The thankful ones


Is there any place in Australia which does not have a war memorial?

No matter how small the town, you always see a reminder of those who left to fight for the British Empire in 1914-18 and never came home again. Teenage boys mostly, who had rarely travelled more than a day’s ride from home, they died on the other side of the planet, in France, Turkey, or the lands of the Ottoman Empire. Their names are engraved in countless plaques on the walls of Soldiers’ Memorial Halls, town halls and post offices, or most often beneath the statue of a slouch-hatted soldier in order arms position, rifle resting on the ground and head bowed in respect.

Over 400,000 Australians volunteered to fight in the First World War, out of a population of just 4.4 million– almost a quarter of the entire male population. Of these, over 60,000 never returned. For Britain, with a population ten times greater, the number of casualties was a similarly high at 700,000. The UK too, of course, has a war memorial prominent in every town and parish. Yet of all the thousands of villages in Britain, there are a few dozen where there is no memorial. Remarkably, every soldier from those places returned home alive from the trenches.

They are known as the Thankful Villages.

One of these lies in the remote west of Wales, comfortably nestled between the mountains and the sea: a place called Llanfihangel-y-Creuddyn, a farming community of rich dairy land clustered around a thirteenth century church. All around, black-and-white cows graze contentedly in tilting fields of deepest green. This is my father’s family home. I can confidently say that my family have lived here for hundreds, and almost certainly for thousands of years, working as farmers and blacksmiths – a specialty of the area. Over the years, they will have gone away to fight the Germans, the French, the Spanish, the French again, the Normans, and probably even the Romans. A dozen local men joined up in 1914 and left for the Front, serving as gunners, infantrymen, and drivers. Even the local vicar went to be a curate with the army in what is now Iraq. Every one of them came back alive, including three of my own family.

My great-uncle Silvan served in the fledgling Tanks Corps, manning a gun in one of those early metal monsters which lumbered across the hellscape of the Somme. I remember him as a sprightly farmer in his seventies. On family visits, he rescued my brothers and me from the boredom of teatime conversation, beckoning us out with a wink to help with milking the cows. An hour later, we all returned, faces streaked with milk, shoes caked in mud, and wide grins on our faces.

But not all the returned soldiers had grins, even those without bodily wounds. Growing up, we were all familiar with ‘Dai Trolley’. Every morning he walked from one end of the town to the other, pushing a trolley in front of him, turned to go back, then turned again and again until it was time to stop and go home for tea. Dai had suffered brain damage after a shell exploded near him during the allied landings in Italy. Walking all day at least kept him fit. His family knew where he was, and everyone in town kept an eye out for him. He even served as an impromptu courier service. If you wanted something delivered, you dropped it on the trolley, slipped a tip in his pocket, and phoned ahead to say, ‘Dai coming with those bulbs I promised you!’

And there was another Uncle too, a cousin of my mother. He had been in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. As children, we had heard about the camps, and talked in horrified whispers about the bamboo slivers pushed under fingernails and men crucified alive. It was almost scary to meet someone who had actually been a prisoner there. After tea with my aunt, we were taken to say hello. He spent his time in a room at the back of the house. The curtains were drawn and a coal fire burned there even on the warmest summer’s day. Here he sat, huddled by the fire, chain-smoking and staring into the flames. He tried to smile and talk to us, but his voice stuttered as he spoke and his hand never stopped trembling, sending cigarette ash tumbling over his waistcoat. His presence frightened me. In the decades since the war ended, he had rarely moved from the room. It was his safe place.

We don’t only remember the dead on Anzac Day then, but those who returned from the wars. They too paid a price which some have kept on paying.

The Lampeter Brethren: A Victorian Sex Cult

St David’s College, Lampeter, is the smallest university in the UK. It’s the oldest in England or Wales after Oxford and Cambridge.  It’s also the furthest away from, well . . . anywhere really. When I arrived – after leaving school and a year away in Germany – I was charmed. It’s a feeling that’s never left me.

Lampeter is an ancient market town nestled comfortably in the hills of mid-Wales, hundreds of kilometres and across a mountain range from the nearest city, distant from any motorway or railway line. The only way to get there is to drive for hours along winding narrow roads sheltered by high hedges tangled with honeysuckle. It’s a bother to get there, and I suspect that’s just the way the locals like it. Listen to conversations on the High Street for ten minutes and you will learn the price of a cow, that the beer at the Black Lion hasn’t been the same since the brewery took over, or that Daniel Price was seen sneaking in the back door of Mrs Jones the baker’s again.

Across an ivy-covered wall lies the College. Wide lawns lead to a tower and spires enclosing a peaceful quad where a fountain plays next to the Gothic chapel. It is the last place you would expect to find after driving for the day across the Cambrian Mountains. There were fewer than a thousand students. A typical day could involve a morning tutorial discussing Beowulf and the intricacies of Anglo-Saxon poetry; an afternoon walking or horse-riding in the hills, and then an evening in a pub with some local girls. After midnight, a group of us might solemnly place tablets of LSD on our tongues to see the true nature of the world revealed.  We would wander in the woods all night, able to stop and start time with a wave of the hand, hiding from neon dragons and following mermaids floating among the branches. In those years, it was as if pages of Brideshead Revisited, Under Milk Wood, and The Electric Kool-Acid Acid Test had been sewn together at random to tell our story.

Like every generation, we believed ourselves unique, with a special understanding of the world. Over a century before, another student at Lampeter had a more dramatic revelation. Henry Prince studied divinity at the College before becoming an Anglican priest. He was convinced that the end of the world was near, and that he alone knew the key to salvation. To be saved, the sinful flesh would need to be united with the Holy Spirit. The sinful flesh would belong to the richer, female members his congregation. The Holy Spirit was himself. This was a clever  and convenient reversal of centuries of Christian tradition. Instead of condemning and repressing sexuality, original sin would be expunged by celebrating the pleasures of the flesh.

Prince had considerable gifts of persuasion, using charm and evangelical enthusiasm to excite the audience in more ways than one. His first congregation was converted en masse, no mean achievement in Victorian England. Men and women of all classes flocked to his sermons. After moving Prince around various parishes in an attempt to reduce his influence, the Church of England eventually defrocked him. This was the making of the renegade priest.

Followers of the Lampeter Brethren now numbered several hundred, including many wealthy families and professional people who looked after its affairs. There were lawyers, a doctor, and even an estate manager. Together, they bought a 200-acre estate near Glastonbury in Somerset and built a village clustered around a mansion and protected from prying eyes by a 4-metre high wall. The community was called the Abode of Love. Here, Prince introduced the Holy Spirit into one of his many ‘spiritual wives’ by having sex with her in front of the congregation as an organ played a celebratory hymn. This was called, ‘the Great Manifestation’. There is no record of whether this was followed by applause.

A journalist from the Illustrated London News managed to penetrate the Abode in 1851, expecting to find scenes of depravity to delight his prurient readership. He was disappointed. Apart from the swinging culture, as we would call it now, the place was the epitome of cultured upper-class comfort. Unlike most Victorian men with their bushy sideburns and beards, the males kept their hair short and were clean-shaven. The women, too, cut their hair short and dressed in simple, comfortable clothes. Billiards was apparently a passion of the women at the Abode. They loved to be in the fresh air too, and had their own hockey teams. They kept horses and hunted with hounds. In a peculiarly English manner, this ‘sex cult’ served its own blend of tea every afternoon at 4 pm.  With an unconvincing attempt at disapproval, the journalist noted that ‘they have converted the chapel into a banqueting house, and substitute feasting and enjoyment for privation and prayer’.

‘If God be not life, happiness, and love,’ said one of the family, ‘then we do not know what God is.’

Prince was undoubtedly a rogue who financially and sexually exploited some of his female followers. At the same time, many of the most enthusiastic members of the Lampeter Brethren were women of all ages who seem to have relished the personal and sexual freedom which the Abode gave them in the repressive Victorian age.

They were ‘very willing followers – his recommendations are so pleasant,’ the journalist acknowledged. This willingness caused a scandal when three daughters of the wealthy Nottidge family joined the Brethren. After the fourth sister, Louisa, ran away to join them, it was one heiress too many for the family. They had Louisa kidnapped and certified insane by a compliant doctor. After nearly two years locked away in an asylum, she managed to escape and sued her family for abduction and illegal imprisonment. Louisa won the case, and returned to spend the rest of her life happily at the Abode with her sisters and friends.

The Nottidge case was one of Wilkie Collins’ inspirations for his famous suspense novel, The Woman in White. There are interesting associations between Collins and the Lampeter Brethren (apart from his own domestic arrangements – living with two mistresses and their children). Louisa Nottidge was declared sane and freed from the asylum after being examined by the Metropolitan Commissioner in Lunacy. It so happened that the Commissioner was Bryan Procter, a friend of Collins (as was his daughter, the feminist, Adelaide Procter). Wilkie Collins also knew Adelaide’s friend, Frances Cobbe, whose brother was a a senior member of the Lampeter Brethren and married to one of the other Nottidge sisters. Frances was a lifelong friend of Collins, and became one of the leading feminist theorists of the Victorian era – producing provocative pamphlets such as What Shall We do with Our Old Maids? And Celibacy vs Marriage, arguing for female economic and personal independence. There is a final link. When Henry Prince died, his associate John Pigott took over as leader of the Lampeter Brethren. He was the nephew of Wilkie Collins closest friend, Henry Pigott.

As new members joined and funds flooded in, the Brethren decided to build a mighty centre in London. It was called the Ark. At first sight, it seemed a regular church, built in the Gothic Revival style with a tall spire. The four corner turrets bear stone scrolls bearing the ambiguous words, ‘God is Love’. The Art Nouveau stained glass windows were designed by the celebrated artist, Walter Crane, inspired by mystical scenes from William Blake’s writings. Two women from the Brethren community were closely involved in this building: the architect, Violet Morris and her sister, Olive, who had trained as an engineer as well as being an expert wood carver (responsible for the Ark’s pulpit and lectern).

Henry Prince died in 1899. The world, after all, had not come to an end as he predicted. The Lampeter Brethren accepted this disappointment bravely, ‘uniting the spirit with the flesh’ in the comfort of their country estate, with free love, fox-hunting, and good food and wine to soften the blow. The community slowly dwindled in the twentieth century, as changing social mores lessened the need for it. In 1957, the last member, one of the Pigott’s ‘spiritual wives,’ died and the properties were sold.

And what of St David’s College where it all started? The little town of Lampeter is almost unchanged. The college is now a campus of the University of Wales, specialising in the humanities. There are still fewer than a thousand students, and the divinity school has been cleverly broadened with courses in Islamic studies, Daoism, and Confucianism. Saudi and Chinese donors have been persuaded to make generous endowments, contributing to the survival of the College. I like to think that Henry Prince would have smiled and approved.



As Einstein understood, to travel in time and space is not so very different.
They are, in fact, essentially the same.

Anyone who is used to spending 24 hours in a plane flying from Australia back to London Heathrow will understand exactly what I mean. Even after doing this regularly for over 20 years, I experience the same weird disorientation every time after landing. Everything is utterly strange and utterly familiar at the same time.

As always, I pick up a car and start the long drive westward. I love the transition from hellish airport to the six-laned M4 towards the Severn Bridge, then it becomes four lanes, then two as I dive deeper into Wales. How suddenly the names of town and villages change from English to Welsh in the borderlands. Nether Skyborry and Bicton on one side of a river. Bryn Melin and Llangunllo a few hundred metres to the west.

No more lines of trucks barrelling by now, only the occasional tractor. At last I am in a laneway between tall hedgerows tangled with honeysuckle, barely wider than the car, and I bump over rough ground into a farmyard in sight of the sea. I have arrived. In the days that follow, I slip easily into a different vocabulary. I give distances in miles not kilometres. The vehicle is a 4X4 and I came by the motorway route, I say (not on the freeway in a 4WD). Catching up with my brother in a pub, I don’t order chips to go with my schooner of beer, but some crisps and a pint of Seren IPA. My speech drifts back to the familar English falling intonation, sentences drawling to near-whisper at the end (instead of my Australian up-tick on the final word). After a week, I find myself talking Welsh in local shops and pubs.

All of this is done unconsciously, but what still foxes me is the sense of having travelled back in time. For all the tumultous changes in Britain over the last half-century, Wales remains hidden in plain sight and largely unchanged behind the Cambrian mountains. In the hinterland of the west, the deep green hills and woodlands, the rocky coast, the towns and villages where I spent half my life look barely any different. I could drive for hours in any direction and know every turn in the road, every hedgerow, every pub and village hall.

As well as visiting family and friends, I am going to a college reunion, meeting up with people I haven’t seen for decades. I go with a macabre curiosity, wondering if I will recognise anyone. We’re all a little weather-beaten by the years but utterly recognisable with the same strong personalities. As I stagger saunter back through the college quad to my room at 3 AM, feeling disgracefully sentimental, the eerie feeling returns. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find my younger self walking toward me out of the shadows with a smile of recognition.

Once again I feel like a traveller in time. Am I a visitor from the past who has materialised in the present? Or a creature from the future (my glittering city on the other side of the planet), fallen to earth in the past I had left behind?

Both are true, I realise, as I drift to sleep, hearing the town hall clock chime the quarter-hour. The future is only a past we have yet to discover. As each moment unrolls and become a memory, it gives a strange thrill to everyday life, an existential tingle. We are all travellers in time.

First memory

Slate fence

Approaching Melbourne from the airport, the freeway seems to swoop down on the city from above. My car feels like a plane coming in to land . . .  

I glimpse the dome of the Royal Exhibition Building among the twinkling high-rise offices. Rising above the others, the Eureka Tower stands a third of a kilometre high, lights flashing at its tip to warn aircraft away. Far to the right, dockland cranes stand like a row of giant mechanical horses. Beyond them, the ferry sits in the Port of Melbourne, preparing for that night’s voyage to Tasmania. Below the elevated freeway, rows of Victorian houses flash by with all the paraphernalia of suburbia, as I rush into the city’s embrace. The roofs are of corrugated iron, often with an an array of solar panels, but now and then I spy a Victorian house with its original slate roof. In a moment, I’m transported back to Wales when I was a child.

In the nineteenth century, ships sailed almost daily from Australia to England, packed with wool and ingots from the gold fields. On their way back, they carried tons of slate tiles as ballast, to sell in the building boom of gold rush Victoria. Within a few decades, Melbourne grew from a village to one of the largest cities in the world at the time. And all this slate on Australian roofs came from vast quarries in the mountains of north Wales where my mother’s family lived. In their village, almost every man worked in the slate quarry. The houses were built of slate. The church and all the chapels were made of slate – Calvinist, Methodist, Wesleyan – as many and various as pubs would be in an English village. Over their doors were names like Tabor, Siloh, Emanuel and Sion; names I assumed were Welsh until I realised they were dour reminders of the Old Testament. Garden walls and even fence-posts were made of slate. Day by day, my grandfather, too, was turning into slate. Like so many others who worked in the quarries, he was constantly inhaling tiny sharp needles of the stuff. They slowly shredded his lungs as surely as a cheese grater until, unable to breathe, he died before I was born. ‘Quarryman’s lung’ – silicosis – was a thing which was taken for granted. Perhaps going to chapel helped.

It was only my grandmother we visited when I was young, then, travelling from London on a journey that took all day. With a flask of tea and a biscuit tin full of lunch – egg sandwiches, slices of sponge cake, and an apple each – we set off through middle England. By the afternoon, we were in the borderlands, the Black Mountains rearing up ahead leaving no doubt that we were entering another country. By the time we arrived, it felt later than I had ever stayed up before. Carried by my father into the bright cottage kitchen, I drank a mug of hot milk by the glowing fire before being taken up to bed. I was four years-old. The long journey felt as though we had fled through Europe and crossed the Bosphorus in a single night.

It was early when I woke the next morning. I could sense the whole house was still asleep, as with a single, slow breathing. How boring to lie awake in bed, and besides I needed to pee. This required walking down to the slate sentry-box shaped loo at the bottom of the garden. Tucking the sheet around my teddy, I tip-toed down the curving wooden stairs in my Rupert Bear-patterned pyjamas. The wide grey kitchen flagstones were usually cold beneath my feet, but on this morning they were already warm from the low sun streaming in through the open door. At that moment, I saw my grandmother’s broad backside in the garden as she bent to collect eggs from the chicken coop, then stood to stretch before turning to come back inside.

Without thinking, I ducked under the kitchen table. From my hiding place, I watched my grandmother’s legs as she passed by to make a fire in the black-polished range, even as she left the door open to welcome the sunshine. Soon she would be calling upstairs, announcing that boiled eggs and buttered toast cut into soldiers would be on the table in ten minutes. In the meantime, though, we were alone, my grandmother and her silent, invisible watcher. She was a favourite of mine, sometimes winking and slipping me a liquorice allsort from her apron pocket when my parents weren’t watching.

‘If you were my boy, it would be a different story . . .’ she would growl when my mother forgave me some minor misdemeanour, like leaving the tea table without asking. It sounded like a threat but felt more like a promise. She had the family’s wide mouth, blue eyes, and an impressively large bust which I was always curious to touch but never did. I heard crackling as the dry kindling in the fireplace caught alight, and then the agreeable bubbling of eggs boiling in a saucepan. I could feel my full bladder ache to be released; there was something exciting about the contending urges to release and to hold it in. It was thrilling, too, to hide beneath the table and spy upon my grandmother as she walked back and forth.

She spent most of her life in this kitchen, humming to herself as she cooked and cleaned, punctuated regularly by a nice sit down for a cup of tea. A large parlour at the front of the cottage was only used when there was a visit from the vicar, doctor, or other eminent person of the village. That room was always cold. A clock ticked and rang the chimes of Big Ben on the hour. In the middle of the slate floor, a thin woollen rug was spread. Beneath the window, an ancient chaise longue of brittle, black leather bulged so much with its horsehair filling that I slid off it to the floor when I tried to sit. To the side, a cabinet of china supported an enormous Bible and a photograph of my grandmother and her husband on their wedding day. They were good-looking, even glamorous. They reminded me of Bonny and Clyde.

I heard footsteps upstairs. My parents were stirring. My secret watch would soon be over, I thought with regret. We would have breakfast then go out for the day. We would visit my cousins who lived in a similar cottage, a little further down the wooded valley. Seeing them only once or twice a year, I was never quite sure how many there were. Was it five or six? Some were teenagers, some my own age or younger. An older boy always seemed to be tinkering with a motor-bike, while the girls sat on a slate wall, swinging their bare legs and combing each other’s hair like stranded mermaids. I saw one of these girls a few years ago, aged in her forties and harrowed by multiple sclerosis. Too proud and stubborn to use a stick, she insisted on making her way across the room without help, gripping one chair-back after another for support. Behind her, back then as she combed her sister’s hair, the younger ones were hanging from the windows or standing knee-deep in the nearby river, fishing with cotton lines and jam-jars. The adventure of their lives filled me with envy. My own siblings had not yet been born, so I was still an only child. How nice it would be to have big sisters with long hair to cosset me. And brothers near my own age to fight and play soldiers.

And then I seemed to float from beneath the table and up into the air. My grandmother had known I was there all along. Now she scooped me up and held me as I flew around the room, squealing with delight before being embraced to her breast and throwing my arms around her neck.