Many years ago a strange incident took place in this town. The event, which went unobserved by the rest of the world and would have sunk into obscurity here also, but for the scribblings of an old bar tender and dogsbody at the Blue Angel. p. 7
At the Blue Angel, Mr Vogel sits in his corner with a whisky (his drink of choice as he doesn't need to 'clatter' to the toilet on his 'maladroit legs' as often as if he drank beer). He rubs shoulders with 'ancient writers and travellers' who are by turns 'inquisitive', drunken or downright 'abusive'.
The pub is based on the author's one-time local in Llanfairfechan: the Llanfair Arms, though it is translocated to a position 'by the docks' p. 293 and near 'Bangor Pier' p. 238. Later in the novel the pub has become a second-hand bookshop, expanding on the idea of a melange of ideas and stories crammed together in a single building. Lloyd Jones remarks:
the pub is important, because it has been important to me, even now that I don't drink. It always has been […] when I was growing up, pubs were the place to go to […] one lived in them mostly […] They were public forums. They were the agora. That's gone; I think that's sad. They were also great funny places, full of eccentrics. So I think that's sad [...]. Yeah, Llanfairfechan was blessed, it was the pub capital…
The story told by the bartender lays the ground for the unfolding and expansion of the story across the larger canvas of Wales.
Anglesey, or Ynys Môn, is known as the mother of Wales – Môn Mam Cymru – because of its fertile fields, but it was also at the heart of ancient bardic culture. Like the island of Bardsey in Fflur Dafydd's Twenty Thousand Saints, 'the island' operates as something of a microcosm of nation. Mr Vogel's journey round the Anglesey coastline as he tries to 'find out something' p. 31 is a version of the journey round Wales in part two.
His helper, Luther, describes these trips in part 1, the Vogel Papers.
We live on the Paternoster Hill next door to Mr Vogel. This is how I know him. He asked me to write this story in case he died, for people to remember our journey round the island, which we started in his invalid carriage, it was green with three wheels. I sat by him on an egg box and I could see the road through a hole. He asked my mother for me to go with him because he could not walk well and he wanted me to do errands on the journey and do things for him. p. 27
The bartender of the Blue Angel recalls:
I often caught a glimpse of Luther's mother standing in her window as I looked up from the Blue Angel. Always she was gazing out to the island, as if trying to catch a glimpse of the little invalid carriage with its two strange occupants on its rickety journey around the shoreline, phut-phutting up and down the little lanes which were used so seldom that they all had a ribbon of grass, strewn with daisies and buttercups, along the centre of the road. Luther could see the flowers flash by him through a hole in the floor of the carriage between his feet, and he could smell a mixture of hot oil and wafts of countryside smells – blossom, moist earthiness, mossy verdure and freshly-made cowpats.
The Bonesetters of Anglesey
The island is also associated with healing. The story of the Bonesetters of Anglesey winds its way from the washing ashore of two traumatised boys in the 1700s to the orthopaedic hospital near Oswestry in the twentieth century.
One day at the beginning of the 1700s a man called Dannie Lukie, a smuggler living in the north west of Anglesey between Cemaes and Holyhead, spotted a raft floating out to sea. It was a 'dark and stormy night' and by the time he got to it the raft was 'already sinking'.
On the raft there were two small boys. They spoke neither Welsh nor English. Most accounts say the boys were twins, of a Mediterranean appearance. One version says they were both naked. p. 80
The boys were taken in.
Soon, Evan showed an 'amazing gift'. Starting with birds and animals, he demonstrated a marvellous ability to heal broken bones. This was well before orthopaedics became a medical science, and at a time when broken bones usually led to death or a permanent malformation. As he grew older he also grew in ability and reputation. p. 81
In Cambria Depicta, Edward Pugh wrote:
In this part of the island [Holyhead] I heard much of the worth and extraordinary abilities of Evan Thomas, the self-taught bonesetter… cases, desperate in the extreme, have been treated by him with expedition and success. His reputation has not only spread through his native country, but has made its way into England, where some unfortunate sufferers have happily experienced his superlative skill.
This very day... I have been informed that a messenger arrived at his house from Shropshire, with a tender for £300.00 for his immediate attendance, which he has accepted. I find he has no other tongue than the legitimate language of his country. p. 81
I had spent the winter recuperating from a minor hip operation, which had been necessary – in middle age – to correct a defect caused by a childhood disease. Once my left hip was working well again I felt wonderfully free. I hadn't realised how static I'd become as the hip slowly seized up. Now I felt like a child again, walking about the countryside with renewed pleasure, greeting old friends and seeing once familiar sights with fresh delight.
I hatched a great dream – a wonderful plan – to walk entirely around my country, a journey of a thousand miles or more. p. 67
Like his fictional narrator, Lloyd Jones walked the entire circumference of Wales, following – or not following – coastal paths and Offa's Dyke across what he has described as the 'blissful' borders of Wales. In Jones's case, the walk – which was undertaken in segments – was a direct response to recovering from an addiction to alcohol that almost killed him, but it was also, he suggests, a response to the year spent in bed strapped to a frame as a child. The walk was a celebration of mobility and of place. The real-life walk underpins the walking plot of the novel. Listen to Lloyd Jones explain why the freedom to walk is so important to him.
The figure of the disabled or lame man is a constant presence during the fictionalised walk, as are the healing or meditative properties of walking:
Today, as I strolled along the shoreline I thought of Mr Vogel, who had never been for a walk in his entire life. I wondered how he'd felt about his confinement, how he'd coped with captivity. In an imaginary conversation I shared a few of my thoughts with him, and tried to explain what it's like to move along the land, something we take so much for granted. This is what I told him:
The natural rhythm of walking is a mild sedative. It's a fairly simple equation involving physical movement, almost musical in its pattern, followed by well-being. […] The moving landscape provides an absorbing diversion which frees the mind and gives us a fresh viewpoint […] Walks have been described as 'looking the world into existence.'
They have also been described as a private revolt; a journey between one's past and one's future; the creation of a story […] p. 100-101
The journey round Wales which is also a quest to understand the Vogel Papers begins, textually at least, in the post-devolution capital, Cardiff, in a pub on Cathedral Road.
Walking and Storytelling
Walking, storytelling, healing are intimately connected in Mr Vogel, with place-related anecdotes and the drip-feed of the detective story paced out and stitched together by the rhythm and contours of the journey. This chimes with the thinking of other. Rebecca Solnit reimagines walking as stitching meaning together:
I like to see the long line [of footsteps] we each leave behind, and I sometimes imagine my whole life that way, as though each step was a stitch, as though I was a needle leaving a trail of thread that sewed together the world as I went by, crisscrossing others' paths, quilting it all together in some way that matters even though it can hardly be traced.
The walk was completed in a series of different journeys, and in the novel the narrator's walk is punctuated by the anarchic visitations of Walter and Paddy in their decrepit van, with new clues about Vogel, and by meetings real and imagined with fellow pilgrims.
As the author says, there is 'a bit of the Canterbury Tales' in the construction of the novel and the journey provides a structural backdrop with copious diversions from the journey for stories.
Cynefin literally means habitat or haunt, with connotations of the familiar, but this literal translation belies the powerful and specific sense of belonging to a place which the word has come to hold. In Mr Vogel the narrator explains:
Cynefin means your home territory, your own patch – it's the area of pastureland grazed by a particular flock, which stays there even if there are no fences. The flocks behave like this because farmers have spent centuries riding around their cynefin on horseback every morning and night, driving the sheep towards the centre of their territory. This gives each frlock a Jungian collective memory of the homeland, which is seemingly passed on from ewe to lamb. The Welsh have a very strong sense of their own cynefin, as if an invisible farmer had also spent centuries herding them into their allotted place. This has seeped into the nationa cousncousness, and is best put, I think, by the character Albie in Emyr Humphreys' A Toy Epic:
I see life as a cage with an open door, imprisoning mice that are too frightened to run wild.
But large numbers of Welsh people – escaping poverty and religious persecution – ave gone through the door in the last 150 years, and they have spread all over the world like dandelion seeds on the wind. However, I have been one of the timid ones left inside the cage. I am glad to say that today I am the mouse which roared. I will make the whole of Wales my cynefin. p. 94
This tension between leaving, or 'escaping', and remaining, between home as security or home as prison, is present in many books. A Toy Epic, by Emyr Humphreys is one example, Tristan Hughes's Revenant (part of this project) is another. It is a theme touched on in The Owl Service too, where Gwyn is literally herded back to the valley when he tries to leave. Though he imagines a future outside Wales, his character does not seem to be given a future at the end of the novel.
In the novel, the narrator – on being challenged about why he's walking around Wales – retorts:
'Do you know why I'm walking around Wales? … Because I can.' … I was walking for the sheer joy of it – and to ask some questions about me, the world around me, my country, of what made me.
I wasn't sure if I was a child of Wales or whether I was creating a child called Wales." p. 132
The author's experience of his own journey round Wales is somewhat in contrast to the affirmative tone of the novel. Listen to Lloyd Jones talk about using the journey to establish his cynefin.
This is a story full of 'cripples' – it is a term used in the novel most often to mean the physically lame or disabled, but also to refer to those who have suffered trauma or abuse in various forms. While the term 'cripple' is archaic, the novel documents a cultural history of disability in Wales, from the lame ant who brings the last seed required to make up the nine bushels of scattered flax seed needed to fulfil an 'impossible quest' in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, in the Mabinogion, to the passing reference – in the dedication – to 'Marianne, the beautiful crippled daughter of Hafod Uchtryd , Cwmystwth.'
Even the nurse who pioneered the open air treatment of children at Gobowen – Agnes Hunt – was lame and had been turned away from nursing schools in London for being too young or too disabled (she eventually trained in Rhyl).
Mr Vogel is possibly suffering from Paget's disease and possibly scoliosis. His deformed body is part of his eccentricity, something replicated in his spluttering old converted ambulance. Listen to Lloyd Jones describe the real-life character on which Mr Vogel is based.
A hospital was established in Baschurch, Shropshire, by Agnes Hunt and her lifelong partner 'Goody' Emily Selina Goodford. In 1921 she moved premises to the Orthopaedic Hospital in Gobowen near Oswestry.
This is 'the epicentre of our story', remarks the narrator (p. 191). The circuitous mythology of the Vogel Papers are eventually traced to Gobowen, and the hospital ward on which Vogel was given his precious bear. Waldo's illicit foraging in the archives turns up papers and a photograph, which describes the principal characters as they appear as children in fancy dress. Here is the section describing Vogel:
The boy on Julius's right lies flat on his back and his legs are below the coverlet, but on his torso he has a shimmering tunic and a matching cap with a pointy peak, of the type you see Robin Hood wearing in films. He has a cowhorn draped around his shoulders on a leather thog and he is holding it to his lips as though he's blowing into it. This is Little Boy Blue, who has come to blow his horn. On the back of the photo his name is given simply as Vogel! with a big exclamation mark. p. 186
The fictional photo show Agnes Hunt and Robert Jones and several more children, but it is clearly based on a photograph of the author:
In the novel, a series of letters written before and during the First World War from Little Bo Peep (Esmie Falkirk) to Little Boy Blue (Mr Vogel) are reproduced p. 147-155. Here the newspaper ruse is attributed to the boy Luther (who in the Vogel Papers accompanies Mr Vogel on his quests) and who has congenital syphilis. Little Bo Peep describes a young German boy, Julius Rodenberg who is further isolated by the language:
'I feel sorry for Julius – his family is interned somewhere, he does not know where, and he still cannot speak our language' p. 154
When Lloyd Jones was admitted to Gobowen, he spoke no English. Listen to Lloyd Jones explain how being a Welsh speaker affected his hospitalisation.
Waldo asks for some more anecdotes for his cover story at the hospital library:
'Say you have a picture of yourself with two famous stars of the day who were visiting the hospital. I'll give it to you when I get back. You're in your hospital bed, as usual, and you have a tatty little case containing all your toys and books by your feet. One of the celebrities visiting you is Winifred Atwell, who was a very well known blues and honky-tonk pianist. She is quite plump and black and has a knockout West Indian smile. She's wearing furs and one of those dinky little black hats perched miraculously on the side of her head. The woman with her is statuesque, drop dead gorgeous in a blonde way, and she is also all mouth and teeth. She's Betty Driver, once a well-known star of Coronation Street (as if I needed to tell him). She was behind the bar of the Rovers for years, can't remember her screen name.'
'Betty, she was called Betty on the telly too,' said Waldo immediately, Waldo the man who would never in a month of Sundays admit to watching soaps.
'Ask them if they can find out when Atwell and Driver were there, because you're sure the picture I've just described appeared in the Liverpool Daily Post and you'd like to see it.' p. 200
Places Within Places
The Vogel Papers appear to be set in the area around the pub, the Blue Angel. But we realise (after more than one reading) that the individual accounts from which the narrator quotes at length are stories emanate from (and by) the children's ward in Gobowen. The details of the story are distorted, massively amplified; mythologised in short. Nevertheless they correspond with the bare facts of the urgent few days during which the child patients celebrate first a birthday and a little boy is prepared for surgery with the aid of a gift. Thus Doctor Robert's 'large mansion on the outskirts [of the town] – the one that used to be a hospital for injured soldiers during the war' p. 19 describes a place in Gobowen not Llanfairfechan. The 'old nursemaid Agnes' who is summonsed by John Parker of Sweeney Hall to confirm the account that Mr Vogel has won a great prize, to be announced from the steps of the town hall, is none other than Agnes Hunt, the nurse and founder of the orthopaedic hospital p. 20. The competition that Mr Vogel has won is really a sham, it is a way of giving the small boy about to undergo a painful operation a teddy bear that will become his precious companion during the long months at the hospital. Parker is one of the patients but also an historical figure. Even when we appear to be elsewhere, the stories circle and draw upon on the open-air ward at Gobowen.
The novel is full of journeys, the trip round Anglesey by Mr Vogel and Julius, the main journey round Wales, many references to published travels through Wales. One of the most audacious and comic is the 24 hour tour round Wales with two pigs, one plastic, one live.
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