NWR Issue 64

'Hiraeth' and a new cultural ecology

On May 1st, the day on which ten 'new' countries gained accession to the European Union, I was amazed to read reports that Plaid Cymru were expressing concern that an enlarged Union would result in fewer opportunities for minority cultures such as Wales. Such narrow political sentiment seemed a poignant expression of the failure of the party to develop an intellectual discourse for the twenty-first century capable of encompassing an increasingly complex and cosmopolitan modern Welsh identity.

I happened to be travelling to one of the new member states just a few days after the accession, to attend Bookworld Prague, an international book fair at which Wales, Scotland and Ireland were the guests of honour this year. As our plane circled Ruzyne Airport, I reflected on the Czech writer Milan Kundera's evocative expression of the similarities between Prague and Wales, made in a television interview in the early 1980s. Kundera suggested that there are similarities to be found between the Czech notion of 'litost', a yearning for something irretrievably lost, and the Welsh concept of 'hiraeth', and argued that this is reflected in the delicate connections between the Welsh and Czech temperaments, formed as they have been in the shadow of more powerful neighbours. Like many writers, Kundera's relationship with his native country has been far from straightforward, but the pull of his homeland on one of the Czech Republic's famous 'sons' is clearly something elemental and inescapable.

Famous sons (and grandsons) and their relationships with their roots emerge as something of a theme in this issue of New Welsh Review. In an exclusive interview with Walford Davies, Gwydion Thomas, son of R.S. Thomas and M.E. Eldridge, talks frankly and lyrically about his upbringing as the only child of artistic parents, and offers a fascinating insight into the daily lives of two great artists, one of whom has become rather more famous than the other. In Gwydion Thomas's recollections, his mother M.E. (Elsi) Eldridge emerges from the shadows as a highly talented artist in her own right, who as one half of a creative partnership profoundly influenced the poetic vision of her husband. And as the crowds gather outside the Orange tent at the Hay Festival, Daniel Williams explores in another specially-commissioned article Hay-on-Wye's literary connections from a more historical perspective, focusing on the roots of American novelist William Dean Howells in this small border town.

The two main literary events of the summer, the Hay Festival on the one hand and the National Eisteddfod on the other, have traditionally offered afocus for media responses to ongoing literary debates and issues of the day, and this year is no exception. While the debate concerning the potential for an English-language National Theatre for Wales continues (Geraint Talfan Davies, Chair of the Arts Council of Wales, responds to David Adams's article in New Welsh Review 63, 'So What's this National Theatre Debate' [Letters, p. 135]), recent media coverage suggests that discontent and controversy are not the preserve of the Welsh theatre world alone. The Assembly's recent announcement that its £250,000 injection of cash into Welsh Writing in English is to be focused on the production of a series of reprints of Anglo-Welsh classics has caused dismay in some quarters. As the Academi argued in a statement to the press (published in The Western Mail on 17th May), while any increase in funding is of course to be welcomed, the lack of initiatives for living writers and new work is a disappointing coda to the carefully orchestrated policy review of Welsh Writing in English undertaken by the Assembly last year.

Similarly, Academi has itself attracted some criticism for its direction of the Book of the Year Award, newly taken over from former organisers the Arts Council of Wales. Welsh-language magazine Golwg has filled many a column in recent weeks with some story or other about the 'problems' dogging the competition, culminating with the most recent one I read, which suggested that Welsh-language poets feel that this year's judges are unfairly biased against strict-metre poetry (a slightly bizarre claim, bearing in mind that Mererid Hopwood, the first woman ever to win the National Eisteddfod Chair for cynghanedd, is in fact one of the judges this year). Nevertheless, controversy and column inches are arguably the hallmark of a literary prize which is actually fulfilling its remit, which is to raise awareness of particular genres and, ultimately, to sell more books.

By the time this issue of New Welsh Review reaches the bookshops, the shortlisted writers in both languages for the Welsh Book of the Year Award will have been announced at Hay and the controversies of the longlisting process will feel like ancient history. In this issue, Patrick McGuinness discusses one of the longlisted titles, Gwyneth Lewis's Keeping Mum (Bloodaxe) alongside another recent publication with significantly bilingual roots, Robert Minhinnick's translations of six Welsh-language poets, The Adulterer's Tongue (Carcanet). And finally, Grahame Davies, Chair of the Welsh-language judges this year, explores further the notion of translation from Welsh into English as a process of adulteration for the Welsh-language writer.

Patrick McGuinness and Geraint Talfan Davies both refer to the notion of 'ecology' in their contributions to this issue. While I have no ambition to remove this concept from its academic context and make of it a buzzword for the twenty-first century, it does seem that the changing landscapes of contemporary Wales are reflected in such subtle shifts in the use of words from the specialised to the everyday. The concept of relationships between people, places and languages as existing in a fragile and complex ecosystem is highly pertinent to the concerns of a small nation which is still in the process of political and artistic self-determination, and the words of Virginia Woolf - 'only connect' - evidently still resonate for us today.


previous editorial: 'Alf and 'Alf - The poetics of diversity
next editorial: Another Country


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