Writing across ‘A Grand Land’

Noel Hodgson
Noel Hodgson

FOR a self-defined late-bloomer, Noel Hodgson seems to be becoming a more and more prolific poet.

He has just seen his most recent collection, ‘A Grand Land’, into print, and the event serves to justify his resistance to the contemporary mania for self-publishing on a Kindle and promotion through Amazon.

Along with his previous collections, ‘A Grand Land’ bears out his faith in the old-fashioned bound book, but it has not been without its risks.

Noel remembers: “When I was trying to get my first poetry book, ‘Below Flodden’, published, I borrowed £3,000 from Northern Rock - a bit risky, now, looking back - and I managed to repay it in three months.

“I’ve been very lucky with my publishers, The Reiver Press, because they really understand me.

“It’s the next best thing to self-publishing, I think.”

If there is such a thing as training for a poet, then Noel’s path has probably not followed it.

He has taught PE on both sides of the border for more than 24 years, and it is his fitness that has made itself so evident so often in his writing.

He is often to be found walking about the borderlands, or cycling, and the very physical act of getting out and about brings its own rewards when he notices something interesting or slightly out of the ordinary, something that might be the beginnings of a poem.

In fact Noel has coined a term of his very own for his two-wheeled pursuit of inspiration.

“I’m not what you’d call a cyclist” he stresses, “more of a ‘sight-list’.

“Poetry is an amazing thing, you can take a book out with you wherever you go.”

As well as providing a welcome distraction, for Noel, poetry is a way of organising memories.

“It’s a kind of record for me,” he says: “some people take photographs, some people keep a journal. I even used to date all my poems when I first started writing, so in many ways it was like a diary.”

The beginnings of a poem can be the smallest thing for Noel, and can strike him at any time.

For instance, one of his current favourites came to him as he sat in his car at a petrol station north of Berwick, waiting for his wife.

He saw an old man inch his way slowly across the forecourt, inching across until Noel thought he would have to get out and offer to help him.

“Then,” Noel remembers, wide-eyed, “in the middle of the forecourt, he just stood up straight and danced a little jig, right there! It was a brilliant little drama, he was just like an old dog, wagging his tail.”

At the moment, Noel is returning to the subject of his first poetry collection, and one that is attracting much attention - Flodden.

“I know, I know,” he says, “it’s everywhere, and it’s going to get even more unavoidable. I’ve got a friend who likes to say that we’re all ‘Floddened’ to death around here.”

But the battle still holds the imagination, and Noel is relishing the opportunity to work in a new medium.

“This will be first time I’ve attempted a novel,” he says of what is tentatively titled ‘ Heron’s Flight’.

In one extract, which has been recreated into a poem for the new collection, Heron, Noel’s protagonist and his fellow outlaws survey the nightmarish scene after the battle, gazing down “Upon the field of white, semi-naked corpses, where hundreds of figures tread carefully, plundering what remains to be found”, much like historians and writers have continued to do.

But the novel promises to be more than just a retelling of the battle.

“All the historical characters are in there,” says Noel, “all the old family names from the Scottish and the English sides. But I wanted to take the story into the life of the camps, and re-imagine it from there.

“I’ve no idea if it’s any good, honestly, but I’m on the third or fourth edit now, and the story keeps ticking away in the back of my mind, so we will soon find out.”

The poet and teacher is slightly bemused by the glamour being afforded Flodden recently, in the run-up to the battle’s 500th anniversary.

“There’s nothing new in it,” he says, “I’ve been taking school trips there since the 1970s. We used to get permission from the landowners back then for the kids to go charging down the slopes and into the boggy ground, just like the armies did. The children certainly loved it.”

Noel feels that poetry got to him quite late, but when it did, it crashed into his consciousness like the terrifying plane that disrupts a tennis match in his poem, ‘Terror on Court’.

“I was about 18 before I read a book for pleasure,” he told The Berwickshire.

“All I wanted to do was play football and rugby, and then suddenly, I discovered John Steinbeck, it must have been ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ that really got me into reading.

“I’m not a fast reader, by any means. I have to take my time, but it’s an obsession now.”

And Noel still has a fascination with American writers. He names Cormac McCarthy, author of tense, taut tales set largely in a violently immoral rural America like ‘Blood Meridian’ and ‘No Country For Old Men’ as a special influence.

Noel himself got a taste of the American landscape he had spent so long reading about when he went on a five-week cycle tour of the old cowboys’ cattle roots across Texas and Kansas.

“I’m very interested in that time in American history,” he goes on, “the expansion of the railways and the moving of cattle on such a scale.

“Of course, growing up on a farm as I did, I thought I knew something about moving cattle. Even when you’re just shifting 20 or so, it’s a real operation.

“These guys moved 700 head of cattle, great distances. Imagine the organisation that took.”

Closer to home, Noel is quick to acknowledge the influence of another poet famous for his nature imagery - Ted Hughes.

“He was just massive to me when I was younger,” Noel explained.

“In particular, he produced a book of poems called ‘Remains of Elmet’, where his writing was accompanied by these beautiful black and white photographs taken by Fay Godwin.”

Noel has borrowed the technique in all three of his published collections, and goes further than his idol.

His poems are backed up with small informative snippets on the history, landscape and sometimes the unique local terminology used.

Gypsy slang, for instance, still used and recognisable along the border, can conjure up a place as easily as any of the stark photographs in the book.

It all contributes towards the poetic makeup of the stretch of land which is often taken for granted that Noel calls the “land unbelonging”.