Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: stiwdio maelor (Page 1 of 2)

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

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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…

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Lost in another world – some serious Welshing

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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?’

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Cuts, colours and the magic of Christmas

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Some say the bloom of the Jacaranda tree heralds the beginning of Christmas, or cherries in the shops (this is Australia I’m talking about), or children lighting candles. In a less innocent world, we speak of Black Friday, online shopping, and Santa’s Sled wending its way from China. For me, there is another, magical Advent marker.

Namely, the Christmas cut and colour.

What? You didn’t know of this was a phenomena! You clearly haven’t worked in the public library service. We are a female dominated industry and some many of us are no longer young. One by one, from around mid December, my colleagues and I, take turns to flex off work early. Only to return, the following morning, a brighter, crisper version of ourselves.

I’m not working at a single library branch anymore. So this year, the ritual has been less apparent. But it is happening, as surely as the sun rises in the east, I know it is happening and, as I’m going to a work party tomorrow, the need to get my act together has been looming.

My husband says I should abandon the pretence, go grey naturally (aka, keep him company). But here’s the thing. Sometimes, when I tell people I’m a Mam-gu, they say:

‘Oh, no, surely not! You’re way too young.’

Which I kind of like. It makes up for the fact that people keep asking me if I’m pregnant (gotta take the good with the bad). When people stop making these comments, I will surrender my youthful image. Until then, I’m a slave to the Christmas cut and colour.

I have a great hairdresser in Coburg. My first haircut after moving north, my son said:

‘Wow! You look like you haven’t been going to the same suburban hairdresser for twenty years.’

Having my hair cut in Coburg, is an altogether different experience to the chatty, know-everything-about-you event in the leafy suburbs. My hairdresser is from the middle-east. Her salon is filled with family and friends. She talks on her mobile phone, while cutting my hair, switching back and forth between languages. I’m no one. Just a fly on the wall. But I keep going back. Even when the salon had its windows shot in by the underworld, I kept my appointment. A good haircut is worth the risk. It is also expensive (far more expensive than its same-for-twenty-years equivalent). Which is why I now do the colouring myself.

I started dyeing my own hair while in Wales. My friend, Veronica, and I, decided, we’d cut the cost, by sharing the packet of hair dye. Veronica’s sister had been a hairdresser. So she had a little bowl and brush. It was my idea to turn a plastic glove inside out so we had a right hand one each (still pretty proud of that thought). Halving the cost seemed like a good idea at the time. Next day we both noticed the cover was, well, let’s say a little…patchy.

A month later, I lashed out, bought an entire packet and did the dyeing without help. But I didn’t have a little bowl and brush and I was in a rush so I could scuttle back to my room before the other Maelor residents caught me (gotta keep up the pretence). Trouble is, I didn’t have a good mirror in my room. So I didn’t notice the dye all over my left cheek. The end result, a dark-haired woman who looked like she’d been beaten about the face with a rolling pin.

With this colourful (pun intended) history you’d think I’d be begging the hairdresser to do my Christmas cut and colour. But, no, I learned to use a drill in Wales, unblock toilets, catch bats, paint walls, frame artwork, pack sculptures, take down exhibitions, eat chips with cheese, and do second-to-none hill starts. I owed it to myself not to back down. I applied the dye, without mishap, wiped my face, the bathroom sink, the floor, and, oh, yes, maybe also the shower screen. I sat, with the arms of my glasses wrapped in cling-wrap, while reading Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndwr (that’s gotta be a first for the author).

Now, it’s done. My youthful facade is fully restored. The nativity scene is set up in the living room, Jacaranda’s are blooming, the cherries are in the shops. Tomorrow, I will turn up at work, a brighter, crisper version of myself and no one will mention the cut and colour, or the wisps of grey I’ve somehow missed, because we have a ritual to maintain, part of the time-honoured Christmas magic. So let the festivities begin!

Nadolig Llawen pawb a blwyddyn newydd da i chi i gyd!

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The Blundstone Report – how my boots stood up to the vagaries of Welsh weather

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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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Dod adref – some thoughts on belonging

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'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)


 

 

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Blog fifteen o Gymru – making headlines in West Wales

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Stiwdio Maelor is a residency stiwdio in Corris, mid Wales – a place where artists and writers can take time apart from their busy lives in order to create. It has no permanent gallery space, or events budget. However, occasionally an artist on an extended residency, will express the desire to exhibit new work. Then, depending on space and timetabling the Stiwdio will host an exhibition.

Now, in case you haven’t realised, I do not have a visual arts background. When Veronica left, within twenty four hours of my arriving in Wales (yes, unavoidably bad timing) I began to realise the challenges I would face. Within days, I found myself taking down an exhibition, part of which involved dismantling delicate glass-domed landscape reproductions with white gloves and re-packing them into numbered polystyrene layers of protection. Driving home in the car afterwards, Jonathan Syltie, the artist who’d been roped into helping me, said:

‘You don’t know much about art. But you seem to have a fair amount of common sense which is almost as good in the long run.’

The comment filled me with a ridiculous level of pride.

I used the same common sense a few weeks later when the ‘organiser’ of Jonathan’s exhibition flew to Portugal, without telling us, on the morning of the opening.

Setting up for Helfa Gelf – Gwynedd’s open arts trail – was decidedly tricker. Two of our Stiwdio artists had cancelled at the last minute leaving me alone with a big empty house and an American artist, Cindy Steiler. Fortunately, Cindy was more than adequate to the task. Between us, we managed to fill the house with art-work and people. After going through the Stiwdio one elderly gentleman said: ‘I haven’t seen anything this good in years.’

‘Seriously,’ Cindy said, when I mentioned it later. ‘That old guy needs to get out more.’

She was right. But that didn’t stop me feeling blue ribbon proud of what we had achieved.

When Mita Solanky, our British born artist in residence with a Gujarati heritage, expressed an interest in showing her new body of work, Veronica came up with the idea of asking, Mayur Raj Verma, a former Bollywood actor who now lives in Dolgellau to open the exhibition. He agreed and, as the dates of Raj’s availability, coincided with Diwali – the Hindu Festival of Lights – we decided to run with a Diwali theme – complete with candles, rangoli lights and Indian nibbles.

My job was to set up the Facebook publicity and to write the press releases. Stiwdio Maelor hasn’t hitherto enjoyed much success with the local papers. This time we hit their sweet spot. I like to think it had something to do with my excellent turn of phrase but, more likely, the name Raj Verma provided the entry point. Whatever the case, we were in there, on page twenty six right after the headlines: Boss hits employee on head head with broom, and, Police make arrest after part of man’s ear bitten off. Indeed! It’s all happening in West Wales.

In the lead up to the exhibition, we stripped the wallpaper and re-painted the common room. Found out the framers could not get our donated works ready in time for the exhibition. Spent a day framing them ourselves and another day hanging them. The latter was a serious business, involving hammers, nails, and plumb lines.

‘Damn!’ Veronica said, soon after she arrived. ‘I have forgotten my drill.

‘No, you haven’t,’ I replied, pointing to a big orange drill on the bench.

‘That’s not my drill. It’s Inge’s.’

At which point , I realised I had missed out on one of life’s foundational experiences. Drill ownership. ‘I’ve never had a drill.’ I confessed.

‘Every woman needs her own drill.’ Veronica replied, with a disbelieving shake of her head.

We planned a rough program for the afternoon:

2pm – doors opened

2.30 – Veronica welcomed everyone

2.35 – Raj made a speech and opened the exhibition

2.45 – Mita’s work was open for viewing

3.00 – artist talk by Mita Solanky

3.30 – readings by writers in residence Justin Wolfers and Elizabeth Jane Corbett

4.00 – short documentary on the Bollywood film industry

The afternoon went without a hitch – apart from floods making the Machynlleth Bridge impassable, Mita’s sister’s car breaking down, the Stiwdio doors getting accidentally locked so that people were standing in the rain, and Veronica announcing she lived in Dolgellau with Raj. Fortunately she corrected her error – perhaps it had something to do with the startled look on his wife’s face? Otherwise, Stiwdio Maelor may have enjoyed an altogether different headline in the local paper. Something like: Bollywood star’s wife hits stiwdio owner over head with broom.

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Blog Fourteen o Gymru – in preparation for an exhibition

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An exhibition

The artist is keen

She’s been here two months

Has new works to show

Autumnal works

A Gujarati heritage

I wonder! would Raj open the show?

Raj, you mean, Raj Verma?

The Bollywood star?

The event now getting

Big as Ben Hur

We’ll have readings

Readings!

Yes, why not?

You – and the other writer

You’ll have something, surely?

Yes, you do – but

Twenty minutes each

Will that be enough?

We’ll need posters

And invites

Facebook event

Oh, yes, and, I think

We should paint

Paint?

Yes, nothing, fancy

Over the wallpaper

Although

On second thoughts

I have a steamer

And a sander

We’ll do the lot

Together

It’ll be fun

You write a press release

Print posters

Your name is on everything

But what to read?

A short story?

Part of your manuscript?

No! You can’t

Your work is sh*t!

Perhaps, no one will come?

But – wait, no

That’s why you’re here

To grow

Take your work seriously

Besides

This isn’t about you

It’s about the other artists

And Maelor

And the exhibition

Which will be wonderful

With

Or without

Your contribution

 

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Blog thirteen and a half o Gymru – an invitation

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Blog nine o Gymru – life in the stiwdio

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I have been in Wales two months. It’s time I told you a little about my role at Stiwdio Maelor. Established in 2014, the stiwdio provides low cost accomodation for artists and writers to take time out of their busy lives in order to be refreshed and inspired to create. Situated in the historic slate mining village of Corris, Maelor has three apartments – each with a bedroom and a studio – a shared bathroom, kitchen and a common room. It also has a single bedroom room for the volunteer coordinator (which is me).

As an introvert, I wasn’t sure how I would like living in what is effectively a shared house. But sharing a house with artists and writers has its benefits. Firstly, they are not here to socialise. Secondly, when they do come out of their rooms, it is normally to talk about the creative process. The remainder of the time, they are roaming the hills looking for inspiration or holed up in their studios painting, writing, drawing, stitching or sculpting.

We have had six artists through the stiwdio since I arrived at the end of July. The last two, Cindy and Erin from Florida, helped me revamp my web page, design new business cards and put up with me ruminating about whether or not to buy a yoghurt maker. Sometimes, of an evening, we would go to the pub and anti-socialise together. It was like having a holiday with two best friends I didn’t know I had. The place is quiet without them.

Speaking of WIFI, let us move onto my daily routine. It starts, with what I have now dubbed the seeking signal pose, a stance half way between supplication and a Kundalini yoga sequence. It involves bracing myself, leaning out of my bed and holding my phone up to the window in order to get a signal, then ducking back down beneath the covers to check my Facebook feed. Of course, standing on the pavement would be more effective. But I’m not sure if Corris is ready for me in full length thermal underwear (yes, and, it’s only summer), my tufty morning hair, and a plum coloured satin dressing gown that I picked up from the local charity shop.

My studio work involves cleaning and changing the bed linen when new artists arrive, receiving enquires from future residents, sending out information, and keeping the webpage updated. In between, I have been working on my manuscript and trying to speak Welsh with a many people as possible. We have a Welsh chat group every Tuesday morning in the local Institiwt, and have started a Welsh language dinner for the learners in the village. I am also attending Merched y Wawr twice a month. Joining a Welsh chapel is also on my list of priorities. But it hasn’t been easy to get away during our month of open studios. Meanwhile, I have been attending the church in the village. This week. Welsh classes have resumed after the summer break. I now have weekly homework to complete and, as Veronica has re-claimed her car, my trip to Machynlleth (closest town) also invloves a bus ride with my dirty washing.

This week, I did the bus run for the first time. I borrowed a small suit case and got my clothes to the laundrette, then dashed across the road to the supermarket. I quickly worked out that my groceries we’re going to be heavier than my clean laundry. I loaded the suitcase up with food, my three reusable shopping bags with clean clothes, and turned up at my first Welsh class looking like a bag woman. Trudging back through Corris that later evening, bags bugling, suitcase over-loaded and my back pack stuffed to the brim, the local cafe owner said: ‘Let me guess, it’s washing day?’

I have been trying to exercise regularly since arriving. So far the weather has been kind. I have been doing a short jog to Aberllefeni (go on, say it) every couple of days and some longer walks in the hills around Corris. Today, for the first time, I rode my borrowed bike to Machynlleth. I’m not sure how practical this will be as a transport option when the weather sets in (not to mention, the hills). But this evening’s ride was glorious. I had to stop half way along the route while a farmer herded his sheep into a new field. I got chatting to his wife while we watched them pass. I told her I was from Australia and that I was a Welsh learner.

Yn wir!’ Dwedodd hi wrtha i. ‘O’n i’n meddwl dy fod ti’n Gymraes.’

Ann her name was. She keeps ieir (hens) and, from that kind utterance, I am claiming her as my new best friend.

 

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Blog six o Gymru – some Welsh poetry

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We have a retired Vicar, living behind Stiwdio Maelor – a stooped, white haired man, lover of God and his country. We speak Welsh sometimes, though his voice is soft and my hearing so poor in the lower registers that I often fail to understand him. Oft times, we swap to English and I don’t mind so much. His wealth of local knowledge is too valuable to miss. On Sunday afternoon, when one of the artists staying at Stiwdio Maelor expressed a desire to see Tal-y-Llyn, he bundled us into the car and took us to the lake. He told us the real name, Llyn Mwyngll, and showed us his favourite vista from the Old Rectory garden. He pointed out the ancient mountain path from Corris to St Mary’s church, sold now, and ready to be turned into a B&B. It’s grounds so hallowed, people’s dreams will surely be haunted.

With him, I have shared my disappointment over the paucity of Welsh language church services in the area. How there is poetry in these mountains and, sometimes, I fancy the land laments the changing voices, the musicality of Welsh receding, further and further northwards. I tell him how sad this makes me feel, that I have been reading R. S. Thomas’ poetry.

Welsh
Why must I write so?
In Welsh, see:
A real Cymro,
Peat in my veins.
I was born late;
She claimed me,
Brought me up nice,
No hardship;
Only the one loss,
I can't speak my own
Language - Iesu,
All those good words;
And I outside them,
Picking up alms 
From blonde strangers.
I don't like their talk,
Their split vowels;
Names that are ghosts
From a green era.
I want my own
Speech, to be made
Free of its terms.
I want the right word
For the gut's trouble,
When I see this land
With its farms empty
Of flock, and the stone 
Manuscripts blurring
In wind and rain.
I want the town even,
The open door
Framing a slut,
So she can speak a Welsh
And bear children
To accuse the womb
That bore me.

Ah, he said, R. S. Thomas. He died a Welsh speaker, you know? I did know but still at times I feel his foment. When, I go into a shop and get snapped at for speaking Welsh. Yet when I look around at the people who have settled in Corris, I see community, caring, a different way a life, and there is beauty in that too. If not for these newcomers, the Vicar said, this town would be in ruins. Yet I know he mourns the loss of language too.

The next day in the cafe he handed me a poem. It’s by T. H. Parry Williams, he said. I have been working on a translation. To me, it sums up all the beauty and struggle and frustration.

Hon
Beth yw'r it's gennyf i am Gymru? Damwain a hap
Yw fy mod ar ei libart yn byw. Nid yw hon ar fap
Yn ddim byd ond cilcyn o ddaear mewn cilfach gefn
Ac dipyn o boendod i'r rhai sy'n credu mewn trefn.
A phwy sy'n trigo'n fangre dwedwch i mi,
Pwy ond gehilion o boblbach? Peidiwch, da chwi,
A charger am uned a chenedl a gwlad o hyd:
Mae digon o'r rhain, heb Gymru, i'w cael yn y byd.
Rwyf wedi alaru ers talwm ar glywed grŵn
Y Cymru, bondigrybwyll, yn cadw sŵn.
Mi af am dro, i osgoi eu lleferydd a'u llen,
Yn ôl i'm cynefin gynt, a'm dychmyg yn drên.
A dyma fi yno. Diolch am fod ar goll
Ymhell o gyffro geiriau'r eithafwyr oll
Dyma'r Wyddfa a'i chriw; dyma lymder a moelni'r tir;
Dyma'r llyn a'r afon a'r clogwyn: ac, ar fy ngwir,
Dacw'r tŷ lle'm ganed. Ond wele, rhwng llawer a ne'
Mae lleisiau a drychiolaethau ar hyd y lle.
Rwy'n dechrau simsanu braid: ac meddaf i chwi,
Mae rhyw ysictod fel petai'n dod drosof i;
Ac mi glywaf grafangau Cymru'n dirdynnu fy mron,
Duw a'm gwaredo, ni allaf dianc rhag hon.

This
What do I care about Wales? An accident
Of birth finds me living in her little backyard.
On a map she is a smudge on the fringes of land
Spoiling the orderliness of things
And the people, remains of past glories
Don't talk to me of nations, or language or country,
There's more than enough on the world without Wales.
Sick and tired of the moaning extremists and their like
I take a trip, my day dream the train
That takes me to my childhood haunts
And there I am lost
Far from their words and complaints
Look over there, the place I was born
A desolate landscape, and there's Snowdon and friends,
The lake, the rivers, the crags
But between them and the sky,
Voices and figures like phantoms appeal to me,
And a weakness comes over me like a mountain mist,
Dear God, for me, there is no escape from this.

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