Fin de Siècle

At odd times, they step into my mind.
He, sitting silent in his high-backed chair,
staring into the caverns of the fire
beneath its close-packed casing of black shards;
the living coals paling to grey cinders;
cinders into ashes; ashes into fine-grained dust. 
She, at the kitchen table, pondering with dim eyes
over the scattered pieces of a jig-saw,
shifting them studiously, searching with
a seriousness approaching on anxiety
as for memories which mattered most.
The fire’s glow, reflecting only faintly in the fender;
the shadows heaped beyond its reach;
the clock on the mantelpiece ticking, ticking, ticking slowly on.
His hands, it seemed, still blackened
from a lifetime in the pit; hers like wan snow,
all colour, by long and slow degrees, wrung out of them
from scrubbing other people’s floors.
Both heads, whitened by the hazards of the years.
Time and toil had cancelled much for them. The clock would stop.
But they are there still, in my mind.

Note: The poem is one of several about my grandparents, my Mamgu and Tadcu, as I remember them in their old age. The title, ‘Fin de Siècle’, refers more than anything to that last turn of the century which ushered in the Millennium – a change which seemed to me to sever me more than ever from those old ones I had known and loved in my youth – but which is also intended to reflect the turn of the 19th to the 20th, which was the one they themselves were party to in their younger days. They experienced the culmination of all the great revolutionary changes which took place throughout the 19th, and all the hardships of the early decades of the 20th – the harsh working conditions, the privation and suffering during the Great War, the long depression that was to follow; and all the tumultous social changes which concluded, by and large, so many aspects of Welsh life which had persisted, against the odds, and against the pressure of which there was and still is no defence, for centuries.

On a different and less sombre note, I’ll just mention a word or two about lines 3 and 4 of the poem: ‘the fire / beneath its close-packed casing of black shards’. In this day and age, not many will remember or know anything about the behaviour of household fires; my generation knew all about them, their needs, and their idiosyncrasies. The ‘close-packed casing of black shards’ came about from the depositing of ‘glo mân’, – fine coal dust, over the larger coals, which would result in the fire becoming a great, warm pie with a glistening black crust; eventually the lower heat would win through, and you would have in front of you a great, glowing, golden pudding, with the tips of coals, like currants, showing through. As a boy It was one of my jobs, and I loved it, to take up bucket and shovel and trek to the coal-house, where there was a thick carpet of glo mân, backed by a wall of huge slabs of shining Welsh anthracite, many the size of the old Imperial typewriters; these I would splinter with the big hammer which was always there into manageable, fist sized pieces which would fit nicely into the bucket, and cart them back down to the house. Dim yn gweithio fel ‘na, heddi’!

12 thoughts on “Fin de Siècle

    1. Thank you, Cicymru. Ah, the behaviour of fires was something special – the means and methods of lighting them, coaxing them (the use of the bellows); regulating the chimney’s usefulness (the use of the ‘blower’); sustaining them at certain levels for various purposes (cawl or Christmas puddings – and other things – bubbling in a cauldron); making Welshcakes on the ‘planc’ ;baking bread, by the fire’s heat, in the adjacent oven; setting the loaves out to rise on the fender; the handy ‘hob’ for keeping things simmering; the satisfaction of toasting bread on special extending forks held at the bars of the grate … and then the business, next morning, of clearing away the ashes after the fire had done its job for the day and starting all over again. Pretty much lost arts in most places, I would say.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. This brings back such memories. I love the descriptions of the fire. I remember the ‘glo mân’ and breaking up the big lumps in the coalhouse and the piles of coal in the road outside the miners’ houses, too. I also felt that the millennium distanced us from ‘yr hen bobl’. It’s strange to think that we are ‘yr hen bobl’ now! Meanwhile the clock, admittedly my parents’, not my grandparents’, continues to tick on top of the sideboard….

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    1. Thank you, Jacydo. Yes, memories … yr hen bobl. I hated that Millennium, and for quite a while, although I’ve got used to it by now. I have a poem about my feelings as it approached and then came upon us, and all that it seemed to wipe out for me. All the people of my grandparents’ time were from the 19th century; the oldest and most long-lived I knew being my Great-Uncle John, who was born in 1865; I have a poem about him, too, although he figures in it as a composite with at least one other Great-Uncle John; their compounded memories take us back to the days of Beca and the Risings of ’31 and ’39. We had spirit in the south, then! Glad that you have the clock; I have nothing, nothing, now.

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  2. Another wonderful picture of a time long past. How well I remember the smell of the freshly black-leaded range at my great auntie’s cottage and the scent of white linens being boiled over the open fire, never mind the smell of her pics and teisen lap. Diolch o galon am rannu hwn gyda ni.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Viv, and apologies for this late reply – but I’ve only just located your comment, while looking at one on the most recent posting, ‘Tales of Three Women (2)’; there wasn’t the usual notification, for some reason, and I would never not acknowledge a comment! Yes, the freshness of black lead, and sheets being boiled, surfacing and re-surfacing among the bubbles and steam … and all the rest of those wonderful memories, which I know you shared. Diolch o gallon iti, hefyd.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Poetryatnight, and apologies for this late reply to your comment, which I have only just located, while answering one on the most recent post ‘Tales of Three Women (2)’. I’ve no idea how I missed it, but for some reason there was not the usual notification, and I was flabbergasted to find it there and that It had not been enswered! I now see that there are another two such outstanding cases, and wonder what people who have been good enough to post comments on the poems must think! So sorry. So glad that it brought back happy memories to you. Yes, the fire was the focal point in those days, even as it must have been in past centuries. I remember sitting around the fire on winter’s evenings with My Mamgu and Tadcu and my Uncle Ieuan, singing hymns. “Llef’ was always a favourite. Tadcu had a fine bass voice, and Ieuan, baritone. I remember smiling at the very joy of it, as we would catch one another’s eye.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The imagery in this one was so captivating. I could see the two people in a dimly lit room so vividly. It was interesting for me to read more about the fire and it’s significance in this poem!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Eira. Yes, that’s what it was like in those days. The fire was the focal point, and important in so many ways. Even the bed linen was boiled in a cauldron over the open fire. And cawl! Big pots of cawl!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I can truly sense sadness in this one, yet it also evokes a strong contemplative tone at the same time. It takes me to a whole different time and so well describes a particular moment in such detail that I wonder if can still be captured as well today. There is a lot to be gained and valued in taking in the present moment and being captivated by it in all its emotional complexity. It makes me wonder more about their lives and wish to dig deeper to what brought them to that moment in time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Shaquille. Yes, it takes us back to a time which is difficult for us, now, to imagine. Two people who had lived through hardship for so much of their lives. I remember them both so vividly.

      Liked by 1 person

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