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The Best of 2023

17 Dec 2023 5 minute read
All the Wide Border: Wales, England and the Places Between is published by HarperNorth

Jon Gower

It’s been a sterling year for books both from and about Wales, with the peerless Mike Parker exploring the country’s eastern edge in All The Wide Border, where he finds ox-cults and faded aristocracies, shifting identities and unexpected literary connections.

This most companionable of writers once again proves to be a supremely well-informed guide, taking us with him to beautiful hidden churches or climbing up hills to gain the view, to see both England and Wales and the relationship between the two countries much more clearly.

For my money the most important book to appear this year was Tom Bullough’s Sarn Helen, which combines attentive travel writing with urgent polemic, as the author follows the Roman road from south to north.

The trek is punctuated with interviews with scientists about our heating planet as well as the passionate words Bullough declared in court after he’d been arrested after a protest by Extinction Rebellion, a clarion call for change and urgent action as climate change morphs terrifyingly quickly into climate emergency.

Birdsplaining A Natural History is published by New Welsh Review

Nature writing has been very well represented. Jasmine Donahaye’s Birdsplaining: A Natural History explores matters of race and gender in the world of birdwatching in a series of provocative essays which show us many inequalities.

Shored up by kindness and concern the book also takes us to explore Cors Caron or to meet pioneering ornithologists in the Middle East, to wait for the swallows to return to the author’s house, or search for nightjars of a summer’s evening, when the midges really swarm.

Then there’s Gaynor Funnell’s newly-published Penbanc: Notes from a Welsh farmhouse  an account of seasonal change and personal discovery on a west Wales farm which has some of the most beautiful, attentive and descriptive writing as Funnell gets to know the place most intimately well and shares with us its myriad plants and magical owls, its trees and sheep trails.

In fiction Nathan Munday’s Whaling is an extraordinary debut, a hybrid work of history and vivid visions charting the story of a small Welsh village and an encounter with a leviathan. Bright shards of prose are set in place by this gifted young writer to create a sort of stained glass window, the sun shining gloriously through.

Sarah Tanburn’s stories in Plant y Tir/Children of the Land plausibly anticipate a future Wales where the geo-politics of the world have changed and turtles move through the Menai Strait. Mixing old, old myths with playful futurology, Tanburn’s tales take us underground – where precious rare earth metals for new technologies are avidly sought after using Korean capital – and into the skies over mid Wales where griffons carve the air with their wings.

Taken together, the interconnecting stories announce a confident, intelligent voice and skilful prose stylist.

Nation.Cymru regular Ben Wildsmith’s Flags and Bones collects many of his superb columns about rugby and politics to demonstrate how he brandishes one of the sharpest pens around, railing against social injustice and highlighting the ineptitude of politicians in pungent phrase and scalpel-sharp sentence.

The rugby writing also has plenty to be angry about, given the state of the game but it’s leavened by bright, tight little vignettes of some of the characters Ben meets on match day. One for the Christmas stocking methinks.

Capel-y-ffin Amgueddfa Cymru-Museum Wales (c) Trustees of the Estate of David Jones – Bridgeman

I was so pleased to visit Y Gaer in Brecon for Rhythmau’r Bryniau/Hill Rhythms, the quietly revelatory show of paintings by David Jones that chronicled the creative time this genius artist spent in Nant-y-Ffin and specifically in the Black Mountains’ community gathered around Eric Gill in the former monastery he filled with family and friends.

It was another reason to be grateful to art critic Peter Wakelin, who curated the exhibition and wrote the attendant book, not least because I’m sure it sent many attendees back to Jones’ other work, including his literary output such as the astonishing Anathemata and epic In Parenthesis.

While much of the excitement in the world of film in 2023 centred around Barbenheimer and the counter-programming of two blockbuster movies – Barbie and Oppenheimer – there was so much to enjoy away from the dazzle.

The Quiet Girl, an Irish language rendering of Claire Keegan’s short story Forster was hauntingly effective, a moving account of a young girl’s transplanting from a troubled home into the care of a childless couple, which brings tears to the eyes even in memory.

Catherine Clinch as the quiet girl Cait was quite the discovery.

Annabel Scholey as Joanne and Louise Brealey as Helen in Chuck Chuck Baby

In a different and more ebullient vein I loved Chuck Chuck Baby, an unlikely musical directed by Janis Pugh, set in a chicken factory in north Wales, which was magically realist, moving and piercingly funny.

A warm film about working women who were happy to ruffle each others’ feathers and a depiction of solid camaraderie on the production line, this was a film to make the heart soar. I can’t wait to see it again, especially if Santa’s bringing some Kleenex.

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