Thursday, 22 September 2022

'Our Speaker Tonight’: a lecture tour in Germany


September 2022 has been a momentous month, and already it seems more than two weeks since my recent lecture tour to Germany. This was my sixth such tour since 2001 –all of them undertaken for the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft (D-BG) – and it will be my last: after December, I shall be ‘retiring’ from giving public lectures and talks. Why? Well, to be honest, I am beginning to tire of the sound of my own voice addressing an audience, and I want to stop before other people tire of it too.

The lectures I’ve given during these tours have reflected the three subjects – literature, architecture and stained glass – on which my post-career career (if such it has been) as an itinerant lecturer has been based.  On my first visit, I spoke on ‘The idea of Englishness in the Modern English Novel’; in 2014 I offered two topics: ‘If Armageddon’s On: British Poets and the Outbreak of the First World War’ and ‘The Architecture of Remembrance: Memorialising the First World War’. This last, contrasting as it did the different approaches to war cemeteries and memorials adopted by Britain and Germany during 1914-1918 and for the century since, was a sensitive subject and I was nervous about how it would go down. I was struck, though, by the number of people who thanked me for opening up a subject barely mentioned in Germany: ‘No one has had the courage to talk to us about this before,’ I was told at the Humboldt University in Berlin. 

I have particularly enjoyed visiting cities in the former East Germany. I shan’t readily forget giving a seminar to a group of students from the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena and afterwards joining them for a tour of the city’s bars.  But how I got back to my hotel and how I caught my train the next morning I can neither remember nor imagine. Another time I spent a weekend in Schwerin, that beautiful city not far inland from the Baltic Sea. Our genial host served curried banana soup and explained how he still missed the pre-Reunification era. ‘We’ve lost the old sense of looking out for each other,’ he said.

There are 20 D-BG centres spread across Germany and in the course of my six tours I have visited 17 of them, several more than once. I have happy memories of every centre. The Goethe Museum at Dűsseldorf, housed in the 18th century Schloss Jägerhof, is perhaps the most exotic building in which I have lectured, speaking in a room lined with vitrines full of fine Dresden porcelain. More often, however, my talks have been given in university seminar rooms, none more august than those at the Humboldt; but the building I have most admired is the Essen Volkshochschule. This strikingly glass-fronted building stands in Burgplatz, the very centre of the city, facing the ancient cathedral. The idea of a community college of adult education in Britain being given such prominence and held in such esteem by the city it serves is hard to imagine. I was very touched to be given this time, as a memento of my five visits, a medallion depicting the famous Golden Madonna who sits in Essen’s Cathedral and about whom I have written before.

I shan’t forget the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft, nor the friends I have made. For this ‘farewell tour’, travelling with my wife, I chose to talk about stained glass in British Cathedrals. I began with the earliest windows in Canterbury, the magnificent ‘Ancestors of Christ’, and I quoted the Cathedral’s Director of Stained Glass, Leonie Seliger, who has argued that these windows ‘would have witnessed the murder of Thomas Becket, they would have witnessed Henry II come on his knees begging for forgiveness, they would have witnessed the conflagration of the fire that devoured the cathedral in 1174. And then they would have witnessed all of British history.’

Nor shall I forget the last evening I gave this lecture, on Thursday 8th September. I was in Műnster, a small city heavily bombed between 1943 and 1945 but today rebuilt and at ease with itself and its past. After enjoying a meal of blutwurst mit sauerkraut with our hosts before the lecture, I was anxious that time was pressing and eager to get to the University to check the A-V equipment. Just as we were leaving, the restaurant manager rushed out to tell us the Queen had died. 

Witnesses to history: only two days earlier, in Dűsseldorf, we had seen a large crowd waiting outside the Rathaus to cheer the Sussexes, Prince Harry and Meghan. That same day we had watched on TV Her Majesty standing before a roaring fire at Balmoral, beaming as she saw Boris Johnson out and Liz Truss in. Now, in an instant, the old order had changed: Charles III was King. As one commentator would soon put it, with the Queen’s death, the post-war era really was at an end. Suddenly, my lecture on stained glass seemed rather irrelevant, and indeed the small audience who turned up suggested others might have felt the same. But the A-V worked, I was introduced and began talking. 

I like to keep an eye on my audience when I’m speaking and, after ten minutes, I noticed an elderly and diminutive lady sitting at the back who had fallen asleep. Not even the repeated attempts of someone trying to phone another member of the audience disturbed her. I carried on but soon there was a clatter and a crash as she slid off her chair and hit the stone floor. The ensuing commotion forced me to stop as almost everyone else in the audience crowded round her to help, if help were needed. The owner of the ringing phone rushed outside – to call, I assumed, an ambulance.

But I was wrong. Happily the old lady was not hurt, just surprised and apologetic for disrupting my lecture. Another member of my diminishing audience assisted her home, and the owner of the phone came back and whispered to me that WDR (West-Deutscher Rundfunk) wanted to do TV interviews with me and members of the D-BG about the Queen’s death as soon as possible. Could they wait until I’d finished the lecture?  Yes, but please would I end promptly, because the janitor needed to lock the building by 9 o’clock, and the TV crew would be waiting for us at a café in Prinzipalmarkt.

And indeed they were. It was an unexpectedly memorable way to end my long and happy association with the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft: sitting, beer in hand, with friends old and new, staring into a camera and trying to answer the awful inevitable question, ‘How did you feel when you heard the Queen was dead?


© Adrian Barlow 


Illustrations: (i) The Essen Golden Madonna medallion; (ii) Friedrich-Schiller University, Jena.

Note:  I have written before about two previous tours undertaken for the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft:


Germany, Asparagus and the First World War


Sunday, 3 July 2022

Poetry, Cultural Vandalism and the Brokers of our Heritage

It’s a long time since I had any connection at all with GCSE English.* But I have been shocked by recent headlines in (for instance) the Times ( ‘GCSE removes Wilfred Owen and Larkin in diversity push’ and the response from the Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, as reported in (again, for instance) the Sun (same day): ‘Slamming the clearout of white writers, Mr Zahawi fumed: “Larkin and Owen are two of our finest poets. Removing their work from the curriculum is cultural vandalism. Their work must be passed on to future generations.”’ Speaking for myself, I am not shocked by the idea that students for the next few years may not encounter ‘An Arundel Tomb’ or ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’: GCSE and A level Literature syllabuses used regularly to rotate texts and authors – and should still do so. What shocks me is the assumption that, unless a poem is prescribed by a syllabus, pupils will never encounter it.

No syllabus can include everything, nor is it the job of an exam board to focus only on ‘our finest poets’. It has always been part of English teaching to go beyond the syllabus, to teach students of any age how to explore, enjoy and value literature in English for its own sake – especially, I would add, recent literature. Teaching literature is anyway not about teaching what to read, but how to read. And this is a lifetime’s study. 

What the Times described as a ‘diversity push’, Michael Deacon in the Telegraph ( has not scrupled to call ‘a woke outrage’, as if the crime of culling Larkin and Owen has been compounded by replacing them with internationally recognised writers such as the Ukrainian-American poet, Ilya Kaminsky and the Somali-British poet Warsan ShirePace Deacon, these are not ‘extremely minor’ writers who have been ‘chosen purely for the sake of “inclusivity”’.  

There is nothing new, and should be nothing shocking, about mixing familiar and less familiar poets in poetry anthologies. Philip Larkin’s own Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973) included many poets whose names have not entered the canon, and as Peter Porter wisely said, reviewing Larkin’s anthology for TLS: ‘Just about every name omitted, and even more each name included, will seem to the brokers of our heritage a shameful selling-short or a ridiculous marking-up’.1 More than this, however, one of the jobs of an anthology is to help readers (including journalists) understand that literature is an ongoing conversation between writers and readers across cultures, ages and languages. 

Thirty years ago, Cambridge University Press published an anthology aimed at encouraging GCSE and A level students in the UK to read ‘canonical’ British poetry from Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath plus poetry by younger and less established writers. These poems were designed to be read alongside poetry written in English by poets from America to New Zealand and from Africa, India and South-east Asia. Actually, the anthology was primarily aimed at students world-wide who, studying English Literature for exams such as IGCSE, could compare the work of their own poets writing in English with that of specifically British poets. 

At a time when poetry books for schools tended to have rousing titles such as Touched With Fire, this anthology was entitled The Calling of Kindred.2 There were 95 poets represented, of whom more than one third were not British-born writers. Larkin was included, but not Wilfred Owen. Isaac Rosenberg, however, was; so were two Second World War poets: Keith Douglas and John Pudney. There was even one poem from a recent conflict: Anthony Conran’s magnificent ‘Elegy for the Welsh Dead, in the Falkland Islands, 1982’.  

Many poets were represented by more than one poem each but only Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy had three. The poems were grouped in five sections, but not by country, theme or date. Students were encouraged to make their own connections between poems, though some suggestions were included in the notes on each poet at the end of the book. 

Putting together an anthology can be tricky. I learned the hard way: The Calling of Kindred was my first attempt, and the first – though happily not the last – of my books for C.U.P. It has sat quietly all these years on my shelves, still bringing in a diminishing (but gratefully received) annual royalty; I had not opened it for ages, until this row about GCSE poetry and diversity broke out. Comparing my book now with the controversial OCR anthology, I’m confident that on diversity and inclusivity mine scores the more highly. Woke was I, avant la lettre? Back in 1993, nobody batted an eyelid.

Poetry anthologies tend not to get reviewed, but mine was. The poet John Mole, writing in the Times Educational Supplement, kindly described the book as ‘Like all the best anthologies, a personal choice without fear or favour’. He was generous, too, when he added:

Although The Calling of Kindred is strong on the established canon, what makes it exceptional is the skill with which the editor mixes these with his own discoveries, many of which are by young writers who are not British-born. A real sense of the English-speaking community is established, and the anthology’s title (taken from a poem by the Welsh poet Ruth Bidgood) suggests both intimacy and long-distance communication.3

In the book’s Introduction I wrote that ‘Kindred spirits are those with whom we feel we have much in common. Poetry is written, spoken and read in English all round the world, and poets and readers are a diverse but also a closely-knit family.’4 After fifty years of teaching, talking, and writing about writers, I believe more strongly than ever in the idea of ‘the community of literature’ and of helping readers of any age to feel they can belong to this community.

© Adrian Barlow


*To be clear: I taught O level, GCSE and A level English Literature from 1973-1997; I was closely involved in GCSE, A level and international curriculum and syllabus development from 1985- 2005. I was OCR Staff Chair of English and Classical Subjects 2000-2005.

1. Peter Porter: ‘A Quiet Revolution’ (Times Literary Supplement, 13.iv.1973)

2. Adrian Barlow: The Calling of Kindred: Poems from the English-speaking world (Cambridge 1993: Cambridge University Press)

3. John Mole: ‘Speaking for themselves’ – review of The Calling of Kindred (Times Educational Supplement, 14.x.1994)

4. The Calling of Kindred, Introduction, p.6


I have written before about Wilfred Owen, in ‘John Stallworthy and Wilfred Owen’s Ghost’ (1914) and about Philip Larkin in ‘Re-reading Julian Barnes (ii): on poetry and ‘the poet’ (1912).

Sunday, 19 June 2022

Alan Bennett’s Journey Home

Alan Bennett’s books come in three sizes: large and fat, tall and slim, or squat and thin. His three volumes in the first category - Writing Home (1994), Untold Stories (2005) and Keeping On Keeping On (2016; hereafter KOKO) – between them number over 1,900 pages. His plays, as published individually, are tall and slim; of those on my shelf, only The History Boys (2004) exceeds 100 pages. We usually associate slim volumes with poetry, none slimmer than Philip Larkin’s. Bennett, it’s no secret, is a great fan of Larkin. In the Introduction to KOKO, he tells the reader that when trying to think of a title for his new book, he picked up The Whitsun Weddings (1964; 43 pages), but was at once discouraged:

‘at eighty-one I’m still trying to avoid the valedictory note which was a problem Larkin never had, the valedictory almost his exclusive territory.’ 


Understandably for someone who will be ninety in two years’ time, there is something valedictory about Bennett’s latest book, House Arrest (2022), which definitely comes into my third category, squat and thin: it has only forty-nine pages and slips easily into one’s pocket. (I have been carrying it around and re-reading it for the past two weeks; if it was the one book I could take to my desert island, there’s a fair chance I might learn it all by heart.) House Arrest is subtitled ‘Pandemic Diaries’ and a monochrome painting by Jon McNaughton of Alan Bennett’s desk and study window prefaces the diary entries. It shows a room in deep shadow, the window blind lowered, the desk lamp off and the desk chair displaced by a low table. Desk and table are covered by neat stacks of papers and books, as if someone has had to come and tidy up the sheets of work(s) in progress that will now never be completed. A half-typed page sits inconclusively in the typewriter. 


Facing this frontispiece is an epigraph from ‘Staring out of the Window’ (2001), an essay in which Bennet suggests that the work for which writers really deserve recognition should be the endless time spent staring out of the window, searching for something to say or struggling for a better way to say it. Bennett sums up the argument of that essay, whose title perhaps nods towards Larkin’s High Windows (1974; 42 pages), thus:


The real mark of recognition for a writer or any artist, perhaps, comes when the public wants him or her to die, so that they can close the book on that particular talent, stop having to make the effort to follow the writer any further, put a cork in the bottle.


Now, in House Arrest, he condenses that idea dramatically:


4 September (2020): What your work does is ‘tell people you’ve been alive.’ Lucian Freud.


Bennett is still very much alive, though suffering these days from arthritis and no longer able to ride his bike. Happily, he finds the pandemic and the prospect of ‘static semi-isolation scarcely a hardship or even a disruption to my routine’. Indeed, he faces the indefinite sentence of house arrest with complete equanimity. Reflecting on the new threat of Covid, he recalls that when he was a child fear of catching TB was the major anxiety: his mother’s determination that he should always keep his neck warm is the reason why, to this day, he is never without a tie. Clothes feature frequently in his diary entries: his mother’s ‘swagger coat’; his father’s two suits (both navy blue, one for best and the other worn every day in the butcher’s shop); army civvies, ‘ill-fitting, itchy and unbecoming’. He is shocked to see the Queen now wearing protective gauntlets instead of her traditional white gloves and dreads the thought  she might next appear in full PPE. 


Hands and hand washing, appropriately, feature too. Recalling how his mother was ‘Always one to diddle her hands under the tap,’ he comments that she would ‘have found the precautions against the coronavirus only common sense.’ On Good Friday he notes that ‘this year Pontius Pilate is not the only one washing his hands’. He admits he’s never much liked his own hands; now, ‘much washed’, they appal him: ‘shiny, veinous and as transparent as an anatomical illustration.’ 


I did not know how much junk shops mattered to him – ‘Lures they were in the sixties, junk shops’ – and he has fond memories of Mrs. Hill’s kitchen shop in Kirby Stephen, which (as he has previously explained in KOKO) sold ‘what these days is dignified by the name of kitchenalia’. Bennett has had a lifelong affection for marginalia, real and metaphorical, and you can sense his contempt for this undignified neologistic noun. Later, he is dismayed to find that a second-hand bookshop in Settle (‘a lovely shop full of unexpected treasures and absurdly cheap’) has closed for good, not just for Covid. The sense of loss, of times and places irrecoverable, of people much missed, runs insistently through this little book.


No less insistent is the idea of home. Bennett describes himself, accurately, as a ‘denizen’  (an outsider who becomes a resident) of London for most of his writing life, and records with no small pleasure the discovery that a fellow diarist, the Rev Francis Kilvert, once visited 23 Gloucester Crescent, previously Bennett’s own house. But it’s Yorkshire, of course, that is really home, and House Arrest ends with lockdown lifted and Bennett heading north at last. His route from Leeds across Wharfedale and up almost across the Pennines is one I know well: Spen Lane, Otley Road, Ben Rhydding, Ilkley, Bolton Abbey, Skipton and on. And now, after reading his Pandemic Diaries, I shall always imagine Alan Bennett not as actor, man of letters or national treasure but, improbably, as a ‘soldier on Coronation leave in 1953’ clambering up Ingleborough, one of the Yorkshire Three Peaks. Looking down, he can see the village  below to which his parents retired in the 1960s and which, ever since, has been his true home too.


© Adrian Barlow


Illustrations: (i) Alan Bennett’s new book, House Arrest, published 2022, alongside a work by the ceramic artist Janine Roper; (ii) the epigraph and frontispiece of House Arrest

Phototographs © the author.

I have written before about Alan Bennett: 

‘So teach us to number our days': diaries and diarists

Alan Bennett  and Tennyson in Poets' Corner

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

A Cabinet of Curiosities: International Museum Day

Today, 18
th May 2022, is International Museum Day. I have been visiting museums for nearly seventy years, and International Museum Day (IMD) has been marked every year since 1977. I confess, though, that I’ve only just become aware of this event, designed to focus attention on the importance of museums great and small. The International Council of Museums puts it like this: 
Museums have the power to transform the world around us. As incomparable places of discovery, they teach us about our past and open our minds to new ideas – two essential steps in building a better future.’

 I’m the more embarrassed about my ignorance of IMD because for the last four years I have been Chair of the Friends of The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum. And for two of these years The Wilson has been closed. It shut its doors in March 2020 and has yet to re-open them, though it is due to do so in July. The Cheltenham Trust, which manages The Wilson on behalf of Cheltenham Borough Council, promises that when it re-opens after ‘a complete re-design’ it will offer ’the very best of Cheltenham’s cultural community and history’.

Trying to keep The Wilson at the forefront of people’s minds even while, like an empty theatre, it has been ‘dark’ for so long has been a large part of the Friends’ role during this time. I’m not sure how far we have succeeded, but I hope very much that a revitalised museum will be good for the town and become again a place people want to visit and – more important still – to revisit; that it will tell the story of Cheltenham in new ways and with broader perspectives. 

Another museum closed for the past two years but just re-opened is Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG), facing Chamberlain Square. This is almost certainly the first museum I ever entered, for I was born in Birmingham at the tail end of the post-war baby boom, and my father wasted no time in introducing me to museum visiting. By the time I was seven we had moved to the Fens, and I went for a year to school in Wisbech, a town still (and rightly) proud of its fine Victorian museum – though this had too many stuffed birds in it for my liking. 

One of my father’s first tasks as Rector of Tydd St. Mary was to repair the church roof that was riddled with dry rot. One evening he brought home a handful of twisted and rusted hand-made nails that workmen had retrieved from the rotten beams of the late medieval roof. ‘Here you are,’ he said. ‘Now you can start your own Cabinet of Curiosities.’ I’ve always liked that antique description. Our Rectory garden soon yielded further specimens for my collection: fragments of clay pipes, an old willow-pattern candle holder, an ancient pair of scissors, its blades pitted by rust. I cherished these objects. Holding them in my hand I began to get an idea of the past and a sense of other, earlier lives that had been lived in this place long before we arrived. 

I visited BMAG this week. I was welcomed by a caramel-coloured poster proclaiming ‘BMAG UNPACKED’ and cheerfully warning: ‘IT’S BIRMINGHAM MUSEUM & ART GALLERY, BUT NOT AS YOU KNOW IT!’ And truly the great Round Room that the visitor comes to first has been transformed. Gone are the tier-upon-tier of Victorian paintings; in their place a joyous celebration entitled We Are Birmingham. Where once hung one of my favourite pictures, 
William Logsdail’s ‘St. Mark’s Square, Venice’, now you find a Birmingham street-vendor’s bicycle festooned with yellow and orange flowers; above this the walls display jazz musicians, Asian fabrics,  a 1990 Menu & Price List from BMAG’s Edwardian Café, and on the left a stunning window of abstract stained glass by the Birmingham Arts & Crafts artist Florence Camm. I was struck by an accompanying interpretation panel: ‘Our Joy…’, it announced,
…focuses on objects and artworks selected for the joy they bring. Stories of creativity, community, pride and pleasure. They speak of the richness of multi-cultural life where food, music and the arts create and heal communities.’

We are Birmingham
 is a display designed to introduce the city of Birmingham, its people and post-war history, both to those visitors who live and work there and to the crowds from around the world expected soon for this year’s Commonwealth Games. In its former incarnation, BMAG went nowhere as near as this to represent the diversity of the city to itself, but now I am struck by just what a diverse lot we visitors have become. Any museum achieving this transformation in a month is doing something very right.  Another thing BMAG is doing right is reminding visitors who owns what. Writ large on the walls of the Bridge Gallery are these words: ‘There are over a million objects in Birmingham’s wondrous collection, and they all belong to you …’. Below are collages of images and objects: a familiar Pre-Raphaelite painting; metalwork from Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter; the ancient typewriter belonging to one of Birmingham’s best-known poets, Benjamin Zephaniah, and a black marble head by Barbara Hepworth. This apparently random collection reminds visitors that, collectively, the items tell the story of their city – and many other stories too. It’s also a reminder that it is the job of every museum in the world to store, conserve, research and display the objects it holds in trust.

Exhilarated by my visit – ‘joy …wondrous’ not words always associated with museums –and hoping that when The Wilson opens again in Cheltenham visitors will feel the same lifting of the spirits as I’d just felt, by chance my eye caught the following words:

‘…. Passionate about bringing the untold and forgotten stories from the past to life, so that we can understand the conditions and possibilities that frame human existence.’* 

I can’t think of a better way, on this International Museum Day, of describing what museums should be about.

© Adrian Barlow

*These words introduce a profile of Sujit Sivasundaram, Professor of World History at the University of Cambridge, on This Cambridge Life.
I have written before about my childhood home, in Lives of House (i): The Rectory, Tydd St. Mary.
Thomas Hardy’s poem, ‘In a Museum’, was the subject of an earlier post to my blog: 
Short Measures (ii): Time and Thomas Hardy
(i)              The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, 12 November 2021
(ii)            Birmingham: Chamberlain Square from the steps of the Museum & Art Gallery (BMAG), 16 May 2022
(iii)           Part of the current ‘We Are Birmingham’ display, on view until the end of the year.
(iv)           Part of the current display in BMAG’s Bridge Gallery.
All photos taken by the author.

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Oh, Shenandoah

If you’d asked me at any time up to the end of March where I would be spending Easter this year, a cabin on the banks of the Shenandoah River would have been the last place I’d have guessed. True, I knew we would be in the USA, but I had no idea of being anywhere except in Maryland. Shenandoah – the River, the Valley and the National Park – were simply not on my horizon.  But there we were: in a cabin at the far end of Bumgardener’s Ford Road (an attempted anglicising of Baumgartner, one hopes), a gritty track off a road passing through Rileyville, Virginia. This cabin was built, like its neighbours, on stilts in anticipation of flood levels overtopping the steep banks at the bottom of our garden. From a rocking chair on the cabin’s wrap-around porch, I had a good view of the river: fifty yards across, and not too fast-flowing for an occasional canoe, picked out by the sun, to make steady progress upstream despite occasional rapids.  I could just make out a small child watching her father fishing. 

In the distance beyond the river – at this point, the south fork of the Shenandoah – loomed the George Washington National Forest; behind us, the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park. It was all new and strange to me, but this was one of those rare places, and rare moments, where I felt at once and unexpectedly at home and happy – and knew this to be so. I remembered Auden: ‘Moments of happiness do not come often’; I remembered, too, an autumn afternoon at school in 1965, when my teacher asked me to tease out these lines from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets:

For most of us, there is only the unattended 

Moment, the moment in and out of time,

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight …


 I remembered, moreover, the moment I first became aware of Shenandoah: Boxing Day, 1957. I was eight years old; every year we went to stay with my uncle and aunt for a family Christmas party. It was always a musical occasion; my cousins were promising musicians and expected to perform, which they duly did – on flute, recorder, piano. After supper we all sang carols before my brother and I were packed off to bed. I was disappointed, because my uncle had recently invested in something I had never seen before, a radiogram. Our home boasted only a wheezing harmonium and a wind-up gramophone for which there were just three 78rpm records: ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ (Kathleen Ferrier), ‘The Wings of a Dove’ (Ernest Lough) and ‘The Song of The Volga Boatmen’ by goodness knows whom. Now my cousins were going to demonstrate the radiogram’s potential by playing some of their new records – Christmas presents, no doubt. I longed to be able to stay and listen.

As it happens, I was able to listen - after a fashion. My uncle’s house was a bungalow, but with one narrow room upstairs – a loft conversion – and this is where we used to sleep. As I lay in bed I could at least hear snatches of music below, wafting up through the floorboards. What I heard was ‘Shenandoah’. I had never known singing like this: a folk song, part African-American (in those days simply ‘negro’) spiritual, part slow-motion sea-shanty.  The recording my cousins were playing was by Harry Belafonte, who gave to the song a tone of infinite sadness and yearning I had never heard before and have never forgotten. The opening words, as Belafonte sang them, came out like a huge sigh:


Oh, Shenandoah,

I long to hear you,

Away, you rolling river ….


Insofar as I understood the words at all, the song was a lament for a river the singer – flatboatman?, tea-clipper sailor? trapper? - loved but might never see again (‘Away I’m bound to go’). And for me, from then until I found myself last month sitting on its very banks, this had only ever been a river of the imagination, one with perhaps the same sort of significance as the river Jordan in ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’:


I looked over Jordan and what did I see,

Coming for to carry me home?

I saw a band of angels coming after me

Coming for to carry me home.


Now, however, I realise that ‘Shenandoah’, the song, has an almost infinite number of variations on its original lyrics – whatever those may have been.  (It is not least of the charms of oral literature, whether Beowulf or one of the border ballads from Percy’s Reliques, that by definition it is impossible to know who the original composer was or to be sure when it was composed.) It seems likely that the earliest singers of this song were early 19th century voyageurs, fur traders who had made their way by canoe as far as the wide Missouri, and that ‘Shenandoah’ referred not to the eponymous river but to a native American chieftain of that name (Skenandoa) whose daughter a trader wanted to marry. Whether he succeeded depends on whose version of the song you now listen to:  Bob Dylan for instance calls the daughter Sally, but leaves it unclear whether the fur trader has (a) abandoned Shenandoah’s daughter – ‘Away I’m bound to go’ (b) married her with her father’s reluctant approval or (c) paddled off with her anyway into the sunset.


I have always loved rivers and their river banks – the Nene from Sutton Bridge to the Wash, the Weir at Durham, the Ouse at Bedford, and now the Shenandoah river too. Since Easter, I have been listening (thanks to YouTube) to many singers singing ‘Shenanadoah’.  Bob Dylan’s recording, I’m afraid, is not even plaintive; of his contemporaries, Tom Paxton’s pleases me most. The least expected, but not least successful, setting – for orchestra, soloist and choir – is Percy Grainger’s.  But, even now, none can compare with the version I first heard, in my uncle’s house, on Boxing Day 1957: that by Harry Belafonte.

 Adrian Barlow

Note: I have written before about these quotations from Auden (in The Ascent of F6) and Eliot (from ‘The Dry Salvages’) in William Blake and Eternity’s Sunrise.

Illustrations: (i) and (ii) The Shenandoah River (South Fork) Easter 2022; (iii) The cover of the 1957 Harry Belafonte LP containing the first recording of ‘Shenandoah’ I  ever heard.

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

To Norfolk (again)

‘I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled’: thus TS Eliot’s Prufrock, and I know how he felt. These days, seaside holidays provoke in me two contrasting emotions: nostalgic indulgence in old memories (mostly of Sidmouth in early youth) tempered by the graceful acceptance that as a grandparent my role now is to sit quietly on the beach unless required (a) to assist with making sandcastles, (b) to admire the sandcastles made without any help from you, grandpa, (c) to act as lifeguard when paddling occurs, (d) to be on hand to buy ice-creams, fish & chips or crab sandwiches when time and circumstance  demand.

 Philip Larkin sums all this up perfectly with his account of ‘the miniature gaiety of seasides’, in ‘To the Sea1. I believe this was the second Larkin poem, after ‘Church-Going’, I ever read and I’m still struck by the evident pleasure he took in returning to one of the few scenes of his childhood remembered with evident affection. 

It’s entirely appropriate that John Sutherland’s recent biographical memoir, Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves (2021) should have on its front cover a photo of Larkin and Monica enjoying (or not?) a morning on the rocks, probably at Sark in the Channel Islands, where they used to go for what was ‘half an annual pleasure, half a rite’. He stands staring out to sea, wearing a Harris tweed sports jacket and grey flannels. Monica, looking like Catherine Deneuve on a bad day, sprawls on the ground with her back to him, reading the Daily Telegraph through dark glasses. I wonder who was with them to take the photograph?

 We have just spent a week in Norfolk.2 We weren’t exactly beside the seaside, for we stayed in a holiday cottage on the Norfolk Broads, a few miles inland. It was a remote spot deep in Britain’s smallest National Park: a straggle of old cottages, some newer bungalows and clusters of thatched or pantiled farm buildings, barns in particular. The local thatcher had been kept busy: I’ve never seen more skilful thatching, and signs of his recent handiwork were everywhere.


A quarter of a mile beyond our cottage a signpost pointed to How Hill, apparently the highest point on the Broads. Our evening walk took us this way towards How Hill Nature Reserve, a good viewpoint for spotting windmills. I have never seen more windmills in one landscape – not even in the Fens, where I grew up. Nor have I ever seen anything odder than the early 18th century windmill tower at St. Benet’s Abbey, built into the ruins of the 15th century Abbey gatehouse. I can only describe this as an architectural palimpsest. At first, I thought it a demonstration of lingering protestant contempt for pre-Reformation Catholic Britain, but an interpretation panel nearby reassured me that the site was chosen so that the windmill could rest on the firm foundations of the Gothic gatehouse. 


We had approached St Benet’s by a boat hired at Potter Heigham. It must have been the slowest boat on the Broads, since everyone else overtook us. But speed isn’t the point when one is simply messing about on the river. I’d hoped to catch sight of a wherry or barge being quanted (a quant is a larger, heavier form of punt pole – a barge pole in fact) but I fear the practice must have died out. What I did see, however, was a small child assisting her father as he sat fishing from the riverbank; at his command, she would fire from an angler’s catapult a salvo of oddly-coloured maggots aimed approximately towards the water. These pink creatures, caught by the sunlight while in full flight, exactly matched the colour of the child’s baseball cap; nothing, however, could match the glint of sheer fun in her eyes. Why did I suddenly think of Minnie the Minx?


But going to the beach was what our week in Norfolk was all about. Cromer was crowded, though at least we saw the celebrated Cromer goats – well-horned black and white Bagots – munching away at the grass and gorse on the cliffs. According to North Norfolk District Council, these goats ‘carry out an important habitat management role’ – an unexpected way of describing what comes naturally to goats.


Gorleston Beach was wonderfully sandy, and stretched for miles, so far in fact that when I had eventually found an ice cream kiosk and returned, clutching a handful of rapidly disappearing ice creams, my clothes were streaked with dismal evidence of melted mint choc chip. The midday sun was indeed so strong that I had also purchased a navy baseball cap that I would have called discreet but for the words NORFOLK BROADS emblazoned on the peak.


Sheringham, a place for which I have great affection, offers everything a serious seaside family can ask for. And more. Where else in the world can you visit public loos where all the windows are filled with high-quality Edwardian stained glass: galleons and sailing smacks in the upper lights, fish and seaweed in semi abstract style below? Uplifting seems an odd word to apply to Council-controlled conveniences, yet it fits these perfectly, the windows carrying out an important facilities enhancement role.  Vaughan Williams used to stay nearby and wrote his great Sea Symphony at Sheringham. I hope he’d have agreed with my choice of epithet: he was a master of uplift.


But the tide is on the turn and it’s time to leave the beach. By tomorrow we’ll have packed up and set off for home, heading westwards after a week we shall all remember, wondering (but only to ourselves) whether, when and where we shall have such a seaside holiday again. Let Larkin have the last word:


It may be that through habit these do best

Coming to the water clumsily undressed

Yearly; teaching their children by a sort 

Of clowning. Helping the old, too, as they ought.


© Adrian Barlow 


1.     All Philip Larkin quotations are from ‘To the Sea’, in High Windows (1974, London: Faber & Faber)
2.     This is the second time I have written about Norfolk (hence the title, To Norfolk, Again). You can read the earlier account, To Norfolk (January 2012), here.
Fig.1St Benet’s Abbey on the River Bure: interior view of windmill and gatehouse arch.
Fig.2Front cover of John Sutherland: Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me (2021: London:Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
Fig. 3: Stained Glass windows in Gents’ Public Convenience, Sheringham, Norfolk.
(All illustrations copyright the author.)