On being an outsider.

Porth Neigwl – Hell’s Mouth beach in the gale yesterday

Notwithstanding the cool welcome at the end of the lane, and the Free Wales stickers on the signposts, my love of Wales is undiminished by any sense of guilt at being English – not least because I’ve never owned a mine or a blast furnace; I’ve never taken a penny out of Wales; my whole investment has been spent locally, and there will never be a time when I will be able to afford land or property here. I would support independence in a breath; and if there was enough time, learn the language because it would give me a whole new field of expression . I just think it’s one of the most beautiful places; plundered to near dereliction and stripped of its natural resources from water (see Dryweryn) through coal, copper and manganese to its language and most talented young people who simply can’t afford to live here anymore. Have I left anything out?? Oh and its poets – the Thomas’s – RS and Dylan; its underrated artists; its folk tales, food and farming history. I think I’ll shut up there.

Is there anything I don’t like so much? Well perhaps a certain lugubriousness at times. Some insularity, which never plays well with me because I live in a street where you can hear six languages in a hundred yard walk – which makes for a rich community. An occasional tendency to self pity – which I regard as by far the most pointless waste of emotional energy ever and finally a love of dressing up; most acute in Anglo Catholic priests and Druids. These mild criticisms probably seem a bit rich from an Englishman but there we are; call me a critical friend. In my defence I’ve never felt at home in an English culture that the media and right wing politicians conjure up under portraits of Winston Churchill. In all our many visits to this country I’ve only once experienced the old and legendary situation where the locals all started talking in Welsh when I walked into the pub; and that was when Operation Julie was underway and Tregaron was about to be turned upside down over an LSD factory run by English hippies. I know this because I was teaching one of them at the time (and in a prison – him, not me).

Anyway I just wanted to describe the place we’re staying at, whilst preserving its location except to say it’s on the Lleyn peninsula. As I write this I’m looking through the window and down a steep sided valley lined on both sides with an impenetrable thicket of Grey Willows, Sloes, Hawthorns and Apples; so shriven by the constant fierce weather that they look as if they’ve just about given up. The valley runs about a quarter of a mile to the Irish Sea and down it runs a brook that, emerging on to the shingle beach, spreads itself generously, sinking into the pebbles. Occasionally we see seals both there and also further up the coast. There are almost always Rock Pipits. The sun is just setting into the sea in a clear sky after 48 hours of constant gales and fierce rain that howled and rattled around the house without ceasing. At the end of the footpath to this little beach we’ve got a favourite mushroom spot, but this time there were no field mushrooms but a rarely reported fungus we’ve never seen before called Agaricus littoralis which has recently been given the English name “Coastal Mushroom”; and another called Macrolepiota excoriata which has been given the English name – “Frayed Parasol” – two for one annoyingly difficult fungi renamed by the radicals!

You might think that the award of an English name was an uncontroversial nod to the growing popularity of foraging but you’d be mistaken. Every pursuit has its Victorian Society or Prayer Book Society for whom the Latin binomials were obviously in the bibliography of one of the lost books of the Bible and must therefore never ever be tampered with. Harsh words have been spoken on this subject. Anyway, these Coastal Mushrooms were a tough gig and even now I’m not totally sure. I’ve been unable to find any reference to them as edible so we didn’t. Personally I rather like the sound of Brain Funguses, Dog’s Vomit and Dog’s Cocks – not to exclude Slippery Jacks. They’re like the Victorian names for moths – descriptive and downright poetic. The last time I allowed myself to be so contrarian in a newspaper article I was thrown out of a fishing club for noticing in print that sewage was getting into their expensive trout stream! Maybe they should have listened.

This is a wonderful place for wildlife. I just went into a local village to pay a bill – cash of course! – and as I parked up I saw this wall, resplendent with hard ferns and Maidenhair Spleenworts, not to mention the lichens.

The little valley below the cottage is a haven for insects, and therefore birds. Kestrels hunt the clifftop, constantly mobbed by Jackdaws and Crows. The understory is a rich mixture of Bramble, Hart’s Tongue ferns and other ferns; Maidenhair Spleenwort and – nearer the stream – Water Mint. There are foxes and badgers too along with a multitude of pollinators and bees. At night we hear Owls.

We started coming to Wales after Cornwall was so badly damaged by tourism – but now, in the absence of RS Thomas and the redoubtable Keating sisters the campsites are spreading along the coastline, and local people are being driven out by the rising price of housing because they can’t compete with second homers and Airbnb rentals. The butcher’s shop where RS Thomas once publicly upbraided the butcher for labelling his meat in English is now a Spar shop. There’s a huge selection of booze on sale at every local shop these days. Are we – the Potwell Inn crew – part of the solution or part of the problem? We’ve received nothing but warmth and kindness from local people here. Dunno, then. I just love coming here – although we could have done with a bit less rain this week.

And yes, the trees in the bottom left photo really do grow at that angle!

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.

Meet the new parishioners

 

Two new neighbours, thanks to Richard Mabey’s book on weeds which has reminded me how we don’t know these plants because, through some cultural trick of the mind, calling a plant a ‘weed’ means we often don’t even see it. These two plants are growing on the pavement outside the flat and one of them at least is rather pretty. I don’t think the one on the right – Conyza canadensis, or Canadian Fleabane is ever going to win a prize for its looks, but the other, Erigeron karvinskianus – Mexican Fleabane is very pretty.  We’ve been here almost 4 years now an in that time it’s extended its precarious life in pavement cracks almost the whole length of the street.

There’s a direct parallel with the human population in our ward.  On a short walk into the centre of town it wouldn’t be unusual to pass people of half a dozen nationalities from right around the world. Among our visitors here, Chinese and Japanese are almost as common as the French and Spanish speakers.  Some residents have been here for generations, some stay for years and there’s a whole other mixed age group of students and others who are far more ephemeral. Mexican Fleabane and Canadian Fleabane are just two more visitors who came and stayed.

IMG_3768There are others too – this one is Saxifraga tridactylites – the Three Fingered or Rue Leaved Saxifrage that turned up on our fire escape steps in 2018 and promptly disappeared.  It was replaced by a fine crop of slime mould the following winter. I had no idea that slime moulds were mobile but this one slowly worked its way down the steps and on to the yard where it too promptly disappeared.

I love it – the constantly changing plants seem to fit the constantly changing population. There are beautiful plants of course, but there are loads of imposters, spivs and generally indestructable plants like Hedge Mustard and Wall Barley.  I’m not calling them weeds any more because if we’re going to bring the earth back from the brink we’ve got to start calling these plants by a different name.  I’m calling them parishioners because because like it or loathe it we’re sharing both our space and our fate with them. They’ve all got names,  parents and a history, just like the drunks and spiceheads who also spend their days immobile outside on the grass.

I hope I shall be Parson Woodforde to all my new parishioners of whatever life-form; speaking of which, the dog belonging to our neighbour Nutter is barking furiously (fruitlessly) at a hot air balloon passing overhead. His owner is sitting in the sun drinking beers – he hasn’t even gone out busking today – which is a great mercy to all our visitors.

 

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