Did Alun Pugh leave us a legacy? In his time at the helm of Wales’ culture ministry the Clwyd West AM certainly maintained a high profile. His decision in 2005 to spend many thousands reviving the fortunes of the Welsh book trade was seen by some as clinging to the past. His centrepiece was the Library of Wales – a uniform series of inexpensive, edited reprints of Welsh classics. Editions would be uniform and would be distributed free to schools. They would concentrate exclusively on Welsh writing in English and would revive the fortunes of the lost Anglo-Welsh. The past would be shifted back into the present. Our heritage, and in particular our industrial working-class heritage would not be lost amid a welter of soft latter-day Bay-side living.
Leighton Andrews AM had been hunting in his local bookstore for a Rhondda novel by Jack Jones and was dismayed to learn that the great man had been out of print for years. How could Welsh valley communities be understood if their history and literary heritage was invisible? He argued the case in a piece for the Western Mail. Alun Pugh shared this view. A fiscal correction needed to be applied. Resource was found. Prof Dai Smith was appointed as series editor. History was back. A world was rediscovered.
Initial scepticism from some quarters soon vanished. The idea that reviving the past might reduce opportunities in the present proved to be a paper tiger. Dai Smith recruited some of our best contemporary authors to write forwards to each volume. Ron Berry, Gwyn Thomas, Lewis Jones, Alun Richards, Alun Lewis, Rhys Davies, Dorothy Edwards, Raymond Williams, Emyr Humphreys and Dannie Abse rode again. So too did some more unexpected voices. Indeed some of whom many of us had not heard: Jeremy Brooks, Howell Davies, Stuart Evans. Add to all that a pair of heavy-weight century-busting door-stop anthologies – Meic Stephens’s Poetry 1900-2000 and Gareth Williams’s Sport (a 2008 best-seller) and you have a list to be envied. It was the making of Parthian Books - a solid back list of unquestionable value with guaranteed upfront sales. People out there even began to collect them.
The latest crop continues Dai’s mix of predictable eclecticism. Another Gwyn Thomas, a Brenda Chamberlain, a not unexpected Geraint Goodwin and then, right out of left field, the wild and wilful The Caves of Alienation from Stuart Evans.
There’s a myth around that Wales never quite got its head around modernism and ended up refusing to join in. No James Joyce or Virginia Woolf or Gertrude Stein for us. We had Dylan Thomas. For many he was regarded as edgy enough. But out in the Welsh back rooms where David Jones and others lived new ways of looking at the world were in operation. Stuart Evans’s multi-faceted, many voiced approach was one. Ignored when it first appeared but justly celebrated now. The Library of Wales scores again.
A version of this blog appeared in the Western Mail on saturday 31 January, 2009