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.

Singing the Line into Existence

Singing the Line into Existence

Singing the Line Into Existence, is an incredibly imaginative and exciting art project in the making, set up by a group of local artists. As yet it is in the early stages and they are  seeking Crowdfunding as a way of raising money to get the whole thing done.. The group are determined to get what is really an important multi-discipline project off the ground and are doing their best to raise £8,000 to put their ideas into action.

There has been a movement for some time to see the rail line from Carmarthen to Aberystwyth re-opened, and it would have a profoundly beneficial effect on the whole of West Wales. It would be great from a green perspective, and it would re-connect places that have been virtually out of touch for years. Until people come to this area they have no idea of the vast spaces between towns and villages, and the art brings all of that into its scope. Many ways to raise the profile of this issue have come forward but none more inventive or imaginative than the multi-artist led project just opened titled ‘Singing the Line into Existence’. Led by artist Joanna Bond, a ceramicist, and dancer, the plan is to work up the interest in the restoration of the  line by using music, dance, storytelling and film-making to revitalise the idea and bring it to the front of the consciousness of local people.

Involved in what will be a bilingual project alongside Joanna, are musicians Ceri Rhys Matthews, Elsa Davies, Mary Jacob, and Lynn Denman, video recording and video artwork from Jacob Whittaker, storytelling with Peter Stevenson and Guto Dafis and many more people are involved. People may support the idea of  the re-opening of a rail line into West Wales on a theoretical level, but this is a way to join in attracting attention to it, and helping to create a wonderful piece of artwork. All there is to know about the project and how people can contribute is here on  Wordpress at:   singingthelineintoexistence.wordpress.com

Peter Stevenson : Teller and Collector of Stories.

Folk Tales of Ceredigion

In Ceredigion Folk Tales, by Peter Stevenson, published by the History Press, folk stories local to our own county are, possibly for the first time, given a whole book to themselves, without being tucked into a general Wales-wide folk tales collection. The book is most interesting to those of us who live here, as all the stories are connected with recognisable places, and when one can read a story which has come from Llangranog, or Bettws Bledrws, then one has a reason to read on, as familiarity breeds curiosity. In a way it is like looking into a neighbour’s window to see how they live, though in these stories the people we encounter are very different from those we are likely to meet today. Many of these are the stories that the generation who came up in the 19th and early 20th century would have been telling one another, and within them is the evidence of the certain belief in a world of magic, of conjurers, of tylwyth teg, and otherness, of babies swapped for fairy folk, and animals that have magical presence. Also, within what is a very eclectic mix there are stories about people known for their exaggerated characteristics, like Sir Herbert Lloyd, otherwise known as ‘The Wickedest Man in Ceredigion’ for his evident greed and cruelty. There are the well-known tales, still told today and widely known, like Twm Sion Cati, Tregaron’s own Robin Hoodalike, with his tricks and idiosincracies. Stevenson acknowledges Pritchard, who was the man who made Twm Sion Cati famous and lost his own nose along the way. Indeed he was a storyteller in his own right and a huge character who died penniless. There is also a short piece about Sion Cwilt, the thief and outlaw of Synod Inn who wore a patchwork coat, whose exploits will now live on through the next generation as the new primary school at Synod Inn is named after him, though what brought Cwilt his fame, may be best overlooked. With contemporary tales of Aberystwyth ghosts, and strange things on Borth Bog, and the continuing stories of Nanteos, it can be deduced that though our modern society may have a more prosaic view of life, the stories of strange occurrences and extraordinary happenings are still being enjoyed, that people love to be scared, horrified, amused or simply amazed, and the joy for a storyteller like Peter Stevenson is that these are continuing evidence that folk tales will go on being requested, for ever. (Peter Stevenson launched his book Ceredigion Folk Tales at Awen Teifi, Cardigan High Street on Saturday 19th April with musical accompaniment on harp and fiddle.

Wonderful Nola Rae

There is a partial review of Nola Rae at Small World Theatre in the Tivyside this week, but if you would prefer to read in its entirety then you can read it here. It was only short to start with, but not quite as short as the para on the sports page suggested!

Review   Nola Rae

Mime is an exciting and exacting theatrical medium and when done well it can, for members of the audience, be a sublime experience raising everything as it does from smiles, laughter, sympathy and more. Nola Rae, appearing last Thursday evening at Small World Theatre, created just such an experience for those who were there to see her. She is an internationally acknowledged first class exponent of the art, and to say she does it well is an understatement. She is without exaggeration a masterly performer and a major figure in her field. It would not be an over-statement to say that the audience for the event were spellbound from the word go. Without a word being spoken and sharing the stage with simple puppet figures a story was told which lacked nothing of the power and detail, that one hope for from such a story. In fact magic appeared to be done in this show, where cloth puppets came alive and contributed to the action with Mozart the clown, sharing all manner of wordless conversation and behaviour; at times co-operative and at others showing signs of bitter power struggle. The characters were, of course, given their extraordinarily convincing personalities by Ms Rae’s skilful manipulation of them and simultaneously her own constantly comical and understandable response to them.

Beginning with playing the role of Mozart’s father Leopold, discovering that the baby he is toting around on his shoulder is a genius on the piano, Nola Rae took the audience step by step through the story of Mozart’s life. It was funny and magic, and at times achingly sad. One might wonder how such an intense story of one of the greatest composers ever, even played in large part for laughs, could be expressed without words. It is the power of mime using facial expression and bodily movement, transmitting the meaning from stage to audience, ditching the interrupting translation of words,  entering straight into the emotional centre, the heart. From birth to ignominious death, Mozart’s life was spelled out with every twist and turn from the child prodigy composing his own music, his capacity to play the piano without effort, through the years of adult concerts, with royalty in attendance for his exquisite composition and performance, then lust and drink, family life, encroaching madness and such sad, moving scenes at the end as he approaches and reaches the very end of  his life.  Mozart Preposteroso –  it appears that there is nothing that can’t be said without words.

Scrap Book by Carly Holmes

Review  Scrap Book

Scrap Book is a first novel by local writer Carly Holmes, known to many who attend the Cellar Bards where she sometimes reads her stories among the poetry. There are in fact moments in this very interesting book, when it seems to be about to break into poetry. The use of language, the structure of the sentences, the interesting pauses, and the one-liners create a rhythm and a timing that begs to be read aloud, and all of these qualities carry a reminder of poetry. Also, the plot can be seen in itself as rather reminiscent of  poetry in the sense that it is developed in a circular, outward spreading, non-linear way adding detail and experience, darting backwards and forwards in time, but equally staying in the same place, rather than in a plot driven novel in which the reader travels from A to B enabled by a series of events in between. Here in fact we stay with A where the examination of the relationship between three women, gran, mum and daughter, is carried out in the manner of the peeling of an onion. The character of Fern is the person we get close up to, she is the youngest of the three, and her experiences of love, not only as a lover herself, but also as something observed in others from a child’s perspective, make for fascinating insights. And of course there is already poetry in the book in the laying out of the spells, the graphic way of displaying that gran had magic on her side and may not always have been kind with her spells. When she creates a spell to send the married man away who has loved her daughter it seems she is successful, and though it is many years later that it is discovered, the response is, one feels, softened but  not altered by the time which has elapsed. It is as though the determined retention, and drawing into the present, the painful moments, in the three womens’ lives, means that they are on a permanent continuum to self-destruct, which cannot be broken and is sadly an observation that is relevant to many people. The spells throughout the book feel genuine, and whether they are, or whether they are designed for purpose does not matter, as they imbue the book with a sense of how magic, real or perceived, intended or unintended, changes things. Something of the island location also changes how one perceives things as they  happen and this is captured with a sure hand,  creating an atmosphere reminiscent of  Irish writer, Jennifer Johnston’s work, where the freedom from mainstream life carries its own paradox of claustrophobia. It is an engaging first novel exploring themes related to the eternal verities of life and how they are dealt with by the women; with lovely writing that has been captured and nailed to the page in case it takes flight into poetry.