Grevel Lindop

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

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.

Strange Country Details

Bizarre signpost to Snipe House Farm (plus This, That and the Other Way!)

Exploring the countryside, I often notice and photograph quirky details – and then don’t know what to do with the pictures. So, unashamedly, this post will simply be a collection of strange or intriguinbg little things I’ve spotted here and there! Reflecting on this reminded me of my favourite book in the old ‘I-Spy’ series: I Spy the Unusual. It contained things like a thatched telephone kiosk… Not sure how many of those you’d find nowadays. Even in the 1950s you’d have got the full number of points for that one, I think.

Nothing quite so unusual here, but never mind. My prize for the oddest goes to this weird signpost on a path near Lamaload Reservoir. Quite amusing the first time you see it, but surely a very expensive joke for whoever put it up? That beautiful woodwork must have cost a fortune.

Next is a pair of Henry-Moore style natural sculptures on top of Kinder Scout. There are many more where these came from, but they look so companionable together!

Natural sculptures among the Tors on Kinder Scout

Then there’s this wonderful old threshing machine I found under the viaduct near Bosley in south Chesire. It must be a good hundred years old – it looks like the kind of thing Tess and her friend got so exhauster with feeding in Tess of the Durbervilles: a fascinating piece of industrial archaeology just rotting away in the nettles at the edge of a field.

 

 

Ancient threshing machine: just needs a traction engine to get it going!

Abandoned ship: by the causeway to Roa Island Cumbria

The next item isn’t really a country detail but I’m fond it and it puzzles me. It’s one of several derelict hulks left apparently to rot just off Roa Island near Barow in south Cumbria. Doesn’t it have any salvage value? Why has it been left here to disintegrate? A strange evocative sight of this weird, end-of-the-world place!

 

Then – back to the countryside – there’s an odd place in the Dane Valley where someone seems to have built a snall sheepfold (or something) around the trunk(s) of a three-trunked tree. I’ve never quite worked out what this is supposed to be for.

 

Stinkhorn: you may not haver seen one, but you’ve probably smelt it.

I can’t resist adding a photo of my favourite fungus: a stinkhorn. Very hard to find, though you can often smell them in woods from about August on. I tracked this one down following my nose, and it was a classic!

 

Root cutter at Crag Cottage, Eskdale

Finally, another indication of my love for old farm machinery. This, I think, is a root cutter: it sliced up turnips, swedes etc so that stock could eat them as winter feed. This one was rusting in a field just below Crag Cottage in Eskdale, former home of Hugh Falkjus, naturalistr and fisherman who used to entertain the poet Tom Rawling here for sea trout fishing holidays.

Tpom Rawling has a poem – ‘Rootcutter’ – which could even be about this very machine: it begins ‘Scrap iron among nettles, / A wheel, the drum it used to turn…’ and he remembers using one as a child on his uncle’s farm. Could this be the very one that suggested the poem much later, on a visit to Falkus? Maybe.

 

I may add other pictures in due course, but these are for a start!

Doña Oxford

Went to an amazing gig last Saturday by a band I’d never heard of before – the Doña Oxford Band. They played at Matt ‘n’ Phred’s, Manchester, and they were wonderful: a variety of rock, boogie-woogie, soul, R’n’B and maybe other styles – all of it powered by the superb piano playing of Doña Oxford herself.

Doña, a New Yorker, is one of those musicians who just thinks with total spontaneity through her keyboard. The powerful, inventive phrases just flow out of her. Even during the sound-check, when she was merely tinkling around on different registers of the keyboard, the little momentary improvisations made you want to shout for more. And when she launched into her set, powered by a driving rhythm section and the sharp, inventive, idiomatic guitar-playing of  xxxxxx the music was electrifying.

I often don’t stay till the end at Matt ‘n’ Phred’s, but this time I stayed until the band finished at 1.30 a.m. or so and I would gladly have stayed for more.

To try and characterise things a little in terms of the familiar, Doña’s keyboard playing ranges roughly between Jerry Lee Lewis at one end (rock, boogie) and Dr John at the other (elements of New Orleans and ‘stride’, Professor Longhair somewhere in the background). And she sings about as well as she plays – and to give a range again, I’d say maybe from Gladys Knight across to a bit of the Bessie Smiths. And yes, Doña has a notably powerful voice, and no trouble at all playing intricate piano while she sings.

Frustratingly I can’t discover the names of the other msuicians in her band: not on her website, not anywhere. Maybe the personnel changes often? All I can say is, her guitarist accompanied seamlessly and also solo’d in styles that range from the Chuck Berry-esque to prog-rock impro (but never going on too long – in fact he leaves you wanting more); the drummer gave powerful, intricate, latin-tinged percussion that gives exactly the accent and drama needed; and the bassist was inventive and sonorous, always powering and bouncing the music along but shading the music with plunky, twanging accents from time to time. As a bonus she just happened to be a gorgeous dark-haired brunette with the longest legs and the shortest skirt I’ve seen for a long time. Irrelevant? I don’t think so; stage music is also a kind of theatre, and the band’s look is impeccable, from the pale, stubbly, waiflike presence of the guitarist, to the powerful, Mama’s-gonna-sort-ya-out superwoman dynamism of Doña herself. And the two backing singers were totally professional – the right harmonies, the right musical emphases, the right hint of emotional drama – and they danced all the way through.

Doña Oxford is playing keyboards at the Stockport Plaza on Monday 4 May with what seems to be another band called Albert Lee and Hogan’s Heroes. And if you want to see her with her own band, in a more intimate setting, Doña says they’ll be back at Matt ‘n’ Phred’s (Manchester) in November. There  are a range of other dates, UK and US, on her website at http://www.donaoxford.com/index.htm You should think about going.

 

 

QUENTIN CRISP: STEWY’S CHORLTON PORTRAIT

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Chorlton-cum-Hardy, the Manchester suburb where I live, has a lot of interesting, quirky little features. One that I’m fond of is this charming, Banksy-style portrait of Quentin Crisp (1908-1999), painted by the street artist known as Stewy.

Quentin Crisp is remembered as a wit and raconteur, author of an autobiography called The Naked Civil Servant and a notable campaigner for Gay rights. He died in Chorlton, on the eve of beginning a tour of his one-man stage show. He didn’t die in Keppel Road, though: that was a few blocks further away again, in nearby Claude Road.

He’s famous for describing himself as one of ‘the stately homos of England’, and for his advice on housework: just don’t do it, because ‘after the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse’.

He was also a friend of my old friend and mentor, the poet and literary scholar Kathleen Raine. The picture shows him with his characteristic broad-brimmed floppy hat and silk neckscarf. Sadly, it’s a little battered now (not that Crisp himself wasn’t, by the time he came to Chorlton – dare one say it?).

Anyway I smile whenever I see this painting. For more Stewy artworks, including John Betjeman and Joe Orton, follow this link: http://stewystencils.tumblr.com/