Grevel Lindop

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


This weekend I’m going to be in Maryport, Cumbria. The Maryport LitFest – held at the Senhouse Roman Museum on the clifftop above the town – has grown from tiny beginnings to become an important event in the calendar. Many people from the Lakes, and the north-west generally, now come there each November for a weekend of events with some of the best national and local writers. I’ll be speaking there. Why not come and join us for this intimate and inspiring Festival?


I’m going to make up the rest of this post from some highlights of the Festival programme. If you’re interested and can make it, come and enjoy some of the events. There are creative writing workshops, a poetry forum and other events besides what I’m selecting to list below. The Museum is at CA15 6JD, and for the full programme, or to book, go to  – or

phone 01900 816 168.


22_melvyn_bragg[1]Friday 8 Nov, 7 pm: Festival launch by Melvyn Bragg. Lord Bragg will be opening the 2013 festival; after which he will talk about his new novel Grace and Mary, described by Salley Vickers of the Independent as  ‘a novel which beautifully conveys how the past is a continuum that constantly feeds our consciousness of the present’.  £15.00 – not included in season ticket (includes light refreshments)

Keith-Richardson[1]Saturday 9 Nov, 10.30 a.m.: Keith RichardsonThe Greta. Keith lives in the Lake District and is an award-winning author. His Jack’s Yak won the 2012 Lakeland Book of the Year Award. He will read from and talk about his latest book about the River Greta that flows through Keswick. £6.00


_46468612_eric_robson_226x170_skyworks[1]Sat 9 Nov, 12 Noon: Eric RobsonWet!  These days best known as chairman of Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time, author, broadcaster, Chairman of the Wainwright Society and sheep farmer in Wasdale, Eric Robson will talk about all things watery and his new book Foreign Parts.£6.00


Sat 9 Nov, 2.30 pm:  John Pepper – Cry Down River. One stormy winter’s night Ruth France accidentally drives into a flooded river. John’s book is his love letter to Ruth following her tragic death. ‘A brave, honest and beautiful book’.  £6.00


3488457263[1]Sat 9 Nov., 4 p.m.: Steven MatthewsA Lazy Tour in Cumberland.  Winner of this year’s Lakeland Book of the Year Award, Steven’s entertaining new book covers a trip by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins around Cumberland in 1847. He will talk about their time in Allonby and Maryport. Steven is an author, publisher and proprietor of the successful Bookcase and Bookends independent bookshops . £6.00

kathleenjones__main[1]Sat 9 Nov, 8pm: Kathleen JonesNorman Nicholson. Kathleen Jones was born and brought up in the Lake District, and lived in the Middle East and Africa for ten years before coming back to live in Cumbria. She is the award-winning author of seven biographies, a novel and a collection of poetry and was Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lancaster University.  Kathleen will be introduced by Irving Hunt (a friend of Nicholson’s) and will talk about her new biography of the poet. £10.00

Catherine-Kay[1]Sunday 10 Nov, 3 pm: Catherine Kay Wordsworth and the sea.  In this session she will explore the sea’s impact on Wordsworth both personally (the tragedy of his brother’s loss at sea) and creatively. £6.00



Sunday 10 Nov, 4 pm: Grevel LindopLiterary history of the Cumbrian Coast.  Poet, biographer and author of The Literary Guide to the Lake District Grevel will talk about literary connections with the CumbrianCoast and stories surrounding the many holy wells to be found in West Cumbria. £6.00

Plus writing workshops, poetry forum, book sales and signings and much more!


images[1]If you want to consider yourself a writer, whether you’re full- or part-time, the one thing you absolutely have to do is WRITE.

Yet one of the most difficult things is simply to get things written. There are so many other things always crying out to be done, and so many distractions. It’s a problem I’m always coming up against in my own life, so I thought it might be worthwhile looking at it here, and saying something about how I try to keep the words maximised and the distractions and problems minimised.

We all have somewhere in our hearts a notion of an ideal day – a day that in an ideal world would be ‘normal’. I’m haunted by the kind of day C.S. Lewis described, in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, a day which was based on the ones he recalled from his time as a teenage student living in the country with his tutor, Kirkpatrick, at Great Bookham in Surrey. He writes,


If I could please myself I would always live as I lived there. I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better…
At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road…. The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude, …For eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably. Of course not all books are suitable for mealtime reading. It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table. What one wants is a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere.
At five [I] should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies (and at Bookham I had none) there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven. But when is a man to write his letters? You forget that I am describing … the ideal life I would live now if I could. And it is essential of the happy life that [I] would have almost no mail[.]

Or, we might add rather more urgently, no email! But we’ll get to that. Note that Lewis’s ideal day gives him 6 hours of work a day, plus up to three and a quarter hours of reading: though rather less if he has a social life in the evenings.

Not many of us could emulate that. So let’s see what we actually can do. I’m going to put down some bullet points of stuff that’s proved useful to me.

● I try to write something every day but I don’t worry so much about how many words it is. The key thing is to keep the wheels turning.

● But I do keep a word-count at the top of whatever I’m writing, unless it’s a poem. There’s an encouraging sense of achievement in seeing the tall slowly creep upwards.

● I always do some writing before I do email – unless I’m waiting for something absolutely vital. Once I look at my email, my mind is all over the place – mostly reacting to other people’s demands rather than my own. If I have a full day of work, I spend the morning writing and don’t look at email until after lunch. if I have to go on the internet to check something, I still don’t open my email. And I don’t allow my computer to make those annoying noises every time a new email arrives.

● I try to make all my phone calls together at one time of day – after I’ve done some writing.

● If I have to face really difficult or unpleasant jobs – researching a very difficult article, or starting to sort out my tax – then I do a limited amount (say half an hour) each day rather than either (a) put it off until it’s a crisis or (b) do the whole thing in one go. It’s amazing how quickly things get done by just chipping away at them for a short time each day.

● I try to identify the time of day when I work best. I’m not an early morning person: my brain switches on at around 10.45 a.m. so if possible I write then. I can do my email or go on Twitter in the evening when I’m tired and still do it adequately.

So there are a few suggestions. I list them because they’re tried and tested – for me at least. Let me know if you have scheduling or time-planning tips, and I’ll pass them on sometime in another post. Thank you!

Temenos: An Experiment in REAL Education

The Temenos Academy in London is offering a new kind of course (or maybe a very old kind) this autumn: a Foundation Course in the Perennial Philosophy. Please take a few minutes to watch this video and if you are interested, or know anyone who might be interested, please pass it on. You can contact Temenos at www.Temenosacademy.

The Temenos Academy Foundation Course in Perennial Philosophy from Ian Skelly on Vimeo.

Maurice Bowra: A Larger-than-Life Benefactor

images[1]A friend showed me an article in a recent Oxford Gazette about Maurice Bowra, the legendary Warden of Wadham College, Oxford. I was lucky enough to be a student there when he was head of the College (I started there in 1966) and it brought back memories that seemed worth recording.

I remember him as a stocky man, not very tall, always in a smart grey suit. He had a broad chest and a thick neck, so his head seemed to join his body without transition – the outline recalled a sea lion. The slightest remark made in his deep, resonant voice would rumble around the quad like a brief clap of thunder. And he often was in the quad, because his home – the Warden’s Lodgings – was in the corner on your left as you entered the College.

Always interested in undergraduates, he would invite all new students to dinner in small groups of four or five. It wasn’t an easy evening: most of us were tongue-tied and petrified with nerves in the great man’s presence, so unless one of the guests was exceptionally precocious even by Oxford undergraduate standards, the Warden had to keep the conversation going almost single-handed (which he was well able to do). I don’t recall a single thing about my first-year dinner with him, except that I was paralysed with shyness throughout. In retrospect, I feel it was a little sad. Bowra genuinely wanted to know the students, but his personal charisma actually put a barrier in the way. He was dauntingly impressive, and – I now guess – just a little shy himself.


On further acquaintance, he turned out to be exceptionally kind and generous. He would encourage students in financial or academic difficulties; he supported student writing and drama keenly; he would bend the system as necessary for anyone who had been ill or notably unlucky. And – unlike many impressive university grandees – he was notably liberal – even left-wing.

He had long advocated co-educational colleges, and lobbied energetically to see that Wadham was the very first men’s college to admit women (just he had previously seen to it that the College went out of its way to admit talented grammar school boys when others were still focusing on the independent schools). Of course it was self-interest too: he was making sure that the College stayed ahead. But that was part of his genius – to find ways of combining generosity with his task of nurturing the College.

And in the wider world he did his best to support decent people and politics against tyrants. Once I saw him at an undergraduate play about Savonarola, which featured graphic on-stage scenes of torture. Bowra stayed until the interval, then slipped away. I heard him muttering ‘No, no. Don’t like torture.’ He didn’t come back. Too many of his friends, in the 1930s and since, had suffered or died at the hands of despots.

Not that he was a rigid egalitarian. Once when I won a University prize, I got a note of congratulation from the Warden, adding ‘To him who hath, shall be given’ and telling me that I’d find £100 to my credit at Parker’s bookshop, to spend as I chose. (I still have several of the books I bought.) Again, he was encouraging what he thought was good for the College and its status.

Once you overcame your nervousness enough to appreciate it, he was a memorable, aphoristic talker. His favourable judgment on an undergraduate was ‘That man’s not just clever. He’s intelligent!’ And his comment on desiccated literary theory, years before it wrought havoc in English schools, was prescient: ‘Books about books? All well and good. But beware of books about books about books!’

When we had our celebratory dinner with him, undergraduates en masse, after our final exams (‘Schools’), conversation turned to famous people he’d known. We began throwing names at him. Mao Tse Tung? T.S. Eliot? Chamberlain? EM. Forster? It seemed he’d met everybody. The climax came when someone asked ‘What about Lawrence?’ Bowra barked back, ‘D.H. or T.E.? Knew them both!’

When he prepared to retire and move to smaller lodgings (it must have been in 1969 or so, just before I left for Wolfson College) he gave most of his books away to students. I’ve still got Henry Vaughan’s Poems, the bulky and excellent volume he gave me. He died not long afterwards.

And of course there are the stories. Like Swift and Charles Lamb, like Wilde and Socrates, he was a magnet for anecdotes. No doubt many of those that gathered to his name were centuries old, the common adornment of many previous ‘characters’. It was generally assumed, in my time at least, that he was gay. But he was said to have been engaged, once; when someone commented on his fiancée’s homely looks, the reply had been ‘Buggers can’t be choosers!’ Apocryphal? Perhaps.

Then there was the story of how he and a group of friends had been surprised drying themselves at Parsons’ Pleasure, the male skinny-dipping pool on the river, by a misdirected boat full of ladies. His naked companions hastily wrapped towels around their waists. Bowra put his towel over his head. When the boat had departed, his explanation was ‘Don’t know about you chaps, but around here I’m generally known by my face.’

And of course there was the tale of the undergraduate, climbing into college one night long after hours (colleges were locked at 11 pm in those days and lateness cost a fine or worse) who, slipping in the darkness along a side-passage beside the Master’s lodgings, heard footsteps approaching. He dived through a convenient doorway to find himself in a lamplit sitting-room. But – horrors! Other steps were approaching, this time from inside the lodgings. Our hero duly took refuge behind a sofa. In came an insomniac Bowra, clad in pyjamas and dressing-gown. He sat down at a desk on the other side of the room and spent several hours reading and writing, whilst the fugitive tried not to breathe too loudly, and to be stoical about the effects of beer on an overtaxed bladder. At length the ordeal drew to a close: Bowra stood up from the desk and padded to the door. The fugitive, it seemed, had escaped detection. Then, in the doorway, the Warden paused; and the familiar voice growled: ‘Would you mind turning the light out when you leave?’

Did Wordsworth’s Daughter Have Down’s Syndrome?

Catherine Wordsworth

With the recent news that M&S have chosen Seb White, a little boy with Down’s Syndrome, as a model for their children’s clothes, it seemed a good time to draw attention to the likelihood that William Wordsworth probably wrote one of his finest poems about a Down’s Syndrome child.

His beautiful sonnet ‘Surprised by Joy’ was written after he had lost two children, but its most likely subject is Catherine Wordsworth, who was especially dear to her father and used to delight him by playing in his study as he wrote. Here’s the poem:

SURPRISED by joy–impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport–Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind–
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss?–That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore, 10
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Sadly, Catherine (1808-12) had died at less than four years old and the poem records a painful moment when Wordsworth instinctively turns to the child and then realises, a split second later, that she is no longer there – something anyone who has suffered a bereavement will be able to identify with.

But how do we know that Catherine had Down’s Syndrome? It’s not certain but it is extremely likely. I noticed the evidence when I was researching the life of the essayist Thomas De Quincey, and a couple of years ago pointed it out to Muriel Strachan, who is writing a book on the Wordsworth children, and suggested she examine the evidence systematically. She did so and the case seems very clear.

Catherine was born when the poet and his wife were both 38. A loveable and delightful child, she was said by Dorothy Wordsworth to have ‘not…the least atom of beauty’, but a wonderful sense of humour and ‘something irresistibly comic in her face and movements’. Wordsworth used to call her ‘my little Chinese maiden’ – probably relating to the epicanthic fold of skin which gives some Down’s children an unusual shape to the eye. She seems to have had heart problems and suffered from convulsions and some problem with swallowing. All these symptoms point very strongly to Down’s Syndrome.

The whole Wordsworth Circle was fond of her, and Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, loved her especially: so much so that when she died he was heart-broken, and claims to have slept out on her grave in Grasmere churchyard for six summer weeks in passionate grief. It was probably depression following her death that tipped him into full-blown opium additicion, for his addiction took hold soon after she died.
Wordsworth wrote two poems about Catherine: the other, lesser-known poem is ‘Characteristics of a Child Three Years Old:

LOVING she is, and tractable, though wild;
And Innocence hath privilege in her
To dignify arch looks and laughing eyes;
And feats of cunning; and the pretty round
Of trespasses, affected to provoke
Mock-chastisement and partnership in play.
And, as a faggot sparkles on the hearth,
Not less if unattended and alone
Than when both young and old sit gathered round
And take delight in its activity; 10
Even so this happy Creature of herself
Is all-sufficient, solitude to her
Is blithe society, who fills the air
With gladness and involuntary songs.
Light are her sallies as the tripping fawn’s
Forth-startled from the fern where she lay couched;
Unthought-of, unexpected, as the stir
Of the soft breeze ruffling the meadow-flowers,
Or from before it chasing wantonly
The many-coloured images imprest 20
Upon the bosom of a placid lake.

Muriel Strachan presented an outline of her findings at the Wordsworth Museum last autumn. For full details we shall have to wait for her book on the Wordsworth children. Meanwhile, in the new edition of my book The Opium-Eater: A Life of THomas De Quincey (Crux Publishing, forthcoming) I’ve been able to point to the likelihood that Catherine was a Down’s baby, and to explore the part she played in De Quincey’s life.

To pre-order this e-book (likely price £6.99, tbc), or for more information, please email Crux Publishing at [email protected]

Down’s Syndrome was not identified as a medical condition until John Langdon Down described it in 1866, so the Wordsworths and their friends simply saw Catherine as a lovely and somewhat unusual child.