Every Welsh school pupil of my generation will surely know the poetry of R S Thomas. He taught us there weren’t many laughs to be had in Wales. It was a tough, stony place, for dour peasant types. After studying his bleak and uncompromising poems for two years I knew one thing for sure: I wanted to get out of Wales as fast as I could. And I did.
I love his poems now, but his portraits of my country and its desperate inhabitants were too grim for the sixteen year old me. The prospect of a lifetime of living on a diet of beer and rugby was bad enough: but Thomas made it seem far worse. I didn’t want to live among stinking, chapel going hermits, or peasants scuttling about in the shadow of the mountains, stalked by death.
Death was always hanging about in Thomas’ poems. It lingered in damp linen cupboards, in the ‘gaunt kitchens’ and mouldering cottages. By force of repetition, Thomas’ poems became associated with old age and death, and thus Wales, in my prematurely addled teenage brain, became The Country of Death. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the two homes I’ve owned in Wales since returning here have both looked out over cemeteries. I blame the artery-hardening influence of R S Thomas.
But I’ve just finished Byron Roger’s biography of the morbid old misery guts. And it is one of the funniest books I have ever read. Known affectionately as ‘the ogre of Wales’, Thomas was a reclusive church minister, bird watcher and, despite hating the Welsh people for their philistinism, became a ferocious defender of Welsh nationalism. He had a cut glass English accent, but in his late twenties decided to learn Welsh and proceeded to make his way from vicarage to vicarage, searching for the most remote spot on Earth. He found it on the most westerly tip of the Lleyn peninsular, just opposite the monastic isle of Bardsey. There he could write his poems and practise his misanthropy. He annoyed his congregation by painting the pews of his chapel black. He was capable of warmth, but not often. He enjoyed sending walkers in the wrong direction, leapt over walls to escape having to converse with mourners after funerals, pretended not to speak English when it suited him, and demanded that all Welsh speakers converse with him in their mother tongue, even though his own grip on the language was pretty feeble. He was a very intelligent, deeply serious man. He was also completely off his head.
His characters stalk stark landscapes, and scratch their living on the edge of clouds. Thomas himself, however, was a snob who enjoyed the company of the aristocracy. He seemed to be playing a part, of a seer, or a prophet. But if he wasn’t describing utter despair, he seemed to love the grim reality of life all around him. For Thomas, perhaps, it was preferable to the prospect of eternal damnation. To the sixteen year old Andrew, it was far, far worse.
So it bewilders me that I’ve settled in the territory of his poems, rural mid-Wales, the domain of the hill farmer. Perhaps it’s because deep within me there’s a cantankerous old man trying to get out. And as I get older, I like to think of myself, one day, as someone not unlike Thomas, waving a stick at speeding motorists, or sending Sunday hikers in the opposite direction.
I’m working on it.