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

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