Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

The unwritten rules of Welsh class

We have two unwritten rules in our Welsh class.

Firstly, if you go to Wales you must send a postcard – preferably written in Welsh. On my first trip ‘home’ to Wales, I had only been learning the language for six weeks. Having learned Rydw i’n hoffi and dydw i ddim yn hoffi, I filled the entire postcard with lists of foods I liked (faggots, Welsh Cake, bara brith) and foods didn’t like so much (laver bread) and, in a feat of linguistic dexterity I also told them the foods I didn’t like very much but that I didn’t hate (cockles, in case you are interested).

The second rule in our class is that, all books, DVD’s, and torrent files pertaining to Wales must be shared. Imagine the tension when a new offering is laid on the classroom table. The eyes of the only fifteen people in Melbourne who care take on a fanatical gleam. It’s like being in a secret society. Or at least the closest I will ever get to being in one. How sweet, to be with a group of others who get the ‘obsession.’

Recently, someone brought a copy of Pen Talar to class, a nine part TV drama spanning fifty years of the Welsh independance movement, that originally aired on S4C in 2010. I was second cab off the rank to borrow the DVDs and the timing couldn’t have been better. I got watch my nightly episodes with the Scotland referendum unfolding in the background.

Pen Talar tells it’s story through the lives of two West Wales families and in particular, through the experiences of their sons – Defi, a middle class boys whose father is the local school master, and Douglas, a ‘council house’ boy with an alcoholic father. The story opens in the seeming innocence of the nineteen fifties. Defi and Doug witnessess a crime – a shocking crime which binds, haunts and terrifies them well into their adult years. The fictional stories of Defi and Doug carry the viewers through each episode and, in common with all good historical fiction, we learn as much about the era in which the work was created as we do about the times being portrayed. In Pen Talar, we witness abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, marriage failure, tragic death and police corruption.

Forget London, Paris, New York, the action was all happening in West Wales.

The main reason I like watching Welsh TV is, of course, for the language. Though, for Pen Talar, I must confess to using the subtitles. They weren’t completely necessary. In many instances, I understood what was being said before the words appeared on the screen. But in this series, I wanted to understand the nuances (which are sadly still beyond me). I will, now go back and watch each episode in Welsh to reinforce the learning experience.

In Pen Talar, I recognised most of the actors from other Welsh language movies and TV series. The two Welsh characters from Patagonia were part of the series, multiple characters from a Gwaith Cartref and Alys. Even Dave Coaches from Gavin and Stacey got a gig. This is not surprising. I’m constantly amazed by who knows who in Cymru Cymraeg. With only 562,000 fluent Welsh speakers, the acting pool is limited. Yet, I am constantly blown away by the standard.

Pen Talar wasn’t simply an historical drama – it was a political drama. Through Defi’s eyes, we saw the mood after Tryweryn, the defeat of the first devolution referendum, the investiture of Prince Charles, holiday cottage burnings, Sinn Fein sympathies, bombing attempts, Gwynfor Evans’ courageous hunger strike, the coal industry under Thatcher, Blair’s eventual election victory, and the build up to second referendum, with only three months notice and Princes Diana’s tragic death overshadowing the entire process. It made me realise how long and hard the struggle, how truly visionary the early leaders. I knew the outcome of that 1997 referendum, won by only a slim majority, and I know Wales has since gone to increase its powers. But when they used real historical footage to announce the results on Pen Talar, my vision blurred. The series ended with these beautiful words.

My Wales, and land of my brotherhood,

My cry, my religion, the world’s only balm,

Her mission, her challenge

Pearl of the infinite hour held hostage by time,

Hope of the long course on the short term,

This was my window, the harvesting and the shearing,

I saw order in my palace yonder

There is a roar, a greed through a windowless forest,

Let us guard the wall against the beast,

Let us guard the well against the mire.

I’m not sure who wrote the poem. Hopefully, I’ll pick up the name on my second viewing. Unless, someone out there knows? And wants to drop me a line?



An ignorant Aussie looks at the Scottish referendum


A writer’s sick leave


  1. Menna Hughes

    Shw mae heddiw, Elizabeth,
    Whilst I am convalescing after Chondroplasty op. on my right knee..and a cataract removal from my left eye….will try to get a copy of ‘Pen Talar’ for viewing and learning!
    Diolch yn fawr iawn EJ. dw i’n hoffi darllen eich ysgrifennau. Dal ati!

  2. Diolch yn fawr Menna! I hope your knee improves soon.

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