Saturday, 28 June 2008


I covered 48 annual International Eisteddfods at Llangollen. This magnificent festival began immediately after the war when a reporter on the Daily Post called Harold Tudor, at that time working for the British Council, heard a milkman in the town singing in perfect pitch as he delivered his bottles. Tudor thought what a wonderful idea it would be to hold a concert where all the nations in Europe could come to sing and dance and end their difficulties.

It was a bold concept. Tudor invited to the first Eisteddfod a German choir from Lubeck. There was much head shaking over the reception this recent enemy would get in competitions against their former victims from all over Europe.

Their arrival was a disaster. The conductor was robbed of his wallet in which he was carrying all the funds for the choir’s stay. Bravely they decided to sing anyway. As they assembled on the stage, the compere announced their loss and told the audience that ushers bearing buckets would pass among them and would accept any contributions. Within ten minutes the buckets were filled by performers from Britain, France, Holland and Belgium, whose countries had only recently been occupied by the German army.

It was not all goodwill. During the Cold War the performers from the Eastern Bloc were accompanied by grim faced minders; party members who forbade them to have any contact with the other performers.

I first came by train from Manchester to Llangollen. Change at Wrexham. My children were babies then; now they are middle-aged and even my grandchildren are grown ups. The only trains from Llangollen are privately owned and you can travel to the terminus and back in the time it takes to eat a gourmet dinner. The marquee that held the stage and was as hot as a gypsy's oven has long ago been folded away. In its place there is a three and a half million pound surrealist pavilion, opened in 1976 by the Queen, her second visit in only forty-three years. Like most recent public buildings in Wales, it is odd of aspect. It looks like a giant spaceman emerging from the soil.

I used to think fondly of the International as two tenors singing under an umbrella.

I began my first broadcast from the field likening its miracle to those Mickey Rooney musicals where someone says: "Why don't we put the show on right here in our own backyard?" Now who remembers Mickey Rooney, let alone the musicals?

In those early days national newspapers ran special Eisteddfod editions and sent at least four staff men to cover every cough. To the young committee we were as strange and exotic as an Andalusian Clog Dancer; but nowhere near as welcome. The first musical director W.S. Williams loathed us. He couldn't understand why we wrote about the competitors in bigger type than we wrote about the competitions.

There were some marvellous stories, though. Another choir of German children arrived with a song that had been written for them. It was an instant hit. Indeed “The Happy Wanderer” went on to break records all over the world.

There was shock at the news that a team of nubile Zulu maidens would dance bare-breasted. When it emerged they were all married to the lead dancer the non-conformist committee was appalled.

The fortunate husband was puzzled at the fuss. “In my country we have many wives and no girlfriends, You English have one wife and twenty girlfriends. Who is most dishonourable?”

A young Italian singer making his first wide-eyed visit abroad competed with his father’s choir in one of the first Eisteddfods I covered. His name was Pavarotti. Other international stars are honoured to appear at celebrity concerts and the standard of the competitions is awesome.

In the early days the choirs and dance troupes partied all night. You could see the fires of their barbecues dotting the hills which surround this little goose pie of a town. This greatest advert for Welsh hospitality is more formal now. The Llangollen Elders were shocked that people should enjoy themselves and the impromptu street concerts have disappeared. The police presence is heavier. I remember diving out of the back door of a pub and hiding in the shrubbery when a team of policemen arrived at a riverside pub after closing time. I thought it was a raid but when they emerged wiping their mouths after a brief period, one stopped by the shrubbery and said, “You can go back in now, Skiddy. We only called for a pint.”
Bored at one party, I crept out into the street in the early morning with a hunting horn. I intended to wake the town but no sound came. A policeman loomed out of the shadows, grabbed the horn, blew a triumphant “Gone home“, and handed it back. “Trouble with you bloody English,” he said,” no sense of music at all.”

I met Celia, my future widow at Llangollen. She was a Daily Mail reporter, newly arrived from London and had been sent to cover a visit by the eccentric explorer Tony Blashford Snell who was about to mount an expedition to discover the source of the Blue Nile. He had brought his team to Llangollen to train in white water rafting in the Horseshoe Falls there. Part of the training was to shoot handguns in the water to deter the fearsome Nile crocodiles before they holed their canoes.

Below the falls was a chain bridge and at its side a pub run by Charlie Charlott, a friend of mine, Every morning he considerately laid a table in the centre of the bridge with a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket. I always drank champagne in the mornings on the advice of Anne, Duchess of Westminster, who told me it was much quieter than Alka Seltzer. From the bridge I could watch the training in comfort.

Celia arrived just as a waiter uncorked my champagne, so of course I sent the waiter for an extra glass. As I poured our drink, Blashford Snell and his team swept into view round a bend in the river, firing into the current. At the same time a holidaymaker was crossing the bridge. She was terrified.

“What they doin? “ she screamed.

“It’s perfectly all right, madam,” I assured her, “they are only shooting crocodiles.”

Her husband rushed to join her. “Bloody heck, our Bella, what they doing, for God’s sake?”

“He says they’re shooting flaming alligators,” his wife told him.

“Crocodiles, “Celia corrected her.” There are no alligators in the River Dee at Llangollen. “

Celia and I have been married for the thick end of forty years and I still have not managed to have the last word.


I was angry to hear the phrase “carry the can“ used in connection with the presidential shenanigans in the USA. “Carry the can” is the property of my family, coined by my Great Uncle Jeremy, for thirty years the Earl of Dudley’s principal mining engineer, and the phrase may only be exported under licence.

Uncle Jeremy was called to give evidence in a court case at Stourbridge, Worcestershire. A lady was prosecuted for selling beer without a licence after a boy was seen carrying beer away from her premises. Her defence was that she brewed it for her son, the charter-master at a neighbouring pit who gave a daily allowance of beer to his men. Uncle Jeremy confirmed the boy was carrying cans of beer because it was the practice of employers to give every miner in South Staffordshire a quart of beer a day.

It was usually the youngest boy who had the job of “carrying the can”. Older boys ambushed the younger ones and drank from the cans which resulted in can boys getting their ears cuffed by the miners who got short measure. “Carrying the can“ became synonymous with punishment.

The Birmingham Post of 9 November 1889 poured scorn on the notion of pit beer:
“Are we to believe,“ it demanded, “that day after day, at the same hour, the spirit of loving kindness swells the breast of every coal master and contractor in the district and fills him with the same spontaneous desire to give a quart of beer to every man he employs? Preposterous!“

From the sixteenth century onwards there were so many Skidmores round Stourbridge they were identified in the Welsh way. There are those who might envy my ancestor Ben Skidmore o’ the Bonk. Unnecessary. In this case Bonk is the dialect form of bank.

So many Skidmores that they became the stuff of legend. It was said the devil started out with a big bag of Skidmores intending to drop one here and there as he jogged along. St Kenelm saw him and pursued him with a bottle of holy water. When he saw the saint was gaining, the devil dropped his bag near Stourbridge and all the Skidmores wriggled out. Nice to be so well thought of by one’s neighbours.

Another ancestor invented the phrase “Scotch Mist.” - but more of that anon.

DANGEROUS CUTTING (book review in the New York Times)

LET’S say you and your spouse haven’t had sex in so long that you can’t remember the last time you did. Not the day. Not the month. Maybe not even the season. Would you look for gratification elsewhere? Would you file for divorce? Or would you turn to your mate and say, “Honey, you know, I’ve been thinking. Why don’t we do it for the next 365 days in a row?”
That’s more or less what happened to Charla and Brad Muller. And in another example of an erotic adventure supplanting married ennui, a second couple, Annie and Douglas Brown, embarked on a similar, if abbreviated journey: 101 straight days of post-nuptial sex.
Both couples document their exploits in books published this month.
Charla apparently had no intention of writing about “the gift,” as she euphemistically refers to it. She was simply a homemaker and marketing consultant, who in 2006 wanted to give her husband a special 40th birthday present. “I thought we don’t have anything else going on,” Annie said in an interview. “It might kick-start our marriage.”


Alexander Buchan (1829 - 1907) was the secretary of the Scottish Meteorology Society.
He listed six recurrent cold periods 7.10 Feb 11-14 April 9-14 May 25th June 4th July 6.11 August 6.12 Nov
Rather fewer warm periods I am afraid 12-15 July 12-15 August


And for two more good reads try