Friday, 8 September 2017

Roads stretch from here to everywhere

So Cenn has gone. Cruelly cut down in his mid 60‘s by a bastard degenerative neurological condition. Was it Motor-Neurone Disease....I don’t know? Whatever it was, it left him a prisoner. Trapped inside a fragile,creaking cage. Immobile and eventually wasted to the point of mumbling muteness. But what do I know? I hadn’t seen Cenn for years and can only relate what my children have told me. Despite knowing Cenn since my late teens, life events had shaped our relationship over the passed twenty years. The withdrawal from my life of Cenn’s best friend ‘Angiebell’, had meant our meetings were all too infrequent and limited to family events...Births, weddings and deaths, but time was, when he was an ever present fixture in my life.

I first met Ken- as he was then- in Liverpool in the early 70‘s. He was a wild haired, bearded freak- think Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull circa 1972. Fiercely intelligent, opinionated and principled, and like myself, he was tired of city life and together we planned our escape to the promised land of North Wales. By the mid 70‘s Ken had become Cenn and had left the city behind. I would follow two years later after a brief stop-over in Chester. During this period he was travelling extensively in north Africa. Living with aid and charity workers in Niger, Bukina Faso and Mali, and amongst the indigenous people of those desperately poor states. After his brother had tragically died of an epiletic seizure while Cenn was staying in our flat, he gave his entire share of his brother’s estate to Oxfam and Plaid Cymru. Hence his life long commitment to the charity and his voluntary work with them in Africa in the mid 70‘s .

In the early 80‘s. Cenn joined me as a leader/instructor with a North Wales charity group- The Clwyd Outward Group- which took socially disadvantaged youngsters, mainly from urban conurbations like Wrexham, on outdoor activity weekends. For many of these youngsters it would be their first visit to a mountain environment and certainly, their first opportunity to participate in a range of outdoor activities....climbing/abseiling, kayaking, sailing and hillwalking As to be expected, Cenn was a good natured and tolerant figure who related well to our charges.Surprisingly so considering some of the more ‘challenging’ youngsters we had under our wing!

Cenn never married, had a long term relationship or much of a relationship of any description come to that. He remained the eternal bachelor and gave his affection to close friends, my children, cats and dogs! He never learnt to drive but that didn’t stop him travelling. An oddball, eccentric, square peg in a round hole. Someone who would argue black was white and was usually was! A bookish,vegetarian,leftist,nationalist who loved mountains,animals and cheese!......Cenn's gone but as his fellow Scouse poet Brian Patten writes...'

'A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us, for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams, for as long as we ourselves live, holding memories in common, a man lives.'

Cenn on the left with a COG party on the summit of Pen Llithrig y Wrach.

Now here’s the weird bit. The idea for this article literally came to me in a dream last night. In my dream I was in the attic looking to see if I could find those wonderful evocative letters that Cenn would send back from Niger and Mali. Colourful, poetic and charming. At first light, I hauled out a step-ladder and pulled myself up through the hatch and began rooting around in boxes amongst the cobwebs and mouse droppings. Just one letter came to hand and it is this letter which I reproduce here, Just as it was written nearly 40 years ago. In another strange twist. As I sifted through old theatre programmes, notebooks and assorted bits of paper deemed of sufficient sentimental value to keep, a poem that Cenn had written for my late son Jamie when he was born in 1978, fell out of a note. Cenn has specified that he wants to be buried in the same cemetery as Jamie...and so I understand, it shall be.

Cenn was a Welsh language learner so if the first paragraph- which is written in Welsh- does not quite read correctly to the native speaker, please accept it in the spirit it was written, from someone who loved Wales to his very core. JA

"Niamey,24 Mei

Annwyl Sion,
Annwyl Theatr Clwyd ac ur annwyl Wyddgrug! Annwyl Iaith ac annwyl Gymdeithas yr Iaith! Annwyl Halcun! Annwyl Jack Nicholson!
Yr eiddoch yn gywir,
PS. Dioloch yn fawr i awn am y cerdyn

Annwyl Angiebell,
Sala’am aleik. El kheir ras. As you doubtless know by now, I received your letter, a breath of quasi-Celtic Cestrian air in the heavy Sahelian heat. And today at post restante, a patriotic post card from Sion ap Pleby!
Oh to hear Blood on the Tracks or Desire or Hissing of the Summer Lawns or New Skin for the Old Ceremony or......but things are not so bad. Mark Nieuwark has cassettes of Dylan, Fairport, Beatles, Floyd, Neil Young, James Taylor and a good selection of classical music; and at his house a couple of days ago I found a dog eared ( sorry Fred) copy of Zen and the art of motor cycle maintenance which I hope to beg, steal or borrow before long!

Last weekend, with two companions, one Antipodean and one American, I discovered a cafe which serves big bowls of iced yogurt with crisp buttered bread, for 75 francs CFA, about 15p. That Sunday, my first day’s eating after a two day fast against dysentery, I scoffed a double helping, and ever since have been eating yogurt twice daily, amongst other things. One of the latter is delicious black eye beans and rice,which we buy on the street, all you can eat at 25 francs a time.

Hugh and Cenn on Aran Benllyn

We? Don Ada, Australian, arrived 13th from Agadez and Algeria,left 18th for Ouagadougou en route for Tanzania; Dave Walters, American, arrived 14th from Ouagadougou and Ghana, left 17th for Zinder, en route to Cameroon; Roland Witschi, Swiss, arrived 17th from Agadez and Algeria,left 19th for Ouagadouga, en route to Bamako; Pete Remington, English,arrived 22nd from Zinder and North East Nigeria,still around as I write but en route for Agadez, Algeria and home.

I’m doing more reading than anything else except perhaps sweating. I brought Day of the Jackal with me from Gao, where an English fellow-traveller gave it to me. In Hamani’s box of books I’ve found and read Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London; Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory; Midpoint, a book of poems by John Updike; and James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain.The Orwell and Updike were interesting, the Greene and Baldwin were both very good indeed. Any other lists I could bore you with?

My last trip to Oullam with the man from Caritas, originally scheduled for last Sunday or Monday, was postponed, perhaps indefinitely; I’ve been hanging around all week waiting to hear from them. Mark, who as Oxfam’s representative here has formal and informal contacts in Mali for the last few days,so communication has been a little difficult,but he came back today,so I should know quite soon whether I’m staying or going and whichever, where.

Doggerel jotted in in-flight movie machine between Paris and Dakar on the 10th April:

Oh Africa, I’m coming home from home
To spend a half year homeless, and to roam
In one vast corner of you, there to seek
What makes my vision body weak

This evening I went round to Mark’s house and found him preparing to show home movies to a small audience: two Americans and two English people I’d met already, Tessa and Chris. The movies or rather slides, were of Bororo nomads ( a people I love) at Gao in Mali, where I spent a couple of days at the beginning of this month sweltering amongst familiar ghosts (a place I love), and these particular Bororo were from Abala, where I spent a couple of days quite recently communing with unfamiliar ghosts (love). Tell me these loves were not my coffin nails.

We ate peanuts, and drank rum and lemon, and talked, and watched slides, then went our separate ways,though not before I had put myself in the queue for a certain book on motorcycle maintenance, which turns out to belong to Gary, who works for an American relief agency. Mark and I and an American girl whose name I’ve forgotten, went to a Vietnamese restaurant, delicious but expensive,then Mark took me, brought me, back to Hamani’s.

Soon, before the rains, I’ll go to Agadez. then perhaps back to Abala. Sometime to Ouallam. Work, or wander. To Ouagadougou, or Cameroon, and back to Niger again. I’m leading a slow, soft life. Past pounces, present purrs, future fawns. Roads stretch from here to everywhere. Happier still hearing you’re all happy.

Love Cenn
Niamey, 25 Journada I.'

Cennydd Williams: 1978