Thursday, 25 September 2014

Prize-winning Free Stories for Harfat Pupils

Today's News:
Prize-winning Free Stories for Harfat Pupils

All of the schoolchildren in years 4, 5 and 6 of the Haverfordwest primary schools have been given copies of a prize-winning story written by local author Brian John.

The paperback book, entitled "The Strange Affair of the Ethiopian Treasure Chest", was published four years ago, and went on to win the Wishing Shelf Gold Award for children's fiction -- a prize given by a nationwide panel of schoolchildren, without any interference from adults!

Now, with the help of Pembrokeshire County Council in facilitating the project, five hundred copies of the book have been distributed to local children under a scheme called "Big Book Bash 2014."  The hope is that local children in the upper primary school age-group will enjoy owning copies of the book -- and that with the help of their teachers they will be encouraged to read it and to write imaginative stories of their own.

Brian says:  "I enjoyed my time in Prendergast Primary School in the years after the Second World War, and the storyline in "The Strange Affair" is based (very loosely indeed) on my memories of adventures in and around Prendergast, Prospect Place and Scotchwells.  So Haverfordwest was the centre of my world, as it is for hundreds of local children today.  This is my first children's book, and having learned as a child to enjoy stories written by others, I thought it would be entirely appropriate to give something back, for the new generation of readers and aspiring writers.   Children are instinctively imaginative and creative -- and it will be wonderful if this scheme helps to further the Welsh Government's literacy ambitions and nurtures a future generation of Pembrokeshire authors!  Over and above that, I would love to see the children of Haverforwest developing a really strong "sense of place" and an awareness of the traditions and history of the community in which they live.  And if they can put their gadgets to one side every now and then, and get out there and have adventures, so much the better!"

How slow the wind

In April 2013 I posted this on Facebook:

Is this the shortest poem ever? I find it very moving.

How slow the Wind—
how slow the sea—
how late their Fathers be!

Emily Dickinson c 1883

The painting is by Daniel Ridgway Knight (American-born French genre painter, 1839-1924) and is called "Waiting for the Return of the Fishermen."

Well, I have now discovered that there was a mistake in that version of the thirteen-word poem.  When Emily Dickinson wrote it, it ran as follows:

How slow the Wind—
how slow the sea—
how late their Feathers be!

A masterpiece of brevity, and not easy to understand.  The last line is "How late their FEATHERS be."  Not fathers!  That mistake occurs in many reprints of this simple little poem.  So it's not about small children waiting - endlessly - on the shore for their fathers to return from some ocean voyage or fishing trip. It's a nature poem, like many of her others -- and it must be about birds, and the slow arrival of the spring as the migrating birds return from overseas...... with the poet waiting and waiting, and gazing out to sea.

But think for a moment how clever the wording is.  To describe the wind as "slow" is very startling.  We normally describe the wind as "strong" or "gentle" or "moderate" ......... but I have never heard the word "slow" used in this context.   And then to use the same word with respect to the sea.  Even more clever, and more startling.  A slow sea?  And yet we know exactly what she means......

And the last line.  An exclamation to end one of the shortest poems ever.  The feathers must be a reference to the birds whose return the poet longs for -- but she uses the word "their" to imply that the feathers do not belong to the unmentioned birds, but to the wind and the sea.  And in doing that, Emily Dickinson conjures up images of loose feathers floating in the air or drifting in the wind, and images of "feathers" on the tips of waves as they break and foam.  We see white flecks far out to sea -- delicate feathers where normally we think of white horses, geese or sheep (it depends which country we come from!).  

So even though I had the word "fathers" instead of "feathers" I still think this poem is wonderful.  Written -- or crafted -- by a consummate poet, and packed with symbolism.  It's even cleverer than I thought when I first read it...........  

And it's been set to music at least twice -- so it strikes a chord or two with quite a few people.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Acts of God - jacket 3

Still tweaking that draft cover.... here is the latest version!

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Penfro Bookfest 2014 is just over a week away. A great programme this year -- check it out at the following site:

Is the Angel Mountain Saga an Allegory?

The heroic female used to encourage American women in WW2 to get stuck in, roll their sleeves up, and help the war effort.  This is very much a "working class" image, and Martha was of course a member of the gentry, but you get the message.......

First, there was "Under Milk Wood" -- and then came "On Angel Mountain".  The first was a work of undisputed genius.  I hesitate to say the same about the second, since I wrote it, but I can at least seek to extol its virtues.  If asked to summarise the content of eight hefty novels in around fifty words, this is what I would say:

A pregnant and suicidal teenager becomes Mistress of a struggling estate in the Wild West of Wales. She loses baby and husband, and with the help of assorted unlikely "angels"she refuses to conform or submit, fights for the rights of the downtrodden, and seeks to defeat the enemies who desire both her and her inheritance.

That's the bare bones of it.  If you want a slightly expanded version, how about this:

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.  She is, of course, Mother Wales, and her Plas Ingli estate is Wales itself .

 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.

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 miserably 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.

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

About Mother Wales

From one of my Q & A sessions, first published in 2012:

Many readers have remarked that Mistress Martha is really “Mother Wales.”   Have you set out to encourage that belief?

When I wrote On Angel Mountain I was simply intent upon writing a rattling good story with believable characters and enough twists and turns in the plot to keep readers happy.  Young Martha Morgan was my heroine, but I had no plan to develop her as an iconic figure.  But then I had to develop her character greatly in the story called House of Angels, in which she has to cope with the death of her husband and with other very dramatic events.  A good friend read the novel and asked me whether I had modelled Martha on Chris Guthrie in Grassic Gibbons’ Sunset Song.  I had not even heard of that novel or its author.  But I went off and read all three novels in A Scots Quair, and was bowled over by them.  I can quite understand why Chris Guthrie is viewed by many students of Scottish literature as Mother Scotland.  But she is a victim, and Martha Morgan is anything but a victim.

I have not tried to manufacture Martha's character, but I have tried to bring out different aspects of it in the eight novels of the Saga.  Maybe she does embody all that is best and worst about Wales.  On the one hand she is beautiful, passionate, feisty, strong-willed and fiercely loyal and protective of those whom she loves.  On the other hand she is prone to introspection and even deep depression and paranoia.  At times she becomes arrogant and manipulative.  Because of these wild swings in her temperament, between euphoria and hyperactivity on the one hand and deep, grinding and long-lived depression on the other, some have suggested that maybe Martha suffered from Bipolar Disorder.  Now that I come to think of it, maybe she did.  She cannot keep her nose out of other peoples’ business, and becomes involved in great campaigns which can only lead her into trouble.  But she hates injustice and suffering, and is prepared to take huge personal risks in the rightings of wrongs. At times she seems unaware of the physical danger in which she places herself -- to the point of naivety, and to the exasperation of her family and friends.  She has an almost mystical relationship with the landscape in which she lives and the house which gives her shelter.  She belongs to Carningli, and the mountain belongs to her. She is also proudly Welsh and refuses to submit to any authority which she does not respect.

The early stories have as a running theme Martha's sexuality and her passionate relationships with her husband David and then with Owain, the man to whom she is betrothed but whom she never marries.  In the second book she learns how to cope with both motherhood and widowhood.  In Dark Angel she faces up to insecurity and her own tendency towards depression and paranoia.  Sometimes she is a good mother, and sometimes she makes disastrous mistakes.   In Sacrifice and Conspiracy of Angels she is in her prime, still with a young family to look after -- but having to survive appalling brutality and personal humiliation as a result of her tendency to get sucked into affairs that a wiser woman would have avoided like the plague.  But every time she is knocked over, she bounces up again.  She is nothing if not resilient!  She is also very liberal and liberated -- and in that sense a very "modern" heroine, very different from the other subservient and suppressed women who belonged in her peer group.  In Rebecca and the Angels she is in middle age, and as the children fly the nest she needs to learn how to let go -- and how to find a new role for herself as a philanthropist and activist, espousing more than one great cause.  In Flying with Angels she becomes increasingly eccentric,  but she is in some ways liberated as the next generation takes over the estate -- and she has to learn to cope with THEIR mistakes and misjudgments in her role as family matriarch.  She has one last fling, and confronts the fact that even she will not live for ever.  And finally in Guardian Angel she is involved in a strange and allegorical adventure, with a new persona -- and has to explore in her own mind the meaning of identity.....

Throughout every phase of her life she is passionately WELSH, frequently expressing his disdain for  the establishment and the crachach and always siding with the poor and the oppressed in their battles with the government, the church, the mean-spirited gentry and the taxation system.  In every one of the eight books her relationship with Carningli and her own sacred territory is a strong theme --  so this strange thing called hiraeth is at the very core of her being.

 If all that makes her Mother Wales, so be it!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

A Moral Dilemma........

Very much in the news at the moment -- a moral dilemma:  To what extent should the leaders of a democratic country be prepared to accept that in pursuit of a foreign policy objective there will be "collateral damage" including the deaths of some of their own citizens?

The pundits on the news are all discussing this today, as Cameron tries to address the issue of the barbaric behaviour of the Islamic State terrorists towards UK nationals and the foreign policy objectives of the government.  Should the government take a hard line full of "stern unwavering resolve" and become militarily involved, in the knowledge that UK citizens might be next in line for barbaric executions?

This is a difficult and serious issue.  Interestingly, it is one of the issues dealt with head-on in my novel "Acts of God" --  where incredibly complex dilemmas are confronted both by the powers that be (UK government, the Americans and NATO) and by the heroes of the story.  Watch this space.....

I knew it was an allegory when I wrote it.  The story is set in the Cold War in 1962, but I had not appreciated just how close the story-line might take us to the big events on the international stage in 2014.

Acts of God -- latest cover idea.....

Still playing around with jacket ideas -- this is an older draft, but with the exposure significantly changed. 

I have done a further revision to the text, which involved dropping two characters and making various other tweaks to the story to enhance the extent to which the reader gets to know the key characters.  Even better now -- but of course it is still almost impossible to get an agent interested!

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Wales and Landmark Costume Drama -- fine words and no action

Icons galore -- but no powerful central narrative.  So what's the message?

‘A nation needs its own fiction. It is for this reason that many countries have used fictional narratives to create a self-image.’
Enric Castell√≥  in ‘The Production of Television and Nation Building, The Catalan Case’, European Journal of Communication, 22, 1, 49-68.

In the summer of 2014 Ruth McElroy of the University of Glamorgan re-ignited the debate about the manner in which the national identity of Wales is projected through the media -- and in particular through television programming.  While acknowledging the great success of BBC Wales dramas like Dr Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Merlin and Casualty (and recently Hinterland) she said: ".........the challenge now is to transform this network success into making a new BBC Wales that has something imaginative and entertaining to say to and about Wales and not just from Wales. Because whilst network successes like Doctor Who and Casualty can provide jobs in Wales (for my students included) what they have not really done is tell us very much about ourselves. A national broadcaster should have something to say, not just something to make.  And if that nation is bilingual, then the stories it tells must be too. "
Plan of Action? Responding to Tony Hall
Ruth McElroy calls for a plan of action for English language TV in Wales
July 2nd, 2014

Ruth was building on the findings of a big study published a few years ago, after a programme of research by the University of Glamorgan in collaboration with the BBC Trust and Audience Council Wales:
S. Blandford, S. Lacey,  R. McElroy & R. Williams (2010) Screening the Nation: Wales and Landmark Television. Report for the BBC Trust and BBC Cymru Wales Audience Council.

That research examined the representation of Wales in landmark BBC television drama made in Wales. Published in March 2010, the report used interviews with audiences and textual analysis of popular shows like Dr Who and Torchwood, to shed light on the complex relationship between television production, its locations, and the impact of local, regional and national identity. One of the questions at the end of the study was this one:  what is the visibility of Welsh stories outside Wales?  Although the language in the report was very diplomatic, and there was great praise for BBC's huge success in the making of big networked drama productions sold throughout the world, there were many comments which suggested a sense of dissatisfaction about the BBC's failure to represent, through landmark home-grown drama series, the spirit and the soul of Wales in a manner that is neither stereotyped nor over-simplified.   Think Belonging, Pobol y Cwm, and Gavin and Stacey.......

Ruth was also responding to some of the things that BBC Director General Tony Hall said in April 2014 in a speech to the Welsh Assembly, including the following:
"........ I do believe the BBC will need to think hard about how it strengthens its support for national and regional self-expression as it prepares its case for a new charter. And I would like to invite you all tonight to be a part of the debate."

‘............there are some aspects of national life in Wales that are not sufficiently captured by the BBC’s own television services in Wales, and I would include comedy, entertainment and culture in those categories’.

".........English language programming from and for Wales has been in decline for almost a decade’.

BBC Director-General Speech at the Pierhead
On the 50th Anniversary of BBC Wales, Director-General Tony Hall delivers a speech about the BBC’s role in Wales.
April 1st, 2014

In response to this Rhodri Talfan Davies, the Director of BBC Wales, said:
"........looking ahead, Tony Hall was surely right to say that we will need to think hard about how we can strengthen our support for national and regional self-expression as we prepare our case for a new Royal Charter." (BBC Wales Management Review 2013/14)

Fine words but not much action, and in her short piece Ruth was asking for some strategic thinking and for a Plan of Action designed to give the people of Wales the programmes they deserve -- portraying and reinforcing a sense of national identity (including bilingualism and diversity) and at the same time, through effective marketing, selling Wales to the world.  That, one might have thought, would be something of interest to the Welsh Government and Visit Wales.

This brings me to costume drama.  Think about it.  There has not been -- ever -- a landmark costume drama made in Wales which portrays Wales and its "national identity."  A number of observers have commented that the Welsh TV industry (which includes BBC, S4C, ITV and a number of very successful independent production companies) is deeply conservative, to the point of timidity.  Is "complacency" the right word?  Maybe not. The BBC has -- since the days of Menna Richards -- placed its priority on demonstrating its skill in the making of big TV dramas for sale into a global market, and is hugely successful in that regard.  So praise where it is due. But is there at the same time an obsession with steering clear of simplistic and stereotypical portrayals of Wales -- male voice choirs, harp music, coal mines, Dylan Thomas and rugby?  A number of observers have noted that the portrayal of Wales, for the people of Wales, by the main broadcasters lies for the most part in worthy and very conservative documentaries -- Iolo Williams talking about the beauties of nature, Derek Brockway talking about the great outdoors, Huw Edwards talking about Welsh history, and assorted Welsh people (including me!) talking about their hopes and aspirations and about their love for their homeland.  And of course, saturation rugby coverage......  (I'm not complaining about that, but you get my point.)  All very safe and comfortable, and uncontroversial.

There are TV and film dramas, of course, including Gavin and Stacey, Belonging, Pobol y Cwm, Crash, Submarine, but there does seem to be a very strong emphasis on gritty dramas about dysfunctional young people caught in miserable urban environments.  Welsh Noir, if you like, which brings us to The Killing, which brings us to Hinterland (which has the saving grace of being more rural than urban...........)

Back to big televised costume or period drama -- the sort of drama which reminds a nation of its roots, its strengths and its foibles, and makes it feel good (or bad) about itself.  In Wales, nothing.  In England, and endless sequence of series based upon the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Dickens, Hardy, Austen, Bronte and Trollope, and other "classics" like Poldark, Downton Abbey, Upstairs/Downstairs, When the Boat Comes In, Brideshead Revisited, Onedin Line, The Forsyte Saga, and now The Village written by Stephen Moffatt...........
In Ireland:  Ballykissangel, Father Ted, Game of Thrones, and many series of powerful dramas based upon the Northern Ireland troubles.
In Scotland:  Monarch of the Glen, Tales of Para Handy, Dr Finlay's Casebook, Machair, Hamish Macbeth, Taggart, Rab C Nesbitt.

Accepted that some of those series pander to national stereotypes to the point where one cringes rather than applauds, but at least they do represent and sell the "national identites" of the nations of the UK while reinforcing national self-esteem.  The blockbusters like Torchwood and Dr Who give occasional glimpses of Wales because that's where some of the filming went on.  But I suspect I am not the only person who complains about a total lack of coherence and vision with respect to the effective marketing of Wales through the medium of TV drama.

So where is this landmark costume drama TV series going to come from?  From the novels of Alexander Cordell?  Tough, gritty novels written with flair, but there is no continuity to them and no single dominating character whose story needs to be told across an extended series, or two, or three.........  Based on Dylan Thomas?  Nothing substantial in dramatic potential apart from the work of genius called Under Milk Wood -- and a lot of whimsy.  The Angel Mountain Saga is really the only game in town -- eight novels set in the most crucial decades of Welsh history (the early part of the nineteenth century) and with a large and expanding fan base.  The market research is already done.   And with a flawed and instantly appealing lead character called Martha Morgan.  She is, of course, Mother Wales -- but in another sense she is universal and timeless, with characteristics that are comprehensible in any culture on the planet.  She is a complex tragic heroine, whose beauty is her blessing and her curse.  She is sexy, compassionate, loyal, idealistic, hard-working, feisty, courageous, protective of those in her care, and completely irrepressible.  But she is also at times deceitful, vain, manipulative, with a tendency towards introspection and depression and an irresistible urge to interfere in things she would be best advised to steer clear of.  Somehow, in the stories, her "angels" manage to keep her alive while mayhem occurs around her (mostly because of her) and others fall by the wayside.   Big TV series need sales potential worldwide, and they must have characters with which viewers in New York, Tokyo, Berlin and Rio de Janiero can empathise.  Martha Morgan fits the bill -- we know that, from the feedback from readers of the series from all over the world.

A landmark costume drama series set in Wales will surely come.  It has to. And soon.  But as somebody stated in one of the commentaries on TV in Wales, wouldn't it be ironic if that series was to be made in Hollywood, for a network other than the BBC?  Ironic?  Let's correct that -- it would be an outrage.

That's enough of a rant from me.  It's a beautiful day, and there are things to do in the garden.  Oh - I almost forgot to mention it -- the rights are still available.  Just get in touch, and we can talk.