Dancing Dust

Poems by Mollie Caird (1922-2000)

Mollie Caird - biography

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Viola Mary Newport was born in Redhill, Surrey on 5 December 1922, but Mollie soon became the name she would use for her entire life.  Her father was a schoolmaster and both her parents came from families of small traders.

Her first school was North Bank, a small private preparatory school in Reigate.  It was here that she had her first encounter with poetry having, at the age of six, to recite Kipling's O where are you going to all you big steamers? to the whole school.  Despite this ordeal, the school's strong liking for poetry in the curriculum formed the foundation of her lifelong love of it.

At nine she progressed to the Girls' County School in Reigate gaining a scholarship aged eleven.  Mollie committed her childhood remininscences to paper in 1983 at the same time as her mother participated in an oral history project.  You can read the full transcript of this here.

When she was 18, Mollie Newport went up to St. Hugh's College, Oxford on an open scholarship to read English.  Through the University Congregational Society she met George Caird, a Cambridge classics graduate who was reading first for a Bachelor of Divinity degree and then a D.Phil. at Mansfield College.  Her wit and love of poetry, literature, wildlife and the outdoors became one of the cornerstones of their relationship and family life.  On graduation she taught for a year before marrying George in August 1945 and joining him in his first and only parish ministry at Highgate Congregational Church in London.

In 1946 George Caird was appointed to an academic post at St. Stephen's College in the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada and began his career as an exegete, university teacher and preacher.  Whilst supporting George in his activities, Mollie always had activities of her own.  In Edmonton she served on the editorial panel of the Alberta Poetry Yearbook and it was in Edmonton that the first two of her four children were born. 

In 1950 George Caird moved to McGill University in Montreal as Professor of New Testament in the newly founded Faculty of Divinity later also becoming Principal of the United Theological College.  Mollie hated the Canadian winters but adored the 3 month summer academic recesses which the Cairds spent at their holiday retreat in Georgeville QC with their family, now of four children.  It was during these long hot summers that she was able to pursue her lifelong hobby of birdwatching to the full.  In later life she admitted to a childhood dream of a career as an ornithologist - or fantasy rather than dream, as her lack of acumen in mathematics would always have precluded any sort of career in science.   

The Cairds lived in Montreal until 1959 when George's career took him back to Mansfield College, Oxford where, first as Senior Tutor and subsequently as Principal, he remained until 1977.  Mollie continued to pursue her own interests.  As well as writing occasional verse for The Oxford Times she envigilated examinations for the University and marked papers for the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Exam Board, accumulating as she did so a large collection of hilarious solecisms.  As family commitments receded she became Assistant Librarian at St. Hugh's College and enjoyed a renewed personal contact with the academic world of her old college.

In 1975-76, George was Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church and Mollie accompanied him in his travels in this role including South Africa, New Zealand and Israel.  On these and many other travels she made time for bird-watching and other nature study.  Her visit to Jerusalem gave rise to several of her most perceptive poems.

In 1977 George Caird left Mansfield to a chair in theology based at The Queen's College, Oxford.  Mollie swapped the scale and formality of the Principal's Lodgings at Mansfield for the much smaller scale of their cottage at Letcombe Regis near Wantage.  Here, in the shadow of the Berkshire Downs, she loved living in this rural and natural setting which gave rise to some of her best poems on natural subjects.

Being married to a theologian, it is perhaps not surprizing that some of her poems are on religious themes.  Three times she entered a poem for the triennial Oxford University prize for a poem on a set sacred subject and worked on a submission on two other occasions.  She is one of only three poets to have won this prize twice, the maximum allowable, with The death of Ahab in 1962 and The face of God in 1974.  These poems, and others on religious themes, reveal her awareness of the paradoxes posed by religion and, in middle age, she moved away from religious orthodoxy and turned increasingly to the poesy of Cranmer in her religious practice.

In 1984 George Caird died suddenly.  Shortly after this Mollie moved back to Oxford where she lived in a wide circle of family and friends.  She hated widowhood, as several of her poems testify, but made herself useful as a grandmother, hostess to her many many friends visiting Oxford and regularly as a volunteer at the Oxfam bookshop, flitting round Oxford on her bicycle.  She was a great fan of cryptic crosswords and completed one (latterly that in the Independent) every day.  She was also a regular contributor to that paper's Creativity column and has been credited with neologisms as a result. 

Mollie Caird enjoyed all the Arts, particularly literature (she was a voracious reader) but also theatre and music - the chosen careers of two of her children and several of her 17 grandchildren.  In later life she became interested in painting.  She attended classes on the history of art and went on specialist tours in Italy and elsewhere.  She even tried her hand at watercolours, her talent for which was at least appreciated by her family. 

The warmth of her hospitality to her children's friends and colleagues led to some enduring friendships and many, many artistic events and their social aftermaths.  Because of her final illness she gradually had to withdraw from this whirlwind of activity, but her mind remained as active and acute as ever until her death in March 2000.