I was late, exhausted, and my feet hurt, but John Jones bid me welcome when I found the private bar at the Lysses, filled with other ramblers. I folded myself up on the floor against the back wall, exchanged smiles with some of the others. We’d put in 17 miles that day, starting at The Shoe Pub in Exton, circling up onto Old Winchester Hill, down to The Izaak Walton Pub in East Meon, around and up to Beacon Hill before dropping back down for a pint at The Shoe. We’ll have a bit of a session-rehearsal tonight at the hotel, John told us. I didn’t think I could make it, but I sure as hell didn’t think I could miss it.
I have John’s solo CD, Rising Road. I had been on one day of the White Horses Walk two summers previously. I had seen the Reluctant Ramblers do a show at the Nettlebed Folk Club. Yet somehow, I had never really thought about how those songs and that show came together–a really strange observation from a person who has played in bands and performed in plays off and on for years. Of course I know about rehearsals. But on that Wednesday night in the private bar in the Lysses Hotel, I sat in on the one for the Ramblers’ opening show at the Wickham Festival the next day. John, Rowan Godel, Boff Whalley, Al Scott, Lindsey Oliver, Tim Cotterell: they sat on couches, perched on stools or comfy chairs before the fireplace; the rest of us jammed into the small room as best we could while they constructed–and deconstructed–their performance for the next day.
It was brilliant. A snatch of song, then discussion. Should Al play guitar, or Boff? Lindsey: bowing, or plucking? A run-through of a single line, harmonized by John and Rowan: should she let her voice fall sharply on the final word of the phrasing? In that instance, they tried it both ways without coming to a complete decision, before John turned to long-time producer Al and asked what do you think? No, Al said. And there was no falling from that note. It was interesting that Al did not explain, nor did they ask him to; his judgment was enough.
Some songs they sang in full, including the beautiful “Black and White Bird,” a song John claimed was inspired by a woman of his acquaintance finding a bird in a burlap sack in the stables where her horse was kept–because this is Wales, and that’s what they do. Rowan’s solo contribution to the show
was to be “Raggle-Taggle Gypsy;” she sang it all the way through, curled up in a chair in the corner; John suggested punching up a line in the penultimate verse, where the lady spurns her ‘new-wedded lord’ and his riches for the love of her gypsy, since that was the climax of the song. Boff’s song was to be “Everyone Sang,” but we weren’t to hear it until the show.
I don’t know how late it was when I left, to make the walk back through darkened Fareham to my Roundabout Hotel home. I left the group still singing, still sharing pints. Their voices, their instruments followed me down to East Street, past the bakery, the orthodontist, the school. The music was still in my spinning head when I lay down in my room on the top floor.
Postscript: The next afternoon, after lunch and a pint in the ironically named village of Soberton, we walked into the Wickham Festival. First into the tent, we walkers crowded the rail before the stage to watch and listen to the result of the work of the previous night. Including Mr. Boff’s “Everyone Sang”–and everyone did. Magic.
From The Guardian online:
“In an interview with French paper La Croix, [Nobel judge Horace] Engdahl said that the ‘professionalization’ of the job of the writer, via grants and financial support, was having a negative effect of literature. ‘Even though I
understand the temptation, I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates and unhealthy link with institutions,’ he told La Croix. ‘Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard–but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.”’
I have never been a taxi driver. Perhaps that’s my problem. Then again, I have never had a grant or other financial support for my writing, either. Does this mean I’ll never be a Nobel Prize winner? Or that I will? I’m so confused.
Perhaps, though, it should count in my favor that I have had two taxi drivers who have become enormous parts of my backstory: my life, in the parts that matter. One I met when I was a teenager in an ill-fated chambermaid job at the Eastland Motor Hotel in Portland; I knew Livingston for a grand total of three days. The other, Frank Ireland, I knew for even less time: a couple of hours he spent driving me on the scenic route between Wadebridge and Tintagel in North Cornwall, the first time I went to England on my own. But those two taxi drivers gave me stories, and since I live my life in stories, time is immaterial.
I was 15 when I met Livingston. I never knew his last name. He was from Jamaica, an immigrant who worked days as an electrician at the Eastland, and nights as a taxi driver, saving his money and sending it to his mother back home. He might have been in his early twenties. But in my white-bread world, he was foreign and exciting and interesting. He and I worked on the same floors at the Eastland in the short time before I lost my job (I had to be 16, it turned out, to work in a hotel, even as a chambermaid). I made beds and vacuumed and cleaned out ashtrays and emptied trash. He did whatever the electricians did; but he also wired his boombox into the wall panels when he worked, and used the 16-story building as his personal antenna in order that he might listen to reggae stations broadcasting from New York. I don’t know how he did it. He tried to explain to me, but gave up after a while, because it was obvious I didn’t get it. Never mind, let’s just dance. And we did, in the hallway when I’d done one room and was moving on to the next in the 16 each maid had to tend to each day. He explained to me how he drove his cab at night, up and down between Commercial Street by the harbor and Back Bay on the other side of the city, listening to his reggae, leaning against the door, his long right leg stretched out on the seat beside him, his left foot on the pedals. When did he sleep? Who knew? I just knew when he danced. Terrible dancer, you. He would shake his head, grasp my wrist. Like this. This. I was a grave disappointment to him. I take you to Kingston. We teach you there. But instead, I got my walking papers, and I never saw him again.
Frank, on the other hand, was a lifesaver. I had
come into the station at Bodmin Parkway to find that, Sunday, no buses were running. With another couple, I hitched a ride into Wadebridge. There, desperate to find a ride to Tintagel, I finally got hold of Frank at ADA Cabs from a public call box on The Platt. He said he wasn’t planning to work that day, but he’d come for me at 4. In the meantime, did I see that pub across the way? Don’t go to that one. Go to the one beside it. It’s better. I had my first pint of Cornish Cream at the next pub over, sitting at a picnic table in the side garden, reading a book, until 4. When Frank finally came, in his black and white cab, he asked if I wanted to sit in front or back (I chose front); then he asked if I needed to get to Tintagel immediately, or if I wanted to take the scenic route–Same price!–and you know what I chose. We spent hours driving
about the North Cornwall countryside, and I got lessons about Delabole slate; about tin mining; about how once there have been pigs, there’ll be nettles, and there’s nothing you can do to get rid of them. He showed me the beach I’d want to go to. He told me which pubs in which villages were the good ones. He was appalled that, where I live, there’s no place social like the pubs: what do you do of an evening when you just want to walk out for a pint? He called me “love,” which is apparently a very common and colloquial endearment west of Taunton. He told me next time I came, I needed to rent a car on my own, because there was so much to do, so much to look at, so much to find out. It was a great sadness to finally reach the Bosayne Guest House on Atlantic Street in Tintagel, to have to get out of the cab. I have not seen Frank since, though I did, the following winter, send him four pounds sterling in a Christmas card, so he could walk out for a pint on me. I still have the card he sent in return.
No, Mr. Engdahl, I’ve never been a taxi driver. But I’ve been mildly in love with a pair of them for years. And they’ve both fed me, in a literary sense.
Two years ago, Julia got me hooked on the novels of Phil Rickman, a writer from the Border Country. His books are…weird. Often unnerving. Extremely intelligent. Layered. Containing multiple narratives. Spooky? Characters are spiritual, sometimes within the framework of established religion, sometimes not. There are hauntings, some of them psychological, some of them inexplicable. The books are musical, with bands and solo artists and sometimes Edward Elgar. The books are full of poetry, and history, and archaeology, and folklore. There are characters who flit between books, sometimes in major and sometimes in minor roles. There are stand-alones; there are books that might be pairs; there is a series. Thanks to Julia, I have been devouring them as quickly as I can lay my hands on them.
In December, which is perhaps one of the most unnerving of all Rickman’s novels, a group of musicians, who had worked together 14 years previously with disastrous results, reluctantly reunite to record again. The music label which coerces them into this uncomfortable situation arranges the recording to be done in a studio in the tower of a ruinous abbey in Wales, the place where everything went to hell for the members on the night of December 8, 1980. Just to see what would happen. Well, things do happen, and of course, in Rickman form, they happen cataclysmically.
Fast-forward to me. And Julia and Roger, in August, when I visited. I thought we could go to Llanthony Priory, Julia suggested casually. She knows how much I love ruinous things. Then she told me the tower formerly housed a recording studio. Oh. I got it. Of course, we had to make a drinks stop at the Skirrid Inn–the characters did in December, too, for sustenance before facing their ordeal. The oldest pub in Wales, first listed in chronicles in 1100, the inn is dark, low-ceilinged, heavy-beamed, and sports a noose hanging in the stairwell: hundreds of people
were tried and hanged there over the years of its existence, Julia told me. A dreadfully unhappy place. From the table on the cobbles out front we could see the mountain after which the inn is named, a high double peak which legend says split at the moment of the crucifixion of Jesus. Seriously atmospheric.
On to the priory. The roads were twisty and narrow–lanes, really, between high hedges. Yes, I could feel the possibility of the a car crash in the dark on the road into the ruins, just as happens in December. Even though the sun was out, the clouds were ominous, casting shadows over the high fields where sheep dotted the grass. The massive stonework rose up before us, and it was beautiful against the sky and the Brecons, and sad, and even haunted. We wandered through the chapter house, Julia identifying rooms now open to the air. Roger and I read about the history, the establishment, the de Lacys, the destruction, the abandonment. I wondered about the square tower, still intact; next to it, a much later building houses a restaurant, a bar, and rooms to let. Strangely, though: the Abbey of the novel seemed gloomier, more frightening than the actual Priory…but of course, it was August, not December. It was sunny, not snowing. And it was daytime, not after dark. I don’t know if I’d be more anxious if I’d taken a room overnight in midwinter; I’d probably be looking over my shoulder all the time for perverted ghostly monks.
Postscript: Julia, Roger and I did not have cake at the restaurant here. It was much too early.
This month marked the beginning of the fifth year of reading a poem a day to my students. All of them. Every period, every day. Such a simple thing to do–and yet. We don’t do it. We live in a school culture which devalues poems, calls them “hard,” and makes students frightened of them. That’s a shame. If kids are too frightened to read poetry, they become adults who are afraid, and so much beauty in the world and in language is lost to them. Thus we’ve gone into this school year here in the C-wing at CHS raring to read: nobody’s getting out of this room without taking a poem with him or her.
August 29, Friday: “Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney
September 1, Monday: Labor Day–no school.
September 2, Tuesday: “Lake Echo, Dear” by C. D. Wright
September 3, Wednesday: “The Summer Ends” by Wendell Berry
September 4, Thursday: “Possible Selves” by Kathleen M. Quinlan
September 5, Friday: “Season” by W. S. Merwin
September 8, Monday: “On the Difficulty of Pumping High-Octane Gasoline into a ’39 Buick Century Without Spilling a Drop” by Roy Bentley
September 9, Tuesday: “Appetite” by Maxine Kumin
September 10, Wednesday: “The School Bus” by Christian Barter–because I love this particular poem, and because I just discovered that my middle child has Chris as an instructor for freshman comp.
September 11, Thursday: “Night Fishing” by Peter Sears
September 12, Friday: “Bottled Water” by Kim Dower
September 15, Monday: “The Problem of Describing Trees” by Robert Hass
September 16, Tuesday: “In Which I Imagine a Stray Cat as Ulysses” by Sarah Freligh
September 17, Wednesday: “Pacific Coast Highway” by Jesse Burns
September 18, Thursday: “The Last Days of Summer Before the First Frost” by Tim Bowling
September 19, Friday: “Ticket” by Meg Kearney (because a girl from first period was reading a novel in verse from Meg yesterday, and asked if there was more–yes! There’s more!)
September 22, Monday: “Your Hands” by Pablo Neruda (because I was discussing body part poems with friends this weekend, and this is my favorite.)
September 23, Tuesday: “Autumn Song” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
September 24, Wednesday: “Song for Autumn” by Mary Oliver
September 25, Thursday: “Autumn” by T. E. Hulme
September 26, Friday: “Attack” by Siegfried Sassoon (because some third period boys were discussing ISIS, and wanted a war poem)
September 29, Monday: “Piute Creek” by Gary Snyder (because the coyotes have been coming out lately)
September 30, Tuesday: LXXVIII “These are the days when birds come back” by Emily Dickinson (for this past week’s warm spell)
I am pleased to say it was a successful month overall–I have had several students volunteer to read. I have had several students who requested poems about particular things. I discovered that our new principal, who used to be an English teacher, also spent time reading poems to his kids at the beginning of class (“What new kind of principal is this?” demanded my friend, the poet Dawn Potter. The good kind, Dawn, the good kind). I have discovered and shared new poets, new poems–while throwing in a couple of favorite oldies. Yes. A successful month.
If anyone has any October poems to suggest, I’d love to hear about them.
I never will again, thanks to my friends Julia and Roger, with whom I stayed for a few days this summer, in Bromyard, in Herefordshire, in the border country of England.
I’d been traveling all day, that sometimes drizzly Monday. When the train finally pulled into the station at Worcester Shrub Hill, I saw, through the window, Julia and Roger on the platform. I had not seen them in two years. They were lovely faces, the faces of my friends. They trundled me into the car and drove into the center of the city. There were some errands Julia needed to do, and some beautiful architecture she needed me to see. Then there was the Cathedral.
Do you like cathedrals at all? Julia asked. I am in awe of cathedrals. I’m one of those gawking idiots who stands in the middle of the nave and stares upwards into the heights, forgetting to breathe, until I get dizzy and the stonework swirls. I love the hollow echo of heels on the stone floors. I always want to pet the small dogs under the feet of the carved figures on tombs. And Worcester is special, housing the storied remains of Arthur, the doomed elder brother of Henry VIII: I stood in the chapel housing his bones and realized that I’d never really thought of him as real, in the sense that his brother was real–but here was the young man whose marriage changed the course of English history. Oddly, in a chantry with small statues of carved saints lining the walls, many of whom had had their faces smashed off, nose first, ostensibly by Henry’s minions during the English reformation. I was horrified by that–not just the destruction, but the destruction of a brother’s resting place. Nothing quite like family.
Then there was the tomb of King John. Conniving man. I’m not a John fan. Enough said about him. It was weirdly satisfying to see him dead.
Exhausted, we went for cake. The round Chapter House was doing duty as a tea shop. Roger and I had walnut spice cake with our coffee and tea, while Julia went for lemon cake. This was served up by women in aprons behind long tables. Around us, conversation was muted under the ribbed dome. I would not normally have thought I’m a bit peckish–I think I’d like some cake; but of course, I am not quite as civilized as Julia. But I realized that she was right. Sometimes, you just need to have some cake. And the walnut spice cake was really quite delicious.
The next day, of course, we went to Hay-on-Wye, the Town of Books (but that’s another story for another time). Suffice it to say that, by mid-afternoon, after walking about and peering into shops, Julia once again suggested cake. Specifically, she wanted chocolate cake with her coffee, and when I saw what was on offer at The Granary, I wanted chocolate cake, too. Even though the rain had spattered us off and on all day, we sat out at the tables under the awning in front of the restaurant, watching tractors wend their way down the narrow street. The cake was marvelous. The fact that I was eating it with my friends in Wales (granted, just barely in Wales, but enough to make it count) made it all the better.
It’s a remarkably civilized way to do business, of course. Along comes mid-afternoon, and you suddenly break off whatever you are doing, to sit down for some cake. I think everyone should do it. I’m fairly certain the world would be a much kinder place if they did. And certainly much more relaxed.
Three years ago, at the tail end of a school trip to London, I stayed behind after everyone else had flown home, and went to Fareham to see Oysterband. When I was there, I stayed at the Roundabout Hotel, which I had found online. Last month, when I went to the Wickham Music Festival, again to see the Oysters, I booked into my old haunt when camping plans fell through. Six nights I stayed this time. By the end of the week, the place felt like home.
To get to the hotel, if you’re me, you leave the Fareham station, turn left, and walk for a little more than a mile–right through the center of town, where vehicular traffic bypasses the pedestrian shopping heart of the place to pick up again on the other side. Past the pasty shop, where work vans idle on the double yellow at noontime while people line up to get takeaway. Past the prep school. Past the orthodontist. Onto a footpath which attempts to avoid the roundabout and fails: when you come out of the trees at the end, there is the Roundabout Hotel, waiting where it has waited for a hundred or so years.
My room was #24, at the top of two sets of stairs: the second set, to the second floor–or third, for US-ers–led to my room and no other. My own private stairway! The window overlooked the
roundabout, and the exit leading north, toward Wickham. The bed was large and took up most of the space. In the corner was a small shelf with the tea things, including the electric kettle. When I checked in, there were two teabags and four tiny containers of milk. Each day I used the teabags and didn’t touch the milk. Each day, the phantom chambermaid (whom I never saw) replaced the teabags, and added four more little milk tubs, until the third day, when she began leaving four teabags and four milk tubs. I used the teabags. I began building a tiny milk pyramid with the tubs. I like to think the chambermaid saw the humor in the construction, for she always left four containers next to the tower, so I
could build up and out. Six days of this…until my friends Lesley and Marg, staying at the other end of the hotel and down one floor on my last night, ran out of milk, and I smuggled some down to them.
By the sixth morning, the nice young waitress in the dining room always brought me the full English with tomato, no beans, and scrambled eggs. And a steaming teapot. Without my asking. Some mornings I breakfasted alone. A couple of mornings Steve and Lesley were
there, having the full English with beans, no tomato. And the one morning Marg and Lesley (different Lesley–my English world is peopled with Lesleys) were there, Marg, who is Canadian, got down before the rest of us: when she told the waiter she was waiting for friends, he said, “Oh, Anne?” We North Americans, you see–we must stick together!
I like the Roundabout. John and Boff and Tom and Rowan and Al and Fran were all staying in the middle of town in Fareham, at the Lysses, which, when I met them there, made me feel gauche and outclassed. The Lysses is beautiful,
with soaring lines and columns and deep carpeting on which various employees and guests glide silently. The Roundabout is, compared to that, definitely more in my league: dark beams, some real, some fake. Worn carpets. Stairways that go almost nowhere. Downstairs, a pub, where, on Saturday night, there was a band, the bass from which thumped up the two stairways to rumble my big old bed. Plumbing that clanked away while I waited for hot water to make its journey to the top of the hotel. And outside my window, two floors down, the roundabout from which it got its name, where, on my first night there this summer, emergency vehicles wailed their way around, lights flashing–which made me feel oddly at home.
The cool thing about riding the Tour de Dixmont? All the people who wave. Cindy the mail lady. The guys in the dump trucks going from the gravel pit across the North Road to wherever. The guys putting metal roofing on a farmhouse on the North Road. The man in North Dixmont mowing his lawn. The guys building the wheelchair ramp on my neighbor’s house. The man driving the Peacemeal Farms truck. They’re used to me, I think, seeing me nearly every day in good weather, slogging my way around (top downhill speed today 42.2 mph). I’m a fixture. A pet bike rider. Which is okay. In fact, it’s rather cheering.
Day after tomorrow is the MS 150: my 13th. That’s why I’m a fixture, riding around here. As I told Cindy the mail lady this morning, after all this pedaling, I think I’ll be able to do it again. Which might be why the song in my head this morning is “Rise Above” by the Oysterband. It’s rather an affirming song–and it sets a good pedaling cadence. And the end is beautiful.
Here you go.
This morning, when I got up, the road was wet, but the sun was out here at Sunny Corner…so I thought I was safe. I made it halfway on my chosen route this morning before I rode right into the rain. Not a hard rain–not so much as a shower–but with bigger drops than a mist. They slapped on the tar, they slapped on my glasses, they slapped on my helmet. All in a half-hearted sort of way. And at my maximum downhill speed today, 43.8 mph, those raindrops drove like little nails into my skin.
Perhaps, then it was apropos that the song in my head was “Let Her Run” from Bellowhead’s new CD Revival. Because I was running hard: there are only a couple more riding days until this year’s MS 150, and if I put in the work now, this coming Saturday and Sunday will be the proverbial walk in the park. Or ride, if you will
Here you go:
Only six more days until the MS 150, and the good news is that there was a surprising lack of carnage on the Tour de Dixmont this morning: no dead animals anywhere. It was another beautiful morning to head for the hills, as it were, and thanks to the way-cool tech at Pat’s Bike Shop in Brewer, who fixed my computer yesterday, I could once again keep track of things, like my maximum downhill speed (38.3 mph) and my average speed (14.1 mph). For the most part, the computer’s just for amusement–except in the real ride, when it’s useful for reading course cue sheets: left turn onto X road after 4.7 miles, for example, or my personal favorite, rest stop 9.6 miles.
In any case, because of FB friend Astrid, I almost ended up with “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone”–or God forbid, its bastard cousin “On the Cover of the Music City News”–in my head on the way out. Somehow, though, the song today ended up being “Mustang Sally” (might just have been the yellow convertible Mustang that passed me on the road)–the version from The Commitments.
Here you go:
With only eight days left until this year’s MS 150, I’ve been riding like a crazy person. Must be strong! Must be tough! At least tough enough to make it through another Tour de Dixmont. And apparently, carnage reigns in this burgh: on the road today I saw two dead birds, two dead squirrels, a dead mouse, a dead mole, a dead porcupine, and a dead rat. All within 20 miles! We’re all moving targets here, I’m afraid.
Today’s song in my head was almost apropos: “500 Miles” by the Proclaimers. Granted, I wasn’t walking. Granted, I didn’t ride 500 miles, though I’ve ridden more than that since school got out. But it’s a marching song, and by golly, it’ll make those legs work.
Here you go: