Manafon. Manafon? What could it mean? Scurrying to a search engine it was soon discovered that David Sylvian’s new album was named after a small rural community located in the hills of Montgomeryshire, the northern part of the Welsh county of Powys. But that just raised more questions! Why?!
Such became the mystified opening question for any interviewer at the time. Factual connections were quickly made, but more than that, an insight was provided into the heart of Sylvian’s new work. ‘The question, “Why Manafon?” leads me on a journey that reveals something of the nature of the entire project,’ explained Sylvian in one of the discussions on release in 2009.
‘I came across the word in relation to the life and work of R.S. Thomas. It was the location of his first parish and the place where he wrote his first three volumes of poetry. Over time the word became for me a metaphor for the poetic imagination, the creative mind or wellspring, hence the cover art of the cd depicting an implausible idyll if you will. A place where the intuitive mind taps into the stream of the unconscious.’
Sylvian had been familiar with Thomas’ verse long before the project began. ‘A dear friend introduced me to his work back in the ’80s. She’d loved the title of the volume of poetry she’d stumbled across and knew the fact that he was a man of faith would interest me, particularly as his poetry struggled with such issues.’
The title track of the album is packed with details of the life of R.S. Thomas, through which we come to understand just why Sylvian was so fascinated with him as man and poet.
‘There’s a man down in the valley
Who doesn’t speak in his own tongue
He bears a grudge against the English
The tune to which his songs are sung’
Thomas was a man riven with contradictions. Born in Cardiff in 1913, his father’s work led the family to relocate when he was five years old to Holyhead, a port and railway-terminus town that was predominantly English-speaking. So it was that he was schooled in English rather than his mother tongue. Yet Thomas would go on to become a fervent proponent of the Welsh language, bemoaning the infiltration of English (and the English) and with it many aspects of life which he felt served to destroy a rich cultural heritage in Wales.
‘England, what have you done to make the speech
My fathers used a stranger at my lips,
An offence to the ear, a shackle on the tongue
That would fit new thoughts to an abiding tune?
Answer me now. The workshop where they wrought
Stands idle, and thick dust covers their tools.’
(from ‘The Old Language’)
He was a staunch nationalist, defender of tradition, but his own Welsh would be learned too late in life for him to forge his poetry in the native tongue. His descriptions of rural life in Wales were fashioned with the very words and phrases he believed to be alien. Listening to recordings of Thomas speaking, you are also struck by his rather cut-glass English pronunciation which bears little of the lilting music of the Welsh accent.
‘There’s a man down in the valley
Who is moving back in time
It’s a physical ascension
You can watch him as he climbs’
Thomas says in his 1970s essay Paths Gone By that he hoped ‘to return to the true Wales of my imagination’ for his first post as vicar. He was learning the language but not yet sufficiently adept for a Welsh-speaking congregation. He goes on to provide us a window onto his life in the new parish:
‘Welsh wasn’t to be heard in Manafon either, but the place was in the heart of the hills, and when the floods came down from the moorland and the clouds flew past, I really felt that I had come back to Wales.
Manafon was an eye-opener for me. It was here that I became conscious of the conflict that exists between dream and reality. I was a little bourgeois, well-bred, with the mark of the church and the library upon me. I had seen this tract of country from the train at dusk through romantic spectacles. I now found myself amongst tough, materialistic, hard-working people, who measured one another by the acre and the pound; Welshmen who had turned their backs on their cultural inheritance..
Manafon was in a hollow. There was no village there, only a church, a school, a shop and a public house, and the surrounding hills rose to somewhere over a thousand feet. From the summit of the hills there were stunning views.. ..On a clear day Wales lay beneath your feet like a table set for your pleasure.’
Thomas would climb up and out of the valley searching for something closer to that ‘true Wales’. Climbing to hear more of the Welsh language – it was here that he would find a tutor to enable him to speak it and write it in prose; climbing to discover more of the traditional way of living. What he found there was an inspiration for his poetry about hill-farming life, including his fictional Iago Prytherch who came to be a symbol of the relationship between the earth and man in an age before the machine. The depiction of that reality is harsh and not at all romantic:
‘You are old now; time’s geometry
Upon your face by which we tell
Your sum of years has with sharp care
Conspired and crossed your brow with grief.
Your heart that is dry as a dead leaf
Undone by frost’s cruel chemistry
Clings in vain to the bare bough
Where once in April a bird sang.’
(from ‘Lament for Prytherch’)
Reading these poems you can’t help but feel that the march of time and mechanisation has an inevitability that it is pointless to stand against. Thomas might want to ‘stop time in its tracks’, as Sylvian expresses it, ‘but it keeps on pushing back.’
‘The farmers’ wives are at their windows
They’ve seen him wind his way for hours
They tell the kids to lower their voices
And pretend that they are out’
In his biography of R.S. Thomas, The Man Who Went into the West, Byron Rogers interviews John James Penybelan: ‘When I’d spot him coming through the fields, I’d run and warn mother. My mother could talk to anybody, but with him there were these long silences. Quite a fearsome-looking man, but odd.’ Thomas was a contradiction in his churchmanship – an Anglican in a nation dominated by Welsh chapels – and in his pastoral responsibilities, regularly haranguing parishioners for their poor attendance at church and somewhat cold, difficult to converse with, sometimes terse and withering. No wonder it might be more attractive for parishioners to pretend not to be at home rather than encounter a visit. Yet in times of real trouble, sickness and death, there are many testimonies of his devotion to being present with the stricken.
‘And his wife she was a painter
But now she stains the altar black
He’s out bird watching on the islands
And she wishes he’d come back.’
When R.S. Thomas and Elsi Eldridge married, it was she who had the most distinguished credentials in the Arts; he an unpublished poet, she a painter recognised by the Royal College of Arts whose work had attained glowing tribute in the national press. Painting continued to be part of Elsi’s life, not much encouraged by her husband it would appear; her creativity seemed subordinate to his in the life they lived. Thomas writes in a later autobiographical work, Neb (in which he oddly writes about himself in the third person), ‘He never had a house that satisfied him, and there was something missing in every church – a lack of taste or architectural deficiencies – but his wife’s advice as an artist was a help in improving the situation somewhat.’ When Thomas moved on from Manafon to his next incumbency at Eglwys Fach, Elsi took a dislike to the bright varnish on the woodwork in the church which she found somehow unbecoming. Byron Rogers’ biography says that Elsi ‘went for broke. She had the whole lot, pews and pulpit, painted matt black.’
The promising and expansive canvasses of Elsi’s earlier work were replaced with interior design for rectory and church, and greeting cards illustrations for Medici.
Sylvian’s words hint at a distance in their relationship, but equally suggest an underlying yearning and bond. Evidently they lived quite separate lives, each with their own sleeping quarters, most often together at meal times. Yet R.S. Thomas wrote such lyrical verse about Elsi after her death.
‘She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
‘Come’ said death,
choosing her as his
the last dance. And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird’s grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.’
(from ‘A Marriage’)
Sylvian weaves in the poet’s life-long obsession with ornithology – he would travel to Bardsey island to seek the company of the wildlife there for decades. More at ease with nature than with people.
‘There’s a man down in the valley
And he dreams of moving west
Of battles raged against the furies
That might see him at his best’
Thomas’ ‘dreams of moving west’ were physically fulfilled, but the reality never quite measured up. There was always the anglicisation to cope with – in Manafon the influence of the machine in farming, in Eglwys Fach the presence of the opinionated ex-military middle class, and lastly in Aberdaron – there was no farther west to go on the mainland – the invasion of the holidaymakers. He retired to a primitive cottage close to his final parish, the last volume of his poems printed in his lifetime being No Truce with the Furies, a collection of verse continuing the themes of soulless technology, time and traditions passing, and God’s presence or absence in the world.
Sylvian was asked what inspired him about Thomas. ‘It’s not a matter of what inspires me so much as what he represents for me. In some ways this austere, cantankerous old man is my grandfather, a man out of time. Rigid, damaged, wounded, immovable. On another level it’s the ideals he tried to live by, the discipline and austerity he adhered to and imposed on others. His desire for self betterment, for answers to life’s big questions, but also the role he might personally play in the uplifting of his people, society.’
The last line of the lyric is from Sylvian’s imagination, an image summing up a man out of kilter with the practical aspects of his existence and his role in life:
‘Don’t know his left foot from his right’
Key themes from the album Manafon are brought together in the title track’s portrait of Thomas, appropriately sequenced last on the disc. At its core is the nature of the creative imagination. ‘He appears to have been profoundly single-minded, inflexible, proud, disparaging. All qualities we think of today as standing in the way of our development. But there’s still a part of me that applauds the effort, the adherence to a path, a devotion to a life’s cause. For all its apparent bitterness and tragicomic contradictions, there’s something beautiful about the man’s dogged devotion to writing, to poetry.. ..what I’m fascinated by is the devotion to a creative discipline.’
Then there is the complexity of living with and without love suggested in Thomas’ relationship with his wife. ‘The theme of love or its absence is a constant pre-occupation. To paraphrase the artist Agnes Martin, art is a celebration of the beauty in life or a protest against its absence.’
Finally, there’s a resonance between the placing of gods ‘in a ziploc bag’ in the album’s opening track, ‘Small Metal Gods’, and the wrestling with faith that is the heart of R.S. Thomas’ work. His poem ‘The Empty Church’ captures fundamental questioning verging on disillusionment, encountered in the search for divine truth:
The Empty Church
They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn. He will not come any more
to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illumined walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?
Sylvian found this poetry could be ‘profoundly beautiful and moving also. His own questioning of God’s silence, well he railed against it at times as if faith had abandoned him.’ There was something in this ability to embrace doubt that resonated with Sylvian’s experience, even if his own spiritual practice was no longer rooted in Christian belief. ‘The freedom, ability, and the process to openly question aspects of his own faith, which I can only assume helped his personal growth in some manner (in Hinduism they might say this was his sadhana, his personal means for developing his spiritual awareness), must’ve acted as a considerable release for him.’
Thomas had questions and doubts, but professed a belief in God – what he described as ‘the eruption of the deity into ordinary life.’
On my playlist I pair the track with ‘Framing 2’ from Wrapped Islands by Polwechsel and Fennesz. This album was a key catalyst for Sylvian’s musical approach on Manafon – about which more in a future article. The sonic landscape for the piece flows too from Sylvian’s metaphor of the Welsh village as ‘a place where the intuitive mind taps into the stream of the unconscious.’ Werner Dafeldecker, Christian Fennesz and Michael Moser feature both on ‘Manafon’ and ‘Framing 2’, improvising music which interweaves amongst the group to create a delicate soundscape from their collective imagination.
Music by Werner Dafeldecker, Christian Fennesz, Michael Moser, Keith Rowe, David Sylvian. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Produced, engineered, edited and mixed by David Sylvian at samadhisound, 2008. From Manafon by David Sylvian, samadhisound, 2009.
Original sessions recorded between 2004-2007.
Lyrics © samadhisound publishing
Poetry © R.S. Thomas
Physical media: Manafon (Amazon)
Grateful thanks to Howard Barlow for his permission to use his photograph of R.S. Thomas at Aberdaron. All quotes are from interviews with David Sylvian in 2009, unless otherwise stated. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
‘I don’t feel the piece paints him in an unflattering light. It’s a bare bones character study which, if anything, presents a man for whom there’s no easy answers.’ David Sylvian, 2009