It seemed like a happy coincidence that the first day of my holiday in Pembrokeshire coincided with Caught By the River, part of the Teifi Festival in Cardigan, a celebration of “Music, Literature, Nature, Food, Beer and Good Times” (ie almost everything worth celebrating).
It was held at Pizza Tipi , outpost of Fforest which, if you don’t know it, is the sort of campsite even I would like to stay at. Pizza Tipi is the pizza joint of dreams: wood-fired oven, playing live music, and serving beer on a platform overlooking the Teifi estuary. All good news, because I needed my husband comfortable while I attended the Wales Arts Review sessions, because we were travelling with three small children in tow.
As it was, I only managed to get away with two of the sessions from a brilliant line-up, which you can see in full here, but they were very much worth the trip. First up was Gary Raymond (editor-in-chief at Wales Arts Review, whose novel ‘For Those Who Comes After’ comes out with Parthian this October) interviewing Cynan Jones (of The Dig, Everything I Found On The Beach, and The Long Dry), a fantastic start to the event. Cynan was fresh back from the US, where his US editors had safely removed the (blue) “tits”, car “boots” and “petrol” from The Dig to prep it for the US audience (and had a go at getting rid of the UK pound and even the badgers while they were at it!)
The early part of the discussion centred around fatalism – the importance of letting a strong premise/characters reach their natural conclusion, because anything else would feel forced/fake. This feels particularly true for the short novel, which Cynan specialises in – personally, I think I’m much more willing to accept an unexpected ending in a long novel, where the characters have had time to change and grow.
The rest of the wide-ranging discussion between Gary and Cynan also touched on the writer as reader (Cynan devours potentially relevant books during what he called his “caterpillar phase” in the run up to beginning a novel); the beauty and brutality of nature (Cynan referenced witnessing a stumbling rabbit with myxomatosis only steps from the beauty of a migrant butterfly sitting on a pimpernel), the universality of story (The Long Dry – put baldly, a story about a farmer who has lost a cow – was written about and in West Wales but has been published as far afield as Albania), and the importance of writing as a craft (once he had decided to write, Cynan honed his technical skills as a copy editor in Scotland, and he feels that this tool box is fundamental to any writer’s success).
The session finished with a reading by Cynan of a new, as-yet untitled story, which was a great privilege to hear. Cynan described his writing as being about men dealing with difficult things, and this was no exception – a man with a difficult childhood behind him reflects on his own father while he tries to create a magical experience for the son he’s not able to spend time with. It was a very moving piece. You can read more about Cynan here, in a previous interview with John Lavin, fiction editor of the Wales Arts Review.
The second session I managed to escape the children for was a panel session on Nature Writing. Three of the writers from the November 2014 Wales Arts Review edition dedicated to this topic read their pieces, and then joined the panel discussion.
First up was Gavin Goodwin (co-editor of Writing Urban Space). Gavin’s piece, Early Encounters, was a quietly worded, incredibly thoughtful personal essay about nature writing, through the lens of the Newport council estate he grew up in: robins perching on bins, earthworms like “animated strands of spaghetti”, studying red money spiders (and smearing them across the concrete), and the lure of the visiting hedgehog family versus the television. He talked about the garden as an important transitional space, where children can act out real life, encounter nature in a safe environment, but also for the first time witness the impact of the human on nature. You can read a version of Early Encounters, here.
Carly Holmes (author of The Scrapbook, Parthian Books) was up next, reading her brilliant Love Letters On The River (read the extract here) – two letters that take the form of a garden nature diary, but somehow manage to capture a sense of longing and loss in the detailed stories of the birds that she sees in her garden as reported for a lover who is elsewhere. The story of the blackbird family was particularly poignant, definitely a reminder of the brutality of nature that is never far from the surface. Carly later mentioned Meadowland (John Lewis-Stempel) in passing, as a book she’d recently read and enjoyed – I’ve recently read this too, and if you want an example of the brutality of nature, it doesn’t get much worse than the toad “mating ball” that Lewis-Stempel feels moved to describe! Read a previous Wales Arts Review interview with Carly here.
Last to read was Jo Mazelis, whose piece about Rhossili concerned the interaction between history, memory and landscape, the potential for memory to be distorted, but also the way that landscape is wrapped up in the history of the human. Rhossili, on the Gower peninsula, was witness to a series of gruesome deaths in quick succession, and is the site the site of the Paviland cave where the ‘Red Lady’ was found (more likely a Stone Age chieftain with elaborate grave goods) and a ‘haunted’ vicarage, and for Jo this has melded with the memory of an ill-fated family trip to form a negative, haunted memory of the landscape there, however beautiful. You can read a previous Wales Arts Review with Jo here.
After the readings there followed a brief discussion about nature writing, the upshot of which seemed to be that impassioned writing about nature may be the way to influence hearts and minds, where preaching and politics have failed. The Moth Snow Storm was mentioned as a great read in this regard – Helen MacDonald, writer of H is for Hawk, described it as “A great, rhapsodic, urgent book full of joy, grief, rage and love“, so it’s definitely on my to-be-read list.
And that, for me, was sadly that. I’m sure the rest of the sessions were as good as those I attended, but I had to rejoin the toddlers and husband before they ate their own bodyweight in pizza and Willy Whoppers. A great little festival – hope it comes to Cardigan again.