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Interview: India Russell - poet and actor

13 February 2015

'My experiences of God have always been unconventional'

Long ago, when I was on a level with the flowers and insects, the gnarled trunks of trees, the birds and waving grasses, I was entranced within beauty, instinctively aware of being a strand in its magical life. 

When I was a little older, my physicist father used to talk about the beauty and pattern of a cobweb, a raindrop, a flame, a wintering tree, a fox. As well as the human condition, my poetry is concerned with this mysterious and fragile beauty living under the constant threat of man's unloving hand. 

My father had plans to write a book, together with a Kenyan Roman Catholic priest friend, called Pattern, but he died in Kenya before he could fulfil them. My most re- cent collection, published this year, Pattern & The Golden Thread, is dedicated to him.

Afterwards, Fr Maina, knowing my father was not a Christian in the usual sense, dedicated his church recently built by the villagers, to my father, the "Mzee" whom they all loved, naming it St Francis, another name for Frank. 

Several things are now clamouring to be completed or published, including my translation of Friedrich Hölderlin's Hyperion, oder der Eremit in Griechenland, a poignantly relevant plea for a return to respect for nature; a fifth collection of poetry; and a children's or adults' story which deals with three school friends' dawning recognition of the beauties of nature, and their resolve to pursue careers that will enable them to teach other people about this beautiful world. 

Virginia McKenna, who is work-ing wonders in this field of education, with her Born Free Foundation, has recorded much of my poetry.

I find cats a great solace, and a wonderful link between humans and nature. How reassuring is the purring of a cat in a quiet, comforting room, with a crackling fire and rain pattering at the windows! 

I wasn't aware of drawing on Anglican spirituality, although critics have called my work metaphysical. I was surrounded by a wonderful family, many of them committed Anglicans, all of them seekers after truth.

Both my maternal uncles went into the Church, one becoming a canon and chaplain to Sandhurst, the other preaching in Kenya in Portuguese, Swahili, and English. On his re- turn to England, he became chaplain to Dartmoor Prison. The lifers planted a flowering cherry in his memory. 

I grew up in an atmosphere of love, music, laughter, and brilliant enquiring minds. And stories: entrancing fairy stories related by my grandfather, wonderful stories about the family, about my father's and uncle's (the Dartmoor one) Bureau of Spiritual Advice, which they founded at about the age of 17 or 18, disseminating their hand-printed literature, and preaching on Wimbledon Common.

In those early days, we all seemed be discovering our paths in life. There were fascinating discussions about literature, drama, music, theology, physics. At a wonderful party at my Dartmoor uncle's first vicarage, in Chessington, the then Archbishop was a guest - I remember my girlish admiration of his gaiters and a little cigarette holder he wore on his little finger. The rambling Victorian house seemed full of people, including my uncle's theological friends and my father's physics friends, and I remember Dr Butt, colleague of the renowned physicist David Bohm, shaking hands with uncle Ron and saying: "This is the first time I've crossed swords with a vicar." As a student in London, I was a guest of David Bohm at his house. He liked my ideas and invited me to give a series of lectures at the Krishnamurti centre.

Life, when I was growing up, reading and writing poetry, was all so good-natured and embracing, and unconventional. We were all individuals, interested in each other's ideas and plans: my brother, a brilliant pianist and flautist, my mother, full of enthusiasm for literature. She loved James Joyce, and introduced me to so many writers whose books now surround me. 

To further our plans, we moved to Devon - full of idealism, self-supporting, no impact on the planet, music, house guests. And then my brother was killed, innocently, in a car crash at the age of 27, and the idyll came to an end. 

Although I've had several essays into conventional religions, my experiences of God - or the Supreme Reality, as the Upanishads term it - have always been solitary or unconventional. My first visionary experience occurred when I was very young. I need to be in der Stille [quietness], but at other times to be in dem Strom der Welt [the flow of the world], as Goethe writes in his play Torquato Tasso. I love talking to people and making them laugh. Some of my poems are satires. 

When I was a student at University College, and learning the organ in a big church in Kennington, I was at the vicarage one day, and Gary, the vicar and a family friend, was on the phone and asked me if I'd mind sitting with a young chap who was waiting to see him. I talked to him, found he had just come out of prison, had no confidence. I remember asking him if he had a girlfriend. "She wouldn't look at me now." I told him how good-looking he was, to buy some chocolates and a few flowers, to talk to her, and other encouraging things. The next day, Gary said, "What did you say to him. He's so much better!" This sort of thing has happened to me a lot in my teaching, and also in chance meetings. 

I abhor the idea of tourism and its related pollution of the planet; so the question of travelling for pleasure doesn't really apply. J. B. Priestley writes somewhere that he secretly hated holidays. But my rich experiences of Africa, when my brother and I went to Kenya and Tanzania in the university vacations, are still with me, as are my times in Norway and Germany as part of my degree course. All real experience, whether macrocosmic or microcosmic, stays with one, becomes part of one's life. 

I suppose I'm happiest when the human blare recedes, and, as a guest of the natural world, with its magical shapes and rhythms and voices, I begin to feel the tension of existence release its hold, and my imagination can soar. 

I can also unwind in my book-lined study, when all is quiet, and I can just dream with my memorabilia: found stones and fossils; wonderful pieces of wood; two meteorites a friend found and gave me, one in half, revealing its incredible pattern; dried husks of beans and flower pods that have assumed other shapes; shells; family writings and photographs; newspaper photographs of wild seas; an old library complete Oxford English Dictionary which I found in a shop in Hay-on-Wye; paintings. 

Among my influential and treasured books are Alice in Wonderland, given to me by my Dartmoor uncle before I could read, but could wander wonderingly in the Rackham illustrations; and Rupert, which I love because of the magic and natural understanding between animals, human and non-human; Hölderlin's poetry, and Ibsen's Nutidsdramaer [contemporary dramas]. 

Were I were to find myself locked in a church for a few hours, I'd choose my lovely mother as a companion. When she went to join my father in Africa, they called her "Mother of Jesus". When I think back to those challenging and fiery discussions on religion and the Church, she would say, quietly: "But think of Mary."

India Russell was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

India Russell's poetry collections include The Kaleidoscope of Time, The Dance of Life, The Lane to Paradise, and Pattern & The Golden Thread (paekakarikipress.com).

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