Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: travel (Page 1 of 3)

Lost in another world – some serious Welshing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Gwthio? He asked.

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

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

Blog thirty (o Heathrow) – things I am looking forward to

Being one of two

Day or night

Better for worse

Being part of a bigger group

The Welsh word is teulu

Walking my dog

Riding my bike

To the shops

To the city

To the gym

(Okay, so that’s a lie)

But I’ll do it anyway

Join the gym, I mean

And shelve books

At the library

After stretching

Not wearing a raincoat

Every day

Or sleeping with a hot water bottle

Or in my down jacket

Hipster cafes

Good coffee

Everywhere

No, I mean everywhere

Not just Adam and Andy’s

The sgleen of trams

Along Sydney Road

WIFI

All day – every day

A phone signal

In most places

Sushi, kebabs, skinny flat whites

Salad on every menu

Water bottles on cafe tables

Being part of a faith community

On Sunday mornings

Where I’m not the visitor

From Australia

Welsh class

On Tuesday nights

In the bar afterwards

The smell of eucalyptus

Straight talking

Aussie, no nonsense

Barely polite

By British standards

Electricity sockets in the bathroom

Chasing my dog around Coburg

(Okay, so that’s a lie too)

But if he gets out, I’ll have to

Drinks with the neighbours

Rosie and Ted

Bike rides with friends

Charging my headlights

Riding home in the crisp cool evening

Turning into the bluestone lane

Heritage listed

But still bone jarring

The sensor light coming on

The garage door lifting

Home

Yes, I am coming home

 

Blog twenty-nine (o Loegr) – the things I will miss

Mountains, everywhere

Bare, beautiful, majestic

The sound of running water

Slate underfoot, overhead

In the walls around me

Sheep dotted hillsides

Rust red bracken

Mists, lowering

Clouds scudding past

At eye level

Rain in the chapel garden

Narrow roads

Backing up, hill starts

Buses stuck in the village

Having two extra vowels

Like blood in my veins

Two ways of seeing

Road signs in Welsh

Living next to the Slaters

Ten steps from the shop

Sitting in the porch

After closing time

Trying to catch a WIFI signal

We will be waiting, they said

In the pub last night

I will come back, I replied

Yes, definitely

Ie, wna i ddod yn ôl

Yn bendant!

 

Blog twenty-eight o Gymru – looking back and looking forward

I have three days left in Wales. I am walking around with the same wide-eyed wonder with which I started my time here – trying to soak it all in, aware of the fierce beauty of Snowdonia, grasping every opportunity to speak Welsh, to browse Welsh book shops, listen to people taking in the streets, trying to sink it deep into my soul, not knowing when I will return. Only that I will, absolutely, definitely.

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I came here with three distinct goals:

  • Improve my Welsh
  • Make a positive contribution to Stiwdio Maelor
  • Finish my manuscript

As I walk around the streets trying to etch sights and sounds into my soul, I am also assessing what I have achieved.

Am I fluent yet? I guess you’d have to define fluent. If you mean speak and write Welsh as well as I do English, then, no, not even close. If you mean able to participate in Welsh language events, laugh at (some) of the jokes, ask questions, conduct day-to-day conversations, well, I’m getting close. There is an elusiveness to fluency in Welsh, due to the strength of the English language neighbours, the relentlessness of the holiday cottage movement and the inability, unwillingness, did-my-best-but-failed attitudes of the incomers. Learners are constantly forced to swap to English. It is not only the newcomers who are at fault. Many Welsh speakers are too shy, impatient, this-is-all-too-hard about the situation. I don’t know what the answer is. But I suspect people need to re-discover a sense of playfulness towards the Welsh language. To learn to use a little more and a little more and a little more – perhaps with simple courses like how to order a bus ticket (for both drivers, learners and local Welsh speakers). It seems to me that the three groups aren’t talking, that it is not only the language learners who need educating. 🙂

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Stiwdio Maelor? A wonderful initiative, the inspiration of Australian artist Veronica Calarco. I wasn’t sure how I would go living in what is effectively a shared house – not to mention a grassroots organisation run on a shoestring, without WIFI! But I have enjoyed the experience and the too-short friendships formed with the various artists who have passed through Maelor’s doors. I have loved living next door to the pub, not having too many choices about what to do on a Saturday evening, knowing everyone in the village. I have also enjoyed introducing people from around the world to Wales. I have felt buoyed by every positive response, personally affronted by every negative reaction. I have talked about Wales’ history, it’s language, and its right to self-determination. I have been told my enthusiasm for Wales is infectious. I hope so, that my contribution to Maelor has also been a positive contribution to Wales. That I have in fact started a plague.

The manuscript? It’s finished! Yes, truly.

‘You know a manuscript is never truly finished,’ someone warned me. ‘Not until it is published.’

I know this. I also know that if my novel is ever picked up by a publisher they will want to make changes. However, I’m talking about an emotional line in the sand here. I have given this book everything — all I can possibly give. Of course, it could be written differently. Trust me, I have considered every possibility. But this is the story I wanted to write, this is the way I have chosen to tell it. If there is no market for this book, then that is my future. But I am not going back. I am ready to start writing and researching another novel.

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We will have drinks in the Slaters Arms on Saturday night to celebrate the above areas of achievement – and to welcome Veronica back to Wales. If you are free, I hope you will join us. Apparently, it is considered appropriate for me to read a piece from my manuscript. I will do so. If only to reinforce the line in the sand.

Hwyl Fawr am y tro…

 

Blog twenty six o Gymru – a Bootcamp hat trick

Eighteen months ago I went on a Say Something in Welsh Bootcamp. Fortunately, it did not involve early mornings, sit ups, positive affirmations or green smoothies. It was a language Bootcamp, a chance to live in a wholly Welsh speaking environment for a week. It was incredible but I won't repeat myself. You can read all about that week here.

After Bootcamp, a few of us stayed in touch. When my Maelor plans fell into place we decided to do hold our own 'unofficial ' Bootcamp. Essentially, we would have a self-directed holiday in which we chose to speak only in Welsh. We weren't sure how it would go without the official 'English Not.' But we needn't have worried because we don't really know each other in English.

It felt natural to speak Welsh.

When my return dates to Australia firmed up (yes, I am coming back) we decided to have one more Welsh language holiday together, a weekend this time. Unfortunately, one of the group wasn't able to make it, so we were down to four. But this didn't diminish our pleasure. Which is a good sign. My friends will be able to go on having Bootcamps without me (sob).

One of the over-riding features of these holidays (apart from speaking Welsh) is laughter. For some reason, I laugh more with this group of friends than others. I think perhaps, I laugh more in Welsh. But that is a whole new topic for discussion, something to do with letting go of eloquence and maturity and communicating like a child again. Whatever the reason, with this particular group of friends it feels normal to:

  • Stand outside a cafe and look at the menu to see whether it is bilingual
  • Choose a restaurant on the basis of whether we will be able to order in Welsh
  • Ask Welsh speaking friends to join us for the evening
  • Talk about the future of Cyrsiau Cymraeg i Oedolion (Welsh for adults courses)
  • Look up Welsh words in the dictionary
  • Marvel at how apt they are
  • For example losgfynydd – volcano (literally burnt mountain), drewgi – skunk (literally stink dog)
  • Discuss politics
  • Movies
  • Songs
  • Books
  • Life
  • All in Welsh
  • I mean, why not?
  • Scan the real estate for a place in which to start our Welsh speaking commune
  • Point out suitable locations as we travel around the countryside our plans growing more expansive by the mile
  • Visit the Amgueddfa Llechi Genedlaethol (national slate museum) and read the information boards together in Welsh
  • Sit in the back at the back row of the museum theatrette listening to the Welsh language version of the introductory film
  • With the louder English language soundtrack blaring in the background
  • Thinking what an apt metaphor that is for the whole messy situation
  • Compare how much we'd understood of the film afterwards
  • Realise we'd understood most of it
  • Or at least misunderstood exactly the same things
  • To be asked: are you English? by a woman with a plum in her mouth
  • 'Oh, I see,' plum woman replied, after we'd satisfied her curiosity. 'I thought you were speaking Norwegian
  • Well, of course, why on earth would anyone be speaking Welsh in Wales?
  • Play Jack Straws (a favourite game of my childhood)
  • Learn the Welsh name of every read, green, blue and yellow tool in the Jack Straws box
  • Including masculine, feminine and plural forms
  • I mean, that's normal, right?
  • Wonder aloud whether this would be a good exercise to do with my class in Melbourne
  • Imagine their shudder of horror as they read this blog
  • Test each other from the Oxford Visual dictionary
  • On and off through the weekend
  • Sometimes for over an hour
  • I mean, we all test our friends with picture dictionaries on holidays don't we?
  • Translate ABBA songs into Welsh
  • Sing them
  • Badly
  • Late at night
  • Wonder whether this would be a good entry for the next SSiW Eisteddfod
  • Consider doing an official Bootcamp, just to perform the item
  • With all the ABBA costumes and actions
  • Visit Castell y Bere – one of Llewelyn Fawr's more remote mountain citadels
  • Image in a Wales in which Owain Glyndwr's vision had prevailed
  • In which it always had its own parliament
  • And laws
  • And language
  • Without the 'Welsh Not'
  • Or the 'Treachery of the Blue Books'
  • Without Maggie Thatcher as Prime Minister
  • Or Tony Blair, or David Cameron
  • To feel sad, so sad for what might have been
  • Knowing there are people in England who would have liked an alternative history too

 

 

Blog twenty-five o Gymru – are you a friend of Dorothy?

'You are going to have to be deliberate,' a friend and Welsh language mentor told me before I came to Wales. 'You will meet lots of well meaning people who are happy to learn Welsh, but don't actually want to speak the language. You will also meet people who in ordinary circumstances you might want to spend time with. But if you want to improve your Welsh are going to have to prioritise friendships.'

This turned out to be sound advice. I have met both of the above types of people. But for the most part, I have made Welsh language activities my priority. Until I got an invitation to the oh-so-very-English Aberdyfi Pantomime.

You see as well as the half-Welsh-girl lurking inside me, there is another little girl who had an English daddy in addition to her Welsh mummy, who spent her whole childhood reading books set on the other side of the world, in a place her parents called home, where there were oak trees and badgers and seaside holidays and rock candy and donkey rides and piers and pebble beaches and castles and Yorkshire puddings and pork pies and New Forest ponies and Sadlers Wells and the West End and … pantomimes.

Here is what Wikipedia says about the pantomime:

Pantomime (informally panto) is a type of musical comedy stage production, designed for family entertainment. It was developed in England and is still performed there, generally during the Christmas and New Year season and, to a lesser extent, in other English-speaking countries. Modern pantomime includes songs, slapstick comedy and dancing, employs gender-crossing actors, and combines topical humour with a story loosely based on a well-known fairy tale, fable or folk tale. It is a participatory form of theatre, in which the audience is expected to sing along with certain parts of the music and shout out phrases to the performers.

The key part of that quote being: performedto a lesser extent, in other English-speaking countries.

You see, I had never seen an English a pantomime and prioritised Welsh language friendships, or not, I was not going miss the Aberdyfi Pantomime.

I bought my ticket.

Now if you think this involved turning up alone on the night and buying a single ticket at the door, think again. You see Dave from Corris Uchaf (top Corris) was playing the part of the Aunt Em from the Wizard of Oz and everyone in Corris knows everyone which meant everyone in Corris knew Dave which meant a show of support was required which meant half the village decided to attend which meant a bus needed to be ordered along with chocolates, paper cups and wine for sharing enroute.

The idea that I had never been to a pantomime was a topic for discussion.

'What! Never seen a pantomime! But … you've seen the Wizard of Oz?' someone asked on the bus.

'Oh, yes, I've seen the film, definitely. But not as a pantomime. What about you?'

'Loads of times. It's a rite of passage for us.'

'Er… Right of passage? In what way?'

'Judy Garland.' Someone else answered. 'Gay men love Judy Garland. The question: are you a friend of Dorothy? Was like a password or secret handshake.'

'Oh, yes, of course.' I knew that (not).

The Dyfi Pantomime was everything I had imagined.

  • People laughed
  • Clapped
  • Booed
  • Sang along
  • Yelled directions
  • Laughed at corny poo jokes
  • Enjoyed the not so subtle innuendos
  • And the fact that Elvis had somehow found his way to Oz
  • Along with Prince Caspian
  • I mean, this was a village pantomime
  • Everyone needed a part
  • From the young
  • To the old
  • To the talented
  • And those simply having a good time
  • The stage effects were amazing
  • As were the scenery
  • And the costumes

On the bus ride home people remarked on the finer details of Dave from Top Corris' costumes, right down to and gold eyelashes.

'He won't want to take it off.' Someone joked. 'He'll come to the cafe as Aunt Em on Saturday morning.'

'I think Corris is ready,' someone else replied.

'Yes, others agreed.'


I'm not sure whether Corris is ready for Dave in his burgundy corset and matching bloomers but it's already doing diversity. This has been one of the privileges of living in this tiny mid-Wales village. Not a particularly Welsh speaking community – but a place in which friends of Dorothy live alongside every other Tom, Dick and Mary as if that is perfectly normal (because it damn well is) and where people are kind and caring and accepting and hire a bus and go to the pantomime (even those who don't like pantomimes) because their friend is performing and who let Aussie Welsh-language-fanatics join them for the evening and make artists from all over the world feel welcome because they understand community. And they are wonderful.

Thanks Corris for an amazing seven months and for inviting me to the Dyfi Pantomime.

 

Blog twenty four o Gymru – a word on Welsh fairy tales

I haven’t blogged for a while. The reason – I’m desperate to get this pre-submission draft of my manuscript finished before heading back to Melbourne. If you know anything about my novel, you will know it is a historical novel set in 1841 on board an emigrant vessel bound for colonial Australia. It has two English viewpoint characters and a Welsh one. My Welsh viewpoint character is a storyteller. His traditional Welsh fairy tales both mirror and affect the other character’s journeys. A tall order for a first novel, perhaps? Or outright ridiculous? In polite literary circles, you may hear it called an ‘ambitious project.’

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As a consequence of this ‘ambitious project,’ I’ve read countless Welsh myths, legends, and fairy tales, primarily in the English language. One of my aims for this time in Wales was to increase my Welsh language understanding of these stories. You can therefore imagine my delight when Gwin Dylanwad advertised a series of Welsh language talks on the Mabinogi. The series wasn’t an event for Welsh language learners. I was definitely the least fluent speaker in the room. But I spent four pleasurable evenings listening to Dr Gwilym Morus-Baird discuss the amazing body of medieval Welsh literature that is known to the English speaking world as the Mabinogion.

The Medd a Mabinogi series was followed by a session on the Tylwyth Teg ( fair family), by Gwyn Edwards. Half way through the evening, Gwyn started talking about Llyn y Fan Fach, the story of a mysterious lake woman who married a mortal. Her father’s only condition being that his daughter mustn’t be struck causelessly, for on the third blow she and all of her dowry would return to the lake (at this point, the feminist in me is compelled to add that it should have been the first blow, causeless, or otherwise).

I recognised the story immediately (yes! a significant comprehension milestone). It is one of the stories I’ve used in my novel. I have walked the rocky mountain path to Llyn y Fan Fach (lake of the small place) a tiny mountain top lake at the northern end of the Black Mountain. I’ve read multiple versions of the story, know it like the back of my hand. At least…I thought I did. Except, the fairy father’s condition in Gwyn Evans’ version of the tale was different. Three causeless blows had been replaced  by three blows with a piece of iron.

The change wasn’t inconceivable. Welsh fairies don’t like iron. They don’t have wings either. They often dress in green. But that’s irrelevant. I glanced about the room, wondering what my class mates thought about this iron addition to the tale. They didn’t seem too perturbed (savages). Then again, they mightn’t have had so much riding on the situation. I on the other hand, sat in a heart pounding, cold sweat, thinking, OMG, the Welsh language version of the story is different. I’m going to re-work whole segments of my novel, just when I thought I was close to finishing.

Half way through his explanation of the tale, Gwyn Evans stopped, smiled, shook his head. ‘O mae’n ddrwg gen iDw i wedi gwneud camgymeriad – Oh, I’m sorry. I have made a mistake.

Mistake! I held my breath.

‘Nid oedd haern un o’r amodau – iron wasn’t one of the conditions. Dim ond tri trawiad heb achos – only three causeless blows.’

No iron! I found myself melting in a warm puddle of relief.

After they had finished wiping me off the floor, the remainder of the evening passed without further trauma. Here are some of the things I have learned about Welsh fairies:

  • They don’t have wings (as mentioned)
  • Neither do they like iron
  • Some people think they are human sized
  • Others that they are diminutive
  • They live beneath the earth
  • Time in fairy land is different to human time
  • If you get caught in a fairy circle it is hard to escape
  • Though their are methods
  • This by the way is a serious topic – and not hypothetical
  • Some believe fairy tales are the remnant of a folk memory harking back to a previous time – when trees, and stones and cairns had spirits
  • Others that they are simply the way to explain the inexplicable
  • Others still, that they are inherently evil
  • You must never try to steal from the fairies, or double cross them
  • They have been known to steal children
  • Reward people’s virtue
  • But whatever the case, you must always be careful
  • And even if you don’t believe in fairies, the tales are worth listening to

 

Blog twenty three o Gymru – Y Fari lwyd

If celebrating Christmas on the 6th of January felt strange, celebrating the New Year on January 16th, felt even stranger. But there are two worlds in Wales – remember the Harry Potter analogy – and while the rest of the world settled into a boring old mid-January malaise, Cymru Cymraeg celebrated another ancient tradition – Y Fari Lwyd (the Grey Mary).

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If you Google “Y Fari Lwyd” Wikipedia will tell you that Y Fari Lwyd is a wassailing tradition similar to English folk customs involving hobby horses and other stock characters. This is a fairly anglo-centric explanation of the tradition. You could just as easily say:

English wassailing traditions involving hobby horses and other familiar characters are most likely derived from the South Wales folk custom known as Y Fari Lwyd, a Celtic ritual, possibly of Indo-European origin, which involves groups of men carrying a be-ribboned horse skull between private homes and public houses and singing impromptu verse in order to gain admission.

In fact, I just did. 🙂

Y Fari Lywd is primarily a South Wales folk custom – traditionally celebrated between Christmas and New Year. But in recent years, it has been taken up in other parts of Wales and, like Plygain, is celebrated according to the Julian calendar. Which is how I ended celebrating New Year, in mid-Wales, last Saturday evening.

Here’s how the night panned out for me:

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  • I boarded a mini-bus in Machynlleth
  • Travelled to the Brigands Inn, picking up others en-route
  • At the Brigands Inn, Y Fari Lwyd and other characters – including an Ostler, a sergeant, a merriman, and Pwnsch a Siwan (Punch and Judy) stood outside.
  • Others gathered inside
  • Y Fari parti sang a tune asking for admission

“Wel dyma ni’n dwad (Well here we come)
Gy-feillion di-niwad (Innocent friends)
I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave)
I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave)
I ofyn am gennad i ganu (To ask leave to sing)”

(an example of a typical opening song)

  • The people inside made witty excuses in verse for why admittance was not possible
  • Y Fari parti responded
  • And on it went – until they ran out of ripostes and personal insults
  • At which point Y Fari parti was admitted
  • Food and drink were served
  • People danced and sang
  • Then we got back on the mini bus
  • And travelled to the next location – The Buckleys Arms
  • Where it started over again
  • (yes, it’s a pub crawl with poetry and singing)

At the end of the evening, a huge party gathered in the back bar of the Llew Goch (Red Lion). People turned up with instruments, song books were handed out (for people like me) and we sang – defiant folk songs, patriotic anthems, and heartbreaking laments.

  • All in Welsh
  • Because language is the heart of this culture
  • Along with music
  • And it is beautiful

 

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PS. The evening was organised by Arfon Hughes of Dinas Mawddwy. He composed many of the Mari parti’s verses, along with Huw Jones and children from the local area. Mair Tomos Ifans and Gwawr Davalan composed the verses sung from inside the tafarns. Neither parti had seen each other’s compositions beforehand, the challenge being to choose the appropriate verses and respond on the spur of the moment. Spur of the moment! Are you picking up a theme? Word play and impromptu eloquence are an important part of being Welsh.

Blog twenty-two o Gymru – a second Christmas

If you thought Christmas was over, think again. The early Celtic Church celebrated Christmas on 25th of December – according to the Julian Calendar, which equates to  the 7th of January on the Gregorian Calendar (the one followed in most Western Countries today). Which is how, this week, I found myself sitting in a traditional Welsh carol service.

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Plygain, is the word for this occasion, in Welsh. An ancient, possibly pre-Christianity festival that became part of the Church calendar and was traditionally held in the early hours of Christmas morning. Attendees would often stay up all night, dancing to the harp, before setting out with flaming torches to escort the priest to the church for the commencement of the service.

Now if you know one thing about Wales, it is probably the love of choral singing. Although the mass, male voice choirs we associate with Wales today were most likely a product of of the industrial era, singing in harmony is a much older Welsh tradition. Here is what Gerald of Wales had to say about it in the 12th century:

When they come together to make music, the Welsh sing their traditional songs, not in unison, as is done elsewhere, but in parts, in many modes and modulations. When a choir gathers to sing, which happens often in this country, you will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers.

Wednesday night a group of children kicked off the Plygain program. They rose, in silence, walked to the front of the church, pitched a note, and began to sing unaccompanied, and in harmony. After they had returned to their seats, a group of teenagers rose, and sang a different song. Followed by other groups, duos and individuals, all without introduction or apparent instructions. Until it almost every person in the church had contributed. At which point, the vicar rose, and I started shrugging into my coat, thinking we had come to the end of the service.

No, think again. After singing a community carol, the whole program started over, with the same group following the same groups, duos and individuals, until we had gone right though the ranks of the assembled for a second time. At which point the vicar rose again, we sang another carol and I had a strange sitting-in-the-front-pew-unable-to-leave-sense that the whole cycle was about to start over.

holly

I wasn’t bored, quite the opposite. Plygain carols are not familiar carols translated into Welsh. They are much older and often written in the Dorian mode and, if you add to this the unaccompanied singing in harmony, the effect is quite stunning. But I’d heard these stories of all night Plygain services, and I was sitting towards the front of the church which meant I couldn’t leave, without everyone knowing, added to which I had a sense that, if I did leave, I would have somehow failed the Welsh test.

Fortunately, my Welshness was not put to the test on Wednesday evening. All the men in the church rose, sung a final song, Can y Swper (supper song) and we were all invited to the Neuadd y Pentref (village hall) for a bite to eat. I wasn’t intending to stay for supper. I have allergies that cut out a host of foods (never easy to explain in Welsh) added to which it was my weekly protein only day (even harder to explain). Besides, I didn’t know anyone. There is nothing worse than sitting alone in a hall full of people who have known each other for years.

Escape wasn’t an option, however. People were way to friendly, which is how I found myself sitting at a table trying to explain why I only had half a boiled egg on my plate. After I had gone through the explanations about the egg and growing up in Australia and studying Welsh as an adult, some of which I’m sure got lost in translation (there was this woman who came all the way from Australia to see our Plygain service and can’t eat anything but boiled eggs), I asked questions about the Plygain tradition. Here is what I learned:

  • Traditionally the evening starts with children
  • Then teenagers
  • Then a group from the church
  • After which the order is random
  • Plygain is not a concert
  • All are welcome to participate
  • The song list is not known beforehand
  • Once a song has been sung, it is not to be repeated
  • Which is why everyone performed more than once (traditionally three times)
  • In the same order
  • As it is a kind of test (see I got that bit right) on rising to the occasion
  • Which means groups have to prepare for every eventuality
  • And, finally, Can y Swper is not a song to announce supper (what were you thinking?)
  • It is a song about the Last Supper
  • Because traditional Plygain services do no focus on the baby in the manger
  • The tell the whole story
  • From birth, to death, to resurrection

 

Blog nineteen o Gymru – an eventful Saturday evening

It had been a busy week – Merched y Wawr Bro Dyfi dinner on Monday night, a Merched y Wawr Corris a Chylch dinner on Wedesday night, Cawl a Chan at Dylanwad Wines on Friday night and the two nights in between spent watching Y Gwyll with a friend. I woke up Saturday morning feeling tired and indecisive.

We had two new artists arriving that day. I had to clean the stiwdio and, due to an excess of high fat, high carbohydrate foods, I also needed to go for a run. Added to which, had a party that night and the weather was looking pretty wild. I’d been invited to stay the night. But here’s the thing about me. I am not a late night or a stay overnight person. So when Dan, an American artist staying at Maelor, expressed a desire to see Welsh male voice choir in Abergynolwyn, I broke the I-am-not-a-taxi rule and offered to act as chauffeur.

I checked my maps before we left home. I thought I knew the way to Karen and Crispin’s house. They had a mosaic name plate on their farm gate. I’d be able to see it from the road. Besides, it was a party. They’d have balloons on the gate post, surely?

My first indication that things would go wrong was on the way to Abergynolwyn. The map said six miles. But I had forgotten that driving six miles in Wales is like driving thirty six miles in another country. The roads are so dark and winding. On this particular night, they were also flooded.

‘Gee.’ Dan said. ‘I hadn’t realised it would be this far out of your way.’

Neither had I but it was too late to turn back. We ploughed on through puddle after dark oily puddle until we reached Abergynowlyn. I dropped Dan at the Canolfan with a promise to be back before the pub closed.

I got to the tiny village of Llanfachreth okay and headed out into the back roads. It was darker and narrower than the road to Abergynolwyn. A gusting wind flung rain at my windscreen. Okay, I thought. Maybe there won’t be balloons on the gatepost. But I remembered a stone arch near their house and the striking mosaic. I would come across them eventually.

I didn’t. No matter how slowly, I drove. Nor how high my light beam. I checked my map. My phone didn’t have a signal. I thought I was getting close. But maybe my memory was faulty? Maybe I had to take another turn before I came to the name plate? If only I could find that stone arch. I started driving back along the Llanfachreth Road. But the rain had been falling steadily and part of the Tarmac had dropped away. Before I knew it, my wheels were churning in the mud. Backwards, I went. Then forwards, each time, sinking a little deeper.

I stopped, got out of the car, checked my phone. Still no signal. Added to which, my battery was getting low. I considered walking back to Llanfachreth. But it was ink dark, not a moon or star in sight and I had been raised according to the great, Aussie outback survival motto: “never leave your vehicle.” Besides, I was dressed warmly enough and there were blankets in the car. I wouldn’t freeze, even if I had to stay out all night.

But what about Dan sitting in the choir concert in Abergynolwyn?

The truth is stranger than fiction, they tell me. When writing a novel you can’t make a major plot point turn on coincidence. But as I stood on the windy dark road, trying to work out what to do next, I heard a car engine. A car! Had I imagined it? No, there were lights, not just any lights. I saw a taxi heading towards me. Wow! I thought this is seriously weird. But I stepped onto the road and hailed that cab as if we were in Charring Cross.

‘I’m bogged.’ I said, as if that wasn’t obvious. ‘I’m supposed to be at a party but I got lost.’

‘I’ve just come from a party.’

‘Karen and Crispin’s?’

‘The same.’

‘Oh, wow! Can you take me there?’

It didn’t take long to get to the party. We turned up a side road only a few hundred metres from where I was bogged. The mosaic was there. But there were no balloons on the gatepost. Seriously, what was I thinking? I walked in, apologising for my lateness, and produced what is probably one of the most dreadful Wenglish sentences I have ever uttered.

‘Ces i fy mogio mewn ditch.’

‘Ditch?’

‘Yes. Fy nghar. Bogged. Mewn ditch.’

Once the situation was explained, we made quick decisions. It wasn’t realistic to pull the car out in the dark. Most people had enjoyed a drink or two. I would have to stay the night, even if I wasn’t a house guest kind of person. I logged onto the WIFI and told our American artist he’d have to find his own way home (something I probably should have done from the outset). I then poured myself a glass of wine and enjoyed the party.

***

Oh, in case your wondering, bogio is definitely not the Welsh verb for bogged. But, hey, I mutated correctly and stuck an ‘io’ on the end, which is the golden rule in such cases. Though, someone did later point out that the Welsh word for ditch is ffos. I won’t be forgetting that in a hurry. 🙂

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