The Salmon God
Paul Kingsnorth interviews the late poet and novelist Glyn Hughes, a month before his death in June 2011
I can’t remember exactly how I first came into contact with the poet and novelist Glyn Hughes, but I first met him at a launch of his last-but-one poetry collection in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire. I arrived at the venue expecting to find the handful of intense aficionados that make up most poetry launches, and was surprised to find a big room packed to the gills with appreciative readers.
Hughes, it turned out, has a big following in Calderdale, the West Yorkshire valley he has spent forty years tracking through his words, and his writing about the area — running to more than a dozen books and as many stage and radio plays — has resonated far beyond its confines. His first novel won two major awards, as did his first collection of poetry, and in the years since he has been shortlisted for most of the big literary prizes and has seen his two of his books selected by Guardian readers as ‘great classics of British nature writing’. The Times has called him one of the ‘best authors ever on the north of England.’
Looking back on his career now, Glyn sums up his work — the historical novels, the travel books, the semi-autobiographies, the volumes of poetry — as ‘a protest on behalf of nature’. It’s a career that most writers would be happy with (assuming writers were the sort of people who were ever happy about anything) but it’s one which is now coming to an end. In 2010, Glyn was diagnosed with terminal lymphoma, and given two years to live. Early this year he published a moving response to this, a poetry collection entitled A Year in the Bull Box. Flitting between hospital cancer wards and a small, remote former cattle byre in Yorkshire which is his green retreat from the world, it’s an uplifting poetic essay on the approaching end of a life.
In the mid-1960s, Glyn bought a collapsing, condemned terraced house from a local mill owner for £50 and spent decades restoring it. He still lives there, and plans to die there, looking out over the valley he loves. I spent some time there earlier this year, talking to him about his life and work as spring came up over Calderdale.
PK: Your new poetry collection, A Year in the Bull Box, starts with a foreword which explains that you’ve been diagnosed with terminal cancer. And yet this is one of the most life-affirming books of poetry that I’ve read for a long time. In ‘salmon in Twiston Beck,’ for example, you have these lines:
in the virtue of sight before it dies
I have come into my self
There’s a striking a sense of peace and acceptance all through this volume, and I wondered how you’d come to that?
GH: Well, there’s only two choices. You either face up to it and say “this is where I am, I’ve got this limited time left and I’ve got to go through this”, or you capitulate to being miserable. It’s not like the other miseries of life in which you can afford to feel sorry for yourself. The choice between, as it were, self-indulgent sadness and being glad of what life you have is much more stark.
I was ill a long time before they diagnosed it, perhaps a year or two. I knew I was ill. I remember sitting outside the consultant’s office in Halifax towards the end of this period, waiting for the cardiologist, and Liz, my friend, started crying, because she was afraid of what the doctor might say. And Liz doesn’t cry very much, she’s very strong. And I said to her — and this came without thinking about it — I said I’m not afraid of death at all, not the slightest bit afraid of it. All I’m frightened of is pain. I said it before I’d really thought about it, but I’ve held to that. I just see dying as part of the huge cycle that we all belong to. You become part of nature again. So I suddenly felt very calm about it all.
And so this place that I found, this hut, the Bull Box — I had it before I was ill, and I’d just about got the doors and windows in it when I collapsed.
PK: It’s an old cattle shed, isn’t it, as the name suggests?
GH: Yes, that’s right. It’s very small, it’s on an estate, it doesn’t belong to me. A stream runs just past the front of it, and the whole valley is so beautiful, so fresh. It’s so different to here. It’s not such a sharp and deep valley as here, it’s open countryside, much more pastoral. Here I’m hemmed in by houses.
There’s such a powerful history to this place where I have lived for so long; this is what I’ve written about so much, Calderdale, it’s my world and I know it so very well. The Bull Box is in a very different place, it has a very different history and it’s a great contrast to this place, which is dark and brooding. It’s very like going back to the landscape of my boyhood in north Cheshire. Cheshire is very different now of course — big industrial farms and the cottages all turned into Manchester homes — but the Bull Box is on an old estate, and they’re very preservationist, they’ve kept much of it as it was. There’s no road to it. It’s like a trip back in time. It’s paradise for me, really.
PK: In one poem in this book, ‘Village Haven’, the last line talks of “the last act, which is not death but dying.” That’s what you’re talking about, isn’t it, when you talk about being afraid of pain but not being afraid of death?
GH: Death comes after the last act. Dying is the last act — the last thing you know about. There’s nothing really to be known about death. We can wonder about it and speculate on it and wonder about our purpose and what our personal dying will be. I don’t have any theories about that. But what I do know is that the world is so very, very beautiful, and that my visits to this little place — every time I’ve been I’ve felt more well, much younger.
PK: That comes across strongly in the book, this sense that being there, being surrounded by nature, does bring that life to you.
GH: One of the people at one of the launches I’ve given for the book wanted to know why I had nothing to say about the other people around there. I know them — the farmer and the shepherd and the people in the nearby house — I know them alright, and they’re lovely people, but they’re not of any particular concern to me. It’s the natural world there that thrills me. I mean, the salmon come up the beck …
PK: There are a lot of mentions of salmon in the book.
GH: Yes, the symbolism of the salmon. These creatures, these fish, swim two or three thousand miles across the Atlantic to come back to the place they’re born in. And they’re such a mystery. What fascinates me is that they live these extraordinary lives and nobody has the faintest idea why. We have a few faint clues as to how they do it, but there’s no understanding of why. How can we say that we understand life and death when we can’t even understand these strange creatures that occupy the nearby stream?
PK: You were recently interviewed by the poet Ian Parks, and in that interview you quoted Jung, who said that whenever he goes to study an area of the human consciousness with science he finds that a poet has got there first. And thinking about the salmon, I thought: there’s a lack of a certain type of curiosity that people have about nature. We’re fascinated by how things work, and very good at finding it out, in some ways …
GH: Giving things names.
PK: Exactly: giving things names, categorising them, looking at how systems work to some degree — we’re starting to do that with ecology. But there’s very little poetic imagination applied to something like the salmon. So we might try and look for an evolutionary reason why the salmon might come back up the beck, but we won’t think: maybe there just isn’t one. Maybe the salmon is doing something as irrational and emotional as humans often do, and there isn’t a reducible reason for it.
GH: They live in a different world, which is their world and not our world. They have their own, different consciousness — they clearly do. I watch them in the stream, I watch the young born, I watch the thick shoals of salmon parr in the beck in June and July and they clearly have a consciousness that is not ours. There’s not a lot to be gained in trying to understand scientifically what part of a salmon’s brain lights up when it does this or that.
PK: But that seems to be the only question that we give ourselves permission to ask, in this culture. That’s an acceptable way to explore what nature is, but other ways are nonsensical or Romantic.
GH: What’s the salmon’s god like? I think that’s a legitimate question. It is an extraordinary life cycle, and it is completely beyond human comprehension. Blake said that if the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear as it is — infinite. We’re prisoners of our senses — imprisoned behind the five doors of perception. We can’t see through any others.
PK: Do you see your poetry as a way of trying to look through other doors?
GH: Well, I haven’t got any answers. The poetry just reflects my sense of what you might call the miraculous. Especially the last year, around this small place. All my work previous to that had actually been rather different. I got into the toils of recording this valley and its history — I was about to say the materialistic history of this place but in fact that’s not true. It’s been about material history, yes, especially a rather savage, radical point of view, but that’s only been part of it. It’s also been about how to dramatise what’s happened to the spiritual life of people here, through Methodism and the rest of it, down the centuries. All my previous work’s been about that, but suddenly I’m writing about nature as I used to when I was a boy. In fact, I’m restoring a lot of the attitudes that first set me off writing.
PK: You talk, early on in Bull Box, of your ‘first escape’ aged ‘five or six’, and that seems to mean an escape into the countryside, into nature. And you write these lines:
When following oracles in the countryside
I seemed to pass through a pane of glass
and feel an inner rising.
I understood that because I’ve had experiences like that myself. That’s quite a Wordsworthian thing to put into a modern poem, isn’t it?
GH: Yes, it’s Wordsworthian, but the reason is that Wordsworth was the first person to write about these experiences in that way — or at least the most prominent writer to do so. Or perhaps the way of communicating it is Wordsworthian, but of course Shakespeare and Milton and others, they all had their moments of recalling this childhood sense of wonder about the world.
PK: I find that people I come into contact with who have strong feelings for nature as adults have pretty much always had experiences like that as children. And conversely, people who just don’t get it have never had this kind of experience. I don’t know if that’s about personalities or upbringing or location or just luck, but I do find that this kind of thing is really impossible to explain to someone who hasn’t felt it.
GH: I’m sure it’s the case that most people who get passionate about environmental matters are aghast because the world that fed those feelings is being destroyed around them, all over the world. And they realise, after first of all being shocked by it — horrified by it — they go on to realise that it’s going to make human life an impossibility. And they can see the extent to which it’s motivated by greed and selfishness, and eventually come to see that it’s a spiritual matter, not just a material matter.
PK: And that’s the gulf, isn’t it, that some people don’t jump across and some people do?
GH: Our spiritual life is so dependent upon our sense of the natural world.
PK: But it seems to become harder all the time. Looking at your work over the years, there’s a sense of how much has changed since you started writing, in terms of how much open space there is and how much connection to nature people have an opportunity to get.
GH: Yes, it’s ironic isn’t it? We’ve got better cars, better roads, aeroplanes … and yet we have less access. It’s retreated behind the screen of materialistic interest. I don’t know what we should do. I think we should keep doing all we can to try and restrain this rapacious attitude towards nature. But there are, as you say, two kinds of people, and it’s almost a spiritual war between them.
You could put it in all sorts of religious terms — you could talk about good and evil — but there’s a strong sense of two kinds of person battling it out. One person approaching nature to get as much out of it as possible, whether it be crops or minerals or profit. And there’s the other kind of person that is so deeply shocked by the lack of wish to preserve the sacred in nature — and this sense of the sacred becomes as important as profit to the other side. And these two attitudes are ancient. I mean, Blake’s full of it. Read Blake and you see the whole warfare between the two sides, expressed in his language.
PK: In Millstone Grit [Hughes’ 1975 Calderdale travelogue-cum-history-cum autobiography] there is a striking passage in which as a young man you are up on the Pennines and you run your hands across a stem of grass and soot comes off it and covers your fingers. And you realise that the moors are not untouched by industry, and in many ways are actually ruins — places where forests used to be or extinct farming communities. It’s a caution against Romanticism, I suppose, but it also seems to suggest that we are, as humans have always been, somewhere in a great cycle of the rise and fall of civilisations.
GH: Yes, absolutely. And it’s all cleaned up now, of course. Spring is wonderful here when it comes, and the irony is that this place which has been so desecrated and covered in soot and industry and everything has, in a mere few decades, cleaned itself. Nature has cleaned itself. We’ve just stopped pouring soot all over it and it’s cleaned itself.
PK: Millstone Grit gives a real sense of how dirty everything was. You’re always describing rivers as “greasy” …
GH: The interesting thing is that there’s not really any farming round here — there are sheep in the fields but there’s no really intensive farming, so the spring is wonderful in Calderdale. But if you go back to Cheshire or Leicestershire or Lincolnshire, the whole landscape is devoid of spring flowers because of industrial farming. It’s kind of ironic that this rebirth has taken place in an area which used to be so black and industrial.
PK: You grew up in Cheshire on a council estate and you have said that there was no inherited culture there. And you arrived here, in this valley which at the time was dirty and rundown and decaying, and you’ve stayed here for forty years. What was it that made you stay?
GH: It had depth to it. The housing estate I grew up on hadn’t been there long — it was new in the 1930s, when I was born, and in those days the council house was a new idea. They brought people in from all sorts of places and threw them together and they had no common culture at all. But this place, Calderdale, had a deep sense of the old, industrial working class solidarity. They all had a common way of life and a common history that they touched. That fascinated me. The first Chartists were here, in this valley. There weren’t any of those around Altrincham!
PK: A sense of this deep culture, of trying to drill down into it, comes into most of your writing. I’ve been reading The Hawthorn Goddess [Hughes’ 1984 novel set in eighteenth century Calderdale, which focuses on the persecution of a strange, young woman] …
GH: Yes, well that’s a fable. It’s an effort to do a mythic version of the old battle between nature and human culture. She’s a wild spirit, Anne, she’s not quite human.
PK: In that book you seem attracted to but also repulsed by this narrow, local culture which has the strength of solidarity but the weakness of rejecting outsiders. The good characters in that book are the ones that read and who want to see the wider world, while the ones who persecute Anne are those who never go anywhere, never ask any questions.
GH: The ones who persecute her are the ones who are interested in profit, those who live by exploiting. I was trying very deliberately there to personify the persecution of nature in the shape of this woman who is so strange, so uncomfortable, so at odds in the world of people. Which is how nature has been treated. The roses have thorns, and we wish they didn’t have.
PK: There’s a sense in which throughout most of history we have been afraid of nature …
GH: Yes, terrified. It’s very archetypal.
PK: And yet today we feel, probably wrongly, that we are in control of nature, that it is weak and precious and we have switched from being afraid of it to nurturing it, feeling that it needs our protection. It’s almost as if we feel that the master-servant relationship has been reversed.
GH: We can treat nature as a toy when it’s in our garden, but then when it does threaten us again, in the shape of something like climate change, we don’t treat these things as natural disasters — we are somehow fearful on one level that this is our doing, it’s our fault. It’s our first thought, isn’t it, “what have we done to create this?” It’s very Biblical. We still fear it. We don’t call it God any more but we still fear it.
PK: One of the things we talked about in the Dark Mountain manifesto was nurturing the kind of writing which doesn’t see humans as the centre of all things, and there is some writing in Bull Box which seems to take this perspective. The salmon in the beck make you feel that “I am not the owner of my planet/even in imagination”; and later, in ‘June’, you write that “creatures bless me with their disregard.” There’s a sense that you almost relish being put in your place by nature.
GH: I relish being made aware that I am part of this, not the owner of it. It’s a wonderful feeling. I love feeling like just another creature, and I love it when other creatures regard me in the same light. I can remember getting up at dawn one spring, it must have been in May because the hedgerows were in flower, and walking around that district. And all the wild creatures were busy, a stag leapt over a hedge and went across the fields, all the birds were active in their particular way. And they all behaved as if they didn’t expect a human to be around at that time in the morning, and it was marvellous. It was as if it was in their consciousness: “what’s this one doing around at this time? This is not his world.” It was quite uncanny.
PK: The late Australian ecologist Val Plumwood was attacked by a crocodile a few decades ago when she was out canoeing, and she wrote about how that experience changed her life — she said it gave her a real awareness that she was part of nature and not just an observer — that she could be the prey as well as the predator.
GH: I’m acutely aware that coming from this safe society I am quite a privileged observer of nature. Though even here, you can get lost on the mountains and feel very vulnerable. It can be very alarming. But I’ve never been attacked, except by farm dogs!
PK: But I suppose death is an attack by nature?
GH: It certainly is. Certainly is. It feels like an occupier: a Viking, some marauder inside my body. It roams around and will always find another place to rest. They tell me there is no point in more chemotherapy after this round. They can kill it in one place and it comes back in another.
PK: In Millstone Grit you quoted a local writer who used to live around here …
GH: Oh, Billy Holt, yes!
PK: He sounded like an incredible character. He was a communist, a writer, a painter, a horseman, he met Nehru and H. G. Wells and he fought in the Spanish Civil War … but anyway, you quote him as saying that the things which used to be the simplest pleasures were now the privileges of the rich. So you have to get to a certain level of income before you can eat lots of meat, wear fur, go hunting, own a boat …
GH: It’s all been closed down. We are sold aspiration instead. Earn enough to get on a plane and fly somewhere else to lie on a beach. Why? You don’t need it. Go round the corner and lie in a field instead.
PK: Coming back to that sense of being small, being part of nature — I don’t see much in contemporary poetry that takes that perspective. Do you?
GH: No, I don’t, I think I’m a bit of a lone voice really now.
PK: I suppose the last prominent British poet who addressed similar concerns would be Ted Hughes. You do come at the same themes in many ways …
GH: Well, I don’t write like Ted Hughes. But yes, Ted did of course have this huge sense of nature — but his environmentalism was a bit like Prince Charles’s. He was fighting for the River Torridge, for instance, but that was because he owned the fishing rights.
PK: You knew him, didn’t you?
GH: Yes, I knew Ted. He came from Mytholmroyd, a few miles from here.
PK: What was he like as a person?
GH: What was he like? Well, he was not at all like the myth. He was very much the bon viveur. Liked food and drink. He was very talkative, but at the same time he wouldn’t waste time talking to anyone who didn’t interest him. He had no manners about that — he simply refused to talk to anyone who didn’t interest him. He was very kind to other writers, though, remarkably so. He was a man who knew exactly what he wanted to do at any moment.
PK: So who created the myth? Was it him or his readers?
GH: I think it just gathered out of the poems, from the persona of the poems.
They seemed to project this misanthropic man, and he wasn’t at all like that. Because of Crow, and all those terrible post-Sylvia Plath poems … I don’t mean terribly bad, I mean terrible in their message about what life is. Well, how could you not have a grim view of life? And it wasn’t just Sylvia who died, it was Assia as well. Awful. And it all fed the myth.
PK: You once told me that he had accepted the Laureateship because he had an almost primal sense of the importance of the monarchy — something quite ancient and mystical …
GH: Oh yes, it was very atavistic. Yes, Ted was a great monarchist, long before he became Laureate. It was tribal. He was very conservative, Ted. Spent all his time with businessmen and landowners and farmers. There’s an interesting poem he wrote, though, it was never published in his lifetime, but it’s about sitting up on the Bridestones, on the moors around here, and some gamekeeper coming and chasing him off, and it’s a very defiant poem, he’s saying “I’ve got every right to be here.” But it’s unfinished and it was never collected until he died. So he didn’t always have that conservative attitude. But then he became a landowner …
PK: To get back to contemporary writing, in the interview you did with Ian Parks you talked of “the strangled feeling one gets overall from much of, in fact the most accomplished, contemporary British poetry.” What did you mean by that?
GH: It’s as though it all takes place in a small circle of people, who are controlling all the publishing outlets, the publications, the events, and creating a consensus around the way poetry should be and should look and what it should be about.
PK: Something else you said in that interview: “Poetry has … suffered near disastrously by taking over for itself the journalistic modes of thinking … A whole strand of the most liked and widely know poetry of our day is in fact versified journalism.”
GH: It’s true. Most poetry now — I don’t want to name names — reads like opinion pieces from the Sunday papers cast into verse. Why? It’s the poets looking for a public. Nobody reads poetry really, so they’re looking for an answer: make it like journalism, then people will read it. It doesn’t work, of course. And it has got worse in my lifetime: there’s been a collapse in poetry. My first poetry pamphlet sold a thousand copies — just a little pamphlet. It’s unthinkable now.
PK: What happened?
GH: The publishers have stopped thinking it’s worthwhile — most of the big publishers gave up on poetry and the little publishers are overwhelmed with too many people wanting to be published. The grants have gone. Perhaps the rise of the creative writing course is partly responsible. We’ve an oversupply of writers and not enough readers.
PK: To come back to this valley. The end of Millstone Grit is quite heartbreaking. You’ve taken this journey around this area, and you end up at Intake Farm, where you lived and worked for five years, and you tell the story of Tommy Toat, the old tenant farmer who works the land his father worked, has no electricity in his house, and seems both at one with the land and at odds with the world outside it. And you write of how he is thrown off his farm in his old age when it’s sold for housing, and how it breaks him, and you talk of all the “unassessed and disregarded cultures” of the land, which are cast aside before we can understand them.
GH: Yes, it is about those connections being lost. It’s really all gone now. I loved being at that place. I’ve been back since, and it’s awful now. It’s strange — it’s a very old seventeenth century farmhouse and they’ve plastered it over with fake half-timbering. A genuine, old, wonderful building, and they’ve covered it with this stuff that’s a fake representation of the old times.
PK: It sounds like another death. In our last book we ran an interview with Vinay Gupta, an engineer who creates systems designed to withstand crises, and one of his contentions was that modern Western societies are simply unable to come to terms with death. In India, say, or Mexico, the reality of death is part of everyday life, but here it is hidden away and feared and almost denied.
GH: Yes, that’s very true. We live in a society that does think it can control everything, and it will not accept the existence of death because we can’t control it. But I don’t feel like that. I feel quite relaxed about it, really.
PK: That’s not something you might expect to hear from someone facing their own death.
GH: Well, you know, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”, and all that. That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it? Whereas I’m writing poems at the moment about just lying in fields. It’s all I can do. I’m very happy just lying in a field — going to sleep, waking up and being surrounded by all this beauty. What more is there?