Book review: Black Apples of Gower

Mark Griffiths is captivated by this lyrical exploration of richly blessed corner of South Wales.

Black Apples of Gower by Iain Sinclair (Little Toller Books, £15)

Many who love the Gower Peninsula speak of it as if it were an enchanted island. Its insularity is not, of course, physical. Nor is it temperamental. With its capital, Swansea, not long ago one of our greatest ports, the Gower is worldly, civilised, relaxed. Even its remotest villages keep a warmer welcome than the Valleys, let alone North Wales.

No, what makes these 70 square miles another country is the disproportionate volume and value of the legacies bestowed on them by Nature and history. It’s the sheer concentration of riches: Rhossili, Britain’s most epic and romantic bay; Oxwich, whose hinterland harbours more wild orchids than many comparable areas of rainforest; the tree-tunnelled paths walked since prehistoric times; the cockles and saltmarsh lamb and stall-holders’ laughter in Swansea Market; the glorious paintings in the city’s Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and the artefacts, strange harvest of ocean voyages, local digs and customs and Egyptian excavations, that fill its museum. So the blessings go on, too good for shortlisting.

It’s no surprise that this terrain should also have produced visionary artists and writers. One of them is the poet, essayist, film-maker and novelist Iain Sinclair, who is celebrated as a pioneer of psycho-geography. Put crudely, this form of writing recounts a journey during which a place’s properties, physical, historical and mystical, its memories and resonances, its inhabitants past and present and its interactions with natural and other forces emerge and are explored.

Mr Sinclair’s best-known excursions have been in London and its environs. In Black Apples of Gower, he takes his leave of Hackney and returns to the peninsula to retrace the woodland, heath and cliff paths of his youth.

The book takes its title from the dark planet-like apple that is the motif of a series of Gower-inspired paintings by Ceri Richards, one of a group of astonishing talents who developed in and around Swansea. Richards and another, the poet Vernon Watkins, are commanding presences, ghostly guides like Dante’s Virgil, their work full of symbols that reveal ‘the key to the essential mystery of the “island” of Gower’.

A third in this group, Dylan Thomas, is less of a master spirit, treated instead with measure and insight, allowed his importance in this literary landscape, but not to the point of eclipsing his peers a rare thing in a book about South Wales. A passage of immense poignancy describes how Richards, as if telepathically prompted, covered his copy of Thomas’s Collected Poems with elegiac drawings while, far away in Manhattan, the poet neared death.

Mr Sinclair transports ekphrasis—writing inspired by visual art—into new dimensions. Not only do his meditations on the disc of darkness in Richards’s paintings reveal much about that artist, his work and his friends, they become journeys through time and space, part-topographical, part-autobiographical. They pose questions: what is this enigmatic void-cum-womb, the black apple, and how does it relate to life and death in the peninsula? Seeking answers to them leads to an actual quest and Mr Sinclair’s journeying to the great coastal cavern that once contained the bones of primal Gower man.

Black Apples of Gower fuses anecdote, memoir, biography, history (art, literary and natural), archaeology and geography in an essay on mortality and memory that sweeps like Rhossili Bay. But it is also a sublime visit to this island of otherness, whose scents, sounds, flora and fauna accompany every step of the way, and there is not a page in which Mr Sinclair’s prose is any less musical, rich or sharp than his ghost-guide’s finest poetry.

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