Sunday, 10 March 2013

Borrow: Wild Wales

George Henry Borrow (1907) Wild Wales: Its People, Language and Scenery John Murray, London; 347 pp.; originally published 1862 by J. M. Dent, London.
[free e-book versions of this can be downloaded using links at - be sure to download the correct format for your e-reader]

This is the account of a journey taken in 1854 by George Borrow, a prolific writer who was well known in his day for books about the gypsies and Spain, as well as lesser tracts on religion and language. His style appears stiff and somewhat pretentious to modern readers, but would have been unsurprising in its day. Borrow, a native of Norfolk, studied Welsh as a young man and was much taken by Welsh poetry and history. His journey seeks to visit places associated with poets and poetry but is also a glimpse into a society that can appear both familiar and strange.

L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between (1953) opens with the line ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’, and reading Borrow’s travel narrative the truth of this strikes you again and again. This is a world of not so long ago, but going back there would be a foreign excursion for a modern Briton, even for a Welsh speaker.

Borrow comes across as a little eccentric. He cannot restrain himself from breaking into poetry whenever he is on a mountain top or at the site of a poet’s birth or grave. He enjoys showing how clever he is to passers-by or fellow guests at the inns where he stays, and he delights in pretending to be Irish, Welsh or some other nationality in order to have fun with those he meets. He is also an avid walker and covers significant distances in often inclement weather or well after nightfall.

Most of his time is spent in the north of Wales, especially around Llangollen. He stays there with his wife and daughter who seem to tolerate his obsessions. They travel by train while he walks the countryside but they sound devoted to him. There are some good descriptions of the wild countryside and the beautiful forests and hills, but much of the interest in this book is in the people that Borrow meets on his travels, and the history and literature that he reads into the landscape.

Some things will be familiar to the modern reader: the antagonism between people of the north and south in Wales, the Welsh love of literature and especially poetry, and the importance of Methodism. Borrow is firmly Church of England and on quite a few occasions is very critical about Roman Catholicism to those he meets on the road, though he is amused when he is mistaken for a famous Roman Catholic priest by some Irish sailors. He regards Methodism as ‘vulgar and fanatical’ but is less prone to arguing about this given its prevalence in Wales.

Other elements of the book will appear alien. It is clear that people of the time were far less sedentary than we are today. Many people he meets are walking long distances for work or to visit friends and relatives, and are out in all sorts of weather. Perhaps as a function of this it was common for people to call into houses on their way to ask for water or milk to refresh themselves. Stopping at an inn meant drinking ale, pints of sherry or whiskey and water, except in those strongly Methodist teetotal villages where tea was the strongest brew.

The food is plain and there is little variety. Bread and butter, cheese and ale is the most common meal mentioned, supplemented by cuts of meat, though occasionally he finds an inn that serves a larger and more diverse feast. Meals are later than we consider normal in modern times.

Borrow meets quite a few itinerant Irish tinkers, peddlers and labourers on his travels, many of them with relatives in the Americas. It is a measure of the displacement of people from Ireland at the time. Gypsies are only mentioned a few times, and the antagonism between them and the Irish is evident.

Borrow is reasonably well off, though not rich, and his clothing gives him away as a ‘gentleman’ to those he meets. He gives small amounts of money to those who offer him a service or to those whom he regards as indigent. This is very reminiscent of behaviour in poor countries today, as is the ease with which he feels entitled to enter people’s homes along the way.

There are many stories about Welsh history and legend, and at times he quotes at length from poems that strike him as appropriate. He is also inquisitive about place names and tries to uncover their etymology. His spelling of Welsh is not always consistent, and it often does not match modern spelling, but names and places are easily recognised. Fans of Little Britain will be pleased to know that he visits Llan Ddewi Brefi, though he is more interested in the fifth century religious convocation held there than in wanting to gaze in the village.

It is a pity that Borrow’s description of south Wales is much more limited than that of the north, and that he misses the west coast entirely. Still, there is a good deal to enjoy here and he clearly has a love of the country and its literature. The language might annoy some readers with its dated style and Borrow is not always a likeable chap, but as a window on a way of life that is both strange and fascinating, this is worth reading. And for those with an electronic reader, the book is free. A bargain!

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