Do not go gentle: we need you

For years the Offa’s Dyke Association has been my favourite source for updates on early mediaeval Welsh border studies. If the association’s volunteers or staff don’t have an answer, then surely one of the historians or archaeologists who underpin its efforts will know.

Offa's Dyke in Northern Shropshire near Trefonen village
Offa’s Dyke in Northern Shropshire near Trefonen village. Photo courtesy of Offa’s Dyke Association.

In the late 1970s I started reading about Offa’s Dyke—the earthwork built in the late eighth century mainly between the English kingdom of Mercia and the Welsh kingdom of Powys—as a reflection of early English-Welsh relations. By then the ODA had been an energetic, visionary organization for a decade. Two years ago today, when it celebrated its 50th anniversary, one of the speakers was a University of Chester archaeologist who has been a mainstay of the ODA’s research and public education programs, Professor Howard Williams.

On various projects over the years I have asked questions of scholarly writers, many in the disciplines of history, archaeology, earth sciences, early literature and languages. Most are helpful, but a few stand out for aid to a non-academic writer. One of these is Howard Williams.

A couple of years ago I read a paper by Prof. Williams on the archaeology of Offa’s Dyke, which along with the later Welsh memorial cross Eliseg’s Pillar and the poetry cycle Canu Heledd, anchors a fascinating period of Welsh-English history.

Prof. Williams’s paper shed new light on the subject, but when I tried to access his other work, I ran into paywalls and sheer unavailability in Western Canada. As a last hope I wrote to ask him how to read further. He immediately pointed me toward new papers and open-access sources.

Later I discovered his entertaining and informative blog, Archaeodeath: Death & Memory – Past & Present, which offers commentary on “research interests in mortuary archaeology and archaeologies of memory as well as archaeological heritage, the Middle Ages, public archaeology and contemporary archaeology.”

If you think that’s a dry subject, you’re wrong. The Archaeodeath blog romps through zombie movies, Vikings real and imagined, The Dig and other films in their historic context, every possible permutation of Offa’s Dyke and other border studies, Eliseg’s Pillar (Prof. Williams codirected a 2011 excavation, Project Eliseg, with Prof. Nancy Edwards and Dr. Gary Robinson) and discussion of mortuary monuments in today’s landscape. Prof. Williams did much of his recent research with his children in tow during a stringent pandemic lockdown.

His blog, like his broader social media presence (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), is a model for popular outreach by a working archaeologist and is highly valued both at the community level and among academics. Williams thinks it’s less important to complain about inaccurate popular treatments of historical subjects than to raise public interest and encourage involvement, for example in groups like the ODA.

Take a look around Archaeodeath and you’ll see what I mean:

https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/

But on 1 April 2021 yet another pandemic disaster struck. Prof. Williams was put on notice that his university position, in fact his entire department, was at risk of being made redundant. He and his colleagues are currently waiting to hear the outcome.

A petition to continue funding Archaeology & Heritage at the University of Chester received a remarkable 4,266 signatures.

This is a major blow to Offa’s Dyke studies, said ODA chairman Dave McGlade.

“The outreach work of the department is second to none without which the ODA would not be where it is today,” he wrote. “The staffs’ friendly guidance, and they are always willing to listen, has encouraged us to become more proactive in our own outreach and conservation work, safe in the knowledge that when we need it there is advice close to hand. Good reputations take time, relationships between organisations don’t happen overnight and the University of Chester’s Heritage and Archaeology staff have helped to nurture connections between experts and lay people the length of the Dyke.”

“The University of Chester is such a natural fit for a Faculty of Heritage/Archaeology,” Andy Heaton, another ODA member, wrote to me. “Cities such as York and Bath have successful schools of Archaeology, so why not Chester?  Howard [Williams] has done an enormous amount of outreach work; his boundless enthusiasm has led to the development of archaeological initiatives in the locality.” 

The ODA and other local history organizations would be at a loss without the digs, reports and lectures offered by Prof. Williams and his colleagues at the University of Chester.

If you care about studies in the early Welsh-English landscape and history, or even about good research and outreach in a general way, consider following these sites to support the department’s struggle for survival:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ArchaeologyChe1

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ArchaeologyChester-113512180835613

WordPress: https://archaeologychester.wordpress.com/

Meanwhile, let’s hope the University of Chester comes to its senses, realizes what a treasure it has in Archaeology & Heritage and scraps this ill-timed talk of redundancy. We all have better things than worrying to do with our summer—such as taking a walk on Offa’s Dyke.

walking with history: Offa’s Dyke

One sunny afternoon in early September we hefted our backpacks down from the coach in Hay on Wye, heading out to walk along Britain’s longest early mediaeval monument. Offa’s Dyke was built in the late eighth century to divide the Welsh kingdoms from the English kingdom of Mercia.

First we wanted to see the books—millions of books. Hay on Wye was famous for its many bookstores. How could we resist? Potentially Hay held all the books a person could hope to read on any topic, in my case early mediaeval Welsh literature and history.

We buzzed from shop to shop like pollen-dazed honeybees, leaving little piles of books on counters so we could narrow our choices. Then reality kicked in. Books are heavy, and I had one backpack to carry for the next hundred kilometres. We’d have to visit Hay another time.

One book I couldn’t leave. The slightly worn 1884 Celtic Britain had a handsome arts-and-crafts design on its cloth cover and looked lonely among all the no-nonsense modern histories. It was small, barely the weight of a large apple.

Next morning we headed out to pick up the path. The air was fresh with a hint of autumn, and the grassy pathway was brilliant green from recent rain. The carved wooden signpost was right where Frank Noble’s guidebook promised: Llwybr Clawdd Offa, the Offa’s Dyke Path, with its acorn emblem pointing the way north into the former kingdom of Powys—in the words of an early poem, Powys paradwys Cymru, Powys the paradise of Wales.

Offa’s Dyke near Tref-y-Clawdd (Knighton), Powys, looking north. The ditch on the west side and the dyke on the east side are still clearly visible. Image courtesy of the Offa’s Dyke Association.

In truth I was here to see three survivals from the eighth and ninth centuries: the earthwork, the poetry and the pillar. I’d seen some of the early poetry in the Welsh national library in Aberystwyth as a white-gloved librarian delicately turned the parchment pages. Now it was time to see the other two elements in an enigmatic triad. I planned to see them as an early mediaeval traveller would, on foot. With any luck we would walk north along eighth-century Offa’s Dyke as far as the early ninth-century monument near Llangollen, Croes Elisedd, the Pillar of Eliseg.

The first few kilometres we paused often to adjust pack straps and bootlaces. Gentle green hills and valleys swelled like waves of the western sea, a more familiar sight to us, in a landscape of heartbreaking beauty. Every stretch of high ground enticed us to snap a photo. My small history book weighed as much as a large turnip, then a small boulder. What had possessed me to buy it?

It was early afternoon when we stopped to eat our cheese and bread, and I wanted to get a pebble out of my boot. Misfortune comes in threes, I discovered on Offa’s Dyke. The pebble was a raw blister—already!—and by afternoon we’d walked only a few kilometres. Then it began to rain.

A tale of moleskin patches, Polysporin and rain ponchos dominated the next week, complete with slippery slopes of mud punctuated by rocks and roots and thorns. Soon we were locked in a cycle of wet boots that dried beside farmhouse hearths into stiff unforgiving blocks. Even compared with hiking in the Canadian Rockies or on Forbidden Plateau on Vancouver Island, it was a hard slog.

Offa’s Dyke Path was rough, slippery, changeable and wildly up-and-down, but somehow mostly up, in what we’d expected to be a mild pastoral countryside. It was increasingly painful, with blisters and inflamed knees. It was sometimes terrifying—tiptoeing around an occasional bull and resentful cows that wanted their feed, not random Canadian walkers—and briefly we were lost at twilight. I loved every minute.

Map from The ODA Book of Offa’s Dyke Path by Dr. Frank Noble, 1969, by kind permission of the Offa’s Dyke Association.

Many fine descriptions and images exist of Offa’s Dyke, the long-distance footpath that flanks it and the surrounding towns and farms. About 130 kilometres of the dyke remain traceable; originally it stood 27 metres wide and 8 metres from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the bank. But I don’t feel compelled to add my scattered observations, and even if I did, a flood turned many of my notes and photos from that time into gummy stacks of pulp. What remains is what I remember. Hir heol haul, hwy fy nghofion. Long the sun’s road, longer my memories.

One morning of sunshine and drifting cloud shadows we creaked out of our overnight farmhouse and stumbled north, always north. My teeth were gummy despite a quick brush, so I swiped an already broken hazel twig and did a better cleaning. My mouth felt fresher. The air was clear and cool. The world smelled newly made as we passed musical streams and sheltering woodlands. Cattle grazed in pastures, horses clustered at drystone walls. For that morning I walked through an eighth-century landscape. This was what I came for. I never lost that echo sense of coming home to a place I’d never known.

We didn’t make Llangollen, not on foot. Weather, blisters, locked knees and a book the weight of a Roman lead pig ended our trek at Trefaldwyn (Montgomery), but we soon drove to other stretches of the dyke and other historical sites. There’s always another walk, another year. Maybe next year?

In writing historical fiction I like to see where events happened; often it’s the same as seeing why events happened. Wading through fords and scrambling up to hill forts has taught me as much about long-ago history as reams of written analysis And not to be discounted, it’s great fun as well as a source of insight. Lying on a grassy bank under the wind looking east into lowland England, across a border that has been peaceful for centuries, is an invitation to speculate about the politics and origins of the earthwork. Built to keep the Welsh out? Built through co-operation to regulate trade? Like me, everyone has a theory.

Along the way, in person or by correspondence, I’ve met some of the dedicated people who created and sustain the Offa’s Dyke Association, among them Frank Noble, Glenys Beech, Ernie Kay, David Hill, Margaret Worthington Hill, Howard Williams, Aaron Watson and Dave McGlade. I’ve also met staff at the excellent ODA visitors’ centre in Tref-y-Clawdd (Knighton), farmers, schoolteachers, shopkeepers who shared their drinking water and serious long-distance walkers. Some days more than others, life is a journey. Part of mine has been along Offa’s Dyke.

*

An afterthought: Sometimes I dip into Celtic Britain and its odd Victorian notions about history. Strangely it weighs about as much as a large apple.

creation and myth

At closing time the special collections librarian gazed around his reading room tables, where researchers were folding their notebooks on a day’s work.

“I could fill every chair in this room with people who are going to write the definitive book on Ginger Goodwin,” the librarian said. “But so far I haven’t seen any books.”

It was his mild way of warning me that many were drawn to the old story of injustice, but it might be difficult to assemble the fragments and contradictions about Albert Goodwin. In 1918 the union organizer was shot dead by the police in unexplained circumstances on a Vancouver Island hillside near the coal mining town of Cumberland, BC.

The librarian’s caution often came to mind over the next few years as I travelled from my workplace in Edmonton to my home on Vancouver Island, to Calgary, to Trail and Rossland, to the abandoned industrial towns of the Alberta Coal Branch and the Crowsnest Pass. Few records of Goodwin’s life, employment and death had survived; there were a few letters and newspaper accounts and legal documents. My letters of inquiry sometimes got answers and sometimes vanished without trace. I was usually far from any library, and the internet didn’t yet exist.

Over the next six years I encountered other researchers; we shared information, exchanged addresses and sometimes met again. I wrote a CBC Morningside radio play on island coal mining and a CBC Ideas radio documentary on the shooting of Ginger Goodwin. A publisher in Ontario asked me to write a book, but the information was too sparse.

Yet I couldn’t leave the story alone. In Cumberland I talked with anyone who had known Goodwin or the mines he worked in. I finally listened properly to my father Arthur Mayse’s second-hand accounts. I pored over Ruth Masters’ big album of oral history transcripts in the Cumberland Museum. Late at night, kneeling on the museum floor, I traced a huge map of the drifts, seams and airways of Cumberland’s Number Five pit.

One spring I rented a spare bedroom in the townsite for 40 dollars a month from a  single mum and borrowed a cooking pot to set where the leaky roof dripped. I bought bread, apples and cheese at Johnny Leung’s grocery, hung my grocery bag on my doorknob and got on with it.

I wrote a first chapter. A couple of publishers expressed cautious interest, but like the special collections librarian, they’d heard from other writers whose plans hadn’t yet materialized into a book. Eventually I moved to a coal miner’s cottage down Camp Road in Cumberland and kept writing. In 1990 I sent my manuscript to Harbour Publishing the day my daughter was born.

Cumberland people and other readers welcomed a book telling the story they’d heard for years about their friend Ginger Goodwin. My work was done.

Out of the blue this year The Ormsby Review posted a new review of Ginger: The Life and Death of Albert Goodwin a startling 30 years after the book’s release. In “The Ballad of Ginger Goodwin” Dan Hinman-Smith, who teaches at North Island College, wrote a well-researched, fair and thoughtful piece on Ginger.

It’s always interesting to find out what people see in a book—not always what I expect. But I was surprised to see this piece repeat an earlier review’s comment that seemed to miss the point: how could I believe all those improbable oral history tales?

The real question is, how could anyone conclude that I did believe those tales?

In Ginger I’d written, “The making of a union man, a union woman, in those years often sprang from personal suffering . . . cathartic enough to spur them into an all-consuming and often perilous activism. Their stories served as personal creation myths.

“Joe Naylor’s revelation came on an English turnpike in the 1880s. Years later he told the story to Donetta Rallison. When Joe was a young pit lad, made jobless by his Lancashire mine’s closure, he and his friends travelled from one dreary coal town to the next seeking work. One day as they walked hungry and sore-footed, a richly appointed carriage came alongside. The driver reined his splendid team in a spray of mud. A coachman opened the door, and an elegant gentleman leaned out to wish them good day. One or two of the young men doffed their hats and bowed, but plainspoken Joe Naylor told his friends they were fools. Why should starving men bow and scrape to this popinjay? If he truly meant well, he would work to right the country’s wrongs, since he was England’s king. The door slammed and the coach skewed forward. The pit lads walked on, a little colder and hungrier.”

Creation myths, according to my professors of anthropology and classical and mediaeval literature, are fables that people tell to explain the origins of phenomena they can’t describe in realistic terms. The term “creation myth” is exact and self-explanatory, combining the generally discounted religious concept of creation and an accepted literary term, myth. In other words it clearly describes a fable, a fantastical narrative.

My guess is that Joe Naylor told Donetta Rallison a story about his itinerant days in England, and decades later she retold it in the form of a fable.

Many creation myths are beautiful and moving. Metaphorically they lie at the heart of religion, art and literature, even if few people still believe literally in the Garden of Eden or Gilgamesh’s journey to the underworld. But I am deeply interested  in what creation myths suggest about the people who pass them on, including what they deem possible and believable.

In using the term I trusted that readers would share my understanding of these Cumberland stories. Personally I didn’t believe them all, but I didn’t scoff at them any more than I challenged the Dene shaman who told me all the ailments he could cure through his spiritual power, or any more than an anthropologist interrupts to rebut a tale about giants or monsters. Instead we listen carefully, draw any credible information from them and reflect on what purpose those stories might serve for their tellers and listeners. We need to look deeper than the accounts themselves, which may not be notably factual. Once I realized some of these stories were fables, I was there to understand what they meant.

We can parse this story about Joe Naylor and the King of England. The storyteller believed that a powerless young worker was once offered an opportunity by a wealthy and privileged person from elsewhere and turned it down as an ethical gesture. She believed that the powerless doff a cap and humbly accept largesse from the powerful whether they want it or not, out of courtesy or more likely fear. In her story one young man is fearless. He doesn’t fear the systemic classism that he encounters. He’s not a rich man, but he is a free man. Her story seems to reflect how many people in early 20th-century Cumberland viewed Joe Naylor and other labour socialists.

Donetta Rallison’s story wasn’t about a real event; it was a metaphorical reading of character. We don’t need to be anthropologists or literary scholars to understand this. Generally I find my readers are intelligent and thoughtful. If they do encounter an unfamiliar term, they google it or reach for a dictionary. But then my readers are overwhelmingly down-to-earth working people.

Ginger is not an academic study. If I’d wanted to write an academic book, that’s what I would have written. But why? Even as a student writing on Welsh mediaeval literature and history, I told my professors that I meant to write papers in a popular style so that others would not only read them but want to read them, thus reflect on and remember their points. The professors, to their credit, gave me carte blanche in the sharing of wealth. History belongs to all of us. 

In writing Ginger my purpose was not solely to enumerate facts but to move people. I wanted to reach them emotionally and also to launch them into action that creates change. It seems to have worked. Thirty years later, people still contact me to pass on new information.

My approach ruffled feathers. Instead of waiting for approval, I got down to work. I didn’t ask permission from anyone but my living sources. I didn’t follow accepted academic research methodology. I didn’t seek grants or other financial assistance. I researched and wrote on spec, without a publisher’s commitment or advance. I funded my research from a freelance writer’s skint income. Until I came home to the island, my mailing address was an Edmonton post office box. I was the daughter of another freelance writer, a former logger, and the granddaughter of a Yorkshire coal mine worker.

In Canada we congratulate ourselves on creating a classless society. It’s a lie. Ask any refugee, member of the working poor, person of colour or Indigenous person. This story, like many others, is about class and classism.

In the 1880s a pit closure left everyone in my family out of work and homeless. Together they walked, grandparents down to small children, from Sheffield to the south coast of England, living mostly on windfall apples that dropped into the roadside ditches from farmers’ orchards. No work was to be had in the south, but the pits soon reopened, so they walked back north. Any family is a patchwork, and my own also includes landholders and inventors and empty titles, but this is my best inheritance. My grandfather came to Canada not to enrich himself but to make this new country a better place for all.

Is this family story a creation myth? Certainly.

Is it true? Mostly true, I’m guessing, apart from the apple diet. Birds’ eggs, edible greens and maybe snared rabbits would thicken the stew, and the adults might have found occasional farm work in exchange for food.

One point of the story as I heard it was that the family didn’t steal even in desperation. Another is that life is hard, but if we work together, we survive. It’s not a great leap from “my flesh and blood” to “my brothers and sisters in solidarity.”

Remember that library reading room and all those definitive books waiting to be written? This would be the place for a weary aside about elitism or trolls, but in truth I’ll be delighted to see those books. There’s room for all those views and voices, from Laura Ellyn’s fun graphic novel Ginger Goodwin: A Worker’s Friend to theses and academic works to Roger Stonebanks’ well-researched Fighting for Dignity: The Ginger Goodwin Story.

I choose not to believe that arrogance and exceptionalism tempt anyone to disrespect untutored people whose working lives were their real education, as they were mine. Those working lives underlie all labour studies; they’re the grist in the mill. Working people in my experience offer their observations to researchers and writers freely to further knowledge and understanding. I’d like to think we can all say the same.

further reading:

“The Ballad of Ginger Goodwin,” The Ormsby Review, 27 July 2020.

9.0

hyas to-to illahie : big earthquake

Every few centuries a major earthquake rocks the BC coast. The next quake could strike any time—but you can be ready.

before: Check your home for structural safety. Attach tall, heavy furniture to walls. Strap your hot water tank to the wall. Don’t sleep under uncurtained windows or large glass-framed pictures. Keep a flashlight handy and old shoes under your bed. Install baby latches on cupboard doors to keep cans, bottles and crockery from becoming UFOs in a quake. Put together “go bags” for your home and car, or buy earthquake kits. Keep your cell phone charged. Tell children where to meet and how to phone an out-of-province contact.

during: Duck, cover and hold. Get under something solid like a table and hold onto the legs. If it moves, go along for the ride. Crouch or lie in doorways, closets and corridors, but protect your head and fingers. A minute after the shaking stops, check your area for safety and look for family members or coworkers.

after: First aid, plentiful clean water and warmth are your primary needs after a quake, when you’ll probably be on your own for at least three days. Most people have at least a few days’ food in their kitchen; consider keeping high-energy snacks at work. Once the dust settles, counselling can help with post-traumatic stress, especially in children.

more info: Ask your local government for its earthquake pamphlet, search online or see Earthquake: Surviving the Big One by Susan Mayse (Lone Pine Press, 1992).