While working as a weekly newspaper reporter, I was awakened from slumber one afternoon by the appearance in front office of what the literary critic Hugh Kenner would have called ‘a bookman’.
Kenner wouldn’t have meant that Reg Nichols – for it was he – spent all his time immersed in printed pages, though in this case it was close to the truth. How else would Reg have come by all those historical bits and bobs, which he’d gathered into a book called Monmouthshire Medley? It was a proverbial slim volume and he wanted me to review it.
No. By ‘bookman’, Kenner meant a scribe who would never say ‘several far-reaching propositions’ when he could say ‘several propositions of a far-reaching character’. But the wily Reg, who would produce other Medleys, was probably aware of the difference and preferred the wordier version.
Like all other pre-digital amateur scribblers, Reg would have welcomed the internet and the computer, blogging for all he was worth and using up megabytes like a trawlerman in mackerel-crowded waters. He would never have given up completely on paper. Somehow, the picture of him with an e-book quickly fades.
He always wanted to be a published writer and the introductions to the Medley‘s gobbets were one way of achieving his ambition. It was just that his publisher had not condescended to edit the script very enthusiastically: it was full of things like ‘propositions of a far-reaching character’.
The drawback in all editions, however, was not so much the author’s circumlocution as his failure to make thematic sense of the material, if indeed it had a theme. Each item seemed to have been included for its quirkiness alone rather than its historical significance, especially history as chronology. Perhaps that was his intention: Reg Nichols, antiquarian and entertainer.
But I enjoyed the selections as much as he did. ‘Monmouthshire’ in the title referred to what we now call Greater Gwent, which includes the Monmouthshire county council area as well as the mining valleys to the west.
Gwent was the eponymous ‘pleasant land’ for Fred Hando, one of Reg Nichols’s writerly ilk, and he described it with skill and style in a series of books and articles. Reg would never have used the term ‘bovine repletion’ to characterise one of the figures sculpted into a 15th-century stone tomb, but Fred did.
He also came up with what I’ve always thought of as the epitome of apt description where it concerns the landscape hereabouts: that ‘as Mrs Browning said of England, God’s finger touched, but did not press, in making it’, a reference to the county’s small topographical scale. He – Fred – did make exceptions for the Sugar Loaf and Skirrid Hill. Well, Fred and the Almighty.
Fred Hando’s pleasantness naturally applied to rural Gwent. He confessed to having been several times admonished for neglecting the industrial valleys in his writings. But though the difference between Satanic mill and well-watered farmstead was plain, there were similarities in lore and language.
Most of Usk will know what cwtch means (more or less) and if a lad from Mardy returns home from play having fallen on a cow-pat his mother could well come out with a disgusted and phonetic ‘Ackervee!’ without knowing that it’s spelt Ach y fi, meaning…well, can’t you guess?
As Arthur Machen opined, everybody knew about Tintern but it was given to few to be learned in the science of the lanes between Llandegveth and Llangibby. Hando, he said, ‘has roamed by hidden woods and tracked unsuspected streams, and trodden many unchronicled paths and byways…’
That would probably have been ‘paths and byways of an unchronicled character’ if Reg Nichols had had his way. But there are worse literary sins than using seven words when four will do. Nichols and Hando: word-lovers and meanderers both.