We cannot know our future without knowing our culture

Gregynog Hall. Picture by Mr Penybanc (CC BY 2.0)

Ben Gwalchmai

People talk about their first time with reverie or horror or embarrassed amusement – mine was fantastic. It was with a thirty-year-old.

This year was the first time I’d been to the Association for Welsh Writing in English (AWWE) conference and it was their thirtieth year.

On my return, I wrote to a friend and said ‘it has completely made me feel that my place is in Wales, once again’.

‘Though I would probably never be an academic in that field, I can’t help but like all the people there: my people. The people who speak all my languages.

‘The books being explored, presented on, and studied are the books of my bones. Had I not gone, I’d have never known there is a people who I should always have known – all within 30 minutes’ drive of my village!’

It wasn’t solely the books but the complex politics of those books and their readers. Don’t be fooled by the humble title of the conference, this Association is a hotbed.

One worthy of anyone interested in the future of Wales – we cannot know our future without knowing our culture. Nerth gwlad, ei gwybodaeth.

Located at Gregynog Hall, close to Newtown in Powys, the conference covered books and writers as classic (to me) as Alys Conran’s Pigeon, Idris Davies’s Gwalia Deserta, and Niall Griffiths’s Sheepshagger.

Borders

Those classics – and more – aside, it wasn’t what was covered that made it such a brilliant conference as it was the way in which it was all covered.

Smoothly arranged and with an excellent atmosphere, it wasn’t two minutes before questions of Brexit, Welsh Independence, and the current madnesses of the UK raised their head after the first keynote speaker.

I was surprised and pleased to hear it so – I’d expected far more stuffiness. Not so, here.

With book launches, academic and creative, suddenly whole new windows onto Wales appeared. The poets I’d read growing up because they were funny or fierce or weird – like Harri Webb, John Tripp, Idris Davies – were put in their political context by John Osmond, whose new semi-autobiographical book Ten Million Stars Are Burning tells of those times.

Some of the writers I’d previously met in text only suddenly had faces: Katie Gramich, Rhea Seren Phillips, Mary-Ann Constantine all became more brilliant, more human. There were many presentations, many good conversations, and I feel there’s still much to learn.

Being of the border, my mind turned to our locale. So many speakers examined our liminal Marches – Professor Tony Brown’s presentation on Glenda Beagan hit the perfect note with Beagan’s simple phrase ‘I’m neither fish nor fowl, I’m a border person’ – that I found myself wondering what fellow border-boi Raymond Williams would think of all this.

Fortunately, the man who edited Who Speaks for Wales? Nation, Culture, Identity, the very lovely Daniel G. Williams, was on site.

So too was that brilliant book itself, which collects so many of Williams’ important works. In his essay ‘Wales and England’, from 1983, Williams says that ‘in relations between Wales and England it [Welsh writing in English] is still a most significant differential, of a kind which fosters some effective cultural identity. We have only to think of…the identifiably Irish writers in English…to realise that it does indeed matter’.

As most of Wales speaks English, it does indeed matter. It matters all the more that this conference is in fine fettle and is having the conversations our politicians should be having, too.

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