Sinclair, I. (2015) Black Apples of Gower Little Toller Monograph ISBN 978 1 908213 28 0
“My life’s journey was just beginning, even though I was close to its chronological finish. Nothing happened, nothing was real until I tapped out the first sentence. I would begin with the Horton swim. The deserted car park. The dunes. Anna hugging her knees, dozing off, and thinking her own thoughts. […] …dreams of Paviland stayed with me, unresolved. How was that to be managed?” p.130
Provoked by an enigmatic series of paintings made by Ceri Richards in the 1950s Iain Sinclair leaves his ‘London Project’ behind and, ‘carrying an envelope of black-and-white photographs and old postcards, along with fragments of memory…’, he walks the cliff top paths of his childhood in South Wales, rediscovering the Gower Peninsula.
“I’m eager to blow the dust from the top of a slim volume of autobiography left on the shelf for decades.” p.11
“The past is a sandy tablet for sketching and charming and not paying the bills for guilt of long prolonged absence. We are looking for private islands, coming in half asleep on some rattling bus, and finding no good reason to leave.” p.12
“Physical sensations, odours particularly – puddled, stone-floored byre, chemical toilet, melting tarmac, clover dunes, bubbling chip vats – invoke home-movie episodes as they might or might not have happened.” p.13
“Those times can never be retrieved by a magical necklace of sentences.” p.33
This is a book I tried hard to enjoy.
The premise – memory / art / poetry / landscape / sense of place – seemed hopeful. From a number of seemingly short walks over a seemingly short period of time Sinclair seemed to strike a rich seam and skilfully – alchemically – weave a complex tale that views from a new perspective not only two previous walks he’d made (one when he was aged 16 with boyhood mates chasing girls and adventure, one as a budding poet / performer / artist / writer with Brian Gatling in his late twenties) but also fuel digressions on poets Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins; the physical presence of the land between Port Eynon Point and Worm’s Head; the artwork of Ceri Richards and the ‘Red Woman’ archeological finds excavated in the Paviland Cave.
These prove to be fascinating digressions, and some of the writing is pitch perfect and vivid, but for me on this first reading it was just too rich a mix. It left me constipated and frustrated. I lost the thread of the book in forests of rambling streams of consciousness; at times the writing seemed wilfully obtuse, and just that little bit too ostentatiously intellectual. As a result I struggled to uncover the tone of the book, was it tongue-in-cheek or a genuine search for understanding? Was it a mediation on life and death, a raging against ageing perhaps???
I just don’t know.
In a world of endless conclusions perhaps Sinclair would be the first to say that the purpose of the book wasn’t to provide answers but more to prompt questions, perhaps his role was to author the chains of thought and record where they went, how they connected, disrupted then further interconnected???
There are too many question marks in this book review.
But then, Black Apples of Gower is a cryptic kind of a book, confusing, wise – profoundly so at times, frustrating certainly… a Marmite monologue, love it or hate it.
“[…] place is poem.” p.66
“Sometimes it works best to keep the desired conclusion in play. To known it has to be left for another time. For now, we settle for an unexplained crown of burnt bush, looking like fused barbed wire.” p.83
I think I’ll try reading it again.
Selected Further Reading:
1. Little Toller book synopsis HERE
2. The Independent review HERE
3. Caught by The River review HERE