Noel Witts - Professor of Performing Arts


March 17, 2014


“Born on a farm in Gower” says the blurb, but we know he was actually born in Gorseinon Hospital – but he definitely grew up on the farm a few hundred yards from here. I remember when he was born . Gloria and Rowland decided that I should become “Uncle Noel” – a heavy responsibility  at the age of 11, which was only relinquished when it became a bit too embarrassing to sustain. . We lived in Sketty, and it was always a treat to come down to Kilvrough for the day to see how they were all getting on. The house was a wonderful old farmhouse with a yard and outhouses, and a marvellous room called the saddle room, which Nigel remembered – full of horse tack and bridles and saddles, and smelling of polish and animals. Nigel, Martyn, and Carey were all great riders, and they must have known every wall and gate and path and field all around here. I remember a few years back Nigel took my daughter Romilly riding at Rhossili, and I was amazed that such a literary personage  could look so at home in the saddle!

In his wonderful book on Gower,  with his friend David Pearl, he lists the names of the farm’s fields – names like Cocklebushes, The Lawn, Six Acres, Stallion Paddock, Deer Park, and the field next to this church, which was Church Park ; and there was Poppins Park which led to his great grandfather’s cottage just down the road from here.

But then, like many Anglo-Welsh families, it was decided that he should go away to school to be educated. The institution of choice was Dean Close School in Cheltenham, to which I and his father Rowland had also been sent. I had quite a good time there, but Nigel hated it and referred to it as “that totalitarian dump”.  Martyn tells a wonderful story about Nigel pinching the battery from the school bus to put in his old Austin, recently acquired for a fiver, and hidden at a friend’s hotel. The acid leaked from the battery and ruined the school uniform.

Then came the work as a reporter in Leamington Spa, from which he learned that skill of asking the right questions, and there were the travelling years,- Europe, North Africa, a circus in the USA,  and of course  India.  There was the time at the University of Excess, as Essex University was known in those days, where he began immersing himself in Wales and the Welsh, before  returning in 1976 to live in a Nissen hut on the farmland with Delyth. They moved to Mumbles in the 80s, where Angharad and Branwen were born and were sent  to a Welsh school. He was trying to get rid of the Anglo.

The rest you all know – the writing, the broadcasting,  the India book “Gwalia in Kasia” , the essays, the editing of the massive Welsh Encyclopaedia – known as the Psycho – and the research for the two master pieces of psychogeography – Real Swansea 1 and Real Swansea 2.

He didn’t’ write much about death, but there is a wonderful passage in a piece he wrote for John Peel’s Home Truths on radio 4 in 2000, in which he says

the following ;

“The ancient Celts believed that no one truly died : you simply shuffled off into the Celtic underworld, and could return from time to time to mingle with the living. And that’s how it seems in our dreams sometimes, when the dead come back and wander round inside our heads, insisting by sheer force of presence, and the persuasiveness of a conman, that surely there’s been some absurd mistake, they never died, how could anyone have imagined such a thing? ……. But with an  after life in  the memories of the living, the dead rarely leave us alone for long, and as far as most of mine are concerned, they’ve got a key to the house and can wander back in whenever they want”

I think Nigel has the key to all our houses.

As we got older our conversation inevitably turned to discussing our ailments and the number of pills we had to take, and equally inevitably how to stop drinking.

Nigel’s response to the medics was ” Teetotalitarian Lament” , which starts

“Pour oh Pour that booze away

Said my conscience when it came to call

And spotted the dozen bottles of hooch

I had laid up in the Hall”

And so on.

Two weeks before he died  I read him an article in “The Independent” by Boyd Tonkin, on climate change and Gower. I was of course apprehensive about what he would think of such an interloper. But he said ” Good, it’s not at all patronising” and, I thought, it is largely due to writers like you that it is getting less possible to be patronising about Wales.

On my next visit to him at Ty Olwen,  when he was really weak , I read him a short story by one of my favourite writers, George Mackay Brown, the Orkney writer who hardly moved much from Kirkwall, and as I  was reading it I realised that Nigel is the equivalent – a writer whose home locale is his major inspiration – the Swansea and Gower chronicler for our times. ( I gather the Real Gower book is on

its way)

On my last  visit to the flat I asked him about his  Maidenhair plant, which is still on the table in the window. He said he should really split it each year but had not done so this year, so there may indeed be people here who have  a bit of Nigel’s plant somewhere.

He may have gone, but in some ways we are lucky ; we have his words, and that is indeed a privilege .

My favourite of all his writings is his poem “Maidenhair” which unites his love of his family, his interest in nature, and his unerring ability to find an image which says so much more than its words. Here we have the old great grandfather, his grand mother, and the plant looking on. This is something that only poetry can do, and the reason why, of all the many things that Nigel could do, I think that writing was the best.

“The maidenhair endures in the Celtic west,

Theirs they kept whole lifetimes

in the same narrow pot.

I’ll give it space, learn its ways; help it

flourish, reproduce, watch me go>”

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