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A welcome in the hillside

There’s no stopping Hampstead Theatre founder James Roose-Evans, says Gerald Isaaman

11 January, 2018 — By Gerald Isaaman

James Roose-Evans with the actress Rula Lenska

A WISE woman once told him: “When you feel down, look at a bird flying above you. Take off occasionally with strong pinions. Go above things and look down with better perspective.”

For those who don’t know – and I confess I didn’t – pinions are the outer part of a bird’s wings. For James Roose-Evans, the woman’s words provide the opportunity we all need to cope with the wicked world where too many are struggling to survive.

And a chance too to fly high above life’s problems by creating something daring, something positive, something challenging no matter the odds, which now, having hit 90, Roose-Evans can with typical captivating charm reflect on in his moving new memoir, Blue Remembered Hills.

While it is very much a sanguine diary of his time living below the soaring buzzards and red kites at the Old Rectory in Bleddfa, a tiny hamlet in Radnorshire, it is only one part of the saga of Roose-Evans, better known as the creator of Hampstead Theatre and long-term resident of Belsize Park.

Indeed, he was born in London though brought up in the Forest of Dean, close to the Welsh border and the home in Powys he initially bought for his ageing mother in 1970.

He is a man of many parts and passions and powerful prose, as he once wrote elsewhere: “For so many years I felt I never belonged, that I was always on the outside wanting to be on the inside. Now I am content to be both on the inside and the outside, but it has taken a lifetime to arrive at this stage. I think back to my early 20s, when I was at Oxford and broke down at a party, crying with all the intensity of youth.

“That was because I did not know whether I was meant to be a monk, an actor, a writer, a teacher. I did not then know about the role and work of a director. It has taken a series of life crises to realise and accept that I am all of these things, and the challenge has been to weave these seemingly disparate strands into one pattern.”

Recalling Housman’s “blue remembered hills”, Roose-Evans points out that from his youth Wales was a country “wrapped in mystery as the mountains often were in mist. It was a land where people spoke a different language, played harps and, so I was told, sang like angels!”

From the journal he has kept for half a century he now reveals how – with the help of his late partner Hywel Jones – he founded the Bleddfa Centre for the Creative Spirit.

He writes in the intro­duction: “Recently I came across the phrase, ‘Leap – and the net will appear’, and it seems to me that I have been doing it all my life, whether it was starting the Hampstead Theatre with no previous experience of running a theatre and no financial backing, or founding the Bleddfa Centre. Certainly going to live in a small community in Wales and becoming involved with the village church and school, I had no idea that I would also be setting out on the path towards becoming a priest…”

Yet those who know Roose-Evans are aware of his magical voice that enthuses those around him. He draws the like-minded to him with his sheer determination, whether they be already established like Dr Rowan Williams when he was Archbishop of Wales, or Phil Jennings, the Bleddfa bee keeper, who offered to rewire the Old Rectory throughout without charge, explaining: “James, this is my way of contributing.”

The enterprise subsequently became a registered charity called the Bleddfa Trust with the aim of “providing a centre for those seeking through prayer and meditation, through the arts and through encounter with others, a deepening of spiritual understanding” so enabling it to receive grants to maintain its activities.

They cover the basic arts from music to sculpture and include the more unusual such as the Listening Post, a meditation group led by the author and Fleet Street journalist Peter Conradi. “The ability to be still and to listen is increasingly difficulty in our society with constant access to miles, iPods etc,” as Roose-Evans points out.

“Ultimately the task of the Bleddfa Centre is to enable people to exercise their own creativity, to live life richly.”

As Rowan Williams has written: “We badly need in our society places where there is enough room to breathe – enough room to be the human beings we are meant to be, where we don’t have to leave behind the difficult, the imaginative, the silent bits of ourselves.

“Bleddfa continues to give that kind of room, and I hope many more people will get a sense of why it matters so much, and also to discover that they are welcome here.”

Which is particularly apt for the centre’s golden jubilee year since the name of Bleddfa in Welsh means “place of wolves” – from Tudor times when the wolves roamed wild – no more thanks to our James.

Blue Remembered Hills: A Radnorshire Journey. By James Roose-Evans, Port Meadow Press, £10 from Amazon

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