Wanstead resident Jean Medcalf published her first poetry book last year. To Everything There is a Season is a collection of lyrical, spiritual poems about nature. In the 12th of a series of articles, Jean – who sadly passed away last month aged 90 – recalls her journey as a poet
As this is my last article in the series, I thought I would tell you about my life as a poet. At the age of 90, I can still recall the very first time my life was touched by poetry. I was eight years old. I was at Cann Hall Primary School and the Second World War had just broken out. The poem was Silver by Walter de la Mare, which is a magical poem about the beauty of moonlight. It opened a door in my mind.
The war raged for the rest of my childhood, and during this time, poetry became a source of comfort, an escape from fear and hardship into another world of peace and beauty. Paper was rationed, but I wrote on whatever scraps I could get. A kind aunt gave me a tiny notebook, and in this, I began to keep a diary where I could confide my feelings. At the age of 14, I wrote wistfully: “I wonder what it feels like to be a poet? I don’t suppose I shall ever know.”
During the years of marriage and motherhood, I had little time for writing, but in later life, I was able to take creative writing classes and this became a fertile time. I was amazed to win a poetry prize at the age of 72, and this year I was delighted to receive a letter from Prince William thanking me for sending him a poem I wrote about the death of Princess Diana.
I have written poems throughout my life, and often they are cathartic, a means of releasing the emotions that come at important times: of birth and death, marriage, motherhood, widowhood and growing old.
Recently, recalling that day I learnt to love poetry, I donated money to my old primary school to buy poetry books for the children, as a token of my gratitude and in the hope they will love poetry as I did. I also sent them my class photograph, and was touched to hear that they have framed it and put it on their wall.
As I mentioned in my first article, many of my poems come from trees. I draw strength from trees and they speak to me, and this always happens with venerable oak trees, like the Repton Oak in Wanstead Park and my friendly oak with the seat around it on Christchurch Green. Their messages are wise and loving, but of all of them, this one was the most profound.
I had gone on a journey back to my Huguenot roots in France, to visit the place where my ancestors had lived for hundreds of years. There, while sitting under a tree, I heard in my mind words spoken in French – the tree was speaking to me in its own language. On my return home, I translated its words, which held a profound message for me. Just weeks after my idyllic holiday, my world was shattered. My husband lay in a coma after suffering a catastrophic brain haemorrhage. I then understood why the tree had given me its wise counsel. It wanted to tell me that even at the darkest times when I felt I was lost, God would always be looking after me.
Sain et Sauf
by Jean Medcalf, Normandy Summer 1993
Be at peace
The good Lord has need of you –
You with your grief and pain
Be at peace
You are not lost –
Even though you may feel you have strayed,
He will always find you.
Always He knows where you are.
So be it.
Jean’s book To Everything There is a Season is available in paperback (£5.75). Visit wnstd.com/jean