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22 May 2024

Cerys Matthews Q&A: “What’s bugging me? Superfluous adjectives”

The musician and broadcaster on Pippi Longstocking, the extraordinary life of Fridtjof Nansen and the poetry of Dylan Thomas.

By New Statesman

Cerys Matthews was born in 1969 in Cardiff. She is a songwriter, singer, author and broadcaster. She was a founding member of the Welsh band Catatonia and presents an award-winning show on BBC Radio 6 Music.

What’s your earliest memory?

Driving in Pembrokeshire singing a Welsh-language pig song as a massive sow jumped out of the trailer ahead of us and hobbled down the country lane, a farmer chasing it with a stick.

Who are your heroes?

When I was a child it was Pippi Longstocking: a strong, independent, messy and free-thinking child character in a book. As an adult it’s Mother Nature; I mean, the taste of unripened mango, a passion fruit flower, birds of paradise,  moss close-up, or insects and how they work together. It’s so beautiful.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d live in pre-Captain Cook French Polynesia, on Otaheite (Tahiti) – described by the sailors who came across the island in the 18th century as paradise on Earth. I’d go to dance and write songs, sit in the sun and eat tropical fruit.

What single thing would make your life better?

Proportional representation.

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What political figure do you look up to?

The Nobel Peace Prize winner Fridtjof Nansen, born in 1861, for his extraordinary intellect. He was a polymath across at least five disciplines, a neurologist,  humanitarian, oceanographer, the inventor of the Nansen passport for refugees, fighter for Norwegian independence and the pioneer of neuron theory. He was also a trailblazing explorer – including cross-country skiing pioneer, ship-design maverick, polar-travel forerunner, and someone who respected, learned from and loved the Inuit people of Greenland. 

What TV show could you not live without?   

The Paris-based TV series Spiral. I loved that the characters were completely flawed, each being neither good nor bad.  

What book last changed your thinking?

Nansen by Roland Huntford. Also, Fatal Passage by Ken McGoogan, which is about John Rae, and Everest: The First Ascent by Harriet Tuckey.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

The poetry, drama and essays of Dylan Thomas. I’ve curated a new collection of his poems that includes his very early attempts at poetry and his very last. Some beauty in there for sure. 

What’s your theme tune?

“Hercules”by Aaron Neville, 1973 – written and produced by the late, great Allen Toussaint.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Tom Jones told me: “Don’t drink alcohol before a show.” I’ve followed it religiously. Thanks, Tom.

What’s currently bugging you?

Where to start? The rise of autocrats, lack of accountability (we witnessed Grenfell) and add cronyism too. On a much smaller scale: superfluous adjectives.

When were you happiest?

Reaching Kathmandu alive after escaping avalanches and storms in a helicopter at Gorakshep, Nepal.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A botanist specialising in the protection of  biodiversity.

Are we all doomed?

Oh God. Put a record on. Let’s talk.

Cerys Matthews’ selection of  Dylan Thomas poems, “Out of Chaos Comes Bliss: Essential Poems”, is published by Pushkin Press

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024