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Reading’s Influential Women – an inspiring read!

Reading’s Influential Women features more than 60 individual Women who have a connection with Reading and have made a notable difference in the world. Some are well known international names, others deserve to be. They are pioneers, familiar faces, recognisable voices, unsung heroes, campaigners, world changers, socialists, celebrities, Olympic and sporting champions, writers, artists, and scientists. It’s an inspiring read!

Authors Terry Dixon and Linda Saul write:

‘There are innumerable men and women from Reading who have achieved significant things or contributed to the life of the town and/or the wider world. Some, unfortunately, have gone unrecognised or are forgotten. Also, we know that in the past, the contribution of women was often dismissed, overlooked or attributed to somebody else.

In this book we can’t hope to document all those women connected to Reading who deserve to be mentioned but we can raise the profile of some, especially those whose connection to Reading is relatively unknown. To be included, women need to have been born, bred, educated in the greater Reading area, or to have lived there, or else have made an indelible mark on the town. We have included a couple of ‘unsung heroines’, but we know there are many more.

Many of the women in this book will have had their lives affected by misogyny. Several have played their part in challenging such attitudes. Edith Morley was a Suffragist (although Lady Wantage was antisuffragism), Ethelwyn Trewavas campaigned for married women to be able to keep their jobs. Some, such as Lettice Curtis, just got on and proved how good they were in a field dominated by men. Modern campaigns, such as Me Too, and the under-representation of women in many fields and the top tiers of organisations remind us there is still more progress to be made.

One area which has seen massive improvement in recent years is sport. Elite sportswomen are clearly influential in encouraging wider participation in sport, at all levels, and we have several examples in this book. But who knows how many more there might have been if women’s sport had not been discouraged in the not-too-distant past.

In writing this book some interesting threads emerged, and there are always questions. It is fun to try to find any connections between the individuals – were Jane Austen and Mary Mitford friends? Is it coincidence that one of the first female professional photographers set up a business in the same town where William Fox Talbot had made major advances in photography just a decade earlier?’

The authors’ royalties from the book are to be donated to Berkshire Women’s Aid.

About the Authors:

Terry Dixon was born in Tilehurst, Reading, and held the post of National Publicity and Development Officer on the National Federation of 18 Plus Groups NEC for 6 years. In his day job he was an electronics engineer and project manager. Taking early retirement in 2016, he started ‘Terry’s Reading Walkabouts’ to get fitter, and to introduce visitors and residents to the hidden culture and history of Reading. In 2017 he decided to celebrate Vote 100 by creating a new guided walk called ‘Famous/not-so-famous women of Reading’ which was launched in February 2018 to coincide with the date the Act of Parliament received royal assent. His research for that walk is the basis for this book. His walkabouts have raised over £7500 (including £1000 for Berkshire Women’s Aid) for local charities and he is a member of Reading Civic Society’s committee.

Linda Saul was born and raised on the Isle of Wight but has lived in Reading for about 35 years. After studying at Cambridge, she embarked on a successful career in IT. In her younger, wilder, days she developed a habit of falling out of aircraft before finally learning to fly one. She is now a full-time artist, her work focusing on the built environment. She exhibits regularly in London and is an active member of the Reading Guild of Artists. A perpetual student, she has completed a physics degree with the Open University and is now studying for a Masters in mathematics. In 2019 Linda cocurated an exhibition of art inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Galvanised by the campaign to save Reading Gaol for the town, she conceived and organised the Reading Gaol Hug with the help of many others, including Terry.

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WHY I PAINT LICHENS. And mosses. And butterflies and bees, and bunches of primroses, and skeleton leaves… by Christina Hart-Davies

Photograph of Christina Hart-Davies by Hattie Miles
Photograph of Christina Hart-Davies by Hattie Miles

When Two Rivers Press suggested that I should write a book in their Botanical Portfolios series, following on from Julia Trickey’s beautiful Botanical Artistry, I was excited and flattered but rather nervous. My two previous books were about the history and folklore of plants and involved a great deal of very enjoyable research. But this book was more personal, more exposing, with no research to hide behind. But it was an opportunity to explain what inspires me, and to show some of my working practice.

I wondered how best to describe my work. Looking back over my long career, it became obvious that one driving principle was my passion for ALL things natural, how they work and how they relate to one another. Although my main interest is in plants, I am very aware that they do not exist in isolation, but are part of a bigger story.

At school in the 1950s there was always a class Nature Table. It inspired our interest in nature in a way that glossy TV natural history programmes just can’t do, and laid down foundations for a lifelong interest in the natural world. That wiggly mark on a leaf was caused by a tiny caterpillar eating a tunnel between the layers of the leaf. That sculptural, hard, brown pupa case contained a formless goo that used to be a caterpillar and would soon become a butterfly. Those attractive lines on the petals of a wild Geranium were there to guide insects to find nectar and at the same time pollinate the flower. Marvellous!

Living in a small country town, I and my friends spent our time, as children did in those days, playing in the fields or walking unaccompanied to school. We became familiar with wild plants, even using them in our games. I was a major contributor to the class Nature Table and my painting still draws on that fascination with all things natural and the connections between them.

Forced at school to choose between arts and sciences, I opted for the arts route but never lost my interest in the science of nature too. I ended up as both a professional botanical artist and illustrator – there is a big difference between the two, but that is a subject for another time! Isolated plants can make a striking portrait and, of course, are essential in illustrations intended to assist identification. But in reality plants are not perfect; they have dead leaves and caterpillar holes. They grow in habitats with other species around them. They start off as fragile seedlings and may end up as skeletons. Insects come to drink their nectar or lay eggs on them. I enjoy showing all this in my ‘art’ work, telling more of their story.

Butterflies, beetles and moths sometimes appear in my exhibition paintings too, and not always to cover an accidental paint spot! Even if animals themselves do not appear, I like to include evidence of their activity, such as galls, insect damage, empty egg-shells or fallen feathers. Many of these have the advantage that, on the whole, they don’t change colour, or wilt.

Like many botanical painters, I had included little tufts of moss or lichen when I found them growing on the twigs I was painting. Once I started studying them I became totally hooked, and have been painting them as subjects in their own right ever since. Although by no means an expert, I cannot resist pointing out these normally unregarded organisms to everyone. I just love that moment when, having handed someone a lichen-encrusted twig and shown them how to use a hand-lens, I hear them gasp in astonished admiration!

We are surrounded by plants and have always depended on them. The history of our interaction with them is endlessly absorbing to me and ranks alongside the aesthetic and scientific aspects of my work. I like to remind people of bluebell woods, picking blackberries, harvesting from the garden. As a society we are losing touch with nature and the seasons, and that alarms me. Our long traditions, the folklore we have woven around plants, which ones we have used as simple remedies – all this too is part of the story.

As I near the end of my painting career, writing this book has been a useful review, reminding me of what I have done and what more I would still like to do. I hope The Whole Story will transform people’s perspective and inspire them to look beyond the flowers to the wider story.

Christina Hart-Davies

Christina Hart Davies is well known for her precise and accurate botanical watercolours, which feature in prestigious collections worldwide and have won many awards including several RHS Gold medals. She has illustrated many books and field guides, most notably The Collins Wild Flower Guide. In 2016 Two Rivers Press published Christina’s own book A Wild Plant Year on the history, folklore and uses of Britain’s wild plants. The Whole Story: Painting more than just the flowers is her latest book and is available to order now. Christina graduated in Typography from Reading University. Her design background is invaluable in her illustration work and influences the composition of her exhibition paintings. She is an experienced and popular tutor and enjoys encouraging people to find their own style in which to celebrate plants of all kinds.

www.christinahartdavies.co.uk

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Poet of the Week – 13: Gill Learner

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—13: GILL LEARNER

Gill Learner has been writing prose and poetry, on and (mostly) off, since her teens, when she was published in her school magazine and the Warwick County News. After her return to work, post child-rearing, she found little time, but the occasional poem came about as emotional response.

On retirement from teaching Printing Studies at Berkshire School of Art & Design, she returned to writing and her short prose was occasionally accepted by magazines. However, in 2001 she won a limerick competition in the Independent, prizes for which were two weeks on Skyros and, more significantly, membership of the Poetry Society. For years she’d enjoyed reading contemporary poems in newspapers and magazines but had never really thought about writing it; receiving regular doses of poetry kickstarted her muse.

Among her first acceptances was publication in the Poetry Society’s members’ Bulletin – she was so excited that she began choosing her desert island discs! There have been countless rejections since but three other acceptances for the Bulletin, one of which gained the Society’s Hamish Canham Award 2008. Among a handful of other successes have been the Buxton Prize (twice), the English Association’s Fellows’ Poetry Prize, and in 2010 she came second in the Keats–Shelley Prize, ‘pipped at the post’ by our current Poet Laureate, no less! Her poems have also appeared in several issues each of Acumen, Agenda, The Interpreter’s House, South, The North, The High Window, etc., as well as numerous anthologies.

Gill Learner has had two collections with Two Rivers Press: The Agister’s Experiment (2011) and Chill Factor (2016). She is currently working on a third, provisionally entitled Change, for publication in 2021. Gill enjoys reading to an audience and, slowly overcoming her dry-mouthed fear, has been a regular at Poets’ Café for almost twenty years.

Gill Learner writes:

My aim in writing is to express some of the thoughts that buzz in my head which would otherwise, like an unwritten ‘to do’ list, nag me towards insanity. But I feel very strongly that my poems should be understandable and relatable-to, on at least one level, by as many people as possible – ‘accessible’ is the usual word. However, while I’m aware that there are bound to be references which are entirely personal or outside general experience, it is gratifying when readers, especially reviewers, find insights or links that I hadn’t been conscious of.

The question most writers in any genre are often asked is ‘Where do your ideas come from?’. My answer is ‘Anywhere’. Of course, family members, past and present, have been an excellent source, but random other subjects lodge themselves in my mind, sometimes with urgency, more often lurking, waiting for words and phrases to accrete around them. Although I would never claim that my poems are jewels, the nearest analogy is to the grit in an oyster. There are also prompts from magazines or competitions with a particular theme. Sometimes a topic will produce no immediate response but become grit; occasionally, there’s an instant resonance. Either way, I let it lie while jotting down thoughts until I feel ready to begin patching them together.

After the sudden death in July 2018 of my husband of almost fifty-seven years, I couldn’t write for what seemed like ages. Then, within a few weeks, a competition call prompted a poem about a long-ago family holiday; I was hugely relieved that I hadn’t dried up completely. After that came a steady trickle of poems, some in memoriam, which will be central to my next collection, but I have recently made an effort to avoid gloom.

‘Which is the greater art, poetry or music?’ is the question at the heart of Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio. I hope I am never forced to choose between them as music has inspired a number of poems, particularly about Beethoven. But it is a huge frustration that a composer of, say, a symphony has so many voices to play with while I have only one. I would love to enter a composer’s mind to see how choices of instrument, rhythm and melody are made.

I have often said that a perfect day for me would be writing in the morning and gardening in the afternoon, so have found stimulus in the natural world, also in works of art, and various technologies.

During an interview for an Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre podcast, I was asked if I thought artists needed to engage with political and social matters. My response was that, ideally, poets’ work should reflect the world they live in. Inevitably then, social and environmental problems have triggered ideas.

The rigorous feedback from members of both Reading Stanza, and Thin Raft, the twice-monthly workshop I co-ordinate, is invaluable: any successes I’ve had have usually been thanks to them.

WHAT LOVE CAN DO

A woman dies. Her husband grieves,
commands the quarrying of stone, fine-grained

and whiter than the moon. Many hundred men
carve it into blocks, polish and build them

into a mound, domed and crowned
with an upturned crescent and a lotus bloom.

Craftsmen embed stones – garnet, opal,
amethyst – patterned into flowers and vines

and texts from the Quran. Here
her bones are locked into a marble tomb

to wait for Shah Jahan.

*

A woman dies; her husband grieves.
Had a doctor’s skill been near she would

have lived. But the bulk of a Gehlour hill
spun out the hours. So Dashrath takes hammer,

chisel, nails. For more than twenty years,
ignoring mockery, he snicks the rock

chipping at ancient layers of river silt.
At last, one hundred metres on,

at five times his height and wide enough
for a pair of carts to pass, he’s reached his goal –

the mountain’s carved in two.

[From Chill Factor, Two Rivers Press, 2016]

THE GENIUS FROM PISA

The scented smoke is dizzying, even in Duomo cool.
Padre Benito drones: Dominus vobiscum. A young man
drags his thoughts from the purple flowerings
on the cleric’s face – syphilis, for sure – responds
Et cum spirito tuo. Dare he, a mere student, advise
a dose of mercury? He yawns, shakes his head,
notices two altar lamps swaying in a draught.
The smaller swings higher and yet they are in time.
He presses fingers to his wrist, checks them against
his pulse, sits up with a jerk: what if there were
a clock that worked by pendulum …

At seventy-eight, forbidden by the Church
to leave his home, he sits in a patch of sun, relives
some high-lights of his life: works on harmonic oscillation;
improvements to the telescope; behaviour of the moons
of Jupiter, and his heresy – confirmation that the earth
moves round the sun. He remembers the Duomo lamps,
gropes for a pen, sighs. His son, Vincenzio soothes:
I’ll be your eyes: tell me what to draw. The old man
describes a cog-wheel and two curving pawls which will be
flicked up by a pendulum and also keep it on the move –
the workings of his clock.

[Published in Agenda Vol. 50, nos. 1–2]

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Poet of the Week – 12: Ian House

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—12: IAN HOUSE

Ian House was born in Reading during the Second World War. A child of the 1944 Education Act and the grammar school, he read Philosophy, Politics and (a vanishingly small amount of) Economics at St John’s College, Oxford, and then taught English in schools in Derbyshire, Somerset and Yorkshire, experiences which led him to conclude that a Quaker school, with its commitments to peace and equality, would be a place in which staff and students might get on in a sensible way. When the opportunity for a job at Leighton Park came up, he returned with misgivings to Reading. During twenty-four years at the school, he enjoyed a sabbatical term at St John’s College, Cambridge, which revived his brain and doubtless impaired his liver, and an exchange-year teaching in Philadelphia.

On taking early retirement he taught English in adult language schools in Moscow, Budapest and Prague and, on returning to England, began writing poetry. His three collections, all with Two Rivers Press, are Cutting the Quick (2005), Nothing’s Lost (2014) and Just a Moment (2020).

Ian House writes:

Although ‘Spinning Yarn’, Part II of my new collection, is implicitly about the making of poems, there is nothing I desire less than to investigate in prose the reason I write poems. The less I know, I suspect, the better. I observe my ‘practice’, with interest, from the outside. An experience or observation makes me feel, for some unknown reason, that there’s a poem there. I wander around for a day or two, doing the thises and thats of living, unconsciously incubating. Possibly I’m writing the poem to find out why I’m writing it. Certainly, I have no idea, when I start, where it’s going. If I do have an idea, the poem will be stillborn. I write a lot very fast, crossing out and revising, crossing out and revising … then I start over with a few rescued lines and write a lot, very fast, crossing out and revising; I do this three or four times, aware mainly of the physical pleasure of transmission from brain down arm and hand through pen to page. When I sense there’s something that feels like a poem awaiting birth, I put it onto the computer, and tinker with it for an intermittent two or three days and let it totter off. After about seven years I’d be capable of re-reading it without a sense of paternity to see if it has any merit.

At the front of the binder in which I keep the hard copies of my poems there are two sheets of paper. The first says simply, ‘Be Real. Be Surreal. NOT What do I think about it? BUT How does it feel?’ Useful advices I always bore in mind when I started writing seriously in 2001. The second sheet contains several quotations about the sun, the source of all light and sustenance. They include Chaucer’s charming and profound, ‘Up roos the sonne, and up roos Emelye’; Lowell’s beautiful prayer, ‘Pray for the grace of accuracy/ Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination/ stealing like the tide across a map/ to his girl solid with yearning’; crowning all, Whitman’s understanding of the relation of the poet to the sun, ‘Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me/ If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.’ Little wonder that I see the two poems based on Paul Nash’s paintings of sunflowers as central to my new collection. Sally Castle’s sunflower on the cover does indeed burn.

If, on a good day, the sun fuels my poems, Wallace Stevens is their guiding star. The Man with the Blue Guitar makes the high and necessary claim that ‘Poetry/ Exceeding music must take the place/ Of empty heaven and its hymns’. Yet Stevens can ground a poem in the simplest of situations, noticing how ‘The mother ties the hair-ribbons of the child/ And she has peace’ or taking in old age ‘one last look at the ducks’ in the local park. His poems ‘were of a remembered time/ Or something seen that he liked’. And so are many of mine.

One of Stevens’s miracles is that he doesn’t so much describe a situation as create it, charm it into being as in ‘The Poems of Our Climate’:

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow …

Would that I could get anywhere near that intensity without straining. Or write poems that invite or compel the deep attentiveness of which he writes so movingly in ‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’: ‘The reader became the book; and summer night/ Was like the conscious being of the book.’ Or write a poem of which it could truly be said that it is ‘the cry of its occasion, /Part of the res itself and not about it.’

As well as his example, Stevens has given us handy tips always in my mind: ‘It Must Be Abstract’ (distilling something from the concretes); ‘It Must Change’ (be responsive to the flux of living); ‘It Must Give Pleasure’ (as an artefact in words, not sounding, unless for special effect, like the ‘skreaking and skittering’ of grackles). The poems in the Paul Nash sequence, meditating on the poetic imagination, bear similar titles. All that said, my poems are nothing like Stevens’s anymore than I’m like the mackerel that fed me for lunch today.

IT MUST BURN

~Paul Nash, Solstice of the Sunflower, 1945

blazing yellows and oranges
intenser than all imagining
fierce as a fusion reactor
self-unsparing self-consuming
the sunflower hurtles downhill
freewheeling fertiliser of crops
cutting a swathe
through grass and standing corn
like a top whipped on by the sun
outpouring of nature’s juices
ah sunflower outrunning time
headlong career, suspended
at this moment for ever
leaps the frame and continues

[from Just a Moment]

THE TEARS OF THE WORLD

Unrestrained the shrieks of children
at fleeting abandonments, minor betrayals,
the vastness and urgency
of scraped knees and small losses.

In silent rooms, during polite conversations,
imagine the thickness
of the calluses we have accreted. Listen
to the wind that rattles the shutters.

[Uncollected]

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Poet of the Week – 11: Sue Leigh

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—11: SUE LEIGH

Sue Leigh lives in the Windrush valley in Oxfordshire. She teaches at Rewley House, Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education, and reviews regularly for PN Review. Her first collection of poems, Chosen Hill, was published by Two Rivers Press in 2018. It was described in the TLS as ‘an intelligent and considered collection that pays homage to the act of paying attention’. She has a letterpress pamphlet called Chalk forthcoming from Evergreen Press, which will include the uncollected poem ‘Flora’.

Sue Leigh writes:

I don’t know how poems happen. I love the mystery that surrounds their making. I learn continually about patience and listening, they seem to be at the heart of it.

There are fallow periods which are as important as writing itself. It has taken me a while to understand this.

And there is solitude, this is necessary. Interruption would break the line of thought, craft, feeling – it would be like waking the dreamer from the dream.

I am fortunate to live in a quiet place surrounded by fields. I feel silence all around me – broken at this time of year by the singing of birds.

I spend much time walking. This is often where poems begin. (It has something to do with rhythm, I think.) Outside, there is a sense of lightness, the mind quietens, you can listen. You look at the sky, you inhabit weather. You move through the living world – a world of plants, creatures. You feel part of it.

I write in a notebook every day. I started this practice some years ago and I can’t imagine ever not doing this. Sometimes the notes may be the beginnings of a poem.

I find myself trying, trying again to lay hold of experience, to catch something of that original brightness. But in the dance with language something new emerges and it often catches me unawares. A poem becomes an act of discovery, a small research project into one’s relationship with the world.

I was thinking the other day about why poetry matters, and it seems to me that in these times we are more in need of poetry than ever. Poetry connects us with our deepest selves, but it also connects us with each other. Rather like looking at a painting, reading a poem may enable us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. We understand a little more about our humanity. And that must be a good thing.

NAN SHEPHERD IN THE CAIRNGORMS

To be with the mountain
as if to know one place
might be enough
for a lifetime
to be with it
without intention

then to set it down
to name juniper, heather, deer
precise too about uncertainty
the mind cannot hold it all –
the water in the loch
feels cold, clear

[from Chosen Hill]

FLORA

I cannot make anything
more lovely than these names

eyebright
also called bird’s eye, rock rue

meadow cranesbill
blue buttons, gipsy, grace of God

salad burnet

travellers’ joy

lady’s slipper or Virgin’s shoe
(might there be one left)

Venus’s looking glass

early purple orchid
known too as Gethsemane

pasque flower

and the purple rampion,
does it grow still on Silbury Hill

[first published in Oxford Magazine]

Chosen Hill book cover