Saturday, 23 January 2010


The people I miss most from my time in Wales are the scholars. Not the academics who ring fenced the culture with an artificial Welsh language, incomprehensible to the average Welshman, which served to protect their jobs from non-Welsh competition.

My scholars were were the auto-didacts obsessed with a theory, usually bizarre, on which they spent their lives. A singularly unpleasant Welsh peer of my acquaintance amassed considerable evidence to prove he was the rightful king of France. An accountant friend Kathryn Pritchard Gibson bought Pen y Bryn, a chicken farm in Gwynedd. She became convinced it had been a royal palace. Experts scoffed at her years of research but she was proved right. Her turreted manor house was built from the ruins of the lost palace of Llywellyn the Great. Another chum, a quarryman's son, the Rev Aelwyn Roberts, vicar of Llandegai, exorcist to the bishop of Bangor, was the author of a best selling book on ghosts, founder of a publishing firm and a world authority on the Ty Bach (Welsh for outside privy). He wrote two books tracing that noble edifice back to the chamber pot of the Emperor Diocletian.

He also catalogued its etymology. To the Saxons it was the Gongfermor (gong, a privy; fermor, to cleanse). To the Welsh it is a Ty Bach (little house); Ty Cefyn (back quarters – of a house); Ty Cyffredin (House of Commons) and, most puzzling of all, Y Lle Chwech (The Sixpenny Place). He did solve the problem of the house with two outside privies at Chapel House in Amlwch. One was roomy and very posh, the other utilitarian. The posh one was for the exclusive use of visiting ministers, the plainer one for the tenants.

As yet no one has substantiated his greatest obsession. Aelwyn believed Shakespeare was the pen name of a committee headed by a Welshman, John Williams. A 17th century archbishop of York, Williams was buried in Llandegai church. The theory started with an itinerant tax collector called George Winchcombe, who, with his brother Bernard, published a bizarre book “Shakespeare's Ghost Writers” in the 1960s. Aelwyn believed the theory was corroborated by an inscription in Latin on Williams's tomb which acknowledges “his outstanding eminence in the world of letters for which he was showered with honours by two kings.”

As Aelwyn pointed out, the Archbishop's only published work was a tract on the Communion Table.
But he certainly had the intellectual capacity to write the plays. He spoke nine languages, was a brilliant scholar, well versed in law, theology and the classics. He spent most of his life in Court and was a privy councillor, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and Lord Chancellor. When he was bishop of Lincoln, he was fined and his chaplain put in the stocks for producing “A Midsummer Night's Dream” in his palace. He was a friend of Squire John Salisbury of Denbigh, to whom Shakespeare dedicated a poem. Tom Roberts, an antiquarian bookseller of that town, discovered an unknown poem of Shakespeare's, together with evidence that the Bard spent the plague years as a guest of Sir John.

In the matter of obsessions, an old sea captain I knew, Richard Turner, was the king. His great love was a nun called Gwenllian who had been safely dead for 700 years. She was the daughter of Llywellyn, the last Prince of Wales, who was 'defeated' by the English – or, as another friend of mine assured me, assassinated by the Welsh. Gwenllian was kidnapped and sent to a nunnery at Sempringham Priory.

When, in his late sixties, Captain Turner heard that the bishop of Peterborough was to dedicate a plaque to St Gilbert, the Priory's founder, he knew exactly what was due. Watched in astonishment by several dozen dignitaries, he staggered up the Priory path carrying a heavy tombstone in Gwenllian's memory. He had it made by a Caernarfon blacksmith with the inscription “Died at Sempringham, 7.6.1337, having been held a prisoner for 54 years”. He put it in the boot of his car and drove nearly 300 miles to deliver it. He had not sought permission from the Crown, who owned the land, or the Diocese who owned the Priory. Bishop Bill Ind was in a quandary. But he was an amiable man. He couldn't put the stone in the ruin but he gave permission for it be erected in the grounds.

When I went to interview him, Captain Turner was in the middle of an even more ambitious plot. He had read that a fragment of the True Cross, which had been part of Llywellyn's regalia, had been cemented in the roof of the new St George's Chapel in Windsor. The Captain wanted to borrow a ladder and steal it back. Alas, he knew no one in Caernarfon who had a hundred foot ladder.

I knew a house builder, Emrys Jones, who built 60 of the 120 houses in his village Llanrhaedr, Denbighshire, a restaurant, a garage and a village museum which he stocked and curated. In his spare time he painted the most exquisite miniatures. Lacking anywhere to show them, he decided to build an art gallery. Alas, he got carried away and, by the time he had finished, the gallery was so big the miniatures would have been lost in it. When I last met him he was searching desperately for an artist to take it off his hands.

Another builder pal of mine, Clement Beretta, built his wife a house and painted murals on every available surface. She moved in but Beretta had run out of walls. So he built her another house next door. In all she moved sixteen times. She refused to move to the seventeenth: Beretta planned to build it underground..

The murals are great selling points. In his youth, Beretta had been introduced to the painter Rex Whistler, who had been commissioned by the 6th Marquess of Anglesey to paint murals in his dining room. When Whistler saw Beretta's work, he recruited him to paint the trompe l'oeil coffered Italian ceilings and a series of fluted pilasters. It took him six months and so far no one has been able to tell where Beretta's work ends and Whistler's begins.

The 7th Marquess was my landlord and is a great friend. He is not an auto-didact but is very scathing about his school, Eton. “Outdoor earth closets and no fires before 4.30 in the afternoon.” He was learning the cello but his housemaster said he must give it up because he was so bad at maths. “Now,” he told me ruefully, “I cannot play the cello and I am no good at maths.”

He is too modest. William Mathias, the composer, said he could earn his living as a professional musician; our neighbour Sir Kyffin Williams, the painter, insisted he could paint to a professional standard. He has also been awarded the Berkeley Gold Medal for his multi volume History of the Cavalry. He served in the Royal Horse Guards, which his ancestor, Wellington's Cavalry Commander at Waterloo, commanded. But he hates horses.

In 1940, when he was 16, he got a job in the drawing office at a Vickers Armstrong aircraft factory near Chester. He said: “We worked 17 or 18 hours a day with every third Sunday off and there wasn't a moment that wasn't absolutely wonderful, exciting, thrilling, getting on with it. Nothing mattered at all except to thrash Hitler. It was fun because there were all sorts of things that needed new drawings and I can claim that two or three improvements in Wellington bombers were due to me. I was also asked to build a ramp up to the canteen that is there to this day.”

I ONLY ASKED.........................................

Reading a history of Haiti in the terrible days of Papa Doc makes one wonder even more why the U.S. was so keen to topple Saddam Hussein but allowed the more evil Papa Doc to flourish in Haiti, which, as they have demonstrated this week, they can invade with ease. They even helped his equally evil son escape into exile with the Haitian treasury.