Category: Author Interviews
Tales From The Murenger - Newport's Seedy Side - An Interview With Author Michael Keyton
By AmeriCymru, 2018-11-01
AmeriCymru spoke to Welsh author, Michael Keyton about his work and future plans. Michael was born in Liverpool, graduated from Swansea University and has lived in Newport, south Wales in the past. He currently resides in Monmouth and is the author of several books including a collection of spooky short stories set in the Murenger pub in Newport ( Tales From The Murenger ). He has also written a novel about the tragic life and fate of Gwyneth Morgan of Tredegar House ( The Gift ).
"My Newport is a dark, seedy and magical city, the unimaginable just around the next corner . . . or the corner after that." Michael Keyton
AmeriCymru: Many thanks for agreeing t o this interview. Care to tell us a little about your Welsh background and your history as a writer?
Mike: I was born in Liverpool, from a long line of Parrys on my mother’s side and a rich mix of Irish—Keytons, Henrys, and Tobins—on my father’s. That’s the nature of Liverpool, the unacknowledged capital of the Celtic world.
I went to Swansea University and loved it so much I decided to settle there. Fate had other ideas and led me to Newport instead – which I loved. I still live in Wales – just about—in Monmouth.
Ironically, I began writing (in my head) before I could read. I caught rheumatic fever as a child and was in hospital for over a year on my back. People gave me books I couldn’t decipher. I remember Beatrix Potter books, in particular Mr Todd and Jeremy Fisher. I’ve had a thing about foxes, reeds and lily pads ever since. There were no TVs in Myrtle Street Children’s Hospital and not much conversation. Instead, I stared at book pictures and made up my own stories.
All in all, I lost two years of schooling, and it was a struggle to catch up. The first inkling I had that writing could be sexy was in what they called a ‘free composition’ class in English. I still remember the story but not the ending. It involved a man falling from a plane without a parachute. The most attractive girl in the class—Ruth—was breathing over my shoulder caught by the story I was only halfway through. ‘What happens next?’ she asked, and I stared at the page like rabbit caught in a headlamp. I had no idea—other than he was going to smash into the ground at hundred miles an hour—and I knew that wouldn’t satisfy her. Luckily, I was saved by the bell. But that basic question, ‘What happens next’ has always been with me.
At university, and influenced by Michael Moorcock, I wrote a poor pastiche of Moorcock’s hero—Elric, my equivalent being ‘Meibron, Pale Piper of Valkesh.’ Less said about that the better, I think. Subsequently, family, teaching, and a profitable side-line in a Ceilidh band left little time to write. The itch though, remained constant.
AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about your novel The Gift ? How did you become interested in the Morgan family?
Mike: The Morgan family and Tredegar House have always fascinated me, in particular Evan Morgan, Papal Knight, sexual predator and Satanist, and his more tragic sister, Gwyneth Morgan, who died in such mysterious circumstances. It dominated the papers at the time.
In ill health, weakened by enteric typhoid and drug abuse, Gwyneth was a severe embarrassment to the Morgan family and was all but incarcerated in ‘The Niche,’ a large house in Wimbledon.
In the early hours of Thursday, December 11th 1924 she slipped out of the house and vanished. Six months later, her body was fished out of the Thames near Wapping.
The mystery is manifold. By all accounts, Gwyneth was severely ill, unable to walk very far without feeling tired, and spent much of her time in bed. On the night she disappeared, London was shrouded in one of those legendary fogs, an impenetrable ‘pea-souper,’ and the nearest entry point to the Thames was Putney Bridge, four miles from where she lived. It is hard to believe that a semi-invalid could walk four miles in thick fog through unfamiliar streets and fall into the river at Putney Bridge. The fact that her decomposed body was found in Wapping, even farther away, compounds the mystery. It would have had to have floated along one of the world’s busiest waterways beyond Hammersmith and Rotherhithe without being seen.
Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the press. In the absence of hard facts, newspapers had a field day with theories involving white slavers, Chinese opium lords, and lesbian lovers. It is in this context The Gift was born.
AmeriCymru: What can you tell us (without spoiling the plot) about Lizzie McBride and Gwyneth Morgan, the two central characters of the novel?
Mike: The Gift follows the rise of a Liverpool orphan, Lizzy McBride, and the degradation but ultimate redemption of one of the richest heiresses in Edwardian England, Lady Gwyneth Ericka Morgan. Though there are elements of the fantastic, the novel is grounded in historical fact. It involves real people and historical events as it explores the occult underbelly of the English aristocracy and its links with the emergent Nazi movement.
The Gift is the first book of a trilogy, beginning in 1912 and ending in 1941. The three books trace the magical rivalry between two sisters, Elizabeth and Elsie McBride and interweaves between historical events and the cracks in between - the ultimate prize, the unlocking of Hell.
The first book introduces the two sisters, twelve-ye ar-old Elizabeth and Elsie, then a baby inhabiting the bottom drawer of a cabinet. Hints of Elizabeth’s occult gifts appear early on and the story develops as leading Satanists— including Aleister Crowley— attempt to seduce and corrupt her. The second book traces the corruption of Elsie and the love-hate relationship between the two sisters. The final book describes Elsie's attempt to engineer a bloodbath ie World War II through the occult manipulation of diplomacy; it ends in a struggle to the death between the two sisters as Operation Barbarossa begins.
In short the three books are inspired by the rich but wasted lives of Evan and Gwyneth Morgan, and the dynamics of three fictitious characters, Elizabeth and Elsie McBride, and the magician John Grey.
AmeriCymru: Tales From The Murenger is a collection of dark tales centered around the pub of the same name in Newport, Gwent. Are there any standout tales in your opinion
Mike: That’s a difficult question. All of them have their different qualities. For a more objective answer than I’m able to give, the first story, ‘Mr Nousel’s Mirror,’ was included in anthologist, Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the year for 2011, alongside works by Stephen King and Jack Ketchum. I am though, fond of ‘A Touch of Rat,’ ‘Martin Brownlow’s Cat’ and ‘Ailsa.’ And there I have to stop as other stories start screaming in my ear accusing me of favouritism.
AmeriCymru: What inspired this collection? Are you a regular at The Murenger?
Mike: The Murenger was the first pub I drank in on the first day I arrived in Newport.
That was more years ago than I care to remember. It’s still my ‘local’ even though I now live over twenty miles away in Monmouth and drink there less frequently
Most of the stories have been previously published in various British and American anthologies. With the various copyrights having reverted back to me I puzzled on how to make them earn me a little more money.
There was no problem in putting them together in a single collection, for they all had a central motif: every story was set in or around Newport—and for good reason. Newport, or my version of it, is an alternative ‘Arkham,’ the Welsh equivalent of HP Lovecraft’s sinister town. The only problem I had was choosing a name for the book. Tales from Newport . . .? No, perhaps not. Tales from the Transporter Bridge . . . again no — but I was getting there. I needed an icon, something everyone in the area would recognise, something once seen you immediately think— ‘ghosts be there inside those walls’—and above all, something smelling of beer. Good beer.
The Murenger immediately came to mind, an iconic pub that everybody in Newport knows. And what you see on the front cover is pretty much what you see on the street, though I can’t guarantee the ghostly smoke. After that it was a marriage made in heaven. Rob, the landlord has a savvy media presence, and the relationship became symbiotic—Rob generously incorporating the book in his tweets and me marketing his pub. You can imagine my delight when he framed a picture of the book cover in his pub. In my daydreams, a future pilgrimage for those who like their Newport dark.
AmeriCymru: "My Newport is a dark, seedy and magical city, the unimaginable just around the next corner . . . or the corner after that." Care to expand?
Mike: Ha! So far no one has objected to the depiction. Perhaps they agree that ‘dark and seedy’ suggests fertility, and there’s no doubt Newport is magical, if you know where to look.
My first years in Newport were spent in ‘bed-sit’ land – converted rooms in Edwardian or Victorian buildings behind the Civic Centre. Many were built on hills and so offered evocative views of roofscapes and sky. In winter the roofscapes were blurred in shadow and rain and with mysterious gaps in-between. The sky was equally exciting, changing from day to day, sometimes sulphurous, often grey, but the sunsets were something else.
I loved the streets, the alleyways, and old Pill (the dockside area) before redevelopment carved it out of existence. And the river, muddy, turgid and slightly sinister. It’s easy to superimpose a shadowy, alternative world onto Newport. Walk through Maindee or Baneswell at night and you’ll understand what I mean.
The 1960’s blighted many towns, when developers razed old buildings and replaced them with concrete and glass. In those days, Newport had more sense than money and as a result when you walk the main street and look above the generic shop facades, there remains an unspoilt Victorian skyline. Above all though, it’s the people, resilient, sharp and never predictable. You can’t be otherwise with the curved balls Newport has faced year after year.
AmeriCymru: Where can readers go to purchase your titles online?
Mike: Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. In fact any Amazon outlet throughout the world.
AmeriCymru: What are you reading currently? Any recommendations?
Mike: I’m fairly eclectic. I enjoy thrillers like Scott Mariani’s Ben Hope series. Mariani provides a master class in how to write page-turners. I love old and now forgotten pulp writers like Peter Cheyney and Richard S Prather, and I love Anthony Trollope. I’m currently reading an Agatha Christie, but if I were to recommend two books – the two best books I’ve read this year—they would be:
The Shadow Of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Plain Song by Kent Haruf. The Shadow Of The Wind is rich in image, satisfyingly complex and has a strong but subtle narrative drive. Plainsong is set in the fictional Holt County, Colorado. The characters get under your skin – especially the two magnificent McPheron brothers. You won’t forget them. When you read books like these, you lament that you haven’t written them but you at least learn by reading.
AmeriCymru: What's next for Michael Keyton? Any new titles in progress?
Mike: The Gift is book one of a trilogy. The second book, ‘Bloodline’ will be out January 1919, the final book, ‘Blood Fall’ in the summer of that year. I’m currently turning The Gift into a TV script in the hope that it will be picked up by BBC Wales.
In between times I’m doing a final edit of a Science Fiction book called Phage.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Mike: Nothing special, just a big thank you if you’ve read this far, and a huge thank you to Ceri for offering me the chance to burble on for so long. Hmm, maybe I should also urge you to buy the books. The money will come in handy for Christmas.
Dialect Poetry - An Interview With Welsh Writer Mike Jenkins
By AmeriCymru, 2018-08-17
AmeriCymru spoke to Welsh author Mike Jenkins about dialect poetry and his recently published collection - 'Sofa Surfin'. Mike has published four collections in this genre and we asked him how he became interested and whether he plans to publish any further anthologies of dialect poetry.
Dialect poetry by Mike Jenkins:-Graffiti Narratives
Sofa Surfin | Review ...
"With this book I was venturing out : on a stream of marmite, in a humble coracle."
AmeriCymru: Hi Mike and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. Can you tell us what initially attracted you to dialect poetry?
Mike: As with many aspects of creative discovery it all began with a confluence ( an Aber moment if you like). When I began writing in dialect I had also started teaching at a Comprehensive school in the large Gurnos estate in Merthyr Tydfil ( south Wales valleys), a Council estate with a bad reputation.
I was relatively new to the Valleys ( though I’d done teaching practice in nearby Tredegar) and was struggling to come to terms with many facets of life, including the accents and distinctive dialect of both pupils and staff.
I was anxious to know if I was being insulted when they used the word ‘angin’ or the actual meaning of ‘Now I’ve come!’ when a pupil arrived late for class .
I soon discovered the first was, as it sounds, an insult and ‘come’ simply meant ‘arrived’.
I was baffled by the use of ‘belonged’ meaning ‘related to’, but now I’ve learnt Welsh it makes total sense, as the Welsh word ‘perthyn’ can mean belonging in the sense of both ownership and relations.
On a daily basis I was floundering yet also fascinated by their sayings and vocabulary, with short phrases like ‘on pins’ denoting nervousness and ‘tampin’ for getting very angry.
For quite a while before that I’d been into the music of Bob Marley and the poetry of West Indian writers like Derek Walcott and Black English writer James Berry, all using forms of dialect.
Amazingly, I got to meet Walcott and Berry when they read in Cardiff and to experience both Benjamin Zephaniah and Linton Kwesi-Johnson live, dub poets who lived in England and caught the political oppression of Thatcher’s Britain.
I loved the way they captured the language of the street, giving voices to those neglected and abused by an uncaring government.
However, it was one poem that showed me what could be done with dialect here in Cymru and that was David Hughes’s brilliant ‘Swonzee Boy, See’ published in ‘Planet’ magazine. It was very funny , phonetically-written , but also a reflection of a neglected working class.
So, all these tributaries joined into the Taff itself, the river which flows through a small town I soon called home.
AmeriCymru: You have said re: dialect poetry - "It's Marmite poetry....but I like Marmite." Care to expand?
Mike: There are individuals and magazines who would never read or consider my dialect poems, but who cherish and publish my work in standard English.
I believe it divides opinion for a number of reasons.
Firstly, poetry in dialect is more acceptable from other parts of the world – notably Scotland and the West Indies - because they are seen very much as part of a literary tradition.
With the exception of myself, certain novelists like Niall Griffiths and poets such as David Hughes and Gemma June Howells ( who writes in Caerffili dialect), there is no precedent …….we are exploring unmapped lands.
Secondly, I think dialect poetry is seen as parochial, though when it comes to prose Scottish novelists like James Kelman have been widely praised for work in the vernacular.
In recent years we’ve seen a growth of left-wing poetry outlets especially in England, with websites like proletarian poetry and culture matters. These have encouraged working-class , political writing and my dialect poems have found a perfect place there.
Ironically, most literary magazine in Wales have become dominated by university creative writing departments ( as in the USA) and have not been sympathetic .
One university lecturer and critic who was a fan of my early book ‘A Dissident Voice’ soon dismissed ‘Graffiti Narratives’ as ‘mere ventriloquism’.
Only the magazine ‘Planet’ have savoured the thick, dark flavoursome ‘gooetry’.
AmeriCymru: Are the poems in these collections based on real life encounters; conversations overheard in the street? What is your creative process with the dialect collections?
Mike: Considering ‘Sofa Surfin’ there are many diverse inspirations, but at the very hub of the book is my close friend and comrade of many years and his experiences.
I can understand how a reader sees the character in the title poem as female yet this and many others draw on what happened to him : losing his wife, job, flat and even benefits for several months, pushed to the brink of suicide.
This sounds unremittingly sombre, but I also focus on positive aspects of his life in ‘Rubbish Sculpture’ and ‘Practical Dance’, as he’s a highly intelligent and creative person with few qualifications. Incidentally, at the Merthyr launch my friend actually danced along with the second poem…..a sight to behold!
Sometimes, I write poems which take off on a flight of imagination into the surreal. In my book ‘Barkin!’ was ‘Ewman Advert’ where I imagined myself transformed into a KFC chicken by the smells of junk food. In ‘Sofa Surfin’ the poem ‘A Pijin in Gregg’s’ is similar and came from encountering a pigeon inside a shop down town.
After reading it at our monthly Open Mic in a local pub a friend suggested the pigeon stand for election and this gave rise to a whole series of blogs on my site www.mikejenkins.net about the legendary Wayne-O Pijin.
As ever, my political beliefs are fundamental to the poetry.
‘Pound Shop Politics’ and ‘Muslims up yer’ came from the lack of understanding and indeed, intolerance towards people from different cultures which is sadly manifested in considerable support for UKIP.
The latter was inspired by encountering Muslims in traditional garb in my small village above Merthyr : I imagined a fearful, suspicious person telling his account.
Humour is vital to me. My life changed when I read Heller’s ‘Catch 22’ and realised you could be very funny and deadly serious at the same time.
AmeriCymru: You have published four collections of dialect poetry to date. Care to tell us a little about the first of these:- 'Graffitti Narratives'?
Mike: ‘Graffiti Narratives’ was so exciting for me and I have to thank the then editor of ‘Planet’ John Barnie for his faith in my dialect work and for publishing the book.
There are three stories as well as poetry in this book and I’m particularly proud of ‘ Novelties’ and ‘Some kind o beginnin’.
This book was very much inspired by the Gurnos estate, my pupils and musical influences of punk and two-tone ( ska made in England).
‘Gurnos Boy’ was my grim version of that Hughes poem about Swansea, ‘Mouthy’ from the viewpoint of a pupil who couldn’t see the point of poetry and ‘Nex Time’ described hatred for the police and was inspired by Belfast punk band Stiff Little Fingers.
Yet the title poem is closer to the stories, as it’s a fictional representation of the tales behind two sets of bizarre graffiti on either side of a railway bridge in Merthyr.
Occasionally , writing poetry can cause trouble and one poem ‘Flasher’ is the true (though embellished) story of one pupil who flashed in school with a cucumber attached to his penis!
After he’d left school this boy found out about the poem and came back to confront me in the corridor – ‘Did you write that poem about me?’
To which I managed to side-step rapidly – ‘ It was about someone….made up!’
Amazingly, he accepted my faltering explanation.
With this book I was venturing out : on a stream of marmite, in a humble coracle.
AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about your 2001 collection 'Coulda Bin Summin'?
Mike: The next collection ‘Could bin summin’ was harder to get published, but John Barnie once again took it on.
The title poem is the direct and passionate plea of a girl whose life has been ruined by a boy leaving her when she became pregnant and her own family rejecting her because the boy was a waster.
Many in the book come from my knowledge of young people struggling against a system which doesn’t value them, though others take on historical implications like ‘Gwyn Alf’ and ‘Mad Jack spoils VE Day’.
‘Gwyn Alf’ pays tribute to the great Welsh historian Prof. Gwyn A. Williams ( from Dowlais) , one of the most inspirational figures from Cymru in the last century in terms of lecturing, broadcasting, historical books and his unique left-wing nationalist politics.
The second poem takes the viewpoint of a conformist family who celebrate VE Day and are truly shocked when a certain Siegfried Sassoon ( English anti-war poet nicknamed ‘Mad Jack’) suddenly appears on the scene.
‘Day-a Duchess Come’ isn’t just an anti-monarchy rant, it’s a true story. When Mrs Windsor’s cousin visited our school republican staff were confined to classrooms with pupils likely to be troublesome. As happens on such occasions, she arrived late and stayed longer than expected, so pupils became increasingly annoyed and more fervently anti-monarchist. As her helicopter took off they all leapt towards the windows , waving goodbye with insulting v-signs.
With ‘Could bin summin’ the river broadened and often made a sound like laughter as it flowed faster.
AmeriCymru: How would you describe the focus of your most recent dialect poetry collection 'Sofa Surfin'
Mike: The cover of ‘Sofa Surfin’ is a painting by the great Merthyr artist Gustavius Payne ( ‘Gus’ to his mates), who also did the one for ‘Barkin!’.
The final poem in this book could relate directly to Gus’s life, though the narrator is fictional. ‘Where I Come From’ is a brief return to the Gurnos estate I wrote about in ‘Graffiti Narratives’ and ‘Coulda bin summin’
Gus hails from there, went to college and has since become one of the most acclaimed artists in Cymru.
In this poem the narrator’s aware of others’ perceptions of the Gurnos ( especially in the media) and also, how much it has altered. Sympathy comes from a realisation that he confounds that stereotype yet still finds it amusing the streets are named after trees and bushes which have no presence there.
The friend and comrade I mentioned earlier ended up homeless and ‘Sleepin in-a subway’, but on the page opposite that grim tale of despair is ‘Fly Man’ where I praise his ability to avoid detection in pursuit of the causes we share.
‘Sofa Surfin’ ( like ‘Barkin!’) are words familiar to the point of cliché , yet I hope I’ve given them a whole new sense in the title poem and a man balancing as the rising sea threatens to overwhelm him.
AmeriCymru: Do you plan any further collections of dialect poetry?
Mike: My next collection of poetry is in dialect and published by Culture Matters, due out later this year. It is entitled ‘From Aberfan t Grenfell’ and the title poem is in the latest issue of ‘Planet’.
It’ll be illustrated by Swansea artist, poet and fiction-writer Alan Perry and the drawings are truly amazing ! They’re integrated into the text and will co-exist on the same pages.
It opens and closes with poems reflecting on connections between those two man-made disasters , at Aberfan near Merthyr in 1966 and recently at the high-rise flats , Grenfell Tower in London.
I was struck by one remark on Facebook – ‘ Grenfell is our Aberfan.’ The resemblances are striking : authorities ignoring warnings and a callous system punishing the poor for the criminal negligence of those in power.
As with previous books, there are a number of poems about distinctive , eccentric Merthyr characters such as ‘Steve the Bus’, a re-working of an early poem never published in books.
In Wales all over-60s receive passes enabling free bus travel and I heard tell of a man who spent all his days travelling on them because he couldn’t afford the energy bills of staying at home. I imagined him a widower contemplating what his late wife would say.
I do realise that the tragedies of both Aberfan and Grenfell are highly sensitive subjects and some would argue that writing about them is tantamount to exploitation.
However, I try to respect the people of both communities and many who came to help them.
Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Mike: Like Gus Payne’s profound paintings and Alan Perry’s sharply satirical drawings, I seek to portray a country struggling after the demise of so many industries yet expressing itself through the sheer passion of its language, whether dialect in English or Welsh itself ( which I have learnt) and its many art-forms. In the future I’d like to write far more poetry in Welsh, though I’ll never ( like Harri Webb) abandon the English language. Winning the Gadair at the learners’ Eisteddfod when the National came to Y Fenni / Abergavenny a few years ago made me very proud, but it was only a beginning.
Iolo Morganwg - An Interview With Gareth Thomas ( Author of 'I Iolo')
By AmeriCymru, 2018-07-21
AmeriCymru: Hi Gareth and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. Care to introduce your book I Iolo for our readers?
Gareth: It is a historically accurate, creative re-imaging of the life of Iolo Morganwg covering the most significant years of his life from his boyhood to 1798. It is written in the first person present tense with the aim of re-living the thought processes that led him through his stunningly eventful life. Although it contains a lot of history it is not a history book. It is a novel intended to entertain and inform. It shapes, interprets, fills gaps with conjecture and occasionally invents minor characters in order to assist the narrative. By venturing into areas of imagining denied to the academic historian I hope that I can take the reader closer to the truth, into the mind of a uniquely complex fascinating man.
AmeriCymru: Why write it?
Gareth: Iolo is a character of whom most Welsh people have heard, but of whom they know little, apart perhaps from the whisper that he forged things and had something to do with the Eisteddfod. I became entranced with the character and amazed by the story of his life. He lived at the turn of the C18th amidst what he described as ‘ the unparalleled eventfulness of this age’. From a small village in the Vale of Glamorgan he made a place for himself in the centre of the political and cultural turbulence that followed the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. There are many books about him but they are nearly all academic in nature or in Welsh which limits the readership. I,Iolo is intended to be entertaining, accessible and informative – a good read.
There’s another reason too. I write a lot about the nature of identity: personal, community or national and how individuals define themselves through their membership of all sorts of groups. Most people in Wales live with the tension between two languages and two or more identities. This is in itself neither good nor bad. It can be a source of great creativity. It also forces individuals to think about who they are and where they belong. Iolo was a man who re-invented himself repeatedly throughout his life in a search for identity, changing his name from Edward to Ned to Iorwerth to Iorwerth Gwilym and finally to Iolo as well as using a myriad of inventive pen-names. He changed his public persona and even re-wrote his own history on several occasions. This quest is mirrored in the way he worked to helped forge the identity of modern Wales.
AmeriCymru: Why did you choose to end the book in 1798?
Gareth: Chiefly to give the book shape and keep the length within reasonable bounds. There are so many different aspects to his life and so much surviving material that the book could easily have been three times as long. It was essential to choose incidents that told the story and events that conveyed the vitality, passion and endless talents of the man as well as his impetuosity and naivety. Ending in 1798 allowed me to shape a narrative that explained the creation of the Gorsedd in its political and cultural context. There’s a lot I had to leave out.
AmeriCymru: How do you think history should regard Iolo Morganwg? Hero or villain?
Gareth: Not sure I believe in heroes or villains. Iolo is a great subject for a novel because his mental processes are so complex as to defy simple judgements. But the fact that you ask the question is significant. Certainly since his death Iolo has been portrayed as everything from a saint to a scoundrel. For example, in the middle of the C19th the political aspects of his life were carefully ignored and his life was praised as a shining example of Welsh scholarly self-sacrifice. Sixty years later he was vilified after the discovery of his historical creations – I refuse to call them forgeries - by academics such as Sir John Morris-Jones who were horrified to learn that some of the poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym they had been praising and analysing with their students were in fact the work of Iolo. The heat of John Morris-Jones’ anger ignited a fire that blackened Iolo’s name for decades.
In the last twenty years we have seen a long overdue re-appraisal chiefly through the work of Professors Geraint H Jenkins and Mary-Ann Constantine of the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies in Aberystwyth. They have succeeded in bringing some order to his vast archive and returning Iolo to his rightful context as a political figure who did so much to shape the character and institutions of modern Wales.
AmeriCymru: So how important was Iolo's role in the development of modern Welsh culture and national awareness?
Gareth: Incalculable. If we just take the creation of the Gorsedd, which is central to my novel, this changed the nature of the Eisteddfod from being a literary and musical competition into the annual national convention of Wales and the Welsh, our first truly national institution. The Gorsedd philosophy encompassed all aspects of Welsh life: science, theology, agriculture, art and politics. In Cysgod y Cryman by Islwyn Ffowc Elis written in the 1950s the main character, Harri Vaughan describes visiting the National Eisteddfod, not for the poetry but because ‘ there the heart of our nation beats strongest: the enchantment of a capital city’. The Eisteddfod had provided the forum where Welsh issues were fiercely debated, initiatives launched and organisations founded. The founding of the National Library and the Universities were plotted in meetings on the Maes as were important new organisations such as Urdd Gobaith Cymru and Cymdeithas Yr Iaith. It is still the case that the Eisteddfod Maes is a self-sustaining cockpit of heated debates and informed lectures on the issues facing Wales.
Then there’s the ritual of the Gorsedd. Wales has little ceremonial and perhaps for that reason alone the Gorsedd is hugely popular. For the last two years I have failed to win a seat for either the Crowning or the Chairing. Queues reach round the pavilion. I doubt if most of those attending are thinking or even aware of its origins as Iolo’s celebration of international brotherhood, world peace and the rights of mankind. For most it is a powerful way to celebrate their identity and the common bond between those who love Wales and its heritage.
I could also talk of the role of Iolo as a political figure who placed Wales very firmly in a modern European Context and gave voice to the values of the enlightenment. He undoubtedly contributed to the radical tradition in Welsh politics.
We could also discuss the way he gave pride, confidence and literary ammunition by which the Welsh intelligentsia defended their culture in the difficult years of the C19th. He and his writings became the major weapon by which whose who spoke for Wales defended its reputation against the tide of anti- Welsh sentiment exemplified by the ‘Treason the of Blue Books.’ T.E. Ellis the famous Liberal Member of Parliament described Iolo’s writings as his best means of convincing ‘sceptical English friends of the vitality of the Cymric language and literature.’
AmeriCymru: What was the full extent of his forgeries? You mention the fake Dafydd ap Gwilym poems in the book but wasn't there much more?
Gareth: I don’t use the word ‘forgeries’ in Iolo’s context. To me a forger is one who deceives others for personal gain. Whatever Iolo’s motives were, person enrichment was not amongst them. One of the enigmas surrounding him is why a talented, penniless young poet, in any age when it was possible to earn good money by writing verse, should hide his best work under the identities of long dead medieval bards? Certainly not profit.
It is important to remember the period in which he was writing and his own background. Wales was only just coming to terms with the printing press. Collectors of ancient verse would visit private collections in the libraries of great mansions to copy manuscripts by hand. It was quite common for transcribers, as Iolo himself put it ‘to curtail, to amplify, to interpolate and to alter’ when they perceived inadequacies in the originals. For that reason amongst others it is sometimes difficult, even for forensic academics to know what is ‘genuine’ and what is an ‘improvement’.
Certainly it is wrong to think of Iolo as primarily a faker. The majority of his writing was based on hard won research. The academic who did the most work to unmask the true nature of Iolo’s creations, Professor G.J. Williams, noted that to have produced his inventions Iolo had to achieve a depth of knowledge and width of understanding of medieval Welsh poetry never again equalled academically until the C20th. Amazing for a man with no formal education.
As well as the Dafydd ap Gwilym poems my novel describes the time in gaol in Cardiff when he composed Secrets of the Bards of the Isles of Britain, a creation which prepared the ground for the ceremonies of the Gorsedd and revised the restrictive metrical rules that had governed the work of the bards for centuries. To support this pure invention he wrote poetic testament which he attributed to a series of minor bards from various epochs from the C12th century onwards providing ‘evidence’ in support of his creation. Each work was written in the style of the bard’s own time. He created the myth and then created the proof. In the book I have him imagining and keeping company with these long dead bards whilst they dictated their verses for him to transcribe.
Perhaps his most significant other ‘creation’ occurred in the period not covered by my novel when Iolo was commissioned by his sponsor Owain Myfyr, the wealthy London Welsh furrier, to collect lost poetry of the C13th from the ancient but often decaying libraries of great houses such as Hafod near Aberystwyth and Hengwrt near Dolgellau. This Iolo did on a long and exhausting tour of north Wales but it appears that he was dismayed by his discoveries. The verses portrayed the ancient princes as bloodthirsty, quarrelsome and warlike. These accounts ran counter to the vision of Welsh civilisation Iolo wished to create which portrayed a society dedicated to peaceful cooperation and the rule of reason. Accordingly the genuine discoveries were inexplicably mislaid and lost in transit, supposedly in a carrier’s depot in Bristol. His sponsor was deeply frustrated at this delay to the publication of his planned collection of Welsh verse, The Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales. Iolo filled the gap by providing an extensive collection of ancient triads. Triads are short wise statements on religion, society, art and human nature. They were a genuine part of the bardic heritage originally passed on as part of the oral tradition and first written down in the C13th. Those Iolo contributed included much that was ancient but also larger amounts composed by himself in the same style to express republican and progressive values which owed more to Rousseau than the ancient bards of Wales. For example,
Tri dyn a fynnant fyw ar eiddo arall: brenin, offeiriad a lleidr.’
(Three men who live on the property of others: a king, a priest and a thief)
Iolo also provided much additional created material for the Myvyrian Archaiology particularly accounts that established his beloved Glamorgan as the most important centre of the bardic tradition.
AmeriCymru: You have read more of Iolo's work than most. How would you rate his literary talent?
Gareth: It is now not the primary reason he is remembered but in his time the work he produced over his own name was greatly admired. His ‘creations’ in the style of Dafydd ap Gwilym remained more popular than the genuine article until his unmaking in the C20th.
Professor Ceri Lewis in his authoritative evaluation of Iolo’s poetry suggests that he was often hindered by his own extraordinary cleverness. Much of his verse in English is over complicated by his attempts to deploy Welsh metrical forms in another language. Personally my favourite pieces by him are his simplest lyric poetry, love songs and ballads in praise of his Glamorgan and his darling Peggy. These are enchanting.
AmeriCymru: You have also written a novel. Care to tell us a little about 'A Welsh Dawn'?
Gareth: A Welsh Dawn is set in the Wales of the late 1950s – a time of political and cultural confusion memorably described by Rhodri Morgan as ‘the wild west period of Welsh politics’. I dramatise the period as faithfully as possible: the intrigues of Welsh politicians, the manoeuvring of Downing Street and the machinations of civil service mandarins. This is the backdrop before which the main characters of the novel, Gwen and Ifan, their families and neighbours, live their lives and make their choices. One reviewer described it as ‘A beautifully developed story of emerging identity, both personal and national.’ More details are available on its dedicated web site www.awelshdawn.co.uk
AmeriCymru: Where can readers purchase 'I Iolo' online?
Gareth: From the publishers Y Lolfa at www.ylolfa.com or by Googling Amazon or other on-line retailer. It is distributed in the USA by Dufour Editions and is available in Welsh and English language versions. There are also some free worksheets for advanced learners of Welsh which can be downloaded free from www.parallel.cymru/cipolwg-ar-
AmeriCymru: What's next for Gareth Thomas?
Gareth: I am just completing ‘ Beyond the Volga River ’ the story of a young Polish woman forcibly displaced from her home in eastern Poland by the Russian invasion of 1940 and her subsequent struggle for survival. She endures a Siberian labour camp, a trek through the Middle East before becoming a truck driver in the Polish Anders Army during the Italian Campaign, eventually ending up as a refugee in London. Crucially, the narrative is interspersed with the stories, 50 years later, of her three UK born children and the effect their parents’ experience and Polish heritage had on their lives. It is hopefully resonant of contemporary problems faced by the families of refugees. As yet the book has no publisher so if any agent wants to get in touch………
AmeriCymru: Any chance of a sequel to 'I Iolo' covering the last 28 years of his life?
Gareth: That’s a real possibility, depending on the demand for the first book. There’s certainly enough material.
AmeriCymru: Any final remarks for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Gareth: Thank you for valuing your Welsh identity and for flying the Dragon banner on the other side of the Atlantic. I so value the creativity that comes from the meeting of cultures that you represent. That is one reason I have come to admire the multi-cultural vitality of American society. It is so good to know that ‘Welsh-American’ is a title proudly carried and one that is capable of inspiring afresh. I was greatly impressed by a talk in the Eisteddfod last year on the Welsh influence on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Although he was born in Wisconsin and never visited Wales until an old man, it was his mother’s descriptions of cottages in the landscape of Ceredigion that led to his ideas that architecture should be organic and at one with the landscape. He could not have achieved this without his Wisconsin and his Ceredigion heritage.
Hir oes i’r Cymry Americanaidd!
Iolo Morganwg is one of the most interesting and contentious figures in 18th/19th century literature. He was an academic pugilist; the bruiser of the Poetry department. And yes he was a laudanum addict and a forger but we love him still....why?
For persons unfamiliar with Iolo's life and work, Gareth Thomas's new book goes a long way toward answering that question. In the course of a lifetime of adventure and achievement Iolo's greatest triumph was, undoubtedly the founding of the Gorsedd in 1792. In the course of his travels as an itinerant stonemason Iolo spent some time in London and there became active in a Welsh society known as the Gwyneddigion . He was incensed at their prejudice against south Wales and their deeply held conviction that nothing of value in Welsh cultural terms had ever originated outside Gwynedd. As a man of Glamorgan Iolo believed he knew better. He was aware that Welsh language culture was still alive in the 'Vale' although it was, by the late 18th century, somewhat atomized and muted. He was convinced that the culture in which he was raised by his mother and other exemplars and tutors was the heir to a great south Walian Bardic and Druidic tradition. The fact that this tradition lacked any foundation texts was a deficiency which he marshaled his considerable literary talents to correct. But why did he resort to forgery and what did he accomplish thereby?
In Gareth Thomas's book, Iolo is the narrator. It is the story of his life that he might have written himself had he chosen to indulge in autobiography. Consequently this is not a judgmental or moral tale but we are provided with a fascinating series of insights into the self-justifications Iolo might have employed to rationalize his actions.
Laudanum is a very powerful opiate based drug. It was available for purchase without prescription in this period. Iolo probably used it initially for pain relief and to combat insomnia. The effect of regular use of such a drug on the delicate sensibilities of an imaginative and creative mind like his can hardly be over estimated. In the course of his laudanum fueled fantasies Iolo communes with the shade of Dafydd ap Gwilym . The two poets forge such a close relationship that Iolo declares, after being asked to help ensure the success of a forthcoming anthology of Dafydd's works, that he and Dafydd "are as one". Iolo was subsequently moved to offer a number of his self-penned poems, admittedly in the style of Dafydd ap Gwilym and of sufficient quality to fool experts, for inclusion in the anthology. He was paid £10 for his troubles and set a precedent for subsequent and more ambitious forgeries.
Elsewhere in the book, once again under the influence of Laudanum, Iolo declares that:
"When the truth is clear before me I will proclaim it. Those lines of Dafydd ap Gwilym I have sent to Owain are one such truth. There are other grand truths that are becoming clearer to me. Truths which will be ridiculed and disregarded by the clerks, clergy and academics who seek to frustrate me at every turn, who cannot see past the pettifogging detail of the tedious present. For the sake of my country, my Vale, my family, I have to find the means of building a greater truth which reflects the glory of the past and projects it into the future. The truth must inspire my countrymen to greater acts.
Truth against the world."
There is of course a delicious irony in dedicating a trove of academic forgeries to the cause of 'truth'. But his motivation is clear! He 'knew' that a rich Bardic tradition once existed in Glamorgan. He 'knew' that it had been lost and that he alone, with a little literary and academic sleight of hand, was in a position to restore and elevate it. I do not know whether in this age of 'alternative facts', he should be judged more or less severely but certainly for Iolo the end justified the means.
But this crusading spirit was likely not the only factor which encouraged him to adopt literary forgery as a means of advancement. Thomas's book includes many letters from Iolo's long suffering wife Peggy in which she admonishes him for his long periods away in London and pleads for more money to cover household expenses. Stonemasonry was a physically demanding and precarious occupation. Securing publication of his work as an unknown author proved difficult. Much easier to 'discover' long lost works and sell them or have them published as your own.
At the height of his literary fame Iolo was also a well-known political radical. His Jacobin sympathies and his detestation of the English monarchy and King George III in particular, were well known to the authorities. Consequently his more vicious political poems and satires were published and circulated anonymously. It cannot have escaped his attention that accurate authorial accreditation was not essential to the subsequent impact and influence of his work.
The book is replete with fascinating historical asides and vignettes. Both William Pitt and John Evans make an appearance as do poets, Robert Southey (author of Madoc ) and Samuel Coleridge . Iolo discussed with Southey and Coleridge the possibility of equipping an expedition to America to confirm the existence of a tribe of Welsh speaking Indians. These discussions came to nothing but at one point Iolo fully intended to accompany John Evans on his epic 1792 expedition to explore the Mississippi. Family and literary commitments intervened to make the trip impossible for Iolo but what a loss to Welsh literature! How wonderful it would be to have his account of this incredible journey.
All in all, this book is a superb introduction to the life and work of Iolo Morganwg both for the general reader and the serious student of literature alike. We are more than happy to give it a 5-star rating!
The Prince Madoc Secret - An Interview With Author Barrie Doyle
By AmeriCymru, 2018-06-11
Born in Wales, Barrie is a former journalist, public relations consultant, college professor, broadcaster and freelance writer. He served with major publications in Canada and the United States before sharing his media expertise as a consultant, training corporate executives and Christian ministry leaders. Barrie trained many budding public relations professionals as a professor at one of Canada’s most prestigious media studies programmes in Toronto. He has lived in Virginia, California and Pennsylvania as well as Great Britain and Canada where he now lives on the beautiful blue water shores of Georgian Bay in Ontario.
He is an enthusiastic traveller, constantly thinking how to bring his latest travel discovery to life as a location in his next story. From Venice to Istanbul and many parts of Western Europe, he has also explored most corners of the United States. Many of these places will become prominent in the three books of theOak Grove Conspiracies. Apart from travel his eclectic range of interests varies from history and politics to theology and bagpipes and transportation to hockey. AmeriCymru spoke to Barrie about the 'Oak Grove Conspiracies' and his future writing plans.
AmeriCymru: Hi Barrie and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. What is your connection with Wales?
Barrie: I was born in Maesteg, a small town in the Llynfi Valley of South Wales. It’s about nine miles up the valley from Bridgend and only 30 (give or take) miles from either Cardiff or Swansea. I left when I was 10 years old (taking my family with me, of course) and emigrated to Canada where I went to school, to university and then began my career. But I have been back many times since, visiting family. In both 2015 and 2017 though, I rented a flat in the seaside resort of Porthcawl for three months during which time I researched and wrote both The Lucifer Scroll and The Prince Madoc Secret. It gave me a base from which to go to places I wanted to use for settings in the books as well as to re-absorb the atmosphere and ambience. Oh yes, and the weather! During that time, we also welcomed Canadian friends and were able to show them Wales, something they’d never considered before the books. I hope to do the same again soon and am in the process of working with a tour agency to develop a specialized tour of Wales highlighting the places or prototypes for settings in the book. I never get tired of being in Wales.
AmeriCymru: You have not always been a writer. When did you decide to take up the pen?
Barrie: In a sense, I always have been a writer. I studied journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto and began my career as a journalist with the Toronto Star. I have also worked for publications in the US and freelanced for American and British publications. I was based in Washington DC. I returned to Canada and modified things slightly by becoming a public relations executive for a number of major organizations and corporations, finally opening my own agency. During that time I was invited to become an adjunct professor in the School of Media Studies in the prestigious Public Relations Certificate at Humber College in Toronto. This was largely a post-grad course and I now have former students successfully pursuing careers in the US, Canada, UK, Australia and other parts of the globe. After years of telling other peoples’ stories and fiddling around a bit with fiction, I finally took the plunge and began to write the stories I wanted to tell, when I produced my first book, The Excalibur Parchment.
AmeriCymru: Care to introduce your latest novel 'The Prince Madoc Secret' for our readers?
Barrie: I have always been fascinated by history—particularly Welsh history—and interested in legends (which I believe contain nuggets of truth and reality). As I was writing my first book, I came across the story of Prince Madoc, son of King Owen of Gwynedd and the legend of how he travelled across the Atlantic to Mobile Bay, Alabama some 300 years before Columbus, before vanishing into the mists of time. I was intrigued to find out that the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a plaque at Fort Morgan at the entrance to the bay, recognizing Madoc’s arrival. Further, there are stories of Welsh-speaking indigenous tribes in the American interior; so many that the Lewis-Clarke expedition was mandated to find them. It was enough for me. I began to research Madoc more thoroughly and consider a way in which his voyage in 1170 might have deadly implications for the modern world as it ties into the heroes and villains I had created in the first two books. I needed something that would make Madoc’s trip the focus of a 21st century quest. As I said, I love history. And I love to play with it when I am writing fiction, turning the tables and going against the “accepted viewpoint” so to speak. Thus, in the first book Merlin is cast as a baddie. In “The Prince Madoc Secret” I turned the table on the Knights Templar who are most often cast as criminals and murderers. Instead, I made them good guys fulfilling their ancient mandate of protecting the church. That leads to both the 12th century Templars and a modern incarnation of Templars, playing a crucial role in the book. What secret did Madoc take to America with him? What impact does it have on the modern day? How will our 21st century heroes and villains discover the secret and what will they do with it? It is a stand-alone story and can be read without having first enjoyed the other two. However, the main characters and themes appear in all the books.
AmeriCymru: 'The Prince Madoc Secret' is the latest instalment in the 'Oak Grove Conspiracies' series. What can you tell us about the series as a whole?
Barrie: I was tired of reading novels that had basically the same cast of villains: Nazis, neo Nazis, Soviet or post-Soviet operatives or criminals, corrupt businessmen, politicians or church leaders and so on. I wanted a new, particularly nasty, set of baddies. So I went back to the legends about the Druids—making sure I differentiated them from the current embodiment of the term—and utilized their penchant for human sacrifice and the like to create a new brand of zealous, vicious, power-mad terrorists bent on twisting the world to their perverted sense of governing. My Druids worship the supernatural and have their own rituals and places, including sacred oak groves—which gave me the series name. Basically, historical events provide the impetus for cataclysmic clashes. In book one, Arthur’s sword Excalibur was never thrown into the lake but rather, was preserved for future generations and protected by a small abbey in Wales. From a 14th century Welsh abbey to a climax near Carreg Cennan in Carmarthen, the story progresses. My Druids believe it has supernatural power and covet it for their own push to seize power in the western democracies. A Welsh professor and an American journalist get drawn into the miry swamp reluctantly and seek to thwart the Druid plots. While a lot of the book is set in Wales, it also ranges from Venice to London to Washington and Canada. In the second book, the Spear of Destiny (also called The Holy Lance) is the legendary Roman centurion’s spear that was thrust into Christ’s side on the cross. Charlemagne, Napoleon and Hitler (among others) all believed that it would give unworldly power and that who owned the lance would control the world. Hitler and Heinrich Himmler spend much of the war seeking the lance and, eventually, creating a fraud while the real one was spirited away in a U boat along with other treasures in the last days of the war. That was the basis for the story in which the Druids are also aware that the real lance never disappeared in a sunken U boat, nor was it on display at the Vatican or in Vienna as a modern day exhibit. Again, the journalist and professor are drawn in reluctantly and this time the story ranges from Wales to Istanbul and across the southwest United States among other places. In each of the book, I try to explore the conflict of ordinary people struggling to do extraordinary things while doubting in their own strength and yet forging ahead regardless. I believe that history is changed not by the mighty leaders, but by individuals going above and beyond themselves in order to do the right thing and the books reflect that.
AmeriCymru: Are there any further episodes in the pipeline?
Barrie: I had originally planned one book. Then my publisher pushed me to make it a trilogy. Now my fans are demanding a fourth, believing there may be a few loose threads.. So we’ll see.
AmeriCymru: Your plots are fantastically complex. How do you construct them? What is your process?
Barrie: When I was a reporter I once interviewed a famous author who told me the plot was conceived by the characters and that he merely wrote it down. I thought “yeah, right” and dismissed him as a whacko. Well, guess who joined the whacko club! I start with a vague thought in my head about where the story starts and equally vague ideas about how and where the story will end. Then I start writing. I do not outline, I just start writing. It is done in fits and starts. I struggle at times with “where am I going with this?” and then realize that my characters are telling their story; I listen to them. I think about them and how—as I have created them—they would react to the twists and turns of the plot. I let my bad guys tell me what awful things they plan and I listen to my good guys as they face the crisis and try to stop it. It sounds simplistic and silly (see my comment above) but in fact it is a very time-consuming, worrying, difficult way of writing. Outlining, like JK Rowling does, is probably a lot easier. But there are times my characters have come up with plot twists that make it just as exciting for me as for any reader, because I am experiencing them at the moment they occur just as a reader does.
AmeriCymru: Where can readers purchase your novels online?
Barrie: They can be purchased on the Amazon platforms, Barnes and Noble in the US, Chapters/Indigo in Canada and Waterstones in the UK. More importantly they can be purchased online directly from AmeriCymru I believe. If people want a signed or personalized copy they can go to my website www.barriedoyle.com and shop there.
AmeriCymru: Who do you read for pleasure? Any recommendations?
Barrie: I am an eclectic reader, enjoying both fiction and non-fiction. I love history, as I said, but I also like science fiction, thrillers, and mysteries among the genres. Every year I try to read one of Tolkien’s magnificent works and am currently working on The Return of the King. I love Ken Follet and Tom Clancy and am flattered that a number of reviewers and fans have compared my work to those giants.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Barrie: Wales is a magnificent country. It’s rich heritage, landscape, history and legends make it a unique place in all the world. I am proud to be Welsh. I believe there are so many stories emanating from Wales that would make tremendous stories and they’re just waiting to be told. I challenge people to consider writing these stories. Fiction allows one to delve into the nation’s psyche and history in a way non-fiction cannot. I would love to write—or read—about Owain Glyndwr, or the magnificent King Hwyl, or St. David, or Llewellyn or any others, famous or not, who dot the tapestry that is Wales. Many stories to be told, so few doing it.
Cloud Farming In Wales - An Interview With Rhys Hughes
By AmeriCymru, 2018-05-18
AmeriCymru spoke to Wales' most prolific story writer - Rhys Hughes, about his recent novel Cloud Farming In Wales. We are also pleased to include a short excerpt from the book. Rhys Hughes' vision of 'Welsh hell' can be found below.
Excerpt from 'Cloud Farming In Wales' - Welsh Hell
AmeriCymru: Hi Rhys and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. Care to introduce your recent book Cloud Farming in Wales for our readers?
Rhys: Thank you for the opportunity to answer questions about my book! Cloud Farming in Wales is a novel but not a typical kind of novel. It came together very easily and was completed within a month. Sometimes my writing flows and then it’s best to let it have its way, to let it keep going and not worry about the direction the story might be heading in, or what final form the book is going to take. That’s how I wrote this book, as if it really wanted to be written, as if the words couldn’t wait to appear on the page, as if the novel was writing itself, and the process was smooth and certainly enjoyable. I love it when that happens, because writing usually isn’t like that. More often it takes a lot of hard work and doubts and stress. My book is about Wales, life in Wales and the aspects of Wales that are unique to that country, that make it different and a little odd, although nowhere in the world is so unique that it defies all understanding to outsiders, because ultimately more things connect us deeply than separate us. The Wales of my book is a genuine place but it is presented here in mythic terms, or rather in terms that are whimsically fantastic. Yet I wanted the Wales of the book to feel the same as Wales really feels to me, on at least some level or levels, and that includes in humorous ways, satirical ways and wistful ways, so I wanted it to be like a fantasy realm in which strange things can occur, but only if they have a true Welsh resonance.
AmeriCymru: There is a connection, perhaps obvious from the title, with Trout Fishing in America. Care to elaborate?
Rhys: My book was absolutely inspired by Richard Brautigan and in fact I decided I wanted to try doing for Wales something similar to what he did for America in that amazing novel of his. I came to Brautigan late. I wish I had discovered him a lot sooner. I was aware of his name for a long time, but I didn’t really know anything about him. I had an idea he might be a little like Vonnegut, who is one of my favourite authors, and eventually I decided to try his work. The first Brautigan novel I picked up was Sombrero Fallout and I totally loved it! Yes, it was like Vonnegut in some ways but it was also highly distinctive and idiosyncratic. It is an absurdist farce that spirals out of control, but it tells two stories at the same time and one of those stories is a framing device in which the absurd things that occur are plausible. The other story that is framed by that one is a version of America in which the absurd things that occur are extreme, implausible and hilariously exaggerated, yet they make serious points about the country and also about human beings in general. The novel is deceptive because it seems simple, yet it has a structure that is really interesting. I immediately began seeking out other Brautigan books with the idea of reading them all. In Watermelon Sugar has the best opening of any novel I have read and A Confederate General from Big Sur has the best ending. I am currently reading The Tokyo-Montana Express, which is neither a novel nor a collection of short stories but something else, a series of observations on an impossible railway journey across the Pacific Ocean, and it resembles in many ways his most famous book, Trout Fishing in America, which has no plot, almost no characters and breaks all the rules of fiction from its very first page. After reading that book I knew that I wanted to write a book of my own that took impetus from it and that adapted some of its methods or outlooks and applied them to Wales. I mention all this in the book itself, because one of the book’s many themes is the circumstance of its own composition. I believe my book is unlike any other Welsh novel, yet I also believe it is very Welsh, that it is essentially Welsh, even though it came to be created because of the inspiring example of an American writer from the flower power era.
AmeriCymru: “I wanted to write a novel that was me saying stuff about things rather than having to invent believable characters and a plot with measured incidents and resolutions.” What stuff? What things?
Rhys: For many years, like most other writers, I have written stories the ordinary way, with characters whose actions serve to embody a plot that contains the ideas that make the fiction work. But I have also been interested in other ways of writing. For me it was a great pleasure and in fact a relief to be able to present the ideas in a more raw format, in an unconditioned state, to let the ideas be the real characters and to let the way they interact with each other generate the momentum of the story. So I didn’t outline a plot before starting work, and I didn’t have a set of protagonists in my mind to put in the story. I just began writing down ideas, thoughts, observations, and these started to work themselves into routines, and these routines connected themselves together over time into larger routines that became little chapters. There turned out to be quite a surprising unity of purpose and effect in the end result, I guess because all the time I was writing I was aware of Wales as a gravitational focus, so even the wildest flights of fancy are in orbit rather than flying off in different directions. One of the single most important motifs in the book that is used to create this focus is that of the falling rain, the endless rains of Wales, and the consequences of eternal rainfall are followed logically into comedic absurdity. Wales thus becomes an Atlantis that never sank but is just as damp. The truth is that it rains a lot in Wales, it rains so much that it does sometimes seem we are living underwater, that maybe Welsh people should evolve gills in order to breathe better. I know there are countries in the world with heavier rainfall, but Wales is certainly in the top ten. Richard Brautigan spent a lot of time in the rain when he lived in the northwest of the USA, tramping through dripping forests on interminable quests for nothing, and I really can identify with that. There comes a point when waiting for nice weather in order to go hiking and camping just proves to be too frustrating and one has to go out anyway and hang the moist consequences! I have been camping in heavy rain many times, sometimes with a tent full of holes and a few times without even a tent, just a tarpaulin that glowed bright green when the lightning flashes started. Hiking and camping in the rain is very Brautiganesque. It is also like being at sea in some ways. Very odd and very Welsh. Not just odd and not just Welsh, of course, but for sure it’s a situation conducive to creating thoughts and those thoughts will percolate and ferment in the mind, for months or years, and when they are written down they will flow out, pour out, cascade.
AmeriCymru: What inspired your masterful depiction of Welsh hell? Why does Dylan Thomas figure so prominently in it?
Rhys: The depiction of hell in my book is a specifically Welsh hell, but it’s one that can also be understood as hellish by people who aren’t Welsh. We know that hell is a place of torments but torments require a means to make them work, apparatus in other words, so a Welsh hell will need Welsh apparatus, and by this I mean things that are typical of the country but have been taken to an extreme, that are applied eternally, infinitely and hopelessly to the damned soul. Rain is always going to be a part of that, and the damp house interiors that are an inevitable result of high rainfall and poor insulation. A Welsh hell is going to be a series of mouldy rooms haunted by demons and ghosts that are never dry. Not even the wit of these entities will be dry. Dylan Thomas is the fallen angel who rules such a hell, because all of Welshness was compressed into him while he was alive, and now he is part of the underworld and his disembodied head floats drunkenly through the passages and rooms and terrifies the poor Welsh souls who have ended up there. I guess our ideas of hell comes from things in the world that we don’t like when we imagine those things magnified and multiplied in power and duration until they become unbearable.
AmeriCymru: You have said that you plan to write 1000 stories. When we interviewed you back in 2009 you had written 472. Does the goal still stand, and if so how close are you to achieving it. What will you do when you have?
Rhys: Yes, the goal still stands. I have been working on this story cycle far too long to give up on it. In the last ten years I have been very productive and now my total of stories stands at 889, so I feel I am approaching the final lap. I won’t be surprised, however, if I fall before reaching the finishing line, because it’s very Welsh to almost succeed in something grand but fail at the last moment. That’s one of the most typically Welsh outcomes in an endeavour. We are heroic failures! But it’s better to be heroic in any way than to be unheroic, so I’m not really dissatisfied. When I began my project to write exactly 1000 stories, I never actually expected to get anywhere near that total, to be honest, and I probably would have settled for half that number. But in the past decade I have worked very hard at writing and the ideas just kept coming to me and my output accelerated. I hope to reach a total of 900 by the end of this year. After that I will probably slow down as I will also be concentrating on writing non-fiction. This is also the answer to what I will do when I’ve finished my last story. I will switch to non-fiction and start writing essays and articles. In fact I began last year to take my non-fiction much more seriously and I am hoping that my first book of essays will be out in the next year or two. I am in negotiations with a publisher at the moment. The techniques of non-fiction have been creeping into my fiction in the past few years or so. In fact, a lot of Cloud Farming in Wales was written as if it was non-fiction, even though it’s about absurd and whimsical things.
AmeriCymru: Where can readers go to buy Cloud Farming in Wales online?
Rhys: It is available at Amazon and other online bookshops, but it can also be ordered from the publisher directly. Snuggly Books are a really interesting publisher and they have been putting out some great books. They tried to get my novel sold in City Lights, the bookshop in San Francisco that has a strong connection with Richard Brautigan but City Lights weren’t especially interested, which I think is a shame. But that’s the way the business is. One should never expect too much. http://www.snugglybooks.co.uk/cloud-farming-in-wales/
AmeriCymru: What’s next for Rhys Hughes? Any new publications in the pipeline?
Rhys: I am working on several new projects simultaneously, because that’s what I do, and I have already mentioned my first non-fiction book, which I want to be called Logic and the Monsters, but whether it will ever be published or not is impossible for me to say with any degree of certainty at this stage.I have a weird Western due out very soon, also by an American publisher, and it’s a book that I had a lot of fun writing. It is called The Honeymoon Gorillas and it’s not a normal Western at all, it’s not even a normal weird Western. When I started writing it I thought I was just writing one or two short stories but those stories turned into the chapters of a novel, so I just went with the flow. The day I finished writing it, I went into the main library in my city and there was a one-off exhibition about apes. It was a bizarre coincidence and I hope a good omen.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?
Rhys: Just that I am delighted by your interest in Wales, which I often feel is the forgotten one of the Celtic brood, maybe because it doesn’t end in the word ‘land’ like Ireland and Scotland do. It makes us sound less of a country and more like a sea creature. It is heartening to know there are so many people around the world, and especially in the USA, who have knowledge of Wales and Welsh culture. This is great in fact and I thank you for your time and your attention.
SHORT EXCERPT FROM CLOUD FARMING IN WALES - WELSH HELL
Hell is a basement flat with endless rooms, all mouldy, connected by dim and depressing corridors, also mouldy. Many of the light bulbs don’t work and have never worked; and those that do are of a very low wattage. The carpets are worn and filthy, the windows are grimy and nothing can ever be seen through them, the wallpaper is bubbling and peeling. This is Hell for Welsh people; the hells intended for people of other lands are possibly quite different. Sometimes a torrent of diabolical rainwater washes along these corridors and carries away any soul caught in it to distant regions of the infinite flat that are nearly identical. Just because the interior of this flat is covered with a ceiling doesn’t mean it doesn’t rain indoors. The clouds drift up and down the corridors just the same as the damned souls do. This is a Welsh Hell for sure. There are rooms full of nothing but damp coal; others bulging with rotten chips, pies green with decay, beer that tastes of socks. Occasionally a room may be bearable for a few hours or even days, but always something will come along to spoil the reprieve. Beds will suddenly explode like bombs, their mattress springs scattering like spores.
A few walls are adorned with framed pictures of grim scenes in other parts of the flat or photographs of dead sheep in the rain. There is also the occasional badly painted mural. These murals depict the same few themes over and over again. Muddy puddles reflecting dismal skies, drowned pit ponies, rotting school children, evicted tenants squatting in the rain, junkie muggers beating old women, hunched people shambling along in queues that are closed circles, cars deliberately driving through flooded potholes and splashing pedestrians on pavements.
Anyway . . . to return to the basement flat that is Hell for the Welsh, I should add that the murals sometimes detach themselves from the walls and float down the corridors, following rain or preceding it, the blurred face of Dylan opening and closing its mouth as it attempts to swallow the clouds in the hope they are the foamy heads of beers. Any souls in those corridors at the time will be gulped down too and excreted from the back of his head much later. He doesn’t care. Fiddly Buttons has just arrived in Hell together with his nemesis Doodah Zips.
They clutch each other for comfort, then push each other away, drawn and repelled in equal measure. Suddenly at the end of a warped corridor that turns a sharp right angle like a snapped arm, comes a head around the corner. It is a drifting mural of Dylan and these new arrivals are unlucky enough to encounter it during their first minutes of damnation. Fiddly and Doodah shriek and run, but they trip over each other and nearer looms the drunkard’s gaping mouth as they sprawl and try to get up. Mushrooms on the carpet snap off under their frantic fingers. The paint of the mural has run in the rain. Dylan’s curly hair is now so smeared that it resembles the helmet of a knight. How ironic! “Do not go gentle into that knight!” Fiddly and Doodah warn each other. Maybe now they are in Hell they will become friends; the truth is that they always had a love-hate relationship. The Welsh Hell is an appalling place. Every 100 years the landlord calls around to pick up the rent from every cursed soul trapped there.
Dark Territory: An Interview With Author Jerry Hunter (Includes excerpt - Chapter 1)
By AmeriCymru, 2018-05-04
AmeriCymru spoke to Jerry Hunter about his new novel Dark Territory.
'Jerry Hunter was born in Cincinnati, USA and is now is a Professor of Welsh and Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Bangor, and lives with his family in North Wales. He is best known as a Welsh-language author and has won prestigious literary awards including Welsh Book of the Year for his academic work Llwch Cenhedloedd , and the National Eisteddfod Prose Medal for his first novel, Gwenddydd .'
AmeriCymru: Hi Jerry and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. Care to introduce your new novel 'Dark Territory' for our readers?
Jerry: The novel combines mystery and adventure with meditations on the dangers of religious extremism. It also moves from Wales to England, Ireland and North America.
The main character, Rhisiart Dafydd, is a Welshman who becomes a Roundhead and fights in Oliver Cromwell’s army during the Civil Wars of the seventeenth century. A series of events leads to a transformation in his world view (perhaps best characterized as disillusionment). After the wars, he decides to accept a mission offered by the colonel under whom he had served and sail across the sea to search for a lost community of Welsh Puritans in the forests of North America.
While the story is anchored in the ‘present’ of Rhisiart’s mysterious mission, the novel also moves back in order to provide glimpses of the key events in his life which helped make him the man he is (or the various men he has been during various times in his life). The work aims to provide a sympathetic portrait of a convert who becomes willing to kill for his religion, before moving on to examine ways in which such an individual might question the extremism characterizing his own violent career.
While there was a very small – if very active – community of Welsh Puritans who sided with Parliament during the wars, the vast majority of Welsh people remained conservative in their religion and politics during the seventeenth century and thus supported the Royalist cause. The novel also provides ways of thinking about different kinds of identity – specifically, the way in which religious and political beliefs intersect with national identity in forming one’s world view. As a young man, Rhisiart is committed to the Parliamentarian cause, yet he is also painfully aware of the fact that most of this fellow Welshmen who have gone to war are fighting on the other side.
It’s important to note that I wrote the novel in Welsh (published as Y Fro Dywyll ). Patrick K. Ford translated it into English. Thus, in a very real way, he is as responsible for Dark Territory as I am!
AmeriCymru: The action in your book revolves around an atrocity committed by parliamentary forces after the battle of Naseby in 1645. Would you say that the events recounted in your book have largely been overlooked by historians? If so, why?
Jerry: Several dark chapters in human history contribute to the ‘darkness’ through which Rhisiart Dafydd travels in this story. Some of these historical experiences are much better known – for example, the bloody actions of Cromwell’s army in Ireland and the Native American genocide. The atrocity to which you refer – the massacre of the people whom I call ‘the Women of Naseby’ in the novel – is not very well known. Indeed, I have been surprised by the extent to which Welsh historians have ignored it. (I think that this can be explained, but that would probably develop into a long article in itself and thus best left for another time!) It was common for women to follow their men to battle at the time; these were not ‘camp followers’ in the derogatory sense of the phrase today, but often wives and daughters who followed their husbands and fathers to war in order to help cook and care for them. They formed their own mobile society. As there were many Welsh Royalist soldiers serving at Naseby, there was also a considerable number of Welsh women in the camp near the battlefield. This is already enough of a ‘spoiler’; it’s probably best to not say anymore now before readers engage with the novel!
AmeriCymru: You have said:-‘With this novel I also wanted to cross-examine the ideological foundations of “American Exceptionalism". For centuries politicians in the USA have referred to the nation as a “shining light” for the rest of the world to follow. Through the prism of fiction, this work examines the dark realities at the foundations of those beliefs.’ How, in your opinion, do these events in 1645 relate to the doctrine of 'American Exceptionalism'?
Jerry: My fictional community of Welsh Puritans in North America is a distorted mirror used to examine the ideology of English Puritans who colonized ‘New England.’ Since the seventeenth century, Matthew 4:14-15 has inflected a great deal of American writing and tempered American thinking (‘You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.’) I wanted the metaphors used by those claiming to bring ‘light’ to ‘dark’ places, much as Joseph Conrad does in Heart of Darkness . The events of 1645 contribute to Rhisiart’s own interior journey, forcing him to re-examine how he defines ‘light’/’darkness’, ‘good’/’evil’, etc.
AmeriCymru: You will be talking about the book at a few events in the United States. We have the so far announced dates listed on this page (see below). Will you be adding further dates to those already announced? Are there any details about your forthcoming appearances that you would like to especially highlight?
Jerry: I’d love to talk about the book at other events in other parts of the United States, and hopefully some more dates will be added in the near future.
One special thing about some of the ones planned for the New England area is that the translator, Patrick K. Ford, will be taking part as well. He is a fantastic literary scholar as well as a great translator of both Irish and Welsh literature, and it’ll be well worth hearing what he has to say as well.
AmeriCymru: What's next for Jerry Hunter? Any new titles in the pipeline?
Jerry: I have another historical novel in press at the moment. The working title is Ynys Fadog , and it traces the entire history of a Welsh-American community in Gallia County, Ohio, from 1818 to 1937. I am also co-authoring a book with Dylan Foster Evans on the history of Welsh Literature from the beginning to the year 1740.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Jerry: Given the interest in Welsh-American links which brings people to AmeriCymru, it’s worth stressing the unique process which brought Dark Territory into being. This is a novel written in Welsh by an American and then translated into English by another American. That is surely a first in the history of Welsh-American cultural interactions!
I was extremely honored when Patrick K. Ford told me that he was translating the novel. His translation of the Mabinogi is somewhat of a classic, having been in print for over 40 years. He is a very generous translator, and he kindly included me in the process, trying out different drafts on me and talking over various aspects of the work in great detail. His engagement with the novel forced me to see my own work in new ways, and I’ll be eternally grateful to him for that.
Porter Square Books in Cambridge Mass
Friday, May 25, 2018 - 7:00pm
Also featuring translator Pat Ford, former chair of Celtic Languages and Literatures department at Harvard.
Portsmouth Athenaeum in Portsmouth NH
Sunday, May 27th 2018 - Time TBD
Sponsored by RiverRun Bookstore
Joseph Beth Bookstore in Cincinnatti
Thursday July 26th - 7PM
Alexandria, VA - NAFOW
August 30–September 2, 2018
Harvard Coop Bookstore, Cambridge MA
Friday, October 5, - 7:00 p.m
Jerry will be participating in the Harvard Celtic Colloquium
The Final Trick - An Interview with Welsh Author, Brian Jarman
By AmeriCymru, 2017-09-05
AmeriCymru spoke to Welsh author Brian Jarman about his life, work and future plans.
"Brian Jarman was born on a farm in Mid Wales, the joint youngest of five brothers. He was educated in local schools and did a degree in French Studies at the LSE, spending one year teaching in a Parisian lycee. ........ He lives in London with his wife Julia and regularly visits family in Mid-Wales and Cardiff (especially when there’s an international rugby match on)."
READ MORE HERE
AmeriCymru: Hi Brian and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. Can you tell us a little about your Welsh background? When did you decide you wanted to write?
Brian: It’s a pleasure. I was born and raised on a farm in Mid-Wales: Lower Gwestydd near Newtown. I’m 21 years younger than my eldest brother, and 20 minutes older than my youngest, my twin brother Milwyn. The older two, David and Gwyn, carried on the family tradition of farming and we younger ones were encouraged to work hard at school and go out in the world to make our own lives. Mechanisation meant the farm could only now support my parents and two brothers and their families. Not that we were exempt from farm work. My middle brother Trevor was the first one of the family to go to university, and we followed.
For as long as I can remember I wanted to write. At infants school we were asked to draw what we wanted to do when we grew up. My friends drew trains and fire engines, but my picture showed a man writing books, one at a time.
In our teens Milwyn and I started a family newspaper. I think it lasted for three editions.
After university I got a job as a reporter on the South Wales Argus, and became Chief Feature Writer. It was my dream job. It was only much later I found the time and the courage to bring that picture to life and start writing novels.
AmeriCymru: Care to tell us a little about your most recent novel The Final Trick ?
Brian: It’s set in Cardiff and New York, but was inspired by my time in Boston, where I worked on PRI’s daily radio programme, The World. I joined a Bridge club and partnered a formidable woman, Lilian Nagler, who taught me so much about the game. In the novel, a Journalism lecturer in Cardiff, Al Evans, moves to New York after being dumped by his wife. He comes to regard his Bridge partner Greta as one of the rudest women he’s ever met. He has a bet with his friend that there must be One Good Thing about her and he sets out to find it. It also has memories of growing up in the Rhondda, supplied by my cousin, Meryl Lewis.
Brian Jarman (left), with brother Milwyn and niece Paula, with grandfather, Pop, ploughing with horses.
AmeriCymru: Your second novel The F all From Howling Hill is set in Mid Wales. In what way does it reflect social changes in the area over the last 4 or 5 decades?
Brian: Indeed, that was one of my motives in writing it. I remember my grandfather, Pop, ploughing with horses. My grandparents’ farm, Brondolfor was over the hill from ours. There was no electricity or mains water, so it was oil lamps and a pump in the yard. My Dad use to tell stories of farm workers sleeping in a back room in the farmhouse. They were hard times but held happy memories. Our first TV was a snowy set with one channel which stood on the floor, but it opened up the wider world to us. As we were growing up the farm became increasingly mechanised, so in the end my two eldest brothers farmed it alone. I wanted to memorialise this changing world. The book was originally called Glanharan, but friends advised me to change it as people wouldn’t know what it meant.
AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about the mystery of The Missing Room your first novel, without giving away the plot of course.
Brian: It’s based on the farmhouse I grew up in, which did have a room-sized space in the middle with no windows or doors. We used to have fun imagining all kinds of things that could be in it. In my early thirties I suffered from ME (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), so I had this idea of a man with a mystery illness returning to his childhood home in later life and trying to unlock the secret of The Missing Room. The front cover is a photo taken by my wife of the farmhouse - the missing room is behind the little room behind that window, underneath the gable.
AmeriCymru: Over the years you have worked in Radio,TV and journalism. Any plans to continue working in those areas?
Brian: I now lecture in Journalism at London Metropolitan University, which I greatly enjoy, and do bits and pieces of print journalism, but my main focus now is on writing novels.
AmeriCymru: You have lived and worked in the US in the past. Care to tell us a little about that period of your life? Any plans to return?
Brian: I lived in Boston, MA for two years when I was Managing Editor of The World, and worked for a while with WNYC in New York. In all I spent about ten years travelling back and fore between London and the US (and Wales!) which was an ideal. I was lucky enough to visit most US cities at various public radio conferences. It was a magnificent time, but now I guess I’m pretty settled in London.
AmeriCymru: What's next for Brian Jarman? Any new titles in the works?
Brian: Yes, I’m just about to start reworking one I wrote a while back, called The Absent Friend, about a Welshman living in Tuscany who has to come to terms with his past and the incident that caused him to fall out with his best friend in London years ago. There’s another one percolating in my head, about twin brothers. One stayed farming in Wales and the other went to London to become a famous TV presenter. They haven’t spoken for 25 years. But one gets a call from the other saying he’s dying of cancer and so it’s their last chance to bury the hatchet and work out what went wrong all those years ago. (NB: this part is not autobiographical - I get on with my brothers very well).
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Brian: It’s a great resource and one I wish I’d known about earlier. Make the most of it. In The Final Trick, Al’s girlfriend in New York researches living history - people’s past lives as passed down through generations. She takes him to Ellis Island and he’s moved by the stories of immigrants who left everything behind to come to the New World. It arouses his curiosity about his own past - his father came from the Rhondda and his mother from a farm in Mid-Wales. He wasn’t interested in their stories when he was growing up, but now he wants to find out more about his ancestors. But is it too late?
Many thanks for this wonderful opportunity. Hwyl, Brian.
An Interview With Sarah Woodbury - King Arthur, Time Travel And Medieval Mystery
By AmeriCymru, 2017-06-01
Sarah Woodbury "With two historian parents, Sarah couldn’t help but develop an interest in the past. She went on to get more than enough education herself (in anthropology) and began writing fiction when the stories in her head overflowed and demanded she let them out. Her interest in Wales stems from her own ancestry and the year she lived in Wales when she fell in love with the country, language, and people. She even convinced her husband to give all four of their children Welsh names."... more Sarah spoke to AmeriCymru recently about her writing, King Arthur and the location of Camelot.
AmeriCymru: Hi Sarah and many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by AmeriCymru. What influenced you to write historical fiction and in particular, historical fiction set in Wales?
Sarah: I've always been interested in my personal Welsh history. My ancestors left Wales in the early 1600s for Massachusetts. Their lives and the family they left behind in Wales were a focus of my research beginning in the late 1990s. I began writing historical fiction set in Wales five years ago when my children reached their teenage years. I wanted to write books for them to read that were accessible and fun, but gave them something concrete about their heritage to hang on to.
AmeriCymru: In your 'After Cilmeri' series you combine historical fiction with time travel. Care to tell us how this combination occurred to you?
Sarah: It's really very simple: I have always hated that Llywelyn ap Gruffydd died the way he did. Even at the time, it was said that if he'd held on for just a few more days, all of Wales would have flocked to his banner. Who's to say? Perhaps he would have defeated King Edward, who was being pushed to the wall by his English barons (who cared not at all for Wales and thought it a drain on the exchequer) and his creditors. Certain moments in history have repercussions far beyond the events of the time, and the death of Llywelyn is one of those moments. Seven hundred years under the English boot followed. I could have written a straight historical fiction in which Llywelyn died--but where's the fun in that? History changing time travel seemed to provide the answer.
AmeriCymru: Three of your books concern the reign of 'King Arthur' and its aftermath in Welsh history. Care to tell us a little more about them?
Sarah: Historically speaking, King Arthur (if he existed at all--still subject to debate), was Welsh. The historical sources for King Arthur begin with the Y Goddodin—a Welsh poem by the 7th century poet, Aneirin, with it’s passing mention of Arthur. The author refers to the battle of Catraeth, fought around AD 600 and describes a warrior who “fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress, though he was no Arthur”. This reference is followed in time by the writings of Taliesin, Nennius, and the tales of the Mabinogi, all written before Geoffrey of Monmouth popularized Arthur in his book dating to the middle of the 12th century. (more on my blog: Historical Sources for King Arthur
Thus, if King Arthur was a real person, he was resolutely Welsh, in which case, he reigned at a crucial time in Welsh history. This story is not the same one that is often told in popular fiction. I wanted to tell the story of the real Arthur, and try to capture what life might have been like in that era. Cold My Heart is set in the time of Arthur himself. The Last Pendragon and The Pendragon's Quest follow Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon who lived in the 7th century. These latter two books are steeped in the pagan and Christian worlds that permeated Dark Age Wales.
AmeriCymru: Many locations have been advanced for the location of King Arthur's Camelot:- Cadbury Castle, Caerleon, Wroxeter and Stirling Castle to name but a few. Where do you think Camelot was located?
Sarah: Geoffrey of Monmouth places Arthur at Caerleon (the Roman fort, Isca) on the River Usk in Wales. Who knows how accurate this assessment is, but at least it's in Wales. Camelot proper is first mentioned in the romance, Lancelot, written by the French poet Chretien de Troyes between 1170 and 1185. He made it up. I placed my King Arthur in Gwynedd at Garth Celyn (Aber), a long-time seat of the the northern kings. Other choices for 'Camelot' could be Aberffraw, Deganwy, or Dinas Bran. As a side note, Dinas Bran is purportedly where Joseph of Arimathea left the Holy Grail.
AmeriCymru: In 'The Good Knight' we are treated to a medieval mystery in the tradition of the late great Ellis Peters. Is this the first of many? And if so will Gareth and Gwen be appearing in future episodes?
Sarah: Most definitely! I am writing the next mystery as we speak for publication in 2012 and hope to continue with many more installments in the years ahead.
AmeriCymru: What title/titles would you recommend to readers wanting to acquire a background knowledge of medieval Welsh history?
Sarah: For historical fiction set in medieval Wales, Sharon Kay Penman's Welsh trilogy (ending with The Reckoning and the story of the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd) are required reading. Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael books are wonderful; most are not set in Wales but Cadfael is Welsh. She also wrote (as Edith Pargeter) the Brothers of Gwynedd quartet, recounting the story of the life of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. On my bookshelf is also J. Beverly Smith's monumental work, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, (publlication date, 1998).
AmeriCymru: What are you reading at the moment? Any recommendations?
Sarah: I have just finished the last of Anna Elliott's trilogy of Tristan and Isolde, Sunrise of Avalon. It is wonderful. She follows the more Norman/French tradition, in terms of location and mythology of Arthur, but sets parts of her books in Wales too.
AmeriCymru: Where can readers go to purchase your works online?
Sarah: Everywhere! My books are available in both ebook and paper format at Amazon, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords.
AmeriCymru: What's next for Sarah Woodbury?
Sarah: I'm writing the next Gareth and Gwen mystery as part of National Novel Writing Month (starting November 1). It is going to be great fun. I'm also well into the third book in the After Cilmeri series (called Crossroads in Time), which follows the adventures of Anna and David, two teenagers transported in time back to the medieval kingdom of Wales.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?
Sarah: In May of 2012, my husband and I are traveling to Wales for two weeks. It's been too long since I've visited and he has never been. If anyone has a place they think I need to visit, email me (dr.sarahwoodbury @ gmail.com) and let me know! I love hearing from people who've read my books and look forward to connecting with other people of Welsh descent. Diolch yn fawr!
AmeriCymru: Diolch Sarah!
Interview by Ceri Shaw Ceri Shaw on Google+
Coming To America - An Interview With Mari Griffith
By AmeriCymru, 2017-03-11
Back to Welsh Literature page >
AmeriCymru: Hi Mari, it's been a while since we last interviewed you on the site and you have an exciting announcement to make, yes?
Mari: Yes, to both parts of that question, Ceri. You last interviewed me on the web site in August of last year, on the publication of my second novel The Witch of Eye . But the reason why I have an exciting announcement has more to do with my very first novel, Root of the Tudor Rose . When you interviewed me about that one, I told you that I was committed to spreading the gospel about the Welsh origins of the Tudors, the most famous dynasty in "English" history. And it's this missionary zeal that's bringing me to the US at the end of June, to address the American Conference of the Historical Novel Society with a presentation entitled The Tudors: an English dynasty? (I shall be saying this with the same imperious expression used by Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell in the Importance of Being Earnest when she pauses, looks down her nose and says disdainfully "... a handbag!" If you don't know it, you'll find it on YouTube - A Handbag )
AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about the HNS and the conference?
Mari: The HNS is the international Historical Novel Society, which exists to promote and encourage the reading and writing of historical fiction. They bring out a review every quarter devoted to new historical fiction and they've said some nice things about both my books in that.
Root of the Tudor Rose was featured in their 'New Fiction' section and the review of The Witch of Eye in November last year hailed the book as "... a thoroughly enjoyable read, a very well-researched story, where the narrative licks along irresistibly." I was delighted by that, of course. The Society holds a conference every year, alternately in the UK and in the States. Last year it was held in Oxford and the American visitors raved about the magical 'dreaming spires' of that lovely old university city. This year the conference takes place in Portland, Oregon, which gives me the opportunity of visiting a part of America I've never seen before. I'm told it's wonderful and I look forward tremendously to seeing it for myself.
AmeriCymru: So this is not your first visit to the States?
Mari: No, it will actually be my fourth. The first three were all in order to make programmes and I particularly enjoyed making a documentary programme for S4C about the Welsh/American baritone Thomas Ll. Thomas. His middle name was Llyfnwy but not many Americans could manage that! The reason why I was so interested in him was that he came from my own home town of Maesteg in the Llynfi Valley and the family emigrated to Scranton, Pennsylvania in the 1920's when Welsh mining engineers were much in demand. "Llyf", as the family called him, didn't go into mining: instead he became one of the most famous singers of his generation, often featuring in opera and concerts in New York and all over the country. Eventually, he became known as "The Voice of Firestone" because he presented and sang in "The Firestone Hour", the hugely popular television programme of light music, transmitted live every Sunday evening and seen from coast-to-coast. Not bad for a little Maesteg boy! You've never heard of him? Tell you what, I'll write an article for you one of these days ... or perhaps he should be the subject of my next historical novel? Now, there's a thought!
AmeriCymru: Sounds like a fascinating story. But, to get back to what we were talking about - do you have any other plans while you are in the States?
Mari: Well, the HNS Conference itself only lasts for three days which means that I'm going to have quite a lot of free time on my hands, depending on how long I decide to stay. I rather fancy making that wonderful train journey down the coast to California to take in a few places I've heard of but never visited. Then perhaps a week in San Francisco before flying home because my other half, Jonah, describes himself as an ageing hippie and nothing would please him more than to have his photograph taken somewhere significant in Haight-Ashbury. So we're likely to be kicking around the area for a week or so and, of course, this gives me the opportunity of visiting some Welsh Societies in the area if anyone would like to invite me to come along and talk to them. Believe me, I could talk the hind leg off a Welsh dragon about all sorts of things - my old career as a broadcaster, my 'new' career as a writer, the origins of the Tudor dynasty and why I wanted to write the first book ... or even Thomas Ll. Thomas' career if need be. In Welsh or in English, of course. Just get in touch via my web site at Mari Griffith
AmeriCymru: Any final message for our readers?
Mari: My best regards to them all, as ever. And if anyone takes a particular delight in historical fiction, they can find out a lot more about the Historical Novel Society and its American conference by following the link below. And, if you do decide to come along, be sure to come and find me to say "hello". Historical Novel Society
An Interview With Nigel Jarrett - 'Who Killed Emil Kreisler?'
By AmeriCymru, 2017-02-21
AmeriCymru spoke to Welsh author Nigel Jarrett about his work and future plans. For a review of Nigel's latest novel 'Slowly Burning' go here .
"Nigel Jarrett is a freelance writer and music critic. He’s written poetry, essays and short stories for such journals as the Observer magazine, London Magazine, Planet, Agenda, Poetry Wales and Poetry Ireland, and many others of dim provenance and solemn obscurity.
He is a winner of the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction, and the 2016 inaugural Templar Shorts prize.. A collection of his stories, Funderland, was published in October 2011 to widespread acclaim. In November 2013, Parthian published his first poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool. A novel, Slowly Burning, and a second story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, appeared in 2016."
AmeriCymru: Hi Nigel and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. Care to introduce your latest collection of short stories - Who Killed Emil Kreisler? - for our readers?
Nigel: With pleasure, especially as it has an American link.
Collections of short stories consist almost always of previously published material; published in small literary magazines (SLMs), that is. It was ever thus. As most writers do not produce short fiction on an industrial scale, the stories chosen for a collection usually come from work written and published in SLMs over a lengthy period. One tries to seek publication in magazines one admires, if only for the pleasure of seeing one's efforts alongside work they might be considered to emulate. Among the magazines which first published the stories in Who Killed Emil Kreisler? are the The Lonely Crowd, The Lampeter Review, Tears In The Fence, Skald, and The Erotic Review. That a few of them are Welsh simply reflects the esteem in which published storytelling in Wales is held. But The Erotic Review, for instance, is a London-based, international publication, once manifest in print form, now digital. Increasingly I'm writing for online literary magazines. It may or may not be the way forward; but these sites are certainly ignored at the modern writer's peril.
My first collection, Funderland, was published by Parthian, the Welsh independent. It has been seen by some to have a family theme, in the sense of families dysfunctional, knocked askew by forces internal and external, or otherwise rendered unusual; though this was not my conscious intention. If there was a theme deliberately affecting the choice of stories for Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, it was variety of mood, time, and place; or just plain 'variety'. One reviewer has described me as being, in this collection, 'almost wilfully diverse'. I'm taking that as a compliment though I suppose it could be read another way. The stories skip from Sweden, to Africa, to New York, to Germany, to Los Angeles, to Paris, and to other places. I'll go with 'diverse'; the adverbial predicate of 'wilfully' seeming to suggest that diversity might be an undesirable quality, and that's just plain preposterous. Perhaps one story should be savoured before turning to the next. That way, any travel-sickness will be avoided.
The title story is a fictional take on a real event: the death of the composer Anton Webern, shot dead by a drunken US infantryman towards the end of the second world war. During a curfew in an Austrian town, Webern was visiting a relative who was being investigated by the military for black-marketeering. When Webern stepped outside the house to smoke a cigar, the soldier, an army cook named Raymond Norwood Bell, discharged his rifle in circumstances that remain confusing, and killed him. Bell survived the war and died an alcoholic, full of remorse. It was a tragic event from all angles. I've always been fascinated by the idea of an anonymous soldier unwittingly killing someone famous on the battlefield: the sniper who did for the poet Wilfred Owen, for example, in the Great War. Did he survive? Did he realise what he'd done? Not that this fascination takes anything away from my attitude to the millions who have died anonymously in wars. Writers develop fixations; they can't help it. My story is told by a Bell-like character; Emil Kreisler is the Webern-like one. I think it works. Among the collection's dedicatees, I've placed an in memoriam for Bell. He was as much a victim as the person he killed.
I'm reminded that this story is short, a piece of metafiction, or flash fiction, almost. Others are of various lengths. So, variety of form, too.
Buy 'Who Killed Emil Kreisler?' Here
AmeriCymru: You have won awards for your collections of short fiction. What is it about the short story genre that attracts you? What short story writers have influenced and/or inspired you?
Nigel: This is going to sound prosaic or flippant, but I write stories because it doesn't take long. I'm notorious for not revising. I should revise, and my editors for the two collections I've written have suggested changes which, somewhat reluctantly, I've made. Other suggestions I've rejected out of hand, on one occasion dropping a story rather than make the revisions put forward. One knows when a story is right, and that process happens for me almost at the point of initial completion. Not editing, not revising, is bad practice, however, and I wouldn't recommend it. It's just that revision takes time and, as I say, I like writing stories because I can do it reasonably quickly.
The foregoing is directly related to my career as a newspaperman. British daily newspapers work their staff to exhaustion. I used to say that I worked a 25-hour day and an eight-day week. For a long period in my career, it felt that way. When I began writing fiction and poetry, which was late in my case, I certainly worked long and unsocial hours as a reporter. I was married with two young children. I'm grateful to them for allowing me to write when I should have been cleaning the oven, watching Top Of The Pops with them on TV, or joining the search for an escaped hamster. I've seen marriages fail and individuals crumble because of these unrelenting demands. So I wrote at home when I had an hour or so free. It was not an arrangement conducive to the writing of novels. I got a lot of poetry written, which for years I kept to myself, only letting it go when I realised how much dross there was in poetry magazines to which I was subscribing. Another factor was the unswerving commitment needed to be a successful newspaper journalist. I never had it, though I was always pretty good at my job. Employers wondered whether or not your mind was fully engaged if they discovered you had a non-journalistic interest outside the workplace. So, that was additional pressure: you put in the hours to prove beyond doubt that you were doing your best, knowing that any ambitions you harboured in the way of 'proper writing' were being curtailed. Also, the necessity of writing concisely as possible for a newspaper was related to my liking for short fiction. To get it down in as few words as possible was something for which I was paid. Maybe, subconsciously, I thought the same would happen with short stories. But few SLMs pay their contributors. I once described the magazines that publish me as solemn and obscure. Well, most of them are obscure: just ask 99 per cent of the population.
All that said, I like short fiction for other reasons, the main one being a love of the reverberations it sets up. It's a bit like examining a photograph and wondering what events immediately preceded it and what came after. In many ways, and again like photographs, the story is a decisive moment, and no 'momentous' event should wear unnecessary trappings. It's a way in which the writer passes something to the reader for the reader's contribution, the reader's engagement. I like doing that; I like the idea of writing as a collaboration. Someone who'd read a story of mine predicted its imagined outcome in a totally different way from the one I'd envisaged, to the extent of making me think I'd written something dictated by an unseen hand; not that I have any truck with the idea of a Muse perched on my shoulder, ever ready to set me off in some direction or other over which I have no control.
I've always read short fiction for the same reasons as I write it: reading it is quickly accomplished. Thus, I've read a lot of stories, beginning with de Maupassant in my early teens and taking in the great Americans, such as Bierce and Poe. There's been some magical short fiction written in the UK, though I find the British obsession with social class wearisome. Somerset Maugham I like, despite his class proclivities, and among the 'younger' Brits, Hilary Mantel, Graham Swift and Ian McKewan. Pirandello, Brecht, Chekhov (pre-eminently), Tolstoy, Katherine Mansfield and many others have all added something to my understanding of what short fiction is able to achieve. In recent years, and since the advent of the American 'New Realists', my short fiction focus has been New World and South American: Carver, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Lorrie Moore, Vargas Lhosa, Updike, Alice Munro, Marquez, Borges. I love Munro's work, love the way it often wobbles on the border between short story and novella. Her imagination is unstoppable and never less than vivid. I also like the short fiction of the playwright Sam Shepard (there's not much of it, to be sure), because weirdly I can relate it to his writing for theatre. Sometimes, it seems to be theatre-in-progress, notebook jottings for plays or film scripts. I'm always interested in how other writers do what they do, how their minds work, how they make choices. Top of my list at the moment is the American George Saunders, who has raised the short story to the level of high satirical art; he's very funny, as all satirists should be, but also compassionate. I'm a winner of the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction, and for a while I bought and read all the out-of-print editions of the Welshman's work. But I now find it a tad dated, despite claims that he was a 'British Chekhov'. There was something suppressed in Davies's work that reflects perhaps his closeted homosexuality. Had he been living today he would have written about it. He was a gay writer who never wrote gay fiction, if we assume that his love of matriarchs were not Oedipal at source. As a stylist, though, he was in his day unsurpassed. Another thing I like about short fiction is that many of its practitioners were once journalists. Hemingway and Graham Greene are good examples. I see them as casting off as soon as possible, in order to get on with something else. In my case, that was work.
AmeriCymru: Which brings us to Funderland . One reviewer opines that, 'Nigel Jarrett's stories take seemingly ordinary or innocent situations and gently tease out their emotional complexity.' How would you describe these stories. Is there one of which you are particularly fond?
Nigel: This is a tricky question, because the description of what I did in that book came from a reviewer (Lesley McDowell, of the Independent on Sunday), not from me. I wouldn't deny it; it's just that I didn't set out to find complexity in the ordinary. Writing about the ordinary because it's ordinary won't get a writer very far, so it's almost inevitable that what interests a writer, what interests me, is something beyond that. A writer's fiction is always assumed to be autobiographical in some way, but on the surface, in terms of fiction's forward-rolling events, this is never the case. What I write about reflects what interests me about human inter-reactions, especially when they are destructive, disappointing, corrupted, or vulnerable to corruption. I once described the collection as 'dark'. I'm not too sure of that now. I do like to write beyond myself and my immediate surroundings. 'Write about what you know' is a common but flawed dictum from teachers of writing. I like to do the opposite: write about what I don't know but what I can imagine. One of the stories in Funderland, Doctor Fritz, concerns a musico-anthropologist who once made a startling discovery, was publicly ridiculed for an error of professional judgement, and is slowly going mad. I know nothing about anthropology or madness, but I believe I wrote an interesting story. I do know something about music, having been a music critic for the last forty years, and I bring some knowledge of that to bear.
When I say the collection is about families in some form or other, I don't mean that my own upbringing was in any way unstable or unsatisfactory. Of course, one has regrets that events didn't turn out as planned or were unfortunate or came about against one's better interests. We'd all do lots of things differently – and we can't choose our parents or the circumstances into which we're born. One must look critically at everything, even one's own growth to maturity, or immaturity, as the case may be. I like complexity. Simplicity or, rather, the simplistic, is a state not to be desired. Being the eldest of three children, or first-born to give my status the looming shadow primogeniture seems to attract, has always made me feel that I'm flawed, as I certainly am. I'm different from my two siblings, though we love each other. Perhaps the stories in Funderland are related to this incomplete person, and have a psychological dimension as a result. Whether or not this converts itself into some universal state that others can identify with is debatable. I hope it does. For certain, if all is well with a writer in terms of surroundings, beliefs, outlook and relationships, there won't be much to write about. Funderland includes the story Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan, which won the Rhys Davies Prize and is included in Story, the Library of Wales's two-volume anthology of 20th and 21st century Welsh short fiction. But my favourite Funderland story is Watching The Birdie, about a newly-married man and his innocent stepdaughter. I wanted to capture the decisive moment of sexual abuse, something I have never encountered in short fiction before, and I believe I succeeded.
Teasing out emotional complexities implies some kind of forensic procedure. For me, writing doesn't work like that. There may be an initial scheme, or roughly sketched plot, but in my experience narratives tend to take off and travel hither and thither, guided by nothing more insubstantial than the workings of imagination and memory. I think memory is important. Bits of my past, suitably transmogrified, pop up in the stories. Although there was nothing even remotely resembling the wickedness of Watching The Birdie in the Jarrett family – quite the opposite - the journey to the seaside undertaken by the characters is one I went on many times as a young boy. You don't forget things like that. They are embedded experiences, and for a writer all such experiences are there to be drawn on; used, if you like.
'...as a music critic by profession, Jarrett has a marvellous ear... And the stand-out story, 'Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan', is an enigmatic study of a Japanese woman's displacement in rural Wales.' Alfred Hickling
'Nigel Jarrett's stories take seemingly ordinary or innocent situations and gently tease out their emotional complexity. Both 'Funderland' and 'A Point of Dishonour' confound expectations superbly...He's not afraid of unusual perspectives and his bravery is well rewarded in this unusual and sensitive collection.' Lesley McDowell
'Funderland, Nigel Jarrett's superb short story collection, demands the tribute of slow and careful reading [...] The revelation of these stories is the vast and subtle and inarticulate web that links and separates us all. Read them slowly, more than once, and learn.'
New Welsh Review
'Funderland is an excellent first offering, giving a thought provoking series of wry, often wistful fresh angles on the fragility of relationships. Readers will want more, anticipating the emergence of a strong, telling voice in fiction from Wales.' Robert Walton
Buy 'Funderland' Here
Interview on Vanessa Gebbie's Blog
Funderland Facebook Page
Review in New Welsh Review
AmeriCymru: Your novel Slowly Burning features an anti-hero, Bunny Patmore, who can't tell the difference between facts and fiction. A somewhat topical theme. What does the novel have to tell us about the relationship. How would you describe the book?
Nigel: Slowly Burning is a first-person account by a former Fleet Street crime bureau chief. He's been washed up on a weekly newspaper in Wales, where he receives a letter in the will of a minor London gangster and takes himself off to Dorset to investigate its implications. There are three stories intertwined, like a triple helix. There's the main narrative whoosh, Bunny's recollections of life as a tabloid reporter, and the story told to him by the gangster's daughter, whom he befriends and who is strangely attracted to his quest.
Bunny is a self-confessed fibber. But I wanted him to be more than that. The idea of the unreliable journalist who nevertheless writes no-smoke-without-fire reports is almost a commonplace in our cynical times, and justifiably so. But, having worked with people like Bunny, I can confirm that they are complex. Bunny is not very nice. Furthermore, I wanted to make him into the reckless and irresponsible scribe of legend. This was a high-risk strategy. I've littered his story with contradictions, misrememberings, inconsistencies, solecisms, errors and all sorts of other things which the reader would question – if the reader notices them at all. If they are recognised, of course, I risk the possibility of their being ascribed to me, not to Bunny. However, one reviewer didn't register any of them (Dan Bradley in the New Welsh Review, whose notice is included in full, below), which sort of gratifies me in proving my point. When the Sun newspaper told its readers that the Hillsborough football stadium disaster was caused by drunken Liverpool fans, its readers believed it. The assertion was proved to be wrong – and Liverpool is now a no-go zone for the Sun newspaper. (But not the rest of the Murdoch Press: the populace can often be dumb and unquestioning.)
The novel unwittingly foreshadows the current and continuing débâcle over truth, 'alternative' truth and half truth. It's no surprise that Brexiteer politicians in the UK lied to the electorate in the same way that President Trump does to his, as if mendacity were an essential part of a certain kind of politics. Not that Britain's 'Remainers' were paragons of rectitude, or that the American Democrats were without fault. Bunny Patmore's favourite author is Thomas Hardy; his nemesis is a woman who is also a Hardy-lover and who supplies him with a 'story' (all 'factual' newspaper reports are 'stories') that he will never publish, because what integrity he possesses triumphs over his newspaperman's instincts. He even has a go at writing a story – a fictional story, like Slowly Burning itself – when his investigations falter or peter out. This play on fact and fiction, truth and lies, error and exactitude, carelessness and attentiveness, is a feature of the book, maybe the main one. I reached the stage in writing Slowly Burning where I considered the manuscript as almost a 'found' object, someone else's musings – Bunny Patmore's. My main aim, I now believe, was to ventriloquise, to write a narrative as a real Bunny Patmore would. We don't often hear from the Bunny Patmores of the world; they are simply people fit to be vilified.
Readers might be interested in the provenance of Slowly Burning's front cover image. It's a photograph by the celebrated 'snapper' John Bignell. When the publisher and I were looking for a suitable illustration, we Googled the words 'Fleet Street pub scene 1950'. This photo was the first to appear, and it led us to the Bignell archive, which is held by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea library. Bignell was active in the Fifties and especially the Sixties, photographing celebrities and others in the context of what was happening in London at the time – the Swinging Sixties and all that. The curator told us that Bignell was notorious for his lack of detailed captions, but thought the Slowly Burning image was of an East End pub scene from around 1958. It's the evocative image we were seeking, portraying a milieu that Bunny Patmore would have recognised immediately. Indeed, the central event in Bunny's recollection concerns the moment he heard about his sick wife's biopsy results (not good) and how he left Piele's bar in Fleet Street to sit outside on the pavement in shock. It's another fictionalised account of a real event, in which an inebriated journalist collapsed outside Piele's and was then retrieved by his companions and taken back inside for 'medication'. It was witnessed by the writer Michael Frayn from a high window at the old Guardian offices, and is included in the foreword to his novel about newspapers, Towards The End Of The Morning. Frayn's recollection is the leading epigraph at the start of Slowly Burning. The RBK&C library alowed us to reproduce the image without payment, as long as we credited Bignell and sent the library a copy of the book. We didn't hesitate.AmeriCymru: In addition to writing fiction you are also a poet. What can you tell us about 'Miners at the Quarry Pool'?
Nigel: Miners At The Quarry Pool was my first poetry collection, its contents garnered from about ten years' worth of published poems. Poetry magazines are often more solemn and more obscure than fiction ones, and in many cases shorter-lived. Three times I've had poems accepted for publication only for the magazine concerned to fold before it got round to printing them. I like to joke that the collection has nothing to do with miners, quarries, or quarry pools, in the way a lot of poetry these days seems to revel in its incomprehensible peculiarity. The reviewer in Poetry Wales, though calling me 'a clever writer' (a case of damning with oblique praise), thought some of the poems were 'resistant to reading'. He'd obviously never read the more arcane cantos of Ezra Pound. (I've made a few appearances in Agenda, the magazine co-founded by Pound, whose current editor, Patricia McCarthy, described my collection as 'a virtuoso performance'. So there you are. You take your pick.) Unlike stories, poems suggest themselves to me as out-of-the-blue bolts, and I have to start on them straight-away, even when I'm lying in bed at night, fully awake. There's a poem written directly after my mother died, which refers, inter alia, to my son high in her apple tree and spraying the blossom. There's another, written after a method was discovered of slowing down Great War film footage to normal speed, which suggested to me that it now took longer to wage, that its horrors would be prolonged. There's also a poem based on two famous American photographs.
When I say the collection's not about miners, etc., I nevertheless dedicate it to my grandfathers, who were at one time both coalminers, entering daily the former Cwmbran Colliery adit mine (they walked three more miles to the face after a lift on a conveyor). One reviewer likened the collection to excavations, thus partly vindicating the dedication, albeit tortuously. I would describe it as diverse in subject-matter, like the second story collection, and, more importantly according to my editor, Alan Kellermann, a celebration of poetic brevity. There are not many long poems in there, and I think Alan was referring to brevity of utterance at a time when much poetry tends to be dense, overloaded or verbose. I don't 'do' allusive. Pound looked for pin-point accuracy in a poem, the way a coin is made by the hammering nose of the die – hard, once-only and instantaneous - and that's what I strive for.
I continue to write poetry. I'm putting together a second collection, which might be called Brevities. I find it difficult to establish my own, unmistakeable, poetic voice, but I'll know when I've found it.
Buy 'Miners At The Quarry Pool' Here
AmeriCymru: What are you reading at the moment? Any recommendations?
Nigel: I tend to be catching up with books I should have read years ago. Amazon has many faults, but you can't beat it for finding the most long-lost title and often charging what it amusingly calls £0.01. Paying an extra £2.80 for packing and postage seems worth the cost. I'm a reasonably competent draughtsman, and I created the image for the cover of Who Killed Emil Kreisler? So many of my book purchases are volumes on art. I've just bought for 70p a lovely Phaidon copy of Otto Benesch's 1960 essay on Rembrandt as a draughtsman. I'll be reading that and looking at it soon.
Again for £0.01, I recently bought Margaret Atwood's Negotiating With The Dead, one of a number of books I have on writers writing about being a writer. Hemingway was the master of that, in letters to Maxwell Perkins, Scott Fitzgerald and others. When writers die, as William Trevor did a few months ago, I do them the honour of reading books by them that for one reason or another passed me by when they first came out. At the time of doing this interview, I was half way through his collection, Cheating At Canasta. Julian Barnes seems to me to be an increasingly important British writer, maybe greater in the long run than Amis junior, Swift, and McKewan; he's the most experimental. I read living Welsh authors out of patriotic duty, though I find patriotism a dubious trait. That's another story! Among the ones I've just read are The Scrapbook, by Carly Holmes; The Dig, by Cynan Jones; and Dangerous Asylums, edited by Rob Mimpriss. I reviewed this last one; it's a collection of fictions by North Wales writers and is based on patient records from the former Denbigh Asylum. I reviewed it for the Wales Arts Review. Just before Christmas I treated myself to a first edition of Arfon, by Rhys Davies. It turned out to be number 115 of a limited edition of 400, published by Foyle and signed by the author in his distinctive hand. I'll treasure that.
Review of 'Dangerous Asylums'
AmeriCymru: What are you working on at the moment? Can we expect any new titles soon?
Nigel: I'm half way through a second novel, provisionally called The Newhaven Foxes, about...well, I won't give that away just yet. And there's the second poetry collection I mentioned. I've just sent a few poems to Poetry Wales and The Lonely Crowd, the latter edited by John Lavin, former editor of The Lampeter Review and now associate editor of the Wales Arts Review. I try to write something every day, whether it's a review, a blog entry or a long email to friends. I just received a postcard from Alan Bennett, having written to him about his new book and suggesting that Northern humour and Northern life, of which he's an exponent, have echoes in the industrial valleys of SE Wales. What a gracious man to be bothered to handwrite a reply to one letter in what must be a weekly cataract of correspondence. I wish I could write a play. I've tried, but it never works. I've realised, too, that I'll soon have enough stories to put together a third collection. Although I started writing, proper writing, relatively late, I never remind myself of missed opportunities. I just get on with things. A colleague told me that if writers give up writing because they are not achieving success, they are not really writers. I know what he meant. I've been keeping on for a long time, and I'll keep on keeping on, no matter what.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?
Nigel: Do buy titles from independent Welsh publishers such as Parthian, Seren, YLolfa, and Gomer. But don't forget Welsh writers, such as Sarah Waters, Cynan Jones, Niall Griffiths, and, lately, Kate Hamer, who have been picked up by the big British publishers: Cape, Faber, and that lot. I like to think they've put to sea in a coracle on the Severn and paddled straight to the Modern Babylon, there to make the case for Welsh writing of a peculiarly universal sort. We've always been exporters. It shows that we are not regional or provincial, or anything else indicative of an immodest place in the scheme of things. Was Dylan Thomas a Welsh writer? Well, yes. But he was also more than that.
And finally – if you can get your hands on The Day's Portion (Village Publishing), a book of Arthur Machen's non-fiction edited by me and my old friend Godfrey Brangham in the late 1980s, you won't regret it. In the spirit of Machen the forewordsmith, there are three introductions: by me, Goff, and the esteemed publisher, Mel Witherden. Sufficient unto the day thereof.
Links to other interviews with Nigel Jarrett:
Interview on th 'Great Word Nerd'
Interview on Vanessa Gebbie's Blog
Interview on 'Writerchristopherfischer'
Interview on 'Writer's Corner Cymru'.
REVIEW OF 'SLOWLY BURNING' BY DAN BRADLEY
NWR Issue 9 'Slowly Burning' by Nigel Jarrett
Prolific Welsh wordsmith Nigel Jarrett has already excelled in a variety of shorter forms; his story collection Funderland won praise in these pages as well as in the Independent and the Guardian. His story from the collection, ‘Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan’ was a prize winner in the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition; his debut poetry collection Miners at the Quarry Pool was released by Parthian in 2013; and, in a journalistic career spanning thirty years, he has published countless stories, essays and music reviews. Jarrett draws on these decades of industry experience in this West Country noir about a former crime bureau chief drawn into one last mystery. But is Jarret’s nostalgic debut about the life of worldweary newspaperman front page news, or merely yesterday’s?
Our pun-toting protoganist is Bunny Patmore, a former Fleet Street journalist who once rubbed shoulders with the stars and athletes of the day, not to mention the criminals, but now finds himself languishing at a ‘solemn and obscure weekly called the Welsh Messenger’, and feeling ‘part of a vanished time, foreign to the youngsters I work with....’ One he day he receives a mysterious letter, left to him in the will of a grubby London gangster, which promises to cast light on a brutal gangland double murder from his past. This cryptic letter will lead our ‘rhino-skinned prodnose’ across Wales and the south west for one last scoop as he casts disturbing new light on the case, uncovers dark family secrets, finds love and maybe even peace.
The novel revels in vivid detail and humour. Bunny wonderfully describes a British boxer enjoying a brief time in the limelight before sinking ‘back into obscurity, like an ugly fish reversing under its stone after a spectacularly bloody meal.’ Jarrett has a great ear for turn of phrase, wordplay, and in Bunny, an erudite, hyperbolic, worldweary and self-deprecating newspaperman, Jarrett has free rein to enjoy himself. Bunny, pecking on his ‘tripewriter’, tells us: ‘Door-stopping. Now there’s an airborne duck of a word. And if you don’t know your rhyming slang[,] I, as Cockneyed as they come, couldn’t care a Margate candy floss.’
These kind of condescending and self-satisfied jokes could easily grow annoying but this tone often suddenly makes way for Bunny’s – or perhaps Jarrett’s – true voice, which is much sadder and more reflective. This is the writing that is most affecting, perhaps more so because it reveals Bunny’s fragility and loneliness beneath his carapace of bravado and knee-jerk cynicism. In particular, as he falls more deeply in love with Marian, the dead gangster’s daughter, he starts to make sense of his troubled, alcohol-sodden marriage to Bella:
Don’t believe the tossers who preach the attraction of opposites, because they know not what they utter. They certainly don’t understand [that] in a relationship of crunching personalities, different interests and eccentric ways all involve a kind of secrecy – a double lot when a couple can’t agree to compromise. I still stand at the kitchen sink, eighteen years on, saying ‘Sorry’ to an empty back garden.
Bunny and his turn of phrase are good company, and the thoughtful interrogation of truth and fiction are effective, but, in many ways, the novel fails to deliver on its promises. Bunny makes much of the unreliability of his own account, and the need for scepticism in reading his tale, but this never finds a satisfying pay-off. The first person perspective is ideal for misdirection but it is not used; apart from being an occasionally unscrupulous journalist, Bunny is completely earnest about his story and use of language. And as we know he lived to write this tale, we see our anti-hero facing peril but we never sense any danger. There aren’t enough twists to really justify the journey the reader takes, and the noir-suffused atmosphere and characters, like his side-kick Georg buried in the Guardian archives, busy finding Bunny new leads, too often lean towards caricature.
There is definitely a parallel pleasure in reading Slowly Burning, as we constantly wonder how much of Bunny’s story is imagined, and how much was taken directly from Jarrett’s own life as a newspaperman. And the novel is a moving portrait of ageing and a quickly fading way of life, not to mention being another showcase for Jarrett’s fine writing. But a strong voice – and Bunny is certainly a memorable narrator – is not quite enough to sustain a novel of this length when the plot and subject matter feel so well trodden.