Poet and author, Mervyn Linford, has published six collections of poetry and seven books of prose. His work has appeared in magazines and journals both at home and abroad and his poems have been broadcast on both local and national radio. Anyone interested in the many and varied facets of the English countryside and our relationship to it in the 21st century will find much to enjoy and admire in his writing.
His main works comprise The Incomplete Dangler (Fifty Years of Sea and Freshwater Fishing) (2004); Reflections (Twelve Months / Twelve Moods): The Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation (2005); Selected, New and Unpublished Poems : 1980-2006 (2006); The Coggeshall Chronicles (A Year in the Country) (2009), Notes from the Fields (A Country Journal) (2010) and Dawn’s Tinder Box: Poems (2012). He has also published two volumes of autobiography: The Willow Pond (2000) and Bullshit and Bootlace Ties (2012).
NL: Please can you tell us something about the early influences on you becoming a writer?
ML: I come from a working class background. My mother and father were so busy just trying to earn a living that there wasn’t much time for literature in our household. In fact there were very few books of any consequence in the family home. My parents didn’t have the time -- or probably even the inclination -- to read stories to me and my brother: not even bedtime stories. Unlike most middle class children I was not really familiar with children’s classics and ended up reading most of them as an adult
What I did read early on in my young life were comics: the ‘Beano’, ‘Dandy’ and ‘Beezer’ in particular. I couldn’t get along with such comics as the ‘Hotspur’ and ‘Champion’ because there was too much text and not enough pictures!
My major influence where writing is concerned is ‘nature’ and it remains so to this day. I lived in the village of Pitsea before Basildon New Town covered the countryside in brick and concrete and as a child I spent an inordinate amount of time just wandering around the marshes, the smallholdings, the hawthorn and elm thickets, the farmland and the so-called ‘wasteland’. This was land set aside for future development but in the meantime -- for many years in fact -- it was nothing less than an immense system of flower meadows. I can remember now just lying in the grass twiddling straws between my teeth just being at one with the flowers, the birds and the insects.
At home there was one special book. Where it came from I couldn’t tell you. I can’t remember its title now but it was one of those 1950’s nature books where the author took you on a number of rambles through different habitats and waxed lyrical about the flora and fauna he came across on his journeys. I already had a love of nature and this particular book helped me to start naming my relationships.
By the time I was about twelve years old I had written a poem called ‘Winter’ that found its way into the school magazine. This early exposure to ‘fame’ spurred me on and I started to try my hand at writing hymns. All of this early writing is lost. By the time I was fifteen years old other teenage preoccupations had taken over and I didn’t think about writing again until I was in my mid twenties. In the intervening years I was a soldier in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. Despite this, I was still preoccupied with nature.
I have been an angler all my life and as the one-time television personality and countryside guru Jack Hargreaves used to remind us there is always ‘the angler’s other eye’. Fishermen -- and women -- in general don’t only fish. They are just as interested in what’s going on in the natural world around them. I used to take field books with me sometimes when I went fishing and if the fish weren’t biting I’d wander through the hedgerows to study the flora and the fauna.
Nature and the weather have always fascinated me. I’m obsessed with snow, love frost and fog, adore heatwaves and the inevitable thunderstorms to follow and I am a devotee of all things atmospheric. When I was in my mid-twenties and idling my life away having been medically discharged from the army I serendipitously came across an exceptional anthology of nature poems in my local library and my love of nature and the weather was crystallised within its pages -- I was hooked. There and then I decided that that was what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to write and at that time more especially to write poetry.
NL: Who are your favourite writers and why?
ML: My favourite writers are also some of my earliest influences. When I started to become serious about my poetry I began to devour poetry collections, poetry anthologies and books about poetry itself. I started with the ‘Romantics’ with Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley and Coleridge. Like them, nature and spirituality were at the heart of my writing ethos. I was then taken with later writers like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Tennyson and Meredith which led me on to the prose writing of Richard Jefferies and other nature writers such as Hudson, Gilbert White and Edward Thomas.
Edward Thomas once said that at heart “all poetry is nature poetry”. Exactly what he meant by that is debateable. For me personally it means that everything we are and everything we see in the world -- no matter how modern, how technological or scientific -- comes from nature. If we destroy nature nothing else will be able to exist. I have spent a lifetime apologising for writing ‘nature poems’ -- but not any more. Nature, the weather, spirituality, are my themes. Every single element we find on this glorious planet of ours was cooked in the centre of the stars -- it’s true, we’re made of stardust and so is everything else -- how miraculous is that?
Most of my favourite writers concern themselves with nature and / or spirituality -- but not exclusively. Poets and writers like Kathleen Rayne, R S Thomas, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, e e cummings, William Carlos Williams, Christina Rossetti, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wallace Stevens, Norman Nicholson, U A Fanthorpe, Ann Ridler, Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Jennings, and many, many more have been a great influence on my work.
If I had to pick my ten greatest poetic influences they would undoubtedly be, in no particular order of preference: Edward Thomas, John Clare, Andrew Young, Emily Dickinson, Ted Hughes, W H Davies, Seamus Heaney, Christina Rossetti, Norman MacCaig and Laurie Lee.
I have a particular affinity with John Clare and W H Davies. Both were pretty much self-taught. Both spent time out on the road sleeping under hedgerows. Both were obsessed with nature. John Clare had mental problems and W H Davies was physically disabled. All of the above can be equally applied to me. I write both prose and poetry because I have to and as far as I’m concerned that’s the only reason to write. Everything else is just a bonus.
NL: Many of your works are set in the south east of England. Poetry of place is important to you. Why do you think this is so?
ML: For me personally much of it has to do with formative landscapes -- and in my case seascapes as well. Although I wasn’t born in Essex I’ve lived here since I was five years old. My first experience of communing with nature at a deep level was in the countryside that existed before Basildon New Town was built. People may not realise it but Basildon rises above the creeks and saltings of the Thames Delta. I am as enamoured with the Essex marshes as I was when I was a boy. I still live by the marshes on the Blackwater Estuary at Maylandsea in Essex. The areas below the seawalls in Essex are as close to real wilderness as you’re likely to come across anywhere in the British Isles. What we think of as wilderness: places like the Highlands of Scotland for instance, are in fact heavily influenced by the hand of man - forestry; mining, shooting and grazing have altered the upland habitat almost irreversibly. When I’m by the marshes, the saltings or out across the tidal mudflats, I feel as though I’m at one with the beating heart of a truly wild universe. There is no sense of sequence -- my childhood and my adulthood are synonymous. Time ceases to exist. I try to capture the ‘eternal present’ in my poetry.
Apart from the marshes my formative experiences also involved freshwater rivers, ponds, lakes, farmland, small holdings and orchards and the wider countryside in general. To me every place has a particular ‘feeling’ -- something special; something other, something unique. I want to capture that ‘feeling’ and crystallise it for others to appreciate. Will it be exactly the same feeling as I’ve had? Perhaps not, but I can still try to get as close as possible to the feel of the place. I concentrate on the essentials of any given place and try to write about them in such a rich associative and musical way that the words reach beyond the intellectual and delve deeply to the sentient and emotional heart of each and every reader.
Place is important to me because it’s through the many facetted face of nature that I can find my way back to the ‘essence’, which is in fact ‘oneness’ - pure ‘feeling’; pure ‘being’. It doesn’t just have to be about the South East of England or Essex in particular. These just happen to be my formative environments - the habitats that are still part of my everyday life.
I’ve written poems about many places in the British Isles and in France. If a landscape or a seascape moves me deeply I might well find myself inspired to write about it but it always has something of the same motivation about it -- the need to touch God or infinite consciousness or in terms of quantum mechanics, perhaps some form of infinite energy system. I’m a poet and a pantheist -- God is everything and everything is God. Intellectually I can see God as much in the vagaries of particle physics as I can in the rigours of theology.
NL: To what extent is your poetry and prose bound up with the seasons?
ML: Just about everything I’ve written has concerned itself with the seasons. Most of my poetry collections are organised around seasonal themes. I am obsessed with the seasons. I have at times been both a member of the Anglican Communion and the Pagan Federation -- and being a symbolist and not a literalist where religion is concerned, I see no conflict of interest!
Indoors my partner Clare and I create seasonal displays. We follow the solstices, the equinoxes, Candlemas, Beltane, Lammas and Samhain amongst others. Also the Christian counterparts: be it Halloween, All Saints, All Souls, Easter, Harvest Home, Christmas. We live in an age that doesn’t concern itself with the seasons as much as it used to. We are not an agrarian culture anymore -- we’re post-industrial and most of us live in towns. In general people have lost their connection to the land. This is slowly changing. More and more people are involving themselves with environmental issues. They see as I do the need for a closer communion with nature and a greater understanding of the damage human society is doing to the world.
As I intimated earlier in this interview -- without nature nothing exists. Studies seem to prove that people who interact more fully with nature live happier and more fulfilled lives. It’s important to our well being.
I am interested in the cycles of the seasons, the cycles of our lives, and the correspondences. Whether it’s new birth or light in the darkness at Christmas, life renewing itself in spring at Easter, fulfilment and fruition at Lammas (First Fruits), or old age and death in autumn and winter -- these seasonal rites link us to something larger and greater than ourselves: a universal reality; a wider form of cyclical reality. Like the seasons we’re born, we live, we grow and then we die -- only to be reborn and begin the eternal cycle all over again: Ad infinitum perhaps. When we die we merge back into the oneness, the eternal consciousness, the ‘thoughtless all knowing’, the ‘dazzling darkness’, and then oneness ‘thinks’ and the ‘many’ is born once again.
NL: You are also a publisher. What were your objectives when you set up the Littoral Press?
ML: I set up the Littoral Press to promote the poetry of nature and the spirit. At the time I felt that this kind of poetry deserved to be in the public domain but wasn’t getting there because of what I perceived as a certain prejudice among the more established presses. I’ve published about twelve collections so far, mostly nature-orientated, but not all. I only publish work I consider to be of the highest order. My concern is both for the poet and for the Littoral Press itself as the quality of both the poet’s work and the way it is edited and presented by the press each have a bearing on the other’s good name.
NL: Do you set time aside each day to write or do you just write when you feel inspired?
ML: Somebody once said: “I can only write when I’m inspired so I make sure I’m inspired between 9am and 5pm each day.” I wish I could say the same but for me poetry writing comes in spurts. I seem to have periods of gestation and periods of writing. When I do write it can be quite frantic. I’m not one of those people who spend hours, days, weeks or even years on one particular poem. I write fast and prolifically. I have been known to write a dozen poems in a day when I’m in the mood but only a small percentage of these reach the final selection process and end up in print. The majority are rejected. It’s the way I work. I tend to write short lyric poems. Most of the draught work is done by hand on a single worksheet -- which looks one hell of a mess with single words and sections crossed out and rewritten between the lines or in the margins. After this I type the finished poem onto a Microsoft Word file and save on disc or memory stick. My prose writing is different -- far more organised. I have a note book with me all the time when I’m driving around. In fact, two note books -- one for poetry and one for prose. I take notes almost every day and then elaborate on my musings when I write them up on the computer -- usually two or three evenings a week.
NL: what projects are you working on at the present?
ML: I am currently working on a country journal, “The Dengie Diaries” about my first year living on the Dengie Peninsula.
NL: Thank you, Mervyn, for allowing us to get to know you better.
ML: It has been a pleasure.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, essays, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna published by White Adder Press, Scotland (2011) and The Worcester Fragments published by Original Plus, England (2013).