Review: Dod Nôl at fy Nghoed by Carys Eleri
The multi-talented and utterly vivacious performer Carys Eleri has done a lot of things worth writing about, from starring in series such as S4C’s Parch, through political campaigning to sterling work as part of the BBC Radio repertory company.
One of the highlights of her life-so-far was her one-woman show ‘Lovecraft (Not the sex shop in Cardiff)’ which wowed audiences in Wales and on outings to the Edinburgh Fringe and down under in Adelaide.
Set at the heart of this happy melange of songs, music, stories and science is a question: ‘Do we as human beings need a partner to feel love? Is being in love the answer to beating loneliness? The feeling of being cared for, sharing your life with – scientifically speaking?’
During the time she was putting the show together her father was taken ill, and, following the dismantling diagnosis of motor neurone disease, the former PE teacher had to deal with the terrible speed of its progression, as did his family.
This book details that all- too-sudden journey, which ends, in one sense, in a packed chapel as a close-knit community paid its last respects to someone much loved.
But as Carys Eleri maps out for us, the long shadow of grief more properly falls after that formal closure, after the funeral, when anniversaries underline the chasmic loss and Christmas has its own special emptiness.
All this is told with candour, telling us about her own struggles to not only deal with the loss of a man who meant everything to her – ‘the glue, the rock, the sea of love, the person who looked after everyone’ – but had to do so at a time when she was putting on both a highly personal show and the bravest face.
She makes it perfectly clear that she would have found this well-nigh impossible without the love of friends and family, not to mention organisations such as National Theatre Wales and the Wales Millennium Centre, who helped steer her through some cruel seas.
So, although the subject matter is tough – and I’d strongly advise having a family box of tissues at your side as you turn the increasingly tear-sodden pages – it’s ultimately a redemptive, joyous book – a celebration of the life of her father, David Owen Evans and of Carys’s own zest for living and caring for those around her.
Carys Eleri’s all-time favourite film is Forrest Gump and while some may cavil at the unbelievability of a man running all the time she can easily countenance this reaction to the character losing a friend in Vietnam, his mother to cancer and being thwarted in love by his childhood sweetheart.
Similarly, she starts to cycle a lot and together with her sister Nia they decide to do a long ride to Paris to raise money for the Motor Neurone Disease Association.
The account of this adventure is laugh-out-loud funny, with all manner of things going wrong almost from the off.
They get lost in Kent, which isn’t as flat as they’d been led to believe. After cycling up not one but three hills, Carys remembers she’s left her sparkly jelly shoe rucksack behind, and she has to go back.
Their bikes are not exactly top notch and so they develop an inferiority complex about their clunky machines, especially when they see one woman who looks so glamorous, she could be a model “for both Pantene and Maybelline,” while they press on in their battered trainers.
But along the way they befriend a great many of their fellow cyclists, who ultimately choose the two sisters to lead them towards the champagne moment of the finishing line. Like so much of this book, it’s a redemptive, uplifting story and along the way we learn so much about the very special bond between the two sisters.
Sadly, there is more grief to come, with the discovery that Carys’s very close friend Trystan is dying of cancer. She tells us how they dealt with this too and the description of her visit to see him in Australia is awash with love.
With so much pain entering her life it’s little wonder that along the way Carys finds herself unable to breathe easily while doubting whether she can perform on stage, especially when the stuff of so much of Lovecraft is her life. But the show does go on and very successfully so.
During the second lockdown Carys moves from Cardiff to Tumble, where she lives with her mother and learns to properly commune with nature even as they both learn to cope with absence.
The title of this uplifting book derives from the Welsh expression “dod yn ôl at fy nghoed,” which literally means “to return to my trees” which is taken to suggest a return to a balanced state of mind.
In the same way that the writer Richard Mabey used nature to heal himself as described in Nature Cure, or the novelist Richard Powers hymns the forests in his The Overstory, so too does Carys Eleri use the motif of trees to shape the story of three traumatic and testing years in her life.
But the other book that came most strikingly to mind when I finished reading it – whilst reminding myself how I must restock the Kleenex – was a book I think Carys herself would enjoy.
It’s Archie Miles’ Heritage Trees Wales, which assembles some marvellous portraits of special and venerable individuals, from gnarly yews to ancient oaks. In telling us about her dad, a sturdy oak of a man, or, equally as she explains, a eucalyptus for Carys as koala bear, she traces the ways in which the two of them are similar, not least when found herself massaging him and saw they shared the same skin, the same leg shape, the same knees, all adding up to the realisation that she was made from him.
In writing this book she has shown us what else she has inherited from him, not least a ready and unquestioning compassion towards others.
To read this honest, zestful and unflinching book is to be quietly enfolded into the warm embrace of both of them.
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