BLOG Gwen Davies

NWR Issue 100

Keeping Up with the Joneses, NWR at Hay Festival 28 May 2013

The Landmarc 100 stage at Hay Festival was the aptly named venue for my conversation with Cynan Jones & Lloyd Jones about their novellas that were launched together last autumn. The former’s Bird, Blood, Snow is the latest contribution to Seren’s New Stories from the Mabinogion series alongside the latter’s See How They Run. I’d pitched both to Festival director Peter Florence as books about rugby, male identity and mental health breakdown, although fathers probably featured more prominently in our actual discussion than rugby (my attempt to soften the male bias of this year’s NWR Hay line-up?)

Cynan’s novellas are The Long Dry (Parthian), Everything I Found on the Beach (Parthian), Bird, Blood, Snow and The Dig (Granta, forthcoming, 2014). This spring his story ‘The Dig’ was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, 2013, while his flash story, ‘Lifeboat’, is published in NWR 100, available now.

Cynan Jones adjudicating Flash in the Pen competition

Lloyd’s first novel, Mr Vogel, won the McKitterick Prize and his second, Mr Cassini, was Welsh Book of the Year 2007. He is the translator of Angharad Price’s Welsh novel, which MacLehose published in English as The Life of Rebecca Jones. His latest book is See How They Run. His much-acclaimed climate change novel, Y Dwr, will be published in English as The Water by Y Lolfa later this year.
Lloyd Jones

First of all, Lloyd kindly calmed my nerves by giving me someone else to think about when he developed a bleeding nose (of sorts) on stage. Then he gave a short reading from the story, outlining Big M’s shoe fetish (strangely echoed later in the evening at the NWR 100 party by Rhian Edwards’ performance of her story ‘My Mary Jane’, also in the current issue, and the elegant, expensive leather wellies of Sir Thomas Dunne of the Rendel family, whose Chair at Aberystwyth University sponsored the event.)

Kicking off his interview responses, Lloyd outlined the Mabinogion myth (third branch) which was the source of See How They Run: Manawydan, son of Llyr. He was careful to distinguish the hero of the pre-existing Irish version as being a darker character, whom he drew on more than the ‘Sean Connery’ figure of the Welsh Medieval revamp.

Encouraging him to elaborate, I mentioned Cathryn Charnell-White’s review of the novella in NWR 98, where she described the original story as ‘essentially a tale of the companionship between two married couples, Manawydan and Rhiannon, and Pryderi and Cigfa [Lloyd’s wonderfully named Ziggy], in the face of the hostility… they experience while in exile from mist-enveloped Dyfed’. I praised Lloyd’s portrayal of a convincing foursome to rival that of TV epic Friends, whose mythological friendship I saw Lloyd using as an excuse to lampoon such US soaps and American culture in general. Lloyd responded by explaining his method of comparing the mindsets of two different worlds: the contemporary, and prehistoric one in which the tales’ oral roots are buried. This approach allowed him to explore themes of social isolation, community and the individual, while at the same time probing deeper into Wales’ shifting global alliances throughout history.

Emphasising that the Manawydan branch of the Mabinogi succeeds the second which is set mainly in Ireland (and concerns the better known stories of Branwen and the giant Bendigeidfran), I asked Lloyd how he went about making relevant the orginal story’s interest in Wales & Irelands’ shared cultural inheritance. This he calls in his book, ‘the ancient on-off relationship’. While avoiding any connotations of Arnold’s Celtic Twilight, Lloyd described the alliances of seafaring, westward-leaning societies of prehistoric and Medieval Celtic countries. Those of us disillusioned with contemporary Welsh society’s infatuation with the American values the novella associates with celebrity, mass- and social-media will enjoy how See How They Run explores these earlier, alternative values and power dynamics. We will also appreciate how it presents the ways in which individuals might mentally and physically have inhabited a relatively unpeopled landscape in a prehistoric era.

Lloyd talked the audience of over fifty people through the shifts in scale in his novella. These ranged from the macro (vistas, gods, empires, seas) to the microworld (memory sticks, ships and babies). Aspects of the micro dimension in particular also conveyed the world of prehistory, and he claimed that the Celts’ renowned attention to detail (attested by surviving jewellery and illuminated manuscripts) was something to be celebrated rather than dismissed as stereotype or cultural flaw.

I referred to the backstory of Lloyd’s protagonist, Llwyd, in whose depiction I perceived a shrinking of the original myth’s big themes of fate and revenge into the petty obsessions of an academic and reluctant new father. My question as to how Lloyd managed to boost the role of Llwyd’s original cameo role, in the second branch of the Mabinogi, into the starring role in his contemporary story (based on the third), needed some explaining. Nevertheless, Lloyd explained the pros of cons of choosing an unpleasant hero, how he enjoyed ultimately humiliating him as a fall guy, and how the perennial theme of rubbish fathers, running through his fiction, meshed with the novella's imagery of mythology, that is gods playing about with the furniture upstairs.

Finally we moved to controversial territory, to Lloyd’s ‘Afterword’, where he claims that ‘the Anglo-Welsh tradition [is] coming to an end… or at least entering a different phrase… [the New Stories from the Mabinogi series is] a fitting epitaph to a century of English writing by people with deep roots in the Welsh tradition.’ Lloyd dodged the question a little, it must be said, seeming rather more upbeat than he had been on the day he finished his prologue. Along with myself, the audience upheld his newfound optimism, however, referring to (so far missed) opportunities for more Welsh-English translation. Lloyd came up with a new idea for a series translating Welsh-language Book of the Year shortlisted titles. To end our conversation on a positive note, I mentioned the high status of bilingual authors such as Lloyd himself, Gwyneth Lewis and Fflur Dafydd. On reflection today, however, it occurs that Welsh-language authors have recently shifted closer to the English language rather than vice versa, so that if indeed writers in both languages are moving towards the middle ground, one end of the bridge is more densely populated that the other.

Turning to Cynan, I reminded him of his own harsh summary of his allotted myth, Peredur. This he had called ‘poor prose’. He agreed with his original analysis but added that the rough edges of the original had presented the chance to explore and experiment. This included presenting the idea of stories changing as they are retold and passed through generations, as indeed did Lloyd’s plotlines of lost-and-found narratives. Moreover, it let Cynan show virtuousity, playing with different registers, such as local rag journalese, and police, mental health and social worker reports. The use of such documents also allowed him to aggregate the frankly incredible number of violent incidents (with harm done both to animals and humans) attributed to and associated with the original Peredur.

Moving on to Bird, Blood, Snow’s other pastiche elements, Cynan gave credit to a wide research reading list which included Don Quixote and El Cid. The modesty of this author, always insistent on ‘not believing his own bullshit’ is occasionally in danger of hiding his erudition.

I praised how the original myth’s chivalric codes (in its Medieveal retelling) are made relevant by Cynan today. This is achieved through its setting among boy and teenage gangs on a rural estate with accompanying rivalry, bullying and codes of ‘honour’. I especially liked how, in a comic reversal, Cynan depicts Peredur’s departure from the estate where he lived with his father, Cwrt y Brenin (Arthur’s Court), as a sort of paradise lost. Cynan explored how Bird, Blood, Snow’s use of anti-heroes turns the Peredur myth against the very idea of myth.

Noting that Peredur is between eight and sixteen years in Cynan’s story, I asked him why he chose so young and violent a protagonist. He replied that he had personal and professional experience of delinquency in his former work as a mentor to youth offenders. Also that for this story, his aim had been to raise moral aspects such as the notion of evil, free will, nature versus nurture, and the influence of ‘vertical’ (parental) v ‘horizontal’ (peers). We explored the ways in which the themes of Bird, Blood, Snow echo those of A Clockwork Orange. As the authorial viewpoint suggests in his novella, Cynan was very clear on stage that most delinquent and highly violent young people are able to choose how they behave.

In preparing for this session I had chronologically compared the Peredur myth synopsis with events in this story, and had attributed the synopsis’ reference to Peredur’s killing ‘a monster’ to a rare scene of peace within Bird, Blood, Snow. This scene has echoes of nursery rhyme (‘[Dau Gi Bach’ suggested by greyhounds), and the contemporary boy is close to tears as his estranged father acknowledges him with a raised hand. Cynan confirmed that this was indeed a dramatisation of Peredur slaying his mental demons, although his respite from violence is unfortunately shortlived. Cynan gave other examples of such gentle depictions: the boy’s early home life, boxing, clubbing, the gangdom’s positive side and Peredur’s infatuation with his unrequited love. Cynan rounded off the session with a short reading depicting Peredur’s romantic yearnings.

The three of us then decamped, alongside NWR Chair Glyn Mathias, to the bookshop for signings, and then to the Summerhouse, for the NWR 100 Party celebrating our hundredth issue and twenty five years in publishing. Cynan was my co-judge for the NWR inaugural Flash in the Pen competition for a story in 100 words, which was awarded at the party to Roz Goddard for her story, ‘Dressing’, with PJ Carnehan (for ‘Reminiscence’) in second place and Ed Broom (for ‘Any Reasonable Time’) in third. Roz was presented with £100 courtesy of Granta Books and over £200’s worth of books from Wales, while Ed was also there in excellent and generous spirit to collect his consolation prize. Both authors, however, alongside PJ Carnehan, the second place prizewinner, share the honour of publication in NWR 101, published on 1 September.
PJ Carnehan, second prizewinner Flash in the Pen competition

Roz Goddard, winner of Flash in the Pen competition

Jem Poster representing NWR contributors, Chairs of NWR past & present & AU English Dept, sponsors of NWR Party via Rendel Chair

As I’m this week slotting in the final late pieces for the autumn edition, I can see a theme emerging around Roz Goddard’s ‘Dressing’ – the possession and presentation of women’s bodies, lipstick lesbians and those au-naturel, mother-daughter rivalry, floral bouquets, and the death-bed scene inspired by Emily Dickinson’s ‘Ample Make this Bed’. Mind you, once I start on my editorial, it may end up being about poets’ paranoia in NYC, dog-talk in the city, RS Thomas and the Church, the walk that cured Lloyd Jones’ alcoholism or Minhinnick’s view of the Flood and the fairground. We’ll see where the mood takes me in the morning.
L-R, Ed Broom, Gwen Davies, Roz Goddard, Cynan Jones


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