R.I.P. Janet Barclay

We were very sad to lose Janet, whose generosity of spirit and gentle humour had enhanced many a meeting. Others will wish to add their thoughts, I’m sure, but here in the meantime is a tribute just received from her son Philip, no mean writer himself. It includes one of Janet’s cleverly crafted poems, a pantoum in this case.

Janet Barclay, my mother and an enthusiastic member of the Ripon Writers’ Group, has sadly died. I wanted to thank the Group for the friendship and literary support you offered Janet since she moved to Ripon. She often mentioned how much she had enjoyed writing with you. She became much more focused and prolific when she had the stimulus of a deadline or a competition. She also enjoyed reading works by other members of the Group. It was a pleasure to meet Group members’ at Mum’s funeral and to hear that her comments were well-received and useful.

Even before she became a creative writer, Janet was proud of her beautiful handwriting, her correct grammar and her long elegant sentences, modeled on the 19th century female novelists she so loved: particularly, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and Jane Austen. I discovered from an early age how much impact good writing can have.  Mum once sent me to school with a letter of mild complaint. I handed it to the Headmaster who read it and said, “Thank you, Barclay, please tell your Mother that was very well put.” Mum was delighted with that praise and forgot all about her complaint.

After retiring from teaching and once her four children had moved out, Mum had the time to really apply herself to her own writing. She was adept at every genre. She produced some fascinating life writing, particularly describing her experiences of basic family summers in Norfolk in the 1940s. She wrote a novel about a woman trying to deal with a controlling husband; she enjoyed pastiches and parodies and loved the challenge of poetry.

One of the most enjoyable phases in my own development as a writer was studying Creative Writing with Janet through the Open University ten years ago. We faced all the same assignments and used to swap our efforts. Mum always scored better than me and ended up with a diploma with distinction. But she was more modest about her work than I was, which meant she gained even more pleasure from good marks and praise from the assessors. She loved working with different poetic forms. This is an example of a Pantoum, which the OU assessors particularly liked:

COUNSELLING

The vicar came and talked with me
When George, my husband, ran away.
We talked, I cried, we drank some tea,
He helped me through that dreadful day

When George, my husband, ran away.
I did not ask for sympathy;
He helped me through that dreadful day.
My sobs a tuneless litany.

I did not ask for sympathy
But just a friendly smile and touch.
My sobs a tuneless litany,
I wasn’t asking very much

But just a friendly smile and touch.
He held my hand to comfort me –
I wasn’t asking very much –
We sat together, knee to knee.

He held my hand to comfort me;
I stroked his fingers, kissed his ring.
We sat together, knee to knee;
I didn’t ask for anything.

I stroked his fingers, kissed his ring,
His hands caressed my tear-stained face.
I didn’t ask for anything
When, sitting in that holy place

His hands caressed my tear-stained face.
But this we knew could not be right
When sitting in that holy place
As darkness fell. Lead, kindly light!

For this we knew could not be right
Within the church. We knelt to pray
As darkness fell. Lead, kindly light!
We broke apart at break of day.

Within the church we knelt to pray
To lose the memory of our love.
We broke apart at break of day
As guilt poured down from heaven above.

To lose the memory of our love
The vicar left; his wife went too
As guilt poured down from heaven above,
And all the congregation knew.

The vicar left; his wife went too.
The bishop came, and talked with me,
And all the congregation knew.
I do not ask for sympathy.

– Janet Barclay, 2011

Interestingly in her comments on this piece for the assessor, Janet faulted the woman who it voices for “absorption in her own personal misfortune” and a “parade of self-justifying excuses.” Most of us – particularly in the ‘Me-too’ era – would place most of the blame on the vicar! But Mum had no time for self-pity even during her last two years, which were pretty tough for her. Mum’s unwillingness to make a fuss even when she was suffering with grief and poor health makes me – and all of Janet’s family – all the more grateful for the stimulation and friendship the Ripon Writers’ Group offered her. We all wish you the very best with your future writing.

Philip Barclay

I am sure that many of you will be aware that Janet was a folk dancer as well as a writer. She was still an active dancer when she arrived in Ripon, although she admitted to me that by then  age prevented her and her folk dance club colleagues from dancing the more vigorous dances like a Cumberland Square Eight. What you may not have been aware of is that she was also a folk dance caller. It was in that role that she was able to remind me of the correct calls for ‘Red River Valley’ at the time I was writing new words to that tune She also told me that at a ceilidh ‘Newcastle’ (which is one of the more complicated folk dances) would be introduced as ‘Newcastle, for those who know it’ rather than being called in the usual way. These memories and the feeling that she and I were often on much the same wavelength as writers will be my principal memories of Janet.

Peter Page

Our friendly group meets once a fortnight in St Wilfrid’s Community Centre and is always open to new members from the Ripon area and beyond. Whether your interest is in poetry or prose, novels, short stories, plays, wacky humour, a more analytical style of writing, or just listening for the time being, you're very welcome.

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