The Beautiful Land of Muddle

“Writing is lonely, it’s an intimate talk with the dead, with the unborn, with the absent, with strangers, with the readers who may never come to be and who even if they read you will do so weeks, years, decades later.”

Rebecca Solnit.  Hope in the Dark


I apologise for the lamentable lack of recent posts.  This has been matched only by my lamentable lack of reading.    I have been engaged in editing, revising, redrafting a manuscript, a seemingly endless process with constantly moving goal posts.

More and more I admire anyone who – regardless of publication –  achieves a finished manuscript for a novel.  So this is a post less about reading, than about playing music.


I am currently listening to Sioned Williams (former principal harp to the BBC Symphony Orchestra) playing music by John Thomas who was harpist to the Queen (Victoria, not Elizabeth).    Sioned  is President of the UK Harp Association and Emeritus Senior Fellow in Harp Studies at Trinity Laban.  She has so many letters after her name,  I hope she will forgive me for not elucidating them here.  If you have a chance to listen to her on Spotify or elsewhere, I highly recommend doing so.

On the subject of harp playing, I have enrolled on a course called Renaissance of the Celtic Harp as part of the Edinburgh Harp Festival in April.  An interesting choice of title, thought I.  Renaissance as in rebirth.  This course (I hope) is for the lever harp.    But in order for something to be reborn, whether instrument or tradition – it first has to have died out.  The triple harp (which originated in Italy) is just such an instrument.  Technically,  to sharpen or flatten a note on the lever harp requires the movement of a lever, on a pedal harp, it requires the movement of a pedal.  Whereas the triple harp has three strings per note.

18th Century Triple Harp, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

After the early 20th century triple harps were almost completely abandoned in Wales in favour of the modern pedal harp in which the sharp/flat notes are achieved by moving a foot pedal, leaving the hands free to play the strings. Preservation of the triple harp however,  and the playing style,  have been attributed to one person, Nansi Richards-Jones (1888–1979), who learnt to play from Gypsy harpists in the Bala area at the turn of the century. Current performers of the Welsh triple harp include Eleanor Bennett, Dafydd Roberts, Robin Huw Bowen, Cheryl Ann Fulton, Ann Griffiths and Llio Rhydderch, most of whom were her students.  But what does it mean to be Welsh today?

I found an article written as the  on Tuesday 1st March (yay, St. David’s Day).  Cerys Hafana – a triple harpist, pianist and composer from mid-Wales – wrote in The Guardian on that date:

“I have a theory that the triple harp is seen by many as a symbol of Wales, its plight mirroring that of Wales and the Welsh language in the last century.  Many influential players came to the instrument as adults with a passion for Welsh history, and saw learning it as the ultimate manifestation of their interests.  It is viewed as a kind of historical artefact hailing from a better time when everyone in Wales spoke Welsh (and was born there), when every young person was passionate about their native culture…”.

Ms Hafana goes on to explain in the article how, as a young, queer, Welsh folk musician she feels excluded by the idea of that ‘better’ time.

“But when people imply that things were better for Wales back then, I can’t help but suspect that what that really means is that things were better for the Wales of rich, white men.  It’s an erasure of all the things that have changed for the better.”

I know what she means.   But surely those who identified Wales and Welshness through  folk music, harp playing, poetry, these  were not Crawshay Bailey and his fellow iron-masters, but those who served them.

The terms ‘traditional’ and ‘authentic’ and ‘history’ in Wales are always problematic.   Music can be part of a shared culture which is not based on grievance.  Yet Welsh folk songs, by their very elegiac nature, promote exactly the sense of loss that Professor Martin Johnes, a historian of Wales at Swansea University, worries about. A history which lacks clarity can be used to fuel nationalism. a history which lacks explanation and education in schools can be used to fuel xenophobia.  History, as Professor Johnes says, is emotional.

There is no single ethnicity in the British Isles that cannot trace its origin back to a  Norseman, a Roman, a Norman, a Pict, a Dane, A Viking. Wales is the beautiful land of muddle; it’s language eroded, it’s dominant castellated architecture built by English invaders,  it’s folk music influenced by jazz,  ‘Eastern European turbo folk and Daft Punk.’ Only the mountains are immovable.

Calon Lan, Ar Hyd Yr Nos.  Marwnad yr Eheddyd.  The lark has died under the mountain, like Owain Glyndwr.  Do we wait for his renaissance too,  among those other sustaining dreams?   Or is it time to consider the needs of the future away from an overly romanticised past.

And on exactly this subject, I have just found on BookJotter

Welsh (Plural): Essays on the Future of Wales (Repeater Press) which I have added to my TBR list.





7 thoughts on “The Beautiful Land of Muddle

  1. “History, as Professor Johnes says, is emotional.” What a profound statement. I enjoyed this thoughtful and reflective and informative post. I love the romanticized history of Wales and the British Isles in general, but I completely agree that no one is served by getting stuck there. Life evolves and we are writing, right now, the history of future generations. We get to decide what that will “feel” like, and hopefully, we will make wise choices that we can be proud of. <3 <3

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