‘Nigel Jenkins: Gower poet.’ How grotesquely inadequate an epithet, when used in a journalistic context. Yet how otherwise apt. For Nigel was nothing if not a grounded person, who fiercely stood his ground. And that ground was Gower, the beautiful peninsula extending its fragile length out into the wild western waters, which provided him with a vantage point not only on his beloved Wales in its infuriating entirety, but on the wider world and indeed the cosmos. It was, so his friend Stevie Davies movingly testifies, when bathing off Gower’s beaches he best felt able to immerse himself in the oceanic immensities of the universe.
And then there was the intricate chain of Gower bays – smugglers’ coves of old, with their stories of wreckers, rum, and illicit dealings under cover of darkness. Nigel was in his element there. With his strong frame, his beard of piratical cut, his sexily deep voice, his satiric bent, there was something of the buccaneer, the rebel, the outlaw about Nigel always.
He had been made such partly by his early experiences. Sent to private schools across the border to be ‘civilized’ into an Englishman, he came ‘home’ shamefully, defiantly Welsh, and his whole life was spent trying to reclaim in its fullness that of which, he felt, he’d been early deprived. Most of all, of course, the language. Having learnt it, he placed his talents at its disposal, his translations serving to bring together the two cultures of his broken-backed Wales.
After Wales, his life-long love was the USA, to whose recklessly innovative poetry he was first introduced at Essex University in the turbulent sixties. Then came his colourful but brutal initiation into the contrasting realities of ‘mainstream’ US culture, when he toured the States of the late Vietnam era with a circus company.
By the time I met him, in the early seventies, all this was behind him, as was the period in journalism that provided him with skills on which he continued to draw to the end. With me he wanted to study the poetry of Meic Stephens, a figure who fascinated Nigel because he saw in him a promising poet who had ‘abandoned’ his talent. And why? In order (or so Nigel felt) to become an arts administrator, dedicated to the development of the infrastructure necessary for the cultural survival of a small ‘stateless’ nation in the modern world. While respecting the achievement, Nigel’s response was typically dissenting. He became ‘shop steward’ of a Welsh Union of Writers intended as a check on the growing powers of the Welsh Arts Council.
Now, forty years later, I can see that in Meic Stephens Nigel foresaw the dilemma he would himself face: how to protect the ‘inner rebel’ from which authentic writing (and most particularly poetry) could alone come while devoting one’s energies to the collective good of one’s country and its people. That such a balancing act was possible was proved, for him, in the ample flesh of Harry Webb, himself proud of his Gower stock, whose day job was that of a respected borough librarian while in his roistering night life he presided, with Falstaffian gusto, over raucous sessions of ‘poems and pints’ designed to educate the post-industrial masses in their own lost history.
Education: that, too, was eventually to be Nigel’s chosen medium and milieu. But first he was a writer, and foremost a poet. He deliberately adopted such roles as that of the bardd gwlad (poet to a locality and its communities) and bardd llys (poet of more grand, formal public occasions). In the latter capacity he regularly recited tongue-in-cheek at Swansea University’s graduation ceremonies his paean of praise to the Swansea he so passionately loved even while lavishly cursing its philistinism and English provincialism. And then there was his tireless work to enable local writers to make their silenced voices heard, and the ‘civic art’ that saw his poems pave streets and leave their mark permanently on buildings.
Nigel laughed at the idea of a poet developing a preciously singular ‘voice.’ His poems were deliberately miscellaneous in character, because he wanted them to convey not only the multifariousness of human experience but also the range of different collectivities that constituted any human society. The devotion to Wales given such monumental expression in the great Encyclopaedia he edited with self-consuming energy and devotion never blinded him to the terrible shortcomings of the country and its easily complacent people. In a classic, prize-winning study, he tracked down the history of the Welsh missionaries in the Khasia hills of the Indian sub-continent, highlighting the white colonial aspects of an epic project that nevertheless left a legacy of blessings. Naturally drawn to the ‘underside’ of his native city, he brought a detective’s zeal and a reporting journalist’s unsparing eye in his Real Swansea volumes to those parts of the city its primly respectable citizens never reached. And then there was his love-song to his Gower, in the form of a magnificent portrait-essay of the peninsula, from the deep history of its ancient rocks to the packaged beauty of its present.
Having developed, in tandem with the Welsh-language poet Menna Elfyn, a visionary creative writing course at Trinity College, Carmarthen, Nigel eventually came home to Swansea, where he worked alongside Stevie Davies (and later several other close colleagues). Together, they established another pioneering creative writing course uncompromisingly dedicated to honouring the integrity of writing as both craft and vocation while valuing and nurturing the differing talents of students. He was a wonderful teacher.
‘Nigel was much loved,’ a colleague remarked movingly when he heard of his passing. Yes, much loved even though he never compromised his beliefs or diluted his principles in order to please. He remained a maverick to the last – quietly, courteously but wickedly sabotaging every administrative and bureaucratic attempt to bring him to heel. A free spirit, he somehow seemed most at home on his bike, self-propelled, independent, unconfined, comrade of wind and weather.
Ffarwél fy annwyl ffrind. A boed iti fwynhau yn y byd nesaf gwmni llawen y criw afreolus o awduron, a cherddorion ac artistiaid yr oedd dy enaid erioed yn ei chwennych.
M. Wynn Thomas