Translated by Angharad Price
Translation copyright: Angharad Price
Tynybraich: the name belongs to a house and a mountain; to a family too, at least in local speech. They have been farming Tynybraich for centuries, my mother’s forefathers. There’s a genealogy in the family Bible, branches of men’s names dating back to 1012.
We came to Tynybraich every school holiday, leaving the quarries of Arfon behind us and heading south. To Dinas Mawddwy, where we learned how to live with mountains, not against them. Turning off the main road, we saw flowers reaching for the car and rabbits running from it. Coming out from Y Ffridd we looked down at the Maesglasau valley and across to Tynybraich mountain, a pyramid of blue extending upwards from the narrow valley floor. In the distance, the rock of Maesglasau, its waterfall our vertical horizon.
We didn’t care for the mountain, which we took for granted. We cared only for the house. After all, it was the house that gave the mountain its name. Tynybraich: ‘House in the Mountain’s Arm.’ It was our grandparents’ home and we were keen to get there. But there was the steep hill to descend, the brook to cross, the other hill to ascend, seeing nothing ahead but the car bonnet and some sky. Dogs would rush and bark at the sound of unfamiliar wheels.
Only Nan could calm us again. Our mother’s mother, waiting for us at the farmhouse door, touched by the smell of food that came through the kitchen window.
She’d come to Dinas Mawddwy in wartime to visit a cousin. My grandfather, Taid, was newly widowed, nearly forty and a father of two. Nan never returned to her home in Cwm Nant yr Eira, the valley of the snowy stream, in neighbouring Montgomeryshre. On the day they were married she became a wife, a farm wife, a stepmother and a daughter-in-law all at once. Nan began her life at Tynybraich, soon herself to become a mother of two.
Taid insisted she learn to drive up and down the steep slopes of the mountain. She was to be self-sufficient. At her first outing, with fresh snow on the ground, the car veered off the mountain road and skidded to the edge of the ravine. Taid straightened the car and forced his young wife to drive back to the house. It was much later that she thanked him for his lesson. For the rest of her life, the car was her means of escape from Tynybraich. Every Wednesday she went to Machynlleth market, and every Friday to Dolgellau; and to her sister’s in Arthog on Saturday night. The car took her to the village on social visits, or in condolence. She delivered meals-on-wheels to old age pensioners until she reached her eightieth year.
She was at her most independent in the car. At election time, she’d draw out her Plaid Cymru poster from the glove compartment. When Tynybraich was out of sight she’d stick it on the windscreen and drive around - a raging nationalist. Returning to Tynybraich, just before Y Ffridd, the poster was folded up and put away. Taid was Labour. There would have been trouble, for there was nothing he liked more than a good debate, and nothing she liked less.
She was an even-tempered woman. The evenness spread out from her. She organised her world evenly around her. Her kitchen table was an even cosmos: planets of plates and saucers, lids of jam jars, Welsh cakes, the Victoria sponge, and rounds of bread and butter. Spoons and knives shone like stars between the planets.
She baked her Welsh cakes every morning, rolling out the speckled dough over the table, a continent whose boundaries stretched outwards from the middle, barely visibly, as the rolling pin moved lightly under Nan’s hand. I recall our anxiety as the rounds were cut out, and we were pained again as the golden dough was stained on the griddle. Nan just smiled and carried on. She must have made thousands of them in her life, those golden coins, but statistics would be meaningless. Nan wasn’t one to keep count.
The evenness of her handwork. The swift movement of knitting needles, the controlled loosening and tightening of the wool under her finger. She threw off the stitches carelessly, discarding them as she talked and laughed. But at cast-off and make-up time, the stitches’ uniform tension proved her even hand.
Remnants of clothing were transformed into patchwork quilts. We watched her do it. Her endless patience. Tracing the aluminium template. Cutting up the hexagons. Tacking. Stitching hexagon to hexagon. Time becoming space. Daily life made even.
Nan created a garden for herself at the back of the farmhouse, a patch of mountain enclosed by a wire fence. The Italian prisoners of war helped her, showing how to carve terraces into the earth, as they’d done in their own vineyards back home. Nan grew flowers and shrubs that lived in counterpoint to the mountain, just like the Latin plants’ names and her Welsh accent.
But the earth was rough and shingly, unfavourable to horticulture. The mountain tended to take back its own ground. The terraces became steeper and steeper every year. But Nan persisted. The garden was her pride.
Sheep would push through, eating all that was edible, trampling on the terraces, leaving behind them nothing but grassless patches. Of course, she’d been foolish to challenge the mountain. But she’d start again and soon the flowers were back. Nan also knew how to hold her ground.
She was even in walk and even in talk, and even also in grace. Who could have told that she’d spent her life between two steep and unforgiving mountains?
She’d watch us playing from the farmhouse window. The mountain had lessons to teach, especially to those of us who’d been reared on flat marshland up towards the coast. It pulled itself from beneath us when we least expected it, and made us somersault through thistles, wool and sheep dung, and it was only back at the house that we’d find our feet again. The quiet hearth there. As we stared into the everlasting fire, butter melting in a glass dish, Nan would lay the table.
Taid would come in cold from off the mountain, the stub of a Players cigarette between finger and thumb. He’d wheezed as he approached, our chatter stopping. Between snatches of breath we’d hear him talk of the mountain. At the top, he said, were bilberry bushes and pools of water where people had dug for peat. There were larks arising and peregrine falcons falling at the speed of bullets. The steep Oerddrws Pass, far below, seemed flat from up there, and above you, he said, there was nothing but summits: Waun Oer, Foel y Ffridd, Foel Bendin, y Glasgwm, Aran Fawddwy, Aran Benllyn, Cader Idris... Taid knew all their names by heart.
He’d talk of superstitions and fairy lore, and the terms were unfamiliar: ‘cotton grass’, ‘the bandits’, ‘causeway’.... There was that sprig of white heather he brought back, and the strange fly-eating flower. We couldn’t disbelieve him. That was disrespectful. Yet, we couldn’t quite believe him either. Taid’s testament was enigmatic, he himself so foreign to us.
After supper every evening he’d fetch his broken reading glasses and retired to the parlour. He adored analyses of history and politics, and reading was his passion. His horizons were so broad, you’d think he’d spent his life on mountain tops, and we’d look at him in wonder as we looked towards the peak of Tynybraich, obliquely and at a distance. And as with the mountain, we both longed for his attention and feared it. The steep gradients of his character. His strict attitudes. And his ready laughter at man’s folly.
Of course, tied as we were to Nan and house, we didn’t know of Taid the shepherd, and of his daily care for the sheep on the mountain, climbing through the seasons to perpetuate the work of his forefathers. Between winter and spring, billhook in hand, he’d cut off branches to feed the sheep, and later, during the lambing season, he’d be up there counting, protecting the weak newborns from crows and foxes. If a late frost threatened sleet or hail, Taid would come home with a lamb in his pocket, all damp and slippery, its breath irregular and its head hanging down in frailty. It would be placed on the hearth in a box lined with newspaper and nourished by Taid with milk from a rubber teat, Nan looking on at new life marking the hearthstone.
In spring, if the kitchen light suddenly dimmed, Taid would have to climb up to the reservoir at the mountain top. It would be frogspawn, stopping the steady flow of water down to the turbine, and so he’d move it away by the fistful, keeping one for the jar he’d brought up specially and which he’d hand over to the children on his return, a transparent treasure. And now the farmhouse kitchen would be lit anew.
At weaning time, Taid would have to separate the male lambs from their mothers. For days after, the mothers would bleat in anguish, and I remember seeing Taid watch them press their bodies hard against the mountain gate in longing.
With his neighbours he’d gather sheep for dipping and shearing, relaxing at the end of a summer’s day with banter at the kitchen table, with Nan attending half-listening as she refilled all the men’s dinner plates. But it was in winter that the mountain demanded most from Taid. Sheep were often be trapped beneath the snow and he would climb up, inserting a rod made of hazel through the thick white blanket. Prodding and poking, he knew from experience where the sheep had gone to seek shelter. There was no guarantee. It was an act of faith. But sometime, finally, Taid would feel the living softness and the far end of the rod and go down on all fours to free it. He’d watch the sheep run off with chunks of snow still in the wool, shining in the blue light of daybreak. Hours later, Taid would return home, lame with frostbite. Nan, relieved to see her husband back, would hurry to fetch a bowl of hot stock with which to warm him.
We didn’t know, back then in childhood, how much the mountain had demanded from Taid. Our uncle, my mother’s brother, had largely taken on the farm by the time we came along, and we were too young to comprehend the story of Taid’s three brothers, all born blind, who’d had to be sent away to boarding school in England, and of two other brothers who had died in childhood, as well as his only sister, dead at age eleven. Taid was the only one left to work on the farm, to continue as expected, as his forefathers had done for centuries before him. At eleven years of age he’d had to leave school and dedicate his life to Tynybraich mountain.
Gravity’s strict lessons; Taid learned them young. The mountain took possession of his life, his education, his wish to study medicine. But he slowly reached a compromise with Tynybraich, dividing his life between it and his fellow men. He became a local councillor, an NFU official, and travelled on Union business to London and Brussels. And it was this unwilling farmer who came to add his name to the Tynybraich genealogy, taking on the mountain’s name, at least in local parlance. And after their marriage, Nan shared that name with him. Tynybraich: the covenant of mountain and house.
I only climbed it once, Tynybraich mountain. Taid had been buried many years, Nan a few months only. In truth, his testament still lived on in the highland: the bilberry bushes, the pools of dark, dark water where the peat was dug, the rising lark and the falling falcon. There was the Pass. There were the bandits. And the cotton grass and causeway, as well as all those peaks whose names I’d never mastered.
But soon, a sense of trespass made me leave. In any case I had to go, and bid goodbye to my aunt and uncle. I had turn my back on Tynybraich and drive down all the way to Cardiff. There was work on Monday morning.
I picked my way through thistles, wool and sheep dung on the way down. And then, coming within sight of the house, I remember slowing down involuntarily, as Taid himself would have done, yielding to the pull of the farmhouse. In my head there was the sound of Nan laying the table.
Then I remember stopping, up there on the mountain, to wonder at the scene before me, seeing the narrow ledge on which the farmhouse stood and the precipice beneath it. And seeing, as Taid himself had seen throughout his life, the evenness radiating from it and filling the valley.
Shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year 2021 | Creative Fiction
Ymbapuroli gathers into one gem of a collection a decade of essays and thought pieces by Angharad Price, one of the most highly regarded authors and scholars working in Welsh today. With a title drawn from the work of TH Parry Williams – a master of the 20th century essay form, on whom Price has written extensively – the subtlety and capaciousness of these writings reveal Price a successor as much as a researcher of his extraordinary talents.
With subjects ranging from phonetics to cakes, from cleaning to Karl Marx, it is Price’s gift for sensitive, intelligent scrutiny that holds the volume together, her capacity to expand the meaning of the seemingly smallest mundanity. In ‘Tri myfyrdod ar bapur tŷ bach’, for example, one of the pieces written specifically for this collection, she presents three musings on toilet paper, moving from the experiences of the novelists Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o and Angharad Tomos, both of whom used toilet paper to set down their thoughts during times in captivity, to the panicked rush for toilet paper during the first lockdown of the recent pandemic. From the opening portrait of her grandparents’ farm on the slopes of Mynydd Tynybraich, we understand her world view as both deeply rooted and internationally expansive: the collection encompassing experiences of her education at Oxford, her studies and travels in Germany and Austria (the work contains translations of Friederike Mayröcker a Maruša Krese, both of whom she met during her time there), as well as her home in Caernarfon. It’s a push and pull also reflected in Price’s wider body of work: her award-winning novella, O! Tyn y Gorchudd (The Life of Rebecca Jones), widely regarded as a modern classic, makes a world of one farm in Cwm Maesglasgau, whilst her account of the early career of TH Parry Williams, Ffarwél i Freiburg (Farewell to Freiburg), is deeply European in perspective.
In all its variety and curiosity, Ymbapuroli captures an exceptional literary mind in search for meaning, and it’s a joy to join her on the journey. An intellect inspired by the world, not moving away from it, Price is a unifying voice in Welsh and European writing, needed now more than ever.
"Mae’r casgliad hwn yn brawf o’r ffydd honno, yn ffurf goncrid, gadarn ar y cysylltiadau sy’n ein clymu â gweddill y byd a’r bywyd anweledig y gall llenyddiaeth roi patrwm ac urddas iddo. Wrth i’n hymwneud dynol gael ei gyfyngu’n llythrennol gan y pandemig, mae’n brawf pendant hefyd o’r cysur y gall y broses o ymbapuroli ei gynnig inni. Mae’n gyfrol i’w thrysori."
Llion Wigley, O’r Pedwar Gwynt
"Dwi’n dotio at y ffordd mae Angharad yn plethu geiriau cynnil a diaddurn at ei gilydd i ddweud pethau mawr, ond heb eu dweud nhw, chwaith."
Angharad Elen, Golwg