Monday, 24 December 2018

Another Pembrokeshire Film on the way......


This os one of three low-budget Welsh films due for completion next year.  This one is set in Pembrokeshire -- filming locations are not yet revealed, but from the name of the film we can assume that the toll gates on the Cleddau Bridge will probably feature........

The producer is Vaughan Sivell, from Western Edge Pictures, who was involved in the making of Third Star, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch -- that one was filmed largely around Barafundle Bay.  There are five executive producers -- let's hope that there are not so many cooks that the broth is spoiled......


Produced through Ffilm Cymru Wales’ Cinematic scheme, The Toll is a dark comedy thriller directed by Ryan Andrew Hooper and written by Matt Redd.

The film was shot entirely on location in Pembrokeshire in November, and is being produced by Vaughan Sivell (Prevenge, Pistorius) and Mark Hopkins for Western Edge Pictures.

The Toll stars Michael Smiley (Rogue One, Jawbone, Free Fire) as Brendan, alongside Annes Elwy (The Passing, Little Women), Iwan Rheon (Hurricane, Game of Thrones), Paul Kaye (The Ghoul), and Steve Oram (Sightseers, In Fabric).

Brendan works solo shifts in the quietest toll booth in Wales, hiding from a criminal past where nobody would ever look. When he finally gets rumbled, word of his whereabouts gets out and his enemies head west for revenge. Meanwhile, local traffic cop Catrin’s investigation into a simple robbery finds her heading for the booth at exactly the wrong time.

Making his feature film debut following his BFI NETWORK Wales-supported short Ambition, director Ryan Andrew Hooper comments “Our cast and our crew were amazing. Most directors think they have the best cast and crew, but I think we really did. I’ve wanted to be a film director since I was nine years old and to do so with such a great script and talented bunch of people was a privilege.”

Producer Vaughan Sivell adds: “Matt Redd’s script has attracted such a wealth of talent to the coast of Pembrokeshire. It’s definitely a tall tale worth telling.”

The Cinematic scheme is financed by Ffilm Cymru Wales and the BFI, with National Lottery funding, S4C, Great Point Media, and Fields Park Media Partners. Executive Producers on The Toll are Adam Partridge for Ffilm Cymru Wales, Mary Burke for the BFI, Gwawr Martha Lloyd for S4C, Jim Reeve for Great Point Media and Paul Higgins for Fields Park Media Partners.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Molesworth QC tells it like it is

Molesworth QC:

M’Lud, it falls to me (posh, eh?) to sumarise at the end of this unfortunate bisness. Any fule kno that Treesa May’s cuntry is not a pritty sight. It is splitt down the midle. Any fule also kno that Brexit will bring darkness and misry to the cuntry. I therfor ask you, M’Lud, to deklare it null and void, so that my grate frend Fotherington-Tomas may skip litely once again and cry out hapily “Helo trees! Helo sky! Helo sunshine!” M’Lud, I rest my kase.


This is fascinating -- from Bethan Harries, just published in Wales Arts Review.
I have to say that I find this article very persuasive -- the narrative portrayed in the series is certainly male, patronising and lacking in a proper critique of inequalities and exploitation from inside and outside Wales.  Bethan is concerned about exclusion and under-representation of "forgotten stories" and "forgotten individuals" including women, young people and immigrants from all over the world.  And yes, there should be a greater recognition of the diversity of Wales and less emphasis on trying to talk about "identity" and "nation".  I'm not sure that Huw Edwards should be blamed for fashioning the series or creating its mood -- he was after all just the presenter.  But food for thought.


Bethan Harries asks why the BBC chose to show The Story of Wales with Huw Edwards now; and shouldn’t it be consigned to the history bin of male-centric, exclusionist, whitewashing documentaries?

There was never going to be a good moment for the BBC to show a rerun of the series A Story of Wales, but in a period of growing volatility and visceral racism this overly narrow, a revisionist take of history appears more grotesquely out of place than ever.

The series, which is dubbed as the BBC’s take on Wales’ history and fits with the network’s almost compulsive fascination with identity and patrimony, adds to the growing catalogue of mainstream cultural outputs from across the UK that glorify a sense of purity, heritage and wholesome­ness which implicitly, and at times explicitly, attempt to signify who belongs and who does not (jus soli!). In this particular series we are subjected to a series of images of white men conquering lands and then singing, working, going to church and playing sport. Anyone who watches an episode will be able to count the number of women on one finger and there is no mention of Black Wales at all. An entire history denied. This is not a documentary but a series of PR clips.

In the latest episode (4 December, BBC Four), Huw Edwards presents the story of coal and slate from the middle of the 19thCentury, a period, he tells us, when a sense of Welshness becomes more clearly defined. The problems come at the outset and do not stop as Edwards talks us through the birth of the coal and slate industries, keenly expressed as evidence of Wales’ entrepreneurial majesty. A trip to Bethesda and the Penrhyn slate quarry at the beginning of the episode is, for example, given by way of introduction to the wealthy elites who ‘built Wales’. Here we might expect a critical reflection of what that means for the average person, and yet male workers are presented as gleefully taking up this hard labour under poor working conditions and low wages. It is not until much later in the episode that these issues are considered and only then through the lens of the labour movements that formed in south Wales. The Pennant family who own the quarry are ultimately portrayed as benevolent local heroes. And here is one of the most troubling aspects of the programme. Edwards’ visit to Penrhyn castle, the Pennant family home, sees him glorifying its gaudy opulence. The fact that the fortune came not solely from slate but from the slave plantations in Jamaica owned by the Pennant family is silenced. Also notably absent from the narrative is the fact that the 1stBaron Penrhyn, Richard Pennant MP, was an avid anti-abolitionist and a member of pro-slavery networks. Yet incredibly, amid this silence, Edwards asks us to instead “be fair” to Baron Penrhyn because his wealth changes the landscape of north Wales and gives local Victorian seaside resort towns a ‘makeover’.

Edwards then travels back down to Cardiff to the docks where coal from the south Wales valleys was being shipped out across the world. This booming industry resulted in substantial increases in migration to Wales, yet the programme cannot bring itself to discuss this in any meaningful way. We are told that the majority of migrants to Wales came from England, yet the docks and related industries were sites of immigration from all over the world. In the period under discussion Cardiff became home to many seamen from Yemen, Somalia, the Caribbean and elsewhere, many of whom were joining families that had already long been settled in Wales. By failing to acknowledge the presence of Black Welsh people the programme denies their very being and proffers an exclusively white Welsh identity. This is amplified later when Edwards bizarrely tells us we ‘mustn’t be blinded by nostalgia’ which ironically only draws attention to the programme’s blindness to its own production of nostalgia through a whitewashed romanticised depiction of Wales.

The series also suffers from the same issue that many contemporary documentaries on Wales does in that it adopts an approach that seems desperate to cover the scale of Wales rather than go into depth on any one thing. Consequently, Huw Edwards jumps around from Cardiff, Llandinam, the Rhondda, Bethesda, Bangor, Llandudno and Aberystwyth all in a matter of minutes. The tendency to cover ‘all’ of Wales is redolent of a wider problem. Post-devolution the notion of inclusion has been misinterpreted by many to mean that we need to have pan-Wales strategies and pan-Wales thinking. Whilst this is perhaps often meant with good intention, this means that public institutions (including the BBC) try hard to be seen to be speaking to and for everyone, but only when ‘everyone’ is narrowly translated as people from different parts of Wales. This approach thus risks missing the point that a complex web of inequalities impact upon north, south, mid and west Wales differently and affects certain parts of the population more acutely than others. These are far more important modes of exclusion than imagined regional boundaries that warrant our attention. This is relevant here because unfortunately a related consequence of this unifying project has been the turn away from a critical gaze of what is happening in, sometimes framed as to, Wales towards a romantic now inward facing project.

The role of mainstream media can be criticised for losing the critical edge documentaries and analysis of old. The earlier focus on injustice and inequality has been replaced by celebratory shows of ‘Welsh’ heritage: rural wales, coasts of Wales, castles of Wales and, of course, sport. In Wales (as elsewhere) we need to examine who is included in the narration of nation and who can make claims to be Welsh that are recognised in a meaningful way. There are plenty of artists, activists and academics who are attempting to do just that. However, we are long overdue a good quality reflection on Welsh history within the mainstream.

Dr Bethan Harries is a Sociologist at the University of Manchester. She is the author of the book, ‘Talking race in young adulthood’ (Routledge, 2017). Her current research examines the relationship between race and nation in Wales and Scotland.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

New Welsh government -- new opportunities for TV and film?

Simon Curtis from Equity has complained about lack of opportunities for Welsh actors to be involved in big dramas telling the Welsh story

We have discussed (many times, on this blog) the frequent use of Welsh locations, Welsh actors and Welsh production facilities for the making of films and TV series  for network or cinema distribution --and we have featured many grumbles from  the media and from the unions about the lack of any real commitment to the telling of genuine Welsh stories.   Money is dished out quite liberally to production companies, and undoubtedly brings economic returns, and it's true that some rather dark dramas do tell Welsh stories and do obtain UK-wide broadcasts.  "Hinterland", "Keeping Faith" and "Requiem" have done very well.  But when the powers that be are asked "Why is there no requirement on the big production companies to tell real Welsh stories?" the usual response is something like this:

A Welsh Government spokesman said productions it had backed such as Hinterland and Keeping Faith have "shown the breadth and quality of acting talent we have on our doorstep".

"Any financial support given to productions to come and film here is based on a commitment to spend large proportions of their budgets on the production supply chain and the wider Welsh economy," the spokesman added.

"This spend has to be evidenced before funding is released. Our funding helps to ensure that a number of roles within a production are filled from within Wales."

Bland and defensive.  It need not be like this.  I have written a number of times to Culture Ministers and civil servants asking that more pressure should be put on film and TV programme makers to prioritise Welsh stories and to encourage Welsh screenwriters to get involved in the creation of stories and the fashioning of scripts  -- but every time I have been met with zero enthusiasm.  As I have said before, one might be led to believe that enthusiasm has been banned in Wales........ so while Northern Ireland and Scotland develop quite strong brands via film and TV, Wales hides timidly in the undergrowth, seemingly convinced that nobody much wants to hear our own stories. 

Burt tomorrow Mark Drakeford takes over as First Minister, and he will be appointing a new set of Ministers for his first cabinet.  Opportunity time?  Let us hope so........ 

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Teaser video -- almost there......

Yesterday we did our final bits of recording (video, stills and audio) for our teaser video, with the kind help of Jake Hollyfield, who kindly allowed us to use his sound studio for a couple of hours.  As before, Ken Bird doing the recordings,  Anna Monro being Martha, and me enjoying the occasion and doing remarkably little work!  Anyway, huge thanks to all for their enthusiasm and generosity -- and to Inger for keeping us fed and watered back at HQ.

So now the music is done (thanks to our son Steve), the drone footage and all other photography is in the can, and the voice over is done too.  Now all that needs to be done is the stitching together of all the various components in Ken's studio in Aberystwyth.  A lot of hard work for something that will jut last for 90 seconds -- but that is the way with film and TV......  I'm sure we will have something in the end that we can all be proud of.

Watch this space!

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Back to the Welsh Narrative

Premise: As compared with Scotland and Ireland, Wales does not have a very strong “brand image”. Something needs to be done about it if we are to enhance the tourism economy, attract inward investment, reduce social inequality and spread the benefits of tourism into the “negected areas” where poverty levels are unacceptably high. Those of us who live in Wales are constantly frustrated by our own conservatism, timidity and reluctance to take risks or to promote our assets. For the benefit of our own internal dynamics and our place in the world, the profile of Wales needs to be much more heavily promoted.

We need to think and act strategically — first of all by defining who we are and what makes us WELSH. I have explored this issue before on my blog:

Let’s use the “pitch” technique:

Log Line:

A small nation with extravagant natural and historic resources resists the depradations of a powerful neighbour and learns to maintain self respect and to keep alive its unique language and culture through a combination of subversion, adaptability and good humour.


"Wales is a small country on the Celtic fringe of Europe with magnificent landscapes, a cultural heritage stretching across 6,000 years, and rich natural resources. It is the home of Celtic Christianity, but throughout its history it has mounted bloody and short-lived rebellions designed to resist the depredations of a powerful neighbour. 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. In its history it has not suffered the same deep social traumas as Scotland and Ireland, but it has seen the best and the worst effects of mining and quarrying, heavy industry and the Industrial Revolution. It has learned how to be tolerant, subversive and seductive, and how to be spiritual and mischievous at the same time. 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. Today, Wales is a place where pride and humility coexist -- and the warmth of its welcome to visitors is legendary.” (See Note 1)

Tourism strategy (and the Welsh USP) should be based on the above, or on some version of it. It is not appropriate to say “Wales has a multitude of narratives, and they all need to be told" — because the central message is then drowned out by the noise. Nor is it satisfactory to say “Welsh speakers know what Wales is all about and know what “hiraeth”, “bro”, “croeso" and “gwerin” mean, and the rest of us should simply accept that and get on with life.” English-speaking Welsh people have an equal claim on “Welshness”, and their achievements, perceptions and aspirations have eqivalent value. It is more important than ever to stress that those of us who see Wales as our home have a shared story. So let’s see if we can define what that is, see if we can obtain a broad level of acceptance for it, and use it as the central strategy for selling Wales to the world.

Beneath this level promotional or marketing tactics should be devised which home in on specific aspects of the narrative — eg. landscapes, language, activities, food traditions, music, spirituality and pilgrimage, symbols of a violent past (castles and fortifications), sport, industry, writers and artists, eccentrics and celebrities. Visit Wales already does fantastic job on most of those, and on many more topics — and here the keywords can come in: authentic, creative, innovative, alive, epic, memorable, inspiring, fresh, legendary, iconic, rich, distinctive, accessible, contemporary, immersive, inclusive. 

Here are a few more adjectives that came up in a seminar when we all tried to define “the essence of Wales”: generous, warm-hearted, eccentric, mischievous, sensitive, intuitive, whimsical, enigmatic, musical, poetic, dramatic, spirited, steadfast, ironic, ebullient, demonstrative, enduring, colourful, lyrical, resolute, mysterious, proud, faithful, accessible, loyal, adaptable, enchanting, quirky, understated, unpretentious. Some of these slightly softer and more subtle words might also have a “marketing value” worth exploring……...


Note 1:
This version of the narrative is based very much on the writings of Jan Morris. The version given by Michael Sheen in his famously passionate November 2017 lecture — with Wales portrayed as a victim, viciously and cynically exploited and suppressed by a powerful and predatory neighbour — is in my view not sufficiently nuanced, and would be impossible to use as a key component of a tourism marketing strategy aimed principally at English holidaymakers!

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Outlaw King and the invention of nationalism

This is a really interesting article, homing in on the new Netflix drama called Outlaw King but exploring notions of "nationhood" far back in historical time.  Well worth reading.  All about cliches, assumptions, and convenient historical distortions and misrepresentations........

Epic Fails: ‘Outlaw King’ and Netflix’s Nationalism Problem
What the film industry gets wrong—and Monty Python gets right—about the nation.

By Kanishk Tharoor

Thursday, 29 November 2018

The Story of Wales

The popular series presented by Huw Owen is getting another airing at the moment, and is also available on iPlayer:

When I first watched it, I had rather mixed feelings about it -- it's full of rather elaborate re-enactments.  But it can't do any harm to get our national story (or one version of it) re-told as many times as possible!  Let's hope it gets good viewing figures.............

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Investing in new films

This is interesting -- we all know about crowdfunding, via Kickstarter etc, with perks for those who put up most of the money, but this is straightforward investing in projects.  Red Rock says that there should be a return of 20-25% on investments, but of course some film projects go belly-up and all those who have invested lose all of their money.  However, as with all investments, those who are smartest know which projects to back and which to stay well clear of!  And the projects with the biggest names on the cast list are not necessarily the best ones to sink your money into.........

Stones -- the video

This is the fabulous musical video which Steve made a few years ago -- a setting of a very powerful poem by Bob Reeves, about Carningli.  Enjoy -- or should I say "Be afraid -- be very afraid........."

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Once again, Martha comes to life

Late afternoon at Ceibwr with some big swells rolling in. Anna playing a pensive Mistress Martha, gazing out to sea.  Ken was off to the right, getting a great sequence into the can, as they say......

We also did some movie recordings down on Parrog, at Nevern Church and up around Nevern Castle.  Then finally some sound recordings at Trefelin, in a padded-up bedroom and using a ridiculously small and high-tech  microphone.

All looking and sounding good, and ready to be put together with the drone footage that we got a couple of weeks ago.

Huge thanks to Ken and Anna for an inspirational day of hard work.  With Ken and Anna I've been greatly blessed to be able to work with Steve and Rhiannon on our photo gallery of stills for "Martha Morgan Country", and now with Ken and Anna on the latest sessions of location filming and sound recording.  Without their wonderful involvement, I suspect that this project would long since have been dead.......

As Martha discovered long ago, there are always angels lurking in unlikely places.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

The Wizard of Werndew

I always wondered what happened to that hat -- I have not seen it for years, and think it might have been spirited away.  A few years ago I did some photos of me pretending to be Joseph Harries! Here are two of the images!

And here is an image of a typical conjuration -- actually from John Harries's Book of Incantations.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Look out -- the Scots are coming!

There's an interesting piece in this Sunday's Observer about the boost given to the Scottish economy by location shooting of films and TV series.  The latest Netflix blockbuster is "Outlaw King", about Robert Bruce, which has apparently just started transmission.

The new series follows hard on the heels of Outlander, and of course we still remember Braveheart and even Monarch of the Glen -- all of which have extended and enhanced Scotland's profile in the world and have built specific stories into Scotland's national narrative.  As Visit Scotland's representative has explained, this all brings in new tourists and new cash into the economy too, on a scale far greater than we see in Wales.

For a long time now, I have bewailed the fact that Wales has done nothing similar.  We have great studios and very clever directors, producers and technicians working in the film and TV industries, but they use Wales very largely as a place for manufacturing other people's stories -- which do nothing to raise the profile of Wales itself.

Thus far, Scotland has lagged behind Wales in the provision of studio facilities -- but that is about to change, and an announcement about the building of a large new studio complex now seems to be close.  So whatever competitive advantage Wales has had is about to be lost.......

Time to get our act together, methinks.

The Welsh Literature and Publishing Review is wrapped up - and it was a complete waste of time

At long last, Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, the Welsh Government's Culture Minister, has written a letter to the key players, which effectively wraps the process up.  The letter is pasted below.  This signals that the Minister is not minded to do anything much at all, and effectively we have status quo.

This represents a volte face, since after the publication of the report of th Medwin Hughes Panel, Minister Ken Skates said he was minded to accept its main recommendations, which would have involved much rationalisation within the industry and a considerable saving of cash.  It's strange, in these straightened times, that that little matter apparently has no relevance.

However, what has swung things is the assessment of the Culture Committee, which heard evidence from all the main players --  and decided in the end that changes of any sort would involve an unacceptable level of risk, and that it was better to trust the devil you know than the devil you don't.   That was a bit weird,  since both devils (Literature Wales and Welsh Books Council) were perfectly well known, and since the whole point of the exercise was to increase efficiency and to get rid of wasteful duplication of effort.  And the risk involved in bringing in efficiencies was quite minimal.  So the Welsh instinct for conservatism kicks in again, and a vast amount of expenditure and time gurgles down the drain.........  I feel sorry for the Welsh taxpayer (that means me).........

There are some complicated political issues in the background, and one has to wonder (not for the first time) whether there is a built-in resistance in the capital city concerning the removal of any activities (such as the organization of Wales Book of the Year) from Cardiff to Aberystwyth.

There are actually one or two interesting things in the letter.  I'll come back to those in another post.

Phil George - Chair of the Arts Council of Wales
Kate North - Chair of Literature Wales
M Wynn Thomas - Chair of the Welsh Books Council

Dear Phil, Kate and Wynn

10 October 2018

I am writing in relation to the independent review of support for publishing and literature in Wales.

The Welsh Government has considered the Panel’s report as well as views from stakeholders following its publication and the findings of the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee.

Excellent work is already being undertaken by your organisations and across the sector and this is something I have witnessed first-hand since becoming Minister. This includes the London Book Fair, which demonstrated the excellent partnership working between a number of bodies that ensured Wales’ significant and effective presence at the Fair.

I have some brief observations to make in response to the specific recommendations in the report suggesting changes in the way support is currently administered.

Wales Book of the Year

Since becoming Minister I have had the pleasure of attending, and presenting awards at, two Wales Book of the Year ceremonies. I appreciate the importance of the Awards in raising awareness of the industry and the writing talent in Wales.

Literature Wales should remain the lead organisation for Wales Book of the Year at present. However, I expect a closer and more strategic partnership with the Welsh Books Council and other stakeholders in future, both in the Awards themselves and work throughout the year to capitalise on them. Literature Wales should set out annually a plan for the Awards that acknowledges and acts upon concerns and suggestions from the Welsh Books Council and other stakeholders, on issues such as timing, branding, marketing and commercial impact. These developments will further strengthen the Wales Book of the Year brand in the marketplace.


I acknowledge the separate, good work already being done by Literature Wales and the Welsh Books Council via the awarding of bursaries, but there is a need now to bring this activity together. To ensure that all bursaries for writers in Wales are targeted effectively and delivered in a consistent manner, a unified strategy for writers’ bursaries should be agreed, by both organisations and their sponsor bodies.

This should set out a coordinated approach to the delivery of a broad programme of bursary support, strategically designed to maximise benefits at the various stages of writer development and across the sector as a whole. Bursaries linked to commercial activity and those allocated purely for developmental purposes are both valuable when targeted effectively; therefore the best and most appropriate use of different types of bursaries should be agreed and set out as part of the unified strategy. To be clear, I am not mandating that the delivery of all bursaries should move to a single organisation - although that is an option the stakeholder organisations could explore.

We will convene a working group with the Arts Council of Wales, Literature Wales and the Welsh Books Council to take this strategy forward. This will consider the structure, aims, funding and implementation of a more strategic and impactful programme of bursaries for writers in Wales; it will also set out a timescale for the unified strategy to be agreed and implemented. Other parties may be asked to contribute to the group’s work as needed.

As a first step, the working group will identify improvements that can be delivered now, by maximising the collaboration possible within existing arrangements. This might, for example, include the creation of a single grants panel, comprising Literature Wales, the Welsh Books Council and an independent member, responsible for decisions on all bursary applications via their existing schemes.

Writers on Tour

Literature Wales should remain the lead organisation for Writers on Tour, but two changes to current delivery are required. Literature Wales should cover reasonable travel and subsistence costs for authors, in line with usual public sector rates. The Welsh Government and the Arts Council of Wales should consider whether a small budget increase for Writers on Tour is required to facilitate this.

Writers on Tour must become financially viable for writers, to increase participation. This would then deliver greater impacts across relevant Welsh Government policy areas. With this in mind, Literature Wales should provide a reasonable opportunity for writers to sell books at the end of these events, inviting the Welsh Books Council to support writers in doing so, as required.

Children and Young People / Literary Events

There should be no transfer of functions or funding in relation to children and young people and literary events, given the complex mix of grant in aid and Lottery funding which currently underpins much of the delivery activity in these areas. However, this is conditional upon Literature Wales and the Welsh Books Council discussing current arrangements and agreeing how support can be delivered more collaboratively in future.

The Welsh Government will take on board the recommendations addressed specifically to Welsh Ministers. We will discuss these recommendations further, as appropriate - with you as the relevant stakeholder organisations and with the wider sector.

I also expect you to respond to the specific recommendations provided for your individual consideration. The Welsh Government stands ready to engage with you as you develop practical responses to these recommendations, and to consider how it might assist where required, in its capacity as a sponsoring body. Regular reports on progress will be expected from you as part of existing arrangements.

I now expect you to work together more collaboratively, in genuine partnership and with mutual respect, to ensure the sector goes from strength to strength and delivers even more for people across Wales. I look forward to our continued close working as we all move forward.

Yours sincerely,

Yr Arglwydd Elis-Thomas AC/AM

Y Gweinidog Diwylliant, Twristiaeth a Chwaraeon Minister for Culture, Tourism and Sport

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Daisy, the black sheep of the family

Daisy, the black sheep of the family

I have as soft spot for our Daisy, even though she is absent from most of the Saga. She is born in April 1801 as the second of Martha’s four natural children. She has a difficult childhood, and Martha never fully realizes the extent to which the little girl is affected by David’s death when she is still only three years old. She is effectively starved of affection whilst her mother becomes obsessed with baby Brynach, the foundling who arrives one night on the front doorstep of the Plas, and then with the mysterious Nightwalker who makes frequent appearances on the mountain.

In the year following David’s death Daisy disappears, and Martha finds her in the cave, having had a premonition that that is where she would be. During that episode it becomes apparent to the reader that Daisy is a strange child who lives in a fantasy world and who is likely to create problems for her mother in the years to come. Indeed she does create major problems, and Martha loses her emotionally and has a series of disputes with her in the difficult years of blossoming womanhood. Everything comes to head when Daisy goes off to London, swearing that she will never see her mother again and that she will have no further contact with her home or her family.

After that, as one story follows another, we are occasionally made aware by Martha that she has news of Daisy; but in truth she has rumours rather than accurate information, and all her letters to her errant daughter go unanswered. Just as Martha loses her son Dewi and her youngest daughter Sara she loses Daisy, and the pain of that loss is made more severe by the knowledge that she is still alive but quite disinterested in acknowledging either her roots or a mother’s love.

Then, out of the blue, a fat lady in exotic clothes arrives without warning at the Plas. Daisy has returned, and Martha is overwhelmed. Her first instinct, as in the Biblical story, is to kill the fatted calf and to celebrate. The reunion between mother and daughter is told in quite sparse terms in the final pages of Rebecca and the Angels, but there can be no doubting the depth of a mother’s joy. It turns out that Daisy has led an extremely disreputable and colourful life while she has been away in London, and in the most unexpected way she proves to know some of the most influential people in the capital city, within whose power it is to steer through Parliament an Act which will reform the hated turnpike trusts. She has cavorted with princes and bishops, among others. She has four children by different fathers, but she is still unmarried; and later on, in the pages of Flying with Angels, she finds true love for the first time in her life and marries Dr. George Havard, thereby becoming respectable.

Whatever the excesses of her life in London might have been, in the last book of the Saga Daisy is a reformed character and a loving and supportive daughter. When Martha commits her great indiscretion in Tycanol Wood with Amos Jones everybody else is appalled, but Daisy is thoroughly amused since this is a minor matter indeed when compared with some of the things she has seen and done in London. So things come full circle. The daughter with whom Martha fought so continuously and could not control in her teenage years now becomes the daughter who best understands her mother’s eccentricities and her willful behaviour. That creates a mutual respect and a strong and loving relationship, and Daisy then plays a very important role in protecting Martha and advising her as she plays out the final act in her dramatic life.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

On ravens

The ravens are symbols -- not (as in Teutonic mythology) symbols of death and darkness, but as in Celtic mythology symbols of nobility, royalty and assorted other virtues such as steadfastness and protectiveness. The ravens are the spirits of the mountain, and although they are black they are really the mountain’s “host of angels”. Martha is very fond of them. Sometimes she pays attention to what they are telling her, and sometimes -- because she is preoccupied with her petty obsessions and fails to read the signs -- she disregards them and pays the price. At the very end of the Saga, following Martha’s death, six ravens appear on the mountain and watch as her body is carried back to the Plas. They are of course the spirits of Martha and the five men who loved her -- David, Ceredig, Owain, Joseph and Amos. Maybe Iestyn should have been there too, to make the number up to seven.........

In any screen adaptation of the novels, the ravens will have to play a prominent role -- subtle, but crucial to the understanding of the storyline.

The best Regency dramas

This is interesting:

A long list of the most famous and most enjoyable Georgian and Regency dramas -- many available on DVD or online.  Organized alphabetically.

Accompanied by intelligent and informative notes.  170 films and TV serials to choose from.......!!

The Matter of Wales

I'm still banging on about the Welsh narrative, and have been digging into what some of the wiser inhabitants of our little country have to say about it.  

A few quotes from Jan Morris’s wonderful book called “The Matter of Wales”:

“ is a small country..... but its smallness is not pretty; on the contrary, it is profound. Intense and unaccommodating continuity is the essence of the place.......”

“Its image is habitually blurred: partly by this geographical unfamiliarity, partly by the opaque and moody climate, partly by its own somewhat obfuscatory character,which is entrammelled in a dizzy repertoire of folklore, but most of all by historical circumstance.”

“.... despite the overwhelming proximity of the English presence, a force which has affected the manners, thoughts and systems of half the world, for better or for worse Wales has not lost its Welshness.”

“Among all the Roman possessions of the western empire, only Wales was never overrun by its heathen successors, and Welsh literature was the first in all Europe to emerge from the debacle.”

“...... the Welsh came to see themselves as inheritors of Roman urbanity and Christian devotion, and as trustees of a lost Celtic civilization which was to become ever more marvellous in the imagination, peopled by ever more heroic heroes, inspired by saintlier saints, until the very dream of it became part of the whole world’s consciousness in the legendary paragon of King Arthur. Wales was the folk-memory of Europe!”

“The Welsh never lost their sense of separateness and specialness, never allowed their language to die, and never altogether abandoned their perennial vision of a golden age, an age at once lost and still to come.....”

“... if there is one constant to the Welsh feel of things it is a sense of what might-have-been, tinged sometimes with despair.”

“Owain Glyndwr’s was a vision of the place as a human-entity, not just a country but a nation: not just a state but a fellowship, and a culture, and a heritage, and a sense of home, and a reconciliation of time, in which the affairs of the remotest past might overlap the present and embrace the future.”


I'm still saddened by the apparent lack of any coherent vision of what it is that makes Wales different from Scotland, Ireland and England -- and indeed, what makes it unique on the world stage.  As far as I can see, the Visit Wales marketing strategy is to carry on telling the rest of the world that "Wales is more wonderful than everywhere else.....",  accompanied by lots of nice images,  which seems to me to be somewhat lacking in imagination!

And in spite of all my efforts, I have not managed to get anybody in the Welsh Govt to take seriously my request for TV drama  and film makers or broadcasters to devote some of their time and energy to the telling of the Welsh story for a global audience.  The attitude seems to be "Oh, we can't do that!  That might scare them away....!"  Sad, isn't it?

Thursday, 1 November 2018

High-end TV dramas filmed in Wales

In a previous post I bewailed the fact that there were several high profile "high-end dramas" set in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland but nothing in Wales.  (High end drama is drama costing over £1 million per hour -- and subsidised via tax relief mechanisms.)   We are talking here about big long-running drama series like Outlander, Dr Who, The Crown, Game of Thrones, Victoria or Poldark.

Several observers have also bewailed the fact that Wales is the place where big films are made, but where hardly any of them are big narratives telling the Welsh story.

So I tried to check up on how many productions in Wales have been in receipt of the tax subsidy over the last few years.  I got no sense out of the Welsh Government, so I submitted a FOI request to HMRC, and got no sense from them either, on the basis that no regional or national lists are kept, and that in any case the requests for tax concessions are private or confidential matters between the companies concerned and HMRC.  They said that the Welsh Government is probably not involved in that process -- and I accept that -- but of course the Welsh Government has to know about every big project since finances are very carefully scrutinized so as to assure financial viability.

I suppose one could find out more by scrutinizing the accounts submitted by each company to Companies House -- but some of them reveal hardly anything about companies with multi-million pound turnovers.

At long last I have got some sort of a response from one of the senior civil servants in Cardiff, who says: "I can assure you that there have been several productions which are partly or wholly set in Wales that have received the tax credit.  Some have received separate finance from the Welsh Government and some have not."   The key words there are "partly or wholly" -- so the several productions will undoubtedly include Dr Who, Atlantis, The Bastard Executioner, and A Discovery of Witches.  One scene set in Wales will probably entitle the production company to request high-end tax relief,so long as some of the production work is done in Welsh studios.  (That's not unusual -- production companies do it all the time.  I know of one production company that tailors every single project to the places where the best financial / tax relief / subsidy regimes are currently in place -- and if that means doing a spot of filming in Lithuania, or Greece, or Spain, so be it...........!)

So where are the big dramas set in Wales and telling the Welsh story for the people of Wales and for a global audience?  There aren't any.........   Hinterland and Keeping Faith have no doubt brought Wales to the attention of a global audience, but they are not specifically Welsh dramas.  They are crime dramas belonging to specific genres that just happen to be set in wales.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

How the wizard found the sheep

This is an extraordinary page from the manuscript collection of Dr John Harries's incantations etc -- reputed to have come from his "Big Book".

It's to do with a lost sheep in March 1856 -- the good doctor had quite a reputation of looking for, and finding, lost animals.  But if you look at this document, you can see that he has been through some sort of triangulation, with distances and directions carefully recorded before -- presumably -- pinpointing the position of the lost sheep and returning it to the owner, a Mr James.

There is some sort of dowsing involved -- but how on earth did he do it?

The Book of Incantations

John Harries's Book of Incantations (or bits of it) is held in the National Library of Wales.  All of the manuscript pages can be read online, if you are persistent and can cope with the rather strange online reading images...........

Here is the accompanying text, which is of course authoritative.


John Harries' Book of Incantations

Reference: NLW MS 11117B

A manuscript volume from the library of John Harries (d. 1839), of Pantcoy, Cwrtycadno, Carmarthenshire, astrologer and medical practitioner, containing many illustrated spells and astrological signs.

John and Henry Harries

The Harries family were famous throughout Wales and neighbouring counties on the English border as highly professional medical practitioners, clever surgeons and skilful astrologers who held an important position in society. They became renowned for their ability to predict the future, recover lost or stolen property, combating witchcraft, and invoking benign spirits, and as a result were severely condemned by the mainstream religious people of the 19th century.

John Harries (Shon Harri Shon) (c.1785–1839) was probably born at Pantycoy, Cwrtycadno, Carmarthenshire, and was baptised at Caio on April 10th 1785. He was the eldest child of Henry Jones (Harry John, Harry Shon), Pantycoy (1739-1805), a mason, and his wife Mary Wilkins. He was educated at The Cowings, Commercial Private Academy, Caio, and at Haverfordwest grammar school, but it's not clear where he studied medicine before returning to Caio to establish his practice.

He is said to have kept one of his books padlocked and hidden away, and only dared open it once a year in a nearby secluded wood where he would read various incantations from it to summon forth spirits. Once opened, the book was said to create a very severe storm. This led to the notion that the Harries' derived their power from this large thick volume of spells, bound with an iron chain and 3 locks. J. H. Davies mentiones in his book Rhai o Hen ddewiniaid Cymru published in 1901, that when he visited Cwrtycadno a few years previously, the only book that he found that resembled this book of spells was an old black book with two locks that was the size of a family Bible, that contained miscellaneous medical equipment. He suggest that this was the aforementioned book. In her essay, Ithiel Vaughan-Poppy states that according to family tradition the book is housed at the National Library of Wales, but no record of it has been found at the Library.

It is reported that John Harries had a premonition that he would die by accident on 11 May 1839 and to avoid this happening he stayed in bed all day. The house caught fire during the night, and he died.

John Harries' son Henry Gwynne Harries (c.1821-1849) was also a well-known physician and 'cunning man'. He was baptised on 7 November 1821, and was also educated at The Cowings and at Haverfordwest grammar school before possibly attending London University. He died from consumption on 16 June 1849 aged 28.

His other son, John Harries, (c.1827-1863) was the last of the renowned cunning-folk of Cwrtycadno, who dabbled a little in astrology 'but never shone’ (NLW MS 11119B), and it is suggested that he traded on the reputation of his father and older brother.
The Manuscript

John Harries’ holograph book of incantations (NLW MS 11117B) was donated to the Library in 1935 as part of a larger collection of manuscripts and papers (NLW MSS 11701-11718) from the library of John and Henry Harries. It shows how the ‘cunning man’ could cause benign spirits to appear, listing the attributes of each spirit, with diagrams that represent the named spirit to be conjured, astrological signs and calculations, bills and leaves from ledgers, 1814-31, a printed final notice used by him in calling in accounts, Prophetic Almanack, 1825, etc. The volume also contains memoranda and calculations, 1849-56, and the bidding letter of Rees Evans of Bwlchyrhyw and Anne Thomas of Esgereithry, Caio, Carmarthenshire, 1859. NLW MS 11117B is not the large book of spells described by the contemporary observers, but Lisa Tallis suggests that as the manuscript has been re-bound, it may not resemble the original, and that the first 22 pages of this manuscript may be part of John Harris' conjuring book which Ithiel Vaughan-Poppy states is housed at the Library.

Related Manuscripts:

NLW MSS 11701-11718 include records of patient prescriptions and payments, draft horoscopes, a printed astrological almanac, patient correspondence, notes and transcripts of medical lectures and medical treatise, general account books, miscellaneous papers, etc.

NLW, Cwrtmawr MSS 97A, The Book of Harries, Cwrtycadno
Prescription book of John Harries (c.1785–1839)

NLW, Cwrtmawr MS 672A
A volume containing transcripts of a medical treatise on 'Galvanism', a series of astrological texts, and extracts from 'Sibly's Astrology', partly in the hand of John Harries (c.1785–1839).
NLW MS 11119B: Arthur Mee, Harrieses of Cwrtycadno
NLW Facs 374/14: Family death certificates, 1839-1863
NLW MS 14876B: Genealogical notes by the Rev. Henry Lloyd, vicar of Caio
NLW Misc Rec. 329: Ithiel Vaughan-Poppy, "The Harries Kingdom - Wizards of Cwrtycadno," unpublished essay, 1976, pp. 8-12, 15-16
K. Bosse-Griffiths, Byd y Dyn Hysbys – Swyngyfaredd yng Nghymru, 1977
J.H. Davies, Rhai o hen ddewiniaid Cymru, 1901
Richard C. Allen, Harries, John (c.1785–1839), ODNB, viewed 6 Nov 2013
Richard C. Allen: 'Wizards or Charlatans - Doctors or Herbalists? An Appraisal of the 'Cunning Men' of Cwrt y Cadno, Carmarthenshire', North American Journal of Welsh Studies, Vols I, II (Summer 2001) viewed 6 Nov 2013
Lisa Tallis, 'The 'Doctor Faustus' of Cwrt-y-Cadno: a new perspective on John Harries and popular medicine in Wales', Welsh history review, Vol. 24, no. 3 (June 2009), pp. 1-28
Emrys George Bowen, Harries, Henry (d. 1862), Welsh Biography Online, viewed 6 Nov 2013

John Harries, the Wizard of Cwrt y Cadno

This is an excellent article found on a blog.  Thanks to Bovey Belle!

A chance remark by a neighbour yesterday suddenly brought into mind the once-famous Wizards of Carmarthenshire - the Harries family of Pantcoy, Cwrt-y-Cadno. The extent of their skills is uncertain. Some saw them as fraudsters - John Rowland, writing in 1889, insisted that Dr Harries was "a conjuror, fortune-teller and a quack-doctor". However, you have to remember that they lived in a very rural area - a very parochial rural area - and the people consulting them often had no better alternative. Medically, folk remedies were the norm and healers were respected - think of the Physicians of Myddfai - perhaps 15 or 20 miles distant and still spoken of with respect today. However, John Harries, "wizard", combined medicine with astrology (which must have seemed like magic to the ignorant) and a natural ability of second sight. The people who consulted him still believed in witches and faery folk like the Tylwyth Teg.

John Harries (1785 - 1839) and Henry Gwynne Harries (1821 - 1849) were father and son. John Harries did actually have a medical training and was presumably a qualified Surgeon, as he later became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh where he lectured. A tall man of some 6 feet 2 inches, he was described as having mutton chop whiskers, a wide mouth and straight nose, short dark hair and "blue wistful thinking eyes".

You would know him if you saw him for apparently his favourite attire was "a full-length heavy velvet cape, which he had lined with red flannel as he felt the cold. The cape was fastened on the left shoulder with a three inch solid silver buckle with the family Coat-of-Arms design incorporated above the buckle part. This he had made with a London silversmiths." However, he was acknowledged as being "a countrified man, in countrified attire with knee breeches, always cheerful, bright of eye and pleasant of speech."

He was greatly respected - especially by people in desperation - and indeed lunatics were brought him from as far away as Pembrokeshire and Radnorshire that he might heal them. Indeed, he did seem to have a power over them, although his treatment was somewhat unorthadox and involved taking the patient to the bank of a river or pool, whereupon he would fire an old flint revolver, with the effect that the startled patient would fall into the water. Herbs and blood-letting were also part of the cure. He had the power to charm away pain and it is no wonder that people assumed he was in league with the devil.

His son Henry was described as being 6 feet tall, with a pale face and long dark hair hanging in ringlets, and he had piercing grey-blue eyes and a very high narrow forehead. He had a weak chest and in consequence, a poor constitution.

Charmers in those days tended to have "specialities" which they were able to treat, such as mental problems, skin complaints (think - wart "cures" are still passed around to this day!), stopping bleeding, and healing wounds and sores. However, in addition John and Henry Harries could also predict events, find lost or stolen property, and combat witchcraft and "invoke benign spirits".

Of course, the very fact that the Harries menfolk had a library of books was an anathema to ordinary folk whose "library" would consist only of a copy of the Bible. It was generally believed that within the library at Pantcoy was a copy of a demonic book which was kept locked and chained and only opened - and then with great care should the demons and evil spirits escape - once a year, and then only out in the woods and in the presence of another wizard (a schoolmaster from Pencader apparently), and even THEN, the occasion would be accompanied by terrific storms of thunder and lightening up and down the Cothi valley . . .

John Harries was never bothered by people not paying their bills, for he had a neat way of billing which included the statement: "Unless the above amount is paid to me by . . . . . (date) adverse means will be resorted for the recovery." Hmmm . . . What it is to have a Reputation!

John Harries was once accused of murder, after he had told the police where the body of a missing local girl would be found (she had been murdered by her boyfriend). This case was passed to magistrates at Llandovery. They were modern-thinking men and thought they had an open and shut case, until Harries offered to demonstrate his powers of second sight as part of his defence by asking them to give the hour they came into the world and he in turn would provide the hour they would depart it. . . needless to say, they declined to pursue this line of questioning and Harries was released.

John Harries knew of the day of his death - by accident - on May 11th, and determined to stay in bed that day to avoid accident. However, there was a fire in the house of Pantcoy, and in trying to quench the fire, he slipped from the ladder he was on and died. Rumour has it that his coffin suddenly became lighter as it was being carried to the grave - this was, of course, the evil spirits who had claimed his soul at death, came back for his body!

His son was always in the shadow of his father, and whilst he possessed a few of his skills, never shone in them. However, it is said that John Harries passed on his skills o certain pupils, and one of his servants was said to be skilled in divining the future. Henry died from Consumption, aged only 28, on 16th June 1849. Sadly, something his father had no cure for . . .


This piece could not have been written without consulting an excellent and fascinating article by Richard C Allen, and published by the North American Journal of Welsh Studies in 2001.

Posted by Bovey Belle

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Martha -- photo gallery No 2

I have added a number of photos from the other day to a new gallery on the "Martha Morgan Country" website.

Thanks to Anna for her excellent portrayal of our heroine!

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Martha on the mountain: drone photography

It was a pleasure to do some work up on the mountain today with Ken Bird (operating his magnificent and magical drone machine) and Anna Monro, playing the part of Mistress Martha (very well indeed!)  And weren't we lucky with the weather?  Cool and dry, and we could even have done with more wind.......

Anyway, when the serious drone work was done,  and the buzzing was over, I took some photos of Anna with my old digital camera, just for the record.  Here are some of them.  Enjoy!

Great thanks to Ken and Anna -- it's largely because of the generosity and enthusiasm of friends like them that we still have the act on the road, with our project development constantly moving onwards and upwards......

Monday, 22 October 2018

A Sense of Place

I have made a new section on the "Martha Morgan Country" web site, designed to flag up the importance of a sense of place -- not just for the Angel Mountain TV project, but for all of us, all of the time......

You can find it here: 

Most of the images are mine, but I have also used some which photographers have kindly placed onto the web for all to see.  The emphasis in these images is North Pembrokeshire but some are from other parts of the county too -- what incredible landscapes we have within a very small area!

Friday, 19 October 2018

Out on the mud flats

Fabulous autumnal colours out on the wide open spaces of the mud-flats today.....

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Wales Book of the Year 2019 -- have the organizers learnt anything from the 2018 fiasco?

I've been around a long time, and have been actively involved in the Welsh literature and publishing scene since 1973 -- so you may take it as read, dear reader, that I want to see an industry that is vibrant and successful.  But I sometimes despair, because it is an industry that keeps on shooting itself in the foot.

In the last couple of years we gave seen open wounds on full display, exposed during the Medwin Hughes Panel investigations into the support mechanisms for literature and publishing in Wales. At times, in the Culture Committee "evidence sessions" dealing with the Report, the animosity and aggression between the warring tribes was so great that the Minister, Ken Skates, had to step in and tell everybody off. It was not an edifying spectacle, even though it provided some entertainment for the media.........

Then in June of this year the Wales Book of the Year competition, which has always been organized by Literature Wales, became something of a laughing stock when Hugh Thomas, the BBC Wales arts and media correspondent, revealed that most of the shortlisted titles had sales figures so low that they had to be hidden rather than celebrated. Some of them had sales figures below 100 copies -- and even if those figures (based on EPOS records) were incorrect, and needed to be doubled or trebled to take account of non-EPOS sales, they were still an embarrassment. The industry responded furiously (as might be expected), but then the Chief Executive of Literature Wales made matters worse by claiming that the sales figures of one book went up by 400% as a result of the publicity associated with the competition (from an earlier grand sales figure of 20 copies), and sales of another went up by 1,433% (yes, you read the figure correctly!) to a grand total of 46 copies. You couldn't make it up..........

Some of us have been worried for years about the extent to which the writing and publishing industries in Wales are dependent upon taxpayer subsidies, with the number of titles published used as a measure of "activity" or "success" and with sales figures treated almost as state secrets.  Anyway, good for Hugh for blowing this out into the open, and for revealing that the Wales Book of the Year competition (already heavily criticised by the Medwin Hughes Panel) is simply unfit for purpose. For years the contest has encouraged the ongoing publication of books that nobody really wants, that hardly anybody reads, written for the most part by writers dependent upon bursaries and subsidies. I don't blame the writers -- they just want to write and to get published, and will use whatever means they have to fulfil their ambitions. And of course the competition judges, who are both skilled and committed, and who deserve our thanks, will always find some of the submitted titles worthy and even exciting and innovative from a literary point of view. They will decide who gets the prizes, based upon "literary merit" and book appearance, and the winners will be delighted, and the bells will ring.  And I am not denying for one moment that there are great writers and great books out there, deserving of recognition.

But the system is broken, and it has to be fixed. Some way has to be found of blocking off books that are so insignificant that nobody wants to read them; and somehow the definition of "worth" has to be adjusted to incorporate a calculation of reader appeal and commercial viability. I would like to see a rule stating that only books with verified sales of over 1,000 copies may be entered.  I would also like to see a rule requiring publishers to demonstrate that they have a marketing budget and a marketing plan for any title submitted.

It now appears that (after a period of some uncertainty) Literature Wales will continue to organize the competition for 2019. The eligibility criteria and guidance notes for applicants are here:

I don't have the old sets of rules from previous years, but it looks as if nothing has changed. That is quite extraordinary, given what Hugh Thomas revealed last June. The judges will simply be asked to judge the books placed in front of them on the basis of "literary creativity", without any questions asked about up-to-date sales records or commercial viability. Now that's all very well within a cosy space occupied by artistic people, but books are commercial products that cannot -- or should not -- exist in an environment where they have no market.

Then we have the "People's Choice" category of the Book of the Year awards,  organized in association with the Wales Arts Review.   Everybody knows that it does not actually involve a proper people's choice at all -- a list of titles is provided for "the people" to vote on.  But who decides on the makeup of the list, and what are the criteria used?

Will authors and publishers who know that their books will not sell be deterred from entering them for the 2019 contest? I doubt it. But unless some very specific advice is given to judges to take some "viability" criteria (such as reader appeal) into account during the judging process, I foresee a situation in the spring of 2019 in which most of the shortlisted titles will once again have sales figures of less than 100 copies.

The media will be on the case immediately, and quite right too.  There will be more murmurings about corruption, favouritism and incestuous relationships.  There might even be questions about the expenditure of taxpayer's money.   I foresee another fiasco in the making. Wales held up for ridicule, and not for the first time.  And what good will that do for either the writers or the publishers of Wales?

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Don't mention the War!!!

The word that may not be used......

The 2017 deliberations of the Assembly Culture Committee on the support mechanisms for literature and publishing in Wales brought into focus the extraordinary degree to which the act of writing is subsidised in Wales. There are widely differing views on whether this represents a sensible use of scarce resources. About a year ago, I was moved to pen a short epistle to somebody called Becca.  It's reproduced below.  Then I tried to get it published, and it became really interesting.  Not one of the Welsh literary journals would touch it, and one editor actually said she would not give it space "because I do not agree with it...." So much for that fine idea about literary freedom of expression and the encouragement of dissenting voices. Welcome to the bland world of literary conformity, controlled by a self-appointed Welsh literary establishment.........

It is clear to anybody who thinks about it for a moment or two that the word "SUBSIDY"  is a word that must not be used in any context associated with Welsh literature.   And yet everything is subsidised by the taxpayer.  The literary journals are subsidised.  Writers are subsidised in all sorts of ways, for example through grants and bursaries.  Welsh publishers are subsidised -- and almost all of their books are subsidised via publishing grants.  Nobody cares very much whether books are sold or not, because no capital has been risked.  I have done posts on this before:

The result is that hundreds of people write books that should never be published because nobody wants them and nobody reads them -- and the sales figures (when you can get at them) reflect that.  BBC journalist Hugh Thomas highlighted the scandal -- and that is what it is -- in June of this year with his expose about the sales of titles shortlisted for the "Wales Book of the Year" awards.

And still the literary establishment continues to exist in a state of denial, maintaining the pretence that large subsidies (we are talking millions here) are essential if any sort of literary life is to be maintained in Wales, and that the more money is poured into the writing and publishing industry, the more productive and "vibrant" it becomes.  That pretence was all-pervasive in the recent Welsh Assembly review of support mechanisms for writing and publishing in Wales.  The Medwin Hughes Panel, commissioned to provide a detailed report, swept the issue of subsidies under the carpet since it was (to mix metaphors) far too hot to handle.   In their deliberations on the Medwin Hughes Report, the Culture Committee also accepted, without batting an eyelid, that subsidies were essential and not worth talking about.  So vast and rambling discussions went on, and  no time at all was spent on what must surely be the biggest and most important issue in Welsh literature -- if seen from the point of view of the taxpayer.  Is the taxpayer getting good value for money from the level of subsidies  pumped into Welsh writing and publishing?    However you look at it, and whatever statistics you dredge up, the answer has to be a resounding "No!"

The trouble is that the taxpayer is never asked for his/her opinion, since it is not in anybody's interest to do the asking.

The conspiracy of silence goes on.......

Anyway, here is the article that nobody will publish:



Dear Becca

So you want to be a writer? In Wales? I crave your indulgence, and I hope that you’ll wish to read what follows.

I have some advice for you. Why should you wish to pay attention? Well, I’ve been writing and publishing things in Wales for more than 50 years, and have greatly enjoyed the experience. I have 92 books to my name, including many published by the London publishing houses. My books don’t sell by the millions, but many of them have sold tens of thousands, and I count myself as a successful writer who has made a modest living and who knows the ways of the publishing world. I still get a thrill when the first copy of a new book arrives in the post.

It’s a good time to be a writer in Wales. For a start, there is abundant cash available (courtesy of the taxpayer) for writers' bursaries and in the form of publishing grants. There is mentoring as well. You can tap into the system to help you to get your book written, and all being well your publisher can publish it without having to carry any commercial risk. Since the money is there, you will be stupid if you don't try to get your hands on some of it. And if you get your £3,000 (or whatever) you can tell the world that the bursary has “bought you writing time” and that you feel empowered and validated as a bona fide author. You’ll get a nice rosy glow.

Then there is the support provided by those who will tell you, on all sides, that you are an artist who should be valued by Welsh society. There is a mutual admiration society out there, and crowds of people who want you to join. Wales prides itself on its vibrant literary culture, does it not? Artists in Wales who work with words, as we all know, must write from the heart, regardless of commercial considerations, and say whatever they are moved to say about the human condition. They should suffer and persist in the face of endless adversity; but a bursary helps, of course, to make the misery easier to bear. As in all of the creative arts, most artists fall by the wayside, but every now and then a superstar emerges, and the advocates of the subsidy system say that it is thus vindicated. This knowledge helps to drive you on, with encouragement on all sides. But beware.

Forgive me for saying so, but you are probably not an artist at all. You are probably an apprentice. If you start writing now, and do reasonably well by finding a constituency and writing things that your readers enjoy, you might become a journeyman. You should start earning money from book sales. Persist, and you might become a craftsman and even a master craftsman. After many years of writing and selling books, you will probably still not be an artist. That accolade is normally reserved for some of those who are dead, or who happen to speak with such unique voices that people want their books before they are published, or maybe before they are written.

Think carefully about your own status and aspirations. When I started as a writer, nobody "bought time" for me. I paid for it myself, burnt midnight oil, and made hard choices. The things I wrote were aimed at particular constituencies, and published at full commercial risk, after great deliberation, without any grant aid at any stage of the process. Some books were more successful than others, but not one of them was ever remaindered or pulped. Most of the really successful writers in Wales have followed the same risky but ultimately satisfying route.

So beware of vanity. If you insist on writing what is in your head or your heart, with no regard for what the book-buying public actually wants, no matter what your talent may be, you are a vanity writer. Join the club. Hop aboard the gravy train. Wales is full of people like you, writing and publishing books that hardly anybody wants or reads. If your book sells 500 copies it will be doing well. The publisher will not worry, since the cost of production is paid for by the taxpayer. I am not the first person to have noticed that there is a nationally-sanctioned vanity publishing industry out there, on a vast scale, producing hundreds of titles each year in both Welsh and English. Success is measured by the number of titles published, and how “professional” they look. This costs the taxpayer millions of pounds a year. Money well spent? What do you think?

Take it from me. The only valid measure of your worth as a writer is a commercial one. You are the creator of a product, and if you think that the world must have that product, even if it does not want it, are you not being just a little arrogant? Measured book sales are the only things that validate you as a writer. Not books distributed, books given away, books reviewed or given as prizes, or books adopted for university courses — but books SOLD.

It may take many years for your book sales to reach the thousands, but if you are talented, determined, and persistent, you’ll get there. Then you will have a solid following and a real constituency. People will ring you up, write to you, shake your hand at signing sessions, and thank you with tears in their eyes for transporting them to other worlds and making their lives better. At that stage, you will have an emotional as well as a commercial contract with your readers — and that is the ultimate pleasure of a writer’s life.

One last thought. If you can’t write without making sacrifices, and without grant aid, you should think very seriously about doing something else instead. For a literary scene which is based largely on a subsidy culture, as it is in Wales, is not vibrant at all. It is moribund, forcing writers into a dependency culture which is both demoralising and demeaning. It’s wonderful to see your first book in print, but dispiriting when you discover than nobody wants to buy it. The writers who sit on the streets with their begging bowls are “helped” by paid officials who distribute largesse which comes from the taxpayer, and who determine which writers will be promoted and which will be ignored. And who are these bureaucrats? Why, probably people who have never written anything successful in their lives.

Take my advice. Write if you must, but beware of siren voices and carrots dangled from sticks. What will you do when the voices are silenced, and the carrots taken away?