Crawling Through Thorns

 

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I almost didn’t read this book. The title was off putting. It sounded to my prim ears a tad self inflicted, self indulgent.

But what did I know. it is a quote from a Welsh poet Waldo Williams and not as I thought a life style choice… The trials of being homosexual. It is about forgiveness and the lengths needed in order to forgive injustice. Rather than chose bitterness one must do what it takes even crawl through thorns.An image of the First World War comes to mind. Crawling through barbed wire.
I understand the title of this book now and my prejudice and misunderstanding

It was uncomfortable reading too, at first, for a convent girl with a conventional, sheltered upbringing.

Set in Barmouth, a town I have visited most of my life and now live close enough to visit daily should I chose. The experiences of a boy, pretty much the same age, growing up with the realisation of difference was uncomfortable reading.

Growing up a homosexual, with the guilt that engendered with trysts and casual sex hard to reconcile with a ‘normal’ childhood. Perhaps there is a gender difference, too. Sex simply wasn’t on the agenda in the all female household I grew up in.

Memory can be a false friend, but despite being labelled as from a broken home we did well enough. What constitutes an idyllic childhood anyway? Day trips to Barmouth lying on the beach with my sisters in thick jumpers breaking our teeth on sticks of rock from the rock shop. My mother was preparing us for the first of several road trips to the south of France and so the four or five hours drive to and from Wolverhampton, were about right.

I stuck with the book and glad I did. Mostly an absorbing read with some very moving and lovely writing, it is a coming of age story,  the life of John Idris Jones, who happens to have been born a homosexual. Coming to terms with what that means in his community and the wider community makes a compelling read, as he and the wider world find acceptance, including aversion therapy by electric shock treatment as a cure and the dawn of AIDS and that devastation, written from the perspective of a gay man in San Francisco.

There are powerful recommendations to live by to take from the book:
‘kindnesses are for passing on’,  or if of religious bent, ‘God finds us where we are, and ‘The journey is home’, which I take to mean the journey of life is your life, not a stepping stone.

The eulogy for his dead friend is testament to both hero and friend.
Of how many people can it be said we are better people for having known them?

It shows a closeness born of true friendship that not everyone is capable of.

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The Field

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The film of the play is set on the bleak coastal hillside on the West coast of Ireland.

The way of life depicted has all but disappeared, but one wonders if the sentiment remains, running through to the bone like turf down to barren rock: stark: bigoted, corrupt, inward looking, fixated on injustice, death and starvation. For the blood and bone of millions, starved and evicted, sank back into the land, or was shipped off to die far away from home.

And yet the father’s grief for a son who has committed suicide, the mother’s for the son denied a christian burial by the church as cruel and unforgiving as the land, the desperate need for survival and the bitter memory of the Great Hunger and inhumane treatment by foreign landlords, is all too poignant. The American looking for his roots, unable to marry the static old world with the thrusting new, spills his blood or has it spilt for him into the earth too.

My latest novel, (currently looking for a publishing home) is set on the West Coast from whence my ancestors emigrated, touches on more recent Irish history. It fails to capture the gut wrench emotion of The Field but does encapsulate the need for change, forgiveness and the all too English incomprehension of a people whom for hundreds of years they have tried and failed to subjugate.

A piece of Vienna

 

Franz-Sacher

The internet is a mixed blessing. Looking up the recipe for the cake I found the history and decided to share.  Could just imagine Franz Sacher – pictured – eating chocolate cake!

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When 16 year old apprentice chef Franz Sacher created the Sacher Torte at the court of Prince Metternich in 1832, little did he know the impact his cake would have on chocolate lovers worldwide. The recipe for the Original Sacher-Torte is a well-kept secret, known only to confectioners at Hotel Sacher in Vienna.

 

Ingredients:
7 egg yolks
150 g softened butter
125 g icing sugar
200 g dark chocolate
1 packet (8g) vanilla sugar
7 egg whites
125 g crystal sugar
A pinch of salt
150 g flour
Butter and flour for the mould
150 – 200 g apricot jam, for spreading
Rum, if desired
Whipped cream to garnish

For the glaze:
200 g dark chocolate coating or cooking chocolate
250 g sugar
150-170 ml water

How to make it:

1. Melt the chocolate slowly (ideally in a bain-marie). Meanwhile, mix the butter with the icing sugar and vanilla sugar until creamed. Gradually stir in the egg yolks. Pre-heat the oven to 180 °C. Grease a cake tin with butter and sprinkle with flour. Whip up the egg whites with a pinch of salt, add the crystal sugar and beat to a stiff peak. Stir the melted chocolate into the paste with the egg yolks and fold in the whipped egg whites alternately with the flour. Fill the dough into the tin and bake for around 1 hour.

2. Remove the cake and leave to cool off (to achieve a flat surface turn the cake out on to a work surface immediately after baking and turn it again after 25 minutes).

3. If the apricot jam is too solid, heat it briefly and stir until smooth, before flavouring with a shot of rum. Cut the cake in half crosswise. Cover the base with jam, set the other half on top, and coat the upper surface and around the edges with apricot jam.

4. For the glaze, break the chocolate into small pieces. Heat up the water with the sugar for a few minutes. Pour into a bowl and leave to cool down until just warm to the taste (if the glaze is too hot it will become dull in appearance, but if too cold it will become too viscous). Add the chocolate and dissolve in the sugar solution.

5. Pour the glaze quickly, i.e. in a single action, over the cake and immediately spread it out and smooth it over the surface, using a palate knife or other broad-bladed knife. Leave the cake to dry at room temperature.

Serve with a garnish of whipped cream. If possible, do not store the Sacher Torte in the fridge, as it will “sweat”.

Baking time: approx. 1 hour

Bron Y foel

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‘I didn’t know you were a writer,’ Nedu said, having seen an article in the local Cambrian News.

‘As a matter of fact I’m working on a children’s story set in your house.’

Nedu nodded appreciatively. If ever a place had ghosts, or was evocative, it is the sub medieval house, a Snowdonia house, in the lee of Moelfre above Dyffryn Ardudwy where he grew up – especially when it’s misty.

The tales Nedu told us of his childhood in the house had us alternately laughing like drains, or with our hair  on end. His were the hilarious and hair raising exploits that inspired the story. Such as finding unspent bullets from a crashed world war two plane in the hills above his house and putting them on the open fire before beating a swift retreat. Sadly, as often happens, his exploits have not translated well to my written page and another story, using the house as  back drop, is slowly, painfully slowly, emerging.

This has nothing at all to do with a second novel I should be working on.  Which probably says it all as far as organisation of my writing day goes.

Walking with History

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In the  burst of sunshine before autumn and winter we have opted for outdoors and walking. Hard not to walk with history here; the hills are steeped in it. Hill forts ring the coast like a necklace; craggy outcrops with flat tops, fortified walls, sometimes with the remains of hut circles.  Local names convey confusion as to exact dates or perhaps confirm that these forts have been in existence for a very long time: ancient, iron age, Roman;  perhaps having been all three.

We walked through the nature reserve converted for and by the community. Once a tip, once a salt marsh used by the monks from Cymer Abbey to graze their sheep, the name  of the road, Mynach Road, the only lasting legacy. A willow arch marks the entrance to an outdoor classroom used by the local school and a wooden pirate’s ship sets the tone for the children’s play area.  Bees hum in the wild flowers and wild clematis rampages through blackberries. Along the prom,  waves hit the breakwater, turn back on themselves and could teach a thing or two about physics as they explode with spume and ‘get’ us. White arms of a competent swimmer windmill  through the treacherous looking waves and leave the feeling that we have imagined him  till we see the rest of him, muscled and glistening,  cross the prom behind us at a run back to his car.  A section of shaly beach brings us to the railway bridge at Llanaber and up through the church yard of St Mary’s,  also known as  St Bodfan,  St Bodfan and St Mary the Virgin and just St Mary.

Bodfan was a monk on Bardsey, and founded the first church at Llanaber, probably wooden originally, lost without trace and replaced by the 13th Century church that remains.

Inside are the Llanaber Stones, two Early Christian stones found locally fording a stream and believed to be from the churchyard . Reportedly Romano British from the 5th or 6th century  the inscription is  a mixture of Latin and Welsh. Both dedicated to St Bodfan; one is inscribed Calexti Monedo Rigi,   a mythical king of Mona or Anglesey; the other inscribed  Aeterna and Aeternus,  brother and sister perhaps,  names common in Roman Britain, they say.

There is no note to explain a gravestone that lies just outside the church whose inscription looks Runic

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Churches   also ring the coast line in plain view of Bardsey, the island of a thousand saints, whence the saints came to found or give names to the churches. Perhaps, once cast off from the  safety of the shore, candles in the church windows guided  through the buffeting sea, or. as today, when the sea, except for the breakwater,  is so flat calm it is eery, kept spirits alternately up or at bay.

As we leave the little chapel the sea mist gathers as the temperature plummets for evening reminding us that this sunshine is just a reprieve.

A Grey Sunday in Belfast

A black cab will take you up the Falls Road through the Peace Wall and back to the city via the Shankill Road for a tenner a head.  The driver will act as your guide.  Even after Friday’s shenanigans this was something we all wanted to do, Sunny Boy, Number One Daughter and I.

At ten Bobby, our driver, stepped out of his cab in front of the hotel and introduced himself.  Within minutes we were out of the city and along the Falls Road which runs for nine miles and is parallel to the protestant Shankill Road.  Linen mills  used to lie between the two  where the meters-high, miles-long Peace Wall now runs.  Belfast women who worked the mills, catholic alongside protestant, would go through their sectarian doors in their own neighbourhoods at the start and end of each working day.  One mill, now converted to a flour mill, still has and still uses the two sets of doors.

We stop at the line of murals which are political in nature, the most recent painted only on Friday night. The black and white replica of ‘Guernica’, perhaps the most famous anti war painting, is beginning to peel off the brick wall. The even bricks make it more like the tiled memorial in the Basque town itself.  Another is in solidarity for Palestine. The pictures are deeply moving, not least because they commemorate history of our living memory that we have ceased to think about.

We stop outside Sinn Fein headquarters and learn a few words in Gaelic and immediately forget most.  Siaorse, popular as a girl’s name, means freedom.  We all remember that.

We hear of Belfast men who aught to be famous but aren’t because the Troubles have outgunned everything:  Dunlop, DeLorean, C.S.Lewis and the man who invented defibrillators, amongst others.

Those who live in the Falls area consider themselves Irish and speak Gaelic.  Those in the  Shankill, with pavements painted red, white and blue and Union Jacks  fluttering, consider themselves British. The two areas, although side by side, even look different.

We follow a coach to one of  the gates in the wall, that open and close daily. We have seen the mainly Spanish tourists at the memorial gardens looking glumly at the lists of names carved in black marble, hearing of fire bombs and martyrs for the cause.

‘They come up from Dublin for the day and carry on to the Giant’s Causeway.’

We feel drained after barely an hour and murmur at their stamina.

‘Their guide’s an IRA man.’

Our Driver has the gift of the gab and could talk for Ireland or England, whichever his preference, but somehow this feels a step too far.

‘You watch now, at the gate.  He’ll get out and let another guide on to take them round the Shankill.’  Sure enough, a thick set man in blue smokes and waits.

‘He’s ex UVF,’  and he laughs.  ‘Bet they never thought they’d see the day.’

At the Peace Wall, Bobby presents me a pen and invites me to leave a message with all the others.  There is a competition for graffiti artists here, even Banksy has been.

A message of hope for peace, what else?  It is obvious both sides want peace.  The world wants peace, the question is how to manage it.

He leaves us to walk through the Shankill murals, before delivering us to our start point.  One with a gunman staring down the barrel of a gun is the most disquieting.  Where ever you stand the gun points right at you.

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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.