Celtic Illumination, part 296, Be still my beating heart.
It would be difficult to describe the mood I was in as we approached the village of Hebden Bridge before reaching Lumb Bank. It was a nice part of the world and I enjoyed being off the motorway and in the wilds. Hebden Bridge, despite being on first glance a standard Yorkshire town with steep hills, tiny streams and rows of beautiful houses made with Yorkstone, seemed to have a bit of a hippy flavour to it. There appeared to be an awful lot of ‘Green’ and ‘New Age’ outlets and the LGBT rainbow flag seemed to be displayed all over. Little did I know that I had entered the lesbian capital of the UK, although I had more important things to think about.
I knew from my research that the course was a major stepping stone for many writers and it was an opportunity not to be taken lightly. All I had to do was impress one of the professional writers and they might recommend me to their literary agent. Getting a literary agent to represent you is one of the hardest things to do in the writing world. Initially you tend to wonder if it is worth paying someone ten to fifteen percent of your earnings to manage your work for you. But you are paying for their connections and their expertise and it also allows you to be free to write and not have to deal with publishers or the like. Following the directions I had received in the mail we began to climb out of Hebden Bridge, I do remember that it was a very steep and very narrow road that you immediately knew would not be navigable in Winter.
We found the sign at the top of the hill, left the main road and began to descend down to Lumb Bank. It is described as an 18th century mill owner’s house standing in twenty acres of steep woodland. There was nothing striking about the house, it was large and well-proportioned but quite plain really, you could almost say it was a standard looking farm house. We pulled up at the main door and a fellow came out. He introduced himself as one of the directors of the place and welcomed me. Tony was asked to stay for a cup of tea but he insisted on getting off and did so, leaving me alone with my new friend. The director took my bag and asked me to follow him.
As he led the way to my room he began to give me a detailed history of Lumb Bank and the Arvon Foundation. Suddenly the building that I was in was no longer just any old farmhouse or mill owner’s house. The director explained that the writer Ted Hughes had lived here and had also been inspirational in the formation of the Arvon Foundation. I really was knocked for six, Ted Hughes is regarded as one of the greatest English writers since the Second World War, but not just that, he was also famously married to Silvia Plath, an American writer and poet who sadly committed suicide seven years after they married. Their relationship still commands much discussion in writer’s circles with one famous clash in the letters pages of The Guardian and The Independent newspapers where Plath supporters and Hughes supporters battled their views out with Ted Hughes. Silvia Plath was buried in a nearby village graveyard at Heptonstall where the gravestone is regularly defaced as fans and supporters try to remove the name Hughes from the headstone. But on top of all the history Ted Hughes had also been the Poet Laureate for the UK and now here was little old me in his house.
I knew that I was at the heart of literature in the United Kingdom, I was overwhelmed. The director showed me my room where we dropped my bags. He then showed me the bathroom and we descended down the second staircase, on the other side of the house, to come out by the dining room. From there I was taken in to the kitchen and shown where the basics were kept and encouraged to help myself to whatever I wanted. I was still reeling from the fact that I was in Ted Hughes house and then the director took me to the library. Some of the floors in the farmhouse were slate and some were wooden but carpeted. I stepped down the single step from the corridor into the library and smiled as the floor sprung under my step.
It was a medium sized room with two walls either side of me covered with shelves of books. Ahead of me was a large oak dining table and chairs in front of a huge window. The director explained that all the books to my right were fiction or biography while all the books to my left were poetry. We heard a vehicle pull up outside and the director excused himself to see to the new arrival, leaving me alone in the library. I walked over to the fiction shelves and began to nose about. I was so excited because for me I was connected through Ted Hughes all the way back to the likes of Tennyson and Wordsworth who like Hughes had been Poet Laureate. I began to notice that all the books had been signed by the author, most being dedicated by each author to, ’My friends at Lumb Bank.’ That was me they were talking about.
As a literature geek I was stunned, it really was an emotional overload for me. I crossed the room to the poetry section, there were a couple of books by Seamus Heaney and I dared myself to have a look. Sure enough all his books were signed and dedicated to, ‘All my friends at Lumb Bank.’ At this point there should have been some armed police in the room shouting, “Step away from the books!” All I wanted to do was to kneel down in the centre of the room and soak up the atmosphere. I’m sure many of you now believe that I was completely off my trolley, this was no writing course, this was my literary Mecca. I took out my arrival notes for Lumb Bank and found the names of the two writers facilitating the course.
The writer, and the one I was interested in, was John Barton Harvey, a prolific novelist who wrote mainly crime novels. Luckily there was a number of his novels in the fiction section so I could pick up his biography from those. He had also written a television detective series around a jazz influenced detective known as Charlie Resnick. I had never heard of it but at least the fellow had some form, not as well known or as classic as I would have liked, although he had achieved some notable milestones in his literary career, but who could tell what would happen. I then checked on the poet who was the other facilitator, Carol Anne Duffy. I was aware of the name but didn’t know that much about her, that is until I started looking at her books in the shelves. That’s when bits and pieces I had read about her over the years began to come together.
Carol Anne Duffy had been asked to take over as Poet laureate from Ted Hughes but turned it down. At the time she had been in a lesbian relationship with Jackie Kay, another poet, but Carol Anne also had a young daughter from a previous relationship and knew that her personal circumstances would have attracted all the wrong sort of attention from the media, especially the gutter press. At the time it was considered to be a great loss as Carol Anne would have been the first woman to be Poet Laureate, the first Scot and the first openly gay person to hold the position. You probably all know that Andrew Motion took over as Poet laureate from Ted Hughes and if you did know that then I will not be spilling any secrets when I tell you that thankfully and eventually Carol Anne Duffy became Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 2009 and remains in that position to this very day.
I really didn’t want to leave the library, I was quite happy to sit there for the whole week and steep myself in the literary tradition that swamped the place. I was encouraged to leave the library and went outside to the veranda to meet the other participants and facilitators. We sat in a lazy circle on the lawn throwing a ball to each other as a form of ice breaker. We had to say something about ourselves when we caught the ball and then pass it on to someone else. I couldn’t believe that I was playing catch with Carol Anne Duffy, I mean what do you do or say when you are next to such a literary giant? For some time I had been wondering about the ratio of participants to facilitators hoping at best for a fifty-fifty split between the writers and the poets.
Two elderly ladies announced that they came every year for a holiday, they were not interested in the writing aspect, I loved it, the course was under subscribed anyway and with the two holidaying ladies there were now nine of us actively participating in the course. The director came out and began to explain how the week would work, we were to arrange ourselves into groups of three who would prepare and cook the evening meals throughout the week. There was a cut price selection of wine that would accompany the evening meals and subsequent readings and exercises. As we broke up and moved off to prepare ourselves for the evening meal I knew I was worried. I might have been at the beating heart of literature in the United Kingdom but I had to make an impression on some serious people and I didn’t know if I was capable of doing it. Only time would tell, I didn’t bother freshening myself up for the evening meal, I went into the library and sat myself down for a bit of peace and quiet and I wasn’t on my own, I was surrounded with all my friends some of whom I have never met, and probably never will, but at least I knew we were connected.