Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: welsh books (Page 1 of 2)

The Chicken Soup Murder – an interview with Maria Donovan

I came across Maria Donovan’s debut novel while hanging around on an amazing supportive, wound licking and all around fabulous Facebook Group where readers, writers and bloggers share their milestones, tell stories, seek reviews and exchange bookish information. Under a post about my newly released The Tides Between, Maria wrote: ‘Your book sounds fascinating.’

‘Thanks,’ I wrote back. ‘I’m terrible at asking this question but…would you like a reviewing copy?’

‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Would you like one of my book?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘of course! Was there any other possible response? Though, for all I knew, her book was a seven-hundred page tome on the joys of knitting with dog’s hair.

Turns out, Maria’s book was a novel (phew) called The Chicken Soup Murder and, quite frankly, I don’t mind a bit of cosy crime. I settled down for a good read. I wasn’t disappointed. The Chicken Soup Murder is the most surprisingly, whimsical, laugh-aloud, yet deeply affecting, family, come cosy crime novel, I’ve read in ages. Here’s how it begins:

‘The day before the murder George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich.

Break time: he got me in a headlock in the playground, patted my face like he was being friendly, smiled for the cameras and said, ‘Why don’t you and me have a picnic?’

After the first chapter, I expected the narrative to switch to an adult viewpoint. It didn’t – though The Chicken Soup Murder is certainly not a children’s story. It paints a poignant picture of three households affected by a health tragedy and then by a second sudden unexpected death. Young Michael is convinced the latter is suspicious. But his Nan won’t listen because, running beneath the possibility of a murder next door is a family secret which she refuses talk about – a secret which can be traced back to that little country to the west of England of which I’m rather fond. Published by Seren Books The Chicken Soup Murder is a startlingly original debut – so startling I’ve asked Maria Donovan to answer a few questions for my blog.

You’ve written poetry and plays and loads of short stories and now this amazing novel, can you tell how/why you began to write?

I began scribbling young and by the time I was eight had decided I wanted no other career than to be a writer. Since I did not want to go into journalism I just had to get on with it by myself. Life did a bit too much getting in the way and I only made writing the focus of my energies when I was in my thirties. It feels like it’s the only thing I really ought to be doing, other than trying to act with kindness. I’m competent enough at some other things to have been waylaid by alternative careers including nursing, gardening, being a magician’s assistant, and teaching. Thing is that I feel scratchy and unhappy if I haven’t been writing. So now I just think it’s a must.

So in my thirties I faced up to my own ambition, rather worried that I would find out I wasn’t much good after all. Looking back that’s one of the things that was stopping me. Until I tested myself I could carry on with the dream that I’d do it ‘one day’.

I don’t have too much trouble having ideas and making a start. What I’ve had to learn to do is finish something and make it as good as possible and then move on to the next project. Getting my first computer made a huge difference to the way I was able to organise my writing and keep going until it reached a finished state. Before that I was just swamped by paper and ‘alternative versions’. My publishing history shows I was more comfortable at first with short stories and flash fiction. But now I’ve completed a novel (having had a few half-baked attempts), I find I’ve developed a taste for the longer form.

What was the catalyst for The Chicken Soup Murder?

The title comes directly from an incident in which my husband’s dodgy DIY nearly killed me while I was making chicken soup. Like the character in my story, I laughed it off, but it set me thinking about a crime novel and I promised him I’d come up with something with that title one day. I had no idea what that would be and years passed. Things became much more complicated because my husband died of mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos in 2010. I abandoned the novel I was writing before and while he was ill – and had to find something new. The idea of writing a novel dedicated to Mike, which has his warmth and humour appealed to me. The novel also has its realistic and serious side: how different people cope or don’t cope with living in a state of grief.

Did you always intend it to be written from the viewpoint of a teenage boy?

Yes. After Mike died, I wrote various short stories from the point of view of a grieving woman of about my age and I knew I needed to create some distance from my own perspective. An eleven year old boy seemed far enough!

If yes, why? If no, how did you arrive at Michael’s voice?

I needed to create a completely new perspective and to see everything I had experienced in terms of grieving as if it was all new. It really helped me to seal the story into that one channel of the boy’s experience – though he observes and reveals more than he understands and his own sense of what the adults around him are going through grows over the course of the novel. As for the voice, he just seemed to speak in my mind. I did transfer myself back to my eleven-year-old self: I still feel close to that inner child! I also listened – a lot – to girls and boys of that age and how they speak in the 21st century. Michael has been a good deal in the company of adults too – I make that clear – and has picked up all kinds of things from listening to his nan and her friend Irma, the cricket commentary and Nan’s beloved BBC Radio 4. I did have one go at writing the novel in the third person but Michael was quite insistent that I should restrict myself to his point of view without any means of knowing more than he could know. In the end I just couldn’t escape him: he was a voice in my mind and I just wrote it down.

Tell me about your Welsh connections? Your adventures with the language?

I went to University in South Wales and heard and saw Welsh there for the first time properly. I thought it fascinating and felt a lot more comfortable once I knew how to pronounce the words. Some of my good friends in Wales speak Welsh as their first language, and the University did offer Welsh courses, but I was so busy teaching (after graduating I did an MPhil in Writing and taught creative writing there for nine years) that my progress was patchy at best. When I moved back to Dorset I started to feel a sense of homesickness for Wales and its people and culture. In the last year I have practised nearly every day and at last begin to feel I am making some progress. I have now made friends here in West Dorset with other people who for various reasons regret missing out on knowing or speaking Welsh and are trying to put that right. Some are fluent and some are stumbling beginners but we’re helping each other.

And another curious thing happened. As I moved back to my native Dorset and learned more about the marks of ancient settlement in the landscape I thought about my ancestors who might have lived here a couple of thousand years ago and I longed to know how they might have spoken. I reasoned that this would originally have been a language common with the one that developed into Welsh. It would have been changed somewhat by the coming of the Romans and then obliterated by the Anglo-Saxons who demoted the value of the culture and language of the indigenous people until it all but disappeared except in Wales and to some extent in Cornwall. It’s an odd but satisfying feeling that I’m regaining something that has been lost – even though I know that the language would have changed a great deal over time. It is starting to feel natural and part of me. Which is very exciting! When I saw you were also learning, that felt like a great connection between us – as well as being novelists and writers.

What are you writing now?

While my debut novel was going through its pre-publication hoops I kept on writing short stories and flash fiction and was composting some ideas for a new novel, about a woman who goes missing. It’s partly set in the south of the Netherlands (I also speak Dutch and feel I can bear witness to the culture in a way that will seem satisfying) and partly in the UK.

When I met the famous writer Fay Weldon, who gave me such a lovely endorsement for The Chicken Soup Murder, she pointed out that if I were able to call it a psychological thriller this would help sales more than the label literary novel. Her wise words gave me a great way to approach the material I was working on for the new book: working title The Miller’s Wife. I thought, if I see it as a novel of psychological suspense from the start, I will know exactly what to call it when someone asks! It follows a search for someone who is perhaps missing, perhaps dead, perhaps murdered. There’s also an underlying theme of how people fall through the cracks and into homelessness. Once again, I hope to employ humour and pace – I need to maintain my own interest in order to be able to keep going to the end!

More about Maria Donovan and where to buy The Chicken Soup Murder can be found on Maria’s blog.

Publication day – the inspiration of having a Welsh novelist in the family

Growing up in Australia. I was raised on childhood stories that occurred in a far away place my parents fondly called ‘home.’ Dad talked of Ilford, during the blitz, and how this father an art metalworker had worked on the Bank of England’s wrought iron doors. Mum spoke of growing up in industrial South Wales. Her father had worked on the docks, she told us. But she was related to Lord Llewellyn Haycock. Her cousin was the 1960s historical novelist John James.

Now, growing up in Australia I wasn’t too impressed by the notion of having a lord in the family (even if he did earn the title). However, I recall thinking: maybe one day I’ll write a novel too!

I married young and had a pocket full of children and the novel writing dream got forgotten. Though, at one point, I did order John James’s, Not for all the Gold in Ireland, through our local library’s interlibrary loan service. It was strangely compelling, with characters called Taliesin and Rhiannon and Pryderi. I didn’t realise at the time those were names from the Mabinigion.

Later when I finally set out to write a novel of my own, I decided on a whim to include Welsh characters. Through a process of hap a damwain, those characters became storytellers. I read a host of Welsh fairy tales in the course of my research as well as the Mabinogion and thought, hang on a sec, where have I heard these names before?

I learned Welsh while drafting my novel and began writing to Gwyn, another of mum’s cousins. Gwyn had researched the James family tree. The accompanying booklet had articles about Lord Llywellyn Haycock and John James (so it was all true!). When Gwyn heard I was writing a novel, he sent me an obituary for John James which he had published in his church magazine. Among other things, he wrote:

“His immediate family and myself hope that his written work will remain as a tribute to his genius, and that possibly, someday, one or two of his descendants will display some of his talents.”

Now, I’m no genius but I am descended from David James, John’s grandfather, and, I think, Gwyn therefore considered me one of those descendants. Gulp. No pressure. I’d in fact won myself a supporter and, I guess, in some ways, today Gywn’s hopes have been fulfilled.

Stranger still, I have since learned where the names Taliesin, Pryderi and Rhiannon originally come from. My book is set in a different era to John James’s Not for all the Gold in Ireland, and depicts migrants sailing to Australia. Yet, in the end, I’d drawn inspiration from the same myths and legends mum’s cousin had, all those years ago.

***

The Tides Between is available through: Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and GooglePlay. A hard copy of the book can be ordered through Odyssey Books. Or alternatively, through your local bookstore (order details below).

Book Details

ISBN: 978-1-925652-22-2 (pbk) | 978-1-925652-23-9 (ebook)

Category: Young Adult / Historical Fiction

Trade paperback: 300 pages

Publication Date: 20 October 2017

RRP: AU $23.95 (pbk) | $5.99 (ebook)

A review of Snow Sisters by Carol Lovekin

Having read and reviewed Carol Lovekin’s debut novel, Ghostbird, I was eagerly awaiting the release of Snow Sisters, knowing it would be lyrical, delicately crafted and utterly enchanting. I was not disappointed. Here is the official blurb:

Two sisters, their grandmother’s old house and Angharad… the girl who cannot leave.

Meredith discovers a dusty sewing box in a disused attic. Once open the box releases the ghost of Angharad, a Victorian child-woman with a horrific secret she must share. Angharad slowly reveals her story to Meredith who fails to convince her more pragmatic sister of the visitations, until Verity sees Angharad for herself on the eve of an unseasonal April snowstorm.

Forced by her flighty mother to abandon Gull House for London, Meredith struggles to settle, still haunted by Angharad and her little red flannel hearts. This time, Verity is not sure she will be able to save her…

Snow Sisters is a ghost story. Not a scary, white-sheet ghost story, but the tale of a restless soul with issues that need to be resolved – issues that mirror and impact the present day lives of its main characters. Yet, unlike, Ghostbird, whose ghost was a third person baby sister from living memory, Angharad’s ghost is a non-family member from the past. Here is how Lovekin introduces her first-person voice:

My name is Angharad and I am not mad.

My heart is made of fragments: of bindweed and despair; thinner than skin and bloodless and my story is as old as the moon. It is one of love and death, as the stories most women tell. These two things make up the fabric of our lives, although I do not speak of romantic love. I refer to the kind that ought to provide a child with protection and in the end can destroy her.

The story switches between a present day Verity who is returning to her dead grandmother’s house after a long absence and Angharad’s first-person ghost narrative. Interspersed with these vignettes, are the omniscient, third person viewpoints of Verity, Meredith and occasionally their mother. A complex book to read, let alone write, yet Lovekin manages to pull it off with an easy aplomb. The use of italics for Angharad’s ghost voice and the word ‘Present’ at the top of each first-person Verity chapter, a great help for reader orientation.

The childhood relationship between Verity and Meredith is gentle and dream like, though not without its tensions. Verity’s concern is a stark contrast to the callous, self centred attitude of their mother. Through ever-so-delicate touches of magic realism, Lovekin, gives the girl’s young lives a fairy tale quality. We at once believe them to be living in the ‘real world’ at a place called Gull House, and in a mythical place, beyond the veil, where magic happens (a not surprising response to the mystical Welsh landscape). The overall effect — a world charged with wonder. A world in which, houses, gardens, birds and moths are at once real and also ‘the other.’

A latticework made of moon-shadow branches and moths on the way to find her [Meredith], decorated the bedroom wall. She strained to hear more. The voice was gone and the only thing she heard was the rustling of wisteria against the windowpane. She fell asleep, and then she woke again, confused and cold, with no idea if a minute or an entire night had passed, or if what she had heard was dream or reality.

A moth came in through the open window. It was transparent and as light as a feather, its wings moving in a blur. Meredith reached out her hadn’t and to her delight the moth landed on her finger.

‘You’re back.’

I’m not sure how you would describe this book – an almost gothic family story? A dark feminist fairy tale? An evocative reflection on the fragility of human nature? It is all those things and more. I’m not sure, even now, whether if I’ve understood all of its themes. It is one of those books that will no doubt improve with re-reading. For now, I am simply left with the impression of having been in the presence of a mystery, which is far too big for understanding, yet somehow gentle and awe-inspiring. A sense that my soul has somehow been expanded.

Snow Sisters is published by Gwasg Honno, the Welsh women’s press.

Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyndŵr – the last days of Owain Gyndŵr

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

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

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

‘Was the book any good?’ I asked him.

‘Yes. But it wasn’t an easy read.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel

One of the things about claiming your Welshness late in life is that there is so much to learn. You accept the fact. You have missed out on a whole lifetime of knowledge – about flora, fauna, history, language, social customs. You know you can never fully belong, those formative experiences are lost, forever. Yet, for some perverse reason, it still comes as a shock, to realise there are things about Wales you simply never knew. In this instance, I am talking about artists, or specifically one artist. Gwen John. You would think  having lived in an artist’s residence for seven months, I’d be all over the topic. But I’m not. At least, I wasn’t, until I read Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel. 

Girl in Profile is primarily told from a shifting first person female point-of-view, but it also has some short male epistolary segments. The overall effect – quirky and humorous, with an adventurous use of metaphor and simile that gives the reader a kind of head spinning, like wow, like this is amazing type sensation.

The opening viewpoint character is Gwen John, a Welsh artist who was born in 1876. Having lost her mother at an early age, Gwen John moved from Haverfordwest to Tenby, where she was raised by her two aunts, who were strict Salvationists. In 1895, she began to study art at Slade School of Art, the only school in the U.K. that then allowed female students. She won the Melville Prize for figure composition in her fourth year. In 1903, Gwen John travelled to France and shortly afterwards began modelling for the much older sculptuor Auguste Rodin. She became his lover (as you do) her passion for him continuing unabated for ten years. Unfortunately, Rodin’s passion abated far sooner (as it often does). The novel opens with Gwen John pining for Rodin.

Gwen John’s viewpoint is juxtaposed against the modern day viewpoints of Elizabeth, an elderly woman, suffering dementia, who lives in a care home in Tenby, largely ignored by her distinguished children, and who is writing letters to an American prisoner on death row. Here is how Elizabeth describes her self. 

“Constrained in every decade I’ve been. Stoned in my teens; pregnant and insecure in my twenties; husband, two children and a springer spaniel in my thirties; midlife crisis in my forties; age-defying creams and faradic machines in my fifties; and now in my sixties losing my marbles.”

The third viewpoint character is Moth, a mother of two young children Roan and Dove who was Miss Carmarthen at twenty two and devoted to her children. Though, she is considering having an affair with her son’s art teacher Adam:

“He’s wearing a white shirt and blue jeans, same as me. No visible tattoos. He’s not the kind of guy to have a tattoo. Drew’s (her husband) got “Moth” on his chest and “Roan” and “Dove” on either wrist. Looks plain dirty if you ask me, and imagine when you’re old. I drew the line, with a full stop at piercings. We’re his heart and arms, he says. Load of crap. It’s just his tribalistic, sadomasochistic, look-at-me way of displaying us. Branding. Establishing ownership rights. If you name it, you.”

Girl in Profile is a literary novel, rather than a feel good book. But that doesn’t mean is it depressing. The novel explores the complexity of women’s choices – the ones who follow their passions and the ones who subsume them for the the love of their family. The poignant letters from the man on death row give us a sense of the life cycle – you’re born, you live you die. They also illustrate Elizabeth’s sense of pointlessness as her control is taken away by her institutionalisation and the disease that is eating away at her brain. 

I read each segment of the novel, unsure how the author was going to bring the story together. Then, I had this kind of ‘oh, wow’ lightbulb moment and found myself wanting to read the whole thing over. So, if you want a book to make you think, or a story to make your head spin, or a writer in whose audacious use of language makes you blink and marvel and chuckle, then head on over to Honno, the Welsh women’s press, and buy Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel. 

 

Blog twenty-seven o Gymru – completing the Howarth family circle

I have blogged about Judith Barrow's books Pattern of Shadows and Changing Patterns in earlier posts. Imagine my pleasure therefore on visiting the Honno office in Aberystwyth to be given a reviewing copy of Barrow's latest book Living in the Shadows. Commencing during the Second World War, the first two novels told the story of the marvellously flawed Howarth family as they navigated the social and emotional landscape of wartime and post war Britain. This third book, set in 1969 and therefore not strictly an historical novel, is primarily told from the viewpoints of the original Howarth childrens' offspring, Victoria, Richard, William, Jacqueline and Linda. It brings the events put into motion during Pattern of Shadows to a shattering conclusion.

The setting of the story alternates between Ashford, a suburb on the edge of Manchester, and the fictitious (as far as I can tell) village of Llanroth in North Wales. Here are some of the things I liked about Living in the Shadows.

  • Meeting the same characters some eighteen years down the track
  • The way the old mill features in each of the novels
  • Getting a sense of how the war continued to shape people's lives in an ongoing sense
  • Especially in relation to people of German heritage living in post war Britian
  • An attempt to map changing perceptions in relation to gender roles and sexuality
  • Ditto the various reactions to rape and domestic violence
  • The detailed descriptions of sixties clothing and fashions (particularly Victoria's)

It is not an easy task for an author to skip some eighteen years and to pick up the story through thirteen (by my count) different points-of-view, about half of which are completely new, and to tell a story that follows a host of characters simultaneously and, at times, in different locations. Let alone to somehow make it work as a coherent whole. To meet this challenge, Barrow uses detailed chapter headings, giving us viewpoint characters' names, their location, day, date, and at times even the part of the day in which the action is set. She also employs the technique of introducing the character on a particular day and time and then telling what has happened in between by using flashback. Ordinarily, this would detract from the dramatic tension of the story as the reader already knows the character survived/coped/remained undetected (whatever the issue at stake) before the event actually happened. But with the enormous cast of viewpoints, storylines and locations, it is difficult to see how Barrow could have done it any other way. Although I hadn't read the earlier books for some time, I was able to easily identify the main characters and their back-stories without having to refer to the earlier installaments. Which means the story somehow worked in its own right. However, on another level, prior knowledge definitely made the book more satisfying to read. I would therefore recommend tackling this novel as part of a series, not as a single instalment.

In each of these novels, Barrow ends with her main characters living in Wales or heading back to Wales. A fact that I am acutely aware of as I approach my own return to Australia. Some of her Welsh characters use Welsh words though, I didn't get a clear sense of whether they spoke the language. Perhaps, this is an accurate depiction of being raised by parents from dros y ffin. Whether they did speak Welsh is, of course, irrelevant to the average reader and probably has no place in the story. But as I have a slight (cough) interest in the Welsh language, I wouldn't have minded knowing. Maybe Barrow will consider slipping me this piece of information? You know, just on the sly. 😉 I have absolutely no doubt that she knows the answer and could furnish me with a host of other background details about her characters. Perhaps, whilst she is at it, she could also reassure me that this will not be the last we hear of the Howarth family.

 

Blog sixteen o Gymru – the pleasures and pitfalls of reviewing

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Margaret Redfern’s novel, The heart remembers. In my review, I may have mentioned that I didn’t like the cover. This may have caused a squeeze of horror in the breasts of those who had produced the book. They may just have written, wanting to know what, exactly, I didn’t like about the cover. I might have mentioned that I’d seen the advanced publicity for the book and preferred the earlier image of a ship. At which point, the author may also dropped me a line, telling me why the advanced publicity cover was no good – historically inaccurate (shows how much I know). By this stage, I was kind of wishing I’d never mentioned the cover. But…that is one of the pitfalls of reviewing.

Or is it a pitfall?

I’d been contacted by the author of three books I had enjoyed immensely and, after agreeing never to talk about the cover again, I’d had the pleasure of discussing aspects of The heart remembers, with the author herself. I seized the opportunity and asked Margaret Redfern whether she would be willing to answer a few questions for my blog. I had, of course, already Googled her. I knew that she came from Yorkshire, originally. I also knew that she’d spent time living in Turkey, Lincolnshire and Wales. My first question was whether she considered herself Welsh.

Now in case you are thinking I’ve developed right wing, ultra-nationalistic tendencies, this questions had nothing to do with genealogy or citizenship and everything to do with Honno (her publisher’s) submissions policy. Gwasg Honno is an independent, cooperative press, established to raise the profile of Welsh women writers. To submit to Honno, you need to be Welsh or have strong links to Wales. I was curious to know which category Redfern belonged to. Here is how she answered the question.

“My connection to Wales was either happenstance or synchronicity – take your pick […] One of my nieces was working in Pembroke Dock and was homesick for Yorkshire. She is also my goddaughter. I went down to see her, I think 1999 – certainly Wales had just beaten England in the (then) Five Nations. It was around Easter, icy cold and snow of Tenby beach. I got out of the train, walked down to the beach, looked out over Carmarthen Bay, Goscar Rock and across to Worm’s Head, and was smitten. My niece went back to Yorkshire. A year later, I removed myself to Wales.”

The inspiration behind Redfern’s first book, Flint, came about through a similar process of synchronicity. She had left a very difficult job situation in Lincolnshire – and was working at Coleg Sir Benfro and had begun immersing herself in Wales’ history and culture.

“I was roaming around North Wales, poking around the castles and I was standing on the banks of the Dee reading the CADW booklet on Flint Castle. Remember I said I had run away from Lincolnshire to Wales? Well, there was a paragraph that sent shockwaves through my whole body. ‘300 men from the Lincolnshire Fens had been marched from Lincolnshire to Flint to join another 900 fossatores to start digging the footings and moat of the first of Edward 1’s concentric castles. Lincolnshire was stalking me!”

These days, Redfern describes herself as Welsh by adoption, her ‘passport’ written by the writer Nigel Jenkins who declared her ‘New Welsh’ the term Gwyn ‘Alf’ Williams coined for those Sais who embrace Welsh culture and history. She was an awarded honours for MA in creative writing is from Trinity St David’s University. The first five chapters of Flint, written as part of her MA dissertation, were picked up by Honno and “the rest is history. Welsh history.”

For me, one of the most profound aspects of Redfern’s writing, is her universalist spiritual themes. She has somehow managed to write three novels that celebrate both the Islamic and Christian faiths without being preachy, prescriptive or sentimental. I asked her about the time she spent living in Turkey.

“I first went to Turkey in 1971. It was my first teaching post at private girl’s ‘lise’ (as in French lycée) in Adana, about twenty miles from Tarsus, of Paul fame, the ‘citizen of no mean city.’ We drove there, my first husband and me, in an A35 van stuffed full with belongings, setting out two weeks after I had passed my driving test. A terrifying experience, and hugely exciting, travelling across Europe into Turkey and through it, down to Adana in the far south. It was a far different Turkey from today’s tourist resorts: few private cars but huge TIR trucks and oxen-pulled carts and sheep herded through the centre of Ankara and terrible roads. I loved it. […] We took the girls to Konya for the Mevlana festival in early December, one year sleeping on the floor of a school room because there was ‘no room at the inn’. It was a very moving experience, nothing like the tourist attraction it has become, nor the clamouring pilgrimage of devout Muslims. Then, it was more a private experience, and a bit of a Road to Damascus for me. The words quoted in The storyteller’s granddaughter are very well known to Sufi Muslims: gel gel yenigel…come, come, come again, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.”

As a writer I am always interested in people’s writing process. Flint was Redfern’s first novel but it was not, infact, the beginning of her writing career. As a child she was a fan of the TV series: Voyage to the bottom of the sea.

I was so in love with the series, Admiral Horatio Nelson and Captain Lee Crane that I transcribed every episode into story form. I was probably about twelve or thirteen. I illustrated the stories with any clipping I got hold of, usually from the Radio Times – the programme details, rare stills…”

She went on to write romantic fiction for IPC magazines and later for Bella. After moving to Wales, she started following in the footsteps of nineteenth century Pembrokeshire gentleman whose Tour through Pembrokeshire was published in 1810. Her resulting articles were published in Pembrokeshire Life over the next six years. Flint, as I have already mentioned, was started as part of an MA in creative writing. I asked Redfern whether she was a plot-from-the-beginning writer and also how the whole writing and editing process works out for her.

“It is not possible to have than an idea of a character to begin with, in a long story. […] It’s like meeting someone for the first time. It takes time to get to know them, their complexities, their reactions…other writers say this, also that when what you write is not ‘in character’, it’s almost as if the character is there jogging your elbow and saying, ‘You can’t make me do that!’ It also makes it impossible to have a definite plot. There must be the idea of a start and finish but, as the characters develop, so they edge the narrative into new directions. To be honest, so does the research. Another little nugget, and another, and another, and suddenly there’s a whole new world view. As for editing! I cannot, try as I might, write a first rough draft and then edit. I have to revise and revise so that some days are spent on redrafting with hardly any new writing. Together with research, both chair-bound and out-and-about exploring, it all takes far too long. Sometimes I obsessively search for some tiny detail for hours – days – and it amounts to a few words in the text. I’ve said before that, contrary to advice, I use a camera to record scenes, weather, settings, information, and often use this instead of written notes – which I also make. So tips for emerging writers? Recognise the demands of different genre […] and never be without that notebook and pen/pencil but beyond that do what works for you.”

 

Some gems there for the writerly among us. “Do what works for you.” Is probably the key element – not only for novel writing, but for life in general. Though, I can certainly relate to Redfern’s inability to write a completely unedited first draft and, of course, the allure of historical research.

Maragaret Redfern’s three books: Flint, The storyteller’s granddaughter, and The heart rememebrs are all available through Gwasg Honno, the Welsh women’s press. I cannot recommend them highly enough and, with Christmas coming up, they would be the perfect gift for any lover or Welsh history or, indeed, literary historical fiction in general.

 

Blog twelve o Gymru – don’t judge a book by its cover.

When a reviewing copy of The heart remembers arrived at Stiwdio Maelor, I ripped open the postal package, saw the cover – burnt orange and black with a group of modern, trail-rider type horsemen – and thought there must have been a mistake. The story was mean to be set in the fourteenth century Europe, wasn’t it?

I checked the author’s name: Margaret Redfern. The subtitle promised an incredible adventure across fourteenth century Venice, Ypres and Wales. So what had happened? I opened the cover, saw the familiar mediaeval frieze across the first chapter heading. I began to read. Found familiar beloved characters, Redfern’s poetic prose, a tactile evocation of setting. I thought, the first thing I will write in my review is: don’t judge this book by its cover.

Right. Having established that important detail, let’s move onto the review.

Late autumn, 1336, Welsh trader, Dai ap Heddwyn ap Rickert, and his band of travellers approach a fog bound Venezia, in a cargo ship ship under the command of the ruthless and ambitious Marco Trevior. The journey from Attaleia has not been without tension. Even so, the group of travellers are not prepared for the vicious quarrel awaiting them on the quayside. Or the violent train of events this quarrel will set in motion – events that will see them scattered from Attaleia to the English Fens, and across the Welsh Marches to the Mawddach in North Wales.

In keeping with Flint and The storyteller’s granddaughter, The heart remembers celebrates the universal nature of faith and humanity in a way that makes you want to start believing all over again.

‘We are a family now. Not through blood but through love and pain and struggle.’ Mehmi looked down at the cradled tanbur, his long lashes casting little shadows onto his sharp cheekbones. ‘I shall sing songs of this time, of the terror and storm of sea, and of how we escaped, each one helping his brother, whether Christian or Muslim.’

Throughout the narrative, Redfern shifts viewpoint with dizzying regularity. This could be disconcerting if you were looking for a recognisable main character with a clearly defined story arc. But if you bear in mind that ‘the group’ is protagonist in this story you will not be disappointed. For although, Dai, the picaresque leader of the group does not change greatly, his companions do. Their actions force a final decision on him that is quite out of character. This leads to a climax that is both devastating and ultimately satisfying.

The heart remembers is a beautiful book – a celebration of life and faith and all that is good in humanity. It is a fitting sequel to The Storyteller’s granddaughter and the narrative Redfern so beautifully set in motion in Flint. And although Will the Wordsmith’s tale comes a full circle, I wonder whether the author may not be finished with this rich Welsh story seam. It may simply be wishful thinking but I fancy she may have hinted at a continuation of this family’s story towards the end of the novel:

‘There’ll come a day,’ he said, ‘when there’ll be a man to lead us. A man of courage and honour. When that day comes – and come it will – all who long to be free from tyrants, all the little men and women of this country will rise with him, and follow him.’

I for one hope that is a hint and that Redfern is up to her elbows in research as I write this blog. But whatever the case, we can look forward to future novels that celebrate goodness and human brotherhood in singing prose as The heart remembers does so beautifully. This book is worth reading, despite its modern trail riders and burnt orange and black cover. In fact, if you haven’t already done so why not start at the beginning of the series. Gwasg Honno, the Welsh women’s press has a number of its titles on sale this month.

If you are in a Australia and reading this, Honno is having a massive Amazon Australia Spring sale.


Blog three – a Welsh speaking holiday

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will know I have a small (cough) interest in the Welsh language. You may also remember that last year I went on a Say Something in Welsh Bootcamp and blogged about the experience. You may not realise, however, that a few of us from the Bootcamp kept in touch and that when I announced my imminent return to Wales, plans were put in motion for a second Welsh language holiday. Not an 'official' one this time. A holiday between five friends with the expressed intention of speaking Welsh. A Welsh speaking holiday! For no reason! Why not? People go on golf holidays and fishing holidays, hiking trips and literary tours. We would spend our holiday practicing the language of heaven.

Excited messages were exchanged on Facebook, phone calls made, a holiday house booked and money paid. As the date approached, we realised this thing was actually going to happen. We were going to take off our trainer wheels and speak Welsh for a whole week unassisted. Now, I must admit, along with the mounting excitement, I approached the week with a degree of trepidation. Bootcamp was so good. We laughed so much, learned so much. Could this holiday ever match that first experience?

From the outset, we knew the rules would have to be different. We would not have a fluent Welsh speaker to provide unknown vocabulary. We decided therefore that sentences like: Beth ydy gair am (what is the word for) 'sheets' would be acceptable. As would looking in a dictionary occasionally. But that we would not resort to English beyond those parameters. We would aim to use shops and cafes where we could be served in Welsh. In instances where we found ourselves caught in a non-Welsh speaking situation (of which there were few) we would keep conversation to the absolute minimum.

So how did we go? What were the highlights? What were the challenges?

Challenges

Of course, the primary challenge (and pleasure) was to speak Welsh. We were all super keen to do this. But the fact that we expressed how keen we were a number of times during the lead up to the holiday suggested we were a little afraid we wouldn't be able to do it. In the end, this was a non-issue. We do not have a relationship in English. We never have done. It would have felt unnatural to speak English.

For me, the week held another unexpected for challenge. This became apparent when on arrival my friends started unpacking massive, multiple packets of crisps. I don't normally eat crisps – far too many carbs and with way to much fat for this middle-aged-trying-not-to-put-on-weight Australian. My challenge was trying to resist the multiple packets of crisps while all around me other were munching. In Welsh! I made it almost to the end of the week before caving. Although, I do confess my self control didn't last beyond the first night as far as the chocolate was concerned.

Highlights

One of our number, expressed his intention to jog in the mornings. I suggested that this was something I should probably participate in too. The second morning, we set out along the Llwybr Mawddach (Mawddach path). Once he had warmed up, my friend picked up his pace. As he ran into the distance, the rain started to fall. I followed behind, my spectacles a foggy blur of steam and rain. As I reached my designated turning point, I jogged back along the now puddled path. Passing me on my homeward leg, my friend was clearly amused by the image of a bedraggled Aussie plodding along in the teeming rain. He called out Croeso i Gymru, Liz (Welcome to Wales). See, as well as the massive crisp eating tendencies, it would seem that Wales is a little wetter than Melbourne. Honesty compels me to admit that the wind is a bit parky too. For this reason, later in the week, when standing shivering on the turret at Castell Harlech with my collar pulled up and my coat zipped tight against the wind, I found myself saying:

Dw i ddim meddwl fi mod i'n Gymraes o gwbl. Merched o Awstralia ydw i (I don't think I'm a Welsh woman at all. I am a girl from Australia).

Of course, this comment was funny in Welsh. In fact, I find most things are funnier in Welsh. This could, of course be an element common to all language learners (we certainly laugh a lot at our St Augustine's, ESL dinners). The laughter coming from a three fold source:

  1. That you've followed the conversation well enough to make a joke
  2. That you've managed to express this humorous insight in real time
  3. That the people have understood you well enough to laugh in response

Another holiday highlight, was visiting the Aplaca farm of our friends Karen and Crispin. First, for an informal Sunday lunch and a walk around the farm, which was stunning. The second, as part of a group of local language learners. I confess, I felt a twinge of anxiety about attending a Welsh language afternoon with people who have attended regular Welsh classes, in Wales. Apart from my wonderful month at Cwrs Haf in Aberystwyth, the five of us on our Welsh language holiday had all learned Welsh outside of Wales, and primarily (although in my case not entirely) through the Say Something in Welsh course. We had a wonderful afternoon chatting with learners at all stages in their language learning journey. In fact, if you are reading this from Melbourne, where we use SSiW as our official class materials, I can safely say the system works. I don't think we shamed ourselves at all.

Our special visitor for the afternoon was the Welsh author Bethan Gwanas.

'Ydy'r fenyw 'na Bethan Gwanas?' Someone asked in hushed tones.

'Yes!' Eyes popping. 'It's Bethan Gwanas.'

'Be' y Bethan Gwanas?'

'Yes, it's the Bethan Gwanas.'

A final highlight, was spending the afternoon on a Pwllheli beach with Aran and Catrin Jones. Aran is the founder of Say Something in Welsh and he and his wife Catrin are the voices of the North Wales course. It was great to pick Aran's brains about what's coming next in the SSiW world and to joining him in waxwing lyrical about our hopes and fears for the Welsh language. I think, we may have also solved a most of the worlds problems while sitting in the sun on the Lleyn Peninsula that afternoon and afterwards as we ate pysgod a sglodion (fish and chips) while sitting on a Criccieth seaside wall.

It's amazing what can be achieved on a Welsh speaking holiday. 🙂

Hwyl am y tro!

 

Blog two – the Eisteddfod

Anyone who did music lessons is probably familiar with the concept of an eisteddfod – a festival in which artist not only performs but also competes. From the spelling you have probably gathered the word is Welsh. However, if you are an Australian, you may not realise that you have been saying the the word wrong for your whole life. It is not an eisted-fod. The word has a double ‘dd’ which makes a soft ‘th’ sound in Welsh, much like in the English word ‘others.’ Eisteddfod (pronounce correctly please) is made up of two Welsh words: eistedd, which means to sit, and bod/fod which is the verb to be. The closest correlation you will probably get for eisteddfod in modern English is a ‘session.’

These days Eisteddfodau (the correct plural of eisteddfod) occur throughout the year in Wales. But the main eisteddfod – the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol (national eisteddfod) is held during the first week of August. It receives over 160,000 visitors over an eight day period. It is the pinnacle of the Welsh cultural calendar Here’s what the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol website says about itself:

“All visitors have an eisteddfod story to tell. Whether they’ve competed annually for many years or if they’ve just been to the Maes (field) once a few years ago. They’ve all experienced the magic of the National Eistddfod.”

Which, I guess, is a convenient segue for me to tell you how this year’s magic worked for me.

Driving

As with any outdoor festival there is a massive caravan and camping site attached to the Eisteddofd. The less intrepid book B&Bs and self catering Accomodation close to the Maes. I drove from Corris – a distance of about thirty eight miles – thirty eight, misty Welsh miles sharing the road with tractors, buses and the occasional stray sheep. Google maps told me it would take an hour and ten minutes. But … I tend to slow down on hair-pin bends. A sensible strategy. Though it doesn’t seem to have occurred to some drivers in Land Rovers and luxury cars. One of the best things about driving to the Eisteddofd is the flags and banners strung up along the houses. The closer you get the more flags. Somehow the excitement seems to mount too.

Volunteering

I put my name down to volunteer in Maes D – the learners tent. This involved serving coffee and tea and wandering around Maes D and chatting to people interested in learning Welsh as well as those seeking a safe place in order to practice their Cymraeg. For my first shift, I teamed with two local women. This lead to the inevitable conversation:

“Where do you come from?”

“Australia. But I was born in England. My mum was Welsh.”

“You learned to speak Welsh from her?”

“No. I learned as an adult.”

“But… how did you learn Welsh in Australia?”

I’ve had this conversation so many times I have requested Say Something in Welsh business cards.

Concert

Monday night, I went to a concert in the Pavillion. It was called a Noson Llawen, which is traditional way of spending an evening in Welsh culture – an informal evening in which people stand up to sing, recite, or tell stories. In this case a host of local performers provided the entertainment. In between, the announcer told jokes in Welsh. I got one … maybe two of them. The highlight of the evening was Dafydd Iwan (a local legend) singing: Yma o hyd. This song is a kind of unofficial national anthem in Wales. It basically details the history conquest. The chorus between each verse can roughly be translated as:

“We are still here,

We are still here,

Despite the worst of everyone and everything,

We are still here.”

The first time round, everyone joined in the singing. For the encore, everyone stood and sang louder. Then there was a silence. Red dragons flickered across the stage screens. The music for the anthem started.

I had no trouble driving home after the concert. Though, the road was long and winding. I had lit up like a glow worm inside.

Friends

Thursday evening, was the parti penblwydd (birthday party) Say something in Welsh. Forty of us were scheduled to meet at a hotel in Trallwng (Welshpool). A number of us gave lifts to friends without cars who were staying in Maes B (camping ground). I ended up with a friend from Missisippi in my passenger seat. We got to the hotel okay and had a pleasant evening catching up with far flung members of our learners community. When it came time to leave, my friend suggested we drive back exactly the same way we had come. I agreed … In theory. But I hadn’t accounted for the one way roads in the centre of Trallwng. I couldn’t find the way we had come. In frustration, I punched Meifod (town closest to Maes B) into Google maps and activated the directions. I’m not sure what the staff at Google maps were drinking the night they mapped Wales but we had a dark, snaking tour through the Welsh back roads with hedgerows brushing the car on both sides. It was late. My friend wasn’t talking much. Just staring at the movie blue dot. Every so often I asked.

“How’s it going? Are we heading in the right direction?”

To which question he replied:

“I think so.”

This went on for what seemed like hours – same words, over and over, with a ghost-white mist drifting across the roads. I was tired. About to hit a jet lag wall. After Maes B, I would face a further hour and a half drive back to Corris. I started feeling tense. But trying not to show it. Not sure, I succeeded entirely. I think maybe my friend felt a little jaded too. When we turned the final corner and a saw blaze of the Eisteddfod lights, he said:

“Here. Drop me off here.”

“I can’t. The sign says Buses Only.”

“It’s empty! There aren’t any buses.”

I left my friend in the bus parking lot and drove home. As the clock turned the night into the morning and the Welsh language radio service ended, I heard an Australian man being interviewed about Australia’s disastrous loss in the cricket. I haven’t inherited the sporting gene. The results didn’t bother me overly. But the man’s accent caused a wave of homesickness. If I’d been a character from Harry Potter and found myself able to Aparate, I think, I might have wished myself home.

 

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