When remembering is political

“Cofiwch Dryweryn” – remember Tryweryn painted on the wall at the end of a lane that leads to the cottage we’re staying at, and the Free Wales sticker on the adjacent traffic sign.

We’re practically in R S Thomas’s old parish here and he would have hated the souvenir shops, the way the caravan sites have multiplied and the fact that house prices have risen beyond the reach of local people. He sounded as English as I do, but with a much posher accent, the accent of the English ruling classes, which must have been a constant reminder to him that however hard he tried he would never truly be Welsh. He learned the language but could never write poetry in it – not that it stopped him haranguing the local butcher for writing his labels in English. He hated tourists with equal ferocity and apparently would drive his Morris 1000 traveller around the parish as slowly as possible, creating traffic jams of frustrated tourists and locals alike. He flirted with the Free Wales Army during their campaign of burning down holiday cottages although there’s no evidence he took part. He was a fierce opponent of the proposed nuclear power station just up the road in Edern and he wasn’t even popular with many of his parishioners. I guess he just needed to be that much more Welsh than anybody else. Peter Firth, who worked for the BBC and later became Bishop of Malmesbury was a devoted fan of RS’s poetry and he once told me that while he was making a documentary about the great poet they scoured the parish to find someone who would talk about him. Eventually they found a man willing to talk and after buying him beers all evening they settled down to interview him. The first question – ‘did you know RS Thomas’. ‘Oh yes I knew him,’ came the reply – ‘miserable bugger‘.

I met RS once at a reading in South Wales and I’m bound to say he was delightful, with a terribly dry sense of humour but I can see how he might have antagonised those who would have preferred the usual parody of a priest. I was told by the organiser that he once completely captivated a huge audience of schoolchildren in Cardiff as he talked about his work which was, quite rightly, part of their syllabus.

We’re in one of the last strongholds of the Welsh language here on Lleyn. Everybody is bilingual, of course, and they can spot a tourist at 100 paces so I know before I open my mouth they’ve mentally switched to English. So how do I feel about the less than welcoming sign at the end of the lane? It’s famous in mid Wales, reflecting the anger at the way a whole community was flooded so that Liverpool could increase its water supply. That sense of grievance lives on in a thousand Welsh towns stripped of their natural assets; exploited and then abandoned by the English, and is still palpable, but there’s not much mileage in saying I know how you feel, however sympathetic I might be.

Every night we watch the local television news and the inescapable conclusion is that by and large the quality of political discourse and leadership here, shows up the English parliament as a bunch of clowns. If I was Welsh; hearing as we did today that the the Tory Government intends to take back control of road planning from the Welsh Assembly, in order to build its filthy relief motorway across the Newport levels, obliterating three SSSI’s and nature reserves against the will of the Welsh Assembly, then I’d be thinking hard about independence.

No, I think there’s no way of escaping the sense of being the object of suspicion. Many years ago Madame and me were in a bar way down in Southern Ireland – so far South that we were warned it would be dangerous for us to visit one of the local towns – it was at the height of ‘the troubles’. We were enjoying a drink when a group of IRA fundraisers came in and entertained the locals with violently anti-English songs. We sat in complete silence, not daring to utter a syllable we were so truly petrified. Next day we went back and the landlady apologised profusely for what had happened. I said – ‘well we are English’ – as if to suggest we had it coming. ‘Yes I know’ she said, ‘but you’re tourists!’.

And there’s the paradox in a nutshell – what happens when a desperately needed tourist becomes an incomer? We slide effortlessly between the loved tourist and the loathed incomer, and in this drift into nationalism I no longer know what ‘British’ means any more; it has no content and so it’s unusable. ‘English’ is too tainted by the extreme right, and the only term that embraces the fullness of my identity is ‘European’. Wales has shared many ancient trading links with the continent since the Bronze Age and I constantly notice how many Welsh words are rooted in ancient Greek – as Gerry Angel, my old Greek teacher said – there are only two languages in the world worth learning and the better of them is Welsh!

Yesterday we had a brief conversation with a local family who were walking on the clifftop, and during the course of it one of them said “we desperately need tourists here”. Perhaps that’s it. We’re needed here because the economy is so dependent on us, and nobody’s stopping us from loving the country as passionately as we do, but that doesn’t bestow any right of possession on us. We are here on exactly the same terms as we are everywhere else on the earth – as strangers and pilgrims and it behoves us to behave modestly and as good guests.

This ancient culture, rooted in the language of farming, seafaring and fishing is so fragile it could easily disappear forever, just at the very moment in history when it has most to teach us if we are ever going to learn how to live sustainably.

At last, some sea.

Back on Lleyn after almost a year of pining. We were up at 5.00am but despite all our preparations we didn’t actually get away until 9.30 laden with food, cameras, trail cam, books and drawing equipment. It’s only 150 miles but it always takes about six hours, driving across country from South East to North West Wales, taking in the Brecon Beacons, the Cambrian mountains and the Snowdon range on the way; and here we are facing the sunset across the Irish Sea.

And we missed the spring and the summer, so the thrift – briefly reignited by the setting sun – has withered and died back. The silverweed has been shriven by the fierce weather the sloes are small but ripening slowly and to the North an approaching cold front was heavy with broiling clouds, the colour of Payne’s Gray – a colour I love so much I’d be happy to spend an hour painting great swaths of it on watercolour paper. One or two brave field mushrooms were showing their button heads, but with the temperature dropping overnight I don’t think we’ll be having any of them for breakfast for the next few days. When they do come in numbers the flavour is so good you want to eat them on your knees.

Tonight we’ve set up the trail cam looking down the valley towards the sea. It’s thick with impenetrable thorns and a haven for wild birds. As we left the cottage a sparrowhawk flew low overhead, hunting down the length of the valley and as we walked back up from the sea a robin flitted invisibly from tree to tree, singing as if we were playing a game of tag. I’m hoping we’ll at least film a fox during the night, but we won’t get any good results until we’ve prospected the wood for animal tracks.

Plus ça change?

“used to express resigned acknowledgement of the fundamental immutability of human nature and institutions.”

Occasionally I entertain the idea that somehow I’ve matured, evolved – grown up; that I’m not the person I was when I was, say, 25 years old. Madame, I’m sure, would beg to differ but yesterday I picked up and started reading one of my old notebooks and I discovered she’s right. I haven’t evolved at all (but neither has she!).

This entry was written on Tuesday 9th April and I think the year must have been 1973. I was working as a bus driver and groundsman at Clifton College – a job I only got because I omitted to tell them about my qualifications and I merely said I could drive a Transit van. They must have been desperate because they gave me the job and I had two wonderful years living under the radar and learning to drive and maintain tractors, tend and repair grass worn by rugby and cricket and to lay hedges in the winter – best job ever. Oh and I also learned to drive the buses – 1946 Bedford OB’s with wooden seats and crash gearboxes. On my first afternoon I drove all the way from the boathouse on the River Avon to the School, about 5 miles, in second gear because I had no idea how to change up. It was there that I learned to watch badgers and identify the common birds, and there I first began to take botany up a level. I like to think of it as my public school education, and we still live on the banks of the same river.

Anyway, the diary – one of many of which most are now lost – spent twenty five years in a damp garage and so it’s almost unreadable in places, but when I read the section that follows I was astounded how little has changed, aside from the disappearance of so many species. Even the old buses still make regular appearances in 1950 costume dramas on the television.

These following notes are about our walk which took us over Cumberland Basin and over the lock gates, over the river by the railway line, down the footpath that crosses the old Ashton Gate [railway] station and along the cricket field and into Ashton Court, where we walked up the path behind the house and across to the deer park – returning the same way.

The warm spell continued today, and the winds have remained light South Easterly………..We’re beginning to appreciate the warm, light evenings, seizing the chance to walk whenever we can. During the winter our expeditions tend to be rather cursory and confined to weekends, normally Sundays at that! Our progress on these walks is always hilariously slow. I’m determined not to miss anything new growing, so there are protracted arguments and discussions about every plant we see. Still, things are improving slowly. When we lived in Corsham we used to go for walks laden with plant books, tree books and bird books and it might take us all afternoon to get out of sight of the cottage. Now we’ve given up carrying books everywhere so I just have to stop and write descriptions of everything [or make little drawings]. Even then we often have to go back again because the description is inadequate. There’s either no such plant in existence, or there are about fifty all answering the same description. The good moments are like when we went around the Ashton Court nature trail. There was 2 feet of snow the only snow this winter, and suddenly we came across a whole bank of Helleborus viridis. Somehow you feel you’ve discovered something important – a bit rare or unusual. I don’t suppose the plants feel that way about it. Anyway most of our walks are concerned with more mundane things like – are hawthorn and whitethorn the same – or two different trees? Is that a dandelion or a cats ear? or what is that ****** umbellifer? I know they’re all distinct, but somehow ……….

My Journal, 9th April 1973

Nowadays I still carry too many books around, but the mobile phone is brilliant for making records for identification later. Mind you, it’s taken years to figure out what details you need to record. These days too I’m a lot more confident about plants but aside from that, the quotation could as easily have been written last Friday. Walks still take forever and we still argue, in fact nowadays we have to agree in advance whether it’s going to be a walk or a plant walk.

Anyway, back in the kitchen I’ve now almost processed all of the 20lbs of damsons into jam, vodka, pickle and coulis. Tomorrow we’ll start on the third big batch of tomatoes making plain, unadorned passata. After days of confinement due to the rain we spent yesterday having a socially distanced picnic with our family. The grandchildren obviously don’t understand why we’re all keeping our distance, and now they’re going back to school this week and so we all parted sadly because we’ll have to stop meeting for a while. It seemed awful to be promising to meet again at Christmas it’s so far away. One ray of sunshine came late in the day when we discovered we would soon be able to go back up to the Lleyn peninsula and walk to our heart’s content and see the sea and the mountains of Snowdonia once more. We’ll be taking the trailcam with us this time so we can watch birds and mammals even when we’re out walking somewhere else. One of these days we’ll buy a moth trap too and our joy will be complete with 873 macrospecies to argue about!

It’s been a long summer without a single night away from the flat since February and we’re increasingly aware of how stressful it’s been for us and for everyone – and yet we carry serenely on; our passions, interests and compulsions forged in heaven knows what dark familial smithy (I almost wrote dark satanic mill, but our childhoods weren’t that bad!) and hardly even dented by more than seven decades of getting by. There’s so much to be grateful for.

Summer’s not over yet

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I haven’t much time to post today, but it’s been a fabulous day with some real highlights. We were up early and went out to the headland to look for field mushrooms but drew a blank until later on when we did a 7 mile walk around the coastline facing Bardsey island, when we picked a hatful for breakfast tomorrow. During the walk we were watching choughs above the cliffs when I spotted what I initially  thought was a small flock of carrion crows or rooks, but these were a bit different – certainly different sounds with all sorts of grunting and clicking noises, but the most spectacular giveaway of all was their gift of turning upside down in flight.  They were, of course, ravens – magic moment.

During the walk we could clearly see the remains of ancient settlements  – this area has been settled for millennia. But there were other treats like Devil’s Bit Scabious, Fleabane and Yarrow all looking as if summer had hardly begun, let alone ended.  The hedges are thick with Blackberries which we picked and turned into a crumble later, and there are an abundance of elderberries. Later in the afternoon I rang Menna the crab woman and we drove over and bought four large day-fresh crabs at £3.50 each and turned half of them into a crab linguini withour own tomatoes, garlic and spring onions. Stunning sunset, full moon tonight. Life is good!

‘There we are’

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Poem by T Arfon Williams Tapestry Pandora Vaughan

Bearing in mind everything I said  about words and drawings yesterday, today we visited the Porth y Swnt exhibition in the National Trust building in Aberdaron and for the umpteenth time in a week we were blown away by the vigour of artists in Wales. Yesterday it was Jonah Jones, today Pandora Vaughan and all the other artists who contributed to the installation who managed to remind me that even Tracey Emin managed to combine words and images with great power.  In fact she may be one of the exceptions to my criticisms of the rather bloodless artworks that have stolen the foreground in the UK over the past decades. Consider my hand slapped. In the light of our total cultural immersion this week I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that there is no more English poet than RS Thomas and, if I’m pressed I’ll explain why I’m coming to think it.

But I wanted really to lament the fact that yesterday when I went to get some propane gas I didn’t take a photograph. Like most real places, Lleyn has it’s share of breeze block and corrugated asbestos buildings, and any such building used as a garage is pretty much bound to be surrounded by more or less rusty cars and caravans turned green with mould; abandoned to perpetual storage by the almost dead on their last ever holiday. I say this with no malice, how could I? – I’m shuffling to the front of the queue myself. (Thanks, Rose for that most evocative phrase). In high season the aspiring saints only have a couple of miles to drive to the point of departure for the Bardsey ferry, but on a point of information, the churchyard is almost certainly closed.

The key thing about isolated rural places is that everyone knows you’re there whether you know them or not. We once caught a bus from Cork to Clonakilty and by the time we arrived we were greeted by someone on the bus stop as ‘the English people from the ferry’. The second of those words was the most worrying, given that the Troubles were raging at the time.  So today when we turned up at the local garage to buy a bottle of gas for the cottage – we were expected. Having rehearsed the pronounciation of the address which – being extremely remote – needs triangulating from three nearby places  – my linguistic efforts turned out to be completely unnecessary from the moment the owner said “Frank said you’d be coming”.

IMG_5053He was wearing the usual dark blue boiler suit and holding a broken numberplate as a palette on which a pile of freshly mixed filler paste was resting. The aromatic perfume of fibreglass filled the garage as he prowled the perimeter of a very old pickup truck, applying large quantities with a flexible palette knife. “I’ll just finish this mix” he said, and I was only too pleased to watch him working. All the lights had been taken off along with a busted wing panel, and the grey filler occupied more than a third of the remaining panels. “Seen a bit of life then?” I asked.  No reply invited or received. The pickup was a kind of motoring palimpsest, with the earliest trace of its original owner, the word cenedlaethol, barely visible under layers of more recent paint. That was the moment at which I should have taken the photo – it would have made a wonderful, almost abstract drawing.  Long pause……. “Selling it on?” I added…… “Yes”.  He was no great conversationalist, but sensing the remote possibility of a sale he said “How do you like it here?” . “Oh I love it but I couldn’t live here.”

And then he said it – “There we are”.

I fell into a pool of delight. That, I thought, must be one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language.  ‘There we are’. uttered by a Welshman for whom English is almost certainly a second language and meaning ” I really can’t understand why anyone would not want to live here but he’s making an effort to be honest, bless him, and so I’ll sell him some gas and make him feel welcome, before he drives back to that dreadful place beyond the rivers of Babylon, the place without song……. “There we are”.  “There’s nothing else I can say.”

It’s impossible to be insulted or annoyed by there we are .  It’s a phrase so pregant with patoral care that it can turn a canoe around at the top of the Niagara Falls and send it safely back to dry land. As he said it, inflected by his local accent, I felt myself being cared for, and when the gas arrived just now he tapped on the window and gave me a thumbs up with not least least clue I was writing about him as I waved back.

Last night I used the phrase myself. I had to explain to an old friend how, inexplicably, I had believed her to be dead for forty years because of a mistaken message, and having attempted to write the unwriteable I ended my message “There we are – I’ve said it”.

Basta.

 

Bit of a botanical binge

Went for a walk along the clifftop in the direction of Porth Dinnlaen and somehow decided to start recording plants in flower. I had, in a sense, gone equipped because I’d taken a GPS and a notebook and pen, and it did rather slow us down. We were out for two and a half hours and managed to walk three miles in total. It was a very grey day after a night of rain and so we wore gaiters in anticipation of mud, but in fact the land here seems to drain very well and we didn’t really need them. Stella has bought a new pair of 3/4 height walking boots to try to support her ankles and so in order to match her I put on my old Scarpas, the ones I did the Camino with, and we set out looking rather imposing I imagine. My old boots are probably the most comfortable I’ve ever walked in but they have the fatal (potentially) flaw of suddenly giving way on wet rock, which makes clambering around on beaches extremely hazardous. Happily there was only one slip today, but it rather puts me on edge.

I was thrilled with the total of 37 plants in flower. It’s the most I’ve ever recorded in one day, and it took several hours back at the cottage to double check and verify them. I was surprised how many I’d got almost but not quite right, however it’s a step in the right direction and I’m getting better at checking for the vital information to record, and taking the right photographs for reference later.Here’s the list – the BSBI record numbers are in the big black notebook but I couldn’t fit them here tidily and in any case they don’t matter just for the diary. I wonder if I should send them to the County Recorder – there’s nothing at all rare or unusual but they do mark the existence of a plant for future reference (global warming, for instance). One plant in particular I’d never heard of Tutsam – Hypericum androsaemum – I was excited to ID it. I was also delighted to recognise 2 different species of Heather.

Achillea millefolium Yarrow
Armeria maritima ssp maritima Thrift
Atriplex prostrata Spear Leaved Orache
Bellis perennis Daisy
Calystegia sepium Hedge Bindweed
Centaurea nigra Lesser Knapweed
Chamerion augustifolium Rosebay Willowherb
Cirsium arvense Creeping Thistle
Crithmum maritimum Rock Samphire
Digitalis purpurea Foxglove
Erica cineria Bell Heather
Erica tetralix Cross Leaved Heath
Filipendula ulmaria Meadowsweet
Heracleum spondylium Hogweed
Holcus lanatus Yorkshire Fog
Hypericum androsaemum Tutsan
Hypochaeris radicata Cats Ear
Impatiens glandulifera Indian Balsam
Jasioni montana Sheeps Bit
Leontodon saxatilis Lesser Hawkbit
Lonicera periclymenum Honeysuckle
Lotus corniculatus Birdsfoot Trefoil
Origanum vulgare Wild Marjoram
Plantago lanceolata Ribwort Plantain
Plantago major Greater Plantain
Plantago maritima Sea Plantain
Potentilla anserina Silverweed
Pulicaria dysenterica Common Fleabane
Rubus fruticosa agg Bramble
Sambucus nigra Elder
Senecio jacobaea Ragwort
Silene dioica Red Campion
Sonchus asper Prickly Sowthistle
Taraxacum officinale agg Dandelion
Torilis japonica Upright Hedge Parsley
Trifolium pratense Red Clover
Tripleurospermum inodorum Scentless Mayweed

As well as plants we had some delightful moments on the beach, where a grey seal came quite close inshore and stared at us with apparent interest. After a minute or so she slipped beneath the waves and disappeared from view, but on our return walk we spotted a very similar looking female hauled out on a rock. She was very pregnant and looked as if she might give birth to her cub at any moment. Big as she was, her movement across the rock was so ungainly and must have made her very vulnerable. We guessed she might have come inshore to find a safe place to have her cub. She was a truly beautiful animal.

We also saw a Shag with three fledged young, sitting on what seems to be a favourire place. There were also a number of Ravens around. We saw five in a field, scrapping in a desultory way halfway between playing and fighting. The only butterfly was a Common Blue feeding on Birdsfoot Trefoil which seemed rather sleepy and allowed me to get close enough with my phone to take a picture.

Later we drove to Whistling Sands to look for the sloe trees we picked from last year but they’d been flailed this year and there was no fruit to be had. The afternoon was turning increasingly grey and miserable and apart from being too warm could have been mistaken for `November it was so gloomy. So we drove through Aberdaron but didn’t feel tempted to get out in the drizzle and came back to the cottage. As a long shot we decided to see what the sloes were doing in the garden and the lane down to the beach and to our great delight we picked five and a quarter pounds of lovely ripe fruit, enough to transform two bottles of gin! With the Damson Vodka we’ve already made we’ll have more than enough to keep us going for the whole of 2018.

I had forgotton to mention that it’s the second anniversary of our retirement.