Picks of 2023: Geraint Lewis, Ant Evans and John Geraint
My books of the year for 2023 have a biographical feel. I enjoyed Julia Bell’s Hymnal (Parthian), a memoir in a series of poems, an interesting concept in itself. Her portrayal of being raised as a vicar’s daughter in Cardiganshire was simultaneously amusing and moving, a difficult feat to accomplish.
I also liked Patrick McGuinness’s Blood Feather (Cape Poetry), not just the wonderful poems that sensitively chronicled his relationship with his mother but the more political ones too like ‘Factory Town’.
Keeping to the biographical theme Jon Gower’s The Turning Tide – A Biography of the Irish Sea (Harper North) was a tour de force which swept me away on a tidal wave of quirky anecdotes, ornithology and mind-bending historical facts.
It’s a tricky book to categorize, which is meant as a compliment. The writer’s innate curiosity drags you along the glorious shoreline of his prose and we not only get to know the Irish Sea but the author himself, a great bonus.
The event of the year was the recent theatre production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, by Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru in a new Welsh language translation by Manon Steffan Ros. I saw it at Cardigan’s Theatr Mwldan, where it was beautifully staged by director Steffan Donelly.
In a talented acting ensemble there were stand-out performances from Bethan Elis Owen and Rhodri Meilir (as the steadfast, determined Bérenger).
The play’s important themes, the dangers of groupthink and how quickly extreme views can spread and be manipulated, are unfortunately very apposite for our times. An apt, daring choice of a play that is rarely performed.
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What a difference a year (not to mention a bit of a confidence boost) makes! Whereas last year I hadn’t done as much as I’d have liked to, this year I’ve been so much busier that it’s honestly been a real challenge to choose one favourite thing from 2023, so I’ve decided to go for three things.
Even then, choosing three highlights has been far from easy!
I hugely enjoyed Gwyl Crime Cymru in Aberystwyth back in April. Having gone for the whole weekend, that was the first time I think I’d stayed away from home since going to Glasgow in January 2020.
So, to say it was a nice change would certainly be an understatement! Festival highlights for me included the National Library tour and festival gala on the Friday, in addition to a very interesting discussion in Aberystwyth Town Library about the differences (if any) between writing crime fiction in Welsh or English on the Saturday and the festival celebration at the festivals end on the Sunday.
These are of course the first things about that fantastic weekend to pop into my head, but rest assured, I thoroughly enjoyed every single event I attended, and it was great to see old friends and make some new ones too.
Having not attended since 2019, I very much enjoyed going to the Eisteddfod in Boduan this year. As is quite normal for me at an Eisteddfod, I could be found in either the Literature Tent or in Societies 1 and 2 listening to various engaging discussions on subjects ranging from RS Thomas to the importance of literature being accessible to the visually impaired.
As ever, it was lovely to catch up with friends whilst I was there.
Another highlight for me came with the chance to review Rhinoseros in Pontio in November. Being the first time I’d gone to watch any staged production since going to Pontio to watch Llyfr Glas Nebo on the 5th of March 2020, I was hugely looking forward to this!
I think its safe to say that my review of Rhinoseros spells out quite clearly what I thought of it. I truly enjoyed myself! Was great to be sat in a theatre once again.
After such an amazing year, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what 2024 has in store for me!
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John Geraint, author, documentary-maker and Creative Director of the Rhondda Heritage Project
For me, the highlight of 2023 has to be the Storytelling Workshops I’ve been involved with as part the Rhondda Heritage Project, which is underway thanks to a major grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund awarded to Rhondda Radio.
It’s been a truly inspiring couple of months. I’ve learnt so much from the rich, rich stories which have been shared generously and eloquently by ‘ordinary’ Rhondda people.
Tales of campaigning grandmothers, dedicated district nurses, professors and punks, Viking ancestry, libraries and choirs, first Rhondda homes, fossils which pre-date the dinosaurs, family Bibles, education and Further Education, one-armed colliers, outings to the seaside, allotments, the Blitz in Cwmparc, cold water swimming, the warm welcome given to refugees arriving here, what an ophthalmologist is and how to build a gambo…
It’s a fantastic catalogue of communal experience – and the tone varies from the elegiac to the laugh-out-loud funny and a memorable death-bed scene enlivened by typical Valleys black humour.
But this isn’t just about the past. The inimitable Siôn Tomos Owen – author, caricaturist, illustrator, TV and radio presenter, and one-man Upper Rhondda force of nature – has been doing his stuff at Ysgol Nantgwyn, the new superschool in Tonypandy, inspiring the next generation of storytellers to express their Valleys heritage.
And following masterclasses at Coleg y Cymoedd, students have recorded stunning contributions, sometimes celebrating world-beating achievements, sometimes courageously sharing their growing pains.
They’ve produced music too, including the song that will open a year-long Festival of Heritage Programmes on Rhondda Radio on January 3rd. ‘In the Heart of the Valleys’ has the potential to become the next big show-stopping anthem, sung in stadiums and by choirs, and wherever Welsh people come together.
We’ve more than a hundred stories altogether. And it’s all coming your way on Rhondda Radio in 2024. As we used to say in the Valleys of something that’s unmistakably head and shoulders above anything else in its class, it’s going to be a brahma!
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