In Tune with the World

Michael Morpurgo tells Anna Turns how poet Sean Rafferty played a big part in Iddesleigh village life and how his poetry lives on today

Poet Sean Rafferty lived in the North Devon village of Iddesleigh for over 40 years until his death in 1993. Although he never sought publication, his friends and family felt that his life and great work must not be forgotten. About three years ago, residents held a concert in Iddesleigh village hall, where they read and performed his poetry. As a result of this concert, his friends and neighbours have compiled a new CD of poetry readings to celebrate Sean’s life and work.

Good friend and fellow writer Michael Morpurgo explains that everyone who knew Sean is really proud of his poetry and it’s great to have this CD compilation. “It is very much better to hear Sean’s words read aloud,” says Michael.

The Morpurgo family connection to Sean began with Michael’s wife, Clare, shortly after the war. Sean’s second wife, Peggy Rafferty, was a good friend of Clare’s father, Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books. In 1948, Sean and Peggy moved to Devon and Sean became landlord of the Duke of York pub in Iddesleigh until his retirement in 1975. As a young girl, Clare would come down from London and regularly spend school holidays with ‘Auntie Peggy’ at the pub from age of 7 to 13. This instilled in her a strong passion for farming life and the Devon countryside and is where her dream to create Farms for City Children first developed.

“The pub became a real success, with all their hard work,” says Michael. “Sean was very quiet and unassuming. But from behind the bar he had spent a lot of time observing the locals and describes them in his poetry with humour and affection. So Sean’s poetry paints a picture of the landscape of life in the village of Iddesleigh from the 1940s to the 1970s.”

Eventually, Michael and Clare moved to Iddesleigh and bought Nethercott Farm where they established Farms for City Children in 1976. Clare fulfilled her dream to provide an educational programme in the countryside for thousands of city children.

After working behind the bar for 25 years, Sean and Peggy moved to live in Burrow Cottage on the Nethercott Estate just down the track from where Michael and Clare lived. For years, Sean worked as a gardener in Nethercott’s beautiful walled vegetable garden, and until the day of his death in December 1993, he was still shutting up the hens. “Sean was always very encouraging with our plans for Nethercott,” says Michael. “He was a good friend and a kind, gentle man, but also a father and grandfather figure to myself and my wife, Clare.”

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Michael was also lucky enough to become great friends with their near neighbours Ted and Carol Hughes. “We were all very engaged in each other’s lives, and lived closely alongside each other.” Michael would often sit around the fire with Sean and Ted, drinking a glass of wine. “As a writer myself, I found it great to live alongside these wonderful poets.”Before the war, Sean was a poet and a playwright for the Player’s Theatre in London, then he worked as a London fireman during the Second World War. Throughout his life, he continued to write his poetry without seeking publication, though eventually The Collected Poems was published by Carcanet in 1994. “We knew we were in the presence of someone who was a real genius with words. He was very encouraging to me as a mentor – he was a guru,” Michael explains. His poetry represents a beautiful interpretation of the natural world and, as Michael puts it, “Sean’s place was in the countryside”.

One poem on the CD is particularly close to Michael and Clare’s hearts. “The poem From Hereabout Hill describes the hill right next to our farm, and it is about the Ockment valley we look over, so it is a very personal poem,” says Michael. “That is one of the great views of the world – but so often people don’t see Devon’s best views because of the high hedgerows along the lanes!”

Also on the CD, Michael reads a touching personal memoir he wrote about Sean and his death in the lane close by. “Sean was gardening for us until he was in his late seventies, and then he insisted on continuing to shut up the chickens each night for us at the end of the lane.” Sean passed away outside the hen house, and when Michael found him lying there, there was a stillness in the air and a blackbird sung overhead. Michael so aptly writes: “Even in death, you’re in tune with the world, Sean.”

In Tune with the World is a CD compilation of poetry readings and music celebrating the work of poet Sean Rafferty (1909-1993), produced by Chris Brown. The CD includes readings of Sean’s poems by his friends and neighbours in Devon, including Michael and Clare Morpurgo, Carol Hughes, Jim Causley and Nicholas Johnson.

The CD is available from Farms for City Children, Bridge House, Fore Street, Okehampton, EX20 1DL for �8.99 inc p&p. Approximately �8 from the sale of each CD goes to the Farms for City Children