“Ray Ockenden, who was to become my German tutor, was wearing platform shoes and bell bottoms – not quite what I was expecting for an Oxford don!”
Hilary’s fourth poetry collection Exile and the Kingdom, will be published in October this year. The book is about spiritual journeys, and is a pilgrimage which is poetic, religious and psychological.
Poetry has been one of the two parallel career paths that Hilary has maintained since leaving Wadham in 1980. “I wanted to be a writer and being the child of parents who were both teachers I was keen to do something different from them. However, in Paris I worked teaching English as a Foreign Language for two and a half years and realised that teaching is actually very rewarding.”
While in Oxford and Paris, Hilary ran and co-edited a poetry magazine, Argo, which she set up with Wadham alumnus and poet David Constantine. “We published on a shoestring, publishing other people’s poetry and translations, reviews, and features. I was also publishing my own poetry in other poetry magazines and eventually was taken on by the poetry press Enitharmon.”
After returning from Paris, Hilary got a job at St Paul’s Girls School in London where she worked for nearly 30 years, becoming Head of Modern Languages. “It was a pleasure to work with young and exciting minds, passing things on to future generations and learning from them. Teaching is never dull, although it is very demanding. I loved managing a team as head of a department – by the time I left we were teaching six languages at St Paul’s.”
I was very fortunate to join the first intake of women to Wadham in 1974. It was life changing and everything that I had hoped for and more.
In 2011, Hilary retired early from St Paul’s to give herself more time to spend on her writing. She had written three collections of poems by then: The Shanghai Owner of the Bonsai Shop (1991); In a Valley of This Restless Mind (1997), which includes poem sequences about the love affair between the 12th-century philosopher Peter Abelard and his gifted pupil Héloïse, and a recreation of the society and beliefs of the creators of Palaeolithic cave art in south-west France; and Imperium (2005), containing an evocation of the naval conflict of the Napoleonic wars.
From where does she draw her inspiration? “It is very difficult to generalise. As a Catholic convert, a lot of my poetry is about the spiritual life,” she said. Hilary met her husband, the poet Sebastien Barker, when they were both working at the Poetry Society in London. Following his death in 2014 her latest book contains a sequence about him. “We shared in each other’s work. He was very good at listening to me and the subject matter that interested us often overlapped. We had an influence on each other’s development as individuals and as poets which was incalculable, and never competitive.”
For the past four years Hilary has been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at King’s College, a scheme where writers work in tertiary institutions helping students with literacy. “These are highly motivated students from all over the world and various academic disciplines with a good level of spoken English who need help with writing English for more specific things, such as structuring academic arguments, syntax, book publishing and more. In return, I learn a huge amount from them,” she commented.
So what made Hilary think of applying to Wadham in the first place?
“I went to Bromley High School and my History teacher there was married to an economics don at Wadham. He invited me to tea and I came and looked around and thought, I like this place very much. I was very fortunate to join the first intake of women to Wadham in 1974. It was life changing and everything that I had hoped for and more. I studied hard - I just wanted to read French and German literature - but I also found time for parties and friends. I was a member of the Wagner Society and met Sir George Solti once and got to know poets including Sally Purcell – a well-known figure in the Kings Arms.”
It was at Wadham that Hilary did a great deal of the reading which was crucial to her development as a writer; as she says, the best way to become a writer is to read, and she immersed herself in the works of Baudelaire, Rilke, Hofmannsthal, Goethe, Pascal and Diderot. Now a successful poet, translator, critic and teacher herself, Hilary looks back with affection at her career while looking forward with enthusiasm to the years to come.