Round the Rugged Rocks...

Blaenau Ffestiniog, Photographs: Jeremy Moore, Poems: Gwyn Thomas
(96pp, hardback, £19.99, Gomer Press)

For any creative artist of consequence there comes a realization that their technical skill does not necessarily generate work either of any great vitality or acute insight. Despite Jeremy Moore's resourcefulness as a photographer and poet Gwyn Thomas's birth connection to the locality, their collaboration for Blaenau Ffestiniog lacks the essential quality - that fusing of actuality with the imagination - that would bring their Srepresentations to life on the page. Both have misplaced the 'terrible beauty' of this landscape which Moore has identified in his introduction to the book as the raison d'etre for combining their efforts to achieve a very particular sense of place.

Despite feeling 'curiously at home amongst the slate-tips and the dereliction' Moore's position is contradictory: he wants to offer a narrative of contained human existence and yet he refuses to include any figures in his photographs which might at least indicate their relationship to this rural, but semi-industrial way of life. Thomas also imposes his own method of constraint: rather than responding directly to the same landscape, the recently appointed National Poet of Wales simply chooses to 'write some annotations to accompany the photographs'. Consequently the poems do not explore this rugged landscape of human intervention in parallel with the camera; they read much more as an afterthought on locations where someone else has been.

One of Thomas's trademarks is to hark back to a bygone era when: 'Some of our Grandfathers / came to build shelters / Against the wrath of nature'; thereby approaching the subject with an identifiably sentimental voice. What emerges in the poems is that this strategy can only get the poet so far:  the text reveals very little engagement with the present; for this is a way of life based on certain religious and communal  ideals which now face cultural, social and economic dislocation, perhaps eventual oblivion. Thomas manages to ignore these contemporary anxieties while still using what is left of such a run down, malfunctioning industry to fuel his laments. He recalls a golden age of productivity when:  'An old works that was, once, / Busy, bright with busyness / Of people getting on with it, / And all of it meaningful / So that, for all things, there's a purpose'.

Unlike the photographer Moore, the poet Thomas does not feel quite so engaged by the devastation of the surrounding area: his opening line of 'Finished' which asks 'Is there anything more depressing' gets this central aversion across.  Like many others, the poem 'Topsy-turvey' is dominated by the poet's sense of nostalgia: by longing for 'Stones, slates, and windows, / Roofs, a road, poles, houses' where 'Men have made / An orderly way of living', he naively plants the opposite thought that this might also be his repressive place of origin. Similarly, the upbeat resolve that closes the poem, 'On this street still plenty to go', comes over as a far too simplistic observation.

Although Moore and Thomas approach their subject by conflicting means, the resulting book does manage to provide a narrative view of Blaenau Ffestiniog, its landscape, its people and its economic collapse. How effectively a coffee-table book might raise awareness about this decline is questionable. Moore's photographs do reveal something of a social conscience, for he attempts to document the effect of the slate-quarrying industry on one of Snowdonia's most dramatic areas. But the obsessive need to record this residue does not necessarily sit comfortably with the desire to compose highly picturesque, aesthetically 'pleasing' photographs. Although easy-on-the-eye, such a compromise will always fall short. Without bigger ambitions, a project such as this can never do full justice to all the complexities that help form such an environment.

        © Peter Gillies 2007