Friday, March 26, 2021

Coleford, Gloucestershire

Writing the Forest, 2

Tom Cousins’ second Forest of Dean mural is on one the side of a former pub in Coleford. It shows three more writers, all linked with the local area, who put the place into their work – or for whom the place lies at the heart of their work. Joyce Latham (1932–2007) grew up near Berry Hill. She wrote poetry and memoirs about her childhood in the Forest. She’s not widely known now, but in her time was a much loved Forest figure. F. W. Harvey (1888–1957) was a poet of the First World War. He was one of the important group of poets of that war who served as private soldiers, unlike many of the most famous war poets who were officers, and like one of my favourites, Ivor Gurney, who was a close friend of Harvey’s. Both wrote movingly of the wartime lives of the troops, and although Gurney is the greater poet, some of Harvey’s works, including the famous ‘Ducks’, still appear in anthologies of war poetry. Harvey spent much of his life as a solicitor, but continued to publish. He also wrote a prose memoir of his time in a PoW camp, which was praised when it came out just after the war. As a young man, Dennis Potter (1935–94) produced one of the best books about his local area, The Changing Forest. He wrote it having left the Forest to go to Oxford and to begin a career in television (he also covered the area in a TV documentary), and could write about his home territory from a special combination of intellectual detachment and deep emotional involvement. He became famous for writing a string of television plays and serial dramas – Stand Up Nigel Barton, Blue Remembered Hills, The Singing Detective, for example – that were controversial and changed the medium. This work was often criticised for both its subject matter and its frankness, but was, rightly I think, very widely praised too. Several of the series and plays were at least partly set in the Forest and in some cases filmed there on location. He never left the place emotionally and lived in later life not far away from it in Ross-on-Wye. Like all the writers celebrated in these murals, the Forest stayed with him,* and he took the place into the consciousness of so many more.  

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* It remained with Potter until the very end of his life. The memories of the Forest in his last interview with Melvyn Bragg, just a few weeks before his death, were for me the most moving sections of that most moving of interviews.

1 comment:

Joe Treasure said...

These both look wonderful, Phil. And thanks for these two posts. I remember the Forest as having a distinct atmosphere. I met Leonard Clark a couple of times and enjoyed his memoir, A Fool in the Forest. I lived in Monmouth for some years and Coleford was where we went to see films, since Monmouth had a bookshop but no cinema. Of the three routes to Cheltenham, the one through the Forest, though not the fastest, was the most interesting. Returning late one evening, I picked up a hitchhiker, who spoke to me for ten minutes about crop circles as messages from extra-terrestrials, then asked to be dropped at a place that seemed not to be near any kind of habitation and disappeared into the trees. I drove on, feeling I'd had a visitation of the Forest kind.