Thursday, 25 August 2011

Making A Lot Of Noise

The Formation of Literature Wales

How do you merge three organisations? Two up for total merger and with the third to be semi -detached? Do you bang heads, bribe, threaten, cajole, insist, plead, persevere, finally agree, or bury your head in the sand? All of those, as it turns out. Although maybe not the last one. We have reputations to uphold.

The Arts Council of Wales (ACW) in its Investment Review wisdom came to the conclusion that its arrangements for the funding of literature were, to quote the document, untidy. Its major client, the national player, Academi, literature promotion agency par excellence, deliverer of schemes and activity the length and breadth of the country, needed to be formally tied-in with ACW’s other literary clients: Tŷ Newydd, the writers centre in Gwynedd; Welsh Literature Exchange, the international provider. Neither of those two descriptors are quite accurate, either. Tŷ Newydd is more than just a centre for writers. Welsh Literature Exchange engages in a plethora of activity beyond simple provision.

When I thought about it untidy was a difficult word to precisely understand. ACW’s Investment Review’s recommendations did little to clarify. Take the lead, Academi, ACW officers instructed me. The train is leaving the station and literature needs to be on it, said Chairman Dai Smith. Press ahead, instructed ACW chief Nick Capaldi. But against a background of rumour and bureaucratic fog not easy. It took ACW a full six months to get round to formally instructing its clients to merge. Academi was given the task of leading on the creation of the new organisation. I would become Chief Executive. There would be a new apparatus of governance. Loose ends would be tied together. Literature in Wales would become whole. Providers, producers and public would be wrapped in literary joy and the sky would become full of cultural sparks. That was certainly a future worth having.

Significantly the Hay Festival was to be excluded from the new arrangements. Given its substantial increase in funding for 2011-2012 (from £40K to more than £100K) it is hard to see why. But that elephantine anomaly is for others to argue about . And given a fair wind and a deal of co-operation there may end up being nothing to argue about at all.

In the late 1990s when Academi, the Literature Promoter, was created out a reformed Welsh Academy/Yr Academi Gymreig, the society for writers, its trading name was chosen because it could shape shift. Academi. Easy to say. A word with resonance in two languages. Comes early in any listing. Precise meaning depends on where you stand. The Welsh Academy trading as Academi. Yr Academi Gymreig dan yr un faner. At an early giving of evidence to the Assembly’s Culture Committee then AM Cynog Dafis had it in one. Great work Academi, he said, but your name is dreadful. No one knows what it means.

I considered this. He might be right. It took more than a decade for the opportunity to arise but ACW’s Investment Review provided it. Academi put it in its business plan. All arts orgs have these now, this is a professional twenty-first century world. Academi would rebrand. We would become Literature Wales. Llenyddiaeth Cymru. Says what we do. Easy to understand.

In the event the whole deal has turned out to be considerably more than a simple name change. A new and much larger organisation has emerged. Literature Wales, a true literature development agency with national status and support to match. The Welsh Academy and Tŷ Newydd inside, Welsh Literature Exchange at arm’s length.

But What Does It Do?

Writers write, don’t they? And readers read. Do they really need support? They do. Were support to be withdrawn in a bi-lingual country such as ours then literature as we know it would all but collapse. Without aid there’d be scant Welsh-medium publishing, no school author visits, few festivals or readings or courses or workshops or prizes, little book razzmatazz, negligible writing in prisons, no work with the health service, no literary engagement with the disadvantaged nor the deprived. There would be very little opportunity. For anyone. Welsh cultural life would fade. The situation for Welsh writing in English, pretty invisible at the best of times, would be worse. It would be totally compromised by the noise coming from over the border. Wales would vanish. We would be depleted. Totally. When we read, if we read at all, then it would be about America or England. Marvellous, say a small minority but I don’t think the rest of us would agree.

The Academi, ever since I was appointed to lead it in 1997, has pressed for the professionalization of writers. Big in the world, with opportunity before them, paid appropriately, and delivering the goods. Amateurs in Wales have a very real place but they need something against which to be measured. This need to make our authors professional continues to be at the centre of Literature Wales. Rates may not have gone up much in a decade but opportunity and perception certainly have. Those among us who get by on income derived from their skill with words – Gwyneth Lewis, Owen Sheers, Menna Elfyn, Nigel Jenkins, Robert Minhinnick, and Gillian Clarke among them – struggled in the nineties. I’m sure that they still struggle today. No Rolls Royces. No pension schemes. Hard, still, to get from one month to the next. But better than it once was.

Literature Wales will put writers into schools, run competitions for fiction, verse and the art of poetry performance, offer bursaries for authors to take time out from other employment in order to write; manage festivals; organise tours; run courses for writers at the truly splendid former Lloyd George mansion of Tŷ Newydd in Gwynedd; in co-operation with partners across Wales take literature to places it rarely visits. It will work with the Health Service, local authorities, the Prison Service, and social services to increase the number of ways in which literature can help our society, heal it, remove its conflicts and its devastations.

How Did We Get Here From There?

The answer depends on precisely where there was. For me it was a 1997 conversation in a quiet corner of the Friary-sited Oriel Bookshop. It was owned at that time by The Stationery Office, a group of venture capitalist backed operators who were later to abandon the shop’s Welsh-cultural content and then close it as a loss maker. Twenty years of culture build down the pan. I was the manager. The conversation was with John Pikoulis who, with the backing of M Wynn Thomas, Gerwyn Wiliam, John Osmond, Ned Thomas and Harri Pritchard Jones, wanted to save the threatened Welsh Academy by bidding for the Arts Council franchise to run a new literature promotion agency . Would I like to front it? Too right I would. In the face of at least 14 other credible bids we won.

What I discovered inside the run-down, carpetless Mount Stuart Square offices was not One Wales. Far from it. The Welsh and English sections of the august Society for Writers (founded 1959) might have shared a kettle but that was pretty much all. They ran unconnected phone systems, had separate financial accounts, used different banks, kept different hours, and sat on unmatching chairs in separate offices. Even their computers did not communicate – Macs on one side, PCs on the other. No internet. The internet then was just being born.

Down the road at Crickhowell House the brand new Welsh Assembly was getting into gear. Companies across the country were rebranding themselves with Wales in mind. Dragon Cabs, Dragon Security, Dragon Couriers, Dragon Rescue, Dragon Pies. Shirley Bassey was ironing her red dragon dress. Make Wales one. Show it as it is. End the divisions, linguistic, social, economic, and cultural. That’s what the new Academi would do. Bring our literature together in one place and make it swing.

What do you think I should do first, I asked John Osmond, IWA director, and at that time an Academi Board member. Make a lot of noise, he replied. I’ve done my best.

Where Are The Enemies?

Not everyone loves you, even with something as all-embracing and ultimately satisfying as literature. There are writers out there who are forever uncovering conspiracies to keep them away from success. There are those who, in the face of uncontroversial evidence to the contrary, still insist that they’ve been ignored. Those who cannot understand that where more people live there is often a greater occurrence of activity. Those who think that despite us pouring hundreds of pounds into their literary activities that at bottom we really doubt their talent. Those who imagine others are stealing their plot ideas and masquerading them as their own. And those who somehow just don’t like what we do because, perhaps, it is us that’s doing it and not them. It’s an unfair world. Although I have spent these past thirteen or so years desperately trying to iron out the bumps.

Perhaps the biggest problem is not the writers nor their audience but the bureaucracy that surrounds them. We live in a world obsessed with the collection of data. Of action plans, compacts, targets, visions, memos of understanding and tabulated projections. In my time behind the wheel I’ve seen, year on year, that vociferous data monster grow and grow.

I estimate a tenfold increase in ten years. For arts administrators the coalface moves ever further back. File your returns quarterly rather than annually. Provide attendance data on increasingly obscure population demographics. Demonstrate adherence to regulation. Prove that you have policies on everything including policies themselves. As I write the Assembly Government has told its ASPBs to reduce their running costs by 12% over three years. Do more for less. In response it seems as if the burden is merely being passed down the line. Forget the quality of the activity and what it does. Instead tell us the ages of all those in the audience, how far they have travelled, the WIMD analysis results for their postcode, if they used public transport, how many were vegetarians and how many of them wore a dress. I’m inventing some of this but you get the general idea.

Funding bodies should believe more in their clients and allow them to take risks. Regulate them less and trust them to deliver. Let them spend more on arts and less on filing. When I suggested this at a conference a few years ago everyone applauded. But that was then and to date, despite decreasing financial waistlines, little has changed.

What Next?

Set things on fire. What Literature Wales isn’t going to do is merely continue the existing programmes of Tŷ Newydd and Academi with a new logo on top and some economies of scale underneath. It will do that, of course, but there will a whole lot more.

What makes up Wales is its separate parts. What Literature Wales is now going to do is join them together. Writers are intimately connected with the places they occupy and the places they originally came from. Expect to see cross media literary ventures that wrap writers and readers together in co-operation with our heritage infrastructure: CADW, The National Trust, The National Museum, the National Parks, and that often overlooked resource, the Church in Wales. Work with young people will increase. They are the future. There’ll be more festivals, peripatetic ones, roaming the country to reach places we never knew we had. Expect to see a lot more glitter as writers the non-literary world recognises appear at venues not known for their cultural values. There will be endless opportunity to take part, as amateur writer, as newcomer, as interested party, as someone who simply wants to have a go, didn’t know they did but now they are in action turning out verses find that it’s uplifting, fulfilling, and fun. And where you don’t expect to encounter writing – hospitals, sports grounds, train stations, supermarkets – take note because soon you will. Internationally expect Rio to come here and for there to again be a Welsh feel to LA. Wales will make its mark.

me – I’ve now been with my head in administrative bucket for rather too long. When I joined the Academi as Chief Executive in 1998 I had this vague idea that after five years of changing the landscape I might reduce my office hours and spend some extra time writing. In the event that has proved impossible. Politics, policy, provision, vision, risk analysis, dealing with the difficult and administration rapidly fill any space you give them. I did manage a series of appropriately tiny poems, Haiku for the Academi, which are included in my collection Food (Seren Books, 2001).

Annwyl Syr, my last book appeared in 1965

but I have a backyard full of cherry blossom

can I join?

looked up cherry blossom in

the dictionary

not there

big new Wales a thousand flowers

hope and money

still as hard as ever

But now I need space to create something a little longer. I leave Literature Wales in landscape-changing form. John Pikoulis and Harri Pritchard Jones are joint chairs. Lleucu Siencyn is Acting Chief Executive and Sally Baker is at the helm in Tŷ Newydd. There is a great staff team, north and south. In Wales the A470 is no longer the only thing that joins us together.

An edited and shorter version of this piece appears in the current issue of Agenda, the magazine of the Institute for Welsh Affairs

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Bones of Blake

I’ve been thinking about bones, as you do. Last thing to go in the crematorium fire, apparently. The skull hangs on for quite a time and sometimes has to be bashed a bit by workers with a metal bar. Dust, got to get back to that.

When Blake was buried in Bunhill Cemetery in 1827 his body was interred over the top of at least three others. Later four more bodies were buried over the top of his. Land in London was in short supply. The current grave marker drops the usual Here lie the remains of William Blake in favour of the vaguer The remains of William Blake lie nearby. Bones everywhere.

When I travelled to Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucestershire in search of the mortal remains of the Norman Lords of Cardiff – the founding dynasty of de Clares – I found all four of them grave marked in elegant brass clustering around the holy warmth of the cathedral’s alter. They’d been there since the eleventh century and they are still down there, replete with armour, jewels and burial cloth, tight in their lead-lined stone coffins. Waiting for god. Waiting for redemption.

But actually, no. People just can’t leave alone and down the centuries various grave robbers, disinterers, historians, record keepers, holy archivists and the simply interested have dug down to look, pull, shift and fiddle. What’s there today, apparently, is a mess of bust stone, the odd bone and a mess of mangled rubble. The de Clare eternity. As it should be. Wreckage and dust.

Bones might work as a poem, if I could made them repeat themselves regularly enough. I decided to make them flicker on the edge of the reader’s boredom by changing them slightly but not significantly. A bit like this:

These are the things
you go through
all white bone
chalk white bone
flake white bone
cream white bone
sea white bone
pale white bone
bone white bone
wash white bone
powder white bone
lime white bone
liberal white bone
soft white bone

That began to sound okay, as I created it. I wrote it down, sounded it in the air, changed it, wrote it down again. I then added more:

gloss white bone
bridal white bone
hat white bone
paper white bone
quartz white bone
light white bone
mist white bone
honk white bone
jet white bone
hard white bone
old white bone
cloud white bone
bleach white bone
thin white bone
dust white bone
weak white bone
woven white bone

I stood up in my long study, thought about the bones in my legs and straightened them just like I’d been told to in tai chi, got the body weight to run from the top of my head right down through my bones and into the floor. Weight disposed by gravity. I read the whole thing. Boomed it. Still worked, but still didn’t go anywhere. That was the problem. Not why but where next?

Blake white bone
Clare white bone
Gone white bone

Are poems small intellectual stories with a punch line? Should they prove something? Should they end and the reader know that the end had been reached? Should they always have a deeper purpose? Or are their patterns and the way the air bends around them enough?

Friday, 5 August 2011

Second Class In Your Own Country

The bus is sitting there at the north end of the Oval Basin like an arrival from Disneyland. It’s a bright red and yellow thing which ought to have Micky Mouse driving and Donald Duck as the guide. It represents part of what we’ve descended into in Cardiff – history as diversionary entertainment. Bang the tourists around the city, show them our glittering wonders, feed them chips at Harry Ramsden’s, send them home having had a great time. I don’t object to this, it imparts more knowledge than sitting in a pub would. But it is how we’ve become. Cardiff as zoo. The Capital as a destination, a place where you come to gawp rather than do.

Only this time the bus has a literary purpose. It’s taking the entrants, runners-up and winners and other interested parties to the annual Cardiff International poetry Competition round the city. They’ll see some our wonders and having them illuminated in verse. The verse part is me and Ifor Thomas. He’s out on the pavement right now shouting one of his works up at the amused travellers. A great crowd of kids crossing the Oval basin join in the cheering. Poetry as public art.

The bus goes round its circuitous route in the wrong direction but no one notices. We stop outside Ikea where I read my piece about incomprehensible tannoy announcements and wardrobes that take twelve hours to assemble. We pass the National Westminster Bank where Ifor delivers his poem about the creation of that building’s amazing doors.

For an English-language prize this is quite an event. English-language prizes in Wales are normally pretty invisible and always few on the ground. There’s no comparable Eisteddfod tradition where bards and novelists constantly compete for awards that range from book tokens to chairs and crowns.

The Cardiff International, managed by Literature Wales and funded by Cardiff Council, is usually won by people who don’t come from the city. This is true again this year with first prize going to Malcolm Watson from Hull for his the Naked Quaker and the Burning Boy. It’s a great poem. Hearing it read out by the author after fish and chips upstairs at Harry Ramsden’s (the Cardiff International always strives to keep tradition alive) make me wish, however, that there was something of comparable quality available exclusively for those Welsh writers who chose to write in English. In the pursuit of audience you so often end up being second class in your own country.

Up the road at the National Eisteddfod in Wrexham they are parading in their robes, receiving medals and crowns and kisses and great swathes of free TV coverage. The Welsh world knows who its poets are. Sadly the same can’t be said for Wales’ English side.

At the big chip shop Ifor does some more shouting. This time to thank the organisers and then the participants and, once again, the city for being forward looking enough to have put up the money. Then we all go home.

More information on the competition is at