Symbolic Forest

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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘Wales’

Photo post of the week

Signs that spring is on the way

Work has stolen and sapped all of my energy this week. I’ve still found time, though, to go out walking; and although the weather has been bitterly cold there are signs that spring is coming. The trees are full of songbirds, too.


I’m entranced by this fallen electricity pylon, lying on its side battered and derelict, its structs bent and broken like some ancient reptilian fossil. My own local beached plesiosaur. I keep watching it from different angles; I really should come by with the Proper Camera.

Mynydd Machen

Similarly, I keep watching Mynydd Machen from different angles. I can see it from my window; sometimes invisible, sometimes flat and two-dimensional in mist, sometimes so bright and bold I could reach out and pick it up. On the wide-angle phone camera, though, it always looks small and disappointing.

Railway line

There will naturally be a proper railway history post at some point; I just need to put it together and decide exactly what I want to say, other than “this railway is much older than all those fancy modern upstarts like that one from Manchester to Liverpool”.

Grey cat

And finally, all cats are grey, as The Cure once upon a time said.

The colour of water

Or, the mountains and the lowlands

When I was younger, when most of the books I had were ones The Mother had bought from the local library’s “Withdrawn Stock” pile, one book she bought me was a 1960s beginners guide to going camping. I probably still have it, somewhere, although I’m not sure exactly where. It didn’t assume you would be going purely for the sort of camping we did, where you stayed on nice regular smooth green pitches, oh no. It covered the whole gamut from that sort of camping to wild camping, cycle touring, canoe camping, mountaineering, any sort of camping you might imagine. From it, I learned tips I’ve never come near to trying in real life, such as how to light a petrol stove,* or how to cook meat by strapping it to your car’s engine. I learned that in Scotland, you may have to sign the Poisons Register at your local chemists in order to buy meths, and that if you’re worried about camping near wild animals you can buy a tent to pitch on top of your car’s roof. One factoid from this book has stuck in my mind ever since, because of its gnomic inscrutability.

Do not drink Alpine river water—it contains powdered granite.

What effect does powdered granite have on the body? Why is it so dangerous? As there was no explanation at all, I have been left wondering ever since. As a child, I even wondered if maybe it would somehow turn you into stone, your skin going grey and hardening as the powdered granite flooded your arteries. I’ve still never been to the Alps—although I have camped along parts of the Rhine, which I suppose is still Alpine river water in a certain sense even when you’re a long long way downstream—but if I do, I’m sure subconsciously I’ll be treating the river water as if the slightest amount ingested could be fatal.

I’ve been thinking about that when going out for walks around the local area. When I lived in Bristol the local river was generally quite murky, full of silt and algae. The slightest rain and it would be a turbid brown colour. The river here is crystal-clear, and if you can’t see the bottom it’s a deep sea-green.


It always flows dangerously fast. If it rains, it rises, and going by the rubbish in the trees it can easily rise ten feet above its regular level. As soon as the rain stops, it only takes a day or two to start falling and for the water to clear again. Within a week there are gravelly banks and shallows, although with the strong currents always there a few feet away.


Is this water clear because it’s falling off the South Wales mountains, down from the fringes of the Brecon Beacons southwards, rather than soaking through the Gloucestershire soil? Or it it irredeemably toxic? I wouldn’t have thought so, and I’m sure the water is a lot cleaner than it was one or two hundred years ago. Moreover, is this what Alpine river water looks like? As I walk along the riverbank can I fantasise that I am walking along some Swiss mountain stream packed to the gills with powdered granite that will strike me down at the slightest sip? It’s rather unlikely (and the geology here is probably very different), but it’s a nice thought. It is, at least, another reminder that I’ve moved from the lowlands and I’m now in the mountains, if only in their foothills.

Over the weir

Wales is not a principality

But what is it?

As it’s St David’s Day, and the shops are all full of daffodils and Welsh cakes, I thought it might be worthwhile writing something about the history of Wales, possibly even a chain of posts. And the obvious starting point for that is: well, what is Wales?

Back when I was at primary school, we had a few very traditionalist lessons about the history and geography of Britain, and one of the things stated as fact, without meaning or explanation, was that Wales is a principality. Lots of people think this, and lots of people take it for granted, and you still hear “the Principality” used to refer to the country now and again. As you might have noticed, Wales won a rugby match at the Principality Stadium the other day, but that’s named through a straightforward business deal rather than anything more ancient or romantic. But, is Wales a principality? No, not really, not in any meaningful sense. Has it ever been? No, not unless you take “Wales” to mean something rather different to what it does today. But what are the reasons for this misunderstanding? Simply put, this all comes out of the fact that the nature of the Welsh state when it existed does not fit comfortably with what you might call the English pattern of history, the pattern which takes the 19th-century nation state as the ultimate ideal form of political division and judges all historical change against it.

What is a principality, then? Essentially, a monarchy ruled by a prince. There is, of course, a Prince of Wales; but he doesn’t really have very much to do with Wales itself. His vast personal income isn’t from Wales, it’s from the tenants and the business of the enormous Cornwall estate, spread across a huge chunk of south-west England and not really a Cornish affair at all. Much as he sends interfering letters to government ministers behind the scenes, he doesn’t have any formal role to play in government, certainly not any role specific to Wales. The UK is a monarchy in that its monarch signs all its laws (and makes sure any she disapproves of don’t even reach Parliament to be debated), and appoints its government, but the Prince of Wales doesn’t have any say in the matter. Laws passed by the Senedd are signed off by the Queen in the same way that laws passed by the Westminster Parliament are signed off by the Queen. The Prince of Wales? Sits around, running his business empire, slowly curdling with frustration knowing that he has reached retirement age with the whole world seeing him as a sort of semi-comic understudy. Wales is clearly not a principality in any functional or meaningful sense.

Was Wales ever a principality, in reality? Well, parts of it were. Only, though, if you go back a rather long time. Even then, as I said, Wales does not fit very well into the English pattern of history, because it followed a very different history to England.

Everyone in England thinks of England as a unitary, unified, single state that has been around for a literal eternity. That has, indeed, been the truth for a very long time. England came together as a single unified state well over a thousand years ago, but it did so largely for one very specific reason: to define itself in order to save itself. England became a unified single country in response to “the Danelaw”, the control of most of the country by Danish and Norwegian settlers who almost wiped out the English kingdoms that resisted them. The surviving anti-Dane English aristocracy rallied and unified, producing a single kingdom of England with its centre of gravity forever fixed firmly in the South. France to some extent has a similar history: the power of the early Frankish kings around Paris rose significantly just as they had to defend themselves from Danish incursions up the Seine. In Ireland, the Norwegians ended up founding a new capital city, and in Scotland the Norwegians ruled a huge (if marginal) chunk of the modern country for about four hundred years or so. I’m aware, by the way, that I am simplifying swathes of historical argument here, thousands and thousands of pages of academic debate into one paragraph for a surface-skimming blog post. Real historians: please don’t write in. Wales simply didn’t face the same Scandinavian pressure as the rest of Western Europe. The Danes and Norwegians sailed round the coast, and gave names to many of the important coastal bits (step forward Swansea, Anglesey and Fishguard), but don’t seem to have settled in the concentrated, forceful, focused strength-in-numbers way that they did around the mouths of the Seine, the Liffey or the Humber.

There’s also the economic determinism argument about Welsh history. Put simply: it is that the geography of Wales is distinctly different to that of England in a way that, in the pre-modern period, made it hard to unify. There are still constant complaints in Welsh politics that North-South travel is too hard and that Cardiff is too distant from Holyhead to rule it effectively or to understand its needs. There is often a call that the fact there is no North-South rail link entirely within Wales is somehow a failure of Welsh politics or of English centralism, skipping over the fact that it is a fundamental problem with Welsh geography, and that the only entirely-within-Wales links from South to North were for their whole existence extremely marginal links.* Similarly, the A470 links Cardiff with Llandudno but it is in no sense a coherent and sensible route, just a mixture of cross-country links all coloured in with the same pencil on a map so that somebody could indeed claim that there is a single South-to-North road.** The point here is that, in an age when everyone depended on food grown pretty close-by for their regular staples, and when local kings depended on a personal warband of big burly followers as an army, it was just too difficult in a country like Wales to gather together sufficient force from your own core estates and project that force into a different part of the country, to do that in any sort of way that stuck. Each of the small medieval Welsh kingdoms has this core area which could act as the motor of a pastoral economy: Ynys Môn for Gwynedd, for example, or the upper Severn valley (as pictured here a few weeks back) for Powys. Each also has a belt of less hospitable land protecting it from the others. It therefore shouldn’t be surprising that the history of medieval Wales is a history in which for a short time one of these kingdoms was able to assert itself over some or all of the others, but such assertions barely lasted more than a single reign. Or so the theory goes, at any rate; we should always be suspicious of such straightforward determinism, if you ask me. Note, too, that these were kingdoms, with kings. Not principalities.

When all those Danes who had settled at the mouth of the Seine invaded England very successfully in the eleventh century, they stopped short of invading Wales. Or, rather, their kings stopped short of invading Wales in a controlled and centralised way. However, rich and important landholders were allowed to invade Wales on their own account; and as long as they still recognised the English king as their overlord, they were effectively sovereign in their Welsh estates. This means that later medieval Wales was much more like medieval Germany in its political structure than anywhere in England or Scotland: a patchwork of relatively small states, each independent, quite martial, at each other’s throats from time to time, but most generally recognising a kind of “imperial” overlordship. It’s in this period that the Welsh leaders’ titles start to slip downwards, from king to prince. Over the course of this “marcher” period—and again I am enormously oversimplifying here—the tendency was for both types of state, both Welsh-ruled and English-ruled, to both coalesce and grow more accepting of the King of England’s overlordship. By the thirteenth century the family of the kings of Gwynedd had reached the point of taking over all of the other Welsh-ruled microstates—about two-thirds of the land area but only half the population, because the invading English lords had naturally headed for the economically best bits—and at this point they started to use the title “Prince of Wales”. Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was promptly rubbed out very thoroughly by the English, with most of his family aside from one brother who Anglicised his name,*** moved East, and settled down as a quiet provincial landowner on the border of Kent and Surrey. His territory became something in-between, not part of England, but not as independent of England as the Marcher lords, with strict rules to prevent the Welsh from holding any sort of political power unless they could very definitely be trusted.

So that was the Principality of Wales: most of the Welsh-speaking people didn’t live there, and it wasn’t really ever ruled by a Welsh prince. It lasted until Tudor times, when Henry VIII shut down the last of the Marcher lordships and integrated all of Wales into his kingdom, with the aim of removing almost all Welsh political distinctiveness. It then disappeared, except in name. Wales is not a principality, and huge chunks of the modern country were never part of the principality that arguably did exist.

Will Wales ever be a principality? Well, never say never. The UK today is clearly on a path towards fragmentation; there is a tremendous energy in the UK’s extremities towards fission of the country into multiple separate parts. You don’t have to travel far in Wales right now before you see a pro-independence banner, sticker or graffito.

Independence sticker in Newport

Although the breakup of the UK is probably now inevitable, the exact form that it will take is still impossible to predict. It’s a fair bet, though, that when Wales does become independent, it will be the first time in history that a single unified and unitary state of Wales has existed; and secondly, that it will not be a monarchy of any form. Republican sentiment is already much higher in Wales than elsewhere in the UK, and this is likely to increase as support for Welsh independence increases. Wales is not a principality, and Wales is not going to be. Cymru am byth!

* Firstly, the Manchester and Milford Railway. As its name suggests it was originally meant to be a lucrative main line linking the ever-churning Satanic mills of Manchester with the Atlantic harbours of West Wales. It ended up as a sleepy rural byway linking Carmarthen with Aberystwyth. Secondly, there was also the Mid-Wales Railway which linked Brecon to Newtown via Rhyader; from Brecon you could get to either Swansea via Neath, or to Newport or Cardiff via the vertiginous Brecon and Merthyr Railway. With either of these routes, to truly get North you had to either reverse once or twice and head up the coast to Caernarfon and Bangor, or give up on the whole avoiding-England lark and go the other way via Oswestry.

** It must be a South-to-North road because of its number. If it was a North-to-South road its number would start with a 5, because Llandudno is north of the A5 and West of the A6.

*** From Rhodri ap Gruffudd to Roderick Fitzgriffin.

Photo post of the week

More bits of countryside

The ongoing February, which feels as if it is the longest month of the past 12, is sapping my writing energy. Hopefully the oncoming spring will sort that out: today I saw my first queen bumblebee of the year flying purposefully around the neighbourhood looking for a spot to start her nest. This post is something of an appendix to the previous, with a few more photos. I’ve been repeating previous walks, but this time with the good camera.




I’ve been repeating previous walks, but this time with the good camera, which is why regular readers might spot some similarities. At some point I will tell you much, much more about the history of this particular railway, but not today.


It was built in the 1820s, as a plateway; I suspect that low wall on the right was put there in the 1890s when it was widened from single to double track.



Hopefully as the weather warms and the seasons change, my writing energy will come back too.

A random passer-by

Or, on rural etiquette

I’m still taking some time to get used to the idea that we live on the edge of the countryside now. Yes, the village we live in is something of an unfocused suburban affair with no real centre, Victorian terraces and post-war cul-de-sacs* with churches and chapels and grocery stores scattered through it in a random, unplanned and unfocused way like cherries in a fruit cake. Nevertheless, we live on the edge of it. A few minutes away, after going up one dead-end and taking a short-cut between two others, you are out among fields. Oak trees and pine plantations look down on you; and further up the valley, you can see the beginnings of mountains. If you climb the ridge, and look back, our village and the neighbouring ones are spread out below you; and in the distance the Severn Sea is a silver gleam on the horizon in front of a blue and misty Somerset.

This would look much better taken with a proper camera

Hilltop oaks

As the countryside goes it’s fairly busy with people, especially at the moment when exercise has to be within walking distance. At any time of day, even a weekday, there are dog-walkers, joggers, pony-exercisers and people like me just off out for a wander down all of the lanes and up many of the paths. And this is what I’m not used to: all of these people, or almost all, will greet you with a cheery “Hello!” as they pass.

Coming from an inner-city neighbourhood where that sort of behaviour would have people assuming you were trying to rob them, I’m really not used to having to respond to it. I still can’t work out the timing. As someone approaches, I start to think: “are they a greeter? Or a not-greeter? They don’t look like a gre…” and then a sudden “Hello!” startles me and my greeting in response turns into a strange, half-strangled squeaky grunt somewhere between brain and voice.

A dark and mysterious pine plantation

The best answer I have is to fix them with eye contact before they speak and give a firm, silent nod. The sort of firm, silent nod that says: we are passing by on equal terms, as people who Appreciate the Landscape and do not need to spoil it with Unnecessary Noise. Even if they say something, the Firm Silent Nod is a good approach to take, removing any risk that my vocal cords will malfunction and produce something unintelligble at a key and crucial moment. Stoic fellow-travellers, we can be, briefly united in the siblinghood of tramping the land. There’s no need to spoil the illusion, now, is there.

This might not work in a few weeks time, when I’ve spotted the same people more than once. For now, that hasn’t happened; as yet I don’t even recognise people who live on the same street as me. If people start to see me frequently and it starts to become awkward, maybe I’ll have to come up with a different strategy. We’ll have to wait and see.

* or, if you prefer, culs-de-sac

Photo post of the week

Ger y camlas

One aspect of moving house, especially if you move to a completely different neighbourhood or another town altogether, is the joy you can have in exploring the new area, finding all the interesting corners and places to go. In the current hospitals-overflowing stay-at-home situation, this is a bit limited; but at least there is exploration that can still be done on foot. In Bristol I was getting rather jaded of all the places I could visit on foot, even when it led to interesting local history blog posts. Now, there’s a whole new set of avenues of local history to explore.

One of the spots I can reach on foot is a quiet, sleepy canal backwater. You can’t even use it as a canal any more; most of the road bridges have been demolished or flattened out (or are roads that didn’t even exist when the canal was in use), so you can’t get any sort of boat under them. It’s essentially a long pond, busy with ducks and moorhens, and with its towpath busy with walkers.

Along the canal

Along the canalbank there are a few surviving hints of its industrial archaeology. Here, for example, is a mid-19th-century boundary post.

Canal boundary

This post must be from some decades after the canal was built, because “MR&CC” is the Monmouthshire Railway & Canal Company; and the canal company only added “Railway” into its name in the 1850s. The canal—the Crumlin arm of the Monmouthshire Canal—was built in the 1790s, but within 10 years of its opening some of its main users were looking to replace it with a railway. Not wanting to lose revenue, the canal company agreed to split the railway* midway: the lower half was built by the canal company and the upper by the owners of the Tredegar ironworks, with the dividing line at the nine-mile mark eventually becoming the village of Nine Mile Point. At opening in around 1805, the combined system was the longest railway network in the world, and quite a few stretches of the route are still in use now.

Later on, the split at Nine Mile Point was preserved. The upper section, the Sirhowy Railway, was bought by the London & North Western Railway. The canal company, though, was bought by the Great Western Railway, and some of their signage survives along the canal bank too.

GWR sign

This is a standard design of weight restriction sign—there are other GWR examples along other GWR-owned canals, and the North Yorkshire Moors Railway has a North Eastern Railway one.

No doubt I will have a lot more to say about local history in the future. As yet I’m not even sure what questions I want to ask, let alone have started to investigate the answers. At least when I do, though, I’ll be able to enjoy the scenery as I go. Even when I can only explore places I can reach on foot, there is still an awful lot to sit down and look at.


Mynydd Machen

* A quick terminology note: I’ve used the word “railway” in something of a blanket way here. The railways I’m talking about were built as what are now called “plateways”, with flanged track and unflanged wheels. At the time, in South Wales, they were generally (but not always) called “tramways” or “tramroads”.

Photo post of the week

Or, a change of scenery

Regular readers might have noticed that the site has been quiet since the weekend. It’s been quiet because I’ve been somewhat busy moving house: one of the most stressful things you can do in life, or so everyone always says. The previous post was written whilst I was surrounded by removal men trying to pack everything up into well-padded boxes. A strange experience, sitting in a corner of your front room trying to keep yourself occupied as all around you all your stuff is picked up and handled and wrapped and boxed away.

So now, the move is complete, the furniture is rearranged and at least some of the stuff is unpacked again. Everything is still a little bit topsy-turvy, though. Unpacking, I found books I thought I’d got rid of years ago; it turns out they were lurking in the cupboard under the stairs all along.

The full story of the move will have to wait until another day, partly because I have little energy at the moment for writing it down. Today, though, I did have enough energy to go for a wander in the new neighbourhood. It was pouring with rain, and after taking a few photos my phone screen became so wet it didn’t really respond to touches any more; but here are a few.

View from a hilltop

View from a hilltop

Level-ish crossing

Fast river

Cofiwch Abermiwl

Like a train, this post is slightly late

A couple of days ago, it was the hundredth anniversary of a significant event in British railway history. If you’re a train nerd, you’ll know what it was from the title of this post. If you’re not, let’s start with this photo of the Severn Valley in rural mid-Wales.

The Severn Valley just west of Abermiwl

I took that photo a few years ago from the ruined battlements of the 13th century Dolforwyn Castle, and looking at it you could be forgiven for not even noticing the train in the middle of the picture. It’s on its way from Birmingham to the Welsh coast, on the former main line of the Cambrian Railways. Before 1922 the Cambrian was the largest “Welsh railway company”* in terms of route mileage, but not in terms of profit or revenue. Its main line was (and is) more like a long, rambling branchline; single-track, through small towns and tiny villages, from the Marches through to Aberystwyth and the curving coast of Cardigan Bay. That includes the line along the Severn Valley through Welshpool and Newtown, passing under the battlements of Dolforwyn Castle near the village of Abermiwl (or Abermule in its English spelling).

if you look closely you can see the train, its single track threading through fields and past farmhouses. See the white house on the left with the three chimneys? See the railway line passing behind it? A hundred years ago this week, two trains, going in opposite directions, collided head-on at that precise spot. Seventeen people were killed, including Lord Vane-Tempest, director of the Cambrian Railways and High Sheriff of Montgomeryshire.

The significant thing about the Abermiwl crash is that, in theory, it should not have happened. In theory, the single lines of the Cambrian Railways were protected by a “token system”. Without going into too much detail: the rules of a token system state that all trains travelling from “token station” to token station must be carrying a token, an arbitrary “thing” with the names of the token stations engraved upon it. The physical form of the token varies: a baton, for example, or a large key. The Cambrian Railways used “tablets”, metal discs a few inches across. Each section of line has a set of tokens, but they normally sit locked in machines called “token instruments” at each token station. The instruments are electrically wired together in a similar way to a pair of light switches at either end of a staircase, so that if you unlock one token from one instrument, you then can’t take any more tokens out of either, until a token has been locked back into one of the instruments. Ergo, assuming the drivers follow the rule on not setting off without a token—and it is one of the gravest rules in the Rule Book—nothing can go wrong.

On 26th January 1921 a westbound slow train arrived at Abermiwl and handed over its token, for the Montgomery—Abermule section of line. It was booked to wait to pass the Aberystwyth—Manchester express heading in the other direction, but the station staff were collectively unsure whether that would be happening on this particular day, or where the express currently was. In reality, the express was steaming hard in the middle of the Abermule—Newtown section of line, but none of the station staff actually knew that, and only one knew that a token had been issued for it at Newtown. Through something best described as a gruesome stage farce, or a nightmarish pantomime, the Montgomery—Abermule token was passed hand-to-hand among the station staff and back to the loco crew, who assumed it was the Abermule—Newtown token they were expecting, and didn’t look at it to check. Without anyone who knew the location of the express noticing, the slow train set off carrying the wrong token. A mile outside the station, the two trains collided. The station staff, by that point, had already realised what they had done and that the trains were doomed, but were unable to stop them.

The accident investigation report made it very clear just how the event had happened, and “Remember Abermiwl” became a watchword across railways worldwide. In India, it was written in Urdu inside the cabs of locomotives. It became standard practice for train crew to shout out the names of the stations on each token to each other, and pass the token around the cab for everyone to read aloud, so the identity of each was double- and triple-checked at each token station. If you go and visit a steam railway, you can still see and hear that happen, if you’re in the right place at the right time. The peaceful green fields in the photo above had an impact on railway working around the world; and the lesson is worth remembering in other fields too. Avoid passing jobs hand to hand; always make sure everything is clear and agreed. Cofiwch Abermiwl.

If you want to know the full details of exactly how the accident happened, who said what to who, and precisely how the Montgomery token ended up in the wrong place, it is all spelled out in the accident report written by the Board of Trade’s Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways, John Pringle. There is a postscript to this, though. Despite the importance of Abermule in railway history, a similar event almost happened in August 2019 on the miniature Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway in Kent. There, the trains saw each other with enough warning to stop before colliding. However, the causes of that event were similar enough that the official government report on the incident includes Abermiwl under the heading “Previous Similar Occurrences”. Remember Abermiwl, indeed. The safest of systems can be defeated if the proper processes are ignored and slowly slip away over time. Cofiwch Abermiwl.

Temporary Update: back in the 1990s S4C produced a short documentary about the Abermiwl crash. For the anniversary it was repeated, so for the next few weeks people in the UK can watch it on BBC iPlayer. It’s in Welsh, but with English subtitles too.

* Technically speaking, the head office and engineering base of the company was not in Wales, but slightly over the border in Oswestry. However, if you were to consider all of the railway companies which had the majority of their track mileage in Wales (including Monmouthshire, let’s not get silly now) as Welsh railway companies, the Cambrian was the longest.

Books I Haven't Read (part eleven)

On myth, poetry, and all that

When I first moved down to South-West England, I was intrigued to note that one of the major local commercial property firms, their boards decorating every half-empty high street, was called Alder King. No doubt this is because at some point in the distant past Mr Alder and Mr King got together to form a business (their website is sadly unhelpful on the subject), but in my own private imagination I liked to think that their founder was deliberately trying to invoke a mythical archetype, implying that the cycle of closure, vacancy and opening on the High Street echoed the ancient cycle of death, sacrifice and rebirth, the brief but spiritually charged reign of the sacred king destroyed by the Great Goddess as described by James Frazer and popularised by one of the twentieth century’s best-known English-language poets. No doubt that poet, if he had lived to the 2010s and had seen Alder King’s advertising boards himself, would have thought the same. Rather, he would not just have thought “that’s an amusing coincidence of naming,” as I did: he would have thought it yet more evidence that all of his theories about mythology and prehistory were incontrovertibly, emotionally and poetically true, and that anyone who disagreed with him was probably a contemptible writer-of-prose or Apollonian poetaster with a degree from Cambridge. At least, I assume that’s what he would have thought. I’ve never managed to finish reading his book on the subject, and I’ve threatened to write a blog post about it more than once in the distant past. Today’s Book I Haven’t Read is, as you potentially have already guessed from this introduction, The White Goddess by Robert Graves.

I have a strange relationship with Graves. I’ve been intrigued with him, puzzled by him, almost obsessed with him, since I was a teenager and my English teacher loaned me his own copy of Goodbye To All That, Graves’s infamous autobiography. He wrote it in a great rush to raise cash in the late 1920s after abandoning his final full-time salaried job, and it’s a fascinating mixture of anecdote and recollection dominated heavily by the one great horror at the heart of his life. He had the bad luck to be born into the English upper-middle-class in the mid-1890s: he left public school, and was about to join Oxford University, in the summer of 1914. He became an army officer without even having to try; whilst still a teenager he was a lieutenant, and by the time he would theoretically have been graduating, he had almost been declared dead and was no longer fit for front-line service. Writing your autobiography at the age of 32 might seem somewhat precocious, but the greatest part of Graves’s is purely about his life between the ages of 19 and 23. I hadn’t even realised, when reading the book, that I was reading the now-standard second edition. It was revised by Graves when some thirty years older to take out the more controversial parts: some passages that hugely upset his close friend Siegfried Sasson, and any references to his 1920s attempt at “feminist” polyamory. The original text is a lot harder to find these days, which is no doubt what Graves would have wanted.

I have a strange relationship with Graves, but I don’t think I could ever like him, and certainly I don’t think we would ever have got on if I should happen to somehow go back in time and meet him. He was a mass of contradictions and swirling neuroses. He always insisted he was a poet, but the majority of his income was from novels and biography, books that he himself always derided as “potboilers”. He had a great skill for making stories make narrative sense, though. His retelling of mythology in the Greek Myths has almost become a standard from a literary standpoint, but he picks and chooses sources and details indiscriminately according to his own subjective view of what feels “more mythological”, or in other words, what he feels best fits the story he wanted to tell. Similarly his best-known novel, I, Claudius, is no use at all as history precisely because its point is to fit a narratively-satisfying story on top of a patch of history which Graves felt needed a better explanation than evidence alone could provide. Above all that, he seems to have been a fairly horrible person: misanthropic, homophobic, racist, and with an irrational hatred of anyone with a degree from Cambridge.*

This post, though, is supposed to be a review of The White Goddess and why I’ve never read it all the way through, or, indeed, got more than a few chapters in. Its subtitle is A Historical Grammar Of Poetic Myth, and in it, Graves first gives a very narrow definition of poetry, before explaining why his interpretation of ancient Celtic sources proves that his definition of poetry is correct in an almost geometrically-perfect circular argument. In short: poetry is verse which inspires subconscious terror, fear, and makes your hair stand on end,** because its subject is always male devotion to the all-commanding White Goddess, the triple-goddess of birth, fecundity and death, the goddess who marries her suitor the Alder King for one glorious day before he is destroyed as a sacrifice to her.

All true poetry—true by Housman’s practical test—celebrates some incident or scene in this very ancient story (p20 of the fourth edition)

“Hang on a minute, Captain Graves,” I can almost hear you saying. “I mean that’s fine for you to say, but I’ve written some poetry and it wasn’t about that!”

In that case, clearly according to Graves’ rules, you’re not a poet and you weren’t writing Poetry. To you and me this might indeed sound like nothing more than highest-order gatekeeping, but Graves goes into great effort to explain that it’s true, much of what you might think is poetry just isn’t Poetry by the standards of Graves The Dedicated Poet. Indeed, according to his standards, the English have barely understand poetry at all.

The Anglo-Saxons had no sacrosanct master-poets, but only gleemen; and English poetic lore is borrowed at third hand… This explains why there is not the same instinctive reverence for the name of poet in the English countryside as there is in the remotest parts of Wales, Ireland and the Highlands. (p19)

So, Robert, you’re saying that the True Poets are those dashing chaps in flappy shirts like Byron and Shelley and so on, who were always saying they wanted to dedicate themselves to their muses?

This is not to identify the true poet with the Romantic poet. … The typical Romantic poet of the nineteenth century was physically degenerate, or ailing, addicted to drugs and melancholia, critically unbalanced and a true poet only in his fatalistic regard for the Goddess as the mistress who commanded his destiny. (p21)

In other words, the only true poets in the world are, really, Robert Graves and a handful of contemporaries he respected (Alun Lewis being one example he quotes approvingly). Others? Sorry, no, whatever you thought you were doing, you’re just not writing poetry by Graves’ standards. The problem I have with this is not just the way it immediately writes off huge swathes of literature, but that this is apparently done so in order to centre Graves, his neuroses and his relationships as the epitome of Poetry, the pinnacle of literature. Graves described himself as a feminist as far back as the 1920s, but his feminism was one in which in reality he was at the centre of things: in which he chose a woman, elevated her onto a holy pedestal, and jealously ensured she stayed there. An emotional masochist, he poured his creative energy into worshipping his chosen muse almost in the hope that she would make him suffer for it. In this sense, his explanation of what makes True Poetry is nothing more than a recapitualation of his personal relationships of the 1920s and 1930s, which he claims to be some sort of universal religious truth. Jealousy itself is elevated to being a vital emotion for the True Poet to have.

What evidence is there, in The White Goddess, that Graves’ inner demons really are the key to both True Poetry and to the ancient mystery religion he claims to be decoding? A dense and cryptic analysis of medieval Welsh poetry, specifically the poem Cad Goddeu, taking it like a set of crossword clues and reordering lines and stanzas in order to produce something that Graves thought made more sense than the original poem. Graves’s “poetic logic” here is much like his logic in writing I, Claudius, or his Greek Myths, or his novel about the life of Jesus: his rewrite of the poem makes a better story, because rewritten it supports his argument, and therefore his argument must be true, because the poem supports it. As a key to understanding Cad Goddeu it is not really anything other than speculation, and certainly not the self-evidently true reconstruction that Graves insists he has produced. To be fair, Cad Goddeu is a famously impenetrable poem and most interpretations of it are little more than speculation, but at least most of the people who attempt to understand it admit that they have no clue what it really consists of.

I said earlier that Graves’ life was governed and steered by the pure luck of being born where and when he was. Similarly, he wrote The White Goddess at just the right time for it to become highly influential: at precisely the time that a new religion was being created in Dorset. As Ronald Hutton has documented in The Triumph Of The Moon, Wicca arose from a seething mixture of British and Irish cultural influences from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, and The White Goddess, coming at the very end of that period, was one of the most influential on later Wiccan development. Its goddess and its underlying Frazerian story are now widely adopted in modern Paganism, and I’m sure you can find pagans who not only worship Graves’ goddess themselves but believe the ancient Welsh did too. The book has stayed in print for many years, although I do wonder how many of the sold copies have been read all the way through.

So why haven’t I—as of the time of writing—been unable to complete it, despite several attempts? I suspect I’m just too well aware that its basic premise is wrong, or at least, fundamentally flawed. Graves seems to always have been greatly annoyed that academics in both literature and archaeology didn’t think much of it, and that any reviews that did come from academia were generally scathing. He showed it in quite a passive-aggressive way: not only did he write long letters of reply to magazines that gave it a bad review, but some are printed as an appendix to the modern Faber edition. Sadly, they largely show nothing more than his own arrogance and lack of understanding: his insistance that his own outdated knowledge of archaeology and anthropology was far more accurate than that of the professors criticising him. Given I received an introduction to Welsh myth and archaeology at university, I am well aware firstly that much of Graves’ understanding was wrong (even at the time it was written, and it has only grown more wrong since), and secondly that some of his statements make huge leaps in logic and present whole towers of assumption and supposition as if they were solid fact. The entirety of the text rests on sweeping syncretism, with claims such as that the Welsh mythological magician Gwydion is the same character as the Norse god Odin, or that Gwydion’s nephew Lleu Llaw Gyffes is the same character as Hercules and the Mesopotamian god Tammuz. The text resembles a grand conspiracy theory as any similarity between stories and people, however weak, is jumped upon as meaning an equivalence. I opened the book at random to find an example and found this passage, on the ancient Irish poem Song of Amergin:

Tethra [a name mentioned in the poem] was the king of the Undersea-land from which the People of the Sea were later supposed to have originated. He is perhaps a masculinisation of Tethys, the Pelasgian Sea-goddess, also known as Thetis […]. The Sidhe are now popularly regarded as fairies: but in early Irish poetry they appear as a real people. […] All had blue eyes, pales faces, and long curly yellow hair. […] They were, in fact, Picts (tattooed men), and all that can be learned about them corresponds with Xenophon’s observations […] on the primitive Mosynoechians of the Black Sea coast. […] They occupied the territory assigned in early Greek legend to the matriarchal Amazons. The ‘blue eyes’ of the Sidhe I take to be blue interlocking rings tattooed around the eyes, for which the Thracians were known in Classical times. Their pallor was perhaps also artificial—white ‘war-paint’ of chalk or powdered gypsum, in honour of the White Goddess, such as we know, from a scene in Aristophanes’s Clouds where Socrates whitens Strepsiades, was used in Orphic rites of initiation.

There you are: the “real identity” of the mythological Sidhe is uncovered by picking apart random coincidental parallels with things Graves had picked up in his Classical-themed public school education. It’s more like a word association game than genuine historical research. Apologies for editing out the description of the Mosynoechians; it’s impossible to tell from Graves’ account whether there genuinely were coincidental similarities between them and the mythological Sidhe, or whether Graves is being Graves and jumping to conclusions based on the flimiest of matches.

Hopefully one day I will complete reading The White Goddess. The last time I picked it up, I was tempted to live-tweet every time I came to a passage that infuriated me, but soon realised what a thankless and hopeless task this would be after just the second page of the introduction contained the line that Judaism is “a Semitic [religion] grafted onto a Celtic stock”, which is closer to conspiracy-history than anything grounded in fact. I’m certainly not ready to read it just yet. Maybe, instead, I should write something better. Something that is full of open inspirational ideas, not closed and self-justifying ones.

* As someone whose degree is from one of the Ancient Scots Universities, I don’t really have a horse in this race; but I do wonder if he generally thought that any universities other than Oxford were beyond contempt, or if it was just Cambridge specifically.

** This isn’t me colloquialising. He specifically says: a verse is a poem if it makes your hair stand on end if you recite it silently whilst shaving. I can imagine that’s quite handy for doing those tricky bits around your chin; as a test, it’s attributed to A E Housman. I can’t really imagine Housman agreeing with the rest of Graves’ thesis.

Photo post of the week

Neu, hanes Cymreig

Occasionally, when I visit The Mother, I look through old photos. Either family ones, or ones from my own albums. My first camera was a Christmas present I’d asked for when I was age 7 or 8: a Halina-branded Haking Grip-C compact camera that took 110 cartridge film. With a fixed focus, a fixed shutter-speed and a choice of two apertures, it was an almost-entirely mechanical beast. The shutter was cocked by a lever which engaged with the film’s sprocket holes (a single hole per frame on 110 film) and the only electrical component was a piezoelectric switch attached to the shutter, for firing a Flipflash bulb if you’d inserted any. I might still have an unused Flipflash somewhere.

A photography geek might look at the above spec and be amazed that I managed to photograph anything recognisable on that type of camera. Frankly, even aged 7 so was I: to go with the camera I’d been given a book called something like A Children’s Guide To Photography which made no bones about this type of camera being a very basic one that it was hard to get good results from. It lasted me a few years though, despite at least one drop that popped the back off; I was still using it in my teens, I think.

Sometimes on this blog I’ve mentioned visiting the Ffestiniog Railway; last December for example. The last time I visited The Mother, though, I dug out the photos I’d taken on my very first visit, on which we did a single round trip from Blaenau to Porthmadog and back again behind the Alco. All the photos were taken right at the start of the day, it seems.

The Alco at Blaenau

The Alco at Blaenau

The Alco at Blaenau

The weather in Blaenau is famously murky and damp; I’m not sure quite how much of the murk and grain in those photos is down to the camera and how much is down to the weather. Still, what the photos lack in sharpness, they certainly have in atmosphere.