by Lindsay Clarke, author and Arvon tutor.
John Moat, the co-founder of Arvon, died last year. Arvon hosted an event to celebrate his life at the Free Word Centre on Thurday 5 March 2015. Ruth Borthwick, Chief Executive of Arvon, read out the following by Lindsay:
For almost a quarter of a century, John and I were friends – a friendship that grew ever closer towards the end – so I’m sad not to be with you this evening to join this celebration of John and of all he achieved. The memory of his wisdom, his humour and his generous heart remain for me a constant source of encouragement and support. And of course it’s still a cause for wonder that an idea dreamed up between John and his friend Fairfax in a quiet corner of Devon nearly 50 years ago should have grown from a handful of young optimistic writers gathered round a table pondering their craft, into one of the 20th Century’s most exciting and productive adventures in creative education.
But as a man who elevated self-deprecation to a fine art, John was reluctant to claim credit for that idea. He attributed it to the play of the Imagination as a creative force larger than our human part in it, a force with an intentionality of its own. So I believe that it’s as a man of imagination and of poetic vision that we should remember him tonight, and I want to focus on him here not as the co-founder of Arvon but as the fine poet and much undervalued novelist that I believe him to be.
In part I want to do this because this gathering is taking place in London, a centre of world publishing which is a long way both in distance and in spirit from the secluded valley in which John made his lifelong home. John himself was profoundly aware of this disparity. With characteristically wry irony he once admitted to me that whenever he submitted a manuscript to a London publisher he felt like a man committing the grave social error of trying to talk about a big dream at a cocktail party. For that reason he also said that he usually posted off his work ‘untroubled by hope.’
John knew well enough that he was not, and in times such as these never would be, a fashionable writer. His vision was that of a man who lived and worked patiently at his craft outside the mainstream of the age. That is a stream which tends to run quick and bright in the shallower channels and, for all the characteristic lightness of his humour, John was a writer concerned with depth – depth of feeling, depth of insight, depth of imaginative meaning, depth of soul. In that respect his masters were Blake and Yeats, and I believe it to be a criticism of the nature of our times rather than of the quality of his poetry and his novels that his work has not received the recognition it deserves.
Adam Thorpe once remarked to me that it was a mystery to him why John’s verse was not widely anthologized. I share that astonishment, for in their vivid fidelity to life those poems are immaculately crafted, and always in a manner entirely consistent with their theme. Predominantly that theme is love – love for his wife and family and friends, love for the valley he had made his home and for the people and the wildlife that live along that rugged shore, love for the language from which the poems were made. If you are not familiar with his verse, I urge you to read it, to keep it at your bedside as I do, and to read the luminous essay which Adam Thorpe wrote about it in The Gist – the volume which Arvon published in honour of John a couple of years ago.
John’s novels too are marvellously rich. To read them is to enter the dream-like imagination of a man familiar with both the pain and the humour of life, a man as alert to the complexities of human feeling as to the beauty of the natural world around us, and one who deeply believed in the transformations that can happen when masculine and feminine powers are brought into new conjunction and life is invested with the enduring values of the soul.
Not fashionable stuff, as I say, but wonderfully readable and of vital import in a time which, in its fascination with novelty and ingenuity on the one hand, and its drift towards despair on the other, has strayed scarily far from the ground in which the soul’s sense of meaning and value are deeply rooted.
It is for his lifelong loyalty to those values, and for the courage, skill, and generosity of heart with which he affirmed them – as writer, artist, and enabler of countless others – that John was, and continues to be, deeply loved. I believe it is for those same reasons that all of us should be profoundly grateful for his life and achievements as we remember and celebrate him tonight.