Monday, 25 March 2013

The wanderer returns

Hi everybody. I'm back from the 25th Conference of the Association for Welsh Writing in English (though there was of course considerable overlap between the two languages), held at Neuadd Gregynog near Y Drenewydd / Newtown in Powys. I am bursting with energy and enthusiasm, having spent a few days in snowbound natural beauty talking about all the things I love – and more things I didn't know I'd love – with lots of other enthusiastic, friendly and intelligent people. It was like a mini-holiday.

Gregynog itself was built as a Victorian experiment in concrete. It's a huge, rambling pseudo-Tudor structure with all the quirks that implies. Antique toilets retained for show, enormous rooms with complimentary draughts, beautiful antique and art (there's a fine-art printer, Gwasg Gregynog, on-site – I bought a beautiful pamphlet of Gwyn Thomas's poetry, and left it somewhere I know not where), cake and wine shovelled down your throat seemingly every 23 minutes and no showers. Great big baths, begging for luxuriating in only with 65 other people queuing it seemed rude to really wallow. The grounds are enormous and beautiful, a beauty sharpened by the snow which fell continuously for 36 hours.

Here's the view from my bedroom window at 6 a.m. one morning and – explaining my sadness at returning – the view from my flat last night. You can see all the pictures I took at Gregynog here. To see these samples larger, click on them.

Consequently, the conference felt like it was only one murder or power-cut away from an Agatha Christie mystery. We had a library, a music room and all the other venues for a country-house drama or a live (dead?) edition of Cluedo. I thought, too, of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Box of Delights, all texts which require large country houses, a sense of isolation and lots of snow. Sadly the one realm accessible through my wardrobe was an REF panel demanding to know where my articles were and the Student Experience Committee wanting to turn me to stone. Little disagreement about my PowerPoints.

The conference itself focused on Literary Topographies: Mapping Welsh Writing in English literally, literarily and symbolically (focussed, that is, once we'd all stopped repeatedly laughing at England's humiliation at the hands of Wales in the 6 Nations). I couldn't go to everything, as there were usually two sessions running in parallel, but those I did attend were magnificent. M Wynn Thomas and Tony Brown launched their new books on RS Thomas. MWT, who examined my PhD has written RS Thomas: Serial Obsessive while Tony co-edited the Uncollected Poems of RS. I was really pleased to discover that most people share my feeling that the later, less didactic poems are better than the nakedly political earlier work. In the questions we got to talking about presence and absence of nation and god in the poetry, and RST's search for them both. Also launched were the new edition of Allen Raine's A Welsh Witch edited by Jane Aaron and Kirsti Bohata and Katie Gramich's collection of essays on the wonderful Margiad Evans.
M Wynn Thomas in the midst of full-on hwyl

The books being launched. Did I buy them? Of course. And more…

The first keynote speaker was Damian Walford Davies, one of a clan of extremely accomplished critics and authors. His subject was Swedenborg's Skull, Swansea and the poetry of Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins. He took us through the details of the Swedish mystic's posthumous indignities (his skull was repeatedly purloined, substituted and traded), including its sojourn in Swansea in the mid-twentieth century. Vernon Watkins, friend, mentor and obituarist of Dylan Thomas, said DWD, subtly channelled the Swedenborg story in poems covertly memorialising his deceased friend, along with references to the Mari Lwyd tradition (parading with a mare's skull) and perhaps (I added) to the Celtic tradition of collecting your enemies' skulls and of talking decapitated heads. Entertaining, erudite and  enjoyable.
The Gregynog Dragon - all fire extinguished

Then, it being 10 o'clock, we headed to the cellar bar to carry on the discussion. Next morning, I was up at 6.15 not to beat the queue for the baths (nobody needs to see Plashing Vole en dishabille) but to go for a walk with my camera before everybody stamped through the deep, undisturbed snow. I met Kirsti, a pheasant and a lot of very depressed sheep standing around in what became quite a snowstorm. I make no apology for the huge number of pictures of sheep. I like them. They have a quiet dignity only enhanced by the sure and certain knowledge that they will soon be dinner. Here are some of the snow shots I took. 

Depressed pheasant

Gregynog Hall

Kind of makes you stop and think, doesn't it?

Before long the sheep appeared to look upon me as their Saviour and followed me around the fields bleating piteously. Mind you, I was covered with snow: perhaps they thought I was one of them. 

After a hearty breakfast larger than my usual entire day's intake, I went to the Transformations session. Reuben Knutson presented a fascinating ethnographic documentary/art production examining the hopes and dreams of the 1970s eco-incomers who made their homes in Wales, escaping from what they saw as damaging and self-destructive urban English life. One of the organisers was a child of this movement, as is my colleague Steve, so it was fascinating to see their lives in a wider framework. 

After that, Andy Webb of Bangor University examined poetic responses to the spate of reservoirs built in Wales by English city councils in the 19th and 20th centuries. He used new approaches from human geography to get us to see the reservoirs and the massive amounts of surrounding land as industrial, capitalist products. Without the water, the English cities couldn't expand and develop. So they acquired enormous tracts of Welsh land, flooded historic villages and valleys, and entirely stopped development in the watersheds, meaning that the land we're encouraged to see as natural beauty and as a leisure resource is deeply implicated in capitalist and national imbalance. The poems we discussed were by Ruth Bidgood, RS Thomas, Gillian Clarke and Harri Webb. I didn't know much of Bidgood's stuff: now highly recommended. 

The final presentation was Anwen Jones and Rowan O'Neill's discussion of Owen Rhoscomyl's fascinating and frankly bonkers National Pageant of 1909 and Cliff McLucas's ethnographic-art-human geography-ethnographic-cultural studies exercises he calls 'deep mapping'. All completely new to me but compulsively interesting. I'd like to see some of McLucas's work at some point. 

Quick stop for cake and coffee, then I went to the session on Placing Literature. Jon Anderson and Sarah Morse talking fascinatingly about the porous borders between fiction and reality when texts take 'real' places as settings. The result is that places 'make' texts and texts 'make' places: I know that I'm always aware of the literary significance of the places I visit, such as Lud's Chapel appearing in Gawain and the Green Knight. They also discussed the importance of 'plotline' as a means of readers orienting themselves in a text, in very creative and individual ways. Following that, they showed a film they made tracing the various Cardiffs of several authors, overlapping each one's fictional setting. They also presented this quotation from one of my favourite books, Gwyn Thomas's A Welsh Eye (not the poet Gwyn Thomas previously mentioned):
the geology of remembrance is damnably deep and will need to wait overlong for its final textbook. It will prove to be more insolent and unyielding than the rocks and destructive bubbling filth of this eroded and ambulant clinker. And legend has made our particular case more than usually complicated. 
The final session was a presentation by Bronwen Price, 'Literary Tourism'. Holding a PhD in Welsh literature and working for Llenyddiaeth Cymru / Literature Wales, she organises literary tours around Wales: the Dylan Thomas canoe tour, a talk on RS Thomas in the Manafon church he hated being vicar of, a Tolkien's Wales tour and several others. Some sound tenuous, others fascinating, and I shall be attending several in 2014.

After lunch, I went to Robert Clark's keynote on 'Critical Literary Geography'. Clark runs the subscription site Literary Encyclopaedia and described himself as a 'humanities enterpreneur'. I happened to share the train ride home with him and he told me a lot about his friendships with the late, lamented Angela Carter and Lorna Sage. Clark is soon launching Mapping Writing, which uses Google Maps to locate events in authors lives and in their works, such as Robinson Crusoe's journey. A long time ago it occurred to me that this kind of thing would be excellent. Imagine clicking on, say Bloomsbury to find out that Virginia Woolf wrote a chapter of Orlando in this house on that particular day, while over in Mayfair Bertie Wooster was rudely awakened by Aunt Dahlia. Of course, authors and their texts aren't (and shouldn't be) literally reliable, but it's a fascinating exercise. For instance, Clark explained that calculating the costs and distances travelled by Austen's characters gave one a sense of their social positions and her careful approach to accuracy. From the novels, one can even work out which maps she used, and how these maps created a particular cultural perspective (e.g. by depicting the Great Estates rather than the villages nearby). Bergson, Chatwin, Swift and Lefebvre were all fed into the mix. Interestingly, he also claimed that French intellectuals are swiftly consigning Foucault and Lacan to the intellectual dustbin. I must confess to being surprised, but then I don't keep up with the debate, embarrassingly.

The site works with Safari but it's not quite ready and is better viewed with Firefox. Contributors are being sought and I'm rather tempted.

Robert Clark
I must confess that I skipped the next session. Exhausted, I bought more books and retired to my single bed in the room larger than my entire flat and dozed. Following more tea and cake, I returned to the fray for the Masculine Modernities session. It could have been designed for me, both papers touching on work I've recently done on Welsh masculinities and walking tours. Steve Hendon covered David Jones's and Llewelyn Wyn Griffith's 'Representations of First World War Masculinities' (if you haven't read Jones's In Parenthesis, you're in for a treat: one of the most impressive modernist texts you'll ever encounter), while Tomos Owen discussed WH Davies's and Ernest Rhys's accounts of walking tours through South Wales. I learned an awful lot and took copious notes.

Actor and academic Peter Morgan examines a research poster.
Detail from an enormous painting leaning against a wall

Prof Jane Aaron examines Nor Hashima Isa's poster

Llenyddiaeth Cymru / Literature Wales walking tour guides

After that, more wine and a poster session on new research, followed by dinner and another keynote, Tristan Hughes reading hilariously from his novels and talking about his Canadian-Anglesey life. I'd never heard of him before, but have now ordered all his work. I particularly enjoyed his short story about a flaky, aggressive, deluded New Age hippy. When I was a student at Bangor, every Surrey-dwelling Tarquin and Annabel donned a tie-dye disguise, grew dreadlocks, got faux-Celtic tattoos and tortured us all with bloody digeridoos everywhere we went. I would put them in camps. Or at least take away their trust funds.

The day was only enhanced by the other event on over the weekend: Welsh Young Musician of the Year trials. Gorgeous live music emanating from random rooms wherever I went.

Another trip to the bar ensued, this time chatting to poetry Demiurge Kathryn Gray, Eighteenth-century expert Elizabeth Edwards and the whole CREW (little in-joke there) of postgrads from Swansea, quite the coolest bunch of people I know. I got several tips for my Welsh SF plan and caught up on all the gossip, particularly the tale of the egregiously self-promoting and entertainingly bitter Julian Ruck, a man with even more opinions and fewer brain cells than me: the Swansea crowd got caught up in the media coverage of the man's latest little outburst against the 'Taffy literary establishment' which won't print his appalling books. They spent the day wrecking our heads with the 'missing pound' maths conundrum then spent the early hours wrecking their heads with copious quantities of alcohol. Their disgusting youth meant that they turned up to breakfast looking fresh and relaxed after only three hours in bed. The serene bastards. 

I stayed in bed on Sunday morning rather than go for another walk in the snow. (In case my mother's reading: even this Pope would have forgiven me skipping mass, and anyway I'm an atheist now mother and there's nothing you can do about it). After that, I fancied some genre fiction, so I went to Alyce von Rothkirch's and Catherine Phelps's 'Big Data' take on Welsh crime fiction. I don't read much crime fiction other than Pryce's Aberystwyth noir-parodies, but they demonstrated some fascinating conclusions about the ways in which Welsh crime fiction can be categorised. Then Katriona Mackay discussed Underworlds and the Gothic in Pryce's work and Torchwood. As I'm going to do something on Welsh SF, her material was fascinating and very useful. She and Katie Gramich are doing some fascinating work on Welsh Gothicism, so I'll be keeping an eye out for their stuff. Finally before lunch, Paul Vigor presented his preliminary thoughts on Tolkien's possible use of the Marcher wars as models for his Gondor v Mordor fantasy history, drawing on topography and place-name meanings for support. I've never voluntarily sat through a paper on Tolkien before!

Finally, I went to the session on Writing Places 2. I really wanted to hear Steven Lovatt on Dorothy Edwards (about whom I wrote my MA), but he couldn't make it. Instead, Gwyneth Tyson Roberts and Rita Singer gave what I thought were exemplary papers. Tyson Roberts spoke about two early poems by the 19th-century poet and essayist Jane Williams (Ysgafell). She handed us copies of the poems and pointed out that they were derivative, conventional and even (whisper it) clichéd homages to 18th century poetry rather than the more current Romantic trends. Oh god, I thought. This is going to be dreary. Wrong. Roberts demonstrated with utter conviction that the poems were deliberately written with the taste of literary authority in mind because Williams was 19, sequestered in a Welsh cottage as an au pair and desperate to be accepted as a poet. And if that wasn't enough, Roberts uncovered the covert biographical elements of these seemingly non-specific texts in a virtuoso demonstration of close reading and cultural contextualisation. Afterwards, Rita Singer did something similar with the early 20th-century novels of Allen Raine, explaining that there's a cultural and moral geography at work in her interesting (and finally re-published) texts. 

Readers, returning to the Dark Place and the pile of marking was a struggle. How I wish we'd been snowed in for another couple of days. I had enough pairs of clean under crackers, the wi-fi worked, there's a grand piano and a fully-stocked library. And bar. Instead, here I am in the office once more. 

PS. As you can seen, I'm a prime example of Michael Gove's 'Bad Academics', one of the Enemies of Promise, a Marxist 'Hell-Bent On Destroying Our Schools', one of 'The Blob'. Poor Mr Gove appears to have overdosed on McCarthy speechs, Tea-Party videos and 50s alien invasion movies. I almost feel sorry for him. Almost, but not quite. If he was merely dim, one could forgive him. But Michael's a sold B-grade student: not up to originality, but quite intelligent enough to know better. And he does know better. That's what's so sad. He doesn't really think that the country's schools and universities are packed with traitors brainwashing students. He just knows that's what UKIP voters and Mail readers believe, and he's all too willing to service them. This kind of cynicism is far worse, far more reprehensible than merely being a bit limited in the Grey Matter department. No amount of re-sits will help him now. He should be gently ushered out into the world of work. I'm sure there's a level crossing he could operate, or a lift old-fashioned enough to require an attendant. He'd like that.

Reflections on the piano

The Library corridor

Another library room

I'm quite pleased with this still life of Daffodils

I just liked the symmetry of the stairs

Books reflected in the harpsichord

Again, I just liked the architectural lines


Ant said...

I have good news re the Gwyn Thomas pamphlet.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks Ant - will be in touch.

Sam said...

Some spectacular photos Vole. The place looks sprawling and utterly gorgeous. And you had to return to Wolves: the bathos must have been astounding.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks Sam. It certainly was depressing to return. I'm sure not in Kansas any more…