Larchfield setting for novel

The Arts
  • Smaller Small Medium Big Bigger
  • Default Helvetica Segoe Georgia Times

Polly-Clark-cutout-wA NEW novel has been named after former Helensburgh school Larchfield.

It has been written by Polly Clark, who herself lives quite close to the Colquhoun Street building, now converted into flats.

Larchfield, originally a boys preparatory school called Larchfield Academy, is of course now part of Lomond School further west on Stafford Street, and the book was officially launched at the school.

Polly Clark was born in Toronto, Canada, but is now literature programme producer for Cove Park, the International Artist Residency Centre on the Rosneath Peninsula, and has lived in Helensburgh for four years.

She said: “About fifteen years ago I came to Cove Park when it first started, as their first poet. On this residency I met my husband, who is the director.

“Fast forward a few years, we got married and decided to move up here permanently to be near to Cove Park.

“I began running the literature programme for them, which means I find writers from all over the world to come and join us on residency.”

The author of three poetry collections, she has already won the MsLexia Prize, and the Eric Gregory Award for ‘Larchfield’, and has been shortlisted for the T.S.Eliot Prize. 

Her pamphlet ‘A Handbook for the Afterlife’ was shortlisted in the 2016 Michael Marks Awards and a volume of new and selected poems, ‘Afterlife’, is due in 2018.

The novel was inspired by W.H.Auden’s short period in his early twenties as a teacher at Larchfield, and intertwines the story of the brilliant young man with that of Dora Fielding, a fictional modern-day poet also beginning a new life there.

Driven by desperate circumstances, the two poets find each other across time and create a reality of their own that saves them both.

Wystan Hugh Auden (below left) was born in York in 1907, the son of George Augustus Auden, a distinguished physician, and his wife Rosalie.

In 1925 he entered Christ Church, Oxford, but his studies and writing progressed without much success, and he gained a disappointing third-class degree in English.

His first collection of poems was rejected by T.S.Eliot at Faber & Faber.

At one time in his undergraduate years he planned to become a biologist. From 1928 to 1929 he lived in Berlin, where he took advantage of the sexually liberal atmosphere.

After returning to the United Kingdom, Auden taught at Larchfield from 1930-32, and at Downs School, Colwall, Herefordshire, in 1932-35.

audenHe was a staff member of the GPO Film Unit from 1935-36, making documentaries such as the highly regarded and fondly remembered ‘Night Mail’ (1935).

Music for this film was provided by Benjamin Britten, with whom Auden collaborated on the song-cycle ‘Our Hunting Fathers’ and on the unsuccessful folk-opera ‘Paul Bunyan’.

In 1936 Auden travelled in Iceland with Louis MacNeice, and he believed he was of Icelandic descent. From then he taught and travelled in both Europe and America, and from 1956-61 was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.

He is regarded by many as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His work is noted for its stylistic and technical achievements, its engagement with moral and political issues, and its variety of tone, form, and content.

The central themes of his poetry were personal love, politics and citizenship, religion and morals, and the relationship between unique human beings and the anonymous, impersonal world of nature.

He died in Vienna in 1973 and was buried in Kirchstetten, where he had owned a farmhouse.

On her website Polly explains how she came to write the book.

She writes: “Some years ago I moved to Scotland. I seemed to ignite anti-English feeling wherever I went, I couldn’t drive and became very isolated.

“When I had a baby, my ruin was complete. That’s when I first read ‘The Orators’ by Auden — and this poem changed my life.

“It’s a thrilling meditation on paranoia and repression, set in Helensburgh.

“I set about recreating Wystan Auden, from his notebooks, biographies and artistic details in ‘The Orators’, and paired him with Dora, my modern-day woman losing her mind in the suburbs. 

“Finding human connection to Auden in our shared place of Helensburgh saved me.

“This is a book about survival, and it disproves one of Auden’s most famous quotes, that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. I can tell you, and ‘Larchfield’ is proof, that poetry makes everything happen.”

Polly, who is in her forties, feels differently about Helensburgh now.

She said: “When I moved to Scotland I was newly married, soon to be a new mum and could not drive. I’d also left a whole life back down south, so I was quite isolated.

“But I love Helensburgh; it has inspired an entire novel — not many places are interesting enough for that!

“I have made some wonderful friends here and my ten year-old daughter Lucy is very happy. It’s important to bloom where you are planted.”

The Larchfield connection continues with a junior school magazine “Lomond Eye’, which she runs with Lomond teacher Kandy Muggoch.

“It is based on ‘The Larchfieldian’ which Auden ran when he was a teacher here,” she said. “We run it as a club so the children can learn to be investigative reporters, and we also print their stories and poems.”

At the Lomond School launch on Tuesday March 21 there was a short reception, then Polly was in conversation with Jenny Brown, a literary agent.

Larchfield-book-cover-wShe read a little from ‘Larchfield’, then answered questions about the book.

The synopsis of ‘Larchfield’, published by Quercus at £14.99, states that it is early summer when young poet Dora moves to Helensburgh and her hopes are first challenged.

Newly married, pregnant, she is excited by the prospect of a life that combines family and creativity.

She thinks she knows what being a person, a wife, a mother, means. She is soon shown that she is wrong.

As the battle begins for her very sense of self, Dora comes to find the realities of small town life suffocating, and, eventually, terrifying; until she finds a way to escape reality altogether.

Another poet, she discovers, lived in Helensburgh once. Auden, brilliant and awkward at 24, with his first book of poetry published, should be embarking on London success and society.

Instead, in 1930, fleeing a broken engagement, he takes a teaching post at Larchfield School for boys where he is mocked for his Englishness and suspected — rightly — of homosexuality.

Yet in this repressed limbo Wystan will fall in love for the first time, even as he fights his deepest fears.

The need for human connection compels these two vulnerable outsiders to find each other and make a reality of their own that will save them both.

The publishers say: “This is a beautiful and haunting novel about heroism — the unusual bravery that allows unusual people to go on living; to transcend banality and suffering with the power of their imagination.”