Poet, artist, writer and broadcaster Rose Flint teaches Creative Writing throughout England and Wales. She is currently based in Bath where she has completed training as an Art Therapist. Her first full collection of poetry is Blue Horse of Morning (Seren Books).
This has been a delightful job! I have experienced a very deep and almost hidden aspect of England, a million miles away from this Spring's usual daily concerns of New Labour, European war or rail transport policy. Its been a visit to a corner of the nation's psyche, tucked away out of sight and very threatened, but thriving still, perhaps sustained by its near-invisibility.
Over the last few months I've been out with the Mobile Library six times, travelling in convoy into some tiny hamlets, schools and housing estates. It's been wet Spring, and almost every day was rainy so my most lingering visual impression is of lanes overhung with green dripping leaves. I've met poets, musicians and novelists, small children and old ladies; sometimes crowds, sometimes only a few individuals. The Mobile Library is an institution we should be proud of. It's like a battle-scarred relic of a gentler time, its presence reassuring: if England still has a van full of extraordinary books wandering down bosky lanes for the benefit of a few people, then something about us is still safely lodged in a kind of Powell and Pressburger reality. The Mobile Library is cricket and strawberries, village greens, bellringing and plashy streams. It is also a life-line.
The following are some of the highlights - and a few lows ...
Filthy day. Rain gusting in on cold clouds, everything soaking. Roads are rivers.
Marksbury Village Hall
The village hall seemed shut as I struggled with its weight then suddenly flung itself open onto a cacophony of very small children hurtling around at great speed. Several large, patient women herded them all together onto a rug and I began to read to them, nursery rhymes first, then some poems. Some don't know any at all, others are more interested in something going on by my left ear. I read slowly, stopping to answer questions, showing them all the pictures. Slowly little hands begin to touch and gradually they all get closer and closer, coming in on a slow inexorable tide. I think they'll end up all over me like limpets.. .someone is trying to wrestle the book out of my hands... .I want to seeee....
Clutton County Primary
About 50 children crowded into the school hall, nine ten years old. Every face is open, expectant, light. The school feels so welcoming.
I do some jokey poems and talk about writing a bit. I tell them poetry can change the world and open the universe. They like this. I read Gareth Owen's 'A Dog's Life' about a boy who turns into an Alsatian and everyone imagines its them and woofs. More animal poems and sound effects, then ghosts and witches - a bit of Shakespeare. They ask for a poem of mine so I read one about a dragon, then its question time and a whole sea of hands appears. As we all talk I'm gratified to meet one of the older girls who is having her first poem published (in the parish magazine) this week.
Goldney Nursing Home
Having been invited for a 'cup of tea' I arrive at lunchtime and no one has remembered I was coming. 'But they'll all be down soon,' I am assured. I hadn't planned to stay here long but the residents are coming very slowly in to the dining room where I am scheduled to read. I suspect that they may be both quite noisy and interested in their meal, so I suggest waiting until they've finished. This is fine and earns me a bowl of apricot crumble. I introduce myself before everyone eats and read 'Daffodils' hoping to jog their memories. Most are fairly uninterested but one or two respond.
Later, I go back in and read lots of favourites and requests. One woman in a wheelchair I recognise from a reading five years ago. This is Marjorie who got polio as a child and stopped going to school. She never learned to read and write until she was an adult, when a doctor taught her - what a wonderful man! She loves poetry - inside her is a brightness.
Daffodils and a chill wind; bits of gutsy sun.
Farmborough Primary School
Again, wonderful open-faced children who crowd round me with expectant I-am-a-baby-bird-feed-me faces. Their teacher Mrs Acker is also really delighted I'm there, she loves poetry and has enthused her whole class. I start the reading with 'Once Upon a Time' by John Agard and elaborate it into a fantasy about floating in the sky and balloons.. .they are all very responsive and imaginative. Which is not always the case.
The reading is well under way when I am asked to move my car as a school neighbour is complaining, as she often does. My car isn't blocking anything but I get verbal abuse when I go to move it. Sad. Back into the reading we go through ghosts and witches into zombies (requested by a squinty little boy whose eyes were up too late last night) then into dream poems. I ask if they remember their dreams and I get: 'I keep killing my brother.' 'I went through lots and lots of tunnels into another world.' 'My dog is dead but he came back and talked to me.'
We finish with a question and answer session before they rush off like a wheeling flock of starlings. Mrs Acker tells me she was up until 4 every night this week, marking the 'novels' they are writing; some are 18 pages long. She says they love writing so much they never want to stop. This is clearly a very dedicated teacher and one who is able to imbue her children with a real love of the written world and the capacity to play in their own imaginations. I ask her if she writes and she nods - 'A little -but the time ...' I suggest she treats herself to a course, Arvon or Ty Newydd. I do hope she does.
Farmborough Village Hall.
Unopened. No one comes. We wait.
I read three poems to a man working in his garage, just over the wall. I think he likes them.
I stop an old man and read him a bird poem but it makes him bemoan the lack of singing birds these days.
No one else comes.
Day Three: Friday 16th April
Chew Valley Lake
As the van settles itself, two women appear: Gwen from Temple Cloud and Hazel who brings her husband. Gwen says she loves poetry, she is holding a copy of The Nation's Favourite Poems but she can't read much at the moment because her husband died recently and poetry is too emotional. She has brought a poem by 'J.R.' which she says she copied out of a book, but on her typed copy are numerous corrections and clearly unfinished lines. She says she is puzzled by the poem's meaning, what does 'to plunder sorrow' mean? We all discuss the poem and try to understand it, although it is quite fragmentary. Later I wonder if her husband wrote it. She has told us that he loved poetry and they used to read it together, and that he wrote sometimes.
Hazel used to be a corset-fitter in her youth. She didn't have much to do so she wrote poetry in her spare time. She sometimes performed poetry, she told us and gave us - from memory and with panache -a long rhyming piece written by her brother, about Hell, which was very funny. But the flies were getting to us now and a light rain was beginning so we went into the van. Here, we were joined by Jim and his wife Catherine. Jim looked very old and frail in his wheelchair and his wife told us that he had Parkinson's Disease, in an advanced state. She had brought some of the poems he had written and published in the 50s, beautiful, graceful poems which I read out loud. He is speechless, but smiles faintly. Catherine really knows her poetry and suddenly everyone gets caught up in the 'Do You Know?' game of quotations. I scrabble through the books to chase elusive poems and we all know 'Song of the Wandering Angus'. The van shakes in the rising wind. We go on well past time. I ask for copies of Gwen's poem and one of Jim's. Later I was in contact with Gwen and suggested Pamela Gillilan's first collection, which the library carries.
The Druid's Arms
The landlord said we have no takers and the few men-with-pints looked troubled when they saw me coming. Its sunny again and Paul and I stand by the three great megalithic stones in the pub garden. Paul's talking about education. The word means 'to bring out'. He said that for him it was like someone putting a funnel to his ear and forcing in. He wanted to be a musician but in the first lesson all they did was draw the cleft sign and sing 'Frere Jacques.' Back in the pub a couple of holidaymakers are waiting. He's a scientist - genetic engineering - and she's a writer. We get into deep discussions on the role of science in Kathleen Raine' s work. I learn a new word 'Luciferase' the enzyme that produces light in fireflies. I give Ann a long reading list. On the way home I watch stags walking on their hind legs and beating the oak trees so tender new growths fall to their feet.
So grey and cold I need a coat and two jumpers. I meet the van at the library after a welcome cup of tea and follow them out of town into the country. Today we've nothing specific planned, we'll see what happens. The 'Mobile Poet' has been advertised well in advance.
Unfamiliar lanes overhung with wet leafy tree, a snow of fallen blossom covering my windscreen, swept off the trees by the van's high sides. Love poems on the radio.
Out to Two-Headed Man past Ginko House. Walls are flowering with columbines, buttercups, archangel. There is little happening, sometimes we pass a cat asleep in a gateway or a horse watching over a hedge. Wick Lane, White Brook Lane, an old stone house that's storybook perfection; a wet droning bee. One lady runs in to grab a couple of books and run out again. She explains she can't stop - her husband has been called up by NATO. Another lady says she's not interested, doesn't know any poems, doesn't want to. I quote 'Daffodils' and she breaks into a smile, tells me about strict schooldays in Lincolnshire, amongst the flowers.
Daglands: Kieron, aged four, wants Mrs Plug the Plumber. I find 'Action Rhymes' as well. Quite a group meets up at this stop and when Kieron goes I get everyone talking poetry.
From Daglands to Skinner's Hill, Chapel, Applecroft, Canteen Lane, the Fox and Badger through Combe Hay to Priston, the Ring 0' Bells at Summer Lea. The van shoulders into the hedge and hoots at every stop. People appear quickly, there are only 5 or 6 minutes at most stops and they don't just want to change books, but many of them want to be a bit sociable. It may be that some of the older ones, those in their seventies or more, see very few people day by day. Taking time out from this to discuss poetry - especially modern poetry which is unfamiliar - isn't on their schedule. But for some people it is. I get scraps of stories - there's little time for more. Maybe how a much loved husband used to read poems to a wife, or a grandchild that wants poems read to her every time she comes to stay. Or the couple who write music together, the question of lyric as poetry. A distant daughter who goes to poetry classes. The dyslexic child who won a competition with a poem about refugees. And I meet a few hidden writers.
All day I talk and quote and remind people. I consider it a triumph when someone takes one of the library books home. The trouble is, I get rid of the best ones too quickly.
Day Five: Friday 4th June
Chew Magna W.I. Market
One lady glances at Vicki Feaver's 'Crab Apple Jelly' and says sniffily that it isn't poetry because it doesn't rhyme; then she whisks off to talk to someone else. I don't pursue her, instead I sit talking with a group who are interested. One Scottish lady tells me her brother is a published poet - Robert Henry. I wish I'd heard of him. We all start getting into women-power poems and end up with a lot of laughter.
I wander round Chew Magna over lunchtime and before I rejoin the van. I discover a wonderful painted statue of a knight - Sir Iohan de Hautville - in the local church. Chew Magna is pretty and lively. Near 'Madam's Paddock' two pubs, one 'The Bear and Swan', and the other the oddly named (for a sleepy inland village) 'The Pelican', after Drake's ship. Curiously, the inn sign of a golden galleon is exactly like a dream I had recently.
Then on to meet the van at Chew Stoke. Battle Lane, Dark Lane, Chilly Hill Lane, Pagan's Hill, Blackmoor Hill, Pilgrim's Way, Blind Lane.
Good response at Blind Lane, discussion of poetry at funerals and crying.
No response at the Sacred Heart.
And at Norton Malreward, a little girl has heard of me.
Home through rainy lanes, swallows wheeling round the stones at Stanton Drew.
Hinton Charterhouse Summer Fete
An utterly English day. Big cumulus clouds in every shade of grey blowing in and out of the hot sunshine. Click of skittles. Firemen watering children with a fine spray. The Brass Band. Cakes and tea and tickets for the raffle. Of course, strawberries. The van parks at the end of the bright green field and I spread out a picnic of poetry books. I get the tannoy announcer to tell everyone I'm there and read a brass band poem over the mike. Soon I have small children clustering round and I read and read.
After a while I decide to go walkabout and collect a basket full of poems. My idea is to give poems away like goodies - it worked at the WI. I can see people groaning as I approach - but I've got poems on babies and brass bands, cakes and cooking, sex, marriage shopping and chocolate. First I select my victim. Is there a child or a man in close proximity to a particular woman? How old is she - or he? Could that be a grandmother?
I give away dozens of poems. But everyone likes them. I get asked for more - particularly of babies and weddings. 'Bloody Men' goes down a treat too. People read them and comment - often they say they havn't read a poem since school.
One man tells me how he wrote a poem, after a life-changing trip to Tibet. His name is Shelly.
The fete organiser asks us back next year! And it doesn't rain.
So. I feel it worked. No one wanted to write - too little time at the stops. But I saw my job as re-engaging people with poetry, and that really happened. Often conversations turned to the idea of writing, again, because people remembered a time when they had; usually either in the grip of youth's angst, or after bereavement. I was of course able to give local contacts to those who wanted them. The Festival and the library did lots of previsit advertising, informed lots of different organisations that I was coming, and that I would be happy to talk/read with them, but few took up the offer. Surprisingly only two schools got involved and both of these had teachers really interested in writing.
So what we ended up with was a kind of replica of the mobile library itself. Small and fleeting, hidden away down leafy lanes, poetry was spoken to a few rather than many, or it starred briefly in a crowd before moving on. But I like to think some of it will linger. A lot of poetry books left the shelves and I imagine the poems now, still flying around someone between Norton Malreward and Chew Magna, going at dusk up Gibbet Lane and crossing Pagan Hill to find the stones at Stanton Drew. Words pattering like rain in the leaves.
- Rose Flint
Project Update 2006
The Mobiile Library still lives! It still goes out every fortnight, wandering round the leafy lanes and stone villages with its cargo of love and cookery, murder, mayhem and sex, poems and plays and philosophies...long may it trundle and delight.