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5 January 2004

Weimar in Wales

When Jack Jameson was stranded in what looked like a peaceful market town, he got an unpleasant surp

By Jack Jameson

My car broke down in what used to be Montgomeryshire, but is now called Powys, with its sheep and its gently rolling hills. As I peered under the bonnet, friendly local people stopped by to offer advice or just to pass the time of day. When he arrived, the AA mechanic – a cheerful Cockney who had moved to Wales for the fishing – shook his head. “I’m afraid we’ll have to get this to a garage, guv,” he said, “and you may have to spend the night in Welshpool.”

He towed me to a garage in the town, where the owner scratched a thick coating of grey stubble on his chin and pointed me towards a decent hotel on the modest high street.

Welshpool is a rather dark and austere Victorian market town that, apparently, comes alive only when the farmers arrive on Mondays to sell their pigs, cows and sheep at the pens down by the railway station. Walking around, I went into a largely deserted pub that had a large, wood-panelled lounge that opened on to a terrace and garden.

Music was coming from a CD player in the corner. “German marching songs,” the barman explained in a low voice, as he drew me a pint of traditional ale and then smoothed off the froth with a wooden spatula. “They’re popular with the lads, and quite rousing.”

German marching songs? In Wales?

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A huge man at the bar, with a shaven head and small swastikas tattooed on his wrists, turned towards me. “You’re not from around these parts, then?” he asked.

“No, just passing through,” I explained, politely. “I’m from London – but I’ve been visiting a friend at Llandrindod Wells . . . and I’m very taken with the Welsh countryside.”

The shaven-headed giant regarded me warily. His drinking companion was slightly smaller, with dyed-blond spiky hair and challenging, dark eyes. His fingers were tapping on the bar counter to the concluding track on the recording. “So what d’you reckon’s gonna happen in London then?” the giant asked.

“What do you mean?” I asked, perching tentatively on the edge of a bar stool.

“Well, it’s only a matter of time now, isn’t it? I mean – you’ve got unemployment on the up, an’ when it starts to bite, then your white boys an’ girls are gonna start askin’ what the f***ing hell your government in Whitehall’s on about.”

“Just like they did in Germany during the Weimar, right?” the dyed-blond-haired one added. “And then it’ll start, boyo!”

I noticed other people now coming in- to the pub, some with the letters BNP embroidered either on the sleeves of their jackets or on small metal badges about the size of a 2p coin. The marching tunes had given way to 1930s Bierkeller-type drinking songs, and as the bald giant and his friend went off to join the new arrivals, the barman winked.

“I’ll bet you’ve been wondering what you’ve walked in on here,” he said, quietly.

“Absolutely,” I replied. “It seems a little . . . unusual.”

“But you’ve heard of Nick Griffin, who runs the British National Party?” I had, vaguely. “Well, he lives on a farm outside the town,” the barman explained, “and he’s got quite a few supporters locally.”

I was thinking of getting out of the place when I felt a reassuring hand on my arm. Gwilym, a pensioner in his eighties with a pleasantly lilting Welsh accent, was saying: “You don’t want to take too serious what they’re writin’ in the papers about these boys. They’re good lads, and what they’re sayin’ is no more than most of us believe anyway.” Gwilym told me he had fought with the Desert Rats at Tobruk. “We’ve gone awry,” he said, as the froth settled on the pint of real ale I had bought him. “There’s no point now to most of what we’re doin’. The kids can’t read or write; we don’t have any morals or values no more, and the government’s totally up this blind alley, see . . . They don’t know where they’re goin’ or what we want.”

So what was Gwilym suggesting as the way forward? “I’m not wavin’ no flags for Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin,” he said. “Only we’ve lost our way, see. We’re tryin’ to be all things to everyone, and it’s not workin’.”

Did he mean inclusivity or multiculturalism? “In an ideal world, maybe, that’s how we might have it,” he conceded. “I mean, it’s what we’d like our kiddies to believe . . . but it’s not goin’ to happen, is it?” I suggested to Gwilym that the people in this pub – mainly working-class 20- to 30-year-olds who would normally be Labour voters – were an exception. “I mean, you’ve got this right-winger guy who’s become a part of your community, and maybe he’s influenced some of the youngsters. But you can’t tell me this is a reflection of how people are feeling in the rest of Britain.”

Gwilym looked at me as though I were a backward kid in a failing school. “These people are only expressin’ how most of us see it today,” he said with a weary smile. “We’re not ogres or fascists or hooligans from dysfunctional families . . . but we’re unhappy with the way it’s goin’ in Britain today. And if you open your eyes and look around you’ll find that there are a lot of people with the same ideas.”

The war veteran went on: “First you’ve got to deal with the socialists. And that includes most of the present government. Then you’ve got to start givin’ ordinary, reasonable people what they want . . . You’ve got to let us have our voice, see.”

It all sounded so reasonable. But as “The Horst Wessel Song” thumped out of the improvised sound system, the lads in the bar started to bang on the tables with their fists, slowly but rhythmically. Then, as the last track ended, everyone in the bar was on his feet, with right hand extended, as “Deutschland uber alles” rang out in the centre of a small Welsh market town.

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