English and Drama blog

6 posts from June 2012

29 June 2012

Peasant poets in Writing Britain

While researching the group of items about farming in the Rural Dreams section of Writing Britain, I got really interested in the peasant poet movement. These writers, seen through the sometimes patronising eyes of the 18th and 19th century rich and middle classes, were the authentically rustic voice of the countryside – agricultural workers who published poetry in addition to their ‘day jobs’.

The most famous example is the tragic John Clare, the Northamptonshire son of a farmer who worked variously as a gardener and a barman, struggled with mental health issues for most of his life and lived in an asylum for many years. He experienced great financial hardship whilst trying to support himself and his family through his poetry, and in Writing Britain you can see (in addition to his manuscript draft of his poem ‘Summer Morning’ – Additional MS. 37538 F) his letter to the Royal Literary Fund begging for financial assistance (Loan MS. 96 1/808/7). On the RLF’s file Clare is identified as ‘John Clare, the Northamptonshire Peasant’.


British Library Loan MS 96 1/808/7, Image used with kind permission from the Royal Literary Fund

While Clare’s poetry often focussed on the natural world (he was a skilled botanist), other peasant poets wrote about their working lives. In 1730 Stephen Duck (known as the Thresher poet) published a poem called ‘The Thresher’s Labour’. It describes life as a labourer, and the intense hard work associated with haymaking, but was also notable for its presentation of female labourers as useless chatterboxes who had an easy life and who would work while the master watched but slack off when left to themselves:

‘Ah! were their hands as active as their tongues
How nimbly then would move the rakes and prongs!’

Mary Collier, a washerwoman from Petersfield in Hampshire took issue with Duck’s depiction of the women, and was inspired to write a rebuttal – which also features in Writing Britain. The Woman’s Labour was published in 1739, by which time Duck had received patronage from Queen Caroline and no longer worked as a labourer. Collier wrote a lively and at times humorous depiction of the role of women on farms, the jist of which is that women work just as hard as the men in the fields, with the very great exception that when they go home in the evening, the men can put their feet up while the women cook the evening meal; care for the children; do washing, mending and other chores, and then spend the night getting up to look after screaming babies, before getting up early to make breakfast and repeat the whole process over again:

To get a Living we so willing are,
Our tender Babes into the Field we bear,
And wrap them in our Cloaths to keep them warm,
While round about we gather up the Corn ;
And often unto them our Course do bend,
To keep them safe, that nothing them offend :
Our Children that are able, bear a Share
In gleaning Corn, such is our frugal Care.
When Night comes on, unto our Home we go,
Our Corn we carry, and our Infant too ;
Weary, alas ! but 'tis not worth our while
Once to complain, or rest at ev'ry Stile ;
We must make haste, for when we Home are come,
Alas ! we find our Work but just begun ;
So many Things for our Attendance call,
Had we ten Hands, we could employ them all.
Our Children put to Bed, with greatest Care
We all Things for your coming Home prepare :
You sup, and go to Bed without delay,
And rest yourselves till the ensuing Day ;
While we, alas ! but little Sleep can have,
Because our froward Children cry and rave ;
Yet, without fail, soon as Day-light doth spring,
We in the Field again our Work begin
And there, with all our Strength, our Toil renew,
Till Titan's golden Rays have dry'd the Dew ;
Then home we go unto our Children dear,
Dress, feed, and bring them to the Field with care.

I found Collier’s story really fascinating. Her poem is the earliest description of female labourers written by a female labourer. She worked as a washerwoman for most of her life (retiring from it at the age of 63), and although her poetry had a certain popularity she obviously never made enough money from it to stop working. But The Woman’s Labour was so well-written that evidently authorship was disputed, and the second edition includes a statement from the people of Petersfield confirming that indeed, their neighbour Mary was the author and not some learned male poet.

A final interesting literary link: Collier spent her last few years in Alton in Hampshire, dying in 1762. Alton is very near Chawton where Jane Austen was to move in 1809, and where she died in 1817.

You can read the full text of The Woman's Labour online here, and you can come and see the first edition (and the John Clare manuscripts) in Writing Britain until 25th September.

22 June 2012

"Only a small story ...." Laurie Lee and Cider with Rosie

Last week we heard the first hints about Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony for the Olympics.  As I wrote in a piece for The Guardian, the ceremony's vision and reception has been infused with literary references. And, particularly, references to Writing Britain. The pastoral idyll that Boyle conjures forth from the ground of E20 is the theme of our exhibition’s opening section- Rural Dreams - that looks at how the  restorative possibilities of the British countryside have been celebrated in English literature since the early 16th century. We see this earthly paradise of rural dreams as very much a literary construct- from seventeenth-century poet Katherine Philips’s hymn to T'he Country Life' (as she titled her 1650 poem):

‘How sacred and how innocent
A Country Life appears;
How free from tumult, discontent,
From flattery, or fears!’

…to Edward Thomas’s freeze-framing of time one sunny day in June 1914 (they had sunny days back then) when his train stopped, unexpectedly, in Adlestrop:

‘And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.'

But what’s most interesting about rural writing is the degree of distance sometimes apparent between the writer and the country life described. Just as Thomas was merely passing through Adlestrop, so many writers describe and remember the countryside while embedded in very different environments.

This was the case for Laurie Lee, whose manuscript for Cider with Rosie with is displayed in the exhibition. Lee’s autobiographical tale describes the moments when the world opened up to his small Cotswolds village of Slad in the years after the First World War, but was written in the early Cold War years.

As Lee recollected, the world that he was writing in was by now far removed –and the stakes so much higher- than the events he was describing:

'I remember towards the end thinking "why am I writing this in a world which is so threatened by the dark clouds and threats of cosmic destruction?" This is only a small story, it can only interest my family and a few neighbours.'

Interestingly, the scrap of paper on which Lee has drafted his novel is a BBC radio script- Lee has turned it over, and used the verso to draft Cider. These are typescripts of radio plays and documentary programmes produced by the BBC and given to Lee by Louis MacNeice, and give a nice sense of a childhood tale of rural life written from, and on, the absolute heart of a metropolitan cultural elite.


15 June 2012

Roughened water

Guest post by Liz Mathews whose artist's book, Thames to Dunkirk, is currently on show in Writing Britain
London page - Thames to Dunkirk by Liz Mathews
London page
Standing on a bridge over the Thames viewing a water pageant in 2012 might remind the observer of Virginia Woolf's survey from that vantage point of the procession of the patriarchy in Three Guineas, her discussion of militarism and women's attitudes towards war. There, despite her acknowledgement that 'some obstinate emotion remains, some love of England dropped into a child's ears by the cawing of rooks in an elm tree', she rejects the possibility of patriotism for a woman, claiming that 'As a woman I have no country... As a woman my country is the whole world'.
Virginia Woolf was my initial inspiration for the making of Thames to Dunkirk, my 17m long artist's book now showing in Writing Britain. I read in her diary of the event that was 'Dunkirk 1940' - including the vivid story of her neighbour Harry's escape. Reading more accounts in the Imperial War Museum I was struck by the variety of experience within this shared event for each of the more than 300,000 people there, as well as those who waited at home - a spectrum of responses from triumphant relief to dissent and bitterness - and I gradually perceived this 'Dunkirk' phenomenon as a constructed myth both created and subverted by thousands of individual stories.
Perhaps the same could be said of the complex collection of disparate responses aroused by our individual places in the shared landscape, as revealed in Writing Britain. In this context, Thames to Dunkirk reads as a mapping of a peculiarly British event, drawing together many personal perspectives of a collective experience. I decided that an artwork engaging with these tensions would have to be on a very large scale, to reflect the surreal enormity (Thames to Dunkirk is one of the largest books in the British Library). Then I considered how to represent this multiplicity of response. Again, Virginia Woolf provided a key: 'I should like to write four lines at a time, describing the same feeling, as a musician does; because it always seems to me that things are going on at so many different levels simultaneously.' (letter to Stephen Spender 1934).
The first of my four lines is a watercolour map of the Thames from source to sea, running along one side of the book, with the names of the little ships volunteered for the rescue lettered from the first navigable point all along the river’s length in a mounting tide, out into the estuary and the channel. Alongside the surging force of the river to the sea, two lines of text run the full length of the double-sided book.
Thames side - Thames to Dunkirk by Liz Mathews
Thames side
The text above the river line is BG Bonallack’s graphic account of one person’s experience of Dunkirk, lettered by brush in a font from a 1940s typewriter. The second text running below and through the water is from Virginia Woolf's The Waves; I lettered this freehand with a pen made from a piece of driftwood from the Thames. It provides a powerful undercurrent to the narrative; the juxtaposition of the two texts reveals a protesting resistance to the overwhelming compulsion of conformity, duty and acceptance of authority.
The fourth line is formed by a watercolour of the great stretch of Dunkirk beaches (running along the other side of the book) where the endless lines of stranded men queuing right out into the sea are lettered with names of many who were there. Each letter represents a person, the mark made with a wooden peg to reflect the hastily improvised nature of the rescue operation.
Dunkirk side - Thames to Dunkirk by Liz Mathews
Dunkirk side
There's an account of the making process (and some of the problems of working on that scale in a small London studio) on my blog at A topography of Thames to Dunkirk, and a full sequence of page-by-page images to be found on The Dunkirk Project, an online installation collecting accounts of Dunkirk 1940 and contemporary responses. I'll be joining curator Rachel Foss on a tour of Writing Britain on 3 July at 6.30pm to talk about Thames to Dunkirk, with my driftwood pen, and I'll also be showing the working model for it as part of my demonstration of artist's books on 23 June at my exhibition light wells.
Thames to Dunkirk was made in 2009, just before the 70th anniversary of Dunkirk, and it was not intended as a celebration or commemoration of the event, but rather as a continuation of the questioning of patriotism that Virginia Woolf expressed, and an exploration of the significance of our place in the landscape. Perhaps, from her bridge across the Thames, she would have recognised the feelings of the man on the boat in HG Wells's Tono-Bungay: 'To run down the Thames so is to run one's hand over the pages in the book of England from end to end. Light after light goes down.  England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass - pass. The river passes - London passes, England passes...'

07 June 2012

'A Grim Sort of Beauty'


First published in 1979, Remains of Elmet was a collaboration between photographer Fay Godwin and poet Ted Hughes. The photograph above by Fay Godwin shows the ruins of Staups Mill, which is situated at the top of Jumble Hole Clough, near Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. In the book it was paired with the Ted Hughes poem 'Mill Ruins'. Hughes grew up in the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire and was fascinated by the way in which the region's wilderness had reclaimed the remnants of the early industrial revolution.

Visitors to the Library's Writing Britain exhibition can view original photographs used in the book together with original letters and manuscripts from the Ted Hughes archive, including letters to Fay Godwin. There are also audio recordings of Hughes talking about the book and reading from it.

Here is an excerpt from a long oral history interview with Fay Godwin conducted by the British Library in 1993, in which she recalls working with Hughes. 

Listen to Fay Godwin

06 June 2012

The Water Poet, pageants and the Thames


Diamond Jubilee Thames pageant © Tanya Kirk 3June 2012

One of the less well-known poets to feature in Writing Britain is John Taylor, the self-styled ‘Water-Poet’. Born in 1578 in Gloucester, he moved to London in his early teens and was apprenticed to a Thames waterman. Watermen were the taxi drivers of the 16th and 17th centuries who, in the days before plentiful bridges across the river, ferried vast numbers of people back and forth between London proper and the theatre district at Bankside.

Theater bankside

After a somewhat swashbuckling apprenticeship (at the ages of 17 and 18 he journeyed to Cadiz and the Azores, as part of the group of watermen who were contracted by the navy) he could have just settled down to his profession, but he had other ideas. Taylor decided he would like to be a poet, a sort of Thames poet who would tell it like it is – portraying the river as a dirty but vital force rather than the unrealistically silver “Sweet Thames” portrayed by Spenser and other near-contemporaries.

Taylor’s first book was The Sculler, a collection of poems published in 1612, when he was around 34 years old. It was a cheap pamphlet, featuring a woodcut of Taylor in his boat. The Sculler is currently on display in Writing Britain:

British Library shelfmark C.186.bb.18

(If you're interested, the Latin inscription on the title page is an aggrandised version of the cry of a waterman: "I am the first man. Will you go with me to row? I have the nearest boat.")

In order to finance later works, he hit on a cunning plan. He would perform various crazy stunts, collect subscription money (basically, sponsoring him to carry out the stunt) and use the money to pay the printers. His most famous of these was his attempt to row from London to Quinborough in Kent in a boat made of brown paper, with dried fish tied to sticks as oars. Luckily he also opted for inflated calves’ bladders tied all around the sides of the vessel, or he would probably have drowned fairly quickly.

In 1613 James I’s daughter Elizabeth was to marry. A grand river pageant was devised for the occasion, with some accounts attributing it to Taylor himself. He did write a long description of the pageant and a poem upon the occasion (“Epithalamies”), but made no mention of himself in it – somewhat unusual for such an accomplished self-promoter, if he had indeed had a role in it.

His description of the fireworks on the river focuses heavily on his own explanation of the reasons for describing them, to add to the glory of the King and remind all of his power:

I did write these things, that those who are farre remoted, not only in his Majesties Dominions, but also in forraine territories, may have an understanding of the glorious Pompe, and magnificent Domination of our High and mighty Monarch King James: and further, to demonstrate the skils and knowledges that our warlike Nations hath in Engines, fire-works and other military discipline, that they thereby may be knowne, that howsoever warre seeme to sleepe, yet (upon any ground or lawfull occasion (the command of our dread Soueraigne can rouze her to the terrour or all malignant opposers of his Royall state and dignity.

Taylor’s actual description of the fireworks relies heavily on the phrase ‘many fiery balls flies up into the Ayre’. Other than that, they seemed to have served a very different purpose to fireworks today, being mainly used to represent the re-enacted battle in the pageant, which involved 16 ships, 16 galleys, and 6 frigates. I can’t image people oohing and aaahing over these fireworks; rather, they were meant to be cowering at the power of the Royal Navy.

It all seems a bit less cheerful than the Thames pageant 399 years later (last Sunday). In 1613 they seem to have had better weather but the mock-battle element was a lot more bloodthirsty, and lacked the benefit of an entire boat of Robin Hoods.


Diamond Jubilee Thames pageant © Tanya Kirk 3June 2012

If you’re wondering what happened to John Taylor, he managed to retain his popularity as a poet (albeit a pretty bad one) and his professional career, becoming one of the King’s Watermen; an official spokesman for the Company of Watermen, and publishing a volume of his complete works in the 1630s – a large, grand folio which is an extreme contrast to the cheap quality of his first book. However towards the end of his life his royalist beliefs didn’t serve him well, and he died in poverty in 1653.

You could say that Taylor was about a century before his time. In the 18th and early 19th century ‘peasant poets’ were in vogue, and Stephen Duck (the Thresher Poet), Ann Yearsley (the Bristol Milkwoman) and Mary Collier (the Washerwoman Poetess, also featured in Writing Britain) became popular with the aristocracy as rustically authentic poetic voices. I’m sure Taylor would have seen himself as a cut above the others, but he’d have enjoyed the fame.

02 June 2012

"Why is there so much Dorset in this exhibition?"

I was doing a tour of Writing Britain last week for a group of trainee librarians, and when I asked for questions at the end one of them asked me why Dorset featured a lot in the Rural Dreams and Waterlands sections which I curated. She was from Dorset and had noticed a few references.

Now I'm hoping that I didn't accidentally bias this exhibition into becoming "Writing Dorset", but choosing books for the exhibit list was inevitably going to be a bit of a personal thing. (We knew we couldn't be comprehensive and that's why we created Pin-A-Tale, so people could nominate what we missed out.) As I was born in Dorset and lived there till I was 18, the literature of Dorset was always going to be interesting to me. We couldn't have created this exhibition without including Thomas Hardy, for example, and books like John Cowper Powys' Maiden Castle (Dorchester), Jane Austen's Persuasion (Lyme Regis) and Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach (er, Chesil Beach) all made their way in too.

But anyway, all of this is a long preamble to me saying that Writing Britain also features Enid Blyton's Five on Kirrin Island Again, which is based on adventures in the Dorset landscape. I was recently contacted by the organiser of the Famous Five Adventure Trail 2012, which kicks off this weekend in the Poole area and runs until September. They will be having a launch event on 7th June, with stalls at every station on the Swanage Railway.