Another forgotten writer

Muriel  Stuart (1885 -1967)  was a poet who was greatly admired in her day; Hardy thought her poetry was superlative, and so did High McDiarmid. She was of Scottish descent but lived in Norbury – where I also spent my childhood. Did I ever bump into her in Sainsbury’s, or Achille Serre, I wonder? Her most famous poem, In The Orchard, is a dialogue between a man and the girl he has just slept with, giving a very contemporary take on their different expectations of the act

I don’t know what happened to her in later life, but she gave up poetry and turned to writing about gardening. Some of her poerty is rather lush and overblown for today’s taste- maybe she just fell out of fashion. But I love this simple and evocative poem:

The Seed Shop       Muriel Stuart


Here in a quiet and dusty room they lie,

Faded as crumbled stone or shifting sand,

Forlorn as ashes, shrivelled, scentless, dry –

Meadows and gardens running through my hand.

Dead that shall quicken at the call of spring,

Sleepers to stir beneath June’s magic kiss,

Though birds pass over, unremembering

And no bee seek here roses that were his.

In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams,

A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust

That will drink deeply of a century’s streams,

These lilies shall make summer on my dust.

Here in their safe and simple house of death,

Sealed in their shells a million roses leap;

Here I can blow a garden with my breath,

And in my hand a forest lies asleep.



This is the book I wrote in 2011, a journal about the poetry I was reading that year.  When I’d finished it, it was far too long and unwieldy, and also I had to leave out much of my original selection of poems for copyright reasons, so I’m going to post o a few of those omitted pages on my blog. This entry dated from September, and I’d been to the Poetry Library on the South Bank to find a book of poems by Meriol Trevor.,  Midsummer and Midwinter. I can’t find out very much about her – she belonged to that generation of quiet English writers, like Elizabeth Taylor, Frances Towers and the recently dead Elizabeth Jenkins,  who kept themselves discreetly – too discreetly – out of the male dominated babble of the literary world. She was born in 1919, of Welsh ancestry, though she didn’t speak Welsh. Educated at Cambridge she converted to Catholicism in 1950, and her biography of Cardinal Newman won the James Tait Black Memorial prize. She never married and at the end of her life lived in Bath.

I only read one of her books as a girl,  Sun Slower, Sun Faster, a romantic time travel saga, which I loved.She wrote a series of chronicles about a country  which she and a friend invented in childhood, and a number of stories  with a Christian theme, set in the late Roman British world. The last she could not get published- fashion, which had never really embraced her, cast her out altogether. I’d like to have read it – and I wish I’d written to her before she died in 2000.

Here is one of her poems. It makes a slow start, but then moves gracefully  through landscapes of the dead, starting in Italy or maybe Greece, then to London, and then to the English countryside, slightly uneasy, delicate, but startling. I especially like the last six verses , a gradual accumulation of wintery images, culminating in the sudden dazzle – and new life of Christmas. I love her deliberate use of half-rhymes; – meadows/widows, film/flame, houses, pauses.

                              The Days of the Dead                            Meriol Trevor

 Mist from the earth, rather like breath

Clouding the glass of air with a flower

From a warm mouth, stays underneath

The trees and strokes the fields over


Three years earth has sighed to me

Such a breath, but the words escape;

Between shadows the people walk by

In black, going to the dead township


A great shadow is an olive tree

Holding out oil and peace, but further

Along, poking the soft sky,

Grave tongues rise, cypress and cedar.


People are all ghosts in mist

Visiting these many quiet houses,

And, like hearts never quite eased,

The bells toll with long pauses.

They come with baskets on their heads

Set like crowns: red and white

The flowers start from the dim roads,

Life and death, blood and spirit.


All night planted in the dead

Candles burn and nobody is there:

Great sun, great God, this is the seed

You made, buried in grounds of fear.


In England, in London, the great city,

No one puts candles in dead hands,

But the man who tried to blow up the mighty

Burns on a bonfire for his friends.


They shoot stars and shout : O how bright

Are the catherine wheels like universes!

And on another day they wait

For maroons to make silence of their voices.


Poppies are given to the dead, these sons

Killed in the war, poppies for sleep,

To seal lips and wounds and our groans:

The last drug for the disease of hope.


The desire under the active face

Is sleep and the closing of the grave,

And so in the north they forget these days

Of souls and the strange life they have.


London lies stiff in the slim haze

An old man town, with the ground film

Creeping in the lonely streets of his eyes,

And no sun plants his heart with flame.

Even here, on the very island’s edge,

The fort of earth whose fierce teeth

Are worn smooth by the shifting seige

Of the sea’s hordes: here comes death.


The little flocks are on the hills,

The birds slide on the icy wind,

Sunday churches ring their peals

And plows roughen the earth’s rind.


But in the night when Orion rises

The farmer dies suddenly in his bed,

And stars grow thick as daisies

Over the place where he planted seed.


All the world is walking in winter:

People in the misty and frosty meadows

Far off are shadows and they are fainter

Than trees, and they are all orphans and widows.


But the children carry the Christmas tree

And thousand are the candles on that birthday

Come sun, and open your brilliant eye,

Come God, and bring out the new baby.

How much would you pay for me?

The subject that’s been obsessing me at the moment has nothing to do with my usual rants about grammar and books so please forgive me if I go back to The Unwelcome Guest.

A few weeks ago, the Cancer Drugs Fund in England decided to withdraw a number of drugs that it deemed were not ‘cost-effective’ The Cancer Drugs Fund was set up some years ago  with a budget then of £200 million, to pay for drugs that NICE (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) wouldn’t fund) Costs of course have rocketed since, which is why the current decision has been taken.  Among the withdrawn drugs are the one I’m taking  now, and the one I’d hope to move on to next if this current one stops working. I ought to declare now that people still having treatment with these drugs won’t have them withdrawn, and for those living in Wales, as I do, the situation is different; access  has to be argued on an individual basis. – so I’ll be able to continue the treatment which has been keeping me alive and remarkably well for a year. But it raises questions which have been troubling me.

For one thing, the drug I take – and I just looked it up – is fiendishly expensive. But for the cancer I have, this is treatment, not end-of-life palliative care, as the CDF seems to argue some of its withdrawn drugs are. ( though of course that’s important too) And if I hadn’t been able to take it, I might very well not be alive now. Many  cancer sufferers on the forums I read are worried sick about the implications for them.

And my haematologist is as worried and surprised as I am – this decision was passed without consultation with them and without warming.  Surely they should have been given the chance to argue the case about cost-effectiveness?

On the face of it, much of the problem is with the pharmacists, who charge these prices, and in this case are refusing to drop them. They would argue that they need the money for research – and there’s something in that, as ‘my’ two drugs are derivatives of thalidomide,  which has revolutionised the treatment of the cancer I have, but caused horrible tragedies in the past by being rushed out.  But nevertheless something is wrong with their logic.

A  friend of ours with a different cancer which has now recurred, and whose saving drug has also been withdrawn, has managed to ensure treatment because her doctors have hurried the process of application through before the withdrawal date – so these drugs aren’t simply those that affect a few people and rare cases. The chances are that someone you know might be affected too.

Up till now, the NHS has been absolutely marvellous in my treatment – I have no complaints. And I know we’re nowhere near the situation that prevails in the USA where without insurance you die, and even with insurance the companies can quibble over what you’re entitled to. I’m aware of the huge amount of money I’m costing the taxpayers. And I’m not looking for a knee-jerk Oh Frances, of course you’re worth it reaction -I certainly would rather be alive than dead, but I do wonder about the cost of keeping this 73-year old lady going.

In a couple of generations, when they’ve discoved a genetic cure for cancer, the current method of flooding people’s systems with deadly and expensive poisons will seem barbaric in the extreme – and the pharmaceutical companies will have to find other ways of making their huge profits. But this is the situation we’re in at present. I’ve got no answers.  But there are lots and lots of questions. And it does seem wrong that people are now worrying about whether they’re going to be allowed to live that bit longer.

In which I have a bit of a grumble…


I like to think  that in everyday life, I’m an easy going tolerant kind of person , but when it comes to books,  I can get incandescent with rage if I don’t like what I’m reading. I had to be physically restrained when I  took  The Da Vinci Code on a long plane journey, some time before it became a best seller. I still think it’s the worst book I have ever read. But there are plenty of other things in other books that can turn me into a screaming harpy.  Here are a few of my unfavourite things:

1)     When a character’s appearance  is described by having that character looking into a mirror and listing the results; she peered into the glass and saw a pair of sparkling, almond-shaped eyes, with a tip-tilted nose lightly dusted with freckles, and a half-open pair of very  pink lips…  No, please. ..

2)     Talking about description, enumerating every chair, every table and bookshelf and jam jar in  a room, every tree , every blade of grass and every spider on a hill. Wuthering Heights has almost no description in it, and yet the reader comes away with the most  vivid sense of desolate moor, wind-blown thorns and thundery clouds. In description, less is definitely more.

3)     And I have a perhaps irrational prejudice against characters, usually teenage or younger, who Want To Be A Writer when they grow up. Too often, I think, this is an excuse for sloppy writing, so the character can be more sensitive and more observant than they’d be otherwise. ( I annoy my book group by giving vent to this prejudice every time the subject arises, which  seems to be quite often.)  I was a child who Wanted To Be A Writer, and I don’t think it made me any more sensitive and observant – quite the contrary, I think.

4)     And another thing I have a prejudice against,  that maybe doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny, is a character who makes him or herself a lovingly described cup of instant coffee, as though this is some sort of significant ritual. Carefully, she spooned the fragrant granules into her favourite blue mug, watching their brown waterfall, and musing as she smelled the rich aroma, about how much she hated Jerome. As she poured on boiling water and saw the granules dissolve into a sweet-scented dark brew, she decided to herself that, yes, tomorrow, she would leave him…

5)     Following on from people who decide ‘to themselves’, (yes, I’ve probably been guilty of that one- but who else can you decide to?) characters who ‘shake themselves inwardly’ or ‘give an inward shudder’.

6)     And now , the grammar policewoman:

Any writer worth her salt should know that ‘disinterested’ does NOT mean ‘not interested.’  ‘Not interested’ means ‘not interested’

‘He was sat on his chair’   ‘I was laying on my bed…’ It’s probably unusually naive of me, but for years I didn’t really understand what Bob Dylan meant by ‘Lay, lady, lay.’ I couldn’t quite work out what he was asking her to do, though I realised it was nothing to do with eggs. Still, I guess it makes a much better title than ‘Lie down, lady, lie down…’

Well, that’s probably enough grumbling for now.  But I’d love to hear about some of the things that turn you into grumbly readers too.