Friday, December 31, 2010

A Brack of Brine

As has become a tradition at No Good Boyo, here to usher in the New Year is another Ghost Story of a Welsh Antiquary:

I see you are all settled with your pipes and pints. Prys-Price-Jones-Parry-Williams will set out cockles and fly agaric on the dresser in a moment. So I shall begin.

Now, I spent the Imbolg half-term in the seaside resort of Llwyngwril, in the county of M-shire. My pleasures are solitary, and the blustery coast is little troubled by hoi polloi at that time of year. One can take rubbings of lobster pots or pull the odd mussel undisturbed.

I had a little college business to attend to among the parish records of Llangelynnin Church. This tiny chapel lies half-drowned in the doleful dunes above Llwyngwril beach, a fate that the local Nonconformists attribute to the Romish practices of a former incumbent who, the records show, was in fact no more than scrupulous in matters of personal grooming.

It was while returning the weary notes of the defamed parson's successor to the ledger that I noticed a few yellowed leaves, pressed between a sermon about the wind and a tract against Whitsun dowsing.

These were no more than a fragment, dating from the middle of the last century I would hazard, but intriguing nonetheless, and I shall read them for your entertainment. Ah, Prys-Price-Jones-Parry-Williams has lighted the Calan Cottage, so let me begin. the church of Llangellenen, its pitiful frame sunken in the sands. My goal was to etch the rood screen and trace a few inscriptions, but all thoughts of such trivia were banished by a curious discovery on the very edge of the cliff, where ancient gravestones made their last stand before being dashed on the rocks below.

I wandered among these near-derelict memento mori and fair tripped over what I took to be an oddly isolated clump of ivy. Closer inspection revealed a stump, the remnant of a gravestone. I tugged away at the foliage, only to be confounded by what lay beneath.

The stone was wholly bound in seaweed of a particularly tenacious genus that I had not seen before on these shores, or indeed on any others. It was brown and dessicated in appearance, yet firm, oily and unpleasantly cold to the touch. It smelled of mould, of ferment, and of something that I could not quite identify - something that lingered disagreeably in the back of my throat.

I was trying to make out the crude carving when I sensed a presence at my back. I turned to see the verger, an elderly rustic on whose spare frame a mildewed cassock sagged like rotting oilcloth.

"You were wondering who might lie there, sir?" wheezed the gnarled custodian.

"Yes. The stone rather stands out from its neighbours." We spoke in the local dialect of Welsh until, satisfied that there were no visitors nearby, we switched to English.

He pushed aside the kelp with a bradawl long enough to uncover the inscription:

"Er cof
Am Ogof.
 dial dof."

"In memory of a Cave. I shall bring vengeance?" I essayed.

"Quite so, sir," nodded the verger in defiance of the chill breeze. "None knew his name, if he was ever one person or in truth any person at all," he continued. A sudden shaft of sunlight swept across the graveyard, if only to mock us with the ensuing gloom.

We made our way back to the porch, where my companion continued his tale.

It seems that there was once a flourishing trade in victuals between Cornwall and the local quarrymen of Eryri. "Our district is cursed many-fold," explained the verger. "By uncouth tongue, barbarous weather, mean industry and unpredictable gravity. But worst of all are the meagre offerings of the Welsh kitchen and the sour admonitions of the Chapel.

"A hewer of slate wishes to slake his thirst, soothe his soul and halt his hunger with meat and ale, not the thin flummery and parched tea that his shrewish bedmate delivers.

"So our enterprising Cornish cousins, whom England has tutored longer in the science of commerce, sent schooners laden with pasties, scones, cider and perry to Port-Madock and thence by pit-pony to the quarries at Llech-Wedd, Dinnorwick and yea even unto Nantlley.

"O how the sons of toil rejoiced! And nay, how their wives and the Chapel elders seethed. No one knows how it began, but wreckers lit fires here above Llwyngwril to lure the Cornish cutters onto the rocks.

"As the terrified matelots waded ashore, bearing their battered cargoes, a hellish horde of harridans would set about them with mattocks, stones and sometimes - horribile dictu! - the bones of our departed, wrenched from the rotting sod.

"Those who survived were bundled into their own barrels of cider and rolled from the cliff tops to a dreadful death.

"Those times are long gone, as are the pasties and flagons, but local people tell of a sentinel set to guard these witching peaks from the distractions of solid food and cheery potations. If the Cornishmen should return with their sinful gifts, it shall rise to wreak revenge upon them 'o'r hallt a'r heli' - from salt and brine."

"And that guardian of Cambrian virtue lies beneath this stone?" I asked, but the verger smiled thinly, shook his mottled head and stooped into the dank and darkening vestry. A strange tale, and one that I...

And here our manuscript ends. As you can imagine I was most intrigued, and enquired discreetly among the scant educated men of the parish.

The village scribe, who also dredged the wells and greased the Scold's Girdle, muttered something about a stranger long ago who had poked around on the cliffs and brought half of them down on his head.

The solicitor knew nothing, and the "physick" had lost his predecessor's records. Their silence was eloquent. I walked the cliff-top graveyard myself, and found no trace of this noisome stump and its words of dread. It had probably followed many others onto the rocks below.

It was only a week or so ago that I received a letter from Aberystwyth, from the National Library no less. My anonymous correspondent enclosed cuttings torn, I am sorry to say, from two periodicals of the last century.

One, from the Dydd newspaper of Dolgellau, had reported the death of a Mr Trelawny of Truro:

"The visitor to Llwyngwril had been staying at the Garthangharad Inn, where the landlord had reported him missing three days before the unfortunate's body was found washed up in a cave below the graveyard cliff. The magistrate, on the advice of Dr Myddfai, ruled that Mr Trelawney had lost his footing and fallen to his death."

Scrawled across the back of this clipping were the following remarks. "No one can find that cave. And there has never been a verger at Llangelynnin."

The other cutting came from The West Briton of Truro itself, and was dated some months later. After rehearsing the bare facts printed in Y Dydd, it went on:

"A beachcomber told this reporter that Mr Trelawney's body showed no signs of immersion in water. It was laid out in the cave on a cairn of bones, some of great age, in a manner suggestive of blasphemy. Our countryman's face could not easily be described. The local constable was unable to recall the exact events, as he had been 'at stool' most of the day, and no other notables would make themselves available for conjecture."

Across the back of this clipping was another inscription: "His mouth was stuffed with seaweed, and his pockets full of pies."

Ah, I see no one has touched their cockles. Then let me bid you all a Happy New Year, sure of step and easy of rest!

Friday, December 17, 2010

False teeth consciousness

Leslie Nielsen is mourned on eight continents, including one from Altair IV that ended up in orbit around the Star of Knöchbant. His passing reminded me of another fine but unsung actor, my Uncle Voltaire.

Voltaire was a Communist. Neither a pigeon-chested polytechnician nor a media milquetoast, he was a real, strike-leading, seam-hewing, bailiff-defying, Fascist-bayoneting, book-reading Second-Fronter. A gentle, thoughtful man, he endured decades of disappointment with dignity.

Many tests were thrust upon him - Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Alexei Sayle - but others were objectively infantile deviations of his own, not least his marrying into the House of Boyo.

Voltaire's first name witnessed his family's radical posture - in the Marxist sense of understanding that the root of the matter is Man himself (Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie, 1843), rather than the justification for clerical reaction you may hear today.

It also enshrined his Anglo-Welsh heritage, as ordinary Valleys folk hallow their heroes in forenames - hence the Haydns and Verdis of an earlier age, and the Gavins and Ryans of today.

His marital foray among the Boyos, who bore names like Matholwch, assessed suitors' skull shapes and took out Llanfrothen's sole subscription to Action Française, resembled the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in being either an audacious dialectical gamble or a blunt Stalinist blunder, depending on which issue of the Daily Worker you were consulting.

He bore the endless taunts of his hairy-cheeked in-laws at first with the calm indulgence of one with History on His Side, and later in Stoic silence as the tide of tyranny turned.

A modest man, he would occasionally mention his combat in the Spanish Civil War. "For the Freemasons or General Franco?" Boyo grandpère would invariably inquire with a sickle smile. Voltaire silently switched to Old Holborn when his tormentor took to calling his favourite pipe tobacco "Condor Legion".

Poujadiste popinjay Peter "The Lesser" Hitchens singled out central heating as a wrecker of Albion in his lobe-bolting "Abolition of Britain". This Socialist redistribution of warmth allowed family members to retreat to their own rooms rather than huddle together in Blitz-like bliss before reruns of the Coronation on a black and white TV set, itself the size and shape of the back of the hand of a friendly bobby on the beat.

Hitchens would have loved Casa Boyo, which was never warmed by more than a salty smouldering log from the submerged forest of Borth - apart from a happy decade when we basked in the backdraft of cottage conflagrations, courtesy of Meibion Glyndŵr.

One evening I sat watching Nielsen in Airplane! on our anthracite box. Dad was out tapping badger lungs, Mam was tarring the pantry, and my brother Morthwyl was taunting some Dutch campers about their losing the war (you try telling him). Auntie Esmwyth was asleep, so visiting Uncle Voltaire wandered downstairs "for a bit of company" and casually to cast Communist Youth League pamphlets on the dresser:

"Oh, how about that, I see school enrolment is up in Nicaragua, almost to German levels. Democratic German levels, of course. But then a young fellow like you knows all about the Antifascist Defence Wall, eh? If not, this booklet answers a lot of questions...."

"Ta, Uncle Volt, though but I's after watching the telly, isn't it," I grunted through my fringe.

"Ah yes, the kinema - the most democratic of the art forms, Lenin said. And, and what do we have here, then?"

We had come to the scene where Elaine earnestly fellates the automatic pilot into a state of alertness, after which they share a cigarette. Secondary smoke was of marginal interest in those Reaganite days of sauve qui peut, so Uncle Voltaire asked what exactly the young lady had been doing.

I explained the (literal) gag, larding it with the sort of progressive social references he might appreciate - "and, among the Cape Malays, ladies sometimes remove their front teeth in an act of defiance against the misogynistic anti-contraception policies of Apartheid South Africa, and for ease of access" - but eventually realised that Uncle Voltaire wasn't listening.

As he gazed in silence, his lips slightly parted, the lights and colours of the pulsing screen hollowed and shadowed his haggard cheeks. The eyes alone spoke the thoughts that marched through the drill hall of his mind:

Surprise, incredulity, revulsion, intrigue, the spirit of scientific inquiry, a mental slide rule, confusion, anguish, regret, the shadow of knowing, and the darkness of loss.

All passed in seconds, with not a word uttered or a muscle twitched. Uncle Voltaire nodded good night, mounted the stairs and abandoned the struggle, but not before giving a masterclass in screen acting that Sir Roger Moore himself would have applauded.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Tribuni plebis consulari potestate

Jana Bennett has quit as Director of Vision (meaning TV, film and, in Wales, the magic lantern) at the BBC, and Mrs Boyo is thinking of bidding for her place as part of her own long stomp through the institutions.

I've given her my lists of programme ideas (transliterated into Glagolitic), but La Boyo feels that we need to appeal to something slightly above the crone-dunking demographic.

Not wanting to lose the audience my scheduling will have gained the BBC, I propose using some of its established lint-gatherers in settings at once intellectually more challenging yet viscerally satisfying.

My first idea is You're History, in which a modern TV sweatsack will try to repeat the historical actions of a famous namesake.

Now, given that the British public's knowledge of history is restricted to the Nazis, Blackadder Goes Forth and Sunday teatime abdomen-rippers like Khartoum and the gay classic Zulu, this ties us down to re-enacting Great Humiliations in British Imperial History, the Somme and The Holocaust.

Consultations with my legal adviser, the K Man, and a glance at BBC funding have pretty much ruled out trench warfare and genocide, so it looks like a series devoted to men in over-elaborate uniforms getting their moustaches caught in harem portals, and the odd reassuring bayonet charge. So be it.

The pilot programme will feature Eastenders tribute act and No Good Boyo favourite Danny Dyer, who will attempt to follow the clattering spurs of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer.

"Open Fire" Dyer had commanded a massacre of unarmed civilians in the Indian city of Amritsar in 1919, an action for which he never expressed a moment's remorse. Churchill called it a "monstrous event". It marked the beginning of the end of the Raj.

Dyer Junior will not be expected to shoot anyone, as the whole You're History series will be imbued with the BBC's twin commitments to cheering up foreigners and saluting the health and safety flag. And Dyer doesn't look as if he could really handle a .303 Lee-Enfield, to be honest.

No, young Danny will track down some dagger-happy Sikh toughs and, armed only with a volume of Ruskin's "Unto This Last", an Indira Gandhi t-shirt and his stubbly little face, seek to engage with The Other.

It is my conviction, both creative and possibly criminal, that the ensuing documentary will have something for viewers of all tastes at home and abroad, and perhaps the more idle elements of the Animal Kingdom.

We may even want to project it onto the bland face of Venus as part of my campaign to persuade extraterrestrials that we genuinely mean no harm.

And if that's not Speaking Peace Unto Nation, then I'm Lord Reith's sporran fluffer.