Clare Holtham (1948-2010) had a huge enthusiasm for learning. After a troubled childhood, which led to a spell of homelessness, she became an intrepid traveller and independent-minded student at Newnham College, Cambridge. A book of Clare’s poems called The Road from Herat, launched today at Newnham, reflects a life lived to the full. It included working on the buses and a rapid marriage to an Uzbek chieftain.

Clare was also absolutely clear about what she wanted to study. She had no truck with anything she thought was second rate.

Jean Gooder

There are few pictures of Clare Holtham.  This is partly because she was always diffident about having her picture taken, and partly because she was for many years estranged from her family. As a keen amateur photographer, Clare was generally the person behind the camera, taking thousands of pictures of people and places in a pre-digital age.

Of the handful of photographs of Clare that do exist, one is remarkable. It was taken in Afghanistan and shows Clare sitting cross-legged but demure on the floor of a rough courtyard next to a smiling young man wearing traditional robes. He was an Uzbek chieftain and the picture was taken to record their marriage – a union that lasted just 24 hours.

It was the early 1970s; Clare was 23 and a fiercely independent undergraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge. In her journal she describes meeting a ‘tall and handsome’ Uzbek while travelling in a jeep on the road to Mazir-i-Sharif. She notes that he owned ‘700 sheep, 200 camels, 25 horses and the same number of rifles’. They conversed in Farsi, a language she has picked up on the road.  She writes: ‘I was very taken with him.’ She offered herself to him and they agreed a bride price.

She records in handwriting that races smoothly across the page that their marriage was consummated that night ‘in a little room overlooking a courtyard with a wall and tethered goats. The sun was low… In the outer room the Turkomans were unwinding and rewinding their puttees, the Ouzbeks were laughing over something as they sipped their green tea, and the world was at peace’. The next day she continued her journey.

When Clare died in February 2010, after a struggle with cancer, her friends began to piece together the extraordinary story of her life – a narrative full of apparent paradoxes. She was a brilliant linguist and an intrepid traveller; she was a computer analyst and a prize-winning poet. As a teenager she was, in her own words, “a beatnik and rebel”; she was expelled from a reform school. For a while she worked as a bus conductor to make ends meet.

Today a book of Clare’s poetry will be launched at Newnham College where she studied English from 1970 to 1973. Some of the most powerful of the 59 poems contained in The Road from Herat, published by Five Seasons Press, brim with her love for the wild landscapes of Afghanistan and its proud people. Roger Garfitt, the lyric poet who was Clare’s tutor at the Institute of Continuing Education at Cambridge University, says: “It was in Afghanistan that Clare’s imagination found its first home, an emptiness where ‘the thread of being’ can fray until it is ‘unbearably light’ but where a traveller might still descend to the sound of a rabab being played beside a well under the lemon trees.”

Clare had a vivid imagination and steely determination. Aged eight, she visited Cambridge where, in the gardens of Newnham College, she decided that this was where she would study. But the circumstances of her life were stacked against her. Her parents were committed communists at a time when many intellectuals embraced the heady ideals it seemed to represent. She was just two when her mother disappeared to China with another activist. Clare was left with her grandfather in Devon. At the age of five she joined her father and his new wife in London – but they did not get on and she was sent to a school for maladjusted children in Bexhill.

Despite her troubled family relationships, Clare’s poems that address her disrupted childhood hint at a sense of ferocious attachment. ‘Lamplight’ describes how: ‘the very world might crack / from side to side ‘When your father gets home!’’ In a way that is typical of Clare, the poem moves towards an eventual resolution. ‘‘Children’ (and poems) ‘are like wild animals’ – that / was what you said, in the nursing home where you sat / fifty years on – ‘They need to be disciplined’ / (and cannot be left like reeds to blow in the wind).’

At Clare’s death, Newnham College inherited an archive of her papers and some of her books. Clare was a meticulous record-keeper and diarist: her notebooks capture the minute detail of her travels – where she went, whom she met, what she ate and where she slept – and hand-drawn maps show the routes she took across Europe and into Asia by public transport and cadging lifts. A list of what to take includes brandy and Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, and notes that J-Cloths are ‘better than flannels’ for washing. The reverse of a map of Europe is used as a fold-out hitch-hiking sign with the names of the chief destinations on her route spelt out in bold red letters outlined in black.

In a type-written account of her early life that is part of the archive, Clare describes cleaning her parents’ flat at the age of nine or ten. Passing her duster over books with intriguing titles, and opening them at random, she became transfixed by the world of ideas that lay within the covers. On a shelf halfway down the stairs was a volume of poetry by James Elroy Flecker. She opened it and read: ‘For lust of knowing what should not be known / We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.’ The imagery of these lines burnt into her mind. Written many years later, the poem recording her temporary marriage to the Uzbek chieftain ends: ‘In the morning / the wind rose… / … and touched our feet.’

By the age of 15, Clare’s life had gone badly awry. She had been expelled from the school in Bexhill and for a while she lived rough on the streets of London. Her intelligence, however, was evident: when she was given an IQ test, she came out top of the MENSA scale. It was at Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology (known locally as the Tech), where she went to study for O and then A levels at the suggestion of an older friend, that she began to find her feet academically. She worked on the buses and in factories, while devouring literary classics and teaching herself Persian languages.

Applying to Newnham College (through the Oxbridge Entrance exam), Clare chose to write about the epic poem, Gilgamesh – one of the earliest known works of literature. This came as a shock to Clare’s Director of Studies, Jean Gooder, and colleagues, who had never read Gilgamesh – and had quickly to get hold of a copy.

Jean Gooder says: “Clare was very bright and she was also absolutely clear about what she wanted to study. She had no truck with anything she thought was second rate. Her circumstances were characteristically irregular and this led to the College adjusting many of its normal practices. We gave her a place without the O level Latin required at the time. We organised for her to study Russian and we allowed her to work part-time during term at the Cambridge Arts Cinema.”

At the start of Clare’s second term at Newnham, Jean Gooder asked her casually whether she had had a good Christmas, to which Clare replied that she had spent Christmas Day weeping silently in a corner of the accident and emergency department at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Nobody had even asked her why she was there. Newnham promptly organised for Clare to have student accommodation all year – and the Gooders also took Clare into her own family home.  “My children especially gained a huge amount from her. She gave them an education in film that resulted in two of them becoming film producers,” says Jean Gooder. “Everything she did, she did with huge attention to detail.”

On graduating from Cambridge, Clare worked and lived with Eddie Block, manager of the Cambridge Arts Cinema. Together they founded the Cambridge Film Festival and then moved to Sussex to transform the Duke of York Cinema in Brighton into a flourishing art house venue. When Eddie retired, Clare retrained as a computer systems analyst and travelled all over the world for a number of well-known companies, finally setting up her own business, Small Blue.

The small girl who fell in love with maps and atlases – and wanted to see the steppes and the Oxus River for herself - became an adult who never stopped learning. In her 50s Clare trained as a Blue Badge Guide, studied genetics at the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education at Madingley Hall, and at the time of her last illness was close to qualifying as a homeopath.

It was at Madingley Hall that Clare met Roger Garfitt. Discovering that she wrote poetry, he persuaded her to join his Masterclass and found that she liked nothing better than a formal challenge. He remembers: “Set up a flight of hurdles and she would leap over them. ‘Walter the Tramp’, the sequence that won second prize in Scintilla’s Long Poem Competition, is fluent in the tight ballad metre, which is by no means easy, while her ‘Elegy for the Buddhas of Bamyan’ makes use of a repeated refrain, a technique we had been studying in Yeats, varying the repeated phrases so skilfully that they never seem wilful but become integral to the development of the poem.”

The archive of Clare’s papers at Newnham speaks of a life lived absolutely to the full. Her notebooks spill over with an urgent sense of adventure: so much to see and do.  In 1969, aged 21 and with no family backing, she decided to visit India, obtained visas and had the relevant jabs. She writes: ‘The day finally arrived and I took a train to London. It’s an odd feeling boarding a train full of ordinary commuters when you are en route for the Orient. One thinks: Don’t these people realise that I am going to India?.'

Anyone interested in the archive of Clare Holtham’s papers is welcome to contact the Newnham College Archive at archives@newn.cam.ac.uk.  Newnham College has set up a student travel scholarship in Clare Holtham’s name. The Road from Herat is published by Five Seasons Press http://www.fiveseasonspress.com/.


White Morning

On the road to Meshhed we stop
at Chaman Bid, the place of the willow.
We shiver in the dawn, or sefideye sobh1 –
one of the several stages of morning
noted in the Persian language.

Later, in the bazaar circle
round the shrine of the Imam Reza,
forbidden to Westerners,
there is dazzling light –
cut mirrorwork, water gold;
and dazzling darkness -
heat from generators,
cries, and the heavy
press of pilgrims shrouded in black,
or backs flailed and bleeding,
seeking an unbearable bliss.

Sefideye sobh again,
waking in my bed on the roof
under the thin quilt, a lightness
as though a fever had left me.
White birds wheeling
on the breath of dawn,
and a distant smoke rising
in the bowl of the mountains.

Clare Holtham

1‘White morning’


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