From the Cape to Cwmdu

Peter Finch follows the epic journeys of Welsh borders writer Horatio Clare

There’s been an altercation in the lane leading from the village to the farm. A local resident in a four by four has refused to give way to the thirty or so literary tourists trying to proceed up the steep hill. We stand back in the hedges so that the red-faced tweed-capped driver can pass. At the head of the column Horatio is telling everyone to simply ignore it. There’s bad blood, clearly, but I’m not sure why.

We are on John Pikoulis’s guided literary walk to Horatio Clare country. We are visiting the farm and the landscape that inspired Clare’s 2006 hit, Running For The Hills, the story of his upbringing in the Black Mountains. This Marches landscape where Wales shades down into England and where the language stutters flat before going completely out has inspired so many writers. Chatwin’s On The Black Hill, Ginsberg’s Wales Visitation, Owen Sheers’s Resistance, Antony Woodward’s The Garden In the Clouds, and Raymond Williams’s masterwork, Border Country. This is Wales without the distance, a step in from England, foreign but not alien. Just a few paces from where many people live. Cymru pasteurised, where nationality and language are not the things that make the world work.

In the village hall below the hill the gathered retirees have had the chance to ask Clare about his writing. Clare, the travel writer, the memoir spinner, author of Truant, his Running for the Hills follow-up which tells of years of drug-fuelled dissolution in Oxford, in England and in France. In it Horatio Clare comes across as a sort of well brought-up, anglicised William Burroughs. A Mr Nice without the drugs world cheer-leading. Someone you wouldn’t be afraid to invite in for tea.

A white hair at the back puts her hand up. “Can you tell me,” she asks in a slightly quavering voice, “just what it’s like? This taking of drugs, that is.” There’s a ripple of laughter and assent. This is the question they all want answered. Clare smiles. If this was a film his part would be played by Hugh Grant. He pulls his chin and pauses. “It’s like drinking a bottle of the best Shiraz all in one go,” he eventually says. There’s more laughter. A safe reply. It’s what they wanted to hear.

As we lope down across the steeply-sloping field on which the heating fuel delivery tanker got irrevocably stuck in the book, Horatio tells me that his relationships with the locals are not the best. The book did not go down well. The truth, if indeed it is the truth, is often unacceptable. Running for the Hills where humanity and landscape meet, where life scraped by on the meagre takings made by a worn-down sheep farm, and where the rights of passage from child to youth are enriched by distance, Welshness, and the love of a broken eccentric family, is one of the best books to come from Wales in the first decade of the new millennium.

Truant takes his life story on through Clare’s lost years. Although how one so young (the author was born in 1973) can have become so lost so soon is hard to understand. Truant’s subtitle is Notes from the slippery slope. In it Clare explains his use of drugs and the way the world fell apart for at least five years. His time was spent in hedonistic pursuit of anything but the real. Lying down in darkened rooms allowing dope to live his life for him. Slowly sliding into dissipation, his mental stability questioned and then eventually ruptured. Clare found himself fallen over the edge and he records the details with painstaking precision. The cure he finds, the sort of cure if indeed it is a cure, has him return to his family in the pure Welsh hills. And there the book ends.

I was once a user, Clare declares, but I am no longer. No more smoking, no more putting things up my nose. Although the reader is left with the strong suspicion that he doesn’t quite mean this. And so that proves.

A Single Swallow – following an epic journey from South Africa to South Wales, which came out in 2010, is Clare the consummate travel writer. In it he creates a pretext for a mad and often dissolute journey from Cape Town back to the family farm above Cwmdu. He follows the migrating swallows. He times himself to be travelling in a sort of permanent spring, chasing the thousands of birds he had come to love in childhood all the way from their winter habitat – the South African spring – all the way back across Africa and Europe to Wales as the seasons advanced to spring again.

As a device around which to build a book this might at first appear to be either artificial or of interest only to ornithologists. It turns out to be neither. In fact those, like me, with little knowledge of the world of birds, have little to fear. This is no nature book. Clare travels with the minimum of possessions, hardly any cash,  and only ragged preparation. He takes planes rarely and crosses the vast African continent by bus, train, foot, hire car, and by sitting, shaken to death, on a shared seat in a pick-up truck.

En-route he analyses what it is to be a westerner controlled by artificially imposed time zones, by geography, by history, indeed, by civilisation itself. In Africa the world is not like that. The swallows go by. He spots them, he misses them. They outwit him.  He learns their multiple names. He entangles with dense black bureaucracies that are in place simply as an aid to the already overwhelming corruption of the officials in charge. Your visa is out of date. This is the wrong stamp. Pay, pay, pay again.

All the while he explains patiently that despite how he might look (Russian), or sound (English), he is in fact Welsh. Of course, no one has ever heard of Wales.  But then Ryan Giggs is mentioned and the shape of the world becomes clear once again. Football is the international leveller.

Africa, Clare discovers, is falling apart. Much of it is broken, little works, and no one cares. But this is no constraint to enjoying life. Order is a western habit. “The idea that you might not know where you will be sleeping the day after tomorrow and therefore that nobody else can know, seems rabid eccentricity,” Clare declares, going native, and abandoning his mobile phone forever.

Throughout the journey he makes notes and records conversations only to blow them all when he gets back to Europe. On the quayside in Gibraltar, his mental state once again wobbling, he throws everything he owns into the sea. Clothes, rucksack, notepads, cash. Penniless and without passport he somehow makes it back up through Spain and across France to London and then on to the place from where the swallows first started on their journey – Wales.

A Single Swallow delivers on the promise first shown in Running for the Hills. Clare the dope smoker, Clare the dissolute, Clare the unstable shows that he can rise above it all as Clare the writer- engaging, informed, ordered, entertaining, uplifting.  Horatio Clare is the new Millennium Eric Newby, a Welsh Paul Theroux, a Buddhaless Jack Kerouac.

And despite his given name, he is a self-aware and determinedly Welsh writer. Here’s a writer who looks outwards rather than in, someone who has no problem with Wales and its size, and has no difficulty with identity. Check out his latest, a tale made by reworking part of the Mabinogion, The Princes Pen (Seren Books). But if you haven’t done so already, start off in the hills.

Peter Finch is a poet, psycho-geographer and literary entrepreneur.

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