Review: Uisce Dŵr Water by Peter Stevenson
For many a long moon the Lancastrian storyteller Peter Stevenson has been presenting tales from Wales via energetic and spirited performances, through not one but four collections of Welsh folk tales and recently through film.
His latest book draws on his great store of stories while giving them a new burnishing, polishing them up a bit or just using them as the basis for new versions.
It’s clear from the off that’s he’s having fun: not for him the po-faced custodian of oral tradition’s respect for the form, or keeping true to the original. Some of the old, old stories now become springboards.
He certainly keeps the reader guessing. Are there really ‘liar’s competitions which are held in the Appalachian Mountains where Welsh migrants have settled for over 250 years, and where the native Cherokee have no word for storyteller, so they use the word “liar.”’
Knowing he has gathered Welsh folk tales from America suggests there’s a grain of truth in this, if only a grain.
For this latest collection he’s mixed up folk tales, true tales and tall tales and given himself extra licence for a little bit of mischief by giving the book the extra subtitle ‘Fibbing from Fishguard.’
He tells us about real storytellers in the area, such as Shemi Wâd, who lived in Goodwick in the 19th century.
Considering all his occupations it’s surprising he ever found the time to spin a yarn, as the was a one-man Victorian job centre, being a fisherman, market gardener, farmhand, clock mender and pig sticker who in his spare time made stuff up at the Rose & Crown.
Over a free pint he would tell his enthralled listeners about acquiring the gift of flight, simply flapping his arms and jumping off a mountain before flying to Ireland with all the energy of wheeling chough.’
When he later explained to his mother about his aerial achievement she brought him down to earth with a bump, giving him ‘a piece of sad cake and told me to sit under the table with the dog and stop fibbing.
‘Fibbing.’ That’s a good word. Just the right side of mendacity and on the part of the spectrum of lying that isn’t unbelievably colourful, more a paler shade of white lie.
Peter Stevenson happily fibs about mermaids in Cardigan Bay and about a man who carries a heart around with him.
Then he unspools a yarn about a man called William Batine James, a Pembrokeshire man who joined the 7th Cavalry under General Custer as he was defeated by Sitting Bull.
This sounds about as far-fetched as far-fetched gets until one recalls the excellent recent novel called ‘If God Will Spare My Life’ by Mike Lewis which is based on James’s actual story.
So one of the pleasures of reading Stevenson’s book is guessing what’s made up and what’s not made up. What’s arrant nonsense and what’s based in fact.
It’s all playful stuff, recasting old tales as new, or giving the originals enough spin to turn them into little verbal tornadoes.
But some of them take us into darker territory, such as ‘The Surveyor and the Hare’ which suggests something along the lines of one of Aesop’s fables. Not so.
It’s a story about a surveyor called Kelly who comes to chart the course of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s railway which is coming this way. The poor man has corpse candles flying over his head, portending death, possibly his own.
He is also the man carrying the burden of that heart around. His local guide and travelling companion Hettie checks that he is still carrying his gory parcel even as she unlaces a boot before pulling a nail from the sole with her teeth:
Mr Kelly holds out the bloodied parcel and closes his eyes while Hettie pierces it with the nail. His hands turn red, blood spatters on his cheek, and the corpse candle vanishes.
‘There, you’re probably safe now. Mary Thomas of Bengal taught me that, but if you want to be completely sure, you must roast the heart like a chicken.’
Hettie helps Mr Kelly to the Dyffryn Arms where he hurries into his bedroom and lies awake all night clutching the heart to his chest.
Two hares keep watch outside, one old and gnarled, the other young. Both have scars from the corners of their eyes to their mouths.
Beautifully and vividly illustrated by Stevenson himself, Uisce Dŵr Water is a sprightly set of tales that provoke even as they entertain.
They are very fishy stories from Fishguard, no doubt about that – and so tongue in cheek that you’d swear that more than one tongue has to be in play – and sufficiently fishy to keep the reader very much hooked.
Which in keeping with the coastal nature of the town, goes very well with the notion of really spinning a line.
Uisce Dŵr Water by Peter Stevenson is published by Ports, Past and Present.
Without a word of a lie you can get a free copy by sending an SAE to the project at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth SY23 3HH.
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