Dinefwr Estate, Llandeilo
Friday 20th to Sunday 22nd June 2014
Even at first glimpse, there is something very special, unobtrusive, modest even, about Newton House as it emerges from the lush countryside in which it is embedded. It sits comfortably in the grounds, a natural presence amidst woodland to the one side and an ancient Deer Park to the other. It is the heart of the landscape and the essence of the Dinefwr Literature Festival.
On arrival, an easy hour is passed in the rose garden, watching deer graze in the middle distance, the cadences of peacock song lending an eerie quality to the kneeling house. It is just a short walk from Newton to the ruins of Dinefwr Castle, which stand as old and familiar as the bones of Cair Paravel, looking down over proceedings from between a break in the forested horizon. The Dinefwr Estate is the perfect setting for a festival of this kind.
Of course, the beautiful weather has a big impact on the laid-back feel of the place. The Dinefwr Festival debuted two years ago in weather to worry Noah and tales of circus tents being washed away under the unyielding downpour are already part of folklore amongst the festival organisers. It does make a difference being able to amble across the grounds, pint in hand, rather than scurrying hunched, from tent to tent, mind partly on taking in the entertainment, partly on keeping out the elements. (For saying that, the events were not without new distractions; the spoken word tent and music tent were perhaps a little too close to each other, and more than one performer noted the struggles of a lone voice competing with a fully amplified band just a hundred yards or so away.)
Dinefwr is completely in tune with the relaxed, understated flavour of what a literature festival should be about; the celebration of words, art, and music. There is a palpable sense of inclusion in the Welsh arts community. The festival has a cosiness to it, and a pace adaptable to the individual. Exploring the house and gardens of the Dinefwr Estate, now under the stewardship of the National Trust, almost feels like a separate day out, until you step out into the courtyard to stages, children’s activities, and ale tents. These two contrasting atmospheres complement each other well, giving it balance between family-friendly merriment and a knees-up.
Friday’s eclectic bill fared well. Jeremy Hardy who – perhaps most famous for occupying a chair on Radio 4’s News Quiz – was a real highlight; he brought more than just the expected dry sense of humour to the evening. He opened by declaring there would be no form to his performance, just him moving from topic to topic dictated by his levels of boredom. His material is immediate, taken from the day’s news, and his seemingly off-the-cuff meandering is an important part of a very winning stage persona. His comedic style is easy and intimate and he moves swiftly from topic to topic without going too far into politics or losing the audience’s attention. His curmudgeonly reputation is a mixture of mischievous ‘act’ and genuine disillusionment with the status quo. A famous left-winger, he was largely in a room of like-minds here in deep West Wales, but it did not blunt any of his attacks on the current Westminster Cabinet, from Michael Gove to one of Hardy’s pet-hates, ‘Irritable Duncan Syndrome’.
Later in the same tent, veteran dissident performance poet, Attila the Stockbroker, 3,000 gigs under his belt, paid sincere eulogy to a parade of working class causes. The Miners’ Strike anniversary was ever present, and Thatcher, Hillsborough and the general sorry state of working class Britain were predictably much referred to in Attila’s characteristic no-nonsense eviscerating verse. But what was perhaps quite unexpected was his personal reflections: his mother’s Alzheimer’s, for instance, inspired an extremely moving poem. But soon he moved moments like this back to the broader themes that have filled the work of one of the busiest men in British performance poetry for thirty five years – remembering a family visitor during his mother’s declining health he is moved to pass comment on working-class Tories and their hypocritical, ignorant, and entirely self-defeating view-points. Perhaps unsurprisingly, and encouragingly, he ends with the declamation, ‘As long as I’m standing, I’ll be standing on stage.’
Friday’s headliner, Charlotte Church, delivered a very interesting and unexpected performance. Church herself was in a fiery mood, and her band really asserted themselves; they were more than just a collection of hired session musicians. Church has certainly gone for a new direction; the 80s’-sounding synth against a duo drum-kit gave it a ragged distinctiveness; and vocally Church soared. Lyrically it was much more engaged than anything she has done in past incarnations, and anyone expecting a shouty rendition of ‘Rock Chick’ must have been quite confused (Church herself warned her audience against such expectations). The sound was so much more intelligent than her usual brand of pop, a refreshing foray into experimentalism, touches of European electronica mixed with an old school garage band energy. If nothing else – and this has not always been a hallmark of Church’s music – it seemed authentic. However, there was something overall which did not gel; in her shimmering batwing top, Church moved at times like a figure out of place, out of scene. There remains a sneaking suspicion that no matter what Charlotte Church does she just cannot quite be edgy or cool, she is always to be unmistakably ‘Charlotte Church’ and try as she might that can’t be re-branded into something else. But for that, this latest incarnation of Charlotte Church is, without a doubt, the most interesting to date.
(Saturday and Sunday)
Michou Burckett St. Laurent
Saturday at Dinefwr began with Bridget Christie and her own brand of feminist rhetoric. If you think that feminism is not a suitable subject for stand-up comedy then I suggest that you take a tour of some of the more uncomprehending reviews of Christie’s Edinburgh Comedy Award-winning show, or better still, some of the fatuous opinions posted in the comments feed below them. There is, for one thing, far too much lazy conflation of feminism with misandry.
Perhaps to anticipate the derision of her critics, the set opened with a play on the infamous line ‘this lady is not for turning’. In this Christie deconstructs what it means to be a feminist: someone who argues for women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes. She equates the reception of feminism with that of racism in her ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ and poses the question of ‘what is a feminist icon’ anyway? Christie’s point is that feminism should be a principle everyone endorses and the fact that it is not means we should think seriously about who is setting the agenda. In one of the funniest sections of the routine she lambasts Stirling Moss for his comments about women not having the ‘aptitude’ for F1 driving. Moss stated that ‘the mental stress I think would be pretty difficult for a lady to deal with in a practical fashion’. (The show itself is titled after an equally idiotic idea of a biro designed for ‘the woman’s hand’.) Moss gets the full treatment through a fantasy epic about his untimely demise and funeral, which culminates in scantily clad guests stuffing cake into their ears whilst surrounded by the spunking champagne bottles symbolic of any F1 win. Why do Moss and his ilk continue to receive more support then censure? Is it because we have become inured to the offensive and downright stupid things that some people say?
Wales Arts Review then presented two readings from their short story series, A Fictional Map of Wales. Rachel Trezise’s ‘The Abergorki Long Veg Growing Society’ is a dark comedy about Valleys’ life, told through the trials of a wayward, over-competitive veg grower. Trezise, a brilliant reader of her own stories, managed to delicately navigate the weighty issues of thwarted ambition and the frustration of displacement, whilst remaining extremely funny. Tyler Keevil’s ‘Fabrications’, meanwhile, explored how the object of memory can be that which orientates us. A rug, chanced upon during a meeting with an eccentric shop owner, frames a picture of life in Wales, conflating past with present and making the seemingly transient tangible. Fittingly, the walls of the Cinema Room where the readings took place charted the history of Newton House and Dinefwr Park. That Trezise and Keevil also read alongside a quote from Capability Brown seemed a particularly appropriate backdrop for a modern-day reimagining of life in Wales; ‘I wish my journey may be of use to the place… nature has been truly beautiful and art has done no harm’.
The next event was ‘Letters of Note’, Shaun Usher’s collection of both notorious and little known correspondences. There was, at times, something startlingly moving about the consolation sought and shared between the writers and recipients. One such letter was sent by a family who farmed outside Lockerbie. They had discovered the body of a young man on their land after the Pan Am plane disaster of 1988. The letter tells of how they had adopted the stranger as their own, grieving for him and worrying about the family yet to find him. When the body was identified the families were put in contact and this was the first correspondence between them. It was such a beautifully crafted and thoughtful letter that there was barely a dry eye left in the audience.
The following day began in the rose garden, listening to Wales Book of the Year winner Rhian Edwards read her brand new contribution to the Fictional Map of Wales series. This tale of Bridgend versus Manhattan ‘wedlock’ remains as yet ‘Untitled’ but her first full-length foray into short story writing is a witty and subtle investigation into relinquishing autonomy. In it, a woman and her husband go to see a couple’s therapist, ‘the human equivalent of rent’. Thinking that she has the support and validation of a stranger the woman allows herself to be flattered and praised into an appropriated position. The therapist’s untimely holiday plans and her shift from marriage ‘mediator’ to break-up facilitator shatter the love-in. The woman is forced to recognise that devolving the responsibility of choice is not the therapy needed. Both she and her husband have both fallen for ‘the quintessential con-artist’.
The day ended on a high with a joint reading by Owen Sheers and Rhian Edwards. They provided an illuminating contrast to one another, something which acted as a moving counterpoint to the prevailing topics of intimacy, loss and escape. Sheers’ ‘Pink Mist’ is about three young men ‘not going someplace but leaving somewhere’. They sign up to war trying to escape displacement and lack of opportunity, only to be isolated by the physical and psychological repercussions of service. Their stories are told alongside the families they returned to and chart their attempts to readjust to civilian life. The title comes from the term used to describe the ‘there, and then not’ obliteration of a body in an explosion. The ‘pink mist’, a horrific miasma. This shattering extends through once intimate relationships, ‘the boy you married/ lying by your side but somewhere else/ – shrinking, out of sight’. It alienates the men from themselves and from the world, leaving only ‘the broken promise’ of a better life.
Rhian Edwards predominantly read from her collection Clueless Dogs. Whilst there were similar themes of isolation and brutality in her work they were from a different but equally moving perspective. ‘Ghost Water’ is also about the isolating self-doubt of loss: ‘In adult medusa you uprooted, became/ a wandering lamp….’ Whilst the addition of poems such as ‘Parents’ Evening’ and ‘Petra’, with her parents ‘built like polar bears and born in their cardigans’, provided a witty and poignant contrast to the adolescent life of Sheers’ soldiers.
All in all it was a perfect way to end an extremely enjoyable few days. Not only did Dinefwr provide a beautiful backdrop for the events but its rootedness within – and its panoramic views of – the rural Welsh landscape made it the perfect place to ‘remember, recapture and reimagine’.
I was pretty damn glad I finally caught up with ‘Dylan Live’, being an uber hip and cucumber cool illustrated lecture by Swansea-based academic Daniel Williams. One imagines that usually the coolest teaching aide he’ll normally have at his disposal is a whiteboard, but in this case he could call on the beat-boxing skills of north Wales producer Ed Holden a.k.a Mr Phormula along with a hipster crew of poets and performers, including the wonderful, yowling young poet Zaru Jonson. Together they examined the four American tours of Dylan Thomas from various perspectives, tying them in to the Beats, to jazz and a American interest in desire for Celtic colour, inspiration or spirituality. In fact they worked as a jazz act, riffing and synchopating, soloing and then melding together again into a very satisfying whole.
Indeed, one of the very real pleasures of the performance was seeing the way in which the energetic ensemble reacted to each other’s solos: the Young People’s Laureate for Wales Martin Daws was only just this side of rapture as he listened to multi-linguist and ebullient Welsh language rapper Aneirin Karadog deliver a chunk of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in Breton. Daws’ own poem about Jericho more than matched Dylan for euphony and melody while the manic energy and very direct appeal of Jonson’s contributions made for a dizzy and mayhem mix. Apparently they’d tightened the work since they last performed it in New York but was still a little baggy and overlong in parts. That said this was a rumbustious, uplifting and completely innovative way of explaining and exploring Dylan in America. The ending, taking its musical cue from the elegy Igor Stravinsky penned to the self-styled Welsh Rimbaud was clever, sincere and sincerely clever. As he set up this final section the fine bassist Huw V. Williams gave us a chance to appreciate the extent to which he’d underpinned the performance musically, adding deep tones and vibrating timbre.
Oddly, the other stand-out event for me happened to be another illustrated lecture, this time by Gruff Rhys. I’d seen his ‘American Interior’ show at Hay, but found it no less appealing the second time around. It came in the week John Harris wrote a glowing review of the book in The Guardian: what with the film and the app versions of the same story – Waunfawr labourer John Evans’ quest to find the Welsh speaking Indian tribe, the Mandans, in the heart of America – doing so well, it’s fair to say that here is the first truly multi-media artist in Wales. Like Bjork. Only funnier. I’d happily see the show again. ‘Nuff said.
I was also privileged to talk to Cynan Jones and his editor at Granta, Laura Barber about the terse masterpiece that is his third novel, The Dig and about the relationship between them. It was very revealing about the benefits to the writer, who sometimes resorts to subterfuge to get his way. It also proved to anyone present how serious Cynan takes his work: he even talks about ‘a Cynan Jones novel’ in the third person, as if there’s a deliberate act of detachment.
And, finally, in a packed session where my good friend Geraint Lewis and I talked about the Welsh language short story it was pleasing to see so many non-Welsh speakers in the audience, taking advantage of the simultaneous translation. The mix of Welsh and English languages at Dinefwr might be the evolving USP of the festival, doing a bit of bridge-building on National Trust land.
Dynevor’s second Literary Festival is held over Midsummer’s weekend. The sky on a Sunday lunchtime is cloudless, the temperature such that the windows of the elegant Drawing Room are open wide. Two writers sit at ease in armchairs with a view of hot parkland and forest behind.
Byron Rogers and Dan Tyte are forty years apart in age. One comes from the tight terraces of Splott, the other from Bancyfelin before, aged five and a Welsh monoglot, moving to Carmarthen. Tyte’s Half Plus Seven is selling nicely but not enough to give up the day job. Byron Rogers, a career journalist, came late to seeing his work in hard covers. Cumulatively, his essays over several books combine to make a unique voice. The writers are connected in concern for Wales and Wales-ness.
Both authors have Rogers’ Three Journeys in their laps and Tyte invites its author to read freely. Appropriately, the first passage is Rogers’ take on the location itself, a piece of Dynevor’s turbulent past. Rogers draws on memory and biography for his essays. Tyte guides him among other tales towards the ludicrous adventure of the friend with the one hundred and forty-four condoms. But Rogers is utterly without sentimentality. Historic Carmarthen is frequently evoked in favela terms, a place of hazard where policemen dare not walk singly. He sees the uplands east of Carreg Cennen not in tourist promotional terms but as trackless and empty. In the wrong weather it will kill its innocent visitors.
Tyte is concerned that Wales does not project itself in the way of Scotland and Ireland. ‘The truth is’ says Rogers ‘the English have no interest in Wales.’ Rogers is good on debunking the views of Wales by its writer-visitors. One bafflingly ‘wrote about slate tombstones, slate walls, even whole houses made of slate.’ Rogers reviews a chronicle about a smallholding above Crickhowell. Its name is Tair Ffynnon; its meaning, declares the hapless author, is ‘Four Wells.’ ‘Oops’ writes Rogers simply.
Rogers’ history is close-up detail. He knows that in 1804 an unknown sawyer took the gibbet that over-looked Carmarthen and made himself a bedstead from it. He cites the remedy for treatment of haemorrhoids from the Physicians of Myddfai. It entails the drying and smoking of goat’s flesh, its reduction to powder and then placing in a commode.
Carmarthen itself has changed utterly and he is invited to comment how. ‘Oh, everything’s b***ered now’ is the succinct response. Tyte worries that the digital world may be replacing tales told and shared. He himself recalls a childhood companion by name of ‘Eddie Eyebrows.’ ‘You could have turned him upside down and swept the floor with him.’ He need not worry. The posting of statuses on the advertising goliath from Menlo Park peaks at age fourteen. Intriguing new market research conducted for retailers is finding that brand estimation declines for those organisations that most inhabit social media. Human beings are organo-chemical analogue structures. We gather socially, and we make events like Dynevor throb.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis