Category Archives: Writing

The Mystery of the Missing Marshal

Note: Any similarity to individuals, locations or events is entirely coincidental.  See last month’s blog (In All Our Dreams) at the bottom of the page for cast of characters. Enjoy your visit to Woollyton.

7am

Vince has just finished setting out the course for Woollyton’s Midsummer Run.  He sits on a bench, unscrews the cup from his battered Thermos flask and pours his coffee.  Mrs Vince – long-suffering and saintly – provides him with refreshments for all of his volunteering obligations.  On the occasions when duties coincide with cold or wet weather she diligently tops up the sweet, black coffee with a generous tot of rum but today, with the sun shining and a warm June morning ahead, Vince’s coffee is just coffee.  She has, however, thoughtfully packed a biscuit for him to munch on.

Vince dunks the digestive rather than munches it and thinks about the success of the Saturday morning runs.  Getting Olga the Opera Singer to give the pre-race briefings meant there was no need to buy a megaphone, although recently Dr Lizzy (the First Aider) has complained that the way Olga rolls a cigar up and down her thigh as she sings instructions to the music from Carmen means some of the runners are breathless before the race starts.

The only Saturday which wasn’t a success was the one when Mike the Marshal went missing.  Vince frowns as he recalls talking to the police, being interviewed by a reporter from The Woollyton Bugle and even – Vince nearly chokes as he gulps his coffee too quickly – having to answer an email from HQ asking for an explanation.  And why?  Because Roger had forgotten the three notes that Mike had given him to deliver.  The first had been to Vince saying that Mike had to leave his marshal post early as his flight to Amsterdam left at 1pm; the second was to Mrs Mike telling her that he’d been called away on urgent business. (Mike never explained to his wife why his business trips involved him being away for weeks at a time before he returned, suntanned and with a wallet full of cash, but to be fair, she’d never asked for details either.  She just thought he was more attractive bronzed than pale and was very happy to deal with the excess money); the third letter, addressed to his boss, said that his grandmother was seriously ill again and he’d been called to her bedside.  Apart from briefly marvelling at the recuperative powers of Mike’s grandmother who, for years now had suffered bouts of sickness around the time Tom Jones was in concert somewhere in the world, Mike’s boss did nothing more than tweak the staff rota for the following month and thank God for the existence of zero hours contracts.

Vince’s frown disappears as he remembers it all worked out in the end because Roger eventually found the letters and posted them.  Since then Mike had sent several postcards to Betty for her to display in The Sticky Bun and some exotic spices for her to try out in her cake recipes.  He’d even enclosed a packet of seeds for Upstairs Annie to plant on the allotments so she could grow her own hay.  And now that Nellie the Knitter and Brian Behind the Paper had won the lottery and gone on a world cruise, there’d be no more complaints to deal with.  Vince finishes his coffee and smiles contentedly.

8am

Sticky Betty sets up a table near the start line with complimentary buns for all of the runners.  She has finally used the spices Mike sent her from Amsterdam and because today is a celebration, she made an even stickier than usual topping.  Sticky Betty is sure they’ll be very popular with everyone.

9am

Most of the runners have eaten Sticky Betty’s spiced buns even though common sense told them to wait until they’d finished the race.  Rod has produced a red satin cape and led a riotous arm-waving, foot-stamping warm up session alongside Olga’s rendition of the pre-race briefing to The March of The Toreadors.  As Vince blows the start whistle, over on the allotments a curl of smoke rises up from a bonfire and wafts across the course.  Upstairs Annie has scythed the hay she was growing with the Amsterdam seeds and set the stubble alight to clear the ground.  As the runners pass by on the first loop the smoke has dissipated into a pungent, greyish haze and by the time they approach on the second loop, Vince wonders if he needs to remind the clubs about taking the race seriously because the runners seem to be doing a Conga into Woollyton Woods.

10am

Vince checks his watch.  He sent Roger into the woods more than 15 minutes ago to look for the runners and there’s been no sign of him since.  Vince shudders as he anticipates having to deal with another HQ email but then sighs with relief as a lone figure walks out of the trees and heads for the finish.  Rosie strolls over the line and raises her arms in triumph, claiming victory for walkers the world over and dismissing the disappearance of all the other competitors as irrelevant.

11am

Vince decides that he will have to send a search party into Woollyton Woods.  He looks around and realises he is alone in the playing field except for Rod and Olga who are doing an Argentine Tango near the still smoky allotments.  Vince puts on his Run Director vest, his brave face and follows the taped course into the trees.  It’s not long before he hears a man’s voice singing.  Soon he reaches a clearing full of runners who are swaying back and forth to the music.  Upstairs Annie is carrying a smouldering pile of hay and a misty cloud hangs in the air.  Standing on top of makeshift stage is the gyrating figure of a black-shirted man.

“Mike? Mike? Mike?” calls Vince.

“Delilah,” chant the runners.

“Why? Why? Why?” Vince takes a deep breath and starts to feel a little bit dizzy.

“Delilah,” the runners chorus.

“So before – I sent Roger a note saying I’d be back today – they come to break down the door.” Mike’s voice booms out and his hips swing from side to side.

Vince’s hips feel an urge to do the same.  He briefly wonders whether his replacement will cope and then decides there’s only one way to find out. He pushes his way through the crowd to stand next to Mike on the stage, puts his NHS orthopaedic surgery under stress it was never designed for and along with everyone else, goes for it.

“FOR-GIVE ME, DE-LI-LAH, I JUST COULDN’T TAKE ANY MOOOOOOOOOORE!”

Email from Run HQ to Vince

Hi Vince, We heard you had a special Run last Saturday.  Would you like to tell us more about it?

Email from Vince to Run HQ

No.

 

The End.  My next blog should (fingers crossed) appear in mid-July.  Until then #staysafe #bekind #keepsmiling

In all our dreams

 “We should show life neither as it is nor as it ought to be, but as we see it in our dreams.”

Anton Chekhov

I’m going to write a whodunit.  Not a gritty, gory crime novel – they’re too much like real life and for the moment, I’ve had enough of reality.  And not one of those brooding melodramas set in a beautiful landscape where everyone is gorgeous looking, under 40 and affluent but with no obvious source of income.  No, I’m going to write an old-fashioned mystery with a collection of eccentric characters – all with dodgy alibis and skeletons in the cupboard – who lurk about suspiciously and generally undermine the efforts of the police to bring the guilty party to book.   Back in 2007 when I was concocting a detective story for my Creative Writing degree, Rob Middlehurst (my tutor at the University of Glamorgan) advised me to sketch little life stories for my protagonists to make their part in the plot believable.  If he’s reading this, he’ll be pleased I sort of paid attention.  Even though I am still without a detailed plan of how the tale will unfold – it involves blackmail, jealousy and a compost heap on the village allotments – I think my characters’ backgrounds are very realistic.  It’s just that there was no sketching involved – only some scraps of wool and too much time on my hands.

 

Vince the Volunteer

Every village needs a Vince.  In Woollyton, Vince organises the parkrun that starts off with two laps of the playing field before following a footpath into a glade of trees.  Local legend tells of lost treasure buried in a cave somewhere in the Woollyton Woods and says that those who stumble upon it either go completely mad or are never seen again.  Vince seems as sane as any other Run Director, muttering to himself about things he’s forgotten to do as he pegs out the course at the crack of dawn each Saturday.  He never goes into the woods though, preferring to send a marshal who will stand alone beneath creaking branches until the last runner passes and then collect the tape which marks the route before heading back to the playing field.  Last month Mike the Marshal didn’t return at the end of the run.  Not to the finish line, not to his house where Mrs Mike had lunch on the table and not to his job the following week.  “Just as well,” said Vince to the policeman who came enquiring for information, “I’ve got a spare hi-viz jacket and plenty of tape so I can send someone else into the woods next week.”

Sue the Stretch

What Sue really wants is for everyone in Woollyton to take up Yoga, thus making her business plan for a naturist retreat called Yogi Bare irresistible to the bank manager who needs to agree her loan application.  In the meantime, she has to be content with daily classes for the clothed and faithful few at the Community Centre.  Except, of course, on a Saturday morning when the parkrun takes place and Sue has to yield all of the car parking spaces, the changing rooms and the little cafeteria (The Sticky Bun – tea/coffee and, you’ve guessed it, a sticky bun  for £2.50) to Vince and the runners.  This she does with all the magnanimity of someone who can adopt the position of Downward Dog and stay in it for 47 minutes without her digestive system announcing its existence to the world.

Olga the Opera Singer

Half of the residents of Woollyton are sceptical of Olga’s claim that she once sang in Milan and the other half say that anyone who hangs around the bars in Milan on a Saturday night will end up singing so her lack of modesty doesn’t necessarily imply talent.  Olga proves her case (one way or the other) by taking up position at her bedroom window each evening  after the Channel 4 news bulletin and letting rip with an aria.  This cultural largess has been raised at council meetings in the Community Centre where compensation for broken glass in the cold frames and greenhouses on the allotments nearest her house is consistently refused.

Upstairs Annie

Annie is one of those people who is rarely seen without a bale of hay in her arms.  Quite why this is has never been established as she doesn’t keep animals and lives in a tiny flat above Woollyton’s only shop, with not even a flower box to call outside space.  Those who have taken up Annie’s invitation to drop by for a nice hot cup of tea (that is, virtually everyone Annie meets on her hourly quad bike rounds of the village) are quick to say that Annie isn’t a gossip but she does know about most things that go on in Woollyton.  And when they’ve said that, they wonder where she gets the money to pay for the hay, the quad bike and the petrol she has to buy to make hourly rounds of the village.

Rosie Right to Ramble

Until the parkrun was launched, Rosie was the only person who wandered the paths through Woollyton Woods.  Now each Saturday people come from miles around, double parking their cars on verges and blocking driveways.  For a while Rosie tried to rally opposition to Vince and his marshals but to no avail.  Then she signed up on the parkrun website, got a barcode of her own and began joining in every week.  She is very fond of rambling in the rain and on days when the weather is particularly inclement, Rosie enjoys walking the route – very slowly – and waving to the cold, sodden hi-viz heroes who grin back at her through gritted teeth and send silent messages of a speedy finish followed by  cramp in both calves.

Betty the Sticky Bun Baker

When Betty took over the Community Centre café, it was on the understanding it would be developed into a healthy eating outlet, a hub for home cooked meat free, gluten free, dairy free but money expensive meals.  However in response to public opinion, Betty reneged on the terms of this unwritten agreement and announced that the entire menu would consist of sticky buns but with some exceptions.  Thus, on Bank Holidays and other auspicious occasions (many of which occur on Saturdays), Betty expands her repertoire – and the waistlines of her customers – by offering fried bacon and sausages layered in doorstep thick slabs of squidgy white bread served with great steaming mugs of hot milky chocolate at a cost all of her customers are more than happy to pay.

Nellie the Knitter and Brian Behind the Paper

Nellie and Brian celebrated their retirement by building a little bungalow in a peaceful spot near a grassy meadow and calling it “Paradise”.  Then the owner of the grassy meadow had the nerve to die and leave it to the residents of Woollyton as a playing field.  To add insult to injury he also left a strip of land to become allotments for the villagers and enough money for them to build a community centre.  Soon “Paradise” was anything but peaceful and one Saturday Brian took a felt pen and scrawled the word “Lost” on the house plaque.  That was the day Nellie abandoned crocheting granny squares and began knitting fair isle socks on 5 needles with a provisional cast on to the double rib cuff and Kitchener cast off at the arrow point toe line.  It was also the last day that Brian was seen as he’s been behind a paper ever since.

Rod the Runner

Every morning Rod squeezes himself into a pair of lycra shorts that were tight fitting when he bought them 3 years and 4 kilos ago.  He’s convinced that those 4 kilos are upper body muscles but many people who view his jogging form from behind would disagree.  Rod, being the Chairman of the Community Centre Committee, had to pretend to welcome the arrival of Woollyton’s parkrun but in truth, he always felt that running was too serious a business to share with the general public.  He even had to give up on his ambition to develop a wholefood restaurant at the Community Centre when one by one the rest of the committee, thanks to Betty’s persuasive skills, voted for the Sticky Bun alternative.  All of these things he writes about over and over again, in long, poetic letters to the only person in the village he had ever loved.  Letters which he seals with a smudgy kiss and never intends to post. Although once, a carelessly left open window and an afternoon breeze saw one of them waft from Rod’s desk and land, like litter, on Woollyton’s playing field.

I started knitting the little people just for a bit of fun but as so often happens, one thing has led to another.  Let me assure you – and particularly the people who I know personally – that whilst there may be a knitted resemblance to some of my friends and family, any links to dodgy alibis and skeletons in the cupboard exist only in my imagination.  Admittedly I haven’t worked out who among them is going to be the amateur detective, the culprit or the unreliable witnesses but I think I have populated Woollyton with more than enough eccentricity.  I wouldn’t be surprised to start getting messages from those within my social circle fairly soon suggesting the roles their character could play and which Hollywood star should take their part when the film rights of my whodunit are sold.   To them I would say –

“In all our dreams!”

Now, are there any publishers out there reading this?

Prosiect Digoll/Unlost Places

Showing Llanddwyn Beach

The idea behind Prosiect Digoll/Unlost Places has been milling around in my head since I first realised that I could combine poetic tercets with creative stitchery to map metaphysical features of landscape.   I’ve noticed that when I say this sort of thing to people (family, friends, complete strangers – I’m not fussy), their faces go blank, their eyes glaze over and they wander away, making lame excuses about having something else to do.  If you’re still reading at this point, I assume you are mildly interested in Prosiect Digoll/Unlost Places or some aspect of creativity so I’ll start by explaining some of the terms I’ve used in the first sentence.

  • Poetic Tercets: When I was about 7 years old, my elder sister ( Mrs B ) and I used to watch The Man from Uncle.  In one episode, the character Ilya Kuryakin (played by David McCallum) had cause to recite a haiku.  As everything that Ilya did influenced my sister’s thirst for knowledge, she – and therefore, I – became familiar with this form of Japanese poetry.  For my MA dissertation (Lingering Fragments appears in the Gallery section) I used the Welsh version of a haiku which is called englynion y milwyr .  It has three lines, each made up of seven syllables.  I find that the rhythm of walking naturally leads to odd phrases popping into my head which I scribble onto paper and polish into poetic form later.
  • Creative Stitchery: The number of people (usually men) I’ve met over the years who’ve told me how their mother/grandmother/auntie was so good at embroidery that you couldn’t tell the front of the work from the back is legion.  This is not what you get with creative stitchery.
  • Map: Forget about art maps being anything like the Ordnance Survey  variety.  I read somewhere that a map is simply a visual representation of place but people like Richard Long (http://www.richardlong.org/ ) use sounds or words to lead people through a landscape.
  • Metaphysical features of landscape:  My intention is to make art which expresses what it is like to be in a particular place rather than to interpret how it looks.

The photographs/video I’ve used up until this point have been of Anglesey (Ynys Môn) which will give a sense of what it looked like.  What it was like to be there needed a more creative response.  On Llanddwyn Beach the sands yielded plenty of raw material to make some beach art which could be left in the place which inspired its making.

Beach art
Beach Art

Listening to waves rattling over pebbles and rustling seaweed on the strand line made a phrase pop into my head:

“she was prey to restless waves”

and bearing in mind that I was in the homeland of Branwen, there was an inevitable effect on the tercet:

Given, taken, biding time,

she was prey to restless waves;

Hope was borne on slender wings.

I collected pebbles which formed the basis of this piece of creative stitchery.

Creative Stitchery

Finally came the mapping of metaphysical features of landscape.  If you ever visit Llanddwyn Bay on Anglesey (and if you get the chance, you should), this may not help you get from A to B but it’s what the place did to my stitching fingers.

Art map

 

I’ll leave the last words to someone who  spent his childhood on Anglesey and may have walked on the same beach.  I think he’d probably understand what I hope to achieve through Prosiect Digoll/Unlost Places.

“You have to imagine a waiting that is not impatient because it is timeless.”                 R.S.Thomas

 

The Unlost Voices

Collection of art materials

This is the shortest blog I’ve ever written and it’s because I’m about to begin work on my latest project which is called Digoll/The Unlost . 

There’s a place in Wales called Cefn Digoll.  This translates as “The Ridge of the Unlost” and it’s what gave me the idea of making maps about what the voices of metaphysical features of landscape are trying to say.  I love the idea that being unlost comes from becoming aware of place rather than by finding a direction of travel.

Field sketch of Skye

For the next few weeks I’ll be travelling up and down the country making small art maps of places that I visit.  Some of these I’ll be leaving in situ, others I’ll be bringing back to form part of my next exhibition.  If you want to keep up with what I’m doing and where I’ve been, you can follow me on twitter – @marialalic  or you can wait until next month’s blog (which will be longer than this one!) when I’ll post photographs of where I’ve been and what art I’ve made.  Until then, hwyl am y tro!

 

 

The art of brief writing

Sunset over Bristol Channel
Ogmore by Sea Sunset

I’ve always found writing really easy, which is just as well because I’ve been doing a lot of it just recently.   I’ve been taking notes at seminars, mentoring a creative writing student on her memoirs, doing critical reading for someone writing a crime novel, working on the drafts of my own book and then got invited to take part in the Interior Monologues exhibition at Oriel y Bont , University of South Wales.  I mentioned this venture in last month’s blog but since then I’ve been to the opening night and, along with the other writers, I had the opportunity to read my work to an audience.  It was an interesting project to be involved in not just from the creative point of view but also because there was a strict limitation on the amount of writing which could be submitted – just one A4 sheet of paper.  This got me thinking about the techniques writers can use when their work is brief in length or as a brief, in content.  Here are some of my suggestions:

Choose your words carefully

School photograph
Me at 11

At Secondary school I had an English teacher called Mrs Evans.  This is next bit is not me being deliberately insulting but I need you to get the picture of her – she was fat, grubby, had unruly white hair, nicotine stained fingers and she wore shapeless dresses bound around the middle with mismatched belts.  The worst thing about her was that she sucked toffees as she was marking homework so exercise books were often returned with dribbles of syrup sticking the pages together.  The best thing about her was that she was a brilliant teacher.  One day she set us the challenge of writing in praise of someone who we liked but without using the word ‘nice’ anywhere in the composition.  It was a word, she said, which had been so over-used that its contribution to expression was redundant and that if the world wasn’t careful, nice as both a word and a concept would become meaningless.  Hmmm – watching the febrile shenanigans of politicians in this country at the moment, she could be right.

Understand and respect the context 

Based on Gone with the wind
Rose drew this in 1946

Yesterday I was sorting some stuff out and came across my late mother’s sketchbook.  The drawings inside were made in 1946, when she was 20 years old.  They are colourful, simplistic and not very good technically speaking.  More interesting to me is that they are naive to the point of being immature, almost as if they had been drawn by a child.  I think there’s something about them that speaks loudly about the way in which a creative outlet can shape the way in which we deal with unpleasant experiences.  As a girl of 14, Rose was sent into service to an aristocratic family in England; at 17 she returned to Port Talbot to nurse her ailing father and for the last two years of the Second World War, she worked as an usherette at the local cinema, running the two miles home every night in blackout with German bombers flying overhead seeking out the docks and industries of nearby Swansea.  As my teenage years were spent in a slump of sullen laziness punctuated by the occasional tantrum, I am in awe of young people who suspend their childhood to deal with a ravaged reality and can still draw pretty pictures.

Transport the reader to another place

Frog on trail
Frog in danger

I fell out of love with running last December and just recently I’ve been trying to rekindle my enthusiasm.  How better and where better to do this than by returning to one of my favourite places in South Wales, the gorgeous Afan Forest Park.  In my twenties I applied to become a voluntary ranger here but changed my mind when the other interviewee turned up wearing army fatigues, a bullet proof vest and with handcuffs dangling from his belt.  In my thirties I orienteered in and out of the woodland glades, sun rays dappling the pine strewn tracks.  In my forties I remember one fabulous experience of running on the trail from Abercregan to Pontrhydyfen in heavy snow that blanketed all of the familiarity out of the world.  Sadly there’s been precious little of the white stuff around here this winter.  On the February day I pulled on my trainers and set out to follow the track up towards Cymer before coming back on the other side of the valley, the weather was gloriously spring like.  My plan worked and as I listened to my footsteps on the coarse gravel track and the plaintive mewing of Red Kites overhead, I slipped back into a cosy affection with running.  The relentless rhythm of moving forward under your own steam strengthens your senses and heightens your power of observation.  How else on a 5 metre wide stony track could I have spotted this tiny frog in enough time to avoid squelching him underfoot?

Find a phrase

Exhibition work at USW
Interior Monologues

I was very lucky to work with the artist Mererid Velios for the Interior Monologues exhibition.  Lucky not just because she’s a talented individual but also because she let me see the notes which underpinned her thought process – what she called ‘a brain dump’.  Her starting place was to consider the decor of an abandoned 1940s interior, musing on the people who had once lived there and wondering about why they had left.  From there she thought about they way in which we are all the product of the generations who came before us and after that she began to consider the effects of the way in which poverty was once faced with heroism but is now labelled as almost a failure.  Her artwork was constructed out of forms used to apply for Universal Credit and used figures based on Sisyphus to make her point.  I had one A4 sheet of paper to convey all of that.  For me everything centred around one phrase (Here is my hand) which I repeated to connect the different aspects of her idea.  You can read what I wrote here .

Be gentle and know when your work is done

Daffodils
RIP Steven

 

Hitting the ground running

“You can’t just turn on creativity like a tap(sic).  You have to be in the right mood.  What mood is that?  Last minute panic.”                     Bill Watterson

I like making plans much more than I like putting them into action and it’s great to find out that I’m not alone in this tendency – Bill Watterson (the American cartoonist responsible for Calvin and Hobbes) obviously feels the same.   Lots of creative people thrive  the closer they get to a deadline, happily procrastinating until there is no alternative except to put pen to paper, thread to needle or whatever equipment and medium needs to be employed.  Dilly-dallying is not a particularly stressful approach for them; the same can’t be said for friends and family members whose emotional state ends up shredded.  The reason I don’t get bothered by a ticking clock is that I know that sooner or later the creative bit of me will get out of bed and hit the ground running.  That said, I’m going to add a “however”.

Abandoned Art on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path

However, this only works for me when my fingers are fit enough to deliver the level of skill my creative idea demands.  What with gardening, writing, holidays, working and all the other calls life has made on me this year, I haven’t actually got a lot of stitching done.    Now that I’ve finished the first draft of my next book (possibly being called ‘Integrating multiple strands of creative practice in an ethos bound portfolio approach’, possibly not – I leave you to make your own mind up on that), I’m ready start work on my next project.  This will be a journal of creative maps in the form of travel writing, poetic exploration and artistic interpretations of walked journeys through ancient landscapes.  You’ll be pleased to know that I already have a snappier title in mind for this one but I’m keeping it to myself for the moment.  I have spent many happy hours planning this project; in my mind’s eye I can see the pages of the book, the typesetting and the illustrations of my work.  It’s going to be a combination of all the things I love doing – walking, Wales, stitching, composting poems and – I’m not going to excuse this  – making maps that look like maps!

Cardigan to Poppit Sands (in the style of Arthur Ransome)

Last month I decided to help the creative me along a bit by doing a test run along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.  I’ve always disliked getting anything started – particularly sketchbooks.  Only recently have I overcome this reluctance to destroy a perfectly good piece of white paper by convincing myself that whatever marks I make – written or drawn – will be a sort of resource for further work rather than a finished article.  There, in one sentence I’ve excused the standard of the images which follow.   I started my journey by helping a Canadian lady called Enid,who was struggling to manage her bags at Carmarthen.  As we staggered from the train station to the bus station and then back to the train station (checking times of bus services to Haverfordwest and then deciding that rail was the best option after all), I found out that she was celebrating her retirement from nursing by touring Wales and Scotland to see where her great grandparents had lived before emigrating to Canada in the late 19th century.  Having left her waiting for the next train I made my way back to the bus station to get the 460 to Cardigan.  With 5 minutes to kill it seemed a perfect opportunity to put my journal of creative maps test plan into action.  I scrawled down all the information she had given me and did a super fast doodle which will, I hope, act as an aide memoir for me and encourage everyone else who sees it to feel a bit better about their own drawing skills.

Enid and me

You can’t – or at least, shouldn’t – visit Cardigan without trying Cawl which is a slow cooked Welsh stew.  Mine came with a hunk of cheese, 4 slices of toasted, buttered sourdough bread and cost £3.50.   Bargen!  Os byddwch chi yn Aberteifi, awgrymaf ymweld â Chaffi Carn Alw yn y farchnad.  Yn ogystal â bwyd hyfryd  ac er bod ro’n i heb y ci, maen nhw’n gyfeillgar i gwn – mor bwysig i wybod!

Cawl – bwyd Cymru

I left Cardigan via the bridge over the river Teifi and walked out to St Dogmaels.  This was partly to see the abbey but mostly because I wanted to see the Sagranus Stone at the nearby St Thomas’ church.  The Sagranus Stone is one of the few standing stones which has both a Latin and Ogham inscription.  It is monuments like these which enabled scholars to translate Ogham (an ancient Celtic/Irish alphabet where letters are formed by straight lines carved against a vertical).

Abertiefi/Cardigan

Near a place called the Teifi Net Pools, the Blessing Stone stands close to the river.  This was the spot where the Abbot of St Dogmaels traditionally blessed fishing boats before they left for sea.  In Welsh it’s known as the Carreg Ateb (the answering stone) supposedly because if you stand on it and shout across the water, you will be able to hear an echo of your voice.

Blessing Stone/Carreg Ateb

I didn’t try it but I did experiment with the next bit of my creative plan – that of using in situ clays and pigments to colour some canvas which I then embroidered.  I rubbed the fabric with sloes, blackberries and the local mud to get the background colour and then applied a few stitches.  If a map is a visual representation of a place, then I’m happy to say that this is a map of the Blessing Stone/Carreg Ateb.  

Stitchery on naturally pigmented canvas

By the way, a lot of the sloes, blackberries and mud got under my fingernails which explains their grubby appearance in the next photograph.  Apologies if you are over-fastidious by nature.

Stitching on the path

On the way to the curiously named Poppit Sands, I stopped long enough to begin my scrolled and stitched map of the journey.  This will be more mixed media incorporating found objects as well as textural interpretations of place.  Because doing this sort of thing takes more time that pressing the button on a camera shutter or icon on a mobile phone, it means whatever I create is much more a reflection of being in the place rather than recording an image of it.

The scrolled & stitched map.

From the lane to to the Poppit Sands Hostel , I did take a couple of pictures however, just in case anyone reading this has got a  thing about blue flagged beaches where the golden sands seem to stretch on for ever.

Towards Gwbert from Poppit Sands Youth Hostel

I spent the evening doing some field sketching around the Teifi Estuary and next morning I carried on with my scrolled and stitched map.  I’m pretty happy that I think I’ve got a template that works for recording features of the walked journeys, building a collection of information which will act as a valuable resource for the project itself.

Poppit Sands field sketch

It has also reconnected me with the practice of stitching on a daily basis.  On my return I decided to embroider a reflective map of October, with some time devoted to sewing every day.

Mis Hydref/October

There’s a well known saying in Welsh – Deuparth gwaith yw ei ddechrau (two thirds of the work is getting started) -which should mean that this time next year I will have finished my journal of creative maps because I’m already more than half way through!  Meanwhile I’ll leave you with another pearl of wisdom from Bill Watterson – something to bear in mind when you are next putting off starting your next project!

“Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery – it recharges by running.”

 

 

August and Augustinian leaps

“People travel to wonder at the height of great mountains,at the huge waves of the sea,at the long courses of rivers,at the vast compass of the ocean,at the circular motion of the stars; and yet they pass by themselves without wondering.”          St. Augustine

August was a month of milestones for me and one was that I finally got my bus pass.  I have never felt that I deserved something quite as much as that little plastic card and I am determined to exploit it in case some youthful bureaucrat decides free public transport for the over 60s is a luxury too far in these austere times.

The ‘Pant’ in Pantyrawel

The day after it arrived in the post I caught the number 75 bus and ran homewards on the local community track.  Once a railway line carrying coal from the from the Ocean and Wyndham/Western coal mines to Cardiff Docks, it is now enjoying a resurgence as a traffic free route linking the communities of Nantymoel, Ogmore Vale, Lewistown, Pantyrawel and Blackmill with everywhere which can be reached on the Lon Celtaidd/ Celtic Trail  NCN Route 4: Fishguard, Chepstow  and all points between the last time I looked.

Ogmore Valley Community Route

As an aside, if anyone who is influential in the field of sustainable transport initiatives is reading this, how about some words of praise for those of us who use Shank’s Pony as opposed to bicycles as a method of getting about.  I get a bit peeved that two wheels are often portrayed as the main solution to carbon free ways of travelling so let’s have a shout out to the walkers and runners who are also doing their bit.

Let’s hear it for Shank’s Pony!

Anyway, on this particular trek I was hoping to work out whether – in about 60AD – the Ogmore Valley topography had influenced the doomed decision of the local Silurian tribe to escape the onslaught of invading Romans by racing across the Blaenau towards Briton Ferry.  Whilst there have been lots of changes in the last 2000 years (and particularly in the last 200), the geographical features of the Ogmore Valley remain an almost text book example of what happens to landscape when a glacier recedes.  It begins as a v-shaped valley and transforms into a u-shape; there are interlocking spurs, truncated spurs and hanging valleys including the waterfall that flows over a vertical bare rockface at the head of the valley and which gives Nantymoel  its name.

Glacial erosion line at Nantymoel

Had the Silurians gone in this direction and made it through the Bwlch Gap to the ancient ridgeway  linking the valleys of the Rhondda and the Afan, the story might have had a different ending.  In the event they went due west over Mynydd Baiden and were caught.  What happened next is remembered in the place name of a re-entrant north of Port Talbot which known as Cwm Lladdfa – The Valley of Slaughter.  If things go according to plan it will also be remembered in my next creative project which – at the moment – I’m calling The Roman Rout.  I’m sure that once the maps, artistic interpretations and creative non-fiction writing are complete, it will have a more poetic title.

Mynydd Baiden

I have promised myself that I will only get started on The Roman Rout when I finish the book that I am currently writing which brings me to my second milestone, the Augustinian leap .  I had spent months dilly-dallying, prevaricating and procrastinating but things came to a head in August when I realised that I had no excuses left for not completing it: time, ideas, a workspace, even the title – these were all mine.  Unfortunately I still found it difficult to motivate myself to put pen to paper (actually fingers to laptop but you get my drift).  I did lots of other things, some which needed to be done and some of which were nothing more than time-wasting frippery.  I even applied for some jobs I didn’t really want and which, if I got one of them, would probably mean the end of writing the book on Creativity and subsequently, The Roman Rout.

Fog descends

I had managed to get myself into a state of mind called being “simultaneously incongruent”  – i.e. having two clear and distinct thought processes contradicting each other at the same time.   The first was that I wanted to continue researching and writing both books; the second was that most of my researching and writing in the past has been done in response to deadlines from college tutors, magazine editors or publishers.  As none of these were in play I couldn’t find a reason to justify committing the time, effort and resources the projects needed.  At the least excuse, I had begun putting writing into second place behind whatever distraction presented itself.

Mynydd y Gaer from the tiny camper

One afternoon I was sitting in my tiny camper, which serves very nicely as a mobile writing room, staring out at the same landscape the Silurians had raced across in their ill-fated attempt to escape the Romans.  As so often happens I was struggling with what I was going to write about next.  The title of the chapter was Legacy but that was as far as I’d got.  I put a new screen up on the laptop, typed “What’s the point of this chapter?” and then started answering the question with sentences starting “I want to…”

With a moment of clarity, I realised that I hadn’t applied the “what’s the point” argument to the underlying concepts of either of the books I intended to write.  Looking at Mynydd y Gaer on the Glamorgan uplands I knew what the point of The Roman Rout was and still is: it’s a story which needs to be told and I have a peculiar – as in particular rather than odd – set of skills which will do it (and the Silurians) justice.  Deciding the raison d’être of the book about creative practice has taken a bit more time and a lot more soul searching but eventually I think I’ve got the answer.  And it’s only partly to do with me waffling on about anything and everything that takes my fancy without having to worry about referencing and intellectual defences.

Fog lifting

Fate took a hand when I was offered one of the jobs I had applied for and didn’t actually want.  Finally I had run out of wriggle room.  After a little bit of self-analysis I concluded that the reason I have been avoiding writing the the manuscript on creativity is because I didn’t want to finish it.  I wanted to stay in my comfort zone and not taking the risk of writing a book that no-one will actually want to read.  After a little bit more self-analysis, I concluded that probably the most important facet of my personality is my contrariness.  This is the point of the book:  there is no point.  It’s a celebration of taking unknown paths simply because they’re there and I like travelling.

These boots are made for walking…

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”                                      St. Augustine

 

 

Speed, Bonnie Boat

“Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,

Say, could that lad be I?

Merry of soul, he sailed on a day

Over the sea to Skye.”

Robert Louis Stevenson.

For many people in the world the coast is a distant place to visit or to dream about visiting.  Those of us who count the sea as a neighbour, whether we are islanders or live along the edges of land, delight in its wide horizon, fickle mood swings and soul-lifting plays of light.

Coastal life

In Wales, 2018 has been dubbed “The Year of the Sea” and this title is also the theme of the poetry competition at this year’s Penfro Book Festival so if you fancy a bit of composing, you’ve got until the 15th August to get your entry in.

Back in June, when Cal and I crossed the Skye Bridge, we found a campsite right next to the sea and spent the evening walking with Mr MacGregor along the low paths of the Cuillins.

The Cuillins

The variety of scenery in the British Isles never ceases to amaze me.  I am used to the battered and scarred cliffs of the Glamorgan Heritage Coast  that dance in and out of the sea mists of the Bristol Channel.  In Scotland there was something almost brooding and defiant about the way the blackened rocks of Skye leaned towards the shore, standing their ground against the pounding waves of the Atlantic.

Mr MacGregor on Skye

As we sat outside a pub and I contemplated whether landscape features affect the character of indigenous peoples and vice versa, Cal slapped her neck and announced “Midge!”  We had until this point not seen a single one of the “Wee Highland Beasties” and hoped that our visit to Scotland was early enough in the summer to avoid them.  We were wrong.  Thanks to Cal deciding to leave Roxy’s back window open overnight we awoke at about 5am to find we were sharing the campervan with an advance party of midges scouting for breakfast.   Outside clouds of insects swooped and swarmed in a scene reminiscent of a 1950s doomsday film.   Ours was the fastest decampment ever seen and Roxy hurtled up the road, windows open wide in a desperate attempt to encourage the midges inside the van to leave.  Cal made an executive decision to aim across the island in the hope that this phenomenon was limited by location.  Eventually we swung into the car park at Dunvegan Castle – 2 hours before opening time – and assessed the state of play.

Insect repellent Dunvegan style

I had dead, dying and soon to be squashed midges in my hair, around my eyes and behind my ears; Cal had despatched any insect which had landed on her face with a self-administered open-handed smack which had left her cheeks red, shiny and covered with splatters of blood and bits of black carcasses.   I’m not sure if Dunvegan Castle Car Park had CCTV but if it did the sight of two women jumping about slapping themselves and each other as well as a Jack Russell joining in the jumping about and barking excitedly because he thought it was a new game, must have made for an interesting watch.

Eventually some semblance of calm was restored, breakfast was had and as soon as the gates opened we made our way into Dunvegan Castle grounds.  Cal and Mac toured the gardens whilst I went into the castle to fulfil two ambitions.  Firstly to see a Pictish stone close up

Pictish Stone

and secondly to stand in front of a fairy flag.

The Fairy Flag of Dunvegan

Both experiences were amazing and if you should ever find yourself on Skye, I highly recommend a visit to Dunvegan.  Perhaps not in June though because it became clear over lunch that the midges had followed us.  Cal decided that the best option was to make for the ferry port at Armadale and from there to Mallaig, Fort William and eventually the midge-less lands of England.

Silver Sands Beach between Mallaig and Fort William

We travelled through some of the best scenery the world has got to offer.  Longtown sits at the western edge of Hadrian’s Wall.  Fallow deers roam the woodlands and time stands still to watch dappled sunlight.

Longtown in Cumbria

Finally we got back to Wales; more specifically we reached the Welsh coast and the beautiful beaches around Harlech.  I’m going to leave it to Robert Louis Stevenson and Mr MacGregor to sum up this year’s tour because I think they both do it more eloquently and with more joi de vivre than me.

“Billow and breeze, islands and sea,

Mountains of rain and sun,

All that was good, all that was fair,

All that was me is gone.”

 

 

I have no destination

“It is a grand thing, to get leave to live.”     Nan Shepherd

I blame Mrs B in the Hills   for diverting me from my safe, successful yet predictable existence as a Textile Artist and setting me on a journey along unknown paths towards the undiscovered destinations of Cultural Geography.  Indeed I didn’t even know that there was such a subject until someone visiting the MA in Contemporary Crafts final exhibition at Hereford College of Arts  regarded my final work and said, “Do you realise that what you’re doing is Cultural Geography?”  I didn’t because I didn’t know what Cultural Geography was.  As it happens, it’s one of those areas of study where no-one can quite agree on a definition and in particular what the parameters for the word culture should be in this context.  A general – but often disputed rule of thumb – is that Cultural Geography looks at the interaction of humans and landscape in cultural rather than environmental terms.  Lingering Fragments (my MA work) centred on shared cultural legacy interpreted through a creative expression of landscape, so I’m happy to agree that it was Cultural Geography (and poetry and mixed media art).

Lingering Fragments. November 2017

Long before reaching this conclusion however, I’d had messages from Mrs B suggesting that I should read some of Robert McFarlane’s books as he seemed to like landscape-y type stuff and share our love of obscure words and endangered definitions.  Far be it from me to not take advice so it is thanks to Mrs B’s recommendation and Mr McFarlane’s knowledge that I can now describe myself as a solivagant – a lone wanderer; more importantly it is through reading Mr McFarlane’s book Landmarks that I discovered a field of Cultural Geography known as Geopoetics and the writer whose work best exemplifies it, Nan Shepherd.

Solivagant with self timer on camera

Since finishing my MA I’ve been concentrating on writing my own book about Ethos Bound Creativity but took a break from this in early June to go on a touring holiday with my friend Cal.  We loaded up Roxy, her little camper van, with all manner of necessities – liquorice allsorts and a bottle of brandy for her, jelly babies and field sketching kit for me, carton of cocktail sausages and chewy toy for Mr MacGregor, Cal’s Jack Russell terrier – and set off, heading in a roundabout way for Scotland.  Things got off to a good start in the first couple of days when I saw a red squirrel in the wild, visited the lovely 6th Century St Tudno’s church and bagged the trig point on Gogarth before driving through the Mersey Tunnel and then seeing places whose names I only knew from the birth, death and marriage certificates of my grandfather’s family.

Mr MacGregor in St Tudno’s Church

Cal is Liverpudlian by birth and nature so as we travelled through the dock area of Liverpool, I found that she had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the pubs we drove past – I particularly liked the one called The Sick Parrot but can’t imagine ever wanting to go there for a drink and a packet of crisps.  Eventually she brought Roxy to a halt and gave me my birthday present two months early: a visit to Antony Gormley’s Another Place  on Crosby Sands.

Another Place

The next day brought a wander around Windermere, lunch at the Kirkstone Pass and a paddle in Ullswater

Kirkstone Pass

before we headed for Scotland and more specifically, Braemar –  one of Nan Shepherd’s preferred stomping grounds.  If you’ve never heard of Nan Shepherd, she wrote several works of fiction but is best known for The Living Mountain – a reflection in poetic prose about hill walking in the Cairngorms.  It is difficult to read Nan’s books and not accept the existence of Geopoetics which is defined by some as a “geographical consciousness”.  My own feeling is that, as a concept, Geopoetics is an attempt to describe a personal and individual transcendence by physical landscape but is limited by words in the same way as the Welsh concept of hiraeth is much more than the homesickness it is sometimes translated as.

The River Dee at Braemar

Philosophical semantics aside, we stayed in Braemar for two nights which meant we had time to explore the village including the ruins of Kindrochit Castle (built by the wonderfully named King Malcolm Big Head in 1059), the Invercauld Hotel (site of the Raising of the Standard of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1715) and the Queen’s Drive (route of a carriage ride taken by John Brown and Queen Victoria when she used to visit his relatives, taking tea and tobacco as gifts).

Kindrochit Castle

I was determined to get in a bit of hill-walking so on Wednesday, no sooner had the words “I think I’m going to sit down and relax for a bit” left Cal’s mouth then I was pulling on my walking boots and packing my rucsac for an attempt to follow one of Nan’s routes.  Mount Morrone (895 metres) is small fry to committed Munro baggers but it was going to be the highest peak I’d ever attempted.  As Braemar is about 395m above sea level, the trail would have an assent of 500m in 5k.  This can also be described as steep.  I made it to the summit in 1 hour 20 minutes because luckily, the path was sound and well-marked.  Even better, the weather was good and the insect life was quiescent.  Just for good measure there was another trig point at the summit to bag.

View from Morrone over the Cairngorms

Best of all, the track passed Tomintoul, Nan Shepherd’s howff (cottage) on the lower slopes of the mountain so I really was in her footsteps.  Having read The Living Mountain as research for our trip, being on Morrone for a few hours made me realise that Geopoetics is not about the landscape or even about the human reaction to time spent in the landscape; it’s about becoming one with the landscape and that’s not something that can be achieved in a single afternoon.  For Nan Shepherd, it was a relationship that lasted a lifetime.

Tomintoul

Nan’s work is full of the sense of togetherness that she had developed with the Cairngorms and having wandered in just a small part of them, I think that she must have felt really frustrated at the inadequacy of words as she strove to explain what being in and with them meant to her.

“Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”        The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd.

On my way back through Braemar, I called into the tourist information office to pick up some leaflets about Skye – our next stopping point.  That evening, jelly babies to hand, I read something that made me forget all about Geopoetics and dragged me back firmly into Cultural Geography and my own work researching limnal features of landscape.

Dunvegan Castle, said the guide, is home to the legendary Fairy Flag of Dunvegan.  When unfurled in battle it summons spirits to aid Clan MacLeod, snatching victory from certain defeat.

As Cal considered which route would take in the most picturesque scenery that Skye had to offer – which seemed to be on the north of the island – I tried to concoct a sneaky plan which would get us to Dunvegan in the south.  There was no way I could be so close to a remnant of the faerie folk and not get to see it.  In the event however, my scheming was not needed because Skye itself determined where we should go and what we should visit.  It all started so well, with no hint of the trauma to come: we crossed Skye Bridge, found a campsite at the foot of the Cuillins and I remembered what it is I love about limnal landscapes – it’s the feeling that you’ve wandered through another reality; that other folk are having conversations that you will never be party to and if you were, you wouldn’t have the vocabulary to understand.

 

Stone Sculptures in The Cuillins

Which makes me think that maybe it’s better not to have a destination.

Maybe it’s better to just follow the unknown paths.