Grevel Lindop

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

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!

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.

Helen Tookey: Fine New Poet for Dark Autumn

Carcanet’s New Poetries series is rightly respected as a showcase of exciting talents of varying kinds. The latest volume was launched yesterday and I want to call attention to a fine new poet whose work has excited me a lot. And – STOP PRESS – her full-length book Missel Child is now available from Carcanet: just go to  http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781847772183

I’ve been reading Helen Tookey’s work with growing admiration. Her quiet, precise poems have a genuine eeriness – a spooky quality that I’ve met with nowhere else in recent poetry. I think it comes from the fact that she has interests in both archaeology and psychology, but knows intuitively that they aren’t separate – that when we dig up the past it’s our own roots we are looking at; and when we explore the dark corners of our personal psyche, we’re also daring to open up the hidden aspects of our culture and society.

‘At Burscough,Lancashire’ is a case in point. Here it is (with permission):

At Burscough, Lancashire

Lancashire’s Martin Mere was the largest lake in England when it was first drained, to reclaim the land for farming, in 1697.

Out on the ghost lake, what’s lost

is everywhere: murmuring in names

on the map, tasted in salt winds

that scour the topsoil, westerlies

that wrenched out oaks and pines, buried now

in choked black ranks, heads towards the east.

Cloudshadows ripple the grasses as the seines

rippled over the mere by night, fishervoices calling

across dark water. Underfoot, the flatlands’

black coffers lie rich with the drowned.

The poem is about a lake that’s no longer there. Helen Tookey uses its absence to evoke the landscape (a strange, nondescript no-man’s-land) in vivid, sensuous detail but also with semantic depth, so that the placenames on the map recalling the lost mere merge into the sound of the wind, and the trees which still turn up now as fossilised bog oak and the like become disturbingly evocative of mass human graves. Ruminating on the loss of the mere, she writes, by implication, an elegy for the communities that lived and worked there and have now, like the lake, gone with hardly a trace. She also hints at the other cultural obliterations which have stained past centuries. The ‘choked black ranks’ recall ethnic cleansing, forced migration, mass starvation. And the simple fact that, over the centuries, many people, fishers and other, must have drowned in the lake and been forgotten. Even money is there, faintly, with the substitution of ‘coffers’ for the expected ‘coffins’.

But it’s all held together by a consciousness which sees in a context of myth. The ‘fisher voices calling/across dark water’ are voices from the other side of the river – Styx or Lethe – that separates the dead from the living. These are the souls of the dead that might call to us in sleep. Could it even be that they are fishing for us? The choice choice of ‘flatlands’ is deft also – and again a neat substitution, because we would expect ‘wetlands’ (indeed, the remnants of Martin Mere are now a bird sanctuary run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust). Not just a neat label for the nondescript alluvial west-Lancashire landscape, it suggests a flat earth that might tilt up one day and show worrying things underneath. For the mathematically aware it also recalls Edwin Abbott’s 1884 Flatland, a brilliant Lewis-Carroll style fantasy which enables even the simplest person to understand the amazing nature of spatial dimensions.

Helen’s poem shows us just how many dimensions an absent lake and a depopulated landscape can have. And she tells us about it in such deceptively gentle and musical tones, hovering on the edge of blank verse, but always staying flexible, floating between four stresses and five – ‘rippling’ and ‘murmuring’ as the poem says. It’s like listening to a lullaby that soothes and seduces with its beauty; but just might give you nightmares.

A Visit to Green Knowe

The Manor and one corner of the gardens

The Manor and one corner of the gardens

One of the things I love most is the connection between places and writing, so it was a treat yesterday to visit The Manor at Hemingford Grey, near Huntingdon, which is the setting for Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe series of children’s books.

The weather was awful – it rained and rained – and it was a 162-mile drive each way, but it was worth it. The occasion was a family party held at occasional, irregular intervals every few years: my grandfather was the brother of Lucy Boston’s mother (to put it another way, my mother’s Aunt Polly was Lucy Boston’s mother), which I think makes us second cousins, though I’m not sure. So there we were with a crowd of other relatives, close and distant, to explore the house, and talk, and just be in a magical place.

The Knight's Room: built about 1130 and alive with atmosphere (picture from the Green Knowe website)

The Manor was Lucy Boston’s home, and it figures in her beautiful series of books beginning with The Children of Green Knowe. All of the stories have magical ingredients, in particular the group of children who used to live in the house centuries ago and still make their presence felt (it seems too heavy-handed to call them ghosts); but they also involve time travel, animals, patchwork, music and above all the magic of place.

Tolly's Bedroom, complete with rocking horse (picture from the Green Knowe website)

The central point about the books is the sense they give of people living in a place over the centuries, layering it deeper and deeper with the richness of their experience. Certainly standing in the Knight’s Room at Hemingford Grey, in the part of the house which is almost a thousand years old, you can feel the vibration of time and life resonating like music from the warm, metre-thick stone walls. The Manor is said to be perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited house in Britain.

The rain stopped long enough for us to explore the beautiful gardens with their old scented roses, mock-orange and wonderful topiary, and to wander by the river that flows past with its swans floating calmly on the green current.

St Christopher - the statue is at the side of the house

The rooms are just as depicted in the books, with the toys, the rocking horse, the witch-ball, the quilts and a galaxy of drawings and paintings and other art works, including the beautiful original illustrations and cover-paintings for the books, which were done by the late Peter Boston, son of Lucy Boston and husband of Diana Boston who lives there now.

The house and gardens are open to the public quite often: for details and other information about the house, the books and their story, you can go to www.greenknowe.co.uk