Grevel Lindop

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

ENCHANTED SAND

This week I’ve been reading a forgotten travel book. It’s called Enchanted Sand: A New-Mexican Pilgrimage, and it’s a wonderful read. It’s by an Englishman called D.J. Hall: according to his own account he was a lawyer, and in 1929, fed up and suffering from stress, he decided to leave his job temporarily and go to find an ‘outdoor life’ in the USA.

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Monument Valley

So he goes off with his wife Henrietta, and through some casual contacts they get a job for the winter, looking after a half-deserted ranch in New Mexico. The place is filthy, there are no facilities of any kind, and it turns out they’re expected to cook for a bunch of casually-employed Mexican farm workers. Their employer, an absentee and clearly a crook, never pays them.

They survive a few months and then move on to a better job, this time looking after an empty ranch house in the mountains. They get to know the local Indian community (I’ll return to the word Indian later) and when that job too comes to an end they don’t leave, they simply go to the pueblo and move in with an Indian friend.

Basically they ‘go native’, and before long white American visitors are assuming that they are Indians. They learn how to make indigenous-style pottery, form close relationships with their neighbours, and Hall is at last invited to spend some time in the Kiva, the sacred sanctuary entered through the roof into which almost no white man has been allowed.

Finally Hall and his wife have to go back home, but they do it the hard way. They buy a second-hand Buick and drive all the way across the Painted Desert and the Mojave Desert on old trails, semi-obliterated by dust storms and drifting sand, all the way to Los   Angeles. They even make a detour to Monument Valley – background, with its uncanny, huge red stone mesas, to so many western movies – and decide, fortunately, not to drive through Death Valley, where they certainly would have died.

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Red Rocks, New Mexico

They are, of course, completely crazy: the car repeatedly gets stuck up to its axles in sand; the radiator leaks (they had just two thermos flasks with them in which to carry water, so no spare for the car) and they get lost many times. They fix a cracked distributor head by coating it with vaseline. When the tyres puncture, they just pump them up again. And they make it to Los Angeles.

The whole book gives an amazing picture of New  Mexico and the American south-west at a time when few white Americans were around; when Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque were just ramshackle collections of buildings in the middle of the desert with hardly a driveable road in or out. People are still carrying guns; they still travel by ‘stage’ (stage coach, I can only assume). There are isolated trading posts. Indians loom up out of nowhere in the desert on horseback.

‘Indians’, yes: Hall uses the word, and I use it because I’m told a recent survey of indigenous Americans found that it is, by a majority, the term they prefer. And it’s conveniently close to the Spanish indios, which is unversally used.

Enchanted Sand is a wonderful book, and finely written. I tried to find some stand-out passages of great writing to quote, but it doesn’t really work like that. It just goes on quietly from one thing to another and the effect is cumulative. I was completely gripped after the first couple of chapters. I don’t know who Hall was, I don’t know if what he tells us is ‘true’, through there are some photographs to back up some of it. But he wrote a great book, and someone really should reissue it. Quite apart from its historical value, I think it’s a classic of travel writing.

Still, I’ll try a couple of extracts. Here’s Hall; on sand:

‘Just sand,’ you say. No, it is more than that, a gargantuan palette. A loveliness of shifting hills and mountains, mesas whose colours are as fickle as they are beautiful. One moment they are orange and red; a cloud comes and they are dove-grey and gold. The cloud passes, and they have forgotten what they were before. Giant buttes, barring the trail, open to let you pass. The horizon, with its endless processions of seemingly ephemeral masses, beckons. But as you are drawn onwards, the earth spills over into space. There is permanence but no solidity, strength but no cruelty. it is as fluid as the sea, coloured like a rainbow, vaporous as a dream.

By contrast, here are Hall and his wife arriving at their first place of work:

We opened the mosquito door to the south porch. The floor was strewn with cabbages and rotten fruit mingled with dirt. A refuse-pail stood in a corner, though unnecessarily since most of the refuse was on the floor.  The flies buzzed happily around a side of beef hanging in the meat-safe with the door ajar; there was a warm smell of decay. Beyond, were two rooms – on the left the kitchen and general eating-room for the ranch-hands, on the right our bedroom. That was all.

I left Henrietta for a moment and went into the kitchen. The sound of heavy breathing came from a broken camp-bed, on which, in a medley of pots and pans, lay a bearded creature fast asleep. A long table was piled with the debris of many meals, and in the corner was a rusty sheet-iron stove, the floor covered with grease-spots and filth. A tin of tomatoes had been upset, and the steady drip of the red juice harmonized with the breathing.

You just want to read on! Checking the British Library catalogue, I find that  D.J. Hall, born 1903, wrote three or four other travel books and evidently some poetry, and was probably still alive in the early 1970s. That’s all I’ve been able to learn. If you know more, please tell me!

Epiphany: if you want to think about some big ideas

Sometimes someone contacts you with something so interesting you just have to follow it up. This has just happened to me with Mark Pickles’s Epiphany website, whose details were sent to me by a friend at the Temenos Academy.

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Pickles is a polymath, a philosopher, scientist (electronics) a painter (professional) and a bit of a joker (some of the jokes are quite good).

I don’t have a final view of what his work is worth – come to think of it, I don’t have a ‘final’ view of anything, and presumably won’t until just before my death; though I agree that could happen in the next thirty seconds, so let’s get out of these (il)logical knots and go back to the subject.

The point is that I find his website sufficiently interesting to be recommending it to you as worth investigating. If you are interested in the state of the world, in big questions, in religion, politics, the environment, science, the (lamentable) human condition generally, and in where we might go from here, you might be intrigued and might want to follow up, or argue with, some of the big ideas Mark weaves into his argument.

There’s a ‘Manifesto’, followed by a ‘Book’. Both of them are pretty long, and I haven’t yet finished reading the Book. But it all seems interesting enough for me to say ‘Take a look’. You can find Mark Pickles’s Epiphany website here. Give it two minutes. Have a look around and see what you think.

http://www.markpickles.co.uk/manifesto.html

Maybe you’ll curse me, but frankly it’s different from anything else I’ve seen and I am intrigued. You may be too.

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!

SIMON CURTIS

Simon Curtis, who died a few days ago, was one of the unsung heroes of our culture: the kind of person who brings intelligence, illumination and enjoyment to countless people in a quiet way without ever becoming well known.

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I first met Simon in the 1970s, when we were both teaching at Manchester University. He’d done a Ph D on Charles Darwin – viewing him as writer as well as scientist – and was teaching comparative literature. Simon’s style was always conservative: at a time when I was coming to work in purple flares, beads and a kaftan (it was the hippy era!) Simon sported a tweed jacket, brown brogues and a pipe. We seemed poles apart.

But we were both writing poetry. Simon’s was – and remained all his life – what’s now called ‘formalist’: it rhymed and scanned, and it was noticed by Kingsley Amis, with whom he corresponded for some years. His work also appeared in Faber’s Poetry Introduction 6 in 1985.

Simon was a versatile man: besides teaching French literature (he was fluent in the language) he was deeply knowledgeable about Thomas Hardy and taught a course on him. He also found time to do a lot of work for the CPRE and became an expert on planning laws and nature conservation. He also spent a spell as an academic for a semester or two in Australia, which he loved. He eventually left Manchester and moved to Dorchester: by that time he was a leading figure in the Hardy Society, and took over the editorship of the Thomas Hardy journal, which he did excellently.

Unfortunately literary societies are fraught with faction, and the Hardy Society was no exception. Simon became fed up and resigned after one particularly nasty conflict (no fault of his).

He moved to Plymouth, where he had family, and became editor (following Merryn Williams) of an excellent small poetry magazine, The Interpreter’s House. He was an exemplary editor: catholic in taste, lively in his editorials, balanced in his choice. And he gave talks locally on literary and historical subjects.

Despite being so different, we’d kept in touch and kept up a regular exchange of letters – real ones, not just emails. Simon was a great letter-writer: lively, varied, amusing; full of news about local theatre, opera and books, but also about wildlife, the landscape, the seasons. And he would usually send a new poem or two with his letters. We’d criticise each other’s work and often make small revisions in response.

Then – I suppose it was a couple of years ago – he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It remitted but left him paralysed from the waist down. He went into a care home near Plymouth where he was wonderfully looked after and had many visitors. He remained as mentally lively as ever and after a while was able to go out – even to theatre and opera – in a powered wheelchair. But it couldn’t last, and he died quietly last week.

Here’s one of his poems:

READING A RIVER

A heron lifts away as we approach
Where cloud-grey Hodder and grey Ribble meet;
A spit of stones, an eddy-knuckled reach,
And glassy patch downstream as dark as peat.

 

There’s movement in that pool, see? and you’re sure
It’s grayling, moving gently to large duns;
The Hodder, there, is acid, from the moor;
That’s why it’s good for autumn sea-trout runs.

 

What strikes my eye as surface, April-cool,
You read like braille, uncannily and clear,
Connecting signs of life in flow or pool;
A river’s script, and palaeographer.

 

All waters have their temper, temperament,
Each river-face, its moods and tics and traits,
As individual as a finger-print;
The shoals and shallows, lies below still glaze,

 

And alders, stoneflies, sedges, each month’s hatch
On Coquet, Lathkill, Driffield Beck or Dee;
A living web, I’d say, where you’re in touch …
It’s practice, pal, not flaming ESP;

 

It’s try and try, a knack you pick up, right?
And ‘knack’ for ‘art’, you speak the northern way,
To deprecate what works like second sight,
Transforming all I saw that cloud-dulled day.

 

Simon wasn’t a ‘major’ poet; he didn’t publish a big scholarly tome; not so many people have heard of him. But he published several delightful small books of poems (I particularly like Views, with fine wood engravings by Ian Stephens), and a last ‘New and Selected’ volume of his poems, Comet over Greens Norton, came out just before his death from Shoestring Press. He was a fine teacher, who inspired hundreds of students, and an energetic worker for environmental and literary causes. And some of his poems deserve to last. He contributed in countless ways. And he was a good friend to many people besides myself. A lot of us are going to miss him deeply.

Before I put in the link to Simon’s own website, here’s a quote from Matt Simpson reviewing Simon’s book Reading a River :

there isn’t scope here to do justice to all the pleasures to be had from this book – for instance, Curtis’s gentle satire, his wit, his quiet irony, his ventures in Australia, The blurb simply hopes readers will enjoy the poems. Well, here is one who does. What he does splendidly is summed up in the last two lines of ‘Weymouth Nightingale’

So much floods back to mind, of worth, of loss,
Of time that’s gone, and debt of thanks I owe.

That just about sums it up. And here’s the link:

http://simoncurtis.net/index.html

THE DARK HORSE

I’m very pleased to have an essay in the new issue of The Dark Horse magazine. The Horse is the only literary magazine (indeed, the only magazine of any kind) that I always read from cover to cover. It really is one of the very best in the UK: beautifully designed, entertaining, and with probably the best poetry of any UK journal.

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The Dark Horse is always elegant and visually interesting

 I met its editor, Gerry Cambridge, when we were both performing at the Granada Poetry Festival in Nicaragua in February, and Gerry was kind enough to commission me to write a piece about the Festival. I was delighted, because I’ve always admired and enjoyed The Dark Horse and this was a pleasant way to sneak in there without immediately having to risk Gerry’s opinion on my poems… Anyway the article is there, and I had great fun writing it. (If you’ve seen my post about the Festival, you’ll have some idea why: and if you haven’t, put ‘Nicaragua’ into the search box and it should come up.) And alongside my essay is a fine group of moving and highly original poems by the excellent Kei Miller, a fine essay by D.M. Black on the Scottish poet Robert Garioch, a highly amusing and incisive essay by Helena Nelson on ‘Poetry in the Age of Hype’, new poems by Douglas Dunn, Stephen Payne, William Bedford, Martin Crucefix, Rory Waterman and others. There’s also an interesting piece by Charlotte Newman about R.S. Thomas, a poet who has always fascinated me. Altogether a really excellent issue full of variety, and written by people who know about poetry, care about it, and have the ability to write engagingly.

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Gerry reads from the Poet-Mobile, Granada Poetry Carnival, Feb 2013

I go around all the time recommending The Dark Horse to people. It really is outstanding: I have a subscription – yes, I actually pay to read it and have never regretted it. And I’ve arranged a special deal for new subscribers: Take out a subscription and Gerry Cambridge will send a free copy of the magazine to anyone you like. Just click here to subscribe, – http://www.thedarkhorsemagazine.com/subscribe.html – and then email gerry.cambridge@btinternet.com to tell him you’ve seen my blog, and give him the address where you’d like the free copy sent. Merry Christmas!