Monday 19 November 2012


I don’t know whether either would thank me for the comparison, but an afternoon spent interviewing John Hefin and David Meredith reminded me most of trying to referee Statler and Waldorf, the two cantankerous old gits in the balcony on The Muppets.  It didn’t help that we were holed up in a ghostly pub in Ponterwyd, the proper boondocks of inland Ceredigion.

The interview was for one of my ITV Wales travelogues, Great Welsh Roads.  This edition was filming the A44 route into Aberystwyth, and I was keen to do an item about the Elvis rock, that infamous landmark at the county border.  Over the years, there have been several Elvis rocks, but the original dated from spring 1962 and the Montgomeryshire by-election, following the death of the area’s Liberal MP since 1929, Clem Davies.  Plaid Cymru, never yet elected anywhere, had put up that fine specimen of Welsh literary priesthood, Islwyn Ffowc Elis, as their candidate.  Down in Aberystwyth, that distant seaside gap in the hills, two ardent young nationalists had an idea…

“We borrowed David's father’s car, smuggled a couple of pots of paint and a brush into its boot, and then crept out of town after the pubs had shut and up to Eisteddfa Gurig”, John told me.  This was the border with Montgomeryshire, and the Aber Two thought that if they painted a big slogan somewhere to fire up the Rev Ffowc Elis’ chances, he would be practically lowering his backside onto the green benches of San Steffan.  “We went back home that night, so cocky and excited.  We were absolutely convinced that we’d done all that was needed.  He was as good as home.”  Not quite how it turned out.  As has been the case on most occasions since in the mwynder Maldwyn, Plaid limped in fourth.

The provenance of the Elvis rock had been a bit of a mystery – legend even – for decades, and I was thrilled that John and David had finally agreed to fess up after so many years.  The original intention had been to film the interview by the rock itself, but it’s a cheerless, inhospitable place at the best of times, and that cold October day was far from that.  So we’d decide to film footage of the rock and the road, and then retire to the George Borrow Hotel in Ponterwyd for the interview.  We were all freezing; coffees and brandys were quickly downed.  I thank the brandy for the appearance of Statler and Waldorf, for John and David, as soon as they sat down and relaxed, mateamorphosed into one of the funniest, and most natural, double acts.  It still stands out as my favourite ever interview, though I doubt that my editor, who had the impossible task of slicing down the rambling hilarity into broadcastable bite-sized chunks, would have felt quite the same.

Like all good comic duos, there was the jester and the straight guy.  David, in all his lugubrious magnificence, was the erudite clown, mugging to me and acting out the absurdity of painting a slogan on a lonely rock in the middle of the night.  When he had raised himself to near crescendo, John would quietly cut in with a contrary memory or an arch observation, which had us all in fits of laughter.  They riffed so beautifully off each other, and could affectionately bicker for Cymru.

The punchline to the story was all John’s.  “Well, you see, I was a good grammar school boy, brought up in the Queen’s English, so when it came to painting ELIS on the rock, it never occurred to me that it didn’t have two Ls.”  ELLIS it was, until some time shortly after when the middle L was deftly overpainted into a V, and the Elvis rock was born.

Like every encounter I ever had with John, I remember it with pinpoint precision.  My boyfriend, who met him separately on three or four occasions, said the same just now.  That was John.  He had such a luminous presence about him that you savoured every moment in his company, knowing that it would continue to nourish you long after you’d said goodbye.  He was genuinely interested in seemingly everything, and just as genuinely modest about his own multiple achievements.  To a zealous convert like me, John Hefin was the embodiment of all that made me fall in love with Wales: wit, wisdom, warmth, passion, a depth of culture and breadth of thinking, and an apparently bottomless pit of creativity.

I last saw John at the Hay Festival in early June this year.  He was obviously not so well, but he was still so full of life that it did nothing to dent my hope and belief that he’d go on for ever.  Elin and he were spending a couple of days at Hay, “going to everything.  It feeds me for the whole year,” he said, grinning with boyish delight.  As we parted, we shook hands, and held it for ages.  “Come and see us sometime soon, won’t you?” he said.  Yes, of course, I said.  I am so very sorry that I didn’t.

Nos da John, a diolch am bopeth.  Cysga’n dawel.

Monday 17 September 2012


Monday morning, the head still whirling from a weekend of utter joy (amongst other intoxicants): the inaugural Festival Number 6 at Portmeirion.  Out of the corner of my eye, I kept seeing ghostly flashes of yellow stockings striding by, as Clough Williams-Ellis pounded his trompe l’oeil manor, thrilled to see it come to such exuberant life.

Take Sunday as a dipstick into my oily sump of fun.  It kicked off with a reading by Jan Morris, who fluttered as she sat down “well, I never expected to be performing at a rock festival at the age of eighty-six” before blasting a capacity audience into the stratosphere with an elegant, witty memory-monologue about Portmeirion itself, Clough, the jet set who made it their second home and the joy of Welshness.  On the same stage, tucked in by the swimming pool above the shifting sands of the Dwyryd estuary, surf rockers Y Niwl took it up a notch and glided us into the day.

A walk up into the village’s central piazza, by now cowering under curtains of rain, and to the undercover stage at the back of Castell Deudraeth.  We were after seeing Jerry Dammers do a DJ set, but arrived in time to catch a chamber quintet playing Mozart, followed by the sublime soundscapes of Rae Morris, a wild-haired elf from Blackpool, who, following a quick google, I now know to be only nineteen.  Cow.  Mr Dammers bumbled on stage next, all hat and no teeth, and cranked an aching, damp, middle-aged crowd to fever pitch with steamy dub, ska, reggae under a unexpected patina of pure camp.  A quick detour to catch comedian Marcus Brigstocke rant about Jimmy Carr, George Osborne and the Daily Mail (yay! Guardianista bullseye!), and it was time for home.  Had we been able to stay, there was plenty more, culminating in a set by New Order, that, judging from the reaction on Twitter, was actually rather good.

Ah, Twitter.  Festival Number 6 was a multiple shuddering Twittergasm.  I spent large parts of Saturday afternoon being thoroughly entertained by Grace Dent, Stuart Maconie, Andrew Weatherall, Caitlin Moran and John Niven in various conversational combinations on the main piazza, and the number of people live tweeting the references being made to tweeting fused into a perfect circle of digital onanism.  “Twitter good, Facebook bad!” we were told, and a thousand thumbs flew across virtual keyboards in silent agreement.  When, just before sunset on Saturday, the sun finally broke through to illuminate the far side of the estuary in a buttery glow and a perfect rainbow, you could barely see it for the wall of iPhones capturing the scene.  For a moment, I was worried that Instagram might explode.

A truly brilliant weekend, and a huge hats off to the organisers.  To pull off a first festival this good was a hell of an achievement.  Portmeirion was born to host it, and even in the horizontal north Wales rain, it shone like the jewel that it is.  My one caveat, and it’s one that echoes a few other festivals held in Wales, is that the Welsh content of the festival was shoehorned slightly awkwardly into the proceedings – a token off-peak stage here, a (delightful) male voice choir there.  The organisers hail from Manchester, and it showed throughout.  No criticism of that, for Manchester and the north-west of England have much to say, and it’s always good to hear.  But the joy of this festival was that it felt like all kinds of dialogue was going on – musical, political, cultural, social.  For many English visitors, it was the first time they’d come across any real Welsh culture, the stuff that barely ever crosses Offa’s Dyke.  This was a festival full of the finest people from both sides of the border; things could get really exciting with a little more exchange of views and swapping of culture, to everyone’s mutual enjoyment and benefit.  As Gruff Rhys sang from the Welshie stage on Friday night: “paratown am chwyldro, achos ni yw byd” (“get ready for a revolution, because we are the world”).  By god, I hope he’s right.  So let’s talk to each other and make it bloody happen.

(PS – my favourite Portmeirion anecdote: when filming one of my HTV travelogues, I was lucky enough to interview the late Micky Burn (1912-2010), poet, playwright, aesthete, Military Cross holder, enthusiastic bisexual and last living Colditz survivor.  Even at the age of 95, he was wonderful company.  Since the 1940s, he had lived just below Portmeirion on the estuary and become part of the glittering set that frequented it.  He recounted a tale from the early 1950s when a gold Bentley full of wealthy Londoners had got a little lost trying to find Portmeirion.  In nearby Penrhyndeudraeth – a slate-quarrying village of chapels and coal smoke – they’d spotted an old boy hobbling down the street.  They slowed down in order to ask for directions.  “Excuse me my man”, said one of them through an open window, “would you be so kind as to tell us the way to The Village?”  The old boy crouched down and peered in through the car window.  In an accent as thick as Gwynedd rain, he carefully said, “The Village is far from God”, and then shuffled off into the gloom.)

Thursday 30 August 2012


A friend recently sent me a photo from a branch of Waterstones, of my book The Wild Rover nuzzling up against Stuart Maconie’s Never Mind the Quantocks.  Both are ostensibly about walking, but even so, surely there is more than one way to suggest that?  No, it would seem, for the covers are nearly identical, and both from the pen of the same designer.  Two different publishers paid her for what is basically one design.  And a terminally wet one at that.

I hate that cover.  I’ve hated it from the minute it was first shown to me, at a meeting deep in the gulag HQ of HarperCollins, my book’s publishers.  I’ve begged for it to be changed, literally begged and begged until I felt like crying (not a good look in a business meeting).  I’ve bombarded them with alternatives, cajoled graphically-minded mates to do the same and been promised by the publishers that they’ll think about it.  They didn’t.

Decisions on such matters are like the old school trade union block votes at the Labour party conference.  As the author, I’m the Worshipful Guild of Piano Tuners, listened to, politely applauded but with my puny couple of votes quickly ignored.  Then along comes Fiona from Marketing, the Transport & General Workers Union of the meeting, with her 4.6 million block votes.  Fiona from Marketing loves the cover, so she wins, every time.

Fiona from Marketing loves the cover because it’s just like all those nostalgia-soaked we-love-Britain books, designed to evoke warm thoughts of 1950s Shell Guides and saluting AA men.  It’s been the default design for books about Britain for years, and so, they think, why change a format if it’s still selling?  And if the content is as wistful as the cover, then it’s a fair argument.  The reason I hate those covers is that they paint me into the same pastel-hued corner, next to the Keep Calm memorabilia and Union Jack tea-cosies, and I don’t think that’s what I write.  Of course, Fiona from Marketing has never actually read any of the content – not that that makes a widget of difference to the outcome.

So I’m left with a book of which I’m hugely proud, packaged in a cover that makes my eyes hurt.  It’s not a good combination.  It’s not good for readers either.  Those that buy the book expecting another cuddly cornucopia of eeh-bah-gum landscape loveliness are generally disappointed.  Sometimes they’re even angered by my politics, my opinions, my language or any reference at all to my sexuality, and then leave huffy reviews all over the internet.  Worse, those that would actually like the book take one glance at the cover and go no further.  It’s very nice to be sharing a shelf with the redoubtable Mr Maconie, but I wish we both looked as if we had a little more lead in our pencils.  And that they were different pencils.

Saturday 31 March 2012

Watch this space...

Mike, Jane and Taff pose for the cover of an OS map
Hello and welcome to Mike Parker's new blog. 

You can look forward to Mike's musings on maps, walking, life in Wales, dim but loveable dogs and trends in flat cap fashion, just as soon as he's worked out how to log on to Blogger.  
- Helen the Web x