A young poet's sketches.

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Dorothy Cowlin gives an insight into how she learned her craft. She did not keep much early verse but has left some good poetic sketches, of which I quote a sample.

Student years.

As a 'Fresher' student at Manchester University, she says:

I rather enjoyed walking alone down Oxford Road, past Platt Fields Park, and Whitworth Park, enjoying the traffic, after the quiet of Grantham: excited then by what seemed a vast quantity of cars and other vehicles. There were tram lines all along Oxford Road then, to Fallowfield. I liked the look of the metal rails and the metal wires overhead, shining into the blue distance, with an occasional flash of electric blue light when a trolley jumped a point. I liked the noise and swish or purr of vehicles in the frequent rain. I liked the sooty black trunks of the city trees, shining silkily in that rain: or shadowy -- getting fainter and fainter into the distance, on foggy days. I liked, altogether, the feeling of being in a city, and wrote several poems about it.

As far as I know, these poems were not kept. Virtually none of her writings, in the verse form, are urban poems.
A new student friend got a poem in the University magazine, The Serpent. Then, Dorothy Cowlin started getting poems published there.

Sybille Bedford's novel, A Slight Compass Error, has a woman make a slight error of judgement that takes her ever more in the wrong direction, as years go by. Dorothy Cowlin's wrong decision was to take geography, instead of English, as her main degree subject.

Her inspiring teacher at Kesteven and Grantham girls school had taught geography like a humanities subject. When she got to Manchester university, geography was taught as a science. Even so, she was taken by surprise, to find herself demoted from an honours degree course to a pass degree course.
In her third year, her geography teacher did treat the subject much more in the way she prefered, like anthropology. But that was too late to help her.

Dorothy was a ( then rare ) scholarship girl, her headmistress had suggested stay on a year to try for Oxbridge. That had seemed too long a wait and a risk, as well as an expense. Yet, at Manchester, a year later, she had been deprived of the honours course she won. As her scholarship award only lasted three years, it was too late for her to try for the English school. She felt like a 'pariah' from then on. Very few went in for a pass degree, leaving her with very few to seek companions among.
One shouldnt do that sort of thing to some-one, even if one dislikes them.

But people who suffer injustice may find that they meet kind as well as unkind people. Dorothy says her English literature teacher, a Jewish Scot called Zammick, gave her back some of her self-respect. Once, she was chattering away at the back of a crowded lecture hall. The teacher began the Shakespeare sonnet, 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' adding her name to the question.

Dorothy hadnt realised he knew who she was in all the crowd, and felt flattered rather than rebuked.

Her lecturer on Elizabethan and metaphysical poets liked her essays, several times ending his comments with 'Well, well -- I am grateful.' When she compared a poem to porridge without syrup, the Scotsman put 'salt!' in the margin.
She was too shy to confide her wish to be a writer. But at a Lees Hall Social, he sought her out, to tell her how much he liked her essays.

"You don't try to write like a man! he added. Then, as I probably looked dismayed, added again "And I mean that as a compliment!"
To this day it is probably the nicest thing anyone ever said about my writing...

At this same social, playing nervously with my beads, as I always do with beads, I broke the thread, and they scattered with a purr all over the floor! Mr Zammick went on his hands and knees to help retrieve them. He was so natural -- so utterly without pomposity -- yet had a very good mind. I remember him as sitting on a corner of the desk in the lecture room, swinging one short leg, his book in his hand, speaking always fluently and well, without notes, commanding, yet easy -- as if talking to us rather than lecturing.

Dorothy, being a classic introvert, made few friends at university but they lasted a life-time. I dont mention them because this is a literary account not a personal life story. Privacy is a personal right.
A close student friend infected her with fear of a fire practise drill, using a sort of bosun's chair coming down from a window. They hid upstairs and were declared by the warden to be burned to death!

Dorothy was in bed when she felt it heave under her and throw her slightly to the wall. Other students at the Baths told her how the water swung from one end to the other, like a tipped basin. This rare English 'earthquake' -- 'tremor' would be a better word -- may have stimulated, unconsciously, the following event. More likely, the very warm weather was sufficient.

In Lees Hall garden, where students often 'swotted', they decided to put the beds out, one warm evening, tho she doesnt remember how.


Dusk

We put macs on top of the covers, which was just as well, as there was a heavy dew when we woke the next morning -- very early. We didnt sleep very much. The night was short in any case. It was close to Midsummer. It is the only time I have ever "slept" out of doors, and my memory is a magical one of the beauty of the dark blue sky, luminous until nearly midnight, like the wings of tropical butterflies. Against it the trees in the garden stood clear cut in dark silhouettes -- turning slowly back into three dimensional trees when, after the brief dark, the sky grew paler again.

Dorothy's 'shabby, studenty clothes, mostly home-made' were supplemented, by shocked relatives. This was how she met her first 'real' writer. Temple Thurston was a best-selling novelist and playwright of the early twentieth century. ( When Dorothy mentioned his name to me, I knew of him from the second hand book-stalls in Manchester. )

It is true he was not a classic and is now forgotten, as most of the contents of every period are soon forgotten by those who have not lived thru them. But he was famous, in his time, beyond what most of us can claim.

He had even been asked to contribute to the library of the Queen's Doll's House, shown at Wembley! It contained some miniature poems about birds -- rather charming. One -- the song of the wood pigeon, went: "Two sticks -- across -- and a little -- bit of moss. That'll doo. That'll doo!

Thurston's wife, an aunt, asked Dorothy to send some poems for criticism.

I still have her letter of criticism -- just enough, I think. She thought I had "a distinct gift", but must work hard before marriage took away my energies! "Earnest" also thought I had "a real poetic gift" -- if I would work hard and not be discouraged.

All these remarks seem, to this reviewer, to be true.

Also thru relatives, Dorothy had her first trip abroad. At Brussels Fair, besides the dodgems and suchlike, there was a 'scientific' and 'educational' show on the evils of tight lacing, with photos of organs distorted by stays and diseased organs in bottles. In large glass cases, wax models of child-birth finally succeeded in making her feel ill. She was hurried out.

She was no more favorably impressed by 'a Dancing marathon -- towards the end of the ordeal':

A last few couples were tottering round the floor to the sad dance music, more or less holding each other up, like drunks or zombies, their eyes glazed, their feet dragging as if from a stroke. It was horrible, disgusting in some way.

Not being an honours student, Dorothy Cowlin wouldnt have much chance of a post-graduate course, and, like many, 'drifted' into teaching. Needing the money, she obtained a holiday job in Wales at the Friendship Holiday Association, where they were encouraged to fraternise with the guests.
I think it was one of those interludes, everyone has in their lives, that stand out in one's memories, poised before one's choices of destinies.

Dorothy's year of teacher training was at Leicester University College, housed in the eighteenth century lunatic asylum.

Once that summer, feeling unable to bear another minute of School Practise, I played truant, and went walking along the canal alone, and was bewitched by the quantity and variety of dragon flies, of many colours and sizes, from tiny thread-like shining blue "demoiselles", to big green, pinkish, or brownish creatures, much more like their name. I have never seen and have never since seen such an abundance. It induced a feeling rather like the yellow hammer at Grantham had done, but less intense.
A very respectable looking young man was also walking the towpath and tried in a gentlemanly way to "pick me up". I rebuffed him. Later he passed me and muttered "sorry", and I wished I had not rebuffed him. It was an instinctive reaction -- probably sound.

At the college leaving party, the students used the 'fire-escape' across attic rafters -- like a C S Lewis story -- and down a spiral stair-case route into a padded cell of a thick sort of cardboard. It offered little cheer.

That summer was marked by her only camping holiday, which she loved, despite the midges. I dont think she wrote or preserved a poem of this jaunt across the wilds of Scotland, with a friend's family.
Here follows a long extract from her description:

We bathed in ( Loch Lomand's ) icy waters, lounged in the sun on its shingly beach, picked wild raspberries from an old deserted garden. And in the evening climbed again, led at breakneck speed by Lucy, into boggy, brackenny slopes from which we looked down on a loch like a ribbon of dark blue glass or blue steel. Back at the camp-fire, Walter talked a great deal of Canada.

The next camp site was in Strath Farrer, N W of Inverness, off the River Beauly. This was the best part of the holiday. Strath Farrer was wild and beautiful, with dark brown pooled streams, bilberries galore ( we ate them most days for dinner ) pine trees, Prince Charlie's Cave ( where we thought we saw a wild cat ) a newt and green beetles...We saw deer, too, and snakes. And I smelt for the first time the spicy smell of bog myrtle... ( A ) hedgehog was found on the road when we moved on to Loch Torridon, and ravaged the biscuit tin the following night...
There was a lake further up Strath Farrer with an island, and a house on it. There was also a lodge to a big house, where we bought milk, and horrified the lodge-keeper's wife by eating bilberries. She considered they were poisonous!

We went to Loch Torridon...to see "the parallel roads of Glen Noy", said by geologists to denote former beach levels.

We never saw them. No sooner did we move west than it began to pour with rain. We camped in the dismal downpour in a quarry by the roadside -- the only real rain of the fortnight.

After two days of this we gave up and turned back east to Loch Ness. Here it was blazing hot -- so hot I walked in a gym slip without a blouse, and gym shoes without stockings or socks. I had worn this old school gym slip for most of the holiday. It was well above my knees. It and my flowing locks caused great amusement, and made me look less than fifteen.

Loch Ness was not so much to my mind as Strath Farrer. It was much too long -- a walk one day along the opposite shore from Urquehart Castle seemed endless. Nothing seemed to change. We never did get "past" that castle! It was really much too hot to walk far in any case. One day -- up in some mountains along the shores, we found a small tarn. Lucy and Walter bathed in it...
Walter had learnt to "tickle" trout in Canada, and one day, probably in Strath Farrer, he lay on his stomach and "tickled" enough trout for our breakfast. They were fried, with mushrooms, straight away, and I thought them delicious...

This was the end of Dorothy's 'prolonged girlhood.' She says: 'I was never to experience anything like it again.'


Rambling writer.

There was supposed to be too many teachers in England of the nineteen thirties. Over-qualified teachers, like Dorothy Cowlin and some of her friends, had to settle for posts in elementary schools. Yet class sizes up to fifty children were allowed. Dorothy remembers having forty eight. Often, classes had to share a hall, adding to the noise and distraction. Dorothy could not keep order. For many years she hid from her family and friends that one Head demoted her to a younger class.
It was yet another demotion after the degree demotion.
She would try for a job as a journalist. The editor of the Stockport Advertiser told her: I wouldnt have a woman on my paper.

After recovering from her exhaustion from teaching, she began writing. It was long before she had an editor's acceptance and these were few and far between, in her twenties. The first two novels she completed did the rounds.
The teacher joined the junior branch of the League of nations peace campaign. ( This period is described in her eighth published novel, The Pair of Them. ) Whittier's hymn of peace voiced her sentiments. She wrote a few plays for the youth group, one mainly to interest a young man with a part.

There she also met her future husband, Ron, after a long courtship. The couple's lack of money, and perhaps sexual tension, helped add to the quota of lovers' quarrels. He was patient and mature, tho younger. She noted that: I cried when we met; he, when we parted.

Hopes for an income were put on getting a novel accepted. There was no such timely good fortune. When publication did come, it was in the impoverished conditions of a world war.

Meanwhile, Dorothy's partner, Ron, had the integrity not to concede that she was as good as Mary Webb, a forgotten but great writer, who died young. Cowlin, also a nature writer, would eventually produce a novel of comparable power, but on the industrial city.

In the mid nineteen thirties, on a summer holiday with friends in Scotland, she sometimes took short walks on her own 'hoping to think of poems -- but somehow never as romantic as I would have wished.' She describes:

two beautiful evening sails up Loch Duich -- one when the light was brilliant -- green gold on the hills, the seagulls blue against the sky, chinese white against the dark sea; rainbows in the ship's spray: a rainbow we sailed under. The other sail was more sombre, but we saw porpoises, turning like ship's wheels.

A further sail took them to Portree, 'I thought the most perfect harbour I had ever seen'.

Country walking holidays were ever Cowlin's main recreation. They issued in several attempted poems, in her twenties, which never came off. She thought herself very modern for writing a poem about a dead sheep. It, like the sheep, has perished. The following is more typical:

In the evening of this ramble, walking in mist on the moors, there were moor fires -- lines like breaking gold foam, creeping in low running waves out of the misty dusk. I thought them a beautiful sight and tried to express the feeling ( unsuccessfully ) in a poem.

The Derwent Valley was turned into a reservoir for Sheffield. Before Derwent Hall and 'a rather lovely old pack-horse bridge' were submerged:

we looked into the deserted garden of the Hall and saw a host of snowdrops. Ron picked a small bunch for me. The flower is for me forever connected with the Derwent Valley and the drowned hall...
I wrote several rather poor poems on the subject. The poem is still in my mind -- never crystallised I suppose.

Also to receive a reservoir was the Goyt valley where "leaves on the water, and wind-ripples, made the bridge seem to travel along." This kinesthesis or feeling of motion, even if illusory, is a sense more than 'the five senses'. ( The seventh sense, the feel of vibrations, is described in Cowlin's poem about England's highest water-fall. ) She felt that the tranquility of moving clouds was akin to that from watching water flow.

Vanishing snow at least 'crystallised' in a few early poems. She noted:

The snow was late. I was charmed by the look of the snowflakes falling on the moors, netted by their limestone walls, and now in another net of snow -- like a spotted muslin curtain. Its perpetual falling motion gave me a feeling of upward movement, of curious buoyancy.
But it didnt last long -- Spring snow is briefest of all.

Alone at the end of january, in Lyme Park, Stockport under snow:

I was stirred by the beauty of the sprinkled flakes on the deers' backs, and the spotted veil over the trees. The lake was dark green, striped with white...Lovers came by and kissed and made me sad.

This scene was used for 'a queer little poem called "Snowfall", and a story, both unpublished.

A further poem of her own, "Wedding Morning", she wrote as an anticipation. She gave it a cover with a green ribbon and also made a photo album as a present. People did make their own presents more, in those days. A book of poetry was among the bought presents for her partner's birth-day. When embracing, he called her 'a lovely slippery salmon'.
Cowlin has a poem that fits the nuptial description. If it's the same one, the title has been changed.
When she committed herself to her husband-to-be, she remarks of their holiday by the Dinas Lake, in Wales: 'I was amazed how the beauty of the place was magnified by happiness.'

I'd thought that Dorothy Cowlin was a nature poet pure and simple. But it turns out, she did write some 'over-adjectival' love poems as well. She thought none of them any good. They were sentimental, not at all as she felt. That was still the stultifying convention in poetry, but Dorothy was never sentimental.
One subject was a kiss in a shop doorway that seemed to set the couple luxuriously apart from the sound of wind and rain in the street.

I dont know whether the following description of a 'cinematic' kiss was the subject for a poem. The partners went to a Hallé concert, or on this occasion a Garbo film.

Afterwards, in a small secluded square near St George's Church, we stood and kissed in perhaps a rather cinematic fashion. There was a high wind. Clouds, lit by moonlight, scudded along fast and magnificent behind the moonlit spire of the church. Though it was November, the sky seemed translucent, like black ice. Ron's lamplit and moonlit face looked beautiful to me.
Sometimes we sang to each other. I lent Ron books. We went ice-skating. More often, I went ice-skating with Molly.

They 'discovered Alderley Mere -- in a park in a very run-down state, where we heard deer barking, and watched ducks scudding across the lake in long parallel lines...
Rain and golden leaves fell together as we stood on top of Alderley Edge.'
Under 'a twisted old oak tree' where 'acorns dropped stealthily as we were kissing.' Another night, 'we could see the dark plain stretching away to Stockport, with the headlights of cars, like searchlights, boring through invisible tunnels of trees. It gave a wonderful sensation of height...'

One Saturday afternoon in Bramhall Park, on a frosty day in November, there was ice on the water. Ducks slid about on it comically. And Ron said he could hear the swan cracking the ice with its breast. My ears could not catch the sound. But my mind caught the poetry of it, and I used it in my first published novel: "Penny To Spend".

A year later, she believed a poem called November to be her best to date. This was about mistletoe picked, from an apple tree in the village of Aconbury in Hereford, and put in a pewter pot. This was 1938, the year of 'the let-down of Czecho-Slovakia', as Dorothy described it.

On the 28th September I arrived at school to find my class-room full of gas masks! It was a terrible shock. The smell of the rubber, and the effect of all the black rubber and the dirty white of the straps was visually appalling -- somehow symbolic of what they meant.

The Thursday was spent at school distributing gas masks.

But on the Friday, 30th September, Chamberlain came home, waving the notorious umbrella and assuring us of "Peace in our Time". We didnt believe it would last long, but could not help but be relieved that the threat was even temporarily averted.

That winter, Dorothy had 'some stupid green and brown tweed for a jacket' made to measure:

The tailors, called Gogh, were a pair of very naive, old-fashioned brothers, who lived in a poor street in Stockport called, I think, Finkin Street. One sat cross-legged on the table to sew. I was so taken by them I afterwards tried to portray them in "Winter Solstice".

The jacket served her for many years of rambling. At least two other authors have since used the same title as for Dorothy Cowlin's second novel, which was itself re-published after nearly fifty years.
Two years previously, in the Castleton area, somewhere near Mam Tor, she saw gliders for the first time 'and was moved to tears by the grace of their flight'. She 'vaguely planned a story about them'. They found their way into this novel.

At that time, walking alone, she was making notes of "poetic" phrases and details of the landscape and people. One man, with an amputated thumb and a peacock tattoo, had frighteningly glittering eyes. A landlord had "a small wild head like a Tomcat, plus-fours, and a pseudo-aristocratic manner."

Autumn was always Dorothy Cowlin's favorite season. Another november, in 1939, she saw very dark hollies and 'remembered a mixed tree of holly and ivy seen near Hereford, in the Cardiff area. That memory eventually inspired her third published novel, The Holly and the Ivy.
A work with the same title, by another author, was turned into a film. At any rate, Cowlin didnt merely lift the title from the carol. The image for two incompatible characters came from her own observation, as should be the case.

In June 1940, Dorothy noted in her diary a lovely evening 'very still, with a clear remote sky, and a yellow frieze at the horizon, turning to apricot, with one star -- next to a barrage balloon.' 'In the loveliest of summers, how we longed for Peace, and no more partings!' One evening that month, 'the whole of the western sky was spread with gold clouds.'
That night, at 3.20 am, Stockport heard its first air-raid siren: 'That awful wail up and down the scale in raucous thirds...' There was another, within the month.

The Germans had driven their tanks round the Maginot line. Dorothy wrote: "This makes us really shake in our shoes. What in Hell's name is in store for us?"

Her partner was called up.

We had a "last ramble" in our favourite "secret valley" -- and a "last supper" at his mother's.
And so this era of our life came to an end.



Richard Lung.

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