Evening all – first of all my apologies for the missing Sunday Poem last Sunday. Since last Saturday I have been in Inchnadamph, which is in north-west Scotland, in a small two-bedroomed cottage which we renamed ‘Midge Mansion’. It’s real name is Riverside Cottage, and it was indeed next to a river as well as various mountains and a loch with a ruined castle and there were lots of red deer, mainly stags, wandering about the place. In fact I saw more red deer than I did cars – they were everywhere. And even though I know they eat all the vegetation, and are basically pretty devastating in environmental terms, I can’t help but love them. They are so graceful – when they jump over walls it looks like they are just stepping over them. They carry their antlers as if they are carrying a huge, really elaborate bunch of flowers on their heads. One stag came right up to our window and munched on the grass next to the car, which I guess tasted nicer than the grass on the hills. Every night we sat and watched them come over the ridge and down the hillside. We joked that we would return one day and find the deer sitting in the cottage finishing off the Doritos and playing cards – they were so unconcerned about us, not in a tame way, more in a knowing that we were completely irrelevant to their lives because we couldn’t hurt them way.
I say ‘we’ without explaining who I went on holiday with – there was the husband of course, and my two dogs, Miles and Lola and lastly David Tait and Jay-Ven Lee, who were visiting from China. David is one of my closest friends and he moved to China about 18 months ago and I’ve been looking forward to seeing David and Jay for ages.
It feels like so much has happened in two weeks and it is hard to know where to start. Maybe I will start with what I would have written last Sunday, if I had signal which is that David did a fantastic reading in Penrith at the Wordsworth Bookshop, that there was tea and cakes, provided by the lovely John who owns the bookshop, that afterwards we went for ice cream and it was so hot that they were melting and dripping all over the place before we could eat them.
David and Jay came back to Barrow and walked the dogs with me – we walked along the reservoir and saw a rat jump out a bin and then walked into the quarry and I showed them the house that we are in the process of buying – we even looked through the windows because the house is empty and went into the garden because the back gate has fallen off. When we left the house I thought the cat was acting a bit strange – he was lying in a position he wouldn’t normally lie in but I stroked him and talked to him and he was purring like mad, and he is a bit of a strange cat, so I decided to just go and walk the dogs and check on him when I got back.
When we got back, about 9.15pm, he had collapsed in the back garden. He was panting horribly, and was making this horrible sound. Have you ever heard the scream a rabbit makes before it dies? I have, once, when my dog killed one. It was like that but with more sadness in it, more loneliness. I thought he had got heat stroke because it had been such a hot day, and since I’ve been off school, I’ve noticed that Simba (the cat) and Miles (my oldest dog) lay out in the sun a lot in the yard. I wet a towel and tried to cool him down, but it didn’t really work. I rang the emergency vet and he said to bring him down to the surgery for 10pm. Chris dropped Jay and David off at the train station because they were getting the last train back to Lancaster, and I just sat with the cat. We walked down to the surgery with the cat and all the time I was thinking that the vet would put him on a drip and he would be ok – but I don’t know if I really believed it.
When we got to the surgery Simba made that awful noise again, and the vet said ‘I know what it is and it’s not good’. He said that the cat was in agony, that he would explain later, but he needed to stop him being in pain, and I realised he meant that he was going to have to put him to sleep. Chris had to help the vet find the vein to inject him because there was no nurse there – and within 15 minutes it was all over and it was just his body lying on the table and I knew he wasn’t there anymore because Simba would never lie in that position, all stretched out and open. He was always tucked in on himself and neat, like most cats I suppose. We walked home with the empty cat box – it was all so bizarre – there is part of me, a voice in my head that tells me to stop being silly, it is only a cat etc etc and the rest of me is absolutely gutted. I can also see how to people without pets, or maybe even people with pets who have never had one die before that this post will seem self-indulgent and over the top, maybe because that is how I would have thought before this happened to me.
Now, I still can’t believe that it happened – because it was so sudden and because I’ve had the cat for ten years. I felt really guilty for going for a walk, when I knew, deep down, that there was something wrong with him. Last night when we got back, there was a card from the vet who treated him – he was not our vet, just the vet who was providing emergency care that night. It said ‘Very sorry about Simba. Your hands were tied! Take care, kind regards, John’. When I read that card, I did feel less guilty – there was nothing I could have done, except maybe have got back earlier and got him to the vets a little sooner. I hate thinking of any living thing in pain. I’m a terrible hypocrite – this week for example, we went on a boat trip and the guide lifted some creels to show us what was in them- all this skittering, chittering life from under the water, and I felt so sorry for the little prawns and crabs and whatever else was in there – they so desperately wanted to live…and then I go to the pub and order meat…anyway, not to be sidetracked.
Last week I also felt guilty because I thought maybe I hadn’t loved Simba enough – or maybe I hadn’t showed him enough. My lovely husband helped me get all the photos we have of him into one folder and this was my favourite one – although you can’t actually see him very well because he is being cuddled and squashed by the dogs – this was taken when I was spending the day on the sofa after having a minor operation on my head – there was no way the animals were going to let me lay there alone…
In lots of the photos he is on my knee or sitting with one of the dogs. When we got back from the vets they ran up to the basket looking for him. Anyway, the day after I felt awful – I felt in a bit of a state. David was coming back to Ulverston to read for Poem and a Pint with Gill Nicholson and Neil Curry and I was meant to be introducing everybody but I didn’t trust myself not to cry if I got up and said anything in public, so the lovely Mark Carson stepped into the breach at very late notice and did the introductions. It was a lovely event – I sat on the bookstall and had the satisfaction of selling the books for the poets- David sold 11, Gill sold four and Neil sold five which was quite an achievement seeing as lots of the audience probably already had copies of their books. There was a lovely moment when David’s dad ‘heckled’ him from the audience, saying ‘I loved your book, I’ve read it all, can you finish with ‘Puppets?’
And then on Saturday we drove to Lancaster to pick our hire car up – there was no way two dogs and four adults would fit in my little Hyundai and then picked David and Jay up and then we were on our way to Scotland and I was relieved to get away from the cat-empty house to be honest. We got to Inchnadamph at about 11pm I think and were immediately eaten alive by the midges when we were unloading the car – they kind of took all of us by surprise, apart from Chris who had been obsessing about them for weeks after past experiences and we had all been ignoring him, thinking how bad can they be??
And there was no internet! The nearest Wifi was 11 miles away at a pie shop/cafe in Lochinver and I will admit now that I did stand outside the pie shop on one occasion that week to pick up my email.
So I thought I would put up the poem I would have put up last week if I’d had internet, which is a poem by my bestest friend David Tait. I can’t believe now that I’m not going to see him for another year at least. He is such good fun to be on holiday with – one of the funniest people I know. He also did lots of the cooking whilst we were there – and didn’t show the slightest annoyance when on the one occasion I cooked, the meat was ready 45 minutes after the potatoes and vegetables. There was also the time I overcooked his boiled eggs and undercooked mine – he just thought it was funny.
Last Sunday we went for a walk along the coast up to Stoer Point and managed to spot some seals in the water. Sunday was the best day for weather – it was hot and there was a breeze most of the time which kept the midges away. On the Monday we walked up Stac Pollaidh. It was cloudy on this day and the views kept slipping in and out of the cloud. On the way down we got a bit eaten by the midges but not too badly – or at least I didn’t – I was feeling quite smug at this point, as the midges seemed to be heading for the guys more than me.
I can’t remember which day goes with which thing for the rest of the week – but we went to Smoo Cave which has possibly the shortest boat ride ever – the guide doesn’t tell you to bend your heads so you don’t hit your head on the rock as the boat passes through, he just silently gestures and then bends, like a tree bowing its head, and everybody just follows his lead, and god help you if you are not paying attention. We went for a walk to some caves marked on the map which were much better and got caught in the rain on the way back, persistent rain which wouldn’t give up until it had rendered my waterproofs ineffectual, so we ended up skipping down the path singing and splashing in the puddles. We went to Honda Island and on the 10 minute boat ride over saw porpoises swimming, or at least their fin and tails and we saw puffins sitting on the cliffs. It was this day when the midges finally got to us all. My favourite quote of the week was from David, who wrote in the cottage guest book ‘the midges were as vicious as they were cunning’. We went for a boat trip at Kylesku and saw seals lolling about on the rocks looking slightly outraged that we were watching them, as if they didn’t think we were quite getting their best sides.
I got back last night and spent the day today playing with the Barrow Steelworks Band and rehearsing with the quintet – we are playing some World War 1 music at Barrow Library tomorrow. Sitting writing this has made me realise how lucky I am to have such friends – friends who I can spend a week with in the middle of nowhere and still have things to talk about and laugh about. So finally, we come to the Sunday Poem, which is, unashamedly by the wonderful David Tait, who I wished lived closer to me. I’ve chosen ‘Cesky Krumlov’ because even though it is about another country and another holiday, it sounds a bit like our holiday. The poem comes from David’s book which has just been published by Smith/Doorstop called ‘Self-Portrait with The Happiness’. It is a fantastic book and you should all go and buy it – it deserves to win things like prizes, but if not prizes, then at least readers. David won an Eric Gregory Award this year, not before time and the collection was Highly Commended in the Forward Prizes, which means one of his poems will be in the Forward Prize Anthology this year – I’m not sure which one.
If you would like to order ‘Self Portrait with The Happiness’ you can do so here
Here is a picture of the beautiful cover.
And here is the poem! Please comment on David’s poem if you would like to. I do really enjoy reading your thoughts on the poems. I think this is a really beautiful poem – capturing that feeling we all get on holiday, the Shirley Valentine feeling, when we think, what would happen if I stayed, if I never went back? The poem has a strange mixture of tone, dry: ‘photographed the statues, autumn leaves/ and each other’ but it combines this dryness or matter-of-factness or self deprecation with wistfulness, tenderness ‘your whole unlived life breathes on your cheek’ and those wonderful two last lines ‘the long winter stretching out/ its cold grace in front of you’. Fantastic stuff – and the whole book is like this! My favourites in the book, and ones to look out for are ‘Puppets’, all of the Self-Portrait poems, which run as a scattered sequence throughout the book, ‘On Being Trapped Inside a Puddle’ – a wonderful specular for those who like such things and for those who don’t. I also love ‘The Launderette on Autumn Street’ and ‘Unforgetting Paris’ and ‘Sonnet in the Snow’ and ‘Edits’ and ‘Postbox’ and ‘Heart’ and…well, read the book.
Cesky Krumlov – David Tait
There isn’t much to do in Cesky Krumlov
so when you’ve walked around its castle,
photographed the statues, autumn leaves
and each other; when you’ve eaten
a pastry loaded with cinnamon and sugar
you could leave on the first bus for Prague.
It will probably be cold while you’re waiting:
the first snow hovering over you,
and you’ll consider, for a moment
that you could settle here, spend each day
circling the riverside, the souvenir
woodwork stalls, and eat Goulash
at the place they make the cinnamon pastries.
This thought could come to you
in the bus station jumble sale, rummaging
through an old box of gloves, selecting
a grey pair with fingers that don’t fit:
and you’ll learn the piano, and talk
with backpackers and be on good terms
with the local shops.
Not much to live for, no jobs, and yet
your whole unlived life breathes on your cheek:
and snow of course, falling
so it doesn’t quite land on you,
the long winter stretching out
its cold grace in front of you.