Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Author: Elizabeth Jane Corbett (Page 1 of 37)

The wrap up – affirmation, extreme generosity and the Welsh language

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Over the last two months, I have stayed in London, Bowness-on-Windermere, Caernarfon, Corris, Llangollen, Y Bont Faen, Llandysul and Y Borth. I have worked in the British Library, the National Archives and Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru. I’ve received so much help and affirmation. I have also crossed the line which all Welsh learners yearn to cross – having friends with whom I relate solely in the Welsh language. But how to sum it all up?

Let’s start with the generosity.

I caught an inkling, Mared, wife of Owain Glyn Dwr, would be the subject of my next novel while living in Wales. My friend Aran lamented that there had not been a major film about Owain Glyn Dwr.  I read some books, realized he’d had a wife, and thought, what would it have been like to be that woman? The idea for a novel was born. I set about reading everything I could get my hands on. I also wrote to academics. One of them, Dr Gideon Brough, was particularly encouraging.

At the time, his affirmation was massively important. See, back then, I wasn’t sure I had a right to tell Mared’s story. This uncertainty has been borne out during a number of my recent meetings. From people tentatively asking: so, Liz, what made you want to write about Mared? Er…you do realize this is a contentious topic? Or simply the startled faces of people who have recently moved to Wales: Oh, God, what barrow is she trying to push here? 

I get this tension. When a country has been conquered, annexed and incorporated, when it’s language is fighting for its life, when academics drop in for flying visits and act like they know everything, when Owain’s name has been hijacked by various political causes, or when you’ve simply moved to Wales and want to feel welcome, the idea of an Aussie interloper coming in and stirring the pot is alarming. Yet, Gideon, never once questioned my right to tell the story. He simply said: go for it! This project is long overdue. He also spent a whole day of his kids’ half term holiday (like all day) answering my lame questions.

The day I spent with archaeologist Spencer Gavin Smith and his wife Megan (also an archaeologist) was similarly incredible. I wrote asking a for information and ended up being given a full guided tour of the Glyn Dwr sites (during which I asked an alternate string of lame questions). Because of Spencer, I spent my last day in the library trawling through the Transactions of the Denbighshire Historical Society, unearthing all manner of articles by Derek Pratt. I braved English roads and drove to Lower Brockhampton so that I could see the type of home in which Mared would have lived. I also faced octopus-on-steroids roundabouts in South Wales and learned that SatNav’s work best when you are paying attention – not when you are re-writing story scenes in your head. But that is another story…

In Llandysul, I spent a day and a half with Dr John Davies, a man with an impressive beard, an even more incredible library, and a keen interest in Owain Glyn Dwr’s mother’s family. John drove me around the borders of Owain’s southern estates, answered multiple questions, gave me CDs and memory sticks bursting with information. He also gave me the precious gift of assuming my Welsh was up to the task of discussing history – which it was. An incredible milestone.

Add to the above, the countless people who made time to catch up with me – too many to list but you know who you are – my friend Lorraine who listened to me ‘think aloud’ for a week in Llangollen and, of course, the incredible Veronica Calarco who, through setting up Stiwdio Maelor, has made it possible for me to spend extended periods in Wales. I stayed overnight with my friend Carolyn in Y Borth more times than was polite, took my brand new friend Anne up on her offer of accommodation in South Wales, had the fascinated company of Dee and Iestyn on the John Davies’ magical history tour, got shown around the Senedd Dy by Neil McEvoy and met up with an amazing group of SSiWer’s in the Mochyn Du.

On top of all this, my friend Aled in Australia suggested I catch up with Carys Davies (wife of the late Sir Rhys Davies, author of the incredible The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr) and Gruffudd Aled Williams (author of Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyn Dwr). I felt nervous about phoning the above. I hate cold calling people – especially in Welsh. Added to which, this was Cymru Cymraeg and all the old doubts about my right to tell this story came flooding back. But I took a deep breath, dialed their numbers (rather than confess a lack of courage to Aled), and, as a consequence, enjoyed two lovely dinners in Caffi Pen Dinas. With Carys, I chatted about my mother’s family, how I’d learned Welsh, and my recent Say Something in Welsh Bootcamp. Before long, we were chuckling over the pictures of me clambering onto that pillar on top of Twt Hill (thanks Aran). After lunch, we attended a lecture in the Drwm where I was introduced to people as, Liz, who is writing a novel from the point-of-view of Owain Glyn Dwr’s wife. I thought: okay, maybe, this is going to be alright.

While having lunch with Gruffudd Aled Williams a few weeks later, we discussed history and winced over some of Glyn Dwr’s more anachronistic portrayals – like taking tea with his family in the fourteenth century and Iolo Goch drinking blood from a skull. At some point, I don’t know when, I decided it was safe to share the outline of my story. It is a fragile thing, a story concept, without the build up you put into developing it on the page, and not easily shared but, for some reason, it all came tumbling out. In Welsh. But strangely I didn’t need  language to understand Gruffudd’s response. I saw it in his eyes, the way he smiled, leaning back in his chair. O, hyfryd…

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Lost in another world – some serious Welshing

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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?’

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Diary of a friendship – walking in wild lonely places

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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.

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

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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. 🙂

***

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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Family Fun – a week in the Lake District

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I  have always wanted to visit Lake District, ever since I read Swallows and Amazons in primary school. So when my son, Jack, suggested we meet there for a family holiday it fulfilled twin purposes, spending some time with family and ticking an item off my bucket list. I saw the original ‘Swallow’ went on a walk to Beatrix Potter’s Hilltop Farm, learned a little about Ruskin’s work and did two jigsaw puzzles. In between, I remembered how busy is life with pre-schoolers.

Charlie is an early riser who loves trains, as much his father did at the same age. We went on a steam train, during which he tried to convince me that he always drank Coca Cola, woke at four am one morning, ate his breakfast and then decided to contribute to our jigsaw puzzle at which point he woke the whole household to share in his success. I watched him ride his bike, play on the iPad, negotiate over whether or not to wear his coat and gloves and bike helmet, listened to him form amazing sentences and marveled at how much attitude an almost four year old could put into the word ‘fine.’

Born last December, this was my first meeting with Christopher. As we organized our week around his feeds, nappy changes and sleeps, I remembered how lovely it is to kiss a downy head, to earn a baby smile, and to have an infant’s warm body grow slack and heavy in my arms. Ness and I walked to Hilltop Farm and took turns in the swimming pool/gym at the local spa while Jack climbed Scarfell Pike. When I managed to get Christopher dried, dressed and safely in the land of nod all the while keeping an eye on Charlie bobbing about in the water, I felt like I’d climbed England’s highest mountain. How did I ever get through those early years?


Now I’m on the train to Wales. I’ll spend the first week on a Welsh language Bootcamp in Caernarfon. I’m feeling unaccountably nervous, considering I’ve done this before. I think it is because I’m ‘supposed’ to be able to speak Welsh well. At least, I could a little over a year ago after living in Corris for seven months. But my Welsh language brain feels rusty. Hopefully, this week will be a kick-start me back into almost fluency. There will be loads of bumbling half sentences, shrieks of laughter, moments of complete incomprehension (like all those Cofi accents) and huge leaps in understanding. I won’t be on social media much as it will defeat the purpose of a non-English week and rob me of my progress. I may do a few posts in my learner’s Welsh so if you can’t read them, get-over-it (or use Google translate). I will look forward to re-entering the English speaking world on 30th of April.

 

Hwyl tan hynny!

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Longing is a woman’s song – in search of Marred Glyn Dwr

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The idea of writing a novel from Marred Glyn Dwr’s viewpoint came to me early one morning. I woke to the impression of a woman alone in a tower room looking back over her life. I heard her voice that morning, knew she had a story to tell. The aim of the last three days in London has been to forge a tactile connection with Marred and the people in her life.

Public Records Office

My pressing dilemma (because I’m ready to write the scenes) is to determine how long Glyn Dwr served under Gregory Sais at Berwick in the year 1384. It has been pointed out to me that this was possibly not the highpoint of Owain’s military career. That is true. But guess what? This isn’t about Owain! Marred, his young wife, would have been sixteen years old at the time (possibly younger) and newly married. This would have been the first time she’d managed her husband’s household in his absence. The first time she sent him off on campaign. She’d have been homesick, heartsick, perhaps even morning sick. She would have been counting down the days until his return.

There are two entries for Glyn Dwr in the Medieval Soldiers database for 1384 – 24th January and 1st of March. Both are from Muster Rolls. From my reading I had gathered that men undertook to serve on a campaign some months prior mustering. In my mind, the above dates represented the day Glyn Dwr signed up and the day he actually turned up. I’ve since been told this wasn’t the case. I hoped therefore to gain some clarity from the Muster Rolls. A naive assumption, as it turns out. But well worth the effort. See it turns out the Muster Rolls were real, fourteenth century lists enscribed on vellum. Like real. As in six hundred years old real. Faded, barely legible and, of course,  written in no form I could decipher. I am as a consequence no closer to knowing how long Glyn Dwr served at Berwick. But I saw his name on Muster Rolls for 1384, 1387 and 1388. Which gave me a tangible frisson of excitement (even if it isn’t all about Owain).

British Library

I applied for a British Library Readers Ticket online, prior to leaving Australia, and ordered items in advance. There is a system to using both the British Library and National Archives – no pens or pocket knives, multiple security checks, free lockers and large clear plastic bags provided for your research essentials. I particularly wanted to see the Exchequer Rolls in which the evidence of Marred’s imprisonment are to be found. Fortunately, these were not six hundred years old. A historian had been there before me, translating them and publishing them in an easily readable form. But it was thrilling and more than a little sobering to see the black and white paper trail of her final days.

Tower of London
Marred’s son, Gruffudd, was captured and imprisoned around 1405. Since most of Glyn Dwr’s men were executed upon capture, we can only assume that Gruffudd’s imprionment in the Tower was intended to force his father’s surrender. Owain never surrendered. Gruffudd died (possibly from the plague) sometime during 1409. The fall of Harlech gave the king a fresh new set of hostages. I didn’t visit the Crown Jewels while at the Tower or buy an ice cream, or visit the Tudor Armoury, or peruse the Fussilier’s Museum. I simply wandered the grounds trying to envisage the Tower as it would have been in 1409. A palace, a fortress, and a prison. From the £30 spent on their upkeep, we can guess the Glyn Dwr women were initially kept in a degree of comfort. They would have been allowed out into the castle ward under guard and perhaps to worship in the church on Sundays. But the siege of Harlech had been harsh and protracted, during one of the longest, coldest winters on record. Catrin had lost her husband during the siege. Marred most likely knew she would never see Owain again. Starved and heartsick, the women and children faced a long journey to London, whereupon they were imprissoned in a forbidding stone fortress surrounded by a foetid moat. As Catrin’s infant son had a distant claim to the throne of England (stronger than the usurper Henry IV’s) his demise would not have been unwelcome. As it became clear Glyn Dwr wasn’t going to surrender, the women would have become an encumbrance.

We do not know how Marred ended her days. But Catrin and her remaining daughters died in 1413 under suspicious circumstances. They were not buried among the headless bodies of traitors at the Tower, nor in the cemetery set aside for the working community. They were buried in St Swithin’s Churchyard, a brisk twenty-five minute walk away. Why, St Swithin’s? That is a mystery yet to be solved. Though a pamphlet in the British Library hints at a list of St Swithin’s rectors dating back to 1237. Maybe that will hold a clue? St Swithin’s was under the advowson of the Earls of Arundel prior to being assigned to the prior and convent of Tortington in 1367. So that is another possible link. We also know there was a chapel to St Catherine and St Margaret in the church complex. The church was bombed during the Blitz and never rebuilt. Today all that remains is a memorial garden, surrounded by office blocks, builders scaffolding, and the persistent whine of pneumatic drills. A not unfitting resting place for these forgotten women of history. Once I’d found them, I found it strangely moving to be in their presence.

 

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In flight entertainment – a review of Kim Kelly’s Paper Daisies

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I boarded flight QF 9 to London with lofty intentions (I always do), reading journal articles about Welsh soldiers in the Hundred Years War as I waited to board our delayed flight. I even pulled out my battered paperback copy of Life on an English Manor and started making notes in the margins. But there is something mind numbing about a long-haul flight and after I woke from my first crick-necked sleep and realized there was nothing I fancied on the inflight entertainment, I gave myself over to the pleasures of Kim Kelly’s Paper Daisies.

Set at the turn of the century, on the eve of Australia’s Federation, Berylda Jones has passed her first year at Sydney University with flying colours. She is returning to the home of her despised uncle Alec for Christmas. Meanwhile, botanist, Ben Wilbery, fulfills his mother’s dying wish by heading to Bathurst in search of a rare wildflower. Perpetually awkward with women, Ben is enraptured on meeting Berylda and agrees to accompany her on a journey to the old gold rush town of Hill End, little realizing the excursion is part of a desperate plan to free her sister from their guardian’s sadistic clutches

“How odd, it’s no man I have ever seen before, here or anywhere, yet there is something strangely familiar about him. Long flaxen hair like a traveling minstrel, tweed britches and a haversack, he’s travelled of the pages of some great, strapping Walter Scott adventure and up to our yard.”…

… “I lose my way on the words as I look back at the girl and see she is not a girl at all but a young woman, compactly made. She is wearing a blue dress, a blue gown; she is a piece of the sky drifted down onto this chocolate box verandah.”

Inspired by the misogyny experienced during Julia Gillard’s prime ministership, Paper Daisies is a mesmerizingly meditative novel about the powerless of women that is set against the backdrop of the early Australian struggle for women’s franchise. Told in the alternating first person viewpoints of Berylda and Ben, Kelly manages to capture the male-dominated political atmosphere of rural Australia, the violence and abuse against women that ofttimes went unchecked and the courage of those who fought to overcome their desperate situations. The relationship between Ben and Berylda is a necessary silver thread against the dark subject matter of this novel yet despite its tenderness the narrative is never in danger of becoming a tale of about a man rescuing a woman.

Once embarked on this novel, I couldn’t stop its pages from turning. Though I did allow myself a few writerly sighs of envy at the fiercely drawn characterization, the unique viewpoint voices and the delightful freshness of Kelly’s prose. As we begin our descent into Heathrow, I can honestly say that the hours spent on this flight have not been wasted, even if I did not fulfill my lofty intentions. I am also painfully aware that as a writer I have a long way to go.

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The Olmec Obituary – a serious case of compulsive reading

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Confession: at school I was one of those kids that always ate her lunch at recess time. That’s right, a severe lack of impulse control on the food front. Reading is the same. On Sunday I found myself in need of some serious downtime. I therefore purchased my airline books seven days early. The trouble is I’ve now finished L.J.M Owens’ Olmec Obituary and am already seriously into the Mayan Mendacity. So what am I going to read on my long-haul flight?

Of course, as soon as I pressed purchase I knew I’d have to formulate a new flight reading plan. I am a compulsive reader and can’t do the single chapter a night thing. I never have been able to, even as a child, and, the fact is, these inter-millennial cosy mysteries have been calling out to me for some time. I mean how many other books are there with an Australian librarian main character who has a Welsh speaking grandfather?

The Olmec Obituary is, in fact, the first in a proposed nine book series of inter-millennial mysteries featuring, Dr Elizabeth Pimms, a young archaeologist  with a speciality in palaeogenetics who has left a dig in Egypt, in order to help her family through a financial crisis. Working full time in the National Library of Australia is not part of Elizabeth’s life plan but when an old classmate offers her the chance to do some part-time analysis on some Olmec skeletons she sees away to begin re-claiming her lost career. However, there are strange undercurrents in the South American research team and there is definitely something odd about the Mesoamerican writing on the pieces of ceramic that have been found at the burial site. As Elizabeth begins to analyse the bones, she realises her old classmate’s offer is not as straightforward as it appears.

Woven between Elizabeth’s third person point-of-view is the first person viewpoint of an Olmec woman. This gives the reader an insight into what actually happened to the bones – an insight that generally eludes the palaeogeneticist in real life. There are also italicised dream like sequences that occur in Elizabeth’s phrenic library. The later are compelling but do not make immediate sense. However, as the novel shares its secrets, they become an integral part of Elizabeth’s characterisation. In keeping with all good cosy mysteries there are also multiple family issues to be resolved. Here are some of the things I particularly liked about these books:

  • A librarian main character
  • librarian secondary characters
  • A  Welsh speaking grandfather who uses Welsh language phrases
  • The inter-cultural mix of Elizabeth’s family – Welsh, Chinese, French Berber
  • Learning a little about palaeogenetics
  • Learning a little about the Olmec culture
  • Descriptions of the National Library of Australia – with its LLywelyn and Merionnydd reading rooms (I’m presuming these are real?)
  • Did I mention the Welsh speaking grandfather?
  • And Welsh words
  • And Welsh recipes at the end of the book
  • What about the descriptions of the Pimms family home
  • The quaint tea and book shops
  • And Lake Burley Griffin
  • The above made me want to visit Canberra
  • Which is quite an achievement as I’ve been there a number of times and always been under-whelmed

The Olmec Obituary was Owen’s debut novel and was picked up by Echo Publishing via its crowd-funding page which makes it a kind of dream-come-true in the publishing world. I’m glad I’ve read ahead of schedule. As I said, the books had my name on them. But I am now looking for airline recommendations. I’ve considered starting the Game of Thrones series. But I do need to get some work done in Wales. Added to which, I’ll be switching to Welsh language books for two months. So preferably something historical with only one or two instalments. Come on people, hit me with suggestions?

 

 

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Another first time event – chairing an author panel

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At the beginning of March, I sat on my first ever author panel. Mid-March, I did my first ‘real’ author talk. On April 9, I will chair my first panel. After which, I’m going to flee the country.

I won’t be idle in the U.K., of course. I have three days in London (for research). Followed by a week of Mam-gu duty with my son and his family (pushing swings, rocking my new baby grandson and playing trains with his older brother). After which, I will spend a Welsh-language-only week in Caernarfon with members of the SSiW community. Then I will be busy researching my next novel. But prior to all that fun, I have this one final author event to look forward to.

So far, I’ve read the three designated historical novels for young readers (yes, I’m putting my YA librarian’s hat back on), perused the websites of the participating authors, read the bios provided and have slept with Gabrielle Ryan’s helpful notes on how-to-prepare-for-an-author-panel under my pillow. It’s time to write up a riveting list of questions. However, I don’t know about you? But I never know what I think until I have written about it. Which gives me a perfect excuse to tell you about the three participating authors and their books.

Lizzie and Margaret Rose – by Pamela Rushby

Lizzie and Margaret Rose tells the story of ten-year old London girl who is orphaned by an enemy air raid and evacuated to the safety of her aunt’s family in Australia. As Margaret Rose makes the perilous sea journey to Townsville, her cousin Lizzie has mixed feelings about the imminent arrival of her cousin, especially one as needy as Margaret Rose. As Lizzie faces the displacement of sharing her life with a stranger and war makes its mark on the communities of northern Queensland, Margaret Rose wonders whether she will ever feel safe again. In the end, both girls must learn how to adjust and belong.

Lizzie and Margaret Rose begins with a prologue and is subsequently told in the alternating first person viewpoints of Lizzie and Margret Rose. Lizzie’s pique is drawn in a way that does not make her unlikeable. Margaret Rose’s character evokes sympathy without her being too perfect. The experience of war in northern Australia is portrayed with an age appropriate realism that is not too terrifying. The result—a heartwarming book, handling a difficult topic, that is perfectly pitched to its primary school aged readership. This is hardly surprising. Pamela Rushby is the author of over two hundred books for children. I am very much looking forward to meeting her on April 9th.

Within these walls – by Robyn Bavati

Miri and her family live in Warsaw. Her father, a hard working tailor, speaks Polish well enough for the family to live outside of the Jewish quarter. Their innocent lives are made up of food, family, riding bikes and coloured pencils. But when the Nazi’s invade Miri’s family are forced to move into a tiny apartment in the Warsaw ghetto. Group-by-group people are rounded up and secreted away to work camps. As starvation, desperation and separation tear this family asunder, Miri must find the will to survive. Even though, at times it would be easier to give up and die.

As part of the Melbourne Jewish community, Bavati felt a personal connection to the Holocaust, even though her ancestors had left for England long before WWII began. But Within these Walls is her first foray into historical fiction. Bavati was commissioned by Scholastic Australia to write a book about Jewish children in the Second World War. Told in Miri’s first person voice, the novel gives a realistic portrayal of the ugly, desperate reality of Nazi occupation and, although the subject is grim and most of Miri’s family are obliterated, she manages to enthuse the novel with a sense of hope and belonging. This novel will make a great springboard for classroom discussions about the evils of mindless prejudice.

That Stranger Next Door – by Goldie Alexander

The Stranger Next Door tells the story of Ruth, a 1950’s teenager who has won a scholarship to a private college and longs to study medicine at university rather than conform to her family’s expecatations that she will marry a nice Jewish boy and raise a family. In Eva, a mysterious Russian woman who has recently moved into their apartment block, Ruth finds a perfect alibi for her liaisons with the Catholic school boy, Patrick O’Sullivan. But Ruth’s father was once a member of the communist party and Patrick’s father is working for the anti-communist, B A Santamaria. As Ruth tests family boundaries in the strained political atmosphere of 1950’s Australia, even the helpful Eva is not who she seems.

Told in the alternating first person viewpoints of Ruth and Eva, The Stranger Next Door is essentially a coming-of-age tale in which the political tensions of 1950’s Australia form an interesting backdrop to Ruth’s rebellion against the expectations of her family. At first, I wasn’t quite sure how the two strands connected but the links became clear eventually making the ending of the novel quiet satisfying. I was intrigued to imagine how much of the author’s own journey was tied up in Ruth’s experience and will look forward to asking Goldie Alexander how much the novel reflected her own coming-of-age in Melbourne’s 1950’s Jewish community.

So, those are my three designated novels. Thanks for listening to my thoughts. If you want to hear more from these authors and their work, why not join us at the Mail Exchange Hotel on the 9th of April.

Bookings are essential.

 

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Juggling on a six lane highway – some thoughts on the creative life

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Today as I sat at the busy intersection of two, six lane highways I watched a man juggling. Not on the footpath, no. He was standing in front of the banked up traffic performing as if his life depended on it. I envied him his brash confidence and, perhaps, because of the way my day had panned out, I also sensed his creative desperation.

There was nothing wrong with my day, per se. Only I wasn’t writing. At least, not sitting at a computer. But there is this buzz that goes on in my head. Even when I’m not at the screen – characters chattering, scenes forming, a strange giddy spinning of thoughts that won’t go away until I’ve written them down. Making notes helps. But it isn’t enough. Because you don’t know if a scene is going to work until you’ve written it fully and you won’t know if it has worked, like really worked, until you’ve written the next scene and the next scene. Which is fine when you are not juggling multiple commitments.

I’m not complaining. I’m going to Wales in twenty-one days three hours and seven minutes (who’s counting). Most of my tasks are self inflicted – like getting my phone unlocked, finalising dog-sitters, updating my driver’s license so it won’t expire while I’m away, and madly trying to scan documents so I don’t have to carry hard copies to Wales. I’m also trying to do lots of reading so that when I meet academics in the field I can ask semi-informed questions. So, no, don’t feel sorry for me at all. It is totally self-inflicted.

But there is another aspect to my juggling. See, part of the creative experience means participating in writing related events. I’ve been fortunate to be part of the Women’s History Month Celebrations at Eltham Library during March. I have also been asked to chair an HNSA event. Added to which, I am writing an article on coming-of-age novels for the Historical Novels Review. As a consequence of these commitments, I will need to read multiple free books (yes, I know, someone’s gotta do it), not to mention analyse their themes and write about my impressions. Again, I am not complaining. These are amazing opportunities. But they don’t involve  interaction with my fictional world. Nor do they help the buzz in my head.

I have another task which is self-inflicted. I’m calling it an act of daughterly redemption. You see, last September when I booked myself the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London, I didn’t think of my mum’s birthday. Not when I paid for my Air BnB accomodation. Or when I organised with an Aussie friend to meet in Llangollen to do some walking in the Berwyn Mountains. Not even when I locked in my residency dates at Stiwdio Maelor. Or when I started planning a holiday with my son and his family in the Lake District. Mum’s birthday simply didn’t enter my head. Until she started talking about it…

‘I will be eighty in April. Imagine that, Elizabeth! I never thought I’d see eighty. What shall we do to celebrate?’

I didn’t answer. Or confess. Only screamed silently into my pillow that night.

Then Mum got sick. We were told she only had a couple of months to live. My brother flew home from Africa. There were tears, serious conversations, funeral discussions. In the midst of all the emotion mum lost some of her teeth. It didn’t seem important, in the scheme of things. Neither did my trip to Wales. Or for that matter her birthday. Our calendar had been wiped clean.

Then against all odds she rallied. The doctor said she wouldn’t be leaving us in a hurry. Our thrice weekly visits dropped back to sustainable levels. My brother headed back to Africa. Normal life resumed. We even started bickering. It was time to confess.

I’m going to Wales again Mum.’

‘That’s nice dear, when?’

‘April,’ I said, a little too quickly.

‘Oh, for how long?’

‘Two months. I’m going for research. I’ve got all the accomodation booked. I’ll be visiting the Llyfrgell Genedlaethol and meeting academics and viewing sites. I’ve got a new English grandchild. I’ll visit him too. And go on a language camp.’

‘You’ll miss my birthday.’

‘Yes. I’m sorry. It’s too late to re-schedule.’

‘My eightieth birthday.’

‘I need to do the research mum. It’s my job.’

Mum’s eyes narrowed. ‘It’s not a real job though, is it Elizabeth?’

Now it is pay back time. Mum needed to go to the dentist. If she is going to live her missing smile is important. Fair enough, I wouldn’t want to end my days looking like a pirate. My brother is back in Africa (though he will be in Australia for the birthday). As I don’t have a ‘real job,’ the dentist visit fell to me. I booked an appointment. Turned up at the surgery. Only to find I had booked at different location. For which I hadn’t retained an address or phone number (yes, I’m not only bad at birthdays, I’m generally sh*t at life). I made a second appointment. Right there in the waiting room, so there would be no mistakes.

‘Lovely,’ mum said. ‘We get to go out twice.’

But here’s the thing about the ‘going out.’ Mum can’t walk. She has no upper body strength either. She can barely manage to transfer from her wheelchair into the car. At the dentist today she sat on the sliding part of the dental chair. It took three of us – me the dentist and the assistant – to stop her slithering all the way down to the end. The dentist decided to examine her in her wheel chair. After which, Mum needed an x-Ray. I had to hold her upright in a small space on a spinning stool while she bit down on a thin metal object. Next week, we will go back for extractions, then fillings. After which, there will be denture fittings. Basically, I’ll spend the next twenty-one days three hours and seven minutes in a dental surgery. Which is where the desperate juggling at the traffic lights comes into the equation.

‘Remember this on your eightieth birthday,’ I said to mum.

‘Yes, dear, I will.’

‘My brother might be there to help you blow out the candles. But I organised your dentures.’

It won’t be enough. It will never be enough. But I’ll be in Wales – immersed my fictional world. So, I’m happy to concede this particular sibling honour.

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