Blogs from March 2009



Being Gobby – 31 March 2009

What’s wrong with people? Don’t they  understand the idea of shopping early for Christmas? What about phrases like “avoid  disappointment” or “whilst stocks last”? Have they no meaning anymore?
There was hail beating its way down Oxford Street.  There were Incas playing pan pipes. But people wouldn’t come in.
Yes it was book signing time again and I  stood like Billy No Mates in Waterstone’s in Swansea. There was a table there  for me. My books displayed neatly. Special stickers saying “Signed by the  Author,”  readily available.
And I stood there with a fixed, rather  manic smile on my face, staring at the door. There was an exclusion zone around  me large enough to shelter an ocean-going tanker from marauding pirates. The  deeper recesses of the shop were quite busy but near me there was no one at  all. Welcome to the Twilight Zone.
I can understand it. I would do the same.  I must have had the air of desperation of a  high street market researcher with limited hygiene, trying to stop someone –  anyone – just for a moment, to show that their life was not a complete waste of  time. When someone like that approaches you, then the flight instinct takes  over. Don’t worry about their feelings. Run away!
I did sell a book to someone I knew (thank  you Scott)  but whenever I did try to  speak to people they regarded me with the kind of horror usually reserved for  old men who keep their relatives locked in a cellar for years.
My friend Jane and her daughter Rebecca  popped in to see me. Jane is always keen to offer advice.
“You know your problem? You are not gobby  enough. Wouldn’t be a problem for me.”
I looked at the stack of books on the table  and realised that she might have a point.   It is just that I thought us writers were supposed to be thoughtful and  reflective. Not at all “gobby.” Still I must try harder. Especially as I have  another signing next Saturday in Border’s in Fforestfach, Swansea.
Perhaps I should offer sweets to entice strangers  to my table, and then wait for the “gobby” gene to kick in. Or just try a different  after shave.



Down at the BBC – 26 March 2009

The BBC studios in Swansea are in a  beautiful building next to the Glyn Vivian Art Gallery and Terry let me in with  a cheery smile. I was not feeling so relaxed myself. I was going to be  interviewed on the Jamie and Louise morning radio programme on Radio Wales. A  significant feature in the landscape of Welsh Radio and I felt that I was  putting myself on view. Every stumble or hesitation would be analysed.  Heads would be shaken. I would be weighed in the balance and found wanting.
The studio itself was not the sort of place  to promote relaxation. There was a comfy chair certainly, but it allowed me  merely to stare down the barrel of a microphone, impersonal, impassive,  unfeeling.
The sound levels were adjusted and I  listened to music I couldn’t recognise, with occasional interruptions from the  producer. There was a feature about a race horse. The trainer sounded so coherent. I was sure I  could not emulate him. Then it was the news and then The Kinks. I was not  Lazing on a Sunday afternoon, no matter how much they tried to persuade me of  its delights. Then suddenly they were ready and I was off, speaking I felt, far  too quickly
I found it quite difficult. I was  separated completely from the usual visual clues you get in a conversation  because, of course, I was entirely alone. But the presenters in Cardiff, Jamie Owen and  Louise Elliott, were excellent. They were very skilled at what they did and  seemed genuinely interested in the book. They may not have been but they  convinced me. They gave me the opportunity to talk about a lot of the stories.  Then there was a pause and Bryan Adams was saying quite clearly that he was  going to “Run to You.”  I don’t know what  you have done but apparently he is on his way.
I was aware of how seamless a radio  programme has to be and how we take for granted the work that makes it so .  Music, trailer, talk. It was comforting to realise that everything was so well  organised and controlled. But it was hard, talking in a vacuum. In the  classroom at least I can see the kids ignoring me.
They asked me about my current researches  and I was able to mention Anglesey where Louise was brought up. I talked about  the training ship The Clio for a while,  on which orphan boys were trained for a life at sea and on which quite a few  died. They are buried in Llandegfan, overlooking the Menai Straight.
And then suddenly it was over and Terry  took me to the door. He thought I had done alright and had been interested in  the stories I had mentioned. I hope everyone else was too.
I stepped out on to the street and looked  around at all the people busily being busy. I stood for a moment and wondered  just how many people in this grey and windy world had actually been listening  to me. Then I went back to school.

Click here to visit the Jamie and Louise webpages



Vandalism – 23 March 2009

We had an email at Welsh Country from the  Lowe family in North Wales. They are the descendants of Harold Godfrey Lowe who  I wrote about in the March edition of the magazine. He was an Officer on The Titanic on the night of the disaster  in 1912 and he behaved with considerable bravery as the terrible events  unfolded. He was calm and unflappable and was regarded by many survivors as the  true hero of The Titanic on that  dreadful night when the ship went down.
We were pleased to be able to recognise his  considerable achievements and bring them to greater attention. Harold Lowe is a  true Welsh Hero and we should remember him with respect. Publishing the article  brought us all into contact with a wider community of Titanic experts across the world, particularly in Australia, and we  all had a sense of achievement that we had done something that met with their  informed approval. We were able to locate his grave too, with the able  assistance of my grandsons Alex and Will, who conducted themselves properly in  the large graveyard but also enjoyed the search.  They really were the ones who found Harold’s  grave up at the top by the wall. I had missed it.
Imagine our shock therefore when, a couple  of weeks after publication, we learned in that email that the graveyard where  Harold rests, in Llandrillo church in Rhos, Llandudno, had been vandalised.  Thankfully Harold’s grave, which is being tidied up at the moment, escaped  damage. But perhaps I shouldn’t say “thankfully.” His memorial might have  escaped but others did not. They were overturned, toppled, broken. The people  they remembered were perhaps less prominent than Harold, but they were equally  as important to someone. And every grave is a story waiting to be discovered.
Of course it is vandalism. Of course it is  mindless. It is probably kids who in the past have been drinking in the  cemetery, according to the Internet report about the damage on the BBC  website.  It is very sad.

Click here to read the news item on the BBC website.

I work with young people and I know that  this sort of thing is what a very small minority get up to, because they think  it is daring and thrilling. They are perhaps trying to show that they are not  afraid of death, one of our ultimate taboos, that they are not prepared to be  bound by our inhibitions, that they are free spirits who can leave their own mark  on our grey world.  But the majority of  our young people are caring and respectful and would never ever think of doing  something like this.
What we need to do is to ensure respect for  the past. We need our children to listen to the voices in the graveyards  telling their stories, and to learn from them. That’s why I write my articles  and my books. We have a responsibility to learn from the past and to remember  the achievements of people like Harold Lowe who did things that are way beyond  the capabilities of most of us.
It is our duty. Those vandals in the  graveyard are lost souls and they deserve our pity as well as our anger.



Wisdom is Better than Rubies – 15 March 2009

I am drawn to  stories about schools. I can’t help it. It is where I have spent my life. So  when I was snuffling about in old newspapers and I saw this, I couldn’t look  away.

A school prize  day in Reynoldston in Gower in 1866. What a wonderful occasion it must have  been.

The school had  about 70 girls and they had clearly spent a long time during the day getting  ready, under the careful guidance of Mrs Rains, their governess. The room had  been decorated with flowers and improving mottos. “Search the Scriptures” and “Wisdom  is better than rubies.” An example there for my classroom I think, once I  have wiped away the spit of course.

Mrs  Rains and the master of the school, Mr. E.G. Harris, didn’t realise how lucky  they were. They had it easy. They didn’t have to deal with chewing gum and  half-empty cans of coke, forgotten and sticky in a corner.

The girls were  blessed by good weather, which always helps I find, since wind and rain usually  makes the little horrors wild. Lunch duty on a day of horizontal rain? That’s  only attractive to the seriously disturbed. But on this famous day the weather  was kind and everything ran smoothly.

I bet the girls  were thrilled with their prizes too for, as we are told, “the awarding of prizes is productive of much good and produces a very salutary  effect on the characters of children generally” They were given “several beautifully bound and valuable  books.” No vouchers for bargain hair extensions for them then. But they did  so much better than the kids in my own school. We handed out Woolworth’s  vouchers on the day before they went out of business. We should have realised  why they were so cheap.
Anyway, the  books “strengthened the endeavours of the  diligent to further diligence.” I am afraid to say that the only effect the  vouchers had in school was to make the kids rather ratty.

Some things don’t  change though. The ones who didn’t receive a prize were “characterised by  thoughtlessness, carelessness and irregular attendance.” I think I know these  girls.

They all had a  good tea, sang the national anthem with enthusiasm and then turned their  attention to “athletic sports.”
Hmm. My girls at  school do exactly the same. And it frightens my boys to death.



World Book Day 2009 – 09 March 2009

It was World Book Day last week and as a  captive writer and teacher I was asked to speak to a group of pupils about  writing.
I turned up in the Library as requested and  soon I had a small group staring at me as if I was some kind of freak. Well,  they have met me before.
I talked to them about the writing process.  I showed them some original sources about the little girl Martha Nash who died  in 1899 when her father may, or may not, have thrown her off Swansea pier. I  wrote about this in the November 2008 edition of Welsh Country Magazine. I thought it was an appropriate story  because she lived close by, on the other side of the river. You can see where  she lived from the library windows at the top of our school.
A long densely packed page of newsprint from The Cambrian newspaper looks so  intimidating. I showed them how I reduced the information to a series of  randomly arranged notes on scrappy bits of paper. Then I displayed my  typewritten version and the pictures I had taken to go with the article. I then  showed them the final product and how the artistic designer uses the material  to create visually interesting pages. Thus they could see the whole process. I  showed them the same thing  with the  recently published piece about Harold Lowe and The Titanic. The additional element here was that the piece had  been sent to be peer-assessed by a Titanic expert in Australia. They could see  the discussions we’d had and the decisions we reached using the “track changes”  facility on Word.. The finished piece in the magazine was impressive too, with  a brilliant photo of The Titanic into  which the text flowed.
The important point I wanted to make as a  teacher was that when you write you always have to revise and re-shape. The  pupils need to do this with their own work. I told them not to worry about the  beginning until they get to the end. You can always organise it all afterwards.  These days, especially with computers, you don’t have to start at the beginning  and go through to the end. Get the words down first, then structure it, that  was my advice. I often find that when I am revising something I move the last  paragraph to the beginning to create a better opening.
None of this though impressed Courtney, who  had other concerns. She wanted to know the date when The Titanic sank. I told her. 15 April 1912. She was most insistent.  Was I sure?  I re-assured her.  Yes, the early hours of Monday  15 April 1912. 2.20 am. A little over 3 hours  after being struck. I was sure. Courtney relaxed. “ That’s  alright then. I don’t want that always  spoiling my birthday.”

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