I haven’t written for more than two weeks, which is an unusually long silence. There’s no particular reason apart from seasonal ennui and the slow collapse of our culture into angry senescence – OK so that’s a rather big reason, and the most dangerous of all. Whilst in Hay on Wye this weekend we scoured the bookshops and I came across a marvellous volume of essays titled “The Welsh Way – Essays on Neoliberalism and Devolution” – which I devoured mostly sitting in bed in our hotel room because the drains in the building were blocked and the trenchant smell of sewage forced us us keep the window open, in spite of the outside temperature being -3C. It all somehow reflected my mood. Even on the drive home the sun struggled to shine and just hovered us like a black and white pastel drawing of a poached egg. Our dirty weekend had turned out dirtier in a different way than either of us ever imagined.
The book, on the other hand, is brilliant and gave me much food for thought hinging, as it does, on the continued fantasy of Welsh radicalism examined against its actual deployment over the past 50 years. “Could do better” hardly describes it. But the book also brought home how the individual and separate crises of our time are nothing more than related symptoms of the single malignant disease known as Neoliberalism. The book also gave me an unexpected metaphor expressing two ways of living with the crisis drawing on a structure I know well from the inside. Huw Williams writes of the contrast between the old independent and baptist churches that they were:
…… reformed beyond recognition by the Methodists. To [Iorwerth Peate] the Methodists performed a corruption of tradition, in particular in their aspiration to engage with the world, reform it and transform it. The true spirit of the original nonconformity was to distance oneself from the world, seek salvation in the next life, and carry the burden of this life with dignity and patience.”
Huw Williams; The New Dissent: Page 105. Neoliberal Politics and the Welsh Way
I was almost born into Primitive Methodism and later moved into the Wesleyans and from there to low church and then Anglo Catholic Anglicanism. A long path through the traditions that taught me a great deal about the ancient rift between the activists and the withdrawers. I learned well that withdrawal from the world, whilst it might feed the religious ego, just allowed the devil free range. Where’s the virtue in finding some new cruelty or horror to turn away from and ignore every day?
So the photograph at the top was taken – as the caption says – on the banks of the River Wye; now polluted almost to extinction by intensive chicken farms which have proliferated along her banks and which pour many tons of phosphorus and nitrogen from poultry manure into her water every day. The ray of light is that the tree was growing just a few yards upstream from the bridge under which I finally and suddenly realized that I had lost my faith somewhere along that long journey.
It’s December 14th and in just a week we’ll celebrate the winter solstice which signals the return of the earth from the darkness of the declining days and I remember the words of Mother Julian of Norwich ; ” … all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”
So instead of spending Wednesday hanging around in a secure campervan compound, we were able to charge the batteries properly while driving the round trip of about 100 miles to Hay on Wye and back again. I have no idea why we’re so passionately attached to Hay – we don’t attend the festival or even camp there very often, but it’s very close to some of our favourite places like Hay Bluff, Capel y Ffin and Kilvert’s parishes, not to mention Offa’s dyke and some of the best (and longest) hill walks in Wales; and it does have a very good ironmonger – so good we once drove there to buy a crowbar. They didn’t have one.
I don’t do endorsements, but our journey was only made possible by an extraordinary piece of technology. LIke most of us, the campervan had developed a flat battery this summer during the lockdown when we weren’t able to go anywhere; and our usual way of dealing with this problem would be to drive 20 miles with our genny to where it’s stored, and spend hours charging it up – sometimes meaning we had to make two journeys and waste most of a day. I’ve always avoided the idea of getting a battery booster set because in my memory they were extremely cumbersome, and lugging one of them up and down three flights of stairs at the flat is a bit of a pain. However, after a lucky online search, I found the most wonderful lithium ion booster which weighs just over 500 grammes (one and a quarter pounds), fits in your pocket and will deliver 1000A; enough to crank up a 3 litre diesel or 6 litre petrol engine. No – I didn’t believe it either – but I charged it overnight via a USB socket and this morning we went down to the van and after a couple of minutes getting it attached,started the engine without so much as a hint of battery problems.
But this post isn’t a touristy piece on the Brecon Beacons; it’s about something rather different – more psychogeographical than topographical, and more literary than I’d expected: think Kilvert’s Diary, Bruce Chatwin’s ‘On The Black Hill’ and …… forgive me …. JRR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. But first, Adlestrop.
So …. sunny autumn day; the leaves turning golden on the trees and as we crested the top of the hill leading down to Raglan we could see Hay Bluff in the far distance, the atmosphere was so clear. We always go by the the back roads, eschewing the motorway and sticking to the quieter and shorter route which, notwithstanding the continual nagging of the satnav, takes exactly the same length of time – give or take the occasional tractor. The car park at Hay was only a third full and visitors were pretty thin on the ground by the looks of it, so we drove down to the bottom and parked up in the sunshine to brew tea.
Silences are difficult to describe because they can often be defined by sounds. As I sat on the van step, soaking up the warmth and listening to a robin singing in its birdish minor key, I suddenly thought of Adlestrop in Edward Thomas’ poem. There the silence is defined by the sound of escaping steam. In my parents’ garden the silence was always defined by house sparrows. We were once walking in Clun where there was the most lovely silence I think I’ve ever experienced, it was so warm and embracing. Tawny owls do good night silences here in Bath and once in Corsica we were kept awake by the silences, bookended by the sound of the Scops owls. Urban silences are always brief and punctuated at each end by the sound of traffic and aeroplanes, or perhaps ambulances. You have to snatch them out of the still air as if you were attempting to catch a butterfly in your hands. The silence you can find in the Brecon Beacons is different again, accompanied by wind and grass but yesterday in Hay on Wye, the silence was modulated by the sound and smell of a petrol mower somewhere close by, and by the quarreling jackdaws in the trees. It was a silence pregnant with all the other lost silences of my life. Robin, my last therapist, was good at silences. He could create a silence like a rich medium in which my hidden thoughts could germinate and grow and, once established, would follow me up the lanes and steps as I walked back to Clifton with my ghosts.
This silence, once evoked, stayed with me even above the noise of the van as we drove back. Pen y Fan never looked lovelier or more challenging as we drove towards Bwlch and then, on the right, there was Buckland Hill and Tolkien joined my thoughts. Despite his protestations that the Lord of the Rings had nothing to do with the war, he had started the writing Hobbit in 1939, and it’s infused with melancholy for a lost and comfortable world that’s always made me feel that when push comes to shove, I’m a hobbit too. Utterly attached to my own place and all too fond of a good meal and a gossip. The Tolkien obsessives have often associated the Buckland of the book with the Buckland hill overlooking the River Usk near Bwlch. There have always been rumours that Tolkien stayed at Buckland Hall as a child, although no-one has absolutely nailed it, but the c0-location of fictional Buckland with the fictional ‘Crickhollow’ is hard to ignore when you’re about to drive through the entirely real Crickhowell with the ‘old forest’ of the beacons looming above.
And in this thoughtful mood we drove on in the noisy, roaring and rattling silence of the van, and I thought about Louis MacNeice’s marvellous ‘Autumn Journal’ and the ominous sense that its lines, written in 1939, are like the leaves of a tree suddenly illuminated by the intense light that sometimes precedes a storm.
Something has broken. Was it Mircea Eliade that said we ‘live in a story shaped universe’? Yesterday it seemed as if ‘losing the plot’ might be a trivial way of expressing the fact that we’ve lost the story. Goodness knows I’m not a fan of all those dwarves and elves in Tolkien but the fact that Lord of the Rings became almost canonical for several generations of us, does suggest that some kind of story can be a better guide to being human than the predigested idiocy of the politicians who suggest that the way forward is, in fact, the way back. I remember being very struck by something George Steiner wrote more than 50 years ago in relation to literature. He suggested that we should ask the question “what measure of man [sic] does this propose?”.
Buckland Hill, for all its powerful imagery, both exists in the mind as a fictional landmark and also in its geographical embodiment overlooking the River Usk. Of course the two are not separable, and who in their right mind would wish to do so? Perhaps that’s what Philip Pullman was pointing at in ‘His Dark Materials’. The destruction of stories is an act of barbarity and violence.
The silence followed me home and back in the flat, I took down the Lord of the Rings and my maps from the bookshelves; just in case I could find a way out of this plague somewhere within them.
Why on earth this ee cummings poem dropped into my mind just then is a mystery for later. Some days are apocalyptic in the manner of a Hollywood epic, and others are apocalyptic in a much quieter way. You get the feeling that the walls are crumbling and that, somehow, things will never be the same and yet it’s hard to say why.
I suppose a quixotic journey in search of a crowbar might be a beginning for such a day. We’d not long moved to the Potwell Inn and taken on the allotment. Back at the Inn things weren’t going well. The windows were rotten, the landlord was making a herculean effort to do nothing about it, and I was struggling to orientate myself in a life stripped of pastoral responsibilities and lukewarm ceremonial.
We, or rather I, needed a big heavy crowbar so we could get long fence posts into the ground. I’m quite short and the effort required to stand on tiptoe with a wobbling post and hammer it two feet into the ground was more than I could manage. Being obsessive about getting things level and vertical was gradually making me a bit crazy, and so the idea of a big heavy crowbar floated into my mind as the solution to both allotment and mental state, two birds – as it were – with one stone. However the way my mind works, the image ‘crowbar’ was immediately followed by the image ‘old fashioned ironmonger’ shortly pursued by the memory of a shop called Hine and Collinson who, forty years ago, had a four story building on the London Road and who could be relied upon for the most obscure objects of desire. I went there once wanting to buy a replacement lamp glass for an old paraffin lamp. All I could remember was that my mother had said it was called a ‘double duplex’. I went into the shop and amid the tottering skyscrapers of ancient hardware and flypapers I found a man in a brown warehouse coat and asked my question. Not in the least phased, he disappeared for ten minutes and emerged with the lamp glass still wrapped in its original brown paper. Sadly Hine and Collinson have long since disappeared in favour of a fast food shop. That alone should have been a clue.
And so it seemed obvious that we should drive to the nearest old fashioned ironmonger where, no doubt, I could choose from a wide selection of traditional models, weigh them in my hand and try their heft before bringing home the exact right model wrapped in sticky greased paper. Sadly the only ironmonger’s shop I could think of was in Hay on Wye – about sixty miles away. And so we drove there on a freezing cold day, through the remnants of some filthy weather which had left rivers and their nearby land flooded, paying scant attention even to Pen-y-Fan in the distance with a dusting of snow.
In short, the ironmonger was a disappointment. You could buy a wicker basket with a dog mat or a contemporary teapot. You could even buy a box – not a bag – of nails or screws if you penetrated the darker areas to the rear. Bedding plants and alarm clocks were abundant but not a sign of a slater’s ripper, a box-handled firmer chisel, a sash cramp, a sash weight, or especially a crowbar. There were small, very small, wrecking bars of the kind a burglar might conceal under their coat – but I wanted more, much more. It was beginning to dawn on me that this crowbar had become a kind of grail quest. There was a wound that wouldn’t heal, and I needed something more than a bloody crowbar.
And so we went for a walk to the river which was in full spate. There’s a path that takes you down beneath the bridge and there we stood, watching and listening to the gurgling, glooping and sucking of the river as it muscled its way between the piers. “What ails you?” it was saying to me. And I knew what it was – I was filled with hopeless longing for something gone forever, which probably had never existed except as an artifact in my memory.
Good bye job. Good bye God. Good bye Mills the grocer with their broken custard creams, goodbye Palmers seed store and Sprackman’s the hay and straw dealer, good bye Hubert Harris the undertaker with his black horse and even blacker coat with dusty shoulders, good bye Darke in A minor – it’s time to move on.
I watched them, one by one, tumbling in the mudstained water and racing one another beyond my sight. It’s strange because the River Wye always feels as if it’s travelling in the wrong direction at that point, but it’s just enjoying one of its long oxbows before finally turning south towards the sea. There’s nothing anyone can do to make the illusion fit the facts and so you just have to accept the way things are and start walking in what, at first, feels like the wrong direction. When we eventually got home I went online and ordered the crowbar from B&Q with click and collect; there and back 12 miles, crowbar exactly what I wanted.
The only place to move on from is exactly where you are, without illusion.