Driving near Wolvesnewton, Monmouthshire, close to Christmas one year I came across Santa Claus at the side of the road. I knew it was Santa even though he had his head under the bonnet of a Volvo estate. It was the red trousers, the black boots and the red jacket with the white woolly hem that convinced me.
The scene was guaranteed to demolish a child’s illusions of Yuletide, as newspapers and only newspapers used to call the festive season. I assumed that Santa – there’s only one, isn’t there? – had broken down while on his way to some village giveaway. I had visions of a score of youngsters slowly yielding to frostbite and waiting in vain like a flotilla of Dickensian urchins.
I stopped and offered to help, making a bad joke about obsolete reindeers and sleighs and vouchsafing bravely that I never did believe all that stuff about flying through the air with bags of presents and descending an assortment of variable-width chimney stacks.
I heard a Santa-like chuckle from the depths of the engine but there was no movement to full height. Had his beard caught in the fan belt? Had he been immobilised on a trial run without traditional mode of transport? What was he doing out and about before Christmas Day anyway?
He claimed to have done his duty at some charity event and was on the way home. A likely story. It was a long way to Lapland. But it would have explained the Volvo, that Scandinavian, steel-reinforced workhorse with day-running lights. You’d need all those extras in the fastnesses of Snowsville.
He chuckled again, revealing a non-bearded chin this time, and waved me on. It was all very strange.
I wish it had happened before I’d completed my journalistic assignment for that afternoon rather than afterwards. But I had just left the American writer Martha Gellhorn swooning at my lowly and ignorant state and my effrontery at taking up her time with questions that specifically excluded her sometimes incendiary relationship with Ernest Hemingway.
Believe it or not, Gellhorn was then living, or had a house, in Wolvesnewton, Monmouthshire’s rural epicentre. That’s ‘epicentre’ as in eye of a storm, where nothing happens and everything is happening maelstrom-like all around you.
She was difficult to interview and couldn’t stop wondering out loud how anyone had found out that she was in the area, which I thought was odd for a journalist colleague. Anyway, I’d discovered her.
She was adamant before my arrival that the name of Hemingway could not be mentioned. A shame, because that was the main reason why I’d sought the interview. Her explanation, fair enough, was that she refused to be defined in someone else’s terms. A considerable figure in her own right, she was probably correct. But, I might have told her if she didn’t know already, that that’s not how newspapers and their readers’ perceptions worked. We soon got round to talking about her own attributes as war correspondent, novelist and travel writer.
Gellhorn had married Hemingway after he divorced his wife, Pauline. That had been many years before. But at Wolvesnewton, in Monmouthshire hunting country, she may well have heard the odd shotgun blast and been reminded of her time with Hemingway in the hills and vales of Idaho, where her husband-to-be seemed to spend most of his time attempting to decimate the local wildlife as if on a mission to eradicate minatory vermin. Perhaps if I’d suggested that he’d been easy to ridicule, there might have been an entrée into forbidden territory. Within a few years of those gun-totin’ days in the far West, they had divorced.
Gellhorn is now among the legions of dear-departed, who were joined not long ago by the the writer and critic Clive James. In his collection of late re-visitations published by Yale University Press*, James has two re-evaluations of Hemingway, neither of which mention Gellhorn. Hemingway was always presenting a macho image that rarely lived up to facts about himself lying only just below the surface: duality of sexual nature, braggadocio in regard to capacity for alcohol, success in presenting himself as an athlete and big-game hunter. Yet at the end he was still there ‘blasting away at his Royal Quiet DeLuxe (he wrote standing up), typing the same sentence over and over, actually producing the numberless drafts that he had once only boasted of’.
I never found out about Gellhorn’s last days. In Monmouthshire, she appeared to be on her own in the house. It had begun to snow as my mild interrogation drew to a close and I wondered if she were spending Christmas there with friends. She seemed steely and resourceful enough to have survived the jollification season by herself.
It wasn’t my best interview, and she was soon gone from these parts. She died in London in 1998.
Funnily enough, there are wintry scenes in the middle of Monmouthshire that remind me of a picture of some snowbound Idaho field in the collection of Lloyd Arnold, Hemingway’s buddy and companion-in-slaughter. I like to think that Gellhorn walked the lanes around Wolvesnewton and recalled something similar – a real field in her case, silent save for the distant cry of a bobcat. If cry is what a bobcat does.
* Latest Readings, by Clive James (Yale University Press, £12.99)