There by R.S. Thomas

They are those that life happens to.

They didn’t ask to be born

In those bleak farmsteads, but neither

Did they ask not. Life took the seed

And broadcast it upon the poor,

Rush-stricken soil, an experiment

In patience.

What is a man’s

Price? For promises of a break

In the clouds; for harvests that are not all

Wasted; for one animal born

Healthy, where seven have died,

He will kneel down and give thanks

In a chapel whose stones are wrenched

From the moorland.

I have watched them bent

For hours over their trade,

Speechless, and have held my tongue

From its question. It was not my part

To show them, like a meddler from the town,

their picture, nor the audiences

That look at them in pity or pride.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Pietà (1966)

Red Balloon by Dannie Abse

It sailed across the startled town,

over chapels, over chimney-pots,

wind-blown above a block of flats

before it floated down.

 

Oddly, it landed where I stood,

and finding’s keeping, as you know.

I breathed on it, I polished it,

till it shone like living blood.

 

It was my shame, it was my joy,

it brought me notoriety.

From all of Wales the rude boy came,

it ceased to be a toy.

 

I heard the girls of Cardiff sigh

When my balloon, my red balloon,

soared higher like a happiness

towards the dark blue sky.

 

Nine months since, have I boasted of

my unique, my only precious;

but to no one dare I show it now

however long they swear their love.

 

‘It’s a Jew’s balloon,’ my best friend cried,

‘stained with our dear Lord’s blood.’

‘That I’m a Jew is true,’ I said,

said I, ‘that cannot be denied.’

 

‘What relevance?’ I asked, surprised,

‘what’s religion to do with this?’

‘Your red balloon’s a Jew’s balloon,

let’s get it circumcised.’

 

Then some boys laughed and some boys cursed,

some unsheathed their dirty knives:

some lunged, some clawed at my balloon,

but still it would not burst.

 

They bled my nose, they cut my eye,

half conscious in the street I heard,

‘Give up, give up your red balloon.’

I don’t know exactly why.

 

Father, bolt the door, turn the key,

lest those sad, brash boys return

to insult my faith and steal

my red balloon from me.

 

by Dannie Abse

from Poems, Golders Green (1962)


Fun facts: Dannie Abse was born in Cardiff, Wales, to a Jewish family. He was the younger brother of politician and reformer Leo Abse and the eminent psychoanalyst, Wilfred Abse. Unusually for a middle-class Jewish boy, Dannie Abse attended St Illtyd’s College, a working-class Catholic school in Splott.

Cardiff Elms by Gillian Clarke

Until this summer

throught the open roof of the car

their lace was as light as rain

against the burning sun.

On a rose-coloured road

they laid their inks,

knew exactly, in the seed,

where in the sky they would reach

percise parameters.

 

Traffic-jammed under a square

of perfect blue I thirst

for their lake’s fingering

shadow, trunk by trunk arching

a cloister between the parks

and pillars of a civic architecture,

older and taller than all of it.

 

Heat is a salt encrustation.

Walls square up to the sky

without the company of leaves

or the town life of birds.

At the roadside this enormous

firewood, elmwood, the start

of some terrible undoing.

 

by Gillian Clarke

from Letters from a Far Country (1982)

Воздушный город (The Aerial City) by Afanasy Fet a.k.a. Shenshin

At daybreak there spread through the heavens

Pale clouds like a turreted town:

The cupolas golden, fantastic,

White roofs and white walls shining down.

 

This citadel is my white city,

My city familiar and dear,

Above the dark earth as it slumbers,

Upon the pink sky builded clear.

 

And all that aerial city

Sails northward, sails softly, sails high;

And there on the height, some one beckons,—

But proffers no pinions to fly.

 

by Афанасий Афанасьевич Фет (Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet)

a.k.a. Шеншин (Shenshin)

(1846)

translated by ???


 

Fun fact: A more straight forward English translation of the poem compared to the Scottish version posted previously Воздушный город (The Aerial City) by Afanasy Fet

The Letter by R. S. Thomas

And to be able to put at the end

Of the letter Anthens, Florence – some name

That the spirit recalls from earlier journeys

Through the dark wood, seeking the path

To the bright mansions; cities and towns

Where the soul added depth to its stature.

 

And not to worry about the date,

The words being timeless, concerned with truth,

Beauty, love, misery even,

Which has its seasons in the long growth

From seed to flesh, flesh to spirit.

 

And laying aside the pen, dipped

Not in tear’s volatile liquid

But in black ink of the heart’s well,

To read again what the hand has written

To the many voices’ quiet diction.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Poetry for Supper (1958)

Twenty-four Years by Dylan Thomas

Twenty-four years remind the tears of my eyes.

(Bury the dead for fear that they walk to the grave in labour.)

In the groin of the natural doorway I crouched like a tailor

Sewing a shroud for a journey

By the light of the meat-eating sun.

Dressed to die, the sensual strut begun,

With my red veins full of money,

In the final direction of the elementary town

I advance for as long as forever is.

 

by Dylan Thomas


 

Fun fact: Because of his almost obsessive preoccupation with death, each birthday was a milestone that called for a celebration, and on several occasions Thomas composed a poem that expresses his sense of where he stood as a man and an artist. “Twenty-four Years” is his earliest significant version of this celebratory mode, and it is full of both the exuberance of early manhood and his already familiar feeling that death was imminent.

Still Point by R. S. Thomas

In the universe one

world beneath cloud

foliage. In that world

a town. In the town

 

a house with a child,

who is blind, staring

over the edge of the universe

into the depths of love.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from No Truce With The Furies (1995)

Wolves by A. K. Tolstoy

When the streets empty out

and the singing dies down

and a white fog covers

the swamps and the town,

from the forests in silence

one after another

the wolves come out and go hunting.

 

Seven wolves walk on bravely;

in front of them walks

an eighth with white fur;

while bringing up the rear

is a ninth, who is lame:

with a heel that is bloody

he completes their mysterious procession.

 

Nothing frightens or scares them.

If they walk through the town

not a dog will bark at them,

while a man will not dare

even to breathe if he sees them.

He becomes pale with fear

and quietly  utters a prayer.

 

The wolves circle the church

carefully all around;

into the parson’s yard they enter,

with tails sweeping the ground;

near the tavern they listen

pricking their ears

for any words being said that are sinful.

 

All their eyes are like candles,

sharp as needles their teeth.

Go and take thirteen bullets,

with goat’s fur plug them in,

and then fire at them bravely.

The white wolf will fall first;

after him, the rest will fall also.

 

When dawn comes and the townsmen

are awoken by the cock,

you will find nine old women

lying dead on the ground.

In front, a grey-haired one,

in back, a lame one,

all in blood… may the Lord be with us!

 

by Алексей Константинович Толстой (Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy)

(1840s)

translated by Ilya Bernstein

The Ruined Maid by Thomas Hardy

“O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?” —
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.

-“You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!” —
“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.

-“At home in the barton you said thee’ and thou,’
And thik oon,’ and theäs oon,’ and t’other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!” —
“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.

-“Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!” —
“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.

-“You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!” —
“True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.

-“I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!” —
“My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.

 

by Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928),

Westbourne Park Villas, 1866

How the Hay Literature Festival 2015 Ruined Hay-On-Wye for Me

I love the town of Hay-on-Wye where they have a large number of bookshops containing books on every subject you could imagine and often many you hadn’t even realised existed. Every visit to a shop is a new learning experience and in the tranquil setting you will find respite from the all too busy world. Every year I go to the Hay-On-Wye Literature Festival. I may not from now on. The world has found this oasis and seeks to drink it dry of its charm in the passage of a week.

I used to be a much smaller event with talks by a few people but always you were drawn to going into the town filled with its labyrinthine shops filled from floor to ceiling with eclectic collections of books ranging on any and every subject you could imagine if only you were willing to take the time to look through the stacks thoroughly. But my experience this year has cast a shadow over this place. To a bibliophile this town would sound like some unknowable heaven on earth but… celebrity and faux, waxing lyrical, philosophical rhetoric are the order of the day.

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Such immense crowds. Crowds the level of which, if we were talking of battery farmed live stock, would be unacceptable. I disdain it. Stephen Fry walked past me with an assistant guiding him like a sheep dog. I remember five years ago when he pranced around like a majestic stag free of restrained but not anymore. People gawp and coo. He and Jude Law, along with a few others, were reading letters of emotion and wit. This is a recurring event now apparently though it always feels like a easy to do schedule filler rather than something to be made prominent at the event. Sandi Toksvig walks quickly onto the stage to read her assigned letters but doesn’t remain for the applause afterwards as the others did. Far too busy now. This year I note they recieve roses made of paper when they were given long stem white roses in previous years. I see one of these tokens left discraded on the floor of the event bookshop later on. A sign of the times. The pace of the entire festival used to be leisurely and flowing but now it is all timed and erratic. No longer are you absorbing the occassion but rushing to the next fix of stimulation. This letter reading started fifteen minutes late, not accounting the time to get people into their seats, and so many people had to leave early to get to their next event on time. There is no real apology made except to acknowledge they will have a slight reordering of the readings.

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Too many people. The book shops seem to be charging more now. The main event book shop charges far too much yet you can hardly approach the shelves to see the books of the Event’s writers selling their wares.

I go to listen to a BBC Radio Wales programme being aired live. As I enter a steward repeatedly stabs at my shoulder with her talon like a bird of prey stripping flesh from bone. I turn around and she excuses herself. Did she think I was someone she knew? Was I trespassing following the other four people who were with me? I will never know. People don’t explain themselves when the authority of a neon yellow reflective tabard gives them the illusion of authority. I sit in the audience and Violet Skies sings a few songs in front of us. Later the presenter and his hench-persons declare there is going to be food next and won’t that be nice for us the audience? A single plate tours around the front row of the audience, who are people clearly associated with the BBC radio staff, but no one else gets a sniff of the veal sticks they are eating. It goes without saying that watching them eat was a highlight. (Violet Skies actually was and deserves support).

I saw some interesting books. Do you remember the books in school that were hardback B5 sized copies used year after year to teach set texts, usually something by William Shakespeare? Well there was one of modernism and the occult…. oh how I wanted it but the ticket price was £55! I thought it was a mistake and checked the other copies, but no, that really was its price for a measly 175 or so pages. I should add this was a newly published book in the main event bookshop yet somehow was £55. It made no sense. Also, at the exit, there was a stall manned by two Americans. They were trying to sell subscriptions to the international edition of the New York Times. The girl was the definition of a pixie hair cut with buzz cut side panels, thick black framed glasses, hipster stereotype and the guy a mass market John Hamm with casual wear perma-stubble ken doll. I saw a woman in the event bookshop buying lots of those ‘a simple guide to…’ type books en-masse. She wanted a working knowledge to discuss the topic but not enough to actually have any real knowledge of it. Posers everywhere. Rhetoric will be the stain of this age of humanity…. just as Socrates and Plato feared all that time ago in ancient Greece. Why know about a topic when you can just act as though you do. All the respect without the blood, sweat and tears of academic endeavour whether formal or informal. If given the test by Socrates of whether they desired knowledge as much as air many people here would fail.

So I didn’t enjoy. Apart from the ‘reading of letters’ event there was a talk about the Ukraine crisis with Russian journalists. It was sold out. I wonder how many attending actually had a long-term interest in the region, how many were just attending as it is a current event and how many just wanted sound bites to use of a dinner party should the topic ever arise. Faux-intelligentsia: a coffee in one hand, iPhone in their blazer pocket and a hemp bag in the other filled with the event freebies.


I finally made it to the town and heard an upbeat instrumental of Katyusha playing in a tent… I walked over and they got to the chorus and LA LA LA LA LAL AL ALALALALLALALALALLAA. They didn’t know the lyrics? Why LALALALALLALALALALALALLA? What was for a moment a glimpse of hope was dashed. On tables outside the tent people sell overpriced random rusty tat in hopes the hipsters will think it artistic and retro-chic. I remember a previous year when a drunk German sat in the nearby pub and espoused how we, here, are a stupid, inferior, mongrel race made up of the entrails of every invader’s unwanted spoils of war left behind to rot. The pub in question we went to for a drink. The barmaid said it was cheaper to buy the bottle than two glasses of wine so this advice was accepted. A round of drinks consisting of two cokes and the bottle turned out to be £19.50. For those who do not live in Britain the average round of these drinks would be about £7.50 up to £15 depending on the venue. Was this a one-off ‘event premium’ pricng stategy? I do not know but we go to the beer garden and already these sweet drinks are bitter to the taste buds. Somehow I look back and am less offended by that bigoted German than what I have seen today.

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One shop had an interesting, eclectic, interior. All the bookshops contain novelty but this one actually had chairs to sit in as you read. It is my favourite shop and I always buy from it… except on this visit as I was so demoralised by my experiences of the festival site. It stands across the road from the pulp fiction, crime and murder mystery specialist ‘Murder and Mayhem’ bookshop (with chalk outline drawn on the road outside it). Books pouring out of every crevice and on all topics. Books which you did not know existed and yet entrance you immediately. The prices here were fair unlike elsewhere. I do not give its name because you should discover this town for yourself and enjoy the experience of discovering its hidden wonders firsthand.

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However, to avoid you thinking I was going to end on a positive note, let me warn you of one shop not to purchase from. Booths, the self-declared ‘biggest second-hand bookshop in the world’, will overcharge and belittle you for daring to ask for anything not immediately apparent. The claim is of course a lie, a little boast allowed under law, to entertain the notion of encouraging your custom. This year it was closed at 5pm….. The arrogance of a second hand bookshop to do such a thing on a festival day as if to suggest they do not need customers and you should be grateful they allow you to enter. I hate that place. Once I had seen a book there and remembered the cover so asked the shop assistant to look up ‘Isobel’ a novel about a Scottish witch and let me see the google image results. Repeatedly he kept asking for the author’s name. Of course I did not know this otherwise I could have easily found it on the racks in the basement hence why I now was asking for his assistance. No he insisted he needed the name. He looks on Wikipedia for a moment but to no avail. We are still stood looking at the screen. I again ask him to look on google images. He relents after 10 minutes and the third image on the search? The cover of the book I was looking for with the author’s name! So he finally uses this name on the database and tells me they do not have it but can order it from them (for a premium). I decline and make my escape. They overcharge here for things that are not even rare. Architecturally the interior is stylish yet modern and the café is nice but I do not support this shop since this experiment in getting blood from a stone.

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During the festival the town is filled with hipsters. Hipsters of all ages, shapes and sizes. I felt dirty. This was not the celebration of literature, wit and knowledge but a cold exercise in placating the sycophantic, self-congratulating middle class ego with a sizeable disposable income.

The rest of the year this town is an oasis for the literate bibliophile seeking adventure and willing to spend an entire day trawling shelf upon shelf of unexpected books on topics that you would think too niche to be contemplated for publishing.

The festival is just there for star chasers, the bourgeois and people who need to be doing something to justify their elitist attitude the rest of the year. I doubt any of the books bought by the event speakers get read and just gather dust on the shelves waiting for the time they will grace the shelves, en-masse , of one of the numerous bookshops here at a far reduced price. I like this town but it is like a beach side town during the summer holidays during this festival.

https://www.hayfestival.com/wales/index.aspx?skinid=2&currencysetting=GBP&localesetting=en-GB&resetfilters=true


Other people poison your life. Yet humans are a social creature. But we build large caves in which to hoard our belongings. The selfish gene has gone grown stronger with the passing of generations and soon it will be a cancer leading to our downfall as a species if we cannot overcome it.