This week the StAnza poetry festival kicks off in St Andrews, featuring performances by the National Poet for Scotland Jackie Kay, Alice Oswald, Vahni Capildeo, Sarah Howe and many more. For me at least, the location of Scotland’s poetry festival is apt.
My memories of St Andrews are bound up with poetry, having studied there as a student in the 1990s. In my first week in my first year, Seamus Heaney read at the Younger Hall, which in my memory has assumed the proportions of a stadium, each seat filled by a quivering fan.
If memory serves, I was accompanied by my friend Nicky Melville, better known these days in avant-poetry circles as Nick E Melville, whose latest opus Abbodies (Sad Press) is best described as a fractured epic that mixes found texts, Abba and Oor Wullie, and is pretty much the complete opposite, in style and temperament, of Heaney’s work.
I think I’m partly avoiding St Andrews because of memories. I’m not referring to hair styles one would rather forget or the groups once loved, now disdained. That’s par for the course for anyone who’s ever been a student.
I was last in St Andrews some months back to attend the funeral of my second year English tutor, Honora Bartlett. Like so many of her students, I treasure the memories of the tutorials she held in the School of English. What was so great about them? More than anything I think it was the atmosphere she fostered. You felt that you could say anything to the group and not feel silly. She gave you the courage to engage with the texts students were set.
This was no small thing for someone who arrived in St Andrews from a comprehensive. I had always in those days to fight an instinctive timidity, particularly when circled in tutorials by the products of public schools, who you recognised by their flipped-up collars, aran jumpers, and undentable confidence. Mrs Bartlett, who came from a not dissimilar background to my own, knew how to put her students at their ease. I recall wonderful long sessions discussing Hardy, Eliot, Larkin, Auden. She didn’t even falter when I once compared the poetry of Eliot to the lyrics of Suede (the things you do when you’re young and stupid).
Mrs Bartlett was more than a tutor. She was a friend who invited me, like so many, into her family. Always in need of an extra penny or two, I used to babysit for her, which I enjoyed doing, not least because it gave me access to her video library. I saw The Blue Angel, Die Nibelungen and The Magnificent Seven for the first time thanks to her. She was also generous with her books, loaning me Humboldt’s Gift, Against Nature and many others. In return, I introduced her to This Is Spinal Tap, which some might think a poor return for Mrs B, but she liked it.
We kept in touch after graduation, and although as I reached my forties, the emails were less frequent, whenever St Andrews was mentioned, I thought of her and her family. When I received an email last year while at work informing me Mrs Bartlett had died, I was upset, as so many of her former students were. She was gone and for me, St Andrews would never be quite the same. Of the many regrets I have, I wish I could have spoken to her a bit more in the last few years. Her passing is a bit too raw for me still to go up to St Andrews this weekend. Perhaps the best thing would be to re-read some of that poetry we read and discussed over twenty years ago. The words remain the same, even if we do not.