Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Brian Campbell began teaching art in Wigton almost half a century ago. In that time the Solway landscape, the distant outline of the northern fells and Skiddaw, the Solway Plain and the Solway Firth and Wigton itself have become his persistent subjects.
In this book of twenty poems and paintings we see an artist using words as he might use his brush, observing, notating and seeing all as part of the wider picture. He looks across the Solway Plain from Sandale summit and he sees a “prodigious tapestry of gorgeous hues, / woven ochre, gold, rust, innumerable greens”. He is moved by the land’s history:
“This epic register of husbandry
endowed by toil down through the centuries
both humbles and uplifts me at its sight:
landscape as moving as a symphony.”
The “moody sentinel” of Skiddaw is “Sculpted by keen springtime light” or else its “loosely chequered skin” turns “harlequin” in autumn. “We know it for its steadfast homely spell.”
The landscape also has an intimacy. “The little hump-backed sandstone church” at Bromfield, “crouched sturdily astride a rising mound” is a place where “green slopes accommodate a flock of graves”, and “fresher slabs” of “local folk” add to “the echoes”.
“Relaxing on the sunwarmed wooden bench” in the churchyard of St Mary’s in Wigton, he watches people wander in from the bustling street or muses on the “brightly painted cottages/ almost elfin in their compact tidiness”. The names on the headstones that form “a densely textured pavement walk” are “slowly blurred/ by time and rain and tread of countless visitors. The yard which “ever plays both host and guest” to the church, offers “kind nourishment to help me on my way”.
In another poem, Brian writes of Roughten Ghyll, “Cleft deep into the hunchbacked pack of Caldbeck Fells” with its “little nattering waterfalls” and “raking lights” conceals a “a buried core of utter immobility”:
“for locked beneath its close knit pelt of turf and scree
an unsuspected trove of wealth lies hid,
ancient strata, interwoven skeins of mineral
as generously blessed in richly complex worth
as lifelong friendship’s priceless gift.”
It is a fine tribute to the complex bonds of friendship and to one particular friend, David Pearson.
Another friend was David Graham, a man of “headlong gawkiness”
“Given much to cursing
and to gulping cigarettes and ale”.
His “nervous fingers grew / my comfortable pot”.
That “sturdy stewpot” “never will contain a broth or stew/ as savoury as that dear man I knew.”
And beneath the poem is a watercolour of the pot “softly glossy, ribbed, oblate” textured and tactile as the clay itself.
This lovely book, where words balance pictures, each adding to the other, is the celebration of a life lived quietly, observantly, thoughtfully in one place by a man who has grown to love the landscape he inhabits and to treasure its history and people.
In one poem he watches “a man work with a scythe/(or ‘sigh’, as some pronounce the word round here) . . . beside the Wampool Beck”. He makes intermittent stops to whet the steel and his “metronomic sweeps” are “country rhythms signalling their own antiquity”.
These beautiful poems are equally a part of the landscape as the man with the ‘sigh’.
Just as he saw:
“Rich greens transformed to silver as his blade
sheared swathes of grass and knee-deep weed”
so we see, in these words and pictures, the Solway transformed to silver.