Friday, 27 March 2015

Emily Carr: Between the Forest and the Sea

Skidegate in the Haida Gwaii islands painted by Emily Carr
One of the highlights, for me, this winter, has been an exhibition of paintings and drawings at the Dulwich Gallery in London.  They were the work of Canadian artist Emily Carr, who was born in the 19th century into a conventional Victorian colonial family and grew up to defy female expectations and become a painter.  She was fascinated by the decaying civilisation of the First Nation people of the Haida Gwaii islands and is famous for her depictions of their villages and artefacts.

Emily in the white lace collar
Emily was one of 5 sisters, orphaned while still quite young and brought up by her older siblings. Although Emily's father had encouraged her to paint, sending her to drawing classes as an adolescent, her sisters weren't too sure about her unconventional inclinations and felt that they couldn't spare the money for further training after he died. But Emily did manage to get to San Francisco where she studied for a while and then to England where she contracted TB and spent time in a sanatorium.  She declined marriage and returned to Canada to pursue a career in art.
War Canoes: Alert Bay
Emily paid Haida people to take her to their islands, by canoe, where she camped out in ruined villages, drawing and painting, even in the rain.  It was touching to see the rain drops on her water-colours. It was an unusual life for a young woman.  She often suffered from depression - feeling very alone.  'I don't fit anywhere, so I'm out of everything and I ache and ache.'

She was fascinated by the carved poles still standing outside the houses, tilting in rows along the shoreline. Sometimes she despaired of capturing them as she wanted.  'Every creative individual despairs . . . No matter how fine the things are, there are always finer things to be done.'

She loved the forests of giant redwood which were gradually being plundered for timber by colonial corporations. '[the forest's] bigness and stark reality baffled my white man's understanding. I had been trained to see outsides only, not struggle to pierce.'
The mysterious redwood forests of the Haida Gwaii
One of Emily's most famous paintings is 'Scorned for timber; beloved of the sky' - a single slender sapling stretching upwards in a clearing.  It could have been a metaphor for her own life. 'Trees don't make a mess of things as we do,' she wrote.  'They are themselves, growing for one purpose.'   The rape of the forests by logging companies was a subject Emily often painted.


Susan Vreeland wrote a novel around Emily's life called 'The Forest Lover' based partly on Emily's journals - the fragments of autobiography she wrote in old age and published.  I managed to find these online as part of the Gutenberg Project. The texts are beautifully written and quite poetic. They show that Emily was not only a painter, but also a gifted writer. There's one description of a wooden landing stage 'its crooked legs stockinged in barnacles' that has stayed with me, and the account of her meeting with the carving of D'Sonoqua - the totemic wild woman of the forest, 'Horror tumbled from the shadows of her eyes'. There are wonderful descriptions of the rotting carvings of the Raven perched outside the villages.


The exhibition also had some of Emily's notebooks - tiny detailed sketches - as well as illustrated books she made of excursions with one of her sisters.  The cartoons of some of the funnier things that happened to them were fantastic.  Emily obviously had a very well developed sense of humour.  This is her account of a Sunday sermon:

Beneath Parson Leakey's so sorrowful eyes
     We sit in a row while the soft daylight dies,
And list to a sermon so woeful and sad
     We feel that we never again can be glad.
With tear drops besprinkling our sunfreckled cheeks
     We feel we daren't smile for many long weeks.
Oh Leakey, the morbid, why are you so sad?
     Do you mourn for the good times you ought to have had?


One of Emily's hand-made journals
Emily had to struggle with money, because her paintings weren't initially very saleable.  She ran a B&B and gave up painting for about 15 years before being encouraged to begin again. In later life she was exhibiting and selling quite well, but her health was poor.  She loved dogs and also had a pet monkey.  In order to paint outdoors, she often camped  in the forest during the summer in a wooden caravan she called The Elephant.
Emily with her dogs at The Elephant
One of the most poignant passages in her autobiography is an account of the life of Susie, her Haida friend, who was extremely poor, but very proud.  Susie had given birth to, and buried, more than twenty children.  Few of them lived more than a few months.  But Susie had managed to give each one a proper Christian funeral, marking the graves with a little white cross. She was very distressed that the priests wouldn't bury the stillborn babies in the graveyard.


Susie's life was an example of how European diseases, such as smallpox and TB, ravaged the Haida community, reducing the population by more than 80% in a couple of decades. Emily's remarkable work, both written and painted, records a very important period in Canadian history and provides a written and visual record of the vanishing culture of the Haida people.  Emily felt a spiritual link with the islands and their people that was almost unique.  She was a very special person and this comes over both in her paintings and her journals.

Emily with one of her dogs in old age.


Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Tuesday Poem: Derek Walcott - Ebb

Year round, year round, we'll ride
this treadmill whose frayed tide
fretted with mud

leaves our suburban shoreline littered
with rainbow muck, the afterbirth
of industry, past scurf-

streaked bungalows
and pioneer factory;
but, blessedly, it narrows

through a dark aisle
of fountaining, gold coconuts, an oasis
marked for the yellow Caterpillar tractor.

We'll watch this shovelled too, but as we file
through its swift-wickered shade there always is
some island schooner netted in its weave

like a lamed heron
an oil-crippled gull;
a few more yards upshore

and it heaves free,
it races the horizon
with us, railed to one law,

ruled, like the washed-up moon
to circle her lost zone,
her radiance thinned.

The palm fronds signal wildly in the wind,
but we are bound elsewhere,
from the last sacred wood.

To read more of this poem please click this link
From 'Ebb', Derek Walcott, The Gulf, 1969


I picked up my copy of Derek Walcott's collected poems and the pages fell open at this poem.  Although it was written in the nineteen sixties it is totally contemporary - the 'oil-crippled gull', the 'rainbow muck' of the shoreline, the ubiquitous bulldozers.  We are definitely bound elsewhere from 'the last sacred wood' and have been ignoring the signals that nature has been sending us for decades.

Derek Walcott uses a quote from Robinson Crusoe as an epigraph for an earlier poem 'Crusoe's Journal' in his previous collection The Castaway, and it could easily be the epigraph for these poems in The Gulf  - it seems almost impossible that this piece from Crusoe wasn't in his mind when he named the collection.

'I looked now upon the world as a thing remote, which I had nothing to do with, no expectation from and, indeed, no desires about.  In a word, I had nothing to do with it, nor was I ever like to have, so I thought it looked as we may perhaps look upon it hereafter, as a place I had lived in but was come out of, and well might I say 'Between me and thee is a great gulf fixed'. 


The Tuesday Poets are an international group  based in New Zealand and we try to post a new poem every Tuesday and take turns to edit the main website.  To read what they're all posting today, please take a look at the website here. 





Saturday, 21 March 2015

Meeting Yourself in Someone Else's Story

I went to hear Margaret Drabble at the Words by the Water book festival a couple of weeks ago and, after listening to her talk about short fiction, bought her collection of short stories, A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. She talked about the struggle she'd had to persuade her publisher to put them into print, which gives an idea of the state of publishing these days.  It's an interesting selection, ranging from 'Hassan's Tower' written in 1966 to 'Stepping Westward' in 2000.


Many of the stories are classic Drabble, with the prose style that is so distinctive.  The circuitous sentences that wind round the sense, balanced by colons and commas, repetitions, clauses and sub-clauses.  Some people hate it, but I find it mesmerizing. In 'A Pyrric Victory' a young girl, dragged out of her comfort zone on holiday with a boyfriend and unsympathetic friends, deliberately defiles a rock pool as an act of defiance and provocation.  It's a victory of sorts, very quickly qualified. This is the last sentence - vintage Drabble:-

'But of the nature of that victory she was never sure: she had thought to destroy, in one last unnatural effort, her admiration for that gaudy picture postcard set, but even as she sat there amongst the debris, imprisoned, exiled, yet victorious, she wondered whether she had not perhaps left herself, more clearly than ever, but in less painful isolation, with that moment, poised beautifully before the ugliness of its own ruin, poised there before the destruction of sharing and articulation and definition, which was as necessary, as painfully necessary to its existence as water, rocks, and sea, and fish, and faces.'
Margaret Drabble as she looked around the time she wrote this story.
When I got to story No.7, 'A Success Story', I was intrigued to come face to face with a character called Kathie Jones.  Now, you may not know, but among family and friends I'm Kathie Jones (with an ie not a y).  More intriguingly Kathie Jones is a writer, from a working class background in a cultural wilderness. Worse and worse, 'she was quite a nice-looking woman', but 'she had rather a long, large-featured face, with a large nose: she had big hands and large bones'.  Which just about sums up my physical appearance.  Of course it isn't me.  Margaret Drabble had never met me when she wrote it (I hope) and if she had would have had more sense than to give her character my name. But it has eerie resonances.  I liked the bit where Kathie Jones meets a famous writer at a party and, although she is respectably married, she goes back to his hotel room where nothing much really happens.  Something like that once happened to me and I was similarly virtuous (regretted it later!). Apparently Saul Bellow thought Margaret had based Howard Jago on himself and sued.  So that settles it.  I have never met Saul Bellow (as far as I know) . . . .

Jane Davis is tackling the difficult question of basing your characters on real life people over at 'Pills and Pillow Talk' today.  Getting it wrong can be expensive for a writer, though we all do it from time to time.

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, by Margaret Drabble,  is a Penguin Modern Classic available in paperback and on Kindle.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Tuesday Poem: Kim Moore - How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping

What happened sits in my heart like a stone.
You told me I’d be writing about it
all my life, when I asked
how to stop saying these things to the moon.
I told you how writing it makes the dark
lift and then settle again like a flock of birds.

You said that thinking of the past like birds
who circle each year will make the stone
in my chest heavy, that the dark
that settles inside me will pass. You say it
is over, you say that even the moon
can’t know all of what happened, that to ask

to forget is to miss the point. I should ask
to remember. I should open myself to the birds
who sing for their lives. I should tell the moon
how his skin was like smoke, his hand a stone
that fell from a great height. It
was not what I deserved. The year was dark

because he was there and my eyes were dark
and I fell to not speaking. If I asked
him to leave he would smile. Nothing in it
was sacred. And I didn’t look up. The birds
could have fallen from the sky like stones
and I wouldn’t have noticed. The moon

was there that night in the snow. The moon
was waiting the day the dark
crept into my mouth and left me stone
silent, stone dumb, when all I could ask
was for him to stop, please stop. The birds
fled to the trees and stayed there. It

wasn’t their fault. It was nobody’s fault. It
happened because I was still. The moon
sung something he couldn’t hear. The birds
in my heart silent for a year in the dark.
This is the way it is now, asking
for nothing but to forget his name, a stone

that I carry. It cools in my mouth in the dark
and the moon sails on overhead. You ask
about birds, but all I can think of is stones.

Copyright Kim Moore, with permission
(from The Art of Falling to be published by Seren, 1st April 2015)
Thanks to Josephine Corcoran for sharing this with me.


I love this poem.  There is such grief, 'The birds/ in my heart silent for a year in the dark', but also hope in the very act of writing 'I told you how writing it makes the dark/ lift'. Violence within relationships is often a theme in Kim's work.  There are layers of meaning in this poem I haven't even begun to penetrate yet, but can feel in the tone and the rhythm. It makes me think about how much of a poem's meaning hits us at an instinctive, visceral level rather than a linguistic one.  Kim is also a musician and I think this has a big influence on her work.

Kim Moore wins a lot of awards for her poetry (including the Gregory Award) - her first pamphlet 'If We Could Speak like Wolves' was a prize-winner - and I feel sure that her first full collection 'The Art of Falling', published by Seren in April, will be collecting accolades too.  She is a fresh, vigorous new voice in poetry, beginning to be quite a force up here in the north with readings and workshops.  She is also the new co-editor, with Andrew Forster, of the magazine Compass.


Look out for 'The Art of Falling' - it's going to be good  It's available for pre-order, released on the 1st of April.  This is what Seren has to say about it:-

"Kim Moore, in her lively debut poetry collection, The Art of Falling, sets out her stall in the opening poems, firmly in the North amongst 'My People': "who swear without knowing they are swearing - scaffolders and plasterers and shoemakers and carers - ". 'A Psalm for the Scaffolders' is a hymn for her father's profession. The title poem riffs on the many sorts of falling "so close to failing or to falter or to fill". The poet's voice is direct, rhythmic, compelling. These are poems that confront the reader, steeped in realism, they are not designed to soothe or beguile. They are not designed with careful overlays of irony and although frequently clever, they are not pretentious but vigorously alive."



The Tuesday Poets are a group of 28 poets from around the world.  We try to post a poem every Tuesday and take it in turns to edit the main website.  If you enjoyed Kim's poem, please click over to our main  hub and discover what the other Tuesday Poets are posting.  

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Remembering my Mother

It's 'Mother's Day' and, while I don't like the whole commercial hype, I can't help thinking about my own mother - particularly as it's quite close to her birthday.  She was such a wonderful person - one of the generation who lost their chances because of the second world war.  Without it she would have become a teacher, or librarian.  But instead she became a 'landgirl' in the Land Army and afterwards married a young man she met on one of the farms.


The beautiful, part Italian girl, born and brought up in a city, became a farmer's wife.




She had a hard life, losing her first love in the war, to become a war widow at the age of 21.  Later, she discovered she had an inherited heart condition which meant there was a great deal she couldn't do and she was often in hospital.  One of my last memories of her was dashing over to a Newcastle hospital in the middle of the night to find her sitting on the bed in A & E, her heart describing horrific loops on the screen, but she was still smiling at me.  I knew, all my life, that whatever I did, she would still love me.
One of mum's last photographs - still smiling!
Mum was a book addict and I still have her 60 year record of the books she read, scribbled into little notebooks. She passed on her love of books to me.  Thank you Mum!!



Friday, 13 March 2015

Julia Blackburn at Words by the Water

I've just been to the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick again to hear Julia Blackburn talk about her new book 'Threads'.
Threads, by Julia Blackburn, published in April
I love Julia Blackburn's work - her beautiful combination of memoir, fiction and biography. One of my favourite books is 'Daisy Bates in the Desert', which blends all three to create a three dimensional portrait of the elusive Daisy Bates.  Julia talked about how she sees biography as being essentially subjective. The biographer is always there at the centre of the story, part of it, their relationship with the subject central to the narrative.  What is happening in the author's life while they are writing the book affects how the biographer sees the subject - the details of one life affects the other. This is something I relate to quite strongly. It's not just that the reader is going to see the subject through your eyes; as a biographer in search of the subject, you go on a journey and come back changed.
Julia Blackburn
Threads is the story of Julia's journey to find a painter called John Craske - a fisherman on the Norfolk coast who became ill in 1917 aged 36, while training to go the front in France.  He had a strange and possibly psychiatric disorder that rendered him in 'a stupor' some of the time - often bedridden.
John Craske in his oilskins
He began to paint, using any materials that he could find - the lid of a bait box, pieces of brown paper, scraps of card, and the paint used for the boats. He had little education and had probably not seen anything other than picture paper images in his life.  His paintings were discovered by the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner and her lover Valentine Ackland.  Some of them were collected by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.  They were sold in London galleries alongside Henry Moore and Paul Nash, described as 'primitives'.


When John Craske was too ill to get out of bed, his wife gave him cloth and embroidery thread to work with, and some of his embroideries are very beautiful.  He did one long piece, depicting the evacuation of Dunkirk, just before he died in 1943.  It remained unfinished and Julia said that she liked to imagine him exiting through the small white space in the canvas.

Detail from 'the Evacuation of Dunkirk'
Julia's search was often frustrating.  Manuscripts, letters and works of art have gone missing since his death.  Few people are left alive who remembered him.  In the middle of her research, Julia's beloved husband, Herman, died, leaving a big absence at the centre of her own life.  But he had told her that when he died she was to work because 'Only work will get you through'.  So Julia went on with the biography, even though 'the nature of the world I inhabited had changed irrevocably'.

Julia's conclusion is that John Craske, too, used work to 'get him through' - that his art was therapeutic in a life marred by both physical and mental illness. It also brings up the question of 'what remains of us?'  In John's case there are embroideries buried in cellars, being eaten by moths and paintings hung upside down in locked offices, even pinned to the wall in back rooms - overlooked and unappreciated. Hopefully Julia's book will change that.

Literature festivals are very intense. Shirley Williams was signing books in the foyer, Rory Stewart talking up a storm about the Middle East in the main theatre - the whole building was buzzing.  It was exhilarating and exhausting. In the afternoon several of us played truant by Lake Derwentwater.

L to R, Elizabeth Stott, Alwyn Marriage, me and Ellee Seymour

Monday, 9 March 2015

Literature Festivals - Melvyn Bragg, Margaret Drabble, Ben Okri, Mark McCrum and Murder . . . .

I've just spent the day at the Words by the Water book festival in Keswick.  A cold, clear winter's day in the Lake District with an icy wind from the arctic - definitely the weather for curling up with a book.
Derwentwater from the Theatre by the Lake
The first session was a discussion on the state of publishing today with Melvyn Bragg, Margaret Drabble and Cate Haste - chaired by Mark McCrum.  Very lively and informative.  Melvyn confesses to being a dinosaur, writing with pen and paper and letting someone else do the typing.  Not a computer man and definitely not an ebook person!  His wife Cate Haste admitted having a Kindle, but said she could never find the charger.  Margaret Drabble, unexpectedly, was very enthusiastic about ebooks - not just reading them on a Kindle, but about the whole publication scene, which made more money for writers.  Very clear-sighted and progressive.  I bought her new book of short stories, which she admitted having to badger her reluctant publishers into publishing.  If writers of her reputation and calibre have trouble getting short stories into print, then there's no hope for the rest of us.  The collection is called 'A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman'.

As it was international women's day, the next event was aptly titled 'Women in Dark Times'.  I listened to Jacqueline Rose eloquently talking about the lives of Rosa Luxemburg and Marilyn Monroe.  Rosa - a Polish Jew - fought for socialist democracy in Germany at the beginning of the century and was murdered for her activism;  Marilyn Monroe proved to be more political than her legend has allowed her to be seen.  She too, died in dubious circumstances. The book covers much, much more including 'honour' killings and the lives of contemporary feminists.
Jacqueline Rose
Mark McCrum gave the Royal Literary Fund talk on the ups and downs of a writer's life and demonstrated very clearly the need for the Royal Literary Fund's support.  Most of us have stories of 'the book that never was'.  An excellent relationship with publisher Christopher Sinclair Stephenson came to an abrupt end when the firm was bought up by someone who didn't share CSS's enthusiasm for Mark's work  On another occasion he had an editor who was very enthusiastic about his work and about to sign him up, when she was rushed to hospital and died.  Another book - primed to be a best-seller in a well-timed media storm - was scuppered by the death of Princess Diana the night before publication.  Since then, Mark has ghosted books (a hilarious account of going on tour with Robbie Williams) for celebrities, including Prince Harry, and spent time Castaway on a Scottish island to write the story of the TV story (which proved more controversial than the broadcast version) and worked as a travel journalist.


His latest book - independently published - is Fest, a murder mystery set at a literature festival. At Mold on the Wold, an eminent and rather savage literary critic is found dead and there are a whole host of suspects with red hot motives. Fest is very funny, incredibly well-written and stylishly plotted.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day meeting up with fellow writers over coffee or tea (I was driving) and catching up with the literary gossip. My Kindle is now loaded with new reads.  The day closed with Ben Okri and I had high expectations of the event - he is a magical, mesmerising speaker and has a lot to say about mythology and the importance of stories for our culture.  But it was an 'in conversation' event and was badly marred by some banal and insensitive questioning, so I left early - half an hour with gritted teeth was enough!