Does the rain fall differently here? It seems like it does. Yes, it is often horizontal just as in Yorkshire, where I’m from, but there is something else. When I just went out after the rain stopped, there was that fresh smell of clean air, sky still grey but the weather mild, as we say in Yorkshire. We are a long way inland but some days feel like the seaside.
Perhaps I’ve lived in too many polluted cities recently. I sleep well in this quiet place. The valley at the back of the house is my view from Charles Causley’s delightful study. It is a green valley, lower in the eyeline than I’m used to, and at night the houses on the hill become tiny lanterns. It feels very safe, a cradle of the Earth.
I have inspected all the cabinets on the house. There are many little people in the cases. Soldiers, South American-looking pottery characters on chickens – and here in the study, on an old bureau, a typewriter. It needs a new ribbon but the action is good. I might use it later.
Next to me is a piano, some beautiful chairs. The house is half museum, half modern extension and then the garden. I do ‘dry’ work in the old part of the house (writing), and ‘wet’ things in the kitchen (painting). I’ve seen Ralph Steadman’s amazing illustration for Timothy Winters and have always loved his stuff in general, but I remember being obsessed with Charles Keeping’s Oxford University Press books of ‘The Lady of Shallot’, ‘The Highwayman’, and ‘Beowulf’.
There is a small Charles Keeping drawing in the house. It looks like sepia ink with some graphite shading. It’s an illustration for part of Causley’s Jack The Treacle-Eater book. When I saw it first during my interview for the residency I visibly nearly fell off my chair. It shows what looks to be a tramp with one of those faithful, pointy-nosed dogs Keeping specialised in – a Jack Russell maybe. There is a Michael Foreman too. Simple and spare, it looks like a drawing for a frontispiece.
As an eight year old I was taken out of school and educated at home for two years. I learned a poem a week during this time (initially in exchange for chocolate). After a while I was writing my own poems and saw how learning poems helped me write. So Causley was a poet of fun to me, always. But also kindness, wit, concern for others. Take Timothy Winters for instance. I’m illustrating it, hopefully in order for it to be published as a book. There will be some collage involved. Or there might not be.
I was prompted to think more about including collage with my drawings by meeting an illustrator called Gus Gordon when I lived in Paris. I was working in a wine bar as a sommelier. He showed me his sketchbooks, spread out over the bar next to his large glass of red and some particularly smelly cheese. Neatly presented sketches and designs for the duck character he was thinking of putting on a trip to Paris. A two-page aerial view of some whales swimming under the ocean. Nothing like my own messy attempts at draftsmanship in decades of tatty Seawhite notebooks. A few days later, he showed me a collection of old postcards and other things he’d bought in antiquaries. I’ve seen he’s used them since in the books and they work marvellously. Clear lines of his drawings in crayon or with white acrylic applied so he can colour the surface with a little creature crawling over the curve of a post mark, off, onto the next adventure.
I mention this only because I can’t help but think illustration- and poetry-snobs have some things in common. A lucid technique is often frowned upon. With drawing and with poetry, clarity is surely the centre of it all, and yet so often poets like Causley are looked down on or dealt with some condescension because they take a direct approach to communication. So often this belies not necessarily great complexity, but something going on out of sight which we can reach for, if we decide to dignify the writer with any intelligence at all. So much poetry is performed now, I can’t help but long for poems like Causley’s which ‘live’ on the page.
I did a full-day poetry workshop at a local primary school yesterday. It was clear from reading Colonel Fazackerley Butterworth-Toast, nine year olds respond very well thank you to a comedy rendered in ballad form about an old toff who buys a castle which unbeknownst to him is occupied by a ghost.
We talked about writing about and creating local myth and what makes someone want to write about the two stone eagles outside a Georgian townhouse. In the poem, One Eagle, Two Eagles, the eagles come to life at night and feed in a cave. One little girl quite logically pointed out: ‘This is silly. If they are stone eagles, then if they came to life they would just crumble.’
It’s hard to express how needed this residency is for me. To be here, in the house of a poet so integral to my first experiences of poetry seems absurdly right, in that way that things never happen. Mythical, even.
Charlotte Walker will be artist-in-residence at Cyprus Well until Christmas 2016.