Thursday, 10 December 2009

new writing

It seems that these days I mostly write to communicate with friends - I write poems, especially. Has this much to do with the autobiographical slant I have pursued of late? I have recently published an autobiography in verse ... Life Class, in 5,000 lines. (Shoestring Press.) It has turned out to be not as private and introverted as I might have feared, for it seems to be reaching out more effectively (if quietly, so far) than almost anything else I have written - perhaps because it comes most deeply from my feelings and experience.

As I turn over this thought, I also reflect on the extent to which the very greatest artists left no or hardly any biographical tracings. We know so little about Shakespeare that it has led to a whole genre of speculation in which his authorship, even his very existence, is held in doubt. How little we know of Bach, other than his shiftings from one church to another in a small area of Germany, his squabbles with authorities about music and money, his evident stamina, his many children, and the late neglect of him in his blindness and after; the above says nearly everything, yet is so little to build a whole book from in the modern sense of verbose biography - one is left to subjective (or maybe not so subjective) interpretation of his music, the quantity and the golden scope and power of it, the pathos in the creations of this unattraactive-looking man in an 18th century wig, who had nothing to learn from Chopin about pathos.

The strange experience has been that as I have been turning my skin inside out in, in autobiographical fashion, the more private in a social sense I have become. Partly, this is the effect of cancer, which inhibits travel even as little as I am used to it, and one doesn't wish to become a possible obligation to those one meets, nor to carry bad news. Partly from weariness at the world political climate, and at most of our art (not by all of it, though) which it blindly and negatively (mostly) reflects. Partly it is the burden of my equally great and insoluble unhappiness from another cause, that I will not share. And largely becuse the final phase of life is (or should be) a spiritual one, which is essentially private unless one is an evangelist or a communal worshipper of a Faith. (Which I think it unlikely I could become.) (I also reflect with some consolation as well as sadness that, from St Francis to Baudelaire, it seems that the price exacted by Fate for wisdom and spiritual value is to be forced to pay with the consequences of an excessive or misguided youth.)

Therefore my spiritual centre has become more and more a tiny, stone hut, without amenities, isolated by a stream running off a steep hill 30 miles north of my home. This is not from disatisfaction with my Pennine cottage where I have both lived and dwelled for 40 years - on the contrary, it is still a place of delight and peace. Ironically, cancer swept in early this year and took awa the opportunity to spend much time (as yet) in my hut, as soon as it was discovered and achieved, yet visits are frequent, to ponder there and to wander.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

New Labour Pains


An early memory is of my father dancing solo around our council-house kitchen when the Labour Party won Election following the “Second World” (as we called it) War.

My mother remained sceptical and reserved, not especially because she was far-sighted enough to see failure on the horizon, but as the heir to rural Conservatism: for her, that was bred in the bone. Dad, a bus conductor, had become a passionate trades’ unionist, and an elected representative to the Transport and General Workers’ Union, a most powerful Movement of its day. (Remember that Union?) Nonetheless, his prime belief was not in what eventually made those early Labour Governments wearisome - the walk-outs over tea-breaks, the restrictive practices - but in the passionate hopes and freedoms (almost, you could say, spiritual freedoms) that were indeed at the heart of the Labour Movement, and that had received glorious expression, from William Blake to Shelley to E.P.Thompson. (Though my father knew nothing of them, and Thompson’s masterpiece, “The Making Of The English Working Class” was still unwritten.) Not only fair pay, bread, and healthy living - rather than typhoid in the kitchen and roses around the door - but also access to libraries, to truly mind-enlarging travel, and to “further” education.

I benefited immediately by being one of the earliest “eleven plus” pupils, passing an examination to go to a Grammar School. This was more a victory and a justification for my father than I realised at the time. To me it was an imprisonment in a quasi public-school, with a house system, a grim Beak, mostly-unwelcoming teachers wearing chalk-dusty gowns, giving out desultory teaching that inhibited me and drove me (for the sake of the vocation that I did not at the time realise that I had) to private, secretive reading of public-library books, or to truancy and trespass in the countryside.

So, in a sense, I experienced as a boy, one small strand of the failures that eroded the great Labour Party hope. The resistance to it … in my experience, aggrieved teachers who truly wanted traditional public-school pupils, not housing-estate ones; in the bigger experience, there was a reluctance to share power and this led to squabbles that undermined industry. The result, rightly or wrongly, was to make a Labour England seem a rather mean and squalid, ineffective affair, so that a majority was glad to see the back of it. This made it an easy enough target, in the end, for the bright lights of unethical greed that marked its final defeat by Free-Market Thatcherism.

I have never been active in any political sense, naturally adopting I think the stance that “poetry changes nothing”, (as W.H. Auden wrote) or that, at best, poets are “unacknowledged legislators” (as Shelley claimed). Nonetheless, the paternal and Thompsonian ideals have been there, working away. Not grievance politics, but spiritual ones, you might say. (In fact .. and incidentally .. when some time ago I came across the Abbot’s directives to monks entering the Order at Bolton Priory, it seemed stunningly similar to an early Socialist manifesto, though with God placed at the head of the table, rather than a Marxist-atheist panacea).

Yet, approximately half a century after witnessing my father prancing around the kitchen table as the Labour successes were announced over the wireless, I found myself excited enough to be doing approximately the same thing …. in my case, staying up through the night with friends and a bottle or two of wine, as television announced the victories that swept New Labour and Tony Blair to power. It seemed that my father’s Party and hopes had recovered. All we majority voters were united to an unusual degree, I think, in what we wanted, believed in, and now expected. Hope springs eternal.

I forgot myself. Even though I have never been a properly committed political person, I do have ideals that I want my representatives to represent, and I had now forgotten that I had been suspicious of Blair as soon as he surfaced to general view. He seemed too plausible altogether, like a Jehovah’s Witness, I thought, with his suit and his smile; though the most worrying bit had been when Lady Thatcher commented that "the country would be safe in his hands". (HER country. Hers is not mine.) The comment was shut down very quickly ... equally worrying! What Labour parliamentary-prospect would want her approval? (Especially if it is "true".)
However, partly because the previous governments had turned out such a disgrace, partly because of the hubris of the times and of my friends, I was carried away. On the recommendation of a good friend more politically alert than I, I forgot my intuitive scruples and voted in support of Tony Blair’s party. The idea put to me was that a Labour Party has to begin cautiously, but once in power, can shift in influence. So I with jubilation equal to that of the crowds on the streets watched his walk to Downing Street. He had that massive majority that meant he could do anything, and we believed he would effect what we had voted for.
Betrayal seemed to happen from the start. What he did with his great victory was to immediately get into bed with the most right-wing Republican government that the USA has seen perhaps ever, and sell our country to it .... semi-secretly, eventually indicted by many for lying to this country and its parliament in support of Republican America (and for which many believe he should be arraigned for war crimes), to the extent of leading us into the War. "We" were almost the only, certainly the most committed and enthusiastic, and mendacious support. That was the first betrayal. Tony Blair has protested time and again that his conscience is clear and he always did what he thought was best for the country. I don’t doubt it … but wasn’t that excuse, also Hitler’s? It seems that he has continued to destroy ideals, and line his pockets. He was a brilliant parliamentarian, too. (Like Margaret Thatcher.) and I wish they both were on my side.

What has happened since is the continuation of the same notion as his of what the Labour Party is for and what it is about. Changing Blair for Brown for someone else from the same source will change nothing, fundamentally. A game of musical chairs.

Yet I think that in the present "economic climate" there's a golden opportunity for Socialism. Massive tax on the profiteering Companies, to be redistributed to the suffering poor - suffering in terms of the NHS, schools, social services, social housing, "fuel poverty". Re-nationalise all those services that the French Government seems to deal with so well (Health service, nuclear power, railways et al) Without much compensation, I'd say .... the privatising companies have had a killing already. And stop bleeding our wealth to fund foreign escapades in support of capitalism.

Such a programme would make the Labour Party electable again .... as nothing else will, because everyone can see that all else is hypocrisy. Of course, it won't happen. As a friend who is nearer the heart of these things writes (being an editor at a national newspaper): “sadly there is no chance of going back - the global capitalist genie is out of the bottle.” One knows that systems that appear absolute in what we arrogantly refer to as the “known world” -- the medieval system, for instance, or the Classical - can and do change, but only when the time is right. As if, one might say, the current of time is only partly under human control; or maybe not at all. The kindest way of regarding New Labour is to give it credit for perceiving this. The times are not right, and immediate wealth is all. (One can hardly add “security” …. we are surely less secure because of their policies.) This does not excuse the perceived hypocrisy. Nor does it tell us why more or less every other country - France, Germany, Italy, the Scandinavian ones - did not feel the same needs.

Our economy is now dependent on supporting those US ventures, and we'd probably end up poorer otherwise. All our contemporary thinking is Capitalist, and that is universal. This understanding was the real rationale behind the invention of New Labour, and not blather about “education, education, education.”

It seems many years now since, from the Thatcher years onwards, wise heads lamented the disappearance of socially radical authors and poets. One often heard it from, confused, saddened, older radicals in the nineteen-nineties. Where in our heads did they go to, John Arden, David Mercer, Trevor Griffiths? There are few of their like being listened to now.

So, I wrote this poem following a gathering of old friends in 2005. Do you remember the “bird flu epidemic” scare? Do you recall the casuistry about torture and “rendition” at that time?

After lunch a group of us sat around,
old Socialists, Luke, Valerie, Barry and Ann.
An autumn evening pulled in its shroud
as we finished our roasted, honeyed lamb,
talked of grandchildren, of houses in France,
of imported wine and unseasonable grapes,
of our normal (at seventy) cluster of aches,
of friends shared from the old dream-bed
of the Sixties, some alive and some dead,
yet not once did we mention politics.
No “Liar Blair!” no “Hypocrite!” Yet
all over again, only half-noticed, our chaps
go over the top and attack
not to “Land Of Hope And Glory” perhaps
but to “The Star Spangled Banner” in Iraq.
Torture’s admissible in England now!
The dusk is scattered with homing wings.
Governments everywhere are stockpiling
drugs against what the wild birds bring
and we fear that they carry our death.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Life Class - Final Section

This is the final section ... a kind of epilogue - to Life Class:

To start with nothing - this morning - again.
To start with the beauty of morning.
To find that the Paradise “over the hill”
is the flower at my door
that makes one want to live after all.
Is the look I bring to bear on the fields
or the warmed scent that is Spring
and that since boyhood inspired my truancy.
Is that light in the trees
after weeks of rain, rain on the leaves
that sometimes shine like silver flowers.

Suddenly today gold motes of wild bees
are darting over those yellow blooms
whose name I have forgotten, that closed in the rain
showing only their pale undersides
of petals, like so many sheltering moths
that keep their brilliance folded
but then break open and I swear
that I can hear them singing.

Long experience gone through to reach the quiet
of contemplation and the old secrets told.
Have I really seen such beautiful things?

Though I’m frailer now, will some person catch the gleam
of one starting again
with a happier breathlessness than the one it seems:
not sickness, but the panting of a boy
once again waiting for beauty to alight at a station?

There’s so much to be glad of: a circle of friends,
as few as satisfied William Blake;
a trickle of new ones; best of all, some old
surround me like shades around our last campfire,
embers of character glowing.
Although all’s doubled in weight or trebled -
books increased in gravity and gravitas;
the vacuum cleaner glues itself to the floor -
yet all’s here that I might reasonably need.
A woman who comes home to me.
Nearby, a handy g.p. A hospital
in a “leafy district” five miles away
where I can get my arse poked and park safely.
The view adored from my window is not yet blocked;
woods rising to the hills, the stream sounding,
and window open to the simmer
of birdsong’s remnants after dawn -
robin and chaffinch - a blackbird far away -
jackdaws clack-clack-ing in the hornbeam tree.

Have I been, not merely true to myself,
but true to my better self?
And did I miss the boat?
(But there’s always another one – Charon’s;
besides the poem that’s still unwritten.)
Often I’ve wished I’d worked at success;
not devotion to a sometimes destructive anima
whose big though lesser gift was sense of beauty,
but at a price. World - family - I mean
- in those days when I had not yet learned
that we are cursed with gifts as well as blessed.

Light hearted once and light-headed with joy,
I had not then absorbed the lesson
that love of nature may render one dysfunctional.
One perhaps ends up in a battered van,
or a listing narrow-boat splattered with graffiti:
“stop the USA” (with this?) and, “save the planet”,
or at least Africa and the rain-forests.
Or one lives with too many kids in a yert,
divorced, maybe several times over
with unresolved legal-papers,
shifting addresses, and then no address,
dangling a crystal to divine one’s fate.
What happens to men of my generation
sidelined to shelter in garden sheds
or in what’s left of male tap-rooms?
At one time there were “old men’s parliaments”
in every village. In Mill Bank
between chapel and graveyard, a low wall
where the sun both sets and rises down the road
and time is marked by schoolchildren passing
was considered the right place for reflection.
(Until traffic killed harmony, and few old people
were left in villages and farms).

I sit there sometimes alone.
Quietly-spoken chap, little fellar in a cloth-cap,
they must be thinking, musing on his past.
Fancy turning out just like my Dad!
is what I’m thinking. Fancy, too,
turning out just like my mother!
Forgetful, not-quite catching on
to what’s on the tele or in the paper,
or to what young people tell me. Nervous of travel
(though none of this as much as she)
and tempted to fear my world will fall apart
if an annoying can blows down the street
or music blares.

But with the same delight as hers
at a small bird brightening a fence
to which she’d give the same smile she gave me
that last time I saw her
watching me in my taxi to the airport.

To show that we endure, we continue habits,
exaggerating echoes of what we once were.
As during a power-cut one still presses switches,
or as one long captive loves its captors
we persist in seeing what we thought we saw
long ago, say in the lilac flower
flourishing high above the gate;
captive still to an old beauty.

Often my mind returns
to where I have left some parts of myself.
Hayfields of boyhood, sun reflected in scents.
Air-glazed shadows of the woods
where I would allow my ecstasy to take over.
Winter anemones at Sounion
where the breezed wildflowers will dance for ever
on a cliff-top above the setting sun.
Summer desire on island beaches
and that wife’s body rocking with desire
gold in the sun of a moment that was gold.

Is the mind so strong that it can be free of itself -
a mind within a mind, as it were;
if that is not so, then what is conscience?

Though I’m not Catholic: surely we have need
to worship, for what we worship gives shape
to our griefs and mysteries - is that our mind,
the one that is separate? Also we require
someone or something to forgive us;
to stand for those that we have hurt.
For that, a lit candle in a church,
will almost do to focus on, before -

How will it end? Pee-stained among hallucinations?
Or blazing in a Pyrrhic fire?
Still shadowed around a garden by a child?

Creeping sinister in the dark
death plants two millimetres of unwanted flesh
strategically on tongue, in brain,
and slips off to another victim.
Seventy, eighty years are gone
like a shadow over the sun.

A fantasist always, at end I’d like a service;
not See-of-ee nor Ar-see, Islam nor ashram,
(otherwise Marianne might be there)
nonetheless, a ceremony – of art,
which is what all the ams, ees and ities shat upon,
exploited, corrupted, or stole from
but is what I have lived by all my life.

May I finish up where I would like to be:
among ferns and Pennine damp and heard-water flowing
from hillsides and birds singing.
Where walls weep their moss mantles.

As my mother would say - what will people say?
Will they say: “He was soft-hearted,
loved the deer and not the dogs,
the wild flowers and not the weed-killer,
and didn’t believe in Original Sin:
Fall from Grace, he’d say, was fall from childhood.”?


Thursday, 15 May 2008

Life Class

One year or so ago, I was walking on Pendle Hill in Lancashire and, for no preconceived reason, wrote a dozen lines describing a boyhood walk with a friend. They were unsatisatisfactory in such a way that they could not be corrected nor condensed, but required to be expanded. I did so, and have continued so far for 140 pages ... making drawings (the ones of a vigin confronting crows that appear elsewhere in this blog) for certain later sections of the poem. Here are the opening lines.


Extracts of Life Class have appeared in The London Magazine (February/March 2007), in Ambit, and in Tears In The Fence 47 (winter 2007).
Two sections (with drawings) were published as Two Marriages by Shoestring Press, December 2007.


Caring mothers fed us bacon, eggs,
black-puddings, sausages, fried bread;
packed egg sandwiches and thermos flasks
for my friend, whom I shall call Farley, and me :
two youths that thought they had outgrown
such tenderness – of mothers also angry,
quivering without utterance
for what in 1950 they dare not say:
their fear that we were homos, poufters
in too close a friendship
for what might we get up to when
sharing a tent in the probable rain?

Throwing off our “narrow-minded” homes
we met carrying rucksacks, tents
(ex-commando, weighed a ton)
tin cups, primus, maps, compass,
ironed pyjamas, waterproof trousers,
sketchbooks, gouache, brushes,
by the Regal Cinema.
Thumbs raised,
sometimes a van, once a Jaguar,
once crammed with sheep intended for slaughter,
once with a vicar who “believed” in youth,
especially art-students such as us
awed like him by Rembrandt and Bach,
once with a toff in an open car, (girls waved
at traffic lights along the A6),
once with a dippy old dear who invited us
up for the night (we were not taken in) -
all of them loners and talkers
but sometimes for an hour left soaking
at a roundabout was our luck of the draw
for lifts to Wales, down London way,
Cornwall, Scotland, or up The Lakes.
As on the occasion that I recall.

Wastwater was a blue and ice-eyed fiord
walled with crimson and orange bracken;
Buttermere bore a shadow sketched
as its edge cut the bright water.
At dusk watched gnats sift through their dances,
and from a tent door, the sun
turn leaves into seeming a bright flock of birds
nervously twitching with light. Slept under canvas until,
at four, the mistress or the master colourist
spread an explosive dawn upon the Fell.

In hazel woods at Seatoller came the rain
its music on leaves and on taut canvas
its scents breathing from warmed grass
as, camping by a smoky fire
feeding it wet sticks of hazel and sycamore,
drying clothes soaked on Honister Pass
we fried bacon, black puddings, eggs,
sausages, bread, ate half-warmed beans,
half-cold porridge tainted with the smoke
that circled and smarted.

We, the painterly kings of feeling
caught in threads and tangles of ideals
could spend all day without speaking
not moving either, but stare
or point, we were so intimate.
Sometimes we walked the night until moon fall.
Once came upon Dove Cottage from the Fell.
(We cold, hungry walkers could have been
tramps the Wordsworths remarked on more than once.)
Camped that night trespassing by the Lake.
Imagined the calm of poets’ discussions,
the quiet of their reading, the quick
of their walks’ alert epiphanies,
their sharing that was an awed silence
shared, and then their garrulous,
hushed indicators - “Look! - Look there!”

Sometimes, in friendship by our haven’s fire
or pitching tent at the fragrant side
of a wood at dusk
(wind’s reminder in the tops of trees)
we could perhaps have touched … but didn’t.
Just listened. And if we spoke it was no more
than with agreeable murmurs while we heard
day birds settling, night birds coming out
among the hunting animals, we so motionless
that none took notice - not as we did of each other.

And once we met a fox. A fox arrested in the leafed light
of the forest - not exactly as if visited
by death (although a cursory glance might miss
the super-living tension of its stillness).
Then it fled, silent as a brown light.

Maybe it was simply boyhood
that found us strange and unexpected
paths to follow and a sense of frontier;
over the hills, a paradise
beyond our urban claustrophobia,
where instinct took us?
Instinct that found
farm-widows bringing to our tent their home-baked pies:
older women, with guile and need,
with promises and dangerous smiles
hesitating to tell their stories,
persuading us to stay - young, healthy boys -
and work (inherit?) their farms
down flower-scented lanes.
An England that Keats and Turner would recognise
where today would be
a hedgeless, tarmac-ed way
and someone defensive, private.
Places of animals and of musical birds:
time and again in Shropshire and in Wales
the eternal reliable song that did not ease
their trapped, those hinted at, adult griefs.

Or is this premature oldman-speak;
disturbed ruminations
in the soft shroud of sadness, but no thorns
perceived after lunch and wine?
One cat-napping with his aches to wake him,
his world reduced to the comforting moon
of a lamp on a bedside table,
waking to trace the lines of his stray thoughts?
One who – as, before dark comes,
when birds and animals peck and scratch for food –
picks his way late for spiritual sustenance,
in hope that there will be built in the mind
a still pillar, carved out of the flux?

Thumbs up again down the A6
leaving blisters of fires by lakes and woods,
heat-cracked rings of stones, charred logs
(and holes in a bowling-green once
after we had pitched tent in the dark
of Borrowdale when tumbling off Scafell).
Came back with wet, wool socks,
boots holding water, stained maps,
broken thermos, unwashed pans
for mothers honoured to wash them
and parted for our different homes.

I’ve read that, to experience hell,
children have had their fingers held in flame
for a second and told to imagine eternity.
Maybe everlasting joy is the same?
Is love’s abyss of eternal time
in moments hung on such meetings.
It would be always thus, we thought,
or, because we were so wise, would just get better
and better, until the end of time...........

Monday, 14 April 2008

Heaven, Hell and Mr Wesley

Heaven, Hell, and Mr. Wesley

Even today, one cannot travel far here without being made aware of the power of both mill and chapel, in West Yorkshire as in other districts that were power-centres of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Britain. This even though most were demolished or burned down at the time, or soon after, I arrived in 1971. This even though what remain are (with very few exceptions) not used anymore for textile manufacture or for worship. (Two interwoven activities in their heyday!) Even though both, if they survive, are converted to small-business use or into apartments. The grandeur, majesty even, overbears one still. (Is that one reason why many like to live and work in them?)
As I write, the Spring has arrived in full orgasmic heat, the wild flowers, the birds nearly strangling themselves with song -- but that was in the place I have just returned from, the chapel and mill-free South West (also further north in Yorkshire; so nothing to do with altitude etc.) Here it arrives much more slowly. My belief is that it is still held back by the soot fallen upon the land for two centuries. Nature’s recovery during my
almost-forty years here has been spectacular, remarkable … and when it does arrive, it has an exuberance and life force that is lacking in many of the erstwhile rural districts blasted with herbicide and chemical fertiliser. But it is still affected by soot and sulphur: the dead hand of a spent force.
Spiritually and intellectually too, its values vanished overnight, and seem incomprehensible, and to be ridiculed. Was it Harold Wilson, or someone else, who first announced the once much repeated, “The British Labour Movement owes more to Methodism than to Marx”? Where has that particular pride vanished in New Labour Britain? It disappeared with the abolition of heavy industry: Mrs Thatcher’s revolution. On that side, she herself quoted John Wesley to underwrite her values. This follows a multitude of Victorians who claimed that Wesleyanism set them “on the road from rags to riches”. Whatever it was that John Wesley offered spiritually, as a church leader and founder of Methodism, he has had a lasting worldly effect.
For others, the Wesleyan certainties about sin, redemption and every other matter he ever thought of, have been quenched by the great, creative doubts of the 20th Century. After Freud and Jung and many other thinkers we can no longer believe in the concept of a personality that may be described as “good” or “bad”, deserving punishment or reward through eternity. In any case, our century and the past one continue to give us reasons to be sickened by the destructive powers of rhetorical leaders with simplistic convictions. The historical effects of Wesleyanism remain, but the ideas have been largely demolished, along with so many of the chapels.
In English history, which is made up of the deeds of so many masterful, confident men, John Wesley stands out in his own way. He is among the great (if you still admire “greatness”) - not as the conqueror of territory we have now lost, nor as the explorer of lands that are no longer ours, nor as the inventor and maker of machinery that is now obsolete. But in Methodist chapels were evolved the ethics, the attitudes and systems of behaviour that powered the Industrial Age. Thus he entered into the psyche of the English nation.
The common view of the Industrial Revolution is that it came about through mechanical inventions making use of the natural resources of coal, iron, water and steam power. This leaves out the changes that took place in people’s minds. The factory could not have existed before the factory worker was himself invented, and he was created in the chapels, our of Methodist ideology. It was on the moorlands of northern England, site of the massive textile boom at the heart of England’s Industrial Revolution and prosperity, that Wesleyanism, taking root in the mid-18th century and therefore ahead of industry by 25 or more years, gained its greatest hold, and was later encourages by the factory owners as the religion of their workers.
In the Calder Valley, the evidence of Methodism dominates the landscape and also the mind, in so many ways, that even today it cannot be ignored. Yet it would be hard to make such a great show of celebrating Methodism here, because there is hardly any of it left, in a living form. The innumerable chapels at which, almost unbelievably, only a generation ago people queued up to suffer the heady indictments of their preachers and “have a good sing” have gone. The massive pulpit of the last chapel that I saw being disembowelled, about two miles from my home, and which had been erected 150 years ago during the heyday of teetotalism, was exported to form a bar in California. Much of the north of England today is a graveyard of Methodism with its blackened monuments wrecked, or granted a surreal sea-change.
It is said that in the 19th Century there were more mills and also more chapels here than anywhere else in Britain. A typical village of the southern Pennines consists of houses crammed garden-less on a precipitous slope between the mill down below, where all the inhabitants worked, and one or maybe two or more Nonconformist (most typically, Wesleyan) chapels crowning the hilltop. It is striking, and also apt, that both generally exhibit the same architecture. The factory for souls, built as close as possible to Heaven, matches the woollen mill below in being a great stone coffin, with rows of plain windows, a bell, and a little Greek or Egyptian-derived decoration. Mills were given names that ring of chapel society, almost to echo the lines of hymns: “Paradise Mills” and “New Delight”.
It has been claimed that John Wesley saved England from Revolution, deflecting proletarian energies into other channels. In the 18th century, the inhabitants of the north, especially, began to change under the influence of Wesleyanism from being unruly and superstitious (supposedly), into an organised labour force working regularly by the clock. Wesley himself knew what he was tackling when he came here. The challenge presented by its supposed-barbarians delighted him and he claimed that West Yorkshire was his favourite district because, he wrote, “that place suits me best, where so many are groaning for redemption”.
In the name of “Redemption”, they burned their fiddles, were inspired to labour with their own hands to quarry stone and build chapels, and other such events that form the epic of early Methodism. The culture from which people were “saved” is now being revived by folklorists. A culture of improvised, spontaneous balladry and traditional music was transformed into the organised, rehearsed forms of choirs, or into a fine tradition of orchestral music and brass-bands. We are given glimpses of the vitality of earlier storytelling in the almost Joycean relish of the writings of the 18th century East-Lancashire weaver, turned schoolmaster, turned reprobate, John Collier, alias Tim Bobbin. With Methodism, there came the archive-and-information-collecting Institutes, Libraries, Scientific, Philosophical, and Natural History societies that are so striking in the North. There were written the autobiographies and diaries that make northern libraries such a delight. In a word, culture became “methodical”.
We forget how powerful the opposition to Methodism was in its day, and also since its opponents lost the battle, how cogent were its arguments. Enemies of Methodism appear upon the stage in order to throw mud at preachers, to indulge themselves with “lewdness and drunkenness” ; as the practitioners of all kinds of vices, and as part of the barbarian darkness. It is a truism that the 18th century was an age of opposites. When Methodism conquered and aligned itself with Britain’s material success, one of two spirits overcame the other - and the vanquished never appear in history in a good light.
Now that we are counting up the cost of what was achieved by the marriage of Methodism and Industry, and are beginning to panic at the final tally, both environmental and spiritual, we should remember that Methodism had a far-seeing opponent in William Blake. He was probably referring directly to John Wesley in the opening lines of The Everlasting Gospel:

The vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my Vision’s Greatest Enemy:
Thine has a great hook nose like thine,
Mine has a snub nose like to mine:
Thine is a friend of all mankind,
Mine speaks in parables to the blind.
Thine loves the same world that mine hates,
Thy Heaven doors are my Hell Gates…

Opposites can explain one another through contrasts. Wesley would have seen Blake’s sexual libertarianism as the work of the devil, but Blake was a proto-anarchist in the true sense, believing that people are at their best when they are free to express their inner selves. Also, though he believed that creativity comes from an inner not an outer light, he was deeply sensitive to the natural world.
Attitudes to nature are crucial, considering what we owe to Methodism for a spoiled environment. One who loves nature particularises - in say the manner of John Clare: the dispossessed farm-labourer/poet who was also an opponent of Methodism. Wesley believed himself open to natural beauty; though he was clearly insensitive to it, as evidenced by the platitudes that he invariably used to describe it. He saw nature as a source of illustrative metaphors for sermons. Also, the inner being of a human, what we might call the “psyche”, who illuminated William Blake, terrified Wesley - who believed it should be controlled, lest it reveal the worst in man. It was necessary to “murder the self by inches”, as is brother Charles put it.
In fact, for the Wesleys, an uncontrolled inner man was on a par with undisciplined, unexploited and therefore “useless” nature.
It is by looking at the circumstances of the Wesleys’ childhood that one can see how an ambition to tame both inner and out nature might grow to have the power of religious conviction. John Wesley was born in 1703, the 15th child of the Reverend Samuel Wesley, Rector of Epworth in the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire. Today, Epworth shows itself as a green hill on a plain but in 1703 it was, literally, an island among pools and marshes. It was an especially treacherous natural environment. Surrounding human nature was hostile too. As well as being semi-marooned physically, the family was socially islanded, they being educated, pious gentry, without opportunity to commune with fellow spirits. They were sometimes quite literally besieged by Samuel Wesley’s hostile parishioners.
Their parishioners’ hostility was not so much to the Wesley family personally, as to what they represented. The gentry of the day were busy draining the marshes, “improving” in a way that took no account of the vote-less inhabitants of the fens, who thereby lost their traditional livelihoods of hunting wildfowl and fishing. Also, the Reverend Samuel was unpopular with the better families of the district because he voted Tory. The fen people waged persistent warfare against the Rectory. The Rector’s cattle were stabbed, his flax was burned. On one occasion a “riotous mob” paraded around the house with guns and drums. After more than one attempt, they eventually burned the place to the ground, and in a famous incident, John, aged five, was almost forgotten in the building, being rescued as an afterthought. He described himself forever afterwards, in a resonant metaphor, as “a brand plucked from the burning”.
While Samuel Wesley’s response to this was to hide from family and parishioners alike, (writing ludicrous and ponderous works such as nine thousand lines of a versified Life of Christ, which earned him a place in Pope’s “Temple of Dullness”), it was John’s mother who was practical. Having to cope virtually alone, drove her to an ideal of orderliness which one perceives as an early anticipation of the Methodist notion of orderliness within the dangerously ill-disciplined society of Britain. She inflicted order upon her family with a severity that was exceptional even by 18th century standards, and today seems unbelievably cruel. We know that her son John worshipped her; as a grown man he asked her for details of her child-rearing methods in order to model his own school, Kingswood, upon them. “When turned a year old (and some before) they were taught to fear the rod and cry softly; by which means they escaped abundance of correction they might otherwise have had”, she wrote.
Another anecdote of John Wesley’s childhood seems even more pertinent when one thinks of the Methodist doctrine of the deferment of pleasure for future reward. At seven years of age, when offered a sweet, John answered, “Thank you; I will think of it.” Could anything be less natural for a child? The anecdote is portentous, whether true or not.
It is precisely because these conditions were not unique, though extreme and perhaps more keenly felt than the average, that they became important. Could it be that Wesleyanism was a projection of its founder’s childhood traumas - as well as the technique for resolving them - upon the whole nation; a nation waiting for such a solution, having such fears itself, and which seized upon its timely benefits?
With new means of exploitation of nature available, the Englishman was waiting for someone to underwrite utility as holy, waste as sinful, the damning of the creative inner springs as a fight against Satan, and worldly wealth as a sign of God’s favour.
John Wesley’s greatest single gift was as an organiser. In the present day he might be a director of industry - as in the 18th century he was a manager of souls. Wesleyanism did not merely offer a key to organising labour in its so-called “productive” hours. It assailed the proletarian Englishman’s whole attitude to life, death, work, leisure, family and the proper use of time. The success of Methodism, particularly in the North, was phenomenal. After a period when the churches had grown empty under the sway of lax clergy, thousands flocked to assemblies, often walking 20 miles over moorland, to hear preachers who spoke with simplicity and terrifying conviction. Wesley’s lieutenants had colossal powers over their newly risen flocks. The Reverend William Grimshaw of Haworth, for example, left anecdotes of his scouring the public house with a whip to drive people to church.
The question that arises is, why were people so willing to obey the Methodists?
Religions gain their worldly power by claiming the key to eternity and death. The conditions of human life were precarious and painful before, as well as during, the Industrial Revolution, and one should never be tempted into imagining a pre-industrial “golden age”. Believing in an eternity of Hell or Heaven, it was unbearable to think that after our toil and sickness on earth, we might be deprived of eternal reward, and be meted out eternal punishment instead.
Methodism partly gained its ground by eschewing Calvinistic pre-determination. This held an intrinsic logic, one exploited by the Antinomians who were so heretical in Wesley’s sight: If Heaven or Hell are predestined, we might as well enjoy ourselves, since we cannot affect the outcome. Methodist preachers at the height of their sermons would tell their audience that they might know themselves to be saved, by inner conviction. Understanding what we do today about crowd psychology, we are not surprised at people being “converted” to this certainty.
Then followed the danger of “backsliding”. “What if the Lord snatches you away at some moment when you have sinned and not had time to repent?” Thus the people were conscripted on to a treadmill of Wesleyan values.
Wesleyan salvation involved an emphasis on self-control, an application to tasks in hand, a counting of time, and a continuous reckoning of balance sheets. These were exactly the principles that the early industrialists found necessary to operate a factory. In conditions under which they had to prevent their employees from abandoning work whenever a sunny day came along, ideal for haymaking, it is no wonder that the Lancashire manufacturer, Kay Shuttleworth, is found recommending his fellow industrialists to promote Methodists as foremen.
Wesleyanism appeared easy enough to follow when, at a time that the North was expanding like the Klondike or Silicomne Valley, it could be pointed out that “everywhere, Methodists were seen to be successful”.
The faith also gave rise to democratic education, with literacy and numeracy in the forefront. It inspired an orderliness at the public meetings of workers. The Chartist and veteran of Peterloo, Samuel Bamford, was horrified at the crude bawling of Parliament after his experience of factory-workers’ dignified debates.
But the gains of the Wesleyan era were at the price of what we now call “an environment disaster”. There was a dreadful scouring with furnace, pick and spade, giving a special edge to that metaphor “a brand plucked from the burning”, when one looks over the scorched, derelict industrial landscapes of the North, created in the name of wealth. In May 1988, Mrs. Thatcher quoted John Wesley with approval to the Church of Scotland Assembly. “Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.”
Apart from the implications that consolidating ones gains and savings comes first, and that “giving” is a material commodity, how, I would ask both John Wesley and Mrs. Thatcher, does this square with Christ’s own Sermon On The Mount, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth…”? Without going so far as to interpret The Sermon On The Mount as fashionable Green-ism, it seems a strange development of Christ’s original message to claim worldly success as a sign of God’s Grace.

An early form of this essay was published in The Guardian, 28th February 1991

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Poetry Enigmas

Writing poetry is simple enough. All one needs is a notebook, a pen, and preferable a place where one likes to be, say a busy cafe or a lonely countryside, although it can come out of anywhere ... the trenches of the First World War (Wilfred Owen) or on a forced march without even a notebook or pen (Mandelstahm).

When it is a matter of anyone taking notice, it is all enigmas. Apparently no-one cares for the art, and one should be as content as Van Gogh to pursue artistic activity for its own sake. The Poetry Society has estimated that an average sale for a new book of poems is seventy copies. One the other hand, since around the time that Martin Amis signalled a change by satirising the contemporary poet indulging first-class transatlantic travel (with Seamus Heaney in mind, possibly?) a new - financial - glamour has been attached. Or a Byronic one revived. Perhaps it began with Ted Hughes's million pound plus estate ... as far as I know, the first poor boy to become a millionaire solely from the proceeds of poetry.

Small-scale publishers ever lament their difficulties, and with good reason. Yet, recently I read in Byron Rogers' biography of R.S.Thomas that, when exasperated by his major publisher (Macmillan's) edition of a mere 500 copies for hs latest book, his Selected Poems was offered to the small - and, note, provincial - publisher, Bloodaxe, who sold "an astonishing 20,000 copies" ... who then brought out five more collections, which sold "an average 9,000 copies".

And, while I have almost (though not quite) resigned myself to being a natural poet of the garret,
in the last few weeks I have not been able to stir in the newsagents' or the supermarket without poetry booklets screaming at me from above the headline news; by its positioning seeming more important than child abductions, global warming, or the peace-giving missions of the President of the World. The Guardian and The Independent (any other broadsheets that I don't know of?) have at the same moment discovered that poetry is a good way to increase circulation and give their newspapers distinction! The Indy is offering 14 of the Classics, and the Guardian, 7 of the Moderns. Isn't that truly amazing? This popular uplift, at almost no cost to themselves.

Yet not so many years ago these newspapers could not be persuaded to include a few lines of verse anywhere .... the assumption being perhaps that if they did, their readers would flee in droves. In the days when I was welcomed in Farringdon Road because I had been awarded the Guardian Fiction Prize, I tried to persuade the then literary editor to include verse, to no avail. I recall his smile of condescension.

Then it began. First of all - if I remember rightly - with a modesty akin to its quaint Country Diary column that has lingered since that paper was the Manchester Guardian. Then came a full-page shocker by publishing Tony Harrison, and now with a fanfare of booklets.

What a delight if there is a stampede of broadsheets competing to produce ever- more tasty poetry collections! A commercial 5th-column for poets!

Wednesday, 12 March 2008


I have not enjoyed many “mystical experiences” (as they are usually called) but, throughout life, there have been some. The Yorkshire auto-didact, auto-biographer, traveller (on a horse) and novelist, William Holt, who died twenty years ago, said to me, “I am not dis-satisfied with life, but I am un-satisfied. Unsatisfied means that you like what is on the menu, but you don’t have enough of it on your plate.” That is how I feel about those occasions when time evaporated, the moment was detached, eternal - and, no, it wasn’t in a dentist’s chair or an operation, but from absorption in beauty, or perhaps art.

The first was when I was eight years of age. My Dad was teaching me to ride a bicycle. He did this by walking besides me, holding the saddle as I cycled the Cheshire lanes, and sometimes, on a flat stretch where there was no traffic (there was little traffic anywhere, of course) letting me free to balance myself.

A couple of miles of this and, naturally, Dad needed to call at a public house. A favourite was The Vine” in Dunham, which had a garden planted with orchard trees. He left me outside with a lemonade. One day he tried me with cider. I was abandoned for some time - I think Dad had a liking for the barmaid. He came out with another cider; his face was fiery with smiles. It was late Spring, sunny and still. Bees fussed over the flower beds. Sparrows and bright chaffinches hopped and flitted after insects, they foraged dropped crisps and sandwiches. I was the only one there, sat underneath a blossoming, old pear tree through which the sunlight filtered; a light more pink than normal because the blossom was at its perfection, dense, yet half-transparent. Growing drowsy, I tipped into seeming weightless, from peace and happiness. Time vanished - Dad could have stayed in there for a few minutes or for half the day, I would not have known. Time was replaced by absorption in an elevated sense of beauty. Probably my first sense of it, certainly that I can recall. Although it was also my first experience of being tipsy, that is not what has remained potent in memory. I had no language for this experience then, and it seems to me that I have come across little sufficient to it since.

Yet, through the several repeats, it is at the heart of why I write or paint at all. It has only rarely been reached through inebriation. It has sometimes arrived through a commonplace task, building, repairing, cooking, gardening, and when walking, in the slow rambling disorganised non-strenuous fashion that is mine, staring about me; or through shared friendship, or love, or through a discovery of the intellect. Sometimes through listening to and feeling the harmonies of the Universe, (the music of the spheres?) in the wind, under clear stars, in the sun by the sea. It can come from glimpsing the swing of a bird. It has never arrived when bidden. It is always a surprise. In that (and for other reasons) it is different to a sense of beauty, which may be sought, in the countryside, a person, a book, an art gallery. This is a visitation, that comes when it will.

The most recent occurred a few months ago, sitting in the Church at Bolton Abbey, which is on the bank of the River Wharfe, near Ilkley in Yorkshire. It isn’t the most beautiful church I know, yet despite some restoration and the Pugin windows, it holds the old atmosphere in a way often lacked by many better preserved churches. Cistercian chant was being played from a cd behind the altar screen. (The Ensemble Organum dir. by Marcel Peres, produced by harmoni mundi - I learned later when I bought a copy). This seems a little naff, doesn’t it, but the sound reproduction was so good that one might be convinced that the monks themselves were beyond the screen. I know little about the meaning of the Mass, so it was abstract music to me, yet I sat and didn't move a muscle for a long time.

This wasn't difficult - in fact I couldn’t move. Later, I thought that perhaps I had been meditating without realising it. I was carried on a sense of dissolving into eternity. Much of the time, I stared at a candle flame that was nearby. I felt out of time and space, so that a child crying or shouting, a mother showing her child the windows, people passing by - there were a number of strays in the church - a bird or shouts outside, did not interrupt my feeling, even though I heard them. It occurs to me that perhaps I enjoyed an inkling of what Buddhists feel when they can set fire to themselves, or of what the early Christian martyrs understood. A spiritual anaesthetic, -to be modern and banal about - though I am so very far from that state of spiritual beatitude. And I suppose that is what the mystics have been telling us for centuries, everywhere, yet we don't listen to them. The Church at Bolton Abbey possesses an uninterrupted list of the Priors, followed by the Vicars, back to the 12th century, and I envied them then, because I hope that they felt all of this to a much greater degree than I. Perhaps they had perceptions that are no longer sufficiently recognised, but that we need. I hope death will feel this way, I thought after leaving Bolton Abbey: it will do very well for me, if it is. The world and my loved ones can go on with their affairs, and I am at peace with that.

I believe that most people have this same experience at some times in their lives - it is not a prerogative of theologians, philosophers or the educated; perhaps it is actually more difficult for them. It is possible that one does not recognise it, thinking simply, “No matter what, life is good, I am happy". It certainly has much to do with happiness - of a kind opposed to the “happiness” that, (against the evidence), we usually persist in believing is part of our more and more sophisticated materialism. We also know that happiness is in escaping as well as in fulfilling ourselves. (Some of us more in need of one than the other, and some needing both. More times than I care to recall, I have felt the need to escape myself.) But I am not writing merely of that kind of subjective happiness - which is its component, or perhaps its symptom. Ecstasy is a better word, and ecstasy of this kind is a good kind of fulfilment or escape … more fruitful than suicide, which is the other way of escaping, i.e. of killing the disliked part of oneself. (Visionary ecstasy - and mortal suicide - are they the opposites of one another; two sides of a coin?)
But it is not the whole. This ecstasy is a congregation of forces: spirituality, past experience, hopes, memories, preparedness - some, or all of these - coming together to defy our “rational” model of the Universe. It inspires in us our sense of timelessness, which, even scientists often believe, is the true reality. We do indeed exist in a continuum of time and space, without beginning or end, where substance is infinitely transmuted.

And perhaps some do not recognise it when it comes, or at any rate do not share it with others. For this crucial human experience, we have so little language. Considering its importance, there is relatively little articulation in poetry and art. It is curious how quickly its verbal expressions come to look fusty. Despite their brilliant subject-matter, they are often furred-over with melancholy, Mathew Arnold-ish. Too many have been the desperate writings of faded spirits. (I hope I am not now joining their company.) The modern poet R.S. Thomas looked vividly but oh, so sadly, beyond himself. The American poet Gary Snyder gave it expression with a refreshed language and a love of physical activity combined with Buddhism. Wordsworth expressed it lucidly. William Blake made the most vital run at it, perhaps because of the energy of his rebellion against Materialism and the “prison of the senses five” that led him “To see a World in a grain of a sand …. And Eternity in an hour.” It is now too out of fashion to be much attempted; words such as “eternity” appear too simplistic for the modern sensibility; we are easier with simple, entertaining matters, that fit with simple, entertaining words; and one has to appreciate it as the most important subjective experience one will have, to wish to express it.

Saturday, 1 March 2008


Letters of Ted Hughes selected and edited by Christopher Reid. Faber and Faber. 756 pp £30.00

Ted Hughes is thought of as the presiding genius of the Calder Valley in Yorkshire, where I live. Until very recently, one would not have thought he had such grand status, when one is actually here. It is only a few years ago that his birthplace in a street in Mytholmroyd was recognised, following one or two complaints by visitors looking for it. He spent only a short time living here, when he was a child (before moving to Mexborough in South Yorkshire) - even though the place, that of his maternal ancestors, so powerfully haunted all of his work - and he never took much part in local affairs, indeed keeping his several return visits later in life as secret as he could. (They were almost entirely concerned with his Arvon Foundation in Heptonstall, in any case.) The atttitude changed - rather slowly - after he became Poet Laureate, and interest accelerated after his death. There is a Ted Hughes Festival taking place this year, and a Ted Hughes Centre is under way. On entering Mytholmroyd today, you are met with a boulder holding a plaque to remind you that "Ted Hughes Poet Laureate" was born here. There is a street of new housing called "Laureat Place" (sic). Whether Ted would have welcomed this interest is questionable. But it is great to see a poet honoured.

His relationship to my own work is another matter.

There, from the start, I have never been able to shake him off, and would not want to. It began long before I came to live here (although it was not in any way connected with my reasons for living here.) I fell upon his work in the 1960s, thirsting for my sense of poetry in contemporary verse, and found it in Alvarez's The New Poetry especially in the poems of Ted Hughes. (Also R.S.Thomas and Robert Lowell.) Soon I was teaching in Halifax (also in the Calder Valley), where I think I was probably the only person in the town to order many poetry books from the local shop. One day when I called in to collect my order, the proprietor came from a back room with a fountain pen in his hand and asked, "Are you Mr Hughes the poet?" I wasn't going to say "No", although I had then hardly published a verse anywhere. Whereupon he produced his own copy of Lupercal for me to sign, which I did, with my own name. People rarely check the signature of the books one signs, as I was later to discover. Ted chuckled over this anecdote years later, when we became friends.

It is more irksome that I am too little reviewed without reference being made to Ted Hughes's connection with the district about which I often write, or in which I set my set my subjects. It is generally a knee-jerk response merely to the place, not to anything else we might have in common. I expect it to continue, and try to totally disregard it, at least while I am working. For instance, I have illustrated my recent book Two Marriages with several drawings of crows as a central, iconic idea, and I can't imagine it will be reviewed without reference to Ted Hughes's "Crow" - although the link is every bit as arbitrary as the fact that the deceased poet and I share the same surname.

Now come Ted's Letters. "All I’ve ever been interested in is simplifying my existence so I could write…." he wrote to his brother, Gerald, in 1963, shortly after Sylvia Plath’s suicide. Well, you could have fooled many, especially the millions who nurse received opinions without having read him. Two partners who lived on the brink of death, followed by mistresses some of whom showed a disturbing eagerness to spill the beans, are not the choices that those who know themselves would make for a simplified existence. However, he finishes the sentence, "all I‘ve ever done is so involve myself with other people that now I can’t move without horrible consequences of all kinds."

So there it is in a nutshell. On the one hand, not merely a pillar of the literary Establishment, he was the pillar: subject of innumerable theses, books, invitations, school lessons, gossip and frisson, perhaps more so than any poet except his beloved Shakespeare. On the other hand, scorning literary business and most of twentieth century poetry, ("The real poverty of 20th Century English writing has been masked by the presence of Eliot, Joyce and Yeats" he wrote in 1982), seeing it mostly as a trap, genuinely seeking after quiet and anonymity. By June 1988, in the wake of his pursuit by the maenads out to avenge his supposed responsibility for the martyrdom of Sylvia Plath -the intruders at his public readings, the defacers of his wife’s grave in the Calder Valley - he found "the literary life, especially the U.S. territories, enemy country. Too bad my own verses have to creep about out there." (To the American poet, W.S.Merwin.)

Now that the immediate, ecstatic responses that greeted this book have died down, is there much left to say? Well, yes, for most of them concerned themselves more with Sylvia Plath (and to a lesser extent, with Assia Wevill) than with what Ted Hughes had to tell us about so many other matters. Even Tom Paulin in The London Review of Books, (who and where they should know better), wrote most of his long review as if all that matters is that particular marriage. Plath confessed in her diary to her dependence on her husband; since her death it is Ted’s life that has been remorselessly dependent on hers, by being related to it in every aspect. This book might be a best-seller because it is hoisted onto Sylvia Plath’s shoulders - with the usual offence against Ted Hughes’s ghost.

Plath occupied only seven years of his life, even though the legacy haunted him, and only a small part of these 700 plus pages are actually concerned with her. The later, and to my mind greater part, of his letters were very much about Shakespeare, building up to and contained within Hughes’s mammoth work, "Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being". Self-knowledge, healing, introspection, are a few other aspects. On the whole it is a great throbbing heart of a book, bleeding and also ecstatic, thrillingly wise and occasionally foolish, and inescapably an autobiography too … in the best sense, giving little away to the prurient (a little does escape). It seemed to me to take flight into Ted Hughes’s true, rich nature quite suddenly at around page 120 (in 1958), while the end part contains some sycophancy about the royal family that some might find hard to stomach. ("Who can write in an amiable way to any member of the royal family without it looking like flattery? Can’t be done." was his excuse in 1986 - which seems to me to imply one very good reason for abolishing that absurd, sugared pill for destroying poets and poetry, the Laureateship.) But the final result of the Letters is to reveal the depth and fullness of a poet’s, a spirit-guide’s, life.

All of Ted is here. The man with the rock-star good looks, (until hubris in the shape of cancer caught up with him), the businessman with schemes ranging through mink farming and student lets, the fisherman and the farmer, the mystical monarchist, the environmentalist, the astrologer, the sociable loner, the stoical bearer of his tragedies, the father protecting his children from the cruel hawks of the Press, the pathos of one whose life from another point of view was a yearning to recover the spell of the Yorkshire moors with his elder brother (some of the most open letters are to his brother Gerald, essentially wishing to woo him back from Australia), the very good friend, the supporter of anyone/anything he believed in, the secretive man trying to save himself by sliding out of sight, and of course the seer and poet. I finished reading feeling that I knew of nothing else from English poets like it, and if Shakespeare had lived through our time and left a testament, it might be very like this.

There are also some strange lapses. The only composer I recall being mentioned in his whole life span is Beethoven, to whom there are 7 widely scattered references in the index. Bach, Mahler, Shostokovitch, et al do not rate a mention. The only artists he refers to are Paul Klee, and Ted’s friend Baskin. He candidly admits that most novelists other than Lawrence, Tolstoy and Bashevis Singer do not much interest him. The editor, Christopher Reid, declares that Ted wrote enough letters for four volumes - I hope they will appear, so maybe little significance is to be attached as yet to these puzzling gaps, but I do not recall Ted Hughes as a person making references to other types of artist; he talked exclusively of poets and playwrights. Take that as a single-mindedness of a particularly fruitful kind.

For years, I have contemplated the relationship between Ted Hughes’s career and the place in which he was born. Even when letters are not being written from there or to there, or are not concerned with his many writings about it, the spirit of the Calder Valley runs through this as through all his work. I can hardly escape my own consciousness of this - it is where I have lived the greater part of my own life by now, have written about, and exchanged letters with Ted concerning it. He himself said (elsewhere) that wherever he was, "one prong of the tuning fork is always in the Calder Valley", among the Yorkshire Pennines. (The other prong being, of course, in Devon.)

If anywhere in Britain has the quality that the Spanish call "duende", this has: briefly put, life’s expression in art can only exist in awareness and proximity to death. The Spanish poet Lorca wrote an essay about it, especially concerning flamenco …. without duende, it is barren, as all art forms are barren without it. Can a place be infused with duende? I think it can. Places are also human expressions. The Calder and nearby valleys are dark, with sooted rock and the remains of mills where the life has died; where much life died or was malformed, the spirit with it, (yet with its own, persistent bravery) even when they were in their full magnificence. Ted thought that the whole place was stuck in mourning for the First World War. (Its transformation into commuter belt is recent, and the spirit of twenty years ago is still there.) Yet around and high above it are square miles of unpeopled moor - the exciting theatres of light, wind and rain. The stormy edge between this life, that death ("edge" is a common name for places around here) is exactly where Ted Hughes’s poetry, and his letters, are, metaphorically, placed.

Reading the Letters is for me a little uncanny. He describes going, in delight or gloom, or at times of crises, and often to recite poetry aloud, to places he hardly names yet I can pinpoint them because I have walked there usually several times per week for thirty five years. The collected letters in this context has its own peculiar character. Because I cannot claim to have seen him frequently, and yet each meeting seems to have had the sense of a full friendship, the letters seem weirdly more brimming with life than those actual meetings - which is a tribute to the sheer evocative intensity of them. It is not merely that they fill in the gaps of what was piecemeal. It is as if the book had been composed as one great novel: each letter, each paragraph, seems to relate to every other. They fill each other out, like the rivets and bolts of a ship, their tensions mutually supporting one another, in a journey across an ocean, through storms. I have never before had the experience of finding letters to me in the context of a posthumous publication, so perhaps this is a common experience, but I think it is more a sign of the wholeness of this book, as if it was designed with an eye on completeness although of course it wasn’t.

Thousands, or is it millions, of books are published each year. A bookshop scan will show that most are intended or at least destined for a brief entertainment. So few books are sacred … sacred in the sense that the earliest books were, to form, inform, perhaps change, a life. This makes this collection of letters a sacred book.

What does it change? On the first level, it should change anyone’s (including, in my experience, most poets') sense of what the poet’s vocation is. The effect upon me is to throw my received notions of poetry and art up into the air, to fall into place in a different pattern. Beyond that, when read in depth the volume leads one to question one’s defences against what might alter one’s inner, that is most essential, life. (This, the function of true, healing poetry.) If all of Ted Hughes' work were to be simplified into a phrase, it would be that he opened Enlish poetry wide to a bigger world. He eschewed so remarkably the "well wrought poem" - the kind that safely explores no more than the concerns of the regular newspaper opinion-pieces, and never progresses far before making a neat bow to the professors.

Ted used to speak of a few books as "real" books. It is a local phrase … I’ve not anywhere else heard some person, experience, or place, (as well as say food and drink) spoken of as "real", as the highest praise.

This is a real book.

A version of the above is due in the current issue of "North" (The Poetry Business) (Issue 41)

Saturday, 23 February 2008


Could you introduce 'Dancing out of the Dark Side'?

The obvious question is why, after a good start, and involvement in the poetry world, did I stop after my third book and haven't done another until now, 26 years later? I felt that I had lost my sense of direction with my second book. (Though on looking back, the future was there in those poems really, but overlooked.) I was also seduced by prose. Philip Hobsbaum warned me again and again that I was making a mistake. But I wanted to be a 'full time', totally occupied writer and not have to do another job. Now everything looks different. Two to five years on a novel seems to have been such a toil, for one thing. Lately, too, it has seemed clearer to me what I truly want to do, when focussed. I made lots of false starts with poems again - lots of sending out a premature collection and thereby spoiling the pitch as it were - you are lucky these days to get a publisher to look at a collection once, let alone twice, no matter how much altered. Besides which, after my quarter of a century's absence, so many had never heard of me, and so many of my peers have died. I am fortunate to be here and still doing it. Quite a few of the poems are 'love' poems by the way, either overtly as this term is usually understood, or in a more hidden way, and I think they express a love of life that I feel - so I feel good at having that streak at seventy. The poems have been coming at an increasing rate in the last few years.

Could you introduce 'The Summer the Dictators Fell'?

A few years ago there was an exceptionally beautiful summer - global warming having made West Yorkshire where I live almost like a Mediterranean country. I was getting up at dawn, and was inspired to go back to notes that I'd made in 1974-5 when I was living in Greece during the chaotic years of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and subsequent collapse of the Greek Junta. I had been married to a Greek then, so I was involved at family level. My notes were as chaotic as the times, but with perspective a series of stories now emerged. They are mostly about living in a family, or wandering the countryside, encountering people, - with the political events as the context, rather than the subject of the stories. The publisher made a very fine production of it but failed in sending out review copies, or in distribution in any effective sense, so the book was hardly noticed, but I think there is much of the best writing of my career in it.

Robert Graves has influenced a lot of poets, especially with 'The White Goddess'. A lot of the scholarship behind 'The White Goddess' has long been questioned. Has your assessment of Graves changed over the years? I'm assuming that he was an influence on your first novel, 'Where I Used to Play on the Green'.

You could also add as "influences" such sceptics and realists as E.P.Thompson, and other radical historians. Whether his scholarship is right or wrong, Graves had meaningful insights. Even if fanciful, it led to a stimulating definition of poetry and art, and of our general relationship to what we call 'nature'.
I also bear in mind what Henry Moore said about the danger of an artist 'knowing' too much, about his art, and perhaps about himself in the psychological way. If an artist knows too much, what needs to be inspired discovery that thrills the viewer or reader, becomes mannered according to a pre-ordained scheme.

Picking up on our general relationship to what we call 'nature', you described a rural landscape in the Yorksghire of 'Millstone Grit' that was as derelict as the adjacent industrial landscape. Thirty years later do you see it differently - i.e. have you changed, has it changed, or both? Are there any signs of anything positive growing out of the dereliction?

'Millstone Grit' was written in the early 1970s and the Pennine hills were as derelict and polluted then as the industrial towns. There has been a transformation since. The soot that coated even the highest places has largely been washed away, and everywhere Nature has shown its capacity to heal itself. Farming as it used to be has almost disappeared though. Dairy cattle have been replaced by the horse-riding business. I am told for instance that there are now more horses in the Calder Valley (where I live) than at any time in the past! This is a well-heeled commuter district for Leeds, Manchester etc. now. There are horrors that come with this which I won't go into, but generally speaking the Calder Valley has probably never looked better since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Nor been, perhaps, a happier place. Ironically, while the erstwhile 'rural districts' of England have been desecrated by industrial-scale farming, here where hardly any pesticides and herbicides are used (with the exception of on the lanesides by the local Council!) the flowers and bird-life have flourished. I too have changed with it all.For the time being, I've had most (not all) of my say about its material and spiritual history, I think, at any rate in the manner of the earlier books. That doesn't mean I won't ever get back to it - I had a 'dead central theme' as Ted Hughes told me - and I've left it unfinished.

Poetry wrecks lives. It breaks up relationships, makes people ill or mad, wastes intelligence and talent, ruins careers, often keeps people poor and lonely and is completely ignored by most people on the planet. It would be a lot easier to write advertising jingles or relatively unchallenging pop lyrics, and there might even be money in it. What keeps people under the influence of poetry?

I wish I knew. At bottom no artists have ever been able to explain why they become absorbed and make sacrifices for art. If you say 'sense of duty to a gift' even that doesn't get you very far. I've wriggled so much in the net of poetry, done so many other things, but it seems I've failed to escape in the end! The alternatives you mention, incidentally, are not that 'easy' to indulge in, because to do them you have to be absorbed in and find congenial a particular metier and profession. I skirted away from what bit of film scripting I dallied with as soon as I realised it wasn't at all a writer's medium: as radio drama, for instance, is. (By the way, I think radio drama is very close to writing poetry, and I love it. It's condensed, its aural, it relies on the spaces between words, and so on.) Ted Hughes blamed the bowel cancer that killed him on his having deserted his poetic muse for so many years in order to write his great prose book on Shakespeare. Bearing that in mind, I guess I'm lucky to find it in me to be writing quite a lot of poetry, even though I don't find my life at all easy these years. But that's not because of poetry. I don't think by the way that poetry 'wastes intelligence and talent' - that seems a strange statement to make, and quite untrue - nor that 'poetry wrecks lives, etc etc'. Such lives would occur anyway, and do, without poetry. Poetry helps one NOT to be wrecked. Poetry is about sanity. Hopefully.

How did it all start? You've described your background in 'Millstone Grit' – council estate next to Cheshire countryside, the radio programmes, 'Out with Romany', bookish working class dad who was a trade unionist, Mr Murdoch who was your guide to country lore, etc. What is it about poetry that gets through to some people at a critical and perhaps vulnerable age - like a religious experience?

These are some of the questions I am trying to tackle and articulate in The Anima Octet - the poem (now reached 150 pages) that I am writing at the moment. The natural world was a mysterious enlargement to that cramped misery that I associated with council-house life, and art was the only satisfying way of containing it, of exploring it. Art paralleled that reach into a larger existence. Some felt it, or felt it through different channels, and some didn't.
I wish that the lure to the countryside could be as easily satisfied by children today. It was a very Lawrentian way, which we shared with many, but it was very male too - not exclusively so, but on balance.

What do you think of 'the poetry scene' at present in the UK?

I don't think about it very much. It's huge. One of the easiest ways of making money today is to hold a poetry competition, because thousands will post in their multi-fivers, using their verses like lottery tickets to fame. On the other hand, my present poetry publisher tells me that according to the Poetry Society 70 copies is now an average sale for a new poetry book! It seems that the 'scene' consists largely of millions of solipsistic egos, but much less actual interest in the art. Perhaps the difference to the past is that large numbers write it rather than read it. A sociologist might be more illuminating on 'the poetry scene' than a poet.
One thing I observe is that few will turn to current poetry for spiritual nourishment, for there is little of it (there is some), in the way they might turn to some painting or music, say to that of Arvo Part. What counts most in the 'scene' seems to be versified journalism, a versified opinion-piece, or a personal complaint of some kind, or at best, something 'radically' political. This is ok - there is room for everything - but popular reputations for poets and therefore the notion of what poetry is, are made from that, not from the spiritual element which is ultimately satisfying. Poetry should be an antidote to journalism. Unlike journalism, poetry crucially goes beyond what it overtly or obviously 'says'. To expect only the latter of poetry is to degrade it - though some big reputations are made by doing so.
One should write so as to reach through the form, into a mystery. I think we live in a bad age for poetry when, as in other bad ages, while the commonplaces are distributed ad nauseam, much of the enduring survives, if it can do so, in the shadows somewhere else. Think of G.M.Hopkins. John Clare. So who knows … actually … what is going on, and where it is?

Friday, 22 February 2008

Book orders

Most of my books may be obtained direct from me, signed and with a personal inscription if requested

Please make cheques payable to ‘Glyn Hughes’. U.S Dollar rates are approximate at time of writing. (For U.S, personal cheque in $ on U.S. bank is preferred form of payment)

please look out for the commencement of this blog from February 25th 2008 onwards!