INTERVIEW by Veronica Popp

NWR Issue 108

Ellie Rees

Ellie's memoir, ‘Blurred Boundaries’, was highly commended in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2015, judged by Mark Cocker & Gwen Davies. An extract from this essay is published in the inaugural issue of our New Welsh Reader, #108, summer 2015.

NWR: The division between self and culture is prevalent in ‘Blurred Boundaries’, with the name Fishponds shifting as the narrative progressed. Why did you choose to structure your piece within a format of naming and identity?

ER: Telling people I lived in a place called Fishponds, near Bristol, made them smile, much to my embarrassment, and it would have been preferable to believe that it derived its name from some medieval monastic settlement rather than two water-filled quarries. Whoever named Montello Priory must have believed such a myth and thus stamped the house with a sense of its superiority over the surrounding neighbourhood. I have portrayed the village of Mowsley as unpretentious, a basic Leicestershire village. I now remember that one origin of its name is ‘mouse-infested field or wood’. Dimlands [the author’s home in the Vale of Glamrogan] as a name has always fascinated me, though I have not been able to find a convincing explanation of its derivation. Instead, the dim lands of Arthurian legend or myth have probably coloured my imagination in my depiction of its magical qualities.

NWR: In your piece you note that your poems about birds are well observed because you have the freedom city-dwellers do not. Do you think it is a privilege to be out in nature and knowing the environment?

ER: Less than 200 years ago, it was the norm rather than a privilege. Currently less than 10% of the UK’s population is classified as rural. The birds get so much of my attention because they are the only things that move around here, apart from the wind and the sea!

NWR: Recent environmental scholarship has stated if we really saw the wilderness, we would be terrified! You describe yourself as a young mother in your memoir as ‘playing at being rural’. Do you believe we can reconcile the differences between modern and pastoral life?

ER: We thought that we were reconciling the benefits of ‘modern life’ with those of a more traditional village life. We depended on our freezers in order to be self-sufficient, yet none of us gave up earning a living in Leicester. Without our cars, we would have found it quite taxing to walk to Market Harborough. On the other hand, we felt privileged to be eating fruit and vegetables that were free from additives or chemical spraying, and meat that had had a ‘natural’ life in our field.

NWR: How does your writing relate to any activism in your life? Your piece states ‘I don’t recall that we were making any kind of political statement’ and yet the idea of self-reliance is very strong within your work. If the person is political, were you making a political statement while living in Leicestershire?
ER: As I wrote in the essay, we were aware of the self-sufficiency movement and had copies of books by John Seymour, Michael Allaby and Colin Tudge. We also had ‘dig-for-victory’ manuals from the time of the world wars. There were ten of us ‘field folk’ and we had a wide variety of political views when it came to things like foxhunting, the three-day week or the miners’ strike. However, I don’t remember any abstract political debate; we tended to talk about such things when and if they directly affected us. I do remember (before we became self-sufficient) wandering through the supermarket carefully checking the labels for additives and realizing that once I had ruled out all produce from dubious right-wing countries as well, my basket was rather empty!

But my mother had another surprise for me. She pulled back the red curtain from the French window and initially I thought she was showing me that the lining was starting to rot. Then I saw it. Growing from the corner of the window frame was the most beautiful mushroom I had ever seen. It was shaped like a rose or more like a cabbage shown with pride at a garden fete; it was exquisite, but belonged surely to the garden, not to the inside of our dining room.
The reason that this particular teatime is so vivid is because of what my mother did next. I see her standing by the window but now with a Christmas can of silver spray in her hand. The mushroom of dry rot has been transformed into a silver Christmas rose and she is laughing and laughing and laughing.

NWR: Do you have any specific environmental writing influences?

ER: These things work on an unconscious level and it is only after you have finished writing something that you realise you have inadvertently ‘borrowed’ a phrase from Robert Frost or a metaphor from Ted Hughes or a premise from Thomas Hardy; it takes a lot of careful thought to winkle them out and make the work your own. This is a particular problem when writing about the well-trodden ground of the British countryside. Having said that, Mark Cocker’s Crow Country is one of only three books I have read in my life which I read for a second time as soon as I finished it, in case I had missed anything!

Veronica Popp is a writer, teacher, scholar and editor, she has a BA from Elmhurst College in English and History and an MA in Creative Writing from Aberystwyth University. Popp teaches composition and research at Elmhurst College.


previous interview: Timothy L Marsh
next interview: Stallion Ford, a Collaboration of Imagery and Poetry in Comic-Book Form


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