Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: dysgu cymraeg (Page 2 of 6)

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.

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 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 four o Gymru – a word on Welsh fairy tales

I haven’t blogged for a while. The reason – I’m desperate to get this pre-submission draft of my manuscript finished before heading back to Melbourne. If you know anything about my novel, you will know it is a historical novel set in 1841 on board an emigrant vessel bound for colonial Australia. It has two English viewpoint characters and a Welsh one. My Welsh viewpoint character is a storyteller. His traditional Welsh fairy tales both mirror and affect the other character’s journeys. A tall order for a first novel, perhaps? Or outright ridiculous? In polite literary circles, you may hear it called an ‘ambitious project.’

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As a consequence of this ‘ambitious project,’ I’ve read countless Welsh myths, legends, and fairy tales, primarily in the English language. One of my aims for this time in Wales was to increase my Welsh language understanding of these stories. You can therefore imagine my delight when Gwin Dylanwad advertised a series of Welsh language talks on the Mabinogi. The series wasn’t an event for Welsh language learners. I was definitely the least fluent speaker in the room. But I spent four pleasurable evenings listening to Dr Gwilym Morus-Baird discuss the amazing body of medieval Welsh literature that is known to the English speaking world as the Mabinogion.

The Medd a Mabinogi series was followed by a session on the Tylwyth Teg ( fair family), by Gwyn Edwards. Half way through the evening, Gwyn started talking about Llyn y Fan Fach, the story of a mysterious lake woman who married a mortal. Her father’s only condition being that his daughter mustn’t be struck causelessly, for on the third blow she and all of her dowry would return to the lake (at this point, the feminist in me is compelled to add that it should have been the first blow, causeless, or otherwise).

I recognised the story immediately (yes! a significant comprehension milestone). It is one of the stories I’ve used in my novel. I have walked the rocky mountain path to Llyn y Fan Fach (lake of the small place) a tiny mountain top lake at the northern end of the Black Mountain. I’ve read multiple versions of the story, know it like the back of my hand. At least…I thought I did. Except, the fairy father’s condition in Gwyn Evans’ version of the tale was different. Three causeless blows had been replaced  by three blows with a piece of iron.

The change wasn’t inconceivable. Welsh fairies don’t like iron. They don’t have wings either. They often dress in green. But that’s irrelevant. I glanced about the room, wondering what my class mates thought about this iron addition to the tale. They didn’t seem too perturbed (savages). Then again, they mightn’t have had so much riding on the situation. I on the other hand, sat in a heart pounding, cold sweat, thinking, OMG, the Welsh language version of the story is different. I’m going to re-work whole segments of my novel, just when I thought I was close to finishing.

Half way through his explanation of the tale, Gwyn Evans stopped, smiled, shook his head. ‘O mae’n ddrwg gen iDw i wedi gwneud camgymeriad – Oh, I’m sorry. I have made a mistake.

Mistake! I held my breath.

‘Nid oedd haern un o’r amodau – iron wasn’t one of the conditions. Dim ond tri trawiad heb achos – only three causeless blows.’

No iron! I found myself melting in a warm puddle of relief.

After they had finished wiping me off the floor, the remainder of the evening passed without further trauma. Here are some of the things I have learned about Welsh fairies:

  • They don’t have wings (as mentioned)
  • Neither do they like iron
  • Some people think they are human sized
  • Others that they are diminutive
  • They live beneath the earth
  • Time in fairy land is different to human time
  • If you get caught in a fairy circle it is hard to escape
  • Though their are methods
  • This by the way is a serious topic – and not hypothetical
  • Some believe fairy tales are the remnant of a folk memory harking back to a previous time – when trees, and stones and cairns had spirits
  • Others that they are simply the way to explain the inexplicable
  • Others still, that they are inherently evil
  • You must never try to steal from the fairies, or double cross them
  • They have been known to steal children
  • Reward people’s virtue
  • But whatever the case, you must always be careful
  • And even if you don’t believe in fairies, the tales are worth listening to

 

Blog twenty three o Gymru – Y Fari lwyd

If celebrating Christmas on the 6th of January felt strange, celebrating the New Year on January 16th, felt even stranger. But there are two worlds in Wales – remember the Harry Potter analogy – and while the rest of the world settled into a boring old mid-January malaise, Cymru Cymraeg celebrated another ancient tradition – Y Fari Lwyd (the Grey Mary).

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If you Google “Y Fari Lwyd” Wikipedia will tell you that Y Fari Lwyd is a wassailing tradition similar to English folk customs involving hobby horses and other stock characters. This is a fairly anglo-centric explanation of the tradition. You could just as easily say:

English wassailing traditions involving hobby horses and other familiar characters are most likely derived from the South Wales folk custom known as Y Fari Lwyd, a Celtic ritual, possibly of Indo-European origin, which involves groups of men carrying a be-ribboned horse skull between private homes and public houses and singing impromptu verse in order to gain admission.

In fact, I just did. 🙂

Y Fari Lywd is primarily a South Wales folk custom – traditionally celebrated between Christmas and New Year. But in recent years, it has been taken up in other parts of Wales and, like Plygain, is celebrated according to the Julian calendar. Which is how I ended celebrating New Year, in mid-Wales, last Saturday evening.

Here’s how the night panned out for me:

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  • I boarded a mini-bus in Machynlleth
  • Travelled to the Brigands Inn, picking up others en-route
  • At the Brigands Inn, Y Fari Lwyd and other characters – including an Ostler, a sergeant, a merriman, and Pwnsch a Siwan (Punch and Judy) stood outside.
  • Others gathered inside
  • Y Fari parti sang a tune asking for admission

“Wel dyma ni’n dwad (Well here we come)
Gy-feillion di-niwad (Innocent friends)
I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave)
I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave)
I ofyn am gennad i ganu (To ask leave to sing)”

(an example of a typical opening song)

  • The people inside made witty excuses in verse for why admittance was not possible
  • Y Fari parti responded
  • And on it went – until they ran out of ripostes and personal insults
  • At which point Y Fari parti was admitted
  • Food and drink were served
  • People danced and sang
  • Then we got back on the mini bus
  • And travelled to the next location – The Buckleys Arms
  • Where it started over again
  • (yes, it’s a pub crawl with poetry and singing)

At the end of the evening, a huge party gathered in the back bar of the Llew Goch (Red Lion). People turned up with instruments, song books were handed out (for people like me) and we sang – defiant folk songs, patriotic anthems, and heartbreaking laments.

  • All in Welsh
  • Because language is the heart of this culture
  • Along with music
  • And it is beautiful

 

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PS. The evening was organised by Arfon Hughes of Dinas Mawddwy. He composed many of the Mari parti’s verses, along with Huw Jones and children from the local area. Mair Tomos Ifans and Gwawr Davalan composed the verses sung from inside the tafarns. Neither parti had seen each other’s compositions beforehand, the challenge being to choose the appropriate verses and respond on the spur of the moment. Spur of the moment! Are you picking up a theme? Word play and impromptu eloquence are an important part of being Welsh.

Blog twenty-two o Gymru – a second Christmas

If you thought Christmas was over, think again. The early Celtic Church celebrated Christmas on 25th of December – according to the Julian Calendar, which equates to  the 7th of January on the Gregorian Calendar (the one followed in most Western Countries today). Which is how, this week, I found myself sitting in a traditional Welsh carol service.

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Plygain, is the word for this occasion, in Welsh. An ancient, possibly pre-Christianity festival that became part of the Church calendar and was traditionally held in the early hours of Christmas morning. Attendees would often stay up all night, dancing to the harp, before setting out with flaming torches to escort the priest to the church for the commencement of the service.

Now if you know one thing about Wales, it is probably the love of choral singing. Although the mass, male voice choirs we associate with Wales today were most likely a product of of the industrial era, singing in harmony is a much older Welsh tradition. Here is what Gerald of Wales had to say about it in the 12th century:

When they come together to make music, the Welsh sing their traditional songs, not in unison, as is done elsewhere, but in parts, in many modes and modulations. When a choir gathers to sing, which happens often in this country, you will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers.

Wednesday night a group of children kicked off the Plygain program. They rose, in silence, walked to the front of the church, pitched a note, and began to sing unaccompanied, and in harmony. After they had returned to their seats, a group of teenagers rose, and sang a different song. Followed by other groups, duos and individuals, all without introduction or apparent instructions. Until it almost every person in the church had contributed. At which point, the vicar rose, and I started shrugging into my coat, thinking we had come to the end of the service.

No, think again. After singing a community carol, the whole program started over, with the same group following the same groups, duos and individuals, until we had gone right though the ranks of the assembled for a second time. At which point the vicar rose again, we sang another carol and I had a strange sitting-in-the-front-pew-unable-to-leave-sense that the whole cycle was about to start over.

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I wasn’t bored, quite the opposite. Plygain carols are not familiar carols translated into Welsh. They are much older and often written in the Dorian mode and, if you add to this the unaccompanied singing in harmony, the effect is quite stunning. But I’d heard these stories of all night Plygain services, and I was sitting towards the front of the church which meant I couldn’t leave, without everyone knowing, added to which I had a sense that, if I did leave, I would have somehow failed the Welsh test.

Fortunately, my Welshness was not put to the test on Wednesday evening. All the men in the church rose, sung a final song, Can y Swper (supper song) and we were all invited to the Neuadd y Pentref (village hall) for a bite to eat. I wasn’t intending to stay for supper. I have allergies that cut out a host of foods (never easy to explain in Welsh) added to which it was my weekly protein only day (even harder to explain). Besides, I didn’t know anyone. There is nothing worse than sitting alone in a hall full of people who have known each other for years.

Escape wasn’t an option, however. People were way to friendly, which is how I found myself sitting at a table trying to explain why I only had half a boiled egg on my plate. After I had gone through the explanations about the egg and growing up in Australia and studying Welsh as an adult, some of which I’m sure got lost in translation (there was this woman who came all the way from Australia to see our Plygain service and can’t eat anything but boiled eggs), I asked questions about the Plygain tradition. Here is what I learned:

  • Traditionally the evening starts with children
  • Then teenagers
  • Then a group from the church
  • After which the order is random
  • Plygain is not a concert
  • All are welcome to participate
  • The song list is not known beforehand
  • Once a song has been sung, it is not to be repeated
  • Which is why everyone performed more than once (traditionally three times)
  • In the same order
  • As it is a kind of test (see I got that bit right) on rising to the occasion
  • Which means groups have to prepare for every eventuality
  • And, finally, Can y Swper is not a song to announce supper (what were you thinking?)
  • It is a song about the Last Supper
  • Because traditional Plygain services do no focus on the baby in the manger
  • The tell the whole story
  • From birth, to death, to resurrection

 

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 nineteen o Gymru – an eventful Saturday evening

It had been a busy week – Merched y Wawr Bro Dyfi dinner on Monday night, a Merched y Wawr Corris a Chylch dinner on Wedesday night, Cawl a Chan at Dylanwad Wines on Friday night and the two nights in between spent watching Y Gwyll with a friend. I woke up Saturday morning feeling tired and indecisive.

We had two new artists arriving that day. I had to clean the stiwdio and, due to an excess of high fat, high carbohydrate foods, I also needed to go for a run. Added to which, had a party that night and the weather was looking pretty wild. I’d been invited to stay the night. But here’s the thing about me. I am not a late night or a stay overnight person. So when Dan, an American artist staying at Maelor, expressed a desire to see Welsh male voice choir in Abergynolwyn, I broke the I-am-not-a-taxi rule and offered to act as chauffeur.

I checked my maps before we left home. I thought I knew the way to Karen and Crispin’s house. They had a mosaic name plate on their farm gate. I’d be able to see it from the road. Besides, it was a party. They’d have balloons on the gate post, surely?

My first indication that things would go wrong was on the way to Abergynolwyn. The map said six miles. But I had forgotten that driving six miles in Wales is like driving thirty six miles in another country. The roads are so dark and winding. On this particular night, they were also flooded.

‘Gee.’ Dan said. ‘I hadn’t realised it would be this far out of your way.’

Neither had I but it was too late to turn back. We ploughed on through puddle after dark oily puddle until we reached Abergynowlyn. I dropped Dan at the Canolfan with a promise to be back before the pub closed.

I got to the tiny village of Llanfachreth okay and headed out into the back roads. It was darker and narrower than the road to Abergynolwyn. A gusting wind flung rain at my windscreen. Okay, I thought. Maybe there won’t be balloons on the gatepost. But I remembered a stone arch near their house and the striking mosaic. I would come across them eventually.

I didn’t. No matter how slowly, I drove. Nor how high my light beam. I checked my map. My phone didn’t have a signal. I thought I was getting close. But maybe my memory was faulty? Maybe I had to take another turn before I came to the name plate? If only I could find that stone arch. I started driving back along the Llanfachreth Road. But the rain had been falling steadily and part of the Tarmac had dropped away. Before I knew it, my wheels were churning in the mud. Backwards, I went. Then forwards, each time, sinking a little deeper.

I stopped, got out of the car, checked my phone. Still no signal. Added to which, my battery was getting low. I considered walking back to Llanfachreth. But it was ink dark, not a moon or star in sight and I had been raised according to the great, Aussie outback survival motto: “never leave your vehicle.” Besides, I was dressed warmly enough and there were blankets in the car. I wouldn’t freeze, even if I had to stay out all night.

But what about Dan sitting in the choir concert in Abergynolwyn?

The truth is stranger than fiction, they tell me. When writing a novel you can’t make a major plot point turn on coincidence. But as I stood on the windy dark road, trying to work out what to do next, I heard a car engine. A car! Had I imagined it? No, there were lights, not just any lights. I saw a taxi heading towards me. Wow! I thought this is seriously weird. But I stepped onto the road and hailed that cab as if we were in Charring Cross.

‘I’m bogged.’ I said, as if that wasn’t obvious. ‘I’m supposed to be at a party but I got lost.’

‘I’ve just come from a party.’

‘Karen and Crispin’s?’

‘The same.’

‘Oh, wow! Can you take me there?’

It didn’t take long to get to the party. We turned up a side road only a few hundred metres from where I was bogged. The mosaic was there. But there were no balloons on the gatepost. Seriously, what was I thinking? I walked in, apologising for my lateness, and produced what is probably one of the most dreadful Wenglish sentences I have ever uttered.

‘Ces i fy mogio mewn ditch.’

‘Ditch?’

‘Yes. Fy nghar. Bogged. Mewn ditch.’

Once the situation was explained, we made quick decisions. It wasn’t realistic to pull the car out in the dark. Most people had enjoyed a drink or two. I would have to stay the night, even if I wasn’t a house guest kind of person. I logged onto the WIFI and told our American artist he’d have to find his own way home (something I probably should have done from the outset). I then poured myself a glass of wine and enjoyed the party.

***

Oh, in case your wondering, bogio is definitely not the Welsh verb for bogged. But, hey, I mutated correctly and stuck an ‘io’ on the end, which is the golden rule in such cases. Though, someone did later point out that the Welsh word for ditch is ffos. I won’t be forgetting that in a hurry. 🙂

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