Caught by the River

Edward Thomas & Wales

John Andrews | 1st March 2019

Bringing together for the first time the prose and poetry centred in Edward Thomas’s ancestral land, ‘Edward Thomas & Wales’, edited by Jeff Towns, was published by Parthian Books at the end of last year. John Andrews reviews. 

Edward Thomas, from Jeff Towns’ personal collection of photographs

Another winter in London, my thirty-third and a third. As I have always done since I first arrived in 1985 I carry a small paperback book around in my coat pocket and read it in snatches on the top deck of the bus or in the back room of pubs. It is my street book, my alternative A-Z. My first was The Goshawk, my second was Love on the Dole, there have been many in between. My thirty third is Edward Thomas & Wales, edited by Jeff Towns and published by Parthian – an anthology of Thomas’ prose and poetry on and about his ancestral land and a collection of rarities, oddities, tales and observations. As ever my street book is a safety net, my seasonal touchstone of sanity in a city whose centre stinks of damp and cold, of stale thrown away food, a cloying sulphurous mix of wet cardboard, spent diesel and decay. I no longer go down the ramp or venture into the warren under the Brunswick to hand out roll-ups to Scotch Mary at the bandstand on Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The house by The Constitution on St. Pancras Way has long been knocked down. Rain spits, the clouds glow, behind the ‘Circus the temperature is neither here nor there. I sweat one minute and shiver the next. Winter fever has come again. Nothing changes, everything changes. A new century nearly a fifth of the way through. I used to know my way around these streets. ‘As I entered the village I began to lose my way’.

With a 6B pencil, the only one I ever use for reviews, I scribble on the title pages, and furiously underline certain phrases or sentences. God I love this book as much as I love Jeff Towns and his work – he is the dealer’s dealer, an evangelist of a book vicar in a shooting brake, a dead ringer for Gerry Francis in his White City pomp, a soul geezer-cum-star gazer, a man worth seeking out be it in theatre round, festival tent or at Laugharne in Spring. There is no better qualified person to write about Edward Thomas and to re-evaluate Thomas’ ‘Welshness’.  My review is a winter’s work, a razor blade paused over the skin of the old year, a holy wait, not a word count. Compiled of untold walks at dusk in the hope of hearing a church bell chime, oh, take me down to St. James’ on Piccadilly and let me shelter where the doorway of Bernard & Son Fishing Tackle Maker once stood. I will read again in The Red Lion, drinking a half of Gales and when my glass is empty fold the page over and leave. The streets are now black with rain stark against the pale yellow glow emitting from shops soon to fail and in the narrow passages between I can envisage the words of Edward Thomas spelt out in neon where the Christmas lights used to be, ‘Salmon big enough to make legends were taken from under the bridge at night their heads, as likely as not, impaled upon the railings before the policeman’s house’.  I walk on and pause by the old Welsh Church in Fitzrovia, a building that retains its age like the definite meter of an old chapel hymn. Suddenly a voice butts in, ‘This frying pan has fried forty pigs…her only other English words were ‘Beautiful’ and ‘Excursion Train’.’ How many times did Edward Thomas fall in love with women whose only words were ‘beautiful’ and ‘excursion train’? Over and over again just as you or I would, until ‘He himself sang back such words as, without knowing their meaning, he remembered, his brain full of the mists, the mountains, the rivers, the fire in the fern, the castles, the knights, the king and the queens. The mountain boys at cricket, the old man with the foxes’. Oh yes, the old man with the foxes. We all know him, that centaur of midwinter, that peripheral figure, you can encounter him any day on the Heath on the path between the ponds, his eyes rheumy, the tongue of his shoe hanging off in the mud, his trousers torn at the knee, his sleeves rolled up in minus three, ‘Outside one cottage there stood a little old man, naked to the waist, washing himself and talking to three foxes chained up to a shed. The foxes seemed to understand his tongue and he theirs’.

Onwards, into the arms of the city at night. This  fortress of memories, each decade a rampart, each year a palisade, a canal’s length lonely walk from the place where Edward Thomas was born,

A little square sitting room, not very high, and hardly wider than it was high, yellow-lit by a brass lamp in the centre, and shutting out the visible world by three walls of a pleasant dull gold and indistinguishable pattern, and by three narrow curtains of a ruddiness that was dreamily heavy and sombre. On the walls, five pictures at the same height above the tops of the dark chairs, the mantelpiece and the sideboard; and on one, three shelves of books. A very still, silent room; and in it, motionless as in amber, a man standing before the books, and a woman with raised eyebrows and stiff but unquiet hands, dove -tailed together, staring into the black-crusted fire. The man, chin on one hand, elbow on the other, tall and upright and dark like a pinnacle of black rock, looking sternly out of kind eyes at the books as at children. The woman, trying to drowse herself through her eyes by the fire and through every pore of her body by the silentness, yet aware all the time of the husband between her and the windows, as though his shadow blackened her instead of half the books. These two, separate and careful not to look at one another. Had they been utterly alone they would hardly have looked thus. There were not alone. In the stillness and silence, despite the walls and the curtains, there was another presence, and a greater than they. It was London, a presence mighty as winter, though as invisible.

Eventually I lose count of the number of walks, I lose my place among so many folds, sense flees in the presence of too many pencil marks, the Mountain Boys become ‘Mountain People’. ‘Are you going to see Gruff at The Roundhouse, tonight?’, my neighbour Adrian asks me one evening on the stairs. Book in pocket, having returned from another walk I hesitate. I remember being in The Roundhouse one night in the Eighties, after it was boarded up, the roof open to the sky, rough sleepers on the floor. London then was full of empty spaces, of hidey-holes behind corrugated iron, of doors in the wall. I think about the book I had in my pocket that night, ‘No, I had forgotten, truth be told. I should, I suppose, just down the road. Are you going?’

“No, we went to see him in Folkestone’.

Folkestone, another door in the wall beyond which is the last Super Furries gig I ever went to see in 1999 before Creation went bust. With Roger and Deborah, dinner first in an old Italian on the sea front, a Sunday night, us the only diners. Food not cooked in a forty pig frying pan but warmed up in a stuttering microwave. Two waiters past seventy, in starched white standing to attention on a damp carpet. Waiting for someone called Sinatra. Two pound wine in scratched glasses. Faded photos of boxers on the wall.  That was the road, always leading to an empty seaside town. How I yearned for something else, something different to that routine, ‘He longed to have an inn with a white wall facing the sun, and many dogs to take the sun upon the pavement in the front’. But nearly twenty years on even though I have my inn and a white wall facing the sun, winter still takes me prisoner, mugging me blind in the dead end that exists between 26th January and 9th February, that inevitable valley of nightmares and flashbacks. At least I have my coat and my books. Much as Edward Thomas did, ‘Next morning she took me by a long way round to the station. I remember I was wearing a coat which I had had made for me five years before with three pockets in it especially to hold copies of the poems of Shelley, of Sophocles, of Catullus, even then I bulged with the books, but carried them out of superstition, not for use’. Do you have a coat like this with pockets sewn into it to get you through the winter?  If you don’t you should visit the tailor. And ask him to make a fourth pocket, to stitch it with gold thread, a pocket for the old man with the foxes, a pocket for the mountain boys at cricket, a pocket for the dealer’s dealer, a pocket for the brilliant Ceri Murphy so he can read these words aloud, give the voices life, and a pocket for the letters of Major Franklin Lushington, who commanded 244 Siege Battery in which Edward Thomas served and died at Arras,

We were having breakfast when the signaller at the O.P. telephoned that Edward was dead, killed by a chance shell a moment before the barrage fell. Soon after it was reported that we had taken all our objectives. At midday we ceased fire. The enemy was out of range.  It began to snow. Outside the quarry, on the track leading up towards the front of the cavalry were moving up, little men on hairy unclipped horses, muddied to the hocks; coming towards them under the falling snow were the stretcher bearers carrying Edward’s body, trudging unsteadily down the rough track.

Oh, yes, tell the tailor to stitch the pocket with care and to make it just the right size for an essential volume called Edward Thomas & Wales.


Jeff Towns will be giving a talk on Edward Thomas in Laugharne at this year’s Laugharne Weekend, 5-7 April. His BookBus will also be found onsite.