Our new short story of the month is ‘Hands’ by Rebecca Ruth Gould.
‘What struck her most about him were his hands. They were long and lanky, like his body. Even more remarkable than their shape was the way he used them.’
Rebecca Ruth Gould’s work has appeared in Nimrod, Kenyon Review, Tin House, Hudson Review, Waxwing, Wasafiri, and Poetry Wales. She is the author of Writers and Rebels (Yale University Press, 2016) and translator of After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems of Hasan Sijzi of Delhi (Northwestern University Press, 2016) and The Death of Bagrat Zakharych and other Stories by Vazha-Pshavela (Paper & Ink, 2019). A Pushcart Prize nominee, she was a finalist for the Luminaire Award for Best Poetry in 2017. She lives in Bristol and teaches at the University of Birmingham.
This is an extract. Read the full story for free on the Seren website.
What struck her most about him were his hands. They were long and lanky, like his body. Even more remarkable than their shape was the way he used them. When they first met, he shook her hands boldly and directly, as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do and not a violation of the law in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Taken aback, she forgot to respond. Her hand hung limply in his palm, until he dislodged it.
Just the day prior, she had read about a poet who had been arrested after returning from abroad, for shaking a woman’s hand. She wanted to warn him: You shouldn’t do that. You might end up in jail for shaking my hands. But he must know what he was doing, she reasoned, and who was she to tell him how to behave in his own country?
His hands didn’t fit anywhere, not in his pockets, or at his sides. They dangled oddly from his arms, like an expert swimmer more at home in a lake than on dry land. The lines on his palms were long, stretching from his wrist to his index fingers. If a fortune-teller—like the one she had just consulted with in Hafez’s tomb in Shiraz—had been asked to read his palms she would have predicted for him a long life, a fulfilling marriage and many children. His hands were like an autonomous body. She imagined them keeping her warm at night, soothing the aches in her back, providing a resting ground for her lips, caressing her hips.
Before they said goodbye that magical night in Tehran, she asked him why he decided to shake her hand. Without answer he waxed lyrical, in a different direction. “I dream of working wonders with my hands,” he said, “I want to become a perfumist. I want to make magic potions and aphrodisiacs based on ancient Iranian traditions.” Although it was not an answer, it opens a new mysterious horizon onto his soul. She wanted to know more.
This week’s poem is Peter Finch’s surreal night out at ‘St. David’s Hall’.
Poems from Cardiff is part of Seren’s pamphlet series celebrating the spirit of place. It opens with a view from the Bay where “the sea wrestles the Severn”. We also find ourselves in ‘Arcades’, mingling with the colourful crowds outside ‘St. David’s Hall’, and admiring the “fit” builders of the Millennium Stadium sunning themselves on Westgate Street. “The Muck and the Music” of Grangetown is here along with lyrical evocations of the Taff and Rhymni rivers.
Today, November 11th 2018, marks the centenary of the Armistice and the ending of the Great War. In commemoration, author and historian Mike Rees looks at the sacrifices made by rugby players from his home town of Newport, revealing details about their sporting and personal lives, as well as their brave and tragic last stands.
Rees is the author of Men Who Played the Game, which explores the development and importance of sport in Britain and the Empire leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, and the part played by sportsmen in the conflict.
The Great War was conducted on a scale hitherto unknown and its consequences remain with us to this day. Such were the losses, over 750,000 in Britain alone, that the idea of a ‘lost generation’ is firmly established in the collective memory. The existence of war graves, carefully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, throughout Western Europe and beyond serve as a reminder of the sacrifices made in this cataclysmic war. Memorials to the missing, their bodies never found, both move and shock us when we visit Thiepval on the Somme, with 73,367 names and the Menin Gate in Ypres with 54,896. Given the scale of these losses it is clear that communities throughout Britain were affected. As we now reach the centenary of the Armistice that brought to an end this dreadful conflict, it is an appropriate time to see just how those badly those communities were affected. Here I will look at the wartime stories from one community in particular – rugby players from my home city, Newport.
Newport Athletic Club has always remembered its war dead. The memorial gates at Rodney Parade contain the names of 86 members of the club who lost their lives in the Great War, among them 6 rugby internationals who represented Wales in what was to become their national sport. Playing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century these men, to a greater or lesser extent, played a significant role in the evolution of the game in Wales. More importantly, they made the greatest sacrifice of all after the First World War erupted.
The first of these men, Richard Garnons Williams, holds a special place in Welsh rugby history as a member of the first ever Wales XV to play international rugby. This historic event took place on 19th February 1881 at Blackheath and Wales were soundly beaten. Garnons Williams, a Newport forward, never played for Wales again.
Born in Llowes, Radnorshire in 1856, one of ten children, Garnons was educated at Magdalen College School, Oxford before studying at Trinity College, Cambridge. From here he progressed to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst and, on completion forged a successful military career with the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment). This was followed by service with the South Wales Borderers (1st Brecknockshire Volunteer Battalion) where he reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. Garnons retired from regular service in 1892, although he did continue to serve in a voluntary capacity until 1906. This determination to follow a military career undoubtedly curtailed his rugby career, details of which are somewhat sketchy. We do know, however, that he played for Cambridge University, Brecon and Newport, from where he won his solitary cap.
On the outbreak of war in 1914 Garnons, by now aged 58, re-joined the British Army and returned to the Royal Fusiliers, the 12th Battalion. He was killed on 27th September 1915 leading his battalion at Loos when he was shot in the head following an attack on German trenches. The battalion had become exposed on each flank and Garnons had just given the order to retreat. He is remembered on the Loos Memorial.
Garnons, at 59, was the eldest of the 13 Welsh internationals to make the ultimate sacrifice in The Great War. He left a wife, Alice Jessie and a daughter, Barbara, who also served in France and lost her husband on the Western Front in 1917. A brother, Mark Penry, died when the HMS Hampshire was sunk by a mine in 1916.
Our second Newport international was one of the cities’ greatest all round sportsmen, the Wales half back, Louis Phillips. Lou was born in Stow Hill in 1878 and was later a resident of Gold Tops, a prosperous residential area in the town. He made his mark as a swimmer, cricketer and international standard water polo player but it is as a rugby player that he is best remembered. A product of Monmouth Boys Grammar School, he won 4 caps and played half back, partnering club mate Llewellyn Lloyd in the Triple Crown winning team of 1900, the year that heralded the beginning of Wales first ‘golden era’. Lou looked set for a long and distinguished run in this emerging Welsh team but a serious knee injury sustained playing against Scotland in 1901 brought his brief rugby career to a premature close. A qualified architect by profession, Lou continued to display his sporting ability by becoming an international golfer and twice Welsh Amateur Golf Champion.
On the outbreak of war Lou joined the 20th (Service) Battalion Royal Fusiliers where, after first refusing a commission, he served as a sergeant. On the night of 14th March 1916, while out with a wiring party near Cambrin, France, Lou was fatally shot in the chest. The loss of this immensely talented 38 year old was keenly felt in the sporting circles of South Wales.
Probably the best known rugby international to lose his life in the war was Charles Meyrick Pritchard. Charlie was born in September 1882 in Newport and attended Newport Intermediate School and Long Ashton School, Bristol before taking his place in the family wine and spirit business. A well-built, thirteen and a half stone backrow forward, Charlie made his Newport debut in January 1902. By the following year Charlie was a travelling reserve with the Wales team and in 1904 he won the first of his 14 caps in the game against Ireland. In December 1905 Charlie had his finest rugby moment when he was the stand out player in the Welsh victory over the All Blacks. Known for his all-round skills, it was his deadly tackling that drew praise in this momentous victory. Fellow Newport hero, George Travers said that Charlie “knocked ‘em down like ninepins”. Following this historic achievement, Charlie went on to represent Wales until 1910, although he did miss a number of matches through injury, and was part of the Grand Slam winning side of 1908. He also captained his club between 1906 and 1909.
When war broke out, Charlie was quick to enlist and joined the South Wales Borderers as a temporary Second Lieutenant. By October 1915 Charlie was a captain in the 12th Battalion and arrived on the Western Front in time for the Somme offensive of July 1916. He was quickly into the action and wrote home detailing some of his experiences. Tragically, on the night of 12th/13th August Charlie was instructed to lead a raiding party on German trenches. Despite fighting bravely in a successful raid, Charlie suffered serious injuries and was taken to No 1 Casualty Clearing Station. After being reassured that his men “had got the Hun”, Charlie replied with his last known words, “Well I have done my bit”. Charlie, a resident of Llwynderi Road, Newport, was buried in Choeques Military Cemetery and left a grieving widow and two young children. This legendry Newport rugby player and war hero was 34 years old.
Johnnie Williams was the most capped Welsh rugby international to die in the Great War and, until 1976, jointly held the record for the most tries scored by a Welsh player. Born in Whitchurch, Cardiff in 1882 and a product of Cowbridge Grammar School, Johnnie spent the majority of his career playing for his home club. However he began his career at Newport where he played between 1899 and 1903, scoring 19 tries and a dropped goal in 50 appearances for the club. In 1906 he broke into a strong Wales team to play the touring Springboks. Although this match was lost Johnnie only experienced defeat once more in 17 matches in a Welsh shirt. Noted for his swerve and sidestep, this pacey winger played in 3 Grand Slam winning teams and captained his country against France in 1911. Johnnie also toured with the British Isles team to Australia and New Zealand where he played in 2 of the 3 tests and was the second top scorer with 12 tries on the tour.
When the war began, Johnnie left his job as a partner in a coal exporters based in the Cardiff Coal Exchange to join the 16th Battalion of the Royal Welch Regiment. By now a captain, Johnnie led his men in the attack on Mametz Wood, part of the Somme offensive. After ‘going over the top’ on 7th July, Johnnie was severely injured which resulted in the amputation of his left leg. Despite being able to write to his wife Mabel following his injury, thirty-four-year-old Johnnie died of his wounds on 12th July. He was buried at Corbie Communal Cemetery.
Phil Waller was born in Bath in 1889 and educated at Carmarthen Intermediate School but it is as a Newport Rugby Union international that he is best remembered. On leaving school, Phil was apprenticed as an engineer to the Alexander Dock Railway Company and, by 1907, he was a regular member of the Newport pack, specializing in the line out and the loose. A year later 19 year old Phil was in the Wales team that defeated the touring Australians 9-6 and kept his place for the 1909 Five Nations tournament. All four matches were won ensuring that Phil became one of the few players to have defeated a southern hemisphere country and win a Grand Slam in the same season. The following season Phil played in the victory over France but lost his place for the first visit to Twickenham.
Although he never played for Wales again, Phil was selected for the British Lions tour to South Africa where he played in all 3 tests. Taken with the country, Phil stayed in South Africa playing rugby and working in Johannesburg as an engineer. In August 1915 Phil enlisted as a gunner with the 71st Siege Battery SA Heavy Artillery and saw action at Ypres, the Somme, Arras and Cambrai. About to go on leave, driving to the nearest rail link, he and a colleague were killed by stray shellfire. Phil’s colleague was the son of South African statesman, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, the man who initially proposed the observation of the two minutes silence on Armistice Day. Phil Waller, buried in Red Cross Corner Cemetery, Beugny, near Arras, was 28 years old.
Billy Geen was, like fellow war casualty and Newport rugby international Lou Phillips, a resident of Gold Tops in Newport. Born in 1891, this nephew of Frank Purdon who had won four caps in the 1880’s, was educated at Haileybury College in Hertfordshire and then Oxford University. A fine cricketer who represented Monmouthshire in the Minor Counties Championship, Billy made his name as an extremely talented rugby three-quarter and won three ‘Blues’ playing on the wing outside the great England captain, Ronnie Poulton-Palmer. In his first Varsity match Billy scored three tries in a famous Oxford victory.
Billy played his club rugby for Newport and was a member of the team that defeated the 1912 South Africans 9-3 in front of a crowd of over 18,000 at Rodney Parade. Selection for Wales against the same opposition followed and, despite a controversial defeat, Billy kept his place against England. He also played against Ireland that year, this time in the centre, but lost his place through injury.
With the outbreak of war Billy joined the 60th King’s Royal Rifle Corps and quickly became a Second Lieutenant in the 9th Battalion. He saw action in the Second Battle of Ypres and was tragically killed at Hooge on 31st July 1915. Billy was last seen leading his men in hand to hand fighting, one of 17 officers and 333 other ranks of this battalion killed in the exchange. This ‘dazzling left wing’ with ‘dancing footwork’ was one of 740 boys from Haileybury College to be killed in the war. Billy’s body was never found and he is remembered as one of the 54,896 names on the Menin Gate. He was 24 years old.
Perhaps, of all the Newport internationals killed in the Great War, it is the death of Billy Geen, a young man in the prime of his rugby career that best represents the loss to Welsh rugby. However, at this time it is only right to remember all thirteen Wales rugby internationals lost in this dradful conflict as well as countless other rugby players throughout the land. Heroes every one.
This weekend you’ll find Sarah Philpott at the Cardiff Book Festival chatting to fellow vegan cook Gaz Oakley. While you wait for the event, why not whip up some of Sarah’s delicious chocolate mousse? Believe it or not, this recipe uses chickpea water in place of cream – and miraculously you can hardly tell the difference.
Tip: ‘I find that cheap supermarket dark or plain chocolate works well here as it’s usually higher in sugar.’ – Sarah
If you fancy a sweet treat or if you’re cooking for friends and need a quick dessert, you can make this quickly and leave it to set in the fridge while you’re eating dinner. The surprise ingredient here is chickpea water, also known as aquafaba. It might sound crazy but it acts in the same way as egg whites and gives you a light and fluffy mousse. You really should give this a try because it’s truly delicious.
– 150g dark chocolate
– A dash of plant milk
– 120ml chickpea water
– 1 tsp vanilla extract
– A pinch of sea salt (optional)
Carefully place a heatproof bowl over a pan of boiling water and add the chocolate and plant milk and stir gently until melted. Remove the bowl from the pan and set aside to cool slightly. If you have a microwave, heat the bowl on a medium power at 60-second intervals until melted.
Pour the chickpea water (one can should give you about 120ml water and you save the chickpeas for cooking something else) into a large bowl and whisk vigorously for 15 minutes, or until you have stiff peaks.This requires a strong wrist although you can use an electric whisk if you have one.To check if you have said stiff peaks, tilt the bowl slightly – if the water runs down the edge, you need to whisk more.When stiff, fold in the chocolate mixture then add the vanilla extract and the salt and stir well.
Pour into glasses or ramekins and leave in the fridge to set for at least an hour.
In David Llewellyn’s compelling new novel, A Simple Scale, a single piece of music starts a story that takes us from Soviet Russia and McCarthyite Hollywood to post-9/11 New York, as the mystery of the lives of two gay composers is uncovered.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a man arrives in New York to claim that the theme tune of a popular tv series, said to be written by composer Sol Conrad, in fact belongs his grandfather Sergey, an eminent Russian composer who was sent to the gulag by Stalin, and from whom Sol stole the score. Conrad’s young PA Natalie is determined to defend her elderly employer, but as she digs deeper she discovers worlds of which she barely knew – Russian labour camps, McCarthyism, repressive governments, and the plight of homosexuals in the USA and USSR during the twentieth century.
Rich in detail and atmosphere, David Llewellyn explores the points at which the personal and the political meet. Throughout, his depiction of ’30s Leningrad, ’50s California and post-9/11 New York is only too believable.
Our featured extract begins on page 24 of the novel. It opens onto a wintery scene, in what was then Leningrad…
Chapter 2: LENINGRAD, FEBRUARY 1950
Another time, another place; the city grey, the snowflakes falling in the street like ashes. Beneath the station’s clock tower, two heavy doors swing open with a gasp, and Sergey Grekov steps out, his coat held around him and his gloveless hands clasped tightly in his armpits. Thirty-seven years old but prematurely grey and uncommonly thin, he looks at Leningrad as if it still might be a mirage. From everything he has been told these last few years, he was anticipating ruins. Hollow buildings and charred timbers, streets strewn with rubble. Instead, he finds it repainted and rebuilt,and yet the place is different,as if everything has been moved around in his absence, as you might rearrange the furniture in an old room. He’s unaccustomed to choice. When he comes to a junction, he can go in any direction; left, right, straight ahead. The space is almost limitless. No perimeter fence, no watchtowers, no guard dogs. Yet this isn’t complete freedom. His papers tell him where to go and when. The tenement, the factory. Disobey them, and there’s every chance they could send him
back. The streets around the station are almost empty. The few people he passes look shabby, not how he remembers them. Moscow was always the peasant city, the place where people look as if they’ve just arrived from the country. Not Leningrad. Not Piter. Moskovsky Prospect is busier, especially once he’s crossed the bridge. There, he moves through a shuffling black mass of other people, winter coats and hats dusted with snow. A xylophone-ribbed dog shivers and keeps pace with him along the gutter. Red and white trams whisper through the slush, passengers pressed against windows opaque with steam. The bell of a nearby clock strikes one. The last time he saw this street it was through the windows of a police car, in the early hours of a Tuesday morning. It was August then, the air already humid, and stuffier still inside the car. He remembers an agent, a lad barely older than twenty, lighting his cigarette for him – his own hands were cuffed – and the way the car was filled almost immediately with smoke. As a young man, Leningrad’s winters seemed so much colder than this – far too cold to consider walking very far – but the last leg of his journey was spent in a train compartment with ten others. They took it in turns to sit, but there was no room to lie down and sleep. Cold as it might be, it’s good to be out in the open. Besides, he has known far colder. His papers tell him to report to the tenement building no earlier than 3pm and so, to pass the time, he finds a café where he orders coffee, black bread and a bowl of rassolnik. The secret police and their informants were everywhere in the north; guards spying on prisoners and even prisoners spying on guards. No-one trusted anyone. But what about here, in this café? The skinny lad behind the counter, perhaps. The old woman eating some indeterminate grey mush out of a chipped bowl. The crooked figure hunched over a newspaper in the far corner. The soup, when it arrives, is mostly barley and carrots, little in the way of meat. Sergey dips his bread into the soup. He hasn’t eaten in more than a day. The broth dances on his tongue. Its warmth spreads out, from his chest and through his limbs and into his fingers and toes. He closes his eyes, and when he opens them again he senses someone staring at him.The figure in the corner; the small man with stooped shoulders, his face drawn, pinched and beetle-browed. Though as threadbare and hungry-looking as everyone else in the city, this man could be secret service. After studying him a moment longer, the stranger gets to his feet, tucks his newspaper into the inside of his overcoat, and crosses the café. “Seryozha?” he says, his smile a gash of yellow teeth and greyish gums.“Sergey Andreievich?” Sergey nods slowly, waiting for the stranger’s smile to fade, and for him to say there’s been a mistake, that Sergey should never have been released, that his rehabilitation is incomplete and that he will be placed on the very first train back to Komi, by orders of the MGB. “Do I know you?” he asks. The stranger laughs. “Know me? Sergey! Of course you know me! It’s me! Vasily Nikolayevich. Sidorov! Vasya!” Vasily Sidorov. A name he’s neither said nor spoken nor even thought about in years. When did they last see one another? Perhaps the night of the premiere, or in the days that followed. No, his memory of that time is too clouded to picture the exact scene. When he first laid eyes on him, however… this he remembers clearly. A rehearsal room, backstage at the Kirov. Secretary Remizov taking Sergey on a tour of the theatre, introducing him as “our latest genius”. Echoing against a polished floor, the sound of a piano playing one of Chopin’s nocturnes. In the studio, holding the bar, a young man, eighteen or nineteen, with dark, lightly curled hair, performing a series of degage, and stopping only when he noticed the presence of a stranger. Now, in the café, Sergey’s innards clench. He hardly recognises him. “Vasya?” The man draws out the facing chair and sits. “I knew it was you!” he says. “I work nights at the children’s hospital, and every day I come here for lunch, which is really supper, I suppose. But every day I come here, and I know everyone who comes in, if not by name then by face. I see them every day. But you, as soon as you walked in, I thought, ‘Hold on, he’s new.’ And then I looked at you again, and I realised it was you.” “Yes,” says Sergey, smiling almost painfully. “It’s me.” “How long has it been? Ten years? Fifteen?” “Twelve.” “Twelve years. Well. Can you imagine? Twelve years. Incredible. I heard you were up in Archangel, writing music for a theatre company. That’s what everyone was saying. Is it true?” Sergey shakes his head. “Oh,” says Vasily. “They must have got it wrong. But you’re here now.” Sergey nods. “And it’s so good to see you! I hardly see anyone these days. We were, well, you know… One oughtn’t say such things in public, but people like us, the artists, we weren’t exactly front of the queue when the rations were being handed out. Were you here at all, during the blockade?” Sergey shakes his head. “Of course not. Silly question. But you were lucky. Say, are you going to eat all of that bread?” “Yes.” “Only, if you weren’t, I have some wood in my flat that I could swap. It’s good, too. It’s not damp and it won’t burn too quickly, not like some of the cheap shit that’s going around.” “No, I’m quite hungry, so-” “Do you have a place to stay?” Sergey tells him that yes, he has a place to stay, in Kirovskiy, near the Kirov plant. “Nice, nice,” says Vasily. “Is it?” “Oh, yes. And prestigious, too. You’re lucky. Have you moved in yet?” “Not yet, no,” says Sergey. “I only got here an hour ago.” “Oh, well,” says Vasily. “If you’ve not moved in yet, they might not have wood. In your rooms, I mean. They don’t always give you fuel, when you move in. Some places, it takes weeks. So, you know, if you don’t have any…” Sergey draws his plate closer and dunks what’s left of his bread into the rassolnik. “You must be hungry,” says Vasily. “I know they don’t always have much bread on the trains. I’ve heard, a friend once told me, if you want a bigger ration of bread…” His voice drops to a whisper. “If you want a bigger ration of bread, you have to give the ticket inspector a blowjob. Is that true?” Sergey smiles. “I wouldn’t know.” “Oh, then you must be hungry,” says Vasily, laughing and coughing at the same time.“Say, listen. I live near here. When you’re finished, let’s go to mine. I’m on the third floor, so it’s not too cold,and I have some vodka.” A loaded invitation, but Sergey has nowhere else to go and two hours till he can report to his tenement. When the bill is settled he and Vasily walk the short distance to Vasily’s building, just off Sennaya Square. Twelve years ago Vasily Sidorov lived not so far from here, in an apartment complex on Sadovaya Street, and Sergey remembers summer parties when they would congregate on a small terrace overlooking the square ,and they would drink champagne; Soviet champagne, of course, but ice cold, and sparkling and as crisp as a fresh apple. Vasily’s new building has no terrace. One of its two entrances is sealed shut by a frozen snowdrift, and the other opens only when Vasily barges into it with such force that Sergey worries he – and not the door – might break. Once inside, they are taken up to Vasily’s floor by a gloomy hallway and a flight of stairs that smells strongly of piss, while Vasily’s room smells mustily of tobacco smoke, mildew and dust. Sergey recalls Vasily having a small collection of illicit Persian rugs and a mantelpiece crammed with ornaments, but this new place – if it can be called new – is sparse, decorated only with a few pieces of old furniture. The floor and the walls are bare. “Please, sit,” says Vasily. “I’ll get us some vodka. I only have one glass. Do you mind having yours in a teacup?” “Not at all.” “What am I saying? You have the glass, I’ll have the teacup. As you may be able to tell, I don’t do much entertaining these days…” Vasily opens a cupboard and takes out the vodka, a chipped teacup and a cloudy tumbler. He crosses the room with an awkward, scuttling motion; bug-like, a spider creeping along a skirting board. He was once the most graceful man Sergey had ever met. Small in build, but not feminine. Women and men alike considered him beautiful. Now he reminds Sergey of a gargoyle or some grinning demon, a didko, from an old folktale. He takes to the sagging armchair opposite, and for a moment they sit in silence; Vasily still smiling at him, scrutinising him. “It’s incredible,” he says, at last. “That you came here. To Leningrad. It isn’t often men come back. Usually, well, usually they’re sent to some other place. Remember Remizov?” As if the room has grown a degree or two colder, Sergey flinches. “Yes,” he says. “I remember him.”
Though certain parts may be seeing rain this weekend, the warm weather continues – and what better time than summer to explore all the UK has to offer?
Our Real Series – a collection of intimate and entertaining guide books written by local writers – offers an insider’s view of the places it celebrates. The most recent addition to the series is Real Cardiff: The Flourishing City by Cardiff author and legend Peter Finch. So whether you’re an armchair traveller, or someone looking forward to a trip to the Welsh Capital sometime soon, we hope you enjoy this glimpse into the history of Cardiff – specifically, the area in which famous children’s author Roald Dahl grew up.
The whole of the Real Series – and all our other Seren books – are 50% off until midnight, Sunday 29 July, on the Seren website.
ROALD DAHL’S CARDIFF NORTH LEY
I catch the train at Cardiff Central. This is the City Line which began in the city’s north east and now, after looping in a great U through the city’s heart is about to head north again. I’m in the two-car Sprinter and I’m standing. Every single seat is occupied by pupils from Bishop of Llandaff High School. Kids, bags, blazers, headphones, chewing. The windows stream as the train steams. Around us is railway land, an industrial cityscape full of rail sheds, engine bays, carriage washeries, repair shops and assembled new track in stacks like a giant train set. This south west of the city on view from the tracks is the capital with its guard down. Backs of mosques, tottering streets, unkempt gardens, the yards of Brains brewery, warehouses stacked with building materials, and even more open and right now empty rail beds. It reminds me of London, how the land looks as you reach Paddington or Waterloo. But it doesn’t last. After the carriages have disgorged a hundred uniformed school kids at Fairwater, the cuttings emerge, wooded banks and scrub masking the housing above. It’s leafy suburbia giving an impression of empty countryside. A green west Cardiff, a place that doesn’t change. It’s freezing. This is January. The train has reached Radyr where it will rest a while before returning the way it came. I’m off, up the footbridge steps, plastered thickly with Network Rail road salt. No one but no one will slip and sue here. In a previous, smaller, steam-filled incarnation, the Radyr train would have served Roald Dahl’s father, Harald, who did a daily commute in to what was then called Bute Road Station. His ghost is there on the platform now, eye glasses, three-piece suit, white starched collar. He looks like a disapproving headmaster. His railway season ticket was found inside his expensive leather wallet when he died in 1920. That was on April the 11th. The ticket was valid until the 23rd. Like most in Cardiff at this time Harald’s business was coal. With his partner Ludvig Aadnesen he had established a business as a colliery agent and provider of all that ships docking in the world’s leading coal port would need. Provisions, ropes, oil for their lamps, food. The profits flowed. In 1917 Harald had bought Tŷ Mynydd (Mountain House), set on rising ground a mile north of the Radyr rail station. As befits the successful businessman Harald was, here was life on a grand scale. 150 acres of land, outbuildings, cottages, a piggery, lawns, formal flower borders, terraces, its own electricity generator and an enormous Victorian house. In photographs it looks like part of Hogwarts. It had multiple chimney stacks, mock Tudor gables, a tiled roof larger than most churches’ and greenhouses to the side to rival those of Dyffryn House, to the west of Cardiff. This is the place Roald, the great author, remembers with nostalgia, recalling the fields full of shire horses and dairy cows. There are photographs of him as a four-year-old out on the lawns and terraces, in the fields among the sheaves of corn, sitting on the wall of the piggery and of the house itself, which is resplendently decorated with both the Union Jack and the Norwegian Flag. No Welsh dragon in sight. Like Cefn Onn, Tŷ Mynydd also had railway connections. The house had been built in 1883 by George Fisher, Director of the Taff Vale Railway. When he died in 1891 the property passed to his son, H. Oakden Fisher, Chair of both the TVR and the Cardiff Gaslight and Coke Company Ltd, although his real interest lay with the military. He was Lieutenant Colonel of the Glamorgan Volunteer Artillery. Harald bought the estate in 1918. When he died in 1920, his second wife, Sofie Magdalene, moved to smaller premises back in Llandaff. Tŷ Mynydd then became the property of the architect Sir Beddoe Rees, MP and for a brief time in the 1930s was turned into St Maur’s College, a small private boarding school for girls. In 1967 the house and most if its outbuildings were demolished. This was the first full-blooded rush at clearance following the war. Cardiff was expanding. Property developers had no interest in the preservation of inefficient, draughty piles such as Tŷ Mynydd. On its lands a whole housing estate could be build. It had to come down. I take the road up out of the station’s gully. Already the old shunting yards and waste ground lining the river have been populated with high density brick town housing. There’s little public space. Most structures are distinct from each other, laid at angles as if thrown there like dice. Room for breath is restricted and corners are rounded. Access is on turning roads named after De Clare, Norman Lord of the City, Aradur Hen, an ancient local croft that gave us the name Radyr, and Goetre Fawr, the farm that once worked these lands. Behind the aptly named Junction Terrace is a field replete with three grazing llamas, tall-necked beasts which, despite the ll of their name, are about as common in Wales as kangaroos. Food To Go which has signs offering coffee and warmth is closed. I head up along rising Heol Isaf in the direction of the Village of Fire. In 1841 the ten cottages of Pentre Poeth (Warm Village) were all that existed of what is now Morganstown, upper Radyr – that part of Cardiff north of the M4’s périphérique grip. This is where the workforce of the developing fire-filled ironworks at Pentyrch lived, an element of Cardiff’s lost industrial heritage. Heol Isaf was and still is the main road to Tŷ Mynydd. It’s no distance to cover. In my ears I’ve got Emmylou playing through the buds. 1970s country, when what she sang was the edge. Alabama down home. Dahl wouldn’t have stood for this. He preferred Beethoven. The Tŷ Mynydd estate has been built on; the fields are gone. The line of the original entrance path running up from Tŷ Mynydd Lodge has been preserved in the rising bends of MaesYr Awel. The detached late-sixties houses along it turn eventually to a U-shaped cluster of apartment blocks. Cwrt Tŷ Mynydd is the appropriately named first; after that the developer gave up and resorted to names with a strong English resonance – Norfolk Court, York Court, Windsor. It’s a marketing thing. Here, near the eastern edge of Wales, where the language thins, the Anglo norm dominates. Beyond the apartment courts, circled like a residential wagon train, there’s a copse, ancient pine trees, all that remains of what once was here. For the Dahls of the nineteen teens this would all now be virtually unrecognisable. A local walking his young daughter to the primary school at the former estate’s southern end tells me, yes, he knows about Dahl and the great house. He points me back towards the still extant Tŷ Mynydd Lodge which faces Heol Isaf. And there it is, the gatehouse preserved, doing time now as an up-market B&B. The Llandaff Society have installed a celebratory plaque above the front door. Over the years since Roald would have known it the building has been much extended. But there’s enough original left for the Dahlian spirit to soar. I can see him outside, short pants, laced leather shoes, hat, overcoat with enormous buttons. Mama holding his hand.
Jonathan Tulloch’s remarkable Larkinland is a novel which expertly and minutely captures the essence of Philip Larkin and his poetry. Tulloch deftly builds Larkin’s poems into a sustained landscape, fills it with Larkin’s characters and just for good measure adds a version of Larkin himself – meet Arthur Merryweather: librarian, poet and would-be great romantic.
In the extract below, having newly (and rather unhappily) moved to a new town, Merryweather embarks on his first journey to his new place of employment: the university library…
Hiding behind his (local) morning newspaper on the trolley, Merryweather felt as though he were going not to a library but a hospital for the prognosis of some lump. The Monday morning breakfast table repeated on him as much as the kippers: that barrage of sauce bottles, chewing jaws and bad breath. Contrary to expectations, a pleasant surprise awaited him at the university. Instead of the utilitarian, redbrick barrack rising from a raw building site his successful novelist friend had led him to expect, he found half hidden in lawns and willows, a country house brocaded with ivy. A post box was quickly located, and the weekend’s letters dispatched.At the Aide to the Vice-Chancellor’s office he had to wait for half an hour. ‘What does he want?’ he heard the administrator ask his secretary. ‘Something about the library, sir.’ ‘Library? What does he want with the library?’ ‘You appointed him as the new head librarian, Sir.’ ‘Did I?’ Throughout their brief cup of tea, the Aide to the Vice-Chancellor continually rearranged pens on his desk as though working out some enigmatic puzzle. His curly beard and fringe gave him the look of a merino sheep. This ovine resemblance reminded the librarian that the man on the other side of the desk had been the silent partner in the interviewing panel at the British library, though he clearly didn’t remember Merryweather. ‘Found digs yet, Merriman?’ ‘Yes, thank you.’ His mother’s son, in the face of authority Merryweather demurred from making correction. The Aide to the Vice-Chancellor paused in his pen arranging. ‘The town does have some good areas; I’ve always maintained that. How do you find arrangements on the river? Yes we are rather out on a limb. Where the train runs out, the land too, wot? And we’re just left with the mud and the sky. The natives, well you might like them or you might not; on the whole the students can sometimes be keen. Not a bit like that dreadful novel doing the rounds.’ Merryweather suppressed a grin. His friend, and chief correspondent, was the writer of the deliciously scandalous academic novel doing the rounds. ‘Well, no doubt you’ll be anxious to see your little fiefdom. Very good of you to come in today, Merriman. Above and beyond…’ Waseverybody off their rocker here? The librarian puzzled as, interview over, he headed in the direction the Aide to the Vice-Chancellor’s secretary had pointed out. Merryweather’s fiefdom was yet another surprise. Had his luck changed? Leaning out of some children’s story, a pair of manorial gateposts offered a secretive avenue of chestnut trees. The avenue graciously ushered the librarian to a brownstone building bearing the simple sign: Library. In summer, that dead wood adhering to the walls would be rambling roses; spring, when it arrived, promised bluebells. For now, a robin piped the melancholy carol of a T.S. Eliot April; all that was missing was a gardener’s fork for it to perch on and begin conducting the way to a secret garden.And there was the garden fork! Not a city sound to be heard as the new head librarian mounted his library steps for the first time. Above the door, a sculpted stone figure in the art deco style reclined on lintel. The figure – reclining or hovering? – peered down at him. Was it an angel? Art deco, the final and least expected touch. The ghosts of Evelyn Waugh’s bright young things. Et in Arcadia Ego blah, blah, blah. That was one thing about librarianship, it might be sexless and bloody boring, but, like a convalescence from a good bout of measles, it gave one plenty of time to read. The angel watched Merryweather push and pull the entrance door, shunt and shove, thrust and shoulder. All in vain, it was locked. No sign of anyone within. No lights. Nose pressed against the glass, all the new man could see was a darkling, marble vestibule. Skulking in the shadows like a Neanderthal peering from his cave, the bust of some beetle-browed philanthropist frowned at the disturber of his peace. Knocking unanswered, Merryweather got on his knees and called through the low letterbox. ‘Oi!’ A shout from the chestnuts. The librarian struggled to his feet. Was it directed at him? ‘Yes, you, you lanky sod. What’s your game?’ For a moment, he thought the person breaking from the undergrowth, all whirring arms and neck, was a policeman. Only when the official reached him did the librarian realise his mistake. ‘I’m trying to get in,’ Merryweather explained. ‘Oh you are, are you? Well you’re not going to.’ Not the sprightliest of men, the college porter was out of breath. ‘Can’t you see it’s closed?’ Merryweather’s trilby, tie, briefcase and British Warm seemed to mollify the custodian. ‘Thought you were some grubby student.’ ‘Actually – I’m the new head librarian.’ Torn between suspicion and a professional sense of caste, the porter took off his hat and scratched his head.‘Didn’t they tell you? Nowt’s open today. No students. Nothing.’ Suspicion reared to the fore.‘ How do I know you’re who you say you are? No one told me. I didn’t even know the last one had gone.’ Feeling rather ludicrous, Merryweather opened his briefcase to bring out a copy of The Library, the journal of the Bibliographical Society. The porter flipped through the pages with a yawn. ‘No, I don’t suppose you’d read something like that unless you really were a librarian.’ ‘Well exactly.’ The porter fell back on the eternal sigh of his breed, as well as the habitual mix of pronouns. ‘Better come with me, sir, and I’ll see if we can’t sort you out for yourself. I’m Harry. Harry Oxley.’ Harry led him back up the chestnut avenue and across a chain of secluded lawns to where a more municipal, Winifred Holtbyish building stood. A hushed maze of parquet floors contained the porter’s lodge. Merryweather was installed on an ancient chair beneath an enormous dovecote of pigeonholes. Smelling the lodge’s varied woods and listening to the porter on the phone, he felt gratitude for having missed both the war and national service. Easy to imagine a rifle range, wet feet, and the porter, a sergeant major, explaining how to strip a Bren gun for the hundredth time. Four separate phone calls had to be made, two of them trunk. At last the hugest bunch of keys Merryweather had ever seen was plucked from a hook. ‘If you’d like to come along with me, Mr M.’ Jingling like some Dickensian turnkey, the porter led him back through the parquet labyrinth, over the lawn, through the enchanted gates and down the chest- nut avenue to the library. ‘That wants taking down,’ Harry declared, looking up at the angel as he unlocked the door. ‘Or one of these fine days it’ll come down and crush a student flat.’ Passing through the philanthropist’s marble gaze, they entered the library proper. After the imposing entrance and almost grand vestibule, the first impression was frankly underwhelming. Something about the size of a real tennis court presented itself. Less fiefdom than corner shop. Well, not quite that bad. As Merryweather’s eyes grew accustomed to the half-light, he saw that the shelves were almost spectacularly tall. They towered into a shadowed silence bound by a lofty gallery. Above that, high windows. Following Harry, Merryweather found that the premises had a second, identical room, which gave access to a couple of smaller reading rooms. In total, the whole concern was on the scale of a thriving branch library. The high windows gave the vague feel of a mausoleum. Merryweather felt half at home. When Harry switched a flick, the gruelly light barely thickened. ‘Bloody bulb’s gone again,’ he said, voice amplified to a giant’s timbre by the cavernous emptiness. ‘Pardon my French.’ There was another surprise. Following his guide between tight, dark shelves, the new librarian stepped into a well of light. A dome rose high above him. It had been hidden from him by the tall stacks. A metal staircase wound steeply up the side of the dome. ‘Careful coming up here, Sir.’ The steps creaked as the pair mounted them, the echo rippling through the several deeps of the library.‘They all like this?’ the porter asked, stopping halfway up. ‘Beg pardon?’ asked Merryweather, not sure the stairs were exactly safe. ‘Are all libraries so loud?’ ‘I’ve never really thought about it.’ ‘They’re supposed to be quiet, but they’re not, not when nobody’s in them. It’s only when they’re full that they’re quiet. What do you make of that?’ ‘Interesting,’ said the new head librarian only quarter lying. The winding stair led to a smoked glass door marked Head Librarian in rather skittish swirls. The porter opened up. By some architectural sleight of hand, instead of the storeroom attic Merryweather had been expecting, the room was commodious to the point of extravagance. Decorous cornices, oil paintings, armchairs, and, wonderfully incongruous, a chaise longue. Two pairs of generous windows to boot. After the crypt-like library, the view – chestnut avenue, gateposts, a lawned middle distance bound by tree-lined road – opened up like the vista from a headland. ‘Its acoustic is the opposite of a theatre,’ Merryweather said, without turning from the window. ‘That’s what makes them so loud. Libraries. Paradoxically so, given all the signs for silence.’ His eyes narrowed as he continued to gaze at the view whose limit was described by a bicycle trolling through a tracery of leafless branches. ‘A theatre is designed for projection, a library, introspection. On stage, one seeks to be heard by hundreds, a library has a far greater ambition. It aims to reach…’ Merryweather broke off. He could see Harry making off under the chestnuts. ‘And so forth.’ Shoulders easing with this unexpected bonanza of solitude, Merryweather sat at his desk. Solid as a tug. Just as well, more than likely it would be required to haul him into the waters of middle-age. Perhaps beyond. It offered all the tools of the trade. Ink bottle, ink well, blotting paper, telephone, in and out trays, an ashtray (plain), pen holder (rather decorative), enough drawer space for concealing a dismembered corpse let alone a bottle of Glenlivet, paper too, sufficient thereof for the writing of a novel. Except his novel-writing days were over, that was a business best left to his successful friend. Merryweather suppressed a belch of regret, but it was that morning’s kippers not the brace of his own unsuccessful novels, which had found little favour with the reading public when published just after the war. With the nearly pleasurable air of being a ship’s captain finding himself alone not only on his bridge but on the whole vessel, Merryweather lit the fire from the ample basket of logs, and then his first Park Drive of the day. A relatively exciting though not entirely trustworthy feeling flickered with the flames as he sat on the chaise longue: he’d be able to write poetry here.
‘A rare duet, in which father and son rediscover a whole world through the redeeming power of art.’
– Declan Kiberd
In The Wellspring, acclaimed novelist and dramatist Barney Norris conducts a conversation with his even more acclaimed father, the pianist and composer David Owen Norris, on creativity, cultural identity, and how the two intertwine.
In this free extract, the conversation between father and son turns towards David’s career as a pianist: how it began; the impact of failures and accolades; the strangely altering milestone of 30.
BN: I’ve titled this second sequence ‘Playing’. Ostensibly, what I hope to cover here is the bulk of your professional life – your work as a performer. But I have it in my mind as well that what we’re circling is one person’s route into a life, into living well, and I want to draw attention to that as we begin. This book will take the same path everyone does as they find their way into the world – first we listen, then we simulate, then we live. In some lives, I don’t think the path is as easy to trace. Not everyone has a vocation. Not everyone’s entire life can be expressed as the development of a single project. Of course, your life isn’t adequately summarised if we turn it into a single developing theme, either. If we were to exhaustively catalogue everything you’ve ever done, a meaning would emerge that was too diffuse and complex to express – or you might end up with a catalogue of infinite drift, I don’t know how open you are to the idea that lives have inherent meanings at all, or whether it’s fairer to say all narratives are superimposed. But the opportunity we have here is that it’s in the nature of an artist’s career, where the life feeds the work and the enthusiasms are buried deep in childhood and the work is all-consuming, that a narrative can be constructed more easily than is usually the case that expresses something like a linear development through life. So when looking at an artist’s life, you can say things about the way all people move through time more easily than you can with some other careers. The milestones are easier to make out. So for the purposes of this book we’ll read your performing career as a second stage in a development that leads, eventually, to the writing of music. Not an adequate summation, but perhaps it’s an interesting one, you see the two as connected?
DON: It was the break-down of my early composing career that led directly to my performing career. I’ve already hinted that my composing didn’t go down too well in 1970s Oxford, though come to think, I left with a composition scholarship to the Academy. But the contemptuous reaction to my B. Mus exercise a year later – ‘This fugue subject implies harmony’ was one criticism I still recall with some puzzlement – and the prevailing narrow taste in ‘modern music’ funding circles, led me to concentrate on something I did to everyone’s satisfaction, namely, play the piano. Young performers play a wide range of music, partly because they know they need a wide range of experience, and partly for frank commercial reasons, and so I formed hands-on opinions of the work of still-living composers like Tippett & Britten & Messiaen, and I gave innumerable premieres of works by composers now forgotten.
BN: It’s a very interesting environment, the generation of contemporaries one works with at the beginning, before it’s clear who’s really going to make it. I’ve been going through that myself for the last few years – it’s still a bit too soon to tell which of my generation of theatremakers will one day be filed under that ‘now forgotten’. Because there’s no precise formula for identifying the ones who’ll last, is there. It’s not only talent, it’s not only prevalent fashions in funding circles, it’s not only luck, it’s not only hard work, it’s not only whether you choose to have a family, or where you’re from, or who you know; it’s not even whether you’re someone that anyone likes. It’s terrifying, because of course, after the first six months when a few people who thought they were serious wake up and back out, anyone who’s tilting at the windmill of the arts can’t imagine doing anything else, and doesn’t have a back-up plan, even though some will end up needing one. The arts are so hard to break into, you’d never do it if you were capable of doing anything else. But it’s also a very wonderful moment, because, in a Schrodinger sort of way, you live suspended in this moment where anything might be possible for you and your friends – even if in actual fact, when you get to the end, you will look back and find that it wasn’t.
DON: ‘Now forgotten’ sounds callous, doesn’t it? I meant it more as a merciful imprecision. Your list of things that need to slot into place is pretty scary – and very carefully ordered! Academy Professors, as I discovered when I became one, all agreed that we should exert ourselves to the utmost to put students off, because only the students that can’t be put off stand the slightest chance in the business. Good as far as it goes, but things change, become less narrow – good changes as well as bad changes. Some of the less positive changes at institutions of higher education are down to money, which has all sorts of repercussions – not all new courses fill purely educational needs. Then, if half the population is going to university, degrees will need to change, not necessarily for the worse: but we need to make sure that the former methods of study, where they were valuable, can be continued – which has emphatically not happened in secondary school music.
But there are positive changes too. I’m thinking especially of social change. What’s often called dumbing-down (something I’ve hinted at in the previous paragraph) can also be seen as a welcome acceptance that art need not always be on the verge of unintelligibility to be worthy – which is why my music can reach listeners now, though it was so out of tune with the seventies. Another helpful social development is a public acceptance of the portfolio career. We can take real advantage of the new opportunities the twenty-first century has brought us, the communications revolution. I wonder if I could have created a taste for my sort of music back in the seventies, if we’d had the Internet. But it lumbers up too late, like Chesterfield coming to the assistance of Dr. Johnson. Still, it gives us new ways to reach audiences, if only we had time to develop them.
BN: You told me once that the thing to watch for was what happened when everyone turned thirty – it was around then that things started shaking out. Having turned thirty not so long ago, I can increasingly attest to the truth of this. Did that advice come from personal experience?
DON: Observation rather than experience, luckily. There were so many schemes and scholarships that you could compete for till you were thirty. After that, you were on your own, and many winners didn’t make the change into actually earning a living. It’s an age that concentrates the mind in many ways. Clocks are ticking, clocks of self-esteem as well as of biology. Is it still too late to become a bank manager? we used to ask ourselves back in the day, in blissful ignorance, probably, of how difficult it is to be a bank manager.
National Vegetarian Week 2018 runs from 14-20 May and is the perfect excuse to indulge in exciting and colourful veggie fare – so out with blandness and in with this scrumptious salad!
Sarah Philpott’s Beat the Blues Salad brings together smoky marinated tofu, beetroot, orange and salty black olives in a celebration of all things plant-based. You will need to press and marinate the tofu so we suggest doing this in the morning before you head to work – or even the night before (it takes a little time but it’s oh so worth it).
Beat the Blues Salad
For the salad
– 1 x 400g block firm tofu
– 2 bags of lettuce or spinach– 1 cucumber, diced
– 2-3 large beetroots, peeled and sliced (or use the vacuum-packed kind)
– 3 tsp capers, drained
– 1 330g jar pitted black olives
– 2 oranges, divided into segments
– 1 tbsp sesame oil
– Flat-leaf parsley (optional)
– Pomegranate seeds (optional)
For the marinade
– 3 tbsp soy sauce
– 1 tsp sea salt
– 2 tbsp maple syrup
– 1 tsp smoked paprika
– 1⁄2 tsp cinnamon
Directions Take the tofu and use kitchen roll or a clean tea towel to blot and absorb all its water. Take a heavy wooden chopping board or a hardback book and place it on top of the wrapped tofu. This will press down on it and absorb excess moisture. Leave for 30 minutes or more then slice into medium-sized strips.
Make the marinade by mixing together all the ingredients. Pour into the base of a large dish and place the slices of tofu into it, making sure to turn them so that both sides are covered in the marinade. Leave to marinate for at least 30 minutes.
Heat the sesame oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Fry the tofu slices for 5-10 minutes or until golden brown, turning occasionally – you may need to do this in two batches. Remove from the pan and set aside while you make the salad. Simply combine all the ingredients in a large bowl then drizzle with a little sesame oil. Divide into bowls and serve with the smoked tofu. Garnish with the parsley and pomegranate seeds.