My father was born and raised on the island of Anglesey in North Wales. His first language is Welsh. He left when he was fifteen years old, joining the RAF as a boy entrant; a few years later he met my mother and they married and settled in England. When I was growing up, I was very proud of my dad’s Welshness. I still am. Every year we would visit the Welsh half of our family on Anglesey and in Snowdonia.
We lived in landlocked Abingdon, Oxfordshire – a small town that’s so English they throw currant buns from the town hall on royal occasions – and, to me, Wales was a place of mystery and excitement. I loved the journey we took in our Ford Cortina through the rugged mountains of Snowdonia (we never actually got out and walked in them, that would have been far too middle-class), and over Telford’s elegant bridge across the blue Menai Strait.
Everything was different here. The air was colder, cleaner. There were sheep everywhere: even when you couldn’t see them, you could hear them. When we walked to the beach at Llanidan, the shady lane stank of something exotic called garlic. People spoke in a foreign tongue, which made just going to the local Wavy Line shop an adventure. Anglesey was a place of wonder, but also of anxiety for me: I couldn’t speak the language, and sometimes could barely understand what my own family said because their accents, to my English ears, were so strange.
For years I’d wanted to write about this place. But a ‘way in’ to this imaginative space, a way on to the island, didn’t present itself to me until, a few years ago, my dad started researching his family tree, in the way that everyone had been since Who Do You Think You Are came on the telly. From a census, he discovered that his mother had a sister that none of us had ever known about. Blimey, I thought: I’ve struck novel-gold! Who was this missing sister, and why had my gran never spoken of her? I started to research the story, and found out that this sister had worked as a maid in Liverpool and was drowned in a lake under mysterious circumstances in Sefton Park – pretty juicy stuff, I thought, and I began to write a novel based on this story. But I faced two problems. One was time: I had a deadline looming: my novel was expected by my publisher in about 18 months’ time, and I had a toddler who was in childcare for only three afternoons a week, and a lot of research, let alone writing, to do. The other was language. To write this novel, which would have to be mainly from the point of view of native Welsh speakers from the 1910s without speaking Welsh myself was, I felt, wrong. How could I enter their heads without knowing their language? It just didn’t seem possible to me. And so, having written a few chapters and done quite a bit of research into the historical period, I ditched this idea completely and, one day, in a slight panic, just started writing about something much closer to home: the relationship between a nanny, a child, and a mother.
I wondered if this nanny could steal this child and take him back to her childhood home on Anglesey.
I wondered if these people could all be incomers, English people living on the island, thus absolving me of any guilt about not speaking Welsh.
I wondered if I dared to write about my own experiences of difficult childbirth and post-natal depression, and the anxieties around childcare that I was currently experiencing. I had recently employed a very part-time nanny for my two year old son, and although we got on well (and are now good friends), the relationship was strange and challenging for all of us. I kept on writing, and the result is Mother Island.