Lost for words

I’ve been trying all afternoon to write a blog post for Hay Festival, about being at the festival, appearing on stage with Mererid Hopwood for the Winter Weekend. Trying and failing to find the words, writing and deleting. The light has faded, sun set, and still I am lost for words, which is both ironic and mystifying.

The Lost Words is two years old and two years ago Robert Macfarlane and I spoke about the book at the same festival. It had just been crowned Hay Festival Book of the Year, but was such an infant still. It hadn’t yet become a beautiful musical interpretation, nor yet escaped the pages onto the walls of the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, or the Aeurin Bevan Hospital, Cwmbran. Here, now, two years on, we were celebrating its new shape-shifting into Geiriau Diflanedig, translated/adapted into the language of Cymraeg by Mererid Hopwood.

As we took to the stage together I was a little nervous as I was going to attempt to speak the Red Fox onto paper, as I had at the Albert Hall where the book became a BBC Prom, but this time two foxes, one English, Red Fox, one Cadno Coch. But first we would talk.

I’m not sure of the precise moment it happened. I know it was while Mererid was talking about the nature of language, how translation is more than just finding words that say, describe, the same thing in one language as in another. The air became charged with something. All attention riveted onto that way language, thought, communication, collaborate. How the way a language is, speaks about how a People think. And Mererid spoke of how she feels, as a speaker of the Welsh language, in a land where English is now dominant. She read a piece of writing that is young, that she had written a couple of weeks before, that was passionate, inclusive, beautiful, lyrical and heart-felt, about this, about what it feels like…. and I wish, I wish, I had a recording of this, to listen to again, because once is not enough. Not enough. My ears are so hungry to hear it again. And maybe it was just so unprofessional of me, but I completely forgot that I was on stage, and from then on I was transported to somewhere other.

When Peter asked if I would paint, I stepped up, mixed red with water, began to speak, and this is where the ‘spells’, written by Robert, become really potent, because they are written to be spoken aloud. And it does feel that it is the spoken word that combines with pigment to conjure the red fox onto the paper. And to do this you have to learn, by heart, those words so that they are so deep in your soul that you can fix eyes onto the end of the brush and paint. And then as the first fox was spoken onto the paper, a moment of silence, Mererid began the Cadno Goch, and this is a different experience, but her lyrical speech, her playful conjuring, that’s what the brush follows. Almost, as I had began, I lost faith with myself. I couldn’t do this, in front of an audience. I would fail, spectacularly. Why didn’t I just paint one fox, as I had in the Albert Hall, when for the second half of the painting the choir sang? But I wanted so much to join the two, the English, the Welsh, here by the borderlands, at this time when so many try to divide us, to ‘other’, to splinter, I wanted to combine, and surely it was worth the trying?

Later a question from the audience asked the best way to learn the language. Mererid said the best way was not to be scared of making mistakes. And this, too, is how to learn to paint, to write. To be willing to try, always, open-hearted. Because nothing we do can ever achieve perfection, but we can try. If we don’t try, we fail. But if we try, each time we fail, fall short, we learn by our mistakes. This is what learning is. This is what is being lost from education, what we need to put back. That playful spirit that knows that things won’t always work, but by trying we might just find a way.

The painting, spoken into being on stage at the festival will be auctioned to raise money for the Hay Festival Foundation.

To all the audience who shared this experience with us, thank you. I hope you didn’t mind that for that moment I completely forgot where I was, but how utterly wonderful to be so transported. I think it was when Mererid was talking about how in Wales you cannot say ‘I own this’, ‘this is mine’, but rather ‘I have this with me’…..and how much more real is this way of speaking of ‘ownership’ for us transient beings than this? How much less acquisitive. There was magic in the air on the stage, with Peter and Mererid. It was so lovely to be a part of it.

Listen to Jackie Morris' event with Mererid Hopwood at Winter Weekend 2019 here. Discover the 2017 Winter Weekend session with Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane here.