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.

RawlingFromMatt

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.

CraggCloser

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.

There’s also an excellent post about Rawling on Masrtin Crucefix’s blog: http://martyncrucefix.com/2015/02/10/the-poetry-of-tom-rawling/

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.

NormanNicholson

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.

images[1]

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:

Majestic Manchester Mahler 3

Gustav Mahler - currently celebrated in Manchester

Gustav Mahler - currently celebrated in Manchester

The Halle set a very high standard with Mahler’s Second Symphony a couple of weeks back (you’ll need to scroll down 5 posts should you want to see comments). So the BBC Philharmonic faced quite a challenge with the Third, another epic soundscape with a passionate philosophical programme behind it.

But they proved equal to the task, and if the Third didn’t send us out quite as dazed and elated as its predecessor, it was mainly because this symphony, though just as complex, is more contemplative, a slower-paced work with quieter dynamics relying more or mood and melody than on stark contrasts and shattering climaxes.

Vassily Sinaisky took the first movement, with its resounding opening fanfare on the horns representing the great god Pan arriving to reanimate nature after the winter, at a steady but not rapid pace – very much the approach Stenz used last time for the opening of the Second. The brass section was superb throughout, playing with resonance and precision. Just as well because in every movement the brass has vital thematic parts to play, most often to remind us, in some way, of that opening motif of descending horn notes. The first movement as a whole gave an experience of restrained power, deep strings sporadically throbbing and surging, with the brass and the more fragile, fragmentary woodwind floating over the top.

Here’s an extract from the movement (LSO, splendidly conducted by Valery Gergiev, looking more than ever like Boris Karloff):

Mahler’s idea for the symphony was to make it ‘a work of such magnitude that it actually mirrors the whole world…In my symphony the whole of nature finds a voice.’ The movements aim to layer one tier of being on top of another. The orchestra gave second movement (originally titled ‘What the flowers tell me’) a light, almost staccato touch and brought out the exuberant, dance-like qualities of the third (‘What the animals of the forest tell me’, according to Mahler’s early notes). The distant horns (how Mahler loves those!) sounded here like a faint reminder of the world of men, rather thanan eruption of the animalistic Pan.

Reaching ‘Night’ and the world of men, the 4th movement, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill got her entrance exactly right: the voice seemed to emerge and radiate without an identifiable starting-point, simply welling up out of the orchestral sound, as if uttered by the universe as well as by humanity. This lovely setting of the mysertious Nietzsche poem was a delight.

Mahler’s gentle audacity is astounging and wonderful: having begun the symphony with Pan, then led on to Nietzsche (who loathed Christianity), he then dances into the fifth movement with a children’s folksong – it sounds almost like a skipping game – about Jesus, St Peter, and God’s forgiveness. And every so often what sounds like a reminiscence of a Bach choral sweeping in to underline the religious elements. The CBSO Youth Chorus made a fine job of the children’s chorus, vigorous and precise, entering with the ‘Bimm bamm…’ of the church bells. Personally I would have liked a bit more volume from them, and I suspect Sinaisky held them back a bit too much; but it wasn’t a major blemish.

The transition to the sixth movement made me see something I’d missed before, listening to the symphony endlessly on disc, which is that having brought Christianity and Gid into the structure, Mahler goes a step further and higher. Where the 2nd symphny ends in song, it’s as if he now sees that words aren’t enough and nothing but pure music will say what he has to say. We’ve gone beyond God too, beyond anything that can be formulated or imagined.

The final movement was wonderful, with that sense of endlessly-shifting and changing and evolving harmonies as Mahler finds his way very slowly through a vast musical mist, drawing notes out and mutating the harmonies so that you constantly find a chord emerging that’s different from the one you expected, and then that melds into yet another and so on. Sinaiski did a good job with the dynamics here, very slowly building and building the movement until all the layers came together in those vast closing chords that show you the whole imaginable cosmos towering up octave above octave, layer above layer, energised and tranquil but completely alive, like a vast wall of glass or water that doesn’t topple but just settles and poises there, with the brass finally folding harmoniously into the picture and the timpani slowly repeating deep notes that echo the bell-chimes of the children’s song. The combination of energy and peace at the end of the symphony was very impressive. Here’s a clip (Dudamel, La Scala Philharmonic):

I didn’t cry this time (though the girl next to me was in tears throughout the final movement). There’s less melodrama, more serenity in this than in the Second Symphony, but the vision is vaster. Maybe Sinaiski didn’t always make the dynamics as exciting as he might have done. I overheard one departing audience member talking about the difficulty of staying awake, in a way that made me wonder if the work is just too big and complicated to grasp until you’ve heard it over and over again and got all those details into your system. The applause was loud and long but it didn’t really match the reaction to No 2.

Certainly I notice these days how closely-integrated the Third is. The pattern – melodic and rhythmic – of that opening fanfare, for example, comes into just about everything in the work. Sometimes I think Mahler 3 has an entire symphony for its first movement, and a whole other one for its last, with a suite of other things in between. Then again I find myself thinking the entire work is a single movement. The first time you hear it, it’s a sprawl. By the tenth time, you just notice the mind-boggling precision with which it’s all integrated. Very strange. But how wonderful to hear these masterpieces one after another, so well-played. Not sure yet if I’ll make the Fourth on Thursday. Lorraine’s Rueda class at Cuba Cafe is calling, and Amanda is able to dance again now her broken arm has healed. A dilemma. But I’ll post something as soon as I get to another Mahler extravaganza. Meanwhile there’s always salsa and a million other things.
And don’t forget: starting 5 April, BBC Radio 3 will broadcast the entire series on consecutive Monday nights at 7 pm. Listen to any you missed and see if you agree with me! And do post your comments.