Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Blog twenty four o Gymru – a word on Welsh fairy tales

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I haven’t blogged for a while. The reason – I’m desperate to get this pre-submission draft of my manuscript finished before heading back to Melbourne. If you know anything about my novel, you will know it is a historical novel set in 1841 on board an emigrant vessel bound for colonial Australia. It has two English viewpoint characters and a Welsh one. My Welsh viewpoint character is a storyteller. His traditional Welsh fairy tales both mirror and affect the other character’s journeys. A tall order for a first novel, perhaps? Or outright ridiculous? In polite literary circles, you may hear it called an ‘ambitious project.’

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As a consequence of this ‘ambitious project,’ I’ve read countless Welsh myths, legends, and fairy tales, primarily in the English language. One of my aims for this time in Wales was to increase my Welsh language understanding of these stories. You can therefore imagine my delight when Gwin Dylanwad advertised a series of Welsh language talks on the Mabinogi. The series wasn’t an event for Welsh language learners. I was definitely the least fluent speaker in the room. But I spent four pleasurable evenings listening to Dr Gwilym Morus-Baird discuss the amazing body of medieval Welsh literature that is known to the English speaking world as the Mabinogion.

The Medd a Mabinogi series was followed by a session on the Tylwyth Teg ( fair family), by Gwyn Edwards. Half way through the evening, Gwyn started talking about Llyn y Fan Fach, the story of a mysterious lake woman who married a mortal. Her father’s only condition being that his daughter mustn’t be struck causelessly, for on the third blow she and all of her dowry would return to the lake (at this point, the feminist in me is compelled to add that it should have been the first blow, causeless, or otherwise).

I recognised the story immediately (yes! a significant comprehension milestone). It is one of the stories I’ve used in my novel. I have walked the rocky mountain path to Llyn y Fan Fach (lake of the small place) a tiny mountain top lake at the northern end of the Black Mountain. I’ve read multiple versions of the story, know it like the back of my hand. At least…I thought I did. Except, the fairy father’s condition in Gwyn Evans’ version of the tale was different. Three causeless blows had been replaced  by three blows with a piece of iron.

The change wasn’t inconceivable. Welsh fairies don’t like iron. They don’t have wings either. They often dress in green. But that’s irrelevant. I glanced about the room, wondering what my class mates thought about this iron addition to the tale. They didn’t seem too perturbed (savages). Then again, they mightn’t have had so much riding on the situation. I on the other hand, sat in a heart pounding, cold sweat, thinking, OMG, the Welsh language version of the story is different. I’m going to re-work whole segments of my novel, just when I thought I was close to finishing.

Half way through his explanation of the tale, Gwyn Evans stopped, smiled, shook his head. ‘O mae’n ddrwg gen iDw i wedi gwneud camgymeriad – Oh, I’m sorry. I have made a mistake.

Mistake! I held my breath.

‘Nid oedd haern un o’r amodau – iron wasn’t one of the conditions. Dim ond tri trawiad heb achos – only three causeless blows.’

No iron! I found myself melting in a warm puddle of relief.

After they had finished wiping me off the floor, the remainder of the evening passed without further trauma. Here are some of the things I have learned about Welsh fairies:

  • They don’t have wings (as mentioned)
  • Neither do they like iron
  • Some people think they are human sized
  • Others that they are diminutive
  • They live beneath the earth
  • Time in fairy land is different to human time
  • If you get caught in a fairy circle it is hard to escape
  • Though their are methods
  • This by the way is a serious topic – and not hypothetical
  • Some believe fairy tales are the remnant of a folk memory harking back to a previous time – when trees, and stones and cairns had spirits
  • Others that they are simply the way to explain the inexplicable
  • Others still, that they are inherently evil
  • You must never try to steal from the fairies, or double cross them
  • They have been known to steal children
  • Reward people’s virtue
  • But whatever the case, you must always be careful
  • And even if you don’t believe in fairies, the tales are worth listening to

 

Blog twenty three o Gymru – Y Fari lwyd

If celebrating Christmas on the 6th of January felt strange, celebrating the New Year on January 16th, felt even stranger. But there are two worlds in Wales – remember the Harry Potter analogy – and while the rest of the world settled into a boring old mid-January malaise, Cymru Cymraeg celebrated another ancient tradition – Y Fari Lwyd (the Grey Mary).

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If you Google “Y Fari Lwyd” Wikipedia will tell you that Y Fari Lwyd is a wassailing tradition similar to English folk customs involving hobby horses and other stock characters. This is a fairly anglo-centric explanation of the tradition. You could just as easily say:

English wassailing traditions involving hobby horses and other familiar characters are most likely derived from the South Wales folk custom known as Y Fari Lwyd, a Celtic ritual, possibly of Indo-European origin, which involves groups of men carrying a be-ribboned horse skull between private homes and public houses and singing impromptu verse in order to gain admission.

In fact, I just did. :-)

Y Fari Lywd is primarily a South Wales folk custom – traditionally celebrated between Christmas and New Year. But in recent years, it has been taken up in other parts of Wales and, like Plygain, is celebrated according to the Julian calendar. Which is how I ended celebrating New Year, in mid-Wales, last Saturday evening.

Here’s how the night panned out for me:

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  • I boarded a mini-bus in Machynlleth
  • Travelled to the Brigands Inn, picking up others en-route
  • At the Brigands Inn, Y Fari Lwyd and other characters – including an Ostler, a sergeant, a merriman, and Pwnsch a Siwan (Punch and Judy) stood outside.
  • Others gathered inside
  • Y Fari parti sang a tune asking for admission

“Wel dyma ni’n dwad (Well here we come)
Gy-feillion di-niwad (Innocent friends)
I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave)
I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave)
I ofyn am gennad i ganu (To ask leave to sing)”

(an example of a typical opening song)

  • The people inside made witty excuses in verse for why admittance was not possible
  • Y Fari parti responded
  • And on it went – until they ran out of ripostes and personal insults
  • At which point Y Fari parti was admitted
  • Food and drink were served
  • People danced and sang
  • Then we got back on the mini bus
  • And travelled to the next location – The Buckleys Arms
  • Where it started over again
  • (yes, it’s a pub crawl with poetry and singing)

At the end of the evening, a huge party gathered in the back bar of the Llew Goch (Red Lion). People turned up with instruments, song books were handed out (for people like me) and we sang – defiant folk songs, patriotic anthems, and heartbreaking laments.

  • All in Welsh
  • Because language is the heart of this culture
  • Along with music
  • And it is beautiful

 

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PS. The evening was organised by Arfon Hughes of Dinas Mawddwy. He composed many of the Mari parti’s verses, along with Huw Jones and children from the local area. Mair Tomos Ifans and Gwawr Davalan composed the verses sung from inside the tafarns. Neither parti had seen each other’s compositions beforehand, the challenge being to choose the appropriate verses and respond on the spur of the moment. Spur of the moment! Are you picking up a theme? Word play and impromptu eloquence are an important part of being Welsh.

Blog twenty-two o Gymru – a second Christmas

If you thought Christmas was over, think again. The early Celtic Church celebrated Christmas on 25th of December – according to the Julian Calendar, which equates to  the 7th of January on the Gregorian Calendar (the one followed in most Western Countries today). Which is how, this week, I found myself sitting in a traditional Welsh carol service.

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Plygain, is the word for this occasion, in Welsh. An ancient, possibly pre-Christianity festival that became part of the Church calendar and was traditionally held in the early hours of Christmas morning. Attendees would often stay up all night, dancing to the harp, before setting out with flaming torches to escort the priest to the church for the commencement of the service.

Now if you know one thing about Wales, it is probably the love of choral singing. Although the mass, male voice choirs we associate with Wales today were most likely a product of of the industrial era, singing in harmony is a much older Welsh tradition. Here is what Gerald of Wales had to say about it in the 12th century:

When they come together to make music, the Welsh sing their traditional songs, not in unison, as is done elsewhere, but in parts, in many modes and modulations. When a choir gathers to sing, which happens often in this country, you will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers.

Wednesday night a group of children kicked off the Plygain program. They rose, in silence, walked to the front of the church, pitched a note, and began to sing unaccompanied, and in harmony. After they had returned to their seats, a group of teenagers rose, and sang a different song. Followed by other groups, duos and individuals, all without introduction or apparent instructions. Until it almost every person in the church had contributed. At which point, the vicar rose, and I started shrugging into my coat, thinking we had come to the end of the service.

No, think again. After singing a community carol, the whole program started over, with the same group following the same groups, duos and individuals, until we had gone right though the ranks of the assembled for a second time. At which point the vicar rose again, we sang another carol and I had a strange sitting-in-the-front-pew-unable-to-leave-sense that the whole cycle was about to start over.

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I wasn’t bored, quite the opposite. Plygain carols are not familiar carols translated into Welsh. They are much older and often written in the Dorian mode and, if you add to this the unaccompanied singing in harmony, the effect is quite stunning. But I’d heard these stories of all night Plygain services, and I was sitting towards the front of the church which meant I couldn’t leave, without everyone knowing, added to which I had a sense that, if I did leave, I would have somehow failed the Welsh test.

Fortunately, my Welshness was not put to the test on Wednesday evening. All the men in the church rose, sung a final song, Can y Swper (supper song) and we were all invited to the Neuadd y Pentref (village hall) for a bite to eat. I wasn’t intending to stay for supper. I have allergies that cut out a host of foods (never easy to explain in Welsh) added to which it was my weekly protein only day (even harder to explain). Besides, I didn’t know anyone. There is nothing worse than sitting alone in a hall full of people who have known each other for years.

Escape wasn’t an option, however. People were way to friendly, which is how I found myself sitting at a table trying to explain why I only had half a boiled egg on my plate. After I had gone through the explanations about the egg and growing up in Australia and studying Welsh as an adult, some of which I’m sure got lost in translation (there was this woman who came all the way from Australia to see our Plygain service and can’t eat anything but boiled eggs), I asked questions about the Plygain tradition. Here is what I learned:

  • Traditionally the evening starts with children
  • Then teenagers
  • Then a group from the church
  • After which the order is random
  • Plygain is not a concert
  • All are welcome to participate
  • The song list is not known beforehand
  • Once a song has been sung, it is not to be repeated
  • Which is why everyone performed more than once (traditionally three times)
  • In the same order
  • As it is a kind of test (see I got that bit right) on rising to the occasion
  • Which means groups have to prepare for every eventuality
  • And, finally, Can y Swper is not a song to announce supper (what were you thinking?)
  • It is a song about the Last Supper
  • Because traditional Plygain services do no focus on the baby in the manger
  • The tell the whole story
  • From birth, to death, to resurrection

 

Blog Twenty-one o Gymru – a thought for the New Year

We have a miniature Italianate garden on the hill above Corris. There are no sign posts to mark its existence. The gates are locked, entry forbidden. Yet, somehow, everyone finds their way up the narrow rutted path to see the hotchpotch of miniature concrete structures. I am one of them. The garden path being part of my regular afternoon walk. I never fail to stop, mesmerised by what lies beyond the padlocked gates.

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Started in the late 1970’s the garden is the work of Mark Bourne a retired chicken farmer and one time caravan park owner who went to Italy and, upon his return, begun constructing a garden from photographs. A folly, some have called the garden, or outsider art, at once lovely and ugly. It is a fairy grotto of twisting paths, miniature buildings, and statues, the tallest of which is about two and half metres in height.

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I am not an artist. So, I cannot comment on the artistic merit of Mr Bourne’s work. Yet, on another level, the garden speaks to me. I imagine a man, an ordinary every day man, like you or me, who married a woman and did a mundane job, maybe raised children, who went on an annual seaside holiday and admired miniature villages and dolls houses and mini-golf courses (hey, I’m a writer, I’m allowed to make stuff up). A man who somewhere deep inside him might have dreamed of being an artist. But he came from a working class family and there were bills to pay. So the dream lay dormant, until one overseas holiday fired his imagination and he began to create.

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I imagine the days leading up to the construction of his first statue. Perhaps discussing it with his wife, over boiled eggs and toast, of a morning? He would have made drawings, measurements, purchased steel and cement. Then, one day he would have started, not knowing whether the project was going to work. Maybe he was terrified, making that first statute? Filled with self-doubt. This was not for the likes of him. Only clever, artistic people were allowed to create. But then the first stature looked okay. So he made another one and another. Until he filled the whole garden.

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Mr Bourne passed away in 2009 so I have missed my opportunity to ask how it felt. But as we go into the New Year, I can’t help thinking, about my own dreams, one of which was to live in Wales. The other being to write a novel. Ten years down the track from when I first started, I am almost there. I have two more months left in Wales and I intend to finish this draft before I leave. Will it be good enough for publication? The jury is still out on that one. But I think, if my imagined Mr Bourne was still alive, he would say don’t worry about not being good enough. Don’t worry about what other people think. Just create, in wild, reckless, abandon, and let the world find its way to your gates.

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i chi!

 

Blog twenty o Gymru – the winter solstice

I am sitting on an Arriva train heading out of Wales, the fields on both side of the tracks are water-logged, flooded, the rivers beneath the rail bridges turgid. To my rear, leaden clouds enshroud the mountains of Snowdonia, to the front, remarkably, I see a blue sky. The first blue sky I have seen in weeks.

It has been a remarkably wet month, even by Welsh standards and with the days growing increasingly shorter, I had a sense of being entombed by winter. I didn’t fully understand this sensation. Or how completely nature was conspiring against me. Until someone explained that after the twenty first of December, the Winer Solstice, we would gain six minutes of extra daylight per day. Six minutes that’s forty two minutes a week. No wonder I’d felt that winter was burying me alive.

In Australia, we decorate European evergreen trees, at this time of year, and sing songs about Holly and Ivy. But we eat ice cream with our mince pies and have to keep our children up late in order to see the Christmas lights. These past few weeks in Wales it has been is dark by four o’clock in the afternoon. Cold. Yule logs, mulled wine and evergreen branches and Christmas lights feel appopriate. Little wonder the early church chose to align Nativty celebrations with the older pagan festivities. There is no competing with them. They are primeval.

Yet, in another sense, being away from family at such a significant time in our cultural calendar has made the nativity story more resonant. As I sat in chapel last week hearing familiar scriptures spoken in another language, I had a sense of its profoundness. The pregethwr (preacher) read a creative reflection written from the point of view of Mary. Were there other women in that stable? Women to whisper words of encouragement? To wipe away the muck and blood of birth? Or was she alone, frightened. Not quite knowing where to turn. I felt her aloneness. Maybe because earlier in the week I’d had my own Mary moment. My car had broken down in middle of a one way street in Machynlleth. I wasn’t a member of the RAC. I didn’t know where the nearest garage was. As I stood in the middle of the road, directing the traffic and Googling garages. I thought, what am I doing here? Alone? There is no one to help me.

Of course, there were people to help. But as I sat in Chapel listening to the voice of Mary, that sense of aloneness returned. I thought, this is the heart of the Christmas message – this poor woman, alone, in pain, weeping, surrounded by animals. Yet, into that aloneness hope was born. A hope that tells us that we are not alone, or friendless, that our lives have meaning and purpose.

I have crossed the border into England now. The sun is literally shining. Yet as I head down south to celebrate the season with family friends, it is the lessons of the dark remain that with me. I take this opportunity to share the with you: Nadolig Llawen!

PS: someone has just informed me it is six minutes per week – not per day. If I’d thought about it for half a minute, I’d have realised that. Infact, the true figure is a little over two minutes per a day. But it felt like I was losing six minutes per day – so I’m leaving it in. :-)

 

Blog nineteen o Gymru – an eventful Saturday evening

It had been a busy week – Merched y Wawr Bro Dyfi dinner on Monday night, a Merched y Wawr Corris a Chylch dinner on Wedesday night, Cawl a Chan at Dylanwad Wines on Friday night and the two nights in between spent watching Y Gwyll with a friend. I woke up Saturday morning feeling tired and indecisive.

We had two new artists arriving that day. I had to clean the stiwdio and, due to an excess of high fat, high carbohydrate foods, I also needed to go for a run. Added to which, had a party that night and the weather was looking pretty wild. I’d been invited to stay the night. But here’s the thing about me. I am not a late night or a stay overnight person. So when Dan, an American artist staying at Maelor, expressed a desire to see Welsh male voice choir in Abergynolwyn, I broke the I-am-not-a-taxi rule and offered to act as chauffeur.

I checked my maps before we left home. I thought I knew the way to Karen and Crispin’s house. They had a mosaic name plate on their farm gate. I’d be able to see it from the road. Besides, it was a party. They’d have balloons on the gate post, surely?

My first indication that things would go wrong was on the way to Abergynolwyn. The map said six miles. But I had forgotten that driving six miles in Wales is like driving thirty six miles in another country. The roads are so dark and winding. On this particular night, they were also flooded.

‘Gee.’ Dan said. ‘I hadn’t realised it would be this far out of your way.’

Neither had I but it was too late to turn back. We ploughed on through puddle after dark oily puddle until we reached Abergynowlyn. I dropped Dan at the Canolfan with a promise to be back before the pub closed.

I got to the tiny village of Llanfachreth okay and headed out into the back roads. It was darker and narrower than the road to Abergynolwyn. A gusting wind flung rain at my windscreen. Okay, I thought. Maybe there won’t be balloons on the gatepost. But I remembered a stone arch near their house and the striking mosaic. I would come across them eventually.

I didn’t. No matter how slowly, I drove. Nor how high my light beam. I checked my map. My phone didn’t have a signal. I thought I was getting close. But maybe my memory was faulty? Maybe I had to take another turn before I came to the name plate? If only I could find that stone arch. I started driving back along the Llanfachreth Road. But the rain had been falling steadily and part of the Tarmac had dropped away. Before I knew it, my wheels were churning in the mud. Backwards, I went. Then forwards, each time, sinking a little deeper.

I stopped, got out of the car, checked my phone. Still no signal. Added to which, my battery was getting low. I considered walking back to Llanfachreth. But it was ink dark, not a moon or star in sight and I had been raised according to the great, Aussie outback survival motto: “never leave your vehicle.” Besides, I was dressed warmly enough and there were blankets in the car. I wouldn’t freeze, even if I had to stay out all night.

But what about Dan sitting in the choir concert in Abergynolwyn?

The truth is stranger than fiction, they tell me. When writing a novel you can’t make a major plot point turn on coincidence. But as I stood on the windy dark road, trying to work out what to do next, I heard a car engine. A car! Had I imagined it? No, there were lights, not just any lights. I saw a taxi heading towards me. Wow! I thought this is seriously weird. But I stepped onto the road and hailed that cab as if we were in Charring Cross.

‘I’m bogged.’ I said, as if that wasn’t obvious. ‘I’m supposed to be at a party but I got lost.’

‘I’ve just come from a party.’

‘Karen and Crispin’s?’

‘The same.’

‘Oh, wow! Can you take me there?’

It didn’t take long to get to the party. We turned up a side road only a few hundred metres from where I was bogged. The mosaic was there. But there were no balloons on the gatepost. Seriously, what was I thinking? I walked in, apologising for my lateness, and produced what is probably one of the most dreadful Wenglish sentences I have ever uttered.

‘Ces i fy mogio mewn ditch.’

‘Ditch?’

‘Yes. Fy nghar. Bogged. Mewn ditch.’

Once the situation was explained, we made quick decisions. It wasn’t realistic to pull the car out in the dark. Most people had enjoyed a drink or two. I would have to stay the night, even if I wasn’t a house guest kind of person. I logged onto the WIFI and told our American artist he’d have to find his own way home (something I probably should have done from the outset). I then poured myself a glass of wine and enjoyed the party.

***

Oh, in case your wondering, bogio is definitely not the Welsh verb for bogged. But, hey, I mutated correctly and stuck an ‘io’ on the end, which is the golden rule in such cases. Though, someone did later point out that the Welsh word for ditch is ffos. I won’t be forgetting that in a hurry. :-)

Blog eighteen o Gymru – a quiet Sunday in Wales

Now that I have a car I have abandoned the Eglwys Blwyf (Parish Church) for a Welsh Chapel in Machynlleth. There was nothing wrong with the parish church, I hasten to add. The congregation been very welcoming. But I’ve only got a few months more in Wales and I want a Welsh language service.

I had not yet been to a service at Capel y Craig. But I knew where it was located. I got there nice and early and did a hill park under the scrutiny of two old men.

‘Good morning! They said as I trudged past.

‘Bore da!’ I replied, as is my wont.

I walked to the church gate. It was locked. But I saw through the wrought iron fence that Capel y Craig had two street fronts. The other gate was wide open. I walked back past the two old men. They weren’t slow, this pair, and had noted my earlier greeting.

‘Wyt ti ar goll cariad?’ (Are you lost sweetheart?)

This was the first time anyone had called me cariad (a common form of endearment in Welsh). I must say, I felt a flush of warm pride. Like I’d been welcomed into their world.

I walked to the front gate. Tried both doors. Locked. I read some old gravestones. Tried the doors again. Still locked. Read some emails. Looked at my watch. Okay, so there must be another entrance. I walked round the block. The vestry lights appeared to be on but…? The deacons might be in there, praying!

Fortunately, at this moment, a fellow Merched y Wawr member arrived. I decide to follow her in. ‘Dw i ar goll! I said by way of explanation. (I am lost)

‘Mae’r drws yn cuddio (the door is hidden), she replied. Hidden, I thought, just like Cymru Cymraeg on this greyscale morning – a rich seam of gold beneath the surrounding mountains.

The service was thoughtfully arranged by another Merched y Wawr member. She read a poem and talked about the meaning of Christmas after which various members of the congregation read from a modern translation of the Beibl. I must say there is something magical about hearing familiar scripture in another language. It makes you sit up and notice.

Mae’r bobl oedd yn byw yn y tywyllwch

wedi gweld golau llachar.

Mae golau wedi gwawrio

ar y rhai oedd yn byw dan gysgod marwolaeth.

Esia 9:2

Between the readings, we sang hymns and listened to reflective music. I’ve got to the point where I can pretty much find the hymns before the congregation start singing (no, they aren’t written on a board). But this is less impressive than it sounds because the custom is to read out the whole hymn aloud before commencing. So as long as I understand the first part of the number – pedwar cant pedwar deg …? I’ve got plenty of time to work out whether it is 446, 447 or 448.

At one point, an elderly man made his way to the front. He read a Christmas carol, explaining it had been written by Hedd Wyn a Welsh poet killed in the First World War. Then he began to sing. And, oh, the voice – deep, pure, unaccompanied. Who says you don’t need to learn Welsh? Language was the key to this quiet, dignified Sunday morning.

After chapel, I went to Siop Alys, my favourite cafe in Machynleth. Imagine my surprise to open the door and to see Sion Corn (Santa) sitting on a rocking chair by the wood stove. I had a long chat to Sion Corn who, incidentally, speaks Welsh. I then had the pleasure of watching him sing and tell stories to a group of children. As I was leaving cafe, Sion Corn told them I was from Australia which meant they and to sing the songs all over again.

I finished the afternoon with a walk along a small section of the Owain Glyndwr Pathway while listening to a podcast on Welsh mythology by Gwilym Morus-Baird. I have been doing a short course with Dr Baird on the Mabinogi. The said course was all in Welsh. So, I thought I may have missed one or two of the finer points. I decided to follow it up with the English version for good measure. To my surprise, I had understood a great deal more than I realised.

Tan wythnos nesaf!

Blog seventeen o Gymru – interviews, armchairs and expensive turkeys

I am sitting in a cafe in Y Trallwng (oh, alright, Welshpool), having travelled forty eight miles for my National Insurance Number (NIN) interview. I tried to apply in Welsh but the polite man on the phone told me the service wasn’t available in Welsh and that I must call a different number. ‘This is a bilingual country,’ my very-English-don’t-see-why-I-should-learn-Welsh friends tell me. ‘I should be able to speak whatever language I want.’

‘Correct, I tell them. ‘But have you ever thought Welsh speakers might like to be able to speak their own language – in shops, cafes, libraries, offices and surgeries?

So what is happening in my life? Apart from morphing into a rabid Welsh language fanatic?

Well, as you can see, I have an armchair, a magnificent development. Kindly donated to Stiwdio Maelor, I wasted no time in claiming it and, as Veronica has left the country and I am now womaning the stiwdio until early March, I have moved my desk and computer into her workspace. I also have a car. And her washing machine! In fact, I may not invite her back. Possession is nine tenth of the law and, once I get that National Insurance Number there will be no shifting me.

I had to tell the woman at the NIN interview how often I’ve come to Wales. I said, ten times in the last five years. But they don’t stamp passports anymore so I couldn’t show her the dates. Her Majesty’s Revenue will have to look them up. I hope I pass the test. It’s like The Battle of Britain trying to get a foothold in this place. I wonder if it was this difficult for the English when they took over half the world? :-)

Oops! Rabid fanatic hat again. :-)

On the subject of washing machines, I have now added plumbing to my growing list of accomplishments. After painting, hanging pictures, and learning how to frame art work, I have also moved a washing machine down eighteen narrow steps and re-installed it in Stiwdio Maelor. I didn’t do the job single handed. I have a very supportive, Welsh learning, ex-librarian friend who kindly offered her tools and expertise. Once we’d got the machine down the steps of Veronica’s house, driven half way to Corris, turned back to collect the part we had forgotten, and then unloaded the washing machine, we were pretty keen to accomplish the task without male intervention. Alas, we were thwarted at the final hurdle. Try as we might, we could not turn the knobs on the water outlets.

Since installing the machine, I have morphed into a non-tree dwelling duplicate of Enid Blyton’s Washer Woman. I have the clothes horses set up in front of the central heating and each time I walk past, I turn the sheets. Yes, there are quite a few significant changes happening in my life, I clean toilets, turn sheets, teach people to light the wood stove, unblock the drains and take the bins out. I will come home a vastly improved version of myself. Though, I’ll be in a different hemisphere. So it might be harder performing the tasks upside down.

Now in case you think I’ve lost sight of the wider world while in Corris, last Thursday, was Thanksgiving and, as we have an American staying in the Stiwdio, it was decided a turkey would be in order. I reckon the butcher saw us coming. It was the most expensive turkey in living history. But, we all ate ourselves silly and made a determined effort to use the left overs (vegetable soup with coriander and turkey stock being my particular contribution). In a couple of weeks, Corris is having a Christmas, Soup and Song evening and in an attempt to give the event an international flavour, I have been asked to make a contribution. I thought I might sing Six White Boomers (like we sing that all the time in Australia) but my preliminary research reminded me that the author was Rolf Harris so…oops! Probably not that one. Any ideas for an Australian Christmas song anyone? I’d hate to admit that we actually sing Jingle Bells in our shorts and sun hats while lighting the BBQ on Christmas Day.

Tan wythnos nesaf!

 

Blog sixteen o Gymru – the pleasures and pitfalls of reviewing

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Margaret Redfern’s novel, The heart remembers. In my review, I may have mentioned that I didn’t like the cover. This may have caused a squeeze of horror in the breasts of those who had produced the book. They may just have written, wanting to know what, exactly, I didn’t like about the cover. I might have mentioned that I’d seen the advanced publicity for the book and preferred the earlier image of a ship. At which point, the author may also dropped me a line, telling me why the advanced publicity cover was no good – historically inaccurate (shows how much I know). By this stage, I was kind of wishing I’d never mentioned the cover. But…that is one of the pitfalls of reviewing.

Or is it a pitfall?

I’d been contacted by the author of three books I had enjoyed immensely and, after agreeing never to talk about the cover again, I’d had the pleasure of discussing aspects of The heart remembers, with the author herself. I seized the opportunity and asked Margaret Redfern whether she would be willing to answer a few questions for my blog. I had, of course, already Googled her. I knew that she came from Yorkshire, originally. I also knew that she’d spent time living in Turkey, Lincolnshire and Wales. My first question was whether she considered herself Welsh.

Now in case you are thinking I’ve developed right wing, ultra-nationalistic tendencies, this questions had nothing to do with genealogy or citizenship and everything to do with Honno (her publisher’s) submissions policy. Gwasg Honno is an independent, cooperative press, established to raise the profile of Welsh women writers. To submit to Honno, you need to be Welsh or have strong links to Wales. I was curious to know which category Redfern belonged to. Here is how she answered the question.

“My connection to Wales was either happenstance or synchronicity – take your pick […] One of my nieces was working in Pembroke Dock and was homesick for Yorkshire. She is also my goddaughter. I went down to see her, I think 1999 – certainly Wales had just beaten England in the (then) Five Nations. It was around Easter, icy cold and snow of Tenby beach. I got out of the train, walked down to the beach, looked out over Carmarthen Bay, Goscar Rock and across to Worm’s Head, and was smitten. My niece went back to Yorkshire. A year later, I removed myself to Wales.”

The inspiration behind Redfern’s first book, Flint, came about through a similar process of synchronicity. She had left a very difficult job situation in Lincolnshire – and was working at Coleg Sir Benfro and had begun immersing herself in Wales’ history and culture.

“I was roaming around North Wales, poking around the castles and I was standing on the banks of the Dee reading the CADW booklet on Flint Castle. Remember I said I had run away from Lincolnshire to Wales? Well, there was a paragraph that sent shockwaves through my whole body. ‘300 men from the Lincolnshire Fens had been marched from Lincolnshire to Flint to join another 900 fossatores to start digging the footings and moat of the first of Edward 1’s concentric castles. Lincolnshire was stalking me!”

These days, Redfern describes herself as Welsh by adoption, her ‘passport’ written by the writer Nigel Jenkins who declared her ‘New Welsh’ the term Gwyn ‘Alf’ Williams coined for those Sais who embrace Welsh culture and history. She was an awarded honours for MA in creative writing is from Trinity St David’s University. The first five chapters of Flint, written as part of her MA dissertation, were picked up by Honno and “the rest is history. Welsh history.”

For me, one of the most profound aspects of Redfern’s writing, is her universalist spiritual themes. She has somehow managed to write three novels that celebrate both the Islamic and Christian faiths without being preachy, prescriptive or sentimental. I asked her about the time she spent living in Turkey.

“I first went to Turkey in 1971. It was my first teaching post at private girl’s ‘lise’ (as in French lycée) in Adana, about twenty miles from Tarsus, of Paul fame, the ‘citizen of no mean city.’ We drove there, my first husband and me, in an A35 van stuffed full with belongings, setting out two weeks after I had passed my driving test. A terrifying experience, and hugely exciting, travelling across Europe into Turkey and through it, down to Adana in the far south. It was a far different Turkey from today’s tourist resorts: few private cars but huge TIR trucks and oxen-pulled carts and sheep herded through the centre of Ankara and terrible roads. I loved it. […] We took the girls to Konya for the Mevlana festival in early December, one year sleeping on the floor of a school room because there was ‘no room at the inn’. It was a very moving experience, nothing like the tourist attraction it has become, nor the clamouring pilgrimage of devout Muslims. Then, it was more a private experience, and a bit of a Road to Damascus for me. The words quoted in The storyteller’s granddaughter are very well known to Sufi Muslims: gel gel yenigel…come, come, come again, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.”

As a writer I am always interested in people’s writing process. Flint was Redfern’s first novel but it was not, infact, the beginning of her writing career. As a child she was a fan of the TV series: Voyage to the bottom of the sea.

I was so in love with the series, Admiral Horatio Nelson and Captain Lee Crane that I transcribed every episode into story form. I was probably about twelve or thirteen. I illustrated the stories with any clipping I got hold of, usually from the Radio Times – the programme details, rare stills…”

She went on to write romantic fiction for IPC magazines and later for Bella. After moving to Wales, she started following in the footsteps of nineteenth century Pembrokeshire gentleman whose Tour through Pembrokeshire was published in 1810. Her resulting articles were published in Pembrokeshire Life over the next six years. Flint, as I have already mentioned, was started as part of an MA in creative writing. I asked Redfern whether she was a plot-from-the-beginning writer and also how the whole writing and editing process works out for her.

“It is not possible to have than an idea of a character to begin with, in a long story. […] It’s like meeting someone for the first time. It takes time to get to know them, their complexities, their reactions…other writers say this, also that when what you write is not ‘in character’, it’s almost as if the character is there jogging your elbow and saying, ‘You can’t make me do that!’ It also makes it impossible to have a definite plot. There must be the idea of a start and finish but, as the characters develop, so they edge the narrative into new directions. To be honest, so does the research. Another little nugget, and another, and another, and suddenly there’s a whole new world view. As for editing! I cannot, try as I might, write a first rough draft and then edit. I have to revise and revise so that some days are spent on redrafting with hardly any new writing. Together with research, both chair-bound and out-and-about exploring, it all takes far too long. Sometimes I obsessively search for some tiny detail for hours – days – and it amounts to a few words in the text. I’ve said before that, contrary to advice, I use a camera to record scenes, weather, settings, information, and often use this instead of written notes – which I also make. So tips for emerging writers? Recognise the demands of different genre […] and never be without that notebook and pen/pencil but beyond that do what works for you.”

 

Some gems there for the writerly among us. “Do what works for you.” Is probably the key element – not only for novel writing, but for life in general. Though, I can certainly relate to Redfern’s inability to write a completely unedited first draft and, of course, the allure of historical research.

Maragaret Redfern’s three books: Flint, The storyteller’s granddaughter, and The heart rememebrs are all available through Gwasg Honno, the Welsh women’s press. I cannot recommend them highly enough and, with Christmas coming up, they would be the perfect gift for any lover or Welsh history or, indeed, literary historical fiction in general.

 

Blog fifteen o Gymru – making headlines in West Wales

Stiwdio Maelor is a residency stiwdio in Corris, mid Wales – a place where artists and writers can take time apart from their busy lives in order to create. It has no permanent gallery space, or events budget. However, occasionally an artist on an extended residency, will express the desire to exhibit new work. Then, depending on space and timetabling the Stiwdio will host an exhibition.

Now, in case you haven’t realised, I do not have a visual arts background. When Veronica left, within twenty four hours of my arriving in Wales (yes, unavoidably bad timing) I began to realise the challenges I would face. Within days, I found myself taking down an exhibition, part of which involved dismantling delicate glass-domed landscape reproductions with white gloves and re-packing them into numbered polystyrene layers of protection. Driving home in the car afterwards, Jonathan Syltie, the artist who’d been roped into helping me, said:

‘You don’t know much about art. But you seem to have a fair amount of common sense which is almost as good in the long run.’

The comment filled me with a ridiculous level of pride.

I used the same common sense a few weeks later when the ‘organiser’ of Jonathan’s exhibition flew to Portugal, without telling us, on the morning of the opening.

Setting up for Helfa Gelf – Gwynedd’s open arts trail – was decidedly tricker. Two of our Stiwdio artists had cancelled at the last minute leaving me alone with a big empty house and an American artist, Cindy Steiler. Fortunately, Cindy was more than adequate to the task. Between us, we managed to fill the house with art-work and people. After going through the Stiwdio one elderly gentleman said: ‘I haven’t seen anything this good in years.’

‘Seriously,’ Cindy said, when I mentioned it later. ‘That old guy needs to get out more.’

She was right. But that didn’t stop me feeling blue ribbon proud of what we had achieved.

When Mita Solanky, our British born artist in residence with a Gujarati heritage, expressed an interest in showing her new body of work, Veronica came up with the idea of asking, Mayur Raj Verma, a former Bollywood actor who now lives in Dolgellau to open the exhibition. He agreed and, as the dates of Raj’s availability, coincided with Diwali – the Hindu Festival of Lights – we decided to run with a Diwali theme – complete with candles, rangoli lights and Indian nibbles.

My job was to set up the Facebook publicity and to write the press releases. Stiwdio Maelor hasn’t hitherto enjoyed much success with the local papers. This time we hit their sweet spot. I like to think it had something to do with my excellent turn of phrase but, more likely, the name Raj Verma provided the entry point. Whatever the case, we were in there, on page twenty six right after the headlines: Boss hits employee on head head with broom, and, Police make arrest after part of man’s ear bitten off. Indeed! It’s all happening in West Wales.

In the lead up to the exhibition, we stripped the wallpaper and re-painted the common room. Found out the framers could not get our donated works ready in time for the exhibition. Spent a day framing them ourselves and another day hanging them. The latter was a serious business, involving hammers, nails, and plumb lines.

‘Damn!’ Veronica said, soon after she arrived. ‘I have forgotten my drill.

‘No, you haven’t,’ I replied, pointing to a big orange drill on the bench.

‘That’s not my drill. It’s Inge’s.’

At which point , I realised I had missed out on one of life’s foundational experiences. Drill ownership. ‘I’ve never had a drill.’ I confessed.

‘Every woman needs her own drill.’ Veronica replied, with a disbelieving shake of her head.

We planned a rough program for the afternoon:

2pm – doors opened

2.30 – Veronica welcomed everyone

2.35 – Raj made a speech and opened the exhibition

2.45 – Mita’s work was open for viewing

3.00 – artist talk by Mita Solanky

3.30 – readings by writers in residence Justin Wolfers and Elizabeth Jane Corbett

4.00 – short documentary on the Bollywood film industry

The afternoon went without a hitch – apart from floods making the Machynlleth Bridge impassable, Mita’s sister’s car breaking down, the Stiwdio doors getting accidentally locked so that people were standing in the rain, and Veronica announcing she lived in Dolgellau with Raj. Fortunately she corrected her error – perhaps it had something to do with the startled look on his wife’s face? Otherwise, Stiwdio Maelor may have enjoyed an altogether different headline in the local paper. Something like: Bollywood star’s wife hits stiwdio owner over head with broom.

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