Here’s another story of a reunion. When I was an English Adviser in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the job become increasingly dispiriting as we were pushed away from the business of professional development in schools, and into the miserable business of inspections and clipboards and tick lists. One of the things that kept me going was finding the funding to work with a committed group of Secondary Heads of Drama. We set up an LEA Drama consortium for a GCSE drama syllabus that, quite wonderfully, was entirely content-free, and wholly assessed on the basis of performance, process and journals. We wrote our own LEA Guidelines for drama as a learning medium, and we had weekend residential workshops with the likes of the multi-talented Proper Job Theatre Company. It kept me sane, but it would have been an uphill struggle without the enthusiasm of Bob Horne and the other heads of drama. Then I got early retirement, and that was it for twenty years, until I met Bob again at a Monday workshop session of the Albert Poets in Huddersfield. And twenty years was an eyeblink. That was a few months ago; since then, we have somehow found ourselves running The Puzzle Hall Poets live monthly sessions at the Puzzle Hall Inn in Sowerby Bridge. (If you live in West Yorkshire, or in Pennine Lancashire, here’s an open invitation. First Monday of the month, starting at 8.00pm. Guest poet on July 7th is Wendy Pratt, fresh from triumphs at the Bridlington Literature festival. Second half, we’ve spaces for 8-10 slots on the open mic. Come along!)
Bob has effectively written the rest of this week’s post. Any typos or slips of syntax will be mine. After all, he was a Head of English before he was a drama teacher. Here we go. He says:
‘Writing poetry is something I’ve been going to do all my life. And I’ve repeatedly put it off, because there was always plenty of time, wasn’t there? No urgency. I’d get round to it one day.
In 1990 I went to Lumb bank for a week (Sean O’Brien was one of the tutors) but nothing lasting came of it. A few years later, I did a part-time Poetry MA at Huddersfield University, and came under the guidance, in one module, of that sensitive and encouraging facilitator, Peter Sansom. I wrote a couple of dozen poems,one or two of which I can still read without feeling too uncomfortable. But, once again, the writing stopped when I was left to motivate myself.
And so it stayed, until, last year, I became what used to be called an old-age pensioner. I thought the only change in my life would be a marginal rise in income. Being 65 couldn’t be that different from being 64. But it was. Perhaps the death of my closest friend was a factor. Whatever it was, a lifetime of procrastination (or bone-idleness) had to end.
I started going to the weekly Albert Poets writing workshops, and the monthly Puzzle Poets Live, and I was getting invaluable feedback on my poems,and getting to know other poets and what they were writing. And standing up with a mic. and performing to an audience.
Now, I compose very slowly, partly because I’m constantly distracted by ideas being generated by what I’m writing. Each poem is a product of hours of near-despair, occasionally alleviated when a mist of indecision briefly lifts.’
(At this point, I’m going to butt in and say that Bob does huge amounts of research for his poems, whether they’re about railway navvies or Edwardian photograhers. Also, his claim to bone-idleness doesn’t stand close scrutiny. However, at this point, here comes a poem which makes me delighted that the mists cleared for long enough for me to get to hear him perform it).
I cross the trackless parph.
Behind me indifferent Atlantic waves
break along the length of Sandwood Bay,
with its red-haired mermaid,
its bearded sailor still knocking at night
on the windows of the broken bothy.
Beneath the dunes, shepherds say,
wrecks of longship, and galleon
have been smothered for centuries.
Massive tussocks make hard going.
I rest on my stick, face north
towards the oldest rocks there are
then nothing but cold seas
to the Pole and beyond.
Like a sheet of white shadow
close enough to disconcert
it climbs from the cottongrass,
iolaire suil na greine –
eagle of the sunlit eye –
smoulders for a moment
still as a Stone Age carving
until it rises in its own time,
above this wilderness, the bay, the ocean,
leaves me at best
a fleck of a far-off star
whose gleam may never reach
(Despite reading William Horwood’s ‘The Stonor Eagles’ too many times, and going to Skye for years, and making silent prayers, I’ve never seen a white – tailed sea eagle. But when I heard Bob read this poem for the first time, I thought I might have. And there’s a backstory to the poem which I held back till you’d read it. Bob will tell you it.)
‘Many of my poems are about the landscapes I have walked and cycled and run in the fells of Northern England and Scotland, and usually alone; they begin with particular experiences, but always connect with the historical context of what I’m writing about. White-tailed eagle started from something that happened in 2000, on the final day of a 2000 mile walk (There you are! 2000 miles …one for each year of the millenium. Bone idle, indeed. One day I’ll persuade him to write the story of that 2000 mile walk. Sorry, Bob…go on) I’d just crossed Sandwood Bay, with all its ghosts and legends, and I had just 8 wilderness miles to Cape Wrath and the end of the journey…and then there was a noise, like the page of an enormous book being turned, and this huge bird languidly took to the air, slowly climbed above the tussocks and the lochan, and flew out over the ocean.
(Bob says that he actually thought that if he had died at that moment he could have been content. And I think I have an inkling of what he means.
The next poem I asked for is set in the heart of the Lake District, and it has, for me, the precision and ghostliness of a fading sepia photograph. It’s an un- dramatic monologue)
[W A Poucher, aged 89,photographs the Wasdale screes]
It is evening.
I have waited an hour,
walking to the shore and back
a dozen times.
I like the sound of my brogues
on the bright pebbles,
the give of the turf
as I return to my tripod.
Cloud is building in the north.
Sometimes I am angerd
by this loitering for the light;
days are easily wasted.
I think of Haskett Smith,
‘Father of English climbing’
striding across an early frost
on Wasdale fields,
pushing through bracken
as it brushes his plus-fours.
He is going to solo
the first ascent of napes Needle.
While others scrambled in gullies
he weighed up each pitch
till hand and body followed
the eye from hold to hold,
fingers firm in untouched cracks,
half-inch seggs scoring the greenstone.
Patience is my art.
I select, compose and frame.
There is a limit to an old man’s passion.
The water is almost still.
of autumn’s fading fronds
will blur on its surface.
Boulders flock like sheep
over shifting screes.
Soon, with luck, sunlight
will slant along the lake.
I am ready, lens focussed
Two poems that head off into an infinity, then. Bob explains that Exposure came from a Poucher photograph of the Wasdale screes at the moment the sun was setting. He also writes that Poucher was a chemist in the perfume and cosmetics industry, that he worked for Yardleys, and that, nearly 90, was in the Lakes, gathering material for a publication. The fact that Bob imagines him thinking about Haskett Smith, nailed boots and all, composing his balanced climbs while the rest of the world shuffled about in mossy gullies, says a lot about his research, and about the way he finds writing a poem will set up its own distractions.
I hope you like encounters with eagles at the ends of the earth, and with elderly photographers who are angered by loitering, as much as I do. Thank you, Bob Horne.
I’m in two minds about next week. Not about if but about what. Just turn up and see.