Monday, 30 June 2014


You can tell a lot about a place by examining its edges.  Those liminal spaces, neither quite here nor there, are infused with the essence of identities that pulse from the distant centre.  They are, however, far more than a faint homeopathic imprint of the personality of a territory, for the process is an alchemical one and conjures up a whole new identity all of its own, especially at land borders when two such edges rub together.

The England-Wales border is a well-seasoned example of the phenomenon.  It is one of the most singular parts of our island, a furzey hinterland that manages to be both Welsh and English, and yet neither of them.  It has always drawn me; spending three days last week walking in the Herefordshire borderlands has only deepened that respect and love.

The Mortimer Trail, with our extra few miles from the border added on

Two friends and I did the Mortimer Trail, a thirty mile walk between Kington, near the border on the A44, and Ludlow, the grand and gastronomic former seat of the Council of the Marches.  It is a beautifully crafted route; you might even say ‘curated’ (if that didn’t make you sound like some blue-sky-thinking arse).  On the map, the trail looked erratic and seemed to have little interest in reaching its destination.  On the ground, all became clear.  Destinations were secondary; the journey was all, as the path steered us thoughtfully around optimum vistas, telling angles and ever changing perspectives and moods.  It was a route as carefully calibrated as poetry.

There is a lovely symmetry to it too.  Whichever way round you do the Mortimer Trail, you start by rising out from the plains and being afforded a lingering look back at where you have come from.  For us, starting at the Welsh-English border to the west of Kington, this meant looking towards home across the broad vales of the rivers Arrow and Lugg, to the sulky contours of the Radnor Forest and the cheeky peak of the Whimble.  Wales looked dark and different.

At the other end, approaching Ludlow, there are fine, wide views across the gentler patchwork of Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire.  Between these two corresponding trailheads, you amble for many miles through what feels a little like a very green and lovely No Man’s Land.  Hillforts, castle mounds, ancient tumps, turreted barns and fortified churches all whisper their dark secrets.  The deep forests, both ancient and conifer, spin further webs of disorientation.  There are a few straggled farms and loose, lonely hamlets.  It is profoundly stirring, brooding terrain.

Once the meeting place of three railway lines, the former Titley Junction station slumbers away in quiet fields

Even though it looks like the essence of timelessness, change has come, of course it has.  A few locals we bumped into delighted in pointing out their parvenu neighbours behind security gates and lakes of Farrow & Ball.  The bankers, and their bonuses, have burrowed their slippery way into even this old Marcher rock.  Ludlow was the catalyst (but still mostly the exception).  The handsome but earthy town that I knew as a child has long since traded in its cack-crusted overalls for two hundred quid jeans and some hand-stitched brogues.  Yet the other trailhead, Kington, remains little altered, and distinctly recognisable from this description by John Hillaby in his 1968 walking classic Journey through Britain:

Kington is a little, squashed-up, narrow-streeted market town on the Welsh frontier where they sell cartridges and sheep dip, fertilizer and men’s flannel underwear.

The Welsh frontier!  It’s a far meatier word than the rather mealy-mouthed ‘border’, and it fits the flavour of the dusty little towns on the savannah, against their backdrop of Wild West hills.  Think of Kington, Knighton, Presteigne, Bishop's Castle, Clun, Longtown, even Montgomery and Hay, as frontier towns, and they suddenly make a new kind of sense.  This is a frontier, and it has been for two millennia.  It is not some folksy quirk for the tourist board, a relic with no significance to the modern world; it is very much a demarcation between distinct countries, landscapes, histories and cultures.

This midsummer pilgrimage has helped me ponder the murky waters of the question I’m getting asked a lot these days: “so you’re standing as a Plaid Cymru candidate – you must believe then in Welsh independence?”  Walking along and through the edges of both England and Wales has reaffirmed to me that yes is my unequivocal reply.  Yes to Wales owning its own resources and making its own choices.  Yes to England doing likewise.  Yes to Britishness (a glorious fact of geography) but not its bastardised cousin, UK-ness.  And yes to a new age of neighbourly comradeship, a coming together in this potent countryside, a eye-to-eye meeting - at last - of equals.  I can understand the doubts, when placed in the context only of the version of the world that we have grown up with, but if you take a longer look, the bottom line is that there is a line.  We cannot wish it away – and neither should we want to.  It is far too deep, far too powerful, and far too beautiful, for that.

Monday, 3 February 2014


[an extract from my 2011 book, The Wild Rover]

A newspaper image of the 1937 fire
Growing up in 1970s Worcestershire, by far my favourite outing was to Witley Court, less than ten miles from home.  Originally a medieval manor, it had been added to by successive owners, eventually becoming one of England’s most extravagant stately homes in the late Victorian age, when it was owned by the Ward family, the Earls of Dudley.  Witley was famous for lavish living, for parties where royalty, aristocracy, politicians and celebrities mixed in the orangery, the parterre gardens or draped themselves over the sides of the massive ornamental fountains.  Two hundred staff oiled its wheels, and it took fifty tons of coal a day to keep the monster warm.

Even more than most stately homes, Witley’s progress mirrors that of the country at large.  The Wards’ fortune was eaten by its opulence, and after the Great War, the much battered family put the estate up for sale.  It was bought by the epitome of new money, Kidderminster carpet baron Sir Herbert Smith.  From humble beginnings, he’d risen to become the most powerful man in my home town, where he was known as “Piggy”, thanks to his portly stature and shaved head.  Though he loved life as lord of the manor, he was ill-prepared for the costs, and ran the house and estate into the ground, skimping on maintenance and keeping only a skeleton staff.  Like an earlier Nicholas van Hoogstraten, he caused fury by blockading all the footpaths that ran across the estate.

On 7th September 1937, a fire broke out in the basement of the court, quickly spreading to the ballroom above.  Thanks to Sir Herbert’s economies, the fountains lay unused, and the reservoir that fed them was almost empty.  Not that it would have helped had they been full, for the water pumping equipment had rusted up.  The staff battled valiantly to save furniture and pictures, but it was too late.  In 1939, with the country on the brink of war, Smith sold the house to a demolition contractor, who stripped it of all its finery, leaving it as a roofless shell.

It was in that state that I first encountered Witley Court, with a few further decades of plundering and weather-beaten decay etched into its gaunt frame.  It excited me like nowhere else, from the moment you passed one of the lodge houses on the main road and bumped your way up the rutted track, the skeletal ruin growing ever larger on the skyline.  Back then, you just nipped over the fence and had free run of the place, up crumbling staircases into the bedrooms, down into the dark, mouldy cellars, galloping along the broken balustrade of the grand terrace steps, even jumping into the vast, wrecked fountains.  And there always seemed to be crows.

One day, at the age of about twelve, I had persuaded my dad to take me there, ostensibly to walk the dog.  Standing in the ruins was an elderly lady, muffled up against the cold.  We got chatting, and it transpired that she had grown up in Great Witley, the nearby village once transplanted out of view by the lords of Witley Court and where most of the house’s army of staff had lived.  On the night of the fire, she said, villagers – few of whom would still have been employed at the Court, thanks to Sir Herbert Smith’s swingeing economies – came out into the street to watch the flames dancing in the sky.  They cracked open bottles of beer, and chanted “burn, you bastard, burn!”.

An 1880 engraving of the Court in its lavish heyday
She said it in such a deadpan way, a look of resigned indifference on her face, but the shock electrified me.  It was partly hearing a little old lady swear, but there was more to it than that.  To the twelve year old me, history was dates and kings and battles and the invention of the spinning jenny.  It was cause and effect, question and answer, a smooth, smug progress through the ages to the zenith of civilisation that was, we were regularly assured, late 1970s Britain.  For the first time, I got a glimpse of the real story behind the textbook, and it both confused and thrilled me.

[To see the gothic dereliction of Witley in the 60s and 70s, look at the original promo video shot there for Procul Harum's monster 1967 hit, A Whiter Shade of Pale:  It was never used at the time, because it interspersed footage of Witley with that of the Vietnam war.  The BBC refused to show it, and so the group had to shoot a new video in London.]

Tuesday, 28 January 2014


So many in Welsh lit over yrs have cited Nigel Jenkins as someone who had inspired, helped, been kind to them. That, friends, is success: these wise words from Kathryn Gray plopped into the muddy swirl of my Twitter timeline earlier today.  I nodded in silent agreement, though the thought did flit across my mind that it seemed a faintly random sentiment for a wet, workaday Tuesday.  The sucker punch truth that it was a 140-character obituary only dawned a few tweets later.

At 64, Nigel was too young to go.  The fire still roared within; it burst out in his poetry, prose, politics, lecturing, psychogeography and music; it combusted all around him and brought light and merriment; it scorched even through the hallowed chambers of the Encyclopaedia of Wales, a project that ate seven years of his life as one of its editors, and which he wearily nicknamed ‘Psycho’.  His inability to stand the sickly cant of sanctioned public discourse brought untold admiration from many of us, but brickbats galore too, none more piously hurled than when his furious eulogy to ‘Viscount No’, George Thomas (“The Lord of Lickspit / The grovelsome brown-snout and smiley shyster”) landed him on the front of The Guardian and booed on the letters page of the Western Mail for months on end.  As ever, he was proved entirely right on that one.

How green was my bile…and how true

The last time I saw Nigel was at a hugely convivial event in Aberystwyth rugby club to mark Planet magazine’s fortieth birthday.  There was music, poetry, prose and speeches from a glittering cast that included Ned Thomas, Jan Morris, John Barnie, Gai Toms, Jasmine Donahaye, Damian Walford Davies and Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch.  As compere of the evening, I’d come up with the idea of ascribing a different planet to each performer, a conceit that became distinctly strained on occasion (Jan Morris, suffering an injured foot, hobbled up to the stage after my introducing her as Mercury, fixed me with a baleful eye and murmured “well, I certainly don’t feel very Mercurial right now”).  

While some were highly tenuous fits, there was no question which planet to give to Nigel: Mars, the red planet, named after the Roman god of war, the near neighbour that’s fascinated us for generations, famous for its eruptions, its volcanoes and its elliptical orbit.  I cringe to recall this now, but my last words before bringing Nigel to the microphone were “so, is there life on Mars?  There certainly is!” 

And now there isn’t.  The sky is a far darker place without him.

[Here is Nigel filmed reading one of his loveliest poems, Snowdrops, written about and for this time of year:]

Thursday, 2 January 2014


As a young child in the 1970s, I well recall being regularly bored and mystified by the never-ending fascination with ‘the war’.  Adults seemed to go on about it all the time, hurrah-for-our-boys black and white movies filled the TV schedules, and even sitcoms knew that jokes about Jerries or Japs were surefire substitutes for proper humour.  It was all so long ago, I remember thinking – won’t they just shut up about it?

Now I realise that the passage of thirty years is but the blink of an eye (as my recently rediscovered record collection rather disconcertingly demonstrates).  Furthermore, at the outset of 2014, the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, I think we need to look back and learn a great deal more about the 1914-45 period, because we are in grave danger of repeating its mistakes.  I say 1914-45, as we need to take the whole period bookended by the two world wars, for the twenty year lull between them was very much unfinished business that reached its grim, almost inevitable conclusion in Hitler and the Holocaust.

It is a horrible irony that 2014 is likely to be a year in which people soberly commemorate the centenary of the Great War, while simultaneously voting in droves for various shades of tub-thumping bigotry in May’s European elections.  Across the whole continent and beyond, such sentiment is gaining ground, fuelled by idiot politicians and a craven or timid media.
Birkenau extermination camp, Poland

In the run-up to Christmas, I was fortunate to have two trips abroad, one to Berlin and one to Kraków in Poland.  Both hammered home the dangers that we seem to be sleep-walking back into, especially on the latter trip which included a day at the Auschwitz and Birkenau Nazi concentration camps.  Nothing can prepare you for the experience, and the sheer numbers who died there.  We reeled from there back to Kraków, where I picked up a copy of the local English language newspaper.  It told me that Nick Griffin, leader of what’s left of the BNP, had recently been in town and warned a rally that “powerful Zionists want to destroy us.  We, the nationalists, must stand together to fight for a white, nationalist and radical Europe”.  Was it 2013 or 1943 outside?

We can mercifully dismiss Griffin as a truly crap (and fading) demagogue, but the rally at which he spoke was an offshoot of another organised by Poland’s Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), who hold about a quarter of the seats in parliament and form the official opposition.  Griffin’s rally was mainly a showcase for a belligerent fringe movement called the National Rebirth of Poland (Narodowe Odrodzenie Polski), whose slogans include the ever-catchy “gas the queers” and “there will be a baton for each queer face”.

The Holocaust did not emerge fully-formed from thin air.  People had to be broken down into submission to a political ideology that turned them into acquiescent murderers.  The key part of that process is always the same: others have to be comprehensively dehumanised.  And it is always the same ‘others’ – gypsies, gays, Jews, people with disabilities – that get picked off first.  It was then, and it is now (with Muslims latterly added as the scapegoat group recycled from even earlier times).

It might seem crass to place on this gruesome spectrum the beer’n’fags populism of UKIP, the Groundhog Day hysteria of the Mail and the Express or even the default media inflation of daft young lads into holy warriors and terrorists.  I believe that they all belong there, however.  When researching my last book, I was gobsmacked to see how close the parallels were between now and the 1930s, even here in Britain.  Not just in the obvious rise of fascist thuggery and quisling politicians, but in the prevailing mainstream, which chose to wish away the warnings and faff around instead with its new gadgets, its folksy pastimes and its obsession with home’n’hearth.  Today, as then, we seem addicted to the soft poison of nostalgia.

Same shit, different day

This is, by the way, another reason I’m a candidate for Plaid Cymru.  Those who know little of the party might assume it’s a Welsh UKIP, but that’s very far from the truth.  Plaid has always been a firmly internationalist outfit, rooted in Welsh radical and pacifist traditions.  Its first MP, Gwynfor Evans, was a lone voice in the 1960s House of Commons against Britain arming the Nigerian government in Biafra; his vocal opposition to the Vietnam war was informed by going there to find out for himself.  Its MEP since 1999, Jill Evans, leads the European Free Alliance (EFA), who are in a joint block with the Greens in Brussels.

I’m sorry to those many now dead relatives to whom I moaned when yet another war film flickered on to our telly all those years ago.  Now that we’ve lost nearly all of them, the generation who knew wartime as young adults, it feels to me that we have lost something anchoring us to the bitter reality of its first-hand experience.  And as our anchor slips away, the danger is that we will once again career off into the same blind alleys that brought such terror to our continent. 

The EU is far from perfect, but its creation as a response to the horrors of two wars is something we should never lose sight of.  We must make it work for us all.  As the famous George Santayana quotation has it on the wall of one of the blocks in Auschwitz, “the one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again”.  Let 2014 be a year when we learn once again our common history, and make an iron resolution not to repeat it.