At the Bright Hem of God: Radnorshire Pastoral
by Peter J Conradi
Seren, £9.99. 240pp
The last dragon in Wales sleeps in the Radnor Forest – a seven mile long upland area of East Wales that most Independent readers would understandably be unable to pinpoint on a map. The creature will not wake so long as he remains ringed by the multiple churches of the dragon-slayer, St Michael (Llanfihangel). In the lee of one such church, at the end of a two and a half mile hedged cul de sac, and itself ringed by 1000-year-old yews in a circular churchyard (the devil enters at corners) lives Peter J Conradi, a mild-mannered Prospero summoning up the benign spirits of Radnorshire past: writers, poets, historians, anchorites and mystics.
Conradi is alive to the magical and other-worldly dimension of the hauntingly beautiful Welsh March – the Elizabethan magician, Simon Dee may have been born here – but this is not a flaky or New Age treatise – and he acknowledges the mixed benefits of the incomer invasions which somehow have never swamped the locals, whose characteristic speech patterns, weathered obliquity, and gift for slow living he captures well. He is also keen to refute the idea that this is some sort of anglicised margin rather than, as he contends, a central repository of the true spirit of Welshness since the 12th century. He presents in sequence writers like Gerald of Wales, a suitably mongrel Welsh/Norman border figure, the poets Herbert, Traherne, Vaughan who sought and found “the Paradise within” in this numinous landscape, the attractive figure of the Reverend Francis Kilvert whose humane curiosity and kindness appeal to him and who provokes one of his rare personal lyric flights. There is Chatwin of course, and a contemporary trio of poets, R.S.Thomas, Roland Matthias, and Ruth Bidgood who have celebrated what Conradi calls 'the March', an area he has known for 40 years. Wales “has absorbed many English enthusiasts for its scenery and history: it can in me find room for one more”.
Generally, Conradi doesn't thrust himself on the reader, and writes a thoughtful and non-judgemental prose even when dealing with what have been highly contentious matters of Welsh politics and cultural identity. He judges (in a gentle slight to the more famous Thomas) R.S. Thomas (who supplies the book's title) to be the greatest 20th century Welsh poet writing in English but is unillusioned about what he calls tactfully, Thomas's “human frailties”. He is glad to quote Bidgood's declaration that she did not come to this area to escape the world: “This is the world.”
Conradi has written the perfect primer to this quiet stretch of Wales and Simon Dorrell's exquisite pen and ink miniatures complete what must be the best introduction to this area ever written.
Nicholas Murray's Bruce Chatwin (1993) is to be re-issued later this year.