Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: Writing (Page 1 of 3)

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

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

Let’s start with the generosity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diary of a friendship – walking in wild lonely places

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.

Okay so this is getting real – an author interview and a photo shoot

Round Table Discaussion

Two important things happened last week. First, I was included in a historical fiction round table discussion on Sophie Schiller’s blog. If you take time to read the discussion – and it is well worth a read – you will notice two things. 

Firstly, only one male writer was interviewed. This is not a matter of discrimination (the participants were largely voluntary) so much as a reflection of who is reading and writing historical fiction. Women. Certainly a quick perusal of the Historical Novels Society membership list would bear this out. Yet, women writers are consistently under reviewed. Interviews like Sophie’s help correct the imbalance. Yay, Sophie!

The second thing you’ll notice if you read the interview is that I am the only author on the list who has not yet had a full length work published. So, like, I was so lucky to be included. Reading back over the interview, I could have answered some questions differently. Bit mostly, I think it went okay. If you have time, click on the link and let me know. 

Photo shoot

As a consequence of the round table discussion, I had a note from my publisher. Actually, hang on a sec, let’s just pause and reapeat those words. I had a note from my publisher 🙂 🙂 🙂 saying I would need a bigger (as in pixels) photo for future publicity. She was right. I knew this to be true. As my current headshot is a cropped photo taken at our son’s wedding with my husband’s head artfully removed. Oops! 

Fortunately, our daughter houseshares with a photographer, Anthony Cleave, and as Anthony took our family photo at Christmas time, I had already seen his work. An added bonus was that he was happy to do the shoot at my house. Added to which, my daughter Priya decided to come along for the ride. This made the whole event pretty relaxed with Priya telling me I needed a necklace and fluffing up my hair and generally making me laugh. We had some silly moments.

   

 

Four hours later, I received seven digital photos through Onefile. I posted them to our family Viber group for a vote. This is the one we decided on.

 

 

Eureka! She’s signed a publishing contract

So, you decided to write a novel – an historical novel. The first piece of fiction you have written since a dreadful short story in year eleven. You have an idea of a time period. You begin to research. But actually you have no idea what you are doing. You just write. You get some early encouragement. Get shortlisted for awards. Win a short story prize. You keep on writing. You have a full, redrafted manuscript before you realise that the whole damned publishing industry is market driven — the manuscript you’ve written won’t fit neatly on the bookshop shelves.

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You should have known this. You are a librarian. You are used to putting books in categories. But the truth hits home at the Historical Novels Society of Australasia Conference as you listen to a grim publishing panel rip your colleagues’ work apart. They tell you most Australian book sales take place in Kmart or Big. There is a big demand for rural romance, why not try your hand at that?

You realise your manuscript is going to be hard to pitch — an historical coming-of-age about fairy tales and facing the truth. With both adult and young adult viewpoint characters. Like, what were you thinking? You sink to the bottom of a dark pond. You drive your room mate crazy with your OMG why-didn’t-I-realize script.

You attend MWF — a session on publishing perspectives. You are told colouring books are artificially inflating print book sales. That mainstream publishers can’t take a risk. They have to make money. This is the era of the small press. Hadn’t Black Rock, White City, just won the Miles Franklin Award?  A small press! You remember the only smiling face on the HNSA panel was a publisher from an independent press.

You Google the Small Press Network, start sending out query letters. You also attend a Literary Speed Dating Event at Writers’ Victoria. You get quick responses from the small presses – far quicker than you get from the established publishers. They’re working smarter, electronically. You get loads of encouragement. Rejections too. You start a new project. That’s what you do, isn’t it? Move onto the next book. You consider self-publishing. Remember how much you suck at administration. Still you are waiting. A few, independent publishers have asked for your full manuscript. You notice that opening your email makes your tummy ache. You consider staying in bed. Forever. You think maybe you’re not cut out for this.

Then an email from Odyssey Books arrives. The opening line says:

“Thank you for sending us “The Tides Between”.

You brace. Think the word “Unfortunately” is going to come next.

“It’s an original concept with a great voice and well-developed characters. We love it and would like to publish it.”

Publish? You blink, shake your head. Read again more slowly. Publish! A mercury shot of realization. You leap out of bed, calling your husband’s name. He’s not in his office. You turn, this way, that. Search the garden, the shed, his bike rack. Gone. He’s gone. You are shaking, crying, running in circles. You think frenetic is a good description. You send a text to your husband, ring your mum, tell your writing buddies, put the news on the family Viber group, answer responses. Then you sit, letting the news sink in. Your book may not be Kmart or BigW material, neither is it a rural romance. It certainly doesn’t fit neatly on the bookshelf. But someone loved it, enough to publish it. You think this truly is the era of the small press. That Michelle Lovi at Odyssey Books has just become your new best friend.

Owain Glyn Dwr’s offspring – and Iolo Morgannwg’s meddling

Researching a novel is like tackling a giant jigsaw puzzle. You start with an image in your mind. In this instance, a woman alone in a prison looking back over her life. But before you can form that image you need to tip the pieces out on the table and begin sorting them – into corners, edges and colours. Or in this instance, historical details, character motivations and story threads. To this end, I have been reading reading books on kings, medieval daily life, women’s roles, soldiers, armour and most recently a book on growing up in the middle ages.

Growing up? I hear you ask. Do you intend to give a blow-by-blow account of your protagonist’s life?

No, but experience tells me you need to know a great deal more about a character than ever appears on the page. Even if I do not fictionalise Marged’s childhood, I need to know what it looked like. Added to which, she raised offspring of her own. According to the nineteenth century antiquarian and genealogist, Jacob Youde William Lloyd, Marged bore Owain Glyn Dwr eleven children. A shattering number for anyone considering writing a novel. I mean, the woman would have spent the whole time, pregnant or giving birth. Which may have been the case for many medieval women. But in story terms, there are only so many times you can show the pacing husband, difficult delivery and lusty newborn infant before people start to yawn. I shared this problem with my Welsh class in the bar of the Celtic Club (yes, there is a price to having me as a tutor).

‘I’m going to have to kill a few children,’ I said’. Eleven is an impossible number.’

‘You can’t do that!’ A circle of shocked faces. ‘You have to be accurate.’

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They were right, of course. That is one of the challenges of writing historical fiction, the balance of crafting a good story against the historical record. Every novelist sets their own parameters. For me (and it seems my Welsh class), it must involve a degree of accuracy.

But eleven children! When were they born? What were their personalities? How did they all live before the revolt? What about afterwards, when their lands were declared forfeit? How did poor Marged stop them from sickening and squabbling while hiding out in the mountains of Snowdonia? (yes, insert the remembered pain of taking four children on family holidays here). In fact, this book was beginning to take on the feel of a vicarious form of post traumatic stress syndrome. But, apart from becoming a mass murderer, I could not see any way out of the situation.

I mentioned this problem (in an electronic form of a hand-wringing) to Gideon Brough, a historian, whose book The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dwr is due for release in December, thinking he may know of of a cave, or safe-house (big enough to house eleven children) or, failing that, evidence of an illness that wiped out half the family. His was answer was in fact, infinitely more satisfying:

Contemporary sources only appear to confirm four children born to Owain and Margaret; Gruffydd, Maredudd, Catrin and Alys. Iolo Goch’s poem says that they came in pairs, the longer list of names you might have read appears to have been invented by Iolo Morgannwg centuries later.

Next Tuesday, after Welsh class, someone asked how my research was going (actually, they may not have asked but, as I said before, there is a price). I told them about the Morgannwg theory.

‘But,’ one brave soul asked, ‘why would Iolo have made that up?’

Indeed, why did Iolo make anything up? He was probably the biggest literary forger in Welsh history, creating a vast body of work, reputedly dating back to the druids. The whole bardic ceremony at the Welsh National Eisteddfod is, in fact, a product of his fecund (always wanted to use that word) imagination. Now, it seemed he’d also foisted an imagined family on Glyn Dwr.

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At this point, I hear a collective howl from all those who claim descent from Glyn Dwr. You are out there, I know you are, Wikitree and Geni.com attest your existence. But do take heart, there are also rumours of multiple illegitimate offspring. So many, in fact, that I wonder poor Owain had time to pull his braise up, let alone lead a national uprising. But for my part, I’m sticking with the four children mentioned in the contemporary record – Gruffudd, Catrin, Alys, and Maredudd -because four is far more manageable in terms of crafting a novel. In fact, I may have even lived that situation.

Permission to create – or ditching the fear factor

I’m a belt and braces kind of girl. Terrified of making mistakes. I’m not sure why. Hours of introspection and countless man-with-a-cardigan counselling sessions have not provided answers. But for a writer (or indeed anyone) a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ can be paralysing. I distinctly recall telling my writing group that I wanted to make sure my novel was perfect, so perfect that it wouldn’t be rejected. I still recall the silence that greeted this naive announcement.

‘Liz,’ one of them ventured gently. ‘No matter how good your work is, you are going to be rejected.’

They were right, of course. I’ve had my work rejected countless times. Sometimes more painfully than others. I’d like to say I’ve developed a thick skin. But I haven’t, not nearly thick enough. As evidenced by my fear-of-getting-it-wrong approach to my latest project.

Researching my first novel, I read countless diaries, nineteenth publications and more recent historical analyses in order to get my immigration facts straight. In terms of the Welsh fairy tales that run like a seam through the novel’s pages, well, I may have gone a little overboard. In fact, I learned a whole language. But although the conditions on board my nineteenth century emigrant vessel are as authentic as I could make them and, although my knowledge of fairy tales has grown exponentially, the voyage, the ship, characters were all fictitious. This gave me a degree of license.

Not so with my current project – a novel written from the viewpoint of Owain Glyn Dwr’s wife. You see, Marged Glyn Dwr was an historical figure, as was her husband (a national hero in fact). The revolt, the circumstances, all the supporting characters of my story, are historical. This makes the likelihood of receiving an irate letter from a Welsh nationalist informing me that I have misrepresented Wales noble history imminently possible.

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I’d like to say that I’m handling the pressure well, cool as  cucumber as I pore over tome after tome in the state library, that my bookshop is not groaning under the weight of newly acquired purchases, groaning so loudly that when I mentioned to my husband that I may have ordered a few books, he politely asked whether I had set a budget.

Budget, I gulped, yes, of course, I have a budget.

With these tight (cough) budget constraints in mind, you can imagine my frission of excitement to come across this paragraph when reading a library book about the non-judicial confinement of medieval women:

Margaret, the Wife of Owain Glyn Dwr, their daughter Catherine […] and an unclear number of her children, all of whom seemed to have been without personal culpability were taken at the capture of Harlech and were held in the Tower of London from 1409 until at least 1413, when the death of Catherine and her two daughters is the last that is heard of them. Their confinement can be interpreted as a ‘family guilt’ confinement, or as a quasi-hostagehood intended to put pressure on Owain who was still at large.

I wrote to the historian, Gwen Seabourne, outlining my project, and asked whether she could recommend the best sources of information concerning Marged Glyn Dwr. Her answer was disappointing. Or was it? Apparently, that paragraph is pretty much all anyone knows about the fate of Marged Glyn Dwr. Which means, as long as I thoroughly research of conditions in the Tower, my potential for making mistakes has just considerably diminished.

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Buoyed by the success of this contact-an-academic strategy. I contacted another. One whose book on The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dwr is soon to be released (I have it on order – yes, part of my carefully worked out budget). I have read a number of titles on Glyn Dwr and no one seems to know why his military service terminated so abruptly in 1388. Or why he actually rose in revolt in September 1400 (apart from the perfidy already mentioned in earlier blog posts). Many theories have been posed. But none sit well with me. Least of all that he was disgruntled at not receiving a knighthood and sat wallowing in self pity until one morning, ten years later, he got up and declared himself Prince of Wales. Even if  that version was true, which I seriously doubt, you can’t develop a novel on such a vague premise. You have to give the characters conflict and believable motives. I asked this particular historian his opinion on the matter. He wrote back:

There does not appear to be any evidence which gives a firm indication at all of Owain’s feelings after the 1387 campaign, nor any reason to explain why he was not available for service in 1388. That means that there is nothing concrete to justify the notion that he was disgruntled but nothing to definitely refute it either. Effectively, you have carte blanche in that sphere.

The historian, Gideon Brough, whose work promises to be a great deal more nuanced than previous offerings, urged me to think differently to the received version of events, to “do something beautiful and creative with my carte blanche.”

Carte blanche? Did you hear that? There is a smattering of circumstantial evidence and a great deal of theorising going on, even among historians. Which means, as long as I do my research and make sure I understand the social and political issues of the time, I can add my own theories to the mix. Which just made the whole process a lot less scary in my opinion.

Library lessons – from the other side of the desk.

My name is Liz, I work as a librarian, and I love libraries. The public ones, due to their underlying principle of equity of access, research libraries due to their wealth of information. In addition to my multiple Aussie public library memberships, I hold Gwynedd and Powys library cards. I am also a member of the National Library of Australia, State Library of Victoria, and the Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru (LLGC). 

One of my methods, when reading a secondary resource is to pore over the bibliography and footnotes, identifying further reading materials. A search on Trove made it plain that some of the items I require – like the Denbighshire Historical Society journal – will not be found in Australia. Others, are available through the LLGC website, and are now on my iPad in PDF format. Many of the medieval chronicles, parliamentary proceedings and patent rolls are also available online. But because I am a mildly (cough) obsessive person, I have also registered with the U.K. Data Service in order to acesss the Dyffryn Clwyd court rolls, intermittently presided over by Reginald de Grey, the man whose actions pushed Glyn Dwr into open rebellion. 

Yes, I know, major excitement.

But Liz, I hear you ask, do you need all this detail when much of it is provided in the secondary sources? Possibly not. But I am learning to trust the process. Indeed to revel in it. For my recently completed novel, I spent two afternoons in the Victoria and Albert Reading rooms sifting through nineteenth century theatre play bills. Did any of them make it into the novel? Well, no. But they made the whole damn thing feel pretty real. And when you are trying to connect with an historical character, real is important. Imagine my excitement, when scrolling through a muster roll of medieval soldiers, to see Owain Glyn Dwr listed. To quote Billy Elliot:

‘It was like electricity.’

I experienced a similar frisson of excitement when I found the Bulletin Board of Celtic Studies journal on the state library catalogue, with issues spanning all the way back to 1921. The record said:

Available  Phone 03 8664 7002 to arrange delivery from Offsite Store  YA 913.36 B87

Ten o’clock Monday morning I called the state library. ‘Good Morning, I said. I am phoning to order some journals from offsite storage.’

Silence.

‘Hello? The catalogue said to phone, is this the correct number?’

‘Yes.’ A sigh on the end of the line. 

‘Are you the person I need to talk to?

‘I am, but it will be difficult.’

‘Difficult?’

‘Our process is clunky.’

At this point a younger, less experienced version of myself may have said, ‘Oh, I see, well, sorry to bother you.’

But I am no longer a girl and I work in a library and I have it on good authority that this is not how one is supposed to conduct a reference interview. In fact, I strongly suspected this librarian was being lazy. ‘Would it be easier if I came in and made the request?’

‘No,’ another sigh. ‘What journal are you after?’

I gave him the name of the journal, heard the keyboard clattering, imagined a bald, bespectacled librarian, let’s call him Lionel, peering at the screen. (yes, yes, I know, a stereotype, but some of them are real okay) ‘Yes, it is in our collection.’ Lionel dredged the admission up from the soles of his scuffed, brown lace-up shoes. ‘What issues are you after?’

I pulled up my list, began reeling off years and numbers.

‘Hang on a sec!’ Did I detect a note of smug triumph in Lionel’s voice? ‘You are only allowed six items.’

‘So, you want me to order six items now, cycle into the library tomorrow, then call again the next day and order six more issues, cycle home, then repeate the whole process the following morning?’

A longer silence. To give credit where credit is due, Lionel was starting to register my level of persistence. ‘Leave it with me,’ he said. ‘I’ll make enquiries.’

When Lionel called back a couple of hours later, he told me that he had managed to put in a trolley order. ‘I’m not sure if it will work,’ he added with a signatory puff. ‘But hopefully there will be something on the reserve shelf tomorrow.’

The next morning, I don’t mind admitting, I approached the reservation shelf with a degree of pessimism. I was not surprised to find that there were no journals under my name, only the three additional books I had ordered through the catalogue. However, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard borrowers announce that their reservation is not on the shelf, only to find it below, the items under letter of their surname having spilled over onto a lower shelf. I scanned the reservation area, saw four huge cartons, with my name on them. Journal upon journal, some wrapped in plastic due to their infrequent use. Lionel had delivered. Big time. From which I concluded he wasn’t a lazy librarian at all. Though, I strongly suspect the poor fellow has confidence issues. 



 

Historical Research and the dispelling of fondly held myths

One of the disadvantages of of doing historical research is that you have to let go of fondly held myths. In this instance, the myth was learned at my mother’s knee. ‘When Edward conquered Wales,’ she told me. ‘He promised the Welsh a prince who could speak not a word of Welsh. ‘Then he tricked us by giving us his baby son.’

Now, I’ve always had an affection for this story. For although it did make the Welsh look a tad gullible it perfectly illustrated the perfidy of the conquerors. Turns out the story isn’t true. Born in 1294, Edward of Caernarfon was not crowned Prince of Wales until 1301. We have an Elizabethan historian to thank for my mother’s quaint version of history.

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Unfortunately, although the baby story was a fabrications the perfidy certainly wasn’t. After the conquest, Pura Wallai was turned into a series of royal shires. Local inhabitants were relocated, castles erected, and boroughs established in which English settlers held a number of closely guarded privileges. Welsh men were barred from holding important offices. Welsh population were governed by a mixture of English Common Law (much harsher than the Welsh) and traditional Welsh law. If the latter sounds benevolent, think again. The Welsh Laws were used to impose outmoded feudal taxes and obligations on the Welsh population – obligations to which the English settlers were not subjected. Things were no better in the March. Wales was a fragmented territory in which there were two levels of government and society.

Why am I telling you this? Because I am knee deep in research for a new project. A novel written from the perspective of Owain Glyn Dŵr’s wife. What is not discussed at length in the literature on the period, is that the decision to declare himself Prince of Wales ruined Margaret’s Glyn Dŵr’s life. She ended up in the Tower of London while only two of her children survived the revolt. The whole of Wales was laid to waste.

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What kind of man would make such a decision? And why? what were his aspirations?

One of my friends suggested he was probably a selfish, misogynistic sod (actually she used stronger words) who didn’t even consider his wife or family. But really? Would that make a good story? Besides, I don’t believe it is true. The above mentioned perfidy was as alive in Glyn Dŵr’s day as it was post conquest. He appears to have made an effort to adapt to the new social system, even when doors to advancement were closed against him. When a neighbour seized a tranche of his land he initially took the case to parliament. Where, his concerns, and the Welsh population in general were dubbed ‘bare foot rascals of no account.’

Still, you might say. Why go on a rampage? Destroy English towns?

I agree. It’s not my version of good citizenship. But it seems rampaging was a common medieval pastime. Barons often pursued their aims at the point of the sword. There were no elections or referendums. No true parliamentary representation. When a man fell out of favour, he could easily end up dead. Only a year prior to the Glyn Dŵr revolt, Richard II, the king of England, had been deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke and starved to death at Pontefract Castle. It wasn’t good, or right. But it was the modus operandi in those days.

But declaring himself Prince of Wales? That’s a bit drastic, isn’t it?

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The jury is out on whether Glyn Dŵr actually envisaged a full scale national revolt from the outset. Or whether he was simply trying and force a negotiation. Indeed, whether he even proclaimed himself Prince of Wales in September 1400. But, due to the above mentioned perfidy, the situation quickly went viral (note to file: if you are going to conquer a country treat the local inhabitants well or they may resent the situation). For although he didn’t officially use the title Princeps Wallie until much later in the revolt and, although the only hard evidence we have for him claiming the title prior to this comes from hysterical English sources, there is an historical precedent. You see, in 1287, Rhys ap Maredudd of Dryslwyn had declared himself Prince of Wales. In 1294, Madog ap Llewelyn and Morgan ap Maredudd rose in revolt. In 1316, Llewelyn Bren also laid claim to the titles. In 1378, Owain Lawgoch was assassinated by the English Crown for daring to assert his claim to the throne. Glyn Dŵr’s response was not without precedent.

But enough of the man, how did his wife Margaret feel about the situation? Was she there at the fateful declaration? What was her feelings? What about later, when her husband’s lands were declared forfeit? Or when she lay besieged and starving in Harlech Castle?

No one knows the answer to those questions. I get to write my own version of history. My challenge being to let go of modern perceptions and try to enter her medieval mindset. Imagine how she might have felt as her world spiralled out of control, who she would have turned to in those early terrible weeks. Did she hitch herself to her husband’s star when it started to rise? Or try to work against him? And how did she feel at the end, trap or within those grey stone tower walls, while her husband was still at liberty?

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History – a matter of perspective

I have started researching a new novel, set between the years 1383 and 1413. It will begin in the Tower of London and end in the Tower of London and range from Flintshire to Snowdonia before finally reaching its harrowing climax in Harlech Castle. That’s all I’m going to say at this point. Apart from the fact that (to my knowledge) there are no statues of my viewpoint character in Wales, hardly anything written about her. Why is that? I’m sure she played her part. Why do men’s exploits so dominate the pages of history?

Before we ponder that question, let us examine my suitability for the task.

I was raised in Australia. I did a project on beef cattle in grade four (for which I received a gold stars), heard a fair bit about convicts (despite SA where I grew up being colonised entirely by free settlers). I absorbed similar jaw cracking stories about the sailors from the good ship Corromandel who absconded in the Adelaide Hills, along with obligatory visits to pioneer village and old government house. I did a term of American history in year ten, focussing on slavery, a term on the Russian Revolution, another on the French, and similar units on the history of China and India. In my final school year, I studied the causes of the First and Second World Wars. I did an undergraduate history degree majoring in history (primarily Australian) and my urban history units touched on Europe. But there was no Welsh history in that mix, barely any English (apart from those horrible old judges who sent innocent convicts to the antipodes for stealing handkerchiefs).

So, on paper, hmm… not so well qualified.

Fortunately, I’m a librarian <insert research junkie> and I have a slight (cough) interest in Wales. I’ve made it my business to do a spot of reading on the side and, now, thanks to the recent referendum, I am able to buy second hand books far dirtier and cheaper than I could a month ago. I have started with an overview of the period. This entailed re-reading, Land of My Fathers’.

Land of My Fathers’ is an unashamedly partisan history of Wales. It’s author, Gwynfor Evans, was a Welsh hero, politician and statesmen who took on Maggie Thatcher and won (yep, that good). I believe every word of his history. I read parts of it every now and again to regain a true perspective on the world. However, despite the fact, that I share the author’s considerable biases, I thought it best to cast my research nets a little wider. Over the last few weeks I’ve also read, The Hollow Crown, Owain Glyndŵr: the story of the last prince of Wales, The Three Richards, The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr, The Time Traveller’s guide to Medieval England, A History of Wales, and the Cambridge University Press title: Medieval Wales. 

Amazon tells me David Walker, the author of Medieval Wales was “born in or near Wilmington in or near, North Carolina, the son of a slave father and a free black mother (thus under the laws of slavery, he was born free).” These biographical details can’t be correct, as the book’s prefaces Walker as a former senior lecturer in Medieval studies at University College Swansea, a contemporary of Glanmore Williams (b. 1920) and R. R. Davies (b. 1938). I don’t know where he hailed from or what his background. Only that reading Medieval Wales felt like receiving a series of slaps in the face.

Here is what Walker had to say about the reign of Owain Glyn Dŵr, the last native Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales.

In the literary record his prospects and his capacity as soldier and leader were, by well known convention, overstated. […] The records suggest that Glyn Dŵr had a sense of style and he knew the value of the outward trappings of power, but the limitations of his power were all too easily identifiable. […] Plunder and thinly disguised extortion provided (Glyn Dŵr with) short-term supplies but left a legacy of bitterness […] In one important sense the Pennal scheme was well based: an independent Welsh church was a sound ambition. In another sense, […] it implied a capacity to inflict a massive defeat on the English King which was far beyond Glyn Dŵr’s resources.

Now by English standards of wealth and power, Glyn Dŵr may not have been considered a great threat. But as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, there are two worlds in Wales – the English speaking and the Welsh speaking – and, my preliminary reading tells me, this phenomenon was active in fourteenth century Wales. In the Welsh speaking world, Glyn Dŵr was considered the pre-eminent claimant for the title. Under the surface of an outwardly subservient populace a powerful network of kinship alliances and aspirations was in operation. Added to which, the English crown was in disarray – the King having been usurped and starved to death by his own cousin.

The History of Wales was written by the late John Davies, an eminent Welsh historian who won the Owain Glyndŵr Award for his outstanding contribution to the arts. The tone of his work is less condescending than Walker’s. Here is what Davies had to say about Glyn Dŵr:

By 1400, Owain Glyndwr was a man with considerable experience of the ways of the world. In addition to the mass support which Owain received from the villeins and poorer clergy, he also won the allegiance of most of the members of the low ranks of the Welsh official class. By 1404 […] so great was the prince’s authority and so feeble the reaction of Henry IV that English officials, Marcher Lords and the inhabitants of the border counties were making their own local agreements with the new power that had arisen in Wales. At the same time, Owain was seeking an alliance with the Percy and Mortimer families. […] At the beginning of 1405, French soldiers (yes, he had secured the backing of the Pope and the French King) landed at Milford Haven.

History is a matter of perspective. And most often a male perspective.

Yet amidst these records of power bases, battles and alliances, there is another narrative. The story of a woman, all but forgotten by time, who lost her home as a result of her husband’s decisions, who watched many of her children die, who ended her days a prisoner of the English crown. A Welsh woman, of Norman descent, Marged ferch Dafydd, who lived, loved, laboured and no doubt played her part. Yet history simply remembers as the wife of Owain Glyn Dŵr.

Blog Fourteen o Gymru – in preparation for an exhibition

An exhibition

The artist is keen

She’s been here two months

Has new works to show

Autumnal works

A Gujarati heritage

I wonder! would Raj open the show?

Raj, you mean, Raj Verma?

The Bollywood star?

The event now getting

Big as Ben Hur

We’ll have readings

Readings!

Yes, why not?

You – and the other writer

You’ll have something, surely?

Yes, you do – but

Twenty minutes each

Will that be enough?

We’ll need posters

And invites

Facebook event

Oh, yes, and, I think

We should paint

Paint?

Yes, nothing, fancy

Over the wallpaper

Although

On second thoughts

I have a steamer

And a sander

We’ll do the lot

Together

It’ll be fun

You write a press release

Print posters

Your name is on everything

But what to read?

A short story?

Part of your manuscript?

No! You can’t

Your work is sh*t!

Perhaps, no one will come?

But – wait, no

That’s why you’re here

To grow

Take your work seriously

Besides

This isn’t about you

It’s about the other artists

And Maelor

And the exhibition

Which will be wonderful

With

Or without

Your contribution

 

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