I’m delighted to introduce Stephen Powell as my guest on this month’s Fat Dogs blog. A fellow Welsh person, Stephen is a journalist who worked as a staff correspondent for Reuters for 27 years. He has lived and worked on every continent except for Antarctica and brings a deeply ingrained global perspective to his craft.
Stephen also loves the open road, and from autumn 2018 to spring 2019, he walked the length of Portugal, following a zigzag path of nearly 1500 kilometres. Whilst now living in Portugal, as you’ll find out, his roots remain firmly in Wales.
This headline is rather tongue in cheek, but Beth´s invitation to write a blog focused my thoughts on what it means for me to be a Welshman living in foreign parts.
I was born in Cardiff and have lived in Wales about half of my life. I love Wales, but I moved to Portugal for the sun and new adventure nearly four years ago. It feels important to nurture my Welsh roots, while at the same time trying to be “present” in my new Portuguese home.
The Welsh often retain an aspect of their Welshness wherever they go. I remember a few years ago driving through the Kalahari with a friend. We spotted a Welsh flag fluttering above the desert and stopped to discover what it was doing in such a remote part of Africa. It was close to a meerkat sanctuary. We went in and found the sanctuary was run by Professor Anne Rasa, a retired ethologist who hailed originally from South Wales.
Anne had found her soul place in the Kalahari, taking care of animals. In her living room, two meerkats warmed themselves by an electric fire. Anne said she had been born in Ferndale in the Rhondda Valley, once part of a world-famous coalfield. “The garden consisted of coal dust, but it grew beautiful rhubarb,” she said.
Anne told us that in her youth she had spoken Welsh fluently. Now, she said, she had lost the language, submerged under Swahili and “farm Afrikaans”. But she managed a spirited “Bore da i chi” as we left.
I don’t myself fly the Welsh dragon flag, but I have to allow my Welshness to burst out in other ways. Soon after I moved to Portugal, Covid made its appearance. For me, this had one advantage. A Welsh-language group that I had belonged to when I lived in Crickhowell switched to Zoom. That was great for conversational practice. Nearly everyone in the group, including myself, had learnt Welsh as adults.
But my biggest connection with Wales as I sat out Covid lockdowns was the broadcasting of Beti George. If you’ve not yet made the acquaintance of Beti George, but are set on learning Welsh, then you have a treat in store. Beti is a phenomenon. Her programme Beti a’i Phobol (Beti and her People) began on BBC Radio Cymru in 1987 and is still going strong, with Beti at the helm at the age of 84. The format is simple – she interviews interesting people who can converse in Welsh. In between the chat we listen to music chosen by the interviewees, rather like Desert Island Discs. But Beti’s programme has its own vibe. It has no real equivalent in English-language broadcasting because at times Beti goes beyond the role of journalist. She becomes teacher, a veritable Welsh school ma’am. I listened to one interview with writer Sion Jobbins. He made the mistake of saying “dau goes”, thinking this was Welsh for “two legs”. But the Welsh word for leg is feminine and needs the feminine form of the number. Beti corrected him on air. “Dwy goes,” said she, in a friendly but firm manner.
I went a bit mad with Beti a’i Phobol. During 2020/2021 I listened to 423 of her interviews in the BBC archive. The interviews typically last between 40 and 50 minutes. This archive amounts to a Welsh national treasure. There are conversations here with the poet R.S. Thomas (two broadcasts) and with rugby great Gareth Edwards (also two broadcasts).
The range of interviewees is extraordinary and they are not all native Welsh people by any means. The programmes are an eye-opener, revealing how many foreigners have learnt “yr hen iaith”, the old language. Norwegian-born dancer Siri Wigdel, an ethnic Sami, spoke to Beti in excellent Welsh from somewhere up in the Arctic Circle.
I also read about Wales and recently enjoyed Tom Bullough’s new book Sarn Helen, about a walk that the author did along this Roman road that ran north-south through Wales. The walk constitutes the overarching framework of the book, but the text is interspersed with interviews conducted with climate scientists. Climate change is a recurring theme in the book and Bullough is an Extinction Rebellion activist. (There is a radical streak in Wales. Beti George favours an independent Welsh republic.)
Sarn Helen made a very big impression on me because by a fluke Bullough devotes some space to a man and a farm that loomed large in my childhood.
The farm is Bodtalog, on the lonely mountain road between Rhayader and Aberystwyth in Mid-Wales. The man is Cliff Pugh who farmed there when I was a boy. I suppose many of us have deeply etched memories of taking part in the working life of a small farm in the 20th century. My strongest memories are from Bodtalog. I remember sitting on a hay cart one summer’s day, arranging the hay and watching the mice scurry away from the blades that were reaping the grass. I remember too going out into the hills above Bodtalog to cut peat for the fire. And then there was sheep shearing, a big communal event in the hills of Wales when I was a lad.
Bullough’s book resonated with me for another reason. I too did a walk and wrote about it. In 2021 I published Walking Europe’s Edge, Reflections on Portugal, after travelling on foot the length of Portugal, following a zigzag route of nearly 1,500 kilometres. The walk started in my head as a reporting assignment but turned into a life-changing event.
(Here is the link to Stephen’s wonderfully inspiring memoir.) http://mybook.to/WalkingEuropesEdge
In some ways I try to minimise the changes. I tell myself I have simply moved from one part of the Roman world to another and I can ponder the big questions hanging over Wales just as well from the Algarve as I can from Crickhowell.
Will the old language survive? Will Wales choose independence? I’ll end with a Welsh proverb. “Amser a ddengys.” Time will tell.