A CAPITAL OCCASION
Baylit Festival, Cardiff 2005
Review of Gillian Clarke’s installation as Cardiff Capital Bard
John Alcock: May 2005
Through the tall, narrow window of the Norwegian chapel I can see a small, inflatable craft crossing the bay, its huddled occupants swathed in yellow oilskins against the slanting rain.Before you reach for the Neutrogena let me explain that I am not seeking spiritual guidance before venturing on an Arctic crossing and the boatload of round-the-bay trippers, now landing on the jetty, do not have a harpoon among them. The grey waters chopping beyond the chapel are those of Cardiff Bay and we are met in this most delightful of venues to honour the principality of Wales’ first Capital Bard, as part of the 2005 Bay Lit Festival.
This honour has been accorded to Gillian Clarke, who has, for many, assumed the mantle of Wales’ leading poet, a natural successor as top bard’ to R S Thomas. If anyone had the right to challenge for that title it would surely be Dannie Abse, still as ingenious, political and twinkling as ever, but, after an introduction by Peter Finch, Chair of the Wales Academi, he lent a generous gravitas to the occasion by opening the proceedings (before dashing off to keep an urgent appointment as Cardiff City’s most lauded fan).
But Cardiff, despite its capital status and being home to Charlotte Church, is inexperienced in the ways of poets’ laureate. It recognises the need to gain advice from a city where such a tradition is well established. Say, Birmingham. And who better to fulfil the role than the present incumbent, Don Barnard? Don succinctly outlined the nature of the office, bringing opportunities to write but having to balance the formal occasion with the personal insight; the public and the personal. He illustrated his thoughts with poems ranging from the solemn to the (more familiar?) downright quirky.
Two other Welsh poets followed: Sheenagh Pugh’s poems recalled Cardiff past and present, while Dic Jones, Eisteddfod prize winner and Ceredigion farmer, observed an ancient tradition with an awdl, a gentle praise poem in Welsh to Gillian, who was then officially installed as Capital Bard by the Mayor of Cardiff.
Born in Cardiff, she selected excerpts from a prose work about her childhood memories of Cardiff, establishing her pedigree, as it were, before turning to her latest poetry book, Making the Beds for the Dead (Carcanet 2004), the title referring to a major sequence of poems about the 2001 foot and mouth catastrophe. Like Dic Jones, Gillian now lives in Ceredigion and, like RST, her poems reflect the harsh reality of present day farming as well as the physical beauty and spiritual rewards of living in rural Wales. How she will now handle the round of mayoral dinners, Six Nations rugby and appearances at Welsh Assembly sessions only she can say, but – if she needs any help – there is a bard in Brum who could not doubt offer the odd tip.