From early times, minstrels, storytellers, tumblers and jugglers sought shelter through the winter by entertaining noble households. In 1176, the most powerful prince in Wales, Rhys ap Gruffydd, summoned bards and poets from all across the land to compete at his court, offering a chair at his table to the winners. This was the first recorded eisteddfod.
The tradition of eisteddfodau flourished in medieval times but then declined. A resurgence of Welsh nationalism in the 19th century led to the founding of the National Eisteddfod of Wales. This is now a week-long competition for works of music and performance poetry in the Welsh language, a festival held in tents in an open space. The much-coveted prize is still known as a chair.
MACHINATIONS IN THE MUSEUM
Charlotte scowled at the brightly lit display cabinets. Why had she agreed to this? Replacing the pottery with something made out of torn-up T-shirts was a betrayal of Gramps and all he stood for. Gramps had put his soul into crafting those stumpy little figures, and soul was something a vulgarian like Mavis Chirk would never understand.
The previous night, the trustees and volunteers of the Congar Museum of Local Life had gathered for a meeting to prepare the annual summer opening. The museum shut in winter when few visitors braved the rain-lashed Welsh coast. It soldiered on, from one government grant to the next, its collection of objects increasing as elderly miners and farmers died off, and their heirs donated tools rusty with disuse.
The old farmhouse which housed the museum had never been modernised. To American visitors, that was its charm. They enthused over the uneven brick floors, low ceilings, tiny windows, dark corners and steep staircases. They cooed over the black-leaded range, the washtub, dolly and mangle, the cast-iron fireplaces, the tables draped in hand-embroidered cloths, and the mannequins in period costume.
The meeting of trustees and volunteers was held in the activities room. In contrast to the mock-up of a19th century classroom with scratched desks and wooden-framed slates, the activities room next door was brightly painted, with communal tables offering plentiful supplies of worksheets and felt tip pens. Although the museum encouraged visits by school parties, the volunteer guides always breathed a sigh of relief once bouncy schoolchildren were safely corralled in a room devoid of exhibits. Old tools could be dangerous in careless hands.
The overhead lighting in the activities room was unflattering to the mainly elderly volunteers. Charlotte’s youthful face marked her out.
“Item 3 on the agenda, the gift shop,” the chairman announced. Around the table shoulders slumped.
Mavis, self-styled manageress of the gift shop, marshalled her papers. Around the table, people stared at their fingers.
“As noted in the treasurer’s report, in our first year of operation, the gift shop exceeded all expectations,” she announced. “If we double our floor space this summer, I expect to quadruple our turnover.”
“Hold on a minute, Mavis. We’re a museum, not an emporium. Why do you need extra floor space?”
“A failing museum,” Mavis snapped back. “A dismal collection of moth-eaten clothes and antiquated tools. It was my retail skills that kept us going last year.”
“Why don’t you open a high street shop then?” Derek Jones countered.
Charlotte hid a smile. With his untidy hair and well-worn anorak, Derek reminded her of Gramps.
“A shop lowers the tone of the museum,” Derek continued. “Before you came and turned us all upside down, we offered a selection of books. A hand-picked selection that reflected our ethos and purpose.”
“I agree with Derek.” That was Ann Poole. The oldest trustee, she walked with difficulty after two hip replacements, yet insisted on taking responsibility for dusting fragile exhibits. “You’re not interested in our work, Mavis. You never have been. All you want is your name and photo in the paper as often as possible. You’re just using us for publicity. We all know your husband wants to be the next town mayor. And you want to be lady mayoress.”
Ann and Mavis took no notice. Miss Roberts, in charge of taking the minutes, put down her pen for the duration of hostilities.
Puce with fury, Mavis delivered her parting shot. “I will not resign, Mrs Poole, I will not give you that pleasure. And, in case any of you have forgotten, it was my Arthur who secured the grant money from Europe.” She glared round the table. “You don’t get money just for being a worthy cause. You need to know the right people as well. You should all be grateful to my Arthur.”
The mention of money silenced the dissenters. It was true the European Union had awarded the museum a substantial sum under its coastal communities programme. The chairman suggested placing on record the trustees’ appreciation of Mrs Chirk’s diligence. Reluctantly, Charlotte raised her hand along with the others present. Miss Roberts made a note on her shorthand pad.
“Now that we are agreed on the extra floor space, I can show you two new lines we will be introducing this summer.” Mavis bent to extricate items from her shopping bag. Coming up, she breathed heavily and Charlotte had the irreverent thought that chains of office were designed for ample bosoms. Mavis would carry hers well but, standing beside her, Arthur would be weighed down by Congar’s municipal regalia.
Coming from a family of self-employed farmers, Charlotte had been out of sync with the clamorous left-wing views of her fellow students. At the same time, she scorned the Arthurs and Mavises of this world, festooned with chains of office and frothy Tory hats. Soft-living incomers such as the Chirks had never known the precarious life of the hill farmers or the slate miners. She, Charlotte Davies, was a shining example of social progress, having attended art college in Liverpool, but her ancestors’ existential struggle was bred into her bones.
After handing round an example of the new line of love spoons featuring the fire-breathing Welsh dragon, Mavis unrolled a bundle.
“What on earth is that?” someone asked.
Mavis smoothed the bright colours flat. “A rag rug.”
“No way, Mavis,” Derek Jones said “My grandma had rag rugs and they never looked like that. She didn’t waste money cutting up clothes until they were worn to threads.”
“Aye, Derek’s right.”
Charlotte’s only knowledge of rag rugs was seeing grimy rectangles set in front of the fireplaces in the various rooms. She rarely had occasion to step over the ropes that cordoned off the tableaux of village life, and could not recall having handled one.
Mavis bridled. “These are a modern version. Designed and made in Wales. Well, the originals are. Felicity Williams is reviving the ancient Welsh art of rag-rugging. I placed an order for a hundred.”
“Without consulting us?”
“I used my discretion. Made in China, they’ll cost £5 each, and we can sell them for £25 each in the shop.
Around the table, heads jerked up. Even Charlotte did the mental calculation of £20 profit on a hundred rugs.
“Of course, if we want to encourage people to buy them, we’ll have to find a place for Felicity’s originals. I suggest we move the Duckfeathers Pottery pieces into one display case, instead of two.”
“But Duckfeathers was Gramps’ business,” Charlotte almost wailed. Heads turned to look. “His pottery is part of Congar’s history.”
“Quite, dear. And you inherited his artistic talent, as we all know. I nominate you as the best person to make a selection of his pottery pieces.” Mavis smiled at the table, not at Charlotte.
“Agreed,” the chairman said, and Miss Roberts made a note. “And Charlotte, can you write something about it on our Facebook page? Those bright colours will make a good picture.”
Charlotte scowled. There was no way she could refuse. Her degree in fine art had not led to a job, even at dogsbody level, and voluntary work at the museum was something to put on her CV. She also updated the museum’s Facebook page, which allowed her to claim excellent social media skills in her numerous job applications.
"Item 4, any other business,” the chairman intoned. “No? Well, it’s 8.30 and we all want to get home. I declare the meeting closed.”
Derek Jones left with Charlotte, chuntering discontent. “That woman is a cultural vandal. I swear I’ll kill her if she pulls another trick like that. Plastic love spoons made in China! Time was a young man carved a spoon for his sweetheart with his own knife and only the two of them knew what the carvings meant.” His throaty cackle embarrassed Charlotte.
Derek, the author of two self-published books on the lost railways of Snowdonia, had particular reason to dislike Mavis, who had moved books to the back of the gift shop.
The next morning, Charlotte still seethed. Instead of kicking something, she scuffed the soles of her trainers across the wooden floorboards, producing an unpleasant sound in the small room. She did it again.
You’d hate it, wouldn’t you, Gramps, Charlotte muttered under her breath. Fake Welsh culture. Another part of her brain snorted in contradiction, for Gramps had never turned up his nose at making money. Charlotte turned her back on the display cabinet and stared out of the window.
The anger she had felt since last night’s meeting had intensified when Mavis arrived and suggested she remove the sheep and ducks. “Leave the cups and saucers, dear, the colours are quite pleasant. But you must agree those 1950s ornaments are beyond kitsch. I’m not saying anything against your ancestor, he did well for a self-taught man, but I’m sure your art degree has given you a sense of perspective.”
Shrouding the despised ducks in layers of bubble wrap, Charlotte dreamed of being in a position of power in the art world and refusing to renew the museum’s grant. As a revenge fantasy, that lacked substance. It was as puerile as the various Facebook posts she had composed but not posted following last night’s meeting, aware that mordant comments on Facebook were open to misinterpretation.
Her fists clenched. She’ll pay for this, Gramps.
Objectively, she conceded that Gramps’ sheep and ducks lacked taste. Holding one of the pottery figures to the light, she scrutinised its unnatural blue plumage. The duck stood upright, in a defiant pose, an object so hideous you had to smile. Yet Charlotte recalled Gramps explaining the nineteen forties and fifties to her, when she was a child and Gramps was unimaginably old, for Gramps was Grandpa Tom’s dad. “It was a grim time, lovey. We’d won the war, but conditions were hardly better than before. Our homes were always cold, and food was rationed.” He ruffled Charlotte’s hair. “You and your little friends wouldn’t recognise it for the same country. So when the good times came back and people got a bit of money in their hands, they wanted things that were bright, and shiny and new. Think on it. If you’d been brought up in a cold, damp home, with a fireplace that smoked, you’d have wanted something new to put on the mantelpiece and cheer the place up. That’s what I gave them, lovey, little ornaments that put a smile on people’s faces.”
Throughout art school, Charlotte had defended Gramps’ homely philosophy of giving people what they wanted. Now she was complicit in sweeping him aside. Rage seethed and roiled as she packed the ornaments.
There was nothing she could do. Words uttered the previous night swilled through her brain, underlining her spineless complicity.
She'll pay for this.
The museum was almost empty. Out in the courtyard, a portable radio was set to a local station as Andy Perkins sawed and hammered, working on a new bench for the garden. A jingle cut across the radio chit chat to announce the traffic news. Somewhere Ann Poole progressed from room to room, feather duster in hand, removing every speck of winter’s dust from the jumble of display items before opening day. Mavis was in the small office on the top floor.
Charlotte made a quick foray upstairs to inspect one of the genuine rag rugs, noting with satisfaction that it was almost invisible against the black-painted floorboards. Then she headed for the alcove where the electric kettle was kept. “Are you ready for a cup of tea, Andy?” she called on the way.
The trustees and volunteers agreed that the grand summer opening should go ahead, in tribute to Mavis’s sterling work. Councillor Arthur Chirk was invited to perform the opening ceremony. “It’s what she would have wanted,” they told each other. The plastic love spoons and mass-produced rag rugs arrived from China, and were stored in the gift shop cupboard, thus offering further opportunity to dissect Mavis’s conduct.
Mavis had tripped and fallen down the unlit back stairs when Charlotte called her to come and share the morning tea break. The tragic accident was blamed on her high heels. “Quite unsuitable for a woman of her age,” was Ann Poole’s verdict, and her cronies agreed.
The Duckfeathers Pottery items had been reinstated. The rag rug was also back in its place, for Charlotte was tidy by nature.
Lovespoon photo: Museum of Wales