Richard Carrington: Guided Tour
Celebrating 20 Years of the Archive with Co-Founder Richard Carrington
Looking back on (so far) twenty years producing poets’ recordings for the Poetry Archive, there are moments which stand out with special vividness. Recording sessions have usually taken place in professional studios but, especially in the early days when Andrew Motion and I were keen to record elderly poets who hadn’t until then recorded their work, I was sometimes able to save them the hassle of travelling to a studio by taking my recording equipment into poets’ homes. To spend time with any of these magnificent poets, either in their home or in a recording studio, was an extraordinary privilege. My selections for this tour derive from some of those especially indelible memories.
Richard Carrington is a specialist spoken-word audio producer. He and Andrew Motion co-founded The Poetry Archive in 1999 and Richard made the first recording for the Archive in May 2000.
May 16th 2000. The first ever recording for the Archive. How exciting it was on that sunny spring morning at last to be getting our recording programme under way. And no-one could have been more welcoming than U. A. Fanthorpe and Rosie Bailey in their house in Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire. With coffee and biscuits on the table, the three of us sat in their living-room, with birdsong audible in the background (listen closely) and UA immediately proved how right Andrew Motion and I had been to ask poets to read their own work. Listening again to UA quietly reading this “love poem to the various places I’ve lived in England”, I relish the dashes of dry humour - “supermarkets where the cashiers’ rudeness is native to the district, though the bread’s not…”
Of all the recordings I’ve made for the Archive, this one remains my favourite. Charles Causley was 85 years old and physically frail when we met in December 2002 at the house of an old friend of his in Launceston, where he was then living in a care home, but he was mentally as sharp as ever and twinkling with good humour. Though neither of us said so, it was clear to us both that day that he was reading his poems for the last time (he died eleven months later) and there was hardly a poem that he could read without either falling about with laughter (I Saw A Jolly Hunter) or starting to weep. This is his third attempt to read Eden Rock and you can still hear his voice begin to crack as he gets to the last line.
Seamus Heaney was the Poetry Archive’s Honorary President and, as Andrew Motion and I worked to put the project together, a consistent source of encouragement, support and practical help until his death in 2013. I was lucky enough to work with him in the studio on four occasions. He was always relaxed and genial, calm and kindly. He paces the words carefully, tenderly and with a spontaneity that gently suggests to the listener that he is creating the words as he speaks them. The deep vividness of the memories that gave rise to this poem is there in his tone of heartfelt recollection. I can’t think of a poet whose work fits more perfectly into his own mouth than Heaney’s does. As this recording was made, in October 2005, I remember holding my breath at the wonder of being present when something so perfect was being created.
June 5th 2000. Edwin Morgan’s flat in Glasgow. He sits at the table where he writes, facing the window, tall trees outside and a main road just audible in the distance. On the page, this poem looks to be completely nonsensical: try reading it aloud before you listen to the recording! But, as he reads it, its meaning becomes perfectly clear and it’s both wonderfully funny and filled with a sense of doom-laden fury and frustration which no other reader has ever been able to match. This was a single take, at the end of which he looked up at me with a delighted grin on his face.
When Andrew and I first started talking in 1999 about the value of poets’ own readings of their work, I remember him regretting that some great twentieth-century poets – among others he named Thomas Hardy and D H Lawrence – were never recorded. I asked him who was still alive then but was at an age when a recording might be considered urgent. Off the top of his head, Andrew named E. J. Scovell and David Gascoyne. Joy Scovell died four weeks later, suddenly making our plans very much more urgent. We did manage to record David Gascoyne. Here he is, frail and tired but warmly encouraged by his wife Judy to keep going with recording the poems he had chosen, reading at the dining table of their house on the Isle of Wight on a blazing summer’s day in 2000, eighteen months before his death.
Recording John Heath-Stubbs presented a unique challenge. Blind from the age of sixty, John was eighty-two years old in November 2000 when he accepted our invitation to make a recording. The problem was that by that time he had forgotten all his poems and he had never learned Braille. So how was he to record a reading for us? I went to his small London flat with the Archive’s expert recording engineer, Chris Panton, who edited all the Archive’s recordings until his untimely death in 2019. Chris set up the recording machine and I read the text of the poems to John line by line. Sitting in his large armchair in the centre of his room, John treated me as if I were a mechanical prompter and gave us this powerfully atmospheric reading. Later, Chris carefully and meticulously removed my voice from the recording.