Mamgu, I remember
all these things.
The blacklead freshness
of your kitchen’s cavern
is fresh too in
my mind. And you:
Your parchment face
is still the same,
kind as the Book
you read at darkening
day. You laughed as
we gambolled in sun’s yard,
and sang when
tiredness overtook us.
Does your black kettle
lurch still at
hob’s edge, coughing
like a dragon?
Note: The Book was not ‘kind’ of course, and since writing this so many years ago I’ve searched for an alternative way of stating things at this point, but have failed to find one. The word does fit the poem’s subject well, and may, I suppose, be connected in a looser way with ‘The Book’ when one considers that the lives of this chapel-going generation echoed very much the pattern of the Welsh psyche which had come down to it not only through the great religious dissentions of the 19th century, but all that had preceded those. It’s a way of expressing – despite how the chapels had been effectively killed by the Great War between Europe’s herrenvolk – something of the veneration with which the Bible and ancestral belief was still regarded by that generation. The poem was composed in the form of a letter to my grandmother; it was pleasing for both of us that she was able to read it in one of Wales’ leading literary magazines of the time
The Day before Yesterday
Tadcu passed away at the end of those days
when everyone knew everyone else, and nobody
locked their doors. Before hypermarkets, and
industrial zones – in the days of the corner shop,
when men trooped out to the long black works
where the molten steel was rolled –
before investors arrived and were granted free rein
to tear up the streets and the rough back lanes
and the town was ‘developed’ in line with the times,
and its character melted away.
Still, change was a fact, and Tadcu saw it come.
There were Bingo Halls booming. T.V. A few cars,
and the alien toff who sat at the top
looked on us here and let it be known
that we’d never had it so good.
Well, the death-knell had rung some years since, on the days
when young mothers carried their infants in shawls
and women walked out in their black coats and hats
and children were happy with the simplest of toys
and vapour-trails hadn’t been seen in the skies;
all that was accepted, of course.
But that glutton called Time was leaving behind
all those old ones, like my Tadcu –
the ones who recalled even earlier days
when there weren’t any cars or aeroplanes,
when everyone really knew everyone else,
and the town had a heart and a soul.
As the cortège passed through the slate-roofed streets
some Council workmen – elderly, all –
put by their spades and took off their caps
and gravely lowered their eyes. I remember that.
I wept at their gesture of respect,
out of key with the way things were heading those days,
but was preciously one with Tadcu’s vanished age.
And I wished that things hadn’t changed so much…
Note: Thinking about words, again; I’ve wondered whether this poem might have been more effective if the final line were left out. Still, I did wish, and have often since wished, that things hadn’t changed so much. Wales, like everywhere else, was undergoing rapid social change during that decade of the ‘60s, and its pressures were to be strongly felt. I looked back on it, even during the latter years of that period, with Wales’ celebrated Emyr Humphreys in mind – specifically his 1965 book Outside the House of Baal. I recall reading a review of this book in an ‘Anglo-Welsh’ literary journal; it said, among complimentary things, that this ‘is not an important book’. The comment took me by surprise, for to me this book of Emyr Humphreys incapsulated, as no other novel I had read at that point, the disappearance of the ‘Old Wales’ of my grandparents. And much, as we so well know, has since passed away – let us hope not unalterably.
From ‘Welsh Past and Present’