Mark Haworth-Booth

MEETUPS : special long distance guest



BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE : Mark worked as a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1970-2004, and has written standard works on the history of photography and design. Among his books is River Scene, France by Camille Silvy (Getty, 1992). His poems have appeared in national magazines since 1987. He published Wild Track: Poems with Pictures by Friends (Trace Editions, 2005) and won the London Writers Prize for poetry in 2006. His ‘Water Sonnet’ appears in Poems for a Liminal Age, edited by Mandy Pannett (SPM Publications, 2015). His latest book, Wild is the Wind, is a collaboration with the photographer Tessa Traeger – a book of photographs and poems inspired by North Devon (Impress, February 2017). The book, designed by Prof. Phil Cleaver, celebrates Tessa Traeger’s 52 years of work in Rossetti Studios, Chelsea: it is in an edition of 52, each book costing £52. Copies are held by the London Library and the Saison Poetry Library.



RECENT PUBLICATION: WILD IS THE WIND , photographs and poems about North Devon with Tessa Traeger

I very much like the ‘Omphalos’ feature introduced by Maurice Riordan during his editorship of Poetry Review: a prose text by a poet about a special landscape, 

even a primal one – the idea and the Greek word itself taken from Seamus Heaney, of course. The recent, and last, issue of Poetry Review edited by Riordan contains fine ‘Omphalos’ pieces by Nick Laird (about a childhood stream) and Zaffar Kunial (on a garden tree). Luckily, one doesn’t need to be famous to try one’s hand at this: so here is a little ‘Omphalos’of my own.

I grew up in rural Sussex. My father constructed a house in the late 1930s and it seemed very livable to my parents and their three boys (born 1940, 1942 and 1944 – I being the youngest). It was at the end of Oldlands Avenue, where the houses stopped and market gardens began. Behind it was our garden, then some land my father used for his contracting business, and beyond that a mysterious pond with trees around it. The trees and bushes made the pond rather secret, ideal for playing in and fantasizing terrible adventures. These often involved two dugout canoes my father had somehow acquired.   A few years ago I used my memory of this in a poem called I’ll trade you, which is about how we seem to trade away our precious childhoods to gain what comes afterwards:

   For your father’s backyard with the overhung pond

      where you fought with canoes-full of roaring headhunters

           I’ll trade you amazing adventures in Rio’s favelas –

     (all paid for, plus girlfriend and book deal with Granta) …

Glyn Maxwell kindly gave this a commendation in a recent Poetry London competition

and I had the great satisfaction of reading the poem at Kings Place in London.

In 1955 my grandparents died and we moved to their old mill house in the same village. The first night in my new bedroom I listened entranced to the steady sound of water sliding from the millpond over the weir, splashing onto sandstone steps into a pool where pike could be caught and on into the modest Shill Brook. This pleasant stream, a few miles later, occupied a broad valley crossed by the handsome Balcombe Viaduct on the London-Brighton railway line. I liked to visit my grandparents at the millhouse and take my fishing rod down to the brook. At the age of eight I caught a small Brown Trout (on a hook baited with a worm) and ran back to show it to my delighted grandparents. The reflections in the millpond established a wonderful sense of order in my mind and the brook became the site of my new adventures.

It was about 1974 that news came that the Shill Brook valley was to be flooded to make a new reservoir for all the new houses, businesses etc – including Gatwick Airport and Crawley New Town, both only a few miles away – that appeared after the Second World War. The natural playground of my childhood was submerged, a year or two later, under billions of gallons of water. My father saw the necessity of it and didn’t oppose the reservoir. Now it looks lovely, of course, but I spent a summer taking friends to see my soon to be obliterated secret stream and camped beside it for a few nights with the girl who became my wife.

That’s all a long time ago, and now – after nearly forty years living and working in London – we live in North Devon. We have, with the help of one of my mechanically capable brothers, dug out a pond, about 25 x 30 metres. It is full of life, of course – currently with 18 resident Mallards, most of whom were born here. Moorhens have nested here and raised their dusky chicks, kingfishers occasionally hunt here for insects, willow warblers hover among the reeds like hummingbirds, dippers come to visit, dragonflies glitter above the yellow flags and swallows cross the pond at speed, dipping to take a sip of water or an insect with a small splash.  Skies reflect themselves in the pond, breezes create a strange fleeting geometry of shapes on the surface – and something precious from my childhood has been restored.

However, we don’t just have a pond. The retired farmers who live next door kindly allow us to walk through a wood they own, beside a lovely little brook that is just like the one I grew up with in Sussex. It doesn’t seem to have a name so I sometimes think of it as Folly Brook, the name of the one in the stories by ‘BB’ that I loved, most notably The Little Grey Men. My neighbour Margaret once saw two young otters playing with their mother in the river and only last summer a sharp-eyed naturalist found an otter spraint on a stone beside it. I walk there almost daily and although I have yet to see an otter I am always alert to the possibility – with that heightened awareness that one feels when on the scent of a new poem.

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