The colourfully-dressed Michael Portillo seems to have hit the jackpot with his latest series of Great British Railway Journeys. His journey through North Wales, broadcast on BBC2 in May (but recorded in the depths of lockdown), has brought him well and truly into First World War literary territory. To top it all, one of his guides en route was none other than Phil Carradice, a founder member and former committee member of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship. Phil is a seasoned broadcaster, is used to meeting celebrities and has become familiar with some of their quirks. Apparently, after they finished their discussion of coal mining at the site of the former Gresford Colliery, where 266 men lost their lives in 1934, Mr Portillo turned to Phil and said, presumably in jest, "Are you a f***ing socialist?" - to which Phil replied "Yes, I f***ing am!" (That's the way he tells it, anyway.)
Portillo is nevertheless an engaging companion in these episodes, and another friend of the SSF who spoke to him was Martin Gething of the T E Lawrence Society. Lawrence was, more by luck than judgement, born in Tremadog in North Wales, and his birthplace, Gorphwysfa, now masquerading under an English name, still stands. His parents had taken refuge there after his father, minor Irish nobility, had run off with Lawrence's mother, his children's governess.
The rail journey continued further south - not easy, since kind Dr Beeching removed any danger of a direct rail connection between North and South Wales in the 1960s. (He would have closed more lines if it hadn't been for the fact that some of them ran through marginal constituencies.) Mr Portillo somehow reached Harlech and Aberystwyth, but did not mention the local literary connections. This did not prevent the SSF Facebook group holding a fascinating discussion on the things he may have missed.
At Harlech, a 1914 resident might have been aware of Alfred Perceval Graves, an Irish writer who kept a second home there, to which he eventually retired. In 1902, when the National Eisteddfod took place at Bangor, he even managed to get himself elected to the Gorsedd of Bards, an honour highly prized within Wales.
Since he took an interest in the Welsh language, Alfred Graves might have begun to notice a young man from Trawsfynydd, one Ellis Humphrey Evans, who was winning chairs for his poetry in local eisteddfodau; he specialised in the awdl, a traditional form of poetry that abides by strict rules of metre. When, in 1917, using the pen name "Hedd Wyn" ("white peace"), Evans entered the big one - the National Eisteddfod of Wales - and won, the victory was bitter-sweet because he had been killed in action just a few days earlier near Ypres, and the chair which would have been his prize was draped in black.
Phil Carradice tells how he went to Hedd Wyn's cottage (now open to the public) many years ago, while researching a novel, and met the poet's nephew, Gerald Williams, who welcomed him in, adding plaintively, "You will look after me, won't you?" Mr Williams, who had been custodian of the house for more than sixty years, died just a few days ago, after I had begun writing this post. Legends about Hedd Wyn continue abound, one of which seems to have arisen from Gillian Clarke's 2013 poem, "Eisteddfod of the Black Chair" - the story that Robert Graves met Evans once, while walking in the hills. Possible, but unverified.