Of Love, Labour and Loss…
Of seating and standing…
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
In front of the cupboard, to the right of the fireplace, sits a chair.
Tom sits in it. The cat sits on it. Sometimes the cat sits on Tom in it. If Tom sits on the cat on it, it is all over very briefly. I do not sit in it, even when it’s empty.
For one thing it’s far too comfy. Slightly sprung on its one-piece wooden frame, it hammocks you back into enforced inactivity, or, if you try to perch forward to do something whilst sitting, it rocks forward, threatens to eject you completely. It’s a chair of extremes… it creaks ‘make your mind up’…
But so seductive was the kømført of the Poäng at IKEA that I forgot I was no good at ‘just sitting’ – that if the TV or music is on in the background, I’ll also be playing with photos or reading or making something or cleaning potatoes or chopping up fruit or fiddling with my guitar or blogging…
Indeed so tempted were we that we bought the matching slanting-topped footstool too. When used in conjunction with the chair you might as well be in bed – and a fabulously comfortable one toozzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
The footstool has then, since, become the most frustrating coffee table in West Wales, its one saving grace being that frequent avalanches of books and newspapers from its slopes enforce the occasional sort-out. It makes me wonder, actually, if there might not be a market for a whole new concept in workplace furniture; anti-stack gradiented desks; self-tipping in-trays and filing cabinets with randomly emptying drawers. Welcome to the Ejektor office… nobody sits still for long…
I love IKEA – its contrived world of snowflakes, lingonberry jam and pretty Swedish books ‘for display only’ – presumably lest queues of shoppers form, all demanding to buy ‘Esset I Rockarmen‘ at once. I particularly love the squat wooden pencils – in fact I love them so much that I once invented a ‘youth group I work with’ to hide my embarrassment at gathering so many discarded ones up at the checkout. In my dreams it is staffed by bands of jolly moomins, all as round as meatballs.
Having mentioned them two blogs running now, I feel obliged to explain, for the uninitiated, that Moomins are a tribe of anthropomorphised fictional beasts which populated children’s books of the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. Originally created in Finnish by Tove Jannson but first finding publication in Swedish, Moomins are similar in appearance to albino hippopotamuses (other than that they engage in bipedal locomotion) and hang around with Snorks. Snorks also look like albino hippopotami.
I offer both ‘hippopotamuses’ and ‘hippopotami’ versions of the plural there because both are, apparently, acceptable. Hippopotami – my preference – is though, I read… ‘these days either taken to be funny or absurdly pedantic’. Oh to be found guilty on both charges.
‘Octopi’ is though, I learn, quite wrong. ‘Octopus is not a simple Latin word of the second declension’ I am told by Ask Oxford Dictionaries ‘but a Latinized form of the Greek word ‘oktopous’ and its correct plural would logically be ‘octopodes’.’ They also mention that omnibi is ‘simply a joke and quite ungrammatical in Latin’. Hmm – and I’m sure there would be none for months and then eight would all arrive together in autumn… the octobuses squid-ing to a halt…
Checking out the roots of ‘omnibus’, I find that it is actually a shortened version of ‘omnibus vehicle’, with omnibus meaning, quite simply, ‘for all’.
How exquisitely apt then that one of the most famous campaigns of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement – the Montgomery Bus Boycott – centred around achieving just that – a vehicle ‘for all’; a bus on which where -and whether – you got to sit dowm didn’t depend on your skin colour. I’m sure that anyone at Barack Obama’s inauguration would gladly have given up their seat for the spirit of the now deceased Rosa Parks to be there.
(picture courtesy of http://www.ep.tc/mlk )
Sitting alongside her though should have been Irene Morgan and Sarah Keys – two less celebrated black women who also challenged Jim Crow practices on buses and won. Sarah Keys’ stand (or sit, I suppose…) was made on a summer’s night in 1952 when, travelling through North Carolina, she was ordered to give up her seat for a white Marine. When she told the driver that she ‘preferred to stay where she was’ she was arrested, held in gaol overnight and eventually charged with disorderly conduct. It was an incident which obviously did not sit easily with her, for the following year she filed a complaint with the Interstate Commerce Commission. The ruling in her favour came in 1955 – just days before Rosa Parks’ action sparked the Montgomery boycott.
Earlier still though – indeed over a decade earlier – 27 year old Irene Morgan was travelling to see her GP after a miscarriage, seated in the section of the bus allocated for black people. When ordered to give up her seat for a white couple, not only did Irene refuse to do so, she also refused to let a mother who was sandwiched between her and the window comply. ‘Where do you think you are going with that baby in your arms?’ Irene is reported to have said asked her.
The bus driver drove to Saluda gaol, where a Deputy boarded with a warrant for Irene’s arrest. She tore it up. When he tried to remove her physically from her seat, she kicked him ‘in a very bad place’ – she recalls as, no doubt, so did he – for a very long time. When a second Deputy tried to remove here forcibly, she clawed at him, ripping his shirt. I adore her comment ‘I was going to bite him but he was too dirty‘.
Inevitably she was eventually dragged from the bus and was charged with resisting arrest (to which she pleaded guilty) but also with violating the county’s segregation laws, which she denied. Her attorney took a novel approach; rather than ague that segregation laws were unfair under the 14th Amendment, he argued that Virginia’s practices ‘unfairly impeded interstate commerce’ but the case still had to go to Appeal at the Supreme Court before she won.
Irene continued to campaign against segregation in years to come and was remarkable in other ways too, gaining a BA degree at the age of 68 and a Master’s degree aged 73. When offered an honorary Doctorate, she refused, politely, explaining that she ‘hadn’t earned it’; truly a lifelong exponent of ‘fair’s fair’.
Sitting down as a way of standing up for your beliefs has, of course, a long tradition, from Ghandi to Greensboro, Greenham Common to Tiananmen Square. As a gentle form of protest it has unique power both to disrupt whilst hurting no-one and to elicit public sympathy when heavy-handed tactics are employed in dispersal.
I did rather more than my fair share of it as a student; I was lucky enough to be at university when full grants enabled both sit-ins and lie-ins, at a time when there was rather a lot to get cross-legged about; the Falklands War, pit closures, the British Premier fawning sycophantically to a scarily stupid American President… oh, surely not?
I was though initially bewildered by the broad church that was the campus ‘left’. My first student union meeting felt rather like walking into ‘The Life of Brian‘, the People’s Front of Judea being almost the only faction unrepresented. There were the Greens, the SWP, Socialist Action, the Liberals, the SDP, the Socialist Students’ Alliance, Socialist Charter, the Workers Revolutionary Party, the odd Stalinist or two… and when I say odd, I mean odd. I eventually joined the National Organisation of Labour Students and carried on reading the Guardian, much to the chagrin of various paper-sellers, who, whatever their title, all looked like Goths with the romanticism wrung out.
It was into the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament that I poured most of my energy though – like thousands of others, the coming of Cruise missiles and Trident submarines to our shores horrified me and the peace movement swelled, uniting and mushrooming over the various leanings of the left. By my second year I was secretary of the biggest organisation on campus, organising vigils, trespasses and demos, making banners, performing street theatre… how hip, how happening… Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven…
Then I got a letter from my mother saying she’d just got back from a women’s peace camp. Monica had explained to her why keeping cows – even for milk – was cruel, dad’s cakes had gone down very well and she’d met a policeman who sang in the Llandybie male voice choir with my uncle. They’d broken through the wire on the Saturday and then blockaded the airfield on the Sunday; a lovely day, but the police had been rather rough and were deliberately dumping them in wet ditches when they dragged them away… There was no need for that… Dad, she added, was ‘busy making a cruise missile’. I’d see it when I came home… And there was I thinking it was traditional for parents to worry about their offspring when they went off to university.
The missile, I was relieved to discover – eventually – was for a carnival float rather than a peculiarly personal entry in the arms race and it was rather lovely, actually, to see my mother blossom from being a home-maker for over forty years into a radical politico – albeit the one who always brought sandwiches for everyone else. She’d always cared about things of course, but had been too busy caring for others to do much about it. My grandfather’s passing coinciding with the time I flew the nest allowed her a freedom she’d never before enjoyed.
Life slammed the door shut again pretty quickly though, my brother’s sudden death inflicting on her the same unnatural pain shared by all parents who have to bury a child. She eventually found things to smile at once more, but by then her physical health had ebbed away and her home became her world once more. And that’s the other reason I don’t sit in the Ikea chair – that spot by the fireside was mum’s.
Of turning worms…
I’m glad to be able to record though that at least one of the gaps in my life is gradually being refilled.
Those of you who plod bravely through my blog will know that my robin – my companion for seven years – disappeared last August. The subsequent months were some of the emptiest I’ve known in the garden and any other robin met with the wrinkle of a resentful nose rather than whispers of encouragement.
His tins of unopened mealworms had, since, wriggled uncomfortably in the back of a kitchen drawer – to throw them out would be to acknowledge that he was gone but I didn’t want to see them every day either. But the desperate hunger of the birds through the post-Christmas chill – coupled with acceptance I suppose – finally prompted me to dig them out and through the entire sog of the flu, I dragged myself around the garden twice daily, breaking the ice on water butts and scattering a mixture of food here and there.
And when a robin started appearing each time I did so, my nose was far too sore to wrinkle. Instead I found myself talking to it – in Welsh of course – gently shaking the open tin of mealworms from side to side before holding it perfectly still and extended…
It first crossed the divide between us on January 3rd and has been doing so ever since. My delight is complete even though it shows no willingness as yet to perch on the can, preferring to touch rim just long enough to snatch a single tiny invertebrate. Once more I can announce ‘I’m just going as far as the robin’.
I’m looking forward to discovering its sex, but of course male and female robins are indistinguishable plumage-wise and their behaviour offers few clues outside of the breeding season. I’ll just have to wait patiently then and remind myself not to draw anthropomorphic conclusions from the fact that it is audibly more ‘talkative’ than my old male.
A guess though tells me that my robin II is the bolshie female with which robin I mated last year (see ‘of Ill Winds and Wilful Minds‘). I’m informing my guess with the facts that a) this bird holds part of their old joint territory and b) last year’s female would come quite close to me whilst waiting to be ‘courtship fed’. I’ll let you know if there’s any more evidence of her (?) wearing sensible shoes as the season progresses…
Of fortune-telling fish…
Birds traditionally pair, of course, on Valentine’s Day but welsh birds could explore an equivalent date – the 25th January – known as ‘Dydd Santes Dwynwen’.
Dwynwen (pronounced Dooiynwen, with the emphasis on the ‘Doo’) is recorded as having lived on Ynys Môn – Anglesey – during the fifth century AD. Originally known as ‘Dwyn’ – ‘wen’ being Welsh for ‘white’ or ‘blessed’ – she is described as the ‘prettiest’ of King Brychan Brycheiniog’s 24 daughters, although the only depiction I’ve seen of her (link at the end of blog) consequently elicits rather deep sympathy for her siblings…
Dwynwen fell in love with a young prince – Maelon Dafodrill of Gwynedd – on that all stories seem agreed. Different versions of her legend record though that:
- her dad – old Brychan the active – didn’t like Maelon and forbad their marriage
- Dwynwen was already promised to another
- she was already promised to the Church.
- she wouldn’t let him ‘have his way with her’ before marriage
- she refused to run away with him, honouring either a) her father’s wishes or b) her promise to the church
Whichever version you prefer, it was not, it would appear, match of the day.
The gentlest version of the tale describes Maelon grieving and leaving. Another says that he ‘left her in hatred’ and slandered her. Yet another records that he raped and deserted Dwynwen. All stories though describe her subsequently fleeing to the woods, where she beseeches God to free her of her heartache.
Seeing Dwynwen’s pain, God sends an angel to her bearing a phial of magical liquid. When she drinks it, her grief is eased, but Maelon is consequently turned into a block of ice. Seeing this, Dwynwen makes three requests to God – that Maelon be defrosted, that God either grant happiness to or at least ease the pain of all lovers who call on Dwynwen and that she herself should never again feel the wish to marry. In gratitude to God, she goes on to found a nunnery at Llanddwyn (literally ‘the Church of Dwyn’) where she dies in 465 AD.
The nunnery is now gone, but still to be found on the little island is a well sacred to her memory. It is said to be home to prognosticating fish or eels, the movements of which allegedly reveal whether a partner is faithful and predict whether the course of love will run smooth; presumably the two are not unconnected. Dafydd Trefor, writing in the late fifteenth century, records that both lovers and the sick ‘from diverse countries’ flocked there and in the ‘Lives of the British Saints’ Llanddwyn is described as ‘one of the richest prebends’ in Wales at the time of Henry VIII, thanks to offerings made at the well by those eager to ‘consult their future destiny by ichthyomanteia’.
Dwyn strikes me though as a slightly unlikely candidate for a patron saint of lovers. I mean had she ignored her dad – or her calling – and sacrificed all else to be with Maelon, fair enough. Had she sacrificed her own life because death was preferable to existing without Maelon, then perhaps… But drinking a heart-mending potion and then for-getting to a nunnery isn’t quite in the same league as Romeo’s lament as he quaffs the draught of death…
‘O, here will I set up my everlasting rest, and shake the yoke of inauspicious stars from this world-wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last! Arms, take your last embrace! And, lips, o you the doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss a dateless bargain to engrossing death! Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide! Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on the dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark! Here’s to my love! O true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die…‘
Perhaps I’m being unfair on Dwynwen; indeed the feminist in me wants to applaud her for picking herself up, dusting herself down and surviving. It’s just that surviving isn’t really the stuff of sainthood, is it?
In fact it seems pretty commonplace; it is, after all, what most of us eventually manage to do when the course of true love takes a twist or a turn too many. No matter how shattered we feel at first, slowly but fairly surely the age-old glue of time and tears pieces us back together again.
Pretty quickly too it seems… a German study of ‘life satisfaction’ suggests that those going through the loss of a loved one through widow or widower-hood picked up after only one or two years and after three or four years the bereaved were actually reporting being more satisfied with life than they had been before losing their partner. Divorce too is, seemingly, good for your karma, with life satisfaction ratings for both sexes taking a steep upward curve as soon as the deed is done and continuing on that path for years to come. Not a great advert for marriage then – and neither are its statistics – after a steep upward curve of anticipation, both men and women felt increasingly less satisfied in each of the five years after tying the knot. The birth of a child too saw life satisfaction plummet for the first two years and even then only slowly pick up.
Some explain this phenomenon in terms of ‘adaptation’ – that no matter how elated we are – e.g. when we first fall in love – or how devastated we are – e.g. when we lose a loved one – we eventually get accustomed or desensitised to the state and it gradually stops impacting on our emotions to such a degree.
Some of course pine in perpetuity, gather nuns around them or boil bunnies; perpetual Sisters of the Eternal Stew… And others still take revenge, as I discovered when in Edinburgh last Autumn…
Of being head-over-heels in love…
It’s always a pleasant surprise when you book somewhere to stay and discover that it far exceeds your expectations, isn’t it? Choice of hotel, for me, after all, comes down largely to ‘can you still smoke there?’ these days. Forget the log fire, the Michelin Star, the contemporary but comfortable furnishings… will there be an ashtray? Discovering, then an Edinburgh hostelry that not only still had truck with smokers but which was also slap bang next to the zoo seemed particularly serendipitous – lepers and leopards – how sweet…
Even more exciting though was to discover that it was on the edges of the old town of Corstorphine…
Once quite separate from Edinburgh but now embraced by urban sprawl, Corstorphine lies about four miles west of the City Centre. The main street – today as bedecked with gaudy hoardings as any commercial thoroughfare – offers few clues to its past, but slip just a few feet south and you enter spectral realms of witchcraft, bloodshed and botany.
(picture courtesy of the Corstorphine Trust)
It was the Corstorphine Sycamore – Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Corstorphinense’ – which first drew my attention to this fascinating little community some years ago. A distinct variety, with glorious yellow foliage in early spring, some say it was brought to Corstorphine by ‘a monk from the east’ in the 1400s. More commonly held though is that it was the sole survivor of a 16th Century avenue, planted along the approach road to the Castle. Two stories are offered to explain its golden springtime hue – the first that treasure is buried at its roots, the second that it turned ashen when it witnessed a dreadful act beneath its boughs…
Who, exactly, murdered whom underneath the spreading sycamore tree varies from tale to tale, but all versions mention Lord James Forrester, recounting either that he slew his daughter’s lover there (see Dwynwen? Dad could have been a lot worse…) or, much more commonly, that he was there slain. Some say by his sister-in-law, others say by his wife…
Historic records however – and most versions of the story – say that he was dispatched by his niece, mistress and mother of his child – all the same woman, not an assassination squad, although if accounts of his philandering are true, a queue, orderly or otherwise, would not have been surprising.
On the evening of August 26th, 1679, Forrester, as was his wont, had been drinking heavily at Corstorphine’s Black Bull Inn. Let us hope that his ale was sweet, for waiting down the road for him were his lover, Christian Nimmo, and death. Some say they quarrelled because although he had received papal dispensation to marry Christian, he would not act upon it, others that he arrived in a drunken temper and called her a ‘whoor’. Ms Kettle, meet Mr Pot…
(picture courtesy of the Corstorphine Trust)
Christian claimed that in his rage he ran at her with his sword, that she grabbed it and that in the struggle, Forrester fell onto its blade. But her self defence did not wash – found hiding in Corstorphine Castle, she was taken to the Edinburgh’s Tolbooth prison.
Seemingly spirited to the last, Christian first claimed she was pregnant in the hope of escaping execution, then, when doctors would not verify this, escaped, dressed as a man. She managed to get 15 miles before she was re-captured at Fala. All this is oft recorded, as well as her beheading at the Mercat Cross (Mercat = Market – wholly unrelated to mongooses, mongeese or even mongopi…) on 12th November. She wore, we are told, a white taffeta hood, and bared her shoulders herself.
What never seems to be mentioned is that the maid lost her head to ‘the Maiden’ – a Scottish mode of capital punishment not to be confused with either the Iron Maiden (torture without an axe), Iron Maiden (torture with several axes…) or the Iron Lady (a punishing old battleaxe…)
No, the Scottish Maiden was a portable early version of what we now think of generically as a guillotine, in use around Edinburgh from 1565, over two centuries before M. Guillotine’s invention started turning heads in revolutionary France. Relatively small – only ten feet high – the prisoner’s neck would be severed by an iron plate, the upper edge of which was weighted with a block of lead.
(picture courtesy of www. airminded . org)
It was probably a kinder (or at least more reliable) form of despatch than the sword it replaced – contrary to popular depiction prisoners put to death by the sword did not bend their neck onto a block but instead knelt upright as the executioner swung his blade horizontally. Any flinch, any dodge and the resultant wounds could be horrific. Not that clean beheading is anything other than horrific, but to quote the Scottish Thane, ‘if it were done… then ’twere well it were done quickly…’
Beheading in any form was of course preferable to the slow grip of the noose, but more horrific than either was being burned at the stake – a dread sentence reserved for heretics, sorcerers and witches.
And it was by this means that another woman with Corstorphine connections – Betie Watsone, the weaver’s wife – faced execution 30 years previous to Christian. Her story, recorded in the Kirk Sessions of 1649, says that on 12th May, Betie – Beatrix – made a complaint against the local schoolmaster for accusing her of witchery. Her tale though follows the predictable pattern for accusations of witchcraft – once the first verbal stone had been cast others were not slow in slinging; she had caused a woman to fall ill, a cow to go mad, had made a sow appear…
The outcome was also sadly predictable; Betie found herself incarcerated, albeit in the rather unusual prison of Corstorphine Kirk’s tower. And there, in the house of God, she took the manner of her fate into her own hands. She escaped the flames by hanging herself.
That the environs of Corstorphine’s old Kirk still felt a touch unquiet to me was abetted by the fact that I first visited it alone, at dusk, having spent the afternoon in the alternative gloom of Glen Coe. I’d come looking for an old church and a descendant of the original Acer pseudoplatanus; I found a scaffolded building and a gathering of youths of the parish definitely not there for Sunday School. The next morning though, with company, in daylight, and having sent thoughts of sisterhood to Betie and to Christian, the young sycamore smiled for me.
Actually it’s more a clone than a descendant, one of the unusual things about the Corstorphine variety of sycamore being that it doesn’t produce viable seed. The only way to create sycaminors then is by cuttings, so the specimen in the corner of the kirkyard is still the original tree, just rooted in a different place – and flourishing.
Its parent however is another matter, beheaded by the Boxing Day storm of 1998. I was, however, reliably informed that the stump of the tree still remained… I’d just forgotten the name of the street it was on and Corstorphine has some unexpected twists and turns as well as dead ends. I now know them all, rather well…
Then suddenly I remembered…the tree was next to an old dovecote! And with that flash of remembering there also appeared the first pedestrian we’d seen for an hour – an elderly gentleman. This looked promising.
‘Excuse me,’ I smiled…, ‘I’m looking for the dovecote…’ He looked bemused.
‘The dovecote,’ I re-iterated – using my scarce but best, Welsh, rounded vowels to try to reassure him I wasn’t English.
‘I-m a-f-r-a-i-d I d-o-n’t u-n-d-e-r-s-t-a-n-d ye…’ he replied, obviously taking the ‘speak slowly and loudly to foreigners’ approach.
‘The dovecote, next to the old sycamore…’ I tried to expand…
‘Och the doocit!’ he beamed in sudden comprehension…
I assumed at the time that it was our guide’s pronunciation, but no, apparently a ‘doocot’ -pronounced ‘doocit’ is a Scottish dovecote. What we eventually found ourselves standing next to though wasn’t what I expected. Say dovecote to me – doocot even – and I picture a pretty little wooden structure, set atop a pole. This doocot was made of much dourer stuff though – more like a giant stone bee skep than a hen house on high.
It also hadn’t clicked with me until then that dovecotes were ever anything but ornamental additions to gardens, but no, it turns out that their original purpose was for rearing doves or pigeon for the table… Squabs were considered a particular delicacy, eaten at about a month old, when fully grown but still in the nest. Not everyone who fancied pigeons could keep them though – in some cultures, the right to have a dovecote was restricted to the ruling classes, droit de colombier being set down in feudal law. I’m reminded of a friend ordering pigeon in a city centre restaurant asking, mischievously, if it had been ‘locally sourced’…
Anyway, back in Corstorphine, my cold, hungry and damp husband’s patience was, by now, threatening to stretch to translucence. He had, after all, spent rather a lot of his morning being walked around a churchyard, being introduced to a tree, participating in a wild pigeon chase and being cooed at about ‘poor colomenod bach’… He could also, by now, sense my German-cum-terrier genes kicking in.
‘What did you see in Edinburgh? Oh…bungalows… and semis…’ he muttered, surveying the suburban landscape through the quickening drizzle.
‘It has to be here somewhere’, I marched back, ignoring both the twitching of my husband and that of curtains as I jumped up and down, trying to see over oh-so-respectable garden walls…
I spotted it at last though – the stump – all but hidden behind a tall stone wall; rather sad obscurity, I feel, for such a famous site. Forgive the quality of the photograph below then – it’s zoomed and hand held – and by the time I took it, the eternal sunshine of even my tree-spotting mind was fading.
We failed to find the White Lady of Corstorphine though; the unquiet ghost of Christian Nimmo, said to still haunt the scene of her crime and allegedly spotted several times in living memory. Tom was looking quite pale though – it was time to go, eat and do what more normal visitors to Edinburgh do.
Ghost or none, it’s good to know that the spirit of the old tree lives on in numerous items crafted from its 400-year-old wood, the most remarkable of which are probably violins by local instrument maker Colin Adamson. Colin grew up playing – games, rather than the violin- beneath the old sycamore’s branches but went on to travel the world, gleaning the art of instrument making and restoration. Now back in Edinburgh, he enjoys a deserved reputation as a restorer and maker of violins, violas and cellos but whoever the maker, few instruments will be crafted from wood with quite such historic roots.
It’s also gratifying to know that at least one of the violins will stay in the city, gifted to St Mary’s Music School by an anonymous benefactor. I won’t pun about haunting airs, spirited performances or even taking a bow (whoops…) for I just can’t compete with the Edinburgh Evening News’ headline of July 1999: ‘Tales of Sex and Violins’.
My sincere thanks to Colin, Brett Holman, the Corstorphine Trust and Corstorphine Library for their patience with my queries, permission to use images reproduced here and enthusiasm – and in particular to Trust archivist Frances MacRae for digging into the Kirk Sessions for me. You’ll find links to associated websites below.
From bill and coo to billets-doux…
Back in Dwynwen land, I spent some time recently re-discovered a collection of love letters. Relatively few in number – sixteen survive from ‘her’ yet just four from ‘him’ (I hear women worldwide nodding ‘yes, that sounds about right’) – together they pen a small portrait of great – but forbidden – love…
Spring, 1948, West Wales… the war is nearly three years over and yet still very much entrenched. Edna, 22, lives with her father and brothers. It’s four years since her mother died and she has, since, been the home-maker. She is, however, ‘courting strong’ with a young RAF officer. He’s seen as a good catch by all and it’s generally accepted that she will soon marry and move on.
Then, whilst out walking one day, Edna happens upon a stranger. She recognises at once what he is but says ‘good evening’ all the same. Her dog, Chum, takes one look at his long, wild hair, his tattered and patched overalls and promptly attaches teeth to leg.
The stranger – Karl – is so dressed because Prisoners of War were forced to wear patches on their clothes both to mark them out and identify, by colour, their level of loyalty to the Nazi cause. Edna will joke, later, that as he spoke no English and she spoke no German ‘we couldn’t quarrel’ but that’s not true – it was some years since Karl had been near fatally wounded, captured and transported to America and he had reasonable spoken and written English long before he landed on these shores.
Until the D-Day landings though, Britain had been loathe to accept POWs, fearing their uprising in the event of an invasion. Although the ban on ‘fraternisation’ was lifted in 1946, years of limbo followed for many POWs waiting to be repatriated as the British Government insisted on a ‘re-education’ programme to prepare them for life in the new Germany.
In theory, those with least allegiance to Hitler were allowed home first, but in reality the order was piecemeal and complicated by the fact that many prisoners quite liked life in Britain. Most were allowed to live on the farms on which they worked, were starting to be accepted into local communities, had money in their pockets and food on their plates. Pre-war Germany had been a place of poverty, hunger and fear; they soon clicked that by offering a Nazi salute when called for interrogation every six months, they could extend their stay almost indefinitely.
Whether it was quite ‘love at first bite’ for Karl and Edna I’m unsure, but I do know that the frequency with which Chum got exercised increased dramatically. Their relationship though had to remain hidden – it was one thing to wish a German good evening, quite another to share one with him – and so they developed a code. If Edna was out walking, she would leave a trail of wild flowers behind her, leading Karl to a safe meeting place…
Less than half an hour ago we said ‘good night’ and you are now walking home in the rain, in the dark and by yourself. No, you are not really alone Karl bach, for although I am sitting here by the fire, waiting for the kettle to boil, my thoughts are with you as they always are.
All day long I think of you Karl, as soon as I awake in the morning and my last thoughts before going to sleep – they are all full of my blonde six-footer. Karl, my diawl mawr (big devil) what have you done to your diawl bach? (little devil) Give her a bit of peace will you! In the daytime, no matter where I am, or what I am doing, I do not feel content. Always I am thinking ‘What’s Karl doing now?’ and in the evenings, when I know you are likely to be in town I am searching, searching, for you. That is how it was in the fair last night – nothing is complete without you, mein liebling.
If someone had told me six months ago that one day I would love a German, I would probably have said something rude but oh, Karl dear, it makes no difference what country you were born in – your feelings are the same as mine.
What I hate most is having to meet you in secret and only love you when it is dark with no-one to see. I would like to tell everyone of our love for each other and to ask you to come into our house. But that is impossible. You see Karl bach, Daddy still suffers very much from the first war and, as you know, my brother too is not supposed to do any heavy work as a result of the last war, so you can understand their feelings.
Tonight Karl, after I left you, I kicked against something soft and thinking it was my handkerchief I bent down to pick it up. Ugh! It was a horrible big frog. I don’t know who was most frightened – I nearly screamed. OK you diawl mawr, don’t laugh at me!
Well Karl bach, I must go to bed, to dream of you again I suppose – I do that very often, but my dreams are so mixed up they don’t make sense.
Tomorrow night we will be together again, as I’m sure the hay won’t be dry enough to bring it in tomorrow! Cheerio, darling Karl, Ich bin dein, und du bist mein,
From your Edna’
‘My Darling Edna!
Hello bach now after a hard work must I go to keep my promise. What you suppose I have don that I call it hard work? Washing. Alun isn’t very well so I have to do hes work too.
Edna bach I love you every day more and more. I seat now here your fothos all round me and I don’t know what I could write down for you. I would like to have you here to halt you in my arms to kiss your sweet lips. Oh bach I’m sure of onething, that you and me gon to be very happy together. If we have to wait for a few months we can’t help that. But it is nice to know that we will be man and wife one day.
My Darling Edna if I go in the next time to Germany so don’t worry abaut me, I com back to you and if I should not be able I run away or you must com over to me. Edna darling! I ask you would you do that for me? I know I ask you something what is impossible for you, but I know you would do everything for me as I would do it for you.
Edna mein Liebling, you know Edna if we had peace and we would know that we never had another war I would take you home with me to Germany. I’m sure bach you would like it. Everything you love is there. Animals not only rabbits, flowers, forest with nice passes not passes with dorns (thorns?) and mod (mud). Edna bach you must not think that I am home sick but it is the lovelyest part in Germany where I live. We call it the paradise.
Edna bach I am quite happy here, with you I am happy anywhere. Edna darling! You wrote in your last letter about the glorious time we have spend together. Yes bach neither can I forget the summer 1948. And I hope bach that we will have many many happy summers together and we will love each other forever as we do it now.
Mein Liebling Edna.
Ich liebe dich, so glühend heiss,
Bis rote Rosen werden weiss
Bis weisse Rosen werden rot
Ich liebe dich bis in den Tod.
(I love you with such fervour, until red roses are white, until white roses are red. I love you until I die…)
I hope you are able to find out whats mean and I hope you believe me, because it s true,
All my love to my only loving furture
to my Edna bach.
xxxxx from your diawl mawr Karl’
‘Mein Liebling mawr,
Monday afternoon, half past two and here I am thinking of my very dear Karl, instead of doing my work. Well bach, what am I going to write about today? First my darling, thank you for your very nice letter. I have read it many times, but I’m afraid I can’t quite make out the poem, but of course I can guess what it means.
Karl bach doesn’t it seem an awful waste of time to have to be apart so much, but that is one of the things we cannot help… We will make up for it one day, I’m sure of that. It will be nice to look after my diawl mawr and then he won’t have to do his washing on a Sunday afternoon! We have a saying in this country ‘The path of true love never runs smooth’, indeed Karl bach ours must be true love then, as we have had to fight for our happiness right along.
Last night you said you were sometimes sorry for all the trouble you had brought me – Karl bach do not say that again, for you have given me so much happiness instead. I am truly sorry that I have to disobey my father and bring him unhappiness, but Karl I believe it would be wrong to throw away such love as we find in each other and which I’m sure I could not find with anyone else.
I must have been mad to think that I loved D——, or that I could love two people at the same time. No, Karl liebling, when you really love someone, as I love you, there’s no room in your heart for anyone else, (especially as you’re such a big sweetheart.)
Well liebling, I must go and feed my silly old chickens. All I am looking forward to now is seeing mein liebling Blondie tomorrow night and going to the pictures with him. I wish I could be near you always my darling, to have your arms around me and to be told that you still love me, your diawl bach.
Cheerio darling Karl
I’ll love you until I die – Ich liebe dich bis in den Tod.
From Your Own Edna’
And so continues their sing-song of love…
Some of the letters describe the opposition they faced not only from family but from the ‘locals’ – Karl always said that the worst were not the ones who had, themselves, served in the forces – they understood – but those who had been exempted on health grounds or to do war work…
‘Darling Edna I would like to take you to the ball on Fryday night to danz with you the whole night but bach I’m afraid to bring you trouble. I leave it to you. You know bach I like to go with you anywhere and I’m not afraid of myselfe, only for you my darling. I know it would hurt you badly if anybody was to say or to do anything to me because I’m a German…’
Some convey a decision to ‘wait’ ‘Edna mein Leibling. It is very hard for both of us sometimes to keep it (our promise), but what can I do if your lips saying paid bach ? (don’t, bach)… whilst others suggest that some vows are made to be stretched if not broken… ‘do you remember our midnight trip to the lighthouse? Everything seemed so unreal that night, but I’m so glad we went and I know you are too…’
The second group of letters is less happy, less certain. Karl did ‘go in the next time to Germany’, leaving the promise that he would return after a month. But Edna was well aware that he was returning to the country he loved, to the mother he loved, that his communist father was still away from home having gone into hiding at the start of the war and that he was now the eldest son, having lost two brothers on the Russian front. He was expected to marry one of their widows.
Edna’s letters – at first cheerful, newsy and loving – become more and more anxious as she waits to hear from him. You can hear the silence… sense her heart beating faster as the postman approaches and then plummeting as he walks past…
‘Hello Karl bach, I’m afraid I’m feeling terribly fed up tonight – I don’t know how I’m going to live for four weeks without you – Oh bach, I felt like crying tonight after I had washed up – the time I usually rush to meet my sweetheart – but now there’s no one to meet. I have missed you more tonight than ever before.
I love you so much, Karl, my diawl mawr, if anything happened to you my life would be finished. Come back to me won’t you Blondie? I do hope I get a letter from you tomorrow – perhaps I’ll feel better then.
Karl bach are you enjoying yourself? Tell me the truth bach, would you like to stay at home for good? Don’t be afraid of telling me Karl, I will understand even if you have changed your mind about living in this country. But oh bach, don’t change your mind about loving me will you? I could not bear that…
… Cheerio Lofty mine, give my love to your mother and you, you diawl mawr, look after my heart will you, and also yourself. Nos da mein liebling, whom I love with all my heart.’
Then at last there is a letter from him – he has been ill – laid up in bed… It provokes immediate contrition and more worry in her…
‘Oh Karl bach, my darling, you are ill and I am so far away from you. Oh my diawl mawr I feel so unhappy now, if anything should happen to you my darling my life would be over too. Oh Karl bach, what is wrong? I would give anything in the world to look after you now, to hold you in my arms and make you get better…’
I can imagine her expression when his next letter arrives explaining that he has had a cold…
Some of you will know why I can picture it quite so clearly – will already know that the diawl mawr did come back to his diawl bach – for Edna and Karl are, of course, my parents. Family opposition soon faded once they met the man rather than the concept of ‘a German’ and they married in October 1949. They were to enjoy 60 summers together before Karl’s death in 2000.
I’d read the letters once before – too soon after my mother died in 2001. At the time I hurt too much myself to appreciate them properly. Now though, I can imagine their voices speaking the words, hear them chatting as I turn the pages and smile for them. Their love needed no grand language or exaggerated expression – it was there in every detail, in each ‘everyday’ intimacy they dared to dream they could share. Dwynwen would, I think, have been proud of them.
Of flesh and blood…
Don’t lose heart though if you didn’t receive a Dwynwen’s Day card from your cariad this year; Dwynwen’s tale may be old but the mark(et)ing of her day with cards and gifts is an extremely modern phenomenon. Indeed she was largely unknown outside her native county until the Welsh Language Board and a supermarket-which-deserves-no-free-publicity joined forces to distribute 50,000 bilingual cards in 2003.
I’m not sure how I feel about ‘new’ customs being imposed on our culture in such a commercial way; spread Dwynwen’s story by all means, but need re-telling it involve retailing it? And if you’re going to tell it at all, tell it properly – not just the schmaltzy version commonly spun by purveyors of flowers, chocolates and champagne, most of whom seem expediently oblivious to the darker strands of the legend. But then they are, I suppose, convenience stores…
I am certain however how I feel about Tesco. For years I’ve disliked what superstores do to our towns, to our markets – but understand, all the same, their relentless expansion. A recent documentary however in which River Cottage chef Hugh Ferny Wooly-stall challenged Tesco to re-think their position on chicken welfare left me ranting at the TV like the grumpy old woman I’m fast becoming.
That they refused him an interview month upon month upon month is one thing. That they allegedly refuse to conform to DEFRA welfare recommendations for their ‘standard’ chickens is quite another. That when he managed to secure the 100 shareholder signatures needed to table a resolution at Tesco’s AGM they charged him £70,000 to post out their ballot papers is another again, and by the time they announced that they were giving his motion ‘special’ status, so that 70% of the vote would be required to win, I was spitting feathers and planning a sit-in – quite possibly on the egg counter.
I’m not a prude about meat-eating; in fact when faced, recently, with a canteen choice of spinach lasagne, macaroni cheese or fish fingers I found myself longing to ask ‘and what do you have to offer your carnivorous customers?’ I do however want to know that the animals I end up consuming have had a decent life and will happily pay a bit more for a bit less in return for this knowledge. Come on Tesco – if I can afford to care, so can you.
And Hugh – including a tea towel in a ‘gifts for girls’ section of your River Cottage website? Come on bach…
And whilst I’m in true grump mode, can I just say a word or two to people who say they are vegetarian yet eat fish… Three words in fact – you are not. By all means explain your food preferences to me – I eat fish too; I’m not going to judge you for it. I’m just invariably puzzled that someone who respects a warm blooded creature’s life enough to eschew meat can, at the same time, reconcile themselves with the protracted death often experienced by fish.
I suppose I’ve never felt that any single animal life – be it that of one that swims, flies or grazes – is ‘worth’ any more than another. I think more in terms of headcounts then, avoiding scampi, whitebait and prawns and feeling a tad uncomfortable about any beast, bird or fish I can polish off in a single sitting. At least I can console myself, as I tuck into my stew, steak, or chop that this single death fed others too; mea culpa, yes, but the guilt is shared.
I’m also aware of the hypocrisy I display by eating meat I wouldn’t be prepared to kill; in Judeland, my smallholding is stocked with happy beasts, all perfectly healthy other than that they suffer from congenital heart defects which eventually cull them, gently and suddenly, mid slumber or graze. What’s for dinner tonight? Oh, I’ll just have a walk round and see what’s passed over…
Until Nirvana is achieved though, I’ll try to be honest with myself about what I’m eating, to appreciate good meat raised using kinder farming methods and to buy it through knowledgeable butchers who can guide me through my cuts.
After all, a first foray into a proper butcher’s shop can be a bewildering experience for those familiar only with anonymous supermarket flesh. In the supermarket, 99% of the meat comes pre-boned, pre-sliced or pre-chopped in anodyne little polystyrene trays. In a butcher’s shop you can choose exactly which bit of the animal you want to buy, whether you’d like it whole, boned, or merely chined, as a single piece, cut into chops, in luscious chunks for braising, thin cut for stir-frying… It’s not QUITE as weird as doing a deal with the League Of Gentlemen’s Mr Briss, but it probably is local meat for local people… there is no trouble here…
A butcher will never try to sell you a piece of meat identified only as a ‘roasting joint’. A butcher sells meat with fat in it. Walk into a butcher’s and you can smell the flesh and blood. It is not unpleasant – if it is, I suggest you walk straight back out again.
Bemusingly though, given my passion for good meat, I seem to carry the essence of vegetarianism about with me – something people ‘sense’ before concluding that I’d probably be happiest with a salad. I first became aware of this when invited round for one of Betty’s legendary Sunday roasts – or so I thought. I was right on two counts – it was a Sunday and she was expecting us – it’s just that I wasn’t expecting the broccoli quiche. The experience has been repeated so often now that I’m almost tempted, when accepting an invitation for a meal, to add, apologetically, ‘um… I’m not vegetarian by the way’. The trouble is, if you unknowingly say it to a vegetarian it can sounds a bit demanding… unless of course they’re a vegetarian who eats fish…
I’m not suggesting for a moment that there aren’t great vegetarian dishes out there. The spinach lasagne – when I eventually swallowed my indignation long enough to order it – was lovely. Betty your quiche was delightful and your company even more so, as ever. One of my own favourite recipes is for an earthy masoor dahl dish so thick you can stand a spoon up in it and my friend Inez produces dazzling vegetarian spreads – but then she did once run an exceptional restaurant – and is a vegetarian… who eats fish… Inez please still be my friend…
People who don’t often cook for vegetarians though seem to suffer some sort of culinary panic attack when confronted with meat-free catering, tofu-a-tremble and pulses racing as they struggle to produce something ‘instead of the meat’. Well either that or they take the attitude of my darling Aunty Sal, who, placing a bowl of cawl in front of my very English, very vegetarian boyfriend, announced, with confidence, ‘There. I think I’ve picked all the meat out of it bach, but if you find any left, don’t you feel bad about leaving it…’
I loved Aunty Sal as much as I could any grandmother. In fact when her sister – my grandmother – died young, she stepped in seamlessly as support for my mum and later as substitute grandmother for me. When I first learned that she was technically not my aunt but my great aunt, what could I do but agree in every way?
Sal had, in so many ways, a hard life. One of twelve children, her carpenter father had to supplement the family budget with all the fishing and poaching that could be crammed into daylight and darkness hours – but more of him another day. Sal went ‘into service’ – as was the wont of young, unmarried working class women, her attempt to become a nurse in London falling apart due to dreadful homesickness.
She lost her fiancé, Georgie, in the war, when his ship sank. She went on to have five sons with Rob, another merchant seaman and consequently brought them up almost single handed. Devoted to her family, the tragedy of her life came when she, like my mother, lost a young adult son to a random road accident. Her daughter in law died in the same crash.
But in spite, in spite of all this she remained loving, welcoming and warm. One of the kindest, sweetest people in my life, there was a contagious calm – a quietness of soul about Sally.
You reached her house down one of two footpaths – either via the ‘Mwsland’ or ‘Llwybyr Magic’. I’ve no idea what the name ‘Mwsland’ means – and I’ve a fair confidence that no one else knows either, for in the photograph drawer upstairs there’s a tiny newspaper cutting saying that no one knows the origin of the name, although it is ‘assumed to be of great antiquity’. As the newspaper cutting now also answers to this description, I assume my mentioning it here will elicit few suggestions! ‘Mws’ is, though, pronounce as in ‘wuss’ or in ‘puss’ and not as in Sarah Palin.
I do however know why Llwybyr Magic – the ‘magic path’ was so called – the explanation being both fairly interesting and oh-what-a-disappointment when you’re little. No, no fairies or witches or even wizards lived at the top of the path – just the man who owned the first magic lantern in town. There was, actually, a third footpath that lead to Aunty Sal’s, but access to it was only possible through the gents’ toilets on the town square – an inconvenience to say the least.
Her home was the last of four tiny, terraced cottages within limping distance of the sea. Nearly always smoky from the open fire and always dark, for the windows were tiny and the back of the house was built literally inches away from a rock face – you blinked as you entered, eyes adjusting.
Opening her front door was to open a treasure chest – for every corner and every inch of her two front rooms were full of things – trinkets, ornaments, cups for rowing won by her sons, postcards, photos from the year dot… The low, beamed ceilings and the sheer fullness of the place gave the impression of a room built on a child’s scale.
Best of all though were the tiny old wooden rocking horse which stood in the kitchen and the drawer of the front room table – a tangled mess of buttons, pencil stubs, fish hooks and feathers, penknives, seashells, tiny pebbles and other bits and pieces that – like Aunty Sal – belonged nowhere else but there. Whilst mum and Sal sat by the fireside, I was allowed open access to it, even though nine-tenths of its contents would nowadays be labelled choking hazards.
Tea was always bread and jam, taken sitting on the old skew by the window, but when in later years I would drink only coffee, Aunty Sal kept a jar of it in especially for me. One of those giant jars – in fact the same giant jar from one year to the next.
When she left home long enough to buy it I’ve no idea, for other than on Sundays when in chapel Aunty Sal was always home. Well, other than when she was up with us already, or on one of those frequent, frequent occasions when we would meet her half way up one of the footpaths, she on her way to us, us on our way to her. And although there were two paths, we never missed each other.
There was, you see, some sort of ‘connection’ between her and my mum, my mum and her. Neither of them spoke of it much – I suppose they didn’t need to – and neither of them would have related to any suggestion of it being a ‘psychic’ link. They were sensible, chapel-going women after all – it was just something that was ‘there’ amongst the women in the family. But whatever the basis of it, they each knew, instinctively, when the other was sad, or in need of company in any way.
Now it’s one thing to accept that two other people have this bond. When I first left home though – going to a job where I found I was terribly unhappy but was too proud to let on – it was Sal who went to tell my mother that Judy fach was breaking her heart and had to come home at once.
And when, a few years later, I awoke inexplicably in the small hours of the morning, tears running down my cheeks and a feeling of sadness and desolation so crushing upon me that I woke Tom for comfort, it was Sal, it later turned out, who had died.
Like all the big sorrows in life, the loss of her was of course far outweighed by all she had given – all she had brought. It’s just it would be nice – sometimes – if we could do it the other way around wouldn’t it? Serve the sadness sentence first and then find it commuted to joy for life.
But that of course is exactly what happens in the cycle of life… it’s just that the joys which eventually pick us up are new ones, or sometimes old ones re-awakened.
In my own case – fear not – I speak neither of necromancy nor resurrectionism but of gardening. No matter how low I feel, I know that there will come a day each year when the outdoors calls me rather than repels – and that once I’m out there I’ll feel better. In my garden I find optimism – my garden is anticipation. In my garden I find calm; in this piece of earth is peace.
Over winter, blogging serves; it sends me searching and wondering and that’s good for the spirit too.
I knew though, a fortnight ago, as the days stretched and the sun began to beam encouragement that the time of beckoning was nigh. I’d gone to buy runner bean seeds for a friend and came out with a lightness of heart and £88 worth of paper wrapped promise – my very own seeds of hope. I’ve no idea where I’ll plant them all – and I probably won’t look after them terribly well – but I’m just going outside… and hope to be gone a very long time…
http://www.ep.tc/mlk/index.html the whole Montgomery Bus Boycott comic
http://www.icue.com/portal/site/iCue/chapter/?cuecard=1335 Sarah Keyes on film
http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A3740-2000Jul29 More about Irene Morgan
http://www.welshfoodie.com/st_dwynwen.htm Brychan’s most beautiful daughter…?
http://www.datingfast.com/poems/Poems.asp?pID=88 A valentine greeting for the young at heart
http://www.corstorphine-trust.ukgo.com/ The Corstorphine Trust’s excellent site
http://www.barcham.co.uk/trees/acer-pseudoplatanus-corstophine-plane-sycamore-corstorphinensecorstophine-plane-sycamore Get your own Corstorphine sycamore here
http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/adsdata/PSAS_2002/pdf/vol_007/7_535_560.pdf The history of the Scottish ‘Maiden’
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2983045.stm OUCH said the fish…