Our Friday Poem this week, as we enter the final month of 2018, is ‘December’ by Paul Deaton.
‘December’ is taken from Paul Deaton’s Poetry Book Society-recommended debut, A Watchful Astronomy. Deaton is a realist and a formalist, preferring simple, accurate language and use of formal meter. This makes for unusually clear and accessible work. A powerful underlying current of emotion also drives these poems and is contained and restrained by the more austere formal qualities.
‘Each poem in this collection is like a little torchlight … I felt like it totally wrapped me up as a reader, and I really couldn’t put it down.’ – Jen Campbell
Our Friday Poem this week is ‘Clean’ by Elizabeth Parker, from her debut collection, In Her Shambles.
Parker’s first full collection of poems, In Her Shambles, showcases her style with poems that are verb-rich, observational and uncanny portraits of things-seen-aslant.
‘Clean’ is no different: this frank portrait of a house post-breakup gives us dead insects ‘like crossed cutlery’ and ‘dark sediment’ on areas now untouched and unfamiliar. Instead of well-worn clichés we measure the speaker’s sorrow through the odd and unexpected mementos that remain – ‘scents’, ‘dust’ and ‘that sticky shape on the radiator’.
It’s a dark day – some might say black – and so our Friday Poem is one that celebrates the simple joys of reading and speech. We hope you find the time to experience them for yourself today.
‘Reader’ by Robert Walton is taken from his latest collection, Sax Burglar Blues. This jazzed-up book is ripe with complexity and wit, its subjects ranging from the insectoid ‘Man with a Double Bass on His Back’ to a canary with high political ambitions and a dock-dwelling crocodile. The poems demonstrate the artful, expansive range of this newly-revived author.
Sax Burglar Blues is half price until midnight this Sunday, as part of our celebration of books with black covers. We have a great selection of books included – have a browse on our Black Books page.
Our Friday Poem this week is ‘The Post Box in the Wall’ from Crowd Sensationsby Judy Brown.
Crowd Sensations is Judy’s latest collection, and was shortlisted for the Ledbury Forte Prize. Judy is a poet of dazzling contrasts, of thoughtful paradox, intimate confidences and precise evocations. Her titles and first lines both draw you right into a poem and then quite often surprise you with a narrative that you hadn’t quite expected. This is true of ‘The Post Box in the Wall’, which takes this mundane object and paints it as ‘absolution’, as ‘that mouth’, as a place to deposit snakes and curses.
Hear Judy talk to Julia Copus about changing career from lawyer to poet, writers’ residencies, and how certain places can live on in the mind long after they’ve been left in this interview, newly released on the Royal Literary Fund website.
Today, November 11th 2018, marks the centenary of the Armistice and the ending of the Great War. In commemoration, author and historian Mike Rees looks at the sacrifices made by rugby players from his home town of Newport, revealing details about their sporting and personal lives, as well as their brave and tragic last stands.
Rees is the author of Men Who Played the Game, which explores the development and importance of sport in Britain and the Empire leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, and the part played by sportsmen in the conflict.
The Great War was conducted on a scale hitherto unknown and its consequences remain with us to this day. Such were the losses, over 750,000 in Britain alone, that the idea of a ‘lost generation’ is firmly established in the collective memory. The existence of war graves, carefully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, throughout Western Europe and beyond serve as a reminder of the sacrifices made in this cataclysmic war. Memorials to the missing, their bodies never found, both move and shock us when we visit Thiepval on the Somme, with 73,367 names and the Menin Gate in Ypres with 54,896. Given the scale of these losses it is clear that communities throughout Britain were affected. As we now reach the centenary of the Armistice that brought to an end this dreadful conflict, it is an appropriate time to see just how those badly those communities were affected. Here I will look at the wartime stories from one community in particular – rugby players from my home city, Newport.
Newport Athletic Club has always remembered its war dead. The memorial gates at Rodney Parade contain the names of 86 members of the club who lost their lives in the Great War, among them 6 rugby internationals who represented Wales in what was to become their national sport. Playing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century these men, to a greater or lesser extent, played a significant role in the evolution of the game in Wales. More importantly, they made the greatest sacrifice of all after the First World War erupted.
The first of these men, Richard Garnons Williams, holds a special place in Welsh rugby history as a member of the first ever Wales XV to play international rugby. This historic event took place on 19th February 1881 at Blackheath and Wales were soundly beaten. Garnons Williams, a Newport forward, never played for Wales again.
Born in Llowes, Radnorshire in 1856, one of ten children, Garnons was educated at Magdalen College School, Oxford before studying at Trinity College, Cambridge. From here he progressed to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst and, on completion forged a successful military career with the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment). This was followed by service with the South Wales Borderers (1st Brecknockshire Volunteer Battalion) where he reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. Garnons retired from regular service in 1892, although he did continue to serve in a voluntary capacity until 1906. This determination to follow a military career undoubtedly curtailed his rugby career, details of which are somewhat sketchy. We do know, however, that he played for Cambridge University, Brecon and Newport, from where he won his solitary cap.
On the outbreak of war in 1914 Garnons, by now aged 58, re-joined the British Army and returned to the Royal Fusiliers, the 12th Battalion. He was killed on 27th September 1915 leading his battalion at Loos when he was shot in the head following an attack on German trenches. The battalion had become exposed on each flank and Garnons had just given the order to retreat. He is remembered on the Loos Memorial.
Garnons, at 59, was the eldest of the 13 Welsh internationals to make the ultimate sacrifice in The Great War. He left a wife, Alice Jessie and a daughter, Barbara, who also served in France and lost her husband on the Western Front in 1917. A brother, Mark Penry, died when the HMS Hampshire was sunk by a mine in 1916.
Our second Newport international was one of the cities’ greatest all round sportsmen, the Wales half back, Louis Phillips. Lou was born in Stow Hill in 1878 and was later a resident of Gold Tops, a prosperous residential area in the town. He made his mark as a swimmer, cricketer and international standard water polo player but it is as a rugby player that he is best remembered. A product of Monmouth Boys Grammar School, he won 4 caps and played half back, partnering club mate Llewellyn Lloyd in the Triple Crown winning team of 1900, the year that heralded the beginning of Wales first ‘golden era’. Lou looked set for a long and distinguished run in this emerging Welsh team but a serious knee injury sustained playing against Scotland in 1901 brought his brief rugby career to a premature close. A qualified architect by profession, Lou continued to display his sporting ability by becoming an international golfer and twice Welsh Amateur Golf Champion.
On the outbreak of war Lou joined the 20th (Service) Battalion Royal Fusiliers where, after first refusing a commission, he served as a sergeant. On the night of 14th March 1916, while out with a wiring party near Cambrin, France, Lou was fatally shot in the chest. The loss of this immensely talented 38 year old was keenly felt in the sporting circles of South Wales.
Probably the best known rugby international to lose his life in the war was Charles Meyrick Pritchard. Charlie was born in September 1882 in Newport and attended Newport Intermediate School and Long Ashton School, Bristol before taking his place in the family wine and spirit business. A well-built, thirteen and a half stone backrow forward, Charlie made his Newport debut in January 1902. By the following year Charlie was a travelling reserve with the Wales team and in 1904 he won the first of his 14 caps in the game against Ireland. In December 1905 Charlie had his finest rugby moment when he was the stand out player in the Welsh victory over the All Blacks. Known for his all-round skills, it was his deadly tackling that drew praise in this momentous victory. Fellow Newport hero, George Travers said that Charlie “knocked ‘em down like ninepins”. Following this historic achievement, Charlie went on to represent Wales until 1910, although he did miss a number of matches through injury, and was part of the Grand Slam winning side of 1908. He also captained his club between 1906 and 1909.
When war broke out, Charlie was quick to enlist and joined the South Wales Borderers as a temporary Second Lieutenant. By October 1915 Charlie was a captain in the 12th Battalion and arrived on the Western Front in time for the Somme offensive of July 1916. He was quickly into the action and wrote home detailing some of his experiences. Tragically, on the night of 12th/13th August Charlie was instructed to lead a raiding party on German trenches. Despite fighting bravely in a successful raid, Charlie suffered serious injuries and was taken to No 1 Casualty Clearing Station. After being reassured that his men “had got the Hun”, Charlie replied with his last known words, “Well I have done my bit”. Charlie, a resident of Llwynderi Road, Newport, was buried in Choeques Military Cemetery and left a grieving widow and two young children. This legendry Newport rugby player and war hero was 34 years old.
Johnnie Williams was the most capped Welsh rugby international to die in the Great War and, until 1976, jointly held the record for the most tries scored by a Welsh player. Born in Whitchurch, Cardiff in 1882 and a product of Cowbridge Grammar School, Johnnie spent the majority of his career playing for his home club. However he began his career at Newport where he played between 1899 and 1903, scoring 19 tries and a dropped goal in 50 appearances for the club. In 1906 he broke into a strong Wales team to play the touring Springboks. Although this match was lost Johnnie only experienced defeat once more in 17 matches in a Welsh shirt. Noted for his swerve and sidestep, this pacey winger played in 3 Grand Slam winning teams and captained his country against France in 1911. Johnnie also toured with the British Isles team to Australia and New Zealand where he played in 2 of the 3 tests and was the second top scorer with 12 tries on the tour.
When the war began, Johnnie left his job as a partner in a coal exporters based in the Cardiff Coal Exchange to join the 16th Battalion of the Royal Welch Regiment. By now a captain, Johnnie led his men in the attack on Mametz Wood, part of the Somme offensive. After ‘going over the top’ on 7th July, Johnnie was severely injured which resulted in the amputation of his left leg. Despite being able to write to his wife Mabel following his injury, thirty-four-year-old Johnnie died of his wounds on 12th July. He was buried at Corbie Communal Cemetery.
Phil Waller was born in Bath in 1889 and educated at Carmarthen Intermediate School but it is as a Newport Rugby Union international that he is best remembered. On leaving school, Phil was apprenticed as an engineer to the Alexander Dock Railway Company and, by 1907, he was a regular member of the Newport pack, specializing in the line out and the loose. A year later 19 year old Phil was in the Wales team that defeated the touring Australians 9-6 and kept his place for the 1909 Five Nations tournament. All four matches were won ensuring that Phil became one of the few players to have defeated a southern hemisphere country and win a Grand Slam in the same season. The following season Phil played in the victory over France but lost his place for the first visit to Twickenham.
Although he never played for Wales again, Phil was selected for the British Lions tour to South Africa where he played in all 3 tests. Taken with the country, Phil stayed in South Africa playing rugby and working in Johannesburg as an engineer. In August 1915 Phil enlisted as a gunner with the 71st Siege Battery SA Heavy Artillery and saw action at Ypres, the Somme, Arras and Cambrai. About to go on leave, driving to the nearest rail link, he and a colleague were killed by stray shellfire. Phil’s colleague was the son of South African statesman, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, the man who initially proposed the observation of the two minutes silence on Armistice Day. Phil Waller, buried in Red Cross Corner Cemetery, Beugny, near Arras, was 28 years old.
Billy Geen was, like fellow war casualty and Newport rugby international Lou Phillips, a resident of Gold Tops in Newport. Born in 1891, this nephew of Frank Purdon who had won four caps in the 1880’s, was educated at Haileybury College in Hertfordshire and then Oxford University. A fine cricketer who represented Monmouthshire in the Minor Counties Championship, Billy made his name as an extremely talented rugby three-quarter and won three ‘Blues’ playing on the wing outside the great England captain, Ronnie Poulton-Palmer. In his first Varsity match Billy scored three tries in a famous Oxford victory.
Billy played his club rugby for Newport and was a member of the team that defeated the 1912 South Africans 9-3 in front of a crowd of over 18,000 at Rodney Parade. Selection for Wales against the same opposition followed and, despite a controversial defeat, Billy kept his place against England. He also played against Ireland that year, this time in the centre, but lost his place through injury.
With the outbreak of war Billy joined the 60th King’s Royal Rifle Corps and quickly became a Second Lieutenant in the 9th Battalion. He saw action in the Second Battle of Ypres and was tragically killed at Hooge on 31st July 1915. Billy was last seen leading his men in hand to hand fighting, one of 17 officers and 333 other ranks of this battalion killed in the exchange. This ‘dazzling left wing’ with ‘dancing footwork’ was one of 740 boys from Haileybury College to be killed in the war. Billy’s body was never found and he is remembered as one of the 54,896 names on the Menin Gate. He was 24 years old.
Perhaps, of all the Newport internationals killed in the Great War, it is the death of Billy Geen, a young man in the prime of his rugby career that best represents the loss to Welsh rugby. However, at this time it is only right to remember all thirteen Wales rugby internationals lost in this dradful conflict as well as countless other rugby players throughout the land. Heroes every one.
In Dear Mona: Letters from a Conscientious Objector, we are given a window into the life of Jonah Jones through private letters to his close friend and mentor, Mona Lovell. We see his character evolve as he nurtures his love of art and sculpture, and finds new ways to express his creativity.
A pacifist, Jones at first declined to enlist when war broke out, but later served as a non-arms bearing medic in the Second World War. His letters give an emotional insight into the prejudices he faced and the reality of his wartime experiences. Peter Jones, Jonah’s son, has edited this fascinating book and here gives insight into the difficult process of bringing its intimate contents to print.
Deciding to publish my father’s letters to Mona was both an easy step and one of the hardest things I have had to do.
Easy because of the quality of the writing and the interest the material holds. There is a clear narrative arc to the letters as the intense relationship between Len Jones (as my father Jonah was then known) and his friend and mentor Mona Lovell develops, and he simultaneously stumbles towards his vocation in art. This makes them a very satisfying read, and gives the whole a novelistic quality. Along the way we get fascinating insights into the life of a conscientious objector in the Second World War, vivid descriptions of action after Len joins the 6th Airborne Division as a non-combatant medic, and powerful accounts of the tension in British Mandate Palestine in the run-up to the birth of the State of Israel.
‘…there is no hysteria – only a desperate apathy & an anxious searching for belongings as they come from their cellars or from a few miles back. Once in the back area again they begin to smile even, as the war moves on & they feel safe again – but many have lost what can never be replaced…’
All of this compelled publication. Yet at the same time I wavered, for my father was a very private man in some ways, and I knew he would not have been glad to see these letters released to the world. They cover a time when he was mainly unhappy, a time he preferred to forget. And of course, fundamental to my whole dilemma, was his relationship with Mona – she was in love with him, he looked on her as a soul-mate whom he valued dearly as a friend but could not love in the way she wished. It was extremely hard to lay all this open before a reading public.
So the question arose: could I make the insightful, non-personal material available without publishing the deeply personal side of the letters? Yes, but this would run the risk of creating a narrative without a narrative, for Len’s relationship with Mona (and, to a lesser but still important extent with the poet James Kirkup) is the spine of the whole story. Most crucial, cutting out the personal would diminish Mona to little more than a sounding board for Len’s thoughts and experiences. This would be a grave injustice, for it is clear how vital she was in Len’s transition from his constricted working class roots to the man who could express himself through art. Too often women have been relegated to the shadows of history; Mona did not deserve this fate.
So, with qualms, I decided to lay out the whole story. It reveals so much: how life was for conscientious objectors in the Second World War (we have heard a lot about their brave predecessors in the Great War, but much less of Len’s generation), the widespread frustration people suffered due to their lives being suspended by the war, the congenial debating society that was Carmel College in Haifa, where servicemen and women did university-style courses prior to demobilization. Some of the issues touched on in Len’s letters seem remarkably topical, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict and anti-semitism (whether among forestry workers in Yorkshire or British officials), and homosexuality, on which he evolved from unthinking revulsion to deep compassion. These letters are compelling; the world should see them.
Our Friday Poem this week is Rhiannon Hooson’s ‘How Women Are Not The Same’, from her debut poetry collection, The Other City.
‘Hooson’s style is thoughtful, questioning, reflective, and consistently restrained. Her collection gives the impression of having come together over a long period, with each piece earning its place’ – Orbis
The Other City offers us elegant, artful verse of precision and insight. This is a poet that can re-imagine scenes from Greek myth, from Welsh history, and make them as urgent and compelling as her poems about personal relationships. ‘How Women Are Not The Same’ is one such personal poem – in which memories are conjured, and intimacies wound tight around strands of hair.
Our Friday Poem this week is ‘Marilyn’s Auction House’ by Nerys Williams, from her collection Sound Archive.
Sound Archive is Williams’ strikingly original first collection, in which she conjures complex music, intriguing narratives, and poems full of atmosphere that query identity, gender, and the dream of art as a vehicle for emotion and meaning.
In ‘Marilyn’s Auction House’ we join the speaker and her partner as they’re ‘queuing for relics’, thumbing through the brochure for an auction of Marilyn Monroe’s belongings. The poem laces together the mythologised symbols of Marilyn’s image with modern desires and needs.
If you would like to discover more of Nerys Williams’ poetry, you can find several of her new poems in the new issue of Poetry Wales Magazine.
Costa Award-winner Jonathan Edwards is gifting us a splendid second collection, Gen, which arrives next week. Our Friday Poem today is the title poem from this new book.
You can catch Jonathan at Poetry in Aldeburgh on Sunday 4 November, 11:30am, where he will be reading some of his new poetry. Tickets available here.
Gen is a book of lions and rock stars, street parties and servants, postmen and voices. In the opening sequence’s exploration of youth and young manhood, the author sets his own Valleys upbringing against the ’50s youth of his parents and the experience of a range of pop culture icons, including Kurt Cobain and Harry Houdini. These poems give way to a sequence of monologues and character sketches, giving us the lives of crocodiles and food testers, pianists and retail park trees. Other poems place a Valleys village and the characters who live in it alongside explorations of Welsh history and prehistory, and the collection concludes with a selection of sometimes witty, sometimes heartfelt love poems. All in all, Gen is a superb follow-up to Edwards’ debut, My Family and Other Superheroes, which won the Costa Poetry Award in 2014.
Christopher Meredith is an award-winning author of fiction and poetry. He has published four novels, three full poetry collections, and several shorter works. He is also the subject of a new Writers of Wales critical study, written by Diana Wallace.
Meredith’s new book, Brief Lives, is his first venture into short story writing – and its release comes thirty years after his groundbreaking debut novel, Shifts.
In this interview, Rosie Johns asks Chris about creative inspiration, the impact of personal experience, and the challenge of playing with tone and style in the short story form.
In the acknowledgements, you mention that you felt Brief Lives is an unoriginal title; what about it was so important to the collection that you decided to keep it anyway?
It’s not that I feel the title’s unoriginal – it is. Apart from the famous John Aubrey book from the 17th century at least one novel, other story collections, various book series and radio series have used this title. It was simply my working title as the book evolved, and it grew to fit. Ultimately the publisher registered the ISBN under this title without checking with me and there we were. In some ways that was a relief as it was probably the right title all along, and the subtitle six fictions does a bit of extra work.
Calling this book Brief Lives was a bit like a composer calling a piece Nocturne or Study or Caprice. It draws on a myth kitty of shared knowledge and expectations and suggests both form and theme. But the two words are very charged. As used originally for Aubrey’s short biographical notes on real people, the word ‘brief’ implies that the writing is not the whole story. In its origins, ‘brief’ can mean a summary, or better a compression. In one story, ‘Progress’, the young man standing on a bridge actually uses the word ‘summaries’ to describe, euphemistically, a blaze of powerful memory that’s just run through his head. While a summary can sound like an arid thing, it can also suggest; its compression can expand in the mind after the reading. A few reviewers have commented on the intensity of this book which perhaps is an effect of those compressions opening in the mind.
So it’s the writing that’s ‘brief’, but of course there’s the thought that life itself is brief too, and the fact of mortality haunts this book. Every story touches on death in some way. The powerful conflation of art and reality in that double meaning partly explains why the title has such a draw.
The story ‘Opening Time’ features in two very different books: Snaring Heaven and now Brief Lives. What drives your certainty that it belongs in both, despite their differences? Snaring Heaven is a collection of poems. There are echoes and connections between that story at the end of the collection and other poems in that book and also its title; exactly the same thing happens in different terms in Brief Lives. There it gathers many of the elements and effects of the previous stories and goes beyond their various realisms. Readers can compare the two books and decide for themselves.
Does writing about Wales in English differ from writing about it in Welsh? And if so, how? I’ve written little in Welsh and in all my writing I hardly ever write about Wales. It’s not a subject but often, perhaps always, part of the context. The one difference I can think of is that when writing in Welsh that context is manifest. Of Wales, not about.
How much of your own experience is reflected in the three stories that take place in Wales, and how is this influenced by the connection between place and memory, as demonstrated in ‘The Enthusiast’? And in stories with less explicit locations, how else do your experiences inform the narrative?Everything you write has to come from somewhere in your own experience, even if that experience is sometimes reading, research, dreams, stuff overheard, something glimpsed, stuff at second or third hand, etc., and all of that’s then transformed in the imagination and the process of writing. In that sense, everything in the book comes from that slippery thing ‘experience’, and I don’t see the value in looking for differences in how that plays in relation to ‘place’. The mediation of that stuff into the final story can be immensely complex and obscure. I’ve never waded into a cold river to rescue a child as happens in the supposedly realistic and located ‘The Enthusiast’, but it became useful for the story to imagine how that would feel. On the other hand, in ‘Haptivox’, one of the strangest and least ‘realistic’ stories, though I’ve never magically changed sex, as happens there, I have noticed a bird looking like a comma hanging on a sawn branch, and I’ve swum in ocean so clear that you can see the sea bed vividly even at quite great depths. Anyway, the story you write doesn’t care about you or your experience. It just has to work.
‘Haptivox’ certainly stands out with its more ambiguous sense of place, and the science fiction elements. How did this change of tone affect your portrayal of individuals and their internal lives? I think there are shades of ambiguity in relation to both place and genre. Formally, ‘Haptivox’ is similar to the opening story ‘Averted Vision’ in that it’s broadly third person, inhabits two points of view, and is divided into short sections. The two stories, I hope, share an unreal and intense quality. The exact setting for ‘Averted Vision’ is never made completely explicit. I hope it’s more vivid for that; there are clues and it’s roughly guessable. A date and place are given away only in the cover blurb in fact, not in the story. For the characters, the nightmare time at sea feels dis-located in time and space, unreal, and the word ‘real’ plays a key and dark part in the story. Fewer suggestions for location are needed for ‘Haptivox’ to work. But the potential of short fiction to reach for the simultaneously emblematic and, I hope, psychologically rich and convincing is at work in both, perhaps all, the stories, but in nuanced ways. The two overwrought young soldiers in ‘Averted Vision’ are named because they’re both male and I need to distinguish between them. The man and woman in ‘Haptivox’ are unnamed because ‘he’ and ‘she’ can do all the work. But at the same time that works in an emblematic way with the fact that story is partly to do with maleness and femaleness. In that sense ‘Haptivox’ moves towards the more manifestly general. But in every story I think I found myself looking into brief, often small moments in lives and at the interplay between moment and memory in isolated people to gain vistas into vast and perhaps shared spaces.