An invitation to read my poetry to an international conference in Bergen inspired me to book a few extra days in order to explore a little more widely.
We therefore left home at 5.00am on a warm bright summer’s morning, to take a train through the rolling hills and woodlands of Surrey, passing an emerald green field in which three deer were having a leisurely breakfast. In contrast to this peace, Gatwick airport was frenetic: perhaps it wasn’t such a great idea to travel on a Saturday in June.
Leaving behind the English heatwave, we arrived in Bergen, reputedly the wettest city in Europe. We didn’t experience any torrential downpours, but became fairly resigned to persistent, though not constant, drizzle. However, Bergen is beautiful, and (armed with umbrellas) we enjoyed exploring the city and meeting the huge marching bands that frequently take over the roads. The Hanseatic buildings, in particular, are attractive and well-preserved; and the fish market down by the harbour is enough to make anyone’s mouth water.
We had booked a three-day tour with Norway on a Nutshell, so the next day we made another early start to take a train up over the mountain to Myrdal, on the snow-line. There we caught the famous Flåm Railway down the steep valley to the little town of Flåm in the far upper reaches of Sognefjorde, the longest and deepest fjord in the world. On the way down, the train stopped beside the Kjosfossen waterfall, so that we could all get out to enjoy the majestic spectacle. Tourists are treated to the sounds of a siren nymph singing to attract them to destruction, and a red-clad dancer also appeared on a rock above the waterfall, to entice any unwary travellers.
At Flåm we raced for a ferry that took us to our hotel at Aurland, a delightful village a couple of miles downstream. Here we had a fantastic room in a cabin that protruded right out over the fjord. We took our lunches outside a bakery, where they served excellent organic food.
The next evening we took another ferry on to Balestrand, where our hotel was immediately behind the charming Church of St Olav, built by an English woman in the 19th century.
The following morning we climbed up the mountain to explore some of the nature trails through the forest, and in the evening took the high speed ferry back to Bergen, which involved travelling at 33 knots (almost 40 mph) for nearly four hours.
The conference started the next morning, and over the next three days I was surrounded by fascinating scholars from all over the world, all of whom were researching and publishing on the writings of mediaeval women. Some of the mediaeval women were familiar to me, indeed formed the subjects of my poems, but some of the presentations introduced me to characters and manuscripts that I had never come across before. The afternoon before the conference, we were given a tour of mediaeval Bergen, by a professor from Bergen University, which set the scene for the following days of lectures and presentations.
Professor Diane Watt is the power behind this particular Leverhulme-funded project; and she had very generously given me an hour in middle of the conference, to read from my recent publication, In the Image: Portraits of Mediaeval Women. I sold quite a number of books, which meant that my luggage was considerably lighter for the homeward flight. The conference was held at the University of Bergen, and all the major sessions, including mine, were held in what is called the EGG. Strung across the open space within the building, it does not appear particularly large, but is in fact a huge raked lecture theatre.
On the final evening of the conference we attended an excellent banquet in the Schợtstuene, the Hanseatic Assembly Rooms in the Bryggen. Then on the remaining two days of our visit to the city, we went to the University Museum, the Maritime Museum, and took an enjoyable tour out to Edward Grieg’s house at Troldhaugen, where we enjoyed a dramatic recital by the pianist Espen Aspaas, looking out at the view that Grieg would have enjoyed as he wrote.
During March, I was fortunate to be able to attend three different festivals in the north of Britain, which were all very different.
First, I went to stay with a school friend in Cupar, so that we could go together to some of the events at the Stanza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, on the breezy east coast of Fife, in Scotland. The workshops were sold out before the public had much chance to book, but the presentations I attended were excellent. Eleanor Livingstone is the inspiration and organiser of this festival, which manages to be both intimate and popular.
Of the readings I attended, the three highlights were i) Alice Oswald talking about Homer, ii) her poetry reading in the evening and (iii) the reading by Kathleen Jamie. I had last heard Alice at the finals of the T S Eliot prize at the Festival Hall in London in January, and I never miss an opportunity to hear her mesmerising readings. But the Homer lecture was an unexpected delight, bringing ancient literary gems to life in the 21st century and raising some fascinating questions.
From there I took a train down to the Lake District, in order to spend a few days in Keswick for the Words by the Water Festival. As usual, we camped on the shore of Derwentwater, in order to walk across the hill each day to the Theatre on the Lake; and we were fortunate to enjoy dazzling sunny weather throughout our stay. The picture above is the view from our little camper van, parked all week within a few metres of the sparkling water.
Because of other commitments, we had to miss both weekends at this lovely festival, but very much enjoyed the days we were able to stay. The first afternoon, I listened to Helen Mort talking about fell running and poetry, a combination which appears to work well for her; and during the week we were treated to a wide range of subjects, from Bronte and Shakespeare to witches and heart surgery; and I even managed to watch the film of Doctor Zhivago, just a few decades after it came out. For me, the highlights here were i) Elif Shafak, the Turkish novelist, who had us all entranced (and one of whose books I bought, despite all my best intentions not to buy any more books!), ii) Raymond Tallis, talking about God, free will and the NHS, and most entertainingly of all, Natalie Haynes, the comedian, presenting a show about Greek drama, which contrived to be both informative and hilarious.
Words by the Water is one of the sister-festivals of Ways with Words in Devon; so as the happy memories of Derwentwater begin to fade, we can begin to look forward to another wonderful festival in July.
We left Keswick and headed across the Pennines to York, where I was giving two presentations at the International Women’s Festival at York Explore the next day. The first of these was a poetry reading, in which I concentrated, appropriately, on poems about women – of which I have a large number. A new collection of my poetry, with the theme of mediaeval women, is due to be published in the next couple of months, but I did not, on this occasion, include any of those. There will be time enough for those particular women when the book comes out.
The main reason for being in York was to launch my first novel, ‘Rapeseed’. I have published eight previous books, all either poetry or non-fiction, but fiction is a new departure for me. It was lovely to find a couple of good friends in the audience, and I was pleased to be able to sign a number of copies of the book. A couple of days later I gave a talk and reading from the book to the Southern Counties branch of the Society of Authors, and there are a number of other readings and presentations coming up in the next few months.
One hundred years ago, early in the morning of 27th October 1916, the Salcombe lifeboat was called out. Fifteen men ran from the town to South Sands to launch the William and Emma into a turbulent sea. The call turned out to be unnecessary as the ship they went to rescue was blown ashore, but vital messages to inform the lifeboat crew of this fact did not get through because some telephone lines were down; and it was many hours later that the lifeboat crew, cold wet and tired, attempted to return to Salcombe in ever-worsening conditions. The bar at the entrance to the harbour is a well-known hazard, particularly towards low tide; and battling into a Force 9 gale and ferocious seas, the lifeboat was flipped over by a gigantic wave, with the result that 13 of the 15 men on board perished. Many of the crew’s families and friends were watching in horror from the cliffs, unable to do anything to avert the catastophe.
The men clung onto the upturned hull for as long as they could, but subsequent waves washed them off and out of reach of the boat. The two survivors, Eddie Distin and Bill Johnson, were rescued with ropes from where they were clinging onto rocks a little further along the coast. Five of the bodies of other crew members were found, but the remainder never emerged. Salcombe was used to loss, as this was during the First World War and many young men had already lost their lives; but the scale and immediacy of this disaster plunged the town into deep grief and mourning.
In 2016, one hundred years to the day and the hour of the disaster, people from the area turned out in force to commemorate the event. There was a church service in Salcombe, followed by a procession of almost 100 boats of all shapes and sizes, to where the lifeboat perished, in order to ‘lay’ a wreath in the water. The flotilla included three current and three decommissioned lifeboats, as well as pleasure craft and fishing boats. An Air Sea helicopter hovered overhead, and thirteen shots were fired, in respect for the thirteen men who lost their lives.
We stood on the clifftop watching the ceremony and casting our minds back a century to men long dead. The day could not have been more different, as the sun was shining brightly and the calm sea glittering with silver and gold. The scene below us was poignant and evocative, and there were signs of tears on some of our faces.
Does it make sense to weep for men who died so long ago, and whom we never knew? Yes, I think so. The lifeboat men of today are in a direct line from these courageous men, and they still go out in all conditions to help those in distress. I was at a party in Salcombe a few years ago when a ‘shout’ went up. Without a moment’s hesitation, half the men in the room put down their (non-alcoholic) drinks and walked calmly out of the door and down to the lifeboat house. We saw the modern lifeboat leaving the harbour a few minutes later.
This plaque is in Salcombe parish church, and commemorative stones will soon be laid on the coast path to mark the spot below which the disaster unfolded. If you would like to learn more about this tragic event, there is a book about it by local historian Roger Barrett who is Curator of Salcombe Lifeboat Museum and former Station Manager at the Prawle Point National Coastwatch Station. The book is published by Salcombe Lifeboats at £7.99.
A further plaque in honour of the men was dedicated by the Bishop of Plymouth during the church service this morning.
The poet, Jack Clemo, was born 100 years ago this year, into a poor, pious, working class family in the china clay area of Cornwall, which he described as ‘a fitting birthplace for me, being dwarfed under Bloomdale clay-dump, solitary, grim-looking, with no drainage, no water or electricity supply, and no back door.’ He was a bright, precocious child who could, apparently, recite the Lord’s Prayer at 18 months, and was reading fluently by 4. However, a few days before his 5th birthday, his eye troubles began. He became so light-sensitive that he had to spend months in total darkness, with his eyes bandaged. He suffered another bout of blindness when he was 12, and his eyesight deteriorated in the ensuing years, resulting, in 1945, in total blindness. He was, however, developing as a poet.
Deaf, blind, angry, poor and religious, Jack had difficulty forming relationships, but became convinced that God intended him to marry. The prospects for future marital happiness were not great, but then, in 1967, he received a letter out of the blue from Ruth Peaty, wanting to get to know him because ‘I think you are an interesting personality’. A strange correspondence began which led, the following summer, to a meeting and, on 26th October 1967, to Jack and Ruth’s marriage. During the following year Jack wrote more poetry than he had ever done before.
My own contact with Jack came about for two reasons. First, in the 1980s and 90s I was editing a journal called Christian, in which I always gave space to a wide range of good modern poets. Jack was a great friend of this journal, and over the years I published a fair number of his poems. Then I also included one of his poems when I edited the anthology New Christian Poetry for Collins in 1990. I was also Literature Coordinator at the University of Surrey at this time, where we had an Annual University Poetry Lecture in which one modern poet gave a lecture on another respected modern poet. There was no question of Jack speaking in public, so I invited Donald Davie to give the lecture, and Jack, Ruth and Ruth’s sister, Bella, came to stay with me and attended the lecture. The artist, Heather Spears, was present at the lecture and produced the wonderful drawings of Jack that I’ve included on this blog.
The relationship between Jack and Ruth was both tender and stunning. She was his eyes and ears, but he contributed a richness to her life as well. Neither was young when they met, and the development of their intimacy and trust was not cheaply won.
Oh darling, lead me safely through the world:
Make clear each sign lest my male clay be hurled
To flame when it seeks cooling, or to ice
When lava leaps in you, hot veins entice
Beneath a white breast I misread,
Thinking it cold, and pass unconscious of your need.
(Intimate Landscape, p 45)
How did one communicate with this great man? He could, of course, speak, though one had to bend towards him and listen carefully to catch his words. Then came the practice of speaking on his hand, tracing capital letters and spelling out each word until he grasped what one was trying to say. This unusual way of communication slowed conversation down to an extent, but it was intensely moving. I remember my first experience of communicating with Jack in this way, when I realised that here was an entirely different method of human interaction. It reminded me of the first time I encountered geysers and bubbling mud in New Zealand, when it dawned on me that I’d never see the ground beneath my feet in quite the same way again.
His poetry, like Jack himself, is not always easy, and can be fierce and uncompromising. Given the dark Calvinism that coloured much of his life, he was unlikely to enjoy very wide popularity; but he was, and remains, one of the most interesting and talented writers of the 20thC. He wrote prolifically and continued to submit poems to me to consider for inclusion in Christian right up until his death in 1994 – and even after that, his widow, Ruth, sent me a number of poems that had not previously been published. In Jack’s late poems the anger and brutality of his earlier work has softened and there is a new gentleness and joy that reflects the changes in his personal life.
As well as his numerous poetry collections, Jack Clemo published two novels, two volumes of autobiography and a statement of faith. He was awarded a Civil List pension in 1961, an honorary D Litt from Exeter University in 1981, and he was crowned Prydyth an Pry (Poet of clay) at Cornish Gorsedd in September 1970.
My friendship with Jack left a deep impression on me, which was one of the reasons why I noticed a poetry competition in his name when it was advertised early this year. The specified theme was ‘wonderful things are about to happen – wildest things are about to happen’. In my poetry file there was a poem, Transition, that I’d written when I was Poet in Residence for the Winchester Ten Days Arts Festival (see blog November 5th 2013), which seemed appropriate, so I sent that in.
Just before I left Romania (see blog 18th May 2016) I received an email from the Arts Centre Group to tell me that I was one of three prizewinners in the Clemo competition, and inviting me to attend the prizegiving in May. When I turned up at this event in London, I still had no idea which prize I’d won but, as in the Oscars, we progressed from third prize to second to first. I was thrilled to be awarded first prize, and I know that Jack would have been delighted too.
Several people have asked for copies of the poem that won, so here it is?
When we’re too tired or busy to even want to pray
and we’re conscious only of obstacles between us and where
the air is clearer, music played on strings or sung by a choir
can sometimes rise like incense, carrying our prayer.
Out above this soaring roof, beyond the city,
daylight and blessings are filtering down,
a skylark is pouring her heart out in rippling silver curtains
between a chalkland greensward and a great blue dome.
Something or someone is bridging the gap, inviting us
to swim up into what we don’t yet understand,
to take the risk of somersaulting into freedom,
to believe in the possibility of a listening ear,
to learn, like a violinist, to touch the string lightly,
absorb the vibrations and feel the harmonic soar.
Jack Clemo’s books
Two novels: Wilding Graft (which won an Atlantic Award in Literature from Birmingham University in 1948), and The Shadowed Bed, which was written soon afterwards, but not published until 1986.
Two volumes of autobiography: Confession of a Rebel (1949) and Marriage of a Rebel (1980); and his statement of faith, The Invading Gospel (1958).
His books of poetry were: The Clay Verge (1951), and The Wintry Priesthood (1951, which won an Arts Council Festival of Britain poetry prize). Both of these collections came together in The Map of Clay.
Then, in later life, the poetry collections came thick and fast: Cactus on Carmel (1967), The Echoing Tip (1971), Broad Autumn (1975), A Different Drummer (1986), Approach to Murano (1993, after visiting Italy) and The Cured Arno (1995 – completed shortly before his death in July 1994.
I was really pleased to be invited to be part of a delegation of British poets visiting Romania in April. Part of my delight was because, although one of my daughters went there as a volunteer to help in an orphanage when she was a student, this was a country about which I knew far too little. The other part of my delight was because I recognised that with such a lovely group of poets we were bound to have fun. The other poets were Maggie Butt, Katherine Gallagher, Jeremy Page, Peter Phillips and Anne Stewart. I had published Maggie and Anne as Oversteps poets, and was well aware of the fine reputation of the others.
The visit was arranged by Lidia Vianu of the University of Bucharest Masters programme in Translation, and as the department was celebrating its tenth anniversary, celebration was in order. The idea was to spend four hours on each weekday morning at the Romanian Cultural Institute, working intensively with a group of students, and then to have a wide range of visits and special events in the afternoons and evenings.
I was allocated 13 students and thoroughly enjoyed my time with them. For the second year students’ final assessment they had been translating Romanian poetry into English, and our task was to help them ensure that the English was perfect. One of the poets had used strict forms, mainly sonnets and rhyming couplets, and I occasionally felt there was a risk of losing some of the poetry by slavishly replicating the rhyme patterns, so some careful judgements had to be made.
Early in the week we were invited to a reception at the residence of the British Ambassador, Paul Brummell, who gave us a delightful evening, introduced us to a number of dignitaries and also delivered an intelligent and relevant talk.
At the end of the week the six of us led a discussion on Shakespeare at the British Council, and then gave a reading of our work.
In between these two events, in just 72 hours, an anthology of our poems was translated into Romanian, edited and published ready for distribution at the final event. The book was called simply ‘Six British Poets’. Our poems were translated by Ioana Ieronim, and published by Integral Press, Bucharest. I’m pictured here with Ioana, the translator.
In between these two official engagements, we had an enormous amount of fun, and were looked after royally by our hosts. We had a memorable dinner at ‘Lacrimi si Sfinti’, the restaurant belonging to Mircea Dinescu. Mircea is one of the best-known Romanian poets, was very much involved in the Revolution against Ceausescu in 1989, and now owns a farm out in the country where he grows all the food and wine for his fantastic restaurant in Bucharest. Here he is pictured with his wife, Maria; and in the other picture you can see the band that entertained us as we ate.
Other highlights of the week included visits to various museums and to the Parliament Palace, the strange, over-sized palace constructed by Ceausescu, which he did not live to inhabit as he was executed more or less as the building was completed. No expense was spared in this palace, and although it may not be to everyone’s taste, it is certainly impressive.
We were all grateful to the generous funders, who contributed in various ways to make our visit so successful: the Romanian Cultural Institute, the University of Bucharest, the British Embassy and British Council, the Writers’ Union, the National Literature Museum and the Government. We also made many good new friendships while we were there, and were very happy when Elena Nistor, who guided us around many museums and other places of interest during the week, invited us to lunch at her mother’s on the final day. Another rich experience was spending half an hour at a service in one of the many beautiful churches on the Orthodox Palm Sunday.
Above all we are deeply grateful to Lidia Vianu, who runs both the MA in Translation and also the Contemporary Literature Press, for organising such an amazing week for us, and looking after us so well. She, and others, are now engaged in producing another book, which will include some of the work done by the students, as well as more of our poems.
A final comment about Bucharest itself: as well as being impressed by many of the older buildings we saw, we were thrilled by the presence of so many trees, both in parks and along the roadsides. It was because of the presence of so much woodland that we had the pleasure of hearing birdsong each day, even within the confines of the city.
Three years ago, I was on my way to New Zealand where I was booked to do nine poetry readings, when the visit had to be aborted because of an accident. So I was very pleased to have another chance to go Down Under this winter, and as we were taking a holiday in French Polynesia (see previous blog) and visiting a number of relatives, I decided that one reading in New Zealand and one in Australia would be enough this time.
In New Zealand we stayed with my sister-in-law, Sarah, in Taupo and swam in the lake each day, enjoying the crystal clear waters – and especially the fact that the temperature of the water was 27 C. I also enjoyed the fact that although the weather was blazing hot, snow could be seen on the tops of the mountains at the other end of the lake, so the first thing I did each morning was to stand at the window and check that the mountain tops were still white.
Lake Taupo is the largest lake in New Zealand, initially formed during a huge volcanic eruption over 25,000 years ago. A further massive eruption some time between 180 and 232 AD ejected so much material that it seems possible that it was responsible for the red sky that appeared over Rome and China in the time of Pliny.
A New Zealand poet, Geni Johnson, had kindly invited me to read to Taupo’s Literary & Poetry Society, Live Poets, at a restaurant in town. There was a good audience, including a couple of people who happened to have flown in from the British Council in Shanghai (not specially to hear me, I hasten to add). A few open mike slots gave me the opportunity to hear some local poets, and they were all very appreciative of my reading.
Moving on to Australia, thanks to Oversteps poet Glen Phillips, I received a wonderful welcome in Perth. Glen was the joint author with my predecessor, Anne Born, of ‘Singing Granites: Poems of Devon and Gondwanaland‘, which was the second book I published after I took over as Managing Editor of Oversteps Books
Because of other commitments, much activity had to be packed into just one day. In the morning Glen took me to visit his research department, ‘Landscape and Literature’, at the Edith Cowan University campus at Mt Lawley. Here I met and talked to a PhD student and learned something of the work being done there.
Glen then transported me to the CTV Perth radio studio for a half-hour interview conducted by Peter Jeffery. The quality of an interview is always dependent on the skill and professionalism of the interviewer, and Peter was fantastic, putting me entirely at ease and covering a great deal in the half-hour without making me feel rushed.
I had been invited to give a reading in the evening to the Fellowship of Australian Writers and Western Australian Poetry Inc. The meeting was to take place in the Writers’ Centre which is located in Joseph Furphy’s house. I was driven slightly out of the city to what appeared to be a deserted wood, where there was one other car parked. I approached the house down a leafy footpath with some trepidation, thinking it was a long way to travel for a tiny audience; but I was delighted, and astonished, when we opened the door, to find the room heaving with people, with not a spare seat to be seen. I have no idea where they had all come from, or where they had parked their cars, but they gave me a wonderful welcome.
This furphy, or water carrier, stands outside the house. It was made in the nineteenth century by J Furphy & Sons, and used to transport water to animals, and also to douse bush fires – though I think this amount of water would stand little chance against the horrific bush fires that have raged over Australia recently. People tended to congregate around the water carts and chat, rather as employees do around water fountains today, which is probably why the word ‘furphy’ is used by Australians to describe an unreliable rumour. John Furphy was the brother of the Australian writer Joseph Furphy, who wrote under the pseudonym Tom Collins, and his house is preserved as a Writers’ Centre.
Not surprisingly, this distinguished audience was highly receptive and appreciative, and at the end they not only gave me a fee, but also bought all the books I had with me, which lightened my luggage for the return journey considerably. I was pleased, in the course of the evening, to include a mini-launch of Glen Phillips’ latest collection, ‘Land Whisperings’, which comprised poems he had written as part of his PhD thesis and also includes some of the poems he wrote for Singing Granites.
With me in this picture are Oversteps poet Professor Glen Phillips and Dr Trisha Kotai-Ewers, both of whom are former Presidents of FAWWA.
So I have good evidence that poetry is alive and well in the Antipodes. At the end of this busy, happy and interesting day I received pressing invitations to return to Perth for longer, which I’m sure I shall do at some stage in the future.
When I was travelling the world as Chief Executive of a couple of literature and literacy NGOs in the 1990s, I very much enjoyed the time I spent in the Pacific islands of Samoa, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands. I therefore leapt at the opportunity this winter to visit Tahiti on our way to New Zealand, and cruise round the Society Islands on the good ship, Paul Gauguin. We normally spend our holidays in our little camper van, so this luxurious cruise was a fantastic treat.
We started in Tahiti, and over the course of the following ten days, called at seven other idyllic islands, five of which were in the Society Islands and the other two are atolls of the Tuamotu archipelago.
Tahiti has been inhabited since pre-historic times. It was discovered first by the British explorers Samuel Wallis (in 1767) and James Cook (in 1773); and then by the French explorer, Louis-Antoine Bougainville in 1773. Owned by Britain for over 100 years, it then became French in 1880, and in 1950 voted to remain under France rather than choosing independence.
The work of two of my favourite artists, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse, was influenced in one way or another by the time they spent in Tahiti. I had therefore hoped to visit the Gauguin museum, but it was closed for restoration two years ago, and no one seems to have any idea when it will reopen. I spent an interesting morning at the Museum of Tahiti and the Isles, but unfortunately they have not seen fit to exhibit any Gauguin material in the absence of the specialist museum.
Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti are all well-known, and none more so than ‘Women of Tahiti on the Beach’.
In 1930, Matisse also visited Tahiti, and at the time claimed not to have been very affected by his visit there. However, towards the end of his life his mind appears to have returned to the light of this area, and in particular the designs used by the Tahitians in the cloth they print for their clothes, which bear some quite striking similarities to Matisse’s wonderful late ‘cut outs’.
The Society Islands were most probably named in honour of the Royal Society in London, though some believe they were named after the London Missionary Society, whose missionaries took Christianity to the islands.
Here are some very short notes on the other islands we visited, followed by a few general observations.
There are two islands here: Huahine Nui (big) and Huahine Iti (small). There are some archaeological remains of maraes on the island, and a collection of famous blue-eyed eels, but we decided to catch the (fairly basic) local ‘bus (Le truck) in order to have a quick look around the tiny town before striking out along the beach to sink gratefully into the sea.
We spent two days in this Paradise. On the first day we took the tender to a private Motu (island beach) where I braved the heat on my first paddle board expedition, and also met a large and very beautiful stingray, which floated gracefully below me as I swam. The next day we went snorkelling in a coral garden known, with good reason, as The Aquarium.
Rangiroa and Fakarava
We had opted for the longer, ten day cruise, rather than the six-day one, and the extra part came next, as we sailed from the Society Islands to the Tuamotus Islands to visit the atolls of Rangiroa and Fakarava. In the Society Islands the islands are in lagoons, surrounded by coral reefs. The lagoons are a beautiful turquoise colour, laced by the white surf breaking on the coral reef. In the Tuamotus, we were visiting atolls, in which the coral reef surrounds a lagoon, with no island in the middle. Instead, the islands are part of the reef itself.
The lagoons were far larger than I had expected, covering many miles. Rangiroa is the largest atoll in Polynesia, and the second largest in world. It is 78 km long and 225km around, and contains 78 islands around a turquoise lagoon teeming with exotic fish.
was the ancient capital of the Tuamotu Archipelago, and the old village of Tetamanu has one of the first Polynesian Roman Catholic Churches, built of coral in 1874. The whole atoll is now protected as part of the UNESCO biosphere.
We were by now many miles from the Society Islands, so had a 36 hour sea passage to return to the main archipelago. It was good to be out of sight of land for so long, to experience a little of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.
Possibly the most exotic day of our exotic holiday. We were dropped on a private island Motu on the atoll, where we were treated royally. We spent the day as ‘lotus eaters’, swimming, snorkelling, kayaking and partaking of the lavish barbecue.
Our final port of call was the beautiful island of Moorea, where we spent two days. As with all the other islands, we moored a little way from the island and disemarked by tender. There are two deep bays, Opunohu Bay, where we moored, and Cook’s Bay.
Moorea is only seventeen miles from Tahiti, and we had looked out at its dramatic mountains in the distance on our first few days in Tahiti. After Tahiti, it is the most populated island. It is the remains of a volcano, and the outer rim of the crater is very evident in the sharp mountains that encircle the whole island.
As we were nearing the end of the holiday, we splashed out on two expeditions: an afternoon on a jet ski on the first day – which involved driving over water at 64 knots – and a ‘bus tour of the island on the second.
After ten days of utter peace and beauty, we returned to Pape’ete, which appeared very busy in contrast.
Our ship, the Paul Gauguin, was extremely luxurious, and we were looked after very well. The vast majority of passengers were large North Americans, which was something of an education. I can now recognise women who have had a facelift; and I have sat at table with men who believe that the most important freedom, which they must retain at all costs, is the freedom to own guns. Being light drinkers and moderate vegetarian eaters, we probably didn’t get as good value from the deal as many of our fellow passengers – but we had a wonderful, relaxing time. There was a swimming pool on top deck, for extra swims between our sea immersions.
One huge concern to me was the number of plastic bottles of water that were consumed. Some sea water was desalinated, but the heat is intense and it really is necessary to consume a great deal of drinking water. We all know about the huge area of the Pacific that is now polluted by a raft of plastic, and everyone – tourists and locals alike – use several new plastic bottles every day. I don’t know what the answer is to this problem, though some new biodegradable materials are being developed. They cannot come too soon.
All the Polynesians we met were lovely people. Not only were they welcoming, friendly and happy, but in many cases displayed exceptional empathy, often intuiting what we were going to say before we opened our mouths.
Many of them are also ravishingly beautiful. We were treated to several Polynesian dance shows. These sinuous dances were banned by the missionaries, who presumably found them a little too suggestive; and the dances began to be rediscovered/reclaimed only in the mid-20th century. It is, of course, impossible to tell how close they now are to the original dances.
The islands are all Francophone, and everyone speaks the local Tahitian language as well. As usual when travelling, it was worth learning a couple of words of the local language; but everywhere we went, people were surprised and delighted that we spoke French.
The economy of the islands is based on tourism, black pearls and vanilla.
The main garment for both women and men is still what in Samoa I knew as the lava lava and in India as the sarong, and in Polynesia is called the paleo. Most of the designs are bright and colourful, and there are dozens of interesting ways of tying it.
All the islands we visited were unbelievably beautiful, set in turquoise lagoons, surrounded by coral on which white spray breaks constantly to form a lacy border. The coral is of many different colours and shapes, and the number and variety of fish defy description. Other wild life was not so plentiful, though there were plenty of frigate birds fishing round the islands, and on Tahiti there were minahs, pretty little ground doves with budgerigar blue faces and fine striped feathers; and tiny, multicoloured finches.
Both air and water temperature were a constant 31-34 degrees, so we could swim and snorkel for hours, only leaving the water when we were completely soggy. It was also of the highest salt content that I’ve ever known, so it was so buoyant one could practically sit on it.
Having enjoyed the holiday of a lifetime, it’s back to the camper van for the next few years!
In 1977, Robin Shirley, who had been a post-grad at UCL when I was an undergraduate, invited me to be part of a project creating computer-generated poetry, and then performing it to jazz accompaniment. Sunflowers, the group for performing the work, comprised Randy MacDonald, a fantastic jazz saxophonist and flautist; the actor and musician, Gus Garside; poet and crystallographer Robin Shirley; and me. I was lecturing in Philosophy at Surrey University at the time, but was also a poet and musician. The biographical notes that appeared in the programmes for some of our performances are at the bottom of the page, below the sample poem.
I was young and fancy-free, and didn’t really take the project terribly seriously, though I was happy both to help create the poetry and also to perform the jazz. However, the whole thing took off, and before long we were receiving invitations to perform in various places, including one performance for BBC Radio, and one at a major computer conference.
By the time we moved on to other adventures, we had yards and yards of computer print-out of poetry, a number of photographs and some good newspaper cuttings and reviews. Then … it all disappeared, and for over 30 years I couldn’t find the files in which these archives were stored.
Then, a few months ago, I was approached by Jerome Fletcher of Falmouth University, who is doing some research into electronic literature in the UK between 1960 and 2010, to ask if I could provide information about Sunflowers. This led to total immersion in some of the boxes that were stored upstairs at home, and to my delight I was able to unearth at least some of the material. Hence this blog, to share a slice of history. Unfortunately most of the newspaper cuttings have not yet emerged, and the photos are rather faded; but this page should give a taste of what we were doing.
The general idea was to feed phrases into a computer that would make sense in whichever order they then came out, and for each phrase we had to determine what the probability was of its occurring, and the possibility we wished to allow for that phrase to be repeated. The skill, obviously, was in choosing the best phrases to feed in; and some of the results were strikingly good. The computer programme we used was devised by Robin using the ICL 1905F computer at the University of Surrey.
It was called Bard 0, and was followed by Bard 1D and Bard 2S.
The one cutting that has turned up was in the Computer Bulletin in March 1979, and in it John Lansdowne, reviewing our appearance at the Computer Arts Society, writes: ‘It says much for the quality of the poetry and the way it was presented by Robin Shirley, Alwyn Marriage, Gus Garside and Ranald MacDonald that they were able to give two consecutive 40-minute performances to enthralled audiences of all ages. The poem for three voices, May Carol,was especially well received, and I look forward to hearing the Wheel of Seasons cycle in full on some occasion when I’m not trying to run a computer art show at the same time.’
An early version of The Sunflower Suite had been performed at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival, and as well as developing that further, we created other works during our time together, including ‘Pavan for the Children of Deep Space’ and the extended group of poems in the popular suite ‘The Wheel of Seasons’. We then took all these works and jazz improvised to them, using sax, flute, guitar and bass guitar, keyboard, voice and various percussion instruments. It was all good fun.
Sadly, Robin contracted hepatitis on a work trip to Egypt, and died far too young. Without his drive, the group drifted apart. If anyone knows Ranald MacDonald or Gus Garside, please let me know.
With apologies for the poor quality of the photographs, some of which were actually scanned from tiny contact prints on our home scanner. I think it’s worth preserving them for their historical importance – and for reminding me of what I looked like when I was young!
Sample poem from the Spring section of The Wheel of Seasons:
A girl is dancing, singing after her tears, dreaming of the sea.
How many springs are feeding the river
reaching further into before?
Crustaceans waiting for the end of primrose conversation,
we are borne along, breathless, to inevitable growth.
There is a growing urgency.
How many springs are feeding the river,
eddies of doubt, stagnant pools of rejection, reaching further into before?
The present is opening into the future,
old, young, dancing, dying, dreaming of the sea.
Eddies of doubt, stagnant pools of rejection,
lines of love etched deep on chalk and clay,
reaching further into before, swirling in triumphant confidence;
in the changing, in the compliance, is the growing.
A girl is dancing, singing after her tears.
There is temporary pain in the confluence,
in the changing, in the compliance, is the growing old young dancing dying.
A girl is dancing, singing after her tears
from spring through singing to ocean swell,
lines of love etched deep on chill and clay
dreaming of the sea.
This isn’t actually anything to do with grasshoppers. It’s about Irish rain, Seamus Heaney, peat fires and kindness.
We’ve just had a week’s holiday in the north of Ireland, and despite all the gloomy predictions, we had wonderful weather for all but one of the days. We bathed in the sea at Ballygally, spent a day exploring the Giant’s Causeway in bright sunshine, and went out to the far west for a few days on the wild coast of Donegal, where we had fine sandy beaches to ourselves and carpets of wild flowers to dazzle the eyes.
The one day of rain, however, beggars description. It started before we woke up, and continued unabated until we were tucked up in bed again that night. The roads turned into rivers, some with waves flowing along them, and we had to negotiate floods that came up to the top of our wheels. More than a day of that and we would have been applying for tickets to join Noah on the ark.
We were on our way back home, so needed to make some progress. It was also clear that free camping on soggy ground (or in the middle of a puddle) wasn’t a great idea, so we headed across moorland and hills to find a pub with an adjacent campsite that we’d seen on the map. As we arrived at the Shepherd’s Rest, tired and hungry, the publican came out to welcome us; however, when we said how much we were looking forward to a meal, he told us that they hadn’t got any food. Observing our faces falling visibly, he hurried to reassure us that he would rustle something up for us.
We didn’t even make it up to the official camping area, but anchored in relief in the car park and sloshed our way back to the pub, where there was a peat fire burning brightly, a large portrait of Seamus Heaney on the wall and, within minutes, a huge plate of food on the table before us. Our host, Colin, had clearly raided the ‘fridge. If any reader is ever looking for a campsite in Northern Ireland, I would strongly recommend this pub cum campsite.
Throughout the evening Colin plied me with poetry books to read and discuss, showed us the Visitors’ Book with the signature of Seamus Heaney inscribed within, and asked about my poetry. When we finally left, some hours later, he insisted that we should visit the nearby town of Magherafelt the next day, where someone called Eugene had a treasure trove of Heaney memorabilia which he would certainly be pleased to show us.
It seemed a little impertinent to turn up at someone’s house unannounced, but the final line of one of the lovely Bod books we shared with our children when they were little popped into my head: It’s amazing what you discover when you follow a grasshopper. So we called on the house, met Eugene Kielt and spent the next few hours in conversation about Seamus and a number of other poets whom Eugene knew.
Just above the chair where I was sitting was a study of Seamus, done by the artist Peter Edwards in preparation for his portrait of the poet which is now in the National Portrait Gallery.
Although Seamus lived in the Republic, he was born in Northern Ireland and visited frequently. Eugene now leads tours of ‘Seamus country’ for visitors; and his guest house, advertised as the only poetry guest house in Northern Ireland, is stacked full of Heaney poems and memorabilia.
When Eugene offered to show us round the house, I was unprepared for the sheer number of poems and pictures on the walls. There were huge linen banners with Heaney poems on them (including one that isn’t in any of the poetry collections), and others on fine paper. Each suite of rooms was dedicated to a different poet, such as Patrick Cavanagh, Michael Longley and others. In each case there was a large portrait of the poet and a number of his poems on the walls (yes, they were all men, though in conversation I found Eugene also valued some women poets, including the National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke).
Eugene learnt to love poetry as an adult, initially through Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, but is now extremely knowledgeable about many 20th and 21st century poets. He has run two highly successful poetry festivals from his villa in the past, but is not rushing to organise a third as there is no one except him and his wife to do all the hard work involved. He does, however, host a number of poetry readings in the house. We spent a fascinating morning in his company, and departed feeling very grateful to Colin, Eugene, Seamus himself and, of course, Bod.