Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Brand New Website

This will be the last blog in this current format. It has now found its proper home on our revamped website where you can read tasters from the current, spring issue together with exclusive interviews of our three key authors from that issue, Christopher Meredith, Jane Yeh and Robert Minhinnick. The current issue contains a marvellous essay on Porthcawl's international Elvis festival, with photos by Eamon Bourke and Lucy Minhinnick; an exclusive extract from Chris Meredith's new novel The Book of Idiots and a new poem by Jane Yeh. But you'll have to buy a copy or subscribe (£19) to read these in full. Hopefully our full interviews with these key authors will whet your appetite en route to subscribing rather than sustaining it.

Blogs, my Western Mail Insider columns, guest blogs, reviews and further author interviews can also be found at the shiny new site as well as pieces from previous issues in full, and classic pieces from our new Vintage Gems showcase (lace gloves not required to log in). And more - take a browse! We'll let our Facebook Friends know as new material comes on board.

Also, in addition to exclusives from Chris Meredith, Robert Minhinnick and Jane Yeh, in issue 95, out now: Dylan Moore on football; Claire Flay and Steven Lovatt on different takes on interwar author Dorothy Edwards; Jeremy Hughes' nonfiction response to Idris Davies' 'The Angry Summer, A Poem of 1926'; Extracts from the Diaries of Dyfrig Prydderch, 1936 (Romanian travel journal) by Diarmuid Johnson; short story, 'Narrenturm' by Eliza Granville; Peter Finch's books column; poetry by Damian Walford Davies (preview of Witch) and by Martyn Crucefix; Stevie Krayer; Paul Henry and Bethany Pope. Enjoy, and let the paper soothe your eye strain.

Next editor's blog in its new home will be on Indian author Sampurna Chatterjee.

Gwen Davies, editor

Monday, 5 March 2012

Far South by David Enrique Spellman. Review by Robert Walton

The mystery could run and run, and not just that of the author’s identity: Spellman, the so-called ‘voice of the Far South Project’, who assembled the 2006 casebook of Argentinian private investigator, Juan Manuel Pérez, together with witness depositions and a graphic diary by associates of the missing avant-garde Uruguayan theatre director, Gerardo Fischer. Nor, indeed, the motives and circumstances surrounding Fischer’s disappearance, which become increasingly labyrinthine as the tale unfolds, involving experimental theatre, the criminal underworld of Argentina, ex-Nazis in hiding, the corrupt Italian masonic lodge P2 and Hizbullah, with international arms-dealing, a dodgy adoption agency and police corruption thrown in for good measure. But the fact that the book is one element of a multi-dimensional project incorporating two websites - with additional text, audio and video clips and opportunities for readers’ input - is an innovative expansion of the connections between traditional publishing and new technologies and offers the possibility that the story’s mystery could continue forever.

To all extents and purposes, Far South is a detective novel featuring a classic, quick-witted, down-at-heel investigator with a shady history. A reader who knows his Pessoa and his Borges, Pérez is divorced, attracted to almost every woman he meets and enjoys wry, monosyllabic exchanges with his trusty sidekick, Rangel. Inevitably he becomes involved with Ana, a member of the artists’ colony which commissions him to find Fischer. As he realises that the case is more dangerous than it’s worth, the distinctions between the professional and the private become blurred. His relationship with his father, a serving cop, comes under pressure and raises issues of loyalty, trust and truth. The more personal the quest becomes, the less certain we are of what is true and the more we see Far South subverting the genre it celebrates.

Gerardo Fischer’s disappearance could be a criminal or political act in a country where the desaparecidos were a tragic feature of life under the junta in the 70s and early 80s. But there is also the possibility that Fischer has staged it himself: he has ‘previous’ in this respect and his power as an artist derives from ‘taking people right out to the edge … (he) makes people drop their masks and be real for once in their lives.’ The investigation leads Pérez and the reader to understand that the more we pursue the real, the more elusive it can be. Constantly sharing his questions with the reader, Pérez makes the connection between the role of the private dick and the artist when he considers his relationship with Ana: ‘I was a digger in the dirt of human lives. But wasn’t that what she aspired to as an actress?’

Beautifully written in the lucid, direct style that has become the hallmark of some of the best crime fiction, Far South almost serves as a masterclass in Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction: dialogue indicated only by ‘said’; sparse use of adverbs; concise description of characters; no prologue (though it includes an epilogue to superb structural effect); no use of ‘suddenly’; few, if any, exclamation-marks, and so on. But Spellman is no student of Leonard, as his three previous novels, in very different genres and published under another name, attest. As a writer in both guises, he is his own man, adjusting his style to his form and purpose. The intense, overheated atmosphere of remote Argentinian sierra towns and the vibrancy of busy Buenos Aires are evoked through sharp detail. In portraying the roll-call of characters embroiled in the story, Spellman deploys simple brushstrokes of significant physical appearance. And yet the absolute precision in describing the process of cleaning a M1911 pistol, mounting a horse, or negotiating a roadworks construction-site, for example, show an authoritative writer fully in command of his material.

Far South is an intriguing read, its mysteries deepening at every turn. As befits its genre, there are numerous twists, surprises and cul-de-sacs, but the abiding feeling is that the act of investigation, whether as artist or detective, generates more questions than answers. And in any case, approaching the truth does not necessarily dispel the mystery. If the world of art and theatre is ‘phantasmagoric’, Prez asks, ‘how much more illusory was this world than the world I’d been used to: the world of cops, and thieves and killers?’ This is compelling fiction that chips away at one’s sense of illusion and reality.

The reader is not duty-bound to access the QR codes and website links by smartphone or computer, of course. The printed text offers a visually attractive, pleasantly tactile experience of reading in itself. But taking the extra step into the virtual world of the Far South Project is very worthwhile, bringing additional layers of possibility to the reading, and raising further tantalising speculation about why the book received a Creative Wales Award: what exactly are Spellman’s connections with Wales? And don’t some of those faces and places in the videos look strangely, mysteriously familiar?

Visit: and

A shorter version of this was published in the Insider column, Western Mail, on Saturday 3 March 2012.

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Monday, 27 February 2012

Rhys Davies Short Story Competition and University of Glamorgan Author Interview Films

Last week the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay played host to the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition ceremony. The night was kick-started by a preview screening of a recently rediscovered set of recorded interviews from 1991–1993 of Welsh fiction writers. The nine films comprise a Who’s Who of Wales’ authors writing fiction in English towards the end of the twentieth century. The interviews were produced by Professor Tony Curtis and shot at the Trefforest campus for a series from what was then the Polytechnic of Wales. These films will soon be available at

They comprise: Dannie Abse reading from his autobiographical book There was a Young Man from Cardiff and his poem ‘Miss Crouch’; Ron Berry reading his story ‘A November Kill’; Emyr Humphreys with a section from A Toy Epic; Siân James reading from her award-winning novel Yesterday; Glyn Jones (‘It’s not by his beak you can judge a woodcock’); Elaine Morgan with an extract from The Aquatic Ape; Leslie Norris (‘A Flight of Geese’); Alun Richards (‘The Sabbatical’) and Bernice Rubens reading the first chapter of her just-published novel, A Solitary Grief.

Our poets have not done too badly in terms of contemporary recordings, from the BBC radio broadcasts of Dylan Thomas’ Forties heyday to the late Sixties cultural film documentaries produced by John Ormond (who is the subject of Kieron Smith’s piece in the new edition of New Welsh Review, ‘John Ormond: Poetry, Broadcasting, Film’). But nearly twenty-two years ago it struck Prof Curtis that while there were audio recordings of poets, ‘No one was filming fiction writers then. The opportunity to include older writers would not last much longer. Many of these writers are no longer with us so this is a unique record of their character and voice.’ Prof Curtis adds, ‘I recorded the new introductions last year in the same studio (now less used since the University of Glamorgan Atrium opened in Cardiff) and kept it deliberately low-key. No gimmicks or makeup, no media frills, just words. But what words! Leslie Norris’ reading of ‘A Flight of Geese’ still makes my cry. He had done a very memorable reading of the story to undergraduates that afternoon. There was little money in this for the writers who, without exception, were generous with their time - from Bernice Rubens who had won the Booker Prize to Ron Barry, who was ageing into neglect, apart from the efforts of Dai Smith and a couple of others.’

Contemporary writers are just as generous, as New Welsh Review’s latest online interviews, with essayist Robert Minhinnick, novelist Chris Meredith and poet Jane Yeh prove. Spring issue with exclusives from all three out now.

The Rhys Davies Short Story Competition 2012 was won by Kate Hamer for 'One Summer'. The equal runners-up were Bill Davies; Stevie Davies; Nigel Jarrett; Huw Lawrence; Rob Mimpriss; Derek Routledge; Ann Ruffell; Linda Ruheman, and Jo Verity. All nominees receive £100 and the winner, £1000. The competition was judged by Trezza Azzopardi, Russell Celyn Jones and filter judge Siân Preece.

This is a version of Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column published on Saturday 25 February 2012.

New Welsh Review gets writers noticed. Support writers and publishing in Wales by subscribing!

Monday, 20 February 2012

26 Treasures: The Book, Review of Wales section

26 letters in the alphabet. 4 countries (currently) in the UK. 26 Treasures: The Book, a pan-national poetry anthology, has 10 days to get 151 supporters. Without these, Unbound, its crowd-sourced publisher, will not proceed. Poetry by numbers this is not. It does however represent lyrics in which figures figure. It was the brainchild of business writer John Simmons. 26 authors were asked to write 62 words about pieces from national collections. From an embyonic London Design Festival exhibition at the V&A the project grew to encompass the National Library of Wales, the Ulster Museum in Belfast and the National Museum of Scotland.

As ever, the Welsh contingent provides double for your money, since translations of originals in both Welsh and English are included (I declare an interest since my translation is among them). And since we are talking numbers, how fitting that this book’s pearl is the current winner of Translators House Wales’ challenge, ‘Hen Arian Papur’ by Hywel Meilyr Griffiths. The original, ‘Old Paper Money’, by Lin Sagovsky and Hywel’s translation are the best and most topical of Wales’ contribution. They were inspired by Aberystwyth and Tregaron ‘Black Sheep’ Bank notes on which the number of sheep penned in the fold, as it were, denoted their value. Lin Sagovsky imagines bankers in a desperate, pun-crazy rebranding exercise prior to liquidation (in 1815): ‘Take a gambol! / The bank that likes to say flock. / Tup quality from your local baa. / Sheep like Dolly like lolly. / Folding. We are.’ (And in Hywel’s final line, ‘Aeth yr hwch drwy’r siop.’)

Apart from the obvious choice of Gillian Clarke, the lineup of writers for the original English poems in the Wales section has omissions, resulting in evidence of the occasional ‘outsider’ eye. But compensations are made in the translators list, for example Paul Henry, whose ‘Lineage’ betters Annes Glyn’s original ‘Llinach’ based on a family tree from Adam to Edward IV: ‘From King Primate to refugee / I scratched the parched earth for water, / food, unstitching my lineage / from the cracked plains, / believing in it. // Here, read this… read my dead palm.’ The same can be said for Rhys Iorwerth’s fine interpretation of Elen Lewis’ ‘Megan Eats Grapes’, based on a film of Lloyd George meeting Hitler. However, Elin ap Hywel’s translation ‘Storybook’ is just as perfect as its original, Mererid Hopwood, ‘Llyfr Mawr y Plant’, and Elin shows her credentials by being brave enough to adapt the title to its new audience.

26 Treasures: The Book offers Welsh greats alongside huge names such as Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, Andrew Motion and Maura Dooley. Pledge £10 to Unbound by 1 March to make it happen.

This is a version of Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column published on Saturday 18 February 2012.

New Welsh Review gets writers noticed. Support writers and publishing in Wales bysubscribing!

Monday, 13 February 2012

Chris Meredith’s new masterpiece The Book of Idiots

Christopher Meredith’s last novel for adults was published in 1998, so his fanclub’s been a long time waiting. We will be rewarded on 3 April, the publishers assure me, when Seren bring out his new novel, The Book of Idiots, which is previewed in the spring issue of New Welsh Review.

Meredith made his name in 1989 when Shifts, his debut that became a classic of post-industrial south Wales, drawing on his time working in a steel plant, won the WAC Fiction Prize. The hallmarks (humour, work, male protagonists, superlative dialogue, history, politics and precision of place) that made Shifts such a success are also present in The Book of Idiots. In social terms, it marks Wales’ move towards the service industry but continues to commemorate the contribution of older men struggling to value themselves in a workplace that no longer makes things. Its southeast Wales setting is full of bridges, borders and bulwarks at once historically symbolic and geographically specific, and half of the action takes place around a walk to Carreg y Dial (Revenge Stone), monument for a Welsh-Norman assassination (‘Somebody ap Somebody killed Somebody Fitz Somebody.’) This is a globalised economy, however, and so most other settings are car journeys and generic offices or municipal buildings (after all, ‘misery happens quietly… next to coffee machines’).

You will sail through this hilarious black comedy at one sitting. My favourite scenes include Jeff’s dissolving trunks and Graham deciding to quit after getting locked into the work bog, but nothing tops Wil’s extended guessing game of famous people’s deaths: ‘George Girshwin.’ ‘Piano fell on him.’ ‘Close. Brain tumour.’ ‘I can do Robert Maxwell.’ ‘And maybe somebody did.’ But before, like Chrysippus the Stoic, you die laughing, consider the theme: middle-aged men acting like idiots, having affairs then dying (methods various); also nationhood (declining) and language (ditto). Each chapter beautifully, seamlessly, elaborates a fall, whether from health, prowess or self-respect, and indeed physical ones which celebrate the lift and flight prior to descent, such as children’s games with skimming stones and paper planes or adult ones of parachute jumps and gliding. In life as in the game Best Man’s Fall, it’s all about ‘how artistically we [fall] to our last end, and how authentically dead we [are] on the field.’

This is a novel about the seriousness of play, about hubris, friendship and sanity against the odds. It is also a literary masterpiece about narrative technique that plays with its own forms (tragedy, farce, romance). It is a thriller in which we guess who survives rather than who will die next. And it is a letter to a lover whose identity and fate the author wants us to have fun guessing (while we may).

Chris Meredith's other two novels for adults are: Sidereal Time and Griffri. You can read New Welsh Review's world exclusive interview with Chris about The Book of Idiots at from 1 March.

This is a version of Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column published on Saturday 11 February 2012.

Next editor's blog, 26Treasures: The Book

New Welsh Review gets writers noticed. Support writers and publishing in Wales by subscribing!