The Hay Festival 1994

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The Independent Culture
Things were running a little late, and it looked as if we might miss the opening minutes of the discussion between R S Thomas, the octogenarian Welsh poet, one of the festival's most regular and popular visitors, and Lord Gowrie. We fell into our seats just as Gowrie, wearing mud-choked, seven-league boots and a Mad Hatter's Tea Party bow tie, the very embodiment of self-confidence, strode out onto the stage.

'I don't enjoy poetry readings these days,' Thomas said to me later, and it had been all too evident that he had endured it. That aside, the sheer presence of this man on a stage was quite extraordinary. Gaunter than ever now, his skin looked scoured by the wind's attrition. The voice was firm in its determination to articulate his thoughts, but quavering too.

Gowrie divided his questions into categories. The last but one was love. 'There is love in the poems, albeit of a hard-won and somewhat obtuse kind,' he said, inching his way across difficult terrain. What would Thomas say about that? After a considerable pause for thought, he replied, 'I don't know what love is. It's there, obviously, but I don't know that I was ever taught to love, nor to mingle with people who could demonstrate what it was.'

No one shed a tear at that remark. There was no sentimentality in it. It was more a matter of staring hard into the implications of the fact that this old man, held so dear by so many, married to the same wife for upwards of half a century, could have said so bleak and pitiless a thing.