Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Green and Green

I’m at the bottom end of Brecknockshire set for one of the longest drives Wales has. I’ll cross Brecon, enter Radnor, cross Montgomery and end in the south of Denbighshire. I’m travelling from one side to the other of Powys, the giant county created in a fit of local government reorganisation in 1974. This is the paradise of Powys, the ancient kingdom, the land of Cynddylan, Rhodri the Great and Maredudd ab Owain ab Edwin. It’s been restored.

Powys might be the largest of Welsh regions but it is also the least populated. You can drive miles through intensely green upland without seeing a soul. There are places here where you can stand on hilltops and as far as can be seen spot no evidence of human intervention. The Green Desert, the late Harri Webb called it. He published a book of the same name in 1969. The concept only really hits home when you drive through it. All is hawthorn, ash, scrub oak, pasture, Sitka spruce reforestation. A glowing, constant green – evidence of ancientness, non-intervention, and constant rain.

Webb’s poetry was accessible, historical, humorous, and often highly political. He sang, he rhymed, he amused. The nearest writer we have to him today is the outspoken and entertaining Mike Jenkins. Neither poet actually spent much time in the Powys desert. Why would they? There’s nothing here.

I exaggerate, naturally. There’s Newtown and Brecon and Builth and the great Powys capital, Llandrindod Wells. A place of smelly water and middle class, where business meetings involving participants from both the north and the south are always held. The geographic centre of Wales. Equal misery - to get there everyone has to travel.

So why am I making the great green drive? So that I can write the introduction to Mike Parker’s next book, Real Powys. The Real books have hitherto concentrated on conurbations, built-up environments, big towns, cities, streets, places where industry has changed the landscape, places where people live. Cardiff, Llanelli, Merthyr, Aberystwyth, Swansea, Wrexham, Liverpool, Newport. In the pipeline are Bangor, Pembroke, more Swansea and Cardiff once again. But that still leaves great slices of Wales unrealised. Most of the country, in fact. Getting the Welsh compiler of the Rough Guide to have a crack at it was an obvious move.

Parker spent a time on television travelling around Wales’s B-roads in a camper van. He’s a map fanatic, author of the excellent Map Addict, a sort of history of the object mixed with his own often hilarious involvement. As an immigrant he’s written perceptively about the native Welsh. His latest, The Wild Rover, covers the chequered and turbulent history of the British footpath. That’s due from Collins next month. Real Powys will come from Seren next year. Expect green on the cover.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #191

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Bigger Than The Beatles

Come Together sang the Beatles in 1969 and we’ve been trying hard ever since. There are some great joinings out there. S4C and the BBC, Egypt and Libya, Spain and Gibraltar, Concord and Concorde, fish and chips, the Tories and the Liberals, Bradford & Bingley and Santander. John Lennon when he wrote that song from Abbey Road had in mind acid guru Timothy Leary’s Come Together campaign to oust Ronald Regan as governor of California. Lennon wanted revolution but Leary lost.

Back in Wales we have our own versions of togetherness. Plaid and Labour, Gwynedd and Anglesey, the Dylan Thomas Prize and the University of Wales, Swansea and Neath (now almost one city), Cardiff and Newport, still ten miles apart but from the Welcome to Newport signs on the road leading east from St Melons you wouldn’t know. It’s a Welsh thing, I suppose, because when you are small, as most things are in this country, then joining with someone else will make you bigger. The bigger the better. In a place where small has been beautiful for a lifetime that’s a revolution in itself.

The coming together of Ty Newydd, Wales’ National gem of a centre for writers and Academi, the literature promotion agency is something that’s been in the back of administrator’s minds for at least a decade. If the aim is to provide both consumers and creators of writing with a country in which to flourish then administrative slickness, financial security, and strategic clout become desirable options.

From April this year these two vital organisations will join together to become Literature Wales. In simplistic terms this means one web site, one ticketing agency, one place to call for literary excitement, access and advice.

Strategically this will ensure that that literature in Wales will now benefit from a truly national and rival-free delivery. From well-funded festivals in places where they’ve previously not been. From a commercially sponsored and completely restructured Wales Book of the Year. From free student and young people’s membership to Wales’s august Society of Writers. From a campaign to bring writers, reading and writing into the heart of communities that have previously felt themselves denied, disparaged or ignored. From a truly unified striding of Welsh writers on the international stage and a bringing to Wales of the writers of the world. To a knitting together of the loose threads of our culture, making theatre talk to poetry, linking health care to literature and putting our writers and their work in public places from the Cardiff Bay Barrage to the lighthouses off Anglesey.

Literature Wales, with the able support of the Arts Council, will put our literatures right where they need to be, make them enviable, accessible and enjoyable. Best of all Literature Wales will make them glow.

An earelier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #190

Saturday, 19 March 2011

How Cities Compare

The rivalries of cities are eternal. Cardiff vs. Newport. Cardiff vs. Swansea. Cardiff vs. the rest of Wales come to that. We know how these things work even if we don’t fully understand them. Drive east out of Cardiff and the signs welcoming you to Wales’s first city, Newport, begin almost immediately. Cardiff might have a high rising centre but Swansea has Wales’s tallest building, biggest book prize and the best library in the country.

In Newport they have the best pubs, in Cardiff it’s the shops, and in Swansea the beach, the sea, the pace of life. In Cardiff, as capital, things naturally cluster. Government, media, finance, culture, clubs. This is a product of economics and happens the whole world over. Not that this stops the complaints. Why is the Assembly in Cardiff and not in Pontyclun? The Stadium should have been built in Bridgend, the Millennium Centre in Bangor and the National Museum in Wrexham. The BBC would be far better off in Aberaeron. And Glamorgan Cricket’s SWALEC Stadium should certainly have been constructed in Llandod. These are not inventions, I’ve heard these things said.

Not that this is anything new. At the end of the nineteenth century, and despite the British Empire being at its height, Wales went through a brief patch of nation building. We would have both a National Library and a National Museum. In 1905 the Privy Council allocated the money and a bitter war broke out between Cardiff, Wales’ largest conurbation, and Aberystwyth, the country’s geographic centre and the Welshest place on earth. Aber already had books, but so too did Cardiff. Local worthies jostled, papers were written, meetings were held. Eventually a compromise was reached with the National Library going to Aber and the Museum being established in Cardiff.

Aberystwyth got the book collection of physician Sir John Williams and two of the great books of Wales: The Black Book of Carmarthen and The White Book of Rhydderch. But The Book of Aneurin, the prize, the work that contained the earliest known example of Welsh poetry, The Gododdin, the tale of the great battle against the Saxons at Catraeth, that went to Cardiff.

That would have been an end of it, too, if it hadn’t been for Local Government reorganisation and the recent abandonment of specialist archival services in the Capital. In a fit of unexpected co-operation the decision was taken to permanently loan The Book of Aneurin to Aberystwyth. In exchange Cardiff would get a pair of facsimiles, expertly produced by the National Library’s rare books department.

Who wins? Everyone. All we need now is for The Red Book of Hergest to be repatriated from its imprisonment in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and Wales will once more have the set.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #189

Friday, 11 March 2011

Lit Fest No Mud

Literature festivals have always fascinated me. Not so much what they present but how they work. How is it, I wonder, that you can put on a middle-ranking novelist at a decent venue mid-week in a city and draw a crowd of twenty or so. At a festival hundreds will show up.

There’s a marketing parallel here. The best place to open a new shoe shop is, of course, right next to an existing one. The two of you become a cluster and attract those in need of choice. Sales increase. Both enterprises benefit. So too, it seems, with literature.

A heavy weekend of thirty or more events will draw larger crowds than the same sort of thing put on weekly on Tuesday nights. Festival goers don’t come for the literature either. Well, of course, they do, but it isn’t the hard-core stuff that pulls them in. They don’t want fictioneers reading chapters out of their latest books or poets declaiming from the lectern and then sitting down. Rather they want discussion, controversy, argument, debate, and most of all glimpses of fame. They want to nudge up near Philip Pullman as he queues at the ice cream stall. They want to bump into Rowan Williams in the bookshop. See Stephen Fry being interviewed live standing outside a tent.

Most of all they want to see those who whose main business may not be actually writing but in the process of getting through their complicated lives have actually published a book. Ghost written, self-written, compiled with the help of another, who cares. Fame glitters. It drives the book world on.

The Hay Literature Festival (26th May to 5th June) are experts at this. Not only can they be relied upon to provide one of the greatest literary shows on earth but they also excel at the fame game. Visit Hay where this year you’ll rub shoulders with, among a hundred others, Jo Brand, Sarah Brown, Nobel Peace Laureate and weapons inspector Mohamed El Baradei, Howard Jacobson, Paul Merton, Philip Pullman, Vanessa Redgrave, Sue Perkins, Sandi Toksvig, and legendary film-maker John Waters.

Running concurrently and in the centre of Hay itself is the annual Poetry Jamboree, a left-field alternative poetries smorgasbord of sonic improvisation, projective verse and alternative approaches. This year’s programme includes Alan Fisher, Sean Bonney, Kelvin Corcoran, Carol Watts, Tiffany Atkinson, Frances Presley, Gavin Selerie, Paul Green, Angela Gardner, Rhys Trimble, Glenn Storhaug, David Annwn, Robert Sheppard, Zoe Skoulding.

John Williams, Richard James and Richard Thomas’s lit and music Laugharne Festival runs over the long weekend of 15th to 17th April. Here post punk, alt folk and Welsh acoustic mix with presentations of cult fiction, new verse and the buzz of music culture as book. Check the web for details.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #188

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Books As A Sideline

Once was that at this time of the year Wales’s leading publishers would face each other down with their plans for the future. There would be a trembling in the trade. The plans would always be kept secret. No one knew, sometimes even the publishers themselves, just what would appear and when. Wales was a land of printers who, as a sideline, did a bit of publishing when the machines were quiet.

No more. Modern marketing and the need to be seen or die has laid waste to all that. Yet our two Welsh leaders in the field of English literary publishing – Parthian and Seren – have been remarkably slow to get onto the digital bandwagon. Last year there were a couple of e-book editions of the Library of Wales, nothing for the Kindle and certainly no vooks (digital texts which contain additional movie and sound content rather like the CD ROMs of old).

This year, however, all is set to change. Both publishers have announced digital programmes and it could be that the Kindle and the iPad will be the must-haves for the literate Welsh for the decade ahead.

Parthian’s spring list is headed by the irrepressible Niall Griffiths. This time he’s a Ten Pound Pom with his revisit to Australia, a place that took him as an immigrant thirty-five years ago. Cynan Jones who gave us The Long Dry a while back and has had fans waiting with bates in their breath for the follow up publishes Everything I found on the Beach, a drug-fuelled thriller set in west Wales. The Library of Wales has hooked Philip Pullman to introduce the previously unheard of Stead Jones’ Make Room for the Jester, a north Wales-set coming of age. Expect to see Pullman debate the work with Dai Smith at this year’s Hay Festival. Parthian bestsellers Stevie Davies and Glen Peters get mass market relaunches.

At Seren there’s more. Nia Williams’s The Colour of Grass is a cracking new novel about families falling apart. Tony Curtis appears with his take on the far west, Real South Pembrokeshire - visitors, artists, gold courses and ancient stones all get a touch of Curtis wit. Patrick McGuiness, poet and academic delivers The Last 100 Days, a tale of Ceaucescu’s fall and Romania’s survival.

Befitting a publishers that began as the imprint of the magazine Poetry Wales Seren also line up some spanking new verse - Ellie Evans’s The Ivy Hides the Fig-Ripe Duchess and Robert Seatter’s Writing King Kong join Nerys Hughes’s tilt at the new, Sound Archives.

There are the excepted art books – a Seren speciality – with works on Jonah Jones and painter Evan Walters. The high spot might well be the press’s Bob Dylan at 70 celebration. Here seventy poets present seventy poems tracking the all-pervading twentieth century influence of his Bobness. The Captain’s Tower: Poems for Bob Dylan at 70. Buy soon.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #187