Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Mumbles

I haven’t written much lately owing to my peripatetic status. That is like a chef saying he or she hasn’t cooked much lately because he has been taking long walks. But even chefs, I imagine, need to take long walks, sometimes. In my case, I have simply been traveling, and after many peregrinations hither and yon that prevented me from sitting down to write, I found myself jogging along the shoreline of a Welsh seaside town known as the Mumbles. 

Dylan Thomas was born near here, in a tiny hamlet just southwest of Swansea, known as the Uplands. So of course, I have been rereading Dylan Thomas, the brilliance of whose “craft, or sullen art” I had perhaps never fully appreciated, like the dull lover of the poem of that title, whose concern is only for what is right in front of him. Now I understand Dylan Thomas better. Yet his best poem was and will always be for me, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” Fortunately, not long before he died, the poet was professionally recorded reading that poem, a recording now available for all to hear. That is the way Elaine went when she went into the night, not gentle but strong and courageous, and she, on angels’ wings that I still think I heard flapping as she left.

And so last night, in somber mood, I went to a local pub with the surprisingly upbeat name “The Verve,” thinking of my very-very-Welsh mother, eight years dead now, and that struggle that she had and we all have in facing death. And so it came as quite a surprise to find myself amidst three new friends, Wally, Ollie, and Trevor, and even more surprising that one of them is a local poet. I met Wally, a scrap metal engineer, first, when I was, in the English fashion, ordering my food at the bar, he an ale. He said he would like to have been vacationing in Spain but he had stayed back to take care of Foxy, his aged and loving dog. I took a seat with him and his friends, randomly arranged, on the terrace, spread out around but not at two wooden all-weather tables; the men were themselves rather weathered looking, men who challenged life as much as it challenged them, hard-working men. All were more or less middle-aged, one a veteran, one or two just freshly retired. They told tales of fighting off young punks (two of them had canes to do so), of good or bad jobs they had once had, of their children, now mostly living far from Swansea.

I sat with them chiefly just to listen: as a writer, I am always considering traits of individuals that I meet, features that will help me to form a character, and shape my own character. And, I can say without doubt they gave me a bit of both: the thick, almost mumbling southern-Welsh accent that rolled out every word like the breaking tide of Swansea Bay gave me plenty of rich writing material, while their gentle dictums offered food for thought, as I sat among them eating my sausage and mash with mushy peas.

I won’t go into the details the pleasantries of my conversation with Trevor, who bought me two beers beyond my own, or the funny exchange I had with Wally about whether we had met before—he was pretty sure he had seen me on a train and that I might have helped him protect a young woman who was being hassled by two thugs; alas, I said, I wish that had been me. Ollie was another matter, and some aspects of my conversation with Ollie will be, if he allows it, addressed in a subsequent blog. For he is a poet. As Ollie spoke to me, he divulged that every time he tried to write prose it came out in verse. Now, being someone who knows something of the life of the poet Ovid, this sounded very familiar to me.

Ollie recited three or four poems for Trevor and me, one of which I would like to post in my next blog. If I recall correctly, it is entitled “God’s in You and Me.” I don’t yet have a written copy, but I can say from my one hearing of it that, if I can, I would certainly like to share it. Ollie’s poems are as wonderful as his Welsh lilt is thick. His style is rhythmic rhyme, playful and serious at once, richly sentimental and at the same time profound. He has a lyrical look about him—steel blue eyes, a gentle smile that reminded me of one of my professors. He wasn’t an educated man, though you could tell in five minutes that he was smart.

Wall with message in Swansea

Trevor, meanwhile, spoke of the challenges of life as a recent retiree, while Wally shared some tidbits about music and a friend of his who is a documentary filmmaker. I couldn’t quite make out though, given how thick the accent of each of them was, many of the details in any of their soliloquies. The experience itself was, for me, rather like being in France. My French is good enough to make out most of the words and follow the conversation, but I have certain vocabulary gaps, which allow me to garner only most of any given conversation.

The Mumbles, Wales

Luckily, though, I have enough French to know what mamalles means: it means “breasts,” which brings us back to Mumbles. Mumbles, you see, has two rock formations that extend beyond the natural promontory hook that forms a natural bay for Swansea’s coast. Geographers who dabble in place-name etymology believe that the name Mumbles (which I was disappointed to learn was not derived from the mumbling sea, like Homer’s onomatopoeic polyphloisboio thalasses) believe that the breast-shaped double rock formation gave this place its named, whether derived via the French mamalles being corrupted into Mumbles or, as others believe, the Latin mammas (accusative case). If this sounds unbelievable, one would do well to recall that even a less exciting city like Manchester is apparently derived from the same Proto-Indo-European root, in this case a Celtic word for a breast-shaped hill (mamucium). And the wonderfully beautiful Greek island Mykonos, one might recall, is also famous for it’s “Breasts of Venus,” two shapely hills that are, like those in Mumbles harbor, stacked side by side.


So, I close with that thought. Sometimes the poetry we need to hear shows up, quite unexpectedly in a pub. And sometimes, the art we need to see is given to us naturally through common, but perhaps quite uncommon, grace, such as that of the Mumbles.

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