Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: travel (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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Blog twenty-five o Gymru – are you a friend of Dorothy?

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'You are going to have to be deliberate,' a friend and Welsh language mentor told me before I came to Wales. 'You will meet lots of well meaning people who are happy to learn Welsh, but don't actually want to speak the language. You will also meet people who in ordinary circumstances you might want to spend time with. But if you want to improve your Welsh are going to have to prioritise friendships.'

This turned out to be sound advice. I have met both of the above types of people. But for the most part, I have made Welsh language activities my priority. Until I got an invitation to the oh-so-very-English Aberdyfi Pantomime.

You see as well as the half-Welsh-girl lurking inside me, there is another little girl who had an English daddy in addition to her Welsh mummy, who spent her whole childhood reading books set on the other side of the world, in a place her parents called home, where there were oak trees and badgers and seaside holidays and rock candy and donkey rides and piers and pebble beaches and castles and Yorkshire puddings and pork pies and New Forest ponies and Sadlers Wells and the West End and … pantomimes.

Here is what Wikipedia says about the pantomime:

Pantomime (informally panto) is a type of musical comedy stage production, designed for family entertainment. It was developed in England and is still performed there, generally during the Christmas and New Year season and, to a lesser extent, in other English-speaking countries. Modern pantomime includes songs, slapstick comedy and dancing, employs gender-crossing actors, and combines topical humour with a story loosely based on a well-known fairy tale, fable or folk tale. It is a participatory form of theatre, in which the audience is expected to sing along with certain parts of the music and shout out phrases to the performers.

The key part of that quote being: performedto a lesser extent, in other English-speaking countries.

You see, I had never seen an English a pantomime and prioritised Welsh language friendships, or not, I was not going miss the Aberdyfi Pantomime.

I bought my ticket.

Now if you think this involved turning up alone on the night and buying a single ticket at the door, think again. You see Dave from Corris Uchaf (top Corris) was playing the part of the Aunt Em from the Wizard of Oz and everyone in Corris knows everyone which meant everyone in Corris knew Dave which meant a show of support was required which meant half the village decided to attend which meant a bus needed to be ordered along with chocolates, paper cups and wine for sharing enroute.

The idea that I had never been to a pantomime was a topic for discussion.

'What! Never seen a pantomime! But … you've seen the Wizard of Oz?' someone asked on the bus.

'Oh, yes, I've seen the film, definitely. But not as a pantomime. What about you?'

'Loads of times. It's a rite of passage for us.'

'Er… Right of passage? In what way?'

'Judy Garland.' Someone else answered. 'Gay men love Judy Garland. The question: are you a friend of Dorothy? Was like a password or secret handshake.'

'Oh, yes, of course.' I knew that (not).

The Dyfi Pantomime was everything I had imagined.

  • People laughed
  • Clapped
  • Booed
  • Sang along
  • Yelled directions
  • Laughed at corny poo jokes
  • Enjoyed the not so subtle innuendos
  • And the fact that Elvis had somehow found his way to Oz
  • Along with Prince Caspian
  • I mean, this was a village pantomime
  • Everyone needed a part
  • From the young
  • To the old
  • To the talented
  • And those simply having a good time
  • The stage effects were amazing
  • As were the scenery
  • And the costumes

On the bus ride home people remarked on the finer details of Dave from Top Corris' costumes, right down to and gold eyelashes.

'He won't want to take it off.' Someone joked. 'He'll come to the cafe as Aunt Em on Saturday morning.'

'I think Corris is ready,' someone else replied.

'Yes, others agreed.'


I'm not sure whether Corris is ready for Dave in his burgundy corset and matching bloomers but it's already doing diversity. This has been one of the privileges of living in this tiny mid-Wales village. Not a particularly Welsh speaking community – but a place in which friends of Dorothy live alongside every other Tom, Dick and Mary as if that is perfectly normal (because it damn well is) and where people are kind and caring and accepting and hire a bus and go to the pantomime (even those who don't like pantomimes) because their friend is performing and who let Aussie Welsh-language-fanatics join them for the evening and make artists from all over the world feel welcome because they understand community. And they are wonderful.

Thanks Corris for an amazing seven months and for inviting me to the Dyfi Pantomime.

 

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Blog twenty o Gymru – the winter solstice

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I am sitting on an Arriva train heading out of Wales, the fields on both side of the tracks are water-logged, flooded, the rivers beneath the rail bridges turgid. To my rear, leaden clouds enshroud the mountains of Snowdonia, to the front, remarkably, I see a blue sky. The first blue sky I have seen in weeks.

It has been a remarkably wet month, even by Welsh standards and with the days growing increasingly shorter, I had a sense of being entombed by winter. I didn’t fully understand this sensation. Or how completely nature was conspiring against me. Until someone explained that after the twenty first of December, the Winer Solstice, we would gain six minutes of extra daylight per day. Six minutes that’s forty two minutes a week. No wonder I’d felt that winter was burying me alive.

In Australia, we decorate European evergreen trees, at this time of year, and sing songs about Holly and Ivy. But we eat ice cream with our mince pies and have to keep our children up late in order to see the Christmas lights. These past few weeks in Wales it has been is dark by four o’clock in the afternoon. Cold. Yule logs, mulled wine and evergreen branches and Christmas lights feel appopriate. Little wonder the early church chose to align Nativty celebrations with the older pagan festivities. There is no competing with them. They are primeval.

Yet, in another sense, being away from family at such a significant time in our cultural calendar has made the nativity story more resonant. As I sat in chapel last week hearing familiar scriptures spoken in another language, I had a sense of its profoundness. The pregethwr (preacher) read a creative reflection written from the point of view of Mary. Were there other women in that stable? Women to whisper words of encouragement? To wipe away the muck and blood of birth? Or was she alone, frightened. Not quite knowing where to turn. I felt her aloneness. Maybe because earlier in the week I’d had my own Mary moment. My car had broken down in middle of a one way street in Machynlleth. I wasn’t a member of the RAC. I didn’t know where the nearest garage was. As I stood in the middle of the road, directing the traffic and Googling garages. I thought, what am I doing here? Alone? There is no one to help me.

Of course, there were people to help. But as I sat in Chapel listening to the voice of Mary, that sense of aloneness returned. I thought, this is the heart of the Christmas message – this poor woman, alone, in pain, weeping, surrounded by animals. Yet, into that aloneness hope was born. A hope that tells us that we are not alone, or friendless, that our lives have meaning and purpose.

I have crossed the border into England now. The sun is literally shining. Yet as I head down south to celebrate the season with family friends, it is the lessons of the dark remain that with me. I take this opportunity to share the with you: Nadolig Llawen!

PS: someone has just informed me it is six minutes per week – not per day. If I’d thought about it for half a minute, I’d have realised that. Infact, the true figure is a little over two minutes per a day. But it felt like I was losing six minutes per day – so I’m leaving it in. 🙂

 

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Blog nineteen o Gymru – an eventful Saturday evening

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It had been a busy week – Merched y Wawr Bro Dyfi dinner on Monday night, a Merched y Wawr Corris a Chylch dinner on Wedesday night, Cawl a Chan at Dylanwad Wines on Friday night and the two nights in between spent watching Y Gwyll with a friend. I woke up Saturday morning feeling tired and indecisive.

We had two new artists arriving that day. I had to clean the stiwdio and, due to an excess of high fat, high carbohydrate foods, I also needed to go for a run. Added to which, had a party that night and the weather was looking pretty wild. I’d been invited to stay the night. But here’s the thing about me. I am not a late night or a stay overnight person. So when Dan, an American artist staying at Maelor, expressed a desire to see Welsh male voice choir in Abergynolwyn, I broke the I-am-not-a-taxi rule and offered to act as chauffeur.

I checked my maps before we left home. I thought I knew the way to Karen and Crispin’s house. They had a mosaic name plate on their farm gate. I’d be able to see it from the road. Besides, it was a party. They’d have balloons on the gate post, surely?

My first indication that things would go wrong was on the way to Abergynolwyn. The map said six miles. But I had forgotten that driving six miles in Wales is like driving thirty six miles in another country. The roads are so dark and winding. On this particular night, they were also flooded.

‘Gee.’ Dan said. ‘I hadn’t realised it would be this far out of your way.’

Neither had I but it was too late to turn back. We ploughed on through puddle after dark oily puddle until we reached Abergynowlyn. I dropped Dan at the Canolfan with a promise to be back before the pub closed.

I got to the tiny village of Llanfachreth okay and headed out into the back roads. It was darker and narrower than the road to Abergynolwyn. A gusting wind flung rain at my windscreen. Okay, I thought. Maybe there won’t be balloons on the gatepost. But I remembered a stone arch near their house and the striking mosaic. I would come across them eventually.

I didn’t. No matter how slowly, I drove. Nor how high my light beam. I checked my map. My phone didn’t have a signal. I thought I was getting close. But maybe my memory was faulty? Maybe I had to take another turn before I came to the name plate? If only I could find that stone arch. I started driving back along the Llanfachreth Road. But the rain had been falling steadily and part of the Tarmac had dropped away. Before I knew it, my wheels were churning in the mud. Backwards, I went. Then forwards, each time, sinking a little deeper.

I stopped, got out of the car, checked my phone. Still no signal. Added to which, my battery was getting low. I considered walking back to Llanfachreth. But it was ink dark, not a moon or star in sight and I had been raised according to the great, Aussie outback survival motto: “never leave your vehicle.” Besides, I was dressed warmly enough and there were blankets in the car. I wouldn’t freeze, even if I had to stay out all night.

But what about Dan sitting in the choir concert in Abergynolwyn?

The truth is stranger than fiction, they tell me. When writing a novel you can’t make a major plot point turn on coincidence. But as I stood on the windy dark road, trying to work out what to do next, I heard a car engine. A car! Had I imagined it? No, there were lights, not just any lights. I saw a taxi heading towards me. Wow! I thought this is seriously weird. But I stepped onto the road and hailed that cab as if we were in Charring Cross.

‘I’m bogged.’ I said, as if that wasn’t obvious. ‘I’m supposed to be at a party but I got lost.’

‘I’ve just come from a party.’

‘Karen and Crispin’s?’

‘The same.’

‘Oh, wow! Can you take me there?’

It didn’t take long to get to the party. We turned up a side road only a few hundred metres from where I was bogged. The mosaic was there. But there were no balloons on the gatepost. Seriously, what was I thinking? I walked in, apologising for my lateness, and produced what is probably one of the most dreadful Wenglish sentences I have ever uttered.

‘Ces i fy mogio mewn ditch.’

‘Ditch?’

‘Yes. Fy nghar. Bogged. Mewn ditch.’

Once the situation was explained, we made quick decisions. It wasn’t realistic to pull the car out in the dark. Most people had enjoyed a drink or two. I would have to stay the night, even if I wasn’t a house guest kind of person. I logged onto the WIFI and told our American artist he’d have to find his own way home (something I probably should have done from the outset). I then poured myself a glass of wine and enjoyed the party.

***

Oh, in case your wondering, bogio is definitely not the Welsh verb for bogged. But, hey, I mutated correctly and stuck an ‘io’ on the end, which is the golden rule in such cases. Though, someone did later point out that the Welsh word for ditch is ffos. I won’t be forgetting that in a hurry. 🙂

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Blog seventeen o Gymru – interviews, armchairs and expensive turkeys

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I am sitting in a cafe in Y Trallwng (oh, alright, Welshpool), having travelled forty eight miles for my National Insurance Number (NIN) interview. I tried to apply in Welsh but the polite man on the phone told me the service wasn’t available in Welsh and that I must call a different number. ‘This is a bilingual country,’ my very-English-don’t-see-why-I-should-learn-Welsh friends tell me. ‘I should be able to speak whatever language I want.’

‘Correct, I tell them. ‘But have you ever thought Welsh speakers might like to be able to speak their own language – in shops, cafes, libraries, offices and surgeries?

So what is happening in my life? Apart from morphing into a rabid Welsh language fanatic?

Well, as you can see, I have an armchair, a magnificent development. Kindly donated to Stiwdio Maelor, I wasted no time in claiming it and, as Veronica has left the country and I am now womaning the stiwdio until early March, I have moved my desk and computer into her workspace. I also have a car. And her washing machine! In fact, I may not invite her back. Possession is nine tenth of the law and, once I get that National Insurance Number there will be no shifting me.

I had to tell the woman at the NIN interview how often I’ve come to Wales. I said, ten times in the last five years. But they don’t stamp passports anymore so I couldn’t show her the dates. Her Majesty’s Revenue will have to look them up. I hope I pass the test. It’s like The Battle of Britain trying to get a foothold in this place. I wonder if it was this difficult for the English when they took over half the world? 🙂

Oops! Rabid fanatic hat again. 🙂

On the subject of washing machines, I have now added plumbing to my growing list of accomplishments. After painting, hanging pictures, and learning how to frame art work, I have also moved a washing machine down eighteen narrow steps and re-installed it in Stiwdio Maelor. I didn’t do the job single handed. I have a very supportive, Welsh learning, ex-librarian friend who kindly offered her tools and expertise. Once we’d got the machine down the steps of Veronica’s house, driven half way to Corris, turned back to collect the part we had forgotten, and then unloaded the washing machine, we were pretty keen to accomplish the task without male intervention. Alas, we were thwarted at the final hurdle. Try as we might, we could not turn the knobs on the water outlets.

Since installing the machine, I have morphed into a non-tree dwelling duplicate of Enid Blyton’s Washer Woman. I have the clothes horses set up in front of the central heating and each time I walk past, I turn the sheets. Yes, there are quite a few significant changes happening in my life, I clean toilets, turn sheets, teach people to light the wood stove, unblock the drains and take the bins out. I will come home a vastly improved version of myself. Though, I’ll be in a different hemisphere. So it might be harder performing the tasks upside down.

Now in case you think I’ve lost sight of the wider world while in Corris, last Thursday, was Thanksgiving and, as we have an American staying in the Stiwdio, it was decided a turkey would be in order. I reckon the butcher saw us coming. It was the most expensive turkey in living history. But, we all ate ourselves silly and made a determined effort to use the left overs (vegetable soup with coriander and turkey stock being my particular contribution). In a couple of weeks, Corris is having a Christmas, Soup and Song evening and in an attempt to give the event an international flavour, I have been asked to make a contribution. I thought I might sing Six White Boomers (like we sing that all the time in Australia) but my preliminary research reminded me that the author was Rolf Harris so…oops! Probably not that one. Any ideas for an Australian Christmas song anyone? I’d hate to admit that we actually sing Jingle Bells in our shorts and sun hats while lighting the BBQ on Christmas Day.

Tan wythnos nesaf!

 

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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 five – a matter of false information

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Those who know me and can be bothered counting, may have noticed this is my fifth visit to the UK in the last ten years. You may also have observed that now and again (cough) I like to talk about the place. I mention the walks I’ve been on in Wales, the beachside amusement arccades, pubs which allow dogs (very civilised) the way people eat mushy peas with their fish and chips (maybe not so civilised) and how the Brits have a tendency to strip down to their Y fronts whenever the sun peeks out from behind a cloud (need I comment?). What you may not realise, is that I may have been guilty of giving you false information.

The misinformation, has its origins three years ago when, one Sunday, during my month long Welsh language Summer School, I decided to walk from Borth to Aberystwyth. It was a warm, blue sky, day, with only a whisper of cloud. I meandered along the Ceredigion Coastal Park, taking in the heather covered hillsides and spectacular sea views. Just short of Aberystwyth, I stopped for a drink at the cafe attached to the local caravan park. Having spent a number of summer holidays in Aussie Caravan parks, I enjoyed seeing how the Brits (largely from the Midlands judging by their accents) did the summer holiday thing. No, sun smart campaign, judging from the lobster-coloured backs of the children paddling on the beach. No trees for shade, or sun shelters and some of the caravans had two doors. Oh, my! How quaint! Semi-detached caravans!

Roll forward three years, and you will find me a little further along the coast with a group of Welsh speaking friends looking out over a different caravan park. The day wasn’t quite as sunny and, if I’m honest, it was a tad more windy (like blowing a force ten gale). As I sat shivering on the walls of Harlech Castle, I fell to making random summer holiday observations:

‘We don’t have castles in Australia so … this is not a normal summer holiday activity for me (nor the chattering teeth). Do many people stay in tents? Those semi-detached caravans you have are quaint.’

Silence. Four sets of eyes turned on me. ‘Semi-detached caravans?

‘Yes. I’ve seen them, near Aberystwyth.’

‘Really? I’ve never seen one.’ One by one, they all agreed.

Now at this point, I probably should have backed down. Four born and bred, British people, one who has an onsite caravan in a Welsh caravan park were telling me there was no such thing as a semi-detached caravan. What other evidence did I need? But here’s the thing about me. As well as telling tales of Brits sunbathing in their Y fronts, I may also have mentioned the semi-detached caravans a few times. Okay, so more than a few – and I was pretty damn sure they existed. I mean, why else would a caravan have two doors?

Our holiday finished without further reference to the great two door caravan fib. But back in Corris, I could not let the matter rest. I knew the Corris Caravan park wasn’t far away. I set off, camera in hand, to gather evidence. Imagine my delight when I came upon this scene.

I immediately sent a Facebook message to my friends.

‘Tystiolaeth!’ (Evidence)

‘Efallai’ (maybe)? The friend with the onsite caravan wrote. ‘Neu jyst carafan dau ddrws’ (or just a two door caravan).

No need to tell you what I thought of that idea. Who would be potty enough to make a caravan with two doors. Another friend messaged that she would best visiting the seaside town of Aberdyfi later in the week. She would do some research. I decided to join her This was too important a matter to leave to prejudiced minds.

We set off after dark, two middle aged women sneaking round a sleepy caravan park. Fortunately, we were in west Wales, where the crime rate is quite low, or we may have been arrested. Especially when we started circling two door caravans and peering through windows.

‘This one only has one storage box,’ my friend said.

I had to admit she was right.

‘And one number plate.’

Right again.

‘And look this one only has a name.’

I looked at the caravan in question. Number two, Seaspray, and there was only one storage box. I had to admit the evidence was stacking up against me. But what to do? How to tell my Aussie friends that a glorious West Wales holiday in a semi-detached caravan was no longer a possibility? And what about all my other stories. Maybe those men weren’t wearing Y fronts after all?

I’m not sure where all this doubt would have lead too, if not for the quiet persistence of my friend with the onsite caravan. Quite apart from our nighttime escapades, he’d been conducting his own quiet research. It’s called the World Wide Web, in case your interested. Far more sensible than creeping around caravan parks at night. Here’s the picture he sent me.

There may not be semi-detached caravans in modern Britain but once upon a time they did exist. In fact, if enough people make enquiries about semi-detached caravan holidays in West Wales we might be able to bring them back again. Meanwhile, I’m conducting another branch of research. Can someone please tell me why some British caravans have two doors?

 

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Blog one – o Gymru (from Wales)

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It’s Saturday afternoon and I am sitting in Adam and Andy’s cafe drinking coffee. A flat white, nonetheless. How to make a Melbourne girl feel at home. It’s been a frenetic week but, six days in, I’m feeling relaxed and happy. Rather than give you a blow by blow of my first week, I’ll pick out some highlights.

 

The flight

What can I say? There is nothing good about a long haul flight. I had prevaricated about paying for exit row seats and decided against the extra cost. At least, I thought I had… I looked forward to a cramped, miserable, leg-aching, twenty three hours without sleep. Imagine my surprise to find I had been assigned an exit row seat. The good flight fairy, perhaps? Or early onset Alzheimer’s? I must have paid for it. Whatever the case, the flight seemed shorter somehow.

Cymru

It was a pleasant twenty one degrees when I arrived at Heathrow airport – a little cloudy, a little grey, a perfectly ordinary must-wear-a-cardigan UK summers day. Did I tell you, the UK smells different to Australia. An absence of Eucalypts perhaps? Different cleaning products? From the airport, to the bus, to the open air, for some reason, it produces an overwhelming sense of welcome.

The rain started as my Arriva train crossed the border into Wales. What can I say? Wales is so moist and mossy and mountainous. It has been raining on and off since I arrived. It doesn’t seem to deter people from going out. They simply trudge through the rain in gor-tex jackets and sturdy boots.

Boots? Ah… boots…

Now, in case you were lucky enough to miss out, the question of my footwear has been a subject of much discussion in the lead up my departure. In Melbourne, I wear a cute pair of black ankle boots patterned in red. I had every intention of bringing them to Wales. Alas, a Welsh friend took one look at them and said they wouldn’t do. Hiking boots were the recommended footwear. But, although I found a pair of hiking boots with the obligatory touch of red, I couldn’t face the notion of wearing them for five months. Vanity, perhaps? Or simply because I’m an Aussie. Down under you only wear hiking boots if you are a serious hiker. And I’m not. So, what to wear? Could I wear Wellies (rubber boots) for five whole months? Surely there was an in between option. I raised the topic at work (as you do), discussed it in Welsh with my friend on Skype (as most wouldn’t). Sought earnest advice at multiple family gatherings. In the end, Andrew weighed in (possibly a little weary of the topic) and suggested I purchase a pair of Blundstone boots (with red stitching and elastic). I’m not sure how my Tasmanian made work boots will face up to the vagaries of the Welsh weather. But, if this sign on an office door is anything to go by, they were a safer choice than Wellies. The sign says:

No dirty Wellngtons in the office, please!!!!

I don’t expect to find: No dirty Blundtones stuck on an office door.

Maelor

I spent an intense day and a half learning everything about Stiwdio Maelor. While here, I will be greeting artists, taking applications for 2016, and acting as a general housekeeper for the stiwdio. I have learned about boilers and cookers (there is a switch on the wall for cookers In the UK) and British showers (started with a cord from the ceiling) and the intricacies of Gwynedd Council’s recycling programme. After, Veronica and Mary left for New York. I spent a couple of days in their Dolgellau house before heading down to Maelor. While in Dolgellau, I went for a jog along the Llwybr (pathway) Mawddach while listening to Brigyn on my iPod. I ran past hay meadows and through stiles, with my feet dancing around puddles, and the pebble grey river racing on ahead of me. As I finished my jog, I raised my hands in the air (hope no one was watching) and thought: dw i’n y nefoedd – I am in heaven.

Cymraeg (Welsh language)

One of the disheartening things for all lovers of the hen iaith (ancient language) is that you can’t be assured of speaking Welsh in Wales. Even in the heartlands, where Welsh speakers are ninety percent of the population, many newcomers expect Welsh speakers to use English. So where does that leave me? I have only five months – five short months – in which to take my Welsh language ability to the next level. I can’t sit around waiting for welsh speaking opportunities. I have to make them happen. This will involve taking a deep breath and going into shops, banks, pubs and railway stations and starting every conversation in Welsh. Sometimes, I will get a reply in kind. At other times, an English language reply, that indicates comprehension. In this instance, I’ve been advised to keep speaking Welsh. Many people understand the language but do not have the confidence to speak. It is therefore possible to have a simple bilingual exchange (on the level of buying milk or a postage stamp). In the worst case scenario, I will get an apology: sorry, I don’t speak Welsh. In which case, I will simply accept their apology and never shop there again (unless they happen to be the pub next door or make a damn good flat white). 🙂

Tomorrow, I am heading to the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol (National Eisteddfod). This is Cymru Cymraeg’s (Welsh speaking Wales’) premier cultural event. If you are a Welsh speaker and in Wales during the first week in August you will be asked: wyt ti’n mind i’r eisteddfod (are you going to the eisteddfod)? It is the Welsh speaking place to be. I will be going to a concert in Monday night. The Say Something in Welsh birthday party on Thursday night. I have also signed up to volunteer in Maes D (the learners’ tent) throughout the week. I look forward to meeting old friends (online and otherwise) and speaking Welsh at every opportunity.

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A Famous Five summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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