The Singing Nun and Pacifism


Memories play false sometimes. Yesterday my brother in law gave me the vinyl of Dominique by the Singing Nun: a thoughtful gift and a joke.  A find, that perhaps he had searched out, trawling retro record shops or the internet, rather than happening on it in the Oxfam shop. The character, Dominic, from Murielle’s Angel sings the refrain ‘Dominique, nique nique,’ to explain his name.

‘Can’t believe you did that to him!’ My BiL quipped.  Pleased to know he’d read it and intrigued by the merging of fact and fiction, I may have glowed like a first time author.

I played it today on my mother’s old record player – that of course she still has and of course still works, once she had reminded me to plug in the speakers. It was the jolly ditty I remembered, like something from a holiday camp. Occasional words were recognisable: – Dieu, of course. that you would expect from a singing nun. The flip side, ‘Entre Les Etoiles,’ (Amongst the stars the Lord has written your name near him in paradise – possibly- over and over.) I remember with more affection, together with the vague hope, belief even, that the universe was looking out for me. ( I was only eight or nine at the time.)

I’ll frame the record and think fondly of my brother in law every time I look at it.

It was the stash of 45s kept on top of  the speakers, that I had forgotten, that we had played incessantly in the sixties. Listening again the words were a stab of memory, almost like a guilty conscience.  ‘ The Universal Soldier,’ by Donovan; Joan Baez and Bob, ‘Blowing in the Wind,’ even Marlene Dietrich, ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ We used to be pacifists. We used to feel, strongly, righteously that we could change the world with words and flowers. Maybe they don’t write songs like that anymore. Maybe  we just don’t listen.    Now we have jingoism. Young men and boys have not been slain in battle, they have merely fallen. Our boys, soldiers are heroes. Perhaps they are, but war is still wrong.  We never hear of putting an end to war anymore.

Walking with history and minor miracles in Snowdonia National Park

display_image  the cast copper altar at St Mark’s church, Brithdir

There is still a chill wind for May. The sun does not quite penetrate the greening trees and thin cloud but lets enough light for wild flowers to flourish: the purple haze of bluebells above the pinky white of wood sorrel and stitch wort.  Wood anemone open like bright stars in the green velvet moss underfoot. Native yellow and orange poppies burst like dappled sunshine against the granite green grey rock. We follow the winding lanes and paths crisscrossing the hamlet of Brithdir.  First the Torrent Walk following the beautiful tributary of the River Wnion that runs through Dolgellau, the River Clywedog. In Welsh the path is named for the tributary, Llwybr Clywedog.  The torrent falls through the estate of Caerynwch, home to the famous botanist Mary Richards, and is still owned and managed by the Richards family.  So beautiful is this torrent, with waterfalls and crystal clear water that the family granted access to the public for all to enjoy.
As the path flattens and the river runs on through lush fields there is an old mill house, three stories high, with its footings almost in the fast flowing water. Now a private residence, there is no sign of the wheel but it is testament to the wool trade that flourished here.  The house still called pandy, the Welsh for a fulling mill. The wool was woven into ‘Welsh cotton,’ as fine and light a material as the name implies and cheap enough to clothe slaves in America. That trade, those slaves all gone. The making of woolen cloth affected the livelihood of more Welsh farmers than any other rural industry. The woven cloth was walked, laden on pack horse, as far as Welshpool where the drapers monopolized trade from the 1560’s till the War of American Independence saw trade for British wool fall off.
We divert to see the remains of a furnace, an early smelting works on the edge of a caravan site.  The mines in Tabor, now disused, used to send their ore by rail.  A sign tells of Quaker influence in the area and of Quaker philanthropists, Fry, Cadbury and Rowntree, chocolate magnates whose business ethos was to reinvest in their industries for the benefit of the lives of their workforce while they themselves lived frugally not lavishly as their wealth and status might dictate.
On our way to Y Foel, the dome shaped hill, a climb of nearly a thousand feet, (which we are not looking forward to but in the event do not find hard), we meet a farm hand who has the look of a Welsh man, the pronunciation of soft language shaping his face since birth.  One of our party addresses him in Welsh. ‘Bore dda.  Mae’n braf heddiw,’ which we can follow.  The mountain stream of a reply gushes over most of us, except for Estelle our guide, concerning the newly opened footpath along which we are embarking. Realising we have not understood, the man amicably translates and the sound of rushing water is still in his voice.
He is going the same way himself. His job for the day is to mend dry stone-walls before the sheep and lambs are sent out to pasture in the rich high ground, now the weather is warmer. Lambs that are more steady on their feet and have lost their obvious newness. His pace, urgent perhaps because of the work he still has to do, outstrips ours. Soon we can hear the sound of stone on stone as he begins his rebuilding. In the distance too, there is a cuckoo.
He could still be seen long after when we had climbed Y Foel and settled on the windy summit to have our lunch, the red check of his work shirt distinguishable against the dun of the peaty landscape.  Also visible with a panorama of 360 degrees are the hills and mountains of Meirionnedd.  Cadair Idris, Dyffwys,Llawlech, Garn Fach amongst many. Their names: Idris’ Chair, hand of slate, speak of the ancients, their beliefs, their fears, their stories.
The inn, the Cross Foxes, looks like a box from this height.  It is named in reference to George Fox and the Quakers’ troubled history. Eventually many emigrated to America. Persecuted in their own world they sought refuge in the new, a land of promises and new beginnings, part of William Penn’s vision of the Holy Experiment.  They described their new homeland in the wilderness as having a Garden of Eden quality. Welsh Quakers formed townships of Meirion, Haverford and Raglan, hoping to establish a Welsh tract, a barony or state within the province, ‘within which all causes, quarrels, crimes and disputes might be tried wholly and determined by officers, magistrates and juries of our language.’  The longing of an exile to hear their mother tongue especially since speaking it in had been forbidden in their own land.

And so gently down hill, back to the hamlet of Brithdir and St Mark’s Church, commissioned by the Richards family and built between 1895 and 1898.  Henry Wilson, the architect and also a jeweler and a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, wished the church to appear as if it had sprung from the soil instead of being planted down on it.  The small graveyard that surrounds the church now overhung with trees and colonized by bats lends to that impression. No longer in use, it is maintained by the Society of The Friends of Friendless Churches and is  listed by Cadw because it is  ‘a highly important and unaltered work of Henry Wilson.’  The cast copper altar and beaten copper reredos is a rare and beautiful sight. That it is open and we are free to walk in to appreciate is itself a minor miracle.
Thinking of the walk on the short drive home I remember the hawk that surprised us, the flash of a red kyte and numerous sightings of smaller birds,  enough to further  a belief in minor miracles.


Humble Pie

Walking home along quiet lanes of the village this May morning, the sound of sheep’s feet pattering on tarmac and the unmistakable bleating of an approaching flock snatched me from reverie.  Their bobbing faces filled the lane from one grey drystone wall to another. They were running straight at me.  A moment’s regret for not having one of those phones to whip out and capture the scene preceded my hasty retreat to a safe passing place.

‘You were lucky,’  the shepherd said, ambling past with two dogs.  I was, I agreed, not just for the narrow escape but also for the sight of them.

On, past my neighbour’s garden, where  grass seed is greening nicely beside the sweep of the new drive after the last few days’ sunshine and the plot looks neat, peaceful and rather grand.  Perhaps all will be well.

And so to our own patch:DSCF0660 dense with tall grass and blue bells nodding amid spent daffodils in need of dead heading.  I must eat humble pie for my (sadly) not infrequent waspish outbursts.

Book Launch

Held in the upstairs room of Palas Print, the independent bookshop in Bangor, the  drinksthe chats, the signing, the culmination of staunch support and faith.    Thank you good family and  friends.


There have been sleepless nights and hard work to arrive at this point and also much rejoicing.  So it  must have been for countless writers.IMG_0981

Just in front of the book case is a hint of Jan Fortune of Cinnamon Press, tireless champion of new writers.

Two photos to sum up being in print: the sky seen from the car on the way home


and the book on the shelves.


Lament for lost trees

Our neighbour’s garden runs along  ours.  We used to be  secluded with trees and overgrowth. The trees are now lost   When I get dressed  I can see the whites of my neighbour’s eyes.   He gets up early and I get up late.
The reason for the loss of all trees : a drive that will run along the boundary.  The lovely stone wall was broached,  ripping and crashing of metal and stone. Heavy machinery grumbled  with that persistent throb.  We shut the door. Hardcore  arrived,  falling soundlessly to the earth before our eyes.  We  looked away as the metal spoon destroyed decent flower beds. Plants that looked so pretty in the spring sunshine uprooted and unhappy in today’s cold wind.      It has not taken long to lay the track. It will be years to re- establish a garden.
Then yesterday a booming began that set the whole word trembling.  A deep earth sound that we felt in our hearts.  Could he be fracking now?  But no.  We read of war ships on manoeuvres off the coast.  What a fearful sound.  Again today. perhaps worse now we know what it is.

Miss Garnet’s Angel

Read Miss Garnet’s Angel while we were away (for the angel in the title obviously) and pondered what constitutes a good read. There is the beauty of the text- that goes without saying. Sometimes there is a struggle to understand what is written, so turning pages is slow. I do not necessarily hold that against a book.  If there is no substance though, if there is not the sense that at the end the book will reveal some great truth, or that you will learn something new, then what is the point? I can feel quite angry that my time has been wasted, hurl the book straight (back) to the Oxfam shop rather than pass lovingly to a friend. Often my mother. Miss G’s A will get passed on.

The story within a story. The story of Tobias is lyrical and fascinating, and leaves the feeling of wanting to read more, to rush to Apocrypha and absorb the old stories. For it is stories that make us who we are. Without them we are half formed. I might have put Philistine, had I not discovered as something of a revelation that Palestine is the derivative of Philistine and they were not semi literate people just  ‘other’ and hugely misunderstood.


We had been away for a fortnight and forever and now  on our way home.

Our last day, in Paris,  May 1st,  Fete du Muget is a pubic holiday. Lily of the valley for sale on every street corner, outside every metro station. Bunches sit in gentlemen’s top pockets or in the hands of young girls holding them to their noses for the sweet smell of spring or is it summer now? hard to tell in the icy wind.  Shops and museums close all day so Victor Hugo’s house , Rodin’s  and Picasso’s museum are all off limits. We could have known this. Paris has taken to the streets. It is the day for demonstrations. We take to the banks of the Seine where those  not demonstrating are strolling, roller skating or teaching recalcitrant infants the joys of cycling.

Bateau Mouche pass  at a rate , perhaps accentuated by the fast flowing tide; river police in an occasional chase hurtle after at even more alarming speed. Tourists waving from the rails demand a reciprocating wave. Hey little boy on the bike wave to me. And the resounding reply: get lost: je m’en fou, followed by clouds of giggles  from the little boy on the bike, pleased at his own audacity.

I  invented a character and named her Murielle. An artist  whose statues defied convention; crude, rude and angry rather than witty.  Then at an art fair in Paris on May 1st around the basin of the Seine at Bastille  there she was . The real life artist,  delicate and unassuming beside real life sculptures  so much funnier, so much more subtle than anything I could invent.

The unassuming artist was Han Mihhne.  Perhaps even Mihnne Han.  Beautiful, slight and not so young as she once was. Perhaps a lifetime was in her statues imbuing them with silent laughter.

Statues of solid bronze seemed to float, to laugh, to play a joke.  A figure half made existing of a shoulder, an out turned foot, a delicate haunch and oh, such smooth pert buttocks just begging to be touched.  La Petite Danseuse without the head, without the body but with all the attitude. It was the memory of  children long left the family home; the shadow of grandchildren  yet to grace it. The artist put her hands lovingly on the buttocks and laughed as if the statue was her own child, and really their was the sense that she knew them intimately and with longing, regret, poignancy . How can you be in love with a statue? I don’t know but there it is.

The desire to possess  the statue in spite of difficulties of carrying home the bronze bulk by Eurostar and then slow, many-changing Welsh trains and the slight fact that the statue cost thousands of euros nearly got the better of us. I’d have been pleased to have the bronze strapped to my body like  personal armour, to look forward to trying the statue in my home amid accumulated post of a couple of weeks away and the piles of dirty washing any journey naturally accumulates. But then it poured, torrential rain and the only thing to do was scatter to find shelter.  All we have is a card for Han Mihnne and no way of finding her.