Thursday, 24 November 2016


“Before the leaves change, light transforms these lucid
speaking trees”
                                          (Anne Stevenson “Stasis”)

Every day I look out of my dining room window and see the leaves changing.  This morning the sunlight filters through amber leaves on oak and beech.  The ash’s lemony leaves fell weeks ago, the golden horse chestnut’s only recently.  The birch’s coppery foil leaves have gone.  The quickthorn hedge is bare but there’s a good stock of haws for the birds.   My garden is in a state of transformation from its enclosed summer appearance (a place for green thoughts in a green shade) to its open winter aspect when I can stand at the kitchen window and see vehicles on the lane half a mile away.

That opening quotation from Anne Stevenson’s poem comes from her sequence “Sonnets for Five Seasons”.  I can never tally four seasons into the twelve months so the Scottish and Northern English idea of five seasons seems to fit my experience of the year much better.  In Scots the five seasons are Lent, Simmer, Hairst, the Back-End, Winter.  With the shift to cold frosts and stormy weather I feel we are now in the back-end, the days shortening to the Solstice, the back-end of the old year.  But the trees haven’t quite succumbed to winter.

Last weekend we had a reunion – five of us who were students together in Liverpool in the seventies.  The last time we all got together was several years ago when we were juggling childcare, work, aged parents.  I wrote about that in “Reunion”, a poem which found its way into The Art of Gardening.  Now, the focus of our lives is different.  We have mostly become the older generation, our offspring have left home and some of them have produced children of their own, most of us have retired from the day job, several of us have moved house or are planning to move.  Life has turned out differently from what we expected when we were students.   For some there was a sense of a new freedom, for others a sense of constriction.  For all of us a new awareness that we are at a time of transition.  Carol Ann Duffy’s challenging, encouraging question (from her poem “Snow”) seems particularly relevant:  What will you do with the gift of your left life?

I hope we can, in R S Thomas’s words, catch this
     one truth by surprise
       that there is everything to look forward to.

                                         (from “Arrival”)

Tuesday, 15 November 2016


There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl calling
far off and a fox hunting
miles away.
                   (R S Thomas “The Other”)

I spent last week at Rhiw on the Llŷn Peninsular, one of my favourite places in North Wales.  I arrived late and it was already dark – velvet dark, blanket dark, scattered with diamond bright stars.    

There was a portrait of R S Thomas in a corner of the cottage living room – I felt he was keeping an eye on me all week.  On my way to Wales I had read a news item in the paper about the posthumous publication of some of his new-found poems, Too Brave to Dream, a collection of painting poems.  The poems were discovered between the pages of two modern art books and Bloodaxe have published them this month alongside reproductions of the art works which inspired them. 

Only a few hours later I was told of the recent death of Gwydion, the son of R S Thomas and his wife Mildred (Elsi) Eldridge.  He was buried in the graveyard of Llanfaelrhys Church, which is within walking distance of where I was staying. Although it was the second week of November there were still plants in flower by the roadside – splashes of reds and pinks from red campion, herb Robert, valerian and fuchsia, bright yellows from buttercups, hawkbit (I think) and gorse, and pale clusters of convolvulus.  They reminded me of Elsi’s paintings. 

I found a new white wooden cross with the name Andreas Gwydion Thomas next to his mother’s memorial stone inscribed M E Eldridge 1909-91 ac yn ei ysbryd* R S Thomas 1913-2000.

Llanfaelrhys church is beautiful in its simplicity.   R S Thomas was vicar here (and of Aberdaron and Rhiw churches) from 1967 to 1978.  In July this year a new R S Thomas room was opened in the church loft.  I climbed the extremely steep stairs (almost a ladder) to find an attractive room laid out with photographs of the family, prints of Elsi’s paintings, books by R S Thomas and recordings of him reading his poems.  The loft has a small window which looks out to Bardsey Island.

I woke on Wednesday and immediately checked the news for the result of the US election.  It seems that the result was decided by a handful of marginal states, and I pondered the bizarre and precarious mechanics of decision-making in politics in the US and the UK and reflected that the British media had been dominated by the American elections, leaving Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other troubled parts of the world to moulder on.

A few days previously the weekly Brain Pickings enewletter had popped into my inbox.  There was an article on the poet Mary Oliver and the redemptive refuge of reading and writing:

“This is what I learned: the world’s otherness is an antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness – the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books – can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”

You can hear R S Thomas reading “The Other” on YouTube – search R S Thomas The Other. for more about Too Brave to Dream.
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*and in his spirit