“I Can’t Offer Much in the Way of Hospitality” | Memories of R.S. Thomas

Welsh hospitality mattered to R. S. Thomas: It was an integral part of the Wales he loved.

Medieval Welsh lords welcomed traveling bards to their tables, as the bard Iolo Goch was welcomed at Sycharth by Owain Glyn Dŵr, which moved the bard to praise

. . . Sycharth with its brown beer,
Meat from the chase, fish from the weir.

R.S. Thomas in 1992

R.S. Thomas in 1992

Why there would be no such welcome for this American non-bard, Thomas felt it necessary to explain.

During the early months of 1992, letters passed back and forth as Thomas and I worked out the details of my August visit. Writing on March 8th, Thomas agreed to my proposed dates and got in a dig at the English: “I will make a note of August 11 and 12. This peninsula will be overrun with English visitors then, so you won’t hear much Welsh.”

With that, he turned to hospitality: “I hope I remembered to say that the reason I can’t offer much in the way of hospitality is that my wife died a year ago this month.”

Elsi Thomas was hospitalized in early March 1991; when R. S. brought her home, he carried her up the steep stairs to her bedroom, where she died on March 10th. Decades earlier, at the time of their nineteenth wedding anniversary, Thomas had written:

Nineteen years now
Keeping simple house,
Opening the door
To friend and stranger.

When I visited Thomas on August 12, 1992, he opened the door to this stranger, and led me up to the room where Elsi had died, which was, I had the impression, very much as she had left it.

But that was after Thomas made up for his inability to offer me home hospitality by giving me lunch at the Woodlands Hall Hotel. There was nothing specifically Welsh, however, about the food: poached salmon with prawns, carrots, broccoli, and green beans; Blue Nun Liebfraumilch.

Two years later, in November of 1994, Thomas offered my wife and me hospitality in the welcoming home that he and Betty Vernon had made for themselves at Llanfairynghornwy on the island of Anglesey. On the hearth, a real fire, which Thomas from time to time during drinks poked into warmer life. Betty served Welsh lamb with mint sauce and currant jelly, roasted potatoes with gravy, and the quintessential Welsh vegetable leeks cooked with tomatoes. For afters, there were nods to the non-Welsh: slices of Mediterranean oranges served in a tangy syrup with cream, Brie from France, and Double Gloucester, an English import.

It was Welsh hospitality, but Betty was English.

Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“Of Sycharth with its brown beer” – “The Tree,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 56.

“Nineteen years now” – “Anniversary,” Tares, 18.

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