Award-winning writer calls for Harrogate cultural renaissance as new book The Heeding is instant bestseller
A bestselling Harrogate author whose new book of poetry was inspired by life in lockdown says the town is ready to enjoy a cultural renaissance after lockdown ends.
Voted by viewers of BBC TV’s Winterwatch as one of Britains’ favourite nature writers, Rob Cowen says, while he loves Harrogate’s beauty and history, it’s time it embraced its modern side, too.
In the week his latest book The Heeding received rave reviews, Rob said the energy of the contemporary arts scene here was strong enough for the town to be regarded as a modern cultural hub like Hebden Bridge.
“I love this town’s quietness and open green spaces and its sense of history,” he said.
“But I love its new energies, too, and that energy is largely new voices, art events, pop-up poetry readings, live music, readings, new businesses, new thinking, new cultures. Harrogate isn’t merely a museum to times and ‘art’ past.
“The Beatles played here; Oscar Wilde spoke here, but I know many writers, musicians, producers working here today right now.
“Places like the Mercer Gallery, Harrogate Theatre and live events by Harrogate International Festivals, like Salon, are awesome.
“It amazes me that we have venues as fantastic as we do in Harrogate and yet I’ve never done a talk in this town that wasn’t in a bookshop.
“I’m asked to go all over the world to talk, but it’s odd to me that my own town doesn’t have the infrastructure to run evenings the way somewhere like Hebden Bridge does.”
Cowen’s last award-winning book, Common Ground, was set in the wild lands at the verdant edges of Harrogate beyond Bilton in and around the Nidd Gorge.
The Heeding, too, is set largely in Harrogate, though, rather than being a personal memoir blended with natural history, it’s a book of brilliantly-written poetry inspired about life during the pandemic with emotion-laden family stories punctuated by pin-perfect word pictures of scenes from nature.
A regular writer for the Daily Telegraph and The Guardan, Rob said: “The influence and inspiration of the Harrogate area on the book was profound and essential.
“Originally the book was going to be called ‘In the Yarden’ because many of the poems are set in the little backyard or the the surrounding streets and the edge-land of the Nidd Gorge which were the centre-point of myself and my family’s outside world during the pandemic.
“Everyone who has read my poems so far say they has been moved, some to tears, which I didn’t expect.”
With a hint of the work of Ted Hughes and praise from the likes of fellow nature writer Robert Macfarlane, The Heeding has already been nominated for the prestigious Richard Jefferies Award.
Just less than a week since its publication date, the book is also set for a second print run by publishers Elliott & Thompson, something almost unheard of in the normally niche world of poetry.
It’s a nice turn of events for the writer, personally, who, like everyone else, has had his struggles during the long months of lockdown and Covid restrictions.
“I was writing another book completely when the pandemic came.
“Lockdown put a stop to that immediately, but that frustration in turn provided the fertile space for the poems of The Heeding to emerge.
“During the pandemic, I think we all realised the importance of writing in processing, understanding, escaping and reaching out to each other.”
The 35 poems in The Heeding are stunningly illustrated by artist and print maker Nick Hayes in a series of dazzling black and white images of the birds, locations and wildlife which inspired Rob to write.
The end result is a perfect blend of heart and mind with a passion for life fuelling every line and every drawing.
Rob carries that emotion into the real world and the place where he lives and loves.
In 2016, he leant his voice to the campaign against possible plans for a new £70 million Harrogate bypass near Nidd Gorge in the town’s richest area for nature and wildlife.
Now he feels the hoped-for end of lockdown is a chance for Harrogate to begin again in how it sees itself and how it is regarded in the outside world.
“New energy is vital in keeping Harrogate alive, and providing the emphasis for changing it into a sustainable place to live, both in an artistic and environmental sense.
“In a post-pandemic world we all need the arts. There’s no reason why we can’t see a renaissance here in Harrogate.
After recent in-person visits to Imagined Things independent bookshop and Waterstones in Harrogate, Rob Cowen's next book signing event will take place at The Little Ripon Bookshop on Thursday, July 1.
Robert Macfarlane on The Heeding by Rob Cowen:
"Dazzling, moving... a book that will touch many, and be given often: here, take this, you must read this."
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