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Mai by Georgia Ruth

Evocation of locales that hold a personal connection to artists is a common feature in the medium of music. Rich soundscapes will frequently echo places, times and atmospheres, either by alluding to them through lyrics and instrumentation, or as a result of being produced in a particular environment.

Mai, the latest release from Welsh artist Georgia Ruth, serves as a pertinent example of this phenomenon when taking into account its relation to the seaside town of Aberystwyth. Returning to her hometown, Ruth composed and recorded a number of tracks for her third studio album in the Joseph Parry Hall, its name shared with the Welsh musician of great renown. As such, much of the inspiration for Mai is drawn from a place immersed in Welsh culture and musical history, which seeps into Ruth’s own pieces. With her graceful harpistry and gentle vocal performances in both the Welsh and English languages, Mai’s textured tracks see Ruth speaking to the natural world at its most lively, echoing our lavish vistas and pastoral traditions. The title track ‘Mai’, positioned as the centrepiece of the record, brings great power to explorations of nature. Progressive instrumental passages woven by Ruth’s harp embody the beauty of our landscapes in an emotionally rich manner, one perhaps uniquely attainable through music.

This is not to say, however, that Ruth’s ambitions lie simply in repackaging an aesthetic. Her musical trajectory leading up to Mai reveals a penchant for thoughtfulness which continues throughout this album. Taking the album title’s suggestion of spring into account (Mai is Welsh for the month of May), Ruth embodies the season’s characteristic of blossoming new plant life, and juxtaposes it with her experiences as a recent mother, merging together a joyous celebration of birth and rebirth. Individual cuts such as ‘Madryn’ and ‘7 Rooms’ explore both of these interlinked concepts in-depth, the latter reflecting on a lived hospital experience of Ruth’s, while the former explores her fascination with nature in a more abstract way: both are equally effective. This emotional resonance with the forces of nature grows more nuanced still as Ruth draws parallels between the anxieties of motherhood and the difficulties faced in our environment in contemporary times. The climate crisis is felt through passages which lament disturbances in the cycle of seasons, drawing into focus a sense of uncertainty. That said, this elegiac mood is generally overpowered by the joyfulness of Ruth’s music, creating a listening experience both deeply pleasant and thoughtful.

Ruth’s songwriting and lyrical ability also reaches a creative high point in ‘Mai’, demonstrating a flair for introspective material without sacrificing her poppier cuts. Songs such as ‘Close for Comfort’ and ‘Cypress’ dig into matters of domestic anxiety while maintaining a near-seamless catchiness, no matter which language she chooses to sing in. Her voice (as is the case with her songs’ hooks) seems to flow almost effortlessly, another characteristic that connects to the natural world.

Georgia Ruth proves in  Mai that she is on a steady upward trajectory. The album manages to feel intimate and personal, mirroring near-universal expressions of natural environments with individual, human conflicts. Intelligent songwriting and thematic concerns are paired with an effortlessly heartwarming sound produced through the artist’s unique talents. Fans of folk music will find here an exciting and entertaining experience.

 

Oliver Heath studies at Aberystwyth University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

 

Mai is available from the Bubblewrap Collective.

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The Road to Zarauz by Sam Adams

‘The Parseids brought it all out of the past, with the force of a blow that leaves you winded. The night lurched and swooped suddenly down. The boy lay still, stretched out on his back, but when I sat up, gasping, I saw the pale disk of his face as he turned to see what […]
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Interview with Alis Hawkins

How do you feel about launching Those Who Know into the world?

I’m actually feeling unsure about when it will be launched! The book was due to come out on 28th May but Covid-19 has put paid to that. My publishers, The Dome Press, have provisionally re-scheduled publication of the paperback for the 24th September, though we’re still aiming to release the e-book on 28th May. I’m going to have to work hard to make sure that Those Who Know gets a definite push into the world.

Those Who Know is being launched to an enthusiastic fan base and I’m looking forward to seeing people’s response to the developments in it. The book marks a new departure for Harry who throws himself into the world of politics in order to secure his election as coroner in his own right. As he’s visually impaired (he has a form of macular degeneration), having to speak to crowds of people whom he can’t see leaves him feeling very exposed and he tries to escape the demands of canvassing by throwing himself into investigating schoolteacher Nicholas Rowland’s apparently accidental death. Suffice to say, neither the politicking nor the investigation go as well as he might hope, and he ends up with some difficult dilemmas.

Is launching a new book in a series different from launching a stand-alone novel?

Both writing and launching a book that’s part of an established series comes with its own demands. Because people won’t necessarily read the Teifi Valley Coroner novels in chronological order, it’s important that Those Who Know can stand alone and build on what’s come before. Readers who are new to the series need enough information to understand the relationships between the characters and how we’ve got to where we are, but it’s important not to overload readers with too much recapping. And then there’s the issue of spoilers. In the first book, None So Blind, there’s a big ‘reveal’. I’ve referred to it in In Two Minds and Those Who Know but only obliquely so that people who start the series with a later book can go back and read None So Blind without knowing exactly what happens.

What kind of research did you do for this book, and how long did you spend researching before beginning the novel?

Before I started None So Blind, I had to do an enormous amount of research because I knew next to nothing about Britain in the early years and nothing about mid-nineteenth century west Wales. I had to acquire a working knowledge of the politics of the period and how it differed in England and Wales (my main character, Harry Probert-Lloyd has spent almost ten years away from the Teifi Valley and the reader sees his home through his London-tuned eyes). Not to mention what people wore, ate, gender politics and what people did for fun. (The two last items may not be entirely unrelated…)

Each novel in the series has a specific aspect of life in the Teifi Valley of the 1850s. In None So Blind, the historical context is the effects of the Rebecca Riots. In Two Minds has Welsh emigration to America as its backdrop, and in the background of Those Who Know lurks the 1847 Report of the Commission of Enquiry into the State of Education in Wales, known in Wales – far less prosaically – as Brad y Llyfrau Gleision, The Treachery of the Blue Books.

I did concerted research on schools in the Teifi Valley area, not to mention educational thought and philosophy in Britain as a whole.

Take the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, for instance. He was very much a radical in terms of his social views. He believed in equality for women, the right to divorce and gay rights. He also campaigned for the abolition of slavery, capital punishment and physical punishment, including that meted out to children. My protagonists, squire’s son Harry Probert-Lloyd and solicitor’s clerk, John Davies, investigate deaths in a less judgemental time.

At the whole-society level, the strict chapel morality we all think of as holding sway in Wales hadn’t yet got people totally in its grip, certainly not in the Teifi Valley. In the early 1850s, when Harry’s just getting going as coroner, there were still a lot of traditions that had been observed since medieval times. Probably the most surprising thing to most people is the tradition of ‘bundling’ or, in Welsh, caru yn y gwely – courting in bed – which was done with parents’ knowledge and consent. Young people had to get to know each other somehow and, for people who worked, that meant after dark. The temptation to get too physical was avoided by putting pillows between the couple but, if temptation proved too much and the girl became pregnant, the young man could hardly deny paternity!

Those Who Know concerns the death of a teacher, his ‘cowshed academy’ and his plans for a revolutionary new school. Why did you set a murder in the midst of such a non-violent setting?

I’m not sure ‘non-violent’ is the right phrase – society was much more tolerant of casual violence. Corporal punishment was seen as parents’ duty and it was accepted that many men routinely hit their wives.

Also, in the mid-1850s, not all children went to school – that didn’t happen until the 1880 Education Act made school attendance compulsory for children up to the age of ten. So, in the 1850s, such elementary schools as there were in the Teifi Valley tended to be either National Schools which were run by the Anglican church or totally independent and unregulated affairs run by private individuals. As readers will see in Those Who Know, all sorts of buildings were used for schoolrooms, from chapel vestries to private houses, converted cowsheds to the rooms behind public houses.

Given the type of men who sometimes became teachers, schools could be very rough and ready. So, setting a sudden, unexplained death in a school isn’t quite as surprising in those circumstances, especially when – as is the case in Those Who Know – teachers are in competition for pupils in order to scrape a living.

Where does your interest in the nineteenth century stem from?

I’d always wanted to write a book about the Rebecca Riots because the set of events is so little known. The Welsh peasantry (for want of a better word) basically spent the better part of a year engaged in flagrant acts of civil disobedience over southwest Wales. Men (it’s implied that the rioters were exclusively men, though I have my doubts, as illustrated in None So Blind) would gather after dark, disguised by blacking their faces and wearing some items of women’s clothing. Then they’d march on an illegal toll gate which was then subjected to a mock trial before being destroyed. If it was a gatekeeper that was being challenged, he would be manhandled and told to mend his ways, or else. Then, before anybody could come and arrest them, the farmers would disperse to their homes.

I’d intended the novel to be a stand-alone, assuming that I’d bone up on enough mid-nineteenth century history to write the book, then scurry back to my beloved fourteenth century. But I fell in love. Not only with my two central characters but also with the time and place. I just hadn’t been prepared for how fascinating a period the early years of Victoria’s reign would turn out to be and how a period of such change was a perfect setting for a murder investigation. Because change gives rise to conflict and conflict can often give rise to murder.

How has the Welsh culture and landscape inspired you as a writer?

History and culture have inspired my books but there’s a wider context for inspiration and that’s to do with getting novels to readers once they’re written.

I know I’m not the only novelist who has found publishers reluctant to take on English-language books with a Welsh setting. Wales is not seen as a sexy location for fiction, particularly in the case of crime. One publisher was honest enough to tell my agent that ‘Wales is a hard sell’.

So, when None So Blind was published, I realised that I was going to have to do something decisive if I wanted it to be a success. The female crime writers’ collective Killer Women had recently been established and it seemed that Welsh crime writers needed a similar organisation, one that would both raise awareness of Welsh crime fiction and provide a support network for those of us working in the genre. I floated the idea with Matt Johnson and Rosie Claverton, both of whom I’d met at Crimefest, and together, the three of us founded Crime Cymru.

In a recent article, in which you discuss the Crime Cymru collective, you stated: ‘We believe we have something unique to offer the world of crime fiction, that the social issues which crime fiction naturally explores have a different flavour in Wales because of our very particular history.’ How has Crime Cymru developed since this moment? Has working together as a group helped to push the recognition of Welsh fiction forward?

Our intention, when we founded Crime Cymru, was to draw in as many crime writers with a Welsh connection as possible (defining as authors born in, living in or setting their books in Wales), to provide regular meetings to share expertise and – collectively – to publicise our work to the British crime-reading public.

Now, Crime Cymru has thirty paid members and a track record of author appearances at most of the major crime fiction festivals in the UK. We have partnered with Cardiff Central Library to run Wales’s first crime fiction festival, Crime and Coffee. The festival ran for three days in June 2018 and 2019. Our members have appeared on Radio 4, Radio Wales, Radio Cymru and in regional newspapers. We were thinking about running our own Crime Cymru festival in 2021 (though that may now need to be pushed back to 2022), ideally in Aberystwyth. We would like to be as inclusive as possible. As well as inviting some headline names from Britain’s crime writing community, we want to showcase the wealth of talent we have here in Wales.

To find out more about Crime Cymru and how to get involved, head to the Crime Cymru About page.

Finally, what message do you hope people take from this book?

Enjoyment. That of a story well told, getting to know characters who draw you into their world, of feeling a sense of connection with another time and place. The time in which we live moulds us and makes us. We might like to think we’re rebellious and non-conformist – Harry Probert-Lloyd certainly does – but you can only rebel against what’s around you, so his rebellion is shaped by the times he lives in. Morals and world-views may change but emotions don’t. In response to the circumstances in which they find themselves, people have always been kind, selfish, greedy, generous, desperate, ruthless, selfless… and they always will be. If that’s a message, then that’ll do me.

Copies of Those Who Know are available to pre-order on Amazon

Issy Rixon is one of this season’s Digital Cultural Correspondent in a new partnership with Aberystwyth University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

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Tazmamart: 18 Years in Morocco’s Secret Prison

The year was 1972 and Aziz BineBine was a young soldier caught up in the failed coup d’état against King Hassan II in Morocco. Days after following orders from corrupt leaders, he was punished with imprisonment at Tazmamart, a secret prison completely devoid of any humanity. This book follows his eighteen years in captivity.

Tazmamart is effortlessly translated and reads like a piece of poetry. The imagery and sheer detail that is woven into the book is as impressive as it is mesmerising, as is the fact that Aziz BineBine still remembers the exact treatment the prisoners received each week, the precise death dates of the inmates, and everyone’s complex life stories after eighteen years. The telling of his experience is interlaced with references to poems, religious perspectives, and philosophical ideals, rendering it so much more than just an autobiography.

One of the most prominent points throughout this book is the author’s unwavering clarity regarding the attitudes of the people around him. He suggests that instead of blaming the prison guards for his treatment, we should be blaming the system for ‘sucking out what remained of their humanity’. After years of disease, starvation, and living amongst the most outrageous conditions, you would assume that he would feel some sort of resentment towards the guards – but instead, he pitied them for being too weak-willed to stand up to their superiors and put an end to the abuse. As BineBine states, a ‘coward is more dangerous than a cruel man’.

I find it truly remarkable that he was able to survive the things he did. He would spend each day sat in a concrete two-metre by three-metre prison cell, with the only indirect source of light being from a tiny steel-clad vent – which offered so little oxygen, his brain began to suffer from hypoxia. With each new chapter, BineBine’s conditions seemed to deteriorate more and more, and yet even when the author was living under the worst of conditions, his whole body rotting from the outside in, he would ‘think of Siberian labour camps, of those who – under the tsars, or later, under Stalin – were deported there… human beings have endured and suffered worse.’ He believes that his treatment was nothing in comparison to what these other humans had faced.

One thing that plagued the author was the loss of futures surrounding him. One truly heartbreaking part of the book described the death of his friend, and the loss of opportunities.’ with the following quote:

‘In Tazmamart, [my neighbour] Boujemâa, lived as he always had, with dignity and courage. This little Berber who sang in Arabic had just one dream in life: to be able one day to cosset his sister, pamper her, give her back a tiny bit of that stolen childhood, those thwarted dreams. Children are children because our suffering protects them like a prayer.’

Throughout the eighteen years, BineBine would maintain an impressive level of detachment to the outside world, and only by ignoring its existence was he able to cope. He would instead focus on spending his days running philosophy classes in the dark, sharing stories to keep the other men from drowning in their desolation and furthering his connection to God. One evening, another prisoner sends him a piece of his bread as thanks for his hoarse storytelling, a ‘starving man sharing his rations.’ BineBine always seemed surprised when prisoners tried to repay him for his efforts in keeping their minds active, and I’m sure that he still doesn’t realise just how much he saved those men.

Another of the arresting features about this book is the often-occurring portents, which would warn the author of the horrors to come. A visit from a night owl would mean imminent death and a particular bird song would signal the invasion of deadly snakes to their tiny cells. BineBine learnt that a certain smell would develop hours before someone died; how horrendous it would have been to have that insight, and never once be wrong about it.

Towards the end of the novel, the surviving men had turned into mere shells of their former selves, until a woman called Christine Daure-Serfaty came into their lives and saved them. Her tenacity, stubbornness, and faith meant that the state finally acknowledged the prisoners and eventually, after many, many years, set free. I found myself wondering how BineBine could possibly come back to life after being so broken and tormented – and yet somehow, with his incredible spirit and an unbreakable will, he did it.

Tazmamart is an utterly heartbreaking book which forces you to completely reconsider your own freedom, pointing out the glaringly obvious fact that at any given second, millions of people are living their own inescapable dystopias. This book will leave you with new thoughts on the concept of humanity and morality, bewildered at the sheer cruelty that one human can willingly inflict upon another. BineBine had lost his youth to the limbo of prison, his health destroyed by disease, cold and vermin. This truly is an incredible story depicting the unbelievable survival of one man, the one who survived Tazmamart.

Copies of Tazmamart can be found online at Amazon

Amy Aed is one of this season’s Digital Cultural Correspondent in a new partnership with Aberystwyth University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

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Graham Miller Interview

Graham Miller’s second book in his Angel and Haines series has just been released. He is based in south Wales, specialises in police procedural novels, and also runs several blogs about his life as a parent and creating ancient monuments in Minecraft.

Question 1: You have just published the second instalment in your Angel and Haines series. Tell us a little about your story and the world you have created.

The story started with a simple idea – why is it in police-type novels you never get corrupt officers? So I set up this dynamic between an officer nearing the end of his career who bends the rules for the greater good and a new officer who tries to do the right thing. I’ve set it in the fictional town of Bradwick in Wootenshire. It’s a faded Victorian seaside town. I lived in Herne Bay when I was at university and have always loved the feeling of off-season, slightly down-at-heel holiday resorts.

Question 2: In this book, Angel and Haines team up to catch ‘a killer who leaves no clues.’ How did you go about constructing this murder case? What makes it different from your other crime novels?

I realised that what keeps people coming back to crime fiction is the relationships between the protagonists. You need a careful balance between the cleverness of the crime and the personalities of the people solving it. I wanted the crime in the first book to provide a backdrop to the relationships and to set-up the ending. That hardest thing for me is to make a crime almost perfect so that there’s only one flaw that the detective can find at the end.

Question 3: This series is a police procedural. How did you become so knowledgeable about police and detective work? What research did you have to do?

I had doubts for years about writing a police procedural novel because I’ve never been a police officer and I thought anything I could write would be second class compared to the books written by ex-officers. But then I realised that the relationships are as important as the detail (see question 2). People don’t care about pinpoint accuracy – there are technical flaws in Line of Duty for example and that has been amazingly successful. What they care about is emotional honesty – can you believe in the characters and their relationships? Also, on a more prosaic level, I know serving and ex-police officers and they have been generous in answering my questions and discussing my suggestions.

Question 4: You describe one of the protagonists, Emma Angel, as a ‘strong female lead.’ Why did you decide to create this character? What sets her apart from other protagonists of yours?

She just kind of arrived in my head fully formed. I was thinking around the idea of someone who didn’t intend to be a police officer, but who is anyway even though it goes against their background and upbringing. Without giving away spoilers to the end of The Wrong Victims, Emma’s story is that as a teenager she had a row with her parents and left to do a sponsored degree in police work as the best way of upsetting them. Then she found that she was good at it and stayed! I actually have a writing friend who is a woman in her twenties and she check-reads every novel to make sure that I’ve got the tone right! I think what makes the story different is the tension between the two protagonists – the new recruit and the old hand.

Question 5: The novels have been set in the fictitious county of Wootenshire. In your website, you state: ‘Wootenshire is a fictional county, created as a setting for my stories. More than that it’s a place that has its own reality independent of the books that I write. It’s a place where many writers can come together and collaborate. I hope it won’t be seen as my place but as a co-operative place.’ What inspired you to invent the shared world of Wootenshire and how can other authors engage with this fictional realm?

I am going to show my age now, but this idea has been rattling around my head for over twenty years. There were these shows on TV like The Bill and London’s Burning. They both take place in fictional parts of London and I looked at it and wondered what would happen if they were in the same place with the same cast. The police and fire service often have jobs that overlap and involve each other. From there, I also thought, what if you incorporate a program like Casualty and also EastEnders, then you could have a complete universe. You’d see, for example, a car crash where the police investigate, the fire service rescue the victims, the casualty department would treat them and then you’d see their family lives in the soap opera.

Although I liked the idea, I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. But then a number of things fell into place. I started self-publishing, so I was in control of my own copyright. Different film franchises like Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Trek and Harry Potter set up their idea of what was canon and what wasn’t. I realised as well that soap operas run databases called concordances that keep all the details of the characters together in one place. Finally, technology and the internet caught up – Wikipedia took off and with it the idea of open-source software. Wikipedia is actually based on software called a wiki where a group of users can all edit one database. I spent a couple of years working out a licencing agreement so that many authors could work in the same fictional universe. Unlike open-source work, my agreement allows all the authors to profit from their own work as well to build the world collaboratively.

What makes this so exciting is that readers and viewers want to find the connections themselves. There are whole websites dedicated to trying to link together all the Pixar films even though they span fantasy, talking cars and toys and modern-day stories. So, there is a deep need for this kind of project. Wootenshire is the first implementation but the framework could be used for anything like fantasy or science fiction.

In the first place, authors can email me at info@wootenshire.co.uk and I’ll set them up to be able to edit the wiki and see if they get any inspiration from it. I’d love for authors from other genres, like romance, contemporary or historical to get involved in the project All the authors retain the traditional copyright in their own work.

For those who wish to know more about the world of Wootenshire, head to the official website at www.wootenshire.co.uk

Question 6: Other series of yours, such as the Jonah Greene books, have been set in Wales. As a member of the Crime Cymru group and a Welsh citizen yourself, how do you draw inspiration from the Welsh landscape? Do you believe that it is important to give Wales a place within crime fiction?

When I first moved to Wales, I was a bit nervous about writing fiction set here. I’m from England originally and I think Wales has such a great creative legacy that it was a bit daunting at first to dive in and get involved. But the more I’ve got to know the place, the more confident I’ve been to set stories here.

Yes, I think Wales is a great setting for crime fiction. It has everything from cities, to suburbs and towns, to great sweeps of countryside and coastline. I thought after Hinterland there’d be a big upswing in projects based in Wales, but it hasn’t taken off yet. It’s a shame as Wales has at least as much to offer as places like Scandinavia or Scotland.

You can find a copy of Graham’s new novel at https://grahamhmiller.com/books

To read Graham’s blogs, head to https://grahamhmiller.com/otherblogs

 

Issy Rixon is one of this season’s Digital Cultural Correspondent in a new partnership with Aberystwyth University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

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The Porthcawl Celtic Festival

The Porthcawl Celtic Festival (also known as Cwlwm Celtaidd ‘Celtic Knot’), is a small, community-run festival in south Wales that occurs once a year. Upon my arrival, I quickly found that the festival receives very little publicity – even many of the locals didn’t know that it was happening – which is a shame, as […]
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Patagonian Bones

26th February, 7:20 PM. The information desk at Ceredigion Museum had no lights on, and the streets around it were almost empty. Standing in front of the door felt forbidden since the place looked as though it was closed. Anyone unaware of the event would have walked past, no intention of even looking twice at […]
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Speaking Stones with Milly Jackdaw

Ceredigion Museum: a great visual representation of times already passed, separated from modern society by a mere doorframe. Within, there was a storyteller of great calibre waiting to share a tale with me. On 22nd February, I entered into a large theatre and found Nicola Hart, who performs as Milly Jackdaw, sitting in a secluded […]
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Literary Atlas: Plotting English Novels in Wales

On 5 February, the zoology lecture rooms of Swansea University played host to a talk on literature by Dr Kieron Smith. He is a lecturer at Swansea University, having earned his PhD in Media History/Welsh Writing in English. The talk was an hour-long and gave detail on a project that Dr Smith had been involved […]
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