Tag Archives: Rupert Brooke

The Death and Rebirth of Rupert Brooke

As the Gallipoli centenary commemorations get under way today (24 April) it is a poignant time to remember the passing of English poet, Rupert Brooke, who died on the way to the conflict aboard a Royal Navy vessel in the Aegean on 23rd April, 1915. He contracted septicaemia during a stopover in Egypt. Weakened by this, a mosquito tipped the balance and he died aboard, aged only 27. Unusually he was buried on the southern island of Skyros in an olive grave, where later a memorial was erected by his mother and friends. Brooke, born in Tahiti, educated at Rugby and Cambridge, moved in the elite literary circle of the Bloomsbury Set, but also was one of the Dymock Poets (a coterie of poetic friends who ensconced themselves in a village in rural Gloucestershire: they comprised Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Gibson, John Drinkwater, Edward Thomas, and Robert Frost. Together they went on long walks, drank cider, wrote poetry, reviews, and criticism, and produced New Numbers, which although it only ran to 4 issues published the iconic poem of Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ for the first time).

However tragic Brooke’s death – and of course he was only one of many who lost their lives in the Great War, the timing of his passing could not be more iconic. April 23rd, St George’s day (patron Saint of England, curiously enough born in Cappadocia, in what is now modern day Turkey), plus Shakespeare’s birth and death-day. This all fed into the legend. His death attained an almost mythic quality – the death of ‘the most handsomest man in England’, with the looks of an Adonis, on a Greek isle, on the way to fight for his country, as though he was some kind of James Frazer-ish solar hero who must perish for the vitality of the land (The Golden Bough and all that). In a similar way to Saint George, martyred in the Middle East, who was adopted by the Crusaders as a Christian icon, and later promoted to patron saint of England in 1222, Brooke’s Mediterranean demise was taken up as a symbol of patriotic sacrifice for King and Country, a PR boost to a dubious war – as the gungho Bosch-bashing of the early days gave way to the grim realities and heavy toll of industrialised warfare.

Brooke’s funeral was almost a state occasion – buried in St Paul’s with an eulogy by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and many of the great and the good in attendance,  his passing was marked by a letter to The Times (April 26, 1915) by Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, sounded a note that was to swell over the months and years that followed:

The thoughts to which he gave expression in the very few incomparable war sonnets which he has left behind will be shared by many thousands of young men moving resolutely and blithely forward into this, the hardest, cruellest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought. They are a whole history and revelation of Rupert Brooke himself. Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.

His dashing photographic portraits helped to secure his place in the heart of the nation – the bloom of England cruelly cut down. Published by friend Edward Marsh (who wrote a memoir of the poet’s life in the months following his death), his Selected Poems sold in the thousands, and Brooke became the ‘poetry idol’ of his day. ‘The Soldier’ was co-opted as a patriotic cri-de-coeur, used in countless funerals ever since. Brooke was a mercurial, almost quixotic figure – as many of his earlier poems attest (eg ‘Heaven’) — a young brilliant mind who had ambivalent feelings about the War. Flippant remarks such as ‘Come and die, it’ll be great fun’, need to be read with awareness of the whimsical irony with which he laced much of his writing. Typical of a young mind, he played with ideas, with voices, with ‘attitudes’ – never to mature into a consistent authentic voice. What he would have made of his post-humous recruitment as the War Office’s poster-boy, we can only imagine. And yet, his death bequeathed him a kind of Valhalla-like status, and his legend lives on to this day.

The Golden Room

Contributors to The Golden Room gather on the steps of the Stroud Subscription Rooms, 26 July 2014 by Ray Cranham

Contributors to The Golden Room gather on the steps of the Stroud Subscription Rooms, 26 July 2014 by Ray Cranham

On the 24th June, 1914, two days before the birth of Laurie Lee, a famous literary gathering took place in Gloucestershire. Just outside the village of Dymock, a group of friends met at The Old Nail Shop – the home of Wilfrid Gibson and his wife. Also present were fellow writers Lascelles Abercrombie, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, and Robert Frost. There they shared their poetry, their words, their wit and wisdom and dreams. They went on to inspire each other to write some of the best-loved poems in the English language (‘Adlestrop’, ‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘The Soldier’ among others), many of which first saw light in their self-published anthology, New Numbers. They became known, years later, as The Dymock Poets. That first night was immortalised by Gibson in his poem ‘The Golden Room’ and on Saturday modern writers (many of them from Stroud and Gloucestershire) gathered in the Subscription Rooms to celebrate their legacy.

The day was co-organised by Stroud-based poets Kevan Manwaring and Jay Ramsay, with the former arranging the daytime programme of speakers and presentations, and the latter, the evening showcase of poetry and music.

The day started with a keynote speech from Chair of the Friends of the Dymock Poets, Jeff Cooper, who had come all the way down from his native Lancashire to introduce the Dymocks. As he is the grandson of their founder, Lascelles Abercrombie, this was especially resonant.

Next we had Anglophile American Linda Harte (a long-term resident of Malvern), the author of Once They Lived in Gloucestershire, to give a more detailed survey of the Dymocks, focusing on her fellow compatriot Robert Frost. She brought with her rare editions of Georgian Poetry (the movement-defining anthology of the era) and a complete set of New Numbers.

After the break we had the first of two short films by Scott Anthony and Geoff Poole – evocative interpretations of the works of Edward Thomas in music and image, and a welcome break to overheating left-brains.

There followed an engaging presentation on editor and critic Edward Garnett by Anthony Nanson, related to Garnett through his grandmother Barbara Newstead-Garnett. This once key figure, who mentored major literary figures of the early Twentieth Century (DH Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, HE Bates, WH Hudson, and Edward Thomas among others) was justly brought into the limelight at last. Nanson emphasised not only Garnett’s perspicacity as a critic, but also his conviction that literary worth should be the chief criteria for publication, not commercial potential. This, and his championing of writing with environmental sensibilities, makes him an avant-garde and topical figure.

After lunch we were shown a film about composer and First World War poet, Ivor Gurney, entitled ‘Severn and Somme’, named after his iconic collection. This was made by Bristol-based film-maker Diana Taylor, who showed up just in time to answer questions about her self-funded, and moving portrait of the impact and tragedy of war.

Richard Carder, a composer and poet from Bath (Chair of the English Song and Poetry Society) followed this up with a presentation on Gurney and his music, giving several examples of his pieces – settings of the works of Thomas, himself and others – some of which Carder himself plays on in the recordings selected. Musicality and awareness of musical genres (folk, classical, music hall) run through much of the Dymocks’ work so this was a welcome addition to the day.

The final paper of the day was by Kirsty Hartsiotis, Curator of Decorative arts and Designated Collections at the Wilson Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum. She talked to us about ‘Cotswold Characters’ – focusing on Dymock poet John Drinkwater and his connection with the Arts and Crafts Movement in the Cotswolds in a fascinating and well-illustrated presentation which unearthed many treasures – some of which can be found in the Wilson!

The daytime programme concluded with a plenary discussion about the themes of the day. Creative fellowship is the main thread that underpins not only the Dymock Poets story, but also the very special Stroud scene, which this was largely the fruit of (and which the evening showcase especially illustrated). An environmental sensiblity (what Nanson, Manwaring, Hartsiotis & Metcalfe term ‘ecobardic’) and a strong anti-war sentiment were also perennial themes that the works of the Dymock poets convey to us across the century, making their legacy more relevant than ever.

The evening showcase, hosted gracefully by Jay Ramsay, kicked off with the hypnotic sound of the HangHang Duo – Barry Mason and Lina Lotto playing the Swiss hang drum. There followed an exemplary succession of strong Stroud voices: Adam Horovitz, Marion Fawlk, Steve Morris, Gabriel Millar, Jay himself, followed after the break by Rick Vick, Jehanne Mehta, Karen Eberhardt-Shelton, Polly Howell, and Anna Saunders (from Cheltenham Poetry Festival). Each poet took at least one of the poems of the Dymocks and responded to it in their own way – conducting a conversation across a hundred years. These creative responses critically brought the focus of the event into the present day – for these are (some of) the Gloucestershire writers living and working in the county today, and, each in their way, carry on the work of the Dymock Poets, especially through the spirit of creative fellowship which pervades in this remarkable town.

This long, hot day of poetry and colloquy celebrated a special gathering and in doing so created its own ‘golden room’ – and whenever kindred spirits and creative souls gather together and share their awen, that golden room lives on.

Soundbites:

For Kevan Manwaring, co-writer (with Terence James) of the Dymock Poets screenplay, The Road Not Taken, this event was the culmination of several years’ interest. His ‘Dymock fever’ brought him to the county and he hopes that he and his fellow contributors managed to pass it on to the audience by the end of the day!

 
‘I feel inspired by the ethos and imaginative vision of the night and feel Stroud has a lot to teach Cheltenham. I’ve written two new poems since the event and feel that many of the poems I heard, have now influenced my own aesthetics.’ Anna Saunders, Director, Cheltenham Poetry Festival

The Golden Room – Inspiration

The White Horse or 'The Inn with No Name', Hampshire, where Edward Thomas composed his first poem, 'Up in the Wind'.

And still, whenever men and women gather
for talk and laughter on a summer night, 

shall not that lamp rekindle; and the room 

glow once again alive with light and laughter;

and, like a singing star in time’s abyss,

burn golden-hearted through oblivion?

Wilfrid Gibson, The Golden Room

In the summer of 1914 a group of friends gathered in the village of Dymock, Gloucestershire to write and share poetry, drink cider, go on long inspiring walks, and support one other in their creative journeys. This brief flowering of fellowship was captured in Wilfrid Gibson’s poem, ‘The Golden Room’, long after the tragedy of the so-called Great War had scattered them, exactly a deadly toll.

2014 is the centenary of the start of the First World War – when there will be a plethora of events exploring this devastating conflict. It is also the centenary of when the Dymock Poets gathered together in the eponymous Gloucestershire village – moving there with their families, to write and share poems, publish, go on ‘walks-talking’ rambles of the area, and enjoy the bonhomie of a brief, but important creative fellowship. From out of this coterie of six poets, comprising Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Gibson, John Drinkwater, Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, and Rupert Brooke, came some of the most loved poems of the English language (e.g. Adlestrop; The Soldier; The Road Not Taken, etc). Thomas and Brooke were to die tragically young in the First World War, while Robert Frost was eventually to become the grand old man of American poetry, living into his 80s and winning the Pulitzer Prize four times. He always talked about the special friendship he had with Thomas (‘The most important creative friendship I ever had’). The Golden Room celebrates the legacy of the Dymock Poets and creative fellowship of all kinds.

See you in The Golden Room

See you in The Golden Room

Later this summer I will be co-hosting a celebration of the Dymock Poets (26 July Subscription Rooms) with my friend Jay Ramsay. There will be talks, performances, film, art and discussion about their legacy – and, critically, an acknowledgment of writers living and working in Gloucestershires in the present day, who continue the Tradition.

Whenever a creative gathering takes place – when artistic kindred spirits break bread and share ideas, enthusiasm and inspiration – I believe a ‘Golden Room’ is created. Developing this notion, I have created a radio show of the same name – inviting writers into the studio to share their words and dreams. It was planned as a series of six monthly programmes – each one with a theme. The first one (‘Inspiration’) was due to be broadcast on Tuesday 25th February at 4pm – it was pre-recorded and edited – then last week I was notified the station (Stroud FM) was shutting down unexpectedly. It had gone bankrupt! As they had only green-lighted my show a couple of weeks before this seems like catastrophically bad planning.  However annoying and frustrating this set-back (the challenges of running a community radio station on a shoe-string…) I decided to keep going with my Golden Room project as a podcast (for now) – so here it is!

See you in The Golden Room…

Listen to The Golden Room Podcast # 1 here

THE GOLDEN ROOM O1: INSPIRATION

TRACK LISTINGS

DJ: Kevan Manwaring

  • La Celtie et L’infini, Alan Stivell/Intro – KM
  • Chanty’s Welcome (song)
  • Yirdbards – Tramp Song/Why is Stroud inspiring?
  • Nobody’s Business/A Tale of New York – Tim Bannon Poetry
  • Poor Boy – Nick Drake
  • Robin Collins – Woven in Stroud/Time Raft
  • Black Bird – Rachel Unthank and the Winterset
  • In My Craft or Sullen Art – Dylan Thomas (read by Peter Adams)
  • Featured Writer – Denis Gould, Letterhead Press Studio, Cycling Haiku
  • Up on the Ridgeway – Ridgeriders
  • Poetry – Pablo Neruda (read by Gabriel Millar)
  • Caroline Herring – Black Mountain Lullaby
  • Pitchcombe House – Gabriel Millar
  • Bees Wing – Mad Dog McCrea
  • WB Yeats – The Song of Wandering Aengus (read by Tim Bannon)
  • White Birds – The Waterboys
  • HSL, La Zag/Diary – KM
  • Uffington – Chantelle Smith
  • Thought Fox – Robin Collins
  • Featured Writer interview – Denis Gould
  • May You Never – John Martyn/Farewell – KM

Let me know what you think,

and look out for future Golden Room podcasts…

You never know, a radio station might pick it up!

Elected Friends

Dymock Poets Dinner Party

6th October

Dymock Poets Dinner Party at Daisybank, 6 October 2011

Last night seven of us gathered at Daisybank to celebrate a special friendship. On the 6th October 1913, the poets Robert Frost and (then prose-writer) Edward Thomas met for the first time. I decided this was an auspicious anniversary to have the first read-thru of the screenplay I have co-written with ex-ITV news editor Terry James about the lives of the Dymock Poets (a mutual passion of ours – Terry wrote a play about Thomas and his wife thirty years ago). Having the initial flash of inspiration in Spring 2010 after a discussion with Terry about another project, we began work in earnest late last summer – I drafted the initial treatment while on Skyros, running my first Writers’ Lab course. This was an evocative place to work on it – being the ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’ (Rupert Brooke, one of the Dymocks, is buried there). Having the village in Gloucestershire where it all started on my doorstep helped to bring it alive also, and I’ve spent several weekends on writers’ retreat there – staying at a lovely place in Redmarley D’abitot, walking in the footsteps of Frost, Thomas et al along the Poets’ Walks in the area. Talks and walks organised by the Friends of the Dymock Poets also helped to stir the cauldron (most recently, last Saturday – with excellent talks about Marsh and the War Poets). The recent wave of media interest in Thomas was an uncanny coda to my own ‘Dymock Fever’ I’ve been experiencing this last year and a half (to the point I even moved to Gloucestershire last December).

Kevan Manwaring - co-screenwriter of the Dymock Poets story

I invited 6 people to my soiree – the dress code was ‘Edwardian/Georgian’ and everyone made a real effort. I provided a roast dinner and there were contributions of pears from Herefordshire (from David’s garden), home-made cake, Wisset’s Pink from Suffolk, and other tasties. After the meal we read out some of the Dymocks poems – beginning with ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ by Thomas, about the ‘walk-talking’ rambles he used to enjoy with Frost in and around Dymock.

Then we repaired to the ‘lounge’, where a fire was roaring – not for port and cigars – but for a read-thru of the screenplay. Roles were allocated and the casting seemed to be spot on as the respective thesps rose to the occasion – Jay carried off a good American accent for Frost; Anthony was perfect for Thomas; as his partner Kirsty was for Farjeon; Gabriel played Helen (& the barmaid!); Ola, Brooke; David, Marsh (& Bott). The other parts were played by ‘members of the cast’, as they say. I read out the scene descriptions and filled in where necessary. The dialogue flowed well and the group held the focus for over two hours – with no one breaking the spell for a loo break, etc. At times, with the fire crackling in the grate, the atmosphere was powerful. And once again I found the Dymock story deeply moving.

Afterwards, there was cake and crit – although some had to depart due to the lateness of the hour. Finally, the guests left (except Ola, the Bonn-Bath migrant, who had to crash over), and I went to bed feeling replete – a perfect night, made so by exceptional friends, all talented writers, storytellers and poets. The Dymock Poets story has such a pull for me, because I find the way those poets (their wives; close friends; & muses) inspired and supported each other very inspiring.

Here’s to creative fellowship!

Ola, Jay, Anthony & Gabriel - creative fellowship

The Magic of Skyros

Skyros 1-11 September

Sunset at Atsitsa

I returned to the gorgeous Aegean isle of Skyros on the first of the month for my second year of running a creative writing workshop – this time focussing on what I call ‘Life: Fiction’, my hybrid of life-writing and fiction-writing (where one ends and the other begins is often hard to say). I rode to Heathrow and parked up my ‘bike – before catching the BA flight to Athens. We were picked up by the distinctive purple Skyros coach, and guided to our hotel by Julian – the long-running member of staff, a skilled guide and consummate professional. Our brief stopover in the capital city was a chance to check out an attraction or two, as well as connect with fellow participants (& tutors). Before the respective parties went to either Skyros Centre (Writers’ Lab/Life Choices) or Atsitsa (various courses & activities) it was nice opportunity to forge a collective identity. We were all embarking on the adventure together. A group of 19 of us went out, looking for somewhere to dine – deciding to venture to the so-called ‘Anarchists’ Quarter’ to sample the local scene. The atmosphere seemed pleasant – with young black-clad Athenians hanging out, sporting long hair and lots of make-up (back home they’d be called ‘Emos’ or ‘Goths’). The food finally came – a barrage of starters, in true meze style. The cold bottle of Mythos went down a treat after a long journey, yet it wasn’t over yet. The following day, after a morning (which I used to visit the National Archaeological Museum) we set off – well, we would have done if not for the Student Protest which caused our street to the blocked off and the hotel barricaded up. We were stuck until they had passed, delaying the departure of the coach – but making for an interesting spectacle. The student protesters were far more civilised than their British equivalents – stamping and singing in good spirits. It felt ‘good-natured’ if earnest – they have true cause for complaint. The economic crash has hit Greece hard – there were a lot of beggars of the streets and lots of political graffiti everywhere, but I didn’t feel unsafe. However, there was a sense it was a powder-keg – and combined with the heat, noise and endless traffic – it was a distinct relief to leave the ugly metropolis. If nothing else, a night in Athens makes you appreciate the time on the island even more.

Graffiti in Athens

As soon as we reached the Aegean coast, things looked up. The ‘wine-dark’ sea (actually a dazzling turquoise at that time of day) was a sight for sore eyes; and soothing to the other senses also – to stand on deck of the ferry as it crossed over to Evia, feeling one’s body enveloped in a warm breeze – and then onto the Linaria from the other side. Due to the delay caused by the protest we nearly missed the last ferry – getting there with five minutes to spare. As we approached Skyros we were treated to a spectacular sunset. At the same time the maiden moon rose opposite. And it felt like we had slip through the Symplegades of reality and entered a realm of enchantment. This effect was somewhat challenged by the ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ music blasting out as we entered the port of Linaria (something of a tradition – which the residents must love!). By now, after twenty four hours of travelling I was feeling rather spaced out and very glad to finally arrive at the Skyros Centre for a late dinner. With relief we were shown to our quarters. Despite a dripping tap, I slept well, dog-tired.

Courses started the very next day – straight after the breakfast community meeting. For the next eight days (with one day off halfway through) I ran a three hour writing workshop every morning from 10.30am. My group of participants was small (6) but the international cross-section and striking personalities more than made up for it (an Australian; a South-African; a Belgian; an American-Asian; & a couple of Brits). The group seemed to bond well and produced some good work. Every afternoon, after a delicious lunch conjured up by Vasso, (the near-legendary local cook) I enjoyed a siesta down on the lovely beach at Magazia – swimming in the warm clear seas and cooling off with a beer and a book. Bliss.

Life's a Beach - on Skyros

One day, while I was running my writing workshop on the terrace a British couple turned up who had met at Skyros twenty five years ago – got married and were celebrating their anniversary on the island. They were invited to join us for lunch – and a cake magically manifested from Vasso’s kitchen.

Great massages were on offer from Martha – our resident native masseuse – and Andrea offered a ‘personal styling’ drop-in in the evenings. It’s half-board at Skyros, so most evenings the participants took themselves off to the town or the beach to dine – and most evenings they seemed to end up on the terrace of the apartment block where I was staying, enjoying a ‘nightcap’ or three – usually courtesy of Peter’s generosity (he kept regaling us with bottles of wine and whisky in an ongoing ‘tasting’ session).

Terrace party

The Dionysian revelry was not sustainable – and folk started to flounder after a few late nights. I had learnt to pace myself quickly – and enjoying a few quiet ones in allowed me to be clear-headed most mornings – essential for my class! If the late night drinking was avoided, the life-style at Skyros was in fact very healthy – great food, plenty of exercise, rest, sun and early morning yoga – so my body soon started to ‘glow’.

The excellent catering was occasionally supplemented by superb additions by the multi-talented Andrew – who co-runs the Skyros Centre with Julian. One morning he treated us to home-made bagels. And one evening a delicious curry for the staff (yum!).

Skyros Centre - all quiet for siesta time

Half-way through the session we visited the sister site at Atsitsa – a chance to swim off Dead Goat Beach, enjoy a drink at Mariana’s while watching the sunset, and catch up with our fellow travellers. The bold (or foolish) could try a bit of Greek dancing, although the ‘free-style’ to resident musician Tom’s drumming posse was more to my taste. Alas, taxis whisked us back to Skyros at eleven like a fleet of pumpkin coaches, yet the visit had provided a welcome ‘change of scene’. Both groups seem to decide that their place was best! In truth, both have their attractions – but a plus for Skyros is the experience of living ‘amongst the locals’ in traditional Greek dwellings, and so could be said to be a more authentic experience, culturally. You get to know the predominantly ancient locals, sitting on their porches, as you pass them everyday, calling out ‘Kalimera’ or ‘Yaisas!’

High Country - Skyros mountain walk

The day after was our official day off – making the most of the free morning I visited the local archaeological museum (its modest collection of local finds not quite matching the main one in Athens!) then went for a solo mountain walk after lunch with the Atsitsan guests. It was great to strike out alone – and enjoy some peace and space, after a few intense ‘people-rich’ days. I like good company – and my own! I need both to stay pleasant. The only company I had was a herd of wild goats – the sound of their bells is a familiar sound in the high country of Greece – and evokes an Arcadian idyll unchanged for centuries. One half expects Pan himself to step out from behind an olive tree, or to catch a nymph bathing in a sun-dappled pool (on the South Island, there is the Spring of the Nymphs below the Temple to Pan on a mountain top – amongst the tangled shade of a massive tree growing by the Spring goats gather, unwittingly conspiring in the mythic resonance of the place).

The magic of Skyros is palpable – in the vibrant colours; the air like warm honey; the golden evening light; in the vast star fields; the nocturnal chirrup of insects; the chiming of church bells in the distance; the heady scents of the night; the crowing of cockerels; the steady rhythms of work and prayer, siesta and socialising. At night the little cobbled streets of the town comes alive – young and old alike are safe until late. There appears to be no delinquency. Like the way the white ‘box’ houses hem each other into into a maze of passageways, so to does Greek society ‘hold’ everyone in place in a very community-focused way. It is a jigsaw puzzle of connections and consequences – a system that is both emotionally and physically ‘earthquake proof’ (when an earthquake hit the island – the monastery and castle were badly damaged, but the ‘sugar cube’ domestic buildings withstood it well).

Sunrise from the castle - Skyros

One morning I got up before dawn to watch the sun rise from Brooke Square – where a statue to the Dymock poet is dedicated (and to ‘classical poetry’). Last time I was here I visited his grave on the South Island (the actual ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’) and worked on a screenplay which is now starting to attract some exciting interest – I thanked the spirit of Brooke for any assistance he’s been giving!

I managed to do some light editing of a poetry manuscript – and a lot of reading – but after my class I was often too mentally tired to much other than blob out on the beach. Twenty four hours of teaching in 8 days is quite a lot (in effect, a 10 or 12 week course condensed into just over a week). But time and time again I was surprised and impressed by what participants shared. There was some good work created – and that is always the proof of the pudding. The final feedback was favourable too, and I ‘clocked off’ with some satisfaction. My work was accomplished. School was out.

My writers - on the terrace at the Skyros Centre

On the last night I hosted the centre’s ‘soiree’ – a chance for participants to share a party piece (song, poem, story, joke…) The ‘Skyros Singers’, coached by Kate Daniels, performed a choral world music song. Everyone seemed to pitch in something – either officially or unofficially! There was a great atmosphere and a lot of talent. My own offerings (a Greek myth and a smattering of poems) seemed to go down well. I closed with a Celtic blessing. Then Abba came on at full blast and everyone started to dance in a very silly manner – it was a hoot! There was a lovely sense of connection with everyone – tutors and participants all. Friendships had been forged; latent talents nurtured; new skills learnt; minds and hearts opened; and lifestyles changed or enhanced.

Hosting the soiree - on Skyros

The next morning we left at a civilised hour for the ferry (unlike the usual ‘stupid o’clock’). Again, this provided a nice chance to catch up with Atsitsans and ‘compare notes’. Everybody seemed to be glowing – the body language, expressions and tell-tale ‘twinkle’ said it all.

The magic of Skyros had worked once again!

In Pursuit of Spring

Dymock & Daffodils & Days of Song

27-28 March

Dymock Daffodils

Saturday I set off ‘in pursuit of Spring’, alluding to the classic book by First World War poet Edward Thomas, who in 1913 (21-28 March) recorded his literary pilgrimage from Clapham to the Quantocks – the home of Coleridge. My destination was Dymock, where, during a brief time leading up to that fateful conflict, a coterie of poets, their spouses and offspring, gathered: Lascelles Abercrombie; Wilfrid Gibson; John Drinkwater; Edward Thomas; Robert Frost; & Rupert Brooke – the Dymock Poets, as they became known afterwards. Their story, charged with poignancy in the shadow of war and the tragic death of two of their key members (Thomas and Brooke – who enlisted, and never returned), inspires and moves me. Nearly a hundred years on it seems more relevant than ever in the shadow of current conflict and the all-too-common reports of young men and women meeting their fate in a foreign theatre of war. Yet it was with joy I set off early on Saturday, having prepared the night before for a couple of days away. The forecast was good – the early reports were of heavy rain, but the nearer the time came, the more they improved, until I was fortunate to be blessed by a weekend of Spring sun. It made the ride up to just south of the Malverns a real pleasure. It was great to leave the city, and my week of toil, behind. When the sun is shining it is important to – seize the day! A sunny day is not to be squandered – they are ‘golden’, like the heart-breakingly brief days of bliss the Dymock poets shared together: the summer of 1914.

Twas in July
of nineteen-fourteen that we sat and talked:
Then August brought the war, and scattered us.

Wilfrid Gibson, The Golden Room

Following the precise directions to the wonderfully named village of Redmarley D’abitot, of Janice – whose writer’s retreat I had booked for the night – I soon arrived at Mellow Farm: a charming cluster of red-bricked and beamed style farm buildings distinctive of the area. Janice’s husband answered and didn’t seem to be aware she was running a writer’s retreat – but eventually Janice was able to pull herself away from her cooking and shown me my room, in Courtyard Lodge, which had lovely views towards Dymock Woods and May Hill – two numinous poetic ‘hotspots’. I was shown the meditation room, but not how to work the shower. Still it was a comfortable roomy place  – all to myself. The charming garden vibrated with daffodils and birches – similarly associated with the Dymock Poets. Sitting in the window seat later, enjoying the late afternoon sun, I wrote:

‘The Spring sunlight – the banks of daffodils – creates a ‘golden’ effect; dazzling after the gloom of winter. Now have the brighter days come!’

View from Courtyard Lodge, Mellow Farm, Redmarley D'abitot

Yet on my arrival, I didn’t have time to linger. Shedding my biker gear, I headed off to the village hall, where the Friends of the Dymock Poets were gathering for their annual Spring Day. The first item on the programme was a walk to Cobhill Rough, the location of the famous altercation between Robert Frost and a gamekeeper.

I entered the hall – which was brimming with Senior Citizens in walking gear, ‘warming up’ for the ramble, ie expelling hot air. Although it’s nice to be the youngest one present, it did feel a little odd. Still, I was warmly welcomed and signed up to the Society there and then. And off we set! The walk wasn’t very far – a couple of miles – but it took somewhat longer than it should have because the narrow track we took was ‘boggy’. This proved a navigational hazard for some and so it was requested the men present offered assistance. And so I found myself up to my ankles in mud, helping OAPs scrambled along the sides, offering encouragement and motivation – like some Assault Course for geriatric poet-lovers. This obstacle overcome with teamwork, we had ‘bonded in peril’ and carried on in affable, ambling manner to the site of the gamekeeper’s cottage in the corner of Cobhall Rough (a sign on the way in warned: PRIVATE SHOOTS Please keep to Rights of Way & Dogs Under Control). Here, Frost and Thomas, while out on one of their customary perambulations, was accosted by a bullish keeper called Bott. Frost didn’t take kindly to his manner and put his fists up in defiance. For a tense moment a kind of standoff took place – between the Old and New World – feudal know-your-place politics vs the Land of the Free. Until, that is, Bott pulled down his hunting gun from the wall. After that, they ‘moved off pretty sharpish’, according to an eye-witness. Frost’s blood was up, indignant and incredulous at such treatment. Thomas felt even worse – as though he had acted cowardly in some way – this, speculated our guide, might have influenced his decision to enlist soon after. The incident certainly ruffled feathers. Apparently Gibson was entitled to walk the lands owned by the Lord of the Manor, Beauchamp, but not his guests – this put Frost out somewhat and spoiled their friendship. Still, it was an iconic moment, echoed in his poetry, e.g. ‘Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening’:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

The whole incident was described memorably by our guide, Barbara Davis – who knew somebody who had witnessed the incident as a child, (a 10 year old boy, visiting a friend of his grandmother’s) all those years ago! A living link with literary history. We had a stirring rendition of a ‘Lincolnshire Poacher’ by Roy, which some joined in with (it is customary for the FDP to pepper their walks with ‘guerrila’ poetry recitals. After inspecting the ruins of the keeper’s cottage, we finished with a stirring reading of a poem by Wilfrid Gibson ‘To John Drinkwater’ – which was interrupted by a man on a quad bike, rattling along like a Gatling gun. The spell broken, we continued on our way. The temperature had dropped and so, woolly hat on, we walked up through Ryton Firs, the setting for another classic from the Dymock Poet cannon, this time by Abercrombie – the first to move to Dymock and the last to leave. Returning there, after the War, he discovered a favourite wood of his had been felled for pit props, leaving a scene reminiscent of the ruined landscapes of the Trenches:

Ryton Firs, like Europe, fell…

At the edge of the woods, before we turned back to the village, our guide speculated on the repercussions of the incident and Wynne read ‘The Road Not Taken’, which had extra resonance and meaning now. As I lingered, gazing at the track. The secretary, Cate Luck, said this could have been the very tracks Frost referred to. Certainly his phrase ‘the yellow woods’ could certainly describe the wood that day, brightened by daffodils and Spring sun. It was a tantalising thought.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken


Poets Path 1, edge of Cobhall Rough

We returned to the village hall, where people dispersed for lunch. I ate my sandwiches in the sun, then wandered to the local churchyard, fond a grassy gravestone, and promptly had a nap in the warm spring sun – a local cat curling around my legs. The early start – and my cold – had taken its toll. I was wiped out!
Yet my cat-nap got me through the rest of the Spring Day – the afternoon consisted of two talks – one about ‘Dymock Poets: Wives and Muses’ by Sue Houseago; and then ‘Swords and Ploughshares: rivals and reputations in pre-war poetry’ by Dr Lynn Parker. Both were interesting, but I started to flag towards the end – despite being shored up by tea and cake.
I left the hall and returned to my lodgings – running the gauntlet of some lively young bullocks, who insisted on seeing me off their muddy field, despite their scaring easily whenever I turned and waved my arms. The two little grey goats in the horse paddock were cuter – as were the two dogs belonging to the family who lived in the main house. I made some tea and sat in the sunny window seat, reading up on the Dymock Poets in Linda Hart’s book, Once They Lived in Gloucestershire – I was about to go to Ledbury to buy a copy when I found one on the shelf in my bedroom, inscribed by the author to the hosts. Gratefully, I curled up with it – recharging batteries for the evening jaunt.
‘Colour and Savour of Spring’ was an evening of ‘Dymock poets and friends in music and words’ at St Mary’s, Dymock. I set off in good time but hadn’t reckoned on the labyrinthine backroads and lack of signs for Dymock – there were signs for Ledbury, Gloucester, and Newent but not my destination. Taking May Hill as fix, I struck out along the most likely lane on my Triumph Legend. It was dusk – the trees silhouetted in the deepening sky. Bats flitted past my helmet – some looked huge! DH Lawrence’s poem came to mind – a visitor to the Dymock Poets:

Dark air-life looping
Yet missing the pure loop
A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight
And serrated wings against the sky,

Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,
And falling back.

from Bats by DH Lawrence

I eventually found Dymock – lost in its own becloaked timewarp – and pulled up opposite the church, from which a promising glow exuded. I jogged over to the doorway – it was 7.30pm – and burst in: to a packed congregation and a concert in progress. The ‘stage’ was right by the door, so everyone looked at me. There was no way around it – I had to walk passed the performers and down the middle of the aisle to find somewhere to sit. Rather than waiting for a suitable gap – which would have been the sensible and polite thing to do, I strode to the back, hoping to look like I knew what I was doing. A man accosted me halfway – Bob May – the organiser. I gave him a tenner and he handed me the change later. He found me a seat, bless him – a row of ladies had to shuffle up – and finally I ensconced my bardic behind on the hard church pew. The children of what sounded like ‘Am Dram School’ were in full song (turned out to be Ann Cam School) – but I’d only missed a couple of tunes – four seasonal songs by Eleanor Farjeon. This was a May Pole, of all things, set up in the middle of the church – and I surmised the evening must have started with a dance. There followed some cute poems by the pupils. Next up, a little skit on the Friendship of Eleanor Farjeon and the Dymock Poets; then something on a poorly-tuned cello (that’s how it sounded to me) by a lovely young lass; Heroes & Heroines by the St Mary Singers – again, lyrics by Farjeon – and this time accompanied by a ‘fancy dress’ parade of each of the respective historical figures: Devonshire Drake; Grace Darling; Wellington; Florence Nightingale. After an interval – when refreshments were served and I picked up copies of the Poets Walk maps – there was a presentation of prints. Then a reading by a local poet about daffodils – daffodil doggerel – and an extra contribution from another ‘local poet’ of similar quality.

Fortunately, the standard picked up again with a masterful recital of Brooke’s immortal poem, ‘The Soldier’ by actor Peter Thorpe. More tuneless cello. Then the reading of ‘The Golden Room’, once more by Thorpe – but this time he didn’t stand so close to the mike and the power wasn’t carried so well. When I had read this earlier that day I was deeply moved by the vision it presented – of a brief, fragile flowering of fellowship:

Was it all for nothing that the little room,

all golden in the lamplight, thrilled with golden

laughter from hearts of friends that summer night.

Wilfrid Gibson, The Golden Room

The penultimate act was a pleasant surprise – a whole bevvy of young lovelies got up (pupils of St Mary’s School, Worcester) and sang Brooke’s trio of sonnets entitled The Dead in haunting falsetto voices. Thorpe returned to the mike for his version of Edward Thomas’ ‘The Sun Also Shine’; and the evening ended with a singalong to ‘A Song for Gloucestershire, by Johnny Coppin. There followed lots of thank yous and the handing out of bouquets – the contributors getting well-deserved applause for their efforts: a fine community event.

Afterwards, I browsed the display at the back of the church about the Dymock Poets – deciding to return the following day to read it when I was more awake.

It had been a lovely evening of poetry, song and music – it was wonderful to see the Dymock Poets honoured in a such a way. They have clearly been taken to the heart of the locals and their words have become also liturgical in the way they mythologize and sanctify the local landscape. And quite rightly so – that is the true poet’s role.

I walked out into the night – taking in the sky full of stars, the moon shining merrily. The interior of the remarkable Norman church of St Mary’s reminded me of the abbey on Iona – and so to did this experience – from sacred space to Sacred Space: the cathedral of the Stella Maris. The change of scale, and interiority to exteriority, brings about an oceanic feeling of amplification. Looking up, it feels like you could fall forever – and be drowned in the night.

Before I floated off into infinity, I popped to the Beauchamp Arms next door for an ale – needing to ground myself and enjoy the atmosphere of human company before I struck out alone once more into the dark (‘Yes I have been acquainted with the night’, Frost).

I supped my pint and made some field notes.

And then off I went, fortunately finding it easier to get back – a needle in a haystack – to my dwellings. I gratefully fixed myself a hot drink and retired to bed with a book – not the liveliest of Saturday nights, but certainly fulfillingly wholesome. I felt like I had drank from a purer font – took a road not travelled (by many) – and that, I hope, makes all the difference.

on the Poets Path

The next day I  visited the various dwellings of the Dymock Poets, (Gallows Cottoage – Lascelles Abercrombie; The Old Nail Shop – Wilfrid Gibson; Little Iddens – Robert Frost; Old Fields Farm – Edward Thomas) which was particularly moving – from such humble, unassuming places came words of such power. No blue plaques adorned their walls – all were private residences – no tourist signs pointed snap-happy hordes to their doorsteps. At Old Fields Farm, Thomas’s residence, a woman came over to see what I ‘wanted’: ‘To pay my respects to Mr Thomas’, I said. She was friendly enough after that. I said they must get fed up of all the people traipsing by – some do think the footpath runs through their garden, which it doesn’t. But she replied that ‘surprisingly few’ walk in the area.

An English heaven - Old Fields Farm, with Little Iddens and Glyn Iddens in distance (homes of Thomas, Frost and Farjeon).

I made it to Dymock in time for the afternoon ‘Daffodil Walk’ – a permanent marked trail that has become an annual tradition – a way of seeing in the Spring. Dymock is very proud of its daffodils. At one time there used to be a special train between Gloucester and Ledbury called the Daffodil Line, which was popular with Spring spotters (local lads used to collect bunches of daffs – a bakers’ dozen in each posy – 39 would get a tanner). First I had stow my togs – I couldn’t walk in my leathers now, could I. I found a place to stash them in the church – my helmet, trouser,s and jacket – in the pulpit! I joined the group of two dozen tourists just as they set off from the lych-gate of St Mary’s. We went on a relaxing hour’s amble to simply … go and look at daffodils, as though we don’t see them anywhere else (they’re coming out in my garden). Folk took photos – and yes, I did too, caught up in the herd instinct and photo-frenzy.

Daffodils ... this way!

We bimbled in a long, lazy line back to the church. I went to get a cuppa at the village hall, where the Spring Fair was taking place – realizing my change was back in my bike trouser pockets I went back to the church, and found, to my surprise – a young waif curled up asleep on top of my togs. He drowsily awoke. ‘Sorry to disturb you,’ I said. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Ryan.’ I gave him my hand and introduced myself. I asked him where his folks were. His mum was in the Spring Fair next door – good, he wasn’t homeless then! Perhaps still rumpled from his nap, he did look a bit of a ragamuffin: like Master Robin Goodfellow, in fact – the spirit of Spring himself – awakening from his winter’s sleep! I said I didn’t mind him using my things as bedding – the pilot jacket, with its thick fleece lining, would make comfortable bedding, as I know. I apologised by disrupting his siesta – his afternoon nap, I explained – and went on my way, charmed by this lovely encounter. How special!

St Mary's Church, Dymock

I got myself a drink from the pub – the thirsty walkers had all arrived and there was quite a queue – and sat in the sun, preparing for my journey home. It had been a very pleasant weekend and I felt very relaxed. Peaceful. Dymock had worked its magic on me – I had something of an epiphany of the hill overlooking Thomas’ place: I had a glimpse of an ‘English heaven’ – as Brooke put it; here was a little corner of England, to paraphrase his classic poem, that will be forever sanctified by the lives and words of the remarkable Dymock Poets. Briefly, during that last summer of peace, the sun did shine in the golden glow of friendship and inspiration.

The sun used to shine while we two walked
Slowly together, paused and started
Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked
As either pleased, and cheerfully parted

Edward Thomas, ‘The Sun used to Shine’