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!

SIMON CURTIS

Simon Curtis, who died a few days ago, was one of the unsung heroes of our culture: the kind of person who brings intelligence, illumination and enjoyment to countless people in a quiet way without ever becoming well known.

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I first met Simon in the 1970s, when we were both teaching at Manchester University. He’d done a Ph D on Charles Darwin – viewing him as writer as well as scientist – and was teaching comparative literature. Simon’s style was always conservative: at a time when I was coming to work in purple flares, beads and a kaftan (it was the hippy era!) Simon sported a tweed jacket, brown brogues and a pipe. We seemed poles apart.

But we were both writing poetry. Simon’s was – and remained all his life – what’s now called ‘formalist’: it rhymed and scanned, and it was noticed by Kingsley Amis, with whom he corresponded for some years. His work also appeared in Faber’s Poetry Introduction 6 in 1985.

Simon was a versatile man: besides teaching French literature (he was fluent in the language) he was deeply knowledgeable about Thomas Hardy and taught a course on him. He also found time to do a lot of work for the CPRE and became an expert on planning laws and nature conservation. He also spent a spell as an academic for a semester or two in Australia, which he loved. He eventually left Manchester and moved to Dorchester: by that time he was a leading figure in the Hardy Society, and took over the editorship of the Thomas Hardy journal, which he did excellently.

Unfortunately literary societies are fraught with faction, and the Hardy Society was no exception. Simon became fed up and resigned after one particularly nasty conflict (no fault of his).

He moved to Plymouth, where he had family, and became editor (following Merryn Williams) of an excellent small poetry magazine, The Interpreter’s House. He was an exemplary editor: catholic in taste, lively in his editorials, balanced in his choice. And he gave talks locally on literary and historical subjects.

Despite being so different, we’d kept in touch and kept up a regular exchange of letters – real ones, not just emails. Simon was a great letter-writer: lively, varied, amusing; full of news about local theatre, opera and books, but also about wildlife, the landscape, the seasons. And he would usually send a new poem or two with his letters. We’d criticise each other’s work and often make small revisions in response.

Then – I suppose it was a couple of years ago – he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It remitted but left him paralysed from the waist down. He went into a care home near Plymouth where he was wonderfully looked after and had many visitors. He remained as mentally lively as ever and after a while was able to go out – even to theatre and opera – in a powered wheelchair. But it couldn’t last, and he died quietly last week.

Here’s one of his poems:

READING A RIVER

A heron lifts away as we approach
Where cloud-grey Hodder and grey Ribble meet;
A spit of stones, an eddy-knuckled reach,
And glassy patch downstream as dark as peat.

 

There’s movement in that pool, see? and you’re sure
It’s grayling, moving gently to large duns;
The Hodder, there, is acid, from the moor;
That’s why it’s good for autumn sea-trout runs.

 

What strikes my eye as surface, April-cool,
You read like braille, uncannily and clear,
Connecting signs of life in flow or pool;
A river’s script, and palaeographer.

 

All waters have their temper, temperament,
Each river-face, its moods and tics and traits,
As individual as a finger-print;
The shoals and shallows, lies below still glaze,

 

And alders, stoneflies, sedges, each month’s hatch
On Coquet, Lathkill, Driffield Beck or Dee;
A living web, I’d say, where you’re in touch …
It’s practice, pal, not flaming ESP;

 

It’s try and try, a knack you pick up, right?
And ‘knack’ for ‘art’, you speak the northern way,
To deprecate what works like second sight,
Transforming all I saw that cloud-dulled day.

 

Simon wasn’t a ‘major’ poet; he didn’t publish a big scholarly tome; not so many people have heard of him. But he published several delightful small books of poems (I particularly like Views, with fine wood engravings by Ian Stephens), and a last ‘New and Selected’ volume of his poems, Comet over Greens Norton, came out just before his death from Shoestring Press. He was a fine teacher, who inspired hundreds of students, and an energetic worker for environmental and literary causes. And some of his poems deserve to last. He contributed in countless ways. And he was a good friend to many people besides myself. A lot of us are going to miss him deeply.

Before I put in the link to Simon’s own website, here’s a quote from Matt Simpson reviewing Simon’s book Reading a River :

there isn’t scope here to do justice to all the pleasures to be had from this book – for instance, Curtis’s gentle satire, his wit, his quiet irony, his ventures in Australia, The blurb simply hopes readers will enjoy the poems. Well, here is one who does. What he does splendidly is summed up in the last two lines of ‘Weymouth Nightingale’

So much floods back to mind, of worth, of loss,
Of time that’s gone, and debt of thanks I owe.

That just about sums it up. And here’s the link:

http://simoncurtis.net/index.html