NWR Issue 65

'Alf and 'Alf - The poetics of diversity

Welsh-American academic and writer David Lloyd spoke at the Association for Welsh Writing in English conference several years ago about the politics of anthologies. He was talking specifically about several collections of Anglo-Welsh poetry published in the course of the twentieth century, but I think it's time that prose anthologies were considered in the same light. Wales Half Welsh, for example - an excellent selection of new fiction from Wales - presents its readers with a group of writers whose concerns and aesthetic preoccupations are a world away from those of the last substantial anthology of Welsh short fiction to be published, Parthian's Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe, which appeared in the late 1990s. Assembled in collaboration with the Cambrensis collective, the latter seemed rather indiscriminate in its selection, featuring the work of stellar authors such as Niall Griffiths and Leonora Brito alongside a whole horde of less ambitious writers.

John Williams, the editor of Wales Half Welsh, has obviously been ruthlessly selective, and he has brought together what is on the whole a truly strong set of writers. Having said that, the urban concentration represented in his selection also reveals a great deal about the politics of new Welsh writing in English, and in particular about the boundaries that frequently have to be negotiated in order to find publication over the border. The twelve authors whose work features in Wales Half Welsh - Trezza Azzopardi, Desmond Barry, Sean Burke, Anna Davis, Niall Griffiths, Tessa Hadley, James Hawes, Malcolm Pryce, Lloyd Robson, Rachel Trezise, John Williams himself and Erica Wooff - are writers who, according to the blurb put out by the collection's publishers, Bloomsbury, 'share a pervasive sense of a dark, edgy world'. Claiming that Welsh writing has been 'invisible' for years (which, of course, begs several hoary old questions about metropolitan perspectives), Bloomsbury wraps the collection up into a neatly packaged dark and edgy 'other' which is easily recognisable to an Anglocentric eye. Hence, perhaps, the absence of such authors as Cardiff's Leonora Brito, whose emotional sincerity might sit uneasily among such self-consciously hip-lit writers, and of Swansea's Stevie Davies and Jo Mazelis, both of whom possess a delicate lyricism which, again, might seem discordantly gentle in the dark places to which, Bloomsbury promises, we will be taken in Wales Half Welsh. The decapitated dragon depicted on the cover of the collection reflects the diluted cultural resonance of the book's title, and also represents a deliberate shift away from the cultural politics which underpin such landmark volumes of the 'Anglo-Welsh' canon as Glyn Jones's The Dragon Has Two Tongues.

Despite my reservations about the way in which Bloomsbury packages and brands the book in order to make it more palatable to a metropolitan audience, though, I do feel that the deliberate break with the Anglo-Welsh canon effected by John Williams both in his own work and in the editorial choices he makes in this volume brings a breath of fresh air to the literary scene here. And perhaps Bloomsbury's need to sugar the pill for readers outside Wales can be better understood in the light of such responses as Alfred Hickling's imbecilic review in The Guardian (2 October), in which he claims that 'each [of the volume's twelve authors is] dedicated to the mad confusion of belonging to that most perpetually ridiculed of nations; and if there's a common trait among them, it's the pre-emptive humour that prompts the Welsh to ridicule themselves first'.

John Williams talks to Des Barry in this issue about, among other things, literary influences, returning to Wales, and the rejuvenated literary scene in post-devolution Cardiff. In another interview specially commissioned for New Welsh Review, Steve Blandford asks screenwriter and film director Amma Asante about the conception and development of her first feature film, A Way of Life, which is already up for several awards in advance of its official opening in November. Asante explains how much of the impetus for setting the film in Wales grew in a very subtle way out of her interest in and concern for the developing cultural identity of her young nieces who, she says, will grow up here being 'half of everything'. Similarly, in her review of Peter Lord's Medieval Vision and of the Artes Mundi exhibition catalogue, Frances Williams focuses on the way in which cultural identity is interrogated at every turn by contemporary Welsh artists such as Tim Davies, in the context of a long and illustrious tradition of visual art which is only now being fully uncovered by art historian Peter Lord.

The influences which shape us as readers and writers as we grow up is the focus of Jeni Williams's article on children's publishing in Wales. While she is impressed by the rapid development and expansion of the publishing lists for children here, she is concerned about the difficulties faced by publishers such as Pont Books in a hardnosed London-centric publishing world in which buying is done directly from the capital - as it is in the field of books for adults - thus disadvantaging small, independent publishers such as those based in Wales. She regrets the lack of attention paid to children's publishing in the Assembly's recent review of its cultural policy, an issue which will of course acquire greater urgency if the Arts Council of Wales and other associated bodies are absorbed by the Welsh Assembly Government (this is still under discussion as New Welsh Review goes to press). One matter of literary concern on which the Assembly has so far been entirely clear, though, is that it does not want an Assembly-appointed National Poet for Wales. Andrew Motion, profiled in this issue, speaks about his appointment as successor to Ted Hughes, and agrees with Academi's Chief Executive Peter Finch that Wales needs its own Poet Laureate. New Welsh Review would welcome your views on this: you can write to us at editor@newwelshreview.com


previous editorial: Devolution or Dissolution?
next editorial: 'Hiraeth' and a new cultural ecology


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