For any creative artist of consequence
there comes a realization that their technical skill does not necessarily
generate work either of any great vitality or acute insight. Despite Jeremy
Moore's resourcefulness as a photographer and poet Gwyn Thomas's birth
connection to the locality, their collaboration for Blaenau Ffestiniog lacks the essential quality - that fusing of actuality
with the imagination - that would bring their Srepresentations to life on the
page. Both have misplaced the 'terrible beauty' of this landscape which Moore
has identified in his introduction to the book as the raison d'etre for
combining their efforts to achieve a very particular sense of place.
Despite feeling 'curiously at home amongst the slate-tips and the
dereliction' Moore's position is contradictory: he wants to offer a narrative
of contained human existence and yet he refuses to include any figures in his
photographs which might at least indicate their relationship to this rural,
but semi-industrial way of life. Thomas also imposes his own method of
constraint: rather than responding directly to the same landscape, the
recently appointed National Poet of Wales simply chooses to 'write some
annotations to accompany the photographs'. Consequently the poems do not
explore this rugged landscape of human intervention in parallel with the
camera; they read much more as an afterthought on locations where someone
else has been.
One of Thomas's trademarks is to hark back to a bygone era when: 'Some of our
Grandfathers / came to build shelters / Against the wrath of nature'; thereby
approaching the subject with an identifiably sentimental voice. What emerges
in the poems is that this strategy can only get the poet so far: the text reveals very little
engagement with the present; for this is a way of life based on certain
religious and communal ideals
which now face cultural, social and economic dislocation, perhaps eventual
oblivion. Thomas manages to ignore these contemporary anxieties while still
using what is left of such a run down, malfunctioning industry to fuel his
laments. He recalls a golden age of productivity when: 'An old works that was, once, / Busy,
bright with busyness / Of people getting on with it, / And all of it
meaningful / So that, for all things, there's a purpose'.
Unlike the photographer Moore, the poet Thomas does not feel quite so engaged
by the devastation of the surrounding area: his opening line of 'Finished'
which asks 'Is there anything more depressing' gets this central aversion
across. Like many others, the
poem 'Topsy-turvey' is dominated by the poet's sense of nostalgia: by longing
for 'Stones, slates, and windows, / Roofs, a road, poles, houses' where 'Men
have made / An orderly way of living', he naively plants the opposite thought
that this might also be his repressive place of origin. Similarly, the upbeat
resolve that closes the poem, 'On this street still plenty to go', comes over
as a far too simplistic observation.
Although Moore and Thomas approach their subject by conflicting means, the
resulting book does manage to provide a narrative view of Blaenau Ffestiniog,
its landscape, its people and its economic collapse. How effectively a
coffee-table book might raise awareness about this decline is questionable.
Moore's photographs do reveal something of a social conscience, for he
attempts to document the effect of the slate-quarrying industry on one of
Snowdonia's most dramatic areas. But the obsessive need to record this
residue does not necessarily sit comfortably with the desire to compose
highly picturesque, aesthetically 'pleasing' photographs. Although
easy-on-the-eye, such a compromise will always fall short. Without bigger
ambitions, a project such as this can never do full justice to all the
complexities that help form such an environment.
© Peter Gillies 2007