True Grit (1969)


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Western Approaches

Not Bad for a One-Eyed Fat Man

Remakes stimulate debate. Rarely does the new version come out on top. Received wisdom invariably is that “It isn’t a patch on the original.”

It’s an argument that has dual attractions: first in the direction of nostalgia and second of  one up-man-ship. “You mean to say you haven’t seen the original!” The word original (in this context) is straight from the emotive school of language. It’s use, in reality, is little more than saying hooray for my side of the argument. “I like the old one because it is the old one”. Having said that, remakes rarely out-do the fondly remembered.

Glen Campbell as La Boeuf, John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn and Kim Darby as Mattie Ross

Some classic westerns could be termed remakes. 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars for instance. They take their storylines and characters from Akira Kurosawa films. This doesn’t necessarily make them remakes just as  Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 Henry V is not a remake of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 movie. Same characters, same story; completely different film. Of westerns that are remakes, 3:10 to Yuma (2007), The Magnificent Seven (2016), Stagecoach (1966), and The Lone Ranger (2013) all fail to capture the qualities that made the earlier film and TV shows classics. One exception is the 2003 version of Ned Kelly starring Heath Ledger which is a massive improvement of the 1970 version starring a miscast Mick Jagger. (OK it’s Australian but in every aspect it’s a western).  Some films deserve to be remade and some deserve to be left alone. The 2010 version of True Grit is a good film but it fits into the category of “why didn’t they use the wealth of talent at their disposal to make an entirely new western?” It’s like taking your band into the studio and doing a cover version of a Beatles song. It may be brilliant but it will never be(at) the Beatles.

John Wayne’s True Grit is not a masterpiece in terms of classic cinema. It’s a magnificent film, a wonderful 2 hours and 8 minutes  but it rarely features in the top 100 lists. It won John Wayne his Oscar but I think Wayne put in more complex and challenging performances in (for example) The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Stagecoach. The great success of the film is the mixing of key western elements, classic revenge tragedy, stunning location photography, brilliant casting, toughness and grit into what is essentially a heart-warming comedy. What Edward Buscombe describes as “an expert blend of humour, tenderness and excitement”. There’s plenty of shooting, a double-figure body count and yet it is undoubtedly family viewing.

Jeremy Slate as Emmett Quincy, Dennis Hopper as Moon and Johns Wayne as Cogburn

I love it and intend to use the rest of this post to explain (to myself as much as to anybody else) just why this is the case.

First the Mirabell reason*. I admit the film has its faults and I like it better  because of them. Glen Campbell wasn’t the first or last popular singer to be cast in a western (see Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, not to mention Roy Rodgers) but he is undoubtedly the worst actor amongst them. But this suits the film. His character is an awkward sort of a lump who gives both Maddie and Rooster an opportunity to exercise their wit. These are pre Peckinpah cowboys who can ride and fight and drink and never need a change of clothes. They simply don’t get dirty. Campbell’s distinguishing feature as a musician (apart from a voice given by the angels and supreme guitar picking skills) is a head of hair so wonderfully combed as to provide a model for Lego people. His character  rides through the wildest wilderness, crosses  turbulent steams and climbs the rockiest mountains and still looks like he’s wearing George Jones’s Barnet. It’s a performance so wooden that even after he dies we have to wait for Wayne to explain  the lack of movement.

Then there are the prompts, the previews, the tell-you-it’s-coming lines. “Careful you don’t fall down that pit, it’s full of rattlesnakes.” and you have a pretty good idea where the action is heading.

Robert Duvall as Ned Pepper

The title song is poor and has little other than the words ‘True Grit’ to link it  with the movie. It’s all sweeping strings of the over-produced late sixties Nashville style and completely at odds with the rest of Elmer Bernstein’s Magnificent Sevenesque score. But it works. All the faults work. They contribute to making the film  better. In the 2010 remake Matt Damon, as good a lead actor as Hollywood has produced in recent years, struggled to inject life into the character of Le Bouef. He appears  awkward whereas Campbell’s awkwardness appears as a sort of charming gaucherie and contributes enormously to the humour.

On the strong points you cannot avoid Wayne. This is his film even though he doesn’t appear until everything has been set up. Cogburn’s faults allow Wayne to show an impressive skill at comedy without sacrificing the dramatic qualities of the film. He’s old, he’s fat, he’s prejudiced and largely misogynist, mercenary and a drunk. Wayne has enormous fun with all of these. He’s happy either as straight man or comic and never misses a beat. Underneath all of this however,  is a man with a sense of right and wrong, a man capable of love and generosity; a source of goodness.

Strother Martin as Colonel Stonehill

Kim Darby is wonderful as Maddie Ross. She maintains her dynamic and intensity of performance while never attempting to take over the film. A single minded, clear thinking, determined, ruthless force for retribution who, like Wayne, reveals a vulnerable side to her nature when things go wrong.

The last fifteen minutes of the film (once these character traits have been revealed) are surprisingly tender and moving.

The supporting cast is superb. A young Robert Duvall shows what a great western actor he might have been if westerns weren’t rapidly going out of fashion. (I think he did ok without cowboy films). Dennis Hopper demonstrates a completeness in his portrayal of Moon which is perhaps proof that there are no small parts only small actors. Strother Martin is always a delight to watch; here he’s the horse dealer trying to short change Maddie and having the tables turned on him. James Westerfield has barely enough lines but uses them  to establish a court doling out frontier justice by means of a simple request for a peppermint to sooth his troubled stomach.

There isn’t a weak link in the chain. The storyline is gripping. Half revenge tragedy, half quest with a universality dating all the way back to the Greek myths. The story is sequential which requires a recurring pattern of dramatic climax and anti-climax. The timing is faultless, the editing flawless. Quest westerns invariably move from the town or city out into the wilderness. The towns represent all of the corrupting influences on man. Bad things happen in towns. The wilderness is a place for refugees and renegades and outlaws. It is also a place of cleansing. Bad things get put right in the wild, people become renewed and return older and wiser men and women.

“I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man”

Which brings us to the cinematography. We’re invariably looking out across vast undulating hills towards distant mountains. This creates a sense of enormous space whilst delineating the limits of man’s world. Everything is in the  process of growth. The grass is green, the trees are coming into leaf. There is a sense of permanent springtime out there. Shot after shot is superbly composed and photographed with a depth of focus that makes it  look as if you can see for miles.

“Fill your hand you son of a bitch”

The climax is a shootout between Wayne and Duvall’s band of outlaws. It’s shot from different angles. At one moment we’re looking down on the field; a clearing in the wooded hills; an arena.  It could be a medieval tournament and close ups show the champions issuing their challenges.

Ned Pepper: What’s your intention? Do you think one on four is a dogfall?

Rooster: I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience. Which’ll it be?

Ned Pepper: I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.

Rooster: Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!

I wasn’t old enough to see True Grit at the cinema and it’s too good a film to be fully enjoyed on the small screen. Perhaps instead of remaking these westerns they might consider re-releasing the originals for the full big screen treatment. I would love that!



* Mirabell is a character in William Congreave’s The Way of the World. Romantic heroes had always extolled the virtues of their beloved. Mirabell was the first, as far as I know, to extol the faults.

She has beauty enough to make any man think so, and complaisance enough not to contradict him who shall tell her so.

For a passionate lover methinks you are a man somewhat too discerning in the failings of your mistress.

And for a discerning man somewhat too passionate a lover, for I like her with all her faults; nay, like her for her faults. Her follies are so natural, or so artful, that they become her, and those affectations which in another woman would be odious serve but to make her more agreeable. I’ll tell thee, Fainall, she once used me with that insolence that in revenge I took her to pieces, sifted her, and separated her failings: I studied ’em and got ’em by rote. The catalogue was so large that I was not without hopes, one day or other, to hate her heartily. To which end I so used myself to think of ’em, that at length, contrary to my design and expectation, they gave me every hour less and less disturbance, till in a few days it became habitual to me to remember ’em without being displeased. They are now grown as familiar to me as my own frailties, and in all probability in a little time longer I shall like ’em as well.

The Best Day Out in England


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Lincoln: Summer 2017


I’ve rarely been on a friendlier train. Even people busy with their phones (mostly games…one scrolling through eBay for kitchen utensils and one on Facebook) were happy to answer my questions. Cheerful people got off at Collingham and Swinderby, presumably to work, and a dozen fresh faces got on at North Hykeham to bring their smiles into the city. It seems to do people good to live and work in this part of Lincolnshire.

I’m early. The main attractions don’t open until 10 o’clock. A good breakfast would come in handy and I drop lucky. Stokes’ High Bridge Tearooms are exceptional. Seating on three storeys of a historic building on a bridge across the River Witham. Waitresses in traditional black dresses with white pinafores make it feel both timeless and authentic. I hope the food matches. It does. And the tea is superb. Take a note cafe owners. It’s really ridiculously simple. Take all your tea bags and throw them in the dustbin. Buy good loose-leaf tea, put it in an attractive earthenware teapot, add boiling water and leave to infuse slowly. Take to the table with a  jug of milk (don’t be stingy)  and a second pot of boiling water for topping up. A cup, a saucer, a teaspoon and, for the careful, a tea strainer. Result, tea worth drinking.

Try the plum loaf while you’re there; it’s exceptional.

I like Lincoln but it has always seemed to underplay itself. It should be up there with Oxford and Bath and Canterbury but it often finds itself lining up with other under-rated county towns like Worcester and Lancaster. We should visit these towns more often. Their splendours often match the tourist honeypots and they have the huge advantage of being quiet enough to actually enjoy what is there. Lincoln cathedral is one of the great ecclesiastical buildings and the castle is outrageously good at any time. It’s even better this year.It provides, in no particular order, one of Europe’s great castle wall walks, two almost perfect examples of the motte and bailey design, stunning views, a Victorian prison you can walk round, dress up as a prisoner or warder (I did both), visit the strangely haunting chapel where prisoners were kept incommunicado, stand where the scaffold was or  the graves of those sentenced to be buried within the prison confines, take in an active Crown Court where (judging by the number of high security vans parked outside) some serious felons stand accused and then, after you’ve enjoyed a cup of coffee or tea (bags I’m afraid) you can enter the special vault where not only the Magna Carta is on permanent display but this summer it is joined by The Charter of the Forest (yes, me too!) and the Domesday Book. No not a replica or a copy or one of ten originals but THE Domesday Book.

O.K. they’re in glass display cabinets but believe me these are not only worth seeing but they’re worth travelling to see. Three of the most important documents in our history on display in a single room. Everybody who came through was awed by the experience of simply looking at the ancient parchments. They meant something different to each visitor. A law student stood rapt for half an hour seeing the foundation of  English jurisprudence. An American couple saw a significant building block in their country’s constitution, a farmer knew his village is mentioned in the great book, a small boy told the joke “Where did King John sign the Magna Carta? At the bottom!” only to be corrected by the guard who showed him the holes where the royal seal would have been hung. I had gone to see the Magna Carta and didn’t know the other two would be there. Suddenly I’m speechless. If I’d been standing between Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale and Bob Dylan I wouldn’t have been more starstruck. I bought a season ticket. I’m going back.

Archive photo. There was a strict no photography rule in the Magna Carta vault.

“How much are they worth?” asked a man in a Guns and Roses t shirt. “Priceless” came the answer and I reckon this room contains the very definition of that word.

The guard was great. (there are a lot of guards around the castle this year but they keep their watchful presence with gentle good humour). This fellow had been won over by the Domeday Book in particular. The official castle guide couldn’t get a word in edgeways as a man who looked like a uniformed thug, and a big one at that, held forth about the hierarchy of land ownership in 11th century Lincolnshire, then onto a workable précis of the feudal system and finally a detailed description of how they made the ink.

Downstairs in the impressive mini cinema we enjoyed a wraparound film that explained in entertaining detail where the security man had got his information. (Just a note to Lincoln Castle if you’re reading this… a few extra pounds spent on genuine actors might have been a good investment.)

I spent four hours in the castle and was never once less than impressed. The prison chapel is an awful place, as is the prison. But awful in a way that should be remembered. The presence of Lincoln Crown Court in the castle grounds is a reminder that we may not have learned all the lessons just yet.

My visit inside the cells was brightened by the peculiar sound of two women singing Mozart a cappella on the prison landing. I complimented them once they were done. They said they were rehearsing for a wedding that weekend when there were going to be twenty singers. It never occurred to me thirty odd years ago that I could have got married in a building that had experienced such extreme examples of man’s inhumanity to man and woman. The massed choirs of the sixth sphere of heaven wouldn’t have tempted me. Having said that, the singing was pretty good.

Then a short walk of stunning beauty past a number of tempting pubs and eating houses to the cathedral. It was done up to the nines for the graduation ceremony of one of Lincoln’s two universities. One university provides for the young and the other for the older student. I’m not sure if this is planned but as I  watched the parade pass before me it felt like the gold watch ceremony for completing 25 years service with the local council.

I was just in time to be one of three communicants at a service in a glorious chantry. The lesser the congregation the greater the share of glory. The priest was a visitor to the city having spent his career divided between chaplaincy at a Cambridge college and singing opera professionally. He was excellent company.

As was the guide in the Wren Library. It was quiet up there and I think he fancied a little conversation that allowed him the veer from the prepared parts of speech. We shared a love of books, of beautiful rooms (the Wren Library was described by Sir Roy Strong as “the most beautiful room in England” and I wouldn’t disagree), of a love of learning, illuminated documents, bookbinding, civil wars and the history of the legend of Robin Hood. We talked for over an hour and I didn’t notice the time go by.

Also an archive photo (with thanks to City of Lincoln) as photography was not allowed in the cathedral libraries.

Further round the cloisters is the Chapter House. Stunning in size and another treat lay in store. The wonderful sound of a violin doing justice to Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending drew me in. Artist in residence Dominic Parczuk was enjoying a break from his duties and the amazing acoustics of the chapter house to have a little practice. It was stunning and the impressive thing is that Dominic (a really pleasant, decent, friendly sort) isn’t there to play the violin. That’s just his hobby. He’s a visual artist, and a very good one. Not for the first time that day I felt very privileged indeed.

They’ve gone document crazy in Lincoln this summer. In the gallery at the bottom of the hill is a special exhibition where you can see a cornucopia of the nations most important scrolls, books, letters and laws. Among the exhibits are the death warrant of Mary Queen of Scots, Edward VIII abdication letter, the actual scroll of the Act of Settlement 1701, Henry V’s will, stunning and rarely seen portraits from the Queen’s own collection. It is a feast of stuff having a rare outing. Get there before September 5th. It’s normally all housed in London and most of it in vaults rather than on display.

Add to this a first rate regional gallery with some first class paintings including a delightful Stubbs of a spaniel type dog that seemed every bit alive as my sheepdog at home.

I was torn between the train or afternoon tea back at Stokes. I had an appointment that evening so the train won but shall bring the current Mrs J here for tea in the near future.

Even after a hard day’s work my fellow passengers were cheerful and lovely. One girl gave me a smile that made me wonder what it would be like to be thirty years younger and at least twice as handsome.

Go to Lincoln. If there’s a better day out in England this summer I haven’t found it.




Time Travelling in the British Museum


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Pictures and Poems :  Volume 9

In the British Museum by Thomas Hardy

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

When we were at junior school we had history books that asked us to pretend to be time travellers. We were invisible and unable to interact with the travelled-to-world. It worked well. I enjoyed making the imaginary leap. I’ve just been listening to Brian Cox explaining how forward time travel is possible (and once we’ve built rockets that can get close to the speed of light we can really start motoring). It would be one way so no coming back to cash in on what we learnt. I think I’d pass. I’ve spent most of my life travelling through time using books and buildings as my vehicles of choice. They work remarkably well. Unlike HG Wells’ Time Traveller or Marty McFly, I can be in several different zones simultaneously without much danger of committing an act that makes my existence impossible and causing a vortex in the space time continuum.

Old churches do it for me, from the humblest chapels to the mighty minsters. I like to sit and smell the wood and ancient stones and contemplate and sometimes pray, and often I can feel either the sense or presence of those who also sat and thought of time and the apostle Paul a century or two before. Not ghosts. Nothing physical or supernatural. Just ideas. But real. Real at least in idea form, and that’s a sort of reality.I get it in galleries. I’m standing – me, yes me! – in the self same spot that Turner stood with brush in hand. Those are the marks he made. He’s present as much as I am. More so in some ways. In books the writer is with me, in the self-same room. I hear their voice. And the characters, the locations. Hardy doesn’t describe Egdon Heath to me, or Mellstock Church, he takes me there. I hear Clym Yeobright preaching or the hymns sung by the choir.

I don’t care to travel beyond my own country. I thought I would when time and funds were there but I don’t. Modern transport doesn’t appeal and I find plenty to interest me within an hour or two of home. And when I take the train to London I don’t get far from St Pancras where my two favourite buildings are: the British Library and the British Museum. The library an endless source of inspiration and reference but the museum sends me travelling like a temporal astronaut.

I lose all sense of time in there.  I feel connected to everything  both now and then. I’m in Bloomsbury in 2017 and Athens in 483 BC. I move along though Babylon, Egypt, Rome. I’m there (to a greater or lesser extent with each object) and the masons/carvers/sculptors are here. They are present in their work. ‘Look on my works  ye tourists and say, “Wow! This is amazing!”‘

What time is it Dr Wolf? What time is it among the Elgin Marbles? Is it 5th century BC and the world that carved them and placed them on Parthanon pediments? Is it the early years of the nineteenth century as they are removed from the temple and shipped to Britain? Is it 1817 and they are on display? Is it now, the very present moment as I stand and gaze in troubled awe? Is it even earlier in time or legend when Lapiths fought Centaurs? And it is all of these, and more.Poets have been drawn to this national treasure house. They’ve shared the feelings of wonder and doubts that question the presence of artefacts from other cultures, countries and civilisations sitting (beautifully safe, conserved and respected) in a country much further to the north. And they time travel too.

I’ve chosen just two; Thomas Hardy and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Between them they cover a range of thought and time but share a sense of awe and wonder.

In his poem Hardy creates (and partly adopts the persona of) a rustic some decades before his (Hardy’s) own time and places him in front of sculptures taken from Areopagus and sees only ‘ashen blankness’; a time stained stone from the base of a pillar. There’s a dialogue going on in the poem. Is there someone else in the museum with our rustic labourer? Maybe? Or maybe the dialogue is between an imaginary labourer around 1817 and the poet many years later. So we have a dislocation in time. At least two time zones. Add in ourself, in the present as we read, and we have three – all simultaneous. At which point the antiquity of the stone comes into focus. Not just from Ancient Greece but from Areopagus; a mighty rock in ancient Athens. And the rustic knows of the teachings of the apostle Paul; that he gave a sermon from the Areopagus and he knows it well. So well that it has a great significance for him.  We can now add the time zone of Paul; a very specific time when he said that God does not live in objects made by man. Where has the rustic labourer learnt of Paul? The likely answer is either church or school. Or both. Many characters in Hardy’s works take church going and the lessons from the bible seriously which provides support for the church theory. Thus we have our labourer on a Wessex pew listening to the scriptures and transferring this knowledge to an ancient object before him in the museum and bringing them both alive. In a few lines of simple and apparently rational verse Hardy has got us travelling through time like a ball bearing in a pinball machine. And yet the poem seemingly follows a straightforward beginning, middle, end, straight line.

There are many reasons for loving the poem. Many perhaps more important than this. But existing in different moments  simultaneously is an idea that appeals to me almost as much as Hardy’s revolutionary idea, in 1893, of having a working man enter the glorious portals of the British Museum to have a look. And significantly, to respect his thoughts.

In the British Museum

‘You look not quite as if you saw,
But as if you heard,
Parting your lips, and treading softly
As mouse or bird.‘It is only the base of a pillar, they’ll tell you,
That came to us
From a far old hill men used to name
Areopagus.’I know no art, and I only view
A stone from a wall,
But I am thinking that stone has echoed
The voice of Paul,‘Paul as he stood and preached beside it
Facing the crowd,
A small gaunt figure with wasted features,
Calling out loud‘Words that in all their intimate accents
Pattered upon
That marble front, and were far reflected,
And then were gone.

‘I’m a labouring man, and know but little,
Or nothing at all;
But I can’t help thinking that stone once echoed
The voice of Paul.’

by Thomas Hardy

My second British Museum poem is one of the most requested on Radio 4’s Poetry Please. Ozymandias is  widely studied and loved by students and non students alike.

If anything the time zones and scales in this poem are even more complex. Here is a poem written about an object in the museum that was still on board ship bound for England when the poem was written. Thus the poem already (without making it obvious) extended into an unknown future as it left the poet’s pen. The past includes the following separate periods of time (and the list is by no means complete) : the discovery of the broken statue (widely believed to be The Younger Memnon statue of Ramesses II)* as a historic fact, the poet’s version of the discovery (including a fictional traveller from an antique land), the thousands of years that it remained undiscovered, the parts of the statue that remain lost in real life, the vast and trunkless legs of stone from the poem, the period of time when the statue was originally on public view, the carving of the statue, the reign of the semi-fictional king, Ozymandias and the reign of the actual king, Ramesses. Oh then there is the modern reader reading the poem in the present, the modern reader contemplating the poem later on over a cup of coffee and even the modern visitor to the British Museum doing what I did and standing before the very statue and reading the poem (which is conveniently included in the information plaque to one side). And I did say “Wow!” …several times.



I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

 Percy Bysshe Shelley





  • * My photograph is not of the Young Memnon statue. I was so taken by suddenly being confronted by Ozymandias that I forgot to take the picture and I didn’t want to break from my rule of only using my own photographs in these posts.

Sitting in Shakespeare’s Orchard


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Pictures and Poems ; Volume 7

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?

Sonnet 18 and a Day of Flowers in Stratford

For £25 you can buy a ticket that will allow you to see all of the Shakespeare houses in and around Stratford on Avon. The tickets lasts for 6 months and I, for one, think that a bargain. I’m happy to buy one every year just so long as they don’t expect me to step indoors. They (the powers that be in Shakespeare land) are not at all keen on letting you explore and find a feel of the place for yourself. Once through a doorway, under a lintel, over the threshold, you’re suffocated with tour guide: the set speech; all very well informed and presenting everyone as the dearly beloved and as virtuous as a maiden aunt. It’s dripping with deference to the Ardens, the Hathaways and the Shakespeares. It’s a little too much for the largely disinterested (“I came for the day out with friends, I didn’t need to go back to school”), a little too hearty for the quiet explorer, a bit scratchy for anyone who has got past GCSE level and (delivered by guides and actors in RSC cast-offs) altogether as authentic as the plastic loaves and cheeses spread out on oaken boards behind tasselled (keep out and don’t lean over) ropes.

It suits plenty and I’m happy about that but it doesn’t suit me.The gardens are a different prospect altogether. By no means perfect but it’s easy to turn a blind eye to the attempts to turn the glorious herbal bed at Hall’s Croft into a “Four Humours plot”. The four humours being those identified by Hippocrates in the fifth century BC and largely of metaphorical reference by Shakespeare’s time: black bile, blood, phlegm and yellow bile. They’re supposed to relate to the 4 elements (Elizabethan science was well ahead of this) of earth, air, fire and water, and the over-riding dominant emotions (temperaments) of sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic and melancholic. There’s a powerful and persuasive argument that Shakespeare’s four great tragedies encapsulate each an element, a humour and a temperament. I wouldn’t mind if this idea was somehow developed instead of digging up a superb section of herbal garden and replacing it with a disappointing section of over-worked, cordoned off, neatly in its place and labelled, dullness. My four reactions are sanguine – it’ll get better if it’s allowed to grow, phlegmatic – well I suppose it could be worse, melancholic – this sadly seems to be the way things are done these days, and choleric – why the hell have they destroyed something wild and free for this contained little project of some history Johnny who can’t tell his goose quill from a ball-point?  But ignoring that, and the twenty-first century habit of putting up dreadful willow sculptures, the gardens are truly wonderful.For decades the gardens have been a blaze of colours; all of them variations on the traditional English cottage garden. And long may this continue. Like the plays and the poems you get more than you can possibly take in while presenting a glorious unity at the same time. Masses of juxtaposed colours, shapes, scents and textures sweep in and out of each other. At Anne Hathaway’s cottage this is taken further with the inclusion of fruits and vegetables: runner beans and peas and currant bushes. All that is lacking is a pig or two in the orchard and some bee hives. Instead of these we get the coaches depositing their hungry-for-culture crews who whisk around the gardens, take their selfies through the willow sculptures and line up for the series of mini-lectures that comprise a visit around the houses (none of which is as it was in Shakespeare’s day).But step a turn away from the well-trodden path and you enter orchards that are even more glorious than the colourful beds. Here the glory is in neglect (they’re not neglected but rather allowed to be as they should be) and wildness. Only about 1 in a hundred visitors venture here and birdsong and butterflies  delight the ear and the eye. The trees are knotty and twisted with age, some gloriously ruffed with mistletoe and hanging with fruits of former times: pears, apples, plums, greengages, damsons, sloes, quince all prosper and grow. No mower has been close, the grass left to grow into the hay that pigs would love. I’m lucky with the weather, vast acres of blue sky with the sort of cloud shapes that make you wish you’d brought your watercolours. The sun warms the grass and leaves fuelling the butterflies and bees and drifting the drowsy scent from blade, bough and ripening fruit.Somewhere far away the sound of a primary schoolyard at play – games we played; tig, hopscotch and closer but separate the shuffle of tourists doing the round of garden, house, shop and tearoom. I wasn’t expecting this hidden place, this very Eden just fifty yards from the honeypot. I love Shakespeare. No matter what they do to him in packaging, production, commercialism or historical accuracy the love remains. It’s in the words and you can carry those around with you, hold them in your hand or your head; speak them through your own mouth which must, and does, make them your own. He says it better than we can and seems to have something for every thing we’ve done or felt.

“There Shakespeare, on whose forehead climb
The crowns o’ the world; oh, eyes sublime
With tears and laughter for all time!”*

“He was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature. He looked inwards, and found her there.” **There are more glories beyond the orchards, so many superb places for students and lovers of the plays to rehearse and perform sections, scenes, whole acts, entire plays. Someone (quite pointlessly in my view) has stuck some little quotations on bench and tree and minor sculptors have been licensed to lessen the view. Less is more you curators. Give us flowering borders and rugged orchards and houses we can look round and see for ourselves. We don’t all see Shakespeare the same way nor wish to visit him on the same terms.

I don’t really mind. You can keep the houses for me, (and keep them well). I’m happy to spend the whole afternoon in this overgrown orchard with one who, to me, has always been the object of sonnet 18. I’m surrounded by peace and loveliness. The world is quiet and content. The coach parties are doing their round, the tills are ringing but not for me and my girl. We’re sitting among the summer scents as the present drifts backwards and the words sound finer than ever.

This is close to perfection.

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


  • * Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  • ** John Dryden

Epitaph to a Dog by Lord Byron


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Pictures and Poems : Volume 6

Newstead Abbey and Hucknall, Nottinghamshire

England has produced two huge celebrity poets. One was moderately successful during his lifetime, carving out a comfortable living and buying up property in his home town in the Midlands. The other was hugely successful and spent much of his life selling off property in the Midlands to fund a life of poems, passion and adventure. Both are regarded as being in the very highest rank of the world’s greatest writers. Both have left a legacy of works that few have completely read through. Both had three children. One got to 52 and quite possibly died from a sexually transmitted infection. The other died at 36 of typhoid fever while leading a private army in a Greek war of independence.

One’s fame and celebrity has grown exponentially since his death, the other has been quietly diminished. His status as a writer keeps his name alive but his memory has not been celebrated. You can’t move in Stratford on Avon for Shakespeare tea rooms, guided tours, street performers, open top bus rides, endless performances of his works and chances to see the houses he once inhabited. No less than than four theatres have been built specially to show his plays. In Nottinghamshire you can’t get inside Newstead Abbey unless you make special arrangements, and you can walk round the town of Hucknall oblivious to the fact that one of the greatest writers, and most famous Englishman, lived there. A plaque on the side of a pub and and closed down Bingo Hall bear his name. His body lies in the parish church but no great fuss is made.We know very little about Shakespeare. Much of what goes for fact is supposition and there is continued doubt (not shared by me) as to whether he actually wrote the works for which he is famed. Despite this a multi billion dollar world wide industry has grown up around him. We know plenty (perhaps too much for some) about George Gordon. He lived his life in the full blaze of publicity, enjoyed his notoriety, caused scandal with an ease many a modern bad boy would envy. To put their contemporary fame in perspective. Shakespeare was about as well known in his time as film maker Ken Loach is today. Widely respected, admired even, but quite able to walk down the street without being pestered. Byron’s fame on the other hand would put him on a par with Lady Diana. His every utterance published, every move remarked upon and never out of the public eye.

Byron left behind a trail of mistresses and affairs with men and women, abandoned children, an incestuous relationship, incessant and biting criticism of his peers, a revolutionary approach to politics. When told at Cambridge he couldn’t have a dog in the college he returned with a bear. He used his main reception room at Newstead for wrestling matches and pistol practice. Though in the very pinnacle  of writers (only Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer possibly come ahead of him in this country*) he was refused burial in Westminster Abbey. He might not have minded; William Hazlitt said that if he (Byron) had been put there he would have got up and walked straight out. When he was laid to rest in his home town church, much of the aristocracy and many political leaders refused to attend.He was labelled by his lover, Lady Caroline Lamb (imagine a cross between a young Liz Hurley and JK Rowling) as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. He was quite the boyo!

He still gets read but I am not alone in wishing he was more widely known. His works are beautifully structured, dazzlingly provocative and often very funny. He tells a story well and is second to none in a gift for pricking pretension. Apparently he could reel off iambic pentameters at the speed of normal speech. At his death his brain was weighed at 5 pounds rather than the average 3 pounds. He was born with club foot and was severely hindered by this and yet was an admired athlete who once swam the 4 miles of heavy currents we call the Hellespont.

He was in almost every way a most remarkable man.

I’ve chosen two of his shorter poems. (The long ones are very long indeed!) One is perhaps his most famous and justly so. It is true beauty. I’ll let it speak for itself.

She Walks in Beauty Like the Night

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.


One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impaired the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o’er her face;

Where thoughts serenely sweet express,

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.


And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow,

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent!

George Gordon (Lord Byron)

The second is read by almost every visitor to Newstead Abbey. You can’t always get into the house (a pity because it is well worth it)  so visitors make a sedate and leisurely stroll around the grounds and gardens (beautifully looked after by Nottingham City Council). One by one they settle in front of what looks like a memorial near the ruined chapel. It is in fact the grave of a dog and on it are two pieces of writing. The first (often attributed to Byron) is actually written by the poet’s  friend John Hobhouse. Hobhouse knew Byron for many years and saw a remarkable man, a brilliant man, a man worth knowing.In this simple verse dedicated to his dog we see so many of the qualities we would like to find in anyone we would call friend. When I go to Newstead, which is often, I take time to read the verse anew. It’s a lovely place and a first class day out but there isn’t a great deal to tell you about who the poet was; particularly when the buildings are closed. The simple grave and the simple verse (and dedication) give an insight into the man and provide some answers to why he was so incredibly popular.

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.

This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
Boatswain, a Dog
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808

When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown to Glory, but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below.
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth –
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.

Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –
Who knows thee well, must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye, who behold perchance this simple urn,
Pass on – it honours none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one — and here he lies.



  • Happy to be corrected here
  • ** The vault of Hucknall Church also contains the body of his daughter, Ada Lovelace; one of the great female mathematicians.

November Graveyard by Sylvia Plath


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Pictures and Poems : Volume 6

When I was sixteen I read a poem called ‘You’re’  and  fell in love with it. The imagery was unlike anything I’d read, the vocabulary was from somewhere other than where I’d spent my formative years and the grammatical leaps were unsettling and pleasing at the same time. “A common sense thumbs down on the dodo’s mode”. As my generation were to become so fond of saying: what’s that all about? Some weeks earlier I’d experienced something similar when a friend played me Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. It opened new doors, so different yet so familiar. I was drawn into both of them and spent the rest of the summer; the summer I left school to enter the real world, woefully ill-equipped, with a few unimpressive certificates, a love of Bob Dylan and cool jazz and a belief that Sylvia Plath wrote upbeat, happy poems about children yet unborn.

You’re by Sylvia Plath

Clownlike, happiest on your hands,

Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,

Gilled like a fish. A common-sense

Thumbs-down on the dodo’s mode.

Wrapped up in yourself like a spool,

Trawling your dark as owls do.

Mute as a turnip from the Fourth

Of July to All Fools’ Day,

O high-riser, my little loaf.


Vague as fog and looked for like mail,

Farther off than Australia,

Bent-backed Atlas, our travelled prawn,

Snug as a bud and as home

Like a sprat in a pickle jug.

A creel of eels, all ripples,

Jumpy as a Mexican bean,

Right, like a well-done sum.

A clean slate, with your own face on.

It’s a wonderful piece that hasn’t lost any of its appeal. In addition to the imagery, grammar and peculiarities it is also clever enough to be impressive (in the how did she manage that…I couldn’t do that…Could you do that? sense) and its totally unique. Here is a true poetic voice singing strong and clear and full of love and love of life.

Depressives (for she was one) don’t spend their lives choosing to be half in love with easeful death. They enjoy life; sing,  dance and write poetry to explore the unbelievable beauty of the world. They fall in love, experience pain and  have a down side that can be almost an exact mirror image. It isn’t baggy white linen shirts and wandering around ruined medieval piles saying “Woe is me” as a once popular view of the Romantics suggests. Nor is it a desire to be seen as somehow supremely sensitive beings who, if understood properly, would open up the truth of the world. It doesn’t make them special; it’s a double edged sword that can bring higher highs but also lows that can border on unendurable.

Plath has become something of the poster girl pin-up for the angst-ridden, the misunderstood, those who wish to wear their introversion extrovertly. And the irony is that this has made her one of the most misunderstood poets in the canon.

There are two histories: one a true one that we can only view through time, the eyes of others and the poetry. Ignore the one that treats Ted Hughes as a monstrous villain. A little learning in a closed mind is a dangerous thing.We enter the churchyard through a small close where a cheerful woman is throwing a ball to the friendliest of dogs. Those who were born in Heptonstall are a lovely bunch. Those who came here have less to feel proud about.  Hughes and Plath moved in the fifties. I don’t think they’d move back now.

But the churchyard is spectral; a mass of graves like a stoneyard from a gothic novel, quite splendid in its unkempt state. Plath is buried in the field across Back Lane. It’s a sad and forlorn place. It’s still in use and the sadness of the valley is reflected here in more suicides, so many young people; two brothers who didn’t make 30 both victims of heroin and a belief in drugs. Some attempts have been made to tend her plot. Some flowers appropriate and some not. For some reason pilgrims, aware of her status as a great writer, have stuck some cheap ball point pens; the sort you give out to a class who are unlikely to return them, close to the stone. It’s a gesture somewhere between tasteless and insult.Like W.B. Yeats she had written about the place where she would come to rest. Her poetry is at its best once she found the voice that gave expression to the mental torment. Her end seemed, as Germaine Greer has said, inevitable. I didn’t shed a tear as I read November Graveyard, with no-one around it seemed a decent thing to do, but I’m almost crying as I type these words the morning after.

We shared a few minutes silence and walked slowly towards Lumb Bank and the views across to Stoodley Pike.


November Graveyard

The scene stands stubborn: skinflint trees
Hoard last  leaves, won’t mourn, wear sackcloth, or turn
To elegiac dryads, and dour grass
Guards the hard-hearted emerald of its grassiness
However the grandiloquent mind may scorn
Such poverty. So no dead men’s cries

Flower forget-me-nots between the stone
Paving this grave ground. Here’s honest rot
To unpick the elaborate heart, pare bone
Free of the fictive vein. When one stark skeleton
Bulks real, all saints’ tongues fall quiet:
Flies watch no resurrections in the sun.

At the essential landscape stare, stare
Till your eyes foist a vision dazzling on the wind:
Whatever lost ghosts flare,
Damned, howling in their shrouds across the moor
Rave on the leash of the starving mind
Which peoples the bare room, the blank, untenanted air.

Sylvia Plath


The rest is silence…

In Search of Alfred Lord Tennyson


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Pictures and Poems 5 : Flower in the Crannied Wall

Alfred Lord Tennyson

I’m looking for Tennyson, been looking for years. Started with Mr Whitney reading Crossing the Bar to a class, mostly bored, of nine year olds but I liked this sort of thing and went home by way of the library. Found the verse in the reference section (for some reason) and my junior library card wouldn’t let me loan from there; so I copied it out. That night learning it by heart.

And in another class…

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred

Came a year or two later and I tried to get to whole thing. Testing myself as I pushed newspapers through doors on winter mornings while ducking cannons to right of me, cannons to left of me. Much later, while a Manchester student I got word my sister had died and I cried and had nowhere to go for it was in the early hours and no trains ran. She was seventeen, had barely lived and travelled little, if at all. She was the first person close to me who’d died. I felt I barely knew her. The darkness was huge. Grief came like a flood and I had only poetry that night. I turned to Tennyson and I read In Memoriam from A to Z. It took til dawn.

I envy not in any moods
         The captive void of noble rage,
         The linnet born within the cage,
That never knew the summer woods:
I envy not the beast that takes
         His license in the field of time,
         Unfetter’d by the sense of crime,
To whom a conscience never wakes;
Nor, what may count itself as blest,
         The heart that never plighted troth
         But stagnates in the weeds of sloth;
Nor any want-begotten rest.
I hold it true, whate’er befall;
         I feel it, when I sorrow most;
         ‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.


Later still I discovered Idylls of the King and tramped the West Country from Tintagel to Aller, From Queen’s Camel to Glastonbury Tor armed with legends. I’d loved the Arthur stories from a small boy but found the best telling in Tennyson. From Bedivere seeing the great brand Excalibur make lightenings in the moon as he finally flung the sword away to the mirror cracking from side to side in the tower of the Lady of Shalott, I was entranced.I’ve never wandered too closely to the man himself. From what I know I think I’d find him troublesome. He was demanding, divorced from reality and never washed. He had a band of loyal friends who let him be what he was and what he was was difficult ( and not a little smelly). My admiration is huge but its mostly for what he did rather than for who he was. I’d gladly invite Keats or Stevie Smith or Thomas Grey to my imaginary dinner party of poets. I think I’d pass on Tennyson. But he was a wild and captivating man to look at. The hanging locks, the grizzled beard, the face like a thousand crags and huge Ulster coats and a hat you could seek on the top of a crumpetty tree.

One of that group of friends was the artist George Frederick Watts and it was to him that the task fell of honouring the poet with a statue. Watts was in his 80s and never lived to see the statue unveiled. But what a wonderful job he did. Nine tenths of the glory of Lincoln cathedral (Once the tallest building in the world) is round the front. The back is magnificent too but is almost always caught in shadow. This is the less visited side, the quiet side, the gloomy side and this is where Tennyson can be found.

If you visit Lincoln (and you should!) enjoy the castle and the close and the amazing front and interior of the mighty church. But take a little time to wander in the shade and visit Tennyson, and his dog, and spend a little time contemplating the two most important subjects in anybody’s mind; those things that are known and understood and those things which are neither known nor understood. For millennia we have searched for truth and beauty, for understanding of our lives and world through religion and science. Answers (real answers) come rarely but the questions remain in every head and are seldom so well expressed as in the six lines of the poem that Watts captured in the towering reproduction of his friend.

Flower in the Crannied Wall 

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

And there, in the presence of one of the corniest rhymes in the history of English poetry is the answer to the question “Why are we here?” Put simply; to find out as much as we can.

Pictures and Poems : The Lake Isle of Innisfree


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The Lake Isle of Innisfree by W.B.Yeats

The poem is about a going back to something simpler, something purer, something more spiritually uplifting, something freeing, liberating. Three simple quatrains containing as much as I think it is possible to put into twelve simple lines of verse without losing the ease of expression. It’s like sitting by the side of the lake and seeing. At first just the water, the trees, the skies and eventually an entire landscape in all its fascinating detail. It’s a nature poem first and foremost but in this  each element contains its opposite. The longing for simplicity betrays social complexity; the yearning for the natural reveals a man-made present and the hope for spiritual renewal unearths the worms of unease.Here we have in miniature Ireland’s response to Thereau’s Walden. The desire to leave behind the urban sprawl (pavements grey), industrialisation and technological phenomenon of the modern world and to live in a hut. To provide for oneself through nature’s bounty supplemented by careful husbandry. The call of the pure is similar to that felt by the English Romantic poets a century before. That truth and beauty can be discovered through a return to nature. But what truth? What beauty?

In the first verse is the gratification of physical needs. That a simple wattle shelter to rest in and a garden with bean rows and bee hives is enough. It’s a rural idyl, a dream shared by many of us. In the second verse is the need for the spiritual renewal of the natural world. Like Walden Pond, the Lake Isle exists. It’s an uninhabited island in Lough Gill, County Sligo where Yeats spent many hours as a child. This return to the innocence of childhood in search of truth and spiritual renewal again links it with the likes of Wordsworth and Coleridge. It find echoes through the twentieth century in the likes of Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye) in his field dream stopping children from falling from the purity of innocence into the corruption that lies beyond puberty, in Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock where half a million are going “to camp out on the land and set (their) souls free”Whether Yeats would find peace and truth among vast crowds tuning in and dropping out is a moot point; but there is a political link. Here is a country which for centuries has been under the oppressive yoke of Great Britain finding an appetite to resist, to assert its independence and its sense of its own identity. Ireland had been looked down upon by its supposed colonial masters. The west of Ireland was a land of poverty, famine and despair. And yet it is to here that the poet wishes to escape to find fulfilment and to discover who he really is. The poet asserts that far from its portrayal, Sligo and the West is a  place from which to build a nation. The poem is political. The first three words are the language of revolution and Yeats wants nothing less. “I will arise”. Here is what we are fighting for and where I go I’d like you to follow. Yeats is creating a new vision of Ireland wrought out of its rich tradition of story and song.

The yearning for freedom and the sense of liberation in the poem still draws. I’ve always been a revolutionary in spirit; though often a lazy one. Yeats’ verses drew me to Ireland by the old ways; I went on a bicycle and I went slowly. Not for me the modern day trappings of the velocipede: the stretch knickers and go faster logos and head-down-arse-up carbon fibre sleekness. My bicycle was a quarter century old and creaked and groaned. It spent as long resting on its side as I sketched on some grassy hummock or fumbled with words in a notebook or took the occasional photograph. I only had a cheap camera and feared the memory card would fill up if I took too many (it never crossed my mind that I could buy a new card). I was drawn to Sligo and when I got there I slowed down still further. I had a copy of Selected poems in my bag and I found a different vantage point to read each one. Seldom has poetry gained more meaning for the hungry student than in those Sligo days.

The area is dominated by the most astonishing mountain I think I’ve seen. Benbulbin might not be the highest but it matches most for history and legend and its shadow is the chosen resting place for the poet.

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head

In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

I pedalled slowly, stopping often and feeding on the views, the skies, the sounds, the mountains, the sea, Yeats’ grave. Lough Gill was busy with coach loads from Surrey when I got there. It didn’t matter much. It’s only one lake among hundreds out in the west. I went in search of an understanding and think I got something of it. I found a quiet place to brew tea and recite a poem I’d learnt by heart years earlier but had never learnt so well.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree 

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

W.B. Yeats


Afterthought: The simplicity of the poem’s music is deceptive. Many people have set the words to music but I’m yet to hear a version that catches the true rhythms of the piece. 

Picture and Poems : My Mother Brought Flowers

My Mother Brought Us Flowers by Simon JohnsonA simple post.

My mother had a great passion for gardens. We moved at regular intervals by which time she had transformed a drab patch of ground into a mass of blending colours. Each time, on the day before the furniture van pulled up, she’d go round with spade and trowel. She’d dig out bits of plants and stuff them, with a handful of soil, into polythene bags and pack them in cardboard boxes. The gardens were so profuse you couldn’t tell where she’d been but this raiding of one fed the next. By the time she died, over twenty years ago, she had stocked and nurtured half a dozen great gardens. In her later years she started passing on the same diggings, propagations, cuttings, splittings to us. Her gardens disseminated across the country from Thurso to Exeter. About a third of the plants in my garden are directly from hers’. She created wonderful displays which still live on and will continue to do so as long as I can wield a fork and hopefully into the next generation.

My Mother Brought Us Flowers

My mother brought flowers to the marriage.

Just touches of colour against the brick and grey

Of Barrow backyard where she grew borage

Blue and soon red geraniums display.

With baby two approaching they stir

To low road cottage where soft rain falls

On banksides. She plants roses round the door

And trains honeysuckle on whitewashed walls.Each garden left behind as move by move

Took Scotland’s northern shore and Kirby moor

She cast wide swathes of lilac, pinks and night

Scented stocks. Each garth feeding next refrain

With splits, cuttings, roots which she passed on

To us. She’s been long gone, her flowers still remain.

Simon Johnson


Pictures and Poems : Pike by Ted Hughes


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“...lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them”

The aim of these posts is to try to put myself into the poem, into the mind of the poet and to do the same in reverse: to put the poem into my mind so I become a part of it and it a part of me (an essential thing if I’m going to get to know it). I started storing poems and bits of poems in my head at a very young age and I continue it to this day. I’m not sure it’s ever helped me in my careers or earned me a single penny. But it has been, and continues to be, enriching.One way of doing it is to put yourself in the footprints of the poet and go to the place that inspired the verse and see if something rubs off. Some are famous; Lulworth Cove for John Keats’ Bright Star, Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, St Giles Church (and of course churchyard), Stoke Poges for Gray’s Elegy, Westminster Bridge as captured by Wordsworth in September 1802. I’d like to visit some or all or those but am keen to add a few lesser known spots. Ted Hughes is well enough known and his poem ‘Pike’ is still an occasional visitor to English classrooms. Until I listened to poet Steve Ely and read Ian MacMillan’s book where Ely takes him to the very place, I’d always presumed it was set somewhere in the Calder Valley. Hughes was always described as coming from Mytholmroyd (pronounced my-them-royd). It took Ely to point out that his formative years were spent among the pits and engine sheds of South Yorkshire. The clues are in the verses. It says the pool is 50 yards across and next to a monastery. Not many of either up Calderdale.

So it’s three poets that have brought me to Roche Abbey with a sandwich, a can of Ben Shaw’s Yorkshire lemonade and a very creased edition of Ted Hughes 1960 volume, Lupercal which I bought after being inspired by my English teacher Colin Simpson in 1974. I mention my English teacher as both Ely and Macmillan credit their love of Hughes to inspiring teachers.  And Hughes himself took up writing verse after his teacher, John Fisher, at Mexborough Grammar School inspired and encouraged him. It’s all about lighting lamps without diminishing your own.I want to find Laughton Pond. The dapper hipster in the abbey shop has never heard of it and there’s no-one else around so I make my own way. Get to within (what I later discover to be) 10 yards of the pond, take a wrong turning and head off entirely in the wrong direction. There is a pleasure in getting lost, in going wrong, that often leads to discoveries, but I’m keen to reach my goal so I ask a man who seems the part. Camouflage pants, heavy boots, olive green tee shirt and a fine arm of the tattooist’s art. He’s even got a dog with him. South Yorkshire mining towns are a mix of (once) industrial urban, and the surrounding fields. The grim and the glorious. Many who spent their working lives hundreds of feet below ground loved to spend as much of the rest as they could in the open air. The pits have long gone but the tradition continues. No sweet, liberal-minded conservationists here. They’d often have a gun, a jack russell or a couple of lurchers and a set of nets and snare wire. They knew the countryside through hunting in it. They know their way around. But they might not want to share the knowledge with one who started out that way but has grown a little bit Greenpeace, a little bit academic, a little bit like the sort of nonce who wanders around looking for the exact spot where a poet sat and fished seventy or more years ago. He sends me altogether the wrong way. But not out of spite or some secret pleasure in wasting my time. He knows another pond and thinks this is what I’m looking for. The other pond turns out to be two miles away. If only I’d thought to add a map to my packed lunch.I find it, the other pond that is. It takes an hour or so because I get distracted; make a few detours, find myself among more butterflies than I’ve seen since my childhood, a trespass into private woodland, some further advice from a wobbly cyclist with a spliff to guarantee the wrong direction, the avoidance of a bull and the every now and then presence of buzzards soaring, mewing and screaming. By the time I get back to the abbey I’m fair tuckered. The hipster has now been joined by a more grounded mate.

“Oh aye, it’s just round the back here. Left out of the door and left again. You’ll be there in two minutes.

I don’t begrudge the wrong turnings, the altogether out of the way and the weary legs. More learning has  taken place through mistakes than by jumping straight to the right answer. And the pond is worth it. Almost glassy still at first and then blubbed with rising bubbles, the scatter of flies dancing on the surface, some ducks and perfect peace. Just the sound of the waterfall that marks the outflow, a slow swish of breeze in the trees and intermittent birdsong.

I read the poem. Not once but three times and realise that Hughes has caught not just the pike but the whole pond and every tree and reed and sky and passing cloud.

I sit and listen and watch. No water lilies from where I am, no amber caverns of weed but it can’t have changed much since 1943. As I start on my sandwich it strikes me that it was during the war when the 13 year old Hughes sat here and fished. I feel the years fall away. No ghosts here but a superb sense of presence both above and below the surface. I’m undisturbed for half an hour when a dog walker goes by. A sturdy youth in a Spanish football jersey with a puppy that will grow up to scare a few. He liked the idea of the pond being “as deep as England” but he hadn’t heard of Hughes. “Mind you” he added, “I’m not from Maltby, I live in Hooton Levitt.”

Pike by Ted Hughes

Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.

Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.

In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads-
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds

The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date:
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.

Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: fed fry to them –
Suddenly there were two. Finally one

With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb –

One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks –
The same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.

A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them –

Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast

But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,

Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
That rose slowly toward me, watching.