stories written & copyright by John Good
Graphic design by Mark Foshee
Before First Light
Cousins from London
What You're Supposed to Do
Long Distance Voices
A Folktale from Yesteryear for Today
The Legend of Gwyn y Gwynt - The Man Who Sold the Wind
Islands Real and Imaginary
An Old Woodland Soldier
An Extraordinary Meeting of the SLS&L Society
The SLS and L Society
Gwenllian and Vi
When Shadows Lengthen
Craig y Ddinas (Rock of the Hillfort)
Ar Lan y Mor (Along the Shore)
If You Can't Have a Leek, Take a Cabbage
Then and Now
Magic Amongst the Slag Heaps - A Christmas Story
Ebley's and the Apple Tree
Rainy Reunion in Tenby
Dylan's Daughter, the Walrus and Old Town Aberafan
Once Upon a Star - A Christmas Story
Dec. 2012 (listen to the story, 6:30)
|Before First Light
Hours before first light, the remnant of the Easter full moon revealed the grayscale outlines of an extensive complex of buildings. You would have had to look very carefully in the meager light to pick out the suggestion of a large, cruciform, stone edifice. Though, even in this almost blackness, it would have been immediately recognizable to a medieval soul as the focal point of their community and indeed their lives: the shadowy, towering spires of an abbey church, reaching on the wings of prayer for celestial promise above and beyond.
Under the crystal cold and jeweled sky, the other buildings would become clearer as the tired moon slowly climbed the invisible arc of its ancient path. There’s a cloister for the monks’ meditations, reading and writing, a chapter house for business and discipline, a dormitory and a refectory where the brothers would observe the vow of silence while, unknown to the abbot, surreptitiously conversing with their secret hand-sign language.
At the edge of the abbey perimeter, within a distant whispering of the restless northern tides, what concerns us on this clear and cold spring night in Aberconwy, Wales, is the monastery hospital. There, the old and infirm monks would receive herbal medicines, concoctions of wildflowers, nettles and tree bark. Perhaps there would be special dispensations, like small amounts of meat added to their frugal diet on account of their condition. Or they might just rest instead of laboring in the fields or contributing to the meticulous everyday running of the monastic enterprise. The Cistercians were renowned for their success in farm management and exploitation of local resources, and this sometimes drew criticism, even from churchmen like Gerald of Wales, for being a little too worldly for men of the cross.
The substantial stone hospital building, with its high slit windows, would be the final sanctuary of many men of deep religious conviction but, from time to time, would house and care for lay penitents from noble families. Late in life, wealthy patrons would take to the cloth hoping to influence St. Peter into overlooking their often considerable trespasses.
It is still a while before sunrise at the abbey, but come now and follow the last of the cold and comfortless silver moonlight through the high window, as it reveals the simple interior of this, the last bare room of many a sinner and saint, parish poor and wealthy alike.
If you waited until your eyesight adjusted to the meager light, you would have been able to pick out the minimal furnishings of an austere, medieval sick room. There was a small bedside table with a book of prayers, an extinguished candle, and a crucifix on the wall above a straw bed, with a homespun blanket and pillow. On the bed you would see the motionless shape of a man who would turn out to be quite old for the 13th century. These were violent times, and if the almost constant warfare didn’t get you, disease was unrelenting. The old man was exceptional in having reached his late sixties.
The utter outer stillness of the scene would have led you to believe that this man was fast asleep. In fact, he was drifting between drowsy wakefulness and vivid dream; teaming memories and imaginings keeping him from the deep, restful sleep that might have brought some comfort in his old age. As increasingly happened with the wealthy landowners and nobility of the day, when the inevitable became evident, they would put their life and possessions in order. They would let everyone know their final wishes and knock on the door of a nearby abbey that they had patronized in anticipation of this day. Just so, our man of means had renounced the world, taken up the cloth in the hope that the humility of exchanging a life of servants and tapestried luxury for a dank monk’s cell would sway the judgment that he knew lay not far in front of him.
Lying on his straw cot, restless of mind, the old man was troubled by the memory of his youthful actions when, leading a war band, he had ordered violent acts of vengeance on innocents. This was often a like-for-like retaliation in truth, when protecting the border lands and discouraging any further English settlement, or even warning neighboring Welsh against incursion. But as he aged, he increasingly settled disputes with words, pen and ink, rather than the sword and conflagration. Yes, some of his greatest victories had been without even raising his voice but by force of personality. Still, the memories of his ruthless early days remained to trouble him.
Then there was his wife. Her passing, not many years before, had in unforeseen ways taken him totally by surprise. As was often the case in the Middle Ages, marriages between powerful families were arranged, political affairs. The modern concept of love might have been foreshadowed by the protestations and subtle innuendos of the Troubadours in Provence, but in remote old Wales, he himself had married for influence, gain and a male heir. Affection had indeed come with the passing of time, and although he forgave her, and took her back into his household, his world had been rocked by the whole affair of her likely infidelity. Her recent dying, many believed, had set off the only serious ill health he had suffered in his life; had brought him in humility to the monastery door. Yet, as this battle-hardened soldier lay there in the darkness of what he knew was the approaching end of his long life, he still could manage an affectionate smile as he drifted in and out of sleep.
And there he was again, a mere child, playing on the grassy hillside below the walls of Dolwyddelan castle, where he had spent his earliest days. The air was full with the sound of honey bees, tirelessly busy at their sweet-scented work. After a brief, refreshing rain shower, the redolent fragrance of clover and the earthy remembrance of those summers of innocence overwhelmed his senses. All this, on the eve of the internecine carnage that was about to follow the recent passing of a powerful Welsh prince. He would come to know the sadness and frustration of infighting that had divided, weakened and held the Welsh back for centuries, but for now, that reality was for another day.
Turning a page in his sleep, a little older but still young, he was again in the relative safety of Powis Fadog, in Northeastern Wales, where he had spent his early youth. Inside the workshop of a local woodworker, fascinated, he watched the craftsman fashioning all kinds of magical things out of sturdy oak, elder, cherry and ash. The musty smell of sawdust was as real to him now in dream as on the day, sixty years ago when he had wandered around the village with the wonderment of a boy and without a care in the world. He became so mesmerized by the man’s hammer rhythmically falling with precision on the heads of nails, tapping joins together, that he hardly noticed the dream scene fading to gray, but the knocking continued.
He opened his eyes slowly, reluctantly and realized someone was knocking at his cell door. He was an ailing old man in a monastery again, and it took him a moment to re-orientate. The knocking stopped and the tranquil voice of a monk, who was becoming familiar to him with the passing of days, respectfully said, "Arglwydd, amser gweddio yw" (Lord, it’s time for prayers). With accustomed dignity, the lifelong fearlessness of a legendary leader of men, and a little newly-found humility, Llywelin ap Iorwerth, Prince of Aberffraw, Lord of Snowden rose up to face the final hours of his long, eventful life.
Exterior: Beqa Shavidze @ Unsplash.com
Interior: Wood Hong @ Unsplash.com
|Cousins from London
Their two cousins from London could have been from Venus or Mars as far as they knew, particularly when they were all very young. Wales in those days was far more provincial than today, a day trip to Cardiff seemed like a jaunt to a foreign country. They couldn't put their finger on it but the girls seemed different. Yes, each time they came down to South Wales, they arrived by steam train from London Paddington, not in a flying car. And yes they looked more or less like young Welsh girls of their age, two arms, legs, eyes and one head. They didn't speak a Martian dialect but English like they did, and even a couple of words of Welsh, though there were even subtle differences in all of these things. Coming from the big city, their clothes were somehow different, more up to date, stylish. Maybe they combed their hair in an unfamiliar way, tied their shoes differently. Some of their expressions were odd, seemed funny to the boys, and there were their delightful Battersea accents.
All of the cousins and local kids got along great together, shared city and valley street games, chalked the sidewalks, played hide and seek, made jigsaws, and got the board games out in the evening after tea or when it rained. But there was always something slightly exotic, intriguing about these two from all the way up in London, come down to visit their out-of-town relatives. What they didn't realize was that the girls thought the same thing about their Welsh relatives. The sing-song quality of their voices, and they said strange things like "Ach a fi! (Yuck!)" There was only a year or two between them all, and they readily adopted each other as brothers and sisters, although the boys had a knack of leading the girls into trouble, while appearing as innocent as choir boys to the grownups. Their mother saw right through them, and a knowing stern look and a couple of appropriate words could straighten things out, as all good mothers from the valleys are skilled at.
There was the time, having been told not to, they led the girls down by the river to play, and brought them back with muddy frocks and socks. They all had to change to go to visit the aunties and uncles in a neighboring village. Or, the prohibited trip to the funfair at the beach a short distance away, and rides on the bumper cars and helter skelter, when they were supposed to be at the Saturday morning picture show. Even in those innocent days, funfairs were dubious places, where young kids learned to smoke cigarettes, and older kids got into all kinds of trouble. But the shoreline and surrounding hills were a paradise playground for the cousins, and cemented friendships that would never weaken over the years ahead.
One summer, in the school holidays, the Welsh cousins went up to London to visit. They were overwhelmed with the size of everything: city buildings and bridges, double decker buses, the River Thames, Battersea Power Station, and the palatial, glass-domed, many-platformed, whistling wonder that is Paddington Train Station. Only doctors, the wealthy and police had cars in South Wales. They were everywhere in London. Seemed like everyone had one.
Then there was the near magical Underground system and the overhead electric trains that apparently went everywhere. But their favorite place was Battersea Park. It had a world-renown funfair and rides, a zoo and, best of all, a lake with row boats that you could rent. More fun was never had by all the pirates along the Spanish Main, though the mallards were glad to see the Welsh boys go back home. Strange how simple things entertain young minds and remain vivid in older ones.
One sunny afternoon back in Wales, they all decided to have a picnic. Setting off with a bagful of goodies, they crossed the sleepy village's railway line, went over the old stone river bridge, on past the disused coal mine and overgrown brick works, up onto the fern and gorse covered hills behind their grandmother's house. They had a big bottle of their favorite dandelion and burdock pop but, laying the food goodies out on a tea cloth, they found the rest of the feast was nothing but various kinds of chocolate. No one had thought of sandwiches, just Cadburys' assorted. They all had a good laugh and, of course, enjoyed the treats.
When the girls came at Christmas, not surprisingly, it was the most fun of all. School was over for the holidays, people were singing carols around town, in the crisp seaside air. The entire family was squeezed into one house, kids top and tailing in beds in one room, parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents in the other rooms, on sofas and camp beds. Of an evening, bath and pajama time was arranged in shifts. Girls would go first, boys second. Then, clean as a whistle, off to bed, lights out, but the cousins would play games, tell stories, sing songs until warned "for the last time", on pain of no presents, to go to sleep.
And on Christmas Eve, almost better than the presents next day, all would take turns stirring the Christmas pudding mix with a great big wooden lletwad (ladle), and get to dip a finger in the mixing bowl, and taste this divinely sweet, heavenly mixture. In those days, a very large turkey would be basted all night in the oven, and perfume the entire house with a tantalizing, irresistible and unforgettable smell, that the kids always would remember as part of the best Christmases ever. They would all feel lucky to have been there, all together, young and old, with no cares in a world, that was perhaps a little simpler, carefree and innocent than now. And isn't it strange how bringing back to mind yesterday's good times can lighten up our darker todays? I think the cousins from London would agree.
The family, with the visiting cousins, in 1963.
As they carried him from the battlefield on his shield, the hero drifted in and out of consciousness, in and out of existence. From dawn to dusk and on into night, the fury of the fighting never abating, red-beaked raven and crow never slowing their feasting. He remembered thinking, gwell angau na chywilydd (better death than disgrace), and although he didn’t remember the blow that brought him down, he knew he was going to die.
Photo Seth Yeanoplos at Unsplash.com
How long it had been, how much time had intervened, seemed immaterial, unreal, as he became aware of a profoundly visceral silence. The inhuman dissonance of manmade destruction had dissolved. War and warriors were now otherworld. He was aware he was somehow somewhere outside time, and as foreboding as going forward seemed, unaccustomed fear fogging his thinking, he was compelled to step into the encroaching crow-black dark. Invisible hands demanded he go on.
Twilight was the best of it. Lightless midnight pools, double black shadows the worst. It wasn’t the monstrous that took control of this failing heart and soul, it was the unknown; the not knowing what lay hidden just out of sight, undercover in the smothering darkness. He would have to find a way to keep to his appointed path; put one faltering foot in front of the other; stay strong until daylight might dissipate his midnighted life.
He clung tightly to the memory of the great warriors of Greece, assured of afterlife in Elysian Fields; of the sagas of seafaring Vikings feasting in Valhalla; of the early Saints of The Isles, and their angelic hymn-singing Heaven, and of myths and tales of the undying heroes of his own Cymru (Wales). Of Urien, Owain, Cadwallader, Caratâcos; Boudicca, Uther Pendragon and Arthur. After all, there was the promise of Ynys Afallon (Avalon) for the brave, for the ancient Briton.
And he thought of things he’d done that needed undoing; of things that needed doing that hadn’t been done. And he thought of hasty words, better left unsaid, and the words that needed saying wasting away on the sighing wind. It was a time for accounting, for the counting of good and bad deeds. Elysium, Valhalla, Heaven and Avalon all had their designated entrance fee. Immortality had a price. As he looked intently into the bottomless pool of his being, he became the fisherman of his own soul. Netting and bringing to shore regret and the arrogance of disappointment, a shoal of broken virtues. The utter darkness almost imperceptibly eased.
And imperceptibly the scenery seamlessly transforming, he found himself afloat on a placid dawn swell. His boat, without sail, oar or oarsman, was making for the sandy beaches of an island nearby. The nightmare of his midnighted life had indeed dispersed with the coming daylight. Maybe, just maybe, having made the dark crossing, he might find Ynys Afallon after all.
Photo by Rod Long at Unsplash.com
For the first time since being carried on his shield from the field of battle, the hero was aware of others nearby. They were sitting in the shade of an apple tree orchard. Drifting on the glistening sea-green breeze, he caught lyrical phrases of a familiar language he’d never heard before. Yet, more thought than spoken, he understood every cadence of these songs without words. And a sense of time had returned but now was spinning in concentric circles; yesterday, today and tomorrow circling; present, past and future freely untethered.
In fathomless-deep meditation, Myrddin (Merlin) sat with Dewi (Saint David), an ageless wizard and the rock of ages; Dylan Thomas and Ap Gwilym, rhyming in timeless metaphor, simile and symbol, singing to Aneirin songs of Taliesin; Owain Glyndwr, Gwynfor Evans and Lloyd George deeply engaged in lively conversation of Welsh cessation, all under the piercing eyes of the princes Llywelyn. Sitting at the center of the gathered throng was the gentle Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock), fingers floating as light as a wren above his beloved, golden harp strings, in the lightly apple-scented air.
So, there we leave our hero in a state of grace, now part of the pantheon of the Cymry, of the Welsh. A place of inspiration for the child setting out in the often graceless uncertainty of our days; a place of history and heritage for a nation to gratefully look back on with pride and maybe, just maybe, find the fortitude to confidently look ahead.
|What You're Supposed to Do
Even for a vastly experienced entertainer, there was a tinge of heightened expectancy, a sense of a moderately elevated heart rate, as the backstage floor manager gave the cue. The show’s theme music started up, the curtains momentarily parted and a still handsome, older, distinguished man stepped out into the bright studio lights. The dimly lit live audience, just about visible in the theater seating, on cue, spontaneously broke into delirious approbation.
Now accompanied by the talk show host, who had jumped up from his desk to greet him, this well known man walked towards the proverbial sofa. He thought, "In this business, this is what’s supposed to happen. When someone familiar to the public is making a big...a very big career move, the public like to be in the know. It makes them feel a little closer to the otherwise totally inaccessible rich and famous. The same with the talk show hosts themselves, who had been falling over each other for days to become that one intimate confidante, who would masterfully expose a celebrity’s deepest inner feelings, and incidentally, get sky-high TV ratings. Yes, this was what was supposed to happen."
Photo John Mark Smith at Unsplash.com
Pleasantries aside, after an enthusiastic mention of recent projects, our host quickly moved on to the money question. "So, after so many years and so much success this side of the Atlantic, why are you now packing up and moving back to Wales?"
The studio was as quiet as a sleepy Sunday afternoon after lunch. With consummate timing learnt over decades of being in the public eye, after a measured silence and completely straight faced, the Welshman said, "So I can get closer and more often watch fire breathing, tearfully passionate grown men and boys in short trousers. [Pause] Oh! By the way, they’ll be chasing a rugby ball around a rain-soaked mud bath that passes for a playing field!"
After the laughter subsided, "Can I tell you a story? It’ll only take a day or two. [More laughter]. "How could I refuse?" said the beaming host, knowing it was going to be one of those special nights.
"When I was young, growing up, we lived in a three-bedroom, semi-detached, rented from the town council, on a housing estate close to a steel works. My father got a job there soon after returning from the Second World War in France, and he worked there until he retired in his mid sixties. Believe it or not, in those days, people often had one job that lasted a lifetime. [The audience murmured knowingly in agreement]. Our family, in retrospect, had everything a working class household could need: fresh local food, vegetables from the garden, warm clothes, a TV. We had great neighbours, licensed to correct young transgressors, and a neighborhood full of school kids to pick up sides, play street games and scrap with. Further afield there were cousins, aunties, uncles, who we’d see at Christmas, summer holidays, weddings, christenings and funerals. Phones and fridges were a couple of years out of reach. Oh, of course, we had a Heinz 57 variety dog that turned up at our front door one hot and very thirsty afternoon. So, to tell the truth, everything was as it was supposed to be."
The audience shuffled in their seats and the host, feigning concern said, "Well, go on then. You can’t end there!" Not needing anymore encouragement, on he went.
"I still remember the day when my father, looking very serious, called us all together and said that Nana was coming to live with us. Ill health and old age had ganged up on this tireless woman. Living alone for several years after granddad had lost his battle with coalminer’s lung, she was no longer able to take care of herself. Dad said we’d have to double up on the sleeping arrangements, but he seemed surprised that we kids didn’t seem bothered with this, bedrooms and all. We thought we’d gotten in trouble for something we’d done and had forgotten about.
Nana coming to live with us was as natural as Welsh Cakes on March the First. Anyway, we liked being around the older generation, they had such great stories, made the best apple and blackberry pies, pasties, not to mention the occasional sixpence or shilling we got for being reformed choirboys. Anyway, having your grandmother move in, later in life, was what you’re supposed to do."
"That happens less and less these days" said the host, and the murmurings from the audience sadly seemed to agree. "Everyone’s so busy chasing after the uncatchable," he said, "there’s no time to look after ourselves, let alone each other...shame." There was a lot more to come from his guest.
"To this day, it’s as clear as a very early May morning on the sandy beach of Baglan Bay. It was the evening I left for college for the first time. Now 18 years old, I was sitting in the front room of our house, next to my grandmother’s bed, that had been moved down stairs to make everyone‘s life easier. The grand old lady was only days away from reunion with her Jack, and this would be the last time I would see her. For the first time in my life, I was watching someone go through the final changes of life, close up. Luckily, one of our worldly neighbours came in, read the situation, and whisked me out of the room before I broke down. You were supposed to be strong in front of the dying, no matter how much it hurt, even though I think she was beyond knowing."
A profound Sunday silence had again descended on the room, so our man from Wales sensed the need to pick things up. "Now then," he said with renewed energy, "at the exact moment of setting out on my new life, I was witnessing the passing of the old, but you pick yourself up, and just like those great and legendary rugby players, you wipe off the mud and blood, check for broken bones, and keep on chasing the game." The audience shuffled, and between coughs and sighs, seemed to have lightened up.
"As some of you know, I’ve been chasing that game for many a year, in many a foreign clime, which brings me back, a muddy bloody day later, to your question." Laughter showed the audience had regained its sense of enjoyment. "To tell the truth, Welsh people are terminally sentimental. Who else would get tearful seeing a leek? [Pause] Yes, a leek! For those of you a little confused, Wales has many national emblems: the harp of course, the dragon (has to be red), the Red Tailed Kite (has to be red!), the daffodil, and strangest of all, a national vegetable. Yes you heard correctly, a national vegetable. I won’t bore you with the contested explanations of this phenomenon, but as stated, on St. David’s Day or, with a surfeit of good Welsh beer, after we’ve beaten England to claim the mighty Rugby Six Nations and a Grand Slam, tears will not be far away at the sight of this lowly yet elevated onion."
"We even have a special word for this kind of depth of feeling. It’s hiraeth. They say you can’t translate it, but it’s not that the meaning is so especially difficult, patriotic longing and love of country is worldwide, but it’s the intensity of the feeling. When I find myself avoiding CNN and my cursor, seemingly of its own accord, finds the BBC Wales news feed. When I’m 6,000 miles away, yet very concerned that the price of cockles is sky high in Swansea, or it’s going to rain for a month of Sundays in Cardiff, I know hiraeth is closing in. Everyone should love where they come from, not that it’s better than any other place, just that it’s special, unique. Not that it belongs to you, but that you are a part of it by birthright. It’s figuratively and literally in your DNA. I know I’ve often, quite rightly, been accused of circular thinking but, after a full day in the sun, when the late afternoon starts to quietly slip into evening, I can’t help but turn my steps back homeward. After all, at the end of the day, it’s what you’re supposed to do."
The next morning our friend got up late after the late night show, picked up the phone, and called an international moving company. "Hello, do you arrange overseas household moves? To where? Wales. Where’s that? It’s where I left my leek..."
Amongst the scattered detritus of last night's dream scenes, misty residue of sleep, almost in slow motion, the man lifted a cup of hot sweet tea to his lips. Not fully conscious, staring out of the kitchen window, the October sun, each day with more reluctance, was slowly climbing from behind the as yet featureless mountain ridge. First light was the man's chosen time to order his thoughts, morning ritual of focus, setting the tone controls for the day ahead. Well in truth, without prompting, thoughts would bubble up from the depths of his subconscious, just as the steamy heat from the tea warmed his face. As the rising sun revealed vegetation and rocky outcrops on the distant ridge, so words grew into phrases, phrases ideas, ideas into later actions…or not.
And what was casually caught in the dream-fisherman's net on the river bank that morning? Nothing but regret, its fun-numbing self. "It's become popular to say I regret nothing", he said to himself. "I for one, have regrets. There are things I wish I hadn't said, things I wish I'd said, and things I wish I'd done, things I wish I hadn't. The real question is what can I do now that the ugly-headed subject of regret has come up, so that down the line, I don't regret that I regret?" The man smiled broadly. As you can see, he enjoyed the dizzy riddles and conundrums of contemporary life, and would smile more and more frequently as his cryptic day went by.
As that very day went on its merry way, our playfully regretful friend, who had taken to calling himself The Prodigal (for reasons that will become evident later on), found himself obsessively humming a tune from the '70s. It was one of those songs of old that everyone you knew, knew. But no one you knew, knew the reason why on a particular day, time and place, that particular song popped up again, and completely took over mind, body and soul. For a certain generation, Beatles' songs often did that. (Oh no! Not Yellow Submarine again!) But on this occasion, it was a Reggae hit by the Heptones that once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away, our friend and his friends listened to over and over. Like a crossword, one by one the words came back to him until the puzzle was unraveled.
"…poor people like you and me we be builders for eternity.
Each is given a bag of tools, a shapeless mask, and a book of rules."Somehow the deeply satisfying reggae lyric seemed in some way strangely linked with his earlier verbal encounter with regret. That night, The Book of Rules was his cradle song.
The next day started ominously, with low clouds close to obscuring the ridgeline and muting the ethereal sunrise. Autumn was beginning to assert herself, rain was in the forecast and the light wind lightly held the first suggestion of an October chill. Breathing in deeply, the Prodigal could smell the oncoming rain in the pungent heavy air, as he took out last evening's trash. He had already noticed that the days were a little shorter, the sun setting and rising further to the south each day, and he knew it wouldn't be too long before he would need a coat and flannel shirt to walk the ever-ready dogs. They cared nothing about rain, hail or chill, only the scent, jack rabbits and the trail.
Now that he lived in the foothills outside town, with unpaved roads and miles to the nearest market and services, it meant that weather was something to be aware of all year round. Winter, summer or spring, with heavy rain, tracks become mud-sucking ruts, hollows, lakes and dry washes quickly become treacherous torrents. When heavy snows arrive, well, people just stay home if possible, but necessity being the mother of invention, in an emergency, reading the sky signs might just save a life. "Country people," he had quickly learnt, "keep one eye on the skies and one on what the birds and animals are doing. They have a sixth sense of coming change, better by far than the forecast on your phone."
The rain showers, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, continued for the whole day. It made our man very happy. "Why?" a well adjusted person might ask. "Sunshine is happy," they might have continued, but not our man. They say most people either really like or really hate what they know best, what they grew up with. There's nothing in between. Food, music, people, landscape, culture and yes, weather. The Prodigal grew up in South Wales, playing outside in Wellies in all weathers, and even in later life, rain would brighten the darkest day. The heavier the better, though "Glaw mân, small rain," he would say, "was unfailingly euphoric." The first rain of autumn had made him increasingly thoughtful, which, as many of you would agree (especially Welsh expats), is one degree away from homesick. By bedtime, a pensive quietude had settled in, replacing last night's cradle song. Hiraeth, longing, was only a shadow's breadth away.
That night in bed, he had trouble staunching the torrent of words, images and ideas that seemed to parallel the day's rain. "It never rains but it pours," he whispered to the totally indifferent night, but long hours into the deluge, he did manage to fall asleep. For quite some time he had been toying with the idea of travelling back across the vast continental landmass and gray-green Atlantic wastes, of returning to live again in rainy old Wales. At his age, this was worth thinking out. As a twenty six year old, when he first came to America, it took a matter of weeks to put things in some kind of order, kiss his adoring mother and, with not a care or fear in the world, jump on the plane heading west…a very long way west. Now, nearly fifty years later, thinking of retracing the flight path meant sleepless nights. For some time he had hoped for any kind of sign to settle the question. Unfortunately in this case, flocking birds, ravens and toads could only forecast changes in the weather, and star signs and patterns in the vaulted indigo sky had little to add. On this particular starry night, sleep did eventually come to him not long before dawn, and a deep dream-sleep at that.
Mercifully, time doesn't exist outside wakefulness. You might count sheep, but not the hours of the counting and, I think you'll agree, we all need to clock out at the end of the day. When our friend awoke, it was getting light, but the exact passage of time was unknown to him, though the memory of his dream-sleep was indelibly clear. Tired as he felt, standing at the kitchen window, raising the teacup to his lips, a broad smile threatened to break into open laughter. "The hiraeth, longing, has gone," he said out loud to no one, "gone along with uncertainty and regret. It'll take a good while to organize everything, and there are sure to be setbacks, but you know, now I know why I jokingly called myself "The Prodigal". I've forgiven myself for the many days and opportunities I've wasted, for my own and even other peoples' thoughtless words and deeds, for often not following the Book of Rules, and for occasionally chasing after yesteryear's snow. Now I'm very clear and at peace with all of this."
What, you might ask, had caused this sea change in a sleep-deprived man, who hours earlier was struggling to find sleep, struggling with his past and struggling to decide his future? Quite simply, a very vivid dream. Some say dreams are vitally important, some, that the sleep state is just a garbage can for our waking hours. The Prodigal would be of the vitally important persuasion. Sometime, not long before the sunrise over the distant, featureless, mountain ridge, before waking, our man found himself sitting at table with his mother and past and present family members. Bathing in the pleasant and relaxed warmth about the vibrant scene, everyone, including himself, was smiling and deeply happy. "I'm coming home," said The Prodigal quietly, without the slightest trace of doubt.
of Rules by the Heptones (YouTube)
I first heard of Carātacos, or Caractacus as he is sometimes known in Sandfields Comprehensive School, Aberafan, South Wales. I was a morose, spotty pre-teen more interested in the Beatles, haircuts and seemingly unapproachable, cute girls, than some ancient British hero from the 1st Century. But the enthusiasm and obvious pride of our history teacher, in retelling the dramatic events of his resistance to Roman domination, was seriously infectious. The irresistible power of Wales' first known and recorded warrior king had, if anything, grown over the 1900 or so years since his extraordinary heroics. The strange thing is he wasn't actually Welsh. There wasn't a Welsh anything at that time, just the indigenous Celtic tribes (Ancient Britons) in what became England, Southern Scotland, Cornwall and what is now Cymru, Wales.
After battles near the river Thames and Medway in Southern England, Caratācos did lead the South and Mid-Wales resistance to the ambitions of Emperor Claudius. He eventually failed to stop the marching murder machine that was the Roman army, elephants and all, but it was the heroic stand against the inevitable that was so inspiring then as today. Having been born in a small country, a country still fighting to maintain a sometimes fragile identity; a country right next to a powerful and often casually demeaning neighbor, his inspiration remains essential on dark days when a nation tries to keep its head held high. His words and deeds still echo even now down the cavernous centuries, but rather than play the amateur historian, and proud and intoxicated intermediary, I'll let him speak for himself.
I am Caratācos, son of Cunobelinos, younger brother of Togodumnos. I, once chief of the Catuvellauni, speak to you from beyond the great oak door of time immemorial. My reasons for this intrusion into your world will, in due course, be made clear.
Caratācos issued coin, with his profile.
After the river battles in the Southeast, I and my surviving men moved west to the Silures in what is now South Wales. Reputation arriving in advance, these uncompromising, fearless tribesmen took me for their warrior king. With the spirit of resistance high as a cresting September tide, together we celebrated great victories and yes, numbing setbacks. But hope, sometimes battered and bruised, always somehow dragged itself from the blood-drenched field.
We had learnt, from defeats in the East, not to face the Romans in pitched battle. The legions fought as if of a single mind; we, as many single-minded warriors in search of immortality. Instead of pitched battle, we would make surprise attacks, set traps, ambush at dusk. The hills of the South were our friends; the river valleys our compatriots; the night and Welsh weather our cover and escape.
It was agreed I should go to the Ordovices, in the heart of Mid-Wales, and organize resistance among the Welsh tribes there and beyond, then make a final push to send the brow-beaten legions back to Gaul. It was here, in the Welsh midlands that I made a foolish stand. I should have kept to what I knew about fighting Roman armies, but instead decided that a river, hilltop, precipitous approach and rock formation would be deciding advantages in face to face battle. For a while this worked well; the Romans suffering great losses as stones, arrows and javelins rained down upon them, turning their forces back down the hill.
Then the enemy cleverly changed tactics. They formed Testudos (Tortoises). Small square formations of soldiers interlocked shields to the front, sides and over the top, creating a protective shell. If their nerve and discipline held, they could slowly and safely advance, climb the hill and engage in hand-to-hand combat. After many acts of heroism and lives sacrificed, we were overrun. Very many brave men died that day, unwilling to surrender. As night approached, I was able to escape to the north, the battle in its death throes. Unknown to me at the time, in the scorching heat of combat, my wife and young family were not so lucky and were taken prisoner. It was, at the end of the longest of days, a decisive and crushing defeat.
Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, in what is now Northern England, at first welcomed me as fellow chieftain when, still stinging from my loss, I arrived at her court. But, unknown to me, she had become a client Queen of the Romans; safe within the Pax Romana (peace pact of the Empire). I soon found myself in chains, being handed over to the legionary command and, along with my wife and family, on the way to Rome, to be paraded as a trophy for the greater fame and amusement of Emperor Claudius.
There was no doubt about our fate, but I was told that I would be allowed to address the Senate. I'm sure this was in the hope that I, famed leader of the barbaric Celtic Britons, would beg for my own and family's lives, and suffer the further derision of the assembled city. I spoke as follows.
If I had only been blessed with a modicum of wealth and possession to accompany my high birth and nobility, I should have entered this city as friend rather than defeated foe, and it would not have been below your dignity to formally enter into alliance with one of such glorious ancestral lineage, chieftain as I was of many British tribes. My present shame confers great fame on you. Horses, armies, weapons and wealth were mine. Are you surprised I would not willingly give them up? You may desire to rule the world, but would you expect the world to readily accept slavery? If, without a courageous fight, I should have shamefully ceded my heritage and beloved lands, your illustrious victory would not have resounded to your eminence and fame. If you now take my life, this day's history will be forgotten. If you grant me clemency, your mercy will be known down through the ages.Claudius, whose intention it was to have us all ritually strangled, as the finale to the entertainment set before the gathered Senate and citizens of Rome, relented. He had listened to my words carefully, and respected my refusal to beg for our lives. I and my family could now live our lives out in exile, under the southern sun and the watchful eyes of the authorities. It seems that my final battle was with words for weapons. Looking around me, I found it more than strange to think that with the magnificence of the sundrenched marble buildings, fountains and statues, as far as the eye could see, Rome would want to possess our round, mud huts in cold, rain-soaked Britain. We may never know the reason why, but it brings me back full circle to why I am speaking to you today, from beyond the veil of Afallon (Avalon).
Caratācos wyf i. Llifa gwaed arwyr yr henfyd trwy'r galon hon. (I am Caratacos. The blood of ancient heroes flows through this heart.) People of Wales and of Welsh heritage, descendants of the Ancient Britons, the world, and your ancestral home in that world, has reached a critical crossroads in history. No Roman invasion threatens, calling you to take action, but the more insidious armies of casual neglect and the sleepless erosion of passing time. A great and relentless wearing down by world powers, economies and their monstrous advertising machines have for some time made small nations and cultures increasingly marginal and fragile. Sameness is the enemy. Should we look and dress the same? Dream the same dreams? Sing the same songs? Conformity is the battle ground. Should we speak the same, eat the same foods? Should we want to be the same?
No need for the battle axe, hammer and sword this time. Sing your hymns and songs of the Silures. Tell the tales of the Ordovices. Proudly show the Red Dragon emblem. Even if you have but a few words, speak Yr Hen Iaith (The Old Language), especially to the children. Retell the stories of the heroes… the magic of Arthur, power of Llywelyn, and the dream of Glyndwr. Be proud of your forefathers and of your present-day compatriots. Look to the past for the sake of the present. Look to the future to realize the fragile hopes of the past. And, on your darkest day, remember, Cymry ydych chwi. Llifa gwaed arwyr yr henfyd trwy'ch calon chi. (You are Welsh. The blood of ancient heroes flows through your heart.)
|Long Distance Voices
Ah! There you are. Strange thing, I was thinking about you all day yesterday when my lovely wife reminded me it was your birthday today. Pen blwydd hapus iawn Mam (Very happy birthday Mother)! The years just fly by, but it sometimes seems as if only an hour ago you were packing us off to school, come hell, high water, hail, rain or shine. We'd be full of porridge and dressed for every contingent of the fickle and sometimes withering Welsh weather. It's said you can't go back or shouldn't even if you could; that you can't step in the same river twice. But these days being so far from home and a lot more than a little older, I sometimes wake at night with a smile on my face. The dream-memory of growing up a skip and a jump from the glorious sands and dunes of Aberafan Beach is again timeless; as timeless as they were in reality.
I've never really told you this before, but how very lucky and grateful I am for the way you and Dad brought us up. I wasn't always the best son--found trouble in the most unlikely places--but over the decades, hills and dales, I've seen how many another child suffered at the hands of casual neglect, unhappy fathers and loveless mothers. So, belatedly, let me tell you that you two were great. You gave us lots of love, a slap on the wrist as needed, "Wait till your father gets home!", and the best chance at a good life that you could. In truth, I can only blame myself for the blind alleys I've wondered into, and there's been more than a few cul-de-sacs along the way that spring to mind. Talking about by the way, how is Dad? Tell him I was asking about him, and please pass on what I said about growing up, would you? In hindsight I should have listened to him a lot more. Yea, now I know what I thought I knew then.
How's the weather over here? We've had heavy snow for two days straight. We couldn't get out of the house. Mesmerized by the silent beauty of the beautiful silence, I was vividly reminded of the time it snowed at the beach. Do you remember? All the tumbling-up kids of our street--their faces still clear as an icy January morning--rolled a colossal snowball along the tide line until we couldn't roll it any further, and it cracked neatly in two. It must have taken two weeks to melt. I've recently noticed that even now, the epiphany of the first snow fall each winter rolls back the years, and the snowball-to-end-all-snowballs is in motion again; eager hands determined to keep the monster moving! Hope it never stops rolling.
I don't know how you two managed to keep two boys at university with another teenage son at home, even with scholarships thrown in. We ate like condemned men. That was back in the day of letter writing, and though not often, with the worst handwriting in Wales and beyond, I did write home. I still laugh and am laughing right now, remembering you saying that my writing was so bad you'd take the letter to the chemist to get it made up. My freehand regularly resembled a very busy doctor's scrawl on a prescription, something like Welsh hieroglyphics. Call me old fashioned, though I'm sure you'd agree, the anticipation of an envelope with familiar if horrible handwriting falling through the front door letterbox, beats text messages and emails any day of the month. They seem soulless, and all the elegant fonts on the Internet can't remedy that. Magically, a pen etching lines, dots and circles on good quality letter paper, can express shades of feelings far more subtly than keyboard, spellcheck or inkless script. And having to go out in the horizontal rain and shearing wind on a miserable February night to the fire-engine-red post box on the corner, by the roundabout, meant you had a very good reason to make the effort. He said, routinely glued to his PC monitor for hours every day! Got to laugh at yourself now and then, as you often told me.
And talking about things you told me, I remember you often saying we should do things with a good heart or not at all. I've not always kept to that, but when I did, the time it took to do some ugly, thankless task or another passed much more quickly, and the feeling of satisfaction afterwards was greater. It's strange that things heard and forgotten, often quite simply expressed, find a way of showing up again, for no particular rhyme or reason. Or maybe they have a reason to re-emerge that we just don't comprehend. Take the other week for example. That old Welsh saying about what you leave behind after you leave this earth, fell out of a pure blue sky. Amser dyn yw ei gynhysgaeth (Man's time is his endowment). In the back of my mind, I was probably thinking about getting older (as we aging ones do!), and I need a little reminder now and then to usefully use my time. I don't know, but whatever I might do, I'll try to do it with a good heart, thanks to you.
Well, there you are, we're all fine down here in the snowy Southwestern grasslands. Aches and pains? Sure. Worry and stress? Who doesn't? But all in all, your middle boy is doing just fine, and very glad his lovely wife reminded him of your birthday. Pen blwydd hapus Cariad! (Happy birthday Love), from your ever-loving son. You would have been a hundred today.
a poem related to this story, Lie
|A Folktale from Yesteryear
Picture yourself, one early evening of a late summer day, sitting along with your near family in the front room of your grandparents' old red brick and stucco house. The sunlight is beginning to fade but still picks up the small particles of dust in the air; air thick with after-Sunday-lunch silence, except for the soft ticking of a clock. Then there's the lingering smell of grandma's cooking, that even fifty or so years later is fresh and unforgettable in the memory of the senses.
Grandpa gets up from his easy chair by the hearth, a chair that over his retirement years has perfectly conformed to his body. He walks across the warm and heavily satisfied room, and turns on the radio. The unmistakable voice of a BBC presenter announces the program that's about to start… an adaptation of a Conan Doyle mystery folded inside a mystery, a Herman Melville New England whaling misadventure, or something tragically revealing by the Bronte Sisters.
The music starts. The drama begins. A hound bays on a cold Dartmoor night, the wind howls in the doomed ship's rigging and the stairs ominously creek at midnight in lonely Wuthering Heights (masterful sound effects provided by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop). Everyone in the front room is transfixed. It is the late 1950's in a South Wales village and television, mercifully, has yet to become widely available. Everyone is effortlessly supplying their own images to amplify and illustrate the unfolding narrative.
Now picture yourself in the same village, one early evening of a cold mid-winter day. You are sitting around the blazing hearth of an old stone farm house kitchen, 200 or so years earlier. The heavy snow has put a stop to most work outside the family farm buildings and, after a long uneventful day, everyone is looking forward to an evening of lively storytelling.
The wax candles have been lit. The stone floor, cooking range and hearth, that will stay alight all year round, are all contributing to the congenial, warm environment. A good supply of wood stacked beside the blaze means no one has to go outside in the driving snow to fetch fuel. There will be homemade bread, cheese, pickles and grandma's hot buttered fruit cake, fresh from the oven. The tantalizing smell fills the whole house.
In turn, an uncle, aunt, father, maybe a grandfather, take a draft of homemade beer or elderberry wine, stand up and, with practiced ease, give their version of their favorite tales from the surrounding hills, river valleys and forests. There might be something about a farm lad who tried his luck across the border in England, or the sailor, thought lost at sea, who returns many years later and, everybody's favorite, the one about the haunted house that no one will pass after dark, especially in mid-winter. They've all heard these stories before but, as the proverb says, Chwedl a gynydda fel caseg eira (A tale increases like a rolling snowball.) Each telling is different, and in this context, familiarity does not breed the slightest contempt. A happy and satisfied crew will go to their goose feather beds in any of a number of lofts, niches and nooks, and sleep the sleep of innocent contentment.
Now picture yourself in the early twenty-first century, somewhere in Wales or, for that matter, anywhere in the wide world, at anytime of the year. You are surrounded by a myriad of electronic devices, loaded with Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO, Hulu… offering a plethora of videos that leave little or nothing to the imagination. Now, take a deep breath, cup your courage in both hands, and turn off everything that needs a power supply. In the almost eerie silence that follows, realize we have all become passive observers. Our imaginations are out of work, redundant. We are onlookers consuming exquisitely detailed, 24/7 entertainment that only requires us to pay the bill.
Considering our pressure cooker existence, this passivity is not surprising. Every now and then we need to take shelter from the whirlwind that spins up, on a sometimes daily basis. But oh (!) for the days of late summer radio or the mid-winter farmhouse, when a simpler world invited us to partake in our idle hours; when we became part of our stories, when we told our own tales. The good news is that the door is still open to that 50's front room, to that old hearth and kitchen. It just takes the flick of a switch. Let's try an experiment. We'll let our twenty first century minds loose on a magical old folktale that demands we suspend analytical thinking, and let our imaginations and long-lost internal child run wild.
A note from the writer:
What follows is my own version of the Welsh folktale March ap Meirchion (King Mark the son of Meirchion). Folktales have been passed on from generation to generation, from time immemorial without being written down, often until much later. They usually embody a proverb, moral or illustrate a human weakness that can be amended, in this case vanity. There are no specific authors, each generation adding their own variations, local characteristics, figures of speech and so on. The stories, though often fabulous, may hold a kernel of truth that has been held in the folk memory for centuries, if not millennia. Versions of the same story are often found in different villages, regions or even countries. The story of King Mark, as we shall call him, is found in North and South Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, Ireland and even Greece! As is my storyteller's prerogative, I have chosen to set my version of the tale in and around my home area, the uplands and coastal area of West Glamorgan.
No two ways about it, Prince Mark was an arrogant young prince. He knew he would rule Glamorgan after his father, and he rather fancied himself as a handsome, wealthy, powerful and privileged young king-to-be. He could never pass a mirror without admiring his athletic, dare he say, noble looks. The court wizard, Taliesin, had warned him more than once that one day he would look in the mirror and see something he didn't want to see! Mark, of course, thought he knew better, laughed at the old soothsayer, and his vanity grew by leaps and bounds. "One day in the not too distant future, when the midsummer full moon rises over Mynydd Emroch, you will listen, I promise you." Taliesin's prediction had momentarily unnerved Prince Mark, but he soon put his fears aside and went his heedless ways. In fact, his admiration for himself blossomed.
Then came that day when things would change forever. The local boys were obliged to keep company with Mark, as their future king, but he would enjoy playing cruel tricks on them, and they dreaded being summoned to the court on the Blaenau (Uplands), overlooking the bay. On this particular day he played a particularly mean trick on Dafydd Bach (Little David), which ended with the poor lad covered in mud, with his clothes torn and having to walk home suffering the laughter of the prince. Taliesin, who was collecting medicinal plants and herbs nearby, had seen enough! He would use his magical skills to save Mark from himself. "Gair i gall, ffon i angall (A word to the wise, a stick to the unwise!)" Taliesin thought. "To be king, he will need the ears to listen, and these little herbs and a few choice words will help him to do so." The wizard would see to it.
As the years passed and Prince Mark became a morose King Mark, the secret weighed more and more heavily on Bifan the barber. He hadn't even told his wife Gwen, but she noticed that something worrying was weighing on her husband. He lost his usual healthy appetite, and when he began to lose sleep as well, she finally spoke up. "Bifan cariad (love), you are going to get sick. You need to go and see the dyn hysbys (wise man), on the mountain above the Afan Valley. He can help you with whatever ails you." Bifan knew Gwen was right, as she usually was, and the next day he set out for Afan Argoed, in the forest on the mountain.
The Dyn Hysbys took one look at Bifan and, without being told, knew a heavy secret was making the barber ill. "Bifan, whatever the secret is that you can't tell anyone, and that is robbing you of your happiness and health, here's what you must do. On the way back down the Afan valley, find a lonely spot, and with no one around, kneel down and whisper that secret to the earth. From then on, the weight will lift off your shoulders, your appetite and sleep will straight away return." Bifan offered to cut the wise man's wild grey hair and beard in thanks, but the Dyn Hysbys just laughed and bid the barber hwyl fawr (good luck and goodbye).
A happier man now he had a way to lighten his load, Bifan walked briskly back down the valley along the river bank, all the while looking for a suitably lonely place where he could unload the secret. Just below Llanfihangel (St. Michael's) he noticed a reedy spot right next to the river. "That's the place," he was convinced! Making sure no one was about, he got down on his hands and knees and very quietly whispered, "King Mark has horses' ears. King Mark has horses' ears." Immediately the barber jumped up, a new man! The Dyn Hysbys had been right. The little trick had worked. Bifan straight away felt quite hungry, and was sure that that night, he would sleep like a smooth, flat stone lying on the bottom of a deep river pool.
Back at the court, King Mark himself was feeling quite miserable, having to grow his hair long and always wear a heavy crown to cover up his ears. Then, one sunny day just before Midsummer, he had an idea. He would call everyone ‘round and about to come for a great feast. There'd be long tables groaning under the weight of his favorite foods and drink: cocos ac eog (cockles and salmon), pastis a sglodion (pasties and chips), cawl cennin (leek soup), bara brith (currant bread) and plenty of frothy cwrw a seidr (beer and cider). There'd be a bardd a chwedleuwr (poet and storyteller), a dewin (conjurer) to perform magic tricks and allusions, and of course, there would be dancers, musicians and most importantly of all, a pibydd (bagpiper). King Mark was fond of the bagpipes, and even played a little himself when no one was around to listen.
The invitations went out all over the Blaenau a Bro (Hills and Vale) and, on the appointed day, everyone made their way to the great hall of the summer court that was at Aberafan that year. Mark had also sent a messenger to his cousin Bryn of Maesteg (Fairfield), in the uplands above the court, inviting him to come and bring his piper to play for the dancing. Bryn was more than happy to agree, and very soon after, on the day of the feast, they set out quite early along the river. It was an exceptionally fine and lovely, sun-drenched morning. Rainbow trout were playing in the river pools, while green kingfishers watched from branches above. Just below Llanfihangel, the piper asked everyone to go on, as he needed to cut a fresh reed for his pipes, and he had noticed a reedy place down by the river's edge. Off the others went, anxious for the revels, while the piper stayed behind to fashion a new reed for his instrument. Not long after, they all arrived at the thronging hall, and the merriment was under way. Everyone was there!
The king's mood was improving as the food, drink and good company did their recuperative work and, calling for silence, King Mark began to speak. "Thank you all for coming today. I was feeling a little down, and seeing everyone has cheered me up no end." It seems that the king had grown up somewhat, as well as cheered up. "I'd like to thank my cousin Bryn of Maesteg for bringing his piper, and would now like to call upon him to play for the dancing." Everyone cheered as the piper stepped forward, as did the company of dancers.
The piper smiled, took a deep breath, pumped the bag, put his lips to the pipes and, with a practiced control and bulging cheeks, blew into the instrument. "King Mark has horses' ears! King Mark has horses' ears!" Deathly silence fell on the hall and throng. "Sorry my lord," said the confused piper, "my new reed is misbehaving." He took another great breath, pumped the bag and blew for a second time. "King Mark has horses' ears! King Mark has horses' ears!" The same result! Everyone could see the color rise in King Mark's face. "Give me those pipes. I'll show you how to play the darn things," said the king, and the piper quickly and gratefully acquiesced. King Mark himself took a great big breath, pumped the bag and with cheeks bulging blew into the pipes. "King Mark has horses' ears! King Mark has horses' ears!" The king's face grew even redder. No one stirred or said a word.
The bagpiper very nervously explained about cutting the new reed near Llanfihangel that morning, and the enraged king demanded, "Where is Bifan the barber?" There was a deathly silence. Then a shuffling was heard from the back of the hall and Bifan, trembling, stepped out from the crowd and stood before his king and fate, all the while looking down at his boots. For what seemed like an age, the king just stared at Bifan, said nothing, and then slowly and quietly began to laugh. The laughter grew, at first tentatively and then with abandon the gathered crowd joined in, until the whole place was a sea of laughter.
When the merriment subsided, King Mark, almost back in control of himself said, "I do have horses' ears!" The laughter erupted again, only louder and longer. For a second time, the sea of sound ebbed, and for the first time, a genuinely happy and humble man made another confession. "Old Taliesin was right. I have looked in the mirror and seen something I didn't want to see… arrogance and vanity. Dafydd Bach and all the boys I played tricks on, I am truly sorry, please forgive me, but now I have learned to listen, even if it took a pair of horses' ears to help me do it!"
The laughter started up again, and the piper was now able to get dance tunes out of his pipes. The feast and dancing went on into the early morning, and perhaps strangest of all, from that day onward, King Mark's ears gradually began to get smaller.
Somewhere, wherever wizards go when their earthly work is done, a broad smile crossed the face of Taliesin. "It sometime takes a while, but in the end we all get the ears we need to listen."
Legend of Gwyn y Gwynt
The Man Who Sold the Wind
If you had been walking along Margam Sands 800 years or so ago, you would have been forgiven if you hadn't noticed a small ramshackle building a little way inland, amongst the impressive dunes. The wind, tides, sand and native plants of this coastline have a long history of reclaiming anything man-made for their own. Sea holly and grasses, the more than occasional gale-driven rain, inundations of sand and salt water made impermanence and change the closest thing to a recognizable norm. The weathered wood frame, rough stone chimney and improvised window were barely distinguishable from drift wood, seaweed, flotsam and jetsam left high and dry above the tide line. In fact much of the structure was made from reclaimed wreckage common to this treacherous coastal stretch of Bae Abertawe (Swansea Bay).
Margam Abbey, the nearby Cistercian monastery, owned the land there about and the right to wreckage, but the Abbot, for reasons that will be explained as the story unfolds, allowed the builder of our seaside abode to live undisturbed on their land. Gwyn y Gwynt (Gwyn of the Wind), as he was locally known, had been a lonely feature of this solitary shoreline for as long as anyone could remember. Like his drift wood hut, he himself had become almost indistinguishable from the dunes and strand. His long straggly gray hair, eyebrows and beard, keen blue-green eyes, hat fashioned from things rejected by the tide and salt-incrusted rags that passed for clothes completed the local view of this man as an enigmatic hermit. He was generally thought of as an old soul barely holding on to his scattered wits and fragile existence. But there was more to Gwyn than met the eye.
A local boy, from a very early age, he had been drawn to the sea and the busy coastal trade around the Swansea Bay and Bristol Channel. The many bustling ports and harbors dotted around the Welsh and Cornish coasts seemed exotic to Gwyn, and he especially liked to listen to the old sea captains washed ashore in the key-side taverns. They would talk for hours on end about their lives at sea, jaw-dropping adventures, pirates and smugglers, but also their deep respect for weather and waves. Gwyn never went to school, couldn't read or write, but on a daily basis learnt seamanship, local navigation, how to recognize life saving landmarks and harbor lights. He, of necessity, learned where there were hidden reefs, rocks, shallows and, most importantly of all, how to read the treasonously fickle winds and tides along the South Wales Coast. There's an old Welsh proverb that at an early age he took to heart, "Erbyn nos y mae canmol diwrnod (Praise the day in the evening)." The fairest mornings, especially out of sight of land, can treacherously turn into your worst fears. Respect brings wisdom and wisdom a long life when it comes to deep water.
It wasn't long before Gwyn was master of his own small craft. He was born to the sea, and when ashore was always looking longingly westward, thinking of the next voyage. In truth, he had found his life's love. The monks at the Abbey were more than happy to call on Gwyn to take their wool, skins and hides to Bristol, then return to the Abbey with salt, grains and the like. He would venture out of the natural harbor at the mouth of the River Afan when the weather was threatening, even when others were content to wait a day or two. He seemed to be in tune with the elements, and rarely made wrong decisions, and when he did, fate or perhaps a young man's luck seemed to favor him. He always came back. The harbor, known as the Bar of Afan, was not far from Gwyn's eventual home in the dunes, but for now he seemed to possess an uncanny knack of knowing when a storm would blow over, when the winds would become favorable and the monks' cargo could arrive safely across the channel.
Well, there were a couple of close shaves when the nearby Sker Point, Tusker Rock and Aberafan Sands looked like they would be the end of him, as they had to hundreds of other mariners over the centuries. His inborn skill always pulled him through, that is, except for one late September evening. He had set out at first light from Bristol on a crisp, crystal clear morning with favorable, sweet smelling winds, headed for the Bar of Afan. Some of the old salts at the port had been warning sailors that, by the signs they read from the seabirds and animals, there might be unexpected changes in the weather. That morning, the seagulls had flown inland and the cows were lying down in the nearby fields. Sure signs of bad weather. Gwyn would normally have taken notice of these omens, but on this occasion, he ignored his instincts and years of experience and trusted in his luck. In truth, he had become a little complacent, as the weather and winds always seemed to turn in his favor.
In his defense, he was also thinking about what the goodly monks had told him before he left for Bristol. There had been a severe shortage of food in the Margam area for some time, and his swift return with wheat would be more than welcome, especially for the poor and destitute of the parish. Everything was fine for the first couple of hours until, approaching midway, he noticed the sky darkening across the St. George's Channel, in the direction of Ireland to the west. Increasingly, there was an almost eerie red and green aspect to the western sky, the air smelled strongly of rain, the temperature was dropping and this caught his attention. He could have turned the boat at this point to make for safety and the English coast, but he trusted that he could outrun the threatening weather. He had in fact made the second mistake of that fine day and kept sailing for the Bar.
As only a long-time sailor can, he cursed himself thoroughly for ignoring the morning signs. The originally lilting swells and kind, favorable winds had quickly turned into squalls. Soon, mountainous waves and the combined forces of a full-on gale conspired to contemptuously snap the mast and tear the rudder off, his only hope of survival. Hour after hour, the tiny craft was at the mercy of the angriest storm he had ever known. The boat almost capsized countless times and, fearing he would be washed overboard, he tied himself to a spar and said his prayers. Short of a miracle, there was little hope of Gwyn seeing another day.
Exhausted after hours of battling the fury of the elements, he lost consciousness. When he miraculously opened his eyes, it was an even fairer morning than the one before. The sun was just rising on a glorious and warm, late September day. The air smelt and tasted fresh. Sea birds were chattering about last night's storm, and not a breath of wind troubled the sea grasses and holly thickly lining the dunes on Margam Sands. Most of what was left of Gwyn's boat and cargo had washed up along the shore not far from the Bar of Afan, and in the next few days the rest would find its way to home port. At that very moment of waking, Gwyn vowed to never sail again but, if he could, to help other sailors return home safely. He felt somehow airier and different. He sensed that the epiphany of surviving last night's trial by ordeal, when in all likelihood he shouldn't have, meant that there was a reason for his continued ability to draw breath that he didn't quite understand yet. The next week or so, as he collected the remnants of his boat to build his hut, he had the strange feeling he understood the elements better, especially the wind. That he really knew them, almost as if they were close friends. As the years past, that feeling grew into something quite mystical.
The monks at the Abbey were happy enough to let Gwyn live on their land near the sea, considering his past service to the monastery and incredible survival. They would occasionally take him food and the like, as they would for all the poor of the parish. But increasingly the sea captains who came and went from the Bar of Afan would call by to get his advice on the weather for their upcoming voyages. With the discovery of high-quality coal in the area, there were more every year. It soon became a tradition to leave a little money in thanks for his warnings and blessings. Gwyn became more and more attuned to the fickle winds of the bay and, before many years had passed, people began to think of him as a dyn hysbys (a wizard); a man who not only could accurately predict the winds and weather, but someone who could control them! As you may know, Welsh people are very fond of coining nicknames, and at this time our wizard began to be known as Gwyn y Gwynt (Gwyn of the Wind).
Prospective voyagers were told to bring a large bottle of drinking water, to be taken on their sea trip. They were to give it to Gwyn along with a gift of money and wait outside the hut. Strange red and green smoke would emanate from the chimney, even stranger lights, nasty odors and shadowy figures would appear in the window. The ground would shake and even stranger yet, eerie noises would fill the air. This went on for quite some time, and many a captain had fled in fear, then Gwyn, looking more otherworldly and even more disheveled than usual, would appear at his door. The bottle of water now contained what looked like seaweed, sea holly and grasses, and had a cork stopper tightly inserted at its top. Gwyn, quite breathless and shaken, would tell the captain to not, under any circumstances, open the bottle until the voyage was complete, and then firmly closed the door on the astonished mariner.
On one occasion, having been warned about opening the bottle, an inquisitive sailor had ignored the taboo, and on the other side of Mumbles Head, on the way to Ireland, he pulled the cork. Immediately a fair and favorable wind turned very ugly, and with the soon-to-be gale force ten wind whistling through the rigging and whipping up the swells into white-capped monster waves, it threatened to send the small ship back against the Mumbles rocks. If the captain and crew hadn't very quickly furled the already tattered sails, all would have been lost. As it was, the little ship was driven mercilessly back across Swansea Bay, and listing heavily, battered and waterlogged, was beached and broken in two not far from the Bar of Afan. All souls aboard were mercifully and miraculously saved by the brave, local men of Aberafan and Margam, but the nearby town of Kenfig had almost completely disappeared under a massive inundation of sand caused by wind and sea. Gwyn's hut and the man himself were nowhere to be seen.
Several days later, much shaken and very repentant for his dabbling with nature and the elements, Gwyn turned up at the Abbey door, yet again, a changed man. He had been in his bed when the force ten gale struck the Margam Sands, and that wooden cot had kept his body and soul from sinking below the head strong, in-flooding angry sea, that was in no mood for compromise. He had ended up high and dry near the little, inland village of Taibach, and soaked and bedraggled had walked to the Abbey to give thanks, for the second time, for being spared from the tempest. The monks took him in, and for the rest of his days they tended to his needs and cares. They realized that this at-heart, kindly man had seen the error of his ways. The legend of Gwyn y Gwynt would become a cautionary tale for future generations, and for anyone incautious enough to think they could control which way the wind blows.
Looking across Swansea Bay today.
another look at this charming coastline read Ar Lan y Mor (Along the Shore).
|Islands Real and Imaginary
When you want to get away, really get away, nothing fits the bill like an island. Maybe you are a poet or painter seeking inspiration, or a priest or profit looking for a mystical existence. Maybe you are a prince, pauper, or someone in the witness protection program wanting to put a body of water between yourself and pursuit. Or maybe you are just a pleasure seeker wanting to drink deeply of the local beauty and even deeper at the local brew pub, but whatever your motivation, an island is the ideal place for you.
The Celts even went so far as to build artificial islands (Crannogs) in lakes to keep their families safe from other Celts, Angles, Saxons and any other form of higher and lower animal life. There’s a good example at mystical Llangorse Lake in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons, which also has its own mythical monster, the Afanc, fond of eating anyone foolish enough to fall into the water. King Arthur is said to have killed it, but people still claim to see it lurking in the shallows, especially late on a Saturday night after a protracted happy hour. But more precisely, the islands, real and imaginary we are talking about here, are along the coasts and in the deep green oceans of the world.
On a dreary day at the office, when the mortgage is late, your significant other is cranky and the boss is seriously interfering with your day dreaming, probably the first islands to come to mind can be found in the Mediterranean, Caribbean and South Pacific. But around South West Wales, and in particular the coastline of Dyfed (Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire), there are a fine collection of island destinations, both real and imaginary, replete with histories and attributes to keep an imaginative mind and active body busy. And after all, there’s something quite primal about being surrounded by water, so suspend analytical thinking for a while, and we’ll take a few excursions around St. David’s Head and beyond, as well as take in a tall tale or two!
Ynys Sgomer (Skomer Island), off the Pembroke coast is replete with stone circles, standing stones, ancient field boundaries and settlements dating back 5,000 years. But these days just the population of Puffins, Manx Shearwaters, the warden and visiting ornithologists seasonally inhabit the bare, green topped rock. Island life certainly isn’t new to this area, and archeology is still uncovering Stone and Iron Age secrets, as it is at many other prehistoric offshore communities 'round about. Among the more superstitious folk of earlier generations--and even among a few souls today!--there was a strong belief that standing stones could get up and walk from one place to another, usually at critical times in the celestial calendar. If only these old monuments could speak and tell us what they’ve seen. Until then, imagination will have to fill in for the as yet unknown reasons why and even how early people set up mysterious stone monuments.
Talking about imagination, the ever imaginative, 18th Century antiquarian Iolo Morganwg helped fuel legends about the magical fairy islands known as the Gwerddonau Llion (Green Meadows in the Stream). These enchanted islands were first mentioned in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Triads of the Island of Britain or Welsh Triads). Written in cryptic Medieval Welsh in three line verses, they were thought to be a collection of short hand reminders--almost like ancient flash cards--meant to help the bard and teller of tales bring to mind a poem or story from the vast amount of material they had committed to memory.
Green fairy islands, reposing,
In sunlight and beauty on Ocean's calm breast.
So goes the entry for the Green Meadows, and there was a widely held belief that the druids-- being pagans who could never enter the Christian heaven--would spend eternity off the coast of Wales on the Gwerddonau Llion. Iolo also tells us that a 5th Century king, Gafran ap Aeddan, set sail with his entire family in search of The Meadows, and was never heard from or seen again. Whether he found islands or not we shall never know, but more about the Gwerddonau Llion later on; they stubbornly refuse to completely disappear with the ravages of time.
In the Mabinogion--a collection of pre-Christian Welsh tales written down in the Medieval period, probably by a monk in Dyfed--we are told the sad and magical story of Branwen. After marrying the Irish king Matholwch, she was badly mistreated and insulted by being sent to work in the kitchen. She taught a starling to speak--haven’t we all?--and sent it back across the Irish Sea to Harlech, to alert the giant Bendigeidfran, her brother, of her demeaning situation. All pretty usual stuff for early Welsh tales. Bendigeidfran, too big to fit in a boat, wades across the Irish Sea with the Welsh hoards sailing alongside him. After a few routine treacheries, the Irish and Welsh, so called Celtic cousins, enthusiastically set about completely destroying each other. To cut a great must-read story short, all the men of Ireland are killed, and the surviving 7 from Wales and Branwen take their pyrrhic victory back home to Harlech.
In Harlech, Branwen dies of a broken heart, thinking about the devastation she has caused, and the 7 survivors, as they feast for 7 years, are entertained by the birds of Rhiannon. The contingent then move to Ynys Gwales (Grassholm) off the Pembrokshire Coast, where, for 80 years, they are relieved by forgetfulness of their sadness and loss. Well, as long as they don’t open a particular door of their feasting hall that looks towards Cornwall. Needless to say, the door is opened and they all become aware of the total destruction that has been caused to Ynys Y Cedryn (The Island of the Mighty, or the British Isles). The detailed carnage makes Shakespeare’s King Lear look like a Boy Scout picnic, but typically, one of the most attractive features of the Mabinogion, for both Medieval and contemporary audiences, is that these surreal happenings take place in a real geography; you can visit the actual places mentioned, including Grassholm!
Another island thought to be somewhere to the west of Dyfed is Ynys Afallon (Avalon), of King Arthur fame. Afallon means the Isle of Apples in Welsh, and is also often associated with Glastonbury Tor, in Somerset, which in ancient times was surrounded on three sides by water and was known for its apples.
But, coming back to the Welsh coast, as we move into Christian times, there are a number of islands connected with places of religious retreat in the area. Ynys Enlli (Bardsey) off the North West coast, also known as the Island of Twenty Thousand Saints, has been a place of meditation and pilgrimage for a millennium or more. Back in the southwest, we have Ynys Dewi (Ramsey), close to St. David’s Head. Justinian, St. David’s confessor, had a hermitage there that still attracts pilgrims. Of Breton heritage, St. Justinian was killed by three of his servants possessed by demons. He, in saintly fashion, rose from the dead, picked up his decapitated head, then successfully prayed for this servants’ forgiveness. Lucky boys!
To mention just one more island in the area, we can sail around the South Coast to Ynys Byr (Caldey), near Tenby, which has a history stretching from the Stone Age, through early Celtic Saints to a Medieval Cistercian Monastery that is still active today. Another isle in the Welsh tides, you can take a boat from Tenby to visit the chocolate-making monks, weather permitting. But to end our short tour of Islands Real and Imaginary, let us now return to Gwerddonau Llion (Green Meadows in the Stream).
"Oh! They were there today." In olden times, this was often heard from people who had been at the markets in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire and Aberdaugleddau (Milford Haven), Pembroke. They were talking about Plant Rhys Ddwfn (The Children of Rhys of the Deep); a local branch of the Welsh fairy people, associated with Gwerddonau Llion. Most if not all of those at the market would have told you they hadn’t actually seen Rhys’ green and white clad offsprings, but by the excitement in the air, the brisk trade and an almost visceral feeling of their presence, they were certain they had been there.
The same can be said of the Green Meadows. Few people had ever seen these fabled isles, and then only momentarily before they vanished in a green-blue-grey haze, a short distance from the Dyfed coast. But most of the locals were convinced that they existed, and at some time that Rhys Ddwfn and his tribe had taken over the islands from the Druids. When they came to the markets on the mainland, these usually invisible fairy visitors had an unusual way of buying goods from the vendors. Vegetables and the like would disappear from the stalls, and the exact amount of money required for the purchase appeared in their place. Without asking, the amounts were always correct. All concerned in the trade went away happy. The corn merchant, Gruffydd ap Einion, was particularly fond of these diminutive folk, and claimed to occasionally see them and speak to them. It seems he had built up a friendly relationship with these magical beings, was doing a roaring yet often invisible trade, but even he never saw them arrive or leave the market; they were either there or not there.
Now it just happened that Gruffydd one day was in Tyddewi (St. David’s), taking some corn to the cathedral for distribution to the poor. After the delivery, he was standing on a grass verge near the cemetery, when he distinctly saw green, grass covered islands in the ocean, even though Tyddewi is inland. He was puzzled at first, then realized he might be seeing a vision of the Green Meadows in the Stream; the home of Plant Rhys Ddwfn! He rushed down to the sea coast and was disappointed to find they had vanished. Being of an enterprising nature, he ran all the way back up to the church and stood on the exact same spot. The islands reappeared. It took him awhile to develop a plan, and for a second time he rushed down to the coastline.
The Plant Rhys Ddwfn were very surprised to see him, as he landed his small rowing boat on their sandy beach. "How did you find us?" asked one of the fairies. Gruffydd smiled and replied, "I cut a square from the grass at St. David’s and kept my feet on it as I rowed over here." The assembled crew all laughed heartily and congratulated Gruffydd on his intelligence. They explained that on the islands and at one or two places on the mainland, magical herbs grew amongst the grass, planted by Rhys himself many lifetimes ago. Their special virtue was that they made The Meadows invisible, unless you were standing on ground where the herbs grew. Now it was Gruffydd’s time to laugh.
After showing the wily tradesman the many other marvels of the islands, and loading him down with gifts of all kinds, the fairy folk told Gruffydd he could return when he wished. Next time he would use the secret underground tunnel that linked the islands with the Pembroke coast, which they themselves used to go to market. Gruffydd’s cut square of grass and herbs would stay with them out at sea.
Gruffydd returned many times to the Meadows, always returned home with gifts and in fact became quite wealthy, but after his passing, the Plant Rhys Ddwfn infrequently visited the markets. One day they just stopped. The locals felt they were pushing up the price of corn and other goods, and these kindly fairy folk would not frequent anywhere where they were not welcome.
And so we come to the end of our short tour of Islands Real and Imaginary, but there is one intriguing footnote. As late as the second half of the 19th century a certain Captain John Evans reported that he and his crew had been sailing near the coast of Dyfed when they had seen wavy green grasslands not far from Ynys Gwales (Grassholm); the island of Mabinogion fame. The odd thing was they were two or three feet below the surface of the water. Real or imaginary? Who knows, and like many real and imaginary things in Welsh tales and traditions--even in everyday Welsh life--for the sake of a good story, does it really matter?
|An Old Woodland Soldier
A year or so after the disappearance of Prince Owain, with hope born of the highest loyalty and love, deep down Dewi still expected to see Glyndwr reappear. The war had cascaded into skirmishes, twilight raids, sporadic ghostlike night rider sightings. Like the smoldering embers of a half-remembered dream, its lingering light dying a little with each dusk. It was said by some that Owain was dead; falling from the heights while scaling a cliff. But Dewi still needed to believe in the dream of freedom. Each day, with heavy heart, he dragged his war-weary bones to stand by his gate, his failing sight searching far off ridges and hills for any sign of the war band of his Lord.
With age and war wounds gaining day by day, Dewi thought to take a walk through nearby woodland trees, in hopes creation might lighten his heavily laden life. Slowly, stick in hand, that grand midsummer morn, he set out along a long-forgotten lane that led into a shady glade of ancient oaks, hundreds of years older than the old man himself. Hidden high out of sight in the sunlit canopy, a song thrush sang its ecstatic song. Dewi stood quite still, then sat entranced, at ease in the welcome tranquility.
Image by Анна Иларионова at Pixabay.
The singer sang every one of her enchanting ancestral songs; each note uplifting an old soldier's grieving soul. And when the trailing phrases softly fading fell, the old man woke as if from a deep and dreaming sleep. Uplifted, Dewi retraced his steps along the long-forgotten lane. As he walked, he wondered how long the song thrush sang. "Perhaps you might say an hour, maybe more" he mused; all sadness and time had lost their rhyme and reason.
Reaching his gate, lifting the latch, maybe it was the shadow play, silver on grey stone, so soon after the rising of a midsummer moon, but his house seemed somehow different, someway changed; as if the slight touch of a craftsman's clever hand, had lightly transformed old worn and weathered stone.
Photo by Mike Erskine at Unsplash.com.
Crossing the threshold, once again, the old soldier stood quite still. A fire was heartily burning in his family's hearth. And, looking surprised and rising to their feet, who were these strangers, who had made all these changes to the home he had known since a child? "I am Dewi, of late, faithful follower of Glyndwr. Please tell me why, under this midsummer moon, you are here by the bye, in an old soldier's home?" "As I live or die," one tall stranger replied "for generations, this house has been the only home my kin has known." All stood in silence for some time, trying to find some kind of reason, make some sense of this senseless situation.
Just then, a frail old man, from the corner by the fire, rose and softly spoke, as one who'd seen life's mysteries revealed. "As a boy I heard my father tell a tale that he'd heard from his own father, who in turn had heard it from his father before. This tale will explain this passing strange affair. Long, so long ago from this poor cottage door, a man with the same name and this old soldier's age, left one morning to take the air and was never anywhere heard of again."
All who heard now realized the mists of time had cleared. Three hundred and fifty years had somehow disappeared while the song thrush sang in that ancient oak tree glade. The old woodland soldier, Prince Owain's faithful man, now knew a marvel had shouldered his load and soothed his troubled, saddened soul. He asked if he might rest awhile and close his tired eyes.
Bright and early in the clear sunlight, the tall stranger quietly went to wake the mysterious guest, still sleeping in his resting place. But on the bed where Dewi had slept was nothing but the finest traces of dust. It seems that sometime during the night, an old woodland soldier, uplifted one midsummer morn by the singing of a thrush, had since rejoined the war band, reunited with his prince.
In the normal run of things, only the lives of exceptional people are publicly celebrated; the likes of leaders of state, war heroes, royalty, entertainment/sport kings and queens. What follows is a different kind of life celebration. It's the life of an ordinary man; an ordinary, but unassuming, genial prince of a man, with a strong back and possessing unaffected innate dignity.
The whole village turned out--well-to-do, poor, great and small--and with a high tidal surge of Welsh hymn singing, they sang him on his way, as he began his journey to his just rewards. Despite all this fuss, Jack himself was a quiet man, but he would speak out when there was need to do so. Take the time when an old workmate came by and started using questionable language in front of one of Jack's young grandsons. The man was stopped in his tracks, "But the boy's going to hear it sooner or later Jack" objected the visitor, "But he's too young to hear it now!" Jack immediately resumed his normal quietude, and the impressionable grandson would take away an important lesson, in when and how to speak up if something was out of place. In a similar vein, Jack was not a big or tall man, but was a man of stature to those who knew him. He was a gentle giant in the eyes of his grandchildren, and he would, even though never wealthy, always find a shilling or sixpence for the children to buy losins (candies) at Vi Lane's sweet shop.
So why did so many neighbors, friends, workmates, acquaintance, family and indeed just about everyone in the valley, go through the trouble of polishing their shoes, putting on their Sunday best coats, hats and ties, and follow the hearse down Cunard Terrace and Depot Rd. to St. Michael's church, to lower this man down to his well earned rest? Let's take a closer look at the comings and goings, the highs and lows of John (Jack) Davies.
He was born in Cwm, near Ebbw Vale, Monmouthsire (now Gwent), Wales in 1886. The family came from Cornwall when the tin mining industry collapsed there. They took up coal mining which, with steam trains, ships, heavy industry and coal fire heated housing, was in its heyday. Welsh anthracite coal was considered the best in the world for producing steam and making steel. So, like many a young boy of that era, at 14, Jack's schooling ended. As shown in the census of 1901, where he is listed as a miner, he followed his father and brothers underground. Can you imagine the thoughts of this and hundreds of other young Welsh boys, on their first day, riding in a crowded cage straight down, far underground in the extremely dangerous, often fatal blackness of the mines of the time? Not far from Cwm, The Senghenydd Colliery Disaster of 1913, took the lives of 439 men and boys. Like the 1966 Aberfan disaster, it is still almost viscerally remembered in Wales even now! Jack must have grown up very quickly--there really was no choice--the boy lost much of a carefree childhood, but he developed the fortitude and ability to survive that would serve him well as he became a man.
At some point in the early years of the century, Jack and part of the family moved 40 or so miles westward to the industrially teeming Afan valley. It was Jack's job to look after the pit ponies, many of them born underground, and who would never see sunlight or taste fresh air. Sunday was the miners' only day off, but Jack would often go back to the mine and, in blinkers, bring the poor animals out from the utter blackness into the valley daylight for an hour. Again, this was something the grandchildren never forgot. By his example, they learned the importance and benefit of acts of kindness.
Their granddad also worked in the tin and copper works and, in fact to the children, he seemed able to turn his hand to anything. Their mother brought their worn-out leather school shoes to him on one occasion, and the boys looked on mesmerized as he resoled them as neatly and cleverly as the town cobbler. His vegetable garden was a wonder to them as well. Jack never bought seeds or potted plants. He would take the eyes from potatoes, tops of carrots, and seeds from tomatoes and germinate them himself. The family grew up eating heirloom and organic produce that had a pedigree as old or even older than the kids!
Jack served in the British army and had been stationed in India and Africa. He spoke with great respect and affection for the Gurkhas of Nepal, who served alongside him. "If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a Gurkha." So goes the famous dictum. These celebrated and feared warriors carry a large knife called a Khurkuri, and if you ask to see it, Jack would tell the boys, the Gurkha will take the knife out of the sheath and nick his own hand or arm. According to tradition, the knife cannot be drawn without blood being spilt. Jack went on, as the boys watched wide-eyed, "If you wanted a shave, you would just tell a Gurkha before going to bed. When you woke up, the Khurkuri had done its work, and you were as clean shaven as you could imagine!" The boys' jaws dropped!!!
What with frequent mine strikes, First World War and the flu pandemic, around about 1920, Jack followed his father and brothers out to Lowellville, Ohio, a thriving hive of heavy industry. Standing at the rail of the steam ship that would take 5 or so days to cross the North Atlantic; watching the slow rhythmic rise and fall of the grey-green swells, Jack had an ocean of time for reflection on his full life so far, and for imaginings of what lay ahead. Still a young man, worldly wise and travelled, he looked on the journey as the chance of a lifetime, as well as a leap into the unknown. We can only imagine the thrill of passing through the Verrazano Narrows into New York Bay, of seeing the Statue of Liberty and The City itself, then to be reunited with father and brothers in Ohio. The plan was for Jack to establish himself in Lowellville then send for his wife Cressandra to follow on. Like many of the plans of mice men and Welsh miners, not long after arriving, Jack found himself standing at the rail of another steam ship going in the opposite direction. He wondered about what might have been, and perhaps was a little relieved, having felt occasional hiraeth (longing) for the old Afan river valley. Cressandra, when the time came, would not leave her poor, rainy, little Welsh village.
In later life, Jack became keeper of the village park, renting out the lawn bowling balls, tennis courts and putting greens. Retirement was for the wealthy. At home, the ubiquitous radio, or wireless as it was called, was a constant feature of the living room ambience, providing news, weather, sports and classic BBC drama and comedy. Jack would take the boys blackberry picking for Grandma's pies, using his walking stick to pull down the best, loaded vines for the boys to pick and, like ancient Celtic warriors, daub their faces hands and everything else deep purple and blue. But it started to become evident that coal dust had done its ugly work, and the boys were cautioned to let Grandpa take a spell or two (rests) on their less and less frequent excursions. Like generations of miners before him, he was eventually obliged to take to his bed. Not long after his 50th wedding anniversary, in his 77th year, he lost the battle of breath.
There was a strong sense in the Village that, as the Welsh say, there had been tro ar y byd (a turn of the world). These days we might say a sea change. Not only a generation, but the time they lived in and an old-world culture and way of life were passing into history. So, in that sense it isn't so surprising that the whole village turned out in their Sunday best to reminisce, sing their hearts out and say goodbye to this respected, kind friend. But Jack himself, an unassuming, genial prince of a man, with a strong back and possessing unaffected, innate dignity, would have been very surprised.
a poem related to this story, Timekeeper.
|Note, there is a previous story about the SLS&S Society.|
An Extraordinary Meeting
of the SLS&L Society
In extraordinary times--and these are indeed such--extraordinary measures are needed. The Snug Bar, in fact all the local bars and taverns, where people met, socialized, found partners, friends and enemies, had been shuttered for several weeks. Due to the exigencies imposed by the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic, The Sunday Lunchtime Social and Libation Society had taken to the virtual world, and was now meeting again, in a new usual, every Sunday at noon online. Gradually, over the preceding weeks, the digital bugs had all been worked out. The less computer savvy members were gleefully assisted by their eager "Oh!-dad-let-me-show-you" offspring and the real time, video gatherings were now a thriving, weekly highlight of all the regular, self-isolated souls. It looked like the group would survive the temporary closing of their old hangout, The Snug.
This particular Sunday meeting was even more extraordinary, as one of the original members, Thomas Thomas--or "Twm Twice" as he was locally known--had, like the proverbial prodigal son, unexpectedly turned up in town, after a lifetime of globetrotting. Everyone was aching to know why nearly half a century of trekking around the colonies and living outside Wales had apparently come to an end. Had it been worth it, and what were the nuggets of exotica, curiosity, high times and misadventures that accompanied the man back to the green, green grass of home? Thomas had always been something of a dreamer back in his school days--something of a romancer his mother Olwen would say--and understandably, the social networks had been buzzing like a beehive in June. Now the appointed time had arrived. At twelve precisely, everyone--I mean everyone in the unofficial club--logged on.
"Croeso 'nol Twm (welcome back Tom), how you keeping?" Owain, uncharacteristically, was first to break the silence that inevitably followed the bitter sweet fascination of seeing a familiar face, forty or so years on. "Diolch (thanks). Not too bad. Nice to be back in the shadow of Number Four Blast Furnace!" The ubiquitous steel works and industrial strength air quality of the town had itself become proverbial over the years, and the assembled crew smiled with a lifetime of acquired familiarity. "How was the safari?" asked one of the boys. "Anything to report. See any lions?" "Well," began Twm, "there's been a lot of water under the bridge over the years, but I'll fish out a couple of gems." Everyone took a deep draught of their libations; not as pleasant as the tap beer, cider, chink of glasses and the scent of a wood fire in The Snug, but it sufficed for this virtual occasion. Thirst slaked; Tom went on.
"Tadcu (Granddad) used to say, 'Canmol dy fro a thrig yno.' Praise your country and dwell there. Well, I now know what he was talking about. Don't take me wrong, I've enjoyed travelling and living overseas, and would do it again in a minute, but home is home." "Just ask Tom Jones, right?" said one of the boys, but Twm, deflecting the quip and general amusement, went straight on. "It was a very big decision to move back. I've had a great life abroad, but nothing stands still, and the hiraeth for this smoky old town was starting to get to me. Yea, homesickness was a big factor, but I've learnt on my travels that change is the natural state of affairs. I try not to be too storm tossed by the ups and downs, ebb tides and high tides that everyone experiences. I try to balance opposites and, who knows, there may still be a few road trips to come for me yet." There was a pensive silent response to Tom's opening remarks. Everyone online was imagining and reliving their own excursions out of the familiar and comfortable, and thinking about the friends and family who had moved and stayed away.
"More recently, I remembered something else Granddad would say, 'Doeth dwl tra tawo', a fool is wise when silent. That's another major thing I've picked up on my wanderings, talk less and listen more. I used to regularly find fault in others and say so. These days, I try to look to myself first and make sure I'm not missing my own shortcomings. If you're full of yourself, there's no room for anything else. Nowhere to put it. There were a lot of people in the San Francisco Bay area when I lived there many years ago, who had spent a lot of time and energy studying Eastern philosophy, The Book of Changes and the like. In school, we thought it clever to say, 'I'm an atheist, thank God!' but whatever your religion, it doesn't hurt to look outside of your own beliefs or doubts, no matter what they are. I mean, the closest I'd felt to 'spiritual' in years was singing the hymn Bread of Heaven at an international rugby game with 70,000 besotted, tearful Welsh patriots, all dreaming of scoring the winning try for their country. But I needn't tell all of you ageing schoolboys the clock is running. It's time to make peace with yourself." You could have heard a dropped pin. The attendees were settling in for a day to remember. After taking a quick trip to their respective fridges, topping off glasses, all present sat back down in well-worn computer chairs. As they thoroughly and thoughtfully quaffed their preferred nectars, all present leaned into their monitors, looking like a patchwork quilt made of the headshots of fifteen or so lifelong friends.
"You see, I learned from a session or two at the college of advanced hard knocks, that arrogance--and God knows I've been arrogant--is really fear of being discovered for what you really are. People with little self confidence, tend to be the most arrogant. And if you're totally self-absorbed, you can't be compassionate, and compassion is a vital trait that separates us superior beings from wild animals. There was a Yoga teacher I met along the way, who once told our class, 'Pick up your heads. Look to the horizon…to the hills.' Simple enough, but when I started doing this, I began to develop a wider world view. I began to see other people more clearly and increasingly could see myself clearest of all for the sham I often was. I actually started to like and forgive myself a little after a while, and stopped hiding behind bluster. I accepted that I was a work in progress, sometimes going in the wrong direction, but with the right intentions." Several people at the gathering chimed in with similar personal experiences. Tom was ringing some familiar bells, and everyone was fully engaged. This was turning into a rare, sunny afternoon, even with the enforced self-isolation!
"The one thing, like giving up smoking, that stubbornly refused to go away was--and some days still is--negativity." Many virtual heads in the checkerboard that was the video meeting nodded in agreement. "I often didn't like my life, without good reason. I was doing pretty well, generally had great relationships, love and friendship, wanted for little and had a more than an occasionally promising career. But at the same time, I wasted away a great deal of energy obsessing about the end of life…death. When you're in your twenties, as I was when I left the British Isles, you have too much on the agenda to entertain dark thoughts. Year after year--I'll admit it--I increasingly felt anxiety at getting older and the idea of dying. Eventually, it was never very far from my thoughts and was robbing me of the good times and my well-being. I guess--well in fact I know--I hadn't really accepted that there were limitations to everything, including life, and that denial is no place to set up camp. That same Yoga teacher, the one I mentioned earlier, often asked the class to be grateful for what we had: our health and bodies, our families and friends, and most of all, the air that we breathe. Gratitude, strangely enough, makes you feel better about yourself. Yea, saying thank you for something helps you see the value in it, and life began to take on a breezy, airy feel. At least some of my dark preoccupations began to see a little sunlight."
"On a related subject, I've always hated repetitive tasks. You know, the mindless grayscale, yet essential everyday routines that keep a soul and household functioning. These days I turn them into a kind of ritual, pat myself on the back for willingly contributing to what's needed. Washing the dishes. Fixing the toilet. Cutting the lawn. Cleaning the house or whatever. I don't procrastinate, I just take them on, and they become much less of a soul-destroying drudgery. If you hate your life and are just treading water, morbidly waiting for it to end, everything is drudgery! Why bother!! I even--please no jokes about me in the school choir--sometimes sing an old song or two as I rake the leaves or pull the weeds. Tadcu had a great store of folk knowledge and wisdom, and I clearly remember him saying, 'A fynno iechyd bid lawen', if you want to be healthy, be happy. You can't be happy or healthy, if you're always miserable."
"Am I taking up all the time?" Twm asked, but no one wanted this prodigal saga to stop. "No Thomas, traveling seems to have done you good. Go on." said Dafydd the music teacher, as if conducting a choir…everyone singing from the same song sheet. The afternoon was slowly and irrevocably moving toward a warm and spectacular summer evening, replete with a fresh breeze off Swansea Bay, but there would be time enough for reflection and Sunday night barbecues later. "Just a couple more thoughts I've picked up and put in my back pocket along the way then. Talk amongst yourselves for a moment while I refresh my cocktail from the ice box." Just about all the heads on the patchwork video quilt magically momentarily disappeared into many different kitchens and little boys' rooms.
"Nice to have a glass of good Cwrw Chwerw Cymreig (Welsh Bitter Ale) in my hand again! Familiarity, in this case, loosens the collar and doesn't breed a shred of contempt. Ah! The tastes and smells of a happy home!" All the video heads bobbled again in agreement. "Tom, what's the most important gem you've dug up along the way…the one that still glitters most now you're back in town?" "That's a hard question Dai Bach, as I said at the beginning, much water, both murky and sparkling, has passed under the old stone bridge but, if I think about it, there is one shiny object that still stands out for me." Everyone leaned in a little closer to their monitors again. "These days, I like to breathe deeply and slow the pace of everything I do; stop the chatter and mental noise that often crowds my thinking and steals sleep. Stop and smell the roses as they say, or is it the coffee these days? I try to keep in mind that down is about to become up, sad become happy, bad become good…that they are just different stages of the same roller coaster ride; different horses on a spinning carousel that are already rising and dipping out of sight."
"These opposites I'm talking about, like all the apparent contrasts in life, are really inseparable. As Granddad was fond of saying, 'Chwaer i'm mab yw modryb.' My sister is my son's aunt. In other words they are exactly the same thing. Life seems to me now quite simply like an ever-changing sequence of seasons. Everything is in motion. But just like this pandemic, we are not powerless bystanders. If we think it out clearly, do the right things personally, we can affect the outcome; "flatten the curve," as they say. We can nudge the bad times to turn them into better ones. Or like crow and raven in high wind, that flew around my house in Arizona, we can stop fighting the elements--that are much stronger than us anyway--and just go with the flow! I might be back home from my wanderings, but the journey certainly hasn't ended!"
With that, this homecoming celebration--for that's what it was--slowly and reluctantly wound down. People went back to their Sunday evening concerns, watched TV, lit grills, took baths and got ready for whatever Monday would bring. This extraordinary meeting of the SLS&L Society would linger in the memory of many for many a month to come. All present who had logged on that glorious Sunday afternoon, after listening to Tom's prodigal tale, no matter how they felt at the outset, went away with more or less the same conviction… The only thing that never changes in life is that everything changes.
Photo: Michaela, @m_hampi from Unsplash.com
SLS and L Society
"You know, when I was younger, I knew everything," Dai Bach announced from his favorite chair by the cheerful, consoling hearth, in the corner of The Snug. There was a short, thoughtful pause in the proceedings, then one of the assembled lifetime members of the unofficial Sunday Lunchtime Social and Libation Society, lightly quipped, "You still do Dai!" The laughter was showing no signs of abating, when the man himself artfully cut in, "No. No, my father, not to mention Mr. Lewis, the deputy head and Jonsey, the rugby coach, all said I should act my age, which I didn't understand. I was only fifteen." There was another short pause, for everyone to quaff their beers and absorb the most recent revelation, then, as one, the honorable assembled members demanded, "Go on!"
The sweet, aromatic, wood fire in the hearth was occasionally crackling. The comfortable, long-frequented room was living up to its name--"The Snug"--and the gathered receptive and casually insightful company, top button loosened by their chosen brew, signaled that the habitat was conducive to light philosophy, if not sugar-free metaphysics. Dai took a long slow draught on his extra dry West Country cider. He steadied himself for the verbal buffeting and humorous banter he knew, expected and loved, that inevitably accompanies Society members making enigmatic pronouncements.
"Act your age! That's what they all said. I was barely out of short trousers, couldn't legally smoke or have a quiet pint, and still believed most of the mythological juvenilia my experienced buddies told me about girls, and the bodily mysteries and agonies of puberty." There were a couple of barroom quips about self-abuse, but generally the response in the room was muted and respectful. Perhaps he'd hit upon something, Dai thought, had uncovered a common yet important life experience. After all, growing up isn't always easy, even for the luckiest of the lucky, and everyone everywhere goes through it. "Yeah, it took a trip or two down the long and winding road--to echo the Beatles--and more than one extended visit to the school of hard knocks to make me realize, twenty-five years on, I knew less than I did at fifteen." "At this rate, by seventy-five, you'll still be smarter than Owain!" said one of the boys. Everyone laughed except Owain, who feigned hurt, but the room was in thinking mode, and Dai had the wind behind him now.
"More recently, I thought I'd reached a point where I was getting it right, acting my age in middle life, even if it was belated. A big part of it was sincerely hoping that the people I had carelessly or casually hurt would find a way to forgive me, while I worked at forgiving those who had--unintentionally or not--hurt me." The room, other than the quietly flickering fire, was conspicuously silent. "But just as I was getting comfortable with my newfound maturity, starting to think it had all been worth it, and that now I could reap the benefits of hard-won perspective, here comes that growing up thing again." "Hey," said one of the boys, "whose round is it? This is thirsty stuff." Everyone laughed in agreement. A general pause ensued, accompanied as they always are, by the shifting of chairs, lifting of glasses, side conversations and trips to the boys' room. It took a good few minutes for the room to reconvene and settle down again.
Text messages checked and ignored, empty glasses refilled; the barman had been busy on the phone, innocently telling several inquiring wives, "He left five minutes ago." As the room's ambient Sunday sounds ebbed, Dai Bach held forth again. "I must have been nine or ten and was listening to my Nana and godmother Nellie talking in Welsh over one of the million cups of tea they had shared in a lifetime of living next door to each other:
"Ti wedi clywed am hen Mr. Williams?" (Have you heard about old Mr. Williams?)
"Nage, beth?" (No, what?)
"Wedi marw!" (He died!)
"O Beth?" (Of what?)
"Dim byd difrifol." (Nothing serious.)
The room overflowed with amused, knowing eyes. It was just the kind of familiar, old-world innocence that delighted a not so young generation, who quietly--and occasionally profoundly--missed the heart warmth of bygone days and ways. Dai Bach continued, "Well, the thing is, for no reason I can imagine, this little gem of parochial truth-saying recently came back to me before sleep one night and kept me up for a good long while." Throats cleared and glasses chinked in the background, but the Sunday crew were all ears. "These grand old ladies and lifelong best friends knew the serious ways you could die, having survived two world wars, childbirth, a deadly flu pandemic and more than a few coal mining disasters. If you died of old age, in your bed, that was a good and natural outcome, when you considered the alternatives. They wholly accepted that life only lasts for so long. This flashback started me thinking about acting my age again."
Just at that moment, a diminutive, angry, young man burst into the room, demanding to know who owned the white van that was parked, blocking him from driving to his next extremely important appointment. One of the local wags took his opportunity:
"Do you see that man sitting way over there, in the corner, reading a newspaper?"
"Yes, is that the owner of the parked van?"
"He may be."The angry young man walked briskly over to the corner and loudly and stridently demanded, "Is that your white van parked outside, blocking me in?" The gaunt, well over six-foot man slowly stood up, towering over the questioner, in his black waistcoat and black tie, saying, "I'm a bloody undertaker. What the hell would I want with a white van?" The now not-so-angry young man sheepishly backed towards the exit, obviously shaken. As he softly shut The Snug door behind him, the entire room, including the undertaker, erupted into uncontrollable hysterics. Could this happen anywhere else other than Wales? Many in the barroom that day would doubt it and the incident was immediately inducted into The SLS&L Society Hall of Fame, for conspicuous contributions to world levity.
After a short, general pause, trips to insure there was enough room available to accommodate the fresh, frothy nectar that was fueling a memorable afternoon, Dai picked up the thread of his narrative. "As most of you know, I've had a full and interesting life. I've travelled, known more than a little success, even renown in patches, have a loving family and friends and want for little." At this point, several of the boys mimed playing tiny violins. "I know, I know it sounds sentimental, but it seems really important what my grandmother and godmother had said. Even more so, their almost casual acceptance of the inevitable, only hoping it would come to them in their own bed, rather than down a mine, in a trench or hospital ward." You could have heard a pin drop. "So what's that to do with acting your age Dai?" said one of the lads quietly, after a pensive while. "Well, I've started to push dark thoughts, regrets and the like away. Be honest, we all get them. If I'm to really grow up and act my age for maybe the first and last time, I'm going to try to be grateful rather than grumpy, bring cheerfulness into every room, wherever I am, whenever I can, and not be arrogant." There were some quizzical looks on the faces of the assembled. "Yes, arrogant. Who am I to think that I'm so different and justify being miserable because life, even a good life, even if well spent, doesn't last forever? Since I started thinking like this, I'm actually a lot more relaxed, happier and spend increasingly less time looking at my boots, instead of enjoying every priceless moment that I'm lucky enough to have left. In a nutshell, I'm throwing open the window on a spring day and letting the new light do its work, dispersing stale, stubborn shadows."
For a breath or two, Dai's words seemed to hang in the air. Reluctantly, The Snug began to empty out, and old friends finished their drinks, put on hats and coats, and headed homeward for Sunday dinner. Not much was said, but a fair amount of thought would go into the walk home.
Later that evening, taking in the crisp night air under a clear, starry sky, Dai began smiling, rerunning the events of the day: the banter, the undertaker and "nothing serious". He was glad he'd taken the risk of running the gauntlet that afternoon. Barroom philosophers can be cruel, but there'd been food for thought for sure. Just then, as had happened with regularity recently, from nowhere, a thought came bubbling up through Dai's sleepy mind--Does dim tafarn yn y Nefoedd (There's no pub in heaven)--as the old saying goes. But as Dai shut the back door and turned out the kitchen light, his thoughts became words, "No, there may not be a pub in Heaven, but there may be an SLS&L Society. We'll have to wait and see."
|Read the next story about the SLS&L, An Extraordinary Meeting of the SLS&L Society.|
|Gwenllian and Vi
A very long time ago, I had stopped off in Reykjavik, Iceland to take advantage of a bargain three-day stopover, complete with hotel, tours and lunches. I got to know the tour guide quite well and was taken aback when he said something to the order of, "Ah! Wales, where people are very superstitious." Many years later, I would now not be shocked at this remark. I have changed my view at least somewhat, and now believe, particularly when I was growing up there, that the boundary between the "otherworld" and our day-to-day world is and was often quite porous in Wales. Let me give you an instance.
The Ysgawen (Elder Tree), has many medicinal and other folk uses. The flowers, berries and even the bark are used in ancient remedies that seem to work, and the branches can be used in traditional pipe and flute making. But, according to Welsh folklore, the users must be very careful in their approach to the tree. If you take a branch to make a pibgorn (hornpipe), you must first ask permission. The tree has a compassionate nature, as well as a vengeful one, and woe betide the careless craftsman! If you feel you have been given leave to take a branch, you should take no more than you need of the pale wood, clearing the underbrush away from the area before you leave, pleasing the natural benefactor, and assuring your own good luck. Many from my childhood, myself included, would have had no trouble in following these conditions. If nothing else, reverence for nature, even in the guise of magical prescriptions, is always a wholesome thing.
The two Welsh girls of our story grew up in the same village, Cwmafan, on opposite sides of the silvery River Afan. Vi lived in an old, weathered stone house, thirty feet from the river bank, on the valley floor; Gwenllian in a wooden fortification on the crest of Pen y Castell (Castle Top).
The repurposed, ancient hillfort overlooked the same River Afan, as well as the future childhood home of Vi. In truth, the two girls had much more in common than locale. Among other things, both were gregarious, intelligent and independent, yet very close to their families. They were vibrant, strong for their ages, as well as naturally and unassumingly beautiful. Although there was something that did separate them. They were born eight hundred years apart; distanced by the river of time. Yet, as we shall see, their lives would at times, if only briefly, converge.
Vi first heard of Gwenllian from her teacher, at the old red-brick school that still stands in the village, and still welcomes bright, luminous, hopeful faces to this very day. It's easy to imagine how a tale about a local heroin and her family, standing up to Norman invaders' arrogance; battling to the last man and woman, as the sun was setting, not a half mile away from her gas lit kitchen and nightly goose feather bed; easy to imagine how it would have set Vi's heart and soul on fire, especially the mystical ending of the... Well, you be the judge. What follows is the misty distant history, and widely held modern belief, about Pwll Gwenllian (Gwenllian's Pool).
It wasn't that there was nothing to do on Pen y Castell. There were always animals to be fed, fire wood to be collected, clothes to make and repair, meals to prepare, berries and herbs to be gathered. There was even singing to the harp and old stories around the fire, on cold nights. It was just that a young inquisitive girl wanted to experience more of life, of people and places. Womanhood was stirring in her teenage being, and her father, Hywel--a near relative of the Welsh Lords of Afan--knew that his beloved daughter's childhood was ebbing as quickly as the shortening December daylight. The little community on the wooded hill overlooking the river was happily just about invisible to the Norman Marcher lords, who were increasingly forcing their foreign laws, culture and military might on South Wales. They wisely stayed out of the Welsh hills and valleys where unwise invaders sometimes vanished in the hill fog. Not surprisingly, Hywel kept away from Aberafan, the market town a few miles down the river. He had no reason to advertize his family's quiet life, and every reason to remain out of sight and out of mind.
"Wil, the shepherd boy, told me the Christmas fair is coming to Aberafan soon. Please father, can't we go? There's surely so much to see and do. Our piper is going to play for the dancing and the magic salmon has been seen in the river, by the old Roman river crossing!" Hywel at first resisted, but Gwenllian's dancing green eyes softened the tough old warrior's heart and, against his better judgement, he gave in. "Alright, but stay close to your poor old father and keep away from The Conqueror's men! They mean us nothing but ill. Do you agree to my conditions?" "Oh yes, yes. When can we leave?" "The fair starts in two days. We'll go then." Gwenllian barely slept until the day arrived.Across the river, 800 hundred years later, Vi was packing a small suitcase, as her mother and father looked on. The Second World War had even insidiously seeped into this little Welsh mining village. She had been recruited to work in a munitions factory, in nearby Bridgend, and was on her way to St. Albans, in England, for training. Her father spoke to her with obvious worry in his voice. "Cariad (love), please be careful across the border. Many English people have no love for the Welsh and would like nothing better than to tell you so. You are young still and don't know the ways of the world, especially in a foreign place. Gan bwyll (Be careful)." Vi listened, but the excitement of seeing something totally new and different, meeting new people and travelling had all but settled her nerves. She could only smile and say, "Dad, I'll be alright. Some of my friends are going as well. We'll keep together and watch out for one another. Paid a becso (don't worry)." With that, she kissed and said goodbye to her tearful parents, on the doorstep of the old row house. Vi took the bus down the valley, to the train station, not far from the old Roman road, now known as the A48. From there, the London express clattered through the smoky Severn tunnel and on into England, and the beginning of adulthood.
Two days later, Hywel, Gwenllian, Wil the shepherd boy, Sioni the piper and a small band of family and friends left Pen Y Castell. Making the difficult, gorse and brambled journey, along and across the river Afan, they approached Aberafan Town. As the valley opened up, they began to hear the rhythmic pulse of music reeling, the laughter and hubbub rising in the crisp air; see the smoke from the fires and ovens curling up over the rooftops; smell the roasting foods and pasty stalls, and at last, there were the festively dressed, expectant crowds slowly waltzing around the market place stalls. It was all Gwenllian could do not to run ahead, but Hywel broke the spell when he cautioned, "Cofiwch, mel a ‘i golyn. (Remember, where there's honey there's a bee sting.)" And, with the old warrior's words of wisdom resonating in their ears, Gwenllian and their small band of hill people joined the swirling, colorful throng.
Suddenly the marketplace became completely silent. Laughter, music and conversation stopped. The next thing Gwenllian knew, Hywel was standing beside her, telling her they had to leave--immediately. Several young Norman lords had arrived, from across the river, and it took some time for the festivities to regain a nervous composure. The Welsh knew that there could be trouble at anytime. The magic of the occasion had been replaced by caution. As Hywel and Gwenllian were walking away, one of the young knights came up and asked for Gwenllian's name. Hywel told him that he and his daughter were leaving on an important errand, and there was no time to talk. As they turned and made for Pen Y Castell, there was a sinking feeling in Hywel's heart. His worst fears might be realized. The young lord followed them with his eyes, until they were out of sight. Hywel felt the gaze without turning around.From the moment Vi and her friends got off the train in St. Albans, there was excitement and expectation in their eyes, voices, smiles and even the air around them. Everything was at least a little different from Cwmafan. People spoke differently, dressed differently, ate different foods, and there were so many of them. Apart from the locals, soldiers coming and going, to and from the nearby camp, were everywhere. Military vehicles and many more civilian cars than Vi had ever seen, filled the streets. Posters asking for recruits were on every wall and empty space. The girls' lodgings were, for most of them, to be the first night they had spent away from home. Vi took it upon herself to comfort the nervous ones by finding out about the local cinema, fish and chip shop, and where the Saturday night dances were held. This was to be the greatest adventure of their young lives.
There was also romance in the air. Young and handsome, brave men in uniform, on the point of being sent to France to fight for freedom, thronged the streets. It was close to Christmas, which is itself romantic to many, and the fact that parental control was warm in bed, back in Wales, added anticipation to the mix. Vi and friends turned up at their favorite dance hall every weekend. Like many wartime meetings, when George and Vi met, there seemed urgency to their getting to know each other. After all, his military training was all but over, and men were being sent to the front every hour. In a matter of weeks, they had fallen in love. Then they began to think about telling their parents that the beginning of their life together only needed to be blessed by them and recorded by the authorities back in Wales. As to be expected, Vi's father vehemently resisted at first, but soon family and friends were gathered at the local registry office, marking the official start to their over fifty years together. Almost immediately, George's orders came through and he shipped out to the theatre of war. He was gone for the next six lonely Christmases. Government censored letters were their only cherished contact and a testament to their love and strength.
It was the second time that a messenger, from the Norman Lordship to the southeast, would arrive at the foot of the old Hillfort, in Cwmafan. "Hywel of Castle Top, for the final time, my master and Lord of the Vale of Glamorgan, commands you to send your daughter, Gwenllian with us, to be married to his son and heir apparent, this coming spring." The young lord--the one who had spoken to Hywel at Aberafan fair--had apparently been smitten by the beauty and unaffected grace of Gwenllian and, having failed to convince his father that a Welsh peasant girl was his only chance of happiness, had become morose, and had even taken to his bed. The father, anger subsiding as worry over his lordship's succession increased, finally relented and now, as was his arrogant norm, was enforcing his will with his boot.
Early one crisp and cold morning in January, with snow on the high ground and surrounding mountains, the expected attack came. There was not a breath of wind, but the fury of the Norman knights' rush felt like a hurricane of flashing steel swords, battle axes and clubs. The Welsh replied with a hail of arrows, shear bravery and native pride. The steep sides of Pen Y Castell meant that much of the fighting was hand to hand and on foot, and the first wave was repelled, but not without losses on both sides. The old Hillfort had been built in the perfect place, with high ground, the river, surrounding troughs and gullies the best friends to an outnumbered and patched together garrison. Gwenllian refused to leave with the other women and children. Her responsibility was at her father's side, tending to the wounded as best she could. Things were going well for much of the day, when after a lull in the fighting, a cloud of fire arrows rained down on the hillcrest, and the wooden buildings and stockades caught fire. Luckily, with little wind, the flames only slowly got the upper hand, but the outcome was now certain. Pen Y Castell would fall.
Pwll Gwenllian (Gwenllian's Pool)
Vi and George, unlike Hywel and Gwenllian, survived the arrogance of their oppressors, started a family and moved down the river, past the old town to Aberafan Beach. One late December afternoon just before Christmas, as Vi was finishing her housework for the day, the weak winter sun was already making its way towards a western setting over the bay. For some or no reason at all, her early childhood came back to her as clear as day. The Afan was in flood, and disobeying her parents, she was singing as she skipped from one slippery wet river stone to another. Distracted for a moment by a large Elder tree limb floating by, she lost her balance and was about to fall headlong into the racing, raging water, when a firm but gentle hand grabbed her arm and prevented her fall. Looking over her shoulder, she momentarily saw a young girl about her own age, with dancing green eyes. The girl was smiling. Vi looked down to fully regain her balance, but when she turned back again, the green-eyed girl was gone.
Well perhaps the tour guide from Reykjavik was right, the Welsh are superstitious. But fulfilling the Afan Salmon's prophecy, Gwenllian's name still lives in the telling and retelling of this tale. Vi's middle son has told it to you this time. Now, if you would, some winter evening, when the sun is heading towards its own Avalon, tell this story to your children.
|Read a poem about Vi, my Mother.|
|When Shadows Lengthen
He was remarkably calm, considering his life was about to undergo something of a sea change. The Welsh word tangnefedd (peace of mind/tranquility) perfectly described his inner feelings. The doctor had confirmed what his wife, family and friends had suspected. He hadn't seemed his cheerful self for quite a while, and there was something odd about his body language. "It won't shorten your life, but there will be changes, manageable with medication, though I'm afraid there's no cure." His own calm response had taken even him by surprise, "There's no cure yet, and anyway, it runs in families. My grandmother had it, and I'd much rather it be me than one of the young ones back in Wales." It felt good to be unselfish and, smiling inwardly, close to noble, for a change. Anyway, knowing is always better than not, isn't it?
After the morning diagnosis, not entirely unfamiliar with the occasional daytime beer, he had driven to a local bar he liked, and was waiting in the parking lot for the door to open. No one knew him there and a little quiet, anonymous time felt fitting and welcome, he thought. He wasn't trying to drown his sorrows. He didn't have any, but under the circumstances he thought he should have a drink. "That's what people do," he said to himself, nonchalantly turning on the radio.
It was one of those bright, brisk mornings, with a scattering of whiter than cotton-white clouds, imperceptibly drifting across a very blue, Arizona sky. The open van window was letting in the fresh, lightly perfumed, morning air that seemed the perfect counterpoint to the J.S. Bach on the radio. There's an old saying that if the angels want to praise God, they play Bach. They play Mozart for fun. "Today," he thought, "is a day for J.S." Having studied music in the UK an age or two ago, he himself often found following the interplay of elegant, eloquent, Baroque melodies the height of entertainment. "How could this mere human being assemble four or more independent, yet beautifully crafted instrumental lines, so that they conversed in an always civil, yet intensely passionate way? A cheerful miracle!" he said out loud.
He smiled. Almost fifty years before, he had been working hard studying music composition in Cardiff. That week's class project was to write a fugue that J.S. would have been proud of. Now the form known as the fugue is the musico-intellectual highpoint of the early to mid eighteenth century. Fugues are very difficult to write, in a manner that sounds convincing and natural, let alone elegant and meaningful. He had been struggling, and the wastepaper bin was full of mediocrity. It was time to take a break. "A good night's sleep will work its magic on the muse." he hoped. After emptying his exhausted mind of treble and bass, sharps and flats, deep sleep took over the controls.
Sometime in the night, he remembered smiling broadly and, though fast asleep, was simultaneously writing and listening to the most perfect fugue that had been written in over two hundred years! The dream-melodies and counterpoints were cheerfully dialoguing in the minutest detail. The rise and fall of the instruments were heavenly and without blemish. The flow of the whole piece was balanced and readily discernible, and the whole thing came to a climatic coda that released our spent, beaming composer to sleep the sleep of the ages. The next morning, still beaming, he awoke, ran to the writing desk, and couldn't remember a single note.
With J.S. Bach streaming out of the window, anyone who was in that parking lot would have been understandably wary of the man in the van, who was cheerfully laughing out loud. He could see the funny side of the dream-fugue that to this day remains unheard, but there was one thing that did bother him. He was going to have to tell his wife, family and friends about the diagnosis, while convincing them that his outlook was positive, and he was willing to deal with whatever was to come. His mind slipped back to his grandmother, and as often happens at major crossroads in life, a completely unrelated memory caused the worry to turn to a smile. Blackberries! Yes blackberries, the sweet and sour food of the gods, were foremost in his thoughts, accompanied by the now slower tempo and descending bass from The Master's pen.
Being so very long ago, he barely remembered a young boy and his gentle grandfather being sent out to collect blackberries for a pie grandma was making. Granddad knew the best place, and they walked hand in hand to a siding behind the village train station, where the berry bushes were rampant.
The old man reached with the crook of his walking stick and pulled the very best, fruit-laden brambles to within reach of eager small hands. By the time the earthenware bowl was full, those hands and, for that matter, the boy's face were decorated as purple as an ancient Briton's battle tattoos. Covering the bowl with a tea towel, the two generations held hands again on the short walk home. The man in the van smiled. He didn't question the reason for the memory. It was as welcome and heart-warming as grandma's homemade pie.
By this time the Bach Suite, having picked up in intensity and tempo, had built and--slowing somewhat a few bars before the end--eased its way to a jubilant conclusion. "Time for a pint!" the man said out loud, and, as he made his way toward the barroom door, he had one final thought about that morning and mornings to come. "Strange to say, blackberries and Bach will surely rekindle their cheerful life-light, when shadows lengthen. I think I'll write a piece about this unlikely fusion of fruit and fugues, and this special day. It might help others in similar situations and, anyway, I could use all the good karma I can get at this stage of my life!"
|Craig y Ddinas
Rock of the Hillfort
There have been, and are still, a myriad of mysteries connected with the magical hills and vales of Wales, but Scotland may have been the region where one of our greatest mysteries took place, namely, the disappearance of the British King Arthur. We know that Arthur (Arth is bear in Welsh) was probably born in Wales or Cornwall, but his last, fatal battle, Camlann, may have been near Edinburgh, even before the Scots had arrived there! After the battle, some say Arthur was taken by ship to the Island of Avalon (Ynys Afallon, the Isle of Apples in Welsh). Others say that he was turned into a crow, raven or chough, and it is still believed bad luck to shoot at one of these corvids, as you might be killing a great king! But the true story of where Arthur can be found takes us back to De Cymru, South Wales and a little village called Pontneddfechan (The Bridge over the Little River Neath).
Amser maith yn ol (a long time ago), in the reign of Good Queen Bess, there was an adventurous young lad called Caradog, who lived in Pontneddfechan and, because of his nature, was always in trouble with his father and the locals. Caradog, seeing the writing on the croft wall, decided to set out for London to make his fortune. Not far from home, the lad ran into a farmer in need of a drover to take his cattle to market and the boy took his chance. With a Corgi at his heals and a freshly cut hazel staff, he climbed out of the valley floor in the direction of Brecon and adventure.
Several weary weeks later Caradog arrived safely in the metropolis and got a good price for the cattle. Somewhat dazed by the vastness of this new world, he was standing on London Bridge when an odd old man approached him and asked, "Where do you come from?" "From my own country." he replied, a Welsh lad in an English town.
"What is your name?" "The one my father gave me."
"Where did you get that hazel stick?" "From a tree." he cautiously replied.
"Well, if you show me that tree, I will make you rich beyond your imaginings!"
At first Caradog was leery of this Dyn Hysbys--for a wizard he was--but the lure of wealth soon had Caradog leading the old man back home to Wales.
Just above Pontneddfechan is Craig y Ddinas (Rock of the Hillfort) and there the boy pointed to the hazel tree, with the fresh knife marks still visible. "Come help me dig near the roots." said the wizard, and Caradog eagerly set to. Before long they uncovered a large flat stone, that, when moved, exposed a set of stone steps leading down to a narrow passage, with a strange light coming from beyond. The passage led past a beehive bell, that the old man warned Caradog not to touch at any cost, then into a large cavern and a truly wondrous sight. Lying feet to the center, like a wagon wheel, were fully clad knights, armor, helmets and shields, eerily shining in the gloom, and more magnificent than all the rest, a kingly man with a gold crown lay sleeping, as were all the rest, his sword at the ready on his breast.
Caradog could barely believe his eyes, but then he saw the gold and silver, in two great piles at the sides of the knights, for knights they were. "You may take from one pile or the other, but not the two," said the wise man, "but remember, Llysywen mewn dwrn yw arian (Money is like an eel in the hand)." Caradog went for the gold and over filled his pockets and bulging clothes, but he noticed the old man took nothing. Answering the unasked question, he said, "Gwell Dysg na golud (Knowledge is true wealth).", which for many years left Caradog puzzled. "Now remember not to touch the bell, but if you do and a knight awakens and asks 'Ydy'n ddydd?' (Is it day?), you must reply immediately 'Nage, cysga di!' (No, sleep on!)" Of course, our overloaded Caradog hit the bell with his elbow, a knight awoke asking 'Ydy'n ddydd?', a shaken Caradog managed "Nage, cysga di!" and the warrior lay back down.
"Who are these men?" "They are Urien, Owain, Hywel, Llewellyn, Gruffudd, Rhys, Rhodri and the greatest of all, Arthur, waiting for the day when Wales will need them to wake and take back their beloved land!"
Outside the pair replaced and covered over the stone, and as the Dyn Hysby bade farewell, he said one final thing. "Now, if you need to go back for more, do not take from both piles and remember to stay away from the bell." Caradog looked up from his gold, but the old man had already disappeared into the cool evening air.
Well, as to be expected, Caradog was a very popular lad at the pub for a year, but soon found himself lifting the stone, overloading himself with silver this time and elbowing the bell. This time three knights angrily woke and Caradog was barely able to get the response out, escaping the ghostly throng. The third time, loaded down with gold and silver, ringing the bell, all the warriors rose as one. "Ydy'n ddydd?" Caradog froze, then Arthur himself rose and commanded the men to throw the intruder out, as the day had not yet come. When Caradog, battered and bruised awoke he was outside the cave.
'though he many times plucked up the courage and looked, he never again found the Hazel, the flat stone, passage, bell and Arthur's Cave. But he brightened many an evening in the pub at Pontneddfechan, an old broken man, sitting by the fire, telling his tale over and over for pints of cwrw chwerw Cymreig (good Welsh bitter beer).
Craig y Ddinas today.
Listen to John perform Craig y Ddinas.
Previously released as The Water Kelpie.
|Ar Lan y Mor (Along the Shore)
Ar lan y mor mae rhosys cochion
Ar lan y mor mae lilis gwynion
Ar lan y mor mae 'nghariad inne
Yn cysgu'r nos a chodi'r bore.
Along the shore there's red roses
Along the shore there's white lilies
Along the shore is my own love
She sleeps at night, wakes with morning.
Ah! Ar lan y mor, the well-known Welsh folk song that reminds me of my upbringing in De Cymru (South Wales), at Aberafan Beach! If you stand on the sand there and look out to sea, on a clear day you can see Somerset and even imagine misty Devon and Cornwall beyond to the southwest.
This stretch of water is the Bristol Channel and if you follow it to the east, as it narrows, it becomes Aberhafren (The Severn Estuary) and finally you enter the river itself, Afon Hafren (The Severn). But like all anciently named rivers, the name holds a kingfisher's tale or two.
Amser maith yn ol (a long time ago), even before Arthur's time, and even before the Romans came to Prydain Fawr (Great Britain), there was a Celtic king called Locrinus. He ruled the southeastern part of the Island, what is now England, and he had taken Gwendolin, the daughter of Corineus of Cornwall, as a wife and they had a son, Maddan. All was well in the kingdom, until one dark day Humber the Hun attacked Locrinus' brother Albanactus, who ruled in the northeast. To avenge his death, Locrinus and his brother, Kamber of Cymru (Wales), marched on King Humber and threw him in the river that now bears his name.
Humber's queen, Estrildis, was a wonderful sight to see and, unfortunately for him, Locrinus looked a little too long, was smitten and, in the common parlance, bedded the babe. Not wishing to anger Gwendolin, his wife, and his father-in-law, Corineus, he kept her secretly as mistress in Trinovantium, modern day London. But when Corineus had taken his final journey to Avalon, Locrinus spurned Gwendolin, took Estrildis as wife and a daughter, Hafren, was born to them. Gwendolin, as furious as only a Cornish queen could be, raised an army with Maddan, her son, and defeated Locrinus. To make sure no one forgot the infamy, Estrildis and Hafren were thrown in the river; declaring to the whole of Britain that the river was to be known from that time forth as the Hafren.
Sometime later, when the Romans showed up, as with all conquering armies, they had trouble with the native British tongue and Latinized Hafren, so it became Sabrin. In their turn, when the Saxons came, they did the same thing, so that today the Sabrin has become the river Severn in English, although the descendents of the ancient British, The Cymry (The Welsh), still commemorate this unfortunate love child in the river's name, Afon Hafren.
Mae gen i fuwch a dau gorn arian
Mae gen i fuwch sy'n godro'i hunan
Mae gen i fuwch sy'n llanw'r stwcau
Fel mae'r mor yn llanw'r baeau.
I have a cow with two silver horns
I have a cow that milks itself
I have a cow that fills the pales
Just as the sea fills the bays.
This odd little verse of the same song, Ar lan y mor, has puzzled people for centuries, but with all puzzles there is a possible solution.
If you follow the Afon Hafren (The River Severn) up from the sea, past Chepstow, Gloucester, Worcester and along the border between Wales and England, eventually you come to Amwythig or Shrewsbury, in the English tongue. There the river splits the town in two.
Amser maith yn ol (a long time ago), after Arthur, Owain Glyndwr and the great legions of Welsh heroes were already asleep in their cave, waiting for the dragon to rise again, there was a cobbler returning home from Amwythig market, where he had collected all the shoes of the town in need of repair. He was anxious to get home to his wife and family, but all of a sudden felt the ground beneath him move. Looking into the far distance, he saw a wonder, a huge man carrying an enormous shovel piled high with earth, boulders and vegetation of every kind. He thought about turning around, but as Dai, his old Welsh friend would say, "Aelwyd a Gymell (One's own hearth is inviting)." So he took heart and trudged on, with the sackful of worn shoes on his back. Quite quickly the giant, for such he was, was right next to the cobbler.
With a huge sigh, he set the shovel down with a tremendous thud and, obviously winded, wiped the torrent of sweat from his brow. "My good man," he quietly thundered, "how far is Amwythig from here?" Well, the cobbler had also learned from old Dai that Arf doeth yw pwyll (Discretion is a wise man's weapon), so he up and said "Why do you need to know?" "Well", said the giant, "I am Gwendol Wrekin ap Shenkin ap Mynydd Mawr (?), come up from Wales to avenge myself on the men of Amwythig who stole my magic cow; a cow with silver horns; milking itself and filling the bay full of milk every day. I will drop this shovelful of earth on the Afon Hafren, dam up the river and drown the wicked town!" A strong wind almost blew the cobbler down when he shouted this. "Well," said the cobbler, thinking on his feet, "Gwendol Wrekin ap Shenkin ap Mynydd Mawr, you'll not get there today or tomorrow or the next day"--emptying out the sack of old shoes--"I have worn out all these shoes coming from the Town!!" With that, the giant let out an even greater, tree-shaking sigh, emptied his shovel right there and then, cleaned off the muddy spade with his leviathan boot, grudgingly turned and wearily headed home to Wales.
And to this day, outside Amwythig, is a great hill called The Wrekin, and next to it a smaller one called The Ercall. And, luckily for all, because of the cobbler's discretion and wisdom of his Welsh friend Dai, the Afon Hafren stills flows downstream past Worcester, Gloucester and Chepstow till it finds its home in the welcoming sea, as the kingfisher sings of Hafren and lovers forever lost.
Aberhafren (The Severn Estuary)
Listen to John perform Ar Lan y Mor.
|If You Can't Have a
Take a Cabbage
Among the many marvelous oddities associated with the place of my birth, perhaps the oddest is a lowly green and white, tubular garden favorite. All countries have national emblems--birds, flowers, harps, tree leaves, animals--but only one, to my knowledge, has a beloved national vegetable, Cymru (Wales). Yes, the leek is unique, coming as it does with a host of traditions, origin tales and even a proverb:
Oni chei gennin, dwg fresych
(If you can't have a leek, take a cabbage)
And the meaning is? As with all cryptic sayings and the like, it's up to you to decide. For me, it means something on the order of, "If you can't have what you want, take what's available." That in turn reminds me of an engaging little story I was told a good while ago, on a rainy Sunday night, in a cozy front room, on the last day of a visit to Wales.
In the mid to later years of the 19th century in Edinburgh, there lived the Mackintosh family. Unusual for Scotland, they were of the Catholic faith, were quite wealthy and had a host of children of various ages. Amongst them, Robert--the hero of our tale--was an adventurous, inquisitive, young lad destined, he thought, to follow in his father's flourishing haberdashery business. Tragically, the family's happy, mid-Victorian life was abruptly shattered by the sudden death of the children's mother in childbirth. From that point on their childhood would never be the same. This was particularly true for young Robert.
After the prerequisite period of mourning, Robert's father--also a Robert--took a new wife to look after the children and for companionship. Unfortunately, the new wife, although a good companion, showed no interest in the young ones at all and even suggested sending the girls to a nunnery and the boys to become priests! Robert the younger caught wind of this and, having no intention of taking the cloth, took to his heels, lied about his age and joined the crew of a ship engaged in the lively British coastal trade.
Not too long after boarding ship for his maiden voyage, Robert's fledgling career on the briny byways was cut short. The ship docked a little way up the Neath River, at Llansawel (Briton Ferry). Anxious to see the lay of the wild Welsh lands that he'd learned about in school, he wondered around the quaint little hamlet, met a local girl, Mary John, and jumped ship! To cut a short story even shorter, he--as all sailors are wont to do--fell in love, lied about his age again (not being the requisite 21) and married Mary.
Llansawel is a moderately long walk from the once vibrant, industrial valley and moorland of the Afan River. Mary and Robert settled there, Robert working in the coal mines, copper and iron works, and Mary very busy with a burgeoning late Victorian family. Sometime later and unbeknown to young Robert, Robert senior passed away. The executors of his will had the difficult task of tracking the children down, to inform them of their loss, and of their modest, but welcome inheritance.
Now I've always said the Romans invented bureaucracy, and the British perfected it. Everything that happens in the UK is recorded in triplicate, indexed and filed alphabetically, with numerical sub-sections. The executors followed the paper trail of sea voyage logs, marriages and births, and discovered a very surprised Robert Mackintosh living peacefully in a little South Wales valley village.
The terms of the windfall were that a number of silver crowns--a tidy sum for the day--would arrive periodically, until the full amount was paid off. Robert and Mary, not being wealthy and with a growing family, were ecstatic and I'm sure celebrated their luck with a taste or two of homemade elderberry wine, while raising a glass to the late Robert senior for his thoughtfulness. Robert Junior, like many of his age and position in life, did not trust or like banks, so he secretly came up with a plan to keep their money safe. Unknown even to Mary, he would quietly slip the silver coins in between the leaves of his cabbages in the garden. Nobody went there except himself, he thought, so his crowns would be as safe as in the Bank of England. Then he would put on his best Sunday clothes and hat, and walk down to the nearest town--Aberafan--and celebrate by toasting his late father's belated gift, knowing that his secret hiding place was well kept.
One time, shortly after the crowns had arrived, Robert--as usual--made a deposit in the back-garden "bank", donned hat and coat, and lightheartedly skipped off for a pint or two down the valley to the nearby town. On this particular occasion, the kindly local vicar happened to call at the Mackintosh house, asking for donations to feed the poor and destitute of the parish. Mary apologized for having little money to spare, with all the kids to feed, but offered to give the gentle man a couple of cabbages to make cawl (soup) for the unfortunates. "Oni chei gennin, dwg fresych" (If you can't have a leek, take a cabbage) the vicar replied with a smile and off he went to the vicarage with the cabbages, mor hapus a'r brithyll (as happy as a trout)!
Not long after, a very contented, rosy-cheeked Robert, a tad unsteady on his feet, returned to his happy home, kissed Mary and headed for the garden to deposit what was left of his drinking money. Now, it's always a difficult thing to sober up quickly, as I can well attest, but Robert, seeing several cabbage stalks and no cabbages was instantly alert, everything being explained by Mary, as they raced to the church hall. Luckily, the soup was not yet on the stove, and the whole confusion was soon sorted out. A grateful Robert and Mary even made a small donation to the fund. As with all such harmless mishaps, when the family gathered 'round, there'd be much laughter in the house, as the story was retold a hundred times over; each telling a little more elaborate! To this day, the yarn has never lost its magic, even though everyone knows the happy ending.
Note, this more-or-less true story was told to us by my mother's cousin, Pam Walker, nee Mackintosh. She sadly passed away recently, just as I was thinking about sharing this tale with all of you. And, by the way, Robert, whom unfortunately I never met--he must have been a hoot!--was my great-grandfather; Mary my great-grandmother.
|Then and Now
Every now and then I'll think about then and now. Please, before you put this to one side in benevolent contempt, and go on to something more beneficial, let me try to justify my frivolous attempt at verbal humor. I'm going to take a hopefully entertaining and uplifting snapshot in time.
You find me sitting at an antique mahogany table in a hundred-year-old, weathered, wooden house, two short blocks from a town square, that looks like it could have been the set for the film 'Back to the Future'. All of this is taking place in the onetime territorial capitol and quintessentially American town of Prescott, Arizona.
My lovely wife, two quizzical dogs and yours truly are in the process of moving lock stock and barrel from the desert, Northwest of Phoenix, to Poquito Valley, near Prescott. Our home-to-be isn't ready yet, so we are staying in the aforementioned vacation rental for a month. Strangely enough the valley in Wales where I was born was once locally known as Cwm Bychan (Little Valley). Poquito Valley means the same thing in Spanish. Serendipity? Synchronicity? Musing of a semi-senile, superstitious South Walian?
In my peripatetic life, as the adjective suggests, I have moved many times; sometimes following the piper, sometimes playing the pipes. At 18, I left the seaweed and sandy strands of Swansea Bay for university in East Yorkshire, 3 years later moving to London to seek my proverbial fortune and fame, and then back to Cardiff for a reality check. Dazed and confused, I licked my wounds and sought further instruction. This was followed (take a deep breath!) by a second attempt at the London metropolitan lotto, then onto sunny Brighton on the South Coast, Peace and Love in San Francisco, numerous nooks and crannies in Los Angeles--including Pasadena and Topanga Canyon--next on to Phoenix, and finally 90 miles North and 20 degrees cooler, close to 3,000 feet skyward and a stone's throw from my future home in the Yavapai foothills. Whew, that's many a mile of worn shoe-leather memories!
Leaving my family home for the first time, so many years ago, I was naturally somewhat apprehensive, but genuinely excited to step out of the cultural and comfy-cozy bubble that tumbling up in South Wales, in many ways, still is; even if there is a McDonald's and a Starbucks where the fish and chip, and Mrs. Evans' pie shops used to stand. Many of my consequent ramblings were quite spur-of-the-moment, impromptu affairs, including switching continents, which only took a couple of weeks to imagine, arrange and realize. Then, wherever the music led, I followed. Un, dau, tri, bant a ni! (One two three, off we go!) Now, as opposed to then, I am a lot more circumspect. After all, 40 years passed before making this most recent excursion.
Don't get me wrong, it's still a daily, sometimes hourly adventure but, like most people in late middle life, I've become more risk-averse; less willing to gamble everything on a hunch. In other words, I won't put 5 dollars on the 5 horse in the 5th race on the 5th of May anymore... well, not very often! It usually comes in 5th anyway! Besides, as mentioned, now I have a long-suffering wife, two very bemused puppies, our worldly goods and memorabilia, and a network of loving friends, family and creative associates to consider. Whereas back then, it was often a case of a suitcase, couple of musical instruments, bag full of optimism and a spell of sofa surfing, as we came to call it!
Time was on the side of youth and we were not always that careful about how we spent it. In fact, I remember in my teens, while my classmates were enjoying the barmy climes of Aberafan Beach, for some juvenile classroom infringement, I had to stay behind and write on the blackboard a hundred times, "Procrastination is the thief of time, and time should not be wasted." Now, 60 years later, I at last fully understand the message that that enlightened teacher was attempting to pass on to her wayward pupil. I even have my very own mantra now, taken from an old Welsh proverb, "Amser dyn yw ei gynhysgaeth a gwae a'i gwario'n ofer. (Man's time is his endowment and woe to him who spends it vainly.)"
Although, on second thought, going back to the main theme, the distinction between now and then should not be overstated. They really have much in common, if are not in fact, the same thing. After all, all we call Then was at one time Now and through memory the past returns, even relives momentarily in the present and--let us hope--informs our better angels. In my case--in my nostalgic mind's eye--I'm still the same 18 year old waving goodbye from the steam train to parental wisdom and growing up in rainy old Wales. I recently tried to capture it in a song written around the subject.
Changes--nothing really changes,
Things just re-arrange themselves,
Still remain the same.
Things just re-arrange themselves,
Into one more yesterday.
There's something marvelously reassuring in the thought of permanence in time; of knowing that the flow of our lives can be pictured, as our distant ancestors envisioned, with Arianrhod sitting at her silver spinning wheel in the Caer Arianrhod (Corona Borealis), spinning the threads of us lesser mortals' tomorrows. Yes, every now and then I'll surely take time to think about then and now. I'll broadly smile, thank my lucky stars, and the goddess at the wheel, who guided a young Welsh boy around those hundred sunlit towns, and that--even now as then--throws a reassuring light on these magical hills of evening.
It was one of those mysterious, autumn evenings that could have been painted in pastel tones of light and shade--of almost-color--by J. M. Turner or sketched in liquid pentatonics and waterlogged whole-tones by Claude Debussy; or even, for those with intrigue running in their veins, it could have been the perfect setting for a masterful Conan Doyle sleight of hand. All along the southern border of England and Wales, especially in the hill folds, river runs and water meadows, the residue of unseasonably late October warmth had condensed into a delight of veils, chiffon scarves and coverlets of pure light-grey wool; redolent with the smell of nettles, docks, wet sycamore leaves and vegetation. The ancient oaks and beeches struggled for definition, barely keeping heads out of the haze, while the once-vibrant emerald of the highest hills offered an archipelago of solace for the weak platinum sun, gratefully setting in a sea of mist and taking all the lingering greens, browns and blues with it. Left behind was a gray scale stream and treescape with the pencil-traced outline of a substantial, castellated manor-house etched into the edge of the quiescent, always sentient forest.
There had been no sound whatsoever ever since a solitary crow had given up its unashamed, tuneless mockery; his final thoughts on the day fade-echoing into evening. There had been no movement to mention either, save the almost swirl of mist and the occasional bovine coming briefly into sleepy focus, before browsing back into the ambient haze. In the final glimmerings of day, you wouldn't have been sure if the eventide might have been playing tricks on your senses. The locals would have said it was the Tylwth Teg, the Welsh elves again, but the hint of a frail, grey, hooded figure seemed to flow as lightly as a light, late, evening breeze, ghosting in, out and under the canopy of leaves and encroaching undergrowth along the forest edge. Then the wraith would dissolve into nothingness, only to reassemble, all the while sidling obliquely for the manor. But, maybe not, the whole vision--trees, mist, house et al--quickly and silently faded to moonless indigo, then black. Only a halo of pale lantern light, next to the ivy-shadowed door, suggested any kind of responsive life at all.
John and Alys were sitting near a cheerful, reassuring fire that scattered red, yellow and gold fingers of light onto their concerned faces; the lively, crackling wood and flickering flames in deep contrast to their studied silence. Even in these strained circumstances--keeping her lineage secret, and his double life and true allegiance concealed--there was a medieval elegance and poise about the pair; a sense of appropriate and comfortable nobility. Looking every part of a life-long courtier and storied knight of the realm, John got up and, as he distractedly tended the fire, put voice to his concerns.
"I wonder if Maredudd has seen him. They were inseparable, until those damnable cannons from Bristol and Pontifract tipped the balance and Aberystwyth and Harlech fell to King Henry. After that, I think they thought to make capture more difficult, with the two of them always agitating, slipping away into the blaenau, the uplands, but always in different parts of the old country. They would surely have traveled the old Welsh ridge-paths, still largely a mystery and feared by the English pursuit. "Alys brushed her long, blue-black hair from her face and sat back in her sturdy high-backed chair. "They may have decided it would be better not to know where the other was. The Tower of London has jolted more than one Welsh rebel's memory, even of a fearless father and faithful son, but if you don't know, you can't betray, no matter the jailor's malice. Knowledge is the best of weapons, gorau arf, dysg, but as my father was fond of saying, arf doeth yw pwyth, discretion is the weapon of the wise."
For what seemed like an age, the room fell back into a profound, oak-paneled silence, only to be revived by a light knock at the door. "Excuse me Sir John, Lady Alys," said the liveried servant Rhodri, "there's a greyfrair at the front door asking for a little food and lodging for the night. Shall I show him into the kitchen?" "What does he look like? How does he strike you?" said Alys with a barely detectable lift in her voice. "Taller... perhaps older, though it's hard to say my Lady. His hood is shadowing most of his face, though his voice seems honest enough." Rhodri, having served and protected Alys since a child, would have immediately noticed such a thing by instinct and the long experience gained from the imminent and ever-present menace of a dozen years or more of bitter border warfare. Strangers could be dangerous. "Then Rhodri, if you sense him to be of a kindly nature, show him in here," said Sir John, "he can have the room in the old square tower tonight. The Friars Minor do good work in the borderlands and their conversation always lightens up a gloomy night. Show him in." Rhodri, with the discretion that only comes from very long years of service, noiselessly disappeared from the room. Alys and John looked intensely into each other's eyes. Much was said without a word being exchanged.
The Franciscan entered the room in front of Rhodri and, as was customary, gave the Mendicant greeting, "Pax et bonum be on this house and family." It took every fiber of Alys' being to remain outwardly calm and keep her explosive excitement hidden from Rhodri. Mercifully John dismissed the servant summarily, asking for the door to be closed as he went. As soon as the old retainer's footsteps had echoed away down the hollow stone hallway, Alys rushed over, reached up and threw her arms around the hooded man's neck, quietly crying out "Diolch Duw. Tad! Thank God. Father!" John, wearing a warm, broad smile, chipped in with "Welcome to our home Prince Owain."
Raising his strong, weathered hands deliberately and pulling his hood back slowly, in the warm fire glow, before their very eyes, there stood a smiling Owain Glyndwr--or to be precise--Owain ap Gruffydd Fychan ap Madog, by the grace of God, Trwy Ras Duw, Prince of Wales. You could clearly hear Alys gasp before she mastered her disbelief, though tears of love fell freely. The old warrior's penetrating blue-green eyes still managed a mischievous smile.
The hair had thinned and turned from midnight black to moonlight silver; the face, though deeply furrowed, still fascinated, compelled attention and, even with sandaled feet beneath the home-spun, rope-tied robes of a lowly friar, the upright body clearly spoke of bridled strength. The years of hard-won battlefield victories, crushing defeats, grief and loss of home, family, close friends and, more recently, surviving biblically cold Welsh winters in open country and in cheerless mountain caves and crags, all this had very visibly taken their relentless and inevitable toll. Prince Owain would never be broken, his pride, naturally cheerful spirit and birthright would not assent to that, but Alys and John could see that the shadow of time was closing in on this aging hero, and 'though others would still see the great man who had inspired a small and obedient outback of a country to stand up against a medieval world power, they sensed immediately that his legendary strength could not fight off many more February snows. All of this keen perception took place in the several seconds it took for everyone to feast their eyes on each other and re-run a lifetime's memories. Yes, it really was him!
Fueled by a hearty supper, robust red wine from the continent and good cheer, in the wood-fire-and-wax scented warmth of the next several hours, the conversation, led largely by Alys, attempted to fill in the missing chapters, the hynt a helynt, comings and goings of several rumor-laden years. At the outset, Owain insisted that there should be no talk of lost family and friends. The unbearable fate of brother, wife, children and grandchildren was well known to all present and beyond any useful resurrection. The collateral costs of failed insurrection were a darkly accepted and unspoken reality of fifteenth century warfare and life; even The Black Death had a kind of inevitable medieval logic to its heartlessness. Eventually the talk turned to the rumored pardon.
"Prince Owain, I heard at Hereford this last St. Mathew's Day that the Plantagenet King was willing to offer you a pardon, if you would submit to him." Owain, while remaining seated seemed to visibly grow in stature, and although the far side of sixty--an old man in such times--his warrior-like demeanor and penetrating gaze would have alarmed a young Llewellyn the Great, or even an Arthur. He started speaking quietly and deliberately, measuring his response, "Although I do not trust the House of Lancaster--their clemency has a dark red history--I have learnt to respect Henry of Monmouth as a soldier, and of late, I have felt myself mewn gwth o oedran, in the thrust of age." His face softened into an almost whimsical smile. "I admit my dear Lord and cherished daughter, to be tiring in my long struggle to deny a full life its rightful due, and I yearn for a short rest in a comfortable goose feather bed at night, with a roof to hide and keep the stars from causing me to dream of what might have so easily been. A week ago, at the friars' house in Cardiff, I heard the same thing about Henry's offer. That night in my cell, I dreamt of the house at Sycharth, with harps, dancers, pipes and old Iolo Goch the bard, entertaining us all after supper with his satires and odes, elegies and englynion. We drank our Shrewsbury beer, laughed at our enemies, imagined and planned our victories to come, and took to our lofts to sleep the sleep of the hopeful!"
It was good to see her father in good spirits again. Very softly Alys said, "Why don't you take... or at least consider his offer father? You have fought the good fight for more than ten years; have given everything, but your life and honour. Wales could not ask for any more of a mortal man. There is a comfortable room and loving family for you here. Please, please think it over." "Yes, Prince Owain, Alys is right. Henry the Fifth is not as his father was. I know he knows that Alys is your daughter but, because of my past loyalty and service, and for that matter my continued usefulness in his court and parliaments, he has left us alone to live our lives. Submission would mean the end of the war of independence and the hope of freedom for Wales, but Maredudd your son would be protected by the same royal seal, and you both could live a life of ease on my estates." "Yes father, the ox men and drovers--by all the signs they read in the sky, land and lakes--say this winter will be even worse than the last, with heavy snows early and late."
"I will sleep on it and make my decision in the morning." The quiet authority in Owain's voice clearly indicated that the topic of conversation was over for the night. Then, breaking into an easier tone, "Now, let's talk of happier things. Alys, fetch your harp and sing your poor old father a song." Everyone in the room laughed as the celebratory mood returned.
"Strangely enough, last night I dreamed a curious song. It came to me all at once, verse, cadence and melody. I'm not sure I understand it 'though. It's a little melancholy, but pretty." With that, she took the lap harp from the corner alcove, brushed her long hair back over her shoulder, sat motionless and in a silent muse for a few seconds, then laid her elegant hands gently on the strings. Coaxing the instrument into a lyrical life of gentle cascades and slow flowing pools, then with the rhythmic flow steadied, pure and liquid...
...she began to sing:
|Mi a glywais fod yr 'hedydd
Wedi marw ar y mynydd
Pe gwyddwn i mai gwir y geirie
Awn a gyrr o wyr ac arfe
I gyrchu corff yr 'hedydd adre.
that the skylark
Had died up on the mountain
If I knew these words were true
I'd take a troop of men and weapons
To bring the skylark's body home.
Sir John noticed the moisture gathering around the old soldier's eyes and diverted Alys' attention away, saying, "That was quite beautiful. Your voice and sensitive playing match the sentiment of the song perfectly. How do you Welsh say it, Hyfryd? Lovely!" Owain by now had regained his composure and said, "I know what the song is about but, if you don't mind, that can wait until the morning. I've walked from the other side of Abergavenny today, across fields and streams, as I could not take the ease of the Hereford drovers' road. The king's eyes and ears are at every crossroad, market and tavern. So, forgive me, if you don't mind I would like to go to my rest now." "Of course, Prince Owain. I'll show you to your room in the old tower. There's a fire lit and you'll rest well there. By the bye, there's a back staircase that leads to the forest behind the house, just in case Henry's men come midnight visiting. They've surprised us before. Let me lead the way."
The room was as described: fine, sturdy, oak bed, large seated firedogs guarding a warm night fire, the dark cherry wood paneled walls softened with tapestries of ancient British myths and heroes. Sir John showed his guest the door--subtly anonymous, blending in with the wall panels--the door that led to the tight stone staircase that spiraled down to the dense forest close beyond. Owain, unaccustomed to such comforts, having recently found the straw mattress of a cold friar's cell in Cardiff comparatively luxurious, sank instantly into untroubled and fathoms-deep sleep. The world and warfare, king's pardon, parliaments and princes could all wait outside the door of this rare and serenely peaceful bedchamber.
Have you ever had a vivid dream when you knew that you were dreaming, but felt in full control? That you were an actor in and amongst the play of characters, environs and events, able to speak and clearly understand? Well, as Prince Owain's long silver hair touched the wildflower-scented pillow, the second his eyes closed on a rare and memorable evening--the taste of full bodied red wine still on his lips--he seamlessly slipped through the door that nightly leads to life's second self. The garden of recollections and imaginings, where deep cares and delights, fears and hopes, shadow and light, where the past present and tomorrows grow wild as blackberries in the teeming profusion of a long and late summer. Haf Bach Mihangel, the Little Summer of Michaelmas.
Owain found himself dream-walking through a series of fine, princely rooms and halls that were amalgams of real and imaginary buildings. A fusion of the family home at Sycharch, of Edward Longshank's arrogant castle keeps, barons' courts and knights' fortified dwellings, all of which he had visited throughout the years; an amalgamation of a lifetime's hallways, vestibules, galleries and even of the very room in which he now peacefully lay dreaming. The balmy air was pleasantly scented with forest flowers and herbs, and the exuberantly colored tapestries depicting ancient British heroes--struggling with dragons, Saxons, serpents, magicians, wild boars and giants--caught the eye and seemed to come alive. Almost imperceptibly, the vibrantly dyed warp and weft was slowly changing from textured threads and webs into living, breathing figures. Fifteenth century stylized bodies and faces were becoming corporeal; limbs gesturing, lips shaping sounds, growing in volume until many voices were conversing at once, as if anticipating a speaker, poet or musician.
This all seemed quite natural to our dreamer, as it would to most sleepers, and anyway, the medieval Welsh psyche was--and in many ways will always be--wide open to magical and transcendental excursion. So it was of small concern when the woven throng surged forward, into the room, forming an arc around one eminent tapestry figure who, stepping out in front of the rest, spoke directly to the prince, or rather sang in the perfect meter of Bardic lore.
"Henffych! Owain, shining son! As one, Avalon hails Owain." The millennially-aged man was familiar to Owain, simultaneously being many shifting face-shapes, another amalgam, this time of real and mythologized heroes. "Yes, it's true, Urien I am." The golden-robed man beat his hazel staff on the floor for emphasis, as he answered this unspoken question. Owain could ask and answer by thought-words. There was no need to speak. "I am Arthur, Peredur, Pwyll; Llywelyn, Merddyn and Madog, at rest now in this westerly world. All the gathering glittering ghosts assembled hosts of our storied history, all--as one--call this council, merge in merit, culture and heritage." These words were a mixture of the Bronze Age Brythonic, known to the eloquent Caractacos, the Old Welsh of Taliesin's singing and the universally timeless symbol-sounds of dream-speech. They seemed to flow like a verdant valley's silver nant; a pleasantly running stream, their beauty, authority and truth filling the mind of our dreamer, by now, become a deep lake of introspective tranquility.
"Unbearably heavy heart, your life load--great weight of Wales--you carry for the Cymry yet to come. A nation's generations in chains? Life-breath or death the decision... To submit, take the pittance of Henry's peace, or whether never to kneel, defiant in your defeat until--not long will you wait--you sail the sea of all souls. Another brother brought home, to the solace of timelessness; I Ynys Afallon, to Avalon's Isle."
"Assume Henry's amnesty? At ease under these stout eaves; a soft bed, warm fires, safe at bread; in foul weather sheltering at rest from tempestuous death blows of snowy seasons; the rest of your brightest days blessed, living free with loving family. Yet know, Prince Owain, this path has a price."
"Wales, the Cymry, her tales and tongue, bard harping and singing, verse, chapter, banter and boast, yea! Even history's starry astrology will vanish, banished from books. Avalon bereft of the valiant? Immortals become mortal?" The speaker's voice rose and fell like a restless, broiling ocean, building for the storm.
"This ancient, nascent nation, beloved and bedeviled bright country, within a century will breathe her last breath; no grace will keep her from the grave. Your bowed head our kindred's eradication. Past glories fast forgotten, each tomorrow sorrowful."
The figure himself grew to the size of a tidal mountain, then as easily subsided to dream-normal, as the great power and visible emotion of his words threatened to carry all away. In the calm that followed, "Disregard Henry's pardon? Head held high in defiance, the winter snow of Snowden, eira gaea' Eryri, will bring you peace, releasing your soul to ancestral rest. No slate will mark your wintery sleep. Carrion crow will carry Owain skyward... a final scattering."
"Many will say you died in some wide wildwood, taken in some forsaken fastness, lie cold below some lonely crag. Yet our poets--true people--harpers and tellers of tales, they will say you merely sleep; say you wait for the day of days, that you await the nation's need. They know you're the mab darogan, their wild-eyed prophesied son!"
A tangible, timeless silence fell, seeming to last both hours and yet no time at all. Then the speaker picked up the thread. "Many a setback, backtracking, hundreds and hundreds of indifferent, bowed years of obedience, a frail feeling, seemingly slight, still a slow tide--at its low sleep--unseen and soundlessly will rise and in rising, as weight of waters gather scorn, will grow and flow into flood and our mystic ship of dignity, our ancient nascent nation will rise high on that rising river, in your name reclaiming the realm, fighting with and righting wrongs. Cymru fydd fel Cymru fu! Cymru will be as Cymru once was."
The speaker's appearance, shape and size mirrored--became metaphor--for his thoughts. Speaking plainly, "Either hero of heroes, or past and last of the line, choose wisely, this is your choice, choice, choice, choice..."
These last, curt words were accompanied by the rhythmic beating of his staff on the oak floor and, as the final phrase trailed away, the tapestried throng and speaker himself lost dimension, began slipping towards grayscale, as motion turned back to motionless woolen thread. Startled, Owain burst into wakefulness, surprised to find the night had completely passed. Dawn was stealing into the bedchamber and the distant sound of someone knocking at the manor house front door brought the new day to our astonished dreamer.
Rhodri had been up for hours, attending to his countless tasks, as he had done since childhood; making sure the fires were burning brightly, the house was in order and the kitchen staff were preparing the food for the day. Hearing the knocking, he carefully unbolted and opened the heavy, front door and was just about knocked down by Maredudd, rushing past him into the hallway. "Bore da Rhodri, good morning, are my sister and Sir John ready to receive guests yet? I need to speak to them, this moment." Rhodri regained his balance and told Maredudd they were in the great room along the hallway, waiting for the friar to rise. Maredudd looked inquisitively at Rhodri when he mentioned the friar, but rushed on, as was ever his impetuous way, to join Alys and Sir John.
Then it was true, Maredudd had been approached under truce by Sir Gilbert Talbot, one of the kings most trusted men. He and Owain, his father, if they submitted to the king--swore never to rise again or incite the wild Welsh tribes to rise--would be pardoned; would live within the king's peace. Maredudd didn't seem surprised when he heard that Owain himself was asleep in the tower. They were always aware of at least general whereabouts of one another, just in case Charles the Mad--the French king--recovered his senses and decided to live up to his promise to send ships and soldiers against the English. But it wasn't long before all three and wily Rhodri, who had immediately recognized his aging Prince, even disguised as a friar, were climbing the steep stone steps to Owain's bedchamber.
Sir John knocked quietly at first, saying Prince Owain's name in lowered tones, then waited. When even insistent knocking failed to bring a response, he unlatched, opened the door and went in. The room was completely empty. The fire was still embering, the bed slept in, still warm and unmade, and the door to the back staircase was wide open. The assembled company rushed through the narrow opening as one; two-at-a-time ran down the spinning back stairs, out into the bracing beauty of a clear and crisp autumn morning in the Monnow Valley.
Looking out into the ever-encroaching forest, there was not even a suggestion of a breeze to animate a turning leaf and the evocative mist had completely vanished as, apparently, had Owain ap Gruffydd Fychan ap Madog. The stillness was palpable...
No one, not even his family, would ever see the great man again. That beautiful October morning, Owain Glyndwr had quietly and unobserved walked into history without leaving a trace or even a note of farewell. There would be no eulogy or headstone when he passed and, to tell the truth, he didn't need either. He had joined the immortals.
Deeply sad at heart, Sir John, Alys, Maredudd and Rhodri stood in complete silence for a very long time, hoping to see this enigmatic man walk back out of the woods. Then they themselves, without saying a single word, as if one, turned back to the house. As they reached the tower's back stair, the crisp silence of the bright, new morning was broken by a solitary skylark, as it soared up, up into the clear air, singing its ecstatic praise for the day. Alys managed a bitter-sweet smile. Now she understood the meaning of her song.
|Magic Amongst the Slag Heaps
A Christmas story
When I think about it, of all the memories I've found a safe place for, in my sixty or so years, many of the most precious among them are connected with the Christmas celebrations. Of all the occasions I can recall from my childhood--birthdays, summer holidays in Liverpool and London, fairs, school concerts, sports days, going fishing or swimming on Aberafan beach--many of the most memorable and still most vivid took place in late December. This is probably a common experience for many of us, for what could be more exciting than a child in Wales, or anywhere else for that matter, eagerly waiting for Sion Corn (Johnny Chimney). Waiting for his red velvet coat, snow white collar and cuffs, prodigious beard, knee-high boots, and an overflowing toy sack on his back to slide down in front of a lively, festive fire and smilingly give out delights to wide-eyed and mesmerized kids?
The world of late-industrial South Wales had sacrificed much of its natural magic and beauty to coal, iron and two World Wars, yet Christmas had managed to escape the depression, bombs, poverty and bitter strikes. For once, in a year marked by the extraordinarily heroic efforts of mothers and fathers to keep food on the table and shoes on the kids; for once, contentment was wealth, and wealth--true wealth--was prodigal. Need, along with mean-mindedness and those long gray days of cap-in-hand dole queues, had been banished from the whole of Wales. The river Afan, bare valley oaks and beeches would strike up carols of undeniable hope, harmony, good cheer, and plenty, among the broken smoke stacks and abandoned mines--all on a frosty, clear-as-crystal morning.
Tears among the ashes
Having said all this, my very first memory of anything at all in this life was indeed on Christmas day, but was filled with very salty tears and gnashing of teeth. I was about three years old and my elder brother, mother, father and myself were living with my grandparents in Cwmafan, a once-upon-a-time thriving, industrial village, a short, steep climb up from the vale and coastline of Glamorgan. The old stone terrace house on Tyisha (Tee-ee-sha) Row backed on to the river, had gas lights down stairs--none at all upstairs--a slate floor, outside toilet and a coal range in the kitchen for heating and cooking. My earliest memory is of being given a chocolate brown, painted log, on which happy little squirrels were playing squirrel games. It opened up at one end and was full of smaller trinkets and toys. Unfortunately for all concerned, my brother's gift--the same thing, but shaped like an ocean liner--captured my eye, heart and infant soul, and I made everyone's holiday miserable by completely ignoring the smiling squirrels and demanding the ship. The tears flowed freely for what seemed like days, and even tangerines, chocolate and plum pudding couldn't put Johnny back together again. It was boat or nothing!
My second memory is much happier, of being lifted up to sit on the horse-drawn cart by my Dutch uncle "Waggy", while the old household was moved by beast of burden one mile out of the 19th and into the 20th century, replete with indoor plumbing and electric lights, but--in memory--the silly old squirrels still run stronger before my mind's eye.
"... and the little one said roll over..."
My father got a job in the steelworks, down the valley in Port Talbot, on Swansea Bay, and, like many post-war families, we moved into a brand new, all mod-cons "prefab" (manufactured home). This was the beginning of the Baby Boom, and British Tommies returning home from the holocaust in Europe and the East were making hay and a great many babies--including yours truly--while the occasional Welsh sun shone on their mainly optimistic, enjoyable lives. To meet these burgeoning needs, prefabricated houses were the order of the day and very nice, thank you, for growing families.
Now, with advancing years, the grandparents tended to come to us for Christmas, along with uncles, aunts and cousins from around the isles. Beds were in great demand, with the folding camp variety and sofas helping out. The most glorious memory I have, even better than the decorations, wind-up gramophone, Christmas crackers, tantalizing all-night smell of turkey, and rosy-cheeked, very happy aunties and uncles coming home from the pub bearing gifts of crisps and pop. Better than even stirring the huge bowl of pudding mix, my most glorious memory is of lots of head-to-toe kids, laughing, making up and playing children's games--often being warned to keep the noise down in case we scared off Santa. We kids, who rarely needed sleep, bundled and tumbled around an overflowing wonderland of a hot-water-bottled, goose-feather bed. These were the best of times that we cousins still laugh about more than half a century later. Times wealth could not have improved on. There was always just enough, be it gifts, warmth, love or discipline.
Other memorable Christmases come to mind, like the time we all got leathery brown soccer balls and togs (cleats), which came up over our ankles. We kicked, headed and tackled our way over every inch of the festive housing estate, park, waste ground, school yard and sea front. Or when it snowed, and all the woolen scarf and gloved, local kids rolled a giant snowball over the sand dunes down along the tide, until it was too heavy to move and cracked in half like a giant gob stopper.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
Those Christmases of very early childhood are unparalleled in my book of days. Nadolig or Y Gwyliau (The holidays), as it is known in Wales, is a festival of and for children, and I feel very blessed to have been able, at an early age, to have experienced not only such treasured times of warmth, but also the remnants of ancient social tradition. Of doors being open to everyone, and hospitality a matter of course and pride, especially at Y Flwyddyn Newydd (New Year).
Wassailing is basically a movable feast, pasties, pork pies, pints and people, laughter and song, migrating around the neighborhood from door to door in increasingly "happy" circles. Christmas Eve, at one time, was only the beginning of several weeks of celebration, of no manual work (with the plow being stowed under the kitchen table of the farm, and wetted with beer from time to time). The whole thing culminated by bringing in the new year with the right sort of observances to ensure health, good crops, marriage and happiness.
There were all sorts of taboos on New Year's morning, about who should cross your threshold first and about borrowing money, for example. These were all intended to ensure a good, healthy, debt-free twelve-month to come. In my own time, a form of the Calennig tradition was still being observed. Calennig is a New Year's gift, of wishing everyone a "Blwyddyn Newydd Dda" (happiness in January and beyond). Children carrying a piece of coal--for some ungodly reason considered lucky in South Wales--would go from door to door in the older neighborhoods. You got sweets (candy), a penny, thrupenny bit, sixpence or even a shilling--if you were really lucky. The original tradition was much more elaborate, involving decorated fruit, spring water and sung verses, with mid-day being the curfew on the well-wishing. Then everyone gradually turned back to everyday lives, whether miserable, miserly or carrying the magical spirit of the season into spring.
And speaking of well wishing, I hope that all of you remember Christmases as precious as mine, if not, you might watch the very young this season. They could just wave their wands, rustle angel wings and shake up the tinsel on long-forgotten trees.
Nadolig Llawen a
Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i chi i gyd!
|Cunard Terrace, Cwmafan, where
my grandmother moved to, from Tyisha Row.
|Down the valley, in Port Talbot, on my brother's street.|
can also read my first Christmas tale Once
Upon a Star or
the poem about the village In Praise and Lamentation for Afan.
|Ebley's and the Apple Tree
There's a very old and discerning Welsh proverb that just about everyone, no matter their origin, can agree with Chwedl a gynydda fel caseg eira (a tale increases like a rolling snowball). Whether by virtue of poetic license, willful exaggeration or the convenient hazing over of details caused by fifty full years of high and low tides and worldly voyaging, the story that follows aims to be reasonably faithful to the facts, without being too encumbered by the gospel truth.
And talking about haze, that late-summer Friday afternoon on Aberafan Seaside railway station, a young family was standing waiting for the tubby little steam train to wobble its way 'round the bend on Baglan moors and puff, hiss and creak to a well-earned rest. Alan and John, not yet quite in their teens, David, a baby in the pram, their mother Vi and father George, with an unexpected Friday off from the Steel Company of Wales, skipped lightly aboard the carriage. The boys stood at the smoky open window the entire short trip under Beach Hill, through the crossing gates by the river bridge, and up the gentle incline to the verdant valley of Cwmafan. They were to stay overnight at grandma and grandpa's house, where there was always the promise of unconditional grandparents' love, a shilling, sixpence or thruppenny bit for the sweet shop, and a story from grandpa about the army in India or deep underground in the local coal mines. Oh, and don't forget being met at the door by the incomparable aroma of grandma's ever-ready, hot-out-of-the-oven, apple, berry and rhubarb tarts, pasties, fruit cakes and lavishly buttered, thick, homemade bread that would, if mishandled, endanger a youthful, sandaled foot.
And the valley weather? Well it was one of those glorious, late Indian summer afternoons--Haf Bach Mihangel (The Little Summer of St. Michael)--when the heavy smell of cut lawns was intoxicating and songbirds hadn't even thought about a winter getaway to France. Black and yellow striped bumblebees were as busy as ever. Rainbow trout were drowsily dreaming in leaf-shaded pools, skimmed by dipping dragonflies. Redolent ferns, gorse, bracken and rampant blackberries were relentless, rapidly covering over the scars of a century of industrial earth and stone works. It could be no finer. The warm scented breeze overflowed with birdsong and ambient summer sounds. The silver river--clearer than in living memory--shimmered her venerable way back down past Aberafan sands, to re-join the waters of the world in Baglan Bay.
The boys' grandparents--or Nana and Grumper to them--lived on Cunard Terrace, opposite Tips Gwyn. They had moved the short distance from Tyisha Row a number of years before by horse and cart and now, for the first time, had indoor plumbing and electric lights! Tips Gwyn (The White Tip) was a fairly high slag and industrial tipping site that came from the Meadow coal pit and surrounding works. The considerable chalk-like content had given it its name, even after the volunteer grass and wild flowers--fertilized by the ubiquitous Welsh sheep--had reclaimed much of it. The Tip, like many similar, was removed years ago, and the boys had felt the loss of one of their favorite playgrounds, where cardboard boxes became sleds on its "snowy", alpine slopes. The fenced, flooded mine shaft behind was a forbidden but irresistible place to count the seconds before a stone would hit the water level, far below in the mysterious, goblined shadows.
Teatime meant a short trip with a note and half a crown or so down to Care's Chip Shop. The boys took an earthenware mixing bowl and tea towel with them for the lavishly salt-and-vingered chips. The Evan's pies, rissoles and fishcakes they brought back, deftly wrapped in newspaper, and the smell of malt vinegar, rock salmon, chips, et al., was a pungent delight in itself that would find a permanent home in the memory of the savory senses. The table had been laid and Nana's best floral china plates and teacups, lace cloth and silverware added to the specialness of the meal, but there were other things on the boys' minds. Ebley's cinema in nearby Depot Road was the main course on Friday evening's menu.
Bread and butter, HP Sauce, Grumper's garden peas and cups of PG Tips vanished in record time. The boys, hands and faces sanitized, pocket money in khaki shorts' pockets, set off at a lively jog. Don't want to miss the Pathe News of the teeming, healing post-war world, or especially the Looney Tunes cartoon. One or other of the two would start the shows.
Jogging past Doctor Hughes' house by the side of Tips Gwyn, past Vi Lane's sweet shop and Parc Y Llyn where Grumper was park keeper, after his mining days were done. In no time at all, on Depot Road, they climbed at the double the couple of steps leading into Ebley's wonder world and Cinema. And world of wonders it was to many a young and not-so-young soul. Mr. Ebley's family had owned a traveling road show that circulated the thriving South Wales Valleys in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Wayfaring becoming difficult after the outbreak of The First World War, they put the horses out to graze in the meadow and settled down, building the cinema themselves in, what was at that time, the industrially unbridled Afan Valley. The carnival feel of the traveling show must have survived the sea change. Ebley's on a Friday night was always jumping!
Nine pence for kids to get in, there was always enough left over for a bottle of dandelion and burdock pop, a choc ice or a lollipop, and as you bought your ticket and goodies, the feature posters in the foyer promised all kinds of star-studded, exotic exploits. The fare was as tasty as the ice cream: Groucho, manic eyebrows, one-liners and smoking stogie creating mayhem on board ship; John Wayne, as very Irish as a very American can be; the Roadrunner, outsmarting Coyote for the hundredth time, on a lonely Nevada road; or innocent love briefly flourishing on a smoky station between changing trains. Even The Flying Scotsman itself--monarch of the railway steam age--might be the star of the show, and of course, the sheriff and posse would arrive just in time to ask, "Who was that masked man?" It was indeed a wonderful world!
Mr. Ebley, impeccably dressed in waistcoat, suit and tie and those distinctive black, round-rimmed glasses, was always there as a figure of smiling authority. But Dewi, with his torchlight at the ready to illuminate bad behavior, kept tenuous control of the over-exuberant, prepubescent clientele in the wooden front seats. Sometimes he'd threaten to stop the film and, more than once, the film itself would break and the screen would become a disappointing pale gray. Dewi would have plenty to do, especially when the bad boys, as the lights were dimmed, would run over to the emergency exit door, hit the breaker bar and let friends in for free. The scattering of young bodies to the four corners of the auditorium would bring frantic torchlight into play, but the naughty boys were quick and usually melted into the dimly lit crowd.
The interval would bring the usherette, with her uniform and tray, down one aisle to the front of the stage. For some reason, everyone clapped! A remnant of silent-film days, the theatre organ would play some popular march or old waltz, signaling time for the boys' room and, pocket change allowing, more sweets. The balcony and plush back seats down stairs were for the adults and courting couples, taking first shaky steps on the tight rope of innocence. Ebley's must surely have kept St. Michael's and All Saints' wedding calendar busy over the years. Indeed, the old place was more than film stars and features; more than cheeky fun and misbehaving schoolboys. It was many a generation's social focal point. A place to meet, laugh, play, be entertained in an age just a few short years before the first onrush of television. That soon-to-be household essential would change the social landscape into something a little less embracing, a little less encompassing and yes, a lot less communal.
Back to the big picture. The cavalry--bugle blowing, stirrups flying--would ride 'round the bluff under a bigger-than-life sky and save the day. Battle-worn soldiers--against all odds and under heavy fire-would climb and claw their way up and take the hill from the Hun. The star-crossed lovers--locked in eternity on separate trains--would part forever, and the music would build and swell into a rapturous, symphonic paroxysm, as the picture show came to The End.
In the most organized event of the night, young and old would stand, take off caps if need be, and sing the National Anthem with hwyl (with gusto). And as "O bydded i'r hen Iaith barhau" ("O long may the old language survive") resounded across the aisles, the youngsters, as disorganized as ever, would rush the exit by the side of the screen, hit the breaker bar and tumble out into the starry night air, in the back alley behind Depot Road.
John and Alan ambled their way along that alley, back up towards Parc Y Llyn, in no particular hurry to get home and end this glorious summer evening fun. They stopped by the back garden wall of one of the houses in the lane, as they had done a number of times before. The rest of the kids had vanished by this time, and under the shadows of a moonlit night, Alan cupped his hands, twtied down, John stepped in and, like a rudimentary circus act, was boosted up to sit on top of the wall. Looking around to make sure no one had seen them, our fledgling acrobat reached out and twisted a perfectly ripe, red, delicious apple from the gloriously spreading tree, and passed it down to his brother below. Another would follow the same route quickly, and off they would run, up along the back alley, with a little tinge of thrilling guilt to finish off the trip home.
Well, that's the way it usually went, but as the wise old saying goes, Dwyn wy, dwyn mwy (steal an egg, steal more)! This particular night, ambition stepped in. They picked a veritable bag full of apples that Alan hid in his shirt. When they arrived at Nana's house, holding his appled belly, he ran straight up the stairs, feigning an upset stomach, to hide the swag under their overnight bed. So much for the plans of mice and wayward, young men. The first part worked like a charm. Alan ran up the stairs and shut the bathroom door quickly. John, a picture of innocence, went into the living room muttering something about too much chocolate, and then and there the clever subterfuge came clattering down.
All was well until a sound like the muffled banging of a big bass drum came from the landing above. "What was that?" the grownups said in perfect unison, looking straight at John, who was unsuccessfully trying to pretend he was somewhere very far away and unreachable by voice. George, the boys' father, looking very stern, climbed the stairs two at a time, demanding "Alan, open this door! Now!!" The jig was well and truly up. The forbidden fruit had fallen from the tree. The boys stood next to each other, hands behind their backs, looking down at their sandals; the apples, very prominent in a line on the table. Tears freely flowed when the police station a little further up Cunard Terrace was mentioned, and thoughts of striped suits, bars, bread and water were much on delinquent minds.
They sobbed their way to sleep in Nana's feather bed, and woke to the reality of having to take the apples back to their rightful owner, which in some ways was worse than the threat of a night in the Cwmafan police cell. The lady of the apple tree house couldn't have been nicer, and said that next time they should just ask, and she'd give them all the ripe, red, delicious apples they could eat. Lesson learned, for sure, and although they went to Ebley's many a time after, and walked home along the moonlit back alley, past the gloriously spreading tree, the apples were left for other hands to pick.
The old cinema was knocked down some time ago and replaced by some new, attractive, nice-as-can-be houses. It is as if Ebley's had never existed but, with the right eyes, ears and dusted off memories, you might overhear a whispery echo or catch a shadowy glimpse of a once-upon-a-time little corner of the South Wales that was. If indeed, some summer evening towards dusk, in the right frame of mind, you walk along Depot Road, you can still hear distant, lingering laughter, ambient on the Cadbury-sweet evening air and fragments of theater music spiraling up, up into the diamond night sky. You may still see the faint reflection of courting couples' faces, antics of misbehaving youthful friends, and even the likes of Alan and John, dream-spilling into the alley on some glorious Friday evening of a Haf Bach Mihangel. Some precious things--though age must and will have its way--are for always... as long as there's a little bit of forever in our hearts.
my poem Scenes from an
|Rainy Reunion in Tenby
The yearly cycle turns around Glangaea, the old Welsh New Year, at the beginning of November. The ancients would fix their gaze on Caer Arianrhod--The Corona Borealis--hoping to catch a glimpse of the entrancing goddess, as she sat at her silver spinning wheel, gracefully spinning their earthly fate. Spirits were abroad and the long winter darkness, already manifest, called for bonfires, ritual and reassurance, in a fragile, often casually temperamental world. They would look again to the skies around Glanmai--Mayday--but this time with much greater hope in their hearts at the promise of lengthening days of life-giving light. If, like the spinner, they could have travelled time, in that early November sky, they might have fleetingly caught a different silver glimmering, the very distant, outstretched wings of a Boeing 747-400, as it imperceptibly lowered its nose, after passing over Taliesin's Rheged--Strathclyde. Making its way south above the ancient kingdoms of Elmet and midland Britain, it safely touched down in 21st Century Heathrow Airport.
A speedy London Underground run, then the familiar Paddington-South Wales train, seemed to quietly and smoothly anticipate the waiting family the other side of Cardiff, on Port Talbot Parkway Station. Making good time to and through the tunnel and, although bathed in rapidly fading evening light, the characteristic and comforting hills of Gwent, then Sir Forgannwg held out welcoming Welsh arms. Home was now a reality, hireath--homesickness--a remnant of then. Croeso i Gymru--Welcome to Wales!
The advantages of living six thousand miles away from your origins are legion, as are the disadvantages. One of the more interesting advantages is the built-in ability to time travel. Yes, seriously! No need of the teeming imagination and mechanical aptitude of H.G. Wells. No need of magical caves, dream worlds, psychedelic tunnels or worm holes; just five or more years of separation and the ebb and flow of human tides. Now, read on for the revelation.
As we observe, so we are observed, with the inevitable process of aging, gracefully or not, easily read in the open pages of our tearful, smiling faces. To see someone beloved and be seen by them, with intervening years, is to indeed travel time. Reconciliation with a long estranged close relative is heartwarming, yet the ravages are sadly shocking enough to insist that you yourself look into the mirror and hope it will show more compassion. Even more striking, to see new family additions: a babe in arms with familiar features, "Doesn't she look a lot like..."; a slightly older child, "Reminds me a lot of him when he first..."; "She's got the attitude of a young so and so!"
Sometimes those too-rapidly-growing cherubs go to the same school and even the same classroom where you yourself window-dreamed. Yes, the wheel is always in spin but, even for a brief spell, you become that smiling, sing-song rhyming, chiming child in the playground again, vicariously young. Perhaps a six-month-old infant's casual gesture, facial expression, outstretched hand is a duplicate of an older uncle or aunt. They are, in a sense, one and the same, just at different points on the curve of our earthly continuum. And so it was this time, as it has always been and always will be, an opportunity for all to visit with the great sweep of generations, in the comfortable front room parlour of a small industrial town.
Even the rain is somehow familiar here, in this smoky old borough. It reminds the prodigal visitor that November on the coastal plain of Bae Abertawe--Swansea Bay--has a geographical signature; characteristically lashing the gray stone walls, windows and slate roofs devoid of wise Jackdaws. But, solace for a traveller's flagging soul, on a bacon, fried bread and black-puddinged morning, during a steak and kidney pied lunch, or haddock and chipped Friday teatime treat, all is warm, well and beyond reach of re-gathering gray clouds and threatening gales.
Intermittent gusts and squalls were certainly there, the following rainy Monday in Tenby Town. Dinbych y Pysgod--Tenby of the Fish--is a Norman-walled town, replete with castle, smugglers' caves, squabbling gulls, nets, boats, anchors, ropes and enough mythic and poetic license to be itself a tall tale. It is a place to engage all the senses; salty to the taste, it had the smell, touch and ambient sound of a wind and rain swept Pembrokeshire sea town. It is ever a harbour for those long at sea, the perfect place for reunion.
The last time of meeting this long lost friend was his twenty first birthday in Ynysybwl, Cwm Rhondda. Growing up, there had been many occasions of music making, larking, drinking cider, laughing and day dreaming... you know the kind of things teenagers did forty odd years ago, and yes, still and will always do. Sitting in the bay window of The Buccaneer Inn, with the wood fire keeping out the chill, there was a sense of "What will it be like to see and be seen down the wrong end of a telescope?" The sixties were a lifetime before; washed away, gone, almost as if they had happened to someone else. Something dreamt, scenes from a subtitled foreign film. Would we recognize... know each other? Would we like what we saw... the look of one another? What would be said? What was there to say?
After a long tearful embrace, fears went the way of the fallen rain, guttering down to the invigorated sea. Age certainly showed its fascinating and frightful imprint, but friendship--true friendship--showed no sign of weakening, let alone disappearing. Maybe it had even enlivened with time and travel. Conversation was as brisk as the keen wind off the bay, while the two hour run of our brief encounter was spinning at the speed of the goddess' wheel. First there were the fifteen-minute, forty-year personal digests, then the "Do you remember such and such... so and so?"; "He did well"; "V married W"; "X retired years ago"; "Y made a big splash in London Town"; "Z was never the same..." Email, network and mobile numbers exchanged, promises made, and just like that, the bay window looked out on an empty, rainy Tenby cobblestone street. The world had silently turned. Time had moved on... once again.
Looking out of another window at around thirty five thousand feet, heading back over Rheged, shell-shocked head spinning, you might have wondered if a time-travelling Taliesin had caught a glimpse of the Boeing from the ground, as he scanned the sky for a sighting of Arianrhod at her wheel. Then the realization would dawn. Glangaea or not, and even though you can, there is no need to time travel, if you have never left the May Day of your days. The spirit of Glanmai is, after all, at home in the heart--in the abode of the soul--and beyond the ceaseless turning of the silver spinning wheel.
Daughter, the Walrus and
Old Town Aberafan
Based on a legend heard in John's youth.
Did you ever walk out along the old wooden pier near the mouth of the River Afan? It was pulled down a long time ago, but do you remember before it was rebuilt of concrete and steel after a century of September high tides had almost washed it away?
Well, early one fair summer morning, cyn codi cwn Caer, before the dogs of Chester had risen, I should have been at school learning about Pythagoras and geometry instead of discreetly skipping down the riverside path, past the Little Warren and mud banks on my way fishing. A short time after casting the line out, as I was whistling my lucky fishing song, I heard something unusual. Well, in truth, I heard a string of sounds perfectly imitating my song--note for note--but faint and bittersweet, as if a quiet and sad, pleasant echo. Strangest of all, it wasn't a whistling sound answering, but something like the sound of a flute--for it was indeed a flute--materializing like a musical apparition a stone's throw past the end of the old pier; harmonics rising like a sea mist from somewhere deep beneath the play of the waves! For a good while, time stood Sunday still and then imperceptibly, the seagull cries and the rise and fall of the sea licking the barnacled pilings washed into my ears again. I tried whistling a couple of times after that without hearing any answering melodic dialogue from the sea, but now my lucky-charm song was a tad more pensive.
That evening, as I lay in bed, flashbacks of that fair summer morning made me wonder if I'd been adrift on some sort of tidal daydream or if there had truly been music and magic in the tide and I had witnessed a real life wonder. I didn't say anything to anyone, but the next day, cyn codi cwn Caer, before the dogs of Chester had risen, when I should have been in school studying Pythagoras and right-angled triangles, I was standing outside the town library waiting for the key to turn in the lock and the 'Closed' sign turn to 'Open'. There was a genuinely surprised look on the librarian's face. "Good morning Sioni, no school today?" she asked. "No Miss Jones, I need to take a look in the local interest section for stories about old Aberafan Town and mysterious sounds coming from under the sea. I'm writing an essay for the Calan Gaeaf, Halloween issue of the student's magazine" I casually lied without blinking an eye. "Oh" said she, "you're so lucky. Just arrived yesterday is the book collection of old Mr. Dafis, Cwmafan. He was a sailor, but when he retired he had taken an interest in the history and stories of the Afan district, until recently--in extreme old age--he went to live with family in Abertawe, insisting that his books and manuscripts stay with the people of Aberafan Town. Come along with me."
Well, inside the dusty basement, down the back stairs behind the main reading room, were mound upon moldy mound of very old and threadbare, graying books; some tied together with string, others in cardboard boxes, but the majority scattered sang-di-fang, willy-nilly, all over the shop. "Sorry about the mess" she said "I don't have time to keep up with all the kind gifts from the Friends of the Library. Over there under the window, on the wooden table are Dafydd Dafis' books. Oh! And there's also a sea chest llawn dop, full to bursting with his papers and bric-a-brac. Lwcus Da, Good luck!" said Mrs. Jones over her shoulder as she climbed the stairs leading back up to the neat and well-lit main reading room.
After a couple of minutes staring in a fog over the rolling hills and dales of books and papers, Pythagoras and the square on the hypotenuse were beginning to appear a lot more attractive than usual, but as my mother always said "Deuparth gwaith ei ddechrau. The start is two parts the work". I sat at the wooden table and began going over the landscape of frail and fragile, venerable books in the weak light of the street-level window half way up the damp basement wall. After an hour or more, at the point of rhoi'r ffidl yn y to, hanging the fiddle in the eaves, in a dark corner by the radiator, I came across the travel-weary sea chest--a story in itself--smelling of untold sea-voyages, salt-sea spray and memorable midnights in exotic sea ports. Unfastening the weathered leather straps, inside I came across seemingly numberless bundles of handwritten, yellowing papers tied with brittle green, blue and red ribbons. Toward the bottom of everything I found some kind of small white flute; a flute made out of bone or ivory, covered with mysterious scrolls and shell-like scrimshaw and discolored by perhaps hundreds of spindrifting years.
Putting the flute in my pocket and untying yet another crumbling blue ribbon I read: "Tales and Beliefs of our Forefathers, collected by Capt. Dafydd Dafis, Cwmafan." Once again Pythagoras didn't have a hope in Hades; not a friend in the world. I began reading the old Captain's prologue:
Generation after generation have heard these stories from their grandfathers and fathers until I heard them in my turn at my own father's knee. Having neither daughter nor son, I must entrust them to fortune and fate and the rip-tides of time and hope that, like driftwood, they'll wash up on a welcoming shore.There were lots of appealing stories in the collection, but one chapter was especially bell-ringing: "Bedd Dyfrllyd yr Hen Dref, Watery Grave of the Old Town." Well, I was ar bigau'r drain, on tenterhooks, anxious and hopeful of solving yesterday's harmonic mystery. I read on...
Amser maith yn ol... A long, long time ago, when dear old Wales was still at play on the unhurried playing fields of her youth, our local coastline would have looked extremely strange to you and me and anyone familiar with Aberafan today. To tell the truth, there was no coastline there at all, but a long green valley leading down away through meadows and glens through the old Afan Wood then on to the distant beach and the sea; a slender quicksilver thread glinting cheerily in the far, far beyond. In the middle of the valley, on the river bank, was Old Aberafan Town with its round thatched houses, simple wooden church, little school hut, earthen market square and our forefathers busily going about their daily lives in sunshine and rain. An ideal picture, isn't it? But without warning everything was about to change... forever.
Well, after skipping flat pebbles out across the chuckling shallows, impatiently waiting for what seemed like a lifetime, not far from Hafwen's tidal pool, of a sudden a mountain of water rose frighteningly close to Jac on the shore. It would have been very easy to lose heart, turn, and run back to the town, but when Hafwen herself swam to the water's edge, somehow all was becalmed and well with Jac again. "Don't worry" she said smiling, "my father is anxious to thank you." And with that, from the middle of the liquid hill, there was Dylan Eil Don--Dylan of the Second Wave, Arianrhod's son--striding toward the shore. Even after returning home to Old Aberafan Town, it was just about impossible for Jac to describe Brenin y Weilgi, The King of the Deep. His face, hair, beard and his entire enormous body was like seaweed or a shoal of fish flowing and churning constantly in eddies. Only his penetrating blue-green eyes stood solstice still. He was Arctic, Antarctic, Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans incarnate; the embodiment of the salt crystal empire that circles the world; the aquamarine and pelican gray that balances the earthen and apple green hills.Aberafan was rebuilt twice more over the years; each time further inland, away from that mischief-maker Tide. And despite the little walrus tusk flute having been faithfully passed down from generation to generation, finally washing up in a weather-beaten sea chest, next to a radiator, near a wooden table in the weak light of a street-level window, in a dusty basement downstairs from the reading room of the new town library--despite all of this--nevermore would the flute player be master of the prankster tides of Ynys y Cedryn, Isle of the Mighty.
But, if you ever walk out along the pier at the mouth of the River Afan, cyn codi cwn Caer, before the dogs of Chester have risen, on some fair morning of a harvest moon, when you should be at school learning about Stephen Hawking, Space-Time and The Grand Design, instead of squandering your own precious time pondering simpleminded legends like this; perhaps you'll see a young lad sitting by the barnacled pilings, from time to time casting out into the giggling Tide, sometimes playing a soft and sad, lonely song. And a strange thing, you may hear a sound like a flute--for a flute it will be--answering his song--note for note--rising like a melodic sea mist from many fathoms deep beneath the play of the waves.
|Once upon a Star
A Christmas story
They say don't ever look down when you're climbing, and I've heard you never can step in the same river twice, but it doesn't matter anyway as everyone knows, you can't go back - in time that is. Though when the serene evening sky keeps its promise of snow; when long awaited visitors are heard unlatching the garden gate and the star - the one that's been seen near Solstice for generations - reassuringly shines in its wine-violet setting, I feel a gentle tug at my sleeve; find myself drawn quietly back; willingly led along the gray-green shadow of a pencil-traced path, through the old-growth, mistletoed wood; time after time out of mind falling like acorns, mile piling on mile like leaves littering the rhyming river run. And then, at last, to arrive in sight of the gas-lit, silver, terraced street, to cross that scalloped, shoe polished step; on through that ever open front door that gestures toward the welcoming hearth, warm hands and vivid living vision; restoration of many a long-lost late December; long gone but unforgotten.
In and out of the tub, soap scrubbed, shampooed and towel rubbed dry, pajama strings tied by patient, practiced hands, giggling brothers and sisters chase their little cousin up the apple-and-pear stairs to share beds top-to-tail, lying like sardines in their feather-lined tin. Slowly, wriggling and jiggling crest fall and ebb; tired rag dolls take their rag doll rest; dreaming toy soldiers loose the battle for sleep. And the old stone house settles down to its well-earned ease.
Listen. Come closer to the hearth. These many-a-winter weathered walls, ancient, oak eaves and rooftop tiles made with good Welsh slate will tell you tales; tales gathered from bygone and aging generations.
Smoke from the embering, overnight fire silently climbs inside the blackened chimney bricks, coils up, up and out of sight and sound and lightly is lost into this clear, crystal night: A once-upon-a-time metaphor for those good lives and lifetimes, once upon a star.
And how about you? On the evening of the eve, did it ever snow, make for a doubly-enchanted new day? Did you write your name, draw pictographs on ice-laced, foggy window panes? Did the lake, starting at its wintery, frogless edges, glass over overnight? Overnight, did unseen hands make frozen fingers out of twigs on leafless lifeless trees? That morning, did you and your school friends leave a thousand footprints on paths and pavements on the way to the park? Play winter Olympic Games on playing fields a million miles from fleetingly completely forgotten schools, their gates forever locked, except for times like these? Or, when the weak winter sun helped clear the streets, with scarf and thick breath streaming like a steam train over hunched-over shoulders, did you peddle like the Devil on your bright new bike; make rutted, pimpled tire tracks through muddy puddles of slush; bell ringing, wheels singing, friend following friend, stumbling and tumbling all over the chattering town?
Listen. Come closer now. There's still the after image; echo memory of that rushing river of voices as it washed along back alleys and flooded light filled lanes. Listen! Come closer to the fire, the old house is settling down to listen to your tales.
And do you remember those early-teenage late Decembers; last day of school before the mid-winter holidays, when even the grimmest, grumpiest teacher couldn't help a wry expectant smile as the final bell rang? On the eve of celebration, did you go down to your tinseled caroling town? Wade waist high through full tides of crab-legged shopping bags, bursting with pearls of expectation; everyone swimming in a goodwill sea, while holiday money held in a warm, gloved hand smoldered in your pocket. And did that week of Saturdays never end, waiting for the evening of that anticipated party with its presents, pop, puzzles and games of close encounters; the jewel in the golden crown an innocent kiss under the mistletoe; first kiss that sometimes lasted a lifetime. And if it would only snow, surely the prince would fearlessly scale the impossible tower, rescue the princess from the Ice Queen's palace, and young romance would grow and grow into sky high drifts: "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."
And I know you shouldn't look down when climbing and no one can step in the same river twice, and everyone knows, you can never ever go back. But when the serene evening sky keeps its promise of snow, long awaited visitors unlatch the garden gate, and that special star shines on a wine-violet Winter Solstice; after listening and thanking you for your wisdom of words and admitting there is surely something lacking in me, you're going to hear me say: "Nos Da. Good Night. I'll be on my way back now."
|You can also listen
to Once upon a Star.
You can read another Christmas story: Magic Amongst the Slagheaps or
the poem about the village In Praise and Lamentation for Afan.
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