The Majesty of Words

Graham Fawcett on Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Sladers Yard 21 January 2016
BR Rating *****
By John Pownall

If you have never experienced Graham Fawcett, you have missed something. His childlike enthusiasm for the greats of the canon is the motor that drives through his two-part, two-hour monologues to a journey’s end of revelation. These are not literary events for those with contemporary attention spans. Fawcett does not give it to us in bite-size chunks. These are big talks, packed full of imagination and research, and ideally suited to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for Coleridge, like the Ancient Mariner himself (as Fawcett reminded us) simply had to talk.

What we learnt, the two or three dozen of us packed into the café at Sladers Yard on a cold, wintery night, was that Coleridge was the master of comebacks, an obsessive walker of hills and dales in Somerset and the Lake District (like Wainwright on speed, joked Fawcett), and a man who could talk the hind legs off a donkey. It is perhaps too easy to write off STC as the great opium eater of English letters, or as Wordsworth’s less successful sidekick. But his contribution to the evolution of Romantic poetry cannot be overstated. Wordsworth’s development as a nature poet owes much to Coleridge’s early conversation poems, and Kubla Khan can be seen as a major influence on later Romantics such as Keats, and Victorians such as the Rossettis, Swinburne, and Tennyson.

Fawcett stays away from literary history, though, for the most part, and focusses intently on the interaction of the life of the poet and the work; in other words, what we are treated to is an exemplary study of the psychological sources of great pieces such as Frost at Midnight. This last poem was recited in full. You could have heard a pin drop in that rustic room as Fawcett reached the end of the poem: if the secret ministry of frost/Shall hang them up in silent icicles,/Quietly shining to the quiet Moon. Pause for breath. “I would give anything to have written those last three lines,” he mused. Wouldn’t we all? Fawcett identified the essence of these (somewhat neglected) classics as poems that capture a precise moment, like photographs, and also as poems that reflect always upon the hurt child within the grown man, a hangover from an act of painful parental severance in childhood.

Equally intriguing was the manner in which Fawcett described the special bond he feels between himself and Coleridge. They both attended Christ’s Hospital School, and both had a classical education. There was something touching about the way that Fawcett expressed his reluctance to draw any comparisons between himself and such a renowned great of literature. But the kinship was evident, especially in this careful exposition of the biographical context of these intimate pieces.

The second part of the talk moved into the more familiar classics, focussing on Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Fawcett paused at the two-thirds stage of Kubla, at the moment that Coleridge is supposed to have been interrupted in his recollection of the dream by the ‘man from Porlock’. Was this a genuine event, wondered Fawcett, or simply a clever alibi, all part of the self-created myth about the poem as vision rather than as a carefully crafted piece of literature? The question was, of course, left hanging.

As to the Rime, Fawcett’s take here was that Coleridge is himself the mariner; an inveterate chatterbox who has to get the pain and guilt off his chest every time he meets a wedding guest, like a pub bore. Fawcett kept returning to a comment by John Carey that something had wounded Coleridge at a young age, and the wound had never healed. Only through verse could a kind of peace be found, and of course that is the tale of the Ancient Mariner himself. Life and art become so intertwined as to be inextricable.

John Keats is next for Fawcett at Sladers yard. Do go; these are very special occasions.

By |January 22nd, 2016|John Pownall, Sladers Yard|0 Comments

New Year, New You, New Dump

By Sam Barker

If January 4th is the day that couples file for divorce, if February 1st is the day
that people decide their jobs are intolerable, and if April 1st is the day people
decide to do away with it all, then January 2nd is surely the day to go to the dump.

A New Year. A new you. The ephemera of the past purged to make way for the
clutter of Christmas.

Accordingly, January 2nd 2016 was the day I first visited the new Bridport dump. It had been there on the skyline, like some sort of IKEA warehouse of detritus management (lo, the wooden cladding), since mid-2015, but it never called. Until now. And even now, it was still not fully bedded-in: the surrounding saplings were sappy and the sign still said Broomhills Farm, as if what goes on there might be somehow agricultural.

When we arrived in Bridport 20 years ago, the old dump was a favourite
destination. The discard pile yielded us bike frames and two chests of drawers,
one of which had porcelain handles. We still have these items, mostly
because the interminable business of earning money precluded us from visiting
the old dump during the week and it was closed at the weekend after a neighbour complained that the endless flow of purgers was an affront to her human rights, but also because our house became a dump in its own right. There’s a lot of stuff in a pile out the back, and we’ve grown strangely accustomed to it.

In the 1990s, I had a friend who lived on a landfill site. His job was to graze sheep and lambs on fields created when the craters of crap were turfed over. A bucolic sanitization of waste, which he claimed disguised things people had once placed in recycling bins in good faith. It came to an end when the landfills encroached on his farmhouse, which was demolished and engulfed by another hole filled with old CDs and unidentifiable plastics.

After the pragmatic chaos of the old dump, the new dump reminds me of this
friend’s ‘farm’. It’s not even called a dump: it’s a ‘waste transfer centre,’ a
euphemism which suggests it’s a feeder for a natural cycle of waste
management. Saplings have been planted alongside: one day the new dump will be in a small forest. There’s the wood cladding; it’s all very wholesome and sort of Scandinavian.

More fascistically, though, the new dump is surrounded by 10-foot-high fences
topped with electrified wire. Why is unclear — are old kettles and mattresses
really so valuable? The approach is akin to a ferry terminal at best, an abattoir at worst – just as cows are herded along curved walkways so that they can’t see what’s coming next, the road to recycling redemption is partially elliptical – you can’t see the line of skips until you’re on it.

Virtuously, I dumped my old bannister in the wood recycling skip and drove
away. What happens to it next is a mystery. Will it be reborn as garden fencing,
or burned in some kind of wood-fired electrical incinerator? For all its
Scandinavian crispness and efficiency, the new dump is opaque. Bunging
unwanted items in skips claiming to be the start of an unseen recycling process
requires trust in that process. But which process? Declutter your life for
2016! Out of sight is out of mind. Maybe this is what the electrified wire fence
is for.

By |January 4th, 2016|The Sam Barker Column|0 Comments