Author Jon Gower was once a warden on Ynys Enlli. At the launch of Fflur Dafydd’s novel Twenty Thousand Saints in 2008, he noted, without criticism, how little attention it paid to the wildlife that made the island famous, along with the eponymous saints. Having stayed there two weeks ago, I now realise the truth of Jon’s comment.
The Manx shearwaters’ eerie midnight calls (eerie daytime calls being broadcast by the Seal Channel), figure little in the novel. Few sheep are glimpsed under fleece-snagged rocks. Said seals get short shrift as busybodies populous enough to give you paranoia. The aspects of nature that do feature are human: ecologists, birdwatchers, farmers. Fflur Dafydd is an extrovert author who transforms an island associated with retreat and death rites (courtesy of The Book of Llandaf), into an urban arena. Twenty Thousand Saints, like her latest Welsh novel, Y Llyfrgell, is a satirical novel about political utopianism, with a cast of young people more interested in sex and cameras than gaslight or compost toilets.
Among Jon’s anecdotes was a black figure crucified outside a Bardsey home. These airing robes, he later recognised, belonged to the woman who inspired Fflur’s protagonist, Sister Viv. The journey of the fictional nun - from nuclear family to semi-communal living, from activism to paralysis, from heterosexuality to repressed lesbian urges - is symbolised by the Sound crossing. That we last glimpse Viv taking a tour to our Senedd proves how positive and political a writer Fflur Dafydd is.
There was no copy of Twenty Thousand Saints on public display during my visit. I did hear rumours of islanders grumbling how real-life characters and anecdote may become grist to the author’s mill. Apparently the same complaint was levelled at artist and writer Brenda Chamberlain following the publication of Tide Race.
Next autumn, as part of 2012’s centenary celebrations of Chamberlain’s birth, NWR will feature Jill Piercy’s long-awaited biography, An Artist’s Life. What better excuse for me to visit Chamberlain’s neglected murals around the landing of Carreg Fawr, her home between 1946 and ’61? One of a woman with a shawl-collar, that had dominated the dining room, has been painted over, but four remain: two of horses; one mermaid, boat and Enlli-style wall; and a mockup for a fishing boat scene, ringed with maternal and family portraits.
Chamberlain’s line drawings of fish, seals, birds and seals in Tide Race revel in the detail of natural life which is admittedly absent from Fflur Dafydd’s fiction. But it is people that interest both women most, and they change little, be they saints in sanctuary or Satellite City sinners. Funds are currently being raised to raise £15,000 to restore the Bardsey murals. Contact peter.lockyer81[at]tiscali.co.uk
This was first published in Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column, 23 July 2011.
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