The Forest of Dean now boasts two breathtaking pieces of public art celebrating its rich literary heritage. The second of two giant murals was officially launched on Saturday (3rd November 2018) with a breakfast celebration at Coleford's community cafe, Sixteen, with friends and relatives of the late writers, fans and local dignitaries in attendance. The Coleford mural, on the side of the former Help Me Through the World pub shows three Forest of Dean writers. Dennis Potter and Joyce Latham both grew up in near-by Berry Hill (a stone's throw from the town), whilst Gloucestershire poet F W Harvey lived the latter part of his life at Yorkley, a few miles down the road. All three wrote work about the Forest. Will Harvey tapped into the dialect and stories of the area in many of his poems, and in his war-time broadcasts for BBC Radio, reflecting the character and humour of the Forest. Joyce Latham wrote about her time growing up, detailing some of the challenges faced by working class women at the time. Her poems too touch on many aspects of life and landscape in the Forest of Dean with great warmth and often humour. Dennis Potter became a major figure in television and film. Some of his very earliest work for television, in the form of documentary, were about the Forest, and as he turned to writing television drama several of his most significant splays and serials involved the Forest. Filming on location in the Forest of Dean would often involve local people as extras, and on more than one occasion featured the music of his beloved Berry Hill Band.
Whilst the Coleford mural reflects Forest authors with strong West Dean connections, its sister-mural in Cinderford - opposite community art venue Artspace - depicts three writers with strong associations with East Dean. Leonard Clark grew up in Cindeford and wrote extensively about the Forest in his memoirs and in his poetry. Humourist, poet and playwright Harry Beddington was similarly born in Cinderford and later lived only a few doors up from Clark's former childhood home. Winifred Foley knew the town well as a child growing up in near-by Brierley. Again, for these three writers too, the people and places of the Forest were a vital source of stories, settings, and characters, and they are part of a writing tradition in the Forest dating back to the first years of the nineteenth century - and continues to this day.
The murals are the work of local artist Tom Cousins who worked withReading the Forest on the initial design, then consulted widely with local residents and businesses, taking particular note of people who overlook the murals. "The support for the murals has been really good'" said Tom, "with lots of positive comments even whilst I was still working on them".
With Halloween approaching, the nights getting darker, what more atmospheric place could there be to get a spooky chill than the Forest of Dean? A slight quickening of your step walking down the lane - a slight start at the cough of sheep or the high pitched scream of a fox? There's some great Forest ghost stories too, Harry Beddington's poem The Mon in White for one. And with spooky connections to real historical events there's the haunted houses described by Sue Law in her Ghosts of the Forest of Dean (1982). But many of the best ghost stories turn out to be not quite what they first seem - though scary all the same! The ghost in The Landlord's Story, in Charles Grindrod's Tales In the Speech House, turns out to be....well that would be spoiling it! So, in William S Wickenden's A Rum Story from his A Queer Book (1850), is it really the Devil himself that popped up in Awre church? Here's a clue and a question - is this the earliest English literary mention of a Jack O'Lantern?? Enjoy...
The fabulous Mitcheldean Poetry Recital event is rapidly approaching. Part of the wider Mitcheldean Festival 2018, the community library in the village is hosting a day of poetry on Saturday 21st July. The day will include Costa prize winning poet Jonathan Edwards, poet Ben Ray, and founder of Cheltenham Poetry Festival Anna Saunders. The work of young local writers will feature on the day too, including schools work, as well as the winners of the young writers, and young poets competitions. And in this 100th anniversary year of the 1918 armistice, there will be a celebration by the F W Harvey Society of that most well-loved local poet. For more information visit the event website here.
It's just over 50years since the book, A Fortunate Man, was published and during 23rd - 25th June Reading the Forest staged a series of events to mark it, and explore its relevance today. People from across the Forest of Dean and beyond came to see exhibitions, films, and talks, and to take part in discussions about the book. Although the focus was on the book itself, written by John Berger with photography by Jean Mohr, its subject, "Dr Sassall" - a pseudonym for the real St Briavels GP Dr John Eskell - was inevitably of interest to many of his former patients in the village. Some of their memories of him were captured before the event (you can hear one below, the rest here), with many more emerging over the weekend. In much of the discussion about him as a doctor, and the wider role of the GP, the immense value of continuity of care, (your doctor knowing you as a whole person over your life time), seems to have neatly trailed and backed up a report published today indicating that having the same doctor can actually prolong your life. With much new information coming to light about Eskell, and the book's author John Berger (who at one time lived in the Forest of Dean), the Reading the Forest team will be busy for some time finding out even more about this fascinating book and its origins - watch this space...!
Friday in Soudley
The weekend kicked off with a screening of the 1972 film docu-drama based closely on the book. Filmed in and around Soudley and Blakeney, with a cast made up of local people, nearly 200 came to Soudley Village hall to watch the film, introduced by its director-producer and co-writer Jeff Perks. The audience included some of the (then child) cast, and Jeff even brought with him some of the pictures they had drawn as children showing him and the crew making the film back in 1972. After struggling with less than ideal conditions (sunshine light pollution!) the second screening (after sunset) was much appreciated. There were calls for the film to be released online by the British Film Institute (who can be contacted here firstname.lastname@example.org)
Saturday in St Briavels
There was interest throughout the day at St Briavels Assembly Rooms. As well as the exhibition looking into the origins and context of the book, there was work by the School, inspired by the book, showing Foxglove Class's writing about and drawings of people in the village today. Local visitors were keen to share the names of villagers who were depicted in the 1967 book's photographs, and there was a great deal of reminiscence prompted by watching copies of Dr Eskell's cine films uncovered during research for the event. As well as the 1972 film, a 1967 BBC TV feature about the book was shown that included an interview with John Berger, and lots of local footage in and around the village, and footage of Dr Eskell himself. A lively discussion followed chaired by BBC Gloucestershire's Jo Durrant, with academic James Derounian, and photographer Dr Julia Peck both from the University of Gloucestershire, and local resident Dave Kent, and retired GP Dr Chris Nancollas.
Sunday in St Briavels
As well as many more visitors coming to see the exhibition, some former residents of the village found themselves meeting up with old acquaintances. Word had clearly spread, with interest again in the old films showing the village and its characters, including Dr Eskell hard at work leading the team clearing the castle's old moat. The weekend was rounded off with a guided walk of the village lead by Forest of Dean Local History Society's Di Standing and local resident Robin Harris. Amongst the visitors Sunday were a pair of young doctors interested in the real doctor and community behind the book - testament to the continued relevance and interest in this book 50 years on from its publication.
A forgotten film made in the Forest of Dean will kick off our weekend of events marking 50 years since the publication of the book A Fortunate Man, with a screening in Soudley. Made in 1972 by then young producer-director Jeff Perks, the film was based closely on the book by John Berger and Jean Mohr about a Forest GP and his patients. Though not named, the book was actually about St Briavels doctor John Eskell and featured photographs of him and his patients.
The film was actually shot on location around Blakeney and Soudley. It features local people in all but the lead role of the doctor (played by actor Michael Bryant), and includes scenes with children and staff at Soudley School, and the children of Blakeney Hill Sunday School. Shortly after being made it was shown at a special Littledean House Hotel screening, then to the book’s author John Berger in London, but since then has lain largely forgotten in the vaults of the British Film Institute.
Following a tip off from a local expert, Reading the Forest travelled to London to view the film, and lo and behold, there on the screen was the Forest of Dean. As well as local footage providing a backdrop to the drama, the film includes interviews with a local Freeminer underground, and rare footage of the former chemical works at Beechnehurst as two of the men that work there speak about their jobs.
The film’s maker Jeff Perks (who now works as a sculptor and painter) will be at the screening. ‘I’m really looking forward to coming back to the Forest,’ says Jeff, ‘and especially hoping that maybe some of the people who appeared in the film will be at the screening’.
The film will be shown at Soudley Village Hall at 7.30pm on Friday 22nd June, and again at St Briavels on Saturday 23rd June . Both events are free, and you're all welcome with anyone who remembers the film being made, or who was in it, especially welcome to the Soudley screening to meet Jeff and share your memories of the film.
A Fortunate Man Revisited - 50 years on
In 1967, A Fortunate Man, written by the art-critic John Berger with photographs by Swiss documentary photographer Jean Mohr, was published to international acclaim. It explored the relationship between a rural doctor and his patients in the Forest of Dean and would go on to become recommended reading for trainee GPs. It was an intense, probing analysis of the doctor – Dr John Sassal – but also provoked questions about the role of the GP more widely in society. The setting of the book – St Briavels – and the doctor and his patients were all anonymised in the interests of confidentiality and securing participation, although the pictures and the dramatic death of the GP years later made the location and participants apparent.
In 2015 the book featured at a Royal College of Art conference celebrating Berger’s diverse and prodigious career. As the panel of doctors discussed the book, one aspect was starkly absent: the people and landscape of the Forest of Dean. Last year saw the fiftieth anniversary of the still in print publication and the death of the author. In a weekend of events this June the University of Gloucestershire’s Reading the Forest project, in partnership with FODLHS, seeks to address precisely that: A Fortunate Man Revisited, 50 years On, will examine the book firmly from the perspective of the real community (St Briavels) at the centre of the book. Was it a fair depiction of the village, community and wider Forest of Dean, of the 1960s? What picture does it paint of the real-life St Briavels doctor, John Eskell, at the centre of the book? How accurate is Berger’s depiction and analysis?
The weekend will begin on 22nd June with the presentation of a 1972 docu-drama that featured performances from local people and filmed in Blakeney and Soudley, and then move to St Briavels for a weekend exhibition, tour, talks and discussions, as well as a screening of the 1967 BBC TV feature on the book filmed locally, and cine films from the late 1950s of village life made by Dr Eskell.
More details soon...
Where would the Forest of Dean’s literary heritage be without its female authors? Imagine the Forest without the writing of Winifred Foley, Joyce Latham or Maggie Clutterbuck – to name just a few. Women writers are woven into the fabric of Forest literary culture, and have been since the beginning.
In the nineteenth century, it was the poems of Catherine Drew, detailing the unique history, economy, politics and personality of the Forest at the start of the 1840s. Later that century would come Ada M Trotter, S M Crawley-Boevey, Flora Klickmann. Like their male counterparts, Forest literature’s women writers vary in their economic circumstances as much as they do in the genres they write and the stories they tell. Crawley-Boevey, at Flaxley-Abbey was a member of the local landed gentry. Her Dene Forest Sketches span the centuries and the classes. Winfred Foley has had and continues to have a major impact as a chronicler of the sometimes-cruel circumstances of working-class life in the first half of the twentieth century – in particular the lot of women. Her stories and autobiography are rooted in and of the Forest, but too she tells of her life and the lives of women beyond the Forest, in particular in London. And Forest literature’s women have an international reach too. Ada M Trotter, daughter of a local mine owner left the Forest as a young woman for Canada and later America. A successful journalist she travelled back and forth across the Atlantic well into her eighties. Whilst in America she wrote her two novels set in the Forest, full of description of the Forest landscape, the people, and a level of fascinating specialist detail about mining. The topics of her journalism spanned the globe. And today the Forest’s female authors from Maggie Clutterbuck to Sarah Franklin – and many more – continue to build a body of Forest literature that is unmistakably of this distinctive and well-loved place, the Forest of Dean, and that continues to reach out beyond the Severn and Wye connecting to places, characters and stories from around the world. Happy International Women’s Day.
It's World Book Day and if you happen to be snowed in (as some of us could be over the nest few days here in the Forest) what could be better than settling down with a good book? Whatever your taste there's probably a book set in the Forest, about the Forest, or written by a Forest of Dean author that will be just right for you. Books can take us inside other people's heads, let us experience the past or possible future, take us on an adventure, make us think, make us feel. And they can spin tall tales to keep us entertained, drawing us around the fire.
Once upon a time....on one such snowy day, a log time ago, a group of travellers were trapped in The Speech House (lucky them!). The snow really set, and they were there for a week.
"The snow fell faster than ever, and we had to give up all thoughts of setting forward journey"
So the travellers - a doctor, a clergyman, the grey-coated man, the commercial man, and a lawyer - end up pass the time by each telling story each evening after dinner:
"We sat once more round the blazing log-fire of the old Court-Room, our minds in genial contentment with ourselves, the snow, and the whole wide world around us"
The stories tumble out each evening, The Drunkard's Vow, The Suicide's Wakening, The Voice from the Tomb, The Lost Letter-Bag, and The Blue Lady of Minsterley. These tall tales take them beyond the walls of The Speech House, beyond the wintery scene to a village in Spring, an old country house, an Autumn hill side. Until finally, on their last night, it's the turn of the Landlord. And when he comes to his spooky tale, his is set in the very place itself: The Ghost of the Speech House!
"As I was shaking and sweating with fright, something fetches me a spikish dig in the back"
By the end of the week the snow has melted, and somewhat regretfully, the travellers are on their way taking with them fond memories of their week in, "the dear, the romantic old Speech-House.
This fascinating and entertaining old book, written by Dr. Charles F Grindrod of Malvern, and published in 1886, is just one of the fabulous range of books that make up our rich Forest of Dean literary heritage. Whether its tall tales written in the 19th century, poems from the present day, or dystopian novels set in a future-Forest, there's a Forest book for you this (snowy) World Book Day.
Check out our growing book list here for suggestions - and once you've read one let us know what you think and we'll share your thoughts here. Happy World Book Day!
With so much fascinating history in the Forest, have you ever thought about writing your own historical short story or novel? The highly acclaimed local author Andrew Taylor will be talking about his approach to writing historical fiction on Friday 23rd March at Coleford's Baptist Chapel. The event is being put on jointly by Reading the Forest and Forest of Dean Local History Society. Andrew has a distinguished and award-winning career as a writer of detective crime fiction but has more recently turned to historical fiction. Still very much with crime and mystery at their heart his novels such as The American Boy are set more than a hundred years earlier than, for example, the Lydmouth series, whilst 2017's The Ashes of London was set in the 1660's. And in his latest novel, The Fire Court, Andrew returns again to the period as London begins to rebuild after the Great Fire.
Andrew will be talking about how he approaches historical fiction writing. So whether you just want a fascinating and entertaining evening's conversation - or perhaps pick up expert tips for your own writing project - come along! Tickets cost £2 (free for FoDLHS members).
This event is supported by University of Gloucestershire, Foresters' Forest, and Forest of Dean Local History Society.
Coleford Festival of Words celebrates its 10th year, and its marking it with a its annual competition for writers. Reading the Forest is especially pleased to once again be supporting the young writers category. The competition is open NOW with a closing date of 13th May. The theme is 'Ten' and entries should be no longer than 1,000 words. Details of how to enter below...