Divine Wales Theodore Dalrymple
For his 70th birthday, Theodore Dalrymple’s wife offered him a holiday anywhere in the world. He chose R S Thomas’s Aberdaron
My wife offered to take me away for a few days to mark my 70th birthday – anywhere I wanted. Should it be Rome, or Lisbon – or Madeira, perhaps? I chose Aberdaron on the Llŷn Peninsula in North Wales.
Wales in winter? My choice was partly motivated by the desire to avoid airports – domestic travel is soaring as people increasingly can’t face Bag-check Hell, and I pass through enough airports in a year to last several lifetimes. But Aberdaron is also a place of special significance for me.
The Llŷn Peninsula is very beautiful, of course, but there are many beautiful places in the world; even many closer to my home on the Welsh borders.
But Aberdaron was where, 13 years ago, while my wife was working as a medical locum in Bangor, our little dog Ramses first encountered the sea. He was nearly 14 at the time – an old dog – but the sea air and the freedom of the beach sent him mad with joy. He ran, puppylike, along the deserted strand, pausing every few hundred yards to check that we were following. No one who saw his joy could think of a dog in a Cartesian manner, as a mere automaton. But, as Keats has it: ‘In the very temple of delight
Veil’d melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine.’
For we knew, as Ramses did not, that his life could not continue very much longer – and it did not: just over a year, in fact.
It is surely the awareness of death that both makes us incapable of a dog’s careless rapture and moves us so much when we observe it. And it is our inability to experience this unalloyed state, other than for a few instants, that causes us to seek a significance beyond our present existence. It is rarely that we can accept present laughter as sufficient in itself to justify our coming into and out of being.
And Aberdaron was the last parish of R S Thomas (1913-2000), poet of existential problems, before his retirement as an Anglican clergyman. His church, St Hywyn’s, dating back to the 12th century, is almost on the beach and has to be shored up to prevent it from subsiding into the sea. The churchyard with slate tombs – mostly inscribed in Welsh, many with Masonic symbols – stretches up a steep hill behind.
Thomas was a most unlikely Anglican clergyman. A fierce Welsh nationalist who sometimes affected to speak no English (though he learnt his Welsh only comparatively late in life, and had no Welsh accent when he spoke English), he appears, in photographs, to have been a
man of granitic integrity not much given to the frivolity of small talk. The meaning of existence (if any) filled all his thoughts.
His God was distinctly a Deus absconditus, one who made His presence known, if at all, by His absence rather than by any positive manifestations. I think R S Thomas might have agreed with what Bertrand Russell, the militant atheist, who said that, if he met God after death, he would ask Him, ‘Why did you not make your existence clearer?’
Thomas was a poet of uplifting grumpiness. I thought I was grumpy until I read him. He was no admirer of humanity in the mass, not even Welsh humanity. He was an elitist, a believer in the intellectual and emotional elect. In his poem The Small Window, he says: ‘In Wales, there are jewels To gather, but with the eye Only… … Have a care; This wealth is for the few And chosen. Those who crowd A small window dirty it With their breathing, though sublime And inexhaustible the view.’ Thomas would have regarded me as one of the window-dirtiers, but in my heart I agree with him – which is why I would never visit Aberdaron in the summer. Less than 50 yards from St Hywyn’s is an ice-cream cabin, closed in winter, from whose notice I learnt the Welsh for bubble gum, gwm swigod, and banana fudgeridoo, banana a chyffug (though what is a fudgeridoo? An Australian bird made into confectionery, perhaps?)
To walk along the beach alone, with only a couple playing with their dog hundreds of yards off, throwing a stick into the waves for him to retrieve, is an incomparable luxury, by definition available only to the few, if not necessarily to the chosen.
Thomas was adamantine in his rejection of common human sentiment: he was scathing about the gravestones in his churchyard as redolent of a foolish sentimentality and exhibitionism. But I have always loved cemeteries and churchyards, and there surely can be few finer places to be buried than in the churchyard of St Hywyn’s, with its eternal sound of the silver-grey-green sea breaking on the shore below. I found, among the few gravestones inscribed in English, a tomb (unusually, a smooth brown granite pillar) peculiarly apposite to me: ‘OWEN WILLIAMS Born 12th August 1837 Died 25th August 1907’ He lived only 13 days after his 70th birthday: could that be my fate, too? If so, could anyone say of me, as the words on the granite pillar had it: ‘Life’s race well run, Life’s work well done, Life’s crown well won.’ Have I raced and worked well; have I won life’s crown? A bit difficult to say, really. What, anyway, is life’s crown?
Thomas would have hated also the wooden bench in front of the church, with its little plaque:
‘In memory of Ann and Bob Parr, who visited here 1948–2004’
Probably English tourists, then – loathsome in Thomas’s eyes, the ruination of Wales. Yet surely so deep an attachment to the place (they were here for five times as many years as Thomas himself) speaks of finer feeling?
It was modernity that Thomas hated. I sometimes have that feeling myself. We had lunch in a café in Aberdaron and I overheard the proprietress tell a customer that she couldn’t do something because of health and safety. I asked her what it was that she couldn’t do.
‘He wanted his chips well done,’ she said. ‘Brown.’ ‘And why not?’ I asked. ‘There’s a new government regulation,’ she replied. ‘We’re not supposed to fry things too deeply because of cancer.’
‘And are there inspectors who go round inspecting how deeply you fry things?’
‘Yes,’ she said. Her customer could have been an agent provocateur.
How solicitous is our government for the welfare of its flock, namely us – at our own expense, of course! I felt a Thomasian wave of disgust come over me.
On the other hand, I was quite pleased that my hotel, The Ship, was comfortable and furnished with a good restaurant. How different from the Wales of old, when food was fuel, and flavour was the instrument of the devil to ensnare the weak and wavering!
Its owner was as welcoming and obliging as Thomas was forbidding and disapproving. And, having a friend who was punished at school with a beating if overheard speaking Welsh in the playground of her school – that such things happened within my lifetime! – I was delighted to hear Welsh spoken in the bar.
If I had been younger, I would have tried to learn the language myself.