3. Clough

Clough Williams-Ellis died at his home, Plas Brondanw, Llanfrothen, on 8 April 1978 at the age of ninety-four, still full of physical and mental energy, and was buried at Llanfrothen. He had lived to see post-war modernism (with which he was never at ease) come and go, and to be admired by a new generation for the light-heartedness of his approach to architecture, for the pleasures of his and his wife’s company, and for his lifelong battle against those whom he regarded as the philistines.

Dictionary of National Biography

The winter passed uneventfully. In the mountains, our lambs are born late, for snow and gales are too harsh a welcome for them. One day towards the end of April, once the lambing was over and before the unpleasant chore began of turning the ram lambs into wethers, I drove into Penrhyndeudraeth to visit the bank, to pick up a parcel of auto-scythe spares from the station, sheep-marking dye from the farmers’ merchant (as well as a bale of wire for Owain Bach, who was temporarily without transport because his tractor was playing up) and to do some domestic shopping for Mam. The only shop in Croesor being the little post office which stocks no more than a few basics, Penrhyn, as it is locally known, is our main centre. Porthmadog, though bigger, is considerably further away. But whichever we go to, it has to be under our own steam because Croesor has no bus service, let alone a railway one. The tramway down the valley never carried passengers, and it closed when the quarries shut down. Although the rails remain and farmers — myself included — still sometimes pull the odd truck of manure along them by tractor, there are no other trains at all.

We do have a car — an ancient Lanchester — but because the private petrol ration is minimal we rarely use it for shopping, and in any event I was still more than a year too young to drive it officially. The ration for farm vehicles being less meagre, I took the Ffergi as usual, even though I was breaking a number of laws. I was still a couple of months short of sixteen, the minimum age for driving tractors on public roads, and therefore did not have a licence. Nor had I taken the driving test, which had been suspended for the war and not yet reinstated. And agricultural fuel is supposed to be used only for agricultural purposes, though I might have been able, if pressed, to justify that with my sheep dye. In theory, I suppose, I should have used horse and cart. Since we no longer had ours, I could have borrowed from a neighbour.

But in our blessed corner of Eryri — which is our name for Snowdonia — none of this matters. Croesor lies within the realm of Sergeant Pritchard at Penrhyn police station, and he is a wise man. He has known me since I was a toddler and evidently sees me as responsible. He is as aware as anyone that people out in the sticks already have huge difficulties in going about their lives. So, preferring to be guided by common sense rather than the letter of the law, he concentrates on things that matter. If something is done that harms nobody and offends nobody, why clamp down on it and generate yet more difficulties? Elsewhere we could hardly get away with what we do, but around Croesor this easy-come-easy-go attitude is general. The only major fly in our ointment is the bureaucracy of the Ministry of Agriculture.

The summer before, for instance, an idiot all the way from Whitehall had called on me. He understood, he told me in his braying voice, that I had two thousand acres. Well, in view of the pressing need to increase the nation’s food production, it seemed to the Ministry that my land could support far more than my current thousand breeding ewes. Yes, I agreed, the map does show two thousand acres, but had he actually looked at them? Maybe five hundred are naked rock and a good five hundred are scree, on neither of which can a single blade of grass take root. From the yard I pointed out wide expanses of both, and his face fell. But, he asked, getting his second wind, why not plant wheat or potatoes in those fields on the valley floor? Wheat, I told him, simply refuses to grow in our climate. A neighbour once tried oats, and even they did not grow. Potatoes, just possibly, but those fields were for cows and pigs and hay and for holding sheep prior to shearing and selling and suchlike. They were already in full use for food production. The moron went away empty-handed, and mercifully I had heard nothing since of that particular lunacy.

So on this lovely spring day I hooked the box to the back of the Ffergi, told Giff and Gaff — who always wanted to come too — to stay at home and be good, and set off. It was, on the face of it, an ordinary and unremarkable day, but I am recording it in some detail because it proved the first of my turning points. I was in relatively cheerful mood. Lambing had gone well. After two years on my own I was more confident in my job and knew that I was more skilled. Prices for wool and sheep were rising steadily and last year’s clip and sale had brought in good money. And while I may be tempted to curse my home patch when the weather is foul, on sunny days like this I am in love with it. Garth Llwynog lies rather over six hundred feet up on the flank of Cnicht, that great pinnacle of a mountain which the guidebooks optimistically call the Welsh Matterhorn. Matterhorn it is not, but it is still spectacular. It might be a temperamental beast, but I love it, and not least because it is mine: officially Mam’s, but for all practical purposes mine.

I bumped down the track to the village a hundred feet below. Croesor is a mere cluster of buildings: a little chapel, a little school, and a dozen houses, with another eight or so strung out for a mile along the valley above. I exchanged greetings with the few people I passed, for everybody knows everybody. Except for one pair of incomers — the O’Brians who rent Fronwen — we are all Welsh speakers round here, although apart from one or two of the oldest inhabitants we can all speak English too.

Among the rude English, I have heard, it is standing joke that we Welsh habitually find our sexual solace with sheep. That is a slur which hardly deserves rebutting. Whatever mud may be slung at us, we are not primitive barbarians. We appreciate culture — or most of us do — and not only our own culture. In my case, when time allows, I read a national as well as a local newspaper, and I listen to the wireless. I also have a long-standing love of English literature which was triggered by a large collection of nineteenth-century novels passed down by Mam’s father — who had hailed originally from England — and was fostered by my teachers at school. I still used to read these books on the rare occasions when there was nothing more urgent to do, which meant in winter evenings. But almost the only people to whom I have to talk in English are idiots from the Ministry of Agriculture.

I drove down Cwm Croesor, which is our valley. The technical term for it, I believe, is a hanging valley. Above the village, its floor is almost level. But just below, it drops rapidly, losing five hundred feet of height in the process, to the flat lands of Traeth Mawr which have long since been reclaimed from the sea. Down this stretch the road, steep and narrow, winds through intermittent woodlands. I passed above the tall chimneys of Parc, once the mansion of the powerful local family of the Anwyls but now reduced to a farmhouse. I passed beside the lofty pile of Plas Brondanw, still the home of Clough Williams-Ellis the maverick architect, who had not only built an extraordinary Italianate fantasy village at Portmeirion not so far away but adorned our immediate area with a number of whimsical follies. I passed through the arch of the gatehouse which straddles the road, and swung into Garreg.

Croesor lies in a very large parish whose name is close to the hearts of the independent-minded Welsh. This is because of the famous Achos Claddu Llanfrothen, the Llanfrothen Burial Case. Sixty years ago a dying nonconformist had requested that, when his time came to be buried in the parish churchyard, the service should be conducted by a nonconformist minister. The Anglican rector could not refuse him a grave but, standing on his arrogant dignity, he did refuse permission for a dissenting service. The matter went to court, and the nonconformist’s case was won by an up-and-coming young solicitor from Porthmadog called David Lloyd George. It made his name, and his later career as Chancellor of the Exchequer and, during the last years of the First World War, as Prime Minister of Britain established him not only as the founder of the welfare state — a title which the present government wrongly claims for itself — but as a statesman of the highest renown. Most of us in Merioneth are still staunch Liberals, and Lloyd George, who died just as the Second World War was ending, is a hero of ours. At Garth Llwynog we even have a little ceramic bust of him on our parlour mantlepiece.

Because the ancient church, however, is isolated in the middle of nowhere, Garreg serves as the centre for the parish. Many of its houses have their doors and window frames painted in the distinctive pale turquoise blue of Clough’s Brondanw Estate. The village is several times the size of Croesor and boasts what Croesor does not, namely a pub — the Brondanw Arms, popularly known as Y Ring, which they say is a corruption of Yr Inn, ‘the pub.”

Lowri the barmaid was lounging at the door and eying up anyone who passed. She waved enticingly at me, and only reluctantly did I acknowledge her. She may be young and pretty, but she is slatternly and has the reputation of being no better than she should be. That troubled me. Did she see me as a potential customer? Of the pub, possibly, under-age though I was. Or as a personal customer of hers? Was she trying to tempt me out of what the pious call the paths of righteousness? To a tart, I supposed, a customer is a customer, whatever he looks like. Or did she actually see me as attractive? I seldom thought about my appearance. Having better things to do, I rarely looked in the mirror. Even more rarely did I look at myself in my mind’s eye. But now I did.

I was nearly sixteen but old for my years, both in body and in mind. I was perfectly well aware of that. Square in face, brown in eyes, dark and untidy in hair, skin deeply sunburned or, if you prefer, weather-beaten. Tall, sturdy in frame and muscular, for with my work it could hardly be otherwise. I was aware of all that too. But now that I thought about it, perhaps I was not too bad-looking. After all, back in the days when I was still at school — an aeon ago, it seemed — girls had often shown an interest in me. Then, I had run a mile. And I still wanted to run a mile when Lowri ogled me because, try as she might to tempt me, I was not open to temptation, not of that sort, not merely from Lowri but from any girl. My contentment evaporated, and all along the level road, straight and empty, that traverses the reclaimed Traeth I pondered my problem. Often enough before I had recognised and bemoaned it without, at a cursory glance, seeing any way through it.

In common, I imagine, with every boy of my age, I had my fantasies. I had heard at school, from neighbours, from the family, of a wide range of vices. Almost all of them were subjects for discussion, whether by schoolboys boastful of laying girls or ambitious to do so, or by neighbours disapproving in hushed tones of drunkenness and infidelity. Such vices, even if they were not necessarily vices, were not uncommon. While they might be frowned upon, they were not abnormal.

But there was one vice of which only the merest hints had come my way. It was something which nobody ever talked about. Not at school, nor with neighbours, nor with friends — not that I had any close ones. Not even at home. No, not even with Madog, let alone with Mam. And there was also one secret which nobody could ever be told, which nobody could ever be allowed to guess. That I was tempted by this particular vice. That my fantasies were abnormal. That I was the odd man out.

I was not exactly ashamed of it, because it was not of my making or of my choosing. And I was not swayed by what the pulpits said. The family had never in my lifetime been chapel-goers, nor even members of the nasty little Victorian church in Garreg which had superseded the age-old parish church. But almost all our neighbours at least pretended to piety, and on my short but spiritually lonely path through life I had come to know which aberrations the pulpits might, with love and prayer, forgive, and which were wholly beyond the pale. If mine were known, I would be an outcast. The neighbours would ostracise me and, without their help, Garth Llwynog would be dead. My workaday preoccupations, being normal, could be discussed. This cross, in contrast, was one that had to be borne in solitary silence.

“Why me?” I asked myself. Because I worked mainly alone, I was in the habit of talking to myself, out loud, in the absence of anybody else to converse with. “Why me?” And nobody, of course, was there to answer.

I climbed the ridge, rattled over the narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway which — sign of the times — was dying after serving the slate industry of Blaenau for a century and more, and dropped down the steep narrow street into Penrhyn. Even here there was hardly any traffic, for gone were the prosperous pre-war days I remembered when the main road had been abuzz with tourists’ cars and coaches. Sergeant Pritchard spotted me and we had a friendly chat, with never a mention of my obvious flouting of various laws. I went to the bank and the farmers’ merchant and the grocer and picked up my parcel from the Great Western station. My business done, I loaded my purchases into the tractor box and set off home.

My woes still lay heavy on me. But in Garreg I found something to cheer me up. There beside the road at the end of the terrace was Clough Williams-Ellis, supervising the building of a strange dry-stone structure like a monstrous beehive. He calls it a gazebo, whatever that may mean. He hailed me, and I stopped.

Clough is a character. He is in his sixties and has a wonderfully expressive face adorned with a great beak of a nose. He always wears knee-breeches, knitted stockings (usually yellow), a waistcoat (usually plum-coloured), and a bow tie or a cravat. He exudes aristocracy. Indeed his family has been a big landowner in our parts almost since the world began, and he himself hobnobs, we gather, with the aristocracy of England. Yet, unlike all the other big landowners around us, he is Welsh. He is one of us.

In England he would be called the squire and, as like as not, would stand aloof from the common herd. I know, from my reading of the Victorian novels on our shelves, something about how the system works in England, or how it used to work. But we are in Wales, which is so much less class-ridden, and Clough does not stand aloof. He chats happily and unpatronisingly with all and sundry — workmen, tradesmen, tenant farmers and freeholders alike — as well as their wives and children. He taught himself Welsh, long ago, for precisely this purpose. Everybody respects him, certainly; but everybody loves him as one of our own. And he loves everybody, and knows as much about us as our next-door neighbours do.

I am very fond of Clough. Like most of our neighbours he treats me as an adult, but his charm is far more exotic than theirs. I am too young to address him as ‘Clough.” He would certainly not want to be called ‘sir.” And ‘Mr Williams-Ellis’ seems over-formal. So I call him nothing. But Welsh has two personal pronouns for ‘you,’ the exact counterpart of the French tu and vous, and between them they define relationships. The familiar one is ti, which Clough uses when talking to me. To him I use chi, the respectful one. I would never dream of doing otherwise, even if I were fifty rather than fifteen.

“Dino!” he cried. “I haven’t seen you for an age!” He inspected my face, which was no doubt down in the mouth. “But you’re not looking happy. Come and have a drink and tell me how things are going.”

I willingly reversed the few yards back to Y Ring, and he followed.

“Let’s take advantage of the sun and sit outside,” he suggested, and we pulled up chairs to a table. “What’ll you have?”

“Ginger beer, please.”

“Not proper beer? I’m sure you’ve earned it.”

I was even more under-age for drinking beer than I was for driving. But Clough is Clough. Not only does he share Sergeant Pritchard’s philosophy but he personally owns the pub.

I was still dubious, and hesitated. “Well …”

“Why not compromise on a shandy, then? Lowri!” he yelled, and Lowri shimmied out to attend to us. “A pint of bitter and a pint of shandy please, cariad.”

Clough was openly admiring her, but to me she was repulsive. As she shimmied back to the bar I averted my gaze.

“When you think about it,” he said reflectively, “we’re lucky to have her. If it weren’t for her, there’d only be the daughters of respectable people for unattached men to have it off with. Which would be vastly worse. Don’t you agree?”

I was embarrassed and mumbled something inane, hoping he did not think I was having it off with Lowri, let alone with respectable people’s daughters.

“If we were in England,” he went on, “I’d call her a strumpet. It’s a word that’s somehow much more expressive than our Welsh putain, don’t you think?”

To this question, because I knew Messiah from my schooldays, I could offer a better answer, though it had to be in English.

“Especially at Judgment Day,” I said waspishly. “The last strumpet.”

Clough hooted with laughter. “I doubt she’s the last, though. And certainly not the first, either.”

At that point Lowri emerged with our drinks and, as she started towards us, she gave me further ammunition by belching loudly.

“Just what I mean,” I added under my breath. “The strumpet shall sound.”

This time Clough laughed so hard and so long that Lowri, as she put our drinks on the table, gave him a questioning look.

“Don’t worry, cariad,” he lied shamelessly. “We’re not laughing at you. Only at a joke on the wireless.”

He passed her half a crown and muttered something in her ear. Simpering, she took herself off, to my deep relief.

“Anyway, Dino, how are you managing by yourself?”

“Just getting by.” I summarised the difficulties, which he would know all about because he and his tenants were confronting precisely the same. “But I’m hoping it’ll get easier as more and more men are demobbed and come home.”

“I hope so too. But it’s extra hard for you, because Madog won’t be coming home. I’m truly sorry about that.”

“Thank you. And I’m sorry about Christopher.”

Christopher was Clough’s only son, who had also been in the Welsh Guards and had been killed at much the same time as Madog.

“Thank you,” he said in turn. “That bloody war …”

We sat for a minute in gloomy but companionable silence, remembering, regretting, sympathising. A boy passed whistling along the road.

“But in the longer term,” Clough picked up, “if you can keep things going, one day you’ll marry. And then with luck you’ll have sons to train up, just as your Tad trained up you and Madog.”

My other gloom, equally deep, revived. I felt myself blushing and tried to hide it by dropping my head. I would never marry. I would have no sons to succeed me. There was nobody to leave the farm to. Except … well, Walter was an Evans. But would he ever be one of us? Could he ever become a Welsh hill farmer? It seemed beyond possibility. Was he, in fact, even an Evans at all? For several months I had thought little about that. But, it suddenly struck me, Clough might be able to help, if only to lighten Mam’s unhappiness. Though a pacifist at heart, he had himself served in the Welsh Guards in the First War, winning in the process a Military Cross and bar. He was the sort of man who might well have strings to pull. I found myself pouring out the story as we had heard it, and why we had doubts.

“From the date Walter was born,” I ended, “you can work out when he was conceived, more or less. And that was exactly when Madog was at a party with a bunch of ATS. He told us about it in a letter. He said which of his friends were with him. And if I could track one of them down I could ask him if Madog at some point, um, disappeared with one of the girls. If he could have … you know.”

Clough was interested. “I do agree that it doesn’t sound like Madog. And yes, I do keep up with the Guards and know who to ask. Can you give me some names?”

“Well, his best mates were …” I consulted my memory, which retained every detail of Madog’s letters. “Bob Vaughan, who was a corporal, I think, like Madog. And Charlie Smith who was a private. And he said both of them were at that party. May ’44, it was.”

Clough pulled out a tiny notebook and wrote the details down. “1st Batallion, wasn’t it? Right. I’ll try to find out if they’re demobbed by now, and to get their addresses. Leave it with me.”

“Thank you very much.”

“And Dino, there’s something else.” He looked round as if to check that Lowri was not lurking in earshot. “Slap me down if I’m being too personal and intrusive. But it seems to me you’ve got something heavy on your mind. Not just Madog and your Tad dying. Not just this business of Madog’s supposed indiscretion. Not just your problems on the farm which would flatten many a full-grown man. But something quite different, which you see as much more awkward. If I’m right, Dino, rest assured that in no way am I condemning. But am I right?”

Clough could see clean through a solid stone wall. I could not, but I could see what was coming. He was going to mention the unmentionable. I was in shock, cold and trembling. Without intending to, I must have nodded.

“I thought so. Even in the last few minutes you’ve shown all the signs. When I looked at Lowri, admiring her shape — which I do, even if I don’t admire the rest of her — you turned away. When I said something about you marrying, you blushed and recoiled and changed the subject. All right, when boys are young they often fight shy of girls and the thought of marriage. Even at your age some still do. And although nobody could deny, Dino, that you’re a man in might, you’re still a boy in years.”

My hand was on the table, and Clough laid his own hand on it. I did not see that as sinister in any way. He is a happily married man with a lovely wife. He was no threat, in that sense. He was trying to comfort. But I was still trembling.

“But that evidently wasn’t the reason. Because when young Emrys went past just now you watched him with interest. Discreetly, to be sure. But whereas the good-looking Lowri obviously repels you, the good-looking Emrys obviously attracts you. And it’s all right, Dino. It’s all right.” He was thumping my hand in his earnestness. “It isn’t unspeakable, whatever the pulpits may say. It isn’t something to be ashamed of. It needn’t be something that drags you down into the depths. Yes, it is something to keep under wraps, as you very wisely do. Because most of our friends round here, however liberal they are in their politics, still tend to be conservative in their outlook. So it wouldn’t do to flaunt it. But you can still live with it without too much bother, especially if, as you are, you’re respected for other reasons. And if you find the right person, you can live with it in fulfilment. Because you’re not alone.”

He paused to let that sink in.

“I won’t name any names. But can you think of anyone in these parts who you might expect to be married, but isn’t? Can you think of a farm run by two men who are bachelors and not related?”

As I began to pull my addled brain together I found that I could, two or three in the first category, one in the second.

Clough was watching me closely. “And are they cold-shouldered?”

Dumbly I shook my head.

“You see?” he said. “You’re not alone. You hadn’t looked at it from this angle, had you? Look at it again. Meanwhile be careful, of course, as you are being now. But don’t let it get you down. Call it another burden if you insist, but like all your others it’s not of your choosing. Like all your others it’s one to be tackled head-on with your usual competence, not pushed out of sight. I’m not that way inclined myself, but I’ve come across plenty enough cases to know there’s nothing wrong with it.

“So if you think I might be able to help in any way, please tell me. I do have a certain undeserved standing, and I do know a lot of people. Some of them might be of use to you in the future. Sympathetic lawyers, for example. Even sympathetic ministers, though I know you’re not a chapel- or church-goer. Even me myself, if you just want your confidence boosted. Because I like you, Dino. I like you enormously — you’re an exceptional young man. I respect you enormously for what you’re doing at Garth Llwynog. And I respect you for what you are. So I’m here to help. Just remember that.”

He gave me a final pat on the hand. “I must go and see how Wil’s getting on with the gazebo. I’ll let you know of any response from the Guards.”

He stood up, for good measure patted my arm as well, and walked off. I had not said a word throughout his lecture. Numbed, but at last seeing a glimmer of light at the end of my tunnel, I sat on. While I might know a great deal about sheep, I clearly had a great deal to learn about the world. And while Tad was irreplaceable, Clough was acting as a very good substitute. Lowri came out and asked if I wanted a refill. Still in need of time to absorb my lesson, I took an unheard-of plunge and asked for another shandy. When she brought it I fumbled in my pocket.

“Nothing to pay, cariad,” she assured me. “Mr Williams-Ellis has paid already.”

She was hoping to stay and chatter, but I was so unresponsive that she took herself inside. For another hour I sat, as things sank in. Then I stirred myself and remounted the Ffergi. I had to prepare for tomorrow, which was going to be hard work. The new lambs and their mothers were still in the fields above the house, but I had to get out the castrators and sheep stamps and give Mam a hand preparing food for the helpers. Because lambs object — and who can blame them? — to having their ramhood mutilated, we would end up very tired and very hungry. When I passed the gazebo, Clough had gone. But as I drove up through the dappled sunlight of the woodlands where there were only the birds and small mammals to hear, and as I continued on up to Bryn y Gelynen to deliver Owain Bach’s wire, I sang. It was many a year since I had sung for joy. My new knowledge was, for the time being, only theoretical. But while I still had no idea what if anything I might do with it, I felt the dawning of a new liberation.

Giff and Gaff must somehow have recognised it, for when I drove into the yard their welcome was even more vociferous than usual.