Today I drown in my sleep
Here in exile
While strangers build thrones on my father’s grave
Two military graves lying only feet apart in a Belgian cemetery commemorate the lives of two iconic literary figures: the greatest Welsh and the greatest Irish poets of the Great War.
They died on the same day (102 years ago today) in the same battle, but the paths that led them into British Army uniform could not have been more different.
Elis Humphrey Evans – “Hedd Wyn” – was born into a farming family in Trawsfynydd. The war had torn open a split in Welsh non-conformism, causing a major clash between those who opposed and those who supported the conflict.
His poetry, which was inspired by the Romantic work of Shelley, quickly began to tackle the subject of the war. He wrote his war poetry before he enlisted.
Hedd Wyn was a Christian pacifist, but he joined the British Army so that his younger brother would not have to fight.
Francis Ledwidge is known in Ireland as the “poet of the blackbirds”. Born into a poverty-stricken family, he became a political activist and union leader while still a teenager. His poetry earned him the patronage of Lord Dunsany, who introduced him to WB Yeats.
A keen patriot and nationalist, he joined the Irish Volunteers, a pro-Home Rule force. On the outbreak of war the Irish Volunteers became split between those who supported the British cause and those who did not.
Ledwidge initially opposed the war but changed his mind, believing that if Britain won the war Ireland would get its Home Rule. He said he could not stand by while others fought for Irish freedom.
The stories of these two men’s “paths to glory” and violent death are set against the backdrop of the history of the Edwardian and First World War Wales and Ireland: the 1904-05 religious revival, the power of the Chapel to oppose and support war, Irish Catholicism and Nationalism, the Easter Rising and the promotion of the war as a Christian fight against paganism.
In Wales, whilst poet T Gwynn Jones and Socialist preacher TE Nicholas were campaigning against the war, the chapels with the help of ministers like John Williams, Brynsiecyn, ensured the youth of Wales enlisted in their thousands.
In Ireland, Nationalism developed into a failed revolution. But Ledwidge now considered himself a soldier and wondered in his poetry if he would have a soldier’s death.
On July 31, 1917, on the opening day of the Third Battle of Ypres, a shell landed in the trench where Ledwidge was drinking tea. His chaplain recorded: “Ledwidge killed, blown to bits”.
Nearby, as Hedd Wyn – who had only recently arrived at the front – advanced with his comrades on Pilckem Ridge, the Welshman was struck down. He died soon after at a first-aid post.
The Birkenhead National Eisteddfod of 1917 became known as “Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu” (Eisteddfod of the Black Chair) in recognition of Hedd Wyn’s being posthumously awarded the Chair for his long poem, Yr Arwr. He is regarded as the iconic Welsh poet of the First World War.
In Ireland, the thousands who had died for the British Army – people like Francis Ledwidge – were forgotten. It was said by leaders of the new Republic of Ireland that although their sacrifice was great but they “did not die for this State”.
*First published at https://jonkilkade.com/
A big shout-out to photographer Susy Fernandes who is following the production of our short film This Is Not A Poem.
I’ve worked on dozens of productions but have never had someone taking photos during the process.
Being behind the camera one feels quite anonymous. Susy’s photos are putting the camera operator Paul Roberts and myself under her own kind of spotlight.
We chose Susy because she can immediately connect with our subjects of internationalism, understanding and tolerance.
She was born in Mozambique in 1974 in the year of The Carnation Revolution (Revolucao dos Cravos), to Portuguese parents.
To escape the riots her parents moved the family to South Africa. She lived there until she was 12 and then the family moved back to Portugal.
In 2005, she and her own young family left Portugal and went to England to work. They later moved to Wales.
In Wales, she decided to continue her studies at Cardiff and Vale College and joined a BTEC course in Fashion and Clothing. She is now studying a Foundation Degree in Photography with the USW at CAVC.
She says: “I believe that we are never too old to study and to dream. I’m doing all this so that my four boys can see me as a role model who, despite suffering from a chronic condition (Fibromyalgia), still has hope for a better future.”
We have engaged Susy to document our filming days.
The only thing we haven’t managed to do yet is get a photo of Susy herself!
Les Spence was a remarkable man who kept an astonishing journal.
For almost four years he risked his life to keep a daily record of hardship, courage and endurance in prison camps run by the Japanese.
He and his fellow prisoners faced starvation, disease and cruelty. They kept up their spirits by playing sport, listening to an illicit radio and by trying to create their own civilised society behind barbed wire.
Throughout the suffering in Java, a perilous journey in the hold of an infamous hellship and the horrors of a forced labour camp in Japan, Les Spence kept writing.
He spent much of his time in a coal mining camp near Nagasaki. There, he was able to record one of the most momentous events in history: the dropping of the plutonium bomb on the city.
We had uneventful train journey to Nagasaki and then we saw the result of the atomic bomb. It was simply astounding, nothing left standing for miles, everything flat and burnt out.
Covering the period from January 1942 to November 1945, the diaries have been annotated to create a record of the Allied forces who many feel were sacrificed on Java.
Les Spence’s work is a first-hand account of how to hold onto hope when all seems lost.
WHAT READERS ARE SAYING:
“Moving and magnificent in its reportage, this is a war story with a difference. The very gut-wrenching rawness of Les Spence’s diary is a reminder of an area of World War Two almost forgotten: the battle for Java and the sacrifice that followed. This is one of those books that once you start you can’t forget it. These secret diaries have been lovingly edited to provide a firsthand account of the rigours of being a prisoner of a cruel enemy is superbly evoked.”
Gordon Thomas, author of ‘Voyage of the Damned’, ‘Inside British Intelligence’ and ‘Gideon’s Spies’
“A remarkable testament to courage and endurance in the face of hardship and cruelty – and a firsthand account of how to hold on to hope when all seems lost.”
“A remarkable wartime document.”
South Wales Echo
“These remarkable diaries cover the period from January 1942 to November 1945, and are a testament to one POW’s moving story.”
Britain at War magazine, September 2012
From Amazon: “My grandfather was in the same camp as Les Spence (Camp 8B @ Inatsuki). He told me stories about his time in camp, but [this] book has provided additional insight into the fear, hope, and dreams of these prisoners. Its value lies in the fact that it is a first hand account (actual diary that was retained by Les Spence throughout his imprisonment) of the day-by-day blows experienced by this POW.”
Lovely review in the Daily Telegraph for ‘Beti and David: Lost for Words’. The response to the programme has been overwhelming for all involved.
Beti George let the cameras into her home to show people what it is like caring for a partner with dementia. She always intended her story to represent the thousands of carers across the UK who are looking after a loved-one.
Beti told a BBC event today: “People think I’ve been brave but this is the reality. We have to show what’s going on behind closed doors, as honestly as we can.”
The film was first shown on BBC Wales, and was shown in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland last night. It will be on the BBC I-Player for the next 30 days.
Jasper Rees in the Daily Telegraph:
Eighteen years ago, the filmmaker Paul Watson made a ground-breaking documentary about Alzheimer’s called Malcolm and Barbara: A Love Story. It portrayed a wife caring for a husband as he gradually disappeared into the disease’s personality-erasing maw. Ten years ago, Watson went back to film Malcolm’s last days and, controversially, his death. Alas, as seen in Beti and David: Lost for Words (BBC One), the story has not moved on.
For anyone who knows their Welsh rugby, David Parry-Jones was a familiar camel-coated figure whose voice described Llanelli’s famous win over the All Blacks in 1972. His wife Beti George, who hosts a weekly show on Radio Cymru, is a bastion of Welsh-language broadcasting.
David was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2009 and ever since has been losing those faculties which made him a consummate communicator. One of the first signs was his reluctance to check over documents Beti composed in English, her second language. Now he emits percussive hoots while the words get blocked in his mouth. Putting him to bed can take three hours. The demoralising business of cleaning up after him never stops. Beti doesn’t want to put him in a home, but worries about the lack of joined-up support for those with Alzheimer’s.
Beti and David: Lost for Words was shown on BBC One Wales last month, and nominally addresses the lack of available support in Wales. But it has a wider application as a moving portrait of love, loss and kindness.
Beti travelled to Scotland, where developments in care are more advanced, to try out a simulation kit which mimics the inhibiting impact of Alzheimer’s on balance, vision and manual dexterity. She returned home better informed and, although this seems impossible, even more patient and understanding.
As the nation ages, there will only be more of this. The more people that watch this profound film on the iPlayer the better. Beautifully filmed by director Will Davies, it illustrated the consoling Larkinesque idea embodied in David’s enduring kisses and cheerful smiles: when everything else has evanesced, all that remains of us is love.
There has been an incredible reaction to ‘Beti and David: Lost for Words’, an hour-long film broadcast this week on BBC One Wales (and still available on the BBC iPlayer).
Filmed over the course of many months, the film is a record of two people facing a terrible illness together. Since David’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, his long-time partner Beti has become his carer.
The reaction on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere showed that the couple’s story struck an emotional chord with many.
David Parry-Jones was once one of the best-known faces in Wales – a news broadcaster and the voice of Welsh rugby during its glory days in the 1970s.
Beti George is still a broadcaster. Now she juggles her working life with looking after David and with campaigning for a better life for carers.
Through Beti’s experience the film reveals the challenges and frustrations faced by tens of thousands of carers across the UK, and questions the way society supports dementia carers.
Beti’s message is clear. ‘We need a revolution in dementia care’, she says.
Planning to meet up with Lord Hunt and the rest of the expedition for their first-ever reunion, Hillary arrived late at the Pen y Gwryd hotel and was told that everyone had already set off for the summit of Snowdon.
Without bothering to change into appropriate clothing, Hillary set off after his friends.
Halfway up he was accosted by a distinguished-looking gentleman who told him off for wearing inappropriate clothing which gave “hill walkers and climbers a bad name”.
The story, infused with humour and cut from the DNA of the history of climbing folklore, gets to the heart of the historic Pen y Gwryd hotel, which has now been celebrated in a new collection of stories and memories that explain why the building has become a “place of pilgrimage for mountaineers the world over”.
Among the items on display there is the length of rope which connected Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as they disappeared into the mist at the roof of the earth, making their ascent on Everest’s summit.
The rope was essential and functional then; it has since developed significance as a symbol of humankind’s endeavour. It must appear in the dreams of many of those pilgrims and adventurers who are drawn to the Pen y Gwyrd.
‘The Pen y Gwryd Hotel: Tales from the Smoke Room’ is a 259-page hardback book which has been compiled and edited by Rob Goodfellow, Jonathan Copeland and Peter O’Neill. It is priced £14.99 and is published by Gomer Press http://www.gomer.co.uk