Saturday, 7 August 2010


The Welsh were invented by an ancestor of mine, a Pictish chieftain called Cunedda. Nothing very grand about that. He is only an ancestor by marriage and I share him with most North Walians. Wales is not so much a country as a family. If they took the trouble, most Welsh people could claim similar nobility. It is said of the Welsh that anyone who can take his ancestry back to the sixteenth century can prove a personal flow of princely blood, so avid were national forebears in matters of descent.There is another reason my claim is tenuous. Some time in the 17th century a female Skidmore ancestor got in the wrong bed and there is a blip in my DNA.

In Wales I had three neighbours. One, my landlord the Marquess of Anglesey, claimed King Lear as an ancestor; the vicar's wife Adam's son Seth - a less modest woman would have claimed Adam - whilst Sir Kyffin Williams, the painter, carried the blood of every Welsh prince you could shake a stick at. My chum the rugby legend Ray Gravell was another modest Welshman. When we did a programme with Mike Harding I claimed Owain Glyndwr. Ray only claimed "one of his followers".

What is more, most Welshmen could show you family trees to prove it. The Skidmore tree begins triumphantly with a sister of the Virgin Mary. Had there been a Booker Prize for fiction in the Middle Ages it would certainly have been won by the genealagists.

Alas, I am a professional alien. I shuffle through life with the yellow patch of the stateless trusty sewn on my soul's tunic. My name is pure Viking and the first recorded Skidmore was brought from Normandy by Edward the Confessor to build castles on the Welsh border. His name was Ralph the Knight. Since then, more or less equal portions of Scots, English and Welsh have gone in to mixing the substantial soup which is me. The fairies at my christening wore tall Welsh hats, tartan shawls and Lancshire clogs.

I can always feel this mixed ancestry jostling me. Pushing me into dimly remembered loyalties; making me sing words I do not know to tunes I only remember by the curling of my toes. Wherever I go, I am a stranger. It is the proper condition of a writer, of course, but the fact remains I can call no country home; no patron saint mine.

Living in my body is like driving a vehicle with three quarrelsome passengers, each of whom wants a different programme on the radio. I am not Welsh by accident of birth but by choice. I was a volunteer. I chose to be Welsh because I detected in the Welsh those human qualities which I believe are important. They are: a dizzy infatuation with life and with words; exuberance; an ability to be dazzlingly bright and desperately dull, sometimes within the same hour. Wit. The generosity of a drunken sailor with eight arms, full pockets and only fifteen minutes left of his shore leave. A strong, sometimes crippling, sense of family. A respect for scholarship. But above all, an indefinable quality which I can only describe as a sense of warm embrace. Going to Wales as I did seventy years ago was like slipping into a pair of old slippers after a long day wearing tight shoes. I do not think it an accident that so many Italians settled in Wales, which Rene Cutforth called the Mediterranean in the rain. I believe this happy, talented, tempestuous race settled here because they found total compatability.

I suspect this description of the Welsh might come as a surprise to readers on the other side of Offa's Dyke. The caricature of the Welshman printed on many Saxon minds is of a narrow faced, foxy hypocrite, dressed in a suit made from the covers of old prayer books, leaping from cottage to cottage, flaming torch in hand. Or coming up from the netherworld in a cage after a pit disaster singing Cwm Rhondda. Useless to explain that in Wales hypocrisy is an art form, lovingly practised, and you get points for it on a sliding scale.

A friend of mine, the distinguished consultant psychiatrist Dr Dafydd Alun Jones, has a theory. He is a specialist in drink and drug addiction and he claims it is precisely the Welsh love of a party that informs national behaviour. They need a religious revival every so often to sober them up. I reckon that is why when the hunt was on they chose a narrow-minded, teetotal bigot as their patron saint. St David was chosen to keep an eye on the Welsh. May he keep an eye on you too.


Today, in the three years since 'skidmores island' was colonised, we have our first complaint. It is from 'james' who takes issue with my friendship with Bert Balmer, the Assistant Chief Constable of Liverpool and a notable thief taker. He writes:

"So Balmer was your Chum? And as you say, he led the Cameo murder investigation. You then say witness statements bore signs of police coaching. So, ipso-facto, your "Chum" must have done the coaching! Are you sure you met Dickson and Northam with a gun in Manchester and that they confessed to perjury? Or is that just one of your stories you, your friends and Balmer delighted in making up in the Press Club?"

ME: I think more perceptive newspaper readers have realised that it is the function of a newspaper to inform and entertain. News is information and sacrosant. I was once sent thirty miles at midnight by the Daily Mirror to check the spelling of a name. The amusing "human interest" stories we call fillers are entertainment. The kernel of truth which they must contain is stretched to its limits

James has not done with me.

"If you did meet this evil pair, you are as amoral as them. Instead of hawking them around newspaper offices trying to make money, you should have reported them to an "un-bent" policeman for the hellish perjury which destroyed two innocent men's and their families lives."

ME: Two examples from my past (not made up, James) spring to mind. When during the war the Channel Islands were occupied by the Germans a pal of mine, Colonel "Cocky" Warren, was ordered to land two agents. The first part of the journey was easily accomplished. The navy loaned him a submarine. A very old submarine which would only do one knot submerged. The collapsible dinghy in which he would row the agents ashore presented difficulties. The Special Forces he contacted refused a loan in case he got captured and could not bring it back. He was forced to go to the Sports Department at Harrods and buy one.
"For what does sir require it?" the salesman asked.
"A little light coastal jaunt," Warren told him, and was surprised when the salesman handed him a bag containing the struts. Warren took the collapsed boat and spread it on the floor. He told me it looked like a swan's nest. The salesman showed him how to assemble it.
The sub surfaced just off the islands and the skipper, whose name was Martell, watched with amusement as Warren tried to assemble the dinghy. Exasperated, Warren told Martell: "You are a matelot, give us a hand."
"Sorry," said Martell, "the Navy has this understanding with Cunard. We don't build our own ships and they don't sail them!"
ME: The short answer to your curious suggestion that I should have reported them to a policeman who was unbent (I would love to know how I would recognise an "unbent" copper. The "bent" ones don't wear black masks and striped jerseys) is that sixty-five years ago I joined the National Union of Journalists not the Police Federation, most of whose members can read. As a matter of course, had a newspaper taken the story they would have kept the pair in the office whilst they contacted the police.
The second story demonstrates - what you seem to doubt - the power of the press at getting things done. In the middle of the crossroads between Chester Assize Courts and The Roodee there was a grassy island where a war hero was buried. His inscription told of his service with The Buffs in the Peninsula Wars and the Waterloo Campaign. He was a private soldier and had many medals.
When the new police headquarters was built, the road was re-laid and the grassy island replaced. There were no plans for moving the tomb. I thought the soldier deserved better treatment. By this time The Buffs were disbanded. I contacted the War Office, Western Command, the Civic Trust, the War Graves Commission, in the hope that someone would protect the old soldier. No one was interested. I even buttonholed the GOC Western Command General Sir Howard Wyse when we were out hunting. In desperation, I got a few ex-army friends to get up a petition and wrote about their "protest campaign" for the Daily Telegraph. Within forty-eight hours the grave had been moved with a Guard of Honour. If you think I made that up, James, you can see the tomb itself on its own lawn next to what was the Monastery opposite Police HQ.