Grevel Lindop

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

Not Just the Lake Poets!

I’ve recently updated my Literary Guide to the Lake District, so that this comprehensive and entertaining guide is now easier to use and more helpful than ever. One of the fullest and most readable guides to the Lakes, it now gives websites, where these exist – and they usually do – for all properties that are open to the public and that have literary connections.

DSC02829

Castle Crag and Gowder Crag, Derwentwater between

Arranged in five easily-followed routes so that you can drive or walk to any location with a minimum of trouble, or simply check out places as you get to them, the book is a guide to the places in the Lakes where writers have lived, or that they’ve written about, from Roman times up to the present; and it goes far beyond what you’d expect.

Of course the usual suspects are there. The Guide will take you, if you like, to every place that Wordsworth, or Coleridge, or Beatrix Potter, or Arthur Ransome wrote significantly about. But did you know that Thomas Hardy went boating on Windermere, rather than waste his time attending George V’s coronation? That Oscar Wilde lectured on Beauty in the Cumbrian coastal town of Maryport? Or that James Joyce wrote, in Finnegans Wake, about a monument in Penrith Churchyard? Or that First World War poet Edward Thomas was a keen walker in the Lakes and wrote a poem about a friend’s house there?

bb21146[1]

Greta Hall, Keswick – Coleridge’s home from 1800 to 1803

The literary connections of Lakeland are rich and incredible, and this book will open them up for you – as it did for me when I researched it! I’ve been over every mile of the Lakes on foot for many years, and exploring its writers, both famous and little-known.

To quote some reviews, ‘The book is a joy and will be my constant companion’ (Angela Locke, Cumbria Life); ‘Deserves to be a classic of its kind’ (City Life); ‘Packed with enjoyable stories and excellent pictures’ (Manchester Evening News); and from Melvyn Bragg (Sunday Times): ‘For those who know the area well, the book will be a treat. For those who never set foot there, Lindop provides a book-lover’s feast.’

To order A Literary Guide to the Lake District, just click on the cover-image at the right hand side of this page; or find my page on Amazon.

Lakeland’s Weirdest Monument?

On Saturday I finally found something I’d been looking for, on and off, for the past 20 years: Longmire’s Rocks. I’d heard they were somewhere on the eastern shore of Windermere, near Whitecross Bay, and I’d mentioned them in my Literary Guide to the Lake District, admitting that I hadn’t seen them myself, and suggesting that readers try to find them. But I’d never tracked them down, and no one else seemed to know where they were, or even if they still existed.

Carved rock. with wooden steps from Cragwood behind

The path from Cragwood comes down wooden steps at back; note carved rock in foreground

But with a revised Third Edition of my Literary Guide to prepare for publication this spring by Sigma Press, I decided to make one more effort. I put out a call for help, and it was former Lake Ranger Tony Hill who told me where to look. So on Saturday I went to see them. Longmire’s Rocks are a group of natural rock slabs on the lake shore. In the 1830s an eccentric stonemason from Troutbeck, John Longmire, used to spend his spare time carving beautifully-lettered inscriptions about all kinds of things into these rocks.

DSC02910

You can just make out Wordsworth’s name, and what looks like ‘John Bolton, Storrs Hall’ on this rock

There are people’s names – poets (Wordsworth, John Wilson, Walter Scott), inventors (James Watt, Dr Jenner of vaccination fame), and political slogans about the national debt, the Corn Laws and other topics. All perfectly carved in letters as big as your hand or bigger but jumbled together higgledy-piggledy with no particular order. You get to them, it turns out, by taking the path towards the lake from the back of the car park at the Cragfoot Hotel (the owners don’t mind if you go quietly through the grounds following the path, but please park at Brockhole Visitor Centre unless you’re staying at the hotel). When you get to a low wall with a gap, take the left fork in the path and you will reach the lake shore by some wooden steps. The inscriptions are there.

'National Debt £800,000,000' - inscription with encroaching leaf debris

‘National Debt £800,000,000’! But you can see how the carvings vanish under leaves and debris. See lower down for Tony Hill’s photo of more of this rock, clarified with chalk!

Many of them are now covered with fallen leaves, moss and other natural debris, but you can still see enough to get the idea. A few volunteers with stiff brooms and carefully-wielded trowels could unearth a lot more, I’m sure. Apparently the rocks were quite a tourist attraction in the Victorian period but have been largely forgotten since. Anyway it was well worth the visit. Bizarre, beautiful and a bit eerie, these slightly crazy, lovingly stone-cut words in their lonely setting by the Lake are a strange and evocative sight. Let’s hope they are not completely forgotten, and that someone will occasionally give them a cleanup.

DSC02902

Parry, the polar explorer, is commemorated here, along with poet John Wilson and others I couldn’t manage to read!

zpfile000

The ‘National Debt’ rock, photo courtesy of Tony Hill, who added chalk to make it clearer. There is much more, but it is all gradually being buried by natural process.

 

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.

quincey[1]

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.

Catherine Wordsworth: A Romantic Poet’s Down’s Baby

Catherine Wordsworth

With the recent news that M&S have chosen Seb White, a little boy with Down’s Syndrome, as a model for their children’s clothes, it seemed a good time to draw attention to the likelihood that William Wordsworth probably wrote one of his finest poems about a Down’s Syndrome child.

His beautiful sonnet ‘Surprised by Joy’ was written after he had lost two children, but its most likely subject is Catherine Wordsworth, who was especially dear to her father and used to delight him by playing in his study as he wrote. Here’s the poem:

SURPRISED by joy–impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport–Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind–
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss?–That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore, 10
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Sadly, Catherine (1808-12) had died at less than four years old and the poem records a painful moment when Wordsworth instinctively turns to the child and then realises, a split second later, that she is no longer there – something anyone who has suffered a bereavement will be able to identify with.

But how do we know that Catherine had Down’s Syndrome? It’s not certain but it is extremely likely. I noticed the evidence when I was researching the life of the essayist Thomas De Quincey, and a couple of years ago pointed it out to Muriel Strachan, who is writing a book on the Wordsworth children, and suggested she examine the evidence systematically. She did so and the case seems very clear.

Catherine was born when the poet and his wife were both 38. A loveable and delightful child, she was said by Dorothy Wordsworth to have ‘not…the least atom of beauty’, but a wonderful sense of humour and ‘something irresistibly comic in her face and movements’. Wordsworth used to call her ‘my little Chinese maiden’ – probably relating to the epicanthic fold of skin which gives some Down’s children an unusual shape to the eye. She seems to have had heart problems and suffered from convulsions and some problem with swallowing. All these symptoms point very strongly to Down’s Syndrome.

The whole Wordsworth Circle was fond of her, and Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, loved her especially: so much so that when she died he was heart-broken, and claims to have slept out on her grave in Grasmere churchyard for six summer weeks in passionate grief. It was probably depression following her death that tipped him into full-blown opium additicion, for his addiction took hold soon after she died.
Wordsworth wrote two poems about Catherine: the other, lesser-known poem is ‘Characteristics of a Child Three Years Old:

LOVING she is, and tractable, though wild;
And Innocence hath privilege in her
To dignify arch looks and laughing eyes;
And feats of cunning; and the pretty round
Of trespasses, affected to provoke
Mock-chastisement and partnership in play.
And, as a faggot sparkles on the hearth,
Not less if unattended and alone
Than when both young and old sit gathered round
And take delight in its activity; 10
Even so this happy Creature of herself
Is all-sufficient, solitude to her
Is blithe society, who fills the air
With gladness and involuntary songs.
Light are her sallies as the tripping fawn’s
Forth-startled from the fern where she lay couched;
Unthought-of, unexpected, as the stir
Of the soft breeze ruffling the meadow-flowers,
Or from before it chasing wantonly
The many-coloured images imprest 20
Upon the bosom of a placid lake.

Muriel Strachan presented an outline of her findings at the Wordsworth Museum last autumn. For full details we shall have to wait for her book on the Wordsworth children. Meanwhile, in the new edition of my book The Opium-Eater: A Life of THomas De Quincey (Crux Publishing, forthcoming) I’ve been able to point to the likelihood that Catherine was a Down’s baby, and to explore the part she played in De Quincey’s life.

To pre-order this e-book (likely price £6.99, tbc), or for more information, please email Crux Publishing at hello@cruxpublishing.co.uk

Down’s Syndrome was not identified as a medical condition until John Langdon Down described it in 1866, so the Wordsworths and their friends simply saw Catherine as a lovely and somewhat unusual child.

Haiti Earthquake: Let’s Give Money AND Respect

HaitiArt 001One of the best-informed, most efficient and most cost-effective relief organisations currently working in Haiti is Medecins Sans Frontieres. If you’re in doubt about how to help, I’d suggest giving to them. The web address is: www.msf.org.uk They speak French, they’ve been there a long time already, and even the BBC News last night attributed some of its information about conditions in Haiti to MSF – which indicates that they know what’s going on.

But while doing what can be done to help, let’s resist the tendency to talk about Haiti as some permanently pathetic crippled nation. Haiti has had a bad press for centuries partly because it was the first country where slaves achieved a successful and lasting rebellion and established an independent nation.

It happened because in 1793 the French Revolutionary government abolished slavery in all French possessions, including Haiti. The black leader Toussaint L’Ouverture established a successful and moderate government which looked like giving the new island state prosperity. Then Napoleon Buonaparte, in a treacherous reversal of policy, decided the island must not become independent of France. He sent an army to conquer Haiti and reimpose slavery. L’Ouverture was captured through an act of treachery (he was invited to talks with the French, who abducted him) and taken to France, where he died in prison.

William Wordsworth wrote an unforgettable poem about him in 1802, not knowing whether L’Ouverture – a hero of liberty – was alive or dead:

TO TOUSSAINT L’OUVERTURE
TOUSSAINT, the most unhappy man of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den;
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.
– William Wordsworth

The French were later defeated and regained their independence. Foreign intervention and foreign debt have been problems ever since, as has internal corruption. But Haiti’s people have been resilient, resourceful and brave.

They have been badly treated, and dismissed by foreign observers, often through racism. Entertaining but sensational and racist books like William Seabrook’s famous The Magic Island led to the identification of Haitian religion, Vodun, with ‘Black Magic’, whereas it is simply West African religion transmuted into Catholic Christian imagery – distinct from, but parallel to, Cuba’s Santeria. (Seabrook is said to have written his book by sitting in a Port-au-Prince bar and taking down everything the local drinkers told him. You can imagine the results.)

Tree of Life is a circular metalcut, devised for use on oildrum heads

Tree of Life is a circular metalcut, devised for use on oildrum heads

Behind the Buddha on my mantelpiece is a Haitian ‘Tree of Life’ sculpture cut from a thin disc of steel. It’s exquisite, as you can see: a beautiful thing and full of life. These metal-cuttings originated with artists who took the tops of old oildrums and shaped the design to make perfect use of the circular steel disc.

In the Dominican Republic I slept for a week beside an exquisite Haitian steel screen showing Vodun deities in a forest: a work of art the medieval scultpors of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals would have appreciated.

Creole Madonna and Child, Haitian Folk Art, c. 2006

Creole Madonna and Child, Haitian Folk Art, c. 2006

Haitian Adam and Eve, steel screen panel

Haitian Adam and Eve, steel screen panel

Our bedroom is graced by a lovely Haitian Madonna and Child in radiant colours. Let us pray to her and other gods and spirits that Haiti may benefit from the world’s goodwill now and into the future. reafforestation, lighter but stronger buildings, some good roads and better education will be a few of the long term goals but Haiti has a proud history and a rich culture.

They also have some of the Caribbean’s most magnificent traditions of folk art and music.

Right now we’re necessarily hearing a lot about the agonies. But let’s not forget that Haiti also represents, and will represent again, ‘Man’s unconquerable mind’.