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.

Are you a writer?

Now there’s a leading question.

Many of us are shy about claiming that title.  Well, read on for a thought-provoking quote from Raymond Soltysek, writer, and tutor.

 There are many people who keep their writing in a desk drawer, determined that no one will see their work.  This should not be trivialized, but celebrated, since what they do fulfils some intellectual, personal or psychological need; the writing makes the person who writes feel more self aware, or at peace, or just better.  However, becoming a writer means publishing.  Of course, I do not mean in the narrow sense of having work printed in a magazine or a volume, but in the much wider sense of sharing the work with an audience, and, even more so, being prepared to take into account the reaction of that audience.  The person who writes and who then gives his or her work to a friend and says “what do you think?”, and who is prepared to listen and to defend or revise as appropriate, is a writer.

(From, Wind them up, let them go: The primacy of stimulus in the classroom.  Writing in Education, autumn 2009.)

Now I do see that if, so far, you’ve only shown your writing to family and friends you may feel unsure about launching yourself in the wider world as a writer.  It’s one of the things I remember discussing in my first year as an Imaginative Writing student, with our course leader, Edmund Cusick.

‘If you mean it, claim it,’ he said.  He believed that to think of ourselves as writers was to commit to the necessary processes for achieving that status.

typwriter advertI started out in a modest way, whispering it to myself.  I took it out into the world with me after university, and discovered he was right.  Owning the title ‘writer’ did help me to feel justified in putting aside time and space for writing and reading.

Sometimes I have only a few minutes of my day, on a corner of the kitchen table, to build stories.  But, these are the moments when I am a writer.  I know this because I’m concentrating on ordering the words in such a way that they create the meaning I want to share.

Just as importantly, my family know I’m a writer because they can see that it is what I’m doing, and I share the finished results with them.

If asked what I do for a living, I say, ‘I’m a tutor,’ because that’s what pays my bills.  It’s not the whole story though.  At various times I also garden, cook, read, dream, and clean the house. These are not paid roles, though most of them could be.  At the moments when I’m doing them, I do think of myself as a gardener, cook, dreamer and housekeeper.

There is no reason why, being able to assume all those and other different roles, I should hesitate to describe myself as a writer.  I mean it, and I claim it.

Playful neolexia.



This week I’m setting a creative challenge.  It’s an apparently simple task, invent a word, and write the definition of it – as it would be entered in the Oxford English Dictionary.

That means that after you’ve explained its various meanings you need to show the history of your word.  So:

  • Where was it written?
  • Who wrote it?
  • What date was it first published?
  • Quote a line from the publication that shows how your word was used.
  • Include at least two more quotes from later publications that used your word and reference them with author, title and date.

This is a task that we were set on the Imaginative Writing BA, by the late Edmund Cusick.  So far as I’m aware, he created this exercise.


OED mantrap2

Four memorable days: Sense & Place

Last week we were on the Lleyn Peninsula, in North Wales, running a writing residential.


It’s no coincidence that the cottage we hired is just a mile along the coast from the cottages where we stayed when I was a University student taking part in writing residentials, all those years ago.   I’ve fond memories of those twice yearly trips out of Liverpool and was lucky enough to be invited along to help-out on several more after I graduated, so got to see how they worked from both sides of the desk, and to visit a good range of interesting local sites.

I’ve also been back since then teaching a variety of subjects for various organizations.  This, though was my residential: Sense & Place.

I took inspiration from the bits I liked best of those other times, mixed them with some ideas I had, and away we went.  The great thing was, it worked.  We absorbed atmospheres, wrote, cooked and ate, chatted, discussed and wrote again

There were moments when I imagined Edmund, my much-missed Imaginative Writing tutor wandering in, stooping as he entered, offering a lop-sided smile and taking a seat somewhere unobtrusive, to the left of center-stage.  I found myself pausing to imagine what he might say or do.  A smile, surely.  A nod of approval, I hoped.  The ‘residential’ format was his thing, his dream.  How I would have loved to have been able to invite him along to give us a reading from some of his poems.

Edmund Cusick, poet and Head of Imaginative Writing at John Moore’s University, had pioneered the introduction of writing residentials as a part of the HE learning programme.  During one of the last conversations I had with him, he told me that he was proud to think that he had been the first to see the value of taking writers out of their home (and home-from-home) environment.

His residentials expanded out to include visits to other inspirational areas of the country.  We’re already planning a return trip to the Lleyn.  I feel the same sort of pull that I guess Edmund must have, the longing to share with like-minded people my enthusiasms.  Even during the long drive home, I was running through a list of venues, rating their suitability, adapting my approach in light of this first experience as organizer.

Now clearly I’m working on a much smaller scale than a university.  But the principles remain the same: take a bunch of people who share an interest, and a willingness to get along.  Put them in suitable, comfortable surroundings and provide direction and space in measured proportions.  You should at least lose sight of the wider world for a few days.  Hopefully, they’ll get inspired, and who knows, me too. It worked.

DSCF5520So, in case any of the group are reading this, thanks, folks.  We did this.  I had a wonderful time.

Thoughts about the pitfalls of writing plans at Christmas.

You’re rushing about preparing for Christmas, aren’t you?  No time to sit about writing.  Perhaps you’ve earmarked Boxing Day for settling into some serious writing time, or the day after.

That’s what I did last year, and the previous one too.  In fact, I’ve probably done it through all my writing years.  Once the rush is over, I tell myself, I’ll have time to myself.  You’ve already guessed that things never work out that way, haven’t you?

writers diary christmasSo this year I’m going to be less ambitious.  I’m going to treat myself to the truth.  I don’t want to miss out on Christmas.  The festivities are fun.  They’re a time to unwind and meet up with the friends and family I don’t make enough effort to see through the rest of the year.  I don’t want to have an ember of guilt burning a hole into my enjoyment if an unexpected invitation happens.

That’s why I’m not earmarking specific days or times to spend at my desk that week.  I might not visit my work area at all.  Because lately it’s occurred to me that I’ve got slack with one of the basics of a writing habit, The Writer’s Diary.

For the uninitiated I’m not thinking of a desk, pocket or other personal diary that we attempt to fill in according to the time spaces arbitrarily assigned by the printer. I don’t know about you, but I’ve a long and disastrous history with that kind of diary keeping.  I’ve always begun well, buoyed up no doubt by some new-year resolution, but by the middle of January my entries were usually lagging, tagged with the confession that I was filling in details from memory three days later than the page claimed.  After that entries were sporadic, marked by long gaps and filled with mundane details.

The writer’s diary is different.  For a start, it doesn’t have a specific form.  It can be any collection of blank pages that suit you.  My writers diaries have been made from beautiful notebooks, school exercise books, stapled scrap paper, reporters notebooks, and even, to completely mess up my original statement, ancient unused desk diaries.  The only rule is, there’s no right or wrong way to fill it in.

After a gap of a few days, or several months, you just carry on to the next empty line.  There are no reproachfully blank pages of weeks and months to give away how lax you’ve been.  In my case, no dates are given to indicate the distance crossed between entries.  I’m no longer forced to fill in spaces with descriptions of what I ate for breakfast, lunch or tea, unless I want to.  Instead I scribble down notes, ideas, thoughts, observations, quotes, plans and any moments of inspiration.  Or in other words, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, as Yul Brynner’s King of Siam liked to say.

Although these are usually private spaces where we can experiment with our writing, on the Imaginative Writing BA our writer’s diaries were part of our course-work in the first year.  I’ve thought a lot about how important that was to me.  For a few months I kept it because it was required.  I remember that at first it seemed like hard work.  I was finding my way with so much at that time, and there was no blueprint to show us how A Writer’s Diary should be done.  I know now that there could not be, that each has to be collated according to the individual.

All we had was Edmund’s advice to, ‘write something in it everyday’.

When we asked, ‘Write what?’ he said, ‘anything,’ and rattled through a similar list to the one I’ve given.  ‘Not finished pieces,’ he said.  ‘The workings-out, the notes, the wrong turns and right ones. Write anything.’

It was a valuable trick, a lesson we should all try to learn.  I’ve since found a quote that puts it beautifully,

The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you did not write.


Keeping that Writer’s Diary was good training on so many levels, but the fundamental one was the way it helped me to establish a regular writing habit.  It may have started as a chore, but once I’d gone through the first term and found that what had seemed a scrappy effort was indeed correct, I grew braver.

I learned to always have a notebook and pen to hand.  After all, like Cecily Cardew (The Importance of Being Earnest) you ‘ should always have something sensational to read on the train,’ and her diary seems to have been organised as a kind of Writer’s Diary.

Looking back through some of my old diaries, (yes I have kept them, and a tatty well-thumbed bunch they are too) is a form of time travel that is just as vivid as my conventional diary fragments.  Here are moments captured as they happened, not filtered at the end of a day, or week.  There are snippets of conversation overheard on a bus; fragments of encounters, real and imagined; the view across the Mersey from the top floor of the Dean Walters Building; the movement of the ferry crossing the Irish sea and a sketch of a story.  I’ve captured a kaleidoscope of sights, smells, sounds, tastes, textures, mood and emotions that sometimes launch off into fantasy.  It’s rough stuff.  But I’m glad I have it to skim through.

So, why call it a diary, rather than a notebook?  Because the aim is to put in something every day.  The dictionary definition of a diary, is ‘a book in which one keeps a daily record of events and experiences’.  Which sums it up nicely.  I do aim to record daily from this point on.  When I call my pages a notebook, they becomes less demanding.  I’ve a fraction less incentive to be rigorous, and these days I can’t afford that, can you?

Telling Stories.

‘Did you recite something?’ Ruth said, when I told her I’d been to Caerleon.

I hadn’t.  When she said that, I wished I had.

As I was standing on that grassy lip at the amphitheater, it had occurred to me that Edmund would have known a story to fit the occasion.  During his field-trips to Cornwall the highlight for me was always the visit to Tintagel Castle.  Not just because the place is spectacular and, well, awesome.

And let’s just step aside here to clarify that I don’t mean awesome in what the Oxford English Dictionary calls the ‘weakened’ or ‘trivial’ sense, as ‘an enthusiastic term of commendation’.  Tintagel has an atmosphere.

The high cliffs, the ancient remnants of walls and pathways and the sheltered coves and caves below it inspire the kind of awe that means I’m conscious of having to breath.  There, I look at the stonework, laid about seven hundred and fifty years ago, and think that the men and women who made and lived in the castle might walk around a corner at any moment.

Getting back to the field trip.  After we’d done our exploring we gathered in the walled garden for a picnic.  We were twenty-five students and a handful of staff, basking in early spring sunshine, eating sandwiches.  The turf was emerald green, and the sea beyond us was so clear that even from that height we could see the ridges of boulders and banks of weed in its blue depths.

It was term time.  There weren’t many other tourists straggling past, but when Edmund began to recount the story of how King Uther Pendragon seduced Queen Igraine from her husband with the help of Merlin’s sorcery, our gathering grew.  People who had paused to stare at our hushed group lingered to listen.  They drew closer, then settled on the edges of the walls.

How long did the story last?  I couldn’t say.  There is no time when the story works.  Events unfold gently, paced by the teller to suit their audience.  We listened with bated breath, even though most of us knew what would happen.

Der Erzahler by Georg Bergmann  1819 – 1870

Der Erzahler by Georg Bergmann
1819 – 1870

To listen to a bard is a special experience.  This was not reciting lines learned, it was fresh words, being put together as the moment dictated.  At every telling there are subtle differences.  The emphasis shifts.

I was invited to join three Cornwall trips, and heard that tale twice more, each time seemed fresh.  The bones of it were fixed, but the telling shifted.  As Edmund’s family grew, as the world changed and we within it, and according to the make-up of each year’s student mix he re-worked his material.

Story tellers take us back to the origins of story.  It’s not just that they recount traditional tales, the skills they employ are part of their inheritance, cherished and adapted to suit each individual’s style.  Their spoken voice is as individual as the written voice.

The repetitions they use, the way their stories begin and finish, the way they use their vocabulary, all go to make a unique ‘tellers-voice’.  This is a skill not to be compared to reading aloud.  As enjoyable as that is, it’s fixed, the words have been set before the audience was met.

Edmund was a gifted story-teller.  He loved the form, he loved language, and he loved his material, that was the heart of his re-tellings.  He didn’t need the atmosphere of Celtic surroundings, or bonfires on a beach, his stories were as effective in the stark white classrooms of the Dean Walters Building or the room at the back of the Pilgrim’s Bar.

Telling is about knowing how the story works, not just forwards, but backwards and perhaps even inside-out.  The world of the imagination is, and should be, stronger and clearer than the real world.  We need to know our stories intricately and intimately, only then can we know which bits we can leave out and why that makes our story work.

Even if we can’t stand up in public to tell our story, in the privacy of our notebooks we can and should practice finding our voices. Because, with the long winter evenings ahead of us, perhaps there should be a night when we really stretch ourselves, and try a more traditional style of entertainment.

The Ice Breaker

Picture this: day-one at the Imaginative Writing BA.  It’s a mid-September morning, there’s a slight mist, but it’s warm.  I follow my A-Z to a quiet street of big old terraced houses three turnings behind the Cultural Studies school.  Up five stone steps and through a narrow pair of doors are glass fire-doors.  Ahead of me are two narrow staircases.  The left set goes up, the right down.  Because they are fitted into a tight corner of the hall they turn shortly, both seem dark.

I hesitate, reading the numbers on the two ground floor doors and am crowded.  People appear from every direction, greeting each other extravagantly, laughing, chatting or looking confused.  I’m fairly sure they’re all students, some because they are so young, others because of their clothes or their confusion as they check their handbooks and look on the building plan for room numbers.

The noise levels increase, a piano starts up somewhere below us, playing a bright, nippy run of scales and a nice baritone follows the lead.  I hear a round of applause, and laughter.  This is the drama school, then.  Seems more like a TV show.  Can this really be where I’m meant to be?

I’m not sure, but it’s too late to change my mind.  I’ve rented a room, given up my job, signed the enrollment forms and have just heard a woman ask for directions to the same class as me.  I follow her past the stairs and along a narrow blue corridor.

We gather, sixteen of us, in a room with no windows, dim lighting and a sloping wooden floor, that was not a result of subsidence, it was designed that way, and yes, there was a reason, but I’ve forgotten it now.  The centre of the room is empty.  There are no tables, only stacks of metal framed chairs around the painted-brick walls.

Small groups form around the edges of the room.  Most of the class are in the same halls and have spent freshers week together.  They chatter about parties and shops and wonder if they’ve come to the right place.  Good, I think, it’s not just me.DSCF5124

It’s not.  In a moment the door opens again, and Edmund comes in.  ‘Welcome to Imaginative Writing,’ he says.  ‘Sorry about the accommodation.  We’ll be moving in a week or so.’  He takes an orange out of his bag. ‘Meanwhile, I think we’ll start by getting to know each other.  Catch the orange, say your name and throw it to someone else.’

The orange did the rounds, two or three times, then we unstacked chairs and did a class.

You’re thinking that as ice-breakers go, this doesn’t sound so bad, aren’t you?  In fact, as tasks go, this one probably seems quite fun.

Lesson two.

Round one:    ‘Catch the orange and say the name of the person who has just thrown it.’

Round two:     ‘Call out a name and throw the orange to that person.’

I loathed that game.  It seemed designed to prove to me and my classmates how bad I was at remembering names.

‘As soon as we have a hundred percent success, we’ll stop playing,’ Edmund said.

We never were sure if it was the same orange that came back for that second lesson.  Perhaps we would have been able to work it out if we’d needed it for the third.  It certainly looked like it had been around for a while.  When we asked Edmund about it later, he said that he’d got the idea from a book about business management.  They specified a tennis ball.  Edmund hadn’t got a tennis ball.

Over the next few weeks he set us more bizarre tasks.  Edmund had innovative ideas about what Imaginative Writing meant.  The title of the course was not accidental, he assured us, he meant us to use our imaginations in order to discover creativity for ourselves.

More than a decade later, I look back to that orange with affection.   It did force us to learn each other’s names in a short space of time.  It also got us talking, outside of the group, and became part of the story of our three years together.  I bet, if you were to mention oranges to any one from that group, and probably every other group that came after, they would soon be reminiscing about their time as IW students with Edmund Cusick.

And no, I never repeat the orange in my teaching.  It was an Edmund thing.   But having experienced it made me appreciate how useful a tool the icebreaker task can be.  I’ve invented my own sets of devious and twisted exercises for getting to know classes.