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?



Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Transformation for the Wales Book of the Year competition?

The Wales Book of the Year competition, which has always been organized by Literature Wales, became something of a laughing stock last June 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 Exec of Lit 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..........

I have been banging on about this for years, complaining 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 as state secrets.  Anyway, good for Hugh for blowing this out into the open, and for revealing that the Book of the Year competition (already heavily criticised by the Medwin Hughes Panel) was unfit for purpose. For years the contest has encouraged the ongoing publication of books that nobody really wants, that hardly anybody reads, written 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, and the winners will be delighted, and the bells will ring.

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.

Is the process of re-defining the competition under way?  It seems so.  The Medwin Hughes Panel suggested that it should be taken away from Literature Wales and passed across to the Welsh Books Council.  Well, blood might have been spilled behind the scenes, since the competition is moving to Aberystwyth, with the University putting its weight and its name behind two new awards, and with new festivities planned as well.  Literature Wales still flags itself up as the organizer, but I wonder how the new rules are being drawn up, and what the input from other interested parties might be?

Watch this space..........


This is the Literature Wales news item that was published in August:

After a number of successful years held at Galeri Caernarfon, The Redhouse in Merthyr Tydfil and Tramshed in Cardiff, the Wales Book of the Year Award Ceremony has found a new home for 2019, and Literature Wales is delighted to announce that the 2019 Award Ceremony will be hosted by Aberystwyth Arts Centre.

Organised by Literature Wales, the Wales Book of the Year Awards are presented to the best Welsh and English-language works in the fields of creative writing and literary criticism published in a calendar year, within three categories: Poetry, Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction.

Each category winner will be announced at the prestigious Award Ceremony, with one of the successful titles in each language chosen as the overall winner and named Wales Book of the Year 2019. A total of £12,000 in prize money will be awarded to the successful writers. The Ceremony will be held at Theatr y Werin, Aberystwyth Arts Centre on Thursday 20 June 2019. The theatre is currently undergoing a renovation with major investment in new electrical systems and seating.

Dafydd Gwyn Rhys, Director of Aberystwyth Arts Centre said: “We are delighted to be welcoming the Wales Book of the Year Award Ceremony to Aberystwyth Arts Centre in 2019. To extend the celebrations we will be a hosting a week of activities celebrating literature for young and old. Put the dates in your diary now!”

As part of this new partnership, the fiction awards in both languages will be sponsored by Aberystwyth University, and will be called the Aberystwyth University Fiction Award, and Gwobr Ffuglen Prifysgol Aberystwyth.

Dr Rhodri Llwyd Morgan, Director of Welsh Language and Culture and External Engagement at Aberystwyth University, said: “Aberystwyth is often described as the cultural capital of Wales and we have a strong literary tradition here. As well as the University and Arts Centre on our main Penglais campus, the area is also home to the National Library of Wales, the Welsh Books Council and other organisations as well as many poets and writers. It’s therefore an ideal place to hold the 2019 Wales Book of the Year Awards Ceremony and we look forward to working with Literature Wales to ensure the success of this prestigious occasion.”

Key Dates for 2019

The Wales Book of the Year Short List will be announced in early May 2019, and the Award Ceremony will be held on Thursday 20 June 2019. The names of the judging panel will be released in the autumn.

Lleucu Siencyn, Chief Executive of Literature Wales said: “We are delighted to be working with the Aberystwyth Arts Centre to bring one of our biggest literary highlights to this beautiful seaside town. Home to a host of literary organisations, and a number of writers and creatives, Aberystwyth is a natural fit for the Wales Book of the Year Award Ceremony. We are incredibly grateful to Aberystwyth University for their generous support, and we look forward to working with all our partners to ensure this is a celebration to remember!”

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

The Media Investment Budget -- unfit for purpose?

The Assembly's Culture Committee has still not reported on its deliberations on the film and TV industry in Wales.  It's taking a long time.......  but there are very distinct rumbles and grumbles from the smaller companies who are having to work within a very cumbersome and restrictive investment environment and who are concerned about what they see as a funnelling of funds into gigantic "prestige" projects at the expense of small projects which actually help to tell the Welsh story.

It's not a good scenario when the Welsh Government's TV and film support system seems to be permanently teetering on the verge of scandal or catastrophe.

(Funding from the Welsh Government's Media Investment Budget is provided on conditions including that at least 50 per cent of the production is shot in Wales, and 40 per cent of the below the line production budget must be spent in Wales. 'Below the line' expenditure refers to money spent on the production of the film, rather than the creative direction (i.e. not spent on, for example, the screenwriter, producer, director, and actors).
These are not good headlines:

The Pinewood scandal is just one issue:

There has also been disquiet about the manner in which Bad Wolf has been supported financially and then not -- so it would appear --subjected to adequate financial scrutiny:

Some of the criticisms are quite honestly noted here, by a Welsh Government civil servant:

Roger Williams from Joio – one of the few Welsh companies to receive funding from the MIB, for bilingual crime drama BANG – described the process of applying for funding from the MIB as “incredibly frustrating”. The distributors and lawyers involved in the production, he said, had “never come across a more restrictive deal”. Severn Screen’s Ed Talfan – producer of bilingual crime drama Hinterland/Y Gwyll – said that the terms of the MIB were too “onerous” for other parties involved in financing his production, so he had been put off applying.

The Committee has heard a number of suggestions as to how the Welsh Government should better support the local industry. Wales-based production companies Truth Department and ie ie productions called for the Welsh Government to provide funding for smaller productions than those that can currently apply to the MIB, based on their cultural as well as their economic value.

Article by Robin Wilkinson, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Film and major television production: is the Welsh Government doing enough to grow the domestic screen industry?
June 14, 2018



The full terms of reference for the Culture Committee inquiry are:

To achieve clarity on the Welsh Government's policy aims for funding film and major television production in Wales, and transparency as to why and how decisions are made in this area;
The support given by the Welsh Government to develop the film and television industries in Wales including:
Economic impact, and how this is spread across Wales
Cultural impact, including the Welsh language
Value for money
How support for the sector may be affected by the Welsh Government's new Economic Action Plan.
To investigate how Ffilm Cymru Wales, the BFI and others support the sector, and how this work complements the work of the Welsh Government in this area.
The support given to develop skills and address skills shortages in the industry, whether there is sufficient data to map existing skills.

Novel adaptations -- it's tough out there....

Two interesting articles on high-end TV drama and the adaptation of novels for the small screen.  There are huge opportunities out there, but the market place is crowded, and nine out of ten projects just fall by the wayside.

But one has to believe -- and if a project is good enough, it will rise to the top of the pile and get turned into a blockbuster.  Game of Thrones is dead -- long live "On Angel Mountain"!

By the way, in my humble opinion "Victoria" was brilliant and "Vanity Fair" was so bad that we only watched one episode.  How come that they both got made and occupied rather a lot of screen time?

Latest research on high-end TV drama impacts

A very significant Report has just been published by the BFI -- Screen Business: How screen sector tax reliefs power economic growth across the UK (October 2018).

Here is the summary Report:

It brings up to date some of the information I provided in an earlier blog post:

Here are some new snippets of information:

High-end television (HETV) - including fantasy series Game Of Thrones and royal period drama The Crown - claimed £179.4 million of tax relief to generate £1.72 billion in 2016, yielding £466.1 million in tax revenues. It generated 13,090 direct FTEs in 2016 and total employment of 26,670 FTEs when indirect and induced impacts are included. Across the screen sector value chain, HETV production generated £1.45 billion in total GVA for the UK economy. Tourism is a strong element of spillover impacts for HETV productions generating an additional 5,990 FTEs and £267.8 million in “gross value added" for the economy, and bringing the overall economic contribution of HETV to 32,660 FTEs and £1.72 billion in GVA.

Outlander: a programme that has been credited with bringing about £300m of direct investment to Scotland and great indirect effects including increased tourism spend. The Glenfinnan Monument to the fallen Jacobite clansmen saw a 58% increase in visitor numbers last year, reaching nearly 400,000. Nearby is another film tourism opportunity - the Glenfinnan Viaduct, made famous by the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films. Doune Castle, which features in the series as the fictional Castle Leoch, has seen a 227 per cent increase in numbers since 2013 when Outlander first aired.

Game of Thrones: over six series direct investment in the N Ireland economy was £146m — representing a significant payback when set against the investment of £13.7m from N Ireland Screen. The figures show that 120,000 visitors were drawn to Northern Ireland by the series in 2016, pumping a whopping £30million into the local economy. The Game of Thrones doors dotted around Northern Ireland have been a huge attraction and The Game of Thrones® tapestry welcomed more than 130,000 visitors between July 2017 and July 2018. Also a boost in the property market. 25 new Game of Thrones private sector visitor experiences were developed between 2013 and 2017, including guided coach tours, immersive experiences, food experiences etc. In the public sector, Tourism NI in partnership with Northern Ireland Screen and HBO hosted ‘Game of Thrones: The Exhibition' in 2013 and again in 2014. The exhibitions were sold out with the 2014 exhibition generating an estimated £735,000 in direct spend.

Poldark: Poldark is reported to have influenced around 14 per cent of all visitors to Cornwall, and businesses have long reported a boost in the number of tourists from overseas because of the so-called ‘Poldark effect’. Increased property searches and a boost to property values. Bristol attracted £15.2m of inward investment from film and TV production in 2017-18, according to the Bristol Film Office.

Kaye Elliott, Creative England, 2018: ‘When a production like Poldark comes to town, they can spend up to £32,000 per day in the region, on things like hotels, food, transport and hiring local crew. Over the last year, filming has brought £11million of inward investment from on location spend into the South West – and that’s before you consider the impact of tourists visiting their favourite film locations.’

Pride and Prejudice: Lyme Park in Disley, Cheshire, which starred as Jane Austen’s Pemberley in the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, enjoyed a 176 per cent increase in visitor numbers after the series aired in 1995.



If you are looking at economic impacts, high-end TV drama is the thing to go for.  
This is from just a few days ago:
Welsh Government Economy Secretary, Ken Skates says: “We are working extremely hard to continue to attract high-end TV and film productions to Wales, and to ensure we maximise the associated economic benefits. The last two years have been our busiest yet for supporting TV and film - with high profile productions such as Un Bore Mercher / Keeping Faith cementing Wales’ reputation as a five star place to film.”

Here is another quote:
Speaking on St David’s Day 2018, Wales’ Economy Secretary Ken Skates said latest figures indicated that productions filmed in Wales with Welsh Government assistance will result in around an estimated additional £55m being injected into Wales’s economy in 2017/18, continuing an upward trajectory for the sector. He said the Welsh Government had taken “a conscious decision to grow our creative sector” and was “working hard to attract high-end TV and film productions to Wales”.
He said that for every £1 the Welsh Government invests into TV and film production, an average of £8 ends up being spent within the Welsh economy.

Now that's all very fine, and it's great that Keeping Faith is going into a second series, but when you actually look at the high-end TV dramas filmed in Wales over the past few years, not one of them tells a story set in Wales.  Series like Da Vinci's Demons and His Dark Materials are great for the Welsh film and TV industry, and bring jobs and cash into Wales, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with the Welsh experience, the character of Wales, or the Welsh narrative,  and so they do nothing to enhance our national identity, or our national pride -- and they do nothing whatsoever to sell Wales to the World.

The strategy seems to be to make Wales a "five star place to film" -- in other words, a great place to tell other people's stories.  Are we really, as a proud nation, content with that?  Have we learned nothing at all from Game of Thrones, Poldark, and Outlander?

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Preseli and the rolling cloud

Fascinating early morning cloud effects the other day, as we drove over Preseli.  To the north, the weather was clear and bright, but cloud was rolling over all the cols -- in the picture we can see Foel Drygarn and the craggy tip of Carn Alw.  To the south, there was just a blanket of low cloud and drizzle.

We’re seeing plenty of Welsh locations in BBC dramas – one day they may be shows about Wales

Nina Jones
The Conversation, March 2nd, 2018

Ask a viewer about Welsh programmes on BBC channels of late and chances are they will mention Doctor Who. And quite rightly so – it is only with Welsh intervention in the form of Swansea born showrunner Russell T Davies and a Cardiff-based crew that the “Who-niverse” was brought back to life.

Since 2005, and in light of Doctor Who’s success, more and more shows have been produced in Wales by the BBC. Long-running hospital drama Casualty is now filmed in Wales, and fantasy shows such as Torchwood, Merlin and Atlantis have all been made there too.

It must be said that audience pride in seeing recognisable Welsh locations – even when they’re not being portrayed as Wales – cannot be overlooked when thinking about the nation on screen. Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood, was set in Cardiff – albeit an alternate sci-fi reality – and continues to cement its place in Cardiff Bay. Torchwood tower and Ianto’s shrine are still visited by fans, tourists and locals to this day.

But apart from the occasional Welsh accent in Casualty or mention of Wales in a small number of Doctor Who episodes, by and large, these dramas are set “elsewhere”. They do not directly represent a Welsh way of life. Even if Wales’s beauty is seen as an asset by BBC producers, Welsh issues have not been deemed worthy to commission shows for national audiences.

Just a backdrop

For a long time, representations of Wales and the Welsh people in national BBC television dramas have been few and far between. Welsh audiences have only had a handful of options insofar as seeing their nation represented on the small screen. That is even in light of the BBC’s “beyond the M25” initiative – their way of solidifying a more sustainable production base across the nation, which the corporation felt would “bring production closer to the audiences they serve”.

Though the country has its own channel – the Welsh-language S4C – as well as the regional BBC Wales, Wales has mostly been used as a stand-in for other places during production for the national network. A BBC drama that is specifically Welsh in its setting, dialogue, theme, or mode of address is yet to be green-lit. If we do happen to see drama that is set in Wales, it often has to prove its worth in regional scheduling first.

From the early 2000s, viewers of BBC Wales were able to tune into dramas such as Belonging and Baker Boys. But regionally broadcast shows such as these have been in decline in more recent years in favour of networked programming. This approach by the BBC has left its drama departments across the UK competing for main network slots. Less drama production equals less spend – an ever more pressing factor in light of the BBC’s frozen licence fee.

Belonging represented a small Welsh community and its everyday trials and tribulations. Issues of race and sexuality were tackled and formed the main plot-lines – but the drama was not directly about Wales. It did not offer a representation of the nation that was inward looking in a rose-tinted kind of way. Instead, it focused on contemporary issues tackled from a Welsh mode of address. Belonging, like Baker Boys, was specifically made with a Welsh audience in mind and both were lighthearted and humorous in tone. But despite their popularity both dramas were withdrawn without substitution.
New noir

Perhaps the most promising of the BBC’s (and S4C’s) commitment to Wales and Welsh drama in recent years has come from Hinterland/Y Gwyll (2013-) and Keeping Faith/Un Bore Mercher (2017-). Both dramas are set in contemporary Wales, have been produced independently in collaboration with the BBC/S4C, and were broadcast in both English and Welsh.

Dramas such as these may not be fervently waving the Welsh flag, but their tackling of universal themes such as love and betrayal from a Welsh lens or through a Welsh mode of address is incredibly important. Rather than relying on comic stereotypes or bit parts, these programmes represent a modern Wales.

However, it hasn’t been an easy path to get to his point. Hinterland/Y Gwyll came about as part of BBC Wales’ drive to show more of Wales and the Welsh language on the mainstream BBC channels. Yet, the fact that a Welsh language version aired on S4C first, followed by bilingual versions on BBC One and BBC Four the following year, demonstrates the BBC’s reluctance to represent the regions and communities to the rest of the UK – as set out by its very own public purpose remit.

As the debate over broadcasting devolution rages on, we can only help but wonder what the future might be for dramatic representations of Wales. Welsh culture secretary Lord Elis-Thomas has announced he will not pursue the devolution of broadcasting. Yet powers over culture are devolved, leading many to wonder whether this asymmetrical arrangement can ever work.

The BBC could certainly do more to devolve its own powers over drama. As it stands, the controller of drama in London, Piers Wenger, performs an important gatekeeping function. But if we want to see Wales and other parts of the UK get the representation it sorely needs, then really these gates need to be permanently opened.