Category Archives: Wales
It’s unlikely the name of Joseph Parry will mean much to anyone who is not from Wales. But if you’ve ever experienced a performance by a Welsh male voice choir you’ll certainly have heard his music. Although he died more than 100 years ago, versions of his composition ‘Myfanwy’ have been recorded in recent years by Cerys Matthews and the opera singer Bryn Terfel. Parry’s music is also said to have influenced Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the national anthem of South Africa.
Not bad for a man born into poverty who left school at the age of nine to work in the local coal mines and iron works. From those humble beginnings he rose to become the first person from Wales to achieve a Doctorate in Music from Cambridge University and become the first Welshman to compose an opera – Blodwen, was the first opera in the Welsh language.
Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones is a fictionalised biography of Joseph Parry from his early beginnings in the industrial town of Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. In the 1840s when Joseph was a young boy, this was the largest industrial town anywhere in the world according to Jack Jones. The discovery of large iron ore deposits encouraged wealthy investors to build iron works employing thousands of people but industrialisation brought overcrowding, poor sanitation, water shortages and disease.
Some of you who had visited the place during one of our dry summers will remember the stink of the place … and no doubt wondered how we could go on living there, You get used to anything can’t you? It was the cholera we were most afraid of for that did not give us any chance to get used to it. It cut us down and few of us were lucky to get up again.
This was the life the Parry family escaped in 1854 when they emigrated to Pennsylvania (hence the book title), settling in the town of Danville which had a large Welsh community. Though Joseph had regularly sung in chapel choirs back home, he had no formal musical training until the age of 17. From then he began making rapid progress, travelling throughout the United States to give concerts, winning awards back home in Wales at the National Eisteddfod and gaining funding to enable him to study full time in Cambridge.
The portrait Jack Jones conveys in Off to Philadelphia in the Morning is of a man with huge resources of creative energy, always buzzing with ideas for new compositions and projects, but whose work was often not received with the level of acclaim he anticipated. Late in his life he came to question his decision to return to his native land, thinking that if he had stayed in America he would have been better appreciated. Frustrated by the lukewarm response in Wales to some of his later composition, his wife agitated for a move from South Wales to London where she believed his talents would be better recognised.
But their finances were so precarious they couldn’t gather enough money to set up home in the capital. Nevertheless Parry drove himself on despite failing health, the premature death of two sons and lack of money. But in death his contribution to the musical life of Wales was recognised with a huge funeral attended by at 7,000 people from all parts of the UK and a memorial close to his final home.
Off to Philadelphia in the Morning is an odd book. Jack Jones never claimed it was anything other than a work of fiction yet it contains a significant amount of factual information from the size of the population of Merthyr Tydfil to the fortunes of the landowners who exploit it and the chapels that try to provide hope for the inhabitants. If it’s not pure fiction neither is it a straight biography. It has an unnamed narrator who is clearly a working man from Merthyr Tydfil and one who knew Joseph Parry well enough to be invited to his concerts and his home. This narrator wants to be seen as a historian not just of Parry’s life but of the changes that happen to the town of Merthyr Tydfil as it goes from prosperity to decline. We get frequent digressions to relate the lives of a number of other inhabitants – some of which are interesting but which do tend to make this an over-long book and take attention away from the main subject of Joseph Parry himself. Consequently I found myself skimming quite a number of pages….
But there is one question that remains unanswered in Jack Jones’ book – who was Myfanwy? There is a girl by that name who is a childhood friend of Parry in the book, a girl who looks after her blind, drunkard father until one of the iron magnets spots her musical talent and pays for her to be taken care of and given lessons. In the book she becomes a world famous opera singer who meets up with Parry when they are both well established in their field. Legend has it that Parry wrote ‘Myfanwy’ in her honour (there is no mention of this in the book) though in reality he wrote only the music for the ballad and the lyrics came from another source. So now I’m left wondering how much of this book can be relied upon as an accurate account of his life and how much is myth?
The Book: Off to Philadelphia in the Morning was published in 1947. My copy, which I picked up from Bookbarn International dates from 1978. A TV series based on the book was broadcast by the BBC in 1978.
The Author: Jack Jones was – like Joseph Parry – born in Merthyr Tydfil. He went to work in the coal mines at the age of 12. During the depression years of the 1920s he became involved in politics and became a trade union leader. He began writing newspaper articles as a freelancer before progressing to novels.
Why I read this: the name of Joseph Parry is one that I’ve heard ever since I was a child but although I’ve seen his birthplace in Merthyr Tydfil and I live close to his last home, I knew nothing about him.
If you want to hear Parry’s music have a listen to this rendition of Myfanwy by the Morriston Orpheus Choir from Swansea.
Continuing the idea from a recent post, here are some short reviews of novels I read a few years ago but failed to finish the reviews. Luckily I had started them and had kept a few notes to help but don’t expect any deep insight on each of these…..
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier: I had high expectations for this one having seen multiple reviews about how good it was. I picked it up as a companion to a long international flight, thinking it would distract me but I found it decidedly dull. It’s set largely at a large estate in Cornwall owned and run by Ambrose Ashley together with his young cousin Philip . All goes swimmingly until Ambrose’s health deteriorates and he has to leave England for warmer climates, choosing to sojourn instead in Italy. There he meets cousin Rachel, marries her and sends letters back home about how happy he is. Gradually the tone changes and he begins complaining of repeated headaches. A few weeks later Rachel, now a widow, turns up at the estate. Philip is attracted to her despite his doubts that she might have had a hand in Ambrose’s death. The rest of the novel is an unraveling of the mystery about Rachel and Ambrose’s demise and whether Philip wakes up to the reality of the situation in time to avoid a personal catastrophy. I thought the mystery ponderous and the writing lacking in energy. Just about managed to finish it.
Sarah’s Key by Isabelle de Rothsay
This was recommended to me by a colleague in North America who is even more of an avid reader than I am. We discovered this connection via a team building exercise where you have to come up with three things that you think no-one else knows about you, then the other people have to guess who that fact relates to. It was a good recommendation for a book I doubt I would have picked up otherwise.
It has a dual time frame.In one we meet ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski, a Jewish girl born in Paris, who is arrested with her parents during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Before they go, she locks her four-year-old brother in a cupboard, thinking the family should be back in a few hours. The second plot follows Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris, who is asked to write an article in honour of the 60th anniversary of the roundup. Gradually the two stories coalesce.
This is a narrative that is full of emotional appeal, particularly those set in France. The scenes that take place in the Vélodrome d’Hiver, where more than 7,000 Jews were enclosed without water or food for days before being moved to concentration camps, were deeply moving, the kind of episode which it is hard to read without feeling bitter and tearful. The modern day story of Julia and her cheating husband had less impact and the ending was far too neatly wrapped up in a big chocolate box bow to work for me. But on the whole I’m glad I read it – the film version wasn’t bad either.
Resistance by Owen Sheers
Owen’s debut novel, Resistance is set in 1944 and imagines what would have happened if the Normandy landings had failed and German troops manage to arrive on British soil. Within a month half of the country is occupied.
In an isolated farm in the Welsh borders Sarah Lewis, finds her farmer husband Tom as disappeared. All the other husbands in the valley have similarly gone. The women are left alone to cope as best they can with the crops and livestock. Later in the novel it transpires they have all become members of the secret British resistance. In the meantime a German patrol arrives on a mystery mission, forming a fragile support for the women when a severe winter hits the valley. Sarah begins a taut relationship with the patrol’s commanding officer. But this puts further pressure on the fragile harmony of the valley and reveals deep undercurrents of feeling.
On the plus side I enjoyed reading about an area of my birth country with which I am familiar but seeing it through fresh eyes. It’s one that is not stack exactly but spare and often overlooked in favour of more lush scenery nearby. Sheers writes in a lyrical mode that really brings alive the landscape and the battle that endures to make a living from this land. Ultimately though this proved nothing more than just an ok novel though – neither good nor bad but not one that would make me recommend it. I think I struggled to engage with the characters and feel them ‘real’. My mum on the other hand loved it and so did her book club so maybe I am in a minority. Its now been turned into a film for which Owen Sheers was the co-screenwriter.
Sheers lives in Wales so I’m keen to support him and will likely read his most recent novel I Saw A Man which is set in London and New York and though also about relationships, has the pace of a thriller.
This is a book set against the backdrop of the Aberfan disaster in Wales, UK in which 40 people, 116 of them young children lost their lives when a huge waste coal heap slid onto their school and their homes. I started reading this on the 50th anniversary of the disaster. As a former journalist and someone who lived close to Aberfan this was an event of personal interest.
The main character, Harry, is a local journalist who has to go to the scene and file reports. He is physically, mentally and emotionally affected by what he sees. He is aghast at the behaviour of journalists sent from the national newspapers in Fleet Street who seem oblivious to human suffering and just want to get their story.
Walsh partly bases the story on some documents which indicated that press intrusion was so bad that the government division in Wales was deeply concerned and wanted some action. Around it she tries to present a portrait of a journalist of the old fashioned kind and his reactions.
As deeply moving at this tragic event was in reality, Walsh singularly fails to make this a novel I could was able to finish. The narration is clunky, full of phrases that seem lifted from official reports rather than rendered in language that the characters would use in reality. Harry’s life as a reporter is unconvincing – I note from the acknowledgements that she had connections with several journalists from South Wales, one or two of whom would indeed have remembered Aberfan but I have grave doubts that they saw the book pre-publication. If they did they would have spotted a huge error in the opening page where, according to Walsh, London based journalists got to the site around the same time as Harry. They didn’t (the distance from London to this part of Wales would have taken them several hours while Harry was much closer so its unrealistic). Further fundamental errors are apparent – he misses his deadline to file one of the biggest stories at that time yet is never even reprimanded despite the fact that missing a deadline is a cardinal mistake for any journalist. And then, instead of focusing all his effort on this story over coming months, he goes chasing a much more inferior story about city officials banning a film of Ulysses.
i should have listed to my inner voice before buying this, the voice which says that authors who have never be a journalist rarely get it right in their portrayal of members of this profession. I could have struggled through if the writing had sparkled but it didn’t. In fact it was dreary, the kind of strained language that you often find coming out of introductory creative writing classes.
After three sessions reading this novel I decided it wasn’t worth any more investment of my time.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest tragedies experienced in my home area of South Wales: the Aberfan disaster which saw the death of 144 people, 116 of them children. I was nine years old at the time – the same age of many of the children that were buried when thousands of tonnes of waste coal slid down the mountainside onto their school. It’s an event seared into my memory. The small community of Aberfan was just a few miles across the mountains from my school which was also in a mining town. What happened at Aberfan could easily have happened in my community.
Watching the news coverage of the commemorative events today was an emotional experience. Archive film shows the desperate efforts of rescuers to dig through the black slurry in the hope of finding someone alive. Among the many images from those days, this one has always stuck in my mind. The girl wrapped in the arms of a policeman was one of the lucky ones. She was found alive. Most of her classmates didn’t.
An inquiry followed. To this day, although the blame for the disaster was laid firmly at the door of the people managing the waste site, (the National Coal Board) no employee or board member has ever been demoted, dismissed, or prosecuted.
A memorial was set up. By the time it closed, nearly 90,000 contributions from all over the world had been received, totalling more than £1.6million. But instead of all that going to the bereaved and distraught families, it was used to make the remainder of the tip safe. Unsurprisingly, the community felt betrayed by the justice system and the political system. During my early days as a journalist I met some of those parents. I was struck then, and again today seeing some of them interviewed on TV, by how dignified they were in relieving those memories and of the betrayal that ensued.
It seems a fitting day to begin reading a book that is based on the events of fifty years ago: Black River by Louise Walsh. It follows Harry, a journalist for the South Wales Echo journalist, who tries to protect the village of Aberfan from press intrusion in the run up to the first anniversary of the 1966 disaster.
If you want to find out more about this tragedy, the BBC Wales site is a good source. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources
Though I like to support authors from my home country of Wales, Sarah Waters is one writer that hasn’t grabbed me as yet. I was put off her first novel Tipping the Velvet when I learned the central character is a music hall star (I’m a straight drama girl and shudder at the prospect of any stage performances involving music). I did give Fingersmith a go but found it rather dull. With that poor track record you might well wonder how I came to end up reading her most recent novel The Paying Guests? The answer is quite simple – my mother who pressed it upon me after her reading group raved about it. Our tastes rarely coincide so I opened it without a great deal of enthusiasm and probably wouldn’t have bothered except for the fact it’s set in 1920s Britain which is a period that fascinates me.
This is a time when, as a consequence of the Great War, the old constraints of gender and class began to break apart. Waters depicts this through a mother and daughter who, robbed of their men folk, find it increasingly difficult to maintain the standards they had enjoyed as members of a moderately wealthy genteel strata of society. Widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances are driven by economic necessity to find paying tenants (they are far too refined to call them lodgers) for rooms in their large sprawling villa in the Camberwell district of London. The idea is anathema to Mrs Wray’s middle-class sensibilities but with her husband gone and her sons dead, there is little choice. The house is crumbling around them, Frances tries to wages a daily war against grime and dust but it’s more than she can manage alone and they simply cannot afford to pay for a servant.
Frances does have her moments of doubt when the Barbers first move in.
The thought that all these items were about to be brought not the home – and that this couple who were not quite the couple she remembered, who were younger and brasher who were going to bring them and set them out and make their own home, brashly, among them – the thought brought on a flutter of panic. What on earth had she done? She felt as thought she was opening the house to thieves and invaders.
At first Len and Lilian Barber do little to disturb the household other than creating awkward little moments when they have to go through the kitchen to use the outside loo or when Frances is discovered on her knees scrubbing at the hallway tiles, looking every inch a charwoman instead of a well-bred and educated woman. Len Barber is an unpleasant figure with his leering behavour, his boorish attitude towards his wife and his regular boasts about his burdgeoning career in the insurance business. His wife ‘Lil’ is a vivacious creature who horrifies Mrs Wray by sleeping until late, using all the hot water for her bath and then floating about in a brightly coloured kimono. But Frances slowly finds herself drawn to Lilian and her liberated, brash ways. An affair ensues with disastrous consequences. As the two women try to resolve the situation they discover their standards of decency, loyalty and courage dissolve in the face of their fear of discovery.
Did I enjoy The Paying Guests?
Yes, in part. The first part that is.
This is the part which establishes the characters and leads to the torrid affair between Frances and Lilian. It’s full of convincing detail about the stultifying nature of Frances’ life from which Lilian provides a liberation. A frequenter of political meetings in the past, the intellectual side of her life has become closed in by the walls and furniture of the house she shares with a mother who cannot let go of the past. The ‘scuffs and tears she had patched and disguised; the gap where the long-case clock had stood…the dinner gong, bright with polish, that hadn’t been rung in years’ become symbols of the confinement she feels within the house. Where once she had enjoyed a deep and loving relationship with another woman, now her only escape is the occasional bus trip to visit a friend in another part of the city. Such is her life until the day Lilian walks through her door. With her brash outlook on life, her scissors, curling tongs and dressmaker’s eye, Lilian reawakens the old Frances, transforming her physically and emotionally.
Waters dramatises with considerable effect the idea that women in this period began to consider how to take control of their destiny and to reshape their lives in a new social order. If only this had continued to be the substance of the second half of the book. Unfortunately Waters changes tack and instead of a novel about relationships and social change we get more of a thriller with a death, a police investigation and a courtroom drama. This drags on interminably with ever more twists and turns and plenty of tears and recriminations. Frances’ passion and pain is entirely believable but since we don’t have access to Lilian’s inner voice, the exploration of her character is rather lacking in substance.
Not a dud by any means but I could have done with more fizz and sparkle in the second half.
I’ve never been much of a fan of short stories. I can admire the skill needed to create compelling characters, evoke a sense of place and tell a well rounded story all within a few thousand words. But when I read a short story I always get to the end feeling I’ve been short changed; that I’m just getting into it only to find myself adrift.
But two recent collections have shown that maybe the problem is that I just hadn’t found the right author.
I ordered The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies on the day it was announced she had won a 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Award and I discovered she comes from my home country of Wales. We have so few good contemporary authors that I wanted to show my support. I must have been in a fog at the time because I didn’t even twig that this was a collection of short stories.
Having now read it I can only concur with one of the Jerwood judges who called this collection ‘stunning’. It’s a slim book of 17 stories one of which Nothing Like My Nightmare is essentially a paragraph; a complete story told in 186 words by an unnamed narrator (a parent I surmise) reflecting on all the things that could go wrong as the daughter embarks on a flight overseas. Without spoiling the effect I’ll just say that the final sentence caught me so unawares I gasped.
The other stories, many of which have won prizes or been shortlisted in competitions, show the infinite variety of Carys Davies’ use of the short story form. They vary wildly in location from the wilds of Siberia to a remote farm in the Australian outback and a prison in a small Oklahoma community. It’s hard to determine exactly the time period in which some of the stories are set — the only clue in Precious, for example, a story about a foolish, idolised middle aged man who falls for his young cleaner, comes early on when he describes arriving at an apartment dragging his wheeled suitcase.
Many of these stories convey a impression of the vulnerability experienced by individual members of the human race and their consequent desire to connect with a fellow creature. In the title story, the connection is motivated by the desire of a Quaker spinster to bring comfort to a condemned prisoner and persuade him to cleanse his soul before death. When he rejects her overtures she simply sits with him in compatible silence waiting for the moment when he feels ready to talk. In another story, a woman reluctantly lets a neighbour into her home while her husband is away, believing him to be obnoxious only to discover they endure the same painful secret.
Vulnerability isn’t confined to ordinary people in Carys Davies’ world. She delivers a delightful story of a man’s daring attempt to rescue the widowed Queen Victoria from yet another desperately dull official event by relating a story about his wife’s infidelity. Another, rather poignant, tale brings us Charlotte Bronte purchasing a new hat before a meeting with the publisher to whom she’s rather taken a shine.
These are stories that are hard to resist reading in one sitting. But they are best savoured in small doses, the more fully to enable the resonance of each to linger.
The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies is published in the UK by Salt Publishing.
You can read the title story at Prospect Magazine here but I urge you not to stop at this one story. Go and buy the book.
This weekend I finally got to visit the visit of Laugharne in West Wales where my fellow countryman Dylan Thomas lived in the final three years of his life. I’m almost ashamed to admit that even though this village is only 90 minutes drive from my home, I’ve never made the pilgrimage. A birthday treat courtesy of Mr BookerTalk rectified that omission.
We got to look around the riverside house where he lived with his wife Caitlin/
It looks cosy but in reality was rather damp apparently. Still it had the advantage of occupying a spot on the estuary with some wonderful views from the windows and the garden. We sat and watched clouds scudding across the sky, creating constantly changing patterns of light and shadow on the sand and reflecting back in sparkling drops of water. For a few seconds all sound seemed to be suspended.
The small exhibition about his life and the audio recording of Thomas reading some of his poems made the visit special. But an equally memorable part of our visit was the chance we had to peek inside the small garage just along the lane where he actually did his writing. It’s been renovated and restored to give a glimpse of the rather chaotic conditions in which he composed Under Milk Wood. Sweet wrappers lie scrumpled on the desk, sheets of paper are scattered along the floor and on the back of the chair hangs a rather scruffy jacket as if Thomas had just popped out for one of his legendary drinking sessions in Browns Hotel and would be back soon.
Since this was a birthday treat, it was entirely appropriate that we trod in Thomas’ footsteps along The Birthday Walk – a path threading through trees and undergrowth along the estuary, that Thomas took on his 35th birthday.
In the mustardseed sun,
By full tilt river and switchback sea
Where the cormorants scud,
In his house on stilts high among beaks
And palavers of birds
This sandgrain day in the bent bay’s grave
He celebrates and spurns
His driftwood thirty-fifth wind turned age;
Herons spire and spear.
Under and round him go
Flounders, gulls, on their cold, dying trails,
Doing what they are told,
Curlews aloud in the congered waves
Work at their ways to death,
And the rhymer in the long tongued room,
Who tolls his birthday bell,
Toesl towards the ambush of his wounds;
Herons, stepple stemmed, bless.