In which truths of human potential are discovered...
Nine years ago (gosh, was it that long?) we took a party of sixth formers to Dove Cottage for some extra background to their Romantic Era studies. As you may know, Dove Cottage was Wordsworth’s house in the Lake District, and for us it seemed a smart mid-year idea to nip over there and fill the lungs and brain with something fresh.
Four teachers went, including a certain Mr Gerry Fenge (of teaching room En9) and a Mrs Chris Fenge (of En8). (Scuse me while I say hello to the others: Jenny Bolton – En4, Head of Dept and top people person; Anna Selvey – En3, cheery young teacher and master mind of the expedition).
Now, talking of names I must mention Owen Sheers, the Writer in Residence, who since meeting us – surely no coincidence – has done very well, presenting a six part Poet’s Guide to Britain on BBC4 and seeing a film of his novel Resistance released in 2011. All I knew of him at the time, though, was that he made very good company and he’d once slept in the same cave we had (Red Wall Cave in the Chimanimani Mountains near the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border).
Then we got down to business. Owen had an excellent two-part exercise for leading the students into the topic. Part One was the guided tour of Dove Cottage where they jotted down details to use in the writing task. (The cottage used to be the Dove and Olive Inn... tallow candles stank of burning fat... Wordsworth would loll on a particular couch... and so on.) Then Part Two, the writing task, began with an examination of Seamus Heaney’s Postscript. Owen pointed out the sense of spontaneity that comes from starting in mid-flow (“And some time...”) – also the imperative voice (“make the time”) – and second person mode (“Useless to think you’ll park and capture it...”). Here’s the poem (which I trust Seamus Heaney would be happy for us to share).
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
Great stuff. Well, the students were now primed with both content and style, so they were sent off to find convenient nooks where they could have a go at being a Wordsworth or a Heaney. Teachers did likewise. And here I come to the point of the story: the great literary competition between Mr G. Fenge (Room En9) and Mrs. C. Fenge (Room En8). I didn’t realise it was a competition to start off with. We just found adjoining nooks and settled down to scribbling.
I was in practice. I’d been writing, one way or another, for thirty or forty years, and the filing clerks in my brain were well apprised of the material I required and what order to provide it in. So after the twenty allotted minutes I had a poem with a beginning, middle and end. Chris too seemed well into the task. Indeed she finished before me and went off to see how the students were faring.
After all this we gathered in Dove Cottage’s kitchen where Owen invited the students to read a few efforts aloud. Predictably enough they were reticent, so to get the process going he invited a teacher, and Chris found herself volunteered. Normally she’d be far too self-effacing to oblige. However, she had got well into Owen’s whole set-up and felt untypically confident in what she had produced. So she began to read, slowly and rhythmically, emphasising the alliteration and sense of place.
And... there it is, the fern and flower enwrapped
Confusion of cottage moments, squat, yet soaring
In the misty December air. Walk in, welcoming.
You must remember the dank, dark wood smells
And scatterings and scratching of countless
Jointed insect legs in thatch and timber,
Your constant companions in those slow frozen
Hours of solitude and companionship.
That living mass of secret life has changed.
The wood lice and the mice and rats have given way
To more mundane monstrosities, that epidemic
Of tourist tittle-tattle and idle speculation.
Would you recognise us, your legacy in
This little island of Doves and Olives?
(Poetry nerds, by the way, might note this is an unrhymed sonnet with an eight line octave and a six line sestet.) Anyway, after her reading there was a while of silence. One of the lads, David I think, later insisted Owen’s jaw had quietly dropped as he stood listening. Well, that’s the sort of enthusiastic thing a student might say, but there again it may be true: who knows? Either way, no student fancied reading after that. So another teacher had to fill the gap, and there was a certain Mr G. Fenge (of Room En9 fame) who never lacked silly bravado, so up he stepped.
It was a strange experience. I wonder if you’ve had one like it. The best comparison might be sports day at school. There you are in the hundred yards race (metres hadn’t been invented in my day) and you’re lifting the knees and pumping the arms, determined no one will get past you. And what happens? Another runner goes inching ahead, then further, then lots further. And there’s no lifting of knees or pumping of arms can alter the fact.
Well, that’s how it felt with my poem. By the time I got to the third line I was falling behind, and by the end I had to accept you don’t win every race in the great sports-day of life. Here’s my effort – decent enough in its way – but I think you’ll see what I mean. It doesn’t have a title (except perhaps for ‘Second Out of a Field of Two’).
And if you happen to call
At the Dove and Olive Inn
You’ll find it oddly changed
With schooltour parties joking
About the beer store, tallow candles,
Or double bed for sleeping upright.
But lag behind the tour group
Halfway narrow your eyes
Angle the ear as if with curiosity –
And then taste the walls, not the walls
Something about the walls.
Taste the air, not the air
Something inside the air and walls.
And then – there! – is it Mary at her sewing?
Dorothy cooking, Sarah transcribing?
“What was that?” said the bloke on the couch
Well, after the experience of Dove Cottage I’d accept no more nonsense from Chris about “I can’t write” or “I just do criticism, I’m not creative” or “Who’d want to read anything I write?” Nevertheless, it took me the best part of a year to get her writing something substantial, and even then I had to pretend I’d do it for her. (“You provide the ideas and I’ll put them into words.”) Eventually this morphed into “You provide the manuscript and I’ll type it up for you.” And finally she took the lead, saying things like, “I’ve typed out those middle chapters again; have a look, will you?” All of which occurred several years before The Salamander Stone got published – which only happened last April, so patience is the word, folks.
Now, talking of folks, there’s a big conclusion to the story. And it’s this: everyone is better than they think. Everyone has more potential. I know you can rebut me with a thousand examples, but I was a schoolteacher and as such it was my job to believe in people. So here’s what I insist: you – yes you, reading that computer screen – have far more potential than you realise. (Not that this will save you years of toil trying to fulfil it...)
May I invite you to make certain purchases? (I may? Why, thank you...)
(a) The Salamander Stone (by my most excellent and trusty pal, Mrs Me) from one of these outlets:
Direct from the publisher, Burst Books: click here
Amazon UK: click here
(b) The Two Worlds of Wellesley Tudor Pole (by Mrs Me’s most excellent and trusty pal, Me):
Amazon UK: click here
Amazon.com (US): click here
(You’ll be getting both of them? Well, that is an admirable choice, if I may say so...)