So W and I are back. From windy, rainy Herefordshire where we awoke, as expected, to the singing of the birds. And where we also awoke on at least five of our ten mornings to the pounding of the rain on Ruby’s roof. It rained at some point in every day, and at most points in every day the wind blew, bending the trees before it and tugging and pulling with a gleeful exuberance at the tent we usually erect by Ruby’s side in which we store our cases, sun-chairs (ha!) etc.
But we did things. We visited towns and villages. We went to Abertillery in Wales – ‘ery’ to rhyme with ‘Mary’. Abertillery lies tucked into the folds of a beautiful valley, the verdant sides of which rise way up above it. But the town itself had about it an air of sadness and of has-been. It was, for many years, a thriving coal-mining, iron-working town which grew up and burgeoned on the back of the Industrial Revolution. And doubtless then there was a buzz and an energy about the place. Now, with its population halved, and its industries defunct it seems bleak and direction-less; a more or less random jumble of houses and characterless modern factory units which have all somehow settled by gravity to the bottom of the valley.
And talking of ex-coal-mining towns, I lived some twenty years ago, very close to a town in Derbyshire called Clay Cross. That too was a coal-mining town. And that too lost its mines. The miners and their families were deprived of their livelihood in – in my opinion – a hideously uncaring way by the then Thatcher government. I used to have to drive into Clay Cross a couple of times a week and the centre of Clay Cross, once the pits had closed, was very depressing. Not only had a good half of the shops closed, but miners, now with no work, and those over about forty with little hope either, could be seen sitting outside the pubs, smoking, drinking beer, lost – often dressed in the same clothes they’d worn on their way to work in the pits – with no idea where their lives were going thereafter – if they were going anywhere at all.
Sure, it’s easy to say, ‘The choice was theirs.’ They could – in that infamously sinister phrase of Mr Tebbit – ‘get on their bike’ (like he never had to) and find work in another part of the country. But that fails to understand – as did the government of that day – the psychology of families whose lives as far back as they could comfortably date them were bound to the coal pits. Boy took over from man. That’s the way it was and that’s the way it was always going to be. Except it wasn’t. Nobody told them what was coming; nobody told them what was going to happen to their world; nobody put in place that which would guide them in the gruelling transition out of coal-mining. They were crucified. And some of them, at a coal field a little further north from Clay Cross, suffered actual GBH at the hands of the loyal British police. It was surely a time of which we should be ashamed.
But onward – from Abertillery, not many miles, to Hay-on-Wye – secondhand book capital of the world. Now that small town buzzes. It throngs. It is internationalized. It has a feeling about it of Glastonbury with books. I’ve never seen so many books and bookshops. The Alternatives, decked in ethnic outfits, multicoloured scarves and jangling ear-rings walk its streets, and side by side with men and women who look like serious literary people (don’t ask me how serious literary people look) probe and scour – as we did – its mile upon mile of bookshelves. It was a joy to be there and sense a living community. Long may it be that way.
And finally – this, from the ‘People Can Be Amazing’ department. On our campsite – a remote rural retreat on what was once a country railway station – about a hundred metres away from where dear Ruby was pitched there was a large motor-home. It stood out from the neatness and sparkling middle-class cleanliness of most of the others by the coloured stickers that were all over it (one depicting an Australian flag, another a scantily-clad woman) and by a strange green flag bearing some quite indecipherable graphic, which the driver ran up on a four metre high flagpole which he put up by its side. Also, attached to the rear tow-bar of the vehicle, was a rather strange, almost cubic – probably home-made – trailer with one of those ‘Long Vehicle’ boards on its rear end.
It did not fit in. It was not, clearly, of the neat and conventional British caravanner brigade. And the driver seemed to be the only human being in it. He was a large, well-built man, perhaps in his forties. He wore a bright blue T-shirt and black shorts. For two days it was just he who came and went from that vehicle. What was he doing here all on his own? Who was he and from where? Was it he who had plastered the often garish stickers all over his mobile home? Inevitably, you form opinions of people; you form what you think is a pretty realistic impression of what they’re like from the little you see of them in circumstances like this.
Then early one evening, as we were having a pre-dinner G&T, he passed Ruby on his way to his own vehicle, but this time in the company of two young boys and a woman in a wheelchair. The two boys behaved like they were his sons, cavorting around him, pulling on his arms. It was not possible to see much of the woman, because she was so low down and hunched in the wheelchair which he pushed.
We watched as they arrived at the ‘Long Vehicle’. The two boys opened the door and immediately disappeared inside – clearly very familiar with it. The big man then spun the wheelchair round so that the woman faced him. He then bent down, and in a clearly well-practised manoeuvre, put his arms under her body and in one movement, lifted her out of the chair and draped her bodily over one shoulder in a fireman’s lift. She appeared quite helpless, her legs limply dangling. Her head hung down and her long black hair fell all across his back and swung from side to side as, with his arms tight around her, he carried her into the vehicle. Then the door shut.
The scene brought me to a stop. I was quite stunned. And slightly ashamed. Whatever view I had formed of that man, it changed instantly. My heart went out to him. It went out to the four of them. Whatever story there was behind all that, it was one of courage. Don’t judge. But we all do.