If I didn't already like Gillian Clarke's At the Source, her essay "Cardiff" would (and did, really) totally sell me on the book. I love essays. Why don't I read them more often and more regularly? Maybe I need to do something about that. But first "Cardiff". If the rest of At the Source has something of a nature slant to it, the essays that make up the first part of the book (the rest is diary-like entries for each month of the year) focus more on home and history. And of course they are written with her elegant (she is a poet) prose that makes you see, feel and imagine her world.
"Cardiff" is about her family, their history--her history, and her childhood. I can't begin to give you a summary that would capture her eloquence. She segues from image to image seamlessly moving around in time and space and you can see it all in your mind. But let me share with you a few random impressions of what I read.
Ga is the name she uses for her grandmother. A word I'd never heard--a family/childhood word or a Welsh word? Her father worked for the BBC.
"My father's coat was whiskery tweed and felt like the fur of the black bear in the tobacconist shop near the Prince of Wales Theatre, where before dirty films and bingo, they showed Snow White, or The Wizard of Oz, or Lassie Come Home."
On an outing with her father as a child in the "city of tall stories"--even then there were bluebells.
"In the museum the Blue Lady's dress is so blue it is a lake of bluebells in Porthkerry woods. So blue that she's the sea off Pembrokeshire. Because of her, blue is my favorite colour."
Clarke's father worked for the BBC. Her mother was glamorous. This was during the war years. She and her family lived in a house in Cyncoed, a house she returned to later, where she lived at "crucial periods in [her] life". It is a house she can never leave behind and she wrote about. From her poem-sequence 'Cofiant' ('Biography'):
Houses we've lived in
and history's restless
in the rooms of the mind.
Isn't that lovely? I like how it's not just the person who inhabits the house, but how it leaves its mark on the dweller. Enviably (for me) it was a house from which she could always see the sea.
Beautiful and poetic imagery:
"Stories layered with stories, all laid down in the mind to become part of being."
Books surely must have been part of what inspired some of those stories (books and the view from her window and the experiences of a freedom of childhood--a true freedom children no longer have--to go about on their own from dawn to dusk--exploring the world around them).
"Libraries had always been full of objects of desire. To a bookworm, there is nothing so bleak as reaching the last word of the last page of a book an hour before bedtime, and nothing more thrilling than the Saturday morning find in the library, a new novel by a favourite writer, or something vaguely illicit, and hours of secret reading ahead. It was almost a vice. From early childhood I'd read all night, unable to stop turning pages. In school I read under the blankets by torchlight. Home for the holidays, sent to make the guests' beds in the roomy old house in Plymouth Road, I'd be caught out reading the books on bedside tables."
As a youth she was in love with the idea of university, "and relished [her] new life. She went away to school when young but later going to school in Cardiff was suddenly glamorous. She recalls walking to college every day and walking along the "rose-red road of Edward VII Avenue" under the huge elms that touched overhead. And then seeing them suffer with Dutch Elm Disease.
"I saw them felled. It was like watching a great cathedral fall."
She worked in the university's library. Sounds she associates with that still associates with books, with reading and falling in love with the idea of studying English Literature (from her years working in the library): a tramp snoring over a book he wasn't reading, pigeons cooing on the window ledges.
I associate the smell of freshly cut grass on hot humid days with summers of my youth. I smell the smell and am instantly and vividly transported back in time.
So "Cardiff" is about memory, too.
Here's a memory to end my post and one I think we will all be able to relate to:
"Learning for learning's sake would, we were told, give us the world. This seems amazing to me now. I don't think many students feel the romance of university that we did. We knew we were privileged and were grateful for it. I was no scholar, but I loved English, language excited me, and reading gave me other worlds."
Yes, thank goodness for books!