Against the Vultures of Unthink:
on Nigel Jenkins (1949-2014)

Daniel G. Williams

As befits a poet and essayist of Nigel Jenkins’s undoubted skill, much good writing has been produced in the form of obituaries and remembrances since his untimely death on 27 January. Many have evoked particular conversations in which Nigel is often the listener responding, with that characteristic glint in his eye, to a tall story, an inappropriate joke, or passage of creative writing by one of his tens of admiring and appreciative students. Others have recalled the man brought up on a farm in Gower, ‘dyn ei filltir sgwâr’, or have rekindled that deep baritone voice in the mind’s ear; a voice which – like a pint of ‘cwrw Felinfoel’ – accessed areas that others could never reach and which, depending on the poem or passage of prose being read, could conjure dreams of buccaneering bohemian restlessness on the one hand, or a deep meditative rootedness on the other. These are memories of Nigel that are currently being cherished and shared by people of many backgrounds from Mumbles to Maenclochog, from the bars of Remsen, New York, to the hills of Khasia, India.

But there is another Nigel Jenkins we should never forget. For Nigel was a poet who, through the devastating choice of words, could cut through the blinding Britishness of our institutions, could expose the vacuousness of a bogus internationalism which has no space for Cymraeg, could lampoon our willingness to orgasm convulsively as ‘Roddy fucks royal in Bahamas’ and to celebrate the assimilationist, quisling, ‘white man’s Welshman’. Like the African American poet Amiri Baraka, who died a few days earlier on 9 January 9th, Nigel’s calm exterior and expansive, generous character, harboured a poet who could convey the anger and bitterness of nationalist frustration like few others. Jenkins considered himself one of the ‘Idrisiaid’ in his commitment to a poetry that spoke directly to different constituencies without ‘p p p p p pseudo-experimental party turns / designed to impress’. But when his critical intelligence was fully inflamed, Nigel’s visceral anger would explode the formal, Georgian confines of Idris Davies’s poetry. And he was able to focus his ire with a lacerating personal directness in a way rarely achieved by his more impetuous – but often equally irate – hero, Harri Webb.

Nigel Jenkins recently recalled ‘the four to one defeat for devolution in the first referendum which stunned many a patriot into numb silence’. His response in 1979 was to channel that shock into a poetry of anger.

Ar hyd y nos, ar hyd
y dydd – the songs, the songs,
the hymns and bloody arias
that churn from its mouth
like puked-up S. A. –
and not a word meant
not a word understood
by the Welsh machine.

Oggy! Oggy! Oggy!
shame dressed as pride.
The thing’s all mouth
needs a generous boot
up its oggy oggy arse
before we’re all of us sung
into oggy oggy silence.

In advising a young poet to always ask ‘Who needs it’ of his or her work, Nigel was no doubt reinforcing the misguided view of some unsympathetic critics that Welsh poetry in English is conformist in its communitarian and social preoccupations. When Nigel’s social critique was at its most powerful, his poetry of social purpose was also a form of avant-guardist intervention. Amiri Baraka, in his nationalist verse, targeted

on the steps of the white house one
kneeling between the sheriff’s thighs
negotiating cooly for his people.

Similarly, Jenkins revised the nauseating paeans to George Thomas in his ‘Tasteless Farewell To Viscount No’, propelling himself onto the front page of The Guardian in 1997:

O Death! For past misdeeds I almost forgive you
Now that you’ve lightened our land of this load,
The Lord of Lickspit,
The grovelsome brown-snout and smiley shyster
Whose quisling wiles were the shame of Wales.

Queen-cwtshing, Brit Nat, Cymro Da,
The higher he climbed the acider the rain
He pissed on his people
As he stuffed them with Prince shit
And cheered as the voice of Tryweryn drowned.

Shortly afterwards, a leading Anglo-Welsh critic wondered whether Nigel Jenkins might be one of the bards ‘appointed to celebrate the opening of the Welsh Assembly’, noting that he had ‘the right idealistic concerns and a broad, vigorous voice’. Upon reflection, Jenkins was disqualified from playing such a role due to his ‘odd views’; ‘he is consumed with animosity for the English, whose evil hand he sees behind every unwelcome development’. Several generations of English students and colleagues inspired and encouraged by Nigel Jenkins may wish to disagree. While Nigel was firmly of the view that Wales had lived for ‘more than 700 years as England’s first colony’, he was convinced that the form of our nation’s future independence would be conditioned by the way in which England, ‘long blinded by the dazzle of empire, reawakens to the particularities of its own nationhood’. Jenkins’s hope was ‘that the version it chooses for itself is the England of Shakespeare, the Levellers and the Diggers, Tom Paine, William Blake, Charles Dickens, The Guardian, Adrian Mitchell and P.J. Harvey, rather than that of the football hooligan, the English Defence League and the British National Party’. Indeed, when the target of his poetry was ‘England’, Nigel tended to adopt a comic or satiric mode, as in ‘Creation’, where, in revisiting an old joke, he has God confess that the unsurpassable beauty of the Welsh landscape and people and superiority of our beer is compensation for the neighbours with which He’s lumbered us.

As the quotations above indicate, the real ire and unsparing anger in Jenkins’s poetry was directed at the assimilationist elements within Wales itself.  In ‘Never Forget Your Welsh’, Wynford Vaughan Thomas, ‘Sir Neddy Seagoon’ (Harry Secombe) and Max Boyce are our heroes, appointed by the ‘sheep’ of a Wales populated by

vultures of unthink
Thatcher their queen
came to the Patti
told us
Maggie Maggie Maggie
Charles and Di
orgasmic grovel
glee-faced serfs no
tongue like a Taff’s
for lavish licking of the royal arse

This thread is picked up in ‘Colonial’, a poem based on the ‘ten months I spent bumming around Europe and North Africa in the early 1970s’, an experience seen later as the ‘clincher’ in a long process of reclaiming a ‘Welshness’ that Jenkins describes as having been denied him during his childhood and education at an English private school: ‘Most of my family had been in anxious denial of their Welshness for two generations. The Meurigs, Eluneds, Eiras and Dilyses of my grandparents’ era had given way in my parents’ time to names such as Ian, Roger, Noel and Rowland, as chapel and the Welsh language had been abandoned for church and English.’ What he encountered in Morocco was a generation of young pimps – ‘Wan’/ maybe fuck Moroccan chick?’ – selling off their women, language and their culture in assimilating to an American norm.

They old, no good. Me
No Moroccan, me
English, me American freak.

The poem’s final two lines are reminiscent of Harri Webb’s poems ‘Israel’ or ‘For Fanon’, but rather than following Webb in overtly spelling out the terms of the comparison, Jenkins merely asserts

Yes, sometimes, David bach,
Sometimes Morocco springs to mind.

There is much, of course, that is problematic in such comparisons. At its weakest Nigel’s work replays an all too familiar form of anti-Englishness in which the Welsh ‘we’ tend to be the peripheral, the dispossessed, the struggling dissenters, mavericks and critics, while the English or American ‘they’ represent the power of empire, capital, the State, the condescending and the exploitative. When I discussed this with him, his response was that there are times of conflict and crisis where these sharp binaries are usefully, and necessarily, deployed. Now may be one of those times. Our current moment seems characterised by a ‘common sense’ and ‘mature’ neo-Victorian Britishness, manifested by our Labour MPs being cheer-leaders for one-nationism while our writers seem delighted to have attended a reception for poets at Buckingham Palace. Nigel Jenkins expressed his withering contempt for the former and would have had no time for the latter. I will remember him, yn annwyl iawn, as a principled socialist and (inter)nationalist who recognised that ‘it is / good to have / friends’ but ‘it is / necessary / to have enemies’.

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