May 11, 2009

An Interview With Geoff Brookes - Stories In Welsh Stone

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Geoff Brookes is the author of 'Stories In Welsh Stone', a remarkable book which brings together fifteen grisly tales of murder and betrayal as revealed on the gravestones of various Welsh country churches. As the author says:-" These gravestones are not just curiosities. They represent past lives and tell stories we should not forget. We owe it to those involved to remember what happened."

Americymru: We note from your profile page on Americymru that you live in Swansea. Care to tell us a little about the city for our American readers?

Geoff: Swansea is officially Britain’s wettest city. What more do you need to know? It is more than enough for me! Swansea is the second city of Wales and there are about 250,000 of us here, about 40 miles west of Cardiff. It is a place with a long history. The Romans came here and it was the Vikings who gave the place its name, which was originally Sweynesse, a reference to the king of Denmark, Sweyn Forkbeard.

The city sits on a fantastic bay that stretches right round from the docks in a gentle curve to the Mumbles lighthouse. It can be a lovely place. The people are loyal, friendly and inquisitive. For me it is where West Wales begins. The English language predominates although Welsh can be heard everywhere. The industries of the past, the copper and the steel, have gone. Now the city tries to promote its undoubted attractions as a tourist destination.

With the decline in the industries the environment has improved beyond recognition, with better water and beach quality. Indeed there is now a small but thriving surfing culture amongst the younger generation. We now have a smart marina full of smart boats and surrounded by smart accommodation.

Swansea is the birthplace of Dylan Thomas, Catherine Zeta Jones, my wife Liz and my son David. Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins were born not far away.

From Swansea you can access the Gower peninsular. It is green and beautiful, with isolated bays and cliffs. It can be very busy in the summer with so many visitors. Better to go down in the winter when it is peaceful and untouched and place can feel like your very own secret.

The only down side? The weather. It is generally mild and you can determine the season of the year by the temperature of the rain. It rains most in October and least in May. But it rains. I have lived here since 1981 and I still haven’t learned to accept it.

Americymru: You are the Deputy Head of Cefn Hengoed Community School. What exactly is a Community School? What is its place in the overall educational system in Wales?

Geoff: I was appointed Deputy Head teacher of Cefn Hengoed Comprehensive School in January 1991 so I have been there for quite a while. It is a school which inspires a great deal of affection in those who work and learn there. It serves a disadvantaged area on the eastside of the river Tawe and we teach all the children in the area between the ages of 11 and 16. As well as being Deputy Head I also teach a handful of lessons. My subject is English. It always has been, ever since I started teaching in 1973.

We are designated a community school because we are open outside normal hours and our buildings are used by other parts of our local community. There are evening classes for adults, there is a family centre where young mothers can meet, and there is a leisure centre which provides sporting and leisure opportunities. There is always plenty going on throughout the day.

Of course our core business remains teaching and learning for our 700 young people. We have a reputation as a caring and forward-looking school. We are successful at what we do, even though we are housed in crumbling and inadequate buildings. Some regard us as a tough school because we deal with issues associated with social disadvantage and troubled young people. But I have been fortunate to find a place where I feel I belong and where I can make a contribution. It means a lot.

Americymru: How did you become involved in your 'Stories in Welsh Stone' project? What provided the initial inspiration for the series?

Geoff: It is quite simple really. I have always enjoyed writing and especially the process of taking detail and shaping it into something coherent and engaging. This has always given me great satisfaction. I have been lucky because my working life as an English teacher has often focused upon writing and telling stories. It has always been very important to me.

I started writing articles for journals and newspapers about educational issues. After all, I have been a teacher for 36 years so far and like a lot of teachers I have plenty to say about it. But I realised that I wanted to step outside that enclosed world and write about different things.

A colleague told me about the Murder Stone in Neath, South Wal
es. It is quite notorious. Local children are still frightened by it, but I had never heard of it.

I went to see it and I was amazed. I had never seen anything like it before in my life. I just had to find out more – and then I wanted to tell the story of what I had found. Also I wanted to pay proper respect to Margaret Williams. Now she is part of a curiosity. But once she was a real person and I think we owe it to her to try and remember her as a person who came to such a horrible end.

Her story is a gripping one and still leaves unanswered and intriguing questions. In the course of my research other stories emerged that also needed to be told. The words on every headstone hint at the life of the person beneath. I believe it is our duty to remember these stories and my duty to tell them. That is what my book is – a collection of real-life stories. I have lived in Wales since 1981 but I am still, to some extent, an outsider (I was born in Sheffield in South Yorkshire). As a result the unknown and private history of Wales fascinates me.

So that first visit to Cadoxton church was a turning point.

Americymru: How do you find the subjects for your stories? Does a typical story begin with a visit to a graveyard or with research into local newspaper archives?

Geoff: A good question. I suppose there are two ways in which I find a story to pursue. In most cases, like Sara Hughes or Louisa Maud Evans (their stories feature in the May and July editions of Welsh Country Magazine) I find a story in old newspapers and then set out to find the grave. I really need a gravestone. That is what makes the person – and the story – real. Sometimes it isn’t easy. It can be painstaking work in the long wet grass, but there is a real sense of achievement when you find a headstone that has been hidden or overlooked for so long. The stories need to be brought out into the light. So there is research and then there is work in the cemeteries. Harold Lowe, an officer who survived the sinking of the Titanic, would be another good example. His story was easy to put together. The grave was more of a challenge!

I have looked a big events like the Titanic but I have always tried to focus on individuals and what happened to them. I have been working on the wreck of The Royal Charter in 1859 and written about the role the local vicar played in the aftermath. For this story we went to Anglesey and explored a number of other tales that the research uncovered.

In some cases though, I find a grave that seems really interesting whilst I am looking for something else. For example, we went to see a 2000 year old yew tree and found the grave of John Price from 1826. His story appears on Page 50 of Volume One. This grave is crumbling away but it is notable because not only does it carry his name, but also the name of the man who killed him during a long-running family feud. Such discoveries however can be very frustrating. The grave can look interesting but there might not be enough for a full story. We went to Cathays Cemetery in Cardiff and, as well as finding Louisa Maud Evans, we also found the grave of Major Jacques Theodore Paul Marie Vaillant de Guelis, who died in a car accident in 1945. He worked under-cover in occupied France during the war. I am sure his grave hides a fascinating and dramatic story but I haven’t been able to find out much so far.

I think I shall have to put a page on my website where I can store all such scraps and see if anyone else out there has any additional information!

Americymru: How important is it, in your view, that we remember these tales of past lives? Do we learn anything from history?

Geoff: The stories open a window on the past and generally what we see are real lives. They might be “Stories in Welsh Stone” but really the Welsh part is irrelevant. That is merely where the graves are. The stories are about people. They could be anywhere. Their ordinary lives are suddenly defined by extra-ordinary events, usually not of their own choosing. Look at Joseph Butler, shot by a poacher who fled to Ohio (page 100). He was doing his job and suddenly found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or Adeline Coquelin, Napoleon’s niece, drowned in a shipwreck off South Wales (page 60). The victim of a random and unpredictable event. All our lives are fragile and sometimes our luck runs out. What the stories tell us is that the fundamentals of human experience don’t change a great deal. It is humbling to remind ourselves that however sophisticated we think we are, our ancestors, wherever they were, faced the same problems as us.

Americymru: Of all the stories you have done, which one do you regard as your favorite?

Geoff: It is hard to say which one is my favourite story. I have a lot of affection for the story of poor Arthur Linton, possibly the first sportsman to die of performance enhancing drugs (page 136). He was world champion cyclist in 1894 and he died rather suddenly two years later. His trainer, who carried a bag of drugs with him everywhere, was the wonderfully named “Choppy” Warburton.

I suppose the truth is that my favourite story is the one that comes after the one I am writing. I am always desperate to start that story! So I have been finishing off a long piece about the wreck of The Royal Charter steam clipper in 1859 but I am eager to start writing about two little girls who were accidentally killed by a servant in Caernarvon in 1844. And when I am close to finishing that one iwill be very keen to move on to the next.

Americymru: In the preface to your book you give thanks to "...Kath and Ian at Welsh Country magazine who have made this book happen." How did your creative relationship with the magazine come about?

Geoff: A turkey played a key part in the development of our relationship. How many others can say that? I had written about the Cadoxton murder stone because I wanted to find out more about it. Then I tried to find someone to publish it. I had no success at all. When you become more experienced as a writer you realise that is completely the wrong way round of doing things but I was naïve.

It was December 2004 and we ordered our Christmas turkey from an organic farm in North Wales. It arrived and with it came a complementary copy of the first issue of Welsh Country Magazine. I liked what I saw and immediately sent off my piece via email, more in hope than expectation I have to say – and received a reply almost straight away. I imagine I sent them the right thing at the right time. The story appeared in March 2005 and I have written for every edition since then. I enjoy it very much and we have established a creative and co-operative relationship. They are genuine and honest people who want to create a quality, readable and interesting magazine about Wales and I think they are succeeding.

The faith they have shown in the book is fantastic. I want the book to succeed because I believe in the material but also because of the commitment they have shown to my writing. When they said they wanted to publish it I had no idea that they were committed to such high production values for the book. I was stunned when I first saw it because it is so beautiful.

Americymru: How can our American readers obtain a copy of the book?

Geoff: The ISBN number is 978-0-95587350-8. The best and most reliable way of getting a copy, especially if you are outside the UK, is to order one directly from Welsh Country Magazine. Here is their website address . They will send you a signed copy if that is what you would like. Ian Mole is the commercial manager of Welsh Country and you can contact him on the Americymru site too. If you want a particular dedication then all you need to do is to contact me and I will sort it out. You can contact me on this site or you can use the contacts page on my own website, where there is lots of additional information. The link is .

You should have no worries about using Welsh Country. They are entirely reliable and trustworthy. If you do have any difficulties then let me know and I will sort them out! I know where they live…

There is a new story in every edition of Welsh Country Magazine. Volume One contains 15 stories, some of which originally appeared in the magazine, although in the book they contain more information, since there is no restriction on space. There are, however, other stories which have not, and will not, appear in the magazine – like Mary Morgan. What a tragic story that one is. Volume Two will have the same format – and the others that will come later. It will a long time before I run out of material.

Americymru: How soon can we expect to see a 'Stories in Welsh Stone: Part 2'?

Geoff: Ah yes, the old “Volume Two” question! I’ve have completed my bit for Volume Two. That means the stories are written but it has yet to be designed or produced. We have to sell enough copies of the first book to allow us to move on. Volume Three is intended to collect together the stories behind 15 military graves. I have written 13 of these so far and they stretch across the whole of Welsh history. There are a number of women in the book too, it isn’t just soldiers. So I need a couple more chapters and that book is finished too. Volume Four is already underway.

I like the stories in Volume Two very much. I think it is a better book. I have spread the net wider than just the nineteenth century and it includes some of the oldest graves we have found. There’s the story of a stowaway who ended up in the Antarctic and the original pirate of the Caribbean. And there is the Titanic and the cholera cemetery in Tredegar… I enjoyed putting it together very much.

Volumes Two Three and Four? They will look really good, all together on your bookshelves.

To be honest I love it! There is so much fascinating material out there and I want to capture and preserve it. You might find it hard to believe but I haven’t earned a cent from the book so far. We haven’t yet covered the production costs. But that is largely unimportant. It is not what it is about. After all have a proper day job that pays me well enough. Believe me or not, that’s up to you. But there is a heritage in Wales that is slipping away. We can’t leave it to another generation or it will be lost forever.

Americymru: Are you involved in any other writing projects at the moment?

Geoff: Since Stories in Welsh Stone was published in November 2008 my other writing projects have taken a back seat. The other books I have written have been about educational issues, like a guide to the poetry of Gillian Clarke and Seamus Heaney or about the role of a deputy head. There are details of these books on my website. I still write for journals and newspapers on education, but Stories in Welsh Stone has rather taken over my life – and willingly so.

We have four children. Three girls and a boy. When David was diagnosed with dyspraxia (or Developmental Co-ordination Difficulties) I was determined to find out more about the condition. As a result I have written three books about it. I have now been offered the opportunity to write another book on dyspraxia but I don’t think I will be able to fit it in.

I maintain three blogs too about the work connected to Stories in Welsh Stone. One appears on this website, Americymru, one is featured on the Welsh Country website and the other is on my own website – . I also stick copies of some of the material on My Space and on Sagazone.

There are so many stories I am anxious to share – the story of Siwan, Crawshay Bailey, the Welsh settlement in Patagonia, a floating workhouse called the Clio, a murder in Llanblethian, a poisoning in Laleston. Oh yes there is plenty to keep me busy.

Americymru: Any other message for the readers and members of americymru?

Geoff: There is one message for us all I think. The next project, the next thing, drives all of us forward. But don’t forget the past. The stories of real people can tell us so much. The small acts, of love or heroism or compassion, are the things that bind us all together. We must never forget them, either in our own lives or in the lives of our ancestors. After all, it has always been the past that has shaped today.

Part of my degree at University was History. But it was political history. The great moments, the big decisions. But never at any point did we engage with the experience of real people. And we should. We all should.

If any of you out there on this lovely website want to ask me any other questions then I will be very happy to answer them. And you can contact me on my own website at any time if you prefer.

Thanks for reading all this. I hope you have found it interesting. And thanks too to Ceri for giving me this opportunity. It must be a tough job running a social network like this when there are strange people like us out there in cyberwales!

Interview by Ceri Shaw Email

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