NWR Issue 74

Writing on the Land

'What do bird-watchers, rock-climbers, walkers, shooters, botanists, offroad 4WD enthusiasts, farmers, parapentists, drag-hunters, mountainbikers, canoeists and anglers have in common other than demands on the same overtaxed natural resource of land?', asks Jim Perrin in his essay in this issue of New Welsh Review. We all make our demands upon the land, and in an increasingly atomised world, this is a striking and important constant: we all remain, in one way or another, animals upon it.

It is easy in a small country like Wales to become so absorbed in our contested culture and cultural politics that we forget the equally contested nature of the land we live on. We continue with the same old debates about 'colonialism', assimilation, language decline and resurgence, politicians' games of competitive Welshness and pseudo-inclusive Britishness. Yet the question of what we do with and how we treat the land we live on is often eclipsed by more familiar contentions.

Landscape is never just landscape in Welsh literature, but a correlative of post-industrial degradation and decline, or, conversely, of the 'selling' of place - place prettified (petrified?), 'sold' by tourist boards, estate agents and development agencies. 'Wales', the advert goes, 'the Big Country'… A country, in fact, where despite the absence of a serious road linking north to south, or a first-world rail service between Bangor and Cardiff, the hillsides are sluggish with ornamental railways for tourists. The blasted urban cityscapes of many of our recent writers, the 'urban Welsh' or 'Welsh noir' (because everything has to have a genre these days), are also charged with symbolism: economically ravaged, ghostly, and violently intense, they are also places where community survives and holds. One might even say that this is one thing that the 'realist' or 'naturalist' school of Welsh writing retains that makes it distinct: a sense of residual community in the Thatcher-Blair continuum. Our poetry for its part has made sure that water is never just water; it is a marker of cultural decline and appropriation, flooded valleys and submerged villages: the dirge-element that flows through Welsh poetry and irrigates it with grievance. As Nigel Jenkins puts it, 'We are good at water: rivers, lakes, the dripping tap of elegy'.

Literature has, in its own way, and perhaps equally irrevocably, charged place with the burden of meaning. Of course, a poem is not like a wind turbine or a novel like an oil-well, except in metaphorical terms so stretched as to be useless, but they both make their claims upon place, and in their fashion designate the imaginative uses to which it will be put. Perhaps a Welsh literature in which water were not a symbol of oblivion, in which a Rhondda street whose every boarded-up terrace were not carrying the weight of an industrial past, or in which a deserted farmhouse primed for second-home renovation were not an R. S. Thomas poem-in-waiting, would not be Welsh literature at all. This is how what they call a tradition takes root and replicates. Literature too makes its demands: there, alongside the 4WD and the caravans, the poets and prose writers, the professors and the critics.


Just before this issue of New Welsh Review went to press, the winner of the inaugural Dylan Thomas prize was announced. The Welsh novelist and short story writer Rachel Trezise is to be congratulated on her win, and on holding her own against international competition from glitzy marketing experts and big publishers' muscle. Her work has been called 'edgy', a well-meaning euphemism for direct and raw; but it is also appropriate to allude to the texture of her prose, her knack for vibrant dialogue, and her ability to communicate the relationship between people and place with depth of feeling and seriousness of intent. The triumph is shared too with Parthian, her publishers, who have distinguished themselves by publishing young and often risky fiction, and who have played a vital role in bringing Welsh writing to the attention of a wider constituency. 'Britishness' - whatever that has meant - has never found much time for Welsh art and culture, and publishers like Parthian have asserted themselves precisely by refusing to be content with crumbs from the table. However, the absence of what Thomas called his 'craft and sullen art' of poetry on the shortlist is baffling. In its inaugural year, the Dylan Thomas prize has ignored the one genre Thomas himself is internationally known for.

One way of 'selling' a country is with prizes, and Wales now hosts two of the world's biggest prizes, the Artes Mundi and the Dylan Thomas. Apart from diverting attention from the exiguous rewards available to most working artists and writers, will such vast sums help the culture? Will they make Wales better known and recognised? The official arguments, made by politicians and a culture industry that is grant-glutted and stupefied with boosterism, is that they do. The scant coverage of either award in the UK-wide press or broadcast news suggests otherwise. One can't buy one's way out of the margins, but one can, perhaps, write one's
way out.


previous editorial: Wales and Film
next editorial: Wales Through The Looking Glass


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