Saturday, 27 September 2008

Seeing is Never Believing

" I imagine the earth when I am no more:Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights."

Czeslaw Milosz (He lived in Warsaw during the German occupation, writing for Polish underground publications and translating T. S. Eliot's "Waste Land.")

If you reach eighty and still think anything in this life is important then you haven’t been paying attention. Set aside that everyone on the planet will be dead in a hundred years, the fact remains that the Horsemen will continue to trample us under their horses’ Apocalyptic hooves. There will always be wars and there will always be famines because they are the most efficient forms of birth control. There will always be dramatic life- ending changes of climate because that is the nature of climate. At best we can only tinker with the engine, like clumsy mechanics.

WE are toy makers. We can divert ourselves with art, delude ourselves with politics, make our stay comfortable with invention and manufacture, prolong it with medicine. The engine will run its pre determined course.

The American Indian says that life is a circle; Marcus Aurelius that it is a river and the only reality is that part of the river which lies at our feet. The river that has still to flow and the river that has flowed past do not exist. The same principle is central to Zen, to Buddhism. You can hear it in Chinese poetry of the classical age. It is implicit in the hedonism of “drink, for tomorrow we die“.

Yet we are what we have been and we carry the seeds of what we will become. How many centuries of musicians lived in Mozart? Why does each of us have skills that seem to come naturally?

The Buddhist denies death. Other religions have invented paradise. I prefer The Way

With great age comes the revelation that Government is like horse riding. You are assumed to be in charge so long as the horse behaves but if it bolts you have no other course than to hang on grimly, pretending the horse is under control. Governments need wars. Not only do they cull the surplus males who might be disruptive. Wars bring prosperity and jobs for all.

The realisation dawns that banks are not good with money. From the South Sea Bubble onwards, every century has its money crisis, which commonsense would have avoided. We are witnessing the collapse of banks who have been constantly lecturing us about prudence and punishing us, illegally, if we misbehave. Yet they have lost billions loaning money to banks they knew were investing in lenders demonstrably unable to repay.

I have a chum who is Lloyd George’s grandson. As a child he met all the world leaders and was surprised how ordinary they were. They pose as supermen and we believe this despite the evidence.

Bad decisions by so-called statesmen at Versailles have managed in less than a century to make enemies of the Muslim world, which once looked up to us as men of honour. Over the same period we have witnessed the end of Merry England and its replacement by a grey and unpleasant land.

We have a drunken evening during a visit to Paris by Mrs Thatcher to thank for the Channel Tunnel, which was closed and blazing brightly as I mulled over this rant. A major factor in the binge drinking which defaces our society is the smoking ban. It was based on faulty research but has driven thousands out of the pubs into the supermarkets and the cheaper booze. Its only achievement has been to kill the English Pub, for centuries the heart of our communities.
Privatising our public utilities has seen them disappear into foreign hands. Now our nuclear industry is owned by the French Government. Privatising hospital cleaning resulted in lower standards of cleanliness and near epidemics.

We look to those most puissant Princes, William and Harry, to restore the monarchy. Yet I remember meeting Prince Charles when he was their age and being so impressed with him I almost wrote to the Queen to congratulate her, on the grounds that all mothers like to hear well of their sons.

I look at him now, wrecked by a lifetime of cosseting, and am reminded of the golden youth of Henry VIII and of many another Royal Head swollen by a glass hat.


I was delighted to see that a bronze statue of my old friend, the lifeboat coxswain Dick Evans who won two lifeboat VCs, now stands on the cliffs at Moelfre, on Anglesey, looking out triumphantly at the sea which tried so hard to take his life.

I wish Wales was as generous to its literary giants. Some weeks ago I wrote of Howard Spring, her greatest novelist. Now I turn to Gwyn Thomas.

Gwyn Thomas was not just a novelist. He was a talker. The Master of the Moving Mouth. He raised talking to an art form. The novels he published were, in reality, a series of brilliant conversations he put into the mouths of his fictional characters.

I treasure my recordings of every broadcast Thomas made. I regret I met him only once. At the International Eisteddfod at Llangollen I was confronted by this face like a gnarled fist, glowering under the worst trilby hat ever made. Yet, compared to the sports jacket it surmounted, the hat was a sartorial triumph. The jacket was to clothing what computer instructions are to the English language. It looked as though it had been knitted from a Welsh Assembly Mission Statement.

Midway between trilby and jacket, there was a muscular mouth, which, at the moment of introduction, was manoeuvring like a wrestler for the best of three falls out of a cigarette.

It seemed the cigarette was winning. It leapt nimbly from side to side of the mouth, until the lips did one of those scissor grips so beloved of that great wrestler of my youth, ‘Angel Face’ Joe Batten, and the cigarette slapped its submission.

Triumphant, Gwyn Thomas dimped the defeated cancer stick and began to talk.

I know about talkers. I have listened to Dylan Thomas spouting like a grubby whale in the bar of the King’s Head and Eight Bells in Chelsea. I have heard Nye Bevan and Lady Violet Bonham Carter woo, in their different ways, an audience of miners. I have been enchanted by Wynford Vaughan Thomas. As a child I was steeped in the wit of Oscar Wilde. I have earned my living for half a century in a trade that used to produce talkers with the tongues of blasphemous angels.

Gwyn Thomas was the best. I have never met a man who used words so readily, so cosily, so wittily, so profoundly. Somewhere in heaven, please God, there is a deeply-cushioned rustic bench, with a tray for drinks, where Alcibiades is ignoring Socrates, Boswell shushing Dr Johnson, Haroun el Rashid giving Scheherazade the elbow. They all want to listen to Gwyn Thomas.

Earthbound, we have one consolation. We have his works, which are valuable beyond price. Not just his novels. Novelists are two a penny. Gwyn’s Gift is rarer. You can hear him in every word he writes.


Hospital car parking is free in Wales so a friend was puzzled at the Maelor Hospital in Wrexham when he was asked by a car park attendant to take a ticket from a machine and post it on his windscreen.
He said " I thought parking was free"
"It is," he was told. " But you still have to show a ticket"