A470 Articles and Debates
The Wrong Side of the Severn
Welsh born London based poet and critic Kathryn Gray argues the case for funding for Welsh writers based outside Wales.
As many readers will probably be aware, Academi distributes bursaries to those working in the fields of creative literary pursuit in Wales. It is hard to quantify the importance of such bursaries which enable writers ‘to buy time’ to develop important projects. There is little doubt, however, that investment in our talents of today and of tomorrow will help to maintain the positive trend of a more visible, robust and acclaimed national literature.
Academi – and indeed its funding body, the National Assembly - can take justifiable pride in their support of Welsh writers based in Wales at varying stages of their careers, from the excellent Paul Henry to new stars such as Lloyd Jones. However, under the current eligibility criteria, those writers living outside of Wales - of whatever promise or success - or indeed those who wish to undertake the large proportion of research or writing outside of Wales are discounted from applying for any grants at all.
There are good reasons for this if taken at face value. The first of these would seem to be logistic; namely, that individual Arts Boards across the UK make grants available according to residency in a particular region. The second reflects ‘literary economics’- if such a term were possible. It seems only natural to ensure that the health of the arts in Wales itself is nurtured and protected.
But what of those Welsh writers who find themselves the wrong side of the Severn?
Arts Council Grants in England for Welsh writers - particularly those for whom Welsh issues and Welsh culture are key themes - are notoriously difficult to secure. But as contemporary Welsh writers seek their own economic solutions to pursue the writerly life - be it freelance writing, teaching in further education colleges and universities or the stable office job - many find that they will have to venture outside of Wales to do so. Still more Welsh writers move away because, perhaps like myself, they find they can only write their nation from within when they stand without. Hiraeth can prove a powerful muse.
But such negotiation with the Matter of Wales, psychologically and economically, will eventually present them with a Catch-22 to end all when they seek to devote some modest time to their art. Welsh writers are unlikely to prove fitting candidates for grants in, say, Newcastle or London, where they find themselves competing as much on a ‘culturally relevant’ level as on criteria of accomplishment or originality.
This issue is complicated further by the Arts Council Wales’s Creative Wales Award for more established writers, which similarly fails to take into account the valuable work done by those who happen to live geographically outside the limits but whose work is clearly well within.
The Wales Book of the Year Award, at least, offers a reprieve from the literary postcode lottery. But in as much as the playing field is a little wider, this is a prize for a finished product and cannot and should not be viewed as a funding halfway house.
The historic irony of the predicament ought not to be lost on anyone. Many of our most celebrated writers have produced their finest work outside of our country.
It is my belief that the interests of contemporary Welsh writers should in some way become a future consideration of both Academi and the National Assembly, if they are to further their laudable aim of putting Welsh literature at the heart of an international agenda. The potential and excellence of our writers requires recognition and reward - even if such virtues happen to find themselves currently residing in a bedsitter just past the Watford Gap. Writers from Wales who achieve will come to reflect positively on the whole of its critical mass, not to mention future generations.
I make no special pleading. I was fortunate to receive an Arts Council grant from London Arts last year and did so very gratefully. But I am troubled as to what becomes of those writers who will mostly find themselves unable to do so, particularly new talents who materially and artistically merit some acknowledgement from their country for their contribution.
To return to those ‘literary economics‘: in an age when marketing too often trumps substance, we run a serious risk that it might not be an attractive or viable option to be a Welsh writer writing about Wales from the outside in the not too distant future. The loss of such literary perspective is a grave one. But if we neglect our writers - be they home or away - we can be assured that eventually they too will begin to neglect us.