Book Council of Wales at 60: But there are ghosts by Richard Lewis Davies
Two Rivers from a Common Spring is a new volume of essays celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Books Council of Wales. Edited by Gwen Davies and illustrated by printmaker Molly Brown, the book charts the legacy and work of the Council through contributions from voices in the Welsh publishing industry. A companion volume, O Hedyn i Ddalen, is available in Welsh.
But there are ghosts – Richard Lewis Davies
Leonora Brito won the Rhys Davies Short Story competition in 1992. She was amused that the Welsh Academy had called around her home to see if she was actually who she claimed. An unpublished writer who had been carefully developing her craft for years before she submitted a story called Dat’s Love to the competition. Seren published Brito’s first and only collection, she was a writer of exceptional stories. Her professional creative life covered a relatively short period of time, from the early 1990s to her death in 2007.
Brito’s stories engage primarily with the Cardiff of her youth, most notably the Docks and Tiger Bay. She was the first of a group of writers who heralded a feminist renaissance in short story writing in Wales. Her stories are full of light and life, and the descriptions are marked by an unusual exactness and sense of place. They are unique in Welsh fiction in that they present an insider’s perspective on a Black history and culture of Wales only alluded to by other writers. She was working on a second collection at the time her death. In 2017 her stories were included in the Library of Wales while in 2021 the National Theatre of Wales commissioned award-winning actor Rakie Ayola to read and record the story for theatre and radio.
There are cycles in life and literature in Wales. The Rhys Davies story competition is being held again this year. The Welsh Academy is long gone but there are ghosts, centenaries pass, some with fanfare some with a whisper: Margiad Evans 1909, RS Thomas 2013, Dylan Thomas 2014, Alun Lewis 2015, Emyr Humphreys 2019, Bernice Rubens 2023, Dannie Abse 2023. These are all commemorations in a culture of Welsh writing in English only now reaching some sort of maturity – in its earliest phases it centred on classic work from writers who at the time had to make the trek to London to seek their fortune. Posterity, so Dylan Thomas claimed, doesn’t pay. He got that one wrong.
Over the last twenty years Welsh writing in English has experienced a remarkable burst of creativity. There are now more writers than ever, working across a range of genres, and many of these are being published in Wales as the publishing industry itself has diversified and become more professional. Much of this has been due to the support of the Books Council of Wales, made possible in part by the Rosemary Butler Report into Welsh culture in 2003 which provided a framework for Welsh government support for publishing in Wales. The result has been democracy in action, as a country began to take charge of its own literary culture in and through English.
The Butler report was the stimulus needed by the Books Council to frame a more professional approach to publishing – the commissioning of popular titles tied to sales targets, marketing support again tied to sales targets, and a general emphasis on the improvement of standards in editing, design and sales, which has forced publishers to look carefully at their choices and their product. It also resulted in the creation of the Library of Wales series, after a recommendation to the then Assembly culture committee – by the writer and critic M. Wynn Thomas – for a series of classic reprints based on the successful Library of America model. Complementing the Butler report on planning for the future, was the decision of the then Arts Minister, Alun Pugh, to back some of its key recommendations and to ensure the investment needed. It was, in its way, an act of faith.
But then publishing always involves a leap of faith, a romance with the improbable involving writers and readers and everything in between. There is something quixotic about publishing a book, so it’s appropriate that the second book Parthian produced was titled Tilting at Windmills – a collection of stories chosen as winners of the Rhys Davies Award by Alun Richards in 1995. It was a slim volume, twelve stories from largely unknown writers who have largely stayed that way. However, it was a new venture – attractively produced and competitively priced and containing new work from Welsh writers.
To accompany it, there was a launch party in a Cardiff hotel, where Dai Smith spoke for the Rhys Davies Trust, and Alun Richards handed out the books. The initiative received a decent amount of press attention and soon, over two thousand copies of the book had been sold. It is a figure that may appear small, but while there are three million people in Wales, they do not all buy books – unfortunately. But what I think it demonstrated was that there was a market and an interest in Welsh writing in English beyond the familiar names of established writers and beyond a publishing industry controlled by London, resolutely uninterested in contemporary Welsh culture – although that was to change.
A quick history of publishing in English in Wales really starts with Cary Archard and Dannie Abse setting up Poetry Press Wales in the early 1980s, from which origins developed Seren Books. Before that, publishing seems to have been an ad hoc affair – carried out by companies such as Gomer in Llandysul, or Christopher Davies in Swansea bringing out the occasional title – with no coherent publishing programme or real attempt to reach beyond a narrow Welsh market, towards the wider world.
The Welsh writers who were succeeding were published outside Wales, with Emyr Humphreys winning the Somerset Maugham Award, for instance, and Alun Richards publishing with Gollancz and Penguin. However, both these writers were reaching the latter part of their careers by the time publishing in Wales started to develop, even though Emyr Humphreys was still being referred to as a ‘Young Welsh Writer in English’, well into his sixties. In one essay reflecting on his journey as a writer Humphreys considered the experience of arriving a generation too late onto a London literary scene in the fifties, when he was not, in his opinion, one of the angry young men who came to dominate the decade.
Seren published Shifts by Christopher Meredith in 1988: the key book of a new generation of Welsh writing that was to emerge with the growth of Welsh publishing. More than twenty-five years after it was first published it is still in print and has moved into the realms of a modern classic – it is one of the books that has come to define one aspect of recent Welsh cultural history and to seem to occupy an emblematic place in the growth of publishing. And yet it still isn’t available as an e-book because the author doesn’t believe in them. One of the challenges of publishing is meeting the expectations of an author as well as a reader.
An engagement with a wider world has been crucial to the development of a Welsh publishing industry. Shifts was reviewed in the New York Times, while Dai Smith in his introduction and call to arms as editor of the Library of Wales made it clear he wanted to create a series ‘designed to ensure that all of the rich and extensive literature of Wales… will now be available to readers in and beyond Wales.’ It is the ‘beyond’ that is crucial for Smith, as he has always seen our literature in English to be part of world literature, having himself studied at Oxford and then Columbia University before returning home. In his view, it is writers such as Alun Richards, Margiad Evans, Ron Berry and his old teacher, Gwyn Thomas, who have produced fiction good enough for a global audience, while remaining resolutely from and about Wales, ‘a young country not afraid to remember what it might become’. The Library of Wales series, now encompassing fifty titles and sales of over 100,000 copies, confirms the nation’s new engagement with its classic Welsh writing in English.
However, for a publisher, classics are not the same as new titles. It is new work that marks the romance of publishing and the saddling up of Rocinante. It seems only a few winters back that Parthian convinced the Cardiff Literary Festival to offer us a slot to launch our first book at Chapter and Verse Bookshop in the Morgan Arcade. The bookshop has gone – so has the literary festival – but the arcade is still there; so is Cardiff – and so are we. The book, Work, Sex and Rugby, has never been out of print and has been re-issued as a Parthian classic. If you stand around long enough?
It was the start of an adventure; publishing is fun, frustrating, anarchic, meritocratic, traditional, slow-moving, mercurial and dynamic. Publishing books enables you to meet the most interesting people: fanatics, storytellers, self-publicists, fakes, writers of literary genius. And to engage with words in all their variety and wonder; there is always another story worth telling, worth publishing, worth reading. I have now been publishing books for close to thirty years.
There is an element of celebration attached to publishing a book. It marks the end of a journey for a writer: years of work made physical between pages, bound, covered or appearing – as if by some alcemi – backlit and moveable on an iphone. For the writer, it is a time of hope and expectation: will the phone ring, the email or text arrive, the WhatsApp message, the Instagram post, the Tik-Tok video, the Bookstergrab, the tweet to all those followers you don’t really have? Yes, it’s the publicist: will you write an eight-hundred-word blog on why you wrote this book of poetry/travel/memoir for a podcast? What’s a podcast? It’s a radio show digitally distributed. Are there any radio shows I can talk to? There’s The Review Show. There’s always a review show. How much will I get paid? It’s for publicity purposes. Ah, I see. What about the Sunday Times? They haven’t got back to us yet… And then the emails stop coming, the tweets fall silent, the storm if there ever was one has passed, the profile dates and six months later a review of five lines appears in New Poetry and Fiction with Some Memoirs – on-line with a link to the new podcast. And then it’s onto the next book for both the writer and the publisher.
As I write this, I am conscious of the original title provided to me – ‘New voices, new formats’ , they don’t stay new for long, as a publisher we’ve invested heavily in e-books, but they are no longer a new format. Also, not quite new are audiobooks which seem to offer people with limited time a way to read books. I remember listening as a child to a recording of The Railway Children on a record player. I was confined to bed in a darkened room at the time with German measles or maybe it was mumps. I can still remember the elation of the train carrying the children’s father arriving home from prison through the crackle of the recording, the excitement of the children and the call of my grandmother from the kitchen, all flickering memory now.
The real innovation for the future is always going to be in the writing. There’s something already classic in a book – with pages well set, an attractive cover, something you can put in your pocket or carry onto a train and open, taking you into another world.
The beautiful hardback volume is now available from your local bookshop.