Monday, 19 July 2010
ast week's conference was a fascinating experience and I learned a great deal about myth and particularly about myths of nationhood. It prompted me to think about my own identity, both as a poet among academics (I was one of a very few people there working with myth in a strictly creative way) and also as an English poet with a Welsh name. I have always felt confused about my national identity. When I ran an internet community some years ago, new members would sometimes greet me with, 'Bore da.' Quite a number of people I met at the conference asked me if I was Welsh. Certainly, Welshness is a fine inheritance for any poet and the associations that come with my name (I like to fantasise that I'm related to Dylan, Edward and R.S) were one reason why I kept it when I married. But I am not Welsh and I have never had to hold to a strong sense of national identity in the face of a the kind of bullying the English have historically inflicted upon the Welsh. I am aware of the blend of French, Irish, Scottish, English, German, Russian and probably Welsh sap that runs through my family tree. I'm afraid I don't know what it means to be English, aside from a sense of embarrassment about, well, everything.
As soon as I got home I went into our garden to let the hens out and to let Sylvia rejoin the others. I was glad to be home, to feel Wealden clay hard-baked beneath my feet. My identity is bound up with the Weald. I feel more Sussex than English and more Wealden than Sussex (though I must admit to feeling I belong to the Sussex Weald most of all, mythical as the concept is), even though my parents weren't born in this area. The Weald is real, it's the clay, the landscape of this part of the world and nowhere else. I can touch it. I know its particular smell. I know the streams, the woods, the hills here. My house is built of bricks that were dug from the earth only a few miles away. I know where the water in my taps comes from. I know where much of the food I eat is farmed. I know where the nearest abattoir is. Perhaps it is precisely because Englishness is so slippery and so fraught with tension that I feel an affinity with this bit of the land, which Peter Brandon describes as 'a region of antonyms. Its wonderful impression of fecundity and tranquil beauty [...] has always belied grudging clays wearily farmed to the very limits of practical credibility.' There's something about Brandon's description that I and many of my Wealden friends can identify with: whatever tranquil beauty we may have is founded on grudging clay.
On Monday morning, I sat at the bottom of my garden and wrote about the Weald. Beneath my feet, the grass had worn away and the ground was dusty. I pushed the dust with my toes and remembered the same sensation, thirty years ago, making fairy houses in the roots of trees in the playground of my primary school. The soil in my garden is the grey-tan colour of Wealden sandstone. Now, in summer heat, there are runs in it, cracks. Near where I was sitting, hogweed was flowering. By the end of summer the flower stems will be hollow, easy to pull out. My brother, Mash, and I used to use hogweed stems as swords in the camps we built in the field behind our house.
Later that day, I walked in Parsons Wood. To cool down, I paddled, or rather stood, in the stream. I watched insects fall into the water, which moved so slowly that the mud inside it looked like smoke. Some of it silted on my feet and it felt as though I was turning into the stream bed. There were mud-coated, filigreed leaves in the water, decomposing on the bottom. Sunlight came through the beech leaves and the far bank was emerald green with moss.
I left the water, carrying my shoes. The sensation of walking barefoot was so pleasing that I continued shoeless into the fields, putting them on again only to cross the thistles near the clootie tree, taking them off again as soon as I could. I noticed that I trod softly, that I was forced to move a little slower and with greater care. I felt the changes between grass and clay.
When I left the woods, I walked barefoot through the village, over hot and cool tarmac and brick paving, through the run-off from the small chalybeate spring and back to my house. My feet were hot and sore and my back ached slightly. I think my posture must have changed in response to my shoelessness. I made a cup of tea and Flo, my cat, came to sit beside me on the sofa. She lay on her side, purring and gazing up at me. I picked up my copy of Metamorphoses, my notebook and my favourite pen and got back to work.
***I drew the decorated L some months ago and then forgot about it, probably because it's a funny little thing. Its leekishness is a coincidence & I hope it doesn't cause any offence to Welsh readers!