Michael Peverett: Joseph Stamper and Idris Davies

1. Joseph Stamper

Joseph Stamper is (if a search of the Internet is a fair indication) entirely forgotten. His book, "Less than the Dust" - subtitled "Memoirs of a Tramp" - was presumably written in the nineteen-twenties, certainly no later than 1932, in which year my copy belonged, apparently, to a lending library. At another stage in its career it formed part of the collection of books for waiting clients to browse in at the establishment of H.J. Kerslake, Cotham (Tobacconist, Confectioner, Ladies Hairdresser). I doubt if "Less than the Dust" was particularly suitable for this purpose. Still, it shows that sometimes a book can end up in places where its author would be turned away at the door.

Presumably the twenties, then, but there is a singular lack of historical references. Perhaps, on the road, they don't matter much. Perhaps history itself is gentrified.

"The road is a miserable life even at the best of times; even when the days are warm and the weather is fair, because of the uncertainty, the lack of objective, the dreariness, the boredom.

"But in the winter, from the end of October to the end of March, the winds bite shrewdly through one's threadbare clothing, at elbows and the front of the thighs where one's garments get thin first; the clothes themselves are perpetually damp, a humid moistness runs up your skin when clothes are donned in the morning and gives you the shivers. Rain, hail, sleet, snow, all take their turn at wetting you; a keen wind and the meagre warmth of one's body partially dry them, then snow, sleet, hail or rain comes again, and you are as wet as ever. When a person gets wet, the sensible thing to do is to go home and get changed, but what if one has no home and no other clothes to change into?

"I have been wet through, then walked against a bitter wind till my clothing has been spangled by ice, and as stiff as garments taken from the clothes-line on a frosty day.

"Padding the clothes with old newspapers will help to keep one warm, but they are no protection against wet. In heavy rain the water soaks into the paper and the movements of the legs, the swing of the shoulders, churns the wet paper into a most disagreeable and clammy pulp.

"One has a cold in the head that lasts six months; always bleary-eyed, always snuffling and running at the nose; one's hands chap and blister, one's feet develop chilblains at the friction points of broken and squelchy boots."

Joseph Stamper is often sentimental, often a bit old-fashioned in his expressions, often more dependent than he knows on the thoughts and words of other writers. No wonder. To develop a truly personal and original style requires study (and therefore leisure) that could hardly be available to him. To me it is a triumph that he wrote a book at all. That he wrote such a good one is really astonishing - or is it? He had been a moulder in a foundry once, but was laid off and went looking for work. In fact the life of the road soon made one unemployable. But it could , perhaps, bring one face to face with reality in a rather direct way. I suppose that good writing has, on the whole, something to do with reality. Certainly, for all its dreariness, the road showed him more than those who worked out their lives in one place, as the next passage shows.

Here, he gets a day's wage at a chemical works:

"`You and you and you and you,' the foreman would say, and a few of us would follow in a straggling line into the passage by the time office.... The first time I was thus engaged I followed with about a dozen more to where several large cylinders were having their trap-doors opened. When the catch was knocked up and the door swung to one side, a thick muddy substance commenced to viscously ooze out, resembling slaked lime mixed with greeny-grey grease; the fumes that came from this made one gasp for breath till one got used to it.

"When the substance refused to ooze any more of its own volition, men thrust long iron rakes into it and pulled it out; these men were of the regular staff. We day men were now fully armed with iron wheelbarrows and shovels; our job was to work in pairs, shovel up the sticky mess into barrows, wheel it some distance, then up planks till we were high enough to tip it into waggons that would later go up the inclined plane and further increase the magnitude of the `mucky mountain.'

"What the slush was I never got to know; I asked one of the regular men who had worked there for years. He did not know. He and the others just did what they were told to do by the foreman and had no curiosity as to what the stuff was, what was being done to it, or why they did it...

"But the stuff had a peculiar action on exposed parts of the body, the arms, face and chest, somehow drying the skin and making it brittle. At the end of the day my hands were chapped as though it was mid-winter.

"I mentioned this peculiarity to the man I was paired with; a short, squat, thick-set man of about fifty-five; he must have been very strong at one time, by the look of him, but was now worn out and done.

"He could not tell me why the stuff should dry the skin; he knew it did, and that was all....

"In his young days he had been a `black-ash man'. I asked him what that was; he slowly straightened his back, leaned his shovel-handle against the buckle of his belt and tried to tell me; his eyes, under grey and grizzled brows, stared into vacancy, his freed hands made vague, uncompleted movements, his lips fumbled with words, but poor, inarticulate devil, he could not tell me. He had worked at the job for years but could not explain what it was. He had been a `black-ash man', and if I did not understand from repetition of the phrase what it was, then he could not help me. And I still do not know what a `black-ash man' is, or was. The only thing he could tell me definitely was, that it was a killing job...."

The road man, at least, could sometimes, in the very blankness of hostile country, look outside his own time. Here are his drifting thoughts by a derelict canal, a phase of industry now defunct because the railways had come.

"Once this grass-grown footway must have been trodden brown all over by the frequent passings of long-dead men and horses. Once laden barges must have slid leisurely on the surface of that stagnant fluid. There would be the champing of teeth upon steel bits, the creak of harness, the voices of men, the shouted conversation or loud oaths as two barges passed. Women perhaps, cooking at the galley end of the vessels, children playing on the deck in shrill unconcern, tow-ropes flicking into and out of the water, long, oily, ever-widening ripples behind the barges as they slowly glided onward, smoke from galley fires and a smell of frizzling bacon competing triumphantly with the odours from the fields.

"And now all was silent. Desolation and stillness. Grass-grown paths and weed-grown water.... I wondered whether the reduced labour costs, the bargees of past generations, whether they, when reduced by the progressive, smoke-vomiting monsters, had tramped the highways in listless despair as I was doing today... The dead waterway would appear to an inventor or a Captain of Industry as a testimonial to progress. To such as I it spoke of men torn from their jobs, of frenzied but futile search for other employment, of the passing frenzy and the coming of sodden apathy."

Much of the book describes that sodden apathy - often his own - with compassion and wit. As I read about the men and women in "Less than the Dust" I think: I could never become a jazz-age magnate or an Italian prince (The Great Gatsby, The Golden Bowl) but I could very easily end up pretty much like this - if I'm not careful. The bottom rung doesn't change much.

2. Idris Davies

Sometimes I wonder if I even like modern poetry at all. I open up Browning's Men and Women and read

Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles
            Miles and miles ...

and instantly there's a solemnity, a mystery about the music that seems to make all the clumping chopped-up prose of modern poetic idioms somehow irrelevant.

Fortunately this mood doesn't last. "Love among the Ruins" is, indeed, a great poem, a profound and simple poem. (The poem is simple, the experience is complex.) But there are many kinds of great poetry, perhaps infinite kinds...

Nevertheless, it strikes me that the sound of a poem is often the thing I respond to first. Everyone discovers there is some poetry they can like easily, other poetry they have to learn to like or never learn to like. The poetry of Idris Davies was easy for me.

His book, called Gwalia Deserta, was published by Dent in 1938 and a year or two back I bought it for 15p from a boy selling junk out of cardboard boxes on a pavement in St Leonards on Sea. I may have heard the name Idris Davies somewhere before - I don't think so. Since then I have looked him up in an anthology of Welsh verse, which printed two of his poems and supplied the one biographical fact that I know, which is that he was a "miner-poet". But that may be a misprint, perhaps.

It was with some such attitude of "kindly" condescension that I first leafed through Gwalia Deserta. Its 36 lyric poems don't take long to read, perhaps half-an-hour. But since then I have been back to it many times, and I don't feel condescending now.

The Commissioners depart with all their papers
And the pit-heads grin in the evening rain;
And white deacons dream of Gilead in the Methodist vestry
And the unemployed stare at the winter trees.
The parallel valleys crawl to the Severn shore,
And adolescents jazz in the mining village,
And somebody's only daughter is in trouble.
The Sabbath choristers in Bethel praise the Lord;
And young men at street-corners are aimless and ragged,
And the old, old miners sit and dream
Of the mirth and the pain of the distant years. (I)

The poems, loosely connected, are located in the valleys of South Wales and concern the bitter, tragic life of the mining villages. I don't know much about the precise circumstances that Idris Davies refers to, but I live in mining country. I know that mining has produced the same miseries, hideousness and (in due course) unemployment at all times and in all places.

"No hell described by the priests is as frightful as what I've seen here. Down through the narrow passages, which resemble those dug by moles, go the workers, black as devils, surrounded by soot and darkness, smoke and stench, naked to the waist with a scrap of wool over their mouths to prevent inhaling the massive quantities of smoke and dust, sweat runs off their bodies like water wrung out of a wool bag." (Linnaeus, after visiting a Swedish copper mine in 1736)

"Suppose a man is employed to work in a coal mine, and after twenty years he develops an occupational illness of the lungs. The cost of his illness, to himself and his family, in terms of direct expenses, losses of opportunity for his children and more general deprivation and suffering, are part of the hidden costs of mining coal... Just as the mining of coal has its unexamined human costs, so it has hidden environmental costs. To call them `hidden' is simply to show how our awareness has been dulled, for they assault one's senses and one's feelings. And to call them `environmental' is also an inadequate description, for environmental costs are really indirect human costs. What we are referring to is the destruction of landscape by mining, the denudation of hills and valleys, the pollution of streams and of air, the degradation of cultural life by long hours, physical exhaustion, lack of education and the destruction of community. The cost of coal includes making the world a more depressing place to live in, and this should be measured against the energy coal gives off." (Charles A. Reich, The Greening of America, 1970.)

Gwalia Deserta lacks the political sophistication of such a passage - or rather, it inhabits a less sophisticated world, in which the individual agency behind oppression is less thoroughly hidden. In place of Reich's impersonal system, the corporate state, there are many references to personal oppressors, to "my lord", to the genteel parsons who support him, to

            the Sabbath created for pulpits and bowler hats,
When the under-manager cleans a dirty tongue
And walks with the curate's maiden aunt to church . . . . (VII)

In 1938 the structure of a mining concern was still relatively intimate, there was still a memory of men who identifiably owned mines and lived nearby in mansions, as in Zola's Germinal. Yet in other poems there is a sense of the impersonality of the forces ranged against mining people:

O what is man that coal should be so careless of him,
And what is coal that so much blood should be upon it? (IV)

            today he moves in his sweat and his tears
As the servile fool of machinery. (XVII)

In fact mining remains of all mass industries the one whose violence is hardest to conceal. A mine is necessarily earthbound. You cannot easily distinguish the workings of mercantile or commercial organizations that dwarf the mining companies in turnover; you can't see it all in one devastating glance. But come to mining country, leave the pretty road with its unexpectedly fierce notices, and walk up through the careful screening of young wooded slopes until you reach the triple barbed wire of the perimeter fence and there it all is laid out before you: the works. A vast pit where land should be, muddy lakes, railheads, sheds the size of cathedrals, mountains of grit, lines of thunderous HGVs suddenly reduced to the size of earwigs. Many have lived in the neighbourhood all their lives and never looked this view in the face: it is profoundly unnerving. (The coy sylvan screening is of course a legal requirement imposed by government, but is also essential in keeping the reality of roadstone extraction out of the public mind. As Reich claimed, "tough" government agencies set up for our protection are in practice if not in intent the allies of big business, effectively maintaining public confidence and thus forestalling real questioning or conflict; they do valuable work on the industry's behalf.)

Lyric poetry is the expression of emotion. That is its liberation. It is not constrained to be correct, to say the true thing, to think the right feelings, because obviously everyone has different emotions at diferent times and they are not constrained, they happen. Hence, different poems may contradict each other. Some poems in Gwalia Deserta express disgust at the impotence of the dreamer. Other poems proclaim the potency of dreams. It doesn't matter: both feelings are authentic. I think it's precisely because of this freedom from needing to decide what they really think, to reach a conclusive and coherent position, that lyric poets can sometimes transcend their own mind-sets, say things that arrive with the force of insight to readers fifty years later.

In Cardiff at dawn the sky is moist and grey
And the baronets wake from dreams of commerce,
With commercial Spanish grammar on their tongues;
And the west wind blows from the sorrowful seas,
Carrying Brazilian and French and Egyptian orders,
Echoing the accents of commercial success,
And shaking the tugs in the quay.
Puff, little engine, to the valleys at daybreak,
To northward and westward with a voice in the dawn,
And shout to the people that prosperity's coming,
And that coal can be changed into ingots of gold,
And that Cardiff shall be famous when the sun goes down. (III)

This is an example of the poetry in Gwalia Deserta that I like best of all. I would describe such poems as "transformed lyrics". The lines are free verse, but if you read with your ears, they are full of little scraps of song. And it looks like a description, but that's only a surface.

Lyric poetry is always in some sense about love, because love is at the base of every emotion. But love does not have to take place in rose-gardens or on beaches. Here, finally, are two love-poems, one about the sun and one about football. I hope you'll agree that Idris Davies doesn't betray the truth of his vision. On the contrary, it is love that makes it complex and morally troubling. Love is a way of seeing.

The village of Fochriw grunts among the higher hills;
The dwellings of miners and pigeons and pigs
Cluster around the little grey war memorial.
The sun brings glitter to the long street roofs
And the crawling promontories of slag,
The sun makes the pitwheels to shine,
And praise be to the sun, the great unselfish sun,
The sun that shone on Plato's shoulders,
That dazzles with light the Taj Mahal.
The same sun shone on the first mineowner,
On the vigorous builder of this brown village,
And praise be to the impartial sun.
He had no hand in the bruising of valleys,
He had no line in the vigorous builder's plans,
He had no voice in the fixing of wages,
He was the blameless one.
And he smiles on the village this morning,
He smiles on the far-off grave of the vigorous builder,
On the ivied mansion of the first mineowner,
On the pigeon lofts and the Labour Exchange,
And he smiles as only the innocent can. (XXVI)

The township in the valley is quiet and sad and grey;
In the valley, one after one, the little yellow lights appear,
And on the rain-washed platform the young man says goodbye.
Mile after curving mile, the valley towns are dim and dumb,
The river shines and frets, and turns abruptly east,
The stars are high above the smooth green plain,
The smug green belt between the coalfield and the sea.
You gaze upon the fashionable suburb of Cardiff
And you smile and remember the post-war boom, the Sankey Award,
The Saturday afternoons specially made for Cardiff City,
The avalanche of hands and feet to Ninian Park,
The clamour and the roar, disputed goal, play up the blues,
The brass band at half-time, "Abide with Me", and "Sospan Fach",
The pigeons released and sweeping north and east and west,
The beer bottles waving, the mascot vendors,
And then the returning crowd, the great hoarse crowd,
Surging back to city streets for ale and chops and tarts.
And in the winter evening Tiger Bay WAS Tiger Bay,
And the moon rose over the Severn Sea. (XXXIII)