John Summers

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The Raging Summer

Extract from Chapter 3 – Tai Bach

...And this place had even produced one major poet as well – Idris Davies. But he had had to work himself out of the pits that left him with the blue coal-scars across his knuckles. The job of earning a living had sapped the energy out of him and he’d only produced a few slim but well-wrought poems. Some that will last.

Idris Davies the collier-poet walked always, and in the wintriest weather and in the wildest wind, straight up the middle of Rumni High Street every night to look up at the sky, and always with his raincoat folded over his arm as he powerfully strode; he never wore it, cold fresh air under the open sky was time too precious to be kept from a collier hidden in an overcoat.

Idris Davies, one of those turned teacher for us in the valley. In a brief while and just before his very early death, I came to know him quite well, walking the Rumni streets with him at night, Idris’s blocky little miner’s face sternly, jaw-jutting, forward as he breasted into the wind. The cold night blowing in our open mouths and faces would be like drinking draughts of icy well-water, but we liked it because we were mountain people up here and used to it. While over our heads those great streams of stars ran down the Welsh skies and I was walking, keeping time to his collier-boots’ stride on the roadway. The conversation from him was something you hardly expected from a man with the blue coal-scars marking his face and his capable mandrel pick-swinging knuckles.

‘Aye, aye; well, Dylan he just been round the corner in Leicester Square, gone in to see this picture with Joan Crawford, Woman Without a Face or sumthin’, but when he come back in the pub, mun, he just put his head ‘tween his two hands on the pub table and bust out cryin’ like that, I dunno. Sumthin’ he’d seen about that picture like, see; and it supposed to be just a ordinary little thriller that picture, but he’d seen sumthin’ else about it, like, see, that went like right through him, there for you. Edwin Muir, I was talkin’ to him other day and he’s havin’ this new book of poems now coming out. T. S. Eliot’s saying to me: “You want to have a go at a novel now, Idris.” I dunno if I could do a novel, I’d like to. Call that “The Angry Summer” too, like my book of poems. Novel all about Rumni.’

The poems he wrote scanned with that vital hard precision – poems of dark Rumni streets and our miners’ riots, or about Tiger Bay down in Cardiff – in a way to make you imagine him writing them with a piece of coal underground, scratching them roughly across a stub of Woodbine packet. They had that kind of crisp veracity, with no guile or what we called up here in Rumni ‘side’, but hard and direct they broke through to you like these staring penetrating glances he gave you from behind the thick-lensed glasses he wore from the effect of nystagmus, the colliers’ eye-disease got from working all his days down in the dark.

In his last illness and not long before he died, when he was already very ill, his last words to me were, ‘I dunno if I’m going to have chance to be writing that novel now, I’m sure. If I don’t, you’ll have to do it for me instead. All about us up here on top of the mountain here in Rumni.’

In the last few days of the final illness that killed him, he was robbed of the sleep he so badly needed by the never stopping, shuddering blast and brassy blown horns of the jangling fairground, from the wasteground behind where he lived with his widowed mother. But he had his revenge … from beyond the grave. Twenty years after, when one of the last poems he’d set down was set itself to music by Pete Seeger and sung by Bob Dylan. Now they blare out the words of Idris Davies from loudspeakers over fairgrounds and dancehalls, from jukeboxes the length and breadth of Britain and America, across the whole world: ‘The Sad Bells of Rumni’.

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