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A last letter from Anatolia

Writer, poet, teacher and farmer, Roger Norman had a passion for nature, a love of a good story, and a curiosity about the transcendent. Nick Thorpe pays tribute to a friend and the much-loved author of Cornucopia’s ‘Letter from Anatolia’

  • Roger Norman in his waltnut grove, Eskişehir, 2019. Photo: Nick Thorpe

It took me a long journey, two thousand miles, to learn to dig a post hole and to hoe a long row, to plant a tree, to kill a chicken and to build a stone wall, but the soil here is not like Wessex soils, the trees are stunted, the rivers run dry and the hillsides are clad in thick, coarse scrub covering the ancient conformations.” So begins Albion’s Dream, by Roger Norman, a regular contributor to Cornucopia, who passed away on March 28, 2022 after a heroic struggle with illness.

An English writer and poet, farmer and teacher, Roger was born in Wimbledon in 1948, and read history at Cambridge and archaeology at Bristol University. His passion for both Turkey and Greece, where he lived and farmed for many years, run parallel in his work. But his writing is rooted most deeply in his love of the English language and landscape, especially the hills of Dorset where he grew up.

“Sunday evening in September and it was raining, a cold, pelting rain that made puddles under doorways, found the chinks in old stone, streamed wantonly down window-panes and danced wickedly on the leaded roofs. In the tall church-like library of Sherborne School, Mr Grindlay was putting his books in order.”

In the mid-1970s, Roger ran a bookshop in Sherborne called Booklore, a marvellous place, with new and second-hand books, and a room upstairs for poetry readings, often accompanied by music. Spend long enough at the poetry section, reading not buying, and you might be offered a cup of coffee. Downstairs in the shop there was a record player where Loudon Wainwright III or Rolling Stones songs were played to scare away customers who proved troublesome, or delight those deemed pleasant company. Roger, his wife and children lived at that time in the stables flat at Sherborne Castle.

His connections to the natural world went hand in hand with a curiosity for the supernatural – not a word he liked – and the transcendent: “It was always there, like a cake too hot to handle,” he told an interviewer. “Let it cool and it loses some of its appetising freshness and crustiness. Serve it hot and it burns the mouth and upsets the digestion… Children’s books call it magic, and children live with it and by it all the time, despite what adults may tell them. We all live with it all the time, but it’s more comfortable to pretend that we don’t.”

From Sherborne the Normans packed their belongings into a Land Rover, their books into a trailer, and struck out for Greece. They bought a plot of land among the fig orchards of northern Euboea, overlooking the straits and the mountains of Thessaly. It was here that many Greeks had come in the early 1920s, during the tragic exchange of populations with Turkey. The Greeks brought their fig seedlings with them from Smyrna/Izmir. And the older people still spoke a smattering of Turkish, 50 years on.

“We are building an unusual house which looks like it may be rather fine…” Roger wrote to me in 1980. “It’s circular, patterns of large stones, stone lintels, a stone arch leading to the wine cellar. I’m still absorbed by the age of stone.”

In the heat of the Greek summer he wrote in pencil in exercise books in the wine cellar, the crickets roaring overhead. In one poem from that period, he wrote:

sky was high and first
and was the begetter of time
who ate everything
even his own children.
but they were her children, too
and one she served and taught.
he was god.
he drank milk in a cave
and dwelt on the contours of his mother
who gave him the horizons of his desire.

Roger was as great a reader as he was a writer, with a strong affinity for the old masters, among them William Blake, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Cowper Powys, Herman Melville and William Faulkner. A later influence was Cormac McCarthy.

“I now know why and what I want to write. Stories for children…” he wrote in a letter to me. “The parameters of this work are quite simple. First the story. What a relief it is to know that the actual story is the main thing. All the rest is flourish, the icing on the cake. A good tale, that’s what we want. Everybody has always wanted that. What you are. What you believe. What you have experienced, these things emerge in the writing.” There were also dislikes: “It is the ‘Joycean’ tradition that I can’t take. The excremental tradition.”

Roger published five books in English, and more in Turkish. Albion’s Dream tells the story of Edward Yeoman, a 12-year-old who discovers a strange board game. Each move in the game begins to influence events in real life. “It is a children’s book enjoyed by adults, a fantasy in which the elements of fantasy are rather closely controlled, a pre-Potter Potterish sort of story which was translated into a number of languages and is still alive here and there.”

Treetime came next. A boy wakes in his bed on a stormy night and is abducted by a tree which stretches its branches through his window. Red Die is set mostly in Dorset. A shell-shocked Edward Yeoman deserts the trenches of the First World War, each step guided by a pair of unusual dice. The Yeoman family turn up several times in his books.

Red Die is partly an attempt to fulfil my own sense of obligation. For oh! it is a touchin’ thing that twenty million people died in conditions of infernal awfulness in order to… to what exactly? If it seems like ancient history, it ain’t. It was repeated almost move for move twenty years later, at the cost of a further thirty million lives, and the rulers of today appear to have learned nothing from it, making wars, or provoking them, in every corner of the earth for the sake of oil or diamonds or that extraordinary term, territorial integrity…”

His indignation at the injustices and cruelties of this world informed his opinions. But he could also be lenient, non-judgemental: “Don’t pour coals on your head, Roger,” a mutual friend once told him, in a moment of personal despair. “I loved him for that…”

Roger’s prose comes in waves, with all the power and urgency but also the humour of the wind or sea playing with the land. His characters, and their names, toss and turn restlessly on the page: Jack, Maggie, Bate, Cockler. The tension sizzles.

“I don’t see that it’s any of your business,” said Maggie Fox, astonishing all of them.
Bill Bate turned his eyes on her and something angry started to his lips but he checked it when he saw her, because there was a stillness and composure to her, as well as a terrific clarity to her voice, and he was ashamed to threaten her as he would a dog with a stick.
“Maybe you don’t young lady,” he said, “but this here is between men and it’d be better if it stayed that way.”
“It’s between him and his brother and me,” Maggie Fox said.

Roger wrote first and foremost for children, but sometimes adults crept in:

Will went back to his lodgings. The old man had a customer and nodded gravely, with a slight bow. There was no sign of Miss Wei but her presence seemed to be everywhere, on the stairs, in the yard, the washroom. There was a scent she wore… or was it only honeysuckle and wild rose? He wanted desperately to see her, but dreaded it too. She was fickle, she was flirtatious. She had no right to… to what? To turn his heart upside down. (Extract from The Chinaman, unpublished.)

From Greece Roger moved to Turkey, a thousand kilometres on foot, and a new life and new family in Eskişehir, to teach history at Anadolu University. He contributed to The Turkish Daily News and to Cornucopia, where he wrote approvingly of the novelist Yaşar Kemal: “Yaşar Kemal belonged to an ancient storytelling tradition, was interested in the common man, knew the life of the villages, objected to privilege and its abuse, and produced a faithful record of the passing of the old Türkmen glories…”

In a commentary on the passing of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Roger was uniquely placed to spot the soft underbelly of Fermor’s prose when he trespassed into Turkey. “What’s missing, in comparison with his tales of Greece, is the human contact, the larger-than-life characters that spring up in every Greek village and around every feasting table.”

In an article on Shane Jagger’s My Heart is Too Big for my Pacemaker, Roger wrote:

“In another poem came this, about death:
Each aspect of a person is
taken on a return
to its origin.
Death then
is returning to
that single point
where the request to
live began.
“The idea of death as return is familiar, but ‘each aspect… is taken’ is surprising and ‘the request to live’ is astonishing.”

In a commentary on Yunus Emre, Roger quotes the poet:

I climbed a plum tree
and ate a grape.
‘After my walnuts, are you?’
called the gardener.’

“Unravelled, the riddle suggests that the climber (or quester) thinks he’s after one thing and finds something different, but the owner of the garden knows that it’s the nut or kernel that really matters.”
Roger planted two dozen walnut trees in the tarla (field) he kept outside Eskişehir – an echo of the ktima he farmed so assiduously on Euboea. A blessing on them, and all who enjoy their shade or shelter. And on you, who read these words.

Roger Norman,
b. Wimbledon 1948, d. Eskişehir 2022

Albion’s Dream (Faber and Faber, 1990)
Treetime (Faber and Faber, 1997)
Red Die (The Sundial Press, 2008)
Shadowborne (The Sundial Press, 2012)
Borrowed Voices (The Sundial Press, 2021)

Nick Thorpe is Central Europe Correspondent for BBC News and author of The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest (Yale University Press);

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 65
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