I’m drinking tea. Around me is a disparate crowd of writers, artists, students, accountants, gardeners and housepersons. We are listening to a performance of Tracing Flight, the output of a local writers group presented by actors from the College of Music and Drama. The small crowd applaud enthusiastically. This is at the brand new Waterloo Gardens Teahouse, a stylish outpost of calm in Cardiff east. Next door is a hairdressers, the other side a sub-Post Office. Opposite are the gardens, home of dog walkers, smokers, sitters, kids on tricycles, old ladies with bags, men reading newspapers, and the occasional disaffected youth. South Wales suburbia. You can put on literature and get it to work where you like, it seems.
In the days of Ray Handy and Harri Webb poetry became synonymous with pints. You heard it chanted in pubs, between beers, surrounded by cigarette smoke and veneration. Today in Cardiff there are regular performances at Chapter Arts Centre and at the WMC. In Swansea they tend to happen at the purpose-built Dylan Thomas Centre – a home for literature in Wales’s second city. Bookshop, theatre, cafe, a regular literary programme put on in a set of dedicated performance spaces.
The Dylan Thomas Centre is a legacy of the 1995 UK Year of Literature, a status Swansea won against absolutely no competition at all from any other Welsh conurbation. The position was offered to Cardiff but the capital turned up its philistine nose. Dylan won again and with surprisingly successful and long-lived results.
Can we really put lit on anywhere? One-time media darling, Fiona Pitt-Kethley, editor of the much sought after Literary Companion to Sex, read her stuff to rush hour crowds arriving at Waterloo Station in London. Her publisher sold copies of her book hand to hand from a crate. They got rid of hundreds.
I’ve seen Peter Stead talking about his books in a cinema with a giant back-drop projection of his face in close-up on the screen behind. The Academi mounted a poetry stomp in the centre of Caernarfon Castle where the Investiture plaque had been swathed in bubble-wrap to protect it against anarchists. There have been literary performances in the lounges of cross channel ferries and standing on the decks of light ships and Campbell steamers. In poetry anything is possible.
But it’s also true that dedicated spaces are best. Such centres exist in Dublin, in London and in Edinburgh. But not in Cardiff. For the capital we add literature on, squeeze it between plays at the Sherman, perform it in the foyer of the Millennium Centre, listen to it at the Norwegian Church. Maybe users should start agitating. When they move the Vulcan to St Fagans, if they do, how about building a Literature Centre on the vacant site?
A stop press here: Vulcan saved for three more years. New lease signed by Liz the Landlady. A victory which for a while looked as if it just wouldn't come.
A version of the above appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday, 13th June, 2009.