My Friend Ronald; A Series of Letters between RS Thomas and His Friend Raymond Garlick Sheds Light on Their Poetic Vision, Religious Beliefs and Politics, Writes Steve Dub

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), August 15, 2009 | Go to article overview

My Friend Ronald; A Series of Letters between RS Thomas and His Friend Raymond Garlick Sheds Light on Their Poetic Vision, Religious Beliefs and Politics, Writes Steve Dub


Byline: Steve Dub

WALES is a land of poets and none are better known than the two Thomases - Dylan and Ronald Stuart, better known as RS.

The first stoked a reputation as a Bohemian boozer and died young; the other was regarded as a cantankerous reclusive and a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad.

One man who knew them both was Raymond Garlick, a fellow poet, co-founder of the Anglo-Welsh Review, and of academic studies of Welsh writing in English.

Garlick, then 22, met Dylan just once a few months before his death. But he knew RS as a close friend. The friendship was sustained for decades by constant correspondence, and a collection of 152 previously unpublished letters to Garlick from RS Thomas has now been published by Gwasg Gomer.

He calls RS, or Ronald as he knew him, "the greatest poet of the last century. I never doubted that from quite early on. I keep him by me always - he is the place I turn to most frequently."

And the man matters as much as the poet: "He was a lovely man, and a dear friend - so amazing and warm. My children think of him as a funny man. They knew him as little children, and he would come with toffees for them and make them laugh."

Their correspondence began when Thomas wrote to Garlick, who was editing a small poetry magazine Dock Leaves - the forerunner of the Anglo-Welsh Review. He became a loyal supporter and subscriber and the two became friends who wrote regularly and met often.

They shared a love of poetry, the English language and Wales and Garlick says they had something else in common: they were both wounded men.

Garlick has been disabled since suffering septicaemia at the age of five. He was recovering from measles when a kitten scratched him. These days penicillin would cure the problem instantly, but back in 1931 the poison spread rapidly and the treatment was to cut the patient open and drain it off. After a year in hospital Garlick emerged on crutches, and he still suffers from the effects now, at the age of 82.

In his introduction to Gomer's book of the correspondence letters, Jason Walford Davies points out that Thomas often speaks of his anguish at writing in English as "a wound, a scar, a pain and a breaking heart".

Garlick says: "Jason makes the point that I'm a wounded person. I had not thought of it like that. If you have been disabled since the age of six and lived your whole life against disability, for most of it you were just a cripple and you either survived in the world of the fit or you went nowhere.

"It was all 'pull yourself together', and 'what will become of you if you don't make an effort?'. Looking back as an old man I see all aspects of my life inevitably affected by being disabled - relationships and everything.

"One does not brood over it, even to actually work on poems or themes. When I look at it, it's an answer to the oneness and asymmetry and ugliness of disability - the awareness that comes in adolescence that you move in a stupid and ugly way.

"Poetry is a way of correcting that - the kind of poetry I write, which is highly shaped. What is lacking in the body you make up for in the word. Ronald was also a wounded person in some ways - we were both wounded, but in different ways."

He remembers "an incredible journey" from Garlick's home - then in Blaenau Ffestiniog - to Bangor to take part in a broadcast to talk about reading poetry.

"Ronald said he was always ready to broadcast because he could do with the guineas. They were always poor as church mice on a Welsh vicar's stipend," he says.

"Ronald came to collect me after school in Blaenau with his little van and we drove down to Bangor together. I don't know what started it off but we had both had difficulties with our mothers.

"Somehow there was an outpouring of the same experiences of us both - grown men but dominated by our mothers. …

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