Photographs courtesy of JD Lewis
Dylan Thomas - Under Milk Wood
I've been reading and listening to the work of Dylan Thomas for over forty years. The sounds and rhythms of his poetry are as familiar as a lullaby. Thomas uses language like a composer, assembling a sequence of signifiers to leave you breathless, touched, shaken and delighted. His passion and affection for Wales and its inhabitants radiate through his words, tumbling off the page like boisterous drunks.
Under Milk Wood, a play for voices, draws you into the minds and personalities of its broad cast, yet still leaves room for the imagination. The village of Llareggub is both earthy and delicate, ruddy and fragile, but most of all, musical and dramatic, just like the Welsh.
Other Welsh poets I often re-read are RS Thomas and Dannie Abse, who were an essential part of the school curriculum. Nowadays, Gillian Clarke and Owen Sheers are continuing the tradition. Wales is a place where poetry is valued and appreciated, but not treated with an excess of reverence. After all, poetry, language and songs belong to the people.
Alan Garner – The Owl Service
“She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting.” The old Welsh tale of Llew and Bloduewedd is playing out centuries later, through
three young adults who hear strange noises in the attic. They discover only old plates, which lose their flower pattern and display owls instead. This was one of the first fantasy books I read in my teens and it haunts me still, mysterious, beautiful and dangerous.
Equally recommended! Menna Elfyn: Welsh language poet, who writes with the same passionate brilliance with which she speaks and lives. She is the living writer I most respect and in 2001 she came to my book launch, sat quietly at the back, and smiled. https://vimeo.com/1092704
Two more must-reads for fantasy-lovers, incorporating Welsh legends: Susan Cooper and her Dark is Rising series; and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series.
Peter Ho Davis - The Welsh Girl
I have a particular affection for Peter Ho Davis because, like me, he grew up with one Welsh parent and one not, hearing Welsh all around him but not learning to speak it. The Welsh Girl is the story of a teenage girl caught between some prisoners of war who have been brought to a camp near her isolated village and the rough English squaddies sent to guard them. It’s delicately written, the Welsh Girl is beautifully realised, fully rounded character, and you feel as if you are walking in those Welsh Hills.
The Detour by Gerhard Bakker
Until Our Blood Is Dry by Kit Habianic
Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden
The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce
Travels in an Old Tongue by Pamela Petro
I Bought a Mountain by Thomas Firbank
Kit Habianic - Until Our Blood is Dry
"Up ahead, Helen saw the police line harden into a barricade of bodies and shields. Resin batons thudded on Perspex shields; slow, thuggish, brutal. Goosebumps studded her arms and legs. Her pace slowed to the truncheons' beat. Mary halted a yard from the riot shields, raised her megaphone. 'We are women from Ystrad an' from all over Wales,' she said. 'We are here to make peaceful protest. Here in solidarity with the men.' The drumming quickened."
If you lived through the era of the miners strike in 1984 and think you know everything there is to know about the troubles of the time ... think again ... and read this fabulous novel.
It's a wonderfully crafted tale of families thrown into conflict against the unions, the Coal Board, the Government, the country ... and each other. Characters are intense and as believable as your own relatives, the accuracy in the detail of the period took me back to my teenage years, and the language gave me goosebumps.
This book may not showcase Wales's outstanding natural beauty, but it smacks you in the face with the power of its people, its heritage, its pride and its passion.
Alexander Cordell - Rape of the Fair Country
Rape of the Fair Country is a book I came to as a teenager, the first in Alexander Cordell’s trilogy set in the mid-nineteenth century about the Mortymers - the story of an ironworking family from Blaenavon during the industrial revolution.
It was the first book I encountered that engaged with the Wales of the sweat and toil of my forebears, perhaps the first book I ever read that foregrounded working-class lives. The storytelling was visceral and the characters leapt off the page. I devoured all three books in quick succession.
But has Rape of the Fair Country stood the test of time? I recently unearthed a battered compendium of all three Mortymer books in a dusty bookshop in Inverness. I’m steeling myself to find out...