Monday, 25 June 2018


The Great Exhibition of the North was launched last Friday from the Newcastle/Gateshead quayside on the banks of the Tyne.  I hope it's going to a be a celebration of the North of England, and not just the North East.  The only mention of Cumbria I found in the media coverage was about the animation of Postman Pat (the stories' setting is based on Longsleddale).

Not all reaction to this latest creative industry razzmatazz event has been positive.  "The money the government has given the Great Exhibition is a drop in the ocean compared with the cuts local councils here have had to make as a result of Tory austerity". (Frank Styles, reported in The Guardian "Look North: Festival evokes long history of innovation and ideas" 23 June 2018).

In a somewhat perverse train of logic I found myself thinking of the idea of West.  West is the direction of sunset, of another world.  Facing his last voyage, Tennyson's Ulysses declared:

    "Tis not too late to seek a newer world
     ... for my purpose holds
     To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
     Of all the western stars, until I die"

Here on Penllyn, itself a finger of land pointing south-west, the sunsets can be spectacular.  Sometimes the whole sea is a blaze of magenta, reflecting the colour of the sky.  Norman Nicholson's poem, "Sea to the West", looks west from Cumbria.  It begins:

    "When the sea's to the west
      The evenings are one dazzle
      Waves of shine
      Heave, crest, fracture,
      Explode on the shore"

and ends:

      "Let my eyes at the last be blinded
       Not by the dark
       But by dazzle."

From the British Isles West has been the direction of emigration - those driven by poverty, eviction, famine, discrimination or adventure to board ships crossing the Atlantic in the late 18th and 19th centuries.  Now, in the 21st century there are still people heading Westwards across Europe driven by the force of terrible circumstances.

The West has been a place of pilgrimage - Bardsey Island, Whithorn, Iona, The Skelligs.  John Donne's poem "Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward" is a meditation on the poet's turning his back on the East, the place of the rising sun.  Paul Muldoon adapts  Donne's title in his "Good Friday, 1971, Driving Westward", a poem in which "all might not be right with the day" and going from East to West in that part of Ireland is also going from North to South.  Amy Clampitt's poem "Westward" describes her slog to Iona from London ("Iona an indecipherable/blur" in the rain) and ranges widely from St Columba to the Prairie

     "rimmed by the driftwood
      of embarkations, landings, dooms, conquests,
      missionary journeys, memorials".

There is a distinctiveness about the rocky Atlantic edge of the British Isles - it's where the strands of Celtic language survived in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Manx, Cornish.

Gwyneth Lewis in "The Flaggy Shore" writes "Even before I've left, I long / for this place" and says the ephemeral landscapes in the clouds "make me homesick for where I've not been."  Her poem is in part a response to Seamus Heaney's "Postscript" (from his collection The Spirit Level):

     "And some time make the time to drive out west
       Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore".

This is a place where

     " ... big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
       And catch the heart off guard and blow it open."

Friday, 15 June 2018


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   

Wednesday, 6 June 2018


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]