The Hills of Wales

The Hills of Wales by Jim Perrin (Gomer Press, 2016)

Introduced by Horatio Clare

When I was a young radio arts producer who dreamed every minute of becoming a writer, I vowed that should it ever happen for me I would live in London. Broadcasting House, an Art Deco ship sailing down Portland Place, has welcomed (and persuaded) talkers and writers of every kind and passport through its doors since they opened in 1932. We had great ghosts. Our smoking room was the disused basement studio where Dylan Thomas outacted Richard Burton. MacNeice and Orwell had staff passes. But it was easier, quicker and cheaper to fly in a writer from, say, Venice, than it was to get one down from Snowdonia.

London-based ‘creatives’ thus held and still hold a decisive advantage before and during the ongoing era of cuts which followed the vengeance of the Hutton Enquiry (into the BBC’s coverage of the Iraq war) in 2004. Hampstead or Brixton to the studio was and is no challenge at all. Hence my career-minded vow. Geography is destiny, said someone, and although this might not be true it may explain why Jim Perrin is a reader’s writer, and writer’s writer, and not yet really a listener’s or a screen-watcher’s writer. Alas for them. But this is to the advantage of Perrin’s great works and his very many devotees. Who can write well under the world’s eyes? Suppose we stand on the slopes of Yr Wyddfa. The mountain is described with reference to Afghanistan, Faerieland, King Arthur and its climbing cliffs, arrayed, in fact, in all its natural and human history, art and awe in Perrin’s majestic little volume Snowdon: The Story of a Welsh Mountain, which precedes The Welsh Hills. Now. See? There! And there – you overlook the roost of a hidden host of writers little seen or heard in the British broadcast media.

Go to Berlin, New York, Paris, Rotterdam, Hong Kong or Sarajevo and someone will tell you all about Jan Morris, Jay Griffiths, Jim Perrin, Niall Griffiths, Justin McGuinness, Gillian Clarke or some of many resounding others, of several generations. All Wales, but peculiarly North and Mid Wales (because South Wales to London is easy) enfolds and conceals some of the greatest and most distinctive producers of contemporary European literature. And this without our Irish sea-cousins’ advantage of a genuine literary performance culture. Extraordinary and electrifying performances of the written word do take place in Wales, especially at our famous festivals and eisteddfodau (many readers will have seen some or all of the writers named and implied above at them) but song still takes precedence in the hills. We are at least a decade – or is it nine centuries? – behind Ireland’s mastery of the local, live performance of writing, and so our literature exists in gossip, conversation, in jokes and on the page.

One funny thing is how Welsh these writers are, and how other-than-Welsh many sound on tape. Wales takes you in – if it is not already in you, which it generally is – and makes you hers. Accent, colour and creed be blowed. Dylan and R. S. Thomas sound even more English than me. (I inherited the classic BBC English/Received Pronunciation ‘advantage’ imposed by the English on the parents of the mighty Thomases and their children from my own post-colonial parents, one a Lloyd-Williams.) Jan ‘Trefan Morys’ Morris has a timeless British Imperial voice. Niall Griffiths sounds as Scouse as the Mersey. Jim Perrin has a soft, confiding tone such as you might hear under the hubbub of a good Manchester pub. A quiet Northwestern accent is one of the most seductive of our isles: I fell for a girl from Rochdale, and the only time I saw him speak, at Y Gelli, during a Hay Festival, I fell for Jim Perrin.

It was said of Chekov that the evident, obvious goodness of the man made you behave at your best and reach for more than your best in his company. I think this is true of all the great artists I have met. Perrin’s presence, and perhaps his (very Northern) reputation for no backward steps and no prisoners taken, made me stumble up to him afterwards and stammer out something heartfelt and self-hating (I was in depression) about being a middle-class dilettante, and very sorry for it, and being his devoted fan. With few words he drained all the humbug and anxiety out of me, invited me on a walk which I will always wish I had been able to join, and sent me on my way elated. (I remember the way he walked. He lopes with a bounce like a boulder rolling over flat ground.)

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This only matters because any of Perrin’s books will do the same service for you, should you suffer blues. Read them in equanimity and you will be given delight, knowledge, company and the elevation only art and learning can bring. He is the most rigorous of scholars and the most fluent of stylists. Read him on nature. Read him on men. Read him on loss. Read him on love, on sex, on fatherhood, on the spirit world. Read him on women and read him on rock. Often you can do all this in a single one of his publications, and sometimes in a couple of hundred of his words for a newspaper. I am fighting to resist mentioning this, Perrin’s new book on the hills of Wales. The great treat awaiting you over has its proper introduction, from its author. Those hills, our hills, are the secret of Wales. I write this during the Brexit year, with blood, money, politics, fanaticism and fear stomping abroad with even more than their usual fury, apparently. What stuff and what nonsense! In the hills we will remember this, another Jim Perrin publication year, as the time Wales delighted the television watching world with an unexpected foray into a game we were not known to play. Travelling Europe in the aftermath I discovered that many of our football-loving continental brothers and sisters still do not know where to find us, which seems right and normal. But they do like us, very much. And for this and other Celtic and Anglo-Saxon reasons they like Britain too, in spite of everything London does (Llundain, Caer Lludd, named after a Welsh king, of course). Life is hills and valleys, our mother taught us, as she raised us on the slopes of Pen Allt-mawr. Only let the hills be high, I learned to pray. Ours are not, really, or are they? Wales is a small coat made entirely of deep pockets. One attempt to record its sacred sites failed utterly when the compilers ascertained that every village and hamlet regarded every little feature of their small territories as sacred, and had stories about them too. The main point is worth making twice: our secret is in our hills, which belong to any who walk or think on them. You would have to cross them all and read the entire library of Aberystwyth in all its languages to grasp that secret fully, but as you will see now, Jim Perrin has done a deal of that joyous work for you. Hereafter it is set down.

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