Monday, 24 July 2017

RETURN

Why have you moved to Wales?  people ask.  After all I lived in Cumbria for over 26 years.  Well, it all began with my mother’s love of acting (not inherited – I just like being audience).

My mother was a member of the Grove Players, a Birmingham amateur dramatics society run by her cousin, John Taylor.   The members of the society came to Nefyn for a week in the summer, stayed at Mrs Hughes’ guest house in St David’s Road and put on plays in the Madryn Hall (now demolished) in the evenings. 

I was only a toddler when I first came and I’m not sure for how many years these dramatic holidays lasted.   But I do remember the long journey from Warwickshire in my father’s overloaded pre-war Austin 7 (always overheating part way up the Tanat Valley), return visits to Mrs Hughes and playing on the beach at Nefyn.

It was, perhaps, an encore too far and the Grove Players abandoned their seaside summer season.  But my parents continued to come to the Llŷn Peninsula.  We stayed self-catering with Jane Griffiths and her mother at Pen y Gongl, a small-holding (no electricity) at Llangwnnadl.  Gwyneth, the child next door, taught me the Welsh children’s rhyme, “Mi welais Jac y do” (I saw a jackdaw).  When Jane Griffiths married David Jones we moved with her to stay self-catering at Pen y Bont (Maen Hir) (no electricity).  Repeated visits over the years and hours of chatting while they milked half a dozen Welsh black cows by hand made us firm friends.

Then in the 1960s my father bought an unmodernised cottage near Llaniestyn.  It became our holiday base used by family and friends over many years.   I helped as a volunteer in the garden at Plas yn Rhiw and through the Miss Keatings I met the poet, R S Thomas.  I had already read his early poetry in the anthology Six Modern Poets, one of my school set texts.  Met is perhaps a little misleading – encountered would be a better word.  I don’t recall much conversation during the occasional lift in the back seat of his car (Honora Keating in the front) but it was enough to be in close proximity to a real poet.  I hoped that somehow I would absorb the gift to write by some mysterious literary osmosis.

I spent extended periods of time at Llaniestyn whenever I could, including a whole winter when my husband was away on a sabbatical in the States.  My children went to the Ysgol Feithrin (pre-school playgroup) in the village.  They learnt to count and say their colours in Welsh in order to get their free sweet ration from Meira who ran the Garn shop (one of the last of the little shops that used to exist every couple of miles or so along the winding Llŷn lanes).

Time moves on.  I missed the house after we sold it, almost 20 years ago, and came back intermittently to stay at Rhiw and Uwchmynydd, right on the tip of the peninsula, and last year on Bardsey Island for a week.   But I was afflicted with hiraeth, a melancholy longing to return – and this summer I have.


So now you know.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

ARRIVAL

I’m drinking a coffee and watching a buzzard spiralling higher and higher on the warm air currents, against a background of the little hills of Llŷn. 

I’ve moved from Cumbria to Wales, from Wordsworth country to R S Thomas country – if that doesn’t sound too “heritage”-ish.  I’ve swapped a view of the Dumfriesshire hills from my front window to a view of the North Wales mountains – Snowdon when it’s clear enough, and Cadair Idris over the blue sweep of Cardigan Bay.

A few days ago I read Sheenagh Pugh’s review of The Mabinogi by Matthew Frances, a re-imagined version of the medieval Welsh stories written down in the 12th-13th centuries from earlier oral tradition.  Sheenagh Pugh praises Frances for recreating “the immediacy these tales must have had before they were pinned down in writing, when they were spoken by a storyteller who might at any moment shift an emphasis, drop or add material, or see a character in a new way.”  This approach throws up questions of the stability of a text, and assumptions about translations and versions.  “Nothing kills a story like treating it with reverence, and his refusal to do so is why his version feels live, fresh, new”.  I’ve struggled in the past with dusty, reverential translations of The Mabiniogion.   I think this one might be just the one I should read – especially as I have relocated to Wales.

Radio 4 marked the hundredth anniversary of the death of Hedd Wyn with a programme called The Black Chair presented by poet, Mab Jones.  Hedd Wyn was killed at Passchendaele in 1917 shortly before he was due to receive the National Eisteddfod’s highest accolade.  The bardic chair was draped in black after his name had been called three times.  Prime Minister, Lloyd George, manipulated the occasion to drum up support for conscription which he had introduced. 

Hedd Wyn came from a farm at Trawsfynydd in Snowdonia.  I look to the mountains and remember him.

The Mabinogi Matthew Frances (Faber and Faber 2017)
For the review see blogpost 21 June 2017 sheenaghpugh.livejournal.com 


The Black Chair was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 13 July.  The 1992 film  Hedd Wyn (with English subtitles) is well worth watching.

Friday, 23 June 2017

BOXES AND BUBBLE-WRAP

While I have been preparing to move house the terrible circumstances of Grenfell Tower have been unfolding relentlessly on the news.  The first fatality to be named was Mohammed Alhajali who was a Syrian refugee studying engineering.  He was only 23 and had been in the UK for 2 years.  How tragic that he had escaped from Syria only to die in the horrendous fire.

It is a sobering thought that while some people have very little I have too much.  When I last moved house I promised myself I would not accumulate a lot of clutter.  Now, several years later, my promise in pieces, I am preparing to move house again.  Stuffocation.  I've spent several months decluttering in a desultory sort of way until the last couple of weeks when the pressure has been on.  I've sold a few items, I've given things to friends, donated to charity shops, posted books into book banks and clothes into clothes banks.  I've separated paper, plastic, tins, glass, and I've made several trips to the council recycling centre (which, annoyingly, is only open every other day).  A social housing organisation and the wonderful Free for All in Wigton have taken some furniture.  Alas, some things are quite simply rubbish, refuse, rammel.  Worn out, eaten by mice or moths, broken beyond repair or outdated technology (cassette tapes, anyone?).

Where does it all come from?  Well, some of it was given to me by people who were moving house ... (at the time it seemed rude to refuse).  There is also the strong "it might come in useful" gene which I inherited from my parents who lived through the Second World War and rationing.  The make-do-and-mend culture which became trendy in the recent recession was a grim reality for their generation (it's sobering to remember that rationing went on for some years after the war, thanks to Sir Stafford Cripps).  Added to that my parents ran a smallholding and, as all farmers know, that odd bit of metal or wood might come in handy one day.  Now whenever an object of the might-come-in-useful-one-day variety turns up I know it is time to dispose of it.

It is, as someone pointed out to me a few days ago, a fundamental law of decluttering that some of the things that you get rid of will be needed.  But what things?  I spent several hours in charity shops buying back books after my son asked "Where are all the James Herriot books?  My girlfriend wants to read them."  And why did Mrs Gaskell's novels get the old heave-ho?  "How could you get rid of Mrs Gaskell?" asked a friend.  I don't know either and I soon regretted not being able to track down the heroine's blue dress in - was it Mary Barton or North and South?

As moving day looms I think of the opening lines of Jacob Polley's poem "Moving House" (from The Brink):

"Bubble-wrap the chimney like a vase,
its bouquet of wilted smoke
ripped out, and pack the slates
the way you'd box a brittle set of books."

He goes on to talk of flat-packing each room, leading the bath out by its plug chain, squeezing the air out of the stairs.  The poem is required reading for anyone moving house.


Saturday, 17 June 2017

SAY IT WITH FLOWERS

A mad hatter's tea party (complete with flamingos), flowers of ice and flame standing in old milk churns (the kind I used to see outside farm gates when I was a child), and a poet-tree with paper leaves showing extracts from poems (Blake, Wordsworth, Heaney and others).

These were a few of the displays at our village flower festival last weekend.  Add into the mix the WI's high baking standards, a beautiful open garden, the Border brass band, strong winds, heavy showers.  

The school, nursery, playgroup, six local churches and organisations from the Northern Fells villages all put in displays.  The spinning, craft, art, walking and book groups were all represented.  

I was commissioned to write a poem - my brief was the title of the festival: "Celebrating our church and community in colour" (no pressure then!).  I included as many flower names in the poem as I could (checking my books of wild and garden flowers to see what would be in season).  I was delighted to find that they had been incorporated into the displays (I went round ticking them off the list).  Foxgloves were particularly successful.  Somehow a bumble bee got carried in and continued to collect nectar in the church where the flowers were displayed.

It's not been an easy time over the last couple of years in our community but the festival seems to have been a turning point, bringing people of all ages together.  I wanted to convey this in the poem, which was printed in the festival programme and which I read at the closing ceremony.


A festival of flowers
  
Gather in your arms
their carnival colours –
poppy and cornflower
foxglove and forget-me-not
iris, aquilegia, alyssum

breathe the scents
of carnation, honeysuckle, jasmine,
rub lavender and mint
between finger and thumb,
taste nasturtium’s peppery leaves

celebrate their shades
of flame and ice,
dawn and sunset,
glimmers of gold and silver,
blues of the sky
and purples of the sea

rejoice at this our festival –
let roses share our love,
lilies bring us comfort,
daisies bless our children
and rosemary grace
our remembering.


© Mary Robinson 2017

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

POETRY'S FLAME

This month has seen a lament and a celebration in the world of poetry.  Two women writers who have accompanied me on my reading and writing journey through life.

A few days ago I heard of the death of Helen Dunmore, the poet and novelist.   She was a consummate reader of her own work - her soft, clear, compelling voice communicated directly with her listeners.  A few years ago she judged the Mirehouse poetry competition and at the winners' event she took time to explain the judging process and to comment with care on all the shortlisted poems and the winning poem.

On Wednesday BBC Radio 4's "Front Row" broadcast the last poem she wrote, "Hold out your arms", completed shortly before her death.  It was an almost unbearable few minutes.  She wrote from the frontier between life and death, welcoming death as a mother who would comfort her and  end her suffering.

On Friday I was driving home from a concert in Carlisle and switched on Radio 3's "The Verb".  I discovered that the whole programme was devoted to a recorded interview with Helen Dunmore.  It was an overview of her work, both poetry and prose (including her writing for children).  She spoke of her dislike of the idea of fulfilment in writing - she was not one to say "That's it, I've done what I wanted, I can sit back now".  No, rather, she was always pressing on, always wanting to write more, explore more.  She emphasised the importance of physical details, avoiding the abstract, seeing the transcendent in the everyday.

In the course of the interview she read several poems and extracts from her novels.  One poem particularly caught my attention: "Nightfall in the IKEA kitchen". an exploration of design, life, consumerism all inspired by one of those Swedish rooms where there is a place for everything and a seductive suggestion that if only we get the storage right our lives will be all right too.

But there was celebration this week too.  Thursday was Gillian Clarke's 80th birthday.  Long may she continue to write, encourage and proclaim as she has done for so long.  Having spent a week with Gillian on a Ty Newydd course I doubt that she has any intention of slowing down.  I received an email from Literature Wales which reprinted the poem, "Y Fflam", the poem with which she began and ended her role as National Poet of Wales.

And it was election week.  The last verse of "Y Fflam" reads:

we meet to

   "burn off the fog of politics
    with poetry's flame
    to illuminate
    the mind's manuscript."

Gillian Clarke and Helen Dunmore: their work keeps the flame of poetry burning.


"Hold out your arms" can be found on the Guardian website (google the title and Dunmore)

"Y Fflam" can be found at www.sheerpoetry.co.uk under the title "A Laureate's Life"

Thursday, 8 June 2017

ROSES

" ... The roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at"
wrote TS Eliot in Burnt Norton.  I imagine roses, wet with dew, leaning over a path and saying "Look at us!"  The roses in my garden and in my neighbours' gardens have been doing this for a few weeks now.

This week, somewhat less showily, the wild roses have opened in the hedges, including the boundary hedge between my garden and the field.  The dog rose is pale pink and bleaches as it ages (rapidly).

Our village will be holding a flower festival this week end.  The roses will be on show.

White roses

The white jar on the dressing table
fits my palm like a shell.

A scent of powder, rattling
trinkets - pins, buttons, rings.

On the lid porcelain roses,
glazed as if dew-rinsed.

                    *

Summer musk fills the air - white roses
tumbling over the rusted shed.

One flower opens and another falls -
pale petals soft as vein-marked skin.

I could dip them in sugar,
place them on my tongue.

                    *

Old pottery at high water mark,
all pattern erased.  Far out

the ocean gathers sea flowers,
balances blooms on it surface.

Waves curl and stumble,
scatter white roses on the shore.

© Mary Robinson 2015

(First published in Cadence Autumn 2015)