Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Martha Gellhorn in Gwent

American writer/war correspondent Martha Gellhorn is probably best known for her collection of writings Travels With Myself and Another (1978) (the "Another" being her ex-hubby Ernest Hemingway). In the book she recounts her travels through some of the world's worst hell-holes. Two countries she particularly loathed - China and the Soviet Union - she vowed never to set foot in again. But one locale that Gellhorn evidently did like was Wales.

She moved here in 1980 to a cottage in the Gwent hills overlooking the Severn estuary. The country retreat cost her £25,000. She spent a further £10,000 on improvements. She named the cottage Catscradle after the children's game in which patterns are weaved with string. Of the local climate she said, "(it) leads to neurosis, melancholia, probably schizophrenia." She referred to her new abode as, "this tiny insane cottage in Wales."

She was much more positive about the Welsh. Sounding a bit like an anthropologist she said of the natives: "I am entranced by the Welsh... I find them wonderful. I like them better than I have ever liked anybody in this half of the world. The Welsh are just nice, I can't get over it. I feel grateful astonishment, I am enamoured of them. They are so forthcoming and I find them wonderfully helpful and friendly and kind and tolerant and it is extraordinarily easy to live among them. They make up for the climate. Perhaps you have to choose between the people and the climate."

Whilst living at the cottage she developed a passion for gardening and cooking. She took regular exercise in her small, indoor heated swimming pool. And she wrote every day - firing off letters to people like George Plimpton and Betsy Drake (writer and wife of Cary Grant). In a letter to her friend Valerie Forman, she said: "I am as happy now as I have ever been in my life."

But the weather got to her in the end. After living here for 14 years she regretfully left for London in 1994, aged 84. She said at the time: "I'm just too old to keep up with a country place. I want to but my machinery just won't let me. I love the place, but I can't haul dustbins up the drive forever. I've loved my time in Wales; the people are the friendliest in the world but the weather is generally filthy. I want to spend more time where it is warmer."

Four years later in 1998, ill and almost completely blind, Martha Gellhorn committed suicide in London.

*Gellhorn wrote a good piece on the wives of striking Welsh miners in which she contrasted their warmth and community spirit to the froideur of Thatcher. It was collected - I think - in her book of peacetime journalism, The View From the Ground (1988).