I hear the nightingale sing

I hear the nightingale sing…

As a child growing up in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England, I’d read the Brontës and Enid Blyton from behind my window curtain, but not many other female writers. Since then, I’ve studied a lot of literature, all the way up to a terminal degree (a PhD), and discovered many female authors who resonate with me. A detour into Greek mythology led me to the story of Philomela, who was transformed into a nightingale after she’d had her tongue ripped out so she could not tell how her brother-in-law, King Tereus, brutally raped her. She had told of her sorrow by weaving her story into a tapestry, so it’s easy to see why Philomela and the nightingale have become feminist icons for rape, silencing of women’s voices, and empowerment through women’s arts. Margaret Atwood, a feminist and great transformer of myths, has a novella Nightingale in The Tent.

 During menopausal years, I used to have recurring dreams of children who could not speak and so this myth became a beacon of inspiration for me, during my years of teaching. I have tried to mentor and support those who have been silenced through gender, ethnicity, lack of education, low income, etc. and have taught first-generation college students at a community college and a university in East Tennessee, USA, and a technical college in Buckinghamshire, England. I have taught English to undocumented immigrants, the invisible ones who don’t speak the language.

My love of poetry and melodious prose came from my Welsh mother, from the lyrical words she read to me in childhood. I repaid this gift by reading poetry to her during her Alzheimer years, when the rhythmic words pierced the plaque in her brain and she could join in enthusiastically. She taught me to love the sounds of words in harmony and the lilt of her language, then I went on to study linguistics and learnt how to describe the mellifluous sounds.

Some of my favorite authors are the Romantics who were heavily inspired by the sweet sounds of the nightingale’s beautiful song and they, like feminists, found it empowering. (Refuting the myth, sorry to say this but only the male nightingale sings in the real world.) In A Defence of Poetry, Percy Bysse Shelley (1792-1822) invoked the image of a nightingale: “a poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.” In “Ode to a Nightingale,” John Keats (1795-1821) used the nightingale as a muse who achieved the poetry and music that he longed to write. In “The Nightingale,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge didn’t see the nightingale’s song as melancholy and full of pain; instead he thought it conveyed the joy in nature.

So I am not the only one to load this bird with the heavy symbolism of sweet sounds and empowerment for the silenced.




A rosy dawn

A glorious sunrise at 6.25am Wednesday, 14 March, 2018. Sky brilliant pink and blue, adding warmth and color to bleak landscape. Almost missed it—colors darkening (sun behind cloud) by the time I got outside. Thought of Tennyson’s poetry: “A rosy dawn kindled in stainless heavens.” But, it’s an ominous portent because Stephen Hawking died. The world will not see his like again. We, in capitalized societies, seem to value image more than brains. IMG_5198.jpg

Wainwright Golden Beer Prize

I feel a little overwhelmed at times by lists of books that I feel I should read. (As we know, any sentence with “should” in it is a cause of stress.) All the books on the Wainwright nature writing longlist sound delightful, but will there be time? Like T. S. Eliot’s procrastinating J. Alfred Prufrock, I wonder about time and if it will be worth it:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
These authors are still living, they have lots to share with us and a dialogue with them will certainly expand my universe. But where to start? Do let me know if you can recommend any of these…

The 2017 Wainwright Golden Beer Prize Longlist:

 Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta)

The Otter’s Tale by Simon Cooper (HarperCollins)

The Nature of Autumn by Jim Crumley (Saraband)

Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain by Lucy Jones (Elliott & Thompson)

The Running Hare by John Lewis-Stempel (Transworld)

Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel (Orion)

A Sky Full of Birds by Matt Merritt (Ebury)

Wild Kingdom by Stephen Moss (Vintage)

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham (Ebury)

Love, Madness, Fishing by Dexter Petley (Little Toller Books)

The January Man by Christopher Somerville (Transworld)

The Wild Other by Clover Stroud (Hodder & Stoughton)


Borders Book Festival

I was lucky enough to catch the last day of the Borders Book Festival in Melrose and what a treat it was! High summer had hit the Scottish Borders and it was a baking 30 degrees so the folks trying to sell local cheeses, cream and butter were doing a poor trade, and the ice cream was so sloppy the vendors couldn’t get it into the cone. The Harmony Gardens are just stunning, with old walls and old roses plus the backdrop of the ruined abbey and hills. Wandering around with an afrogato (with homemade ice cream) from Linton & Co.’s van, while my husband ate gooseberry and elderflower ice cream from Over Langshaw Farm’s van, I came across Ella Berthoud, author of The Novel Cure, giving prescriptions for therapeutic reading.

I went into her van for a laugh really–because I am an avid reader and eternal student of literature, I wondered what new authors she could reveal to me. Zinged on that one and pleasantly surprised, because she did give me some new reading ideas, and she is the most vibrant, interesting conversationalist. I asked how she was familiar with so many books and could pull up titles from her brain instantaneously (a miracle to me!) and she replied that she was a constant reader. Me too, but I don’t recall half of books I’ve read.

I told her that I was contemplating retiring from the day job but that I feared losing purpose in my life, there would be nothing to get up for etc. (The fact is that I am a lazy person who would like to lie around on a chaise-longue, reading or watching movies or both at the same time.) She recommended:

The Enigma of Arrival by V. S Naipaul

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee by Rebecca Miller

Daughters-in-Law by Joanna Trollope

And, Ella suggested that I start reading aloud with my husband, the Engineer. We tried that once with Beowulf, because some works just beg to be read aloud. We’ve also had family read-alouds at Christmas of A Christmas Carol. The momentum never seems to continue but maybe I should give this practice another go. Ella does this with her husband and suggested:

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

I may have come up with an idea for a new book of prescriptions because I bewailed my lack of female role models and explained to her that I would like to read books by women, preferably about women’s lives and how they survive and remain sane. It wasn’t until after I completed my Master’s degree in Literature that I realized there so many women who had written and were writing and now I’m trying to wade through the clamour of their voices so I try to read mainly female authors. Thank you Virago and Persephone and other publishers of forgotten women’s writing. Nothing against male authors, especially the ones who are sensitive and empathetic to the women around them, but it’s time for me to look for those female role models in books. How about a Novel Cure for Women?

When I tore myself away from Ella Berthoud, there was the ticketed event talk by Carol Klein to attend. I don’t have a TV and travel frequently so I had never seen or heard her before, yet I recognized the Lancashire accent and down-to-earthness of a 70-something northern lass immediately and felt right at home. Calendar Girls revived! What a treat it was to hear her enthusing over flowers and plants in her cottage garden as she showed slides. The hour, which passed so quickly, took me back to my grandmother’s garden and her way of speaking; she taught me all I know about gardens. Hearing Carol’s enthusiasm and calling a spade a spade was therapy indeed and reminded me of my perfect role model: my grandmother, Jane Hargreaves Taylor, from Blackburn, Lancashire. I’ve now ordered Carol’s books, so more on gardening later…



Anam Cara

Just spent a week filled with grace at a writers’ retreat, Anam Cara, in Eyeries, on the magical Beara peninsula, Ireland. This was a treat for all the senses, five acres of woodland to wander freely in to find the waterfall and to cross the wooden bridge to the island in the middle of a stream and to follow the ducks to a gap in the hedge to circle the mown labyrinth. I felt as though I were nine years old again and rambling in my grandfather’s garden in Wales, a child’s secret garden where no grownups could see me hiding in the shrubs and the blackcurrant and redcurrant bushes gave me their tangy smells as I brushed past them. The hand of the gardener lies very lightly on this setting that nature has blessed. It’s still Ireland untouched on this peninsula. We wrote and workshopped poetry and  Celtic mythology in the mornings with poet and writer Adam Wyeth. He has a lucid way with words to explain poetry that breaks through any blocks and provides inspiration. The house Anam Cara is a bibliophile’s delight–bookcases teeming in every room, and usually filled with signed books. Reading the inscriptions in some of the books, I felt I was in the company of the greats who’d stayed there: Billy Collins, Krista Tippett, and Jhumpala Lahiri to mention just a few. The owner and host, Sue Booth-Forbes, created this sanctuary twenty years ago after a dream she’d had.

During the afternoons, we replenished our creative wells with visits to standing stones and wedge tombs, a Buddhist temple for meditation, and a cheese farm. One of the standing stones is the Hag of Beara. She stands looking out to sea and waiting for her man to return. As she is the spirit of Ireland, the mother, the triple goddess, I left her with a wing torn from a kestrel that I’d found near the labyrinth on my morning stroll; maybe she can unite and heal the world as well as the bird. Others had left chocolate and tokens and messages for help. In the spirit of tradition I kissed her. It seems to be a male fantasy that if you kiss a hag, she will turn into a beautiful maiden, but I liked the idea of woman containing all forms of womanhood. In Ireland, they seem to accept the crone aspect of women. Time is not linear, but circular, so woman can be maiden, mother, and crone at any one time.

One “crone” I visited was the wise woman of Eyeries, Mary Maddison, who reads the small pebbles that stick to your feet as you tread in them, as well as the crystals you choose. A tiny, twinkly eyed woman in her 70’s, Mary plays a bodhran at sessions in the pub, as well as dancing until 2 a.m. some nights. While Mary is reading your crystals, she occasionally closes her eyes and gives you a message from the shades who are around you, wishing you well, she says. She was unnervingly accurate about a few of my relatives.

Another pleasant walk was to the farm that makes Milleens cheese, apparently the late Queen Mother’s favourite and which is exported around the world. Quinlan Steele, the ex-journalist son of the original cheesemaker, showed us around and explained cheesemaking and his philosophy. He cannot make much difference in a world full of problems, but he can do what he can in his corner of Ireland, and that is to help the dairy farmers and produce world-class cheese that keeps them going. Small dairy farmers are put out of business by vast corporations, agri-business, and Quinlan is fighting for the little guy. If an army marches on its stomach, then Milleens cheese has the right weapon to stick it to the man. https://www.goodfoodireland.ie/place/milleens-cheese

Ah, Ireland, magical mystery land where time may not go slower but it does flow circular.


Helen Dunmore Rest in Peace: A Tribute to Exposure

Helen Dunmore died yesterday, and by coincidence Exposure is the novel for our book group today. The New Writing North (http://newwritingnorth.com) book group meets in the first-class waiting room of Berwick railway station and it’s a swell place to meet. There aren’t many trains (only two platforms) or first-class passengers but it feels like a convergence of people coming from all directions to talk books, a true forum, a marketplace of ideas.

I found Dunmore’s writing only last year and am about halfway through my stack of her novels now. Helen Dunmore gets inside people who cannot communicate, people who are frozen on the outside, a hard shell around them. Her books reveal how much of a bitch life is, and the struggle that ordinary mortals have. In particular, what haunted her are the “long shadows of war” that are in our genes.

In Exposure, the people we meet have been formed during World War 2 and by the harshness of English society. Simon Callington is scarred by the bullying of his two elder brothers and then subsequently at boarding school. His mother, a particularly cold and heinous mother, seems unperturbed as his brothers dangle him out of a bedroom window. Giles, whom he meets while at university, is a nurturing father figure—but one who leads him into the secret world of homosexuality and gets him a job at the Admiralty. We know how that’s going to end in post-war Britain, and, sure enough, the ineffectual Simon needs to be rescued by his wife. Simon’s wife, Lily Callington has her secrets too—she came to England as a child of a Jewish refugee during the war and she knows what it is to be hated for being “other.” With the German language buried inside Lily, Dunmore plays with themes of communication as well as secrecy; she gets inside people who cannot communicate, people who are frozen on the outside, a hard shell around them. Lily Callington has buried the German of her childhood that she spoke when she was Lili Brand and was a victim of hatred, but when she needs strength, it returns and her two identities merge.

Dunmore directly quotes from T S Eliot’s The Wasteland, but I also detect Prufrockian traits in the dithering and ineffectuality of both Giles and Simon, whose relationship starts as sexual. Maybe J. Alfred Prufrock was Eliot’s depiction of being closet gay in the time when to come out was to be punished?

Being gay in the 1960’s must have been horrendous. What a cruel society we were. This novel is an indictment of public schools, the sodomy, the bullying, and the class system run by the over-entitled, old school tie network. Kids who were bullied and sent to school at age seven were then probably forced to engage in sodomy by older boys/fags. It became “natural” for them to be used in this way, but then if they have gay relationships at university, they become blackmail fodder. Inevitably, the well educated and connected public school kids all go to work in government and are easy prey for Russian spies. What an abominable system that made homosexuality illegal (punishment by prison or injections of stillbestrol), and wrenched seven year-old boys from home into a warehouse of bullying.

On 23 January 2016, Kate Clanchett wrote a review of Exposure in The Guardian which seems prescient when we look back, given the build up of hatred and prejudice in June 2017. Clanchett, describing the 1960’s, said:

This England suspects people who want a little mild change, as Lily does, who might even be persuaded to go on a peace march one sunny afternoon in Trafalgar Square. It thinks they might be spies, like Guy Burgess or the Portland spy ring. This England thinks cabbage with caraway is suspect and that all Germans, even Jews, are Nazis. It thinks aliens should be sacked from their humble little jobs, turfed out of their homes the way Simon’s brothers once picked Lily from the chair where she was sunbathing, and tossed her, not at all jovially, into a lake.

Pray God we do not go back into the world of the 1960’s; the conditions are ripe as we have the leaders and media who seem determined to control us through fear and hatred of the “other.” The shadows of history and politically drawn maps haunt us still and it’s not the over-entitled and over-privileged classes who will suffer.

Words of power

Whenever I’m able to, I attend services at historic churches. T. S. Eliot gave voice to my feelings when he says in Four Quartets, “Little Gidding,” that:

If you came this way,

Taking any route, starting from anywhere,

At any time or at any season,

It would always be the same: you would have to put off

Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

They can tell you, being dead: the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

You can find “the intersection of the timeless moment” in the sacred places of the world, whatever they may be: churches, temples, and mosques that are built on top of springs or wells; or towns built on ley lines; or in ancient forests or caves. Sacred places have one thing in common, their sites have been blessed by the thousands of ancestral people who have worshipped and praised there before us. So much concentrated worship must be a benediction conferred upon the atoms in that spot and I believe we breathe and absorb those atoms when we visit quietly and with open hearts. The Romans called this spirit the genius loci, the spirit of place.

(Conversely, when we visit sites of atrocities, such as Auschwitz, we feel steeped in cold misery. There, the very atoms that make up the stones and rocks are impregnated with despair and suffering.)

Yesterday, Whitsunday, I attended the monthly service at Foulden village church constructed in 1786 on a medieval site where a meeting of English and Scottish commissioners in 1587 followed the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. The church stands next to a Tithe Barn, one of only two left in Scotland.

The service was about Pentecost, the birth of the Holy Spirit. This great wind rushed through the disciples and enabled communication even between those who didn’t speak the same language. Communication is pretty important to authors and Romantic poets longed for this inspiration, this Muse which they saw as coming with the wind to inspire them. Remember Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” when he implores the wind to “Make me thy lyre”? In that poem he is also longing to embody the wind and have it: “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe / Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth.”

Of course, to in-spire is to be alive, to take in breath, and from the Latin inspirare, just as to ex-pire is to breathe out, to sigh one’s last breath, from the Latin exspirare. As the living, we need to be in-spired in every way we can.

Interestingly, the sermon mentioned enthusiasm as a religious word (from the Greek enthous) meaning to be possessed by a god and thus able to inspire others. I’ve always been inspired by the enthusiasms of others, whether they be teachers or not, so this word pleases me.

So, going to church gave me lots of inspiration and time to reflect on words.

Cousins by Salley Vickers

A very pleasing afternoon yesterday as a friend and I took a jaunt to a literary beacon in the Borders: The Mainstreet Trading Company in St. Boswell’s (http://www.mainstreetbooks.co.uk). It was a perfect summer’s day driving through the lush green countryside and the pretty hamlets and town of Kelso and although we hadn’t been able to get tickets for the afternoon tea event with the author, we were optimistic. The lunch we had at Mainstreet was just delightful–so much so that I spent a fortune in the deli on cheeses and seeded oatcakes and oh! that damson paste! They make a darn good cup of coffee too. Well, after postponing our book pleasures by first savouring good food and drink (not to mention chatting with the friendly staff), we released ourselves into the bookstore and shopped and shopped.

Mainstreet Trading is the inspiration of Rosamund de la Hey (what a romantic name!) and you can read her story here. I’m not joking when I call it a beacon because, in the Borders, we don’t have many bookstores and literary events. You can read more about this shining light in the Country Living article: http://www.mainstreetbooks.co.uk/public/ourstory/content/countrylivinginfo.pdf

Ros did not let us down and we got into the afternoon tea with Salley Vickers, who was delightful. I felt as though I knew her–maybe through reading three of her books. As a former psychoanalyst/psychotherapist she studied Jung and seems to find her way into her books by following synchronistic paths and signs. The first book I read of hers was Miss Garnet’s Angel and that made me fall in love with Venice all over again. I think there is a strong sense of place in her books as well as minutely detailed characters. The latest book Cousins is set in Northumberland so I can’t wait to read that. Vickers confessed to being fascinated with St. Cuthbert because of his love of nature, and with Holy Island, Lindisfarne. I’d always thought St. Cuthbert was even more misogynistic than most men of his time and had even placed a curse on his grave if any woman stepped over it, but she assured me that the monastic brothers had placed the curse and not the Saint himself. St. Cuthbert became associated with the late King Oswald of Northumbria, who was himself sanctified and whose head is interred with St. Cuthbert. If you’ve seen Bamburgh Castle towering above the coast and the famous causeway to Lindisfarne, you’ll know all these stories. When the haar comes in from the sea in these parts, it’s easy to imagine the prows of the Viking ships looming out of the mist and terrorizing the monks on the island. Interesting that Vickers, who lives in London, has ventured into our parts to write of Northumberland. Can’t wait to read Cousins and see if she evokes the same sense of place as in her other books.