Category Archives: Welsh authors
Poverty, sickness and hard labour stalk a Welsh village community in Caradog Davies’ award-winning novel One Moonlit Night. This is the reality of life in a small slate quarrying community as seen through the eyes of a young boy. But though there is also sadness and tragedy, there is also joy; the first sight of the sea; an entire community united in song and a raucous football match.
One Moonlit Night was written as a portrayal of a way of life known intimately by Carodog Pritchard. North Wales is where he was born and lived most of his life with his widowed mother, just as his narrator does.
I think that’s why the book has such a strong sense of the child’s love for the village and its inhabitants. Pritchard’s narrator knows every inhabitant and how they are related. He knows too every inch of his village; each street and lane being but a playground for him and his best friends Huw and Moi.
They’re full of curiosity these boys; forever asking questions and wanting to stay out late so they don’t miss anything exciting. They’re also an adventurous trio, exploring the surrounding hills and lakes and always on the look out for fun even if it’s just picking wild berries on the mountainside or passing on the latest gossip.
Shadows Of Reality
Yet their exuberance doesn’t mask the darker reality of their lives. In just the first chapter the narrator encounters an epileptic fit, suicide, illicit sex in the woods, and domestic violence. These don’t cause the boys any deep anxiety however; a sign perhaps that they are such common place occurrences they don’t warrant any commentary.
At one point for example they hear Moi’s mother scream. One boy asks if they should fetch the local policemen only for Moi to reply: “No, there’s no need for that. He won’t do anything to her. They’re always like that.” Their innate curiosity takes over so they inch closer to the door, to find Moi’s mother fighting with his uncle; one armed with a bread knife, the other with a tuck knife. Minutes later they’re all sitting around scoffing bread and butter as if nothing untoward had occurred.
Shadows of Hardship and War
These are kids whose lives are framed by hunger and hardship. The first World War has cast its shadow on the village, creating heroes but also bringing death. The boys go to school but know their childhood will not last much longer. Their families need them to work, to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. So just like their fathers, they’ll head to the nearby slate quarry.
One Moonlit Night doesn’t have a story as such. It’s a series of episodes that spin through different points in time; mixing gossip and anecdote with dreams and recollections. At some points the narrative seems to even leave reality behind, entering the realm of myth with invocations to the Queen of The Black Night and the Queen of Snowdon (the Beautiful One)
Come again my Beautiful One, come again and take me before the sun rises from his resting place, before we are disturbed by the bleating of the lamb; fully possess your chosen one before the withering of the moon’s candle; prepare before me the joy of my afternoon.
Lyrical Yet Ordinary
Caradog Pritchard offers a heady mix of the lyrical and the commonplace but also draws heavily on local dialect and expressions. Few characters have standard names; instead they’re denoted by their occupation, or their relation to another character or their residence. So we have Elwyn Top Row, Little Will Policeman’s Dad, Bob Milk Cart, Johnny Beer Barrel’s Dad and – my favourite – Will Starch Collar.
Seeing these names on the page reminded me so much of the village where my parents were born. Few people there used surnames either. When they spoke about a neighbour or someone else in the village. It was always Jones the Milk or Dai Post or Evan Two Shoes (the origin of which is lost in the mists of time). It’s a practice possible only in a small community where that can be just one post man or milkman,
Won Over By Energetic Narrator
I didn’t take to this book initially but slowly its humour and energy won me over. I loved the narrator who has a zest for life that’s hard to quench and a love for his gran and his widowed mother that is matched only by his love of bread and butter and lobscouse (a kind of lamb and vegetable stew). He even prays for food, inspired by a line from the Lord’s Prayer he’d recited in church that morning:
Give us this day our daily bread … bread.
And after saying daily bread, I didn’t go any further with the others, I just started thinking. I remembered Mam telling me before we came to Church that we had no bread to make bread and butter with, and so I asked God for some more daily bread cos the parish money wasn’t coming till Friday.
That quote is one of many examples of how Pritchard blends humour and darkness in this novel. One moment you’re amused by a small child who takes a very literal interpretation of a prayer and the next you’re jolted into recognition this is a family very much on the breadline. What begins as a narrative of childhood fun and laughter, slowly but steadily gets darker until the final, heartbreaking ending.
It’s an unforgettable book.
One Moonlit Night by Caradog Pritchard: End Notes
One Moonlit Night was written in the Welsh language and published in 1961 under the title Un Nos Ola Leuad. The first English translation was issued in 1995, followed by a BBC radio broadcast in English the following year.
The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales called the book “one of the most impressive novels to be published in Wales since the Second World War.” with a narrative stye reminiscent of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. It was Caradog Pritchard’s best known work although he was also a highly regarded poet, three times winning the National Eisteddfod crown.
Turf or Stone is an “amazing, fantastical, invigorating reading experience” according to Kate Gramich in her foreword to the Library of Wales edition of Margiad Evans’s novel.
That was a long way from my experience. I find it hard to accept that such a dark, troubling and uncomfortable novel about the extremes of human emotion could be invigorating. Passion, violence and cruelty are ever present, with only a few moments of unexpected tenderness to lighten the darkness.
We’re only a few pages into the book when this becomes evident. Mary Bicknor, a servant cum companion to an eccentric lady, is to be married. She has hitherto enjoyed a comfortable existence but falls from grace when she discovers she is pregnant by Easter Probert, a groom at a local farm. The vicar hurriedly pushes the pair into marriage. But this is a relationship clearly doomed never to work.
Disastrous Start to Marriage
The bride cries all the way through the marriage service. There are no witnesses or guests. Mary is presentably dressed but Easter turns up in old and dirty clothes. He’s forgotten a ring so at the last moment has to take a thick twisted one from his hand that is far too big for the woman. On their way home, he snatches the ring back and pushes her over into the mud
Easter continues to be a cruel husband. He’s a serial womaniser who takes pleasure in hurting and humiliating his wife. Mary is driven to despair. She contemplates suicide but finds comfort instead in an affair with her husband’s employer, a married man with three children. She applies for a legal separation order so she and her young son can start a new life away from both men. The novel ends with Easter on the receiving end of a form of poetic justice.
A Monstrous Womaniser
n Easter, Margiad Evans has devised a protagonist who has few redeeming qualities. He is sullen, insolent and brutish. Appropriately Easter is described repeatedly in nightmarish, animalistic terms. When his employer’s daughter Phoebe hears him knocking the door one night, she’s confronted with the grotesque vision of a man peering through the window looking “livid, the upper teeth were showing and a large spider’s web, really on the inside, seemed at that distance to be hanging from his mouth.
Enough to give you the creeps. Yet he has no trouble persuading women into his bed. He seems to have a strange and perplexing hold on them; they recognise the danger he presents and are repelled by him but they still don’t walk away.
However much he bears a resemblance to some brooding Gothic figure, Easter is not a caricature. Evans invests him with moral complexity, particularly in his relationship to women. We’re told he “loved women who were sad and gentle, and suffered him,” That word “suffer” is central to understanding his constant swings swings between sexual desire and hatred, between a desire to be loved and violence when he isn’t.
He’s hoping that Mary will be kind towards him but when she doesn’t “suffer” him, he takes revenge in brutish behaviour. One of the most terrible scenes in the novel takes place when his wife is five months pregnant. He comes home with “a surprise”: a dead rat he puts into her bed.
And he pushed it deeper and deeper into her flesh, till, hanging round his neck, she dragged herself up, and with the poisonous little carcass crushed between them, seized him by the ear and tugged.They struggled furiously in the darkness.He did not strike her; he half carried, half dragged her across the room and poured a jug of water over her head.
The details are horrific. Told that the “rats eyes are running, there are flies’ eggs in the fur, the tail’s half off,” Mary crawls away “like a thrashed animal in snarling despair” to cower with her face against the wall. The scene ends with Easter swamped by ‘voluptuous tenderness’ sleeping with her in his arms.
Turf or Stone suggests the reason for his Easter’s appalling cruelty lies in his neglected childhood. Which created in him a deep seated desire for human warmth. I’m no psychologist but can’t see how violence will get him what he most desires. Even if I understood his motivation, it didn’t make me warm to him in any way, particularly when you see the predatory way he creeps around his employer’s fifteen year old daughter.
This is a novel thick with misery and strife. Too much of it really for me to enjoy. If it had come with more light and shade, and if we’d been given more access to Mary’s side of the relationship, I think I would been more interested. I’d been looking forward to reading this having heard for years about Margiad Evans but in the end it was a disappointment.
Turf or Stone by Margiad Evans: Endnotes
Margiad Evans was the pseudonym of Peggy Eileen Whistler who though born in England developed a lifelong affinity with the Marches, the area on the English/Welsh border.
She became aquainted with this part of the world when she was a child and visited her aunt and uncle’s farm near Ross on Wye. Her family moved to a house just outside Ross when she was aged 12. After her marriage she went to live on a nearby farm.
Margiad Evans wrote extensively throughout her life: novels, short stories, autobiography and poems. She kept a journal, often written on scraps of paper or in exercise books. After her death her husband Michael Williams donated many of her letters, journals and diaries to the National Library of Wales.
Turf or Stone was her third novel, published in 1936.
Matt Johnson edged toward the parapet of the high building and peered into the darkness. Below, on the concrete, was the body of a young girl who had fallen during a roof party. Dealing with death and injury are regular trials for police officers and in his twenty years as a London copper, Matt Johnson had seen more than his fair share of tragedy.
But this day was to be even more challenging. As he looked down at the body he began experiencing a flashback to another traumatic incident: the shooting, in 1984, of a young female constable while on duty outside the Libyan Embassy in London. PC Yvonne Fletcher was Matt’s friend. He was with her in her final hours, driving her to the hospital where she later died.
That experience left Matt with a range of torments which plagued him over the coming years: mood swings, irritability, disturbing dreams and sleep deprivation. But it was after his flashback nightmare on that rooftop, that day in 1999, that his situation became grievous. Driving home after the end of his shift he began shaking, sweating and feeling intense pain. Matt believed he was having a heart attack. He quickly found medical help.
A Career Ends
The doctor’s diagnosis was unexpected: Matt had suffered an anxiety attack. And that was not all. The medic told him that he was suffering from PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder.
That diagnosis put an end to Matt Johnson’s career in the police but opened a new path – towards writing. Now, twenty years later – after much counselling, hard work and a little luck – he is a successful author of a crime fiction series and also acts as a television script advisor on police procedures and methods.
His new career was triggered by a counsellor whose help Matt sought to cope with his PTSD. Writing therapy was a relatively new concept at the time but, under her guidance, Matt Johnson began writing about his swirling emotions and the effect of two decades dealing with murder, terrorism and shootings.
It was quite painful early on but what I learned was that writing about your experiences, rather than talking about them, involves a good deal more thought. Writing is 10, maybe 20 times more effective than talking. The more I wrote the better I got.
After months and multiple therapy sessions, there was an unexpected development. ‘Have you ever thought about writing a book?’ the counsellor asked.
I just laughed. It was never on the agenda. I thought: ‘Who would want to read a book about my experiences when there are hundreds of other officers with similar experiences?’ At most it might be of interest to a researcher in a university.
New Career Begins
He forgot about the idea. Moved to Wales. Set up a boarding kennel. Got on with his life. And then a new idea began to take shape. Instead of writing an autobiography about the effects of stress on serving police officers, he could reach a much bigger audience if he wrote fiction that drew on his experiences.
One evening Matt sat at his computer and began transforming all the notes he’d made during therapy into a novel. It took almost three years to write Wicked Game, a book based on the experiences of a former SAS soldier, now policeman, called Robert Finlay.
Though rejected by several literary agents, the book became a word of mouth success when it was self published in 2015. One Easter weekend, it was downloaded 10,000 times; Finlay’s background in the army and intelligence services seeming to resonate strongly with members of the armed forces.
A Twist of Fate
But then came the lucky break that many budding authors dream will happen.
The Irish based author and journalist Antony Loveless was on a reporting assignment in Afghanistan. He started chatting to a RAF crewman whom he’d spotted sitting reading next to his Chinook helicopter.
Loveless was so interested by the crewman’s description of the book he had on his Kindle – Wicked Game – and the author’s history, that he bought a copy himself. And then Loveless recommended it to his own literary agent. A few weeks later Matt was taken on as a client by Watson-Little Ltd and began getting publishing offers.
Wicked Game, refreshed with the help of a professional editor, was published via Orenda Books in 2016. Shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger, it had impressive endorsements from David Young (author of Stasi Child) and Peter James, author of Inspector Roy Grace series. Two more Robert Finlay books followed: Deadly Game in 2017 and End Game in 2018, both to critical acclaim.
Fiction or Autobiography
What about the reaction from the people in whose worlds these books are set; Matt’s former colleagues in the army and police? No issues on that score: the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
It’s quite humbling sometimes because you know you are writing about something from your career background that people know very deeply and if you get it wrong, misrepresent their world, they can be very harsh in their judgement.
But I’ve had quite the opposite. Some people claim they recognise the people I’ve featured in the books. They’re wrong! Others have said they know the story is real. But they’re not … nor are these books autobiographical. I’ve just attempted to write in a way that comes across as authentic.
So authentic in fact that the master of spy thrillers, John Le Carré, wanted to meet Matt Johnson to discuss a plot device in his second novel Deadly Game.
It was surreal. There I was sitting in his house in Cornwall eating scones and jam and he asks me about the spy element in the book and where I got the story from. I said it was entirely made up. He wasn’t entirely persuaded. He said it was so close to a real story, one that really happened, that it was uncanny.
Matt Johnson’s clearly come a long way since that day in 1999 when he believed he was falling apart. Has writing solved the problems caused by his PTSD? The answer is an unequivocal no. PTSD, he says, isn’t a condition that’s cured, it’s one that you learn to manage.
Loud noises and crowded spaces can trigger a recurrence of his anxiety. So too can some speaking events if he strays too close to certain experiences. But his home amid the mountains of Wales, a place where he can walk his dogs and tend to his bees, offers him the tranquility that helps keep the symptoms at bay.
Writing has been critical to his salvation. He loves what he’s doing now even if at times he feels he’s still on uncertain ground.
I feel like I’m a novice surfer whose had a few lessons, paddelled out to sea, turned to face the shore and somehow picked up the perfect wave. I’m heading towards shore, grinning from ear to ear but I’m not very safe. At any moment I could crash and fall off. But I’m enjoying the moment.
What’s next on the horizon for Matt I ask? A film adaptation? A TV series? His lips are sealed. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard both are in the wind….
This conversation with Matt Johnson was part of the Cwtch Corner series on bookertalk.com where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books. To read other interviews click here
The White Camellia is an atmospheric novel of family secrets and revenge set against the background of the Suffragette movement.
Juliet Greenwood plunges us into the lives of two women from vastly different backgrounds but united in their determination to control their own destiny.
One is Sybil Ravensdale, a Cornishwoman of lowly stock who has become a wealthy owner of hotels in the United States. When the book opens she has returned to England to expand her business and decides to buy Tressillion House, a Jacobean style manor on the Cornish coast that has fallen into disrepair.
The other is a young woman born into riches but now living in straightened circumstances in London with her widowed mother and younger sister. Beatrice Tressillion had to leave Tressillion House when her father died and the family was tainted with the scandal of an accident at a mine on the estate.
Revenge And Mystery
As the story unfolds it’s evident that Sybil Ravensdale is a woman seeking revenge; for what we don’t exactly know. But it’s somehow connected to Tressillion House and to Beatrice. The mystery element is well handled because, though there are plenty of hints, Sybil’s secret is not revealed until the very final pages of the book.
Juliet Greenwood does a fabulous job of creating the atmosphere of the two principal settings. The London sections come full of dark alleys, poverty and drunks while Ross and Demelza Poldark would feel quite at home in the chapters set on the Cornish coast. There’s even an abandoned iron mine (rumoured to contain a rich seam of gold) for Ross to try and re-open.
Even more appealing however was the historical context for the novel. The year is 1909, a time which marked an escalation of the fight for the right of British women to vote in public elections. After years of peaceful campaigning and meetings, the women and their male supporters take to the streets with larger scale demonstrations and even greater determination. The police are equally determined to stop them.
Beatrice stumbles into this world via The White Camellia Tearoom. It’s a fictional location but represents the kind of London cafe and tearoom that allowed women to meet in safety without fear of molestation or accusations of improper behaviour. The women who work and patronise the tearoom give Beatrice courage to face her dilemma: to secure her family’s future by marriage to a wealthy man or follow her own desire for a career and a life of freedom from control.
Fighting for Independence
The White Camellia shows the issue at the heart of the suffragette movement; the constraints felt by the women of this period and their lack of opportunity. With the marriage her mother desires, Beatrice will get security and status but lose her independence and her dream of becoming a journalist. Without marriage, she will be confined to lowly paid jobs and a life of hardship.
Faced with the same challenge, Sybil Ravensdale decided to take the path of independence, fighting her way to prosperity against men who viewed her as a commodity:
.. she’d seen other women fall for a charming smile and attention, until marriage gave a suitor control over their lives and a fortune. As far as she could see that was hell on earth. She would never hand over to another the power to take all her hard work away, leaving her back on the streets.
This could so easily have become a novel bogged down by detail and ‘message’ But the factual information was so skillfully woven into the book that I got the benefit of the context without feeling I was being subjected to a lecture. And the characters are so vividly constructed that when they talk about their attitudes to freedom and female emancipation they don’t sound as if they’re reading from a script.
That authenticity is exactly what you need in a historical novel. If you want a book that gives you the feeling of being on the streets during a suffragette march, or underground in a disused mine, The White Camellia will more than satisfy your need.
The White Camellia: End Notes
Juliet Greenwood is a historical fiction author based in Wales. Having worked in London for nearly ten years, she now lives in a traditional Welsh cottage in the mountains of Snowdonia.
She began writing seriously about ten years ago, after a severe viral illness left her with debilitating ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Now recovered she spends her time writing, working on local oral history projects and helping aspiring writers.
The White Camellia was published by the Welsh independent press Honno in September 2016. Juliet has two other novels also published by Honno: Eden’s Garden and We That Are Left.
Cynan Jones’ The Cove is less than 100 pages long but it’s packed with intensely atmospheric prose that sucks you in from the first paragraph and doesn’t let you go.
It begins with a short prologue in which a woman stands on a shore waiting for the result of a rescue mission out in the bay. The focus then shifts to a man adrift in a kayak, having been caught in a sudden storm and struck by lightening
When he regains consciousness, he has no knowledge of how much time has elapsed or how far he is from the cove. He’s disorientated, badly injured, has no food and a minimum of water. The only equipment at his disposal is his fishing line and a frying pan.
The odds are against him but his instinct for survival is strengthened by his overwhelming love for the woman and unborn child waiting for him back on land.
The idea of her, whoever she might be, seemed to grow into a point on the horizon he could aim for. He believed he would know more as he neared her.
Getting in Close
This is prose that is slowly, almost microscopically rendered. Cynan Jones makes us feel as if we’re in the kayak with this man, shadowing every small action that he hopes will help him to survive.
He clipped the line that was attached to the hook to the feather trace and moved the weight so it was linked from the baited hook. Then he threw out the rig and let out the line.
His disorientation renders him unable to focus on practicalities for any length of time. Without a clock or a watch, time has in fact ceased to have any meaning: “he thinks of whiles, moments – things less measurable.”
As he drifts in and out of consciousness, he contemplates the way the life beneath the waves comes “alive like a living skin“; with the fin of a sunfish “folding, flopping” and a flock of jellyfish floating “like negligees.” And he reflects on his life; the father whose ashes he had taken with him in the kayak to scatter upon the water; the woman waiting for him on the shore.
Memories are triggered by small discoveries. At one point he finds a wren’s feather inside his dead mobile phone, an object that reminds him of his partner who has a similar feather. The glimpses of the past and of a new future give him the strength to try and survive.
Economical But Lyrical Prose
Every word in The Cove has been carefully selected. It’s a terse economical style yet still rich in imagery, metaphors and similies. He has for example a a sense of himself as “a fly trapped the wrong side of glass” with a “memory like a dropped pack of cards.” He can recall the beginning of the journey and drifting out to sea but “the time in between was gone. Like a cigarette burn in a map.”
This is a haunting novel. Though it’s more than a year since I read The Cove I still remember the atmosphere and the imagery so clearly. It’s now joined a very elite group of contemporary novels that I am certain to re-read.
The output of the Welsh publishing sector may not be as prolific as their counterparts elsewhere in the UK, but what it lacks in numbers, it more than delivers on quality and variety.
The small community of independent and specialist publishers champion the cause of writers born in Wales and those who have chosen to make the country their home.
Here are a few titles coming out this Spring that have caught my interest.
Published this month is Wild Spinning Girls by Carol Lovekin an author I’ve enjoyed in the past (see my reviews of Ghostbird and Snow Sisters). Just like those novels, Wild Spinning Girls, features an old house that has secrets and a protagonist who has to learn to let go of the past.
The Memory by Judith Barrow also takes secrets and memories as its theme. I’ve not read any of Judith’s work yet but this one sounds interesting. It’ features the difficult relationship between a mother and her daughter. Over the course of 24 hours their moving and tragic story is revealed – a story of love and duty betrayal and loss – as Irene rediscovers the past about the sister who died 30 years earlier. The Memory is due out on 19 March.
Seren has always enjoyed a strong reputation for the spotlight it provides Welsh poets. They’re continuing to do that this year with two new collections due out in February. The first of these caught my eye simply because of the very strange cover art….
The Machineries of Joy is Peter Finch’s 26th poetry collection. Seren says it’s “chock-full of acute observation, pointed asides, startled reactions, formal dislocations and structural invention.”
Also coming out with a new collection is Andre Mangeot with Blood Rain. Many of the featured poems are inspired by the his love of the landscape of Wales and in particular the dramatic vistas of the mountains of Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons.
One of the things I’ve long admired about Parthian is the way they bring an element of diversity to their output. That’s very much in evidence again this year with books from a Sommalian refugee, a Latvian author from the Cold War era and one of the most respected voices in contemporary Welsh literature.
They have some really exciting sounding books coming out in April and again in the summer but you’ll have to wait for news of those later on in the year.
For now, I’ll just mention one that was launched just a few weeks ago.
I, Eric Ngalle is a remarkable true life account of a young man who left Sommalia believing he would soon be in Belgium, studying for an economics degree. But the travel plans went wrong and instead he ended up in Russia. After his passport was stolen, he spent two years as an illegal immigrant. Somehow (and I’m very curious how this happened) he ended up in Wales where he studied history and is now doing an MA in creative writing.
That’s all for now but I’ll be back with some more titles in a few months. If you’ve never read anything by a Welsh publisher I hope I’ve done enough to persuade you to lend them your support!