Review – The Man Who Went Into the West

Cover of The Man Who Went into the West by Byron RogersThe Man Who Went into the West, Byron Rogers
Review from June 8th, 2013

This was… honestly, a bizarre read. R.S. Thomas seems to have been a man of contradictions — funny, stern, hard, tender, quiet, garrulous. At one moment he’s refusing to answer questions about his poems and the next, this:

‘Anyway, they wanted this scene in which Thomas came out of his church and walked down the path. Everything was set up and he appeared in a full surplice. But whether he’d become fed up, I don’t know, for he suddenly raised his arms and started to run towards them, shouting, “I’m a bird, I’m a bird.” It’s not on film. Either the cameraman was too stunned or Thomas was running too fast.’

This is a chatty sort of biography, and not a strictly organised one. I don’t think Byron Rogers even tries to present some kind of unified view of Thomas. He makes it seem impossible, even. He made me laugh at Thomas and feel sorry for him, sometimes in the same moments, and he opened up his poetry to me that bit more in the ways he selected sections to quote.

I loved reading this, and I have a bizarre, amused love for R.S. Thomas. I don’t know whether it would have appalled or tickled the man to know that a little English-speaking Welsh twenty-three year old like me feels this way about him: it’s a tough call to make, it could go either way.

Rating: 5/5

On being Welsh

I went looking for reviews of a book I picked up from the library yesterday, and boy, do I regret it. The book in question is The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley, and the problem was the protagonist’s name. See, the protagonist’s name is Welsh: Myfanwy Thomas. I don’t think you could get much more Welsh unless you had a guy called Evan Evans or something. Now, the author screwed up to begin with, because he decided he didn’t like the way ‘Myfanwy’ is actually pronounced. He wanted it to rhyme with ‘Tiffany’. So that’s what he has his character say, on the first page. That’s… actually annoying enough to me that I’m considering dropping the book without even opening it, but that’s not really the thing.

The thing was, going to look at reviews and finding a whole bunch where the reviewers are just so amused by this weird name. One of them said they constantly read it as ‘my fanny’. Some of them couldn’t spell it, even with it right there in front of them on the book or, even without the book, on the blurb on the very page they were reviewing on.

I remember as a kid asking my mum or dad why I didn’t have a Welsh name, since my mother’s all about being Welsh and proud. The answer I got was, “We thought other kids would make fun of you.” But there I was growing up with a strong Welsh identity in England, so although I’m assured by English people that this doesn’t happen, I was nonetheless bullied for that anyway. And the school sucked at dealing with it: a boy said ‘nigger’ to a friend in the playground, and the whole school got a half hour lecture about cultural sensitivity; I was bullied to tears, called Taffy and thief, on and on, and it was ignored. Inappropriate suggestions about me and sheep were also made, very graphically, from when I was eleven on up, but that wasn’t harassment of any kind.

I didn’t read a book by an author people recognised as Welsh until I was twenty-one (it was Margiad Evans’ Country Dance). In the introduction, Caitrin Collier wrote this:

I grew up in Wales in the 1950s and 60s, yet [Margiad Evans’] work was never mentioned at my school or local library. Whenever I asked the eternal question ‘What should I read next?’ I was directed towards Russian, English, American, German and French novelists. I discovered a few — a precious few — Welsh authors for myself, which only added weight to my teachers’s pronouncement that ‘people like you (translate as South Wales valley born) don’t write’.

That was my experience, too, though granted in England in the 90s and 00s. It mirrors stuff I’ve read about the experience of many more widely recognised minorities — people of colour, the queer community, women, people of non-dominant religions… Some of the discussions I’ve had about figuring out identity, about language — specifically, not speaking your ‘own’ language, or being encouraged not to — and fitting in all chimed with this issue for me.

I pointed out to a couple of these reviewers what kind of cultural issues they were trampling on. But nobody gives a shit, it’s ‘only’ Wales, it’s just a personal sob story about a name that isn’t even mine. (The fact that I don’t have a Welsh name because of exactly these issues doesn’t seem to mean anything.)

“Go and find your own place to tell these stories,” someone said to me, when I brought up that issue of identifying with those issues of other minority groups. “People will listen to you because you’re privileged, and they won’t listen to us. By talking about it here, you’re taking away the attention we need for our issues.”

I can understand why they wanted to keep the boundaries of their space clear, but I wonder why on earth they thought anyone would listen to me? I’m still looking for that mythical place where people will. Half the time, I find myself wondering if I’ve got anything interesting to say at all, but every now and then, someone else reaches back and says, yeah, I felt this too. So I’m not quite alone.

Review – The Water-castle

Cover of The Water-Castle by Brenda ChamberlainThe Water-castle, Brenda Chamberlain

There’s something strangely absorbing about The Water-castle. The relationship between Elizabeth and Klaus feels painfully real, which of course is because this is partially autobiographical. If it were a romance story, they’d have found some way to be together. As it is, it’s something real and painful, and unresolved.

Brenda Chamberlain’s writing is relatively simplistic, as if this really is a woman’s journal where she bears her thoughts without constructing them for an audience, which makes it work all the better. I’m glad in the finished version, she went with the ambiguous ending rather than the dramatic one: I’m not sure how the latter would have worked with this story; I don’t think it would have fit.

Book prescription

I’ve been planning to be fairly up front about all aspects of my identity here — yes, I’m sure that means that if some potential employers found my blog, that might be a mark against me. But I want to be a whole person, and not compartmentalise stuff where I can’t see it myself half the time. Which, hey, potential employers? That takes bravery, and self-knowledge. Just sayin’.

I started with a new counsellor today. Now, despite all I said above, this blog isn’t about my mental health issues, I promise. What is relevant, though, is that my new counsellor wrote out a book prescription for me. That sounds like a really weird concept, but I promise you, it’s a real thing. You can get more information about the scheme in Wales here. Basically, though, it means that counsellors all over Wales have a pool of books that they can recommend to their clients about various different disorders and emotional problems, and those books are easy to access because each branch of each library has at least one copy.

I’ll review the book I was given here in time — it’s Panic Attacks, by Christine Ingham — but I just wanted to say a word or two about the process, to begin with. I don’t know how helpful this is going to be for me in particular, but I think it’s a valuable service that might help people access books that teach coping mechanisms and show them, most of all, that they’re not alone.

So what happened was that my counsellor wrote out the “prescription” for me. It’s a pretty simple form, just stating your name and address and a code for the book (not the title of it). You then go to a local library and present that. In my case, I had to present it a couple of times while they figured out where in the library I was meant to go! But it’s not so bad, and they didn’t make any comments about the fact that I had a book prescription, or when they found the book for me, what book had been chosen for me. When you get a book out on this scheme, the person prescribing it will suggest a length of time you can have the book. In the Cardiff area, at least, it goes on your library card as one of your total, and you can return it to any branch, but you can’t renew it yourself.

And that’s it. You go home with your prescribed book and… hopefully read it and get something out of it. I think it’s an interesting initiative: if I have any more to say on it, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, here are some of the books on the subject I’ve read in the past that are worth a look:

Loving What Is and I Need Your Love: Is that True? by Byron Katie
Introducing Mindfulness by Tessa Watt
(A Very Short Introduction to) Anxiety by Daniel Freeman