Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: welsh learner (Page 1 of 3)

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?’

Owain Glyn Dwr’s offspring – and Iolo Morgannwg’s meddling

Researching a novel is like tackling a giant jigsaw puzzle. You start with an image in your mind. In this instance, a woman alone in a prison looking back over her life. But before you can form that image you need to tip the pieces out on the table and begin sorting them – into corners, edges and colours. Or in this instance, historical details, character motivations and story threads. To this end, I have been reading reading books on kings, medieval daily life, women’s roles, soldiers, armour and most recently a book on growing up in the middle ages.

Growing up? I hear you ask. Do you intend to give a blow-by-blow account of your protagonist’s life?

No, but experience tells me you need to know a great deal more about a character than ever appears on the page. Even if I do not fictionalise Marged’s childhood, I need to know what it looked like. Added to which, she raised offspring of her own. According to the nineteenth century antiquarian and genealogist, Jacob Youde William Lloyd, Marged bore Owain Glyn Dwr eleven children. A shattering number for anyone considering writing a novel. I mean, the woman would have spent the whole time, pregnant or giving birth. Which may have been the case for many medieval women. But in story terms, there are only so many times you can show the pacing husband, difficult delivery and lusty newborn infant before people start to yawn. I shared this problem with my Welsh class in the bar of the Celtic Club (yes, there is a price to having me as a tutor).

‘I’m going to have to kill a few children,’ I said’. Eleven is an impossible number.’

‘You can’t do that!’ A circle of shocked faces. ‘You have to be accurate.’

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They were right, of course. That is one of the challenges of writing historical fiction, the balance of crafting a good story against the historical record. Every novelist sets their own parameters. For me (and it seems my Welsh class), it must involve a degree of accuracy.

But eleven children! When were they born? What were their personalities? How did they all live before the revolt? What about afterwards, when their lands were declared forfeit? How did poor Marged stop them from sickening and squabbling while hiding out in the mountains of Snowdonia? (yes, insert the remembered pain of taking four children on family holidays here). In fact, this book was beginning to take on the feel of a vicarious form of post traumatic stress syndrome. But, apart from becoming a mass murderer, I could not see any way out of the situation.

I mentioned this problem (in an electronic form of a hand-wringing) to Gideon Brough, a historian, whose book The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dwr is due for release in December, thinking he may know of of a cave, or safe-house (big enough to house eleven children) or, failing that, evidence of an illness that wiped out half the family. His was answer was in fact, infinitely more satisfying:

Contemporary sources only appear to confirm four children born to Owain and Margaret; Gruffydd, Maredudd, Catrin and Alys. Iolo Goch’s poem says that they came in pairs, the longer list of names you might have read appears to have been invented by Iolo Morgannwg centuries later.

Next Tuesday, after Welsh class, someone asked how my research was going (actually, they may not have asked but, as I said before, there is a price). I told them about the Morgannwg theory.

‘But,’ one brave soul asked, ‘why would Iolo have made that up?’

Indeed, why did Iolo make anything up? He was probably the biggest literary forger in Welsh history, creating a vast body of work, reputedly dating back to the druids. The whole bardic ceremony at the Welsh National Eisteddfod is, in fact, a product of his fecund (always wanted to use that word) imagination. Now, it seemed he’d also foisted an imagined family on Glyn Dwr.

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At this point, I hear a collective howl from all those who claim descent from Glyn Dwr. You are out there, I know you are, Wikitree and Geni.com attest your existence. But do take heart, there are also rumours of multiple illegitimate offspring. So many, in fact, that I wonder poor Owain had time to pull his braise up, let alone lead a national uprising. But for my part, I’m sticking with the four children mentioned in the contemporary record – Gruffudd, Catrin, Alys, and Maredudd -because four is far more manageable in terms of crafting a novel. In fact, I may have even lived that situation.

Permission to create – or ditching the fear factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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?

 

Reading in two languages

When I left Wales, I knew my language ability would cease to climb. I’d not lose the ability to speak (albeit haltingly) but the angle of my upward trajectory would be less acute. This was inevitable, I told myself, despite the opportunities I’d carve out for myself. But I would make an effort to read in Welsh regularly. Which is why, when I received a reviewing copy of The Seasoning, by Mannon Stefan Ross, I decided to read, Blasu, the acclaimed Welsh language version first. An odd way of reviewing a book but, hey, why not?

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I struck out boldly. Trying not to look up every unknown word but to glean meaning from the surrounding sentences. I’d done this with Bethan Gwanas’ book, I Botany Bay (yes, a book about a Welsh convict) and Zonia Bowen’s autobiography, Dy bob Di Fydd fy Mhobl i,  as well as the multiple other learner’s titles, I’d read over the years. My preference being to read and enjoy a text, whatever my ability, rather than turn it into a translation exercise.

Blasu/The Seasoning is a story about an elderly woman, Pegi,  who is asked by her adult son to write down her memories. I could see, by flicking through the book, that these would be based around recipes. All well and good but, due to my snail-pace Welsh, it took me a while to realise the novel would be changing viewpoint every chapter, that the memories recorded were not in fact Pegi’s but the memories of others in relation to her. Quite a unique way to tell a story and beautifully rendered but by about the fourth chapter, I realised I was missing some of the nuances. I would enjoy this more, I old myself, if I read chapter-by-chapter, in Welsh and English.

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The ensuing chapters were a delight (this is the official review part of this blog). My mouth watered on reading the recipes and I found seeing the context in which Pegi had come by them poignant. Added to which, the story was set in Llanegryn, a tiny Welsh village not far from Corris, in which local landmarks such as Bird Rock, were familiar to me. As I read, each alternating-chapter, I found the story disturbing, uplifting and shocking by turns. For Blasu/The Seasoning is not a feel good novel. It is a literary novel, tackling the subject of mental illness and memories and how to live with horrifying once-made decisions. A thought provoking book, in any language and, if you do not speak Welsh, Honno’s English language version, Seasoning, is definitely worth obtaining.

However, I must say, as a language exercise the alternating chapter approach was flawed. I found myself leaping into bed more eagerly on the English nights, than the Welsh. In fact, by the time I got to Chocolate Popcorn chapter, I was too caught up in the story to bother. I gave myself over to the English version in full abandon and, although it is a sad, shocking, story, it also contained love and redemption. When I turned the last page, I did not want to let the characters go.

So, what is the moral of the story? If you are a non-Welsh speaker and want to read a thought provoking book set in north-west Wales, The Seasoning is recommended. If you are a Welsh learner and want to read Blasu as a language exercise, go for it, but do not under any circumstances keep a translation in the house. It is far too tempting. Better to save that one-click option until you’ve turned the final page. Then you can honestly say you enjoyed the book twice as much as you’d expected.

Blog twenty-nine (o Loegr) – the things I will miss

Mountains, everywhere

Bare, beautiful, majestic

The sound of running water

Slate underfoot, overhead

In the walls around me

Sheep dotted hillsides

Rust red bracken

Mists, lowering

Clouds scudding past

At eye level

Rain in the chapel garden

Narrow roads

Backing up, hill starts

Buses stuck in the village

Having two extra vowels

Like blood in my veins

Two ways of seeing

Road signs in Welsh

Living next to the Slaters

Ten steps from the shop

Sitting in the porch

After closing time

Trying to catch a WIFI signal

We will be waiting, they said

In the pub last night

I will come back, I replied

Yes, definitely

Ie, wna i ddod yn ôl

Yn bendant!

 

Blog twenty-eight o Gymru – looking back and looking forward

I have three days left in Wales. I am walking around with the same wide-eyed wonder with which I started my time here – trying to soak it all in, aware of the fierce beauty of Snowdonia, grasping every opportunity to speak Welsh, to browse Welsh book shops, listen to people taking in the streets, trying to sink it deep into my soul, not knowing when I will return. Only that I will, absolutely, definitely.

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I came here with three distinct goals:

  • Improve my Welsh
  • Make a positive contribution to Stiwdio Maelor
  • Finish my manuscript

As I walk around the streets trying to etch sights and sounds into my soul, I am also assessing what I have achieved.

Am I fluent yet? I guess you’d have to define fluent. If you mean speak and write Welsh as well as I do English, then, no, not even close. If you mean able to participate in Welsh language events, laugh at (some) of the jokes, ask questions, conduct day-to-day conversations, well, I’m getting close. There is an elusiveness to fluency in Welsh, due to the strength of the English language neighbours, the relentlessness of the holiday cottage movement and the inability, unwillingness, did-my-best-but-failed attitudes of the incomers. Learners are constantly forced to swap to English. It is not only the newcomers who are at fault. Many Welsh speakers are too shy, impatient, this-is-all-too-hard about the situation. I don’t know what the answer is. But I suspect people need to re-discover a sense of playfulness towards the Welsh language. To learn to use a little more and a little more and a little more – perhaps with simple courses like how to order a bus ticket (for both drivers, learners and local Welsh speakers). It seems to me that the three groups aren’t talking, that it is not only the language learners who need educating. 🙂

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Stiwdio Maelor? A wonderful initiative, the inspiration of Australian artist Veronica Calarco. I wasn’t sure how I would go living in what is effectively a shared house – not to mention a grassroots organisation run on a shoestring, without WIFI! But I have enjoyed the experience and the too-short friendships formed with the various artists who have passed through Maelor’s doors. I have loved living next door to the pub, not having too many choices about what to do on a Saturday evening, knowing everyone in the village. I have also enjoyed introducing people from around the world to Wales. I have felt buoyed by every positive response, personally affronted by every negative reaction. I have talked about Wales’ history, it’s language, and its right to self-determination. I have been told my enthusiasm for Wales is infectious. I hope so, that my contribution to Maelor has also been a positive contribution to Wales. That I have in fact started a plague.

The manuscript? It’s finished! Yes, truly.

‘You know a manuscript is never truly finished,’ someone warned me. ‘Not until it is published.’

I know this. I also know that if my novel is ever picked up by a publisher they will want to make changes. However, I’m talking about an emotional line in the sand here. I have given this book everything — all I can possibly give. Of course, it could be written differently. Trust me, I have considered every possibility. But this is the story I wanted to write, this is the way I have chosen to tell it. If there is no market for this book, then that is my future. But I am not going back. I am ready to start writing and researching another novel.

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We will have drinks in the Slaters Arms on Saturday night to celebrate the above areas of achievement – and to welcome Veronica back to Wales. If you are free, I hope you will join us. Apparently, it is considered appropriate for me to read a piece from my manuscript. I will do so. If only to reinforce the line in the sand.

Hwyl Fawr am y tro…

 

Blog twenty six o Gymru – a Bootcamp hat trick

Eighteen months ago I went on a Say Something in Welsh Bootcamp. Fortunately, it did not involve early mornings, sit ups, positive affirmations or green smoothies. It was a language Bootcamp, a chance to live in a wholly Welsh speaking environment for a week. It was incredible but I won't repeat myself. You can read all about that week here.

After Bootcamp, a few of us stayed in touch. When my Maelor plans fell into place we decided to do hold our own 'unofficial ' Bootcamp. Essentially, we would have a self-directed holiday in which we chose to speak only in Welsh. We weren't sure how it would go without the official 'English Not.' But we needn't have worried because we don't really know each other in English.

It felt natural to speak Welsh.

When my return dates to Australia firmed up (yes, I am coming back) we decided to have one more Welsh language holiday together, a weekend this time. Unfortunately, one of the group wasn't able to make it, so we were down to four. But this didn't diminish our pleasure. Which is a good sign. My friends will be able to go on having Bootcamps without me (sob).

One of the over-riding features of these holidays (apart from speaking Welsh) is laughter. For some reason, I laugh more with this group of friends than others. I think perhaps, I laugh more in Welsh. But that is a whole new topic for discussion, something to do with letting go of eloquence and maturity and communicating like a child again. Whatever the reason, with this particular group of friends it feels normal to:

  • Stand outside a cafe and look at the menu to see whether it is bilingual
  • Choose a restaurant on the basis of whether we will be able to order in Welsh
  • Ask Welsh speaking friends to join us for the evening
  • Talk about the future of Cyrsiau Cymraeg i Oedolion (Welsh for adults courses)
  • Look up Welsh words in the dictionary
  • Marvel at how apt they are
  • For example losgfynydd – volcano (literally burnt mountain), drewgi – skunk (literally stink dog)
  • Discuss politics
  • Movies
  • Songs
  • Books
  • Life
  • All in Welsh
  • I mean, why not?
  • Scan the real estate for a place in which to start our Welsh speaking commune
  • Point out suitable locations as we travel around the countryside our plans growing more expansive by the mile
  • Visit the Amgueddfa Llechi Genedlaethol (national slate museum) and read the information boards together in Welsh
  • Sit in the back at the back row of the museum theatrette listening to the Welsh language version of the introductory film
  • With the louder English language soundtrack blaring in the background
  • Thinking what an apt metaphor that is for the whole messy situation
  • Compare how much we'd understood of the film afterwards
  • Realise we'd understood most of it
  • Or at least misunderstood exactly the same things
  • To be asked: are you English? by a woman with a plum in her mouth
  • 'Oh, I see,' plum woman replied, after we'd satisfied her curiosity. 'I thought you were speaking Norwegian
  • Well, of course, why on earth would anyone be speaking Welsh in Wales?
  • Play Jack Straws (a favourite game of my childhood)
  • Learn the Welsh name of every read, green, blue and yellow tool in the Jack Straws box
  • Including masculine, feminine and plural forms
  • I mean, that's normal, right?
  • Wonder aloud whether this would be a good exercise to do with my class in Melbourne
  • Imagine their shudder of horror as they read this blog
  • Test each other from the Oxford Visual dictionary
  • On and off through the weekend
  • Sometimes for over an hour
  • I mean, we all test our friends with picture dictionaries on holidays don't we?
  • Translate ABBA songs into Welsh
  • Sing them
  • Badly
  • Late at night
  • Wonder whether this would be a good entry for the next SSiW Eisteddfod
  • Consider doing an official Bootcamp, just to perform the item
  • With all the ABBA costumes and actions
  • Visit Castell y Bere – one of Llewelyn Fawr's more remote mountain citadels
  • Image in a Wales in which Owain Glyndwr's vision had prevailed
  • In which it always had its own parliament
  • And laws
  • And language
  • Without the 'Welsh Not'
  • Or the 'Treachery of the Blue Books'
  • Without Maggie Thatcher as Prime Minister
  • Or Tony Blair, or David Cameron
  • To feel sad, so sad for what might have been
  • Knowing there are people in England who would have liked an alternative history too

 

 

Blog twenty three o Gymru – Y Fari lwyd

If celebrating Christmas on the 6th of January felt strange, celebrating the New Year on January 16th, felt even stranger. But there are two worlds in Wales – remember the Harry Potter analogy – and while the rest of the world settled into a boring old mid-January malaise, Cymru Cymraeg celebrated another ancient tradition – Y Fari Lwyd (the Grey Mary).

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If you Google “Y Fari Lwyd” Wikipedia will tell you that Y Fari Lwyd is a wassailing tradition similar to English folk customs involving hobby horses and other stock characters. This is a fairly anglo-centric explanation of the tradition. You could just as easily say:

English wassailing traditions involving hobby horses and other familiar characters are most likely derived from the South Wales folk custom known as Y Fari Lwyd, a Celtic ritual, possibly of Indo-European origin, which involves groups of men carrying a be-ribboned horse skull between private homes and public houses and singing impromptu verse in order to gain admission.

In fact, I just did. 🙂

Y Fari Lywd is primarily a South Wales folk custom – traditionally celebrated between Christmas and New Year. But in recent years, it has been taken up in other parts of Wales and, like Plygain, is celebrated according to the Julian calendar. Which is how I ended celebrating New Year, in mid-Wales, last Saturday evening.

Here’s how the night panned out for me:

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  • I boarded a mini-bus in Machynlleth
  • Travelled to the Brigands Inn, picking up others en-route
  • At the Brigands Inn, Y Fari Lwyd and other characters – including an Ostler, a sergeant, a merriman, and Pwnsch a Siwan (Punch and Judy) stood outside.
  • Others gathered inside
  • Y Fari parti sang a tune asking for admission

“Wel dyma ni’n dwad (Well here we come)
Gy-feillion di-niwad (Innocent friends)
I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave)
I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave)
I ofyn am gennad i ganu (To ask leave to sing)”

(an example of a typical opening song)

  • The people inside made witty excuses in verse for why admittance was not possible
  • Y Fari parti responded
  • And on it went – until they ran out of ripostes and personal insults
  • At which point Y Fari parti was admitted
  • Food and drink were served
  • People danced and sang
  • Then we got back on the mini bus
  • And travelled to the next location – The Buckleys Arms
  • Where it started over again
  • (yes, it’s a pub crawl with poetry and singing)

At the end of the evening, a huge party gathered in the back bar of the Llew Goch (Red Lion). People turned up with instruments, song books were handed out (for people like me) and we sang – defiant folk songs, patriotic anthems, and heartbreaking laments.

  • All in Welsh
  • Because language is the heart of this culture
  • Along with music
  • And it is beautiful

 

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PS. The evening was organised by Arfon Hughes of Dinas Mawddwy. He composed many of the Mari parti’s verses, along with Huw Jones and children from the local area. Mair Tomos Ifans and Gwawr Davalan composed the verses sung from inside the tafarns. Neither parti had seen each other’s compositions beforehand, the challenge being to choose the appropriate verses and respond on the spur of the moment. Spur of the moment! Are you picking up a theme? Word play and impromptu eloquence are an important part of being Welsh.

Blog twenty-two o Gymru – a second Christmas

If you thought Christmas was over, think again. The early Celtic Church celebrated Christmas on 25th of December – according to the Julian Calendar, which equates to  the 7th of January on the Gregorian Calendar (the one followed in most Western Countries today). Which is how, this week, I found myself sitting in a traditional Welsh carol service.

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Plygain, is the word for this occasion, in Welsh. An ancient, possibly pre-Christianity festival that became part of the Church calendar and was traditionally held in the early hours of Christmas morning. Attendees would often stay up all night, dancing to the harp, before setting out with flaming torches to escort the priest to the church for the commencement of the service.

Now if you know one thing about Wales, it is probably the love of choral singing. Although the mass, male voice choirs we associate with Wales today were most likely a product of of the industrial era, singing in harmony is a much older Welsh tradition. Here is what Gerald of Wales had to say about it in the 12th century:

When they come together to make music, the Welsh sing their traditional songs, not in unison, as is done elsewhere, but in parts, in many modes and modulations. When a choir gathers to sing, which happens often in this country, you will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers.

Wednesday night a group of children kicked off the Plygain program. They rose, in silence, walked to the front of the church, pitched a note, and began to sing unaccompanied, and in harmony. After they had returned to their seats, a group of teenagers rose, and sang a different song. Followed by other groups, duos and individuals, all without introduction or apparent instructions. Until it almost every person in the church had contributed. At which point, the vicar rose, and I started shrugging into my coat, thinking we had come to the end of the service.

No, think again. After singing a community carol, the whole program started over, with the same group following the same groups, duos and individuals, until we had gone right though the ranks of the assembled for a second time. At which point the vicar rose again, we sang another carol and I had a strange sitting-in-the-front-pew-unable-to-leave-sense that the whole cycle was about to start over.

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I wasn’t bored, quite the opposite. Plygain carols are not familiar carols translated into Welsh. They are much older and often written in the Dorian mode and, if you add to this the unaccompanied singing in harmony, the effect is quite stunning. But I’d heard these stories of all night Plygain services, and I was sitting towards the front of the church which meant I couldn’t leave, without everyone knowing, added to which I had a sense that, if I did leave, I would have somehow failed the Welsh test.

Fortunately, my Welshness was not put to the test on Wednesday evening. All the men in the church rose, sung a final song, Can y Swper (supper song) and we were all invited to the Neuadd y Pentref (village hall) for a bite to eat. I wasn’t intending to stay for supper. I have allergies that cut out a host of foods (never easy to explain in Welsh) added to which it was my weekly protein only day (even harder to explain). Besides, I didn’t know anyone. There is nothing worse than sitting alone in a hall full of people who have known each other for years.

Escape wasn’t an option, however. People were way to friendly, which is how I found myself sitting at a table trying to explain why I only had half a boiled egg on my plate. After I had gone through the explanations about the egg and growing up in Australia and studying Welsh as an adult, some of which I’m sure got lost in translation (there was this woman who came all the way from Australia to see our Plygain service and can’t eat anything but boiled eggs), I asked questions about the Plygain tradition. Here is what I learned:

  • Traditionally the evening starts with children
  • Then teenagers
  • Then a group from the church
  • After which the order is random
  • Plygain is not a concert
  • All are welcome to participate
  • The song list is not known beforehand
  • Once a song has been sung, it is not to be repeated
  • Which is why everyone performed more than once (traditionally three times)
  • In the same order
  • As it is a kind of test (see I got that bit right) on rising to the occasion
  • Which means groups have to prepare for every eventuality
  • And, finally, Can y Swper is not a song to announce supper (what were you thinking?)
  • It is a song about the Last Supper
  • Because traditional Plygain services do no focus on the baby in the manger
  • The tell the whole story
  • From birth, to death, to resurrection

 

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