Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Month: May 2017

Lost in another world – some serious Welshing

You’d be excused for thinking I’ve dropped off the planet. I have in fact, been in another world. A mile-long-resource-list, race-against-the-clock world, in which I’ve pitted my wits against legal and institutional constraints in order to access information.

Mostly, I have been working in Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, a gorgeous Art Deco building, nestled half way up Aberystwyth’s Penglais Hill, which is home to the largest collection of maps, manuscripts, books and journals pertaining to Wales. After a rocky start, in which I inadvertently broke the library’s ‘no digital photos’ rule, I booked myself into a library tour. In English (yes, that serious), followed by a one-on-one introductory session with a librarian. Through these session, I worked out that I could in fact use the library photocopier to scan to my email address for five pence a page. Which is outrageous, seeing as I have a perfectly good scanner on my iPad. But preferable to paying the £20 per day photography fee. The only constraint being that each page comes through as a separate email. So, when not at the library, I’ve spent hours downloading and moving individual PDF pages into folders. But, LlGC weren’t about to change their policy for a jumped up Aussie with aspirations of writing a novel from the point-of-view of Owain Glyn Dwr’s wife. So, I figured I’d better just toe the line.

As it turns out, LlGC is an amazing place to work. The building is stunning and they have whole bays full of the books I have been online-drooling over for months. I’m not sure what the staff make of me. You see I keep turning up and ordering lots of items and I persist in speaking Welsh, even when English would be easier. However, on seeing my book list and my extensive use of the catalogue’s ‘saved items’ function, the librarian conducting the introductory session figured I wasn’t going away. At least, not for the foreseeable future, and, quite frankly, I’ve been having a ball. Even, if the poor staff are working overtime.

Now, in case you don’t know the lay of the land, Stiwdio Maelor (an amazing creative artist’s residency studio in North Wales), is over an hour away on the most direct bus route to the LlGC. Fortunately, my good friend Carolyn now lives in Borth (only twenty minutes on the train). I have therefore been doing lots of sleep overs. Ours is a Welsh language friendship, so in addition to harassing the library staff, I’ve spent my evenings nattering to Caroline, whose Welsh is way better than mine (bonus for me). When, our friend Gareth joined us for the weekend, it was like Bootcamp all over again, with miming, misunderstanding and lame jokes in the Welsh language. We stayed up late one night comparing childhood TV experiences (as you do). When asked about Aussie TV shows, the only program I could come up with was Skippy. Which for some reason, we all found hilarious in the early hours of the morning.

As Carolyn works for Y Lolfa, I scored an invite to their fiftieth birthday party. For those who don’t know, Y Lolfa is a small press specializing in Welsh and English language books with a Welsh focus. I hadn’t realized Y Lolfa was founded in 1960s during the heady days in which Merched y Wawr was established and in which, Gwynfor Evans won Plaid Cymru’s first seat in parliament. It seemed fitting that the event featured a video with fake greetings from the queen. The following quote from Y Lolfa’s editor pretty much sums up the tone of the evening:

In a world dominated by large corporations and bureaucracies Y Lolfa believes that ‘small is beautiful’ in publishing as in life. It was André Gide who said: “I like small nations. I like small numbers. The world will be saved by the few.”

In the midst of all this Welshing (my friend Veronica has assigned a verb to my activities), I also got interviewed by S4C. It was my friend Helen’s fault. She’d been asked to do an interview for the Welsh learner’s TV program Dal ati. Being a self confessed hater of public speaking, she suggested I might like to join her. I wasn’t sure the producers of Dal ati would be all that keen on an Aussie interloper. My suspicions were confirmed when the producers sent a list of questions to Helen and not to me. But due to the above mentioned self-confessed hatred, I decided a show of moral support was required. As it turned out the strategy back-fired on both of us because, once they realized that we were friends, who had met online through the SSiW language forum, their journalistic eyes lit up. Helen’s carefully considered responses were thrown out the window and, all of a sudden, the cameras started rolling. The result, Helen’s excellent Welsh turned to ice and my mouth went into overdrive (my own peculiar nervous reaction) and I proceeded to make a number of ridiculous statements which, if they don’t edit rigorously, will see me portrayed me as light-headed Aussie bimbo on national TV.

Helen and I spent so long licking our wounds after the interview that I missed the train to Borth. Which meant that I had to change for the Parti Penblwydd Y Lolfa in the tiny toilet cubicle of the Wynnstay Hotel. This meant ordering an obligatory drink in the Pizzeria which, incidentally, sold only crisps. As I was wearing a borrowed dress (thanks Carolyn), I wasn’t sure how it should look and, quite frankly, the Wynnstay’s mirrors weren’t nearly long enough. I ended up crowning the afternoon’s loopy utterances by asking a couple in the Crisperia whether they thought I had my dress on backwards. They, to their credit, took the question in their stride. The man even said I looked very nice. Needless to say, I left the hotel pretty swiftly after that and made absolutely certain I didn’t open my mouth at all on the bus back into town.

We had dinner at a Greek restaurant prior to the Parti Penblwydd and found out too late that they only took payment in cash. While Gareth made a dash to the teller machine, the waitress made polite conversation with me.

‘There are lots of Welsh speakers out tonight (like they are normally locked up). Is something going on?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘it is Y Lolfa’s 50th birthday party.’

Upon which, her eyes grew wide. ‘And you’ve come all the way from Australia?’

It was tempting, oh so tempting to reply in the affirmative. But I didn’t want ‘dreadful liar’ added to my already going-down-hill reputation. Turns out this was wise because, during the party, the three of us were discussing something that involved pushing buttons. The verb to push was unfamiliar to Gareth.

‘Gwthio? He asked.

I said, yes, gwthio, and mimed the action of pushing a button. For some reason, Gareth had confused the verb to push with the verb to pull. So Carolyn said tynnu and mimed the action of pulling a lever. Through a series of repeat actions (which may have included a few other verbs) we established the contrasting meanings, at the end of which we looked up into the eyes of a startled onlooker, ‘Er…do you always communicate like this?’

‘Well, yes, of course, doesn’t everyone?’

Diary of a friendship – walking in wild lonely places

When my friend Lorraine realized she would be in London for a conference during the time I would be staying in Wales, we hatched a plan: To do some walking together in the Berwyn Mountains.  The choice of location was mine (for research reasons). But the decision to walk well and truly pre-dates this phase of our lives.

Lorraine and I first met, in the early nineties. She was newly married and pregnant and had just moved into the area. Her third daughter and my eldest daughter were enrolled in kindergarten together. I had three children. She had almost four. Over the next few years our friendship deepened. I moved to Fiji and added another child to my brood. Lorraine’s family grew by a couple more heads too. Our blokes met at some point. We became family friends, sharing holidays and meals together. Through all that time, though our kids were at different secondary schools and we had embarked on post-baby career paths, we always made time to meet. Often, it would simply be for a walk along the Dandenong Creek. We talked faith and families, disappointments and aspirations, husbands, marriage health, midlife transitions and everything in between – always honestly, always deeply, and never ever boringly.

Lorraine is a more intrepid person than me (like she has walked the Camino alone, in the snow). It was her initiative to camp together, all those summers ago, minus our husbands, planting ourselves on the beach with sun shelters and ten children between us. But despite her intrepid nature (or perhaps due to my lack), we decided not to tackle a difficult walk in Wales. But to simply enjoy days out in the Llangollen area. Lorraine was quite happy for me to set the agenda. Which I did, with a totally Powys Fadog focus. Here’s how the week panned out:

Saturday:

We caught the bus to Chirk Castle (originally part of Powys Fadog), met my friend Andy and his family, and returned to Llangollen via the canal towpath. It brought back memories of a canal boat holiday I’d shared with my friends Nicky and Sue. Chirk was an Arundel Castle during the period of my novel. A place where troops were often mustered. It was good to get a sense of its location and to realize how much of present day Shropshire the princes of Powys Fadog once ruled.

Sunday:

We went to church in St Chad’s, Hanmer, the place where Mared and Owain are believed to have married. I’d been staring at the place on a map for months but I had not quite grasped the dominance of the Mere (some re-writing of those scenes definitely required). After Hanmer we enjoyed tea and cakes with friends in Market Drayton and drove back to Oswestry via route Mared would have taken to her new home. We stopped for a wander around Oswestry, getting a feel for the size and layout of the medieval town. We then drove to Sycharth where I attempted to visualize the site as it had been described to me by the archaeologist Spencer Gavin Smith a few days prior. A great way to reinforce my learning.

Monday:

We’d picked up a brochure on the Dee Valley Way at the information centre. The descriptions indicated a gentle walk along Dyffryn Dyfrdwy. The map told a different story and we soon found ourselves climbing the face of the mountains behind Carrog. The signs petered out somewhere around Bwlch y Groes. We lost our way and, after hours of wandering round the mountains, we ended up at a pub in Glyndyfrdwy. But it was great to see the wild lonely places of Owain’s estates. The land changed its face so suddenly up there.

Tuesday:

We walked to Valle Crucis Abbey which was originally founded by Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor in 1201. The tranquility of the place was amazing , despite all the subsequent desecrations, and once you got inside the abbey walls it was almost possible to forget the ring of caravans parked right up against them. We then walked to Dinas Bran another significant Powys Fadog site where the views were spectacular. After the walk, I decided to drive out to Bwrdd y Tri Arglwydd, a prehistoric burial chamber that is said to have marked the boundaries between Iâl, Glyndfrdwy and Dyffryn Clwyd. A dispute over those borders is believed to have triggered Owain’s entry into the revolt. Though, I believe the situation was a great deal more complex than it has been portrayed.

Wednesday:

Due to a mix up of dates we headed back to Corris for our final night, visiting Pennant Melangell along the way. Melangell was a seventh century Irish saint who saved a hare from a royal huntsman and was granted land to build a monastery. The monastery was no longer operational by the fourteenth century. But Melangell’s shrine had become a popular pilgrim site. I am playing with the symbolism of Melangell in my novel – protector of the weak and vulnerable. Melangell has been sixteen year old Mared’s favourite saint since childhood.

Crossing the Dyfi just out of Machynlleth, I responded to the amazing run of good weather by suggesting we visit the seaside town of Aberdyfi. It was a perfect way to end a week of walking, talking, wine drinking, site seeing, and simply being friends. If you’d told us all those years ago, while we were carving out half hour walks along the Dandenong Creek, that we would one day meet up in Wales, I doubt we would have believed it. I certainly wouldn’t have believed that I’d set out to write an Aussie immigration novel and learn to speak Welsh in the process; that the language journey would include multiple and increasingly protracted visits to Wales; that my first novel, The Tides Between, would be picked up and published by Odyssey Books in October 2017. Or that I would make the audacious (I’m only now realizing how audacious) decision to write a second novel from the point-of-view of Owain Glyndwr’s wife. But I have done all those things and here I am back in Wales. It was great to celebrate those milestones with one of my dearest friends.

A week in the Welsh language and finding missing parts of me

I have survived my second official SSiW Bootcamp. This one, in Caernarfon – the heart of Cymru Cymraeg – where you can still hear Welsh spoken in shops, pubs and on every street corner. A place where you can be confident no one supports Terisa Mai, where there is a massive memorial to Llywelyn ein Llyw Olaf outside the council buildings and where the town guide proudly announces he has been a paid up member of Plaid Cymru since he was sixteen years of age. A perfect place in which to spend a week without English. Which is essentially what a Welsh language Bootcamp involves.

This was my second SSiW Bootcamp and I therefore knew it was possible to survive in the Welsh language. Added to which, I’ve been on informal Welsh language holidays with friends. But for most of the Bootcampers, last week was a first-time experience and therefore a momentous challenge and, let me tell you, when Aran left the first evening, the fear in the living room was palpable.

The concept of Bootcamp is simple – a holiday with nine other learners in a totally Welsh language environment. However, it is a grave, desperate, sink or swim situation because, opposed to an intensive language course, in which you tackle grammar, reading, writing and translation, the emphasis is conversation – and there is a strictly no English rule. If you are talking about pets for example and you do not know the word for cat, you cannot look it up in the dictionary. Nor can you say: Beth yw’r gair am cat (what is the word for cat)? You must talk around the missing word by saying something like: Beth yw’ gair am y peth sy’n dweud meow (what is the name of the thing that says miaow). Or if you are really desperate, you might simply say: miaow.

If you think that sounds wacky, well … it is.

But it works. By not swapping back and forth between English and Welsh you somehow flip your brain into an intense neurological restructure. Truly. I saw people start the week blinking like rabbits in headlights while desperately masticating sentences. I saw spirits rise at small triumphs, then come crashing down at the next hurdle. But by the end of the week, no one had starved, become permanently lost in Caernarfon, or come close to perishing, and, although no one felt like their Welsh had improved, we were all speaking far more fluidly.

I have read that in each language a person has a slightly different personality. I believe my long-suffering high school Japanese teacher may have tried to convey this possibility of an extended self to me years ago. As a monolingual person, I did not believe him, did not know there was Welsh language version of me. But I know now (and have done for some time) that the Welsh speaking Elizabeth Jane Corbett is a different person to the English speaking one. I miss her when she is silenced. I can only begin to imagine the hiraeth experienced by Welsh speakers in an increasingly Anglicised Wales – as if torn from a vital part of themselves.

I once participated in an online forum where people called Welsh speakers language ‘fanatics’ and lamented the fact that so much money was spent on bilingual signage. The presumption was of course that the signs should all be in English. That is infact the presumption of all who decry the expense of creating a bilingual Wales. Deep down they are simply saying: give up and speak English. Yet I come to Wales for the language. I’ve been six times in the last twelve years (my husband earns lots of frequent flyers points). I have stayed many months, bought food, hired cars, attended courses, paid for accommodation and I can tell you, as breathtaking as I find the scenery, that is not what draws me back. What draws me back is the Elizabeth Jane I didn’t know existed – the wacky, laugh a lot, stay in odd places, marvel over new words, meet up with strangers, somehow-more-complete Elizabeth Jane Corbett who I suspect has been lost for a very long time.

I got yelled at for speaking Welsh on Bootcamp. You know that still happens, don’t you? Along with the accusations that Welsh speakers are only trying to speak Welsh to disclude English speakers. Or talk about them. As if people are so damned interesting! But it came as a shock in Caernarfon where the percentage of first language Welsh speakers is so high. I wrote a story about the experience. In Welsh. I’m not going to translate the story. If you don’t speak Welsh, you’ll have to use Google. It is written by an Elizabeth Jane Corbett you may never know. 🙂

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Pa Mor Bell 

Pan glywes i byddai Bootcamp SSiW yn fwrdeistref Caernarfon o’n i’n awyddus i fynd. O’n i ‘di bod yn darllen am hanes bwrdeistrefi brenhinol Cymru.

Llefydd di-Gymraeg oedden nhw, wedi eu sefydlu gan Edward I o gwmpas ei gestyll enfawr er mwyn cadw’r Cymry i lawr. O’n i’n hoffi’r syniad o aros yn hen fwrdeistref Edward I er mwyn gwella fy Nhgymraeg i.

Ond roedd mwy o symboliaeth yn yr wythnos nag o’n i’n disgwyl.

Ylwch, dw i ‘di bod yn darllen tipyn am Owain Glyn Dwr yn ddiweddar. Efallai wnes i son am y pwnc yn ystod wythnos Bootcamp – dim lot, dim ond unwaith neu ddegwaith. 🙂 Caernarfon, dych chi’n gweld, oedd lle cododd Owain Glyndwr y ddraig aur – baner Uther Pendragon – am y tro cyntaf. O’n i’n awyddus i godi baner Glyn Dwr ar ben Twthill, a daeth y dysgwyr eraill gyda fi. Bore braf a heulog oedd hi. Roedd pawb yn chwerthin a jocian yn y Gymraeg tra fod nhw’n cerdded lan y bryn. Pan codais i faner Glyn Dwr tu fas i hen furiau castell Edward I o’n i’n meddwl pa mor bell mae Cymru wedi dod.

Wrth gerdded yn ôl i’r dref, o’n i’n darllen bob arwydd, yn trio deall pob gair, yn trio dysgu y mwyaf sy’n bosib mewn un wythnos. Yn meddwi ar y cyfle i fyw yn yr iaith Gymraeg. Roedd un arwydd yn dweud: cerbydau BT yn unig. Beth ydw BT yn ei feddwl, holais fy hun. A dyma fi’n sylweddoli wedyn. British Telecommunications. Troais i o gwmpas i rannu’r joc gyda Bootcampwr arall pan ddaeth dyn diarth tuag aton ni.

‘Are you lost?’ meddai fe.

‘Nac ydw,’ medda i. ‘Dyn ni’n iawn, diolch.’

‘I don’t speak Welsh,’ meddai fe yn ôl. Ond gwelais i yn ei lygaid fod e’n deall bob gair wnes i ddweud.

Wnes i ail-ddweud fy ateb cyntaf: ‘Dyn ni’n iawn diolch.’

Tawelwch. Gwelais i wyneb y dyn yn cochi, ei gen yn tynhau. Welais i’r dicter yn ei lygaid llwyd. Ac wedyn y ffrwydrad. ‘I don’t speak Welsh!’ gwaeddodd ata i. ‘What part of that do you not understand?’

Nawr, person eitha styfnig ydw i. Ces i fy magu yn Awstralia, wedi’r cyfan. Do’n i ddim yn mynd i newid iaith achos bod bwli yn grac gyda fi. Ond yr eilaid yna oedd rhyw deimlad, fel y haul y bore, wedi diflannu. Sefyll yno gyda’r dyn crac yn gweiddi aran i, o’n i’n meddwl pa mor bell eto sydd rhaid i Gymru fynd.

***

Thanks to Aran Jones for help with the editing.

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