PENfro Book Festival 2013

For the fourth and final day of its annual PENfro Festival, Rhosygilwen is presenting a very different scene to that of the summer opera. Impresario Glen Peters and producer Buddug Verona James have an unfailing ability to alight on a July weekend that is invariably that month’s most golden. Rhosygilwen, located on a high point a few miles from the Cilgerran Gorge, has on this mid-September Sunday a persistent squally rain gusting in from the Irish Sea.

If the elegant Courtyard is a blowy space to be rushed through, the atmosphere across the Hall, Orangery, Conservatory and Summer House is convivial and animated. Swansea is hosting a big-hitter of a literary event this same weekend. What Rhosygilwen may lack in academic oomph and lustre it more than makes up for in intimacy and an endearing sense of linkage between author, reader and publisher.

Rhosygilwen has its conservatory, but it is far removed from that term’s usual connotation of a glass-and-timber structural bolt-on to be had from the likes of B&Q.  Its walls are of stone, its bay windows are deep and square-cut, and it contains a mural, piano, several oils and a roof lantern whose top is thirty feet above the room’s floor. But still intimate; Lucy Gannon on her afternoon appearance is four feet from the front row of her audience.

Lucy Gannon’s first sentence has a bracing difference. ‘I started writing when I was thirty-nine.’ Asked as to why she started, her response is for the best reason of all. ‘We were broke.’ A thoroughly non-authorial life story has involved a husband in an industrial sector in decline and a stint in an overseas country with fierce capital controls. A supportive dad rings up with news of a writing competition: ‘Write a play and you can win two thousand quid.’ The writing competition, with borrowed typewriter and weirdly uncooperative fax machine paper, is entered into alongside others like the one that requires collecting the caps from used washing-up liquid bottles.

But the second reason for writing emerges immediately. On creating Keeping Tom Nice she discovers that ‘writing, it was so exciting.’ It is a quarter-century on now, but she says ‘I still get that excitement when things work.’ That first competition brought her into the view of a television talent scout who declared ‘she can write.’ As a dramatist she is sharply self-aware. An innate sense for drama may be there but ‘I’m hopeless at structure. I need a good editor.’ She closes with ‘I’m not a great writer. I know how to write dialogue. I can make people laugh. That’s it.’

That is modest, because she really knows her medium. Whereas new-writing theatres receive scripts by the sackful from aspirant dramatists who know only television, Lucy Gannon is the reverse. ‘I’d only ever been to the theatre once as an adult and that was because we’d got free tickets.’ But she knew television, she knew from Z-Cars onwards how a story unfolds visually.

She is an exemplar, like Richard Bean, of the writer who has had a life before the writing, in her case nursing and a spell in the army – on leaving school she is in need of a job that ‘comes with a job attached.’ She is generous on the mini-industry that has sprung up to teach apprentice writers: ‘They won’t make you a writer but they will make you a better writer.’ Had she had benefit, she says, she would have been the better writer for it.

Jim Perrin is not endeared of the Creative Writing project, engendering, in his view, writing about writing. He cares little for the genre that is exemplified by the Chair of the Booker Panel. The shadow of Hemingway runs too deep, its pointedness not far from the purposes of journalism. Perrin’s own prose, which he reads in a rain-spattered Summer House, comprises sentences with characteristic rolling lengths of twenty or more words. It reads aloud well, not surprisingly as much of it is crafted to a pentameter rhythm. He has that ability to fashion sentences that ring out not just as right but as unfailingly fresh.

Jim Perrin’s companion is Mark Charlton. The two writers confess a common background in mountaineering and a friendship that stretches back a decade or more. There has been an element of the tutor to it too. Charlton reads an account of his ascent of the Doethie Valley to Soar-y-Mynydd with a teenage son in tow. Perrin too was earlier in Doethie and Pisgotwr on his travels with the Flea.

Charlton’s home is close to the coast and he writes close-up about Wales’ largest starling flock. His new book contains an appreciation of Porthgain, that jewel of a place that uniquely combines rock and cliff-top, industrial architecture, fish dining, fine art and a superlative drinking place.

Rhosygilwen’s Hall is host to a thriving mini-book fair. For a future year interviewers and facilitators should not presume an audience’s familiarity where the programme has omitted the name.  A bold announcement of name helps and informs. (It is not an omission limited to the Arts. At a prestigious annual lecture a couple of years ago the First Minister was introduced by an unidentified stranger, in fact no less than a Vice-Chancellor.)   

Lucy Gannon along with Elaine Morgan were the first women writers to be of clout in television. Heading early on, with some apprehension, to a production meeting crammed with Oxbridge Torquils a friendly soul says to her, ‘None of them would be here if it weren’t for you.’

It is a nice reminder for the writers at Rhosygilwen and over at the Rhys Davies event. Audience, buyers, listeners, enthusiasts; none of us would be here if it weren’t for you.