Featured in Welsh Arts Review "Highlights of the Year 2016" - an appreciation by Robert Minhinnick of John Barnie's new work Wind Playing with a Man’s Hat (Cinnamon, 2016) 

John Barnie

John Barnie is a poet, essayist, writer of memoir and the former editor of ‘Planet: the Welsh Internationalist’. Born in Abergavenny in 1941, he lives near Aberystwyth. 

Your latest poetry collection, from 2016, ‘Wind Playing with a Man’s Hat’ (Cinnamon) states that you published ‘War in Medieval Society’ in 1974. Why did you stop writing historically or academically? And were you writing poetry in ‘74? 

War in Medieval Society was a much revised version of my PhD thesis. At that time I thought of myself as an academic and started another research project relating to the Middle Ages. After a couple of years it stalled – work of this kind no longer satisfied, though I couldn’t quite say why. Then one night, I dreamed a poem which I got up and wrote down. I went back to sleep but dreamed another and wrote that down too. Next morning I knew that what I wanted to do was write poems. I continued teaching at Copenhagen University for another six years but retooled and taught twentieth-century British and American poetry and a course with some Scots and Irish colleagues on ‘Anglo-Celtic’ literature. By 1982, however, I felt there was too great a discrepancy between the demands of academic life and the demands of poetry, so I resigned and my wife Helle and I returned to South Wales with our new-born son. I made ends meet tutoring for the OU and WEA and working as part-time receptionist at the Hill Residential College in Abergavenny. In 1985 I applied for and got the post of full-time assistant editor with the relaunched Planet. We moved to Aberystwyth where Planet is based and have been here ever since.

Since 1984 you have published very regularly: lots of poetry, three collections of essays, ‘The King of Ashes’ (1989), ‘No Hiding Place’ (1996) and ‘Fire Drill: Notes on the Twenty-First Century’ (2010), and volumes of memoir.  But wouldn’t academic life have enabled you to write these books? Especially if you were dreaming poems?

None of the books you mention would count as academic in terms of the ‘Research Excellence Framework’, the hoop academics have to jump through to show they are turning out a sufficient quantity of approved ‘research’. My writing would have passed, I suppose, had I joined the ‘creative writing’ industry, but I didn’t want to do that. ‘Y bardd ydi’r unig ddyn sy’n rhydd mewn cymdeithas,’ R.S. Thomas said once – ‘The poet is the only free being in society.’ You’re not free if you teach ‘creative writing’ year after year, though many poets appear to think that they are.

It might be suggested that an editorial role at ‘Planet’ was far more interesting, although I am sure the remuneration was less. What were the ideas you developed at Planet? And is there still a need for such a magazine?

Planet certainly was more interesting. Helping to edit and produce a 120-page bi-monthly was also a steep learning curve. I was incredibly lucky, however, in that Ned Thomas, the founding editor, had wide journalistic experience in London and had been editor of the Russian-language magazine Angliya. I learnt a huge amount from him about the editing process, and when he left in 1990 and I took over as editor, I tried to live up to the standards he had set.

Two areas I developed in Planet were coverage of visual art and environmental issues. I soon came to realize that Wales in the 1980s and ’90s was undergoing something of a renaissance in art which the magazine ought to be involved in, especially as there were few outlets for showcasing the work of artists like Christine Kinsey, Iwan Bala, Mary Lloyd Jones, Ernest Zobole and many others. There was no real outlet for art criticism, either, but there were people out there with ideas about art and we built up a stable of good writers who included Peter Lord, Osi Rhys Osmond, Sheila Hourahane and Iwan Bala. I believe Planet had some impact on how art was perceived in Wales at this time.

 As to the environment, it was evident that the natural world was entering a period of severe crisis and it seemed to me that a magazine with pretensions to cover Welsh culture in the broadest sense could not avoid the issues this raised. Again, we were lucky to be able to build up a team of scientists and environmental activists, including yourself, to comment on what was happening. All you can do in a magazine is to inform and suggest ways forward, but for the most part I suspect we were preaching to the converted.

Is there a need for a magazine like Planet today? Definitely. There are still far too few outlets for discussion of art, dance, music, or non-specialist discussion of politics, the environment and social issues in Wales, and under present conditions it is hard to see how this will change.

Surely you are out of step with the times, as RST was. Why on earth would a poet be the ‘only’ free man in society? And doesn’t ‘creative writing’ encourage intellectual ambition in those that practice it?

No doubt I am out of step with the times. RS’s dictum, I think, was thrown out in the spirit of Shelley’s ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. It was a protest against our age when poetry (and poets) mean less than at any other period in history – a kind of swagger, if you like, in the face of mass culture’s indifference. And that is how I used it.

As to ‘creative writing encouraging intellectual ambition’, I’ve seen little evidence of it. Rather I hear teachers complaining time and again that they can hardly get students to read contemporary poetry, let alone the poetry of the past. Yet without this, how can you measure the worth of what you yourself have written? Most ‘creative writing’ seems to be an ego trip. But this is a tedious subject. Let’s move on!

In a way, you might be said to have come late to poetry. Seren issued your ‘Selected Poems’ in 2006, and since then you have published hundreds of individual poems in a regular series of collections, facilitated by Cinnamon and Gwasg Gomer. There seems an urgency about your publication record. Are you making up for lost time?

I didn’t start writing till I was 33, and was 46 before my first book-length collection, Lightning Country, appeared. I also lived abroad in Denmark for a number of years, so when I came home I was out of sync with contemporaries, as well as being an outsider as far as the poetry scene was concerned.

I think, too, I was influenced by my time in Scandinavia. Because many writers there are professional or semi-professional they tend to be productive. Poets I admire, such as Knud Sørensen and Harry Martinson, published widely across many genres – fiction, memoir, biography, nature writing, social and political commentary – bringing out a book every couple of years. They were a model for me. I wanted to be like them. 

In your memoir ‘Footfalls in the Silence” you state that the poems you dreamed, though now lost “release me into a new, chancy world governed by the imagination.” But to publish almost five hundred poems, as you have, in the last two decades, indicates a rigorous writing regime. Would you describe it, please?

I don’t know how many poems I’ve published; I’ve never counted. I do, however, have a strict routine. When I worked full time, I kept Saturday and Sunday mornings free for writing. My mind works best in the early morning, so since giving up the day job I get up at 6.00 and sit down at the desk at 7.00 every day. Mostly nothing comes and after a while I give up and do something else. If I’m lucky I write a poem every 10 or 14 days. But poetry is also seasonal. I produce very little in spring and summer. Poems start coming again in autumn and continue till the end of February. Then they slowly dry up. I don’t know why. Every six months or so, I go back over what I’ve written and throw half away. In dry spells I like to write prose, so it’s good to get commissions for articles and reviews.

Those hundreds of poems have a similar structure. They all comprise one sentence, even if spread over several stanzas. Why?

They don’t all have a similar structure. Until the 2003 collection At the Salt Hotel I used conventional punctuation to indicate sentences. I am an admirer of A.R. Ammons who developed an idiosyncratic punctuation based on the colon. I thought this was interesting, because I was looking for ways to free up my writing. A colon seemed too close to a full stop for my purposes but I came to realize that a semicolon, while marking a pause, was lighter, and that it could be used, among other things, to indicate sentence boundaries while maintaining a forward momentum to the verse. Some of the poems written in this way are single sentences but not all. A poem of several stanzas may contain a number of sentences clearly marked by grammar and syntax. Conventional punctuation isn’t as necessary as some people believe.

‘A Year of Flowers’ (2011) brings together your love of the natural world and your home territory in Ceredigion. Both are threatened with significant change, as your editorship of ‘Planet’ and your essays indicate. Can you specify here what that change entails for you.

Biologists and naturalists from Niles Eldredge and David M. Raup to David Attenborough are agreed that we have entered a period of mass extinction, the sixth in the history of multi-cellular life, this one primarily caused by one species, ourselves. You can see the beginnings of this everywhere in Wales if you look. Many insects and birds that were common in my childhood have disappeared or are rarely seen. This year I am one of three poets in residence at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford. Scientists there take a pessimistic view of what is happening. One leading entomologist told me he thought that by the end of the century there would be five or six robust species surviving in every major insect group in Britain. The rest will have disappeared. I’ve seen this happening in Ceredigion in the thirty years I’ve lived here – greenfinches, bullfinches, song thrushes, swallows, swifts, kestrels, all vanishing, along with many other species. Insects, too – the thousands of moths I’d see as a boy swarming around street lamps and in the lanes like a soft beige snow; peacock butterflies, red admirals, large whites, orange tips, painted ladies in their hundreds in gardens and along waysides. Driving through the lanes of West Wales now you see one or two moths rising ghostly in the headlights. Most people don’t even notice. In fact, if you are young you will never have known anything else – the absence of summer birds and butterflies is just how it is and how, for them, it has always been. The entomologist I spoke to thought nothing would be done until it affected people’s pockets, by which time it would be too late.

I find this intensely depressing because the natural world has been a large part of my life and the source of much of my early poetry. A Year of Flowers was a celebration of the fact that I identified nearly 200 species of flowering plants in my corner of Ceredigion, many of them increasingly rare; but celebration becomes more and more difficult – false, even – in the light of what is happening.

Ceredigion is threatened in another way. There has been so much immigration from England in the past thirty years that the language balance has shifted as the English move in and take over farms and villages, and more recently towns like Aberystwyth. Welsh culture (in either language) is being rubbed away by this process. If you are Welsh, even from the Borders like me, you lead a double life – one with English residents and another with other Welsh people. In dealing with the English I feel like Eliot’s Sweeney – ‘I gotta use words when I talk to you.’ Political correctness and expediency mean you are supposed to think this is fine, but it isn’t. The last bastions of Welshness will probably be the Valleys and towns like Llanelli, until the greening of the old industrial heartland is complete when the English will move in there as well.


One of the themes of your poetry is ‘ageing’ (see ‘The Old’ in “The Roaring Boys” and ‘And Again Tomorrow’ in “ Wind Playing with a Man’s Hat”.) These are possibly self-portraits but are also hilariously cruel. You’re not going quietly, are you?

To quote Eliot again, ‘Old men ought to be explorers’. There’s too much to see, hear, read, and experience to start putting on slippers and watching daytime TV. Perhaps those poems are ‘hilariously cruel’, as you put it, but they are also a shaking of the fist at the ageing process, a refusal to knuckle under.


You ensured that Planet was a publisher of books, and you were also a board member of Seren for several years. What’s your view of the state of writing and publishing in Wales in 2016?

If I limit myself to poetry which is what I know best I’d say Welsh poetry in English has an unacknowledged identity crisis. This is because there are so many English poets living and publishing here, very many of whom work at the universities where they teach ‘creative writing’. After fulfilling a residence requirement, writers qualify for Arts Council and Books Council grants and bursaries – and it is hard to see how it could be otherwise. They then become notional ‘Welsh’ poets and are active on the poetry scene, publishing in the magazines and with the publishing houses, participating in readings, and so on. This is part of the Anglicisation of Wales I referred to earlier.

It raises the question of what then is a Welsh-writer-in English these days? It is an important question, but it is mostly avoided. The answer, it seems to me, is that Welsh poetry in English is sliding ineluctably into a provincial variant of English poetry. This is not a problem for English poets living and working here, many of whom return to England after a few years to take up academic posts across the border. It is a problem for the Welsh, though, and we need to address it.

Turning to the publishing industry, this is almost wholly dependent on grant-aid. If that dried up, publishing here would collapse. In the 1960s and ‘70s the hope was that start-up grants would allow publishers to establish themselves and eventually become financially independent. This has never happened. Too many of us still see metropolitan England as the mirror in which to validate ourselves. Being published by one of the big poetry publishers in England is the guarantee of having arrived.

Welsh publishers suffer from this. Seren has discovered and nurtured a number of good poets over the years, but after a collection or so they mostly lose them to Faber, Carcanet, Bloodaxe, or Picador. Welsh publishers cannot shake off the role of feeder publishers to the bigger houses in England. It is hard to see how this can be changed until writers have more confidence in our own culture, and stop gazing longingly across Offa’s Dyke.


I sense the Oxford experience is important for your writing. I imagine its fruit will be poetry. Are you planning a collection initiated by what you’re learning there?

My year at the Museum of Natural History has been a fascinating one and my only regret is that it is coming to an end. As part of the commission, I wrote eight poems directly relating to my experience which will be published by the Museum in an anthology in December. Whether there will be any more remains to be seen.

The chief importance of the year, as I said, has been the opportunity to talk to entomologists, zoologists and palaeontologists about their work, and also about the current state of nature. We are, inevitably, fixated on the consequences of the EU Referendum, the terrible wars in the Middle East, the refugee crisis, but important as these are, running beneath them is the relentless destruction of the natural world which most of us, living in urban environments and hard-wired to iPhones, don’t even notice.

As James Lovelock has observed, nature has a way of righting imbalances in its larger systems. There are too many humans on Earth making too many demands on its resources so that we have become a plague. Nature has ways of righting this. 


Music is important in your life. For years you’ve played in blues / skiffle groups, and some of your poems use blues lyrics as starting points. You’ve also published ‘ Y Felan a Finnau’ (The Blues and Myself) in 1992 from University of Wales Press. You launch your latest collection with a blues band playing a set. Why this particular musical fascination?

The only music in our house when I was growing up came from my mother who vamped 1920s music hall songs on the piano in the front room. So when Lonnie Donegan appeared on the scene in the mid 1950s, and The Vipers, and the Ken Collyer Skiffle Group, I was, as a fifteen-year-old, ripe for plucking. I bought their 78s and a cheap guitar and joined a skiffle group at school.

Then my English master told me I ought to listen to the real thing. He suggested Lead Belly and Blind Lemon Jefferson. I bought them on 10” LPs and was hooked for life.

A thousand LPs and CDs later, blues (and gospel) remain endlessly fascinating. What attracted me as a teenager was the way the blues deal with real life – with loss, prejudice, violence, love and its discontents; but it’s also good time music – about getting sloppy drunk, ‘dancing on a dime’ in juke joints, tipping out on Saturday night, ready for any game in town.

I’ve always played guitar but only since moving to Aberystwyth have I become involved again in playing the blues publicly, firstly in a skiffle revival group, and for some years now in several downhome blues bands. It’s fun, and I’ve come to enjoy mixing music with poetry in performance, playing with poets Twm Morys, Iwan Llwyd, Nigel Jenkins, Damian Walford Davies and Richard Margraff Turley in various combinations. Music adds a dimension to readings for me; it helps sustain a variety of moods and rhythms which is hard to achieve in a straight reading. 


On 13.10.16, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Do you approve?

I have no strong feelings about it. Bob Dylan is a poet in the oral tradition whereby the ‘music’ of the poetry is in the accompaniment rather than in the words which can seem flat on the page. Blind Lemon Jefferson (long dead, of course) was a far greater poet in this tradition and Dylan learned his craft from people like him. It does occur to me that in accepting the prize Dylan, the arch rebel of the Sixties, has finally been absorbed into the Establishment he once claimed to despise. 


New technology and above all social media are changing publishing hugely. There is now ‘access to everything’, which means constant reassessment of what has until now been taken for granted. Several of your recent volumes are produced by a ‘new’ publisher. Surely this is to be welcomed.

Well, Cinnamon’s not so new now; it celebrated its tenth anniversary recently. And yes, it is to be welcomed in a world where the smart money’s on e-books and the death of print.

I am probably wrong, but I don’t think electronic media will ever drive the printed book to extinction. We are a tactile, sensuous species. There is something about the feel of a well-produced book, the quality of the paper, the cover design, the font, the turning of a page, which make reading a three-dimensional, physical experience, compared to reading a flat, two-dimensional ‘text’ on a Kindle.

A book is also a form of contact with the past and the future. You are only its custodian while you are alive, as bookplates and hand-written names on fly leaves attest if you buy secondhand books. You become, in a sense, part of the book’s history while it is in your possession. A Kindle is eventually junked and thrown on a scrap heap, the texts it contains saved, perhaps, onto another flat, impersonal device.

As to the web and social media, yes, they give instant access to everything, but in such a way that more means less – you remember less, and so know less, because it is all there at the tap of a key and you can look it up again and again.   

Facebook and Twitter and ‘have your say’ appendages to on-line newspapers and other media seem rather boring. Why take notice of hundreds of thousands of people you’ve never met, all disgorging their pixilated opinions into the void? It is a world of mediocrity and often of viciousness. The new technology is currently unstoppable. I think it may end up helping to destroy us as a species, undermining our humanity; though not yet.


I enjoy your books immensely for their rigour and powerful imagery. Although influenced by RS Thomas, you are forging your own direction. ‘The Roaring Boys’ (Cinnamon, 2012) begins with a statement from Martha Gellhorn, “It is wonderful to know exactly when you are happy”. I’d say you know exactly when you are happy, and that’s when you are writing, when you are discovering the ‘exact’ image in a poem. ‘Sea Lilies’ (Seren) selects your poetry between 1984 and 2003. Are there plans to select from the many poems since? And maybe as a last word here, might you provide readers of this interview with a ‘recent’ poem. Thank you. 

I think you’re right about happiness. What I like about writing poems is that, until the poem begins to form itself on the page, I don’t know what it is going to be about. The excitement is in exploring the unknown, and the knowledge that any aspect of experience – perhaps something quite trivial – may form the basis of an image, or even a whole poem. The trouble, of course, is that writing a poem takes up only a small part of the day. For the rest, you live less intensely, though always on the alert. Les Murray said once that a poet ought to know everything. I think he’s right, though of course it’s not possible.

I haven’t thought about a second Selected because I’m too busy writing poems. In the past three years I’ve got about half way toward a new collection, and I want to concentrate on that.

Here’s a short recent poem, which I think is about happiness. I was looking out of the kitchen window and a wren landed on the lawn in front of me. Wrens, as you know, are elusive birds, but here it was in all its glory. The poem wrote itself in about as many seconds as the bird stayed in my sight:


An automatic light came on

when a wren snap-darted across the lawn tail up

a feathery flagstaff of itself too quick

each bounce and pounce

for a human eye to follow but no stop

there it is


and gone.




A version of this interview is published by ‘New Welsh Review'




Three Things... books - politics - walking by Kristian Evans

three things…


books - politics - walking

Books. He’s got too many books. There are well over a thousand volumes of poetry, philosophy, history, ecology and so on and on crowding every available space here and even colonising spaces that should be kept clear – the stairs, tables, kitchen cupboards, chairs, windowsills – all are crowded over with stacked books. The Táin Bó Cúailinge is in a pie dish and Henri Michaux is in the herb rack. Most of the books just sit there, waiting, gathering dust. Katharine Briggs' fairy survey is rescued from the coal bucket. A large number have yet to be read. Some follow him daily from room to room like permanent dreams.

Should he get rid of a few of these old tomes? Impossible; they are all valuable and deeply necessary and who knows? We might need every particular page one day. For example, here is a book on the uses of conscience in the poetry of George Herbert and Thomas Vaughan. It is a beautifully made object, and thoughtfully written, years of work, and altogether an unfailingly interesting thing to consider. How could he possibly get rid of it? When he puts it back on the shelf it might well stay there until he is dead. Yet Herbert and Vaughan were profound and humane and wrote at a time of great social upheaval, not unlike our own. We can learn from them. The same applies to so many of these books. The poetry of Iolo Goch, anyone? What use can we find for a localised theurgy in the philosophy of Iamblichus? Or essays on the bioregional imagination in Canada? Ah, look, a study of the evolution of the roundhouse in bronze age Britain, hidden under a memoir of a life obsessed with red foxes.

Some people live in cosy, snug, comfortable hutches, homely and organised. Alas, we have to conclude that this man shelters in a library. Yes, one of the most important functions of these four heavy old walls, this house, is that it’s a place to store books. The hour is getting late, it’s dark outside, you’ll have to balance your wine glass on the shoulder of a ghost, but at least we are keeping a candle or two lit for learning, here in the library, lodged like a chilly monastery among the shifting dunes on this faraway edge of Glamorganshire coast.

Politics. “I shall be involved in politics…saved!” So wrote the great French poet and heretic Arthur Rimbaud in his savagely self-critical testament, ‘A Season in Hell’. Once, long ago, a sane human might have hoped to live adrift from the concerns of politics, quietly cultivate the garden, raise children and write songs maybe, and laugh at the wild boar snuffling in the orchard. Now though, politics has come for us all, and will not leave us alone. We are all utterly involved, and there is no escape. Time, we discover, is not running out; it is speeding up. Power and the performance of power insist on dancing upon our attention, attempting to entrance and ensnare us with visions of salvation that are of no profit to anyone but warmongers and vampires. You must play the game. You really must. The only way out is through. Because none of us has a sure grip on reality any more. And how can you possibly hope to grow anything in your garden, or raise the next generation, as the world dissolves and disappears all around you? And you there, yes, you also are fading away, gone as the lapwings are gone, and a thousand other species are gone, leaving what else to the future but silence?

Walking. We follow the dog, a lively affectionate collie, along the dried out dune slacks to the ruined haul road, and on to the vast empty miles of beach. A desolate place at the best of times but we love it and come here as often as we can. We struggle into the rippling gale and shout nonsense words to each other and to the grinning dog and then wander on to find shelter in the lee scoop of a pile of driftwood and ripped nets and dolphin bones and shards of plastic jumble. Quieter now, we eat our sandwiches and crisps. I like pouring the tea, strong and sweet, hot and steaming from the old black flask. Sal, the collie, dances in breathless, nuzzles at us, looking for a cwtsh or a crust or a chuckle, then rushes off again scattering sand and ozone to chase an oystercatcher or a gull, or to sniff at the old wrecked cargo boat exposed by the tide. My son cuts a bit of good rope free from a half-burned tangle of junk to keep for later. “You’ll ruin the knife edge” I grumble, but I’m glad he has a scavenger’s instincts. I waste three matches to light my cigar, huddling deeper under the snapped chunk of a twisted old ash tree, and watch the blue smoke flow as it settles my mind.

We talk about school, and sport, and wild animals. I tease him by quoting poetry – the wind flung a magpie away and a black backed gull bent like an iron bar…slowly – he pretends he thinks this is rubbish, but I know he is intrigued. He teaches me Welsh words I have forgotten, or never knew -- pioden y môr? – and the hours go by and we’ve done nothing difficult and soon the late September sun is leaning into the sea. Rain clouds are clotting over Gower and advancing across the bay towards the steelworks, hauled and hurried by the west wind towards Sker point and Porthcawl.

We pour one more quick tea, then call the invincible collie in from the waves, and set off again on the rough trek across the restless dunes, along the slacks, leaving our bootprints among the goat willows and birches, hastening from the rain and the wind to get back to the warmth of the cluttered old library where we live.

by Kristian Evans

Kristian Evans is an artist and writer from Bridgend interested in ecology and the ways we think about and interact with the “other-than-human” world.  Unleaving published by Happenstance Press.

Also by Kristian Evans on this site: 

A Kenfig Journal



Green Room: Anthony Hontoir Book Launch Friday 21 October

Journalist, film-maker and author Anthony Hontoir returned home after a week’s holiday in Devon during the summer of 2013 with an idea for a whodunit murder mystery, based around the tidal road in Aveton Gifford, which is renamed Watersford for the story. He decided that it should feature a new amateur detective in the form of Erwin Graham, a one-time Fleet Street crime reporter, assisted by his partner Belle, a gipsy. “The Tidal Road Mystery” is the first in a series of mystery tales, and it has been written along traditional whodunit lines, evoking the golden age of murder mysteries in which there are a number of suspects, each with a motive of their own, and they are all brought together at the end for Erwin Graham to explain how he has solved the crime and to reveal the culprit.

Information in our events listings Friday 21 Oct 8pm


Worldwide, it's calculated that ONE TRILLION plastic bags are used and disposed of annually.

Since October 1 2011, Wales has placed a charge on the distribution of plastic bags. In the campaign running up to the imposition of the charge, Sustainable Wales carried out a huge amount of preparatory work, centred round employee Joe Newberry, who became known as ‘the bagman’.

Plastic bags are an important constituent of global plastic pollution. Countries are taking action to try to tackle this serious issue.

In May 2016, the state of New York in the USA agreed a five cents charge for every plastic bag distributed. Here, writer MARGOT FARRINGTON writes a very personal account of how she viewed just one plastic bag.

Margot Farrington

Margot Farrington

Margot Farrington is a poet, writer, and performer. She is the author of three poetry collections, most recently "Scanning For Tigers" (Free Scholar Press).  Her poetry has appeared in The Cimarron Review, Tiferet, Academy of American Poets (online archive) and elsewhere.

Her essays, reviews, and interviews have been published in The Brooklyn Rail, Delaware County Times, ABR: American Book Review, Art International, and Poetry Wales.


Black Plastic Bag

Wind of March 11th brings a plastic bag to spoil the view, to fasten insult to the big cherry at the back of the garden.  Tony makes the discovery and comes to tell me.  We go to the window and stare out.  Grimly, I remark that it’s the durable kind, not that flimsy, ghostly plastic wind pulls to pieces over time.

We see how high it’s snagged, three quarters of the way up.  The cherry’s height exceeds the two story building just behind: no ladder we own can bring us close enough for removal. Perhaps with a pole, I think, with some sort of hook on the end.  In more than three decades here, I can’t recall this happening, because our garden shelters within a long rectangle of neighboring yards, enclosed all round by the buildings of our block. 

Meanwhile, bags appear on the streets everywhere. Just three weeks ago, one plaguing a plane tree had torn to remnants and let go.  We’d watched that bag from our front windows for part of the winter, now the coming of spring was blighted with this black flag.  It waved, piratical and impenitent, frightening the cardinal that frequently perches near the top of the tree. Each spring he chooses the cherry to sing his clear-welling song, announcing to all his intention to mate and to nest and to raise fledglings.

I sulk at the sight of this intruder, I who am bag conscious, taking with me when I shop a canvas bag wherever I go.  Almost fanatic, nursing my hatred of the plastic ones dominating the city.  Stomping upon skittering sidewalk bags to arrest them, stuffing them into the trash. Tearing those within reach from street trees. Plucking them from plantings in the park.  I can’t do this everywhere I go, but mentally I chase, pinion, and correct.  And now, in disgust and at a loss, I turn away from the window.

The next day, I study the bag again, and the slender branch it’s slung over.  March has entered in reverse, that is to say, lamb-like: no buffeting winds and little of the raw chill typical of the month.  Instead, balmy days and the temperature easing up past 60, have brought spring on early.  I can see the blue-green leaves of the pearl bushes pushing out, hungry sparrows beginning to dismantle the pussy willow catkins.

Someone would have to climb part way up the tree, be agile enough with a long pole to dislodge or rip the bag from the branch.  I am not that person, nor is Tony, though once we could’ve done the trick.  I don’t want to see that bag as the cherry leafs out, don’t want to watch the birds shy from the flap-monster come to roost.

The following day the bag has wrapped itself into a black chrysalis, and maintains this form the entire day.  Someone will have to climb the tree.  I try to think of someone.  Or might the wind suddenly undo what it has done?

March 14th.  I try not to obsess, can’t help imagining that ugliness among the blossoms early May will bring on.  This cherry I call The Black Dragon (for a limb suggestive of a dragon climbing skyward) is of the species Prunus serotina. Planted by a bird, preserved by us when we took down the mulberry tree that overshadowed it.  Cherry all the birds enjoy, owing to the vantage point the tree commands, and of course for the fruit itself.  Why must our Black Dragon wear a black plastic bag?

March 15th, I’m sitting down to lunch at our dining room table, and I’ve looked out the window, as I have several times earlier, met each time by the presence of the bag hanging in space.  It has abandoned chrysalis form, regained shopping mode.  The garden lies wetly dark from rain earlier on.  At the end of lunch, I glance idly out, not with intent to check.  Something is missing—I scan the tree, convinced I’ve overlooked it somehow, but no, it’s really gone. 

Tony joins me and we look together, gazing from our third floor window, thinking we’ll spy the wretch caught in some other tree or bush, still asserting itself, still hateful.  But oh, how lovely, no trace.  No trace at all.  How foolish—I should have had more faith in the wind of March.  An errant puff: breath of the lamb at the perfect moment.  A black sail headed off to wherever.  Happiness restored.

Refugees - Texts written at the Ty Newydd Writing Centre, March 2016

Texts written at the Ty Newydd Writing Centre, Llanystumdwy, Cricieth, Gwynedd, 17.3.16.

Authors: Sarah Blake, Emma Ormond, Kaye Lee, Yuko Adams, Camilla Lambert, Jennie Bailey, Barry 

Tutor: Robert Minhinnick

I don’t know where we lost her. She isn’t here. That is all I know. Maybe it happened right at the start. I don’t remember how. I carry on conversations with her in my head. I don’t mean to. Thoughts slip into her. Mud on my boots. Numb hands. I talk to her every day here. I remember her hand holding mine inside her coat pocket on the way to school. I remember sitting at her feet, watching her draw. Her hands have oval nails and there are plump lines in her palms. How soft she was. I remember the face cream trace she left in the air and how she always burned the onions. Never had the patience to let them sweat slowly, turn sweet and yielding in the pan.

My jumper is made of links,

rough and bubbled, sutures

of thin thread that cannot

close the wounds underneath

which are only superficial on the surface on the surface

buried in it my nose unearths

dirt, sweat. Hope, petrol and apples,

the taste of cold stone and vinegar

as I are them,

the wool creaks, stiff from its journey,

shedding grit and dirt,

remnants carried with me from home.

I will never let it be washed.

These trousers would steam

if I ever found somewhere warm.

They still have the salty grit

of two days on a boat

and tonight I’ll keep them on

when we lie down under the sheets

of plastic, our make-do home.

I can’t pray anymore, my head and my heart are sodden, too many uncried tears, saltier than

Aisha’s sea-wet jacket – the jacket

that her granny wrapped round

her shoulders as we climbed into the truck.

I wish I could sleep – a few hours -

to dream we’re back home,

to forget the razor wire

that tears us to shreds

if we try to move on.

I come across a rose

That is standing in a front garden

On my way to nowhere.

I sniff and smell the scent

but it is too meagre

as I cannot step in.

In the next town I arrive

I may find another rose

but I don’t think I can smell it.

It’s somebody else’s rose

growing from somebody else’s soil

I cannot grasp.

Mehemet has woken up crying

like last night and the one before.

His head is hot like a burnt potato.

At home we’d fetch the pink medicine

from the bathroom cupboard, tuck the quilt

my mother made, scraps of red and brown

from her mother’s village, soothe him.

He’d be better in the morning.

Here, no medicine, once we’d used up

the stuff they gave us near the fence,

no quilt, just a pile of all our clothes,

smelling of mud, a musty, cheesy smell.

I am lying on my side again, I feel

In my pocket for the crooked house key:

It fits my fingers like it always did.

It’s getting light, earlier now, invading

through the cracks in the tent,

won’t be kept out, allow one more hour

of not remembering. The others

are moving about, a few curses from

those Aleppo people, different consonants,

same whine in the nostrils.

It’s raining again.

My heart still beats fast. I have just woken up, but remain curled up under my old army greatcoat on what I think is a slate floor. The cold slate causes me to roll over on to my other hip. I cannot feel my left shoulder, but hopefully it will get better circulation now I have moved.

I can hear the clatter of cattle hooves, this could be a farm. I wonder if I should look for a drink of water, or risk seeking out someone to help me.

I have counted

  red ants that slip into my sleeping bag.

I have counted

  stars in a snowglobe sky.

I have counted

  degrees downward to freezing.


This evening I saw

  children clustered in feathered clothes around fires.

This evening I saw

  blood sunset over the Jungle.

This evening I saw

  shield beetle man beat women with black batons.


In the morning

   perhaps swallow blue ribbons instead of black flags.

In the morning

   perhaps a weak sun will waken wings.





Robert Minhinnick is an award-winning poet, essayist, novelist and translator. An environmental campaigner, he co-founded Friends of the Earth (Cymru) and charity Sustainable Wales. He has published seven poetry collections and several volumes of essays. His editorship of Poetry Wales from 1997 until 2008, defined by an edgy, outward-looking philosophy, marks perhaps the most exciting and progressive period of any Welsh periodical. His latest novel, The Limestone Man, is out now from Seren.

The boy and the ape look down at me. Beside them the man in the smock already seems convinced. Or enchanted.

In this attic room a desk. And dust.

The attic room

Paper dust and the dust of human skin, dust from the fossil corals found on Cog y Brain one mile to the east. That summit was once underwater but today is amongst the highest sand dunes in Western Europe. This coral dust and the sulphur-smelling conglomerate limestone I have collected from the same dune litter the desk. A desk dominated by an Apple and its black screen.

Behind that, amongst the shells and the seaglass and the words that might have meant something, is another computer. Derelict yet alive. If I press a switch it will reveal sites like ruined temples. Which gods were worshipped there? What foolishness pursued?

Strange to remember that four people worked in this room, three of them salaried. This used to be the office of Sustainable Wales and some of its documents are still stored here.

On the wall above the screen, further archaeology, passwords and phone numbers in indelible ink. Once these were so familiar I used them without thinking. The worlds they unlocked I took for granted. But those wonders have been supplanted by newer marvels.

Pinned to the rafter above the screen is a postcard of El Greco’s ‘Fabula’. The painting depicts a boy in darkness blowing on a flame between a man and a monkey. I have not thought of this image for years, knowing only that I was arrested years ago by the painting and wanted it close by. ‘Fabula’ remains a puzzling parable for all of us seduced by the modem’s green eyes.

Four feet above the desk is a slate roof. Attached to these slates are thirteen solar panels fitted in late 2015, ‘mono black solarworld’, six at azimuth 270 degrees and seven at 180. German made, these panels sleek as an Audi or the latest Beamer are hard to distinguish. Even if I’m in the gwli behind the house they’re difficult to spot.

The lights are off and there’s daylight from two pivot windows fitted twenty years ago. To the south-west is the deserted fairground, itself a kind of computer screen. On a clear day I might see Exmoor to the south, in the north Stormy Down, where a renewable energy ‘cluster’ is being assembled on what is an old RAF base. Maybe the charity I help administer will film there this winter, on its community energy project, ‘Strike a Light?’

Also on this desk is a leaf from an evergreen oak on Cog y Brain. Rough as a cat’s tongue this leaf, the tree stoical in salt. Books describe it as a typical Mediterranean species, and it was picked this week as a talisman on the shortest day. From that summit the dune slacks lay scattered like silver hubcaps, the emergence at Ffynnon Pwll roaring out of the limestone, its outflow having travelled fifty miles.

In the past I have drank from that water. It allowed the first identifiable people of the area to flourish and I have tried to think about their lives and language, researching them on the black screen’s portal, but also sipping at the spring where it leaves the labyrinth, my knees in the sand where their bones were discovered.

And all the time El Greco’s boy is still blowing on a flame, much to the fascination of the ape and the man who watches.

Originally published by Wales Arts Review February 2016

Photography by Peter Morgan