Memories of a childhood spent in Yorkshire have inspired the first collection of poetry by Lucy Newlyn. She spoke to Sheena Hastings. LIKE many children, the four Newlyns were bilingual from an early age.
Before they ever touched a foreign language at secondary school, they had the ready facility of slipping between the English they spoke with their friends and the language expected once they crossed the threshold of home.
Words like blashy (splashy, muddy), riled (angry) and gradely (grand, wonderful) were parked on the backdoor mat. The children moved seamlessly back into "proper" English until the next time they were playing out – exploring the nooks and crannies of Headingley, Leeds, with their friends from nearby streets, or from the poorer adjacent neighbourhood of Meanwood.
The bucolic flavour of a 1960s childhood spent haunting woods and stone-walled paths off the beaten track are captured vividly in Lucy Newlyn's first volume of poetry. The 49 pieces in Ginnel capture and celebrate the light and shade of playing with friends, watching women hang out the washing, windswept outings to Otley Chevin, and the desolate separation as friendships foundered on the divisions wrought by the 11-Plus.
The importance of learning how to unclog a Sherbet Fountain and how to string conkers are examined alongside the sad revisiting of Headingley years later, when streets were cordoned off after the discovery of the dead body of Wilma McCann, one of the Yorkshire Ripper's victims. Warm sweet memories tainted by cold and bitterness.
A detailed picture of the games and adventures of her youth lay dormant in the filing cabinet of Lucy Newlyn's mind, locked away until family loss provided an unexpected key.
The family lived in a house with two addresses – Grove Lane and Oakfield Terrace. Dad Walter was an economics professor at Leeds University, and heavily involved in the economic development of Uganda, where three of the children had been born. Walter and his wife Doreen were part of a long-running campaign to open a publicly-funded playhouse in Leeds.
Their efforts paid off, and in time the Leeds Playhouse led to the building of West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Two of the Newlyns went to secondary modern schools and two, including Lucy, went to Lawnswood High, then a grammar. It was a brutal parting of the ways – for siblings and for childhood-long friendships.
Lucy went on to study English at Oxford, and for more than two decades she has been a lecturer at the university, now Professor of English language and literature at St Edmund Hall.
Her mother still lives in Leeds. It was her sister Sally's death five years ago, followed by their father in 2002, that pointed Prof Newlyn towards poetry. "I had published books about Wordsworth and Coleridge and other romantic poets, but had not done any creative writing since I was in my early years at high school," she says. "I've spent my whole life since thinking about poetry, analysing it and teaching others how to dissect it and write critiques.
"I found, after Sally's death, that I had all these bottled-up feelings to express. Poetry seemed to be the way to do it. I showed a friend some of the things I'd written, and he said I should continue. After a while I found I moved away from writing inspired by grief, and turned to my childhood. I found the poems all had a very musical rhythm – not surprising, as I listen to music constantly. I don't play an instrument, but I think my musicality comes out through these words. I hear Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger songs in my head all the time."
The Headingley of Newlyn's youth was a place of innocence and harmony compared the student-and-fast-food-filled suburb of today. "I remember it in extraordinary detail – as I think many children do – and with great affection. We had great freedom then, wandering for hours up back lanes and through woodland. No one came to any harm; we didn't understand the word danger, really."
The happy memories are tinged with darkness. The Ginnel or passageway of the title is also, Newlyn says, a metaphor for the passage between working class and middle class, Meanwood and Headingley, childhood and adulthood, the public and the private face of each individual.
The process of writing creatively has had various benefits for Newlyn – and for her college.
"I actually feel better when I'm writing poetry, and have found that my other writing is improved by it. It sounds stupid now, but I realised that it's rather silly to analyse poetry and teach analysis to others if you and they don't know how to write it. I began giving undergraduate workshops in creative writing, and the results have been amazing – not only in terms of the material produced and published by students, but also in the effect the whole thing has had on their work in literary criticism.
"Being creative definitely makes them more successful in other ways. This made me realise that, in teaching English, the academic had taken over from the creative, and it's not a good thing."
Newlyn has also found that in finding poetry she has relaxed.
"I'm a lot less worried about how this book will be received than about my critical books. All I know is that I've started now, and probably won't stop."
Lucy and Doreen Newlyn will be giving a reading of Lucy's book Ginnel at West Yorkshire Playhouse on Saturday, June 25, 6pm-7.30pm. Poet Ian Duhig will also be reading from his work. Admission is free.