Stone Meadow Notebook

Linda France was born in Newcastle upon Tyne. After some time living away, she moved back to the North East in 1981. She is currently based close to Hadrian’s Wall, near Hexham, in Northumberland. Her poetry collections include The Simultaneous Dress (Bloodaxe 2002) and The Toast of the Kit Cat Club (Bloodaxe 2005), a biography in verse of the 18th century traveller and writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Her two latest books are book of days, a year renga, with ceramic fragments by Sue Dunne (Smokestack Books 2009) and You are Her (Arc Publications 2010). Linda also edited the acclaimed anthology Sixty Women Poets(Bloodaxe 1993). She has worked on a number of collaborations with visual artists and musicians and around 40 Public Art projects. Linda was Leverhulme Artist in Residence at Moorbank Botanic Garden, University of Newcastle in 2010/11.

In the Autumn of 2011, I decided I wanted to return to an ongoing but erratic writing project based on the area where I live – a high fell overlooking the Tyne Valley in Northumberland, just behind Hadrian’s Wall.  To this end, I asked a friend to come and help me move my desk down my narrow, winding stairs and set it in the bay in the sitting room that overlooks the said fell and valley beyond.  This was supposed to make me face my subject and resist the many possible distractions.

Once some years ago during a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, I briefly met Colm Toibin.  In his workspace, he’d shifted his desk against a windowless wall armed with the motto ‘Face the wall and write’.  Considering his output and success in the intervening years, it obviously worked.  I’m less sure that it has been a strategy that suits my way of working.  Maybe a window makes all the difference.

Writing about where I live is important to me.  It’s a powerful, austere place with centuries of history hidden in the landscape.  I am interested in ideas about home and belonging and they are also part of the appeal.  Ecologically, I tend to agree with Gary Snyder who said that the most radical thing anyone can do now to help the planet is to stay at home.  There’s also a spiritual layer about presence, not turning away from what’s in front of your eyes, honouring the actuality of experience.  I hoped all these strands would come together in work I might produce sitting at my desk, looking south across the valley to the horizon beyond.

Timing is important and it just so happened that I had a winter with fewer teaching commitments.  I was keen to indulge my natural instinct to semi-hibernate, to engage with the darkness in an attempt to understand it better.  This landscape has a naturally wintry air about it and my plan seemed auspicious, as if everything would fit together perfectly so I could easily slip into a rhythm of writing about this special part of the world, observing it, walking in it and researching it.  What could possibly go wrong?

Theory and practice, ideal and reality, are lessons a writer must learn over and over again.  Relying so thoroughly on the workings of the unfathomable human brain is asking for trouble.  After a promising beginning, I wrote less than I expected, catching myself shrinking from facing the blank page and the wide-open cheerless fell in front of me.  It was almost painful to see so much stillness, the limited palette of brown, black, green and grey, the land’s refusal to distract or enchant – definitely more reality than a human being could bear.  I’d try to assuage my restlessness with walks or research but in the end, I needed to return to the writing itself for the project to progress in any meaningful way.  It seemed as if I’d slowed to the pace of winter and kept stalling, lacking the momentum and motivation to make anything happen.  Barry Lopez says that we become the places we spend most of our time in.  I was becoming fell, exposed and barren.

Perhaps it was because I was trying to write prose and, as a poet, it’s not my natural medium.  Perhaps I’m better writing in short bursts rather than long uninterrupted periods (the poet’s one night stands rather than the prose writer’s marriage, according to Brodsky). Perhaps I’m too close to this place I’ve lived in for 18 years and will only be able to write about it properly when, or if, I leave.  Perhaps the spirit was willing but I actually needed a rest after my intensive year writing in response to Moorbank Botanic Garden as Leverhulme Poet in Residence.  Perhaps in the end my inner saboteur had the winning hand.

No doubt I’ll return to the subject.  My notebook is over half-full, hard to ignore or abandon.  There’s a book in there somewhere but I can’t see the shape of it yet, although it’s not for want of trying.  Now we’re approaching the Spring Equinox, the official end of winter, I hope I’ll be able to come out from behind glass and spend more time writing outdoors, keep following the thread of my connection to this wild patch of land, my stone meadow.

For more information on Linda France’s work, please visit her website.