Saturday, 27 March 2010

Shoes Full of Mud

You are in a field in the rain listening to a band whose name you can’t remember. You get back to your tent and find it’s been stolen. There’s no water and the queues for the toilets stretch half a mile. Your shoes are full of mud. But the music is great and when the sun shines this is the best place to be anywhere in the world. Get ready. The festival season will be on us again any day soon.

Literature festivals, of which there seem to be an endless number in green green Wales, are not quite the same as ones for music. But there can be similarities. Sell-out performances by writers who you’ve only ever seen on television. Readings by media stars who you didn’t know could write. Visits by politicians keen to let the stardust settle on their sleeves. Rain. Overpriced ice-cream. Endless opportunities for wannabees and the prospect of meeting just about everybody and anybody on the literary scene.

The Urdd Eisteddfod, the Welsh-medium young people’s bash, visits Llanerchaeron in deep Ceredigion at the start of June. There’ll be music, literary contest and, amazingly for a children’s show, a beer tent. The Guardian Hay Fest Director Peter Florence’s granddaddy of all literary shows runs more or less at the same time. This festival’s inexorable rise to world domination has now reached truly American proportions.

At Hay you can witness the world passing by your window. Bill Clinton, Salman Rushdie, John Updike. This year there’ll be readings and talks from Bill Bryson, Roddy Doyle, Tom Stoppard, Booker prize-winner Hilary Mantel and music from Christy Moore. Hay is a dream – an almost perfect mix of affordable lit presented in a civilised and consumer-friendly fashion. And there’s so much of it, literarily hundreds of events fill the 10-day programme.

So successful has been the festival that the brand is replicated across the world. Segovia, Alhambra, the Maldives, Nairobi, Zacatecas and Oxford all now host Peter Florence directed events.

On a far more local and encompassable scale is John Williams and Richard Thomas’s Laugharne Weekend. The show is held in the pubs, bars, hotels, millennium halls and other spaces around Dylan Thomas’s Laugharne during the first week of April each year. Events mix cult fiction with hard-edged poetry, indie bands with alt folk and alt country with Welsh rock. Musos and writers stand next to each other in the small town’s bars. For 2010 expect to see and hear Roddy Doyle, Bill Drummond, Stuart Maconie, Nicky Wire, Martin Carthy, Niall Griffiths, Trembling Bells, David Quantick, Howard Marks, Mark Olson, Jane Bussman, Rachel Trezise, Alasdair Roberts, Trezza Azzopardi, Twin Town, Richard James, Helen Griffin, Nick Kent, Clinton Heylin, and Rupert Thomson. More to come says the Laugharne web site. Watch that space.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 27th March, 2010

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Aberystwyth Like The Bronx

Tom Anderson looks to the future
(photo P Finch)

Out west recently the writers gathered to discuss what was new. The west was chosen because things would be slower there. Time would not be like it is in the rest of the world. Come and stay with us in the slow far west, ran the Academi’s advertising spin. There was an immediate response by e-mail. “In what way is the Gwaun Valley slow”, someone asked? Well, slower than Swansea, anyway. Studies into the speed people walk down the street have shown that while they gallop in London they merely briskly stride in Cardiff. In Swansea they amble. And it’s all slower again in Carmarthen. Is time the same the world? No it’s not.

So what was new? In the early decades of the twentieth century Ezra Pound wanted everything to be so. New world, new poetry, new reading, new understanding. And the modernists did just what he said. This gave us Joyce and Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett. Gave us continuous present, gave us stream of consciousness, gave us collage and indeterminacy and plots that spun like dervishes. We’ve overdosed ever since, establishing whole cultures based on the idea of perpetual revolution. Can it go on?

The Gwaun Valley New Narratives gathering was unsure. Certainly there were new methods of delivery out there – e-readers, hand-helds, text message fiction, novels that were printed to the customer’s order, stuff that only ever existed on the web. There were also huge new audiences. More books being read in Wales today than at any time in its previous history.

There were also new ventures – Holly Hewitt and Deborah Kay Davies’ ultra short sudden fiction. Niall Griffiths and Malcolm Pryce’s reimagining of place - in their case Aberystwyth. The thing I love about Aberystwyth are the headlines in the Cambrian News, Niall told us. “Padlock Stolen From Local Car Park. Aberystwyth Like The Bronx”. Tom Anderson’s travel writing that blended fact with fiction as it followed the paths of rolling anticyclones during America’s hurricane season. Joe Dunthorne with a fiction that barely hung around for five minutes in novel form before it was turned into film.

But did the writers actually engage with the genuinely new? And did they, or indeed their audiences, actually need it? The answer was probably no.

It could be that literature’s next step will not be one out into a wide blue yonder of morphing style and fractured multi-media. It won’t baffle or enrage. We’ve done more than a hundred years of that. Instead it might just concentrate on starting and then finishing, on gaining an audience and keeping it, on selling itself in a massively overcrowded market. Books have a future. Although in what form nobody is quite sure.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 20th March, 2010

Saturday, 13 March 2010

The World As A Big Place

Do we Welsh shine, out there on the world stage? We like to think we do. We have the history and the confidence. We’ve got two languages, a former world coal trade everyone remembers us for and a load of desirable mountains. They love us in California, in Cracow, in Calcutta, in Minsk.

But do they? Ask abroad what they know of our spanner-end shaped country and they’ll say Ryan Giggs then scratch their heads. After a while, if you are talking to an older person, they might say Dylan T, and then they’ll smile and tell you that they were so sorry to have heard about the death of our beautiful princess.

Ah, but what about Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones? Haven’t their names gone round the planet? Certainly. But as singers rather than Welsh ex-pats. And it’s only in the last decade that Shirl has started wearing a dress made from the Draig Goch.

R.S. Thomas, when he lived, was nominated for the Nobel Prize. Didn’t get it but was thought worthy. The world respected what he’d done. How many of our writers today are known well, even in England, never mind about further afield? Check off the list: Menna Elfyn, Owen Sheers, Gillian Clarke, Ken Follett, Sarah Waters, Gwyneth Lewis. Robert Minhinnick. John Williams. Niall Griffiths. Head scratching starts in earnest after that.

Why is this? Is our literature somehow less than perfect? Do we fail to hack it in the battle for world domination. Are the south Americans and the Turks ahead of us in the world literary order? It’s quite probable that they are. But that’s not through lack of talent. It’s the problem of identity that’s not working for Wales here. Ireland’s a nation. The Americans know that. So, too, is Scotland. The kilts sway among the pipe bands that march through New York. But Wales. What is that place? They don’t know. We don’t make enough noise.

Welsh literature is producing some of the best of world writing in the new twenty-first century. The novelists have never been so many and so active. The poets swarm. It’s as if we’ve been keeping all this creativity dry for decades and now decided to set the lot alight.

During the past year Jan Morris, Jon Gower, Philip Gross, Owen Sheers, Russell Celyn Jones, Gillian Clarke, Gwyneth Lewis, Malcolm Pryce, John Williams, Emyr Humphreys, Horatio Clare, Rhys Thomas, Byron Rogers and a dozen others have published humdingers. Get to your library and take them out. Catch up, know who we are. Buy at Waterstone’s or your local bookseller. Buying keeps the book world alive. Buying works from Wales keeps our identity flying.

Anyone in there you think we should nominate for a future Nobel? If you think there is then please let me know.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 13th March, 2010

Monday, 8 March 2010

The World As A Sea To Be Crossed

During his decade as Poet Laureate Andrew Motion was considerably more an activist than the man he followed, the late Ted Hughes. Where Hughes glowered darkly Motion sparked and shone. When Hughes stayed home Motion went out. He made it his business to engage with football terrace chanters, school-age beginners and the poetry world’s firmament of rising stars. Some writers seem to do this. They cause sparks and make them shower. Ezra Pound was a good example. Always full of energy for the art form in which he operated. Boosting T S Eliot, teaching Hemingway to box, promoting Basil Bunting. So too the late Bob Cobbing, a man who spent a lifetime pushing poetry into places that it otherwise would never have gone.

Some writers write and see the world as a sea to be crossed. Others have team spirit, see literature as a broad church and books as something for us all. In Wales you’ll recognise the names. The ones who run classes and share their talent. Gillian Clarke, Robert Minhinnick. The writers who front magazines and try to be inclusive: ZoĆ« Skoulding, Kathryn Gray and in their day John Barnie, Mike Jenkins, JP Ward and the venerable Meic Stephens. The author-publishers who want others to follow the paths they have trodden – Alan Llwyd, Nigel Jenkins, Jan Fortune-Wood, Sally Roberts Jones.

The trick is knowing how to divide the time you have. How much for yourself and how much for the promotion of others.

Mab Jones (not her real name, well the Mab bit anyway) is one of the funniest women on the poetry stage. Funny enough to do the comedy circuit, a thing she’s done to great acclaim. Getting poetry to work with audiences who think the form to be an arcane hangover from school is no easy thing. You’d think the creation of her side-splittingly rhythmic verse would be enough to keep her fully occupied. Not a bit of it.

With Ivy Alvarez she co-manages the Poetry on Tap programme of monthly Sundays in Cardiff. In addition she has been running a series of what she calls “lady friendly erotic writing workshops”. These are held at Cardiff’s leading “family-run adult shop” Passion. Add to that her Jam Bones set which promote spoken lit, music and slam poetry at places like the Mackintosh Sports Club and the Promised Land in Dumfries Place and you’ve got a pretty full poetry life.

Her new venture is The Lit List, a free monthly little mag of poetry, comment and literature event listings for the capital. The publication’s print run of 1500 copies outnumbers potential audiences by a factor of at least five to one. The future, then, is a big one. Send information to and ask for your free copy.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 6th March, 2010

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

What Have You Read Since School?

A pretty high percentage of Wales’s population can claim, hands on hearts, that they haven’t picked up a book since they left school. Despite this unenviable fact literature turns out to be one of our great industries. Well, parts of it are. In particular the Dylan Thomas part. As large as the wall of China. The only part of our culture visible from space.

Travel the world, say you are from Wales, and they’ll talk about our Princess, mention Ryan Giggs and then after a bit of face pulling say that magic name: Dylan Thomas. Rarely a season passes without some new rumour circulating (Dylan was Russian spy, Dylan’s drinking was exaggerated, Dylan was related to Napoleon Bonaparte), some new study appearing or a new production created of the master’s works. Under Milk Wood on Ice. A Child’s Christmas on Mars.

Swansea, capital of the West (and the east too, if it had its way), has not been slow to climb on the bandwagon. There are prizes, walking trails and exhibitions all in honour of the city’s greatest son. There is also that legacy of the 1996 Year of Literature: The Dylan Thomas Centre.

Here amid the weddings, council functions, meals out and Blood Donor sessions runs a series of genuine and consistent achievement. Dave Woolley’s Literature Programme. For more than a decade now the Plymouth poet has brought to Swansea the innovative and the significant, mixing local with international and pushing out at the boundaries of just what writing actually is.

Everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Nigel Jenkins and Alison Bielski to Carol Ann Duffy has read here. The spring programme brims. Stevie Davies launches her excellent new novel Into Suez. Carol Rumens is in the bookshop. Fluellen Theatre present Brecht’s Scenes of Fear. The amazing Childe Roland performs the legendary Ham & Jam. The prize-winning poet and Saussurean sausage maker John Goodby does Wine Night White and Michael Kelligan’s season of script in hand performances On The Edge steers itself into women only territory with Don’t Breathe a Word from Susan Richardson. In the Bookshop Dublin poet Maurice Scully starts Humming.

If the events aren’t enough the Centre also runs an engaging series of literary-themed exhibitions. This spring these include the dynamic Merthyr duo Gus Payne (paint) and Mike Jenkins (type) exploring social consciousness, democracy and the powers that make big decisions on our behalf. There are also Lyndon Mably’s drawings made with molten iron and David Greenslade and the late Will Brown’s The Dark Fairground collaboration.

This is a local authority programme (with some financial aid from Academi) and a model for how local government art provision should be. Swansea deserves its accolades. In a recession it represents just the spiritual uplift and cultural thrust that all of us need. Keep on Dylan T.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 27th February, 2010