About lizwhittaker

Novels are my thing. I read them all the time and when I'm not reading them I'm writing them. Six of my books are on Kindle, four of them are out in the world in paper-back. Mostly my stuff is about Wales. If I lived somewhere else I would write about there instead.

Me and The Monk

I have been asked more than once why The Bardic Monk is my own favourite of the books I have written, and as I am going into Awen Teifi, one of our local bookshops this week-end to sign copies of it, this is a good time to say why it’s important to me.

My compulsion to tell the story began when I read of a figure cloaked in mystery who appeared in a number of history books. The role attributed to him is that he was the man who spoke to King Henry II , giving him precise instruction where he might find the grave of the long dead King Arthur. This whispering in the King’s ear is not always agreed upon by historians. Perhaps the whole idea of the majestic visitor to St Davids, holding confab with an unknown character,  is a bit much for the historian, who would like us to think that the King made up this mythical figure, to disguise the fact that he had already buried some remains where he could find them and say ‘Here is Arthur.’ Why he would do such a thing is anybody’s guess.Regardless of the historians opinions I fell in love with the story of the mystery man, who persuaded the King to ride to Wales, whispered his secret to him and maybe even drew him a little map, like something out of Blyton, and sent him off to Glastonbury. There again the historians dispute the location. They usually say that the monks of Glastonbury only claimed it was there in order to make money.But I read Gerald of Wales, and he tells it like it was, with all the detail of the Glastonbury Abbey graveyard, and the size of the bones that came out of the ground, and the cursed monk with the urge to touch the golden hair of Guinevere. This was a story which once read I had to believe, and was dying to get on with writing. I also wanted to give the man who spoke to the King his finest hour of being recognised for what he did. He may be wearing a monkish gown, but he is no ordinary monk, he is a Bardic Monk, and they were few and far between. Gerald gives us two distinct descriptions of the King’s informer. One of them is ‘an unknown soothsayer’ and the other is ‘a Welsh monk’. In Christopher Snyder’s book The World of King Arthur he tells us it was a ‘British Bard’. I have seen him elsewhere described as a ‘Breton and monkish’ and I have revealed him in my book as an Awenyddion, or Bardic Monk one of  the high cast Awenyddionau, whose poetry and lyrical writings were composed through vision and deep meditation. It is St Davids Day on Sunday, and though the monk in the story is not St David himself, much of the story takes place at the cathedral, and its presence is relevant throughout.

So I love the book because it happened in the 12th century which I had enjoyed writing about so much in A Court in Splendour. I also love it because I took a figure out of history who was nameless and faceless even though he talked with a King, and I gave him a voice and name. And last it is my favourite because so much of it occurs at the cathedral in St Davids and I feel privileged to have created a personal connection with it.

Nine is a Magic Number

Recently I launched my ninth book, The White Tower. It was a wonderful event with music and readings, storytelling and afternoon tea. People crowded into Cardigan’s, Small World Theatre, a favourite local venue, where the atmosphere was fabulous and there was a genuine appreciation of all the performances. Certainly the readings had the desired effect as the sales of signed books at the event exceeded expectations. It could also be that most of the people attending  were local and may know that I am diagnosed with inoperable cancer and that this could well be my last ‘event’ so this particular novel, perceived, perhaps, as my last book.

In the light of that possibility, it occurs to me that it might be a good idea to acquaint people with my previous books, to  recap on those novels which went before, since in the circumstances, the numbers of people likely to be interested may have grown.

With the publishing of the White Tower the number of my books, though in total now nine, splits into two types, those in print which rise to six and those only available online and Kindle, which number three.

Of  those printed and published three make up‘The Dreamstealers Trilogy’, for children 8 years upward,  produced by Welsh publishing house  Y Lolfa between 2003-2006. Each book has an exciting adventure with inter-dimensional characters, an element of magic and an over-arching story going through the three volumes. All the action takes place in and around the Preseli Hills, and the towns of Narberth and Cardigan. Publication of the trilogy was assisted by the Welsh Books Council, and they are still available from Y Lolfa, in book form or from Amazon on Kindle.

In 2009 the town of Cardigan celebrated its 900th birthday, a fine excuse for another book. So I wrote A Court in Splendour, the story of the Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd who held a grand party and contest between bards and musicians in the newly built Cardigan Castle. The event is now regarded by most in Wales as the First Eisteddfod.  A trip to Glastonbury and another to St Davids inspired the writing of a book about the grave of King Arthur. This was The Bardic Monk which came out in 2013. Both of those books were published by Llanerch. Three contemporary mysteries were also completed and put up on Amazon for Kindle users about this time.

The ninth, again published by Llanerch Press, has more significance for me than most of the others. The fact that it came to me after an encounter with a swarm of bees is already recorded in my last post, but perhaps the fact that the bees were thirty five years ago, and the book only just published, is less well-known.

I have waited for two weeks since the launch, to be well enough to write this and have been rewarded in that time by a positive flood of appreciative comments about the book from readers which has been quite thrilling. I cannot help feeling it is more likely to assist my health than any amount of prescribed medication! 

Launch through Time

THE WHITE TOWER – A book from the bees.

My last blog was written in August 2014 just a year from when I began it in August 2013. There is good reason for why it had an abrupt halt which I may write about some time.  For the moment however, I want to write about the  launch of my new book, a book which has been in gestation for over thirty five years. Yes! You read it right, 35 years.

It began in the summer of 1977, on a hilltop in Ceredigion, where the remains of a Roman fortress created a kind of ancient, jagged amphitheatre. During the course of a fascinating afternoon, where it felt that past and present collided,  a friend and I circumnavigated the high flat surface and as we did so we heard a pulsating hum which we could not identify, and which was growing louder.

My friend thought the sound was coming from the ground, but I disagreed, sure that it was somehow reaching us in the wind that blew fairly strong around us. She stooped, to put her ear closer to the scrubby grass to test her theory and when she looked up, shaking her head and about to speak, she halted and an expression of fear took over. Her eyes widened and she stepped back, away from me. She stared; seemingly at something above my head, and raised a pointing hand. I lifted my face toward the sky and saw what she was seeing.

A swarm of bees hovered in a seething pillar only centimetres above my head. Powerless to move, I froze, as they descended moving as one body taking me over from my head to my feet.

They crawled across my hands, my arms, my face and in my hair. They were inside my shirt and around my ankles and feet and I could feel the hairs on my body rising to the patter of their tiny feet travelling my body as though they had a purpose in being there.

A part of me was amazed and I experienced a thrill of excitement, whilst elsewhere in me I felt the natural and desperate fear of being stung all over.

My fear won out, and I found the strength to begin to run, holding my arms up high and shrieking like a wild thing, I got to the edge of the mountain and stopped. I felt them begin to leave me and as I stood leaning against a Roman stone, panting for breath I saw them go. In a lazy upward movement they gathered themselves back into a spiralling pillar, left  me and flew away.

Though I was not stung  I was shaking, and buzzing all over as though I had experienced an exhilarating sauna. I was electrified, despite the whole thing only having lasted two oe three minutes, and I was giving off static for the rest of the day to everyone that came near me. And I was inspired. I had been caressed by a thousand bees who came to me and spoke their secrets through my skin. For five nights following the event, I experienced dreams like never before, full of colour and people from the distant past. I tried to capture some of them on the page by writing a play, which though it was hard for people to understand, was cheeerfully taken on by a group of alternative players in the rural reaches of West Wales who created something wonderful out of a difficult script.

After many years of trying to recapture something of what the bees brought to me, I have finally completed a novel, The White Tower, and it will be launched on Saturday 31st January at  3pm, Small World Theatre in Cardigan. There will be storytelling with myself and Peter Stevenson,  heavenly music with Deuair, and divine cakes. And there will be Llanerch Press with books to be signed. What fun for us all!

Lammas – to build a home.

The latest exhibition, recently opened at Oriel Mwldan is a photographic show,  titled ‘To build a Home’ showing portraits, from photographer Amanda Jackson. These are images of people living at the Lammas Eco Village in the Preseli Hills. A defining feature of Jackson’s photographic work is that she has a particular interest, indeed a passion as she herself expresses it, for capturing portraits of those who live in situations on the edges of mainstream society. Needless to say that is exactly what one would be likely to find at Lammas the experimental eco-village in the Preselis. For those who have not come across Lammas before, this exhibition is a wonderful way to be introduced into the small growing village, dedicated to a natural way of life, and an ecological attitude to building. Each of the photographs tells an individual story, and simultaneously there is a visible connection between them. This has something to do with the glimpses of architectural background; the similarity in the kind of building which is being put together. Whether finished or unfinished, quantities of natural wood used for internal building are on view, and in the external environment, nature in its many shades of green is also present. There is no doubt at all that these people are living in a rural environ, and using the environ as inspiration for their built designs.  When it comes to the faces of the people themselves, captured in some of them is what might be termed a wary expression,  like Elfie, the girl whose face stares back without blinking, and seems to be uncertain whether or not to welcome the viewer into the place which however unusual it may be to them, is her home.  In fact there is even a latent hostility, in others, like The Beekeepers, a kind of ‘keep your distance’ expression. However, as far as bees are concerned, keeping one’s distance is probably a wise move. And  whatever the expressions these people wear, they have all been willing to sit for the camera’s eye so their apparent wariness may simply be in the eye of the beholder. It could also be more about wanting the mood of the show to be serious; like saying ‘We are not all here just to have a laugh. Our purpose, in our experimental living is to raise our consciousness as well as to be good to the planet.’ Presumably under instructions not to smile in order to avoid looking like holiday snaps, the net effect is that everyone looks somehow steadfast, even purposeful.

Open daily from 10.00am showing until 4 October at Oriel Mwldan.

Politics Life and Love in 1950s Wales

 A Welsh Dawn

‘A Welsh Dawn’ is a new novel from publishers Y Lolfa, by author, Gareth Thomas. The story at the heart of it centres on a small group of people in Wales during the 1950s and early1960s, and takes an interesting look at the issues faced by the Welsh people as a whole, during a time of huge change. Where matters such as these are examined in a fictional context it takes a delicate balancing act on the part of the author to avoid polemic and educational instruction whilst making clear the severity of the effects of change on those living through ‘interesting times’.  This careful handling is accomplished with a deft confidence by Gareth Thomas, which is not surprising since he lived through the period himself, and having been born in 1948, and educated in both England and Wales, experienced first-hand the Welsh community struggling to maintain its clear identity, through both its language and its culture, from the perspective of belonging and also from an objective viewpoint. Gareth Thomas was born in the Rhondda to Welsh parents and was educated in a number of places  in both Wales and England. He studied drama and became a teacher, also working as an actor and director. It is possible that this is where his skill in creating empathetic characters emerged  and it is this that makes the book so successful. From the two young boys Gwilym and William, at the start to the others as they appear, Glan and Dafydd, Margaret and Ifan, his characters are real which means the issues with which they are faced are real too. The influences seen to be destroying the old way of life and the everyday use of Welsh in Wales were numerous; an influx of non-Welsh speakers from outside Wales, political uncertainties, internal movement within Wales for employment prospects, and additionally the growth of the English speaking media and commerce. There were political decisions made in Westminster, which despite genuinely committed and organised disputation by local people, villagers and supporters, as with Capel Celyn, the village drowned to create a reservoir for Liverpool, simply went ahead regardless. The reality of Wales being ruled from Westminster without regard for the culture and the people who lived there, caused an outrage which was felt throughout the cities and the country villages and by using fiction to express the happenings of the period Gareth Thomas has succeeded in reaching out to the reader by using empathetic characters to tell the story.

A Welsh Dawn by Gareth Thomas is published by Y Lolfa and is available from bookshops and www.ylolfa.com

Myra Stories and Songs

Myra – Lost Folk Tales and Songs of Ceredigion

A double CD just released offers a unique spread of fascinating material gathered from the writings of a Victorian farmer’s wife who lived just outside Cei Newydd, and who spent time, when not fulfiling her role on the farm, and as wife and mother, collecting and writing down songs and stories she heard which related to the surrounding area. Myra Evans lived at Panteg and in her small neat hand she made a note of all possible material she heard into  two exercise books – one for stories and one for music and songs. The material on the discs comes from both books. Peter Stephenson is the storyteller and he brings style and experience to the telling. As a collector of stories himself the discovery of this miscellaneous anthology is a magical experience. Whilst his storytelling captures the listener, the musical accompaniment adds another dimension to the listening experience. The emotional content, the atmosphere, and the mood of the stories are vastly increased by the musical presence of Ceri Owen Jones on harp and  Elsa Davies who sings and plays the fiddle. The music itself has been adapted, as have the stories, but whatever small alterations have been made to bring it together, the result works brilliantly; an almost elemental conjunction which feels as though it existed as a complete entity. The albums are produced both in Welsh and English, by Ceri Rhys Matthews and Jens Schroeder and the material offers a glimpse into an area of heritage which might easily have been lost. It is specifically relevant to Ceredigion and some of the stories still circulate by word of mouth. For instance most people living in the area around Cei Newydd, Gilfachrheda, and Llanarth will have heard tales of the old self-styled wise woman Siani, who lived in a house on the beach at Cei Bach.They may even have had their fortunes told by her, before she died and the sea finally took the house under the waves. Tall stories about her were always in the air around the neighbourhood, but for Myra Evans to have written them down is almost like a small miracle, and for her daughter to have been kind enough to pass them on to be used in this way is a generous addition to the heritage of Ceredigion. Peter Stephenson says ‘Myra took the songs and stories and gave trimmings to bare bones, and that she took the time to weave this collection together in her notebooks is a gift.’

‘Myra’ The Lost Fairy Tales and Folk Songs of West Wales is available from Awen Teifi Material from the profane and humorous to the sacred and spiritual, from fairground dances, music hall songs and ballads to hymns, religious anthems and ancient pre-reformation melodies, from childrens stories and local anecdotes to mythological cycles and Welsh operetta.

The Poet and the Private Eye

A Novel Dylan Thomas Perspective.

In this anniversary year of celebrations for the life of Dylan Thomas, one of the most interesting books to appear featuring a famed poet, has to be The Poet and The Private Eye a novel from writer, Rob Gittins, better known for his work on television and radio. From Eastenders to Tracy Beaker and much, much more, Gittins is a writer who not only writes dialogue which rings true to character, he writes brilliant characters who ring true to us all. The main characters here are the private investigator, whose name is Jimmy, and the ‘mark’ known at all times as Subject Thomas, who never gets a first name throughout the book but we the readers are not in any doubt to whom he refers. Running alongside the cat and mouse plot as the private eye chases the poet around and through the bars and theatres of New York, Subject Thomas’s own wife also enters into the story when Jimmy leaves the US to visit Wales on a mission to gather ‘background’ on the poet. In Laugharne to his surprise, the famous poet’s wife is not sitting at home knitting, but is out and about, behaving every bit as riotously as her husband appears to be doing in the States.

This is an excellent read with all the excitement and page-turning enjoyment of a good story and the additional buzz of seeing stories of Subject Thomas which have not perhaps been seen before. The quality of the writing is high, the research immaculate. It has thrills, shocks, humour and perhaps even a subtext of devotion. It is only now and again when faced with a genuinely bizarre situation, that we are jolted back into recognising that the person being written about here wrote some of the most astonishing and beautiful poetry ever, and that he was a man respected throughout the world for his gift. Despite the fact that Jimmy does not initially understand the poetry, what he does see and appreciate is the effect the poetry has upon others wherever his mark goes. Especially if he performs.  Gittin’s introductory statement at the opening of the book claims that the events recorded are a true record, though not necessarily chronologically captured, of the situations that occurred during the lifetime of Wales’s most famous and highly regarded poet. Jimmy’s reflections on the poetry itself, and on Under Milk Wood, the ‘Play for Voices’ are amusing and reflect an almost universal response to poetry when understanding does not instantly occur. Interestingly there are lines which crop up in the story, to light the way for the uninitiated, ‘as I was young and easy under the apple bough’, ‘rage against the dying of the light’ and ‘death shall have no dominion’ as though the writer is urging the reader to look for it for themselves. It is a morality tale and one which sits well with the other works which have been produced in memory of Dylan Thomas, an extraordinary man whose words stirred the hearts and minds of so many.

The Poet and the Private Eye by Rob Gittins is published by Y Lolfa and is available in all bookshops or online at ylolfa.com

Glyn Mathias – Raising an Echo

Book Review : Glyn Mathias Autobiography

There are two things about this book that make it such a worthwhile read, one is the writing, so seductive that one can barely tear oneself from the page, and second, the story itself, full of fascinating detail and a choice of content that keeps the reader going on the basis of  ‘want to know’ . During the early part of the book the reader is taken through a brief history of the Mathias family, going back to the first world war, demonstrating the many shades of belief and political leaning within the family, which it serves to do so well. It also gives the reader an awareness of how a child born into the middle of this family would receive a high moral ethic to live up to. Glyn’s father, Roland Mathias was a well-known poet, whose reputation stands to this day and also a teacher and headmaster of more than one school in Wales. It was thought that Glyn would do better in a school where his father was not teaching and he was sent as a boarder to Llandovery College where he did well enough to get into Oxford, with a stint at Butlins along the way, not as a red-coat, but working in the accounts office. His career in journalism began as a cub reporter at the Merthyr office of the South Wales Echo, and it was from there that his life in the arena of media politics took off.  He worked for both ITN and the BBC in Cardiff, (so delighted to be back in Wales) and became Political Editor for both, and in the line of duty he met just about everyone there was to meet in the world of politics. Those encounters are written about here with the skill of an experienced journalist. He does on the page exactly what he did in the days when he was on the television; he extends the circle, including the audience seemingly without strain or difficulty in the conversation. There is a fine talent at work in this book, and it makes for gripping reading. Here was a man who was there at the cutting edge of politics in Britain through it all in 70s and 80s;  the Falklands, Cecil Parkinson’s fall from grace, Thatcher and the poll tax, the growth of Welsh politics, establishing the Assembly, televising the House of Commons, and bringing the information about all of these things into the homes of the nation. It is apparent here and there in the story that the pressure involved in carrying out such a task and doing it well made for some moments of severe stress. His escape from letting this get to him was always his family and still is, as he enjoys his retirement in Wales today.

Glyn Mathias ‘Raising an Echo’ an Autobiography is published by Y Lolfa

Haven from Hitler

Book : Haven from Hitler

There has rarely been more material about both the first and second world wars, entering the media, than at the present time due to the anniversaries of both. The most affecting of all the books and films that are being released are those where the story is told by someone who brings it home to a personal connection. This is very much the case in Haven from Hitler, last year’s winner in the Welsh language Welsh Book of the Year, and now published by Y Lolfa in English. It is a beautifully written but harrowing and  deeply disturbing read which tells of the family of Kate Bosse-Griffiths, a woman of German-Jewish descent, who fled the brutal regime of the Nazis to eventually become a leading academic figure in Wales, learning and writing in the Welsh language. She was Keeper of Archaeology at Swansea Museum and specialised in Egyptian studies marrying J Gwyn Griffiths whose name will be familiar to some as a famous academic and Egyptologist. He was also a Welsh Nationalist, and a well-known figure at Swansea University and their son was Robat Gruffudd, the founder of Y Lolfa, whilst their daughter is Heini Gruffudd, the author of this book. Hence the personal connection in the book is strong and somehow lends a quality and depth to  this story of how the family attempted to get out of Germany at a time when one Non-Aryan person in a family would bring the regime down on to all of them. The family’s escape and ultimate survival is a profoundly moving story and following the publication of the Welsh version of the book, new material came to light which has now been included in this, the English version. This material centres on the tragedy of a family suicide, committed to allow the remainder of the family to escape, and other material which adds to the feeling of chaos and terror that reigned at the time for those caught up in the holocaust. The Welsh version Yr Erlid was reviewed in Planet magazine by Simon Brooks, whose words capture how for this family the horrific events of the second world war still resonate to this day ‘For Kate’s descendants in Wales the Holocaust is not a terrible event visited on others, but a catastrophe to which the Welsh language community is also witness.’ Sad and brave and somehow terrifyingly close to home, Haven from Hitler is published by Y Lolfa and was launched by Heini Gruffudd in April at the Egypt Centre, Swansea University

Bards, Saints and friendly people.

Bards and Saints and Friendly People

Last evening I went to Hanes Aberporth, (Aberporth History Society) at their invitation to talk to them about Bards and Saints. These two topics, both of which hold a genuine fascination for me, are connected and interwoven throughout both of my historical novels. The first of these, novels, A Court in Splendour, which I wrote in 2009 for the 900th anniversary of Cardigan town in 2010 is about the First Eisteddfod and the bards in it are shown, on the whole to be poets of the minstrel or tenant variety. These were the men sometimes musicians themselves, or even accompanied by a musician who could be female; who either travelled with their poems from manor to manor, or became cheerfully ensconced in a big house with a uniform and a regular pay, treated somewhere between staff and family.  There were others too in those days, the Pencerdded, who was the chief bard, the one who taught in the bardic colleges and, even after these closed, continued to lead gatherings and hold positions of authority. The most important of all however, was the Awenyddion – central to The Bardic Monk, my second historical novel.

This role equated to the ovates of Rome, who were known to speak in a trance-like state where they would foretell the future or relate historical matters from ancient times. Plato talked about Atlantis though he had not been there, so if ever there was a historic figure who fitted the role of Awenyddion, Plato qualifies. Undoubtedly special people, they might simultaneously carry up to 350 poems in their heads along with a multitude of stories and songs and knew everything there was to know about the state of the current royal household, the religious leaders, the high families and the outcome of the intrigues which raged between tribes. It was the Awenyddion who might also take on the role of a monk, or a priest, as the capacity to enter the world of spirit through visions and trance, meant that the protection of a religious role was extremely valuable, if not essential.

Though Saint Caradog is represented in The Bardic Monk my knowledge of saints generally is that they are canonised for a wide variety of reasons, and some of them are not canonised at all! Two new ones during the past month have illustrated the fact that no-one has a perfectly clear picture as to what the qualification is exactly.

These were the matters I talked on last night, and I must say that the gathering of extremely friendly people who welcomed me and asked intelligent questions at the end of the evening, gave me a really enjoyable experience and I trust they too enjoyed it. Researching and writing are both solitary occupations, and though I do not consider myself a ‘historian’ I am a lover of history, as the riches of the past are such fertile ground for fiction. There is a great pleasure to be had from sharing such a love of the past and its stories with others who show genuine interest and appear to enjoy it as much as oneself. So thank you to Hanes Aberporth, perhaps when my lastest book appears on the shelves I will go and talk to them again, next time about the role of the bards in the sixth century, seen from the Romans’ point of view.