Friday, 24 August 2018


'I should never be a Frenchman, never be one of them' (Daphne du Maurier The Scapegoat) quotes Adam Thorpe in Notes from the Cevennes: Half a Lifetime in Provincial France.  

Enjoying this very readable memoir about living in France has sent me back to the poems in Thorpe's excellent collection Voluntary.  Several of the poems are set in France including - 'Impression', 'Fuel', 'Underground', 'Spring Class', 'Second Homes', 'Posy', 'Neighbour', 'Panic' [another IKEA poem] and 'In Court'.  The prose fills out the background to the poems, but the poems show how all this can be condensed into a few lines.

Writing about 'Voluntary' in the Poetry Book Society Spring 2012 bulletin Adam Thorpe said:

'I was badly stuck for an opener : the main leit-motifs ... seem to be roads, animals' otherness and time, but none of the relevant poems quite worked in pole position.  "Sutton Hoo" with its image of standing on a rostrum helplessly surveying the past, felt like a reasonable compromise.  The day before sending off the final draft of Voluntary, I happened to glance at the paw-embedded tile by my study door and the first two lines of "Impression" welled up, with the dim shape of the rest behind, the world "jobsworth" gleaming in the tail.  The collection was done.'

It's a lovely poem, only 19 lines, imagining the making of the clay tile and how the dog's paw-prints became embedded in it.  In his memoir Adam Thorpe devotes a whole chapter to the clay tile, telling us in fascinating detail about the 2nd century tegula.  'Two slightly overlapping paw-marks showed, with each of the four toe-pads like a large oval petal'.  Questioning the local vet and knowledgeable
friends reveals the gait of the dog so that the writer discovers 'how this far-off moment galvanised an animal, bunched its muscles, fired its brain, traced its intention ... I feel close to the dog, so close I can touch its bristly flank, sense it muzzling my hand with its cool nose, smell the slightly foetid stink of poor drains on the air.'

Adam Thorpe Notes from the Cevennes (Bloomsbury 2018)
Voluntary (Cape 2012)


Concrete road, Mynydd Mawr

Are they still living,
these men in their nineties,
retelling their war?

Stripped to the waist,
shoulders blistering,
piecing together

squares, oblongs, triangles,
placing the forms,
churning the mix like butter,

throwing in gravel,
a broken bottle
(which glints in the sun),

pouring, tamping,
cheering the farm dog
who runs to greet them

his paw prints
on the wet track.

Chough and peregrine,
heather and gorse,
eight decades of concrete.

I will always be younger
than this road
but it will outlive me.

© Mary Robinson 2018

A steady stream of visitors have made their way to my house this summer.  It's been lovely to have so many friends here.  The family have been to stay too and it's been a delight to see my young grandchildren doing 'Fourth generation' things (my parents first visited the Peninsula in the early 1950s) - playing on the beach at Morfa Nefyn and Aberdaron, going on the Ffestiniog Railway and having tea and cake in the Gwalia Cafe in Pwllheli.

One of the places I often take visitors is Mynydd Mawr on the tip of Penllyn.   There are still small fields surviving from the centuries-old smallholding economy of Lleyn.  Mynydd Mawr is an excellent viewpoint for Bardsey Island and if it is clear enough we can see across Cardigan Bay and right down the coast of Wales.  At the summit are the remains of the old coastguard station with a small display inside.  To reach the summit we can either scramble up through gorse and heather or walk up the zig-zag concrete road built by the army during the Second World War when the hill was an important look-out station for sea defences.  Apart from the coastguard station the other buildings have been demolished, leaving flights of steps leading nowhere and flat platforms in the grass.

But the road was built well and has lasted - complete with the footprints of an inquisitive farm collie.