On March 21st Saltash U3A celebrated World Poetry Day with an afternoon of readings, talk, laughter, reflection and general enjoyment. Our theme was Celebrating Our Third Age and among the poems we explored were Singing Game by ‘local lad’ Charles Causley, which celebrates the passing of the seasons and the years; Oh, I Wish I’d Looked After My Teeth, by Pam Ayres – encouraging us to laugh at some aspect of ‘getting on’; and Philip Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb and Friendship by Elizabeth Jennings – poems which focus on what really matters in life. Sylvia Plath’s Mirror reminded us of having to ‘face up’ to ageing while The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost prompted thoughts on the importance of acknowledging what we’ve probably missed.
A lovely and lively poem which cheered us up no end was Mrs McHingy by Diane Harland. The old lady of the title is at first isolated, grumpy and rather unpleasant but eventually embraces the chance for change and emerges as happy and full of life. (We all felt she must have joined her local U3A to achieve such a transformation). I first came across this joyful piece in All Sorts of Poems edited by Ann Thwaite but can’t find out anything about Diane Harland or her work – so, if anyone out there can help, do let me know.
** I’m currently reading poetry, letters, diaries, notes by women involved in the First World War. This is for a course I’m teaching at the U3A Summer School at RAU Cirencester from August 18-21. Some of these women were on the home front, looking after their families and/or out at work while others were serving on base or battlefield.
At the moment I’m reading the diaries of Florence Farmborough who was in Moscow teaching English to the two daughters of a heart surgeon when Germany declared war on Russia, our ally at the time. Florence, and her pupils, began nurse training and after six months Florence was sent with a Red Cross unit to the South-West Front. There she dealt with appalling wounds in makeshift hospitals, often as shells were exploding nearby, bringing down masonry and breaking windows. Writing in her diary later she recalled: ‘I caught a glimpse of my white overall, covered with blood-stains and dirt… Mechanically my fingers worked: ripping, cleaning, dressing, binding. Now this one was finished, another one begun.’ (Florence Farmborough, Nurse at the Russian Front: Futura Publications 1977, p.42)
There are many more examples of the bravery of women involved in WW1: it’s an aspect of our history well worth exploring in detail.
** And ‘history’ is a complicated concept. Elsewhere on this website I’ve published two short stories I wrote as part of my Creative Writing MA course at the University of East Anglia, in 1977. Both are about young women facing a future on their own. The first, Plait, is set in the 19th century and I researched the historical background in detail. The second, The Cat’s Whiskers, was ‘modern’ when I wrote it but somehow it seems now to be the more old-fashioned of the two pieces. It’s set in the 70s when access to computers was limited and the personal computer and the mobile phone still on the geeks’ ‘to do’ list. So, there was no quick and easy contact via email or text messaging; no personal websites; no Facebook; no Twitter. Somehow that story seems so much more ‘historical’ than the first – or do I just mean ‘old fashioned’? I’m pretty sure it couldn’t have happened all these years later!
I’m delighted to know that my book Old, Bold and Won’t Be Told: Shakespeare’s Amazing Ageing Ladies has inspired the Studio Theatre, Ilfracombe, to plan a show featuring some of Shakespeare’s feisty older characters, such as Volumnia and Paulina. The group has the backing of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s nation-wide Open Stages Project and will be performing the show in Ilfracombe during March 2015 (Women’s History Month).
March 21st this year is World Poetry Day – established in 1999 by UNESCO to recognise the important role of poetry in cultures world-wide. I’m organising an afternoon of readings and discussion for Saltash U3A (of which excellent organisation I’m the current Chair). We’re taking as our theme Celebrating Our Third Age and as well as featuring work by Sophie Hannah, Sylvia Plath and Cornwall’s Charles Causley will enjoy the poetry of some of our own members.
Still on a ‘poetic’ theme – today is particularly sad as it sees the funeral of a dear friend and former colleague, the Welsh poet Nigel Jenkins. He died at the end of January, aged 64. It’s a tremendous loss to those who loved him, to the world of literature and to all who enjoy tough, challenging, yet beautiful writing.