Grevel Lindop

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

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.

Dr John: Musical Hero of New Orleans Traditions

Very sad to hear this morning of the death of Dr John, whose music was a big part of my life, and meant even more after I visited New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina.

Dr John (Mac Rebennack) (1941-2019) was a virtuoso pianist in the real New Orleans style, learnt from (among others) his first mentor, Professor Longhair. His flamboyant stage persona, which made every performance a grand theatrical event as well as a musical one, was drawn from deep Louisiana roots. There was a load of history behind Dr John.

He took his name from the original Doctor John of New Orleans (I quote from Voodoo in New Orleans (1946) by Robert Tallant): ‘There are few names so important in the history of American Voodoo as that of Doctor John…He claimed to be a Senegalese prince and the masses of grotesque scars that marked his face were believed to support this claim… His home contained a conglomeration of snakes, lizards, embalmed scorpions and animal and human skulls, the last stolen from graveyards…He specialised in healing and the selling of gris-gris and the telling of fortunes.’

Our Dr John the musician enjoyed using Voodoo props in his act and many of his tracks, especially the unforgettable ‘Walk on Gilded Splinters’ draw on Voodoo mythology and ritual for their poetry.

Another ingredient in his persona was the use of feathers and outlandish costumes derived from the New Orleans tradition of ‘Mardi Gras Indians’ when the more adventurous citizens dress up in huge feathered carnival outfits which are locally supposed to resemble Native American costume but are actually derived historically from the West African traditions of ceremonial and ritual dress – they are related to the feathered carnival costumes you’ll see at both the Rio (Brazil) and Notting Hill Carnivals.

Dr John’s genius was to take all this and mould it into a profoundly exciting musical drama that carried his city’s deepest cultural traditions into rock, blues and jazz in the psychedelic era and beyond.

When disaster struck New Orleans with Katrina in 2005, Dr John went on tour repeatedly to raise money for his fellow citizens and musicians.

He enriched our lives and we’re grateful. Now the spirits have him in their care. Maman Brigitte, Maman Erzulie, Baron Samedi, welcome him and treat him royally!

To read my account of visiting New Orleans after Katrina, please see my book Luna Park from Carcanet Press.

SPRING IN MACCLESFIELD FOREST

Just started going out walking again in the North-West after months away from Manchester.

The part of the Peak District just east of Macclesfield has a special magic for me. I made an easy start this time, walking from Tegg’s Nose over to the Forest, then around the Forest and up to the summit of Shuttlingsloe.

Drifts of old English bluebells on slopes under trees at the north edge of the forest

To my delight I heard a cuckoo in the forest – the first I’ve heard this year, and given how rare they are now it could be the last, though I hope not. There were also great clouds of orange tip butterflies, though they were so restless that the only sharp-focus picture I could get shows one on dead leaves, rather than the flowers where I tried in vain to catch them!

One of the hundreds of orange-tip butterflies enlivening the forest

Maybe the most memorable sight was the vast drifts of bluebells covering hillsides under the trees; and these are the old English bluebells, the frailer, gracefully drooping ones, rather than the stiffer and apparently more robust ‘Spanish’ ones – lovely though these can also be.

Looking across a cleared area, over a belt of broadleaves, towards a misty Shuttlingsloe

A great day anyhow; and it’s good to be back writing this blog after such a long absence.

THE LITTLE CHINESE MAIDEN

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.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09cvzxw

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!)

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.