Valerie Lynch was born in Hertfordshire, but spent many childhood holidays visiting her Dorset relatives, She now lives in a Guildford. After completing a degree at Oxford she worked variously as an archaeologist, a teacher of economics and a psychotherapist. Now ninety years old, she has been writing poetry all her life and has had poems published by The Rialto and Iota, among other literary journals. So the Sky, her impressive first collection, was published by Dempsey & Windle in 2018. Her second collection, In the Time of Rabbits, was published in June 2019. She is now in the process of completing a novel set in Roman Britain.
The High Window is pleased to publish a selection of Valerie’s poems, but here she is first in conversation with Karen Izod.
KI: Can you tell me how it was you got started in writing poetry?
VL: Well, the original inspiration was in Dorset, and specifically with Great Aunt Alice, who had 12 children and adopted a 13th. I used to talk to her about her life when she was younger and her husband, uncle Joe was alive. He was a shepherd. I asked her about coping with that number of children, and she said life was very difficult but that they had the meat they got from the farm, because of his job, and the vegetables they grew, and which she put into string bags inside boiling water in a big iron pot and the more children she had the more the pot grew.
KI: And do you remember what it was about those experiences with her that got you writing poetry?
VL: (Laughs… shrugs….)
K I: You don’t remember!! I think you are allowed to say you don’t! Yet there’s a connection for you somehow …
V L: I honestly don’t remember specifically sitting down to write a poem, I must have done that, but when it came to making the collection the poems were there in my pc, in all sorts of different places. I think one or two poems, the ones about the Dorset family, I knew so well whose mother committed suicide during the war, and the long walks I had along the beach with the boys, each of us remembering, and that’s when I can remember writing.
KI: It has seemed to me, reading your poems, that the imagery is very fresh, as if it were freshly captured in your mind, that it didn’t have to be worked at some how.
V L: I have been told many times that I have a very visual imagination, and a very visual memory. I don’t remember things in words as so much in pictures, and that probably helps to account for that. Sometimes even now if I want to remember something specifically I will deliberately create a picture of it
KI: Is this your photographer’s eye?
V L: Ah well that’s probably true. I spent a lot of years never moving without a camera slung around my neck. That only stopped with the advent of digital photography which I couldn’t bring myself to be interested in because I’d spent too many hours developing and printing my own photographs by then.
KI: And one of which is on the cover isn’t it, is that Dungeness?
VL: No, I’ve got a vague memory of where that was but … it may have been an early Dungeness photo, when there were still complete shacks on the beach.
KI: I’m thinking in particular about a photograph of your mother in ‘Reading a Photograph’. It’s about your mother, well both your parents on their wedding day, and you seem to get at something that is beyond the photo, the smiling bride, you get at the tentativeness behind it.
VL: Well yes, my father holding his face muscles and expression very tightly, which would have been typical, I mean he was a very rigid person …
KL: I was struck by one poem, ‘The Mask’, where he is telling you about his experiences of being gassed in the war and this is a bed-time story that he is telling you, when you were very little.
VL: Yes he did. It does seem quite ridiculous now, it would have been when I was about seven and whenever I was in bed ill, with childish ailments he would come up and tell me stories of the war, I would have been seven in 1934, which for him, was quite near to the great war that he had fought in, which ended in 1918 though he wasn’t de-mobbed until 1920, so it wasn’t far off from his point of view. He probably thought I wouldn’t understand, so he could tell me anything which he couldn’t tell my mother.
KI: I notice as the book progresses, and I’m assuming that they are predominantly autobiographical …
VL: Oh yes
KI: … that you are growing up, away from those days in Dorset and that part of your family, and talking about visiting your grandmother after school (‘The button Box’) and how she didn’t necessarily speak to you and you didn’t have to speak to her. There was something you loved in that encounter
V L: Yes I did, because my parents, no doubt because of something in their own childhoods, were quite incredibly possessive and pokeynose and so I felt never left alone. So when I went to visit my grandmother in Watford which was a cycle ride after school, she spent time with me, but in her own words, she let me be, she felt strongly about letting people be, and we would walk out to her allotments together pushing her wheelbarrow -an orange box and 2 pram wheels – she would carry the things for planting in the allotment, and buy a penny bunch of watercress for tea from the watercress beds. Yes I was very very fond of my grandmother.
KI: So, moving through the collection, there are painful pieces in the middle, painful for me to read and think about, about the breaking up of relationships, and the in-between places, the neither /nor, where you just have the sense that things are going wrong.
VL: Yes that was a very difficult relationship with a very difficult man, who no doubt found me a very difficult woman. Ha! ha!! He was a very interesting person, and full of life and vigour and ideas, and unfortunately that relationship ended in a big bust up which shows in the poetry … because a lot of the breakup with him was on Dungeness beach. Dungeness has always held a fascination for me since the first time I walked along it, I went down there originally to see, oh god , the film maker, whose name I’ve forgotten (Derek Jarman) to see his house and think about him and his work, but I found that I just love the beach… it was full of slipways or fishing boats which were no longer active , and so there was a lot of feeling of nostalgia in the place and memory of the pulleys they used, all rusting and a bright red poppy, just one, blooming in front of them. And it was at Dungeness beach that the relationship finally broke down.
KL: I remember an image of an anchor in the shingle, tethering nothing (‘Dungeness’.)
V L: Yes … I think that line captured something about that relationship.
K I: So I’m intrigued in a way, that you say you haven’t got a memory of writing these, as if they have accompanied you over your life, and they’ve ended up somehow on your computer.
V L: I’m just trying to remember … I really can’t, I mean I would have written them in pen and ink on paper at odd times as I thought about them. I didn’t sit down at the computer and just write them off like that, I suppose you just know when a series of words sound right, and when I had written a few I must have put them on the computer and of course my pc is shocking in the sense that it has an untidy memory
K I: I can certainly identify with that! But I suppose, ever since I’ve known you, and in more recent years, its always been your novels that we’ve talked about which have been all consuming and your research and so on, do you want to say a bit about that.
VL: Well they are all set in the Roman period, because I became fascinated many, many years ago, in my early twenties by the story of Marcus Carausius who came from very humble beginings and made himself emperor of Britain and I picked up the story and decided to make something more of it, and yes, that’s what I’ve been doing. I have big problems in that I have lost some versions undoubtedly because of my untidy pc and nothing I can do, or even friends who have more skill that me have not been able to rescue stuff for me, so I finally decided I’ve got to start again and I’ve used the things I do remember, but also at the same time, because I was writing or at least concerned with publishing my poetry, I felt that pressure about writing the story of Marcus was lessening, and I found quite recently I was enjoying it more, so there are quite new stories that are coming in as part of the novel.
KI: Yes, and possibly the poetry books are testament to that too, that they have been garnered,
VL: Yes a good way of putting it.
KI: You write one about a poetry workshop that you went to where you are squirreling ideas away, and then you find a word and say it is like a vagabond coming into the heart, and I thought it was a fascinating image, I wonder if you feel a bit of a vagabond, because there is something both mischievous and a bit risqué … ? (‘Poetry Seminar’.)
V L: Well I do remember when that image came into my mind, I remember thinking – oh, where did that come from, no idea, it just arrived, which is no help to anyone who is looking at them
KI: Well only if you identify with it in someway, do you? or am I putting too much into it?
VL: No, I don’t think I see myself as a vagabond. I would like to see myself that way, part of me would, anyway. No, I much more I’m afraid, see myself as someone who has plodded through life.
KI: Well, if I were being an academic, I would say where is your evidence for that Valerie Lynch!! (Laughs).
VL: Probably not, it’s just that when I was small in primary school, I was seen as very clever, because I was always top of the class, routinely, I also remember actually that the headmistress at that time, in the election after the war, became a communist candidate. I always admired her for that, but anyway, but you see, when I went to Oxford, that all changed of course, and I was nothing particular, and I mean that must be probably when I began to think of myself as a plodder. By and large, I think I would ask someone who planned to go to Oxford to think very carefully about whether it was suitable for them, because I’m pretty damn sure it wasn’t for me. And for many years I was left with this image … You had to be clever academically to get there, but I didn’t want to go to University and I left school and I was making my own way very nicely, I’ve probably told you all this before …
KI: You told me you would have been much happier going to a redbrick university.
VL: Yes well that might be the answer, or not to have gone to university at all, you can develop a brain without going to university. I wonder if one really needs to go to university … well you see there weren’t any redbrick universities then … I remember hearing a story about someone who went to East Anglia University because you were allowed to create your own course. Well I’ve never heard any more about that so I don’t know if it happens, and it may be a bit much to expect an undergraduate to construct their entire course, I can see some place for it, and that would have interested me, believe you me, there is no place for it at Oxford.
KI: But coming back to being a plodder, that image of yourself didn’t seem to stop your creative drive, and you’ve gone on and had a number of careers that have really responded to your curiosity and outlook on life.
VL: Yes I’ve had quite a lot of different careers, its’ true. I’ve always had a bit of get up and go. I’m just trying to think what I first did. Oh, I know, I went to Germany, well that was lunatic of course, to go to a country that had virtually been obliterated, more specifically the place I went to in Westphalia had just about been wiped out. I didn’t meet any hostility from the Germans, but it wasn’t a good experience, I think I went there too young, without any clear idea of what studies I wanted to undertake there – I was studying at Munster University …
KI: And what did you hope you would study there?
VL: It was never really laid down. If you take a German doctorate you do decide your own … well at least I was asked to, they suggested the currency reform that had gone on there and that would have been excellent but I thought I knew best, and a year later I was still thinking. I learned to speak fluent German but not much else came out of it for them or for me. Then after Germany that was when I used to go on lots of different holiday projects and one of them I went to Tintagel, in a dig, and, as a lot of people are, I was immediately addicted. I was studying Verulamium in 1955/56 and living in St Albans at the time, and I managed to get a job testimonial from the curator which I presented at Plymouth City museum and became the city archaeologist.
KI: But let’s return to your [poetry, which people are really loving …
VL: Oh, that’s nice, I didn’t know …
KI: Do you have any ideas as to why it has such an appeal?
VL: I guess maybe it’s because it is quite ordinary, it doesn’t try to be poetry written for poets. I have in the past tried to get into various prestigious poetry magazines, and I did get into the Rialto, but I found it very difficult and I do think that some of the more prestigious magazines are publishing poetry for poets, perhaps fairly unconsciously. As I look back and reread some of the poems then I think I’ve tried to give a twist to the ordinary.
KI: I suppose the other thing that strikes, they are very forthright, you say you certainly enjoyed a good fuck … on the landing.. (‘The Two of You).
VL: I remember when I wrote that one, I thought … well that’s the way I thought of it in that particular poem.
KI: So yes, they are delightfully forthright, I don’t want to say honest, but I’m assuming they are.
VL: Oh yes, it happened.
KL: Is there anything else you ‘d like people to know about your writing, before we finish, for instance are there any poets that you’ve been particularly influenced by?
VL: Well I don’t know … I mean in the sixth form we were brought up on Wilfred Owen … who were the other war poets?
KL: Siegried Sasson … ?
VL: … yes, but I didn’t like him.
KL: Ivor Gurney? Rupert Brook … ?
VL: I didn’t like him, too romantic. There were a couple of others, but I can’t recall their names.
(A short tea break)
VL: Where were we?
KI: Influences, and struggling to remember the First World War poets.
VL: Auden and MacNiece, Auden especially,
KI: Do you know what it was about his work?
VL: I think I always felt he was very straightforward and honest. There were certain poets and artists who to me belong in my later teenage years, like Auden and Spender, and Paul Nash, the painter, I felt surrounded by them.
KI: How good to feel that proximity, and I know you have some beautiful Paul Nash prints around the house, but actually that is making me think of your poetry that speaks about the earth, and the roots, and the bare branches …
V L: Actually the one who painted in Dorset where I was thinking about my poems about the earth was John Nash, his brother, but I don’t like his paintings. I don’t know why you don’t see them around so much.
KI: I do remember you telling me when you were about eleven you wrote a nature diary
VL: Yes when I was fourteem. I still have it. The style of it was incredibly boring because there were the two of us who set ourselves to identify a new plant everyday in the summer and every week in the winter, and we did keep to that. I was to do the identifying and she was to do the illustrating, but I’m afraid I finally threw her out of the book because she insisted on prettifying it, and I had to unprettify it. We had quite an interesting time finding new plants, it became difficult to find a new one everyday but not impossible…
KI: … not impossible … Shall we finish there for today? Thank you so much Valerie.
16th July 2019
Karen Izod has been is an independent consultant, educator and writer since 1990. For more about Karen and her work: http://www.karenizod.com/about/
Valerie Lynch: Eight Poems
READING A PHOTOGRAPH
Is it a taxi, or a bus, its handle hidden by ribbons?
The open door is waiting at the kerb where
Mother can just be seen behind her red roses.
Oh happy day, her wedding dress and her wedding smile –
Untroubled, guileless child, I think she’s delighted
With my father, his six foot length so upright, stiff,
His pin-striped suit and bowler hat, his smile so tense
And fixed that his cheeks must ache.
I can see Mother, seated inside the car leaning out
to wave goodbye, frightened a little as the wedding faces
move away and lose their loving significance.
I see her turning now to Father, believing he’ll know.
And Father’s face, still holding his aching smile.
THE BUTTON BOX
I cycled over to see you each day after school to sit
and not say a word, and have you not say a word to me,
just leaving me be.
I’d take out your button box, letting its waterfall
of metal and bone tumble over my hand,
or finger a tinny tune on your old piano
in the chill of the best front room.
When the street lights failed
we listened to lapping and licking
until we felt the river’s warm vomit
soaking our feet and snaking inside,
sliding over the carpet and inching up
choking out air as it rose
and went on rising.
I thought of dad
asleep in the cellar
as mustard gas silently throttled the air.
I watched as we lost the tables
the chairs the paintings the photos
the books our peace plant
that never flowered.
And I thought of dad once six foot tall
shrunk and losing his life
as the rising ide in his lungs
choked out his air in a silent ward
his husked fierce voice from the mask
You’ll be like this one day.
Squirrels, we skittered through words and phrases,
looked at their colours and hoarded their random
shine for times when nothing moved.
Your words – pinpoint, exact – scattered among us,
caught by a sideways glance or left to lie.
Unbothered, you offered more,
till one or other of us picked up a word
that astonished, pushing thought aside
and leading a vagabond into the heart.
THE TWO OF YOU
You were a vibrant plant with jagged leaves
and spikes. You died. The spikes
still slash at me and I want to tear you out
and shred you, flush you away.
Only one problem. We fucked
So sublimely. Tender and springing
you opened me right out
As we dissolved laughter in love.
So when I sit on the sofa, the end that droops
where you habitually sat, memory splits.
Did you just slam the door yelling
leave me alone
or are we sprawled on the landing laughing,
licking and scrambling for ways to get in?
After you died I thought I’d find
love without spikes
but you left me unwrapped
the two of you fighting inside
while memory bucked and ripped
as I tried to shut the door.
Abandoned huts and machines
taunt us with images
of a past that worked.
We could not grasp
the tentative kindnesses
At the sea’s edge, a last
fishing smack prevaricates,
seduces our dreams.
Here in the centre,
an anchor protrudes
from dry stones,
IN THE TIME OF RABBITS
Rabbits came out from the trees
scattered in urgent rushings
now here, now there:
left the burdock swaying behind –
priests absorbed in prayers
All things were possible
and waiting to be lived.
the grass was silent and slow,
and the sun
rarely spoke at all until after mid-day
TODAY AND TOMORROW
And then there is the void between today
and the filling in of tomorrow.
Can you see the last flash of today over there
as it blinks and blurs out of view?
There, on the very point of Portland Bill –
the cliff’s thronging with people who shout
and wave as they try to lasso tomorrow.