The Dead Hand

Town Hall, Y Trallwng / Welshpool

A Mixture of Frailties (1958)
by Robertson Davies,
in The Salterton Trilogy.
Penguin Books, 2011.

Monica had heard all her life that Opportunity knocks but once. But when Opportunity knocks, the sound can bring your heart into your mouth.

Chapter Seven

Young singer Monica Gall is at the core of this novel but, as with all the Robertson Davies novels I’ve read (this is the sixth), there is a lot more to his narrative than – in this case – the musical education of an ingénue. The wider aspects of Davies’s mise-en-scène is equally important to him, as it must therefore be for the reader.

Thus the framing device involves a perverse Last Will read in Salterton, Ontario where the previous two instalments of the trilogy take place; as well as a cast of diverse characters we encounter many of Davies’s recurring literary motifs – literature of course, and drama, but also music, pedagogy, Europe, illusion, guilt, humour; and, rambling though the plot may feel at times, there is a sureness of touch and clarity of vision that comes from an author who knows why he wants to say.

And why does he want to say? The novel’s title comes from a passage written by George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax in the 17th century: in it Lord Halifax counsels a softening of personal arrogance and condemnation of others by remembrance of one’s own faults, one’s personal frailties: “they pull our Rage by the sleeve and whisper Gentleness to us in our censures.” And this is Davies’s theme too, the hauptstimme of the final part of his Salterton trilogy: temper judgement with compassion.

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A skein of tales

Celtic head, Newport church, Pembrokeshire © C A Lovegrove

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi:
Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi
by Sioned Davies.
Gomer Press, 1993.

Four medieval native tales from Wales, known collectively as the Mabinogi, have rather remarkably survived for a millennium in two codices compiled somewhat later. Each tale in the quartet is known as a bough or branch (keinc, in Modern Welsh cainc) suggesting they derive from a common narrative tradition.

Sioned Davies, who was later to provide a readable  English translation of The Mabinogion, long established as the extended collection of medieval Welsh tales, offered us here a translation and adaptation of her 1989 Welsh essay on the Four Branches; it proves, for those whose familiarity with Welsh — such as myself — is as best very rusty, an extremely useful companion.

What are the tales about? Why should they still be read? And who wrote them? These and a few more exercise the minds of many, whether or not they are Welsh speakers, scholars, or merely lovers of story. Having long studied medieval narrative Dr Davies is in a good position to offer some solutions, but as any academic knows we can never give definitive answers, not while there is more research to do.

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For the completist. Or the gullible.

King Arthur: The True Story
by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman.
Arrow Books 1993

In this book we are invited first to look at the traditional evidence for the existence of King Arthur. And what a ragbag it is, as any researcher knows. At the centre is a yawning black hole, sucking in the unwary. A sensible approach therefore to the historical problem of who Arthur might have been is to fix, by logical deduction, the time and place in which he might have flourished. The time suggested is the late 5th/early 6th century. This seems uncontroversial, so no Brythonic god, first-century Roman, Sutton Hoo warrior or Atlantean avatar here, it would seem.

The first half of the book sifts through Romantic preconceptions through to the ghost chronology dimly perceived from the difficult documentary evidence we possess. Thus far, there is little to quibble about.

But now the authors make a leap into the dark, and the ‘possible’, the ‘probable’, the ‘could be’ and the ‘surely’ all rear their several heads.

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Marching off

The end of March, and a quarter of the way through the year after the year. Many readers have reported a slump in their reading (like many authors have noted lethargy where their writing is concerned) and I do understand that: the current global situation makes us all anxious and that hits us in different ways.

I find though that I can only really keep up my positivity through books; if I didn’t have access to books I’m not sure how I’d cope mentally because I’m an inveterate reader — social media, newspapers, food wrappers — and even my fallback, playing the piano, involves me doing a fair amount of sightreading scores.

Apologies, then, to those who are finding your literary mojo dampened: I do sympathise — even as I seek out the next thing to read, for my tottering TBR piles seem at the moment to be inexhaustible.

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Ensnarèd chastity

Ludlow Castle © C A Lovegrove

Comus (1634) by John Milton,
edited by A W Verity.
Cambridge University Press 1927 (1909)

Come, Lady, while Heaven lends us grace,
Let us fly this cursed place,
Lest the sorcerer us entice
With some other new device.

With these words we’re taken to the nub of John Milton’s masque, which is that a wicked magician has entrapped a maiden, and that rescue may be at hand if nothing further awful happens. This is the stuff of fairytales, and we may expect a happy-ever-after ending, but this isn’t necessarily a given: after all it’s from the Stuart period, when nearly every bit of art had a political dimension, as it had been in the Tudor era.

And we may consider the audience of this intended narrative, the Earl of Bridgewater, lately ensconced in a castle on the Welsh borders where he might oversee a people possibly still uppity about being absorbed into English culture through new laws and a new official language. How would Milton bestride the fence between his Puritan leanings and the royalist sponsor it was written for?

This critical edition of the text has a certain historical value, it being more than a century old, but it still has much to say of worth, I think. Still, the play’s the thing, as another playwright wrote; and whomsoever’s conscience is caught Comus retains a certain curiosity for its poetry and for its concession to the masque genre with, admittedly, a rather sober frivolity.

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The price of having

Maesglase by Velela, CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

The Life of Rebecca Jones: A Novel
(originally O! Tyn y Gorchudd)
by Angharad Price,
translated by Lloyd Jones,
afterword by Jane Aaron.
MacLehose Press 2014 (2002)

I was given a long life. It has spanned the whole of the twentieth century and has been full of experience. I have felt the rough fist of misfortune and the soft palm of joy. I have spent many hours in darkness. Yet light came anew. I learned that the price of having is losing.

The life of upland farming communities has never been an easy one. In southern Snowdonia one such farmstead has survived a millennium on the flanks of Maesglase mountain between Dolgellau and Dinas Mawddwy, but one may wonder for how much longer, especially with the rapid changes wrought from the 20th century onwards into the present.

The Life of Rebecca Jones recounts the deeds and experiences of the Jones family from Tynybraich farm over the course of that century, told as by Rebecca herself. Only, this being a nonfiction novel, it’s actually told by Angharad Price, Rebecca’s great-niece, and so could be called a recreated autobiography or memoir. That doesn’t detract from its utter authenticity though, nor from its poetic power nor its emotional impact.

For this is a novel about continuity; or rather continuance, when a lack of disconnection or interruption cannot be taken for granted. “Continuance is painful,” Rebecca tells us. “It is the cross onto which we are tied: its beams pulling us this way and that. A longing for continuance lies at the heart of our nature.” And yet, “we are born to die. And we spend our lives coming to terms with that paradox.”

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See my shadow

SpecOps-27 postcard of operative Thursday Next (https://www.jasperfforde.com/)

Jasper Fforde: The Eyre Affair
World Book Night UK 2013
Hodder 2013 (2001)

“Shine out fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.”
— Richard III, Act II Scene 4

Fforde’s first novel, superficially a comic fantasy thriller, is essentially a romp through several literary genres — though at times it’s more like a drive-by shooting than a frolic through the daisies. In fact he’s been described as a postmodernist writer, and postmodernism is an ideal way to regard the few works of his I’ve read.

It’s easy to justify this by considering Fforde’s running joke about Richard III: the monarch is depicted as a slot-machine mannequin dispensing speeches, then there is a pantomime production of Shakespeare’s play in a Swindon theatre; finally, the introductory quote for this review refers to Richard preferring to see the reflection not of his misshapen body but of his sinister shadow.

In fact, all the numerous threads, motifs and plotting — among them a continuing Crimean War, a Welsh Republic, and science fiction trappings like plasma guns, chronological black holes and cloned dodos, plus characters unaware their names are parodies and puns, and unaccountable shifts from first-person to omniscient narrative — are effectively exercises in Ricardian self-reflexivity, ignoring the substance for the shadow; and self-reflexivity is a hallmark of postmodernism.

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Thunder in human guise

Horned figure with animals from the Gundestrup cauldron

Lloyd Alexander:
The Book of Three
Square Fish / Henry Holt and Company 2014 (1964)

I had a hardback copy of this in the late sixties or early seventies and then — foolishly — gave it away; so I was pleased to come across this 50th anniversary edition and to revisit the land of Taran, his friends and adversaries after decades of absence. And though the author specifically says the Land of Prydain “is not Wales — not entirely, at least” my now long term residence in the principality made me even more eager to return to this world.

But first, the story. Young Taran is made an Assistant Pig-Keeper to Coll, his charge being the sow Hen Wen. She is a special creature being as how she’s oracular, but unfortunately she suddenly ups and disappears. Thus Taran sets off without warning in a quest to retrieve Hen Wen, but the task proves increasingly difficult as he stumbles across dastardly plans by dark forces to overcome all that is good in Prydain.

Can Taran forge alliances to combat the coming evil? And if he does will they be up to the struggle? Of course — this being a children’s fantasy — the answers are likely to be yes, but it won’t be easy and things will frequently hang in the balance.

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Good tales well told

Daniel Morden:
Secret Tales from Wales
Illustrated by Brett Breckon
Gomer Press 2017

Enough for one,
Too much for two,
Nothing for three.
What is it?
— epigraph to Secret Tales from Wales

I always smile to myself when I see journalistic headlines like The Top Ten Secret Beaches or The Secrets Only Locals Know, because once those details are screamed out at you and tens of thousands other readers, whether in hard copy or online, by definition it’s no longer a secret. They become the Top Ten Best Known Beaches or Famous Local Facts All the World Knows.

So the title of this book doesn’t refer to tales never ever revealed before but to stories about secrets. And the tales are from Wales because the writer is Welsh, not because they are unique to Welsh tradition.

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Book lover’s leap

You may remember that at the start of 2020 I’d decided, in a bid to reduce the number of unread books I’d accumulated, to see how long I would go before forking out hard cash for new.

Now, at the end of February, on this intercalated leap year day, it might be interesting to see how I’m managing. And the answer is…

I haven’t bought any new books in the first two months of this year! That, as far as I’m concerned, is a cause for celebration, because I’m an inveterate browser in bookshops and rummager in secondhand book stores. But …

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Like a lion

In like a lion, out like a lamb.

It’s coming up to that time of year when the door to one season starts shutting while another slowly swings ajar.

Following my New Year commitment not to commit to specifics concerning my 2020 reading I’m not therefore going to detail what exactly I intend to read for March — mainly because I have no idea at the moment!

Nevertheless, vague possibilities are coalescing around upcoming events in the reading calendar.

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Wings over Wales

Llywelyn Vaughan, Cadwaladr Gough et al.
‘Pterosaurs in Late Jurassic Wales.’
Mesozoica Cambrensis Vol IV No 1, 2019

In this interesting monograph from the academic journal Mesozoica Cambrensis the authors describe initial research into two pterosaurs from the Late Jurassic period (200 to 145 million years ago) recently uncovered from the Snowdonia eminence known as Dinas Emrys.

The Mesozoic period, roughly 252 to 66 million years ago, is the era we associate with dinosaurs but the flying creatures known as pterosaurs (“flying lizards”) mostly existed during the Jurassic years, some surviving through the Cretaceous until the extinction event about 65myo. What distinguishes the Dinas Emrys pterosaurs is that they appear to belong to two distinct classifications and, unusually, appear in close proximity.

I’m no geologist or palaeobiologist but what I understand is that Snowdonia has multiple layers or strata — Llanberis Slates from 400 million years ago under gritstones, mudstones, siltstones and volcanic ashes, all covered over by more slate beds, then contorted over eons by tremendous geological forces.

Into a remnant of sedimentary layers on Dinas Emrys, as though part of a dried-up pool, were deposited the intertwined fossils of the pterosaurs, almost as if locked in combat. What is fascinating about these two specimens is that, contrary to popular dinosaur belief, they weren’t cold-blooded or scaley but warm-blooded and covered in fur. Extraordinary to relate, traces of pigment were even found.

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Primitive catastrophe

Bryn Hall, Llanymawddwy, Gwynedd (image credit: © Copyright David Medcalf and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence)

Alan Garner: The Owl Service
Postscript by the author
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2007 (1967)

“Possessive parents rarely live long enough to see the fruits of their selfishness.”
— 1965 quote from Radio Times used as an epitaph for The Owl Service

We often unconsciously live our lives according to a script, seeing ourselves acting out a tragedy or a quest, a journey or overcoming major obstacles, human or otherwise. Sometimes those scripts follow a fairytale trope, such as the arc of the Cinderella story. More rarely do we mirror an ancient myth, but in The Owl Service that’s exactly what Gwyn, Alison and Roger do, aided and abetted by the mysterious Huw.

The three youngsters, unwittingly at first, take the parts of Gronw, Blodeuwedd and Lleu from the Mabinogion tale of Math, the son of Mathonwy, but even when they become aware of the parallels they seem almost powerless to avoid a descent into darkness. And yet this is not just a simple updating of a medieval plot for modern times: the author also offers insights into psychology, family dynamics and social mobility, all contained within a strong sense of place, in North Wales.

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Death and the maiden

Nine Bawden: Carrie’s War
Introduction by Michael Morpurgo
Virago Modern Classics 2017 (1973)

Guilt is a terrible thing. And when it’s brought about by such a tenuous belief as sympathetic magic, the sense of culpability can overwhelm—even when there may be no actual cause-and-effect involved between an act and what happens subsequently. Such is the case with Carrie when, as an adult, she revisits the South Wales mining community where she was evacuated during the Second World War and where she has to confront fears engendered thirty years before.

As with many child evacuees Carrie and her younger brother Nick are separated from her widowed mother, sent to the Valleys while their mother relocates to Scotland for the war’s duration. They stay with the odious Mr Evans and his anxious sister Aunty Lou in a bleak mining village (based on Blaengarw, north of Bridgend, which is where the author was herself evacuated to). Nothing they do seems to ingratiate themselves with the self-righteous bullying Mr Evans, who rules his little domain with spite and parsimony.

Luckily there are altogether more friendly people to leaven their existence: Albert Sandwich, another evacuee who lodges with Norfolk-born Hepzibah Green and the child-like Mister Johnny, whom Nick instantly befriends. These all live outside the village at an old farmhouse called Druid’s Bottom, just within sight of the railway line; it’s the home of the now widowed Mrs Gotobed, estranged sister of Mr Evans.

And so the scene is set for the inevitable misunderstandings, conflicts and possible tragedy, as seen through the eyes of the twelve-year-old, and as remembered by her adult self.

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Ifor y Peiriant … who?

Daniel Postgate: Cenhadaeth Nadolig — Bluebell
An Ivor the Engine Story
Pictures by Peter Firmin
Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad 2009

Grown-up British children of a certain age will surely remember Ivor the Engine, a stop-motion 2D animated series created by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin sixty years ago, in 1959. While primitive by today’s standards—originally black-and-white before becoming colour, and very jerky—that was all part of its charm, along with its slow gentle narratives and quirky deadpan narration. Accompanying picture books and annuals meant one could keep the enjoyment going, reading them to younger children (as I did with our kids, for example with The Dragon).

Fifty years after its first appearance and a year after the death of Oliver Postgate his son Daniel revived the series’ characters for this one-off picture book in aid of veterinary charity SPANA, with versions in both English and Welsh. With a very rudimentary knowledge of the language and memories of the original TV broadcasts I’ve struggled through the Welsh version at leisure, but with pleasure too.

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