26 Feb 2015

My Granny's tarts, Michael Sheen, what a poet said, and other stories

Granny's oil lamp c.1930
Story 1
My Granny James lived in a house with no gas or electricity. The cottage was lit by oil-lamps. 'How did she cook?' I asked my mother when I was home in Wales last week. 'On a hotplate in front of the open coal fire, in saucepans,' she said. 'But we had an oil-fired oven too though I can't remember how it worked. But I do remember her baking Maids of Honour.'

Now I remember my mother's Maids of Honour from when I was a kid: a shortcrust pastry case filled with a dollop of jam, sponge mixture poured on top and baked. They were golden domes with sweet hearts and a perfect marriage of textures.

Story 2
Last night I watched Michael Sheen's 'Valleys Rebellion' (BBC 2 Wales) on iPlayer which juxtaposes the 19th century account of South Wales Chartists and the Newport Rising, 19 of whom were killed in a single day in their fight to gain the vote with the apparent political disillusionment in Wales today. But it's not the presence of apathy, Sheen comes to recognise, that keeps so many people in the Valleys from voting these days, but the absence of hope in a landscape of post-industrial bleakness, unemployment and poverty. The absence of hope? How can that be happening in a first world country in the 21st century? Something is terribly broken.

Hungry writing prompt
Write about what you think is broken.

What a poet said
In his long poem, 'Advice to a Young Poet'* the late Welsh poet and politically engaged writer and editor, Nigel Jenkins speaks of the importance of knowing where we come from, where we live:

Know your place. What legends and myths
have had their shaping here?
What stories, novels, histories?
And who have been denied a voice?

The Chartist movement was born from voicelessness: an increasingly frustrated working class who had no right to vote, no say in their harsh working and living conditions within a feudal system run by industrial capitalists. Their petition to parliament in 1839 asking for the vote for all men over 21 and a fairer electoral system, for annual elections, the payment of MPs, and the introduction of a secret ballot sounds eminently reasonable today but the petition was rejected by 235 votes to 46. In November 1839 around 5,000 men from the valleys marched on Newport. Did they imagine the violence ahead of them? The death and transportation of friends? Would they have gone if they'd known their militant action would not achieve any political end in itself? 

Other stories 
Nigel Jenkins at Tre'r Caeri on the
Lleyn peninsula, North Wales, 2012
If it hadn't been for Nigel Jenkins' encouragement I doubt I would have written Real Port Talbot. He believed in my ability to tell the town's stories before I knew I could. Getting to know the town, to quote Nigel again, 'its rocks, its soils', 'maps and histories', and 'those who filled their lungs here' changed me as a person and a writer. I discovered that the stories that prop up our past make us who we are. The history of our family, our community, our country and its people make us so much more than one person walking through life alone. And writing that book has inspired me to write another that will tell the stories of the lives and times of my great and greater grandmothers from Carmarthenshire, women who lived between 1750 and 1950, who saw Wales change before their eyes but had very little, if any, voice in those changes, or even in their own lives. 

Can hope start there? With feeling richer for knowing the stories of our past? It's probably too simplistic, after all, food feeds people, not stories, and Sheen's visit to the Rhymney food-bank illustrates the need for the most basic of practical help in some of the communities he visited. 

But on another visit he met with the United Valleys Action Group, people from the Rhymney Valley who have come together with a single voice to fight for their community through democratic channels. This is the manifestation of hope. And belief too. 

We all have to act. Inform ourselves. Take part in something bigger than ourselves. Our past maybe. Or our future.