Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: Welsh language (Page 1 of 2)

Diary of a friendship – walking in wild lonely places

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

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

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

Saturday:

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

Sunday:

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

Monday:

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

Tuesday:

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

Wednesday:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Pa Mor Bell 

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are you lost?’ meddai fe.

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

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

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

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

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

***

Thanks to Aran Jones for help with the editing.

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Dysgwr y Flwyddyn – Welsh learner of the year

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It started with flattery. I received an email in my in-box entitled: our big hitting, superstar successful learners.

It went something like this:

Come on, folks. It’s Dysgwr y Flwyddyn time, and we’ve got a bunch of people with the skillz. I’d like to see entry forms landing chez @Lee @Ioan @Elizabeth_jane @Penny @Sion @Pierre @SueEllen @Lucy @Growler (names changed to protect the innocent).

Welsh Learner of the year – I knew this competition was linked to the National Eisteddfod and won by clever, almost fluent, people who knew the gender of each noun and never mixed up their mutations. I had idly dreamed of entering, one day, when my Welsh was much better. But at this stage, my name didn’t belong on a list of big hitting, superstar successful learners.

Flattery is a powerful motivator. I kept following the thread on the SaysomethinginWelsh forum. l learned that the Dysgwr y Flwyddyn competition is open to anyone who has been learning Welsh less than ten years. To enter you simply had to write a two page application talking about why you learned Welsh, and how speaking the language has affected your life.

Hmm…a writing task. I don’t consider myself big, hitting, or super. But I do like writing.

One evening, quite without intent, I found myself drafting an application. I worked on it the next night, and the one following. I showed it to a friend. Made corrections. Re-wrote sections. At which point, it began to dawn on me that I had done too much work to waste the document.

No. I didn’t need this in my life I told myself. I had my mum’s aged care transition to organise, a novel to redraft, an overseas working holiday to plan. Far too much stress thank you very much. Yet all the while the words big, hitting and successful ran like a refrain in my head. The request had been phrased in humourous, flattering terms but I knew it was genuine. The people who had given me twenty six free audio lessons and literally opened up this whole big language adventure, had asked me to enter.

And…I had already written the application.

In a moment of devil may care, I sent the thing off. Then I started to tremble.

The next stage would involve a Skype interview.

I had no hope of winning Dysgwr y Flwyddyn. Or even going onto the final round. But I did want to get through the interview without disgracing myself. Or letting the team down. But how to prepare? Effectively? When my ignorance could fill an ocean?

Fortunately, the sender of flattering messages is also a font of language learning wisdom. He gave me some tips. From this, I have devised the Elizabeth Jane Corbett interview preparation schedule:

  1. Listen to familiar Welsh patterns spoken at double time for twenty minutes a day (in case I ever meet a Welsh chipmunk).
  2. Spend at least twenty minutes a day listening to BBC Radio Cymru
  3. Do a complete SSiW lesson every day
  4. Create and use flash cards for all the dictionary words I ‘cleverly’ used in my applications
  5. Organize as many Welsh language Skype chats as possible – any takers?
  6. Speak, listen to, and think only in Welsh on the day of the interview.

Fortunately, my Skype interview is scheduled for late Saturday night as I doubt my library colleagues would have appreciated the inconvenience of step six. Meanwhile, if you do happen bump into me on the street, don’t be alarmed if I speak in garbled half English, half Welsh sentences. (I amused my Welsh class last Tuesday night by saying ‘a week yn ôl’ instead of ‘a week ago,’ though I was definitely trying to speak English).

Oh, and things might go a bit quiet on the blog for a while.

Just saying. 🙂

 

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Dosbarth Cymraeg – 2015 – Melbourne Welsh Class

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The first night of Welsh class is always inspiring. Every year, people come with hope and yearning, expressing an intangible connection to Wales. Some, because they were born there. Others have Welsh parents or grandparents from Wales. Others, a connection by marriage. Some have simply spent time working in the country. Whatever their reasons, people come wanting to learn the language.

Yet, as familiar as the first class of 2015 was, it also felt different.

Why?

I’m going to tell you.

We threw away the printed course books last year and piloted using SSiW audio lessons as our ‘official’ course materials. Incredibly for the first time, we had hardly any attrition among our learners. At the end of the first term, they were still there, and at the end of second term. All through, winter, work and personal crises they kept coming. Iestyn from SSiW had told them they could learn to speak Welsh.

They believed him.

My job was simply to facilitate conversation.

To some, this may seem like a lazy option, to essentially step back and let others teach your class. It does however mean those, like me, who are only a hundred metres ahead in the language acquisition race, can act as tutors. At times, this was pretty scary. I had to wrack my brains to think of new and exciting ways to use the materials. I learned not to pack too much into a lesson, to o go with the flow when things were working. I had looked forward to putting my feet up this year and repeating what I’d learned with a new group of beginners.

This was not to be. At the pre-term planning meeting, our longest serving tutor said:

‘That group likes you Liz. You’d better go up to intermediate with them.’

Gulp. Like, that’s a lot of extra laminating (and they’ve heard all my jokes). But here’s the thing about this year. One of our other tutors, a Welsh speaker from North Wales, will take the beginners. She has familiarised herself with the SSiW lessons. Watched the Bootcamp videos. Caught the passion. She’s going to use level one of the NEW Northern course as her class materials.

‘Err…’ I said, ‘do you realise the NEW second course is still under construction?’

‘Yes, but I read on the website it will be finished soon.’

That’s the thing about the SSiW. They say stuff and people believe them.

We took a punt using SSiW audio lessons as our official course materials. It was an experiment. We weren’t sure how it was going to work in the class room. This year we know it works. We have last year’s group and a world wide network of language learners as evidence.

But…this year’s beginners are going to need the level two NEW SSiW Northern course by the end of the year. So, Aran Jones, if like me, you’re only a hundred metres ahead, you’d best get pedalling. 🙂

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A year of tutoring with SSiW – the wrap up

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Last night was the last night of Welsh classes for 2014. Now before friends in the northern hemisphere accuse us of laziness, finishing the term in mid-November, do bear in mind it is Spring here in Melbourne and the days are lengthening. It is the end of the academic year, a time of exams and graduations. We are juggling valedictory dinners, with Christmas parties and end of year office events. After which, everyone who is able will head down to the coast for a summer break. So, we finish early and, being Aussie’s we decided to do this with a barbie

This is the first time since starting to starting to tiwtor three years ago that we’ve finished with a BBQ. Normally by this point in the year, I am exhausted and the two or three remaining students who have made it to the end of the fourth term are in a fog of pain and confusion. All anyone wants to do is slink away quietly and lick their language learning wounds.

This year was different.

It started the same as other years, with a large group of learners. I recall looking round the class and wondering how many would stay the course. Surprisingly, this year, we have pretty much retained our starting numbers. I am putting this down to a desperate decision to use SSIW audio lessons as our official course materials.

I say desperate, not because of the said course materials, which are excellent – if you want an overview read Aran Jones excellent short explanation of High Intenisty Language Learning. But the SSiW audio lessons are designed for individual use. I had to somehow adapt them for the group. From the outset, I decided we were not going to parrot the lessons aloud in class. That was homework. The only homework I ever set. Not that I actually had to ‘set’ anything. There was a fair bit of friendly rivalry among class members. Especially as we started each lesson by telling the group what lesson were up to yng Nghymraeg. My job was to facilitate ways of using the patterns students were learning. It was a trial by error process. I made heaps of mistakes. But peopel stayed. And some things actually worked.

  • I made flash cards
  • We played games like snap and charades and memory
  • We had a lolly jar
  • I wrote English dialogues for learners to speak in Welsh
  • We used the picture dictionary to supplement our vocabulary
  • By the end of the year we were using pictures as launching boards for conversations
  • We even had a romance between a man from one picture and a woman on the other.
  • They met in a tavern, married and had dau o blant (two children).
  • Not to mention their dogs and cats and how they liked mynd am dro (go for a walk)

We had fun.

That was the main piece of feedback I received at the end of the year. We laughed heaps.

Three people finished the entire first course. Some have told me they don’t want to go onto the intermediate class next year, using a course book. They want to keep learning the SSIW way. Many are talking about how far they will be able to get during their spare time over the summer holidays. Last night, someone said:

I think Iestyn, Aran and the two Cats deserve most of the credit. But we our class is pretty special too.

I agree.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me present the Melbourne SSiW class of 2014


 

 

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Cymru connections – an interview with David Lloyd

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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.

 

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The unwritten rules of Welsh class

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We have two unwritten rules in our Welsh class.

Firstly, if you go to Wales you must send a postcard – preferably written in Welsh. On my first trip ‘home’ to Wales, I had only been learning the language for six weeks. Having learned Rydw i’n hoffi and dydw i ddim yn hoffi, I filled the entire postcard with lists of foods I liked (faggots, Welsh Cake, bara brith) and foods didn’t like so much (laver bread) and, in a feat of linguistic dexterity I also told them the foods I didn’t like very much but that I didn’t hate (cockles, in case you are interested).

The second rule in our class is that, all books, DVD’s, and torrent files pertaining to Wales must be shared. Imagine the tension when a new offering is laid on the classroom table. The eyes of the only fifteen people in Melbourne who care take on a fanatical gleam. It’s like being in a secret society. Or at least the closest I will ever get to being in one. How sweet, to be with a group of others who get the ‘obsession.’

Recently, someone brought a copy of Pen Talar to class, a nine part TV drama spanning fifty years of the Welsh independance movement, that originally aired on S4C in 2010. I was second cab off the rank to borrow the DVDs and the timing couldn’t have been better. I got watch my nightly episodes with the Scotland referendum unfolding in the background.

Pen Talar tells it’s story through the lives of two West Wales families and in particular, through the experiences of their sons – Defi, a middle class boys whose father is the local school master, and Douglas, a ‘council house’ boy with an alcoholic father. The story opens in the seeming innocence of the nineteen fifties. Defi and Doug witnessess a crime – a shocking crime which binds, haunts and terrifies them well into their adult years. The fictional stories of Defi and Doug carry the viewers through each episode and, in common with all good historical fiction, we learn as much about the era in which the work was created as we do about the times being portrayed. In Pen Talar, we witness abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, marriage failure, tragic death and police corruption.

Forget London, Paris, New York, the action was all happening in West Wales.

The main reason I like watching Welsh TV is, of course, for the language. Though, for Pen Talar, I must confess to using the subtitles. They weren’t completely necessary. In many instances, I understood what was being said before the words appeared on the screen. But in this series, I wanted to understand the nuances (which are sadly still beyond me). I will, now go back and watch each episode in Welsh to reinforce the learning experience.

In Pen Talar, I recognised most of the actors from other Welsh language movies and TV series. The two Welsh characters from Patagonia were part of the series, multiple characters from a Gwaith Cartref and Alys. Even Dave Coaches from Gavin and Stacey got a gig. This is not surprising. I’m constantly amazed by who knows who in Cymru Cymraeg. With only 562,000 fluent Welsh speakers, the acting pool is limited. Yet, I am constantly blown away by the standard.

Pen Talar wasn’t simply an historical drama – it was a political drama. Through Defi’s eyes, we saw the mood after Tryweryn, the defeat of the first devolution referendum, the investiture of Prince Charles, holiday cottage burnings, Sinn Fein sympathies, bombing attempts, Gwynfor Evans’ courageous hunger strike, the coal industry under Thatcher, Blair’s eventual election victory, and the build up to second referendum, with only three months notice and Princes Diana’s tragic death overshadowing the entire process. It made me realise how long and hard the struggle, how truly visionary the early leaders. I knew the outcome of that 1997 referendum, won by only a slim majority, and I know Wales has since gone to increase its powers. But when they used real historical footage to announce the results on Pen Talar, my vision blurred. The series ended with these beautiful words.

My Wales, and land of my brotherhood,

My cry, my religion, the world’s only balm,

Her mission, her challenge

Pearl of the infinite hour held hostage by time,

Hope of the long course on the short term,

This was my window, the harvesting and the shearing,

I saw order in my palace yonder

There is a roar, a greed through a windowless forest,

Let us guard the wall against the beast,

Let us guard the well against the mire.

I’m not sure who wrote the poem. Hopefully, I’ll pick up the name on my second viewing. Unless, someone out there knows? And wants to drop me a line?

 

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A week in Cymru Cymraeg

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In Wales, there are two worlds. The English speaking world that you see on the surface and the magical, Welsh speaking world, of Cymru Cymraeg, that lies beneath. Once-upon-a-time, Cymraeg was the dominant language in Wales. It infused every element of Welsh life and culture. Now it is possible to be born, raised and to live in Wales, without entering its realm. This week, during my Saysomethinginwelsh bootcamp, I somehow found my way into this magical, world.

Yesterday it was hard… so hard to leave.

I hadn't met any of my fellow bootcampers prior to our week long holiday in Tresaith. We had all followed the same Welsh course and participated, to varying degrees, in the learners forum, but we were essentially strangers, defined by forum posts, stamp-sized web photos and a common desire to take our language skills to the next level – to experience a week immersed in the Welsh language.

I caught the train from Moreton in the Marsh and arranged a lift with one of my fellow bootcampers from Aberystwyth (yes, I know, a lift with strangers I'd met online). Once we'd settled into the Canolfan, the rules and format of the week were explained. Dictionaries were not encouraged, we were told, nor were sentences like: beth yw y gair am sausage? Miming and talking around the unknown word was the preferred method of communication. For example, if you didn't know the word for sausage you might say: cig sy'n mewn croen hir – meat that is in a long skin while miming the shape of a sausage with your hands. Inevitably, another learner would know the word. If not our Welsh language hosts would provide it.

Once the guidelines had been established we were asked to go around the room and convey interesting things about ourselves to each other using only mime. This was hilarious and, as you can imagine quite difficult. At the end of the fifteen minutes, it was a relief to start talking in Welsh.

After the initial, enforced silence, the chatter didn't didn't stop. We did all the activities that any group of friends might do on a holiday. We rose late-ish (me latest). Had breakfast, visited, towns, castles, museums, villages and restaurants, went on walks, took photos, got lost, browsed in book shops, shared meal preparations, misunderstood directions, got lost, went to the pub, stayed up late, laughed, talked, sang beneath the stars, all under the banner of the Welsh language. I'm not going to give you a blow by blow description of the week. I couldn't. You had to be there to experience the wonder. But here are some of my personal highlights.

Walking through the wonderful Welsh countryside

Making castles on the beach

Speaking Welsh

Laughing at my mistakes

Visiting a water operated woollen mill

Doing a drama session in Welsh

Laughing like a school girl

Realising I understood what that was being said

Laughing even more

Doing a tour of Castell Aberteifi

Hearing about the first Welsh Eisteddfod

Having a lesson in a cwrgl

Realising I understood everything the teacher was saying

Everything

I repeat: everything while turning hopeless circles in a cwrgl

Swimming in the Irish Sea

Making jokes in Welsh

Laughing

And laughing

Til I feared my sides would split

Thinking in Welsh

Realising I was thinking in Welsh

Telling my friends

Knowing they understood

Wishing the week would never end

 

 

 

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Shut up about the novel and let the festivities begin

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Okay, I’ve been slack, I mean, sick and, as a consequence, haven’t blogged for a week. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. As soon as those antibiotics kicked in, I launched from my bed like a rocket land let my pent up thoughts fire out across the page (how’s that for an overextended metaphor). As a consequence, I have finished re-drafting the female protagonist of my novel.

 

It has been an interesting process, this round of re-drafting. Much less painful than I’d envisaged. I asked five people to read the novel. Three sets of comments were aligned on the most important points. The other set, were an outlier, but nevertheless important. All said that my protagonist was not active enough absent from the most crucial turning point in the narrative. All agreed she needed to be there.

Damn, even I knew she needed to be there.

But…how exactly?

Fortunately, my fifth reader, Euan Mitchell, has a good head for story structure. He can talk archetypal story principles like no one else. He said, your protagonist needs to be there, and she needs to be making all or nothing decisions. We debated this back and forth by email. Me, trying to work out how to do this by making the minimum of changes. Euan, urging me to think beyond pain, and in the interests of the story. Eventually, I came up with a plan. And full of jet fuel (yes, I know, uber corny) I wrote. After we get back from holidays, I’ll test it out on my writing group. But…it’s heading in the right direction, because I liked the aspects of my character that I found in those re-written scenes.

Hey! I hear your say. Shut up about the novel. What’s this about holidays?

Well, here’s the thing. I turn fifty today.

Yes, I know. I don’t look a day over forty nine.

But…there you have it. I’m fifty.

In addition to my recent fossilisation, Andrew and I celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary in January. As a consequence we are combing business with pleasure. I am looking forward to speaking Welsh. Cycling in the Cotswolds. Travelling in Wales. Swanning around London with one of my Welsh speaking friends (while Andrew works). Taking Andrew to the Camden Markets. Visiting friends in Wales. And Essex. Seeing the Eiffel Tower, Moulin Rouge and Monet’s Gardens, for the first time. Oh, and did I mention I may get a chance to speak Welsh now and then.

Sadly, my ambitions of learning travellers French have not got far beyond je suis Australiene and je suis algergique. I’ve been too busy practicing Welsh, which, I am sure you will agree is a far more useful language.

What? You don’t agree. Let me tell you, forget Mandarin people, Welsh is the language of the future.

If only more people realised…

Anyway, regarding my lacklustre performance in French, I have masterminded a strategy. If I get in trouble. Or worse, mistaken for an English tourist, I will simply revert to the Welsh language. There is only one small downside to this plan. My husband might divorce me. But…we all know he’s only jealous because he doesn’t speak an up there, on fire, and all-round-useful, second language. It’ll come out in court, I can tell you.

If I wasn’t a writer, I’d say see you in five weeks. But…here’s thing. I multiply the pleasure of events by re-hashing them. You can therefore look forward to being assailed with sub-ordinary photos of Andrew and I in remarkable locations. If you are lucky, I’ll even write the captions in Welsh and English.

Meanwhile, it’s my birthday. So, let the festival of ageing begin.

 

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Some thoughts on language, loss and identity

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Have you ever seen this map?


At a conservative estimate, more than two hundred and fifty different languages were spoken by Indigenous Australians prior to the arrival of Europeans. Most of these are now extinct with only about fifteen languages still being spoken by all age groups.

That’s a sobering picture. Why? Because language is about identity. Consider this quote from Wominjeka at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre.


Language is the essence of who you are. It tells you where you come from, your connection to Country and where your Country is … Without speaking that language, you’re missing a huge chunk of your identity.

As a Welsh language learner, this is a reality I often reflect upon. But this week, at the request of an Australian woman doing an M.A. in Celtic Studies through the University of Wales, Trinity St David, I have been trying to articulate how learning Welsh shapes my identity. In an email to the researcher, I wrote:

One of my life ambitions has always been to write a novel. On turning forty, I decided it was time to give this ambition a go. It would be a historical novel as I love history. It had to be Australian (because I had no research budget) and it would be about migrants because emigration was the single most defining event of my childhood. Somewhere along the line I also decided to have Welsh characters.

Initially, I knew very little about Welsh culture but, as I began to research, I stumbled across the Melbourne Welsh classes. I went along to the first class expecting only to attend for a short while – long enough get a broad sense of the language for my novel. Ten years later I am still learning Welsh because somewhere along the way I fell in love with the language. I love its words. Their spelling. The poetry. Speaking Welsh does something warm inside me.

The researcher wanted to know more about this warmth – what exactly falling in love with a language looked like. I wrote back to her:

At the beginning of the year, our Welsh class sits in a circle. We introduce ourselves and tell the class why we are wanting to learn Welsh. Some speak of heritage. Others describe a sense of belonging they felt on first crossing the border into Wales. Others describe a longing – a desire to speak their own language. Welsh has a word for this yearning: Hiraeth. Hir, first part, means long. The second part aeth is the word for pain or grief.

Hiraeth is therefore a long ache.

How does this relate to the map of Australia’s indigenous languages? Good question. I’m coming to that.

You see a friend of mine, Veronica Calarco, is an Australian artist who lives and works in Wales and Australia. I first met Veronica at Cwrs Haf – an intensive Welsh language summer school in Aberystwyth. We have corresponded, on and off, ever since. In a recent email, Veronica sent me a Vimeo link to one of her recent works – KurnaiCymraeg. In her brief explanatory note, she says this about the project:
I decided to make a Kurnai Welsh dictionary to signify the loss of meaning, history, memory, knowledge and growth that occurs when a language becomes extinct or is rarely used.
Much of the spoken Welsh at the beginning of the Vimeo clip is written in English on the bilingual introductory page. After that that, unless you read Welsh, you will be dependant entirely on Veronica’s images. Why not have a look? Never mind the privacy message, just clink on the link. Enjoy the beauty of spoken Welsh. Kurnai spoken with a North Walian accent. Experience the sensation of incomplete meaning. And in that moment, mourn: for when a language is lost, a people is lost and all knowledge contained within that language is lost, and the world is a little less interesting.


 

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