… after my grandfather died I slept with my grandmother in her large double bed when I was there on my own … but when all the cousins were there we shared a double bed and three or four of us slept at the top and three or four of us slept at the bottom and we were so small and short in those days that our feet never touched in the middle and the bed was like an earth worm … an octopus earth worm with several heads and no feet … or all the feet in the middle … like a centipede … and sometimes my parents would have to snuggle in with us too … though we scarcely woke up when they arrived or departed … and with tears we would go tired to bed … and the grown-ups would promise that it was only for an hour or two … for a little rest … and we were so far north that the summer sun was in the sky until late at night … but sleep we did and they never woke us up … and we didn’t wake up until the dawn chorus of birdsong … bird after bird chirping and singing in the hedge with its bluebells and primroses … the hedge that divided one bungalow field from the other …
… and we were in the first bungalow field, which was the best one, obviously, because we lived in it … and there was another bungalow field behind us and we could look through the gaps in the hedge and occasionally there were gaps we could crawl through … but they were well guarded because there was an all out war between the two fields and we didn’t like the boys in that second field and they didn’t like us … and we fought our skirmishes through the hedge and at the gaps in the hedge and the people in the field behind us would rent out their bungalows to boys with strange accents who would be instant enemies the moment they opened their mouths or heard us talk and vice versa, the other way round … and it was the silent arrow or spear shot or thrown through the hedge … and the long trailing root set out to trip the unwary, and once we tied a rope across the field, a trip wire to trip those foreign warriors, and we meant to take the rope down before it got dark, but we forgot and we missed the enemy but we caught my father and all the uncles walking back home in the dark from the local pub … and didn’t they trip and all fall down in a great big squealing piglet pile … and the aunties thought it very funny because once they were down, they couldn’t get up again … and the aunties said it had nothing to do with the rope … that they were all falling down anyway, falling down all the way home from the pub they were, and stumbling … but we had hoisted our allies with our own petard and next day we were brought to justice and the justice was severe … and what, they said, if we had caught one of the farmer’s cows … and if it had broken a leg … then who would be responsible then, to the farmer, for payment, and we all hung our heads in shame for those days everyone was big on responsibility and being responsible was a big thing … and even the dog, our scout and protector, our war horse and chariot, for we were Ancient Britons that summer, sat there silent and serious and hung his head in shame at the hot bitter words and he wasn’t even wagging his tail … and the adult jury, twelve sober uncles, tried men and true, all pronounced us guilty and sentenced us to a day without cricket, a day with no jam on the bread, a day in which we must eat up all the greens, a day with no puddings, a day with no sweets, no treats, no ice cream …
… but summer was ice-cream! Who wants ice cream in winter when the hands are cold and the ice wind blows straight down from the Arctic? But in summer, to rob a child of ice-cream is to commit a capital crime against childhood … and the ice cream was miles away, and to run to get it and to bring it back before it melted was a rare adventure that had to be carefully planned … go to the end of the field, run through two sets of lanes, stop at the first ice cream shop and if there was no ice cream there because it had all been eaten by that awful foreign army, run another mile to the next shop … and if you were lucky there would be some ice cream there … and no we didn’t want cones … cones were for the babies … the tiny children who couldn’t control their ice creams … we wanted wafers, like the big boys we were, although we were all still in short trousers … and there were three penny wafers and six penny wafers, and even chocolate bars with thin chocolate on the outside and the ice cream inside … and there were lollipops and other marvels … like Cadbury’s ’99’ … but that day all this was forbidden … forbidden because we had set a trip wire for the enemy and caught, by accident, our very own men … oh the injustice, the burning injustice of it all …
… and suddenly, one day on the beach, it started to rain … one small cloud turned into a big one … and the sky became black … from out of nowhere, a great clap of thunder and the storm scene from Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral, came resounding down in a shower of sound and everybody was running for shelter … into caves … under cliffs … under trees, on the far side of the rocks out of the wind, and the water, and the horizontal tide of rain that brought relief from the heat … and some of us just stood out there … under the waterfall … enjoying the soaking … watching the water run over our hands, our faces, and our skins …
… and that summer, like he storm and all the other summers, came to its abrupt end … we locked up the bungalow, walked up the lane laden with our bags and our packages … and when we got to the corner, we waited for the yellow and brown Swan bus that would carry us into town … and on the bus we retraced our steps, slowly and tiredly, away from the hedges, the sea shore, the sand and the beaches, and back to the red-brick houses and life in the cities from which we had come and to which we must now return …
… and behind us, the salt sea, its bright sailor suit sparkling with waves and glee, waving us good bye from across the headland and away from the rapidly vanishing bay …
… and once when we went to Pwll Ddu, to the Black Pool, in English, where the stone bank holds the river back and we can sail our boats on the pool and the water is warmer than the sea … and one day, a long time ago, we saw this snake swimming across the backed up river, between the banks of reeds at the end of the valley, of Bishopston Valley, where the trees meet the salt marsh which leads into the sea … and he was a big snake, though I don’t remember what sort of snake he was … and he didn’t have a care in the world, just swimming across the water in the sunshine, hissing to himself, then he climbed the bank with a slither and a slurp … and was gone as quickly and as mysteriously as he came and we were left there playing, paddling, building dams, throwing stones at lumps of wood and pretending they were enemy battleships, waiting to be sunk … and playing ducks and drakes … and making the flat stones, like pieces of slate, slip and skip across the surface, one bounce, two bounces, six, seven, eight, and nine bounces … and the little ripples on the pool’s surface moved slowly outwards and suddenly my cousin trod on a broken bottle and there was blood everywhere … because someone had used a bottle for a battleship and had broken it with a broadside of stones … and we had to stop everything and strap him up and take him home and then he went to hospital and they gave him stitches, eighteen stitches, in the sole of his foot, and an injection … and suddenly what with the snake and the broken bottle, we cursed the pool at Black Pool, at Pwll Ddu, the name of which the boys from London could never pronounce, with their different accents and their capital styles, and though they were a part of us, like their mother was a part of us, they weren’t really part of us and they didn’t speak like us and they didn’t have our accents and they couldn’t pronounce the Welsh … and the neighbours laughed at them behind their backs …
… and speaking of fish, there are the fish nets on their poles stretched from horizon to horizon, at low tide, and the fishermen in their waders walk out to the nets where the mud is squishy from the sewage system which dumps all the sewage in Swansea bay, but the tide was younger then, and stronger, and there weren’t so many people, so the beach was always swept clean in those days by the tide, and the sewage was always swept out to sea … and the fish were nice and fat and healthy and you could buy a couple of whiting or flounders, dirt cheap, and bring them home, if you asked nicely, and plaice and sole, well, they’re all flat-fish, really, and our cousins from London could never tell the difference between them, but we can, and I’d tell you, but it’s so long ago, that I’ve almost forgotten, and it’s partly size and partly colour, and partly spots, and I forget so many things now … but I don’t forget the sea as it licks at your toes, and you standing there, early in the summer, as white as an ice cream, and the sea climbs up to your ankles, and then your knees, but on Swansea Sands, at the Slip, or at Brynmill, you have to walk miles and miles before it reaches your waist … especially when it’s out and low … but you have to be careful for there can be deep holes and the mud can be slippery … though nobody ever falls down, oh, we were so much cleverer when I was young, … but there are rumours of quick sands out there at low tide, out beyond the fish nets … out where the banana boats ride … out where the bright lights are seen at midnight … the flashes and flares … the mysteries of the unidentified flying objects, saucers and the like, that visit us in Swansea, to learn to speak Welsh, or so the locals say, so that later they may n=mingle among us, and eventually take us over … once upon a time, when I was young, and the world was all new-born, that was not a conspiracy theory … and it was not fake news … maybe that’s why we moved to Cardiff …
… but it’s watch out for the dog, for the dog gets everywhere because he’s on holiday too and everybody’s on holiday in this little sea side town and the cousins have come down from London with their cockney accents, born within the sound of Bow Bells, though they’re half Welsh by blood, though you wouldn’t believe it with those incredible accents which nobody can understand … and they’ve never seen the sea, though their mother was born here, beside my mother, beside this self-same sea which has never left and which still flows in and out, even now, and it still flows through my bones and “Look at all the water!” my youngest cousin cries and then he really cries because London, the capital of England, is concrete and tarmac and all petrol smell and smog and fumes and busses and he’s never ever seen the sea, the sea’s open spaces, the wide open arms of the bay held out to embrace you with Swansea Docks on the left, a working area of ships and shipyards where my grandfather labours and takes me on workdays, even in summer, and shows me the ships and his friends and everyone is happy and laughing because it’s summer and it’s hot and there’s lots of employment and the banana boats are lining up in the bay, at low tide, waiting for high tide, when they can enter harbour and be unloaded and this happens all year round, but it’s really in summer, when the sun is as yellow as the bananas, that the banana boats become significant and we show them to my cousin who has never seen the sea nor the banana boats, though he knows what a banana is and where to buy them and what they cost, but he never knew they came in on these boats, these great white summer boats, from Africa and the Caribbean, with their funnels all yellow and their bright stripe of blue, Elder and Fyffe, and the boats all lined up in the bay and look: to the right there’s the Mumbles and the Mumbles has a pier and a playground and you can go out and walk on the pier and at the end there’s the life boat and the life boat has a slipway for the life-boat to run down into the sea to rescue people who are shipwrecked, but only in winter because in summer the sea is calm and shiny and it runs in and out twice a day, like an obedient dog, and why is the beach wet? Because the sea weed … and the pier is a world full of wonders, with its peep shows and its games and the old men fishing off the end, chatting and gossiping, and not ever worrying about whether or not they catch the fish which many of them throw back anyway, so they can catch them again tomorrow …
Summer in Wales is always as I remember it: glorious days of sun and sand and blue skies and warm winds … and especially the sun on the beaches with the water sparkling and little boys and little girls playing cricket on the dry wrinkled sand packed hard when the tide goes out and leaves the land stranded … and uncles and aunties bowl under arm, not over arm, so the little ones could manage to score lots and lots of runs … and I remember us, standing breathless between the wickets, or at the wicket, if there was only one set of stumps, or a picnic basket stood on its side, or three pieces of driftwood, with sea-weed for bails, and what are bails, you ask?
Well, bails are the sea-weed that is draped over the driftwood that stands as stumps. And we guard our stumps with the cricket bat that somebody has brought and we bowl with wet tennis balls, because nobody will risk a red, leather ball on the sands, with the wet tide standing there, waiting for the ball to be hit at it, or into it, and it’s cold, but not that cold, and when uncle hits the ball, right out so sea, someone has to run after it, then dive, and then swim after it, and if it’s real runs you want, then uncle runs two or three quite quickly; then the aunties tell him to stop running so fast or he’ll have a heart … so he slows down and trots four or five; then he walks six and seven; and when you throw the ball back, he’s walking eight or nine; and then the dog intercepts the ball, catches it in his teeth, and starts running around with it in his mouth and everyone is trying to catch the dog except my uncle who is now limping very, very slowly between the wickets, but he’s already up to eleven or twelve; and then the little ones start crying because “It’s not fair!” Loud sniff! Then uncle stops in the middle of the wicket and sits there, waiting for somebody to run him out; except everyone is tired, except the dog, who is tireless and completely energized, and now the centre of attention; and nobody is going to catch him; and finally uncle walks to the wicket and he lifts the piece of seaweed with his bat and everybody appeals, then he’s finally “OUT!” because officially he’s hit his own wicket and that’s illegal and now the game can go on once more, with everyone happy and God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world …
And the dog has dropped the ball right at the edge of the waves and is barking furiously at the incoming waves as time and tide march up the beach and sweep us and our memories all away.
All that I hear
the mixing and matching
of shingle and stone,
grinding the beach down
as they move in and out.
Comment: We are surrounded by news, fake news, false news, and systematic deception. What can we now trust? I no longer know. But I do know that the above poem is not nihilistic. It expresses the reduction of applause and insubstantial glory to the minutiae of the daily doings of the natural world, in comparison to which we humans are nothing. “Look on my works ye mighty and despair” … hand gestures, smiles, thunderous applause from the chosen gathered to bear witness and paid to applaud, whatever the event. Alas, I cannot say it as well as Shelley. Here’s his Ozymandias (11 January 1818).
I met a traveler from an antique land
who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
tell that its sculptor well those passions read
which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
the hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
and on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
What’s this I see upon the shore?
A pile of books by Roger Moore.
What funny things the tide brings in:
to leave them there would be a sin.
All About Angels, Stepping Stones,
grinding down like old fish bones.
Broken Ghosts and Dewi Sant:
That’s enough to make me rant.
One Small Corner, Nobody’s Child:
I must choose between riled and wild?
But they are ordered carefully
with titles set so we can see.
Books at low tide by the sea?
Someone’s trying to tease me.
Fundy Lines and Sun and Moon:
the Fundy tide will rush in soon.
The Oaxacan Trilogy, the Obsidians too,
what on earth can an author do
when all those books are floating free
like a Granite Ship on a rising sea?
Comment: with many thanks to my friend Geoff Slater who organized this sea-side exhibition of my books and sent me the photos so I could choose which I liked. The exhibition took place on the beach by his home in Bocabec, incidentally. What fun we have when we are in isolation. There is so much to do and artists like us work hard to keep ourselves amused!