Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Martha at her desk........

I found this charming illustration on Twitter some years ago.  Can't quite read the artist's name.  Anyway, it will fit the bill as an illustration of Martha at work, at her desk, scribbling away in her diary..........

A Character a Day: (4) Bessie Walter, Lady's Maid

Bessie Walter, lady’s maid

(Spoiler alert -- don't read this if you don't want to know what happened.....)

Bessie is one of the key characters in the story of Martha and Plas Ingli. She is at the Plas when Martha arrives in 1796, and she is still there when Martha goes (apparently) to her grave in 1855. She was born Bessie Gruffydd in 1776, and starts at the Plas in 1795. Later, after the adventures recounted in On Angel Mountain, Bessie leaves to marry the merchant Benji Walter in 1799. She then experiences tragedy after only three years of happiness, when she loses both her husband and small son in the year 1802. She comes back to the Plas as Martha’s special servant, and is in that position position when David is murdered and during the period in which Martha has to survive as a young widow with a growing family, and at the same time must learn how to run the estate single-handed. 

So Martha’s relationship with Bessie is forged in the fire, and becomes virtually unbreakable. At this time, when Bessie is in her prime, I picture her as very pretty and petite, with a strength born of hard labour in kitchen and harvest field. There are many men who desire her, and Dai Darjeeling remains madly in love with her for many years. She enjoys his attentions, and probably, away from the pages of the book, enjoys an interesting sex life when Mistress Martha is otherwise occupied. As the children grow older Bessie takes over as housekeeper in the year 1812. From that point on she becomes a fierce and efficient successor to the formidable Mrs Owen who was housekeeper when the Saga began.

It is to Bessie that Martha entrusts the last of her diaries, which are then found among her possessions long after her "apparent" death at the age of 81. That is entirely appropriate, because the relationship between Bessie and Martha is in some ways more intimate than that between a wife and a husband. A lady’s maid at the time of the stories would have spent a good part of every day in her company. She would have brushed her hair, laid out her clothes, scrubbed her back in the tin bath, made her bed, lit her fire every morning, emptied her chamber pot, and disposed of bloody rags at the times of her peri- ods. She would have been with her in episodes of childbirth and times of grief. 

Little wonder then that Bessie should be more of a friend than a servant almost from the beginning of the stories. She hardly ever over-steps the mark, and she always shows due respect to her mistress, and a good deal of discretion; but she knows Martha almost too well, and is occasionally so impertinent that she risks in- stant dismissal. She knows Martha will not dismiss her whatever she may do or say, because she is absolutely invaluable; in any case, she is Martha’s conscience.

When Liza takes over as Martha’s personal maid, the two women never develop quite the same sort of relationship, partly because Liza has a husband and a life outside the Plas. So even when Bessie is housekeeper, she and Martha remain the closest of friends, and Bessie is normally that person whose duty it is to take Martha to one side and to tell her that she is behaving selfishly or unkindly to- wards other people. At times she is brutally honest, and at times even cruel, but because Martha loves her so much she is prepared to accept criticism from her in a manner that she would never accept from anyone else. The only other woman who has the temerity to admonish Martha occasionally is Grandma Jane in the early part of the Saga, but she speaks to Martha more as a mother would speak to a child, and that relationship has nothing like the same intimacy as that between Martha and Bessie.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

A character a day (3): Joseph Harries the Wizard

One of the pages from the Big Book of wizard John Harries (no relation) bearing instructions for a "conjuration".  It's a miracle that some pages from this volume have survived -- they are kept in the National Library of Wales.

Joseph Harries the Wizard

(Spoiler alert:  the following gives information which new readers may prefer not to know.....)

Joseph Harries of Werndew is one of the key characters in the story. He was born in 1761 and died in 1826 at the age of 65. In Martha’s time, wizards (or “knowing men”) were greatly respected. Joseph Harries really did exist -- there are a number of folk tales about him. In reality, it seems that he might not have been a very nice fellow! And he did live at Werndew, just above the village of Dinas on the north side of the mountain ridge. The cottage was, and still is, within walking distance of Carningli and Plas Ingli. 

But in my mind, and in the stories, Joseph is a herbalist, mystic, apothecary, surgeon, psychiatrist, sleuth, diplomat, counsellor and master of the arts of observation and deduction. He is a scientist, as well as being a man of culture. He knows several foreign languages and is familiar with many of the esoteric books on which the world’s great religions are based. On occasion he retreats into his cottage before emerging, exhausted, with answers to very complicated questions; but there is always the possibility that he is a “charlatan” with a superior intellect and an ability to observe things and make deductions in the manner of a prototype Sherlock Holmes. Whether or not he is familiar with the denizens of the spirit world, he certainly does have a vast range of abilities, acquired during years of careful study under a variety of great teachers, whom he mentions every now and then. We cannot doubt that in some way he is the inheritor of the wisdom of the Druids, who were reputed to be active in this area at the time of the Roman invasion and who might have had a grove in Tycanol Wood.

Joseph is a stout and loyal friend to Martha, and a friend to many others as well. Sometimes he charges for his services, or over-charges in certain cases, on the basis that his services provided to the poor are generally free. So as well as being a Sherlock Holmes, he is also a Robin Hood figure, loved by the poor and hated by at least some of the rich. He is also Martha’s knight in shining armour, who rides to her defence from his place across the mountain whenever he senses that she is in distress or in danger.

But while Joseph is always good humoured, eccentric, witty and supportive of others, he is also a tragic figure. As the stories unfold he reveals very little about himself and his family background, for as he explains to Martha, it is in his own interests to maintain an air of mystery about who he is, where he has come from, and where he will go to when his task on earth is done. But in one sensitive moment he admits to Martha that he was once married and that he lost his wife and child in childbirth. He dies after a horrible accident, gored by a bull during the course of a routine visit requested by one of the estates. There is irony as well as tragedy in that, since Joseph says many times that he enjoys working with animals. 

He loves Martha from the the very beginning of the stories. This might be suspected by the reader, but Martha never realizes it until Joseph confesses it to her when he is on his death-bed. Even then he can try to make light of it, and when he has gone to his grave Martha finds the situation very difficult to bear, blaming him for his foolishness in allowing his emotions to get the better of him, and blaming herself for her blindness as to the reality of the situation.

Joseph knows, from the beginning of their relationship, that his love for Martha will never be requited, because she is a member of the gentry and he is a disreputable wizard with nothing but a small cottage and a pretty garden to his name. In any case, he is almost old enough to be her father. So he loves and worships her from a distance, gaining comfort from their close and easy relationship, and some physical pleasure from their frequent embraces.

He is quite a mysterious figure, and by all accounts he has a little fan club all of his own!

Monday, 29 June 2020

A character a day (2): Moses Lloyd

Welsh actor Dylan Dwyfor, who would fit the bill very well as Moses.......

Moses Lloyd

(Spoiler alert:  if you don't want to spoil your enjoyment of the first novel, read no further.....)

Moses Lloyd, the villain of On Angel Mountain, is the disinherited third son of the old Squire of Cwmgloyn. He has a very murky past, which is gradually revealed as the story unfolds. He has a gigantic grudge against the world in general, and against the Morgan family in particular. He has upset his father and alienated his own brothers, but he refuses to admit to his own shortcomings and blames Martha and her family for his own miserable station in life. He feels that he has gentry blood in his veins and that he therefore deserves respect from those around him whom he considers to be inferior. They give him no respect, apart from the respect which is accorded to all of the servants at the Plas who know their jobs and who work hard, and as time passes his resentment grows deeper and darker.

He has committed truly sickening crimes against the Morgan family, and before the story starts he has already killed six people. He lives in a state of denial regarding all of his crimes, considering that the Plas Ingli fortune is rightly his, and that murder and arson are somehow justifiable as part of his strategy to take possession of it. He stays at the Plas only because he is quite determined to drive the family away from the house and to dig up the treasure which he has buried in the ground. He has a hatred of hard work and an in- stinct for a life of debauchery, and although he despises the labour- ing class he is happy enough to drink with those who belong to it and to be involved in petty crime in the disreputable taverns of Newport.

He is probably mad even at the very beginning of the story, but he is not unattractive, and at first Martha is quite intrigued by him. He has striking eyes and strong features, and a bronzed and fit body. He is also well educated and well spoken. He is attractive to women, and he knows it. He believes that he is much more hand- some and more cultured than David, Martha’s husband, and there- fore expects that it will not be too difficult to prise her away from the man to whom she is married. His problem, and indeed his tragedy, is that he then falls in love with Martha and becomes obsessed with the idea of possessing her. When she rejects him, and ultimately humiliates him in front of all of the inhabitants of the Plas, he flees, cursing the family that has given him shelter and work, and swear- ing that he will have his revenge. He also swears to himself that he will possess Martha, if necessary by force. With insane logic he also decides that he must cut Martha’s face in order to destroy her beauty and thus destroy the source of her power over him.

Moses may or may not know that Martha has worked out for herself the extent of his evil, and he certainly underestimates the strength of her character. He cannot tear himself away from the Plas, and so he stays in the vicinity, living on and off in Martha’s cave while he awaits an opportunity to fulfill his appalling ambition. The final scene of On Angel Mountain was a very difficult one to write, because I had to portray a pregnant woman in extreme danger and a man who is brutal and deranged - and who might sound rational but is actually quite mad. The explicit descriptions of the brutal sexual assault in the cave took me a very long time to get right, but on looking back I’m reasonably content with it.

Once Moses has been dumped into the cleft in the rocks by an exhausted Martha, he is gone but by no means forgotten, for the ex- perience leaves Martha deeply scarred physically and mentally. She hates Moses for what he has done and what he has tried to do to her, and indeed she admits in her confession that she killed him inten- tionally, that she knows no remorse and seeks no forgiveness. But later her hatred is ameliorated to some degree when she discovers something about his childhood. There is madness in the Lloyd family, and Martha discovers that when Moses was young he was sub- jected to extreme cruelty by his father, and had expectations dumped upon him which he could not possibly fulfill. Whether a childhood destroyed by abuse is sufficient to excuse the villain’s abominable behaviour is down to the reader to decide.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

A character a day (1): Martha Morgan

Mistress Martha, portrayed by Rhiannon James for our photo shoot a few years ago.  The photographer was Steve Mallett.

Just for fun, I'll post up a brief biography of one of the characters from the story each day until I get fed up!  Some of the character sketches will be from "Martha Morgan's Little World" and others will be published here for the first time.  Enjoy!

One has to start with Mistress Martha Morgan herself -- diary writer, wife, mother, lover, heroine and amateur psychic.  If it wasn't for her, there would have been no Angel Mountain narrative......

About Martha

At the beginning of On Angel Mountain Martha is pregnant, confused and suicidal. She is suffering from morning sickness, and she has just been forced into a hasty marriage by a family obsessed with status and reputation. She loves her new husband David, but so low is her own self-esteem that she thinks he will be happier without her. From that low point she gradually struggles uphill to achieve some sort of equilibrium, and with the support of her new family (and new friends like the Wizard of Werndew) she discovers that she is loved and appreciated by others. As the very young mistress of a struggling estate she starts to assert herself -- then she loses her baby and plunges into a black and very prolonged depression. Is she a manic depressive? Probably not -- but then I’m not a psychiatrist! She certainly wallows in her misery, on that occasion and on a number of others later in the stories, but she does have a capacity for switching from misery to elation quite rapidly -- and as she grows older, she learns how to banish her demons. And she is anything but a self-obsessed introvert.

She has many virtues, as befits a heroine. She is more liberal, more tolerant and more free-thinking than she has any right to be, and in that sense she lives “outside her period in history.” But that’s how she came to me, and I had to be true to the picture of her which I held in my mind’s eye ever since that strange night of delirium on Gran Canaria. Over and again I pondered whether I was creating “a modern woman in fancy dress”, but repeatedly I decided that every heroine worth her salt has to stand out from the crowd, and has to be more beautiful, more passionate, more impetuous, more intelligent than all of the other women who wander in and out of the stories. Think of Lizzie Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, or Moll Flanders, or Jane Eyre, or Portia and Ophelia in the works of Shakespeare! If they were not “over the top” in some way, would we remember them?

One of Martha’s characteristics is her unpretentiousness. Most of the members of her class kept their distance from labourers, servants and tenants in the early nineteenth century, and worked hard at maintaining their status and protecting privilege and power. In the stories, Martha hates all of that, and is drawn instinctively to the underprivileged. She identifies far more closely with Patty the prostitute than she does with Mistress Maria Rice, and not just because the latter is mean-spirited and arrogant. Her biggest friends, as she goes through life, are Ellie Bowen and Mary Jane Laugharne, who share her instinct for philanthropy and her dislike for pretension. And then, in Flying with Angels, when the large and earthy Mistress Delilah Gwynne bursts upon the scene, she can hardly contain her delight at the discovery of a kindred spirit. Martha’s close identification with the poor is forced upon her to some degree by the circumstances in which the Morgan family finds itself -- effectively bankrupt, and brought low by the inferno which destroyed all the estate buildings and which killed five members of the family.

 But there was no gaping gulf between the gentry and the “lower classes” in Wales, partly because most of the gentry were less affluent than their counterparts in England and partly because there was much less cash in circulation. The estates were smaller and very vulnerable. “In kind” payments were common, and there was a complex system of debt recording and debt adjustment among members of the same class and among different classes too. Meals were shared, and work was shared. Very strong friendships were forged between the masters and mistresses of the smaller estates and their servants, tenants and labourers -- and the sort of social divide that we become aware of in Pride and Prejudice existed only on the biggest estates. In her relationships with those who might be below her socially, Martha is picking up on the easy familiarity which already exists in the relationships between Grandma Jane and Mrs Owen or between David and Billy. But she takes that familiarity and mutual respect to a new level, and makes bonds that are so tight as to make Plas Ingli a unique and wonderful place. If the house is inhabited by angels, then Martha clearly has more than a little to do with it.

So for better or for worse, Martha is a nineteenth-century version of super-woman. From the beginning she is very beautiful and very sexy, and as she blossoms into womanhood she gains a reputation as the most beautiful woman in Wales. Little wonder that many readers have said that Catherine Zeta Jones has to play her when the film comes to be made! She is well educated, and has a very enquiring mind. She is a competent musician and a moderately talented artist. She speaks English, Welsh, French and Dimetian Welsh fluently. She reads widely, and is attracted to “subversive” or radical literature. Her liberal views frequently lead her into trouble, and it is quite natural that she should be concerned about the plight of slaves and convicts and all those who might be oppressed or victimized by the crown, the government, and impersonal institutions. She has concerns about voting reform and womens’ rights, and she sympathises with the Chartists -- at least until they start to split apart and lose control of extremist elements. She is immediately drawn to the Rebecca Rioters since she understands what their grievances are and sees (better than most of her peers) what happens to families struggling against poverty and disease. She is not particularly religious, but goes through the motions of being a worthy member of the established church and goes through life trying to be a “better person.” She flirts with Methodism for a while, and finds the devotion and kindness of the Non-conformists appealing. But at the same time she is irritated by their evangelical zeal and their unshakeable conviction that they are saved while others are condemned to hellfire and damnation. She is, as she admits now and then in the pages of her diaries, not averse to a little jolly sin now and then. She is also perfectly happy to shelter criminals, to drink smuggled gin, to tell lies, and to withhold her tithe payments in protest against the arrogance and insensitivity of the Church.

But Martha has a host of virtues too. She is brave, loyal to her husband and her family, and fiercely protective of those in her care once she is widowed and responsible for the safety of the Plas Ingli estate. She has enormous generosity of spirit, and makes spontaneous gestures of support when others might back off. Think about the welcome she gives to Patty the prostitute, or to Will the petty criminal, or to Zeke Tomos, who goes on to betray her. She often acts impulsively and on the basis of intuition and instinct. She makes huge self-sacrifices for the good of others. She puts herself in danger over and again, often because she is seeking to help those who do not necessarily deserve her assistance or her loyalty. For example, she plunges into the task of helping the sick and the dying during the cholera epidemic of 1797 without any thought for her own wellbeing. She goes to Ireland to help the starving during the Irish Potato Famine, and becomes seriously ill in the process. She sees beauty all around her, and takes an almost child-like pleasure in simple things -- such as standing on the mountain-top in the wind with her hair streaming behind her and her arms stretched out wide. She loves her children and her grand-children, and welcomes back Daisy, the black sheep of the family, when she returns after years of loose living in London. She fights to keep her family together when stresses and strains occur because of grief, or bankruptcy or other disasters. On those occasions she is a diplomat as well as a matriarch. In some ways she is also naive, and has a tendency to think well of others when suspicion might be more appropriate. But she trusts her family and her servants to look after her when she makes misjudgments, and indeed they do just that. She is a prudent and wise estate manager, and she knows how to inspire loyalty, give responsibility to others, and reward enterprise. She never stops learning, and wants others to learn and to better themselves -- to the extent that she becomes a great benefactor of the Circulating Schools. She is generous to a fault, and one of the ironies of the Saga is that having protected her precious treasure and left it in the ground as a “family insurance” for more than fifty years, she finally digs it up and gives most of it away.

As mentioned in Chapter 3, the thing that I love most about Martha is her sheer bloody-mindedness and her determination that she will not be overwhelmed by grief or misfortune, or even betrayal, and that she will bounce up again with a smile on her face whenever she is knocked down. That resilience is the characteristic that I admire most in other people. Martha is no victim and no stoic. And she is not exactly serene or gentle either. She is too much of a fighter to aspire to sainthood -- but maybe she does have some of the virtues of an angel. When readers say to me “Poor Martha! What a miserable life she has!” I have to remind them that she actually has quite a lot of fun. She has an active sex life well into old age, and enjoys the love and loyalty of all the “angels” who look after her. She makes opportunities for herself to do all sorts of exciting things, including riding out with the Rebecca Rioters when she is in her mid-sixties! And she never ceases to take pleasure in striding out over the common, climbing among the crags on her sacred mountain, lying on her back in the middle of a flower meadow on a June day, or watching butterflies and lizards with her children and then her grandchildren. She has jovial and influential friends too, and a busy social life surrounded by admirers. And more often than I care to mention, she seems to enjoy the freedom of being a “merry widow.” How many times, one wonders, was the episode on the last page of Rebecca and the Angels repeated, maybe in the company of other gentlemen?

And so to Martha’s vices. There are plenty of these. Her wild swings of mood make her difficult to live with, and her impulsive and erratic actions sometimes bring family and friends to the edge of despair. She does become very self-obsessed at times, and has to be reminded quite forcefully (by Grandma Jane, Bessie and Mrs Owen) that she should think more of the impacts of her actions on those who love her. She weeps a lot for the sins of the world and for the suffering of others -- but maybe that is a virtue rather than a vice. She is economical with the truth when it suits her, and she is sometimes quite devious in her behaviour. She learns how to “use the system” and does it frequently. In House of Angels, when she comes to realize what a devastating impact her beauty has on almost all the men whom she meets, she becomes arrogant and manipulative -- and again has to be admonished for her insensitivity. In Dark Angel she displays other sides of her character of which she would not be proud. She becomes besotted and obsessed with little Brynach, and “loses” her own children emotionally. She does not even see their suffering for what it is. She becomes paranoid about The Nightwalker, and mistrusts those who are trying to protect her from herself. She interferes endlessly in other people’s business, and throughout her life she displays a tendency for getting involved in mighty issues that would be best left to others to sort out. In Rebecca and the Angels she tries to tackle the tollgate grievances by becoming an honest broker or go-between, working with the Turnpike Trusts on the one hand and the small farmers on the other. In Flying with Angels she even tries to end the Irish Potato Famine by travelling over to Ireland with nothing in her bag besides good intentions! As she gets older she becomes more and more eccentric, and by the time she strikes up her relationship with Amos Jones, in the last ten years of her life, she seems actually to revel in her irresponsible and unpredictable behaviour, to the embarrassment of children and grandchildren.

Occasionally Martha seems heartless when confronted by the suffering of others -- but we must not forget that Martha lives in an age which is brutal and in which death is very much a part of life. She kills three men (Moses Lloyd, Barti Richards and Zeke Tomos) with her own hands, and watches others die in horrible circumstances. She also sends many other men to the gallows and to the penal colonies through her personal determination to see justice done. Vengeance -- rather than the tendency to deep depression -- is Martha’s greatest demon. She agonizes about it in many sections of her dairies, wondering over and again whether she has allowed her noble and single-minded quest for justice to be transformed into a monster called “revenge”. At times she knows that she has taken too much pleasure from the sight of a judge with a black cap on his head, and she recoils from what she sees inside her own mind. She is indeed a heroine who is far from perfect -- and maybe that is why readers seem to love her as I do.........

(This exploration of Martha's character was written before the publication of Guardian Angel, Sacrifice and Conspiracy of Angels.  So adapt accordingly........)

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

The Mari Lwyd Tradition

This is a recording from St Fagans Museum, 2011.  There were variations from one part of Wales to another........

Saturday, 20 June 2020

The Celestial Empire and the troglodytes

Merthyr Tydfil, the Celestial Empire and the troglodytes

One of the most exotic (is that the right word?) locations used in the Angel Mountain saga is the place called "China" in Merthyr Tydfil, in the middle of the industrial complex that grew with phenomenal speed around six ironworks as the global demand for iron accelerated. Martha gets involved with helping the poor in China, and encounters the "Emperor of China" in the process. He is one of the more colourful characters in the saga.

Some information:

An extract from Carolyn Jacob: Old Merthyr Tydfil:

Keith Strange's fascinating article called ‘The Celestial City’ describes ‘China’ as a den of drunkards, thieves, rogues and prostitutes, whose general behaviour was completely foreign to the normal hard working respectable Welsh Chapel way of life. He once said that he thought the term ‘China’ might have arisen because Britain had a long ‘Opium War’ with China and the early nineteenth century newspapers are full of stories of China as the dreadful land of our enemies, and foreigners; equally ‘China’ in Merthyr Tydfil was the land of undesirables and foreigners (possibly also the place where opium could be smoked). China was in the news and it was known that here was the ‘Forbidden City’ which no one could enter and return from alive. Few strangers were able to return safely from ‘China’ in Merthyr Tydfil with all their possessions. The attitude of police was that you entered China at your peril; certainly the police themselves did not dare go into China. Entering China was not easy as the district was bounded by water, a dangerous smoking tip and a row of large dwellings, the entrance to ‘China’ was under an arch and there were door-keepers to send messages warning the residents. However, by the 1880s there were reports in the Merthyr Express that ‘Old China is not the same’. Gradually ‘China’ declined; the professional criminals moved to Cardiff for richer pickings and in the twentieth century ‘Riverside’, which also had an entrance under an arch, became the most notorious part of the town.

From Chapter 7 of "Guardian Angel";

Above the cellars of China, and elsewhere too, there were great cinder tips which gave off acrid fumes and occasionally burst into flames for reasons that I could not fathom. They were fed from the coke ovens and blast furnaces, and they covered more land than the iron works and housing areas combined. One or two of the older and cooler cinder tips held communities of troglodytes; homeless children had excavated tunnels and caves inside them, where they felt warm and safe. Safe from adult robbers and thugs, maybe. But God only knows how many of them were suffocated by fumes or crushed when their tunnels collapsed on top of them. Many of the boys belonged to a class known as “the Rodneys” and they survived on begging and petty thieving, sometimes on their own account and sometimes under the control of older and experienced criminals. They measured their status by the number of times they had been arrested and convicted; and they had no respect either for the police or the magistrates. I saw some of them in court, where they postured and bragged, swore at the magistrates and took pleasure in demonstrating that they were beyond control and beyond redemption. They actually seemed to enjoy their short spells in gaol, for there they were able to luxuriate in clean clothes, dry accommodation, and food in their bellies.

Monday, 15 June 2020

General Sir Thomas Picton in the spotlight again.......

An artist's impression of the death of Sir Thomas Picton on the battlefield at Waterloo

Here is my interview with BBC Radio Wales on Sir Thomas Picton, broadcast in 2012 around the time of the publication of the last Angel Mountain story, "Conspiracy of Angels."

He was a deeply unpleasant character, by all accounts -- and it will be interesting to see how local assessments of his reputation will now be revised, in the light of the "Black Lives Matter" movement....

Artist's impression of the torture of Louisa Calderon,  the episode that led him into a high-profile trial involving the famous lawyer William Garrow, and to the destruction of his reputation.

Saturday, 6 June 2020

Spring did not know

The title of this poem comes from a "poetic memo" which did the rounds, in a number of different versions,  on Facebook in March.  It has been stuck inside my head for the past two months or more, and I was moved to write down the words that have come to me......


Spring did not know

A strange thing,
Alive but not alive,
came by stealth.
In places where people lived,
They were there all right, hidden
behind locked doors
peeping through curtains
and discovering Facetime.
Some venturing out 
to walk their dogs
and then
scuttling in again
to watch televised updates, 
and sidling out furtively
at times agreed 
to fetch cardboard boxes
by the gate,
holding bread and milk and eggs
dropped off by neighbours.

But spring did not know.

The sun shone, and daffodils nodded
and celandines glowed on unkempt lawns.
In hedgerows, primroses
and snowdrops came and went
and beneath the bud-bursting trees, wood anemones.
Birdsong too, with a blackbird
on his birch tree, in full voice.
And high up against the cloudless sky
buzzards, kites and ravens.

In places where once people worked
and shopped and ate and drank and talked, 
there was silence
broken only by an ambulance, fast and noisy,
and two policemen, far apart,
talking in whispers,
and a plump lady jogging
and a flock of pigeons
missing their crumbs,
complaining in the market square. 

But spring did not know.

The leaves came
and a dappled woodland floor 
became a place of shade
and humming insects.
The sun shone
and then it rained
and then the sun shone again.
The bluebells came, then foxgloves,
red campion, buttercup 
and cow parsley.
A robin hatched its eggs
and the cuckoo did its mischief.
Above teetering cliffs capped by thrift
a flock of choughs somersaulted in the eddies
and their chattering
drowned out the waves.

In town
a paper bag fluttered across the street
and was impaled on a rose bush.
In number six Oak Terrace
Jane finished novel number ten.
Somewhere else, Amir saved a life.
In number fifty-nine Billings Grove
Harry played a silly game
with Nathan, who was three.
Shaun and Anwen,
on the lawn 
for the fiftieth time, 
pounded out their fitness regime.
Jack enjoyed a wild Zoom birthday
and Sally talked to her son
who was in Paris,
locked in.
David fed a giraffe 
because that was his job.
Edwin painted rainbows
and Mark and Sophie
who were twins
five years old
made twenty blue masks
for kind people to use.
Then Bobby
delivered groceries to Mabel,
who was eighty-six,
but not to Cyril,
who was dead.
Somewhere else, Amir saved a life.
A man in a suit addressed the nation
and Susie stopped crawling
and walked.

In a slow miracle, 
those who survived
learned how to breathe,
and listen to the wind
and love one another,
to care for those they did not know, 
and talk
and dream
and clap
and sing.

Then it was over
They cheered, they hugged, 
and wept,
and danced in the streets.
And now, they said, 
life gets back to normal.
But the old normal was another world,
another time,
long gone, not missed.

But summer did not know. 


 © Brian John, June 2020


Friday, 15 May 2020

A Writer's Journey -- in 28 articles

An inside look at one writer’s world

A catalogue of 28 LinkedIn articles


Humour in serious fiction -- what would we do without it?

Mistress Martha has a little chat with the Rector -- about sex and sin…….

Martha meets Beau Brummell

The fiendish challenge of the fictional diary

Advice from a writer: never forget your P's

Amazon and Kindle Analytics

Rebranding —a necessary evil?

Wales and the English

Battles in the Sky — and tragedies to come

Captain Cornetto’s Mandarin, and other matters…

In praise of symbols

The Rebecca Riots

The Mari Lwyd

Black History Month coming up…..

Do ravens ever die?

Wales — exploited by broadcasters, but never properly portrayed

TV costume drama and the USP issue

Daisy — the black sheep of Martha’a family

Amos Jones, minor prophet

Martha Morgan, avenging angel

Cnapan — how rugby REALLY started

Rough justice

The supporting cast

The strange link between a night of delirium and a publishing milestone

Narrative and allegory

Martha Morgan — a formidable challenge

Martha Morgan — the spooky back story

A sense of place

The role of humour in serious fiction

One of the first things that impressed me in the reading of Shakespeare's plays (he was, after all, quite good at his job) was his use of fools, clowns, eccentrics and humour at intervals in even the darkest of tragedies.  He realised that you cannot tell a dark story successfully if you do not have moments in which you lift the gloom and let in the light -- and the plays are full of richly comic characters.  This principle of light and shade has, perhaps, been forgotten about in many recent TV dramas; one of the reasons why I got a bit fed up with the successful series called "Hinterland" in the end was that it was unremittingly gloomy.  Hardly anybody ever smiled, let alone laughed, and the viewer was dragged in to the misery portrayed on screen.  Celtic Noir, on the model (quite consciously) of Scandi Noir...........

Many of the great novelists realised the importance of comedic episodes too.  Just think Dickens and his catalogue of rogues, villains and eccentrics!  Some of them are seriously weird, if not creepy and grotesque -- but it is because of their presence that the Dickens novels, when translated onto the screen, become so colourful and so memorable.  We don't remember the words -- just the images.

In my own small way I have tried to emulate the masters in the eight novels of the Angel Mountain saga -- and in my writing I quite deliberately tried to alternate episodes of extreme darkness and trauma with episodes of eccentric good humour.  This goes with Martha's character -- as somebody having to deal with bipolar condition, her periods of deepest and darkest depression have to alternate with episodes in which she is on top of the world, full of high spirits, living and loving life to the full, and having fits of the giggles with her beloved handmaiden Bessie.......

Anyway, when I am asked about those funny bits of the text which have given me, as a writer, the most pleasure, I mention these:

The Battle of Parc Haidd, on pp 341-345 of House of Angels, in which a group of muscular men with very small brains make fools of themselves by digging a hole in a field looking for a non-existent treasure. The whole scene is wildly over the top, but I wanted something frothy and eccentric as a counterbalance to the brutality that exists elsewhere in the book, including the letter from ”An Irish Friend” which follows on pp 379-385.

Martha’s theological discussion with Rector Devonald on pp 50-56 of Dark Angel, during which she gets him to agree to a church wedding for Patty and Jake.

The episode relating to the loss of Martha’s ugly chest following a distraint order, on pp 120-123 of Rebecca and the Angels, and the subsequent return of the chest by the Ceffyl Pren mob, described on pp 135-137.

The episode in which Martha seduces Amos Jones in Tycanol Woods, recounted on pp 185-196 of Flying with Angels. The seduction of a married minister of religion may not strike the reader as funny -- but I enjoyed writing this episode, trying to make it gentle, poignant and funny at the same time.

The Big Meeting in Brynberian Chapel, recounted on pp 217-226 of Flying with Angels, in which Shemi rescues Amos from excommunication.

The episode in which Shemi deals with the charge of murder brought against him in the Petty Sessions, on pp 238-243 of Flying with Angels.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Martha talks theology with the Rector over a nice cup of tea

There are certain things that Rector Devonald does not wish to know.......


Martha promises -- somewhat rashly -- that she will organize a church wedding for her great friend Patty Ellis, who used to be a prostitute..........

This is from Chapter 2 of "Dark Angel".


So it was that I arrived at the Rectory on time at eleven of the clock, to be helped down from my horse by Master Devonald's man. I felt apprehensive but not afraid, and a good deal more confident than I might have done even a year ago in a similar circumstance. The Rector and his wife appeared at the front door to greet me, and after exchanging pleasantries she went off to fetch some tea while he and I settled into the study for our conversation about matrimonial matters. “Well well, this is very pleasant,” said he. “I am delighted to hear of the betrothal of you and Master Owain Laugharne. An excellent match, if I may say so. Two good old families coming together in harmony. Very good. Very good. Now then, on the matter of the arrangements?”

“I am sorry to disappoint you, Rector, but those particular arrangements can wait for a little while. The settlement has still to be finalized, and no date is set. I have come to discuss another marriage.”

“Oh indeed? Well well, let us see if we can help. And who might the happy couple be?”

“Patty Ellis and Jake Nicholas, who live on the Parrog.”

I watched Master Devonald’s face with more than a little interest. First it registered puzzlement, then comprehension, and then apprehension, and finally horror. His face reddened, and his eyes started to bulge. His feet twitched, and his knuckles whitened as he clenched his fists. Then he started to breathe deeply, as he sought to control his own emotions. He closed his eyes and brought his hands up to his chin in a gesture of prayer. The ticking of the clock on his study wall grew very loud.

I knew that I had a problem and a challenge on my hands. “Are you surprised, Rector?” I asked. “I presume you know the good people on whose behalf I am here?”

“Yes, I know of them,” he replied in a strangled voice. “The one is a fisherman by trade, and the other is a common.......”

Buffoon that he is, he could not bring himself to mention the word. So I helped him. “A common whore?”

He nodded like a frail old man carrying the weight of the world’s sin upon his shoulders. At last he steeled himself to face the problem which now confronted him. He straightened his back and looked me in the eye. “I cannot possibly allow it,” he said, as masterfully as he could. “It is absolutely out of the question for a prostitute to be married in the House of God. Maybe a license can be arranged, but there is no way that I will marry those two in church.”

“You disappoint me, Rector.”

“Your disappointment, Mistress Morgan, is a small price to pay for an irrevocable decision which is based upon a respect for the Ten Commandments and upon my desire to encourage virtue among my parishioners.”

I felt that matters were now getting interesting, and I decided that I would not leave the study until the wedding was duly arranged. Mistress Devonald came in, served tea and cakes with a sweet smile upon her face, and then retired to the warmth of the kitchen when she sensed a chill in the air.

I worked out my strategy while I nibbled and sipped. Then I played my opening card. “On the matter of Patty Ellis’s profession,” I said, “may I remind you, Rector, that it is a thing of the past? She is a reformed character, as many of your parishioners will attest, since they now have to travel all the way to Moll Liberal Favours in Fishguard when they have a few pennies to spend.”

The Rector flushed to a beautiful shade of crimson. “Whatever do you mean?” he spluttered.

“You know perfectly well what I mean. I do not need to elaborate. And are you aware, Rector, of the circumstances which drove Patty into prostitution?” He shook his head wearily, and I continued. “Then I will explain. It will be no bad thing, in my view, for you and other gentlemen in authority to know what has happened to this poor girl; we might then move from condemnation towards compassion, and from punishment towards rehabilitation. We might even seek to move towards an understanding of the word “forgiveness”, since that is a word we do not hear very often from your pulpit.”

That, in retrospect, was very unkind of me, and also risky, since I have to admit to a somewhat haphazard attendance at church myself. But I calculated that since the Rector’s attendance in church is also haphazard, I might get away with my insolence. And so it transpired. Before he could open his mouth to respond, I told him the full story of Patty’s entrapment by Joseph Rice, and of her miserable life in the boudoir while he lived in some comfort as a pimp. The Rector is not very familiar with the details of a whore’s life, and I daresay that he found my narrative more than a little enlightening.

By the time I had finished, Master Devonald was sunk deeply into his chair, with an expression of resignation on his face. Poor fellow, I thought, he is kind enough, and does his best, but he should really have been an attorney’s clerk or a shopkeeper rather than a man of the cloth. I almost started to feel sorry for him, but then I remembered that I had a job to do, and that one should always kick a man when he is down.

“I am not very practiced in matters theological, Rector, but did not our Good Lord have more than a passing acquaintance with a lady called Mary Magdalene?” He nodded weakly, for he could see where this was leading. “And did he not demonstrate, in his dealings with her, that those who are fallen can be saved, and that those who are penitent and who change their ways may enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Am I free of sin? Are you, Master Devonald, ordained as a priest, free of sin? But we poor sinners take comfort from the promise of redemption. Did Christ not also say that all of us, no matter what our station in life, obtain grace through forgiveness, and that we must seek to follow his will? My dear Rector, do you have the good grace to forgive this poor girl, and to extend the hand of friendship towards her?”

I daresay that this piece of sermonizing on my part was all very garbled, but it had the effect of keeping him quiet. Before he had had a chance of working out a theological riposte, and while he was still down, I thought I might as well kick him again.

“On more practical matters, Rector, how many allocated pews do you have in St Mary’s Church?”

He looked at first surprised and then suspicious. He knew that this was going to lead somewhere, but he could not work out the direction of travel or the steepness of the slope. “About fifteen, I believe,” he said.

“I thought as much. You include, no doubt, the Morgans of Plas Ingli. That means that fifteen of the best families in this area contribute to your wellbeing, and to the upkeep of the church, as well as paying their tithes on time and making contributions to the poor rate?”

He nodded. Then I said: “Would you like me to tell you how many of the squires who sit in those pews of a Sunday morning, all happily married and seen as the very pillars of society, have been regular clients of Patty Ellis in her cottage on the Parrog?”

“You would not dare!” exclaimed the Rector, with the look of a hunted man on his face.

“Indeed I would. I happen to be very friendly with Patty Ellis, but in the days before she became a reformed lady her tongue was as loose as her morals. I assure you that I know a great deal about her clients. And before I forget, may I ask you a theological question?”

“Oh dear, I suppose so.”

“On the scale of things, when we stand at the Pearly Gates and are called to account, which is the greater sin, fornication or adultery? Is it not the case that adultery is mentioned in the Ten Commandments, but that there is no mention of fornication? And might that be because the former involves betrayal, whereas the latter simply involves frailty, and the sharing of a little pleasure by two like minded people?”

Once again I perceived that I was in danger of getting a somewhat complicated and protracted theological response, so I continued after a sip of tea. “To carry on where I left off. Rector, would you like the names of those august gentlemen who sit before you in their paid pews and who have, to my certain knowledge, betrayed their wives and families and made adulterous visits to Patty’s feather bed?”

“No, I beg of you, Mistress Martha, please do not tell me. It is probably best that I do not know these things.” He squirmed in his seat, and wrung his hands just as despicable whingeing characters do in cheap novels.

“Very well, Rector. I will keep this secret. But your part of the bargain will be to announce to the world that Patty is forgiven, that she will be welcomed into the bosom of the Church, and that you will give her and Jake a church wedding.”

“This sounds to me like blackmail, and blackmail ill becomes a lady.”

“No no, Rector. What we are talking about is a course of action which brings mutual benefit. I make an oath of secrecy, you demonstrate Christian charity to your parishioners, and Patty and Jake get a Church wedding. By the way, I will pay for it. Happiness all round.”

“ And if I do not cooperate in this murky business?”

“Then I will give you the list of names, and await your response. A public denunciation of the adulterous squires from your pulpit should suffice.”

“Absolutely impossible! The Lord Marcher would probably take away my living, and my relations with the good families of this area would be at an end!”

“But you would be a hero with the poor people, as well as showing yourself to be a true man of God. You must decide, Rector, which may be the lesser of two evils.”

The poor fellow moaned and slumped deep into his chair once again. Time for one final kick with my booted foot. “And by the way, I forgot to mention that my father, whose estate is at Brawdy, is on the most amiable of terms with the Bishop of St David’s. They wine and dine frequently, and share many confidences. Having given you the list of adulterous squires, I will of course ensure that the Bishop is informed of the scandalous situation that has developed in Newport. He will no doubt keep a careful eye on your actions in upholding virtue and condemning vice.”

The rector was now entirely at my mercy, and he knew it. I have to admit to enjoying the situation, and to feeling more than a little sorry for him, for he is by no means a bad fellow. He follows his calling moderately well, and ministers to his flock appropriately enough when occasion demands it. But he does like a peaceful life, just like the rest of us. He had no option but to agree to my proposal, and admitted as much.

“Will you now go to visit Patty and Jake in their cottage as a gesture of forgiveness? The locals will take note, and will be very impressed. There is a lot of sympathy for the couple on the Parrog. There will be some wagging tongues, especially from the Baptists, but you can deal with them, and if I get the chance I will defend your actions and express my admiration for your magnanimity. Others will do the same. Your standing in the community, Rector, will be greatly enhanced. You may take it from me.”

He brightened up noticeably. “Do you really think so?” he asked.

“Absolutely. And you will also make the Nonconformists, in their complaining, look mean-spirited and vengeful in the eyes of fair-minded people. Will you now fix a date with Jake and Patty, and arrange for the reading of the banns?”

“Yes, very well. But what if I receive objections from my congregation on the basis that Patty is -- or was -- a loose woman?”

“I doubt that you will. The squires who are Patty’s past clients will certainly not say a word, and if anybody else does, I am sure you can deal with anything that might be raised. You have the final word, Rector, on whether any objection is serious enough to be considered as a true impediment to marriage, and I have every confidence, in the interests of all those involved, that the marriage will go ahead.”

I smiled at the Rector, and he smiled a weak smile in return, and it was clear that we understood each other. Then I stood up. “I really must be going,” I said. “Thank you so much, Rector, for the delightful refreshments and for our most interesting conversation. We must talk again of theological matters one day, since I am keen to know more about the scriptures.”

“Heaven forbid, Mistress Morgan! Of course you are always welcome at the Rectory, but may I suggest that you leave the scriptures, and the interpretation of them, in my hands?” And to his credit he chuckled at his little joke, and then gave a great roar of laughter, and I had to follow suit. And so we parted on the best of terms.

Twenty minutes later I knocked on the door of Patty’s cottage on the Parrog. After my triumph I was grinning like a Cheshire cat, and she welcomed me with open arms. She invited me inside. She was alone, for Jake was out on the shore of the tidal basin, doing things to his boat.

“It is all fixed!” I declared. “You and Jake can have your church wedding!”

Patty could hardly believe it, and before long the pair of us were dancing around her front room and giggling and screaming like a pair of hysterical little girls. I fear that the neighbours must have been very shocked, for sound travels easily on the Parrog. At last we calmed down enough to talk, and Patty insisted that I gave her all the details of my conversation with the Rector. As I spoke she looked more and more surprised, and at last she intervened, and said: “But Mistress Martha, who are all these worthy squires who are supposed to have paid me visits in the past? I declare that I cannot remember a single one of them coming here.”

“Oh dear, is that so?” said I. “What a pity. Perhaps I have misheard something, or misunderstood the matter. I really must concentrate more in the future, and ensure that I get my facts right.....”

And we embraced, and had another fit of childish hysterics, and wept tears of unadulterated joy.

Martha meets Beau Brummell

Beau Brummell, the most famous dandy in the world, beautifully perfumed and immaculately turned out, probably thought he was irresistible........

As part of my campaign to cheer us all up in these dark times, here is a short extract from Chapter 4 of "Conspiracy of Angels" in which our heroine Martha Morgan has an encounter with the famous Beau Brummel, up in the Lake District.


By half past nine my candles were extinguished, and I was in bed, lulled by a whispering breeze and by the gentle movement of the muslin curtains drawn across the open window. I had been fast asleep for I know not how long when I was jolted into wakefulness. I lay on my back, suddenly fully awake, not knowing whether I had been disturbed by an owl outside the window, or by a shaft of moonlight, or by something else. Then I realized that there was a hand on my breast. Somebody else was in bed with me! I was petrified, and did not know what to do -- and so at first I did nothing. Then a voice whispered into my ear: “Mistress Martha! It’s me -- George Brummell! I have come at last. You knew, my precious, that I would come?”

“Sir!” I hissed. “Take your hand off my breast this instant! I do not have the faintest idea what you are talking about!”

To his credit, he did take his hand off my breast. Then he whispered: “Martha, dearest Martha, I have been enchanted by you from the moment you stepped into my life. I am ravished by your beauty, and cannot live for a moment without you! Say you will be mine! Here and now! Reject me, and I swear that I will fling myself from that open window -- that will make a mess on the lawn, and you will never forgive yourself! Believe me -- I am your devoted servant. Do with me what you will.............”

By now my eyes had become accustomed to the darkness, which was not so intense, since the faint light of the moon was filtering through the gently moving curtains. I had also accepted that the figure in the bed beside me was indeed Master Beau Brummel -- he had short fair hair, and he was so heavily scented with oils and fragrances that it could not have been anybody else. I could also smell the alcohol on his breath, and I realized that he was very drunk. That might spell danger, I thought, but it might also be the saving of me. I leapt out of the bed and pulled my nightgown tight around my body. I ran across to the window and pulled the curtains apart, letting the moonlight flood in.

“Sir! How did you get in here?”

“Oh, the doors are never locked on this landing. I tiptoed along, light as a fairy, and just let myself in. Simple as that.” He giggled like a child. “Dearest, you do love me, do you not? I noticed the way you looked at me at dinner this very evening. Oh my goodness -- the look of a lusty woman in her prime. Well, Martha, I am a lusty man who has certain needs -- and so it has to be assumed, I venture to suggest, that there is a need for mutual satisfaction. Correct, my precious?”

“As mistaken as it is possible to be, Master Brummell. Now, get out of here before I summon the servants!”

“Oh, you would not do that, my lovely. They are all fast asleep, and a tinkling bell in the servants’ quarters will go entirely unnoticed. In any case, I have locked the door on the inside, and here is the key!”

He laughed, waved the door key at me, and then climbed out of the bed. I could see in the moonlight that he was dressed only in his nightshirt, and that he was fully aroused. For the first time I began to feel afraid -- for a man who is very drunk can be unpredictable, and very violent. He flung off his nightshirt, so that he was now entirely naked. He moved towards me, still holding the key in his hand above his head. Then he giggled again, and did a little dance across the floor, bathed in a pool of moonlight. I noticed that he was none too steady on his feet. That gave me confidence, and I decided upon my strategy.

“Come now, Martha,” he whispered. “Be reasonable. You and I have much to give each other. Just you give me a few minutes on that comfortable bed, and I will show you that I am quite irresistible. Just a little kiss and a little tenderness, leading from one thing to another. Believe me, I know how to please a woman.........” He was now just a few feet away from me, and I noticed that he was not smiling any longer. That spelt even greater danger.

I moved sideways along the wall which led to my commode. “Sir, I can assure you that your irresistibility is greatly exaggerated,” I said sharply. “I have asked you to leave, and I ask you again. Please go now, and nothing more will be said about this. If you do not......”

“Ah, you have a cunning plan? Relax, Martha. You are too tense, and too concerned about appearances. You are a free woman, and I have no ties either.”

“I am not a free woman, sir. I am betrothed to be married!”

“Ah, to a gentleman who is at this very moment, by all accounts, sleeping on the bottom of Cardigan Bay. Come now, what comfort will he bring you on this warm summers night?”

I was now in the right position, and that last comment caused me to see red. So I walked straight up to him and grabbed the offending organ with both hands. That brought a radiant smile to his face, but then I brought up my knee with all the force I could muster between his legs. He let out a yell which was loud enough to wake the dead, and dropped down onto his hands and knees, groaning pitifully. I grabbed my tin chamber-pot from the commode and smashed it down with a thud upon the top of his head. Mercifully it was empty at the time. I thought afterwards that it was also a mercy that it was not made of earthenware; if it had been, I would probably have killed him. He was now stretched out, quite unconscious, on the bedroom floor. I was shaking like a leaf, but having checked that he was still alive, I picked up the key and unlocked the door. Then I lit the candles on the dressing table, went across the room to the bell-pull, and yanked it furiously for half a minute. I was certain that my summons would be answered, since I knew (unlike Master Brummel) that all of the bells for the house were located in the passage immediately outside Mr Scruple’s room. Sure enough, no sooner had I climbed back into bed and made myself presentable than I heard a great commotion of running feet and concerned voices outside in the passage. There was a hammering at the door, and in they all came -- Mr Scruple himself, the housekeeper Mrs Timpson, my dear Bessie, three or four of the servants and a good many of the house guests as well. They all gazed in amazement at me in my bed, and then at the recumbent and naked figure of Master Brummell on the carpet.

“Mistress Martha!” gasped Mr Scruple. “Are you all right? What has happened?”

“Thank God you have come, Mr Scruple. This rough fellow came into my room when I was fast asleep, entirely uninvited and unwelcomed. I thought he might be a burglar, so I dealt with him appropriately. I think he might be drunk. Would you please throw him out onto the lawn, where he can sober up, and summon the constables?”

“You are......ahem, unharmed, Mistress?”

“Yes thank you, Mr Scruple. That, I think, is more than can be said of the burglar.”

Everybody knew of course that the figure on the floor was Beau Brummel, for his smooth white perfumed body was now exposed in the full light of all the candles carried by my rescuers. The ladies pretended to avert their eyes while Mr Scruple and my friend Dafydd Stokes slapped my attacker’s face and covered him with a blanket. After a while, he groaned and sat upright, at which point the men dragged him to his feet and scurried off with him down the corridor, no doubt intending to deliver him back to his own room. He was in no state to walk, so the men had to carry him, moaning and groaning like a man condemned to a lifetime of penal servitude. The women fussed about me for twenty minutes, and Mrs Timpson brought me a cup of tea, and when all were satisfied that I was unharmed and as comfortable as may be, they all went off to the drawing room, where no doubt the night’s relatively simple events were subjected to endless elaboration and magnification.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Advice for a writer: never forget your P's

I worked out from the very beginning, as an amateur novelist, that I needed to consider people, place, pace, plot and purpose. These became my “five P’s” which had to be kept in mind at all times during the writing process.

People. Novels are essentially about people, their relationships and their reactions to unusual situations. At the outset, I did have concerns about my ability to “fashion” the characters in the story and to describe them in a way which would attract the empathy of the reader. When I read novels myself, I want to “like” the characters, both villains and heroes, and I want them to be sufficiently well-drawn for me to create mental pictures of them. If action dominates a book to the extent of squeezing out the portrayal of those caught up in it (as in The Da Vinci Code) I find that I am ultimately not satisfied or convinced by it. So I had to work hard at character portrayal, both through descriptions of facial features and clothes and through conversations and actions. But there are more than 200 characters in the whole saga, and early on I had to come to terms with the fact that while some might be portrayed in depth, many others would be sketchy and even shadowy figures. I did not always get things right; for example, I still regret that I did not develop David’s character more, given the fact that as Martha’s husband and the father of her children, he figures strongly in the story even after his death. But there are some characters with whom I am reasonably content: for example Bessie the maid, Joseph Harries the Wizard, Grandpa Isaac and Grandma Jane, Patty the prostitute, servants Billy, Will and Shemi, the poetic and romantic Owain Laugharne, the tragic figure of Iestyn Price, the villainous Moses Lloyd, and in the later novels Hugh Williams, George Price, Amos Jones and Wilmot Gwynne. Among Martha’s children, the characters of Brynach and Daisy are developed more fully than those of Dewi, Betsi and Sara. The reader’s impression of all of them is of course conditioned by the manner in which Martha describes them and by the extent to which she loves them, needs them or despises them. So the portraits are anything but balanced -- and that’s the way it is in real life.

Place. In a sense, this was the easiest aspect of the story to deal with. As a geographer by training I have a well-developed sense of place, an eye for landscape details and some understanding of what marks out the landscape of Carningli and North Pembrokeshire as being different from other landscapes. But I had to rein in my instinct for describing landscape, on the grounds that my fascination with it is not necessarily matched by that of the reader! Having wandered around Cilgwyn and Carningli for thirty years or so, I know almost every nook and cranny of this beloved landscape, and I have tried to give Martha the same sense of “belonging” that I feel myself. She loves the mountain and all its moods almost as dearly as she loves life itself. She feels that the mountain is a part of her, and that she is a part of the mountain. In her relationship with Carningli and the Plas, she illustrates, as perfectly as I can manage it, what the Welsh word hiraeth means -- longing, belonging and loving a piece of land, whether inherited or adopted. That is not a peculiarly Celtic thing, but the link between land and people is undoubtedly very strong in Wales, as almost every Welsh writer has recognized. Because Martha loves her home territory so much it is, I hope, natural for her to describe in the pages of her diary what happens to the sky and the land when there is a thunder-storm, or a torrential deluge, or a heavy snowfall. It is also quite natural for her to gasp in wonderment when she sees the abundant bird life on the cliffs between Newport and Cwm yr Eglwys, or when she wades through an early summer meadow full of flowers and herbs, or when she sees the lengthening shadows of evening among the summit crags. At intervals in all of the novels I have been at pains to describe -- briefly -- “the land” in some of its moods, as a counterbalance to the heavy or dramatic episodes which hit poor Martha between the eyes with alarming frequency! All five of the Angel Mountain novels are “regional novels”, rooted in a place which is well known to most of the early readers of the books. The early marketing and publicity efforts for the series were directed primarily at Pembrokeshire people but also readers who know and love North Pembrokeshire as a holiday destination. I was confident that the readers of the books would like the locations, and much less confident that they would like Mistress Martha!

Pace. Some authors, Dan Brown included, drive a story forward so relentlessly that there is only one gear -- superdrive. It has worked for him, but the story that came to me had a good deal of quietness in it, and so there had to be many tranquil episodes. There also had to be time for character development and for the exploration of personal relationships. But I also had to pack in many violent action episodes. So I tried to develop a wave-like structure on the way to the book’s climax, with action-packed episodes interspersed with quiet ones in which I develop the characters through their involvement in local traditions or in domestic activities. There is nothing new about this, and writers and musicians have realized over the centuries that on the way to the climax of a piece andante needs to follow allegro, and vice versa. But each wave needs to be a little higher than the last, and the last wave is the one that crashes onto the shore with the greatest force, bringing the piece to an end. All perfectly sensible -- but then I realized that the first part of the story in my head (in On Angel Mountain) had a “double whammy” climax, and I accepted that from a technical point of view it was not a bad idea to have two massive waves at the end, with the final one arriving out of the blue just when the reader thinks that the story is all over! Readers told me that it worked for the first novel in the series, and so I continued the tradition in the other four as well.

Plot. Each one of the five novels has a complex plot, given to me in considerable detail during that strange night of delirium in 1999. That is not to say that all was decided in advance, and that no “manufacturing” was needed. In fact a good deal of tweaking and reorganizing had to be done, and various episodes that were fixed in my head had to be dumped because they did not fit into the main story-line as it was developing. Stories can become too complex, and there is then the risk of leaving the reader behind as the twists and turns become ever more convoluted. Think of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White! Various other episodes had to be changed during the writing process because Mistress Martha did not approve of the direction in which I wanted to take her. So there was some scrapping and rewriting of sections -- and in retrospect the reason was almost always that I wanted Martha to do something that would have been out of character. Experienced authors say that their characters and stories take on a life and a momentum of their own, and that it is unwise to resist the route that they choose to take. I think I now know what that means. In each of the novels, several story-lines are interwoven, and that involved a lot of careful planning and hard work on my part. In a sense, the simplest stories are in On Angel Mountain and Rebecca and the Angels -- but even here there is more going on than might meet the eye, with an adventure story running in parallel with other stories and mysteries relating to Martha’s family and friends and to her sexual adventures. The darkest story-line is in Dark Angel, where Martha reveals her insecurity and her paranoia while at the same time showing her compassion and her devotion to her family. By far the most complex story -- and the one which gave me the greatest pleasure as a writer -- is “House of Angels”, which weaves together five different story-lines.

Purpose. The most important part of the unwritten contract between writer and reader is the bit that says that the writer must entertain. In historical fiction the writer should educate as well, giving the reader a glimpse of another world long gone. That glimpse should be reasonably accurate and authentic, but not too slavishly based upon “the truth.” If a writer can evoke the sights and smells of the time, and the feeling of what life must have been like for heroes, villains and other characters, so much the better. And as I have said, for a geographer like me, the building up of a “sense of place” is very important indeed. But if novels are really about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, a novelist has to concentrate very hard on character, characteristics, appearance and personal relationships. On almost every page of a novel there is a developing relationship between one character and another, and therein lies the challenge for the writer and the excitement for the reader. But through the welter of events and personal interactions something else has to be visible -- namely the author‘s “take” on life. So what is my take on life, and what am I really trying to do in the novels? Many readers have said to me as they have worked their way through the saga “Poor Martha! Why does she have to suffer so much? And when will she really find true happiness?” One of my readers got so upset with what Martha was having to put up with that she went up to Plas Ingli to pray for her, in the hope that she might find peace. Well, my heroine does have to put up with a great deal of brutality, suffering and prejudice, and she does meet some very unpleasant people, and she does lose almost all of those whom she loves in the most appalling of circumstances. She seems to weep more frequently than she laughs. But here is a gentle reminder for readers -- remember that the novels give brief “snapshots” of her life, and that there are long periods which I have not written about at all. Let us imagine that those periods were happy, and mundane, and maybe even boring -- and maybe therefore not very interesting to the reader or to the author! I am sure that Mistress Martha had her good times as a wife, as a mother, and as a merry widow. Conjure those episodes up for yourself, if you will! Then you can try to understand my real purpose in writing the saga, which I am now beginning to clarify for myself. Whatever happens to her, she grits her teeth and fights back. She even fights her way out of the miseries associated with miscarriage, the murder of a husband, or the loss of a child. When she is plunged into the dark horrors of depression, she fights her way back into the bright light of a spring morning -- and she does this more than once. So while I am trying to describe a set of characters in a rough landscape and a rough time, and while I am trying to improve my own understanding of the human condition, I am also doing something which is ultimately life-affirming. The books are actually quite “moral” in the sense that virtue and depravity are both rewarded in appropriate ways. The wicked are punished, and the good are rewarded -- maybe not instantly, but all in good time. Since I was a young man, I have had unbounded admiration for people who have the capacity to cope with whatever life throws at them -- sometimes with quiet stoicism and sometimes with flames in their eyes and iron in their sinews. Of course I love Martha and many of the other characters to whom I have given life, but in writing about them I suppose what I have really been doing is composing a hymn to the human spirit.

(The above text is an extract from Chapter 3 of "Martha Morgan's Little World."  pp 52-58.)

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

The inspiration of the Grossi Gang

This is one of the most inspiring film stories of recent times.  The Grossi Gang operated in Italy in the 1860's -- a group of seven outlaws who were protesting against the high taxes and the rural hardship associated with the turbulent creation of the Italian state from an assortment of small provinces.  An Italian "Magnificent Seven", or a more or less perfect western film set in Italy.  The film Sergio Leone might have made, if he could have got the financial backing.  So he went off and made spaghetti westerns instead -- and the rest is history.

Anyway, Claudio Ripalti and 13 of his friends (all film professionals) decided that they wanted to tell the story of the Grossi Gang because it is one of the most appealing stories in Italy, covering a key part of nineteenth century social history.  They found it very difficult to get the project off the ground -- but then a film studio called Cinestudio offered the crew the free use of its studio space, equipment and editing suite if they could raise the capital needed to bring the film to fruition.  So in late 2016 the team embarked on a Kickstarter campaign, designed to raise 50,000 Euros.  Their key weapon in the campaign was a 3 minute "proof of concept" trailer, done on a shoestring.  It's very impressive:

The Kickstarter Campaign was very successful, raising almost 80,000 Euros -- and with this cash in the bag the location shooting was done in two months in the spring of 2017.  The film was released in 2018, and in 2019  a version with English subtitles was premiered in the USA.  

The full-length feature film (lasting 1 hr and 53 mins) appears to have been well received in Italy -- and it is extraordinary what Claudio and his crew have been able to achieve on such a miniscule budget.........



by Claudio Ripalti


In central Italy, during 1860, a poor farmer by the name of Terenzio Grossi manages to form a gang composed of young rebels, his goal to try and revolt against the newly formed Piedmont State. Disillusioned with politics, hungered by ever-increasing taxes and unwilling to participate to mandatory draft by the army, the gang will seize the Pesaro and Urbino Province with the help of a growingly restless and angry population. In two years of crimes, violences and murders at the expenses of the richest and noblest, the gang will rise to its fortune in spite of coward and unprepared local authorities. Only one soldier will pick up the fight and stand fearless in the line of duty: a brigadier of the Reali Carabinieri determined to capture Terenzio and his gang mates at any cost. An irrepressible man of great integrity, the Brigadier will have to grow aware of the poor conditions of the villagers of the area and when law will start making compromises in the fight against crime his conscience and uprightness will be challenged. 

international title: The Grossi Gang
original title: La Banda Grossi
country: Italy
year: 2018
genre: fiction
directed by: Claudio Ripalti
release date: IT 20/09/2017
screenplay: Claudio Ripalti
cast: Camillo Ciorciaro, Roberto Marinelli, Manuel D’Amario, Rosario DiGiovanna, Leonardo Ventura, Paolo Santinelli, Aldo Ferrara, Mateo Çili, Edoardo Raggetta, Cristian Marletta
cinematography by: Claudio Ripalti
film editing: Michele Olivieri
art director: Daniela Cancellieri
costumes designer: Daniela Cancellieri
music: Enrico Ripalti
associate producer: Lorenzo Carloni, Francesco Geri, Marco Ippoliti, Georgia Negri, Matteo Borgogelli Ottavi, Simon Phillips, Mike Whelan, Thomas Wipf
line producer: Mario Diodati
production: Cinestudio
backing: MiBAC (IT), Marche Film Commission (IT)

PS.  How it was done..........

When I asked Claudio how on earth they had managed to bring this project to fruition, in the light of the real costs of film production in the UK and elsewhere, he replied thus:

The assumption is no different in Italy, broadly speaking this movie might cost a couple of millions of Euros if produced conventionally, was it not for the partnership with Cinestudio which allows us to produce it on a very tight budget by providing equipment, personnel (we are also talking about costume designer, composer, sound designer and so on, not only field/stage technicians...), vehicles and stages (sound mixing as well).
The budget for the movie is 200K and Cinestudio also backed a part of those but their main input is obviously not monetary but rather what described above, which equally translate to money in the end.
The other reasons behind such a low cost is that it is an indie movie, so the key roles professionals accepted indie-wages (and a share of profits) in exchange for the possibility of being part of a movie they felt connected to.