Sunday, April 06, 2008

Twentieth Annual Conference of the Association for Welsh Writing in English

Gregynog Hall is, apparently, a bit of an old fraud. Although it looks old and grand, especially from the distance

it is in fact made from concrete (or so I was told) and the timbers and render painted on top.

However, the inside panelling is genuine, from the seventeenth century, and rescued from the manor house that was originally built here.

The first paper, by Sarah Prescott, was on a poet called Katherine Philips who lived around the time these panels were being carved. She was also known as 'the matchless Orinda' and Sarah gave a very good over-view of her life and works. Katherine was born and went to school in London but moved to Picton Castle in Pembrokeshire when her mother remarried, and then, after marriage to her stepfather's friend, James Philips, lived in the Priory in Cardigan. She was sixteen, he was fifty-four and the couple had two children. She was generally regarded as a modest and genteel antidote to her bawdy contemporary Aphra Behn, since her poems dwelt mainly on the platonic affection between friends, and seems to have been highly regarded within her circle. However, this paper was whether or not she could be considered an Anglo-Welsh poet. Reading through her work on-line there seems to be little about Wales, although she spent most of her short life living there. She seems to me to be more of a Londoner in exile.

The next seminar, presented by Cary Archard, the founder of Seren Press, was an affectionate look at the work of Dannie Abse - a poet who is both Jewish and Welsh. Cary gave a very interesting account of his friend's life with insights on how the poet works. Apparently Abse is still reworking poems he first wrote in the 1960s - a fact I find quite astonishing, and yet I suppose I understand - it always seems to me, even in prose, that a work is never really finished. In the end it feels like you are just letting it go.

After lunch (during which the sun shone so I took the opportunity to walk around the garden and encountered this hand - which I love) there was a series of four short papers. Unfortunately, I missed the beginning of the first paper by Tomos Owen which was on the London Welsh (too busy talking to Lloyd Jones and Dewi Roberts - see below), and so listened outside the door until everyone started clapping. It sounded very interesting since I spent my childhood going to Leicester Welsh meetings.

Hannah Dentinger discussed the identity of the writer and artist David Jones. His father was Welsh, from a Welsh-speaking family, but his mother was English, and he lived all his life in England. However, most of his work seems to have a Welsh flavour. The discussion after this seminar I found particularly interesting since the general opinion seems to be that whereas an English person might describe him/herself as British, a Welsh person would never do so - and yet that is how I describe myself all the time. It seems to me to be the most accurate description of my state. I was born in Wales of Welsh parents and yet I have spent most of my life in England, just over the border. I do not feel entirely Welsh and I am certainly not English - British, I have always felt sums me up quite nicely.

Stephen Hendon then discussed the work of Alun Lewis. He used two of Lewis's works: ATTITUDE and THE HOUSEKEEPER to discuss the themes of entrapment and exile. It was extremely engaging, especially since it struck me that 'exile' could be very useful to the creative process. The ability to look in from the outside and to see things in a different way must be essential for the creative thinker since new connections between ideas can be made - that might be one reason why most of the Nobel Laureates in the twentieth century are children of displaced people and refugees. They are from a place where cultures clash and consequently have been forced to think differently.

Which is exactly the point made in this Western Mail article on the subject of Laura Nee's 'the Limbinality in Niall Griffiths's novel STUMP'. I believe that her interesting and entertaining argument was that the lost limb in Griffiths's book represented the amputation of Wales from the rest of the United Kingdom and she supported this with a series of quotes from the book. I have not read any of Griffiths's work but have always thought it sounded lively - and the quotes were certainly so.

After tea, during which I took the opportunity to look around the magnificent gardens once more,

there were two really inspiring talks. The first, by Laura Wainwright, was on Gwyn Thomas, the novelist. Gwyn Thomas had an unusual upbringing. He was one of twelve children - the first six brought up to speak Welsh and the second six (including Gwyn Thomas) brought up to speak English. This was because his parents came to the conclusion (half-way through the creation of their progeny, which must have been inconvienent) that being fluent in English would prove advantageous in life. As he said: 'Our kitchen, about the size of an average hutch, was a busy, bi-lingual bomb of a place. The first six children spoke Welsh, the bottom six English, and all at the same time; politics in English, gossip in Welsh, and downright lies in both.'

This I found intriguing - I could not imagine how anyone could force a child to just speak English in a household where his siblings were all speaking Welsh - but obviously it happened. The English that Thomas spoke, however, as Laura Wainwright illustrated with examples, followed the Welsh word order. My parents talk like this, as did I as a child. For instance:
'Alf noticed that the kitchen fire was still lit. It had sunk low. There was a kettle pressed down on it. Two towels, dirty, were hung from a brass bar, thick and running just below the mantle shelf.'
The writing picked out in blue shows where the adjectives are placed after the noun - instead of the conventional word order of adjective then noun (two dirty towels).

Another characteristic of Welsh sentence construction is that the verb comes first so that Thomas writes:
'Came three more strokes. Hughes heard himself being told to get down.'
(Instead of 'Three more strokes came.' ).

Thomas also constructed and invented words and was generally adventurous in the way he wrote. It seemed like inspiring writing and this was a fascinating talk.

The last of the day was equally good. This was by Siwan Rosser who is a Welsh language lecturer from north-east Wales. She described how Offa's Dyke (the old earth boundary separating England and Wales constructed by Offa) is envisioned by writers in Welsh and writers in English. The Welsh poets see it as symbolising the language-barrier, which has weathered away, just as the English have weathered away the Welsh language. The English writers, however, see it more as a political barrier and compare it to other walls. I found this especially interesting because one of the English poets discussed was my teacher Gladys Mary Coles; while one of the Welsh poets was Grahame Davies, whom I recently met in Wrexham.

It was an excellent day, with the journey back much swifter than the journey there. I met some very interesting people including an old acquaintance Dewi Roberts, who is a poet and editor, and his friend Lloyd Jones, winner of the Welsh book of the year award last year with MR CASSINI, following his first, highly acclaimed book MR VOGEL - and who is a very interesting person indeed.


Blogger chiefbiscuit said...

Thank you - what a treat to read a detailed account of your trip and to view the lovely photos - those daffs! How beautiful.

Mon Apr 07, 12:21:00 pm  
Anonymous Clare D said...

It was interesting, CB (I kept trying to think of another word to describe it) - and I thought I'd write it up so I wouldn't forget. Galloping Avenue turned out to be a drive through trees - it must be marvellous on a horse (not that I can ride one!)

Mon Apr 07, 12:39:00 pm  

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