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On Being A Writer in Wales: Patti Webber

27 Apr 2024 5 minute read
Patti Webber. Image by Gayle Marsh

Patti Webber

As someone who regards running for a bus as an extreme sport, I thought writing was a safer option; as an apprentice writer fear never lodged with me.

Writing for me is like a spectator sport. People are endlessly fascinating; everyday people not fancy but authentic.

If they strike a chord with the reader that indeed is my reward. The expensive ingredient is time.

So here I am eight years later, trying not to stray into writing flabby stories. Every word must count and the task, to avoid empty words.

My starting point was a pit pony called Robin. I didn’t question why and how he spent some of the summer in the field beyond our garden. Within the story he is given the name Ajax by his stall handler and is destined for a life underground.

Unlike Clare Balding, I can’t get excited about horses based on life-long knowledge. My grandfather was a ploughman on his father’s farm near Abergavenny. He worked a team of shire horses.

Photographic memory

I am training my senses to stay on full alert, I also rely on a photographic memory. Some incidents stay sealed in my memory over many years. Most times I have to fish for facts as I don’t have a detailed knowledge of history, even local history.

A visit to a local churchyard, St. Illtyd’s in Neath, to seek out the yew walkway drew me in to writing about yew trees and ancient churchyards.

The story that ensued was about a young Welshman who became a bowman at the Battle of Agincourt. The yew tree was crucial for fashioning his longbow.

My favourite places are those only accessed by foot. I grew up in Coelbren, the site of a mare’s tail of a waterfall, and had the freedom to roam.

At the front of our house was a road with imaginary pavements and no white lines. I faced open moorland and, thankfully, an old dram road to follow.

This was my ‘away time’ where skylarks rose from the long grasses. Now the site of an opencast site and fenced off.

The lesson, retain the picture in your mind before it is obliterated by progress. Recalling railway cabins and sleepers steeped in creosote were part of the pleasure of writing about steam trains on the Neath to Brecon line. A way of life I have tried to rescue in stories.

Sights and smells

Much of my early years experiences are dotted by distinctive sights and smells that assaulted my senses.

Travelling to the seaside would take up to an hour, to see the power of the in-coming turf and the hunger of the sea.

Closer to hand, the smell of the damp wool of rescued sheep and the joy of seeing new-born lambs on their wobbly legs.

The classroom drill of chanting tables in a chalk-laden classroom and the screech of my slate pencil on my slate board, my very first attempt at linking sounds to words.

I grew up with the crunch of frozen snow and the comforting ting-tang chime of a mantel clock, both have a habit of creeping into my writing.

A more recent experience, hearing a blackbird almost explode with song. The wonder of the variation, like a well-crafted score, stopped me in my tracks.

I love the fact that houses bear the imprint of their owners; their concerns over everyday tasks like chopping wood, riddling coal, blowing coals to life in a coal fire. and the fierce heat when limestone dust is mixed with coal, a Swansea Valley tradition.

Farmhouses and pubs feature heavily in my stories. The ghosts of the those who have made this their way of life seem to linger in every corner.


In 1963 my teaching career was a month underway when I learned on a Friday afternoon before half term that a disaster had overwhelmed a school at Aberfan.

I felt I might know someone involved who was a probationer like myself, thus it was. ‘Spike’ was getting a library session underway and now was no more.

My visit to the site a decade later was brief. My feelings were not what I had expected. Sixty years later I still struggle with the pointlessness of it all.

In writing about it I was able to release the emotions which had been sifted like some bitter sugar. Writing is a precision art in this case I was struggling to hit the target.

In fiction writing I have learned a lot from the characters I have created. They grow and I seem to grow with them. My aim is to show their humanity, warts and all.

The reader will sense if they are less than authentic. On reflection I wonder how I would have coped with living within a pandemic without ‘ the organised fidgeting’ of writing.

Ideas come from nowhere, but my instinct tells me what to retain and what to discard. Any observation, I feel, must be tinged with compassion.

Patti Webber’s fourth collection of short stories, An Eye for a Good Dog has just been published. It is available to purchase from the author, [email protected].

Read some of Patti’s short stories here.

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