Friday, 15 June 2018

AT THE EDGES OF THINGS

It is often at the edges of things that the most innovation - or emergence - occurs. *

Last week I spent a day on Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island), the island in the current, just off the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula.  The sea was calm, the sun shone.  From the boat I could see guillemots lined up on the cliffs and a few puffins over the water. 

I arrived in time to go to the Bird and Field Observatory for the daily opening of the moth trap.  I love the litany of names - yellow underwing, broom, carpet, plum tortrix, common pug, buff ermine - they are a poem in themselves.

I climbed the mountain, ate my sandwiches on the top and walked a circuit of the island, checking that the heart-shaped rope set into the grass on the west side was still there.  I met the poet, Christine Evans, who told me she was taking part in an event at Plas Glyn y Weddw art gallery.  It sounded interesting.

It was.  A few days later I went to the Llanbedrog gallery for Celf yw Natur/Natur fel Celf or Art is Nature, Nature as Art.  Hmmm ... I wasn't sure what to make of this nebulous title.  The day centred round art and ecology with talks by conservationist and artist, Ben Stammers (who has recently done a collaboration with poet Zoe Skoulding), naturalist and photographer Peter Howlett and artist Morag Colquhoun (whose project Trofannolismo is exhibited at the gallery at the moment).  Repeatedly Ynys Enlli became a focus for ideas and images.

We watched Moholy Nagy's short film Lobsters, an early marine documentary (1936) which ends surreally with a lobster tearing through a menu.  The day finished with a solo dance performance by the talented Simon Whitehouse.  The concentration was electric - both Simon's and the audience's.

In between each session Christine Evans read one of her poems.  She is an excellent reader and I admired the way the poems fitted in so well with the talks, for example "Enlli" -
     "We get to it through troughs and rainbows".

Ben Stammers presented some challenging ideas.  He said that unfortunately some people are "illiterate" about nature or suffer from "Nature Deficit Disorder".  He threw in the provocative idea that wildlife films, despite excellent content, have become entertainment.  Morag Colquhoun was uncomfortable with outsider third person narratives about people living or working "on the edge".  She showed her film of Colin Evans, the Enlli boatman, in which he voices his own opinion of Enlli life.  He said that the island has often been at the forefront of using technological innovation thanks to the lighthouse.

So many ideas and impressions - ecology, science, politics, history, art - all intermingling.  The day went too quickly - I wanted more time to discuss everything.

And a little postscript - today I called in at the Inigo Jones slate workshop near Caernarfon.  There's a giftshop with everything you might need made of slate (and some you never knew you needed - ?slate buttons).  But it also had an excellent selection of books.  Welsh publishers, Seren, had a bulging stand including a large amount of poetry.  I ended up splashing out on In Her Own Words - Women Talking Poetry and Wales, edited by Alice Entwistle.  It's a book I've been wanting to read for a long time.

* Morag Colquhoun, quoted from publicity for her Trofannolismo   
   project.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

A TRAIN WALKS ON WATER

The train hesitates as if to pluck up courage to make its long crossing of the Barmouth Bridge over the Mawddach estuary.  The wooden viaduct looks precarious against its mountain backdrop.  The bridge was built over 150 years ago by Victorian engineers who sunk iron piers into the estuary's shifting sand and gravel to support the timber trestles which carry the track.  I look down and see footprints on the sandbanks.  The incoming tide is swelling the pewter-coloured water of the Mawddach river.

Suddenly I have a sense of recognition, not just of the physical presence of the place (I've crossed this bridge by train three times before) but also of a passage in W G Sebald's Austerlitz.  

Austerlitz is recollecting memories of seeing Barmouth Bay when "the separate surfaces of sand and water, sea and land, earth and sky could no longer be distinguished".

I look out of the window and see the wooden pedestrian walkway which runs alongside the railway bridge.  Austerlitz recalls a specific memory of walking out one evening along this footbridge.  He describes the incoming tide "gleaming like a dense shoal of mackerel, flowing under the bridge and up the river, so swift and strong that you might have thought you were going the other way out to the open sea in a boat.  We all four sat together in silence until the sun had set ... large numbers of swallows were swooping through the air."

It's a beautiful lyrical description but it's also a poignant memory of a lost time in Austerlitz's life.  The swallows seem to emphasise the ephemeral, and the brevity of existence.  "It was the very evanescence of these visions that gave me, at the time, something like a sense of eternity," says Austerlitz.

The poet Lee Harwood often visited this area of north west Wales.  He wrote in "Cwm Nantcol" of those

" ... Seeming timeless moments
when stood here in the sweep of the mountains."

[W G Sebald Austerlitz (Penguin paperback 2011edition) p 135-6]

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

ON CLOUD NINE

'Those clouds aren't natural - they're man-made,' said the taxi-driver, glancing towards the horizon, 'they're all doing it, we're doing it, and the Russians, and the Americans'.  For the whole of the ten minute taxi ride I listened to his tirade against cloud engineering.  At the end of the journey he gave me his card and wrote a link to a website on the back.

At the time he seemed to be at the cranky end of science, akin to the observers of UFOs, but I remembered that one-sided conversation recently.  I've been reading the Richard Hamblyn's book Clouds.  The last chapter of the book is entitled 'Future Clouds' and uncovers a long catalogue of cloud engineering.  This includes American military aircraft covertly seeding clouds in the hope of causing flash floods along the Ho Chi Min Trail during the Vietnam war, and China seeding clouds in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics to keep the Olympic Stadium rain-free (it was).  In 1977 weather modification for military purposes was banned by an international convention of 40 countries, but cloud seeding is still being used, for example, for crop irrigation and to induce early snow in ski resorts.

More (worryingly) uncertain is the effect on climate change of anthropogenic clouds - created by industry, shipping and aircraft (that solitary contrail scrawled across a blue sky is only the tip of the anthropogenic cloud).

I can't claim to understand all the science in Hamblyn's book but I was impressed by his knowledge of clouds in art, music and literature.  He prefaces his introduction with words from Wordsworth's Prelude (Book 1):

   'I look about and should the guide I choose
    Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
    I cannot miss my way.'

(It makes a change from the famous first line of 'Daffodils')

On a clear day I can see Snowdon from my kitchen window and love Wordsworth's description of emerging onto the summit above the clouds at or just before dawn:

   '... at my feet
    Rested a silent sea of heavy mist.
    A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved
    All over this still ocean,'   (Prelude Book 10)

Hamblyn quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins' letter (to the journal Nature) beginning, 'The sky was striped with cirrus clouds like the swaths of a hayfield.'  There are several cloud quotations from 20th century poets.  Philip Larkin's 'high-builded cloud/Moving at summer's pace' ('Cut Grass') is an example of cumulus cloud.  Luke Howard, the man who in 1802 classified clouds under the names we still use today (cirrus, cumulus, strata) has inspired several poets, including Carol Ann Duffy ('Luke Howard: Namer of Clouds'), Billy Collins ('Student of Clouds') and Lavinia Greenlaw ('What We Can See Of The Sky Has Fallen: Luke Howard 1772 - 1864').

I was amazed to read about artificial clouds created by artists for art installations, including Antony Gormley's 'Blind Light'.  Timothy Donnelly's futuristic (or is it?) poem sequence The Cloud Corporation describes how

   'Fans conveying clouds through aluminium ducts
    can be heard from up to a mile away, depending on
    air temperature, humidity, the absence or presence

    of any competing sound'

and goes on to ponder why manufactured clouds produce more of a response than 'clouds occurring in nature'.

The appeal of clouds to poets is aptly stated by Alexandra Harris (Weatherland): 'Like a much redrafted poem there is no single authoritative version of a cloud.  The cloud-form is constantly revised and never finished' (see 'Is it nearly ready?' my blog of 28 May 2015).

Richard Hamblyn's Clouds: Nature and Culture (2017) is published in a lavishly illustrated paperback by Reakton Books.

* As for being on Cloud Nine - it comes from the Hon. Ralph Abercromby's 1896 cloud ranking.  It's the ninth (highest) cloud, the cumulo-nimbus.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

WRITING WHITE

The Ordnance Survey shows the slate quarries as blank spaces, white paper.  The land has dropped out of the map.

I’m on a short writing retreat in Cwm Teigl in North Wales.  I’m staying in a log cabin owned by Elin, who runs the bookshop (Yr Hen Bost) a few miles away in Blaenau Ffestiniog.  She has lent me Trwy Ddyddiau Gwydr (Gwasg Careg Gwalch 2013), a collection of poems by Sian Northey.  They are contemporary free-verse poems in Welsh, including a poem for Elin’s daughter.  They are short poems (fortunately!) and I read them, falteringly, and try to piece together the words.  The poems sound wonderful and the poet uses alliteration to great effect.  I am hoping my knowledge of the language will progress so that I can understand more of the words!    

Elin has a beautiful semi-wild garden – at this time of year it’s a riot of leafy green with splashes of colour from wild, cultivated and feral flowers.   I’ve brought a jumble of notes, my laptop and a stack of white paper.  I plan to get some writing done but this evening the outdoors is distracting.

I go for a short walk up the valley, following the Afon Teigl which chatters in the companionable voice of an upland stream tumbling over small rocks.  An occasional swallow swoops after flies and the sun is low on the horizon turning the water pewter.  Growing along the banks are tall spindly sycamore and ash trees, newly leaved (the oak before the ash this year).

The road is unfenced and ewes with lambs stare at me, or stamp their feet before making their way up the steep hillside.  Cwm Teigl has a different smell from the lush flowery lanes of Llŷn.  Perhaps it’s a combination of the short-grazed mountain grass, the new shoots of rushes, the acid soil.  It’s an upland smell of spring which reminds me of family picnics on the Berwyns, breaking the journey from Warwickshire to Llŷn when I was a child.  The ancient cars my father drove (an Austin 7 and later a converted Ford van named Noah’s Ark from its registration latters NOA and its variety of two and four legged passengers) always overheated at the top of the Tanat Valley.  We would pile out of the car for a picnic lunch while the engine recovered.

Cwm Teigl shows little evidence of the slate industry whose huge waste tips are so obvious a few miles away at Blaenau Ffestiniog.  The cwm is a quiet valley – in half an hour’s walking I meet one walker and a cyclist.   A solitary car passes me.  The driver gives me a wave.   If I were to follow the road as it climbs up the slopes of Manod Fawr, whose screes and cliffs dominate the north west side of the valley, I would eventually reach the Manod and Graig Ddu slate quarries, the cartographer’s blank white paper. 


But for the next few days I hope that at least some of my white pages will be filled with words.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

'TO RHYME AND CHIME FOR A CHAIR'

Great to hear poet Twm Morys on today's Sunday afternoon poetry slot on Radio 4 today.  His programme explored and explained the intricate art of Cynghanedd in Welsh poetry and its origins as far back as the sixth century.  Basically Cynghanedd refers to the complex patterns of rhyme and alliteration in various poetic forms in Welsh literature.  Mererid Hopwood was one of the speakers - in 2001 she became the first woman poet to win the Bardic Chair at the National Eisteddfod (after all those centuries!).  Both Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins used the techniques of Cynghanedd in their work.

A fascinating programme - you can catch it on BBC Radio 4 next Saturday night at 11.30pm or listen again on the BBC website.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

THE ROOF OF THE WORLD

Welsh slate roofed the world.

This was no empty claim in the nineteenth century.  Look at rows of Victorian terraces and villas in most of our major cities and you will see them roofed with dark purplish-grey slate from North Wales. 

Yesterday evening I went to Blaenau Ffestiniog.  The pavements are slate, the buildings are slate, the roofs are slate.  Blaenau's fortune and decline were built on slate and the huge screes surrounding the town are the evidence.  Now the narrow gauge railway which once took slate to the harbour at Porthmadog is a major tourist attraction (run by paid staff and volunteer enthusiasts).  

But I was in the town for a book launch at Yr Hen Bost, a gem of a little indie bookshop, run by Elin. There are two floors of new and second hand books: books in Welsh, books in English, children's books, local books, novels, poetry and more.  So few bookshops stock poetry magazines these days so it was good to see the latest issue of Poetry Wales for sale.

Blaenau (or more accurately nearby Tan y Grisiau) is also the home of Cinnamon Press, which publishes some fine poetry and fiction, as well as Envoi poetry magazine.  I was at Yr Hen Bost for a double Cinnamon book launch.  There were over 30 people squeezed into the small downstairs room of the bookshop.  It was good to meet Cinnamon's proprietor, Jan Fortune, who introduced the two writers.  Adam Craig read from his novel In Dreams the Minotaur Appears Last.  The first long-sentence extract was a tour de force of stream of consciousness style writing while the second extract was a deliciously satirical description of a party in Paris in the 1970s.  

Michelle Angharad Pashley read from the prologue of her crime novel The Remains of the Dead.  The prologue had an edge which was almost unbearable - the kind of writing where you are 
frightened to read on but feel you have to in order to find some kind of explanation.  The second extract she gave us was about the discovery of a body which must have been the one buried in the prologue . . .

I had time to explore the streets of Blaenau Ffestiniog and discovered that the town has a rich literary history, now celebrated in the poetry, prose and sayings carved into pieces of slate.  There is information about writers who came from the town, including Gwyn Thomas, the National Poet of Wales (2006-8).

I stayed overnight and came back this morning on the train on the Conwy Valley line (another railway that had its origins in carrying slate).  The Saturday morning train was crowded with young teenagers on a day out, locals off to the shops at Llandudno and a few tourists.  The mist hung over the mountains surrounding Blaenau as we left and I took out my book to read.  The train plunged through the Ffestiniog Tunnel and emerged into brilliant sunshine in the high valley.  I closed my book.  The upland birches were tinged with green, there were splashes of bright yellow gorse, Dolwyyddelan Castle looked down from its imposing vantage point.  The clear blue sky was reflected in the water of the river.  As the train slowly made its way down the steep gradient the valley widened and became the Conwy estuary with acolourful shelduck out on the mud flats.

At Llanrwst - a large modern building near to the line was inscribed Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, publishers of Welsh interest books in Welsh and English (and publishers of the book I hadn't read because the spring morning was so wonderful).

www.cinnamonpress.com
www.blaenauffestiniog.org