Monday, January 25, 2016

`A Single Dead Prawn'

Byron Rogers reports in his introduction to The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas (Aurum, 2006) that while writing the book he pestered the Welsh poet-priest’s son, Gwydion Thomas, for his father’s “papers.” Biographers like documentation, artifacts, palpable residues of a life. Thomas, it seems, left no manuscripts or drafts: “His father had written with a waste-paper basket beside him, and the fact that some poems survived at all was because his mother had retrieved and ironed them.” Thomas never kept a journal and his letters had already been sold. One day, Rogers turned up at the family home and was surprised to find four “bulging plastic supermarket bags” filled with items collected by Gwydion’s mother. “These were all that were left, [Gwydion] said, from her attempts to classify the universe.” Thomas was a notably parsimonious man, not shy about imposing his ascetic stinginess on family and parishioners. Rogers writes: 

“In one of these [bags] a bottle of air freshener had been spilt, so the unnatural reek of something called Forest Glade arose, of the sort that was never in any forest or glade, out of the strangest, and most poignant, collection of objects ever assembled.” 

Before you get all huffy and castigate Thomas for his “hypocrisy,” consider what a collection of objects would be left behind if suddenly you were to depart the material realm. Imagine what your survivors would think of a complete run of Playboy magazine or The Cowsills’ Greatest Hits. Rogers’ inventory of the four bags goes on for three fascinating paragraphs, beginning with this: 

“A skull of a hare. An envelope from L. Garvin, Honey Merchants, containing grey mullet scales. A cheese box containing a puffin’s beak, together with a Windsor and Newton leaflet containing advice on the control of moth damage to paint brushes. An envelope containing snow bunting feathers. A list of mills in Merionethshire. An envelope containing bit of old silver foil (`from Aunt Ethel’).” 

And so on, until this final entry in the tally of R.S. Thomas’ earthly possessions: “Envelope containing a single dead prawn.” Rogers adds a single concluding sentence to his introduction: “That was when I decided to write his biography.”

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