Caerphilly

Montgomery Starling-Byrd, international president of the Order of Logogustation, happened to be passing through town and was pleased to have the chance to catch the Toronto Symphony Orchestra perform, among other things, William Walton’s Henry V featuring Christopher Plummer, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, and the Toronto Children’s Chorus. Today was the day before the first performance, and he was at Domus Logogustationis for conviviality with local word tasters. We had laid on some cheese and crackers and wine and so forth.

“I’ll have to be off to the dress rehearsal soon,” I said to Montgomery and to Maury, looking at my watch.

“Oh, yes,” said Montgomery, “you sing with the choir. Well, sing carefully.”

Elisa Lively was passing by. “You’re singing in something?”

“Walton’s Henry the Fifth,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, “can I see the score?”

“English two, French zero,” Maury said. I reached down to my bag, pulled out my copy of the score, and handed it to her.

She flipped through it. “There’s quite a lot of tacet here.”

“Orchestra and narrator,” I said.

She kept flipping. “Oh, the Agincourt carol, nice.” Flip, flip. At the last page, she read a line at the bottom and remarked, “The layout was done in Caerphilly.” She pronounced the place name “care-filly.”

“Say that carefully,” Montgomery said. “The stress is on the second syllable.”

“Ker-filly,” she said.

“Now, when I hear that,” Maury said, “I think of cheese.”

“I’m certain the performance will not be cheesy,” Montgomery said.

“Because of Philly cream cheese?” Elisa asked.

“No,” Maury said, “Caerphilly is a kind of hard, crumbly white cheese. Named after the town it was first made in.”

“And the town’s name,” Montgomery said, “means ‘Ffili’s fort’.”

“Where is that, anyway?” Elisa asked.

“It’s a suburb of Cardiff,” Montgomery said, “down in south Wales. It is known for Caerphilly Castle, an excellent, almost archetypal example of the medieval castle. Thirteenth century, built for military purposes.” (The interested reader can see good pictures and description at www.castlewales.com/caerphil.html.)

“I daresay the English would have had a harder time attacking that than they did attacking Harfleur,” I remarked, referring to the first battle in Shakespeare’s Henry V, on which Walton’s piece is based. “They’d look at it and go once more into their breeches.”

Montgomery raised one eyebrow slightly at my off-colour pun on a Shakespearean quote. Then he said, “They would certainly have to do it carefully. But in fact, although it was built by English to intimidate the Welsh – at which it succeeded – the English did attack it too. Well, one set of English did it against another: the castle’s last real battle was when Queen Isabella besieged it in the early 1300s as an attack on her husband, Edward the Second, and his favourite, Hugh le Despenser.”

“It would have been either ironic or fitting,” Maury said, “for Henry to attack it, for though he was an English king, he was, as he declares in Shakespeare’s play, a Welshman.”

“Well,” I said, looking at my watch again, “today is St. Crispin‘s Day.” (That’s the day of the battle of Agincourt.)

“Tomorrow, rather,” Montgomery said.

“October 25, in reality,” Maury said.

“Well, today is ‘have some crispies day,'” Elisa said, and handed Montgomery a crispy cracker with a large dollop of cream cheese on it. “Be careful – that’s Philly.”

“You seem to have it in ample quantities,” Montgomery said.

“Oh, yes,” Elisa said. “We have a huge dispenser.” She snort-guffawed at her pun.

I made a small salute as I sidled towards the door. “Hold down the fort,” I said.

“And hold up the forte,” Montgomery said. “I’ll see you on the morrow.” And with that I left.

6 responses to “Caerphilly

  1. In Wales, the town is known as [kyre-FIL-i], and its burghers do not think of the place as a suburb of Cardiff. At a conference in Cardiff several years ago we were ‘treated’ to a medieval (mediaeval) banquet in Caerphilly Castle, or maybe mistreated: the kitchens were so far from the banqueting hall that the purportedly hot foods were cold when they were served. As my father-in-law would say, “Duw, Duw!”

    • Cold food caused by the distance between the kitchen and the dining hall is a deeply authentic medieval feature: you were only enduring what the Welsh lords had to put up with all their lives. This separation continued for many centuries, and as late as the 19th century the Victorians showed an obsessional fear that cooking smells from the servants’ quarters should get into their fine rooms. When Lord Armstrong built his ultra-modern house Cragside in the late 1860s (the first house to be lit by hydroelectricity), he solved the problem by building a small railway from the kitchen to the dining room.

    • Indeed, the dismissive English Montgomery Starling-Byrd might be said to have a slightly limited view of things Welsh. Of course before it became also a commuting suburb of Cardiff Caerphilly was a town in its own right, as it still is. I had thought of going into the Welsh spelling – Caerffili – and pronunciation, but thought it might be a bit forced if I shoehorned it in. So thanks for raising the topic!

      As to the comforts of castles, or not, reflect on the photo of a toilet from a royal palace in Georgia (Sakartvelo) near the bottom of this article: http://www.tonyaspler.com/pub/articleview.asp?id=2676&s=5 . Truly, even the poor today in Canada (and the US and England) have many better comforts than kings of earlier ages did.

  2. I know of Caerphilly from Pete Seeger’s song, “The Bells of Rhymny.” – “Cry the bells of Caerphilly.” Thanks for the memory.

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