Tuesday, 21 January 2020

The Greatest Welsh Writer of the Twentieth Century...


(and the chances are you have never heard of him…)
Stuart Stanton
MPhil History
The Newport-published South Wales Argus, a daily newspaper whose catchment area is essentially the county of Monmouthshire, has claim to have been the most radical Welsh journal of its type. Founded in 1892 and initially edited by Sir Garrod Thomas - a Welsh- speaking native of Cardigan who achieved membership of the Royal College of Physicians before settling in the town - the Argus became fully established during the Great War, strongly supporting the war effort and speaking out against undemocratic actions by Newport Town Council. Born in the town in 1882, Fred Hando qualified as a schoolteacher and also saw service in the War. A chat with the Argus’ editor, W.J.T. Collins in 1922 led to the first of what was intended to be an occasional series of notes from various locations, entitled ‘Rambles in Gwent’. The series continued up to an astronomical total of 795, concluding on February 13, 1970, just a few days before Fred’s death.

In the entirety of British newspaper publishing there does not appear to be anything to compare, both in longevity and, pertinently, style with this body of work. No photographs accompanied the articles, Fred’s own sketches supplied the visuals.

Fig. 1: The Pleasant Land of Gwent (1944),
copyright Chris Barber
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The example in Fig. 1 of Fred’s illustrative powers details part of south-east Gwent, an area that has since been bisected by the M4 motorway and the A.449 trunk road. The mixture of Welsh and English names for the villages marked are indicators of the author’s non-judgemental stance in his verbal descriptions of them. For someone whose first language was English, and who gave very little clue as to his fluency in Welsh – most likely to be limited to choice words and phrases - he transmits his passion for its presence in the landscape in the most authentic manner.
‘In the centre of the village (Llanfair Discoed)’ he writes, ‘is the dazzling white Court Farm – the old manor house – with its Welsh inscription: Eri fod yn inc maen dda Wnc 1635.’
Six Welsh-speakers have given me six different translations of this motto but I choose as appropriate: ‘Since it is small (i.e. the house) it is pleasant to be close together’.
Opposite, in the farmyard, is one of our most picturesque pigeon- houses, reminding me that, in societies of old, meat in winter was severely rationed, its place in the homes of the wealthy being taken by pigeon-pie.’
.Fig. 2: South Wales
Argus, 1955
Taken from Fred’s 1944 publication of an article collection, ‘The Pleasant Land of Gwent’ the writings in this volume became the subject of nine reprints over the next five years and must have arrived as a tonic of the finest quality to its war-weary readers. The antique nature of Llanfair Discoed is typical of the places described by Fred and his prose seems to straddle the boundaries between antiquarianism and pure poetry in a very rare fashion.
Occasional, and sometimes weekly, articles continued to appear in the Argus, a practice that was to keep going until its concluding days. The discipline of this regime must have attracted a regular readership numbering some tens of thousands, the majority of whom lived either in the large and bustling town of Newport or the industrial valleys of western Gwent.
.Fig. 3: South Wales
Argus, 1954
This early 1950s original article (Fig. 2) illus-trates Fred’s writing style immaculately. Inter-weaving a mixture of contemporary obser-vation with historical hearsay and fact, he describes a tiny corner of the county as though it was the most remarkable place in the whole land. Llanishen itself can be found on the ridge road between Chepstow and Monmouth. Running parallel to the often traffic choked road in the lower Wye Valley, though only a few miles to the west, it provides perfect ‘Handoland’, epitomising the heart of what he writes in his 1944 volume: ‘My aim (is) to persuade readers to see the little places of a shy county’.
Further to the west, on the largely ignored and uncertain flatlands of the coastal plain between Newport and Cardiff, more pertinently between the assuredly Gwent rivers of Ebbw and Rhymney, Fred brought another ‘shy’ location to his readers’ attention, and his restrained prose worked hard to describe the legends of St. Bridget and Betty ‘the fish’ Lawrence in the context of the three inspiring churches that punctuate the landscape.
Fig. 4: ‘Betty the Fish’,
South Wales Argus, 1955
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A spirit of playfulness comes through Fred’s writings on this area, echoed by, one could say, the romping prose of ‘Under Milk Wood’ and Abercuawg’s mythical existence. The Thomas ‘twins’, Dylan and R.S., responsible for these flights of fancy had similar periods of exceptional creativity during the decade following the end of the Second World War and it is maybe not accidental that Fred’s writing had a similar trajectory. The illustration in Fig. 3 opposite dates from early 1955.
In a wider context, Dylan and R.S. can be seen as a Welsh version, and precursor, of the Hollywood ‘Blues Brothers’, bursting conventions and sticking to a path without fear or favour. The Welsh Language, denied and sanctified to equal measure by those two, but regarded with a sense of awe by Fred, stands central to it all.
Tracked down and immortalised by Fred in Fig. 4 is the solitary fisherwoman of Peterstone who trekked 10 miles a day, basket on head, to sell her catch at Castleton on the main Newport – Cardiff road.
(There is a remarkable likeness in appearance and occupation between Betty and ‘La Pasionaria’, Dolores Ibárruri, the Basque heroine of the Spanish Civil War whose name is forever linked with the slogan ‘No Pasarán’. A further totally whimsical connection between Wales and the Basque Country.)
Fig. 5: South Wales
Argus, 1955
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The statue of St. Bridget in the church bearing her name, depicted in Fig. 5, is at Llansanffraed, in St. Bride’s village. Three-miles to the east of Peterstone and every much as striking visually, punching above its weight as regards personalities, its legend is just that, without any real substance. Hence Fred’s comment in the extract below about the ‘truth’ behind the myths.
Fig. 6: South Wales Argus, 1954.
Fred was entranced by the old Welsh names of Gwent. It is worth remarking that his books all included that word while the Argus referred to ‘Monmouthshire’. This final illustration in Fig. 6, refers back to the Llanishen area, the names speak for themselves and the glorious prose rounds off with, ‘fields as smooth as a new-made bed, and as rounded’.

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