Poem of the week: Tourists by Ruth Bidgood

A warm pastiche of an 18th-century travelogue, this is a touching portrait of the tourist’s comical but sincere search for exaltation in Wales

Tourists

Warner, setting out eagerly from Bath
at five on a lively morning
for the inspiring rigours of Wales
with obliging C----, equipped himself for adventure
with a rusty but respectable spencer
(good enough for North Wales, he said).
The travellers’ huge pockets bulged with clothes,
maps, and little comforts; their heads were full
of Ossian, whose horrendous glooms
they were gratified to recognise
one evening on the road to Rhaeadr
(though Ossian had not prepared them
for the state of the road, or the shortage
of bedchambers at the ‘Lion’).
Romantic tourists, no doubt, perpetual
outsiders, but willing to love,
and finding much “singular, striking
and indescribable”. They were comic
(embarrassed at being spotted,
with their pedlars’ pockets, by fashionable females),
but worked hard for their exaltations,
plodding twenty-five miles to Machynlleth
north over boggy mountains, or stumbling
two hours across rocks to find a guide
to Dôlbadarn ruins. They were uncomplaining
on Snowdon in a thick mist (they drank milk
gratefully, but longed for brandy), and did not grumble
when, at Aberglaslyn, salmon failed to leap
(only two would even try). Who can say
that at the end of August, leaving Chepstow
for flood-tide at the ferry, they were taking
nothing real away, or that their naive and scholarly wonder
had given nothing in return?

Tourists is a relatively early poem by the now nonagenarian Welsh writer Ruth Bidgood. It was first published in Not Without Homage (1975) and reprinted in New and Selected Poems (2004). Her latest collections are Time Being (2009), which won her the Roland Mathias prize, and Above the Forests (Cinnamon, 2012).

Surrounded for much of her writing life by the trees and mountains of Abergwesyn in Powys, Bidgood has been commended by Matthew Jarvis for what he calls an “anti-Arcadian refusal of pastoral”. She certainly writes about her landscape with affection, but it’s the matter-of-fact, gently watchful affection of someone in their everyday environment. An accompanying fondness for people places her in sharp contrast to another Welsh anti-Arcadian, that solitary, romantic singer of the chilly pastoral, RS Thomas.

Although the 18th-century Ossian fans whom Bidgood welcomes to Wales might seem a race apart from today’s jolly families and extreme sports enthusiasts, the judgment that there are no good tourists any more is not one that can be deduced from the poem: rather, the poem suggests that scorn for tourists might be a questionable prejudice. It’s significant, I think, that Bidgood categorises the earlier visitors as tourists: a word that, even by the 1970s, had become derogatory.

Bidgood’s discursive, non-metrical lines draw impressionistically on material in the letters of the Reverend Richard Warner, published in the late 1790s as A Walk Through Wales. Warner himself writes self-mockingly about the figure he and his friend C---- present as they set off. They have nobly decided to travel on foot so as to “catch beauties … which the encumbrance of a carriage or even the indulgence of a horse prevents other travellers from enjoying”, with the result that luggage has become a bit of an issue. Richard’s “rusty” old spencer has been specially adapted with a pocket that “sweeps from one side to the other” as he walks. C---- has had two side-pockets “of considerable dimensions” added to his coat. They are sanguine about their appearance until they meet two ladies, one a previous acquaintance: perhaps it’s fortunate that the ladies are equally embarrassed to have been caught travelling by cart.

Warner must have been one of the pleasantest of clergymen – honest about his human weaknesses, genial, self-forgiving and forgiving of others. He is no mere romantic, despite the Ossian reading, but takes a rational interest in history and customs. He is fairly stoical in disappointment, but neither underplays the displeasures nor overpraises the delights. Bidgood’s narrative laughs with rather than at him, judging to a nicety the degree to which she can make fun of the happy hikers but leave their dignity intact.

Her narrative sources are all in the letters. Although the poem is largely paraphrase, the only clear quotation being Warner’s somewhat baffled comment, “singular, striking and indescribable”, it reflects the Reverend’s style and diction. One can imagine his wry smile of assent when the poet remarks drily that the couple “worked hard for their exaltations …” The chronological order of events is slightly altered, as is the name of the pub where only one bedroom could be found: I’d guess that the poem was made from the memory of a loved and familiar text, rather than a studious re-reading. Yet, to a large extent, Tourists works in the manner of the “found” poem: it takes us as near as possible to Warner’s own voice, with only the lightest of ironical, distancing movements. The moral and contextual frame is provided by the final, gentle and generous, question: “Who can say / that at the end of August, leaving Chepstow / for flood-tide at the ferry, they were taking / nothing real away, or that their naive and scholarly wonder / had given nothing in return?”

As the letters report on a geographical journey, so the poem reports on a literary-historical one. Without the poem, I probably wouldn’t ever have known about Richard Warner. Bidgood has revealed a delightful, accessible and unspoiled literary backwater - one which biblio-tourists can discover here.

Contributor

Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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