Grevel Lindop

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

ODD MONUMENTS

In Cumbria recently, I visited two monuments which – it occurred to me – oddly have something in common.  I’ll get back to that.

Heading for the Maryport Literature & Arts festival in March, I stopped off at Penrith and walked up Penrith Beacon, a fine precipitous wooded hill (‘fell’ in local parlance) overlooking the town. It’s a steep climb up through birch and pine, on sandy soil and passing several of the sandstone quarries from which the blocks for Penrith’s red houses and public buildings were once carved out.

At the top is the ‘Beacon’ itself, a pointed stone building which people will tell you is where beacon fires were lit to warn the locals of marauding armies approaching from Scotland. I’m sceptical about this: for a start the existing building doesn’t look old enough – it could just conceivably have been built in 1745 after the last Jacobite rebellion, when a Scottish army did indeed come through here heading for defeat at Preston. But it’s surely no older than that.

More importantly, there’s no way you could light a beacon-fire in it: it has a roof on the top and only small openings. A real beacon would have been some sort of raised platform with a metal fire-basket on top.  And sure enough, in front of the tower there is a raised patch with the remains of some stone paving. That’s surely where the real beacon was. Meanwhile we have this attractive little tower – a folly really – into which past visitors have carved their wonderfully neat graffiti, in the days when perfect handwriting and manual skills were compulsory, and carving your name on a public monument was perfectly acceptable.

Last summer, Amanda and I came up here with the poet Keiron Winn and his wife (also called Amanda). We explored the Beacon, and Kieron got me to read the passage about Penrith Beacon from Wordsworth’s Prelude, describing his memory of getting lost in the mist there as a child, finding the site of an old gibbet where ‘A murderer had been hanged in iron chains’ and then, ‘Reascending the bare common, saw / A naked pool that lay beneath the hills’ and met ‘A Girl that bore a pitcher on her head’ – and recalled the whole experience as unutterably strange: ‘I should need / Colours and words that are unknown to man / To paint the visionary dreariness /Which…Invested moorland waste and naked pool…’ Dreary for the young Wordsworth, to us the excursion on the Beacon was the delightful occupation of a summer’s day.

THEN last week I went up to Ulverston to see my old friend, the poet Neil Curry. We had a good lunch at the Rose and Crown (huge portions, good beer) and after we parted again I decided to walk up Hoad Hill, to Sir John Barrow’s Monument.

Barrow (1804-45), born near Ulverston, was a Secretary to the Admiralty, and responsible for numerous polar exploration expeditions, many of which came to grief with serious loss of life.  In those days it was all seen as part of the glorious adventure of Empire, and Barrow was commemorated with a massive memorial. The Admiralty contributed to the cost, on condition that the monument be built so that it could be used as a lighthouse if ever needed.

It never was, so here it is: a handsome lighthouse with no light or function. It struck me that a ‘beacon’ that could never be lit, and a ‘lighthouse’ with no lamp, made a good pair. So here they are together!

SPRING IN MACCLESFIELD FOREST

I finally got out for a good walk yesterday – it’s been too long. I climbed Shutlingsloe – the odd little crooked pyramid that dominates the south-east corner of the Forest – after crossing the peaty moorland you can see in the photo. Not a great picture I’m afraid but at least it gives some sense of the spaciousness of the approach.

It was good to hear the almost continuous highpitched warbling cry of curlews – rare these days but the conservation efforts here must have been working because I could hear them almost all the time – and also the high pitched continuous tweeting of skylarks. I tried once to describe this in a poem as ‘larks scribbling their songs on the sky’ – the best I could do in words!

In the forest the bluebells were just starting to come out,  and there were a surprising number of peacock butterflies, though not the orange tips which are generally so common a little later in the year. 

Later I discovered this spring, which I think I’d missed in the past. The water was just emerging straight from the hillside. Such places give such a sense of elemental life it’s easy to understand how they can be felt as sacred. It was a delight to find this one. The photo can’t give the full sense of life, but at least it may communicate something.

 

 

 

 

In late afternoon I found this rough stone gatepost, probably pierced just so a pole could be put through the hole to meet a similar post on the other side of a gap or path – or maybe to take the hinge or fastening of a gate. The low angle of the sun brought out beautifully both the texture of the stone and especially (at lower right of the stone) the bench-mark so expertly carved into the rock during the making of the Ordnance Survey of Britain.

 

People talk about ‘benchmarks’ all the time in political discussions. I wonder how often they know what a bench-mark is? It’s actually a horizontal groove where the end of a surveying instrument was rested, plus an arrow beneath to indicate the line and what it is. It creates this beautiful hieroglyph which has quite a mysterious appearance. I love finding them – they’re all over the place, nearly always overlooked – including in cities. They’re always beautifully cut, and yet I’ve never seen any discussion of the expert stonemasons who must have accompanied the surveyors to cut them. This is a lovely one.

[27.04.23]

 

Ian Marriott: Touched

Sometimes a book of poems comes along that I really want to draw attention to. Such a book is Ian Marriott’s pamphlet collection Touched, just published by the excellent Cinnamon Press.

Ian Marriott’s poems are remarkably economical: invariably he uses very small brief stanzas, each one provoking thought before you move on to the next. There is something haiku-like, or at any rate contemplative about his stanzas: you feel the need to pause an reflect on each one before you move on to the next. The title Touched seems to refer to this quality as much as anything. The poems touch us, or require us to touch them in reading.

Not that the touch is necessarily comforting. Marriott’s poems can be bleak, and have a way of using unsparing and even harsh images from nature to communicate human experience.

For much of Touched, this seems to be experience of trauma. The book opens with a nine-page sequence (but don’t be alarmed: that’s nine small pages of nine tiny stanzas…) –

The abandoned child
plays and replays
his loop of pain
until in the end
there’s little else…
Both oppressor
and oppressed –
in a single body
the bully, and abused.

Those lines tell – or show, rather – something I’d never seen before but which makes perfect emotional sense. I guess we can all identify with it, and many of us find something inside us that answers.

Images from nature are offered which are both exact in themselves and psychologically acute, as in the section called ‘Pond Skater’:

A Fön wind
from the wrong quarter
upends me –
or the slow dark
of a rising trout.
So perilous
this thin meniscus –
six legs splayed out.

Yes, I had to Google ‘Fön wind’ too: more often spelt foehn or Föhn, it’s a dry downhill wind off a mountain (it’s called the Chinook in the Rockies); maybe Marriott was a bit unwise to use this unfamiliar term, but at least we’ve learnt a new word and fact. But more important, it’s a lovely piece of natural observation; but we realise that the pond skater is also the emotional human self – so easily thrown, disturbed, or plunged into depression. we all know the feeling.

Later in the same sequence I found an unforgettable section, odd, grotesque and cheerful – at least, I think cheerful and find it so, ultimately – like something straight out of a Lowry painting:

Front leg missing,
one hundred percent dog –
he loped towards us
without an ounce
of self pity –
that whole, un-whole body,
muscled and twisting
against its loss.

An image to contemplate, unforgettable. And there are the quiet observations of nature and people, each small stanza a thing that yields more each time you ponder it:

INVERARY, SEPTEMBER

A grey heron
hunched on the tide,
shoreline always
a sense of becoming –
day-trippers slip
from city buses,
here to measure
their lives.

Ian Marriott is a writer to enjoy – and to contemplate. Order his fine pamphlet from Cinnamon Press here: https://cinnamonpress.com/image/  and his previous book The Hollow Bone here: https://www.poetrybooks.co.uk/products/the-hollow-bone-by-ian-marriott

Ian will be reading at Manchester Poets – Chorlton Library, M21 9PN, 7.30 pm on Friday 22 April. Or if you’ve missed him, why not follow one of those links and buy one of his publications?

UNTIL WE CAN TRAVEL AGAIN…

I’m delighted to announce that The Book Mill, an excellent Northern publisher, has just published a new edition of Travels on the Dance Floor – my story of adventures pursuing dance in Latin America. It was a delight to write and a chance to share the adventures I had not only with dance and music but with magicians and poets, crooked cops and hustlers in seven countries!

Picture

Right now travel is difficult – so maybe this is a time to dream and imagine, and get the feel of what life, music and dance are like in the places I visited – Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Miami, USA – before returning to sunny Manchester and of course Blackpool!

“Writes with charm about his experiences and the people he met and I found that I could see the places he visited in my minds eye. For anyone with an interest in Latin America this is a joy to read, and if you enjoy salsa so much the better.

If you have visited Latin America this will bring back memories – if you haven’t yet this will make you want to do so soon.”

Consult the Oracle

My grandfather, I’ve been told, was something of a magician. At any rate, he left behind him a substantial collection of occult books. Unfortunately, I never saw this collection: when he died, my parents (not from any motive of disapproval, but simply because they were tired, and had had enough of dealing with his possessions) disposed of the whole lot to a bookseller.

            Or almost the whole lot. Because, as in all the best fairy tales, one book survived. And – of course – when I was about ten years old, I found it, hidden amongst all kinds of clutter in a kind of attic, the room next to my bedroom. It’s on the desk in front of me as I write, a battered old volume called Consult the Oracle, or, How to Read the Future. Could there possibly be a more alluring title for a child to discover? I still feel a certain thrill as I look at it now, despite its desperate physical condition. The spine, which time has darkened almost to black, has split and nearly fallen off. The hard front cover (there was clearly never a dust-jacket) is a shiny, grubby brown, darkened at the edges with finger-marks. It shows an amateurish drawing of a priestess swathed in voluminous robes, perched atop a three-legged chair – no doubt the famous ‘tripod’ of the Delphic Oracle. She raises one crudely-drawn hand, whilst the other clutches a branch of some shrub: perhaps meant for laurel or olive, though it looks nothing like either. And from a hole in the dais under her chair emanate curly wreathes of smoke: those vapours from the depths of the earth which were supposed to inspire the oracle’s prophecies. Alongside her, to remind us of practicalities, is the book’s price: one shilling (that’s five new pence, or around six cents). In March 1901 when Grandfather bought the book that would have been cheap, but not absolutely dirt cheap. I know when he bought it, incidentally, because there’s the date, under pencilled initials, on a flyleaf which has now completely detached itself and lies loose inside the cover.

            The title page enlarges on what’s to be found within. ‘A GUIDE TO THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS,’ it promises, ‘AND TO OTHER MATTERS MAGICAL AND MYSTERIOUS: BEING THE WISDOM OF PAST TIMES AND PRESENT TIMES AS TO WHAT WILL SURELY COME TO PASS’. Who could resist that? As a ten-year-old, I certainly couldn’t. When you’re a child, the future is everything, a box of delights. Now, in my seventy-first year, I have a different idea of ‘what will surely come to pass’ and it’s not all good. Never mind. The contents page listed possibilities beyond my wildest dreams. And indeed, dreams were where the book began. The first chapter was ‘We Tell the Meaning of your Dreams’, and it started with some basic tips: for example, a warning that ‘the gift of dreaming with truth is withdrawn from those who either tell as dreams what they never dreamt, or refuse to tell their dreams at all.’ That was worth remembering. Also, ‘Morning dreams are more reliable than those of any other time.’ And certainly, I’ve often found those the most vivid; though ‘the most important dream of the week’ is, apparently, the one you dream on Friday night. And above all, ‘dreams are interpreted by symbolism. The most earnest and best-informed student of the symbolical will be the most reliable interpreter of dreams.’

            There followed an alphabetical list of dream images, with interpretations – some of them surprising. If you dream of an anchor, for example, then ‘one of whose affections you are doubtful really cares for you’; and to dream of riding a bicycle ‘means that for some years you will have constant change’. A stopped clock means a dangerous illness; and ‘Should you dream of catching fish it is a sure sign of bad luck.’ More predictably, ‘To hear whispering in a dream means that many people are talking ill of you’. Some of the topics seemed a little outré; would I ever dream, for example, of a tortoise (‘you will by plodding on reach a high position in life’)? Or of watching a woman make pies (‘Your experience in love is likely to prove disastrous’)? Six decades later, I’m not sure that either of these has yet cropped up. But the details didn’t really matter. What counted was the sense that dreams were worth attention, that they had meaning. I began to recall my dreams purposefully, and to reflect on them. A few years later, in a local library, I found a book called The Interpretation of Dreams and borrowed it, expecting a more reliable guide to prophecy. It turned out to be by Sigmund Freud; it introduced me to psychoanalysis, which has played a valuable part in my life.

            But there was much more to Consult the Oracle than dreams. Among the other chapters were ‘Lucky and Unlucky Numbers’; ‘Fortunes told by Cards’; ‘Character Shown by Handwriting’; ‘Fairy Folk’; ‘The Wonders of the Divining Rod’ and many more. Almost everything, it seemed, could have hidden meanings. The chapter on cartomancy offered what was probably a very old system for reading fortunes with ordinary playing-cards; in 1901, few people outside esoteric organisations had ever heard of Tarot cards. I didn’t get far with it: memorising the meanings of fifty-two cards, many of them apparently quite arbitrary, was too difficult (‘Five of Hearts: Unexpected news, generally of a good kind; Four of Hearts: An unfaithful friend. A secret betrayed…’). But it aroused my curiosity, and when I was sixteen I finally got a Tarot deck – which I’ve used ever since.

            More immediately valuable were the chapters called ‘We May Judge Character by the Hands and Fingers’ and ‘Fortune Read in the Palm of the Hand’. I studied my own hands closely. Easy enough to find the Life Line and even the lines of Head and Heart. But where was ‘the Plain or Triangle of Mars’? And what about the ‘Mount of Luna, or the Moon’? Not too worried about such minutiae, I scrutinised other people’s hands too. Somehow, without ever quite disentangling all the details, I began to develop a sense of how the hand, taken as a whole, with its fingers and wrist, as well as the maze of lines on the palm, spoke of a whole person. And a few years later, at teenage parties, what an asset palmistry turned out to be! What better passport could there be to sitting with a girl in a quiet corner, or halfway up the stairs, holding her hand and solemnly discussing her character, ambitions and dreams?

            The chapter on ‘Fairy Folk’ explained that

“The Land of Faerie is situated somewhere underground, and there the royal fairies hold their court. In their palaces all is beauty and splendour. Their pageants and processions are far more magnificent than any that Eastern sovereigns could get up or poets devise. They ride upon milk-white steeds. Their dresses, of brilliant green, are rich beyond conception; and when they mingle in the dance, or move in procession among the shady groves, or over the verdant lawns of the earth, they are entertained with delicious music, such as mortal lips or hands never could emit or produce.”

But apparently fairies would only be found where the grass grew ‘undisturbed by man’. ‘Once it is ploughed the spell is gone and they change their abode’. An old Scottish proverb was quoted: ‘Where the scythe cuts, and the sock [ploughshare] rives, hae done wi’ fairies and bee bykes!’ Bee bykes, it seemed, were nests of wild bees. And indeed, Consult the Oracle had a whole chapter on Bees: it was called ‘Bees Know More Than People Think’, a suggestion I still find very plausible. ‘Bees’, the Oracle explained, ‘are lovers of peace and will not thrive with a quarrelsome family.’ It also warned that ‘if there is a death in the family,’ the bees must be told, or they would leave: the correct formula was said to be ‘Little brownie, little brownie, [such a person] is dead.’ Once this was properly done, ‘the bees begin to hum by way of showing their consent to remain.’ It was also wise to ‘put a little sugar at the hive’s entrance on Christmas Eve’. ‘At the stroke of midnight’ the bees would come out to eat it. By contrast, some passages showed the casual cruelty of the Victorians: ‘Not to catch and kill the first butterfly seen in spring is unlucky’. That reads shockingly now; and is surely the exact opposite of the truth.

            The Oracle had a good deal to say about animals generally. Cats born in the month of May, it warned, ‘are good for catching neither mice nor rats.’ On the other hand, ‘The best mousers are cats that have been stolen.’ Did anyone truly ever steal a cat to improve its talents at pest-control? It seemed unlikely. More plausible were the notions that ‘Horses are able to see spirits’, and that it is lucky for a horse to have a white star on its forehead.

            It would take too long even to hint at all the wonders the Oracle had to offer. There was ‘Character Shown by Handwriting’; as well as ‘The Mysteries of Spiritualism’, ‘Taking a Hand at Table-Turning’ and even an introduction to astrology: ‘There is much to be Learned from the Heavenly Bodies’. I could go on; but this is enough. Foolish and simple-minded much of the book certainly is, as I gradually realised. But it told me something important: that the world round me was not just a world of material objects, nor a world merely governed by meaningless chance and physical laws. It showed that there was meaning and mystery in everything; and that on the margins of mainstream thought – the kind of thinking we were taught at school – there were intuitions, dreams, visions of other and deeper things. Consult the Oracle showed me that, as the poet Paul Eluard neatly put it, ‘There is indeed another world – but it is in this one’. The Oracle helped me make the transition from the fluid, metamorphic, non-rational world of childhood, into the partially (very partially!) rational and informed grown-up world – that world in which so many people are encouraged to close down their intuitive, psychic and imaginative faculties – without losing the sense of wonder and mystery. Some people – the naturally spiritual ones – may not need such support but I did; and I was lucky to find it.

            Having inherited Consult the Oracle – accidentally, as it were – from my grandfather, it would be good to report that I am passing it on to one of my own grandchildren. But that’s impossible. For – again as in a fairy tale – now that its work is done, the book is crumbling to dust. In writing this essay I have turned many of the pages, and each as I turned it has broken away from the binding. So acidic is the paper that the leaves are brown and brittle at the margins. The edges of the pages flake off as they are touched. Soon the book will be nothing but a heap of fragments. Everything has its season, and this book’s season is passed. But it came to me at the right time, and I’m grateful. I consulted the oracle, and it spoke.

[This essay first appeared in QUEST, Journal of the Theosophical Society in America, and is given here by permission.]