Home

“…language the source of itself…” #tompickard @mordentower50

8 Comments

Fiends Fell by Tom Pickard

As I mentioned in my previous post on Morden Tower and its poets, when I was searching the local library catalogue for Tom Pickard’s works, “Fiends Fell” was the only book available. I knew nothing about it, but I took a punt and reserved it so I could perhaps get a feel for Pickard’s work. It was possibly not what I was expecting, but that didn’t stop it being a very marvellous read.

Pickard has been publishing since the 1960s, but I sense he’s always moved outside the mainstream. That may be because of his personality, inclination or the fact that he doesn’t fit into any convenient niche. “Fiends Fell” is a recent work from 2017, published by Flood Editions, Chicago; and it’s a bracing mixture of genres. Although published so recently, the introductory lines place the events it charts in the early 2000s, as Pickard refers to himself as being 56 and with an ended marriage. So the poet escapes, taking refuge in a high stretch of the North Pennine hills; and the book charts a year of the time he spent living there.

night blows up fast from the valley
dykes dissolve in thick fog
I follow my feet home

Lodging above a cafe, and sometimes helping out there, Pickard considers his past, his future, nature and the elements, and of course poetry. Prose sections are interspersed with short bursts of poetry, and the writer struggles to work in an attic which physically rocks and rattles when assailed by the elements. Often earthy, he wrestles with his lusts and also more prosaic matters of money. As I mentioned in my previous post, Basil Bunting suffered impoverishment in later life, and as Pickard deals with his bankruptcy as pragmatically as he can, it really does seem that it’s impossible to make a living as a poet nowadays (if it ever was…)

When I put my head out of the attic window all I saw was stars and the wind wrapped itself around my neck like a cold silk scarf.

The blurb likens the book to the Japanese Haibun, a mixture of prose and haiku, and it’s a format which is so effective here. The record of extreme weather, loneliness, the artistic urge and the need to make poetry is balanced with actual verse, slowing the reading down and allowing time for contemplation. It’s a wonderfully rich narrative and underpinning it all is the challenge and drama of living in extreme conditions, on what feels like the edge of a precipice when nature may sweep you away at any time. The wind is a constant presence, almost a tangible being from a fairytale; Pickard’s trips outside during the winter months remind you how precarious our existence can be and how extreme weather conditions can destroy us without pause.

In bed and a pack of winds are arriving at the windows. They pass by. They gather. They whine painfully, begging in.

If there is a pin-thin gap they will take it. If there is a wormhole they will snake it. If there are eaves they will heave.

Pickard uses the book also to explore autobiography, albeit in a fragmentary fashion. From what I’ve read, his early life was lively to say the least. He left school at the age of 14 and if the memoir elements here are to be believed came from a complex family background. Pickard’s grandson visits and bonds with the poet, offering a glimpse of a family life. But the poet is left alone again to wrestle with himself and the elements, as well as the state of the world. As befits a working class Geordie, he has a suitably scathing view of Britain and its class system…

We’ll never be a grown-up nation until we’re a republic – meanwhile we kowtow, fawn and flounce in search of favour.

Hovering over the book is the shade of Pickard’s dear friend, Basil Bunting; obviously a pivotal figure in the former’s life, at one point he reflects “I found a teacher of another kind, in Bunting”. He also calls him his mentor, and it’s worth remembering that Pickard was only 17 when he married Connie and they founded Morden Tower so it’s obvious to infer that he regarded Bunting as a father figure. Poetry is better off because of their association, which not only spawned “Briggflatts”, but also apparently informed Pickard’s work.

The Pennines, via Wikimedia Commons – einklich.net [CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0%5D

But I digress. Pickard survives the winter, and indeed the year documented in what he calls the “Fiends Fell Journal”. The book ends with a lyrical poetry sequence, “Lark and Merlin”, which convinces me I want to read more of Pickard’s verse. Because it has to be said that his writing is powerful and beautiful, and evokes vividly the intensity of living in such an extreme landscape. What happened to Pickard after the end of the Journal section of the book I don’t know; but there is a rumour online that the poet is working on “Fiends Fell 2” and if that’s so, I for one can’t wait! πŸ˜€

*****

As I mentioned in my previous post, I did borrow “Fiends Fell” from the local library. The best plans, etc, etc…. I loved it so much I ended up sending off for a copy of my own, so at one point there were two Pickards in the house:

The library one has now gone back, and I feel no guilt. This is a book I know I’ll return to, so I definitely needed my own copy! πŸ˜€

The Wild North East – Morden Tower, Newcastle and its poetry #basilbunting #tompickard @bloodaxebooks @mordentower50

8 Comments

Once again, I have to blame that Andy Miller for his influence; bookish Twitter can play havoc with your reading plans and inclinations, and a random Tweet where Andy mentioned he was listening to “Briggflatts” by Basil Bunting sent me off exploring. I had never heard of Bunting and frankly I wanted to know why. Unfortunately, this curiosity opened a whole can of worms, as a quick look online revealed a fascinating history of an author, and also a strong connection with Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Morden Tower and its poetry scene. This was another oddity, as Allan Ginsberg famously read there in the 1960s, and I hadn’t heard of that either. I’ve been down the wormhole ever since, really…

Basil Cheesman Bunting (what a fabulous name) was really a one-off; a link to the modernist past of poetry. Born in Northumberland in 1900, he spent much of his early life living abroad. During the First World War he was imprisoned for being a conscientious objector; later he lived in Paris and worked with Ford Madox Ford and for Ezra Pound, who admired his work. Always peripatetic, he spent the interwar years moving between Italy, the USA and the Canary Isles with his first wife and family. During WW2, he enlisted in the RAF and ended up in what was then Persia as a translator, remaining there until 1952. After a divorce from his first wife, he remarried and moved back to Northumberland, somehow ending up working at the Newcastle Chronicle newpaper. It was back in Newcastle that he fell in with Tom Pickard, and things changed…

Morden Tower was a crumbling old building on part of the surviving old 13th century wall of Newcastle, apparently built to keep out the Scottish invaders (sorry chaps….) Connie and Tom Pickard initiated poetry readings in the Tower, starting on 16th June 1964 (Bloomsday!) Bunting was supportive of their venture, and the venue grew in popularity. In 1965 it hosted the first reading of “Briggflatts”, widely regarded as Bunting’s masterpiece. The venue never looked back, and it’s still there now (although I’m not sure how active) which is a bit marvellous! If you look at the list of poets who’ve read there – Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Stevie Smith, Robert Creeley, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti plus more recently Linton Kwesi Johnson and Carol Ann Duffy – well, it’s fairly mind-blowing!

Alas, Bunting’s story proves that you can’t make a living out of poetry, as he spent much of his later life in povery despite being hailed as one of Britain’s great late modernist poets. And Tom Pickard seems to have gone through some of the same struggles (as will be seen when I get on to considering his “Fiends Fell” in a later post). Connie Pickard apparently continued to organise events at the Tower for 50 years, long after parting from Tom, and eventually received an award for it – go, Connie!

Well – let’s get onto some bookish stuff… When I first read about all of this fascinating poetic history, I of course had to go off and checkout what books were availalble. “Briggflatts” was the obvious first point of call, and it was stocked by my local library. I borrowed it, and then decided I would never read it in time to get it back before accruing massive fines, so I bought my own copy. It’s an excellent, beautifully produced and reasonably priced edition from the wonderful Bloodaxe Books which also contains a CD of Bunting reading the poem and a DVD with a documentary on Bunting – bargain, basically!

I was also intrigued to find that Morden Tower had published one of Bunting’s poems themselves. I imagined it might cost a bomb but it didn’t so a rather old and fragile edition now resides chez Ramblings…

A bit more rooting about online revealed that Bloodaxe had also put out in 1990 an anthology celebrating 25 years of readings at the Tower, called “High on the Walls”. I haven’t been able to find a 50th anniversary collection, but the 25th anniversary one has arrived on my shelves, and it contains a remarkable array of contributions.

And finally, Tom Pickard. The local library only had one book of his in the catalogue (see how good I’m trying to be about buying books), and that is a more recent title, “Fiends Fell”. I borrowed it and I’ve read it and I loved it – so much so that I’m afraid I’ve actually bought my own copy… *sigh*. I’ll be reviewing this on the Ramblings soon, and maybe will tackle “Briggflatts” and the anthology over the summer.

So the Morden Tower/Newcastle poetry wormhole is proving to be fascinating. There’s quite a bit of stuff online and I shall put a few links at the end of this post for anyone who’s interested in exploring a little further. Meantime, I really must resist the temptation to jump on the next train to Newcastle to have a look at Morden Tower in the flesh!! πŸ˜€

*****

For further reading on Bunting, there’s a great post at the Chronicle Live website here:

https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/whats-on/whats-on-news/basil-buntings-poem-briggflatts-50-10636468

There’s also a piece on the 50th anniversary of the publishing of “Briggflatts”:

https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/50th-anniversary-buntings-briggflatts-marked-11412530

The Morden Tower site:

http://www.mordentower.org/

You can read the original published text of Briggflatts as it appeared in Poetry Magazine, on the Poetry Foundation website:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/30206/briggflatts

 

 

Ellen Wilkinson – the Newcastle connection! @appliedcomics @historyNCL

8 Comments

One of my happiest literary discoveries this year has been the two novels of Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson. A pioneering woman and a moving force in the Jarrow March, she also turned out a couple of wonderful reads and they’ll definitely be up there in my books of the year. However, a chance tweet by @appliedcomics earlier in the month reminded me of something I had on the shelves with a Wilkinson connection which is in a format I don’t often read…

Last year, Newcastle-upon-Tyne launched the Freedom City 2017 programme of events; the city was not only celebrating the fact that it was 50 years since the University had awarded Dr. Martin Luther King an honorary degree, but also its rich heritage of activism. That activism, of course, included the region’s Jarrow March, and the tweet I mentioned reminded me that not only was it the anniversary of that event, but also that I had the item they were featuring – the Freedom City 2017 comic!

The comic was produced under the aegis of the university, and issued free of charge last year; and a contact in Newcastle sent it on to me as he thought I would be interested (which I was!). I read the comic whilst watching footage of the unveiling of a statue of Dr. King in the university (fascinating event), but I had forgotten that one of the events featured in pictorial fashion was the Jarrow March and Wilkinson’s part in it.

You can still read some parts of the comic online at the university website, and the Ellen Wilkinson chapter is up here:

https://research.ncl.ac.uk/fccomics/chapters/therighttowork.html

The city is obviously still rightly proud of its heritage, and the university laudably provides educational materials supporting the comic – ideal for any younger people you may have around you in the form of friends and family (or indeed if you work in an educational establishment!) The whole comic is interesting (if you can get hold of a copy) and a timely reminded of the agitation and activism of the past, how our freedoms are hard-won, and how we still need to fight to hold onto them.

%d bloggers like this: