Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The Wanderer Returns

You may have noticed I've been gone a while (well, I hope you noticed!) I was off on holiday and then had a couple of important things to write to a deadline.

We went to St Ives, for the fourth - and not the last - time. I just love the place. The picture I'm going to attempt to add to this post (wish me luck as I'm dreadful with this sort of thing) says it all.

Unfortunately the weather wasn't our friend for the most part, which was frustrating. But nothing can spoil a location of such beauty and power as West Cornwall. While I was there I visited Marion Whybrow, who attended my summer school here in Oxford. She has lived in St Ives for many years and is very involved in the artistic community there: she's married to Terry, a painter of beautiful still-lives which exude a Zen-like calm, and she's written various books about local artists, although she's now branching into fiction. With a friend, Marion Dell, she wrote 'Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell: Remembering St Ives', which is a beautifully illustrated survey of their time in the town and its influence on their work.

Marion also introduced me to the writer Ann Kelley, who won the Costa prize for best children's novel, 'The Bower Bird', in 2007. I haven't read that yet but have read 'The Burying Beetle', which comes before it. It tells the tale of Gussie, a brave, eccentric, spirited, thoughtful, loving child, who's waiting for a desperately-needed heart and lung transplant. The novel captures her unique take on the world and celebrates the 'nowness' of life: Gussie can't afford to look too far ahead and fully expects a premature death, so she throws her energies into looking, experiencing, analysing, making connections. The descriptions of the Cornish natural environment are exquisite - it's no accident that Ann is also a poet and a photographer: her eye and ear are acutely tuned to what Gerald Manley Hopkins called the 'inscape' of things. She was a very welcoming host at her amazing clifftop house - the sort of place where you can very soon forget the outside world exists. I'm going to re-read 'The Burying Beetle' to further appreciate the descriptions now that I've been there, and then move on to 'The Bower Bird' and the latest, 'Inchworm'.

Oxford felt incredibly oppressive after all that sea air, but I've just about adjusted. I've been busy, but have also finished Christopher Rush's 'To Travel Hopefully' which I mentioned in my last blog-post. And yes, it's still my book of the year so far and another to which I shall return, to mull over certain passages and trains of thought properly. Christopher Rush manages to stare the worst of life in the eye and force it, in the end, to lower its gaze. There's no easy sentiment, no schmaltz - he describes his own agony, an agony of grief that rendered him temporarily selfish and bitter, and yet, during and after his journey, even though the pain does not go, acceptance dawns, an ability to perceive beauty and purpose returns. His travels are a quest for redemption and a kind of redemption comes to him, hard won, in no way facile. He is a poet, a mordantly funny satirist, a critic of modern education systems (me too, Chris!), a true academic for whom the words of Tennyson, Larkin, Shakespeare blend into his thoughts and prose almost involuntarily, so much are they part of his being. Read him.

I'll save what else I've been reading for my next post.

I was terribly sad, halfway through the holiday, to receive a text from my sister who lives in Wiltshire, telling me Harry Patch, 'the last Tommy', had died. I've blogged about him before and will post on my other blog, 'Poem Relish', about him.

So what now, having at last caught up on the mountain of post-holiday laundry? Well, the academic year is looming up and very soon I'll be sucked into that and, no doubt, have all my creativity sucked out of me by it. At this point I find myself wanting to launch into yet another tirade about the new English A levels ('It is an ancient mariner-lass, she stoppeth one of many - have you heard about these syllabuses ....?')

But I'll restrain myself. Can't promise to maintain that, though. In the meantime, I've been taking stock of the year to come and what I want to achieve with it. Here you can help me out: I am hoping to set up occasional day courses in creative writing here in Oxford. They'd be based on the sort of thing I do at Winchester and have done for the university's Department of Continuing Education - but with me in charge, ha, ha! What I'd like to ask is that if any of you out there would be interested in that sort of thing, you might like to let me know via this blog (all you need to do is create a Google account so you can comment on my posts - and even I have managed that sort of thing!)

Now, let's see about adding that photo ...