Five years on the Crickhowell Literary Festival goes from strength to strength, buoyed up by the small market town voted having the Best High Street in the UK and also rated the best place to live in Wales by The Sunday Times.
As usual the programme had a judicious mix of UK and Welsh authors and their books, some of which I volunteered to steward at, and all were curated by festival directors Emma Corfield-Walters of Book-ish and Anne Rowe, Visiting Professor at the University of Chichester and Emeritus Research at the University of Kingston.
Just to give a flavour of proceedings, these are the talks I was present at, along with brief summaries.
Most of Saturday 28th September focused on crime fiction presented by Crime Cymru, the Welsh crime writing collective supporting authors related to the country, either by birth or by residence, or by setting the action in Wales. The first of four events, How to get your crime noticed, had a panel with Matt Johnson, Nigel C Williams, Gail Williams and Eamonn Griffin; they discussed the merits and demerits of either self-publishing or going down the traditional route, bearing in mind that crime is said to be the most read genre in Britain. The panellists ably presented the pluses and pitfalls each met following their chosen routes.
On the same day local author and walks leader Kevin Walker gave a superb audio-visual presentation on Nature of the Brecon Beacons. The national park in which the town sits is rich in geology, lichens, ferns, funghi, plants, insects and so on up the chain, and slides portrayed these in their colour, diversity and spectacle. At the top of the chain is potentially the most destructive of the creatures, humans, and Kevin emphasised the impact we are having, both witting and unwitting, for and against nature.
Rhidian Brook‘s wide-ranging talk was From Book to Screen and the author of international bestseller The Aftermath — based on his grandfather’s German experiences after the last war — discussed how he has been involved in novel-writing, TV scriptwriting, screenwriting for films and Thought for the Day on radio, all of which he has had an involvement in. Both The Aftermath and The Testimony of Taliesin Jones were made into films, with The Killing of Butterfly Joe likely to follow them.
Sunday included two talks on politics in Wales. Professor of Modern History Martin Johnes summarised his recent book Wales: England’s Colony? by arguing that the issue of how much the country has been held back, even impoverished, by its larger neighbour is vastly more complicated than a simple case of Wales being bullied and made a victim by England. As with Brexit and the facile blaming of the EU for the UK’s perceived ills, there is no simple response to calls for Welsh independence from England.
Academic Daryl Leeworthy spoke knowledgeably and enthusiastically about his book Labour Country: Political Radicalism and Social Democracy in South Wales 1831–1985. A cut-off point in the mid-eighties is when he thinks that the grassroots will to improve the lot of workers, their families and their communities finally died after a century of activism and optimism. His outline history of the decline of a certain ‘radical pragmatism’ allied to idealism was an interesting counterpoint to Martin Johnes’ earlier sketch of a diffused Welsh identity.
Sunday evening saw a celebration of the centenary of Iris Murdoch’s birth, a writer I’ve yet to familiarise myself with. Actor and Murdoch enthusiast Annette Badland was in conversation with Anne Rowe, co-editor of Murdoch’s letters (from 1934 to her death in 1995) and of the recent study guide Writers and Their Work: Iris Murdoch. After listening to anecdotes not only on acting and on Iris as an author and playwriter — interestingly, one with a leaning towards gender fluidity — but also on sifting through Murdoch’s correspondence, I felt more inclined to acquaint myself with her novels.
On the last day of September I was present at the start of an event with poet and musician Paul Henry and by local historian Margaret Williams. I’d previously heard Paul Henry in concert, with poems from his collection The Glass Aisle set to music, but this time he was leading a walk along part of the Brecon and Monmouthshire canal (the name ‘glass aisle’ alluding to this of course), and so, as I’d walked much of this stretch already, I passed up on retreading it. The Rev Williams, aided by Eliane Wigzell, had put together a study of the local Victorian workhouse — now the site of a B&B called Tŷ Croeso (‘Welcome House’) where the walk began and ended — and was on hand to explain the historic background to features along the canal.
Joanna Nadin — whose talk was on 1st October — is the successful author of several children’s books, and with The Queen of Bloody Everything has embarked on a series of novels for adults. Her career spans writing speeches for politicians to broadcast journalism and teaching creative writing to university students. Obviously writing is in her blood, and just the synopsis of this adult novel draws you in. She told me she shares a literary agent with Lizza Aiken, daughter of Joan, and that the Aikens’ Mortimer and Arabel stories were a key inspiration in getting her started as a writer; however, it’s pure coincidence that the protagonist in her novel shares a first name with Joan Aiken’s young heroine Dido Twite.
The next talk I stewarded at was by best-selling author and historian Alison Weir, whose Anna of Kleve: Queen of Secrets is the most recent of her series on the six wives of Henry VIII. She ranged widely and authoritatively on one of the most misjudged of the Tudor monarch’s alliances, supported by a fine array of portraits in her slide presentation. There have been no end of contradictory statements by contemporary witnesses about this consort who at first spoke little or no English, but although Henry was quick to have their marriage annulled on various grounds, including antipathy towards her, it is clear that they remained on friendly terms until his death ten years before her own.
The final event I attended, on 4th October, was Rachel Cadman‘s workshop on drypoint engraving — ostensibly for bookplates, given this was a literary festival, but essentially creating designs using this technique and printing them by pressing inked card plates onto paper. Rachel’s enthusiasm was infectious and a pleasant afternoon was had by the group of hopeful participants.
If you’ve stayed awake up to this point in my report you may be pleased to note I’ve arrived at some conclusions. The events I volunteered for had a preponderance of Welsh connections, though many had a significance beyond the bounds of the principality. Nevertheless, the talks from Joanna Nadin and Alison Weir, as well as the one about Iris Murdoch, were less than parochial — though even the Weir concerned the marriage of a Tudor monarch whose origins were in the far west of Wales!
I missed the last weekend of the festival but was pleased to have managed so many of the forty-plus events. You can see what you missed at http://www.cricklitfest.co.uk, including former Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell, novelist Kate Hamer, Adele Nozedar on forest bathing, Harry Potter actor Chris Rankin and Sophie Hannah (Tove Jansson translator and Hercule Poirot author) among many others.