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A former Archbishop of Canterbury and poet connects First World War poets to the Christian tradition


Dr Rowan Williams Dr Rowan Williams Up to 300 people squeezed into St Mary’s Church on Saturday evening (September 27) to hear the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams talk on the First World War poets and their links with and use of Christian faith.

Dr Williams thanked the audience for turning out and missing Dr Who.  What they got instead of the fantasy worlds of Dr Who was a real Marlborough LitFest treat: a down to earth discussion of three of the poets in terms of the Christian response to the atrocities of the war.

He chose three poets: Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy (also known as ‘Woodbine Willie’ and grandfather of Marlborough’s Rev Andrew Studdert-Kennedy.) Wilfred Owen is one of the best known of the poets whose words have been immortalised in Britten’s War Requiem.  Unlike Owen, David Jones survived the war, became a Roman Catholic and wrote the massive (225 pages including his own explanatory notes) and very complex In Parenthesis which was published in 1937.

All three, said Dr Williams, faced ‘unprecedented challenges of empathy and understanding’.  This first ‘technological war’ with mass slaughter at its heart, was, he told us: “One of those events that challenged Christian faith to its core.”

While most Anglican chaplains to the forces on the Western Front were “Out of their depth…floundering around hopelessly in the face of this unprecedented horror”, Studdert-Kennedy got on with the job of helping soldiers and writing accessible verse – verse that was almost certainly more widely read than either Owen or Jones.

From that verse – or poetry (Dr Williams was not quite sure which it was) – we can see Studdert-Kennedy’s difficulty when “The Christian language he grew up with was inadequate in the trenches.” Some of his verses are somewhat sentimental, some are savage in their criticism of the war and others decry the cant of those safely at home.

Dr Williams’ review of Studdert-Kennedy ended with a plea: “We should resist strongly that we write him off as a sentimentalist.”

During the war, Dr Williams said, Wilfred Owen grew to be a poet of technical brilliance, great seriousness and beauty.  He spent some time analysing Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth - with its indelible religious imagery.

This famous poem – often set in exams – showed in its imagery how poetry like Owen’s took the place of ritual when Christian ritual became irrelevant: “Here is a ceremony, here is a pattern of words that can just about hold it without lying.”  

Dr Williams is himself a published and popular poet and with that judgment he showed how ‘literary criticism’ can become as meaningful as poetry itself.

Dr Williams had one bone to pick with Owen’s lines: he thought that “The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall” verged too close to sentimentality.  Others would beg to differ, seeing it as a perceptive view of the way the deaths of so many young men affected the home front and shaped subsequent years and lives when so many young women remained unwed.

Perhaps the most revelatory part of Dr Williams’ talk was that devoted to David Jones. In his ‘Note of Introduction’ to In Parenthesis, TS Eliot placed Jones beside Ezra Pound, James Joyce and himself.  We get the message: In Parenthesis is not an easily accessible work.

It should be said too that much of the book looks on the page like prose – but it is poetical prose.  Sometimes it reminds you a bit of Dylan Thomas.

Dr Williams provided us with a simple way to approach this long poem.  We have to look for Jones’ underlying obsession with the heritage of British Celtic culture and with the world of the Latin liturgy.

Superimposed over those are three realities: a down to earth narrative of trench life, the history of military Britain and the story of the passion of Christ: “He was fascinated by the Roman soldiers who crucified Christ.” Jones helps us see through the horror of the war into history and finally to Christ.

We heard Dr Williams read some wonderful extracts from the poem - including this:  

“How do you get hot water in this place of all water – all cold water up to the knees.  These poured quickly lest it should cool off, and eyed their barrels’ bright rifling with a great confidence, and boasted to their envious fellows, and offered them the luke-warm leftover. So that one way and another they cleaned their rifles – anyway the oil softened the open cracks in your finger-tips.”

Dr Williams said that Jones “Wants to argue that you can only tell of modern war in terms of the Christian story…The Christian myth is a way of imagining in extremity.”

On aspect common to all three poets is their contempt for those who sit at home stirring up war lust and, in Dr Williams’ words, the ‘armchair soldiers who like to excite themselves with war’.

Dr Rowan Williams’ talk was a splendid retort to those military historians who refer to the First World War poets as “those whinging poets”.  They blame the teaching of war poetry and Oh What a Lovely War for obliterating the ‘great military victory’ that ended the war – they really do.

One wonders whether they have fully understood Studdert-Kennedy, Wilfred Owen and David Jones, let alone heard Dr Rowan Williams' vivid and clear explanation of  their connection to Christianity.  

This was a truly splendid way for the Marlborough LitFest to mark the centenary of the war’s outbreak.


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Jenny Uglow on Victorian pioneer Sarah Losh, Marlborough Festival of Literature


Jenny Uglow and Sarah LoshJenny Uglow and Sarah LoshIn a little corner in Cumbria, a nineteenth century church stands testament to the vision of one of the UK’s first woman architects, Sarah Losh.

With virtually none of the usual Christian iconography, it is instead decorated with much older symbols of fertility and is inspired by the burgeoning Victorian interest in geology and palaeontology.

The story of Sarah Losh, The Pinecone, is not only of an incredible women who became an architect about two hundred years before feminism, but also of family, history and giving others a chance.

Jenny Unglow gave a throughly engaging account at the Marlborough Literature Festival of a well-travelled women who didn’t marry, preferring the company of her sister, keeping her family name and being in control of her estate.

After adapting her own family home and other projects in and around her village of Wreay near Cumbria, she rebuilt St Mary’s Church after it had fallen into disrepair.

Jenny suggests that the bishop, arriving for the consecration, must have been ‘stunned’ by the severe outlook, the ‘heathen’ symbols and the lack of death and sacrifice that so often characterises Anglican churches.

My guess is that after the heart-breaking death of her beloved sister Katherine, and commissioning a marble statue of her in the family mausoleum, perhaps Sarah was all grief-ed out.

I liked that Sarah utilised local talent to build her church – such as the sculptor who carved the beautiful eagle and stork lecterns, ‘the cripple’ John Scott of Dalston; or a then unknown William Wailes to create the windows before going on to become a celebrated stain glass craftsman. She also recycled materials – the pews were made of storm-felled local walnut and oak.

Her work is an insight into the modern world in which she moved. After her mother died she was raised by her uncle, James Losh, who was friends with such radicals as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey. So her architecture was at once as new as it could get – one of the first Byzantine style churches – and old, with dinosaur gargoyles, fossils and pinecones, an age old symbol of fertility and regeneration. The bases of the lecterns were made of bog oak, which she had specially raised from local peat bogs after lying there for thousands of years.

Yes, she was born into privilege and was lucky to move in the most educated and enlightened circles, but even so this is an inspiring story that should appeal to all – women and men – who wonder if they can follow their dream.


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Children’s author Caroline Lawrence at Marlborough Literature Festival


Caroline Lawrence – picture by MiloCaroline Lawrence – picture by MiloEight-year-old reviewer Milo gives us his thoughts on Marlborough Literature Festival's Children's Writing Workshop.

Today I went to the Lit Fest and listened to Caroline Lawrence, who writes The Roman Mysteries series of books.

I have almost finished reading The Legionary from Londinium, and I am really enjoying it.

Caroline told us how to make a hero in our stories.

The main one for her is the Achilles’ heel: give your character a weak spot, for instance, like Superman.

Her favourite hero is Sherlock Holmes because he doesn't have a super powers: he uses his brain.

She loved Nancy Drew. Her heroine, Flavia, is like Nancy Drew but in ancient Rome.

She also told us about a formula for a hero: You, plus character, plus Achilles’ heel.

She told us to think of a hero: put together your name with a character name. First was Milly Tin Tin. Second was Dave Hiccup. I thought of Milo Who.

Next she said your main person is really the hero like Wall-E or Dr Gru, or maybe Dorothy, Luke Skywalker, Carl from Up!, Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter.

After that we moved onto Caroline's hero’s weak spot - the main character in her book, Flavia, is impulsive and doesn't look first.

Tip two: every hero needs a faithful sidekick.

Tip three: your story always needs a funny character and if you want, your sidekick can be your funny one, like Ron from Harry Potter.

The funny ones should make you laugh when things get tense.

Tip four: in your book you need to have a wild one who helps the hero, but can sometimes betray the hero, like Lupus.

Tip five: the mentor often has a beard. The mentor basically gives them the talisman (helpful tip: like an idea, steal it, that’s what a writer does!)

Another tip: clues - the best clue is an object.

Then she told us what a sponge on a stick was used for in Ancient Rome: it was for wiping your bum. That inspired her to do the Sewer Demon.

Last she asked us: does the hero always have to win? No, it can just lead to tragedy if you want to.

She also said writing books is the best job in the world. So if you don't write books then check it out because it’s awesome!

She said we could ask her questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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Literati gather for festival launch

Festival chairman Jan WilliamsonFestival chairman Jan WilliamsonLuminaries from the world of literature gathered at Marlborough Town Hall this evening (Friday) to celebrate the launch of the fifth annual literature festival over a glass of wine.

Novelist Mavis Cheek - who founded the festival and chaired it for the first four years - noted that “drink and literature go awfully well together.”

She reminded supporters, sponsors, hosts and ticket-holders: “No-one gets paid for this. We do it for the love of literature, and you all come because you love literature too.”

She welcomed the new chairman, Jan Williamson, who promised ticket-holders “a great literary feast, as varied as it could be.”

Captain Corelli's Mandolin author Louis de Bernieres with founder patron and novelist Mavis CheekCaptain Corelli's Mandolin author Louis de Bernieres with founder patron and novelist Mavis CheekStephen Depla of lead sponsor Brewin Dolphin with Susie Fisher and Edwina and Nick FoggStephen Depla of lead sponsor Brewin Dolphin with Susie Fisher and Edwina and Nick FoggMarlborough-based novelist James Aitcheson with Pam MullikenMarlborough-based novelist James Aitcheson with Pam MullikenTony Mulliken, co-founder of Midas PR which represents publishers, with literary agent Broo DohertyTony Mulliken, co-founder of Midas PR which represents publishers, with literary agent Broo DohertyWilliam Wilks, Belinda Shand and Lady Cecilia Scott in conversationWilliam Wilks, Belinda Shand and Lady Cecilia Scott in conversationAndrew Macdonald, John Kimberley, writer Alice King - author of High Sobriety - and Gill Macdonald of St Mary's SchoolAndrew Macdonald, John Kimberley, writer Alice King - author of High Sobriety - and Gill Macdonald of St Mary's SchoolSusie Parrack of Warminster School, Amelia Trevethick, and Davina DaviesSusie Parrack of Warminster School, Amelia Trevethick, and Davina DaviesProfessors Steve Uglow, Angela Price, Professor Norman Hammond, and author Jenny Uglow, one of this year's featured authorsProfessors Steve Uglow, Angela Price, Professor Norman Hammond, and author Jenny Uglow, one of this year's featured authors

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Zena Edwards, the first event of the Marlborough Literature Festival 2014

Zena EdwardsZena EdwardsA night out with poet Zena Edwards is like having a really good guest to dinner, without the food.

 The Ellis Theatre at Marlborough College, for the first event of the Marlborough Literature Festival, has the look of a school hall-cum-theatre but the intimacy of Zena’s voice and her warm demeanor made it feel like a jazz club or cabaret bar.
I must admit I got a bit of a girl crush on her voice; it was born to read poetry and sing poetry. She made words like ‘rock’ seem firm not hard and ‘ocean' like a rolling calmness.
Zena tells us she falls in and out of love everyday; she cries, she laughs and then plucks something from it to write about.
She slides from velveteen spoken word to beautiful sung words, accompanied sometimes by a double bass and always by hand movements and a little swaying of the hips. “I channel my anger into Salsa dancing,” she tells us. “Poetry, art and movement - I don’t know why they were ever separated. Poetry gave me musicality.”
Learning the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene at the age of twelve made her realise poetry and words were important to her and now: “Sometimes I don’t write for a while and I feel pregnant.”
We were caught up in a poem of an old homeless lady in cold central London, in a summer dress ‘with skinny cinnamon legs’ who sang her own version of the new age hymn ‘He's got the Whole World in His Hands’. 
Zena's Ode to Poetry had the air of a love song to words, and her piece about laughter was an apt finish.
A fantastic appetiser of words for the rest of the festival.


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Millionaire authoress Lynne Truss coming to the LitFest with…a Gothic horror story

Lynne TrussLynne TrussLynne Truss, who became unexpectedly rich and famous from the publication of a little book that has sold three million copies round the world, has no regrets.

But it did put tremendous stress on her life, 58-year-old Lynne now reveals, and announces that she is now happy all the time she spent it promoting her punctuation book Eats, Shoots & Leaves is finally over.

In fact she has now produced her first new novel in 15 years, a blood-thirsty horror novel with supernatural escapades called Cat Out Of Hell, which she will be talking about at the Marlborough LitFest in September.

“Becoming a millionaire took about three years,” she tells West Country Life magazine.  "I had to keep touring and talking about it.  It was a mad period.

"It was 'pinch yourself' stuff.  I keep thinking, 'It did happen', but it all still seems very unlikely.

"While it was going on I did find it stressful, and I also thought, 'I'll be so happy when this is over'.  I would say to people, 'This isn't going to last forever, I'll get through this', and I'm so happy that I've got past it."

Why did she find the success and fame so stressful?

"When something's as successful as that, people make assumptions about you," she explains.  "They start saying, 'Oh, you're only interested in the apostrophe', but I've always been interested in lots of things.  I've had a very versatile career.

"I'd written novels, plays, I'd done sports writing, and there I was with what I thought was a fantastic portfolio of interesting things to write about.

"It was like I was deliberately scuppering my whole career because suddenly people were thinking that I was only interested in punctuation. That was a bit dire for me, because I want to be in control.

"What was depressing was when people would say, 'I wrote this very carefully because you were going to read it and I hope there are no errors in it'.”

But daughter of a milkman who grew up in a council house adds:  "It set me up in lots of ways.  I had much more money than I ever expected to make and actually, I still love the book.  If I didn't, I'd feel very conflicted.

"The main thing was not to do more.  Lots of people thought I should keep writing books which tap this same audience."

Hence her return to novels, unexpectedly too in the horror vein, part of a series collaboration between the Hammer horror film brand and Arrow books.

"I'm a fan of old classic Gothic style,” Lynne confesses.  “I grew up with the Hammer films. We'd go to all-night horror flicks and think we were above it all, but as you get older, your imagination is much less robust in that way.

"Now, I'd never go to see a horror film unless I had to."

Her story concerns the mystery of a missing woman, an evil talking cat called Roger, a remote seaside cottage and an amiable retired librarian with a dog called Watson.

And no doubt that might lead to another unexpected million or two if it makes it into a movie.

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