Gillian Clarke’s Journal
by Gillian Clarke
‘October is marigold’, as Ted Hughes reminds us, ‘and yet’ he continues,
‘A glass half full of wine left out
To the dark heaven all night, by dawn
Has dreamed a premonition
Of ice across its eye’ .
I don’t need the book. I have the poem by heart. I’ve kept it somewhere deep in my head since I first read ‘Hawk in the Rain’ in 1957 when I was young and ready to have my mind blown by poetry. ‘Marigold’, made up of ‘Mary’ and ‘gold’, a colour and yet many colours, with resonances of holiness and haloes, is chilled by the warning of ice, of a cold winter ahead, of another Ice Age visiting the earth, the reunion of Mammoth and Sabre-tooth. Poetry should squeeze the heart, freeze it even, before letting it go.
A poem is the only work of art you can have for free. Read it, memorise it, copy it into your notebook, and it’s yours. It enters your mind as you sleep, like the juice of the flower love-in-idleness which Puck poured into Titania’s ear as she slept. You wake up feeling different and you don’t know why, until it’s October again, or some other time or place or circumstance, and a poem comes out of dream-time to meet the occasion.
October, and in between marigold days, autumn has been taking itself apart. Every dawn there is more sky, and fewer leaves.
In the first week we took the honey, 37 pounds of clear amber poured from the tap of the spinner. I pass each clean jar. It’s boring, but unmissable. I feel somehow honoured to be part of it. Every year it is different. Once, when one of our neighbours planted his field with peas, the honey was pale lemon and tasted smoky. This year it is a deeper gold. I pass the jars and think of bees in legend and history. The white bees of the Mabinogion, the holy bees in the Laws of Hywel Dda, the 10th century Welsh King. I lick my fingers a lot, tonguing the honey for its complex tastes, like a wine taster. I take a piece of honeycomb into my mouth and hold it there until I’m left with only the wax. There’s not much else to do when your function in life is to be a passer of jars.
David opens the tap and fills the jar, holding it under the golden rope as it coils, filling it to the brim. We hold each jar to the light, wipe it clean, label and store it in the dark. It’s a hot and tiring job, working in the warm kitchen spinning the drum by hand, while the wax melts in the capping tray over hot water. There’s a temptation to get cross, but I fight it. It seems important to treat this as a sacred, ancient rite. It seems right to be calm when the bees have given all their summer for this, filling and sealing each hexagonal cell. Now we have sliced the wax cap from each comb spun the honey from the frames. The slices of wax go sliding down the hot capping tray. There’s always some honey left, cells still sealed, honey left in the frames that even the centrifugal force of the spinner fails to dislodge. Wax, pollen, dust, wings and other bee detritus are caught like foam on a weir, and the last drops of honey run clean into a jug.
We work in silence. I think of bees with affection and wonder, the single-mindedness of the swarm, as if a bee were not an individual but part of a body called the swarm, part of a mind called the swarm. Here I quote my character, The Story, describing the moment when the bees swarmed in Honey. (Radio 4 Afternoon Play)
Once upon a time a queen lived with her courtiers in a palace of wax. The queen is the heart and mind of the body called ‘swarm’. One July day something moved inside her. Instinct surged through her. To fly, up sticks and go. To leave the palace with its many chambers and its store of gold, where the infant bees were raised in their honey scented nursery, where she feasted on nothing but royal jelly, where, once she had no use for him, every male died or was driven out and stung to death, where she has basked in opulence all her life. Despite the beauty of the hive’s internal architecture, despite the intricacy of her court, despite the discipline of the swarm, she would go. She would leave everything, with no sure place to rest before nightfall, taking sixty thousand female worker bees with her. It is her duty. She must save the swarm.
One of my favourites books, Hywel Dda, The Law, tells of the importance of bees in legend and in early times. Hywel Dda, a medieval King of Wales who died in about the year 950, codified the Welsh Law in a marvellously poetic document of reason and humane law. It shines a lamp of insight into the dark, distant world of the tenth century. According to the Law on bees, translated from Welsh:
The lineage of bees is from Paradise, and it was because of man’s sin that they came from there and that God gave them his grace; and therefore the mass cannot be sung without the wax.
It continues: ‘The value of an old colony, twenty four pence. The value of the first swarm, sixteen pence; the value of the bull-swarm, twelve pence.” The value of the queen bee in tenth century Wales was twenty-four pence - a great deal of money.
A bee settled on Plato’s lip when he was a baby, bringing him the gift of honeyed words. According to Mahomet bees are souls. When a queen bee sought shelter from the storm at the door of a cruel king, he turned her away, saying, ‘Where you made your summer’s honey, there make your winter quarters.’
On warm October days the bees are still out, foraging for nectar in the gorse-blossom and late garden flowers. While they are in the hive, at night and on cold or wet days, the female workers spend their time keeping the space inside the palace at a perfect temperature by vibrating their million wings. If you put your ear to the hive you can hear them, a deep and distant orchestra of strings.
The month goes out like a lion, torn by wind and rain. Our pond a big pond with a small island has been dry all summer, cracked like a basin made of crazed clay. In just a few days of late October downpour, it was full to the lip again. The skies over the garden are swept by drifts of leaves and starlings. I view it all through the glass walls of this room, built a few years ago onto the end of our 200 year old longhouse, making a longhouse even longer. Such a huge flock of starlings passed over a neighbour’s field the other day that they set the sheep running. They dipped and swooped low over the field, a dark cloud of birds, so many of them I could hear them like tuning ‘cellos and they took nearly a minute to pass.
As the trees undress layer by layer, leaves pile up in the porch and along the terrace. It’s a job to keep up with the clearing, raking and carrying to the compost heaps. Chestnut and beech. According to ‘Tir Gofal’ (the Land Conservation organisation in Wales) beech is not a native species. I showed the inspector published records of beech pollen found in Ceredigion dating from the last Ice Age. They are everywhere in the hedgerows here, common as ash, hawthorn, blackthorn and oak. Three big beech trees mark the boundary between our garden and Allt Maen’s land, and there is something odd about their separate habits. The three trees leaf and un-leaf in sequence, the same every year, right to left, south-west to south-east, just keeping a skirt of bronze leaves about the bole all winter when the crowns are leafless. Every year the finest, the one to the south-east, comes into leaf three weeks later than the others, and is always the last to lose its leaves. I attributed this to their position, the direction of sunlight, the prevailing wind, until a botanist told me it indicates that the trees are not genetically related.
Now it is early November. I observe the beech trees from here at the table as I write. Almost the whole of each tree is visible and framed by the glazed wall and gable of this room, barn-shaped, flooded with light. A week ago the sloped planes of the ceiling were dappled with reflections of rain dancing on floodwater. There is no gutter. The rain runs directly off the roof slates into the ground. I have never known such continuous rain. Never do I recall rain falling continuously for 24 hours. Here in the west we are used to changing weather, a fine morning followed by a wet afternoon, a rainy day with a clear sky at sunset, a wet night followed by a beautiful morning. This rain fell all night and all day. So we had a most exciting flood! When the room was built we had a trench dug round the perimeter in preparation for a moat which would follow the glass walls outside the room to the east and south. We imagined it sparkling in the least wind, sending shimmering reflections onto the ceiling inside the glass room. We planned two bridges, and dreamed of stepping out through the two pairs of French windows over the water on summer evenings. Of course, it’s never been finished. The trench is here, unlined, with no pump, no circulation unit. Just a trench. Water tires of waiting. Water has a will of its own and will find its level. It knows its place. So after months of dry weather, for the first time since we built the room, we had our moat. As the rain threatened never to stop, and as there was no way to channel it harmlessly away, David brought a long hose from the shed and siphoned the floodwater across the garden and into the stream. It was fun to watch the hose sipping and gulping, and the water level going down.
The ‘stream’ is usually not much more than a winterbourne, beginning from a spring in the corner of the garden where the Bwdram rises. It is the source of the stream and of part of the house-name ‘blaen’. Normally a mud-puddle, the tiny Bwdram came into its own, rushing down hill to the pond, to the valley, to join the Glowan, the Clettwr, the Teifi, the Irish Sea. Water has moments of importance as well as moments of reflection.
The birds are not deterred by the onslaught of the rain. The feeders have been busy for weeks. Yesterday they fed in the rain, today in sunshine. Tits, finches, wrens, robins. The brown blackbird is back in the garden with her mate, out shopping again, foraging in the leaf-piles under bushes, saying nothing. Siani, conscientious about her job as a border collie, sees off the magpies. She lies quietly, one gold eyebrow raised, one amber eye alert, while blackbirds hop near her, but when magpies appear she is driven to madness, barking hopelessly into the trees.
Weather and birds and journeys and people. First. the North Atlantic Oscillation! The weather forecasters are very excited They’re talking of a hard and snowy winter, a winter out of legend, like ’47, ‘64, ‘82. We are due for one, they say, overdue indeed. The North Atlantic Oscillation, that oceanic dance of wind and waves and deep, deep currents is coming up for a roll again. I am trying to understand it. As the planet tilts, the Gulf Stream is carried a little further north into the Atlantic, Greenland warms a little, and northern Scandinavia gets colder. We have weaker westerly winds from the Atlantic, anti-cyclones settle in the North Sea, and the snows begin to fall. This is perfect weather for the west of Wales, protected from the worst of the blizzards by the mountains, warmed as usual by the sea, we have the rare treat of cold, clear, dry weather, with just enough snow to stop the world without causing misery. I dream of watching snow fall through the glass walls of our cosy room, snowy walks, a luminous and purified world. At any rate that has been past experience.
Journeys: to Durham to read at the festival, and to Cardiff for my Capital Poet duties. I enjoyed a grand birthday luncheon at the City Hall in Cardiff, and we all sang Happy Birthday to the city on its centenary day on October 28th. I had to read a new poem. Panic. Two days earlier I was staring at the page, hoping I could, as usual but not always, bring off some sort of poem in time. I had an idea I’d research the architect who designed the City Hall and the Law Courts, the first two buildings on the t60 acre park that would become the Civic centre of the city. He was E.A. Rickards, a remarkable person who went on to design the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster. The image of Rickards showing a friend his City Hall and Law Courts by moonlight was romantic enough to set an idea going.
Such a tonnage of Portland stone,
shipped to a coal town as the century turned.
Luminous, Jurassic, pure as stacked ice,
and marble from Sienna unloaded in the dirt
beside the black, black coal that paid for it.
Oh, to have been there, a hundred years ago,
Law Courts and City Hall complete,
flanking an avenue of sapling elms
among those sixty, empty parkland acres,
there at the birth of a city;
to have stood that night with the young architect,
self-taught, flamboyant, garrulous,
in love with high Edwardian Baroque;
to have shared his grand romantic gesture,
bringing a friend to view his work by moonlight.
to see his buildings carved from ice,
the clock tower’s pinnacle, the clock
counting its first hours towards us,
and moonlight through long windows
were pages yet to be written.
On the train out of Aberystwyth, on my way to Durham, I met a blind musician. I was keeping my head down on the crowded little train, avoiding involvement with a family on an outing. They were scattered before and behind me, shouting to each other across the gap. I didn’t dare catch the eye of the baby in case it encouraged the shouting grandmother to bring me into their story. I feigned curmudgeonliness. From my back-to-the-engine seat, I listened to the blind man in his face-the-engine seat on the other side of the aisle, engage the young mother in conversation. He began: ‘How old is the baby?’ ‘Boy or girl?’ An only child?’ ‘Wasn’t the bomb attack in London terrible? Will we get bombed, do you think?’ The very young mother answered every question graciously. I was relieved not to feel obliged to talk. The mother left her seat for a moment, and the man spoke. ‘Where are we?’ he said, to no one. ‘Is that the ticket collector?’ What could I do? I promised to tell him when the train manager passed our way. He at once found out where I was going and why, and that I am a poet, my name, and that I’ve had books published. I soon knew he was a pianist on his way to Bognor Regis to a conference and a week of performing music with other blind musicians, and that he was due to play a piece by Beethoven which is usually played much too fast. ’Terrible about that bomb’, he said. ‘And all the train crashes. Are we safe on this train?’ I assured him we could not be safer, that we were travelling on a single-track line, that the little train would pause close to Caersws to wait for the down train, and that it would not continue its journey until the down train had passed us, and the driver had collected a token. (I’m not sure what they do with it, but it works.) The train gave a little cry as it approached each unmarked crossing, farm track and country lane in the back of beyond. He was like a child asking ‘Are we nearly there?’ he was in my charge now. It was up to me to talk to him, stow his case behind my seat and guide his hand to it, to stop the train manager for him and to name all the stations. Then, the announcement. ‘This train will not proceed to Birmingham New Street. All alight at Wolverhampton and take the next train to New Street.’ This sabotaged my journey. I was sure to miss my tight connection at new Street, but for the blind man it was a disaster. His pre-arranged assistance would not be there. Two unaided changes of train lay ahead.
I placed him in the hands of the station manager. Assistance, called Alex, came loping down the steps two at a time, and placed an arm under the blind man’s elbow. The musician and I caught the same train out of Wolverhampton. I noticed it would call at Watford Junction, where he had to change trains, and told him to stay put. I stowed his case close to his seat and left him talking to a young Asian. ‘Are you English?’ he asked. ‘Yes’. said the Asian. We grinned at each other. I knew he would ask if the train were safe, and that the young man would reassure him.
I thought about a life in darkness, the blessing that he, with his posh accent, which may perhaps come with the prejudices of his class and generation, could talk easily to a tattooed teenage mother, a travelling bard, a young Muslim man. And the curse of living in fear of what he couldn’t see or guess at. Bees are deaf. They see. They smell. They build exquisite palaces from the secretions of their own bodies, and control its temperature with the vibrations of their wings. They can’t hear the ‘cello music of their wings, or of Beethoven.
I missed my connection from Birmingham to Durham.