Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: emigration

Cymru connections – an interview with David Lloyd

What draws a person back to Wales? This is a question I often ask myself as I sit with my Welsh class, on Tuesday evenings, or when I talk with other far flung language learners on the Saysomethinginwelsh forum. What are we doing here, though many of us were born far from Wales? What is it about the western-most corner of the British mainland that calls to us? How has this connection shaped us? In what ways do we express that sense of dual identity?

This week, I put these questions to the American born writer David Lloyd. David and his wife, artist Kim Waale, are soon to do a residency at Stwidio Maelor, which is owned by my friend Veronica Calarco, and as I hope to spend time at the stiwdio next year, I have a growing interest in all things Maelor.

Writer, poet, literary critic, academic, David Lloyd is the director of Creative Writing at Le Moyne College. His poetry has been widely published in the U.S. and in Welsh publications such as Poetry Wales, Planet, New Welsh Review, Lampeter Review and through the Welsh presses Parthia and Gwasg Carreg Gwlach. His recent novel, Over the Line, was published by Syracuse University Press.

Born in America to Welsh speaking parents, David studied at Aberystwyth University in the early 1970’s, and returned to the university on a Watson Fellowship, later in the same decade. In 2001 he spent five months at Bangor University, on a Fullbright Fellowship. As an American citizen and a person with an obvious connection to Wales, I asked David about the influence of his Welsh heritage:

“Welshness is deeply embedded in my identity. It’s in the way I interact with the world and how I understand who I am. My interest in being a writer derived in part from hearing my father’s sermons each Sunday, which were beautifully constructed and delivered with passion. Perhaps my sister Margaret, also a poet, was similarly influenced. At some point in the 1950s my father stopped giving weekly sermons in Welsh and English, to only giving them in English – a result of the declining number of Welsh speakers. But throughout his life he was regularly called on to give Welsh-language talks or sermons. My brother Richard is a musician and composer, and his musical sense must derive to a great extent from the Welsh music we heard and sang during our childhood. I know I absorbed the rhythms of the Welsh language and of English as spoken by a north Walian (my father, from Corris) and a south Walian (my mother, from Pontrhydyfen).”

As the child of Welsh speaking parents it may surprise you to learn that David was not raised speaking the language, a situation he ascribes to a general feeling during the 1950’s that children of immigrants should Americanize.

“Even with this change in the primary language of our home, we all could speak some Welsh. Prayers before Sunday dinner were in Welsh; certain family routines were announced only in Welsh: bore da, mae’n bwyd yn barod, nos da, cysgwch yn dda. My brother closest in age to me were always cariad to our mother. On family vacations we sang Welsh-language hymns and folksongs in the car to pass the time. I remember an elderly parishioner, Mae Ellis, who insisted we exchange a bit of Welsh every Sunday, even if only Sut wyt ti? Di iawn, diolch yn fawr. Then she wiped any smudge off my face with a damp handkerchief pulled from her sleeve.”

David’s father died young, in his fifties but, in her later years, his mother came to regret not having raised her children as Welsh speakers. An omission David and his sister Margaret sought to rectify in the year 2000, returning to Aberystwyth for Cwrs Haf, an annual, month long intensive language school, which is, incidentally, the same course (different year) on which I met Veronica. David had this to say about the Summer School experience.

“It was fantastic, really – at the end we could carry on conversations in Welsh quite well – and on returning to the States for the first time I could speak with some fluency with my mother. She lived until 97 – the last native Welsh speaker in central New York.”

As a British born Australian of Welsh descent, I am always intrigued by other people’s experience of dual identity. I asked David what it means to be both Welsh and American.

“The immigrant experience – including the experience of children of immigrants – necessarily involves a degree of loss: of family, of community, of culture, of language. But it does bring compensations. I consider myself lucky to have two cultural streams flowing into my life. I love listening to live blues at the Dinosaur bar in Syracuse as much as I love hearing poets read at the Imperial Hotel in Merthyr Tyfil. (Mike Jenkins runs a reading series there.) I love camping in the Adirondack national park not far from where I live in New York State, but one of the great pleasures of my life is taking long walks in Wales with my family, searching out burial chambers, standing stones, and stone circles. I’m fascinated by American popular culture, but can’t read enough about Llywelyn ap Gruffydd or Owain Glyn Dŵr. The modern poets who mean the most to me are American William Carlos Williams, Irishman Seamus Heaney, and Welshman R. S. Thomas. A description of my second book of poetry, The Gospel According to Frank (New American Press), might best display this cultural mash-up: the poems merge the public persona of Frank Sinatra with heroic figures drawn from Wales (The Mabinogi), Ireland (the Tain Bo Cuainge), and the Old and New Testaments.

“My most recent Welsh-related writing project is a series of stories set in the Welsh immigrant community in which I grew up, during the 1960s. The book, titled The Moving of the Water, is almost finished, and I’ve been publishing the stories. You can find two in on-line journals: “Home” in the Spring 2014 issue of the Welsh journal Lampeter Review and “The Key” in the 2013 issue of the US journal Stone Canoe.

In November of this year, David will be staying at Stwdio Maelor, in Corris, which happens to be his father’s home village. I asked what he hoped to achieve during his residency.

“My aim is to explore the part of Wales that my father knew well as a child – and then see what ways that experience feeds into my creative work. I’m back to writing poetry after having just published a novel, Over the Line, so I’m planning on drafting new poems at Stiwdio Maelor.”

No doubt, David will meet up with old friends and commune with those no longer present. Let’s also hope he also finds opportunities to speak the hen iaith too.

Photo: David Lloyd (center) with Welsh poets Nigel Jenkins (far left), Menna Elfyn (seated), Iwan Llwyd (far right).

***

Stiwdio Maelor in Corris has been set up to provide studios for local artists and to provide a retreat for artists from the UK and other parts of the world to take time out of their normal lives and visit a stunning area in North Wales. There are five studios available for rent to local artists and astudio/bedroom space available for visiting artists. The fees have been kept as low as possible so that all artists can take advantage of this project.

 

A Famous Five summer

As a child, I read English books. I went on adventures with the Famous Five, the Secret Seven and the Five Find Outers, regaling mum with tales of long hot summers, camping on lonely moors, bathing, exploring castles, and picnicking on boiled eggs, tongue, ginger beer and treacle tart. Mum would always sniff at the end of my tales and say:

'That's all very well, Elizabeth. But the summer is never like that in England. It rains all the time.'

At the time, it felt like having iced water poured over my back. I imagined that along with the freedom of a different era – an era in which teenagers camped, travelled and adventured alone – the weather was also a fictional creation of Enid Blyton's. In my fifty first year, I can finally say mum was wrong. They do have summers like that in England. And this is one of them. The newspapers are calling it a heat wave but that is a weak description. I am therefore calling it a Famous Five summer. As I've climbed over stiles, cycled down Cotswold lanes, and eaten cream teas, I have found myself transported back to a simpler time.

Sadly, as well as having no idea about the English weather, emigration also deprived me of some other basic knowledge namely that the word Cotswolds, means sheep enclosure in rolling hills. I got the first hint of this when having dinner with friends in Essex.

I had no definitive answer to this. I'd seen advertisements for Cotswold cycling holidays and it had sounded idyllic. We had booked a cottage in Blockley, a village nestled in a tranquil valley between Moreton in Marsh and Chipping Camden. Realisation came quickly. Along with a valley, there must, of course, be hills. To go anywhere, we had to cycle upwards. Added to which, the cycle hire company had delivered us bikes with bald tyres, worn gears and dis-functional brakes. We cycled into Chipping Camden determined to rectify this situation, only to find the proprietor was nowhere in sight. Now being impatient, and not a great fan of being ripped off, my husband started to sort through the bikes in his yard. I doubted this was the right thing to do. When the bike owner turned up, his pursed lips and heightened colour confirmed my suspicions. Andrew was not deterred. After a short exchange, the bike guy (a young man with a distinctly Polish accent) realised this cocky Aussie wasn't going to back down.

'Hang on.' He said, raising a finger. 'I'll have a look in the shed.'

'You should have waited,' I whispered in the man's absence. 'He won't help us now.'

I revised my opinion a moment later when the bike man wheeled two gleaming, almost new bikes across the yard.

Cycling was easier after that. Though I still had to stop for breath when riding home from the supermarket in Moreton in Marsh and the road took us through the aptly named village of Borton on the Hill.

Fortunately, my primary school geography made rapid sense of the shading on the map. Some routes were hillier than others. But we did some lovely rides – to Shipton on Stour and Stow in the Wold, Hidcote Gardens, getting lost, stopping to check the map, punctuating the day with coffees and cream teas. One day, we took our bikes on the train to Oxford. The Oxford tour guide was a portly fellow called Joseph with a passion for his subject. He presumed a great deal of knowledge and seemed primarily interested in showing us famous film sites, but he was entertaining, in his custard coloured corduroy trousers and cardigan. It was worth paying for a slice of his eccentricity.

There is something magical about an English summer. The days so long, the streets and gardens bursting with blooms, the hedgerows alive with bees, butterflies and summer berries. I enjoyed listening to the Blockely Church bell ringers on Thursday evening, going to the pub, buying pork pies and cooked beetroot in a bag, the ever present smell of pollen, damp earth and sheep, and of course the Enid Blyton weather. I wish I could have stayed longer in Blockely.

 

 

Red Shoes

I remember the first time I heard Hans Christian Anderson's story of The Red Shoes. I was a child, home sick from school, and, day time television being what it was in the days before videos, DVDs and iTunes, I had pulled out a pile of EP records. Among them I found a copy of The Red Shoes. We had other fairy tale records. I listened to them often. Not so The Red Shoes. To this day, I remember the sick jolt of horror in my stomach, the heroine's severed ankles, the shoes filled with blood, dancing and dancing.

I have since developed a passion for red shoes.

I got my first pair of red shoes at the age of six. We were living in Brahma Lodge, at the time, in a rented house, on a dusty dead-end road, down-wind of the abattoirs. We hadn't been in Adelaide long and we were still struggling with dust, flies, corrugated iron fences, nose-bleed hot summers, and magpies that swooped unawares. My new red shoes were a splash of colour in the otherwise relentless trying-to-adjust trudge of our family life.

I wasn't allowed to wear my new shoes to school. I had to wear short socks and brown English school sandals. No one else wore socks with their sandals in those days. No one. Infact, no one wore Clarks sandals. Or carried a brown leather satchel. Even in a suburb full of British migrants, I was the odd one out.

I'm not sure if this caused me to run away. I expect most children run away once or twice in their lives. In my case, I announced my intention to leave home, forever, ran around the corner, crouched behind a bottle brush tree, and waited for mum's frantic search to begin. It didn't. I skulked home an hour later to find mum seemingly unaffected by the loss of her eldest daughter. At bedtime that night I confessed my disappointment.

'I knew you wouldn't leave,' mum said, 'not without your red shoes.'

Apart from that one pair of red shoes (looking back they must have been on sale) my childhood footwear can only be described as sensible. Over time, my English school sandals were replaced by the Roman sandals, the Adelaide school sandal of choice, though mum bewailed their lack of support for my developing arches. Party shoes were purchased in a sensible match-all black. I acquired cheap plimsoles for playing in on the weekend (goodbye Wellies). And eventually a pair of Levi sneakers. At this stage, I think you could safely say I had successfully morphed into your average Aussie teenager.

I didn't wear red shoes again until I was an adult. Actually, I was barely an adult. At the age of twenty two, and pregnant with my second child, mum took me shopping for a birthday gift. I came across a pair of embossed red, leather, slip on pumps. I wanted them, with a longing akin to Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale. But they wouldn't go with anything and…with a mortgage and another baby on the way…I needed to be sensible.

'If you want them,' mum said, get them. They are your birthday present' (by this you may deduce emigration had brought a degree of prosperity).

Mum gave me the red shoes on my birthday. They were supposed to be worn for best. When did the idea of best shoes go out of fashion? We no longer think in those terms in our throw away society. For me, the turning point was those red shoes. I wore them every day. On every occasion. Even when they didn't match my outfit. When they wore out, I bought another pair, and another. Since then, my life has been marked by a need for red shoes.

When we came to Melbourne I noticed everyone wore knee length boots. But…they were expensive and with three, followed by four, growing mouths to feed, I couldn't justify the cost. It would be fifteen years before I lashed out on a pair of knee high red leather boots. I currently have two pairs of red boots (one short and one and one long), a red pair of Doc Marten shoes with buckles (I never did abandon the Clarks sandal look) and a pair of Joseph Sieber red sandals (bought on sale). My long red boots have been re-souled twice. I am constantly on the lookout for a replacements – shoes, sandals and boots. Maybe that's what Hans Christian Anderson was on about? This endless, slavish, dependence? If so, I'm guilty. I can no longer live without red shoes.

 

 

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén