Listening to Literature at the PENfro Book Festival 2018

Our intern Ann visited the PENfro Book Festival in Pembrokeshire this September. In this blogpost, she writes about her experiences of the festival, the speakers and the country house Rhosygilwen.

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When I arrived Saturday afternoon at the beautiful grounds of Rhosygilwen, I was immediately struck by the sense of history and atmosphere as I glimpsed the old manor between the trees. The whole place seems steeped in mystery and wonder.

Now in its twelfth year, the PENfro Book Festival once again demonstrated that with smallness comes intimacy. At PENfro there were no Authors’ Tents or VIP areas; the ‘VIPs’ mingled with the rest of the participants. The festival had the feel of an ongoing conversation in which some people were allowed momentary prominence, but once their formal talks were over, the audience continued the discussion.

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Richard Lewis Davies, creative director of Parthian, introduces the speakers

David Lloyd Owen’s talk of A Wilder Wales (Parthian Books), in which he used 18th and 19th century travel accounts to paint a vivid picture of a Wales, described a place that was dark, mysterious and of another world. Seated in a gazebo overlooking the Pembrokeshire countryside, it was easy to get lost in tales of incredulous travelers describing the exotic Welshmen and their odd customs, trying to deduce some insight into human nature.

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David Lloyd Owen

Another highlight was the Saturday night ‘Evening with Roy Noble,’ a well-known BBC radio and television presenter and author of Down the Road and Round the Bend (published by Graffeg). He regaled us with stories from his book; a hotchpotch collection of tales of Welsh places – a delightful mixture of ghost stories, tall tales, personal anecdotes and historic connections to famous events. Fact and fiction were expertly blended as Noble, an animated and charismatic storyteller, plied his trade. The setting itself strengthened the enthralling narratives with its beautiful, high-ceilinged hall and oak rafters. Darkness gradually fell outside as we were huddled together in the dim light around the travelling storyteller.

Sunday afternoon saw a completely different kind of performance when the winners of the various creative writing competitions were announced. I especially enjoyed the radio play competition, where the four best plays were performed live by two talented voice actors. Not being accustomed to listening to radio plays this was a completely new experience to me. There was something deeply fascinating about witnessing a play written for the ears. It was an intense experience in which the visual was put aside in favour of the smallest of sound details.

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The two voice actors performed the radio play entries for an enthralled audience

The competition event – the Grand Finale – had the best turnout of all the events. The festival revealed itself as the centre of a community dedicated to supporting emerging writers and facilitating a local love for the arts. It was inspiring to listen to readings of the many entries and see how hard Brenda Squires and Glen Peters – owners of Rhosygilwen and two of the founding members of PENfro – worked to bring vibrant new literature to their community.

 

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