Chris Floyd
Show Hide image

Poet Sir Geoffrey Hill dies aged 84

His wife confirmed Hill passed away “suddenly, and without pain or dread”.

British Poet Sir Geoffrey Hill has died at age 84, his wife confirmed on Twitter this morning.

Hill, who had often been referred to as the “greatest living poet in the English language”, leaves behind him an extensive corpus of poetry extending back into the Fifties. Oxford University’s Professor of Poetry from 2010-2015, Hill was also a respected critical essayist, winning the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2009 for his Collected Critical Writings.

Hill’s distinctive, esoteric style means he has often been referred to as a “difficult” poet. But Sophie Ratcliffe, writing for the New Statesman in 2007, argues that this is not the case.

It is frustrating that so many descriptions of Hill's poetry describe him as a difficult poet. The characterisation distracts from the fact that he is, and always has been, among our greatest broken love poets.

Peter Popham, writing for the NS in 2012, agrees, drawing parallels between Hill’s work and Game of Thrones, and arguing that it is time a wider audience discovered his poetry:

For decades, scholars have been describing Hill as the best living British poet, so it is strange how few people seem to know his work. The standard explanation for this is that he is difficult. Being difficult, his harshest critics go on to call him an elitist and hence, in an ugly leap that usually involves dragging in Ezra Pound, a bit of a fascist. Attacks of this sort have built a firewall between the poet and his potential readership.

This is a pity. If a wider readership were merely missing out on some colossal old bore, the stigma of elitism wouldn’t matter. But Hill is a wonderful poet, unsurpassed in his earlier years for his lyric gift and ever richer, funnier, denser, more acerbic in the volumes that have flooded from his pen recently.

The argument about elitism is a tragic hangover from the age when our national culture was under the sway of a sort of prescriptive populism – a form of condescension that produced the New English Bible and figures such as Philip Larkin, whose reactionary politics went hand in hand with an insistence on being instantaneously understandable to everybody.

Why should we expect to understand poems at a single sitting, as if poetry were under the jurisdiction of the Plain English Campaign? We think nothing of exerting ourselves to learn a language or master a new software program – why should it be regarded as anachronistic to demand a fraction of such effort to understand a poem? If a poet has something to teach, poetry lovers should be prepared to make the effort to learn.

Hill has never worn his politics on his sleeve but he is clear about the dangers of deliberate simplification, quoting the dictum that “tyrants always want a language and a literature that is easily understood”. “Tyranny requires simplification,” he maintains. “Genuinely difficult art is truly democratic.”

All of which is to erect another discouraging firewall between Hill and a wider audience. Yet, in an age when a little light research is as easy as saying “Google”, when a book-length annotation of Hill’s most difficult (and amazing) long poem “Speech! Speech!” is available for nothing on the internet, we really have no excuse for not diving into this man’s extraordinary oeuvre. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Fasting and Feasting: the eccentric life of food writer Patience Gray

Journalist Adam Federman clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. 

It is hard, these days, to open a food magazine or a news­paper’s colour supplement without finding an article extolling the charm of foraging. So fashionable has the Instagram-friendly pursuit become that the botanist James Wong recently  wrote of his alarm at finding pictures of food – often published on blogs proclaiming the evils of sugar, gluten and dairy – prettily decorated with flowers of extreme toxicity: narcissus, catharanthus, lantana and rhododendron.

The food writer Patience Gray loved narcissi, whose springtime appearance on Naxos she described in her 1989 account of a year spent on the Greek island, Ring Doves and Snakes; but she would have known better than to use them as a garnish. Her passionate interest in foraged and seasonal food, which began during her wartime years spent in a primitive cottage in Sussex, where she pursued a scholarly interest in edible fungi, developed over the many decades during which she lived with her partner, the sculptor Norman Mommens, in some of the remotest parts of the Mediterranean.

On Naxos, in Carrara in Tuscany and for the last three decades of their life together at Spigolizzi, a masseria (farmhouse) in Apulia, Gray and Mommens found a way of life still governed by the elemental rhythms of sowing and growing, feasting and fasting – rhythms they adopted and incorporated into the practice of their work. “Métier” was a talismanic term for Gray.

“It sometimes seems as if I have been rescuing a few strands from a former and more diligent way of life, now being fatally eroded by an entirely new set of values,” she wrote in Honey from a Weed (1986), her evocative fusion of memoir and cookbook. “As with students of music who record old songs which are no longer sung, soon some of the things I record will also have vanished.”

Patience was one of a formidable cohort of female writer-cooks whose celebrations of food in muscular, elegant prose sprang from the privations of the Second World War. A contemporary of Elizabeth David, M F K Fisher and Julia Child, she wrote just three cookery books, only two of which were published in her lifetime: the bestselling Plats du Jour (1957), co-written with Primrose Boyd and warily subtitled “Foreign Food”, and the eclectic Honey from a Weed. The Centaur’s Kitchen, a book of Mediterranean recipes written in 1964 for the Chinese cooks of the Blue Funnel shipping line, was posthumously published in 2005. She also wrote two wayward volumes of memoir: Ring Doves and Snakes and Work Adventures Childhood Dreams (1999).

Despite this comparative reticence (she wrote bitterly in Work Adventures Childhood Dreams of her mother, whom she accused of valuing only published work: “But Patience, is there anything you have written that is actually in print?”), the publication of Honey from a Weed turned her into a celebrity, and the austere household at Spigolizzi, devoid of electricity, telephone or sanitation, became a place of pilgrimage for such keen food fanciers as Paul Levy (the co-author of The Official Foodie Handbook) and the late Derek Cooper of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. As her biographer, Adam Federman, remarks, “A full account of her remarkable life is long overdue.”

Gray divided her adult life into two parts: before 1962, when she began living with Norman Mommens, and after. On either side of that meeting her life was eventful. Of her upper-middle-class upbringing she wrote, “I have listened to other people’s accounts of their happy childhoods with sadness mingled with disbelief.”

Educated at Queen’s College in London (where Unity Mitford was a contemporary) and the London School of Economics, she worked for the designer F H K Henrion on the agricultural and country pavilions at the Festival of Britain, and had three children by Thomas Gray, an elusive  married “artist-designer” whose name she took.

Having left him, she won a competition to become the women’s editor of the Observer. Sacked after three years (by the paper’s new features editor George Seddon, under whom things “became dull, more serious”), she “began a different and more creative life”, sharing and recording the ancient traditions of seasonal food production and preparation of the communities among which she occupied an ambiguous position as both participant and observer until her death in 2005, aged 87.

Federman – a journalist, academic and “former line cook, bread baker and pastry chef” – clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. While Gray possessed the sharp observing eye, selective memory and comic timing of an instinctive writer, Federman is dogged and respectful.

His book is dutifully strewn with the names of Gray’s wide acquaintance, but he lacks the gift of characterisation and conveys little impression of their personalities. Even Gray, so vivid a presence in her own books, seems oddly muted in Federman’s portrait (though he gives a lively account of her exhilaratingly awful behaviour at her daughter’s wedding).

For admirers of Patience Gray’s remarkable prescience in anticipating what has become known as the “Slow Food” movement, Federman’s exhaustively detailed biography will be a valuable resource. But for those who long for a flavour of her personality – as pungent and earthy as the dishes she recorded – it is best read with a copy of Honey from a Weed to hand. 

Fasting and Feasting: the Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray
Adam Federman
Chelsea Green, 384pp, £20

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder