Today I’m really pleased to welcome wordsmith extraordinaire, Kathy Miles, to tell you about her memories. I’ve known Kathy and her works for some years, and today, for a change, I’m going to leave it to her to express her thought on Places in our Memories.
The places in our memories are constantly changing. New insight or knowledge might lead you to view a cherished place with different eyes; sometimes the place itself will have altered beyond recognition over the years, and your memory of it becomes elusive, so you ask yourself whether what you remember is the truth, or built upon a desire for it to be so. Sometimes they vanish. I live near the coast at Aberaeron, and sea-mists often obliterate the landscape so completely that it becomes hard to remember what it looks like on a hot summer’s day:
Some days the land is stolen from itself,
chimneys and slate roofs swallowed, village
and pit-head lost to this cold mouth of mist
as it muffles hymn and chapel bell, silences
the scold of crows that crowd around
the plough like a flock of ranting preachers.
In my case, these problems of recall are compounded by a breakdown I suffered in my mid-forties, which wiped away a good many of my childhood memories. What remains is fragmentary and fleeting; a series of impressions that appear occasionally, like landmarks emerging from a sea mist, or footprints that might at any moment be washed away by the tide.
Growing up in Liverpool, the sea and river were constants. My paternal grandfather and great-grandfather had been merchant seamen, and their love of the sea passed to my father and on to me. I remember standing with my Dad on the Cazzy, the Cast-Iron Shore on the banks of the Mersey, where the sand was rust-coloured from the residue of an old iron foundry. Dad was wearing a shirt and tie as always, jacket slung across his shoulders. His face had already reddened in the heat. We kept a wary eye on the tide. The river creeps quickly and silently over those mudflats, brimming up as suddenly as an unwatched bath. A slub of saltmarsh, shards of driftwood, and just up the river bank, old shipyards festering in the sunshine. From there you can see the outline of Welsh mountains across to Moel Famau. But it was the water Dad was staring at, with a kind of longing, as if he wished he could be whisked away to far horizons.
It was inevitable that our annual holidays would be taken by the sea. Cemaes Bay, Cornwall, and later on, Guernsey and Sark. Mum would pack a picnic basket with boiled eggs and sandwiches, a thermos of tea, and the three of us walked to the nearest beach, stopping on the way to pick field mushrooms for next day’s breakfast. I’d head for the nearest rocks, fishing net in hand, and was soon absorbed in a rock-pool, catching tiny shrimps and sometimes a rockling or blenny. Dad fished for mackerel from the shore, whilst Mum would scoop out limpets to use as bait, and patiently rewind my crabbing line when I’d tangled the twine.
Home in Liverpool was a small bungalow, built on farmland in the 1930s as the edges of the city expanded. It was eight miles from the Mersey, but still close enough for us to be able to hear the ferry hooters blasting out in chorus to mark the start of each new year. Dad took the train to work each morning, and in the evenings I’d race up the road to West Allerton station and stand on the bridge as his train came in, usually getting covered in steam and smuts. If trains can be special memories of place, then these old steam trains are mine, with their plushly-covered seats, leather strap to pull up the window so the door could be opened, and pictures hung above the luggage rack. Even now I still feel the excitement of boarding a train, the promise of new experiences and unknown places.
At 18, having failed most of my A levels, I went to work in the Everyman Theatre for a year. I had to retake my exams if I had any hope of getting into university, and we also needed the money. The Everyman at that time was a shabby building in Hope Street, in desperate need of renovation, but with a fabulous bistro in the basement run by Paddy Byrne and Dave Scott. My job was a combination of ASM and general dogsbody. I helped out in the wardrobe department, sourced props, answered the telephone and manned the box office. On one occasion I even appeared on stage, though as I was crammed into the frame of a large fabric-covered snake, it was hardly going to make my fame and fortune as an actor. The company then included Antony Sher, Jonathan Pryce, Roger Sloman, Alison Steadman and David Goodland, and the director was Alan Dossor, who produced gritty, contemporary agitprop plays. The actors shared a single dressing-room; costumes were often held up by safety pins or my dangerously-loose tacking stitches, and in one notable production of Caucasian Chalk Circle, Roger Sloman was carted off to hospital after being hit on the head by a large iron hook that descended from the ceiling at the wrong time. It was chaotic, but it was also fun. Everyone worked as a team, and when I left – very reluctantly – to go to university, I was presented with a large publicity poster of the whole cast as a present. Although the Everyman is now a state-of-the-art modern theatre, I’ll never forget that old building, which stank of fags and paint, sweaty tights and damp wood, and to me was as glamorous as anything in the West End.
When I came to Lampeter, however, I finally found my special place. The Everyman had been a wonderful experience, but I’d never felt truly at home in Liverpool. My Mum in later years said that Wales had stolen me away, and she was right. I had grown up with Welsh-speaking aunts, and from the moment I stepped off the rickety old Richards bus that brought me from Aberystwyth, I felt I had truly found my cynefin. Here I was near my beloved sea, and a landscape I instantly felt rooted to. In 1995 I published an anthology of poems and photographs, The Third Day; Landscape and the Word (Gomer Press), commissioning work from poets such as Dannie Abse, RS Thomas, Gillian Clarke, Sheenagh Pugh and Raymond Garlick. Travelling around Wales to photograph old Welsh sites gave me new places to tuck away in my memory, including the then-unrestored Aberglasney, where the photographer and I kissed surreptitiously in the Yew Tunnel, and a different chapter of my life began. If my memory of those early years is sometimes veiled in sea mist, and many of the places of my childhood no longer exist, the ones I have gained since then provide a constant source of delight, and inspiration for my writing.
Born in Liverpool, Kathy Miles is a poet and short story writer living in West Wales. Her work has appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, and her fourth full collection of poetry, Bone House, was published by Indigo Dreams in 2020. Kathy is a previous winner of the Bridport Prize, as well as the Welsh Poetry, Second Light, Wells Literature, Shepton Mallet Snowdrop Festival and PENfro poetry competitions. She is a regular book reviewer and workshop facilitator, has co-edited The Lampeter Review, and guest-edited Artemis magazine.
Bone House (Indigo Dreams, 2020)
Inside the Animal House (Rack Press, 2018)
Gardening With Deer (Cinnamon Press, 2016)
The Shadow House (Cinnamon Press, 2009)
The Third Day: Landscape and the Word (Gomer, 1995)
The Rocking Stone (Poetry Wales Press, 1988)
Ugly as Sin and other clichés (Pentad Books, December 2020)