I learned My Lesson
As a very young schoolboy, aged 8 or 9 years old, I spotted a tartan-covered book that looked like a spell book, and that is exactly what it was to me at that age. That was at a school jumble sale — cost to me: 2 pence. I later realised that it was a copy of Sir Walter Scott's poetry novel The Lord of the Isles, and it was my first experience of poetry. It has two stanzas that remain my favourite opening to a novel in verse. The book totals around 285 pages, so it is a substantial poetic story, and we don't find many of those these days. Although I cannot read it visually anymore, a hardback edition with marbled page edges, dating from around 1860, would be one of the items I would rescue from a fire for its sentimental connection to me; it cost me about 20 quid from one of Hay on Wye's marvellous second hand bookshops.
AUTUMN departs- but still his mantle's fold
Rests on the groves of noble Somerville,
Beneath a shroud of russet dropp'd with gold
Tweed and his tributaries mingle still;
Hoarser the wind, and deeper sounds the rill,
Yet lingering notes of sylvan music swell,
The deep-toned cushat, and the redbreast shrill;
And yet some tints of summer splendour tell
When the broad sun sinks down on Ettrick's western fell.
Autumn departs- from Gala's fields' no more
Come rural sounds our kindred banks to cheer;
Blent with the stream, and gale that wafts it o'er,
No more the distant reaper's mirth we hear.
The last blithe shout hath died upon our ear,
And harvest-home hath hush'd the clanging wain,
On the waste hill no forms of life appear,
Save where, sad laggard of the autumnal train,
Some age-struck wanderer gleans few ears of scatter'd grain.
I sometimes wonder if I had studied poetry as part of a BA degree, or an MA Masters course instead of single honours chemistry, would I write a lot differently to how I do now? I studied Thomas Hardy's poetry as part of my English Lang and Lit A-level course (age 16 to 18) and along the way acquired a discarded (and heavily annotated) copy of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, and that was essentially my educational introduction to poetry.
Apart from that my poetry education has come from reading a lot of poetry collections, from a wide variety of poets, including Philip Larkin, Micheal O'Siadhail, C. P. Cavafy, the beat generation, and T. S. Eliot. Alongside that I absorbed a lot about how poetry was written, and the whole atmosphere of poetry by attending poetry readings.
My most varied period was in Swansea in the late 1990s, particularly during their Year of Literature in 1995, with events at the new Dylan Thomas Centre, Ty Llên. I attended readings by poets and novelists including Tony Harrison, Michael Ondatje, James Kelman, and Matthew Sweeney. I narrowly missed seeing Allan Ginsburg (tickets were all sold out) but I did manage to catch Seamus Heaney at the Taliesin venue, part of Swansea University campus not long after the Year of Literature (or not long before, Google isn't proving much help on nailing down that date!)
My first experience of writing poetry came at age 15, when I wrote a poem about The Flying Scotsman steam engine for a GCSE assignment; it is not impossible that a copy of that might have survived amongst my piles of memorabilia, but it's a slim chance. But that was the first time I realised that I was capable of writing works of a decent quality — I was proud of having written that Flying Scotsman poem. The teacher for that GCSE class went on sick leave after a nervous breakdown (the kids coming up in the years behind us were a lot rowdier and more troublesome than my school year!) and we got a stand-in teacher, who I believe stayed with the English department for several more years. For one of her GCSE assignments I wrote a children's story about a snowflake called Snobloe, and she really liked it and suggested I sent it in to the W H Smith competition for young writers. That was a significant moment in my writing life — the first time anybody had told me that they thought my writing good enough to enter a competition. The Story of a Snowflake is another of those early pieces of writing that I no longer have a copy of (we didn't have computers in those days, and either I didn't read the entry guidelines fully enough, or nobody thought to mention this, but I suspect I sent in my original handwritten pages without keeping a copy), but I do remember it included a brief poem within the story, which Snowbloe sang to himself as he fell from the cloud and down to earth. Needless to say my story did not win any prizes, and there was no correspondence, not even saying thank you for entering and continue with your writing , which I still think is an oversight for a national competition that wants to encourage young writers.
But my overriding feeling is one of profound gratitude that every single one of my English teachers at Harrogate Granby High School in the 1980s were so supportive and showed me how much fun could be found in both reading and writing. I can still remember all of their names, in chronological order:
- Miss Waddington (year 1),
- Ms Irwin (years 2 and 3),
- Mr Lowndes (year 4) succeeded by Mrs Hesketh (year 5), and
- Mr Edwards and Miss Dale (2 sixth form years).
I would love to talk to them now and say hello, look where your teaching has taken me, most especially to Mrs Hesketh who believed in my snowflake story :)
Writers take as many paths as there are books, but without a doubt at some point in their journey a little bit of encouragement went a very long way.