Saturday, November 28, 2009

Tempus Fugit

You're a journalist, you've got to come up with some copy, so you produce a list. You know, the 3 most intelligent drummers or the 101 greatest outside halves born in Cefneithin, that sort of thing. Television stations also get in on the act fairly regularly and now historian John Davies enters the fray with a new book, or I guess an English translation Wales: The 100 Places To See Before You Die.

Davies lists just three Radnorian places worthy of a visit before you snuff it, Llananno Church, The Pales and Presteigne. Um, that should take care of an afternoon, with plenty of time to plan a visit to such nearby attractions as Talgarth and Newtown. Indeed although Mr D's book will no doubt be fairly readable, his list does seem a tad non-specific: the outskirts of Newport, the Rhondda townscape, the Lower Swansea valley, Kenfig and the surrounding area.

Anyway it's not a volume I'll be over eager to find in my Christmas stocking, unlike this, but what about some of the Radnorshire attractions Mr Davies missed:

The Elan Valley and especially the pipeline. How many people realise that the water runs the 73 miles to Brum by the force of gravity alone. There's green for you. What about the Showground in Llanelwedd or the increasingly less genteel decay of Victorian Llandrindod Wells. I'd include the tomb of Tomas ap Rhosier and Elen Gethin in Kington parish church. OK I know that's Herefordshire, but why take any notice of a border drawn up by some ill-informed bureaucrat 470 odd years ago.

Any more suggestions for Radnorian places for inclusion on the list?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

No-Man's Land

Back in the early 1970s the University of Wales Press came out with a sizeable volume called the Linguistic Geography of Wales, an attempt to map the various Welsh dialects. The methodology was to seek out elderly folk from long established local backgrounds and analyse their use or non-use of various words.

The map shows the location of the individuals providing the data and it is clear that a great deal of care has gone into finding subjects, even in areas where the traditional dialects had virtually disappeared, in Shropshire for example, or on the Usk below Brecon.

But what is this large white hole in Builth hundred, an area of great interest as a place where the Northern, Western and Southern dialects might have overlapped? Surely the researchers could have found subjects in Abergwesyn, Llanafan or Llangammarch. It's an omission that has puzzled me ever since.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Radnorshire Ripper

Thomas Edwards' confession was plain enough, he wanted to kill prostitutes "I intended going to Newport and killing one or two there, I should have gone, only I had no money." As it was he managed to pick up a local girl, Mary Connolly, who took him into a garden off Abergavenny's Hatherleigh Road where he cut her throat with a razor. When her body was found she was still clutching Edwards' shilling in her hand.

Edwards, the press reports said he was 30, although the census returns suggest he was nearer 40, calmly walked into the police station a couple of days after the murder to confess. Both newspapers and census returns agreed that the killer was a Radnorian, he came originally from Llanbister said the Western Mail. Edwards was a former soldier in the Shropshire Regiment who had not taken to civilian life; he had been sent away from the Blaenavon works, a workmate claimed, because of his peculiarities and occasionally found himself in the local spike. Edwards was quick to point out that his Bleddfa born mother had spent many years in the Abergavenny asylum, clearly his defence would be based on insanity.

Mary Connolly was a 23 year old daughter of the Irish Diaspora, living with her Cork born father in Pant Street, "a little disreputable lane." Mary had herself only been released from prison on the morning of the killing. The census lists her as a charwoman, although this was clearly not her sole source of income. Indeed Edwards claimed that she had stolen £2 from his person some months before.

Justice was dealt out quickly in Victorian Wales. Three medical experts declared him sane and there being no doubt about his guilt Edwards was sentenced to death. On December 22nd 1892, just three months after the slaying, the hangman Billington carried out the court's sentence in Usk jail.

Language Apartheid?

I've always found John Redwood's former side-kick Hywel Williams an abrasive but welcome addition to the world of Welsh politics. We need such contrarian voices and his attacks on the public-purse dependency of so much of the Welsh middle class are well-aimed. At the same time his recent article on Welsh history in the Guardian is something of a damp squip. Yes, Welsh history could well do with some more revisionists, it's one of the reasons I find Robert Stradling such an interesting writer. But who exactly are these dull and introspective historians Williams castigates? He doesn't tell us and I think we should be told.

One reader who was impressed with Williams' article was Llandrindod blogger and former Liberal Democrat councillor David Peter. Indeed Mr Peter widens the debate somewhat. Devolution has led to Welsh people becoming "more introverted and self-absorbed, self-obsessed even" all at "the expense of a broader and more balanced international perspective." Now I would have thought that the Assembly concentrates on domestic matters because that is its remit. Although where it can, in education policy for example, it has looked beyond England to European models.

Turning to language issues Mr Peter identifies "a language apartheid that has been steadily constructed over the past thirty years." This is a puzzle? Is Mr Peter referring to the establishment of a Welsh TV channel perhaps, or Welsh medium education? Maybe it is the rights extended to Welsh speakers to use their language in the courts and to a limited extent in public life that provokes such an odious comparison? I had thought that the Lib Dems were in favour of devolution and language equality, or have they now been reduced to going after the Little Englander UKIP vote?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Forgotten Radnorian - Selina Price

Anyone wanting to purchase some cheap artwork with a Radnorian connection for Christmas could do worse than picking up an engraving by the Bloomsbury based Sidney Hall.

Hall died in 1831 and his business was kept going, "quietly and anonymously" for the next 20 or so years by his Radnorshire born widow Selina Price (1777-1853).

Sidney's work is signed Sidy Hall but anything bearing the signature S Hall is actually the work of Selina, as in this splendid map of Ireland.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Language Shift in Builth Hundred

At the start of the 20th Century there were still a fair numbers of folk who spoke only Welsh in the old cantref of Buallt. In the Builth Rural District Council area these monoglots totalled around 500, over 10% of the population. Yet although Welsh speakers were still a majority in the council area, some 41% spoke only English.

It's as well to remember that language shift is a process. In the over 65 age group 82% of the population of Builth RDC were able to speak Welsh, compared with 43% aged between 3 and 14. Clearly Welsh was far from dead in the district, but in reality the war had already been lost and the future belonged to English. The map shows the percentage of monoglots in each parish for example in Tirabad (Llandulas) Welsh monglots totalled 69% whereas English monoglots totalled 2% - the bilingual population was therefore 29%. In parishes west of the blue line Welsh speakers were in the majority, in Llanwrthwl parish figures are distorted by the large numbers of migrant workers engaged on building the Elan Valley dams.

There's an interesting chapter on the dialect of the area starting at page 97 of this book.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Iron Mike

Owen Slot, Chief Sports Reporter of the Times newspaper, has come in for some well-deserved criticism, after describing Merthyr as "not the most obvious of destinations" for a Mike Tyson visit during his current tour of the UK. Or England as Slot has it . Of course there are few towns in the world with such a rich boxing heritage as Merthyr Tydfil, and certainly none with three public statues celebrating pugilistic heroes of the recent past. Mike Tyson, for all his faults, is a knowledgeable follower of ring history, so his visit to the town is not as surprising as Slot suggests.

So is Merthyr the nonpareil of Welsh boxing towns? With statues to Howard Winstone, Johnny Owen and Eddie Thomas it certainly makes such a claim plain to even the most casual visitor. As a youngster I can recall some of the old timers boasting of having sparred with the sparring partner of an earlier Merthyr fighter, Cuthbert Taylor, who had somehow made his way to our Radnorian village.

However, just 12 miles down the valley, Pontypridd can make an equal claim to boxing fame. The deeds of Freddie Welsh surely eclipse anything achieved by a Merthyr fighter, the likes of Nat Fleischer of Ring magazine would not rate you his fourth greatest lightweight of all time for nothing. Ponty was also the home of Frank Moody, another Welsh fighter who found fame in the US.

Even Pontypridd must bow to the nearby Rhondda Valley, home of tremendous battlers such as Tommy Farr, Percy Jones and above all the Tylorstown Terror Jimmy Wilde. Universally acclaimed as the best flyweight boxer of all time, Ring magazine voted Wilde its third greatest pound for pound puncher, behind Joe Louis and Sam Langford, as recently as 2003. Sadly no-one has yet seen fit to erect a statue to this legendary Welshman.

No, when it comes to fighters, the mining valleys of South Wales are a pretty obvious place to go. Throw in Cardiff boxers like the No 2 rated featherweight of all time Peerless Jim Driscoll and nowhere outside the big cities of the United States has anything like a comparable boxing heritage.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Musical Interlude Update

Well someone claimed copyright so you tube took down the Tom Jones Gallic caper. Never mind, it gives me a chance to highlight some 60s gals with a gimmick, The Cake. Why don't they bring back 2 minute tracks?

BTW if you liked Eleanor Barooshian in that, you might not like this.

Morgan Elfael

While Radnorshire could compare with any Welsh county in its readiness to provide patronage to the bardic order, it must be admitted that the county - or those cantons which went to make up the modern county - produced few literary figures itself. Indeed the correspondent of Y Gwyliedydd writing in 1827, at a time when the Welsh language had retreated 20 miles in a generation, blamed this process of anglicization on the lack of local poets and literary figures.

It would be pleasant if evidence came to light showing that bards such as Bedo Brwynllys for example, actually derived their names from Radnorshire placenames, in his case Brwynllys in Llanddewi Ystradenni parish, rather than the generally accepted Breconshire Bronllys; but as it is, even a poet as associated with the county as Hywel ap Syr Mathew actually came from Llanfair Waterdine in Shropshire.

One bard that Radnorshire can certainly claim is Morgan Elfael, who in all probability came from Diserth and whose death is recorded in the Presteigne parish register in 1563. Many years ago I actually looked up the entry in the register at the Hereford Record Office, a tangible link - like the tomb of Elen Gethin and Tomas ap Rhosier in Kington church - with a past that in many ways seems almost mythical. Anyway Morgan was a fairly prolific bard with some 60 surviving poems hidden away in manuscript.

Ffrancis Payne published a long extract from one poem in Crwydro Sir Faesyfed but I've seen nothing else in print. The poem relates the adventures of a group of friends travelling to Arwystl, on the way they encounter a troll like creature. Here's my attempt at translating a few lines:

Philip fell in a heap,
Arse over head beneath the table,
Once more he got up, like a stupid dog
To grab hold a second time.
Dear God and his candles!
What a racket this angry wrestling match made!
Four hours they were fighting there,
Clumsily, arse over tip.
I've seen many, but he was the ugliest,
The dirty creature beneath Bedo.
There in plain view they saw
Bedo castrate the thing;
And throw him, a fat package,
Into the blazing fire on his bare backside.

It's interesting that Morgan uses South Wales dialect in this extract, cwnnu instead of codi and tawlu instead of taflu.