Walking with Wilfred Owen

10 August 1917: a dozen walkers from the Craiglockhart War Hospital Field Club, including Wilfred Owen, walk in the Pentland Hills. According to an article Owen wrote for the hospital magazine The Hydra, the route took them from Balerno tram terminus to Threipmiur Reservoir, Bavelaw Castle, Green Cleuch, Loganlee and Glencourse.

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Threipmuir / heather

10 August 2017: a dozen walkers, and a dog,  from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Canada retrace Owen’s route, led by Neil McLellan, chair of the Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh 1917-2017 committee, and indefatigable researcher of Owen’s time in Edinburgh, Tommy McManmon, Natural Heritage Officer (that’s a Ranger, pre-rebranding by the council), and me, poet of these parts.

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We departed, in both senses of the word, from Owen’s route, at Harlaw Visitor Centre, to have a cuppa, make introductions and do some warm-up exercises to prime us for walking as poets. Then along to Threipmuir to fall into century-separated step with Owen (I’m reminded of Nan Shepherd’s ‘one is companioned, but not in time’, The Living Mountain, ch 5).  We also fell into step, conversation, and companionship with each other, sharing stories of what brought us here, today, literally and figuratively. Periodically we  stopped and Neil took us back to 1917 and the findings of his own research.

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2017 historian / walkers

After a lunch stop at the Howe (‘Habbie’s Howe’ to Owen), we fell into silence for a spell, to observe, hear and generally ‘sense’ the experience of walking in August 2017 – both to be mindful of the present moment, and to remind ourselves of  the 1917 walkers, here as part of a rehabilitation that would make them fit to be returned to the front, that would see Owen unnecessarily killed a few days before the Armistice. Beneficiaries of post-WW2 peace and prosperity struggling to come to terms with Brexit and Trump, we used our minutes of silence to walk in an act of remembrance and maybe resistance, for peace, integration, tolerance; and to write. The results were stunning and I hope they will be in the public domain at some point.

 

A humbling, inspiring and companionable experience for someone who, like many, was introduced to, and became enthralled by, modern poetry when studying the WW1 poets at school; who has lived somewhere between Craiglockhart and the Pentlands for the last 7 years, and walked this route for over 20 without realising until now that it was the one taken by Owen. Not my average day’s walk in the hills of the adopted home.

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harvest / Harlaw

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slow trains and sound bites

I went to Glasgow last Friday with the intention of working on some unfinished drafts at the Transport Museum. When I first visited last summer, the idea of having a transport theme at South Side Writers came to me whilst sunbathing on the deck between the museum and the Tall Ship. Since then we’ve used text, images and personal reminiscence featuring longships, mobility scooters, transporters, donkeys and just about every every other imaginable mode of transport to prompt explorations of character, plot, pacing, structure and sound, as well as looking closely at concepts like ‘flight’. I’d identified Zaha Hadid’s museum building as an interesting place to sit and write for an hour or two. Now it was summertime again, officially at least, and the group was on its Easter break, so I set off for the west on the slow train. This involves:  a pleasant half-hour walk to Slateford Station via the blooming gardens of Craiglockhart; avoiding congestion in  Edinburgh city centre and at Waverley Station, and a cheaper fare to Glasgow which does not carry off-peak restrictions either. The train is indeed slow,  a proper ‘stopping train’, but I like its meanderings around lesser-visited parts of the central belt, home to people I may never meet, trees and livestock.

Progress  from Central Station to  Partick was slowed further at the architecture and design centre, The Lighthouse, when I chanced across a half-hour creative writing workshop, ‘Lunchtime Bites’.   Facilitator Emily Dodd had selected a photograph from the Britain From Above exhibition, the Broxburn Oil Works. She gave us  a short introduction and set us to write for 15 minutes.  As a creative writing tutor, one  of the most satisfying aspects of an extremely satisfying job is when you hear a group’s varying responses to the same starting point, and the surprise of those who didn’t think they could do it.   Another is when you attend a workshop on your day off and get to practice  the magical process for yourself.

Some writers can produce a lot of good material in a quarter of an hour under these conditions. In recent years my personal word-processor speed has slowed – one of my best friends describes me as glacial – so I opted for a haiku . Out of the notes I’d made I linked two images –  the background slag-heap detritus of the chemical process, and the foreground canal –  in three lines. As Emily pointed out, fifteen minutes is a good time to break off anyway; when you return to your writing you’ll have an altered perspective on it.

I used my surplus material in a draft that re-worked some of Emily’s introductory material about the social and ecological environment and history. Add a bit of my own time-and-space preoccupation  and maybe or maybe not a human character, and it could become something more substantial. We were photographed and recorded  after the session. I’m here,  sounding like a northern Janet Street-Porter with a plane above my head.

Emily spoke with great enthusiasm about working with community groups who had grown up close to some of the photographed locations. Those of us present at this session hadn’t, though  I was inevitably struck by parallels with the former industrial landscapes of northern England.

After the designated half-hour I looked round the rest of the Britain from Above exhibition. It’s more accurately described as ‘oblique aerial photography’, or Britain from a bit above. This isn’t like the view from an aeroplane, unless you’re just coming in to land (at that point I have my eyes closed and I’m gripping my seat arm-rests as we dangle above some too-near coastal water). The oblique perspective affords potential for some  innovative point-of-view work – though without making much of a conscious decision I settled for being the viewer outside the frame, making references to the fact that I was viewing a photograph, not the place itself. I resolved to pedal  along the Union Canal towpath to Broxburn to have a look at the site in colour and from bicycle level this spring.

And so to my final destination of the day. I’d sort of forgotten that It wasn’t just me who was on holiday – the schools were too. It was grand to see the museum full of eager children, but useless for settling down to write. I wandered around Hyndland and Dowanhill instead, and got the slow train back in good time for the Friday night treat or torture – I’m not sure which, but I think that’s the point – that is Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s Trip to Itlay.

fruit and veg; and inside out

Each term the South Side Writers have a new theme. In Spring 2013 it’s Fruit & Veg. This is because

(i) there’s been a bit of a running joke about bananas in the group for a couple of years. I always eat one before the class starts. Some time ago member Olga Wojtas showed us her party piece, which involved turning a banana into the profile of a penguin by partly peeling it and taking one bite. Time seemed ripe, pun intended, to bring the subject to more conscious and literary attention.

(ii) Last term we did Borders, Boundaries and Edges and I felt it was time for something more concrete and less conceptual.

Before Christmas we discussed and wrote about different sorts of boundaries – geographical, political, personal – and literary, in the shape of stanzas and paragraphs. We looked at examples of visual art with clearly defined lines (Mondrian, for example), and with fuzzy ones (Whistler`), and some that combined both, such as a couple of my favourite paintings in the National Galleries Scotland collection: Cezanne’s  The Big Trees, and Klee’s Threatening Snowstorm.

Design
After Paul Klee

blueprint for rebuilding
out of the bruising

provisional etching
of the reconstruction of Dresden

prophetic minaret to a
cloud-capped ground zero

Valhalla in a new era
for post-conflagration gods

plans on the drawing board
prefigure each apocalypse

This poem first appeared in Words on Canvas (National Galleries of Scotland, 2009).

One week everyone brought in an object with an (accessible, usable) inside and outside. I asked a series of questions, to be answered first with respect to the object’s exterior, and then again about its interior, so that you ended up with two lists which could be used or combined in various ways as a writing prompt.

Fruit ( we haven’t really made it into veg yet) is proving to be a fascinating subject for a series of writing classes because of its range of usage, literal and metaphorical, throughout literary history from Virgil’s ‘The Salad’, through the various sorts of Christian-era symbolism, to an abundance of contemporary works. It too has insides and outsides, of course. We started the term  sniffing, feeling, peeling and tasting fruit and will end with a fruit & word salad. Each writer is now researching a different fruit and bringing in a textual  example of it. In response we’ve written about hybrids (nectarcot, anyone?), provenance and packaging, architectural pineapples  and still lifes, as well as addressing a species and defamiliarising the common-or-garden so that it becomes exotic. Oh, and a banana is a herb.