Saturday, 19 May 2018

WRITING WHITE

The Ordnance Survey shows the slate quarries as blank spaces, white paper.  The land has dropped out of the map.

I’m on a short writing retreat in Cwm Teigl in North Wales.  I’m staying in a log cabin owned by Elin, who runs the bookshop (Yr Hen Bost) a few miles away in Blaenau Ffestiniog.  She has lent me Trwy Ddyddiau Gwydr (Gwasg Careg Gwalch 2013), a collection of poems by Sian Northey.  They are contemporary free-verse poems in Welsh, including a poem for Elin’s daughter.  They are short poems (fortunately!) and I read them, falteringly, and try to piece together the words.  The poems sound wonderful and the poet uses alliteration to great effect.  I am hoping my knowledge of the language will progress so that I can understand more of the words!    

Elin has a beautiful semi-wild garden – at this time of year it’s a riot of leafy green with splashes of colour from wild, cultivated and feral flowers.   I’ve brought a jumble of notes, my laptop and a stack of white paper.  I plan to get some writing done but this evening the outdoors is distracting.

I go for a short walk up the valley, following the Afon Teigl which chatters in the companionable voice of an upland stream tumbling over small rocks.  An occasional swallow swoops after flies and the sun is low on the horizon turning the water pewter.  Growing along the banks are tall spindly sycamore and ash trees, newly leaved (the oak before the ash this year).

The road is unfenced and ewes with lambs stare at me, or stamp their feet before making their way up the steep hillside.  Cwm Teigl has a different smell from the lush flowery lanes of Llŷn.  Perhaps it’s a combination of the short-grazed mountain grass, the new shoots of rushes, the acid soil.  It’s an upland smell of spring which reminds me of family picnics on the Berwyns, breaking the journey from Warwickshire to Llŷn when I was a child.  The ancient cars my father drove (an Austin 7 and later a converted Ford van named Noah’s Ark from its registration latters NOA and its variety of two and four legged passengers) always overheated at the top of the Tanat Valley.  We would pile out of the car for a picnic lunch while the engine recovered.

Cwm Teigl shows little evidence of the slate industry whose huge waste tips are so obvious a few miles away at Blaenau Ffestiniog.  The cwm is a quiet valley – in half an hour’s walking I meet one walker and a cyclist.   A solitary car passes me.  The driver gives me a wave.   If I were to follow the road as it climbs up the slopes of Manod Fawr, whose screes and cliffs dominate the north west side of the valley, I would eventually reach the Manod and Graig Ddu slate quarries, the cartographer’s blank white paper. 


But for the next few days I hope that at least some of my white pages will be filled with words.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

'TO RHYME AND CHIME FOR A CHAIR'

Great to hear poet Twm Morys on today's Sunday afternoon poetry slot on Radio 4 today.  His programme explored and explained the intricate art of Cynghanedd in Welsh poetry and its origins as far back as the sixth century.  Basically Cynghanedd refers to the complex patterns of rhyme and alliteration in various poetic forms in Welsh literature.  Mererid Hopwood was one of the speakers - in 2001 she became the first woman poet to win the Bardic Chair at the National Eisteddfod (after all those centuries!).  Both Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins used the techniques of Cynghanedd in their work.

A fascinating programme - you can catch it on BBC Radio 4 next Saturday night at 11.30pm or listen again on the BBC website.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

THE ROOF OF THE WORLD

Welsh slate roofed the world.

This was no empty claim in the nineteenth century.  Look at rows of Victorian terraces and villas in most of our major cities and you will see them roofed with dark purplish-grey slate from North Wales. 

Yesterday evening I went to Blaenau Ffestiniog.  The pavements are slate, the buildings are slate, the roofs are slate.  Blaenau's fortune and decline were built on slate and the huge screes surrounding the town are the evidence.  Now the narrow gauge railway which once took slate to the harbour at Porthmadog is a major tourist attraction (run by paid staff and volunteer enthusiasts).  

But I was in the town for a book launch at Yr Hen Bost, a gem of a little indie bookshop, run by Elin. There are two floors of new and second hand books: books in Welsh, books in English, children's books, local books, novels, poetry and more.  So few bookshops stock poetry magazines these days so it was good to see the latest issue of Poetry Wales for sale.

Blaenau (or more accurately nearby Tan y Grisiau) is also the home of Cinnamon Press, which publishes some fine poetry and fiction, as well as Envoi poetry magazine.  I was at Yr Hen Bost for a double Cinnamon book launch.  There were over 30 people squeezed into the small downstairs room of the bookshop.  It was good to meet Cinnamon's proprietor, Jan Fortune, who introduced the two writers.  Adam Craig read from his novel In Dreams the Minotaur Appears Last.  The first long-sentence extract was a tour de force of stream of consciousness style writing while the second extract was a deliciously satirical description of a party in Paris in the 1970s.  

Michelle Angharad Pashley read from the prologue of her crime novel The Remains of the Dead.  The prologue had an edge which was almost unbearable - the kind of writing where you are 
frightened to read on but feel you have to in order to find some kind of explanation.  The second extract she gave us was about the discovery of a body which must have been the one buried in the prologue . . .

I had time to explore the streets of Blaenau Ffestiniog and discovered that the town has a rich literary history, now celebrated in the poetry, prose and sayings carved into pieces of slate.  There is information about writers who came from the town, including Gwyn Thomas, the National Poet of Wales (2006-8).

I stayed overnight and came back this morning on the train on the Conwy Valley line (another railway that had its origins in carrying slate).  The Saturday morning train was crowded with young teenagers on a day out, locals off to the shops at Llandudno and a few tourists.  The mist hung over the mountains surrounding Blaenau as we left and I took out my book to read.  The train plunged through the Ffestiniog Tunnel and emerged into brilliant sunshine in the high valley.  I closed my book.  The upland birches were tinged with green, there were splashes of bright yellow gorse, Dolwyyddelan Castle looked down from its imposing vantage point.  The clear blue sky was reflected in the water of the river.  As the train slowly made its way down the steep gradient the valley widened and became the Conwy estuary with acolourful shelduck out on the mud flats.

At Llanrwst - a large modern building near to the line was inscribed Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, publishers of Welsh interest books in Welsh and English (and publishers of the book I hadn't read because the spring morning was so wonderful).

www.cinnamonpress.com
www.blaenauffestiniog.org 

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

BETWEEN LAND AND OCEAN

Ceremony

My mother,
     who could not swim,
would walk

to the water's edge,
     dip her fingers
in the waves

and touch the sea
     to her forehead
like a blessing.

© Mary Robinson 2015


I walk down to Porth Ysgo early on Saturday morning.  Does the heart slow down when watching the waves on the shore?  The tide is coming in, almost at the flood.  Water breaks in spray making little runnels on the cliff as it drains back into the sea.

There is something hypnotic about the relentlessness of each incoming wave, the way a large wave consumes a smaller wave, or the way a crest begins to tear until the water collapses and spills on the shore.

I'm relieved to see that someone (? National Trust) has done a tidy up.  There's hardly any plastic on the beach but there is a big heap at the bottom of the wooden steps (above high tide mark) that provide access from the top of the cliff.  Plastic containers, big plastic drums, fish crates, the inevitable drinks bottles; bits of fishing net, lengths of dayglo coloured rope, even a gas cylinder.  There is little that is useful - just a few planks and a wooden pallet. I wonder how/when/if this lot will be disposed of - removing it in a small boat would probably be easiest.

On the beach there's a line of seaweed deposited by the winter storms - long brown ribbons with stems ending in suckers.  Part of a chain-sawed tree trunk has washed up.  The grain is twisted and contorted (Spanish chestnut?).  The russet inner core of the trunk is rotten.  It reminds me of the 'Wooden Boulder' which the sculptor, *David Nash, filmed on its journey down the Afon Dwyryd to the sea.

The edge of the land, the beginning of the ocean; the fresh water of the waterfall dissolving into the salt water of the sea.  I am drawn to this in-between place where earth and water are in perpetual conflict and flux.  And for an hour on this bright spring morning I have the place to myself.


*David Nash's beautiful film of the boulder is on permanent display at Plas Glyn y Weddw art gallery at Llanbedrog. https:www.oriel.org.uk
or google David Nash and Boulder for information and pictures. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

AT LAST I CAN SMELL SPRING

It seems almost obscene to be writing about the Welsh spring when the news is so appalling each day and terrible events follow one after another in dreadful succession.  But to write about life and beauty is to take a stand against 'man's inhumanity to man' (and to woman and child).  To write about nature is a reminder, as the poet Michael Longley said in an interview with Jody Allen Randolph, that 'We share the planet with the plants and the other animals'.

At last I can smell spring - a compound of warm earth, crushed new grass, a difference in the air from winter's cold mineral breath.  Down the lane I discovered a patch of wood anemones (a slight musky smell) by the side of the road.  Or wooden enemies as my family called them when I was a child.  My botanist friend says they are an indication of relict woodland.  I try to imagine what the Peninsula would have been like when it was covered with trees (Samuel Johnson complained about the lack of trees when he visited Lleyn with Mrs Thrale in 1774).  How long ago were the trees cleared?  Millennia, I suppose.  There was a stone axe factory on Mynydd Rhiw - the spoil heap is still there.

A few days ago I went for a walk at Dinas along a rough track which I remember as being thick with huge clumps of primroses.  There were only a few plants dotted here and there.  I met a man with a beautiful brindled greyhound and we walked along slowly, discussing the dearth of primroses.

'Perhaps it was the cold wintry weather,' I ventured.

'No,' he said decisively, 'it's the unpredictability of the seasons now.'

Recently I re-read an essay* by poet and academic Harriet Tarlo - 'we cannot fail but find beautiful acre on acre of small plants'.  She includes some lines of her beautifully spaced poetry: 'new green on Black Hill / bilberry bright / against heather / celandine flash / between cloughs ...'  She then comments ''except often it's not acres but yards.  The acres are in the historical or future imagination.'


*  in Peat Matters: Locating Climate (Change) at the Interface of Art and Science (Northumbria University Department of Geography 2017) 



Friday, 30 March 2018

LEBANON - COUNTRY OF CONTRASTS

What do you associate with the word Lebanon?

Perhaps a photograph of Jackie Onassis on a luxury yacht in Beirut harbour, or the blackened ruins of the Holiday Inn (a bleak symbol of the Civil War 1975 – 1992), or news bulletins of refugees who have fled into the country from Syria.  I think too of Phoenician traders on the Mediterranean coast thousands of years ago and the ‘Cedars of Lebanon’ which are mentioned in the Bible and which still grow here – even the national flag has a cedar on it.

In a short visit I experienced a small part of this fascinating country of contrasts. 

On the plane from Heathrow I read in the i the obituary of the Lebanese novelist, Emily Nasrallah, whose honours included German’s Goethe prize.  She was born in 1931 and refused to leave Lebanon during the Civil War, despite losing her family’s home and possessions.  She described herself as ‘a village farmer from South Lebanon’ and rose to be an international writer.

Beirut is a centre for art and literature.  I visited the Sursock Museum of modern art and was impressed by Abed Al Kadiri’s thought-provoking mixed media exhibition of paintings, sculpture and film all centred round a tree and an abandoned house.  There are some beautiful old buildings in Beirut but too many of them are dilapidated or even derelict, and are being swamped by modern high-rise blocks.

Of course I went to some bookshops, despite having little extra space in my suitcase.  Aaliya’s Books is a small well-curated bookshop with a café.  I browsed an anthology of Lebanese women’s poetry.  The café was quiet and the waiter brought out a box of toys for two fidgety small children – and then sat down on the floor and played with them, giving their mother time for conversation with friends.  By contrast, Librarie Antoine, is more like a Waterstones – a big glossy shop with books laid out over three floors (I found the glass stairs slightly unnerving and felt like my father’s old sheepdog who wouldn’t go up steps if he could see through them – after the second floor I resorted to the lift).  It is a sobering thought that in both bookshops there were books in Arabic, French and English – many people in Beirut are trilingual. I’ve never managed to master a second language fluently – I’m still working on my Welsh.

Just a short distance from Librarie Antoine I found some verses of Arabic (mainly), French and English set into the pavement.  Here are the two verses in English –
     How can we build a Lebanon without the participation
          of the youth and the new generation,
     while their opinion is still ignored?
and
     When is the killing of the dreams of the youth going to end?
          When is the endless flow
     of departing immigrants going to stop?
These were modern inscriptions but Emily Nasrallah recalled her grandmother saying ‘Lebanon is a land that does not hold its people’.

But on a lighter note, I was just there visiting family and doing touristy things.  As well as mooching round Beirut I visited Chateau Kefraya and Chateau Ksara wineries in the beautiful Bekaa Valley, went to the impressive limestone caves of the Jeita Grotto, and was fascinated by the layers of history of the ancient city of Byblos (inhabited continuously from about 8000 BC) .  At Byblos the Palm Sunday service was broadcast on loudspeakers from the church (there were too many people for them all to fit inside).  When the service had finished loudspeakers started up again – this time broadcasting the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. 


So many contrasts in this small country where on the same hot sunny day I paddled in the Mediterranean and saw snow on the mountains.