‘My brain is cloudy, my soul is upside down …’
– Bob Wills, ‘Brain Cloudy Blues’
The sun is molten in a shimmering sky. But we are driving through mounds of snow, banked in drifts along the carriageways and lanes: drifts of Ox-eye daisies. For mile after mile along the North Wales Expressway there are tens of thousands of these gently swaying flowers that seem to thrive – often deliberately planted, I think – turning what would otherwise be an extended wasteland along roadside verges into a summer’s visual delight. When I was a child in Cheshire these flowers – so bright that they appear to ‘glow’ in the evening – were commonly known as Moon Daisies.
We’re heading down to the Lleyn for a week’s break, and once we’re in the twisting country lanes the hedgerow show continues with more white: the fizz and froth of cow parsley. These banks and drifts of white suit the post-viral and Night Nurse-induced haze that grips me at the start of our week on the Lleyn. Matching my condition the days drift by in a blur of scorching sun, afternoons in which the air is close and still and thunder clouds threaten, and mornings when sea fog rolls in making everything as cloudy as my mind.
We have rented a retreat. It stands one field’s step from the beach, nothing after it on the lane to the rocky cove. Temporary domicile for a week for us, it is home territory for a constantly swelling chorus of birds, among them those I miss back home in the city – a pair of sparrows that have raised their brood in a broken waste pipe. For a day or two they are back and forth constantly, feeding the young. Then they are gone: the fledglings have flown.
In neighbouring fields and hedgerows, there are country cousins: warblers, stonechat, and a skylark that I first identify from its cascade of song – such a multitude of notes I thought I heard a flock of birds. Local poet Christine Evans writes in ‘Watching Skylarks’:
Though they soar and loop and hover
hundreds of feet, dot
chipping, off blue air,
song that cascades to earth
glittering like meltwater
strings finer than belief
keep them pegged back to the ground
a plummeting downspiral
to the breast-turned hollow
where three still-silent eggs
stare at the sky.
Then there’s the familiar blackbird that, in the words of Welsh poet laureate, Gillian Clarke, sings ‘all day, every day, everywhere, pausing only at nightfall’. ‘Perhaps tonight’, Clarke writes in At the Source,’ there is a blackbird singing in every garden in Europe.’
Aah, Europe. This June, as the country approaches a day of momentous decision, it seems to boil with anger and resentment. I begin to feel like a stranger in my own land as the leave campaign reduces the debate to fear of immigration in an increasingly poisonous brew of bile that brands immigrants as rapists, murderers or terrorists pours into the referendum debate. It’s as if all the injustices and grievances unaddressed or stoked by politicians since the banking collapse – whether it’s the lack of affordable housing and secure jobs, stagnating living standards or underfunded public services – are now put down to immigration presented as out of control and the fault of the EU. The country seems increasingly in the grip of a sentiment that screams, ‘pull up the drawbridge and Britain will be great again!’
As if we haven’t got enough problems of our own creation. Up the lane from us, in a wooded dip by a stream, Llangwnnadl Church has stood since at least the sixth century, one of the main stopping points on the pilgrim’s way to Bardsey Island that lies off the tip of the Lleyn. We stopped there one morning, and looking around inside came across a notice which stated that over 40 food parcels were distributed in April this year – in this small rural parish it’s a shocking figure, and an indictment of the pursuit of austerity at national level in recent years.
The truth of the matter is – sovereignty and isolationism have limited meaning, especially these days when we live in a world of global interconnections and relationships. The problems we face – war, refugees, economic failure, social divisions, climate change – are regional and global, and can only be solved collectively.
I’ve brought Gillian Clarke’s At the Source with me on this break, and in that memoir cum meditation on poetry, she writes about being a child during the Second World War in Wales, growing up with the fears of war. She recalls a vivid memory of her father, who worked for the BBC in Cardiff as a sound engineer and heard things on the grapevine, calling her from sleep one night in June 1944. At her bedroom window they saw the night sky filled with warplanes heading south. It was the beginning of the build-up to the D-Day landings.
That was a time when Britain did not turn its back on Europe. There’s a rich (if disgusting) irony in the fact of English football hooligans in France for Euro 2016 remembering it, too, taunting the French with chants of, ‘If it weren’t the Brits you’d all be Krauts’. The football clashes and the rise of racist, right-wing nationalism movements across Europe highlight the dangerous ways in which the present moment echoes the past.
A history we should learn from, as Gillian Clarke observes:
We don’t live in the small, quiet worlds of the poets I read at school and university. We live in a big world made intimate by the media and by travel, its grief and beauty brought close. (…)
I write in a silent room, in a quiet countryside… For hours, days, I can enter the poet’s room of silence and privacy. But it can’t last, and it is not my role to be reclusive. The ivory castle, and its garret, and our illusions of isolation, were brought to rubble by the wars of the twentieth century.
The present is not a re-run of the past, but in the current resurgence of hate directed at outsiders, the Other, it is impossible not to hear the echoes that heed us to learn history’s lessons. I am also reading Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate in which I came across this sentence at the close of a chapter in which Grossman has vividly described the routines in a German concentration camp somewhere in occupied Soviet territory:
In this silence of the dumb and these speeches of the blind, in this medley of people bound together by the same grief, terror and hope, in this hatred and lack of understanding between men who spoke the same tongue, you could see much of the tragedy of the twentieth century.
In the field behind the house, the lark, its song like an entire choir at an end, finally plummets to earth.