Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: research

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?’

Permission to create – or ditching the fear factor

I’m a belt and braces kind of girl. Terrified of making mistakes. I’m not sure why. Hours of introspection and countless man-with-a-cardigan counselling sessions have not provided answers. But for a writer (or indeed anyone) a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ can be paralysing. I distinctly recall telling my writing group that I wanted to make sure my novel was perfect, so perfect that it wouldn’t be rejected. I still recall the silence that greeted this naive announcement.

‘Liz,’ one of them ventured gently. ‘No matter how good your work is, you are going to be rejected.’

They were right, of course. I’ve had my work rejected countless times. Sometimes more painfully than others. I’d like to say I’ve developed a thick skin. But I haven’t, not nearly thick enough. As evidenced by my fear-of-getting-it-wrong approach to my latest project.

Researching my first novel, I read countless diaries, nineteenth publications and more recent historical analyses in order to get my immigration facts straight. In terms of the Welsh fairy tales that run like a seam through the novel’s pages, well, I may have gone a little overboard. In fact, I learned a whole language. But although the conditions on board my nineteenth century emigrant vessel are as authentic as I could make them and, although my knowledge of fairy tales has grown exponentially, the voyage, the ship, characters were all fictitious. This gave me a degree of license.

Not so with my current project – a novel written from the viewpoint of Owain Glyn Dwr’s wife. You see, Marged Glyn Dwr was an historical figure, as was her husband (a national hero in fact). The revolt, the circumstances, all the supporting characters of my story, are historical. This makes the likelihood of receiving an irate letter from a Welsh nationalist informing me that I have misrepresented Wales noble history imminently possible.

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I’d like to say that I’m handling the pressure well, cool as  cucumber as I pore over tome after tome in the state library, that my bookshop is not groaning under the weight of newly acquired purchases, groaning so loudly that when I mentioned to my husband that I may have ordered a few books, he politely asked whether I had set a budget.

Budget, I gulped, yes, of course, I have a budget.

With these tight (cough) budget constraints in mind, you can imagine my frission of excitement to come across this paragraph when reading a library book about the non-judicial confinement of medieval women:

Margaret, the Wife of Owain Glyn Dwr, their daughter Catherine […] and an unclear number of her children, all of whom seemed to have been without personal culpability were taken at the capture of Harlech and were held in the Tower of London from 1409 until at least 1413, when the death of Catherine and her two daughters is the last that is heard of them. Their confinement can be interpreted as a ‘family guilt’ confinement, or as a quasi-hostagehood intended to put pressure on Owain who was still at large.

I wrote to the historian, Gwen Seabourne, outlining my project, and asked whether she could recommend the best sources of information concerning Marged Glyn Dwr. Her answer was disappointing. Or was it? Apparently, that paragraph is pretty much all anyone knows about the fate of Marged Glyn Dwr. Which means, as long as I thoroughly research of conditions in the Tower, my potential for making mistakes has just considerably diminished.

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Buoyed by the success of this contact-an-academic strategy. I contacted another. One whose book on The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dwr is soon to be released (I have it on order – yes, part of my carefully worked out budget). I have read a number of titles on Glyn Dwr and no one seems to know why his military service terminated so abruptly in 1388. Or why he actually rose in revolt in September 1400 (apart from the perfidy already mentioned in earlier blog posts). Many theories have been posed. But none sit well with me. Least of all that he was disgruntled at not receiving a knighthood and sat wallowing in self pity until one morning, ten years later, he got up and declared himself Prince of Wales. Even if  that version was true, which I seriously doubt, you can’t develop a novel on such a vague premise. You have to give the characters conflict and believable motives. I asked this particular historian his opinion on the matter. He wrote back:

There does not appear to be any evidence which gives a firm indication at all of Owain’s feelings after the 1387 campaign, nor any reason to explain why he was not available for service in 1388. That means that there is nothing concrete to justify the notion that he was disgruntled but nothing to definitely refute it either. Effectively, you have carte blanche in that sphere.

The historian, Gideon Brough, whose work promises to be a great deal more nuanced than previous offerings, urged me to think differently to the received version of events, to “do something beautiful and creative with my carte blanche.”

Carte blanche? Did you hear that? There is a smattering of circumstantial evidence and a great deal of theorising going on, even among historians. Which means, as long as I do my research and make sure I understand the social and political issues of the time, I can add my own theories to the mix. Which just made the whole process a lot less scary in my opinion.

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