Pining for Potacre: Margiad Evans, Autobiography and the Welsh Border.
My dear Bryher –
It will please you perhaps to hear that the neglected Anglo-Welsh writer you sent to Ireland all those years ago, is named by ten professors of literature as the leading writer (and poet) of her day.
It did please me, but it seemed a long way off, since the writer, like the bee, is always building, always adding fresh cell to cell. This process finished, so is all.
I am now tired, but please write sometime. I think I shall go home to live if I can get there anyhow as I have a longing to see the Black Mountains that sometimes seem to hang from the sky like a rainstorm.
This was the last of some 30 letters Margiad Evans (1909-1958) wrote to her friend and benefactor the writer Bryher.
In less than six months aged only 49, she was dead. A brain tumour that had blighted the last eight years of life by inducing epilepsy had finally overwhelmed her.
Reading between the lines, it is clear she had come to terms with her mortality, confirmed by an exploratory brain operation in February 1956.
The last year or so had been frightening, painful and deeply distressing as her marriage fractured and she increasingly relied on her 82-yr-old mother to meet her daily physical needs in the tiny four-room cottage that housed also her daughter and husband in a county she hated: Sussex.
In her mind, she sought sanctuary in that one place where previously she had managed to find her soul: Potacre, on the English/Welsh border.
Potacre was surrounded on three sides by a 19-acre arable field, itself enclosed in ancient thorn hedges. The field sloped steeply to the north, down to the Llanerch Brook and was exposed to winds from all directions.
Because of its topography, on the summit of a ridge and within a large field, Potacre feels as if it is beneath a vast bowl of the sky with no impediment to the wind and rain blowing in from Wales.
Glare and fog
Writing to her brother, Roger Whistler, in a PoW camp in Poland she described this place:
Up here I see all the weather, the storms in their formation filing through the hills; I see the wind coming before it touches me. Yesterday we had magnificent light – yellow fire of the low sun, glitter of splintering rains, glare and fog together. It hailed.
The full cloud was vertical from sky to valley ground: the sky clear in the West, the huge hailstones skipping in the furrows of the field, white upon red and lying in the garden, dancing furiously on the path. Then it was over.
Though we have all the storms and all the wind that blows from every quarter we have the sun too. Sometimes it is so warm you feel you could skim the top of it and find it in your hand – thick in the hollows under the hedges.
Hens cluck from the farm, the straw lying about is yellow as candlelight, our lilac bush is full of birds.
The village of Llangarron was half-a-mile downslope and her nearest neighbour William “Pegleg” and Ellen Saunders next door, with whom she shared the garden. Else, it was an isolated experience.
It was also a matter of choice, for Margiad was the owner of a brand-spanking new detached three-bedroom house, Juniper Cottage, complete with all modern amenities some 4 miles away: one of three houses her mother had built just before the war, one for each of three of her children.
In contrast, the semi-detached cottage at Potacre had, as its total amenity, a single cold tap in the wash-house: no electricity, no telephone, no lavatory, no wireless.
It was from Potacre that her husband Mike Williams set out each day to work in the local farms.
Margiad supplemented the rent from Juniper Cottage by taking occasional work on the farm herself, and from writing.
Among her projects was the amalgamation and editing of notes made in her journals into a single volume which she offered to Blackwells in 1943 to reduce her debts. She called it Autobiography . For within it, refined and sharpened by the peace and isolation of Potacre, she found her soul.
This afternoon I opened the book at random. This is what I found…..
Oh to be alone, to be alive! Solitude is marvellous to the body. To the inner soul which is united by a physical and spiritual affinity to the live in all things, its own innocent existence pledges joy.
Smelling the bluebells I thought I would try to write this for people who understand these things […] who work in the fields and gardens and then go to bed in the twilight, aware of the stars.
They have a nymph who lives in trees and seasons: for them every flower and creature and sound in the sun’s brood has its special invocation.
Autobiography is, then, an expression of solitude and of sharing: of observation and description of the world as she saw it.
It hinged on what she experienced, day by day, in the Border country, and, I would suggest, the writing of it was influenced by the place itself, for it is free and open like the landscape she experienced.
And from that process of communication came enlightenment and joy of such purity and depth that to quote it out of turn seems irreverent.
Communion with the elements
For this young woman whose life hitherto had been, in parts, bleak and savage and in others full of joy and fun and social harmony found herself under the influence of the sky and the earth; the wind, the rain and the seasons up on the ridge where Potacre had been built.
It was almost as if she were living in a tent such was her communion with the elements.
From this came a deeper understanding of the way things work: something so profound that one might be forgiven for thinking that she copied out of a textbook:
All, all in sight and hearing was Nature pouring itself from one thing into another, spending and creating, running like the wind over the body of life, and flowing like blood through its heart. All changed, and nothing changed.
The passage suggests a level of appreciation of evolutionary biology and physical entropy striking in one who left school at 16, and had no scientific education.
To me, after 60 years of forestry and research, it resonates with what I observed and measured and described in countless days working among the trees.
It goes further than that, because it shows that everything we do has impact on the totality of life, mostly in ways that we cannot fathom.
That, in itself, is highly relevant today as the world which she knew, less than 100 years ago, is sliding into an oblivion of extinction and seeming irrelevance.
It is followed immediately by this striking, spiritual affirmation that understanding this simple concept is a cornerstone of enlightenment.
If I may keep this knowledge, this perpetual life in me, anybody may have my visible life; anybody may have my work, my smile, if I may go on sensing the thread that ties me to the sun, to the roots of trees and the springs of joys, the one and separate strand to each star of each great constellation.
As if to cement this ability to separate mind from body, elsewhere she exalts that separation:
…without mental effort I can become as the wind, as the very light, entering the barn doors and the crannies in the stones, learning how things are in the hibernating insect world…
It was to this place of revelation on the Welsh border to which, 14 years later and at the end of her life, Margiad wanted to return “if I can get there anyhow…”.
Born and raised on the outskirts of London, Margiad’s attachment to the Border country can be traced to 1916, and an unfortunate mixture of war and whisky.
By 1932, it was clearly spelt out in her first novel Country Dance, which exploits the Border as a metaphor for anguish, love and betrayal. Sadly, her desire to die near the Border could not be realised.
She passed away in hospital in Sussex on her 49th birthday, and is buried in Hartfield.
In my opinion, Autobiography is her epitaph, and Potacre her spiritual resting place.
Margiad Evans’ Autobiography is published by Honno and is available from all good bookshops.
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