NWR Issue 59

Imaginative Landscapes

My sentimental attachment to the books of my childhood has, I admit it, as much to do with the memories of my young, unformed self as it does with anything else. Up until a couple of months ago, I jealously guarded any and every book I had ever owned, even those small Enid Blyton paperbacks about boarding-school girls who inhabited a world far removed from mine. Years later, when they had fallen to pieces after one re-reading too many, still I kept them. Sometimes I would pull a sellotaped favourite down off the shelf and marvel at the orangey-brown tinge taken on by the paper in the intervening twenty-odd years. Who was I when I read these, I wondered? What was I about?

The broadsheets reported with horror recently that many of today's children haven't heard of the childhood classics of yesteryear, let alone read them. As I skimmed through the list of books which hardly even graze the consciousness of children these days, I winced with recognition. There were all the books that I had devoured as a child, from Wind in the Willows to Little Women. Despite the fact that I have been on something of a book purge since the New Year - I've even gone so far as to chuck the tattered Blytons - I have hung on to just a few that sum up for me the profound pleasure that I got from reading as a child. In the late '70s, the factories and steel plants in our south Wales town were closing and the kids were singing along to Pink Floyd while tripping me up in the playground, but Louisa M. Alcott's nineteenth-century chick lit offered a soothing image of an idyllically ordered if somewhat suffocating domestic world. Looking back, I am struck by how few English books for Welsh children were around at the time - and yet, I wonder if the process of reading itself was in fact every bit as important as the imaginative landscapes that I inhabited through my childish reading?

I have always been fascinated by R.S. Thomas's assertion that it is during childhood that a poet is made. This short period, crammed as it is with intense sensory experiences combined with rapid language acquisition, does for some individuals coalesce into the ability to create great poetry and fiction in later life. Several of today's writers whose work is acclaimed across the UK either spent their formative years in Wales, or were born of Welsh parents, both of which are clearly experiences which have contributed to their formation as writers. And yet unless they go around proclaiming their blue-blooded Welshness to all and sundry, their work hardly seems to impress itself upon critics interested in contemporary Welsh writing in English. While their work and the context in which it is published clearly differs from that of, say, a novelist who has lived and worked in Wales all his/her life and who is published by a relatively small Welsh publisher, this seems to me no reason to dismiss or, even worse, to ignore their work.

To recognise and discuss the work of such writers alongside more traditionally self-professed Welsh writers shouldn't, of course, be an act of cultural assimilation. There are several well-meaning individuals out there who are now adopting Sarah Waters as the next Great Welsh Hope, heaving a sigh of relief that she made it to the Granta list even if Niall Griffiths didn't. And yet, as Sarah Waters said herself in her interview in NWR 57, she doesn't lay any claim to the 'Anglo-Welsh' literary scene. She's a London writer who revels in the literary metropolis both as her home and as the setting for much of her fiction. She did, however, spend her formative years in Wales, as did bestselling young author Maggie O'Farrell, featured in this issue. Although, unlike Waters, O'Farrell didn't make it on to the hotly contested Granta list in January, her work was touted by more than one newspaper as being very much in the running. Of the twenty writers who eventually made it to The List, one, Dan Rhodes, was taught by Helen Dunmore at the University of Glamorgan and another, Peter Ho Davies (whose work will be featured in the autumn issue of NWR), is of Welsh-Japanese parentage.

The conclusion to all this is not that these highly talented young writers should be appropriated into some kind of contemporary canon of writing from Wales, but rather that their connections with Wales surely inform their work, albeit in extremely complicated and subtle ways. New Welsh Review, with its deliberately Welsh perspective on the literary scene in the UK, is the perfect context in which to explore the complex resonances of such barely visible histories and the indelible impression that they leave upon the mature writer. I'm not interested in the so-called glitz and glamour of London publishing; what interests me is the fresh, almost kaleidoscopic, perspective brought to bear upon writing from Wales by the parallel and comparative consideration of writers whose cultural and geographic contexts might by now be very different, but whose common ground lies in a childhood or significant period of time spent in Wales. In addition to Maggie O'Farrell, for example, this issue features Sheenagh Pugh, Eric Hosbawm, Iain Sinclair and Roger Granelli. The next issue will include a profile of Welsh-language author and critic Angharad Price, the most recent winner of the National Eisteddfod's Prose Medal, and an interview with writer/publisher Lewis Davies. New Welsh Review doesn't offer a seamless view of Welsh writing: what it hopes to do is to ask, insistently, Who are these writers? What are they about? How do they touch and transform imaginative landscapes for you, their readers?


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