Friday, 24 August 2012


When my friend Tom Firbank bought a mountain in Snowdonia he lived in a farm called Dyffryn on the slopes of the Glyders which he immortalised in his unforgettable book “I Bought a Mountain“.

Bought it the day I saw it, in fact,” he said. “Felt like home.”

We met for the first time many years later when he came back to Wales to die but he no longer knew what to call his new abode.
Home? How can it be? I have lived in Japan for forty years. I prefer to bow in greeting rather than shake hands.”

Being bowed at by an 85-year-old, ramrod stiff, former Coldstream Guards colonel, author of a best-selling book which has gone through 29 editions and is still in print, would be too much. So when we met in Ruthin we nodded and smiled.

He told me: “I want to get the feel of Wales again. My mother was Welsh and a cousin was High Sheriff of Monmouth.“
More unlikely was another Welsh cousin, the effete author Ronald Firbank whom Betjeman called “a jewelled, clockwork nightingale”.

Tom had just republished “A Country of Memorable Honour“, an account of a walk he took in the Fifties from Llangollen to Cardiff. It is among my favourite books about the Principality. Quite the equal to H. V. Morton’s “In Search of Wales”.

Firbank insisted: “It’s not a guide book to the country as much as to its inhabitants. I met most of the people who were working to remould Wales into what it is now. There are sad moments. I arrived to see Clough Williams-Ellis on the morning after his house burned down and found him standing in the rubble. In Aberystwyth, the nationalist Gwynfor Evans and I had a great time planning the invasion of England. An army Staff College course taught me how to invade.”

In fact he had unrivalled experience. During the war he was recalled from a new job at SHAEF to join the team planning Arnhem, where he subsequently fought with the Paras. He was the only Coldstreamer to be awarded two military crosses “in the field”.

That story of how he joined the Coldstream Guards as a ranker and rose to command a Troop of the Airborne Cavalry fighting in the Italian campaign and finally, as a colonel, fought at Arnhem, is told in another book “I Bought a Star”.

Firbank has fond memoirs of the Italian campaign.

The main thrust of the invasion was up on the Apennine side. I was seconded to a Para brigade that fought a separate war along the Adriatic coast. We joined Roy Farran’s SAS and a private army run by a man called Popski. It was very exciting and great fun. A decent mobile war, not like that dreadful trench warfare. I must say I enjoyed the army right from the start. Never get the camaraderie ever again.”

Incredibly, for a man of his age, his third reason for returning to Wales was to write yet another book. Had he finished it, he might have called it “I Bought a Country” because it told how, after the war, he conquered the East as a super salesman for Perkins Diesels, selling their engines wherever he could find a buyer.

He said: “I was born under Gemini which means I am a traveller and restless after a little while in a place. My life has been a series of reincarnations. Sheep farmer, soldier, salesman. This job suited me because I was never out of a plane.”

His territory covered 22 countries and included China, Burma, Malaya and Japan. He was one of the first British businessmen in Japan and he loved it from the day he arrived. But it was someone else - not Firbank - who told me in what respect he was held among the Japanese industrial giants and statesmen whom he first met when they were struggling young businessmen.

He married a Japanese girl and settled in Japan because, in the Fifties, it was at the centre of things.

It is a romantic sort of place and the countryside is like Gwynedd. Seven-tenths of it is mountain but it is a country which, apart from a little brown coal, has no raw materials. Until the end of the 19th century it was still living in the Middle Ages. Now it is the most literate country in the world. Alas, this has its drawbacks. They accept everything they are told and never question anything at all.“


I am fascinated by my family history. I joined a genealogical project at the University of Oxford which traced my “matriarchal” gene back 15,000 years to the Pyrenees and from there to Finland, Norway, France and then to Britain from which I was delighted to learn we have not budged for a thousand years. Encouraged, I joined the Skidmore Name Society which traces us from a Norman knight from the village of Ecouis who came to England in 1033. I also found a long lost cousin Mary Gregory. This week she “introduced” me to some more  close relatives, three brothers who I did not know existed.

Mary offers this delightful explanation of The Unknown Uncles:

My dad told me that his granddad and your granddad fell out over the method of making glass bottles. He believed in blowing the molten glass: your granddad used the new mechanical method. I think they also fell out with a third brother, Uncle Matthias from St Helen's, who also used the mechanical method. What is even more astonishing is that my dad's Uncle Tommy lived round the corner from your family in Portobello, Edinburgh.“

It is also remarkable that our mutual grandfathers left Scotland when both got jobs in the same English town and nary a word was spoke!


Mike Flynn, an old broadcasting chum who enjoyed last week's prophetic quote, writes:

May I suggest Lord Byron for next week?

I must frankly confess,” says he, “that unless union and order are confirmed, all hopes of a loan will be in vain, and all the assistance which the Greeks could expect from abroad, an assistance which might be neither trifling nor worthless, will be suspended or destroyed; and what is worse, the great powers of Europe, of whom no one was an enemy to Greece, but seemed inclined to favour her in consenting to the establishment of an independent power, will be persuaded that the Greeks are unable to govern themselves, and will, perhaps, undertake to arrange your disorders in such a way, as to blast the brightest hopes you indulge, and that are indulged by your friends.”

November 1823, but it could be next week, says Mike.


Many years ago I had a friend called Jean Morton Savage whom I dearly wished to ravage. At the time I had a motor cruiser on the river Dee at Chester called, to make things clear, “Fancy Free”. I was delighted when Jean agreed to come boating and in case I was otherwise occupied I asked my eccentric friend Walter to join us on the boat to handle the controls.

Ms Savage and I were in the stern at the exploratory stage when I sensed I was not getting her undivided attention. I looked round to see a Bithel's Pleasure Boat packed to the gunwales with Liverpool matrons flown with wine and impertinence. They were cheering and waving their arms excitedly. I also saw why.

Standing on the prow like a Rolls Royce mascot was Walter. He was stark naked. As he assumed a diving position, he cried: “ It does not matter, I am a philosopher!“ and curved gracefully into the water. Would you believe it, there wasn't a line in the Chester Courant.

For those few non-Sun readers who also resisted googling the pix of Prince Harry, you missed nothing. In one he modestly covers his genitals and in the other rear view the rear is blacked out. The photographs were scandalous merely because they were taken at all and by a guest who had eaten his food and drunk his vodka. The response of our hypocritical media was inevitable. Most took a page to complain they weren't allowed to show the pictures whilst condemning the Sun which did. Few of them miss an opportunity to publish pictures of naked women. The Daily Mail even celebrates cellulite.

Prince Harry is a dashing young bachelor serving with distinction in the airborne cavalry who, when he was training with The Blues, took his troopers for tea at Windsor Castle with his granny. Compared with great-great-great-grandfather Edward the Caresser he is a monk.

Harry's excellent step-mum is the grand-daughter of one of Edward's mistresses. The chair Edward had made to take his weight when he was mounting Parisian harlots is still a tourist attraction and his mother, Victoria, bedded game keepers and Munshies. Earlier Hanoverians included a traitor, two murderers and a brace of bigamists.

So they are just like the rest of us...

1 comment:

Rhiannon said...

Thank you for this. My father was trying to read that book up to the last day of his life ("trying" was owing to fragility, not any comment on the book).