3 min read

Enduring like a tree under the curious stars

A low, bent tree on a grassy, rocky mountainside, with hills and fields in the background
Photo by Mitchell Orr / Unsplash A tree on the slopes of Cadair Idris

You see up there, where it says 'Sarah I. Jackson'? The 'I' stands for 'Idris', which is a family name; I share it with my brother and my father and my grandfather. I like it for that reason, and because it transforms 'Sarah Jackson' from one of the English-speaking world's most ordinary, most sensible names into something surprising and probably unique.

I wanted to write something to mark the turn of the year, but my thoughts kept coming back to my grandad. He died 20 years ago last month, in his eighties. He was named for the mountain he was born in the shadow of, Cadair Idris.

As an adult, I can see him as a man with strengths and flaws like everyone, and before he died our differing politics had already divided us. But as a child, he was essentially a wizard. He was like a grandfather from a story. Like the BFG, or Gandalf. He was immensely tall, with a thick head of hair, great curling white eyebrows, and deep, hooded eyes. He had a soft Welsh accent, and he was a superb storyteller.

He told me stories for hours. About Llywelyn, about Gelert, about Gwydion and his army of trees, and - my favourite - about Merlin, and Vortigern, and the dragons under the mountain. He told me about the War, about his apprenticeship, his childhood, about the den he made with his friends on the hillside. How the gwyllion stole their chocolate bars. About how once he saw a dragon. I was spellbound, as you can imagine.

He also listened patiently to my stories. The only one I can remember now involved a little white cat going on a journey through a forest and meeting various animal friends, before reaching a small red house where all of them went inside and instantly died. The End!

He wasn't a writer. He wasn't particularly a reader. He was amiably taciturn. When asked how he was he gave a uniform answer: "Oh, not so bad." Think Bill Nighy's character Cliff from the film Pride. And yet, he was carrying these incredible stories around with him, and quietly creating his own.

I used to wonder if he had inherited it from the mountain somehow, through the name. There are many legends about Cadair Idris (which means 'chair of Idris', Idris being a giant) but the most famous is that if you spend a night on the mountaintop you will wake either mad, or a poet. Which tickles me, having been both.

There are some subtle and complicated narratives in our family (which I have both absorbed and contributed to) about creativity, about practicality, about class and identity, about who gets to dream and when, and how much, and what gets sacrificed and what gets saved. There's a vague idea that the Welsh side is where the art, and the music, and the poetry comes from, and we thank the Midlands for our work ethic and sturdy backs.

It's easy for me to get drawn into it when I think of grandad. Because I miss him, and because stories were something that we shared. It's comforting to think that they're in the blood, that a bit of that misty mountain is resting within me, the way its name nestles inside my own.

But I have to reject it. I don't believe that creativity is inherent in any culture more than another, or in any family, or in any person. Imagination isn't a gift handed down by a giant to a foolhardy few, it's part of being human. It just needs to be nourished.

Some links

  • The title of the post comes from the R.S. Thomas poem "A Peasant"
  • Which in turn gives its name to Curious Under The Stars, a fantasy comedy BBC Cymru Wales radio series which blends the utterly mundane and the transcendently magical, weaving Welsh folklore into the story of Gareth and Diane, new pub landlords in the village of Glan Don.
  • The BBC have also recently adapted The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper as a radio series! It's the second book of five (all excellent) which are set variously in Cornwall, England, and Wales and Cadair Idris features prominently.
  • Shout out to a couple of excellent Welsh speculative fiction magazines which are well worth a read: Gwyllion and Lucent Dreaming.