Interview: Adam Horovitz, poet and performer
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
Katie Jarvis meets the poet who spent a year documenting life on four farms across the country, and finds out about his Cotswold life
Adam Horovitz grew up with a mythic sense of landscape. Both his parents – the poets Michael and Frances Horovitz – reacted in writing to the Piedmont Valley, Slad, where the family lived. “I learned about it in half-truths and story, rather than through direct fact,” Adam says, “which gave me a strong sense of the valley – a little wild pocket that seemed far more remote than it really is.”
No wonder, then, that when the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association was looking to commission poetry to celebrate the best of British landscape, it chose Adam, a poet in his own right. He spent a year as poet-in-residence at four farms in England and Wales, which feed their animals only on grass and forage crops. Here, Adam recorded in verse the births and deaths of livestock; the synergy between farmer and field; the sky above and the earth below (“Worms beneath a field full of healthy cows would,/gathered up, weigh more than the cows themselves/”). The result is a new collection, The Soil Never Sleeps, illustrated by Stroud artist Jo Sanders.
Where do you live and why?
In the Piedmont Valley, a thumb offshoot of the Slad Valley, equidistant between the Bear at Bisley and the Woolpack
pub; it’s where I grew up from the age of three months. Both my parents were poets who knew Laurie Lee from London - it was happy chance they found a cottage from which you could pretty much see his house. There was also Diana Lodge, an artist, who lived at Trillgate [at the head of the valley]; and John Papworth [the peace campaigner and civil rights activist], who lived in Elcombe. So we had a diamond-shape of friends within easy walking-distance. John Cage would visit, as well as Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, his partner. I remember doing a reading, aged nine, with my parents and Ginsberg at the back of what is now Boots in Stroud!
He was a very genial man, and a good friend to my dad. When I announced, aged 21, that I was going to pursue poetry seriously, my father said, “Become an accountant, please! We need money!” He was mostly joking, although there’s always a need for money if you’re a poet.
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How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
All my life, with brief breaks to Sunderland and Herefordshire when my parents separated. I came back in 1984 at the age of 13, after my mother died. It was a traumatic time; my book – A Thousand Laurie Lees – deals with how the little Piedmont Valley acted as a comfort blanket; a healing space, just as Blake had his Piping down the valleys wild.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
I’d stay in my tiny old weaver’s cottage, built in about 1620 but with a naff, pebble-dashed 60s extension. But I’d like a library, very much like the one in My Fair Lady. I own a lot of poetry, such as Ted Hughes, and John Agard - a fantastic Guyanese British poet. I also have a lot of adventure books – Rider Haggard; and Diana Wynne Jones, a children’s fantasy novelist. I was lucky enough to know her a little. Her husband, John Burrow, taught my father at Oxford. She was as funny and delightful as you might imagine; and quite scary, too. Like the witches she described in her books, there was a certain sense of power in her.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
Cirencester, but only because it’s not got easy rail access. I travel as often as I can, to wherever will have me for a reading – including four throughout Europe, recently. Poetry is a rollercoaster. Twenty-odd years ago, they were saying poetry was the new rock and roll, which was nonsense; it never will be. Rock and roll is more the new poetry these days, simply because the musicians are struggling more than they used to!
Where’s the best pub in the area?
The Woolpack [Slad] and the Prince Albert [Rodborough] are two of my favourites. But the best pub still in my mind is the Pelican [once on Stroud’s Union Street], the insalubrious dive that dragged up many a stray teenager. It was there that I met characters like Brian the Taxman, dreadlocks and barefoot most of the time. The only concession he ever made to shoes was wearing flip-flops at the tax office.
And the best place to eat?
Because of limitations of budget and transport, my current favourite is No 23, the bar and bistro on Nelson Street. Star Anise I like. And Woodruffs.
What would you do for a special occasion?
I’d go to the Marshall Rooms [in Nelson Street, Stroud], recently reopened by Keith Allen, and Lotte from the Prince Albert. It’s like walking back into my youth...though you don’t get stoned on the atmosphere the minute you walk in, like you used to. Bliss to have them back! They’re doing a Thursday night local cabaret, and bands or DJs on a Friday and Saturday.
What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?
The landscape – it really is. For The Soil Never Sleeps, I was embedded in four farms in four different landscapes: Yorkshire, Kent, Cornwall, and the Black Mountains. To get to the top of the farm in the Dales, you had to climb 1500 feet quite quickly: right by Malham Cove, so a really stark, stormy landscape. Kent, by contrast, was like looking at a Samuel Palmer painting: beautiful, gentle slopes in the midst of the commuter-belt, with the ‘Garden’ still clinging on. Cornwall, just outside Truro, was a very rolling landscape, now being filled with solar panels and wind turbines. While the Black Mountains I knew well from childhood holidays: a rolling politeness around Abergavenny that sheers up into mountains. It made me look at the Cotswolds anew; I keep falling back in love with the valley I live in.
... and the worst?
I’d love better public transport...but there are so many wealthy people here.
Which shop could you not live without?
Stancombe Beech Farm Shop, a mile-and-a-half away at the top of my hill.
What’s the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?
Frank Mansell: often dismissed as a mere balladeer, but his exquisite poems give a true understanding of the Cotswolds as they once were. Sadly, you can only get rare old editions now, which are very expensive.
What is a person from the Cotswolds called?
Who knows? You can’t even tell by accent. You wouldn’t expect that I’d lived here virtually all my life, but that’s because my mother was a RADA-trained actress.
What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?
I’m vegetarian – one of my few concessions to animal products is cheese – so an awful lot of vegetables, preferably seasonal. I don’t grow my own because I haven’t yet got the money to cut down the trees to allow light into the garden; but I do have nettles, so I’d start with nettle soup, followed by baked potato and a thick stew with local cheese on top. For pudding, Beau’s Bakehouse sells the most amazing cakes through the Greenshop [Bisley]. The carrot cake...Oh my goodness...!
What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
I stop my bicycle on the road from Bisley into Stroud, past the farm where the Giffords now live, just before where the hedge grows up. If you stand on the wall in the dark, the lights of Stroud are beautiful, the sunset invariably astonishing. And if the light is right, the Severn is a bright sword broken on the ground in the distance.
What’s your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
Bisley, because it captures some of the age and the beauty; and I was a Bisley Blue Coat [pupil at the primary school].
What’s your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
The freedom arch at Archway, put up not long after the abolition of slavery [in the British colonies].
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
Starter homes or executive properties?
Scattered starter homes in small villages; a few here, a few there.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
John Betjeman called Stroud – to paraphrase a little more politely – the arse-end of the Cotswolds. (But you should see what he said about Slough...) On a bike, I can just about get to Cheltenham in the north; Tetbury in the south; Cirencester in the east; and Frampton-on-Severn in the west. As a youngster, I’d go to parties in Frampton: 15 of us in a convoy of bikes, just one headlight at the front and one at the back.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
The painting by Diana Lodge, my mum’s dear friend, of the front room of our cottage as it was when we first moved in, with my mother’s things on the mantelpiece.
What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Go steady on the cider. I once got so surprised by cider that I fell backwards off a barstool and woke up the next morning laid out on the pub bench. (The Pelican, of course.)
And which book should they read?
Definitely Cider with Rosie. And A Thousand Laurie Lees, because it’s my Cider with Rosie. And The Soil Never Sleeps, celebrating the work of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association. These farmers completely and utterly feed their animals on pasture, and nurture the land so it becomes more nutrient-rich. My commission was to explore the relationship between man, animal and landscape, which is a circular one – or should be, at least. Whatever you think about the referendum vote, it has become even more important to consider the ethics of farming in the wake of Brexit. We’ll need to be reliant on our own food: if we don’t look after the soil, we’ll end up a desert, desperate for aid.
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
Through the woods above Slad and into the Dillay Valley. I love the mysteriously mossy bits that get no light at all. There’s an abandoned cottage in the Dillay that belonged to Rosie Bannon, claimed to be the real Rosie – though she wasn’t. A lovely old Irish woman, she lived there right to the end of her life, with no electricity; her only concession to technology was a phone. Whenever I stopped by, she’d feed me homemade gin. That house has now fallen into ruins, which is such a shame.
Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?
Sheep-farming, though it’s dramatically on the wane.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
I’d love to see the valley in late Victorian times, when it was particularly cut off. I’d also like to see something of the big Jewish community in Stroud at the time. [Michael Horovitz was the youngest of 10 children brought to England from Nazi Germany.] There were also many Huguenot weavers – one of whom lived in my cottage – hence the valley being called Piedmont.
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
The whole valley is a memorial to Laurie. I used to bump into him in his cups, coming off the train from London. Two or three times, he’d press a fiver on me and tell me to get drunk and write some poetry. Which I did. It would have been rude not to.
The Cotswolds – aspic or asphalt?
A delicate balance.
Which attitude best sums up the Cotswolds?
One of many cultures.
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
William Blake, though I doubt he’d have agreed. He preferred to sit naked, with his wife, at the end of his garden. But I could take the cider to him.
The Soil Never Sleeps, by Adam Horovitz, featuring poetry commissioned by the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, is published this month by Palewell Press, price £9.99; palewellpress.co.uk