Sam Young delves into all things culture and literature as he explores Letters from Wales: Memories and Encounters in Literature and Life, a weighty collection which draws together the cultural and political commentaries of poet and editor, Sam Adams.
Back in 1996, the poet Sam Adams began penning a regular column in the poetry journal PN Review, entitled ‘Letters from Wales’. Drawing on decades of experience as a writer at the heart of Welsh literary life, Adams has treated readers of PN Review to short, intimate commentaries on the cultural sector in Wales as it has evolved around him.
Now, for the first time, Adams’s letters have been brought together in a single volume. The letters (there are around 130 of them) are corralled into three categories – writers, Wales and the Welsh ‘literary scene’. Wielding an astonishing breadth of knowledge, Adams discusses each chosen topic with a glowing enthusiasm, a genuine desire to guide his readers through the intricacies of the nation’s small yet complex literary landscape.
By far the largest portion of this hefty, nearly 800-page book is devoted to Adams’s writing on Welsh writers themselves. He picks out names from across genres and forms, including poets, novelists, diarists, philosophers and playwrights. Most write, or wrote, in English (Adams acknowledges that Welsh-language writing has always maintained a slightly separate cultural sphere), but many cross over into Cymraeg as well, bridging the gap carved out by linguistic difference and government policy.
There’s commentary on all the greats, of course: Dylan Thomas, Raymond Williams, Jan Morris, Rhys Davies, Gillian Clarke and the ‘odd, thorny mystic’ RS Thomas all have their moments in the letters. Adams’s writing on the big names of Welsh literature carries a uniquely personal touch – throughout his lengthy career he’s had a chance to meet most famous Welsh writers personally, or at least glimpse them from a distance. Memorably, Adams was present at Aberystwyth in 1952 when Dylan Thomas gave a public reading. His description of the podgy little figure in a battered suit reducing a hall of boisterous students to stunned silence reads like something from a 1950s campus novel.
Yet where Adams’s devotion to Welsh literature shines through clearest is in his championing of lesser-known authors. Adams is an energetic promoter of Tony Conran, Harri Webb and David Jones, some of the many talented writers who have slipped into obscurity. He salutes those figures who have facilitated Welsh writing, such as Roland Mathias and Raymond Garlick, founders of the Anglo-Welsh Review (now the New Welsh Review), and introduces his readers to new Welsh poets as they emerge over time, including Ellie Evans and Susan Richardson.
The letters don’t shy away from criticism where it’s due, either. Richard Llewellyn, author of the classic novel How Green Was My Valley, gets a notably rougher time in the letters. As Adams explains, Llewellyn’s Welshness was tenuous at best, his London upbringing and globetrotting lifestyle masked by ‘a smokescreen of pretension’. How Green Was My Valley was based on conversations between the author and residents of Adams’s home village of Gilfach Goch, in the Ogwr Fach valley. Adams recalls that those who met Llewellyn rarely had a good word to say about the man.
Adams’s commentary on Welsh writing is backed up by a generous bulk of letters on both the Welsh literary scene and Welsh culture in general. Literature in Wales inhabits a complex landscape of journals, libraries, committees, eisteddfodau, festivals (Hay looms into view several times), competitions and myriad other events and institutions that ebb and flow with the availability of funding. Adams navigates them deftly, again drawing on his personal experience to provide a flavour of what it means to be a poet in Wales.
His writing on wider Welsh culture is equally detailed. Adams selects a range of key cultural signifiers and ponders their history, future, and influence upon Welsh writing. There are some familiar themes – the Welsh language, Nonconformism, Glyndŵr, Tryweryn – as well as some more less obvious cultural markers, such as JRR Tolkien’s profound Cambrophilia. Particularly impressive is Adams’s ability to conjure commentary on a national culture from the smallest of personal interactions: the opening letter describes Adams polishing his grandfather’s brass mining lamp, a vignette which flows gently into an essay on the history of the South Wales coalfield.
These broader cultural letters help to anchor Adams’s carefully constructed Welsh literary scene within a national history. Occasionally departing from a contemporary focus, Adams devotes several letters to Welsh writing from the deep past. Here we discover William Salesbury, who translated the New Testament into Welsh in 1567, and the sixth-century monk Gildas, who charted the plight of the Britons in the wake of the Saxon invasions. Blending the contemporary and the historical strengthens the vision of a coherent Welsh literary scene that Adams drip-feeds to his readers, lending it a sense of continuity and legitimacy by grounding it in the past.
In doing so, Adams cultivates a holistic and detailed image of a Welsh literary culture as it has unravelled over the last twenty-five years. His achievement here could not be better timed. The ‘Letters from Wales’ column was first launched on the eve of devolution, when it seemed vital that Wales develop its own cultural voice in line with its new national status. Now, as Welsh autonomy is again called into question by stroppy Westminster unionism, it feels like time is ripe for Welsh writers and artists to reassert themselves.
This cannot be achieved, of course, without resources and institutions to support Welsh writing. Reading Letters from Wales, one cannot shake the sad feeling that the writers of Adams’s generation – most of whom came of age during the post-war years – would never have flourished without the significant public funding that was channelled into arts and learning over these decades. Theirs was the era of the post-1945 consensus, of massive public investment in the hope that artistic creation might extend beyond elite circles.
Now those precious resources are under threat. Budgets are being cut, wealth redirected. Arts and culture are usually first on the chopping block in times of paucity, their unquantifiable social benefits ignored by our profit-driven culture. Adams documents this trend, commenting on the constant threat of ‘cuts and wild anti-élitist notions’ that have bedevilled institutions, such as the National Library of Wales and Arts Council of Wales, from the 1990s to the present day.
Adams’s last letter on cuts to the arts is dated May 2021, and since then there’s been little sign of improvement. In December 2022, the Arts Council announced that its budget would shrink over the year ahead. Recently, the cash-strapped Council finalised a controversial reshuffle of the institutions it funds, with the National Theatre Wales among those now scrambling to find alternative means to survive. The picture is no better outside the public sector either. As Marine Furet explained recently in the welsh agenda, the independent publishing sector in Wales (and elsewhere) is trapped in a state of precarity, severely hampering the emergence of new literary voices.
Letters from Wales stands alone as an invaluable guide to Welsh writing, but it can also be read as a warning. If the literary scene in Wales that Sam Adams describes so evocatively is to survive, it needs structural stability. Without adequate resources, the Welsh writers of tomorrow will never be given a voice, and the Welsh cultural sector – and perhaps Welsh identity itself – will wither and die.
Letters from Wales is available now from Parthian Books.