Friday, June 18, 2010


Porthcawl Chile (Slight Return)

First things first: I have it at last! The greatest book I can conceive of reading. The Complete Cosmicomics of Italo Calvino. Too stingy to fork out for the hardback, which I first glimpsed and fingered in an ill-fated Borders bookshop last year, I waited in the margins like a cutprice predator for the paperback. Yesterday it hove into sight and I pounced! The 'cosmicomic' tale is a genre Calvino invented in the 1960s: each piece follows a reasonably precise but unreasonably pleasing pattern, extrapolating from a hard scientific statement into a realm of extremely imaginative fantasy, keeping profundity and whimsicality in perfect balance, laying maximum stress on intellectual satisfaction and thus circumventing all the maudlin effects of orthodox 'relationship' fiction but without sacrificing poignancy or emotional involvement. Truly a magnificent achievement! This bumper volume contains every 'cosmicomic' tale Calvino ever wrote, all 34 of them distributed over 400 pages of dazzlingly inventive prose. My ultimate dream of a book indeed!

Now then. Last weekend I went back to Porthcawl, the town where I grew up, the first time since (I think) 1997 that I have been there. The main point was to do a wild camping trip somewhere other than the Gower. Just for a change, you see. The vast expanse of sand dunes directly to the east of Porthcawl was, in fact, the location of my very first wild camping trips back in the early 1980s with some of my more intrepid schoolchums. We lit bonfires and drank rum. I remember a lad by the name of Andrew Street who cast a butane gas canister onto the flames and loitered in the area until it exploded in his face, an incident that made its way into one of my rare realistic stories ('Explosion'). Without wishing to spoil the ending of that story I can report that his eyebrows and hair were singed white by the blast but he wasn't mangled...

I am older now and therefore less interested in explosions. Camp fires, however, have kept their appeal. Adele is one of the greatest fire builders in existence: she created another superb outdoor hearth from driftwood. After our hike through meadows and along country lanes and over the dunes, it was good to settle down near the blaze with wine (Hardy's Bin 53, a berry-licious little number) and food. No midnight swims, alas, as my resistance to cold water is shamefully low. Ah well! We camped in the middle of a 'fairy circle' of mushrooms and actually were visited by fairies, although on closer inspection they turned out to be moths, but for a few minutes we genuinely did believe...

Sleeping under the stars can sometimes be uncomfortable and on some camping trips I have slept like a gol, the opposite of a log, but on this occasion I enjoyed one of the most restful nights of my life. I have been reliably informed that I didn't snore. The following morning we proceeded along the beach until we reached the decaying funfair of Coney Beach, where I spent many long hours and many pocketfuls of change when I was a mere stripling. I am convinced that Coney Beach Amusement Park was an important factor in steering my interest towards the 'weird'. There is something very Ray Bradbury about the crumbling slides and rides and creaking wooden rollercoasters. Candyfloss and ghost trains, toffee apples and groaning carousels...

In Porthcawl town I went to pay homage to the house where I grew up and also the woods where I played between the ages of 3 and 10. The house is still there and still painted white; the woods are much reduced in size and surrounded by new houses but the core remains almost exactly as I remember it. For old time's sake I tried, not very successfully, to climb a tree. I practically lived in the trees when I was young! Apparently the official name of this wood is Trafalgar Wood and it was planted to commemorate Nelson's victory over the French fleet, but I never knew that back then: we called it Bluebell Wood and decided it was the 'good' wood, in contrast with the adjacent Black Wood, a tangle of hawthorn trees with extremely narrow corridor-like paths. Black Wood has now been cut down: it had an unsettling ambience about it. To test my courage I once read the first few chapters of Bram Stoker's Dracula on Halloween and then on the stroke of midnight went for a solitary walk among the twisted trees. I scared myself silly!

Moving along, I also made a brief pilgrimage to the ugly building that is Porthcawl Library. Despite its hideous architecture it's an important place for me because without it I probably would never have become the voracious reader and prolific writer that I now am. Thanks to this small library, I discovered Borges, Calvino, Barthelme, Voltaire, Nathanael West, Kafka, Nabokov, Pynchon and many other astounding authors. To return to Porthcawl again after so long was an interesting experience. Everything looked slightly different at first but then somehow condensed into familiarity. Probably I will go back soon to take a look at some of my other childhood haunts, especially the spook-infested Sker House and the magic wells of Newton and Nottage.

Hi Rhys, I grew up in Porthcawl also and I remember the woods near the rugby club very well. I was relieved to hear you say that you knew it as "Bluebell Woods." All of my friends knew it as that and I was surprised to see the "Trafalgar" sign on it when I visited some years ago. Nice to read your blog page!
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