NWR Issue 106

Sea Dogs and Profs Take a Wiggly Walk to the Bank

Niall Griffiths, in his dispatch from the South Atlantic, ‘Last Day on St Helena’, distinguishes between the things he witnessed as a tourist (Napoleon’s house) and those as an invited writer (‘the social structures of the native gay community’).

Mary-Ann Constantine’s essay, ‘Coastwalkers and Curious Travellers’, further clarifies any possible confusion between sightseers, travel writers and psychogeographers, the latter practising ‘a way of moving through (usually) urban environments designed to resist the official, municipal, or tourist-approved… routes.’ Reviewing Peter Finch’s Edging the Estuary, a record of a fittingly ‘wiggly’ walk along the Severn, she notes it is ‘presented as a form of anti-tourism, an act of “insubordination to habitual influences”.’

Constantine notes the conjugation ‘I travel, you visit, they are tourists’, remarks that tourism is, by definition, ‘a bit crowded’, and traces the origins of Wales’ current psychogeography boom, championed by writers such as Damian Walford Davies and Mike Parker, and projects such as Literature Wales’ literary tours and the late Cliff McLucas’ Deep Mapping. These go back to the late eighteenth-century flood of visitors-with-nibs to our country. Foremost among these was Thomas Pennant, author of A Tour in Wales (1784), the original Rough Guide to Gwalia.

Even stylistic strains of our current travel writing and blogging (‘that copious jumble… the striking juxtapositions, the detours and digressions’), may retain Pennant’s cultural imprint, Constantine suggests. His ‘omnivorous’ range encompassed ‘Roman oil lamps, goats… coats of arms [and] miraculous fasting women’. His voice was ‘multivocal’, weaving in anonymous ‘snippets and sections of letters from friends, informants and colleagues.’ This almost anti-authorial stance attracted its critics, among them James Boswell, who noticed ‘how… Pennant himself seems to disappear amongst other voices’.

Just as the French word dérive (drift), joined the psychogeographer’s lexicon early on, so plus ça change best describes the postmodernist drift of current travel writing. As Constantine concludes (having acknowledged the innovation of apps for getting lost, among them Dérive), ‘Most interesting things had already been thought, said and done by about 1820.’

As the sun sets on Dylan Thomas’ centenary (DT100), travel writer Chris Moss’ essay, ‘An Ugly, Lovely Year’, ascribes the massive eighteenth-century growth of literary tourism to fifteen years before Pennant’s Tour: David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769, which catapulted Stratford into one of the world’s top tourist destinations. He quotes Prof Julia Thomas who asks, ‘One has to examine the extent to which tourism itself has consolidated (perhaps even constructed) the place of specific authors. Would Shakespeare be Shakespeare without Stratford?’

One might argue that it was New York City that ‘constructed’ Dylan Thomas, rather than Laugharne, Swansea or even Wales. But Moss is rightly wary of this year’s literary monotheism, of the coarsening effects integral to any promotional drive. Especially for residents, these may distort the places they know, as well as devaluing the literature associated with them: ‘It is because of this almost magical transformative power of writing that literary tourism tends to come with a sense of ennui. For it is one of the risks – if not quite the intention – of tourism to take the imagination in the opposite direction, away from the art and even away from the author.’

Moss is also brave to warn that in attempting to create a sanitised ‘Dylan’s Swansea’, ‘Dylan’s Laugharne’ or even ‘Dylan’s Newquay’, the artistic aspirations of DT100 and the commercial agenda of tourism may be at odds. ‘Money can usually convince even the most old-fashioned and illiterate of proud burghers’ to botch Thomas’ reputation, Moss writes.

However, that financial imperative does sometimes make local commerce an ally of art. Visiting Holland this summer, a fish-van vendor recognised my family’s language. He had seen Y Gwyll/Hinterland, which was broadcasting, in Welsh with Dutch subtitles, across Flanders. At home, Ceredigion County Council offered to help plug a projected shortfall of £150,000 in the budget of the second series (shooting around Aberystwyth until June 2015), citing economic benefits of over £1 million to the local economy, of which tourism is a major part. (Unfortunately, following negative press from the Daily Mail, the producers declined the offer.)

Perhaps we should face up to it. Take two Ceredigion-inspired cultural products: Under Milk Wood (featuring Newquay sea dogs), at one end of the spectrum, and, at the other, Hinterland (sporting dodgy Aber Uni profs). I am proud of both, as works of art as well as for their potential for export (Hinterland sold to Netflix) and visiting tourists. Don’t we want the world to hear about what we do well? And, like it or not, doesn’t money help that voice be heard?

Judging is underway for our New Welsh Writing Awards for nonfiction on nature and the environment: bookmark 6pm on 25 February at the Seddon Room, Old College, Aberystywth University for the ceremony.


previous editorial: Editorial Highlights Podcast Winter 2014 issue
next editorial: Seeking Riches


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