Armchair tourism: Wales, with Dewithon 2020

There was a bitter, arctic wind cutting across us on Sunday morning. The sun was shining, but better enjoyed from behind glass.

Our garden, just waking to spring, is a limited, but refreshing pallet of colours. The winter has been grey with rain, but now we have blue sky, bright young grass, and a patch of daffodils.

These are not golden, they’re more like the dainty Welsh ones. Wales is out-of-bounds, at the moment. Britain is in lock-down.

Well, have books, can travel, and these are the last few days of the 2020 Wales Readathon, the month long celebration of Wales related literature, instigated by PAULA BARDELL-HEDLEY on Book Jotter. I turned to my shelves, and the first thing I saw was How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewelyn. It’s been there for several years now, as I’ve wondered whether it was a threat or a promise.

I’d been put off by memories of the 1941 film version that I remember disliking, years and years ago. I can’t give you any specific reason for my reaction. When I checked on-line, I discovered that it is considered an American Classic, so maybe I should take another look.

Then again, I’m loving the book so much, perhaps I won’t take the risk. I’m now on chapter 18, which is about half-way, and can hardly bear to be away to write this, despite my desire to share it with you.

The setting is a mining valley in South Wales. The time frame is towards the end of the nineteenth century. It charts a time of political and social change, but the centre of the story is a family, and their loves, songs, faiths and betrayals.

It is a beautifully shaped novel. Opening with the adult Huw describing his preparations to leave his home for good, and then slipping back through memories to describe his childhood in that house, and community. It’s rich with detail, and yet not bogged down with it.

Take the description of buying toffee from Mrs. Rhys the Glasfryn:

She made the toffee in pans and then rolled it all up and threw it soft at a nail behind the door, where it stuck. Then she took a handful with both hands and pulled it towards her, then threw the slack back on the nail again. That went on for half an hour or more until she was satisfied it was hard enough, and then she let it lie to flatten out. Hours I have waited in her front room with my penny in my hand, and my mouth full of spit, thinking of the toffee, and sniffing the smell of sugar and cream and eggs.

My mouth was watering too.

I love the tone and timbre of Huw’s voice. There are moments when I seem to hear him, rather than read the words, such as the section near the beginning when he describes how his parents met:

…she was sixteen and he was twenty. He came off a farm to make his way in the iron works here, and as he came singing up the street one night he saw my mother drawing the curtains upstairs in the house where she was working. He stopped singing and looked up at her, and I suppose she looked down to see why he had stopped. Well, they looked and fell in love.

Mind, if you had said that to my mother she would have laughed it off and told you to go on with you, but I know because I had it from my father.

So far, the story of Huw’s life is full of incident, and he’s only just reached his teenage. I’m captivated by this bright innocent who’s always watching, asking questions, and taking part.

Another draw is the setting, an idyllic green Eden, lyrically described in relation to Huw’s childhood. As he grows older, the shadow of the slag heap increasingly encroaches in a metaphorical and literal form. The industrial revolution happens at a domestic level, impacting on every layer of the family.

This historical novel, published in 1939, seems to offer a warning for our times, as well providing me with an antidote to this strange, restricted moment.

Ducks in the Trevi Fountain: What Covid-19 Can Teach Us About Life, Love and the World Around Us

If you want to see some of the brighter sides of this situation, thoughtfully done, try this:

Leigh Hecking

Ducks in the trevvi fountain

We’ve all seen posts griping about long lines at the grocery store, hand-sanitizer and toilet paper shortages, resource hoarding and general lack of empathy and understanding. The news is no better. It’s a constant stream of anxiety-inducing updates on confirmed cases of COVID-19, death tolls, the plunging stock market and temporary closures or suspended services.

But perhaps the most surprising thing to come out of this – something the disaster movies missed the mark on – is the human ability to seek levity in the face of imminent disaster.

Warning: Long, picture-heavy post behind the cut.

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Sometimes finding a meaning needs time

For the UK, it was the first day of spring last Friday. That means equinox-poetry-day on my favourite radio station, BBC radio 4. Throughout the schedule, some of our best UK actors (national treasures?) were invited to read poems on a Spring theme.

Christopher Eccleston was on the 7.45 a.m. breakfast-news programme, reading A Northern Morning, by Alistair Elliot.

A Northern Morning

It rained from dawn. The fire died in the night.
I poured hot water on some foreign leaves;
I brought the fire to life. Comfort
spread from the kitchen like a taste of chocolate
through the head-waters of a body,
accompanied by that little-water-music.
The knotted veins of the old house tremble and carry
a louder burden: the audience joining in.

People are peaceful in a world so lavish
with the ingredients of life:
the world of breakfast easy as Tahiti.
But we must leave. Head down in my new coat
I dodge to the High Street conscious of my fellows
damp and sad in their vegetable fibres.
But by the bus-stop I look up: the spring trees
exult in the downpour, radiant, clean for hours:
This is the life! This is the only life!
George Henry Frederick Bell

Afterwards, there was a short interview. The presenter, Justin Webb, wondered whether learning a poem by heart might be something we could all do while self-isolating. ‘You need time, to do it, and as an actor, who’s used to learning lines, it is something that can really change your life.’

Christopher agreed. ‘All the great thinkers around poetry believe that in order to understand a poem you have to learn it by heart,’ he said.

‘I’m interested in that,’ said Justin. ‘What is it about committing it to memory that adds to it, in a persons psyche and understanding?’

Christopher said, ‘The poet, John Cooper Clark said quite recently, that it was fine to teach children poems by rote, even when they don’t understand them, because the poem stays with them, and as they mature, their understanding expands. As you get older, you’ll re-examine them.’

I’d like to add that a similar approach works with stories. While I wouldn’t advocate memorising one, to read, then re-read, and then to read a story again brings similar benefits.

As to learning a poem, I think I might start with A Northern Morning. I may not live in the north, but the details Alistair Elliot sets together are familiar to me, too.

Plus, so far, every time I’ve reread it, I’ve found myself focusing on something new. This is not a collection of words, it is a three dimensional space in my head.

A Northern Morning is included in the 2004 anthology, Staying Alive, published by Bloodaxe Books.

Taking time for art

I’ve just caught up with a report created last year, by Daisy Fancourt and Saoirse Finn, that confirmed something I’ve long-believed: we should all be actively participating in arts activities. I’ve not read the whole one hundred and thirty-three pages of the WHO (World Health Organisation) publication, the summaries have been enough.

Results from over 3000 studies identified a major role for the arts in the prevention of ill health, promotion of health, and management and treatment of illness across the lifespan. 

At the moment, as isolation becomes a watchword for so many of us, this might be even more relevant than it seemed when it was researched and written. After all, if we’re going to get confined to homes, we’ll need to find things to do.

‘I’m going to catch up on a lot of reading,’ Judy says, echoing my own initial thoughts.

Anna wants to try an embroidery kit she was given a couple of Christmases ago. ‘I’ll be able to concentrate without interruptions,’ she tells us.

Here in the UK, we’re still free to move about unless we show symptoms. That doesn’t mean everyone is continuing as usual. A lot of people who are vulnerable, or in close contact with someone vulnerable, are already opting to limit their contact with the general public.

The majority of the rest of us have adopted a Lady Macbeth approach to hygiene, and are practicing safe distances as we wait for the next development. Journalists looking for a fresh angle for discussion are beginning to consider the perils of isolation, as if it’s a new thing.

I suppose it will be for many of us. On tv, I watch shots of empty streets in other countries. Our Government Advisers warn that when the time comes, we will be ‘locked-down’ for months, not weeks.

As a tutor in Further Education, I’m used to providing a possible solution to loneliness. My colleagues and I offer a massive range of subjects, and draw students from a variety of backgrounds and situations. People sign up firstly, because they want to learn, but the social aspect soon becomes important, too.

As our classes are delivered in hired halls, we tutors meet only rarely. Our students create links between us, drawing references with other classes, often opening new angles of investigation to discussions.

Adult education classes are friendly places. Shared interests draw together people who might never have met in any other way. In the break, over coffee, the conversations extend and new friendships blossom.

Humans are, I believe, a social species, deny it as we sometimes try. This week has been brightened, for me, by the video-clips from Italy of quarantined people sharing music and song, often from their balconies.

This seems to chime with that WHO report about what ‘the arts’ mean to us, and maybe offers a clue to that question of how we cope with isolation. After all, here I am, discussing the situation with you on-line. Maybe this is a moment when technology comes into its own.

Lessons learned from Edna O’Brien’s short story, The Connor Girls.

It begins with a hook. The kind of line that is simple, yet resonant with promise: To know them would be to enter an exalted world.

The second line begins with another ‘To’, and lets it echo, twice more. This is a lesson in how to use, rather than misuse, repetition. It might be called playful, it creates a lyrical effect, but this is also devious.

That ‘it’ draws me in. I share with the narrator an imagined idea of moving, step by step, closer to ‘them‘. ‘To open the stiff green iron gate, to go up their shaded avenue, and to knock on their white hall door…’ She yearns to make that journey, while I am additionally intrigued by her desire. Who is this ‘I’?

It’s not just the rhythm of her writing that draws me, those few precise details are enough for me to hold an image of that house. Despite the importance of this place and these people, to the narrator, and the concrete precision of the images she supplies, the details are sparing.

What she gives me is a flower garden with fountains, a water-lily pond, and monkey-puzzle trees. The quantity implied in these three features suggest wealth and land, but the narrator allows us to arrange them.

I’m certain that if Edna O’Brien and I sat at opposite ends of a table with crayons and paper, we would produce very different images of the setting, even while we included the given details. Hers might be the origin of this story, but while I read, the picture is as I see it.

I am transported to Ireland, in the first place, because I know Edna O’Brien is an Irish writer. If I hadn’t at the least suspected that, my version of this house and garden may have hovered above a number of countries, as I gathered clues. Luckily, this is only the first story in a large collection published under the title, A Fanatic Heart. The back cover promises me:

Love and loss, the villages and countryside of western Ireland…

Had The Connor Girls been presented in a cosmopolitan anthology, following stories by, for instance, Margaret Attwood, or Carmel Bird, I don’t think I’d have made a confident guess about nationality until near the end of the first paragraph. That’s after I’ve been given the gossip about the major, and how his son died.

Not even their tragedy brought them closer to the people in the town, partly because they were aloof, but being Protestants, the Catholics could not attend the service in the church or go to the Protestant graveyard, where they had a vault with steps leading down to it, just like a house.

Is that, or is that not, a beautifully balanced sentence? It’s distinctive, confiding, gossipy and laden with social and political colour.

If you liked that one, try this:

The Connor girls were not beauties but they were distinguished, and they talked in an accent that made everyone else’s seem flat and sprawling, like some familiar estuary or a puddle in a field.

We’re in the second paragraph, near the bottom of the first page, and the narrator has mentioned friends from Dublin. I can set my house down in southern-Ireland. I have no named district, but if I hadn’t known before how to colour this setting, I do now.

I’m drawing from memories of a too-brief stay that took in glimpses of the country between the ferry port at Rosslare, and a birthday party in Meath. What struck me was the quality of the light, reflected from the verdant landscape. At last I understood why Ireland was always referred to as green.

Add to that scenes from films and tv shows; images from paintings and photographs, and imaginings raised by other Irish and Anglo Irish writers. Behind O’Brien I seemed to see William Trevor and Elizabeth Bowen, particularly, The Last September.

Am I thinking all of this as I read? Of course not, I’m submerged in story, and the flashes of connection are fleeting. I compare it to moments in my real life, when despite apparently total involvement in an event, my mind draws links with parallel experiences.

I’m not sure if it is either possible or desirable to write without connecting to previous fictions. There are people who aspire to, but I wonder about what kind of writing that could be.

A Farmstead by John Luke, 1928

Reading Gronw’s Stone, for Dewithon 2020

Welsh Flag

The 2020 Wales Readathon, the Dewithon, started yesterday. Paula, at Bookjotter, invites us to join in a month of reading all things Welsh. It’s a good prompt to explore new authors, it’s also a chance to remind myself of the Welsh writing I already own.

Last year, I discussed a short story anthology. This year I offer you a 1997 poetry collection: Gronw’s Stone, Voices from the Mabinogion, by Ann Gray and Edmund Cusick.

I’ve two lines of thought on this, and so begin with the subject matter. Gronw’s Stone is one of the eleven tales of The Mabinogion, a collection of early Welsh mythology first written down in a fourteenth century manuscript known as the Red Book of Hergest.

The stories belong to the oral tradition, meaning they are far more ancient than that. They’d been passed along previous generations of wandering bards.

Until Hergest fixed them on the page, the tales would have been revised and adapted by each teller, to suit each audience. The key events were unchangeable, but interpretation and emphasis belonged with the bard.

My second thought is about the poems, which are not individually attributed to either author.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? It made me wonder how the writing process worked.

I didn’t find out until 2008, when a collection of Edmund’s poems was published posthumously. In, Between Fields and Stars, Ann Gray provided an introduction to the Gronw’s Stone section. There she described the genesis of their Gronw book, and the working process she and Edmund evolved.

I first met Edmund 13 years ago, on a story telling course at Ty Newydd, the National Writer’s Centre in North Wales, during which we visited historic sites and learned the stories of The Mabinogion…

Next Spring we met again at Avebury and told stories amongst the stones. Edmund confessed that he had written a poem for Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed. As he read it, it became clear that Edmund’s Pwyll was an honourable man, above reproach…

I was upset. I pointed out to him that Pwyll was not totally wonderful… As we argued this back and forth, I started to write [the Queen of Annwn’s] reply. I wrote into the night, reading aloud to Edmund at every pause for breath. Edmund later changed the tone of his poem to include Pwyll’s gentle regret. This is how it started: Gronw’s Stone.

Collaborative writing projects intrigue me. They seem to hover on the edges of our ideals. Tradition presents us with the poet and the novelist scribbling in solitude. Only if we look closer do we discover the degree to which many great writers discussed their work, in general and specific terms, with their peers.

Move across the writing categories to tv and film, and the advantages of collaboration are obvious. Many loved and admired shows and films have come from writing-teams. Reports say that when these work well, they are exhilarating experiences, in the manner that Ann Gray describes:

We lived in the stories, in each other’s work. Edmund wrote poems in the male voices and I in the female voices. We edited and revised together. When we were asked, but you don’t say who wrote which poems in the book, we honestly replied that it had not occurred to us to do so.

It seems to me that collaborating on a writing project requires not just a shared vision, there must be confidence, both in yourself, and in the partnering writer. Ann Gray says, I would know a poem of Edmund’s anywhere, even if it were found in an attic years from now. He would have said the same of mine.

I’m not sure I would know Edmund’s poems so well, despite having several of his other collections, and while reading this it wasn’t a question I thought to ask. Surely, that says something about the quality of these poems. Maybe they mirror the tradition of the story taking prominence over the bards, who may have had local and temporal significance, but held it only for the space of the telling.

While neither Cusick nor Gray is Welsh, both have taught in Wales.

Edmund was lecturer in English Literature at the University of Wales, before he moved to Liverpool John Moore’s University, to build-up and lead the Imaginative Writing programme. His joy in all things Celtic drew him back to Wales, on trips (especially some memorable course-field-trips), then, on his marriage, to make his home.

Ann Gray lives and works in Cornwall. She has several collections of poetry, the most recent is, I Wish I had More Mothers. She is co-founder and director of the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival, and has taught at Ty Newydd -The National Writers centre for Wales, and on several Arvon courses.