It’s nine weeks now since the coronavirus lockdown began and I feel cut off both geographically and culturally from anywhere. The occasional glimpses of the mud brown Bristol Channel through the trees and the accents of the few people I meet on my daily walk assures me I’m still in Wales. And even though I should have left already for France, I don’t feel as if I’m in any place but marooned in a neither here nor there sort of Neverland.
Cardiff is just down the road from the seaside village where I have an apartment, though it might as well be in a post apocalyptic other country. When I was a boy, Cardiff felt more like a large town than a city. It was small minded, conservative and swathed in drab colours, only on International Rugby days did it come alive with noise and excitement, the red and white of scarves and the green of leeks. Now the transformation is total and, as the city climbs skywards, brims with character and energy, and has a friendliness I’ve encountered in no other city in the world.
Jill and I only moved back to Wales little over a year ago but already the atmosphere of the city, the surrounding mountains and villages, and the bookend seascapes of the channel are beginning, you might say inevitably, to be expressed through the new writing. My latest project, a cycle of poems with the working title ‘Backtrack’, in which opinion and autobiography gatecrash Homeric Myth, already reflects this, through its shifts in style and content. And, as the Prologue suggests, is an invitation to embark on a new journey:
where once upon a time
began the myth
when the poet’s voice
heard above the thrum of hours
thundered to the rhythm
of the ultimate sing-along
France, however, seems both another lifetime and one which we’re very much still living. It’s almost thirty years ago now since Jill and I first stumbled across the little neglected stone house in a sleepy, lost-seeming village in the Aveyron, and the consequent, spontaneous decision to buy, which turned out to be the stupidest and best decisions of our lives. The stupidest because we thought the property consisted only of three rooms, one up, one down and one in the middle, but when we received the key to look around it, we discovered it not only extended at the back but expanded as it did so. And though daunted by this, once we caught sight of the view from the back windows that stretched across the rolling countryside we were instantly smitten – even the fact that you couldn’t see the back garden for brambles failed to deter us. So, to cut a long story short, what we effectively decided to do was to buy a ruin and one that we still haven’t finished working on. But in the words of the old Aveyronais ‘when you finish your house, you die’ and I ain’t ready to go just yet.
As a stimulus to writing, our life there has proved second to nothing, as is reflected in the collection of poems ‘Vertical Horizons’. At first living there was like stepping back through time: characters and landscapes were from a different era. Electricity had only arrived in the department in 1946 and the road outside our house was still a dusty earth in summer and mud in winter. The people seemed to believe in different gods and a different morality, and they were slower, shyer and, when together, even spoke in their own language, an ancient sounding patois.
True to the adage that everything changes, inevitably most of that ‘old world’ has faded or gone, receded into the electric blizzard of the twenty first century. Now the farmers wear tee shirts and baseball hats, like the rest of us, and their teenage kids probably already sampled drugs. There are mobile phones and identical fashions everywhere, similar tastes in music abound and McDonald’s as popular as everywhere else in France. Yet, through it all, some things have endured, for, though often on the receiving end of a facelift, the countryside’s essential features survive unchanged, so too the flow of seasons. Despite everything there are aspects of the Aveyronais character, its stubbornness and independence, that live on regardless. What does remain undimmed is our maturing love affair with everything about it.
As for now, as I dwell in this Neverland of neither here nor there, I can’t help reflecting on what awaits when the lockdown and the precautions over coronavirus have ended. On what will be left of the city that before had fitted me like some perfect off-the-peg new garment? And after so long away from it, will the French house still cast the same spell and what sort of welcome will I receive in the village when I finally return? I can only surmise. Though memory and desire, at present, keep them both very much alive for me and writing, like a ghost that follows.
(You can follow Jack Alun shortly, plus his new writing as he works on it, on www.jackalun.com)