Monday, 27 February 2012

Rhys Davies Short Story Competition and University of Glamorgan Author Interview Films

Last week the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay played host to the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition ceremony. The night was kick-started by a preview screening of a recently rediscovered set of recorded interviews from 1991–1993 of Welsh fiction writers. The nine films comprise a Who’s Who of Wales’ authors writing fiction in English towards the end of the twentieth century. The interviews were produced by Professor Tony Curtis and shot at the Trefforest campus for a series from what was then the Polytechnic of Wales. These films will soon be available at

They comprise: Dannie Abse reading from his autobiographical book There was a Young Man from Cardiff and his poem ‘Miss Crouch’; Ron Berry reading his story ‘A November Kill’; Emyr Humphreys with a section from A Toy Epic; Siân James reading from her award-winning novel Yesterday; Glyn Jones (‘It’s not by his beak you can judge a woodcock’); Elaine Morgan with an extract from The Aquatic Ape; Leslie Norris (‘A Flight of Geese’); Alun Richards (‘The Sabbatical’) and Bernice Rubens reading the first chapter of her just-published novel, A Solitary Grief.

Our poets have not done too badly in terms of contemporary recordings, from the BBC radio broadcasts of Dylan Thomas’ Forties heyday to the late Sixties cultural film documentaries produced by John Ormond (who is the subject of Kieron Smith’s piece in the new edition of New Welsh Review, ‘John Ormond: Poetry, Broadcasting, Film’). But nearly twenty-two years ago it struck Prof Curtis that while there were audio recordings of poets, ‘No one was filming fiction writers then. The opportunity to include older writers would not last much longer. Many of these writers are no longer with us so this is a unique record of their character and voice.’ Prof Curtis adds, ‘I recorded the new introductions last year in the same studio (now less used since the University of Glamorgan Atrium opened in Cardiff) and kept it deliberately low-key. No gimmicks or makeup, no media frills, just words. But what words! Leslie Norris’ reading of ‘A Flight of Geese’ still makes my cry. He had done a very memorable reading of the story to undergraduates that afternoon. There was little money in this for the writers who, without exception, were generous with their time - from Bernice Rubens who had won the Booker Prize to Ron Barry, who was ageing into neglect, apart from the efforts of Dai Smith and a couple of others.’

Contemporary writers are just as generous, as New Welsh Review’s latest online interviews, with essayist Robert Minhinnick, novelist Chris Meredith and poet Jane Yeh prove. Spring issue with exclusives from all three out now.

The Rhys Davies Short Story Competition 2012 was won by Kate Hamer for 'One Summer'. The equal runners-up were Bill Davies; Stevie Davies; Nigel Jarrett; Huw Lawrence; Rob Mimpriss; Derek Routledge; Ann Ruffell; Linda Ruheman, and Jo Verity. All nominees receive £100 and the winner, £1000. The competition was judged by Trezza Azzopardi, Russell Celyn Jones and filter judge Siân Preece.

This is a version of Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column published on Saturday 25 February 2012.

New Welsh Review gets writers noticed. Support writers and publishing in Wales by subscribing!

Monday, 20 February 2012

26 Treasures: The Book, Review of Wales section

26 letters in the alphabet. 4 countries (currently) in the UK. 26 Treasures: The Book, a pan-national poetry anthology, has 10 days to get 151 supporters. Without these, Unbound, its crowd-sourced publisher, will not proceed. Poetry by numbers this is not. It does however represent lyrics in which figures figure. It was the brainchild of business writer John Simmons. 26 authors were asked to write 62 words about pieces from national collections. From an embyonic London Design Festival exhibition at the V&A the project grew to encompass the National Library of Wales, the Ulster Museum in Belfast and the National Museum of Scotland.

As ever, the Welsh contingent provides double for your money, since translations of originals in both Welsh and English are included (I declare an interest since my translation is among them). And since we are talking numbers, how fitting that this book’s pearl is the current winner of Translators House Wales’ challenge, ‘Hen Arian Papur’ by Hywel Meilyr Griffiths. The original, ‘Old Paper Money’, by Lin Sagovsky and Hywel’s translation are the best and most topical of Wales’ contribution. They were inspired by Aberystwyth and Tregaron ‘Black Sheep’ Bank notes on which the number of sheep penned in the fold, as it were, denoted their value. Lin Sagovsky imagines bankers in a desperate, pun-crazy rebranding exercise prior to liquidation (in 1815): ‘Take a gambol! / The bank that likes to say flock. / Tup quality from your local baa. / Sheep like Dolly like lolly. / Folding. We are.’ (And in Hywel’s final line, ‘Aeth yr hwch drwy’r siop.’)

Apart from the obvious choice of Gillian Clarke, the lineup of writers for the original English poems in the Wales section has omissions, resulting in evidence of the occasional ‘outsider’ eye. But compensations are made in the translators list, for example Paul Henry, whose ‘Lineage’ betters Annes Glyn’s original ‘Llinach’ based on a family tree from Adam to Edward IV: ‘From King Primate to refugee / I scratched the parched earth for water, / food, unstitching my lineage / from the cracked plains, / believing in it. // Here, read this… read my dead palm.’ The same can be said for Rhys Iorwerth’s fine interpretation of Elen Lewis’ ‘Megan Eats Grapes’, based on a film of Lloyd George meeting Hitler. However, Elin ap Hywel’s translation ‘Storybook’ is just as perfect as its original, Mererid Hopwood, ‘Llyfr Mawr y Plant’, and Elin shows her credentials by being brave enough to adapt the title to its new audience.

26 Treasures: The Book offers Welsh greats alongside huge names such as Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, Andrew Motion and Maura Dooley. Pledge £10 to Unbound by 1 March to make it happen.

This is a version of Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column published on Saturday 18 February 2012.

New Welsh Review gets writers noticed. Support writers and publishing in Wales bysubscribing!

Monday, 13 February 2012

Chris Meredith’s new masterpiece The Book of Idiots

Christopher Meredith’s last novel for adults was published in 1998, so his fanclub’s been a long time waiting. We will be rewarded on 3 April, the publishers assure me, when Seren bring out his new novel, The Book of Idiots, which is previewed in the spring issue of New Welsh Review.

Meredith made his name in 1989 when Shifts, his debut that became a classic of post-industrial south Wales, drawing on his time working in a steel plant, won the WAC Fiction Prize. The hallmarks (humour, work, male protagonists, superlative dialogue, history, politics and precision of place) that made Shifts such a success are also present in The Book of Idiots. In social terms, it marks Wales’ move towards the service industry but continues to commemorate the contribution of older men struggling to value themselves in a workplace that no longer makes things. Its southeast Wales setting is full of bridges, borders and bulwarks at once historically symbolic and geographically specific, and half of the action takes place around a walk to Carreg y Dial (Revenge Stone), monument for a Welsh-Norman assassination (‘Somebody ap Somebody killed Somebody Fitz Somebody.’) This is a globalised economy, however, and so most other settings are car journeys and generic offices or municipal buildings (after all, ‘misery happens quietly… next to coffee machines’).

You will sail through this hilarious black comedy at one sitting. My favourite scenes include Jeff’s dissolving trunks and Graham deciding to quit after getting locked into the work bog, but nothing tops Wil’s extended guessing game of famous people’s deaths: ‘George Girshwin.’ ‘Piano fell on him.’ ‘Close. Brain tumour.’ ‘I can do Robert Maxwell.’ ‘And maybe somebody did.’ But before, like Chrysippus the Stoic, you die laughing, consider the theme: middle-aged men acting like idiots, having affairs then dying (methods various); also nationhood (declining) and language (ditto). Each chapter beautifully, seamlessly, elaborates a fall, whether from health, prowess or self-respect, and indeed physical ones which celebrate the lift and flight prior to descent, such as children’s games with skimming stones and paper planes or adult ones of parachute jumps and gliding. In life as in the game Best Man’s Fall, it’s all about ‘how artistically we [fall] to our last end, and how authentically dead we [are] on the field.’

This is a novel about the seriousness of play, about hubris, friendship and sanity against the odds. It is also a literary masterpiece about narrative technique that plays with its own forms (tragedy, farce, romance). It is a thriller in which we guess who survives rather than who will die next. And it is a letter to a lover whose identity and fate the author wants us to have fun guessing (while we may).

Chris Meredith's other two novels for adults are: Sidereal Time and Griffri. You can read New Welsh Review's world exclusive interview with Chris about The Book of Idiots at from 1 March.

This is a version of Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column published on Saturday 11 February 2012.

Next editor's blog, 26Treasures: The Book

New Welsh Review gets writers noticed. Support writers and publishing in Wales by subscribing!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Review by Sophie Long

One of the great curses of being a creative writing student is that you find that you can no longer just read a book without analysing or finding fault. Of course, a book like The Night Circus that has been fawned over by agents, critics and even film studios cannot fail to disappoint some, but in this case the praise is also not entirely unjustified.

One of the major criticisms has been that the novel lacks a sense of place. It is true that the locations outside of the circus are pretty much interchangeable, with a few irritating cultural mistakes (characters from London ‘walk for two blocks’ and wear rings on their ‘pinkie’ fingers) but would the performers of a travelling circus really be attached to a particular place? The physical space of the circus is strongly evoked and passages like the Wishing Tree or Pool of Tears really display Morgenstern’s gift for description and detail. The physical world she creates is very detailed without there being overkill and it is easy to imagine oneself inside it. It also functions well as a common denominator amongst all the characters, and is a force that drives the plot forward. However, this is only in the latter half of the novel. These characters have all been plucked from somewhere and thrown into this ‘dark, dazzling world’ and yet they bring none of their former life with them. This was perhaps intentional, making them mysterious and otherworldly – but the effect is more flat and two dimensional. Perhaps this explains the criticism – not that the circus is the only fully realised space, but the characters themselves are just a little lacking.

Celia and Marco are well built in that their relationship with each other and the circus is very well realised. However, they themselves also seem to have no background, interests or relationship with anything outside of the circus and their challenge. This is understandable as the book progress and the stakes get higher, but in the beginning one imagines they would have different experiences. This would have given their characters some kind of visible journey, but as it is neither of them change much as a result of their being part of the circus, or through their relationship.

The Night Circus is beautiful, both in terms of the physical book's appearance and the dazzling details between the black-edged pages. It seems though that behind all this showmanship, Erin Morgenstern has been unable to translate this world as successfully onto the page as she might have wished. If she had perhaps attempted another draft, the annoying kinks that make it rather a frustrating read might have been ironed out.

Sophie Long works at Blackwell's bookshop and is an online contributor to New Welsh Review.

Next editor's blog: advance review of Chris Meredith's The Book of Idiots, his long-awaited fourth novel, published on 3 April by Seren.

New Welsh Review gets writers noticed. Support writers and publishing in Wales by subscribing!

Monday, 6 February 2012

Dorothy Edwards, aesthete or ‘socialist Welsh spy’? Plus nude camping

One of the many juggling acts this job involves is to balance the conflicting expectations of readers and writers: creative versus academic; general reviewer v trained critic, living legend versus author long ago quick-limed in the canon.

Human debris litters the waters of literary mags: a headline-seeking minister kicks against the current, muttering ‘subsidy per page!’; a rock-marooned scholar taps out ‘postcolonial’ in morse-code; funding mandarins tread water, chanting: Cuts! Kindles! Committee places! KPIs!

We Welsh love to bicker, especially if public funding is involved. But, to focus on that most unequal pairing listed above, the quick and the dead, surely there’s room for both? Put simply, past writers inhabit our hinterland.

Our spring issue offers contrasting views of interwar author Dorothy Edwards. Her biographer and editor Claire Flay, like Edwards an Ogmore Vale girl, explores. This politically engaged author was brought up to expect imminent revolution by a mother who was a pit-head baths campaigner and a father who camped nude ‘in order to establish the degree of materialism necessary for human survival.’ Edwards was a socialist and yet the world of her fiction, Rhapsody (Library of Wales) and Winter Sonata (Honno) is the rarefied one of country houses and idle elites. Claire offers a solution to this apparent paradox that has troubled readers and critics since the books’ publication in the 1920s: her conviction and evidence, presented in her biography, Dorothy Edwards, published in the UWP Writers of Wales series, that ‘rather than aspiring to a middle-class English voice in her fiction, she was undermining that world in order to attack it.’

Both biography and Winter Sonata are reviewed in the same issue by Steven Lovatt, a man who dares to question the postcolonial cause: ‘For good or ill, some recent treatments of Edwards’ books have created the impression that their status within Wales rides in part upon whether they exhibit a “postcolonial consciousness”.’ While exempting Claire from this camp, he is convinced by her theory of ‘embedded [class] critique’ within the fiction but not by her conclusion that both Edwards’ books are ‘“permeated… most of all”’ with the author’s ‘“awareness of power structures”’. He certainly takes issue with Claire’s image of Edwards as ‘“a sort of socialist Welsh spy, gathering crucial material with which to attack the ruling classes in her writing”… she was also, in ways both peculiar to herself and characteristic of her times, an aesthete and egoist [with a] sometimes crippling inner feeling of estrangement.’

Since Dorothy Edwards threw herself under a train near Caerffili at the age of 31, we can agree, at least, that she was crippled by emotional turmoil, though we may forever guess whether the cause was political or personal.

This is a version of Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column published on Saturday 4 February 2012.

New Welsh Review gets writers noticed. Support writers and publishing in Wales by subscribing!