Nigel Jenkins, much loved bard of Gower and Wales, choreographed his own funeral as performance art. Held on Monday at St Mary’s Church in Pennard in the Gower, just yards from the family farm where he was brought up and rode horses as a boy, he planned the event down to the last detail.
For the hundreds who attended, most of them in the nearby Community Hall where sound of the ceremony was relayed, the proceedings were as much if not more an artistic spectacle than a religious occasion.
It began with the whicker coffin being carried on six shoulders from the hearse into the 13th Century Church to the mournful sound of Peter Stacey’s Breton pipes. But as we entered the church the clouds parted and the sun shone.
Inside it was as though we were transported into an 18th Century revival, the place crammed and even the gallery above full beyond the tolerance level that modern-day health and safety rules allow. We sang Joseph Parry’s Myfanwy and, to Andy Jones’ guitar accompaniment, Idris Davies’ Bells of Rhymney. There were poems and readings. The eulogy was delivered by cousin Noel Witts who 64 years ago, when he was 11-years old, became Nigel’s ‘Uncle’.
One of the readings, was a recording of Nigel’s own unforgettable baritone voice in a rendering of some of his best lines ‘Where poems come from’ (you can hear them on Youtube). Wynn Thomas, a friend and colleague at Swansea University, read another of his poems, ‘Is that where they make clouds, Dad?’ –
‘It is beautiful, the filth gusting
From a stack at Baglan, turned by the late sun
To a wing of silver
The blackly green, languorous hills;
Beyond the great dapplers bundling east,
An unearthly simplicity of open sky;
Here at our feet the tide bangs in,
Loud lengths of it slapping
The concrete steps.
There could be rain. There will be night.’
Finally, to the strains of a Bach partita, played on unaccompanied violin by Ivor McGregor, the coffin was lifted once more and carried outside. At the graveside, after the coffin was slid into the ground, glasses were passed round to the family and champagne poured. “What champagne do you want, Dad?” Nigel was asked. “The best,” he replied.
Nigel, of course, meant most to the very many people across Wales and beyond who knew and, invariably, were influenced by him. He had an acute sense of our lives being lived through what his great friend Osi Rhys Osmond, a painter poet, has described as our “brief eternities”. In a tribute on the WalesArtsReview website novelist Stevie Davies, who along with another friend, poet Menna Elfyn, also read at the funeral, quoted from a diary entry she made:
6 March 2012
Nigel & I talked about our wonder when we see the stars & sea ‘in our moment’ – boundless wonder at everything – an atom, a firmament – & he quoted from Pinter: ‘Tender the dead’ & sent me the quotation. Nigel has the most beautiful mind of anyone’s I’ve ever known – he himself is a source of wonder to me – the firmament within. He helped expose the 3,000 year old Bronze Age causeway in the Bay – which used to be a fen. We spoke about our moment within archaeological time.
Nigel will live on in such memories and, of course, through his poetry and other writings. It is entirely fitting that he now lies close to the graves of two other poets he much admired, Vernon Watkins and Harri Webb. Despite its Community Council, Pennard is blessed indeed.
But what ultimately was important about Nigel, and why so many people were touched by his life and early death was that, at a critical time, in the mid-1970s, he chose Wales. And in making that choice, he came to learn that choosing Wales also means making Wales. And that he proceeded to do, in his inimitable, painstaking, and grafting way over decades.
He was intensely local, as his two books about ‘Real Swansea’ demonstrate, and as his posthumous volume on ‘Real Gower’ will reiterate. But he also held close, but shared with gusto, a vision of Wales as a whole. That’s why we remember him.