John Morgan was born in Bream in 1935, but it was well into the 21st century before he first put pen to paper and started writing poems. ‘I didn’t write poetry at school,’ says John, ‘no one around me wrote poetry when I was growing up either, and I don’t really read poetry’. None of that has held John back though since he first started writing poems just a few years ago, and now, with the support of his sons Paul and Dean he’s regularly uploading videos of himself reading his poems to YouTube.
He’s found a wide and appreciative audience for his poetry too. “It’s not so much my friends and neighbours – I don’t think they go on Youtube,” says John. Instead people from all over the world have been watching, and one poem in particular, ‘And I Kissed You’, has prompted dozens of people to leave comments of support and appreciation: “So beautiful”, “had me in tears”, and “Right that’s enough can’t take any more, had a lump in my throat”. John admits it was a real challenge recording himself reading that particular poem, and he pauses several times to collect himself as he explains how it came about. John wrote it shortly after he lost his wife Marion in 2017. “It was a very difficult time,” John says, “We were married for 60yrs. When you think of all the wonderful times…there’s not a day goes by that I don’t think of her and shed a tear, she was the love of my life.” Writing the poem helped John to some extent in dealing with his loss, that and a local bereavement support group led by GP Dr Martin Gibbs and his wife Sandy. It was there that he first shared the poem, and John is full of praise for the work they do.
In happier times John was a long-standing member of Forest of Dean Male Voice Choir and it was the arrival of a new uniform that prompted him to write his very first poem, ‘The Pullover’. “We were grateful for the new sweaters, but they were truly awful,” says John, and so he wrote a poem about it. Asked where ideas for his poems come from John says that they just seem to pop into his head. “It’s no good asking me to write a poem on particular thing,” he says, “it just doesn’t work that way for me. It’s hard to explain really.”
John has always lived in the Forest of Dean and he uses Forest dialect in some of his work, though you certainly wouldn’t describe him as a Forest dialect poet as such. Listening to him read his poems the warmth of a Forest accent is definitely there, with dialect dropped in just occasionally and very naturally. John explains how his use of dialect has changed over the years. He had converted an old ambulance into a camper for him and his wife to take on holidays, especially around Devon and Cornwall. He remembers how they would go into a pub and, “It was no good going in there ‘thick’in’ and thou’in’ an ‘ow bis gwine on weet old un’ and all that, they didn’t understand one word we were saying nor, come to think of it, us them. We had to, you know, refine how we spoke.”
John’s father was a miner in the Forest of Dean and in later life suffered ill health as a result. He is full of admiration for his father, something he writes about in his poem ‘My Hero’. Like many who knew the harsh reality of work underground John’s father discouraged him from joining him in the pit, instead helping him find his first job, on a farm in St Briavels, work that he remembers fondly to this day. Even so, eventually John ended up training at Cannop Drift before starting work at Princess Royal Colliery as a ‘drammer’ (managing the coal carts – ‘drams’ - underground). One fateful day, experiencing a problem connecting some of the carts John became trapped and, in the crush, received a serious injury to his chest. It was this, he was later told, that led to him being infected with TB, the reason too he was rejected from the Army. It meant a long period in hospital and a log convalesce, something he refers to in his poem ‘I was Born in 1935 – and Yun I Glad I’m Still Alive’.
Though John often writes about his own life, and his family, he does so in such a way that is thoroughly relatable, as evidenced by his growing audience on YouTube. He writes with an openness and directness that clearly communicates his thoughts, feelings and ideas, and with a candour, and often whit, that is utterly engaging. His work sometimes refers to his own past and that of the Forest of Dean but he and his ideas are never stranded there. Perhaps one the best examples of this is his poem ‘Looking Forward’, dealing with the contemporary Covid pandemic and looking forward to resuming the simple sociable pleasures of life. It is such a joy to hear the poems of an 85yr old relatively ‘new’ Forest of Dean poet, that embrace such a wide range of themes and with such optimism, insight, and an eye to the future. John continues to upload new poems online.
To enjoy more of ‘Big John’s’ poems, performed by the man himself, go to his son Paul, and daughter-in-law Carole’s YouTube channel ‘Paul and Carole Love to Travel’ or simply search for ‘Big John Forest of Dean Poems’.