A Danish Trip to the Eisteddfod

Our Danish intern Ann D. Bjerregaard writes about her experiences at the national Eisteddfod in Cardiff august 2018.

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Our intern Ann writes about her experience of the National Eisteddfod and muses on the idea of Welshness.

Ann D. Bjerregaard & Richard Davies at the Eisteddfod, Cardiff 2018

This week, I spent two days at the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff.

One of the things that was most immediately impressed upon me was how foreign I felt. I speak English fluently, and up until now, I had not had to deal with many language or cultural barriers, but at the Eisteddfod I was a total stranger. Everywhere, I was surrounded by people and signs speaking a language I had no idea how to decipher. These people didn’t necessarily peg me as a foreigner right away, and so I had more than the usual number of awkward encounters of “Sorry, I don’t speak Welsh” and “Pardon?”

So I went and bought a Welsh-English pocket dictionary, which quickly became a treasured possession. Suddenly, I could understand (somewhat) all the cariad, hiraeth and croeso that I saw everywhere on merchandise and souvenirs. My fourth Welsh word was bin sbwriel, courtesy of the kind people from Mermaid Quay who laboriously labelled everything.

Cymraeg T-shirt Eisteddfod
Cymraeg – probably the oldest living language in Europe”

In the mostly non-Welsh speaking south Wales, Cardiff Bay became a haven for Welsh, a tiny enclave of adamant Welshness. It was quite interesting to witness, especially given my academic interest in identity politics. I particularly enjoyed the Welsh-speaking kids’ events and seeing how much energy was spent on keeping the children interested in learning Welsh or giving the native Welsh speakers the equivalents of all the English language paraphernalia of childhood such as talking toys, posters and wall hangers. Had I doubted it before, this would certainly have convinced me that Welsh is very much a living language – not some antiquated relic that is being artificially sustained. It was a joy to be a part of.

Parthian had a lovely little stand in the Craft in the Bay area, where many of their titles were beautifully on display. Richard Davies, Parthian’s managing director, said I could just take a book if I liked it, but of course that was too much responsibility to handle for a book hoarder like myself, so I decided not to tempt myself. It was interesting to see the books in the ‘flesh,’ so to speak, as I am so used to only looking at the cover photos on a screen. It made the whole Parthian-business much more tactile and real, somehow.

Parthian's stand Cardiff 2018
Parthian’s stand at the Eisteddfod with neighbouring Firefly Press

During my visits, I saw how the Parthian stand became a meeting point for Parthian-lovers and Welsh literati alike, and I began to realise just how vast a literary network Parthian is a part of and how much the Parthian people do to sustain it. I also had the pleasure of meeting some authors and most of the Parthian team during the Parthian Get Together Friday evening. It was a nice introduction to the co-workers I don’t see every day.

I had an enlightening two days in Cardiff. It was a memorable experience, and one that truly showed me the depth of some Welsh experiences. After a month and a half in Swansea, I’ve felt that on the surface the city is rather like the rest of the United Kingdom. It wasn’t till I came to the Eisteddfod and saw the numerous stands and events that I could really begin to understand what people mean when they talk of Wales. Here, I saw the things that were highlighted about Welshness and national pride such as flags, dedicated literary talks, Welsh catchphrases printed on T-shirts, local and souvenir crafts and Welsh food and cakes.

Of course, the culture of a country is more than what can be found in a souvenir shop, and I can’t wait to delve deeper into the idea of Wales.

 

 

Cheval 11 – The Future of Welsh Creative Writing

Our newest intern, Ann Bjerregaard, reviews the new writers’ anthology, Cheval 11.

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Last month, I had the good fortune to witness the Terry Hetherington Young Writers’ Award ceremony. The Terry Hetherington Award is an award set up in honour of the late Terry Hetherington, a renowned Welsh poet. He had always been passionate about celebrating and supporting the work of young upcoming writers, and so this award was instituted as the best way to serve his memory.

Over the course of the last year young writers who come from Wales, or who are living here, have been pouring their creative energies into works of literary art and submitting it to the award judges. Thirty-four of these submissions were chosen for publication in Cheval 11, an anthology of this year’s best submissions, published by Parthian Books. At the ceremony the first and joint second prize winners were announced, and they and the thirty-one entrants read excerpts of their texts – be it poems or short stories – out loud for the audience. Something mystical happens to a text when it is read out loud. During these readings, it struck me how much of a difference a voice or intonation can make for a text. The poems especially, though perhaps unsurprisingly, gained from being read out loud, but also the short stories were endowed with a strange sense of vitality, brought to life by the voices who composed them. You could really tell, listening to these readings, that these young writers were serious about their passions, serious about following them. This was deep-felt creativity we were hearing, no less.

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Terry Hetherington Award Ceremony and readings at the Dylan Thomas Centre

Afterwards, I read the Cheval 11 anthology, and while I remembered some of the excerpts from the readings this was an entirely different experience. Due to competition requirements, most of the texts are quite short. This gave many of the submissions a sense of urgency, or denseness of meaning, a sense that every single sentence was loaded with significance – an experience that is quite different from reading most novels. I don’t normally read a lot of short stories, so this was an eye-opening experience. You could tell that these writers are very talented – albeit to varying degrees – and that these texts were very carefully crafted.

Reading the whole collection cover to cover, I was struck by the recurrence of themes such as death, loss, and a sense of falling apart. Many of the stories and poems featured people who were dying, or who did die during the tale. Rather than being repetitive, this created a sense of coherence within the collection, as if these individual submissions were in constant conversation with each other, transferring between the pages some of their sadness and abject, abrupt otherworldliness. There were also several pieces which featured urban or industrial decay; loss of something intrinsic, perceived to be forever gone with the past. It’s an interesting notion – an anthology of the work of young writers full of loss and breaking apart. I wonder if this is a sign of something deeper, something endemic in contemporary Welsh society? What will that promise for the future?

Some of the stories were also quite humorous, such as “Bring me the Head of Dylan Thomas” by Rhodri Diaz, or the poem “Three Wimbledon Sonnets, or Serve, Return and Rally” by Thomas Tyrell. These and other submissions contrasted nicely with the rest of the collections, contributing to show the creative span of young Welsh writing today.

Cheval 11 authors
The Cheval 11 contributors, courtesy of Aida Birch

The stories that I remember the best were also the ones that most strongly touched my heart. Here, I especially wish to draw attention to the two texts “Borderline” by Eve Elizabeth Moriarty and Gareth Smith’s “Lost.” Both texts – a poem and a short story – have narrators who struggle with mental illness, and with coming to terms with their diagnosis. One narrator feels that everything about her has been reduced to the word ‘borderline’, a diagnosis stamped upon everything she does and feels, while the other story features a mother who has an anxiety attack in a shopping centre and this anxiety is made all the worse by her own fears of being called ‘crazy’.

These texts, along with many others from the anthology, show how in touch these young writers are with the world and the struggles we are currently facing. In many ways, Cheval 11 is life, condensed.

An Interview with Bernard Mitchell

Every photo tells a story. A collection of the right photos, can tell a history. Bernard Mitchell’s new collection, Pieces of a Jigsaw: Portraits of Artists and Writers of Wales, captures the faces behind the artistic and literary tradition of Wales. He sat down to an espresso with Parthian and described the origin and process for how these distinct photos were created. Bernard will be presenting Pieces of a Jigsaw at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery on 25th November at 11:00 a.m. as part of the Being Human Festival.

How did this project of taking portraits of writers and artists begin?

I realised there was a group of people from Swansea who were all connected with Dylan Thomas. They were friends, but they were influenced by his writing and they were a symbiotic group if you like. I call them the ‘Swansea Gang.’

Can you talk about your process of staging these portraits?

Daniel Jones was the first of [the Swansea Gang] and I was quite young and very nervous. He very kindly saw me, and they all did. Daniel met with me and we went upstairs to the room where he had a grand piano and he composed his music. Pubs in those days were open at 12 and dead on 12, the clock went boing! and he said ‘Time for a beer.’ So we went to the pub and as we drank more, the more relaxed he got.

Pubs close at three, by that time, we got some very relaxed photographs and it was great. But his wife came in at 3:00 and said ‘Danny, I’m taking you home, I’m locking you in your room, until you compose some music.’ So that’s how it all started, the very first group of people were the Swansea Gang.

And when you’re shooting, do you know when you have ‘the one’ or do you see it in the negatives afterwards?

 

You’ve got to feel it. You know when to stop. But with some artists, they become friends, and some artists I follow. When I restarted in the 1990’s … I wanted to photograph artists and writers and the correlation between them, this catalytic, symbiotic thing that writers and artists are together. Writers are influenced by artists and artists are influenced by writers.

How much time would you spend with these writers and artists before you felt like you could accurately capture them?

I’d always start work about 10 a.m., go to their house, have a coffee, sit down relax have a chat, and while they’re doing that, I’m looking around.

For portraiture and photography, what are the benefits of that medium that other forms of storytelling don’t offer?

Well in the early days, everything was black and white and my opinion of black and white was that it gets to the brain quicker, it’s a very simple . One of the most important things about photography is that it’s international. You don’t have to speak the language. It communicates instantly. You see the image, you should get the message. Fortunately or unfortunately with my photographs, the message is buried deep within the photographs.

Do you envision this project to continue in the future?

I’ve only really just started again, about two years ago. But five years ago, I had a stroke and I did nothing for quite awhile … But now, I want to do it again.

What do you hope people take away from Pieces of a Jigsaw when they read it?

I hope they will look carefully at the photographs and try to analyse what it’s all about, because they’re not accidents. They’re not snaps. They are very carefully constructed, they are constructed within millimeters of what’s in and what’s out.

You said you like the black and white contrast, but there are some stunning colour ones.

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Now, then the reason for this one in colour. Do you see the portraits of herself? She has a red tam. The red tam is by her left foot. By her right foot is a toolbox, it’s red. The tam isn’t on her head, but the tam is on all the portraits in the background and it’s red. That’s the reason for the colour. You see, the colour has a use; it’s not colour because it’s colourful.

Image of Bernard Mitchell with camera.Bernard Mitchell grew up in Swansea where he currently lives after a retiring from a career in photojournalism with Thomson Regional Newspapers. Bernard’s passion for this decades-long project has led to exhibitions at the National Library of Wales and generous donations of portraits to the Richard Burton Archives at Swansea University.

Pieces of a Jigsaw can be pre-ordered at the following link: Pieces of a Jigsaw – Parthian Books

An Interview with Nathan Munday

 

‘The mountains themselves are like a kaleidoscope of colour. Something lives in those hues and I wanted to show that we’re not just pieces of slime on this earth, we’re actually wonderfully made and our world is wonderfully made as well,’ Nathan Munday said. He sat upstairs in Heath Christian Bookshop in Cardiff an hour before the book launch of Seven Days, his debut memoir about a trek with his father through the Pyrenees. Published by Parthian in October, Seven Days enfolds readers in the journey–past the vengeful sheepdogs and uncertain storms, and into the warmth of unlikely friendship.

Eddie: When you made this trek in the Pyrenees with your father, did you know you’d be writing a book from the experience?

Nathan: I’ve been to the Pyrenees 7 or 8 times. I didn’t intend to write a book about it all, I do keep a notepad just in case, but that particular week, the main narrative of the book, that was a particularly eventful year. I saw an advertisement for a competition for travel writing in the New Welsh Review, so that was the genesis moment.

E: The memoir is full of characters that are equal parts jovial, solemn, and reflective. Do you think mountaineering attracts a certain type of person, or brings out the same attributes of a vast range of people?

N: I think mountains do attract interesting people, but most people are interesting when you get them on their own. I think that’s the beauty of mountains and refuges is that you’re forced to encounter individuals, rather than groups of people.

 

E: The people you meet in the refuges are transformed into mythological and literary heroes from folklore. Did these attributions occur to you upon meeting them or upon putting together the book?

N: To be honest, a bit of both. When I saw my friend, who we call ‘Hemingway’ come through the door, I did think ‘Dad look, it’s Ernest Hemingway from the dead!’. Others have come later. But I think that’s true of any writer. I think it’s an amalgamation of present experience and looking back.

E: I think it imbued such life into the story.

N: I love myth, and folklore. The whole book really looks at those boundaries of what is real and what is not. And how real people become these heroes or antiheroes or mythic figures. I hope to show in the book that most humans have something wondrous sort of stamped onto them.

E: Let me read a passage from the book: There was something mystical about a grieving traveller crossing a mountain range after so much suffering. The mountains provide an escape for those who suffer. 

Do the Pyrenees provide an escape for you and your father?

N: My dad lost his mother at a young age and I think the hills gave him time to think and sort of stew in what [he was] feeling. For me, I’ve always been quite a sensitive person. I do need those times once or twice a year where I can escape. The modern world doesn’t give us those quiet times. We’re always in a hurry. We eat our food in a hurry. We’re always in a hurry for the next thing in life, aren’t we?

E: The book emphasizes how we associate summits with holiness and accomplishment. Does this notion hold up for you when you reached the summits in the Pyrenees, or it did reside more when you were among strangers in the refuges?

N: I start the book with that idea of ‘to peak.’ And I think a mountaineer has to be careful because you can become a ‘peak-backer’ and all you do, and my dad’s guilty of this, is ticking boxes … The mountains in a way were like a microcosm, where our life is not always going to be on the peaks. The valleys are probably more important, because it’s in the valley you decide which path you take up and if you take the wrong path it can be fatal.

E: Biblical accounts of mountaineering stories are interspersed with yours. Can you talk about how mountaineering provided a helpful lens for you to see these biblical stories in a new light?

N: Religion is always painted in a sort of negative, boring way. But actually if you read the bible, it’s far from it … The historical Jesus was a man, I believe he was also God. He wasn’t just a man, he was a normal man who enjoyed going up the hill, who needed to go up the hill to have times away from the hustle and bustle. It always drew my imagination. I think that’s the crux of it, these are spaces where the mundane fuses with the supernatural.

Nathan Munday is attending Cardiff University for a doctorate exploring Welsh writing in English and Welsh. Seven Seven Days final cover (1)Days was shortlisted for New Welsh Reader University of South Wales Travel Writing Award. He lives in Cardiff and still goes trekking through the mountains with his father for a week every year. He can be contacted on Twitter at @nathanmunday2Seven Days can be purchased from Parthian’s website here: Seven Days – Nathan Munday