Poet in Motion

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), March 6, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Poet in Motion


Byline: By Mario Basini Western Mail

Mario Basini speaks to poet Owen Sheers about his first book of prose, The Dust Diaries, and why he's inherited his ancestor's wanderlust

THE soulful blue eyes, fashion model looks and tousled black hair may epitomise the image of the romantic young poet. But ask Owen Sheers whether he would prefer playing rugby for Wales to writing verse, and, even in these troubled times for our national game the answer will be a resounding yes.

He could have been a contender had not his career as a scrum-half been cut short by injury. He played for Gwent Schools, some high quality second-class sides such as Pontypool and Blaina and university teams before a repeatedly dislocated shoulder forced him to retire.

Instead he concentrated on his burgeoning career as a writer. His talent was so precious that at 29 his reputation as the brilliant future of Welsh writing has been around for so long it already seems a clichA. When his first collection of poetry, The Blue Book, came out four years ago it was greeted by a chorus of praise.

One bedazzled critic compared him to Keats. The book was shortlisted as The Welsh Book of the Year. The few dissenting voices were drowned in the cacophony of acclaim. Soon the Independent on Sunday had named his as one of Britain's best 30 young writers.

His former tutor on the MA course in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, Andrew Motion, named him the poet for the new Millennium.

Nor was his impact merely a matter of his literary worth. The novelist Louis de Bernieres declared that when he wrote Captain Corelli's Mandolin he envisaged its Italian hero as looking just like Sheers.

Now four years after the appearance of The Blue Book little has changed with the publication of his first book of prose, The Dust Diaries. It tells the story of one of Sheers's ancestors, Arthur Cripps, himself a lyric poet, who as a missionary spent a lifetime ministering to the Africans in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia.

Once again the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, even if the occasional hostile critic has this time made enough noise to be noticed. While the Independent on Sunday and The Sunday Times waxed lyrical over its quality Alexandra Fuller in The Guardian gave him, to use Sheers's own phrase redolent of his rugby days, 'a good kicking.'

The Dust Diaries tells a gripping story in a carefully-wrought prose that occasionally crystallises into passages of considerable beauty. The description of the rape of a young African girl by a group of out-of-control British soldiers during World War I is told with a poet's precise and dispassionate command of telling detail. 'The line between the black skin of her foot and the pale skin of her soles was so neat it looked as if she had dipped both feet in a fine chalk dust.'

The lack of manipulative emotion in the passage makes its horror twice as telling.

Arthur Cripps's life, played out against the vast backcloth of the African plains and mountain ranges, was one of quiet heroism made all the more admirable by his obvious human flaws. As a young curate in England, he falls in love with a young woman and makes her pregnant.

The dutiful young clergyman offers to marry her. But his family objects and her apoplectic father insists she should marry a farmer with prospects rather a penniless curate. Cripps supinely gives in.

She marries the farmer and he opts for a missionary's life in Africa. For the next 50 years he lives among and ministers to the Africans, a maverick who commits the cardinal sin in the eyes of his fellow colonials by 'going native.'

Cripps seems to have accepted many aspects of the African religion based on ancestor worship which takes the presence of spirits in the physical world as being as natural as the rain. He fights for their political rights and economic welfare and they return his love with love and reverence.

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