Theatre in Wales

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The Two Best Critical Essays of the Year

On Criticism & Critics

Lewis Davies & Gary Raymond , Where Literature of Wales Got it Wrong in 2021 , December 16, 2021
On Criticism & Critics by Lewis Davies & Gary Raymond Good critical writing, whatever the topic, has common qualities: pith, pointedness, verve, and composed with a passion. These were the best to come my way this year.

Lewis Davies wrote a 2000 word article on the Hay Festival of 2021. All at once a memoir, a history looking back three decades, a homage and a critique it was a reminder of the writer behind the publisher and a reminder too that books- the making and the reading- are first and foremost a thing of love.

The names tumbled out: Tony Benn, Roy Bailey, Diana Blunt, Germaine Greer, Alun Richards, Dai Smith, Roger Deakin, Topher Mills, Ifor Thomas, Owen Sheers, Horatio Clare, Cynan Jones, Alys Conran.

So to the nub.

The Hay Festival existed in 2021 even if the Maes was sealed by the restrictions. It was virtual. The Government of Wales contributed. The Arts Council of Wales paid its bit. The British (Welsh) Council added money.

"Why in this year has the festival programme abandoned Wales?" asked the genuine, and veteran, person of letters.

"According to their website there are 138 events this year. From my reckoning there are four with any Welsh cultural content. It opens on the Llwyfan Cymru Digidol. Although why they bother with the translation I’ve no idea as there are no events in Welsh.

"The children’s programme has an even poorer representation; from twenty-seven events the closest thing to a Welsh connection is Bad Wolf talking about the process of adapting His Dark Materials. They have the English Children’s Laureate, a former Irish children’s laureate and one of the writers was born in Dorset which is only a few hours from Wales.

"The Central Republic of Wimbledon is well-represented but there’s no room for Eloise Williams, the children’s laureate for Wales or any of the wonderfully talented children’s writers and illustrators that have a real connection and understanding of our culture."

Davies draws comparison with Scotland where the cultural commissars are faithful to their nation.

"A festival of similar stature, the Edinburgh International Literary Festival always features a broad day of Scottish talent. Their 2021 programme isn’t announced until June but Ian Rankin and Val McDiarmid are already front and centre on the website and they will champion new and emerging talent in high profile events."

He looks to some of those who do not count with those in Hay or the Bay.

"Richard Owain Roberts won the Not the Booker prize in 2020. He doesn’t get a gig at Hay. Prophets and countries never really get on.

"But where’s Huw Stephens talking to Peter Lord, Manon Steffan Ross, Niall Griffiths, Christopher Meredith talking about his two new books Please and Still?

"Where’s Will Hayward talking about Lockdown Wales with Adam Price?

"Abeer Ameer about her award-winning poetry?

"Where’s Liz Jones talking about best-selling author and the Queen of Romance Marguerite Jervis?

"Or Rachel Trezise discussing her novel set over the day of the Brexit Vote in the Rhondda?"

"Perhaps John Sam Jones talking about growing up gay in Wales and receiving electric shock therapy treatment from the NHS in a Denbighshire hospital in an attempt to cure him.

"Or Bill Rees, author of the Loneliness of the Long Distance Book Runner talking about his late middle age obsession with playing ping-pong Table Tennis a la Carte. It’s been reviewed in the Times.

"Or leading historian Jeffrey Weeks talking about radicalism of the Gay rights movement in London in the 70s and the woeful Conservative government’s response to the Aids epidemic in the 80s."

It is a richly eloquent essay and it is an angry one.

"It’s a question of being ignored in your own country and if we are to cede completely to the colonial attitude which seems to have seeped into the process of making the decisions in the Hay locked in bubble."

The full essay may be read at:

https://nation.cymru/culture/poor-taffs-festival-or-is-hay-really-in-wales/

Poetry Wales was the cause of an eruption in mid-year. It was spattered in an incoherent manner across micro-blogging and probably social media. In truth I cannot even recall what it was about but it was about something.

Gary Raymond is the most forthright writer of Wales in defending criticism as a form in itself. Below 1st May 2020 is an instance.

Cultural policy in Wales is being nudged away from the tradition which has held for public subsidy over seventy years. There have always been Chairs who leaned towards representing those in power. But men like Sir William Rees-Mogg at least did it with subtlety. The leaning now by the managers of culture is blatant.

So Raymond was the only writer to stand up for literature where Literature Wales has given ground.

"My position on this is simple", he wrote in an essay published independently of his usual editorial place.

"I do not think a cultural magazine, particularly one that receives public subsidy, should see itself as a social justice organisation. A magazine improves the world by doing its job as a magazine. And that is to encourage debate and discussion amongst the readership. I think they should house a plurality of voices, and even when the natural editorial sympathies lean in one direction, an editor should at the very least leave the door open for viewpoints from different spectrums."

"...Magazines are there to challenge ideas, to shine a light in darkened corners, they are there, first and foremost, to encourage and to stir debate. The moment there is fear of the debate, we are lost...it made me worry for the direction of publishing in Wales....I was questioning whether a poetry periodical, particularly one in receipt of public subsidy, should be “fighting” anything at all.

"And I particularly baulk at this idea that a magazine should be a “safe space” for anyone. A cultural magazine should be a place where figures of note are given space to explore ideas and address concerns about art, craft, and yes, society and the world we live in. It should frequently challenge and prod and poke. It should aspire to be anything but a “safe space”.

"Otherwise, you’re a catalogue, not a magazine. At least that would have been part of my side of the debate had a debate been allowed to take place."

Agree or disagree Raymond at least writes. The position of Poetry Wales was characteristic for our times; it did not debate issues of literature or art. In a normal environment that closure ought to have drawn attention from the public funding body.

The full essay is at:

https://meridianstrip.substack.com/p/a-fight-for-the-right-to-debate?r=6559d&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR3HqDTDUbJxtBXjId1ScT8zW_C-1Ki8-gHoBjIiABmr6iQ36V5JSGr5m9I

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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