Category Archives: Wales
The last few decades have seen such a boom of interest in genealogy that, according to ABC News, it’s now the second most popular hobby in the United States. I suspect the majority of new enthusiasts start out in the hope they’ll discover they’re descended from nobility or ‘someone famous’ or failing that, that their research will uncover some scandal in the past. But if there’s one lesson we can take from A Time for Silence by Thorne Moore it’s that some aspects of the past are best left untouched; leaving the dead “to their silent sleep.”
This is a novel which begins with a young woman who stumbles upon the farmhouse once inhabited by her grandparents. It’s in ruins; the roof has fallen in and cobwebs ‘thick as rope with dust’ lie amongst the rotten woodwork but Sarah is drawn inexorably to the property. On impulse she buys the farmhouse at Cwmderwen, imagining how it can be transformed into a weekend retreat for her and her soon-to-be husband. She knows little about her Nan (Gwen), and her husband John Owen yet seeing the farmhouse deep in the countryside of Pembrokeshire, Wales awakens her interest. How did John die? Why and how did the family lose their ownership of this land? Why didn’t her mother ever talk about her childhood there? Sarah’s attempts to find the answers are frustrated by the silences of her family members, the authorities and the handful of people still living near Cwmderwen who knew her grandparents. She begins to suspect her family were the victims of an outrageous act that it’s now her duty to avenge. What she discovers however is darker than she could ever imagine.
Sarah’s pursuit of the past provides the narrative framework for A Time for Silence. For the answers to her question we have to look to a different narrator – Sarah’s grandmother Gwen. We first meet her on the day of her marriage in 1933 as she leaves behind her beloved father and sister and makes her way by cart to her new home. It’s a solid building shadowed by trees, more gloomy than she imagined, and with no luxuries or signs of comfort. But she believes she can fix that easily with fresh curtains, embroidered fire screen, bright china on the heavy old dresser, a piano even with which she could accompany her husband who was renowned for his fine voice. As the novel progresses we witness how these dreams are destroyed at the hands of a proud, puritanical husband. Gwen is resilient and learns how to accommodate his demands but she and her children, live in fear that one wrong word will bring his wrath down on their heads.
It’s Gwen’s story that resonated most with me. I found Sarah, the modern day woman, a bit irritating. She’s a woman going through a crisis, still mourning the loss of her close friend in an accident for which Sarah feels responsible. She’s given up her ambitions to be a singer and is now beset with a future mother in law who wants to control every aspect of her upcoming wedding. With so much stress we can forgive some of her strange behaviours (like buying a derelict cottage on a whim) but some of her reactions struck me as bordering on the drama queen. Contrast her with Gwen who so dreads asking for money to clothe her children she makes do by unravelling old sweaters and knitting them into mittens and socks. She’s an isolated figure, her sister not being welcome in the cottage and any visitor from the nearby estate farm treated with suspicion by her husband. In Gwen, Thorne Moore has created a figure who reaches out across the decades and grabs our sympathy with her quiet determination to take whatever is thrown at her for the sake of her children. Her character transforms the novel.
The Book: A Time For Silence is the debut novel by Thorne Moore. It was published in 2012 by Honno Press, an independent publishers that specialises in work by women writers.
The Author: Thorne Moore is originally from the Luton area, near London. She has a long connection with Wales dating from her time as a history student at the University of Wales in Abertystwyth. She now lives in a Victorian farmhouse in Pembrokeshire in west Wales where she divides her time between writing and her craft business. Thorne will be featured in the ‘Put a Book on the Map’ series at Cleopatra’s book blog in April 2017.
Why I read this book: I’m trying to read more work by authors from my home country of Wales. I therefore couldnt resist when three independent Welsh publishers had a pop up bookshop in Cardiff in December 2016. A Time for Silence was one of the titles recommended by the team from Honno. Since it was such a good recommendation I’ve now gone on to buy Thorne’s second novel Motherlove. Check out the Authors from Wales page on this blog for more information on literature from 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