When we set out, just past Castell Dinas, we pass a dog driving a tractor. Or so it seems.
The shadow of Bruno the dog is long. We see him everywhere. Every morning when I first go downstairs I expect to see him, lying on his rug by the front door. Making coffee I expect him to approach me, nuzzle the back of my knee with his snout. I expect him to stand by the back door, waiting to be let out for a pee and on returning inside to stand by the fridge, awaiting his treat. But he isn’t there.
In David Shield’s book, Reality Hunger, I come across this:
‘In English, the term memoir comes directly from the French for memory, mémoire, a word that is derived from the Latin for the same, memoria. And yet more deeply rooted in the word memoir is a far less confident one. Embedded in Latin’s memoria is the ancient Greek mérmeros, an offshoot of the Avestic Persian mermara, itself a derivative of the Indo-European for that which we can think about but cannot grasp: mer-mer, ‘to vividly wonder,’ ‘to be anxious,’ ‘to exhaustingly ponder.’’
The Chambers dictionary of etymology links ‘mourning’ and ‘mourn’ with old Saxon ‘mornian’, to mourn, and Old High German mornen, Icelandic ‘morna’ — but goes on to say ‘cognate with Latin memoria (mindful) see MEMORY’. So I look at ‘Memory’ in the etymological dictionary and sure enough, Shields is right: ‘Latin memor is cognate with Greek mérmēra = care, trouble, mermaírein = be anxious or thoughtful.’
Mermeros was a figure from Greek Mythology, a son of Jason, along with Pheres. Apparently the brothers were killed either by the Corinthians or by Medea, for reasons that vary depending on the rendition (see Medea). In one account, Mermeros was killed by a lioness while out hunting.
Iolaus mermeros is a butterfly of the Lycaenidae family. It is found on Madagascar.
Mermeros in ancient Greek means ‘a state of worry or anxiety’.
I find a blog written by the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who applies the concept of mermeros to the crisis of the world’s ecosystem: ‘Perhaps we should expand the psychoterratic typology beyond an established term such as ‘ecoanxiety’ to include a concept like ‘mermerosity’ or what I would define as the pre-solastalgic state of being worried about the possible passing of the familiar and its replacement by that which does not sit comfortably within one’s sense of place. I begin to mourn for that which I know will become endangered or extinct even before these events unfold. I know and worry that the coming summer will be too hot and will have a huge wildfire threat. I often have a tight knot of mermerosity inside me when I consider the scale of negative change going on around me and what disaster might happen next.’
Albrecht goes on to suggest that a new kind of mourning ‘might contains the emergent elements of detailed knowledge of causality, anthropogenic culpability and enhanced empathy for the non-human’ . . . ‘The etymological origins of the word ‘mourning’ come from the Greek language, mermeros related to ‘a state of being worried’ and its meaning is associated with being troubled and to grieve. We can see from these ancient origins that mourning is a versatile concept that can be applied to any context, present and future, not just to the death of humans, where there is grieving and worry about a negative state of affairs.’
On the day of Storm Eunice, I walk with my daughter Sioned up to Pen Trumau, starting from Castell Dinas, just off the Crickhowell to Talgarth Road. Castell Dinas was an Iron Age Fort that later sprouted a Norman Castle, of which the ruins are still visible. At 450 metres it is the highest castle in that hybrid geo-political entity ‘England and Wales’. It has the dubious privilege of having been sacked by two Welsh warlords, first by Prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1233 and subsequently by Owain Glyndŵr on his visit to these parts circa 1405, on his way to Crickhowell. He burned down the castle there also.
On the south-west facing side of Pen Trumau we are out of the wind, but once on the ridge beneath Mynydd Llysiau we struggle to stay on our feet: leaning into the wind becomes an effort of the will. There is no way to depict the wind in a photograph of a treeless landscape, but the posture tells us pretty much all we need to know about the wind.
By the time we hit the ridge between Pen Trumau and Waun Fach we realise that the effort required to walk is more than we can sustain. I am tired and out of sorts in any case; since Bruno’s death I’ve been enduring a kind of failure to engage with thought, which drains my energy. Sometimes I feel I’m better off not thinking at all, that I’d rather be merely sentient, like a beast of the field. So much cerebral processing in the human. And for what?
As we descend from the mountain, and I look down over Cwm Grwyne Fechan, and beyond, to the ridge behind Pen Allt Mawr and westward, and I notice once more the way that the hills fold into one another creating a trompe l’oeil effect, the curve of a hillside concealed by another, a process of continual enfolding, that reminds me of something to do with grammar: the Black Mountains as a single recursive sentence, its hills clauses hidden within other clauses, disappearing from sight as you round a contour or cross a ridge.
The Olchon Valley, which I only discovered recently, is a place that feels as though it shouldn’t exist. It is almost the definition of somewhere lost to the world; undiscovered, little known even to those who walk its outer edge, Crib y Gath, or the Cat’s Back, the long spine of an enormous dormant beast that threatens to uncoil, thrash loose and send its cargo of walkers flying into the stratosphere, perhaps to be picked up by some errant wind and deposited on the Malverns (from Moel fryn, or bare hill) to the east or Pen y Fan to the west. The looping elliptical lane that follows the contours of the valley is an ouroboros, a serpent eating its tail. Who knows where its tales of sorrow and loss will take us. Walking down the lane, past derelict cottages, we get the impression that this was once quite a populous valley. Whatever happened? There were times when parts of the Black Mountains flourished, and the fourteenth century was certainly among them.
Rumour has it that in 1315 Anabaptist leader and vagabond Walter Reynard of Mainz (known also as Reynard Lollard, and in the Dictionnaire des hérésies, des erreurs et des schismes as Gaultier Lollard) — an outspoken critic of the Catholic hierarchy — came to Wales, and was offered refuge in Olchon.
As one account has it: ‘Walter the Lollard, a shining light in the midnight of Papal darkness, after passing from country to country, lifting his eloquent voice and scattering over the wintery seed-fields the germs of truth, passed through England to build up the scattered flock of Christ there, and then breathed out his great soul amid the fires of martyrdom.’ Lollard was burned at the stake in Cologne, in 1322.
What did he find here in this obscure valley? Does his ghost haunt these silvered lanes on a night in February, the stars like shingle on some immeasurable shore? Do the religious wars that engulfed Europe over the three hundred years that followed Walter’s visit have their origins in a seed sown in this narrow sleeve of land between the great ridge of Hatterall and the Cat’s Back?
Sometimes our reading maps onto our walks. Or vice versa. The night before I had been reading in Raymond Williams’ People of the Black Mountains how Glyn goes in search of his Taid one evening, when the older man fails to return from a long walk in the hills. He has left a note for this daughter, Megan, and grandson Glyn, which includes the lines:
‘It is such a lovely day, so still and bright, that I’m taking a lift back . . . so that I can go once again along the best of all walks through these mountains: what you’ve heard me call its heart line. I shall go up by Twyn y Gaer and along its old pastures to the Stone of Vengeance, then to the old circle at Garn Wen and the Ewyas tower, along the ridge above the reservoir . . . across Gospel Pass and along the ridge to Penybeacon, then as always above Blaen Mynwy and past Llech y Ladron to our spot height above Blaen Olchon and so along the Cat’s Back to the Rhew and the lane to the house.’
A conversation has just taken place between Glyn and his mother, Megan, in which Megan has expressed concern about her father’s late return:
‘Has he been well?’ Megan asked, forcing her voice.
‘Yes, as usual. He’s got so much more energy than the rest of us.’
‘Seems to have more energy.’
‘Yes, because he lives in one piece.’ ‘
‘He’s sixty-eight, Glyn.’
‘In one piece, in one place. It makes all the difference.’
So that is the opening premise, and like Glyn, who sets out to do his Taid’s walk in reverse, we ventured up Crib y Gath (the Cat’s Back) in his footsteps. Given that it was a day of low hanging cloud in late December, our expectations were limited, but I was also deeply conscious of my own investment in these mountains, and of what I have learned about them, and continue to learn, over many years. Williams also had thoughts, which he expressed, via his protagonist Glyn, in another passage:
‘Solid traces of memory! The mountains were too open, too emphatic, to be reduced to personal recollection: the madeleine, the shout in the street. What moved, if at all, in the moonlit expanse was a common memory, over a common forgetting. In what could be seen as its barrenness, under this pale light, there might be the sense of tabula rasa: an empty ground on which new shapes could move. Yet that ideal of a dissident and dislocated mind, that illusion of clearing a space for wholly novel purposes, concealed, as did these mountains, old and deep traces along which lives still moved. An empty and marginal land, in which the buried history was still full and general, was waiting to be touched and to move.’
Over the past month, over several excursions, I have become accustomed to a very particular light in which these hillsides bathe when the cloud is thinning and the sun is about to drop behind the western skyline. The effect of this densely filtered sunlight — beginning about an hour before sunset — is to cast an amber wash over everything, so that the whole spread of the upland; the peat bogs, the wide expanse of tussock grass and sphagnum, all of it, is luminescent with an understated warming glow. Unfortunately, this light does not translate.
The state into which I plunge is paradoxical; both deeply present and yet strangely detached, as though, like Williams’ protagonist, with ‘dissident and dislocated mind’ I too were ‘moving over an empty ground on which new shapes could move’.
For a moment, then, I consider this steep-sided ridge, Crib y Gath, as a mighty ship, plying the deep pasturelands, into a sea of mist. At the far prow, on a rocky outpost, can be seen a single figure — my daughter Rhiannon — unwittingly performing the lead role in a Caspar David Friedrich painting. To the right, the cloud covers the Olchon valley and creeps up the walls of Hatterrall Hill. In that moment everything lies fully within view, circumscribed by mist and as improbable as the hawthorn that sprouts at right angles to the rock. In fact the entire landscape creates its own rules of harmony, lives by its own innate rhythms. There is a symmetry to it all, which I cannot fathom, but which, as the years pass, seems ever more deeply to resemble a kind of consciousness.
There is a world above the fog line, as we discover. Two hundred and fifty metres above sea level, we emerge into a landscape filled with colour. The sky is a cerulean blue. Like the inhabitants of Plato’s cave, we are stunned to learn of the existence of this brave new world. If we return to the world of fog the others will not believe us, and may kill us. We can see the fog lands stretching out beneath us, to the river valley, southwest to the capital, and far beyond. Best to stay put.
We hear gunfire from further up the cwm: men are hunting with dogs, which is against the law of the land. There is a woods, and the way is perilous, but we make it onto the upland pastures of Darren fach, the disused quarries of a deeper green than even the grasslands, the sheep dropping currants, the various fungi now at season’s end, among them the liberty cap, psilocybe semilanceata, the collection or possession of which is against the law of the land: but whose land? Three watchful horses graze where once there were two. Who is the third that always walks beside us? We sit by the cairn and eat our sandwiches, drink hot tea from a thermos. I wonder whether the farm that lies at the base of a perfect parallelogram, below Pen Gwyllt Meirch and surrounded by three fields — three adjacent parallelograms — was built there by design or by accident. Or whether the design — if indeed that is what it is — stretches far beyond that corner of the hillside to encompass all of this, and us.
Or whether that particular shade of russet, edging to ochre, or is it saffron — no colour chart could do it justice — can ever be replicated in a photograph or painting, any more than I, seated beneath the cairn, knife in hand, dropping apple peel for the luminous insects at my feet, might discern the vast and intricate pattern of spider webs that lattice the entire hillside and which glitter like a silvery counterpane under the oblique rays of the winter sun as it falls behind the bulk of Pen Allt Mawr.
Coming off the mountain, one of the horses, silhouetted against the mist — which has edged up the valley just a tad — eyes us with suspicion. The air is colder now. Retracing our steps down the forestry track, a pair of deer appear from our left at speed, leap across the path ahead of us, and vanish.
Before the sheep, there were horses. People always associate sheep with these hills, and for good reason. The sheep have been here for three thousand years, but before the sheep, there were horses. Always there were the horses, for as long as there were men and women. Sheep became widespread on the Black Mountains during the Bronze Age, and their wool was one of the first textiles to be spun here. In Roman times the wool from these lands became famous for its quality. But the horses were here before the sheep. Tough, hardy, agile, less fussy eaters than the sheep, the horses formed a part of the landscape and the landscape formed the horses, and for much of the neolithic period, along with red deer, they were the most common large mammals living on these hills, which they shared with their two major predators, men and wolves. Both wolves and men hunted them in packs. There were brown bears too, of course, and lynxes, though the lynxes wouldn’t have hunted ponies. Nor the bears, for that matter. Later, in the first millennium BCE, the smaller Caspian breed of horse from Iran arrived, and they were certainly the dominant breed after the arrival of the Romans; they interbred with the indigenous stock to create the Welsh mountain pony of today. In this dead pony are all the dead ponies I have ever come across on these moors. The sadness of horses is immeasurable, cannot be sought in these pitiful blind eyes.
In his novel People of the Black Mountains (Volume 1: the Beginning) Raymond Williams imagines a neolithic horse hunt:
‘The five horses had stopped at the edge of the shale. The first had ventured in, then slipped and retreated. The men closed steadily. A red mare, facing them, turned suddenly and went in, slithering, on the shale. The others stood uncertainly, but as the men still advanced they turned and followed her, heaving and scrambling for a footing. The men ran to the edge of the shale, and suddenly Maran and his two were standing in the notch of the pass. They had loose stones for their slings and aimed them down at the legs of the horses, which were scrambling, terrified, in the deep shale. There were several hits on the legs. Maran and the others lifted their spears. But now the men also were scrambling. A young stallion, bleeding from a leg, broke back and ran through the line. Seran threw and missed. Then the red mare was down. Marod and Piran ran close and speared her. The big eyes rolled as she threshed her bleeding legs. Then Maran was above her, driving a last, deliberate thrust to the heart. She was dying but the others had broken, two back down the valley, one through and over the pass to the plateau. Piran began a chase but came back. Maran finished the mare with a stone.’
Raymond Williams, People Of The Black Mountains Vol.I: The Beginning v. 1 . Random House. Kindle Edition.
A recent article by travel writer Simon Calder has launched a small blaze of controversy about the use of the Welsh language on aircraft landing in Wales. The offending piece begins: “In the unlikely event you find yourself aboard a plane flying to Wales before the end of April, you should discover the Welsh terms for “a new continuous cough, a high temperature or a loss of, or change in, normal sense of taste or smell”.
Strangely enough, around the world, announcements are frequently made in languages other than English. Mr Calder, a seasoned traveller himself, must surely have noticed this. For example, English persons on flights landing in Spain might be inconvenienced by announcements in Spanish; likewise in France, China, Ukraine – anywhere in fact where commercial flights land, there are announcements made in the language of that country.
For Calder, however, Welsh doesn’t count. He writes that its abandonment would unlikely cause any harm and suggests that burdening the sensitive ears of passengers and crew with “guff” is not only pointless, but might well contribute to one’s plane meeting with a serious accident. This notion is backed up with a story about an Air Canada flight from Toronto to San Francisco in which garbled instructions from airport control nearly caused the pilot to collide with a packed Philippines Airlines plane, a salutary tale, no doubt, but one that bore no relation to announcements made to passengers in a language other than English. It makes one wonders what the target of Calder’s complaint really is. And it would appear that his real problem is with that pesky irrelevance, the Welsh language.
Gareth Ceidiog Hughes, writing for the news site Nation Cymru, suggests that indeed, this appears to be the case, and goes on to say: ‘Implicit in such tropes is that the Welsh language is inferior, and that it can therefore be casually disregarded. Unlike ‘real’ or ‘proper’ languages, it is not essential. It is characterised as merely an indulgence, not as something fundamental to the lives of those who speak it. Instead, it is a ‘waste’ of resources or as Calder puts it, a “burden”.’
Interesting, to say the least, that someone dedicated to travel and travel writing should show such astonishing lack of cultural awareness, or even basic intelligence. His attitude doesn’t seem to be any different from that of so many Brits abroad who moan about the inconvenience of having to put up with those irritating natives who have the gall to speak their own languages rather than English.
In an interview on the BBC News earlier this month, the singer Bonnie Tyler was interviewed by Katty Kay and Christian Fraser, usually an intelligent and benign pair of individuals with whom I have no axe to grind. The interview was standard early evening fare, and the three chatted away, getting along famously. Then, at 4’18” — if you click on the link below — you will hear Ms Kay ask the singer: ’Do you ever sit back and think, Bonnie Tyler, not bad for a girl from Wales?’
What does this seemingly innocent utterance actually reveal?
I would suggest that it comes from, and taps into an unconscious prejudice, something so deep-seated in the English mindset as to be understood — presumably — without further explanation.
Kay doesn’t say ‘a girl from Skewen’ (the village where Tyler was born) — but identifies her country of origin. What, by contrast would it mean, to say ‘not bad for a girl from England’? Nothing at all, presumably, because a ‘girl from England’ could be anything at all. The utterance would be meaningless. It can only be compared with a statement such as ‘Not bad for a girl from Scunthorpe’ or Middlesborough, or Blackpool (towns with the some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England) or ‘Not bad for a girl from (insert name of any rundown estate in east London).’
Why then is ‘not bad for a girl from Wales’ so offensive?
It can only be because ‘Wales’, in the minds of so many English people, is a backwater, and can only very rarely be expected to produce individuals who rise above the murk and mire of their place of origin, a dim and misty bogland somewhere to the west of the Severn — sorry, the Prince of Wales — Bridge, suitable perhaps for holiday homes, and for off-colour jokes about sheep, but hardly a place likely to offer up a stream of talented individuals who rise to the top of their professions on the international stage (omitting of course, such exceptions, in the world of theatre and show business, as Richard Burton, Siân Phillips, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Michael Sheen, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones; in the business world, names such as Charles Rolls, Frank Wright and Laura Ashley; in the literary world, David Jones, R.S. Thomas, Dylan Thomas, Lynette Roberts, to name only poets; in the world of the visual arts, Richard Wilson, Thomas Jones, James Dickson Innes, Augustus John, Kyffin Williams, Gwen John, Shani Rhys James; photographers such as Phillip Jones Griffiths and David Hurn; countless first-rate musicians, entertainers, scholars, scientists and sportspeople, I don’t need to list them – and realise I’ve missed out lots of names. So actually, considering the population of our country, I’d say we punch well above our weight . . . )
I am sure Katty Kay does not view herself as a racist, and her slip was almost certainly not malicious. But it reveals an attitude that goes far deeper. Despite all the debate about unconscious prejudice with regard to people of colour, or towards the LGBTQ community, these small indicators of the ways in which the ‘other nations’ of these islands are regarded by the ascendant group — the English — continues in much the same way as it has for centuries. In my youth, overt racism was displayed toward the Irish — I can remember the pubs in London with signs reading ‘No Dogs No Blacks, No Irish’. In recent years, animosity towards the Irish has shifted towards the remaining British Celts, and is expressed, sometimes relatively mildly, as with Ms Kay’s remark, and sometimes far less so (see the recent sacking of a senior Iceland executive for calling the Welsh language “gibberish” or even the Telegraph’s article opining that the Wales rugby team would be the Six Nations’ ‘worst ever Grand Slam winners’, were they to win their deciding match against France last night).
Prejudice, whether conscious or unconscious, is of course much easier to identify in others than in ourselves, but the bias against Wales and the Welsh certainly has a long history.
Which brings to mind the story of Parsifal, or Perceval. In the first full account of the Arthurian legends by Chrétien de Troyes, in the twelfth century, Perceval is identified as ‘the Welshman’ (li Galois), and it should be remembered that Perceval, after facing ridicule at Arthur’s court as a country bumpkin — as befitting someone from Wales — surpasses the deeds of all the other knights by finding the Holy Grail, and in the process healing the wounds of the Fisher King. As the mythographer Robert Johnson writes: ‘He is born in Wales, during that time a country geographically on the fringe of the known world and a cultural backwater, the least likely place for a hero to appear . . . Who would ever think of Wales as possibly producing an answer to our suffering? Myth informs us that our redemption will come from the least likely place.’
The Blue Tent is released by Parthian as an e-book next Tuesday (20th August). Since the novel has provoked quite a few questions from readers, I thought it might be helpful to publish the text of an email interview given to Jenny White, who incorporated some of my rather lengthy responses into her review article in the Western Mail on 13 July.
JW: What inspired this book?
RG: I grew up in Crickhowell and to this day go on the same long walks with my own, now grown-up children that I first took with my father. I like the sense of continuity of landscape and family history – or family mythology. So the landscape of the Black Mountains was an inspiration, but reading Henry Vaughan was crucial. In one of Vaughan’s letters he tells of a lad, a ‘poor beggar boy’ who is tasked with looking after sheep on the hills, and who falls asleep and dreams of a beautiful young man. The young man carries a hawk on his fist, and the hawk flies into the boy’s mouth and into his guts, and he becomes possessed of the gift of poetry and comes to be the greatest bard in all the country. These kinds of stories of the magical or transcendental intruding upon everyday life have always fascinated me, and mid-way through writing the novel I came across Marina Warner’s study of The Thousand and One Nights, Stranger Magic, and in her book I found a quotation from Borges where he says “I think that the reader should enrich what he is reading. He should misunderstand the text; he should change it into something else.” This perfectly captures what I set out to do, to provide options for the reader, so that there is no fixed interpretation of what the story is about: is it a ghost story, a psychological drama being enacted inside the narrator’s insomniac head, or is it a story about the multiverse, a tale of parallel worlds? All these things are possible, and more; hopefully there are readings that have never occurred to me.
I knew that Henry Vaughan’s twin brother Thomas was one of the leading alchemists of his day. He was a priest at the little church in Llansantffraed near Talybont-on -Usk, only a few miles from Crickhowell, between about 1644 and 1650, before losing his parish because he was on the wrong side during the English Civil War. He died in mysterious circumstances in 1666, probably by setting fire to mercury and inhaling the fumes, but there were rumours that he hadn’t died, that he had in fact been a spy for the Royalist cause, and even that he faked his own death and reappeared in Amsterdam, where he continued to produce alchemical texts, but in Latin, rather than English. However, his brother, Henry, records in a letter to one John Aubrey that Thomas died “upon an employment for His Majesty.” Whatever happened, there is no record of Thomas Vaughan’s death and burial in Aylesbury, where he lived during those last years. Then, in one of those twists you couldn’t make up, I discovered that the people who ran the local chemist’s shop in Crickhowell when I was growing up, and had known all my life only by the husband’s surname, were Vaughans on the maternal side, descended from the same historical family as Henry and Thomas, and again I got that sense of connection and continuity, of the past haunting the present, which is another of those threads embedded in the story.
Finally, of course there is Borges: in his short story ‘The Aleph’, the narrator comes across a portal, or small magical device, on which he can ‘read’ not only the world around him, but all possible worlds, across time and space. The aleph is the final piece of the puzzle. Or the first, perhaps, Aleph being the first letter of the alphabet in Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and other ancient languages; as such it is a portal to language, and therefore to self-expression. I borrowed the concept of the aleph directly from Borges, but strangely, as one reader pointed out, having downloaded my book onto the kindle app on his phone, it occurred to him that he was reading a story about an aleph, on an aleph. The mobile phone is a kind of aleph for the 21st century, in which one can access information on just about anything that has ever happened – up to a point.
The idea of the tent as a vehicle for bringing my characters into play came to me out of the blue, as it were, and prompted me to start with that image, of the blue tent appearing unannounced at the end of the narrator’s garden.
JW: Tell me a bit about the alchemical/mystical texts mentioned in it – how did you choose which ones to include, what sparked your interest in them and how did they drive the plot and undercurrents in the book?
RG: I was reading Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz as background research for the book, and becoming increasingly intrigued by the idea of alchemy as a route towards self-knowledge, which was its original intended goal, not only for Jung and his followers, but also for the ancient and the renaissance alchemists such as Thomas Vaughan and his contemporaries. Renaissance and seventeenth century Britain was abuzz with cranks and visionaries of this kind, John Dee – another Welshman, and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I – being the most famous. The titles of the obscure alchemical treatises my narrator reads were mostly taken from von Franz, although it might have been tempting to invent one or two of them. The truth is that a lot of those alchemical texts are completely unreadable, and I certainly wasn’t interested in writing pages of exposition about the alchemical process, which in any case I barely understand. And, not unrelatedly, the underlying quest for the Holy Grail, which pervades the Arthurian legends and, especially, the story of Parsifal, or Perceval – yet another Welshman – was certainly present in the background of my own creative process. Interestingly enough, Chrétien de Troyes, the first chronicler of the Arthurian tales, mentions that Parsifal ‘came out of Wales’, and Wales, of course, was seen as a backwater (and many still regard it as one). The implication is: ‘what good could ever come out of Wales?’ And yet Parsifal, as we know, found the Grail, or, in the language of alchemy, the philosopher’s stone, simply by asking the right questions. This is the aspect of alchemy that most intrigues me; to continually be asking questions, and never to accept facile or received explanations.
JW: How would you define or describe the process that the narrator goes through in this book? Is it alchemical? How is he changed by the experience?
RG: The traditional alchemical process involves four stages – allegedly the method for transforming base metals into gold – but this chemical transmutation was only a formula or trope, and the real, secret intention of alchemy was always one of self-discovery. The four stages are called nigredo, or blackening; albedo, or whitening; citrinitas, or yellowing, and rubedo, or reddening. I wanted the narrator to pass through these phases with each visit he makes to the tent, but without being too literal about it. I didn’t want to write a New Age mystical thriller any more than I wanted to get bogged down in the arcane details of alchemy. But I wanted to have some fun along the way, and there are moments when the narrator is well aware of the comic or absurdist potential of his quest, shut away in his aunt’s library with all those unreadable texts. I was, however, keen that the four phases represented by the colours of the process were included on the cover, and the designer, Marc Jennings, did a really fine job, I think.
In order to reflect the alchemical process at work, the narrator has to go through a kind of shift in personality with each phase, but again, I didn’t want to labour this aspect of the story. I don’t know to what extent that was successful. When you live with a book for such a long time, you start going a bit crazy and it’s difficult to get a clear perspective. Which is where the reader comes in. I like very much the idea that different readers will come away from the book with completely distinct responses, a completely different understanding of what they read.
JW: I loved the dream-like, shifting nature of the narrator’s world. What challenges did you face in depicting this? What did you enjoy about depicting this, and about writing the book in general?
RG: The book took me over twelve years to finish, and I abandoned it at least twice, and completed two other books in the meantime. I just couldn’t get the structure right. Originally it was going to be a much bigger novel, with three distinct storylines, one from the point of view of the narrator, another would have been Alice’s story, and a third that comprised extracts from Aunt Megan’s journals. But in the end I cut all the rest away, took away the scaffolding, and was left with only the bare story. It seemed better that way. The dream-like, shifting nature of the story came about naturally enough. Like the narrator, I am a chronic insomniac, and spend much of my life in a similar state of bewilderment at the passage from night to day and back again. I’ve written about this in my book The Vagabond’s Breakfast, where I say that insomniacs dismantle the familiar division of time into identifiable segments, so that night and day form a single seamless trajectory. Since one’s life is a continuum of sleeplessness, snatching rare hours here and there at random times of the day or night, yesterday seeps into tomorrow without allowing today to get a toehold.
And in The Blue Tent I refer to a ‘celebrated insomniac’ – in fact the Romanian-French philosopher E.M. Cioran – who ‘claimed that long periods without sleep amount to a tyranny of consciousness; that normal people, who sleep the prescribed number of hours, awake each day as though starting out on a new life, but that for the insomniac no such renewal can occur. Instead, the sleepless live in a continuum of consciousness, and while everyone else rushes toward the future, we insomniacs remain outside.’
In Marina Benjamin’s recent book, Insomnia, she makes some wonderfully astute observations about the insomniac life, and reflects on the paradox that while the insomniac wants to sleep, craves sleep, would give anything, at times, for some sleep, there is also a resignation – sometimes more than resignation, something approaching acceptance or even desire – to follow the imaginative threads provided by insomnia and use them creatively. This is summarised at the end of her book, when she writes: ‘I want to flip disruption and affliction into opportunity, and punctuate the darkness with stabs of light.’ You might say The Blue Tent is a book about insomnia, or a book for insomniacs, so thoroughly did its creation – and its story – centre on those long sleepless hours before dawn. In fact, for a spell, I would wake at 3.45 exactly. It was like a nervous tick. I’d usually get up and try to write, or just wander around the house doing the restless, pointless things insomniacs do. So I translated that into my story, and have the narrator awakened by Alice appearing in the library at 3.45 on, I think, three occasions.
JW: How does this book compare to previous books you have written? Do you feel you have developed/moved on as a writer in creating this book? If so, tell me a bit about how…
RG: Every book presents a unique challenge, and the motivation behind my three novels to date has been different. I’m talking about fiction here, although my non-fiction shares many of the attributes of the novels and at times it’s difficult for me to discriminate between what actually happened and what I merely imagine having happened.
Nevertheless, my life has been influenced very much by place, and I always wanted to write a novel set in each of the three main locations in which I’ve lived my life: Cymru, Crete and Catalonia. The three C’s. My first novel, The Colour of a Dog Running Away, was set in Barcelona and the Pyrenees, where I have spent many years; the second novel, Deep Hanging Out, is set in Crete, where I lived during my mid-twenties, and which left a deep impact on me. It was inevitable that I would come around to a novel set in Wales. None of my books are concerned with social realism, or what people might consider the concerns of the everyday. In terms of literature and art in general, I don’t like being tied to the literal, or wish to describe people’s marriages or affairs or what it’s like to work in an office or go on holiday to the Maldives. I’m not a big fan of realism, which sometimes seems like the last resort of the desperate; the well-rounded fiction as a celebration of triumphant individualism operating within a neatly decipherable universe. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t care about real, marital, familial, social or political issues; I mean, there’s nothing else, is there? But I’m just not interested in writing about them directly in my fiction.
JW: What writers or other factors have influenced/shaped you as a writer?
RG: Too many to name, but I must mention Jorge Luis Borges, of course, closely followed by Italo Calvino and the Greek poets C.F. Cavafy and Yannis Ritsos. These all helped shape my identity as an aspiring writer, and I wouldn’t be the same person without having read them. I currently read more fiction from places other than the US and the UK, especially from Spain and Latin America, and I read a lot of poetry, in Spanish and French, as well as English. But I am also a translator (from Spanish) – and this is probably the biggest single factor on the way I continue to evolve as a writer. By which I mean my work as a writer and as a translator, although quite separate, are intimately woven together at some subterranean level, and this probably has a huge influence on the way I think about language, and therefore about writing.
Among the English language writers I’ve most enjoyed in recent years – but would not count as influences – are Mavis Gallant, Paul Bowles, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Geoff Dyer and most recently Rebecca Solnit, Olivia Laing, Maggie Nelson and Sarah Manguso – all, apart from Gallant and Bowles, writers of so-called nonfiction, oddly enough. In recent years almost anything published by Fitzcarraldo. I would say that I’m also influenced by visual artists, notably the German Expressionists and the Surrealists, and film makers like Werner Herzog and David Lynch.
JW: Tell me a bit about yourself, your background, how you became a writer and what drives/motivates you as a writer.
RG: You can read all this in The Vagabond’s Breakfast, which was written at the same time I was working on the first draft of The Blue Tent. I think I’ve probably always been a writer, even during the years when I wasn’t writing. I’m motivated by curiosity, rather than any innate talent or aptitude. I think we become the writers we are by trying to write the books we would like to read. The moment you lose your interior compass, try to be something that you are not, write to follow literary fashion or to gain fame and prestige, you’re probably in trouble as a writer.
JW: What do you hope readers will get out of reading this book?
RG: Like I said when I cited Borges, it would please me if readers were able to enrich my text by intelligently misunderstanding it, and by changing it into something else. That way it would have as many interpretations as there are readers, which is as much as any writer can hope for.
The poster for the second Fiction Fiesta is ready.
Fiction Fiesta is an intimate but international festival, specializing in fiction and poetry in translation. The plan is to team novelists and poets from Latin America with writers from Wales and the rest of Great Britain and Ireland: the writers will read and discuss their work and answer questions from the public.
Fiction Fiesta will provide a forum for all people with an interest in international literature, from professional translators to the merely curious. Fiction Fiesta is a festival with a difference, involving readings and discussion that will bring the public into contact with some of the best writers from around the world, in a friendly and informal setting. The event is free, but each year we will be inviting guests to donate to our chosen charity: this year we will be supporting the work of Education for the Children in Guatemala.
The 2013 festival takes place over two locations: the Council Chamber in Cardiff University’s Main Building on Saturday 18th and Dempseys’ Bar, opposite Cardiff Castle on Sunday 19th May. Our guest writers and translators are listed in the poster above (squint or zoom) and include our Latin American guest Andrés Neuman (author of Traveller of the Century – shortlisted for The Independent foreign fiction prize this year), Eduardo Halfon (author of The Polish Boxer) and Inés Garland (author of Una Reina Perfecta). Both Andrés and Inés are featured in the forthcoming 100th issue of New Welsh Review, while Eduardo’s Polish Boxer is my favourite new fiction collection of the past twelve months.
You can find out more on the Fiction Fiesta Facebook page.
More to follow.
How do we construct a life as we go along? The things we do and say, the actions that make us who we are? Sometimes all of this is bewildering. I look for clues everywhere, including under the bed. I find a few empty boxes, some crayons, a broken hunter watch belonging to Taid (my grandfather) which saw out four years in the trenches in World War One but was not able to resist my two-year old daughter swinging a toy hammer. Bits and pieces.
Tom Pow, the Scottish poet, told me the other week that he had been working in a prison and a disturbed long-term inmate had started declaiming, to the world at large, How do people live? – a question perhaps more appropriate, and less taken-for-granted than might at first appear.
Part of the aim of this blog is to reflect on the mutable universe, and the roles that we play within it. One of the delights of having a camera app on your mobile phone is that you can snap things at random, which taken together in the course of a day can cast a peculiar light on that very general plea, made by the prisoner of how do people live, at a very unspectacular level. It is something I will never grasp entirely, but which can be illuminated by these fragmented moments, taken at intervals with no plan or purpose, amounting to a broken narrative of what passes by. With no plan or purpose, but always stalked by memory.
Here’s a salutary tale. The past few days Blanco’s Blog has gone viral, thanks to the occurrence in a one-off post last summer – a film review of Hobo with a shotgun – of the word penectomy. Shit, I’ve done it again.
There are thousands of people out there, it seems, who get terribly excited when they get a sniff of a word like ****ctomy, and they then let all their chums know, and on it goes. A few of the more specialist sites, it seems, advocate different forms of self-mutilation, including auto-castration.
I don’t know what other clinical terms I should be avoiding, but no doubt if people send in suggestions, we might between us break my new all-time record.
On second thoughts, please don’t.
On a lighter note, I have been spending a lot of time toing and froing to the fair city of Birmingham these past two weeks. What friendly and plausible folk those Brummies are! Why on earth do they get such bad press? It can’t be due to their irrepressible chirpy good humour. It must be that, in sociolinguistic terms, they speak the most maligned and ‘disfavoured form of British English’, according to all opinion polls and surveys carried out since time began. According to one source:
A study was conducted in 2008 where people were asked to grade the intelligence of a person based on their accent and the Brummie accent was ranked as the least intelligent accent. It even scored lower than being silent …
Oops. People are such bigots. An entertaining and fair account intended to dispel negative stereotyping of all things Brummie can be found here.
Meanwhile, as we in Cardiff gear up for the Grand Slam showdown with France on Saturday, the London press goes on an adoration fest for the ‘England’ rugby team. Sure, the defeat of France on Sunday was admirable, but do The Times, Telegraph, Guardian and Independent really need to spend pages and pages describing the Sweet Chariot revival, and only a few column inches on the champions-in-waiting, when, after all, the best the Saeson can reasonably hope for is second place?
We in Wales are recklessly uninhibited in our fondness for signs. We will put anything on a sign, however nonsensical, and leave it out for all to see. Consider the photograph above, taken on a country road in the Vale of Glamorgan. ‘Toads’, it says. Well? Is no further explanation required? I wait for a while in a nearby car-park, lest coachloads of amphibians should pass by, perhaps clutching little pennants, or else dressed in goggles and flying jacket, like the famous Toad of Toad Hall. But no cigar.
Let’s take another one:
I particularly like this bi-lingual sign near my house, on the river footpath, warning of the possibility of a tumble into the swirling waters of the Taff. I like its succinctness of composition and I especially like the upstretched arms of the falling man. It seems to be telling me something other than that which it purports to be telling me, but I am not quite sure what this is, and it leaves me with a stab of uncertainty each time I pass it.
This mania for signs, I realise, is not uniquely Welsh, but I sometimes think that we are the best at it, since we can do them bi-lingual in ways that the language planners never conceived. There are many beautiful examples of this, and I will sign off with one of my favourites. The Welsh in this sign warns cyclists not – as the English might lead them to expect – to get off their bikes, but that ‘bladder disease has returned’. Truly, we are a musical nation.