It’s always busy at the start of a new academic year – lots of literature events seem to cluster around September/October/November. Various preparations are being made for Durham Book Festival later in the month – I’ve been working on a poetry postcard for it, which hopefully will be ready soon. Also, by chance, last week’s National Poetry Day happily coincided with our gategate reading at Newcastle University – from the second edition of my occasional folding pamphlet. It was very satisfying to see so many people turn up at lunchtime to listen to a very special line-up of the poets included – Gillian Allnutt, Christy Ducker, Bill Herbert, Lesley Mountain and Ellen Phethean. And Birtley Aris, whose pen and ink illuminations embellish the texts, also read a favourite poem – Peter Rafferty’s ‘Off The Beaten Track’ (from The New Lake Poets, edited by William Scammell, Bloodaxe 1991) Jane Hirshfield has a poem in it too but understandably couldn’t make it across the Atlantic to join us. We sold practically every single copy and made enough to go towards the third edition, which hopefully won’t take as long as the last one (four quick, inexplicable years).
Wednesday was an inspiring day at Moorbank – writing alongside four other poets I’d invited to enjoy the particular mixture of peace and provocation that the garden affords. Three visual artists also came to respond to the genius loci. Birtley painted these wonderful complex watercolours in the Tropical House.
It was a relief to be able to spend the best part of a day focussing on just one thing – and to actually write. These past few weeks I’ve felt as if I’m living at least two lives – one governed by a diary with all my usual commitments still in place, and another with a schedule working towards my various proposed botanical journeys. Never have I longed quite so ardently for a travelling companion who finds making travel arrangements more straightforward than I do. I will be very pleased when I step on the plane next Thursday to make my first gesture – right back to the beginning of things – and travel to Padua to visit the oldest botanic garden in the world, founded in 1545.
By another pleasing coincidence Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (the 18th century writer and traveller I wrote about in The Toast of the Kit Cat Club, Bloodaxe 2005) also spent time living in Padua, where she gardened and studied herbs; no doubt, according to her biographer, Isobel Grundy, inspired by the botanic garden there. I hope to track down her scent in her ‘favourite palazzo’ in San Massimo, ‘handily situated near the river, the highway to Venice’. Grundy tells us: ‘Padua, tightly penned between its walls and the River Brenta, was still regarded by many of the Venetian nobility as a good site for a second or third ‘country’ house. Lady Mary went back and forth between Padua and Venice, between solitary study and socializing, between her foreign and English worlds.’ It’s tempting to think that busy, complicated lives are something we’ve invented but reading Lady Mary’s letters, it’s clear her schedule left no room for too much reflection. She was a woman who always lived at least two lives and thrived on it.