Grevel Lindop

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


I want to pay tribute to Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018), the wonderful fantasy writer who died on 22 January this year. Her Earthsea trilogy (later a tetralogy, in fact) is the only fantasy work – apart perhaps from C.S. Lewis’s very different Narnian Chronicles – that I would put on a par with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

I devoured the Earthsea books – read and re-read them – when I was a teenager, and they helped to change my view of the world. Their balance of Taoist wisdom, Castaneda-inspired magic (both her parents were anthropologists), narrative excitement and poetic vision make them, for me, still unique in the realm of fantasy. I’ve put in the covers of my slightly battered old Puffin copies here.

Her hero Ged became a role model for me; and his two (sometimes conflicting) pursuits – for magical (read, if you like, spiritual) understanding, and for ways to sustain the ecological balance of the world – have been the quests of my life also. Le Guin’s fiction clarified them for me.


She was said to have become discontented with the original Earthsea trilogy because it was too male-centred; I was never sure I agreed, because the second, central volume, The Tombs of Atuan, had a wonderful heroine, Tenar, who plays a central role and, initially, holds all the power in her hands, as a trainee priestess in whose underground labyrinth Ged finds himself trapped.

I haven’t read as many of Le Guin’s sci-fi books as I should; I shall now do so. The one I have read is The Lathe of Heaven: a powerful parable about trying too hard to improve the world. That book has become an essential part of my thinking and I recommend it strongly, to technologists and ecologists alike.

There was undoubtedly something magical about Ursula Le Guin herself. When I heard the announcement of her death on the radio, quite unexpectedly I found all the hairs on my body standing up: a wave of energy went over me. Then again when I heard her discussed on Last Word, the BBC’s obituary programme. She was one of those extraordinary women – among them I would name Kathleen Raine, Lois Lang-Sims, Iona Opie the folkorist, and Nancy Sandars, translator of Gilgamesh – who have very special qualities of imagination and wisdom which the world needs and which they find ways of transmitting.

I think of these female elders as the Sibyls or prophetesses. For some people, the proverbial ‘Old Wives [i.e. women’s] Tales’ is a term of abuse. Not for me. It’s the tales told by old women that are the most important. (Tolkien agreed: look at the episode of the healing herb, athelas or kingsfoil, near the end of the Lord of the Rings). Their lives and experience (they all seem to a ripe old age) have distilled something that the rest of us seriously need. Fortunately Ursula Le Guin left it for us in her books. Read and enjoy!


I’ve just finished reading Christopher Somerville’s entertaining, vivid and thought-provoking book, The January Man. In outline, it’s an account of the year, month by month, describing a walk (or sometimes several walks) in a different part of the United Kingdom for every month.

Somerville is well known as the Times walking correspondent, so he’s ideally qualified to guide us, whether it’s on the Norfolk coast or the remote island of Foula in the Shetlands. But his book is about much more than walking.

Besides beautifully-written observations of nature – trees, birds, insects, fungi – as the seasons turn, the book explores Christopher Somerville’s many enthusiasms: it’s full of fascinating reflections on music and poetry, ecology and folklore, tall stories, old buildings, modern farming and a thousand other things. At one moment, Somerville is recreating a youthful hitchhiking expedition that took him and a friend all the way to Istanbul; the next, he’s recreating a long-gone country fair in Wiltshire, now almost forgotten but a few short generations ago so important that half a million sheep and 750 tons of hops were sold there annually, and cheese was traded by the ton.

As if that’s not enough, the book sketches – lightly and engagingly, in touches that build up month by month into a vivid portrait – memories of his father, a taciturn man who never spoke much about his quietly courageous war service, and even less about his top-secret work at GCHQ. Walking together on long-distance footpaths was, mostly, the closest father and son came to shared communication. It’s all perfectly judged: moving and fascinating without any sense of emotional overspill. Quite an achievement, and one that will touch a verse with many of us whose parents were from that emotionally-reticent generation.

Christopher’s website is at – For a link to order the book, see foot of this page.

As a bonus, the book introduces us to Dave Goulder’s great folksong, ‘The January Man’, from which it takes its title. I can’t find Martin Carthy’s performance of that fine song (the version mentioned in the book) so I’ll put in a haunting version by the Albion Christmas Band with some charming if slightlky kitsch astrological imagery (no offence – as I wrote once in a poem about Mexico, in some contexts ‘kitsch is authenticity’!).

The January Man is definitely one of my books of the year: the perfect Christmas present for anyone who loves walking, or the countryside, or loves odd facts and surprising stories. Add a beautiful cover painting, and a link to download a free walking guide from Christopher Somerville’s website, and what more could you ask? I’m already realising how lazy I’ve been this year. The shortest day will soon be past; and then I swear I’ll lace up my boots and be on the move again. Thanks, Christopher!


Good news that our programme about little Catharine Wordsworth will be going our on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 5th November at 4.30 pm.

Catharine Wordsworth: a miniature portrait

The Little Chinese Maiden is about Williams Wordsworth’s daughter Catharine, who died just short of her fourth birthday in 1812.

Clearly a delightful little girl, she was the subject of two poems by her father: the somewhat clumsily-titled ‘Characteristics of a Child Three Years Old’, describing her delightful and playful personality, and ‘Surprised by Joy’, a very poignant poem written after her death, when the poet finds himself about to share a moment of happiness with the little girl and then realises that she’s died – and reproaches himself for having, even for a moment, allowed himself to forget the fact.

This is of course a moment many of us have experienced after a death, and perhaps it’s a natural part of the recovery process, but it’s still so painful. And I wonder if the earlier poem, ‘Characteristic…’, has that rather clinical title because the often rather reserved poet found himself a little embarrassed by his own feelings for his daughter and when it came to finding a title, he wanted to play down the emotional involvement?

Some years ago, when researching the life of Thomas De Quincey, a Wordsworth family friend, I began to wonder if little Catharine had had Down’s Syndrome. The condition hadn’t been recognised in those days and she wasn’t labelled, just seen as a delightful and slightly unusual child.

In the Radio 4 programme, we look at the evidence, with the help of Wordsworth scholar Professor Simon Bainbridge, his wife Anne-Julie and daughter Grace; Beth Broomby and daughter Esme; and Dr Patricia Jackson, of Down’s Syndrome Scotland. We have passages from Dorothy Wordsworth’s letters beautifully read for us by Dr Pamela Woof, editor of Dorothy’s Journals and President of the Wordsworth Trust; abnd the poem ;Surprised by Joy’ read by Dr Jeff Cowton, Curator of the Wordsworth Museum, Grasmere.

We had great fun making the programme; parents and children were wonderful and eloquent (even little Esme, who doesn’t talk but took over completely and made plenty of noise, as you’ll hear on the programme) – and I think the programme not only illuminates Wordsworth’s life and poetry but makes us think again about what we really value in people.

Do listen. (You’ll probably laugh as well!)


I’ve just received the first paperback copies of Charles Williams: The Third Inkling. Very exciting. Pleasant too for readers, because they can now get the book for a sensible, indeed pretty modest, price: £12.99 for a 490 page biography with 36 glossy plates.

My first copies, with Aslan the Lion – the white lion trophy is the Mythopoeic Society’s Award for Inklings Scholarship, which the book won when it came out

The hardback was a handsome book, but at £25 you couldn’t expect many people except Williams fanatics to buy it. It has sold well enough but I suspect mainly to libraries, and those Inklings enthusiasts who couldn’t bear to wait!

I’m also pleased that Williams’s fame has developed since I wrote the book. I was keen to make this astonishing character and his remarkably rich work known to far more people, and this seems to have happened.

Stephen Barber has edited a new collection of his essays, The Celian Moment, from Greystones Press; Sørina Higgins has edited his remarkable unpublished verse drama The Chapel of the Thorn for Apocryphile a handsome new hardback edition of his novels is in progress; and Apocryphile has reissued the poems of Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars in the USA.

And John Matthews and I have edited his Arthurian poems – comprising all the poems on the Arthurian mythos which he published during his lifetime – for publication in the near future, with an essay by each of us.

Williams is increasingly being recognised as the remarkable writer, teacher and esoteric figure which he was, taking his rightful place alongside his more famous but less bizarre friends, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Lake District – A World Heritage Site

So: we’ve won it. What now? At the celebration for the Lake District’s winning of UNESCO World Heritage Site status, views were mixed.

One of the people who’d been most involved in the long application process – it took more than ten years – told me, almost in the same breath, ‘The Lakes should have this accolade because the place deservers it’ and ‘Now the real problems will start!’

I asked what he meant, and he replied ‘Tourism versus conservation.’ The UNESCO listing will draw more tourists, he believed, and that will put more pressure on the very environment they come to see. On the other hand, when I talked to a representative from English Nature, the conflict she immediately mentioned didn’t include tourism at all. It was ‘Nature versus farming’.

The truth is that no one quite knows, and the benefits and problems will come from any directions. Yes, ‘inscription’ (as it’s called) will bring more tourists from overseas: believe it or not, there are actually people who trek around the world collecting as many World Heritage Sites as they can! On the other hand, this may be reduced by things becoming more difficult for overseas tourists in the wake of Brexit. And if more overseas visitors do come, that may be good anyway because (again a result of Brexit) UK visitors may be spending less money. Though of course there might be more UK visitors because (Brexit again) it may not be so cheap or so easy for them to holiday abroad. And do it goes on.

On the plus side, World Heritage Site status may make it easier for conservation, environmental and creative causes in Cumbria to win funding, as their activities will sustain and justify the ‘inscription’.

Moreover, the Lake District has been made a World Heritage Site as a ‘cultural landscape’ – that is, not just because it is a beautiful landscape, but because it is a landscape that sustains, and is shaped by, a unique traditional method of farming. If the environment is damaged, or if the traditional sheep farming methods are imperilled, then UNESCO can threaten to take away the ‘inscription’. Both Liverpool Docks and the Tower of London sites are currently teetering on the edge of losing their status as World Heritage Sites because of encroaching inappropriate development. Losing world heritage site status can be expensive and shaming. It can be a protection for those qualities that won the inscription in the first place.

Local word has it that when the UNESCO people came to look at the Lakes, the two things that troubled them were low-flying aircraft, and the nuclear facility at Sellafield. It’s unlikely the RAF will increase the number of training flights going over. But the WHS might be a powerful weapon to use against the nuclear industry as it pushes to expand its activities in (and under!) Cumbria.

As for the vexed question of re-wilding, I’m cautious. In Ennerdale it has worked well. But much of the Lakes is not like Ennerdale. Where Ennerdale has a low-lying somewhat boggy landscape shaped by a river which often changes its course, other parts of the Lakes have become what they are now because of a balance between farming and natural processes. To clear out the sheep – known by some as ‘the white plague’! – and let the fellsides go back to the wild would be disastrous. The first result would be even vaster tracts of land covered with bracken, and valleys filled with an impenetrable waste of nettles and brambles. A landscape farmed for more than a thousand years doesn’t go back to ‘nature’ – because it is starting from an unnatural condition. The answer is to get the balance right. Enrich the environment where possible. Re-wild here and there judiciously. And – the one thing nobody wants to hear these days – be patient.