Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Talybont Experience

"We go this way," said my husband, pointing out the route of the Henry Vaughan walk, just before going back to our guest house to fetch something from the boot of the car. "See? Just down there. It's straightforward." 

It sounded straightforward.  How was I to know he was holding the map upside down?  I reckon he did it deliberately.

When we caught up with one another about 15 minutes later, we headed up the old Bryn Oer (or Brinore) tramway track that once carried horse-drawn trucks of stone from local quarries down to the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal at Talybont-on-Usk for transport to Pontypridd and Newport. After a short while we arrived at the "Henry Vaughan Garden". The information panel gave the impression that this was meant to be along the lines of a 17th-century physic garden, but I could not see any plants other than grass. There was a very nice seat carved out of a tree trunk, and the stumpy base of a wooden structure - I think it must have been a bench - that had either been vandalised or simply rotted away.

In some places, the trail was difficult to follow because the swan motifs that marked the way had either been removed or had perished.  In my innocence, I had assumed that the route would take us to Henry Vaughan's grave at Llansantffraed Church, but it went nowhere near.  I suppose that the reason is the A40 which cuts off the church from the Talybont community it originally served. Nowadays only a handful of houses are within easy walking distance of the church, and the layby that provides the only parking place can get very congested when there is a special event taking place, as there was on Saturday evening.

"The Albatross meets the Swan" is a slogan that has been used locally this year to mark a series of events recognising the 200th anniversary of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's work Biographia Literaria, at the same time commemorating Coleridge's visit to Wales in June 1794.  Like Siegfried Sassoon, Coleridge had dropped out of Cambridge (Henry Vaughan dropped out of Oxford) and, in the company of a friend named Joseph Hucks, he set off on a walking tour. Having been rejected in love by Mary Evans, a London Welsh girl, he decided to walk around her homeland; I do not know whether this was a coincidence. 

Interior of Llansantffraed Church
Coleridge eventually ended up in Bristol, where he settled for a while.  In 1795, he gave a lecture that was attended by the Welsh pseudo-bard Iolo Morganwg, a man whose reputation as a charlatan has been repaired in recent years by academic recognition of the more positive aspects of his activities, so much so that his home town of Cowbridge now has a "Iolo Morganwg Trail" and a school named after him. Coleridge's words made a big impact on Iolo, and thus an indirect impact on the cultural development of Wales, just as the Welsh landscape and people are said to have made an impact on Coleridge's own work.

Henry Vaughan died a hundred years before Coleridge met Iolo. Thus "The Albatross" (Coleridge) could never have encountered "The Swan" (Vaughan was known as "The Swan of Usk") in person. But he travelled through the Usk valley so beloved of Vaughan, and did so when walking was not such a fashionable occupation as it is now. The concert given on Saturday evening was planned by the Brecknock Society as a homage to both Coleridge and Vaughan, a combination of music, song and poetry "celebrating God, nature and Man".

Coleridge's poetry was not heard, the reason given being that he had written very little of it when he embarked on his Welsh odyssey. Several of Vaughan's poems were read, by two local enthusiasts, Robert Wilcher and Mervyn Bramley.  The music was performed by Dr Bramley's son - lutenist James Bramley, by the soprano Hannah Medlam, and by the Unicorn Singers under the direction of Stephen Marshall.  It included works by Parry, Elgar and Vaughan Williams, composers who straddled the turn of the 20th century and whose work would have been well known to Siegfried Sassoon, but also by earlier composers such as Dowland and Purcell (the latter died in the same year as Henry Vaughan). A highlight was Stephen Marshall's own arrangement of verses by local poet Jeff Rees, on a Welsh mythological theme.

If you would like to support Llansantffraed Church and the work being done locally to encourage interest in Henry Vaughan and, indirectly, in Siegfried Sassoon, you can find further information here: .  

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Siegfried versus Ali

I do not, of course, refer to an imaginary boxing match between our hero and the recently-departed Muhammad Ali. Such a contest would be extremely one-sided, Siegfried's reach being of little assistance against the sheer speed and skill of such an opponent; he would be lucky if he lasted a round against the "Black Superman".

No, I was thinking more of a comparison between the two men as cultural icons who became serious political figures because of the moral stance they took in two very different wars. Many of you "baby boomers" reading this will still remember Cassius Clay, the young man who started boxing at the age of twelve, won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics and went on to become heavyweight champion of the world at twenty-two.  Those who do not remember "the greatest" in his heyday - or at all - may find it hard to understand why he was so widely admired and simultaneously reviled by different sections of society, especially in his US homeland.

He was born during the Second World War, one of five children, brought up a Baptist in the city of Louisville, Kentucky (hence he earned the nickname "The Louisville Lip", among many others). Even after being knocked to the floor in two of his early professional bouts - one of them with Britain's beloved Henry Cooper - he remained unbeaten and soon came up against the champion, Sonny Liston, a man with a criminal record and Mafia connections, who, some suspect, was using ointment on his gloves to temporarily blind his opponents. Clay fought through it to emerge victorious, and quickly established himself as a man with a big mouth, who defeated his opponents through a combination of outstanding physical prowess and psychology.

Like Sassoon - though at the same time quite unlike Sassoon - Clay was a poet. Prior to his match with Liston, he came up with a 14-line verse that culminated:

   "Yes, the crowd did not dream, when they put up the money, 
   That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny."

Before winning back his title from George Foreman in 1975, he claimed:

   "I can run through a hurricane and don't get wet.
   When George Foreman meets me,
    He'll pay off his debt."

Call it doggerel if you like, but can you name another boxer who would not have been ashamed to produce original verse?

Less than a year after winning the title, Clay shocked the world again by converting to Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali.  Following one of several successful defences of his title in 1967, it all came to an end, seemingly forever, when Ali was convicted of draft-dodging and sentenced to five years in prison. His explanation for his actions was quite simple:

"My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father... Just take me to jail."

Despite this, he was denied the status of conscientious objector.  After a successful appeal in 1970, but having lost his licence to box, Ali had begun to take on the status of a popular hero.  Those who had found him arrogant and offensive in his youth saw that there was another side to him.  His refusal to fight began to win him popularity, especially among the younger generation, so that, by the time his conviction was overturned on appeal, many were disappointed to see him defeated, for the first time in his career, by Joe Frazier, whom Ali had dismissed as "too ugly to be champion".

But Ali bounced back.  In 1974, the 32-year-old won back his world title, and he managed to hold on to it for four years, despite several close calls. Sadly, his career lasted too long; he was still fighting, and losing, in 1980. It was then that he began to display the first tell-tale symptoms of Parkinson's Disease, which he would continue to battle for the next thirty-plus years.

Michael Parkinson, who interviewed Ali on British television several times, says that an appearance by Ali guaranteed his chat show an additional two million viewers, but at the same time admits that he didn't ever feel he had got to know the boxer properly.  Like most of us, he found it hard to tell when Ali was being serious and when he was playing a psychological game with his audience.

President Obama, on the other hand, is a long-time admirer and said that Ali "shook up the world" and "fought for us" (meaning America's black population).  "He spoke out when others wouldn't," added the president.

When you look at it that way, Ali is almost unique - a sportsman who had a much wider appeal than merely to sports fans. Call him an entertainer, call him a political activist, call him a philosopher-poet if you like. George Foreman said of their encounter, "Little did I know I would be facing something greater than a boxer."  How does one account for this level of popularity?

To compare Muhammad Ali with Siegfried Sassoon would be like comparing chalk with cheese.  One was brash and loud, the other diffident and self-effacing, but both were men of principle. Moreover, both were full of contradictions.  And both left an indelible mark on their times.