Twenty-six Soldiers

Last week, I spent three days at a rural doctor’s conference.
I wasn’t there to actually attend the event – merely to keep my sister company, and admire how medics can wax eloquent about bowel movement and catheters over dinner. Most of the attendees were, if not elderly, then distinguished members of the profession, marvelously confident, and striding around with the aura of many lives healed and saved. Not quite the place for a (struggling) writer, one would have thought?

Fortunately, Gregynog Hall, the place hosting the conference, was a beautifully atmospheric eight-hundred-year-old mansion, with many nooks and crannies to duck into and hide, which is what I did, shielding my face with that day’s Guardian, and emerging only to dine on exquisite three-course meals.
The estate is about an hour’s drive from Aberystwyth, the closest (and prettiest) big town, and is located deep in the heart of Welsh countryside in Montgomeryshire, past craggy, windswept hills, and sweeping views of open farmland. It once belonged to a string of families with names straight out of a PG Wodehouse novel – the Blayney Squires, Lords Sudeley and Lord Joicey, and might have been demolished had the Davies sisters not acquired it in 1920, and transformed it into a centre of art, music and creative skills. Walking through the corridors it’s not difficult to imagine life here a century ago – the place is peaceful and quiet and the grounds lovingly manicured and dotted with wild, tangled forest.
The room my sister and I were given had a cavernous fireplace, four beds and a wooden writing table placed by the window. The Guardian Books page has a special column on authors talking about the places where they like to write. If ever they ask me (and one can always live in hope), I know exactly what to say. The window looked out onto a stretch of lawn that ended with several paths leading into a sloping forest. The trees were changing colour, and sometimes, a mild autumn sun, would bathe them in precious gold.Even though I spent most of my time there writing, I’d also wander down to the library, filled with an eclectic array of old books – from Dutch Landscape Painters of the Seventeenth Century to Birds of the British Isles. I browsed through a few (a visual autobiography of Van Gogh and a collection of New Yorker drawings), yet mostly I ran my hand over the shelves. I’ve always felt that books, like humans, crave warmth and contact, and these looked like they hadn’t been touched in ages.

One evening, when it wasn’t raining, we took a walk (in true Jane Austen heroine-style) through the grounds. Around us were giant redwoods, ancient oaks and red maples, and a small leaf-strewn path took us to where the valley opened up, dotted with grazing sheep and horses. Towards the front of the mansion were decorative fountains and a lovely old stone bridge that led to a dense forest. The air was crisp, the sky suddenly broad and blue, and the day’s last rays of sunlight sloped off the lawn into shadowy edges.My favourite part of the estate, however, was housed at the side of a large red-brick entrance archway. Gwasg Gregynog or Gregynog Press was set up by the Davies sisters in 1922, and has, apparently, been one of the foremost presses in the British private press movement. A poster greeted me upon my arrival –

This is a printing office
Crossroads of Civilisation
Refuge of all the arts
against the ravages of time
Armoury of fearless truth
against whispering rumour
Incessant trumpet of trade
From this place WORDS may fly abroad
not to perish on waves of sound
not to vary with the writer’s hand
but hard in time having been verified in proof.
Friend, you stand on sacred ground
This is a printing office.

The lines may be slightly Promethean, but here, in a press that has, for almost a century, somehow survived a World War, severe budget constraints and diminished staff, they ring lyrical and true. Within these rooms there is great resilience, and it shows in the books they’ve produced – finely bound and beautifully illustrated, each one is a patient work of art. I’m taken around the press by the assistant printer, a friendly fellow named Gerard. He asks me whether I’m there for the doctor’s conference, and I reply, no, I’m a writer – “Perhaps then you would like to see these,” he says, and pulls open drawer after drawer filled with tiny metal alphabets. I let them slide through my fingers like sand. Perhaps because we now mostly use only computers, we fail to appreciate the delicacy of fonts, their actual, physical weight, shape and size. Everywhere were letters, parchment and printing blocks. Around the corner, before a flight of narrow stairs, hung a small poster – “With twenty-six soldiers of lead, I shall conquer the world.”

It’s my last afternoon at Gregynog Hall and I decide to put my laptop away and finish the book I’ve been reading – Susan Hill’s “Howard’s End is on the Landing.” I’d picked it up at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre about a week ago, and had decided to bring it along for the trip. Every time someone recommends I buy a Kindle or download ebooks, I tell them that, for me, books are travelling companions – chosen carefully for each occasion. Plath for Paris, Pessoa for Lisbon, Berger for the London tube. They keep me company and like with all relationships, sometimes there’s a fit and sometimes there isn’t. This time, though, it was perfect. Hill’s book is all about writers and reading – “a year-long voyage through her books, in order to get to know her collection again.” The doctors are in the conference hall, and I slip into one of the library reading rooms, which has a set of comfortable chairs and a piano in the corner. It’s late afternoon, the air is heavy and quiet, and sunshine slants in through an open window. I enjoy Hill’s journey as much as she does – Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Charles Causley, Thomas Hardy, Bruce Chatwin, TS Eliot, Roald Dahl, Virginia Woolf, and many, many others I haven’t heard of, yet am determined to now find and read. While she talks of how these writers shaped her life, I realise how much they have shaped mine. How much my love of the written word has sprung from the books and poems they created in centuries well before mine. It’s one of those afternoons when a book I’m reading consumes me entirely. When everything around me – the room, the house, the world – ceases to exist or to matter.

There’s a particularly poignant paragraph in the latter half of “Howard’s End is on the Landing” –

“…I noticed a paperback half-hanging out of a shelf and found, as I started to push it back, that it was an alphabet book…I opened [it] and read. Or rather looked.

And that is all. True, the alphabet book had coloured letters and beside them pictures of objects. Apple. Bear. Cherry. Dog. And the book had them in lines and repeated patterns, some with curves and curls, some with thick strokes, some with thin, some with flourishes, some plain. Still, it boiled down in the end to just those twenty-six letters. Out of these few marks, plus some small dots and curves of punctuation, every book in this house has grown, every meaning been inserted and extracted, every character created and poem balanced, every lesson taught and learned. All of it packed into and expanding out of twenty-six letters.”
The conference comes to an end and people trickle out for tea and coffee. Soon, the tinkle of cups and cutlery, and the murmur of conversation fills the air. I shut it all out. I don’t want to leave. Here, sunk into the sofa, behind my book, I am safe. My soldiers of lead keep the world at bay.



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