I’m writing this post today feeling more weary than usual. I’ve had a fantastic week away as the course tutor at The Garsdale Retreat but I am completely exhausted now! The Garsdale Retreat is a new creative writing centre, set up by Hamish Wilson and Rebecca Nouchette. I say new, but this is their second season of running courses there now.
It is a beautiful place, surrounded by hills and far enough away from the nearest village to feel wonderfully lonely, whilst only being a two minute walk away from Garsdale train station. The unique feature about the courses (compared to other residentials) is the small group sizes – the maximum group size is eight, so participants get a lot more individual attention during both tutorials and workshops. The food is absolutely beautiful as well – Rebecca does the cooking and pretty much everything was home made. I don’t think I ate anything processed all week! Every afternoon she made a different cake for afternoon tea as well – I was in food heaven. Below is a picture of my favourite – scones with jam and cream!
Tutors stay in a cottage next door. It was one of those cute cottages you drive past and idly think about living in so I am glad I got to try one out! The first night was very cold because the snow was still hanging around on the hills, but it gradually got warmer throughout the week, and Rebecca and Hamish gave me a portable heater so I could make my bedroom toasty!
Workshops went on till 1pm and then in the afternoons I sat in front of my electric fire in the cottage, and did some writing or prepared for tutorials with the participants. Two of the days I managed to get out for a run, but I have a slightly sore Achilles heel, probably from too many long hilly runs last week.
The participants were great as well – a real pleasure to teach, and full of ideas and conversation around and about poetry, which was lovely.
So I was in Garsdale Monday to Saturday morning, and then I got the train to Carlisle. A woman sitting next to me was reading over my shoulder whilst I was working on a poem and asked me if I was a lawyer! She looked disappointed when I told her I was a poet. It took me a while to realise the poem she was reading was an account of a story that someone told me about a date rape. She obviously thought it was some sort of witness account or something and didn’t seem embarrassed about the fact she’d been reading over my shoulder without asking. We got talking then all the way to Carlisle so the journey went very quickly.
I was taking part in an event called Woman Up! in Carlisle, a day of events exploring what it means to be a woman. There was a variety of events on, including speakers from the Carlisle Refugee Action Group and writers from Wigton Writers group. I read some of my poems from my collection about domestic violence and then some of my new work around sexism.
The responses from the audience were pretty amazing. One woman was crying. What touched me the most though was a young girl in the question and answer session, who put her hand up and said
‘I’m going to university next year. What advice would you give me to help me if I get into a situation I can’t get out of?’
It actually breaks my heart that young women are having to worry about this, to think about this, to negotiate this, to use their energy worrying about how they are simply going to keep safe, instead of putting their energy into learning and being creative. And there are no easy answers. Everything I thought of and said sounded so trite. To speak out and tell someone. To speak out and say no. To not let things get bad – to trust your instincts. To surround yourself with good people, who help you to feel good. I’d be interested to hear what answers readers would give to young girls to help them deal with sexism and to help them avoid getting into damaging relationships.
I stayed in a hotel, and after being cold all week, I then nearly baked to death in the hotel room which seemed to have the heating up really high. I got back to Barrow mid afternoon today. The first thing I did when I got back was to walk the dogs, then I went for a run to test my foot – still a bit of pain there after a couple of miles, so I’m going to rest for another couple of days.
So that has been my week – full on and enjoyable, but also emotionally draining. Today I’ve been steadily trying to catch up with all the emails I couldn’t cope with answering whilst I was on the course. This week is a lot quieter, which is a huge relief. I’m going to spend it catching up with some PhD work because the week after is manic with visits to London, Manchester and Poland.
Today’s Sunday Poem is by a fantastic poet called Peter Raynard. I first came across Peter via his excellent blog (www.proletarianpoetry.com) which has featured the work of over 100 poets writing about working class lives. This poem comes from his debut collection Precarious, published by Smokestack Books which you can order here. He is a member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen and is currently completing a poetic coupling of The Communist Manifesto, to be published by Culture Matters in May 2018.
I’ve been reading a few poems from Precarious out aloud each night to my husband, and he is really enjoying the collection. ‘Scholarship Boys’ is one of my favourites in the collection because it explores something that isn’t talked about – what happens when someone from the working class breaks the mould and gets a scholarship.
At MMU there is a poster advertising a scheme to support students who are the first in their family to go to university – there was nothing like this around when I went to university. I remember thinking my flat mates were really posh because they bought hummus (I’d never heard of it!).
The poem sets out its stall straight away with that first line, with the first word, which is unexpected following on from the title. I like the phrase ‘the likes of us’ in there at the end of the stanza. It almost has a motto-like feel to it – how many times have people told me in tutorials or workshops about parents saying that something isn’t ‘for the likes of us’.
I was puzzling over that phrase ‘claw-crane selections’ for a while until I worked out that I think it is referencing the arcade machines with the claw that you use to try and pick up a soft toy. What a brilliant metaphor! The idea of it being a game and the boys being the soft toys, inanimate, unable to control their own destiny, and someone playing games with their lives, picking them up and then letting them drop. Actually, the whole class of boys is part of this arcade game. The scholarship boys are the ones who are picked up and moved elsewhere, at least for a while.
The threading through of Latin words is really interesting as well here, illustrating that feeling of them being ‘dropped’ into a different world and the ‘pictured corridors’ gives the feeling of grandness, of long corridors stretching into the distance. I had to look up all the Latin words here – spiritus vicis means spirit time according to Google, although I’m not convinced about that one as I thought it sounded like a school motto, and that doesn’t sound like a particularly inspirng school motto. And amo, amat means I love/You love (again Google told me this, so apologies if it’s wrong)
There are lots of great phrases in here which seem simple until you start to unpack them. The head teacher ‘wielding’ his cloak – the cloak is indicative of his status and he is ‘wielding’ it like a weapon. The phrase ‘Mouths swabbed for memories’ – that made me think that the school, or the teachers tried to make them change their accents. This was something that happened to me – except mine was self-inflicted. After finally getting into Leicester Schools Symphony Orchestra, I tried to change my accent because the other children took the mickey out of the way I spoke.
The idea that the boys, despite getting scholarships, were always bound for the factory and had just taken ‘the long way around’ is really heartbreaking. I also like how we don’t know why they left early – the reasons are left unclear.
Thanks to Peter for letting me use his poem this week – do check out his blog, and if you have some spare cash, order his book. It’s a fantastic, challenging and interesting exploration of class and masculinity and also touches on issues of mental health as well. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Unlucky enough to pass our eleven plus
we were claw-crane selections
from our class dropped into a history
the likes of us had never read.
Inducted with pictured corridors
of Spiritus Vicis spouting opportunity
from the mothballed grammar
of the cloak-wielding Headmaster
and his fountain of Latin characters.
Amo, amas, a matter of opinion
was to know our place. Our mouths
were swabbed for memories.
We were to become
someone else’s nostalgia.
By the time we left early,
five of a seven-year stretch,
we stooped off to the factories
that laughed at us
for taking the long way around