Wednesday, 5 September 2012


Photo: Jo Taylor. One of the exhibitions at the
Wordsworth Museum. The shape of the
River Derwent, with manuscript and typed poetry
overlaid within it.
Anyone who says that poetry is dead should come to Grasmere. The economy of the village is predicated upon poetry; Wordsworth haunts the visitor, whether or not you really want him too. Every street corner has a different quotation from either his poems or Dorothy's journals; every bar and eaterie seems to be seeking authentication through a connection with the family. And, of course, the various Wordsworth abodes surround the village, from Dove Cottage to Rydal, and the newly-opened Allan Bank. Thomas Hardy, on a visit to Grasmere in 1911, wrote that
Wordsworth's grave and headstone are looking very trim and new. A group of tourists who have never read a line of him sit near, addressing and sending off picture postcards…
Not much has changed, apart from the tourists' reading habits; even if you've never read a line of Wordsworth before you arrive, you'll have read several (and several family members' besides) by the time you leave. This written presence is supplemented by the oral, in the guise of regular poetry readings organised by the Wordsworth Trust and patronised by locals and tourists alike. Last night (Tuesday), Grasmere welcomed former-laureate Andrew Motion to St. Oswald's church. It was an appropriate venue: Reading from his new collection The Customs House (thanks to Faber & Faber for the advanced preview) Motion conjured up the literary ghosts of, among others, Siegfried Sassoon, Keats and, naturally, Wordsworth. He spoke from beneath a plaque, Wordsworth's marble head gazing down, and Wordsworth's grave (lying amongst those of Dorothy, his wife Mary, and several of his children, with Hartley Coleridge nestled amongst them) just outside the window. Motion read from his novel, Silver, a sequel to Treasure Island. Motion explained that he thought sequels only work if they are far enough removed from the original to allow the audience to gain a fresh perspective of the new story. This theory of a novelist fit well with the poet standing in a graveyard of poets, putting his own spin on talking in the 'language of real men' to evoke emotions his audience could really feel. It was inevitable that this reading would be coloured with comparison; in a village where you're constantly reminded of the dead poets of the canon, the modern poet must push through these ghosts to make their own voice heard.

Photo: Jo Taylor. St. Oswald's Church
Motion's talk this morning, on the poetry of Edward Thomas, fulfilled a different function. Here was Motion the academic, returning to the topic he did his MPhil in, and bringing a new audience to the poet. As he said of his old English teacher, he invited the audience 'into his head'. And that, too, is what Grasmere seems to be doing. If its heart is the landscape, its head is the poetry inspired by it, and Grasmere is then in a constant state of issuing invitations to enter it. It seems to work; the descendents of the tourists Hardy encountered visit today, take photos of the graves, and leave feeling a little more connected to the poets who lie there. This process of passing on interest is in itself a form of inheritance; I was amused, and not a little gratified, when I went to take photos of Hartley Coleridge's grave (much more unkempt than those of the Wordsworth clan) to notice that when I left, my attention to the stone had piqued the interest of a lady standing behind me.
Photo: Jo Taylor. Hartley Coleridge's grave

Grasmere now, then, stands as a monument to poets past and an invitation to poets now; simultaneously, it recalls readers of the past, and invites modern readers to join them. And what's more, it seems to work.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Dibble in the Slices

This week finds me in the Lake District; specifically, I'll be spending my days in the Jerwood Centre at Dove Cottage. Blogging this week will temporarily offer different fare, then: my week among the 65,000 manuscripts and rare books on offer in this idyllic part of England. (A shorter way of saying this would be "Romantic researcher heaven".) I will try and refrain from harping on about the amazing breakfasts, courtesy of my base for the week at the rather lovely Forest Side Hotel (but they deserve several posts on their own).

Photo: Jo Taylor. Young enters North Staffs, leaving Cheshire
with a dig about their rubbish horses.
Aside from attempting (badly) to decipher the letters of Coleridges writing in various degrees of sobriety, I'm doing a few tasks for the Jerwood Centre team. My first task this morning involved delving in to Arthur Young's four-volume account, A Six Months Tour Through the North of England (1771). The account begins near Hull, and follows Young on his journey south, along the way taking in Newcastle-on-Tyne, Yorkshire, the Lake District, Liverpool, Lancashire and Cheshire, among other places. Young toured the country, visiting local landmarks and, essentially, comparing the different methods of cabbage-growing. Young discusses the soil quality of the areas he visits, examines the local industry (including the wages of the workforce), and includes diagrams of the farm machinery in use. 

Fascinating though I undoubtedly find the growing habits of different varieties of 'ternips', it wasn't the agricultural information that caught my eye. No, what really got my attention was scan-reading a page, only to see the phrase "I had the pleasure of viewing... Burslem". Naturally, I had then to read on. 

Top photo: High Street, Newcastle, 1895.
Bottom Photo: Jo Taylor. All praise Wedgwood (and, specifically, his
canny business partner)
Young enters into a detailed description of the various manufactories around "Newcastle-under-line". He credits the famous Mr. Wedgwood with establishing a thriving local economy; all other potters, he says, are "little better than mere imitators". Mr. Wedgwood has, it seems, 
lately entered into partnership with a man of sense and spirit, who will have taste enough to continue in the investing plan, and not suffer, in case of accidents, the manufactories to decline.
How this relates to the Potteries now, I will leave for others to discuss; needless to say, perhaps, that a similar man "of sense and spirit" would find plenty to do nearly two and a half centuries later! Regardless, Young's congratulation of North Staffordshire generally, and the Wedgwood potteries particularly, serve as a quaint reminder of the hope invested in the Stoke-on-Trent area at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when the Burslem potteries were on the cutting edge of industrialisation and the technology that went with it.

Photo: Jo Taylor. Newcastle: home of hats.
Newcastle and the land south of it towards Stone, on the other hand, is praised for its "beauty" - but it's not the picturesque description Young indulges in when discussing the Yorkshire fells or the "cataracts" of the Lakes (invocations of the sublime and beautiful that would make Coleridge and Wordsworth take to their notebooks). No, Newcastle and the surrounding land is praised for a different kind of beauty; a more specialized version, if you will: "From Newcastle southwards the country improves greatly in beauty: The soil towards Stone is generally a sandy loam." Young, to give him due credit, has the mind of the truly optimistic pragmatist: Burslem is fortunate to lie in the midst of such an apparently unending profusion of coal, and Newcastle's ability to grow a wide variety of crops (although sadly some farmers adopt 'a vile as well as strange' course in the rotation of these). Newcastle did not only rely on agriculture, however: it also possessed "a considerable manufactory of shoes and hats". The shoe workers earned significantly less than those in the hat business: a worker in a shoe factory earned between 10d and 2s a day, whilst those in the hat line earned 7-10s a week. (Young seems to engage in some subtle social criticism when discussing wages; his alternations between daily and weekly calculations often seems designed to shock the reader.)
Photo: Jo Taylor. Young considers local agricultural practices.
 Cows & potatoes good.
Beans bad.

Nevertheless, Young presents an image of North Staffordshire that fits in well with his idyllicised descriptions of the more northerly parts of England. Certainly, it is an optimistic representation to the point of outright falsehood; although we may find traces of social criticism, Young deliberately overlooks the poor working and living conditions of the "Poor man". Regardless, it's a good reminder of the things Stoke still does have to offer. We're told that Hollywood directors are being invited to Stoke; maybe they should follow Young's footsteps.
Photo: Jo Taylor. Young heads on towards Rugeley