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.

Labore est orare

diggingI’m not entirely sure that posting this rather unflattering picture is a good idea but it illustrates the theme I’ve been worrying at –  like a dog at a bone – for a few days now.

The problem about getting very cross is knowing what to do about your anger – aside from driving your closest friends around the bend by shouting about it constantly. I suppose we can just about tolerate our society being imperfect as long as the possibility exists – however faintly – of learning our lesson and moving on.  The environmental crisis, for instance, is maddening – especially when the beneficiaries of our crazy exploitation of the earth. the corporations and governments – do everything they can to frustrate positive change.   But if you add to the environmental crisis the fact that the economy is at the point of collapse and there is a world-changing pandemic going on and governments seem to have no idea what to do about it; then the sense of powerlessness can become overwhelming.

This is the time when the urge to withdraw starts to emerge, and I know all the arguments about hanging on in there, but when after decades, after a lifetime of struggle it becomes clear that the values you’ve tried to live to are being trashed relentlessly day by day and seemingly there’s nothing you can do to stop it, then perhaps there is a moment when a tactical withdrawal is justified – if only to give us mental and spiritual space to preserve all that’s important about the memories and dreams, the insights and the culture that are being eroded.

Our poisonous work ethic, our sociopathic narcissism, our spiritual deadness, our greed and materialism, our inability to love one another and our disconnection from the earth from whose dust we are formed have become so embedded in our culture that we are all becoming political prisoners of the way we do things round here.

You don’t need to be an expert in alternative therapies or martial arts to see that the key to a society that thrives and that allows us to thrive – is balance.  We talk about work-life balance as if achieving some kind of equity in those two aspects would solve all our problems. But what kind of work? what kind of life?  I always think at this point in the argument about the person who invented the terrible weapon of modern war called the flechette.  This is a bomb that explodes into thousands of sharpened needles that pierce and rend the flesh of its victims. Would the people who worked on that weapon have been better people if they’d had longer holidays or worked a four day week? Is the destructiveness of weapons of war proportionate to the everyday stress of the working environment?

St Benedict – (don’t worry, this isn’t a sermon) – came up with his rule of life in 516 CE – at a time when withdrawal was on the agenda in the midst of the decline of the power of Rome. It was he that came up with a pattern for life that’s been the basis of almost every other rule since.  What he was striving to do was to link three of the most essential features of a full human life in creative balance. The three factors were (are) work, prayer and study.  The monastic life was an attempt to draw those three elements (there were more, but these were the central ones) into balance. They’re all important, but if any one of them becomes ascendant – let’s say you might want to spend your whole time studying, or maybe 24/7 praying floats your boat, or working without a break; any one of them worthy activities but when unbalanced become dangerous. One of Benedict’s famous sayings is – orare est labore, labore is orare. In the nature of these things it’s famous in spite of the fact it doesn’t appear in the Rule and he probably never said it in so many words. The closest he gets is describing the life of a monk as work, prayer and study.

I’m really attracted to that balance – I always have been, although notwithstanding my vocation I found work and study easy enough, but prayer? – that always seemed to me to correspond with standing alone and projecting the words WTF? into the darkness and silence.RS shrine at Llanfaelrys

Maybe that’s why I love the poetry of RS Thomas so much.  This photo was taken inside a little upper room in the church at Llanfaelrys on Lleyn. It’s been converted to a pilgrim stop for those approaching Bardsey Island along the coast path. You can just see the humped outline of the island through the window in the middle left pane. RS could articulate those “WTF” thoughts more beautifully and more painfully than any other 20th century poet.

But is there some point in adopting a way of life that embodies the disciplines of monastic life without the stultifying culture that so often accompanies it. I was born, it seems, to search for the meaning and the practice of such a life. To work is to pray – and I understand that.  The fork, the spade, the physical effort and the labour and joy of growing things, these are work of an altogether greater significance to fullness and thriving, than driving a bus – and I speak from experience of both! – and yet I look back on the bus driving days, after art school, as rewarding in their own way, and I think that there are many occasions when things go well and you fall so deeply into the rhythm of digging, or throwing a pot or even driving a bus, that you are overwhelmed by the sense of closeness to the heart of things. It’s a knowledge without language.  So I get it – to work is to pray (whatever that means – but it absolutely means something!).

And I get that to pray is to work because putting yourself in that position of vulnerability and dependency; abandoning any hope of self sufficiency and demanding a blessing in the language of the gutter – WTF?! – that’s grim work – much harder than driving a bus ever could be. After all, Jacob broke his hip doing it!

So I suppose that living by a rule does have something to do with the Potwell Inn. Maybe the Potwell Inn is the perfect little monastic community of my mind.  The allotment, baking bread day by day, cooking and sharing food, treasuring the books that remain and still finding silence, time and space to wonder what it’s all about? are these the components of monastic life, stripped of the ornamentation and clutter? Stripped even of any recognisable religion?

Llanfaelrhys church

Blackberry tourists

IMG_5878It’s almost silent here on Lleyn, apart from the odd lazy bee, a robin singing in a minor key and a duck in the field next door. The sun is shining as it it can only shine in the autumn and every leaf is gleaming  in the warm air.  Even the hawthorns seem to be doing some last minute packing for a cold winter, they’re so heavily decked with fruit the colour of sealing wax.

It’s impossible not to fall in love with this place.   Yesterday was a bit of a write-off as it was raining most of the time and we were exhausted from what seems like three weeks of travelling, but today the sun is shining and we took a leisurely wander around our favourite places just to say hP1080800i. The tide was falling at Porthor and we walked along the beach, inspected a few plants on the way down and photographed seaweed for me to paint as soon as I can get the piano out of my workroom. But I had higher things on my mind and so we stopped off at the pub next door to RS Thomas’s church in Aberdaron to book for Sunday Lunch. I did meet RS once at a reading, but I knew Jim Cotter, one of his successors, in the parish much better. He was a courageous and radical parish priest who was always in hot water for following the Gospel rather than canon law, and I found his grave up on the clifftop church at Llanfaelrhys close to RS’s widow and son.  That, however was not the higher thing I had in mind.  Cake, particularly National Trust cake was the object of my desire so we rattled on up to the cafe at Plas yn Rhiw.

‘Plas’ is probably the smallest and most lovely garden in the whole of the National Trust.  It’s up on the hill overlooking Porth Neigwl – mistranslated as Hell’s Mouth – a lovely bay but properly hellish for a sail ship in a storm. So we had tea and cake accompanied by more insects and more silence before we went off to buy fresh crab.

Sadly fresh crab was not available today.  We always stop at one particular house where we can often buy it very cheaply. It was here, in the spring, I was given an impromptu tutorial  on how to sex a crab by a delightful elderly lady who ran over the whole thing for me so I’d buy the right ones next time. However, today she explained that ‘he’ had not been out for a couple of weeks because of the terrible weather but he was ‘out crabbing right now”.  “OK”, I said, “I’ll pop back tomorrow”.  “Oh no, I’ll give you my phone number,” she said, rummaging around for a piece of paper. “I’ll put it in my phone”, I said, ” I’ll put you down as ‘Mrs Crab'”. “My name’s Menna”.  “Menna Crab?” I said. “That’ll do” – broad smile!

On the way back we talked about what makes this one of the most magical places we know, quite as magical as Velvet Bottom on the Mendips, and Lizard and Zennor in Cornwall, and I think the common factor may be something as counter-intuitive as mining. Each of these areas has a history that you can almost taste in every stone. Rhiw, and especially the area below Jim Cotter’s grave was one of the biggest manganese mines in the country.  In Priddy and around Velvet Bottom they mined lead in Roman times; in Zennor it was tin and on Lizard serpentine. Everywhere there are the slightly melancholy remains of industrial building, spoil heaps and gruffy ground completely reverted to wild nature.  The sort of random and unplanned nature that makes every step a botanical adventure.

But there was one further connection to make, and it came to me unexpectedly while I was searching in my mind for some kind of commonality between these disparate landscapes, and I think it was because I was brought up in the midst of an exactly comparable post-industrial landscape – only in my case it was the remains of mining and clay, used to supply brickworks and pipeworks.  For me there’s the sense of childhood enchantment which emerges when I enter exactly the kind of place I played in as a child.  The old dram road, the ruined pithead works of the South Gloucestershire coalfield, the brickworks at Shortwood where my friend Eddy and I used to crawl up the abandoned chimney flues to look up at the sky. These landscapes are inscribed not just by their natural history today but their human history in the past. It’s true of every landscape of course, but these are the ones I understand at a deeper level.

Here they call us ‘blackberry tourists’ because so many outsiders come in on weekends like this to harvest the hedgerows. There’s still a lingering, almost imperceptible resentment at the English who’ve moved here and you can’t blame them.  Our friends tried to buy a cottage here years ago and found themselves thwarted at every move. But I don’t want t live here, just come here two or three times a year to breathe and feel the silence.