Author Archives: Andrew

Stillman, Sappho, Swinburne and the Sapphic

One of my most treasured books, which I return to for reference more than any other book I possess, is The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary, first published by the American academic and poet Frances Stillman in 1966. The dogeared copy on my bookshelves was purchased in 1991 upon it’s eighth re-print, since when it has influenced and informed my understanding and appreciation of poetry. An invaluable pre-internet resource for any aspiring poet, in addition to a complex and comprehensive rhyming dictionary her book contains seven chapters outlining the traditional structures, meters, rhymes and forms of poetry as appreciated towards the termination of the twentieth century, illustrated with excerpts from many well known poets and a modest scattering of her own verse. 

Although copies of her books can still be found in second hand bookshops and even on certain online book forums, sadly, Stillman herself seems to have slipped into obscurity. A brief obituary from the New York Times dated 5 February 1975 reads as follows:

“Dr. Frances Jennings Stillman, assistant professor of English at City College and a writer and translator, died Monday at New York Hospital of complications resulting from kidney failure. She was 65 years old. Dr. Stillman, who also had taught at Brooklyn and Hunter, Colleges, was the author of “The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary.” She translated “Flemish Tapestries,” written by Roger D’Hulst, and “Oriental Love Poems,” among other works. For many years, she was an officer in the New York Chapter of the American Association of University Women. Dr. Stillman earned B.A. and M.A. degrees at the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. degree at the City University of New York.” 

It was Dr Stillman who, through her book, introduced me to the lyrical form known as the Sapphic, named after the enigmatic Greek poet who lived on the island of Lesbos during the sixth Century BC. 

The historical biography of the poet known as Sappho is fragmentary and speculative. She was believed to have been born on the island of Lesbos around 620 BC. During antiquity she was regarded as one of the finest lyrical poets of the time. Plato revered her as the tenth muse (in Greek mythology there were traditionally believed to be nine muses devoted to poetry, history, music, dance and astronomy, amongst other things). 

Sappho, as envisaged by Charles Mengin, 1877. In the care of Manchester City Art Gallery.

Many of Sappho’s poems have been lost, and much of those that survive do so in fragmentary form, but her influence upon modern poetry, particularly the Romantic movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cannot be understated. Her poems have been translated by Sir Philip Sidney, Percy Shelley, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson and many others, including the nineteenth-century Greek poet Aléxandros Soútsos. The spontaneity, simplicity, and honesty of her verse strongly influenced the Romantic idea of the poet as a creature of feeling, one whose solitary song is overheard, as opposed to the classical didactic model of the poet as a cultural spokesperson.

As Dr Stillman teaches, the main building blocks of the sapphic are trochees and dactyls. The trochee is a metrical foot with one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, while the dactyl contains a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. The first three lines of the sapphic contain two trochees, a dactyl, and then two more trochees. The shorter fourth, and final, line of the stanza is called an “Adonic” and is composed of one dactyl followed by a trochee. 

The following deconstruction uses a verse from a modern English translation of Sappho’s Anactoria poem.

The Sapphic form explained, after Stillman, 1966

The extant fragment of this poem explores Sappho’s longing for her lost love Anaktória, and her admiration of the female form. 

Some there are who say that the fairest thing seen 
on the black earth is an array of horsemen;
some, men marching; some would say ships; but I say
   she whom one loves best

is the loveliest. Light were the work to make this
plain to all, since she, who surpassed in beauty
all mortality, Helen, once forsaking
   her lordly husband,

fled away to Troy—land across the water. 
Not the thought of child nor beloved parents 
was remembered, after the Queen of Cyprus
   won her at first sight.

Since young brides have hearts that can be persuaded 
easily, light things, palpitant to passion
as am I, remembering Anaktória
   who has gone from me

and whose lovely walk and the shining pallor
of her face I would rather see before my 
eyes than Lydia’s chariots in all their glory
   armoured for battle

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864 Simeon Solomon 1840-1905 Purchased 1980 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03063

The erotic homosexual content of many of her poems has won Sappho the accolade of being the first (first recorded at least) Lesbian, the very term being derived form her Aegean island home of Lesbos. Undoubtedly, it was the freely erotic components of her work that fascinated certain protagonists of the Romantic movement, who in their own somewhat chauvinist way were striving to break free of the cultural conventionality of  eighteenth and nineteenth century society. 

Perhaps the most accomplished Romantic exponent of the Sapphic form was Algernon Charles Swinburne. Very much a product of the English Victorian establishment, born to a wealthy family in the North East of England, educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford, Swinburne none-the-less became a preeminent symbol of rebellion against the conservative values of his time. Greatly influenced by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other member of the Pre-Raphaeltie Brotherhood, his poems were often explicitly sexual, perhaps designed specifically to shock the very establishment from which he came. Swinburne gained notoriety in 1865 with the publication of Poems and Ballads, a collection of poems which many critics of the time regarded as indecent. 

Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1862, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The fragment below is taken from his poem Sapphics, written in the Sapphic meter as described above and undoubtedly in homage to the poet Sappho. 

All the night sleep came not upon my eyelids,
Shed not dew, nor shook nor unclosed a feather,
Yet with lips shut close and with eyes of iron
   Stood and beheld me.

Then to me so lying awake a vision
Came without sleep over the seas and touched me,
Softly touched mine eyelids and lips; and I too,
   Full of the vision,

Saw the white implacable Aphrodite,
Saw the hair unbound and the feet unsandalled
Shine as fire of sunset on western waters;
   Saw the reluctant

Feet, the straining plumes of the doves that drew her,
Looking always, looking with necks reverted,
Back to Lesbos, back to the hills whereunder
   Shone Mitylene;

Many years ago, inspired by Dr Stillman’s tutelage, I put pen to paper and came up with the poem below, which I called Castaway. It is based on the myth of Calypso, as told in Homer’s Odyssey, who detained the Greek hero Odysseus on the island of Ogygia during his long voyage home from the Trojan wars. 

Calypso & Odysseus by Sir William Russell Flint

Wreckage adrift on blue Aegean waters
Clinging the rope cut fingers burn and blister
Slowly cracking the salty sun bleached timbers
   bake in the sunlight

Came I to these islands by currents rolling
Red kelp and oyster shell over and over
Till bound in their shackles washed ashore on her
   shingle she found me

Almond Oil and Meadow sweet, fresh mint from the
Mountains, yellow Broom and Oak flower petals
Smoothed by her spidery fingers worked warm through
   my still dormant flesh

Lips part to tongue touching teeth with each whisper
Soft scent of apples her dark anaesthesia
Heady the night the breath of her warm body
   falls sleep over me

Daylight gold in her hair veils sweet soft hollows
Wine blushed lips taste the damp dew of the morning
Naked children of an absent god giggle
   at their honesty

Long shore pull drags the hissing shingle seaward
Roar of the deep wave beckons the shifting tide
Impudent voice of reason voice of motion
   still calling, calling


Frances Jennings Stillman obituary from the New York Times: accessed 6 August 2019
https://www.nytimes.com/1975/02/05/archives/dr-frances-stillman-dies-english-professor-at-city-65.html

The Hunt

I had that dream again, you know
the dream I often dream …

There I am, standing in the crowd,
Some way to my left I see
the stoney pillars of the Friend’s House,
to my right, pennants and banners,
a multitude of colours, gently waving in the breeze
a sea of motion,
the murmur of fifty thousand expectant voices
punctuated by cries of victory, of Liberty, Fraternity
Ahead the hustings pulled into position as Orator Hunt climbs the steps to the stand
waving his oversized white hat,
to the assembled multitude
He dun’t half think a lot of himself, says Mary
threading her arm through mine

Faces turn to the rear now
Far behind us red coats gather in ranks
their bayonets glinting in the mid-summer sun
The Riot Act read from an open window
falls on deaf ears
arrest warrants handed to the constable
pleas for assistance dispatched to the Yeomanry and the Hussars

Mary’s grip upon my arm tightens
as the crowd suddenly surges forward

Pounding, the rhythm of horse’s hooves
upon the desiccated earth send
a shock-wave of panic across St Peter’s Field
speakers silenced, placards discarded,
faces etched with fear,
“Universal Suffrage” trampled into the dust
trampled beneath a hundred thousand feet
running for their very lives,
weeping in desperation for her unborn child,
Sweet Mary running beside me, falls, and cannot regain her stance

Assistance is useless
I cannot stand with the weight of the crowd upon me
So close now, the yelping dogs
the pounding of hooves
closer and closer
their baying bloodlust an augury
of the knife white teeth
each blast of the horn,
each bark of the riders,
a portent of death
ever closer, their scornful breath
until the hounds teeth tear
until the rapiers are brought down upon Mary’s flesh
the incisive canines cutting, lacerating
until flesh is no more,
her bloodied dress; the bloodied muzzles of the dogs
still barking, barking, barking!

I wake!
Throw open the window to catch my breath
the sky
bright with every light in the universe
has thrown out a mantle of white
across the cold, crisp night.
The only motion the blinking lights of an aircraft
circling in descent
And the russet flash of a fox
half hidden in the shadowed coppice, he barks,
his mournful, wicked bark
for a moment our eyes meet
then he turns and is gone
the two of us only somewhat reassured
that tonight the hounds are silent
the privileged riders confined to barracks
and for now, the fox and I are free

Mary Heys, a mother of six from Oxford Road, Manchester was one of eighteen peaceful protestors killed by the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry at St Peter’s Field, 16 August 1819. 

It is estimated that between sixty and eighty thousand people had gathered in St Peter’s Field, Manchester to hear the radical speaker Henry Hunt and to protest against the limited suffrage afforded to working people and the North of England in general at the time. In 1819, Lancashire, with a population of over one million, was represented by two members of parliament; whereas so called rotten boroughs such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire, with one voter, elected two MPs, as did Dunwich in Suffolk, which by the early 19th century had almost completely disappeared into the sea.

Manchester Heroes, Sept 1819 Credit: The Art Archive / Eileen Tweedy Ref: AA327714 BBC History Magazine

The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were an amateur militia of local businessmen and their sons, described at the time by the Manchester Observer as “the fawning dependents of the great, who imagine they acquire considerable importance by wearing regimentals” and also as “younger members of the Tory party in arms.” Their sabre charge of the crowd at St Peter’s Field left eighteen dead and hundreds wounded.

Mary Heys was pregnant at the time of her death. 

In memory of Chris Grice

Chris and I were not close friends. I think I should be clear about that. I last saw him just before Christmas, I think. Memory does not serve me well, because the last thing I was expecting was to not see Chris again. He was forty-three years old for heaven’s sake. 

In the deceitful way that it does, social media had replaced direct contact. I Iast communicated with Chris just days before his death. He had posted a “memory,” a photograph of the some Cheshire Walkers taken at Ashness Bridge in the July of 2008, Chris casually sitting on the little stone packhorse bridge with his long legs dangling over the waters of Barrow Beck. “11 years? OMG!” I commented and Chris recalled how the photo had been taken the day after we had climbed Scafell Pike, how some members of the group had drunk a little too much that night and had been told off for being rowdy at the campsite. I am looking at Chris’s Facebook page as I write this, in the peculiar way that our social media profiles survive us posthumously. 

A regular member of the Merseyside “Fillyaboots” Ramblers’ club, Chris would on occasion appear on a walk with the Cheshire Walkers, the Rambler’s club to which I have been ensconced for many years. So it was through these sporadic appearances that I came to know this tall, enthusiastic Liverpudlian. Again memory fails me as I try to recall the first walk on which I met Chris, but I certainly remember him being with us on some classic days out such as our circuit of the Snowdon Horseshoe in June 2008 and a rather cold and damp linear walk I led one Easter over Mynydd Mawr in Gwynedd when we took the Welsh Mountain Railway from Waunfawr to Rhyd Ddu.

Chris was a consummate mountain man; a fearless scrambler, often leaping ahead over rock steps whilst the rest of us struggled to haul ourselves up at the rear. He often spoke of his joy at completing the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glen Coe, not once but twice. And this is what I will remember about Chris, his joy, his enthusiasm for being in the hills and mountains of the British Isles. 

Crib Goch, Snowdon Horseshoe June 2008

The nineteenth century American environmentalist Henry David Thoreau said “On the death of a friend, we should consider that the fates through confidence have devoted to us the task of a double living, that we have henceforth to fulfil the promise of our friend’s life also, in our own, to the world.” Death often comes as a wakeup call to those who knew the departed, especially in the case of one taken so young. This weekend I will be out walking in the countryside, and in future, whenever the opportunity arises; whenever I make the opportunity.  In some small way Chris will be with me, with others who knew him and walked with him, as his promise continues to be fulfilled.

RIP Chris Grice. Rambler. 1976-2019

Pripyat: City of Ghosts

As the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was managed by Soviet authorities in Moscow, the government of Ukraine did not receive prompt information on the accident, and hence, on the morning of the 26 April, the fifty-thousand inhabitants of the City of Pripyat went about their business as normal, unaware of the catastrophic events taking place just five kilometres away. Within a few hours of the explosion, dozens of people fell ill, later reporting severe headaches, a metallic taste in their mouths, along with uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting. It was not until the morning of 27 April, some thirty-six hours after the initial explosion, that the decision was made by a joint Ukrainian/Soviet commission to evacuate the city. Residents were initially informed by the authorities that the evacuation would be temporary and to take only essential items. On 28 April the area of evacuation was extended to a ten kilometre radius of the Chernobyl plant. Ten days later this area was extended to a radius of thirty kilometres and has remained in place ever since. As a result the inhabitants of Pripyat never returned to their homes, leaving many personal belongings behind.

Pripyat founded 1970

Palace of Culture

The people carriers parked opposite the Palace of Culture, the former civic centre of the city and after further briefing on safety precautions (it’s best to avoid moss as this holds radioactive particles like a sponge and can emit a radioactive dose of 25,000 µSv/h) we were allowed to wander around the immediate vicinity, including the elementary and high schools, the now famous Azure swimming, the equally famous Pripyat amusement park, and the Palace of Culture itself. Out-of-bounds areas were indicated with red flags. 

Pripyat
Pripyat

Wandering around the central precinct of Pripyat, a post-apocalyptic relic of the twentieth century’s most notorious industrial accident, was an emotional experience. Excitement and awe at being physically in an area which for so many years had been closed off to human access combined with a deep sense of tragedy, and what I imagined was an echo of the fear felt by the thousands of souls that had fled in what I can only imagine were horrific circumstances. At around 14:00 on 27 April the evacuation of the city began but took several hours to complete as the citizens of Pripyat had to be mustered at various locations around the city, forming orderly queues for buses that would take them away from immediate danger. 

Strikingly, within the assembly hall of the elementary school, several hundred gas masks still lay in a pile upon the floor, their lifeless eyes opened wide as though in shock at the unfolding disaster. Part of me suspected that this disturbing scene had been staged for the benefit of tourists like myself, but it felt genuine, the masks dusty and colourless, untouched for decades. They would have offered little protection against radionuclide from the burning reactor, and perhaps in the rush to evacuate the children from the school a decision was made to leave them behind. 

The Pripyat Amusement Park, comprising four rides: a twenty-six meter ferris wheel, bumper cars, swing boats and a paratrooper ride, was scheduled to open on 1 May 1986 as part of the Soviet May Day celebrations. Some accounts claim that the park was briefly opened during the day on 27 April, possibly in an attempt to distract the residents of the city from the rumours that were wildly circulating about just what was happening five kilometres away at the Chernobyl reactor, but images I have seen claiming to be of the ferris wheel in operation show a different supporting structure to the Pripyat wheel. The park has become a cultural icon of the Chernobyl disaster and has appeared in the video game Call of Duty 4 and the film Chernobyl Diaries.  A significant part of the plot of the 2013 Bruce Willis film A Good Day to Die Hard is set in Pripyat.

After an hour or so of exploring amongst the ruins of Pripyat, seemingly more concerned about keeping to the timing of the tour than of any risk of exposure to radiation, our tour guides ushered us into the people carriers and we were ferried away to the main reactor complex. After a relaxed lunch at the Dining Chernobyl Nbr 19, a former canteen for the power plant workers we were invited to visit the statue of Prometheus, which stands be a memorial to the power plant workers who were killed in the disaster. 

Prometheus

Sarcophagus

The final stop on the tour was the Sarkofag Chornobylʹsʹkoyi Aes, a viewing point approximately three hundred metres from the sarcophagus covering the remains of reactor 4. This was as close as we were permitted, and certainly as close as we wished, to get to the sight of the 1986 explosion. Construction of the first sarcophagus began in May 1986 and took two hundred days to complete. The sarcophagus locked in 200 tonnes of radioactive corium, 30 tonnes of highly contaminated dust and 16 tonnes of uranium and plutonium left behind after the explosion. In 1996 concerns about the structural integrity of the sarcophagus were raised, specifically corrosion of the supporting steel structure by contaminated rain water, and a decision was taken to replace it with a New Safe Confinement structure. With the help of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a conservation programme was completed in 1998, which included securing the roof beams from collapse. The New Safe Confinement structure was completed and moved into place in 2016. 

Sarkofag Chornobylʹsʹkoyi Aes, reactor 4, Chernobyl
New Safe Confinement Structure, source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_New_Safe_Confinement

Environmental Effects

On the drive back to Kiev we stopped at an iron frame road bridge spanning a water channel into the cooling pond where we fed enormous cat fish with hunks of bread. These remarkable fish are Wels Catfish (Silurus glanis). Despite much speculation their gigantic size is not a result of radioactive mutation, rather they have taken advantage of the sparsity of the human population to fully take advantage of their environment. The BBC reported in 2016 that wildlife in the Chernobyl exclusion zone is thriving. This is not to say that the effects of high levels of radiation immediately following the explosion were not devastating. During the first two years following the reactor fire many trees within an area of coniferous forest covering between 4 and 5 sq km died. The dying needles turned rusty red, earning the region the name Red Forest. During this period, in the most contaminated areas many soil invertebrates were killed, and the small mammal population plummeted. Thirty years on radiation levels within many areas of the exclusion zone have dropped significantly. Although, like the Wels Catfish, many species have exploited the absence of the natural world’s most devastating predator, homo sapiens, a study undertaken in 2009 by Anders Møller and Timothy Mousseau suggested there was a serious impact on insect abundance even in areas of the exclusion zone where radiation levels are now extremely low. Research into the long term effects of the Chernobyl disaster continues. 

Studies continue into the long term environmental impact of the Chernobyl explosion

The Future of Nuclear Power

The UK currently has 15 nuclear reactors with a total generating capacity of 10 gigawatts of electricity (GWe), operated by EDF Energy. These stations generate around a fifth of the UK’s electricity, yet all but one is scheduled to be retired by 2030. With the exception of the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) at Sizewell B, the UK power plants are second generation Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors, considered to be considerably safer than the RBMK graphite-moderated reactors of the Chernobyl plant. Although many modifications were made to the RBMK reactor design following the Chernobyl accident, as of December 2017 there were still eleven RBMK reactors, and four small EGP-6 graphite moderated light water reactors operating in Russia.

Artist’s impression issued by EDF of plans for the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, from https://www.energyvoice.com/

The current UK government has expressed a desire to expand nuclear power generation over the next ten years, however, these aspirations were thrown into doubt in November 2018 following the decision by Toshiba to withdraw from the proposed NuGen PWR construction project in Cumbria. In January 2019 the Hitachi owned subsidiary Horizon Nuclear Power announced its decision to halt production of the Wylfa Newydd Advanced Boiling Water Reactor power station located on the island of Anglesey, North Wales. Both companies sited an inability to attract investors as the primary reasons for withdrawal from the projects. The only new nuclear power station project currently underway in the UK is the EDF Hinkley Point C PWR plant, scheduled for completion by 2025 at a cost of £20.5 Billion. 




Chernobyl

The HBO miniseries Chernobyl has awakened interest in the twentieth century’s most notorious industrial accident and also my memories of the final decade of the Cold War, and my visit to the Chernobyl Power Plant in 2011. In two parts I tell my story of this fearful place.

Politics of Fear

The death of Soviet Leader Yuri Andropov in February 1984, quickly followed by the death of his successor Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985, lead to a period of political instability within the Soviet Union that was matched by an increase in Soviet paranoia in Western nations, specifically within the Republican Reagan administration of the United States. Following his landslide election victory in 1981, Ronald Reagan was keen to reject the containment and détente strategies of the preceding Democratic Carter administration and to put into practice the concept that the Soviet Union could be defeated rather than simply negotiated with. It was Reagan who had labelled the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire” in his 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida. It was Reagan who in 1983 had announced the development of a Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), a missile defence system intended to protect the United States from attack by ballistic strategic nuclear weapons, a political game play that Mikhail Gorbachev’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov described as “very successful blackmail.” This hard line rhetoric was, in the eyes of the Reagan administration, designed to “write the final pages of the history of the Soviet Union”.

In 1983 the incumbent Conservative government, led by Margaret Thatcher, had allowed the installation of American Cruise Missile units at the Greenham Common airbase in Berkshire, a decision that was described by historian and peace campaigner E P Thompson as “a manifest symbol of subjection.” For many the cruise missile program was seen as part of a strategy by the Americans to fight a ‘limited’ nuclear war in the European ‘theatre’. It certainly made the United Kingdom a legitimate target for the SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles that the Soviet Union had positioned in various locations within Eastern Europe. This was cold-war high stakes poker at its worst, and no one was sure who would blink first.


Nuclear Culture

The growing political tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, and fear that Britain would be caught in the crossfire, took root in the popular culture of the time. The US television film The Day After, which first aired on ABC in November 1983, was followed in 1984 by the UK production Threads. Both films depicted the escalation of conflict between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries, ultimately resulting in all out nuclear war. That my parents forbade me to watch either of these films on their first release only added to the fascination I had with all things nuclear. 

In 1984 the Liverpool band Frankie Goes to Hollywood had their second number one hit with the song Two Tribes, a thumping funk/R&B anti-war song that became the longest-running number-one single in the UK of the 1980s. I bought the twelve inch re-mix version, played it constantly and painted a copy of the mural of Lenin that daubed the record’s sleeve as part of my O level art project. 

Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

There I was, a cold war kid immersed in the nuclear zeitgeist of the mid 1980s, when a friend informed me about a student exchange scheme being organised by my six form college. The destination was Kiev, a city behind the ‘iron curtain’ of the Soviet Union. I couldn’t wait to sign on the dotted line. 


The Nightmare Begins

The first news reports spoke of a fire at a nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union. The Soviet news agency would only conceded that a minor accident had occurred. At 21:02 on the evening of 28 April 1986, a 20-second announcement was read out on Soviet television. “There has been an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the nuclear reactors was damaged. The effects of the accident are being remedied. Assistance has been provided for any affected people. An investigative commission has been set up.”

What had actually occurred on the night of 26 April was a catastrophic nuclear accident. During a late-night safety test designed to simulate an electrical power outage, during which both emergency safety and power-regulating systems were intentionally disabled, a combination of inherent reactor design flaws and an unstable arrangement of fuel and control rods within the core resulted in uncontrolled reaction conditions. Superheated water was instantly turned into steam, causing a destructive steam explosion that took the roof off the reactor building and a subsequent open-air graphite fire that burned for nine days with the reactor core exposed to the atmosphere before it was finally contained on 4 May. When the full magnitude of the situation became clear, the South Manchester College student exchange trip to Kiev was cancelled. 

Cherbobyl Power Plant, Reactor 4, showing the effects of the steam explosion.

Kiev

Twenty-five years passed before I eventually got to visit Kiev, by then the capital of an independent Ukraine. As per the agreement with the Chernobyl Tour Company we were collected in people carriers from Independence Square early on a wet Wednesday morning for the 150km drive to the edge of the exclusion zone. Officially known as the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation, the exclusion zone was established by the Soviet Armed Forces soon after the 1986 disaster, initially at a radius of 30km from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It has since been extended (yes extended) by the Ukrainian authorities to cover approximately 2,600 sq km where radioactive contamination from nuclear fallout is highest and public access and inhabitation are restricted. 

Independence Square, Kiev

How much Radiation is too much Radiation?

The dose of radiation received by the human body is measured in sieverts, abbreviated as Sv. As natural background radiation levels are generally low most dosimeters measure the received dose in Millisieverts, one thousandth of a sievert and abbreviated as mSv(1000mSv = 1Sv), or more often than not in Microsieverts, one millionth of a sievert and abbreviated as μSv (1,000,000μSv = 1Sv). The global average exposure of humans to ionizing radiation is about 2.4 – 3 mSv per year, 80% of which occurs naturally. The radiation levels in the area of the reactor building in the first 48 hours after the explosion at Chernobyl have been estimated at 300Sv/hr, (300,000mSv/hr) providing a fatal dose in just over a minute. 22 years after the explosion radiation levels inside the reactor hall were approximately 34 Sv/hr, providing a lethal dose in 10-20 minutes. 

Radiation levels within the exclusion zone vary considerably, dependent on a number of factors including the original distribution pattern of fallout from the reactor fire, vegetation cover, terrain, weather conditions, etc. Average background radiation levels within the exclusion zone, and specifically in the abandoned city of Pripyat, vary from 0.3 to 300 μSv/hour.

Taking a dosimeter reading from moss

Dosimetry

At Dytyatky, still thirty kilometres from Cherbobyl, we reached the check point at the perimeter of the exclusion zone. Here our passports were taken and we registered as having entered the exclusion zone. Dytyatky is also a dosimetry control checkpoint and visitors are required to have their radiation dose levels checked whenever entering and leaving the exclusion zone. Once cleared through the check point we continued north for a further thirty kilometres to the town of Chernobyl, the administrative centre for the management of the decommissioned nuclear reactor complex. Here we were provided with a talk covering many aspects of the history of the Chernobyl incident including management of nuclear energy, ecological and environmental impact, radiation dosimetry, medicine, psychology, ethnography, and disaster management. 

On Kirova Street we paused at the memorial to Those Who Saved the World, constructed in memory of the firefighters who gave their lives during the initial containment of the fire at reactor 4. At the ten kilometre boundary we passed through the Lelyov checkpoint, again being required to pass a dosimetry check, and proceeded along an eerily empty highway, our people carriers the only visible vehicles, hemmed in on all sides by dense coniferous forest through which, every so often, came glimpses of abandoned buildings. 

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant complex is located ten kilometres north of the town of Chernobyl, where the waters of the Pripyat River were diverted to create an enormous cooling pond for the reactor complex. Some five kilometres to the northwest of the reactor complex is the abandoned city of Pripyat, designated at its foundation in 1970 as the ninth nuclear city of the Soviet Union, constructed for the habitation of power plant workers and their families. 

To be continued in part two, Pripyat: City of Ghosts.

This Quiet Morning

a poem in remembrance of the Manchester twenty-two

this quiet morning on the corner of Oldham Street 
a barista takes plastic cups of hot sweet tea
balanced on his Bakelite tray so carefully
to policemen who stand at ease, tired on their feet
 
shading their eyes from the bright May sunshine
fatigued, weary, unaccustomed to the sunlight
grateful for their cuppa having been up all night
together a fragile but united thin blue line
 
this quiet morning separated by circumstance 
friends exchange messages of love though miles apart
the old lady selling Ariana love hearts 
offers me a blessing, leaving nothing to chance
 
handing back the keys of her response vehicle 
a paramedic hugs her colleague so tightly
he feels his spine will break as if cinder toffee
the only sound between them the short-wave crackle
 
this quiet morning an invisible cotton shroud
has muted the routine hubbub of the city
united in this moment of grief, stepping deftly
through the disbelief and the silence of the crowd 
 
Shaun stood selling news on the corner of Deansgate
stabs his finger at the headline so bitterly
it ain’t the first time though is it our kid, says he
keep the change for a brew I say, God bless you mate
 
it is as though death has woken us from slumber
as cold and indiscriminate as death can be
we have remembered for this moment what truly
is of value, just what blessings we can number
 
this loss is the banal reality of war 
that tears away the very soul of our belief
we can forge no lasting weapon against this grief
but to embrace in the wake of deaths we abhor
 
this evil tide we will forever disavow
this quiet morning, although we bow our heads to cry 
we will not die when our brothers and sisters die
we shall avenge their deaths the one way we know how
 
by choosing to live

A Poem for Easter

Footprints, hieroglyphic lines
etched upon the frost infected ground
the sinuous coils of a signature
which may or may not be mine
steps trod once before and now and again 
of all that is, somnambulistic
trespass through the unsurveyed landscape 
of a history which may or may not be mine

Back upon the open country
the reiterative paths lead but to themselves 
and enclosed within this mortal suffocation 
we are lost
defined only be the tenor of our wanderings 
towards an indeterminate location
which may or may not be real

Low on the western fields the moon
in pallid countenance of guilt slips
with culpable silence towards the shadows of forever night
the protagonist of nocturnal gramarye 
radiates her final obeisance’s, perturbed 
by undisclosed celestial vicissitude
her chiaroscuro domain fading
blending into darkness with each retreating step
slowly descending
touching earth
dissolves in rivers of mist
which tumble and roll
over the obdurate marls of the western Cheshire Plain

Something not wholly perceived
punctuates the sentence streams of introspection 
a breath falls upon my naked frame 
no source, no breeze to stir the flesh 
from somewhere unknown
not before, nor beyond
breaks upon the presence of my thoughts
my insular view of secular scenes 
altering my senses to what in truth 
I had always known
but in reality could not confess 
the stream of consciousness

The eastern sky shows form
 
Imperceptible as the sweep of the hour’s hand 
a neap tide waxes
threads intertwine
twisting in ever changing arabesques 
monochrome textures weaving together
a tapestry in phosphorescent shades
 
Eos awakening
a promise
on this Easter morning

Warm Nile breezes across these dusty roads
a fragrance of fecundity to dried-out bones
I did not consider you 
not here
where you spoke to me as in a vision
as the wind whispers
to observe the distillation of truth
to chart the unfamiliar terrain 
between illusion and reality
to ever endure the disparity 
what we say – what we do
what we dream of doing, this is the dawn

 
the day remains as yet unclaimed
 
 
Transfigured in the still increasing glow of
embers smouldering with gentle absolution 
in the early hours
between the darkness and full light
the softness of a Levant morning permeates the solemn air
the stones and thorns of a garden
where a woman weeps
the beat of her lamentation filling these reflective hours
vacant with possibility
a moment that separates every act from its consequence 
every word from its meaning
every irredeemable effect from its cause 
the naked horror
of just another crucifixion
 
                                               –      from the resurrection 
 
 
Woman, why do you cry?

(for Seraphim)


I wrote this some years ago. Seems appropriate today.

Haworth, Chapter 6: Unquiet Slumbers

The sheep at Top Withens are evil. I say this without a word of exaggeration or hyperbole, and have learned to beware their very presence. Being so accustomed to the perpetual drip-drip of visitors, from Haworth, from Stanbury, from Heptonstall, they have become tame – no, fearless – to the point of sociopathy. They will take the sandwich from your hand without a second thought and stand before you whilst they eat it. They will harass small children, friendly dogs, hikers and foreign visitors alike and will ultimately claim Top Withens as their own. I wonder sometimes if Emily Brontë did not take as the model for the sadistic and vengeful Mr Heathcliff one of these ovine inhabitants of Haworth Moor with their demonic yellow eyes and curling horns. 

Top Withens
Top Withens

Perhaps it is the sheep that imbue Top Withens with its maleficent energy. Perhaps it is the location, its foundations higher than the grasstops. Perhaps it is the north wind blowing over the edge that begins to invoke the spell; a conjugation of myth, history and fiction, an association of memories from our own lives and the lives of others, weaving these disparate strands together as the Sunderland family wove the strands of wool from their own and their neighbours sheep to produce a thick, hispid material. Or perhaps it is simply a human instinct to see patterns in the landscape: faces in the rocks, voices in the wind, and stories in the ordinary lives of the hill farming families. But the patterns are seductive, drawing us in, until the landscape is transformed by our imagination and the patterns take on a life of their own.

Beyond Delf Hill, the plateau of moorland stretched out before me to the north and west. On the high expanses of the moor, distances become elusive, and it can be difficult to determine scale. I walked for almost a kilometre across the ling heather and tussocks of cotton grass with little alteration in elevation and without passing anything higher than my kneecaps. In low cloud it is remarkably easy to become disoriented and lost on the high moorlands, as the uninitiated and poorly prepared often discover. Thankful of good visibility, I was able to use the considerable scattering of frost shattered, wind-eroded boulders known as the Alcomden Stones as a visual guide. The intricate shapes and patterns made on these stones by thousands of years of wind, rain and ice suggest human involvement in their creation, a pre-historic Henry Moore perhaps. A precariously positioned rocking stone is thought by some to be a Bronze Age cromlech, known by common association as a Druidic altar for dubious sacrifice, whilst others believe the precarious stone to be a result of post-glacial erosion. I am of the former persuasion for I believe the Alcomden Stones to be a liminal zone, a place where the veil between the material and the spiritual realms is perceptibly thin, or at least perceptible to some.

Just below the cantilever in a cleft, where two of the boulders have fallen together, a tiny shelter had been fashioned by the construction of a small dry stone wall to close off the gap beneath the boulders. Judging by the extensive growth of Cladonia floerkeana, or the Devil’s Matchsticks, on the wall, it had been in place for some years, possibly having been used as a shelter for shepherds or gamekeepers caught in bad weather on the moor. Given the sheet of polythene spread out inside the cavity and a discarded, rusted gas container, someone had spent the night there not too long ago. I put the gas container in my rucksack to dispose of later.

To the west of the Alcomden stones, a shallow trench marked the same constitutional boundary I had stumbled upon by Oxenhope Stoop Hill. I followed its line, passing a number of shin high boundary stones marked “KC 1902” indicating the purchase of the moor to the east by Keighley Corporation in that year. A mile or so northwest the trench meets the county boundary of Lancashire and Yorkshire as it transects from west to east before making a sharp turn to the north at a curious feature known as ‘the Lad’. Whether boundary stone or monolith, the hefty gritstone tooth protruding from the moor solicits a choice from passers by, being engraved in capitals “LAD OR SCARR ON CROW HILL” an act of vandalism thought to originate from an 18thCentury boundary dispute. Curious to see what I might find I headed out across the Wage of Crow Hill onto Stanbury Bog, finding it much less saturated than expected, undoubtedly the result of much improved drainage, introduced to encourage the growth of heather, which prefers dryer soil, for the convenience of the grouse and the shooting parties that come in pursuit of that comical little bird. Half a mile or so south of ‘the Lad’ I came across a natural drainage channel and a considerable depression in the peat, devoid of heather, which bore more than a passing resemblance to Patrick Brontë’s description of the site of the 1824 “phenomenon”, albeit somewhat reduced in depth by the accumulation of peaty material from the surrounding moor over the course of almost two hundred years.

“a part of the moors in my chapelry … sunk into two wide cavities; the larger of which measured three hundred yards in length, above two hundred in breadth, and was five or six yards deep.”[i]

Harwood Brierley gave an account for the Leeds Mercury in 1928 of a visit to Stanbury Bog in the company of local quarry man William Kay. Brierley noted how “the very top of the bog bore evidences enough of primeval forest land … to my astonishment I beheld piles of firewood representing some hundreds of pine, fur (sic), and oak trunks or roots, some still fast in the bogland … and was informed that the lot had been exposed to view by the disruption of 1824, being the remains of a Roman Forest.”[ii] On the day I made my journey to the “swamp of Wuthering Heights”, the “piles of firewood” were nowhere to be seen, perhaps long ago removed by local inhabitants, although I did stumble upon a small exposure of preserved tree material in the peat, possibly giving credence to this heather-less depression as the site of the afore mentioned eruption.

To the west the sun was lingering above the outline of Boulsworth Hill and I resolved to abandon my explorations for the day and head via Bracken Hill down to Ponden Hall. Passing by the old house I glanced up at the tiny mullioned window in the east gable where it is said Emily Brontë took inspiration for the appearance of Cathy’s ghost to Lockwood and for a brief moment thought I glimpsed a child’s face pressed against the glass. A trick of the light no doubt or a product of my over active imagination. 

The mullioned windows of Ponden Hall
The mullioned windows of Ponden Hall

In the editor’s preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë made concession to “what are termed (and, perhaps, really are) its faults;” but it would be churlish to drag Emily Brontë through the mire of literary criticism without an acknowledgement of the fierce individuality of her work in a time when ‘authoress’ was considered to be an unwise occupation for a lady, particularly the daughter of a parson.  Her genius was not solely in the telling of a story, for which she drew heavily on her Gondal epics, borrowed themes from her brother, creating a narrative that is sometimes incohesive and perhaps simplistic in characterisation. Her genius was in taking a scalpel to the conventionality and hypocrisy of nineteenth century society, in portraying the often brutal reality of life as it was for the inhabitants of the Yorkshire moors at a time of great industrial and social upheaval. To quote the biographer Winifred Gerin, Emily possessed an “attitude of defiance towards the social, and even more towards the national, traditions of the English novel.” More vociferously, as her sister Charlotte proclaimed in the preface to the 1847 edition of Jane Eyre, in defence of those critics who believed the Brontës to be immoral, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the latter.”

Although there are undoubted similarities between her novel and the landscape of the Haworth Moors, in the lives of those who were witness to the gradual demise of the stone house and the way of life that went with it, in reality, Wuthering Heights only ever existed in the imagination of Emily Brontë. And whatever her inspiration, if there is an association with the farm building of Top Withens, if there is a thread that, even today, binds fact and fiction together, poetry and prose, joy and tragedy; it is because we have made it thus. Ellen Nussey, Edward Wimperis, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Jane Urquhart, Glyn Hughes and every one of us who has ever made the rough journey, with a sad heart, along Sladen Beck, through the landscape that now bears her name, to the top of that stark, rain bleached moor and stood among the pitiless sheep, and the truncated ruins of Wuthering Heights, wishing the fiction could, just for one moment, be made real. 


[i]Brontë, Patrick ‘The Phenomenon; or an account in verse of the extraordinary disruption of a bog which took place in the moors of Haworth’ printed by T. Inkersley, 1824 – in the care of the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

[ii]Brierley, Harwood ‘The Swamp of “Wuthering Heights” Scene of the Bog-Burst Patrick Brontë preached on.’Leeds Mercury, 6th August 1928 – from C.M. Edgerley’s scrap books in the care of the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

Sketch of Top Withens by Sylvia Plath, 1956

Haworth, Chapter 5: Furious Ghosts in the Stone House

Following the death of Charlotte Brontë in 1855 and the subsequent biography written by Elizabeth Gaskell, published in 1857, there was a surge in popularity of Charlotte and Emily’s novels[i]. As a consequence, a morbid curiosity grew up around the lives of the tragic sisters and the pilgrimage to the parsonage at Haworth, and to Top Withens in particular, became a common undertaking for the literary enthusiast and the down right nosey.  The pilgrims came from everywhere: Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, America, all wanting to touch the landscape the Brontës had created. One young American woman came with her new husband and his uncle, Walt, eager in her enthusiasm for romanticism to see the place where Heathcliff and Cathy had roamed the moors. Her transatlantic, almost manic, energy embraced everything with a child-like enthusiasm, as her journal showed. “central tragic figure – Uncle W. – drama of Cathy & Heathcliffe – close.” She made lists of words, Brontë words, stolen from the Parsonage: “luminous – bluish – watercolor – blue book, leather – sofa – Emily died – 19thDec 1848”  – in the margin of her notebook she drew a simple sketch of the sofa on which Emily spent her final hours. Uncle Walt showed them the way from Stanbury to Top Withens, where she made a pen & ink drawing of the dilapidated farmhouse, capturing the asperous simplicity of the place, the isolation, the sadness, and the ever-dutiful sycamore trees standing close by. She posed in the branches of one of the trees for a photograph, young, beautiful, vivaciously intelligent, full of life. [ii]

“There are two ways to the stone house, both tiresome. One, the public route from the town along green pastureland over stone stiles to the voluble white cataract that drops its long rag of water over rocks warped round.”

Top Withens
Top Withens, believed to be the locational inspiration for Wuthering Heights, viewed from Delf Hill.

“The other – across the slow heave, hill on hill from any other direction across bog down to the middle of the world, green-slimed, boots squelchy – brown peat – earth untouched except by grouse foot – bluewhite spines of gorse, the burnt-sugar bracken – all eternity, wilderness, loneliness – peat colored water – the house – small, lasting – pebbles on roof, name scrawls on rock – inhospitable two trees on the lee side of the hill where the long winds come, piece the light in a stillness. The furious ghosts nowhere but in the heads of the visitors & the yellow-eyed shag sheep. House of love lasts as long as love in human mind – blue-spidling gorse.”[iii]

Sylvia Path and Ted Hughes met at a party held at the Women’s Union, Falcon Yard, Cambridge to celebrate the publication of a new literary magazine, the St Botolph’s Review, partly edited by Hughes himself. Plath had earlier bought a copy from Bert Wyatt-Brown and had memorised some of Hughes’ poems so as to recite them to him and to impress[iv]. The effect on Ted Hughes was conclusive and their tempestuous relations began, as it was to continue.

Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes http://culture.affinitymagazine.us
Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes http://culture.affinitymagazine.us

“And I was stamping and he was stamping on the floor, and then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hair band off, my lovely red hairband scarf which had weathered the sun and much love, and whose like I shall never again find, and my favourite silver earrings: hah, I shall keep, he barked. And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face.”[v]

Plath and Hughes were married in haste, with a special dispensation from the Archbishop of Canterbury (a waiver of any waiting period or of required residential status) at St. George the Martyr, Bloomsbury on 16t June 1956 – Bloomsday – which was not a coincidence. Finding themselves penniless after the wedding, they move in with Ted’s parents at the family home in Heptonstall, Yorkshire and Sylvia was eager to take this opportunity to explore the wild, barren country of Hughes’ home. 

Sylvia Plath at Top Withens, 1956. Photograph by Ted Hughes.
Sylvia Plath at Top Withens, 1956. Photograph by Ted Hughes.

Their visits to Top Withens clearly left a deep impression on both Hughes and Plath, for its image, and the image of the Yorkshire Moors are recurrent themes in their poetry. In her poem, ‘Wuthering Heights’written some years after their stay in Yorkshire, when the pair had moved to Devon, Plath recalls the isolation of the stone house.

“There is no life higher than the grasstops

Or the hearts of the sheep, and the wind

Pours by like destiny, bending

Everything in one direction.

I can feel it trying

To funnel my heat away.

If I pay the roots of the heather

Too close attention, they will invite me

To whiten my bones among them.”[vi]

Sketch of Top Withens by Sylvia Plath, 1956
Sketch of Top Withens by Sylvia Plath, 1956

Sylvia Path died from carbon monoxide poisoning on 11 February 1963, aged thirty; a successful poet with a single novel to her name, ‘The Bell Jar’, published just a month before her death. Her asphyxiation was self-inflicted. Returning to Top Withens years after his wife’s death Ted Hughes recalled their earlier visits, how the small property then still bore the resemblance of a house, how she had excitedly suggested they buy the place and renovate it, how she had sketched, wrote, been wonderful. But twenty years had passed and Top Withens had become an empty shell, devoid of life and character.

We had all the time in the world.

Walt would live as long as you had lived.

Then the timeless eye blinked.


                                    And weatherproofed,

Squared with Water Authority concrete, a roofless

Pissoir for sheep and tourists marks the site

Of my Uncles disgust.


                                    But the tree – 

That’s still there, unchanged beside its partner

Where my camera held (for that moment) a ghost.”[vii]

“It’s twenty years, I’ve been a waif for twenty years! Let me in – let me in!”


[i]Sadly, Anne’s novels appear to have been mostly forgotten until much later in the 20th Century.

[ii]Stevenson, Anne 1989 ‘Bitter Fame: a life of Sylvia Plath’ Viking Penguin Inc

[iii]Kukil, Karen, V. (ed. 2000) ‘The Journals of Sylvia Path 1950-1962’ Faber & Faber Ltd, pp589

[iv]ibid, pp210

[v]ibid, pp212

[vi]‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems’, Hughes, Ted (ed. 1981) Faber & Faber Ltd

[vii]‘Two Photographs of Top Withens’, ‘Ted Hughes, Collected Poems’, Keegan, Paul (ed. 2003) Faber & Faber Ltd, pp840