Thursday, 29 April 2010

A weekend in Pembrokeshire

My sister and her husband live in north Pembrokeshire in an old farmhouse, medieval back and 18th century front, with what land was left by the MoD after taking the bulk of it for Brawdy airfield at the start of the war. That’s enough for some sheep, horses and hay, and there’s an orchard, a wood with a spring and a pond. I went down last weekend for Ali’s 60th party. The swallows had beaten me to it: half a dozen of them had been back a week, an annual event (so far!) that activates a primitive response of hope and joy. The sheer fun swallows seem to have in the air is infectious. (Is it really fun? can a bird have fun? Science - the answer, please.)

Also entering into the spirit of things, a dozen new lambs, the latest on the day of my arrival, with one or two possibly still to come. Ali and Mike don’t think they’ve lost any to foxes this year and put that down, tentatively, to their leaving the ram with the sheep rather than the usual practice of separating him for fear of his molesting the sheep before they’ve recovered from giving birth.

That’s the sort of stuff I learn on these visits. Also, that the bed of the estuary in Solva, as revealed at low tide, has changed this year; that small trailers are harder to reverse than large ones; that it’s often impossible to tell whether the ghosts whose presence mediums detect (including in Ali and Mike’s house) lived in the recent or the remote past; that small Suzuki cars can pull a caravan as well as a bigger Vauxhall and with greater fuel efficiency; that the army regiment stationed in Brawdy some time ago ‘wrecked the town’ (Haverfordwest) so that only more disciplined groups will be posted there in future; that some people have the right to collect seagulls’ eggs from the small islands (we had them for breakfast: as big as hen’s eggs and tasting exactly the same, and not of fish as I’d feared).

I don’t suppose any individual’s birthday party would gather a cross-section of the local population unless in a village and perhaps Ali’s 50-odd guests weren’t typical, though they were certainly diverse: retired people who keep some livestock or run boat trips; ex-police; military, nurses, primary teachers, artists, an archaeologist. Just in what counts as the family there were an RNLI beach lifeguard supervisor, a nurse, a bar manager and a regimental sergeant major. It struck me afterwards that I met no one who produced anything on a full-time-job scale, and a great many who worked in the public sector or were on pensions.

To me, in an affluent London suburb, it’s an unfamiliar economy in other ways too. Ali goes to a sculpture group that someone hosts in her own house, with homemade refreshments she refuses to charge for; the group decided to contribute £1 each per session, but Ali takes eggs of which her four hens often produce too many. A farmer cuts their hay in return for keeping some of it; a tree surgeon reduces his fee in return for keeping an interesting piece of timber. Big Paul paid for his lamb with fish he’d caught. The lambs were killed in the slaugherhouse but Mike and Stuart did the butchering.

The infrastructure that supports life here is cars and vans, trailers, freezers, small boats, the internet, mobiles phones, tools of all kinds. Agricultural fairs and festivals are where the healers and mediums meet potential clients -- though word of mouth is important too. (Reiki is held to work on horses and dogs as well as people.) The group that played at the party -- Angharad and John, friends of one of Ali’s daughters -- play across south Wales as far as Cardiff and make a living. Four or five individuals, couples and families came in vans in which they slept after the party, emerging at points through the morning for Stu’s bacon and black pudding rolls, the fillings bought as great deals from a butcher who’d gone independent after working in Safeways. Stuart lives in the back part of the house with Ali’s daughter Cathy, has a degree in Communication Studies (linguistics and photography), works for RNLI in the summer, does building work in the winter, cooks, shoots and reads -- but mainly lives outdoors. Would like to do more linguistics and even teach it. Marek (his parents are Polish) next door has three ice-cream vans; he and Dina (Danish) have converted their stables into holiday flats, all on lines approved by CADW, the Welsh historic buildings agency; Ditte, a chef, brought six different loaves she’d baked to the party, took over a run-down cafe in Solva and did the baking but it proved impossible to make a go of, despite the excellence and popularity of the bread.

I heard little discussion of the coming election, though a lot of talk about Wales and Welsh. X went to Welsh-language school in Llandeilo, much less English than Llandovery. Y’s teenage daughters speak to their dad in Welsh which she doesn’t understand. Stuart’s folk are first-language Welsh in Manchester; he grew up in Manchester not speaking Welsh and has moved to Wales where he’s picked up some of the language and hopes to get proficient. In a Welsh school named, maths was taught in English -- is that because too much of doesn’t work in Welsh, for lack of vocabulary?

Friday, 9 April 2010

Back up the Thames

A day off from the big writing job, planned yesterday on the promise of good weather. There’s a marked path along the Thames from source to, I suppose, sea and I'm walking it from Hampton Court (west London) to Oxford. Or plan to, in stages. Today was stage 2, from Shepperton where the film studios were and J.G. Ballard lived to Staines where nobody lived and nothing happened but there’s a station I can get back from.

It felt like the first day of spring. It was what Easter weekend should have been like. Buds, flowers, birds, the green haze of new leaves on the clumps of willow shoots, the water brown and fast. A few boats out but it’s early days.

Once you’ve left Shepperton it gets a touch less civilised and boats and riverside shacks start to appear that look scruffy, lived-in and amiable.

Along one stretch the guide I was carrying said the opposite bank was an island. Along here I was accosted by a lady: ‘Excuse me, I know this may sound silly, but can you tell me what day of the week it is?’ I had to repeat ‘Friday’ as she told me she was hard of hearing. Seizing the opportunity I asked her something that was on my mind. The guide had mentioned the ancient water-meadows that the river flooded in the winter and that produced fine crops of grass for hay in the summer; I gather they don’t do that any more but have often been built on. So I wonder what caused the floods in the old days, since I believe there were no locks or weirs but a clear run to the sea. Was there a point where the course was too narrow or shallow for the water to get away as fast as it came down?

The lady’s answer was, ‘Oh, the river floods now. My house is over there -’ -- she pointed across the river and I realised she’d rowed across from the island, as all the residents have to -- ‘and I get flooded. I didn’t use to -- I've lived her fifty years -- but since the moneyed people up in Windsor have made alterations to prevent themselves flooding it happens all the time and my house has lost a lot of value.’

That’s a summary. I wasn’t able to ask her about the historical flooding patterns -- the answer would have taken too long and I was supposed to be on a walk -- but someone else, a well-dressed gent in a suit standing on the path with his garden gate behind him, just enjoying the day I think, said the reason there aren’t floods now except here and there is that they’ve built sluices to get the water away faster and by more direct routes. That makes sense because what strikes you straight away about the Thames is its meanders and the remains of new cuts and older courses.

The day was intended as exercise necessitating vigorous walking, but the mood was such that I relaxed into ambling carelessly like Mr Polly in H.G. Wells’s novel, just enjoying the light and air and people, and stopping to stare when I felt like it.

Soon after the lady and gentleman the path entered a more organised park with at its entrance a notice setting out the by-laws.

When I was a kid in Bradford, a city that had fine parks, every park entrance had a notice like this, only the board was dark green and the lettering cream. Most places have taken them down in the last few years -- as a means of influencing behaviour it didn’t seem the slickest. So this example was a rarity. Since it’s as well to be sure of one’s responsibilities I did have a look, and took a photo.

A New Statesman competition years ago invited extracts from a novel, written about the present some time in the future, that gets it wrong in some ways about the presents. My brother thought of submitting one in which the hero approached the park and, after taking ten minutes to study the by-laws, walked confidently in to meet his lover.