Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: emigration

Notes on the assisted immigration system – for Elizabeth Lhuede

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with Elizabeth Lhuede on Twitter about my recently released debut novel The Tides Between (I never tire of writing those words). One of her forbears, Elizabeth told me, had come to Australia in 1841. Her name was Anne Bowles.

Now if you have read The Tides Between (tsk,  tsk, if you haven’t), you will know it is set in 1841, on board an emigrant vessel and that one of the characters is called Annie Bowles. Elizabeth was interested in my research on the government assisted immigration system (hurray, all those hours have not gone completely unnoticed). She wondered whether I’d write a blog on the topic.

Would I considered writing a blog?!

Err… if you are a woman and Australian and have anything to do with publishing, you will know that Elizabeth Lhuede is the founder of the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Who just happened to be reading my recently released debut novel (sorry, couldn’t resist writing it again), and wanted to know more about my research. Like, would I consider writing a blog, for someone who has done so much for Australian women writers?  I’d in fact consider it a Royal Command Performance. Or at the very least, a thank you note, from one grateful Aussie Woman Writer.

Let’s start with a brief summary of assisted immigration in the 1840s:

A colony desperately in need of labourers

When Major Mitchell described rich pastoral lands in Western Victoria as ‘Australia Felix’, men began flocking to the district. These wealthy young adventurers, paid a £10 license fee to ‘squat’ on their allocated runs and invested their capital in sheep. Ex-convicts from Van Diemen’s Land and other parts of New South Wales also travelled to Port Phillip in search of opportunities. Alarmed by this flood of illegal settlers, Governor Bourke officially recognised the Port Phillip District. In 1841, the year in which The Tides Between is set, Port Phillip was still officially part of the Colony of New South Wales – which then included present-day Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.

Transportation to New South Wales had ceased in 1840 (it’s not all about the convicts). Squatters were crying out for agricultural labourers. In the newly surveyed town of Melbourne, the ratio of European men to women was two to one. In the Geelong region, the ratio was four to one. Whereas in the Western District, Western Port, and Portland Bay the ration was eight, nine, and ten to one. As a consequence, there was also a desperate need for single female immigrants.

The migrants

During the early years of the nineteenth century, England and Wales experienced poverty and social unrest. The population doubled between 1800 and 1850. Agricultural labourers were some of the lowest paid in Britain. Employed seasonally, they earned between seven and ten shillings a week. Out of this they had to pay board and lodgings.

Many agricultural labourers moved to the burgeoning new industrial towns. They worked long hours toiling over dangerous machinery and lived in crowded tenements. In 1833, the government passed a factory act to improve the conditions of children working in mines and factories. Henceforth, no child under the age of nine age was to be employed. Those under the age of thirteen were only allowed to work nine hours a day.

The Merthyr Riots (as depicted in The Tides Between) occurred in 1831. The Tolpuddle Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers was formed in 1833. In 1834, the New Poor Law brought in a harsh new regime of poverty relief. The Rebecca Riots commenced in 1839, the same year that the Chartists rose in Newport. Amidst these scenes of agitation and distress, circulars and newspapers advertised the benefits of emigration.

The immigration schemes

Although the Port Phillip squatters cried out for agricultural labourers, and the British newspapers waxed lyrical about the benefits of emigration to New South Wales, problems of distance and cost needed to be overcome. A passage to Australia cost five times as much as a the more popular passage to North America and the journey to Port Phillip was four times as long.

A government assisted immigration scheme commenced in 1831 and was expanded throughout the decade. From 1837, a separate bounty scheme was also run by shipping agents who were paid to select and transport labourers on behalf of the colonists. The government scheme was criticised for being too expensive and not selective enough. While the government accused shipping agents of not caring for the welfare of migrants.

In 1841, the British Government introduced reforms. These maintained the bounty concept but placed it under the control of the newly formed Colonial Land and Emigration Commission. Over ninety-five percent of all assisted immigrants to Port Phillip prior to 1851 came under this more regulated scheme. Male labourers under thirty years – such as shepherds, bricklayers, wheelwrights, carpenters and masons – were sought as migrants. Single women under thirty were sought as domestic and agricultural servants. Married adults were to be under the age of forty years. Married or single, all migrants were expected to be sober, industrious and able to provide birth certificates and character references.

Migrants were housed in emigrant depots prior to departure. At the depot, they were given a thorough medical examination, divided into messes, and taught the routines of shipboard life. Every government assisted migrant vessel followed a standard victualling schedule and carried a surgeon-superintendent who followed a strict regime of hygiene. He and the ship’s officers were paid a gratuity for every migrant landed safely in the colony. Between 1839 and 1842 over 12, 000 assisted migrants arrived in Port Phillip. The influx slowed between 1843 and 1847 due to a colonial recession. After which, prior to 1851, a further 16,500 immigrants arrived prior.

The voyage

Despite being heavily regulated, the voyage to Port Phillip, was long and arduous. The mortality rate was around 3.7% with children being the most at risk. Some vessels escaped death and diseases. On others, the mortality rate exceeded 10%. The average duration of the voyage to Port Phillip was a hundred and eleven days.

There was little difference between a migrant vessel and a convict ship. The same ship might carry convicts to Western Australia, a wool cargo on the return run, and take migrants back to Port Phillip in the following year.  As a consequence, the fittings between decks were rough and purpose built for each individual ‘cargo.’

The ships’ hulls were rounded and their bows blunt which meant they were slow, leaky, and required a great deal of pumping. Prior to 1850, these ships followed the well-established Admiralty route which called at the Cape of Good Hope and used the brisk trade winds at around 39° S to carry them east towards Australia. By this route, they typically experienced seasickness in the Channel, storms in the Bay of Biscay, rising temperatures off the coast of Africa, and a windless inertia around the equator.

On-the-ground research

I read copiously in prior to writing The Tides Between (see below). I also did heaps of on-the-ground research. I visited Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum, Queenscliff Maritime Museum, The Immigration Museum, and the Museum of London Docklands in order to get a tactile sense of the journey. I also did a Thames River Cruise, walked the route from the emigrant depot to the Deptford watergate, spent a night on the sailing ship Enterprize (where I learned how to create a hatchway Rhys could open in a storm), spent time on both sides of the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, crossed from Queenscliff to Sorento on the ferry, and visited Williamstown. I also spent hours poring over old maps in the State Library of Victoria.

This is only the research I did for the maritime aspects of the novel. The fairy tales, Welsh language and London theatre history, are in a catalogue of their own.

Here is brief bibliography of the maritime related books I found most helpful:

  • PESCOD, Keith, Good food bright fires and civility (a great book on British emigrant depots)
  • PESCOD, Keith, A place to lay my head (a follow up book on Australian immigrant depots)
  • BROOME, Richard, The Victorians: arriving (a great summary of the era, reasons for emigrating, and the voyage)
  • CHARLWOOD, Don, The long farewell (my Bible on this topic, it includes two published emigrant journals)
  • HAINES, Robin, Doctors at Sea: emigrant voyages to Australia
  • HAINES, Robin, Life and death in the age of sail: the passage to Australia
  • CANON, Michael, Perilous voyages to the new land
  • HOPE, Penelope, The voyage of the Africaine (an emigrant journal)
  • HOWITT, Richard, Australia: historical, descriptive and statistic, with an account on four years residence in that colony
  • DANA, Richard, Two years before the mast
  • COLONIAL LAND AND EMIGRATION COMMISSION, Instructions to surgeons superintendents of Government ships going to New South Wales, 1838 (later versions of this document are available)
  • COLONIAL LAND AND EMIGRATION COMMISSION, Colonization circular
  • KEMP, Peter, Oxford companion to ships and the sea
  • MCCRAE, Hugh, Georgiana’s journal

I’m not sure if that is what Elizabeth Lhuede had in mind. I am open to further questions. I am in fact happy to talk at length on the topic. So, please, ask away?

PS. An emigrant is an outgoing migrant, an immigrant an inbound one. Therefore, in my case, you could say I emigrated to Australia from the UK at the age of five. However, once here, I became an immigrant in the eyes of the Australian Government.

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:

Wales 2015, here I come.

I left England at the age of five. Spent my childhood reading Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Malcom Saville and a host of other English children’s authors, watching The Goodlife, Two Ronnies, Dad’s Army and Are you Being Served? and inexplicably pining for a land I could barely recall. I would go back, I decided, once I came of age. I would visit this place my parents called home. But somehow it never happened. I got married, we had children, became saddled with a mortgage. The years rolled past until, one day, my young adult son got himself a UK passport. He said, ‘look mum, I’m more British than you are.’

That’s it, I decided. Time to make the journey.

I booked my frequent flyer tickets months in advance. Endured a round-about flight with interminable stopovers enroute. After thirty plus hours of travel, the pilot announced we had begun our descent into Heathrow. As I peered down on the little brown semi-detached houses with their baize, card table lawns my eyes filled with tears. They wouldn’t stop. Hiccuping sobs wracked my chest. As the plane touched down and we came to a juddering halt, I thought:

If I die now, it doesn’t matter I’m home.

In July last year, Andrew and I visited the UK together for the first time. After the long haul flight we boarded our National Express coach for Wales. Andrew dozed intermittently as we headed out onto the M4. I sat bolt upright on the seat beside him. As we approached the Severn Bridge, I jabbed him in the ribs.

‘Andrew. Wake up. We’re about to cross the border into Wales.’

Jet lagged and facing a further five hours in the coach, I don’t think the border crossing had registered as significant. But seeing my flushed face and quivering upright form, Andrew assumed an attitude of polite interest. As we passed through Chepstow and headed deeper into Wales, I began to point out landmarks. When he could finally get a word in, Andrew asked: ‘Liz, how many times have you been to Wales in the last eight years?’

‘Only four.’

‘Isn’t it time you came for a longer stint?’

It wasn’t in fact the first time Andrew had made this suggestion. He’d dangled the possibility before me a number of times. After a fleeting moment of consideration, I’d alway dismissed the possibility out of hand. We’re married right? Till death do us part. Good Christian girls don’t do that kind of thing. And frankly the idea of striking out on my own terrified me.

However, this time fate intervened in the form of my friend Veronica Calarco.

I first met Veronica, a fellow Aussie, on Cwrs Haf, a month long summer language school in Aberystwyth. We kept in touch, sharing news and making witticisms in our muddled up learners Welsh. On a trip home to Australia, Veronica and her partner, Mary, came to visit us in Melbourne. When planning our holiday, I learned that they had recently bought a house in Corris, Wales, which Veronica was planning to set up as an artist and writers residence. On visiting North Wales, Andrew and I were given a guided tour of the newly established Stiwdio Maelor. Veronica said: ‘I’m hoping to get a live in volunteer to manage the property.’

Bing! A light came on in my head. I could do that, I thought. I could live in this house, in this tiny edge-of-Snowdonia village, in this country that I love, with its brave history and melodious language. I would have a roof over my head, friends nearby, and my writing to keep me occupied. I could pick up casual job in a pub or a cafe. Before we left Corris, I asked Veronica to send me the volunteer application form. Andrew and I discussed the idea, on and off, throughout our holiday. Slowly over the weeks it took on solid form. So solid, that when I got back to Melbourne, I applied for leave without pay from the library. It was granted. I told the family, booked my airline tickets, wrote a profile for the Stwdio Maelor visiting artists page. All that remained was for me to make the announcement. Which I am doing now:

Hear this, hear this…

On July 26th 2015, Elizabeth Jane Corbett is going to live in Wales for six months. She plans to speak Welsh, enjoy the glory of a northern hemisphere autumn and try to understand why this tiny island on the far side of the world has called her name for so long.

 

A Famous Five summer

As a child, I read English books. I went on adventures with the Famous Five, the Secret Seven and the Five Find Outers, regaling mum with tales of long hot summers, camping on lonely moors, bathing, exploring castles, and picnicking on boiled eggs, tongue, ginger beer and treacle tart. Mum would always sniff at the end of my tales and say:

'That's all very well, Elizabeth. But the summer is never like that in England. It rains all the time.'

At the time, it felt like having iced water poured over my back. I imagined that along with the freedom of a different era – an era in which teenagers camped, travelled and adventured alone – the weather was also a fictional creation of Enid Blyton's. In my fifty first year, I can finally say mum was wrong. They do have summers like that in England. And this is one of them. The newspapers are calling it a heat wave but that is a weak description. I am therefore calling it a Famous Five summer. As I've climbed over stiles, cycled down Cotswold lanes, and eaten cream teas, I have found myself transported back to a simpler time.

Sadly, as well as having no idea about the English weather, emigration also deprived me of some other basic knowledge namely that the word Cotswolds, means sheep enclosure in rolling hills. I got the first hint of this when having dinner with friends in Essex.

I had no definitive answer to this. I'd seen advertisements for Cotswold cycling holidays and it had sounded idyllic. We had booked a cottage in Blockley, a village nestled in a tranquil valley between Moreton in Marsh and Chipping Camden. Realisation came quickly. Along with a valley, there must, of course, be hills. To go anywhere, we had to cycle upwards. Added to which, the cycle hire company had delivered us bikes with bald tyres, worn gears and dis-functional brakes. We cycled into Chipping Camden determined to rectify this situation, only to find the proprietor was nowhere in sight. Now being impatient, and not a great fan of being ripped off, my husband started to sort through the bikes in his yard. I doubted this was the right thing to do. When the bike owner turned up, his pursed lips and heightened colour confirmed my suspicions. Andrew was not deterred. After a short exchange, the bike guy (a young man with a distinctly Polish accent) realised this cocky Aussie wasn't going to back down.

'Hang on.' He said, raising a finger. 'I'll have a look in the shed.'

'You should have waited,' I whispered in the man's absence. 'He won't help us now.'

I revised my opinion a moment later when the bike man wheeled two gleaming, almost new bikes across the yard.

Cycling was easier after that. Though I still had to stop for breath when riding home from the supermarket in Moreton in Marsh and the road took us through the aptly named village of Borton on the Hill.

Fortunately, my primary school geography made rapid sense of the shading on the map. Some routes were hillier than others. But we did some lovely rides – to Shipton on Stour and Stow in the Wold, Hidcote Gardens, getting lost, stopping to check the map, punctuating the day with coffees and cream teas. One day, we took our bikes on the train to Oxford. The Oxford tour guide was a portly fellow called Joseph with a passion for his subject. He presumed a great deal of knowledge and seemed primarily interested in showing us famous film sites, but he was entertaining, in his custard coloured corduroy trousers and cardigan. It was worth paying for a slice of his eccentricity.

There is something magical about an English summer. The days so long, the streets and gardens bursting with blooms, the hedgerows alive with bees, butterflies and summer berries. I enjoyed listening to the Blockely Church bell ringers on Thursday evening, going to the pub, buying pork pies and cooked beetroot in a bag, the ever present smell of pollen, damp earth and sheep, and of course the Enid Blyton weather. I wish I could have stayed longer in Blockely.

 

 

Go for it Scotland!

I have no right to comment on this. I hold a British passport but I don’t live in the UK. At least, I haven’t since childhood. Yet, though most of my growing up was done in the Southern Hemisphere, I was raised by parents who thought of Britain as home. Hence, I thought of the UK as home. Though, strangely, this was a fractured image. They spoke of a Britain their parents had defended during World War Two. Yet, my dad rolled his eyes whenever mum spoke of Wales, as if her pride was ridiculous, as if the notion of Wales was foolish.

I mean, why would anyone want to be Welsh when they could be English?


I caught my first glimpse of this prejudice in my family home. Though, at the time, I scarcely understood it’s meaning. I know now there was an historic precedence.


Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief, Taffy came to my house and stole a leg of beef.

Rhymes like this were only the tip of a vast condescension. The Blue Books and the Welsh Not were a colder more present reality. The two World Wars weakened Wales’ hunger for self determination. People were seduced by the myth of Britain. If you wanted to get on in the world, they were told, you had to leave this foolish notion of Welshness behind.

Fortunately, the mood in Britain is shifting. Since 1998, Wales has had its own National Assembly. Scotland also has its own parliament. In September, Scotland will vote on the matter of independence.

I have no ‘real’ right to hold an opinion on this. My life daily life will not be affected by the outcome. But I do know people in Wales are watching, and waiting, and, even if I don’t have a right to an opinion, even if I can’t vote, something deep inside me says: Go for it Scotland!

 

Red Shoes

I remember the first time I heard Hans Christian Anderson's story of The Red Shoes. I was a child, home sick from school, and, day time television being what it was in the days before videos, DVDs and iTunes, I had pulled out a pile of EP records. Among them I found a copy of The Red Shoes. We had other fairy tale records. I listened to them often. Not so The Red Shoes. To this day, I remember the sick jolt of horror in my stomach, the heroine's severed ankles, the shoes filled with blood, dancing and dancing.

I have since developed a passion for red shoes.

I got my first pair of red shoes at the age of six. We were living in Brahma Lodge, at the time, in a rented house, on a dusty dead-end road, down-wind of the abattoirs. We hadn't been in Adelaide long and we were still struggling with dust, flies, corrugated iron fences, nose-bleed hot summers, and magpies that swooped unawares. My new red shoes were a splash of colour in the otherwise relentless trying-to-adjust trudge of our family life.

I wasn't allowed to wear my new shoes to school. I had to wear short socks and brown English school sandals. No one else wore socks with their sandals in those days. No one. Infact, no one wore Clarks sandals. Or carried a brown leather satchel. Even in a suburb full of British migrants, I was the odd one out.

I'm not sure if this caused me to run away. I expect most children run away once or twice in their lives. In my case, I announced my intention to leave home, forever, ran around the corner, crouched behind a bottle brush tree, and waited for mum's frantic search to begin. It didn't. I skulked home an hour later to find mum seemingly unaffected by the loss of her eldest daughter. At bedtime that night I confessed my disappointment.

'I knew you wouldn't leave,' mum said, 'not without your red shoes.'

Apart from that one pair of red shoes (looking back they must have been on sale) my childhood footwear can only be described as sensible. Over time, my English school sandals were replaced by the Roman sandals, the Adelaide school sandal of choice, though mum bewailed their lack of support for my developing arches. Party shoes were purchased in a sensible match-all black. I acquired cheap plimsoles for playing in on the weekend (goodbye Wellies). And eventually a pair of Levi sneakers. At this stage, I think you could safely say I had successfully morphed into your average Aussie teenager.

I didn't wear red shoes again until I was an adult. Actually, I was barely an adult. At the age of twenty two, and pregnant with my second child, mum took me shopping for a birthday gift. I came across a pair of embossed red, leather, slip on pumps. I wanted them, with a longing akin to Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale. But they wouldn't go with anything and…with a mortgage and another baby on the way…I needed to be sensible.

'If you want them,' mum said, get them. They are your birthday present' (by this you may deduce emigration had brought a degree of prosperity).

Mum gave me the red shoes on my birthday. They were supposed to be worn for best. When did the idea of best shoes go out of fashion? We no longer think in those terms in our throw away society. For me, the turning point was those red shoes. I wore them every day. On every occasion. Even when they didn't match my outfit. When they wore out, I bought another pair, and another. Since then, my life has been marked by a need for red shoes.

When we came to Melbourne I noticed everyone wore knee length boots. But…they were expensive and with three, followed by four, growing mouths to feed, I couldn't justify the cost. It would be fifteen years before I lashed out on a pair of knee high red leather boots. I currently have two pairs of red boots (one short and one and one long), a red pair of Doc Marten shoes with buckles (I never did abandon the Clarks sandal look) and a pair of Joseph Sieber red sandals (bought on sale). My long red boots have been re-souled twice. I am constantly on the lookout for a replacements – shoes, sandals and boots. Maybe that's what Hans Christian Anderson was on about? This endless, slavish, dependence? If so, I'm guilty. I can no longer live without red shoes.

 

 

Some thoughts on language, loss and identity

Have you ever seen this map?


At a conservative estimate, more than two hundred and fifty different languages were spoken by Indigenous Australians prior to the arrival of Europeans. Most of these are now extinct with only about fifteen languages still being spoken by all age groups.

That’s a sobering picture. Why? Because language is about identity. Consider this quote from Wominjeka at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre.


Language is the essence of who you are. It tells you where you come from, your connection to Country and where your Country is … Without speaking that language, you’re missing a huge chunk of your identity.

As a Welsh language learner, this is a reality I often reflect upon. But this week, at the request of an Australian woman doing an M.A. in Celtic Studies through the University of Wales, Trinity St David, I have been trying to articulate how learning Welsh shapes my identity. In an email to the researcher, I wrote:

One of my life ambitions has always been to write a novel. On turning forty, I decided it was time to give this ambition a go. It would be a historical novel as I love history. It had to be Australian (because I had no research budget) and it would be about migrants because emigration was the single most defining event of my childhood. Somewhere along the line I also decided to have Welsh characters.

Initially, I knew very little about Welsh culture but, as I began to research, I stumbled across the Melbourne Welsh classes. I went along to the first class expecting only to attend for a short while – long enough get a broad sense of the language for my novel. Ten years later I am still learning Welsh because somewhere along the way I fell in love with the language. I love its words. Their spelling. The poetry. Speaking Welsh does something warm inside me.

The researcher wanted to know more about this warmth – what exactly falling in love with a language looked like. I wrote back to her:

At the beginning of the year, our Welsh class sits in a circle. We introduce ourselves and tell the class why we are wanting to learn Welsh. Some speak of heritage. Others describe a sense of belonging they felt on first crossing the border into Wales. Others describe a longing – a desire to speak their own language. Welsh has a word for this yearning: Hiraeth. Hir, first part, means long. The second part aeth is the word for pain or grief.

Hiraeth is therefore a long ache.

How does this relate to the map of Australia’s indigenous languages? Good question. I’m coming to that.

You see a friend of mine, Veronica Calarco, is an Australian artist who lives and works in Wales and Australia. I first met Veronica at Cwrs Haf – an intensive Welsh language summer school in Aberystwyth. We have corresponded, on and off, ever since. In a recent email, Veronica sent me a Vimeo link to one of her recent works – KurnaiCymraeg. In her brief explanatory note, she says this about the project:
I decided to make a Kurnai Welsh dictionary to signify the loss of meaning, history, memory, knowledge and growth that occurs when a language becomes extinct or is rarely used.
Much of the spoken Welsh at the beginning of the Vimeo clip is written in English on the bilingual introductory page. After that that, unless you read Welsh, you will be dependant entirely on Veronica’s images. Why not have a look? Never mind the privacy message, just clink on the link. Enjoy the beauty of spoken Welsh. Kurnai spoken with a North Walian accent. Experience the sensation of incomplete meaning. And in that moment, mourn: for when a language is lost, a people is lost and all knowledge contained within that language is lost, and the world is a little less interesting.


 

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