Today we bring to you a letter Alun sent to his wife, Gweno, for Christmas 1943.
This is supposed to reach you on Xmas Day: like the greetings I sent last year from South Africa: so I’m imagining myself coming up the hill and kicking the mud off my boots on the worn old hedgehog of a mat you’ve got at the foot of your steps and knocking at your door and hearing the delirious mixing of laughter. I want to enter merrily and take the kettle off the fire for your mother, and re-introduce myself to the two children: I’d rather come by the door and the daytime than sadly to your window at night, in a gust of rain or a rattle of wind and doubt.
But the main thing I’m saying is – here is another Xmas and here we are Alive; and whatever troubles the world still has, let’s let them be for today and be lucky and thankful and sturdy with hope and fortitude.
I need the simple virtues most; the new fangled nervous virtues have been a bit much for me. I want quieter steadier ways. The little house and the certainty that I know could exist for us in time’s lap some time. Let’s let it, shall we? Let’s not bother our little heads and hearts overmuch. Let’s have our Xmas in ourselves each to each, and not unhappily. I’m so glad you’ve gone home. I’ve just had your letter when you were home for half-term and it chirruped at me with the honey and the pollen of the children and the warm circle of light that keeps them safe. They’ll be big and self-conscious when I see them perhaps, but I can see them and love them now.
It’s Xmas dusk and I’m trying hard to put everything aside and come to you. How hard it is, how hard. My heart has grown a crust so that I can’t break but it leaves my body leaderless and it just dodders and bustles alternately and everyone else is an object encountered en route and circumvented. And such a Xmas! Oh sweet, I’m sorry I’m such a crust. I went to the morning service and that’s the only time when I could ‘be’ at all. And suddenly as we sang ‘Hark the Herald Angels sing’, my eyes began to sob and something tender that I’ve been hiding, hiding even from myself, woke for a minute and wept. Oh I wish it were always awake and I always alive. Not a dud entertainments officer rushing from swimming regatta to whist drive with a concert rehearsal in between. Booh. I think it’s all punk and I’m angry at all I’ve wasted. You waste nearly everything from which you withhold your heart and my heart has withdrawn itself for weeks now from my dead here. I want no army Xmas again. I can’t bear them and wish they didn’t exist. Yet our boys have had a bouncing time. They had a huge dinner. Our cooks have been keeping a chicken farm for days: a great slaughter and plucking last night of the skinny things, and a lot of lorries dashing back and fore: boys sticking up ‘Merry Xmas to the C.O.’ with cotton wool on the dining hall walls: and little piles by each plate – cigar, sweets, orange, banana, bottle of beer or ‘cordial’ and ten cigarettes. Last night a whist drive and a midnight service, tonight the choir, tomorrow night my concert party and the night after eight ladies from Poona who want to dance for the troops!
I’ve been very quiet myself and kept away from the drinking and song-singing in the mess. Last night in bed I lay awake and listened to the carols being sung in the two canteens and a bell being rung from the hut where catholics held midnight mass – and I, like Faust, asking to be released. You chide me for being downcast and bedraggled of soul. I’m sorry for being like that. But I must go the way my imperative leads me – and I feel that this long trial and strain on the spirit is likely to be decisive for me. I believe I’m being true to the realities in feeling this way: India is really a great purgatory and so is the war, and so is the future we are facing.
In this, his centenary year, Alun Lewis’ poetry has been making something of a comeback. Earlier this year his Collected Poems were reprinted by Seren, along with his Collected Stories, Letters to My Wife and a previously lost novel, Morlais, and since then people all across Wales and beyond have been rediscovering Lewis’ poetry, or discovering it for the very first time.
Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales, has said on multiple occasions that Lewis’ ‘All Day It Has Rained’ – probably his most famous poem – encouraged her own pursuit of poetry because it was the first poem she encountered that felt Welsh. Lewis’ poetry spoke to her and her roots – who knows how different her poetry might be now if she had never discovered him?
She’s not the only person who’s found Lewis inspirational. Welsh-born movie legend Richard Burton used the words from Lewis’ ‘Postscript: For Gweno’ to tell screen queen Elizabeth Taylor he loved her. (You can read an article all about it here.) Not bad ears for the words of a boy from the Valleys to land on, eh?
He was even admired from probably the most famous poet to emerge from Wales, Dylan Thomas.
So what better way to spend National Poetry Day than to spend it reading the poetry of Wales’ best, no-longer-forgotten poet?
Aberystwyth University is no stranger to Alun Lewis; when Alun was 17 years old he won a scholarship to study History there and now, in the year of the centenary of his birth, he’s returning to the place where he spent his years as an undergraduate student.
The David Jones Centre at Aberystwyth University supports research on the history and impact of Modernism in Wales. The Centre hosts an annual conference and this year, it’s 4th, the subject is none other than Alun himself: Alun Lewis and Welsh War Poetry.
The one day conference will be held at Y Drwm in the National Library of Wales on Wednesday 23rd September and all are welcome! The event will include papers by Alan Vaughan Jones, Peter Morgan, Nerys Williams and a keynote address by Lewis biographer, John Pikoulis whose latest book, Alun, Gweno & Freda is currently available to order from the Seren website.
Tickets are £15 (£8 for students) and can be booked here or by calling: 01970 632548.
If you missed Great Welsh Writers: Alun Lewis at 10pm on Wednesday 2nd September, don’t worry! The show is now available to watch on BBC iPlayer here.
Don’t forget to check out the Events page so you can take part in the centenary celebrations we have planned throughout autumn, and keep on top of all the latest Alun Lewis news by following us on Twitter at @AlunLewis100.
Iain Richards will be in conversation with author Brian Roper at this year’s Velvet Coalmine Festival, where they’ll be discussing Alun Lewis!
Velvet Coalmine is Richards’ brainchild, an arts festival situated in Blackwood with the aim of giving a voice back to the people of the Valleys without censorship or agenda. A fitting festival in which to continue Alun Lewis’ centenary celebrations.
The discussion will be part of ‘Poetry at Preachers’ on Thursday 3rd September at 7:30pm at Preachers Lounge and Wine Bar, where poets Patrick Jones (Fuse), Clare E. Potter (Spilling Histories) and Jonathan Edwards (My Family and Other Superheroes) will also be performing some of their poetry.
Entry is only £3 – you can check out the events page here!
Alun Lewis’s previously lost novel, Morlais, is Wales Book of the Month this August.
Morlais, which is now available to buy from Seren Books, is Lewis’ semi-autobiographical novel about a young boy in the Welsh Valleys who is torn between his working class background and his aptitude for academia and poetry. Chosen by the Welsh Books Council, Morlais will be available in book shops across Wales throughout the month, so make sure you grab a copy while you can!