and inventiveness of their songs, and the incredible precision of their playing. Los Van Van’s standard of musicianship – honed by the magnificent Cuban musical education freely available to all children with ability – was staggering to those used to the amateurishness of European pop musicians. Formell clearly ran a very tight ship, but he had a tremendous sense of humour – see for example the video below, directed by Kerry Ribchester of Key2Cuba, where he plays the role of a hapless tour guide, abandoned by his tourist charges who all go off to dance after loading him with their belongings. His work with the band was also profoundly based in the Afro-Cuban religion, Santería – the delightful video for Chapeando shows the band led through the jungle and the human ear by Eleggua, the boy-god who opens the way for us through life’s difficulties, and the lyrics also celebrate Yemayá, the bountiful sea-goddess who provides us with fish – necesitamos tu produccion, Mama as the song says. Chapeando is probably the best album produced by any Cuban band in the past half-century. I saw Los Van Van live several times, in the UK and also in Cuba (see Travels on the Dance Floor for an account of one of their concerts in Havana), and their performances were full of incredible energy and joy as well as musical richness and precision. It was hard for anyone used to European bands to understand how they could go on playing and singing (and dancing!) with such energy for two and a half or three hours.

I’m sure the band – recently directed by Juan’s son Samuel – will go on and be as good as ever. But Juan’s achievement remains huge, and above all joyous. He gave happiness to so many people and his recordings will go on doing so. As he said himself, “My life has been entirely dedicated to music, and only makes sense when people make it theirs and enjoy it.”

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 World of Magical Stories

This weekend I’ve been reading to my 8-year-old granddaughter from Joseph Jacobs’s English Fairy Tales. My grandfather bought the book when it first came out in 1890 and it was a favourite of my mother’s. She read it to me when I was a child, and I read it to my children. Now it’s the grandchildren’s turn.

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English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs: note the knocker and other door-furniture!

Jacobs’s book is full of wonderful, mysterious, visceral folktales collected from the times when oral tradition still flourished in the British Isles (I think ‘English’ here actually includes a fair bit of Scottish material too!)

 

The tales are by turns highly moral and totally amoral – and often spine-chilling too. There’s Childe Roland, whose sister Burd Ellen is snatched away by the Demon King for running around a church widdershins: Roland has to go to the underworld to rescue her and all the other people the Demon King has turned to stone. There’s Molly Whuppie, who with her two sisters takes refuge in a house that turns out to belong to an ogre: she ends up stealing the ogre’s sword, purse, and ring, and tricking the ogre into beating his wife to death whilst she’s tied up in a bag from which Molly Whuppie has herself just escaped.

And best of all there’s the tale of Mr Fox – the dashing suitor with a big castle who turns out to have a room full of the bloody corpses of dead women. His fiancée, Lady Mary, pays a clandestine visit and from her hiding place sees him cutting off the hand of a dead woman to get her diamond ring. The hand falls behind the barrel where Lady Anne is hiding and Mr Fox doesn’t finds it, so next day at the betrothal feast Lady Anne pulls out the hand to prove her story, and her brothers ‘out with their swords and cut Mr Fox to pieces’ – an ending which my granddaughter particularly liked and kept quoting back to me!

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Lady Anne pulls out the severed hand and ring to incriminate Mr Fox!

There are dozens of other fantastic, dreamlike tales. And these wonderful stories, as you can see, are closer to Angela Carter than to J.K.Rowling. I love them as much now as I did when I was a child myself. They are a passport to an archetypal world of imagination, of magic and dreamlike mythical depths which fascinates and enchants children. Girls are at least as active as boys in tricking the baddies, living on their wits and playing sharp courageous tricks. Many of the tales probably go back in essence to Neolithic times; they touch on the things in us that don’t change.

The physical format of the book is as marvellous as anything. As you can see from the picture above, the cover is designed like a door. Inside there is a message:

“Knock at the Knocker on the Door, Pull the Bell at the side, Then, if you are very quiet, you will hear a teeny tiny voice say through the grating ‘Take down the Key.’ This you will find at the back: you cannot mistake it, for it has J. J. in the wards. Put the Key in the Keyhole, which it fits exactly, unlock the door and walk in.”

The bell, with a string, is pictured on the book’s spine; the key is on the back cover. We have to go through this procedure every time the book is opened: my granddaughter insists.

Jacobs’s book is highly recommended, and new editions are available: I’ll put one of them below in case you’re interested in getting a copy!