My mother and father both came from coal-mining families in the valleys of South Wales. I remember the legions of aunts from my childhood as nearly spherical ladies with pink faces and wide smiles, and my uncles as dark-eyed lean men who looked like living etchings, with every wrinkle in their faces tattooed with coal dust.
My Auntie Mag was the quietest of the aunts, but in her old age she had a minor stroke which, in my mother’s words, “did her the world of good” because she became much more open and garrulous. She took an interest in current affairs, but the News could upset her. On one occasion, when my wonderful niece Mary was visiting, she was agitated by worry for her sister. My Auntie Rose was then living in Bridgend, close by a caravan park, and the Americans apparently were bombing it. Patiently Mary explored the confusion and resolved it – “No Auntie Mag, it’s the Taliban they’re bombing, not the caravans.”
Driving home from South Wales after hearing this story I recalled a similar confusion of my own. As a child, at school in Bangor, in North Wales, I had been most confused to learn in History that Mussolini had invaded Abyssinia. For I knew Abyssinia quite well; it was a council housing estate on the fringes of Bangor. What would Mussolini want with that?
Looking around Abyssinia it was not impossible to conceive that it had indeed been bombed into submission and subsequently rebuilt hastily. But I wasn’t going to ask any adult a question that either revealed my scepticism about what the teacher had said or my stupidity about Abyssinia. Perhaps there was another Abyssinia, and I waited to be told, but nobody actually thought to say where Abyssinia was – it was assumed that we knew where it was, and indeed we did – it was just across from the Ffriddoedd road. Did I get the name wrong – I listened carefully – no, it was definitely Abyssinia that we were told about. Not that we were told much, only that Mussolini had invaded it and some people were upset but nobody did anything – both of which I could more or less understand.
Years later, well into my adult life, I would wake up at night remembering this never-resolved confusion, and sometimes I would indeed wonder if anyone would have cared or even noticed if Mussolini had indeed invaded that desolate place.
But driving back from South Wales I passed a road sign in which I saw the possible answer, and back home I searched for a map of Bangor – and there it was: the estate was Aber Senna, not Abyssinia at all.
I felt strangely relieved.
Memory and Error
We trust our memories; we must, but we shouldn’t trust them to be literally true. We don’t ask questions that might reveal our ignorance, but what is the point of asking questions except to resolve our ignorance? We believe what we are told and what we read – we have to, language would be a useless tool otherwise, it only works if we believe what we read and hear. Of course people lie sometimes, but they are uncomfortable in lying, it doesn’t come naturally to normal people. When people must avoid telling the truth they may go to extreme circumlocutions to avoid actually telling a lie. But commonly they misremember, commonly they mishear or misread, commonly they re-interpret what they see, read or remember to fit some bigger narrative that expresses some emotional truth or emotional salience that they perceive. And this we all do, all our lives. We make mistakes, and build theses on misconceptions.
Postscript: Rhodri the snoop
Rhodri became suspicious of this story (he is of most things) because Google didn't cohere with my account. According to Google maps, Aber Senna doesn't exist. Rhodri then searched Google for historical records, but he could find no records supporting the existence of an Aber Senna in Wales - or anywhere for that matter.
And so the mystery deepened.
Was Aber Senna really a place? Or was it just another trick of memory - a story that made sense and made me feel at ease? Surely not?
Rhodri’s findings troubled me. I looked too on Google and found no trace of Aber Senna, yet I remember finding it. Is this a false memory? Possibly, so where did my childish confusion come from? Perhaps the prefix was not Aber, but Adda (pronounced Atha, with a hard th) – the river Adda in Bangor flows in a culvert below the estate I knew as Abyssinia, and its name is preserved in many names (such as Bryn Adda and Glynadda). Was the name I confused a given name or a name that just kids used? The answer is lost in the mists of nearly sixty years.
If you have any information on the mystery of Aber Senna, we would very much like to hear from you.
Author: Gareth Leng | 10.07/2020