Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Why did I ever leave it so long? A review of the Rowland Sinclair mysteries

I can’t believe I took so long to start reading Sulari Gentil’s Rowland Sinclair series. I’d heard Gentil speak at the 2015 HNSA conference, had listened to readers sing her praises and had loaned the books out to every one of my crime-reading, housebound library clients, without ever having read them. But December arrived and, with my husband away, my mum terminally ill, and me sitting on the exciting but not yet signed news of a publishing contract, I needed a distraction. I downloaded the first book, A few right thinking men, on impulse. Within minutes of meeting, Rowland Sinclair, the wealthy, self-effacing, piercing blue-eyed, Sydney based, artist and his bohemian friends, I was hooked.

There is something almost Whimsyesque about Rowland Sinclair. Possibly it’s the impeccable tailoring of his suits, or era he lives in, or the gentility of old money, maybe the unrequited love interest? The Australian sleuth, is every bit as captivating as Lord Peter Whimsey. The feel of the novel as authentic as if it had indeed been written in Dorothy Sayers’ day. If Rowland is Whimsyesque, his three friends – Clyde, Edna, and Milt, are somewhat Blytonesque. In saying that, I’m not implying that Rowland’s circle of friends are childlike. However, I do not believe there was ever a Famous Five adventure in which all four cousins did not participate. As Rowland’s friends sit on the end of his bed, drinking beverages that only occasionally involve cocoa, they make false assumptions, take wrong turns, get caught in cliff hanging situations and solve mysteries in settings as divergent as Germany, Paris, London and Sydney. They are, at once, a well crafted complimentary group and complex individual characters. It is though the group’s eyes that we get a fuller image of Rowland Sinclair.

However excellent Gentill’s characterisation, to me, the wow factor of this series lies in its historical detail. Set between the wars and succinctly chronicling the rise of fascism amid the widespread fear of communism, each mystery is interwoven with real 1930s historical events. Chapters begin with a series of newspaper snippets. Participating in each self-contained mystery are historical figures such as Norman Lindsay, H.G. Wells, Eva Braun, Eric Campbell, Charles Kingsford Smith, Somerset Maugham, Albert Göring and Unity Mitford, just to name a few. The skilful interweaving of the characters with the fictitious plot lines lifts the Rowland Sinclair  books above being just-another-crime-series, and gives the reader a seemingly behind-the-scenes glimpse at historic events.

The final feather in this series’ cap is its subtle humour. There is a delicious sense of tongue in cheek throughout the series’ pages. For example, on page 128 of A few right thinking men, after struggling to paint an accurate portrait, of triple-chinned, buck toothed, squint eyed Lady McKenzie that was also pleasing to the eye, Clyde, presents the finished work to his friends.

“Lady Mckenzie is finished, at last,” he announced. “I’m taking her to be framed with the most lavish gold leaf frame known to man.”

“So let’s see her.”

Clyde swivelled the canvas round. For a moment there was silence as they gazed at the dreaded portrait. Rowland broke it first.

“Clyde, old boy, you’re brilliant!” He applauded.

Clyde had depicted Lady Mckenzie accurately, but she was no longer the focus. The foreground was now dominated by a poodle with large beseeching eyes which, by distraction, softened its owner’s severe and unwelcome features.

“My friend, you have painted Medusa without turning us all to stone,” waxed Milton.”

The classical allusion was lost on Clyde, but he gathered it was a statement of approval nonetheless. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier,” he grinned. “She loves that mutt.”

“She’ll be happy with it, Clyde,” said Edna. “It’s such a cute dog.”

“It’s a vicious smelly beast, actually,” Clyde replied, “but its a lot prettier than the good lady.”

The former is smile worthy. But it is not the end of the poodle joke. On page 162, Rowland’s sister-in-law, Kate, is trying to set him up with Lucy Bennett, a suitable young woman from his own social class with whom she hopes he will settle down and forget his bohemian lifestyle. In an effort to draw Rowland into the scheme, a naive Kate suggests he paint Lucy. Flicking through Rowland’s notebook, Lucy quickly becomes alarmed at the suggestion.

“No, I really couldn’t,” she said. “I just couldn’t.” She pushed the notebook back across the table towards Rowland.

Kate looked at her friend, dismayed. Wilfred appeared distinctly disgruntled. Rowland’s lips hinted a smile, but he tried to seem politely disappointed. He slipped his notebook back into his pocket. He knew Lucy had found the pencil studies he’d done of Edna for the nude he’d given his uncle. He was relieved. There was nothing interesting about Lucy Bennett; nothing worth capturing on canvas. As far as he knew, she didn’t even own a poodle.

There are seven books in this series, so far. I read them all in quick succession, during which time, I found myself glancing over my shoulder, fearing dead bodies, ghosts, would be assassins, Hitler’s brownshirts, Moseley’s fascists, and members of the Australian New Guard to attack me. Thankfully, they were too busy beating up Rowland Sinclair. So, I headed over to his Facebook fan page and left this message.

To which the author kindly replied:

 

 

Getting back on the horse – the 2017 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

Confession: I failed. In 2015, I jauntily signed up for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. I committed to writing four reviews of historical novels by Australian women – four measly reviews! I only wrote three. To be fair, I went to Wales mid 2015 and, although it was possible to keep reading Aussie books, it made more sense to be reading local ones – particularly of the Welsh language variety. I read my first non-learners, Welsh language novel during my seven months in Wales and my first non-learner’s adult biography as well as a host of magazines, articles and shorter language learner novels. In effect, 2015 became a year of living, speaking and reading in Welsh. That final elusive fourth review never materialised.

What about 2016? Well, I blinked and missed it. I’m not sure how. But somewhere amidst the arriving, adjusting, trying to pick up the pieces, I realised it wasn’t possible to just carry on as before. I spent the year re-calibrating my priorities. So, I failed, fell of the horse. Or maybe I jumped off into an alternative language and cultural field? The mode of descent is not important. Only the fact that I am now ready to get back on the horse. That’s what you do when you fall off, isn’t it? You get back on.

The impetus for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge started late in 2011 when after reading a blog about the gender imbalance in the reviewing of books written by women Elizabeth Lhuede, an Australian poet, academic and romance writer, was forced to examine the gender imbalance in her own reading choices. The outcome,  the Australian Women Writers Challenge – a blog dedicated to the reviewing of books by Aussie women.

In 2017, I plan to review at least four books by Australian women in the historical fiction category. This is not many titles (yes, I have commitment issues). But I have an article on coming-of-age novels to read for. And I’m still trying  to read some books in Welsh. And I do like to read books written further afield. But, despite this, I fully expect to read more than four historical novels by Australian women as the Melbourne, Historical Novels Society of Australasia conference will take place in 2017. From my experience as a librarian, I know that you engage better with the conference if you are familiar with the authors’ works. My first review will be of an historical crime series. But I’m not going to talk about it now as it deserves a post all of its own. I’m simply asking you to watch this space.

Thanks #aww2017 for letting me get back on the horse.

Eureka! She’s signed a publishing contract

So, you decided to write a novel – an historical novel. The first piece of fiction you have written since a dreadful short story in year eleven. You have an idea of a time period. You begin to research. But actually you have no idea what you are doing. You just write. You get some early encouragement. Get shortlisted for awards. Win a short story prize. You keep on writing. You have a full, redrafted manuscript before you realise that the whole damned publishing industry is market driven — the manuscript you’ve written won’t fit neatly on the bookshop shelves.

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You should have known this. You are a librarian. You are used to putting books in categories. But the truth hits home at the Historical Novels Society of Australasia Conference as you listen to a grim publishing panel rip your colleagues’ work apart. They tell you most Australian book sales take place in Kmart or Big. There is a big demand for rural romance, why not try your hand at that?

You realise your manuscript is going to be hard to pitch — an historical coming-of-age about fairy tales and facing the truth. With both adult and young adult viewpoint characters. Like, what were you thinking? You sink to the bottom of a dark pond. You drive your room mate crazy with your OMG why-didn’t-I-realize script.

You attend MWF — a session on publishing perspectives. You are told colouring books are artificially inflating print book sales. That mainstream publishers can’t take a risk. They have to make money. This is the era of the small press. Hadn’t Black Rock, White City, just won the Miles Franklin Award?  A small press! You remember the only smiling face on the HNSA panel was a publisher from an independent press.

You Google the Small Press Network, start sending out query letters. You also attend a Literary Speed Dating Event at Writers’ Victoria. You get quick responses from the small presses – far quicker than you get from the established publishers. They’re working smarter, electronically. You get loads of encouragement. Rejections too. You start a new project. That’s what you do, isn’t it? Move onto the next book. You consider self-publishing. Remember how much you suck at administration. Still you are waiting. A few, independent publishers have asked for your full manuscript. You notice that opening your email makes your tummy ache. You consider staying in bed. Forever. You think maybe you’re not cut out for this.

Then an email from Odyssey Books arrives. The opening line says:

“Thank you for sending us “The Tides Between”.

You brace. Think the word “Unfortunately” is going to come next.

“It’s an original concept with a great voice and well-developed characters. We love it and would like to publish it.”

Publish? You blink, shake your head. Read again more slowly. Publish! A mercury shot of realization. You leap out of bed, calling your husband’s name. He’s not in his office. You turn, this way, that. Search the garden, the shed, his bike rack. Gone. He’s gone. You are shaking, crying, running in circles. You think frenetic is a good description. You send a text to your husband, ring your mum, tell your writing buddies, put the news on the family Viber group, answer responses. Then you sit, letting the news sink in. Your book may not be Kmart or BigW material, neither is it a rural romance. It certainly doesn’t fit neatly on the bookshelf. But someone loved it, enough to publish it. You think this truly is the era of the small press. That Michelle Lovi at Odyssey Books has just become your new best friend.

Cuts, colours and the magic of Christmas

Some say the bloom of the Jacaranda tree heralds the beginning of Christmas, or cherries in the shops (this is Australia I’m talking about), or children lighting candles. In a less innocent world, we speak of Black Friday, online shopping, and Santa’s Sled wending its way from China. For me, there is another, magical Advent marker.

Namely, the Christmas cut and colour.

What? You didn’t know of this was a phenomena! You clearly haven’t worked in the public library service. We are a female dominated industry and some many of us are no longer young. One by one, from around mid December, my colleagues and I, take turns to flex off work early. Only to return, the following morning, a brighter, crisper version of ourselves.

I’m not working at a single library branch anymore. So this year, the ritual has been less apparent. But it is happening, as surely as the sun rises in the east, I know it is happening and, as I’m going to a work party tomorrow, the need to get my act together has been looming.

My husband says I should abandon the pretence, go grey naturally (aka, keep him company). But here’s the thing. Sometimes, when I tell people I’m a Mam-gu, they say:

‘Oh, no, surely not! You’re way too young.’

Which I kind of like. It makes up for the fact that people keep asking me if I’m pregnant (gotta take the good with the bad). When people stop making these comments, I will surrender my youthful image. Until then, I’m a slave to the Christmas cut and colour.

I have a great hairdresser in Coburg. My first haircut after moving north, my son said:

‘Wow! You look like you haven’t been going to the same suburban hairdresser for twenty years.’

Having my hair cut in Coburg, is an altogether different experience to the chatty, know-everything-about-you event in the leafy suburbs. My hairdresser is from the middle-east. Her salon is filled with family and friends. She talks on her mobile phone, while cutting my hair, switching back and forth between languages. I’m no one. Just a fly on the wall. But I keep going back. Even when the salon had its windows shot in by the underworld, I kept my appointment. A good haircut is worth the risk. It is also expensive (far more expensive than its same-for-twenty-years equivalent). Which is why I now do the colouring myself.

I started dyeing my own hair while in Wales. My friend, Veronica, and I, decided, we’d cut the cost, by sharing the packet of hair dye. Veronica’s sister had been a hairdresser. So she had a little bowl and brush. It was my idea to turn a plastic glove inside out so we had a right hand one each (still pretty proud of that thought). Halving the cost seemed like a good idea at the time. Next day we both noticed the cover was, well, let’s say a little…patchy.

A month later, I lashed out, bought an entire packet and did the dyeing without help. But I didn’t have a little bowl and brush and I was in a rush so I could scuttle back to my room before the other Maelor residents caught me (gotta keep up the pretence). Trouble is, I didn’t have a good mirror in my room. So I didn’t notice the dye all over my left cheek. The end result, a dark-haired woman who looked like she’d been beaten about the face with a rolling pin.

With this colourful (pun intended) history you’d think I’d be begging the hairdresser to do my Christmas cut and colour. But, no, I learned to use a drill in Wales, unblock toilets, catch bats, paint walls, frame artwork, pack sculptures, take down exhibitions, eat chips with cheese, and do second-to-none hill starts. I owed it to myself not to back down. I applied the dye, without mishap, wiped my face, the bathroom sink, the floor, and, oh, yes, maybe also the shower screen. I sat, with the arms of my glasses wrapped in cling-wrap, while reading Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndwr (that’s gotta be a first for the author).

Now, it’s done. My youthful facade is fully restored. The nativity scene is set up in the living room, Jacaranda’s are blooming, the cherries are in the shops. Tomorrow, I will turn up at work, a brighter, crisper version of myself and no one will mention the cut and colour, or the wisps of grey I’ve somehow missed, because we have a ritual to maintain, part of the time-honoured Christmas magic. So let the festivities begin!

Nadolig Llawen pawb a blwyddyn newydd da i chi i gyd!

Corny Christmas Commercials – and some difficult news on the family front

Confession – I do love corny a Christmas commercial. Despite their mercenary motivation, they bring back memories of daylight saving and summer pyjamas, the smell of radiatta pine, jacaranda’s blooms, carols by candle light, and the early Christmas morning santa-shrieks of delight. It’s absurd really; they are only trying to sell something. This year I need that kind of comfort.

I saw the John Lewis ad as the Trump debacle was unfolding. We’d received some bad news about my mother’s health and after a sober family meeting, the John Lewis ad made us all laugh.

 

 

This time last year I was in the northern hemisphere enjoying my first English Christmas since childhood. Mince pies, puddings, mulled wine, Christmas lights, the Queen’s speech, board games and rugged-up walks in the park all made sense in those short, dark days of winter. We do things differently down under. It was one of my emigrant mother’s hardest adjustments, singing jingle bells in the summer sun. I’m not sure what Ronan Keating has to do with Air New Zealand but I guess that’s the making money part of the equation.

 

 

The commercial purpose of this final ad is so subtle, I’m still not sure what they are selling. But it made me cry and I was sitting in a cafe. You see we’d just found out my mother is dying. This will be her final Christmas. I’m not sure what the next few months will look like. Only that they will be a sacred time in our family life. So if things go a bit quiet on my blog, you’ll understand why.

 

 

Owain Glyn Dwr’s offspring – and Iolo Morgannwg’s meddling

Researching a novel is like tackling a giant jigsaw puzzle. You start with an image in your mind. In this instance, a woman alone in a prison looking back over her life. But before you can form that image you need to tip the pieces out on the table and begin sorting them – into corners, edges and colours. Or in this instance, historical details, character motivations and story threads. To this end, I have been reading reading books on kings, medieval daily life, women’s roles, soldiers, armour and most recently a book on growing up in the middle ages.

Growing up? I hear you ask. Do you intend to give a blow-by-blow account of your protagonist’s life?

No, but experience tells me you need to know a great deal more about a character than ever appears on the page. Even if I do not fictionalise Marged’s childhood, I need to know what it looked like. Added to which, she raised offspring of her own. According to the nineteenth century antiquarian and genealogist, Jacob Youde William Lloyd, Marged bore Owain Glyn Dwr eleven children. A shattering number for anyone considering writing a novel. I mean, the woman would have spent the whole time, pregnant or giving birth. Which may have been the case for many medieval women. But in story terms, there are only so many times you can show the pacing husband, difficult delivery and lusty newborn infant before people start to yawn. I shared this problem with my Welsh class in the bar of the Celtic Club (yes, there is a price to having me as a tutor).

‘I’m going to have to kill a few children,’ I said’. Eleven is an impossible number.’

‘You can’t do that!’ A circle of shocked faces. ‘You have to be accurate.’

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They were right, of course. That is one of the challenges of writing historical fiction, the balance of crafting a good story against the historical record. Every novelist sets their own parameters. For me (and it seems my Welsh class), it must involve a degree of accuracy.

But eleven children! When were they born? What were their personalities? How did they all live before the revolt? What about afterwards, when their lands were declared forfeit? How did poor Marged stop them from sickening and squabbling while hiding out in the mountains of Snowdonia? (yes, insert the remembered pain of taking four children on family holidays here). In fact, this book was beginning to take on the feel of a vicarious form of post traumatic stress syndrome. But, apart from becoming a mass murderer, I could not see any way out of the situation.

I mentioned this problem (in an electronic form of a hand-wringing) to Gideon Brough, a historian, whose book The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dwr is due for release in December, thinking he may know of of a cave, or safe-house (big enough to house eleven children) or, failing that, evidence of an illness that wiped out half the family. His was answer was in fact, infinitely more satisfying:

Contemporary sources only appear to confirm four children born to Owain and Margaret; Gruffydd, Maredudd, Catrin and Alys. Iolo Goch’s poem says that they came in pairs, the longer list of names you might have read appears to have been invented by Iolo Morgannwg centuries later.

Next Tuesday, after Welsh class, someone asked how my research was going (actually, they may not have asked but, as I said before, there is a price). I told them about the Morgannwg theory.

‘But,’ one brave soul asked, ‘why would Iolo have made that up?’

Indeed, why did Iolo make anything up? He was probably the biggest literary forger in Welsh history, creating a vast body of work, reputedly dating back to the druids. The whole bardic ceremony at the Welsh National Eisteddfod is, in fact, a product of his fecund (always wanted to use that word) imagination. Now, it seemed he’d also foisted an imagined family on Glyn Dwr.

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At this point, I hear a collective howl from all those who claim descent from Glyn Dwr. You are out there, I know you are, Wikitree and Geni.com attest your existence. But do take heart, there are also rumours of multiple illegitimate offspring. So many, in fact, that I wonder poor Owain had time to pull his braise up, let alone lead a national uprising. But for my part, I’m sticking with the four children mentioned in the contemporary record – Gruffudd, Catrin, Alys, and Maredudd -because four is far more manageable in terms of crafting a novel. In fact, I may have even lived that situation.

Historic elections and women’s suffrage – a review of Juliette Greenwood’s The White Camelia

This week we have witnessed an historic election. For the first time, we faced the heady prospect of a woman president of the United States. I am disappointed that day did not dawn, as are many around the globe. But it will. One Day. Nothing is more certain.

One of the more shocking aspects of watching the American election campaign unfold (apart from violence, hatred, racism, misogyny and bigotry becoming normalised) was the Wear White to Vote movement. Seeing the image of a women strutting up to the polling booth in a white pantsuit brought the horrifyingly, recent never-take-it-for-grantedness of women’s franchise home to me. You see, I have never known a world in which I could not vote. In my grandmother’s day (yes, recently as that) these rights would have been denied me. It seems appropriate therefore in the wake of this tumultuous week, that we cast our eyes back to the women who made this breakthrough possible.

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Fortunately, for me this has been easy. I had a copy of Juliette Greenwood’s, The White Camelia, on my reading pile. An historical novel depicting the struggles of the suffrage movement, which is, incidentally, published by Gwasg Honno a Welsh feminist press that seeks to redress the gender imbalance in publishing. An all round excellent reason to part with your hard earned cash.

Set in 1909, The White Camellia tells the story of two women whose lives are linked by, Tressillion, a decaying Cornish estate, their connection through The White Camellia Tearooms and The Suffrage League of Women Artists and Journalists. Both the tearooms and the League are fictitious, Greenwood tells us, but they firmly are based on “the many ladies’ tearooms and suffrage movements that gave women their first taste of independence and allowed them to campaign over decades to improve women’s lives.” And although you may have seen Suffragette you will be shocked by the brutal sexism these women encountered.

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If reading about a book about the suffrage movement, which has been published by a feminist press, is not enough to send you clicking over to your favourite online bookstore, the Cornish setting of this novel may tip the balance (yes, Australia is still caught in Poldark fever). For as well as being a novel about women’s franchise, The White Camellia is also a story of family secrets. Of the successful business woman Sybil, whose links to the Tressillion estates are long and bitter and of, Bea, a younger daughter of Tresillion House, who is being forced by tragedy and economic circumstance into marrying a cousin who has little regard for her. The story is told from their roughly interchanging viewpoints and has a cast of excellent Welsh supporting characters — Madoc, Harri, Olwen, and Gwenllian. As the family story unfolds and the abandoned Tressillion mine whispers the promise of gold, a violent train is set in motion, one that threatens the interconnected lives of the women whose lives have been empowered by The White Camellia Tearooms.

This is an eminently readable book and has the happenstance of being not only historical but so very current. Why not buy a copy, read about the struggle, and then go to bed dreaming about a future in which a woman will be elected president of the United States.

Hwyl am y tro!

 

Permission to create – or ditching the fear factor

I’m a belt and braces kind of girl. Terrified of making mistakes. I’m not sure why. Hours of introspection and countless man-with-a-cardigan counselling sessions have not provided answers. But for a writer (or indeed anyone) a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ can be paralysing. I distinctly recall telling my writing group that I wanted to make sure my novel was perfect, so perfect that it wouldn’t be rejected. I still recall the silence that greeted this naive announcement.

‘Liz,’ one of them ventured gently. ‘No matter how good your work is, you are going to be rejected.’

They were right, of course. I’ve had my work rejected countless times. Sometimes more painfully than others. I’d like to say I’ve developed a thick skin. But I haven’t, not nearly thick enough. As evidenced by my fear-of-getting-it-wrong approach to my latest project.

Researching my first novel, I read countless diaries, nineteenth publications and more recent historical analyses in order to get my immigration facts straight. In terms of the Welsh fairy tales that run like a seam through the novel’s pages, well, I may have gone a little overboard. In fact, I learned a whole language. But although the conditions on board my nineteenth century emigrant vessel are as authentic as I could make them and, although my knowledge of fairy tales has grown exponentially, the voyage, the ship, characters were all fictitious. This gave me a degree of license.

Not so with my current project – a novel written from the viewpoint of Owain Glyn Dwr’s wife. You see, Marged Glyn Dwr was an historical figure, as was her husband (a national hero in fact). The revolt, the circumstances, all the supporting characters of my story, are historical. This makes the likelihood of receiving an irate letter from a Welsh nationalist informing me that I have misrepresented Wales noble history imminently possible.

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I’d like to say that I’m handling the pressure well, cool as  cucumber as I pore over tome after tome in the state library, that my bookshop is not groaning under the weight of newly acquired purchases, groaning so loudly that when I mentioned to my husband that I may have ordered a few books, he politely asked whether I had set a budget.

Budget, I gulped, yes, of course, I have a budget.

With these tight (cough) budget constraints in mind, you can imagine my frission of excitement to come across this paragraph when reading a library book about the non-judicial confinement of medieval women:

Margaret, the Wife of Owain Glyn Dwr, their daughter Catherine […] and an unclear number of her children, all of whom seemed to have been without personal culpability were taken at the capture of Harlech and were held in the Tower of London from 1409 until at least 1413, when the death of Catherine and her two daughters is the last that is heard of them. Their confinement can be interpreted as a ‘family guilt’ confinement, or as a quasi-hostagehood intended to put pressure on Owain who was still at large.

I wrote to the historian, Gwen Seabourne, outlining my project, and asked whether she could recommend the best sources of information concerning Marged Glyn Dwr. Her answer was disappointing. Or was it? Apparently, that paragraph is pretty much all anyone knows about the fate of Marged Glyn Dwr. Which means, as long as I thoroughly research of conditions in the Tower, my potential for making mistakes has just considerably diminished.

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Buoyed by the success of this contact-an-academic strategy. I contacted another. One whose book on The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dwr is soon to be released (I have it on order – yes, part of my carefully worked out budget). I have read a number of titles on Glyn Dwr and no one seems to know why his military service terminated so abruptly in 1388. Or why he actually rose in revolt in September 1400 (apart from the perfidy already mentioned in earlier blog posts). Many theories have been posed. But none sit well with me. Least of all that he was disgruntled at not receiving a knighthood and sat wallowing in self pity until one morning, ten years later, he got up and declared himself Prince of Wales. Even if  that version was true, which I seriously doubt, you can’t develop a novel on such a vague premise. You have to give the characters conflict and believable motives. I asked this particular historian his opinion on the matter. He wrote back:

There does not appear to be any evidence which gives a firm indication at all of Owain’s feelings after the 1387 campaign, nor any reason to explain why he was not available for service in 1388. That means that there is nothing concrete to justify the notion that he was disgruntled but nothing to definitely refute it either. Effectively, you have carte blanche in that sphere.

The historian, Gideon Brough, whose work promises to be a great deal more nuanced than previous offerings, urged me to think differently to the received version of events, to “do something beautiful and creative with my carte blanche.”

Carte blanche? Did you hear that? There is a smattering of circumstantial evidence and a great deal of theorising going on, even among historians. Which means, as long as I do my research and make sure I understand the social and political issues of the time, I can add my own theories to the mix. Which just made the whole process a lot less scary in my opinion.

Two titles – and some thoughts on small, brave against-the-odds entities

Confession: I have a soft spot for small brave, against-the-odds entities – like Wales and its language, independent book shops and publishers, small, grass-roots residential arts studios in tiny Welsh villages, and public libraries. All (but certainly not the only) institutions that stand against big, popular, well-funded privilege in its multifarious guises. I’ve tried to analyse this tendency over the years. To this day, I cannot decide whether it comes from having a Welsh mother or being raised in Australia where, let’s face it, we tend to back the underdog (as long as they are white and willing to “assimilate”). All I know is that it exists and that this week it has affected my reading list.

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Book one on my list (yes, a two book week) was, Isobel Blackthorn’s, The Drago Tree. Being published by Odyssey Books, a small brave, independent press giving opportunities to emerging writers, would have put this title high my list. But, actually, the content of the story proved the ultimate qualifier. Set on the tiny island of Lanzarote, it tells the story of Ann Salter, a middle aged geologist fleeing her failed marriage, Richard a popular crime novelist plundering the island for his stories, and, Domingo, the indigenous potter whose love for the land goes beyond the shallow financial gains of western tourism. As the three explore the island, aspirations and tensions, undermine their friendship. The result, a reflection on artistic integrity, relationships, and ultimately our responsibility towards the environment.

A brief reading of Lanzarote’s history includes the words conquest, enslavement, piracy, drought and volcanic eruption, the result being an indigenous community struggling with the consequences of a post conquest society. It was not hard for me to draw comparisons with Wales’ history (without the piracy, recent volcanic activity, or levels of enslavement). I found myself wanting to experience the island community Blackthorn so wondrously evoked. Which is a sure sign the story has worked, if you ask me.

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The second book, Some sex and a hill: or how to learn Welsh in 3 easy pints, was written by Aran Jones, and published on Kindle (which flies in the face of everything I have said about small brave and against-the-odds entities). But hey, I’m a walking contradiction, get over it! I’m not sure if it’s polite to call my friend Aran a small, brave, against-the-odds entity. It doesn’t sound right, does it? But his language learning program, Say Something in Welsh, certainly falls into that category. With no government funding and a great deal of love and support from the learner’s community, it is the place all serious wannabe Welsh speakers end up at some point in their journey. It was therefore great to read about Aran’s early learning experiences. The fun part for me, aside from the author’s compelling voice and whacky sense of humour, was that I knew many of the people mentioned in the book (even the man from America who was on his original Wlpan course) and have visited many of the places Aran described. Added to which, the sense of homecoming that learning Welsh fulfilled in Aran, found an echo in me. This is a magical book, about a love affair with a land and its language, that anyone with an interest in Cymru would be sure to enjoy.

So that’s my week. I have also taught a Welsh class, found a translation of Nennius in the State Library of Victoria, written the opening scenes of my new novel (at least they are the opening scenes for the time being), the subject of which was inspired by a conversation with Aran (though, I’m not sure he realises that yet), pedalled my way through two Spin classes, walked the dog, received a confirmation of casual employment from City of Boroondara (the good guys in my employment saga), and nurtured my love for small, brave, against-the-odds entities. I hope the week has been good to you too?

 

Reading in two languages

When I left Wales, I knew my language ability would cease to climb. I’d not lose the ability to speak (albeit haltingly) but the angle of my upward trajectory would be less acute. This was inevitable, I told myself, despite the opportunities I’d carve out for myself. But I would make an effort to read in Welsh regularly. Which is why, when I received a reviewing copy of The Seasoning, by Mannon Stefan Ross, I decided to read, Blasu, the acclaimed Welsh language version first. An odd way of reviewing a book but, hey, why not?

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I struck out boldly. Trying not to look up every unknown word but to glean meaning from the surrounding sentences. I’d done this with Bethan Gwanas’ book, I Botany Bay (yes, a book about a Welsh convict) and Zonia Bowen’s autobiography, Dy bob Di Fydd fy Mhobl i,  as well as the multiple other learner’s titles, I’d read over the years. My preference being to read and enjoy a text, whatever my ability, rather than turn it into a translation exercise.

Blasu/The Seasoning is a story about an elderly woman, Pegi,  who is asked by her adult son to write down her memories. I could see, by flicking through the book, that these would be based around recipes. All well and good but, due to my snail-pace Welsh, it took me a while to realise the novel would be changing viewpoint every chapter, that the memories recorded were not in fact Pegi’s but the memories of others in relation to her. Quite a unique way to tell a story and beautifully rendered but by about the fourth chapter, I realised I was missing some of the nuances. I would enjoy this more, I old myself, if I read chapter-by-chapter, in Welsh and English.

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The ensuing chapters were a delight (this is the official review part of this blog). My mouth watered on reading the recipes and I found seeing the context in which Pegi had come by them poignant. Added to which, the story was set in Llanegryn, a tiny Welsh village not far from Corris, in which local landmarks such as Bird Rock, were familiar to me. As I read, each alternating-chapter, I found the story disturbing, uplifting and shocking by turns. For Blasu/The Seasoning is not a feel good novel. It is a literary novel, tackling the subject of mental illness and memories and how to live with horrifying once-made decisions. A thought provoking book, in any language and, if you do not speak Welsh, Honno’s English language version, Seasoning, is definitely worth obtaining.

However, I must say, as a language exercise the alternating chapter approach was flawed. I found myself leaping into bed more eagerly on the English nights, than the Welsh. In fact, by the time I got to Chocolate Popcorn chapter, I was too caught up in the story to bother. I gave myself over to the English version in full abandon and, although it is a sad, shocking, story, it also contained love and redemption. When I turned the last page, I did not want to let the characters go.

So, what is the moral of the story? If you are a non-Welsh speaker and want to read a thought provoking book set in north-west Wales, The Seasoning is recommended. If you are a Welsh learner and want to read Blasu as a language exercise, go for it, but do not under any circumstances keep a translation in the house. It is far too tempting. Better to save that one-click option until you’ve turned the final page. Then you can honestly say you enjoyed the book twice as much as you’d expected.

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