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

Palmyra Jones

The following essay was written in 2008, and until now has lurked in the more distant recesses of my website. It recounts how the short story Palmyra Jones came to be written by Catriona Urquhart, and how in turn that led to the creative collaboration I went on to enjoy with Nicolas and Frances McDowall at The Old Stile Press. (In addition to Palmyra, four books… including a book of poetry by Catriona… and the covers of the two volumes of The Old Stile Press Bibliography.) The recollection also enables me to post an image of the rather beautiful Jonathan Christie painting that played a crucial role in how things came about, and that Peter and I acquired many years ago at the time when Jonathan and I both showed our work at The Kilvert Gallery.

Above: detail of Girl and Dog: Porthmeor Beach by Jonathan Christie

My friend Catriona Urquhart was a wonderful storyteller. She also had an aptitude for languages… she spoke a number fluently, including Russian… and a gift for dialects and dialogue. However, she she wore her talents lightly, and could only rarely be persuaded to exhibit them publicly. Peter and I encouraged her writing whenever we could. But although she was such good company among close friends, Catriona could be shy in a crowd, and we encouraged her in vain to make her poetry available to others. For Catriona, poetry was principally a private affair, between her and her pen. However in 1997, when she asked Peter what he would like for his birthday, he cunningly replied that he would like a story, and she agreed to write him one.

The weeks passed, and Catriona, whenever we raised the subject, would reply cryptically that she was ‘thinking about it’. We managed to prise two details from her. She had the title, Palmyra Jones, which had just come to her out of the blue, and the fledgling tale was inspired by a painting she loved which hung in our kitchen, Girl and Dog: Porthmeor Beach by Jonathan Christie.

The evening of Peter’s birthday arrived, and I’d arranged a supper party for about ten guests. Catriona arrived early with her partner, Ian. As I took her coat I caught her eye and asked,

‘Did you bring it?’

She looked shifty.

‘I need to go somewhere quiet. May I slip upstairs?’

‘Why? Crikey Catriona, haven’t you finished it ?’

‘Finish be damned, I’ve yet to start it. But don’t worry…’

She flashed a dazzling smile.

‘… it’s all in my head. I just need to get it down. Be a sweetie. Bring me a glass of wine and give me half an hour.’ I left her at the desk in my studio. She’d brought a slim sheaf of A4, and she began writing with great focus, head down, hand swift over the paper.

Half an hour later she walked into the kitchen with several sheets of paper, each densely covered with neat writing.  We found later that there wasn’t a single mis-punctuation or crossing out.

After supper we all gathered in the drawing-room for coffee and Catriona, to her evident horror, was asked by us to read the story to the assembled guests.  She demurred, but we pressed home our advantage.  Everyone present murmured encouragement, and she gave way. Of course she bewitched us, and to this day whenever I read Palmyra Jones, I hear it in her warm, soft, Scottish brogue.

Among the guests were Nicolas and Frances McDowall of The Old Stile Press. Peter and I had met them at an exhibition opening in Abergavenny, and the four of us had gone on to become good friends. Nicolas and Frances were lavish in their congratulations when Catriona had finished her reading, and Nicolas immediately started talking about publishing the story in a small edition. Not a full-fledged Old Stile Press project, but a slender, laser-printed pamphlet, available for a few friends. Even Catriona was enthusiastic, which was unexpected.

It all happened very quickly. I had a few days to do the illustrations, which Nicolas suggested could be in what was my then trademark ‘Neo-romantic’ drawing style of ink and ink wash over wax resist. The story was set in Ireland, a country I’d never visited, and so I fear the landscapes of Palmyra Jones look a deal more like Wales than Ireland.

I made a hand lettered wrap-around cover, which Nicolas printed onto grey paper

In the back of each copy, a reproduction of Jonathan Christie’s lovely painting was ‘tipped in’ as a fold-out.

Catriona went on to do one more book for the Old Stile Press before she died. The Mare’s Tale was the collection of poems she wrote to accompany my first public gallery show at Newport Museum and Art Gallery in 2001. For the second time, a publication of her work by the Old Stile Press was carried out, appropriately enough given the title, at a gallop, driven by Nicolas’ boundless and infectious enthusiasm. The idea came about unexpectedly when his gaze fell upon some copies of the poems scattered over our kitchen table on the occasion of one of his visits. He was delivering the first bound copy of Richard Barnfield’s The Affectionate Shepheard, a book I’d illustrated for the press subsequent to Palmyra Jones, which small volume I now suspect had been Nicolas’ way of ‘testing’ me, before offering the more substantial, and technically difficult Barnfield project. Palmyra had proven to him that I could work reliably, and at speed.

Because we were all enthusiastic to have Catriona’s Mare’s Tale poems in a book available for sale at the exhibition opening (the original plan had been that they would only be printed onto gallery panels positioned around the walls), in double-quick time Nicolas designed and produced a dummy-copy for me to work from. As I recall, I completed all the drawings in one weekend, working right through the Sunday night so they’d be ready for him to collect first thing on the Monday.

Nicolas produced a beautiful edition, printed on vintage paper he had squirreled away for the right project, and bound in the most delicate, dove grey paper, with silver stamps on the spine and ‘vignette’ drawings printed on the front and back covers.

Catriona died of cancer while we were discussing our next project for the Old Stile Press, which was to have been a new translation of the libretto for Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, a project I’d long dreamed of. The preparatory drawings and some monoprints for this are blu-tacked to my studio wall at Ty Isaf. They’ve followed me everywhere. The book, of course, will never happen, as Catriona had barely begun her work on it. So Palmyra Jones and The Mare’s Tale must stand as her literary legacy, the only works of hers published in her lifetime.

For a long time the original artwork for the cover of Palmyra Jones, hung in the room where Catriona had written the story for Peter. After her death I gave the drawing to Ian, so that he could take it to the home they’d shared at Ferryden in Scotland, a place which she greatly loved, and where we had all spent so many happy times together. Peter gave a beautiful eulogy at Catriona’s funeral. He brought us all to tears, but mixed with laughter too. I read Pegasus from The Mare’s Tale, a poem about death and a life-affirming legacy, which she’d written about my late father, whom she’d loved as if he were her own. The printed words wobbled before me, a combination of shaking hands and hot tears, and so it was just as well that I knew them by heart.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins 2008

Decoration from the half-title page of Palmyra Jones