Somewhere Near Penrhyndeudraeth

Dave Langford

The good thing about this freelancing is that you can declare a holiday whenever you like. The bad thing is that you don't. I dimly remember a time when my Civil Service employers allowed me to take evenings and weekends off.... After calculating that we hadn't had a proper holiday for 00000110 years, I realized the computers were eating too deeply into my once sensitive and fannish soul. Hazel packed the car with luxuries (clothes, food); I added the essentials (books, booze); and we rattled off into the sunset, which is also the direction of Wales.

Toiling up through the Marches and the torrid zones of bilingual road-signs, into a landscape of mountains intermittently visible between the sheep, I took notes for a long-planned but never written article on Welsh as she is wrote. The Welsh are eager to confuse the vile Saeson or English, but unlike the similarly disposed Irish are hampered by having a relatively straightforward language. Translating the town of Wrexham into Wrecsam seems mere perversity, and few Saeson are likely to be confused by a tacsi rank, a double-decker bws, a walk on the seaside promenad, an eighteen-hole cwrs golff, or a drink at the clwb (necessitating a visit to the toiledau). In Caernarfon (trans: Carnarvon) Castle, the historical bits include such conundrums as William I (Y "Concwerwr") o Dapestri Bayeux. Spoken Welsh is something else, and every evening a hotel TV would gush incomprehensibly: well, almost. "Llanfairpwyllgwyngyll telefision gogerychwyrndrobwll social security llantysiliogogogoch...."

This was Gwynedd, the sheep-infested northwest corner of Wales which contains most of the surviving Welsh speakers, notable mountains and tourist traps. (Statistic: Wales houses 1% of the population of the EC and 15% of its sheep.) Here the planned essay and our fannish street credibility ended with a loud simultaneous bang, at Portmeirion.

To fandom, Portmeirion means Patrick McGoohan's resoundingly triffic 1966 series The Prisoner, and by extension its fan club's Portmeirion festivals, and the mild tedium associated with any media group which focuses all its energies on a single cult object. Under that burning-glass of fanatic devotion the object seems to wither, like Star Trek actors dwindling from sequel to sequel. Yawn, snooze, and where's the Jacqueline Lichtenberg Appreciation Society when we need it? This is known as prejudice.

But: "We're coming back here," said Hazel before we'd so much as unpacked, and in defiance of all intricate forward planning we spent the rest of our week at Portmeirion. There has probably got to be a reason for this.

Firstly, despite the urgings of common sense, the place wasn't specially tricked out for the "Prisoner" series. Barring a few obvious items (to the best of my belief there are no sliding doors, craggy subterranean corridors lined with juke-boxes, or rocket launch silos) and some mild surprises (the reality is smaller, and cunning camerawork made it seem to front on open sea rather than a mere estuary), the late Sir Clough Williams-Ellis's village really is like that. It's a colossal folly, a Gothic-Italian dream, a Disneyland of real architecture put together as the ... as the fanac of a real architect.

All is crammed into a tiny fold in the coastline, a combe which funnels down to the estuary while the dottier buildings cling to its sides and the clifftops. Near-garish colours predominate; I can think of no other context in which my aesthetic adviser Hazel would reckon an arched belvedere painted pale mauve looked somehow right. Personally I loved the jackdaw resourcefulness. That sinister Green Dome of the TV series has an impressively intricate façade which turns out to have been half of a giant manorial fireplace. The staggeringly ornate plaster ceiling which posed over us at dinner-time had been transported wholesale from some condemned country house and reassembled from a stack of truck-sized fragments. Seven vast Ionic columns acquired on one of Sir Clough's whims (and then stored for 30 years before use) have been incorporated into the landscape, and we spent a fruitless afternoon hunting for the alleged eighth. Odd salvaged gargoyles, cornices, balustrades, statues, urns, crenellations, arches and colonnades are scattered everywhere ... not to mention a brace of cannon and an errant Buddha. Even the part where we stayed (some buildings are "hotel rooms", some are shops, most are self-catering cottages) sported weird bas-reliefs and statue-niches from goodness knows where. The designer modestly called it his Home for Fallen Buildings.

I have a nervous feeling of evoking a mere architectural junk-heap. Actually the overall effect is weirdly integrated and witty. As you wander around, there comes a realization there there are no accidental perspectives: viewed from any angle, the place has its own daft perfection. By cunning use of the sloping combe, a three-storey cottage called Telford's Tower dominates its corner of the skyline. A wholly non-functional "Campanile" stands even taller, and the Dome looms like that of St Paul's. None of these is actually anything like as big as our own perfectly ordinary Victorian house, but dizzy height is forced on you as an optical illusion. Speaking of suggestion, I kept wondering whether the innumerable and inexplicable old paintings of erupting volcanoes which line the walls of the "Town Hall" breakfast- and dining-rooms weren't intended as a cruel allusion to the dreaded holiday tummy....

Around the village are woods big enough to get lost in, which we promptly did, straying among forgotten exotica (bamboo, in North Wales?) and remnants of nineteenth-century gardens -- fortunately I was sufficiently out of breath not to recite the whole of Swinburne's "A Forsaken Garden" into the teeth of the salt wind. A lost beach was heaped with the endless white skeletons of sea urchins; a grim little glade offered forlorn headstones and graves which proved to belong to a bygone someone's dogs. The Gilbert-and-Sullivan spirit of the village didn't penetrate this far, but there was the same sense of infinite remoteness from word processors and bank managers.

The funny thing about Sir Clough's fantasy world is that it's as durable as his favourite Ionic columns -- robust enough to absorb and ignore tourists, cars, all the tentacles of a mundane Outside. Portmeirion's façade is curiously solid, with no peeling plastic or fairground impermanence. The spell extends even to the one place which does sort of drop to a different level of unreality: the "Prisoner" souvenir shop, lying behind the very door which in the series opened on Number 6's palatial lodgings. Again all was illusion: there's only one tiny room in there, containing Max Hora.

Max used to live near us in exotic Reading, Berkshire. A leading light of the "Prisoner" society, he's genuinely achieved his own fantasies. Imagine a high-tech fan offered the SF bookshop concession in the Houston control centre, or a John Norman devotee given his own bondage parlour. Max lives in Portmeirion, drives a remaindered Mini-Moke from the series, spends his winters writing booklets of "Prisoner" memorabilia, and in the summer flogs them to visitors. This is the place to buy your Patrick McGoohan photos, videos, badges, ballpens, notepaper, postcards and bumper-stickers (advt.). Max will also sell you a "Rover" weather-balloon: mere seconds after our arrival we found him coaxing one to sail across the central piazza's ornamental water, for the nostalgic benefit of yet another visiting TV crew.

I sipped much beer with this entrepreneur (fandom will always find a way), and heard the inner secrets of the tiny community of Portmeirion residents, living in odd corners of Sir Clough's follies like rats in the walls ... but the demented magic of the place still didn't fade. Outside in the warm evening, the village was empty and judiciously floodlit. Mere lack of population failed to lessen it or to evoke that grey abandoned-stage-set hollowness: Hazel and I would wander happily around flower-scented paths, past many a Palladian pediment or rococo grotto, until too tired for more. Damned if I try to analyse it further. You had to be there.

As indeed we decided to be, only a few months later, for a full week. Two Welsh holidays in a single year! I still don't know how I managed to justify it to that harsh taskmaster Langford who makes me work such long hours at the keyboard: but a way had to be found, since by the time we got home Hazel had already made a chart and was ticking off the days.

One thing led to another. On and off we've spent several weeks in the place since that great discovery in 1986, and learned that the uncrowded evenings are by far the best times; that it is unwise to rent the cottage outside whose bedroom window the local peacocks like to emit unbelievably hideous cries; and that falling in love with that whole corner of Wales can lead to the financial madness of buying a holiday flat just down the road in the shadow of Harlech Castle. You don't need to visit so often when, every time you set off from Harlech on a shopping expedition, you can just see Portmeirion across the wide estuary, gleaming like some coveted toy from the pre-plastic era.

Time to hire another car and plan another Harlech trip....



Footnote from Dave Langford, 2001: The Village is still there. Its woodlands are now criss-crossed with official, signposted paths, so the nooks like the dog cemetery no longer come as a surprise. Max Hora's =Prisoner= shop has gone, replaced by a pallid imitation selling rather more touristy and less fannish material. The rest is much the same.

Data entry by Judy Bemis
Hard copy provided by Geri Sullivan

Updated November 10, 2002. If you have a comment about these web pages please send a note to the Fanac Webmaster. Thank you.