New Welsh Review
In the Goldfish Bowl
This post is free to all website visitors
For access to the full New Welsh Review archive, become a subscriber today.
Last week the culture committee of the Welsh Assembly delivered a summary report on the Hughes report on Welsh literature. The report on the report was a considered response to what had become an embittered and rather unfocused row on who is doing what for Welsh literature pitched against who should be doing it.
There was even a series of Senedd television appearances by the main organisational players. There were several broad conclusions and a proposal that another report, with a more focused remit be commissioned at some point in the future. In summary, no change for now, keep calm and we’ll eventually sort it out. I guess this is democracy in action. As ever there are voices who disagree on how the money is spent and who receives it.
What this particular sequence of reports and responses seems to have missed is the fifteen years or so of real progress in writing and publishing in Wales: a diversification and deepening of talent, resources and approach that has been directed by the proposals of the Rosemary Butler Culture committee report of 2004 and funded by the Welsh Government. This money has supported writers, publishers, editors, marketing initiatives and new and established magazines, both physical and online. Writing as varied as Oh Dad A Search for Robert Mitchum by the Cardiff poet Lloyd Robson to retellings of the Mabinogion by writers such as Gwyneth Lewis and Cynan Jones to a biography of Lily Tobias and the life stories of Chris Needs and Boyd Clack.
They haven’t all been successful and any art is a matter of taste and appreciation, but there has been development and there have been opportunities for writers and a professionalism of the publishing culture with a deepening of the skills base. But without the Assembly and the freedoms that devolution has provided there wouldn’t have been any of this investment or engagement. I was at a reading of Iolo Williams’ Wild Places, Wales’ Top 40 Nature Sites, last year at the Penfro Book festival in Rhosygilwen, Pembrokeshire, when the author pronounced to the audience that he couldn’t see what the Assembly had done for Wales. He was reading from his own book which was supported by a commissioning grant provided by his publisher, Seren Books of Bridgend, through a scheme administered by the Welsh Books Council and funded by the Welsh Assembly Government. I don’t think the Assembly would claim to be responsible for Iolo Williams’ words but it is too often forgotten that the culture we have is supported by the society we create. I think this is what I got out of reading Raymond Williams’ Border Country. What Iolo had forgotten was that society supports culture, and that in this instance, it supported him directly.
And then in this culture of debate there’s Gary Raymond’s commentary on the report on the report into Welsh culture published online in the Wales Arts Review. This was an inaccurate and unbalanced piece, which extended into an attack on Welsh literature and how things apparently used to be done, while offering few facts or context. Raymond’s article was an attempt to write history as ‘what I imagined’. He then offered a vision for the future with the engagement of a new generation of writers and critics, a merry ‘band of talented, hopeful, serious individuals’ with of course no rivalry, envy, avarice or ambition, in fact just the same as the previous generation really.
There are a couple of sentences from Raymond’s article that I just can’t leave as words in the air:
This insular, grubby way of doing things is becoming a thing of the past.
Where is the evidence beyond hearsay for this grubby past? To take an example of the Wales Arts Review itself. As an organisation and a venture, the WAR bid for financial support from the magazines franchise administered and supported by the Welsh Books Council scheme three years ago. They provided a convincing business plan with a vision for the future of an online review and discussion forum. It was assessed by an independent panel who also looked at other ventures competing for the same resources under a transparent and publicly accessibly scheme. This panel awarded WAR support from the scheme along with several other ventures including Planet, New Welsh Review and Welsh Agenda. Some applications were turned down. Some of the existing franchises had their level of public support reduced in line with new financial constraints highlighted by another, previous independent report [led by Tony Bianchi]. This was the process. It was open and, as far as I understand it, fair. Some of the other franchises were well-established but they could have been cut completely and had to make a convincing case for continued support with new ideas for the future. The magazine franchise is this autumn up for renewal again, and perhaps a reshaping will take place of what (including, perhaps, new ventures) receives public support. There are innovative new magazines run on a shoestring such as The Ghastling edited out of Maesteg by the poet Rebecca Parfitt that may be vying for attention. The publishers currently receiving public support will have to go through the same process. WAR has done what it says on the tin and they will be in a strong position to justify their public support but Raymond is disparaging a past and structures that have benefited the venture he writes for.
Raymond also suggests there is a general animosity between publishers in Wales, and names the relationships between Parthian, Seren, Honno and Y Lolfa as examples. This is rubbish. We haven’t got time to run an argument amongst each other. It is a commercial world and there is competition, but there is often more cooperation and a sharing of ideas, especially at seminars organised by the Welsh Books Council or more informally at literary events. I even bought a couple of copies of Amy Wack’s excellent poetry series at the bookstall Seren opened at the Chapter Arts Centre in December, while Parthian is also working with Y Lolfa to bring out an English edition of Llŷr Gwyn Lewis’ Welsh memoir, Some Flowers of War.
Raymond then mentions the forthcoming stand, London Book Fair Wales, as something new and innovative, ‘There’s a coherent presence of Wales at the London Book Fair this year for the first time in twenty years.’ Seren, Parthian and the University Wales Press have been going to the fair for at least twenty-five years. Other Welsh publishers such as Graffeg and Firefly have attended regularly since they have been set-up. The Welsh Books Council last went in 2010. This year, in spirit of rather edgy cooperation, given the background, some of the main institutional players who are related to books but neither publishers or writers, are supporting a Welsh-themed stand that will help the business of publishing in Wales reach a wider audience.
There’s an undercurrent to the article that somehow manages to suggest that the last thirty (indeed three thousand?) years have been controlled by men and they’ve messed it up. And this is mirrored in Wales and this particular goldfish bowl, our literature. And the gatekeepers are all old white men. Again this is nonsense, as any assessment of the people who have held positions of influence in the world of Welsh literature will confirm. But the future will be different. The future is always different, change and new ideas can be good. There’s a revolution due and there’s the merry band. But what Raymond’s article misses in attempting to rubbish the Hughes report along with an imagined past is that there were important issues brought up by the report that have been lost in the smoke and the building of barricades.
There is a duplication of resources within Welsh literature. More money could be given directly to writers. We could work out how to make the best of the national treasure that is Tŷ Newydd Writing Centre without losing a small fortune. The writers and publishers could organise ourselves more effectively. But we are doing many things well, for example the Wales Book of the Year is a significant boost to writers and publishers. The Dinefwr Festival was a decent attempt to break from the hegemony that is the Hay festival. The Hay festival itself is a success and it has had in the past received sustained support from Wales. And crucially there’s a long list of writers who are making an impact in Wales and beyond to a wider world, most of these having benefitted directly from investment from the organisations set up to develop and promote a literary culture.
The current plan for cooperation to run a Welsh-themed stall at the London Book Fair this year was organised by a committee from six organisations: Literature Wales, The Welsh Books Council, Literature Across Frontiers, The British Council, Wales Literature Exchange and PEN Cymru. The London Book Fair is a specialist publishing major event with a side show of literary events. There were no publishers represented on the committee despite the fact that we’ve been going there for twenty-five years, but nor were there any writers represented either.
And this comes to another point that both reports (the original and the summary) do seem to have missed. Where are the writers? Why aren’t they representing themselves and having a say? I know all the organisations will say they are representing writers but at the actual business end of influencing and making decisions about the culture of writing, the writers of Wales are largely apolitical or absent. The Welsh Academy/ Yr Academi Gymreig used to be a writers’ institution that had conferences and had a policy. Even when it merged into the Academi it was still a writer-led organisation, publishing magazines in Welsh and English and holding an annual conference. But once it became subsumed into the aspirations of a national company in the form of Literature Wales, the energy seems to have dissipated and it’s been reduced to putting up the occasional plaque and adding the occasional fellow to boost its diminished esteem. There was no comment from anyone at the Academi about the failure of the Chair of Literature Wales, Damian Walford Davies, to meet with a committee looking into literature in Wales for the Welsh government. Everyone else who was asked made time. Literature Wales is an organisation representing writers funded in part by the Welsh Government for the people of Wales through some of the taxes they pay [and working within a policy framework set by the government]. If the Chair couldn’t support the organisation at such a time he should have resigned. And he is a writer, so at least the committee would have met another one. The rise of PEN Cymru is to be welcomed but the aims of the organisation are necessarily different to other publishers and writers’ organisations here. It isn’t about the writers of Wales, in this instance, but about writers abroad facing real persecution. However, again PEN Cymru is now in search of funding as there isn’t enough money to support its aims through subscriptions from writers in Wales.
I’ve been writing this sort of article about Wales, books and words for maybe too long now. Parthian will have been publishing for twenty-five years this year. We’re having a few parties to work out if it’s all been worth it. Please come along. We’ll be publishing some good books as well, including an excellent novel, The Golden Orphans, which (despite my criticism above) is by Gary Raymond. It is an innovative literary thriller set in Cyprus. It’s published in June: buy your copy here.
Richard Lewis Davies is a writer, and publisher of Parthian Books.