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


What a difference a couple of days at Dartington can make! I am just back from two quick visits – attending three events on Sunday 30 July and three more on Tuesday 1 August. They were all part of the Dartington Summer School programme directed by the celebrated pianist Joanna McGregor. I’d like to share some of the highlights.

Well, Dartington Hall is itself a highlight, isn’t it? Pevsner calls it ‘the most spectacular medieval mansion of Devon.’ Its courtyard is spacious and elegant, like an Oxbridge quad – inspiring by day, enchanting in evening light. The Great Hall (late XIVth c.) is, Pevsner again, ‘among the finest of its date in England.’ What a place – in front of the vast fireplace and soaring stone walls – to hear Alice Oswald give (from memory, as usual) her recent long poem ‘Rain’. She was accompanied by a jazz pianist, who kept pace with, and accentuated, the remarkable shifts of tempo in the poem. I was lucky enough to talk with Alice afterwards and was fascinated to find that the rain storm that prompted the poem took place on the day of the Referendum vote in June last year – a moment of huge national importance. Perhaps one can understand ‘Rain’ as a state of the nation poem. How wonderful that the poem, in a different recitation by Alice, can easily be heard and heard again via the Radio 3 website.

That event was at the end of my second visit but Alice, and her husband Peter Oswald, also featured in the first I attended. This was a panel on the ‘Stories in Transit’ project initiated by Marina Warner last year. Dame Marina has been working, assisted by a team of artists from many disciplines, with young refugees in Palermo, Sicily. Her idea is that refugee camps lack a cultural dimension that could be vital in helping traumatised individuals back to fully functioning life. She was thrilled to find, as part of her immersion in Arabic literature, history and culture, that the word raawi embraces both relating (a story) and watering or irrigating. Stories in Transit aims to use stories to help refugees to survive and to flourish in appallingly difficult circumstances. Marina’s account of the project and the thinking behind it can be found in a report titled ‘Bearer-Beings and Stories in Transit/Storie in Transito’ (Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies, Vol.31, No.1, 2017, pp. 149-62 – not difficult to access thanks to public libraries and JSTOR). I was fortunate enough to play a small part in this project when a three day series of workshops was held in Palermo last September. I was deeply impressed by the young, mostly West African, refugees we met: they seemed, despite their terrible experiences, up for everything – positive and dynamic assets to any community that would have them.  I also have great admiration for the women who teach them Italian and are so concerned for their welfare – a school for refugee children in Palermo numbers 3000 students.

At the panel on Stories in Transit, Peter Oswald spoke of a fascinating community-based drama about – and with – refugees that he was recently involved with at Plymouth’s Barbican Theatre. Alice spoke of different instances of imaginative power from the adventures of Odysseus to the real life experiences of the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl and the novelist Mikhail Bakhtin. We also heard from the most popular contemporary Arabic-language poet, Tamim Al-Barghouti. Tamim is rare in being deeply involved in contemporary politics and immersed in classical Arabic literature and history. Many YouTube videos capture his public readings (some, through Al Jazeera Plus with added animations) but now a selection of his poems is available. These sentences are borrowed from the website at SOAS, where the new book was launched in May: ‘In Jerusalem and Other Poems, lovingly translated by his late mother, Radwa Ashour, the prominent Egyptian academic and novelist, and Ahdaf Soueif, the Booker nominated author of The Map of Love, were written in Cairo, Ramallah, Amman, Washington, DC and Berlin between 1996 and 2016. In 2007, Al-Barghouti’s long poem ‘In Jerusalem’, which describes an aborted journey to the city, became something of a street poem. It is heartbreakingly beautiful. It speaks to the story of millions of homeless Palestinians who have been forced to live in exile since 1948.’ Tamim’s father, Mourid Barghouti, is also a distinguished poet and the author of the illuminating memoir I saw Ramallah. In Jerusalem is the next book on my reading list – it was recently published by Interlink Publishing Group and is easy to find online.

So many magical doors opened during my two days, which, of course, one wants to share – thank you, Dartington!


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.

One comment on “Mark Haworth-Booth

  1. barleybooks says:

    What a lively report of a very special couple of days at Dartington!. I heard Alice Oswald perform Rain in Bath last year. She is mesmerising.


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