The View from Here: Good reads from Wales #WritingWales
A few people have asked me for a ‘View from…” guest post about literature from my native land of Wales. I’ve been searching for a book loving Welsh blogger for a year now and haven’t had much success. So I thought I would mark our national day – March 1 – by giving my own insights. Not sure how it will work to answer my own questions but I’ll give it a go.
Let’s meet Booker Talk
My real name is Karen. I was born in South Wales and apart from a few years where I went off to university in England, I’ve lived here all my life. Despite several attempts I have never mastered my native language. It’s a tough language to pronounce – many words don’t seem to include a vowel and then there are the dastardly ‘ll’ and “dd” combinations which always trip up people from outside the country. I started my blog on books and literature in February 2012, intending it to be a way of tracking my reading of novels from the Booker Prize list. It’s just grown from there as I got more involved with other bloggers who got me interested in literature from around the world.
Q. What books are creating a buzz right now in Wales?
I would love to be able to highlight some titles that are unique to Wales but sadly that’s not possible. We seem to be reading pretty much what the rest of the world is reading. In the local branch of Waterstones last week for example there was a buzz around the table promoting all the Elena Ferrante books and at the ‘Buy one, get one half price” tables which had many of the latest paperback titles. The one area where you’ll find a big difference in our buying habits is in non fiction – more specifically in sport. Rugby isn’t just a sport here; it’s almost an obsession with each outing of the national team treated with almost religious fervour. Hence just about anything that features rugby will get attention. Stick a photo of a hulking guy in a red shirt on the cover and the money will roll in.
Q. Who are some of the big Welsh authors?
They don’t come much bigger than Dylan Thomas. He’s a legend in Wales. I wonder if that’s as much to do with his bad boy image and early death as his poetry. The latter is sublime though not always easy to understand. If you already know his play for voices Under Milk Wood try some of his prose work – A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a classic but the lesser known Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog is well worth reading if you want an idea of what influenced Thomas in his formative years. It’s a collection of autobiographical short prose stories set in his home city of Swansea which reveal snatches of his life from childhood to his first job as a newspaper reporter.
Other big names are Roald Dahl of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame and Ken Follett, author of a clutch of crime and historical best sellers like The Pillars of the Earth. More modern era writers include Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith) and Cynan Jones who won the Wales Book of the Year prize for fiction last year with The Dig, (a novel notable for its lack of punctuation).
Q. Any authors you think deserve more attention than they’ve had so far?
The challenge is there are so many names I could suggest. A number of these authors were notable in their day but have since disappeared from view for reasons I find hard to fathom. Let’s start with Jack Jones who was a novelist and playwright from the 1930s/1940s. His style probably feels a bit old fashioned now but if you want a sense of what life was like in Wales during the decades when it provided the coal that fuelled much of the world, take a look at his first novel Rhondda Roundabout (there’s that “dd” to get your tongue around) which later became a play. The novel chronicles the hardship of people from the valleys of South Wales against the back set against the backdrop of the aftermath of the General Strike and the Great Depression.
A name I strongly recommend is John Cowper Powys who has been likened to Thomas Hardy because of the role the landscape plays in his novels. Four of them from the 1930s: Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance (the most known of this group); Weymouth Sands and Maiden Castle are often referred to as his Wessex novels. They’re set in Somerset and Dorset but draw a lot upon Welsh myths.
Coming more up to date you’ll find someone I’ve written about on this blog a few times: Gwyn Thomas. He deals with some of the same themes as Jack Jones but in a more biting style. The Alone to the Alone is a perfect demonstration of how he uses comic hyperbole to make a political point. Even more current is Carys Davies who won the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize with her collection of short stories, The Redemption of Galen Pike. It’s a virtuoso performance that I loved when I read it last year despite the fact I’m not a great fan of the short story format.
Wales is a small country and the percentage of the population using the Welsh language is tiny (4% was the last figure I saw). It’s also not a language that you find used outside the country with the exception of a community in Patagonia. Which means there is a limited market for Welsh language books and not many publishers despite the valiant efforts of indigenous authors. I can’t even recall a book translated into English in recent years that has garnered much attention.
50 thoughts on “The View from Here: Good reads from Wales #WritingWales”
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I’ll be honest I didnt know Roald Dahl was Welsh! Please dont shout at me.
Hi there, loved this. I’m also Welsh (and fluent speaker). Would love you to read my blogs too as we have a bit in common.
My favourite Welsh book is Un Nos Ola Leuad which i believe has been adapted to English (One Moonlit Night), written by Caradog Pritchard.
great to get to meet you. there are so few people in Wales who are bloggers. Maybe we should create a small but perfectly formed group….. Will take a look at your blog site. Sadly my knowledge of the Welsh language is confined to the smatterings I picked up in school before it became compulsory
Oh, I thought Wales wasn’t a country. Glad to be corrected. And as usual, this is very informative.
we are very small Angus but yes officially we are a country
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Loved this Karen! I had no idea Dahl was Welsh. John Cowper Powys has been an author on my must read some day list for ages. Do you have a favorite I should try first?
His parents were from Norway but moved to Wales where Roald was born in Llandaff which is a suburb of Cardiff. He lived most of his life though in Buckingshamshire.
Re Cowper Powys – A Glastonbury Romance is my favourite simply because it is mainly set in Glastonbury which has mythical associations with King Arthur and Avalon (I am a sucker for those myths).
I’m so glad you relented and did your own Karen. Fascinating post. I didn’t know about Ken Follett and Sarah Waters. Where do they get off not having double d’s, w’s and y’s in their names. I ask you. (Well I guess Sarah has a W but one at the beginning doesn’t count.) i’ve heard of John Cowper Powys but have never read him. I like the sound of Jack Jones and 1930s/40s. It’s an interesting era.
Being born in the most Anglicised part of Wales would have been a major factor in their parents choice of first names. Ken and Sarah are not very welsh at all.
Is that the southeast part? I really must visit the home of my great grandparents one day!
PS You can still buy the BBC series, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00tjv4m/products
I didnt know that Lisa – I’m curious now whether i have ever seen this so will simply have to buy it
This is where independent bookshops were so valuable. They were much more likely to feature the work of local and regional authors than the big chains. When I worked for a large chain which sold books among other things we were told exactly what we could have according to a grading system. If you were an A store you could stock these books, if you were only a B store then your range was smaller. This led to some serious arguments on my part because I’d grown up in a small corner shop where you stocked what the customers wanted, but I’m sorry to say that I never won.
The challenge now of course is to first find that independent bookshop – and if you do, they may have a small collection of local material but a lot of them are worried about carrying inventory that doesn’t shift for a long time. I understand their difficulty but it does mean boring ubiquity….
I had no idea that Sarah Waters was Welsh – she writes about London so vividly that I just assumed she was from there. Hope you had a fantastic St David’s day!
as every year passes we seem to celebrate St Davids Day less. This year I was struck by how few people were wearing a daffodil
I found this fascinating. Is the teaching of Welsh compulsory in schools? It’s such a shame when a language is at risk of fading out of use although if 4% are still speaking it maybe that’s not the case.
it’s compulsory up to the age of 14 Vicky. We also have a Welsh Language Act which gives it equal status with English – so all road signs are bilingual, all public bodies have to produce their material in two languages etc. There was a time when education through the medium of welsh was viewed as superior because class sizes were smaller. Thats not the case now.
Interesting to hear about the Welsh writers that I didn’t even know were Welsh (Ken Follett, Sarah Waters), as well as the ones that are completely new to me!
I have a feeling some of them left Wales fairly early in adult hood – Follett worked as a newspaper reporter on one of our big dailies for a while but then headed for London
Great post, Karen. Like others I’m surprised to hear how small a percentage it is – that there are Welsh programmes on TV (or at least on iplayer) suggests there are many more. I suppose, reading this, it might be more a promotion of the language.
we do have a dedicated welsh language tv channel called S4C. the viewing numbers are pitiful.
‘O! Tyn y Gorchudd’ (The Life of Rebecca Jones) by Angharad Price is a really wonderful book. My copy has the original Welsh on the left, and English translation on the right which, if you’re anything like me, is a great way to remind yourself how little you’ve grasped, in all those years struggling to learn the language!
I’d also like to mention a very powerful Welsh language play ‘Dyled Eileen’ (Eileen’s Debt) by Angharad Tomos which I saw quite recently. the play is about Trefor and Eileen Beasley, who campaigned to have their bills sent to them in their native tongue. Their battle eventually led to all government documentation in Wales having to be bilingual as a legal requirement. Stirring stuff!
Diolch yn fawr Sarah. I don’t know Angharad Tomos. that dual language approach to Price’s book would certainly be useful. I can pick out key words but its the grammar that lets me down
A lot of Irish authors (Joyce, Beckett etc) have gained some of their significance because of they way they work with the English Language. I have a theory that their ability to circumvent the rules is because they are, effectively, writing in a second language, and applying the Irish sentence structure etc to English (Irish grammar etc is closer to German than English). I wonder if Welsh authors can challenge the status quo in a similar manner?
Welsh grammar isn’t really akin to English either but Im not really qualified to judge whether the welsh authors do challenge English in this way Nordie. Interesting question though
Irish writers are fairing better I think (though I can name more from the South than the North if I’m honest). Similar situation with the Irish authors being translated into English – few people were/are writing in what is definitely a “niche” language. Many readers have been force fed writers like Peig whilst learning Irish in school, which put many people off reading them as an adult. I wonder how much demand there is for the Welsh authors (in either language) because of the readers memories in school?
I stopped taking welsh in school at the age of 11 but until that point we had never been exposed to a single piece of prose in the language. It was all grammar stuff which totally put me off. Admittedly I pre-dated the rebirth of interest in the language so things may be different now
Great post! I have a huge fondness for Wales, have spent about 20 holidays there over the years and I love the literature – R.S. Thomas is a particular favourite. I have piles of John Cowper Powys on the shelves and really must get round to them!
I have a few Cowper Powys still to read also – not sure why it has taken me so long to get to them
Interesting post, Karen. I didn’t know that Sarah Waters is Welsh! You may know already that one of last year’s Jerwood Fiction Uncovered award winners, Jo Mazelis, is also Welsh. She won it for the excellent Significance, well worth a read.
Oh gosh I had forgotten that about Mazelis. I think I tried to get it from the library but they were not even planning to order it. so much for supporting welsh authors
Oh dear, I’m sorry to hear that.
Great to raise awareness of Welsh literature – Wales has a wonderful reputation for singing and rugby but is less known for its writers. Except Dylan Thomas of course.
You forgot the other things with which we are always associated – sheep and rain (there’s a reason the hills here are green)
This was a very interesting post, Karen. On the subject of Welsh literature, have you read The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price? I recall seeing one or two excellent reviews of it when it came out in 2014, but I didn’t get around to reading it at the time. Just wondering if you’d tried it.
I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read it yet Jacqui. It’s on my wishlist so I will get to it one day ….
Very interesting, Karen. I’ll make a note of Jack Jones and John Cowper Powys. Both sound like interesting authors.
Cowper Powys will be the more ‘literary’ of the two TJ so it depends on your preferences which you will enjoy the most
I have fond memories of reading How Green was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn but the only other vaguely Welsh book I know of, other than the ones you’ve mentioned like Dahl and Sarah Waters, is The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies (he’s of Welsh descent, according to Goodreads, but was brought up in Britain).
Llewellyn’s book is certainly one that a lot of people will know of (or they will likely have seen the film). It’s a pretty faithful representation of life in the coal mining communities
Was there a BBC series too? Or was that something else?
there was only a film version made Lisa
My husband and I have just been digging into our memories to see what else you might be thinking of but we’ve drawn a blank so far. the nearest we could come up with is Off to Philadelphia in the Morning which tells of the iron workers who emigrated from wales which might have been a mini series
LOL the value of hoarding books is inestimable! I scoured my shelves until I found it, a New English Library paperback which is listed at Goodreads at https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1478714.How_Green_Was_My_Valley . It has a red banner proclaiming ‘Now a major TV serial’ and on the back it says that the actor on the front cover is Stanley Baker in the BBC TV production dramatized by Elaine Morgan, produced by Martin Lisemore and directed by Ronald Wilson. My edition is the 1976 one, so the TV series must have been round about that time…
Funny how the mind works, I almost *felt* sitting on the sofa and listening to the men singing as they walked to the pit… and I couldn’t muster a memory of being in a cinema.
Hm but then there are many scenes in various films of men singing as they walked to the pit. I never saw any of the miners in my family singing on their way to work, even less so when they came home….but the film makers love the cliche
Well, why not show off such a wonderful aspect of Welsh culture!
That was a great post! I don’t know much about Wales or Welsh lit and it was interesting to learn that such a small percentage of the population speaks Welsh. I’ll have to check out your recommendations.
So many people have never heard of Wales. Or if they have, they think its the same thing as England which is something we either grimace at inwardly but smile and gently correct them or if we’re feeling particularly grumpy we’ll make sure they know its an insult to any hot blooded Welshman 🙂