Monthly Archives: August 2016

Swanning around Swanwick

 I have just been to my first writer’s week – well not quite – I had work commitments and so couldn’t make the first few days. I did still manage to squeeze in a hectic few days of classes, courses, conversations and coffee with people of a similar bent to myself.

I attended Swanwick Writers Week, one of the longest established writer retreats in the UK. Swanwick has been on the go for over sixty years and like many things British it has developed its own little customs and idiosyncrasies. As a first time attendee I wore a white badge. Everybody is extremely nice to white badgers and go out of their way to make you feel welcome and a part of the institution. I was lucky and had a friend who was able to brief me and do some introductions. It certainly broke the ice and quelled any nerves. Swanwick is also notorious for serial attenders; some people have attended for over fifty years.  Don’t fret it’s not in the ‘Hotel California’ mould where you can check-in but cannot leave, Swanwick is simply a nice space with an infectious vibe. One attendee told me that Swanwick was ‘my annual holiday and treat to myself’.

Back to the customs of which there are many; in the dining hall the main course is brought to the long tables in large serving dishes. The person sitting at the outside of the table serves the others. The ‘Page to Stage’ is good fun and involves people coming together and creating a performance piece from scratch. The results are mixed but the endeavour is genuine. During the week between courses the ‘Page to Stagers’ can be seen anxiously rehearsing in the hallways and bar area. Did I mention the ‘Bar’? Yes there is a full licensed Bar and I confess to spending quite a bit of time there, all in the name of networking of course. The Fancy Dress is on Monday night, there is always a Quiz (an institution in itself and cut above your average local pub variety – personally speaking), the Dregs party is on Thursday night and allows one to shed any leftover alcohol so the car doesn’t reek of clanging bottles and booze on the way home. The whole event is run by a hardworking and dedicated Committee on a voluntary basis. There are speakers every night whom I understand receive some expenses but almost everything else is voluntary and free.

There is undoubtedly some fantastic talent amongst the attendees at Swanwick. The atmosphere is creative and vibrant, friendly and collegiate. Swanwickers come from all different facets and genres of writing, fiction, non-fiction, poets, children’s authors, storytellers, screenwriters, short film makers. From Memoirs to Crime novelists, Urban poets to Gothic Film aficionados I met a lot of very interesting people here. There were people whose ambition was to have a few stories printed by ‘Woman’s Weekly’ to aspiring first novelists and despite varying aspirations everyone mixed easily. It was as if all egos were left at the gatehouse at the entrance to Swanwick. It’s not all idyllic, there is a compliment of poseurs, but they only add to tapestry and make the genuine souls shine brighter.

Many published authors spoke of Swanwick as been an annual marker for them, a place where they recharge the batteries and keep going until the next Swanwick. It reminded me of the Celtic festival of ‘Lunasa’ which is also associated with the month of August. Of course the Gaelic word for August is also Lunasa (a derivative of Luna) and this might explain the large number of lunatics in Swanwick.

The life of a writer is not an easy one. There are harsh commercial realities. In the UK it is estimated that the top 10% of writers take 50% of the cream. It’s a Winner takes all game.  Sometimes the cream rises to the top but often it doesn’t. There is a bit of luck involved and commercial realities. You might be a beautiful writer but if people don’t want to buy your work then you are a commercial failure, no ifs buts or maybe’s. There are many people attending for many years who have not enjoyed success. At the end of the day success as measured by others is number of units sold but if one truly loves to write then success is continuing to write even though you suffer the slings and arrows of rejection. Most writers earn less than the minimum wage. In this regard I was glad to see some courses focussed around getting published and increasing the percentages. There was no course on how to make your own luck though which is more the pity. And that is Swanwick a little cocooned oasis of writers in the heart of Derbyshire. I’m hooked and can’t wait to go again (this time with the yellow badge). Guess what? There is only three hundred and fifty eight days to the next Swanwick.

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Leitrim’s Lake monster – The legendary Dobhar Chu

Dobhar-ChuI was recently reading up on ancient tales on Irish Lake monsters and came across this interesting piece on the death of a woman in 1722 in Glenade Lake. Apparently the woman who was named Grace or Grainne, and married to a Turlough McLoghlin, was washing clothes in the lake when she was attacked by the Dobhar-Chu.

This is an extract from Dave Walsh’s piece on his site Blather.net

“Dobhar-chú (a.k.a. the Water Hound or Master Otter), and in particular, allegations concerning the demise of a Co. Leitrim woman in 1722, supposedly mauled by such a beast. Sligo fortean Joe Harte managed to track down her grave, in Glenade, on the north side of Ben Bulben mountain, and this writer managed to get hold of a copy of the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. 78, (1948), where was found, on pages 127-129, The Dobhar-chú Tombstones of Glenade, Co. Leitrim by Patrick Tohall. Later on, last September — as mentioned in an earlier Blather Joe and I visited the grave”.

The piece goes on to say –

“Our Leitrim lady, however, seems to have had a less fortunate fate. On her headstone is a raised illustration of what appears to be, for all intents and purposes, a stylised otter impaled by spear, held in a disembodied hand. The deceased name appears to have been Grace, but her surname is indecipherable – possibly McGlone. Tohall, who had 50 years less weathering to deal with, found that:

‘Line by Line the text reads: –(1) (Illegible), (2) ??ODY OF (3) GRACE CON (4) N?Y WIFE (5) TO TER MAC (6) LOGHLIN WHO (7) DYD 7BER (8) THE 24TH (9) ANN DMI (10) MDCCXXII. Points of note are: (a) The woman is still spoken of as “Grainne ” (not “Grace”) around her home; (b) The name “Ter” is obviously a contraction for “Terence”, the modern baptismal name adopted to supplant the traditional “Toirdhealbhach.” Only recently has the spoken language surrendered to the change, as down to our own time those who signed “Terence” were called “T’ruá­lach” in this locality. I have heard it so pronounced, exactly as John O’Donovan did here about 1835, when he wrote the names as “T’raolach”;(c) Adherence to contemporary classical forms: the contraction “7ber,” for September and the use of the “Possessive Dative” case; (d) the Gaelic custom of a married woman keeping her maiden name — incongruous in the English text.’

According to Tohall, there are two different main versions of on the death of a women washing clothes in Glenade Lake. A second tombstone at the south end of the lake was also connected to the tale, but has since vanished. The two accounts seem to have defaulted to the remaining stone, with ‘strong, local tradition’ preferring to connect the more interesting of the two versions.

‘A woman named Grainne, wife of a man of the McLoghlins, who lived with her husband in the townland of Creevelea at the north-west corner of Glenade Lake, took some clothes down to the lakeshore to wash them. As she did not return her husband went to look for her and found her bloody body by the lakeside with the Dobhar-chú asleep on her breast.

Returning to the house for his dagger he stole silently on the Dobhar-chú and drove the knife into its breast. Before it died, however, it whistled to call its fellow; and the old people of the place, who knew the ways of the animals, warned McLoghlin to fly for his life. He took to horse, another mounted man accompanying him. The second Dobhar-chú came swimming from the lake and pursued the pair. Realising that they could not shake it off they stopped near some old walls and drew their horses across a door ope. The Dobhar-chú rushed under the horses’ legs to attack the men, but as it emerged from beneath them one of the men stabbed and killed it.’

The second version describes the killing by a Dobhar-chú of another woman engaged in washing newly-woven cloth in Glenade lake when she was attacked. The boundary of the townland of Srath-cloichrán (Sracleighreen) and Gob-an-ghé (Gubinea) is the alleged location of this bloodshed (I emphasise the word ‘boundary’, as it denotes a place of liminal status — akin to the traditional importance of such places as crossroads). Yet another variant tells how the avenger Dobhar-chú had a single horn in the centre of its forehead, which it gored the horses with.

Tohall sees the Congbháil monument as being ‘the only tangible evidence’ for the idea of the ‘King Dobhar-chú,’ or Killer-Dobharcá.

‘Lexicographers of both districts record two meanings for Dobhar-chú (derived fromDobhar, water, and chú, hound): (a) the common otter (Lutra Lutra ) a term now superseded by Mada-uisge in Northern Ireland and Scotland; (b) ‘a mythical animal like an otter’ (Dineen). In Co. Leitrim the latter tradition survives strongly: ‘a kind of witch that ruled all the other water-animals’ (Patrick Travers, Derrinvoney); or used jocularly to a boy along Lough Allen,”Hurry back from your errand before dark, or mind would the Dobhar-choin of Glenade come out of the water and grab you.” The best summary of the idea is set out in the records of the Coimisiun le Báaloideas by Seán ó h-Eochaidh, of Teidhlinn, Co. Donegal, in a phrase which he heard in the Gaeltacht: ‘the Dobharchú is the seventh cub of the common otter’ (mada-uisge): the Dobhar-chú was thus a super otter.’

It seems to this writer that the identification of the Dobharchú with the fairly shy otter (which can be found at lengths of over 5’6″ (1.67m) including the tail) seems to be by default — no other known Irish water creature comes as close to a rational zoological explanation. Is the Dobhar-chú some hungry lake serpent manifestation which grows legs occasionally when it feels like eating? It’s a matter that Blather is having grave difficulty providing hypothetical explanations for.

Dave (daev) Walsh

21st August 1998”

Check out blather.net where Dave Walsh describes hiomself as chief bottle washer and “Writer, photographer, environmental campaigner and “known troublemaker” Dave Walsh is the founder of Blather.net, described both as “possibly the most arrogant and depraved website to be found either side of the majestic Shannon River”, and “the nicest website circulating in Ireland”. Half Irishman, half-bicycle. He lives in southern Irish city of Barcelona.”

Don’t let the fear of the Dobhar Chu stop you from visiting one of Ireland’s little gems, the beautiful Glenade Lake hidden in the North Leitrim Glens.

Glenade_Lough_-_County_Leitrim-2_Small

photo credit Eireial Creations

 

The grave of Chang Tso Sheng

 

 I visited the Chinese Cemetery in Noyelles Sur Mer a few weeks ago. I really came across the place by accident. I had just visited the scene of the Battle of Crecy (1346) where King Edward III’s English army annihilated the French force under King Philip VI. I was returning to our lodging in St. Valery Sure-Mer when I saw a sign for the ‘Cimetière Chinois’. Even with my limited French I knew that this must be a war cemetery but presumed it was a cemetery for French Colonials from Indochina. Curiosity got the better of me and so I took a turn off in Noyelles. I soon found the cemetery down a quiet back lane surrounded by wheat fields. We were the only ones visiting. The first thing you notice is the beautiful Chinese archway which guards the entrance. The cemetery like all war cemeteries in France is well-kept, neat and tidy. The information plaque advises that there are 849 graves here and that they all belong to members of the Chinese Labour Corps. Most of the deaths seemed to have occurred in 1918 and 1919 and the majority of these after the Armistice. I immediately wondered had most succumbed to the Flu Epidemic or some other calamity.? Only some of the graves have the names of the deceased. Most just have numbers. Also each grave stone contains an epitaph and after some observation I worked out that there were only four options, “Faithful unto death (至死忠誠)”, “A good reputation endures forever (流芳百世)”, “A noble duty bravely done (勇往直前)” and “Though dead he still liveth (雖死猶生)”. The remains also seem to have been buried two per grave.

I decided to do a bit more research and discovered that the men came mostly from Shandong Province.  They were recruited and processed by both the French and English through the Treaty ports Tianjin and Weihaiwei. They were poor and from the countryside. The wages offered were very high by Chinese standards but low by European rates (about 1/3 of a French privates salary). The selection process weeded out those with disease and so only the strongest labourers were selected. The journey was arduous, almost three months by ship until they docked at Marseilles. When a German U-boat sank a ship drowning 540 Chinese labourers the route was changed. Now the labourers crossed the Pacific, were shipped in cattle trucks across Canada and then sailed the Atlantic. It must have been a terrifying experience for what were simple, rural peasants with little knowledge of the wider world.

In France they worked 10 hours a day and 7 days a week for 20 yuan. They worked building trenches, repairing railways, unloading and transporting supplies to the troops. The strange food caused many to suffer stomach problems. Camp conditions were hard and work conditions uncomfortable. When the war was over the men were not repatriated immediately but were used in mine clearance and recovering bodies from the battlefields. This was dangerous and foul work. It is estimated that up to 10,000 died during the War from shelling, landmines, poor treatment, cholera or the worldwide flu epidemic. It was estimated that at the end of the war over 300,000 workers from the Colonies, 100,000 Egyptians, 21,000 Indians and 20,000 native South Africans were working throughout France and the Middle East by 1918. After the war, the British government sent a War Medal to every member of the Chinese Labour Corps. The medal was exactly like the British War Medal that had issued to every member of the British armed forces, except that it was of bronze, not silver, a fact that illustrates the lesser value placed on these men upon whose backs and hands the war was won.

 ‘By the terms of this contract…I, the undersigned coolie recruited by the Weihaiwei Labour Bureau, declare myself to be a willing labourer’

 

The grave of Chang Tso Sheng

This is not your fatherland, where they make you toil, 

Digging trenches for the damned, pulling bodies from the soil.

This is not your motherland, where you clear mines all day, 

Did they tell you about the shells, the fever and decay.

You left your family in Shandong, you were shipped across the sea

Loaded on a cattle truck, and then dumped in Picardy.

Why did you join this fight Sheng? What brought you to this place?

What is the cause you died for? Was it two yuan per day?

Now you lie in Noyelles –sur- Mer, amongst the fields of wheat, 

‘Faithful unto death’, it says, not the fate you’d planned to meet.

A medal then was cast, to remember this campaign,

They said it didn’t matter, the colour of your skin, 

So your noble sacrifice was honoured,

your number was engraved, 

But theirs was cast in silver

and yours in simple bronze.

 Chinese Labour Corps Cemetery

Noyelles-sur-Mer, 2016