Bardsey Island Observational Research Project

Reflective Essay: “Being on Bardsey”

Choosing an Arena

In choosing a location for the observational research project, I needed to reflect upon my own strengths and weaknesses. It was suggested by the course team that students chose a location that was challenging and outside of our individual comfort zones. This meant that I had to first identify my comfort zones. An important consideration is that I suffer from anxiety. I don’t like travelling and avoid it as much as possible. So, when starting out on the observational research project it quickly became apparent that whichever location I chose, wherever I went, the challenge was going to be just being there, in a strange place, and dealing with that.

The island itself presented numerous additional challenges that relate to being an island in the Irish Sea that is separated from the mainland by a rough stretch of water that requires specialist navigation and frequently causes the island to be cut off from the mainland, sometimes for months at a time. The island itself was a symbol of separation. Yet for millennia Bardsey has been a place of pilgrimage from all over the world. People still choose to live there in houses with none of the modern conveniences of running water, plumbing, electric light or telephones. Issues and happenings in the wider world cease to be important when one is on the island and dealing with the realities of life there. Life on the island is therefore very much about separation. People who live here choose to live separately. Throughout its ancient history the island has been a symbol of that separateness.

Observational Research

Shortly after my fifteen year old daughter and I had arrived on the island I began to search for an answer to the question of how the islanders deal with being separated from those they love. When I asked islanders about this their replies almost seem to dodge the question. Being on Bardsey was what was important. What was happening elsewhere was therefore irrelevant. My own experiences provided more powerful answers when the lack of phone signal made it impossible to tell loved ones that we had safely arrived, what the island was like or how we were doing. My solution to this was to write letters, which provided a welcome semblance of a conversation albeit imaginary. The need to record my impressions and experiences grew even stronger. This would later become the solution chosen by the young 1930s girl Helen to deal with her separation from Huw. But how would my daughter and I deal with it differently? Were our generations equipped differently to handle this separation? How would a young girl, used to modern conveniences and communications technology deal with separation from her world and from her boyfriend? Would she have the inner resources and mindfulness to even put up with her time on the island, let alone come to form a bond with the place? The character of Beth grew out of this question.

Parlour and Fireplace

Because the island environment would be so foreign to the reader it would be essential that the main character was venturing there for the first time. I chose a female character mainly because for a young girl the environment would be so much harder to deal with than for boys (within days of arriving there I noticed the boys stopped washing, wearing shirts or shoes and quickly adjusted to their environment). The girls however were more concerned with appearance and although they did integrate into the environment, it took longer. I was able to observe my daughter struggling with these difficulties. Each cottage had its own visitor’s book where one previous visitor – a teenage girl – had written and drawn all over it, making clear how she felt about Bardsey and its lack of television and communications. Thus Beth became a rebellious teenage girl.

Separation and Communication

So many features of the arena seem to manifest the problems of separation and the difficulties in communication. Bardsey is not only separated from the mainland, but its tall mountain is yet another barrier that obscures sight of the mainland as well as blocking modern communications. The island lends itself to isolation. Visitors still go there to be separate, not just geographically, but in time. Many logbook entries speak of the visitor’s gratitude at the opportunity to live the simpler lifestyle from a bygone age. Islanders do however speak of the difficulties of being separated from their friends and loved ones as being a perennial problem. The boatman is also the local postman who brings post once a week, tide permitting. Any person who is travelling to or from the island in the intervening period then is likely to be asked to carry a letter or two – just as I was asked on the day I left to carry the beautifully scented and wax-sealed letter from an islander to their sick friend on the mainland who needed the good wishes for a speedy recovery conveyed faster. This letter struck me as very different to the letters I wrote to my husband, which were not designed to be sent on paper. I knew as I was typing them that I would either give him the text to read later once I was safely home or that I would, as it happened, find a spot where there was sufficient mobile signal to send it via email. Writing that text was therefore not so much a method of communication with him, as much as it was a method of me dealing with my own issues of being there.

Theme

“Being on Bardsey” as the title suggests is about being. Whether it is about being on the island or being in the moment, it is the act of wholeheartedly being present that is central to both the story and the experience of being there. The problems of separation (whether they be through distance, time or death) are not really solved by communication. Communication really only gives us a sense of the other person, whether that is voice at the end of a telephone, a photograph, a letter, the island’s lighthouse flashing its warning or the cries of the Manx Sheerwaters as they call out to their mates flying around in the dark. We, as individuals, still have to deal with being there. In writing I tried to keep this theme in the front of my mind in order to infuse it throughout the script.

Generations

Our cottage on Bardsey

It became clear that the characters in the story should experience the pain of separation caused, not just by the island, but by distance, time, death and abandonment. These came to represent four generations of women: Hennain (the Welsh word for great grandmother, literally meaning old grandmother), her late daughter, her single-parent granddaughter Cerys and stroppy teenage great-granddaughter Beth. Many of the people who visit Bardsey and have done so for decades come to the island as families of four generations. Some of them come to renew connections with the island because they left during the great depression like so many native families. Returning and bringing along their descendents has become an annual pilgrimage that symbolises these families’ Welsh heritage. Members of a single family arriving on the boat may arrive speaking English with very different regional accents but by the end of their stay on the island their voices have coalesced into a uniform Welsh conversation that, like the language, embraces the hearth at its core. This prompted me to write about a returning family trying to keep alive their legacy. But in order to address the issues of separation and the problems of communication, it was important that the family in my script was broken apart by death, divorce and distance.

Writing a Script with Female Characters

Despite its subject of being cut off on an island, the script is not about escaping from it. It is a story about being there and finding one’s place. I chose a female central character because the island’s Celtic heritage suggested a more circular and deeper tale, which was greatly inspired by the Heroine’s Journey:
“The triple spiral found in Celtic art reflects the energy of the Triple Goddess: the causal world, the world of thought … and the physical world. Celtic Christianity emphasized the direct individual experiences of spirit … embraced the feminine, the development of intuition, and it encouraged the sensual experience of life. “

Finding Imagery and Sounds of the Arena

During my time on the island I kept a blog as well as making sound and video recordings and taking photographs and doing sketches. I spent one day of my observation in silence during which I focussed upon finding images that represented the arena. This enabled me to concentrate on writing for the screen, capturing the arena’s sounds and scenery.

Another significant focus was how the vivid nature of Hen’s memories could be represented on the screen? Helen’s attention to detail decades previously provided her with such vivid images she was able to intuit her environment both through the strength of her memories and the unchanging nature of the island. Likewise, Beth’s filtered reality through her camera’s viewfinder should represent technology effectively preventing her from being in the moment and fully experiencing her environment. She is unable to form vivid memories because she instead relies upon technology to record it for her.

One significant problem was difficulty of writing visually about darkness. Any representation of the experiences of a family visiting Bardsey would be unrealistic if this vital factor was excluded. This led me to consider how low light sequences might be represented visually on the screen, for example how Hen and Beth might move around outside at night.

Another aspect that came out of focussing on the imagery of the island were the stones that made up the ancient and moss-covered stone walls, the large lumps of quartz that litter the mountain slopes, the tall celtic stone cross that proclaims “twenty thousand saints are buried here”, the tenth century keig graves, all aligned east to west, the crumbling stone ruin of the thirteenth century monastery and the polished round stones sold by the artist in residence. One particular rock is Carreg yr Rhonwy – central to domestic life on Bardsey. It is a stone outcrop in the sea towards which all houses are aligned so that they can have sight of this natural tide meter which dictates the rhythm of life to the same degree as daylight. All Bardsey buildings are made of stone and without it life on the island would be impractical. Stones must somehow play a significant role in the story.

Active Questions

I designed the first act of the story to raise several active questions:

  • What is the bundle?
  • What is the significance of the pebbles
  • Can Bardsey really fix the family?
  • Will Beth cope?
  • Will Beth keep Ross?
  • Will Cerys find love?
  • Will Aled fall?
  • Will Hen die?

Answering these questions provided the bulk of the plot.

Including the Detail

One of the most surprising aspects that I found from writing the first draft of the script was that small details such as fear of the dark and the lack of plumbing kept coming up in the writing. I really hadn’t wanted to focus on these aspects as I felt they wouldn’t do the island justice. I decided to leave these elements in the script as they at least provided a backdrop and a set of actual visual problems for the characters to solve. The tutor’s response was that the first time the script got interesting was when the filter and the well were being described. Perhaps these elements were therefore important after all. Considering that these practicalities were what made staying on the island a challenge for me, perhaps they were valid difficulties for Beth to face.

Finding Cerys

Whilst I was writing the second draft I attended the London Screenwriter’s Festival where Jurgen Wolff did a workshop on creativity. He invited us to explore a character from a script we were working on. I chose the Beth. We were then invited to explore the character’s home, mentally walking around it, and eventually finding a photograph that would tell a secret that the character wants hidden. My visualisation led me to the cupboard under the stairs and to a cracked photograph of a toddler Beth and her family, including her absent father. They were happily standing on Bardsey with the mountain in the background. I realized this photo was different to the photo that sat on Hen’s dresser in the first draft of the script: they were not on Bardsey and it was stated that Beth had never been to Bardsey. Whilst on the surface this seemed like an inconsistency I realized that perhaps the photo presented an alternate vision of how things might have been. The significant difference was that in the story’s reality Cerys never took her husband to Bardsey. Much of the unhappiness in her single parent family was therefore not only due to her divorce but from being segregated from her own culture. Exploring this aspect of the character of Cerys made her softer and, according to feedback from other readers, easier to relate to. She was herself an island adrift.

Feedback

Initial feedback on the outline suggested that I need to include some of the family’s ‘ordinary world’, so that the reader can first see where they came from. My tutor talked about the glorification of the past and suggested I stay away from such sentimentality. I realised that this arena might be unusual and difficult for some readers to relate to. I must therefore translate this into empathy for the characters as they venture into this strange place. I decided to create a new beginning for the story off the island in Hen’s nursing home as she describes her family to her carer. Her somewhat idealistic depiction of her family living away in London would then contrast sharply with the vulgar reality of a foul-mouthed girl, a disillusioned and disinterested mother and an attention seeking boy with risk issues. Later feedback would suggest that this created too much emphasis on the elderly woman and her carer (who was irrelevant to the story) so I decided to start by introducing Beth and her family then contrasting it with the more genteel and homely Hen.

The climax of the story

Beth was always going to climb the mountain. It provides the biggest barrier on Bardsey and it is this barrier that stops Beth communicating with Ross. It is this barrier that she will ultimately have to surmount and – to go along with her other fears of darkness and isolation – she must climb it alone and at night.
When Beth arrives she must make a choice between the thing she desires (talking to Ross, representing her dependence on a male father figure) and another harder option that ultimately causes her to grow. The heroine says no. She defines herself by this action rather than seeking approval from her man. She makes a choice to bond with her great grandmother, to call her mother out of desire to show her independence and out of her concern and caring for her younger brother. It is right and proper therefore that at the end of the story Beth is both strong and independent.

Closing the circle

Some feedback suggested that the post-script ending was unnecessary. I chose to leave it in as it is vital to Hen, to her family and her culture that she passes on her legacy. Again referring to the Heroine’s Journey Beth’s acceptance of this ancestral feminine wisdom is the culmination of The Heroine’s Journey. It brings balance and closes the circle. Beth has ventured onto the masculine journey, healed the mother/daughter split and taken her place by achieving wholeness as a woman.

Some criticism suggested that Ross should not be included at the end. But Ross comes to the island because it represents hope for the future. Unlike Beth’s father who never came to the island (and so never truly appreciated who Cerys was) Ross comes there.

Beth has grown. She is separate. She communicates well.

Beth has learned to be and she did it on Bardsey.

That is her heritage.

References

  • Evans, C and Marloh, W., 2008. Bardsey. Ceredigion, Wales: Gomer Press
  • Murdock, M., 1990. The Heroine’s Journey. Boston & London: Shambhala . pp 178-9
  • Vogler, C., 2007. Writer’s Journey: Mythic Stucture for Writers. 3rd Ed. California: Michael Wiese Production

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