Jo Shone attended the Short or Long Fiction: Getting going and keep going course with Mavis Cheek and Francesca Rhydderch in July 2017. Here, she writes about her stay at Tŷ Newydd.
I caught a glimpse of the dawn in a ray of rose coloured light slanting through the open bathroom door of my bedroom at Tŷ Newydd.
Beyond the closed curtains at the windows on the far side of the room the full glory of a Cardigan Bay sunrise was unfolding blushing the whole sky in pinks and reds, but in the next bed Greta lay sleeping, and I did not want to wake her by letting in the light.
She was murmuring gently, obviously in that dreamy netherland on the edge of consciousness, as the clock ticked just past five. It was far too early to start our first full day on the writing course. For now, I would have to make do with the new born sun glinting on the shower rail that Tuesday morning.
I had been wary of this whole room sharing lark, believing I was far too long in the tooth and set in my ways for anything quite so Bohemian. There were too many unknowns hanging in the air that was the problem. Do I snore? Do I grunt? Do I talk in my sleep, or, God forbid, do I break wind? I truly hope not.
My husband told me once that I sang in my sleep, but that was after a particularly boozy shindig. He thought it might have been a few snatches of ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ or it could have been ‘Myfanwy’ … so plainly it had not been melodic or even recognisable so I was no dormant Kiri te Kanawa.
Whatever my nocturnal habits I guess I was just old fashioned embarrassed. Silly really, because Greta turned out to be the perfect roomie.
At 26, she was buzzing with life and expectation, while I (old enough to be her grannie) was just buzzing. It was an annoying minor tinnitus problem that advancing age had brought as a special extra gift.
Having not slept with a stranger in all my 66 years, I had slept with five in the past six months. Greta was the fifth, with the other four in the Intensive Care Unit relatives house at Southampton General.
There, you grabbed a few hours shut-eye when you could and anyone in the other bed understood if you had to throw some clothes on and run in the middle of the night, so sharing at Tŷ Newydd should be a walk in the park. An altogether much happier experience, I hoped, and thanks to Greta it was.
She had the enviable ability to zone out with the help of an embroidered white eye-mask and occasional use of earplugs, so there was little danger of disturbing her dreams even if the spirit of Lonnie Donnegan decided to make a come-back tour with his dad and a dustbin at silly o’clock in the morning.
Tŷ Newydd, home to the Writers Centre for Wales, is a fascinating labyrinth of a place, and thanks to the eccentricity of Clough Williams Ellis there are doors where there shouldn’t be doors, and winding, narrow slanted staircases twisting up and down through the house. Uneven stone steps take you from level to level on a ground floor, that isn’t really a ground floor.
This place is steeped in history and overflowing with inspiration. If the landscaped garden and the stunning view don’t get you, the feeling of freedom will. It’s an anything goes sanction to be creative.
You can be serious, evocative, funny, factual, or just plain whimsical. You can play with words, construct with words, paint pictures with words or simply fall in and out of love with words. Tŷ Newydd is a place where the Welsh Language lives, and a place where complacency dies. You have to become part of it once you’ve walked through that famous teal front door.
Our little group was tutored by a Cagney and Lacey tag team of authors. Mavis Cheek, who can stop you in your tracks with a look, a meticulously crafted sentence, or a witty riposte, always handed out in a velvet pouch, and Francesca Rhydderch, whose searching eyes look deep beyond conversation. Both can, and have, created worlds populated by characters that had caroused, rampaged, or simply wandered in an out of their minds. Every one of them to be embraced or confronted by strangers now and, no doubt, long after the authors have gone to that eternal editing suite in the skies.
We ten ‘grasshoppers’ who came literally from both ends of the earth, and from round the corner, had paid good money to learn how to create our own worlds from these female Mr Miyagi.
An extra bonus of the course was an enthralling evening with bestselling author and scriptwriter, the very charismatic, Patrick Gale. If his ocean blue didn’t beguile you his gentle tone and thought provoking honesty certainly did.
But no-one lives by words alone, not even at Tŷ Newydd, cue resident chef, Tony, in his roomy loafers with his scouse wit and gastronomic wizardry. You haven’t lived until you’ve pealed spuds for fifteen with Tony. I came away having learnt as much about the band Radiohead as I did about proper onion gravy, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Do not expect to come to Tŷ Newydd and leave unscathed. You cannot help but be touched by its charm, It might be a few weeks, it might be months or years but sometime sooner or later you’ll learn all about a Welsh word called ‘hiraeth’, and you’ll be back.