Life writing is simply what it suggests – writing that is rooted in the experiences of real life, whether biography or memoir, or something akin to that. One of the best things I discovered through my week-long residential course at Lumb Bank was the clarity and authenticity that life writing afforded me in the story-telling process.
Lumb Bank was originally built by a mill owner in the C18th. Eventually Ted Hughes bought it, and his wife, Sylvia Plath, is buried in Heptonstall, the hilltop village less than a mile away.
This area of West Yorkshire is full of hills and dales, tight lanes, moors and forests, sheep farms, abandoned mills and steep villages.
During an Arvon residence course, which takes in about 17 writers per course, you take part in morning writing workshops, cook one meal (in team), attend evening readings, have one-on-one tutorials with the two published authors leading the course, and still have free time in the afternoons to write, gaze at the abandoned mill, chat in the garden, concoct plum-based mulled wine, and, in my case, hop up and down over every bunny spotted on the lawn and then go get lost on the moors.
We were an eclectic bunch, ranging in age from 20 to 84, coming from England, Ireland, Norway, Bulgaria and South Africa, and presenting a mix of personalities and perspectives. As a group, I imagine it could easily not have worked, and yet it did. It really did. The success of it had something to do with all the hours spent around the diningroom-cum-workshop table where we got to know each other through conversations as well as through each other’s writing. We laughed hugely (sometimes we downright crowed), occasionally we gasped, and also occasionally we cried, because, well, this was a life writing course, and life isn’t always neat or pretty.
Here are the lovely and talented writers that now make up the group Subtext:
That is why I love England. It is so little, and so full, and so old.
– Robert Speaight
Dunstanburgh Castle is a massive ruin on a headland of the Northumberland coast and is the biggest castle in the county.
Unusually, it wasn’t built near to a village or town, so the only way to reach the castle is by walking across a lovely stretch of about a mile of coastal grassland …
The remains of the massive gatehouse:
This field of gorgeous grasses, of which you’re only seeing part, and which houses a small community of sheep, all lies within the walls of the castle.
Dunstanburgh Castle was commissioned by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster in 1313. Lancaster was the richest and most powerful baron of the day. It was intended that Dunstanburgh outdo the castles of his uncle, Edward I, and cousin, Edward II – a bold move!
This is the Lilburn Tower to the north:
From the Lilburn Tower you can see Bamburgh Castle to the north. Bamburgh Castle was Edward II’s key stronghold in Northumberland. Lancaster’s increasing power and ambitions eventually led to his execution.
John of Gaunt took possession of the castle in the late C14th and did some revamping. In the C15th it was twice besieged during the War of the Roses. Thereafter it fell into disrepair and eventually ruin, but during its heyday it was one of the biggest, grandest and most imposing castles in the land.
Grasses growing on top of the eastern wall …
A poor woman from Manchester, on being taken to the seaside, is said to have expressed her delight on seeing for the first time something of which there was enough for everybody.
(Sir John Lubbock)
These are some photos from my visit to Newton-by-the-Sea in Northumberland.
View from up on the dunes:
You know how folks in the West, when seeing an image of African children playing with a primitive ball on a dirt field or smiling over a slice of watermelon, are prone to say something like, ‘Ah, bless – see how happy they are with so little!’? I must say that travelling around the UK I find myself thinking things like, ‘Ah, look at them little British kiddies making the best of their cold, blustering summers to visit the beach!’
A simple shot:
I like the pattern of the water and the sand in this photo …
In the photo below, it is as though someone thoughtfully placed this lifebuoy up on the hill expressly for the sake of photographers. It’s probably a clichéd pic in the opinion of experts, as it’s reminiscent of an emotional film finale where the fallen knight’s sword is stuck in the ground and the camera gives us a low-angle, sky-backdrop view, so that our hearts might soar to transcendent heights … , but I lapped it up with the freedom of the novice:
Here we have a sparrow. I asked him to show me his right side …
… and then I asked him to show me his left side. (He said he looks good from both sides.)
This puts me in mind of these verses from Matthew 10:29-31:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Ah, how romantic …
… unless that’s his mother. I really can’t tell.
A view of Dunstanburgh Castle:
More about Dunstanburgh in a future post.
For a history and photography post, go to Haddon Hall (the perfect mediaeval castle & location for Jane Eyre).
Two Englishmen, having climbed the Matterhorn, were regarding the wonderful view that stretched before them.
‘Not half bad!’ commented one of them.
‘No,’ replied the other, ‘but you needn’t rave about it like a love-struck poet!’
I thought on this quote, having come across it only that morning, as I strolled around Haddon Hall. You see, Haddon Hall is WONDERFUL, and my thoughts were thus in the territory of superlatives and exclamation marks.
A mediaeval castle in the Peak District, Haddon Hall is a quintessentially Norman building, square and solid, believed to have been built in the C12th. It is a romantic castle, containing everything from the Middle Ages that delights us in today’s world: battlements, very low doorways, a chapel decorated to the hilt, wildly uneven flagstone floors, and I could go on, but you are getting the picture, aren’t you, clever reader?
Moreover, the family who own the Hall, the Manners (it has been in their family since the C16th), has thankfully not gone the common route of restoring it to within an inch of its life. There still isn’t a perpendicular anything, anywhere. Some of the stone steps are curved into almost non-existence in the middle as a result of centuries of footfalls, and the decaying wooden chests and ill-fitted windows have been left alone.
I wish I had the capabilities of the love-struck poet ridiculed by the Englishman above, because the only words that presented themselves to me to describe Haddon Hall were words like lovely, outstanding, amazing, and truly wonderful. Bleugh! The frustration of living in a society where such words are regularly used to describe getting the parking spot you wanted or a tasty sandwich, meaning that when I want to really express that something is special, I can either go with one of them, and sound bland, thereby failing to capture the imagination of a hyperbole-drenched readership, or I can go all Italian and really do risk sounding like an overwrought poet whose been sniffing heavily on deadly nightshade. Not great options either of them.
I will have to satisfy myself with something very simple. I will say that, to the C21st tourist, the castle is perfection.
The garden was bursting with summer flowers, and as such was delightful in the special way that only English gardens can be. During my visit there were English roses, day lilies, thistles, agapanthus lilies, nasturtiums, yellow daisies, deeply purple clematis, red-and-white fuschia, and too many others to list. It was a garden of every colour.
One of the most striking things when you stepped out into the garden was the abundance of white butterflies (also called cabbage whites). They were everywhere, as were the bumble bees and wasps. I’ve perhaps never seen such a ‘busy’ garden.
I also rather enjoyed discovering the Jane Eyre connection with Haddon Hall. The 2011 Jane Eyre film adaptation with Mia Wasikowski and Michael Fassbender (how fussed are we really if Mr Rochester is decidedly good-looking this time round?) had Haddon Hall as Thornfield Hall.
I recognised the little pavilion where Rochester and Blanche Ingram play at keeping a feather in the air, the courtyard where Rochester drags Jane off to the church so they can marry, and the narrow stone bridge that leads to Thornfield Hall. The romance of the castle and its grounds are so well suited to the romance of Jane Eyre – a gold sticker for the film’s location manager, please!
For more posts on castles and stately homes, go to:
It’s hard to get a full-length shot of the Sir Walter Scott Memorial, simply because it is so dang BIG. In fact, it’s the largest monument ever built anywhere to a writer, and stands at 61 metres tall (that’s more than 18 storeys!).
I generally think a single great shot speaks louder and more eloquently than multiple shots, but I wasn’t able to produce any one shot I was completely happy with, so I’ve included this next shot as well, as it better shows the heftiness of the monument …
… while this next shot, I’m hoping, conveys how tall it is …
You can climb all the way up to the very top balcony of the monument by way of an extremely – I stress, extremely – tight stone spiral stairwell. It’s not too bad to begin with, and you can reach the first and second landings fairly effortlessly, but the final two stairwells tested me, and I had to remind myself that I do not suffer from vertigo, dizziness or claustrophobia, all three of which suggested themselves to me.
The main problem was that the upper stairwells have no windows, and so you’re acutely aware of the numerous tight revolutions of tunnel both above and below you (while being unsure exactly how far above or below you they extend), so there is no quick escape in either direction. That, at least, was my issue, and I’d entered the memorial with nary a concern in my head.
I’m a little miffed with this picture, which shows the entrance to the one stairwell, as I don’t feel it accurately portrays how narrow the upper stairwells are. The final portion can’t have been any wider than a foot and a half. I seriously think larger folk would come unstuck in that part (unstuck insomuch as they would of course become actually stuck).
The Scott Memorial was built by the Scottish people from a desire to show ensuing generations just how highly the man was esteemed by his own generation. The monument is impressive but also rather ungainly. This is what Dickens, a big fan of Scott, wrote of it:
Ah, Dickens, you always say things so much better than any of the rest of us could ever hope to!
Scott (1771-1832), a poet, novelist and playwright, played an important part in the Scottish Enlightenment, which was a sudden burst of Scottish intellectualism, innovation and creativeness, centred in Edinburgh. Importantly, he invented the historical novel, blending fictional and historical characters based in a time before his own birth. Dickens, Thackeray and others acknowledged him as their predecessor in this.
His importance to the Scots was and is about how he helped to foster a renewed interest and pride in their own, distinctive history, and about how his works brought Scotland greater international recognition and fame.
Last week I visited the Edinburgh Writers’ Museum on Lady Stair’s Close. The museum focusses solely on Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns. While there I was interested to read the preamble to Stuart Kelly’s book Scott-Land, wherein he ponders over the immense popularity and impact of Scott in his own time and how he helped to shape a nation’s identity, and how he is yet completely overlooked and unread today. To this I have to say: so true. I’ve never read a single one of his works, and I love historical fiction. Rob Roy has sat on my bookshelf for years, but when it comes time to pick up a new novel, I always pass over it for something else. Why is that?
Linked to this, I’ve always had a hard time even remembering him in the distinct way I do other authors. What I mean is, I find that Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson are forever confusingly entwined in my mind, and whenever I think on either of them, I have to pause and ask myself: okay, so which one is it again that wrote Treasure Island?
The same goes for Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas – I know that I know who wrote what, and yet I must always take a silent moment to re-establish it in my mind every time I think on any of their works anew. Am I horribly Anglo-centric? Yet I know other French authors, like Jules Verne most obviously, and I don’t muddle him up with anyone else. It’s really rather perplexing.
However, having stood high up on that top balcony of the Scott Memorial, with my back pressed ever so firmly against the inner wall whilst I looked out (but never down!) over all of Edinburgh, I hope this confused entanglement of Scott and Stevenson will, at long last, be laid aside.
Another history post: Lindisfarne – A Holy Island.
Other posts interested in the classics: Jane Austen and Edinburgh Castle at night, William Makepeace Thackeray and battle lore, and Bookcases, bedtime reading, libraries and story-telling.
There’s so much going on at the Edinburgh Festival, and not only strictly-speaking Festival things, but also other events capitalising on the crowds that the Festival brings. Like the Jane Austen evening we stumbled upon that was being held by Charlotte Chapel, a church that can be found in the pretty pedestrian, bunting-lined Rose Street. Like pilgrims, we journeyed to Rose Street on Friday evening to attend the event, secure in the knowledge that any evening devoted to Austen would be a good one. We arrived, and, intriguingly, were among a crowd of women only.
While queuing to go in we were all given an Austen quiz to fill in, and from thinking I would dominate I was instead chagrined to realise I knew very few of the answers with any certainty. For example:
– Who can say what the title of Pride and Prejudice was originally going to be? Options: “First Impressions”, “Elizabeth and Darcy”, or “Pemberley”.
– Also, which actor prompted a phone call from the Jane Austen Society to the director to complain that he was too handsome to play his assigned role? Options: Greg Wise (Willoughby), Hugh Grant (Ferrars), or Colin Firth (Darcy).
(Answers at the end of the post.)
It was a small, intimate affair – maybe 100 of us, tops? – and I really enjoyed it. One lady played Jane, sitting at the desk in the picture above, and she would read aloud extracts from Jane’s letters to her sister, Cassandra, wherein Jane would introduce her latest book and explain the primary themes she addressed in it. Other women from Charlotte Chapel would then appear, dressed in regency costume, and read relevant extracts from the novels. Sometimes snippets from some of the TV/film adaptations were also shown. My only complaint is that they used the BBC Emma when wanting a scene from that story, and I can’t stand that version; the 1996 McGrath version is superior in every way, from casting to directing to editing to … well, yes, everything. Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam forever!
Some of the titbits that most struck me were:
– Jane was very concerned with showing a development in self awareness in her heroines, and often her lead males too, Elizabeth and Darcy being prime examples. Only Fanny Price didn’t really need a journey of self-realisation, but rather it was those around her, like Edmund, that needed to learn a thing or two about themselves.
– Of all her heroines, Jane liked Elizabeth the best. Me, I have more sympathy with Emma and Anne.
– Jane dreamt up the independent and wilful Emma in response to complaints from her readers that her last heroine, Fanny, was too much of a doormat.
At the very end, a 30ish, single lady from the church chatted about how Jane’s preoccupation with marriage was very understandable, given that women of that period could only find any kind of financial or practical security through a husband. She then asked why, as modern women, we are still as preoccupied with romance and marriage, since we no longer need it to be financially secure? She pointed to our desire to have a relationship with someone who will love us and meet all our needs. Jesus, she said, is the only one who can actually be that person for each of us.
Charlotte Chapel seemed a really lovely, motivated church, and I was glad to have visited. I really admire them.
Afterwards, we walked home, a stroll of at least an hour that took us first through Princes Street Gardens, then up and over the Mound, before dropping us down again alongside Bruntsfield Links and our little res. As a South African, I have to give a nod to the awesomeness that is a late evening stroll through the city without a care for safety. So, yes: a big nod to that.
This is the beautiful sight of the castle at dusk, as seen from Princes Street Gardens:
Answers: “First Impressions” and Hugh Grant.
Edinburgh is beautiful. I visited it for just 24 hours a while back, but was sufficiently captivated (not a word I use lightly) that I have always maintained I will return. Now I am here for the Edinburgh Festival – lucky sausage that I am – and I am seeing it at its best; the streets are overflowing with all sorts of interesting people, the sun is shining (not warmly, but at least it is there), and the late evening hours are about pink, streaky clouds and expansive parks filled out with lounging, relaxed people.
This is the view from the university residence where I am staying. The photo was taken at about 9pm. I love the romantic architecture, the warmth of the brick face as lit by the last, low rays of the sun, and the pretty, broad leaves of the trees, which were swaying in a bracing, night-is-coming breeze.
I have something of a love affair with Chatsworth House, but you’d have to know me very well to know that. So when I met up with an old friend today, and she suggested several things we might do, I stopped her after the mention of Chatsworth with an understated, “Oh, that would be nice – let’s do that.” So off we went.
Driving through the Peak District has to be one of the most pleasant experiences a person can have. Purple heather was everywhere, pinky-purple rhododendrons were everywhere else, and the sun kept breaking through the clouds as though to say: I know you’ve travelled far to be here, so I won’t let them nasty clouds ruin your day.
We reached the car park and decided to walk through the grounds instead of going inside, all the more to embrace the perfection that is an English country estate in summertime. We thought we would walk to the folly on the top of the hill, but the dirt road we followed never quite wound its way there, and so we enjoyed green lawns and grouped deer instead. By the end of our walk, my friend and I agreed that we’d not only caught up on the past 3 years, but had, in the chatty manner of girlfriends, set much of the world to rights 🙂
Here are some photos from our stroll:
I’m in the UK for 6 weeks, and have decided I’ll write some “Megan’s UK Diary” posts. I’m in Sheffield at present, heading to the Edinburgh Festival tomorrow, and then many places besides. I’ll keep you posted with anything interesting I see or learn. 🙂