My first job was a little unusual; from around 2004-2007 I was Arts Officer at The Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, working under the late Dr Robert Woof. The job title is a little nebulous. What it meant was I booked and ran the Trust’s contemporary arts program, a huge year-round series of poetry readings, exhibitions and residencies. Robert was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met, and he was insistent on one point; the WT could not depend on Wordsworth alone, but had to continually make itself relevant by helping to pay and promote today’s writers and artists.
I say this only as background because Seamus Heaney, of course, did not need promotion in any sense. He was great friends with Robert, and any time he’d visit was An Event. The first time I met him was at the 2005 opening of the Jerwood Centre, the WT’s research complex, and by that time Heaney was a Nobel Laureate and perhaps the most well-known poet in the English language, hence the affectionate nickname deployed by many contemporaries: Famous Seamus. As with almost everything, Professor Heaney thought that was a great laugh.
Though that was the first time I met Heaney, it was only the latest connection in a long line between himself, the Trust, and more importantly Robert. On this occasion Heaney wasn’t doing a reading alongside the opening, which Robert cunningly realised was a chance to book him in for the next year’s program – and Heaney agreed this was an excellent idea. It soon turned out that the opening of the Jerwood Centre came just in time; five months afterwards, in November 2005, Robert died. This was not unexpected, but it was devastating; for me and, I know, many others.
I remember my hesitation in writing to Heaney at the end of 2005, to find out if he’d still come. It felt somehow inappropriate, but I needn’t have been concerned. The Wordsworth Trust’s postcode was LA22 9SH, and the reason I still remember that now is his first reply came back with a big circle around the last two letters – pointing out that this, surely, was fate.
Heaney came to see us and deliver the biggest reading of the year in August 2006, visiting with his wonderful wife Marie for five days and attracting such a crowd we had to move to a larger venue. I remember his turning up on the first day (Marie was getting a train a day or two later) in a cab I’d booked from Liverpool airport. I was horrified to see the company had sent one of the old-school black models, which must have been very uncomfortable for a man in his early sixties to ride in for hours. “Ah well, I’m sure I’ll be comfortable enough now.”
I made sure of it, as did we all. Tagging along with Heaney for the next few days, what struck me more than anything was that he had time for everyone. It didn’t matter where he was – in a restaurant, a bar, walking along or even reading a book – if someone made the time to come up and say hello he gave them it back in spades. He was an incredibly funny man, too, and seemed to rejoice in opening conversations with a one-liner, more than a few of which made me the butt. “Excuse me are you Seamus Heaney?” “Well yer man’s in trouble if I’m not!”
I especially remember, on the day of the reading, my mum coming over to Grasmere from the North-East – she teaches English, and so is intimately familiar with those poems of his on the syllabus. Despite the fact he’d clearly had that conversation a million times, Heaney propped himself up on a wall outside the Jerwood and talked to her for an hour like some kind of softly-spoken saint – and eventually I was the one that had to break them apart.
I’d call him a class act, but that has some implication of artifice and with Heaney there was none. Instead I’ll do something he’d have liked and take the phrase straight from my father; Heaney was a top-class man. A few miscellaneous memories. On his visit to open the Jerwood, we went for dinner at an Italian place in Ambleside – and I can’t quite remember what we all had to eat, because of the four bottles of top-quality red it went down with. God the old man could drink.
At that second reading, the Low Wood hotel totally screwed up the sound system. This was a problem because there was an audience of 300 people and one incandescent boss (mine) who, after ten minutes of amateur fiddling, grew increasingly irritable until Heaney decided he’d take it upon himself to project a little over this long room – and, by merely talking about this and that, quietened the hubbub enough for us to fix the issue and get things underway. From the bottom of my heart I still thank him for that.
I remember, too, on that second occasion watching nervously as he signed what must have been hundreds of copies of his own books over the days. Eventually I worked up the courage to ask if he’d sign my books, and of course he would, but the problem was I had a copy of pretty much everything. So he said that was fine, but I’d better take him somewhere quiet first and get the drinks in. Over what turned into quite a few glasses, he not only signed every book I had but wrote something unique in each one. This is my favourite.
One final thing. The Wordsworth Trust is not a rich organisation. Every year it was a battle to stretch our budget as far as possible, and every year we’d just about make it by the skin of our teeth. Robert’s approach was simple, and I stuck to it like gospel. We couldn’t pay a top fee, but what we could do was pay a decent fee, plus all the travel, plus put you up for a few days in the heart of the Lakes. It is interesting who does and does not go for this.
After Heaney’s reading, I wrote to him for one of the last times, thanking him for it all and enclosing a cheque for his travel and the fee. He wrote back enclosing a donation to the Wordsworth Trust, and never cashed the cheque. It is the kind of act that not everyone can afford, to be sure, but even so a special one – giving without expectation. As the man himself put it in a very different context, it is receiving a gift that enjoins you to remember the giver.
I last read Heaney only a few days ago, when some half-remembered line from Death of a Naturalist sent me in search of my dog-eared old copy. One would like to think of him up there, but Heaney was more than anything a poet of the Earth. So I hope he’ll forgive me for raising a glass in his memory rather than offering a prayer. And I hope you’ll agree that the reward of a life well-lived is in itself – or, at the very least
To be going on with.
(To Mick Joyce in Heaven, District and Circle)