Have you ever travelled a road in your wider neighbourhood and realised that it was probably the first time you’d done so? It happens to me with alarming frequency – alarming, because it indicates how much there is to discover, how much to learn and experience.
The reason for my going all ruminative at the head of this essay is that I used to write a column for a magazine that decided to change its format overnight, and summarily dispensed with my services. It’s the sort of thing that happens often in British journalism – and American: my former colleague John Harlow, once the Sunday Times’s man in LA, gave up his peach of a post to become editor of the renowned Palisadian in that city, only to lose his job virtually before his bum had reached his seat. The last column I wrote was never used and rumination was my perambulating epilogue. It was about perambulation, too; about meandering, literal and metaphorical.
As a journalist, reflection and writing are not so much in my blood as in my head, as I wait for the words to skelter down to my fingertips, which hover expectantly over the laptop keyboard. (It used to be a typewriter, but that’s long gone after a period in which the last remaining one sat defiantly – and fallaciously – in the corner of the newsroom like the past refusing to take its leave but becoming ever more distant.)
One of those paths least, or never, taken is fanciful, back to a place of birth and upbringing that existed before boundaries were changed. Borders are always man-made, and take little account of history and geology. The one between Monmouthshire and Gloucestershire, for example, is along the river bed of the Wye, just in case anyone was thinking of hiking it without wetwear. The waters of the Wye have never taken the slightest notice of boundaries, climbing tidally twice a day from the Severn estuary to Brockweir before turning tail and slipping back into the Channel again. On such a tide, Wordsworth once slipped from Tintern to Bristol at the prow of a Wye ‘trow’.
I began work for the Monmouthshire Free Press newspaper in Pontypool at the start of my career, occupying a newsroom not much bigger than a telephone kiosk with three others. One of them was Adrian Hearn, a contemporary of mine at West Mon School, who later worked for Thomson Newspapers and also played full-back for Pontypool RFC. The joke was that Jack Salter, editor of the Free Press, insisted that Adrian stuffed a notebook and a draper’s pencil stub into his shorts at away games so that he could scramble a report for the paper on the Monday. Apocryphal tales are often the best. I recall Adrian’s being told by phone that he’d been capped for Monmouthshire and ringing his family to tell them the good news.
That Monmouthshire no longer exists. Local government boundary changes placed Pontypool in Torfaen and re-defined Monmouthshire as the mostly verdant eastern region, losing its county rugby team in the process. The old, larger Monmouthshire was also known as Gwent, a name still used in several contexts, which must perplex newcomers in possession of a map and raring to go.
Were the old boundaries in place, I could meander for ever, especially noting the unmarked locations where industrial Gwent segues into rural; not that the countryside is confined to the ‘new’ Monmouthshire. As Alexander Cordell noted in his novel ‘Rape Of The Fair Country’, it wasn’t a long haul to get from a Satanic mill to a place where the only sound was the wind in the willows. It’s always amusing to think that the Monmouthshire-Brecon canal, now so picturesque it could have been designed purely to satisfy Capability Brown’s sense of serpentine design, was an industrial artery plied by horse-drawn narrow boats, the air above the towpath only marginally less blue with the expletives of the boatmen than it was when Irish navvies were excavating it. The Welsh poet Paul Henry has described the canal today as ‘a water feature of its past’.
The past is always a ruin, whether it’s an abbey pulled about by Henry VIII or human memory threadbare with the remembered, the forgotten, and the half-recalled. It certainly can’t be reconstructed in any meaningful way, though one likes to think that the Wye bridges demolished when the passenger railway from Chepstow to Monmouth was closed by Dr Beeching in the early 1960s might be re-built if any plan were devised to open the permanent way again. That permanent way proved to be temporary, if long-established.
It won’t happen, and perhaps that’s just as well. A familiar highway is reassuring, a new one inviting and full of possibilities. I’m speaking figuratively again. But that’s what you do when you’re packing up and moving on, from lockdown to some semblance of the old normality. Normal can never be ‘new’; that would make it abnormal. So not literally: packing up and moving on can be as much in the mind as on one of those roads not yet taken.
Nigel Jarrett won the Rhys Davies award for short fiction and the Templar Shorts award. His story collection, Funderland, was warmly reviewed in the Independent, the Guardian, and elsewhere. He’s written a novel, a poetry collection, and two further collections of short fiction. In 2019, Templar published A Gloucester Trilogy.