Monday, 23 January 2017

Unsettling........



 Every artist -- whether in the field of music, visual art or written fiction -- tries, now and then, to unsettle the viewer, listener or reader.  How unsettling is this?  Intensely moving -- and somebody on YouTube had the idea of putting Hilmarsson's music called "Coffin" with this painting called "Prigione di Lacrime" by Roberto Ferri.  And it works.  Some sort of magic is achieved by the combination of music and image --  and a still image here is much more effective than a moving one.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

About the Author



Brian John was born in Carmarthen in 1940 and brought up in Pembrokeshire  Pembrokeshire. He is married and has two grown up sons and two grandsons. He studied at Haverfordwest Grammar School and at Jesus College Oxford, where he read Geography, had a lot of fun and obtained his D Phil degree for a pioneering study of the Ice Age in Pembrokeshire.

When he was a student, Brian led two University expeditions, to Iceland and Greenland, and thinks it is a minor miracle that he survived. He then worked as a field scientist in Antarctica and spent eleven years as a Geography Lecturer in Durham University. He has travelled widely, mostly in cold places.

In 1977 he and his family moved to a smallholding near Newport in Pembrokeshire, and since then he has made his living as a writer and publisher. He is also actively involved in environmental and community organizations. He has published hundreds of articles and around 80 books, and among his publishers are Collins, Pan, Orbis, Aurum Press/HMSO, Longman, David and Charles, Wiley and Edward Arnold.

His published output includes university texts, walking guides, coffee table glossies, and books of popular science. Many of his titles have been published by Greencroft Books, and have been of particular interest to readers in Wales -- for example tourist guides, books of local jokes, walkers’ handbooks, and titles on local folklore and traditions. Then came the Angel Mountain Saga.........

The eight novels in the series have received wide acclaim for their narrative skill, their strong sense of place, and their historical authenticity. Much to Brian’s surprise, the Saga has been a runaway success, and the heroine, Mistress Martha Morgan, now has a cult following of readers from all over the world. However, the sale of three titles to Transworld Publishers, and their reissue under the Corgi imprint, did not lead to a great increase in sales, since the firm allocated hardly any resources to publicity and marketing, and in 2008 Transworld passed the rights back to Greencroft Books.

Until recently Brian thought he had completed work on this fiction series, written and published at the rate of one novel per year. Mistress Martha was -- finally -- in her grave. But then, under pressure from readers, Brian agreed to write a new novel, and "Sacrifice" was the result. This story slots into a gap in one of the earlier titles. In 2012 a further novel was published with the title "Conspiracy of Angels." Brian refuses to reveal whether this eighth story is the last...........

Another popular book is "The Bluestone Enigma", which takes a controversial look at the various theories used to explain the transport of certain bluestones from West Wales to Stonehenge. This book has caused quite a stir in archaeological circles, and is already reprinted.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Angel Mountain bookshop now online



We are pleased to report that we have now gone live with our new Bookshop page, on the web site;

Here is the link:

http://www.brianjohn.co.uk/bookshop.html

From this page, you can purchase any of my titles currently in print.  It helps if you have a Paypal account, but that is not strictly necessary.    On the same page, we have added links to all of the Amazon pages relating to the Saga, for those who would prefer to buy Kindle editions.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Literary Tourism is all the rage




We have already commented on Visit Wales's new campaign to use "literary icons" like Roald Dahl and Dylan Thomas to attract new visitors to Wales. 

It's all the rage.........  Today's Observer reports on the new campaign to use literary tourism to pull new tourists into England, capitalising on the weak pound and "value for money" (!!).  Hmm -- I think I might have preferred a strong pound and a life not dominated by all this Brexit nonsense.

Anyway, 2017 is  Visit England's Year of Literary Heroes. According to the PR, Literary Heroes 2017 promises to be bumper year for book lovers everywhere with a host of English literary anniversaries to celebrate. Some of the key events on the horizon include:

20th anniversary of the first publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
50th anniversary of the death of Arthur Ransome, Suffolk
75th anniversary of Enid Blyton's Famous Five
100th anniversary of poet, Edward Thomas's death, Hampshire
125th anniversary of the first publication of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
125th anniversary of the death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Lincolnshire
150th anniversary of the birth of Arnold Bennett, Stoke-on-Trent
200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

No second series for Merrily Watkins?

It's tough out there.

Many readers will be familiar with the novels of Phil Rickman -- many of which are not actually set in Wales but in the Welsh borders.  So, they are almost Welsh stories.  Among the most popular of his books are the Merrily Watkins stories, dark and aften gruesome, featuring an interesting female vicar who is also an exorcist.  In 2015 ITV broadcast a mini-series of 3 episodes, which received great acclaim.   There were some excellent reviews, including this one:
‘Midwinter of the Spirit has been excellent…. it should return – there are 12 more Phil Rickman novels to choose from.’



This is from Phil's web site:
http://www.philrickman.co.uk/home1-3/

So what went wrong…?
Well…
The three-part Midwinter of the Spirit was originally made for the quality-drama channel, ITV Encore. However, it was suddenly and unexpectedly plucked out of the Encore schedule to replace the far more expensive, all-star six-parter, Unforgotten, in a peak-hour slot on ITV One..

How odd. Could it have been because they’d recognised its obvious merits… or because the more expendable Midwinter would thus go up against Episode 3 of what would be the year’s most successful (10 million viewers) BBC drama, Doctor Foster, saving the costly Unforgotten from the embarrassing possibility of, er, being rapidly forgotten.?

It was no great surprise to anybody when, with the huge Foster viewing figures already well established, most viewers chose to record Midwinter instead, apparently setting what looked like a new high for UK recording of a particular drama. Unfortunately, a recording counts for nothing in the ratings – especially on ITV, where it means viewers are able to skip the ads.

So the critically-acclaimed Midwinter was, as expected, proclaimed a flop by ITV executives, who told the media that it ‘hadn’t worked’, while the rescued Unforgotten (‘Hard to love’ – Daily Telegraph, ‘dodgy dialogue… painful looping slowness’ – Guardian, ‘unsatisfactory… played a series of shabby tricks’ – Daily Mail) has gone on to a second series.

Welcome to the pragmatic world of peak-hour television.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Welsh Publishing Report -- gone missing?




I wonder what has happened to this commissioned report from Prof Medwin Hughes and colleagues, which was supposed to be published in September?

Review of Welsh Government’s support for Publishing and Literature – Terms of Reference -- March 2016

http://gov.wales/newsroom/culture-tourism-sport/2016/160315-literature-review/?lang=en

Context

During 2014 an independent review of the Welsh Government’s support for books from Wales was commissioned. The review assessed:
 the rationale for Welsh Government support for books from Wales;
 whether the Welsh Books Council continues to be the most appropriate vehicle for delivering that support;
 the evidence for the value for money of the current approach
The aim of this further review is to carry out a wider analysis of the Welsh Government’s support for publishing and literature.

Scope

In broad terms the scope of the review is to assess:
    The main aims of the Welsh Government in supporting the publishing industry and literature in Wales, in both languages; i.e., what are we seeking to achieve, culturally, socially and economically? Are these aims still fit for purpose in the 21st Century?
    The scale and remit of the support currently given to deliver these aims, including the relationship between the bodies responsible for delivering this support.
    Digital developments within the publishing industry in Wales
    The administrative arrangements for the Welsh Government support for a Welsh-language daily online news service, as well as papurau bro (Welsh language community newspapers).
    The support for publishing and literature in disadvantaged areas across Wales.

The review will be chaired by Professor Medwin Hughes, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, and is expected to report its findings in September.

Panel

    • Professor Medwin Hughes (Chair)
    • Professor Elin Haf Gruffydd Jones (Vice Chair)
    • John Williams
    • Philippa Davies
    • Martin Rolph.

Monday, 19 December 2016

New Year talk at Oriel y Parc

A warm welcome to anybody who would like to come along -- a pleasant way to spend an evening, recovering from the excesses of Christmas and New Year.......  At the Oriel y Parc Gallery in St David's -- 7 pm on Wed Jan 4th, 2017.

I shall be talking about Mistress Martha, Allegory and the Welsh narrative.  That should be enough to be going on with.......


Thursday, 15 December 2016

Angel Mountain Album Archive



If anybody wants to search for an old image used on this blog, or just look at all the pictures used over the years, here is a good way to do it.  Just scan through the images in the appropriate Google Image Archive.  Gere is the link:

https://get.google.com/albumarchive/112312986974547323674/album/AF1QipPueRBf-JeDhvDcJZ2yEVwhZEPC2GFSZEY_476Z?hl=en_GB&authKey=COOz7Za__6uEkwE

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

The Welsh Narrative - refined


 This is the new dragon associated with the Welsh Government's current re-branding exercise.  Not sure that I like it all that much -- the fluffy feet make it look a bit like a cross between a dragon and a hobbit.  Maybe that's the idea -- the old dragon was indeed very fierce, with sharp claws on its feet, and maybe this one looks a bit less threatening......


Following our attempts to define the Welsh narrative in relatively few words, we have had a very enthusiastic (and even aggressive!) debate of the Welsh History Facebook page about what it is that makes Wales special.  The most interesting contributions, I thought, were those stressing the need to use words that conjure up images and emotional responses.  Fair enough -- one does not want a statement that sounds too dry or academic -- and on the other side of the coin it must not be too flowery or filled with meaningless puffery.  Something like this seems to be more in tune with the comments made in the discussion:

"Wales is two hours and a million miles away -- a small country on the Celtic fringe of Europe. The country’s green acres have seen a valiant struggle for self determination against a powerful and predatory neighbour.  From the days of its ancient myths and native princes, to the ring of castles built by its conquerors, to its soaring rocky peaks and wild coasts, to its rich bardic and linguistic heritage, and the coal and iron that forged a global industrial revolution, Wales has always been a nation of survivors.  Melancholia features large in the national psyche -- but so does euphoria, and the old mystics talked of two fighting dragons.  Welsh people still have a powerful sense of place and an instinct for subversion and social justice.  They still have an abiding fondness for family histories, mysteries and legends, poetry and music, ceremonial and eccentric traditions.  And in Wales you will find a living language, an open-hearted generosity of spirit, a real sense of mischief, and the warmest of welcomes."

Sunday, 11 December 2016

St Brynach and the lusty princess



The link between Carningli and St Brynach is well known.  Thanks to Luke for drawing our attention to this hilarious narrative -- from the Life of St Brynach, reputedly first written down in the twelfth century.  In this case, a lusty young princess is chosen to do the devil's work........

When he was sojourning some time in the same place (somewhere on the shores of Milford Haven or the Cleddau River) serving his God, the old adversary of human kind, ever forming new plans for his wickedness, always ready to attack more boldly the purity of chastity, sharply urged the daughter of a nobleman, who ruled that land, into love of the saint. She, in fact, as almost every woman is for the devil old armour, a vessel full of malignity, and prepared invincibly for every crime, tries in every way to bind the servant of God alluringly with the snares of her charm, and attempts to divert him from the consummation of a better design. 

To serve her wantonness she mixes wolf's-bane, and being gaily clothed in alluring attire she ceases not to give him to drink what she improperly mixed. The holy servant of God thirsted not for a cup of this kind, but refused it, and, as the apostle advises, he flies from the assaults of fornication. For in this conflict he fights better, who retires, than he who resists; he conquers more bravely, who more bravely flies.

 The girl, in fact, rejecting girlish modesty, who could not bend his firm mind to impious love, turning her love into hatred of the holy man, would separate his holy body from his soul. A woman, rejected in love, excogitates every evil, and whom a little before she had loved to the dividing of body and soul, she now, inflamed into hatred of , tries to lead to every kind of death. For, as that distinguished instructor of morals, Seneca, says, 'A woman either hates or loves; there is no medium.' 

Therefore she sent certain cruel men to persecute the saint, fiercely bidding them that, if they could not bring him back alive, they were not to suffer him to go away alive. ' The wicked men hasten, and rush blindly to their evil deed. Whom they follow, they find, and first with soft words entice to return, but, because he refuses to go back with them, one of them pierced the meek man with a dreadful wound from a spear. The others, too, rush in desiring to slay him, but by the will of God certain present assist, who hasten to snatch the holy man from the hands of the scoundrels. But he who inflicted the wound, being immediately struck by the vengeance of God, beset on his whole body by winged lice, after he had been long afflicted by weakness and poverty at length finished his wretched life with a miserable death. 

The holy servant of God went to a well, which was near, and going into the water, washed away the blood. Wherefore unto this day that well is called Fons Rubeus, red well, where also in honour of the saint the merciful God bestows many benefits of health on the infirm, the healing of wounds through the mediation of the Lord being received without delay.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Caer Ingli or Carningli?



Now here is an interesting thought.  I have always gone with the belief that CARNINGLI is a very ancient name which means "the rocky mountain of the angels" or some such thing.  "Carn" is well known as a component of thousands of place names in Wales, and "ingli" is widely assumed to be a corruption of the old Welsh word for "angels."  And the assumption is that the name comes from the tradition that St Brynach used to climb up to the summit "in order to commune with the angels."  Some believe that the sanctity of the mountain goes back even further, maybe to Iron Age times.

So far so good.  But I noticed the other day that on the Coflein records, Garn Fawr (the hillfort site on the Pen Caer peninsula, close to Pwllderi) also used to be known as Caer Fawr.   Not "the big rocky crag or hill" but "the big fort".

So might Carningli be a corruption of Caer Ingli?  There is a magnificent Iron Age hillfort or defended settlement on the summit, as we all know.  You can see some of the defensive banks on the satellite image above.  Various authorities in the past have speculated that "Ingli" might be a personal name rather than a corruption of the word for angels, and might it be that somebody called Ingli was the chieftain who built the hillfort?  Folk memory just about goes back to the Iron Age, and there is a tradition that in the Age of the Saints Brynach and David had difficult encounters with assorted Irish chieftains and roving bands of warriors who came across the sea from the west.  They were seen as pirates, but they might just as well have been tribal groups who were intent on settling in Pembrokeshire.  History is rather hazy on all of this.  But one Irish chieftain is supposed to have set up base at the defended site known as Garn Ffoi, not far from Newport and not very far from the summit of Carn Ingli.  Might there have been a tribal group in occupation of Carningli hillfort as well, in the period following the departure of the Romans?  There are signs that the defensive walls have been "slighted" or deliberately destroyed -- archaeologists have wondered whether this represents the culmination of a brutal battle for the summit and a defeat for the defending settlers............ who were slaughtered or evicted, never to return to a place reduced to ruins.

So we have another theory -- namely that Carningli might originally have been named "Caer Ingli" -- the fort or fortified settlement built by and ruled over by a chieftain named Ingli.  Who was he, and when was this happening?  Maybe time will tell.


Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Welsh Narrative




We we inching forward with our attempts to define this, in the full knowledge that it has been done dozens of times before, mainly by Welsh historians.  Apologies to all of those whose opinions have been ignored.  All comments welcome!!

The Welsh narrative?

"Wales is a small country on the Celtic fringe of Europe with magnificent landscapes and rich natural resources. It is too close to England to have remained truly independent, and not far enough away for bloody rebellions ever to have taken hold. Throughout its history it has fought to resist the depredations of powerful neighbours; and against all the odds it has retained its language, its culture and its pride whilst encouraging toleration and liberal values and adapting to dramatic change. It has learned how to be subversive and seductive, and how to be spiritual and mischievous at the same time. In its history it has not suffered the same deep traumas as Scotland and Ireland. Its people are romantics, prone to wild swings of emotion; both melancholia and euphoria feature in the national psyche. Welsh people have a powerful "sense of place" and an abiding fondness for family histories, legends, ceremonial and ancient traditions. Eccentricity is embraced, while great value is placed upon learning. There is a tendency towards radical protest and an ever-present desire for social reform. Ultimately, Wales wants the respect of others -- and to be left in peace to enjoy and endure the ups and downs of the Welsh rugby team."


Points to be considered:

1. The Visit Wales new “brand” does not owe much to the Welsh narrative. It steers well clear of anything that can be construed as negative in marketing terms, and concentrates on “positive” buzzwords including these: authentic, creative, innovative, alive, epic, memorable, inspiring, fresh, legendary, iconic, rich, distinctive, accessible, contemporary, immersive, inclusive. The immediate response to this, from many in the tourist trade, is that it’s all very modern, bright and breezy -- but that every other tourist authority in the world uses the same words and sells the same message. Nobody seems very clear what it is about Wales that makes it unique when compared to everywhere else, and more particularly, what makes it different from Scotland and Ireland. Some of the old tourism straplines might have got closer: so near and yet so far, familiar and yet foreign, two hours and a million miles away, life on the edge.......

2. It’s accepted that the Welsh narrative and the Welsh “brand” are not the same thing -- the former is about identity and the latter is about marketing. But there does need to be a relationship between the two. The brand should emerge from the narrative, and visitors to Wales should ideally be made aware of the history and character of the country. Those who are involved in the tourist trade should be proud of their heritage, and should sell it to visitors as part of the tourism experience.

3. We should embrace the “negative” aspects of the Welsh narrative rather than hiding them away. Is Wales as melancholic and unhappy as it is portrayed in “Hinterland”? No way. Melancholia is a part of the Welsh psyche, but it is balanced by an undying optimism and by expressions of euphoria whenever great things happen in the country. And people may sometimes seem reserved, but there is a real warmth in the welcomes given to others. “Croeso!” means so much more than “Welcome!” Yes, “hiraeth” is about loss and longing, but it is more than that -- it is ultimately about belonging, and the unbreakable bond between people and place. The word “bro” means community or neighbourhood, and it must be understood not just in terms of geographical demarkation but also in terms of sociology, history and psychology. The word “gwerin” can be interpreted in a condescending way, as meaning “the common people” -- but it also means “folk” and “democracy”, and everybody knows that Welsh language and culture would not have survived without the determination and the resilience of the gwerin, at times when the gentry and the “educated classes” were espousing Englishness in all its forms. Certainly Welsh people can seem reticent and cautious at times, and there is no great evidence of consuming ambition or towering aspirations. There is a certain reluctance to make instant decisions and to take risks -- but therein, perhaps, lies an explanation for the survival of Wales as a special place with a unique language and a mystery round every corner........

4. There are probably many narratives, but I suspect that everybody who tries to write down their version would emphasise to some degree the complex relationship between Wales and England down through the centuries. England is seen (over-simplistically) as arrogant, over-bearing and condescending, always intent upon "the rape of the fair country”. Wales sees itself (over-simplistically) as oppressed, downtrodden, and exploited -- whereas it has of course made a specialism of internal feuding and squabbling between petty princedoms and has grown its own crop of bombastic squires and brutal ironmasters without any great help from England.  Nonetheless,  while the English are hated or just tolerated, there is a close bond -- born of shared experience-- with the Irish. And with Scotland too.

5. One must not get too serious about all of this. Isn’t there room for some humour in our view of Wales, or indeed in its branding and marketing? I quite like the idea of Wales endlessly subverting and screwing up the political and military ambitions of one English king after another! This suggests a national instinct for resilience, resistance, dogged determination and sheer bloody-mindedness. OK -- the Normans conquered Wales, and then the English kings defeated Llewelyn the Great, and Owain Glyndwr and put down many short-lived rebellions -- but the aspiration for independence never went away, and the mountainous heartland of Wales, facing Cardigan Bay, never really submitted to foreign rule. Ferocious Anglo-Norman feudal lords married Welsh girls and themselves became softer, gentler and kinder! Anyway, that’s what we like to think. Local loyalties persisted, and the language survived. Magic and enchantment always were a part of the Welsh storytelling tradition, but there has always been a great respect for mischief as well. Mischievous pranks abound in the stories of the Mabinogion, and in the poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym, and in the adventures of Twm Shon Cati. The ultimate prankster was Iolo Morgannwg. One might argue that there is really a sort of mischievous national plot to stop the English from ever achieving complete dominion over Wales and the Welsh, whilst lulling them into a false sense of security........

6. So if these elements can be incorporated into a Welsh national narrative, what are the positive buzzwords that might be used in future branding? Here are a few: generous, warm-hearted, eccentric, mischievous, sensitive, intuitive, whimsical, enigmatic, musical, poetic, dramatic, spirited, steadfast, ironic, ebullient, demonstrative, enduring, colourful, lyrical, resolute, mysterious, proud, faithful, accessible, loyal, adaptable, enchanting, quirky, understated, unpretentious. These words will not fit very well into a strategy of hard branding and marketing -- they are too soft and mellow. But they may just be more effective in flagging up the unique qualities of Wales, especially with the Year of Legends almost upon us.

7. It’s interesting that when we went round the table at the meeting, seeking adjectives that might describe the Welsh narrative from assorted points of view, words such as these kept on cropping up: light, mood, water, feeling, atmosphere, cosiness, “cwtchyness”, familiarity, security, comfort. All very atmospheric and even ethereal -- but significant as to how some people at least feel about Wales.




---------------------------

Finally, just a few quotes from Jan Morris’s book called “The Matter of Wales”:

“.....it is a small country..... but its smallness is not pretty; on the contrary, it is profound. Intense and unaccommodating continuity is the essence of the place.......”

“Its image is habitually blurred: partly by this geographical unfamiliarity, partly by the opaque and moody climate, partly by its own somewhat obfuscatory character,which is entrammelled in a dizzy repertoire of folklore, but most of all by historical circumstance.”

“.... despite the overwhelming proximity of the English presence, a force which has affected the manners, thoughts and systems of half the world, for better or for worse Wales has not lost its Welshness.”

“Among all the Roman possessions of the western empire, only Wales was never overrun by its heathen successors, and Welsh literature was the first in all Europe to emerge from the debacle.”

“...... the Welsh came to see themselves as inheritors of Roman urbanity and Christian devotion, and as trustees of a lost Celtic civilization which was to become ever more marvellous in the imagination, peopled by ever more heroic heroes, inspired by saintlier saints, until the very dream of it became part of the whole world’s consciousness in the legendary paragon of King Arthur. Wales was the folk-memory of Europe!”

“The Welsh never lost their sense of separateness and specialness, never allowed their language to die, and never altogether abandoned their perennial vision of a golden age, an age at once lost and still to come.....”

“... if there is one constant to the Welsh feel of things it is a sense of what might-have-been, tinged sometimes with despair.”

“Owain Glyndwr’s was a vision of the place as a human-entity, not just a country but a nation: not just a state but a fellowship, and a culture, and a heritage, and a sense of home, and a reconciliation of time, in which the affairs of the remotest past might overlap the present and embrace the future.”


================

Many thanks to Bishop Wyn Evans and to the attendees at the St David’s networking meeting on 6th December. It will be apparent that many of the points raised in our discussions are incorporated above!






Finally, a reminder that there is more than one Welsh history.  The photo above was taken on the set during the making of the famous TV series in which Wynford Vaughan Thomas and Prof Gwyn Alf Williams argued about what has actually happened in Wales, and how it should all be interpreted.

Friday, 2 December 2016

CONDESCENSION RULES, OK?



I was recently in touch with one of the big London literary / media agents, to see if he might be prepared to act on my behalf in any forthcoming negotiations on the sale of media rights in the Angel Mountain saga. He shall be nameless, but his response was interesting. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was really rather condescending, and beneath the flannel there was a clear implication that he can't be bothered to deal with anything from Wales because the money is probably not good enough and because nothing from Wales is going to attract the attention of the big broadcasters anyway. He also stated quite directly that the TV production companies within Wales are probably too small to do big deals and to achieve global network sales. He appeared quite disinterested in whether the story narrative was a compelling one with wide appeal, and whether the lead character (namely Martha Morgan) was likely to be strong enough and charismatic enough to attract a faithful following  across the globe.  It does not seem to have occurred to him that we might just have here something to compete with Poldark, Pride and Prejudice or Downton Abbey........ so is there an anti-Welsh bias operating here?

The agent's attitude reminded me that nothing much has changed since I wrote "On Angel Mountain" and tried to find a publisher or a literary agent to take it on, back in the year 2000.  I wrote to more than 50 agents and more than 50 publishers.  Most of them never bothered to reply, let alone ask for sight of some written material.  Those that did all took the following line:  "Forget it.  There is no market for historical fiction from Wales."  I derive a certain grim satisfaction from the fact that 16 years later the novels have racked up sales of 80,000 and have achieved some sort of iconic status in a small country where a book is counted as a best-seller if it sells 700 copies.  I'm also quite pleased that I have not needed to shell out a 15% or 20% commission to any agents on my total sales income over all those years!

So what is it about Wales that turns off the London literary / media establishment?  Well,  it has to be said that Wales does not exactly help itself. 

On the literature front, the Welsh publishing industry survives almost entirely on large subsidies paid by the taxpayer via the Welsh Books Council, on the pretext that this is required for the maintenance of a vibrant literary culture in Welsh and English.  Most books sell very few copies, but that does not matter, since the subsidies ensure that few of them actually make a loss.  Accurate sales figures are hard to come by.  Writers too are subsidised, this time with grants disbursed through Literature Wales.  The only books that are exposed to the harsh commercial realities of the world, and which have to compete in an open market-place, are those (like mine) that are self-published -- since by the bizarre rules of the game in Wales, they are debarred from receiving grant aid of any sort.   So if I was a London-based literary agent asked to assess the commercial potential of a Welsh novel, my default position would be one of extreme scepticism.  I would have no way of assessing its real quality based on market performance.  I might even assume that if the novel was written in Wales and published in Wales, it would probably never even have seen the light of day if it had been submitted to an English publisher.  It might even be complete rubbish.

As far as film and TV media are concerned, it has to be said that Wales probably does punch above its weight, given that the Welsh Government provides great support for new projects and given that there are a number of top-class studio and production facilities in Cardiff, Swansea and elsewhere.  Wales can handle big budget productions, and the country has a great track record of attracting inward investment from companies that would expend far larger budgets if they were to use facilities in England. Films and TV series roll off the production line.  But hardly any of them are about Wales or are even set in Wales -- in spite of the amazing scenic resources available for location shooting. So Wales "stands in" for China, or Avalon, or New York or Berlin.  BBC Wales has been heavily criticised for its lack of commitment to the production of Welsh dramas, most recently by one of the Welsh Assembly's influential committees.  But the truth is that it has very little room for manoevre, since its budget is controlled from London.  ITV does not have a strong Welsh presence, and S4C has good intentions but a miniscule budget.  So the broadcasters do not have the resources to buy into large Welsh drama productions,  and production companies in Wales tend to be small because they have no reliable drama market-place to sell into.

Wales suffers too from not having a very strong or coherent image of itself. This has been pointed out by scores of writers over the years.  So Visit Wales markets the country as being magnificent, exciting and authentic;  the trouble is that every other country in the world does exactly the same thing.  Scotland and Ireland seem to have far stronger images of themselves, and far stronger global brands.  There is some excellent destination marketing going on here, year after year,  but what is the Welsh narrative, and how can it be sold to the world?  Nobody seems quite sure........

So we have an ill-formed self-image, a distorted and unreliable literary market-place and and a TV production scene dominated by small and enthusiastic production companies with limited broadcasting opportunities.  A doom and gloom scenario?  One can see where our condescending London agent is coming from, and one is justified in feeling a bit resentful about it, since in an ideal world every project is assessed strictly on its merits. 

But I prefer to see this as an opportunity rather than as a problem.  In the year 2000 I treated the negativity of the London publishing scene as a self-publishing opportunity, and when I look back on it now, I can afford to feel just a little bit smug!  In the same way, I think there is a real opportunity for the Angel Mountain Saga to become a really big TV costume drama success, whatever the London literary establishment might think.  It is not at all beyond the bounds of possibility that a smallish Welsh TV production company with big ambitions can pull together a team of many players to make a drama which tells a genuine Welsh narrative and which finds the global broadcasters to take it on.  I know that within Wales there is a predisposition to be supportive.  Ultimately it will be down to the quality of the product on offer.  The story and the characters are already in the mix -- what is needed now is a fantastic screenwriter to do the adaptations, an inspired director, an experienced executive director who knows her / his way around the world of media finance, and a few well-known actors prepared to commit.  I reckon that the whole of Wales will get behind an Angel Mountain project, since in scores of discussions with most of the key players I have encountered nothing but goodwill.   People want it to succeed, since they want to see the first-ever top-quality TV costume drama that tells -- in the manner of all good allegories -- the story of Wales.

So let's go for it!

Friday, 18 November 2016

Mistress Martha's gift........

 



The eight novels of the historical fiction "Angel Mountain" saga have now racked up sales of over 80,000, excluding Ebook sales.  The novels, set in the Newport - Carningli area of North Pembrokeshire, have been self-published under the Greencroft Books imprint, completely outside Welsh publishing's "subsidy culture."  In publishing the books, I had to carry the full commercial risk, without any grant aid.  That's something of which I am quite proud.

For those readers who have not heard this strange tale of where Mistress Martha and the saga came from, here is a short resume:

A Very Strange Episode

Over the course of the last fifty years I have written more than 80 books, but prior to 1999 I had never had any great urge to write fiction. My wife Inger had often encouraged me to “write a novel”, but I had always refused on the grounds that the world of fiction is alien territory in which I would probably feel out of place and even hopelessly lost. Then something happened which was very strange indeed -- and almost spooky.............

In 1999 Inger and I travelled to Gran Canaria for a short holiday, and en route I picked up a strange virus on the aircraft. Maybe it was aerotoxic syndrome.  I felt ill even before we landed, but on arrival I experienced classic flu-like symptoms, including a high temperature, headache, heavy limbs, and episodes of shivering. I went straight to bed when we arrived at the apartment, and I spent the whole of the night wide awake, feeling horrible and sweating gallons. During this strange delirious episode, a story came into my head -- of a feisty and passionate woman called Martha Morgan. (At first I thought her name was Mary, but then I realized that only Martha would do.) As I lay there in the warm darkness, gazing at the bedroom ceiling, I tuned in to dates, places, characters, and a storyline covering the whole of Martha’s exciting life between 1796 (when she was still a teenager) and the time of her death in1855. Somehow or other, individual episodes came into my head, and I even picked up on key conversations in considerable detail. I knew that the story had to be told in the words of Mistress Martha, not retrospectively but with immediacy, through diary entries.

In the morning, not having slept a wink, I felt better, but the story was fixed firmly inside my head. (If the story had come to me in a dream, it would certainly have disappeared from my memory by breakfast time.) I told Inger about this strange experience, and she said “Well then, you’d better start writing!” So I did..........

Now, sixteen years later, I still do not know what to make of that strange episode. At least, I now know what the term “fevered imagination” means! But I still think that in some strange way the story was “given” to me, and that I had to keep faith with this exotic and imperfect creature called Mistress Martha. For better or for worse, in spite of the fact that I was at the time a 59-year-old grandfather, I had to try and put into words the emotions and the experiences of a pregnant, suicidal 18-year-old female who lived more than 200 years ago, and I had to do it in the most difficult of formats -- the daily diary. My family and friends probably thought I was nuts, but to their credit they did not try to discourage me!

Since the publication of “On Angel Mountain” in 2001 I have been asked on innumerable occasions whether there really was a woman called Martha Morgan who lived and died in North Pembrokeshire at the time of the saga. After all, they say, if the story came to me as a gift, who was the donor if not Martha herself, or her spirit? I am intrigued by ghosts and spirits, and certainly do not dismiss them out of hand -- and I have done my duty, in the interests of science, by searching through the old records for somebody called Martha Morgan who might have been the Mistress of a failing estate in the early years of the nineteenth century. I have found several women named Martha Morgan in the right period, but they all seem to have lived far away from Newport.  All very peculiar.......

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Library of Wales confusion



Now I am seriously confused about the funding and the success -- or otherwise -- of the Library of Wales series.  In a BBC Report dated 2 Dec 2012, and based mostly on info provided by Jon Gower,  it is stated that the scheme costs £50,000 per year and that 50,000 copies of books from the series have been sold.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-20566698

Library of Wales: Authors disagree over books' funding
    • 2 December 2012
    • From the section Wales politics
A call has been made for a scheme which republishes classic Welsh books that have gone out of print to continue to receive public funding.
Wales Book of the Year winner Jon Gower backs the Library of Wales series, which has sold 50,000 copies since it was launched in 2006.
It costs the Welsh government £50,000 a year for the Welsh Books Council scheme.


So far so good.  But we have already referred on this blog to a recent research report written by a Swansea University academic which indicates that accumulated sales by the end of 2013 were about 30,000 (no accurate figures are published) and that the cost to the taxpayer is over £100,000 per year.  (The sales figure of 30,000 is estimated and excludes books given away and trade returns.)

If we do some simple sums we see that it has cost £530,000 to sell 30,000 books -- and put another way, it has cost the taxpayer over £17 for every book sold.  As far as I can tell, the sales income from the books sold goes straight to the publisher, and does not have to be repaid to the Welsh Government.

No matter what the "cultural desirability" of this arrangement might be, in supporting the writers, publishers and culture of Wales, one does need to ask, ever so gently, how cost-effective this is.  More than half a million thrown at a scheme which effectively isolates the publisher from commercial risk and which seeks to keep in print a long list of literary titles which nobody wants anyway.  (OK -- lots of Welsh schools and universities will be using these books in their course work, and in that way they will be keeping Wales's "great literary masterpieces" alive -- but don't let's forget that many of them are really rather turgid, and that the reason why they all went out of print in the first place was that nobody wanted to buy them.........)

http://thelibraryofwales.com/catalog 

http://thelibraryofwales.com/education

 Here is the link to the study done by somebody from Swansea University -- I suspect it was done as an "impact assessment" by the key beneficiaries of grant aid.  The title is: "The Library of Wales: influencing Government Policy to benefit the Creative Industries, Cultural Tourism, Education and General Readers".  In no sense is this an assessment of the cost effectiveness of the project.

http://impact.ref.ac.uk/CaseStudies/CaseStudy.aspx?Id=26733

Note:

The project is funded by the Welsh Government, the Welsh Books Council and Swansea University.  All of the titles in the "Library of  Wales" series are published  very professionally by Parthian Books.  I have no gripe with them -- they bid competitively for the project and won it, and the best of luck to them.....  My concerns strictly relate to the strategic or political decision to spend more than half a million pounds of taxpayers money on this, at a time when the funding of public services in Wales is under greater pressure than ever before.  




More about the subsidy culture

 This article was recently published in The Bookseller.  It gives the standard justification for the way in which the Welsh publishing and writing industry (yes, it is an industry) works.  It's an interesting take on the situation, justifying vast public expenditure on the basis that a small country should place creativity and innovation at the top of its list of priorities in order to support the Welsh language and maintain self-esteem -- while more or less accepting that most of what goes on is entirely non-commercial.  Yes, there are a few titles every year which sell well and make lots of money. I'll hazard a guess that most of those are about rugby or are about well-known sports or entertainment personalities.   But Welsh publishers are notoriously secretive when it comes to sales figures, and it is rumoured that in order to be classed as a "best seller" in Wales a book simply has to sell 700 copies over its lifetime.  That means, I suppose, that the great majority of books published sell fewer than 500 copies.  Does anybody care?  Not really -- what's in print is already over and done with.  Let's get our grant applications sorted out for the next 20 titles which the reading public may or may not want........

-------------------------

Creative, contemporary – and commercial? How books are supported in Wales



Wales has a historic tradition of literature patronage dating back over a thousand years. Poets would be nurtured and supported, and this was considered a sign of a civilised princedom. The return on this investment was a golden age of Welsh poetry, which included Dafydd ap Gwilym, SiĆ“n Cent and Guto’r Glyn – some of the foremost European writers of their age. Many of these enjoyed fame and fortune, and even to this day, award-winning poets in Welsh enjoy a celebrity status in their communities. The difference today is that being a poet might give you fame, but it certainly doesn’t give you fortune (unless you have a side-line as a soap opera writer).

The Welsh Government supports both the publishing industry via the Welsh Books Council, as well as individual writers, via the Arts Council of Wales (who in turn support Literature Wales). They are in effect the continuation of the princes’ patronage. As a devolved nation with its own national (as opposed to regional) institutions, there are clear pathways for writer development from first drafts to publication. In Wales, the pathways are mostly subsidised and lead towards small-scale, independent publications. This may well be true for other devolved nations – as well as English regions such as the North West – and in this sense support for the independent sector is important for ensuring a sense of regional/ national identity.

However, as is the case everywhere outside London, there is a tension between the need to support a home-grown independent publishing sector, and an individual writer’s desire to reach a much wider global market. How do we square this circle, and what would be the priorities as we develop the sector in the coming years, facing the likelihood of ever-increasing government cuts? These are surely some of the key questions considered by the Independent Panel, chaired by Professor Medwin Hughes, tasked with reviewing the Welsh Government’s support for publishing and literature. The outcome of the review, which was expected to be finalised by the end of September, has been delayed due to an unprecedented response to the on-line public consultation. This is a mark of how important the sector is for Wales, and it’s clear that many individuals feel very strongly that their own contribution to the debate should be heard. It’s also very likely that these points of view will vary considerably.

In the midst of these arguments, surely it would be evident that sustaining support for writers is key for ensuring a healthy future for literature. And this support should allow for ambition and artistic risks. Many writers, at any stage of their writing career, will want to take stock and explore new possibilities. Being allowed time out to experiment with new genres and ideas, without the pressure of deadlines and personal responsibilities, can be a life-changing opportunity for a writer. A Literature Wales Writers’ Bursary (the current round closes on 28th October) is highly competitive and is peer-reviewed. Being awarded a bursary is a mark of confidence in a writer’s talent, and the successful applicants each year stand out because of their willingness to work hard and take risks. The outcomes can be surprising, and writers often note that the time out has led them to new directions. This is a key aspect in the development of writers as creative artists.

Many of the Bursaries’ recipients go on to publish books to great acclaim and success, some with Wales-based independent publishers; others go on to publish with major London-based publishing houses. Recent successes of the Writes Bursaries scheme include supporting the (then) unpublished writer Kate Hamer who went on to write The Girl in the Red Coat (Faber), which has sold over 100,000 copies and was short listed for 2015 Costa First Novel Award. Another success-story is poet Jonathan Edwards, who was also awarded a New Writers’ Bursary for his first volume My Family and Other Superheroes, which he published with the excellent Welsh publisher Seren Books, and which went on to win the Poetry Category of the 2014 Costa Poetry Award.

These two books represent the rich ecology of contemporary books from Wales – independent, commercial, creative, unique, popular, high-quality – and our work following the Welsh Government’s review is to ensure they are not one-offs, but represent a growing trend and express an increasing confidence in the Welsh literary voice. My prediction is that quite soon, a Welsh author, published by a Welsh publisher, will go on to win the Booker. Watch this space.

Lleucu Siencyn is chief executive of Literature Wales.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Serious discussions.....



Serious discussions are now under way with regard to a multi-episode costume drama based on the Angel Mountain series.  Three different companies are involved, including two west Wales companies who would bring particular skills to the project.  But the most important company is obviously the production company what would take the lead, raise the finance, make the programmes and do the deals necessary for the showing of the series across the world.  They would allocate a producer to the project,  find a screenwriter, hire the actors and the director, and put all the other pieces of the jigsaw in place. 

This is far too big a project to be handled just by S4C and BBC Wales (or ITV) since there is just not the funding available within Wales.  The advent of digital media means that drama series now must be in a form to be viewed on both TV sets and on computers and iPads -- and, dare I say it, on smartphones too.  Sounds crazy, but there you go.......

There are some advanced discussions going on, and all being well, I might be in a position to announce the sale of an option on the film / TV rights within the next few weeks.  So watch this space!

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Folk Tales books on People's Collection Wales



Here they are -- probably easier to access than on Dropbox.

Pembrokeshire Folk Tales
https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/512051
The Last Dragon
https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/512052
Fireside Tales from Pembrokeshire
https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/512053
More Pembrokeshire Folk Tales
https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/512054

More Pembrokeshire Folk Tales



This is the rather moody jacket for "More Pembrokeshire Folk Tales" -- in reality it wasn't as dark as this.  I used one of my own water colour paintings for this one.