Personal News

Ceredigion, December 2012

Singing a Man to Death

As I write, there are two helicopters flying around outside the window. When we lived in Cardiff, this sort of thing just meant the police were chasing car thieves again, but there is said to be only one helicopter in the whole of Ceredigion. Perhaps the other one is the Pembrokeshire helicopter. We havenít had this much excitement since the Olympic torch was carried through the street outside our house in May. A friend was working on the security arrangements for that; his colleagues were so anxious about it that they referred to it (in Welsh) as the Beacon of Doom. We were able to watch it from our bedroom window, unlike the crowds who stood in the rain for hours while support vehicles, police motorcyclists and forerunners went by, and rumours went round that it was so many minutes away. It finally went by so quickly I barely had time to take a photograph, but then going fast was the point, I suppose.

In May I launched my collection of short stories, Singing a Man to Death, with a reading at the University Bookshop. My brothers and sisters-in-law came and stayed with us for the occasion, and we did my favourite walk through the Peris Valley and along the coast path the next day, in scorching sunshine this time. It has been a good year for my writing: Cinnamon, the publishers of the stories, have accepted my historical novel, The Book of the Needle (no publication date yet), and Faber will publish my collection of poems Muscovy next May. A CD of me reading my Whereabouts poems, plus some others, is just out from my Canadian publishers, rufus books. Iíve been casting around for new things to write, and briefly thought I might go to Kazakhstan to research an epic poem about the origins of the apple, but my most productive project this year was a critical essay on the poets W.S. Graham and Philip Larkin.

Nine years after moving in, we feel we have finally finished making changes to the house. Our kitchen, with its massive walls of whitewashed stone that look as if they were hewn from meringue, has always been the room that impresses everyone, despite its cramped space and dodgy décor. We couldnít do much about the space, but we got some better units and appliances, and went to a warehouse in Ammanford and chose some sheets of pink granite for worksurfaces and splashbacks that are more in keeping with the rest of the house. It is now even more like a grotto than before, but the mineral character has a certain charm, and you can look at the patterns in the granite while chopping carrots.

After years of rainy British holidays, we went to Alsace this year in the one really hot week of the summer. We divided our time between Strasbourg and Colmar, staying in delightfully quaint and atmospheric hotels. Itís not an area the British visit much, and we were sometimes taken for Germans. The black-and-white houses with their windowboxes of red and purple geraniums seem German, as do the delicate white wines, and the rather heavy food, dominated by sauerkraut, sausage and baked goods. We lay on the cobbles watching a son-et-lumière display on the west front of Strasbourg Cathedral (I smelt of vanilla for some time afterwards from my encounter with the remains of a crêpe), visited the huge mountaintop castle of Haut-Koenigsbourg and tasted wines at a vineyard at the mountainís foot.

In September Creina attended the funeral of an old friend, Jean Willett, a grandí dame par excellence, who had died at the age of 100. Jean and her son Steve were the first to befriend Creina and her grandparents when they arrived in Umtali, Rhodesia, in 1949, and later welcomed us to Cardiff when we arrived there fifty years later. Creina was one of two friends Steve invited to speak at the funeral. In October, Marymount, the school in Umtali where she taught French from 1972 until its closure in 1976 held a reunion in Kingston-upon-Thames. It was thrilling to see how a school which had existed for a mere twenty years had fostered such a lasting affection in its pupils and staff.

I am still playing a lot of chess, and had a successful year, winning a couple of minor prizes and reaching my highest grading ever. The highlight was a draw against the then-Welsh-Champion, a veteran who has played some of the all-time greats of chess. (On the other hand, I had losses to a couple of talented eleven-year-olds.) Through a contact of Creinaís at Lampeter University Chapel, I have recently taken up fencing again, a sport I was keen on at school but hadnít practised for more than thirty-five years. It is a lot harder than I remember, and here too I am getting beaten by eleven-year-olds. Itís entertaining to overhear their conversation in the changing room afterwards, though Ė one of them was talking about a classmate who had been out with all the girls in their year. ďHe has sixteen exes,Ē he said enviously.

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