"The difficulty in compiling such a list is, of course, keeping the books down to a mere 10. There's always a scrap with yourself over what to leave out; what you jettison today may seem utterly indispensable tomorrow, or even after tea. So what I've done here is list the 10 Welsh books which, in varying ways, influenced my most recent novel, Sheepshagger; the books which would undam the wordflow when it was temporarily blocked. Which is as good a criterion as any.
The order is roughly chronological, although all but the first are 20th century. Nearly all of them are poetry, as well. Hmmmm. And they're all by men. Hmmmm again."
Niall Griffiths's first novel, Grits, a vernacular tale of addicts and drifters in rural Wales, won him the title 'the Welsh Irvine Welsh'. His second novel, Sheepshagger, is set in the same landscape; it tells the story of Ianto, a feral mountain boy who wreaks terrible vengeance on those he feels have stolen his homeland.
Read the Guardian review
1. Selected Poems by Dafydd ap Gwilym
Contemporary of, and superior to, Chaucer. This man roamed mountains and forests, got rat-arsed in hill inns, tupped wenches, and wrote poems about it. Raucous, irreverent, and dead, dead funny. And lovely in parts too, in his poems of birds and water, in his evocation of the cabin he built in the woods for himself and his favourite missus. Sadness for a world lost, but isn't that what we're made of? Random quote: "I am a leaper bold."
2. My People Blimey by Caradoc Evans
Think of Royston Vasey, and then think of something darker, funnier, more absurd, more unsettling. Not easy I know, but here it is, in the tiny rural Welsh community of this collection of short stories. The transliteration of Welsh directly into English in economical, almost painfully spare language creates a deeply peculiar linguistic world, dreamlike and eerie. This man was willing to be reviled as the price of exposing the corruption and hypocrisy of non-conformism. Black-clad, thickly bearded big men booming in chapels; painful births on storm-torn mountains; old ladies eaten by rats. Mad, worrying, horrifying. Random quote: "fled from the house of sacrifice".
3. One Moonlight Night by Caradog Pritchard
See above. And see the black lake; the tiny houses in the night; the bodies floating bloated in the water. Unremittingly dark, determinedly cheerless. Or at least that's the prevailing memory; go back to it (which I do, again and again) and you'll find a perfect evocation of childhood and a twisted, quirky humour. Brave, bizarre, brilliant. Random quote: "He was going to be hanged in Caernarfon."
4. In Parenthesis by David Jones
One of the best epic poems of the last century. No, one of the best epic poems ever. A speculum into the collective psyche. How myths of our making go to shape us for such things as the unimaginable carnage of the first world war. How everything we label 'civilisation' is founded on very thin ice, and how horrible are the things that lurk beneath. Phantasmagoric and, at the same time, true. Which is perfect for our age. Random quote: "Plug and splinter/Shin and fibula."
5. Collected Poems and Collected Stories by Dylan Thomas
He had to be in here, didn't he? Forget what you know of Dylan the pisshead, the letch, the boyo, and focus on Dylan the writer. He's the man for the joy in language, the rapture and terror in the world. He created forms of expression utterly, uniquely his. The mystery and innocence of all that we do. A bottle of Irish, a view of the mountains, and the words of this man = joy. Random quote: "a turtle in a hearse".
6. Collected Poems by RS Thomas
Grumpy old clergyman, sour old sod. Extolled the virtues of forcing everyone west of the border to speak Cymraeg yet wrote in Saesneg so loads of people would read him. Would ignore people who asked him directions, or send them the wrong way. Truly, a cantankerous get. But lookit: few words, and the universalisation in them of human yearning. Amazing. Read a good definition of 'apophantism', read this book, and you'll be lost for months, years, ever. Essential. Random quote: You've just had one.
7. So Long, Hector Bebb by Ron Berry
The book which, at the age of about nine, alerted me to the possibilities of speaking for and within one's own community. A vernacular mimetic truth, strong, lyrical, infinitely sad. A voice, a dialect, a commensurately firm identity and the rage resultant when that is lost or robbed. Talking of which, some immoral bugger half-inched my copy ages ago, and it's been long out of print. No luck in second-hand shops either. Somebody, please, reprint it - or failing that, somebody please send me a copy. I'd be eternally grateful, and a tad happier than I am now. Plus I'd pay. Honest. Random quote: can't remember. I was nine years old, for God's sake.
8. The Welsh Extremist by Ned Thomas
Non-fiction, and frightening; not because of its promotion of militancy, heck no, but because of its revelations and analysis concerning the insidious and evil hegemonic takeover of whole countries, entire ways of life. On behalf of all oppressed nations, and for the individual creative effort threatened by the barren swamp of enforced uniformity. As vital now as it was in the 70s, and as important as Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. Endorsed by Raymond Williams, and he knew a thing or two. Random quote: "Cracach."
9. Red Landscapes: New and Selected Poems by Mike Jenkins
A Welsh Lallans. Hopelessness in the sink estates, as brilliantly caught as in John Welch's Estates documentary. As far removed from the fudge box view of Wales as the reality is. The Welsh revival starts here: profound political commitment allied with a bone-deep sympathy for blighted lives. Surprising flashes of surreal humour, too. Random quote: "a tourist's luxury".
10. Edge Territory by Lloyd Robson
Or indeed anything else by him, or even one of his intense, confrontational, energetic, inyerface machine gun-stutter readings. Some of the best dialect writing in these islands, ever. The way he plays with voice and typology is wondrous, life-affirming. Drugs, dialect, sex, violence, fun, anger, happiness; it's all here, in Kairdiff as well as Scotland. Read it. Random quote: "Dylan is dead or ain't you noticed? Read the living poets."
Which undermines my list somewhat, apart from the last two items, and Ned Thomas at number seven, but he's not a poet. So, yet again: Hmmmmm...