My county has its own poet laureate. A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad was first published in 1896. Its theme of the transience of male youth found a wide readership in the First World War and it has remained one of the landmarks of British poetry.
The collection of verses is a taste I have never acquired. Housman was a Cambridge classics don, who never lived in Shropshire nor even visited it very often. He projected upon a rural way of life a set of preoccupations which were narrow in their range and melancholy in their outlook. His poems are not observations of a particular landscape but incantations:
Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun,
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.
A pleasing alliteration, but Clun, on the border some thirty miles south of where I live, is in fact a bustling market town, as it must have been in Housman’s time, complete with its own castle. He could, however, fashion a memorable line, a number of which have entered the national consciousness. Dennis Potter borrowed the title of one of Housman’s poems for a famous television series in the 1970s.
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
The final two lines come to mind as I contemplate the countryside beyond the Severn below our garden. Wales, unlike England, is now in national lockdown. The happy highways that take us to our favourite walks, to the nursery that stocks our garden, to Powys Castle for a day out, to the seaside at Harlech, are closed (except for work and exceptional needs).
The border that runs down the Welsh Marches has always seemed more of an historical relic than a practical fact. It is only marked on the larger thoroughfares. Driving west along country roads, the first sign that you have crossed into another country is the appearance of a single word painted on the tarmac: ARAF. It means slow, at once a warning and a description of the entire transport system in Wales.
The appearance of a hard borders within the United Kingdom has been a threat since the pandemic began (See my entry for April 14: ‘Borders’). It feels like one of the many emergency constraints which could be difficult fully to remove once the crisis is over. In this particular case, however, there may be some gain in the determination of Welsh politicians to find their own solution.
During the recent row between Manchester and the Government, television journalists kept filming a large, badly-painted graffiti on the side of a building: “The north is not a petri dish.” You could see the point. On the other hand, a petri dish is a perfectly useful piece of laboratory kit, crucial, so the story has it, for the discovery of penicillin. The total lockdown over the border can be seen as a timely experiment. Conservatives and Labour are arguing about whether a short-term ‘circuit breaker’ is the right way forward.
Thanks to the Welsh Government, we should soon have an answer to that question.