AMONG the Welsh prose-writers of the 20th century, one of the most unusual is Ffransis Payne, a native of Kington, a town which lies on the border between the old county of Radnorshire and Herefordshire.
In Payne's childhood, there was no Welsh spoken in the town except by a few people like his father who had moved to the area. Even the local eisteddfods, the most Welsh of institutions, were conducted entirely through the medium of English. His father hailed from Glamorganshire and his mother's family was of Radnorshire stock. Ffransis Payne is undoubtedly the greatest Welsh writer born in that county, a part of modern Powys, where the Welsh language means much more today with its teaching and the coming of the Royal National Eisteddfod to Llanelwedd, near Builth Wells, in August 1993, than it ever did in Payne's childhood.
Through his English-language articles in journals like the Radnorshire Historical Society Transactions and the Bulletin of Celtic Studies, and his two volumes on his wanderings through his home county, Crwydro Sir Faesyfed (1966-68), he has been a busy ambassador for the Border Country. He redeemed his people's history and culture from being completely neglected by his fellow Welshmen. One reviewer cheekily mentioned after his first volume of Crwydro Sir Faesyfed appeared that Radnorshire had been as strange to the native Welsh as East Africa. The observation had more truth than one cares to admit.
Ffransis Payne was educated in the primary school and the Lady Hawkins Grammar School, both in Kington, and graduated at University College of Wales, Cardiff. In 1918 he joined the Royal Air Force but within three months and 18 days he had been released: it was the Government's policy to release students and those employed on the land in the first instance. Payne qualified twice over: he had an abiding interest in agriculture and the rural communities, and a passion for the scholarship of folk culture. He worked on the land in Gwent, the Vale of Glamorgan and in Dyfed.
He forsook agriculture for museums when he was appointed a curator of the Museum of Local History in Carmarthenshire. In 1933 he was appointed on the staff of the University College of Wales Library in Swansea and in 1936 as an assistant to the newly established department of folk culture at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. He remained in the service of the National Museum till 1969. His final post was as Keeper of the Department of Material Culture at the Welsh Folk Museum in St Fagan, near Cardiff.
Payne told the story that he discovered what poetry was about one day in 1912 accidentally at school. Bored with the verse of Walter Scott, he turned a page of the anthology and discovered Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'. Later he found Welsh-language poetry in Richard Parry's history of Kington and the translation of the medieval poetry of Lewis Glyn Cothi. His life's work can be traced to that moment when he saw that history and literature and topography come together in a unity.
His literary apprenticeship was served in his articles to the monthly Llenor, and his volume of essays Chwaryddion Crwydrol ac Ysgrifau Eraill (1943) is a fascinating collection, while his study of the Welsh plough, Yr Aradr Gymreig (1954) is in a class of its own.
Always courteous, grateful and unassuming, Ffransis Payne returned to his native county in 1969, when he retired to Llandegle. He enjoyed nearly 23 years of retirement, time to reflect, to write and to enjoy his family and friends.
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