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Authors: Andrew McNeillie

Tags: #Wales, #biography, #memoir

Once

BOOK: Once
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for
Anna-Mae & Isabelle

Once
Andrew McNeillie

Seren is the book imprint of
Poetry Wales Press Ltd
Nolton Street, Bridgend, Wales

www.serenbooks.com

© Andrew McNeillie, 2009

The right of Andrew McNeillie to be identified as the Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

ISBN 978-1-85411-637-6

A CIP record for this title is available from the British Library

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted at any time or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the copyright holders.

Ebooks conversion by Caleb Woodbridge

The publisher works with the financial assistance of the Welsh Books Council

He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.

Ecclesiastes

Tu te rappellera la beauté des caresses...

Charles Baudelaire

The Known World

The plane came out at the mouth of the Dee before turning west for Ireland. As soon as I saw the black river, at its dissolution in the Irish Sea, on such a clear winter's day, I had mentally to blink twice to be sure I could trust my eyes. No, it was not for a minute the murky Mersey, it was the dark-hearted Dee, the black Welsh river far dearer to my heart.

As to my heart, I could only find further warm pleasure in the fact that I flew aboard a plane of the Aer Arann line, my destination Galway. ‘Arann' here refers to the ‘Aran' Islands, at the mouth of Galway Bay, where, on Inis Mór, I lived for all but a year in my young manhood, a story to which this is the belated prequel.

The thought made me remember how in my youth I had loved to dream over the map of Britain and Ireland. I relished coastlines and rivers most, estuaries, islands, peninsulas, capes, headlands, bays and inlets. I loved them in outline and I loved the words for them. What is called the littoral, life at the margins, and its lexicon, enchanted me, seduced me. The sight of a harbour with fishing boats and the glimpsed lives of those aboard them chastened me especially. Perhaps I should have gone to sea. Whatever I am, I'm sure I should not have become what I am. Not at least without the great good fortune of having been born and brought up beside the Irish Sea in post-war North Wales, with a writer for a father.

As I flew I remembered a similar flight to Ireland made when I was four. An unusual event in our lives, it was afforded by a book by my father called
No Resting Place
, subsequently filmed in Co. Wicklow, by Paul Rotha, with Abbey and Gate Theatre players. The mental footage of that journey reeled in my mind now. Here I was in its slipstream, physically, ghosting my childish progress in both body and mind. My former embodiment had flown aboard a Dakota, from Speke to Dublin. That was on another bright day in 1951, late July, like this one in February 2006, free of muffling cotton-wool cloud.

There's nothing like an aerial view for showing how fleeting life is, local and lost. The earth literally slips away before our eyes, after our eyes, into our wake. The earth abides forever says the text. But what remembrance of former things is there between generations? Houses rise and fall. Roads come and go. Families die out. Land is consumed by settlement. Villages grow into towns. Rivers are diverted or dammed. Valleys and worlds are drowned. (Cofiwch Dryweryn reads the famous slogan by the road, the most famous slogan in Wales: Remember Tryweryn, the drowned village.) What do our individual labours and endeavours amount to, and our great passions, sorrows, loves and fears, our brave adventures, our little obscure lives, our moments of courage? Don't even mention our pettinesses and vices. Even if we seize the day? And who in reality seizes the day but the day seizes first?

What I write here now, if it sees the light of day, being too soon starved of readers will perish on the air like the May-fly under the alder, where the Dee runs dark as the Styx, beneath brooding Welsh clouds. Yet the printed word once hatched has power of survival second only to the stones. I put my faith in it, against all prospect of disaster. I put my faith in the word. The word made gooseflesh, tingling with remembrance, joy and sorrow, the soul made flesh, grounded in the world. We must make a virtue of what we do when it is plainly not a vice. What else? When we can do no other?

The printed words you're about to read are a relief map of my mind, of the known world, as I knew it once and as I see its lineaments now. I call the sum of them my ideal legendary story. Don't look here for date and fact and mere sequence of events. This is no curriculum vitae. Nor is it anything approaching such a godforsaken thing, such a travesty of being. (As the poet Les Murray revising the
Book of Common Prayer
has put it: ‘In the midst of life, we are in employment'. As I would have added in my youth, in the midst of life we are in education.)

The view from the plane reminded me of co-ordinates that mesmerised me in my boyhood and youth beyond reason: triangulations, between the Red Wood, the Black Lake, the Wooded Hill, and places farther afield. Travel directly west on the same line of latitude as the Wooded Hill, with just a little latitude, and you'll come to Inis Mór: another limestone territory too. Go no less directly north across the Irish Sea and you'll reach the Ancient Kingdom of Galloway – Little Ireland – whence McNeillies derive.

How I loved to dream awake along those rectilinear lines. They were lines in a poem. They were my heart's armature. They defined and structured my legendary and imaginative territory. They entranced me and filled me with longing to adventure, to leave, to go the longest way round to come the shortest way home. Now I recalled, as we flew over Llandudno (which takes its water supply from the Black Lake), how in the old grammar school there (recent rubble rebuilt on now), in the sixth form, I had become infatuated by Charles Baudelaire's poetry of the voyage. His lines that tell of the child who loves maps and prints, lines that exclaim how big the world is by the sharp light of a reading lamp, could themselves delay me for minutes on end, in a kind of melancholy distraction. Don't ask me why. Passions can't be explained. We come into the world as we are. My siblings haven't lived as I have done, remotely. Nor have they lived like each other.

Now, on this day, how small was the world from the air, how big it loomed in memory, how much detail and incident swarmed around that coast, those toy headlands and seaboard hills and limestone bluffs, woods, rivers and mountains, the territory of the Red Wood and seven tiny miles west of it, the Wooded Hill. My mind zoomed in and out, not just from my literal vantage point, in mid-air, but from another world and being, a world of other knowledges amassed and distances travelled without resting place, by one then nearly a sixty-year stranger: how many times removed? But still, for all that, I was unforgetting and vitally grounded there, though time is unforgiving. My mind's eye still searched there, compulsive in its quest, and my pulse quickened at sight and thought of that childhood country by the Irish Sea, the plot and ground of my first story. As I looked down on it, I saw it all in detail, in a myriad flashbacks. I saw at once how I'd write it, as a triptych comprising: The Red Wood, The Black Lake, and The Wooded Hill. Just as you may read it now, if you please.

The Red Wood

Lunch-hour was announced to our stretch of coast by a wartime siren sounding the all-clear. Not that it hadn't all been clear for some time now, along that coast over which you have just flown, surveying the known world.

These were the late forties and early fifties. The war was over. But nothing begins or ends at once. The war still pervaded our lives. We were the fruits of its supposed cessation, we children in our boom year. It left some of our number with mothers only. One or two of us, seeming fatherless, were said to be half American, for our trouble. Here was one, they said, in the language of that era, with a touch of the tar brush. Though we thought nothing of that. Except I remember fascination, as to darker skin that darkened to brown in the summer, not freckled and tinder-quick to scorch red and peel, like my own epidermis.

A great horde of children we were, spawned in careless hope and joy at last, to fill the village with vigorous new life.

* * *

That siren wailing from Laundry Hill, on the outskirts of the Bay, seemed to make your tummy rumble, it was so well timed. The workers at the laundry dispersed home. A mile or so away in Pa D's Primary we must wait a little longer for a second all-clear, the school bell, a large hand-bell shaken along the corridor. But the siren whetted our appetites and primed us.

Now, when I think back to it, among the many echoes in my mind from wartime news footage, blitz-time movies and so on, the eerie siren-noise feels like the key to Belsen, shutter-gate to a hell of harrowing reels of celluloid... wailing, wailing... to a hell that had been visited on my parents' generation, all over Europe. But we took the Laundry Hill siren in our childish stride. It was just a normal part of daily life, blaring out, winding itself up and winding itself down, an inhalation and a sigh, to let us know lunch wasn't far away.

I suppose it was half-a-mile or so, for me, downhill and over Colwyn stream in Llawr Pentre. Then uphill I'd hurry past the terraced houses of Pen-y-Bryn and Edwards-the-blacksmith and horse-dealer's forge, and round the back of Ratcliffe's Engineering Works through the Fairy Glen, past Willy Winky the gardener's shed, across the little stream and through among the trees and shrubs, to ‘Thornfield' on the Red Wood road. A place of cackling jackdaws and whistling songbirds and whisper and rush of Colwyn stream from the bosky Denbighshire back country.

At ‘Thornfield', ‘Workers' Playtime' would be on the Wireless, or ‘Have a Go' (‘Give him the money, Mabel'), and the News, read in a patrician voice that spoke from London. What a world it was in which only the lower classes had accents. Know your place. Hence the Elocution Lesson. As my sister knew, being surely one of the last girls in Wales to graduate in received pronunciation, at the end of an era. As I knew, corrected by my parents when, deliberately erring to test them, I'd pronounce ‘lorry' as ‘lurry', in the local manner.

Even as a young child I tried them consciously. I resented keeping two worlds between home and the Red Wood road. The idea was, I suppose, for us all to sound like news readers or those women who sold cake-mixes or appliances, the first white goods, on the first television adverts, obscure relations of the queen of England, but sexually charged, as queerly they were. A strange world indeed, and yet it was a shadow of what it had been fifty years before, before both wars. Tug your forelock if you please. Know your betters.

Not that I don't know mine. How can you put pen to paper and not? How can you read the great writings spawned in our unnameable archipelago and not know your place? You are not on time's radar. Believe me, but give voice, as the songbird does careless of its doom.

But still, look sharp… it's 1953. Here comes Captain Miller with his pepper and salt moustache, and all the men on the road, one way or another, touching their hats or caps to my mother. Here's Mr Edwards the quarryman upright as a sledgehammer shaft, in his Sunday black bowler off to Church (Church in Wales). A nod and gesture with one hand at the rim. Look lively… ‘A peach' the men at Ratcliffe's called her.

There must have been a day when the lunchtime siren wailed no more. But I don't remember it. Nor do I know when, if ever, as a small child, I connected its haunting cry with the war, the war that also marked our lives in other ways: rationing of meat, butter, eggs, sugar, soap... sweets... other essentials, in our ‘Food Control Area'. Covered lorries in convoy trundled through the village. National Service soldiers in the back of them wolf-whistled at my mother, on their way to Kinmel Camp. Snub Meteors and box-like De Havilland jet planes soared greyly across the cold-war sky above. Now and then on a fine day we might see an Atomic cloud, mushroom beyond Pentr'uchaf or above the schoolyard, or out at sea, and pretend the end of the world was coming our way. Take a deep breath. Climb inside a brown paper-bag.... It was no age of innocence, but we at least possessed the innocence of childhood, happily murky with sin though we were, from the day we were born, in Calvinistic Wales.

BOOK: Once
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