WHEN THE WEATHER’S good, I sit on the veranda of my log cabin with a gin and tonic to watch the sun go down. It’s never the same. Sometimes, as the Welsh say, it’s ‘red as a tomato’. Occasionally it paints the sky in psychedelic colours; purples clashing with fiery oranges and navy. At others huge cumulus clouds hang like bruised castles, hiding it altogether. When it shines from behind a cloud it looks like a piece of Celtic jewellery. Being Wales, however, it’s often grey and this evening the sun is white, a watery melon. The sky is dove-grey with fluffy clouds and pink tinges; the sea is the colour of a school uniform. As they merge, the horizon is defined by a thin line ruled with an HB pencil.
I am awash with hiraeth. It’s a Welsh word with no English translation. For me it’s a kind of stuck-inside-myself feeling; a nostalgia peculiar to the Celts. I’ve been told that the Welsh people in this part of the world are prone to it because the land looks westward at the dying sun and they, in turn, are forced to contemplate their mortality. Perhaps that’s right. Hiraeth is a rich, full-of-sadness feeling which fills the soul.
Realising the summer is coming to an end, the swallows are gathering together in the field below my writing hut. They swoop round as they prepare to make their long journey to Africa. And, even though I love Wales in all, or at least most, of its moods I can’t help feeling envious. I find myself longing for the light and the heat and the dryness of Zimbabwe, where I’d seen the swallows getting ready to come back here.
‘I’ll show you a bit of theatre,’ my cousin Chris says on one of my visits to Gem Farm in the Low Veldt of Zimbabwe. ‘It’s more dramatic than anything you’ll see in London,’ he adds, mocking my English world of so-called sophistication.
He collects four cans of cold beer from the fridge and puts them, along with some packets of crisps, in a cold box. Then he loads some chairs and a fold-up table into the bakkie. He even puts in a starched table cloth to make it a proper occasion. The dirt road we travel along is rutted and, because of the recent rains, there’s a carpet of pale-yellow flowers beside the track. The English call them African primroses but the Afrikaners, more realistically, refer to them as duiveljies– little devils – because of their vicious thorns.
We pass the orange groves, each tree standing in its own little puddle. Chris has to pump water up from under the sandy bed of a river at the bottom of his garden in order to irrigate his crops. Normally, the river’s dry; a mere trickle, if anything, of a stream running down the wide expanse of sandy bed. But at some time after Christmas, when the longed-for rains finally arrive, the river turns into a swift-flowing torrent carrying uprooted trees, dead cattle and even the occasional bicycle or unwary car in its turbulent waters. It races through the tall riverine of trees on either side till it joins the ‘great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River’, which really is ‘all set about’ with Kipling’s (yellow-barked) ‘fever-trees’. It’s on its long journey to the ocean.
The rains leave behind some of their water which sinks down into the sand under the river bed, and it’s this reserve that Chris uses to water his crops. Along with canals, he’s built dams to hold the extracted water. The one he’s driving us to now is in a basin of red sandstone rocks. It has a bed of reeds which have taken possession of a large proportion of the man-made lake.
Chris gets all the paraphernalia out of the bakkie, sets up the table and chairs, and then we settle down with a glass of beer to watch ‘the show’. Unlike Wales, with its slow saunter, here the sun will soon start a much faster plunge into the bush.
‘Look,’ he says, pointing up to the sky. High above us there’s what looks like an aerial swarm of tiny ants. They swirl round and round making patterns in the sky; clumps that separate and reform like a larva-lamp. The drama has begun. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, one of them plummets down into the reed bed. He is followed by others, free-falling like hailstones from far, far above us. Miraculously they all land in the spiky green duvet of the dam without hitting one another or, apparently, injuring themselves. Eventually the whole space is aquiver with birds; alive with excited chatter. Are they telling each other about their day’s doings, or are they making plans for their imminent departure?
In reality, I imagine, the whole show is a ruse to keep them safe from predators – it’s hard for a hawk to go into that throng of birds and pick one out for his dinner. And he can’t possibly navigate the reeds.
When, in their evolution, I wonder, as I drink the ice-cold beer, did they develop the ability to free-fall with such accuracy? How do they land without hurting themselves? Here, in this harsh environment, everything must be wily to survive. It’s not only the thorny duiveljies, or the deadly black mambas gliding through the dry grass ready to dart at any creature, including a person, foolish enough to get in its way that pose a threat. Every plant and animal is armed and ready.
‘Any time now they’ll be gone,’ Chris says. He’s been widowed twice. His first wife died young of polio suddenly in what was then Tanganyika. The second caught cerebral malaria, endemic in this part of the world, and died within a few days.
So why should I hunger to go back there?
I hated the country when we first went out to Southern Rhodesia. I was ten years old and my father was stationed in a small one-horse dorp called Fort Victoria. Our house was four and a half miles out of town, and, as my mother had no car, we had to bicycle along dirt roads and strips of tarmac to get there. We had no neighbours; we lived in ‘splendid isolation’, as my mother put it, surrounded by dry earth and spindly thorn trees. Undaunted, she was determined to create an English garden in that God-forsaken place. The first thing she did when I came home from boarding school was to introduce me to her roses. In spite of their aristocratic names, they were boring sticks in the ground with white rings round their feet because they had to be watered with the left-over bath water. I didn’t care about her garden. I’d been uprooted from my home in India and, prone to melodrama, I sat on a rock in the middle of that desiccated landscape – along with the dog I was supposed to be walking – and recited: ‘I am a flower born to blush unseen and waste my sweetness on the desert air.’
By the time I left school, I couldn’t wait to escape. As far as I was concerned, Rhodesia was a cultural desert where the only thing people were interested in was sport. Offered a one-way ticket to London, I took it. I no longer thought of myself as a neglected flower, but I was genuinely eager to get away from the complacent white people who took it for granted that they were superior to the ‘natives’. Most of all, I wanted to experience the art and drama and poetry of ‘overseas’.
I wasn’t disappointed. I fell in love with all things English. I could scarcely believe it when, at a party, one of my cousins sat down on the carpet beside my chair and discussed T.S. Eliot. I peopled London with writers such as Dickens and Oscar Wilde; I chose to live in the slums, as they then were, of Battersea because I’d read how James Whistler had painted an impressionistic picture of Battersea Bridge at night and John Ruskin, uptight art critic and self-styled social reformer, had accused him of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’ when he saw ‘The Falling Rocket’. The fact that it was no longer the same bridge didn’t matter. Across the river from Wilde’s elegant Chelsea was a huge monolith of a building with the name Morgan’s Crucible Factory painted on its expanse of concrete. It may have been hideous but it made me think of David Copperfield and his ink-bottling factory.
After the dry landscape I’d just come from, I also fell in love with the varied and beautiful British countryside; the sheer fecundity and lush greens spoke to me as Africa had not. This island, the island of my blood inheritance, was a land of ‘infinite variety’. I stayed, married and gave birth to English children. In 1983, however, I decided to go back on a visit to the country which had seen me through my teenage years. It was as if I needed to expiate something inside me.
By this time, Rhodesia, having gained its independence, was renamed Zimbabwe after some famous ruins. As it happened, the Zimbabwe, now called Great Zimbabwe Ruins, had been very close to our house outside Fort Victoria. Although I was told at the time that they were a marvel – such a marvel that they couldn’t possibly have been built by the natives – in my self-obsessed teens they hadn’t seemed all that special. Now they did. I was intrigued by the apparently solid tower constructed of intricately cut and dressed stones with open passage ways and a curving walls. What could it have been for? I was reminded of the burial mounds in North Wales, the pyramids of Egypt. Close by was a kind of mediaeval fortress on a kopje. There were staircases made of stones weaving their way between the rocks which made up the rooms. Of course, they had to have been built by the indigenous people. Apart from anything else, archaeologists had unearthed a whole township of huts close by.
That first trip, only three years after the country’s independence, was one of the most exciting of my life. The exuberance of a race, liberated from the yoke of assumed inferiority, was infectious. Unaware of the real character of the man they had democratically chosen for their leader, they truly believed they were now in charge of their own destiny. Those descendants of the Great Zimbabwe were surging ahead with a new kind of creative energy. What’s more, perhaps because they’d fought for their independence, very few were resentful of me as a white person.
This time I fell in love with the landscape: the starkness of the sandstone rocks, the reds and ochres and oranges of the earth, the sheer scale of the gigantic boulders like pebbles writ a thousand times bigger, the sheer energy of survival, the fig trees which pushed their way through cracks, splitting open the unsplittable stone to allow them to take root and grow. On their vast flat surfaces there were ‘resurrection plants’, which lay dormant and apparently dead but, like the people, came to life when put into water. I rejoiced in the extraordinary baobab trees with their stumpy pre-historic limbs and their wide pachydermal trunks which echoed the legs of the elephants, still wandering around the Low Veldt and invading Chris’s farm. No longer subsumed by my own unhappiness, I saw it all with new eyes. One day, looking down from a stony kopje at what I would have thought of as a dull plain of thorn trees, I experienced an inexplicable euphoria.
After that first visit I went back and back. This had once been my home, which I’d rediscovered not only as something new, but also part of me. Every year I stayed with my cousin Chris on his farm. There I recreated a work routine. My Welsh log cabin, where I’m working now, was replaced by a circular rondavel made of mud with a straw roof. It overlooked the wide river bed, which provided the precious water to irrigate Chris’s crops. Lines of monkeys regularly walked past along the fence outside my hut. Leading them were always the males, flaunting their masculinity as the females, burdened with their clinging babies, trailed behind them. Then came the cocky teenagers who, of course, knew everything there was to know. They paused to stare and do a metaphorical two fingers at me sitting there trying to make sense of my over-intellectualised ideas. Sometimes a warthog scurried past reminding me of a self-important businessman in London.
Gem Farm is named not after a jewel, but after the squash with fruit the size of a croquet ball which sprawls over the dry earth. The African cuckoo’s call – the ‘Piet-my-vrou’ after which it is named in Afrikaans – is nothing like its cousin’s, but it turned my heart over. Every morning I would wake at half-past five to the sound of voices chattering like birds. It was the farm workers gathering for their daily commute, and was followed by the chug, chug, chug of the tractors taking them out to the fields.
The farmhouse in which Chris lives in his own ‘splendid isolation’ was thrown up when he first bought the land and he hasn’t bothered to alter it since. The garden is made up of a lawn of sorts, with coarse grass, which needs to be watered with precious water, and a herbaceous border of straggly flowers – there are no aristocratic roses. But the village where the farm workers live is something else. It’s mostly made up of rondavels, like the one I work in, and has the charm of an unspoilt English village. Chickens peck at the bare earth trampled hard by shoeless feet.
Chris’s pride and joy is the farm school for his labourers’ children. He founded and funded it before independence. Children from the tribal territories will walk from miles around to fill any vacant spaces. His schoolteachers, part funded by the government, all speak English and, over the years, I’ve got to know them well. Maureen, the sewing teacher, is outspoken about her political convictions in a way few men would be – her brother was executed for his beliefs. My particular friend is Ananias, the drama teacher. He’s a sensitive, intelligent man and, like me, he loves theatre. One year we devised a play for the farmworkers and their wives to perform. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the stultifying ‘drawing room comedies’ of my era. During the War of Independence, a new form was invented to speak to the mostly illiterate village audiences. It drew on the traditional dances they were already familiar with and employed new Freedom Songs, as well as dialogue.
Most of the farmworkers are illiterate, but they don’t need teaching as far as the actual drama is concerned. Music and dancing is in their cultural blood. At the school assembly, which took place out in the sunshine on the bare earth, one of the children would start singing the national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, which was then picked up by other voices and disseminated into a harmony which floated through the hot dry air. Even in the big cities the African people can start dancing while they’re waiting for a bus. In the bleak modern space of the Johannesburg air terminal, I saw a line of school children singing as they followed their teacher through the crowds of travellers. When I asked her if it was a special occasion, she said: ‘No. We always sing when we go anywhere.’
In our play, Ananias chose to explore the conflict between the old traditional ways of the rural people and the new world – the villagers may never have seen a skyscraper, but modern medicine and even a degree of technology has come to this remote part of Africa. What Ananias was particularly concerned with was the erosion of cultural beliefs. ‘I can understand Antigone,’ he said as we walked back to the village – Chris had arranged for a reading of Sophocles’ play with the teachers on his veranda – ‘We worship our ancestors. We believe they are with us the whole time and for us it is important that they are buried in hallowed ground.’
There is a part of me that yearns to belong, to be part of this relatively unspoilt community. After all, I argue, I have more in common with Ananias than many of my English friends. But there’s no getting away from the fact that I’m white. This was once a British colony and Chris, for all his liberal politics, was appalled when, at the end of a concert, the villagers asked me to dance. I made an attempt to copy what I’d seen, but the audience watching fell off their chairs in mirth, so I deliberately made a fool of myself. Afterwards I realised that, as far as Chris was concerned, I’d crossed a boundary. But, naïve though it may sound, I needed to prove to the Africans, as well as to myself, that under the skin we’re the same. We share a common humour and sense of the ridiculous.
One year Chris took me to the Matobo Hills, a cluster of huge stone kopjes. It’s where Cecil John Rhodes, the infamous founder of Rhodesia to which he gave his name, is buried. It was a tourist destination in my day and we’d gone there several times when I was a child. As a seventeen-year-old with the beginnings of political awareness, I remember standing on a rock and looking out over the vast vista of Africa stretching away and away below me. It seemed iniquitous that Rhodes should simply carve up someone else’s land and give it to his chums. The grave itself is hacked out of the solid stone. Even then it seemed like a travesty of nature. Now I think of it as an act of monstrous hubris.
Chris and I didn’t go to Rhodes’ grave on our visit to the Matobo Hills. Instead, he took me into a gorge between the hills. It’s been a holy place for aeons and is still seen as that today. The whole valley feels like a gigantic cathedral and, like all sacred spaces, it exudes powerful vibes. Along the vale there are caves with ancient rock paintings of wild animals, including bison and zebra, and hunters drawn on the walls with extraordinary skill. Between these there are more, even older paintings. And underneath yet more. The longer I looked, the more I could see. The paintings took me into a mystic, metaphysical world of only God knows how many centuries ago until, as Wordsworth put it, I felt as if I could ‘see into the life of things.’ To create was a sacred activity.
Sipping my gin and tonic outside my log cabin, I watch the swallows still flying round the field. There’s no theatricals, no plummeting down, here. And there are fewer of them than at Gem Farm. But they’re restless; restless to set off on their long and dangerous journey. When we first went out to Africa we travelled in an aeroplane with propellers. It flew far closer to the ground than modern jets. Like the swallows I saw the vast expanse of the waterless Sahara Desert with its giant waves of dunes, and was sick crossing the green soup of the tropical jungles as our plane tumbled into air pockets like an out-of-control lift. Then there was the vast savanna with its huge lakes and the Rift Valley, which looked as if God had taken a knife and sliced through the earth.
The swallows will have to endure droughts and storms and the predators who lie in wait. Why do they do it? I wonder. I know that our thug of a cuckoo with his deceptively seductive voice, needs to feed on hairy caterpillars, which are specific to certain locations. But swallows have a modest diet, supping on flies and aphids, while still in mid-air. Presumably these die off in the cold European winter, but all the same that doesn’t explain why the swallows need to go so far? Could it be their restless nature?
The poet George Herbert wrote a sonnet in which he imagined that when God first made man he gave him everything except ‘rest’. That, Herbert argued, is because otherwise mankind would ‘rest in Nature, not the God of Nature’. He’s right. It’s the restlessness in me that makes me want to go with them; the need to escape from myself. I needed to go back to Africa in order to see the past with new eyes; to change and to grow internally.
And we need to come back to a place we feel is home. The swallows will be back next spring and sit on the telephone wires in pairs courting in the soft sunshine. Unlike Africa with its duiveljies our Welsh lane is lined with real primroses, as well as violets and shiny celandine. Perhaps this kinder, moister atmosphere is conducive to love?
I like to think of swallows as holy birds. Given the choice, they would like to nest in the beautiful old stone churches scattered all the way down the Lleyn Peninsula – the visiting public are implored to keep the doors shut to prevent this. My mind plays on the idea that the swallows feel the vibes in these old churches just as I do. After all, we know that all animals have a heightened sense of awareness; that they feel the essence of a place.
The Lleyn is an ancient pilgrim trail and I wonder whether it’s the stones themselves, or the people who worshipped in the churches, that left some sort of benign energy behind. The pilgrim route more or less follows the coastline and leads eventually to Bardsey, the holy island of Enlli. I am told that it is considered ‘liminal’, halfway to heaven. It’s reputed to be the burial place of twenty thousand saints and the remains of an ancient abbey still stand on the island. There’s a wide sound with eight currents all battling against one another between the island and the mainland. It’s treacherous. The crossing is only possible in good weather and at those times of the day when the tides are right. Many of the pilgrims must have perished en route. But they believed that simply by making that risky journey in search of God, the Almighty would automatically take pity on them and scoop them up into heaven.
Extraordinarily, Bardsey Island was once, geologically, joined onto mid Wales, which is now forty miles away. What fascinates me is that, presumably because of this shift over the ages, the sea between the island and the mainland is exceptionally deep. It’s as if there’s a gigantic fold underneath the sea, which accounts for the turmoil of Bardsey Sound as the currents battle to get through the gap.
Bardsey Island is ultimately the result of volcanic activity in this part of the world. From time to time, there are still minor earthquakes – I was woken a few years ago by one that sounded and felt like a mine explosion directly underneath my house. It transpired that we were immediately over the epicentre – but the quakes are shallow because the rocks here are very ancient. It’s as if they’re bringing their spirituality up from the centre of the earth.
‘Do you feel the vibes?’ I asked a young Welsh student who’s studying in London.
‘Oh yes!’ she said without hesitation. ‘One hundred per cent.’
She tells me they’re with her the whole time, not only in the churches but in the landscape itself. ‘It’s my ancestors,’ she says.
I am reminded of Antigone and my Zimbabwean friend Ananias needing to bury their dead in sacred ground. It’s an instinct that people closer to nature feel. They know that humans, like all animals, are joined to the earth. I am not Welsh but I am a Celt and we are what my granny called ‘spiritual’ – something I decidedly did not want to be when she told me I was at the age of nine. But I was flattered as an adult when my Welsh neighbour looked directly at me and said: ‘You’re one of us.’
These feelings are hard to prove. A friend who is a born-again atheist will use every rational argument to try and persuade me that they’re all in my fantasy. But I believe that there is a synaptic gap between the physical and the metaphysical. Physically we need the earth for the nourishment of the body, but we also need the rocks and the landscape to nourish our spirits.
Those early pilgrims on their way to Bardsey were questing after something beyond themselves and whole communities sprang up to cater for their needs. Halfway down the peninsula there’s a tiny church called after Saint Beuno, a seventh-century Welsh saint who was an abbot at the nearby Clynnog-fawr, the chief church on the pilgrim route. Once upon a time there was a small monastery attached to Saint Beuno’s. It can’t be an accident that the monks chose this particular spot to live. There’s a swathe of green leading to the sea and it’s guarded by a mountain with such a dramatic drop it stops my heart every time I go past it. Whenever I visit, the spot with its church is still peopled by the ghosts of those monks who were an integral part of the landscape. The pond where they bred the carp for their dinners is still there.
If they were maimed or sick, the pilgrims went to Saint Cybi’s Well, a spring which was supposed to have miraculous healing properties. You come across it unexpectedly in the middle of the countryside: a small stone building with what looks like a miniature Roman bath inside. There’s even a ledge with surrounding alcoves for the patients to sit on and dangle their limbs in the water, hoping to heal their scrofula. Did they get right in? I wonder. I did once, and it’s freezing. Alongside the pool there’s another stone building which, we’re told, was a hospital.
Behind the well, there’s a hill with ancient woodland; a living testimony to the past. The way up is steep, so there must have been able-bodied men to carry the sick and the palsied up and down. There are boulders where once there must have been houses and it’s easy to imagine a community of monks, those ancient doctors whose job was not only to attempt a cure but to bring spiritual guidance to the pilgrims. At the top you can see right the way across to the sea. There’s a ridge of hills which the pilgrims would once have crossed on their diversion from Clynnog-fawr, via the Well, to Bardsey.
As the watery sun ambles slowly towards its destination, the swallows have started getting themselves into an orderly V-formation, an echo of their tails. I watch them, mesmerised. Have they chosen a leader and, if so, how? And, as they fly off into the darkening sky, I wonder whether this lot are actually now on their way, or if it’s just a trial run. Whichever it is, they’re signalling winter and part of me is still feeling that envy and loss; the other part, though, quickens to the change in the air, the movement of the seasons.
I watch the sun, still a pale watery white, subside slowly into the sea. It’s dark now, but I linger on, unwilling to move; wanting to stay in the moment; absorbed by the meaning of the word hiraeth. ‘Longing and belonging,’ an English friend who lives in the Lleyn said recently. Longing for the certainties of the past and belonging in the present? But that seems too easy a definition.
After her death I found a piece of paper on which my mother had written: ‘As trees hold the shape of the wind after the wind has gone, so words hold the shape of man.’ Words, which carry so much, mean different things for different people. They are a subjective experience. My mother was right. The old Welsh word hiraeth holds the shape of the people who lived, and still live here. But we are losing touch with the earth. Those pilgrims understood, at a very deep level, that mankind, trapped inside itself, needs both to belong and to escape, in every sense, in order to find itself. It’s a contradiction, but it’s this very contradiction, the coming together of opposites, that allows us to get a brief glimpse of the eternal.
And perhaps that is why the swallows need to make that long journey. Like us, they need the soft Welsh countryside to breed in, and the harsh dry climate of Africa to grow up in. They need the challenge of that hazardous journey to understand at some deep level what their existence on earth is all about.
OCTOBER 2022 Veronica Cecil MONK
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