Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: Writing (Page 1 of 4)

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

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

Let’s start with the generosity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m going to Wales again Mum.’

‘That’s nice dear, when?’

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

‘Oh, for how long?’

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

‘You’ll miss my birthday.’

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

‘My eightieth birthday.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes, dear, I will.’

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

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

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Okay so this is getting real – an author interview and a photo shoot

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Round Table Discaussion

Two important things happened last week. First, I was included in a historical fiction round table discussion on Sophie Schiller’s blog. If you take time to read the discussion – and it is well worth a read – you will notice two things. 

Firstly, only one male writer was interviewed. This is not a matter of discrimination (the participants were largely voluntary) so much as a reflection of who is reading and writing historical fiction. Women. Certainly a quick perusal of the Historical Novels Society membership list would bear this out. Yet, women writers are consistently under reviewed. Interviews like Sophie’s help correct the imbalance. Yay, Sophie!

The second thing you’ll notice if you read the interview is that I am the only author on the list who has not yet had a full length work published. So, like, I was so lucky to be included. Reading back over the interview, I could have answered some questions differently. Bit mostly, I think it went okay. If you have time, click on the link and let me know. 

Photo shoot

As a consequence of the round table discussion, I had a note from my publisher. Actually, hang on a sec, let’s just pause and reapeat those words. I had a note from my publisher 🙂 🙂 🙂 saying I would need a bigger (as in pixels) photo for future publicity. She was right. I knew this to be true. As my current headshot is a cropped photo taken at our son’s wedding with my husband’s head artfully removed. Oops! 

Fortunately, our daughter houseshares with a photographer, Anthony Cleave, and as Anthony took our family photo at Christmas time, I had already seen his work. An added bonus was that he was happy to do the shoot at my house. Added to which, my daughter Priya decided to come along for the ride. This made the whole event pretty relaxed with Priya telling me I needed a necklace and fluffing up my hair and generally making me laugh. We had some silly moments.

   

 

Four hours later, I received seven digital photos through Onefile. I posted them to our family Viber group for a vote. This is the one we decided on.

 

 

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Back at work and other exhausting aspects of daily life

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I’m back into the full swing of daily life and if going bush at Easter felt like rubber hitting the road, going back to work felt infinitely worse. Not that I’m complaining. I have an amazing job in a fantastic library service with wonderful colleagues but logging into an inbox with 2,897 emails was bound to put skid marks on my soul. Fortunately, I am a quick deleter or should I say reader. As I culled my inbox making mass irreversible decisions, I did notice one consistent theme – blocked public toilets. 

It’s good to know people have been focussed on the important things while I was away. 

Back at Welsh class we facing a crisis of too many learners and not enough not tutors. Added to which there has been a coup by the dirty rotten northerners. I arrived back thinking I’d be picking up where I left off with my Hwntw (southern) class only to find myself back with the beginners teaching a Gog (northern) version of the NEW SSiW course. This has meant the production of a whole new set of flash cards. Other tutors don’t do this. They use neat handouts and words printed on Roldex cardboard. But I can’t, teach this way. Though, I have zero evidence my colourful efforts are any more effective. For me, getting my head around the course material involves Google images and laminating. 

The good thing about teaching the beginners, is an opportunity to record what does and doesn’t work. By the end of the year, I should have a basic tutors guide for others to follow.

I am back at the gym and, after my experience of doing Seiclo Dan Dô (under roof cycling) in Machynlleth, I have been braving weekly spin classes. Last Wednesday the teacher did a kind of creative exercise in which he pretended we were racing out on the open road. As well as riding ‘up hills’ and turning ‘sharp corners’ and being told we were great and could do it and that we really love the climbs, he divided the class into four groups and pretended we were in a peloton. As each group took their turn in the lead they had to pedal hard against the wind. It wasn’t real – the peloton, or taking the lead, or breaking the wind – but as I rose red-faced and gasping in my saddle I thought: I’m into this. Followed by, what does this gullibility say about me?

While settling back down my manuscript has been in the drawer while trusted friends do a final read through (the word drawer being a little like the mythical peloton). Meanwhile, I have started researching Australian publishing options. There’s no rush. I have some irons in the fire. But my manuscript is sitting right on the border between young adult and adult fiction – a wonder tale set on board a nineteenth century emigrant vessel with both teenage and adult viewpoints. Sadly no one seems to have a designated submissions editor for historical and slightly mystical crossover novels with multi-age viewpoint characters. Call me cowardly. But I don’t like rejection. So if you could read my blog over the coming months and tell me how much you’re enjoying it, and how great I am, and how much you’re loving my climbs, you will help keep my therapy bills to a minimum.

Finally, I’ve had a brief brush with fame the last couple of weeks. Bethan Gwanas interveiwed me about my language journey. The ensuing article can be found in the 31 March edition of Golwg. I also did an interview with Geriant Lloyd for Radio Cymru. My segment comes 59.15 minutes into the program. I am speaking a lot faster than in my earlier interview with Siân Cothi and a lot less fluidly than I was speaking six weeks ago in Cymru. Ond fel na mae – but that’s how it is…for the time being.

L

 

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

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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…

 

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

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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.

 

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Blog Twenty-one o Gymru – a thought for the New Year

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We have a miniature Italianate garden on the hill above Corris. There are no sign posts to mark its existence. The gates are locked, entry forbidden. Yet, somehow, everyone finds their way up the narrow rutted path to see the hotchpotch of miniature concrete structures. I am one of them. The garden path being part of my regular afternoon walk. I never fail to stop, mesmerised by what lies beyond the padlocked gates.

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Started in the late 1970’s the garden is the work of Mark Bourne a retired chicken farmer and one time caravan park owner who went to Italy and, upon his return, begun constructing a garden from photographs. A folly, some have called the garden, or outsider art, at once lovely and ugly. It is a fairy grotto of twisting paths, miniature buildings, and statues, the tallest of which is about two and half metres in height.

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I am not an artist. So, I cannot comment on the artistic merit of Mr Bourne’s work. Yet, on another level, the garden speaks to me. I imagine a man, an ordinary every day man, like you or me, who married a woman and did a mundane job, maybe raised children, who went on an annual seaside holiday and admired miniature villages and dolls houses and mini-golf courses (hey, I’m a writer, I’m allowed to make stuff up). A man who somewhere deep inside him might have dreamed of being an artist. But he came from a working class family and there were bills to pay. So the dream lay dormant, until one overseas holiday fired his imagination and he began to create.

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I imagine the days leading up to the construction of his first statue. Perhaps discussing it with his wife, over boiled eggs and toast, of a morning? He would have made drawings, measurements, purchased steel and cement. Then, one day he would have started, not knowing whether the project was going to work. Maybe he was terrified, making that first statute? Filled with self-doubt. This was not for the likes of him. Only clever, artistic people were allowed to create. But then the first stature looked okay. So he made another one and another. Until he filled the whole garden.

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Mr Bourne passed away in 2009 so I have missed my opportunity to ask how it felt. But as we go into the New Year, I can’t help thinking, about my own dreams, one of which was to live in Wales. The other being to write a novel. Ten years down the track from when I first started, I am almost there. I have two more months left in Wales and I intend to finish this draft before I leave. Will it be good enough for publication? The jury is still out on that one. But I think, if my imagined Mr Bourne was still alive, he would say don’t worry about not being good enough. Don’t worry about what other people think. Just create, in wild, reckless, abandon, and let the world find its way to your gates.

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i chi!

 

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Blog Fourteen o Gymru – in preparation for an exhibition

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An exhibition

The artist is keen

She’s been here two months

Has new works to show

Autumnal works

A Gujarati heritage

I wonder! would Raj open the show?

Raj, you mean, Raj Verma?

The Bollywood star?

The event now getting

Big as Ben Hur

We’ll have readings

Readings!

Yes, why not?

You – and the other writer

You’ll have something, surely?

Yes, you do – but

Twenty minutes each

Will that be enough?

We’ll need posters

And invites

Facebook event

Oh, yes, and, I think

We should paint

Paint?

Yes, nothing, fancy

Over the wallpaper

Although

On second thoughts

I have a steamer

And a sander

We’ll do the lot

Together

It’ll be fun

You write a press release

Print posters

Your name is on everything

But what to read?

A short story?

Part of your manuscript?

No! You can’t

Your work is sh*t!

Perhaps, no one will come?

But – wait, no

That’s why you’re here

To grow

Take your work seriously

Besides

This isn’t about you

It’s about the other artists

And Maelor

And the exhibition

Which will be wonderful

With

Or without

Your contribution

 

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

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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.


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Blog eleven o Gymru – three women on a boat

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When I told members of my Melbourne Welsh class I would be living in Wales for six months, two of my classmates announced their intention to visit me. I wasn’t convinced this would happen. Promises made in the bar after Welsh class are not binding. So, when I dragged my case across the Abergavenny railway bridge, it was something akin to a miracle to see Sue and Nicky walking towards me. It was Nicky’s first visit to Wales. For Sue, it was a return to the country of her birth. For all of us, it was pilgrimage towards something in which we have a tangible investment – yr hen iaith.

Sometime during the planning process, we had decided a canal holiday would be an essential part of the experience. Which is how, half an hour after meeting in Abergavenny, we found ourselves taking possession of a narrow boat. The training took over an hour. We learned how to tie knots, clean the propellor, charge the boat, steer with a tiller, fill the water tanks, turn on the power inverter and a host of other grubby, miscellaneous tasks. As I stood in owl-eyed concentration, listening to the man from Castle Narrow Boats explain the various procedures, I know I wasn’t the only one thinking: what have we got ourselves into?

It rained torrentially the first day. The words: ‘this is a bit miserable’ may have been uttered. But around mid-afternoon, as we sat drying our socks, skirts and shoes on the radiator the sun decided to put in an appearance. After that, we enjoyed slow mornings over coffee (an addiction to which we all freely admitted), traveling at a snail’s pace, coffees in cafes, dinners in pubs, and discussing every small decision and manoeuvre. We laughed far more than we could have imagined, especially when climbing into our coffin like bunks. After a glass or two of Reverend James, one of us (who shall remain nameless) decided the very Anglicised inhabitants of Crickhowell needed educating. A black texta was the proposed implement of instruction. The all English banner advertising a forthcoming literary festival need the words Gŵyl Lenyddiaeth added. Not to mention every-second retirement cottage with an English name. Fortunately, the shops were closed and we didn’t have a black texta, so Crughywel (proper spelling), missed out on the bi-lingual transformation. But we did enjoy making up wildly bigoted statements in Welsh as we walked back to the narrow boat that may have involved the words Sais and cropian and dros y fin.

 

 

After our canal boat holiday, we headed up to North Wales where it soon became apparent that the ‘opportunities to practice speaking Welsh’ that one eager member of the group had organised, were causing quite a bit of consternation in the breasts of others. The word fanatic may have crossed lips. Along with an observation that some were far more interested in Welsh men than yr hen iaith.

These differences established, we did all the touristy things one would expect in North Wales – Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon), Beddgelert, Betws-y-coed, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerwchwrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (yes, I can say it), photographing an ancient burial chamber and, of course, visiting castles. An unexpected highlight was Barmouth which is truly the tackiest seaside town outside of Y Barri. But you see, Sue and I were born in the UK. We have tacky seaside memories. In a wave of nostalgia, we purchased, rock candy, some truly dreadful coconut ice and Jack Straws, a game I played often in my childhood.

 

I didn’t know Sue and Nicky well before the holiday – apart from our weekly Welsh classes and the occasional Saturday night dinner. But over the last fortnight, we have discussed language, relationships, faith, our family histories, hopes for the future, the experience of ageing, and have simply explored Wales together. We will have these memories for ever. No one can take them away from us. Or the friendship we have forged.

It has been a month of holidays for me with no great progress on my manuscript. But Sue and Nicky are the last of my scheduled visitors. The days are getting shorter and more greyscale. The landscape around me variegated. This will be the first winter I have spent in the northern hemisphere since childhood and, like the squirrels I have seen gathering nuts, I am looking forward to hibernating and making final pre-submission changes to my manuscript. By the time the trees begin to bud again, I will be back in Australia, hopefully, up to my neck in the submission process, as well as working on my next project.

Tan wythnos nesaf!

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