A Visit to Swansea and The Dylan Thomas Centre

Anyone who knows me well enough knows that the poetry of Dylan Thomas and the literature of Welsh Writers in English is part of the force that underpins my love for my hometown.

Picture me at six :small, brown ringlets and abuzz with excitement. I’ve just discovered that a poet was born in Swansea – moreover quite a famous one.

Dad, Dad ! Swansea has a Poet but he’s dead now.

Oh yes Dylan Thomas. well he was a bit of a scandal!

The myth was hardly suitable for a six year old wearing white socks.

It was less than twenty years since DT had died, and we know what the Bible says about prophets and their own towns. In fact Dad said a lot more but …

I would be a mother myself by the time I revisited Thomas’s poetry in an academic setting.

Years later and 150 miles away I studied Dylan Thomas’s poetry under the superb teaching of Tony Brown. I discovered that the cadences of speech, turns of phrase, the unique use of prepositions (Whose coat is that jacket over by there? )and some mispronunciation were part of Welsh Writing in English. So opening up a new literary context and space for me.

Under Milk Wood is probably one of my favourite works. Not in a critical poetical sense, but with a sense of affection, for the humorous light and compassion with which Thomas portrays his characters . They use the figures of speech cadences and tones of my childhood so that they take on the feel of well loved long dead relatives or old friends.

Today I visited the Dylan Thomas Centre. I have visited before but the new format and layout were especially moving. Off stage as it were, voices, film productions and spoken words collided in a sound space – some familiar enough to bring the calm thrill of recognition, a pang of longing and the buzz that comes with live words taking on a life of their own, almost a new context in a dedicated space.

The centre shows tantalising images of Swansea in the aftermath of the blitz – the type where the image changes as you walk past. So there I was bouncing from side to side on the balls of my feet, needing to stare at the images but discovering that what I saw changed and shifted according to where I stood. I was unprepared though for the emotion that accompanied this visit.
Thomas’s certainty that he would be a literary force so that he blazed a trail enabled him to push and extend the meanings of words and phrases. Startling, disturbing innovative phrases are just right: ‘Stop the bus I’m dying of breath .’ is one such phrase sign written on a wall. I laughed out loud because it was just right. Funny, irreverent true!

I was lucky with the weather cold sunny days. The racket of the buoys and seagulls in the marina were more of a background track as the wind whipped off the river and into the old dockyards. Thomas famously wrote the night after the blitz, ‘The Swansea we know has died.’ A sentiment shared by many of my relatives st that time.  There are glimpses of the industrial heritages. One or two spit and sawdust pubs remain, the Copper Quarter is being regenerated. The town is ok but it’s pretty ugly in places still. Lovely? I’ll leave you to decide.


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It’s been a hectic few weeks with  family job changes or adjustments. I hit the ground running  in January and haven’t really come up for air. The highlight (no pun) was a new policy regarding use of  highlighters of a specific colour, which flu-like, I read with increasing disbelief. My head spun and not just because I had a temperature.

It used to be called the chalk-face: these days it is more like the green ink face. Now the teaching interface has a range of colours for  different functions —   red, green, blue, purple, and yellow. Colours that make up a bruise if we stop to think about it. Ironically my favourite colour for writing in notebooks used to be green. Now I opt for pink, turquoise or black — thin nibbed and Pilot or Parker. Dad used to write in black ink in  small right handed slanted script: so neat. Mine in comparison is a curly scrawl.

I’ve invested in new notebooks. A range at the supermarket caught my eye. I bought one each for myself and a friend,and stuffed the back pocket with stickers for both of us. The idea being we could write together in an identical space despite living at both ends of the country. I loved stickers as a child and the pack of Alice in Wonderland stickers inspired one of my more darker poems – strange where inspiration strikes and it is  my first new poem in a long time. Its not a bad poem but I am unsure about it.

I revisited the collection I have written on places and they still resonate. They’re not going to change the world, but they are quite muscular and comment on language and the power or lack of power to tell our own stories; a concept which still hovers in my head. Other than that,the trilogy which begins in Defynnog and ends in Swansea has taken shape in my head. The family research and the research in and about Senny Bridge has been a joy.  The challenge is to get it out of my head and on the page. I’ve got the first chapter written but need to go back and add my first line. I see now why Dad loved the Cordell books so much.

So, it’s half term. I will be preparing for a mock Estyn and  writing.

What are your plans?


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Cracking through the hard earth – a creative writing day with Fiona Owen

It was a good way to begin the new year – a creative writing day. I suppose it was a bit like renewing a commitment. But the day became much more than that as I rediscovered old friendships and worked with a really interesting group of people. 

 I wrote a new poem, after Waldo Williams’ Eirlysiau translated by Tony Conran; then a ranty piece that examines the gap between  what we say and what we really mean or think, and finally I settled into the feelings of a poem -Just Thinking, by William Stafford, and it was the final line, ‘This is what the whole thing is about [.]’ that chimed and resonated with me.

It had not occurred to me that it was the feast of the epiphany until it was brought up in discussion. Certainly I’ve been writing and planning more and benefited from the words of  (mostly) American writers thoughtfully chosen by Fiona in the handouts. 

Part of my preparation has been reading about Senni in the parish of Defynog, working out how this strand fits into the family narrative -real and imagined – and learning about Chapels such as Brychgoed and accessing the parochial registers online. I’m indebted to other researchers who have documented the religious revival of 1808, to historians such as D Craionog Lewis, because far from being a rural backwater, Senni was a lively place, peopled with colourful characters. Moreover they had a strong faith, their independence shown in their non conformist choices.So for the past two weeks I have partially inhabited their world: working out how the move from Defynog to Swansea occurred, learning that my great grandfather was a boarder in Llansamlet with relations who were Defynnog-born ( it was a lucky guess and I was relieved to confirm it in the 1911 census). There were a few occasions when John and Elizabeth, and John’s  parents ,William and Margaret,  took on a life of their own  and were tangible. I dreamt of them, and of clear streams and woods , of their farmhouse surrounded by beech trees and oak trees. The sound of the river is real and I wonder if it is more of a memory…. 

So with all this in mind I wrote the following: this is what the whole thing is about: Buckets of memories -my memories, their memories, family memories and shared memories down the generations, making myths of of our family. 

One such myth was landownership. My family were tenant farmers- indistinguishable from the labourers who lved and boarded with them. Labourers, servants, farmers’ wives, shunted from land by the military and the absentee landlords whom historians still tell us were not all that absentee after all. Indeed my ancestors were agricultural workers barred from progress because language was a barrier. 

Monoglot, then, becomes a dirty word for historians, making my ancestors land dumb. But the thing is  this. Ancestors lived and died in a rural parish ; and were buried in the black earth with the musical name of Defynog. The other thing is this: Each time I take a detour it’s just like coming home to my ancestors, to the green hills  and to the farms and to the cool flowing river Usk,  and home to the musical names of the Senni, Usk Glyntawe -to the Fellte, Llynfell. Here is my map the compass points of a mystical home , yet one that was never ever mine. 

Crai,  Abercrave! Craig y Nos, Cwmgwrdi -The source of the Tawe, the course of the Usk . Then there is the navigational canal with 16 miles which were all it took to change life from rural Welsh to  industrial English, from clean to polluted, from farming to Copperopolis, from shoeing to smelting  -exchanging in poverty for poverty and lodging with relatives depleting the parish of 4000 migrants leaving holes in the community. This is what it’s about the place where my ancestors were born

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Green Hills and Blue Hamlets

A few weeks ago I wrote about Defynnog a hamlet off the Senni Road, being significant for my ancestors. Indeed it is where they lived, farmed and worshipped for generations.   The A470 is not my favourite route but I always have a sense of homecoming as I turn right towards Brecon after the cut through Llyswen. 

Picnics with Dad in that landscape, along with school trips to the National Park when I was a child, have compounded  that feeling, and when I explored the area a few weeks ago there was a sense of familiarity.  The old family story was that we had at some point owned land “somewhere near Dan yr Ogof.” That this land was lost to our family left me with a sense of injustice as a child. Why had they moved? How did they lose the land? Who took it from them? But this family myth brought with it a glimmering of identity: My family ( at least this side of it ) was Welsh.  They were Pobl y Werin

Dad loved technology. Cameras of course were his passion. He would have loved being able to search the internet looking at census documents . I suspect our forays back to Senni, and the land between the A470 and A40 were his explorations of the past. I vaguely remember chapels but clearer are the moments with him, drizzle, soup in a flask and an image of myself in a layby next to a stile. 

My search is from a distance: trawling through documents online, matching names and dates. Sometimes it’s difficult with a  common surname such as Jones, and with intricate naming patterns where Christian names are replicated , it’s easy to mistake fathers,sons and uncles. Their names are shot through with Margarets, Elizabeths Annes Alices, Jennets and Gwens. and it is thanks to the non-conformist registers that I have discovered their maiden names and am able to search further.

Place names reflect the landscape- Tylegarw (pronounced tille garrw) – rough hill. it was difficult to trace this because the handwriting was tricky to read 

1861 Census for Wm Jones my great great great Grandfather

But the more I read of documents the more familiar the names of adjacent    families became. Tylegarw nevertheless remained a mystery, until I read it on a small scale map. It is/was  a farm. Indeed, its holiday cottages are for sale. The chapel where William was  baptized is now a house. And as Williams family grew they moved to an adjoining farm.Its clear   while they felt ownership of the land, they were tenant farmers. William’s third son, John was my great great grandfather. His older brother William would have inherited. But it was a difficult legacy: good harvests, low corn prices, rising rents impacted on these Welsh Agrarian Communities. Factor in the control of the Church and landowners who dictated how their tenants should   vote, it was a precarious existence. The sheepfolds were anything but”calm and tranquil”. And John’s move to industrial Swansea created our industrial heritage. 

These two aspects though bring conflict. The move from Welsh Rural to a predominately English speaking industrial town has mostly erased the Welsh language from our family. I love rural areas but at the same time Swansea and Cardiff  hold my heart: diesel smells, a  vanishing industrial heritage, the architecture of machinery -gantries black against the skies in the bay.  Then these are all “historied up” in museums so that neither aspect is accessible first hand. Then there is the other side of the family tree.

A roistering drunken debt ridden aspect of the other side  One ancestor caught and aquitted for breaking and entering, two others in debtors prison. The family break in the census that signifies a rift and breakdown in family. The sober non conformists versus the Anglican. The sterotypical wild Scottish-Irish side versus the rural Welsh. Versus Industrial Swansea. The dockers, sailors, railway workers housemaids and kitchen maids versus wives who became head of house, farmers. And that’s the thing. It’s all part of our heritage. If we claim one side we have to at least accept the other. 

Once on a road trip across North Gower Common my head was full of highwaymen, horses damzels in distress. From the back seat I asked my mother, “Have you ever wanted to search your family tree?” 

“Gosh no! What if you found a murder .” I think she’d be relieved. Tnough she might have disowned the distant realtive fined in 1901  for “foul language” and affray.


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Christmas Wrappings


Trigger Warning Violence against women.







As I write this, I’m still undecided about whether to post it, but writing it may help to clarify my thoughts. Consequently I have disabled comments.

It was with considerable distress that I reported an incidence of domestic violence to a distant police force. I wasn’t there but the  phone call I received,  was enough to make me act. In some respects the decision was clear cut: the person’s partner crossed the line. In some respects it wasn’t – because I hadn’t witnessed anything. It was just disclosed to me.

Moreover, we naturally shrink from interference in other families’ lives; especially that once systems are put in place it can impact  on the whole family, creating turmoil, distress and confusion while the incident is processed, and while they work to a resolution and a way forward – be that through multi agency teams, the criminal justice system. Either way, once I made that call…events were out of my hands. This was paradoxically reassuring and terrifying as I had and still have no idea what kind of events would follow.

These events came as a jolt and burst my  pre – Christmas haze. Myself I have been preparing for Christmas: cake, tree, lights, table centre decoration. I’ve been baking. Ordinarily, I prefer the festive season to pass quickly and quietly because I hate the bustle, commercialism, the search for the perfect ultimate festive table – that perhaps diffuse the ultimate realities of the Festive season : Hope, Light, New Birth and Love. Also, I had my own reasons this year for holding onto ideas of hope and rebirth in the making and baking.

Furthermore, as we approach the festive season that this is the season of the campaign to leave no one behind as Welsh Women’s Aid works to educate about the impact of violence against women and eradicate it. But beneath the academic discourse, and the professional clear tones of info graphs, documents, and brochures what does it mean for friends of victims of Domestic Violence?

Before you realise what’s going on, your friend could be short of money. Your friend will always defer to the wishes and preferences of their partner. They will be tied to them in ways that are perhaps puzzling to both you and them. They disappear from your life at times. It isn’t always about the cliche of walking into a door. The emotional bruises have an insidious effect. The physical bruises do not always show. Their reasons for dropping in and out of your lives, or not being around vary and can have the ring of truth. They will make excuses for their partner and pretend that their partnership or marriage is blissful. Occasionally they will fall quiet, or seem distracted. Other times it will seem as if nothing is amiss and you doubt your intuition.

So what happens when they make that final disclosure? Advice can be found here. But the open questions suggested, while supportive for the victim, are too open if you’re not as strong as you need to be to cope- they can unleash a ton of emotion and leave you feeling vulnerable too. No one wants their friends in pain – especially if you have known and loved them for years; especially if you have connections forged from childhood. However, you can urge them to talk with Welsh Women’s aid, text them a list of numbers if it is safe to do so. Repeat to them: ‘You say sh/e hit you. S/he crossed the line. It’s unacceptable. Phone Women’s Aid.”

Much as we and hear the glitter and jingle of Christmas bells, we have to realise that the domestic wrapper can blind us to the reality of our friends’ lives, but we also have to understand that they have to make the decisions.

It’s a tough call.

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What else have I learned?

I’m grateful Jenny Alexander for reposting my blog and I’m touched by her heartfelt and thoughtful comments.

“Your mother made the best apple pie in the world.” So said my dad’s sister, auntie Glenys, when I visited her the last time before she died. Apple Pie was my mother’s signature dish – but that is a story for another time involving Canada, my dad’s first fiancé and a sense of competition!

As the daughter and sister of two amazing cooks, pastry making for me, is fraught with all sorts of dangers, complications and anxieties. Too many issues around ‘cold hands’, my hands being ‘too warm’, ‘cold water’, resting, rolling.

Suddenly, my daughter grew into a cake maker of flourless chocolate brownies, ginger bread houses (ok one collapsed and the dachshund pulled the other off from the table using a table runner – clever  full, later sick, dog, unhappy daughter!) She made banana loaves, Victoria sandwiches so that I was left feeling a bit superfluous in the baking world while doing the mundane chore-cooking at meal times. My boss’s cakes are a delight: choux pastry, cup cakes –  yellow and light and fluffy.  Auntie myra’s Victoria sandwiches  too big to fit in a tin so they were transported covered in tinfoil!There was no point everyone seemed to be better than me.

Each week I’d watch Berry and Hollywood,  taking on board their criticisms without even trying to bake or make, so that cake  and pastry making became a sort of something I could no longer do. Yet, as a young stay-at-home mum I loved it so!

There were scone making competitions with a friend, coffee mornings and I did it and juggled being Mam to three young boys. However after relocating and being  busy –  working and single parenting to four –  baking was something that I lost.

I began withan afternoon tea for friends

So fast forward to later in this year, back at work, I needed something meditative, repetitive and productive. I made sausage rolls as a ‘practice run’ for Christmas. Ok, I cheated buying ready made puff pastry – but even Delia does that. Besides, I needed to brush up my handling skills, so with beating eggs, brushing and gluing, I was transported back to childhood where I was allowed to help, all pinnied-up with my own basin and whisk. I graduated to pasties, then I was ready for the biggie – making my own shortcrust pastry.

Now any over anxious cook  – AKA my mother –  would have you believe that the most precarious part is transferring pie crust to the dish and it is. But I wasn’t on the set of Bakeoff; Hollywood, Berry, Torode, Nigella and Delia were not  in my kitchen. -at least not physically. What was there to be scared of?

Quite a bit it would seem. That moment when the uncooked crust hovers in the air before settling in the dish is the worst. It could crack, split slide down the sides. Trimming the sides and knocking up the edges like a pro, I was relieved. It wasn’t perfect but, it was edible and tasty. Presentationally , it all leaves a bit to be desired. I haven’t mastered the knack of getting the amount of filling correct. My pasties were uniform, but shaping the sausage rolls was difficult – I’d forgotten how!

But it was good to get baking once more. Afternoon tea,Ladies?



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Driving in our Forbears’ Footsteps.

I got lost in Swansea this week. I turned for “Swansea East’ and landed in Skewen and while I hadn’t intended to visit Heol Las, that’s what I ended up doing. I’ve been knee deep in ancestors for a few weeks as I traced, retraced the family tree lost in Welsh, Irish and Scottish versions of naming patterns mimicking those in Wuthering Heights. My plan had been to take a road trip: Llanon, Llandysul, Defynog, Ayr, Belfast,Dublin, Harland and Wolff archives, East India Dock Milwall, Westferry Road Millwall, Templeton factory Glasgow. However the family tree is now so vast I have to target my next efforts –  always assuming I can locate where registers are held.

Skewen and Birchgrove were still the same, narrow and winding with cars parked on pavements and roads. I did a road trip on Google searching for my grandparents house. As luck would have it a van was obstructing the road and I was able to get a good look at the house although it no longer had its name plate. There was brief nod to 436, and a wave to the relatives as I whizzed past the cemetery. I can always take flowers next time.

But it was a lovely drive past places where my family had settled: Llansamlet church, Ainon, Heol Las Farm, Arosfa and Ty Cae’r Gof. Thus some four hours later and some miles south of Brecon, I took a five mile detour to Defynog – a hamlet nestling between the A40 and A470 and south of Sennybridge. A yew tree grows in the churchyard that my great great great great grandparents would have known, though I suspect as nonconformists they would not have set foot in the white church with its square tower.

Indeed a few days later and I’m grateful to David Pyke’s excellent research on the 1808 revival which is detailed here http://daibach-welldigger.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/lewis-powell-and-1808-cwm-senni-revival.html?view=timesmlide

A christian researcher, he details the history of the chapels of ease, traces the connections of freisndhips between diferent denominations. More importantly for me, there is an image of the chapel where, my ancestors were baptised – a methodist calvinist chapel.

As is usual for me, christian names are a hook…. I wonder what they did from day to day, how they survived, what their homes were like. People like Jennett – an unusual name now –  yet a wide search on history websites shows that it was a popular name in that area of Breconshire.  They were obviously hardy people, able to withstand the poverty and hardships of the time until poor harvests rising rents forced them away from a rural way of life, forty miles west along the A40 to industrial Swansea, where they beacme miners, hewers carpenters and copper workers / spelters. Jennet My ancestors would have known the Welsh Not, it was used in the church school at the time ,and with their native language being symbollically choked from them, and driven off the land by absentee landowners: a cinversion of forces beyond their control.

The thing about Defynnog is that it is a green and quiet place  a Cordell country before the ravages. The pull is a physical one: I wanted to stop and look for long -gone street names and houses, wander in chapels where weddings and baptisms happened along the Senny Road. The area felt familiar; partly because as a child dad and I picnicked there once or twice, but I have always loved the Becons. I was lucky to see Penyfan from an aeroplane as I flew south and driving past ,it always feels like the guardian of the Beacons. Some places have that effect on me. They’re eternal.

One other strange thing happened to me while in the south. I was getting off a train in Neath. There  was a much older man to my left and as I looked I got a physical jolt and I almost called out my uncle John’s name. Grey white black hair, almond-shaped, deep-brown, eyes and moustache square jawed and a bit jowly. Aside from the extra height and weight it could have been dad,I thought it was John., both long dead. The man and I looked at each other in a kind of recognition,  and an unspoken question then walked in separate directions.



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