Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: Wales (Page 1 of 8)

The House with Old Furniture by Helen Lewis

I haven’t read a book set in Wales for a while. But my hiraeth is running deep at the moment (time to plan my next trip) and when Helen Lewis’ House with Old Furniture dropped into my inbox, it had my name written all over it. Not an historical novel, The House with Old Furniture, nonetheless fuses the past with the present, and has the mystical, otherworldly elements I so enjoy in a novel.

Told from the alternating viewpoints of Evie and her son Finn, The House with Old Furniture opens with these words:

“I don’t want to leave. I am being ripped from the rock I cling to. A whirlpool of change drags me down, pulling me into the very bottom of its vortex.

“I want to stay. I need to stay, clinging to all the memories made here, ensuring they remain sharp and deeply etched. Because if I go who will say – remind people even – that this is where we had our first row, over there in the corner of the garden is where the snowman you built stood for two weeks, and round that corner where the tarmac cracks you came off your bike, you still had the scar ten years later, that little  white smile on your kneecap.”

Evie is being forced to leave her home in London – the home where her dead son Jesse lived and died – in order to start life anew in West Wales. A move that has been planned and executed by her husband Andrew. You can see the sense of this decision, despite Evie’s anguish, and hope that despite her reluctance, that the move will prove to be cathartic. Because it is evident from the outset that Evie is not moving on. But as soon as they arrive in Wales, the ghosts arrive – ghosts that both Evie and Finn can see – and you begin to realise there is more to Evie’s grief than meets the eye. That there is a dark underbelly to Andrew’s actions that is not initially apparent.

The House with Old Furniture is a chilling novel. I found myself wondering where Lewis’ inspiration came from. “I wanted to write something that looked at madness,’ she explained; “exploring what one person might see as crazy when the other sees the same thing as normal. I think I’ve produced something along those lines. I hadn’t expected the ghosts to turn up!”

The ghosts are unusual. They are not ghoulish or intangible or the least bit frightening but real historical characters breaking through time and interacting with the present. They have their own story which illuminates the contemporary tale that Lewis is unfolding. I asked whether she set out to write an historical piece.

“No I didn’t! If you asked me to write an historical piece I would run screaming to the hills, all that research that needs to be done. But The House with Old Furniture just wrote itself that way. And actually, because the historical parts are in small sections throughout, I didn’t find the research so daunting. I did have to keep a detailed timeline though, making sure all the dates and ages were feasible.”

Finn’s naive voice was the triumph of the novel. I asked Lewis how she came to include him. “When I started writing The House with Old Furniture it was from Evie’s perspective but I quickly realised that without Finn’s presence the story would be very two dimensional. He is my favourite character and I actually think it is Finn who tells the tale.”

I have to agree with Lewis’ analysis. Through Finn’s naive eyes, we begin to see the truth about Evie, to get a sense that things haven’t been right in this family for quite awhile.

“She so doesn’t get it. She doesn’t get any-fuckin-thing, not computers, not me, not moving’ not Dad – most of all not me. It was all OK before – well almost, I mean she got drunk, got all loud and lairy, then woke up messy sometimes, but now … now Dad’s the invisible man and she’s … she’s rubbish. Like yesterday, she was makin’ tea and spilt the peas everywhere – and that’s her, bits of Mum everywhere. She sat there in a mess, not movin’ not even cryin’ – might’ve been another of her blackouts, an’ I thought, I don’t care! Get up and be my mum again! It’s not just Jesse that’s gone, he’s taken them all with him. Left me here alone, where everyone mopes about because we’re all too sad to do stuff anymore.”

There is a darkness to this family’s history, a darkness that we quickly realise will not be erased by a simple move to the country. But although, Evie’s mental health is fragile, the chilling depth of her insanity is not initially apparent. Nor are the dynamics of power, coercion and abuse that have contributed to her demise. As the story unfolds and the pieces start falling into place, we glimpse a situation that is both timelessly haunting and frighteningly modern. I asked Lewis whether her next novel will tackle similar issue. She assures me it will not be as chilling as The House with Old Furniture. “Having spent five years with some dark and difficult characters I wanted to create some people with a bit of humour. I think it is beginning to take shape, they certainly make me laugh anyway!”

I will certainly be looking out for the next instalment by this talented new author. Meanwhile, I fear it will be some time before I can exorcise the ghosts The House with Old Furniture has awakened in me.

Britain, the end of a fantasy – some thoughts on identity

  • You post an article from the New York Review of Books on Facebook. Among other things the article says:

“Strip away the post-imperial make-believe and the Little England nostalgia, and there’s almost nothing there, no clear sense of how a middling European country with little native industry can hope to thrive by cutting itself off from its biggest trading partner and most important political alliance.”

You make a comment about ‘little England.’ You figure you have a right. But you are told in no uncertain terms that, as an Aussie, you do not. This is British politics, none of your business. You are shocked, not so much by the objection (put a comment on Facebook and you invite a response) but by the monochromatic assessment of your situation. It doesn’t even come close to the schizophrenic sense of identity you live with.

See, you were born in England and, although you migrated to Australia during your childhood, you were raised by parents who called another place home. Your father supported the English cricket team, you stayed up late to watch the FA Cup final on television, your weekly viewing consisted of The Two Ronnies, Porridge and Are you Being Served? In school you learned about convicts, and ANZACs and the bombing of Darwin. But at home you heard stories of Shakespeare, the Blitz, and how you grandfather worked on the Bank of England’s wrought iron doors. In a grade four project about Beef Cattle, you wrote “Aborigines make good stockmen” because, your dad told you, before the white man, Australia’s first people wandered about aimlessly.

But there is another aspect to your identity. You see your mother is Welsh. So you are not allowed to call yourself English. You are British, your parents tell you: no need to be naturalised like all of those lesser European migrants. Australia is one of the pink countries on the map. Of course, you never use the word British. You instinctively know you will be laughed out of the playground. You drop the Pommie accent, try to blend in. Though in your spare time you read books by Enid Blyton, Malcom Saville, and Arthur Ransome.

Then you grow up and all your historical myths are all blown apart. You learn that the Aboriginal people did more than just wander about, that the men of Gallipoli were no braver than any other soldiers, that Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their mothers. That the British Empire wiped out whole nations and cultures. The full implication of this hits home while you are living in Fiji. You see an indigenous people living on their ancestral land, speaking their own language and enjoying their age-old but still evolving customs and you think: my God, what have we done?

With this history, it is no surprise that when you have a mid-life crisis (one of several) and decide you want to write a novel that you start with an emigration novel, set in the colonial period, that focuses on the experience of poor people, like your family would have been if they had emigrated in that era. You also decide to include Welsh and English characters. And although you know those decisions are personal, you also know you are trying to come to terms with the whole messy business of being a white Australian.

Despite this, you are not prepared for the effect your Welsh characters will have on your life. You know very little about Wales prior to starting your research – apart from coal mining and a passion for rugby. But before long you realise Wales has a language, that is still spoken, with incredible words like sglodion (chips) and gwdihw (owl) (which sounds like twit twoo) and pendwmpian (to drowse). That in Welsh  a peach is called an eirinen gwlanog (wooly plum) and ladybirds are called buwch goch gota (short red cows) and before long you are wondering how you have managed to live without the soul-song of such words.

You learn about Welsh myths and fairytales too, about eisteddfodau and poetry. About the experience of being annexed and incorporated, the Welsh struggle for independence. The even-now fight to keep a much-loved language alive. This touches a deep chord in you and, although it is tempting see it as a simple reconnection with your heritage, you also know there is also something intrinsically Australian in your response. See, we tend to back the underdog down under.

Over the years, you make regular trips to Wales, even live there for a while. Acquire a National Insurance Number and a bank account, get your name on the electoral roll. You have Welsh friends and places to stay. You read English and Welsh newspapers along with Australian ones and know the sense of divided loyalties you grew up with are still strong. Except, you are no longer proud of the Empire (life has knocked that out of you) and when you speak Welsh with your friends you feel like you belong. Yet you also know your life, your manners, your worldview are somehow foreign. Perhaps this is what the friend on Facebook objected to? This foot-in-two camps, belong-in-both-worlds mentality?

You fly back and forth, relate in two languages and straddle both worlds, because you don’t know any other way to live. For although you no longer sound like a Brit, or take pride in Empire, the tiny island on the top of the world is still important to you and, although one day when you are too old to travel, the land at bottom of the world will inevitably claim you, you know the hiraeth will remain, along with the interest and the outspoken Australian tendency to comment. Because, although on the outside you may sound like an Aussie, on the inside you still sometimes feel a long way from home.

***

Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s debut novel, The Tides Between, will be published by Odyssey Books in October 2017. For news on the release date follow this blog, or simply fill out the form below:

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

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

Let’s start with the generosity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost in another world – some serious Welshing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Gwthio? He asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Pa Mor Bell 

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are you lost?’ meddai fe.

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

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

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

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

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

***

Thanks to Aran Jones for help with the editing.

Juggling on a six lane highway – some thoughts on the creative life

Today as I sat at the busy intersection of two, six lane highways I watched a man juggling. Not on the footpath, no. He was standing in front of the banked up traffic performing as if his life depended on it. I envied him his brash confidence and, perhaps, because of the way my day had panned out, I also sensed his creative desperation.

There was nothing wrong with my day, per se. Only I wasn’t writing. At least, not sitting at a computer. But there is this buzz that goes on in my head. Even when I’m not at the screen – characters chattering, scenes forming, a strange giddy spinning of thoughts that won’t go away until I’ve written them down. Making notes helps. But it isn’t enough. Because you don’t know if a scene is going to work until you’ve written it fully and you won’t know if it has worked, like really worked, until you’ve written the next scene and the next scene. Which is fine when you are not juggling multiple commitments.

I’m not complaining. I’m going to Wales in twenty-one days three hours and seven minutes (who’s counting). Most of my tasks are self inflicted – like getting my phone unlocked, finalising dog-sitters, updating my driver’s license so it won’t expire while I’m away, and madly trying to scan documents so I don’t have to carry hard copies to Wales. I’m also trying to do lots of reading so that when I meet academics in the field I can ask semi-informed questions. So, no, don’t feel sorry for me at all. It is totally self-inflicted.

But there is another aspect to my juggling. See, part of the creative experience means participating in writing related events. I’ve been fortunate to be part of the Women’s History Month Celebrations at Eltham Library during March. I have also been asked to chair an HNSA event. Added to which, I am writing an article on coming-of-age novels for the Historical Novels Review. As a consequence of these commitments, I will need to read multiple free books (yes, I know, someone’s gotta do it), not to mention analyse their themes and write about my impressions. Again, I am not complaining. These are amazing opportunities. But they don’t involve  interaction with my fictional world. Nor do they help the buzz in my head.

I have another task which is self-inflicted. I’m calling it an act of daughterly redemption. You see, last September when I booked myself the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London, I didn’t think of my mum’s birthday. Not when I paid for my Air BnB accomodation. Or when I organised with an Aussie friend to meet in Llangollen to do some walking in the Berwyn Mountains. Not even when I locked in my residency dates at Stiwdio Maelor. Or when I started planning a holiday with my son and his family in the Lake District. Mum’s birthday simply didn’t enter my head. Until she started talking about it…

‘I will be eighty in April. Imagine that, Elizabeth! I never thought I’d see eighty. What shall we do to celebrate?’

I didn’t answer. Or confess. Only screamed silently into my pillow that night.

Then Mum got sick. We were told she only had a couple of months to live. My brother flew home from Africa. There were tears, serious conversations, funeral discussions. In the midst of all the emotion mum lost some of her teeth. It didn’t seem important, in the scheme of things. Neither did my trip to Wales. Or for that matter her birthday. Our calendar had been wiped clean.

Then against all odds she rallied. The doctor said she wouldn’t be leaving us in a hurry. Our thrice weekly visits dropped back to sustainable levels. My brother headed back to Africa. Normal life resumed. We even started bickering. It was time to confess.

I’m going to Wales again Mum.’

‘That’s nice dear, when?’

‘April,’ I said, a little too quickly.

‘Oh, for how long?’

‘Two months. I’m going for research. I’ve got all the accomodation booked. I’ll be visiting the Llyfrgell Genedlaethol and meeting academics and viewing sites. I’ve got a new English grandchild. I’ll visit him too. And go on a language camp.’

‘You’ll miss my birthday.’

‘Yes. I’m sorry. It’s too late to re-schedule.’

‘My eightieth birthday.’

‘I need to do the research mum. It’s my job.’

Mum’s eyes narrowed. ‘It’s not a real job though, is it Elizabeth?’

Now it is pay back time. Mum needed to go to the dentist. If she is going to live her missing smile is important. Fair enough, I wouldn’t want to end my days looking like a pirate. My brother is back in Africa (though he will be in Australia for the birthday). As I don’t have a ‘real job,’ the dentist visit fell to me. I booked an appointment. Turned up at the surgery. Only to find I had booked at different location. For which I hadn’t retained an address or phone number (yes, I’m not only bad at birthdays, I’m generally sh*t at life). I made a second appointment. Right there in the waiting room, so there would be no mistakes.

‘Lovely,’ mum said. ‘We get to go out twice.’

But here’s the thing about the ‘going out.’ Mum can’t walk. She has no upper body strength either. She can barely manage to transfer from her wheelchair into the car. At the dentist today she sat on the sliding part of the dental chair. It took three of us – me the dentist and the assistant – to stop her slithering all the way down to the end. The dentist decided to examine her in her wheel chair. After which, Mum needed an x-Ray. I had to hold her upright in a small space on a spinning stool while she bit down on a thin metal object. Next week, we will go back for extractions, then fillings. After which, there will be denture fittings. Basically, I’ll spend the next twenty-one days three hours and seven minutes in a dental surgery. Which is where the desperate juggling at the traffic lights comes into the equation.

‘Remember this on your eightieth birthday,’ I said to mum.

‘Yes, dear, I will.’

‘My brother might be there to help you blow out the candles. But I organised your dentures.’

It won’t be enough. It will never be enough. But I’ll be in Wales – immersed my fictional world. So, I’m happy to concede this particular sibling honour.

The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr – a review of Gideon Brough’s recent publication

I am not an historian. I’m an historical fiction writer. There is a difference. For although I’m pretty pedantic about getting details right, I am primarily driven by narrative. Which is fortunate, because in researching, my current project, a novel from the viewpoint of Owain Glyn Dŵr’s wife, there is precious little historical detail to go on. We know she was born, Margaret Hanmer, that her father was David Hanmer, Justice of the King’s Bench under Richard II. She married Owain Glyn Dŵr at some point, gave birth to an unspecified number of children and as a consequence of her husband’s revolt, died in the Tower of London. If she had not married Owain Glyn Dŵr, she’d probably have died in peaceful old age. Her name lost forever to history. However, she did marry Glyn Dŵr. The decision (most likely that of her parents) had an undeniable impact on her life. Therefore, to novelise Margaret, I must begin with the man himself.

Until recently, the most comprehensive work on Owain Glyn Dŵr was The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr by R. R. Davies. Now, I am not an historian, remember. I’m attuned to narrative and, no matter how erudite and comprehensive and well researched I found Davies work, I couldn’t help noticing his narrative had holes. Which is why I’ve been hanging out for the publication of The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr by Gideon Brough.

I’d listened to a podcast by Dr. Brough and noticed he had a slightly different take on the outbreak of the Glyn Dŵr’s revolt. One that promised a more credible version of events. As it turned out, the book had a great deal to offer, on a number of levels. But let’s start with the outbreak.

By general consensus, Owain Glyn Dŵr was the son of a disinherited Welsh princely house, after the death of both parents he became a state ward, he studied at the Inns of Court in London, held lands in Cynllaith, Merioneth and Cardiganshire, married the daughter of a minor Anglo-welsh landowner and took part in a number of English military campaigns. After which, in 1388, he disappeared from the historical record. We next hear of him in September 1400 when he lead a cavalry raid against a number of English boroughs. Although, it can not be fully substantiated, the general consensus is that the raid was sparked by a border dispute with his neighbour Reginald Grey and that, prior to setting out on the above raid, Glyn Dŵr  was declared Prince of Wales.

In narrative terms, there a is a huge leap between a young man who appeared to be living a conventional, upper-class life and the same man declaring himself Prince of Wales. In an attempt to leap this chasm, Davies had his own go at storytelling — theorising that Glyn Dŵr rebelled in September 1400 because he had not been knighted on a military campaign in 1387. He had allegedly gone home from that campaign, sulked for ten years and finally decided that the remedy was to declare himself Prince of Wales. Then a year later when, it looked the Prince of Wales thing wasn’t going to fly, he tried to negotiate his way out of the situation. Apart from the fact that this is a singularly unattractive narrative, there is also no evidence for the sulky, failed-knight theory. As far as I can’t tell, only three Welsh men had been knighted between the conquest of Wales and 1388. Three in over a hundred years. None of them Welsh barons, like Glyn Dŵr, who were descendants of the Welsh princes and the natural leaders of their people. So, why would Glyn Dŵr have expected it?

So what does Brough make of the outbreak? For a start, he questions the veracity of Glyn Dŵr starting a national revolt in September 1400. This makes sense to me, seeing as the primary evidence we have for this claim comes from two hysterical English legal proceedings in which Glyn Dŵr was said to be:

Plotting, conspiring, and intending the death and disinheriting of the said lord king and the everlasting extinction of the crown and regality of himself and of all his successors, the kings of England; the death of Henry, Prince of Wales, the first born son of our said king, of all the magnates and nobles of England; and also the death destruction and everlasting distinction of the whole English language.

If Glyn Dŵr truly did set out to do all those things he was a Froot Loop. End of story. Presuming he wasn’t (and most evidence points to him being well-educated, sensible and amenable), then it is not unreasonable to assume that he may not have been declared Prince of Wales in September 1400 either. In support of this theory, Brough points out that Glyn Dŵr did not style himself as Prince of Wales in the early letters he wrote to leaders in Scotland and Ireland, or in the letter he wrote to Henry Dwn in 1403. During Glyn Dŵr’s parleys with crown officials in late 1401, it appears the reinstatement of his lands was all he sought. The theory being that, through the aforementioned border dispute with his neighbour, Glyn Dŵr had been unjustly dispossessed of his inheritance and, having failed to remedy the situation by legal means, had been forced into rebellion.

In addition to the above, Brough argues that Glyn Dŵr wasn’t the first to arms in 1400, that there were a number of other unrelated uprisings occurring in the region at the time. However, as the harsh response to the revolt pushed the disaffected Welsh into further rebellion and Glyn Dŵr’s parleying failed to bear fruit, he had no choice but to take on the national cause. At which point the disparate Welsh groups coalesced under his leadership.

Now, that, is narrative I can work with.

In addition to this original thinking on the outbreak of the revolt, The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr has a number of additional strengths. Far too many to discuss in full on this blog. However, one of the ways in which it stands out from earlier works, is the way in which it sets the revolt in the context of the Hundred Years War. Davies and before him, J. E. Lloyd, made little of this connection. However, Glyn Dŵr’s alliance with France, the subsequent treaties, declarations, military aid and even the eventual failure of the revolt are all inextricably linked to the long running conflict between England and France and indeed the schism within Christendom. Even the stand off between the Welsh/French and English armies outside Worcester cannot be adequately explained unless you take the regional tensions into account. In light of these manoeuvrings, Brough’s theory of what actually happened at Worcester and the possible ensuing treaty are a refreshing addition to the previously vague analysis of this part of the revolt. As is his description of the diplomatic manoeuvring that paved the way for an eventual English military victory.

A final strength, and perhaps one I am ill-equipped to judge in any measurable sense, is the book’s authority on military matters. I’ve read a number of books on Welsh soldiers and English military campaigns in relation to this era. They all made sense in a dry, academic, yes-I-suppose-that’s-what-happened kind of way. However, when reading The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr I had a sense of the author’s authority. Whether it was discussing how many boroughs could realistically have been attacked in September 1400, how fast troops could be moved, the explanation of what terms like ‘a thousand lances’ actually meant, evidence of troop movements on the landscape, prisoner exchanges, negotiations, parleys, the assaults on castles, the muster letters sent out in 1403, even the analysis of Owain’s letters to France, Scotland and Ireland show evidence of a trained military mind. This is not an element of the book that can be endorsed definitively by one as non-military minded as myself. But it made me sit up and notice.

So what am I left with? A woman who married a man who was unjustly treated by the government of his day and became the leader of a national rebellion. How did she feel about that rebellion? What contribution did she make to his efforts? How did she respond to the loss of her home, her lands and, eventually her liberty? No one knows the answers to those questions, at least not in a way that can be historically verified. The novelist’s job is to fill in the gaps in a way that is true to the human heart and hopefully also the era in which the story is set. At least now I have a portrait of Glyn Dŵr I can work with.

Cuts, colours and the magic of Christmas

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!

Two titles – and some thoughts on small, brave against-the-odds entities

Confession: I have a soft spot for small brave, against-the-odds entities – like Wales and its language, independent book shops and publishers, small, grass-roots residential arts studios in tiny Welsh villages, and public libraries. All (but certainly not the only) institutions that stand against big, popular, well-funded privilege in its multifarious guises. I’ve tried to analyse this tendency over the years. To this day, I cannot decide whether it comes from having a Welsh mother or being raised in Australia where, let’s face it, we tend to back the underdog (as long as they are white and willing to “assimilate”). All I know is that it exists and that this week it has affected my reading list.

510ojkeh5rl-_sy346_

Book one on my list (yes, a two book week) was, Isobel Blackthorn’s, The Drago Tree. Being published by Odyssey Books, a small brave, independent press giving opportunities to emerging writers, would have put this title high my list. But, actually, the content of the story proved the ultimate qualifier. Set on the tiny island of Lanzarote, it tells the story of Ann Salter, a middle aged geologist fleeing her failed marriage, Richard a popular crime novelist plundering the island for his stories, and, Domingo, the indigenous potter whose love for the land goes beyond the shallow financial gains of western tourism. As the three explore the island, aspirations and tensions, undermine their friendship. The result, a reflection on artistic integrity, relationships, and ultimately our responsibility towards the environment.

A brief reading of Lanzarote’s history includes the words conquest, enslavement, piracy, drought and volcanic eruption, the result being an indigenous community struggling with the consequences of a post conquest society. It was not hard for me to draw comparisons with Wales’ history (without the piracy, recent volcanic activity, or levels of enslavement). I found myself wanting to experience the island community Blackthorn so wondrously evoked. Which is a sure sign the story has worked, if you ask me.

41j7oema6ul

The second book, Some sex and a hill: or how to learn Welsh in 3 easy pints, was written by Aran Jones, and published on Kindle (which flies in the face of everything I have said about small brave and against-the-odds entities). But hey, I’m a walking contradiction, get over it! I’m not sure if it’s polite to call my friend Aran a small, brave, against-the-odds entity. It doesn’t sound right, does it? But his language learning program, Say Something in Welsh, certainly falls into that category. With no government funding and a great deal of love and support from the learner’s community, it is the place all serious wannabe Welsh speakers end up at some point in their journey. It was therefore great to read about Aran’s early learning experiences. The fun part for me, aside from the author’s compelling voice and whacky sense of humour, was that I knew many of the people mentioned in the book (even the man from America who was on his original Wlpan course) and have visited many of the places Aran described. Added to which, the sense of homecoming that learning Welsh fulfilled in Aran, found an echo in me. This is a magical book, about a love affair with a land and its language, that anyone with an interest in Cymru would be sure to enjoy.

So that’s my week. I have also taught a Welsh class, found a translation of Nennius in the State Library of Victoria, written the opening scenes of my new novel (at least they are the opening scenes for the time being), the subject of which was inspired by a conversation with Aran (though, I’m not sure he realises that yet), pedalled my way through two Spin classes, walked the dog, received a confirmation of casual employment from City of Boroondara (the good guys in my employment saga), and nurtured my love for small, brave, against-the-odds entities. I hope the week has been good to you too?

 

Some unexpected developments on the job front

You apply for a job, not just any job, a dream job in a library close to home. You pull out all stops in your application, co-opting your colleagues into editing and checking your resume and selection criteria. You are offered an interview and, though your daughter is in hospital awaiting surgery, you manage to attend – and answer the questions. In fact, you think the vibe was positive. You were right. The following week you receive a phone call. Congratulations, the guy on the phone says we’d like to offer you a position. Start dates are discussed, details checked with HR. Yes, you’ve done it. You hug the triumph to yourself in satisfaction. You talk to your current employer. Though you are supposed to give a month’s notice, they pull out all stops to ensure that you can start on the date indicated. You tell your friends, family, start to get excited. Your long-haul commute will soon be a thing of the past. You will be able to cycle to work, meet your husband in a trendy bar on Sydney Road afterwards. You will have flexibility. Ample opportunity to return to Wales. You think you are lucky. Too lucky. You think somewhere in your youth or childhood you must have done something good.

Then the second phone call comes, a week before the anticipated start date. Your job offer is being inexplicable, shatteringly withdrawn. You hang up the phone in disbelief. You try to make coffee but your hands are shaking. For some reason you can’t stand still. The reality begins to sink in. You think my God, I’m not a librarian anymore. With that the tears start. You sit with the dog in your lap and let them flow. Once the first wave of shock passes, your mind springs into action. You email your original employer. They are shocked, outraged and sympathetic on your behalf. They make phone calls. The stops so recently pulled out are jammed back into place. But of course none of your colleagues know this. When you arrive at work on Thursday morning they think you are leaving. They have made you a banner. Pob Lwc! It says in Welsh, Good Luck, Liz! You have to blight their well-wishes, tell them you might be sticking around after all. They are incredulous, enraged, and, underneath it all, a teensy bit glad. They never wanted you to leave. You think maybe they have a point. Maybe you already work on the best library service. When they ask if you want the banner taken down, you say, hell no, I’m claiming that luck after all.

PS. This is not a blame and shame exercise. Just my writerly attempt to come to terms with the situation. So, if you want to comment and know of the libraries involved, please don’t mention them by name. 🙂

Page 1 of 8

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén