Borders are cool?

“Borders are cool” croons Welsh artist MC Mabon in the song of the same name. They have certainly always fascinated me. It began with my childhood in a village-turned-suburb on the border of England and Wales. We lived on the English side of the border but my Nan lived on the Welsh side; and so my early years were spent shuttling to and fro, crossing and recrossing the invisible line that – according to the map – divided the two countries. It was the border which defined us as a community in fact. We were the people who lived on the border, who belonged to the border itself rather than the actual countries on either side of it – all the more so because many of us were of Irish descent to boot.

Where was the border? I was always trying to pinpoint it; but there are no physical barriers between England and Wales, except those imposed by rivers. Still i used to imagine – in my childish way – that there was a real line somewhere, a kind of energy line, that would zap you as you passed across it. My mum used to point out a pub: “The border goes through that pub”, she’d say. According to her, there was time when licensing laws were different in England and Wales. The pub’s customers would move from one side of the pub to circumvent them. Crossing and recrossing, just like us.

I don’t know if the story’s true. What is true is that people have very complex relationships with these lines we draw in our world. On the one hand you have people prepared to die to defend them, on the other you have people – like the drinkers in the pub – to whom they’re at worst a nuisance, at best an opportunity. And then you have people like me for whom they form a part of their identity.

I’ve been reading a lot recently about borders and the effect they can have in preparation for my forthcoming trip to Turkey (and hopefully Greece). Twice A Stranger* by Bruce Clark looks at the massive population exchange between Greece and Turkey which resulted from the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Over a million Greeks/Orthodox Christians and half a million Turks/Muslims were forced to migrate to the ‘right’ side of the border, as dictated by their religious identity. An invisible line had appeared in their world and it wreaked havoc – although not as much havoc as did the line which a couple of decades later divided India from Pakistan.

Many of the people who had to move between Turkey and Greece had lived a long way from the new border. The ‘Greeks’ often came from places like Cappadocia in the Anatolian interior; while many of the ‘Turks’ had been resident in Crete or in Greek Macedonia. Their stories are often traumatic; but what was it like for those people who found themselves living on or next to the new line itself – the border which now goes through Thrace? And how do the modern residents of the areas of Greece and Turkey which lie on either side of the border relate to it and to each other?

In any case, that border isn’t too problematic: the population exchange produced relatively homogenous populations which were easily identified with their respective nations. What about the border between Spain and France, however, which cuts through the territory of the Basque people, dividing rather than delimiting it? And then there are those darker borders, the ones designed to act not just as fences, but as impenetrable walls: the old border between East and West Germany, the modern border between North and South Korea for example. I remember visiting Cyprus in 1991 and being chilled (yet also mesmerised) by the border which divided the Greek and Turkish portions of the island. The images remain in my mind: glimpsing the other side of Nicosia, visible yet unreachable; gazing upon the no man’s land of Famagusta through binoculars – there was a city that had been destroyed by a border, stopped dead in time by it.

Thinking about the place where i grew up: what would it mean if the invisible line which runs through it suddenly became a real boundary? It might seem fanciful but what if it did happen? It needn’t be anything as dramatic or even tangible as the barbed wire fences that run through Cyprus (let alone the terrifying walls the Israelis have built between themselves and the Palestinians). As it stands the Anglo-Welsh border is politically only semi-active: it has an administrative function, one which has gained some power following Devolution; but to all intents and purposes life flows back and forth across the border without regard to it. The shoppers, the buses, the people out for a stroll only notice it, if at all, when they look at a sign and see that it is bilingual. If Wales were ever to become independent however, it could be a different story. What future can there be in a nationalistic world for communities which straddle two (or more) nations?

Alternatively, what would it mean if the line was removed altogether? Again, it might not seem likely at the moment, but it’s not impossible in the long run. Wales is far more vulnerable to assimilation by England than is Scotland: it’s smaller, divided within itself between north and south and between language communities; and it has a long land border with the English Midlands, a much more densely populated area. What if it were to follow Cornwall and become merged into England itself? The border would cease to exist and with it would go the identity of the border dwellers.

Indeed both of these two possible futures threaten that identity; the current border is a kind of unresolved problem and an identity based on it relies on the problem remaining unresolved. It relies on stasis. Yet in reality things do not stand still – not even in Famagusta, which is gradually falling down. Of course it’s also true that the solutions themselves aren’t permanent. Whatever lines we draw now, whether on maps or elsewhere in our world, will certainly be redrawn again in the future; it’s just a question of when and where. The tension inherent in this is in fact what gives a border much of its power: we’re as afraid of it collapsing as we are of being trapped by it. Equally afraid of both.

*Twice A Stranger. ISBN: 978-1862077522; author: Bruce Clark; pub. Granta Books (2006)

We were a family of cagoules

“We were a family of umbrellas…”

The first line from a poem called Opened by Mario Petrucci, from his wonderful collection Flowers of Sulphur*. The poem is about a funeral but for some reason this sent my mind off in a completely different direction: to days out at the seaside – Rhyl or Prestatyn – as a child. Whatever the weather when we left home, whatever the weather when we arrived at the coast, you could almost guarantee that at some point during the day it would turn, and we would have to seek refuge from the inevitable wind and rain.

You would find us crouched beneath the sea wall, invisible beneath our cagoules. My dad would be pouring milky coffee from his flask (nobody was allowed to handle the thermos except him) and my mum would be doling out butties – cheese or jam or fish paste. These would quickly acquire a coating of fine sand but that didn’t stop us eating them. In fact, the quicker you ate them the better as Sally would have them off you in a second if you put them down. She would also have your Penguin biscuit**, although you’d get in trouble if she did because dogs and chocolate don’t go. Still we’d hesitate when it came to take it, trying to decide which colour wrapper to select. This was despite the fact that we knew full well that the biscuits inside were all exactly the same. Nevertheless: Red? Blue? Green?

Sally, being a dog, was the only one of us who didn’t have a cagoule, so my dad used to open up his and wrap it around both of them. For the rest of the family this was an impossibility as we had those old-style cagoules*** you have to put on over your head like a smock. No breathable linings in those days: you got wet from the rain or wet from your sweat. Your choice.

This is how I always picture us on those family days out: a tribe of blue and red plastic ghosts. This is the image i somehow associated with the line from Mario Petrucci’s poem (have i mentioned how good it is?). The sunshine – when we had any, the sea and the sand are much more vaguely remembered. But this is not, I think, down to negativity on my part. No, I cherish that image of us huddled together in our cagoules. It is the very essence of family.

Of course, it was also the performance of family – because we were in public after all, even if there were only seagulls to view us; and so in some ways it was as much about the family we wanted to be as the family we were. But perhaps that’s also part of what a family is in any case? Aspirations and memories and food and shelter.

* ISBN: 978-1904634379, published by Enitharmon Press. See here for a review.
** Ignore the photo. It shows the modern day wrapper. Google couldn’t locate any pictures of the coloured tin-foil packaging the biscuits came in during the 70s. You will have to use your imagination/consult your memory.
***See the section on the roll-up-able cagoule on Wikipedia’s page about cagoules. I don’t remember ours being roll-up-able though.

Four Welsh poets

1. Dylan Thomas

One week, when i was around twelve years old, our local paper printed his poem “The Hunchback in the Park”. I was awestruck. I cut the poem out and pasted it into the inside cover of my scrapbook. All week i waited excitedly to see what they would print next time, but there were no more poems. I suppose they must have unexpectedly had some free space to use up the week they printed “Hunchback”; some advert or other must have fallen through and left a hole in the edition. At home I learnt the poem off by heart and marvelled over the beauty of its language. Even now one phrase in particular

wild boys innocent as strawberries

fills me with wonder. Poetry has never got more magical for me than happened that week. As for Dylan Thomas himself, i went on to buy a volume of his poetry and a biography. Most of the other poems left me cold and i found him something of a drunken bore.

2. R.S. Thomas

We only did one book of poetry for O-Level and it was nearly all drivel. I was so disappointed! The only true poem in the book was “Cynddylan on a Tractor” by R.S. Thomas, Anglican priest and Welsh nationalist. The English teacher singled it out for mockery because it wasn’t humorous or entertaining like the other poems in the book (supposedly) were. It was dark, brutal, anti-modern – and worse still, its themes were rural:

Ah, you should see Cynddylan on a tractor.
Gone the old look that yoked him to the soil,
He’s a new man now, part of the machine,
His nerves of metal and his blood oil.

Not one of the man’s greatest works, but it was real, and i understood that instinctively. Discussing this post with a friend, i discovered that she too retained vivid memories of encountering the poetry of R.S. Thomas at school. As happened in my case, the poem (“On the Farm”) was in the book they used but was passed over in class:

There was Dai Puw. He was no good.
They put him in the fields to dock swedes,
And took the knife from him, when he came home
At late evening with a grin
Like the slash of a knife on his face.

R.S. Thomas remains one of my favourite poets. I love him despite – perhaps because of – his unfriendly character. I feel a certain kinship with him in his frustrated love for Wales and the Welsh language, doomed as it was by idealism and nostalgia. Like him i have always wished i were a native Welsh speaker. Unlike me he at least achieved fluency in the language, but too late in life to achieve the creative freedom in it that is needed to write poetry. And so he was always trapped in English, always an interloper, rather like the clergyman he describes in his verse play “The Minister”. Its Welsh language epigraph describes his life well i think:

Swn y galon fach yn torri
The sound of the little heart breaking

3. Saunders Lewis

I discovered him on the poetry shelf of the public library. Most of the books were reference only, so i used to sit on the carpet and copy out their contents by hand. This was during my seventeenth and eighteenth years. Hours and hours i sat on that damn floor! Where R.S. Thomas was austere, Saunders Lewis was rich and sensual. It came as no surprise to me that learn that he converted to Catholicism. “Mair Fadlen” (“Mary Magdalene”), his poem about the Crucifixion, is the one which i know and love best. The first stanza breaks my heart in its English translation:

About women no one can ever know. There are some, / like this one, whose pain is a locked tomb; their pain is buried inside them, there is no flight / from it nor any giving birth to it. There is no ebb / nor flood to their pain, it is a dead sea without any movement to its depths. Who – is there no one – who will roll the stone away from the tomb for a time?

This is exactly how the stanza was laid out in the book, forward slashes and all. I copied it faithfully, determined not to change a single thing, so overwhelmed was i; yet sadly forgot to note the name of the translator. I was too young then to understand what is involved in translating poetry. The original Welsh, on the other hand, is beyond me (except in its glorious sound!) and probably always will be; but for anyone whose command of the language allows them to appreciate it and because these are Saunders Lewis’ own words:

Am wragedd ni all neb wybod. Y mae rhai,
Fel hon, y mae eu poen yn fedd clo;
Cleddir eu poen ynddynt, nid oes ffo
Rhagddo nac esgor arno. Nid oes drai
Na llanw ar eu poen, môr marw heb
Symud ar ei ddyfinder. Pwy – a oes neb –
A dreigla’r maen oddi ar y bedd dro?

I only discovered later how Saunders Lewis had become tainted by his refusal to support the British war effort during World War 2 and his earlier enthusiasm for the Nazis. Like many nationalists he seems to have subscribed to the notion that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. His nationalism was so tied to yr hen iaith (‘the old language’) that he refused to countenance any space for English to be spoken in the nascent Welsh nationalist party, weakening the movement as a populist force. I have read that he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in the early 70s. I don’t know if this true, but i do know that when he died in 1985 i had no idea he was even still alive.

4. W.J. Gruffydd

Finally, W.J. Gruffydd, about whom i know nothing. I assume he is the same poet who is known by the bardic name Elerydd, but i can’t be sure. For me he’s a single poem, “In Memoriam”, which i discovered in the same long since forgotten book which also introduced me to Saunders Lewis. Interestingly, this is a poem where the Welsh made more of an impact than the English so i’ll give (the first stanza of) that first and then the English (which i think is very flat in comparison):

Pan glywai Gwen o’r diwedd
Yr Angau du gerllaw
Hi gofiai am goed y Gelli’n
Diferu yn y glaw.

When Gwen heard at last
black death come near
She remembered the trees of the Gelli
dripping in the rain.

For me death is forever associated with the dark, dripping “trees of the Gelli”. And poetry with these four Welsh poets.