Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Glamorganshire pastoral

I've just finished Peter Conradi's 'The Bright Hem of God' (previously posted on here). It's a wonderful book. Rather than attempt a detailed appraisal, I'll provide you with a comparison: the closest I've come to it is the Nigeness blog, and there can be little praise higher than that.

One reason it has a strong personal appeal to me is the way it approaches its subject matter of the Welsh Borders, Wales, Welshness and the rural way of life. It explores the different ways in which these have been experienced and written about and is particularly dedicated to recovery and memorialisation: most of the books cited are out of print, many of the people talked about are long dead, their ways of life having either disappeared or now slipping into history. It's subtitled 'Radnorshire Pastoral', for which it's something of an elegy.

This chimes with my own appreciation of Wales, which is distant and partial, experienced as much through memory and story as anything. I was born on a Glamorganshire hill farm, part of an extended farming family, but at a young age removed first to the Marches, then to Aberystwyth and finally over the border into England's West Country, wherever Dad's studies and then lecturing took him (he couldn't make a living from keeping sheep on a hill-farm tenancy - I believe the farmhouse on Caerphilly mountain where I was born remains empty to this day).

But Dad, being a typical Welsh son and therefore tied to his mother's apron-strings, had us return to Wales every other weekend for years (the relationship between Welsh sons and their mothers is one explored by Conradi). These journeys seemed interminable - motorways weren't as ubiquitous then as now - taking four, five hours or more. My only memory of them has us crawling in our Austin Cambridge through the acrid atmosphere of the town of Bridgwater, a product of the yellow smoke which poured down from the chimney of the local cellophane factory.

Looking back, our accommodation also seems impractical and uncomfortable. I don't think I've ever been in a house smaller than Nain and Taid's. It was a sort of one-up, one-down terraced cottage into which two ground floor and two first floor rooms had somehow been accommodated. The upshot was that four of us - Mum, Dad, brother and I  - stayed in a single, small room.

It was cosy. Dad invariably went over to the local rugby club for a few pints on a Friday night. As a consequence, he'd often wake bursting for a pee in the early hours. The loo being downstairs in a lean-to, he would avail himself of a bucket, often with some expressive force. My brother recalls being woken from his sleeping spot on the floor by a fine, warm mist, not unlike some forms of tropical precipitation.

A good part of the weekend would typically be taken up with visits to the farms of the various cousins: P_________, F_____ Farm, T______ (and one or two others, whose names I forget). Each had its own characteristic experience.

P_________ was the home of my Uncle A_____, Nain's brother, a generous and handsome man who'd often give us boys a tenner (a lot of money in those days). He loved the horses and kept a few racers. By all accounts, he was a popular figure at Chepstow and around the livestock markets of South Wales and the Borders.

The farmhouse, though, was more squalid than any other property I've ever seen. The public rooms of a working farm inevitably get grubby and these were literally never cleaned: dogs and cats were everywhere, old bones and scraps of food lay on the shiny carpet, hair from various creatures infested the upholstery, anciently dirty plates lay strewn not just on the table but across arms of chairs and the cushions of sofas. It didn't smell too bad though - I think the dogs and cats ensured things didn't stick around long enough to putrefy. I always wondered how Uncle A_____ put up with it. Perhaps the answer is to be found in the way he ended his life: at the end of the barrel of his shotgun.

F_____ Farm was where some cousins farmed; it now lies mostly under an industrial estate. It was something of an adventure playground, especially the hay barn with its swing and scope for dens and tunnels. The farmhouse, although probably quite small, seemed to ramble. Heads, tails and paws of foxes, along with guns and antique bits of saddlery and brass festooned the walls. However, caution was always advisable. I remember one day I was playing alongside the cowshed when the bit of tin sheeting that covered the slurry pit came loose and I slipped in. I was up to my chest in liquid cow shit in no time and if Dad hadn't been there to pull me out by the hood of my parka I wouldn't be here now.

T______ was the nearest farm, being located just up the side of the valley (posted on here). It had recently been Dad's family home, shared with Nain's mother Nana, who died just after I was born, and a couple of Nain's younger siblings. It was now the home of Uncle M_____, another of Nain's brothers.

There were various sorts of livestock kept on the farm, often somewhat liberally. My brother and I used to delight in spending hours looking for eggs from the chickens that roamed around the place. The beehives at the back were another fascination, particularly as we were allowed occasionally to suck honey from the comb. Pigs, geese, guinea fowl (known as gleanies), horses, as well as the inevitable sheep were also present, sometimes near, sometimes far.

Unfortunately, it became increasingly uncomfortable to visit as old M_____ was losing his marbles. He would, however, drop in on us in the Cotswolds, unexpected, uninvited and claiming to be on his way back from parties in London where he'd supposedly been fĂȘted by luminaries such as the Radio 2 disc-jockey David Jacobs (he imagined, erroneously, that he was a talented opera singer headed for unprecedentedly late stardom). He would outstay his welcome, serenading us excessively. The only way to get rid of him was to escort his Morris Minor van to the top of the Cotwolds escarpment, point him towards Wales and see him over the brow of the hill. We could be sure we wouldn't be seeing him for a while as his van couldn't get back up the slope.

So Conradi's snippets of half-remembered aspects of Wales had some congruence with my own experience, right down to some of the same modes of speech appearing. For instance, 'middling', which he takes to mean neither good nor bad whereas it's actually a euphemism for poor as in, "How are you today, Nain?" "Oh, middling, middling...". Another is 'well done, well done', being used less as a term of approbation and more as an exclamation of how things are all right in in the world, as in, "What's it like out, son?" "Nice and sunny, Dad." "Well done, well done..."

However, whilst I enjoy his unashamed romantic appreciation of the countryside and its inhabitants - he admits his debt to Rousseau - I can't buy it lock, stock and barrel. I grew up regretting our move from rural Glamorgan - it, too, seemed an incredibly romantic place. However, from a more mature perspective I can see why Dad considered it a good idea to get away from that life, quite apart from there being no money in it for him.

The general mental instability of a good part of the family seemed to be exacerbated by everyone knowing and partaking in each other's business. This was oppressive as well as being productive of innumerable feuds. At Auntie J____'s funeral a couple of years ago (one of Nain's sisters, mentioned in this post), every branch of the family sat at their own table, only communicating via a handful of (temporarily) acceptable persons (even my branch, living at one remove for over thirty years, was unable to interact freely with all but one or two of the tables). Small-scale farming is a difficult business at the best of times. When you have a collection of often volatile, wilful and unbalanced individuals sharing in the same group of family farming businesses the stresses multiply.

So I readily recognise the potential for unhappiness in rural ways of life. The romantically wild, far from producing Conradi's idyll, can be dangerous to your well-being, your health and sanity. I suspect the very freedom Conradi cherishes can allow dangerously full play to behavioural quirks and eccentricities. Nevertheless, something about it all still exerts a strong pull. The dream is far more powerful than the reality.


Gadjo Dilo said...

Shame about the family fueds, Gaw - separate tables and everything. But, ah, being woken up by your dad pissing on you, this makes me want to coin an aphorism: A family that pisses on each other stays together.

Richard T said...

The feuding is familiar. We weren't farmers but my da would only communicate with the rest of his family - nain, taid, three brothers and two sisters through one sister in law. He died unreconciled and they didn't come to his funeral. Mind he wouldn't have gone to theirs unless it was for spite.

Brit said...

Excellent read that, Gaw. Do you still dream of drowning in liquid cow shit?

The dream is far more powerful than the reality. - yes, many, many Good-lifers have surely found that out the hard way.

Also I was intrigued by this titbit: he imagined, erroneously, that he was a talented opera singer headed for unprecedentedly late stardom.

Thank goodness Britain's Got Talent wasn't around then...

Recusant said...

Ahh. The sheer lethality of farms and farmyards make an excellent playground for one's childhood. Why I'm still living, what with rogue bulls, grain hoists, haystacks, milking parlours, plentiful firearms and various homicidal bits of kit, staggers me.

Still, the day I finished my 'A' levels I was away to London: the idea of spending the rest of my life with my arm up the fundament of a cow had little appeal.

dearieme said...

The families of both my father's father and his mother had been farmers. Happily those families had given it up in the early and middle 19th century respectively. So I grew up surrounded by farming but not dependent on it. Thank God.

Gareth Williams said...

Gadjo: We stayed together until my parents got divorced after their ruby wedding anniversary when they were both in their sixties. Parents, eh? It's the kids I feel sorry for.

Richard T: That sounds pretty awful. I wonder whether the feud died with him.

Brit: Cheers! I showed it to T before I posted it and she said you must have been terrified as a child. But - and I checked this with my brother - we weren't. If you grow up with the dangers of drowning in a slurry pit perhaps it doesn't freak you out when it nearly happens? Or something.

Excellent thought experiment re BGT. I wonder whether Cowell would get more than he bargained for? That lot could get pretty nasty if crossed and they had plenty of guns!

Recusant: I had no desire to farm either. But as I get older the idea becomes more appealing. Not that my wife would find it at all acceptable! Too far from a Starbucks.

Dearieme: We have a very unromantic, clear-eyed group here, it seems. Talking of which (well, the opposite actually) have you seen this lambing programme on BBC2? Hilariously unlike the filthy bloodbath of my experience.