Upon the occasion of WS Graham’s 100th birthday, as the end of the Centenary year edges closer, thoughts on the inaugural Grammarsow.
An aim of the project is to in some way bridge the gap between Greenock and Cornwall. Graham inescapably was a writer a long way from home and later poems (‘Loch Thom’, ‘Greenock at Night I Found You’, etc.) express a longing for the land left behind. For the reader in Cornwall, the poet can only be understood through the lens of his Scottishness; the reader in Scotland may feel themselves stranded without experience of the landscape in which the poet lived and worked, the places he wrote about with strange names like Ding Dong or Gurnard’s Head. Prohibitive distance deprives Scotland of the cultural legacy of an important figure in its recent history. In Cornwall too, the legacy demands interrogation and celebration, not least in the Centenary year but also going forward, as it is impossible to disentangle the poet from the place and community through which he moved.
Community became our answer to the problem of place. Graham dubbed himself ‘an expert in aloneness’ in a late letter to Ronnie and Henriette Duncan, but the letters have the poet reaching out from his various isolations. Matthew Francis suggests that the poems too ‘constantly affirm the value of relationships with other people’, tenderly addressed, as they frequently are, to others. So we reached out. Our idea was to provide a research opportunity for a Scottish poet to visit Cornwall, and to provide a platform for them to perform here too. The first poet was Calum Rodger who came down from Glasgow.
Building the project put us in touch with artists and organisations locally and nationally whose shared interest was the exploration and promotion of the Graham legacy. Poet Bill Herbert directed us towards poet Rachael Boast who, on behalf of the Graham Estate, was able to tell us what was programmed nationally for the Centenary. Our urge to make something happen in Cornwall saw us work with Vicar Elizabeth Foot and Warden Gilly Wyatt Smith of St Senara’s in Zennor to stage an event in the Church as part of St Ives September Festival, helping to raise money for the Church Bell Fund. We were also in touch with writer David Whittaker and were able to attend his Festival talk on Graham at St Ives Art Club. A second, more intimate Grammarsow reading took place in the back room of The Seven Stars in Falmouth and featured the Grammarsow’s own David Devanny.
Falmouth-based writer Mac Dunlop had introduced us to Morvah-based writer Des Hannigan. A Scotsman in Cornwall himself, Des had been acquainted with Graham and written about it in his recent book The Almost Island. He met us in Zennor one day and showed us Morvah. There happened a brief chance meeting with artist Rowena Scotney whose ekphrastic felt and needle-punch works respond directly to poems by Graham and others, before we also visited Gilly Wyatt Smith’s Yew Tree Gallery. We then called in at The Gurnard’s Head pub (a Graham haunt, uphill nearby a cottage he lived in with Nessie Dunsmuir) for our second chance meeting, this time with John the Fish and others of Des’s friends from their days performing at the Count House folk club in Botallack. Des would read poems and share recollections to kick off our Zennor reading.
The event was atmospheric, readers taking to the pulpit to enjoy the acoustics, Bryan Wynter buried outside, the Tinner’s Arms calling through the dark. That the event was well-attended on a Wednesday evening in rural Cornwall told us something of Graham’s current reputation. We were pleased to have Bradford poet Bruce Barnes in attendance. Katharine Heron wrote later to say she too had been along. But also exciting was to meet people for the first time: locals, Graham fans, those with their own stories of the poet to tell, and some with Centenary events of their own lined up. After Des’s engaging set came Andy Fentham (another of the Grammarsow’s own) with a suite of poems relating to Graham and the St Ives School. Last up was Calum.
It was always to feel vital having both Des and Calum’s reading voices bring to life their individual selections of Graham poems. Des, in Cornwall some fifty-odd years, was also able to reflect upon his relationship with the local area, and personal encounters with Sydney Graham. It was as thrilling to hear Calum’s typically eloquent description of what the Graham legacy meant to him as a young Scottish poet encountering Cornwall for the first time. And this surpassed only by hearing Calum’s own work in such a space. He is an outstanding performer. Part of the Grammarsow Mission felt complete.
We hope we did justice by Calum for the other part. The day of the St Senara’s reading we had seen work by Wynter, Lanyon, Hilton et al. at Tate St Ives, seen Alfred Wallis’s house and his Leach-tiled grave. The morning after, we would walk from Zennor Head to Gurnard’s Head as in ‘Enter a Cloud’ and again visit The Gurnard’s Head pub. Later that day we would pass through Madron to see another of Sydney and Nessie’s former houses. The Grammarsow’s ambition to photograph Calum playing the fruit machine like Garfield Strick in the King William IV would be thwarted by the pub’s selective opening hours. Who knows what use, if any, to match real buildings or landscapes with Graham’s self-conscious constructions? It doesn’t sound like an idea he’d like. What we can say is that we now know Calum better, as he too now knows us, back in our discrete alonenesses at opposite ends of the UK. The space between us is Malcolm Mooney’s Land, and yet we find ourselves gathered together around the poet’s words. Matthew Francis helpfully highlights these particular words from ‘The Dark Dialogues’:
because always language
is where the people are
Huge thanks to any and everyone involved in any capacity with The Grammarsow this year.