AmeriCymru: How would you describe your novel Prichard’s Nose?
Sam: Let me say first that I am delighted to be given this opportunity by AmeriCymru/Welsh American Bookstore, to talk about the novel, and its subject, the historical Thomas Prichard, who still fascinates me.
But to answer your question: much of Prichard’s Nose is, I suppose, an old-fashioned picaresque novel, written in an approximation of nineteenth-century style, because Prichard is supposed to be writing an account of his own life. Readers will find the ‘autobiographical’ chapters begin with the sort of summary of their contents that you often find in nineteenth-century books. His story opens on a small farmhouse high on a ridge overlooking the River Usk in Breconshire, where he has come with his mother as an infant. The scandalous event that brought them there gradually emerges during the story. He describes his boyhood on and in the neighbourhood of the farm, his education at the home of a wealthy great-uncle in a nearby village, and his bitterness at the discovery that this relative has no intention of helping him any further. Having learned his father left him and his mother to join a brother in London, he determines to go to the great city and find him. He journeys there on foot, with a company of drovers driving a herd of cattle across England to a sale for the London market, where he says goodbye to his companions and makes his way alone to the last known address of his father. There his uncle takes him in, for his father is dead. His adventures in London begin quietly enough when his uncle obtains for him an apprenticeship in a firm of accountants, but an interest in all kinds of theatrical entertainments and a chance meeting with a group of actors lead to his being engaged at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, under the management of the famous Shakespearian actor Philip Kemble. Although he gains some modest success on the stage, he realises he will never be given a leading role and his ambition turns in another direction: he will become a writer. At the end of his account he has a book of poems on Welsh subjects that he plans to sell in Wales.
In parallel with Prichard’s autobiography, the novel tells the story of Martin, a hapless, lonely young man, who also harbours the ambition to be a writer, and has taken on the task of researching Prichard. He begins grudgingly but finds himself drawn into the pursuit of this actor, known as ‘Mr Jefferies’, and (poor) poet with the pen name ‘Jeffery Llewelyn’, who was the first to write a book about Twm Sion Catti, and who somehow lost his nose. Martin finds the manuscript of Prichard’s story, which has long lain neglected in a library, and, to his utter confusion, that another researcher, the cleverer, more confident Rachel, has beaten him to this discovery. They meet and Martin, on the rebound from a brief disastrous marriage, falls for Rachel. Their doomed relationship is conducted by correspondence, the letters serving also to explore Prichard’s later life.
The book operates in two time frames, one in the first quarter of the nineteenth century and the other in the last quarter of the twentieth (but before mobile phones and email simplified and speeded contact between people), and the style varies accordingly. The last section of the book, as I have already indicated, is written in the epistolary manner, another old-fashioned approach to story telling, though one still quite often used.
AmeriCymru: How did you first become interested in Thomas Prichard?
Sam: I did not even recognise the name on that day in 1972 when, in the course of a visit to his home in Brecon, Roland Mathias said ‘Why don’t you write something about T J Llewelyn Prichard – the man who wrote Twm Sion Catti? As editor of the Anglo-Welsh Review, the outstanding journal of literature and the arts in Wales at the time, Roland was keen to fill gaps in the history of Welsh writing in English, and to encourage young writers, a category for which I just about qualified at the time. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
My first stop was the Y Bywgraffiadur Cymreig, the Dictionary of Welsh Biography. The brief Prichard entry told me very little and, as I soon discovered, was inaccurate. It said he was born in Trallong, a hamlet in Breconshire. He wasn’t. It said he married Naomi Jones of Builth. No, he married Naomi James, and she came from Hereford. It was partly right in saying he died in poverty in Swansea in 1875 or 1876, when actually he was rescued from abject poverty by the Samaritan actions of good citizens of Swansea shortly before he died, more than a decade earlier, in January 1862. It said he was buried in Tabernacle Graveyard in the heart of Swansea. That, too, was wrong: he was tumbled into a paupers’ grave, which he shares with several others, in Dan-y-Graig Cemetery on the eastern outskirts of Swansea, and you cannot find the precise location now since scrap-metal thieves have stolen the small, numbered cast-iron marker that formerly identified it.
There were clues to follow up in DWB: for example, the entry mentions his having acted in plays in Brecon and Aberystwyth, and his employment for a time by Lady Llanover. However, the verifiable facts I discovered about Prichard I owe to a lot of reading, leg work and luck, and those wonderful storehouses of knowledge, public libraries, especially in Cardiff and Swansea, and the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. In Cardiff library I read all that Prichard wrote, some of it, especially the poetry, an uphill struggle, but Twm Sion Catti, unsophisticated as it is, was well worth the effort; and at Swansea, in the great bound volumes of the broadsheet Cambrian newspaper, I found the sad and moving facts of his final days. He died as a result of falling into his own fire, as the report of the inquest describes at length.
There was also the account (published in a journal called Cymry Fu) by Charles Wilkins, postmaster of Merthyr Tudful, of meeting Prichard at a dramatic performance in the town in 1857, when, in his late sixties, he was still wandering around Wales trying to sell copies of his Heroines of Welsh History, perhaps the first feminist take on historical studies. Wilkins describes a gaunt old man with a wax nose held in place by his spectacles, who spoke with ‘an earnest snuffle’ about great days acting in London’s top theatres.
It was no wonder that barely half way through gathering evidence for the article I had promised I would write for Roland Mathias, my subject had become an obsession. I continued to research Prichard, off and on, for more than thirty years, and at the end was still dissatisfied. I knew that, no matter how long I kept digging, I would be unable to find answers to all the questions that nagged at me. That was when I had the idea of writing a novel, which would allow me to use my imagination to fill the gaps in Prichard’s life story that another lifetime of research could not possibly bridge.
Twm Sion Cati''s cave, near Llanymddyfri
AmeriCymru: Can you tell us a little about Twm Sion Catti for the benefit of American readers?
Sam: Prichard’s book Twm Sion Catti, published in Aberystwyth at his own expense in 1828, is littered with anachronisms and not even faintly historical. It is based on folk tales, embroideries on far distant facts passed from generation to generation by word of mouth, until gathered in chapbooks sometime in the eighteenth century and sold by fair-day hawkers. I am fairly confident this was Prichard’s source material. To it he added another, thicker layer of embroidery. That the book was a commercial success, his only commercial success, we gather from the existence of pirated editions. Hoping to cash in again, he published a considerably expanded version in 1839 and, among the papers left when he died, was a third, further enlarged, text, which was published posthumously in 1873. There have been dozens of versions since, a few in comic book form, all owing something to Prichard’s original.
The historical Twm Sion Catti was more properly Thomas Jones, born about 1530, the illegitimate son of a Cardiganshire landowner, who lived at Fountain Gate near Tregaron. The name by which he is familiarly known derives from a combination of the names of his father and his mother: he was Thomas, or Twm, the son of John (Sion) and Catti (Catherine). He was formally pardoned by the highest court in the land in 1559, at the time of Elizabeth I, though of what is not clear. Perhaps before he settled down he had been the madcap witty reprobate and outlaw that we find in the folk tales. He became a man of substance – a landowner in succession to his father, an antiquary, genealogist and bard, whose manuscripts, dating from about 1570, may be consulted at the National Library. His wealthy second wife, whom he married in 1607, was Joan, widow of Thomas Williams of Ystrad-ffin and daughter of Sir John Price of Brecon Priory, but he did not have long to enjoy the marriage: he died in 1609.
AmeriCymru: Where can people go to buy Prichard’s Nose on line.
Sam: The book was published by Y Lolfa in 2010. It is available as a paperback from Amazon and it can be downloaded as a Kindle book.
AmeriCymru: You are also a poet. Care to tell us a little about your poetry?
Sam: When I started out as a writer I thought of myself as a poet. Although I have written a great deal of prose in recent years, notably in a long and continuing series of ‘Letters from Wales’ for the Carcanet Press magazine PN Review (which I know is available in the USA), I still get a special feeling when I write a poem that other people enjoy. My early poetry was chiefly about Gilfach Goch, where I was born, the place and its characters, and while I still turn to those close-to-home subjects from time to time, I now draw on a far wider range of times, themes, people and places. My poems have been published in all the leading magazines of Wales, elsewhere in the UK and overseas. I have published three books of poems, the latest, Missed Chances, from Y Lolfa in 2007, is available from Google Books, Amazon and Abe Books.
Better than trying to describe the kind of poems I write, perhaps I should just give you a sample. The first is a childhood memory from World War II, the second a kind of extended metaphor, and the third comes from visiting the rooms in Rome, just alongside the Spanish Steps, where the artist Joseph Severn was nursing his friend John Keats in his final illness.
Bomb on Gilfach
Not meant to be the target, we copped a stray.
When Swansea burned and set the sky alight,
Some German aircraft, limping loaded from the fray,
Fleeing shattered streets, dismembered dead,
Droned on and onwards through a moonless night.
The pilot, frantic for a fix, and the valleys'' spread
Fingers black on black beneath, said
''Drop the poxy thing, we''re losing height''.
A bomb fell in the night and no one died.
The news arrived as fat bacon fried
For breakfast with yesterday''s damped bread:
The doctor''s surgery was smashed, they said,
The old man, wrapped in wool and flannelette,
Descended safe abed through splintered planks
To the floor below. The windows of the church were blank;
Entire its slated roof had shifted
As if a clumsy hand had lifted
And once more, at an angle, set
It down. The war had come to seek us out
And we had slept. Some evil Nazi lout
Had dropped a bomb a few yards from our door
And no one heard. But all our nights were full
Of lumbering drams, the thump and roar
Of engines, infernal rattles as the coal was screened.
We would start to wakefulness if a lull
Occurred and somehow silence supervened.
Behind the skew-whiff church and silenced bell,
On a rushy patch of moss and water seep,
A vast inverted cone of mud struck deep
Into the hill. The frogs had been through hell.
We searched and fought for jagged shards
Of bomb, swapping spares for sets of cards
Or stamps – and watched them rust on windowsills;
Most wonderful, the doctor''s cellar door, blown down,
Disclosed his scattered packs of bandages and pills,
And, lustrous in the sunlight, carboys, blue and brown.
On days of noisy wind that combs
The rippling grasses this way and that
As it passes, and tugs at clothes
With sly unbuttoning fingers
And takes the breath away, I think
How we would lie in some drowned hollow
While the slow kite wriggled in its stream.
How sad that some boys never learn
To fly a kite. I thought that I
Should never get it right – perhaps
I had made my cross to rigid,
Perhaps my paste and paper were too frail.
We knew those moments when the breeze
Would fail our fledgling project
And the taut held line would sag,
But we launched out sweetly on the air
Again and cast off twine enough
To let our hobby climb and climb.
At the Spanish Steps
February again, late afternoon:
Black fingers tilt
The fountain''s silver, quick
In its marble spoon.
Sun stripes spilt
From a shadowed alley
Across the cobbled square
Will not linger there.
Darkness follows soon.
Severn, sentry in the march
Of life, saw the fountain,
Like a foundered boat, lurch
At its mooring. Light ebbing,
Descended the steep stair, ran
One thirty steps across the square, sobbing,
To the trattoria,
Bought supper for a dying man.
Six sentry paces past the narrow cot,
Two at the blank wall,
Six paces back, turn,
Three at the tall,
Shuttered windows. Look down:
There in the marble hull,
Like blood, the waters for a moment burn.
After the death mask,
The scissored curl of auburn hair,
After the bonfire, the sickbed burned to ash,
After the vengeful smash
Of unflawed pots, the room waits,
Still at last, stripped bare.
And troupes of lovers pass
To climb the steps and meet
With others going down, or pause
To sit and lean together, close.
Water in the wallowing boat
Catches a gleam, holds it afloat.
Like Severn, I see the sun''s snail track
Recede across the water''s black,
Walk six paces back.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?
Sam: I greatly appreciate the opportunity you have given me of meeting members and readers of AmeriCymru and telling them something about my writing. Of course I hope they enjoy it, and if reading this raises further questions I would be glad to attempt to answer them. Dylan Thomas, R S Thomas, Roland Mathias and others, are I know well remembered, but it is quite wonderful that an interest in Wales and things Welsh, particularly the work of living authors, is alive and well in the USA, thanks to the care of and enthusiasm generated by AmeriCymru.