Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: immigration

A sense of completion

Last December, Mum was given a few weeks to live. My brother flew home from Africa, his family cancelled their plans to join him, we had end of life meetings with doctors and nursing staff, and re-arranged Christmas Day so that we could all be at the nursing home for lunch. Christmas passed and we braced ourselves for mum’s final days.

They didn’t come.

Around March mum’s Doctor said: ‘You’re looking awfully well for someone who was only given a few weeks to live.’

He ran some blood tests. Mum had rallied. Her kidney function had risen from sub-ten to over twenty five. She wasn’t impressed but she enjoyed holding her second great grandchild in July after which, I suggested she might like to stick around for my book launch. No, she was adamant. ‘I am ready to go Elizabeth.’

A couple of weeks ago, we had another scare. Mum’s kidney function plunged. Sitting beside her on the bed, I said: ‘Oh mum, I did so want to put my book in your hands.’

‘Never mind,’ she said. ‘I know you’ve done it.’

I haven’t always been a good daughter. I’ve railed against mum’s decline. But she’s my Welsh link; the reason I wrote the novel I’ve written. The reason I fell in love with a language. See, we were a migrant family. My parents left the UK to give their children greater opportunities. They had to start again from scratch. Both worked full time (back in the days when that was not so common). Dad faced perpetual homesickness. Mum held the whole thing together. When I got pregnant during the final year of my arts degree it put their whole reason for emigrating in jeopardy. Dad died before he got a chance to see it turn out alright. Mum will be too frail to attend my book launch. But yesterday, I was able to put The Tides Between in her hands.

***

It didn’t feel right to put buying links at the end of this post but people are asking. So, you can find them here.

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:

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)


 

 

Welsh Australians: an unashamedly biased account of Some notable Port Phillips’ pioneer

My grandfather’s name was Hopkin James. On the basis of this extensive evidence I have always assumed Hopkins was a Welsh name. As it turns out, I wasn’t far wrong. Ancestry tells me that although the surname Hopkins is used throughout South England, it is most commonly found in South Wales. Perfect! Because today I want to tell you about Henry Hopkins, one of Port Phillip’s notable early settlers, and, although he was born in Deptford and listed as having English and Flemish ancestry, I am claiming him as one of ours.

That’s right, Welsh.

Hopkins was a merchant and philanthropist who, after emigrating, acquired extensive properties in Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) and Port Phillip (Victoria) (Pardon the brackets – I’m catering for an extensive world wide readership). Hopkins was also a devout Congregationalist. My Deptford born, Lowland leaning, still undeniably Welsh, Henry Hopkins was responsible for bringing the first Congregationalist clergyman to Victoria, and for subsidising his salary. But his generosity did not stop there. It also extended to the Wesleyan, Presbytarian, and Anglican denominations. In an age without social welfare, this amounted to helping widows, orphans and the destitute.

Now for those of you who can’t tell a Congregationalist from a Wesleyan, the Congregationalists were a denomination that arose out of the religious battles of the sixteenth century. Their adherents believed in a democratic church structure and the autonomy of each individual congregation. They didn’t dance. Or use musical instruments in worship. Neither did they chant or sing anthems. They confined themselves to rousing, unaccompanied, renditions of Isaac Watt’s hymns.

Port Phillip’s first Congragationalist minister was Reverend William Wakefield, formerly of Wrexham, Wales. Now if you are thinking his address makes him Welsh, think again. The Australian Dictionary of Biography gives him English ancestry and, as Reverend Wakefiled seems to have been a bit of a pedant, we’re gonna let England keep him.

According to the 1836 Churches Act, all major Christian denominations in colonial Australia could apply for a land grant, assistance with their building funds and a subsidy towards their clergyman’s salary. Reverend Wakefield was suspicious of this arrangement. Perhaps, enough to make his hair stand on end? According to the Port Phillip Pioneers group, he was unwilling to greet visit passengers on newly arrived immigrant vessels or, indeed, anyone not from his congregation. He also resented Henry Hopkins financial assistance. Though it seems his congregation had no such scruples. When they sought government funding to build a school house, Wakefield resigned and took up residence in Van Dieman’s Land. Where he is, no doubt, someone’s beloved great, great grandfather and I will face legal action for slandering their heritage.

It seems the Congregationalists weren’t only Puritans in Port Phillip. Wesleyan Methodists also eschewed musical instruments in worship. However this was not the position of John Jones Peers, an energetic, red-headed Welshman who gave generous assistance to both the Congregationalists and Methodists causes. Peers built Melbourne’s first Wesleyan chapel. Under which roof he took great delight in leading a choir. He also assumed the cost of importing a pipe organ from Liverpool. On January 9th, 1843, this instrument was used for Melbourne’s first formal organ recital. The program included selections from Handel, Haydn and Mozart, which is no more than you would expect from one hailing from the Land of Song.

 

 

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