May Day Morning Thoughts

I have been working with poets and writers for fifteen years. The first was Catriona Urquhart, my friend and  collaborator. I had read poetry throughout my life, and it was probably no accident that when we met Catriona and I became friends, because poetry was one of our many shared enthusiasms. Later we worked together. It wasn’t so much a plan… at which she would have balked… as an evolution. The creative dialogue we enjoyed – poems, drawings and ideas, batted between us like shuttlecocks – set the pattern in me for what came later, with other writers after she had gone. Catriona had been writing poetry since she was able to hold a pen. But she was secretive about it, hiding away the results in boxes and drawers. Though it was as plain as day she had a wonderful way with words, it wasn’t until my partner Peter Wakelin cornered her into writing him a story for his birthday (she had perhaps unwisely asked him what he wanted most) that she produced Palmyra Jones, a book later published in a small edition by Nicolas and Frances McDowall at The Old Stile Press. (You can read how it all unfolded, HERE.)

After the publication of Palmyra Jones, Catriona was encouraged to the point that she suggested the way forward for our next collaboration. She had grown to know and love my father Trevor in his last years. They had become friends and confederates, hatching plans and going off on adventures. (I later found out they’d regularly headed off in Trevor’s car for lunches at his favourite Monmouthshire pubs.) Catriona loved stories of family histories, and Trevor’s long, rich life was full of them. Catriona had encouraged him to share his memories with her, and she’d soaked up his accounts like a sponge. At the time I used to joke that she held more of my family history in her head than any other living person. She pieced together the genealogies and understood the connections better than I ever had. To me it was all just a muddle of quaint names and his half-remembered accounts, but she made sense of it all, and joined the dots to make coherent histories. in 2000, the year after his death, Catriona saw the drawings that I was producing based on Trevor’s childhood experience of the Mari Lwyd, the mid-Winter mumming tradition still practiced in the rural Wales he grew up in. She suggested writing a poetic text to accompany the planned exhibition at Newport Museum and Art Gallery, and the work began. Just a few weeks before the exhibition was due to open, Nicolas chanced to see drafts of Catriona’s poems on our kitchen table, and what had been intended as an accompanying text on wall panels throughout the gallery, became in addition a hastily planned though beautifully conceived and executed Old Stile Press edition of her poems, going by the same name as the exhibition, The Mare’s Tale. I made the illustrations to meet Nicolas’ incredibly tight deadline, working an all-nighter one Sunday in order to have them ready for him to collect on the Monday morning.

Catriona died on May Day 2005. Palmyra Jones… which had been little more than a pamphlet… and her volume of Mare’s Tale poems, were the only works published in her lifetime, a fact ensured by the fact that the poems we had known to be hidden in drawers before her death, were not to be found after it. Her partner Ian believes that she may have destroyed what she considered to be ‘juvenilia’. It fell to Peter, who had so encouraged Catriona as a writer, to produce the eulogy for her funeral. It’s a fine piece, and catches as well as anything I know the mercurial, dazzling girl I have missed every day of the past ten years.

Golden Catriona

Witten and read by Peter Wakelin at Catriona’s funeral.

“We have carried with us for years now fears that we would one day lose Catriona; but still, when the news came, it was impossible to believe.

So many friends have talked about the special, golden glow Catriona emanated. We all bathed in it. Catriona was one of the great ‘appreciators’ – especially of good company, gardens, the seaside, books, old china, poetry read aloud, paintings, and thoughtfully-prepared food, which we were always sharing. She adored to give gifts, her generosity leading her to spend days potting cuttings for other people’s gardens or seeking out the perfect book. She received gifts with infectious enthusiasm, too. When things were right, her pleasures seemed amplified far beyond those most of us can feel. Every time one discovered something beautiful, it was the reaction to think, ‘Ah, we must show Catriona this!’, ‘We must bring Catriona here!’ And so, until we learn to remember rather than grieve, every taste and every pleasure seems to turn to charcoal in our mouths, because she is not here to share them.

She seemed sometimes to know everything – the origins of words, the name of every rose, the biographies of writers, even the history of one’s own family. If she had bothered to go on Mastermind with these as special subjects she would have been a champion. She possessed the strong opinions and the disarming insights of the brilliant mind. She could dissect the frailties and foibles of everyone she met, whilst cherishing them as part of the rich and piebald world we all inhabit.

She had talent falling from her fingertips; though she wore it so carelessly that many never realised. She was an affecting singer and musician, though there are few recordings. She was strong and sporting. One of her father’s ciné films of his young family preserves an image of her fleet as an amazon, golden hair flying, leading out her sibling tribe; and she told us how she used to run with utter confidence the terrifying sheeptrack over ‘the elephant’, a rocky promontory near Ferryden that had us sinking to our knees with vertigo. She was a star at school and university. Her teacher the Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney told her always to keep in touch and come and stay; but she never liked to bother him.

We knew that she had once been good at languages. With hesitation, we introduced her to Julia, a Russian girl working here who was all-at-sea and lonely through her lack of English. We believed Catriona could speak a little Russian, which might be nice. Within a minute they were chattering away like old friends in a Moscow restaurant, Julia laughing and smiling for what seemed to be the first time in all her visit. Catriona picked up languages like most of us pick up colds, recently gaining fluent Portuguese on two visits to Brazil.

She told stories with such vividness and ease that I badgered her to write them down. She said for months that she was writing a story for me. Finally, she announced that it would be my birthday present, and it was nearly finished. When she and Ian arrived for dinner, there was just the little problem that she had not put pen to paper! Trina locked herself away, and an hour later, there the story was, without so much as a crossing-out, perfectly formed in her head and transcribed unhesitatingly. What a gift she gave me; and what a gift she had! She was persuaded to read it out, and I will always hear it in her honeyed singer’s voice and Scottish accent (even though the narrator in the story was in fact an Irish seaman). Like Alan Bennett, Catriona was the exception to prove the rule that authors are poor readers of their work. Among those rapt by her magic that birthday evening were Nicolas and Frances McDowall, who later published the story, Palmyra Jones, at The Old Stile Press, and later still her cycle of poems, The Mare’s Tale.

There were short-lived times when ill-health took away Catriona’s ability to be the things she was, but she fought back courageously. She used every ounce of concentration to write her Mare’s Tale poems through a haze of anxiety and depression. They are masterpieces.

Catriona was unforgiving of the second-rate, the lazy and the puffed-up. Perhaps she avoided writing because she knew how gruelling it is to achieve real quality, but that excellence was how you showed proper generosity in giving things to others. I for one was influenced by Catriona to try harder, not to take the easy route. And I believe many of us will go on to seek the best in everything – propagating all the best plants in the garden for our friends, caring for each other, and sharing around a table food that warms the cockles of the heart.

Sometimes Catriona loved to be the princess, served by those who brought her flowers and sweetmeats, answered her whims, made her comfortable. For nearly thirty years Ian was her hero, her young Lochinvar. He undertook quests for her, fought monsters, brought back treasures: commissioning an alteration to the alterations to the house, buying an old piece of furniture that needed her to love it, or taking her on a journey literally to the other side of the world. Of course she was no princess at heart, and she cared for Ian and others in return, especially her friends and family, and her nephews and nieces, whom she adored. But in her last illness she accepted care with calm contentment. Her family wrapped around her like a warm blanket of love. It was heart-rending to watch her brother Roddy gently cradling her head in his strong hands, Ishbel, face swollen with tears, leaping on her bed with cheerful cry of ‘Hi Trina’, and all of them at her side – Alasdair, Rhona, Cathy, the partners and the children. Catriona floated above the houseful, as she always liked to do in the bedroom at Ferryden or the croglofft at Penparc, knowing all was well, listening to the gentle tinkle of the tea-cups, raising an ironic eyebrow to things overheard, dozing, dreaming, waking with a smile to those who visited.

This will be a cruel summer, seeing Catriona’s flowers bloom – in many different gardens. People passing by will wonder, ‘Why is he sobbing at that beautiful new iris? Why does she look so sad amid that bower of roses?’ We all come to our ends, every one of us, and some die much younger than Catriona. But there were so many things we wanted still to do together. She would have been an exceptional old lady – wise, surprising, generous, a keeper of traditions but subversive. She had so much more to give, and I suspect she would have found the best age to give it.

We must follow Catriona’s guiding light. She showed the joy there is in life. Even in her death, she tells us life is not for ever, and we should do the things that count, particularly those that cherish one another and the world around us. We will still hear her laugh sometimes – that irrepressible, mischievous, clear laugh; and we will still think often, ‘Ah, Catriona would love this!’

She will be strong in our memories. And she knew better than anyone that memories turn into stories. Stories sometimes transform to myths. And one day in future I know Catriona will be just that – the myth of she who glowed with love and wonder at the world and taught others to appreciate it: “Golden Catriona”. I think she will rather like that.”

Peter Wakelin 11 May 2005

Page decoration from Palmyra Jones

18 thoughts on “May Day Morning Thoughts

  1. Here I am at last catching up on emails and Clive’s postings from two weeks of delicious and thrilling planning and celebration of our Wedding Blessing ceremony. But one of the most touching moments in the weeks lately (and Saturday during the speeches at the reception following the Blessing) was remembering all the family and friends who would have been with us to celebrate if we had not been forced to wait 35 years to marry. As Clive and Peter have experienced, many of those we spoke of died as young men two decades ago. So Clive and Peter’s remembrances of Catriona are so fresh because they will always be fresh. These angelic and vibrant presences who lived and cherished and entertained and loved us during their brief butterfly lives. Thank you both for sharing her full story with us again. I had read it all here and there, and love my copy of The Mare’s Tale, and like Maria hope that Old Stile will republish Palmyra Jones for we newly minted fans. How I wish I could hear Catriona read her poems and the story!

  2. Dear Clive, the pain of loss never eases does it? It was lovely re-reading Peter’s beautifully written eulogy to Catriona; once again I wish I had met her, but I feel I have got to know her through you. It’s tragic she died so young, but it’s certain her words and works will live on. With love and sadnessxL

  3. It’s lovely that you have lit so many bright candles for her over the years, and kept her memory golden. Somehow it seems fitting that, if Catriona had to die before her time, it would be on May Day, when girls once washed their faces with dew to remain forever beautiful.

  4. I love this paragraph and remember reading it another time:

    “This will be a cruel summer, seeing Catriona’s flowers bloom – in many different gardens. People passing by will wonder, ‘Why is he sobbing at that beautiful new iris? Why does she look so sad amid that bower of roses?’ We all come to our ends, every one of us, and some die much younger than Catriona. But there were so many things we wanted still to do together. She would have been an exceptional old lady – wise, surprising, generous, a keeper of traditions but subversive. She had so much more to give, and I suspect she would have found the best age to give it.”

    I’m sure she would have been quite the exceptional old lady. I think that may be the most difficult thing about losing someone at an earlier edge. We always wonder how things might have been and think of the possibilities. Regardless of how many years pass, we still wish we could hear their voices, see them creating new works, or show them something we know they would love to see — well, endless things we would do together. At least we have our memories, and in some cases, their creations, to keep us company.

    • Bev, you don’t write his name in your words here, but I know the loss in your own life deepens your understanding of what I feel about Catriona. People so often talk about the diminishment of the pain of loss as time goes by, though I feel they probably get that wrong. To me it seems the pain doesn’t lessen. I’ve just become more accustomed to it.

  5. I have just finished reading this entry, and I am crying my eyes out. In spite of the fact that I had never heard about Catriona Urquhart until I first came here to the Artlog, about a year ago. I am going straight away to read the “Palmyra Jones” you make available for us.

    But first of all, I need to say:
    Thank you Clive, and Thank you Peter, for the photo, for the beautiful text which I would have loved to have heard Peter reading at her funeral, and for letting us strangers share a little in your knowledge of Catriona , and your love of her.

    Love from Madrid
    María

    • Dear Clive
      Dear Peter Wakelin

      I have written to your friends at The Old Stile Press, to order the Palmyra Jones book from them, if it still is available. I just can’t wait for their answer.

      If there are any recordings of Catriona Urquhart reading her poems or singing, please say where to order them…

      Thank you both.
      Again.

    • And thank you, Maria, for leaving such thoughtful words.

      I don’t believe ‘Palmyra Jones’ is available any more, though you should still mention the fact that you’d like one to Nicolas at The Old Stile Press, as he’s occasionally talked of printing further copies.

      • I did ask them for a copy the other day when I wrote. So maybe, when they answer, they’ll say they are printing more…
        I keep my fingers crossed for luck.

  6. What a vivid and moving portrait both you and Peter paint of a much loved friend in this post Clive. Peter writes beautifully in his elegy and with such tenderness.

    My mother died shortly before the spring equinox. Her hope was to live long enough to see the bluebells, which she loved, but sadly she didn’t get to do so. We eventually scattered some of her ashes in a beautiful bluebell wood and when I visit these woods, I remember her as she was in life and feel close to her.

    This is why I know how poignant it must have been to lose such a remarkable life force, as Catriona, on a May Day. I do hope comfort comes, as the years go by, from being able to celebrate and remember your friend on this spring day. In my experience nature helps us to heal.

    Here’s a poem for Catriona:

    “Song on May Morning” by John Milton

    Now the bright morning-star, Day’s harbinger,
    Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
    The flowery May, who from her green lap throws
    The yellow cowslip and the pale primrose.
    Hail, bounteous May, that dost inspire
    Mirth, and youth, and warm desire!
    Woods and groves are of thy dressing;
    Hill and dale doth boast thy blessing.
    Thus we salute thee with our early song,
    And welcome thee, and wish thee long.

    • Sarah, your recollection made me smile. Catriona is buried in a ‘natural’ site. No headstones, no flowers decaying under cellophane, no memorials at all. Just a beautiful meadow bordered by woods, full of birdsong and with sweeping views of the Welsh countryside. On the day she went into the ground, the children present played with Jack and laughed and ran about, and gathered a handful of bluebells to spell her name in the grass above her. Spring is a good time for departures.

      Always balm in Milton.

  7. Your love for Catriona comes through so strongly in your writings about her, its a real pleasure to get to know her through them.

    Having lost both Grandparents earlier this year, I find it encouraging how you carry your memories with you in daily life and that they are not ‘locked away’ inside somewhere. (sorry, i can’t really explain what i mean very well…)

      • I agree with Maria, Peter. You express your thoughts very well indeed.

        In almost every life experience I’ve had since she left, I think about Catriona and bring her into the present with me. I imagine what she’d have to say about this and that, take pleasure at what I know she’d like, and chuckle at what would raise her eyebrows in scepticism or disapproval. I realise that some people have to eradicate the past in order to move on, finding loss too painful to continue with. But I love recalling Catriona. Yes, the memories are freighted with melancholy, sometimes painfully so, yet that seems to be a small levy against the pleasure of keeping her close.

        I don’t believe in an afterlife, but it seems to me that we can never really be ‘gone’ while there are those who remember and bear testimony to what we were while we still breathed. And the written word, too, continues the story. I write about Catriona and others see her in imagination. Some will turn to her poems, and come to know her directly through her words. It is enough.

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