VINTAGE GEMS Walford DaviesNWR Issue 64
Quietly As Snow - Gwydion Thomas interviewed by Walford Davies
Following the death of R.S. Thomas in 2000, posthumous editions of his work and new critical approaches to his oeuvre have begun to appear in recent months from presses as diverse as Bloodaxe, Penguin and the University of Wales Press. Gwydion Thomas, the only child of R.S. Thomas and artist M.E. Eldridge, talks to Walford Davies about his experiences as the son of artistic parents, and discusses the interrelationship of their respective fields in their creative partnership. Among other things, he argues that the artistic output of his mother has yet to be accorded the critical attention it deserves, and he also reflects upon the tensions of the public persona and private life of R.S. Thomas.
When I was a child and the soft flesh was forming
Quietly as snow on the bare boughs of bone...
What I've just quoted is, of course, the opening of one of the finest short poems in the English language, 'Song for Gwydion', which carries your name. You were born on 29 August, 1945, the son and only child of the Rector of Manafon, R.S. Thomas, and his wife, Mildred E. Eldridge, who were gradually to achieve eminence in the fields of poetry and the visual arts respectively, both in Wales and further afield. Obviously, we shall return in some detail to your mother and father as they shaped, and still shape, the wider context for this interview, so may I suggest, if it is acceptable to you, that for convenience we use in the main the names Elsi and RS?
I want to start, though, by asking if you could give a brief outline of the broad trajectory of your own life and career.
: Your word 'trajectory' is an interesting one. Nothing so forceful or bold could describe my life, so I wouldn't want it to deflect us. Perhaps a rocket that sped very true for the first seven years, as is the way with many children, particularly those who believe they are having a 'happy childhood'; but then it whirled, dipped, fizzled and somehow tunneled through the sludge until, at least in terms of personal happiness, it has rather amazingly and unsuspectingly, like an unpromising firework, produced what I take will be a final, if rather anguished, flowery flourish.
I say that it shouldn't deflect us, mainly because I agree that most of the sometimes odd central aspects of my life cannot be divorced from the way in which they were shaped by my parents, or from the reflexiveness that their choices about me had in turn on their own lives. Against that background, however, I should like to record that whatever I myself as a young adult chose to do back then was pretty much greeted with either silent disbelief or incomprehension. You will recall my father late in life airily claiming that he never knew what I did, or where I was, both of which of course were quite untrue.
I think places had an unusual importance in the lives of RS and Elsi as well as in my own. The significance in their lives of Caergybi, Manafon, Aberdaron and Sarn-y-Plas in Rhiw, but also Italy and France, and the West Coast of the Celtic fringe, has meant that both they and I measured the years by landmarks signified through places rather than people. In my own case, certainly, the issue of where, for example, to live has always been important. When I was young I very much wanted to live in Sarn-y-Plas – the house in Llyn leased in the early 1960s as a gift to Elsi by the three Keating sisters, Eileen, Honora and Lorna. But, of course, with no work in Pen Llyn, that for me has only become possible now and, while Sarn-y-Plas continues to be a magical place, there are other places I wish to spend time in, too. I have been lucky enough to live and work in other beautiful places of my choosing: Corsica, Arizona, Phuket and more recently the North of Thailand. Mostly, though, they remain hotter versions of Pen Llyn, with the jungle and the desert sometimes replacing the sea. As my wife Kunjana said about our house in Phuket – 'Sarn-y-Plas with elephants!'
The topography of RS's poetry has of course been much noted and explored, and Elsi's own painted landscapes comprise an extensive record of those places. At the same time, that unpeopled landscape was fundamental in generating my inadequately fulfilled aim to ensure that my adult life, especially my relationships, in particular with my son Rhodri and now my daughter Elodie, would be as different as possible from my parents' life.
However, while much of my youth and middle life was peopled with a series of other significant people – none ever well regarded by RS and Elsi – I have lived somewhat in the shadow of their solitude, there having been no early models for the making and preserving of friendships. To quote Cyril Connolly, it was, for Elsi and RS, not so much the pram in the hall that was 'the enemy of promise' as anyone in the hall at all that threatened their space to create.
RS wrote extensively about his personal career and family, and Elsi's attachment to her family, particularly her father and brother, was also very strong — there are almost no portraits by Elsi except of her family. But while RS and Elsi's lives seem to have been extensively influenced by the dialogue with family, mine has really been only recently so influenced — by my son Rhodri and Kunjana and now our daughter Elodie.
Getting back to your question, though, I myself hardly think of my life in terms of career or work. Some people construct careers; indeed, that is now what Rhodri with most welcome normality is doing. I myself, however, constructed a journey through, mostly, carefully chosen real and fantastical places, in the company of people whom I unrealistically required to meet fairly batty criteria of empathy if they were to be my company. I discovered rather too late that, if I was lucky, those other people made better choices for me, and of me.
: I agree that we shouldn't think of a life as a 'career', collapsible into a hundred words, certainly not of allowing, in Larkin's phrase, 'that toad, work' to sit oppressively on it. RS himself in the poem 'Careers' speaks of years 'taken in/ growing or in the/ illusion of it', where the warning of illusion regarding the chimera we call 'careers' is prefigured in that brilliant line-ending 'taken in'. But, though we shall inevitably remain within the fuller context provided by the personalities and artistic eminence of your parents, I am still interested in hearing first of all – however briefly or outwardly and however fashioned – what became of that boy born with the magical Welsh name Gwydion to a home in Manafon in 1945.
: The boring bits, then, about schools, universities, lectureships and academic entrepreneurship. I left Manafon to go to Packwood Haugh prep school on the hill at Ruyton XI Towns near Baschurch, outside Shrewsbury, in September 1953. As a family, we moved to Eglwys-fach in Cardiganshire in 1956 when I was eleven. My parents moved to Aberdaron in 1967. Sarn-y-Plas arrived in 1962, though no-one lived there full-time until RS retired from Aberdaron in 1978. I left Packwood in 1958 and went on a 'scholarship' – they painted my name on the oak honours board! – to Bradfield, a second- or third-rate public school founded in the middle of the nineteenth century. I left Bradfield in 1963, then went up in 1964 as an Exhibitioner to Magdalen College, Oxford to read English. I left Oxford in 1967, and went in January 1968 to teach at Henbury School, Bristol, an early, large Comprehensive, then in the autumn of 1968 to take a PGCE at King's College, Cambridge, where I stayed on for another year to read Chinese. I went to work in Luton in the autumn of 1970, and then to work in Ealing in the autumn of 1973.1 had the choice of going to London or to Cardiff; however, in spite of being favourably interviewed by Professor R. George Thomas at Cardiff, I think I felt no draw to Wales. Strangely, after working in London for four years my partner Sharon and I went to live in Whitebrook, between Chepstow and Monmouth, so maybe that was a wrong choice. In a series of tortuous moves, what was then Baling Technical College became Baling College of Higher Education, then The Polytechnic of West London and finally the infamous Thames Valley University. By an equally convoluted process, I started in Luton as a Lecturer in English, went to Baling as a Lecturer in Educational Development, then effectively became Head of Art and Design (acquiring an MA from The Royal College of Art) and finally under a multitude of everchanging nomenclatures – 'Curriculum Development', 'Academic Development', 'Modular Development', even 'Enterprise Development' – effectively became a Director of Academic Affairs in the American mould.
After Rhodri was born in 1980, Sharon and I moved back to London to live in Kew, where we stayed until I retired in 1995, and we then lived variously in Sarn-y-Plas in Rhiw, Tucson in Arizona and Sukothai in Thailand. So there you have a sort of shell of dates and places.
Next page - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 -
: Good, let's hold it there. Let's take the earliest set of memories, those of Manafon, a place where not only your own life but in effect your parents' artistic careers also first came into being, certainly into focus. Presumably, what goes in first goes in deepest, emotionally, physically and visually – even if words, like photographs, find it difficult to catch. I remember your father's wise answer in a Welsh-language interview: 'In Holyhead, I was a boy, not a "Welshman"' ('Bachgen oeddwn i yng Nghaergybi – nid Cymro'). In that same spirit, in this interview I'd like to take Manafon as not only your own boyhood base but our main anchor. What would you today bring forward as physical memories of place from that earliest period – memories, that is, of the Rectory, of Manafon itself, and of the surrounding countryside, just as places?
: So much of the early years are remembered in a dialogue with photographs. It isn't clear to me how much I would remember without the photographs, though, as you say, even photographs have a way of denying the more evanescent memories.
Manafon? – well, a jewel of a house in the long grass by the river. Tall Abies Nobilis fir trees, high yew hedges, an orchard, a kitchen garden, a cobbled courtyard, outhouses and secret rooms; a little lane, pastures and fields of grass, hedges teeming with nests and creatures, trout, owls, red squirrels, mice, house martins, swallows; a skyline guarded by hawthorn and rowan in the Welsh border manner; trees to climb and always the river lapping in winter at the cellar stairs, greenly pungent and slippery in summer. In summer, too, harebells, columbine, roses, rhododendrons, moon daisies, curlews and lapwings, long-tailed tits and pied flycatchers and wagtails nesting in the doorways, strawberries and raspberries; tunnels in the hayfields; trout wrapped in leaves, gulls on the lakes on the moors.
In the autumn, showers of golden and brown leaves, foxes, apples stored in the garage; horse-drawn hay cutters and turners, the baler, rats, dogs and rabbits. Nectarines from the tree in the greenhouse, or what might now be called the conservatory, with its little red spiders; starry nights and then the roaring flooded river with tree trunks smashing down. The Berriew Show, where I always win first prize for my display of autumn fruits. Rowan berries, blackberries, shiny black bryony berries, nuts and mushrooms, fungi and leaves, hops, rare spindletree berries. No-one else apparently has a clue where to find these things. In winter, the gravel at the front of the house floods and you can play with trains and Dinky cars in a veritable construction site of dams and pebbles.
Then the frost and the frozen pipes. It must be 1947. I do not remember it being cold, though it was the worst winter for many years. Frost patterns on all the windows. The long white woollen curtains, in fact blankets, the shutters failing to keep out the cold. The snow is high, the edges of the river freeze and all the bushes have spray icicles. The ground, rutted with cows' hooves, bone-hard and ankle-turning. The mice thrive. Then snowdrops, sheets of white, narcissus and daffodils, apple blossom. Purple orchis and drifts of elderflower and cow parsley.
No electricity, no gas. The water comes through an old pipe from a well up on Cae Siencyn where the sheep drink and shit. Elsi cooks on a paraffin stove. My porridge in the big blue cup with the broken handle congeals on the windowsill.
There is a room. It has glass doors that led into the conservatory, which is large and smells (I later realized) like the Palm House at Kew. It has red tiles and iron gratings on the floor, but no heating. The paint on the doors is old and the undercoats peep through the top coat. The present colour is a sort of navy blue, but underneath, improbably, the wood appears to have been painted orange. This could not have been so in 1947. The paint is badly applied and is bubbled, and rough. The room has wooden floors and wide skirting board, with mouse holes in the skirting boards which I see in later years only in cartoons. There is a pram in the room. A bluebottle tries to buzz me. I scream and tip up the pram. Later there is a table on which I play post-offices with the stamp album I still have.
Sunday there is a leg of lamb (5 shillings, I recall), runner beans or peas when fresh, tinned vegetables if not, boiled potatoes, a tin of fruit and custard. Monday the lamb is cold, though the vegetables remain the same. Tuesday the lamb is warmed up in gravy; vegetables continue. Wednesday there are rissoles. Thursday there is a peculiar pie, which seems to contain eggs, tinned tomatoes and white sauce. Friday there is fried plaice or sometimes boiled in milk. Maybe a fish pie. Same as Thursday's pie. If a trout has been caught it had better be on Friday! Saturday is a red letter day if a rabbit has been sent in; there will be rabbit pie. If not, the butcher will have unfortunately supplied some stringy lamb's liver with the joint.
Breakfast is taken in the kitchen as we thaw out from the cold by the stove. Everything else is eaten in the dining room. (Later, in Aberdaron, there was no room to sit in the kitchen.) There are no place mats or table cloth. The cutlery has yellow ivory-like handles. The dinner service is bright blue, which does not improve the appearance of the food. It is replaced later by a service of cream colour with little blue commas all around the edges. Later, in Eglwys-fach, everything turns sage green – the carpets, the walls, the dinner service – and there are even place mats of the same colour.
There doesn't seem to be anything else to eat regularly. There is asparagus in the kitchen garden and peas and beans, but the mice eat most of these. There are no sweets or crisps until eventually Mars bars and Smiths' crisps, with the little blue paper wraps of salt, appear as irregular treats. The dust accumulates in rolls under the dresser, watched unblinkingly by the two Portuguese ceramic chickens.
Upstairs in my bedroom I can stick my fingers into the plaster which is full of horsehair and pick it away to the laths. The room smells of paraffin from the Aladdin stove that burns all night and from the little oil lamp by my bed. From the window you can watch the red squirrels leaping in the chestnut trees. I climb into my mother's little bed in the next room. There is a maze of front stairs, back stairs, servant-quarters stairs. At the top of the back stairs there is a loo. My father pees with me. I am not so interested! There is another set of rooms in a sort of annex above the kitchens.
: And, beyond the house, do you still remember places more than people?
: Yes. Places, things, birds and animals. One day RS brings home a wireless. It has a battery the size of a large book. I had only seen wirelesses before that had batteries you had to recharge. Gertrude Rowlands, my godmother, had one, but then Dora Herbert Jones who lived with her had a harp, too, so I thought they were wealthy in their little semi in Tregynon. I remember the house better than I do them, though I remember Dora's beautiful voice. Beebe, my nurse, and Idris also had a wireless, up on the hill at Glyn Uchaf above New Mills, but I don't remember wirelesses in the farms, though they must have had them. The wireless batteries on the other hand were one of the treasures of the river and rubbish heaps that we used to salvage, along with all the beautiful glass bottles, of whose value we were quite ignorant, and the real treasures, which for me were the shards of pottery smoothed by the river water.
: 'Smoothed by the river water': in RS's fine early poem, 'Country Church (Manafon)' even 'the church stands, built from the river stone... limbs the river fashioned/ With so smooth care'.
: Yes, the river was a constant presence, as were the two woods – the Lord's Wood and the Moat Wood. There is a strange confusion between real places, real things, real people and their appearance in pictures, illustrations and poems. Even the furniture in the rectory at Manafon appears in all of Elsi's children's book illustrations, as do the windows of the kitchen and back kitchen, the garden and the gate, the river and the bridge over the river, the garage and outbuildings, the birds and trees and flowers of the garden and round about. Much of the furniture survived in the form of chests and cupboards, chairs and curtains. There were, however, no pictures on any of the walls in Manafon, and not many in the other houses, either.
But there were of course the goats, who ate washing and oranges and anything else edible, and whose little story is best told in the book published by Rupert Hart-Davis, Gwenno the Goat – or Angharad as her real name was – the original long version having been written by RS. They were for ever upping their stakes and running away to munch. Eventually they were more trouble than milk, and that was the end of 'pets'.
As to people, I remember most vividly other children. There were Melvin and Anne Jones from the Post Office. Melvin became, I think, a cleric or missionary in South Africa. Leonard Gethin, a boy called Neil, Hazel and Glenys from the Ffinnant. Roy and his mother Beebe, my full-time nurse as a child, went home, I think, when I was about three or four years old, though I continued to see Roy and go to stay at Glyn Uchaf. There was Anna, Marcel and Olga Karciewski's daughter – was she..? Some strange memory tells me she married the Labour politician Giles Radice – did she...? There were Hugh and Neil Williams, the boys from Berriew vicarage, but they were older, as was Jeanie from up on the hill, who wore no underclothes and would paddle revealingly in the river on her way home. Ceridwen, poeticised and fancied by RS. No-one really. Certainly few adults other than those who worked in the village and the farms.
: What would their language have been?
: There was no Welsh. I never heard it spoken – not in Welshpool nor in Newtown, either. On the other hand, of course, the names were all Welsh and infused everything. And there was a sort of sense of history in the castle at Montgomery and up at Cefn Coch, Llyn Celyn or Llyn Go Gaer on the moors, or in the little churches, particularly the one at Bettws. Mostly, though, the churches smelt of bats, which caused RS more problems than anything linguistic or spiritual in Manafon. There was a memorable, ecologically unsound, day when the church in Manafon was fumigated, with what I remember as peculiar thick yellow smoke, to clear out the bats; they survived and the church continued to be full of droppings and evensong flutterings. The church appeared to be a nuisance. My parents complained about the music every week. Annie Morgan, who was a large lady from The Pump, played the organ, wheezingly. Few parishioners in church.
Whist drives in the school, unfortunately opposite the pub called the Beehive. How I came to be there one Saturday I do not know, but I have a memory of what resembles the Wild West. Drunken figures wheeling and fighting in the half light, overturned tables, cards littering the floor, bottles. Later, I quizzed RS on this: 'About right,' he said.
I don't suppose a policeman set foot in Manafon that often. Elsi used to say that, when they first went there, every week a cart used to go slowly down the road from New Mills to Berriew and people would toss produce into it for the black market. Occasionally, some days later a policeman would appear making enquiries. But that was wartime. RS would go collecting for bomb victims in London and the farmers would inquire with amazement why they had not enough food to eat: there was no shortage of farm produce in Manafon. When the Italian prisoners of war came they were at first astonished and later appalled at the quantity of bacon eaten. Elsi recalls one frustrated Italian, consumed with hunger, offered yet another plate of bacon saying: 'No, No. Pig in pan, she stink!' There had also been, before I was born, evacuees from London.
: Hence, of course, the sensitive early poem 'The Evacuee', in which a young London girl wakes in rural Manafon fearful every morning of hearing an air-raid siren, and 'slow to trust nature's deceptive peace' or to trust the natural kindness of her Welsh hosts.
: Except that the evacuees apparently lived on Swiss Rolls of which they had brought a large quantity with them. Manafon, I gather, considered their morals suspect and they in turn were all happy to return to the Blitz.
Lamb and fish came by travelling vendors as did many household goods. Vegetables came from the garden, and milk and butter from the farms. No beef or pork was eaten and a chicken only at Christmas. There were gypsies, in proper caravans, with pegs and pans and buckets and brooms, tramps with trinkets. It was groceries and seeds that came from town. I don't know where Elsi's paint and canvas came from – London I suppose.
Much of the closer detail of Manafon is, inevitably, a bit hazy. I am aware that whole stretches of time and minute sensations are being missed. The bathing in the river, with that peculiar smell of river water, the crayfish, the slime on the stones, the slippery feel of tickled trout. RS's father, Tommy Thomas, when on a visit, used to wrap them in big burdock leaves to take home. He would fish in the mornings with me and then spend the rest of the day releasing all the tackle he had lost in the alder and willow trees along the banks of the Rhiw.
We used to go to buy anything significant in Pryce Jones's 'The Warehouse' in Newtown, a sort of primitive department store. Afterwards we might go up the hill to see my teacher Mrs Linhard, who was a German refugee. She had amazing silver hair wound round her head in endless plaits, and was like a lady out of a middle-European fairy tale. Or we would go to the Karciewskis' house. He was another exile. A Polish Count, with a classic profile. His wife was elegant and fussy. He had some peculiar station wagon decked out with a lot of wood, which was usually full of books and which he drove at top speed round Montgomeryshire. He printed RS's second and third books. Later they moved to a huge house in Gloucester Crescent in London and later still had an even more beautiful mas outside Uzès in the Gard. I lay in that farmhouse all one summer reading hundreds of French novels, and English ones translated in the Livre de Poche series.
Next page - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 -
: As I say, we can approach more detailed aspects of your parents' creative life as such gradually. But already amongst those more purely, physical memories that you've given us so far – of period, home and immediate surroundings at Manafon – we've had glimpses of your parents. What other specific pictures of RS and Elsi, just as people about the house in those early days, come back to mind?
: RS spending all day with an oil lamp thawing the pipes out before they froze again at night. Elsi making purses out of moleskins, berets and waistcoats out of rabbit skins; my having no choice but to wear these things. Elsi hanging two dead owls in the apple tree to have their skeletons and feathered wings, then placing the heads on the mantelpiece in the panelled hall; along with little wooden Chinese junks, a glass bell, and huge marbles, there were the skulls of sheep, badgers, foxes, hares and stoats (later, in Aberdaron, she mounts the skulls on the wall). In the attic, boxes of dead birds awaiting their resurrection in her 'studies'.
The mural for the hospital at Gobowen, painted for the most part in the drawing room at
Manafon, being stretched out, wound up, and edged past doorways over many a month. I would appear and reappear in it, as would the fields of Manafon and the Holyhead seaside, and a whole host of treasures and leitmotifs from the house and Elsi's past life.
Elsi gardening and developing her love of old roses. In Manafon there was a splendid Gloire de Dijon growing on the back of the house, where too there was the conservatory I've mentioned, with a nectarine tree which, amazingly, produced plentiful fruit.
: I remember RS mentioning the Manafon nectarine, and referring to Andrew Marvell's own marvelling lines in his poem 'The Garden' – 'The nectarine and curious peach,/ Into my hands themselves do reach', while also expressing his admiration for Elsi's adept gardening skills among more native plants.
: Even the outside garden at Manafon was something of a wonder. The orchard was filled with apple trees – Bramley, Cox, Worcester Pearmain, and underneath was an Alpine field of narcissus and small Leedsii Daffodils. There were wild strawberries, and the rare white strawberry which survived transportation to Sarn Rhiw [Sarn-y-Plas] via both Eglwys-fach and Aberdaron. They made an exquisite kitchen garden, too. There was plentiful asparagus, strawberries, raspberries and blackcurrants. Elsi built an Alpine wall with stones from Afon Rhiw and there were gentian and other alpines there. When I was born, RS planted a larch tree next to the beautiful Abies Nobilis at the front of the Rectory. They produced the most beautiful cones, which were a better plaything than many a toy. The larch tree is still there, about 40 feet tall! There were rhododendrons and crab apples to bloom and swathes of marguerites. There was, over the front door, a yellow Rosa Banksiae in which the long-tailed tits used to nest. The garden was full of birds and mice, which I used to hunt with a penknife, until one day I fell over and stuck the penknife up my nose!
Elsi cooking on a paraffin stove in the slate-floored back kitchen. She made cakes for RS and was forever bottling fruit and making dandelion wine, nettle beer, elderflower champagne and sherry. Open fires and Aladdin lamps with their beautiful filigree wicks, always breaking. Elsi making lampshades out of some, peculiar precursor of plastic, which she sews and pleats and punches holes in with a leather punch. RS washing the tall lamp glasses carefully as they are continually getting blackened. For some reason there are few candles. Not much housework was done.
RS sitting by the fire with his woollen socks off, full of holes, painting his toes with iodine against the chilblains.
One day in October, RS leaving the door open all night and in the morning the conservatory blown inside-out. November brought Guy Fawkes parties. There were huge bonfires and RS kept the fireworks in an old red Oxo tin. Christmas, with a tree made from yew branches, decorated with real candles, red and twirly in little tin candle-holder clips. Sometimes in summer RS would paddle me about in the big pool in Afon Rhiw in an old wartime orange rubber dinghy.
Me sitting on the carpet at the other end of a room, where there is an open fire. RS feeding me poached egg on toast under the table. Later again, RS appearing to eat nothing except baked beans or tinned spaghetti for breakfast. Later, too, Elsi telling me he does not like sauces. It appears to be true. Me watching him wrestle the meat off a dry chicken bone, fastidiously dismembering a dry potato. RS eating bread and cheese every day at 11.00 am. Lunch at 1.00. Tea at 5.00. Supper at 8.00. Every day without fail. Elsi feeding him like a robot. He is never early, never late, never cooks. The pattern of the week unvarying.
Later, RS opening his own tins, boiling his own eggs and frying his own chicken legs. Later still, Elsi going to give her classes for the Extra-Mural Department of the University of Wales Aberystwyth, when RS has to give me supper. A piece of cheese, mould not unknown, Caerphilly usually, and a jar of pickled beetroot. Tea was, I think, his favourite meal. He eats several slices of bread and butter, then several of bread and jam, a piece of malt bread or bara brith and then either a couple of iced buns or a piece of cake. Elsi feeding his sweet tooth unceasingly. He didn't drink tea, though Elsi did, from her little silver teapot.
RS laying traps and red lead, putting gorse in with the seeds. The mice and rabbits thriving.
Elsi appearing to paint and paint; RS appearing to do nothing except read and scythe the grass.
RS sleeping in the big front bedroom which is freezing and has two single beds (I never saw a double bed). In this room, when I am 11, my mother telling me we shall have to leave this beautiful house because RS is unhappy. Elsi crying. My grandparents coming to stay and sleeping in my father's room, he going into the attic, into the room that would become my playroom. Our having no money for curtains, and my making Elsi buy two exotically coloured towels to pin at the windows.
In the other room on this third floor, Elsi painting. The smell of turpentine filling the air together with that of Gloire de Dijon roses. The boxes of oil paints, the canvases, the stretchers, the charcoal and the little spray for fixative are intoxicating. RS at an old typewriter banging out poems on thin paper, already typing out only poems that he wants to keep. The fireplace full each evening with scrumpled pages. RS listening on a gramophone to Beethoven and Mozart, not much else. It is hard work. My liking the little HMV boxes of needles, and thinking the best use I could see for the gramophone was to put toys on it and watch them whirl round.
RS taking me up the hills into farm kitchens where flitches of bacon hung with washing from the ceiling. They were warm rooms with tiled floors and the smell of bread. In the yard unpleasant sheepdogs lurched at you. Later they chased me down the hill from Llwyn Coppa when I went to get buttermilk, of which RS was very fond. I would go no more; that's where my hatred of dogs comes from. Up at Belandeg my making a friend in Tom Jones, though I now see that it was a wealthy farm and therefore suitable company for the parson's son. My other friends were simply tolerated, as there were no choices.
RS taking me to school, on the bar of his bike if lucky, and on a sledge in winter. I was not allowed to stay for lunch: no charity for the parson, thanks. RS picking me up again at the end of the day, scared of the contagion of those peasants. Yet I saw old Bullock dying in his bed all those years and the old man in his bed at The Mill. Job Davies, Darlington, Cynddylan – the Jones boy from Llwyn Coppa who would let me drive the tractor – these were all real. Prytherch is a sort of amalgam of the Wilson boys from the Ffinnant, the Llwyn Coppa boys and the feuding Darlingtons, along with all those lone figures up in the fields above New Mills and Adfa.
: You mentioned earlier that 'much of the closer detail of Manafon is, inevitably, a bit hazy. Yet you seem to me able to move backwards and forwards in time with ease, with vivid descriptive powers and detailed knowledge of natural life as well as insight into character and time and situation. May I ask whether, as the saying goes, 'you yourself write'? At least, may I ask you whether you've been writing such memories down?
: As you know, initially we compiled for my son Rhodri on his 21st birthday in January 2001 the little book ringless fingers. The title was taken from a poem RS wrote for one of Elsi's birthdays in the 1970s. It is true: their fingers were ringless, though Elsi had seven pieces of Celtic Silver on her wedding day, including a silver wedding ring. She wore it occasionally, when not to have done so might have appeared, even to her, simply unhelpful. RS never, to my knowledge wore a piece of jewellery. In that book called ringless fingers we tried to assemble, from the material we had to hand, in their own words and images, a narrative of the intensity of their relationship (especially as they aged), the extraordinary ambivalence they had about having a child and then a grandchild, the emotional attachment they had to those significant locations I have detailed – particularly Manafon, Caergybi or Holyhead and 'Wales', but also, in my mother's case, Italy – and the complete suppression of any display of love and of the mundane that their creative life apparently required, ringless fingers was also, obviously, an attempt to help explain to Rhodri, or help him understand, why and in what ways we were all so barmy! What would make me sad would be for him to puzzle over things that can be answered, in ways I have puzzled over things I myself have never fully understood as legacies from RS and Elsi.
Then, over the last two or three years, I have been writing down detailed memories, basically all again written for my family. What I did first was try and write a catalogue or list of all the people and places, events and ideas that I remember as having been significant in RS and Elsi's lives and my own. It was inevitably rather a turmoil, without any real linear progression. Then I began to flesh our each entry. I see my memories and records, including my mother's memoir, as being something of an antidote and a ‘humanising' supplement to RS's Autobiographies. Elsi's memoir also contains a diary, which is in it interestingly alternative view of A Year in Llyn. So I gradually came to document my own perspective on both the period most directly influenced by my parents and the way in which even my life apart continued to be bound with theirs. What it really attempts, though, is no more than a simple provision for Rhodri of facts and locations, because he has often said that there are so many years, so many people, that he is simply ignorant of. In recent times I have also been writing a weblog, which seems to me an interesting way to record some of life's ephemera. Of course, most of my writing has been dour academic stuff!
: I don't know what your own memoir will finally include or omit as it progresses, but if you were at this moment to encapsulate something quite general – your sense, this time, not of others but of your own self at the heart of that earliest period, even if that sense came through another's view of you – what would you say?
: Elsi used to say I never asked any questions, but that I was very voluble. Apparently, I used to put my back to a wall and hold forth. In fact, I don't think I've changed much!
My sense of my own self at that early time? The photographs to most people’s eyes demonstrate one thing clearly: that RS and Elsi were especially ambivalent about the birth of a son. My mother dressed me in dungarees, that most unsexing of outfits, and my cloud of golden curls was, to say the least, ambiguous. Add to that RS's question in Neb, 'How can no-one be a father to someone?', and the early poem, 'The Unborn Daughter', and I might reasonably speculate on the construction of my self and sexuality. I do not know by what strange process all of that turned towards that characteristic scented by so many people in my life of possibilities of mediums and healers – which I have continued to downplay, even avoid – rather than towards the fashionableness of gayness.
For myself alone, what I think I learned most particularly back then was that death comes easily: all those creatures dying with great regularity. Also that fathers, though present, could be both absent and a nuisance. That books were an excellent source of fantasy and dreams. (By the way, it was Elsi who taught me to read, and I could read well when I was three or four, so that when I went to school at five I was bored to bits as no-one else could read well.) That you could play in the fields and the river until the sun set. That other people were irrelevant. That this closed world appeared to have no drawbacks. A golden age.
: A golden age, indeed. And yet – I remember your phrase earlier, 'the garden and the gate' – it was a world you were to be sent out and away from.
: Yes, everything changed in September 1953. Some visits to Shrewsbury to acquire clothes and other things made me vaguely aware something was up. I had already had my curls removed a couple of years earlier when I had my tricycle, so it was not the haircut. In May of that year we had visited Packwood, where I was introduced to a large gingery man in plus fours with a lot of hair in his nose. This was Mr McFerran. I watched a lot of boys playing cricket and running around. Mr McFerran asked me if I would like to be one of his bunnies. 'Not likely,' I said. Yet in September off to be a bunny I was despatched. Some bunny!
Next page - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 -
: This is not the place for any detailed account of the obscene horrors of private boarding schools that started then for you, nor even of their simpler privations; as a Grammar Schoolboy, I doubt I could stomach hearing of them, let alone imagine taking them on. But, in more general terms, what was it like? That is, what was its effect on you at the age of eight? And do you remember any of your parents' perceptions, if any, of what that effect on you might be?
: Fifteen little boys in a bedroom at Packwood, lonely and frightened, watched over by a dragon of a matron with the physique of a Philipino wrestler who thrashed, with a hairbrush, those who cried and wet their beds – this started the long business of brutalisation that both Packwood and Bradfield had in common. When I was at Packwood, Elsi was incensed that I did not get my own sheets, as the maids were too idle to read the names. How could they!
Elsi would come and take me out some Sundays in an appalling little grey van. We would go up into the rainy hills above Llangollen, sometimes to Chester Zoo or the lakes at Ellesmere. She would cook fried Spam and instant potato on a Primus stove in the back of the van and buy me sherbet fountains. I think she knew if she took me home – it was only about 30 miles away – she would never get me back. At Guy Fawkes she would buy fireworks and we would let them off in some godforsaken lay-by. There were no half terms. Once, my father came to play football, in red and white socks, I remember, with his white legs, running up and down ineffectually. He remembered it, too. 'What a buffoon that man Brooke is,' he says. 'You certainly aren't going to Shrewsbury!' The man Brooke, who had a son at Bradfield, was a housemaster at Shrewsbury public school. He was only playing the fool in goal to try and amuse us!
After Packwood, Bradfield was yet more Lord of the Flies stuff. Vicious boys and masters with eyes and consciences averted. It was also very much as in Lindsay Anderson's film If. Again, I found it all terrifying. By the late 1950s Bradfield was catering to new money and the gin-and-Jaguar belts of Surrey and the other Home Counties. There were no black or oriental pupils, no Hampstead, no 'old' money. These were the sons of Home Counties doctors, a German book publisher, gin distillers, teachers, some expat oilmen in Iraq, early caterers to tourists in Spain, gentlemen farmers. Bradfield was itself very much a child of its time as an institution. Those families with money took their sons out at 16 to get on with business. Those that survived in the top forms went to Oxbridge as though on a conveyor belt. My attempts to flout this – for example, taking English ‘A' Level as well as the 'normal' Classics ones, applying to go to the University of Wales in Cardiff or to read Textile Design at Leeds – were dismissed as eccentric by the School and firmly rejected by RS at home. Some 40 years later, when Rhodri, at Westminster School, wisely chose to read Law at Bristol rather than at Oxford, RS's comment was 'Well, Westminster can't be that much of a school if it can't secure him a place at Oxford!'
When I was about 14, I started running away from Bradfield. This was the Eglwys-fach period. I had a Welsh girlfriend, Sue, and it was fun to get on the train and spend the night in Welshpool station by the stove before catching the early morning train to Glandyfi to see her. It was she who saw me through most of Bradfield. I had already been warned off her by RS: they were 'villagers' and thus quite unsuitable company for the vicar's son. I started meeting her under the railway bridge in Glandyfi; then up in the woods and on the hills above Eglwys-fach. We would lie against a big stone or in the bracken and kiss and talk from mid morning until it got dark in the summer. Once RS found us and hauled me off her. I think Bill Condry used to spy on us with his binoculars, RS also. How we managed not to sleep together I don't know. Ironically, Sue became a medical nurse and gained a degree in music and a PhD, which says something about the misplaced nature of RS's snobbery.
: His own snobbery or elitism or whatever seems to have been recognized early by RS himself and built into the early poetry, as if he were striving to get on to more democratically acceptable terms with it – not least in the lines from his most famous poem, A Peasant', about people and a way of life that 'shock the refined,/ But affected, sense with their stark naturalness'. That phrase 'but affected' seems clinically inserted, as if as an afterthought, wanting to make social amends.
: But the same divisions continued elsewhere and everywhere. RS said that he could smell evil when he used to get off the train in London. I rather like that smell, as it seems to me far truer to the human condition than the smell of manure in Wales. One of the things that emerged in the mid 1990s during the years leading up to his second marriage, to Betty Vernon, in 1996 was that in moving to be near her in Titley, Herefordshire, he was able to indulge his hankering to be an English country gentleman. He used to appear regularly in tweed jackets and cavalry twills like a retired Colonel.
: And yet, paradoxically, that very period approaching his late marriage to Betty produced some of the most moving and poignant, because throw-back, poems about Elsi. It was a period when some of RS's late poems attained a moving, remorseful power comparable to that of Thomas Hardy's late 1912-13 poems to his first wife Emma Gifford. RS, like Hardy, seems to reach back, with self-reproach between the lines, beyond the second to the first wife.
But in turn, we too have jumped ahead, and should return. Let's go back to the Eglwys-fach period.
: Well, those Eglwys-fach years, from 1959 to 1963, were also pretty grim, for me as well as for RS and Elsi. RS has documented his problems with the retired military amongst his parishioners at Eglwys-fach, though the severe illness of Elsi must have contributed enormously to their misery there. Other than Sue, I had no friends at Eglwys-fach. I became an expert at playing darts and snooker with both hands so I could play against myself. Also, a variety of other extraordinary games that involved pitting right hand against left. I slept all the time else, listening to RS droning on in the kitchen below. There were endless escapades, with Sue and me snucking off on buses or whatever to movies in Aberystwyth and to friends' houses, escapades that usually ended in some domestic fracas back home. There was simply nothing to do.
Back at Bradfield, I was clever, bored, lonely, good at games and unpopular. I disliked most people and had a sharp tongue. I was learning, though, to lie and cheat and dissemble – all those necessary attributes for running an empire. I learnt, too, some carpentry, how to hide a rhubarb jam sandwich, no butter, in your pocket until it could be disposed of later, and shame at not being like everyone else.
You ask what was the effect of all this on me. I just felt bewildered and abandoned. What on earth was I doing there? I tried to make friends with a few people and even went to their houses at weekends. There, I had an intimation of normal, or maybe just bourgeois, lives. There were sisters and brothers, dogs, normally furnished rooms, and conversations about work and holidays.
Elsi's visits and 'tailgating' continued. RS would occasionally take a Sunday off and come down. We would sit in silence in the car and then eat a salmon supper in 'an hotel' as RS called them. He came to watch me in an athletics event once but my pleasure was diminished by spotting him at the top of the grandstand with his back turned to the track watching birds all afternoon!
And so began to grow that strange duality that I have towards it all. On the one hand, everything that Manafon itself in the first place, and RS and Elsi themselves, stood for was a sort of enclosed perfect world which was 'other than’ everything else, and into which you could escape. On the other hand it was, as you say, an Eden from which I myself had been ruthlessly expelled, with little explanation and less salve. As a consequence, I nurtured a confusion. Did I belong to a world that valued things in a way no other world did? RS was fond of maintaining that writers and artists, and particularly himself, were classless. I don't think he read much sociology or psychology. Perhaps he thought Bergson, Kant and Kierkegaard were classless, too! Packwood and Bradfield were intellectual and cultural deserts, so did I belong in that wasteland?
: As it happens, Elsi's memoir is wonderfully evocative of her own early schooling, yet she too writes a sad line – 'I hated all my school days'. She recounts being punished, albeit with only 'disorder marks', for untidy work and bad deportment (apparently, not sitting up in class with a straight back), or for speaking idly on the stairs as she passed a friend, 'or any other unplanned happening which was considered evil'. Though educationally too genteel to call Gradgrindian, all this still smacks of it. For example, Elsi was once punished for the 'evil' of having drawn in pencil around the pattern of bunches of grapes on the white tablecloth at lunch time. In response to the headmistress's curt reprimand – 'You would not have done it at home!' – Elsi records that she 'truthfully replied, "Yes, I think I would, for all kinds of drawings are good.”’ Good on her, I say. But this is my point: your mother's London school was at least a local, non-boarding school; so why on earth did she decide to send you, her only child, away to school?
: I'm not sure how the dynamics of the decision really worked, but I think Elsi went along with a decision RS took. He always maintained that it was unthinkable that I should remain in Manafon until I was 11 and then go to school in Llanfair Caereinion, or anywhere locally. Presumably he always had it in his mind to leave Manafon, as the push westward was, according to Elsi, a constant of his life. Clearly, the schools of Aberystwyth or anywhere else in Wales were not to his liking, either.
: Strange, because what you call 'the push westward', determined by a search for Welsh Wales, took RS next to Eglwys-fach, near Aberystwyth, where there were in fact, already, of all things, Welsh-language schools.
It prompts me to ask, as a means of evoking the detailed lights and shades of all this in terms of your parents' lives, how useful do you think biography and autobiography have been? To date, of course, Elsi's life and achievement have not received anything like the attention they deserve when compared to that accorded RS. He has had considerable biographical attention – not only incidental but copious – however strongly resisted any probing attention may sometimes have been by RS himself. Does such close biographical attention strike you as productive in finding the man who wrote the poems?
Next page - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 -
: I used to wonder just how much of what I remember, and have myself been independently recording, Justin Wintle would dig up, and, as I always guessed, now that I have read Wintle's book, not much. In fact, I find Furious Interiors a strange mixture of irrelevant discursions, inaccuracies and waffle with some acute insights. I cannot conceive how he thought there was any point in writing the book without speaking with me. RS and others may not have relished his project; I might have transformed it. He seems, for example, to have singularly failed to penetrate the body of daily life, the life of what you rightly call 'the man who wrote the poems'. For example, Ieuan Redvers Jones said to me, perceptively, that he independently sensed in the book the continual unexpressed influence and power of my mother: but that is pretty much unmentioned in Furious Interiors. All this despite the fact that, in the poems, my mother is a constant presence and inspiration.
Walford Davies: And autobiography?
Gwydion Thomas: My mother's impact is also neglected in RS's own autobiographical writings. I have now of course, in Jason Walford Daviess translations in Autobiographies, been able to read RS's Neb
and Blwyddyn yn Llyn
, works which again somehow fail, for me, to put any flesh on real life. But then I question for whom and why these autobiographical pieces were written – certainly not Elsi, or me, or my children. Like everything else, for himself, I suppose. I also find it typically evasive that RS should have written autobiographies rather than a single one. While it may be argued that such a practice is refreshingly reflective of the multiple faces, masks and selves of a poet, I just find it at once devious and imprecise. In my own autobiographical notes I suppose I am doing precisely the same thing. However, my justification is that my life has, if nothing else, been singularly devious, and I make no claims to having anything much to say, unlike RS.
: Autobiographies, of course, was the translator and editor's choice of title.
: I appreciate that, but it still remains a set of 'autobiographies'. Whether in Welsh or in English, separate 'autobiographies' opens a way for heterodox versions. In today's terminology, I think we would say that RS sought deliberately to put his own 'spin' on his persona(e), leaving others to unravel it. I also dislike intensely RS's use of 'RS' as his identity. It is at once the nominative ego and the third person in Neb
. But it was very characteristic of him. He was possessed of that most irritating ability to be at once overbearingly opinionated and unflinchingly irresponsible. He was also the most sentimental of men. For me, the resulting effect of Neb is something of a whimsical attempt to divest himself of actual responsibility for anything. Everything 'happened to' RS! But he is clearly not alone in that rather alienated perception of contemporary life. Elsi was very critical of both the irresponsibility and the whimsy, but I think she indulged his appetite, his solitary 'twitching' pleasures, and his sentimentality. In a sense, that 'tolerance' bought her a space other own and maintained her control.
If one accepts that Art requires space to compose itself, then RS achieved that space by consummate idleness. The most revealing passages in his Autobiographies are about 'mooching' around (a favourite RS word) in Sarn-y-Plas and elsewhere: Llangollen, Connemara, Scotland, Adfa, Ynys Edwin, Braich y Pwll, Cape Clear, Norfolk, the Coto Doñana, Norway, and later Alaska, Dubai and Egypt – they all got their share of being 'mooched' in.
It also appears to me that in Neb
and Blwyddyn yn Llyn
he actually overemphasises his life of mind and soul. Birdwatching, walking and 'mooching' were far more significant in his life than study. And yet 'mooching' is basically what the snob poet thinks the urban (in this case, the Birmingham and Liverpool) proletariat does when lost for entertainment at
Butlins Pwllheli ('Star Coast World' as I think it then became). It consisted – in RS's later cosmology – mainly, as he saw it, of wandering around Pwllheli minus T-shirt or with unsuitably sized shorts, stuffing crisps, ice cream and chips. However, it seems perfectly reasonable to say that what RS himself also did – and Elsi would have agreed with me here – was mooch around the house, cut a bit of grass, and mooch around Llyn and then go and bore people who were prepared either to entertain him or to be entertained by him. This would include the Robertses in Aberdaron, Wil Sam, sometimes Wil Ty Pellaf, the girl at Salfur, and the one in Mynytho ('pink doileys on the loo seats,' Elsi said), the Urbanskis in Llanbedrog. RS says somewhere that speaking Welsh made him garrulous. With the girls, the excuse was that he was teaching them to watch birds. Just before my mum died she said rather wearily: 'Well, I have seen off as many of them as I can; but I fear there will be more. What more can one do to save people from themselves?'
: There is a great deal in what you've said so far that is of relevance to an understanding of the personalities of two remarkable people. A great deal also about things that went, sometimes directly, sometimes at an angle, into the making of the remarkable writings and paintings that your parents produced over the best part of your early life. As far as the poems are concerned, we can probably mention only a few – but I know that many others of deep biographical interest to you lie behind each one. At the same time, we have to leave a major piece of visual art such as Elsi's superb mural for the orthopaedic hospital at Gobowen to represent many other equally brilliant works. But what interests me is that the two different art forms represent, not just individual achievements, but surely an amazing creative relationship between the makers. It's a point to which I should like to return.
But let's set out again from Manafon by asking how your own personal circle first began to widen outwards from that mid-Wales border village.
: Of course, at first we used to go to Welshpool or Newtown once a week and (I don't know why) to Oswestry once a month. In Oswestry we used to go to a lunch room – 'The Coach and Horses' – and eat the kind of mutton I was later to discover was school food. In Welshpool RS and Elsi would go to the dentist, an ogre of a man called Beetham, though he did lend her, because of her delight in drawing, the skull of a young Frenchman killed in the Franco-Prussian war. Later, we would go to Shrewsbury, where a man gassed me to the extent I was sure I had woken up in heaven. I can't imagine why my mother didn't look after my teeth and feet earlier, both wrecked by the time I went to Packwood; she set such store by physical perfection. We went, too, to a fair in Montgomery where I got my first inkling that there was more to all this than Manafon. There were grapes, bananas, little paper birds with spun-glass wings and candyfloss – which was of course forbidden as vulgar.
: Even so, these were the 1940s and 1950s: how come you were so mobile?
: We went to these places in the little old Austin 7, reg. UJ 945. It had front wheels that stuck out beyond the bumper, sweet-smelling cracked leather seats and what I remember as a semi-manual windscreen wiper. It would not go up the hill called The Gibbet to Llanfair Caereinion if the road was at all icy. In those days cars had no heaters, so Elsi used to set off first with a hot water bottle to apply to the windscreen and then to wipe glycerine over the windscreen to stop it freezing. There were pretty well no other cars, though Jones Llwyn Coppa had one, as did the Ffinnant family. There were one or two delivery lorries and the milk cart. One day, coming back from Berriew, a plank of timber slipped off a lorry in front and smashed the windscreen. I suppose we were lucky, but lucky anyway if we were ever going much above 20mph. For some reason, when she was in Chirk, teaching at Oswestry Grammar School and staying in John and Joan Marchant's House, where much of the early courtship occurred, Elsi had a Bentley and she later always resented the Austin 7 a bit. One day RS went to London and returned from Warren Street with a monstrous vehicle which, I think, was an Austin 10 or maybe 12, reg. DXU 881. I never got to the bottom of that story, but he had clearly been sold a dud, and Elsi never forgave him. It laboured on, regularly breaking down, until they started buying little grey Austin A45 vans, and subsequently minivans.
This was the transport in which, as I said, they used to come to Packwood. It was the beginning of the crack in the facade of what I had imagined was their wealth. After all, we lived in an enormous house, we possessed, as far as I knew, most things, and no-one went to work. Though they moaned incessantly about the wealth of the farmers, at home it was not apparently necessary to do anything! Everyone else's parents appeared at
Packwood in the expected Rovers and Jaguars. It was a long time before I made the connection between work and money.
: Yet you were already at a school that represented money. What about other places and other people further afield?
: I first went to London when I was five. It was Granny and Grandpa Eldridge's Golden Wedding. I packed my little brown suitcase and off we went on the train from Shrewsbury. What I remember most is the smell of the green Southern Electric train we took to Leatherhead. I didn't like it much and wanted to go home. Elsi's mother had an unpleasant dog and her father seldom spoke to me; and when he came to Manafon, and would not take me fishing as Tommy Thomas did, I was even less impressed. They lived in a flat above their jewellers' shop and it was all very cramped. Elsi's mother smoked 'Craven A' cigarettes and drank two bottles of stout a day, which was considered both common and scandalous; but of course she was French, sort of. Later, Elsi's mother was good to me when I was in Bradfield and was a source of funds, through, I suspect, an agreement with my mother. Anyway, it was worth both train fare and time to go from Reading to Leatherhead before zipping up to London. But that was I960!
We went, too, to Holyhead, which was an improvement, not because of RS's mother, Peggy Thomas, whom I disliked, but because we could go swimming at Trearddur Bay and play among the buoys and boats and prawn pools in Holyhead. On my birthdays we would go on a day trip to Ynys Las. It was always hot and a good treat. Of course, later, when we moved to Eglwys-fach, I would go to Ynys Las lots in the summers.
Kimla, the house in Garth Road in Holyhead where Tommy and Peggy Thomas went to live after Cardiff and Liverpool was a nasty little semi with pebble-dash, as I remember. He had a tortoise called Tut, which was the one redeeming feature of the place, apart from the famous mirrors of course. The best that can be said is that Peggy Thomas used to take me walking down the town and threaten to 'box the ears' of Holyhead wide boys who did not much like the look of little Thomas. When Elsi went there for the first time from Chirk, RS had a ginger beard, and must have looked a lot like Elsi's 1939 drawing of him. When they arrived, Peggy Thomas said 'Go upstairs at once and take that thing off!' – and he did.
The other memorable things about the house itself were the regular attendance of debt collectors, the absence of any possessions, and the DIY disasters brought on by Tommy Thomas's 'I'll fix it, Peg' mode. Betty, RS's second wife, has the barometer and the little silver Victor Ludorum cup that RS won at Holyhead Grammar School (he was clearly something of an athlete). Tommy Thomas once brought back a brass plate from Ceylon or somewhere and a vase from Shanghai, and that was it. Otherwise, it was a sort of brown beige and dirty pink house, devoid of adornment.
Next page - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 -
: It strikes me that a wide social difference lay between your parents, if one considers the different kinds of milieux from which each emerged. I mean specifically the difference in the ambience, style and opportunity created by their own respective parents. I don't think it is a 'class' difference, whatever that may mean, though certainly 'class consciousness' later played a part on both sides, often where one would have least expected it. What strikes me about your mother's early life in her memoir is, if I may say so, its relatively advantaged stylistic opulence and cosmopolitan feel. It's not just a case of the exotic Huguenot background on her maternal side (from Lille and Poligny) or of the Bentley she once had claim to, but of the opulent Christmases and what she calls the 'even lovelier' Easters, her jeweller father being a Freemason, the summer holidays reached by the Flying Scotsman night express train, the good (non-boarding, yet not inexpensive) education, and the Continental travel (Elsi, for example, used to go back to Lille and the Jura a lot). This is not to raise any contest 'pound for pound', God forbid, but I think it's fair to say that RS's family background offered him nothing at all along those lines. That's how it strikes me. How does it strike you?
: Questions of difference, even of class, struck Elsi, too – but in a very different, almost inverse, way. I'd like to quote her in her own words. In her memoir, as you know, after describing the wonderful Christmases that you've mentioned, she records a cultural shock:
No wonder that I thought the first Christmas that RS and I spent together at Tallarn Green was the dreariest that I have ever known. Many church services, and out to lunch at the churchwarden's where we were put in a room, the parlour, alone to eat it. It was not considered quite proper for the farmer churchwarden and his family to sit down with us! Years later, a similar thing happened in Manafon. Mrs Wilson asked us to have supper at the Ffinnant. We sat at a huge table with her, and while we ate, the door of the dining room was left open, and through it we could see the rest of the family, two girls and four boys, sitting motionless around the walls of the kitchen which was next to the dining room – silent so that they could listen to all that was said. That was for the same reason, that it was not proper for working men to sit at the same table as the Rector!
On the other hand, I think that my mother had some unpleasant experiences of the 'artistic world' of London, which inclined her firstly towards a monastic life in Italy and subsequently to a more reclusive world on the Welsh Borders. I think she retained both a 'nostalgia for the rather glittering world that the Royal College of Art opened up for her and a desire to avoid a cultural elite as strong as RS's. However, I think that the pattern of their life meant that as she got older she was more and more deprived of friends and intellectual stimulus while RS moved into a world, most often Welsh-speaking, which energised his later years. She once expressed to me the view that RS had 'taken all her friends away'. Certainly, wherever she lived she had tried to construct or reconstruct a 'social circle', while RS became notorious for his offensiveness to callers at the door or on the phone. He saw off with studied rudeness many who had been stalwart supporters in earlier years. Brian Morris, for example, never spoke to him again after being 'turned away' at the door at Sarn-y-Plas.
: Beyond your parents, it's good to have also your impressions of your grandparents on both sides, in their own settings, and in terms of their own legacies. Personally, I'm particularly taken by your memories of RS's father, Tommy Thomas. There are, of course, his large-scale experiences as a sailor on big ships in great waters, which bring to mind specific RS poems.
I've always thought, for example, that 'The Survivors' from The Bread of Truth is an amazing poem, not only in terms of the event described but in that its opening lines mysteriously merge biography and autobiography: 'I never told you this./ He told me about it often...' But the ordinary riverside fisherman in him also brings specific poems to mind, not least, Gwydion, the superb 'Song for Gwydion' with which we started.
: Tommy Thomas's father had bought a hotel in Llandysul, as the simplest way of solving the drinking issue. When laced, he used to stand on the balcony of the hotel and send money floating down into the square. This money was all from the inheritance of the coal mines: he had sunk mines with Davies of Llandinam, who bought Gregynog. RS was very close about all this. Tommy Thomas was, I think, the youngest of eleven or so children. His mother had long since been an orphan, to all intents and purposes brought up by a Canon David's family in Carmarthenshire.
RS's affection for his father was always tempered by his sorrow that he was ill, that he was unable really to talk about the great adventures that he had had, and of his being subdued by Peggy. The poem 'The Survivors' that you mention was inspired by an occasion in, I believe, Argentina where Tommy Thomas had been shipwrecked. They spent many days – as many as twenty – in an open boat, and when beginning to give up hope, and obviously too weak to think much, they found themselves close to land, a man on horseback rode into the waves and lassooed the dinghy and brought them to shore.
: To show how well life finds its further form in poetry, it is worth quoting the beautiful economy of the final lines of the poem itself:
From the swell's rise one of them saw the ruins
Of all that sea, where a lean horseman
Rode towards them and with a rope
Galloped them up on to the curt sand.
: Yes, and as you say, the Tommy Thomas I knew was also fond of fly fishing. His visits to Manafon were always memorable to me for the fact that he actually caught trout and, as I've already mentioned, wrapped them in big burdock leaves to take home, even if about four times a day for a week he also trudged forlornly back to the Rectory at Manafon to announce he had lost yet another set of tackle in some tree or other. Afon Rhiw was a wonderful trout stream. Tommy Thomas taught me to tickle trout and to find the crayfish under the flat stones. And there was nothing I loved more than to hang on the bridge on a June morning or evening and watch the trout rising in the pool. He and RS also took me up to Llanfair Caereinion to watch the salmon leaping on the Banwy. RS himself was a diffident fisherman. Though the fish in the poem 'Song for Gwydion’ were real enough, they were more likely caught by my grandfather.
: Don't you think, though, that in a longer perspective the poem takes that on board anyway? Isn't it a poem that once again interrelates biography and autobiography, negotiating two generations? There's the extra openness, for example, of the opening – 'When I was a child...', following as it does a title saying that it is a song for Gwydion, not exclusively by Gwydion. Isn't it RS about his father as well as you, Gwydion, about RS? The poem seems generationally inclusive.
: It certainly suits that the charms of trout fishing are themselves subtle and delicate. I think, however, it is a poem about me and RS, rather than RS and Tommy Thomas. It is, inevitably, a poem that has hung from my neck most of my life – together with 'The Unborn Daughter'.
Next page - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 -
: I suppose 'The Son' must have done the same:
It was your mother wanted you;
you were already half-formed
when I entered...
And when you appeared
before me, there was no repentance
for what I had done, as there was shame
in the doing it; compassion only
for that which was too small to be called
: In fact when I wrote the first version of my private memoir notes for Rhodri I took as title, from 'Song for Gwydion', a particular phrase – 'chill lips' –
My father brought me trout from the green river
From whose chill lips the water song had flown
– which I suppose crystallises the significance of such poems for me.
Anyway, much later, RS and I would go fishing for mackerel at Penrhos in Aberdaron, a very different thing from catching trout. Catching mackerel six at a time on a feathered or silvered line and hauling them, fighting to the last, to the rocks is more robust. I do not think, by the way, RS ever 'went out with the small men', though he did go over to Bardsey Island with Wil Evans fairly often. We used to go catching wrasse, too – tiny little ones at Sarn. Had I discovered Thai cuisine in those days, I would have known to deep fry them to a crisp; as it was, they were just a damp mouthful of bones. Later on, of course, I discovered that you could catch large ones, as well as pollock, dogfish and mullet, at Braich y Pwll. But after the 'golden wrasse' incident, when Rhodri caught two of the most unusually coloured fish and was distraught at their being killed and eaten, we never went fishing again.
: Generationally inclusive indeed! Give me a few later pictures of RS and Elsi that come back into the mind.
: In my second year at Magdalen College, I discovered the theatre and, for me, that saved Oxford. I spent the year acting and making new friends. In the spring of 1966 Professor Nevill Coghill pulled off his idea for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to appear in Marlow’s Doctor Faustus to raise funds for Oxford’s Playhouse Theatre. I was cast as a student! My friends Maria Aitken, Jonathan Aitken's sister, and Dick Durden Smith were good and bad angels, and Simon Heffer a student too. The saturine Andreas Tauber would, appropriately, be Mephistopheles.
One day Nick Parsons drove Shan and myself to The Bear Hotel in Woodstock outside Oxford. Present for lunch, besides Shan and myself, were Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Burton's father and brother, RS and Elsi. It was a pretty excruciating occasion. RS talked about the weather and fish with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton tried to chat up Shan, Elsi kept her nose in her plate. Burton bragged that he would send RS a whole load of books of American poets – which of course he never did. The meeting of two great Welshmen was not a success.
: It was a period, 1966. when one could see Burton and Taylor walking quite casually and unhindered down Broad Street, or hear Burton and W.H. Auden, formerly Oxford's Professor of Poetry, reading poem at a special Sunday morning event at the Oxford Union, with Nevill Coghill, formerly both Auden and Burton's tutor at Exeter College, leaning appreciatively from the gallery with, I remember a hand cupped to his ear. That lunchtime in Woodstock, in the rather elite 'olde worlde' English setting of ‘The Bear', it must have seemed to you, to RS and Elsi, and to Burton's father and brother, as if disparate times and decades and disparate worlds, not just Wales and England, had been brought together. From your description, they seem worlds that were in the event already pulling away from one another.
: In my case it proved quite literally so, because Marlowe's play led on to the movie, and in the summer we were all shipped off to Rome to make it. I stayed in a house off the via C. Colombo on the way to the Dino di Laurentiis studios. The film lot at Di Laurentiis was very odd. They had just finished filming John Houston's The Bible and the lot was full of that film's props, including the Tower of Babel and Noah's Ark. In the Faustus film, I played Lussuria ¬– Lechery – which seemed about right. I had a good wig and an excellent turquoise codpiece, which my friend Cinzia coveted. Cinzia's family had a huge and beautiful old farm outside Rome and we would rush off there as often as possible. Rather amazingly, her parents showed no perturbation at their beautiful daughter shacked up with this peculiar English youth. She had a beautiful bedroom with carved stone statues, wrought iron lamps and chandeliers and one of those chequered beam-and-plaster ceilings. There was another enormous bed, and tall mullioned French windows that opened onto their olive groves.
: Except that I got more and more fed up with the goings on, the continual bickering and bitching on the set. It was that time in Rome that turned me away from a career in the theatre, though I did reconsider after I had been more successful in Cambridge. During the filming, the shouting between the Burtons was continual, and Burton himself was often so hungover they had to stick his coffee cup to the saucer to stop it rattling while they were shooting.
: And further on in time, getting back to RS and Elsi on the home front, what are your memories? What was the home front like?
: I feel that at the end RS behaved disgracefully over the question of houses and rooms. In Manafon Elsi had a studio room at the top of the house as well as the room over the kitchen. In Eglwys-fach she had a dingy studio at the back of the house that was permanently lit with dire blue 'daylight' bulbs. However, it was space. In Aberdaron she had perhaps the most beautiful room. The downstairs rooms had huge windows facing south to the sea, and the light was overpowering. However, when they moved to Sarn-y-Plas she had to live in most reduced circumstances. As RS says, the new room they built at Sarn-y-Plas served as his bed-sitting-room. Mind you, it was without heat – except for a miserable little coal fire – and before he left he used to sit shivering and reading there. However, Elsi had a little dark room – about twelve feet by eight – with two tiny windows about eighteen inches square. The water used to ooze down the walls, and she had to put all her pictures in black plastic refuse sacks to try and keep the damp out. It was so cold and damp she used to paint with her feet inside a cardboard box which also contained a two-bar Belling Electric stove. Needless to say she burnt herself severely on several occasions. She would also sleep in this room – though, more often than not, she would climb a six-foot ladder into the loft, where you or I could not even stand up, the roof being only about 4'6" high, and work and sleep up there, with the mice scurrying around her.
: I must confess that RS once told me – it was at Gregynog, shortly after Elsi's death – that he shouldn't really have expected her to live at Sarn-y-Plas, let alone remain creative there.
: RS would express that regret from time to time to me, too. He'd say that he had never got round either to securing a living with a decent house or to making sure Elsi had an adequate studio. He said to me once – something like what he said to you – 'Maybe if I had done that, she would have gone on painting properly!'
And that, of course, raises a whole host of ghosts. Why did Elsi cease painting landscapes? Why did she stop painting in oils? Why did she take to churning out hundreds of 'pretty' paintings and illustrations? Why did she not even do more book illustrations until I persuaded her to do In My Garden for Rhodri? Why did RS take not the slightest interest in her painting? And yet why, on the other hand, did painting become one of the central features of his own poems? And so on and so forth, as RS would say. But the earlier images are more instructive.
: And richer and more productive, too. That's often the way things go. Just as our parents' individual lives lie apart from us, we have in turn to keep their day-to-day lives coolly apart from their own creative lives. Of course, there are many aspects that cannot be that tidily sliced or hived-off. That is certainly true when we are forced (God help us) to make a merely 'aesthetic' assessment of an artist's work. Our concern in this interview, however, is mainly biographical. At least on that broad biographical front, I feel comfortable in splitting my questions.
So let me ask for your final reflections on the impact on you, first, of Elsi and RS as artists, and then as people and parents. First of all, then, when do you think you first even became aware of their distinction as artists?
: For most of my life, certainly until my twenties, I was – I think fortunately – relatively unaware of their significance 'as artists'. In any case, in those early years their fame was relatively minimal. A little later, I even got to wonder which of them, if either, would in the upshot achieve lasting recognition. In a sense, the verdict on that is still open because Elsi's work and achievements have quite clearly yet to find the critical champions I believe they deserve. She partly complicated this issue by turning away from oils and watercolours towards illustration. But, as I've suggested, there were, to say the least, contingent reasons for that. Anyway, why that should be any worse than turning from poems about real rural workers to an abstract concern with an absent God and the meaning of language and life, I do not know.
Also, fair play, neither of them really actively sought 'fame'. I think RS's 'Welsh Nationalist' persona contributed to his growing distinction, as did the fortunate emergence of a body of clerics – Donald Allchin, Michael Mayne, Michael March, Barry Morgan and Rowan Williams, who all recognised his unusual talent. Again, there emerged a group of academics – besides yourself, C.B. Cox, Tony Dyson, Brian Morris, M. Wynn Thomas and others – who placed his poetry in relation to the critical mainstream. Elsi's light, though, was kept well under the bushel! And yet, among the small coterie of the Royal Water Colour Society, Spink and Medici, as well as the numerous purchasers of her cards, she was highly regarded.
: There is an eminent tradition of the partnership of creative people, whether married (the Brownings) or related (the Rossettis) or not even related at all (Wordsworth and Coleridge, Eliot and Pound, Frost and Edward Thomas) and even where neither was a creative artist as such in the first place (the Leavises). I think it significant that these all merited, and got, published dedications of thanks, the one from the other. One thinks of F.R. Leavis and Queenie Leavis dedicating their one joint (late) book to each other – 'as proof of... forty years and more of daily collaboration in living'. Perhaps one thinks, even more precisely in the present Elsi-RS case, since two different arts are involved, of Wordsworth saying of his differently-talented sister Dorothy, 'She gave me eyes'. In your mother's memoir, signs other brilliant visual power, long before she reached the Royal College of Art in 1931, emerge in precociously wonderful ways: she made lampshades for her doll's house out of Cape Gooseberries with the central large seed removed and torch bulbs inserted, lit from a torch battery; she relished the 'lovely coloured beads' of an abacus at school, made necessary because of her antipathy to arithmetic; she looked through every new school book to see, first, if there were line illustrations that could be coloured. Your parents were two equally fine artists. Did an important visual influence cross from your mother's to your father's work?
: Yes, but in one sense it also crossed the other way. For example, the models for Elsi's myriad paintings of birds and animals were mostly collected by RS as he mooched around the countryside, while the rest were gathered from roadkill. All dead of course, though there was a memorable collection of shelduck that arrived alive! Elsi used to draw them, stuff them with cotton wool and formaldehyde, and hope for the best. The house was full of skulls, of sheep and rams and all kinds of birds (Elsi's own favourites were the badger and stoat).
But your point is undoubtedly true. When RS met Elsi he was visually illiterate. She opened his eyes to detail and colour, to shape and form. I even think she was much better read than he. His rather pedestrian attempts at self-education, which he has documented, describing his early book purchases, were well precursed by Elsi's quite wide reading in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature. But, to return to the visual, her enthusiasms for Stanley Spencer and many other modern artists who could be mentioned, for Venetian and Romanesque Art – RS's "poem 'Souillac: Le Sacrifice d'Abraham, for instance, could not have been written without her input – were passed on to RS, as was her wide knowledge of Impressionism and Surrealism. RS's volumes Between Here and Now and Ingrowing Thoughts are direct results other knowledge.
: To return to the bones and skulls, I'm reminded of Elsi's comment in her memoir about her time as a teenager in France when, having always thought that 'everyone looks rather lovely when they are dead,' she suddenly realized that, no, 'not everyone's bones are beautiful'. This insistence on seeing, in T.S. Eliot's phrase about Webster, the skull beneath the skin seems to have determined much in her art, not least the exaggeratedly bird-like gauntness of her portraits of RS himself. Similarly, it is presumably no accident that so many RS poems include images of bones and skulls, images of the 'bony figure/ Without grace/ Of flesh'. More important, in the poems the skeletal seems to inform some of RS's most potent cultural metaphors – worrying the carcase of an old song', for example, or his sense of the very social fabric of Wales, not just Welsh geography, being denuded under the 'wind's attrition'.
: I would agree with that, but my mother's influence also crossed in wider terms. Without Elsi, I think there would have been little poetry in other ways as well. I suspect that without her practicality and research tools, without her attention to detail, and not least her wide reading, RS might have progressed as an insignificant Celtic dreamer. He was possessed of no political skills and few interpersonal ones. It is a measure of her own skills, support and, indeed, eventual artistic sacrifice that she managed to help him forge his unique voice.
: Whatever the two-way influence, and at the risk of prolonging a metaphor, I suppose by now there arises also the question of other kinds of 'remains' – the archival survival of poems and paintings by these two important artists, some known about, some conjectured, others not even known about at all.
Next page - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 -
: I have not sought to preserve their heritage as a surviving body of work. I regret that, as Elsi's paintings were dispersed, we did not have the scanning technology that would at least have preserved copies. However, both paintings and poems were numerous and in the case of paintings there is a limit to the number of walls in any house. Elsi expressly wished that her paintings should provide for my son Rhodri's education, whereas RS destroyed the majority of the poetry manuscripts that survived. Elsi used to rescue them from the dustbin, iron them out and secrete them (shades of Paper Men!). But after her death they were 'discovered' by RS, and what remained destroyed a second time. Anyway, at least Elsi's paintings are well dispersed and, I hope, widely enjoyed. The majority of the remaining poems in manuscript are in one collection. And, no, I am not going to tell you where!
: And as people? In an earlier answer you understandably, and enviably, used, of your earliest years at Manafon, the term 'a golden age', a period when the life of things around you and the presence of your parents seemed interconnected, as part of that golden world. Naturally, one grows, not only from, but away from, one's parents, but in another earlier answer you spoke also of a decisive aim to make your own adult life, in terms of relationships, especially your relationship with your own son and daughter, as different as possible from that of your parents' lives. So how would you now distil the details of that direct, human contact with them?
: RS and Elsi made no attempt to nurture in me any of the things that it appears to me now were fundamental to them. Apart from the brief spells in the house in Nantmor, where, aged under five, I did speak Welsh in the street, I was explicitly shielded and excluded from the Welsh language and its culture. Elsi, in any case, had little interest in it. The language of daily life was always English of course, except when Elsi took it into her head to talk to me in French! No inclusion in any religious life was offered or expected. Elsi taught me to read, yet not to draw or paint; and neither of them played an instrument.
: On that question of music, the art between the verbal and the visual, what memories do you have?
: RS says somewhere that music was more important to him than painting. I think this misleading. True, there is the memorable poem about hearing Kreisler, but not much else. In Manafon, for the old HMV wind-up gramophone – in addition to the 78rpm sets of Beethoven and Mozart I've mentioned – there was also a very nice Lawrence Tibbett recording of 'De Glory Road', with which I was very much taken. But the gramophone was not played much. It was a house without music and dancing. There was no radio until 1952 or thereabouts, when a set was ostensibly bought so that I could hear 'Listen With Mother'. Later on, we would all sit together and listen to 'Round the Horn which RS did not like, and 'The Navy Lark', which he did. In Eglwys-fach Elsi arranged to have built for him a handmade stereo player, which he never used but twice. I never recall him buying a single record. He once got from somewhere a recording of Fischer-Diskau singing Schubert which he played a couple of times, and I bought a South American Mass which he listened to, once.
At the same time, the natural world they delighted in was a fact of my existence, not just of theirs, but even there no instruction occurred. What happened was that – as I guess with many a child – I simply tagged along for those first seven years as they made their life, and I looked on.
Later, it became clear that RS and Elsi valued nothing that was not centred on ‘Art': hence my use of that phrase, 'how our art is our meaning', from RS's poem 'Sonata as epigraph to the collection ringless fingers. The practical consequence was that they despised anyone who did not work as an artist. I do not use that word 'despise' carelessly. Everything I did, the normal business of working, getting and having and handing on, was, as far as they were concerned, a waste of time. I don't know at what point RS worked out that being a priest was a good way of achieving the space in which to write, but he was a very idle priest. The story of him hiding behind the hedgerows to avoid his parishioners is far from apocryphal. He was a good sick visitor, though, and I suppose that at the end of it all the church got as good a deal as he did.
What was significant was the constant critique, at many times just criticism, of nearly everyone and everything. I hardly remember hearing a good word about anyone. Indeed, for most of their adult lives they had no friends. Of course, from their position in parsonages, and later through Elsi's Extra-mural Art classes and RS's increasing 'Welshness', there came people to lunch or supper, but I don't think anyone ever stayed the night.
: You mentioned 'Sonata’ just now. It seems odd that a poem specifically about music –
by the keys' moonlight in the darkening
drawing-room how our art is our meaning
- is about, not togetherness, but 'a way/ that was laid down for her to walk/ which was not my way'. To what degree were you at least, as their one child, able to learn from the different arts of these two artists?
: Later in life, I would sit and talk with Elsi as she painted, and she would talk much of how she painted. RS found it difficult to talk like that about his art, though he talked a great deal about his reading. What was less interesting was his fireside philosophy, which bored Elsi too. I think they both must have been quite lonely. But they would never admit it. So writing and painting needed to serve as dialogue and conversation and an emotional embrace. With such regular company as they ever had – Mary and Louis Behrend, Norman and Germaine Hunter, Monica Rawlins – there appeared little mutual warmth. Even RS's relationship with Bill Condry was always at arm's length. There were few people's visit, lunches, sherry parties that were not pretty much rubbished afterwards.
My final impression is of two people impatient of others' daily lives and concerns, and disdainful of any activity other than Art and what they identified as its necessary accompaniments.
1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8
previous vintage gems: Castro's Capital
next vintage gems: Sarah Waters in Conversation with Sarah Broughton