If you drive West out of Carmarthen on the A40, you pass through a landscape of dimpled hills and lonely chapels and little rivers full of salmon trout. This is Byron’s Country, the place where Byron Rogers was brought up in the late Forties, not knowing a word of English, until at the age of five he made the momentous journey a few miles east into Carmarthen town. It is a very odd place. In the graveyard at Cana, just beside the road, you will find the grave of Group Captain Ira Jones DSO, MC, DFC and bar, MM, one of Wales’s greatest war heroes. He was famous for killing Germans who had baled out and were dangling from their parachutes. When he recovered the body of one German pilot, he put it in a hangar, dressed it in pyjamas and a dinner jacket, then toasted it in champagne. As Rogers remarks, ‘these are not things Errol Flynn or David Niven ever did.’
A little further on, there is the turning to Laugharne and Fern Hill farm, made famous by Dylan Thomas, but earlier almost equally famous as the home of Evans the hangman, advocate of ‘the short drop’ (not more than 18 inches), who used to dog- paddle across the estuary of the River Towy, pausing in the middle of the river to light a cigarette, in order to catch the train at Ferryside to pursue prize fights and women, for whom he had an appetite of Strauss-Kahn proportions.
Rogers’s essay on hangmen is a minor classic. I particularly liked the arrival of Berry the hangman to carry out the first public hanging in Carmarthen for 50 years. A huge crowd escorted him through the streets to the county gaol where he entered the condemned cell, according to the Carmarthen Journal, ‘unostentatiously dressed in a plain suit of dark clothing and wearing a red Turkish fez’. But then South Wales had always been at ease with oddity. The first railway package tour of Wales in 1852 ended in a visit to the Briton Ferry Lunatic Asylum, to allow passengers to attend the Lunatics ball.
Also at ease with death. George Eyre Evans, the founder-collector of Carmarthen Museum, went to fetch the body of his aunt from Devon who had expressed a wish to be buried in Carmarthen. Dressed as was his wont in the uniform of the County Commissioner of Boy Scouts — shorts, broad-brimmed hat, lanyard and toggle — he saw no reason not to make an elaborate archaeological detour, taking in Stonehenge and Avebury, leaving his aunt’s body in the back of the hearse while he examined the stones.
The museum remains a delicious hodge-podge, including the column of Voteporix, the most precious of all relics of the Dark Ages, and next to it, in a glass case, ‘DYLAN THOMAS’S CUFFLINKS, believed to be the only pair ever owned by the poet.’ The Voteporix stone is lucky to be there. It used to be a gatepost in the village of Llanfallteg, and for years it was whitewashed because drunks on their way home from the pub would collide with it in the dark. But luckily it rains a lot in Wales and the whitewash came off revealing the Latin inscription underneath.
Byron’s Country was also the scene of the last cavalry charge in mainland Britain when the newly formed Fourth Light Dragoons charged up Waterloo Terrace into Carmarthen to disperse the legendary Rebecca rioters who were smashing the tollgates. The rioters were disguised as women in long dresses, some wearing bonnets and carrying parasols. Nobody was badly hurt, unlike at the Dragoons’ second charge, a few years later, with the rest of the Light Brigade. Not surprisingly, it is Balaclava rather than Carmarthen that figures on the regiment’s battle honours.
The West Wales of Rogers’s childhood was a land of extravagant humbug, in which unbridled piety overlay equally unbridled lechery and drunkenness. The official image was that the principality was the Land of White Gloves, a unique place free of all crime, it being the custom to present a judge with a pair of white gloves when no one on a criminal charge was brought before him at an assize. Rogers illustrates the struggle between piety and prurience nicely by recording that after Goronwy Rees had been forced to resign as Principal of the University at Aberystwyth for boasting of his friendship with Guy Burgess he was succeeded by an elderly scholar, appointed to restore traditional Welsh values, who also came to grief when he ordered the College doctor to produce a list of all female undergraduates who had been prescribed the contraceptive pill.
Rogers has a Breughel’s eye for the detail in the background, the odd little scene taking place at the corner of the canvas, like his schoolfriend Fletcher Watkins desperate to get rid of a gross of condoms which he has bought on mail order and is finding an embarrassment, hurling them off the bridge into the river Severn where the box bursts all over a fat man in a boat fishing for salmon.
But Three Journeys, more so than Rogers’s previous collections — An Audience with an Elephant and The Bank Manager and the Holy Grail — is not only a ramble. It is a lament. Each of the three journeys taken in the book — into the old Welsh-speaking countryside of his childhood, into the dark old town of Carmarthen, now a wasteland of carparks, bypasses and supermarkets, and out of Wales and into exile — is an elegy. Receiving the James Tait Black Prize in Edinburgh for his matchless biography of R.S. Thomas, The Man Who Went Into the West (matchless partly because it is as peculiar as R.S. Thomas was, which is saying something), he remarked that ‘in the 7th century a man could have walked from Edinburgh to Cornwall and spoken nothing but Welsh the whole way.’ There is no disguising that the story of Wales since then is a story of reduction.
Reduction, first and foremost, by the English and their dull tongue, ‘the language of beefsteak and plum pudding’. The English built almost all the castles in Wales and most of the old towns, including Carmarthen. And when Wales was invaded a second time, by the Romantics who had come to admire the scenery, how they sneered at the natives. The poet Southey remarked that ‘these creatures were somewhat between me and the animals, and were as useful to the landscape as masses of weed or stranded boats.’
Rogers points out that when they first conquered Wales, the English pushed the Welsh up into the poor country of hill and moorland, ‘so the Welsh became a species you encountered at 600 feet’. Now in the third invasion, the Welsh have come down into the bungalows, and English holidaymakers and second-home owners have gone up into the hills, restoring and whitewashing the half-abandoned byres and cottages. ‘The English, they need the view’, an old Welsh farmer told Rogers wonderingly, as if talking about a new strain of goat.
And coming the other way, the incomers meet the fleeter-footed Welsh of Byron’s generation leaving to become teachers and dentists and journalists in the Home Counties. As Sir David Glyndwr Tudor Williams, former Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge declares: ‘To be born in Carmarthen was to await exile. The grammar school was an export agency.’ Those who stayed behind were poignantly proud of those who went away. When one of Rogers’s schoolfellows got a job in germ warfare at Porton Down, the news made the front page in the Carmarthen Journal under the headline, ‘Local Man’s Success’. In the 17th and 18th centuries, émigrés from South Wales were knighted for being pirates, like Captain Sir Henry Morgan from Monmouthshire. In the 20th century they are knighted for being headmasters and Permanent Secretaries.
Interspersed throughout the book are interviews with Carmarthenshire men and women, ranging from Richard Rhys, Lord Dinefwr, the rightful prince of South
Wales, who now lives in a converted cowshed, to Dai Rees, one of the last coraclemen and a survivor of the so-called Carmarthen Mob which crouched in hovels in the elbow of the river where the industrial estate is now. All dispossessed in one way or another. At first I found these interviews a rather annoying intrusion but by the end of the book I could see the point of them. Byron’s Country needed a multiplicity of voices to tell its story.
I can imagine that some English readers might suspect that Rogers is either embroidering his material or cheating a bit by confining his inquiries to an atypically backward or bizarre part of the United Kingdom. But in his other writings he has ferreted out equally diverting back lanes in his adopted county of Northants. Nor am I convinced that Wales or anywhere else has changed quite as much as the blurred vision of the high-speed motorist might suggest.
Further West, on the cliffs of Pem- brokeshire, a few years back, a farmer found his cows munching bundles of £20 notes — uncollected payment for a drug-run into the rocky cove below. A few miles away, near Haverfordwest, the hedgerows were until recently full of silverware and other objets d’art, scattered there as a hiding-place after burglaries committed by the man who has just been convicted in Swansea Crown Court of two double murders dating back more than 20 years. One of the principal pieces of evidence in this ultimate ‘cold case’ is the contention that the accused was in the habit of wearing a pair of shorts that had belonged to the daughter of one of his victims. Byron’s Country is larger than you might think.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 4, 2011Tags: Book review, Non-fiction, Travel, Wales