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Friday, 29 May 2009

The Road Through The Woods

There are many paths through the woods at Temple Newsam (where I took this photo yesterday) and though they remain open, I am often reminded of this poem by Rudyard Kipling when I walk there.
Sometimes I fancy you can still hear the 'swish of a skirt in the dew' and the steady canter of horses of bygone ages. Perhaps the footsteps of centuries remain absorbed in the earth and the beautiful trees. It's a lovely poem:

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because the see so few)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods. . . .
But there is no road through the woods.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009


Tennyson is, to my mind, one of the greatest poets - if not the greatest poet - England has ever had! What a fascinating character - so loved by Queen Victoria, to whom he was a neighbour on the Isle of Wight (his home, Farringford, now a hotel, not far from beautiful Osborne House). His poetry speaks of enchantment and of that idyll of England: the age of Arthur captured at the same time by the Pre-Raphaelite artists. But it is more than an escape into some Victorian folly or a Golden Age that never was. It speaks directly to that dream within us all - the dream of our own real reality of nobility and all that is finest in humanity.

Tennyson lived with a horror of mental illness, which had sorely affected his family, and perhaps he resonated with Queen Victoria in the sense of sorrow that they both shared deeply. It's interesting that when one of his books received damning responses from the critics, he didn't publish again for 10 years. When dear, beautiful Prince Albert passed on, Queen Victoria barely emerged from her isolation for almost a decade. Tennyson met Queen Victoria and there was an immediate rapport. Oh! To have been a fly on the wall in that meeting! I think for all of Tennyson's wonderful poems, there is a short message in this quotation, which, though written unpoetically, is beautiful....

"No man ever got very high by pulling other people down. The intelligent merchant does not knock his competitors. The sensible worker does not work those who work with him. Don't knock your friends. Don't knock your enemies. Don't knock yourself"

Monday, 25 May 2009

"Brother Sun & Sister Moon"

I was 17 when I first saw "Brother Sun & Sister Moon" and it moved me more than anything I had ever seen before or have seen since. I taped it with an ordinary old fashioned (now) cassette player pressed up the TV and over and over again I played the tape of this particular scene that said everything I wanted to say. Time and time again throughout the past 3 decades I have returned to that old cassette and still, after all this time, it raises the same feelings of innocence, transparency, the real beauty of the soul, within me. I spoke of it to teachers who said it 'merely Hollywood' and to lecturers (I studied theology) and they smiled in a kindly but not really helpful way.

"If the purpose of life if this loveless toil we fill our days with, then it's not for me. There must be something better. There has to be. Man is a spirit...he has a soul and that is what I want to recapture: my soul!"

Some of the theologians argued that man isn't spirit; and some of the priests with whom I spoke said, "It's just an ideal." It left me wondering sometimes, why did people preach one thing, but then when you believe it, tell you it can't be done or it's just an ideal or a dream and 'you have to be practical' ?

Well in the 30 years since first seeing it, my belief in it has never gone away. Sometimes it has been dimmed or hidden or obscured and sometimes I have almost forgotten it, but it's still there like a dearest friend. Theologians argue about many things that seem rather pointless. Many of them are bound by dogmas and doctrines. Nowadays, I don't believe in the necessity of being a beggar or that Christ was a beggar, except in the spiritual sense that everything we have is freely given from the Creator and Source of life, who is willing to give freely as much as we are prepared to receive; but I believe in everything else in this beautiful extract and no argument in the world can change that. It just speaks directly to the heart and soul and I love it...hope you do too!

Saturday, 23 May 2009

At last - poetry!! And a little bit of 'Tsaritsa'

Thank goodness!! The BBC is launching a poetry season that actually sounds like real poetry! It is to include, I believe, Tennyson, Shakespeare, Donne and Milton - they're bringing out the 'big guns' again at last!!

May I recommend this programme and Griff Rhys Jones' wonderful presentation of it!! It includes some aspects of poetry that I think are not poetry at all, but regardless of that, his enthusiasm is so wonderful!

Apart from that, if you would like to hear and read a little of the words and music of 'Tsaritsa' - a musical based on the life of Empress Alexandra of Russia, please visit:

I hope you will enjoy it!

Friday, 15 May 2009


Poetry is surely meant to be like verbal music. Words that resonate, even when the intricacies of language and the actual words used or the poet's feeling for them, are beyond your intellectual comprehension. I don't know exactly what was in Tchaikovsky's head when he wrote Romeo & Juliet or the 1812. There was a harmonious cacophany there - a chaotic passion - that, to this day, resonates with emotions in my own life, and undoubtedly with everyone else's life, too. It doesn't matter exactly what the poet, composer or artist was thinking or feeling; what matters, surely, in any art form, is finding the theme or melody that we all understand at the deepest level. We can all write commentaries on our everyday life and it isn't poetry. Poetry, that much abused work of art, is music put into words....This beautiful poem by Hillaire Belloc is one of my favourites, not only because I have loved the Pyrenees, but also because of the definite music in the rhythmical pattern of such brilliant words:


Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding,
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of the tar?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
(Under the vine of the dark verandah)?
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteeers
Who hadn't got a penny,
And who weren't paying any,
And the hammer at the doors and the Din?
And the Hip! Hop! Hap!
Of the clap
Of the hands to the twirl and the swirl
Of the girl gone chancing,
Backing and advancing,
Snapping of a clapper to the spin
Out and in ---
And the Ting, Tong, Tang, of the Guitar.
Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?

Never more;
Never more.
Only the high peaks hoar:
And Aragon a torrent at the door.
No sound
In the walls of the Halls where falls
The tread
Of the feet of the dead to the ground
No sound:
But the boom
Of the far Waterfall like Doom.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Merely Players

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," said Marcellus in "Hamlet". It was clear that something very unpleasant was going on and it would play itself out. Something is rotten in England right now and that, too, will play itself out. What is rotten is corruption and power-seeking but it isn't anything new. Since time began there have been people who cannot face their own inner demons so enact them on the world stage. Shakespeare has it to a tee:

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages...."

And again:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing..

But that, coming from the tyrant, Macbeth, misses a lot of the truth. To a tyrant, whose sole aim is to hold on to power at any cost, life must indeed seem like the fifteen minutes of fame that quickly implodes and burns the tyrant. The 'altruistic tyrant is even worse, I think, because he believes he is doing the world a favour by telling everyone else how to live; by taking charge, and being in control. What arrogance to think we know better than everyone else, how everyone ought to live!

It is absolutely fascinating that the most powerful people of all time are those who simply went about their message and never tried to impose their ideas on the world. The tyrants from the Caesars and Alexander the Great to Hitler and Stalin, had their moment of 'glory' and were gone. Who remains? The Buddha, Christ, Shakti, Shiva, the unchanging...They weren't playing the role on this earthly level; they were living from their own reality.

Indeed, those who seek power in this world, can have it! Much good will it do them! Like Faust, they will have their moment of pleasure and it will be gone. On the other hand, the 'other world' is, to my mind, not separate from this one - it isn't in some far distant future or something we achieve after death, if we're good enough; it is now and it is the reality. We see the lost little children playing their games of glory and they come home feeling no better off than Macbeth who, for all his moment of glory, was utterly destroyed by his own ambition for power.

The real power is shifting nowadays. It is surely moving away from the rottenness of needing other people to tell us how to live, what is good or bad for us, and, at the same time using us to work out their own insecurities. Altruism is often a mask for avoidance of responsibility for our own issues. If we all looked to ourselves, to our own inner demons, and rooted them out, there would be no demons in the world at all and we would stop playing as actors and start to live happily and peacefully as children 'at play in the fields of the Lord'.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if, one day, those who think they rule the world, had a glimpse into the inner reality and saw that those whom they perceive as dreamers are, in fact, living a life that is very different from the nightmare that the need to project and control other people creates? There would be no more wars; no more violence; no more play-acting...only playing happily as we were created to be.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

How Poetry Was Defiled

I was brought up on poetry. My mother often read it to us from the many poetry books on her shelves - Tennyson, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Masefield, Palgrave's Golden Treasury, The Oxford Book of English Verse, The Lakeland Poets and many, many more besides - and she quoted it quite naturally while she bathed us or while she cooked the tea. The beautiful rhythm of the beautiful words; the way it touched something that a child's mind could not grasp but a child's heart knew instantly, was so wonderful. The lines remained with me and remain to this day: the sheer beauty of language:

...Quinquereme of Ninevah,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory, of apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood and cedarwood
And sweet white wine...

Grey's, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"; the incredibly beautiful language and images evoked by the Lady of Shalott; and the immortal Mary calling the cattle home across the sands of Dee. All of those words were so beautifully and deeply imprinted on my mind. When I was too tired to read a whole book, I took a poetry book to bed and read the beautiful words till I fell asleep with them running through my mind. I wrote poetry from simple childish verse to words that sometimes just sprang into my head and I hardly knew what they meant or where they came from but, whether or not they were 'good' poems, they were never meant for anyone else to read and the utter joy of putting words together that expressed something deeper than the superficial - something that caught the ineffable - was like a miracle to me!

So many, many times, I have looked at scenes or been in situations - happy or sad - when words seem barely able to suffice, but lines from great poems capture the sense so clearly. Among people who also love poetry, it is possible to quote a line and say, "It was like this...."

Poetry provided the words which I lacked as a child. It gave me a voice to reassure myself that the depths of things were so real and other people saw them too. It didn't shy away from the squalid aspects of life, but is transformed them. It didn't deny pain, heartache, or the loveliness of joy in simple things, but it transcended the mundane and reached to the true dignity within us. I adored poetry and was so grateful for it. I still adore it and yet, nowadays, I have completely broken that relationship because - to put it dramatically - I think poetry has been 'raped'. That does sound dramatic but I think it is so.

There are undoubtedly many wonderful poets today but some ridiculous idea was somewhere spouted (no doubt by the same people who believe that an unmade bed is equivalent art to the Sistine Chapel) that poetry is about catering to the lowest aspects of humanity. Let people describe squalor in squalid words. Let everyone be a poet by describing their most basic self and, the more coarse it is, the better. Let us write of the worst things we do, in the worst possible way and then we will acclaim it, put it on an exam syllabus and pat each other on the back because we are so clever.

Studying English for my degree, I sat through the speeches of several acclaimed 'poets' and felt sick at the way they degraded language and the great applause they received for their descriptions of ugliness. I began to despise poetry, or rather what had been done to poetry. I determined to write no more poetry and haven't done for over 15 years because all I loved felt abused and degraded.

Now, years later, I hold 'Palgrave's Golden Treasury' and the 'Oxford Book of English Verse', the 'Everyman Book of Verse' and the 'Nation's Favourite Poems' in my hand as the greatest treasures. The poems still have their beauty. The real beauty is unadulterated by so much of the trash that has since been labelled 'poetry'. Looking at the words, I can still hear my ancient grandmother - even before my mother! - quoting, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" that she had learned in school in the early 1900s. I hold the book, read the first line of a poem and the beauty returns like a wave of light and, without needing to read another word, the entire poem floats effortlessly through my mind and heart. Whether if be Caroline Norton's "I do not love thee," or Emily Bronte's "No Coward Soul Is Mine" - the absolute perfection of the language is like listening to the purest music or seeing a glorious sunset.

As art has been reduced to its lowest level with the excuse that it speaks to people today, may I suggest that it speaks to the most base aspects of our humanity. I put this out as a plea for beauty, for attention to detail, for reaching what is finest in us, rather than dragging everything down into the quagmire that sees no further than the worst in us. Poems that speak of crashed cars, or burning people's hands from bunsen burners, or dead animals are not poetry at all. Real poetry is, "the best possible words in the best possible order" or "emotion recollected in tranquillity." Please, let us have beauty again!

If you had to choose you favourite poem, what would it be? spite of the dross of recent years, "If" by Rudyard Kipling remains the nation's favourite, which is so reassuring. I would list, too, among some of mine:

Wordsworth's "Westminster Bridge"
Causley's "Sands of Dee"
Masefield's, "Cargoes"
Keats' "Bright Star" and "Ode to a Nightingale"
Norton's "I do not love thee"
Shakespeare's "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day"
Eliot's "Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock" and "The Wasteland"
For amusement, most of Stevie Smith
Stevenson's, "I must go down to the sea again..."
Prevert's "Barbara"
Victor Hugo's "Boaz"
and this list could go on for another 20 pages....

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Is A Quiet Lawn Mower Too Much to Ask?

Amid all the cosmic questions, the meaning of life, the meaning of enlightenment, the question of suffering and reasons why people choose to make war, is a very mundane one, which recurs as soon as the sun appears in spring. Why is it that scientists can send rockets into space, can manipulate (unfortunately) genes, can create the amazing internet and have messages pass from one continent to another in less than a second, but no one has yet created the quiet lawn mower?

In the older days of my youth, the sound of lawns being mowed was a steady crkkk...crkkk and, pushing the old mower was kind of therapeutic and good exercise. It was as though the grass itself was happily yielding to being pruned. Nowadays, the sun comes out and the moment we are suddenly uplifted by the beauty of the song of the birds it is drowned out by the whirring, the screaming, screeching, battle of machinery against nature. It drums and hums through the ears in such an excruciating way that all you can do is either make a louder noise yourself or climb into the wardrobe with your fingers in your ears!

And after the mowing, comes the strimming, which is the higher-pitched whirring of a machine that looks relatively innocuous when silent, but out it comes and plays on all your nerves more fiercely than a dentist's drill!

Please, dear scientists, instead of messing around with genes and trying to create life in test tube, could you find a way to make garden tools which seem to blend with, rather than battle against, Nature? Could you perhaps make a lawn mower that has some kind of built-in mechanism that sounds like birds or rippling streams? Could you perhaps make something that makes no noise at all, or replicates the sounds of the old crkkk...crkkk - which was rather pleasant? Tomorrow, when I cut the grass, I wish it wasn't necessary to make such a racket about it. Perhaps I can still find an old-fashioned push-me-pull-you lawn mower...

Friday, 1 May 2009

May Processions

May Processions were a major feature of my childhood. How many Saturday afternoons, while playing out conquering enemies and slaying dragons, was I suddenly called in and put into a pretty dress to walk in the procession! Never being May Queen or even a train bearer, and being dragged from the garden, I hated it! And yet, the essence of what it was about was so beautiful. The hymn that was sung as we walked was very lovely:

Bring flowers of the rarest,
Bring blossoms the farest,
From garden and woodland
And hillside and dale.
Our full hearts are swelling,
Our glad voices telling
The praise of the loveliest
Flower of the vale.

Oh Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the angels and Queen of the May...

Something in the words of that resonated with the sense of the gardens, the earth - something that went back to a time before children were forcibly put into white dresses and had to be 'holy'. It was something to do with the natural holiness and innocence of childhood.

Many years later, walking in processions in Lourdes, it began to make sense. Lourdes is so closely associated with Nature. The River Gave, the mountains, the mystical scenery combine with the loveliness of people being kind to one another and seeking their soul's home. Witches, who celebrate Beltane today, have the same understanding. Pagans and Druids knew it. It's something in our blood, I think! The scents of May come directly from the Life that is in all of us - the sense of our own annual rebirth and renewal; the sense of Mother Nature and the Beauty of the Divine creation and expression.

Whatever happened to May processions? Did they just walk away one day like the disappearing children in the 'Pied Piper' ?