This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Fixative’ by Rosalind Hudis from her new collection Restorations which was published earlier this week.
Inspired by the art restorer’s keen eye and by a vivid empathy for people and events, Restorations, is a journey through memory. Suffused with colour, inspired by thoughts of people and places, by artefacts and how the passage of time shifts perspectives and erodes surfaces, these poems are beautifully complex explorations, full of curiosity and the adventure of seeing and listening.
“If a poem is like a picture, these are history paintings, rich in human detail and many-layered in their brushwork.” – Matthew Francis
If you’re still looking for a last minute gift, you can’t go wrong with Daniel Butler’s new book The Owl House. This pastoral exploration of mid-Wales is beautifully observed, full of evocative observations that can only have been lived to have been accrued. Here is a wintry extract from the chapter ‘Weather’.
Daniel Butler has lived in the Cambrian Mountains near Rhayader for twenty-five years, absorbing the world around him and charting its changes slow and rapid. His passion for the natural world was compounded when two wild birds, barn owls, nested at his farm. Through charting his relationship with the birds, he embarks on a pastoral exploration of his locale, rich as it is in wildlife of all kinds. His new book The Owl Houseis a rich and vivid portrait of one of the most remote and sparsely populated areas of Britain, broad in its horizons yet full of fascinating detail. The perfect gift for any lover of the natural world and mid-Wales.
Winter bird activity is not just about survival. I used to think the breeding season was a spring phenomenon, but for many creatures the concept seems to lurk as a constant background urge.
Even in the depths of winter there are signs of what’s to come. Mistle thrushes start to gang up towards the end of August in family groups which later join together to form small flocks. They give off their instantly recognisable football rattle calls as they bounce through the air above the fields, but by the end of the year these groups have disbanded. Instead of looking for the security of a flock to evade predators, the males are beginning to get a head start on next year’s breeding season. They do this by searching for a berry-laden food source. Indeed, the bird’s name comes from its fondness for mistletoe, that strange shrub, a living green sphere that hangs in bunches from the apparently lifeless limbs of oaks and apple trees. A glance at its fleshy white berries and strange green leaves and it isn’t difficult to see why the druids apparently venerated it as a sign of life in the depths of winter. The oak or crab apple host would be no more than a black skeleton, yet its passenger would appear the embodiment of life. Mistletoe is rare in Radnorshire, although it is common enough a few miles away in the acres of Herefordshire cider orchards.
My mistle thrushes are drawn mainly by the lure of another tree beloved by pagans and one which is, if anything, even more associated with Christmas. There is a particularly splendid and always well-endowed holly halfway down the lane. The berries grow slowly all autumn, green and hard and invisible among the glossy spiked leaves until they burst into view by turning red seemingly overnight.
By the time I go to collect a few decorative sprigs in early December, there will already be a resident mistle thrush. His favourite perch is near the crown to gain a good vantage point. He sits here like a miser crouched over his hoard, jealously watching for thieves or rivals which may try to steal his crown. At my approach he flies off giving his characteristic rattling calls of alarm towards the row of neighbouring pines. He perches there and with binoculars I can just make him out staring warily at me, filled with terrors that his jewelled kingdom might be raided in his absence.
He is not always in the holly, however, sometimes he is lurking among the ‘sallies’ (goat willows) that straggle along the banks of the nearby stream. This probably indicates the proximity of a sparrowhawk or goshawk, and he’s waiting for the danger to pass. Normally he’s a pugnacious fellow, fiercely defending his scarlet treasure from a host of increasingly hungry thieves. His greatest ire is reserved for sexual rivals, but he will defend his prize from smaller redwings and fieldfares, doves and even wood pigeons. He does this by intimidation rather than actual violence, flying at them only to veer off at the last second. At stake is not just a precious food supply at the leanest time of year, but the implications this has for the breeding season ahead. The fatter and fitter he is at winter’s end, the better his chances of attracting the best mate, for any bird that can finish the lean months in good condition is clearly a good breeding prospect. So he spends the winter fighting for food and sex.
By Christmas tawny owls are also beginning to stake out breeding territories, hooting out their instantly recognisable ‘toowhit, too-woo’ calls and at about the same point the garden robins become increasingly evident. The clichéd seasonal card image of a robin on a snow-covered spade handle as a representation of the season of goodwill and peace couldn’t be further from the truth. These are testosterone-pumped pugilists, determined to fight all rivals. At first they are driven by the need to protect their food supplies and territories and will pick fights with any other robin – even potential future mates. Once, after a heavy snow fall, I was looking at the crowds of finches, tits and nuthatches hanging on the feeders outside the kitchen window when my eye was caught by flying puffs of snow on the back lawn. Two robins were scrapping in the soft powder, bouncing into view as they pecked and kicked in fury, only to sink almost out of sight whenever they paused. No sooner had the last tiny crystals fallen back, however, than the furious tussle would resume.
Whether you’ve put your tree up already or not, there’s no denying that Christmas is on its way. This delicious recipe for Sticky Toffee Apple Pudding from The Seasonal Vegan is the perfect indulgent treat to enjoy during the festive season, especially when served with hot vanilla custard.
The Seasonal Vegan is a kitchen diary of seasonal recipes with a delicious mixture of Sarah Philpott’s fine food writing and Manon Houston‘s beautiful photography. This guide to eating with the seasons takes a realistic approach to shopping cheaply and sustainably and proves that the vegan lifestyle is anything but expensive. It’s the perfect Christmas gift for vegan and non-vegan foodies alike.
Sticky Toffee Apple Pudding with Vanilla Custard
1 hour 30 minutes | Serves 8
For the pudding:
– 250g dates – 100g soft brown sugar – 100g vegan butter, plus extra for greasing – 3 apples, grated – 300g self-raising flour – 2 tsp baking powder – 2 tsp ground allspice – A pinch of sea salt – 1 tsp vanilla extract – 1 tbsp treacle
For the sauce:
– 150g vegan butter, softened – 350g dark muscovado sugar – 1 tbsp black treacle – 50ml oat milk – 1 tsp vanilla extract – A pinch of sea salt
For the custard:
– 1 litre oat milk – 150g white sugar – 2 tsp vanilla extract – A pinch of sea salt – 1 tbsp cornflour – A pinch of turmeric (optional)
Preheat the oven to 180C. Put the dates in a bowl and pour over 250ml boiling water and leave for 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together. Tip in the flour, baking powder, grated apple, allspice and salt and stir well. Add the vanilla extract and treacle and stir again.
Lightly grease a large dish or tin and pour the batter in, making sure to spread evenly. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean.
Meanwhile, make the sauce by melting the butter, muscovado sugar and treacle over a very low heat in a heavy-based saucepan. Once the butter is melted, stir gently until everything else is melted too. Now stir in the oat milk, vanilla extract and salt, then turn up the heat and when it’s bubbling and hot, take it off the heat.
Take the pudding out of the oven and leave to stand for 20–30 minutes. To make the custard, put the oat milk, vanilla, salt and sugar in a small saucepan and heat over a medium heat, stirring constantly. Add the cornflour and bring to the boil. Keep stirring until you have a thick consistency, then add the turmeric, if using.
Pour the toffee sauce over the pudding and cut into eight slices. Pour over the custard and serve.
Elaine Morgan (1920 – 2013) was a pioneer. Born into a working-class family, she was the first person from her school in Pontypridd to go to Oxford University. She went on to pursue multiple careers, first as an award-winning TV writer, then anthropologist, whilst maintaining a role in political activism throughout her life. Daryl Leeworthy, author of Elaine Morgan: A Life Behind the Screen, introduces us to this extraordinary writer on the eve of her centenary.
This informative biography restores Elaine Morgan’s reputation and establishes her significant place in writing from Wales. Richly detailed it is essential in understanding the life and work of this important writer.
“A scintillating new biographical study, impressively researched and elegantly written.” – Dai Smith
“Thanks to this book… many more can take inspiration from Elaine Morgan and a legacy that spans both arts and science. In this, her centenary year, there can be no more fitting tribute.” – Carolyn Hitt
Elaine Morgan has always been a hero of mine.
I suppose I first heard her name when I was in secondary school – we went to the same one. To me it was Coedylan Comprehensive, to her Pontypridd Intermediate School for Girls; these days Pontypridd High. One of my teachers, whose own life had been so influenced by Elaine’s iconic feminist book, Descent of Woman (1972), pointed out to me that being someone from ‘our town’ studying at Oxford not only brings great opportunities but also sets you on a path set down by one of Wales’s truly great writers. A national treasure.
That idea of Elaine has stuck with me over the years. When I set out to research Elaine Morgan: A Life Behind The Screen, I knew that I wanted to look more carefully at her screenwriting and her contribution to our collective sense of the valleys and their people – those aspects of her career now very much overshadowed by the aquatic ape theory and Elaine’s undoubted contributions to popular anthropology. How, I wondered, did Elaine get her break at the BBC; how did she fit into an overwhelmingly masculine world; and how did she reach the top all from a desk in South Wales – a feat that seems so impossible nowadays.
Seeking the answers to those questions took me to the BBC’s written archives near Reading, a marvellous building with truly wonderful staff, where you half expect George Smiley to wander through the corridors. Out of Elaine’s voluminous files came letters sent back and forth to producers like Donald Wilson, Michael Barry, Sydney Newman, and Verity Lambert. The Doctor Who fan in me got very excited when I saw their names! Writers such as Gwyn Thomas and Dennis Potter were mentioned with casual ease. And there were occasional tête-a-tête when Elaine felt she was being undervalued – and underpaid – because she was a woman. The writer who emerged from those files was strong-willed, determined, and keen to learn. She was every bit the feminist my teachers had told me about.
The greatest finds in those files related to Elaine’s debut serial – now lost from the television archives – A Matter of Degree. First broadcast on the BBC in 1960, it told the story of the Powell sisters, and their experiences of South Wales and Oxford. Like the producers who brought it to the screen, I could not help but read an autobiographical presentation of Elaine’s life. She had always maintained that she loved Oxford, but here was the clash of cultures so familiar to me and to many others who have gone up from the valleys to those dreaming spires. Here was a kind of sequel to Emlyn Williams’s famous play The Corn Is Green (1938) but which anticipated the famous television serials of Oxbridge life, Brideshead Revisited (1981) and Porterhouse Blue (1987), decades before they were aired. This was Elaine Morgan, then, the television pioneer.
There was, I discovered, another side to Elaine, too – her politics. She grew up in a household which read the Labour-supporting Daily Herald and her own political activity took her to the pinnacle of student activism whilst she was at Oxford and into circles which included Clement Attlee and Roy Jenkins. Then she worked for the Workers’ Educational Association, just like Gwyn Thomas and Raymond Williams. As a young mother, she kept up her public activism and at one point taught for the Extra Mural Department of Manchester University. She helped to set up the United Nations Association in Burnley and led the town’s first celebrations of International Women’s Day. She even joined the Communist Party, although later returned to the Labour fold. Her radicalism had its fullest expression in a passionate belief in nuclear disarmament, in combatting climate change and humanity’s exhaustion of the planet’s natural resources, and in the campaign to ensure the survival and vibrant future of the Welsh language.
But, of course, if we are to remember one thing about Elaine Morgan on this, her centenary, it is her contribution to the women’s movement and to the self-belief that all women, regardless of their origins, can reach the top. Though she is not traditionally remembered as a historian, her television work, her radio broadcasting, her teaching, and her activism, all contributed to the active recovery of women’s collective, historical experience. In those decades of the twentieth century when Welsh women were absent from parliament, from leadership roles, from the apex of public life, Elaine Morgan stood out. She understood this and made the most of her remarkable influence.
In many respects, Elaine Morgan was the embodiment of what I like to think of as the ‘South Walian Dream’. She took the opportunities afforded her by an education which lasted for as long as she wished, but never forgot her origins. Never lost sight of the fact that she had grown up in a small terraced house in Hopkinstown. Never lost her ear for the rhythm of the valleys and their people. Alongside Gwyn Thomas, she helped to define what Wales meant for television and radio audiences all over the world. Whether as the pensioner, the playwright, the protester, the poet’s muse, or the student politician, Elaine Morgan was determined to say to her own community, to her own people, first and foremost, it does not have to be this way.
Join us for the virtual launch of this important new biography on Wednesday 11 November at 7pm. Author Daryl Leeworthy will be in conversation with Carolyn Hitt. Register for FREE via Eventbrite https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/125898462691.
Ed Beech is one half of Beech Building Services. He’s also a keen cook. Today we’re sharing his recipe for Orkney Fish Pie, one of his favourites. Here’s everything you need to organise prep do done.
Orkney Fish Pie
What you need.
A jug of milk.
Three average cloves.
Eight hand picked Orcadian scallops.
A fillet of fresh Orcadian caught white fish, preferably tusk.
A small bag of smoked Orcadian mussels.
A lump of butter about the size of a lemon.
Some flour (enough to cover the palm of your hand).
Half a dozen tatties of varying sizes.
Knives and spoons.
A bowl of grated Westray Wife cheese.
Sea salt and coarsely ground pepper.
An ovenproof dish.
What you need to do.
Put the cat out. Pour the milk into a pan, add the chopped shallots, the cloves and some salt and pepper. Cook the fish in this mixture for a couple of minutes and then let it cool and infuse for half an hour. Drink some wine.
Boil the tatties, mash them with butter, fresh milk and a fistful of the cheese.
Remove the fish from the milk mixture and set aside. Melt the butter in a pan, slowly add the flour and then stir the strained infused milk into the mix until you’ve got a good looking sauce. Let the cat back in.
Pour some of the sauce into an ovenproof dish and add some chunks of fish, four scallops and some mussels. Add some more sauce, the rest of the fish, scallops and mussels, and pour in the last of the sauce. Put the cat out again.
Spread the mash over the top, cover with some more cheese and bake until it’s bubbling and smells right.
Serve with the lemon, a small heap of spinach, some Dave Brubeck and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Cloudy Bay from New Zealand for preference. Let the cat in again. Remember that you forgot to grate the nutmeg over the mash before you put it in the oven. Drink some more wine. Do the washing up.
Ed Beech is one half of Beech Building Services. He’s based in Bermondsey but no job’s too small, no distance too great. So when he’s asked to do some work on a house in Orkney, he loads the van with paint, tools and sandwiches, and takes off. He gets nervous around farm animals and large ships, and he’s never been so far north, but when he’s joined by Claire, his client’s city banker sister, he discovers that in Stromness, anything is possible.
Ahead of the launch of her debut short story collection A City Burning, we interview Angela Graham to find out more about the book and what inspires her.
In the twenty-six stories inA City Burning, set in Wales, Northern Ireland and Italy, children and adults face, in the flames of personal tragedy, moments of potential transformation. On the threshold of their futures each must make a choice: how to live in this new ‘now’. With a virtuoso control of tone, by turns elegiac, comic, lyrical, philosophical, A City Burning examines power of all types. The result is a deeply human book full of hauntingly memorable characters and narratives.
What is the meaning behind the title A City Burning?
In the opening story, ‘The Road’, a young girl witnesses her city blazing. She understands that this is a sign of the collapse of the status quo, of all the usual certainties. She is confronted with the need to react to this new situation. What values should guide her in this choice? I realised that this story encapsulates the theme of many stories in the collection – witnessing major change and having to work out a response. It seemed a fitting title for the book.
There is a theme of change in this collection, what, if anything, do you hope the reader can take away from this underlying message?
I haven’t thought in terms of such a message – at least, not while I was writing the stories. It wasn’t until late in the day that I saw that facing change was a link between them, and it took someone else, an editor, to point that out. In an important sense, I had to understand my own work from a more objective perspective. I’d like readers to recognise that ‘the given’ (whether positive or negative) can break down in very noticeable and in very subtle ways. One person sees a city burning, another sees some detail in a single photograph that opens their eyes. Usually, I believe few such opportunities for perception appear out of the blue. We have usually been sensitized to a shift in circumstances but we may be unwilling or unable to respond at an earlier point.
I’ve just looked up the etymology of ‘catastrophe’. The word comes from kata- ‘down’ + strophē ‘turning’. I imagine that as the point at which a wheel, goes into its irreversible downward momentum. We have watched the wheel move upwards and we know something has to give but we are not always prepared for it.
There are a lot of different settings and ideas conveyed in these stories. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Anywhere that’ll have me! To give an example, the story, ‘Life-Task’ which is set in northern Italy at the end of the Second World War came to me because a person who had just retuned from Italy recounted a story she’d been told by someone who’d had it from someone who’d heard it from the actual protagonist. It must have been brilliantly told originally to be so vivid (after passing through several tellings in this way) for it to reach me so powerfully that I could see the events as the story was shared with me. I went home and wrote it down. Of course, it helped that I had, for completely other reasons, been doing research into post-war Italy, had read Italian novels on the subject, and taken a particular interest in what happened in northern Italy when the Germans (the allies of the Italians) had been defeated. And, in writing a story, one has to aim for a satisfying balance between all the elements. This may introduce material which is not part of ‘the original’.
Do any of the stories draw on personal experience?
This is a book of fiction. It’s not memoir or autobiography. It’s all made up. But it’s true to experience, my own and that of many others.
You engage with a number of different languages in the book including Ulster Scots in the story ‘Coasteering’. Why was it important for you to foreground these languages in the collection?
I have always been interested in languages and I’ve worked in Wales for a long time, a country where two languages are in use alongside each other. I learned Welsh as soon as I moved to Wales when I married a Welshman. In Northern Ireland I had much experience of the link between language and identity; even nuances of accent, in a city such as Belfast, are sifted for meaning. Whenever a chance has presented itself to get involved with a language I’ve tried to take it. For example, I did a crash-course in Romanian as part of the writing of a screenplay set in that country and it made a big difference, when I was researching there, that I could follow what people were saying. I learned Italian by ear when I was a teenager and, again, I wrote a screenplay, set in Puglia. Most of the time, people are pleased that one has made an effort to allow them to stay in the language in which they are most comfortable, most ‘themselves’.
In regards to Ulster Scots, that fascinates me. I have written the first draft of a novel in which two major characters are Ulster Scots-speakers and language, including Irish, is key to the book. Clashes over language and culture are deep-rooted in Northern Ireland but there is also great potential to overcome seeing language as an obstacle. I’ve worked with a number of Ulster Scots writers. My father’s family are Ulster Scots. It’s important to me that Ulster Scots takes its place in contemporary literary fiction.
What is your favourite story and why?
The Road. In its 800-or-so words I’d like to think it pushes that wheel up out of catastrophe; gives it a push into an upward turn.
You’ve added some new stories based on the pandemic in the last few months. Why did you decide to write about it and were they hard to write?
They were not hard to write in that I was fuelled by indignation at the plight of low-paid workers whose interests were not given proper consideration. I have personal experience of the ‘worlds’ of both stories and I felt able to depict them forcefully. I checked out facts, naturally, but the internal impetus was immediate. Once again, it seemed to me, the people who are considered ‘least’ in our society − least important, least powerful − were receiving least attention, whereas if their needs were a priority we’d have a better balanced society in which to live.
You turned to writing full time a few years ago. How did you first get into writing and what has it been like working up to publication of your debut collection during the pandemic?
I committed solely to writing because I was busy with media work and I felt the need to sharpen my focus. Writing is what I have always done, since I was about six years old. My first poem was published in a mainstream magazine when I was seven and I wasn’t one bit surprised at the time. I knew that was what magazines were for – publishing stuff. I had a very child-like view of things. Of course. Very naïve. It’s by no means easy to get work published. And that’s a good sign – there are so many exceptionally talented writers.
I’ve always written but usually for the screen. I’ve done journalism and radio work and non-fiction tv tie-in work and poetry. A City Burning is my first chance to pull a substantial amount of fictional material together into a coherent whole.
Once I’d negotiated the early days of the pandemic – the practicalities − the pandemic (because I was lucky to stay well) made no great difference to the practice of writing at a desk. There were fewer distractions. But there was no access to libraries and I had planned to do an in situ major piece of writing for a month and the restrictions made that impossible. I had to re-invent the form of the work. It’s a book on my childhood in Belfast, partially supported by a Support for the Individual Artist Programme award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the National Lottery.
Acquiring a cover photo was hard in the circumstances. It would have been lovely to have had the launch I had been hoping for in Belfast’s No Alibis bookstore and I would have had a small one in Ballycastle, County Antrim which is where I’ve spent lockdown. Ballycastle Library is accepting a copy of the book, I’m pleased to say. Filming and editing a promotional video had to be done by ingenious means by my director husband, John Geraint. Sending paper proofs back and forth was interesting because of blips in the postal service. But the attention from Seren’s staff has been the key thing and that was undiminished.
Create your free Seren account and enjoy 20% off every book you buy from us.
Join us tonight for the virtual launch of A City Burning which starts at 7pm. Angela will be in conversation with Phil George and there will be readings from the book by Viviana Fiorentino, Liam Logan and Geraint Lewis.
By turns laugh out loud funny and deeply sad, The Amazingly Astonishing Story is a frank and surprising look into a child’s tumultuous mind, a classic story of a working-class girl growing up in the 60s. Her Catholic upbringing, a father torn between daughter and new wife, her irreverent imagination and determination to enjoy life, mean this really is an amazing story (including meeting the Beatles).
“The saddest, happiest, funniest book I’ve read for ages” – Dawn French
“In her own real life story she excels herself… she’ll have you in tears, barking in anger, and laughing out loud in the space of one beautifully crafted sentence.” – Kevin Whateley
One of the questions writers grow used to, and tired of, and flummoxed by, is “What makes a writer?” and another one is “Where do you get your ideas from?”
The answers I give are usually apologetic shrugs followed by lame and unsatisfactory suggestions, because both those questions are unanswerable. Until now. From now on, in answer, I can point to this book and say “I think the clues are in there.”
This book tells, of course, just the beginning of a long and eventful life. It’s a start, you could say.
Dickens was onto something when he said “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That’s life. And my life has been an adventure from first cry right through to now and Covid, losing my mother at 7, living through a crash landing at Orly Airport, nearly drowning in the Med, surviving a boating disaster in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, coming off a motorbike on an icy road, spending Christmas Eve in a small tent in a gale on Beachy Head, going through a divorce, being broke, marrying again, becoming a Mum, winning The Richard Burton Drama Award, being widowed at 43, and going on from there to have a successful and happy career as a dramatist.
This morning, at 71 years old, I stood on the beach, deafened by the roar of the wind, under a wild and beautiful sky, and it was as if I saw myself, on this small stretch of sand, on the edge of an ocean, and then as if I saw beyond and beyond – to the billions of stars and suns and moons and the wildness of the cosmos. My eyes saw waves and sky and wheeling gulls, but my mind saw everything. My wonderful mind. Your wonderful mind. Our minds, eh? They reach out to each other. That’s what this book does. It reaches out. I hope it finds you.
I wrote it for many reasons, but the essential hope was that it would show that from the coldest of beginnings, life can spin into something rich and warm and wonderful. To say that there is more to every life than whatever we are going through at this moment, that the future can be tumultuous and exciting, and even that in the middle of loneliness or need , we all have wonderful internal worlds, we can carry on a funny, loving conversation within our own minds, we can reach out and sense the eternal and the wonderful life force. We can meet that life force. We can meet God.
A rich life is made up of the best and the worst, both the greatest joy and the deepest sorrow. I am very, very blessed to have had both in great big spadefuls and I wouldn’t change a single day or hour of it, and I wouldn’t miss out on meeting any of the rich characters in all the crazy episodes along the way.
So, should I have called this memoir “The making of a writer”?
Our Friday Poem this week is ‘If I Could Wake’ by Cath Drake from her debut collection The Shaking City.
The shaking city of Australian poet Cath Drake’s debut poetry collection is a metaphor for the swiftly changing precarity of modern life within the looming climate and ecological emergency, and the unease of the narrator who is far from home. Tall tales combine with a conversational style, playful humour and a lyrical assurance. The poet works a wide set of diverse spells upon the reader through her adept use of tone, technique, plot and form. She is a welcome new voice for contemporary poetry.
Our Friday Poem this week is ‘How to Celebrate a Birthday’ by Katrina Naomi from her latest collection Wild Persistence.
Wild Persistence by Katrina Naomi is a confident and persuasive collection of poems. Written following her move from London to Cornwall, it considers distance and closeness, and questions how to live. She dissects ‘dualism’ and arrival, sex and dance, a trip to Japan. The collection also includes a moving sequence of poems about the aftermath of an attempted rape.
“Funny, moving, surprising, unflinching and, above all else…joyous.” – Helen Mort
When he smiled it really did feel as if the chilly Caernarfonshire wind had stopped for a few seconds and as if the place had suddenly got warmer.
When Miriam fell in love with Padraig life seemed simple. But soon she discovered that love is a treacherous business. Everything changed when she met Daniel. She was taken down an unexpected path which would dictate and dominate the rest of her life.
Spanning three generations of a North Wales family in a Welsh-speaking community, Miriam,Daniel and Me is an absorbing and compelling story of family discord, political turmoil, poetry, jealousy…and football.
Miriam, Daniel and Me is the first novel in English by Welsh author Euron Griffith. In this interview, Euron tells us what inspired the novel and discusses what its like to bring a book out during a global pandemic. Scroll to the bottom to see the details of the virtual launch taking place this Thursday (30th July).
What was the inspiration behind Miriam, Daniel and Me?
Believe it or not, initially this was going to be a book about my lifelong obsession with the Beatles – a kind of ‘music memoir’ of how the band’s music reflected incidents in my own life. This seemed to make some kind of sense since I’d already written a short story collection called The Beatles in Tonypandy (which was a satirical fantasy on what ‘happened’ when the band moved to South Wales and took up pigeon fancying in 1967!) and so I wanted to write about them in a more personal and less surreal way. It soon became clear to me, however, that I was becoming more interested in the context of the piece – that is, my own experiences of my upbringing and my family history – than I was in the Fab Four’s peripheral and distant part in it. I found that the concept was becoming laboured and that I wasn’t making it come alive for myself and, therefore, it probably wasn’t going to work for anyone reading it. So the Beatles were soon rejected in a cruel, Decca-like fashion!
There were parts of my family history that I only had a vague knowledge of – my paternal grandfather for instance, whom I had never met because he died before I was born. I remember my granny and my dad telling me the story of how he had died suddenly in his chair after returning from the quarry one night but that was all I knew. I filled in the blanks myself – guessing here and there as to how things might have happened. The same was true of my mum. She had fallen in love with an Irishman before she met my dad but I didn’t know the whole story. As a kid I recall my maternal grandad showing me little bits of electrical handiwork this Irishman had constructed – little light switches etc. – so I knew he’d been an electrician and I’d seen photos of him so I knew he had red hair…but nothing much else. Only tantalizing fragments.
Once I’d stumbled across a photo of my mum walking down a street with him and, on the back, someone had written ‘Dublin’. She must have really loved him to go there for a visit. Especially in those days when travel wasn’t such a common thing. So here I did the same as I did with the story of my paternal grandad – I just tried to fill in the gaps. To make sense of it all. It soon grew into something of an obsession and, slowly, I saw that there was a novel brewing here. I weaved in my dad’s experiences as a poet and a goalie – how he had been invited for a trial with a big club once (in real life it was Bolton Wanderers but I changed it to Preston North End in this book…not entirely sure why to be honest!). Now, as I stand back and look at the finished piece, I can see that the overarching theme seems to be the notion of chance, often driven by love or passion, and of how it can affect the course of our lives.
The story is told through the eyes of multiple characters, particularly by three generations of Miriam and Daniel’s family. How is this inter-generational perspective important to the story?
The flippant answer would be that I get bored quite easily and I like to allow myself to dive into different characters and styles of narrative. But there is a more stylistic reason for it too. I love the way classic Victorian fiction such as Wuthering Heights and The Woman in White utilize a playful and effective way of presenting events through different viewpoints. I was also influenced in this by the films of Kurosawa and Quentin Tarantino. I was keen to hurl the reader back and forth without always giving an initial indication of when something was happening in ‘linear’ time because I thought it would heighten the dramatic effect. I suppose a simple example of this would be the rat poison incident (no spoilers!). The novel began with Miriam and Daniel’s story but, around this, there gradually grew the context of their lives- what happened before and what happened after (with the unnamed son). I played with time more outrageously in my last Welsh language novel Tri Deg Tri about a hitman where chapters were numbered in relation to the sequence of the central character’s ‘kills’ rather than to chronology. So I have form! Some readers found it puzzling but more, so I’m told, found it exhilarating!
My other challenge here – admittedly rather grand and insurmountable – was to try to write a kind of Welsh ‘bildungsroman’ – the story of a family and personal development featuring several characters. I was introduced to Buddenbrooks as a student and Thomas Mann’s masterpiece has stayed with me over the years. It certainly influenced me more strongly as this novel developed and the overall shape became clearer. Needless to say I could never come close to such a perfect piece of art but it gave me something to aim for! Aim high. Always aim high…
You build a clear picture of village life in 1950s and 60s Gwynedd by bringing in other members of the community and the events affecting their lives, namely the investiture of Prince Charles. Why was it important to you to bring this to life in Miriam, Daniel and Me?
It was a matter of context. Of filling in the canvas and making the whole world more real and multi-layered. I am a keen painter and there is a clear link, I reckon, between visual art and writing. Paul Klee once said that he liked ‘taking a line for a walk’ and that’s how writing begins for me. A line followed by another and, gradually (if you’re lucky), a world forms – a picture. Then it’s a matter of filling in the details. Picasso once said that the most difficult part of any painting was knowing when to stop. He was obviously right (when was Picasso wrong about anything??). In my own case I only recognise when to stop when it comes to re-writing. The first draft is always a sketch. I really don’t think you know what the book is until you’ve stepped back and studied the overall shape and pattern. It needs time. Re-writes. This novel went through at least three major re-writes! Curiously perhaps, this novel was also mainly written in London so there was an extra layer of distance there. James Joyce once said that he had to move to Zurich to write about Dublin. He wasn’t wrong about much either…
The book is coming out in very different circumstances to those any of us could have imagined but the BBC reported last week that Brits have been buying more books during lockdown. What makes Miriam, Daniel and Me a good lockdown read? What do you hope readers will take away from reading it?
Books and records are an obsession for me and if people are reading more and listening to more music then, in my world, that’s a good thing. Online trading is obviously booming in both these markets but I do worry about the wider context of physical retail – not only from the perspective of people’s livelihoods but also from a rather more selfish one. I really find wandering through shops and cities soothing and exciting so, in lockdown, I miss the bustle of the high street – the sights and sounds. When I was in London I would often hop on a bus in the afternoons and go to the middle of Piccadilly Circus and then wander around Soho just to soak up the atmosphere and work out things in my head to do with this novel and with other matters. I’m hopeful that things will return to normal soon.
In terms of what people will take away from this book there is the obvious factor of enjoyment of course but one of the reasons I wrote this book in English was because I don’t think north Wales and the ‘north Welsh experience’ has been explored as often in English language fiction as its southern counterpart. Most people when they think of Wales think rugby and the valleys but this is not strictly accurate. Rugby meant nothing to me when I was growing up and still doesn’t. Indeed, I vividly remember our PE teacher damning it as ‘a game for fat boys who are too slow for football’! My world when growing up was formed by television, football and pop music – the Monkees, The Man from UNCLE, Leeds United, Thunderbirds and Monty Python. Not by chapel or the Eisteddfod or Gareth Edwards. I never ‘got’ Shirley Bassey or Max Boyce and there were no coal mines in my part of Wales. I’m not entirely sure what ‘Wales’ is. My guess is that there are at least twenty versions of it and I didn’t think the story of mine had been told.
We’re hosting an online launch for the book later this week. What can attendees expect at the event?
Well Jon Gower is a perceptive reader and I’m intrigued to know what he thinks of the novel. He always has an interesting perspective on things. I’m thrilled that Rakie Ayola has agreed to read a few passages from the novel. She is such a brilliant actor. Hopefully the conversation and the readings will stimulate all the many thousands tuning in via Zoom to buy the novel and send it to the top of the Sunday Times best seller chart…
Finally, a question lots of writers have probably been asked recently, but have you found lockdown a particularly creative time? Is there anything you’re currently working on?
Writing never stops for me. After finishing this novel I immediately returned to a manuscript I started ten years ago and have been working on intermittently since then. I finally finished it just before last Christmas. It’s a peculiar, surreal ‘historical’ novel based on the adventures of a gentleman traveller. Influenced by ‘Don Quixote’ and more modern pieces such as ‘Life of Pi’ it features a man mistaken for Jesus, a three-legged cat, a serial killer and cannibalism. So it couldn’t be more different to Miriam, Daniel and Me! It’s called The Confession of Hilary Durwood. Since lockdown I’ve started another novel. I was up to 40,000 words before realising that it wasn’t much good so I scrapped it and started again. It’s much better now.
Before Covid struck I played regularly in my band Six Sided Men but, naturally, all that is on hold now. But I’ve been writing tons of songs and recording them myself on my little portastudio (driving my wife mad in the process as we have inadequate soundproofing!). I’m currently recording some Christmas songs I’ve written and will include these on a CD for friends when the season for merriment arrives…
I’ve also been painting and drawing. So yes. A worrying time in many ways. But I can’t say it’s been entirely unproductive…
Join us for the virtual book launch – Thursday 30th July, 7:30pm. Euron will be in conversation with Jon Gower and actress Rackie Ayola will be reading excerpts from the book. Email email@example.com for the link. Full details here.
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