Do Small. Build Big.
You are more than you think you are.
Hello Dear Reader
I fell in love this weekend. A funny kind of love, a love I was unprepared for. It happened as I stepped out of the pouring rain and stood there, soggy, staring slack-jawed up at the ornate wooden ceiling of St. David’s cathedral in Wales. I could try to explain what I felt, but writing about this kind of love is like writing about shagging: it’s either underwhelming or whether it’s the Holy Spirit or something else moving inside of anybody, it all ends up sounding like that bit in Alien 3 when Ripley gives birth to the infant alien queen.
For years I have been trying to get to St.David’s. I was always tantalisingly close but there wasn’t time - another show in another town to get to, or a tired child fed up of being in the back seat of the car on a long journey; something always came up. When I told her of our plans, the lady on the hotel reception said ‘funny little city it is, you drive in, turn a corner and there’s a bloody great cathedral there where you least expect it.’ She looked out of the window and across to a miserable car park and sighed. ‘Shame about the weather though.’
But the weather was perfect. Rain, glorious great gobs of it, rain that might as well have been hail, falling horizontally in the driving wind. A sky so dark with grey it might as well have been night. It was grim. It was Biblical. It was the kind of weather that makes you remember we may have invented the hoover but we are still merely humans, bobbing along like flotsam and jetsam wherever the elements fancy they want us to go.
Cathedrals, I’ve seen ‘em all. I’ve even played shows in some of them. From New York to Coventry, I’ve gaped at naves and lady chapels and fancy pants rose windows the world over and lamented the fact that with all the technology at our disposal today somebody somewhere decided the Gherkin was architectural majesty. Never been to one that I didn’t like or one that didn’t fill me with awe. I guess that’s the whole point of them. But it’s hard to feel spiritual when the votive candle money box takes contactless in multiple currencies and there’s a tourist next to you with a selfie stick.
Before I got there, I had a little chat with myself. ‘Nerina,’ I said, ‘you know what you’re like. Don’t let this be like that time you went to Space Mountain and cried actual tears when you realised you weren’t actually going to actual space. Chill kiddo, chill.’
I turned a corner, down a narrow street and there it rose before me, stone against stony clouds, like it had always been there and the hills and the trees and the sky had grown up around it and not the other way round.
Its magnificence is in its modesty. Maybe this is a result of pillaging during the Civil War, or spartan bishops keen on the austere - because let’s face it, so many cathedrals are just a bit, well, busy, like Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen went wild one afternoon after too many sherries - no matter, St. David’s is the epitome of restraint.
Scattered at various intervals inside were poems by Siôn Aled Owen, and the moment I see that surname I imagine them to be a distant relative of my Godfather, a proud Welshman, ex-RAF flight engineer turned New York pharmaceutical executive with a detour on the way as a reporter for the Glamorgan County Times.
Regular readers will remember that last year was one in which I lost so many dear to me. In between two of these funerals, I made a whistle stop visit to the US, including twenty four golden hours upstate with my Godparents.
Something compelled me to drive the four hours there and back again from Manhattan on a baking hot June weekend. We sat on the front porch drinking gin and tonics strong enough to strip paint, whilst an enormous Welsh flag fluttered in the breeze. In his retirement, he became a fixture at the farmers’ markets in the area, selling his home made Welshcakes to enthusiastic Americans who loved them so much they wrote articles in the local papers about him. He sat on school boards as a governor. He wrote remarkable poems that he delivered in a voice to rival Richard Burton’s. He threw the most incredible July 4th parties that drew the whole neighbourhood to his front yard.
Peredur Owen was the ultimate Welshman in New York. And my, how he loved the world and everyone in it!
He told me about the time he met Bill Clinton, and that Clinton’s special power was that he could make you feel like the only other person in the room. ‘But you make everyone feel like that too,’ I should have said.
That June weekend last year, my Godmother drew my attention to a wooden dresser in their kitchen. ‘He made that, you know,’ she said, her hand lingering with pride over the exquisitely turned drawers. ‘A labour of love.’
It reminded me of the Welsh lovespoon one of you made and gave to me as a gift after a gig one night. Something as simple as a hunk of wood turned into a thing of such intricate beauty and meaning. What is this peculiar gift the Welsh have, I wondered, to be able to take the everyday natural world and make it spectacular.
Six short weeks after we sat on that front porch in the late afternoon sunshine, my Godfather was dead. A year ago today, as it happens.
I looked at that ceiling in the cathedral and finally understood something so basic but so profound - it takes little things to make a big thing. Little acts, barely noticeable on their own, accumulate to become majesty. Any human act of love, of creation; they do not stand alone, they can never be inconsequential. They could never not be important. You could never not be important. How else do you think cathedrals get built? It’s not God who builds them - it’s humans.
‘And though the many-chambered edifice
now ascending the valley
would have shocked Dewi
with the descending visitors
the shy sanctuary,
the status understated,
hidden in plain sight
from the heart of the smallest city
I dare imagine,
have warmed a final smile gracing his legacy:
So writes Siôn Aled Owen in his poem Think Small, tucked in a corner of the cathedral. You can never know what one small act of yours might mean to another, what goodness that one small act might lead to.
This weekend I learnt that it is fine to be small, to do small, in fact it is the best thing, the most beautiful thing of all.
Love to you all, as ever,
P.S. You know that thing I was asking you whether I should do in my last newsletter? Well. You all outdid yourselves. I’m doing it. The venue is booked, the date is Saturday April 13th 2024. Formal announcement and ticket links at the end of September. Dear Lord, it’s happening.