Tuesday 15 April 2014

Three Days In Wales: a conference report

After the rock'n'roll excesses of seeing The Nightingales live (two beers! out until 11!), I was in the mood for more disorienting, mind-expanding experience. So I hopped on a train to Newtown, Powys for the annual conference of the Association for Welsh Writing in English (Twitter was used extensively: see Bethan Jenkins's Storify collection).

Last year it was held a couple of weeks earlier, which meant blizzards and deep snow - wonderful for me, as these pictures show. This year, AWWE14 was held in beautiful late spring sunshine. The mansion house is beautiful, the surrounding landscape wonderful, and the incredibly distant traffic was thoroughly drowned out by lambs bleating, woodpeckers knocking, owl hooting and pheasants making the sounds that pheasants make. Calling. That'll do.

In short: Paradise. Great surroundings, a library, a bookshop (neither of which stopped me from bringing several books along), mountains of food and several days of learned conversation with a big bunch of ridiculously clever people. Oh, and no phone reception, which was bliss. The only fly in the ointment was having to give a paper, which I find terrifying at the best of times, let alone in such august company. I loathed the young ones most of all: clever, charming, hugely well-read and still with their own teeth. Serene bastards. See some pictures of them here.

Anyway. I turned up early on the first day, which was a schoolboy error. Rather than strolling round the grounds or thieving rare books, I went along to the annual meeting of the association. A simple offer to take the minutes suddenly turned into being given the secretaryship of the organisation, co-organising 2015 conference and judging next year's M Wynn Thomas Prize. All because I can touch-type. Thankfully, I'm not being left to do any of this on my own, which is a relief to all concerned. I feel like this:

or this:

So there it is: my third Secretaryship (union branch, regional fencing committee).

Life improved immensely after that. The conference started with a tribute to Nigel Jenkins, the scholar, poet, satirist, political activist 'and hunk', apparently. Tears and laughter. We then awarded the M Wynn Thomas Prize to two ridiculously talented scholars, Lisa Sheppard and Matt Jarvis. Here they are, recreating a C&A catalogue pose with sponsors Richard Davies and M Wynn Thomas himself:

Wynn's the polymath who essentially invented the academic field of Welsh writing in English, while writing himself in Welsh and English on a huge range of topics. He also knew everyone in academia and literature. At breakfast, he mentioned dining with FR Leavis in that very room. 'And along came a very clever Cockney academic, who leaned over and took the sausages right off FR's plate!'. We discovered this weekend that the water at Neuadd Gregynog is not fit for drinking due to the lead pipes. Poor Wynn: he's been coming here since 1967. Imagine the work he could have produced were it not for the annual intake of poison…

After that, we had the launch of the latest Library of Wales books, the 2-volumes of short stories selected by Dai Smith. Now, I have a bit of a problem with Dai. I wrote my PhD on Lewis Jones's novels, Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley, and Gwyn Thomas's Sorrow For Thy Sons. Dai edited and arranged for reprints of Jones's novels, and is the literary executor for Thomas, and produced the only edition of Sorrow ever published. He defined Jones's as first and foremost an orthodox Communist writer, which my thesis spends several hundred pages (it feels like) debunking, and the latest edition of Cwmardy and We Live silently made multiple questionable editorial changes. However many times I wrote, he never responded to my request to see the manuscript of Sorrow so while we know he shortened it massively, nobody except him knows what the original novel Thomas wrote is like. 

However, I also respect Smith as a stalwart of the Old Left. He's never caught up with the 60s New Left let alone the new Welsh Left, which has room for feminism, the Welsh language movement and for Plaid Cymru, but there's still something fairly admirable about his consistency. I knew that his launch would be feisty: his view of Welsh writing in English as largely male and starting in the 1920s is pretty outdated, and his Old Left approach meets lots of Plaid/Welsh Left opposition. That, and the choice of scantily-clad drunk women on the cover of Volume 2. And so it proved: a good knockabout session with plenty of points aired though there was a whiff of rutting elk locking horns…

Dai Smith

Round 2 came after dinner with the first keynote speaker. The Scottish independence referendum will obviously affect Wales. Nationalists in both countries are allied, and their will be political and cultural impacts whatever the result. A lot of Welsh people are quite nervous of being left alone with England, while wishing Scotland well. So the invited guest was Murray Pittock, literature professor and leading intellectual advisor to Scottish Nationalism. 

Murray Pittock

In a barnstorming and entertaining presentation, he touched on the failure of bodies like the BBC to understand devolution, examined the changing (fading?) nature of Britishness, and touched on relations between Wales and Scotland. 

The audience was pretty riled by some of this, not least Dai Smith, who quoted Lenin and then talked of 'false consciousness': the charge being the standard Classic Left one which accuses nationalism of drawing pernicious lines between working classes who should be united against those who oppress them. I've got some sympathy for this, but also see the logic of some nationalisms. Ireland was occupied by the British: should people like my great-uncle Thomas have accepted the crushing of his language and confiscation of Irish land rather than fight in 1916? Should the Welsh have meekly accepted the ban on Welsh and the despoliation of huge areas of the country for English water supplies and commodities? Answers on a post-card please, but I tend to feel that colonised and invaded nations should be nationalist, then develop a socialist state once self-rule is achieved. English nationalism, on the other hand, is sheer cant. 

Anyway, Pittock's presentation caused a good barney as Smith called him 'patronising' and Pittock demonstrated that popular definitions of 'Britishness' are not simply English, but London-centric and reductive. The debate continued in the bar until the early hours, though I was relatively sensible. Can't keep up with the young folk any more. 

The next morning, I opted for the Queering The Nation panel: Huw Osborne from Canada on the relationship between Jan Morris's transsexuality and her version of Wales, Kirsti Bohata's fascinating history of literary lesbianism in Wales which provided me with a long reading list and determination to re-read some older novels in the light of her analysis, and Daniel Williams' hilarious, Freudian reading of Glyn Jones's classic The Island of Apples, in which he claimed that the whole thing is an account of living in a mental asylum (a surprise to everyone in the audience) and comprehensively demolishing the assertion that the book is entirely devoid of both sex and politics. Some of the passages he chose would have made Kinsey blush. Jones's public image and the work he produced in his mature years made him appear sober, devout and respectable, but the early stories suggest a wilder and less normative interior which was repressed. Wynn, who knew him, said that he was a 'a lifelong chapel man, but a wild man underneath', and it looks like critical readings are revealing this wildness at long last. 

One of the problems with AWWE is that the quality of papers is so high that choosing between the panels automatically means missing great work: I was sad to miss out on Jane Aaron, Stephen Colclough and Malcolm Ballin on 19th-Century constructions of Wales, especially as my own paper could really have fitted into that session. However, putting my disappointment behind me, I toddled off to the next session, which was a corker. Simona Janecekova compared Welsh and Slovak modernisms, Clare Davies talked about Dorothy Edwards and Nella Larsen as examples of women negotiating the networks of patronage within different literary and social contexts ('Dai Smith isn't here so I can say what I want'), and Aleksandra Jones gave a paper on literary representations of disability in coalfield literature, funded by the Leverhulme. I wrote my MA partly on Dorothy Edwards, so was naturally interested, while my PhD was on coalfield novels and I knew some of my texts would re-appear with new readings by Jones. I was stunned that these three were new to academia - there's no way I was anywhere near their standard at the same stage (or now). 

After lunch, there was a special panel on a fascinating project by Kathryn Gray, Peter Barry, Bronwen Williams and Matt Jarvis which interviews Welsh poets who've emerged since devolution, to establish how they feel political change as affected their process, context and careers. 

Given that getting a straight answer out of a poet is like asking a tree for directions, we got a fascinating insight into this (unfinished) project. Some poets are indifferent to devolution, at least professionally. Others felt that the establishment of political institutions like the Assembly takes the pressure off poets to 'represent' or define the nation. The project also looked at the presence of these young Welsh poets in magazines inside and outside Wales. For me, I got a distinct whiff of Romantic withdrawal from some of them: like Wordsworth busying himself with daffodils after his support for the French Revolution made him unpopular for a while, I wondered if English Romantic interiority was replacing the older Welsh tradition of poetry being a public duty. Early days, but an excellent project. 

Infuriatingly, my own paper was scheduled alongside a panel I desperately wanted to attend: Jessica George talking about The Meat Tree which I've taught here and as a guest at Gloucestershire University; and Diana Wallace on John Cowper Powys's Owen Glendower and Chris Meredith's Shifts. I've loved Cowper Powys since my hippy French teacher gave me some of his work in school, and I wrote about Shifts in my MA. Very annoying! My own bit went OK, but Andy Webb's paper proposing a new critical approach by considering 'residual cultures' presence in texts was a barnstormer and will, I think, inspire some really interesting and original work. 

Following that and oceans of coffee, I went along to the great Katie Gramich's keynote, which covered Welsh War Writing and representations of women. There were some fascinating propaganda images, some 'depressingly awful doggerel' which Katie recited with considerable glee and discussion of a women's column in Y Darian which became sharply and wittily feminist, leading Katie to conclude that their author may well have been Kate Roberts, whom I think is one of the very greatest writers of the last hundred years. Roberts turned up in discussion frequently this weekend, as a modernist and as a possible lesbian writer. 

After this, I confess I skipped a session, exhausted and still shaking from my own paper. I intended to go for a walk in the grounds but instead dozed and followed the Stoke City match (another victory). After yet another massive dinner, Mike Parker gave the day's keynote. Author of the Rough Guide To Wales ('anything you can do in Rhyl, you can do elsewhere') and presiding genius of the Real series of psychogeographical works, he gave a funny, heartfelt, thoughtful and informative take on Welsh publishing, travel and tourism, fuelled by beer (him) and wine (the Swansea postgrad women on the back row). Being generally too dumb to live, it hadn't occurred to me to bring booze to the session but Parker's piece was glorious even to those few of us who remained sober. Amongst the delights: pictures of a Dalek in Welsh costume and an account of the day he and Niall Griffiths decided to call on BNP leader and immigrant to Wales Nick Griffin for a bit of fascist-bashing. Luckily either for him or them, he wasn't in. 

The final day saw another difficult choice. In one panel, Emma Schofield, prize-winning essayist Lisa Sheppard and Hywel Dix talked about national identity post-devolution, taking in Charlotte Williams' Sugar and Slate (Lisa) and Imtiaz Dhaker (Hywel), but I went for the either one, in which Daniel Hughes talked about the amazing and scandalously overlooked modernist poet Lynette Roberts and Jamie Harris analysed the Real series including Mike Parker's Real Powys while the author sat on the front row (mostly nodding and smiling, thankfully). 

Finally, the conference ended with a special panel in which John Goodby, Jane Aaron and Tony Brown discussed the relationship between Dylan Thomas, Welsh writing in English and the critical establishment. 

John Goodby, Jane Aaron

Goodby, an eminent author who isn't seen as part of the WWIE movement, caused controversy by suggesting that DT hasn't been welcomed in the anglophone or Welsh-speaking movement yet is seen as too excessive and existentialist to be contained in the English tradition (he says literary history skips from Auden to Larkin which is a shame because 'the 1940s were the Welsh decade'). 

Goodby then added to the tension by asserting that Welsh writing in English has been blind to experimental and modernist work, which really got everybody going. Brown asserted that modernism has been integral to Welsh writing in English despite claims that there's no such thing as Welsh modernism. Saunders Lewis's famous statement ('there is no Anglo-Welsh literature…[Thomas] belongs to the English) was countered heatedly by Wynn, who pointed out that Lewis recanted gracefully after DT's death. One of the recurring themes of the weekend was the strength of Welsh Modernism as a distinct literary practice and genre, often manifesting itself as a predilection for the grotesque or Gothic. I'm certainly convinced by this - even in the supposedly stodgy coalfield novels I know well, there are hugely disturbing events and manifestations undercutting the surface realism. 

Jane Aaron's contribution was to present the difficult birth of WWIE as an academic subject: plenty of universities then and most Welsh schools now have no interest at all in it. She then called for a Dylan Thomas day on October 27th to match Bloom's Day or Burns Night. The conference cheered and voted for that…until M Wynn Thomas, in combative mood, opposed the idea. He 'set the facts straight' on relations between Dylan Thomas and the Welsh-language literary scene and listed a whole lot of critics he felt Goodby had ignored while claiming that experimentalism was marginalised in Welsh literary criticism…and some Welsh-language modernist poets to boot, such as T. H. Parry Williams. While Aaron asserted that celebrations of DT would boost Welsh-language culture, Wynn called Dylan Thomas Day 'naive', bearing in mind the divisive nature of Thomas, Saunders Lewis and others. I can see his point: Bloom's Day barely has anything to do with James Joyce any more, while the authorities' promotion of it as a tourist trap conceals a long history of censorship, suppression and suspicion of Joyce's work. 

Aside from all the formal stuff, AWWE14 was joyous because I got to wander around chatting to the most amazing people, from postgrads to professionals. Conversations ranged from the hilarious (one bunch decided over breakfast to design a game: Angry Bards) to the profound, and I've come away with enormous reading lists and several ideas for modules stolen from my counterparts. I learned about the great lost philosopher JR Jones, that Sylvia Plath dumped a boyfriend because he didn't appreciate Dylan Thomas. Oh, and I finally got to see the infamous RS Thomas Packet Of Crisps, a sought-after object for any archive. 

I left exhilarated, yet exhausted, sad to go, and yet glad not to have to speak to anyone for a day or two. 

And next year I'm co-organizer. No pressure…


John Goodby said...


Thanks for your blog! I didn't attend all of the conference, and this brought me up to speed in a lively and intelligent way. However, I'd like to add to (I won't say 'correct') one or two of the points you made about my contribution to the final panel discussion.

First, I'm not an 'eminent author' - I'm just a critic (and more secondarily a poet and translator).

Second, I do see myself 'as part of the WWIE movement', in the sense that I have contributed to the development of the subject, albeit not in the approved way. Jane Aaron's description of me as an 'outsider' to the subject was her opinion only - and a typically Welsh-Wales attempt to avoid uncomfortable questions about her essentialist approach to what constitutes 'Welsh literature'. It was basically an ethnicist comment - 'you're English so you can't understand Welsh writing' - given a veneer of critical respectability.

John Goodby said...


If I remember rightly, she accused me of not being steeped in the Anglo-Welsh tradition, like herself. But this is completely untrue, and she offered no evidence for it. I've read all the major and many of the lesser Anglo-Welsh writers. Moreover, I'm willing to bet that, because of her ideological blinkers, Jane herself hasn't read such important Welsh writers in English as Wendy Mulford, John James, Paul Evans, Philip Jenkins, Gerard Casey, Cris Paul, Rhys Trimble, David Annwn, or Welsh-identifying writers such as Chris Torrance, and knows precious little about the likes of David Greenslade. They're all contemporary modernists, and some of them even have the temerity to live in England, so they wouldn't interest her. Tradition - and nationalist readings of tradition in particular - shape who is on or off your radar.

John James, for example, is a major post-1960s poet with an international reputation. When I asked M. Wynn Thomas what he thought of him, in 2000, he replied 'Who is John James?' My point being not at all that Wynn is a poor critic - I believe the opposite - but that, although Welsh modernism has recently been grudgingly acknowledged as a historical way after being ignored for several decades (modernism as Dylan Thomas, David Jones and Lynette Roberts is safely pas, and so OK), its contemporary continuation by such authors as those I've listed goes against the grain of the realist-nationalist project which dominates the work of most WWiE critics (such as Jane).

John Goodby said...


This project prioritises literature which reflects the nation-to-be and has little time for formally experimental or adventurous work, hence the promotion of dull and imitative writers, from Owen Sheers to Gillian Clarke. Apropos of Saunders Lewis's famous statement ('there is no Anglo-Welsh literature…[Thomas] belongs to the English) and Wynn's 'heated' pointing out of its retraction, all one can say is that a single retraction can't (and hasn't) undone an entire mindset, a narrow and inward-looking ethos.

As you rightly say, 'One of the recurring themes of the weekend was the strength of Welsh Modernism as a distinct literary practice and genre, often manifesting itself as a predilection for the grotesque or Gothic.' This is something I have theorised in my study of Dylan Thomas (2013, Liverpool University Press), drawing on Tony Conran, as 'Gothic-grotesque modernism', and reaching in its more extreme forms (Thomas, Roberts), to what I call 'surregionalism'. (And by the way, Wynn Thomas was wrong to say that I din't credit other critics of Thomas or Welsh modernism in my book; there is a fifty page introduction, 'The Critical Fates of Dylan Thomas', where I list and discuss them all).

But these ideas have all been around since my New Casebook collection of essays on Thomas published in 2001, anyway. They've been amplified in my work in essays in Poetry Wales (2010), in the Cambridge Companion to English Literature (2010), the Welsh issue of Angel Exhaust (2011), and my work in promoting contemporary experimental Welsh poetry through my Boiled String imprint (since 2012). They just haven't been dealt with by critics like Jane, Wynn, Daniel Williams and others who claim leadership of the field. However, hearteningly, some of the ideas are now being picked up by younger critics, independently of any of my efforts in some cases I'm sure, and I'm glad to see it; the panel on Roberts and Iain Sinclair I attended at NAWWE conference was great. But those younger critics should be aware that I'm a pioneer in this field, not someone who denies that it exists, and that I would like to make common cause with them. As my answer to And Webb's question at the end of the panel made clear, the uniqueness of Welsh poetry in English is that - unlike any other anglophone poetry - it rests on a modernist base. This places the authority of the conservative voices which seek to represent a Larkin-derived plain-style poetry as as the official poetic discourse in a vulnerable position, and gives unique opportunities to those want to do something more interesting. Thomas, Roberts and Jones, in all their hyphenated, impure, mongrel glory, are the real heart of Welsh poetry in English, and anyone who isn't a purist or linguistic culturalist should be grateful for that.