Monday, 16 February 2009


And they shall all have prizes might no longer be society’s great plan. There are signs out there that everyone might not be equal to everyone else, at least not everytime anyway. We’ve had a couple of decades now where ability and personal achievement have been in retreat. Actually getting somewhere in the world has been regarded as, well, vaguely dishonest and certainly unfair.

Among the writers this has led to a slew of vast and seemingly never ending digital magazines where the poems slide about in their weakness like dead sardines. New books have fallen off the presses much in the style of the collapsing rocks along the Glamorgan Heritage Coast. Indiscriminately, in great impenetrable piles. At least, here on the inside, it has sometimes felt like this. I’m exaggerating, of course. But only slightly.

Real achievement, the ability to write and to do that well, has been regarded with suspicion in some quarters. At school the whole class get their work on the wall. The badge-winning Guides and Scouts have been banned. The non-competitive Woodcraft Folk have come to the fore.

But things are shifting. In Wales the Writing Squads movement has seen healthy growth over the past few years. Squads are groups of youngsters in a single geographic area who meet together four times a year in the company of a famous writer. For one term it will be Robert Minhinnick, learning about non-fiction, the next it will be with Gillian Clarke, learning how to craft a national poem.

Meetings occur off school premises, often in Libraries or community centres, and always out of school time. Participants, who start at around eight years old and often stay the course until they are eighteen, attend because they want to. That’s the first essential qualification. The second is that they have to be good.

In some sense squads are like county level sports teams. You get to join if you have ability. You can’t simply sign up. Traditionally, amateur writers have thought this kind of thing totally unfair. Down the years I have encountered many who write their first poem and having written it imagine that they are now ready for a whole book. Rather like men who buy a play-in-a-day guide to the violin at the start of the week and by the end have sent in their applications to join the LSO.

Squads nurture real talent. They are where the Welsh literary future lies. Academi has recently been given a Beacon Award in order to increase their number and to encourage activity. Currently, there are active Young People’s Writing Squads in Anglesey, Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Cardiff, Ceredigion, Denbigh, Gwynedd, Merthyr Tydfil, Monmouthshire, Newport, Pembrokeshire, Powys, Swansea, Torfaen and Vale of Glamorgan Expect more elsewhere in Wales soon..

An earlier version of this post appeared at The Insider in the Western Mail.

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