All posts by Amanda Victoria Sewell

'My Life in Books' is a general memoir of books that have shaped my life; and the writers and poets that I have met. The time frame covers the 72 years of my life, from 1945 until now. I also publish short stories and occasional poems on my blog. I am a published poet, with one slim volume entitled 'The Appropriate Country' (Waterloo Press). Hope you enjoy reading this mixture of memoir and creative writing! Thanks. This first tranche of my 'bibliomemoir' begins with 'From Heidi to Heidegger'.

‘Going down with the Ship’ cont.

By 1979, I had travelled to Australia and lived in Paris, teaching English firstly to ‘migrants’ in Sydney, and then to executives and businessmen in Paris.

I had thought that the TEFL  qualification I had received from International House in London, shortly after my son’s birth in 1973, was to be  only a temporary measure, to be used abroad.

But, when I decided to settle in Brighton, I found that there were many language schools here, looking for teachers. The hours and holidays fitted in perfectly with my son’s schooling.

During this time, I had joined both ‘Friends of the Earth’ and ‘Greenpeace’, both founded in 1969,  and my interest in environmental matters was stronger than ever.  I am a member of both to this day.

The students I taught were a mixed bag : lots of Swiss-Germans, a handful of Japanese and Brazilians, students from Saudi Arabia, Libya and the Yemen, and many Iranians ( however,they all vanished after the 1979 Revolution, and many language schools closed as a result ).

It was to these students and in these schools that I began to teach these young people, mostly teenagers, about ‘The Greenhouse Effect’. It was a useful teaching method and tool for discussion in class.

I would draw a pie-chart on the whiteboard showing all the factors that contributed to a rise in global temperature.  I remember being fascinated to see that nearly a quarter of all emissions came from animal-created methane. Sperm-like squiggles showed CO2  going up into the atmosphere.

The students were fascinated. It was their first exposure to this phenomenon and they thanked me for telling them about it.  Many would come up to me and say:’ When I go back to my country, I am going to study this subject more’.  They were all concerned.

Incidentally, I would sometimes write ‘CHINA’ on the board, and suggest the possibility  that  China might  become a super-power one day.  But this was hotly contested with howls of derision.  ‘No chance’, the students would say. ‘It’s never going to happen’. ‘China is communist’. ‘They have no natural resources’ Mrs Swell ( Sewell was hard for the students to pronounce).

It just shows you how wrong people can be.

As I wake  daily in the early hours of the morning in a complete panic about the fate of our beautiful planet, unable to sleep, I think of the fearful legacy we have handed down to our young people.  I pray that they may be able to save us, as young people have always done.  I support dear Greta and all the kids on the Extinction Rebellion protests.

After all, my  generation fought for civil rights and helped halt the Vietnam war.

But what is so wicked about the ‘climate change catastrophe’ facing us all  is that the consequences of global warming were known for many decades before now – and NOTHING was done.

So when  I witness the terrible floods and man-made drought in southern Africa, the world-wide wildfires in the Amazon, Bolivia, Peru , Australia ,California and weather events elsewhere, and especially the suffering of the poor animals and wildlife caught in this maelstrom, I break.

I am broken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Going Down with the Ship’ (Doing my tiny bit for climate change).

For all of my adult life I have feared the prospect of ‘global warming’ increasing to a tipping point.  And this is happening now.

As Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general said recently ahead of  the 2019  COP 25 climate summit in Madrid:  the Earth may have reached ‘a point of no return’.

And I  now have to look into the terrified eyes of my 12-year-old grand-daughter, Esther, a little eco-warrier, frightened for the future of this planet.

In 1962, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published. Truly the most prescient book of its time.  It launched the environmental movement. I was 17 when I, and many of my generation, read it. It was life-changing for me, and I still recall the ice-cold terror I felt  on reading how human beings could poison the earth with indiscriminate pesticide use ( aka biocides).

Thousands  of birds were dropping  dead  after the aerial spraying of DDT, used to kill mosquitoes.  Canaries in the mine. And this was years before Agent Orange – the toxic herbicide – was used so horrendously in Vietnam.

In 1972, I read ‘A Blueprint for Survival’ in  The Ecologist. In it, the ecologist, Edward Goldsmith warned:

‘Radical change is both necessary and inevitable because the present increases in human numbers and per capita consumption by disrupting ecosystems and depleting resources, are undermining the very foundations of survival’.

 

 

 

 

‘British Museum Reading Room Memories’

It was, in fact,  Lucien Stryk who suggested to Michael Pennington that he should put on a ‘one-man’ show about Chekhov. More about this can, of course, be accessed on-line.

Lucien was friendly and sociable, and I was to meet him again at ‘The Poetry Society’, but after that I lost touch with him.

At the BM cafe, however, I recall him chatting to other ‘regulars’, one of whom was the industrious ‘man of letters’, Vincent Brome, ( 1910-2004),  who was once called ‘

‘the life and soul of the British Museum Reading Room’.

Vincent Brome (1910-2004) was a prodigious writer of biographies of Freud, Jung, H.G.Wells, Havelock Ellis, Aneurin Bevan, and novels and essays of his own. He regarded biography writing as ‘slavery’, and he  held court, most days, in the BM cafe, with his friends, cadres and companions.  He spoke constantly and vividly on many subjects that he was working on: politics, gossip and general chat.  I still vividly   remember his sparkling animated eyes.  He was always interested and amused by those around him. A loyal friend.  As Margaret Drabble has written :

‘The biographer Vincent Brome has been working in the Museum almost daily for more than half a century and he still looks as though he’s about 60: the Museum air must have preserved him’.

The museum was his office, playground and sanctuary. Vincent lived for 50 years in his third floor flat in Great Ormond Street, and commuted to the reading room almost every day.   He became a fervent supporter, however, for the library’s move to its new home at St. Prancas, which I find quite brave. He must have realised how bright and light the space would be at the British Library, which it is.

 

 

 

 

‘British Museum Reading Room Memories’

One of the kindest ‘boon companions’ that I met in the cafe at the BM, was the charming and delightful Polish/ American poet : Lucien Stryk (1924-2013) . Nicknamed ‘Lucky Stryk’ by his schoolmates after his first poem was published while he was still a schoolboy, Lucien was a life-long poet, who is probably best-known for his translations of Japanese Zen poets .

Certainly, in my conversations with him, he would passionately explain the poetics of haiku to me.  Incidentally, I recently won a haiku – writing competition, so I concur that haikus are  a lot of fun to write!

Lucien was living with his family in London at this time (late 60s early 70s)  at 7a Homer Row, W1H 1 HU , and   I recall my first meeting with him in my diary (April 28th 1969):

‘I met the Zen Buddhist poet, translator and Fulbright scholar Lucien Stryk …excellent man’.

I have been re-reading Stryk’s poetry ( not the Zen haikus), and he really produced many beautiful poems such as:  ‘Dreaming to Music’, ‘Rooms’, ‘Cormorant’, and the delightful ‘Chekhov in Nice’, which I have only just read.  By an extraordinary coincidence, I also wrote a poem about Chekhov, where I imagined him visiting Bagara in Queensland, Australia.  I wonder now, if perhaps I  had read ‘Chekhov in Nice’ years ago, but I don’t think I did.

In reaquainting myself with Lucien’s work, I came across the poetry of his son – Dan Stryk , whose poetry I also admire.   On her website, Stryk’s formidably talented artist wife Suzanne,  published a You Tube clip of the fascinating meeting that took place between Lucien and the actor, Michael Pennington, on the Trans-Siberia express train.  An extraordinarily synchronous meeting , which enabled Pennington to understand Chekhov better.

Pennington, who was researching the life and work of Anton Chekhov for a one-man show he famously played, was greatly helped and influenced in his project  by Lucien’s  wider knowledge of the writer, and. especially, the time he spent on Sakhalin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘British Museum Reading Room Memories’

When I read the recent obituary of Cecil Woolf in ‘The Guardian’ on July 5th 2019, I was reminded of the many conversations that I had had  with him in  the grubby and smoke-filled little cafe that used to exist in the basement of the  British Museum in the 1970s.

Here, one could buy execrable coffee served in glass cups, have a crafty cigarette or two, and converse with all manner of interesting people.

To quote Louis MacNeice from his poem ‘The British Museum Reading Room’, the library was filled with:

‘Cranks, hacks and poverty-stricken scholars’, but also ‘haunted readers’.

This dark cafe was a meeting place for  the habituees of the Reading Room, who  loved to gather, smoke, converse and exchange ideas and thoughts, when they needed a break from their research and writing. A much-loved venue of mine. Sadly, now long gone, along with its  colourful, verbose,  and eccentric patrons.

 

Cecil, the nephew of Leonard Woolf, died on the 10th of  June, 2019, aged ninety-two, and like his uncle, had been a publisher. I was never sure what he was using the reading room library for, but his conversation was almost always about his uncle and the legal battle he was fighting in contesting Leonard’s will.  It all sounded fruitless and unsatisfactory, but, at each of our meetings, he would describe the twists and turns of the case.

He always looked worried and harassed, was in a permanent hurry, and was burdened with bundles of documents.  I bumped in to him some years later ( in Lambs Conduit Street), and he hadn’t changed one bit.

Among the ‘cranks, hacks and poverty-stricken scholars’ was the young Germaine Greer, who worked tirelessly, almost daily, at her seat, and who was never once seen to take a break, and certainly not in our sleazy cafe.  She was working flat out. I remember being very impressed by her industriousness.  She put us all to shame.

From 1970-72 , I had a job with Cambridge University Press, as a picture researcher for a series of rather imaginative school text-books.  This required me to acquire lots of arcane and very precise illustrations  from a variety of sources: the BM, the V&A, the Royal Academy, and  various other museums and picture libraries from all  over the world. I was busy, but still had time to enjoy my  lunch and tea breaks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Postcards from Les Murray’

My third postcard from Les was dated 1/11/01, and showed a photograph of The Royal Pump Rooms in Leamington Spa.  Les had been touring and reading across the UK, and had  even gone as far as Aberdeen, where he said ‘autumn has started’. I had complimented him on a poem of his  -‘ An Aunt Legend’ –  that I had enjoyed. In my previous letter to  him I had sent him my little book of poems, but he said he hadn’t received it, so could I send him a fresh copy.  On it, he had put his  home address in Bunyah.

My fourth postcard dated 21.10.02 , came from Versailles, and showed a picture of La Maison de la Reine.  Again, Les still hadn’t received a copy of my book, and asked me to get the publisher – Waterloo Press – to send one ‘at their expense’.

Basically, our correspondence was centred on my trying to get my little book to Les , and failing!

Finally, I received my last postcard from Les dated 14.11.02.  The  book had arrived. the front of the postcard showed a lovely linocut, handcoloured by watercolour by Maria Likarz entitled ‘Wien Sommer ‘ 1915, from the National Gallery of Australia. Les wrote as follows:

‘Your ‘Appropriate Country’ got through safely this time. Thank you warmly for it. I like your ruefully honest and I’m sure over-severe authorial judgement of the poems in it. I know the feeling, how dispiriting it is, and how little we can be swayed from it by others. I’m glad you quoted me on the rear jacket. Best wishes and cheers – Les Murray.

And that ended my little postcard journey with Les.  I continued to read  his prodigious output of  poetry.

Some time later I enjoyed reading Daljit Nagra’s appreciation of Les in the Review in Saturday’s  Guardian (3/9/2011), in the series ‘My Hero’, where he wrote:

‘It may be not obviously apparent, but the Usain Bolt of modern poetry is surely the great Australian poet Les Murray’.

Murray’s verve, energy and his ‘baroque linguistic excess’ to quote Daljit Nagra, certainly continues to inspire me.