Jo Mazelis reviews Black Apples of Gower by Iain Sinclair which explores the identity of Wales from his early childhood memories.
Little Toller Books, £15
People who swear, it is said, are just exposing their limited vocabulary, but does a book with pictures reveal the same symptom? Lewis Carroll’s Alice, exposing her seeming immaturity asks, ‘What is the use of a book … without pictures?’ This book, as it happens is very much to Alice’s taste. Not that it might be described as ‘lavishly illustrated’ rather is quietly, modestly, sporadically seeded with pictures – as is entirely fitting for a book about place, imagination and the images that spring from these. The place Iain Sinclair writes about is the Gower, a peninsular of land that rubs its neck against the once industrial city of Swansea.
Margaret Atwood in her book Strange Things says that the Welsh ‘have for years been trying to agree on criteria for Welshness.’ It is very clear from Black Apples of Gower that Sinclair struggles with this issue of a Welsh identity. He was born in Wales but educated at boarding school in England. In this exquisite little book Sinclair undertakes an exploration of memory and place and identity. From an early age his experience of Wales and thus his Welsh identity was reclaimed and explored during the long summer holidays when year after year his family camped out in a caravan at Horton, took walks along the sands at Port Eynon, strolled along cliffs, explored caves and swam in the sea.
None of Sinclair’s books are straightforward – all are complex knots of place and language. Sinclair sees a place – often London, where he has lived for many years – his mind absorbs it and mixes it with other knowledge: history, myth, art, poetry, geology, archaeology.
Like W.G. Sebald, and also Peter Finch, in this book Sinclair writes what is called psychogeography. By curious coincidence my own published excursion into this realm of mapping memory, identity, place and history went straight to the same jugular as Sinclair’s – Rhossili and Paviland Cave with its achingly ancient burial. As soon as I saw this correspondence I was astonished by the coincidence and relieved (as any writer worth their salt should be) to see that Sinclair’s book had been published later than my article. Otherwise, I thought, it might have been thought that I was just copying Sinclair – the assumption strengthened by the fact that he is a man, is older, has many books under his belt, has even been on the telly.
There again, there is the zeitgeist to consider with its free floating information and associations, its nesting eggs that unlock the same ideas, the same influences and thus arrive at similar conclusions. Sinclair had walked the same paths in childhood as me so it shouldn’t be surprising that we reached the same destination.
Or was there something darker, more sinister calling; that red-boned ancestor awoken from his long sleep like King Arthur? Mistaken at first for the remains of a woman, the sketeton was uninterred, examined, displayed and like Sinclair himself, taken out of Wales.
A flick through the pages of Black Apples of Gower reveals a variety photographs and reproductions that seem to have no relationship to one another; here is a highly saturated colour photograph of the Big Apple in the Mumbles, an ice cream and bucket and spade kiosk that, as Sinclair says was, ‘dropped from the sky in the 1930s and has been a landmark ever since’, then there is a grainy black and white image of the Mari Lwyd – the festooned and beribboned horse’s skull paraded on New Year’s Eve. There are, predictably, snapshots and editorial portraits of Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins. Paintings and prints by Ceri Richards and William Blake. It is the text that links them obviously, or rather the mind of the man who wrote the text. That seems a tautological claim – is not any text the disgorging of a particular mind? Yes, but here the subjectivity is brought to the fore and Sinclair, like Sebald, exposes his private wandering and wondering. Decade after decade of higher education has forced men’s minds (and yes, I do predominantly mean men’s minds) into narrower and narrower fields of specialisation. The Georgian and Victorian periods produced polymaths who were hungry to know and discover everything. Sinclair with his broad knowledge and I suspect, habit of lateral thinking, is not unlike those men of the Enlightenment; Josiah Wedgewood and Joseph Wright, not forgetting the man called to Paviland Cave in 1823 to inspect those tantalising red bones, William Buckland. The last of whom Sinclair describes in his hypnotic prose as ‘a zealous devourer of the animal kingdom. A safari-park glutton. He munched his way through the specimen catalogue from panther to rat, puckering his lip a little over mole and bluebottle fly.’
Sinclair’s feelings in 2014 during a trip to the Gower to research this book are ‘obedient to the genre of the Celtic return; the crumpled boyo skulking back to the shop-soiled plot of innocence.’ Like so much of this book what Sinclair expresses is both familiar and alien, it evokes Dylan Thomas and his Return Journey, and the Prodigal Son and many other writers’ emigration from their place of birth and heritage. The Celtic persona must escape, as in a fairy story, to make something of themselves through work or education before return and a reunion with their true identity. Yet the ‘boyo’ is crumpled, he ‘skulks’ and the place he finds is a ‘shop-soiled plot of innocence’. Here the use of the word ‘plot’ is interesting. Does Sinclair mean plot as in a particular parcel of land or plot as in a scripted narrative? Probably both and it neatly illuminates some of the key problems of identity and nation and nationalism, as much as that of the tabula rasa of innocence.
And what of Sinclair’s innocence – if indeed innocence if where his Welsh identity dwells? No wonder the ‘boyo’ is skulking if, as he says referring to an earlier book set in Wales, there was ‘justified criticism … in Wales, for trying to re-establish a tentative connection with my homeland … I had … walked away from a bankable heritage.’
The Eden Sinclair returns to is fruited with apples; there are the toffee apples of Porthcawl’s Coney Beach which were ‘some perverse Disney-fication of the Brothers Grimm’ and Ceri Richard’s eponymous Black Apples and Dylan Thomas’s dappled apple orchards. There is also, as is fitting for any Eden, at least one snake, ‘a black adder’ seen on his trip in 2014, which left him and his wife ‘arguing over its provenance. And symbolic meaning.’
Sinclair is clearly a poet; he delights in words, in their deviousness, in their pure beauty, in their associative meanings. He does not, will not speak with the pared down simplicity of Wordsworth or Hemingway. An example of this is the recollection of teenage trip to Gower with friends. The name ‘Culver Hole’ is overheard and ‘the repetition of those words, the meaningless, meaningful, mucky, spooky sound of it, is the looped undertow of our hard scramble around the limestone head.’ He might have said ‘when we heard about a cave we decided to go there’ and yet how mundane and trifling that sounds when stripped down to the bone. Sinclair’s style will not be to everyone’s taste; his vast palette of references, his vocabulary, and his ornamentation may be overwhelming, yet it is also, when set alongside Dylan Thomas very Welsh. Why say something simply when you can let language, words, metaphors, images swirl and spill from your head like the snakes writhing from Medusa’s? This can be a little addictive, a wee bit contagious, it seems to be seeping into me as I write this review. Or perhaps his writing is like a flint striking a stone that causes the tinder to catch fire… and fires if allowed to spread are dangerous and need quenching.
So back to the cave. Back to bones and stones. Another of his friends on that teenage trip was, like Sinclair at boarding school in England. This is ‘the well-meant exile of caste privilege’ and part of that privilege was longer summer holidays hence the trip to the Gower and an expedition to that cave, or rather a cave. Getting there involved a scrabble over rocks, most people would call these sharp, but for Sinclair these are ‘hurdles of meat-cutting rock.’ This isn’t hyperbole, rather it is vivid, surprising, acute; reminding the reader that he and they are meat. Or that you become meat when you are cut and bleed.
Where there is meat there is also flesh and flesh is desire. Is girls. And in Sinclair’s adolescent Eden, three girls appear each seemingly sprung from one of the boy’s ribs. So endeth that chapter and onto something different; his meeting with Vernon Watkins.
Vernon Watkins, Sinclair reminds the reader worked in a bank in Swansea – indeed the bank, now a bookies bears a blue plaque commemorating this fact. Joe’s, where Sinclair was meant to meet Watkins in 1961 is still there a minute’s walk away on St. Helen’s Road. Joe’s is still an ice cream parlour, though Sinclair mistakenly accuses it of being ‘a native attempt at a coffee bar’. On the evidence of those words anyone from Swansea would immediately recognise Sinclair as a stranger. They might say to him, ‘Ewe noh frum rown ere, r ewe, mush?’ Even the ‘native’ part of the comment is incorrect; Joe was Joe Cascarini one of many Italian immigrants to South Wales who set up ice-cream, coffee and chip shops.
But then we are all strangers in a strange land. Identity resides first in our heads, then radiates out and further out, beyond the here and now. Being Welsh is a complicated business, possibly more so if your mother tongue is English and if you chose to pursue the ‘craft or sullen art’ of writing.
Sinclair ended up visiting Watkins at his home on the Gower. The poet received the teenage schoolboy while ill and propped up in bed. Sinclair told him he hoped to go to Dublin and he, Vernon, ‘recalled his visit to Yeats’. That struck me as remarkable; the poet manqué going to see Watkins to learn about Dylan Thomas and discovering Watkins’ own pilgrimage to meet Yeats.
This is a wonderful book that is almost impossible to sum up; neither a guide book, nor a history, nor an autobiography or a work of art criticism – it is all of those and more. It is difficult when dealing with subject matter that is so familiar, and which is capable of setting off neurons of deep memory, to judge whether it is the writing itself which is creating the emotional charge or the personal recollections it provokes. Perhaps in the end it’s a combination of both.