Wednesday, 22 November 2017

An industry that's lost its way..........



I've been around long enough to have rather a lot of contacts in the writing and publishing community -- and I was intrigued by a message today from a friend who is one of the most successful writers in Wales.

The message referred to the "rampant corruption that exists in our profession", and drew my attention to an old adage often repeated in commercial publishing houses: "When  English writers write a book they look for a publisher -  Welsh writers look for a bursary". 

I have been saying this for quite some time in this blog and in letters to the powers that be -- but I had not realised that this was a common perception among the publishing houses based in London and elsewhere.  If this is true -- and I am prepared to trust my friend in this --we should be very worried indeed.  For what it means is that Welsh writers who do have real talent and deserve to get a break in the world of commercial publishing  -- or who may simply be seeking to find an agent -- will simply be tarred with the same brush as all those in Wales who subsist on subsidies and who publish books that the market does not want and the public will not read.  Everything is devalued.  Those who ride on the gravy train think of themselves as "validated writers" because Literature Wales has shunted £3,000 in their direction, whereas their talents may be very modest indeed.   Or maybe non-existent.  And the perception spreads that  nothing good ever comes out of Wales.  Sounds familiar?

Should we be angry?  Yes, we should.  Is the system corrupt?  Yes, of course it is, when among the recipients of bursaries we see university professors who are earning salaries in excess of £75,000 per year, and others who receive multiple grants simply so that they can  (over and again) "buy time to write."  It's easy to justify the subsidy scheme on the basis that every now and then a real talent emerges from the crowd -- but the effective isolation of writers and publishing houses from the commercial realities of life MUST in the end be counter-productive.

The Welsh writing and publishing scene is frequently represented by Literature Wales as being "vibrant and exciting" -- but it is nothing of the sort.  It is more dead than alive.  So do we want the literary scene in Wales to become a laughing stock across the rest of the world, or do we want it to be respected?  If we really do want the latter, we need to cut off bursaries completely or make them conditional on actual sales performance;  we need to cut dramatically the number of books being written and published in Wales; and we need to expose the whole industry to the cold realities of the commercial world.    Is the Welsh Government  up to the task?  I wonder.......

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Our begging bowl culture



This is a very interesting article by Sawel ap Harri, with the title "Wales has the attitude of a beggar – we must decolonise our minds".  I agree with rather a lot of it -- indeed, it's very close indeed to what I have been saying for some time on this blog -- particularly with respect to the literary gravy train and the almost total dependence of writers and publishers on handouts from the taxpayer while others have to survive as best they can in a commercial marketplace.

https://nation.cymru/2017/wales-has-the-attitude-of-a-beggar-we-must-decolonise-our-minds/#comment-5383

Here is an extract:

Whether we like it or not, the majority of people in Wales do believe that we are too small, too poor and too uneducated to be independent.

We believe the worst about ourselves and have internalised in some form that England is our saviour and that we feed off her wealth.

This beggar attitude is constantly reinforced by the way devolution works. It has been created in a way where we are given money from the core, namely Westminster.

We must beg the central government for funds, the right to increase our meagre sums of power before gratuitously accepting our lot in a servile, sycophantic way.

Of course, the reality is that Wales does pay to the central coffers before receiving funds back but cannot be possibly expected to pay for everything when it does not possess the means of production, which are either held centrally or have been sold off.

But our mentality, coupled with the way in which devolution is formulated, creates a perception of us scrounging money from the core.

Dignity

Devolution creates a process whereby sovereignty is presumed to rest with the Welsh Assembly Government in some areas but with locks emanating from Parliament confining which statutes it may pass.

It consistently reproduces a feeling of dependency, of having to “work with” the UK Government on what should be internal Welsh issues, having to constantly slash budgets even if the people of Wales are ideologically opposed, of not being able to build tidal lagoons and wind farms.

In essence, we are limited in how we use our very land for the benefit of the people and which could bring us our bread and our dignity.

Paulo Freire stated that “the oppressed, having internalised the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom”.

This is the real struggle with which we have to contend ourselves; put simply, we must decolonise our minds.

The concept that we will find our salvation from outside has permeated through Welsh economic and political life.

Foreign Direct Investment will apparently save us, as will Corbyn and post-Brexit Britain.


See these posts from my blog:


This is what I said:

"The rise and rise of the subsidy culture has created a generation of writers who measure their status not by the reputation and commercial success of their published outputs but by the number of bursaries they have received. Weirdly, they see themselves as "artists" rather than craftsmen. The literary culture to which they belong is dominated by Literature Wales, playing the role of the benefactor, with writers lining up each year with their begging bowls and then expressing eternal gratitude whenever a few goodies come their way. Even more distressing is the sight of respectable academic writers and talented new authors using social media to say that the receipt of a bursary of maybe £2,000, and the receipt of a modest amount of mentoring help, has given a sudden boost to their self-esteem and has somehow "vindicated" or "validated" them as writers. They appear to be blissfully unaware of how demeaning the whole relationship has become..........."

Monday, 20 November 2017

Another quote from Michael Sheen




Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture organised by Learning and Work Institute, in partnership with The Open University in Wales delivered by Michael Sheen on 16th November 2017 at RedHouse in Merthyr, Wales.

In this extract from the lecture, Michael addresses the role of the media -- specifically the broadcasting media -- in portraying Wales in all its complexity, and selling Wales to the world.  He goes on in the following section to talk about journalism and the role of the local press.......

P 22.       …………...Its how we get to connect with each other, show who we are, where we’ve been, explore who we might be, challenge and change each other, discuss, argue, provoke.

It’s how we show the rest of the world who we are and who we can be.

Without it we recede into darkness and isolation. We are all too easily drowned out and engulfed.

When the big broadcasters do get involved with more in depth and extended pieces of reporting around issues like homelessness, as ITV Cymru Wales did recently, it can have a real impact.

The 6 part BBC Wales series ‘The Story of Wales’ gave me the education I wish I could have got in school.

Series like ‘Hinterland’, ‘Bang’ and ‘Stella’ do a lot of heavy lifting.

And its been heartening to watch new exciting projects emerge like Nation.Cymru and the always inspirational Desolation Radio podcast but these are rare oases in a desert of stunted discourse.

Lee Waters and Angela Graham, in their introduction to the IWA Wales Media Audit in 2015, said -

“It is essential ...that the UK government recognise the particular media needs of Wales and that the Welsh government, too, should act to the full extent of its capacity in this area.”

An improvement on the current media provision in Wales “......is a democratic, social and cultural necessity.”

Exactly how much incentive there is for our government to support the strengthening of a sector that would of course result in them being put under far more pressure and made more accountable is up for question though.

Michael Sheen gives Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture

Michael Sheen pictured prior to giving his lecture.  He looks happy! A lot of the content of his lecture was deeply serious and more than a little depressing -- but we are where we are, and there is no great point in becoming too miserable about it........

On Thursday 16th Nov, in Merthyr, Michael Sheen gave the annual Raymond Williams lecture, having chosen the theme "Who speaks for Wales?"  It was quite a long lecture, at more than 90 minutes, but it was crammed with good things -- fluently presented (as one would expect), beautifully written and carefully researched.  It covered a vast range of topics, and everybody who has heard it has come away enlightened and even inspired.  It's available in two locations on the web:

https://www.pscp.tv/w/1mnxerwgapNKX
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbVdA7zS8dE&feature=share

One of the things I found most interesting in the talk was the short section on Welsh broadcasting, in which Michael expressed disquiet about the "sort of Wales" which is reflected to the people of Wales (and the rest of the world) by our broadcasters, including BBC Wales and S4C.  He implied, that we, the people of Wales, are being short-changed by the broadcasters, who feed us largely on a "British" diet when much of it should be much more specifically Welsh. That is not to argue that Wales should be more introverted or parochial.   He suggested that unless the current situation changes, the broadcasters will be complicit in the campaign to write Wales out of history and to deny Wales a recognition of its own character and its own narrative.

This, of course, is exactly what I have been saying on this blog for a very long time.  Why us there no strong requirement placed upon BBC Wales and the others who make programmes in Wales to tell the Welsh story alongside the telling of other people's stories?  Why is there still no big Welsh TV drama capable of selling Wales to the world?  Why do the BBC studios in Wales (and the other studios run by Pinewood and other companies) put virtually all of their efforts into the making of programmes which have nothing whatsoever to do with Wales?  Many other questions too.......  We know the answers to some of the questions, and most of the answers have to do with money -- but the politicians and the broadcasters need to consider carefully why the TV and film industry has developed as a very successful exporter of products involving minimal added value as far as Wales is concerned.  Water, coal, slate, farm products, films, TV programmes -- extracted from Wales, admittedly creating jobs, but bringing most benefits to those who live elsewhere.

http://brian-angelmountain.blogspot.co.uk/2017/02/welsh-tv-support-mechanisms-why-is.html

Back to the Welsh narrative.   As readers will know, we played around with this earlier in the year, and came up with something like this:

"Wales is two hours and a million miles away -- a small country on the Celtic fringe of Europe. The country’s green acres have seen a valiant struggle for self determination against a powerful and predatory neighbour.  From the days of its ancient myths and native princes, to the ring of castles built by its conquerors, to its soaring rocky peaks and wild coasts, to its rich bardic and linguistic heritage, and the coal and iron that forged a global industrial revolution, Wales has always been a nation of survivors.  Melancholia features large in the national psyche -- but so does euphoria, and the old mystics talked of two fighting dragons.  Welsh people still have a powerful sense of place and an instinct for subversion and social justice.  They still have an abiding fondness for family histories, mysteries and legends, poetry and music, ceremonial and eccentric traditions.  And in Wales you will find a living language, an open-hearted generosity of spirit, a real sense of mischief, and the warmest of welcomes."

That was one version that many commentators liked.  Here is another, slightly less poetic:

"Wales is a small country on the Celtic fringe of Europe with magnificent landscapes and rich natural resources. It is too close to England to have remained truly independent, and not far enough away for bloody rebellions ever to have taken hold. Throughout its history it has fought to resist the depredations of powerful neighbours; and against all the odds it has retained its language, its culture and its pride whilst encouraging toleration and liberal values and adapting to dramatic change. It has learned how to be subversive and seductive, and how to be spiritual and mischievous at the same time. In its history it has not suffered the same deep traumas as Scotland and Ireland. Its people are romantics, prone to wild swings of emotion; both melancholia and euphoria feature in the national psyche. Welsh people have a powerful "sense of place" and an abiding fondness for family histories, legends, ceremonial and ancient traditions. Eccentricity is embraced, while great value is placed upon learning. There is a tendency towards radical protest and an ever-present desire for social reform. Ultimately, Wales wants the respect of others -- and to be left in peace to enjoy and endure its own strange obsessions.”

So, bearing in mind the points made by Michael, how do we get this story told in a manner which will increase Welsh self-awareness and self-esteem and increase the respect of the rest of the world?  We are working on it......

PS.  The text of the lecture us now available.  The PDF can be accessed here:



http://www.learningandwork.wales/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/RW-LW-Lecture-Michael-Sheen.pdf





Friday, 3 November 2017

A "golden age" for Welsh language publishing?



There's an intriguing report in the Guardian today about sales of Welsh-language books over the past few years. It's good to see that sales of adult Welsh-language novels are going up, but at the same time it's sad to see that sales of Welsh-language children's books are going down.




With overall sales declining, the Chief Exec of the Welsh Books Council is obviously trying to put a positive spin on the situation, but I'm not sure we can call this "a golden age" just because a few fiction authors are achieving reasonable sales. From the article, it's clear that any title that sells 1,000 copies or more is counted as being a major success. And "Martha Jac a Sianco", with lifetime sales of 7,000, is quite exceptional. But how many Welsh language novels have sunk without trace, with sales of under 500 copies? It would be interesting to see what the average sales figures are when ALL Welsh-language fiction published in 2016 is used as the basis for the calculations........

We know that in 2015-16 Welsh-language books were supported by the taxpayer to the tune of £348,000 for 224 titles, which achieved average sales of 829 copies. From the point of view of the taxpayer, was that money well spent? We would probably all agree that if the language is to be supported, its literature must be supported as well -- but the spending priorities need to be discussed rather more than has been the case in the past.  Writing and producing books that nobody wants is nit a terribly good idea.

Another question which refuses to go away is this:  "Are the sales reported by the Welsh Books Council REAL sales, involving real customers who pay real money over the counter in exchange for their purchases?"  There are ongoing rumours that unsaleable or unsold new books published in Wales are given away and counted as sales, and that returns are not counted against recorded sales figures at the Welsh Books Council distribution depot.  True or false?  There is another rumour that around 800 copies of every title published are sent out to the trade (and to libraries and educational establishments) on publication day, whether or not they are actually ordered or wanted.  True or false?

Here is a snippet from the article:

Author Dyfed Edwards, who is bilingual, feels that Welsh authors “should be writing what people want to read … I know that sounds obvious, but I think sometimes in Wales – and in Welsh-language publishing – we maybe exist in an echo chamber. Most of the voices are very similar, the tone of the books published are similar – though, of course, there are exceptions. We write for the same readers, many of whom are our fellow writers. We need populist and popular novels and we need experimental and challenging novels,” he said. “We need Dan Browns, Cormac McCarthys, Stephen Kings, Nicholson Bakers in the Welsh language. We need Kane and Abel and we need Catch-22.”

Edwards speculated that “Welsh-language readers are mostly middle-class, educated, very much involved in ‘Welsh’ life. Maybe we should be focusing on developing [an audience] among the less traditional Welsh-speaking readership. That will certainly mean populist, genre novels, aimed at the young,” he said.

He also called for a push to translate more books from Welsh. “Look what that’s done for Scandinavian fiction. It would draw attention to the fact that we have a Welsh-language publishing industry, even among Welsh speakers who perhaps don’t buy Welsh-language books at the moment. I live in England, and often people ask me, ‘Are books published in Welsh?’ I doubt they’d ask the same of Norwegian or Finnish or Icelandic,” he said.


Some interesting points there, but Dyfed appears to be somewhat naive about commercial realities.  Which Welsh books would he like to see published?  And would anybody actually want to buy them?





Thursday, 2 November 2017

Culture Committee transcript, 12 October 2017

Dinefwr Lit Fest -- nice tents, not many people........

The transcript of the Welsh Assembly Culture Committee meeting of 12th October has now been published, and can be found here:

http://senedd.assembly.wales/documents/s67479/12%20October%202017.pdf

In this meeting the Committee tied up its evidence-taking from the great and the good of the literature and publishing world in Wales, with questions directed at Minister Ken Skates and his top officials.  This topic is dealt with from para 493 onwards.

If you look at the words carefully, it seems that the Minister is still "minded to accept" the main recommendations of the Medwin Hughes Panel by taking away the core functions of Literature Wales and giving them to the Welsh Books Council.  But he also went out of his way to praise the way in which Literature Wales has "delivered" events especially in cooperation with Visit Wales  -- more or less acting as a literary tourism agency.  I think the delivery of "literary tourism" activities is by no means as wonderful as the Minister suggests, since a lot of this delivery has been arrogant, elitist and biased.  And the "delivery" of the 2014 Dinefwr Literature Festival was pretty disgraceful, shovelling vast amounts if taxpayers money down the drain while doing great harm to other smaller festivals all over Wales, which needed LW support but did not get it.

Anyway, that's all water under the bridge, and the Committee is now deliberating behind closed doors before presenting the Minister with its report.  It will be interesting to see what they say, and what the Minister will then do.

My best guess?  Literature Wales will be wound up, and its core functions will be moved across to the Welsh Books Council.  Some of the staff will be made redundant. But a new literary tourism unit will be created within Visit Wales, and some staff will move sideways into that unit.

But I'm still intrigued by the fact that neither the Medwin Hughes Panel, nor the Assembly's Culture Committee, nor the Minister, has expressed major concern on the record about the vast wastage of public money that goes into the literary / publishing industry in Wales -- subsidising writers to write books that very few people want to read, and subsidising publishers to produce volumes that hardly anybody wants to buy.  So the gravy train rolls on, with its carriages full of bursary-winning happy writers, who love the journey so much that they repeat it over and again.  At the same time we see an endless stream of books coming off the printing presses -- and with Welsh publishers protected from this horrible thing called "commercial risk."

Monday, 16 October 2017

Literature Wales and Due Diligence



Since Literature Wales is coming under intense scrutiny just now, having been accused of spending 75% of its budget on its own staff salaries and other in-house expenditures, I have been trying to find out who keeps an eye on the governance of the organization and its spending priorities.  (I have checked its accounts quite carefully, and find that the 75% figure is just about right, as far as I can see from the figures paced in the public domain.)  So if public money is being improperly or inappropriately spent, who takes ultimate responsibility?

Since Literature Wales is a "national company" and has a quasi-official status, it is reasonable to assume that it is a part of the Welsh Government establishment. That being the case, presumably the Wales Audit Office is the body that ultimately ensures that there is no bad practice and that "value for money" is being delivered on behalf of the taxpayer.  So I wrote to the Auditor General for Wales and asked the following questions:

What are the due diligence tests that are applied to Literature Wales and other organizations with respect to the monies that they receive and the bursaries and grants that they distribute?
Where are these tests published, and who is required to enforce them?
What are the reporting mechanisms insisted upon by those who disperse public funds?
What are the procedures insisted upon by the Wales Audit Office?

I was surprised to learn, when I got a reply, that the Audit Office has no involvement whatsoever with Literature Wales.  More surprisingly, it does not get involved in "value for money" matters.  The Audit Office only scrutinizes the accounts of  "top tier" organizations -- in this case Arts Council Wales, which then has responsibility for passing on funding to second-tier organizations such as Literature Wales.

So any due diligence tests are applied by the Arts Council -- and responsibility is placed upon that organization for ensuring good governance and financial rectitude.  As we know, ACW has classified LW as a "red risk" organization for most of its six-year life, and the Assembly Culture Committee devoted a lot of time to this matter in its recent sessions.  So how is due diligence testing applied?

I wrote to the ACW Chief Executive Peter Capaldi about this, and to his great credit he replied literally within the hour!  He did not specifically answer my questions, but he did say this:   "I can assure you that a very high degree of scrutiny is brought to bear on the affairs of Literature Wales.   (I cannot comment on Welsh Books Council or Library of Wales.)  You might have seen that Hughes quotes liberally from some of the documentation that we shared with the Panel.  I think there can be no doubt, reading these, that our oversight of Literature Wales is detailed, specific and wide-ranging.”

We can take that as confirmation that due diligence is being exercised by ACW over the affairs of LW -- and so we who pay taxes can take that as a form of reassurance.  But it is still very vague, and I hope that somewhere the tests are described and enumerated and that the reporting mechanisms are adhered to by LW and assessed regularly by ACW.  And I still have niggling concerns that if there really had been "tight oversight" LW would not still be a "red risk" organization, and would not have gone off at a series of wild tangents from what its core activities are supposed to be.











Friday, 13 October 2017

Literature Wales -- stuck in the red risk zone



Yesterday the Welsh Assembly Culture Committee held its final investigation into the findings of the Medwin Hughes Panel Review, with half an hour or so spent grilling Minister Ken Skates and his top civil servants.
Attending:
Ken Skates AM, Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure
Hywel Owen, Media Policy Team Leader, Welsh Government
Paul Kindred, Senior Policy Analyst, Welsh Government
Peter Owen, Head of Arts Policy Branch, Welsh Government
There was a live stream of the meeting, and the transcript will soon be posted on the Assembly web site, probably here:
http://senedd.assembly.wales/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=445&MId=4374&Ver=4
The webcast of the meeting is still available.
Here is the BBC report:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-41497925

My own impressions, gained through listening to all the diplomatic language and trying to read the signals:

1.  The Minister defended the integrity and skill mix of the panel, which I suppose was only to be expected, since he is the one who chose the panel members!  But he also defended their findings and recommendations, and it seems to me that he is still minded to accept them and to implement them, unless the Committee comes up with powerful reasons why he should not.

2.  The Minister repeated his criticism of the attacks by Literature Wales on the integrity of the Panel members.  Quote:  "I do not believe that the criticism and - at times - attacks that some of the panel members have had to endure have been acceptable whatsoever."  He made this point a couple of months ago, and the fact that he repeated it yesterday without much prompting signals that he is not in a very forgiving mood as far as Literature Wales is concerned.  He also demonstrated a degree of frustration about the apparent refusal of LW to accept that there were any shortcomings in its own operations.

3.  There was a lot of probing from Lee Waters AM into the characterisation of Lit Wales as a "red risk" organization -- which implies real concerns about its governance and use of public funds.  The civil servants seemed to disagree on just how deep the risk was and is, but they did agree that the risk was not just associated with the fact that there was Panel scrutiny of its operations.  It went much deeper, said one of the civil servants, and pre-dated the setting up of the Medwin Hughes Panel. When the Minister was also pressed, he stated that he accepted the "red risk" designation, and the Panel's criticisms of Literature Wales, on the basis of material which has not been released into the public domain.  He offered to show some of this material to the Culture Committee  -- so the Committee will now see it before it releases its own report.

4.  The Minister agreed that the manner of setting up a Panel such as the one chaired by Medwin Hughes was not as good as it might have been, and that a more transparent process might be required should a future Panel be set up to revisit the matter of publishing and literature in Wales. (The main issue this time was not one one of impartiality and vested interests, but the lack of a publisher amongst the panel members.)  He hinted that another investigation might not be too far away...........

5.  As the BBC reporter noticed, the Minister agreed that the literary and publishing scene is riven by factions and disagreements, and that the "status quo is no longer acceptable."  In saying that the sector had to be "strengthened" and in stressing a more effective use of public funding, that signals to me that Literature Wales will be cut down to size or maybe abolished altogether.  It was interesting that he said hardly anything that was complimentary about the organization's delivery of "core services" -- while accepting that its input into "peripheral activities" in cooperation with Visit Wales etc had been good.   So there he has a dilemma -- would the delivery of "literary events" associated with Roald Dahl, Dylan Thomas etc not be better served by bringing a couple of literature officers onto the payroll of Visit Wales? (It's worth recalling that one of the Panel's main criticisms of LW was that it has become obsessed with empire building and project delivery, rather than with "enabling" or "encouraging" literature and supporting writers.)

Interesting times.  Watch this space......



 ===============
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-41497925

Ken Skates says literature review attacks unacceptable

12 October 2017

Literature and publishing organisations that receive public money will not be allowed to maintain the status quo, the economy secretary has said.
Ken Skates told the Assembly's culture committee he was still considering what changes to make but insisted the situation could not remain the same.
A review into the sector recommended sweeping changes.
It included transferring many of the responsibilities of Literature Wales to the Welsh Books Council.
Mr Skates told the assembly's culture committee: "Whilst I have made no decision on the recommendations that have been forwarded to me, I certainly think the status quo is no longer acceptable."
Literature Wales received £717,000 from the Welsh Government through the Arts Council of Wales last year to promote literature, while the Welsh Books Council received £3.5m from the government to publish and distribute books.
Professor Medwin Hughes chaired a panel that reviewed the work of both organisations, and assessed the wider sector.
Since the review's conclusions were published in June writers including Phillip Pullman have defended the work of Literature Wales, while its chairman called the review a "dud".
Literature Wales and the Arts Council of Wales have also questioned the accuracy of the report and perceived conflicts of interest among members of the review panel.

Others, including the Welsh Books Council, have approved its findings.

Mr Skates said he had been "very well served" by the report and defended the panel.
"That vociferous response did not surprise me.
"Whilst I accept that emotions have been running quite high on this, I do not believe that the criticism and - at times - attacks that some of the panel members have had to endure have been acceptable whatsoever."
Mr Skates said he would wait for the publication of the assembly committee's report on the subject before announcing any changes, but that the public funding involved meant the sector had to be "strengthened."
"This is about making sure that we make best use of taxpayers money, that we strengthen the sector, that we serve the interest of the sector and ultimately the interests of the people of Wales."
Last week, Prof Hughes defended the review to assembly members.
He said its findings were based on evidence from key organisations and 800 written submissions.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

IS THE WELSH ACADEMY DEAD?



IS THE WELSH ACADEMY DEAD?  THE DEMISE OF THE BARD?

WHAT WOULD OLD DAFYDD HAVE DONE ABOUT IT?

Sadly, the signs are that we of the Welsh writing community are a timid and apathetic bunch, without the corporate willpower to fight for our own industry.  Dafydd, that most spirited of wordsmiths, would be turning in his grave........

I've raised this issue before, and I'm not going to stop raising it, because I feel it is so important. Once upon a time the Welsh Academy was a membership-based organization, but after the creation of Literature Wales it has apparently hibernated or died, although in theory it has 600 paying members.

http://www.literaturewales.org/for-writers/the-welsh-academy

It exists to:
• Celebrate the achievements of the creative and literary writers of Wales;
• Lobby in support of key issues affecting such writers and their work;
• Foster the community of such writers within Wales;
• Provide such writers with advocacy support;
• Support the development of such writers in their careers.

In other words, it is supposed to do the same sort of job as the Society of Authors and the Writers' Guild in England. It still has a management board made up of the following people:
Tom Anderson (Chair)
Dylan Foster Evans (Deputy Chair)
Lucy Christopher
Catherine Fisher
Delyth George
Matthew Jarvis
Jo Mazelis
Dafydd John Pritchard
Gary Raymond
Eurig Salisbury
Rachel Trezise

No doubt these are excellent people, but how they were appointed or elected is a matter of some mystery. Members are "invited" to join -- and there is no application process. If you are lucky, you may be invited to become a Fellow, and if you are even luckier you might become an Honorary Member. Currently there are two Presidents -- Bobi Jones and Gillian Clarke. There is a longish list of Fellows and a shortish list of Hon Members. These lists can be accessed via the Members' Page:
http://www.literaturewales.org/for-wri…/the-welsh-academy/…/

In 2016 a "Memorandum of Understanding" was signed between the Academy and Literature Wales, which was by that time describing itself as " the national company for the promotion of literature." Membership costs £20 per year (cheques payable to "Literature Wales"). That presumably translates into an income of £12,000 per year. Where does it all go? LW takes £2,500 from the annual subscriptions collected to cover admin and support costs. I'm a member, and I have never seen any Welsh Academy board meeting minutes or annual financial statements. Neither, I suspect, has anybody else. The one valuable service that was provided was the Writers of Wales web-based database which was accessible via the Literature Wales web site but which disappeared without warning about a year ago. Despite protestations that a new database is being built, it is apparent that there is really no intention to replace it.
http://brian-angelmountain.blogspot.co.uk/…/welsh-writers-s…

The Welsh Academy has been allowed (perhaps encouraged?) by Literature Wales to wither on the vine. So there is now no organization in Wales which exists to support the writing community. This is a scandal. Is anybody doing anything about it? It appears not....... and from the great and the good of the Welsh writing community, there is a thunderous silence. Why might that be? Answers on a postcard please......

(Extract from Angel Mountain Newsletter No 6)

Monday, 9 October 2017

A dysfunctional Welsh literary scene



The Welsh Assembly's Culture Committee continues its work on the support mechanisms for literature and publishing in Wales, and the latest transcript of proceedings (on 4th October) has now been published for public access. It can be found here:



 
The transcript is no less intriguing than the earlier ones, revealing a really deep breakdown of trust between the members of the Medwin Hughes Panel and the representatives of Literature Wales.  Much of the transcript reads like any other Committee transcript, with a lot of repetition and requests for supporting information or for elaborations of points already made.  But what is intriguing here is the delving by committee members into the reasons for the aggressive reaction by Literature Wales to the Panel's recommendations to the Minister.  Medwin Hughes and other Panel members were perfectly honest, when pressed, about the belligerent and disrespectful attitude of Chief Executive Lleucu Siencyn and the weird and apparently evasive tactics of Management Board Chair Damian Walford Davies, who did not exactly go out of his way to agree to a formal meeting with the Panel.  At various times in the questioning, the diplomatic veneer fell away to reveal something very raw underneath. 

This certainly did nothing to enhance the survival prospects of Literature Wales, and it didn'd do much good for the prospects of the Welsh writing community either.  As one of the Committee members said,  she sees a Welsh literary scene riven by factions.  She wondered why the taxpayer should put money into something that is clearly dysfunctional -- and she had a point.




Saturday, 7 October 2017

This could be the Plas Ingli barn......



This is a fantastic image of the old barn at Trefacwn -- in my mind, something like this could have been at Plas Ingli!

Acknowledgement:  Karen Desrosiers‎ on the Trefacwn Self-Catering Facebook page.

Friday, 6 October 2017

A very strange episode.......



If you ask the average fiction writer (is there such a person?) where a particular story came from, he or she would probably say it started with a germ of an idea, and then developed over weeks or years, with plot line and characters growing slowly and then taking on lives of their own.  With me, it was very different.  The Angel Mountain saga, Martha Morgan and all the other characters (and there are many) were all born in November 1999 in Apartment 30E, Monte Rojo, San Agustin, Gran Canaria.

So for those readers who have not heard this strange tale of where Mistress Martha and the saga came from, here is a short resume:

A Very Strange Episode

Over the course of the last fifty years I have written more than 80 books, but prior to 1999 I had never had any great urge to write fiction. My wife Inger had often encouraged me to “write a novel”, but I had always refused on the grounds that the world of fiction is alien territory in which I would probably feel out of place and even hopelessly lost. Then something happened which was very strange indeed -- and almost spooky.............

In 1999 Inger and I travelled to Gran Canaria for a short holiday, and en route I picked up a strange virus on the aircraft. Maybe it was aerotoxic syndrome.  I felt ill even before we landed, but on arrival I experienced classic flu-like symptoms, including a high temperature, headache, heavy limbs, and episodes of shivering. I went straight to bed when we arrived at the apartment, and I spent the whole of the night wide awake, feeling horrible and sweating gallons. During this strange delirious episode, a story came into my head -- of a feisty and passionate woman called Martha Morgan. (At first I thought her name was Mary, but then I realized that only Martha would do.) As I lay there in the warm darkness, gazing at the bedroom ceiling, I tuned in to dates, places, characters, and a storyline covering the whole of Martha’s exciting life between 1796 (when she was still a teenager) and the time of her death in1855. Somehow or other, individual episodes came into my head, and I even picked up on key conversations in considerable detail. I knew that the story had to be told in the words of Mistress Martha, not retrospectively but with immediacy, through diary entries.

In the morning, not having slept a wink, I felt better, but the story was fixed firmly inside my head. (If the story had come to me in a dream, it would certainly have disappeared from my memory by breakfast time.) I told Inger about this strange experience, and she said “Well then, you’d better start writing!” So I did..........

Now, sixteen years later, I still do not know what to make of that strange episode. At least, I now know what the term “fevered imagination” means! But I still think that in some strange way the story was “given” to me, and that I had to keep faith with this exotic and imperfect creature called Mistress Martha. For better or for worse, in spite of the fact that I was at the time a 59-year-old grandfather, I had to try and put into words the emotions and the experiences of a pregnant, suicidal 18-year-old female who lived more than 200 years ago, and I had to do it in the most difficult of formats -- the daily diary. My family and friends probably thought I was nuts, but to their credit they did not try to discourage me!

Since the publication of “On Angel Mountain” in 2001 I have been asked on innumerable occasions whether there really was a woman called Martha Morgan who lived and died in North Pembrokeshire at the time of the saga. After all, they say, if the story came to me as a gift, who was the donor if not Martha herself, or her spirit? I am intrigued by ghosts and spirits, and certainly do not dismiss them out of hand -- and I have done my duty, in the interests of science, by searching through the old records for somebody called Martha Morgan who might have been the Mistress of a failing estate in the early years of the nineteenth century. I have found several women named Martha Morgan in the right period, but they all seem to have lived far away from Newport.  All very peculiar.......

The Angel Mountain Allegory




This is the story.  In 1796 a pregnant, unmarried and suicidal teenager called Martha Morgan is plunged into a world of violence and corruption in the “Wild West” of Wales when she becomes Mistress of a ruinous small estate.  She loses her baby and her husband. Somehow she survives, and with the help of assorted eccentric "angels" she tries to protect her family and her inheritance from prowling predators.  She fights endlessly for the rights of the downtrodden.  Over the course of 60 years, several love affairs and many involvements in the great events of the time, she becomes an incorrigible matriarch who outlives all of her enemies.  At last she goes to her grave in a manner of her own choosing, content that she has left the world a little better than she found it. 

But behind every story, there is a story.  I have written many times about the symbolism built into the novels, and I have explained that I have tried to ensure that it does not become too obvious or too dominating.  After all, if you are writing novels your prime duty to the reader is to entertain by telling a good story in a competent way.  So the mountain, the house, the raven, the cave, the spring, and even the kitchen table are there in every single novel, recognized as symbols by some readers but not by others.  They resonate and tell us that there may be more going on than meets the eye.  The symbols also reinforce for the reader the idea that Martha is not just a small woman caught up in petty events but is a seriously important literary figure who has something to say about the human condition generally, and more particularly about the role of women in society.  For me, she is still endlessly fascinating, although I am still uncertain how she evolved and why she turned out to be herself a symbol. So is Martha really Mother Wales, and and is the Plas Ingli estate Wales itself?

Mother Wales.  That term was first used by a Scottish friend who read the books, and it has been used by many other readers since then.  And although it was never my intention to create a character worthy of that title, in retrospect I now see that while I was doing the writing, one novel after another, that character was slowly emerging.  So yes -- Mother Wales, just as we have Britannia, Mother Earth, Mother Nature, The Earth Goddess, and the Eternal Idol.  In myths and legends from across the world, powerful and even fearsome women pop up all the time, as they do in literature.  And  these female / matriarchal symbols are idealised not just as gentle mother figures but also as figures who have weaknesses and even tragic defects.  So the goddess becomes lover, sorceress, temptress and witch -- and she is capable of jealousy, lust, rage, and a multitude of other vices.  That's Mistress Martha all over.......

So if Martha, who is very far from being the "ideal heroine" or "perfect woman", somehow represents the protective spirit of Wales and is referred to by readers as Mother Wales, what about her relationship with the land?  Again I did not consciously work at this, but it seemed to me entirely natural that Martha should have a profound and sensuous relationship with her patch of land, her mountain of Carningli and her little estate of Plas Ingli.  So the mountain is her cathedral -- she reveres it and even worships it.  She feels that she is part of the mountain and that the mountain is a part of her.  When -- for whatever reason, she is away from the mountain and the Plas, her sense of hiraeth becomes almost unbearable.  The intensity of the relationship between person and place is not uniquely Welsh, since it exists also in many other countries in rural communities in particular.  But in Ireland and Scotland, the love of the land is tinged with sadness and anger arising from the Clearances and the Great Hunger -- with resistance, revolution and armed conflict running right through to the present day. The relationship with the land has both love and hate in it.  In England the love of the land has been diluted by industrialisation, urbanisation and "modernisation".  In Wales it is still there, with a mystical and romantic component which makes it very special.....

Back to the log line and the enemies -- the prowling predators -- who have designs not just upon Martha herself but on her little estate.  Her little patch of land is rough, and not particularly productive, but it is immensely beautiful, and it has the history and the traditions of an old family embedded in it.  It is surrounded by larger and more powerful estates owned by predatory members of the minor gentry who see it as an inconvenience and even as an irritant -- especially since, under Martha's guidance it becomes a place of compassion where equality and tolerance are promoted and where a variety of social experiments turn labourers and servants into friends.  On the Plas Ingli estate social barriers are broken down and the inhabitants get occasional glimpses of something that is not quite utopia, but is at least a little better than the misery that afflicted many parts of early nineteenth century Britain.  Those who become Martha's friends are the angels who protect her whenever she gets into trouble -- as she does, all too often.

Predatory neighbours with expansionist intentions and an instinct for suppression and exploitation?  Now where have we heard that before?  So if you were to ask me whether, in the stories of the saga, the Plas Ingli estate is really a symbol for the nation and the rough green acres of Wales, I would reply in the affirmative.  But the story is also much more than that.  It’s about a strong woman, trapped by personal circumstances and convention, who is determined to survive and even thrive — but also to win respect in a male-dominated world, to establish her own autonomy, and to win acceptance of her own independence. She wants an end to exploitation, respect even for the poor and downtrodden, social justice and a toleration of diversity.  Until her dying day she fights for all of these things, in the process igniting metaphorical fires and then getting far too close to them!  In short, she wants FREEDOM.......

If that makes the whole saga an allegory, so be it.  Like Animal Farm, The Lord of the Rings, Pilgrim's Progress?  That's fine by me.

Here is a summary of the Welsh narrative:
"Wales is a small country on the Celtic fringe of Europe with magnificent landscapes and rich natural resources. It is too close to England to have remained truly independent, and not far enough away for bloody rebellions ever to have taken hold. Throughout its history it has fought to resist the depredations of powerful neighbours; and against all the odds it has retained its language, its culture and its pride whilst encouraging toleration and liberal values and adapting to dramatic change. It has learned how to be subversive and seductive, and how to be spiritual and mischievous at the same time. In its history it has not suffered the same deep traumas as Scotland and Ireland. Its people are romantics, prone to wild swings of emotion; both melancholia and euphoria feature in the national psyche. Welsh people have a powerful "sense of place" and an abiding fondness for family histories, legends, ceremonial and ancient traditions. Eccentricity is embraced, while great value is placed upon learning. There is a tendency towards radical protest and an ever-present desire for social reform. Ultimately, Wales wants the respect of others -- and to be left in peace to enjoy and endure its own strange obsessions.”

If, in that paragraph, you want to transpose everything I say about Wales into the personality — and history — of Martha Morgan of Plas Ingli, that would also be fine by me.

Panel reinforces criticism of Literature Wales



At another session of the Assembly's Culture Committee on 4th October, the representatives of Arts Council Wales and the Medwin Highes Panel were cross-examined.  The recording of the session is available on the Assembly web site, and the transcript will soon be available too.

http://senedd.assembly.wales/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=445&MID=4373

It looks as if Medwin Hughes and his Panel are not going to be pushed around by anybody, least of all by Literature Wales.   He claims that the recommendations re Literature Wales were based upon a multitude of submissions and complains about the way the organization is run. He is not backing off from the view that LW is run by people who have an overwhelming "sense of entitlement." Let us now see how the Culture Committee reports on its deliberations.

The BBC report on the latest session is here:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-41501783


Professor Medwin Hughes giving evidence to the Committee on 4th October

Here we have a very interesting document:

Go to Agenda Item 5, and you will see the Panel's written response to the criticisms of Literature Wales and Arts Council Wales -- a point by point rebuttal.  Feisty stuff!  The Panel sticks to all of its recommendations, and makes only a very few tweaks to the wording. 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Angel Mountain -- the big themes


 Martha with her captured musket, having sorted out the French Invasion
 
We continue to talk and plan,  and continue to hope that a run of four series might be on the cards.  There are a lot of themes to be covered in 32 episodes, but a clever screenwriter can do it!

This is the narrative:
A pregnant, suicidal teenager survives the loss of baby and husband to become Mistress of a ruinous Welsh estate. Through turbulent times, helped by assorted unlikely "angels", she refuses to conform or submit, fights for the rights of the downtrodden, and defeats the enemies who desire both her and her inheritance.

But behind the driving force of the narrative there is a lot going on.  All the best costume drama taps into the big storylines of the day. “Victoria” (ITV) did that very well the other day when it tapped into the tragedy of the Irish Potato Famine.  These are some of the themes dealt with across 32 episodes of the story:

------------------------

Episodes 1-4 (On Angel Mountain, 1796 - 1797).  

Context:  Big estates in trouble -- and the French Invasion.  Also flag up W Wales as the wild west -- rebellious, almost anarchic, with little respect for the government from Westminster.

-----------------

Episodes 5-8 (House of Angels, 1805 - 1806).  

Context:  21 Oct 1805 - Battle of Trafalgar.   Napoleonic Wars.  The justice system and the penal colonies -- and the desperate attempts made by small estates to keep afloat.  The gentry will stop at nothing just to survive.

---------------

Episodes 9 & 10  (Dark Angel, 1807 - 1808).   

Context:  25 March 1807 - abolition of the slave trade.  Lawlessness -- corruption of the gentry and the justice system. Napoleonic Wars roll on. The diplomatic business of “the right marriage”…..

-------------------

Episodes 11-14  (Sacrifice, 1808 - 1809).  

Context:  Secret Societies and their role in maintaining the hold of the gentry over those who want reform.  Effects of opium etc. Violence, revenge, and the inability of the law to protect those who are in danger.  Rough justice -- Ceffyl Pren etc.  The country is still at war.

---------------

Episodes 15-18  (Conspiracy of Angels, 1810 - 1815).  

Context:  the slave trade, which is supposed to have stopped.  The contrast between the lives of the poor and the life of the upper class -- Martha encounters it in her trip to the Lake District.  Kidnappings, ransoms etc -- Martha is pulled into the corridors of power, and is involved in secret actions sanctioned by the Prime Minister himself.  Sir Thomas Picton and the case of Louisa Calderon. Final defeat of Napoleon.

-----------------------

Episodes 19 & 20 (Dark Angel, 1817 - 1822).  

Context:  Owain’s history in the turbulent wars in Europe, caused largely by the predations and ambitions of Napoleon.  Emigrations to America.  The country returns to more peaceful ways.

---------------------

Episodes 21-24  (Rebecca and the Angels, 1832 - 1844).  

Context:  The evils of the Turnpike Trusts and the corrupt practices of the gentry.  The Rebecca Riots and social protest movements across UK  -- the use of the press in informing the public and in campaigning for changes in the law. The Chartist Riots. 

------------------

Episodes 25-28  (Flying with Angels, 1844 - 1855).   

Context:  The Irish Potato famine.  Shipwrecks.  The evangelical revivals.  The secret Society of Sea Serjeants  -- driven by ancient family animosities.  The death of Amos -- the inability of mean-spirited people to tolerate virtue.  Allegory -- burial in the tomb…..

——————————

Episodes 29-32  (Guardian Angel, 1855 - 1859). 

Context:  Industrialisation and the ambitions of the coal masters and the iron masters.  The Guest family and Merthyr Tydfil -- the poor of China.  The destruction of the landscape and the rape of the fair country….

-----------------

The Welsh Narrative -- again



Last year we had a number of posts on this blog about the requirement placed on the TV and radio broadcasters in Wales to "represent" Wales to both the people of Wales and the big wide world beyond.  We suggested the following as one brief summary of the narrative:

"Wales is two hours and a million miles away -- a small country on the Celtic fringe of Europe. The country’s green acres have seen a valiant struggle for self determination against a powerful and predatory neighbour.  From the days of its ancient myths and native princes, to the ring of castles built by its conquerors, to its soaring rocky peaks and wild coasts, to its rich bardic and linguistic heritage, and the coal and iron that forged a global industrial revolution, Wales has always been a nation of survivors.  Melancholia features large in the national psyche -- but so does euphoria, and the old mystics talked of two fighting dragons.  Welsh people still have a powerful sense of place and an instinct for subversion and social justice.  They still have an abiding fondness for family histories, mysteries and legends, poetry and music, ceremonial and eccentric traditions.  And in Wales you will find a living language, an open-hearted generosity of spirit, a real sense of mischief, and the warmest of welcomes."

This is the poetic one.  Other versions are more mundane.....

How much progress has been made in 2017 in fulfilling the requirement to represent something like this in the TV output?  Very little, I think.  For a start, there is no costume drama which might explore the historical side of this story.   Yes, Welshness is portrayed in series like "Hinterland" and no doubt in the new series to be shown in the coming months -- but since we are talking essentially about thrillers and crime dramas, we are talking about human beings, some good and some bad, caught in challenging situations and having to make difficult decisions in order to extricate themselves.  The settings for stories like these could be anywhere.  True, the backdrop of the Port Talbot Steelworks is different from the backdrop of a container depot in Felixtowe,  but what do the story characters and the storylines tell us about Wales?  Sometimes a bit, and sometimes not much.......

So forgive me, but I'm going to carry on banging on about this, because I think Wales is consistently undersold  by the politicians, the broadcasters and the programme makers.......       

ACW and Literature Panel grilled by AMs

Today there is another big session of the Assembly's Culture Committee -- still looking into the Medwin Hughes Panel report on support mechanisms for literature and publishing in Wales. On 20 Sept the committee cross-examined representatives from Literature Wales and The Welsh Books Council. Today Nick Capaldi and David Alston (for Arts Council Wales) and Medwin Hughes, Elin Haf Gruffydd Jones and Martin Rolph (for the Panel) have been given a going-over. The transcripts will no doubt be published soon.
http://senedd.assembly.wales/ieListDocuments.aspx…

The Literature Wales Money Machine



This is from the Literature Wales web site.  I find it quite bizarre, and cannot work out how these figures  are arrived at. I suspect that there is a lot of double counting in there.........   The concept of match funding is of course well known, but money doesn't just get "created" or "generated".  You cannot conjure money out of thin air, as the politicians keep on reminding us.  What they seem to be suggesting is that money pulled in from outside, thereby increasing their own turnover, is by definition a good thing, making a contribution to the Welsh economy.  Well yes, I suppose that is almost a good thing, since people are being gainfully employed, and presumably they spend their salaries locally.  But the question the AMs will be asking themselves, in their current investigations, is this:  Is that £1,827,000 money well spent, or would it have had much greater economic spinoffs if it had been spent elsewhere?

Literature Wales is proud that providing priceless opportunities is at the core of what we do. We’re also pleased that we contribute £1.827m to the Welsh economy.

For every £1 invested in Literature Wales by  the Arts Council of Wales, an additional £2.50 is generated. An additional £114,000 is created through Writers on Tour; £326,000 is created through Tŷ Newydd Writing Centre; £109,000 is created through other activity including major events such as Wales Book of the Year and literary tours; £308,000 is generated through fundraising; £910,000 through partnerships; and £60,000 given as in-kind support to others.

Literature / publishing agencies are grilled by AMs



We have posted on this before, and here is an update.  Those of us who are involved in writing and publishing in Wales need to keep an eye on what is happening at the decision-making level -- in the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Government. The repercussions of the "Medwin Hughes Panel" Report into Welsh literature and publishing are potentially very big indeed. On Wednesday 20th Sept the Assembly's Culture Committee heard evidence from Lleucu Siencyn and Prof Damian Walford Davies (for Literature Wales) and from Prof Wynn Thomas and Helgard Krause (for Welsh Books Council). The transcript has now been published, and you can read it by clicking on the 20th September link. It's so sad that it's sunk to the level of a slanging match. Nearly all of the slanging, it has to be said, is being done by Literature Wales.   In more than 40 years of publishing in Wales I can never remember anything like it.
Click here:
http://senedd.assembly.wales/mgIssueHistoryHome.aspx?IId=15157

Next up, the AMs will cross-examine representatives from the Medwin Hughes Panel.  That should be interesting!

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Carn Afr deserted farm -- another hafod....



I have been telling people on some of my walks that Hafod Tydfil is the only true "hafod" settlement in Preseli.  Well, it is the only one clearly visible on the north side of the mountain -- it may have been a summer grazing area originally, and then it turned into a tenanted farm in its own right.  Legend has it that RM Lockley farmed there for a while after being evicted by the military from Skokholm (or was it Skomer?) during the Second World War.

Well, there is another one on the south side of the mountain, as we are reminded by this excellent snowy Coflein image -- I think it was taken by Toby Driver.  It's near Carn Afr, which is a strange tor quite a long way from the main cluster of tors at the eastern end of the upland ridge.  I wonder who set up this little farmstead, and I wonder how long they lasted in this hostile environment?

Here is another image, from the Bing satellite imagery.   Carn Afr is on the left.  What is that strange rectangular structure beneath the tor?  A sheepfold?