Saturday, 30 January 2010

A very brief Ripping Yarn

“I always wanted to be an explorer, but - it seemed I was doomed to be nothing more than a very silly person.” Michael Palin

I recently travelled to London on the new Wrexham & Shropshire trains in the hope of "a few words" with adventurer and comedian Michael Palin, only to find you should be careful what you wish for!

CUTTING a lonely figure on Gobowen Station at 5am I can't help thinking I should have a voice over, at the very least a ticking clock and stirring BBC theme tune in the background.

I was too young for Monty Python and as a nine-year-old, most TV was an excuse not to go to bed, but then came Around the World in 80 Days, which had me sitting gripped on the edge of our settee, as the impossibly nice and terribly British Michael Palin raced across mysterious far off countries from one adventure to the next.

There are not many people I'd get up at 4am to meet, but for the chance of a few words with Michael Palin I found myself on a cold Gobowen platform alongside a handful of hardy earlybirds as two white discs emerged from the black, rumbling through the frozen darkness as the sleek gunmetal grey Wrexham and Shropshire train glided into the station.

It's a far cry from Palin's adventures on ramshackle trains with as many passengers ontop of the train as inside it. Onboard the new state of the art carriages I therefore feel a bit of a fraud as I slump into the smart grey seats of standard class. Incidentally if grey seems to be a recurring colour there's a good reason. In their attempt to persuade people out of their cars the operators explain they decided to emulate the understated greys, chromes and carbon-like materials of expensive cars that people seem to like so much.

While the Palin of old may not recognise the luxury, he would certainly recognise the route I'm travelling. Infact it was on this route that one of the railways' staff found himself sitting next to the affable comedian, on his way to give a speech at his old school in Shrewsbury. So impressed with the service was Palin that he had offered free of charge to help launch the new trains.

I use the first part of my 3hour 47minute journey to gen up on Mr Palin, but trying to think of questions he might not have been asked in his thousands of interviews is a real challenge. Almost all seats on the trains now have a table, laptop power points and free WiFi internet, so I spread myself out and carry on reading his Monty Python dairies. There's plenty I want to ask him; What his old school reports say? What does he list for 'occupation' on his passport? ...and was that parrot really just sleeping?

The trains are stunningly quiet, even the wheels have been coated to reduce noise and as we charge southwards I fall asleep, victim of comfortable seats, and a 4am start. I would normally wake in a panic (having woken up in Abergavenny before now), but the direct service means you can relax, assured of ending up in London, and I wake to find the carriage has filled around me with visitors and commuters combining country living with London wages.

London Marylebone is a pleasant place to arrive; small, unintimidating and just metres from the waiting busses and tubes, but as more and more journalists began to gather, I realised my chances of interviewing Palin were getting smaller by the minute.

It's a sad fact of journalism that newspapers almost invariably play second fiddle to TV cameras.Amidst a sea of cameras all hope seemed lost.

Being usefully taller I got the photos I needed, but the ever smiling Palin was quickly ushered away to meet train bosses, MPs and the waiting TV cameras.

At this point in one of his adventures we would be listening to Palin's narration, describing an ingenious solution the difficult obstacle infront of him.

"This looked like turning into a disaster," said my own Palin voice over unhelpfully as the minutes ebbed away.

Then came my chance. As he made to leave I headed him off at the pass and grabbed the unfortunate 66-year-old as he waved his goodbyes: "Oh! Hello, how do you do? A picture? Yes of course," smiled the bewildered Palin as a hired help snapped our photo.

And that was it. Not the indepth, inciteful interview I had hoped or planned for, but perhaps a fitting reflection of my own trip on the new Wrexham and Shropshire trains. Just like the service to London, it's invariably the destination that entices us, but more often we find that it's all about the journey.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Heart of a Dragon

“It doesn't take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.” Norman Schwarzkopf

AN INCREDIBLE new work charts Wales’ Victoria Cross recipients, including the exploits of Thomas Pryce, sonof a Llandrinio snake skin merchant, who in the First World War held back the enemy’s advance for 10 hours with just 40 troops, running out of ammunition before leading his 17 surviving men in a final bayonet attack.

In Heart of a Dragon, charting the Victoria Crosses ofWales and the Welsh Regiments from 1914-82, historian Alister Williams has uncovered an amazing amountof information, pulling together photos, recollections,reports, certificates and maps, including those of anumber of local heroes like Thomas Pryce.

Thomas Pryce Snr had been a tea, coffee and snakeskin merchant in the Dutch East Indies, a Montgomeryshire magistrate and akeen historian. His son – also Thomas Pryce – was born in 1886and went on to become Captain of 4thBattalion The Grenadier Guards, receiving the Victoria Cross after hewas killed in action at Berquin, France in April 1918.
As the author explains, Pryce’s heroics were not just a single unconscious act, buta prolonged battle against overwhelming odds, lasting more than a day.
Having received orders to clear a village at Vieux Berquin, Pryce led two platoons fromhouse to house, taking out 30 enemy soldiers, seven of which he killed himself. His platoons suffered heavy casualties however and the following morning he found himself occupying a position with the remaining 30-40 men when his left flank was gradually surrounded by the enemy, allowing them to fire down the length of his trenches. That day, Pryce and his men repelled four attacks andinflicted a greatnumber of casualties,but the enemyused this period tobring forward three large field guns within 300yards of his line,whose devastatingpower soon demolished the trenches,leaving Pryce and hismen without cover. By 6.15pm theenemy had workedtheir way to within 60yards of their position. Pryce called upon his men, telling them to cheer, charge the enemy and fight to the last, before leading the way out of the trench, where he and his men managed incredibly to drive the enemy back some 100 yards.

It was a brave effort,but half an hour later the enemy had again closed to within 60 yards and in greater numbers. By now Captain Pryce had just 17men left and every round of ammunition had been fired. Determined there should be no surrender, he once again led his men in a bayonet charge, his citation saying he was last seen ‘engaged in a fierce hand-to-hand struggle with overwhelming numbers of the enemy.'

The Victoria Cross was presented to Pryce’s widow by King George V atBuckingham Palace in April 1919, Prycehaving also received the Military Cross with Bar. In Heart of a Dragon, Alister Williams explores Pryce’s background, gaining a sense of the character of the man, as well as unearthing some poignant sources, including his last message to battalion HQ, telling them: “My left flank is entirely in the air. The KOYLI [King's Own Yorkshire LightInfantry] has gone. Enemy advancing. Find Thomas...”Other sources include a letter to his widow in which the Grenadier’s commanding officer wrote: “Your husband was perfectly splendid and his record will beone of the finest episodes of the war.”

Williams adds that among the men whofought at Vieux Berquin was a Guardsmancalled William Henry Warburton who wastaken prisoner and was later able to reporthe had been standing alongside Pryce whenhis captain was shot in the head.Pryce’s official posting of ‘missing’ was finally changedto ‘killed in action.’ His body was never identified but his name is recorded on the Memorial to the Missing at Ploegsteert in Belgium.


Heart of a Dragon is a fantasticpiece of work, and while it standson its own, is actually the second volume produced by historian Alister Williams, the first having covered the period from 1854 to 1902.

It’s easy to see why this labour of lovehas taken more than 30 years to complete,going into incredible detail to document the exploits and background of more than 50 VC recipients in this one volume alone,recording not only their essential serviceand personal details, but also the storiesbehind their citations, revealing some fantastic characters.Alister says that among his own personal favourites was Lionel Rees, who in 1916 became the first ever ‘fighter pilot.’ The story of his VC was remarkable enough, but Alister says what he did after the war said just as much about his character, teaching himself to sail, before setting off for the Bahamas, a 65-day solo ocean voyage for a complete novice with no communication or chance of rescue.

Once there, Rees, by now in his mid 60s, caused considerable gossip among the white community by marrying the 18-year-old daughter of a black family on the island of Andros, where he lived out the rest of his life.

Priced £35, the beautifully presentedvolume of almost 500 pages and 1,000 photographs is a real gem. The vast time and effort invested really shines through, while the absorbing stories will keep you gripped for hours.
Available from http://www.bridgebooks/ (ISBN 1-84494-028-4)