Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: cymraeg (Page 1 of 3)

Britain, the end of a fantasy – some thoughts on identity

  • You post an article from the New York Review of Books on Facebook. Among other things the article says:

“Strip away the post-imperial make-believe and the Little England nostalgia, and there’s almost nothing there, no clear sense of how a middling European country with little native industry can hope to thrive by cutting itself off from its biggest trading partner and most important political alliance.”

You make a comment about ‘little England.’ You figure you have a right. But you are told in no uncertain terms that, as an Aussie, you do not. This is British politics, none of your business. You are shocked, not so much by the objection (put a comment on Facebook and you invite a response) but by the monochromatic assessment of your situation. It doesn’t even come close to the schizophrenic sense of identity you live with.

See, you were born in England and, although you migrated to Australia during your childhood, you were raised by parents who called another place home. Your father supported the English cricket team, you stayed up late to watch the FA Cup final on television, your weekly viewing consisted of The Two Ronnies, Porridge and Are you Being Served? In school you learned about convicts, and ANZACs and the bombing of Darwin. But at home you heard stories of Shakespeare, the Blitz, and how you grandfather worked on the Bank of England’s wrought iron doors. In a grade four project about Beef Cattle, you wrote “Aborigines make good stockmen” because, your dad told you, before the white man, Australia’s first people wandered about aimlessly.

But there is another aspect to your identity. You see your mother is Welsh. So you are not allowed to call yourself English. You are British, your parents tell you: no need to be naturalised like all of those lesser European migrants. Australia is one of the pink countries on the map. Of course, you never use the word British. You instinctively know you will be laughed out of the playground. You drop the Pommie accent, try to blend in. Though in your spare time you read books by Enid Blyton, Malcom Saville, and Arthur Ransome.

Then you grow up and all your historical myths are all blown apart. You learn that the Aboriginal people did more than just wander about, that the men of Gallipoli were no braver than any other soldiers, that Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their mothers. That the British Empire wiped out whole nations and cultures. The full implication of this hits home while you are living in Fiji. You see an indigenous people living on their ancestral land, speaking their own language and enjoying their age-old but still evolving customs and you think: my God, what have we done?

With this history, it is no surprise that when you have a mid-life crisis (one of several) and decide you want to write a novel that you start with an emigration novel, set in the colonial period, that focuses on the experience of poor people, like your family would have been if they had emigrated in that era. You also decide to include Welsh and English characters. And although you know those decisions are personal, you also know you are trying to come to terms with the whole messy business of being a white Australian.

Despite this, you are not prepared for the effect your Welsh characters will have on your life. You know very little about Wales prior to starting your research – apart from coal mining and a passion for rugby. But before long you realise Wales has a language, that is still spoken, with incredible words like sglodion (chips) and gwdihw (owl) (which sounds like twit twoo) and pendwmpian (to drowse). That in Welsh  a peach is called an eirinen gwlanog (wooly plum) and ladybirds are called buwch goch gota (short red cows) and before long you are wondering how you have managed to live without the soul-song of such words.

You learn about Welsh myths and fairytales too, about eisteddfodau and poetry. About the experience of being annexed and incorporated, the Welsh struggle for independence. The even-now fight to keep a much-loved language alive. This touches a deep chord in you and, although it is tempting see it as a simple reconnection with your heritage, you also know there is also something intrinsically Australian in your response. See, we tend to back the underdog down under.

Over the years, you make regular trips to Wales, even live there for a while. Acquire a National Insurance Number and a bank account, get your name on the electoral roll. You have Welsh friends and places to stay. You read English and Welsh newspapers along with Australian ones and know the sense of divided loyalties you grew up with are still strong. Except, you are no longer proud of the Empire (life has knocked that out of you) and when you speak Welsh with your friends you feel like you belong. Yet you also know your life, your manners, your worldview are somehow foreign. Perhaps this is what the friend on Facebook objected to? This foot-in-two camps, belong-in-both-worlds mentality?

You fly back and forth, relate in two languages and straddle both worlds, because you don’t know any other way to live. For although you no longer sound like a Brit, or take pride in Empire, the tiny island on the top of the world is still important to you and, although one day when you are too old to travel, the land at bottom of the world will inevitably claim you, you know the hiraeth will remain, along with the interest and the outspoken Australian tendency to comment. Because, although on the outside you may sound like an Aussie, on the inside you still sometimes feel a long way from home.

***

Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s debut novel, The Tides Between, will be published by Odyssey Books in October 2017. For news on the release date follow this blog, or simply fill out the form below:

The Olmec Obituary – a serious case of compulsive reading

Confession: at school I was one of those kids that always ate her lunch at recess time. That’s right, a severe lack of impulse control on the food front. Reading is the same. On Sunday I found myself in need of some serious downtime. I therefore purchased my airline books seven days early. The trouble is I’ve now finished L.J.M Owens’ Olmec Obituary and am already seriously into the Mayan Mendacity. So what am I going to read on my long-haul flight?

Of course, as soon as I pressed purchase I knew I’d have to formulate a new flight reading plan. I am a compulsive reader and can’t do the single chapter a night thing. I never have been able to, even as a child, and, the fact is, these inter-millennial cosy mysteries have been calling out to me for some time. I mean how many other books are there with an Australian librarian main character who has a Welsh speaking grandfather?

The Olmec Obituary is, in fact, the first in a proposed nine book series of inter-millennial mysteries featuring, Dr Elizabeth Pimms, a young archaeologist  with a speciality in palaeogenetics who has left a dig in Egypt, in order to help her family through a financial crisis. Working full time in the National Library of Australia is not part of Elizabeth’s life plan but when an old classmate offers her the chance to do some part-time analysis on some Olmec skeletons she sees away to begin re-claiming her lost career. However, there are strange undercurrents in the South American research team and there is definitely something odd about the Mesoamerican writing on the pieces of ceramic that have been found at the burial site. As Elizabeth begins to analyse the bones, she realises her old classmate’s offer is not as straightforward as it appears.

Woven between Elizabeth’s third person point-of-view is the first person viewpoint of an Olmec woman. This gives the reader an insight into what actually happened to the bones – an insight that generally eludes the palaeogeneticist in real life. There are also italicised dream like sequences that occur in Elizabeth’s phrenic library. The later are compelling but do not make immediate sense. However, as the novel shares its secrets, they become an integral part of Elizabeth’s characterisation. In keeping with all good cosy mysteries there are also multiple family issues to be resolved. Here are some of the things I particularly liked about these books:

  • A librarian main character
  • librarian secondary characters
  • A  Welsh speaking grandfather who uses Welsh language phrases
  • The inter-cultural mix of Elizabeth’s family – Welsh, Chinese, French Berber
  • Learning a little about palaeogenetics
  • Learning a little about the Olmec culture
  • Descriptions of the National Library of Australia – with its LLywelyn and Merionnydd reading rooms (I’m presuming these are real?)
  • Did I mention the Welsh speaking grandfather?
  • And Welsh words
  • And Welsh recipes at the end of the book
  • What about the descriptions of the Pimms family home
  • The quaint tea and book shops
  • And Lake Burley Griffin
  • The above made me want to visit Canberra
  • Which is quite an achievement as I’ve been there a number of times and always been under-whelmed

The Olmec Obituary was Owen’s debut novel and was picked up by Echo Publishing via its crowd-funding page which makes it a kind of dream-come-true in the publishing world. I’m glad I’ve read ahead of schedule. As I said, the books had my name on them. But I am now looking for airline recommendations. I’ve considered starting the Game of Thrones series. But I do need to get some work done in Wales. Added to which, I’ll be switching to Welsh language books for two months. So preferably something historical with only one or two instalments. Come on people, hit me with suggestions?

 

 

Christmas in July – a license for petty tyranny

July is cold and wet in Melbourne and, as it is also my birthday month, a family dinner was required. Having just returned from the northern hemisphere, I requested a Christmas in July theme. For those of you on the far side of the world, this is what Aussies do to make up for the fact that we celebrate Christmas in the heat. For my migrant parents, Christmas meant jacking up the air conditioner and serving the full Christmas roast followed by plum pudding and hot mince pies. I followed this tradition until my family grew old enough to voice their opinions. At which point it was decided a summer feast was required. We now roast meat on the Weber and team it with a mix of salads and baked vegetables which we eat balanced on our knees while swatting at flies. It is a fun day and quintessentially Australian. But I do miss the traditional fare. Hence Christmas in July. 

 

The benefit of doing Christmas in July for my birthday is that it was all about me. 🙂 I chose the decorations, the food and the music. The later meant pulling out my Welsh Christmas carols CD. A selection that would not usually be tolerated beyond the obligatory half hour. Once the theme had been set, tasks were delegated. Andrew roasted the pork:

My daughter, Phoebe, created the dessert. My son, Seth, mulled the wine.

Half way through the afternoon, Andrew asked: ‘How long does this carol CD go for?’

 ‘Ages,’ I said, not bothering to smother my smile. ‘It is called 101 Carolau Cymraeg – 101 Welsh Carols.’

‘But, Liz, it feels like we’ve been in church all afternoon.’

Andrew was right. There is a reason we only sing the ten top favourite carols annually. But I wasn’t about to alter my selection. What is birthday for, other than a license for petty tyranny? Infact, I’m thinking of making Christmas in July a new family tradition. Though, I may buy a new CD for next year. 

PS. Yes, that is an old door in the background of the first photograph. No, it doesn’t serve and useful purpose. My husband is a collector. In light of which, 101 carols once a year is a minor inconvenience. 🙂

 

Border protection: in which the family pooch takes on the local authorities

In case you didn’t realise, Liz has recently spent seven months in Wales. And in case you didn’t also realise, I was for a time effectively homeless. After all my faithful years of service, after dog sitting four growing children, not to mention the parade of exchange students. My plight was reduced to an ad on Facebook. 

Fortunately, Jo, responded, and I must say she treated me in the manner in which a family Pooch should be treated. I slept on her bed every night, had cuddles with Ella, and went to play with Midge during the day. It was doggy heaven. 

But now Liz is back and I have to put up with with Andrew again.

It may surprise you to know Andrew’s dislike of me is mutual. He took my baby safety gates down while Liz was away and refused to put them up again. Not in the shed. Or down the side of the house. Liz wasn’t too impressed. But Andrew was determined. They’d work together from now on, he said, make sure I didn’t get out. 

Yippee! I thought, escape is imminent.

So far, my efforts to break free have been fruitless. Not one escape, not one, tense, ‘look what you’ve done now!’ exchange. It seems seven months apart may have diffused the ‘it’s me or the dog bomb.’ Meanwhile, I get left home with Andrew while Liz is out speaking Welsh in Melbourne’s pubs. 

Misery!

Until I remembered under the house strategy.

Liz doesn’t like me crawling under the house. Especially when she has just paid Aussie Pooch to hydro bath me. But I can’t think of a better way to get rid of that horrible clean dog feeling. I roll in the dirt, gnaw old bones and pick up fleas and, most important of all, when Liz gets home she starts up the ‘maybe we should put up a gate’ argument.

Andrew won’t consider it, of course. His strategy was to build barriers, first with chicken wire, then with planks, and finally with a kind of scorched earth policy in which he flattened the vegetation along the entire underside of the house and walled it up. ‘Hey Liz,’ I said. ‘Is he related to Donald Trump?’

It took me a few weeks to get through that round of border protection. But last night I succeeded. There was only one problem, I couldn’t get out. Andrew had screwed my escape route closed. I had to lie under their bedroom floorboards yapping until Liz crawled out of bed, found a screw driver (yes, she learned to use one in Wales) and set me free. 

‘Biskit,’ she said. ‘Give up. You can’t win this.’

I know she’s wrong. Because I’ve tallied up the hours Andrew has spent ‘protecting’ the side of the house. And it’s quite a few. Added to which, one day soon, he’s going to forget to close the gate and I will break free. At which point, the ‘it’s me or the dog’ bomb will start ticking all over again.

Blog twenty-seven o Gymru – completing the Howarth family circle

I have blogged about Judith Barrow's books Pattern of Shadows and Changing Patterns in earlier posts. Imagine my pleasure therefore on visiting the Honno office in Aberystwyth to be given a reviewing copy of Barrow's latest book Living in the Shadows. Commencing during the Second World War, the first two novels told the story of the marvellously flawed Howarth family as they navigated the social and emotional landscape of wartime and post war Britain. This third book, set in 1969 and therefore not strictly an historical novel, is primarily told from the viewpoints of the original Howarth childrens' offspring, Victoria, Richard, William, Jacqueline and Linda. It brings the events put into motion during Pattern of Shadows to a shattering conclusion.

The setting of the story alternates between Ashford, a suburb on the edge of Manchester, and the fictitious (as far as I can tell) village of Llanroth in North Wales. Here are some of the things I liked about Living in the Shadows.

  • Meeting the same characters some eighteen years down the track
  • The way the old mill features in each of the novels
  • Getting a sense of how the war continued to shape people's lives in an ongoing sense
  • Especially in relation to people of German heritage living in post war Britian
  • An attempt to map changing perceptions in relation to gender roles and sexuality
  • Ditto the various reactions to rape and domestic violence
  • The detailed descriptions of sixties clothing and fashions (particularly Victoria's)

It is not an easy task for an author to skip some eighteen years and to pick up the story through thirteen (by my count) different points-of-view, about half of which are completely new, and to tell a story that follows a host of characters simultaneously and, at times, in different locations. Let alone to somehow make it work as a coherent whole. To meet this challenge, Barrow uses detailed chapter headings, giving us viewpoint characters' names, their location, day, date, and at times even the part of the day in which the action is set. She also employs the technique of introducing the character on a particular day and time and then telling what has happened in between by using flashback. Ordinarily, this would detract from the dramatic tension of the story as the reader already knows the character survived/coped/remained undetected (whatever the issue at stake) before the event actually happened. But with the enormous cast of viewpoints, storylines and locations, it is difficult to see how Barrow could have done it any other way. Although I hadn't read the earlier books for some time, I was able to easily identify the main characters and their back-stories without having to refer to the earlier installaments. Which means the story somehow worked in its own right. However, on another level, prior knowledge definitely made the book more satisfying to read. I would therefore recommend tackling this novel as part of a series, not as a single instalment.

In each of these novels, Barrow ends with her main characters living in Wales or heading back to Wales. A fact that I am acutely aware of as I approach my own return to Australia. Some of her Welsh characters use Welsh words though, I didn't get a clear sense of whether they spoke the language. Perhaps, this is an accurate depiction of being raised by parents from dros y ffin. Whether they did speak Welsh is, of course, irrelevant to the average reader and probably has no place in the story. But as I have a slight (cough) interest in the Welsh language, I wouldn't have minded knowing. Maybe Barrow will consider slipping me this piece of information? You know, just on the sly. 😉 I have absolutely no doubt that she knows the answer and could furnish me with a host of other background details about her characters. Perhaps, whilst she is at it, she could also reassure me that this will not be the last we hear of the Howarth family.

 

Blog twenty six o Gymru – a Bootcamp hat trick

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

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

It felt natural to speak Welsh.

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

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

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

 

 

Blog twenty o Gymru – the winter solstice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Blog seventeen o Gymru – interviews, armchairs and expensive turkeys

I am sitting in a cafe in Y Trallwng (oh, alright, Welshpool), having travelled forty eight miles for my National Insurance Number (NIN) interview. I tried to apply in Welsh but the polite man on the phone told me the service wasn’t available in Welsh and that I must call a different number. ‘This is a bilingual country,’ my very-English-don’t-see-why-I-should-learn-Welsh friends tell me. ‘I should be able to speak whatever language I want.’

‘Correct, I tell them. ‘But have you ever thought Welsh speakers might like to be able to speak their own language – in shops, cafes, libraries, offices and surgeries?

So what is happening in my life? Apart from morphing into a rabid Welsh language fanatic?

Well, as you can see, I have an armchair, a magnificent development. Kindly donated to Stiwdio Maelor, I wasted no time in claiming it and, as Veronica has left the country and I am now womaning the stiwdio until early March, I have moved my desk and computer into her workspace. I also have a car. And her washing machine! In fact, I may not invite her back. Possession is nine tenth of the law and, once I get that National Insurance Number there will be no shifting me.

I had to tell the woman at the NIN interview how often I’ve come to Wales. I said, ten times in the last five years. But they don’t stamp passports anymore so I couldn’t show her the dates. Her Majesty’s Revenue will have to look them up. I hope I pass the test. It’s like The Battle of Britain trying to get a foothold in this place. I wonder if it was this difficult for the English when they took over half the world? 🙂

Oops! Rabid fanatic hat again. 🙂

On the subject of washing machines, I have now added plumbing to my growing list of accomplishments. After painting, hanging pictures, and learning how to frame art work, I have also moved a washing machine down eighteen narrow steps and re-installed it in Stiwdio Maelor. I didn’t do the job single handed. I have a very supportive, Welsh learning, ex-librarian friend who kindly offered her tools and expertise. Once we’d got the machine down the steps of Veronica’s house, driven half way to Corris, turned back to collect the part we had forgotten, and then unloaded the washing machine, we were pretty keen to accomplish the task without male intervention. Alas, we were thwarted at the final hurdle. Try as we might, we could not turn the knobs on the water outlets.

Since installing the machine, I have morphed into a non-tree dwelling duplicate of Enid Blyton’s Washer Woman. I have the clothes horses set up in front of the central heating and each time I walk past, I turn the sheets. Yes, there are quite a few significant changes happening in my life, I clean toilets, turn sheets, teach people to light the wood stove, unblock the drains and take the bins out. I will come home a vastly improved version of myself. Though, I’ll be in a different hemisphere. So it might be harder performing the tasks upside down.

Now in case you think I’ve lost sight of the wider world while in Corris, last Thursday, was Thanksgiving and, as we have an American staying in the Stiwdio, it was decided a turkey would be in order. I reckon the butcher saw us coming. It was the most expensive turkey in living history. But, we all ate ourselves silly and made a determined effort to use the left overs (vegetable soup with coriander and turkey stock being my particular contribution). In a couple of weeks, Corris is having a Christmas, Soup and Song evening and in an attempt to give the event an international flavour, I have been asked to make a contribution. I thought I might sing Six White Boomers (like we sing that all the time in Australia) but my preliminary research reminded me that the author was Rolf Harris so…oops! Probably not that one. Any ideas for an Australian Christmas song anyone? I’d hate to admit that we actually sing Jingle Bells in our shorts and sun hats while lighting the BBQ on Christmas Day.

Tan wythnos nesaf!

 

Blog fifteen o Gymru – making headlines in West Wales

Stiwdio Maelor is a residency stiwdio in Corris, mid Wales – a place where artists and writers can take time apart from their busy lives in order to create. It has no permanent gallery space, or events budget. However, occasionally an artist on an extended residency, will express the desire to exhibit new work. Then, depending on space and timetabling the Stiwdio will host an exhibition.

Now, in case you haven’t realised, I do not have a visual arts background. When Veronica left, within twenty four hours of my arriving in Wales (yes, unavoidably bad timing) I began to realise the challenges I would face. Within days, I found myself taking down an exhibition, part of which involved dismantling delicate glass-domed landscape reproductions with white gloves and re-packing them into numbered polystyrene layers of protection. Driving home in the car afterwards, Jonathan Syltie, the artist who’d been roped into helping me, said:

‘You don’t know much about art. But you seem to have a fair amount of common sense which is almost as good in the long run.’

The comment filled me with a ridiculous level of pride.

I used the same common sense a few weeks later when the ‘organiser’ of Jonathan’s exhibition flew to Portugal, without telling us, on the morning of the opening.

Setting up for Helfa Gelf – Gwynedd’s open arts trail – was decidedly tricker. Two of our Stiwdio artists had cancelled at the last minute leaving me alone with a big empty house and an American artist, Cindy Steiler. Fortunately, Cindy was more than adequate to the task. Between us, we managed to fill the house with art-work and people. After going through the Stiwdio one elderly gentleman said: ‘I haven’t seen anything this good in years.’

‘Seriously,’ Cindy said, when I mentioned it later. ‘That old guy needs to get out more.’

She was right. But that didn’t stop me feeling blue ribbon proud of what we had achieved.

When Mita Solanky, our British born artist in residence with a Gujarati heritage, expressed an interest in showing her new body of work, Veronica came up with the idea of asking, Mayur Raj Verma, a former Bollywood actor who now lives in Dolgellau to open the exhibition. He agreed and, as the dates of Raj’s availability, coincided with Diwali – the Hindu Festival of Lights – we decided to run with a Diwali theme – complete with candles, rangoli lights and Indian nibbles.

My job was to set up the Facebook publicity and to write the press releases. Stiwdio Maelor hasn’t hitherto enjoyed much success with the local papers. This time we hit their sweet spot. I like to think it had something to do with my excellent turn of phrase but, more likely, the name Raj Verma provided the entry point. Whatever the case, we were in there, on page twenty six right after the headlines: Boss hits employee on head head with broom, and, Police make arrest after part of man’s ear bitten off. Indeed! It’s all happening in West Wales.

In the lead up to the exhibition, we stripped the wallpaper and re-painted the common room. Found out the framers could not get our donated works ready in time for the exhibition. Spent a day framing them ourselves and another day hanging them. The latter was a serious business, involving hammers, nails, and plumb lines.

‘Damn!’ Veronica said, soon after she arrived. ‘I have forgotten my drill.

‘No, you haven’t,’ I replied, pointing to a big orange drill on the bench.

‘That’s not my drill. It’s Inge’s.’

At which point , I realised I had missed out on one of life’s foundational experiences. Drill ownership. ‘I’ve never had a drill.’ I confessed.

‘Every woman needs her own drill.’ Veronica replied, with a disbelieving shake of her head.

We planned a rough program for the afternoon:

2pm – doors opened

2.30 – Veronica welcomed everyone

2.35 – Raj made a speech and opened the exhibition

2.45 – Mita’s work was open for viewing

3.00 – artist talk by Mita Solanky

3.30 – readings by writers in residence Justin Wolfers and Elizabeth Jane Corbett

4.00 – short documentary on the Bollywood film industry

The afternoon went without a hitch – apart from floods making the Machynlleth Bridge impassable, Mita’s sister’s car breaking down, the Stiwdio doors getting accidentally locked so that people were standing in the rain, and Veronica announcing she lived in Dolgellau with Raj. Fortunately she corrected her error – perhaps it had something to do with the startled look on his wife’s face? Otherwise, Stiwdio Maelor may have enjoyed an altogether different headline in the local paper. Something like: Bollywood star’s wife hits stiwdio owner over head with broom.

Blog thirteen o Gymru – bridging the cultural divide

There are two world in Wales. Within weeks of arriving, I had begun to get a sense of the divide. I worked out that the Church of Wales services were all bilingual and, as not many Welsh speakers attended, the bi tended to swing towards the monolingual. I found a Welsh chapel in the Main Street of Machynlleth. It’s notice boards were completely in Welsh. No taint of bilingualism there. The services were held every second Sunday, the notice board informed me, and on alternate weeks at Capel y Craig. The notice board gave no indication of which Sunday was the second Sunday. Or indeed the location of Capel y Craig. There was no phone number to contact.

Nothing to help and Aussie language learner in search of Cymru Cymraeg.

I had read about the resurgence of Papurau Bro (local papers) in Janet Davies excellent book The Welsh Language: a history. But as I had been given a pile of Welsh magazines to read, not to mention novels, and the articles in my Welsh homework book. I didn’t give the local Papur Bro (local paper – singular), much consideration. Until someone pointed out that the Chapel services and times were listed in the pages of Blewyn Glas.

Blewyn Glass! I’d seen that magazine. But where?

‘You can get it at the local post office,’ my source informed me. ‘The October edition came out this week.’

Okay, so I may have got a little excited and headed down to the post office first thing the next morning. I may also have failed to notice that Blewyn Glas cost £1 and walked home with it tucked under my arm, marvelling at the amazing free news service.

I showed my illegally acquired copy of Blewyn Glas to the long suffering artists in residence who had been forced to endure my lectures on the future of the Welsh language. I pointed out the calendar pages. It’s all there, I told them. Every Chapel service – times, preachers, locations – along with every Merched y Wawr meeting, Cylch Llenyddol (literature circle), Cwb Gwawr and choir practice, in every small town, in the whole district.

Once they had expressed the obligatory murmurs of excitement, they scurried back to their creative pursuits. I made myself a cup of tea and sat down to read Blewyn Glas from cover to cover. After the calendar section, it was arranged by towns, each section made up of reports, coming events, milestone celebrations and photographs. Corris took up one and a half pages. I started reading the Merched y Wawr article. Hang on a sec. I stopped, blinked, doubled back. Started reading again, more slowly. There was someone called Liz mentioned – a someone called Liz who happened to be an Australian language learner.

Me!

I was there on page 10 of Rhifyn 419 of Blewyn Glas.

What does it say? I’m not going to tell you. You’ll have to learn Welsh if you want to read Blewyn Glas. But it may have just included the words ‘especially good’ and ‘from an ‘non Welsh speaking family’ as well as talking about the BBC grammar book that inspired me to learn Welsh on the other side of the world.

 

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