Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Marwolaeth heb Ddagrau by Bob Eynon - book review

For me, one of the best ways to boost language learning is to absorb the language through reading books. As a relative beginner, I have a very limited choice of titles in Welsh, even more so than in other languages it seems, because Welsh is so very complicated! I've read a couple, which were about adult Welsh learners and their daily lives - yawn, really not my type of book! Recently, following a recommendation from my tutor and from a fellow student, I decided to start exploring books by Bob Eynon.

Bob lives in Treorci, although I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting him. He writes books aimed specifically at Welsh learners, in a number of genres.

In Marwolaeth heb Ddagrau (death without tears), private detective Ceri Llewelyn is asked to investigate the death of Mrs Adelina Luscombe's son, Nick. Together with his new secretary-sidekick, Debra Craig, Ceri starts asking questions round the small Cotswold village of Stavely, where Nick used to live with his mother before moving to London. The answers he finds raise even more questions and the trail takes them to London.

Was Nick a heroin addict and did he fall downstairs to his death accidentally while under its influence? Was anyone present when he died? Who is the mysterious Arab who accompanied him to Stavely? What did the Hells Angels have to do with the case? Why was Ceri slipped a Mickey Finn in Nick's favourite nightclub?

Eventually, Ceri and Debra are led to a hippy commune in Wales, and then back to Stavely for the final denouement in the best detective mystery tradition.

At approximately 60 pages of fairly large typeface, the book was a comfortable length to tackle given my slow reading speed in Welsh. The storyline kept my interest to the end. Bob Eynon structures the book using a limited vocabulary, which is listed at the back of the book. The list is extremely helpful, but using it does require a basic knowledge of how mutations are used in Welsh. Words and phrases are repeated throughout the book to enable them to sink into the brain. Some typical sentence structures taught in Welsh classes are also used. This is done in a natural way within the story.

Marwolaeth heb Ddagrau offers Welsh learners a pleasurable way in which to consolidate what they have learnt and expand their vocabulary. Available from The  Book Depository with free delivery worldwide.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Wind farms in the Rhondda – simply a NIMBY matter?

Wind farms are springing up all over the hillsides of South Wales and many people are not happy about this at all. Looking out of the window of my study, across the valley to Cwmparc and the Bwlch mountain, I cannot as yet see any. However, it is not necessary to go far to start seeing the white blades of the turbines rearing up from the hills.

Wind Turbines overlooking Gilfach Goch - - 550450
Wind Turbines overlooking Gilfach Goch, by Martin Edwards [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The latest is the Ferndale Wind Farm, with 8 turbines, each 74 metres high, on the slopes between the two valleys of the Rhondda Fawr and Rhondda Fach. It is due to become operational this summer. Speaking to Wales Online, local councillor for Ferndale, Ceri Jones, pointed out that the project was approved despite the opposition of Rhondda Cynon Taf Council and 95% of Ferndale residents.

Of course all the usual arguments and counter-arguments for wind farms apply. There is the aesthetic argument that they are ugly, spoil the landscape and make it unnatural. I'm not totally convinced by that one. For a start, the landscape here is already man-made to a significant degree. Moreover, I think I prefer to see a wind farm than a nuclear power station any day, particularly if it is close to where I live!

The potential impact on birds is more worrying. There have been incidents of birds being injured by flying into the turbines, such as the red kite which suffered fatal injuries near Aberystwyth. Furthermore, studies have found that the areas round wind farms are being abandoned by birds. The turbines act like giant scarecrows to chase them away. This affects feeding and breeding areas and also migration routes.

Nevertheless, I believe that the major issue is that this is one of the latest examples of the continuous exploitation of Wales and its resources. The wind farms in the Rhondda are not going to bring down the price of electricity paid by local people. In fact, a survey published last June by Consumer Focus Wales found that people in Wales pay more for electricity than people in the rest of Britain, and people in South Wales pay more than people in North Wales.

For about 150 years, the miners of the Rhondda gave their strength, often their health, and sometimes their lives to produce coal, on which so much wealth was created. Practically none of that wealth was brought back into Wales. The mines dominated the local economy. Since they closed, little has been done to create other work for local people. The legacy of health problems left by coal mining places a huge burden on the Welsh Health Service.

Now, as we move from coal to alternative energy sources, the Rhondda is again being asked to contribute, but get nothing back. Is it any wonder that people are angry about the wind farms?

In her consultation document Greenprint for the Valleys, Plaid Assembly Member Leanne Wood puts forward a number of proposals to regenerate the former coalfields of South Wales. One of the points raised at the meeting to launch the initiative in the Rhondda was that any future wind farm developments should be organised jointly with the local communities, and that the communities should receive a share of the profits. Even more importantly, investment should be made into developing and funding small-scale alternative energy projects, such as roof solar panels and garden-scale wind turbines.

The Rhondda is at times derided by outsiders as a bleak problem area. It was not the people of the Rhondda who caused the problems, but those who exploited them and their resources and gave nothing back. In the wind farm issue, history appears to be repeating itself. It is more than high time for this pattern to stop. That is why I oppose the Rhondda wind farms in their current form and support the alternatives being proposed in Greenprint for the Valleys.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Wild women helping Welsh learners - Book review of Merched Gwyllt Cymru (Beryl Griffiths)

One of the problems with learning a language is the limited accessibility of reading matter that is simple enough to be understood with the limited vocabulary and grammatical constructions possessed by a learner. Children's books might seem to be an obvious answer, but in fact they are not a solution. A toddler who speaks Welsh as their first language, for example, already knows phrases and words that I have yet to meet.

I found this out to my chagrin a year into learning Welsh, when I was not able to understand a Postman Pat book I found in the local Tenovus charity shop! Also, there's a limit to how much Postman Pat I want to read...

One answer is to turn to books written specifically for learners, with purposely limited sentence constructions and listed vocabularies. I will be featuring some I have found useful in future posts.

The other answer is a bilingual book, which has the text in Welsh on one page and in English on the facing page. I have just finished such a book: Merched Gwyllt Cymru - Wild Welsh Women by Beryl Griffiths.

This  is a collection of short biographies of Welsh women throughout history, who broke with convention in one way or another. It starts back in the mists of time with a retelling of the myths of Ceridwen, Arianrhod and Blodeuwedd.

We meet the warrior queen of the Iceni, Buddug (Boudicca) who led a rebellion against the Roman colonisers, and the princesses Nest, Gwenllian (a lesser known earlier Gwenllian, not Llywelyn ap Gruffudd's daughter) and Siwan of the 10-13th centuries.

Catrin o Ferain was called the Mother of Wales after her death in 1591. She outlived four husbands, while navigating her way through the political turmoil of the Elizabethan era. Her descendants were found in most of the families of the North Wales gentry.

Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby fled from Ireland so as to be able to continue with their relationship in peace, finding refuge in Wales, where they became known as the Ladies of Llangollen. Their home attracted many prominent authors and poets. William Wordsworth managed to offend them in a sonnet, referring to their house, Plas Newydd, as a "low roof'd Cot".

Ann Griffiths, who became converted during the revivalist period at the end of the 18th century, went on to write some well-known and loved hymns.

Another featured writer, this time of novels, is Elizabeth Amy Dillwyn (1845-1935), who triumphed over financial adversity and became a successful businesswoman.

Buy Merched Gwyllt Cymru and get free delivery worldwide.

The most recent biography is of Megan Lloyd George (1902-1966), Liberal and then Labour MP. I enjoyed hearing of her riposte to a farmer during hustings on Anglesey in 1928. Accused by him of not even knowing how many ribs a pig has, she invited him to join her on the platform so that she could count them!

However, it is the women from the lower levels and margins of society who make the most colourful impact in this "wild" parade. These include Marged ferch Ifan, who, standing over 6 feet tall, was not only a rower, wrestler and innkeeper, but also a renowned harpist. Jemima Nicholas, a cobbler and as tall as Marged, single-handedly caught 12 French soldiers who had come over the Channel as part of an invading army. They are joined by the thief Mary Lewis, the gypsy Alabina Wood, Betsi Cadwaladr, who ran away from home at the age of nine, travelled the world and went out to be a nurse in the Crimea at the age of sixty-five, and Annie Ellis, who emigrated to America and kept a lodging house in the Wild West.

While not women at all, the "Rebeccas", who led their "daughters" in mass actions to destroy tollgates, also get a chapter.

My favourite wild woman, however, is definitely Gwerfyl Mechain, who lived in the second half of the 15th century. Not only did she dare to enter the then male world of poetry, she proved to be as accomplished as any man in mastering the extremely difficult Welsh verse form cynghanedd. Her poetry includes discourses on women's concerns such as rape and domestic violence. She was also at times raunchier than many of her contemporary male poets. Criticising men for "Leaving the centre without praise / The palace where children are gained", she continues with her own detailed description and praise of that part of the female anatomy. I was amused to note that while the Welsh page cites the next five lines of the poem, the author refrains from supplying a translation for the English page!

In all, this was a most enjoyable book and I learned a lot of new things. I don't pretend that I was able to read all the Welsh. Nevertheless, I was able to read quite a lot, while casting occasional glances at the English text when I got stuck. I found this less wearing than having constantly to look up words in a dictionary. I would unhesitatingly recommend this book to anyone at my level of Welsh (Sylfaen) or higher as an enjoyable and informative way to practise Welsh. Since the book is bilingual, I would also recommend it to anyone who wishes to find out something about Welsh women who stood out from among their contemporaries.

Buy Merched Gwyllt Cymru and get free delivery worldwide.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Croeso i fy myd / Welcome to my world

So many people are curious why I have chosen to bury myself in a small place in Wales. I dedicate this blog to them and to anyone else interested about living in Wales, more specifically in the Rhondda. I will write about life in Treorchy, places I visit in Wales, learning Welsh, Welsh culture and other related topics.

Most people know the place where I live as Treorchy. Its real name is Treorci, meaning town on the river Orci.

I moved to Treorchy in February 2008. All the 54 years of my life up to that point had been spent in cities: London, Bristol, Zagreb, Sheffield, Nottingham. I was sick of city life, depressed by the faceless suburbs, the concrete, the traffic and the crowds.

I changed all that for this view from my study:

On my first morning in Treorchy, I woke to the sound of lashing rain. Living in Wales means having to get used to rain very rapidly! This was January, 2008, while I was still living in Nottingham and getting the new house organised. I had arrived at 1am and had nothing in stock. Having left the house to hunt for breakfast, I was soaked through within minutes.

As I walked down the hill, I turned and look back up the mountains behind the house. My heart leapt at the view. Being wet did not matter, being cold did not matter.

I was joined in my new home by a man I had loved deeply for many years. He was originally from Penygraig, a few miles down the valley, but had spent decades in England. He was excited at the thought of returning to his roots as being Welsh was a source of great pride to him.

We were not permitted to be happy. A nervous breakdown caused by personal and professional stress together with the grief of being rejected by his adult daughters had wounded him too deeply. Even before he joined me, he had set his life on a course of destruction, which resulted in his death in June 2010.

My first instinct after David died was to flee. I was alone, a long way from my daughters and scared. By chance, just three weeks after David's death, a temporary choir was formed nearby for the TV series Codi Canu (S4C). I love singing and so became a member.

During the first rehearsal, as we sang our way through Cwm Rhondda and Y Tangnefeddwyr in Welsh, I felt shivers up and down my spine. On the way back home, I marvelled at seeing the valley more beautiful than ever before. It was golden in that warm June evening. That was when I knew I was going to stay, regardless of what would be.

Wales has adopted me and worked its magic deep in my soul. I am not Welsh by genes, but take the liberty to pronounce myself Welsh by choice.

I have found my home.