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Diary: Ian Marchant

13 May 2022


Temples of delight

I TOOK the longest train journey I’ve undertaken since lockdown restrictions were lifted, from Leominster to Camborne, in Cornwall, to record an episode of Open Country for Radio 4. The programme is about how steam shaped the landscape around Camborne, and our first interview was with James Breslin, the custodian of the National Trust’s mine holdings in Cornwall.

James took me and my producer to the top of the engine house at East Pool, which houses a massive, single-cylinder steam engine, once used to pump water from the now abandoned tin mine. This vast machine takes up three storeys; the cylinder alone is the size of a hot tub able to hold 12 Hollywood starlets, if you can imagine such a thing. (Note to CT readers: probably don’t imagine this.)

What struck me most was the construction of the building. The high-arched windows and wooden galleries reminded me of Camborne’s wonderful Wesleyan chapel. The same sensibilities went into building a chapel and a place of work. The engine house in its pomp would have been a place of steam and noise, but also a place of light and austere Methodist beauty. Perhaps the architects of the vast fulfilment warehouses that line our motorways might follow its example.


Look behind you

IT’S the first week of May, and I’m starting to plan for Christmas. This is because I write the Presteigne Players’ Panto, and it’s time to get going. Our pantos are not like other pantos because — in addition to dames, principal boys, oh-no-you-didn’t/ oh-yes-I-did, etc. — the Presteigne Players’ Panto also offers a coruscating commentary on contemporary mid-Wales existence: panto vérité, as a local critic once described a performance.

The last time we were able to put on a show was December 2019, when I played the villain, tousled-haired-but-secretly-balding whiff-whaff enthusiast Borrisey de Spaffel. It was clearly not possible to put on a production in 2020, but, last year, I got as far as thinking about a few songs: our version of Aretha Franklin’s “Who’s Zooming Who?”, perhaps, or a rewrite of Fat Larry’s Band’s only hit, “Zoom”. Common sense prevailed; so there was no show in 2021, either.

We’ve committed ourselves to a show this Christmas, but it’s difficult to find anything much to satirise — at least, in a family-friendly way. We could up the vérité quotient and downgrade the panto stuff, I suppose, but since the vast majority of our cast are 12 years old, this hardly seems right. I scratch my head, but nothing much is coming.


Ministry of welcome

ALMOST since the beginning of Putin’s war against Ukraine, a group of people in Presteigne have worked hard to bring some refugees here. We have an excellent tailor and dressmaker, Ellie, who moved here from Ukraine about five years ago; she was able to contact a family from Sumy (a mother, her son, and her sister), who hoped to find refuge in the UK.

Some members of our congregation helped to fill in the Byzantine visa application, while others were able to offer free housing in a self-contained flat. All was set fair — except that the Home Office has feet of lead and no discernible heart.

Six weeks dragged by. The family had escaped Sumy, but they were stuck in one room in a cheap Warsaw hotel, trapped there by British red tape. The town raised money to support them, and, eventually, after an agonising wait, to pay for flights from Warsaw to Birmingham. On the morning that they were due to arrive, the churchwarden and a pal climbed the church tower, and hoisted the Ukrainian flag to welcome our long-awaited new neighbours. A good thing, you might imagine.

Not for the tanky trolls on the St Andrew’s Facebook page, who wanted to know where the flags were for refugees from Myanmar/Afghanistan/Syria, and why was the church involved with politics, and not flying the flag of peace, etc.

It’s hard to know where to start. First, the UK Government has made it all but impossible to welcome refugees from anywhere other than Ukraine. Second, if we did manage to welcome more people here, they’re hardly going to find it encouraging to see, fluttering in the breeze, the flags of the regimes that they’ve just fled.

But what point is there in engaging with trolls? And, really, why bother? However much the trolls do their dirty work, Anna, Yana, and Costia are here, and welcome; and the flag of Ukraine flies from St Andrew’s.


Divine comedy

SO, I have had a flash of inspiration for the panto: The 23 Billy Goats Gruff v. Baldylocks and the Three Bears (we have to have that many goats so that everyone gets a part). But there are three trolls living under the Lugg Bridge: Mrs What-About, Harry A-Ha, and Little Ms MSM.

It’s not much, but it’s a start. When I became a Christian, I stopped praying that Brighton might win at the football. Is it OK, I wonder, to start praying for gags, in a time when they are few and far between?

The answer seems to be Yes. A plot is starting to form, (the bears are not sharing their porridge, and the goats have to thwart the trolls under the bridge to get some); characters take shape (what Hairy Mary the Airy Fairy might do I still have to find out, but here she is); and I’m smiling at the generosity of the Lord. By my side, as always.


Ian Marchant is an author and broadcaster, and the founder of Radio Free Radnorshire.


Thu 26 May @ 20:44
Book club: Stephen Brown on Marilynne Robinson’s Jack, the fourth novel in her Gilead quartet https://t.co/pFCH7Ep900

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