Mike Parker, author of All the Wide Border, a book on the borderlands of England and Wales

Mike Parker in Conversation with Gary Raymond

Mike Parker’s new book, All the Wide Border, is both a travelogue of a walk along the borderlands of England and Wales and a deep cultural history of this unique and fascinating place and its people. Gary Raymond caught up with him to discuss the writing process, the books that formed the foundations for it, and the politics it unearthed.

Gary Raymond: What was the inspiration for taking on this subject?

Mike Parker: Well, the seed was planted in a pub, as so many of the best ideas are. I was walking the Mortimer Trail, which is a long distance path between Kington and Ludlow, with a couple of mates, and we were sitting in the pub one night, and great idea, I’m going to write about the border! It’s just we had been criss-crossing it all day on the walk. A lot of pub ideas never get any further, really, but that one did definitely plant itself in the back of my head. This was about 10 years ago. And after On The Red Hill, I had to think about what I was going to do next, and I’m never quite sure what I’m going to do, but something always swims into focus. I guess, to be honest, almost everything I do comes from a place. Where do I want to go and play around next? And the idea of just exploring and really getting to know an area that I knew moderately well, but getting to know it so much better, that was one of the massive impetuses. It’s such an amazing part of the world. So beautiful, and so interesting, and so odd.

Gary Raymond: All of that comes through in the book, those three things: beautiful, interesting and odd. Did you find that the more you found out about it, the more there was to find out?

Mike Parker: Yes. That old adage that the more you look for answers, you find out that the answers are really only further questions. One of the questions, the obvious question, is about identity and this hard line on the map; one side: Wales; one side: England. How do people feel about this, especially when the line really was quite hard during the pandemic when people were tweeting that to get to the garden centre they had to go out at the crack of dawn and do guerrilla raids on the lobelias. It was incredible. I don’t have any great answers to what that means. I just have a lot more questions about it. It feels quite tricksy in that way. That I think is the thing on Borderlands generally, they have a real tricksiness to them; they can’t be nailed down.

Gary Raymond: Did you have other similar geographical areas in mind when you were writing the book? Did you do a lot of research into the comparisons between other Borderlands?

Mike Parker: Yes, I mean, I’ve written about it when I did Map Addict in 2009. There’s a whole section of that on borders as a concept, and how often the raison d’etre of a map is to mark shifting borders – a statement of territorial ambition, or integrity. The winning side does the map, here’s the border, we’ve won up to this point, it’s as old as the hills, that one. I’ve played around with the whole idea of borders, and did a tour of Eastern Europe 15 years ago for a couple of months with that topic in mind. The newly emerging borders of Eastern Europe were the idea behind it. There was a lot of research into how these things shift and fluctuate, and what they mean to people in emerging nations, places like Slovakia and Montenegro and Bosnia. When the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia fell in the 90s, there were whole loads of new states emerging and new, very fractious border disputes suddenly emerging from underneath the cloak of  the old empires. There’s a lot of that within these islands. I know the Borderlands of Scotland and England quite well, so that was  in my head and I’ve done a lot of travelling in Ireland, which isn’t as old, only 100 years. With all the kerfuffle we’ve had with the Brexit process and what that border means, it’s not embedded in that psyche in the same way that the Scottish-English border is or the Welsh-English border, which are thousands of years old. One of my absolute favourite books that really informed this is a book by Colm Tóibín, the Irish novelist, who wrote a wonderful book, called Bad Blood about walking the Irish border, and it was when the border was heavily militarised with watchtowers everywhere, roads cratered and all the rest of it. It’s a fascinating book, written with his customary pizzazz.

Gary Raymond: When you visited the Llanymynech golf course that’s half in Wales, half in England, what was really interesting to me was how you identified a divide between the media narrative of what it meant for this golf course, and what it actually meant for the people who were there. We’re very aware of this disparity because of things like Brexit, between how people relate to things and how the media thinks people relate to things.

Mike Parker: I think that’s a good example, the golf course. That story went over all the world. There were articles in Australian newspapers, in the New York Times, and all across Europe, about this golf course in Llanymynech, and you  think it’s not unique that these things happen. I visited places like Saltney, and Llanymynech and Knighten, which were all seized upon at various points in the pandemic as poster boys for this media story. It’s always the same media story, the journalists pile into Llanymynech or whatever and they go up and down the high street, and prod, bystanders into saying how confusing they’re finding it. As if no human beings have ever had to go with different jurisdictions. And you talk to people in Llanymynech or Saltney or Knighten, and they weren’t confused, but worse than that, it was this sense of people being prodded into the approved reaction to make it sound demeaning to the Welsh Government and their rules.. That was always the narrative, even sadly on a lot of the Welsh media. In that case, if people are so confused, which I don’t think they were, but if they were then surely, it was the media’s job to be explaining things rather than wasting all that valuable airtime. There was a darker undercurrent going on. In the autumn of 2020, when the Welsh Government instigated what was known as the Firebreak Lockdown, all of the governments of the UK had the same advice from the SAGE,  and the Welsh Government decided to act on it and do what was SAGE was saying which was a short, sharp stop to prevent rises into the winter. This was before the vaccine. The Welsh Government did it and they got absolutely crucified for it in the media. A week later, Boris Johnson popped up on Saturday night telly just before Strictly Come Dancing – what a juxtaposition – and announced the same for England. Andrew RT Davies, who put out 40 tweets in three days damning the Welsh Government for doing what the scientists are telling him to do, because there was a populist wave to be written and he was strided like some sort of blabby neptune and then the English have to do exactly the same the week later. And of course, at that point, they just deleted all the tweets, shouting at grapefruit, and just quietly got on with it. But it was it was always in that direction, the narrative throughout was something that confirmed a lot of what I was discovering about earlier history that, when history is centred in one particular mindset, in one particular part of the country, ie. the south east of England, that’s what you get, and that’s what we keep getting. And that’s what this pandemic produced on steroids, really. 

Gary Raymond: Throughout the book you draw these distinct political lines. I like the parallels you draw between the fate of Llewellyn ap Gruffydd and his brother Dafydd, and you draw that parallel with the symbolism of devolution, mention Tony Blair, saying “I’d expect a little more gratitude” after the devolution vote, and the condescension which is part of the history of Wales.

Mike Parker: That 150 million quid that the Welsh Government underspent in the first COVID year, they’re talking about the Welsh Government as if they’re kids who didn’t spend their pocket money. I think the parallel might seem heavy handed between what happened to Llewelyn and Dafydd and the attitudes of today – it’s different times, different everything – but if history is about anything, it’s  about the movements and about the patterns that repeat themselves.

Gary Raymond: I should say that it sounds heavy-handed when I paraphrase it, it’s not heavy-handed when you read it in the book; it’s obviously a lot more nuanced and well-argued than the way I just put it.

There’s something I’m interested to hear your thoughts about: there’s a great many interesting and unique thinkers that have come out of this area, most obviously Raymond Williams and Bertrand Russell born within 20 miles of each other. Not just great thinkers, but iconoclastic thinkers, singular thinkers, who spent a lot of time at work, thinking about and writing about where they were from.s there something about the borderland and the people of the borders that nurtures those unique perspectives?

Mike Parker: Yes, I think there probably is. I’d say there’s something about the landscape and the terrain, and the human geography of it as well. It’s bizarre how, if you look at the map of Britain, that line from the Dee to the Severn through the Borderlands, it’s not very far. I live in mid Wales, near Machynlleth, and it feels much more connected here, although we’re a lot further out to the west than a lot of those places down the line. I think there’s something about the physical and human geography of it that encourages  introspection. You can’t live in a landscape which is dotted with relics of strife and aggro, and secrets, and betrayals without internalising that. Which I’m sure does produce a particular kind of thinking..

Gary Raymond: There is a sort of mentality that is neither Welsh nor English in certain respects it is quite clear that people know exactly who they are. You think of Williams and Russell and you don’t think of giant conformists, you think of people who were against the grain and created their own cultural and political movements to a certain extent, rather than became towering figures of the establishment.

Mike Parker: I’m sure you, as a Man of Gwent, understand. For centuries, Monmouth was “Wales and Monmouthshire”, but it was only 45 years ago that was finally gotten away with and it became a part of Wales. Even legally, and on the Ordnance Survey maps, it was neither here nor there, and that’s got to produce a particular culture and a particular mentality and identity within its citizens. I’m from Worcestershire, I live in Powys, I tried very hard to dive in and be more Welsh and do the Welsh thing and I found out it’s just not me. So I am that kind of man with the border going right through me and I think it’s bloody brilliant. As you say, some of the more interesting thinkers and more iconoclastic ideas come out of that sort of identity. And in this world right now where there’s just so much flattening of all that, we need it more than ever.

Gary Raymond: You use the borderlands as a way to explore the history of the island, the union, the breaking up on the Union, from Caratacus to Covd.

Mike Parker: This sort of shifting meaning of Britishness is one of the themes that fascinated me and really challenged me to look deep into my own beliefs and give them a bit of a prod and a bit of a testing. I talk about Thomas Telford, for instance, as an example of back in the very beginning of the 19th century, working up in the area around the Dee Valley and Llangollen. He was a man from the border of Scotland and England on the Scottish side, he found this sort of second home on the Welsh side of the border and in that area. He embodies the idea of the tentative, early stages of the UK. His big job was to bolt together this new creation, but for very honourable reasons he wanted to do it as a thing about improving the lot of everybody, of political progress, of emancipation, of scientific advancement. He was not about militarism and colonialism, and imperialism and all those sorts of things that the UK kind of really was about, his was the other side. I use him as the example of the best of Britishness to me.

Gary Raymond: There’s a quote in your introduction, “criss crossing the border is centuries of rumour and legend” and I wondered how you conceived that into a narrative, centuries of rumour and legend don’t necessarily strike me as something that’s easy to get a handle on to bring a coherent narrative in the way you have done.

Mike Parker: No but that was a big eye opener to me as well, to try and get to grips with. I’ve always been quite a literalist in my writing, and I’m not big on looking at contemporary reports and old newspapers and all that kind of stuff that often feeds all of my books, but I am learning as I get older, and this book was a real catalyst. So many of the hard truths of who we are and what we’re about, come out of the legend and the myth and the hearsay, because if you’re relying entirely on sort of factual stuff, as we can see today with the whole fake news thing, this is no modern phenomenon, it’s been around for as long as people have been passing on news, and not always for mendacious reasons. If there were five of us in a room, and something happened, there’d be five different versions of it within five minutes, that’s the way we operate. The borders and this shifting landscape is a fine place to learn more about its identity through its myth and its legend. That was a real eye opener for me. I can actually remember it happening when I was walking and chewing over that bull legend that I write about where the shrinking of the bull into a match box – crops up lots of places along the border – and it’s a very enduring legend. I was thinking what was the truth? What does it mean? Why do we tell it? Why does it endure? That was the moment when I suddenly thought this stuff isn’t just pretty stories, isn’t just sort of nice things for some lovely lady to weave onto a bit of tapestry and sell it off at the market this stuff is actually the blood and guts of who we are and what we’re about, where we been and where we might be going.

Gary Raymond: I wonder, maybe we’ve been on a similar  journey in going from writing project to writing project. I’ve been wondering if that is something of a growing understanding of what Welshness is, that there is something in the adhesive qualities of our own myths and legends and mysticism that does mark us out, that I think is different to other Celtic nations, but most importantly to England as well. And I wonder if, maybe like me, you’ve been connecting more with “Welshness” through that journey? From what you said, I wonder if it is a connection to what being Welsh is because there’s something difficult to articulate about those myths and legends which still find their way into the attitudes and the psyche of the Welsh people, no matter what part of Wales you’re from really?

Mike Parker: Yeah, absolutely. The border people have got their own distinct canon of legends and there’s stuff that’s formed by being on the edge of Wales and being Welsh. That bull legend that I talk about, it’s a literal belittling, that’s what the story is about; taking this great snorting beasts who is cracking the walls of the church and shrinking it by reading the Bible, by conventional religious orthodoxy, and squeezing into a matchbox, burying  it under the church porch. That’s quite a metaphor there, for all kinds of things.

Gary Raymond: That permeates through so many elements of why we are who we are and where we are as Wales, the nonconformist, self-flagellating reaction to the Blue Books, which gave way to a couple of centuries of pulpit socialism. That is what that story is about, as well as other things, isn’t it? 

Mike Parker: Absolutely. It is. But I think your question as to whether that helped me kind of connect more to my Welshness is probably true, and it’s ironic, that in travelling the border, I was much clearer of which side I belonged, there was no question of that. I love places like Shropshire, and Herefordshire, and the Forest of Dean, and have spent lots of happy times there but I know that I have to come back and jump over the line back home. It did shore up my identity and I think the edge of something often has a perversely stronger identity than the middle of it. There is a stronger Welshness than I anticipated in lots of places I explored, even places like Hay. I’ve been going to Hay for thirty-odd years and it’s much stronger in its Welsh identity now than they was thirty years ago. I thought I was imagining this but lots of people said the same, it seems to be much clearer.

Gary Raymond: Why do you think that is in a place like Hay?

Mike Parker: Well, there was an interesting encounter I had with some people, some Twitter mates. I bumped into a couple of people who followed me on Twitter and we had a fine old time and they had just moved to Hay during the pandemic. In Hay, you go to the newsagents and it must be the only town on the border where you go to the newsagents and there’s a tiny pile of Daily Mails, a tiny pile of Suns, and an enormous mountain of The Guardian. It is the opposite of absolutely everywhere else.

Gary Raymond: It’s definitely the opposite of Monmouth. 

Mike Parker: A lot of the folk had moved to Hay from parts of England, they were sort of desperately keen to be as Welsh as possible. Within the pandemic, they were much happier with the Welsh Labour government than they were with the English Tory government. I went to an event last year at the festival when they were launching two books about Hay and it was a really interesting discussion. I asked the two authors “Is Hay Welsh, is it English? Is it neither? Or both?” and that provoked quite a big discussion. A few people in the audience said, “Well there’s really active like Welsh language classes, they’re busy classes, nd there’s public choirs, all sorts of stuff”; and there just wasn’t that 30 years ago. I think something is shifting. The pandemic was weird, and it’ll be interesting to see how things shake down in the post-pandemic identity, because that really did make a difference. It forced people to confront things they never had before, to decide which side of the line they’re on. A few times, I crossed the border and went to visit my dad in Kidderminster, in Worcestershire and it was chaos there during the pandemic, bad tempered, grouchy, reluctant, grumpy chaos, and quite an unpleasant atmosphere, actually. I’d come home and there’d be none of that.

Gary Raymond: I wonder whatever the eventual pathway to independence, and the breakup of the United Kingdom, will these moments be one of the markings of that journey, because there’s only so many people you can convince with rhetoric, but when people experience something, get a feeling for something and are swayed by something emotionally, then you see the dial shift. You’ve just been describing people feeling like they were having a less stressful time of it by experiencing the pandemic in Wales than they would have been in England. That’s not just about policy, is it? That is about something coming from the ground up.

Mike Parker: That’s absolutely right. I interviewed Nancy Durham in the book; she is a Canadian broadcast journalist, who now runs the lavender farm and shop in Hay – an amazing woman. She did a lot of travelling in the Borderlands in Yugoslavia during the wars in the 90s. She was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBCs) correspondent, their one woman band, she’d go out there film stuff; she saw some horrors. I decided to ask her if she’d do an interview for the book and she said, “Oh, what are you writing about?” and I said, “I’m writing about borders” and she said, “I don’t like borders”. But she said that suddenly the pandemic made her and her husband aware of the Wales-England border in a way that they just hadn’t been before. And they were very glad that they were on this side of it. It did feel like the government here had its people’s interests at heart and that is what it boils down to. It really didn’t feel like that on the other side. All we’ve learned subsequently, we’ve seen in the diaries and WhatsApps, really only confirms it.

Gary Raymond: No matter what the shade of your political complexion in Wales, it really has always felt like we’re all in it together. And I think that is what it is. 

Mike Parker: Communitarianism.

Gary Raymond: Yeah, that’s right.

Mike Parker: The sense that the old Wales is a community of communities, which is a  soft, like a Methodistic socialism almost – it’s absolutely in the water. We have to fight for that a bit right now, because it’s under attack, yet again.

Gary Raymond: I wanted to talk to you a little bit, a little bit about the treasure trove of bibliography that’s at the back of the book. There’s so many wonderful books, some I know and know well, but some I’ve never heard of, some I’ve wanted to read and haven’t. Were some of the books more important than others? Was there like a core of books that you kept returning to?

Mike Parker: Yes, Raymond Williams, always. I mean, there’s quite a lot about the literature in and around the Shropshire area, really, I mean, that’s Mary Webb. Obviously A.E. Houseman. I mean, I’m slightly rude about Houseman, really. E.M. Forster. Chatwin, of course. And these people who have given voice but also, perhaps the most interesting ones, to me, were the ones that really aren’t much known. I mean, people like Margiad Evans. My book opens with a quote from A Country Dance, which is that marvellous book from 1932, and has the English hero, Gabriel, going to some fair on the border in what is basically Knighton and everyone’s getting drunk and there’s all the Welsh fellas going “I drink to Wales!”, and he’s going “I drink to England!” and the women are getting really, “yeah, God, it’s gonna kick off any second”, and then the one character just quietly leans into the other women and she goes “I drink to the border!”. And that was my starting point when I read A Country Dance. That quotation was always going to be the sort of kickstart.

So there was a lot of books from that era, actually, from between the wars, there are some long forgotten (some deservedly so) novels published in the 20s and 30s, that actually informed me that there was clearly a lot going on in that area at the time, a lot of change and people wanted to chew it over in their in writing. So it was, there’s a lot of really good reading in there. I promise you that list is full of some absolute pearls and there’s a few in there that you can happily leave off your list. But between the wars-era there seems to be a particularly ripe age for Borderlands literature. Even if it doesn’t consciously write about that moment in time, of course, it’s telling us a lot about that moment in time. Again, it’s going back to: you learn more about the era from that in the same way that you are about the truths from myth and legend than you might do from all the newspapers of the time.

All the Wide Border: Wales, England and the Places Between is available now from Harper Collins.