Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: reflection (Page 1 of 3)

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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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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Some unexpected developments on the job front

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You apply for a job, not just any job, a dream job in a library close to home. You pull out all stops in your application, co-opting your colleagues into editing and checking your resume and selection criteria. You are offered an interview and, though your daughter is in hospital awaiting surgery, you manage to attend – and answer the questions. In fact, you think the vibe was positive. You were right. The following week you receive a phone call. Congratulations, the guy on the phone says we’d like to offer you a position. Start dates are discussed, details checked with HR. Yes, you’ve done it. You hug the triumph to yourself in satisfaction. You talk to your current employer. Though you are supposed to give a month’s notice, they pull out all stops to ensure that you can start on the date indicated. You tell your friends, family, start to get excited. Your long-haul commute will soon be a thing of the past. You will be able to cycle to work, meet your husband in a trendy bar on Sydney Road afterwards. You will have flexibility. Ample opportunity to return to Wales. You think you are lucky. Too lucky. You think somewhere in your youth or childhood you must have done something good.

Then the second phone call comes, a week before the anticipated start date. Your job offer is being inexplicable, shatteringly withdrawn. You hang up the phone in disbelief. You try to make coffee but your hands are shaking. For some reason you can’t stand still. The reality begins to sink in. You think my God, I’m not a librarian anymore. With that the tears start. You sit with the dog in your lap and let them flow. Once the first wave of shock passes, your mind springs into action. You email your original employer. They are shocked, outraged and sympathetic on your behalf. They make phone calls. The stops so recently pulled out are jammed back into place. But of course none of your colleagues know this. When you arrive at work on Thursday morning they think you are leaving. They have made you a banner. Pob Lwc! It says in Welsh, Good Luck, Liz! You have to blight their well-wishes, tell them you might be sticking around after all. They are incredulous, enraged, and, underneath it all, a teensy bit glad. They never wanted you to leave. You think maybe they have a point. Maybe you already work on the best library service. When they ask if you want the banner taken down, you say, hell no, I’m claiming that luck after all.

PS. This is not a blame and shame exercise. Just my writerly attempt to come to terms with the situation. So, if you want to comment and know of the libraries involved, please don’t mention them by name. 🙂

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Voting – exercising our democratic rights Aussie style

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Voting is flavour of the month at the moment. What with the referendum in the UK, morning after regrets, and the domino resignations of its shark like leaders, not to mention the rising horror of blonde hair and a fake tan on the other side of the Atlantic, it is not surprising that Australia’s recent federal election failed to attract much notice. When I fronted up to the GP the week prior to the election with a sore throat, temperature and all over body aches, and explained I was supposed to be working as a polling official on election day, the Doctor pulled a sour face. 

‘It will be a long, cold day.’ She replied. ‘I suggest you pull out.’

She was right. I knew she was right. I’d picked her out on HotDoc (unfortunate name) for her medical expertise. But as the day approached, I couldn’t bring myself to make the phone call. I started working elections almost thirty years ago. I’d finished Uni, popped out a couple of babies, moved interstate, and at the ripe old age of twenty three, my appointment as a polling official constituted a major milestone. Paid work. A day out. A sense I could do more than wipe noses and bottoms. 

I have worked federal elections, on and off, ever since, even doing a two week stint at the Australian Embassy while we were living in Fiji. I’ve set up cardboard voting screens, marked people of the roll, issued declaration votes, and even been officer in charge on one occasion. My enjoyment of Election Day has never faded. It is a day on which I feel proud to be an Australian.

This year, the AEC had a formal social media policy. So, if you wondered why I was blogging about the UK referendum and ignoring homegrown issues. You now have an answer. I wasn’t allowed to blog, or share any content on social media associated with the election (they kept that small condition a secret until after we’d signed the acceptance forms). But now I am no longer an employee, I thought I’d tell you about voting Down Under:

  • We vote on Saturdays (so we get whole sporting teams coming in together)
  • It is compulsory
  • If you don’t vote you get fined
  • We used to keep a transistor radio in the polling room
  • The eight o’clock ABC news was our signal to open the doors
  • Smart phones have replaced this tradition
  • The sense of occasion is sadly diminished
  • Most polling places are in schools, church, scout or other community centres
  • People come with their dogs on leads and kids on bikes
  • The group associated with the venue gets creative
  • A sausage sizzle is arranged
  • Maybe a market
  • You vote to the smell of frying onions and sausages
  • The mood in the queue is generally laconic
  • There are jokes about the ‘uselessness bastards’ in Canberra
  • The ridiculous size of the senate ballot papers 
  • And what a waste of time the ‘whole bloody’ process is
  • But most people make a decision
  • Some lodge a protest vote
  • By leaving their ballot papers blank
  • Or drawing X rated pictures
  • But they can’t get fined
  • As it is a secret ballot
  • At six o’clock a polling official stands at the end of the voters queue
  • No one is admitted after this point
  • No matter how red faced, sweaty or apologetic
  • Once the polls close the ballot box seals are broken
  • The number of ballot papers in the box must match the number of papers issued
  • It is all organised, above board, transparent
  • People don’t wake up the following morning saying: Oh, no, I didn’t think my vote would count
  • Or angst about what percentage of the population turned out
  • Because we vote all the time
  • From when we turn eighteen
  • To when we die
  • It is compulsory
  • And therefore a fair system

  

 

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Library lessons – or how to be a decent human being

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I am not a morning person. But Friday, I had to start work by eight o’clock. As I dressed in a fumble, main lined coffee, grabbed my make up bag and hair care products, and headed out into the half-light, I was surprised by an overwhelming I’m-living-in-Melbourne-and-lovin-it, sensation. It didn’t last. As soon as I saw the five lines of creeping of red tail lights on the freeway, I knew this would be no easy run. My foreboding was confirmed by the electronic sign:

Incident on the Bolte Bridge, expect delays. 

Unfortunately, this instance, Citylink, weren’t exaggerating. I arrived at work, tufty-haired, late and without my age-defying foundation in place. It didn’t help that I had to fit an extra home library delivery into the two hour set up time. Or that the cash reconciliation wasn’t straight forward. As I walked out onto the library floor at opening time, I saw one of our most everyday difficult customers pacing up and down outside the door.

‘She’s early,’ I said to my colleague.

‘My thoughts exactly.’

‘Let’s hope it isn’t a bad omen.’

The minute we logged the phones in, all three started ringing. It was story time, so there were lots of mum’s and crying babies. Added to which, every woman and her dog wanted to join the library. Not sure why, maybe it was announced on the radio?

<insert ABC News music>

We interrupt this bulletin to make and important announcement. That building in the High Street that you have walked past a thousand times, is a library. If you race down there today you will get a discount on your free membership.

Whatever the reasons, they didn’t stop coming. By mid-morning, my blood sugar levels were seriously low. Good Afternoon, I said to the woman standing at the desk. How can I help you? 

Silence. I realised my error. ‘Sorry it isn’t afternoon yet, it only feels like it.’

I went through the usual spiel about needing ID, with a current address to join the library. She passed me her drivers’ license. I handed her a piece of paper on which to write her email address and phone number and began typing details into the catalogue. She paused after jotting down her phone number, looking up at me.

‘Can I give you my husband’s email address?’

 ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘as long as he checks it.’

‘He does,’ every day. But I don’t use the computer.’

I froze. Though this wasn’t an uncommon admission, especially among the elderly or so socially disadvantaged. But this woman didn’t look old, or poor. Didn’t she realise the world has changed? I see this often among my home library clients. Women who never learned to use a CD player in the 1980’s are now old and infirm and beyond learning and we no longer have cassette tapes in the library. If you extrapolate this scenario out across all the other technologies that have emerged and how they have transformed the way society operates, this woman was setting herself up for social and emotional isolation in her old age. 

I didn’t say this, of course. My job is to meet specific information needs not to lecture people. I did however carry a waspish sense of sense of outrage over to my next enquiry. A significantly older woman with a list written in a spidery old lady hand. She wanted to know about a book called Dancing with Strangers. My colleague had punched the title into Google and come up with a number of possibilties. 

‘Do you know the author?’ I asked.

‘I think it might have been Glen Dinnen.’

I typed: Dinnen, Glen, into our catalogue. No result. I looked at the Google list again.

‘Do you remember what the book was about?’

‘It was about the early settlement of Australia and the first contact with the aborigines.’ 

‘Ah, I said. Clendinnen.’ But it had been a long morning, and I was due for morning tea and, as I read the book description out to her, I found myself thinking: if you’d learned to use a computer you could have worked this out for yourself. 

‘It’s for my book group,’ the old lady said. ‘I’m ninety two years of age. But I like to keep my mind active.’

Ouch, I thought. Retract earlier waspish sentiment. I found myself wondering whether I’d be discussing books and ideas in my ninety-third year. But that wasn’t the end of the lesson. Have you ever found that? When life sets out to teach you something, it is rarely gentle? As I worked through the woman’s book list, trying to ascertain how many copies of various titles we had in the collection, I started writing down, authors, titles and numbers for her.

‘Oh,’ she said, on seeing the list. Thank you… thank you so much.’ She stopped, swallowed, her voice wobbling with emotion. I kept my eyes trained on the computer screen. 

‘My husband, is a veteran.’ She said, when she found her voice again. ‘It’s hard looking after him. I come to the library every Friday, on the oldies bus. It is the highlight of my week.’

I swallowed, looking up her. At this point, she wasn’t the only one getting misty-eyed. 

‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.’

‘No.’ I shook my head. ‘Thank you, for making my job worthwhile.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Easter Aussie style – the rubber hits the road

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We had booked accomodation in the Victorian High country – a place of mountains, wineries and Autumn leaves. The theory being that I would be sufficiently recovered from my jet lag to enjoy a five day holiday. When I emailed to make the final payment, I found the accomodation had been double booked. The company had tried to phone me but I was using a UK SIM card and the emails they sent hadn’t materialised. I scrambled about trying to book alternative accomodation. There was nothing affordable in the High Country. I tried the coast. Nothing there either. I ended up booking and overpriced holiday cottage in Gariwerd (the Grampians).

‘It’ll be lovely,’ my daughter said. ‘Lot’s of nice walks.’

‘But no castles at the end of them.’ I replied.

‘There will be waterfalls.’

‘Yes.’ I forced a smile while secretly thinking: pigs might fly!

We’ve had a long hot summer in Australia. We’ve been waiting for a ‘good winter’ for the last ten years. All creek beds and potential waterfalls dried up long ago. There would be nothing in Gariwerd (yes, deliberate use of indigenous name) but dust and gum trees.

Now, at this point I must hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with Gariwerd – it is an area of outstanding natural beauty. But in Alexander McCall Smith’s, Number one ladies detective agency, Mma Ramotswe says:

Every man has a map in his heart of his own country. The heart will never forget the map.

While in the city it is possible for me to get caught up in the rhythm of daily life, to forget the map written on my heart. Face to face with the Australian bush, I would be reminded that I was in fact a long way from home.

I decided to take control of the situation, to make the holiday my own. Day one, I headed down to Bambruk, the Aboriginal Cultural Centre, and booked myself on a tour. I also bought tickets to an Ozact performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream in the local Heatherlie Quarry. 

Shakespeare in the bush! How was that going to work? I wasn’t sure, to be honest. My reservations grew as we travelled thirteen miles along a dirt road, hiked the sandy path to the quarry and laid our picnic mat in the dust. I needn’t have worried. Once the performance started, the majestic sheer stone quarry became a perfect backdrop to Shakespeare’s imagined world.

The following morning, I rose early and headed down to Bambruk for my cultural tour. Only to find, due to a mix up, that the tour had left earlier than the specified time – and without me. Andrew had gone on a long bike ride. I faced ten hours alone in Halls Gap. There are plenty of things to do in Gariwerd if you like hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking and four wheel driving. For me, the options are more limited. I could go for a drive or go for a bush walk. I chose the Chataqua Peak track a five and a half kilometre hike that boasted seasonal waterfalls. Of course, we were long out of season. There wasn’t a drop of water to be seen. Though, this little fellow did bring a smile to my face. 

The following day, I expressed an interest in returning to Heatherlie Quarry. I’ve spent the last seven months surrounded by abandoned quarry workings and, though this may prove to be nothing more than a local stone quarry, I’d seen information boards on my hike up the sandy bush track, abandoned buildings and equipment. For a museum and tour junkiee like me it promised and hour or two of great interest.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Established in the late 1860’s, Heatherlie Quarry was in fact one of Victoria’s foremost stone quarries. Transported to Melbourne by rail, the dressed sand-stone was used in a number on Melbourne’s historic buildings, such as Parliament House, the State Library of Victoria and the Melbourne Town Hall. 

After the quarry, Andrew was keen to visit Migunang Wirab (McKenzie’s Falls). I didn’t hold much hope for the visit beyond a parched picnic ground and a trickling creek. But bushfires had ripped through the area in 2014 and the whole recreation area had been remodelled. There were information boards (I read them all), well marked pathways, platforms and attractive railings, and lookouts from which we saw a beautiful waterfall. At which point, I didn’t feel so very far from home at all. 

 

 

 

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Dod adref – some thoughts on belonging

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'You came back!' A neighbour said when I ventured out onto the streets last Saturday afternoon. 'I didn't think you would return.'

'I always knew you'd be back,' another neighbour ventured. But she had to believe that. She'd been left minding my dog.

Just for the record, I always knew I'd come back. I loved every minute of my time in Wales – speaking the language, revelling in the culture, the scenery, the history, living with a parade of artists, being part of the Corris community. I didn't want to leave. But I always knew I would be coming back and that, once I got home, it would be fine. Why? Apart from the obvious reasons like a husband and family? This is a question I have been exploring with a friend on Facebook. She asked whether it felt weird to be back. Here is what I said to her:

Strangely, not weird at all. It's slipping into a well worn glove. But I always feel like that at when I land at Heathrow, even more so when I cross the border into Wales. I guess it is possible to have two homes.

She asked: do you feel like two different people?

Definitely. I am different people – two versions of Liz. Speaking Welsh makes this more pronounced. I am a different person when I speak Welsh. There are aspects of me that people who don't speak the language have never seen.

She asked: do you find each person to be equally real?

Wherever I am feels the most real at the time. Yet strangely, I feel more Australian when I'm in Wales than I do when I'm in Australia. I am acutely aware of how much Oz has influenced me. There is no escaping it, I've been here since I was five years old. I am not polite enough, circumspect enough, or knowledgable enough to fully belong.

She said: Hmm… I'm not sure that I understand…?

Here is the example I gave:

In Welsh class, in Machynlleth, when we were learning animal names, we were given photos. People looked at the photos and provided the Welsh names. I pointed at pictures and said: what is it? They all looked at me blankly. I said: I've never seen that animal before. If you extend that knowledge gap across history, flora, marine life, seasons, customs, life expectations, the school, medical and political systems, you might begin to comprehend the yawning black hole. It would take a lifetime to acquire that lost knowledge. Even then, I could never fully do so. It is gone. Forever. I was raised in Australia.

It's taken me years to come to terms with this sense of dislocation. It is no accident that when I decided to write a novel it would be about migrants. Moving to Australia was the single most defining event of my childhood. It is why learning Welsh has become such an important part of my life now. Many of the people in my class share that sense of dislocation. In fact, one of my friends, Dai y Trên sent me a poem that tackles this issue. Like me, he came to Oz as a child. He has Breton and English heritage. He has been learning Welsh for twelve years and he is, incidentally, the person who first introduced me to Say Something in Welsh. He gave me permission to share his poem (in Welsh and English) so long as I acknowledged the assistance of our long-serving tutor, Faleiry, and the members of our Welsh class. Dyma hi:

Hiraeth (A pham fedra i ddim mynd yn ôl)


Pan o'n i'n ifanc cymeron fi o wlad fy ngeni

Dim fy newis i ond heb eu beio nhw.

Ond fedra i ddim caru gwlad haul-sychu

Anialwch crasboeth, peryglion,

A coed sy’n edrych yr un fath i fi.


Na, well gen i gwlad mwy harddach, gan flodau anhebyg

Caeau gwyrdd, lonydd deiliog a chrwydro

Ble mae’r haul yn gynnes, dim yn ddeifiog,

Ble does dim byd yn dy frathu di

Ac maen nhw dal yn parchu’r trênau stêm arddechog.


O hanner byd i ffwrdd dwi 'n teimlo'r hiraeth

Mewn breuddwyd fy nhynnu nôl i wlad garedig.

Ond rhoddodd tir hwn wraig a phlantteulu perffaith.

Pe bydda i gadael nhw am reswm hunanol

Baswn i’n arwyddo fy ngwarant marwolaeth.


Hiraeth (And why I can’t return)


When I was young they took me from my birthplace

I had no say, though them I will not blame.

But I cannot “love a sunburnt country”

With its deserts harsh and dangers

And the trees that still to me all look the same.


No, I prefer a land more gentle with lots of varied flora,

Verdant fields and wandering leafy lanes

Where the sun is warm, not burning,

Where nothing tries to bite you,

And they still revere those little steamy trains.


From half a world away I feel the tension,

In a dream I'm drawn back to a world benign,

But this land gave me a wife and two fine children

If I abandon them for selfish reason

The death warrant I’d be signing would be mine!


Dai y Trên. 16ed Mawrth 2016. (Diolch am fy ffrindiau am eu help efo’r geirau Cymraeg)


 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i chi!

 

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Blog twenty o Gymru – the winter solstice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Some pre-travel conversations

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With five days until I leave for Wales I find myself having some interesting conversations:

 

‘What will the weather be like in Wales, Liz?’

‘Summer when I arrive.’

‘And after that?’

‘Autumn.’

‘Followed by winter?’

‘Well, yes…’

‘So, it’ll be cold and grey and it will rain a lot?’

*

What will you eat in Wales, Liz?’

‘Er…what do you mean?’

‘Are there any special foods?’

‘Welsh cakes, which are delicious, but due to allergies I can’t eat them. They have faggots in the south but I’m not supposed to eat those either because of the onion. Bara Brith is nice too, but ditto the allergy situation.’

‘So … you’ll just head down to the local supermarket and eat the same as you always do?’

*

‘So, Liz, you’re not going to Wales for the weather … and you’re not going for the food. So, tell me, why are you going?

Good question. I have a great husband, a lovely white dog, four beautiful children and their partners, a to-die for-house in a heaps cool neighbourhood, a hot red bike, and a grandson in Brisbane, yet, for some reason, for the next five months, I am choosing to live without them.

Here are my reasons:

‘There are two worlds in Wales. The ‘muggle’ world on the surface that includes ordinary, everyday things like trees and mountains, the valley towns built around an industry that no longer exists, the do-or-die rugby culture, the proud industrial heritage depicted in the movies like Pride, the quirky humour that made TV shows like Gavin and Stacey. I love visiting that world. It is dear to me and precious. Yet I also seek another world – you could call it the Hogwarts of modern Britain. You don’t need a birthday letter to enter this hidden world. You simply need a language. A language which gives you access to one of the oldest living cultures in Europe. A culture of bards and musicians and poets. A culture proud and strong and ancient that has endured in the face of strident opposition. A culture that happens to be my heritage.’

*

‘So, you’re going to Wales for words?’

‘Yes. And to write.’

‘And that’s it? Language and writing?’

‘Well, yes… but it’s not simply words, is it? Language is the key to everything.’

 

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