R S Thomas
I have arrived at the little village of Manafon, near Knighton in Shropshire, and go into a farmyard where there are three men who are trying, with the help of sticks and dogs, to get a bull to mount a cow. They have little interest in talking to me. I find it hard to make myself understood by them. I explain that I am looking for the Rev R S Thomas, rector of this parish. ‘Oh no, he went long ago,’ they tell me. He is now rector of Eglws Vach, on the coast in West Wales, not far from Maccynlleth.
I am on a mission to visit R.S. Thomas, at that time just beginning to be established as one of the great poets of Wales.
I travel on, until late at night. I arrive in the wide main street of Machynlleth and book in at a hotel. Next morning I pass a small cateract and draw near the hamlet of Eglws Vach and see the rectory standing beside the road.
The poet, when he answers the door, reveals himself as a dark and gaunt man with a wild look in his eyes, dressed in black, conspicuous by a sort of mournful intensity and integrity about him, and a sad sort of witticism.
From the window of the room where we sit, we look up into the mountains, stretching sheer and high above us. I speak of my love of the Welsh hills and the poet says, ‘Well, I suppose the valley folk are nice enough folk, and they’re Welsh speaking too. And I don’t want to make any invidious comparisons between the people who live down here and the people up in the hills. And yet there is an old Welsh proverb which much impressed me when I heard it. What it says is, “Let the stranger have his way in the valley, if he wants to, but for us, let our part be to live in the hills, close to the home of God.” One can feel that the people who live up in the hills are somehow perhaps nearer to a vision of God.
‘They’re carrying on a traditional way of life which has been going on in Wales for hundreds of years. For instance, in the old days in Wales, the people used to move up to the mountains on the first day of May, and they spent the summer up in those hill pastures and they made poetry and enjoyed themselves and had a good time up in those high pastures, and then they came down on the first of November, down to the valleys. It’s that sort of thing, what remains of that life which is still lived up in the hills, that appeals to me so much.
‘And one does find that the majority of people up in the hills are Welsh speaking. Down here at the bottom, I speak English to people I meet, because most people are English-speaking. But when I meet people up at the top I address them in Welsh first.
‘For me it is something lyrical, the life they live up there, and of course one has to keep a grip on oneself because, if you have been up there on a lovely May morning with the bog cotton out, and a West wind coming across from the direction of the sea, and you meet a sheep farmer with his sheep and his dog it all seems so lyrical and wonderful that it’s very easy to romanticise it. But, the comment of those who actually live here on this sort of romanticising would be, “Oh yes, summer country”.
‘If you go up there in the hills in the wet autumn or when the bitter East winds are blowing across them in January, if you’re able to go up there and stand against the force of those winds, it’s then you realise that it isn’t all romance. And as a result of this toughness in the winter, there is a hard quality about the hill people, a toughness and courage. This is high country, it’s high above sea level, springs are late, winters are early, winters can be very long, and the life is hard.
‘The people who live up in the hills haven’t many luxuries, no mains water, not usually electricity, and the wind, when it’s wet, it’s very wet. It’s wet country. Often the wind bears the wet rain almost horizontally so that everything is absolutely sodden.
‘I think those chaps up there, they get absolutely water-logged. Once it starts raining up in the hills it can go on for a long time. And you see people up there going around with sacks over their shoulders because they’re so completely sodden.
‘Often the mountains are under clouds, and the soil is thin. The rock pushes through and there’s a kind of dire quality connected with this rock so close to the surface. If you’re going to make a living at all up there, you’re going to make it the hard way. You’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to have patience and character.
‘There is one other thing about the hill people. Being sheep farmers they have a little more time than other types of farmers, and this means time to think. Their work takes them for long walks over the mountain, and in the course of the walk they stop and look around and they see things. And as a result of this, I think some of the hill farmers see life with a poet’s eye.’
It is winter time. In my room at the hotel after the early night has fallen, in front of a hot fire, I read some of the works of the poet, ‘The Stones of the Fields’, ‘An Acre of Land’, ‘The Minister’, ‘Song at the Year’s Turning’ and ‘Poetry for Supper’.
By day I walk up into the hills, talk to the local people and make drawings of things that I find significant in the area; the strange rust-bitten remains of antique industrial machinery, a place where a stream bursts over the face of a rock in grey tapestry, where the scrawny twisted shapes of stunted trees stand up against the empty sky, where the road winding up the mountain arrives finally over a grid onto the open hillside and crosses it without fence or hedge.
I read again, with love, that poem of his that seems to me to suggest, more than any other, the atmosphere of the Welsh hill country;
‘Too far for you to see
The fluke and the foot-rot and the fat maggot
Gnawing the skin from the small bones.
The sheep are grazing at Bwlch-y-Fedwen,
Arranged romantically in the usual manner
On a bleak background of bald stone.
Too far for you to see
The moss and the mould on the cold chimneys
The nettles growing through the cracked doors.
The houses stand empty at Nant-yr-Eira,
There are holes in the roof that are thatched with
And the fields are reverting to the bare moor.
Too far, too far to see
The set of his eyes and the slow pthisis
Wasting his frame under the ripped coat.
There’s a man still farming at Ty’n-y-Fawnry,
Contributing grimly to the accepted pattern,
The embryo music dead in his throat.’
Later I was to learn more about fluke, foot-rot, maggot, those diseases to which sheep are prone. I was to become further acquainted with those houses that stand empty, and the swiftness with which they revert to nothingness. How first their inhabitants leave them, thinking often that it is only for a little time, then the doors cave in and they form a shelter for sheep from the rain, their floors becoming coated with sheep droppings. Then the slates from the roof begin to fall. Windows, flapping on their hinges in the wild winds, have their glass shattered and twist and turn on their rusty hinges. The rain comes down through the slates and plaster sags and collapses. The winds, roaring in now through the open doorways, carry off part of the roof. Nettles, trees, gain a foothold, and the encroaching bracken. And twenty or thirty years later the place may be only a mound of stones.
On one of our walks up into the mountains the poet points out such a place, across the open hillside. He says that it reminds him of a sinking ship with the truncated stone walls of the long farmhouse seeming to submerge beneath the long slope of the moorland, and stunted trees growing from this place where people had once lived and been happy seeming like distress rockets or like the engulfing waves of the sea.
When we reach that farmhouse and are picking our way through I take a rusty chain with huge links with a twisted hook at the bottom, in those days used by all the old farmhouse and cottage inhabitants to hang a kettle over a smouldering fire.
From then on I take a pleasure in visiting those deserted cottages and farmhouses. And I notice how, around them, there is the occasional indication of pleasure in the former austere lives of those who lived there. In one place someone had erected a rainwashed seat made from a vast slab of stone in a place where the view across the mountain was especially magnificent. In another place two ropes hang down from a tree, the remains of what had once been a swing for children.
In other high places I find piles of boulders where in the old days the shepherds had their huts where they would sit the summer through with their dogs, watching the flocks that they’d brought up here to graze over those lofty uplands. Once a week the rest of their families would come up to visit, bringing cider and provisions.
One night my eye is caught by another poem by R.S. Thomas called ‘Meet the Family’ about a gruesome trio of brothers and I feel that it expresses certain other aspects of the Welsh hill country, its unsexuality and lack of warmth.
‘John One takes his place at the table,
He is the first part of the fable;
His eyes are as a dead leaf,
Look on him and learn grief.
John Two stands in the door
Dumb; you have seen that face before
Leaning out of the dark past
Tortured in thought’s bitter blast.
John Three is still outside
Drooling where the daylight died
On the wet stones; his hands are crossed
In mourning for a playmate lost.
John All and his lean wife
Whose forced complicity gave life
To each loathed foetus, stare from the walls,
Dead not absent. The night falls.’
This is the worst side of the hill people. I feel that the poet is in danger perhaps of forgetting his humility and charity. But in another poem called ‘The Hill Farmer Speaks’, I find an attitude closer to compassion;
‘I am the farmer, stripped of love
And thought and grace by the land’s hardness.
But what I am saying over the fields’
Desolate acres, rough with dew,
Is, listen, listen, I am a man like you.
The wind goes over the hill pastures
Year after year, and the ewes starve,
Milkless, for want of new grass.
And I starve too, for something the spring
Can never foster in veins run dry.
The pig is a friend, the cattle’s breath
Mingles with mine in the still lanes;
I wear it willingly like a cloak
To shelter me from your curious gaze.
The hens go in and out at the door
From sun to shadow, as stray thoughts pass
Over the floor of my wide skull.
The dirt is under my cracked nails,
The tale of my life is smirched with dung;
The phlegm rattles. But what I am saying
Is, listen, listen, I am a man like you.
So far I have found no poems about the women of the hill country. Partly this is because there are few poems in R.S. Thomas’ books about them. But I am beginning to be struck in my journeyings by the harsh beauty, far from sensuality, in the hill farming women that I meet.
‘Hers is the clean apron, good for fire
Or lamp to embroider, as we talk slowly
In the long kitchen, while the white dough
Turns to pastry in the great oven,
Sweetly and surely as haymaking
In a June meadow; hers are the hands
Humble with milking, but still now
In her wide lap as though they heard
A quiet music, hers being the voice
That coaxes time back to the shadows
In the room’s corners. Oh, hers is all
This strong body, the safe island
Where men may come, sons and lovers,
Daring the cold seas of her eyes.’
On another afternoon, I am climbing with the poet up into the mountains that I otherwise only gaze up at from my hotel window. One thousand feet up and we are back in that other world, the world of the hill farmers, of sheep, of the few enclosed acres, and the endless empty unenclosed acres, stretching far over the hills.
We call in at the farm of Alan Davies, a tiny cottage on the spur of a mountain, bathed in dense mist, surrounded by an enclosed area of six acres, with the rest of the land he farms unenclosed, stretching up into the mountains.
Alan lives in one room, alone. Wet clothes which he has washed himself hang on strings from the ceiling. He keeps a fire burning in his grate all day. He has a couple of chairs which he can move into the wide capacious fireplace that is so large that it has room for five or six people to sit in.
Alan has always lived on his own, since his father died. Of an evening he used to listen to the radio, known at that time as the wireless, but now it is broken. He lights a candle or an oil lamp for light, and for reading has a couple of scientific volumes which he shows me with pride. Published in 1896, they describe new inventions and the latest advances in science. Alan Davies eagerly shows me pictures of zeppelins and locomotives. From an old tin he produces a medal. He says; ‘Excuse me if I don’t speak English very well, won’t you, I’d express it better in Welsh. Now, this is what d’you call it?’ He holds up a blue edged medal on which is written ‘QUALIFIED MIDWIFE’. ‘What d’you call it, can you tell me what is this what d’you call it?’
I explain what it is and he says, ‘When the people that used to live here went down in the valley, they left me these tins with some of these things in them, and what d’you call it, this was amongst the what d’you call it.’
That night the poet tells me, ‘My first rectory, as you know, was at Manafon, and soon after I moved in there I began to notice things. I began to walk up into the hills and wonder. Sometimes I’d go by train to a place called Carna and walk back, about twenty miles. And beside the mountain roads in those days, on a market day, you used to see the woman of the farms waiting. They’d walked from their homes far away down the tracks into the hills and they’d come up to the side of the road to wait for the weekly grocery van. They’d stand there for half an hour or an hour maybe, waiting for it to come by. It was a way of life that impressed me very much. I felt that you had to be born to it to survive it.
‘Later, one would begin to see the derelict wrecks of farms that had been abandoned, foundering amongst their trees, the feeling of a wreck going down, the little squares of fields being overcome by the advancement of the moors, the little patches that once had been staked out, overwhelmed.’
Mr Jenkins is another bachelor living on his own. His farm is set very high, where a piece of the lofty mountain juts out and falls almost sheer down to the estuary of the river Dovey, which runs grey and wet far underneath it. Mr Jenkins has a rubicund face, heavy jowled with yellow watery eyes, and a nose with a very thin bridge at its top. Like nearly every farmer I meet in these parts, his shoulders are covered by an old sack, pinned together with nails.
He wears string round his trouser legs, and another lot round his arms. He pours me out a cup of tea in his living room, that is all hung round with exquisite china bequeathed by his grandmother.
Whether in the house or not, Mr Jenkins always wears an ancient hat which also had belonged to his grandmother. One day he tells me, ‘See that cow over there, well, her mother, somebody cut off the tits. They cut off the tits, so the veins went wrong, and she couldn’t give her milk. Well, I’ll tell you what I did. I stuck a pin up one of the tits, and then the milk ran for a bit, but after that it, well, it festered after that. It festered and she died.’
Ivor Thomas lives in a much smaller farm, close under the brow of a huge mountain. He tells me about the terrible winter of ’47. ‘At one time there used to be a thing called the sheep train. This used to take the mountain sheep off to winter in the lowlands round Holyhead. These winters in the mountains were too hard for sheep when they were only yearlings, so they used to take them down to the station, and then the sheep would travel on the sheep train to the lusher pastures round Holyhead.
‘Well, in ’47 the snow was on the ground for two months or more. It was fifteen years since that train last ran, longer than any ewe there could possibly have been alive. The station was in ruins and the lines all gone. Yet many and many of the sheep found their way down to that station that wasn’t a station any more, and stood there waiting for the train that would never come. It was instinct you see. They had some hereditary instinct that their grandparents or great-grandparents had travelled from that station, away from the mountain climate and down to the lush pastures by the sea.’
A very old woman, living in a cottage at Derwenlas, perched above the valley, looking across the marshes where the Cambrian Express streams along the railway line that had been built through the water, disappearing towards the mountains and to far away London, nine hours away, says; ‘Old people are dying very quick these days. People die terrible quick. It makes you frightened. It makes me frightened. For instance, a bus driver died the other day as he was driving, he lay down over the wheel, next moment they were over the edge of the hill. There are people all the time dying now. Terrible quick.’
Another farmer, speaking of the times when he was young, says; ‘We used to have the chimneys straight up in the old days, so that the fires went straight up into the sky. They used to have earth floors in the cottages so when you wanted to clean up you just brushed them with a bit of water. And they had rushes for lights. In those days a farmer never knew at the end of the year how he was going to pay the rent. If he couldn’t find the rent he’d be out in six months. But fear of eviction helped with his sense of concentration.’
The poet says one day, ‘It’s hard being part of a small nation. English people have no problem like this. In Wales, one is part of a very small nation, and a very down-trodden one. On the radio or television, before a Welsh programme in the Welsh language, they say, ‘This is the BBC Welsh Service’ in English. That infuriates me. Why do they need to announce it in English? I know why. They do it to show who’s boss. You may find it hard to understand my wrath when I see some Welshman ushering in the patronising English hordes to the Butlins at Pwllelli.’
‘What do you feel about the occasional acts of violence by Welsh Nationalists, such as the blowing up of part of the installation of the Treweryn Valley Dam?’ I ask R.S. Thomas. He pauses a moment, deep in thought. Then his face clears, he smiles radiantly and cries, ‘A splendid event!’
He continues, ‘Wales should definitely be a nation on her own. When you leave the Irish Republic, everyone is speaking in English. You cross the water and arrive in Holyhead, which is officially a part of Britain, and every single person is speaking Welsh.’
One of the farms that I remember best up in the high country is one that belongs to a man who has done something at that time very unpopular in these parts, he’s sold his land to the Forestry Commission in exchange for a guaranteed income for the rest of his life. In exchange for his three hundred odd acres he is able to live a life of leisure sitting by his farm fireside, living on fifteen pounds a week.
His sister lives with him. By night they sit together in the vast embrasure of the huge antique fireplace, doing nothing. They sit there hour after hour, for evening after evening, on their chairs opposite each other across the fire, passing the time of the evening, passing the time of their lives.
I mention to the poet that it appears to me to be a rare event to find a husband and wife and children living together in a complete family. So often the unit would be brother and sister, brother and brother, father and son, or even stranger units of people, like brother and sister and their son, or a father and a daughter with whom he has an incestuous relationship. The poet smiles bleakly. ‘Normal families are very rare.’
One day he makes a joke. As an illustration for his narrative poem ‘The Minister’, which they want to film, some media people want to show a funeral. What would be the simplest and cheapest way of arranging one? Would the church agree to a grave being dug and a coffin being lowered in? What about mourners? The poet says, ‘The simplest way would be to film a real funeral. You’ve got a car here with you, haven’t you? The easiest way would be to run someone over.’
On the occasion of our first two meetings the poet brings in, for refreshment, a tray on which stand two glasses and a jug of water. On my third visit he shows me into his front parlour and leaves me alone there for a long while. At length he returns and beside the jug of water on the tray is a bottle of sherry. Pouring me a glass, R.S. Thomas remarks drily, ‘They say you have to visit a Welshman three times before you get offered a drink.’
The snow comes down and it becomes impossible to walk up into the hills any more. I go down to his house to tell him that I am going. All round us the snow lays deep and the roads up to the mountains are blocked. The poet says, ‘I understand. You do have to go.’
‘I’ll be back in about six weeks.’
For a moment his face creases into a wintry smile as he says, ‘When you come back the mountains will still be here.’
We are back to glasses of water. As we sit swilling these down before a fireless empty grate, the poet says, ‘I know I’m fairly narrow. I haven’t got breadth at all. I just believe intensely in the ultimate simplicity and hard quality of life. I think life should be simple and rather hard and I think that all modern amenities and conveniences are just not worth the paper they are printed on. I think that real life, to know life, the quality of life, the quality of joy and vigour and experience of beauty is in the simple things.
‘If I was accused of being a pessimistic poet I would have to acknowledge the truth of the accusation. I take a tragic view of life. There is something more than form about nature. Although it has a quality of joy and wonder and a sort of vivacity and vitality I think that there is also a mournful melancholy sort of underlying quality. I don’t think you’re ever bored with nature as you’re bored in an industrial civilisation, but it’s a natural sort of melancholy induced by the moods of the seasons, that come to you in the country. In the city it’s a sort of awful taedium vitae.’
I go up into the hills again to a farm set high on the mountainside whose narrow farmyard between the beast house, the haybarn and the midden, is the pitted surface of the rock itself, fissured there where it emerges from under the sod, the skull breaking out from beneath the flesh, and through this farmyard runs the bright water of a stream. I lean over the gate of this farm with its owner, watching the clouds mass over the lowlands underneath us and the far distant estuary where the water comes teeming in.
There are a couple of English electricians installing electricity in the farmhouse. They have, with great exertion, hauled their equipment across the steep fields which provide the only way of getting here. As the pale shadows of the clouds race over the meadows underneath us, and as the farmer excuses himself and goes off to see to a ewe that is in trouble, one of the electricians in the farmyard strolls over in my direction and says, ‘You know, he must be bonkers to live up here.’
I say nothing but silently I do not agree. The seeds of love have been sewn in my heart that later will result in Nell and I coming to live in Wales.
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