Words and images from home and away
Shocked and hugely saddened to hear of the death on Tuesday of my friend Nigel Jenkins, Welsh poet and creative writing teacher at Swansea University, after a very short battle with cancer. There is an efflorescence of grief amongst those who knew Nigel and his work, in Wales as well in the Khasi Hills in India.
As I note in my recent book, some time in the late 1990s I decided to put pen to paper to honour the stories my late mother and grandmother had entrusted to me of their Welsh missionary forebears. Scouring the internet, I stumbled across Nigel’s book. There on the cover, staring out at me from the screen, was my first sight of the face of my great-great-grandfather Thomas Jones, a portrait that I subsequently discovered adorns school classrooms both at Newtown in Wales, and in Cherrapunji in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya in north-east India.
In the early 1990s Nigel had been inspired by Alexander Frater’s BBC TV documentary ‘Monsoon’ in which he mentioned in passing that the literary proficiency of the Khasis was due in large measure to the efforts of a nineteenth-century Welshman. Intrigued by this apparent footnote in his own national history and by the remarkable fact that the Khasi church was in a far healthier state than the dwindling ‘mother church’ in Wales, Nigel subsequently published Gwalia in Khasia, an account of his personal visit to the site of ‘the biggest overseas venture ever sustained by the Welsh’, and a book which won the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year in 1996.
And so it was that I came to know Nigel—I first emailed him in June 1999, and from there we shared a mutual excitement for the Khasi Hills in India. As it turned out, we were both also embarked on monster encyclopedia projects—his the Welsh Academy Encyclopedia of Wales, and mine the Encyclopedia of Melbourne. No one who has not edited such compendia can have the first idea about the stresses and strains of these large projects, and we regularly commiserated over email—mine was “the monster”, and Nigel referred to his appropriately as “psycho”.
From Australia it was an infrequent but wonderful treat to make the trip to the ‘top flat’ in Chapel Street in Mumbles for Nigel’s company and counsel. We spoke of music, poetry, our hiraeth for the Khasi Hills, bringing up kids after a separation, even eventually rugby, which for a Welshman he was inordinately slow in becoming obsessed about. Hear him read some of his poems on the web. Like the many people whose lives intersected however briefly with his—who knew him as poet, teacher and humanist—I am shattered and disoriented at his passing.
Last year I was briefly in Wales but Nigel was unable to make the trip to Llifior Mill near Welshpool where I was staying because of his duties, as he put it, as the Fat Controller of Creative Writing. So I last saw him in person in 2011, and amongst other things he took me out into the mud of Swansea Bay to see a recent discovery of a 4000-year-old Bronze Age hurdle-style trackway—’Swansea’s oldest road’, as Nigel put it. ‘Doesn’t take much to get me excited’, he emailed, ‘a few sticks in the mud and I’m away!’
At the top of a beautiful rise at Oystermouth Cemetery we also mused on mortality by the grave of Welsh musician Morfydd Owen (wife of psychoanalyst Ernest Jones) who had died at the untimely age of 26. ‘Das Unbeschreibliche, hier ist’s getan‘, her headstone proclaims from Goethe’s Faust — ‘Here the indescribable is done’.
I will dearly miss his company, his emails as well as his purring voice, his laverbread and lamb roasts, his haiku and the walks we took on the west coast path amongst the valerian, the sea mist and the bees. The last image I have of him in my mind’s eye is swimming at Rotherslade Beach—there he is in the water. When my tears subside I must write him a poem.
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