Flying with Angels by Brian John, Greencroft Books,
2005. ISBN 0 905559 84 3.
A5 paperback, 400 pp, £7.99.
Published 30th October 2005, reprinted 2008. Total copies sold: 6,000.
This is a tender, violent, compassionate story about the joys and agonies of growing old.
It is 1845, and Martha Morgan, Mistress of Plas Ingli, is feeling her age. She receives warnings that she should take care. Her beloved estate collapses, and she has to call upon her deepest reserves of strength in order to survive.
But her misery is lessened when she meets a travelling evangelist on the summit of Angel Mountain. It turns out that the fate of Amos Jones Minor Prophet is inextricably bound up with her own. Martha may be a grandmother and a widow, but she still has an appetite for sex. A single indiscretion in Tycanol Wood splits the community and tests the loyalty of friends and family to the limit, and starts a drift towards the final tragic episodes of Martha s life.
While Martha is dealing with these personal crises, she is also drawn to help the peasants caught up in the Irish Potato Famine. A shipwreck on the coast near Newport gives her the opportunity to do something practical, but in the process she offends the secret Society of Sea Serjeants. Her family tries to protect her from evil men who are driven by ancient family animosities. But her fighting spirit is stronger than her body, and she takes them on.
It becomes clear that Martha will not die in her bed; nor does she, but in the final act of her exciting life there are breathless twists and turns which confound her enemies and leave her undefeated.
This is Brian's favourite book out of the eight written thus far -- maybe because he was drawn into it much more emotionally than into any of the others. After all, it is about the end of Martha's life, and in writing about the declining years of a heroine as feisty as she, a contemplation of mortality becomes inevitable!
Question: Many readers have remarked that Mistress Martha is really “Mother Wales.” Have you set out to encourage that belief?
Answer: When I wrote On Angel Mountain I was simply intent upon writing a rattling good story with believable characters and enough twists and turns in the plot to keep readers happy. Young Martha Morgan was my heroine, but I had no plan to develop her as an iconic figure. Then a good friend read the novel and asked me whether I had modelled Martha on Chris Guthrie in Grassic Gibbons’ Sunset Song. I had not even heard of that novel or its author. But I went off and read all three novels in A Scots Quair, and was bowled over by them. I can quite understand why Chris Guthrie is viewed by many students of Scottish literature as Mother Scotland. But she is a victim, and Martha Morgan is anything but a victim. I have not tried to manufacture her character, but I have tried to bring out different aspects of it in the five novels of the Saga. Maybe she does embody all that is best and worst about Wales. On the one hand she is beautiful, passionate, feisty, strong-willed and fiercely loyal and protective of those whom she loves. On the other hand she is prone to introspection and even deep depression and paranoia. At times she becomes arrogant and manipulative. She cannot keep her nose out of other peoples’ business, and becomes involved in great campaigns which can only lead her into trouble. But she hates injustice and suffering, and is prepared to take huge risks in the righting of wrongs. She has an almost mystical relationship with the landscape in which she lives and the house which gives her shelter. She belongs to Carningli, and the mountain belongs to her. She knows what "hiraeth" is all about. She is also proudly Welsh and refuses to submit to any authority which she does not respect. If that makes her Mother Wales, so be it!