Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: corris (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…

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?’

Cuts, colours and the magic of Christmas

Some say the bloom of the Jacaranda tree heralds the beginning of Christmas, or cherries in the shops (this is Australia I’m talking about), or children lighting candles. In a less innocent world, we speak of Black Friday, online shopping, and Santa’s Sled wending its way from China. For me, there is another, magical Advent marker.

Namely, the Christmas cut and colour.

What? You didn’t know of this was a phenomena! You clearly haven’t worked in the public library service. We are a female dominated industry and some many of us are no longer young. One by one, from around mid December, my colleagues and I, take turns to flex off work early. Only to return, the following morning, a brighter, crisper version of ourselves.

I’m not working at a single library branch anymore. So this year, the ritual has been less apparent. But it is happening, as surely as the sun rises in the east, I know it is happening and, as I’m going to a work party tomorrow, the need to get my act together has been looming.

My husband says I should abandon the pretence, go grey naturally (aka, keep him company). But here’s the thing. Sometimes, when I tell people I’m a Mam-gu, they say:

‘Oh, no, surely not! You’re way too young.’

Which I kind of like. It makes up for the fact that people keep asking me if I’m pregnant (gotta take the good with the bad). When people stop making these comments, I will surrender my youthful image. Until then, I’m a slave to the Christmas cut and colour.

I have a great hairdresser in Coburg. My first haircut after moving north, my son said:

‘Wow! You look like you haven’t been going to the same suburban hairdresser for twenty years.’

Having my hair cut in Coburg, is an altogether different experience to the chatty, know-everything-about-you event in the leafy suburbs. My hairdresser is from the middle-east. Her salon is filled with family and friends. She talks on her mobile phone, while cutting my hair, switching back and forth between languages. I’m no one. Just a fly on the wall. But I keep going back. Even when the salon had its windows shot in by the underworld, I kept my appointment. A good haircut is worth the risk. It is also expensive (far more expensive than its same-for-twenty-years equivalent). Which is why I now do the colouring myself.

I started dyeing my own hair while in Wales. My friend, Veronica, and I, decided, we’d cut the cost, by sharing the packet of hair dye. Veronica’s sister had been a hairdresser. So she had a little bowl and brush. It was my idea to turn a plastic glove inside out so we had a right hand one each (still pretty proud of that thought). Halving the cost seemed like a good idea at the time. Next day we both noticed the cover was, well, let’s say a little…patchy.

A month later, I lashed out, bought an entire packet and did the dyeing without help. But I didn’t have a little bowl and brush and I was in a rush so I could scuttle back to my room before the other Maelor residents caught me (gotta keep up the pretence). Trouble is, I didn’t have a good mirror in my room. So I didn’t notice the dye all over my left cheek. The end result, a dark-haired woman who looked like she’d been beaten about the face with a rolling pin.

With this colourful (pun intended) history you’d think I’d be begging the hairdresser to do my Christmas cut and colour. But, no, I learned to use a drill in Wales, unblock toilets, catch bats, paint walls, frame artwork, pack sculptures, take down exhibitions, eat chips with cheese, and do second-to-none hill starts. I owed it to myself not to back down. I applied the dye, without mishap, wiped my face, the bathroom sink, the floor, and, oh, yes, maybe also the shower screen. I sat, with the arms of my glasses wrapped in cling-wrap, while reading Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndwr (that’s gotta be a first for the author).

Now, it’s done. My youthful facade is fully restored. The nativity scene is set up in the living room, Jacaranda’s are blooming, the cherries are in the shops. Tomorrow, I will turn up at work, a brighter, crisper version of myself and no one will mention the cut and colour, or the wisps of grey I’ve somehow missed, because we have a ritual to maintain, part of the time-honoured Christmas magic. So let the festivities begin!

Nadolig Llawen pawb a blwyddyn newydd da i chi i gyd!

The Blundstone Report – how my boots stood up to the vagaries of Welsh weather

Those who’ve been following this blog for some time will know I have a slight (cough) tendency to obsess over small and seemingly unimportant matters. In the case of my planned visit to Wales, this amounted to what in our family now call: great Welsh footwear crisis. I had been told by a friend that my Melbourne boots wouldn’t stand up to the weather in Wales. I didn’t want to wear hiking boots for seven months, or wellingtons. What was I going to do? Cancel the whole trip?

As these deliberations reached a fever pitch, my long-suffering husband weighed in on the argument, suggesting I buy a pair of Blundstone Boots.

‘Blundstones!’ I replied. ‘They’re ugly.’

‘Not the new Urban range.’

I perused the website, considered telling Veronica I wasn’t coming, took my measurements and ordered a pair of Blundstones with red elastic elastic sides. They arrived. The family heaved a collective sigh of relief, and the inhabitants of Corris enjoyed the benefit of my extended visit.

Blundstone Urbans

Blundstone Urbans

Now I am back in Australia and the number one question people are asking is: how did the Blunnies held up? On social media, in letters and telephone calls, even the newspapers, are all asking the same question. Have Blundstone developed a product that will save the feet of Wales?

Hence, the Blundstone Report.

For those who do not know, Blundstones are a Tasmanian boot manufacturer, arising from the the amalgamation of two competing footwear companies, owned by early English settler families – the Blundstones and the Cuthbersons. The family businesses existed separately from 1853 and were amalgamated in 1932. In recent times, they have thrust their elastic sided boots into the fashion market.

Now before you throw up your hands in horror and exclaim: Saeson! what would they know about Welsh weather? I ask you to hear me out. We all know that the Welsh language was once spoken throughout England, Scotland and Wales. Much of the early Welsh poetry still in existence was in fact composed in what we lovingly call Y Hen Ogledd, and, as Cuthbertson is originally a Scottish name and Blundstone a Lancashire name, Blundstones are in fact Welsh in origin and therefore more than a match for the national weather forecast.

Y Hen Ogledd

Y Hen Ogledd

Of course, we cannot judge the Blundstone Boot on its origins alone. Not everything that originates from Wales is good (think Rolf Harris). We must test each individual case against a rigorous set of criteria. Fortunately, I been on a secret Welsh mission to do just that.

Criteria one: the occasional test:

Wales in a very bootist country. People are denied access to public buildings on the basis of their footwear. Menacing signs like this can be found throughout the land.

No dirty wellingtons in the office

No dirty wellingtons in the office

For a boot to be suitable in Wales it must be able to be worn in a range of situations. During my seven months in Wales, I wore my Blundstones to Chapel, to the eisteddfod, in cafes, out hiking, to the pub, in the library, on the bus, on the train, from London, to Aberystwyth, on the Mon and Brecon Canal, while driving the car, in the supermarket and even in the holiest of holies Merched y Wawr meetings. I can safely say that I was never refused entry on the basis of my footwear.

Criteria two: the wet foot test

The winter of 2015-16 was the wettest Welsh winter since they started recording rainfall. Added to which Corris, is one of the soggiest little microclimates, in the wettest part of the most gloriously green British Isles. The fact that England has drowned numerous Welsh valleys in order to supply water to English towns is testament to its wetness. Yet, in those seven months, in all that teeming rain, I only had damp feet once. This came from the rain trickling down my waterproof pants. Once I started waterproofing the Blundstone elastics it never happened again.

Criteria three: the disbelieving eldest son test

The final and most exacting test was conducted in Romsey a lovely little market town in Southern England where my son and his family now reside. In an effort to adapt to English way life and become a-jolly-good-chap, my son has taken to striding through muddy fields in his leisure time. He asked me to join him one evening.

‘Have you got Wellingtons?’ He asked, donning a spiffy new pair off knee high Wellingtons with drawstring tops.

‘No, only my Blundstones.’

He looked down army feet with that peculiar mix of disdain and pity eldest sons reserve for their ageing mothers and said:

‘It’s pretty muddy out there.’

Setting out, I felt supremely confident. But it pretty quickly became apparent this wasn’t Wales. It was flat, for a start, with less than adequate drainage, added to which, a number of heavy vehicles and been churning up the public pathways. We slithered though acres of oozing brown mud. At any minute, I expected to feel the cold, wet seep of defeat. It didn’t come. When my son asked me how my feet where at the end of the walk, I wasn’t sure who was more surprised to find them dry, him, or me.

No, I didn't lie at customs

No, I didn’t lie at customs

On this basis, I can safely pronounce Blundstones the ideal footwear for Wales. In fact, the findings of the Blundstone Report, are so conclusive, I am calling on the Welsh Assembly Government to establish a National Footwear Strategy. Forget Independence, or Brexit, or the future of the of the Welsh language. There are people in Wales with wet feet and a small Welsh company with a factory in Tasmania has found the solution.

I suggest you purchase shares before the news goes viral.

Easter Aussie style – the rubber hits the road

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

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

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

‘There will be waterfalls.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wasn’t disappointed.

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

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

 

 

 

Dod adref – some thoughts on belonging

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

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

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

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

She asked: do you feel like two different people?

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

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

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

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

Here is the example I gave:

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

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

Hiraeth (A pham fedra i ddim mynd yn ôl)


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

Dim fy newis i ond heb eu beio nhw.

Ond fedra i ddim caru gwlad haul-sychu

Anialwch crasboeth, peryglion,

A coed sy’n edrych yr un fath i fi.


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

Caeau gwyrdd, lonydd deiliog a chrwydro

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

Ble does dim byd yn dy frathu di

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


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

Mewn breuddwyd fy nhynnu nôl i wlad garedig.

Ond rhoddodd tir hwn wraig a phlantteulu perffaith.

Pe bydda i gadael nhw am reswm hunanol

Baswn i’n arwyddo fy ngwarant marwolaeth.


Hiraeth (And why I can’t return)


When I was young they took me from my birthplace

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

But I cannot “love a sunburnt country”

With its deserts harsh and dangers

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


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

Verdant fields and wandering leafy lanes

Where the sun is warm, not burning,

Where nothing tries to bite you,

And they still revere those little steamy trains.


From half a world away I feel the tension,

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

But this land gave me a wife and two fine children

If I abandon them for selfish reason

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


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


 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i chi!

 

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