Land of My Fathers

The mood was reassuringly Welsh. A heavy sky had snagged on the hilltops, low and grey and unmoving. The clouds were ill-formed and hung like black smoke. This was once a land of castles, perhaps somwhere a huge canon had gone off

    Aber sea

    Aberytwyth is at the end of the line but the line thins well before it ends. There are no dual carriage ways after Shrewsbury and the rails are single track. A stubby train shuttles back and forth, two hours back two hours forth. It is often said that visiting these parts is like going back in time but I really was going back in time: I was visiting the land of my father, of his father, of all my recorded fathers and of my youngest summers.

    The mood was reassuringly Welsh. A heavy sky had snagged on the hilltops, low and grey and unmoving. The clouds were ill-formed and hung like black smoke. This was once a land of castles, perhaps somwhere a huge canon had gone off. I crouched in the carriage, bewildered by station names, by their mouthfuls of consonants, by the snatches of a strange language. I am less than an hour out of Wolverhampton yet this lilting tongue persists in an age of mass and indiscriminate communication. What is it about language that is so resistant to influx? how does it persist? what explains its insistence? I didn’t know.

    The sheep are white and are scattered all about but the pattern is not random. Social animals take their bearings from one another, from perceived threats and from food availability. I remember population density diagrams and a set exercise at my Oxford interview (I am already time travelling). What can you deduce from this aerial scatter plot? I regard the real life example outside. I figure and estimate, noting closest distance, average cluster size, widest separation, edge effects. A wild thought occurs to me: with the slightest of shifts, a shuffle from each sheep, they could spell out a sentence. WELCOME TO WALES.

    Or perhaps more truthfully GO AWAY. PLEASE GO AWAY.

    The human population follows another set of hidden laws but their dwellings look no more than stones flung down by a giant. Some stones have split open but a few have taken hold and grown windows to peer out from the hillsides. Stream run fast and shallow hurrying to deliver their water from the hills. They have doing this for centuries but they can’t keep up: the land is sodden. The time of myths has passed, the dragons have departed, and since then men and women have been singing and gently weeping. The streams fan out to become the Ystwyth; the valley broadens and the houses slide down to back upon the track. Nearly every house possesses a large backyard (no one wants to lay claim to this land) on which hunkers piles of junk. Ghastly green caravans slump on the turf. Everything testifies that this is where the poor live. This is priority one EC development area and it looks the part except tethered in one yard I see a small white welsh pony. I squint and press hard into my imagination: is it…a young unicorn? No, it’s just a pony.

    There is at least one consolation of a bygone age: this is not a land that breeds anger. My host has three names (impoverished even for last names we Welsh must hyphenate what we have). John tells me there is little crime, that he can leave his car unlocked, his door ajar. I think of how different it is for Sam and Harry in London. The last time Harry was held up he forgot to tell either of his parents for a week (it’s that routine). Only last night Sam had his brand new 3G phone jacked. His trousers had caught in the chain and so he and his bike limped home through the Bush. He had no way to flee when surrounded by four rudies. In my hotel room I fill with rage but Sam is simply in a stew about missed texts with news of girls and dates and parties. Nadia has been smashed in the face twice in the last twelve months. Lucy after her bar work pedals the length of Notting Hill to outrun the seething and the discontent drawn out by the night. But somehow I don’t see any of us relocating here. We will instead take our chances with the angry people.

    In the carriage I regard my fellow time travellers. An Indian mother in her sari and her daughter, wide eyed, demure sit opposite me. There are a surprising number of the young all backpacked, earphoned and close bonneted. (A reading week – a new fangled thing to me – has ended and the students are returning to college. What are they coming back to? A drinking week ?). I recognise a public school boy by his apparent assurance and smile before I hear his voice. A Japanese girl is talking in her tongue into her phone. What brings all these people to this place? What brings any of us to any place? I am preternaturally aware; I am absorbed by how my life is crossing with others and that the train is delivering us as an arrow falls toward its target. On arrival our lives will splinter, our trajectories will scatter in space and time, and our chances of ever meeting again will be infinitesimal. This is our time together and it will be over soon.

    I do my business with John and eat my dinner alone at Belle Vue Royal Hotel. There is absolutely nothing French or regal about the place but there is wedding in progress…a wedding! I used to cross the road from these occasions (so awkward, so uncool) but after my marriage last month they are now my specialist subject. I loiter to sample the energy of lives in rapid transition, hoping to detect a fast breeder chain reaction. I look carefully (with my new spyglass) because for a short while the joins between the worlds are thinning and there are varieties of wonder in the air. Even in Aberystwyth on a wet Monday night in November. The wedding party is not a large one and takes place between two rooms neither of which is anything like full. The disco plays to an empty floor, as if it was thrown in by the hotel glad of the business in the off off season. The men’s Sunday best looks little of the kind and the kids sit out on the front porch and shiver from the sea spray. The bride’s gown looks stiff and hired. This is a celebration by the poor….but it is nevertheless a celebration and it warms me. As I check out the next morning I stand behind the bride and groom who are in exactly the same clothes. They are packing back into its box the small circle of wedding cake. The box is from Tesco. I reflect that our fantasy, in Belgian chocolate from Chocowoccodooda, probably cost as much as their entire wedding party. But that didn’t make we feel well off becuase I had carried my envy with me from England.

    The night before I had been at a dinner party in a mansion in Devonshire Place. The principal guest was a big name from my industry. Greg is a raconteur and layered one story after another on us all evening. Rather to my annoyance I liked his wife and the stories were well told. But I was blanking out under the brochure: the horses and dogs, the pet hare for gods sake, the four sons at posh preppies and Millfield and Eton, the holidays ski-ing in Switzerland ( ”it’s getting so expensive…” yeah, really) and on the Cote d’Azur. I recognised this scatter plot. Greg and his wife have become rich and do as the rich do because the rich are different, they have more money, they have more to jack. Greg’s industry stories are self-serving and all develop the theme come the hour come the man. The company of which he was CEO never made a cumulative profit and went bankrupt in September and now there is one hell of a mess but maybe Greg played the stock expertly. I cocked this up so badly and have to be careful lest I think I am bad at everything. We learn that Greg nearly died in June. I am struck by the similarities not the differences: Greg and I are fifty-somethings who have passed though intensive care to be thrown out of our jobs. I said little through dinner but I may email Greg for a one on one to see how these events are changing him. It will be interesting to see if he will want to open up. I think he may find it a little tricky because he will first have to see himself as an Unremarkable Man.

    My afternoon in Aber had been about business but my calls from the day had gonr up and down the generation line. They had revolved around two aggrieved women who at some point in the chain both identified me as the aggrievor. Sam was secretly ordering, on behalf of himself and his siblings, a replacement laptop from E-Bay. His mother’s had got jacked when Sam held a ”free house” at the weekend. Julie had returned and freaked out, had not slept and had cancelled clients. The theft had underlined how she alone she was. My kids have been thoughtless but were now taking all the right steps and I caught a glint: maybe I could say the same about myself. I had called my kids fine people last month and I had not been wrong. Could I see myself similarly? Perhaps. My other call was to Mum who was in a tizz, tipping into panic and self-pity, angry at her apparently carefree son for not anticipating her situation. And that same sense of catching my reflection, in a looking glass, in a shop window: I do that, I get in a tizz and feel unsupported. My mum is high maintenance and her son is too. I let the spikey feelings subside and I tell Mum what I have to tell myself several times a day: that there is plenty of time to do the things we need to do. This week I am earning money in Aberystwyth, Helsinki and London and next week I will be with her all week and we will move her to Brighton. We have a good plan, let’s not panic and above all let’s not waste the time we have. (Actually I don’t tell her that last bit, but I hear it and that is important). I remind Mum where I am and I draw stories from her. In her day the undergraduates took their promenades and kicked the bar where the walk met the cliff. I learn something new: I was christened here.

    I remembered the esplanade from my early summer holidays but it is not much to stare at now. The pier is a stub and the property values have reversed since Victorians built the town. The front is student accommodation and cheap hotels, while the posh homes have drawn away up the hill and cluster, culture vultures, around the local Parthenon, the National Library of Wales. The university too has climbed the hill but alone in a gothic building on the front modern languages persists alongside the burgeoning offices labelled Administration. In this place my grandfather held his chair in German. I venture in and a porter asks: can I help you sir? I say thanks but I don’t think so. I stand outside my grandparents home. The windows are now replacement uPVC but the slate path to the garden is the same. In that garden I threw apples and disturbed my grandfather in his study. He gave me a stern talk and demanded I look up, above the books, to busts of Beethoven and Goethe and Schiller. He implied my head would end on a high shelf and it was scary and funny at the same time. The name on the garden gate is the same, Brynllan. The next door gate says Gwynfe and I am suddenly angry. What the fuck is Gwynfe? It’s no bloody good. For me these are not words, they are ugly sounds, they signify nothing. This was my father’s land but it is not my land and I know that now.

    I return along the front. I kick the bar. I find a living fossil, a National Milk Bar that was there in the sixties when a Milk Bar and its coloured shakes were cool not just to me but to a whole generation. I walk on. Church and chapel fill Aberystwyth as pubs fill an English town but I come finally upon the church of St Michael which is large and must seat seven hundred or more. I sit by the font at which I was christened and experience the rush of a trapdoor opening, an acceleration and then a kind of levitation. My mother held me here (exactly here) and my grandparents and family looked on. Half a century has passed and everyone there that day (everyone) is dead except for my mother and me. I swing gently in the existential wind…

    I sign a visitor’s book and alongside find a larger volume for prayer requests. On a clean page to my right – probably written months ago and lying in wait for the faithful – is a declaration in block capitals: God does not exist, he is a figment of our imagination, this delusion is responsible for so much of our woes. The writer is of course right but I resent this missive every bit as much as a posting on the noticeboard above. There a young woman missionary seeks funds to take the evangelical mission to Spain, a country avowedly catholic but where lamentably few have a direct connection with Jesus. It is the stridency of the claims that upsets me. Please let us find our own ways to Evangelism or Atheism (and at that moment I am not fussed ) but please be quiet so we can hear what’s really important, so we can listen to the quiet entries. I turn page after page to read intercessions on behalf of the diseased or the disappeared…For Malin who learned he has lung cancer ..for Stuart our father who died on Saturday… for Judy who has the silent cancer.. (silent?! is there a type where you do not scream?). And then the postscript, familiar from an untold number of enforced services but this time the words, formed in careful handwriting, are wrenching: Lord hear our prayers, Lord hear our prayers.

    My mother had been frosty on the phone but there was a pause at the end of the call and then she bravely spoke out: I love you Jules. ”Love you too Mum” I had said. My kids still sign off that way: Love You! they say and the phone goes down. ”Love you too” I say to the dial tone. Love you. Love you. Love you while I can.

    It is time to go. I feel my breath catching and I detect the signs of anoxia because my mood is turning blue. I have learnt late in life (this is a late lesson, a lesson saved for late in the day) that time spent in my past is valuable only to the extent it enriches my appreciation of my present, and my appetite for my diminishing future. I decide to catch an earlier train. Outside the hotel I heave my black bag onto my shoulder and look left toward the cliff railway (closed for the winter) and it’s then I catch sight of him. He is small for an eight year old, but easily spotted on this blustery day in his blue aertex shirt. He has jumped the bar and is scrambling over the slick grey rocks, his bare arms flailing. He knows that around the promontory lie the sands of Borth and he want to play there not here. I know as he does not that there are miles of coastline and the tide is splashy and on the turn. I want to call him back but I remember this is not why I came and, anyway, how can I be sure (I who know so little)? How do I know what he can and cannot do? Let him go.

    I turn right toward the station and I make a wish: I wish for more time, I wish to live long enough. I begin to calculate: the boys are young but the eldest are girls, Lucy is eighteen and Nadia is twenty, in ten years, maybe less, they could be mothers and then….Then they may bring their children to play under another pier, in another seaside university town, there also to run amok in a garden and annoy an old man. I fancy they will remember explosions about Darwin, Dennett, Watson and Crick and a slammed study door. And on my side of that door I will stand in awe because I am not in a study, I am in a hall of mirrors sculpted by time and it is marvellous and it is golden and it is full of light.

    I have glimpsed the rare and exclusive joy of old age and for this I am truly truly grateful.