Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: learn welsh (Page 1 of 4)

The wrap up – affirmation, extreme generosity and the Welsh language

Over the last two months, I have stayed in London, Bowness-on-Windermere, Caernarfon, Corris, Llangollen, Y Bont Faen, Llandysul and Y Borth. I have worked in the British Library, the National Archives and Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru. I’ve received so much help and affirmation. I have also crossed the line which all Welsh learners yearn to cross – having friends with whom I relate solely in the Welsh language. But how to sum it all up?

Let’s start with the generosity.

I caught an inkling, Mared, wife of Owain Glyn Dwr, would be the subject of my next novel while living in Wales. My friend Aran lamented that there had not been a major film about Owain Glyn Dwr.  I read some books, realized he’d had a wife, and thought, what would it have been like to be that woman? The idea for a novel was born. I set about reading everything I could get my hands on. I also wrote to academics. One of them, Dr Gideon Brough, was particularly encouraging.

At the time, his affirmation was massively important. See, back then, I wasn’t sure I had a right to tell Mared’s story. This uncertainty has been borne out during a number of my recent meetings. From people tentatively asking: so, Liz, what made you want to write about Mared? Er…you do realize this is a contentious topic? Or simply the startled faces of people who have recently moved to Wales: Oh, God, what barrow is she trying to push here? 

I get this tension. When a country has been conquered, annexed and incorporated, when it’s language is fighting for its life, when academics drop in for flying visits and act like they know everything, when Owain’s name has been hijacked by various political causes, or when you’ve simply moved to Wales and want to feel welcome, the idea of an Aussie interloper coming in and stirring the pot is alarming. Yet, Gideon, never once questioned my right to tell the story. He simply said: go for it! This project is long overdue. He also spent a whole day of his kids’ half term holiday (like all day) answering my lame questions.

The day I spent with archaeologist Spencer Gavin Smith and his wife Megan (also an archaeologist) was similarly incredible. I wrote asking a for information and ended up being given a full guided tour of the Glyn Dwr sites (during which I asked an alternate string of lame questions). Because of Spencer, I spent my last day in the library trawling through the Transactions of the Denbighshire Historical Society, unearthing all manner of articles by Derek Pratt. I braved English roads and drove to Lower Brockhampton so that I could see the type of home in which Mared would have lived. I also faced octopus-on-steroids roundabouts in South Wales and learned that SatNav’s work best when you are paying attention – not when you are re-writing story scenes in your head. But that is another story…

In Llandysul, I spent a day and a half with Dr John Davies, a man with an impressive beard, an even more incredible library, and a keen interest in Owain Glyn Dwr’s mother’s family. John drove me around the borders of Owain’s southern estates, answered multiple questions, gave me CDs and memory sticks bursting with information. He also gave me the precious gift of assuming my Welsh was up to the task of discussing history – which it was. An incredible milestone.

Add to the above, the countless people who made time to catch up with me – too many to list but you know who you are – my friend Lorraine who listened to me ‘think aloud’ for a week in Llangollen and, of course, the incredible Veronica Calarco who, through setting up Stiwdio Maelor, has made it possible for me to spend extended periods in Wales. I stayed overnight with my friend Carolyn in Y Borth more times than was polite, took my brand new friend Anne up on her offer of accommodation in South Wales, had the fascinated company of Dee and Iestyn on the John Davies’ magical history tour, got shown around the Senedd Dy by Neil McEvoy and met up with an amazing group of SSiWer’s in the Mochyn Du.

On top of all this, my friend Aled in Australia suggested I catch up with Carys Davies (wife of the late Sir Rhys Davies, author of the incredible The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr) and Gruffudd Aled Williams (author of Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyn Dwr). I felt nervous about phoning the above. I hate cold calling people – especially in Welsh. Added to which, this was Cymru Cymraeg and all the old doubts about my right to tell this story came flooding back. But I took a deep breath, dialed their numbers (rather than confess a lack of courage to Aled), and, as a consequence, enjoyed two lovely dinners in Caffi Pen Dinas. With Carys, I chatted about my mother’s family, how I’d learned Welsh, and my recent Say Something in Welsh Bootcamp. Before long, we were chuckling over the pictures of me clambering onto that pillar on top of Twt Hill (thanks Aran). After lunch, we attended a lecture in the Drwm where I was introduced to people as, Liz, who is writing a novel from the point-of-view of Owain Glyn Dwr’s wife. I thought: okay, maybe, this is going to be alright.

While having lunch with Gruffudd Aled Williams a few weeks later, we discussed history and winced over some of Glyn Dwr’s more anachronistic portrayals – like taking tea with his family in the fourteenth century and Iolo Goch drinking blood from a skull. At some point, I don’t know when, I decided it was safe to share the outline of my story. It is a fragile thing, a story concept, without the build up you put into developing it on the page, and not easily shared but, for some reason, it all came tumbling out. In Welsh. But strangely I didn’t need  language to understand Gruffudd’s response. I saw it in his eyes, the way he smiled, leaning back in his chair. O, hyfryd…

Lost in another world – some serious Welshing

You’d be excused for thinking I’ve dropped off the planet. I have in fact, been in another world. A mile-long-resource-list, race-against-the-clock world, in which I’ve pitted my wits against legal and institutional constraints in order to access information.

Mostly, I have been working in Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, a gorgeous Art Deco building, nestled half way up Aberystwyth’s Penglais Hill, which is home to the largest collection of maps, manuscripts, books and journals pertaining to Wales. After a rocky start, in which I inadvertently broke the library’s ‘no digital photos’ rule, I booked myself into a library tour. In English (yes, that serious), followed by a one-on-one introductory session with a librarian. Through these session, I worked out that I could in fact use the library photocopier to scan to my email address for five pence a page. Which is outrageous, seeing as I have a perfectly good scanner on my iPad. But preferable to paying the £20 per day photography fee. The only constraint being that each page comes through as a separate email. So, when not at the library, I’ve spent hours downloading and moving individual PDF pages into folders. But, LlGC weren’t about to change their policy for a jumped up Aussie with aspirations of writing a novel from the point-of-view of Owain Glyn Dwr’s wife. So, I figured I’d better just toe the line.

As it turns out, LlGC is an amazing place to work. The building is stunning and they have whole bays full of the books I have been online-drooling over for months. I’m not sure what the staff make of me. You see I keep turning up and ordering lots of items and I persist in speaking Welsh, even when English would be easier. However, on seeing my book list and my extensive use of the catalogue’s ‘saved items’ function, the librarian conducting the introductory session figured I wasn’t going away. At least, not for the foreseeable future, and, quite frankly, I’ve been having a ball. Even, if the poor staff are working overtime.

Now, in case you don’t know the lay of the land, Stiwdio Maelor (an amazing creative artist’s residency studio in North Wales), is over an hour away on the most direct bus route to the LlGC. Fortunately, my good friend Carolyn now lives in Borth (only twenty minutes on the train). I have therefore been doing lots of sleep overs. Ours is a Welsh language friendship, so in addition to harassing the library staff, I’ve spent my evenings nattering to Caroline, whose Welsh is way better than mine (bonus for me). When, our friend Gareth joined us for the weekend, it was like Bootcamp all over again, with miming, misunderstanding and lame jokes in the Welsh language. We stayed up late one night comparing childhood TV experiences (as you do). When asked about Aussie TV shows, the only program I could come up with was Skippy. Which for some reason, we all found hilarious in the early hours of the morning.

As Carolyn works for Y Lolfa, I scored an invite to their fiftieth birthday party. For those who don’t know, Y Lolfa is a small press specializing in Welsh and English language books with a Welsh focus. I hadn’t realized Y Lolfa was founded in 1960s during the heady days in which Merched y Wawr was established and in which, Gwynfor Evans won Plaid Cymru’s first seat in parliament. It seemed fitting that the event featured a video with fake greetings from the queen. The following quote from Y Lolfa’s editor pretty much sums up the tone of the evening:

In a world dominated by large corporations and bureaucracies Y Lolfa believes that ‘small is beautiful’ in publishing as in life. It was André Gide who said: “I like small nations. I like small numbers. The world will be saved by the few.”

In the midst of all this Welshing (my friend Veronica has assigned a verb to my activities), I also got interviewed by S4C. It was my friend Helen’s fault. She’d been asked to do an interview for the Welsh learner’s TV program Dal ati. Being a self confessed hater of public speaking, she suggested I might like to join her. I wasn’t sure the producers of Dal ati would be all that keen on an Aussie interloper. My suspicions were confirmed when the producers sent a list of questions to Helen and not to me. But due to the above mentioned self-confessed hatred, I decided a show of moral support was required. As it turned out the strategy back-fired on both of us because, once they realized that we were friends, who had met online through the SSiW language forum, their journalistic eyes lit up. Helen’s carefully considered responses were thrown out the window and, all of a sudden, the cameras started rolling. The result, Helen’s excellent Welsh turned to ice and my mouth went into overdrive (my own peculiar nervous reaction) and I proceeded to make a number of ridiculous statements which, if they don’t edit rigorously, will see me portrayed me as light-headed Aussie bimbo on national TV.

Helen and I spent so long licking our wounds after the interview that I missed the train to Borth. Which meant that I had to change for the Parti Penblwydd Y Lolfa in the tiny toilet cubicle of the Wynnstay Hotel. This meant ordering an obligatory drink in the Pizzeria which, incidentally, sold only crisps. As I was wearing a borrowed dress (thanks Carolyn), I wasn’t sure how it should look and, quite frankly, the Wynnstay’s mirrors weren’t nearly long enough. I ended up crowning the afternoon’s loopy utterances by asking a couple in the Crisperia whether they thought I had my dress on backwards. They, to their credit, took the question in their stride. The man even said I looked very nice. Needless to say, I left the hotel pretty swiftly after that and made absolutely certain I didn’t open my mouth at all on the bus back into town.

We had dinner at a Greek restaurant prior to the Parti Penblwydd and found out too late that they only took payment in cash. While Gareth made a dash to the teller machine, the waitress made polite conversation with me.

‘There are lots of Welsh speakers out tonight (like they are normally locked up). Is something going on?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘it is Y Lolfa’s 50th birthday party.’

Upon which, her eyes grew wide. ‘And you’ve come all the way from Australia?’

It was tempting, oh so tempting to reply in the affirmative. But I didn’t want ‘dreadful liar’ added to my already going-down-hill reputation. Turns out this was wise because, during the party, the three of us were discussing something that involved pushing buttons. The verb to push was unfamiliar to Gareth.

‘Gwthio? He asked.

I said, yes, gwthio, and mimed the action of pushing a button. For some reason, Gareth had confused the verb to push with the verb to pull. So Carolyn said tynnu and mimed the action of pulling a lever. Through a series of repeat actions (which may have included a few other verbs) we established the contrasting meanings, at the end of which we looked up into the eyes of a startled onlooker, ‘Er…do you always communicate like this?’

‘Well, yes, of course, doesn’t everyone?’

A week in the Welsh language and finding missing parts of me

I have survived my second official SSiW Bootcamp. This one, in Caernarfon – the heart of Cymru Cymraeg – where you can still hear Welsh spoken in shops, pubs and on every street corner. A place where you can be confident no one supports Terisa Mai, where there is a massive memorial to Llywelyn ein Llyw Olaf outside the council buildings and where the town guide proudly announces he has been a paid up member of Plaid Cymru since he was sixteen years of age. A perfect place in which to spend a week without English. Which is essentially what a Welsh language Bootcamp involves.

This was my second SSiW Bootcamp and I therefore knew it was possible to survive in the Welsh language. Added to which, I’ve been on informal Welsh language holidays with friends. But for most of the Bootcampers, last week was a first-time experience and therefore a momentous challenge and, let me tell you, when Aran left the first evening, the fear in the living room was palpable.

The concept of Bootcamp is simple – a holiday with nine other learners in a totally Welsh language environment. However, it is a grave, desperate, sink or swim situation because, opposed to an intensive language course, in which you tackle grammar, reading, writing and translation, the emphasis is conversation – and there is a strictly no English rule. If you are talking about pets for example and you do not know the word for cat, you cannot look it up in the dictionary. Nor can you say: Beth yw’r gair am cat (what is the word for cat)? You must talk around the missing word by saying something like: Beth yw’ gair am y peth sy’n dweud meow (what is the name of the thing that says miaow). Or if you are really desperate, you might simply say: miaow.

If you think that sounds wacky, well … it is.

But it works. By not swapping back and forth between English and Welsh you somehow flip your brain into an intense neurological restructure. Truly. I saw people start the week blinking like rabbits in headlights while desperately masticating sentences. I saw spirits rise at small triumphs, then come crashing down at the next hurdle. But by the end of the week, no one had starved, become permanently lost in Caernarfon, or come close to perishing, and, although no one felt like their Welsh had improved, we were all speaking far more fluidly.

I have read that in each language a person has a slightly different personality. I believe my long-suffering high school Japanese teacher may have tried to convey this possibility of an extended self to me years ago. As a monolingual person, I did not believe him, did not know there was Welsh language version of me. But I know now (and have done for some time) that the Welsh speaking Elizabeth Jane Corbett is a different person to the English speaking one. I miss her when she is silenced. I can only begin to imagine the hiraeth experienced by Welsh speakers in an increasingly Anglicised Wales – as if torn from a vital part of themselves.

I once participated in an online forum where people called Welsh speakers language ‘fanatics’ and lamented the fact that so much money was spent on bilingual signage. The presumption was of course that the signs should all be in English. That is infact the presumption of all who decry the expense of creating a bilingual Wales. Deep down they are simply saying: give up and speak English. Yet I come to Wales for the language. I’ve been six times in the last twelve years (my husband earns lots of frequent flyers points). I have stayed many months, bought food, hired cars, attended courses, paid for accommodation and I can tell you, as breathtaking as I find the scenery, that is not what draws me back. What draws me back is the Elizabeth Jane I didn’t know existed – the wacky, laugh a lot, stay in odd places, marvel over new words, meet up with strangers, somehow-more-complete Elizabeth Jane Corbett who I suspect has been lost for a very long time.

I got yelled at for speaking Welsh on Bootcamp. You know that still happens, don’t you? Along with the accusations that Welsh speakers are only trying to speak Welsh to disclude English speakers. Or talk about them. As if people are so damned interesting! But it came as a shock in Caernarfon where the percentage of first language Welsh speakers is so high. I wrote a story about the experience. In Welsh. I’m not going to translate the story. If you don’t speak Welsh, you’ll have to use Google. It is written by an Elizabeth Jane Corbett you may never know. 🙂

***

Pa Mor Bell 

Pan glywes i byddai Bootcamp SSiW yn fwrdeistref Caernarfon o’n i’n awyddus i fynd. O’n i ‘di bod yn darllen am hanes bwrdeistrefi brenhinol Cymru.

Llefydd di-Gymraeg oedden nhw, wedi eu sefydlu gan Edward I o gwmpas ei gestyll enfawr er mwyn cadw’r Cymry i lawr. O’n i’n hoffi’r syniad o aros yn hen fwrdeistref Edward I er mwyn gwella fy Nhgymraeg i.

Ond roedd mwy o symboliaeth yn yr wythnos nag o’n i’n disgwyl.

Ylwch, dw i ‘di bod yn darllen tipyn am Owain Glyn Dwr yn ddiweddar. Efallai wnes i son am y pwnc yn ystod wythnos Bootcamp – dim lot, dim ond unwaith neu ddegwaith. 🙂 Caernarfon, dych chi’n gweld, oedd lle cododd Owain Glyndwr y ddraig aur – baner Uther Pendragon – am y tro cyntaf. O’n i’n awyddus i godi baner Glyn Dwr ar ben Twthill, a daeth y dysgwyr eraill gyda fi. Bore braf a heulog oedd hi. Roedd pawb yn chwerthin a jocian yn y Gymraeg tra fod nhw’n cerdded lan y bryn. Pan codais i faner Glyn Dwr tu fas i hen furiau castell Edward I o’n i’n meddwl pa mor bell mae Cymru wedi dod.

Wrth gerdded yn ôl i’r dref, o’n i’n darllen bob arwydd, yn trio deall pob gair, yn trio dysgu y mwyaf sy’n bosib mewn un wythnos. Yn meddwi ar y cyfle i fyw yn yr iaith Gymraeg. Roedd un arwydd yn dweud: cerbydau BT yn unig. Beth ydw BT yn ei feddwl, holais fy hun. A dyma fi’n sylweddoli wedyn. British Telecommunications. Troais i o gwmpas i rannu’r joc gyda Bootcampwr arall pan ddaeth dyn diarth tuag aton ni.

‘Are you lost?’ meddai fe.

‘Nac ydw,’ medda i. ‘Dyn ni’n iawn, diolch.’

‘I don’t speak Welsh,’ meddai fe yn ôl. Ond gwelais i yn ei lygaid fod e’n deall bob gair wnes i ddweud.

Wnes i ail-ddweud fy ateb cyntaf: ‘Dyn ni’n iawn diolch.’

Tawelwch. Gwelais i wyneb y dyn yn cochi, ei gen yn tynhau. Welais i’r dicter yn ei lygaid llwyd. Ac wedyn y ffrwydrad. ‘I don’t speak Welsh!’ gwaeddodd ata i. ‘What part of that do you not understand?’

Nawr, person eitha styfnig ydw i. Ces i fy magu yn Awstralia, wedi’r cyfan. Do’n i ddim yn mynd i newid iaith achos bod bwli yn grac gyda fi. Ond yr eilaid yna oedd rhyw deimlad, fel y haul y bore, wedi diflannu. Sefyll yno gyda’r dyn crac yn gweiddi aran i, o’n i’n meddwl pa mor bell eto sydd rhaid i Gymru fynd.

***

Thanks to Aran Jones for help with the editing.

Family Fun – a week in the Lake District

I  have always wanted to visit Lake District, ever since I read Swallows and Amazons in primary school. So when my son, Jack, suggested we meet there for a family holiday it fulfilled twin purposes, spending some time with family and ticking an item off my bucket list. I saw the original ‘Swallow’ went on a walk to Beatrix Potter’s Hilltop Farm, learned a little about Ruskin’s work and did two jigsaw puzzles. In between, I remembered how busy is life with pre-schoolers.

Charlie is an early riser who loves trains, as much his father did at the same age. We went on a steam train, during which he tried to convince me that he always drank Coca Cola, woke at four am one morning, ate his breakfast and then decided to contribute to our jigsaw puzzle at which point he woke the whole household to share in his success. I watched him ride his bike, play on the iPad, negotiate over whether or not to wear his coat and gloves and bike helmet, listened to him form amazing sentences and marveled at how much attitude an almost four year old could put into the word ‘fine.’

Born last December, this was my first meeting with Christopher. As we organized our week around his feeds, nappy changes and sleeps, I remembered how lovely it is to kiss a downy head, to earn a baby smile, and to have an infant’s warm body grow slack and heavy in my arms. Ness and I walked to Hilltop Farm and took turns in the swimming pool/gym at the local spa while Jack climbed Scarfell Pike. When I managed to get Christopher dried, dressed and safely in the land of nod all the while keeping an eye on Charlie bobbing about in the water, I felt like I’d climbed England’s highest mountain. How did I ever get through those early years?


Now I’m on the train to Wales. I’ll spend the first week on a Welsh language Bootcamp in Caernarfon. I’m feeling unaccountably nervous, considering I’ve done this before. I think it is because I’m ‘supposed’ to be able to speak Welsh well. At least, I could a little over a year ago after living in Corris for seven months. But my Welsh language brain feels rusty. Hopefully, this week will be a kick-start me back into almost fluency. There will be loads of bumbling half sentences, shrieks of laughter, moments of complete incomprehension (like all those Cofi accents) and huge leaps in understanding. I won’t be on social media much as it will defeat the purpose of a non-English week and rob me of my progress. I may do a few posts in my learner’s Welsh so if you can’t read them, get-over-it (or use Google translate). I will look forward to re-entering the English speaking world on 30th of April.

 

Hwyl tan hynny!

Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndŵr – the last days of Owain Gyndŵr

No one knows how Owain Glyndŵr spent his final days. He simply vanished. Some claim he died, his mortal remains interred in secret to prevent desecration by his enemies. But as always, when considering the ‘legendary’ life of Glyndŵr, there is much debate. My fictional character, his wife, will not, in fact, know how her husband’s fate. She would have been imprisoned in the Tower long before Glynŵr left the stage. But fiction is not real life. Meaning can be drawn by the writer without the conscious knowledge of the character. I therefore needed to know what people were saying about Glyndŵr’s exit from the world.

I wanted a scholarly book (trust me there are some wild theories out there), written by a writer who understood the poetic traditions surrounding the Glyndŵr and was keen to explore them in non-fanciful ways. Gruffudd Aled Williams appeared to be my man. He grew up in Glyn Dyfrydwy, Glyndŵr’s old stomping ground, and is a renowned scholar of Welsh medieval poetry. His book, Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndŵr was shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year in 2016. I placed an order and looked forward to the book wending its way across the world to my letter box.

‘Mam and Dad have read that book.’ One of my fellow Welsh tutors informed me one Tuesday evening. ‘They are in the same historical society as Gruffydd  Aled Williams.’ (like, is there anyone in Welsh speaking Wales that doesn’t know everybody?)

‘Was the book any good?’ I asked him.

‘Yes. But it wasn’t an easy read.’

Now, I can read Welsh. Of course, I can. I read I Botany Bay, didn’t I? And Fy mhobl i? And Blasu (sort of). But here’s the thing. My leaner’s Welsh is not as fluid as it was while living in Wales (sob). Added to which, when two first-language Welsh speakers who are living in Bala (the heart of Cymru Cymraeg) say the book was not an easy read, then you are facing a seriously difficult situation.

Fortunately, I live in a part of Melbourne that is densely populated with Welsh speakers. There are four of us living within two kilometres of each other. That’s right, practically a ghetto. One of them, my friend Ceri, is a Welsh woman from Harlech who studied Welsh at Aberystwyth University when Gruffudd Aled Williams was head of the Welsh Language Department (ditto, the comment about anyone and everyone). I asked Ceri whether she’d help me read the book. She took it home, perused the beginning and handed it back.

‘Have a go at reading the first chapters,’ she said, ‘then we can meet.’ (Did I also mention she trained as a teacher).

I read the first four chapters quite easily. They simply summarised aspects of the revolt I am now familiar with. But Aled’s parents were right. This was academic writing, with literary forms of verbs, multiple clauses and subtly wrought arguments. When Ceri texted, suggesting we meet in a cafe and tackle a couple of chapters together, I jumped at the offer.

We met at Padre and read aloud in tandem, not bothering to translate word for word, so much as paraphrase to confirm meaning. For example, on reading the following sentence:

O’r manna a gysylltir ȃ ddyddiau olaf Owain Glyndŵr, ei farwolaeth a’i glad – chai ohonynt a chanddynt well hawl i gael eu hystyried o ddifri na’i gilled – mae’n drawiadol cynifer ohonynta leolir yn Swydd Henfordd; one of us would say something like:

‘So, there are a few places in Herefordshire worth considering.’

‘Yr oedd rhai o’r mannau hyn o few terfynau’r sir felly bodolai yn ystod cyfnod   y gwrthryfel; daeth eraill, a leolid mewn arglwyddiaethau ar gyrion y sir, yn rhannau o Swydd Henfordd yn sgilDeddf Uno 1535-6.’

‘Because the borders were different before the Acts of Union.’

Every now and again, Ceri would insert unknown words to save me looking them up in the dictionary. Sometimes she would say, I know the meaning but I can’t think of the word in English. Still other times, we would be completely stumped and would have to consult multiple sources. I mean, we meet regular to speak Welsh in the ghetto but we don’t often discuss antiquarians (hynafiaethydd), chancels (canghellau), burial chambers (beddgellau), outlawry (herwriaeth), illegitimacy (anghyfreithlondeb) or, indeed, concubines (gordderchadon). When the cafe finally kicked us out at closing time, I felt like I’d been put through a heavily soiled washing machine cycle. I suspect Ceri felt the same. It was a sincere measure of her friendship that she offered to meet again the next week – and in the weeks following.

By week three, all sites, in Herefordshire had been thoroughly discussed. We were racing against the clock, meeting twice weekly in order to finish the book before Ceri returned to her university studies. To my profound relief, the discussion had crossed the border back into Wales. Look, I know the boundaries were different back then, that large parts of Herefordshire were in fact Welsh speaking. But hasn’t England taken enough, without adding Wales’ national hero to the body count? (yes, I take a cool-headed non-partisan approach to my research) 🙂

On the final coffee afternoon, we got kicked out of the cafe with only a few pages left to read. We sat on a sun-bright bench on Lygon Street reading about Glyndŵr’s final days with the metallic sgleen of tram-wheels in the background. It is a measure of the writer’s success that, by that point, we were reading fast and furious, desperate to reach his final conclusions. Which, although sombre, were, in the end, quite satisfying.

What’s that, I hear you say? Where was Glyndŵr finally buried?Buried! What kind of soft question is that? Glyndŵr didn’t die. He vanished. The poets all agree. He rests beneath the mountains surrounded by gold and jewels the likes of which man has never seen. When a bell tolls he will rise with a mighty army and drive our enemies beyond the sea. That’s how all good Welsh stories end. What were you thinking?

Owain Glyn Dwr’s offspring – and Iolo Morgannwg’s meddling

Researching a novel is like tackling a giant jigsaw puzzle. You start with an image in your mind. In this instance, a woman alone in a prison looking back over her life. But before you can form that image you need to tip the pieces out on the table and begin sorting them – into corners, edges and colours. Or in this instance, historical details, character motivations and story threads. To this end, I have been reading reading books on kings, medieval daily life, women’s roles, soldiers, armour and most recently a book on growing up in the middle ages.

Growing up? I hear you ask. Do you intend to give a blow-by-blow account of your protagonist’s life?

No, but experience tells me you need to know a great deal more about a character than ever appears on the page. Even if I do not fictionalise Marged’s childhood, I need to know what it looked like. Added to which, she raised offspring of her own. According to the nineteenth century antiquarian and genealogist, Jacob Youde William Lloyd, Marged bore Owain Glyn Dwr eleven children. A shattering number for anyone considering writing a novel. I mean, the woman would have spent the whole time, pregnant or giving birth. Which may have been the case for many medieval women. But in story terms, there are only so many times you can show the pacing husband, difficult delivery and lusty newborn infant before people start to yawn. I shared this problem with my Welsh class in the bar of the Celtic Club (yes, there is a price to having me as a tutor).

‘I’m going to have to kill a few children,’ I said’. Eleven is an impossible number.’

‘You can’t do that!’ A circle of shocked faces. ‘You have to be accurate.’

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They were right, of course. That is one of the challenges of writing historical fiction, the balance of crafting a good story against the historical record. Every novelist sets their own parameters. For me (and it seems my Welsh class), it must involve a degree of accuracy.

But eleven children! When were they born? What were their personalities? How did they all live before the revolt? What about afterwards, when their lands were declared forfeit? How did poor Marged stop them from sickening and squabbling while hiding out in the mountains of Snowdonia? (yes, insert the remembered pain of taking four children on family holidays here). In fact, this book was beginning to take on the feel of a vicarious form of post traumatic stress syndrome. But, apart from becoming a mass murderer, I could not see any way out of the situation.

I mentioned this problem (in an electronic form of a hand-wringing) to Gideon Brough, a historian, whose book The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dwr is due for release in December, thinking he may know of of a cave, or safe-house (big enough to house eleven children) or, failing that, evidence of an illness that wiped out half the family. His was answer was in fact, infinitely more satisfying:

Contemporary sources only appear to confirm four children born to Owain and Margaret; Gruffydd, Maredudd, Catrin and Alys. Iolo Goch’s poem says that they came in pairs, the longer list of names you might have read appears to have been invented by Iolo Morgannwg centuries later.

Next Tuesday, after Welsh class, someone asked how my research was going (actually, they may not have asked but, as I said before, there is a price). I told them about the Morgannwg theory.

‘But,’ one brave soul asked, ‘why would Iolo have made that up?’

Indeed, why did Iolo make anything up? He was probably the biggest literary forger in Welsh history, creating a vast body of work, reputedly dating back to the druids. The whole bardic ceremony at the Welsh National Eisteddfod is, in fact, a product of his fecund (always wanted to use that word) imagination. Now, it seemed he’d also foisted an imagined family on Glyn Dwr.

family-tree_23-2147512823

At this point, I hear a collective howl from all those who claim descent from Glyn Dwr. You are out there, I know you are, Wikitree and Geni.com attest your existence. But do take heart, there are also rumours of multiple illegitimate offspring. So many, in fact, that I wonder poor Owain had time to pull his braise up, let alone lead a national uprising. But for my part, I’m sticking with the four children mentioned in the contemporary record – Gruffudd, Catrin, Alys, and Maredudd -because four is far more manageable in terms of crafting a novel. In fact, I may have even lived that situation.

Reading in two languages

When I left Wales, I knew my language ability would cease to climb. I’d not lose the ability to speak (albeit haltingly) but the angle of my upward trajectory would be less acute. This was inevitable, I told myself, despite the opportunities I’d carve out for myself. But I would make an effort to read in Welsh regularly. Which is why, when I received a reviewing copy of The Seasoning, by Mannon Stefan Ross, I decided to read, Blasu, the acclaimed Welsh language version first. An odd way of reviewing a book but, hey, why not?

9781909983250_bach

I struck out boldly. Trying not to look up every unknown word but to glean meaning from the surrounding sentences. I’d done this with Bethan Gwanas’ book, I Botany Bay (yes, a book about a Welsh convict) and Zonia Bowen’s autobiography, Dy bob Di Fydd fy Mhobl i,  as well as the multiple other learner’s titles, I’d read over the years. My preference being to read and enjoy a text, whatever my ability, rather than turn it into a translation exercise.

Blasu/The Seasoning is a story about an elderly woman, Pegi,  who is asked by her adult son to write down her memories. I could see, by flicking through the book, that these would be based around recipes. All well and good but, due to my snail-pace Welsh, it took me a while to realise the novel would be changing viewpoint every chapter, that the memories recorded were not in fact Pegi’s but the memories of others in relation to her. Quite a unique way to tell a story and beautifully rendered but by about the fourth chapter, I realised I was missing some of the nuances. I would enjoy this more, I old myself, if I read chapter-by-chapter, in Welsh and English.

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The ensuing chapters were a delight (this is the official review part of this blog). My mouth watered on reading the recipes and I found seeing the context in which Pegi had come by them poignant. Added to which, the story was set in Llanegryn, a tiny Welsh village not far from Corris, in which local landmarks such as Bird Rock, were familiar to me. As I read, each alternating-chapter, I found the story disturbing, uplifting and shocking by turns. For Blasu/The Seasoning is not a feel good novel. It is a literary novel, tackling the subject of mental illness and memories and how to live with horrifying once-made decisions. A thought provoking book, in any language and, if you do not speak Welsh, Honno’s English language version, Seasoning, is definitely worth obtaining.

However, I must say, as a language exercise the alternating chapter approach was flawed. I found myself leaping into bed more eagerly on the English nights, than the Welsh. In fact, by the time I got to Chocolate Popcorn chapter, I was too caught up in the story to bother. I gave myself over to the English version in full abandon and, although it is a sad, shocking, story, it also contained love and redemption. When I turned the last page, I did not want to let the characters go.

So, what is the moral of the story? If you are a non-Welsh speaker and want to read a thought provoking book set in north-west Wales, The Seasoning is recommended. If you are a Welsh learner and want to read Blasu as a language exercise, go for it, but do not under any circumstances keep a translation in the house. It is far too tempting. Better to save that one-click option until you’ve turned the final page. Then you can honestly say you enjoyed the book twice as much as you’d expected.

Christmas in July – a license for petty tyranny

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Back at work and other exhausting aspects of daily life

I’m back into the full swing of daily life and if going bush at Easter felt like rubber hitting the road, going back to work felt infinitely worse. Not that I’m complaining. I have an amazing job in a fantastic library service with wonderful colleagues but logging into an inbox with 2,897 emails was bound to put skid marks on my soul. Fortunately, I am a quick deleter or should I say reader. As I culled my inbox making mass irreversible decisions, I did notice one consistent theme – blocked public toilets. 

It’s good to know people have been focussed on the important things while I was away. 

Back at Welsh class we facing a crisis of too many learners and not enough not tutors. Added to which there has been a coup by the dirty rotten northerners. I arrived back thinking I’d be picking up where I left off with my Hwntw (southern) class only to find myself back with the beginners teaching a Gog (northern) version of the NEW SSiW course. This has meant the production of a whole new set of flash cards. Other tutors don’t do this. They use neat handouts and words printed on Roldex cardboard. But I can’t, teach this way. Though, I have zero evidence my colourful efforts are any more effective. For me, getting my head around the course material involves Google images and laminating. 

The good thing about teaching the beginners, is an opportunity to record what does and doesn’t work. By the end of the year, I should have a basic tutors guide for others to follow.

I am back at the gym and, after my experience of doing Seiclo Dan Dô (under roof cycling) in Machynlleth, I have been braving weekly spin classes. Last Wednesday the teacher did a kind of creative exercise in which he pretended we were racing out on the open road. As well as riding ‘up hills’ and turning ‘sharp corners’ and being told we were great and could do it and that we really love the climbs, he divided the class into four groups and pretended we were in a peloton. As each group took their turn in the lead they had to pedal hard against the wind. It wasn’t real – the peloton, or taking the lead, or breaking the wind – but as I rose red-faced and gasping in my saddle I thought: I’m into this. Followed by, what does this gullibility say about me?

While settling back down my manuscript has been in the drawer while trusted friends do a final read through (the word drawer being a little like the mythical peloton). Meanwhile, I have started researching Australian publishing options. There’s no rush. I have some irons in the fire. But my manuscript is sitting right on the border between young adult and adult fiction – a wonder tale set on board a nineteenth century emigrant vessel with both teenage and adult viewpoints. Sadly no one seems to have a designated submissions editor for historical and slightly mystical crossover novels with multi-age viewpoint characters. Call me cowardly. But I don’t like rejection. So if you could read my blog over the coming months and tell me how much you’re enjoying it, and how great I am, and how much you’re loving my climbs, you will help keep my therapy bills to a minimum.

Finally, I’ve had a brief brush with fame the last couple of weeks. Bethan Gwanas interveiwed me about my language journey. The ensuing article can be found in the 31 March edition of Golwg. I also did an interview with Geriant Lloyd for Radio Cymru. My segment comes 59.15 minutes into the program. I am speaking a lot faster than in my earlier interview with Siân Cothi and a lot less fluidly than I was speaking six weeks ago in Cymru. Ond fel na mae – but that’s how it is…for the time being.

L

 

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.

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