Work in progress: A Year of Reading Welshly
'A platform for a variety of voices beyond Dylan Thomas and Ivor the Engine to speak for the nation' (it says here)
Having slightly scoffed in my last newsletter at the preposterous idea of putting together meaningful reading lists, the humbling truth is that I’m doing just that for a new-ish book project, tentatively-titled A Year of Reading Welshly (with the even more tentative subtitle ‘Bookpacking from Aberystwyth to Ystradgynlais).
It’s an exploration of Wales - for both the author and the reader - through its words and writers on the basis that literature is a remarkable reflection of culture. So over the course of 12 months I’m discovering 100 years of the nation’s diverse fiction and poetry (and some travelogues and probably a graphic novel - it’s deliberately a work in progress rather than a fully-formed creation). In an elevator pitch-shaped nutshell ‘A Year of Reading Welshly aims to provide a platform for a variety of voices beyond Dylan Thomas and Ivor the Engine to speak for the nation’. Though I hope it’s going to be a bit jollier than that sounds.
As I don't speak Welsh (a secondary theme will focus on me learning some and reporting on my progress) I’ll be reading Welsh writing available in English, looking at both universal issues such as love, social struggle, and identity as well as ones with particular resonance to the Welsh story.
Like many of us, I tend to drift into reading books that feel comfortable and authors I already know and like. So while London clubland, Parisian nightlife, the novels of Anthony Powell, and slightly magical goings-on in South America feel like cosy slippers, I know very little about, say, Aberystwyth. Indeed, nothing at all. So the idea is to transport me - and hopefully readers - through time and space to enjoy an increased understanding of Welsh culture. Each title will be chosen as offering a window onto unfamiliar lives and events, the nuts and bolts of life in Wales, as an alternative to a physical visit (although this will also be encouraged).
Of course I could move to Wales and spend the next decade engaging deeply with the culture but 1) I’m not sure my wife and children would be too keen on that, and b) I’ve got to deliver the manuscript by next February. In any case, while physical travel can be insightful, it can also not. This way, I’m engaging with dozens of writers across 10 decades and seeing Wales through their eyes, how it feels in practice.
By the end, we will all feel more closely involved with Wales and its future as well as its past. I hope we’ll also learn something about a place with which we’re kind of familiar but often only think about in terms of the size of Amazon rainforest destroyed each year or spectacular singing at sporting occasions.
This is a personal journey. I am not Welsh, but I was born in Shropshire quite close to the border. My parents met at Bangor University and I was taught by a very proud Welshman at primary school (who kept calling me Alistair, but that’s another story). Many of our school trips were to Wales including camping in Harlech, geography field trips to Borth (the first time rain came at me horizontally on a beach), and various Eisteddfods. As a family, we spent holidays in Llandudno and lived close enough to for me to watch Pobl y Cwm on television, even though I had to guess what was going on. I’ve always liked Wales and the Welsh but I’ve never thoroughly got to grips with it/them.
There is nothing like this out there about Welsh literature, although Andy Miller’s excellent ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously’ is obviously along similar lines, but with a much more canonical approach to getting to grips with classic fiction. It is also a kind of cousin to Ann Morgan’s ‘Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer’ which is an ambitious investigation into cultural identity globally rather than just Radnorshire and environs.
Choosing the books has been tricky and my list is still very much a fluid one, but as it stands this below is what I’m hoping to have read by the end of 2023, with the date of publication included. I’ve really enjoyed all the ones I’ve read so far, only two of which I’d even heard of before, and I’m hoping the book will encourage you to read some of them too. If you have any suggestions about what I’ve missed out, I would genuinely like to hear from you:
The Battle to the Weak by Hilda Vaughan (1925)
In Parenthesis by David Jones (1937)
How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn (1939
I Bought A Mountain by Thomas Firbank (1940)
Raiders' Dawn by Alun Lewis (1942)
Collected poems by Lynette Roberts (1944)
Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas (1954)
Song at the Year's Turning by RS Thomas (1955)
Y Byw sy'n Cysgu/The Awakening by Kate Roberts (1956)
A Toy Epic by Emyr Humphreys (1958)
Border Country by Raymond Williams (1960)
Jampot Smith by Jeremy Brooks (1960)
The Shop In The Mountain by Showell Styles (1961)
Un Nos Ola Leuad (One Moonlit Night) by Caradog Prichard (1961)
The Small Mine by Menna Gallie (1962)
The Twelve Dancers by William Mayne (1962)
Tide-Race by Brenda Chamberlain (1962)
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander (1964)
The Owl Service by Alan Garner (1967)
Travels with a Duchess by Menna Gallie (1968)
So Long, Hector Bebb by Ron Berry (1970)
Place of Stones by Ruth Janette Ruck (1970)
Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden (1973)
The Grey King by Susan Cooper (1975)
The Volunteers by Raymond Williams (1978)
The Sundial by Gillian Clarke (1978)
On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin (1982)
Brothers by Bernice Rubens (1983)
The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (1986)
Work, Sex & Rugby by Lewis Davies (1993)
Eucalyptus/Gwasg Gomer by Menna Elfyn (1995)
Travels in an Old Tongue by Pamela Petro (1997)
Five Pubs, Two Bars and a Nightclub Paperback by John Williams (1999)
Grits by Niall Griffiths (2000)
The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi (2000)
Arthur: The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland (2000)
Aberystwyth Mon Amour by Malcolm Pryce (2001)
Sheepshagger by Niall Griffiths (2002)
Tree of Crows by Lewis Davies (2003)
Martha, Jack and Shanco by Caryl Lewis (2004)
Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce (2005)
Fresh Apples by Rachel Trezise (2005)
Running For The Hills by Horatio Clare (2006)
Gifted by Nikita Lalwani (2007)
Resistance by Owen Sheers (2007)
Twenty Thousand Saints by Fflur Dafydd (2008)
Submarine by Joe Dunthorne (2008)
The Earth Hums In B Flat by Mari Strachan (2009)
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (2011)
The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014)
Pigeon by Alys Conran (2016)
The Gododdin: Lament for the Fallen by Gillian Clarke (2021)
The Mab by Matt Brown and Eloise Williams (2022)
The Library Suicides by Fflur Dafydd (2023)
Interesting list! I've read a few of them, but not that many. I would definitely suggest that you read The Mabinogion. It's such an amazing insight into early Welsh storytelling, and it's quite, quite bonkers, so well worth your time. I've got the Siôned Davies version. I would also have suggested Cysgod y Cryman, translated by Meic Stephens as Shadow of the Sickle, but it looks a bit out of print. I have a version in Welsh for learners which I need to tackle at some point.
Travels in an Old Tongue is lovely, though it's been a while since I read it, and Susan Cooper's Grey King is bloody marvellous, but it will help if you've read the previous books in the Dark is Rising series first. They're all short and fabulous, so that won't be a chore at all!
Looks like a great list, though. Lots of books there I want to read myself!
Really interesting. I was pleased to find that I have heard of 6 of the books / poems on the list and amazed that I have actually read 3;
Under Milk Wood, On The Black Hill & The Owl Service , the latter I think being partly based on the Mabinogion ( which I haven’t read). Looking forward to hearing your top tips when you have read them all…