Postcards from Kodai: An Interview with Author and Poet Kevin Crossley-Holland

Postcards from Kodai: An Interview with Author and Poet Kevin Crossley-Holland
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Kevin Crossley-Holland is an award-winning children’s author and poet. Well-known for winning a Carnegie Medal for his work Storm and his widely read children’s books Arthur Trilogy chronicling the life of King Arthur.

It was by chance that I came across his poem Postcards from Kodai which was included in a book he edited called the Oxford Book of Travel Verse back in 1982. Moved by my intrigue to understand what drove Kevin to write such a poem, I searched for Mr Crossley-Holland online. Finding him through his agent, Mr Crossely-Holland almost immediately connected with me to tell me his story.

“My memory of my short visit there is still as vivid as ever it was, and I only wish it were possible to come back, and to bring my wife with me.” he begins.

In 1982, the British council asked Mr Crossley-Holland to make a ‘sustained visit to India’. This visit would involve an attachment to a postgraduate center in Tiruchirapalli for 7 - 8 weeks. This rather appealed to the young author, and he jumped at the opportunity.

“I settled into teaching Anglo-Saxon literature and contemporary British poetry at Trichy, as well as leading weekly writing workshops with a dozen or so students selected from a number of colleges.”

Mr Crossely-Holland goes on to describe, “These were some of the most memorable weeks of my life, Manjusha, and I made several forays, including ones to Bangalore and Mysore. But nothing prepared me for Kodaikanal —  the cool fresh air, the astounding views, and the way in which something of the Raj still survived in places such as the Carlton Hotel. I was captivated!”

The outcome of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s short visit to Kodaikanal was a beautifully written poem which portrays correspondence from a ‘last survivor’ of the Raj, describing the beauty of Kodaikanal, the Carlton Hotel, the golf course and all that they experience.

Postcards from Kodai

Here I am once more. Do you remember
the castanets of toads at dusk, thousands
of them?  The veil, diaphanous, that drifts
over the glaze of the five-fingered lake?
This will bring it back if anything will.
Colonel Edgcumbe is here again and sends
regards − we two are the last survivors.

*

Have you ever stood higher than the clouds
and watched them smoking, lifting from valleys?
This is the eyrie of the Western Ghats.
From the verandah of this bungalow
I can survey the whole apparent world,
everything, my dear, trapped in place or time,
hazy or shining. Godlike; powerless!

*

Down at the Carlton the new head waiter
is called Joseph! Is that a requirement
for the post? They still fold all the napkins
in unexpected ways and trick them out
with wildflowers. A log fire in the grate
and, outside, the cool air close with pinesmoke,
the improving smell of eucalyptus
(only this would seem the least out of place
in an Alpine resort). Dear old Kodai!
There are changes here, but not as elsewhere.

*

You'd laugh, Emily. The Carlton Hotel −
I went there for tea with Colonel Edgcumbe −
still has the books we combed through as children:
Just Patty, True Tilda and Bawbee Jock.
Does that ring a bell or two? They're wrapped now
in parcel paper, and kept behind glass.
As if they were quite irreplaceable.

*

Big changes in the air at the golf club!
A 'high water rise tank and sump' have been
installed; they mean to replace all the browns
with greens. What was good enough for us...
But no, they must always go one better.
It all seems a dreadful waste of money.
Are these the highest golf links anywhere?
I asked the new secretary but he does
not know. Typical!  Hope this card gets through!

*

Light is a generous discoverer.
Like God, it finds itself. The sleeping lake
wakes, stretches, slips into its newfound shape
as if all its life had been the darkness
of dream and illusion. A countenance
liquid, empty, impassive; one bird sings...

*

I can't quite explain it but I feel free
to ride my own tides: it is a certain
glory in all my thoughts and emotions,
the ego's representatives. They are
my coat of many colours on this earth.
The same force that fathers inhibition
and denial changes course within me:
here I can become the song of myself.

*

You'd think little or nothing of the sound
of rain failing on outstretched leaves, falling
from leaf to leaf. You hear it every day
almost.  But this soft rainmusic, my dear,
always at my ear with how it will be,
how it was: this is really why I come
to this dreaming hill station. I suppose
it is the nearest I will get to home.


—Kevin Crossley-Holland


I decided to take my correspondence with Mr Crossely-Holland a step further. I thought it would be a treat to allow our poetry club students to ask him questions about his poem. So following are a series of questions and answers:

You build the poem on nostalgia, a longing to be together and enjoy the beauty of the place you are in. What inspired you to write this poem as such?
I know that I'd been reading a book about friendships formed during the Raj, and about 'survivors' of the Raj who continued to live in India, and love it, and had no desire to return to England.  In that spirit, I invented the speaker/writer of the postcards and Colonel Edgecumbe.

Why did you choose to write about Kodai in particular, what made it so different from all the other places you had visited in India or even around the world?
I became aware of the Raj community that had assembled each year in Kodai. Maybe it would have been the same in Ooctamund and in the north, but I've never visited those hill stations.  It felt like a place in the world and out of the world —  many-layered, and astonishingly beautiful.

From where did you get the inspiration for the character Colonel Edgecumbe? Why are they the last survivors?
I imagined them and they seemed to fit the bill.

Was there really a waiter called Joseph? No!

“Dear old Kodai! 
There are changes here, but not as elsewhere.”  
- These lines still resonate with us students here, what did they mean to you back when you visited. If you revisited Kodai, what would you wish to see remain the same as you experienced it when you visited back in 1982?

I think I was pointing to the way Indian cities were modernising so fast, for all their desperate poverty.  My sense was that changes from 'then to now’ would proceed more slowly in Kodai.  Was I 'to remain the same': wishes of this kind are almost invariably disappointed, aren't they?  If the Carlton Hotel survives, it will have become a relic, not an old-fashioned hotel.  Since there's no escaping time, memory is sometimes preferable.

I can't quite explain it but I feel free
to ride my own tides: it is a certain
glory in all my thoughts and emotions,
the ego's representatives. They are 
my coat of many colours on this earth. 
The same force that fathers inhibition
and denial changes course within me:
here I can become the song of myself. 

This verse shadows the pain of the character, and their troubles. Could you elaborate on the technique that led to developing the thoughts of this character? Was there a part of yourself in this?
I imagined that the writer of the postcards was a restrained woman. Perhaps she was accustomed to putting other people first and making many small sacrifices. In Kodai, she shrugs some of this off, and feels free to be 'herself'.  I've long relished high places, the mountains. In my case, the Alps. This little poem expresses something of this, maybe. So yes, I dare say there was a little of myself in 'Postcards from Kodai'.

LA PLAINE DE LA MADELEINE

 Well above the hamlet on its tipsy ledge
there was a meadow. One path scrambled up to it.
It was passionate with wildflowers and unvisited,
innocent of whatever was happening below.
On hands and knees I crawled along the side
where you could drop off the edge of the world.

Long ago, waking hot and hectic
or shocked by some dream, I used to splash
my face with water biting as a mountain stream,
lie back and climb that rocky path again.
Turbanned lily, gentian, orange poppy,
soldanella... names I no longer remember.

Each breathing midnight now, unsure I'll return,
I realise I'm doing the same. I'll do the same.

Do you ever think to revisit Kodai again?
How utterly wonderful that would be!  Tell me at least, during which season is the best time to come?  I don't suppose it would be possible, but dreams lead not only to responsibilities but sometimes to actions!

Postcards from Kodai
Postcard from Kodai