Tom Anderson, Chair of The Welsh Academy, the national society of writers in Wales, examines the challenges for such an organisation in a rapidly changing world, and what the future might hold.
When Marlowe’s Dr Faustus gets his chance to ask Mephistopheles about Hell, and about why the devil might want to bring the greatest minds into his fellowship, he’s told Lucifer is always looking to enlarge his kingdom. Pushing on in his inquisition, Faustus asks why, and receives a wonderfully terse reply – albeit in Latin: Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris. It is a comfort, in misery, to be able to share it with others.
This quote seems, today, useful in pondering the condition of the writer. It is a generally lonely pursuit, which can take us to the ends of our wits – and a pursuit which can often be all but bereft of opportunities to share experiences and ideas with others. I think the choice of Latin is ironic here too; an extinct language. Of course, in Wales, we have a language almost as old, but which is thriving. Perhaps our refraining from the lures of empire, or simply the sheer beauty of our national song, has allowed us to keep that privilege. However, as I look ahead to the month of April, and with it a crunch meeting in the history of the Welsh Academy, I wonder how much appetite there is nowadays for this country’s writers to share their misery with others. How keen are we, I wonder, to convene, to meet, to socialise and to collectivise?
I’m aware it’s been a while since last The Welsh Academy contacted its membership and fellowship in full. This has, essentially, in part been due to our having limited our activities pending the outcomes of discussions regarding the future direction of our organisation. For a range of reasons, both simple and more complex, we’ve been coming to terms with the logistic challenges of fostering an active enough membership body to survive without administrative and logistic support from much bigger organisations. This has occurred simultaneously to an ongoing, and nuanced debate about what exactly the writers of Wales want an entity like the Academy to look like. And, indeed, whether we want one at all.
This is why I’ve recently sent the following letter to all members and fellows:
Dear Members, Fellows and Honorary Members of The Welsh Academy,
I hope you’re all well. It has been some time since The Welsh Academy contacted its membership and fellowship in full, due to a range of factors. The Welsh Academy Board has been considering the organisation’s direction and identity, following from the Memorandum of Understanding with Literature Wales which was intended as a pathway for The Welsh Academy to gain full independence for its membership. As a result, I have decided to call for an Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) for all members of The Welsh Academy to discuss and agree the future existence and identity of our own organisation.
The EGM is an opportunity to consider all options for the future. This is a necessary discussion and it is now urgent. Due to imminent changes to data protection legislation it will prove difficult for Literature Wales to continue with the current responsibility of administrative support, given its own remit and the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding, and alternative arrangements will now need to be explored (further information about this legislation and its consequences will be provided at the EGM). I will also be stepping down as Chair following the meeting.
The membership must decide what kind of organisation they wish The Welsh Academy to be and who will step up to run it – possible options include: The Welsh Academy is brought to an end; another group of members takes on the roles and responsibilities of The Welsh Academy Board; or the organisation’s nature is changed to reflect the needs of the membership. Such an important decision requires engagement and discussion with The Welsh Academy membership and that is why the EGM must happen.
Supported by The Welsh Academy Board, I am calling for an EGM. It will be held at the Marine Hotel in Aberystwyth at 2pm on Saturday the 14th of April 2018. Afternoon refreshments will be provided for those in attendance, and the meeting is open to all Full Members, Fellows and Honorary Members. If you are unable to attend, or wish to discuss any aspect of this further, please contact me at the following email address:
You may also send a written representation of your views to this email address if you cannot attend the EGM. This may be the last opportunity for the membership to voice their concerns or communicate their vision for The Welsh Academy and I strongly urge you to attend.
It has been a pleasure to serve the writers of Wales as Chair of the Welsh Academy – a feeling shared by the rest of the Board. The Welsh Academy’s membership must now decide the organisation’s future direction and I look forward to seeing you in Aberystwyth on the 14th of April 2018.
You can access EventBrite (https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/) and search for Cyfarfod Cyffredinol Anghyffredin Yr Academi Gymreig – The Welsh Academy Extraordinary General Meeting.
It seems we’re at more than just a cross-roads right now. I must stress I don’t believe The Welsh Academy’s slowing has been anything to do with cuts in funds – but rather securing the engagement of its membership and fellowship. There have been a range of exciting ideas suggested to me, both on and off the record, regarding where next. Many are suggesting a more fluid organisation which doesn’t have the traditional, shall I say, governance of an authoritative structure like a board or committee – perhaps, instead, some are suggesting something like “a collective”. Likewise, there’s interest in moving to a fully independent, essentially private, body (the board and I have been trying, for several years now, to find ways of doing this successfully and sustainably). Each of these ideas has its merits and drawbacks. It is entirely possible, though, that at this EGM we’re going to have to essentially wind up, for want of being able to hand over the reins, entirely, to another group of writers – as such a group may well not exist. This is what’s at stake, though, on the 14th April, as far as attendance is concerned.
Wales needs a body for writers, of that I’m sure. A body which celebrates our literary achievements, while looking out for the interests of its current professional writing communities. But quite how strong the actual demand is for this, among writers, is unclear at the moment. Perhaps there’s a silent majority out there which wants a strong Welsh Academy to find its feet, to execute its articles and objectives in exactly the guise in which it is currently set out to operate; perhaps the day and age of such a formally constituted organisation existing out of necessity are over. (I do not believe that to be the case, but I’m aware my voice is only one among many on that matter.) Either way, big decisions are shortly to be made.
In the meantime (and this is why I’m grateful to Wales Arts Review for offering the platform to share this) I would want to urge those critical of or concerned by the state and status of The Welsh Academy to make sure they are either able to attend the above detailed meeting, or send another member or fellow to make representations on their behalf. I think it is relevant here to repeat the detail about requests for contact above; in the wake of both the campaign against cuts to the Welsh Books Council and the public sphere’s response to the Hughes Report, I contacted several of the most high-profile online critics of the The Welsh Academy to request discussions or meetings, and many did not respond other than in the public sphere. I would hope such critics can see this face-to-face, open-to-all, public opportunity for its value, and attend to make their concerns known to everyone, as there may not be another opportunity.
If we can’t work out a way to keep some community of writers going in this country, then we could well be facing our future miseries (and joys of course!) in solum. This is never advisable. We all need someone to call, if not for fellowship, then at least to advise us what to do when Beelzebub, Lucifer and Mephistopheles visit us in our study.
The Welsh Academy