Posted on 11th August 2015

Posted by Sophie

The Language of my Father

BethanRobertsBethan Roberts on how her father’s Welsh ancestry and the feeling of being a foreigner in her own country impacted on the writing of her prize-winning novel, Mother Island.

I don’t remember when I first went to Wales, because I was a baby, and I suppose I was taken there in my mum’s arms, and possibly in her womb, too. My dad was born near the famous village with the long name – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, to be precise – on the island of Anglesey, but he left, aged fifteen, to become a boy entrant in the RAF. For a bright boy who was not very keen on attending school, it was one of the few ways out of economic hardship, and into the rest of the world. He never went back to Wales to live, but every summer we would make the seemingly endless two-hundred mile journey in Dad’s old Cortina, through the menacing peaks of Snowdonia and across the elegant sweep of the Menai Bridge, to the village of Brynsiencyn where my granny had a tiny bungalow. Our home was the land-locked, middle-English town of Abingdon, so going to Anglesey was like entering another world. There were crabs to be fished out of the all-kinds-of-blue strait. There were mysterious chapels which looked, to me, more like playgroups than churches. There was a plant I later learned was wild garlic, which stank like death itself. There were my cousins, one of whom I was unable to talk to as he hadn’t yet learned English. And there was my dad, who was suddenly a stranger, because he was speaking Welsh.

I knew Dad spoke Welsh, of course. But it was the late 1970s and we didn’t have a phone, so he never had cause to speak it in the house, apart from telling us to tyrd yn dy flaen (get a move on). He didn’t teach me or my brother the language, because, I suppose, he thought we’d have no use for it, and, as my mum is English, to do so would have been to create a secret way of communicating with us, which would have left her isolated. In the early days of their courtship, Mum had been shocked to hear Dad speaking in a strange language to another woman. She’d assumed they had some sort of special code going on and had become upset. He’d patiently explained that his first language was Welsh; he was speaking to this woman in his own language.

Those summers on Anglesey were full of magic, but they were also loaded with anxiety. It is an unnerving experience, to feel a foreigner in one’s own family. I was fiercely proud even to partly belong in this beautiful place, because this was, quite literarily, the Land of my Fathers. And I was Daddy’s girl, through and through. But I was suddenly unable to understand what my beloved father was saying. He and my granny, uncles, aunts, cousins, all spoke Welsh to one another and I could pick up only hints of what was being discussed. It had to watch, listen, and do my best to decode the situation. Despite this, I loved listening to the language, the way it was both soft and hard, mellifluous and guttural, and I made my dad teach me how to project that double ‘ll’ from beneath my tongue, and how to say Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

So I suppose it’s no surprise that I wanted to write about this experience and this place. My novel, Mother Island, set mostly on Anglesey, is the result of that desire. Early on, I made a conscious decision not to write from the point of view of Welsh-speakers. All my main characters are in-comers to the island. As a non-Welsh speaker, it seemed to me that writing in English about characters who would think in Welsh would result in something unconvincing. Looking back now, I can see that I was repeating the old pattern of feeling a foreigner in my own family, and of not daring to presume that I might know what was going on in the heads of the Welsh. But perhaps that feeling has its uses, too. Because being on the outside, looking in, is useful for writers. That removal from a thing, the watching, listening, and decoding, can make it easier to describe.

Dad gave me a gift, in a way: I had no choice but to be an observer of mysteries, which is perhaps what a writer is. But I’m still sad that I don’t speak the language of my father.

First published on Vintage Books, available here.


Mother Island PB_ NEWA taut, powerful novel about a nanny who abducts the young child she looks after.

How does it feel to come home from work one evening and find your two-year-old son gone?

How does it feel to steal another woman’s child? To take a boy from his mother, and try to make him yours, make things right?

This is the story of two women, Nula and Maggie, joined by old family history and love for the same little boy.


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