Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ From fame to folly

Pwllderi is a cove on the North Pembrokeshire coast.  The way down into it is dauntingly steep. I’ve never climbed down there myself. But many times, I’ve spent time above it. The view from the top is long, all the way to the tip of the St David’s Peninsula,  and the peace is so deep that you can’t avoid feeling it deep inside you.  Funny then that a memorial plinth near the edge of the cliff  quotes lines from a poem which is all about voices. They’re the voices recalled from the boyhood of the man who wrote the poem. His name was Dewi Emrys and he grew up not far away.

Dewi Emrys wrote in Welsh and became one of Wales’ best-known  writers. After winning the Bardic Chair at the National Eisteddfod for the fourth time, the Eisteddfod rules were changed to limit the number of times you could enter. But Dewi Emrys was still a boy, 7 or 8 years old, when he came to live in Pembrokeshire at Rhosycaerau on the Strumble Head peninsula. The reason for his coming there was that his father had become the minister at Rhosycaerau Chapel. Dewi went to school first in Goodwick, then Fishguard (where I was born). When he left school, he was taken on as apprentice journalist at the Fishguard Echo. However, when illness obliged his father to give up being minister at Rhosycaerau, Dewi Emrys had to leave his beloved Pencaer area and move to Carmarthen where he got work on the Carmarthen Journal. Then, after getting very involved in reciting poetry at big Eisteddfods in South Wales, he quite suddenly changed direction when he decided to become a preacher like his father. It was an ominous move in view of the alcoholism that would later ruin his life. Meantime, so popular did he prove as a preacher that it is said that when working in Flintshire, the local miners set about arranging for a phone line to run from his pulpit down into the pit so they wouldn’t miss his sermons.

Unfortunately, that other side to Dewi Emrys’s story now began to take hold. After moving to a calling in London, it proved disastrous. Already he’d started getting into debt in a big way (people said this was because his wife was a big spender and waster but perhaps that was just a way of putting the blame on her, not him.) Anyway, the marriage was clearly not happy and in 1917, he effectively ran away, turning his back on church, wife and children to go and join the army. After the war, things went from bad to worse. He tried making a living as a columnist in Fleet Street. But Court cases were brought against him for failing to support his family and he became an alcoholic. Often he’d be found sleeping out rough, often he’d be seen standing outside the Welsh chapels in London, singing raucously, hat in hand, as a way of protesting against what he saw as rejection by snobbish London Welsh people.

Yet that was far from the end of his story. In 1926, he seemed rejuvenated. He won the crown at the Swansea National and also shared first prize for his poem called Pwllderi that I’ve already mentioned above. A beautiful description in Pembrokeshire Welsh, it paints a vivid picture of the sea and the gorse and the wind on the cliffs and of the local characters he used to see there. It was to become his most famous poem. And if ever you go to Pwllderi, you’ll see some lines from it on the statue to him which was erected on the cliffs above Pwllderi in 1961.

A thina’r meddilie sy’n dwad ichi

Pan foch chi’m ishte uwchben Pwllderi.

(And those are the thoughts that come to you when you sit above Pwllderi.)

Sadly, despite his successes in Swansea and afterwards too, the wild streak in Dewi Emrys’ life continued with more debts, more court cases and more bad behaviour. Not until 1941 did he finally settle down, moving to Cardiganshire with a daughter that had been born to him, and it’s there that he lived – in great poverty – until he died in 1952. When the National Eisteddfod came to St David’s fifty years later in 2002, the year of my father’s death, Dewi Emrys was not one of the famous names of the area who were honoured there. His alcoholism and erraticism had done for him.

However, it’s yet another success of his in 1936 which makes a connection between Dewi Emrys and me. 1936 was the year when the National Eisteddfod came to Fishguard where I grew up. At it, Dewi Emrys won the Prose Prize for a set of three essays, one of which, interestingly enough, was about depression, Y Falen. Another was Y Stori Dal (The Tall Story). And that one was all about Shemi Wâd, the local tall-tale teller who became the subject of one of my own books, Shemi’s Tall Tales.  What gives that link extra interest for me is that, of course, Dewi Emrys had known Shemi personally. He’d grown up around him and had heard from Shemi’s own lips such famous Shemi stories as the one about the dog getting sliced in two, each half catching its prey, or the one about the potato so big that it had to be blasted into four pieces to enable it to be carted home.

Obviously both as boy and man, Dewi Emrys had admired Shemi greatly. ‘In my opinion,’ he says in an essay he wrote on tale-tale tellers, ‘the master of the tall story in Wales, in these last years, was old Shemi Wâd.’ The essay gives a vivid physical description of him, including of his massive beard that ran from ear to ear around two cheeks that gleamed like pink islands in a sea of foam and that were, Dewi Emrys thought, the only two clean places on Shemi’s body.

So I love it that only the other day, standing in front of the plinth above Pwllderi in honour of Dewi Emrys, I was looking at a memorial to someone who had himself been in Shemi’s cottage, himself heard him telling his tales and himself seen how Shemi would habitually stand with his back to the wall of the pump in Goodwick, hands deep in the pockets of his trousers where he kept his mints. What a lovely link! I’ll never be able to write poetry like Dewi Emrys or tell stories as tall as Shemi’s. But as someone who loves finding links between things and writing about them, I’ve taken the most enormous pleasure in this one.

PS: I need to correct an error I made in a recent blog to say that the first AGM meeting of the Welsh storytelling organisation, Chwedl, was held in November 2019, not 2001.




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