Meic Stephens (1938 – 2018): A Personal Appreciation by Robert Minhinnick

In 1971, at Bridgend Boys’ Grammar Technical School, I began studying ‘Welsh Voices’: “an anthology of new poetry from Wales”, published by Dent, edited by Bryn Griffiths.

Crucially for me it did not include the description ‘Anglo-Welsh’, which I first encountered several years later. I was seventeen, and part of a family that saw writing and painting as normal occupations.

But, a modest, maybe secretive boy, I did not share the song lyrics I was collecting in an old Human Biology exercise book. I think there were hundreds of them, arranged in notional record albums.

Double albums? Triple albums? These were suddenly possible, it seemed. I could hear the tunes of the songs in my head but couldn’t write them down.

I suppose everybody at the time was reeling from the transformative effect the 1960s in Wales and the UK had on life. I saw myself as a songwriter, with a guitar he couldn’t play, a pitiful collection of records, and a headful of untranslateable music.

I was still too young for ‘Blonde on Blonde’ (1966) and ‘Sergeant Pepper’ (June, 1967). ‘Welsh Voices’, about to have an equally cataclysmic effect (on myself at least) appeared in 1967.

My father, especially, had written. Some of his stories appeared in outlets such as ‘Herald of Wales’. I still retain a thick stash of Albert Minhinnick’s short stories, as I do his 1945 diary, maintained while in India and Burma.

‘Welsh Voices’, I am sure, was part of a post-war cultural reaction, indeed, rebellion. (Might ‘revolution’ be allowed?)

Political motivation was part of the reason for its existence, and a groundswell of frustration, indeed exasperation, with post-war Wales. There was a belief that life should be better and had to change.

Yet what I liked most about the anthology was the phrase-making of certain writers. Thus I recall Herbert Williams’s ‘Jones the Grocer’, with his hands “pale as lard”. And Robert Morgan’s ‘4c Boy’, a vivid portrait that immediately resonated with my own experience in Penyfai.

Crucially, there was a brief biography for each of the contributors to ‘Welsh Voices’. One of these was David Jones, who puzzled while illuminating in individual lines. In 1981 I found myself attempting to write an MA thesis on this writer.

Another of the contributors I studied in ’71 and ’72 was someone called Meic Stephens. The name was ‘unusual’.

In 1972 I failed an entrance exam for the civil service, and (secretly both appalled and delighted) I decided to take my own writing seriously, other options having closed down. I believed writing was both something I had chosen and something that had chosen me.

Herbert Williams, Robert Morgan and David Jones were impossible to locate in the Cardiff and south-east Wales telephone directory. But ‘Meic Stephens’ (spelled thus) was given his own entry. Therefore he looked important.

My letter to Meic went unanswered. However, eventually, a letter arrived from someone called Sam Adams. He explained he was editing a ‘new poets’ issue of a magazine titled ‘Poetry Wales’. Would I care to submit some work? I was a callow nineteen.

The first time I recall meeting Meic Stephens was in an office of the Welsh Arts Council in Museum Place, Cardiff. An imposing man, he said complimentary things about my writing, and a new volume I had published in 1979 called ‘Native Ground’ (Christopher Davies.)

Because of his office address I understood that Meic was important. What I was unaware of was the fact that he had been largely responsible for bringing into being the system of grant aid, support and subsidy that transformed publishing in Wales and allowed a modicum of literary professionalism to flourish.

Meic wanted people to think differently about language. For him it was the lifeblood of culture, community and nation.

I think I understood Meic’s fervor for the Welsh language. Yet in our house in Penyfai there were no Welsh speakers, and I developed a one-eyed adherence to English.

Writing by any other means was never suggested, although one of my father’s uncles, Gabriel Minhinnick, published in Welsh in the ‘Merthyr Express’.

If some Welsh had adhered to us, as does sheep’s wool to barbed wire, somehow the bloody sheep had escaped.  Incidents such as my Welsh teacher in Bridgend Boys Grammar using corporal punishment (with a dap across thirty posteriors) on a whole class because of their lazy Welsh, didn’t help.

Yet I recall speaking to my grandmother about the language, and a particular conversation in which she defined the word ‘digraen’ (pronounced digran).

Digraenwas an important word because sometimes a batch of washing might be so damnably described. Having ‘no grain’ on your washing was unpardonable.

Her Welsh came from the Llanharan of her birthplace, and one of the several pubs named the Cross Keys in Dowlais, where she was required to be trilingual to communicate with the Spanish foundrymen in the local ironworks.

My father chipped in too. His Welsh was much poorer but in the Rhymni where he was born, a stinging insult was that someone might be ‘didoreth’ (hopeless or useless).

In a way my whole life as a writer has been linked with Meic. He was fourteen years older than I, an age gap that in in 1967 or ’77 or ’87, was massively important.

Meic’s editing was crucial. He created the magazine, ‘Poetry Wales’, in 1965, and he would always refer to it as “my magazine”.

My own editorial stint for ‘PW’ was 1997 – 2008. This included my choice of work for “Poetry Wales: Forty Years’ (Seren, 2005),  which excluded that chosen by Cary Archard for his own celebration of the magazine’s first two decades.

I remember at one of its launches in Cardiff, Meic and Sam Adams (another ex-editor) turned up and mildly heckled. They didn’t approve of the ‘international’ direction the magazine was taking. It seemed a healthy disagreement to me.

But most notably, Meic Stephens specialized in editing truly monumental tomes. Certainly he gave the impression that vast assemblages, such as ‘Linguistic Minorities in Western Europe’ (Gomer, 1976); the ‘Library of Wales: Poetry’, (Parthian, 2000); the ‘Oxford Companion to the Literatures of Wales’, and the later ‘The Old Red Tongue’ (with co-editor Gwyn Griffiths, 2017)), comprising translations from the Welsh, were designed as requisites for every Welsh household. No civilized home could exist without them.

This monumentalism is in strict contrast to the paucity of his own English language verse. ‘Exiles All’ appeared in his own Triskel series in 1982, including certain of his poems in ‘Welsh Voices’. I purchased it in WH Smith in Bridgend alongside, yes,  ‘The Boy Inside’ by Sam Adams.

For me, Meic’s English poetry constituted his best writing and I was always excited when discovering that rarest of rare birds, a new poem in English by Meic Stephens.

Meic’s own poetry was gradually dominated by his Welsh language output (Welsh being his third language), especially verse written in the Gwenhwyseg of south-east Wales.

He liked nothing better than surprising literate Welsh speakers with his abilities in his own extinction-threatened  dialect.

In this way he might have had something in common with my maternal grandmother, with her own rags of Gwenhwyseg, An extraordinary thought.  (Meic’s last e-address was defiantly ‘hwncomanco’- “this one over by there”. Maybe she would have appreciated Meic’s ‘Ponies, Twynyrodyn’, from ‘Welsh Voices’.

Meic Stephens is one of two particular people who dominated my early life as a writer. The other is Cary Archard, happily alive and vigorous, who inherited the Triskel Press of Meic’s creation, and edited my contribution to the Triskel series.

But I am drawn especially to Meic Stephens because of his ability to combine politics and activism (including non-violent direct action) with cultural endeavor.

I didn’t experience literary Wales before Meic, but I am told by some it was, in English at least, unrecognizably arid and timorous.

Meanwhile, I will reread his novel, ‘Yeah, Dai Dando’ (Cinnamon 2008) for me his most surprising creation; his English autobiography, ‘My Shoulder to the Wheel’; return to ‘Green Horse, edited with Peter Finch, (Christopher Davies, 1978); and pick my way carefully through ‘Wilia’, his poems in the Wenhwyseg (Barddas, 2014).

I will also rely on Meic’s collected editions of the poems of Harri Webb and Glyn Jones; and turn   for delightful education to his collections of obituaries, most notably ‘Necrologies’ (Seren, 2008).

And yes, there is so much more, such as his biography of Rhys Davies, (Parthian, 2013). Indeed, there is hardly a bookshelf in my house to which Meic has not contributed.

Diolch yn fawr am bobeth, Meic Stephens! Matchless.

Robert Minhinnick 13.7.18