Wednesday, 21 November 2018 13:45

From Aberfan t Grenfell

Written by
in Poetry
From Aberfan t Grenfell
by Gareth Perry

Jonathan Edwards presents the title poem from the new collection by Mike Jenkins, illustrated with images by Alan Perry, and introduces the collection.

From Aberfan t Grenfell

by Mike Jenkins

When I seen tha fire
blazin through-a flats
like they woz wax,
I thought o Pantglas
children an teachers,
graves of rubble an sludge.

When I seen ow
the Tories didn wanna know,
I thought o Lord Robens
an George Bloody Thomas,
of ower Council oo’d bin tol
of the tip movin long ago.

When I seen them people
come from all over
with clothes an food,
I thought of rescuers
from all over-a Valleys,
come t search
f life in-a ruins.

When I seen tha block,
a ewge charred remains
a dark memorial t the pooer
kept there like battree ens,
I thought of-a tip come down:
ow ev’ry sum an song
never knew an answer or endin.


Put this book down now, and go to Newport, and you’ll find, bang in the heart of the city centre, some interesting folk. They gather in Friars Walk, the mega-corporate shopping centre which dropped out of the sky into John Frost Square a couple of years ago, a partially successful attempt to turn us into EveryCity and introduce al fresco dining and service charges where there had only been chewing gum spatters and shuttered shops. They sit on the benches outside Vacara, the legendary chippy, all day, like supersub footballers waiting and waiting for the manager to just give them their chance. All ages, both genders, they’ll ask you politely for money as you go past, and at five o’clock most days they’ll pool what they’ve got, pass it over the chippy counter for what it will buy, and sit back on their bench, sharing their plunder. One guy sits all day in the doorway of what was once Giles Sports, reading a cracked paperback from the charity shop across the road, his spot marked by cardboard and tattered groundsheet the way a holiday-maker might reserve his sunbed with a towel. Days, routines, lives are forged, progressing as surely as the making of this very square, from the Mayor’s first symbolic strike of the spade into ground to the no-expenses-spared ticker-taped and PA’d opening extravaganza.

I mention all this because I can and because, it seems to me, no books of poetry do. Dickens would have written about the sort of experience that those who subsist on the margins of Friars Walk endure, as would writers like Alan Sillitoe and David Storey but, when trying to pin down contemporary British poets who address this sort of experience, one might struggle. Poetry is often a process of upper middle class, conventionally educated people talking to other upper middle class, conventionally educated people and telling them that they’re lovely. If one really accepts that literature matters because there is nothing else anywhere near as good for recording, elevating and even redeeming human experience, for showing empathy for others, for expressing, whatever else is expressed, that all human beings matter, then those people out in the weather at Friars Walk, or in every other city in the UK, register the hole in the heart of literature, its central lie.

28 idden smog resized2

Thank God, then, for a writer like Mike Jenkins. In the fabulous poems of From Aberfan t Grenfell, he records and understands a range of lives which so much contemporary poetry turns away from. Among the many wonderful poems in this collection, I would urge you to turn immediately to ‘Idden smog.’ This brilliant monologue manages to pin down an experience that people have across the Valleys and, indeed, across the UK, as a young man who feels trapped by the lack of opportunities in a small town dreams of getting out, describing his experience, in a brilliant image, as ‘an idden smog inside me.’ Similarly, ‘Ow far down’ movingly records the experiences of someone with depression, his journey through unemployment, the benefits system and homelessness.

steak locks down icelan

But let’s be clear on one thing. As always with Mike Jenkins, these are highly entertaining poems, and the important political and human messages are balanced with great humour. From the security locks put on steaks in Iceland to the stink of people on the local bus, from the implications of getting a drone for Christmas to a man outside a pub who slurs ‘Merthyr is Vietnam,’ the poems glow with Valleys humour. Valleys towns are places of carnival and community, and From Aberfan t Grenfell gives us a whole host of local characters, from Steve the Bus, the old man who passes days riding to Swansea, Cardiff, Newtown on his bus pass, through the local ‘Spice’Eads,’ who fill the streets and news in Wales at the moment, to the man who has a season ticket for Cardiff City ‘but never sees is children.’ If I look out through the window or go for a walk outside, I will see lots of people just like those Mike Jenkins describes, but rarely do you see these lives in the pages of poetry books, or described with the empathy, understanding and love that Mike Jenkins describes them with here.

steve the bus resized

And these poems, of course, are only half the story of this book. If Mike Jenkins loves the people in his poems, what is clear from his extraordinary illustrations is that Alan Perry loves these poems. So full of personality and detail, living such bright lives in their black-and-white, these images, which spill across the page, which will not be contained, are an extraordinary hymn to the lives in these poems, the poems in these lives. It is difficult to think of another poetry book where every single page is such a visual masterpiece. The readers I have shown these pages to have Ah’d and Oo’d at the sight of each new page, and this is before they even get to the words. A gifted poet himself, Alan understands these poems and these lives deeply and has re-imagined them visually. Every image crackles with visual jokes and personality, gifting us the world on the page.

carn catch a criminals resized 2 resized

Back in the real world, meanwhile, back in Friars Walk, a woman is joining the back of the queue in Vacara and a man is flipping to the final page of a novel and wondering if they’ll let him swap it for another when he takes it back to the charity shop. It’s too fanciful to think that a book like From Aberfan t Grenfell can change these lives, that next time I see that man he’ll be flipping through the pages of this book, or that it might inspire him to have a go at his own. But alongside their joy, their celebration, their humour, these poems offer us an important message – that all life matters. By documenting and recording these experiences, by living and loving them, this book can help to change minds. It’s extraordinary what words can do. As I write this now, for example, sitting in the window of a middle-class coffee shop in Friars Walk, a woman approaches the man in the doorway, holding out a coin in her hand. He looks astonished but, more than the coin, she hangs around for a moment to talk to him. A few words. In a moment the woman is off, away up Charles Street in the evening sun, but it’s enough. The man leaps to his feet, looks around the square, gathers himself, and – one foot in front of the other – he’s on his way again.

From Aberfan t Grenfell, great poems by Mike Jenkins with wonderful images by Alan Perry, is available here.

Read 3189 times Last modified on Thursday, 14 February 2019 18:38
Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards's first collection, My Family and Other Superheroes (Seren, 2014) received the Costa Poetry Award and the Wales Book of the Year People's Choice Award.

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