Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Real Wales

It's the new book and coming - ever so slowly - before Christmas from Seren. The Real technique applied to the whole country. Real Wales. Full of Finch photos and Finch humour. Here's an extract, described by John Osmond, Director of the IWA, as quirky. That's what I do.

So what is this place? Grey crags and green miasma in the western British mists. A place like poetry, where nothing happens. A place of sheep and hairy men. Where is this land? Most of the world do not know. And if they do then they can rarely point us out. Wales, I never heard of that place[i]. Wales, the invisible, the lost. Wales, the real Cantre’r Gwaelod. A small island in the Hebrides. A rock off the west coast of Ireland. A hummock out there in the stormy ocean. Wales, Grassholm writ just that little bit larger. A floating land, full of birds.

The great historian Gwyn Alf Williams said the people of this place had “for a millennium and a half lived in the two western peninsulas of Britain as a Welsh people, (and) are now nothing but naked under an acid rain.” The tourist trade sells us as a place of endless singing, long yellow beaches, rugby rugby and folk in stovepipe hats. Business promotion says we are a global centre, a land of opportunity, a place to relocate to, perfect transport, weather like Bermuda. The government says we have the highest incidence of heart disease in Europe. We smoke too much. We don’t climb enough of our hills. Wales, a fake place made by Woolworth, cellotaped to the west of the midlands, useful for car rallies, and as a butt of English jokes. You are a country. You can’t mean that.

Everyone looks for Wales and so many do not find it. Either like R S Thomas they search for a Wales which does not exist, moving ever westward, in hope. Or like the academics find a new Wales right in front of them, constructed from the past’s framework, a place that changes and doesn’t simultaneously. A land of magic. Wave your divining rod. Follow your ley.

Defining Wales is rather like defining verse. For every rule someone comes up with there will be an exception which breaks it. Ultimately poems become what they are because the poet says so. Wales is like this. The bit you think of as real probably is. The Feathers in Llanystumdwy. The Greyhound on High Street in Newport. Barafundle. The power station at Connah’s Quay. Splott. The Millennium Coastal Park at Llanelli. The Spar at Flint. The writers gathered at the Vulcan in Adamsdown. The street of subscribers to Taliesin in Pwllheli. The coach spotters at Swansea bus station. Brecon Cathedral. The cairn at the far end of Golden Road. The Urdd Welsh classes for adults. The sewage works at Aberystwyth. The place up near Dyfi Junction where there’s no platform but the trains still stop. Pete Davis’ Chicken Shed at Brynamman. The left bank of the river Lugg near Bleddfa. The Codfather of Sole chipshop on Barry Island seafront. The place where Dafydd Elis Thomas parks his car near the Senedd. The steps of the National Museum and the pillars behind which John Tripp once hid his bicycle clips. The jetty at Mostyn from where the Airbus wings set sail. The bridge over the lost Roath Rail branch on Penylan Hill. All as real as each other.

In a country the size of ours it should be possible to visit everywhere – some claim to have – but there are still towns and villages appearing on the nightly BBC Wales weather maps that I have never been through. And on occasions there is one of which I’ve never heard.

Some people never bother. Cardiffians – and some of them can be the worst – live and die inside the capital. The Wales beyond is an alien land. Full of workless pits and mountains. No Asda. No Lidl. I am not going there. Why should I? What would I get out of it? I have also met a well-known north Wales novelist who claimed never to have visited Pembrokeshire. The south. Not Welsh enough. Non-compliance as a political act. For him there are three countries: Y Fro Cymraeg, Welsh Wales, an arc of land in the western reaches; Wales that might as well be England, including the capital and the north east and the southern coasts; and Y Fro Efallai where desire and actuality mix, where reality comes in like a short wave signal – Myddfai, Banwen, Merthyr, Pontcanna, Aber out of term time. Trefdraeth when the sun shines. Who is to say that his Wales is any better than mine? Or that mine is more real?

This book is about this country. A place where some imagine that no one has raised a sword in anger since Glyndŵr’s rebellion went down in 1409 and the Welsh were banned from ever owning anything outside their borders. A place where others know, for certain, that the real Wales is waiting, just round the political corner, and a new day will come. Minorities rise. Nation states fragment. It’s the post-modern way.

The real Wales may well be a place of people, a land of human intervention, of despoliation in the search for minerals, of pipelines and power grids, and roads that mesh the green like fishnet, but it is not an urban country. The city life of disenfranchisement, dislocation and alienation is not ours. Wales, land of communities, where decisions reach the surface through compromise and conciliation. Wales where power frightens and underdogs are prized. Wales where time slows and life is longer. Wales where the past actually is important and historians are honoured. Wales where highrise is feared and there is no navy. The real Wales is where people always talk about who they are, strive after roots, want fields rather than mansions, although generally have neither. The real Wales is the one I’ve gone looking for. Not sure I’ve found it all yet.

When I wrote Real Cardiff, back in 2002, I determined to write about the land as I saw it. No considered history nor topographical guide, no socio-economic handbook, nor fictional prose. As I observed it the world kept changing. The past slid from me. Those guarding it seemed to want to usher it away. What we were went underground to stay hidden or to be dug up by the disinterested and burned. Few seemed to care. The land also seemed to be secret. Full of self-contained, excluding epi-centres, places where you could only gain access if you had a key. The Cardiff of Geraint Jarman’s Welsh reggae, of Philip Dunleavy’s Castle, of Callaghan’s slum clearance, the Cardiff of Geoffrey Inkin’s Barrage and Bay. These innovations were making us a completely new Welsh city, a post-industrial capital for an incoming millennium, something out there was happening. It had to be tracked and written down.

Real Wales adopts the same approach for the whole country. The Real Cardiff books (volumes one and two already best sellers and a third out there in the hazy, not-yet-completed wings) spawned a series. Real Swansea. Real Merthyr. Real Newport. Real Wrexham. Real Aberystwyth. And more. Written by experts to the Real formula. Series edited by Peter Finch. The present volume is my look at my country. Didn’t know it was mine until I grew and went out there to see. There are many like me. Lights go on. We need to find out just who we really are.

I’ve used classic Real Cardiff techniques here. Visited places by accident, simply because they sounded interesting, or because I found myself nearby. Places determined by their importance to Wales. Places that had to be rediscovered. Places where things existed. Places where, apparently, they did not. I went on tour, doing poetry readings. I visited alone, with my partner, in the company of local experts, literateurs, odd balls, historians, novelists. I used old maps and new ones. I read local histories and national overviews. I travelled by car and train and on foot. Much of the distance on foot, for often there were only unpaved tracks.

I discovered a lot. The sheep are many. The rain is often. The light is brilliant. The skies can be huge. The past can be picked up because it is often so near the surface. The past can also never be found again because of what we have done to it. Broken it, built on it, lost it, thrown it away. And there is also the matter of the mysteries, that stuff of Wales which makes things happen, or seem to happen, of which I’ve found no evidence anywhere else. Kings sleeping below rocks. Blood in trees. Wonder in the grass. Future in the air.


[i] conversation between the author and some picnicking black Americans on the coast of South Carolina.

Where can you get your copy? In the shops at £9.99 pretty soon.

Friday, 10 October 2008

BayLit – Shocking Enough?

Why light up the Bay? In 1999 when the Academi first came up with the idea of a long-weekend literature festival Cardiffians were rarely in the habit of venturing further south than the main rail link. The Bay was another country. And a recently renamed one at that. Cardiff was two cities: the municipal capital standing in quiet Portland stone grandeur around Cathays Park; and then the buzzing Bay, new centre of the urban Welsh universe, full of cafes, bars, restaurants, and light. BayLit would knit the two places together. A weekend of Llên y Lli, literature of the waves, would get citizens of a literary persuasion out of the back bar of Park and into a multiplicity of venues they’d never yet visited – the Sports Café, the Norwegian Church, the Baltimore, and Techniquest.

This was a risky venture but largely its worked. Over the years new Bay venues have come on line, not least the grandest of the all, the Wales Millennium Centre and, as a solemn back up, the great slate hall at the Senedd.

Some may ask why we need literature festivals at all. Aren’t books for reading? Don’t you take them home and deal with them in private? You do. But literature is also a spectator sport, a performance art and a participatory game. Public readings by famous authors are popular. Even better attended are events where the famous spill the beans about what it is or was or will soon be.

In the 2005 BayLit queues snaked around the block to hear Howard Marks, Mr Nice, talk about a life in drugs. He’d written the biographies, made the pitch, and created the books but what he did on stage was simply to talk. And the south Wales crowd loved it.

Academi has a responsibility for the whole of Wales, of course, and Cardiff is never the central focus. BayLit alternates with an Academi-supported Festival centred on Ty Newydd, the Writer’s Centre at Lloyd George’s old house outside Criccieth. Among last year’s participants were Jon Gower, Eigra Lewis Roberts, Angharad Price, and Gwyneth Glyn.

This year, however, Academi is back by the impounded waters making literature work in Cardiff Bay.

The festival runs at the Wales Millennium Centre, at Terra Nova on Mermaid Quay, at the Glyn Jones Centre opposite the Senedd, and upstairs at Brain’s flagship, the Wharf, which faces the old East Dock on Schooner Way. Outrider events are at Borders’ spanking new bookshop in the Hayes where new books have been profiled all week. Meirion Jordan’s Moonrise, Eurig Salisbury’s Llyfr Glas Eurig, Joanna Davies’ Ffreshars. Saturday at 1.00 pm it’s the turn of the multi-talented Fflur Dafydd with her Bardsey Island black comedy, Twenty Thousand Saints.

For those who want to try their own hands at things there are three workshops. The Young people’s writing squads meet with the chaired bard Mererid Hopwood creating short films of their newly written poetry. Eurig Salisbury offers a new take on an ancient form with his cynghanedd workshop at the Glyn Jones Centre (10.00 am). In the Seligman Room at the Wales Millennium Centre Yemisi Blake delves into creative blogging at 11.00.

Upstairs at Terra Nova at 2.00 pm one of Welsh fiction’s revived strands, rural writing, gets some urban exposure. Horatio Clare, Cynan Jones, Tom Bullough and local farmer Hugh Cory join Ifor Thomas to uncover the joys of the greener life.

BayLit 2008 celebrates the Shock of the New. New ideas, new writers, new forms, new styles. If things get too edgy do we still enjoy them? Is one of literature’s main jobs to administer 5000 volts every now and then? At Terra Nova at 4.00 pm novelist and Dr Who fictioneer David Llewellyn ask us what we think. Are You Shocked Yet? Tell us please.

BayLit’s big bang is at the Wharf (8.00 pm) where one-time poetry boy band Aisle 16 present their take on motorway service stations. This bizarre poetic travelogue in the footsteps of John Betjeman features new poetry, a digital lightshow, video, and beauty created from a soulless hell. Thought the M4 couldn’t be entertainment? Think again.

Fuller details are at and tickets for most events can be purchased at the door.

The preceding piece was pitched at the Western Mail as a promotional description of what has been an essential annual literary bash near the water.

Highlights so far:

Tiffany Atkinson at the Poetry and Film event at the Point. Having got in past the drunks outside Tiffany made memorable the idea of having one of your hands that thinks it's a chicken. Even non-poetry lovers caught onto that image.

Joe Dunthorne at the Poetry & Prose made forever real the Second Life idea of avatars coming round the corner with three symbols on their chests: name, thing in life and emotional state. John Pik left with his reading John, The Ancient World, and Deaf

Ifor Thomas for spotting that all you had to do in the poetry world was to go away for a year or so to return and find things unrecognisable.

Monday, 6 October 2008

The Old Book Destock Trick

Convinced that my Institute of Welsh Affairs blog entry ( on a subject that is heating things up among academics and librarians (if not quite yet the larger reading public) could do with some personal pushing I repeat it here.

Is the decision by Cardiff Council to auction off some of its ancient and valuable book stock a harbinger of larger change to come? I think so. If the book trade hasn’t yet hit the sort of hurricane season that the world of finance has then it is only a matter of time. The digitisation of everything from bestsellers to the documents which define your personal identity are not just around the corner but actually upon us.

Recently the National Library of Wales announced its ten-year plan to digitise a large section of its holdings and to make the results instantly and universally accessible online: books, artworks, documents, letters, maps. Its previous plan to digitise entire runs of twentieth century Welsh periodicals is almost complete. This has been managed despite storms of protest from original authors. These have yet to abate.

All this poses the big question: Do we need original manuscripts when virtual ones allow the world and its uncle slick and searchable access at will?Old books, and in particular those from the dawn of print, cannot simply be put onto a shelf and called up from the stacks for any casual visitor to handle. They need to be preserved with care, viewed under controlled conditions, repaired, conserved, de-foxed, cleaned, pressed, boxed, have their rot excised and their bindings mended. All that takes money. Cardiff says it is already overstretched and simply cannot find the resource to care for the 18,000 antiquarian volumes, maps and original manuscripts it has decided put up for sale.

The yard sale it proposed has been replicated at libraries elsewhere and not just in the UK either. Libraries, once eternal guardians and repositories of our cultural heritage, can now be seen engaging in Fahrenheit 451 style stock clearances. Get rid of these dirty things. They are mere containers. Their content is that which matters.

It’s a point of view. Many don’t share it.

What troubles me is that conservation and research are developing arts. Who’s to say what the future may be able to extract from an original document actually handled by its original author. More than could be got from a digital replica that’s for sure.

Cardiff Council has since backtracked slightly and are in discussions with Cardiff University about the preservation of at least some of the Welsh-interest component of its soon to be flogged-off holdings. All will not be gone. Just a lot of it.

How much of the past should we preserve? Certainly not everything. How do we make choices? Not that Cardiff were intending to make choices. There were no proposals to digitise and thus release the original as surplus. This was shelf clearance. And it’s not that this kind of thing hasn’t happened before. Check the stacks at Bute’s once great library at Cardiff Castle. Empty. Did you spot the stock leaving? Me neither.