BLOG Jonathan EdwardsNWR Issue 104
Gregory Peck, Evel Knievel and the Chartists: on My Family and Other Superheroes
When Gregory Peck stepped out of a Rolls Royce in the tiny Welsh mining village of Crumlin in 1965, the first thing he saw was a young man with dark curly hair, leaning ostentatiously against the clapped-out 1930s Lanchester he’d bought the previous week for a fiver. The second thing he saw was his co-star in the movie Arabesque
, which they’d come to the village to film – the drop-dead gorgeous Sophia Loren. She stepped from her
Rolls Royce to a clack of heels which seemed to shake the whole village. It was at that point when the young man, shaking slightly himself, stepped forward with a copy of the South Wales Argus
and a pen, and asked two of the most famous people on the planet to sign their names. That copy of the South Wales Argus
now sits in pride of place in my parents’ living room. The young man in question was my father.
So runs the narrative of my poem, ‘Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in Crumlin for the Filming of Arabesque
, June 1965’, from my debut collection My Family and Other Superheroes
, published by Seren earlier this year. The relationship between that story and the truth is one thing that poem explores, and in reality the poem isn’t about Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren at all – that’s just an elaborate way of getting to my parents, and the relationship between them. This approach – of focusing on outlandish events in order to illuminate something real – is something that is central to a number of the poems in the book, and which bears the influence of a number of brilliant Welsh poets of the surreal. Deryn Rees-Jones’s amazing poem, ‘Lovesong to Captain James T Kirk’, from her Seren debut The Memory Tray
, for example, was an important blueprint for a number of the poems. In one, I set up a situation in which the 1970s stunt motorcycle rider Evel Knievel jumps over, for once, not a row of double-decker buses, but rather members of my family. Another poem imagines that an open-top bus carrying an FA Cup-winning football team gets lost and ends up in a tiny Welsh village. It’s truths about family and place that I’m ultimately interested in getting to. If I get there via Ian Rush, or Marty McFly, or a bookcase thrown suddenly through a valleys village window – hey, so much the better.
If My Family and Other Superheroes
was written with one eye on the TV, it was also written whilst looking backwards. History, in a range of forms, was important. My paternal grandfather’s brother was killed at the Somme, supposedly whilst serving under age and, though my grandfather made it back, he died before I was born, his lungs full of mustard gas. In the terms of my title, these would always be enigmatic and superheroic figures for me, and I try to commemorate them in the poem ‘Lance Corporal Arthur Edwards (1900-1916)’. Family legend has it that, before leaving, the two brothers filled up their canteens with water from the River Ebbw, which runs past my house, as a way of ensuring they would return. I start the poem there.
History is wider than the family, of course and coming from where I come from, it was inevitable that a number of aspects of working-class and Welsh nationalist history would seep into the book. One poem commemorates the Chartist mural in John Frost Square in Newport, whose images were so important to a generation of school pupils in understanding their heritage, and which was recently, brutally, demolished. Another poem focuses on one of the biggest wounds in the Welsh psyche, the drowning of Capel Celyn to provide water for Liverpool and how, as the water rushed in, though no one was killed there, the lives that would’ve been lived suddenly vanished.
But if I’m engaged in my writing by the outlandish and historically significant, I also wanted My Family and Other Superheroes
to reflect an everyday ‘normal’ existence in Wales, to capture what David Morley has called ‘the magic of our ordinariness’. The great Cardiff band Mclusky once sang, ‘Goddammit, cos everyone’s a hero,’ and I was keen that the book would celebrate characters in my village, Crosskeys. The poem ‘Colliery Row’ is my version of the great John Cooper Clarke poem ‘Beasley Street’, about a working class street in Manchester – I simply looked out of the window of my house and wrote down what I saw. Sometimes I get adventurous and travel beyond Crosskeys, as far as Newport. The poem ‘Starbucks Name Tag Says Rhian’ is a love song to the girl who works in the café where I write a lot of poems. ‘The Bloke Selling Talk Talk in the Arcade’ is about a man I walk past every day in the Kingsway, his patter, his life. Crosskeys and Newport are brimming with superheroes.
As, I hope, is the collection. I started with a reference to two Hollywood stars. The first poem in the collection, ‘My Family in a Human Pyramid’, ends with a reference to a real star. The poem concerns my family’s imagined attempts, in the garden one night, to break the record for building the world’s tallest ever human pyramid. At the peak of the pyramid is placed my tiny baby godson, who reaches out, and tries to touch a star. Writing a book of poems is a bit like that. Maybe we don’t all get lucky enough to meet Sophia Loren. But perhaps, perhaps, if we’re lucky, we get to stand for a bit on our ancestors’ shoulders, pointing in wonder at the distance and saying Look. Look. There
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