Friday, 12 July 2013

They didn't believe me........

Thanks to Jimmy Lovelock's lady for finding this proof of anecdote. That it still exists is a tiny miracle.

We used to live in
LLANFAIRPWLLGWYNGYLLGOGERYCHWYRNDROBWYLLLLANTYSILIOGOGOGOCH. Living in a Welsh village, the name of which you cannot pronounce, plays havoc with your social life. Pub crawls are impossible. Imagine ringing for a cab at closing time and trying to tell the driver where to take you. I have had trouble in the past with Oswestry; and Llanuwchllyn is out of the question. Dwygyfylchi is worse but it is shorter. It reminds me of the English writer at the Hay on Wye Literary Festival where I interviewed Rowan Williams, then bishop of |Monmouth and later Archbishop of Canterbury. It had as its Green Room an infants’ schoolroom in which all drawers were  labelled in Welsh.  “Is that where they keep the vowels?” the writer asked, with persuasive innocence. A great place to live but a constant humiliation.

I used to know a colourful line in archbishops but my favourite is Dr Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales, who relieves stress by baking unbelievably rich cream gateaux. I met him just before my Hay appearance and told him I was interviewing Williams on the Disestablishment of the Church in Wales and I hadn't the faintest idea what that was.

"Don't worry," he said. " That has never bothered you in the past. Anyway, I am meeting him at the Synod. Tell him if he is rude to you it's Croziers at Dawn."

Another old chum was the Bishop of Hereford, the only non-royal with the power vested, in the time of medieval Welsh rebellions, to raise an army and to nail the skin of any Welshman he found in the city after dark to the door of Hereford Cathedral.

When I lived in Wales I used to do a weekly broadcast on Australian radio and always signed off
“...good night from Llanfairpwllgwyngyll.............”

Every week without fail after the broadcast went out, an expatriate Taff would ring me in a rage from Brisbane: “If yer caint pronounce the name why don’t you move to f......... Rhyl?”

He was lucky to get through.  An Australian fan tried to write to me for nearly a year but his letters all came back from the Australian post office marked “No Such Place”.   I know about this because he rang his sister in Derby to check with a friend in Mold if he had the address right and she rang me to find out.

It is not just the Australians who had trouble. The vicar of the parish church in Upton Scudamore in Wiltshire sought a contribution to the restoration of my ancestors’ tombs.  He sent the letter to the Isle of Anglesey - by air mail.  It  came by road from Manchester airport across one of the two bridges which linked us to the mainland.

For some time the Post Office in Chester refused even to put Isle of Anglesey on its database. Whenever I asked for a Welsh number a Query Page flashed up. “Do you mean Wales, Yeovil,” it asked, “or Wales, Sheffield?”

I used to drink for Wales so I was well known there. Bit surprising then that at a computer shop in Wrexham my application to buy a PC on the drip was turned down. The manager was surprised too.  He rang his finance office in Leeds. They said: “It’s the address. There is no such place." The manager said: “There must be.  He's just come from there.”

The trick is to make up a name. My credit card statement from the Royal Bank of Scotland was always addressed to me at Virgin and Childs Cottage at Brymsitmoy, which, so far as I know, is the
Welsh Brigadoon because it does not exist.  But the bill arrived every month.

The whole Llanfair etc., etc. name is a con. I do not know a Welshman who couldn’t give Machiavelli six blacks and still beat him off the table. They invented almost their entire history. Outsiders are not told the Great Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr was a general in the English army, married to an Englishwoman, or that his half-Welsh legitimate children married into the English aristocracy. Only his nine bastards married Welsh people. Edward I  invaded Wales with an army of 15,000, of which 11,000 were English. Even the Welsh 'Not' is not. Though the English Not is widespread.

Our village was for centuries called Llanfairpwllgwyngyll.  A lovely name which means the “Marychurch by the white hazel pool”. When Stevenson brought the railway to Anglesey there
were no plans to build a station here. But no station would have meant the lucrative tourist trade passing us by and we weren’t having that. A local cobbler added a description to the name and wrote it on slips of paper which he then put in plain brown envelopes and sold as a cure for lock-jaw. We became overnight and irrevocably the village with the longest name in the world:
Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwryndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. The addition means “near the fierce whirlpool with the church of St Tysilio by the red cave.”

As a result we became so famous our local draper’s shop was - and still is - the size of a bus depot, visited by coachloads of visitors from all over the world.  So much so the shop has a sign post which shows the distance from Llanfairpwll to the North Pole and cities the world over, including New York and Tokyo, all the homes of customers.

I just wonder how Japanese coach drivers cope when they got lost. I suspect a lot of our oriental business ends up as day trips to Bangor.

When I said Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch English listeners found my command of language impressive. Welsh speaking listeners shuddered. That was my problem. I lived in a place I could not  pronounce.

The Welsh can do things with their curious assemblies of letters that in other cultures can only be achieved by musical notation. Welsh is not just a language: it is performance art. "Becod" is pity carried almost to the point of tears and no girl, surely, can resist the sweet blandishment of "cariad", against which sweetheart sounds like a lump of toffee.

In Wales pronunciation is the key to acceptance. It is phonetic freemasonry and it is planetary.
As I said, I used to broadcast every week to Australia a newsletter about life in Britain. I was a sort of Alistair Coookaburra.

Because - as it sometimes seems - the entire population of Australia is either Welsh or from Liverpool, which is  much the same thing, my producer insisted that I call it "A Letter from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllandysiliogogogoch". I tried not to because of the previously mentioned irate Welsh Australian who telephoned me from Brisbane to complain. His telephone bill must have been longer than my address. Not only can I not PRONOUNCE  Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogh; nor even act it. I cannot write it down  except with great difficulty. Mail order purchase, the mad lottery of the glossy magazine bargain offer, was forever closed to me. There was never room on the coupon for my address.

To live in a fictional island in a village you cannot pronounce is to know despair. Though to be strictly ecumenical I have had some pretty bizarre postal experiences in England. When we lived on the City Walls in Chester I worked under the window in the sitting room (I will write in a future column about bitter injustice and how whenever we move my wife gets a study and I write on the corner of a table). Through the window I could watch the postman coming, a mixed blessing when you owe as much as I did in those halcyon days of determined debauchery. Mostly I watched the advance of the daily sheaf of bills. One day a month I looked forward to his visits. That was the day he brought my selection from Records With Pleasure, recordings of potted versions of Shakespearean plays put out by the Daily Express. On this occasion I hurried to the door to take the precious recording from his hands. Too late. He had already folded it neatly in half and posted it through the box.

There was a certain cachet in having the only crescent-shaped production of Macbeth on record, but playing was not easy. No sooner had the warrior tones of Macbeth boomed questions at the three witches than Birnam wood was galloping to high Dunsinane hill as the needle slipped down the inner slope of the crescent like a demented skier.

The man the Post Office sent to process my complaint was dressed to intimidate.Why else should a man who arrived on a red bicycle wear a crash helmet and black leather gauntlet gloves? He clearly did not believe my story. Indeed he seemed convinced I was the Mr Big of an international ring of record benders. Finally he conceded my complaint. But he was not done. As he left he uttered a sentence that has lodged itself in my mind: "Do not dispose of the record without permission," he warned. "It is now the property of the Post Office and we may need to call it in."

For God's sake, tell me. Does the Post Office run to crescent-shaped gramophones?.