Ricardo Blanco's Blog

The Open Road

The sun is never so beautiful as on a day when you take to the open road.

For several months, during my travels on foot around southern Europe at the tail end of the 1980s, I carried with me a copy of Jean Giono’s Les Grands Chemins in its French paperback edition, loaned to me by the poet and bouzouki player Hubert Tsarko. Against the odds, my copy shows almost no sign of wear and tear. Sometimes I suspect it is not the book that Hubert loaned me, but I cannot remember buying it again, so have to assume that the same copy has survived the battering of more than thirty years in almost pristine condition. However, that suspicion — that the book is not the same as it was — begins to take on new significance after my pre-ordered copy of The Open Road lands on the doormat with a thump, one day in November, rudely disturbing the slumber of my ancient springer spaniel, Bruno.  Re-reading Giono’s novel in another language, thirty years on, it turns out not to be the same book at all, despite the claims of its title.

      The book that I remembered was evocative of a lifestyle and a place that I no longer count as mine, but the threads that the story pulls at are lodged deep in memory, and they connect me to some of the wilder places of Europe, as well as to a sense of hearth and home represented in the novel by the fires that the unnamed protagonist keeps burning in his walnut-oil mill on long winter nights, and the climb through the alpine forest towards his final act of sacrifice and betrayal.

      A few weeks after drafting the opening paragraphs of this review, Hubert gets in touch with me from Liverpool, in one of his rare and random phone calls, and in answer to my questioning tells me that I returned his copy of Les Grands Chemins in 1989,when he was living in Carrer Sant Just, in the heart of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, and that he still has it. In which case, I ask myself, where did my identical copy come from? The truth is that I have no idea.

      In case the reader is wondering, this seemingly far-fetched tale is relevant to the writing of this review, as it sets the tone for my relationship with this curious and rather wonderful novel, translated for the first time into English by Paul Eprile and published by New York Review Books, who have been doing a great job in making Giono’s oeuvre available to a new readership, having issued translations of the novels Hill, Melville and A King Alone over the past five years.

      I myself attempted a translation of Les Grands Chemins some thirty years ago, but that effort, for better or worse, has disappeared along with so much else. Giono’s narrator is not an educated man; he has apparently served time in prison, and lives from hand to mouth. One of the difficulties of translating the novel lies in finding the right tone and register for the narrator’s constant use of slang and vernacular expressions; and this, more than anything else, was what put paid to my efforts all those years ago. Consequently, my trepidation in waiting for the English version to appear was acute. As the reader will have gathered by now, I have an irrational sense of propriety towards this novel.

      Unfortunately, reading the book in translation was a bit like meeting an old and dear friend who has undergone cosmetic plastic surgery, and the result, while by no means a disaster, has left him looking like someone other than himself.

      Some novels, perhaps, are more untranslatable than others.

Jean Giono is best known to readers of English as the author of The Man Who Planted Trees, a bittersweet tale written long before there was an environmentalist movement to speak of, and which was made into a popular animated film in 1987. His novel Le Hussard sur le Toit (The Horseman on the Roof ) was also turned into a successful movie, starring Juliette Binoche, but neither of these works really do justice to the deeply felt sense of place and the emotional intelligence of Giono’s work, almost all of which is set in or around the town of Manosque, in the Department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, where Giono was born and spent his entire life. Or almost his entire life: in 1914, at the age of nineteen, he was sent off to war, like the vast majority of France’s young men. He trained in the Alpine Infantry and took part in some of the major battles of World War One, including Verdun. Life at the front marked him forever. He was one of the very few survivors of his company to return home, and he became a lifelong pacifist. This was something for which he would be made to suffer after World War Two when he was falsely accused of collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. But that was all later.

Returning to Manosque in 1919, Giono took up the job in a bank which he had held before the war, and began writing. He started with prose poems and moved on to novels. After a few false starts he published Colline (Hill), a strange and intricately patterned tale of rural life, in which the human, animal and vegetable worlds occupying a remote mountain hamlet are seen to be intimately and ineluctably entwined. Colline attracted the attention of some of the big names of Parisian literary life, including André Gide, who paid a visit to find out who this promising young writer was. But Giono was never tempted by life in the metropolis.  He bought an old house in an olive grove on the edge of town, and stayed put, dying at home in October 1970 at the age of seventy-five. He thus belongs to a diminishing group of writers who are profoundly and irrevocably associated with a particular place, a defined and circumscribed landscape. ‘Of a piece and of a place’, as Raymond Williams’ protagonist says of his taid, Ellis, in People of the Black Mountains. In fact, re-reading Williams’ last novel immediately after reading Giono has led me to think that this is what Williams would most have liked to be; a writer lodged in a specific locus or habitat, like his namesake Waldo, also a pacifist, who wrote unerringly about a single community in the Preseli hills; or the Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto, like Waldo a village schoolteacher, who spent his entire working life within the region of the Veneto. All three men — Giono, Waldo and Zanotto — spent most of their lives within a small, rural community, and each of them, by focusing on the local and the particular, spoke for the whole of humankind. In The Open Road, Giono’s narrator touches on this very theme when he discusses ‘the things you notice at significant times. For example’, he continues, ‘the footprints of a man who seeks happiness in one spot, with everything taken care of and easy to understand; in a world that following the seasons, seems to follow you; that fulfilling its own destiny, fulfils you . . .’.

      Giono has an uncanny skill in evoking the natural world without sentimentalising it: instead he reminds us how our subjective responses, rooted in memory, determine our way of being in the world:

At this time of year, the chestnut sap flows earthward and settles underground. It oozes from all the nicks in the bark that summer has opened wider. It has that hard-to-describe smell of bread dough, of flour mixed with water. A falcon, chased by a cloud of titmice, swoops by low over the trees. The midday warmth spreads like a quilt from my knees to my feet. I’m letting my beard grow, to contend with coldness in general. To live in love or to live in fear: it all comes down to memory.

This seemingly straightforward paragraph can be broken down into four distinct topics, more specifically into three cascading non-sequiturs, which nicely illustrate Giono’s technique. First, the lovely evocation of the sap, oozing from the chestnut tree, and likening the smell of that sap with bread dough. Second, the vision of a bird of prey pursued by a cloud of tiny birds, Third, the weather (warm, but foreshadowing the cold), and finally the curious crowning insight: whether we live in love or in fear, we are constrained by memory. How many novelists would be reckless, or skilled enough to pack so much into a single paragraph?

      The extract also serves to show up some of the shortcomings of the translation, because the French says something a little different:

En cette saison, la sève des chatâigniers descend et rentre sous terre. Elle suinte de toutes le égratignures que l’été a élargies dans l’écorce. Elle a cette odeur équivoque de pâte à pain, de farine délayée dans l’eau. Un faucon file en oblique, très bas à travers les arbres, poursuivi par une nuée de mésanges. La chaleur de midi est sur mes pieds et mes genoux comme un édredon. Je laisse pousser ma barbe pour des questions de froid universel. Aimer, vivre ou craindre, c’est un question de mémoire.

First, I would disagree with ‘that hard-to-describe smell of bread dough’, which is a rendering of ‘cette odeur équivoque de pâte a pain’.  Unfortunately ‘équivoque’ does not mean ‘hard to describe’, and would more suitably be transcribed as ‘that dubious (or ambivalent, or suspect) smell of bread dough’. And in that puzzling summative sentence, the translator has again changed the meaning of the original: the French is: ‘Aimer, vivre ou craindre, c’est un question de mémoire’, which might be translated as: ‘To love, to live or to be scared, it’s all a question of memory’. These are not terrible misjudgements, more a case of a translator slightly overstepping the mark. If they were isolated incidents, it would matter less, but unfortunately they are not, and this only added to my discomfiture.

The mountains around Manosque, the deep valleys and the forested hillsides, provide the backdrop, or rather the context, for all of Giono’s writings. We are drawn, in his stories, towards some elemental and chthonic myth of home, and yet village life, in Giono, is never quite what it seems. His fullest and most convincing characters, men and women alike, share a kind of emphatic yet amoral physicality; neither existentialists nor primitives, they are people with roots; people who know what and who they are, even if they lack ego or even ‘identity’ in any modern, strictlyindividualistic sense. I’d be tempted to call them animists were animism not such a questionable term, much like ‘nature’ — as though nature were something distinct from us, which we visit or even, God forbid, ‘get back to’. ‘The very fact that we have a word for “nature” is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as a part of it’, write Kingsworth and Hine in Uncivilisation, and their Dark Mountain Project offers a perspective that is likely to ring a few bells for anyone who admires Giono’s work, or rejects the fond conceit of human progress.

The premise of The Open Road is simple: we follow the travels of the unnamed narrator, a solitary vagabond, across the hills and valleys of Alpine Provence as autumn turns to winter, some time around 1950, the year the novel was written. The story is narrated in first person, present tense, and unbroken by chapters, giving a seamless, almost dreamlike quality to the whole. In fact it is that oneiric sense of non-sequitur, and of the narrator’s seeming indifference to outcomes, as well as the contradictory impulses that steer his decisions — if indeed he can actually be said to take decisions — that most impressed me on my first reading, and of which I was reminded this second time around.

      We first meet our man hitch-hiking at the side of the road. When a lorry pulls up he falls into conversation with the driver about the availability of jobs in the area. The driver asks what kind of work he is looking for, and the man replies: ‘A bit of everything. A hundred trades, a hundred headaches’. (Again, a translation quibble: the French is the alliterative ‘Cent métiers, cent misères’. By expressing ‘misères’ — miseries, misfortunes — as ‘headaches’, the translation not only misses out on a chance to replicate the music of the original — something like ‘a hundred trades, a hundred tribulations’ — it also relegates the narrator’s quip about work from existential grievance to mere gripe or irritation.)

      But translation issues aside, there are already — by Page 2 — signs that things are not quite right. The lorry, ominously, is ‘hauling acid for a factory’, and the driver has to make the delivery three times a day, an eighty-mile trip each way in order to hit his target. Four trips and he starts making a bonus. It soon becomes apparent that there is a lot of work around, because the country is undergoing ‘reconstruction’ here and elsewhere, due to the ravages of war. In fact the remnants of war and occupation are everywhere visible, as are the trophies that have landed in France since its end, from the American army raincoat worn by the narrator to the American-made farm machinery that he showcases for one of his employers, and the American cigarettes smoked by his sometime companion, ‘the artist’. Modernity has encroached on this rural landscape in the form of goods imported from the land of the victor. A sense of recent upheaval, and the ambiguity with which the narrator faces the challenges of the day seem to suggest that rather more is going on than might first be apparent. Mention is made of the war in Indochina (Vietnam) as France embarks on a sordid struggle to hang onto the last of her colonies. There is a sense of uncertainty, even of anxiety in the air. Perhaps we could call it ‘cultural anxiety’, of which our protagonist is only too keenly aware. We might look to the novel’s epigraph, taken from Hamlet, for some clue or insight:

Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet:

I pray thee stay with us: go not to Wittenberg.

This seemingly commonplace entreaty to a son to stay at home, not to abandon the mother, sits rather strangely at the start of a novel in which the protagonist is always on the move, never once makes mention of his family, nor ever suggests that he might be missed elsewhere. Since Giono’s characters are most often individuals who live their entire lives in one place, this novel is unusual in that its narrator is a drifter. He is a stranger to the villages he passes through: every place he encounters, he is visiting for the first time. Moreover, very early on, he says that chateaus with turrets ‘scare the shit’ out of him, perhaps a reference to his having spent time inside, or else, given the recent war, a prison camp. So why the reference to a mother’s prayers?

      The man walks or hitches from village to village, and although these places are unfamiliar to him, he is an astute observer of the flora and fauna, as well as the people (most especially the women) in the places he passes through. He takes on odd jobs, looks after a walnut-oil mill, fixes things, and forms a curious friendship with a man he calls ‘the artist’, a fellow vagrant whom he meets up with early in the novel. The artist does no work but rather earns his keep as a card sharp.

      From the outset, the narrator’s relationship with the artist is ambivalent:

      I see a guy sitting on the boulders next to the rushing stream . . . As I get closer, I can make out he’s holding a guitar between his legs.

      I ask him, “What are you up to?

      He raises his head: he has a nasty gaze. A moment later, he answers, “I’m fixing this, see.” He’s carving a tuning peg with his knife. He’s a young guy. I don’t like the way he looks. But I’m watching his skilful hands, and I stick around.

      He asks if I’m going to the fair. I tell him I didn’t know there was a fair. I want to speak nicely to him. He’s tanned. His hair is curly. He looks like a girl and he’s strong. Right away, his gaze was so off-putting, I want to see it again. I don’t think he made it nasty on purpose. It was just his natural look.

There is so much here that resists unpacking: the fact that the artist has a ‘nasty gaze’ and yet our man wants to see it again; the fact that he both ‘looks like a girl’ and that ‘he’s strong’; the idea that the narrator finds the stranger’s gaze ‘so off-putting’ that he wants to see it again.

      It comes as no surprise, given this new string of non-sequiturs — including a thinly disguised homoeroticism — that the two men fall in together. But the ease with which the narrator accepts his own ambivalence toward the artist is something which, for me, fuels the central conundrum of the novel: the chemistry between the two men, and the way in which the relationship unravels.

      At that first encounter, the artist asks our man to accompany him to a fair in the nearby town. Reasonably enough, the narrator wants to know more about his companion, but he holds back, since, he says, he knows that the artist would only tell him lies, and in a way that is what he’d prefer, since ‘if he told me the truth, I’m afraid it would make me sick.’ And on this rather unusual premise the two start out their association — ‘friendship’ seems too intimate a name for it, something about which the narrator comments: ‘There are plenty of things about him that annoy me. I wouldn’t want this kind of man as a friend.’ We learn that the artist plays his guitar at fairs and village dances in the area, but this is only a sideline to his main source of income, as a card sharp. Not only does he cheat at cards, he does so with such style and artistry that the narrator is astonished and impressed in equal measure; smitten, in spite of himself. He misses the artist when he disappears after being beaten up, and he does refer to him as a ‘buddy’, however obfuscating the rest of his description:

      . . . that glorious buddy I’m talking about is in reality the slimiest bastard on the face of the earth: absolute scum, thief, liar, in it for himself, nastiness incarnate, capable of swindling his own parents, happy as a pig in shit. No matter how thick I lay it on him, I still miss him.

      The artist is a study in raw egotism: obsessed with money, he is rapacious, arrogant and yet oddly vulnerable.  The narrator, by contrast, is solid, trustworthy, and only a little vain (he tends to his beard with the fastidiousness of a dandy).  From the outset it seems almost inevitable that the artist will meet with some sort of comeuppance, but what is extraordinary are the lengths to which the narrator will go to rescue and protect him. An initial act of violence provokes a sort of a chain reaction, and the story shifts tone. The novel then becomes something darker and more restless until the narrator finally takes action, revealing his own wayward and ruthless moral code.

      In his introduction to this edition, Jacques Le Gall makes an interesting comparison with the Jack Kerouac of On the Road, a story ‘of two guys hitching to California in search of something they don’t really find, and losing themselves on the road, and coming all the way back hopeful of something else.’ Although, as this quotation from Kerouac’s 1948 journal might suggest, there are points of intersection between the two novels, it seems to me too simplistic a comparison, and Giono has always been a superior psychologist and observer of human foibles than Kerouac; moreover The Open Road is, in my opinion, a far more interesting novel than On the Road. There is certainly a kinship between the two works in terms of their brevity of composition, Kerouac hammering out the first draft of On the Road over three weeks in 1951, and Giono taking only two months to complete his novel, in a break between shifts on The Hussard on the Roof. But here the congruences end.

      Earlier I mentioned that one of the problems of translating a novel like Les Grands Chemins is to decide what kind of a slang one translates into. In a novel as packed with idioms and locutions as this, the dialect and register one opts for is always going to be a gamble. Add to that the plethora of aphorisms with which the narrator peppers his account and you have something like a translator’s nightmare. Paul Eprile has chosen to adopt the diction of the American 1950s, even of the beatnik, and this offers us ‘broads’ for women (for the offensive and outdated French gonzesses), or ‘java’ for coffee. We also have ‘chicks’ — which, sadly, is appropriate for the era — and on other occasions the narrator ‘takes a dump’ and so on.  Admittedly our narrator is a hobo à la française and accommodation to the street language of the era seems fitting, up to a point. I can’t quite see our narrator digging the zeitgeist in Big Sur, or jiving to the electric Kool-aid acid test with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and so to an extent the association with beat lit is misleading, but when all is said and done, the translation of dialect and slang idioms is always going to present problems. I don’t want to come down too heavily on Paul Eprile, who had to make some difficult choices, and whose translation of Colline — another tricky work, full of poetic imagery and Provencal idiomsI enjoyed very much. The fact that I failed to connect with this novel in English is probably no fault of his. And here’s the thing. My main problem with The Open Road is the one that I started out with: it failed to live up to the memory I had of it.  So, on completing this review, I pick up my old copy, and re-read the original version, and at once I am back in Giono’s world, and it all makes sense, in its own inimitable fashion. As I said, some novels are more untranslatable than others.

Paul Eprile’s translation of  The Open Road by Jean Giono is published by New York Review Books.

This piece first appeared in Wales Arts Review on 02.02.2022

A tight knot of mermerosity

When we set out, just past Castell Dinas, we pass a dog driving a tractor. Or so it seems.

The shadow of Bruno the dog is long. We see him everywhere. Every morning when I first go downstairs I expect to see him, lying on his rug by the front door. Making coffee I expect him to approach me, nuzzle the back of my knee with his snout. I expect him to stand by the back door, waiting to be let out for a pee and on returning inside to stand by the fridge, awaiting his treat. But he isn’t there.

In David Shield’s book, Reality Hunger, I come across this:

‘In English, the term memoir comes directly from the French for memory, mémoire, a word that is derived from the Latin for the same, memoria. And yet more deeply rooted in the word memoir is a far less confident one. Embedded in Latin’s memoria is the ancient Greek mérmeros, an offshoot of the Avestic Persian mermara, itself a derivative of the Indo-European for that which we can think about but cannot grasp: mer-mer, ‘to vividly wonder,’ ‘to be anxious,’ ‘to exhaustingly ponder.’’

The Chambers dictionary of etymology links ‘mourning’ and ‘mourn’ with old Saxon ‘mornian’, to mourn, and Old High German mornen, Icelandic ‘morna’ — but goes on to say ‘cognate with Latin memoria (mindful) see MEMORY’. So I look at ‘Memory’ in the etymological dictionary and sure enough, Shields is right: ‘Latin memor is cognate with Greek mérmēra = care, trouble, mermaírein = be anxious or thoughtful.’

Mermeros was a figure from Greek Mythology, a son of Jason, along with Pheres. Apparently the brothers were killed either by the Corinthians or by Medea, for reasons that vary depending on the rendition (see Medea). In one account, Mermeros was killed by a lioness while out hunting. 

Iolaus mermeros is a butterfly of the Lycaenidae family. It is found on Madagascar.

Mermeros in ancient Greek means ‘a state of worry or anxiety’. 

I find a blog written by the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who applies the concept of mermeros to the crisis of the world’s ecosystem: ‘Perhaps we should expand the psychoterratic typology beyond an established term such as ‘ecoanxiety’ to include a concept like ‘mermerosity’ or what I would define as the pre-solastalgic state of being worried about the possible passing of the familiar and its replacement by that which does not sit comfortably within one’s sense of place. I begin to mourn for that which I know will become endangered or extinct even before these events unfold. I know and worry that the coming summer will be too hot and will have a huge wildfire threat. I often have a tight knot of mermerosity inside me when I consider the scale of negative change going on around me and what disaster might happen next.’

Albrecht goes on to suggest that a new kind of mourning ‘might contains the emergent elements of detailed knowledge of causality, anthropogenic culpability and enhanced empathy for the non-human’ . . . ‘The etymological origins of the word ‘mourning’ come from the Greek language, mermeros related to ‘a state of being worried’ and its meaning is associated with being troubled and to grieve. We can see from these ancient origins that mourning is a versatile concept that can be applied to any context, present and future, not just to the death of humans, where there is grieving and worry about a negative state of affairs.’

Castell Dinas

On the day of Storm Eunice, I walk with my daughter Sioned up to Pen Trumau, starting from Castell Dinas, just off the Crickhowell to Talgarth Road. Castell Dinas was an Iron Age Fort that later sprouted a Norman Castle, of which the ruins are still visible. At 450 metres it is the highest castle in that hybrid geo-political entity ‘England and Wales’. It has the dubious privilege of having been sacked by two Welsh warlords, first by Prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1233 and subsequently by Owain Glyndŵr on his visit to these parts circa 1405, on his way to Crickhowell. He burned down the castle there also. 

On the south-west facing side of Pen Trumau we are out of the wind, but once on the ridge beneath Mynydd Llysiau we struggle to stay on our feet: leaning into the wind becomes an effort of the will. There is no way to depict the wind in a photograph of a treeless landscape, but the posture tells us pretty much all we need to know about the wind.

By the time we hit the ridge between Pen Trumau and Waun Fach we realise that the effort required to walk is more than we can sustain. I am tired and out of sorts in any case; since Bruno’s death I’ve been enduring a kind of failure to engage with thought, which drains my energy. Sometimes I feel I’m better off not thinking at all, that I’d rather be merely sentient, like a beast of the field. So much cerebral processing in the human. And for what?

As we descend from the mountain, and I look down over Cwm Grwyne Fechan, and beyond, to the ridge behind Pen Allt Mawr and westward, and I notice once more the way that the hills fold into one another creating a trompe l’oeil effect, the curve of a hillside concealed by another, a process of continual enfolding, that reminds me of something to do with grammar: the Black Mountains as a single recursive sentence, its hills clauses hidden within other clauses, disappearing from sight as you round a contour or cross a ridge. 

The Olchon Valley and Walter Lollard

The Olchon Valley, which I only discovered recently, is a place that feels as though it shouldn’t exist. It is almost the definition of somewhere lost to the world; undiscovered, little known even to those who walk its outer edge, Crib y Gath, or the Cat’s Back, the long spine of an enormous dormant beast that threatens to uncoil, thrash loose and send its cargo of walkers flying into the stratosphere, perhaps to be picked up by some errant wind and deposited on the Malverns (from Moel fryn, or bare hill) to the east or Pen y Fan to the west. The looping elliptical lane that follows the contours of the valley is an ouroboros, a serpent eating its tail. Who knows where its tales of sorrow and loss will take us. Walking down the lane, past derelict cottages, we get the impression that this was once quite a populous valley. Whatever happened? There were times when parts of the Black Mountains flourished, and the fourteenth century was certainly among them. 

Rumour has it that in 1315 Anabaptist leader and vagabond Walter Reynard of Mainz (known also as Reynard Lollard, and in the Dictionnaire des hérésies, des erreurs et des schismes as Gaultier Lollard) — an outspoken critic of the Catholic hierarchy — came to Wales, and was offered refuge in Olchon.

As one account has it: ‘Walter the Lollard, a shining light in the midnight of Papal darkness, after passing from country to country, lifting his eloquent voice and scattering over the wintery seed-fields the germs of truth, passed through England to build up the scattered flock of Christ there, and then breathed out his great soul amid the fires of martyrdom.’ Lollard was burned at the stake in Cologne, in 1322. 

What did he find here in this obscure valley? Does his ghost haunt these silvered lanes on a night in February, the stars like shingle on some immeasurable shore? Do the religious wars that engulfed Europe over the three hundred years that followed Walter’s visit have their origins in a seed sown in this narrow sleeve of land between the great ridge of Hatterall and the Cat’s Back?

Flight of the Isard

I filmed this isard, or chamois, a couple of summers ago while hiking above Coma de Vaca, in the Pyrenees. I came across the clip on my computer this morning and thought I would post it. It felt as though we were the only living beings on the mountain that afternoon. There was a strange silence all about us. The way he dances down that slope fills me with joy, every time. For years I thought these guys were wild goats, but they are in fact members of the antelope family, cousins to the gazelle.

Bruno’s last picnic (part 2)

When we had finished our meal, I covered the embers of the fire with tranches of muddy turf, trod them down. We returned to the car. The lane winds down the narrow valley for six miles, between wooded hillsides. It is a remote place, and never more so than on a night in February. I wasn’t expecting any traffic.

As we set out, two things were on my mind. The first thing, which I didn’t mention in the last piece, was that when I was very ill, and Bruno was a pup, I had made a deal with the universe, providence, God, whatever you call it, that if only I could be granted as many years’ life as Bruno, I would be happy. It seems now, fifteen years later, to have been a little rash to make a bargain of this kind, however good a deal it might have seemed at the time. Did it mean that my days would shortly be numbered? I hoped not. Rose didn’t think so, but then, as she tells me, I am predisposed towards bouts of magical thinking.

The second thing was that I suspected, was practically certain, that we would come across a wild animal of some kind this evening. I just couldn’t think which. I remembered a night like this, a couple of years ago, driving back to the village where Rose and I were living in the Pyrenees, we had passed a wild boar sow and her two piglets, crossing the road just ahead of us. They were caught in the lights and trotted for a good stretch before sliding away into the scrub. I had regarded them as a good omen. 

Driving at night down such a wooded lane again tonight, I remember Jean-Christophe Bailly’s essay, The Animal Side, where he writes of ‘the soft but deep growl of something unknown . . .as if one were skidding over the surface of a world transformed, a world filled with terror, frightened movements, silences. But now, from this world, someone emerges — a phantom, a beast, for only a beast can burst forth this way . . .’ 

We were about two miles from the bottom of the valley, when the beast burst forth, swerved into sight, just ahead of my right headlamp. It had a sideways lilt, hobbling along awkwardly, as though limping, but nonetheless keeping up a good pace. I thought it might swerve off the road, but to the right there was a steep embankment, and he — I thought of it as a he — didn’t seem willing to cross the road ahead of our car, this huge rolling monstrous mass of metal and rubber and blazing light that roared behind him. I slowed to his speed and followed on. Frightened, he ran ahead, trapped in the narrow estuary of the lane. The uneven swagger of the creature was disarming. Because of the lilting run, he looked like a low-slung three-legged dog. And then I spot the stripes and distinctive snout: and that uneven hurried waddle now makes sense. A badger! Though I prefer to think of him as Mochyn ddaear which means Earth Pig, his name in Welsh.

So Mochyn Ddaear runs ahead for a good two or three hundred metres, and a strange, receptive joy comes over us, we become ‘childlike, or perhaps archaic.’ (Bailly). We slow our pace to match the badger’s. Just when it seems as though he would continue trotting ahead in the beam of our headlamps all the way, he takes a sharp turn, and scrambles up the bank to the right. We catch his full profile as he turns one last time before plunging into the undergrowth. 

I do not want to attribute any special meaning to this encounter on the night we built a fire and cooked a meal for our aged dog, knowing that he had only days to live. I know that I cannot inhabit Bruno’s suffering any more than I can inhabit the world of the badger, whose trajectory briefly met with ours that night. I cannot know his world, or speak with the voice of a Badger, even though, for the duration of a few seconds, our paths overlapped. I shall forever be excluded from the shadowy paths by which creatures make their way; theirs is a different modality, a different way of being. But I can watch and listen and report back, share for a moment the joy of having met, in passing, other distinct and impermanent inhabitants of the valley’s night.

Bruno, a party animal, always enjoyed a picnic!

Bruno’s last picnic (part 1)

This week we said goodbye to Bruno, dearest and most joyful of dogs. He was old, at fifteen, but he was cheerful and brave to the end. He just couldn’t do much for himself by then, other than eat, shit, and wag his tail. He had a large tumour and his liver and kidneys were shot. A few days before he died, Rose and I took him for an evening excursion to one of our favourite picnic spots, half way up the Grwyne Fawr valley, in the Black Mountains.

We parked by the stream at Blaen y cwm. A hundred years ago this was a different place entirely. Hundreds of workers poured into the valley to build the Grwyne Fawr reservoir. A village was erected at Blaen y Cwm and known locally as Tin Town. It had a hospital, lodging house, chapel, school and jail.  The reservoir was completed in 1928 and the village dismantled. 

I walked to the top of the forest, just below Bal Bach, with Bal Mawr looming to the left, and stood for a while by a ruined stone house. The roof had caved in and two large trees grew within. Sheep had gathered around their feeder just below, and there was a dense, yellowing light, with a backdrop of burnt sienna provided by the swathes of dead fern that cover the mountainside. When I returned to the car, an hour later, it was dark and Rose and Bruno were dozing peacefully. I carried the food bag and blanket, and Rose helped Bruno along the muddy track to the picnic spot. The place for making fire is more or less the same as it was twenty odd years ago, when we would bring our daughters here after school. I collected a few more rocks from the shore of the stream that flows near by, the Grwyne Fawr after which the valley takes its name, as the fireplace needed building up: there was a brisk westerly wind. The wood nearby was sodden after days of rain, but I had counted on that, so I started the fire with dry kindling that I had brought with me. We soon had a blaze, and I laid a grill over the fire and cooked the food we had brought. 

I sat by the fire, and when the food was cooked, we ate, and Rose and I took turns in feeding Bruno bits of sausage, his favourite food.

I was sad that we would be losing Bruno, but also glad that he had been with us for all these years, and had shared in our lives. When I brought him home as a pup, I was ill with Hepatitis C and going through severe liver decompensation, which included bouts of hepatic encephalopathy, in which I suffered hallucinations and blackouts. I had been given one year to live, unless a liver transplant could be found for me. I believe I drew energy and hope with that young dog, and as he grew I recovered. I had a transplant and then volunteered on a trial for a new drug treatment and within weeks the Hep C was gone. So a lot was invested in our relationship, from my point of view.

In the last few weeks of his life, whenever Rose or I were near him, Bruno, who was mostly immobile by then, would follow our every move with his eyes, always and without fail. It was as if he were asking a question that we were incapable of answering. The connection ran deep and we miss him very much.

A confusing day

Choose a day of red weather; no, leave the weather out of it, let the day choose you. 

You decide to walk to Bal Mawr, setting out from the five ways junction, by the grey telephone box, and up to the ancient hill fort of Twyn y Gaer. You try to imagine the people who once lived here, on this windy outcrop . . . their huts and stone circles and rites of fire . . . and what of their songs? And their dogs, howling across the valley at the moon.

Twyn y Gaer lies at the centre of a trio of hill forts: Crug Hywel (known locally as Table Mountain) to the west and Tre-wyn, at the southern end of Hatterall Hill, to the east. Were the three settlements linked in some way? Their human inhabitants shared these hills with wolf, bear and wild boar.  Did they have common enemies before the Romans came, with their regimented infantry and swift Caspian cavalry?

It will be a day of all weathers: sunshine, biting wind, rain and even hail. You stride into the wind and remember the days when you and the dog walked out together, which seems so long ago already. The dog is old now, he cannot join you. He sits on a rug back home in Grangetown.

As you walk from Garn Wen towards the rough-hewn steps that climb to Bal Mawr you begin to wonder — and this is not such a non-sequitur as it might appear — about the writer’s life and how it has become almost impossible to write a line without somehow becoming embroiled in identity politics.

A passage, only half tongue in cheek, from the novel you have just been reading* comes to mind, voiced by a disenchanted pale male: ‘It’s a kind of double bind, isn’t it. The privileged shouldn’t write about themselves, because that furthers the agenda of the imperialist white patriarchy. But they also shouldn’t write about other groups, because that would be cultural appropriation.’ I don’t want to be typecast any more than I wish to stereotype others. Identity politics sucks. You’re better off up a mountain, keeping schtum.

But you can’t stay up here forever. The badger faced sheep would laugh at you.

When you descend to the valley the sky will clear once more, which you will perceive as a kind of blessing. Not that you expect a blessing of any kind, only something to avert the waiting, and the dog, back home will look up when you return, slowly wag his tail in greeting, but he will know that you have been up the mountain without him and he will be sad.


At the bottom of the hill, beside the stream, sits the Tabernacl, built in 1837, a Baptist Chapel serving the community of Gwryne Fawr and Fforest Coalpit.  No one lives in the small attached manse, and nor is it for sale. The past is all around you and the future is nothing more than a hypothesis.

*The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

Old red sandstone, its beating heart

There is a spot just below Pen y Gadair Fawr, on the narrow track that leads to Waun Fach, that I think of as the epicentre of the Black Mountains, its beating heart.  The thought struck me with perverse joy yesterday as I leaned into the gale force wind, striding north. 

I had climbed from Castell Dinas, up to Y Grib, on a day that began with blue skies, then past Pen y Manllwyn to the high point, where the weather turned.

On the summit of the Big Chair I had leaned against the pile of stones (too scattered to constitute a cairn) and gulped hot chai. Moments of reward after a hard climb. Sometimes the only purpose of a long and solitary hike is to give the mind a thorough rinsing, clear out all the crap, cast away the debris. Start out with a clean slate. 

I am struck once again by the futility of my self-set task, to document these hills in prose, discover stories hidden away in their most secret valleys, find words to accurately reflect the riddles of place; unearth memories, my own and those of others. Dispense with these thoughts now, step down the rocky path that winds beneath the crest, the cwm falling away to the west in a cascade of little rock pools, great for a summer dip, frozen now, in January. 

No birds up here, except for that red kite, which dives with talons stretched and scoops from the withered grass beside the peat bog something small and with a beating heart. 

Later, on my descent, at Pen Trumau, the wind drops to an almost stillness, and I hear it, a distant music carried on the lightest breeze, an orchestra of all the dead that ever roamed these hills, the mountain’s threnody.

Preaching the crusade at Partrishow

Partrishow, tucked away in the folds of the Black Mountains, was named for a sixth century holy man called Issui, who settled beside a well in a remote hillside gully. The story goes that Issui was robbed and murdered by a passing traveller whom he had offered shelter for the night. The site became a place of pilgrimage, and the water from the well acquired healing properties. Early in the eleventh century a pilgrim who had been cured of sickness donated a bag of gold to build a church just up the hill from the well. 

An eleventh century megalithic font remains intact from those times, inscribed with the words ‘Menhir made me in the time of Genillin’. (Genyllin Foel was son of Rhys Coch, Prince of Powys and Lord of Ystradyw.) Later, in the fifteenth century, the church was rebuilt and a beautiful rood screen, carved of Irish oak, installed. A figure of Doom, armed with spade, scythe and hourglass, was added in the seventeenth century.

In 1188, the church was visited by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Forde. Baldwin was accompanied by a retinue of soldiers and servants, and an irascible clerk named Gerald of Wales (known alternatively as Giraldus Cambrensis or Gerallt Gymro). Gerald was of Norman and Welsh lineage, and was a complex character, who had allegiances toward the Welsh, but whose Norman ancestry, and the fact that the Normans held the reins of power, meant that, by and large, he remained a spokesman for the occupiers. This was his summary of the people of the Black Mountains:

‘The natives of these parts are much given to implacable quarrels and never-ending disputes. They spend their time fighting each other and shed their blood freely in internecine feuds. I leave it to others to tell you about the inhuman crimes which have been committed there in our lifetime: marriages most cruelly brought about, inflicted rather than contracted, only to be cut short by separation and bloodshed, and many other savage acts of violence.’

The purpose of Bishop Baldwin’s journey through Wales was to recruit for the Third Crusade (1189-92). I try to imagine the scene, the priest, decked out in his finery, shouting out his sermon beneath the stone cross that still stands by the entrance to the little church. 

But what would those shepherds and landless peasants — people who laboured to eke out a living from this ungiving soil — have made of the Archbishop’s summons to travel countless miles across the sea to save the city of God?

At the time of the crusades, the ordinary foot-soldiers, the kind being recruited by Baldwin here in the Black Mountains, believed that the Jerusalem they were being sent to deliver from the occupying Moslems was one and the same city as that described by John in his Book of Revelation: a glittering bejewelled city which promised the attainment of eternal bliss. They would have been sorely disappointed by what they found.

Baldwin never returned from the crusade. Having set off in April 1190 alongside Richard the Lion Heart as commander in chief of the army, he arrived in the Holy Land in September, ahead of his king.  Shortly afterward, plague ravaged the crusaders’ camp and Baldwin died near Acre, before the year was out. 

Gerald of Wales also failed in his ambition, which was to become Bishop of St David’s, in Pembrokeshire. After years of dispute, in which he failed to convince Pope Innocent III to agree his appointment to the bishopric, he resigned from his post as archdeacon of Brecon and wrote a letter of complaint to the pope, which famously includes these words: 

‘Because I am a Welshman am I to be debarred from all preferments in Wales? On the same reasoning so would an Englishman in England, a Frenchman in France, and Italian in Italy. But I am sprung from the Princes of Wales and the Barons of the Marches, and when I see injustice in either race I hate it.’

On Macnamara’s road

Tal-y-maes bridge and the so-called Macnamara’s road.

If you walk the same routes over and over, then on each occasion you not only walk the walk in the present tense, but you carry with you the memory of every time you did the walk before, your hippocampus a repository for the sense impressions and visions and emotional turbulence of whatever preoccupied you on those earlier occasions, all those things you have forgotten, or seem to have forgotten, until flagged into consciousness by the rustle of a fern, or the cluster of red berries on the hawthorn tree and the contingent secrets of all these byways, childhood picnics downstream from the bridge, and the view up the famous Macnamara road. And there’s the thing.

For as long as I can recall this track up from Taly-y-maes bridge has been the source of stories about the eponymous John Macnamara, Lord of Llangoed Hall, a member of the original Hellfire Club, and a famous gambler, drinker and brawler, the very stuff of Byronic legend. Allegedly Macnamara won Llangoed Hall in a card game, settled there with his wife Mary (the full tale is rendered in faux-Regency prose by Horatio Clare on the Brecon Beacons website here). 

The story goes that Macnamara had the legendary road built so as to visit his mistress, whom he had installed at the Hermitage, further down the valley (in Clare’s sanitised version, she is a wronged woman, Charlotte H, whom Macnamara generously offers to house, away from danger, in the middle of nowhere). One night, during a drunken race (with the devil, perhaps) Macnamara was thrown from his coach on the col at Pen Trumau and broke his neck. And that was that. His widow, Mary, inherited the estate, and erected border stones at Pen Twyn Glas and a dozen other locations to establish the limits of her property. 

The last part is true, but almost nothing else.

In an illuminating article, ‘Macnamara Myths’, Miriam Griffiths pretty much lays this fable to rest with one acerbic sentence: ‘John Macnamara was not much interested in his Welsh estate; several of his letters refer to the fact that he is in England while his wife and family are in Wales and it is perhaps improbable that a man would install a mistress on the inaccessible outer fringes of his less-favourite estate.’ Moreover, as we discover, the so-called ‘Macnamara’s road’ is pure invention too. It has never been more than a bridleway or horse track, and certainly would not have sustained a wheeled carriage of the kind used two hundred years ago, let alone one driven at speed by a shit-faced rake. Oh, and there was never such a thing as the ‘Hellfire Club’, and the closest thing to it, Sir Francis Dashwood’s, ceased operations in 1766, when John Macnamara was eleven years old.

There was indeed a road built by a Macnamara, but it ran south from the Hermitage, as does the present road to Llanbedr, and was most likely built, or improved by John’s son Arthur, while carrying out work on the Hermitage during the 1830s and 1840s. 

And yet it doesn’t matter. History trumps fiction, but so what? Still we carry these stories with us, like the landscape and the memory of falling and the red berries of the Hawthorn tree.

False Bravado and the Stone of Revenge

On New Year’s Eve we climb the Ffwyddog ridge, that separates the valley of Grwyne Fawr from the Vale of Ewyas. It is warm for the time of year, but not so warm, nor so dry that we do not need extra layers and raincoats. The sun makes an effort to break through layers of cumulus, but to little avail. Once there is the glimmer of a rainbow, but the particles that form it dissolve almost as quickly as they assemble, or more correctly speaking, we are standing in the wrong place to see it. Everything is in motion; everything is a part of the spiral.

The contours of these hills shift with each change of the light, and with every turn of a story. Let’s imagine that the course of the earth’s trajectory shifts by a fraction of a millimetre, almost imperceptibly. You are a Norman baron on a journey across Wales, and you make the decision, at a given moment, to send your men-at-arms home, keeping only a bard and a fiddler and a clown. You are advised by your trusted companion that this might not be best idea when travelling through hostile territory, but the day is bright and it is springtime. What could possibly go wrong?

On the Ffwyddog ridge stands Dial Garreg, the stone of revenge. Here, on 15 April 1136, Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare and his small retinue were cut down in an ambush led by Morgan ap Owain, Lord of Caerleon, his brother Iorwerth, and their men. De Clare was en route to Ceredigion after returning to Wales in the company of his friend Brian Fitz Count de Wallingford, who held the Barony of Abergavenny. The two men had probably spent the night at Brian’s castle there.

Gerald of Wales, in his Journey Through Wales, written fifty years after the event, takes up the story:

‘A short time after the death of Henry I, King of the English, it happened that Richard de Clare, a nobleman of high birth who, in addition to the Clare estates, held Cardiganshire in South Wales, passed this way . . . He was accompanied by a large force of men-at-arms led by Brian de Wallingford, then overlord of this area, who was acting as his guide through the pass. When they reached the entrance to the wood, Richard de Clare sent back Brian and his men, and rode unarmed into the forest, although this was much against Brian’s wishes, and indeed, against his express advice. Richard was foolish enough to imagine the trackway was safe. Ahead of him went a singer to announce his coming and a fiddler who accompanied the singer on his instrument. From then onwards things happened very quickly. The Welsh had prepared an ambush for Richard. All of a sudden Iorwerth, the brother of Morgan of Caerleon, and others of their family, rushed out from where they were hidden in the thickets, cut down Richard de Clare and most of his men, and made off with their baggage which they had seized in this savage way. Just how ill-advised and foolhardy it is to be presumptuous is made only too obvious by disasters of this sort. We learn to be careful about the future and to exercise caution even when all seems to be going well. To rush on regardless is simply false bravado. It is at once rash and inconsiderate to take no heed at all of the advice given by those who are trying to help us.’

Despite this the sanctimonious advice after the event, I do find it strange that Gerald tells us that Richard entered the woods ‘unarmed’ — which would have been unheard of for a man of his position at this time.

The Welsh were mightily peeved by the intrusion of the Norman marcher barons, such as de Clare, onto their territory, what with their tithes and taxes, their habit of lording over the locals, a habit which has been pursued by the English towards the Welsh ever since. This assassination was but a small item in the period of unrest that followed the death of Henry I of England, prelude to a gruelling litany of betrayals and bloodbaths that took place over several centuries on these borderlands between the Norman, and later Anglo-Norman barons, and their Welsh (and sometimes Cymro-Norman) neighbours. 

After the killing of de Clare, Morgan went on to capture Usk castle, and thus ruled over the area now known as Monmouthshire, calling himself King of Gwent. His lordship of Caerleon, at least, was recognised by Henry II, but only until 1158, when Morgan and his bard Gwrgant ap Rhys were, in their turn, murdered by Ifor Bach, the Welsh lord of Senghenydd, famous for scaling Cardiff Castle with a ladder and kidnapping its incumbent, William Fitz Robert, Earl of Gloucester, along with his wife and child. Ifor carried out his abduction in retaliation for Fitz Robert’s theft of land that Ifor claimed as his own, and he succeeded in this mission. 

A well-known Cardiff night club is named after Ifor Bach. Nothing much is named after Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare, but the stone of revenge stands as testament to his recklessness. The story suggests that this area was once densely wooded, as were other swathes of these hills.

Following the lane back down the Grwyne Fawr valley, we pass a corrugated iron shed, on one side of which are the words BEWARE DOG, and on the other, in the photo, THIEVES AGAIN. This message could be read in several ways.

On the Cat’s Back

Sometimes our reading maps onto our walks. Or vice versa. The night before I had been reading in Raymond Williams’ People of the Black Mountains how Glyn goes in search of his Taid one evening, when the older man fails to return from a long walk in the hills. He has left a note for this daughter, Megan, and grandson Glyn, which includes the lines: 

‘It is such a lovely day, so still and bright, that I’m taking a lift back . . . so that I can go once again along the best of all walks through these mountains: what you’ve heard me call its heart line. I shall go up by Twyn y Gaer and along its old pastures to the Stone of Vengeance, then to the old circle at Garn Wen and the Ewyas tower, along the ridge above the reservoir . . . across Gospel Pass and along the ridge to Penybeacon, then as always above Blaen Mynwy and past Llech y Ladron to our spot height above Blaen Olchon and so along the Cat’s Back to the Rhew and the lane to the house.’

A conversation has just taken place between Glyn and his mother, Megan, in which Megan has expressed concern about her father’s late return:

‘Has he been well?’ Megan asked, forcing her voice.

‘Yes, as usual. He’s got so much more energy than the rest of us.’

‘Seems to have more energy.’

‘Yes, because he lives in one piece.’ ‘

‘He’s sixty-eight, Glyn.’

‘In one piece, in one place. It makes all the difference.’

So that is the opening premise, and like Glyn, who sets out to do his Taid’s walk in reverse, we ventured up Crib y Gath (the Cat’s Back) in his footsteps. Given that it was a day of low hanging cloud in late December, our expectations were limited, but I was also deeply conscious of my own investment in these mountains, and of what I have learned about them, and continue to learn, over many years. Williams also had thoughts, which he expressed, via his protagonist Glyn, in another passage:

‘Solid traces of memory! The mountains were too open, too emphatic, to be reduced to personal recollection: the madeleine, the shout in the street. What moved, if at all, in the moonlit expanse was a common memory, over a common forgetting. In what could be seen as its barrenness, under this pale light, there might be the sense of tabula rasa: an empty ground on which new shapes could move. Yet that ideal of a dissident and dislocated mind, that illusion of clearing a space for wholly novel purposes, concealed, as did these mountains, old and deep traces along which lives still moved. An empty and marginal land, in which the buried history was still full and general, was waiting to be touched and to move.’

Over the past month, over several excursions, I have become accustomed to a very particular light in which these hillsides bathe when the cloud is thinning and the sun is about to drop behind the western skyline. The effect of this densely filtered sunlight — beginning about an hour before sunset — is to cast an amber wash over everything, so that the whole spread of the upland; the peat bogs, the wide expanse of tussock grass and sphagnum, all of it, is luminescent with an understated warming glow. Unfortunately, this light does not translate.

The state into which I plunge is paradoxical; both deeply present and yet strangely detached, as though, like Williams’ protagonist, with ‘dissident and dislocated mind’ I too were ‘moving over an empty ground on which new shapes could move’.

For a moment, then, I consider this steep-sided ridge, Crib y Gath, as a mighty ship, plying the deep pasturelands, into a sea of mist. At the far prow, on a rocky outpost, can be seen a single figure — my daughter Rhiannon — unwittingly performing the lead role in a Caspar David Friedrich painting. To the right, the cloud covers the Olchon valley and creeps  up the walls of Hatterrall Hill. In that moment everything lies fully within view, circumscribed by mist and as improbable as the hawthorn that sprouts at right angles to the rock. In fact the entire landscape creates its own rules of harmony, lives by its own innate rhythms. There is a symmetry to it all, which I cannot fathom, but which, as the years pass, seems ever more deeply to resemble a kind of consciousness.