The Gist and the Holy Grail

It seemed a mad thing, to go all the way to deepest Devon and back in a day. But not to go – well, that would be like not visiting the Fisher King because it seems a bit of an effort.

Symbolizing the goal of the quest? The standing stone in the maze  at Totleigh Barton.

The occasion was so special. After John Moat was diagnosed with cancer at the end of last year, his great friend, Lindsay Clarke, conceived the idea of putting a book together, an anthology of the Imagination, in John’s honour. It was supposed to be a surprise, but not a few kittens were let out of little bags by excited and enthusiastic contributors. But John’s a gentleman and would say things like, ‘I’m not sure what Lindsay’s up to but…’

John (left) and Lindsay – the kind of friends poems are made of.

Lindsay and his contributors laboured hard to get the book together by March. Once it was completed, he presented it to John, who read it at proof stage. ‘Plotinus in a gym slip,’ he pronounced on reading my contribution. I’m still working out whether that was a compliment. I’ve been told to presume it was.

Then the next thing was the launch party, to be held on St Swithun’s Day at Totleigh Barton, the home of the Arvon Foundation which John founded with John Fairfax. Three hours by train from Oxford to Exeter was easy enough, but getting from Exeter station to Totleigh seemed  impossible. On the map it’s a mess of wiggly lines, in Parzival’s quest, the equivalent of  the foggy marsh. Really, this journey was a silly dream and inconceivable. John said so himself: ‘Don’t come! It would be mad!’ But then, from being an editor, Lindsay shape-shifted into a travel agent and the next thing I knew, an itinerary from arrived. It all began to look feasible.

When I discovered that Jules Cashford was in Oxford for the weekend, and that we could go together to Totleigh, that was the clincher. We’ve never had the time for an extended talk and this journey would give us three hours (predictably, it was not enough).

Briony Lawson, sculptor, with Alice Oswald and Jules Cashford

At Exeter we found other guests from the same train, Maggie Gee and Satish Kumar’s wife, June. (That tireless pilgrim, Satish, having lectured in Oxfordshire on Saturday evening, was giving a talk in London on Sunday morning and didn’t catch up with his wife at Totleigh until about 4pm). We piled into the taxi John had sent to collect ‘the Four Graces’ and I took the front seat. While those in the back had what sounded like a fascinating conversation about writing and publishing, I talked to the taxi driver.

He lives in Okehampton and hates it. Why? Because it has no restaurants and night life. Given that I was on a quest to see the Fisher King, I repressed my distaste at his idea of the good life and our conversation went pretty deep. I heard about his Thai wife and her cooking. We spent the really curvy part of the journey, through countryside of voluptuous hills and dales I would dearly loved to have gazed at in silence, talking about his skills in marketing and all the gambling games and lotteries he makes up. He is a very clever guy. I dropped in a suggestion that he quit taxi driving and open a Thai restaurant in Okehampton, perhaps embedding it in a pub, which seems to be happening more and more these days. I left him quivering with thoughts, ideas and anticipations. I could do no less – he was a nice guy and I wish him well in his endeavours, even though I will not be going within a hundred miles of them.

And so, finally, we turned up the drive to what must be one of the most beautiful spots in all England, a thatched house set in wild gardens that hosts and has hosted over the years so many aspiring writers and their tutors.

One of Totleigh’s many wild corners

About thirty people had gathered to pay tribute to John. Now. there are some luminaries amongst the contributors, like Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy. Even Ted Hughes contributed, but with a piece written presumably when he was still alive. The contributors, however, were not chosen for their fame as much as for their relevance to John and some of us, including John himself,  have not been blessed with fame or awards. John Moat is almost like the god of the unsung poet and, as he said in his short address, what do gongs count against this, a gathering of such fine minds and loving hearts?

A musician, a child and a sculptor form a uke band to entertain us. Child steals the show.

In this summer of almost ceaseless rain, on this, St Swithun’s Day, it did not rain. The sun shone. Why is it, when the sun shines, that the rain is so quickly forgotten? It seems as if a fine day is, somewhere deep in the soul, considered normal, the standard against which all other days are judged. Yesterday was an Ideal Day, a Perfect Day, which embraced what for many of us was a crowd of strangers in a happy unity.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
    For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
    Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
    This day shall gentle his condition;
    And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
    Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
    That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Except we were not fighting of course, but eating chocolate mousse cake with great blobs of clotted cream.

The snapper snapped. Photographer Andrew Lawson caught working.

Then again, perhaps we are soldiers, each faced with the common enemy of self-criticism, judging and measuring ourselves against others. So, Olympics and Jubilees aside, given that 2012 is the Year of Shakespeare, let’s hear from the master on self worth:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

I was lucky enough to have several conversations alone with John but in the one where I finally approached the sacred question, ‘What ails thee, Uncle?’ (or, in our terms, ‘What do you suffer having chemo?’) we were interrupted, so there was no luminous moment when I beheld the Grail.

But it was there, shining its light on the day and the company, the Grail, the greatest gong of all: Love.

According to all common measures my writing has failed. I have not achieved fame or wealth and certainly no gong will ever come my way. But because of my writing, because it is loved by John Moat, I was one of the blessed company yesterday, and that is the kind of wealth that really counts.

John and Jules

‘The Gist’ is available now for pre-order on Amazon and promises to be a terrific read. It’s suggested that all attending Arvon courses should read it before going. I suggest that all writers, aspiring or otherwise, read it now. Because the Gist is the gist, the very kernel of the imaginative process. John Moat is now in his ‘most creative period’ and has realised that the Imagination he has worked with all his life is responsible for who he is. The Imagination is the maker, the writer but its tool.

Arvon Foundation Writing Courses

Parzival by Lindsay Clarke


The Monster of No Summer

As everyone knows, we Brits have the weather as our number one topic of conversation, so the fact that this year we are hardly mentioning it signals something really bad is going on. We say nothing but may pull a face when we meet. The shoulders of fellow gardeners slump when you dare to ask, ‘How’s it going?’ We watch the spuds for the blight which must come, we lift rotting onions and consign all leafy things to the slugs in a very un-British act of hopeless surrender. Why fight? There’s always the supermarket.

Seedlings long overdue for planting out are kept up high in the vain hope of evading slugs.

In 1816 there were no supermarkets. Everything was local. There was no news broadcasting. So when the summer disappeared in endless rain, darkness and cold, and the food prices began to rise, not knowing about cause and effect the British did what they do so well in a state of ignorance – they rioted. Starvation was widespread: it was one of the worst famines on record. The cause? Not the jet stream but a huge volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora combined with a period of unusually low solar activity.

As a gardener, I despair. This is 2007 all over again, the year when I began blogging because we were marooned. The floods separated us from the allotments and we couldn’t reach them except by kayak for ten days. When we did… Well, that was the year I saw grown men crying. I felt like giving up but, hey, we’re British and we took the opportunity to build some raised beds.

In 2007 I had tried biodynamic gardening for the first time. It took five years to pluck up the courage to try it again. And, yup, here we are, torrential rain wiping out all that pernickety moon planting. Surely the weather isn’t subject to what Linda is doing in her garden? So it’s a coincidence, that’s all, but forgive me if I now abandon biodynamic gardening forever. Call me superstitious…

As a writer, I love the sound of rain. It keeps me indoors. It keeps me working at the desk. I usually contain writing between autumn and spring equinoxes, but this year Persephone remains in hell for the summer. Whoopie!

In 1816, some friends were on a walking holiday at Lake Geneva but in the Year of No Summer they were forced to stay indoors. They challenged each other to come up with a horror story. They were Percy Bysshe Shelley, his lover, young Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lord Byron. Mary won the challenge when the gloom of that summer’s days, combined with conversations about galvanism, caused her to have a dream of a scientist inadvertently creating a monster.

Dark days, deep imagination, and a metaphor for modern life.

So I relinquish my lettuces to slugs, hang up my hoe and retreat into the Hades of the creative imagination, hoping for a Frankenstein – story idea, that is, not a monster!

The Year Without a Summer