Nigel Jenkins, who died on Tuesday 27th January 2014, aged 64, was one of the most influential literary figures that Wales has ever produced. Forever associated with the landscape of Swansea his reach went far beyond the Mumbles, and heartfelt tributes have been paid from India to Australia and, of course, all around Wales. Wales Arts Review is deeply honoured to publish this collection of tributes to Nigel from his friends and admirers, of which he left an uncountable mass.
We, in the Khasi Hills, remember you with love and affection. Go in peace, Nigel Jenkins, to partake in the divine betel nut.
I knew Nigel from an early age, as he was a close friend of my mother’s. Every now and then, he came to stay with us when they were discussing translations of her poetry, and the very first thing I remember about him is finding his voice incredible to listen to. Like music itself.
Many years later, he became my colleague at Swansea University, and we formed a friendship of our own. When he later became Director of Creative Writing, I couldn’t have asked for a more understanding or supportive boss. (Not that Nigel would ever be comfortable with being considered as a ‘boss’.) I can’t think of a single event or launch where Nigel wasn’t present – he would always be there, supporting people, supporting the arts, supporting creativity, and was adored by his students. Something interesting always happened in Nigel’s class – there was hilarity, music, and near-nudity once! The rest of us could never compete. Every year, the students seemed to ask for more poetry, more Nigel. Right up until he became ill, he was inspiring people and introducing novice poets to new worlds, new ways of seeing things.
Nigel was a writer through and through. Even his emails were pure poetry, and very often, sharp satirical comedy. I can still remember the way he threw his head back to laugh when I told him I’d be requesting maternity leave again, a gesture which said – ‘ah, that’s a good way of getting more writing time!’ (And he was right, of course.) I remember our countless conversations about his daughters and how proud he was of them: ‘the best thing I’ve ever done with my life’ –as he once told me.
It is impossible to stress just how much we’ll all miss him at Swansea University. And yet, it will only be a fraction of the loss that will be felt by those closest to him, and also the loss that will be felt in years to come, by the whole of Wales. We have lost a great poet and writer but also a great personality. Luckily for us, words are able to preserve a personality, and within his poems we can still find that laugh, that warmth, that wit, that Nigelness – and it is a comfort to know that through reading him, we can still find him, and be close to him, time and time again.
I first came to admire Nigel when I read the type-script of his Gwalia in Khasia. Who else, I wondered, can write such splendid prose? Here is his comment on flying above Bangladesh: ‘Pincered between the lethal surges of the Bay of Bengal and the annual deluge of monsoon water, much of it draining off the Khasi Hills, these coastal Bangladeshis are seasoned precisians of life’s murderous whimsicality.’ And these were his feelings on meeting the couple who looked after the cemetery in which Thomas Jones (The Founding Father of Khasi Alphabets and Literature, as his gravestone describes him) is buried: ‘All that separated these two survivors from the lethal poverty of Calcutta’s homeless thousands was this ramshackle boneyard and a Welshman’s grave.’
I was hugely proud that my commendation was printed on the cover of Gwalia in Khasia. I took the book with me when I visited Shillong. A waiter informed me that the book was being serialized in the local English-medium newspaper. I went to see the editor, who informed me that ‘your archdruid is in town’. I visited the Polo Towers Hotel and had breakfast there with Dafydd Rowlands, T. James Jones and Tegwyn Jones. It was Nigel Jenkins, therefore, that led me to meet the head of Gorsedd y Beirdd not far from the borders of Tibet.
I was delighted to hear that Nigel, with Menna Baines, would be joining me as editors of The Encyclopaedia of Wales. (We were fortunate that Peredur Lynch also became part of the team.) Our task was to prepare two volumes each containing nearly a million words, work which took far longer than the two years originally allotted to it. During those years and during the additional ones, I am happy to confirm that, among all the editors, there was fruitful cooperation and friendship.
I was amazed at Nigel’s capacity for hard work, and his skill in turning the turgid writings of some of our contributors into translucent sentences. Meeting him was always a delight; his superb deep voice created a wondrous sonority and his conversation was constantly amusing and imaginative. When working on the Encyclopaedia, we would send each other at least half a dozen e-mails a day, but I have hardly met him since the work’s publication. Recently, I thought of going to Swansea to see him, but then came the dreadful news of his serious illness. To realize that I will never see him again is the cause of the deepest sadness.
‘So many in Welsh lit over yrs have cited Nigel Jenkins as someone who had inspired, helped, been kind to them. That, friends, is success’: the words from Kathryn Gray plopped into the muddy swirl of my Twitter timeline. I nodded in silent agreement, though the thought did flit across my mind that it seemed a faintly random sentiment for a wet, workaday Tuesday. The sucker punch truth that it was a 140-character obituary only dawned a few tweets later.
At 64, Nigel was too young to go. The fire still roared within; it burst out in his poetry, prose, politics, lecturing, psychogeography and music; it combusted all around him and brought light and merriment; it scorched even through the hallowed chambers of the Encyclopaedia of Wales, a project that ate seven years of his life as one of its editors, and which he wearily nicknamed ‘Psycho’. His inability to stand the sickly cant of sanctioned public discourse brought both admiration and brickbats galore, none more piously hurled than when his bilious eulogy to ‘Viscount No’, George Thomas (‘The Lord of Lickspit / The grovelsome brown-snout and smiley shyster’) landed him on the front of The Guardian and booed on the letters page of the Western Mail for months on end. As ever, he was proved entirely right on that one.
The last time I saw Nigel was at a hugely convivial event in Aberystwyth rugby club to mark Planet magazine’s fortieth birthday. There was music, poetry, prose and speeches from a glittering cast that included Ned Thomas, Jan Morris, John Barnie, Gai Toms, Jasmine Donahaye, Damian Walford Davies and Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch. As compere of the evening, I’d come up with the idea of ascribing a different planet to each performer, a conceit that became distinctly strained on occasion (Jan Morris, suffering an injured foot, hobbled up to the stage after my introduction, cast me with a baleful eye and murmured, ‘Well, I certainly don’t feel very Mercurial right now’). While some were highly tenuous fits, there was no question which planet to give to Nigel: Mars, the red planet, named after the Roman god of war, the near neighbour that’s fascinated us for generations, famous for its eruptions, its volcanoes and its elliptical orbit. I cringe to recall this now, but my last words before bringing Nigel to the microphone were ‘So, is there life on Mars? There certainly is!’
And now there isn’t. The sky is a far darker place without him.
Many who pay tribute to Nigel Jenkins will be conscious of somehow doing justice to the man and his achievements, knowing it to be a gloriously impossible task. Many will also be at pains to deliver such tributes in terms as original and eloquent as those of the man they mourn, fully aware of the futility of such an undertaking. But all who do so will do so with tears in their eyes.
I first shared the stage with him at a poetry reading in Swansea in 1997 at an evening entitled ‘Beirdd yn Dweud “Ie”/Poets Say “Yes”’ in support of the campaign to establish a National Assembly in Wales. But it wasn’t until I joined Gomer Press as an editor in 2002 that I really got to know him and came to appreciate how much more he was than the captivating verbal and vocal presence of the public performance.
Gomer will point to Nigel’s great successes across a range of literary forms: the travel writing of Gwalia in Khasia (Wales Book of the Year 1995), the collections of essays like Footsore on the Frontier (2001), the poetry collections like Hotel Gwales (2006) and even the coffee-table collaborations like Gower (2009). But I will remember him too for his championing of new authors, along with his willingness to graft and campaign as part of a team, for example, as one of the three joint-editors of Another Country: Haiku Poetry from Wales (2011).
Yes, he was one of Gomer’s greatest authors, but he was also one of Gomer’s greatest friends.
Profound shock to hear of the passing of Nigel Jenkins.
He was hugely helpful to me when first trying to make a place in the Welsh literary world, later I got to know him much better during my time in the Welsh Union of Writers where, as a founding member and chair, he was unerring in steering that ship through the choppy wash of conflicting egos. He imparted to the Union a gravitas it never deserved. He was generous to the less-well recognised writer, more likely to be encountered at a poetry reading given by an unknown as at some stellar event. And his readings, how extraordinary they were. The cowboy boots, jeans, sonorous voice – I never saw him deliver a dud.
Nigel was a great lover of sea-swimming, as I am. We used to haunt Rotherslade Beach, which he called the ‘Plage Principale’, and would compete annually to see how long we could keep swimming into October and November. Nigel would often talk of the sea and the sensation of boundlessness we experience there, the peaceful, cold ‘oceanic feeling’, at home in our little nook of the world.
I frequently noted our conversations in my diary – here is one excerpt, which led, through Nigel’s memorable quotation, into a great landscape of meditation.
6 March 2012
Nigel & I talked about our wonder when we see the stars & sea ‘in our moment’ – boundless wonder at everything – an atom, a firmament – & he quoted from Pinter: ‘Tender the dead’ & sent me the quotation. Nigel has the most beautiful mind of anyone’s I’ve ever known – he himself is a source of wonder to me – the firmament within. He helped expose the 3,000 year old Bronze Age causeway in the Bay – which used to be a fen. We spoke about our moment within archaeological time.
This is the email Nigel sent later that day:
Here’s the entire quotation, Stevie, from Pinter’s play No Man’s Land, which Michael Gambon read at his memorial service:
I might even show you my photograph album. You might even see a face in it which might remind you of your own, of what you once were. You might see faces of others, in shadow, or cheeks of others, turning, or jaws, or backs of necks, or eyes, dark under hats, which might remind you of others, whom once you knew, whom you thought long dead, but from whom you will still receive a sidelong glance, if you can face the good ghost. Allow the love of the good ghost. They possess all that emotion … trapped. Bow to it. It will assuredly never release them, but who knows … what relief … it may give them … who knows how they may quicken … in their chains, in their glass jars. You think it cruel … to quicken them, when they are fixed, imprisoned? No … no. Deeply, deeply, they wish to respond to your touch, to your look, and when you smile, their joy … is unbounded. And so I say to you, tender the dead, as you would yourself be tendered, now, in what you would describe as your life.
We were in a long room above a pub somewhere in Neath. Nigel was teaching a creative writing class and I was the guest. I was there to explain what sound poetry was. This was south Wales in the 1970s and there were edges out there to be pushed. Encouraged by Nigel I’d done a run of sonic recreations of Schwitters, Jandl and Cobbing and then finished with a blast of my own stuff. At the back someone evinced the opinion that this was all, actually, crap. A common perception. T.S. Eliot would be spinning in his grave if he knew. Dylan Thomas would be aghast. However, this didn’t prevent one of Nigel’s more enlightened students from vocally disagreeing. It’s not crap, it’s good. No it isn’t. Whap. There was a scuffle and then fists began to fly. God this poetry is exciting stuff, Nigel told me, as he leapt forward to separate the fighting pair.
And it was too. With Nigel there at the heart of it.
Throughout the rest of his long career Nigel kept himself there too. At the heart. Whatever else he became famous for – and there were a great many things – he still called himself a poet. First and foremost. For Nigel poetry was the same thing as blood.
Although never an avant gardist himself, not quite, he supported those who were. If there was an underdog out there, someone not getting the right treatment, someone neglected or grossly misunderstood then Nigel would be the man to champion their cause. He supported the work of extreme Welsh-Canadian concretist Childe Roland, for example, offering him readings, bringing him to Swansea, espousing his cause. He supported the successful bid to get that writer offered full membership of the Welsh Academy.
The mainstream was not where Nigel felt most at home and despite his not inconsiderable success out there at the top of the tree – the BBC, The Arts Council, the posher publishers of Wales – he never lost touch with the other way of carrying on.
In America they loved the sound of his voice. I was with him in upstate New York where he was fronting his poetry and music group Y Bechgyn Drwg. Dressed in Stetson, long black coat and cowboy boots he could have doubled for Johnny Cash. But it was the Richard Burton-like sonority of his voice that engaged his audience.
In the latter part of his life the haiku, that three line form, seemed to take the place of his longer verse work. He told me once, walking across Swansea Bay in early 2012, that he thought poetry had deserted him. I just haven’t written much lately, he confessed. Does that mean you are no longer a poet, I asked? Certainly not, was the immediate reply.
We’d worked on psychogeography together. His Real Swansea was a great success. He’d followed it with Real Swansea Two and before he died had virtually completed Real Gower. We’d wandered Mumbles together doing research for my Edging The Estuary. Nigel was keen to show me the ancient roadways of Swansea, Celtic walkways that went out into the sea, wooden paths built millennia ago, unearthed by archaeologists and still magnificently there – except in the incoming tide we never found them. We turning in circles. Nothing. That non-finding, as Nigel later pointed out, was in itself a perfect psychogeographic act.
It’ll be hard now not having Nigel out there on the other end of the phone and always ready to respond to emails. Like me he was a hater of Christmas and in the early days did almost everything he could to be in work away from it all while the festivities rumbled elsewhere. For many years we’d celebrate this fact by calling each other while the rest of the world was eating turkey. He’d known John Tripp well, had written the Writers of Wales volume about him. He was one of the few in Wales who’d followed the poetry wars of the 70s and was familiar with how verse was everywhere from Serbia to San Francisco. He also understood and valued the little magazine and the small press. He ran one himself, publishing unknowns and setting them against the prevailing mainstream tide. He knew who Wales’s champions were, the real ones. He possessed one of those Hemingway devices, a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. He knew who our chancers were. He tolerated them with ill-ease.
He valued our country and hated to see it maligned, misrepresented or misunderstood. He was patriot to the core.
Others better qualified than I can write about his place as a travel writer, peace protestor, editor, encyclopaedist, teacher, critic, essayist, prize-winner, associate professor, publisher, champion, linguist, administrator, walker, harmonica player, bon viveur, broadcaster and donkey jacket wearer. The jacket, that one with the embroidered shoulders. He must have worn it for forty years.
Nigel, we’ll miss you. We won’t be able to replace you. You’re an impossible act to follow.
He taught me stuff, did Nigel.
He taught me, in one of his sharp and sassy triads, that the brewery horse at Welsh Brewers must have diabetes, judging from the piss they served. He taught me that it is possible to love a place so much that it becomes you. And he showed me, effortlessly and in so, well, gentlemanly a manner, how to live in a spirit of selflessness and complete generosity. That generosity was seemingly embodied in that voice of his. If a pint of Guinness ever had a voice then it would be Nigel’s. Dark, velveteen, nourishing and deep. Resonant as ocean’s undertow.
We all remember such a giving man. Goodwill, support for others, excellent karma, the deepest kind of wisdom and a ready wit flowed from him. He gave in person, over a pint of (proper) beer or a glass of his beloved Rioja, in e-mails that seemed as carefully worked as old-fashioned letters, via his Stakhanovite work on ‘Cyclops’, the Encyclopaedia of Wales, and through his books, which were always gifts, they truly were.
And in so many ways he taught me how to write. I once took an MA class for him and asked him what he normally taught. He explained, with a touch of diffidence, that he normally used his own Gwalia in Khasia, but stressed that I could use any book I liked. I remember how pleased he was when I said that I’d teach Gwalia too, and do so without notes as I knew it so well. I doubt if I was ever his peer, but this sort of peer-respect was the best way I could underline my regard for his impeccably researched book. The fact that I’m currently writing a book called Gwalia Patagonia, modelled on, and inspired by Nigel’s Book-of-the-Year-winning account of the Welsh in the Khasi hills, serves only to underline his very real and abiding influence.
But let me be specific about those writing lessons. He taught me how to marshal material in the shape of lists, and his account of the business of naming names in India is a veritable master class. Read it and smile. He taught me how to hunt down the right word, too – the ensorcelling song of the curlew. He so often claimed the perfect, magical, soaring word. That’s why, in my opinion, he was the guv’nor.
In a Planet review of Nigel’s Footsore on the Frontier David Lloyd describes the essays therein as ‘the product of a generous spirit and a probing intelligence; open to experience, drawn to detail, careful of abstraction or pretension, inventive in establishing subtle or surprising connections among disparate subjects. It’s the product of a writer who wants his words to communicate.’
Yes, his words communicated but they also enraptured, enthralled and oft’ times delighted the reader beyond measure. The books aren’t just an expression of him, or a version of him, they are him: so, by reading them, with fresh delight, he will never really leave us.
Go well, teacher.
I knew Nigel Jenkins for little more than a year, but I’m certain that his positive impact on my life is going to last far longer than that. I joined Swansea University’s Creative Writing MA as a relative newcomer to poetry, but Nigel’s enthusiasm and encouragement rapidly transformed my initial curiosity into a true passion. During our tutorials he’d thrust piles of books into my hands, introducing me to a host of poets whose work soon informed my own. Among them was the Oklahoman, Louis Jenkins, who although they were not related, would affectionately refer to his Welsh poet-in-arms as ‘Cousin Nigel’. Others included the Japanese haiku masters Matsuo Bashō and Kobayashi Issa, as well as many Welsh or Wales-based writers beloved of Nigel, like Tony Conran, Ken Jones and Christine Evans.
To the new arrival, poetry can sometimes feel more like a haunted mansion than a land of joyful discovery. With its convoluted and cobwebbed corridors, its ranks of hallowed personages scowling down from high walls, not to mention all those bizarrely-named creatures – dactyls, spondees and anapaests – going bump in the night, the study of poetry can give the novice more cause for fright than delight. But with Nigel, although learning the craft was demanding – as it should be – it was also a highly enjoyable process. Even the fiendish complications of Welsh strict metre, which Nigel jokingly nicknamed ‘Welsh S&M’, were more a challenge to be relished than a punishment. The fact that I still get such a kick out of attempting to write cynghanedd and englynion in English today – though nobody is forcing, or even asking me politely to do so – is testament to the lasting influence of Nigel’s teaching.
On top of all this he was a lovely man: generous, down to earth, and gifted with a mischievous sense of humour. I consider myself hugely lucky to have known and learned from him. He will be deeply missed by all those whose lives he touched, including, I’m sure, many grateful Swansea University Creative Writing students past and present.
David E. Oprava
When Nigel Jenkins passed on Tuesday morning I sent a message to Jon Gower that simply said, ‘I feel it in the world and the weather.’ The rain, squalls, wind, and general turbulence of the atmosphere that morning left most of Wales feeling as if we were under the ocean – below a gale, perhaps on a Gower beach, at the edge of the surf where the storm waves crash. All of us were trapped in this churning as bands washed across our small bricks and bones. I had to teach all day, just as Nigel had taught me for a number of years, and as the hours went by I felt a little ashamed that I was not completely there for my students. I was not there for the rest of the world either. I was somewhere out in the sea of thoughts who has riptides and currents of its own. Colours turned into feelings and sounds into memories as the day ebbed and flowed around its own particular axis mundi – that day’s meaning, its soul. Hours later I came to the wine-laden conclusion that there was a palpable hole in this world and a glorious explosion into the next. I imagined all of his talent, grace, gentle kindness and ribald wit expanding beyond the speed of light, beyond the speed of life. And for the first time ever in my existence, I felt a little bit better about death. He now knows the answer to the question, ‘why?’ He is now infinite. Knowing this settled me in my cups, so close to sleep, and I did what Nigel had taught me. I wrote as clearly and simply as possible…
of a sort
now you know
what comes beyond
each twist of your soul
is gifted there
and makes me
Some will remember 2014 as the year we celebrated the birth of Dylan Thomas. But, for me the date will remind me that this was the year Nigel Jenkins died, a poet who did so much for Wales and for the literary world beyond its borders.
Poet, teacher, journalist, essayist, performer, campaigner, nationalist – his talents were many and inexhaustible. I first came to know him during the anti-apartheid period when the two of us would encourage our fellow poets in Wales to not allow the National Museum to use their work in an exhibition of photographs from South Africa. From that first meeting onwards we derived great pleasure from working together to further the cause of poetry. I translated his work into Welsh and he, in turn, translated my work into English.
He had the true instinct of a writer – a curiosity about the world – and a desire to change it for the better. In my opinion there isn’t another poet of his generation who so completely managed to both crystallize and encompass his love of Wales in his work. His presence on stage was nothing short of mesmerising and I well remember a reading tour of America where people were forever comparing him with Dylan as that deep voice spoke of conviction and found the profound. One of the students who came to study at Trinity said he thought that one of the old Celtic gods must surely have returned to be embodied within him. He enchanted his students and I was fortunate enough to share the job of Director of Creative Writing with him for seven years. A golden age of joint understanding, with trips to Tŷ Newydd as the annual highlight. He was the driver, tutor and careful organiser.
The thing that made him such a rounded and complete person was the depth of his experience. I can still see the faces of students as he talked about his time with the circus, sleeping with a snake in his caravan. I’m not sure that the snake turned into snakes by the end of the session. He was a journalist in England before he returned to Wales, burning with desire to see a confident Wales, full of pride in itself. Apart from the volumes of poetry he published, winning the Book of the Year for Gwalia in Khasia in 1996 was an important boost for him. He was a humble man, one who didn’t push himself centre stage and who was always supportive of others. That was shown, once again, when he was commissioned to create verses for the walls of a new building at Morriston Hospital. He shared the work with other poets. Once again we were in his shadow, the gentle giant of Gower.
It was a strange feeling to visit him at Tŷ Olwen Hospice on Monday afternoon, hours before his death. Even though one was aware that his earthly journey was about to end, it was difficult not to see him at the helm, leading others safely to their journey’s end.
There are so many memories of Nigel I now hold dear: sampling the many ales together in The Park and The Pilot, old pubs of distinction in Mumbles, where I might regale him with tall tales of seafaring - far out there, swinging south below Bora Bora, and maybe the Horn – while he would sit quietly with his wry smile and twinkle of eye. He always listened and encouraged. In the midst of a jest, he would gently remind me of the need to publish my own selected poems and add, ‘And what about your memoir, Bryn?’
Then there were the nights when we dined, following a few ales, with our friend, Spencer, at Oystermouth’s Indian restaurant, where we talked of Swansea and Gower, old and new; a subject always close to our hearts. Sometimes at Ty Llen with Margot we’d attend readings by poets known and unknown, some talented and some not, but many of whom had been helped and encouraged by Nigel. He did not seek the company of the famous.
There was once a day when the sun shone on Swansea, and at that time Nigel was researching his first Real Swansea volume. He’d asked me to contribute something about Swansea’s East Side, and thus we set out that sunny morning, walking and conversing throughout the day, while making our way through the haunts and playgrounds of my childhood – Foxhole Road, St Thomas, the docklands, and across the now-buried slag heaps of White Rock copper works.The evening found us at a shiny new bar, in a glossy new building, adjacent to the old Prince of Wales Dock. The ale was fine, we agreed, but the architecture was crap.
It was a memorable day.
There was always a quiet grandeur about Nigel in the way he combined gravitas, kindness and wisdom within a strong frame, coupled with his abiding humour. He was of Arthurian stature in South-West Wales (although no admirer of any contemporary Camelot), and an intrinsic part of this Welsh community… now and for time to come.
I will miss him through all the days that remain to me.