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How history comes to life

17 Mar 2024 11 minute read
The Coach & Horses, Llangynidr photo by Jaggery is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Matthew G. Rees

What has become of Wales? Where has it gone?

These questions – familiar ones in my more meditative moments – nag at me again as, through a rain-spotted window, I scan the not wholly untypical townscape beyond.

In ‘looks’, the scene which greets my gaze is a setting of the sort that has come to be known as the ‘anywhere’ kind: loud (‘unsympathetic’, some might say) shop, pub and ‘fast food’ frontages, lining pavements that for much of their yardage are gum-splattered, puddled and cracked, along roads manifestly never meant for the ever-more militaristic and utterly out-of-scale ‘cars’ (how inappropriate the word seems) that besiege its crossings and junctions seemingly day and night.

Averting my eyes, a scroll through my phone is the cause of further gloom. The comfort blanket which rugby football has traditionally tended to throw over Wales’s woes has become a rather ragged raiment (admirable pluck of some of the young players notwithstanding).

The rugby ‘news’ has a Gradgrindian ring to it, with talk of the need for new ‘structures’. No mention that I can see of the virtues of wit, verve, flair and instinct à la Morgan, Watkins, John, Bennett et al.

The shirts of our national team bid us ‘Go Compare’. Well…

Without wrapping themselves in flags scoundrel-style, certain nations seem to have made a better fist of things than Wales.

Albeit with massively more resources, France – through its seeming fondness for doing things its way and a readiness to cock a snook at diktats from the likes of the European Union (while simultaneously swearing fealty) – may be one such country.

One thinks of its (by-and-large) continuing culture of the café-tabac, the boulangerie, the patisserie, the brasserie, the boucherie, the charcuterie, the fromagerie, the newspaper and magazine kiosk – the tendency towards businesses of the independent, owner-operated kind.

And, of course, the fervour the French bring to La Marseillaise is something to behold.

Language

In Wales, government spending and alterations in schooling may bring about an increase in numbers of those with facility in Welsh as a language. What long-term ‘resonance’ there might be from that remains to be seen.

Current demographic trends include a large ‘churn’ of students from outside Wales (the country’s education industry seems to have become its default economic mainstay), present mainly in Wales’s more metropolitan areas, which, having been given the corporate ‘stamp’, can seem places of bland uniformity (not that this is the ‘fault’ of the students… who are by-and-large young people simply taking up opportunities).

The march of the all-conquering corporates has combined with what has at times looked like abysmal governance at multiple levels, dismal (indeed ruinous in places) town planning, and the effective shutting-down of tracts of the country to the financially less well-off through the removal of public transport (railways [over generations] and bus routes) – all causing an emasculation, in my view, of what it means to be Welsh, physically (in the land) and spiritually (in the people).

This absence of awareness came home to me in an incident (both comic and sad) in a supermarket. The pleasant young Welsh woman on the checkout held up – in puzzlement – a ‘loose’ vegetable among my intended purchases.

‘What’s this?’ she asked. Answer: a leek.

Hiraeth

In writing these lines, I have in my mind, above all, that emotion known as hiraeth (longing of the kind the term ‘homesickness’ perhaps imperfectly describes but which will suffice for now).

Beyond Wales, funerals of Welsh men and women whose lives have been lived ‘in exile’ often prove celebrations of their Welshness.

It is not uncommon for Y Draig Goch to drape their coffins, for Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer to be sung, and for the poetry of Dylan Thomas and other bards to be read… as if willing the deceased back to their homeland.

No professional Welsh ‘types’, these. Nor – one thinks, in the main – individuals who wanted to press a political point. Merely men and women who – together with their families – knew where their hearts really lay. (As the anthem has it: ‘To Cymru my heart shall be true.’)

Hiraeth today, I suggest, has an added poignancy. For the longing that is felt is a longing for something that – due to the changes to which I’ve alluded – is arguably no longer there.

To my family’s good fortune, a recent project has granted us what I suppose might be called ‘a way back’… to the Wales (or a part of it) my father knew.

Our portal has been his memoir of his boyhood in Breconshire in the 1940s and ’50s, revolving in large part around an inn of the traditional kind that was in a branch of our family for a century or so – The Coach and Horses at Llangynidr near Crickhowell – serving visitors to the area and locals alike, including anglers of the River Usk and shepherds of the surrounding hills.

To our delight my father has brought to life again – in our minds – my ‘Auntie’ May Morgan (a cousin), who was the inn’s legendary licensee, and her husband, my ‘Uncle’ Emrys… in the pre-electric, Austin Seven-driving days that were their prime.

I knew Llangynidr – a community situated on the upper Usk and the Brecon-Monmouthshire canal – in the 1970s when we kept a boat on the restored waterway, moored at the foot of a field over the road from the inn (‘The Coach’, as we knew it back then).

Our small and far-from-new cabin cruiser went by the name The Beau Bumble in memory of one of our dogs, Bumble, a much-mourned beagle with a maverick mind of his own.

May and Emrys had by then retired from and sold the business, going to live in a house nearby. I remember May as a small, feisty lady, clever, cultured, slightly eccentric perhaps, and not infrequently possessed of a cigarette to which a waterfall of ash would be precariously attached.

Emrys, a stonemason by trade, seemed to me a lovely man, always with a smile beneath his yellowing moustache, and in his eyes a twinkle. A handsome fellow in his youth, he’d been a useful association footballer.

Springy Spaniels

More than once I had to dry off in front of their fire after slipping (through some childish foolishness) from one of the great, smooth boulders of the Usk into a pool of the river (rebukes in my ears from my father on our way back to May and Emrys’s house).

I remember raspberry canes and blackbirds in their garden, and their fondness for (very springy) Welsh Springer Spaniels, one of which once bowled me clean over.

My father’s book, however, has taken me to deeper and richer territory.

In his portraits of its patrons and his accounts of life at ‘The Coach’, together with his wider descriptions of life in rural Breconshire in the years of and following the Second World War, he has delivered a history which, to my mind (and I’m biased, of course!), is of a piece with the testimony of Laurie Lee about bucolic Gloucestershire, Henry Williamson in The Story of a Norfolk Farm, and, coming back towards Wales, John Masefield, writing about the district of Ledbury in Herefordshire, in Grace Before Ploughing.

There are tales here, I feel, that Gerald of Wales and George Borrow would have wanted to note down.

Although my mother was always the writer in our family when I was growing up (the name of our little blue-hulled boat highlighting her way with words), it was a chance encounter with something written long ago by my father that convinced me he was the man to tell the tale of Llangynidr and The Coach (of which I always felt there was a ‘story’ to be written).

In a particularly harsh winter in the early 1980s snow laid siege to our then home in the Welsh Borders. Unbeknown to us, the attic had filled with an almost unbelievable ‘drift’ of fine, light flakes, which had blown-in under the roof tiles.

Having accumulated, this ‘drift’ – its presence betrayed by the sudden appearance of patches of damp in the upstairs ceilings – now threatened to bring them down. My father and I had to shovel it out in short order – one sack of snow after the other – to head off a calamity.

He chronicled this, along with certain other events in our locality that winter, in a piece of writing penned privately, which, many years later, I happened to see – his record mentioning, among other things, how the roof of a barn on a local farm had collapsed due to the weight of the snow that had fallen, causing the distressing deaths of a number of animals within.

My father also noted how larger birds, such as crows, had – because of hunger and difficulty in finding food – abandoned their wariness and joined smaller birds to eat scraps we put out for them in our snow-covered garden.

Given my background (in my early career) in newspapers, I appreciated my father’s understanding that these events, and the extraordinary snowfalls, should not go unrecorded. His eye for detail impressed me.

Adventures

Now in his eighties and living just over the border in England after spending his working life mainly in teaching, my father has, I think, loved going back to the Llangynidr of his youth, ‘seeing’ again the faces of family members, the friends with whom he adventured, the many ‘characters’ he knew (such a feature of his book) – figures like ‘Yank’, the German prisoner-of-war, who – in a way – became his tutor; Bob Roberts, the slouch-hatted mountain shepherd who rode the hills on horseback; and Mr Probert, the farmer whose pony and trap always saw him safely home after convivial evenings at the inn, a gentle tap to the animal’s flank being enough to send it homewards.

Not to mention the countrymen and women expert in time-honoured crafts and skills, and the Home Guard whose ‘cavalry’ unit patrolled the uplands and went by the name of The Mounties…

To have joined my father on this return journey has been a joy. Assisting in a very minor way in the production of his book, I feel that I, too, have been there… in the gas-lamped world of The Coach, running errands, walking the canal paths, riverbanks and hills, Paddy – May and Emrys’s Welsh Springer – at my heels – all in the company of my father who, having taken my hand and led me, is a boy again, of course…

We first produced the book as something for family and friends, depositing copies at the National Library at Aberystwyth and the public library in Crickhowell, having sensed its value as a small work of record.

The warmth with which it has been received has led us to issue it as a paperback on Amazon using exactly the same content and cover design.

Yes, this has involved engagement with a corporate giant. But this has happened in a way that we feel has been useful to the project, making the book available to potentially many more readers, particularly overseas.

At a time when history seems such a battleground there is, I sense, a need for memoirs from ‘ordinary people’ who were there in those times of which they speak.

In Wales there is something of a history of memoir writing by ‘ordinary’ folk… telling compelling (and sometimes extraordinary) tales. One thinks of coalminer Bert Coombes’s These Poor Hands and W.H. Davies’s The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp. The works of Arthur Machen – The London Adventure, Far Off Things and Things Near and Far – also come to mind.

Learning how life once was is important, I think.

Although his book is much more one of sunlight than gloom, I do not think my father set out to portray a golden age. His intent was merely to write an honest record. The past was certainly different. If readers should judge that, as well as being different, it was better… well, that is a matter for them. (It wasn’t the objective of the author or editor.)

What I would submit is that – though I’ve mentioned the likes of Lee, Williamson and Masefield – there is something distinctive about the place and time – the land – that my father has remembered. It is definitely not ‘anywhere’.

The experience of writing a memoir may well be tinged with sadness. But my impression is that it’s a process that can also – in the very best way – enrich the writer.

At the age of 88, my father is at work on further small books in the memoir field.

J.A.S. “Tony” Rees’ The Boy from the Coach: Llangynidr, The Coach and Horses and Childhood is available here. 


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