by Richard Pooley
“A human life will inevitably contain periods of pain and trauma, but [these Harvard professors] found that these moments can be weathered if we have good relationships. Because ultimately it is the strength of our bonds – not whether we are married or single; high flying or just getting by – that determines everything.”
From The Daily Telegraph’s (January 21, 2023) review of The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, published by Simon & Schuster.,
Bruce Mawdesley died just inside the new year; of throat cancer. He was ninety-two. Not bad for someone who had smoked a pipe for most of those years. Perhaps a life spent outdoors, in the once unpolluted air above the fields and lanes of southern England and mid-Wales, counteracted the effect of all that inhaled smoke.
Following in the tradition of Englishmen like John Clare, he wrote about Nature and the countryside in poems and essays. And like Clare he wrote of what he knew at first hand. But unlike Clare he was not born into a life of agricultural toil. Here is what he wrote in the introduction to his final book, “Late Harvest”:
“How fortunate I was in my choice of work, first as a farm labourer, and later as a walling mason...I broke the bounds of family convention and was ostracised for not following in footsteps which had trodden the boards of office and stage.”
His father was an actor, RAF officer, and radio announcer who for three years before his death in the early 1950s had one of the most recognised and imitated voices on BBC radio*. His mother was a talented pianist, a singer in musicals and a model for several artists; she was a great beauty. Bruce nearly died of mastoiditis as a toddler and was stone deaf in one ear for the rest of his life. He and his three older sisters led a nomadic life across southern England in the decades before and during the Second World War. He later wrote of the September day in 1940, shortly after his tenth birthday, when he watched RAF and Luftwaffe planes fight each other in the blue sky above the Kentish fields, and of the dead German pilot he came across hanging by his parachute cords from a tree branch: “Like the pendulum clock ticking away the hours, he slowly swung from side to side.”
He hated the ‘public’ school in Sussex his parents somehow sent him to (whatever money his father made was rapidly spent). Why is not clear. At least this education gave him a love of books and of the English language, to add to the love of music he got from his mother and a talent for embellished but witty story-telling learned from his father.
He was indeed ostracised by his family but not for eschewing a middle-class career and instead becoming a farm labourer in Gloucestershire. He made a girl pregnant and did the honourable thing, as his upbringing had taught him, and married her. But his upbringing had also told him not to marry “beneath him”. And certainly not to someone who is schizophrenic (still just alive today, she hurls abuse and objects at her carers). She tried to kill him at least once. Despite this they had a son and a daughter.
Building dry stone walls became his passion and his craft, taught him by a teetotal, Bible-quoting stonemason called Walter. His writing is full of his life as a peripatetic walling mason in the Cotswolds:
“Some repairs only took a day to accomplish but once I spent a year in one field. This was an estate near Cirencester...the walls were in a bad state and had to be dismantled and rebuilt. The four seasons came and went around me as I worked. The summer was wonderful but the wicked winds of winter cut through all the layers of heavy clothes that I wore. I was paid ‘piece work’...I had to build a chain of wall each week...a cricket-pitch length. There was no time to sit about and I even worked through several nights of moonlight to get my wages.”
He nearly always worked on his own. Yet what is striking about his tales and poems of country life is how he formed strong relationships with nearly everyone he met, many professional loners like himself - tramps, tinkers, shepherds - as well as old countryfolk whose stories of agricultural life before the First World War he would later record.
Once, now divorced and living alone in the unpartitioned wing of a Victorian rectory in dire need of restoration, he formed an unusual relationship with a young couple living in another rented space above his own. He wrote that his room contained an “unharmonious” grand piano “riddled with woodworm”. The couple above “always appeared to be making love...For some extraordinary reason [the man] would round off this performance not with the usual cup of tea and cigarette but by playing the cello for half an hour. Actually, he played extremely well and when peace was finally restored, I would give an encore by playing a Chopin prelude out of key.”
It was while he was in the rectory that he met the love of his later life, Glennys. He had joined a “lonely hearts” club the previous winter. He swiftly regretted doing so: “When the first list of ‘Ladies in Waiting’ arrived, I found myself wondering what on earth I was doing wasting my time and money...It was easier to discard than pursue. Those who lived for golf or running marathons were quickly crossed off. Likewise Olga from Cardiff, ‘seventy and still active’; I certainly wasn’t looking for a volcano.” He persevered for a while and then withdrew his name from the lists. Many weeks later he got a letter from a woman – Glennys - who had assumed he was still available. He didn’t reveal what was “so different about that letter”. But it led, by a roundabout way full of bizarre incidents to a loving forty-year relationship which lasted until her death two years ago.
Aside from his bad marriage, there were other “periods of pain and trauma” in Bruce’s life; not least the death of his bright but deeply troubled son, Christopher:
Only In My Mind
Only in my mind can I hear your voice;
Drag back the years, turn topsy-turvy time
To clutch, in desperation, at laughter lapsed forever,
Echoing in the loneliness of my mind.
Only in my mind can I amend those outbursts of ragged rage
When you had pushed my patience far too far,
And after, flung forgiveness in my face
And left me in despair.
But there were moments, golden, shared,
When laughter lit the hour and common cause,
And once, when with your mates, I overheard
You say, “my dad is great!”
And then, so young, with so much still to give,
You seemed on self-destruction bent.
Did you not know I was here for you?
But you knew best!
Only in my mind can I hear those last words,
The night before you died; slurred they were,
As usual, yet, for once, I knew they were sincere.
“I love you dad”, you said, and then were gone.
Bruce’s funeral in mid-January showed how loved he was by so many, especially by those he had met when he moved to mid-Wales with Glennys. Some forty people turned up at the lonely Baptist chapel two miles outside the small town of Llanidloes, driving to it on a bitterly cold day when floods were making many Welsh roads impassable. Bruce had no time for God but plenty of time to contest His existence with the man of God who officiated at his funeral. The two, we learned, had spent many hours arguing the philosophical and religious toss.
There were two hymns – Morning has Broken and All Things Bright and Beautiful – and three eulogies. The first two – given by a neighbour and Glennys’ son – had us all laughing at Bruce’s many foibles and eccentricities:
“He was no businessman. I helped him run a market stall, selling books. He wanted people to read more. So, he sold Mills & Boon books for 10p each. Then he said he would give buyers 10p if they brought the books back. People started bringing Mills & Boon books even though they had not bought them from him. We sometimes finished the market with less money than we started with.”
We learned of his successes too, not least the change he wrought with Welsh stone and slates to the tiny, ugly house which Glennys had bought in a remote valley forty years ago.
The third eulogy was a love poem written and spoken, through choking tears, by the daughter of the illustrator of Bruce’s books. Bruce had been like a father to her.
The coffin, adorned by flowers and a toy ginger cat (Bruce’s every home had a stray cat in it), came in to Bach and left to Hans Zimmer’s music for The Gladiator.
We mourners had been told to bring Wellington boots or equivalent footwear for the interment. Wise advice. A minibus shuttled us to the bottom of a long, muddy track two miles away. This led, uphill, to another old chapel but one converted into a house. Next to it, going sharply downhill was a grassy graveyard bordered by broken-down fences over which brambles clambered, hooking many of us as we edged down the slope (why no dry stone walls at your last resting place, Bruce?). Bruce’s coffin was laid on top of Glennys’ and brief prayers were said.
We learned later, at the noisy, cheerful wake in Llanidloes’ Angel Inn, that Bruce would be the last person to be buried in this cemetery. It was now closed and would be left untended. Nature would soon take it over. Bruce must have known and wanted that.
Did Bruce have a good life? He seemed to think he had. He had been poor all his adult life. He had no possessions of any monetary value. He had never travelled abroad. Yet he had deep friendships and, via his devoted daughter, loving grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Plus there was his craft - an expert builder of dry stone walls. Here is one of his last poems, read at the graveside by the professor of journalism and broadcasting who had first met Bruce when he came into her BBC Radio Shropshire studio to read his poems in the 1980s:
What leave I when my days are at an end?
No deeds of valour, thoughts profound;
No canvas to delight, or works in vellum bound.
Yet somewhere on a lonely lark-lit hill,
Or in some cottage garden, fumed with flowers,
I leave my own memorial behind.
No grand design to catch the traveller’s eye
Nor graven letters to proclaim, “Here Lies.”
But simple stones set one by one,
By hardened hands accustomed to their art,
Whose courses run like verses in a book of praise,
To make a wall that men call dry.
*As the first Walter Gabriel, a character in “The Archers”, the longest-running radio soap opera in the world.