Lynne Rees

On the trail of the fritillary


Vita Sackville West called it ‘a sinister little flower, in the mournful colour of decay’. The poet and botanist Geoffrey Grigson referred to them as ‘snaky, deadly beauties’. Anne Ridler described it as ‘delicate’ and ‘rare’: ‘You enter creeping, like the snake / You’re named for . . . ‘. Denise Levertov would have it as ‘our talisman in sorrow’. It has been called the Leper Lily, Lazarus Bell, Drooping Tulip, Bloody Warrior, Turk’s Head and the Mournful Bell of Sodom. It’s dramatic, with its curved amethyst hood, like a fin de siècle heroine. And poisonous, the Lucrezia Borgia of the flower world. 


During our week in the Dordogne, as the guests of Anne Berkeley, Sue Rose and I were treated to the sight of a field dotted with snakes head fritillaries. Even there, where they are more abundant than at home (introduced into the English garden sometime in the eighteenth century) we had to search, skirting the paths along the Dronne, attempting to spot bright dashes of purple, like rare jewels in the grass. But there was a satisfaction in the hunt; eventually spotting them, flamboyant and shy at the same time, in the early April sun. We had missed their full blooming, caught them as they were on their way out, not to come again until next spring. Poisonous, beautiful and fleeting.


It’s a bit like writing, which we had assembled to do together (this activity we normally practice in isolation). Somehow going away with other writers provides a kind of team spirit – there is nothing so inspiring (and daunting) as the sight of another writer getting down to business, happily tapping away on her laptop. But maybe not so odd – after all, the poem is something you create for yourself first, but then you are encouraged to share it, to allow the reader to become part of the bargain you strike when you first put pen to paper (or fingers to laptop).

I have spoken here before about the freedom of writing away from home, how the anxieties and tasks of every day life are briefly forgotten when you are somewhere else. The joy of writing is that you need very little in the way of equipment to engage in it, and you can easily move from one place to another where there are fewer distractions (apart from the noisy nightingale, who seemed to be at it for much of the day as well).


Back home, it seemed I wasn’t quite finished with my fritillary spotting. As they had already departed my garden (where I’ve planted a small pot of them – not quite as exciting as finding them in the wild), I was thrilled to find a lone one among the cowslips in the churchyard at Tudeley in Kent. And here, another curious transplant – stained glass windows by Chagall in the medieval church. My friend Lynne Rees and I had made an excursion to see them, and the sun shone on our efforts.


Chagall was initially commissioned to design a window in memory of Sarah D'Avigdor-Goldsmid, who died in a boating accident in 1963. He subsequently designed the rest, making it the only church in the world to have all its windows by Chagall; the final one was installed in 1985, the year the artist died at the age of 98.

They are perfect in their surprising setting; exuberant, bright, but also somberly moving. It seemed appropriate to be there, back in my adopted country, looking at the work of a fellow Russian Jewish émigré, who made his home in France, where I’d just been.

And so we bloom where we are planted …

East meets gorllewin


The last time I visited Tŷ Newydd, the national writers’ centre in Wales, was about a dozen years ago. Since then, the house has had a renovation – there’s now a new extension comprising a sunny conservatory – but otherwise I found it unchanged. There are some places that remain preserved in the memory; even though it had been many years, it was as if the house welcomed me back.

There is a famous and odd acoustic trick you can perform in the bay window of the library – if you stand in a particular spot, someone at the opposite end can hear you clearly. They say it’s the exact spot where Lloyd George, whose summer residence it was, died – which sounds like the kind of story that writers concoct of an evening, until you learn that Lloyd George did indeed die at Tŷ Newydd. His grave is in the village, on a bank overlooking the River Dwyfor; I’m not sure exactly where in the house it was that he died, but the library story is certainly convincing when you are sitting in the room experiencing that strange echo.

I was back at Tŷ Newydd for a weekend-long immersion into Haiku writing, taught by my friend, the poet and novelist Lynne Rees. Lynne has been writing haiku and haibun for many years now and has thought a lot about how the ancient eastern form can adapt to a contemporary western voice.


I was there not only to hang out with Lynne and revisit the Llŷn peninsula, but also to challenge a prejudice of mine. I have always considered (contemporary English) haiku a bit frivolous, not a serious poetic form, tied to a sort of wooly eastern spirituality. There are a lot of bad haiku out there, the kind that Lynne describes as having ‘a whiff of Zen’: meditations on cherry blossoms and weeping willows written by poets sitting in semis in Sheffield (I’m not being rude about Sheffield – it’s just the first example of an urban and therefore not-very-Zen-like setting that popped into my head). Lynne is possibly the most no nonsense person I know, and while she is sensitive and self-attuned, she is also extremely skeptical of the kind of easy spiritual statement that hasn’t been earned. So I felt if anyone was going to convince me, it would be Lynne.

We dodged the rain on Saturday morning for a ginko, an organised haiku walk that took us along the coast and back to Llanystumdwy along the river.  At certain intervals, Lynne gave us instructions / suggestions / prompts to create haiku on the spot. I was surprised to discover how difficult they are to write immediately: one thing I learned about haiku is that the best ones have an element of statement=revelation – which most good poems do – but in a haiku, this needs to be accomplished in microcosm. This movement is referred to in modern haiku as ‘link and shift’, so that a statement is made, then the next statement links to what has been said, but also makes a shift to something new. It’s what I think of as a turn, but in haiku it is accomplished over two or three lines. So during the ginko, I made some notes, trying to avoid the pitfall of easy revelation. But I didn’t write anything I could call a proper haiku.


Lynne showed us some good ones. This haiku by Caroline Gourlay really struck me:

I close my book –
a wave breaks its silence
against the rocks

Perhaps it appeals because the end rhyme of ‘book’ and ‘rocks’ (and ‘breaks’ in the middle) gives the poem a very satisfying sense of closing (like the book in the first line). I like the way ‘breaks’ has two meanings – the more familiar one to do with waves, but then the added idea of silence yielding to sound – link and shift in one word, to mark the moment the speaker comes back into the world after shutting the world of the book. It’s deceptively simple, but there’s a lot going on, the whole thing perfectly balanced over those three lines.

So, not throwaway. And quite tough to achieve. I’ll keep working at it …


The presiding spirit of the weekend was not in fact old Lloyd George, but Nigel Jenkins, who was due to teach the course with Lynne; he died at the end of January this year. I’d only met Nigel twice, but he made a great impression. He and Lynne edited the anthology Another Country: haiku poetry from Wales ( and I remember his reading at the launch in Aberystwyth, his extraordinary deep bass voice. I’ll end on a haiku of his I particularly like

colder, greyer …
the first ditherings
of snow



Why I am not a painter . . .

although I have always wished I could be. In a place like Antibes you can’t help but notice the clarity of the light, the jewel-bright hues (not like the washed drab of London). You want to grab a brush rather than a pen; there are not enough words for ‘blue’ in the English language to do justice to sea and sky, it is so easy to drift into cliché. This is a landscape for painters, remade by Matisse and Miró and, of course, Picasso.

Perhaps painters don’t see the difference between brush and pen in the same way? Picasso was interested in the representation of things: ‘I want to SAY nude. I don’t want to do a nude like a nude. I just want to SAY breast, SAY foot, SAY hand and belly.’ His nudes are about the complexities of women as well as their appearance, his intellectual and emotional relationships with women.

‘Painting is just another way of keeping a diary,’ Picasso said. He came to Antibes in the summer of 1946 with Françoise Gilot and their young son, Claude, and was offered a studio in the Château Grimaldi (now the Musée Picasso). He immediately immersed himself in his work. Gilot recalled that he ‘spoke especially of the white light which brings out shapes rather than colours.’ But the colours are striking — as if the artist has emerged from darkness (the darkness of the war) giddy with the richness of everything around him. Even in still life (much more dramatic in French, nature morte; the emphasis on ‘death’ rather than ‘life’) his fish and flowers are buzzing with energy; the vivid spikes of les oursins. When asked what attracted him about sea urchins (which are everywhere still, on market stalls, outside restaurants) he replied ‘the eyes like being surprised.’

Perhaps it’s easier to capture happiness in paint than in print? Our host, Lynne Rees (aka ‘The Hungry Writer’) takes us to her favourite picture in the museum, Joie De Vivre, and poses that very question. And the painting is joyous, a celebration by the seaside. We know Picasso was happy in the months he lived in Antibes: the war was over, he was in love with Françoise and his little son, he was productive, he had a studio in a castle overlooking the sea.

Sometimes words aren’t enough for all that. And if we are unable to paint it, then perhaps it’s enough just to live it (and allow the eyes to be surprised) and store it in our memory for later …