We have an obligation, it seems, not only to long for the recovery of the unspeakable loveliness that has come and gone when time will be no more, but to recognize it when it is passing and to speak of it to ourselves and others. In Alice Thomas Ellis’s “A Welsh Childhood,” we see nostalgia as a joyful, tearful sacred duty.
Nostalgia, the sticklers say, really means the pain attending our longing for home—not the desire for past eras. As in many cases, the sticklers are right in what they affirm but wrong in what they deny. We nostalgics most certainly long for home and we rightly look for it in the past. The reason being that the past is a real intersection of time and place where we did indeed experience the sensation of being at home. We must look in the past because quite often we have forgotten how it felt to be at home or we dimly recollect the feeling but cannot pin it on to the events and people who gave it to us. We want to feel the delights again of the food and furniture, the stories and the real-life characters that made us feel the universe a cozy and comfortable place. We also look back because as we get older we realize that we are not the best judges of when we experienced that sensation of home. Looking back at our own past is a journey of discovery of the glory that was hidden in plain sight in our lives.
But the journey into our past is also a journey into the pains we felt and feel, the times when we sensed ourselves strangers who were not at home. Even worse, the journey is painful precisely because of the physical manifestations of which glory we now recall are now gone. Every memoirist who tells the truth at all is called Ichabod after the Old Testament character whose name means “the glory has departed.”
Anna Lindholm Haycraft (1932-2005), better known by her nom de plume Alice Thomas Ellis, was an extraordinarily supple novelist, whose work managed to be accessible and profound at the same time. Unexplained Laughter (1985) and The Summerhouse Trilogy (1987-1990) were both made for popular British television adaptations while her third novel, The 27th Kingdom (1982), was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. An editor for Duckworth Publishing, which was run by her husband Colin Haycraft, she was known for her generosity toward other writers. The novelist Amanda Craig recalled first meeting Ellis in order to interview her for a magazine while Craig was struggling to write a first novel. Expecting “wary” treatment from an experienced novelist jealous of competitors, Craig discovered in Ellis a “motherly mentor, dourly witty and always unexpected.”
The motherly Ellis had once aspired to be a mother superior, entering a convent early on but refused reentry after a back injury. She went on to marry publisher Colin Haycraft and become a mother of seven children, one of whom, Rosalind, was born prematurely and lived only a few days, and another of whom, Joshua, died at age nineteen after falling off a roof while trainspotting at London’s Euston Station. Her own literary career began when her first novel, The Sin Eater (1977), was published while Joshua was in a coma. His death was, she said, a prod that kept her writing but also a pain that was a kind of “amputation.” It was most likely the key to her own distinctive style of writing. The wittiness of her observations, her eye for what was beautiful, and her manifestation of Christian hope were all the more powerful for her own deep awareness and eloquent evocation of the tragic element of life.
This power is evident in her spare novels. It is equally evident in her 1990 memoir, A Welsh Childhood. Only about 180 pages, many of them taken up by marvelous black-and-white pictures of the Welsh areas she describes taken by Patrick Sutherland, the book has a charm that comes from her descriptions of days and people gone by, recollections of Welsh legend and history with sometimes snarky codas and asides, contrarian opinions, laments about the loss of a distinct world, and reflections on time, history, and eternity that display the double edge of nostalgia that both gleams and cuts us to pieces.
A child of a Russo-Finnish father and a Welsh mother, Ellis is spare on the details of her mother and father. Of mothers she writes, “You don’t want to sit on their lap all the time while they comb your curls, but you like to know they’re around, going on in the usual fashion without being raped or murdered.” Her father was away in the Second World War for much of the time, leaving her with the impression that women really ran everything in life. Much of her memory is dedicated to the extended Welsh family with whom she visited and played and her school memories. It is, as childhood memories are, somewhat selective. The outdoor lavatory, continually inhabited by slugs, “some spotted like the pard, some striped, all slimy, revolting and with a baleful air,” is recalled for the “frightful screams” produced by ladies who had not “scrutinize[d] the premises before making any rash moves such as sitting down.” Black-market butter is recalled for its greasy saltiness and the water that squirted from it when a knife cut through. The taste of vegetables boiled with “a lump of bicarbonate of soda” is recalled as being “like very old and much-used dishcloths.”
More distasteful is the recollection of a boy who caught her and kissed her in the schoolyard, provoking a rebuke of her by the schoolmaster who assumed the act was mutual: “I have never recovered from the injustice of this and I hope that Robert has had a rotten life.” Yet of Uncle Johnny, the funniest man she ever met, she cannot recall anything he said. The inaccessibility of the past, she says, makes her take a skeptical eye on history itself and think more highly of the legends and myths, weird and unreliable as some are.
“The oral tradition,” she writes of the 1930s and 1940s, “was still strong then, and I can think of no better start in life for a person who is going to end up as a writer.” Ellis brings out these stories as she describes the places in Wales where the creatures appeared: witches, fairies (with attention to the differences between Welsh and English fairies), the “mountain walker,” dragons, ghosts, and others. She likes the stories but sharply notes the oddities. Of the origins of one dragon, she asks, how “would a viper contrive to get itself suckled by a woman?” Yet the legends, like the history, are both grist for understanding of the human condition, and provoke some of her funniest comments. Of one seventeenth-century adulterous couple, she observes that the man ended up in jail while his lover (now wife) grew tired of him and refused to bail him out. Both died of painful intestinal diseases and refused to feel guilt for their own behavior. Ellis concludes, “And thus ends another great love story.”
Ellis was personally tolerant of her friends’ personal and moral foibles, but was never shy about public judgments of public things. After a childhood in the Comtean Church of Humanity, she had returned to the Catholic faith of her ancestors as a young adult, only to find in her middle age a Catholic Church whose clergy and theologians were running after every passing fad. One can read her most keen and dyspeptic comments about Catholic decadence in her collections The Serpent on the Rock (1994) and Cat Among the Pigeons (1994), but they are here about the formerly staunch Protestant Welsh figures as well. Of a local Welsh vicar, she says he is untypical in that he is “both erudite and charming, and appears to believe in God.” Opinions on all sorts of matters, religious or not, appear regularly: Short men are more likely to be conversational show-offs; Alice in Wonderland is terrible for children; the stupidity of sheep grows in time such that by age one their “behavior and deportment… remind you of housewives in a supermarket reputed to be on fire, or possibly at a Harrods china sale.” One does not have to agree with every opinion to find them all funny and invigorating as a drink in the face.
Some of her most vigorous opinions are about the changing of the Welsh economy and its growing tourism. The second half of the book is about her life in Wales as an adult; she and her husband split their time between there and London, and after his death she remained there permanently. While the tourists have been coming since the eighteenth century (and were even then like spoiled children complaining about how things were different from their own homes), their arrivals increased exponentially after the War. While she agrees that the old days were not all roses, she also sees the destruction of the distinctive Welsh culture with its distinctive ways, architecture, and even furniture. “As to the changes in the way of life, economic pressures, market forces and all sorts of imponderables I don’t understand crowd in from outside to distort and obliterate not only the worst but the best of all that has gone before, and nothing will convince me that it is a Good Thing.” Of one castle she writes that it “has at least the merit of looking beautiful in ruin, which will not be the case as the works of today’s architects decay.” Of tourists themselves, she calls them “maggots.”
If the trend continues, all the citizens will spend half their time touring each other’s countries, and very soon all the citizens of the developed nations will be indistinguishable from one another; whereupon, I suppose, we will all stay at home mourning the deathly boredom of our surroundings.
It is worst when suburbia overcomes the stark wildness of Wales that to her communicates a sense of the numinous. While Ellis may undersell the goods that have been brought by our modern world, her mordant observations still strike a mark.
Of course, the one thing that is constant is change. Time, even apart from globalization, is a maw that devours good and bad always. The pain of the loss of the good is apparent. Ellis writes of a “staunch old lady” who could “go back through the courses of her past,” in contrast to Ellis who sees that the old ways are gone and “can’t even look at old photographs.” It is not just the loss of cottages and wooden furniture and street fairs in villages that haunt her. It is the loss of times that seemed overwhelming when they were happening: “I’ve forgotten the sleepless nights, the work, the lack of money and comfort. All I remember is that they were the happiest days of my life and they’ve gone.” “They” are the days of raising children, of “washing nappies, making dinner, and advising the current baby not to put his finger in the sheepdog’s eyes.”
I think we never recognize the best days for what they are, since at the time they are not perfect. Nothing in life is quite perfect, and I used often to think of how tired I was and how easy it would be when the children were grown up. Now I sometimes wish I had died one quiet silver night when they were all asleep and I could hear only the stream and wind in the forest.
The amputation that was the loss of Joshua and the dimmer but still-felt loss of Rosalind permeate the end of her memoir. These are but single instances of time’s gulping down what we love. And yet time the enemy is simultaneously consolation: “As it takes my son further away from me, it brings me closer to him.” Ellis haunts graveyards where peace is “closest” since there she thinks of death and its returning of our loved ones and the God in whose heart they dwell to us. She has longed for death, she thinks, because “I am not whole” and “Death is the price we must pay for completion.”
The memoir closes, however, not simply with the longing for death but the recognition that “we all have to do time, and it is both unwise and ungrateful to yearn only for eternity.” Unwise and ungrateful because even amid the terrible recognition that times past will not come again, we sense that “some of this world is so beautiful that it cannot be described.” We have an obligation, it seems, not only to long for the recovery of the unspeakable loveliness that has come and gone when time will be no more, but to recognize it when it is passing and to speak of it to ourselves and others, mourning and weeping in a vale of tears. Nostalgia can be escapist. In A Welsh Childhood we see it as a joyful, tearful sacred duty.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.