In the Footsteps of a Master

Here’s a recent piece about Nottinghamshire and my largely accidental connections with D H Lawrence that I wrote for web site of Nottingham’s bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature.

By hazy co-incidence, I’ve ended up inadvertently shadowing different periods of D. H. Lawrence’s life: a year spent with my family in Cornwall, on the Penwith Peninsula, found us just down the lane from Mermaid Cottage, where Lawrence had lived with his wife, Frieda, while he was writing “Women in Love”; earlier, moving back down to London from Nottingham in the 80s, I pitched up in the nether regions of Hampstead, an energetic stroll away from the Vale of Health and Byron Villas – like Mermaid Cottage, one of several locations in which Lawrence’s attempts to collect around himself a group of fellow-writers came to little or nothing.

Most significant for me, however, was the period in the mid-1960s, when I first moved up to Nottingham from London to teach at Heanor Aldercar secondary school. Living on Castle Boulevard, I would drive into Heanor every day, taking either the route through Kimberley and Eastwood – Lawrence’s birthplace, of course – or through Ilkeston, tracing for a time the path of the River Erewash, bringing to mind as it always did the description of the land close to the river in the opening of “The Rainbow” – a description more pleasantly evocative than the disparaging reference in his essay, “Nottingham and the Mining Country” …

“Now Eastwood occupies a lovely position on a hilltop, with the steep slope towards Derbyshire and the long slope towards Nottingham. They put up a new church, which stands fine and commanding, even if it has no real form, looking across the awful Erewash Valley at the church in Heanor, similarly commanding, away on a hill beyond.”

Although Lawrence is writing about a time a good thirty years earlier, the basic geography remained unchanged, so that it was possible, standing at the centre of Heanor and taking a reverse view across the valley, to feel a sense of closeness, of continuity, that was enriched further by reading the early short stories and re-reading “Sons and Lovers” and “The Rainbow”. His landscape: a writer’s landscape.

I walked around Eastwood then on numerous occasions, to 8a Victoria Street, where Lawrence was born, and on down to Garden Road and thence to Walker Street, following the family’s move from house to house. Moving away myself at the end of the 60s, it wasn’t until I returned some fifteen or so years later, a writer now and no longer a teacher, that I explored the landscape of Lawrence’s life and writing further, using Michael Bennett’s “Visitors’ Guide to Eastwood and the Countryside of D. H. Lawrence” as my guide. (I have my copy still.)

A favourite walk was past Moorgreen Colliery to Moorgreen Reservoir – “all grey and visionary, stretching into the moist, translucent vista of trees and meadow” – that Lawrence used as the setting for the drowning in “Women in Love”, and on from there across the rise and fall of open fields that leads towards Haggs Farm, the home of Jessie Chambers, the Miriam of “Sons and Lovers”.

As Lawrence described it in a letter … “A tiny red farm on the edge of the wood. That was Miriam’s Farm – where I got my first incentive to write …”

Though it would be reckless – and, almost certainly, wrong – to discern any clear connection between Lawrence’s writing and my own, there is something in that distant and fleeting sense of the proximity to a great writer – being able to walk, as it were, the same ground that he walked and know what it became in his fiction – that gave me – much as reading and retracing Alan Sillitoe has done – a sense of permission, at least. A sense of place. Somewhere to write about if you can.

You can find the original piece, suitably illustrated, here …

http://www.nottinghamcityofliterature.com/uncategorized/footsteps-of-a-master-exclusive-guest-post-from-john-harvey/

And you can find out more about Nottingham’s bid here …

http://www.nottinghamcityofliterature.com

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