Channel-hopping one evening and suddenly I see Rolf Harris singing on Bangor pier – were my eyes deceiving me?! No, this was ‘Rolf on Welsh Art’ and this episode was dedicated to Bangor-born artist and writer Brenda Chamberlain. During the programme Rolf makes his way to Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli). The island is a place of ancient Christian pilgrimage and was home for Brenda between 1947 and 1961 and the subject of her book Tide-Race.
“You Who Are In The Traffic Of The World: Can You Guess The Thoughts Of An Islander?”
Situated off the Lleyn peninsula in North West Wales, it could be argued that the island itself is the protagonist of Tide-Race. It is more than a back drop as its sheer wilderness shapes and orders the lives of its inhabitants- it is sometimes surprising that the island is habitable at all. Its beauty tempts the mainland dwellers, as Chamberlain explains:
‘The island wore a deceptive summer innocence like a flower garden in which a serpent lay asleep.’
What strikes you is the relationship the islanders have with their surroundings, both on and offshore. Described in dozens of ways, each description of the sea is simultaneously believable and terrifying. It torments and it placates, it gives and it takes away. It is what makes the island at once a secluded sanctuary and a hellish prison. Tide-Race encompasses a breadth of experience from Jack Issacson the Ancient Mariner to the children of the island who could not ask for a more unique playground. With a population of less than fifty there is still plenty for Chamberlain to chronicle including the quarrels of nosey neighbours, the superstitious fisherman and bodies washing up on the island’s shores.
A place to escape, yet full of foreboding Chamberlain conveys the charm that pulls one towards the island and the brutality that fends one away. For an island that is supposedly the resting place of twenty-thousand saints, Tide-Race evokes its unique essence. As Jonah Jones mentions in the afterword, in terms of text and image there is nothing else quite like Tide-Race. An evocative account of life only islanders can comprehend, intertwined with Brenda’s own line drawings of the islanders themselves- it is an account of Wales and all of its elements.