Saturday, 18 October 2008

Not all giants are tall men

Ernest Naish was 88 when he gave up sheep farming. He could still travel between his three farms at Cwm Pennant, Trawsfynydd and Anglesey but he was too tired to work when he arrived.

When he joined the pre-war Navy he was a dagger man, the fast track naval elite. He dismissed it.

“My only distinction is I hold the naval record for going on courses. Ten years. Alas, the day I joined my first ship I went for my typhoid inoculation and was jabbed with a dirty needle. I became seriously ill.”

Ashore, he commanded a trials party which inspected submarines on maiden voyages. He was about to board one when he was taken ill again. The submarine was HMS Thetis which sank in the Irish Sea on its first trial.

“My successor is buried in Holyhead. A very painful thought that is with me all the time.”

Invalided out, Naish bought an Anglesey sheep farm and weaving mill, though he knew nothing about either trade. “I just asked my neighbour what to do next.” Good neighbours, obviously. He became an international authority on sheep, and when he found his property included a disused mill, he restored it and wove tweed of such beauty it was taken up by fashion houses in London and Paris. The war intervened. When he came back, the tweed market had been wiped out by an 80 per cent purchase tax.

Fortunately he found a part-time job to boost his farm income. He set up and ran the Ty Croes Guided Missiles Station at RAF Valley, commanding 15 jet fighters and a staff of a hundred. In his spare time.

He remembered it was great fun: “I would do the morning milking; then fly down to the Air Show at Farnborough, say. Then fly back in time for the evening milking.“

The Air Ministry asked him to go to Woomara in Australia to report on a new pilotless plane. He barely had time to buy his second farm from a small advert in the Guardian. ”Five hundred-acre farm on Cwm Pennant, with cottages and fine Victorian villa, built by wealthy father of quarry owner, £4,500.“

He only had time to look at it from the road. He bought it the same day.

The bard asks: “Oh Lord, why did you make Cwm Pennant so lovely and the life of a shepherd so short?” Naish made a liar out the bard but agreed with the sentiment: “I am part of this farm, just like the pigs and the sheep. This is the worst land in the Cwm, a foot of peat on rock. But it is a lovely place to live. It is a hard place to make a living but my heart is here. In forty years I have only spent four nights away. That is why I have a hobby that keeps me at home.”

The hobby was painting. He wouldn't sell his paintings or exhibit them either. He did once and regretted it ever after.

“My arm was twisted to take part in this touring exhibition sponsored by the Countryside Commission. I put four or five in. They were valued at £500 a piece and I thought, that’s fine, they are safe, no one will pay that. Blow me if I didn’t sell two. I made a resolution never to do a silly thing like that again. I am a non-profit-making water-colourist because, frankly, I don’t need the money. I paint purely for my own pleasure. I get an idea by walking round the farm and looking at things; then I come back and ruin a lot of old envelopes sketching on them. I cannot start painting until the picture is complete in my head. I start in one corner and work across the paper. I don’t know any of the rules. Never had a lesson. Don’t know why I paint and why I paint such big pictures. It is very exacting. It takes hours and hours. My eyes and my limbs are going so I can only manage twenty minutes at a time.“

There isn’t space to tell how he designed a water-driven Aga in which an electric heater was powered from a generator he built which was fed from his stream. Nor about the machine he designed and built which extracted heat from cold air. As he said, “Nothing really. Just reverse the principle of the fridge.”

Just an ordinary bloke............and I am the Queen of Roumania.


I am not an obsessive gardener. When I lived at Tattenhall on the Welsh border I had to remonstrate with an enthusiastic neighbour whose flower seeds blew over the fence and choked my weeds. At a subsequent flat on the Rows in Watergate Street, Chester, the single window box was tended by a firm of jobbing gardeners which was also responsible for the hyacinth bowl. So there is no need to warn me that lawn mowing brings on heart attacks. More active gardeners may wish to know that it is the first cut of the season that is the unkindest cut of all and does the damage. Doctors call it lawnmower angina and I can take a hint. When my doctor said I was so far overweight the slightest exertion could kill me, I acted at once. I gave up exertion. It is the same with the first lawn mowing of the season. That is the one I gave up. In fact I gave it up right through to November. At our property on the Isle of Anglesey I was proud of my traditional Cottage Garden. You would love it. Right in the middle of my land I grew this traditional cottage; the rest was nature, red in tooth and claw. I am sure Conan Doyle had my bindweed in mind when he wrote “The Speckled Band". I wouldn't go out after dark in case it had me by the throat and dragged me off to its lair in the ivy which was gradually dismembering the garden wall. The dog wouldn't go near the place. One summer she was so covered in burrs she was four times propositioned by kerb-crawling hedgehogs. And the cat was mugged by a robin. I had convolvuli that could bring down a running rabbit in their own length and dandelions that were bred from real lions. When you pulled my nettles they pulled back. Soil? I had nettle-strengthened soil so vitamin choked you could plant a seedling in the garden and by the time you reached the back door it was six foot tall and waving at you. Tendrils from my peas plucked passing pigeons out of the sky. The real trouble with gardening is that whatever you grow you always have two hundred over. Especially lettuce. Breed like triffids and there is no sight in nature more terrifying than a lettuce gone to seed. Mind you, I love gardens. Other people's, where someone else does the weeding and you can stretch out on a lawn without that nagging worry that it is growing so fast you are levitating. If you don't rush in for the mower you are going to have an angry giant fee-fo-fumming at you. Also you don't have to buy packets of seed which cost you more than the Indians were paid for Long Island. Can you understand it? Every year you weed away annuals that have sown themselves. Every marigold has enough seeds on its stem for the deposit on a house. Yet when you buy a packet the only variety you get is King's Ransom - because that is what it cost. And now we have something else to worry about. Killer tomatoes from outer space. Did you read where American schoolchildren projected 12.5 million tomato seeds into space? After six years they came back and no sooner had they been planted in schools across America than NASA warned that their exposure to cosmic radiation meant they could be toxic. All part of an experiment, I read, to find the effect of space exposure on living tissue. Now we know. Lethal tomato butties. On top of which I do not understand why grown men want to float around on their backs doing unmentionable things into plastic bags just to get to the Moon. I would almost rather go to the Costa Brava.


When I was a reporter for a BBC Wales magazine programme, the star of the network was a merry imp of a man called Allan Barham. If there was a forest fire, Barham was in the middle of it, interviewing firemen. An angry crowd at a strike meeting? Look for him under the banner, fearlessly waving his microphone at the most militant striker.

I could forgive him being braver than I am. What I could never forgive was his dexterity with a tape recorder. He was to the BBC issue Uhers what Kennedy is to the violin and Blumenthal of the Fat Duck Hotel is to whisky-flavoured ice cream.

The worst part of being a radio reporter was editing the magnetic tapes on which programmes were recorded. It was a fiddly business, best carried out in a studio with all the editing equipment the BBC could muster. It involved cutting out superfluous words, inserting linking narrative and generally making a broadcastable item the precise length needed for the programme.

The BBC ran a course where trainees were taught how to cut the “ums” out of interviewees’ responses, Barham needed no training in cutting out a section of tape, spooling on and then putting it back in logical sequence. But he did it on his tape recorder in his car, with clothes pegs to hold the tapes he had cut until he needed them. He took the tape from the play back head, kept his eye on the exact spot and cut it with a razor blade.

Comparatively poorly paid, he was nevertheless the uber loyal servant who lived and breathed BBC Radio Wales. For 32 years he covered an area from Chester westwards to Holyhead, down to Aberystwyth, then east to the English border. With a heavy tape machine on his shoulder, he climbed mountains and burrowed underground over an area of many thousand square miles. He interviewed heroes and villains, adventurers and the barking mad. He seemed to know everyone in Wales.

His reward? When we got a new nationalist editor, he was, like me, made redundant, because he wasn’t Welsh enough. He wrote to the Controller of BBC Wales to ask if there were odd spots in any programmes he could fill. Five years later he is still waiting for a reply.

Amazingly, he doesn’t bear grudges.

He says: “A letter saying ‘Goodbye’ would be nice and a party would have been even better. So to all Heads of Departments I say this……….if you didn’t appreciate my thirty two years completely loyal and unbroken service, it’s a pity, and if you didn’t enjoy my career as much as I did, then never mind - I enjoyed it and that’s all that matters.”

The good news is that he has written those biting words in a book “Radio Reporter”, published by Toby Books ( uk or at £10.99, in which he has reprised the best of his stories. It is a nice fat book, an hilarious, tender account of sometimes highly improbable people doing strange and wonderful things. It should be required reading on all Media Studies courses and at everyone’s bedside. Especially those bedsides which are occupied by what passes for interviewers in today’s radio.

I was interviewed about my recent book for Radio Manchester. The only question I was asked was “Have you met any famous people?”

Pretty well all the famous people I have met have been boring in the extreme. Barham knew more than most how far from ordinary, ordinary people are.