John Moat – Alchemist of the Imagination

//John Moat – Alchemist of the Imagination

When John Moat was 24 he found and bought the secluded mill-house where he lived and worked until his recent death shortly after his 78th birthday. Sheltered beneath a wooded cliff in a village on the Hartland coast of Devon, the setting matched the temperament of a companionable man loath to draw public attention to himself; yet the creative lives of thousands of people who have attended Arvon writing courses since he and his friend John Fairfax first invented them in 1968, have been enlarged by his imaginative vision as poet, novelist, artist, educator and profoundly humane agent of change. Imagination, a noun he capitalized with Blakean emphasis, was key to John’s sense of how life works. Add ‘heart’, ‘generosity’, and ‘laughter’ and you begin to build a picture of the man.

Five years after John’s birth in India, his young life was shadowed by the death of his father who was killed in action aged 35. At Radley, only the art-room offered relief from ‘a diet of boredom and fear’, but asthma spared him the ordeal of National Service and his convivial nature flourished as President of the JCR at Exeter College, Oxford. John’s was clearly an artist’s intelligence, not an academic’s. He had already explored his gifts in France under the tutelage of the painter Edmond Kapp, but his intuitive mother was convinced he was a writer, and while practising writing in the Scillies, he suffered the emotional stress of an intense, finally impossible love affair. On his return, a trusted counsellor’s destructive response to his poetry deepened John’s confusion and despair. His already profound depression was then exacerbated by the Electroconvulsive Therapy administered by an eminent psychiatrist.

Recovery began while John was teaching at Brockhurst Preparatory School. Heartened by another mentor, the poet John Beaumont, he worked on his verse and drafted a first novel Heorot, which was eventually published by Christopher Maclehose. In a pub he met a former teacher at the school who shared his passion for poetry and his rage at the imaginative poverty of the education system. A lifelong, collaborative friendship with John Fairfax was born.

When he returned from a year teaching at Irvine University in the USA, John re-met the woman who would become for the rest of his days his wife, his helpmeet and colleague, and his adored source of poetic inspiration. Antoinette’s father had also died aged 35, so together they could address the shadows of silenced childhood grief. But legacies also enabled them to fund a self-sufficient life at the mill while underwriting philanthropic ventures earthed in their shared humanitarian values.

Fairfax had learned to write under the eye (and wicked tongue!) of his uncle the poet George Barker, so both he and John knew that the skills and values of creativity are best taught by people committed to the integrity of the artistic life. Given Antoinette’s active support, and with their own experience as template, they approached the Arts Council with a ‘bit of an idea.’ Ted Hughes’ initial scepticism was dispelled by his sense of wonder at the early results, and Arvon thrived as a uniquely important adventure in adult education.

Other ventures were dreamed up in the Moats’ enchanted house and garden. The couple helped Satish Kumar find a home for Resurgence. a magazine in which John’s mercurial humour found free play under the pen-name Didymus. The universal Peace Prayer was conceived at the mill. The Yarner Trust was set up to promote self-sufficiency skills, while Tandem revitalized term-weary teachers by linking them with writers and artists. Meanwhile, along with his daily routine of meditation and gardening, John continued to write and paint.

Like many of his hundred paintings, the finely crafted poems of The Welcombe Overtures and The Valley, and the dream-like narrative of his powerful novel, Mai’s Wedding, were inspired by his attentive care for the landscape around him and his affection for the people living there. A verse journal, Practice, records a world-wide journey made with Antoinette, while Firewater and the Miraculous Mandarin and Hermes and Magdalen emerged from John’s deep insights into the transformational drama of our inward life and the power of the Feminine Principle. In their explorations of alchemy as a metaphor for the operations of the soul, Yeats and Jung were his mentors.

Hermes, god of Imagination, presides over the deeply engaging and often hilarious memoir ‘Anyway…’, which John completed in his closing months. It begins: ‘I see now what I must always have known, that even if we are not, our lives certainly are in the play of the Imagination.’ Understanding Imagination as a life-force larger than our human share in its creative powers, John viewed himself as the servant of its intentions and was reluctant to take credit for what had been accomplished through him. Quietly he declined the honours he was offered. Nevertheless the culture stands hugely in his debt and when his terminal illness was diagnosed, several distinguished writers immediately responded with contributions to The Gist, a book celebrating his work as a true alchemist of Imagination.

As well as the memoir, John Moat completed and published two novels, Mai’s Wedding and Blanche, while undergoing the ordeals of his illness with a patient wisdom that transformed them into a loving affirmation of life itself. He is sorely missed by his wife, their daughter Elsbeth and son Ben, his grandchildren, and his many devoted friends.

Lindsay Clarke

Rob Swan

Rob Swan

Managing Director at The Write Factor
I recently started bell ringing in the hope that it would help to straighten out my bad back only to be reminded by a friend that, "It didn't do Quasimodo any good."
Rob Swan

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