Grevel Lindop

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

Wordsworth’s Prelude – and remembering Robert Woof

Dr Robert Woof, with his wife, the Wordsworth scholar Dr Pamela Woof

In the current strange time of the Covid19 lockdown, one unexpected pleasure has been to hear – on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, of all unexpected places – Sir Ian McKellen’s reading of passages from William Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem The Prelude.

It’s a fine reading, in McKellen’s thoughtful, resonant voice, of selected highlights – including the famous ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’ passage about the poet’s youthful optimism regarding the French Revolution.

But for me, a completely unexpected pleasure – though a very poignant and almost shocking one – was to hear, all of a sudden, the episodes being introduced each time by a few brief words in the voice of my old friend Robert Woof, Director of the Wordsworth Trust and Dove Cottage, Grasmere.

Robert (1931-2005) was the world’s leading Wordsworth scholar, and also an extraordinary man: humorous, difficult, charming, eloquent, devious, generous, loveable and much more. It was his work, at the head of a matchless team of staff, that turned Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s former home, from a minor ‘heritage’ destination into a powerhouse of scholarship and creativity, nationally recognised as an exemplary museum and centre of culture and creativity.

Robert was Director when I went in the late 1970s to research my biography of Thomas De Quincey; and it was his idea that I should assemble a team to edit De Quincey’s complete works – a project which came to fruition in a 21-volume edition from the London publisher Pickering and Chatto in 2000-2003.

Robert was a source of endless wise advice and friendly comfort through these difficult projects. His wry sense of humour and his endless knowledge were great resources. He taught me resilience and a lot about handling people (I had a team of ten co-editors to work with!).

He was, above all, a wonderful reader and interpreter of Wordsworth. His rich, gentle, slightly grainy Northern voice was exactly right, and his understanding of the poetry was second to none. In fact, if anyone could have read The Prelude better than Ian McKellen, it might have been Robert Woof.

Sadly, Robert died in 2005, just after the completion of the Wordsworth Trust’s new Collections Centre – the ‘Jerwood Centre’ – into which he’d put his heart and soul. Indeed, I think that, though seriously ill, he willed himself to live long enough to see it complete and open.

It was a complete shock to hear his voice introducing a passage of McKellen’s reading. The presenter didn’t mention his name, the announcer never credited him; since the reading was clearly from an archive, I wondered if anyone at the BBC knew who he was, or even realised that he was there alongside McKellen. I’ll admit that I shed a few tears when I heard my old friend’s voice so suddenly, with all his old clarity and thoughtful eloquence.

In these strange days, it was oddly like getting a message from a friend who is gone, in one sense; but who is in another way very much present for me, and will always be.

SAVE GRASMERE: please sign this petition!

We’re all appalled to hear that there are plans to put 10 hi-tech houseboats, with all the attendant infrastructure, noise and disruption, on the lake at Grasmere.

The plans are motivated purely by profit, and are the brainchild of the Lowther Estate, one of the largest and wealthiest landowners in the Lake District.

A petition to stop this greedy and ugly plan is already gathering signatures: please sign it now! – https://www.change.org/p/lowther-castle-and-gardens-houseboats-off-grasmere-save-our-lakes

The extraordinary idea – it’s hard to believe it’s not a nightmare – is to put no less than TEN large powered residential craft permanently onto the lake. Grasmere is one of the smaller lakes, and has always been particularly tranquil. You can hire a rowing boat there for a few hours, and you can fish or swim. But these large crowded permanent powered boats would change the character of the lake and the whole area very much for the worse.

The writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg has written to the press that the plan would ‘rip the heart out’ of the peace and beauty of Grasmere. ‘Should the estate get permission then I would argue that the Lake District could and should lose its status as a World Heritage Site’. The boats – to be used by well-heeled holidaymakers – would, he says, ‘end up as 24-hour music-throbbing discos’. They would also require all the support structures – access roads, charging terminals and many other things – which would destroy the tranquil margins of the lake.

The National Trust are firmly opposed to the plan but they need support as the legal position is unclear

UNESCO World Heritage status depends on the Lake District continuing as a living and working landscape but also preserving its environmental and aesthetic character as a traditional landscape. Its literary heritage has also to be preserved, and the plans would have a seriously negative impact on Town End, the lakeside part of Grasmere village where William and Dorothy Wordsworth lived after 1799.

Claims that opposition to the plans are ‘snobbery’ are totally misguided. For a start, the plans are hatched by Lakeland’s wealthiest private landowner purely for private gain. Secondly, it is important that the diverse character of the various lakes be preserved. Windermere already has a ferry, a year-round steamer service, pleasure boats and houseboats. Many of these features are also present on Derwentwater and Ullswater. That’s where this kind of plan belongs. The smaller and quieter lakes need to keep their separate and varied character, not be pressed into service as noisy, expensive playgrounds.

Grasmere has come into the line of fire simply because it belongs to the Lowther Estate. No doubt their accountants see it as an ‘asset’ that isn’t being properly ‘exploited’. If that attitude had prevailed in the past, we wouldn’t have the National Parks.

So please sign the petition, tell your friends, send them the link, and do all you can to oppose this unpleasant plan!

https://www.change.org/p/lowther-castle-and-gardens-houseboats-off-grasmere-save-our-lakes

Knausgaard’s Masterpiece

I’ve recently finished The End, the appropriately-titled sixth and last volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic ‘novel’ My Struggle. An extraordinary book, and I think a very fine one.

That said, it has to be admitted that it’s not an easy read, despite being extremely gripping, suspenseful, stimulating and emotionally-wrenching at times. Indeed, I’d say that it requires as much effort to read this sixth volume as it takes to read all the previous five put together.

This isn’t just a question of length – though this final volume, at 1160 pages, is longer than any of the earlier ones. It’s also, more importantly, due to the nature of the material. The narrative is certainly gripping – when we have narrative (which we do for a good part of the time). This is partly because the autobiographical story has now caught up with the point where Knausgaard’s first volume, A Death in the Family¸ is being published. And (not surprisingly, given its utterly honest and completely unvarnished confessional realism) Knaussgaard finds that a lot of people really don’t like it.

Despite the fact that he has checked with everyone mentioned explicitly in his narrative, and changed names etc when necessary, it still isn’t enough. His uncle (who doesn’t really figure significantly in the earlier volume) is beside himself with fury about the book, because it depicts the alcoholic death of Knausgaard’s father (the uncle’s brother) in a filthy house and the uncle feels Knaussgaard is letting the entire family down. He resorts to threats of legal action (empty, because you can’t in any case libel the dead, and no one else is criticised), abusive phone calls and any other weapon he can find.

Knausgaard finds that the one thing people don’t want from a writer is honesty. And we get the impression that tidy, bourgeois Scandinavian society can’t face the truth about itself, even told with the best intentions.

Then there is a dreadful suspense that builds around the mental health of Knausgaard’s wife, who turns out to be bipolar and towards the end of the book is sunk in a suicidal depression from which it seems she may never recover. You read the last section of the book in profound concern about the outcome.

All of this is wonderful, and told with Knausgaard’s remarkable, obsessive, close-up realism, which seems to give you every moment and gesture – making you look freshly and closely at the details of your own life.

But the book turns away from these things and at certain points becomes a colossal essay, first on the boyhood of Hitler (of whom, despite his overall title – My Struggle – Knausgaard is absolutely not an admirer), and then on Paul Celan’s poem ‘Engführung’. And extraordinarily, even as he is writing these passages, to his near-disbelief the massacre of teenagers by Anders Brivik on Utoya Island takes place. Knausgaard’s treatment of all this is not in any way sensationalistic; indeed he writes so thoughtfully and with such care that many readers will probably be bored or just bogged down.

And the passages confirm my suspicion that Knausgaard isn’t really a novelist at all. I think the best label for him is ‘existential philosopher’. Like Kierkegaard, he’s using the material of his own life, mercilessly, as the material for reflection. And though he writes in narrative much of the time, it isn’t fiction, and we recall that Sartre, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard all told stories to embody their ideas.

How well Knausgaard’s work will stand the test of time remains to be seen. I’ve been gripped by it; and I think Volume I, A Death in the Family, is a masterpiece. Whether I’d plough through all the other volumes again I’m not sure. A Norwegian Proust (as he’s been called) he certainly ain’t. He doesn’t have the subtlety, the stylistic beauty or the contemplative poise of Proust. Knausgaard is angry, frustrated, often crude and impatient, often very funny. But he has done something wholly original and, I suspect, profound. I recommend him strongly.

L.S. Lowry (and Mum)

I want to recommend very strongly the excellent film Mrs Lowry and Son, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Spall and directed by Adrian Noble. Based on the play by Martin Hesford, and essentially a two-hander between Spall and Redgrave, the film is fascinating, intensely dramatic and moving, and well worth seeing even if you don’t particularly like Lowry as an artist. I have some doubts about his work myself (see below) but nonetheless this is not just a wonderfully watchable film but a real statement about the nature of art.

And don’t be put off if you didn’t like Spall’s portrayal of JMW Turner in Mr. Turner. I didn’t like that either; I found it overacted and unconvincing. But Mrs Lowry and Son is a completely different matter.

Redgrave is brilliant as the self-pitying, viciously manipulative but also pathetic Mrs Lowry; Spall is patient, understated, exhausted and yet at moments very close to the edge of violence as Lowry, relentlessly practising the unrewarded painting that obsesses him in the face of relentless hostility and discouragement from his terrifying mother. At one dreadful moment he loses his control and starts destroying his own paintings with a knife. You feel that he’s within an inch of turning the knife towards his mother. It’s emotionally wrenching and terrifying – even though we know that Lowry will eventually find success and acclaim.

No wonder that. long after his mother’s death, there was something a little strange in Lowry’s attitude to women. There is, in fact, another film to be made as a counterpart to this one: the film about Lowry and his young female protégées (notably Sheila Fell) later in his life. Like so many of these creative relations where an older artist features as mentor, there is something both profoundly valuable and deeply creepy in the interplay between young developing talent and old master, galvanised by an unexpressed sexual tension. I hope someone will make this second film too; it would be fascinating, and no less dramatic.

To give a broader view of Lowry, I’ll put in here a piece I wrote some years ago for the Times Literary Supplement, reviewing a biography of Lowry.

Shelley Rohde: L.S. Lowry: A Life  (Haus Publishing Ltd).  £25

ISBN 987-1-90495-049-3

Despite his huge popular following, L.S. Lowry remains enigmatic. To some he is an essential British artist of the twentieth century, to be spoken of in the same breath as Stanley Spencer or Francis Bacon. Others see him as sentimental and inept, a naïf in the wrong sense. Lowry died more than thirty years ago, but Shelley Rohde is still the only author to have attempted a comprehensive life, and although the dust jacket calls the present book a ‘new biography’, is essentially a greatly shortened version of the same author’s L.S. Lowry: A Biography, published in 1999.

An unashamed advocate, Rohde attributes resistance to Lowry’s work, bluntly, to ‘elitism’. This seems a misjudgement because, whether you like Lowry’s work or hate it, there is certainly something odd about it, and it contains elements which run strongly against artistic traditions which remained largely unquestioned even during the twentieth century. The major problem – or the great charm, depending on your point of view – arises from the disjunction in Lowry’s mature work between figures and landscape.

Lowry’s townscapes – his terrace houses, factories, churches, viaducts – are handled with a strong post-impressionist technique undoubtedly transmitted by Adolphe Valette, the French painter who was Lowry’s most significant tutor at the Manchester School of Art. Subtleties of colour and texture are fascinating, flake white (an essential ingredient in the luminous overall effect) and pale earth colours layered over one another to produce endless varieties of tone. The composition is masterly, combining an emphasis on height, depth and gradient with a decorative flattening of perspective.

Yet the figures which swarm in this setting might have been painted by another hand. Stylised, cartoonish, calligraphically drawn and without modelling, consisting most often of a few black lines and a blob of colour, they tend to caricature. The grotesque, the maimed and the mad figure largely amongst them.

In Lowry’s later paintings, mostly from the 1960s, groups of figures lack an architectural setting and formulaic elements become still stronger. Eyes are dots of black; all figures are round-shouldered, all feet encased in enormous black boots.

A strangeness in Lowry’s relation to people was not confined to canvas. Born in 1887, he was the only child of a Manchester ‘estate agent’ who was actually little more than a rent collector and took his family from one unaffordable house to another in pursuit of the gentility craved by his wife, a former pianist. Lowry’s mother spent most of adult life as an ‘invalid’, martyr to undefined ailments which kept her immobilised all day on a couch.

Lowry’s father died in 1932, leaving substantial debts which he had concealed from the family. His mother reacted by abandoning the couch and taking to her bed, where her son tended to her meticulously until the day of her death seven years later, brushing her hair, bathing her bedsores and reading her to sleep every night. His reward for this was merciless discouragement. She regarded his painting (which she referred to as ‘doing nothing’) with contempt, and when the Manchester Guardian invited him to write art criticism she squashed the idea by laughing uproariously and telling him ‘You could never do it, Laurie’. Lowry accepted her judgment but carried the Guardian’s letter in his pocket for years.

Painting was done mainly at night, by electric light, for like his father Lowry had become a rent collector – a job he did meticulously and without promotion for forty years, observing and sketching on his daily perambulations around Manchester. The people whose money he took found him friendly and considerate and seem not to have resented him.

Lowry kept this side of his life hidden from the art world, misleading interviewers and fellow-artists into thinking that he spent his time only in painting. This was part of a general policy: although he had friends, they were kept in sealed compartments, each allowed to see only a facet of his life and opinions. Those who had known him at work were quietly dropped when he retired.

It is perhaps the portraits which testify most strongly against a cosy view of Lowry. Lowry’s male sitters glare fixedly ahead, as if in a police mugshot. The heads are stylised and rigidly symmetrical, with much black outlining of the features. The effect is terrifying; according to Rohde more than one collector rapidly resold a portrait rather than live with it. Perhaps the most powerful of these works is Portrait of a Man (with Red Eyes), a self-portrait of 1938 (misdated 1927 in Rhode’s index), painted at a time when the stress of caring for his mother had brought Lowry to the brink of physical and mental breakdown.

Equally disturbing in a different way are the portraits of a woman, or series of women, whom Lowry identified only as ‘Ann’. Evidently representing a personal archetype rather than an individual, the ‘Ann’ pictures show a woman with oval face, strained-back smooth black hair, pillar-box-red lipstick and huge eyes thickly outlined in black eyeliner. The face is doll-like and expressionless, pallid and smooth as if carved in soapstone.

It would be easy to take ‘Ann’ as a fantasy were it not for the fact that in later life Lowry befriended, one after another, a series of very young women whom he helped financially and educationally. All valued his friendship immensely and they included the notable landscape painter Sheila Fell, who was eloquent in her gratitude for Lowry’s mentorship. His behaviour with these young ladies was entirely decorous but it is noteworthy that they conformed closely to a single physical type – the type represented by the ‘Ann’ portraits. That there was something fetishistic about all this is confirmed by the recollection of the artist Pat Cooke, one of his protégées, who recalled that Lowry

was fascinated by my make-up, particularly my eyes. He would watch me intently putting it on in the car, asking ‘Why do you do that?’ or saying ‘Put on some more black stuff.’ He was disappointed I didn’t wear nail varnish: he loved long red nails.

After Lowry’s death a collection of drawings came to light showing what appears to be the same girl dressed in a range of bizarre costumes: short, rufflike ballet-skirts; enormous collars or bows which imprison her and from which she hangs helpless like an unstrung puppet. In some drawings she is shown decapitated or wounded with swords or knives. They seem to reveal a fascinated terror of female sexuality.

Rhode’s adaptation of her biography for this new edition has entailed losses and gains. The new text is only half the length of the old, and, strangely, it also seems much worse written, containing sentences like this (on the 1976 Royal Academy retrospective): ‘It had been planned to take place in his life  time but Lowry, foiled the plans of the RA to uniquely honour the living artist by dying nine months previously.’ Admittedly this is a low point; but Rohde’s digressive and partisan style means that in the sparser narrative of the new book it is often hard to deduce in what year a given event happened, or what its actual significance might have been.

Unlike the 1999 text this one lacks a proper index, supplying merely an ‘index of names’. A substantial passage of text on page 95 reappears almost verbatim on page 120, and there are innumerable misprints, some of them risible – ‘cemetery’ appears as ‘ceremony’, ‘cited’ as ‘sited’ and ‘public’ as ‘pubic’. The quotation on the dust jacket, clearly intended as a keynote for the book, is attributed to Maurice Collis but is in fact by Eric Newton. The book has also been stripped of a large proportion of the previous edition’s fascinating black and white photographs of Lowry and his world.

A small amount of new material has been introduced, notably a 1964 interview with Lowry and an appendix giving a discussion by Professor Michael Fitzgerald of Lowry’s supposed autism, which inevitably, coming at the end of a biography, has a somewhat reductive impact. The space might better have been spent on exploring Lowry’s success in exhibiting in France around 1930, or his work as an Official War Artist, or his extensive collection of paintings by Rossetti, all of which are mentioned in this and the previous book but hardly investigated. No significant reference is  made to recent work in x-ray photography, which has revealed much about Lowry’s technique and his overpainting of earlier work. His reading and his love of music, both of which were profoundly important to him, are left unexamined.

Those who want a full life of Lowry will still need to go to Rohde’s 1999 book. 

The one area where the present work improves on its predecessor is in its addition of some two hundred well-chosen colour plates. In these Lowry’s art, however eccentric or technically fractured, speaks eloquently of an industrial landscape which no one else documented with such delicacy or obsessive thoroughness, and of people who, perhaps of necessity, could never fit into their surroundings.

Grevel Lindop

Selecting Jeremy Reed

Good news today: at last, the Selected Poems of Jeremy Reed, on which I’ve been working for more than three years, will be published by Shearsman – probably in 2020. It’s a big, generous selection – maybe some 300 pages – but it isn’t a page too long, or a poem too many.

Jeremy Reed – An elusive figure, but an exciting reader if you can catch him!

Jeremy Reed (born 1951) is quite possibly the most talented poet of my generation, and certainly the most prolific, with something over fifty published collections to his credit. He has won many awards. But his reclusive nature, and the sheer vast number of his publications, mean that he’s unfamiliar to the present-day poetry public, and even if people are interested, they don’t know where to start in his vast oeuvre.

The plan of Collusive Strangers: Selected Poems 1979-2020 will be to provide a map to this amazing poet’s development, with a selection of his very best work.

It was a close thing. I prepared the book for publication by Enitharmon Press, who went bust just as I was submitting the text. But the news that Shearsman will take it on is a huge boost and a great delight. Hopefully Reed’s work will again find the readers it deserves.

Jeremy Reed has been a poet of huge variety. In the 1970s and ‘80s he was famous for writing the best nature poems since John Clare, and received accolades from the likes of Seamus Heaney. Later he wrote with unexampled vividness about the AIDS epidemic, about the cultural phenomenon of British pop, about drugs and cyberspace. In the Blair era he wrote scorchingly about politics. His poems have taken in Sci-Fi (he was a friend of J.G. Ballard) and many aspects of sexuality. He is an unexampled modern writer on landscape and the street life of London.

Reed is also a poet other writers should learn from. His vocabulary is enormous, his range of forms protean. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s time you did. If thought he’d stopped writing, you were wrong. If you heard he was eccentric, uncooperative, troublesome, you were right; but he’s an important poet. This selection will prove it, and show you where to start appreciating perhaps the most remarkable poet of our time.