Friday, 28 August 2015

The drowned houses of Haweswater

I live in the Eden Valley on the fringe of the Lake District and my nearest lake is Haweswater - about twenty minutes drive away. It's also one of my favourites, for its wild, rather bleak atmosphere and because it is less visited than the other lakes. You can often walk there without seeing another person. Haweswater is a magical place, with a drowned village under its surface, and a number of legends gradually growing about its abandonment. People tell tales of hearing bells on wild nights and seeing lights moving under the surface of the water.
Stormy evening sky above Haweswater
Originally there was a small lake in the valley, about 4 kilometres long, with the village of Mardale at the upper end of it.  But in 1929 it was proposed to extend the lake to make a reservoir to supply water to the city of Manchester, which meant evicting the residents of the village, some of whom had lived there for generations, and destroying one of the most picturesque valleys of the Lake District. The flooding of Mardale was finally accomplished in 1936, and the conflict provided the setting for a novel written by a local resident, Sarah Hall.  Haweswater won the Commonwealth Writers' first novel prize in 2003.  The lake also features in the film Withnail and I.

When the water level is low, you can still see the roads and the walls, the outlines of houses and the pack-bridge over the little stream that fed the original lake.

The packbridge, Mardale 1995
I've walked through Mardale when it was last exposed, even through the churchyard, which is a very strange experience.
Mardale Church as it used to be
The level isn't quite as low as that at the moment, but still several feet below the usual level, despite a very wet summer (they drink a lot of water in Manchester!) so it seemed a good time to go there. The evening light was stormy, promising more rain, and you could see some of the ruins poking up out of the water.


On the edge of the lake, usually under it, the walls of the old pub - the Dun Bull, are exposed at the moment.

You can find pieces of crockery among the stones, as well as roofing slates and glass bottles, remnants of people's lives.


The stumps of old trees have had the soil washed out from under them and they hover over the rubble like ghost crabs.  I could swear one of them moved!
Tree stumps like giant crabs
Haweswater is one of the only places in England that still has a Golden Eagle resident and on the shoreline we found a gigantic, aerodynamic, wing feather.  It occupies two sheets of A4 paper. Is it from a Golden Eagle?  I have no way of knowing, but it is a beautiful, unique thing.

Golden Eagle wing feather?
Further up the bank, there are small gardens of wild flowers in sheltered places and one or two fir trees.

On one of the trees we found a rather poignant plaque, commemorating a life.  Someone else's favourite place too.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Tuesday Poem: Red Fox

On the stone ridge east I go.
On the white road I, red fox, crouching go.
I, red fox, whistle, on the road of stars.


Traditional Wintu spirit song.


I found this traditional song in a new collection of nursery rhymes from around the world, 'Over the Hills and Far Away', edited by Elizabeth Hammill, founder of the National Centre for Children's Books. The book is a delight for both adults and children (though far too beautiful to hand over to sticky paws!) and the illustrations are fantastic, done by famous illustrators such as Axel Scheffler (The Gruffalo), Michael Foreman, Jessica Ahlberg, as well as some new talents. This is a must-have for all book and poetry lovers.


Children's poems have a simplicity that is often deceptive - nursery rhymes are profound, mysterious and tap into something quite primeval inside each one of us. I can't read anything about foxes now without thinking of Ted Hughes' wonderful poem about creating poetry - the 'Thought Fox' - written ostensibly for children but which nails the creative process more thoroughly than anything else I've ever read. His choice of animal is absolutely crucial. Foxes lead secret, nocturnal lives and feature in mythology as clever tricksters, often with magic powers.  In Mesopotamia the fox was the messenger of the Goddess. But they could also be the bringers of chaos. Foxes appear in the Song of Solomon; "Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom" - a quote that gave Lillian Hellman the title of her famous play 'The Little Foxes'.


The Tuesday Poets are an international group that tries to post a poem every Tuesday.  To find out what the others are up to, please click on this link.


Monday, 24 August 2015

After the Storm - and a Wonky Donkey!

It's been a stormy week, after a wet, cloudy summer, here in the wilds of northern England. Last night the rain was particularly intense and the roof was leaking like a sieve.


This morning there are three trees washed up on the weir and the river looks like Guinness.


One of our riverbank willows has snapped off and is lying horizontally over the river, ready to be washed away the next time the river is in flood. It's lying among the drifts of Yellow Loose-strife and Himalayan Balsam that are blooming chest-high at the moment.


I suppose I should mourn the non-summer that we've had up here, but I don't.  I love Weather in every mood. When the wind was blowing yesterday and all the trees were turning their backs to the gale and there was a snowstorm of petals, leaves and twigs, it made me feel very much alive.

I'm not finding much time to blog at the moment - August is a family month, with school holidays and lots of fun (in the rain!). I've been visited by big and little people and there have been lots of sticky cuddles, paddles in the river, and cartoons on TV.  We've had damp barbecues, flown kites up on the moor, braved chilly nights to watch the Perseid meteors, baked cakes, and visited museums. In between I've managed to put in some late night hours on the Work In Progress, taking my mind from Cumbria to Canada and re-living my trip to the Edge of the World.

Also learned some new children's songs.  Anyone down-under recognise the Wonky Donkey song sung by Craig Smith?  It's brilliant! The book isn't bad either.


Happy summer holidays everyone!


Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Tuesday Poem: Coastlines - Andrew Taylor



Maybe our life is an affair of coastlines
of touching on contours, of sand shifting
underfoot, of footprints straying
a shore line . . .

                        . . . The only line
that matters in the end is forward.

Andrew Taylor
Landbridge, 1999


Andrew Taylor is a major Australian poet who has never been given quite the international profile he deserves.  He won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1986 for his collection Travelling, and the Western Australian Premier's award for poetry in 1995 for Sandstone.  His Collected Poems were published by Salt in 2005.  Although his poems are often described as 'quiet meditations', they are so, so much more.  Landbridge, a collection of contemporary Australian poetry, edited by John Kinsella, is published by Freemantle Press.


The Tuesday Poets are an international group who aim to post a poem every Tuesday and take turns to edit the main website.  You can find out what we're up to by clicking this link.



Monday, 3 August 2015

Aboriginal Art in London

I've just had a quick trip to London, partly to see Neil off to Cambodia with his granddaughter, but also to take the opportunity to catch the last day of the British Museum's exhibition of Australian Aboriginal Art, which seemed to be essential viewing as part of my research for my work-in-progress on the First Nation people of British Columbia. I wasn't disappointed - it was fascinating. Most of the exhibits were gathered from the Museum's own vaults, but also from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.  Some had been obtained from Australia.  The whole collection is highly controversial, since ownership of artifacts held by museums is now being contested by indigenous people all over the world.  For further discussion on this aspect of the exhibition see 'The Conversation' here.

A haunting painting from Indigenous Australia
The curator, Gaye Sculthorpe, is herself of Tasmanian aboriginal ancestry and she defends the exhibition on educational grounds. And it certainly is educational.  'Aboriginal art represents one of the longest unbroken art traditions in the world,' writes the curator, and the Australian tradition is one of the oldest.  It goes back at least 40,000 years. There are some early artworks in this exhibition, drawings in red ochre on tree bark, like this Barramundi fish, whose anatomy is very carefully drawn.

There were beautiful masks, including crocodile masks for ceremonial wear, but because photography was prohibited, I'm restricted to showing only the advance publicity photographs for the exhibition.  This mask is from the Torres Island community, alongside a contemporary painting.

One of the high points of the exhibition for me was the space it gave to depicting the cultural genocide that occurred, particularly in Tasmania. This honesty has been criticised.  The Sunday Telegraph blasted it for being 'insultingly negative'.  However the Guardian gave it five stars for "wisdom the world needs to listen to".  Canada is currently owning up to its colonial sins - perhaps it's time for Britain and Australia to do so too? There is a very good book on the subject; The Last Man, by Tom Lawson, which identifies 'genocide by policy and ideology' and tells the story of what happened in Tasmania.

A mother of pearl pendant that would have been worn by an aboriginal woman of status
Some of the most beautiful exhibits were the contemporary paintings by artists still working in the tradition.  This one depicts the story of two snakes, father and son, on a journey, encountering many hazards, including the poisonous snakes at the bottom of the picture.


The artworks are tied, inextricably, to the 'country' of the indigenous people, which is so much a part of their lives as to be one with them - there is no separate word for it, because it is part of themselves. One artist writes that, "Removed from the land, we are literally removed from ourselves."  There is a very moving paragraph by Tania Major, one of the Kokoberra people of Queensland, that attempts to explain the relationship. "If you can imagine then, one family continuously occupying the same land for 40,000 years or more, using it not just to sustain life, but as a place of reverence and worship, where every tree, rock and water hole has significance, you will get some understanding of the importance of land to the Indigenous people."

Friday, 31 July 2015

Books, books and even more books!

One of the disadvantages of coming home, after a long period away, is the pile of mail waiting for you - a big shaggy pile of junk, bills, notifications, magazines and jiffy bags. This time was no exception.  I haven't been at home for more than two or three days at a stretch since the end of April, so the pile was substantial.  But the up-side has been the contents of the jiffy bags.  Books!!!!

Alice Jolly's wonderful, heart-breaking memoir 'Dead Babies and Seaside Towns' was one of the first to be pulled from the pile.  I read the first, addictive paragraphs and put it on one side for a proper read.  Then Kim Moore's new poetry collection, The Art of Falling, which I've been eagerly anticipating ever since it was published. And then I opened an envelope and Earthlines tumbled out - a beautiful magazine of environmentally related prose, poetry and stunning images - to find my own poem sequence about Emily Carr, Between the Forest and the Sea, laid out on a two page spread in the middle.

Other treats included the poetry magazine The Moth, which I've recently subscribed to. It is visually in a class of its own and the content is always varied and stimulating. I'm enjoying it very much and will probably keep up my subscription. At only £6.00 it's very affordable.

There were also lots and lots of books for research - all the way through my Canadian trip people kept recommending things I should read - many of them only available in North America. Fortunately Abe Books can find virtually anything second hand.  I found myself buying things from the Thrift Bookstore in the US for only a few dollars plus a few dollars postage.  They all arrived in the UK before I did.  It pains me, as an author, to buy second hand books that pay no royalties to the writer, but many of these books were out of print and only available second hand.  Others were university press published at prices only institutions can afford. That kind of publication does no service to the author at all.

Now, I'd better get off the computer and do something more useful than blogging! I have a lot of work to do over the summer and a book to write, but I'm also planning an orgy of reading. That puts a big smile on my face!

Monday, 27 July 2015

Tuesday Poem: Kathleen Jamie stops worrying about commas

'I'm aware now that life is finite.  So I'm going to keep at it, keep at it.  Instead of doing my usual thing of finicking around for two months per poem: "Comma in?  Comma out.  No, comma in. Comma out" . . . Well, to hell with that.  Stop worrying about commas.'

In the winter edition of the Poetry Review UK there's a very interesting interview with Kathleen Jamie. She talks about her development as a poet from her first collection 'Black Spiders' at the age of nineteen, to the present day and her expansion into eco-writing with the brilliant environmental essays published in Findings and Sightlines.

For women writers and artists born before the feminist revolution of the seventies and eighties, it wasn't the glass ceiling that was the threat to unlimited achievement, it was their own biology condensed into the image of 'the pram in the hall'. This was a phrase from Cyril Connolly's book on writing the great novel - "There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall". In the twenty first century we shouldn't have to keep talking about it, but the subject still comes up.


Women have always had to juggle their creativity with motherhood. Many famous female authors in the past were childless - Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, Katherine Mansfield, Eudora Welty to name only a few.  Writer Lauren Sandler famously said, as late as 2013, that to be a successful woman writer you could only have one child.  Kathleen Jamie has two. She thinks that having children was the best thing she could do, both as a woman and a writer. 'To think I might not have had those experiences and been deepened out by it, excavated by it. . .  The pram in the hall lasts about eighteen months!  It's nothing.'

Kathleen Jamie busts a lot of myths. When asked by a PhD student about how she had constructed her latest collection of poetry she answered 'I'm sorry, I just put the poems on the floor and shuffled them around.'  Lately there has been a loosening up of her approach to poetry.  'I think I've had enough for now of the "well-made poem".  There's more of a to-hell-with-it attitude in what I've been writing since The Overhaul.' She made a resolution in 2014 to write a poem a week, with a limit of 14 lines each. 'Just go with the vibe,'  she recommends.  'Go with the energy. . . It's great what happens when you just give up.'
Spontaneity, energy, the freeing of the imagination from the shackles of form.  Maybe we've become too self-conscious, too craft-conscious as poets and forgotten the sheer delight of words, that intoxication with language that outruns the pen and goes beyond any kind of discipline. Maybe we have to leave behind what Jamie calls 'well-madeness' and embrace risk and poetic hedonism. And stop worrying about commas!


Kathleen Jamie's interview is part of the Bloodaxe Archive Project in conjunction with Newcastle University.

You can listen to Kathleen Jamie reading her own poetry at the Poetry Archive. 


The Tuesday Poets are an international group who try to post a poem every Tuesday and take it in turns to edit our main web page.  If you'd like to see what the rest of the group are sharing, please click here and take a look!