Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: cymraeg (Page 2 of 3)

Blog ten o Gymru – creative writing for Welsh learners

At one stage, during a difficult phase in my life, I read The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. The book is a little bit new-age-power-of-positive-thinking. But life was pretty tough and, in my desperation, I did every darn exercise in the book. One of which, was to set up a Wish File. An exercise I had all but forgotten, until I spent the weekend at Tŷ Newydd.

Tŷ Newydd, is a sixteenth century manor house in the North Wales village of Llanystumdwy. It was once the home of Lloyd George, a Welsh man, and incidentally the only British Prime Minister to ever speak the language. Twenty five years ago, Tŷ Newydd became the National Writers’ Centre for Wales. And for some reason, back in that wounded, struggling place, filled with false positivity, I stuck a picture of Tŷ Nweydd in my Wish File, along with the words:

Do a writing course here.

I
 

Six years hence, I find myself living Wales and my days are no where near as difficult as they once were. So, when I saw an advertisement for: Ysgrifennu Creadigol i ddysgwr (creative writing for Welsh learners), at Tŷ Newydd, I knew it was time to make my wish come true.

The course was weekend course, completely in the Welsh language, with tutors Aled Lewis Evans and Bethan Gwanas. In our workshops we used childhood memories, postcards, and inanimate objects (such as flickering candles) as a stimulus for free writing. The writing exercises were familiar but, let me tell you, there was no absence of talent on the room and, as for the Welsh language, I had to paddle like a pup to keep my head above the water.

One of the writing exercises involved responding creatively to a piece of artwork and, because Aled, the tutor was a poet, I decided to break out of my comfort zone and try my hand at a bit of barddoniaeth (poetry). The result a rather basic piece (which is no doubt full of grammatical mistakes), of which I am ridiculously, new-mother proud.

The Widow’s House

Tŷ yn unig, tŷ tawel,

Tŷ sy’n sefyll ar ei ben ei hunan,

Lawr y bryn ar bwys yr afon,

Ble mae’r wlad yn priodi y mor.

 

Tŷ yn unig, tŷ tawel,

Tŷ tystio’r blyneddoedd hir,

Ysgythru straeon ar y wal,

Ble mae’r hen wraig yn fyw.

 

Tŷ yn. unig, tŷ tawel,

Tŷ sy’n gwylio y tymhorau heibio,

Cyrfri y tonnau ar y tywod,

Ble mae’r cwch yn trigio wag.

 

Tŷ n unig, tŷ tawel,

Tŷ sy’n clywed y dagrau gweddw,

Synth io ar y llwyd carreg llithrig,

bel mae ei gwr wedi boddi.

 

*

Lonely house, silent house,

Which stands by itself,

At the bottom of the hill by the river,

Where the old woman lives.

 

Lonely house, silent house,

Which witnesses the long years,

Etching stories on the wall,

Where the old woman lives.

 

Lonely house, silent house,

Which watches the seasons pass,

And counts the waves on the sand,

Where the boat stands empty.

 

Lonely house, silent house,

Which hears the widows tears,

Falling on the slippery grey rocks,

Where her husband drowned.

 
Cheerful? Not! Don’t blame me. Blame the artist. But isn’t the image striking? It hangs on the wall of the Tŷ Newydd library.

I drafted four more short prose pieces over the weekend and developed a character I hope to one day use in a novel. I also wrote and performed a short mock-radio drama with two other learners using the word plu (feathers) as a stimulus.

At times, the writing life can be so serious, the rewards so distant and unattainable. Writing in Welsh gave me a chance to play and experiment without seeking a measurable (or marketable) outcome which, incidentally, was also one of Julia Cameron’s recommendations. So, maybe some of that new-age-power-of-positive-thinking stuff has value. If nothing else, the exercise forced me to identify my desires. Which is the first step towards attainment. So, who knows? Some of my other wishes might also come true.

 

Blog seven o Gymru – some Welsh language humour

The first time I found myself engaging with Welsh language humour was in our Melbourne Welsh class as we each took turns reading aloud from segments of Bywyd Blodwen Jones. This experience transported me back to grade five. I recall sitting at the back of Mrs Morphett’s classroom and listening to my class mates massacre Colin Thiele’s, February Dragon. An avid reader, I always raced ahead during these reading sessions, earning myself a reprimand for losing my place when my turn came.

Not so with Bywyd Blodwen Jones.

I was the Welsh class dunce in those days. With a part time job, four teenagers living at home and a novel burbling around in my head, I had little time for homework. Welsh class was my weekly escape from domesticity. I loved engaging with the words even if none of them stayed in my head. Not so my classmates, who were more assiduous with their homework. As we went round the class reading aloud from the fictional diary of Blodwen Jones, I found myself half a page behind. And I wasn’t getting any of the jokes.

This situation changed once I started doing the Say Something in Welsh online audio course and five years of latent learning fell into place. I re-read Bywyd Blodwen Jones alone in my bedroom and laughed till my sides ached.

From this, I learned humour is an advanced language activity.

My second engagement with Welsh language humour occurred during Cwrs Haf (a Welsh language summer school). We were given a newspaper article to read. It had written by a man whose daughter had written to Father Christmas in Welsh and, horror of horrors, had received a reply in English. He was offended. Mortally. The result, a satirical letter to the editor of the local newspaper.

Now, I am all for Welsh children receiving services in Welsh. But, in this instance, I found myself thinking:

You miserable old sod. She was lucky to get a reply.

It took the poor tutor half the lesson to work out why myself and every other non-British person in the room were not appreciating the writer’s humour. You see, in Australia it is not possible for a child to write to Father Christmas, stick the letter in any letter box in the country and be guaranteed a response.

From this, I learned humour relies on an understanding of context.

After these experiences, you may wonder why I purchased a ticket to see Elis James doing Welsh language stand up comedy at Machynlleth’s, The Rag and Bone Shop. It will be all in Welsh, James Williams-Lucas, The Rag and Bone’s proprietor, warned as I handed over the money.

Paid â becso,’ I replied. ‘After two years of watching snippets of Y Gwers Cymraeg (a series of comedy sketches about learning Welsh) in our Melbourne Welsh classes, it will be enough to see him perform live.’

I got the time wrong (some things never change) and arrived at the venue half an hour early. This meant I got to chat to Steffan, the support act comedian, and Elis James who turned up with a plastic airline bag and a half eaten baguette he had bought at a London railway station. When Elis James heard I was a language learner from Australia, he said:

‘Oh, dear, most of my material is about life in Wales during the 1980’s.’

‘That’s okay,’ I replied. ‘I don’t expect to get any of the jokes.’

This wasn’t the case. You see the eighties, were the eighties, wherever you lived. Carmarthen wasn’t the only place with thugs, French exchange students, police who failed to turn up, and a mother who cooked the same, fail safe, dinners every week. Elis James is a great comic actor. His antics, interspersed with well placed snippets of English were enough. I laughed my head off. In all the right places. Then stood on the pavement chatting about the show afterwards. From this, I concluded that I had just successfully engaged in an advanced language activity. Which is another way of saying: I speak Welsh. 🙂

* * *

The Rag and Bone, Machynlleth
James Williams-Lucas started the Rag and Bone as a means to facilitate his touring theatre company, Theatre Rue, and the creative output of others. As a consequence, he has had to learn all about ‘tat’ to fine antiques. But after running the business as a shop and a venue for two years, he’s starting to get a good handle on things. He hopes to secure a twelve month program of quality creative work in all genres of the arts such as stand up, poetry, acoustic sets, theatre, lectures workshops and more, by night, whilst still offering curios, antiques and fine art by day.

 

Blog five – a matter of false information

Those who know me and can be bothered counting, may have noticed this is my fifth visit to the UK in the last ten years. You may also have observed that now and again (cough) I like to talk about the place. I mention the walks I’ve been on in Wales, the beachside amusement arccades, pubs which allow dogs (very civilised) the way people eat mushy peas with their fish and chips (maybe not so civilised) and how the Brits have a tendency to strip down to their Y fronts whenever the sun peeks out from behind a cloud (need I comment?). What you may not realise, is that I may have been guilty of giving you false information.

The misinformation, has its origins three years ago when, one Sunday, during my month long Welsh language Summer School, I decided to walk from Borth to Aberystwyth. It was a warm, blue sky, day, with only a whisper of cloud. I meandered along the Ceredigion Coastal Park, taking in the heather covered hillsides and spectacular sea views. Just short of Aberystwyth, I stopped for a drink at the cafe attached to the local caravan park. Having spent a number of summer holidays in Aussie Caravan parks, I enjoyed seeing how the Brits (largely from the Midlands judging by their accents) did the summer holiday thing. No, sun smart campaign, judging from the lobster-coloured backs of the children paddling on the beach. No trees for shade, or sun shelters and some of the caravans had two doors. Oh, my! How quaint! Semi-detached caravans!

Roll forward three years, and you will find me a little further along the coast with a group of Welsh speaking friends looking out over a different caravan park. The day wasn’t quite as sunny and, if I’m honest, it was a tad more windy (like blowing a force ten gale). As I sat shivering on the walls of Harlech Castle, I fell to making random summer holiday observations:

‘We don’t have castles in Australia so … this is not a normal summer holiday activity for me (nor the chattering teeth). Do many people stay in tents? Those semi-detached caravans you have are quaint.’

Silence. Four sets of eyes turned on me. ‘Semi-detached caravans?

‘Yes. I’ve seen them, near Aberystwyth.’

‘Really? I’ve never seen one.’ One by one, they all agreed.

Now at this point, I probably should have backed down. Four born and bred, British people, one who has an onsite caravan in a Welsh caravan park were telling me there was no such thing as a semi-detached caravan. What other evidence did I need? But here’s the thing about me. As well as telling tales of Brits sunbathing in their Y fronts, I may also have mentioned the semi-detached caravans a few times. Okay, so more than a few – and I was pretty damn sure they existed. I mean, why else would a caravan have two doors?

Our holiday finished without further reference to the great two door caravan fib. But back in Corris, I could not let the matter rest. I knew the Corris Caravan park wasn’t far away. I set off, camera in hand, to gather evidence. Imagine my delight when I came upon this scene.

I immediately sent a Facebook message to my friends.

‘Tystiolaeth!’ (Evidence)

‘Efallai’ (maybe)? The friend with the onsite caravan wrote. ‘Neu jyst carafan dau ddrws’ (or just a two door caravan).

No need to tell you what I thought of that idea. Who would be potty enough to make a caravan with two doors. Another friend messaged that she would best visiting the seaside town of Aberdyfi later in the week. She would do some research. I decided to join her This was too important a matter to leave to prejudiced minds.

We set off after dark, two middle aged women sneaking round a sleepy caravan park. Fortunately, we were in west Wales, where the crime rate is quite low, or we may have been arrested. Especially when we started circling two door caravans and peering through windows.

‘This one only has one storage box,’ my friend said.

I had to admit she was right.

‘And one number plate.’

Right again.

‘And look this one only has a name.’

I looked at the caravan in question. Number two, Seaspray, and there was only one storage box. I had to admit the evidence was stacking up against me. But what to do? How to tell my Aussie friends that a glorious West Wales holiday in a semi-detached caravan was no longer a possibility? And what about all my other stories. Maybe those men weren’t wearing Y fronts after all?

I’m not sure where all this doubt would have lead too, if not for the quiet persistence of my friend with the onsite caravan. Quite apart from our nighttime escapades, he’d been conducting his own quiet research. It’s called the World Wide Web, in case your interested. Far more sensible than creeping around caravan parks at night. Here’s the picture he sent me.

There may not be semi-detached caravans in modern Britain but once upon a time they did exist. In fact, if enough people make enquiries about semi-detached caravan holidays in West Wales we might be able to bring them back again. Meanwhile, I’m conducting another branch of research. Can someone please tell me why some British caravans have two doors?

 

Blog four – the rubber hits the road

You may have imagined from reading my blogs that my transition to life in Wales has been seamless. This is not the case and, this week, with my friends gone, the full implications of being far from home caught up with me.

You see, I had hoped to open up a UK bank account while in Wales but without proof of address (like a simple utility bill) this wasn’t possible. This meant I could only purchase an expensive, frequently expiring, pay-as-you-go phone plan, which cannot be tethered to iPads or computers. So…my McBook is dead. My iPad is dead. I have no WIFI, except in cafes, pubs and libraries.

Do I hear a collective shudder?

The man in the phone shop was terribly helpful and apologetic when he explained I could not have a proper phone plan. So, helpful and apologetic that when I asked him for an envelope in which to keep my Aussie SIM, he made me a little cardboard packet and stapled it closed. There was only one problem. He somehow managed to staple right through my Aussie SIM.

I was still in the halcyon phase of Eisteddfod and friends, at this stage. I filed my punctured SIM card away as a problem for the future – like when I got back to Australia. Veronica had left me a modem with a gigabyte of data per month. There was only one problem. I used that gig up in a week (no, I don’t have a problem). Then, on one of my trips to the cafe, I received an email. Someone had bought two copies of Grand Theft Auto on my iTunes account. I cancelled the purchase, marvelling at the ease with which this could accomplished.

Or … so I thought.

You see the Commonwealth Bank takes a dim view of people misappropriating credit cards. Within days mine had been cancelled. Fortunately, I’d just made a cash withdrawal. My Travel Card also worked. So, I wasn’t about to starve. I logged onto Netbank in order to update my contact details. This couldn’t be achieved without an SMS confirmation message. Which, of course, required my Aussie SIM card.

‘Have you tried your SIM?’ one of my friends asked.

‘It won’t work.’ I almost wailed. ‘I know it won’t.’

The SIM did work and, ten days later, when my new credit card arrived, I went straight to the cafe, Aussie SIM in hand, to reset my PIN. While in the cafe, Veronica (Stiwdio Maelor’s owner) called on FaceTime. I don’t know if you have ever used FaceTime but it rings on every Apple device you own. A little alarming when in a cafe with three devices pealing at once. I headed back to the studio, only to find one of our new artists knocking at the door. I wrapped my punctured Aussie SIM in its packet and shoved it in the cupboard. By the time I’d greeted the new artist and talked with Veronica, I was in no mood for internet banking. But I was down to my last £20 and needed to make a withdrawal next time I was in town. I grabbed the cardboard packet and headed for the single hotspot in the Stiwdio. Somehwere around this point, one of the other artists dropped her iPhone down the toilet. It was new! And expensive!

Are you getting the picture? We were struck in a kind of Apple users hell.

After discussing drowned iPhone remedies, I returned to my online banking. But when I opened the cardboard packet, my Aussie SIM was missing. It wasn’t on the work bench. Nor under any of the multiple notes I had been scribbling. I checked the bench again. Crawled on hands and knees about the studio. By this stage, my heart had started to pound. My throat was making funny little, strangled noises. I shook the packet, once, twice. Peered inside. Still nothing. Surely, I hadn’t dropped in the street? I sprinted back to my bedroom. Checked my desk, the bin, my bed, rummaged in the cupboard, upending my carefully folded woollens. And there it was, a glint of gold on the shelf beside my passport. I scooped the SIM card up, rocking back and forth. I heard people chatting outside the window, Stiwdio Maelor’s door opening and closing, laughter. Meanwhile, in the bedroom, I was quietly falling apart.

***

There’s nothing like a good cry to clear the system and, with a fully functioning banking system, I reckon I can survive on cafe and pub internet. Though, it’s possible I’m on a fast track towards alcoholism or caffeine poisoning. 🙂

 

Blog three – a Welsh speaking holiday

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will know I have a small (cough) interest in the Welsh language. You may also remember that last year I went on a Say Something in Welsh Bootcamp and blogged about the experience. You may not realise, however, that a few of us from the Bootcamp kept in touch and that when I announced my imminent return to Wales, plans were put in motion for a second Welsh language holiday. Not an 'official' one this time. A holiday between five friends with the expressed intention of speaking Welsh. A Welsh speaking holiday! For no reason! Why not? People go on golf holidays and fishing holidays, hiking trips and literary tours. We would spend our holiday practicing the language of heaven.

Excited messages were exchanged on Facebook, phone calls made, a holiday house booked and money paid. As the date approached, we realised this thing was actually going to happen. We were going to take off our trainer wheels and speak Welsh for a whole week unassisted. Now, I must admit, along with the mounting excitement, I approached the week with a degree of trepidation. Bootcamp was so good. We laughed so much, learned so much. Could this holiday ever match that first experience?

From the outset, we knew the rules would have to be different. We would not have a fluent Welsh speaker to provide unknown vocabulary. We decided therefore that sentences like: Beth ydy gair am (what is the word for) 'sheets' would be acceptable. As would looking in a dictionary occasionally. But that we would not resort to English beyond those parameters. We would aim to use shops and cafes where we could be served in Welsh. In instances where we found ourselves caught in a non-Welsh speaking situation (of which there were few) we would keep conversation to the absolute minimum.

So how did we go? What were the highlights? What were the challenges?

Challenges

Of course, the primary challenge (and pleasure) was to speak Welsh. We were all super keen to do this. But the fact that we expressed how keen we were a number of times during the lead up to the holiday suggested we were a little afraid we wouldn't be able to do it. In the end, this was a non-issue. We do not have a relationship in English. We never have done. It would have felt unnatural to speak English.

For me, the week held another unexpected for challenge. This became apparent when on arrival my friends started unpacking massive, multiple packets of crisps. I don't normally eat crisps – far too many carbs and with way to much fat for this middle-aged-trying-not-to-put-on-weight Australian. My challenge was trying to resist the multiple packets of crisps while all around me other were munching. In Welsh! I made it almost to the end of the week before caving. Although, I do confess my self control didn't last beyond the first night as far as the chocolate was concerned.

Highlights

One of our number, expressed his intention to jog in the mornings. I suggested that this was something I should probably participate in too. The second morning, we set out along the Llwybr Mawddach (Mawddach path). Once he had warmed up, my friend picked up his pace. As he ran into the distance, the rain started to fall. I followed behind, my spectacles a foggy blur of steam and rain. As I reached my designated turning point, I jogged back along the now puddled path. Passing me on my homeward leg, my friend was clearly amused by the image of a bedraggled Aussie plodding along in the teeming rain. He called out Croeso i Gymru, Liz (Welcome to Wales). See, as well as the massive crisp eating tendencies, it would seem that Wales is a little wetter than Melbourne. Honesty compels me to admit that the wind is a bit parky too. For this reason, later in the week, when standing shivering on the turret at Castell Harlech with my collar pulled up and my coat zipped tight against the wind, I found myself saying:

Dw i ddim meddwl fi mod i'n Gymraes o gwbl. Merched o Awstralia ydw i (I don't think I'm a Welsh woman at all. I am a girl from Australia).

Of course, this comment was funny in Welsh. In fact, I find most things are funnier in Welsh. This could, of course be an element common to all language learners (we certainly laugh a lot at our St Augustine's, ESL dinners). The laughter coming from a three fold source:

  1. That you've followed the conversation well enough to make a joke
  2. That you've managed to express this humorous insight in real time
  3. That the people have understood you well enough to laugh in response

Another holiday highlight, was visiting the Aplaca farm of our friends Karen and Crispin. First, for an informal Sunday lunch and a walk around the farm, which was stunning. The second, as part of a group of local language learners. I confess, I felt a twinge of anxiety about attending a Welsh language afternoon with people who have attended regular Welsh classes, in Wales. Apart from my wonderful month at Cwrs Haf in Aberystwyth, the five of us on our Welsh language holiday had all learned Welsh outside of Wales, and primarily (although in my case not entirely) through the Say Something in Welsh course. We had a wonderful afternoon chatting with learners at all stages in their language learning journey. In fact, if you are reading this from Melbourne, where we use SSiW as our official class materials, I can safely say the system works. I don't think we shamed ourselves at all.

Our special visitor for the afternoon was the Welsh author Bethan Gwanas.

'Ydy'r fenyw 'na Bethan Gwanas?' Someone asked in hushed tones.

'Yes!' Eyes popping. 'It's Bethan Gwanas.'

'Be' y Bethan Gwanas?'

'Yes, it's the Bethan Gwanas.'

A final highlight, was spending the afternoon on a Pwllheli beach with Aran and Catrin Jones. Aran is the founder of Say Something in Welsh and he and his wife Catrin are the voices of the North Wales course. It was great to pick Aran's brains about what's coming next in the SSiW world and to joining him in waxwing lyrical about our hopes and fears for the Welsh language. I think, we may have also solved a most of the worlds problems while sitting in the sun on the Lleyn Peninsula that afternoon and afterwards as we ate pysgod a sglodion (fish and chips) while sitting on a Criccieth seaside wall.

It's amazing what can be achieved on a Welsh speaking holiday. 🙂

Hwyl am y tro!

 

Blog two – the Eisteddfod

Anyone who did music lessons is probably familiar with the concept of an eisteddfod – a festival in which artist not only performs but also competes. From the spelling you have probably gathered the word is Welsh. However, if you are an Australian, you may not realise that you have been saying the the word wrong for your whole life. It is not an eisted-fod. The word has a double ‘dd’ which makes a soft ‘th’ sound in Welsh, much like in the English word ‘others.’ Eisteddfod (pronounce correctly please) is made up of two Welsh words: eistedd, which means to sit, and bod/fod which is the verb to be. The closest correlation you will probably get for eisteddfod in modern English is a ‘session.’

These days Eisteddfodau (the correct plural of eisteddfod) occur throughout the year in Wales. But the main eisteddfod – the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol (national eisteddfod) is held during the first week of August. It receives over 160,000 visitors over an eight day period. It is the pinnacle of the Welsh cultural calendar Here’s what the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol website says about itself:

“All visitors have an eisteddfod story to tell. Whether they’ve competed annually for many years or if they’ve just been to the Maes (field) once a few years ago. They’ve all experienced the magic of the National Eistddfod.”

Which, I guess, is a convenient segue for me to tell you how this year’s magic worked for me.

Driving

As with any outdoor festival there is a massive caravan and camping site attached to the Eisteddofd. The less intrepid book B&Bs and self catering Accomodation close to the Maes. I drove from Corris – a distance of about thirty eight miles – thirty eight, misty Welsh miles sharing the road with tractors, buses and the occasional stray sheep. Google maps told me it would take an hour and ten minutes. But … I tend to slow down on hair-pin bends. A sensible strategy. Though it doesn’t seem to have occurred to some drivers in Land Rovers and luxury cars. One of the best things about driving to the Eisteddofd is the flags and banners strung up along the houses. The closer you get the more flags. Somehow the excitement seems to mount too.

Volunteering

I put my name down to volunteer in Maes D – the learners tent. This involved serving coffee and tea and wandering around Maes D and chatting to people interested in learning Welsh as well as those seeking a safe place in order to practice their Cymraeg. For my first shift, I teamed with two local women. This lead to the inevitable conversation:

“Where do you come from?”

“Australia. But I was born in England. My mum was Welsh.”

“You learned to speak Welsh from her?”

“No. I learned as an adult.”

“But… how did you learn Welsh in Australia?”

I’ve had this conversation so many times I have requested Say Something in Welsh business cards.

Concert

Monday night, I went to a concert in the Pavillion. It was called a Noson Llawen, which is traditional way of spending an evening in Welsh culture – an informal evening in which people stand up to sing, recite, or tell stories. In this case a host of local performers provided the entertainment. In between, the announcer told jokes in Welsh. I got one … maybe two of them. The highlight of the evening was Dafydd Iwan (a local legend) singing: Yma o hyd. This song is a kind of unofficial national anthem in Wales. It basically details the history conquest. The chorus between each verse can roughly be translated as:

“We are still here,

We are still here,

Despite the worst of everyone and everything,

We are still here.”

The first time round, everyone joined in the singing. For the encore, everyone stood and sang louder. Then there was a silence. Red dragons flickered across the stage screens. The music for the anthem started.

I had no trouble driving home after the concert. Though, the road was long and winding. I had lit up like a glow worm inside.

Friends

Thursday evening, was the parti penblwydd (birthday party) Say something in Welsh. Forty of us were scheduled to meet at a hotel in Trallwng (Welshpool). A number of us gave lifts to friends without cars who were staying in Maes B (camping ground). I ended up with a friend from Missisippi in my passenger seat. We got to the hotel okay and had a pleasant evening catching up with far flung members of our learners community. When it came time to leave, my friend suggested we drive back exactly the same way we had come. I agreed … In theory. But I hadn’t accounted for the one way roads in the centre of Trallwng. I couldn’t find the way we had come. In frustration, I punched Meifod (town closest to Maes B) into Google maps and activated the directions. I’m not sure what the staff at Google maps were drinking the night they mapped Wales but we had a dark, snaking tour through the Welsh back roads with hedgerows brushing the car on both sides. It was late. My friend wasn’t talking much. Just staring at the movie blue dot. Every so often I asked.

“How’s it going? Are we heading in the right direction?”

To which question he replied:

“I think so.”

This went on for what seemed like hours – same words, over and over, with a ghost-white mist drifting across the roads. I was tired. About to hit a jet lag wall. After Maes B, I would face a further hour and a half drive back to Corris. I started feeling tense. But trying not to show it. Not sure, I succeeded entirely. I think maybe my friend felt a little jaded too. When we turned the final corner and a saw blaze of the Eisteddfod lights, he said:

“Here. Drop me off here.”

“I can’t. The sign says Buses Only.”

“It’s empty! There aren’t any buses.”

I left my friend in the bus parking lot and drove home. As the clock turned the night into the morning and the Welsh language radio service ended, I heard an Australian man being interviewed about Australia’s disastrous loss in the cricket. I haven’t inherited the sporting gene. The results didn’t bother me overly. But the man’s accent caused a wave of homesickness. If I’d been a character from Harry Potter and found myself able to Aparate, I think, I might have wished myself home.

 

Language, culture and worldview – an interview with Earl Livings

Born in Australia to an Australian father and Belgian mother, Earl Livings once scorned those who felt a need to explore their ancestral origins. Not anymore. He now calls Wales his spiritual home. Having just spent two months at Stiwdio Maelor, in Corris, North Wales, this is perhaps not surprising. But in truth, he stumbled upon the homeward path years ago.


I first met Earl as one of the tutors at Box Hill TAFE where I was enrolled in a Novel Writing subject. Earl taught poetry and a unit on myths and symbolism. When he turned up at the Melbourne Welsh classes it seemed the two disparate aspects of my life had collided. Another writer! With an interest in Welsh language and culture! Who lives in Melbourne! When Earl announced he was going to the UK for a research trip and would be staying in Dolgellau. I said:

You should meet my friend Veronica.

When Veronica set up Stiwdio Maelor, a residential studio for artists and writers, Earl and I jostled for a chance to be one of her writers in residence, Earl applying for a two month residency, me applying for a six month volunteer role. Our applications were both successful. Earl’s residency came before mine. I have therefore followed his writer in residence blogs with interest, plying him with a host of pressing and intelligent, questions like:

What’s the internet speed like? Does Maelor have a washing machine?

Now Earl is back in Australia, I thought it time to raise the standard of my enquiries. I asked him to flesh out what he means by the term ‘spiritual home.’

Here’s what he had to say on the topic:

“Although my father was born in Australia, of an English father and a Welsh mother, whenever people met him his demeanour and speech would lead them to believe he was English. I too was born in Australia, yet some people when they meet me think I come from Europe. This may be because my mother was Belgian and I inherited her darker skin, eye and hair colouring and her attitudes … However, when I was young I saw myself as Australian and couldn’t understand the need of some people to re-visit their homelands, grow their country’s flowers, and cultivate its culture. I was an Australian and I felt it our duty to embrace the land, its flora and fauna and its growing culture.

“Yet, alongside this national bent was a sense of otherness from this country. When I found out I was part Welsh, I felt a kinship I hadn’t felt before … Still, the national bent remained and it was years before I started to explore my British heritage … My exploration into my British roots (as opposed to my father’s English roots) began with a developing interest in the megalithic culture of Britain, in The Matter of Britain—the stories of Arthur, Merlin and the druids—and in Celtic poetry and poetics: W B Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Robert Graves (specifically, his The White Goddess). The more I read Celtic literature and myths, the more I felt at home in this tradition. When I first travelled to Britain and spent time in Cornwall, Wales and Ireland, I sensed an affinity with the landscape, more so than during trips to the Australian bush and outback. Subsequent visits have only confirmed this connection, as has my learning of the Welsh language, an activity and practice that always feels right for me, that always centres me.”

One of Earl’s more recent literary inspirations has been found in the work of Alan Garner. He uses the term ‘mythic realism’ to describe Garner’s weaving together of the everyday and the mythic. I asked him to explain his use of this term.

“The phrase ‘mythic realism’ in some ways was a throwaway phrase when I was thinking of Garner’s work in relation to my own and in comparison to someone like JRR Tolkien and his secondary world of Middle-Earth. Tolkien and others have been described by the phrase ‘mythopoeic’, but I felt this phrase was more relevant for those stories that are either constructions of a myth, as The Lord of the Rings can be construed, or use myths and mythic beings in a literal sense, as much of modern fantasy does. I wanted something to describe Garner’s approach of using myth as a foundation for a story that somehow enacts the myth and also presupposes the literal existence of the myth and/or its underlying metaphysics. Garner creates liminal fantasies, where the world of myth and the so-called ‘real world’ overlap…

Garner posits these mythical worlds as real and as impinging on our world. In some ways he says these worlds influence and support our world, and that the opposite also happens. His first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, use folklore based on Arthurian-type legends of Alderley Edge, but in his next books, Elidor, The Owl Service and Red Shift, he uses Celtic myths directly or indirectly. For example, The Owl Service uses the story of Blodeuwedd in The Mabinogion, with the three main characters being influenced by the reality of the myth, almost inexorably, and acting it out at the same time. The myth is apart from the real world, yet is in a process of being continual re-enacted in the real world …

In the situation of my return visits to Britain, my journeys through Celtic landscapes in Wales and Scotland have given me my own experiences of mythic realism, in that certain sites, such as megalithic tombs and stone structures and places associated with legend and myth, give off (at least to me) a palpable sense of their sacredness … Some of these places I intend to use in my writing, either as settings or as the basis of feelings and insights characters will experience.”

Earl is an academic. Can you tell? His blog posts lifted my considerations above such pressing matters as internet speed (though this does still concern me). He has urged me to see my time in Corris as a time apart. Although, ‘officially’ a volunteer studio manger. I will be writing during my residency. Earl suggested my priorities should be:

  • My manuscript
  • The studio
  • Speaking Welsh

One of Stwidio Maelor’s owners and founders was present at this discussion. She said you may like to make you writing a priority but I think the studio will keep you pretty busy. After we had all gone our seperate ways I considered my list of priorities.

For me, speaking Welsh will come first.

I could have taken leave without pay to finish my novel in Melbourne. But, as wonderful as Skype is, opportunities to speak Welsh would have been limited. Part of my novel is written from the point of view of a nineteenth century Welsh storyteller (yes, I too am drawn by Welsh mythology). My ability to enter his consciousness, indeed, my right to do so, is grounded in my ability to speak his language.

But what of Earl? What were his aims for his time at Maelor? And does he think they were realised?

“Like many writers, both emerging and established, I have had the odd weekend (or longer) writing retreat and have enjoyed the benefits of focussing on one’s work for an extended time. A residency is just a longer writing retreat, with basically the same intention: get away from the commitments and routines of normal life and devote time and mental energy to researching a project, working at one’s craft, and/or writing and editing the text or texts of a project… My goal for the residency was to write the next draft of my dark ages novel…. What I didn’t count on was the effects of the mental space the residency gave me. Given this opportunity to sit back and think about the novel, I discovered problems in structure and story I hadn’t realised before. I thus had to spend time doing a structural edit (which isn’t finished yet) before throwing myself back into the content editing…

Even with the disappointment of not finishing the redraft, I was happy with the residency. By the end of my time in the UK I managed to edit and re-write around half of the manuscript, which itself had grown and will probably end up being about 150,000 words. I also checked out settings for the novel and learnt a little more Welsh, which I’ve been pursuing not only for myself but also for use in the novel.”

It sounds like Earl’s residency was worthwhile on a number of levels. As it is now less a month until I leave for Wales, you can look forward to hearing in nauseating detail about how volunteering, speaking Welsh and my own writing goals play out.

***

Earl Livings has published poetry and fiction in Australia and also Britain, Canada, the USA, and Germany. He also has read his work in many venues around Melbourne and in the USA, England, Ireland, and Wales. Earl has a PhD in Creative Writing and taught professional writing and editing for 17 years. His writing focuses on nature, mythology and the sacred and he is currently working on a Dark Ages novel and his next poetry collection. Earl lives in Box Hill with his wife and the seasonal owls, bats and lorikeets that love the trees around his home.

 

 

A week of small things

Last Saturday, I told my husband I wouldn’t be speaking English and spent the day chatting in Welsh on Skype, doing SSiW lessons, and listening to Radio Cymru. It was a long, intense, surreal kind of day. As daylight gave way to dusk, I took the dog for one more walk around the block and had the strange sensation of Welsh words jostling to the front of my mind. I thought, this is weird, totally weird. I wonder if anyone else is preparing for Dysgwr y Flwyddyn like this? As I walked around the night black silence of an empty house, I thought: maybe not?

Maybe this is a little crazy?

I didn’t progress to the final round of Dysgwr y Flwyddyn. In retrospect, I never was a serious contender. But I managed to bag myself a greater prize at Welsh class the following Tuesday evening. I had been teaching the beginners class for a couple of months and, on rejoining my intermediate class for the first time in ages, I felt seriously out of touch. But my brain was still in the curious Welsh language hinterland that my day of intensive preparation had produced. I pulled out a stack flash cards and said:

‘We are going to use these images as a springboard for discussion.’

An hour and twenty minutes later, we were still taking. In Welsh. It was the first time any of my classes had broken through the barrier from lessons to conversation. Riding home that night under the rainbow strobe of city lights I thought:

Yes, yes, yes! This makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Thursday, I found myself working a regular library desk shift. From amid the general queries about what book came next in a series, relevant school project materials, and technological issues, came a rough, half shaven, probably-from-the-local-council-estate man, wanting information on butterflies. Not general bookish, kind of information either. Butterfly man wanted to identify a chrysalis he had found and determine when, exactly, his buttefly would emerge. I directed him to the relevant library shelf and helped him connect his tablet to the WIFI. But armed with information and connectivity, he saw no reason to exclude me from the ongoing excitement of the his research. In the course of his hour long residency at the information desk, snippets of butterfly man’s story also emerged. In between serving customers, I marvelled at this socially and economically disadvantaged older man who clearly hadn’t thrived in the education system, rediscovering the wonders of the natural world.

On Friday evening, I visited mum in hospital. She asked me how my Welsh language competition had gone. ‘It went well,’ I replied. ‘I spoke quite fluidly. But I didn’t get through to the final round.’

‘Why not?’ mum asked.

‘Well, I think, perhaps, my Welsh wasn’t good enough.’

‘But you’re my daughter! You can do anything.’

You’re my daughter…

I couldn’t help reflecting on mum’s comments as I lined up for Saturday’s how to be a barrista course. Maybe this attitude lay at the root of all my naive overconfidence? Thinking I could write a novel? Learn a second language? Start teaching it before I could even speak it fully? Believing I could compete against Welsh people in a Welsh language competition. As I looked around the class of wannabe barristas among whom I was the oldest, tallest, most English-as-a-first-languagest, I thought:

Maybe I’m out of my depth here too?

Over the course of the day, my initial suspicions were confirmed. I could set up the machine okay and produce esspresso shots with a nice crema. They tasted good too. I made the mistake of drinking far too many early on. By the end of the day, my class mates were decorating smooth coffees with spirals and seagull patterns while, with my hands burned and my heart racing and my over-caffeinated nerves jangling, I was still struggling to create the requisite micro foam. ‘You’re doing well.’ I said to the girl next to me. ‘Do you work in a cafe?”

‘I have.’ She said. ‘But not as a barista. What about you?’

I looked down into my jug of frothy over boiled milk. ‘I work in a library. And teach Welsh as a hobby. I think that’s where I belong.’

PS: If you’re a cafe in the Corris area, please replace that final sentence with:

But once I get the hang of this I’m going to be the bomb! 🙂

Becoming a Welsh language expert…

I am not an expert at anything. I am a Jack-of-all-trades kind of girl. Imagine my surprise when an elderly gentleman approached me at the library.

‘I want to learn Welsh,’ he said. ‘One of your colleagues told me you are the library’s Welsh language expert.’

Turns out the man was vision impaired and needed a course that didn’t require him to be able to read or write. I knew just the course and my ‘Welsh language expert status’ was confirmed as surely if it had been listed on my job description along with a degree in library and information studies, eligiblility for ALIA accreditation, and holding a current Victorian driver’s license.

Now, personally, I think the ability to speak Welsh should be an essential requirement for every librarian. But as they haven’t yet achieved this in Wales, I don’t have much chance in suburban Melbourne. It was a shock therefore when on a second business-as-usual afternoon another man sought me out.

‘Hello. I’m looking for Liz Corbett.’

‘Yes. That’s me. How can I help you?’

‘I heard you speak Welsh.’

Heard! Where from? I guessed another of my colleagues had supplied the information.

‘I try, but…my Welsh isn’t fluent.’

Turns Ken James was a local historian with Welsh ancestry who was doing research on Eaglehawk’s Welsh Churches (yes, the hiraeth gets to us all eventually). He had a couple of cemetery inscriptions that needed translating. Would I have a look at them? Now, as my job description does not have ‘an ability to speak Welsh’ as a condition of employment, I am not paid to translate documents. As a librarian I am supposed to direct the borrower to the languages section. But as a person with an interest in Austalian history and Welsh language, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass.

‘I’ll have a go,’ I said. ‘If I can’t work it out, I know people who can. Why not email me a copy?’

Here is one of the inscriptions Ken James sent to me:

Jones

Serrhog Goffodwrineth / Robert Watkin Jones/ Pantymarch / Anwl Ac Unig Fab / Watkin Jones / Pandy, Llanuwchllyn, Bala / Yr Hwn A Hunodd Yn Yr Iesu / Hydref / 10 February 1884 Yn Zomywydd Oed / “God’s Will Be Done”.


It was school holidays and being a mildly (cough) obsessive person I didn’t want to wait until Welsh classes started back again. I looked up serrhog. It wasn’t in my dictionary. Neither was gofodwrineth. However, language is all about context. I am often telling my Welsh class. Your comprehension will sometimes be situational. So, what was the context here? I looked at English language cemetery inscriptions. They generally started with something like loving remembrance. I looked up remembrance in the English side of my dictionary and came up with: coffadwriaeth, remembrance, and serchog, with means affectionate. The spelling was wrong (possibly the family had no dictionary and may not have had much education in the Welsh language – it wasn’t exactly encouraged – and maybe they were relying on English speaking mason). Anyway, the inscription should have read: Serchog goffadwriaeth. Perfect.


See, being an expert is easy. 🙂


I knew Pantymarch and Llanuwchllyn, Bala were place names. I also knew that there was no letter z in the Welsh alphabet. A little enquiry, confirmed that Robert Watkin Jones had died at the age of twenty. Therefore zomywydd oed was probably 20 blwydd oed – twenty years old – Anwl ac Unig Fab meant: dear and only son.


I paused, thinking about this family far from home who had lost their only son at twenty years of age.


So, much pain, in those few words.


My final challenge with this inscription was the phrase: Yr Hwn A Hunodd Yn Yr Iesu.


Hunodd meant ‘slept’ my dictionary told me, Iesu, I knew, meant Jesus. But why yr hwn? And why yr Iesu? Literally, it seemed to be saying ‘the this and slept in the Jesus.’ Puzzled, I went where any sensible woman in this day and age who needs to know something goes. Facebook.


Fortunately Sion Meredith Director of Cymraeg i Oedolion – Canolbarth Cymru – Welsh for Adults mid-Wales was online. That’s right – a real expert. He confirmed my earlier guesswork and told me the phrase Yr Hwn a Hunodd yn yr Iesu meant: this one slept in Christ. Nice. I sent my results back to Ken James. Imagine my pleasure when a few months later he came back to the library with a signed copy of his book: Eaglehawk’s Welsh churches. He even put my name in the acknowledgements.

 

Dosbarth Cymraeg – 2015 – Melbourne Welsh Class

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

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

Why?

I’m going to tell you.

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

They believed him.

My job was simply to facilitate conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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