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This report is taken from PN Review 118, Volume 24 Number 2, November - December 1997.Letter from Wales
Early summer is the season of the Hay Festival and a clutch of literary awards. The town of Hay, more properly The Hay, has a musical Welsh name, as David Jones reminds us in The Sleeping Lord, '...which place is in the tongue of the men of the land, Y Gelli Gandryll, or, for short, Y Gelli'. Be that as it may, visitors usually need luck and a magnifying glass to detect a Welsh presence at the Festival. Menna Elfyn and Robert Minhinnick were among the few writers from Wales involved this year. They were both at the reception held by the Gregynog Press, where, unnaturally, not a book was to be seen. Instead prints from a selection of its publications were displayed - and very fine many of them were.
At Sotheby's New York sale 'The Book as Art' in June 1995, a copy of Aesop's Fables fetched $2530, almost three times the estimate. The book was made in 1931, during the first Gregynog era, when the Press was truly private, the exotic hobby of the Davies sisters, Margaret and Gwendoline. These were ladies of decorum and impeccable taste, granddaughters of the industrialist David Davies, Llandinam. I first saw Gregynog House, a magnificent mock-Tudor pile, almost incredibly built of concrete about the turn of the century, in the 1950s. It is set in glorious parkland near Newtown, Powys, and at the time of that initial visit the surviving sister, Margaret, was still in residence, surrounded by exquisite things, including a collection of French Impressionist paintings that left the viewer pop-eyed and speechless. The paintings were bequeathed to the National Museum of Wales, where they are the envy of galleries throughout the world and, despite the Arms Park and the Bay development, still the best single reason for visiting Cardiff. Gregynog itself, left to the University of Wales, serves as a conference centre of unusual elegance, with bedrooms the size of dancehalls for special guests. Along with the mansion, the University inherited the stables, which housed the press and all the paraphernalia of types, hand-made papers and fine, imported skins for leather bindings, left over from the 1930s. Largely at the instigation of Dr Glyn Tegai Hughes, the first warden appointed by the University, and Meic Stephens, then Literature Director of the Welsh Arts Council, the Gregynog Press was revived in the 1970s. Since then, it has produced some splendid books, not least among them Cathedral Builders, a selection of poems by John Ormond, illustrated with the poet's own drawings, which is beautiful as an object and a delight to read.
Many of those who attended the Gregynog reception at Hay were unaware that the rug of Arts Council of Wales funding had been pulled from under the Press and precipitated its collapse: the highly skilled staff had resigned or been laid off. There is a half-baked notion that it might be resuscitated by the University for special projects, but to all intents and purposes, for a second time, the Gregynog Press is dead. It will be mourned by few - those who could afford, if only occasionally, the high prices that must be charged for strictly limited editions, printed, illustrated and bound to the highest standards by traditional methods. Many more do not realise what they have lost. Something rather rare and beautiful has disappeared from Wales and we are all the poorer for that. Such was the flow of champagne, however, that the Gregynog prints exhibition was outright winner in the cheerfullest wake category at the festival.
Celebratory toasts were in order at other events. The Arts Council's prize for the Welsh Book of the Year in English went to Siân James for a collection of short stories, Not Singing Exactly. Gwyneth Lewis, runner-up in the English language prize list last year for Parables and Faxes, occupied the same position this year for a collection of poems in Welsh, Cyfrif Un ac Un yn Dri, which seems to me more extraordinary than that the top award should go to the short story genre. Within a few days of that announcement, news came of the Cholmondeley Awards to Gillian Clarke and Tony Curtis. The former's work is well known to PNR readers. She has been a Carcanet poet since 1982 and her Collected Poems is among the new books promised in the Autumn list. I was fortunate to be among the first to see her poetry, for when, early in 1970, she initially thought of submitting poems for publication, it was to Poetry Wales she sent them. At that time, they caught the eye and mind immediately because of the way in which they presented domestic, familial and rural themes from a distinctively feminine viewpoint. Notwithstanding the everyday subjects, there was a shapeliness about the poems, a precision of diction and imagery, and a capacity for artistic objectivity, that placed them far above the commonplace. Those 1970 poems gave notice of a talent with staying power - and so it has turned out. With the development of her craft has come both selfconfidence and a well-honed self-critical faculty. It will be interesting to see what of her early work survives her rigorous scrutiny to find a place among the 'collected'.
Tony Curtis, who won the National Poetry Competition in 1984 and was runner-up in the Observer/Arvon competition in 1985, must be one of the best known of contemporary Anglo-Welsh poets. American confessional poetry was an early enthusiasm, especially that of Robert Lowell, though he acknowledges also the influence on his own work of Heaney, Walcott and Douglas Dunn. His poems have strong narrative structures, whether they are about his Pembrokeshire roots, home and family, or derive from assiduously cultivated interests in art and artists, and the histories of wars and revolutions in the twentieth century. Death is a recurring theme, and the human capacity to survive through art, books and individual memory. Often too, the story is told in the first person: it is another's confession - like that of the nurse in 'The Last Candles', leaving the chaos of revolutionary Russia and seeing from the deck of the ship the bodies of Tsarist officers, their feet weighted with stones, floating upright in the port at Odessa:
'Swaying, grey shapes
I glimpsed from the rail, as if bowing to me.
The last candles of my Russia
guttering and going out under the black sea.'
The elegiac strand which stands out strongly in Tony Curtis's writing is typified by 'Reg Webb', another poem from his last book War Voices (Seren, 1995). It is about a seaman who, after a war spent dodging Uboats and a long peace piloting tankers into Milford Haven, is at last in his final berth:
Reg becalmed in the straits of morphine
captaining his bed, full-sheeted, trim,
away from the port of his front room and tv,
the photo at the Palace for his OBE
floundering and sick of being ill
sank angrily, far out in the cottage hospital.
He's lost now, with fire in the hold, and a hard stoke
for one last evasive action, making smoke.
The poet's interest in art is linked at several points to his study of the two World Wars (research into the war artist William Orpen was the starting point of the prize-winning 'The Death of Richard Beattie-Seaman in the Belgian Grand Prix, 1939') but extends far beyond that. Some of his most recently published poems, in Poetry Wales, were from a series written in a collaboration with the New York artist John Digby, and this Autumn will see the publication of a book of conversations with artists in Wales that could open our eyes to talents that have been as little appreciated as those of many Anglo-Welsh poets and, like the poets, deserve closer scrutiny.
Another recent cause for celebration was the ninetieth birthday of Gwyn Jones on 24 May. Although you will find his poem 'The Blue Day Journey' in The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse in English, which he also edited, he is far better known as a writer of short stories and novels and a world authority on the Vikings and the Icelandic sagas. If you detect a hint of awe in anything I write about him, I can only plead extenuating circumstances. I fell under the spell of his intellect and remarkable presence as an impressionable seventeen-year-old at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, where he was Professor of English. At that time I did not know a fraction of his accomplishments, so that, rather than decreasing with acquaintance, my regard for him steadily grew. At first encounter, he was clearly not a man to be trifled with. His massive head and shoulders powerfully suggested a late incarnation of the hero Beowulf, whose epic tale he taught so brilliantly. He seemed to us as at home in Anglo-Saxon as he was in English, and, by whatever standard you choose to mention, he still ranks as easily the most fluently gifted speaker of English I have ever heard - every phrase measured, every sentence perfect, never a pause or stumble. In his seventies, he amazed a TV producer and film crew by speaking to camera, unprepared, in polished paragraphs and a single take. In the quality of his own writing (the evocation of Augustan England in his novel Richard Savage (1935) is unsurpassed), in the inspired collaboration with his Aberystwyth colleague Professor Thomas Jones on the translation of The Mabinogion, and in the editorial skills he deployed inThe Welsh Review, which he founded in 1939, he set standards to which the ambitious may aspire, but with scant hope of emulation. For his scholarship he received the Commander's Cross of the Order of the Falcon from the President of Iceland. And Gwyn Jones is, after all, one of us, the son of a miner and the local midwife, born in the Gwent valleys community of Blackwood, ninety years ago.
This report is taken from PN Review 118, Volume 24 Number 2, November - December 1997.