Monday, 8 January 2018

Emily Bronte: High Waving Heather

I am preparing for a talk about Emily Bronte's life and writing, at Morley Library (details on my Upcoming events page), and one of the poems I plan to feature is High Waving Heather, whose form and structure I have been considering.  I have always liked the poem, but in recent days the experience of reading it aloud has drawn me to the particularly strident sounds and style of the poem, whose vowel sounds and line endings charge it full of purposive energy and bite. The poet's use of dactylic foot, as I shall demonstrate below, accentuates the aggression of the subject matter, and enables each line to thrust its self into life very much in the manner of the tempestuous weather she describes; but the poem, which has been interpreted allegorically, is also a wonderfully dramatic evocation of the sort of moorland world in which Emily Bronte felt most at home.

High waving heather 'neath stormy blasts bending, the poem begins, and notice how already we are tugged along by stormy weather into a brisk, or even bounding, pace; the authoritative syllabic sound of "High" kicks things off firmly; the alliterative opening, spiked with a Long "i" sound,  sweeps us into a rhythm of energy and movement. With the insistent sound of words like "High," "Mighty," and "Roaring," to initiate the lines, combined with the use of dactyls (syllabic units where the first sound is stressed, followed by two unstressed syllables), Emily Bronte has injected the poem with a vigour and anger, a little like an athlete "pushing" off from the blocks for that first spurt of a race. 
Right from the start, we know this poem is not going to be a pastoral meditation on heather waving gently in the breeze - but a fast blast of sharp sounds, all enabled by the employment of the dactyl.  With line endings like rending, descending, flying and defying, this three-stanza flurry of a poem is designed to rouse the reader, or listener, and to summon up an urgent pace.  Yet the poem also imprints an imagery of stoicism in the echoes of a storm, contrasting the transience of the elements and the "gloom defying" lightning, and the advance of the river bursting its banks, with the permanence and immovability of the earth.

Rivers their banks in the jubilee rending,
Fast through the valleys a reckless course wending,
Wider and deeper their waters extending,
Leaving a desolate desert behind.

There is something in Emily Bronte's pace and rhythm which, for me, conjures thoughts not just of the heather and hills of Yorkshire, but of the Scottish Highlands, in these lines.  Indeed, when I first read the poem I half forgot that I was not casting my eyes over the words of Robbie Burns.  Much has been written about the author's veneration of nature, and her use of a lower case "h" in "heaven" (twice) is certainly interesting, especially considering her background as the daughter of a Parson, but whatever metaphors or allegorical themes might be deduced from this powerful poem, the sense of escape is ever-present:

Man spirit away from his drear dungeon sending,
Bursting the fetters and breaking the bars. 

The ABAAAB rhyme scheme is both pleasing to the ear, and invigorating, in how it gives the stanzas' final lines a punch, and neatly compresses a story of midnight storms, thunder, and desolation.  Rhymes and half-rhymes within the lines are acutely stirring also - wild, and life-giving, glory and rejoicing, Lightning-bright flashes the deep gloom defying.  The juxtaposing of stars and darkness, or earth and heaven, jolt us into shifting visions and spectral imaginings. The vision of survival, even of the triumph of the will, against a hard, bleak background, and in spite of tempests, dungeons is hard to overlook, yet though the poem's power lies in its wet and wild setting, the lasting imagery of sadness is surely underlined in the fleeting brevity of the storm's life-giving essence, fading from the desolate aftermath.

High waving heather 'neath stormy blasts bending
Midnight and moonlight and bright shining stars,
Darkness and glory rejoicingly blending,
Earth rising to heaven, and heaven descending,
Man spirit away from his drear dungeon sending,
Bursting the fetters and breaking the bars. 

All down the mountain sides, wild forest lending
One mighty voice to the life-giving wind;
Rivers their banks in the jubilee rending,
Fast through the valleys a reckless course wending,
Wider and deeper their waters extending,
Leaving a desolate desert behind.

Shining and lowering and swelling and dying,
Changing for ever from midnight to noon;
Roaring like thunder, like soft music sighing,
Shadows on shadows advancing and flying,
Lightning-bright flashes the deep gloom defying,
Coming as swiftly and fading as soon.


Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Bicentenary of Emily Bronte - Exploring the Brontes events

2018 is the bicentenary of Emily Bronte, and I am greatly looking forward to developing the event Exploring the Brontes with my co-collaborator Caroline Lamb, and friends. In 2017 we took the show to Morley, Gildersome, Todmorden and Halifax,

...and we are planning an imminent event at Sowerby Bridge, plus some exciting further ventures - all of which will be featured here as soon as possible.

My first solo Emily Bronte themed event will be at 11AM on Thursday 18th Jan at Morley Library, West Yorks, where anyone is welcome and where attendance is free.  I will be talking about Emily's life and work, and focusing especially on certain poems, including the one below, which I have always felt is identifiable with the spirit of solitude which characterized Emily Bronte, and gave rise to some of her greatest literary creations.  In some of my Exploring the Brontes talks on Branwell last year, I used to say the poem reminded me of him, and I suppose it does in a way.  But I feel that it could also be said to be a sort of tribute to all lost spirits, or to anyone who has at any time in their lives felt alienated or adrift, and it is certainly one which I will be exploring a lot in this momentous year of Emily's bicentenary.

It was night and on the mountains
Fathoms deep the snow drifts lay
Streams and waterfalls and fountains...
Down in darkness stole away

Long ago the hopeless peasant
Left his sheep all buried there
Sheep that through the summer pleasant
He had watched with fondest care
Now no more a cheerful ranger
Following pathways known of yore
Sad he stood a wildered stranger
On his own unbounded moor.

Carving Angels in the Window Pane - Poetry by Keely Murphy

I know little of American poet Keely Murphy, beyond that her collection This Steady Place (Blue Begonia Press 2005) is one of my favourite books, sent to me by a friend from the publisher's home state of Yakima, Washington, nearly ten years ago.  The biographical information records that the author lives in the Yakima Valley, "one block away from the centre of the city," but there is no suggestion of any other publications. The poet's persona is as enigmatic as many of the presences which sail fleetingly through this magical book.  I dreamt ghosts carved an angel in my window pane, begins one of the poems in this shimmering collection, all shattery, haunting my apartment building. 


Dreams feature significantly, as do the beginnings of days, the act of waking, though often with the sense of something more elegiac than Edenic:

A hush fell over the city today.
I crossed Yakima Avenue and felt and
heard the same hush on 40th Avenue.
We drove downtown and this 
sea of birds flew up from the old buildings,
all curving in a crowd, darting, spotting the sky.
Dark against a gray sky lit up by sunset.


Birds flutter and swoop through the beguiling pages of this day-dreamy book, winging their way into the title poem, where the book's valley setting is my quiet strength, like bone destiny.  Setting out her declaration of intent, the poet states:

Today, I don't need sand dollars.
I need this sun, this March heat, these white cumulus clouds.
And I will continue as this desert does, bending seasons,
dry and wet, cold and warm, and
this inconsistency its own reliability.

Deep in a meditative communion with her surroundings, the author celebrates the valley's powers in a a Pantheistic joint embodiment:

I wake up just how this valley does.
It got into me as a child. It raised me up as a woman.
Its cycles are my cycles, and I am its own.
This dusty ground, accepting what we give it.
I accept this long way around.
I love it here - these chimneys and porchlights.
This steady place.  It is broken and blown over.
It is blooming and full of birds.

Reading these lyrical, quasi-Biblical lines, which so eloquently portray the cloudy heat of late winter in the Pacific Northwest, in the grip of a Calder Valley winter, it is hard not to notice both the vast differences and similarities between our two environments.  Here, there are no irrigation sprinklers to overwhelm any miraculous crop harvest.  No cherry blossoms, desert dust, or lawns being mowed - even by March.  But the horizons are defined by bulbous brown hills rising into clouds, and the ground we walk on is built over minerals thick and cold, while the Calder Valley winter is a glittering symphony of birds  - waders, ravens, wrens and woodpeckers, muscovies and merlins.
Keely Murphy's descriptions of pigeons strike a chord for me, as they are birds of abundance here in my neck of the woods:

Farther down the avenue, pigons flew
up from the old Baptist church and
one white bird landed on the east side
perched on a tiny stone ledge. I said,
"Look at that white one." 

I love how the poet imagines the pigeons' relations elsewhere in the world:

The pigeons flying like how I picture they fly in Europe,
how I picture they fly on the East Coast.
They fly the same on every continent, classic like that.
Birds flew in the hush and I pictured them
swirling up a wind current on their own,
flying by their own movement.

But the birds flocking through the poems in This Steady Place are as likely to be mythical or imaginary as real:


In a dream last night I dreamt
I was sitting next to this young Asian man,
overlooking the water when
a tremendous flock of birds flew up
dotting the entire pink sunset sky, end to end.
And as I gasped and told him how beautiful it was
he told me that sometimes when that happens
he tries to read what it says like text,
black letters dotting the page.
And I wondered what it would say
if you froze the there-
all of their wingtips touching
discovering the shapes.

What the poet has done here ties in greatly with one of my own current obsessions - the poem as dream, or the dream as poem - but in a manner so elegant and fluent as to create the impression of a realistic dialogue. I can see and hear the Asian man, the birds, the black letters of their wings dotting the page of a Pacific sky.  It is this acute skill of depicting characters which also brings to life the more conversational or human-focused poems in the collection, as in apparently autobiographical sketches such as Honey Cigars and Wine:

We stand there as Murphys.
We are everything my parents thought would never happen.
My brother, a desperate eighteen year old,
swallowed up by love,
emotional, transitory, troubled, and full of music.
Smoking cigars desperately.
My sister, a married purple-teeth-stained patchouli girl
who wants to fight and wants to be loved, equally.
Me, a color-driven poet, pierced and full of words.

The poet's family appear also in the gentler Honeysuckles, where she recalls The honeysuckle days of childhood  /tangled up in gray woody trees, and remembers warmly:

These are my best moments,
held up in live wood.
Fresh honeysuckle still in my mouth.

Going on to idealize the setting, while also hunting at hidden pains beneath the bucolic exterior:

We were a beautiful strawberry jam whole wheat bread
family with shallow aching unspoken secrets 

Elsewhere, the concept of sharing, of bridging the divide between two people by a joint experience of "opening up", is given unexpectedly pictorial, stunningly metaphorically effective treatment:

we opened ourselves,
opened beautifully in a few moments.
Raw right and left ventricles, red chambers, open.
We don't have solutions or remedies.

This Steady Place is a quietly enchanted, nostalgic, at times dark, often warm and sometimes funny book, split into three sections - the first being mainly recollections from the poet (or narrators) interlinked with dialogue, the innocence of garden and rural scenes mingling with the corrupting, and magnetizing delights of the city; the second a descent (or ascent) into spiritual settings, with the concluding third veering into surrealism.  Some of the titles of the poems in this third part are enticingly bizarre:  I Woke Up With a Mouth Full of God; and my favourite, My Mother's Unwritten Poems, while the poems themselves often begin with dazzlingly strange images:
I want to tape leaves to my eyelids

I am walking up and down the crucifix

A poem starts as an ache

There is uniquely crafted, bewitching poetry of love and loss, poetry of memory and of dreams, poetry of bridges, breaking hearts, city streets and spray-painted angels, and poetry that deserves to be read far beyond the poet's native Yakima, as far and widely as possible.  Indeed, one of the book's most arresting images comes, for me, in the short poem Prayer, which opens up its second, more spiritual or philosophical section, and which is arguably even more relevant at the onset of 2018 than when first published 13 years ago. The poet combines images of prayer in valleys beyond her own.  In Jerusalem they are praying, she tells us, while in China their prayer flags blow / and spin.  Just as at other points in the book her weaving together of valley after valley after valley depicts a multi-faceted web of shared existences, so this poem's deft depictions of cultures thousands of miles apart somehow transcend the barriers of space and time and bring into focus the bonds of a shared humanity and planet.  Reading it overlooking the woodlands, villages, towns and lives intersecting and evolving in my own valley, I am struck by the poem's simple beauty, and its urgent, unaffected truth.

I am breathing out in a valley
where I wait for the hills to brown
from their black muddied slopes.
I am breathing out the same air 
that moves their papery wheels.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Winter Birds of the Ryburn Valley

When I moved to the Calder Valley six years ago, I lived in a valley-within-a-valley, the Ryburn Valley - so named for the River Ryburn, which flows down from the wooded franges of Blackstone Edge, through the moor-bordered hills of Rishworth, Ripponden and Triangle, onto its confluence with the Calder at Sowerby Bridge.  Although I left the Ryburn Valley in 2015, the window of my flat still overlooks its hilly edges, and my walks so often take me among its hills, woods and waters.

 One of the first birds I noticed on moving to the River Ryburn in 2012 was a green woodpecker, bobbling above a stream that trickled down the hills above the woods at Milner Royd. Like a lithe, red-hatted jester, it seemed to jump between the stones that jutted from the water, before shooting up the hill into obscurity amid a blur of grasses and high hedgerows. 

 I knew you writes Hampshire poet Denise Bennett, by your / green carpenter's apron,/ your red-crested head - / and watching you chisel bark / with all the care of a craftsman*.
Bewick claims they are the largest woodpeckers of the British kinds, stating that as adults, they are thirteen inches in length. He explains that the smoothly-feathered green bird, documented by Linnaeus in 1758, is seen more frequently on the ground than the other kinds, particularly where there are ant-hills. It inserts its long tongue into the holes through which the ants issue, and draws out these insects in abundance. Sometimes, with its feet and bill, it makes a breach in the nest, and devours them at its ease, together with their eggs. The young ones climb up and down the trees before they are able to fly; they roost very early, and repose in their holes till day.

The green woodpecker, Picus viridis, has achieved a certain familiarity due to its appearance on international postage stamps, and as the insignia of the traditional English brand Woodpecker cider.
The species has been known as Rain Bird and Weathercock, since their presence has been thought to imply oncoming rain. Another name is Laughing Betsey, owing to its laugh-like call, which has also given rise to titles such as uffle, hefful, hickle, icwell, eccle and - a personifying development - Jack Eikle. Yuckel is a further variation, as is Yappingale, and perhaps even more imitatively, Yaffingale - which may be familiar as the source of the name Yaffles. Stiff, stern but loveable, Professor Yaffles, with his spectacles perched atop his beak, is the wise old bookend in Bagpuss, the children’s television series in which assorted puppets and ornaments - not least the eponymous cloth cat himself - interacted among the shelves of a cluttered toyshop. Based on a green woodpecker, Yaffles was soon an established part of modern English folklore, as recognizable and iconic as the animals of Beatrix Potter or those among the stories of Winnie the Pooh.

Walking across the valley at this time of year, one is even likelier to see robins, thrushes, coal-tits and blue-tits - predictable, yet among the loveliest sights of a winter morning, jeweled nuggets of cerulean beauty dappling the web-like fretworks of the trees. Perhaps most usual of all among the winter sights are crows. Intermingling, is the jackdaw (Corvus monedula) who, as Cowper fancied in 1822, 
by his coat
And by the hoarseness of his note,
Might be supposed a crow;
A great frequenter of the church,
Where, bishop-like, he finds a perch,
And dormitory too.

Like black daggers slashing through white linen, the crows of Calderdale puncture snowdrifts upon the craggy uplands of the moors; they bounce from bough to bow, or crookedly hobble over dribbling becks and take their places on the wickerwork scaffolds of winter’s leafless trees. Smaller are the blackbirds, whose trilling song sounds like a fanfare urging the year to commence. With their apple-pip eyes and svelte, swarthy bodies, they skip across the frost, or dot the gardens pecking for worms, rummaging through primulas and clumps of daffodil. Immortalized by Paul McCartney and the Beatles, the blackbird is an age-old feature of the English ornithological stage. The females softly brownish, the males jet-black, blackbirds have become so embedded in our collective vision that to see one hardly raises an eyebrow; likewise they are so used to our presence, so confident in their numbers and time-honoured prominence on our landscape, that they seem blithely unconcerned by us. For Seamus Heaney, something in the cautious, ponderous, guarded but resolute blackbird was a mirror of his own uncertain self, his own human reserve, and demonstrative of a fleetingly transfigured but innate kinship:
The automatic lock
Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic
Is shortlived, for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself

The higher reaches of the Valley are characterized by hardiness - by stoical heathers, rough hill scrub, rabbit paths wedged into millstone grit. Acid soils promote Ericas and other dwarf-shrubs, which feed the larvae of many lepidoptera. In turn, caterpillars - along with the ants and beetles that thrive on sandstone and acidic soils, are taken by many birds feeding up at the onset of the winter, such as the wrens sprinkled like skittering mice among the tree trunks. Although not as often seen as some, owing to its small size and shy, nimble nature, the wren - Troglodytes troglodytes - is actually Britain’s most numerous bird, with some 8,600,000 pairs breeding annually, mostly in deciduous woodlands and moors, making the Ryburn Valley an excellent location. Small, scurrying, and an obvious target for rats and other predators, wrens nevertheless possess something of the toughness that the winter moorscape ruggedly implies. The poor wren, says Lady Macbeth, trying to rouse her husband into violence, the most diminutive of birds, will fight, Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.
Wordsworth, examining the unassuming creatures’ nesting habits, wrote how:
AMONG the dwellings framed by birds
In field or forest with nice care,
Is none that with the little Wren's
In snugness may compare.

No door the tenement requires,
And seldom needs a laboured roof;
Yet is it to the fiercest sun
Impervious, and storm-proof.

So warm, so beautiful withal,
In perfect fitness for its aim,
That to the Kind by special grace
Their instinct surely came.

And when for their abodes they seek
An opportune recess,
The hermit has no finer eye
For shadowy quietness.


They are principally ground-dwelling, their dome-shaped nests at the bases of trees, within easy reach of a largely insectivorous diet. Worms and arthropods are firm favourites, and at times the wren will branch out into spiders. Berries, seeds and even amphibians might feature also, and some birds have even been observed to venture into water to find fish.

Water is, of course, another of our region’s dominant elements. Not only is the valley cleaved by the river to which it owes its name, but it is glistening with canals and reservoirs imbruing the surrounding prospects like the branches of a tree. Dippers bounce upon the cold blue surfaces, gulls swoop and squawk along the lapping shores and skirt the borders of the motorway. 


 Further towards town, the geese are veteran residents. Flocking on the banks and nesting under the bridge, they are part of the furniture, sometimes waddling over roads and halt the traffic on the way to Ripponden. Canada geese soar overhead, or dip and dodge their ways across the stony streams at Sowerby and Luddenden.

The water birds, including mergansers, muscovies and cormorants, live among each other quite peaceably, and considering the area’s biodiversity, with different animal communities often living in fairly close proximity. 



Avian life is both adaptable and beneficial to the wider eco-system. In fields of cows and sheep, a stonechat may be seen, perched atop a fence-post or flitting between trees; fieldfares will crowd the telegraph wires. Mammals fertilize the soil and embed seeds; flies which could impede their health are eaten by the birds.You will also come effortlessly across more well-known birds like sparrows, dunnocks, bullfinches and bluetits.

One late autumn morning, just south of the Ryburn, I watched a kestrel circling a field, narrowing its movements into an almost stock-still hover, until it hung with silent menace twenty feet above the ground. Eventually, the bird descended. A kestrel will dispatch with merciful rapidity, diving in to snatch rodents and invertebrates, occasionally reptiles and spiders. Those seen here are Falco tinnunculus, and must consume the equivalent of around six voles each day to live. Every day is a struggle to survive, and yet the falcon I saw, suspended in air like a gun waiting to be fired, seemed stylishly lethal. It hunted with poise and deadly elegance. Yet an injured bird will seem vulnerable, and tame. In his 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave, Barnsley-born author Barry Hines depicts the juvenile world of Yorkshire schoolboy Billy Casper, whose lonely life is briefly illuminated by the presence of a hawk. Early in the book, we follow Billy into the barn where he has been nursing the bird, feeding her and confiding about home:
Rufous brown, Flecked breast, dark bars across her back and wings. Wings pointed, crossed over her rump and barred tail. Billy clicked his tongue, and chanted softly, 'Kes, Kes, Kes, Kes.' The hawk looked at him and listened, her fine head held high on strong shoulders, her brown eyes round and alert.
'Did you hear her, Kes, making her mouth again?...Gobby old cow. Do this, do that, I've to do everything in this house...Well they can shit. I'm fed up o' being chased about...There's allus somebody after me.'
Hines’ novel is an important examination of relationships between human and non-human, stretching deeper than the practical, the everyday: it is through the wordless kestrel that the schoolboy is able to communicate, not only with the world around him, but with himself. Across intangible barriers, an inner language is uncovered, new perceptions dawn. The stoical mystery of the hawks, their medieval triumph and aerial invincibility, lend to it the stuff of legend, of heroism, of a Biblical magnificence. It is hardly surprising that, almost a century before Billy’s journey of self-discovery, Gerard Manley Hopkins was to write:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! . . .

The valley is a microcosm of symbiosis and natural cycles, and not only in terms of animal interaction and predation. Plant life, also, is enhanced by the presence of our winter visitors. In the lower reaches of the valley, where hillsides splay out into factory forecourts and delivery yards, where the railway tracks are interspersed with wildflowers, and where canal boats bob beside the towpath overhung with mistletoe, rosehips and winter jasmine, you are likely to encounter finches, slotting in and out of bushes and berry-bearing trees. Prolific seed-dispersers, these glossy little birds brighten up a dark afternoon like confectionery, dancing between rowan trees and roses. Greenfinches are the most regular, and even when the birds elusively slip through trees beyond the eye, their twittery song is a winter serenade. Says the poet Francis Duggan,
I know the singer of the song though him I cannot see
His voice I knew in my younger years lives in my memory
The green he wears it blends in well with the foliage of the blackwood tree
The Ryburn Valley is a haven for winter birds. A walk along the canal may present you with a rich and colourful gallery of birds, from shy and surreptitious wrens, to water birds and ducks, from sleek, split-second predators, to soft, ethereal flutters of dazzling colour, like airy messengers of spring.

February 2014 (* - Denise Bennett: Green Woodpecker, Equinox poetry journal March 2005)

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Edward Thomas: Snow


Here in Britain, it looks unlikely that we will be greeted tomorrow morning by the realization of Bing Crosby's dream of a white Christmas, just like the ones very few of us have ever known.  But there has been snow in the Calder Valley over the last few weeks, and it has been good to wander through it across the moors and along the iced-up streams and hillsides, even if only for a few days.


I thought I would sign off for 2017 with words from a finer poet than I will ever be. Edward Thomas' Snow draws together the traditional European riddle of the snow and sun, whose beginning might be loosely translated White bird featherless / Flew from Paradis, and the words of English poet John Clare, whose Shepherd's Calendar includes the following observation:

And some to view the winter weathers
Climb up the window seat wi glee
Likening the snow to falling feathers
In fancy's infant extacy

 Edna O'Brien has written of how, in Thomas' poem, oxymorons ('gloom of whiteness' , 'dusky brightness') and elegiac cadences darken the metaphor, and it is worth remembering that the poem was written when Thomas was serving on the front line during the First World War, during which conflict he would eventually lose his life, killed in action a century ago this year.


In the gloom of whiteness,
In the great silence of snow,
A child was saying, "Oh,
They have killed a white bird up there on her nest,
The down is fluttering from her breast."
And still it fell through that dusky brightness
On the child crying for the bird of the snow.

A Humble Idea - How my film about Branwell Bronte came into being

My misery was of a darker form
of deadlier deeper dye
these were the various streams that flow
into my deep deep sea of woe
the shrieking blast, the pelting rain
may strike the shattered oak in vain

(Branwell Bronte)

Early in 2012, having lived in the Calder Valley for a matter of days, I am walking - or, rather, being blown by hammering winds - over the lower edges of Norland, along a precipice of sandy stone crumbling beneath my feet like muddy meringue. Earlier, I watched a green woodpecker zigzag along a trickling stream as I trudged up from Sowerby Bridge.  Now, a frosted plateaux of bare roots, iced-up puddles, and hunched, lethargic sheep are all that punctuate the misty moorland stretched before my eyes through a stinging hiss of sleety rain.  Pulling my hood harder over my head, I gaze across the hill to the fringes of Sowerby Bridge, which this Sunday morning looks pencil-sketched by Lowri: dark old factories and chimney stacks, roofs glistening in drizzle, the road slit right through it like a serpentine vein.  A few cars and lorries judder by, but cannot be heard above the whistling din of winds, bashing against hedges and slapping into the pens and fences of farms, hassling the horses huddled in the stables along the deserted tracks of Scar Head, Clough Head, the bumpy roads wrapped around these grassless hills like tinsel clinging to the body of a tired Christmas tree, in the cold, dim days of early January. 

Down the valley, you can see the unloading yards of factories and mechanical plants, the terraced streets climbing to Sowerby, Warley, the outskirts of Halifax.  You can make out the winding old canal, moored boats bobbing beneath a fluffy gauze of frost; the hunched shelters of the train station, and further out, the deserted Tesco car park, bordered by a railway track fenced off by six-foot wire.  When it was first built in the 1840's, the town's train station stood where the car park is today, and it is partly to that station that my thoughts are turned on this January morning. Or, more particularly, to one of its ill-fated former employees, who, I am fairly certain, would have known the ground I'm walking on, and very likely would himself have navigated these same windy paths and stiles, trod these tracks and fields, overlooking this same valley with its towns and bridges, its chimneys, factories and steep, wet streets, when he lived here - more than one hundred and fifty years ago.
Back down there in the town's market, I had stumbled, days ago, on Juliet Barker's The Brontes  - the acclaimed history of the family and their writings - and back in the warmth of my flat had turned instictively to the index to find word of my newly adopted home town. I was to learn that the family's controversial "black sheep" - the beleagured brother, Branwell - lived here in Sowerby Bridge, while working at the station, in the early 1840's.  Opinion of Branwell has long been negative, his legacy largely reduced to the grim pickings of assorted anecdotes, and tales of drunkenness and gambling.  But Juliet Barker's book also details Branwell's forays into poetry and painting, friendships with local artists and writers, and the walks he loved to go on, up and down the wet, wobbly hills of this wonderfully mishapen, craggy valley.  In fact, this jagged landscape seems perfectly suited to the image of a man wracked, as Branwell was, by rigours and drama, by the slings and arrows of self doubt, and by a romantic, at times over-reaching, desire for heroism.  Yes, I am sure, as I traipse through spongey moorland soils and the remnants of reeds, past frozen becks and looming, skeletal trees, that - as they say of the departed - "he would have loved it here." 

Picking up the trail back towards the town, a pathway faintly marked out on the rocky terrain, I begin to wonder about the twists and turns of Branwell's life, and imagine various scenarios that may have brought him here to this then industrial town on the edges of West Yorkshire.  What happened to Branwell at the station, how did his life and aspirations compare with those of his famous, brilliant sisters?  Why have we not seen or heard of his exploits here in more books, or via the magic of the screen? In the film of Branwell's life now playing out in my mind, he is pictured at the station gates, harangued by his superiors and cursing at the ground; now, seeking the crags and vales, wandering across the tops on a frozen morning such as this. In one scene, he is thrown in among a rugged jumble of drunken men, propping up the bar of some tiny moorland inn, or one of the smoky pubs which cater for the town's labouring classes, puffing on tobacco and slurringly singing with the best of them - Branwell as one of the lads, as dissolute decadent, as drunk.  In another, he is pitching up an easel, gazing onto the town and beyond it, to the heathered hills and gorse-brooched clefts which spread from here to Haworth like the jewelled candelabra of a pheasant's plume.  Or he is watching from the platform as a smoke-wraithed steam train chuffers away down the silvery tracks, pushing into the darkened distance of a winter horizon.  Why has no-one ever made this film I wonder?  And could it, I ask myself, as the trundling traffic of an approaching Sunday afternoon comes lumbering into view, and I desend the bumpy slopes which straggle down into the town's grey edges, a concrete maze of warehouse yards and back-streets, could it be something to which I, new to the town as Branwell was, might turn my sights?
Some days later now, and steeling myself into the first of my excursions to work along the railway tracks which will convey me, innumerable times in the ensuing years, to jobs in other towns and cities, I rub my hands and pace the platform, drawn to the inviting huddle of kettles, flasks and paper cups nestling on a table beside the shelter.  Andrew Wright, who along with his brother Chris, runs the pub and tea shop at the station, is in charge of this makeshift coffee stall, and he places in my hands what looks and feels like a piping pint of strong black coffee, I am as grateful for the warmth to my freeing hands from the polystyrene cup as I am for the taste or cafeine kick. I curse my stupidity in not having bothered to wear gloves. This is my first day as a Calder Valley commuter, in the thick of my first Calder Valley winter. I have a lot to learn.

Backward I look upon my life
and see one waste of storm and strife
one wrack of sorrows, hopes and pain,
vanishing to rise again.

(Branwell Bronte)

A cruel wind lashes through the rain.  The platforms glisten under treacherous ice.  My train showing no signs of turning up, I quiz Andrew on the history of the town, and of the station.  It has only been at its present site since 1876; previously it stood where the Tesco supermarket is today.  And I've heard, I say, that Branwell Bronte once worked there.
"He did, yes...he was there when the station opened in 1840."  Unaware of the full historical significance of this fact - which would, in the course of time, become hugely relevant to my life - I ask what capacity he worked in.  Andrew tells me Branwell was a clerk, that he worked at Sowerby Bridge for about a year, before repairing to nearby Luddendenfoot, a station which no longer exists, but at which Branwell was promoted to the post of Clerk-in-Charge, or Stationmaster, in 1841.  "But..." and here Andrew half looks away, frowning, as if remembering the downfall of some ill-fated relative, or a memory too unpleasant to dwell on, "Well, it didn't end too well..."
"Oh." I want him to expand, but at this point another commuter ambles up, ordering a coffee.  As Andrew fixes the drink, and the man hangs about counting money and talking about the weather, I tot up the little I have heard about Branwell in my life so far. That he had been an aspiring poet and painter.  That he was commonly seen as having been in the shadow of his famous sisters.  That he had a drink problem, and had caused his family, in the words of a local girl in Haworth, "no end of trouble."
"I hear he had a bit of a drink problem," I venture, as the other customer shuffles off.
"Yes," says Andrew, with a knowing smile.  "He had all sorts of problems, I'm afraid.  Drink problems.  Gambling problems.  Drug problems, maybe.  We don't really know the details, to be honest, but...there was some mix-up over missing money, and...well, like I say, it didn't end too well."
Itching to know more, my curiosity is thwarted by the lumbering arrival of my train, crawling along the track in a mechanical lethargy, slowly shunting to a halt.  As I board, and we lurch out through the frozen fields, beneath the arching stone viaduct, the abandoned signalman's huts at long-gone stations, past the terraces of Brighouse and the stretching suburbia of Mirfield, the thought of Branwell and the missing money revolves through my mind like a carriage looping over icy tracks, spinning through the dark morning air until we have crossed into Kirklees and the undulating hillsides of the Calder Valley are dimming in the distance.

Amid the world's wide din around
I hear from far a solemn sound
that says Remember Me

(Branwell Bronte)

Q&A - On the subect of my film about Branwell Bronte

A Humble Station? Branwell Bronte's Calder Valley Years available now:

All images below are stills from the film and are copyright Alan Wrigley.


Why did you decide to write a film about Branwell Bronte?

I'd been living in the Calder Valley for just a few days when I read Juliet Barker's book The Brontes, which I found at my local market in Sowerby Bridge. I discovered Branwell had lived here and, knowing absolutely nothing about him at this point other than vague rumours of his reputation for drunkenness, wanted to find more.  I was surprised that nobody in the Valley had done much work on him - books, articles, films - and it gradually began to dawn on me that perhaps I ought to do so.

Did making the film change any of your thoughts on Branwell?

Absolutely.  I expected to find out that he was a drunkard and a bit of a hopeless case, but I discovered he had been a very ambitious artist and poet, with a genuinely original turn of phrase in his writing, a skill for translating Classical poetry, and a proclivity for themes we would consider modern or subversive today: Atheism, psychology, unrequited love, not in the abstract, Universal manner of the great poets of antiquity, but in the sense of actually naming the person he was writing about, placing himself and his own predicaments firmly at the centre of his poems.  And I also found I actually rather liked Branwell.  I think most of us who worked on the film felt that we could empathize and associate with him in various ways - in my case, his habits of drifting off from the job in hand to go wandering around the hills, or to sit scribbling poems and pictures when he was meant to be doing his day job!  Most importantly, we learned that the charges against Branwell from many biographers are simply not true or that there is no evidence for them - as the film makes clear. Branwell seems to have been very popular, and was said by a contemporary to possess "the genius of personality" - especially after a few drinks! He seems to have been basically a victim of circumstances.

How did you go about making the film?

I had done some research and posted some material on my blog, and was contacted by Alan Wrigley, whom I knew through the local arts scene here in Sowerby Bridge.  Alan and I had both been clients of a local arts and crafts shop which sold, among many other things, his greetings cards and some of my books, and we both frequented various poetry and music events in the town.  I'd made it common knowledge that I wanted to make a film on Branwell's time in the Valley, and Alan suggested that we make it together.

What did you most enjoy about making A Humble Station?

Working with Alan and so many other talented people who appear in the film - from Bronte biographer Juliet Barker, and Ann Dinsdale from the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, to local historian David Cant and Calder Valley poets such as Genevieve L Walsh and Steve Nash.

L.R: Director Alan Wrigley, SZ, Sam Redway (voice of Branwell), Genevieve L Walsh

Then there were the artists that we met - Julia Ogden at Hebden Bridge, and Stella Hill and Mike Acton from Legacy Art Gallery in Todmorden.  It was fascinating to meet the owners and locals of the Lord Nelson public house at Luddenden, where Brawnell used to drink, and where the current landlady Jessica Grunewald told us about how he used to go there to take advantage of its lending library - the first of its kind in the whole Ridings area.
 With Julia Ogden at Brighouse Library and Smith Art Gallery.

Closer to home, I interview Chris Wright, landlord of the Jubilee Tea Rooms, on the site of today's Sowerby Bridge Railway Station, and over in Hebden Bridge I enjoyed chatting with Diana Monaghan from St James Church, whose vicar in the 1840's was a friend of Branwell's - and who met a not dissimilar end to him, as you will see in the film.  It was also fabulous to work with Caroline Lamb, my colleague from the multi-disciplinary performance project Exploring the Brontes, and author of a play about Branwell - The Dissolution of Percy.  Caroline is interviewed in the film and, like Genevieve Walsh, delivers her own poem written about Branwell.  She also came with Alan and I to meet Juliet Barker, which was a very enjoyable day for all of us because we like Juliet's work so much and to get the chance of meeting such a world renowned Bronte authority was a real delight.  There was quite a funny moment at The Old White Lion, an 18th Century inn at Haworth where we filmed the interview with Juliet, and before Caroline and I had gone to meet her, when we were setting up the room for filming, I was waxing lyrical about some aspect of the Brontes' legacy and, in sweeping my hand mid-statement, accidentally swiped an ornament from the fireplace, only catching it in the nick of time before it fell to the floor and smashed. I often wonder if maybe it was a priceless object of some kind, and how the whole story of the film might have turned out rather differently if I'd failed to intercept it in time!
 Caroline Lamb.

At the end of the film, you also hear the vocals of Amy-Rose Atkinson, a folksinger and musician from Sowerby Bridge who performs in the folk duo Didikai, and is one of the co-ordinators of the Sowerby Bridge Morris Dancers.  Alan and I had both seen Amy-Rose sing live, and were thrilled when she agreed to deliver the vocal to his song Legacy, which he wrote specifically about Branwell.  Its a beautiful song and she captures it marvelously, and hearing the results of that at the end of a film I'd first envisaged years earlier on a winsdwept, icy moor, new to the area and with no concept of how things would turn out, was a very moving moment.

What do you like most about the film?

It was thrilling to see how Alan developed as a filmmaker, having had no experience of filming, to gradually build up his self-taught skills to the point of being able to produce a thing of at times quite stunning visual beauty. Everyone who has seen the film has complimented both his use of Calder Valley scenery, and his atmospheric music, but also for his seamless editing of the scenes.  We have had industry professionals comment on how well it flows together, and he has woven the film together in such a way that every time I watch it I see new things, notice different deft touches with colours and light, and hear new quirks and motifs in the music.  Of course, the other thing that I enjoy equally is the wealth of knowledge and talent brought to the film by our contributors.  Everyone was chosen for both their local connections and involvement with the Brontes, and we've had many positive comments from those who have seen the film at our screenings about the local authenticity of the guests, and the balance between those who are obviously from Yorkshire and those who are not!  I like how we have not fallen into the trap of cliche, while also staying true to the Calder Valley setting, and frankly to share a screen with people like the artists and writers I have mentioned, hearing their thoughts on Branwell, was a real privilege.  But one of my absolute favourite moments is where we actually see a version of the "young Branwell," in the form of the son of a friend of mine, who happens to have ginger hair, and who we took along to film a scene dressed in quite traditional looking clothes and enacting an imagined scene from Branwell's life, or more accurately from his imagination. It involves balloons and a very historic building.  I don't want to give away any spoilers so I'll not say any more!

Why should we watch A Humble Station?

Firstly to get a grasp of another element of the Brontes' story - we're not trying to steal the fire from his famous sisters, but rather to shine a light on one of the lesser known aspects of the Bronte story - that of Branwell, and why he wasn't all bad! But also because in doing so, you will get to see the nature and history of the Calder Valley depicted in glorious colour and seasonal splendour, hear tremendous music, and enjoy poetry and paintings work by some highly talented contemporary artists, as well, of course, as by Branwell himself.  The film is not all serious - we found much humour in Branwell's work, and in the many anecdotes and scenarios that his life seemed to engender - and you will encounter scenes of beauty that will remain with you for the rest of your life.