Today we revisit a feature from two-time winner of the Wales Book of the Year, Niall Griffiths, who reflects on the process of writing his novel Broken Ghost – which went on to win WBOTY in 2020 – in a piece originally published by Wales Arts Review in 2017.
There’s less than a week to vote for Wales Book of the Year People’s Choice 2022. Wales Arts Review is proud to once again be sponsoring the people’s choice award, and to celebrate we’ll be looking back at a range of archive interviews, articles and reviews with previous WBOTY winners. Don’t forget to vote for the 2022 WBOTY People’s Choice winner, here!
A couple of years ago, when I was a bit younger and the world was much nicer, I spent a day in the hills above my house. They’re the Pendam mountains, nominally, but function really as the foothills to the much bigger massif of Pumlumon, which you can feel the vast swell of as a physical fact when you’re up there; it burgeons and rolls around you, pulling the very sky lower. There are windfarms and pine forests up there, of course – this is mid Wales, after all, and thus a piggybank for many a rapacious entrepreneur – but also deep and slatey lakes and silence and ragged peaks and raptors and ancient traces of traffic of all and every kind, from the trace-fossils in the rock of the writhings of worms to the skull-splitting shriek of warplanes overhead. There is value here, and magic, and much wonder. It was a hot day and I stopped for a breather on a small hillock overlooking Llyn Syfydrin and I remembered a time some years ago when I was a lot younger and the world was a hell of a lot nicerer and I awoke on the pebble beach below, surrounded by other slumbering humps, hungover, all raved out, and I remember the younger me looking up to this ridge on which the older me sat, then, on that summer afternoon.
There’d be a shape. He would’ve seen a shape, up on that ridge. And what if other people saw a shape. . . and maybe that shape would be floating, in the sky. . . This is how books arrive – with flickering memories, with thoughts that flash like fireflies. Supernatural visions, especially those of seemingly divine provenance and import, have long been fascinating to me, and I remember heading home, off the mountain, pondering on such places as Fatima and Knock and Lourdes with their Marian apparitions and their ensuing imbued powers and their mighty magnetism – how they draw the desperate and the suffering. I need to read about this, I thought. So, of course, I went online, and there they were, the books: McClure’s Evidence for Visions of the Virgin Mary. Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds. Heavenly Lights, by Fernandes and d’Armada. Thousands of online reports, eye-witness accounts, photographs of Marian shapes appearing in buildings, oil-spills, beer-foam, slices of toast.
All interesting enough, to be sure. And the mind stretches and tendrils around its preoccupations, its obsessions; is there a political dimension to such phenomena? Has there been any studies of this question? Well, there’s William James; there’s Terry Eagleton; there’s John Cornwell and I.M.Lewis’s Ecstatic Religion. Ah, now, this notion of ecstasy. . . there’d been ecstasy, of a sort, in the younger me waking up on the lake shore, in that infatuate past, but how about the politicisation of ecstasy, and, in particular, the search for such? The need to feel alive, to seek ritual amongst mainstream monotony, to reach, with glee, that place of sensuality and hedonism which so terrifies the agents of social control with their laws of trespass and Repetitive Beat proscriptions. This seems, somehow, to overlap with religious experience, especially that older, more emotive sort which is manifest in the busting through into modernity represented by the apparition. Does it? Well, Barbara Ehrenreich, in her Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, states that it most definitely does.
Wild places. Ancient gods and modern interpretations. Drugs and dancing, and the deep dissatisfaction that is inherent in them. The animal in the human. Apparitions; the God particle in the brain. These thoughts like fireflies, swirling, pirouetting in darkness, some starting to make contact and join. What’s missing? This is the 21st century; the internet is what’s missing. Search again. Hit on The Internet and the Madonna by Paolo Apolito. There’s a book, or a website, to satisfy, in however varying a degree, every interest, it seems.
And now there’s a shape. There’s a discernible shape. And it looks a bit like three people on the Llyn Syfydrin shore, only those three awake amongst slumbering humps and the smouldering embers of firepits. There is the soft lapping of lake water. There is rising mist. And there is a shape in the sky, vaguely humanoid, floating above the ridge on which I sat on that summer afternoon a couple of years ago. And now, in the mind that writes, there is expansion, and revelation, and the achievement of something, some realisation, that shines and is perfect and is crystalline, because now I need a book which ties up all the threads, which is the blob of honey around which the fireflies coalesce into a singular glow, a book which will study and encapsulate all of the bouncing, throbbing themes and thoughts which were teased out and unleashed in that resting moment on the ridge a couple of summers ago. But such a book doesn’t exist. So it must be written. And now it has been; it’s called Broken Ghost and it’ll be published some time next year.
Broken Ghost by Niall Griffiths went on to win Wales Book of the Year.
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Gareth Kent reviews Niall Griffiths’ haunting depiction of modern Welsh society encumbered by austerity and disconnection in his new novel, Broken Ghost.