Reflections written by Nujoom Alghanem:
Hesitation was my first reaction when I received *Greg Mosse’s first email that invited me to be part of a poetry reading and discussion for Poetry International at Southbank Centre during November last year. Luckily Greg was planning that program as well as our visit to the UK and was thoughtful to have an additional part of it in West Dean College (WDC). Yet, at that time I wasn’t sure how to reply to him. The reason was related to old memories that I had been trying to forget or overcome. To be honest, I’ve been to London for several times since the eighties, but, I have never developed that easy relationship with this famous, busy, glamorous, attractive, and cultural city as people and media describe it. In fact, I had just experienced the opposite and had the most depressing personal experiences that I even had started writing about. Yes, up to that point I had always felt that I’m not a good friend with London.
However, what helped my situation and made me decide to come was that smart and very well composed part about autumn in West Dean College. The tempting fact that I could not resist at all.
He also mentioned a Surrealist poet and something called “Eden of Arts”!
Every word he used in relation to WDC had a sense of art, hospitality and kindness.
Greg said (I hope he wouldn’t mind quoting him here)
“I would like to invite you and *Fadhil Al-Azzawi to spend a few days at West Dean House, a fine residential college where I teach creative writing. … It would be marvelous if you could come and enjoy our hospitality and the Sussex countryside in autumn. The College is a wonderful place, endowed by the surrealist poet and philanthropist Edward James to become ‘an Eden for the arts’.”
Greeted by the Flying Golden Leaves
I reached the UK at night, but I didn’t mind spending another couple of ours traveling in another vehicle in order to get settled in the promising land of art. It was windy and the road began to twist and wiggle when got closer to WDC. The trees were throwing their leaves generously on the narrow road. I was delighted to be welcomed first by autumn’s gifts, wind, rain, and the precious golden leaves. I began to feel that I had already reached Eden for autumn in my opinion is the deepest season among all seasons.
Greg called to assure me that everything is perfectly organized for the next day and our friend Fadhil
will join me during dinner time when I get there even if it was late.
Getting to West Dean House (WDH) was the first actual evidence that my literal/cultural/ artistic trip has began. Seeing this historical building in the heart of the night was by itself too poetic for me. I was physically too tired to do anything but mentally and emotionally too excited to plunge right away into any adventure available or offered by anyone.
I appreciated the fact that Fadhil was a smoker because he gave me the excuse to get out every once in a while so he could smoke and I would be able to touch the chill and quietness of the night and probably let my tired mind to recall the scene of Macbeth’s play where he meets the three witches, the part of Shakespeare’s play that I kept associating with the countryside for unknown reason.
The WDH gave me that sort of theatrical feel but in a modern way. I never imagined thought that we would spend our first three nights in the UK in that historical building, but that what happened for both of our own surprise and delight.
In Touch with the Real Souls
The biggest morning surprise was the dining area of WDH. Experiencing the quite house at night gives the notion that the place is far and deserted. However, seeing the number of people inside the dining hall next morning brings different perspective. You immediately sense that it’s definitely college. I waited for Fadhil to share with me the breakfast but he was unexpectedly late. So, I found my way quietly to the huge hall feeling nervous to be a stranger and alone, the most horrifying feeling one could have when surrounded by hundreds of people that she doesn’t know. But, surprisingly, I soon began to feel at ease. In no time I already started making friends with one of the graduate students, who is an artist perusing her PhD program. She invited me to visit her studio (the chance that I couldn’t manage to take because of the tight schedule). I saw another student and administrative employee who recognized me probably from the way I look with my head scarf. She asked me if I was one of the two Arab guest speakers invited by Visiting Arts and Greg Mosse to speak to his MA students. I was relieved to find someone who knows the purpose of being there. She kindly offered taking me around the college to show me the studios, classes, and workshop halls before taking me to their class. I already felt that I wanted to become an Art student once again for during my college years I took art as a minor and I fell in love with it.
The second amazing-touching experience was our meeting with Greg Mosse’s Creative Writing MA postgraduate students. We had to share our life experience and writing techniques with those mature adults who were so welcoming and open to share their own personal experiences with us as well. They came from several cultural and international backgrounds which made it much easier to understand the cultural differences.
Fiction writing appeared to be the main subject matter to discuss. Actually, it was just the prologue that led us to a deeper interpersonal /intercultural dialogue. We talked about the struggle when you travel or settle in a new geography that has its own characteristics and forms which are reflected in what it is called society, religious background, ethnicity, language, etc. I was grateful for all those individuals who shared their sensitive issues and talked about them transparently. Cultural differences, stereotypes, prejudices, were few examples among many other similar topics were raised during that morning. This particular session was, in fact, the focal point of the whole trip. The conversation over cultural aspects kept going even after the class time. It continued over the lunch break where there were more chances to have one-to-one talks with the students. I’m sure each one of us walked out with different questions but also lots of thoughts to ponder on.
The Bigger Picture
For the remaining time of that first day, both Fadhil and I decided to stay within the college area to familiarize ourselves with the beautiful mansion and its surroundings. We started our walk in the backyard part where some of the food supplies are still grown and taken care of there in small vegetable plantations. For any artist or writer this place is not only inspirational but also encouraging to live in where you know for sure that you can get the best of everything whether education, housing, good atmosphere, right company, or even food. We were discussing how this strong system created by the Edward James Foundation is keeping the Art and artists in this significant environment and how appealing it is to get your education in such place.
To me personally I found it amazing to have such project preserved in dedication and impressive kind of management. By then we already started planning how to come up with a good, convincing excuse to come for a short term course.
The front yard was another state of beauty and art. One thing though kept me wondering, it was the different species of animals that kept changing in the same spot. I noticed that the front grassed area is almost an all–day –long sanctuary for cattles of sheep, cows, crows, seagulls, and other unknown birds to me. They come in different individual flocks, stay for enough period of time then disappear leaving the ground for another group to come. The others would be found in same places, occupying the landscape in a same manner, and would keep grazing or just standing there quietly as if they were statues. If it is foggy then they would look like real stone creatures standing against half dissolved trees in a misty background and in a very surrealistic way.
Evening came too fast as if to cut off our walk around the mansion but still in a sweet gesture. Once again we found ourselves in the warm arms of the night atmosphere of the castle. This time though as guests in the company of the poet and Surrealist artist, Edward James.
In the screening room of the guest house we were invited to watch a documentary film made about James during the sixties of the last century. The film was an eye opening about this legendary artist. His sense of humor, interests and adventures were all remarkable to me. Not many artists today would express themselves freely to the extent of calling themselves eccentric persons and raise this publically even if they really are. I walked out of that room wanting to know more about him. Luckily, I found the one who would help me with that the very next day.
In the embrace of the Woods
The following day was dedicated to knowing the small town and a little bit beyond that and to socialize not only with people but also with the ecological aspects of the West Sussex.
Since I became an adult I’ve developed the feeling that the earth is my grandmother, sky is my grandfather, trees are my mother, air is my father and the wind is my soul mate. I’ve always felt that those are my true divine family while my biological grandparents, parents and siblings in this life are only the earthly family. On that particular day Greg made it possible for me to be introduced to some new members of my true family, the trees and the wind of the Sussex.
Greg Mosse took us to Kingly Vale’s ancient Yew trees woods for a walk to remember and to engrave in the conscious for a great deal of time. I still remember how Greg structured his story telling about the Yew trees in a very educational and entertaining way. Because of him we were able to take a snatch of a historical chapter of that region in the eighth century. It was hard to imagine that in a place which is that peaceful now, there were battles, knights, and defeated enemies. I was going to hug one of the trees as to satisfy an old habit when he stated; “It was said that the defeated Vikings were turned into Yew trees”!
I preferred to deal with it as a mythical tale even if it had its roots planted deep in that historical reality.
Yet, I was speechless for quite sometimes and in deep thought imagining those actions as if played in a scene of a historical movie.
I guess in a way we are blessed as writers for we can have our own virtual realities created whenever we want or made believable the way we design them to be without the necessity of seeking others approval. In contrast, we may also get easily deceived by what we imagine as our own reality. What made me think this way was the intensive sense I felt when we were inside the woods. For a moment I felt the ground was breathing under the heavy weight of those unique trees. It was unusually quite even though people were walking and talking around. Of course they were whispering so the others won’t get disturbed, I thought. It’s a place where you get connected with yourself and the elements surrounding you.
The whole area was idealistic for letting go of every day worries. You can throw them and they will get buried by themselves and become unnoticed. Or, they might become other plants to be noticed in another beautiful form.
The peacefulness suggested by those huge trees was so inviting to be contemplated on. It touches your soul every time it gets realized. We were finally in the embrace of the real mothers of earth, real mothers of us, I told myself.
I have to admit that I was drifting very often, almost in a meditative estate. At that point I felt taken by Greg’s Vikings or the thought of them turning into trees. Before leaving I looked once more into the interwoven branches trying to find anything to lock my memory with. I picked a small twig and walked out silently.
The long walk began to tire Greg’s little Irish Glen which accompanied us in that breathtaking trip so we had to return. It was amusing to watch that funny little dog demonstrating his natural tendency of marking his path in a supposedly private way. The poor little creature was afraid of getting lost so he kept wetting the ground throughout the walking journey until he ran out of breath. By the time we were back he had no energy to fight back the big dogs that came for similar purposes with their owners, exercising the body and mind. Our friend’s little creature was somehow annoyed and aggressive. Could it be the Vikings’ thought that got onto his nerve as it did on mine?
We left Kingly Vale’s ancient Yew trees forests around noon time to join our friends Margaret Obank and Samuel Shimon, who were invited along with us for lunch by the WDC’s principal, Robert Pulley. It was Pulley who introduced me intellectually to the world of the Edward James when he mentioned that there is a published book written by Margaret Hooks on Edward James titled Surreal Eden. In fact, he was so generous to offer providing me with a copy of that book, which by itself became another story to stay in memory.
Margaret and Samuel are the publishers of Banipal, which is specialized in presenting contemporary Arab literature to English speaking readers in the UK. We had our lunch together in WDH, and promised by both friends to be given a ride to Chichester Cathedral.
Fadhil and Samuel were in the mood of discussing religion, therefore, it was interesting just to listen to them while walking and looking at the marvelous statues of the religious figures in the Cathedral.
At the end though, all personal views were forgotten when it came to lighting the candles. We were all happy like little children to buy our candles and to wait for our turn to give them the flame of life.
Because Margaret and Samuel had to drive back to London, they dropped us off at WDH and left before the sunset.
We were again Fadhel and I alone in the WDH, but this time to say a proper farewell to the house that hosted us kindly and generously throughout our stay.
We didn’t want to miss the sunset time inside the premises so we welcomed the evening in nature. Our last walk around the college was as rich as the previous day. Nonetheless, it was unpredictably quite. At the beginning I thought may be because we were already tired enough so that none of us felt like talking. But then I realized that each one of us needed to have that private time with autumn in West Dean College, the season that made our short trip so remarkable.
We parted right there wishing each other peace and decided to meet over dinner.
Fadhel returned to the house, I continued my exploration.
For someone like me who came from a very warm country like the UAE, autumn is equivalent to winter. I felt as if the cold wind tightened its grip on me making my bones ache. Yet, the cold was still acceptable because the warmth of the experience as a whole was overwhelming. I forgot about the cold weather and the chill at night. I got busy with the flying infants of the trees, the leaves, particularly those that look like white tissues when the sky got darker. I would walk and walk taken by the half necked trees and the various colors that ranged from white to yellow, to orange, to brown, to bronze. The other fascinating element was the sound of those falling and blown leaves over the asphalt of the roads or the interlock stones.
It was finally totally night. The trees shed more of their colorful leaves on the ground as well in the air. They became like flying tissues under the low light coming from the lit windows or the passing cars. The wind was swift and condensed. I got lost in my thoughts about this deceiving nature. I would give everything I have to be deceived this way. Looking around once more at the different types of trees, gardens, plants, farms, and glasshouses that nurtured the fruits and vegetables all year long providing the main subsidies to this community and the beauty of nature made me again think of the one man who provided the wisdom and capital to achieve this.
I started appreciating Edward James for who he was, for being very thoughtful to preserve the techniques of old craftsmen, to support artists, and to establish a long lasting educational institute for arts, creativity and philosophy. His contribution in creating the perfect environment for man and natural species deserve to be recognized and celebrated as a unique example towards serving education, culture, and ecology.
I spent the last evening in the living room of the old castle in front of the fireplace staring at the slowly burning hardwood log thinking of the tree that gave us this great gift. It could be an Ash tree, or may be a yew tree?
I chose the closest spot of the fireplace, spread my coat on the ground, and layed on top of it imagining the parties and receptions that may have taken place centuries ago in this place.
I heard Fadhel calling my name. The warmth relaxed me so I fell asleep on the ground without realizing as we do back home. We like to sleep on the ground because it is very close from earth. Earth, our grandmother.
** ** **
Greg Mosse came very early next morning to give us a ride to the train station to catch up with our train that would take us to London for the next part of our trip, a reading event at the Royal Festival Hall as part of Poetry International in the Southbank.
We left the West Dean House hoping that one day we will come back may be as guests, or students, or just visiting friends. I told the receptionist that I placed an order to buy Edward James’ book, the Surreal Eden and I would be delighted to take it with me if it’s ready. She said nothing was left in my name to take but she will leave a reminding note to Robert Pulley, the principle for a later shipment.
After three months of going back home I received a delivery package. When I opened it was the book I waited for. I’ve never got the chance to thank Robert Pulley. So here is a big thank you to him for his great generosity and wonderful gift that I’ve been grateful to receive.
** ** **
*Greg Mosse is a writer, translator and creative writing teacher. Our whole trip was his idea and planned by him. He introduced us to his students in the West Dean College and hosted our session in the South Bank. Greg worked very hard on finding the support from the Visiting Arts for it and making it happened successfully (Thank you Greg and Visiting Arts).
*Fadhil al-Azzawi is an Iraq poet and novelist. West Dean College brought us together and made us special friends