Monday, 31 October 2011

In Wordsworth Country - 'A Leech Gatherer from Outer space'

As part of a remarkable charitable project, Vik Bennett at Wild Women Press has organised a calendar to raise funds for research into type 1 diabetes - her little boy Django suffers from it. Vik and her partner Adam are currently preparing the launch, and a pre-publication offer is available. 
Female poets ranging from Wendy Cope and Penelope Shuttle to Monica Alvi and Pascale Petit have supplied poems for free, and 14 male poets in the buff, combining with professional women photographers (who remained clothed), have supplied images for more than a year's worth of months.

I took part - collaborating with photographer Claire McNamee - and a shot of me (taken just off one of Wordsworth's favourite walks in Grasmere) will appear in the calendar, across from a poem "Porridge" by Angela Readman.

I'm attaching a short account I wrote of going on the shoot in Cumbria.  Also, I promise that although my naked disporting wouldn't exactly set the bracken on fire (though my kids laughed and said it was ok) there are enough aesthetically pleasing and charged images in the other months to suit a variety of tastes. Poems too.

Check it out - and do order one.  It is in a very worthy cause!

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The Grasmere Shoot: Recollected in Tranquillity

Meeting up with Claire McNamee was a pleasure from the start, and a relief – especially when you have never met before and somebody else (however sweet, careful and sympathetic) has arranged the pairings.

Anyway, Claire’s motto at the outset (conveyed by email) was “no fuss, no muss” – and that was fine by me. And so it turned out.  Claire is droll, dry, sharp, professional, with a great sense of humour. The day before the shoot we went to scout out Greta Hall in Keswick, which is splendid and evocative. There was Southey’s desk, and stairs and corridors up and along which everybody – Coleridge, Wordsworth and Dorothy, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Ruskin, de Quincey and Uncle Tom Cobley and all – must have puffed and toddled, in various states of inspiration, confusion or undress.

The opium bed (which takes up half a room, and was intended also as a kind of throne, lounge and office for whatever zonked potentate had originally occupied it) was a temptation, but not really on.  Nor were the other numinous, but interior locations. I was set on being outside, and so was Claire. There was a tree house, and a river right next to the Hall, which came briefly into the reckoning, but with the promise of lots of people (including resident guests) around and about next day we thought to look further afield.

The location we were searching for turned out to be right next door to our hostel in Grasmere.  Claire spotted it after dinner when she was out for a puff and a short walk down the road. Lancrigg, which was also a favourite spot for the Romantics, now features a hotel with a fine vegetarian restaurant. It is surrounded by extensive grounds and gardens, and it was here – when things were a touch wilder and woollier – that Mr Wordsworth would come to ramble, composing as he went. Much of the Prelude apparently was shaped up on these walks along the steep and undulating heavily wooded paths. Claire came back intrigued. Though we didn’t know of the Prelude link at that point, I was soon hooked too. Especially when we took a quick recce in the gloaming, and saw the possibilities.

Once we got back to the hostel I said, “Okay – I’ll knock on your door at six”. So that was it. Next morning we set off just after the hour with Claire’s gear – not a lot beyond her little classic Leica – and quietly skirted the front of the Hotel, hoping they wouldn’t mind our taking this short excursion through their elegant demesne in the interests of art – and charity!

The location, at the top of one of the main long paths was mostly determined by the best available light: cutting through the trees to a little bracken-filled clearing. A few shots, all at F2 for half a second, were taken of me partly obscured in the bracken patch. In the one we chose for the calendar I look like the Old Man of the Woods heading for his breakfast – not all that scary, but not all that attractive either – though it has a kind of bemused intensity about it.  When I stepped out clear of the bracken, and struck a few more obviously primate poses, things went from bizarre to perverse, perhaps; anyway, I laugh to recall Claire’s final words of the shoot: “More gorilla!”

Whether many get to view the actual print to be auctioned at the launch I don’t know.  However, the figure in it may be best described as luminous – extra-terrestrial even – a kind of Leech Gatherer from outer space.  A ghostly premonition or sublime missing link, with its ‘entirety’ (a lovely euphemism in vogue with the younger male conspirators in the project) no more than a wren or sand-martin popping out of a shadowy nest.

The whole process only took us half an hour, and once I got tidied up, and we gathered the gear, we wandered back down the path again, past oaks and beeches and massive conifers: plenty big sequoias and Douglas firs. I scouted around in vain for metaseqoia glyptostroboides, the “Dawn Redwood”, thought lost and only part of the fossil record, but rediscovered in China in 1944 and brought to the UK as a popular ornamental for just such locations as this.  However, there was an old fish pond, filled by a beck trickling down, and a couple of stages below that some lawns and gardens attractively laid out, occupied at that hour only by floppity bunnies out for snacks.

Back into the hostel, having discomposed no-one except ourselves, we found the others down for breakfast and we settled happily in to eggs and bacon, coffee, toast and marmalade, pretty confident that the job was complete to that point, and as a result – “no fuss, no muss” – we could take it nice and easy for the rest of the day, no matter what uncanny images might later be visited on this unsuspecting world.

Alexander Hutchison

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