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...

Sunday, 19 August 2012

a bookish tales

A visit to a second-hand bookshop is a chastening experience for a writer. Shelf after shelf of authors, once feted but now completely forgotten, whilst on bookstalls a badly written pornographic novel sells fifty million copies. Only rarely does one come across copies of "Fame Is The Spur” which by a country mile is the finest novel I have ever read. An even greater tragedy is that neither Howard Spring, nor his contemporary Ivor Novello, nor the hilarious writer the amiable Gwyn Thomas, three of the finest creative artists Wales ever produced, are remembered in their native land. If only they had been Welsh speakers the halls would still be ringing with their praise.
Howard Spring, Britain’s best selling author in the Sixties, was born in abject poverty in Cardiff in the late 19th century. The description closest to his own childhood occurs in “Fame Is The Spur”. He wrote 14 novels, three plays, three children’s books, a volume of literary criticism and between 1939 and 1946 three semi-autobiographical memoirs.
He was one of nine children, two of whom died in childhood and a third as a soldier in World War 1 at Arras. His father was an Irish jobbing gardener who never earned more than a pound a week and died young leaving his wife to bring up the brood. He was an irritable, taciturn man who loved literature. He made his children read aloud in turns from “The Pilgrim's Progress”. If they mispronounced a word twice he clouted them. Though obviously from a good family he would never speak of his past. Spring remembered that despite the family’s poverty academics from the University often called to have long talks with him.
Howard, a sickly child, at the age of ten when his father died helped the family by chopping and selling firewood, picking rhubarb and working sixteen hours every Saturday as an errand boy. His wages were a dinner, a shilling and a couple of herrings 'for charity'. He lost the job when he took a Saturday off to sit for a scholarship.
He left school at 12 to become first an errand boy to a butcher and then a junior clerk in a shipping office. At home the family slept top to toe with legs folded in the same bed. There was no bathroom, just a ritual 'wash all over'. He left for work before eight in the morning and returned after six in the evening for four shillings a week. His mother took in washing and her only relaxation was reading Dickens.
He had his first holiday when he was 17. He and his elder brother who were inseparable decided to got to Bideford. They saved the twelve shillings and sixpence each needed for their digs and a few shillings for expenses. They had no money for fares. They used Howard’s newspaper pass for a free ride on the paddle steamer from Cardiff to Ilfracombe and proposed to walk the twenty miles to Bideford carrying a huge portmanteau containing the books without which they never moved. After ten miles, virtually collapsing in the summer heat, they decided to use the few shillings they had saved for treats on train fares for the rest of the journey.
When he was 13, a sister who cleaned the home of a sub-editor had learned there was a vacancy on his paper, the South Wales Echo, for a messenger boy and copy taker. He got he job and while there submitted stories and dramatic criticism to the South Wales Daily News (now the Western Mail). Studying at night school he eventually became a reporter and nine years later moved to Yorkshire where he worked for the Yorkshire Observer. He had three and a half happy years in Bradford before he moved to the Manchester Guardian

He wrote his first book, a children’s story “Darky and Co” in 1932. His first adult book, the remarkable “Shabby Tiger”, was published in 1934. One of the characters, Rachel Rosing, so fascinated him that he made her the centre of his next book “Rachel Rosing”. But it was his third book “My Son, My Son”, first published as “ Absolom, Absolom”, that made him a best-selling author all over the world. The inspiration for that book had come to him on a train journey when he saw a water trough and thought “What a place for a murderer to hide in!” On a slip of paper he wrote a brief synopsis in the five minutes the train was halted. That night he began writing the book which took him fourteen months.
I met him briefly in Manchester when I was a young reporter. He advised me always to keep a notebook and to write in it every new word I came upon. “When you write it down you will never forget it,” he said.
It is the wisest advice any writer can receive.
I If the memory of GwynThomas survives it will be of a chubby humorist stuck in the corner of the literary pub with his Celtic contemporary Brendan Behan. His novels celebrated the working class world of the Rhondda Valley He was born in CymmerPorth in the  Valley, the youngest of 12 children to coal miner Walter Morgan Thomas and his wife. His mother died when he was aged six, and he was resultantly brought up by his sister, often with handouts from the local soup kitchen.
After winning a scholarship to Oxford.
On graduation and wanting to be a writer, Thomas struggled to establish himself during the 1930s depression. He took on part-time lecturing jobs across England, while trying to get his novel Sorrow For Thy Sons published.[1]
Post war, his wife decided to send some of his short stories to three publishers, who all accepted the scripts for publication. Approached in 1951 by a BBC Radio Wales producer to write for the radio, he returned to his childhood memories of 1920s South Wales to create Gazuka! A delightful celebration of a bizarre musical instrumentt
He became a regular on chat shows such as the Brain's Trust, and after 20 years of teaching in 1962 he became a full-time writer and broadcaster, However, due to a combination of diabetes, heavy drinking and smoking, his health began to fail in the late 1960s. In 1981 Thomas collapsed and died on 13 April, shortly before his 68th birthday.
My great friend was his sister in law Irene Thomas, the ex chorus girl and star of “Rround Britain Quiz where she regularly beat academic heavyweights. I met Gwyn from time to time in the BBC's Cardiff Studio where he was venerated as a peerless broadcaster and he was the funniest man I have ever met. He wore a pork pie hat and lived in a cloud of words and cigarette smoke

Another artist who has slipped between time's floorboards into a dusty cellar is the distinguished concert pianist Bernard Roberts who once had international critics reaching for superlatives. Professor at the Royal College of Music, the most talented of a very talented musical family, he could talk about music in such a way as to make it understandable even to this non-musical interviewer. Best of all ,when I went to his home deep in the wild countryside beyond Harlech, he let me play with his model train set. It reproduced the line, running to a strict timetable, from Central Station in Manchester to St Pancras. It symbolises his journey through life.
“I was born at Chorlton cum Hardy, the first station after Central, and train noises were the first noises I heard,” he told me.
Before moving to Wales he lived in Leicester and studied in London. His father was assistant librarian at Manchester's John Ryland's, one of the world’s finest libraries, and assistant music critic of the Manchester Guardian under Neville Cardus. His parents met when his father went for an audition for the organist’s post at a Chorlton Congregational Church and his mother was on the audition panel.
“I think she fancied him. He got the job and they got married,” said Roberts. It was a marriage of musical minds. She had studied at the Royal College in Manchester.
When his parents heard him playing Clementi by ear at the age of four they decided it was time the youngest Roberts studied too. Before he was ten he read orchestral scores with ease and in 1949 he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music.
He played all over Europe and frequently broadcast on Radio 3. He liked the piano, a surprisingly rare gift in his trade. “Pianos are one of the horrors of being a pianist. A recital is like Russian Roulette. Every piano is different. Age, condition, maker. Like meeting someone new. You need time to get to know them before a concert.
“I went recently to choose a new piano. There was a line of them, made by the same firm within a year. All good but every one good in a different way. One bright, one mellow, one tender, another arresting. Depending on the quality of the felt, the wood - all sort of things.”
Next to the piano he loved Beethoven.
“He strives the most and transforms the most. He goes through a kind of death and resurrection. He suffers tremendously. The idea of being an outgoing performer, turned in on himself through deafness and having to struggle with this infirmity, then producing these works out of his inner hearing, is quite wonderful and very moving.
“One can identify with him. Some composers are so beautiful it is impossible to identify with them. I love Bach but I don’t know who he was as a man. I don’t know who Mozart was. It is very difficult to hear the touch of humanity in their almost perfect music.
“Mozart was more miraculous than Beethoven. And Bach is totally miraculous. To be able to conceive the B Minor Mass and write it down is quite astonishing. But I cannot understand them the way I understand Beethoven.”
So affable was Bernard Roberts, so wise in such a gentle way, I was emboldened to ask him a question I have carried in my non-musical head all my life: What is music?
“Music is an orderly succession of sounds which have a certain relationship. Within one note there is a harmonic series which contains almost all the others, just as one colour contains other colours. It is a completely natural phenomenon. You can strike a glass and hear all these harmonics. In one note there is virtually the whole scale as we know it.
“The most exciting thing about music happens when you start playing one note after another, because then you find that all the notes have a relationship. Your musical soul is being moved because you are being passed from one note to another.
“But it is the interval between the notes that is mysterious. I can play C and I can play G. What moves you is what lives between them. But this is the point which places you in the realm of the untouchable or the spiritual. It is not the silence: it is the inner space which exists between sounds.
“Tone quality, the difference between the oboe and the violin, is beautiful, but essentially the notes themselves contain the expressive quality which lives between them. Melody usually lives between an audible range, say an octave. But the fence within which it lives can be narrowed or extended.”

From the splendidly named Sir Laming Worthington-Evans, secretary of state for war nearly a century ago: "If the Arab population realised that the peaceful control of Mesopotamia ultimately depends on our intention of bombing women and children, I'm very doubtful if we shall gain that acquiescence of the fathers and husbands of Mesopotamia to which the Secretary of State for the Colonies looks forward." He was referring to Iraq in the 1920s; he could have been talking about Syria today.