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I was born in 1951 in the Swansea Valley, the youngest of three children. We lived in a little industrial valley, eight miles from Swansea. Most of the people who lived there worked in the tin factory, the steel factory or in the coal mine on the outskirts of the village. It was a close knit community but as minister’s daughter, I learnt early on that we lived in a large detached house, with a drive and a lawn big enough to hold tennis matches. Yet, there was something very different about our house. There were constant visits from parishioners and ‘ home‘ seemed to be an open house for people to call - to seek guidance, arrange funerals or marriages. As children we found solace in escaping to our rooms until the visitors had departed. Sometimes, I would be called upon to play the harp on the request of those who admired this wonderful instrument we kept in the parlour. I hated those impromptu concerts but once or twice rather liked showing off my musical talents to those who would not know better.
In fact, I often think that a lot of writers are failed musicians and it certainly inspired me to find music in the written word. Writing is akin to music especially if you write in Welsh, the oldest recorded living language in Europe albeit Greek and Latin. The language of the home was Welsh but English dominated the language of work and school. A century before I was born, steps were taken to try and eradicate Welsh from schools, and those caught speaking it, even to one another, would have a wooden placard placed around their necks with the word ‘Welsh Not’ carved on it. The last person wearing it at the end of the day would be beaten. It was a measure that worked to a certain extent and by the mid-20th century, families were abandoning en masse Welsh for the sake of ‘progress.’
But my village was bilingual in every respect. People would often start a conversation in Welsh, slide into English and then finish in Welsh. As for chapel, everything was Welsh and Welsh only. And there was so much of it, culturally that is. My father, who was also a writer, wrote plays for the chapel members and taught people to recite poetry, a phenomenon of the Eisteddfod, a big festival where people competed in reciting poetry. I especially liked Tuesday afternoons when I very young because I would accompany my mother to the ‘Sisterhood’. There, in the midst of needlework and fancy cakes, I listened to women telling tales and I’d sometimes write these down in a little book, making a note of any new words I’d heard.
In those early years, I also had to learn long passages from the Psalms or hymns for singing congregations. My mother would practise with me and I loved the high language sounds and long words. I also read widely, as my father had a very large library. We had little money, but somehow, we would always have new books! In his study, I found the classics, and I felt at home in, a world I could belong to – so unlike the daily school grind, as there, I always had to speak English. This made me reserved and shy, one never to volunteer an answer. At 12 years of age, we moved to the countryside and there I faced even more difficulties. Most of my contemporaries didn’t speak the quality of Welsh that I spoke, and neither could I speak the kind of English of those who had abandoned Welsh. In fact I envied sometimes their ‘posh’ English. I lived therefore in a no-man’s land, trying desperately to believe in the language of the home while at same time faced the jibes of ‘speaking a dying language’.
During the last 20 years or more as a writer I have tried to make Welsh as alive and vibrant as any other dominant language and in doing so, have tried to ‘sing the world alive’. Most of my influences are from literatures in English and how I love the riches of this vast language. English literatures of the world certainly opened my eyes, enabling me to see the great possibilities of writing. It probably turned on the switch for writing and yet, the light of my imagination is through Welsh. I do occasionally write in English for commissioned work, and teach many writing courses through the medium of English.
But Welsh, as my first language, will always be the language of my inspiration.
Read more... Let the World’s Peoples Shout - Poem
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