Personal News

Llandaff, November 2000

This time last year, we were still waiting to move into our new house. A couple of days before Christmas we took possession of a bare-walled building stacked to the ceiling with packing cases, and freezing because the previous owner had gone off with the ladder which was our only means of access to the loft where the boiler is. We decided this was the estate agent’s responsibility, as he had sold us the house in the first place, so we phoned him, and he must have seen it our way, because he immediately came round with a ladder of his own, which we kept for six months until we finally bought one ourselves. They believe in personal service in Wales - the builder we got to do up the house was the ex-husband of the estate agent’s partner, who said to us, ‘Would I have stayed married to him for 35 years if he hadn’t been reliable?’ And I suppose he was, though like all builders he and his Irish assistant would disappear from time to time. We were without a kitchen for a month in the dead of winter, living on curries microwaved in the bedroom or steaks in the pub down the road. The work went on noisily, month after month: a new back door, two new windows, new panels on the internal doors, new floors, bookshelves - it was like living inside a tooth while the dentist is drilling it. The house was full of the smell of bitumen and paint and the bickering of Tony and Danny: ‘Come here! What did I tell you to do?’ ‘Some people are never wrong.’ ‘Hyah hyah hyah!’ (Tony’s bitter laugh.) Finally they went, leaving the house more or less finished, and us several thousand pounds in debt. We hired a skip and cleared the pile of rubble from the back garden ourselves, including the used teabags they’d thrown out of the kitchen window and quite a few slugs.
    The debt would have been worse but for my win in the TLS Poetry Competition in January. At the same time my collection of poems, Dragons, was accepted by Faber’s new editor, so my writing career looks fairly secure. The book comes out next February, and I hope to have a launch in Cardiff.
    While the builders were still in residence, Creina started to feel ill, and developed a temperature. After a few days of this, she went to the bathroom and found herself covered in spots. The doctor came and diagnosed chickenpox. It was quite all right for her to go out, he said, as everybody got it sooner or later, but for several weeks she only went out in an improvised yashmak. Apparently you can get the spots inside as well, which explains why she felt sick and had a persistent dry cough.
    Meanwhile I am enjoying my job. I had to organize a one-day creative writing conference (Writing Year Zero) in May, which was a great success. I also took part in a British Council conference in Oxford in the spring, and my contribution was used in a BBC World Service programme called Creative Ways. Next week I’m going to a conference in Dublin to read a paper on W.S. Graham, but my conference-going is likely to end after this as my department has run out of money. Creina has gone back to writing her family history, and has discovered that her seagoing ancestors were always passing through Cardiff on their way round the world.
    We had our first overnight guest and dinner party to coincide with Writing Year Zero, though we still didn’t have a staircarpet and the hall was full of packing cases. Since then, we have been gradually introducing family and friends (including some from Zimbabwe and California) to the house, and have taken the opportunity to get to know the local attractions, Cardiff and Caerphilly castles, the Museum of Welsh Life, the National Museum and Art Gallery in Cardiff etc, as well as the beautiful but extremely soggy Welsh countryside. We are slowly getting to know Wales. I had a week in the Llyn Peninsula in July, helping to run a creative writing summer school, and we took a week’s holiday in Pembrokeshire in September. We were staying in a cottage on a farm, under a large rocky hill called Garn Fawr, which is Welsh for Large Rocky Hill. (The Welsh have as many different words for types of hill as the Eskimos are said to have for snow.) It was convenient being right on the coast path as it was the week of the petrol crisis, so no petrol was available after the first couple of days. We were perfectly happy walking over the cliffs and watching the seals on the beaches. The cottage was called Swn y Morlo, Sound of the Seals, and we could actually hear them barking in the night, an uncanny sound.

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