I have only been to Stratford-upon-Avon once, unfortunately, to see a production of King Lear. The production was fantastic, but I was more overwhelmed by the amount of pubs named after Shakespearean women – The Cordelia, The Ophelia etc. The best capitalisation on the Bard’s work I saw had to be an outdoor supplies shop, which bore the sign “Now is the winter of our discount tents!”
Somewhere along the line, literary tourism has become entrenched in British culture. King’s Cross has now proudly named the brick wall between Platforms 9 and 10 Platform 9 & ¾ and you can see Dickens’ London, Hardy’s Wessex or visit a plethora of poets’ graves at Westminster Abbey.
More recently, North Carolina has taken full advantage of the worldwide success of The Hunger Games, reportedly planning a literary tourism site to include abseiling, archery, fire-making and other survival skills. Surely it’s only a matter of time before a Battle Royale themed adventure park opens somewhere on the island of Shikoku.
Wales is no exception; it is a nation steeped in myth, a rich storytelling tradition and a fervent desire to showcase its cultural diversity. Dylan Thomas’ centennial celebrations in 2014, for example, promise to be a festival with international reach.
Literature Wales, known prior to 2011 as Academi, is the national company responsible for the development of literary activity in Wales. Since 2008, it has delivered programmes of literary tourism events. A far cry from shuffling single file and guided audio tours, the programme expanded in 2012 to include Skirrid Hill on horseback with Owen Sheers and a train journey from Cardiff Central to Cheltenham Spa with Tessa Hadley, mirroring the setting of her novel The London Train.
This year’s programme expands even further, stretching as far as an event in London to canoeing over the Taf estuary, retracing Dylan Thomas’ regular trips from Laugharne to Llansteffan to visit friends and, of course, the pubs. The brochure features literary pub crawls with some of the most gregarious writers from the coastline of Ceredigion, with readings from Niall Griffiths, Samantha Wynne Rhydderch and Cynan Jones at pubs of their choice (fish and chips included), to a hike around Anglesey’s Neolithic monuments with Rhys Mwyn, musician turned antiquarian
Clearly, what stands out in the programming is its diversity. The tours are also not day long events, allowing time for participants to explore the surroundings and interact further with literary landscapes on their own terms. Horseback rides are recurrent, this year in Ogmore with Tom Anderson and Kate North, concluding with an intimate reading with the inimitable Dannie Abse. If horseback riding isn’t your forté, you can turn up for the reading alone. Most of the events end with a talk, lecture, Q&A, drink or a chat and most people stick around.
A particular highlight of the programme is ‘Submarine Swansea’ with the author Joe Dunthorne and lead actor from Richard Ayoade’s film adaptation, Craig Roberts. The novel was an immediate hit, adapted with funding from the Film Agency for Wales within two years of publication. The film was premiered at Swansea’s Taliesin Arts Centre a week ahead of the UK premiere.
Both the novel and film are widely acclaimed for the brilliant characterisation of protagonist Oliver Tate, a modern day Holden Caulfield who peppers the texts with nihilistic and darkly humorous attempts to confirm his mother’s paranoid suspicion that he is mentally ill, overly pretentious language to describe his existential crisis and an unsettling obsession with his parents’ sex life.
The tour offers a screening of the film at the Dylan Thomas Centre, followed by a walk around the seascapes, cliffs, marshes and boggy fields that informed the novel and inform the character of Oliver Tate so heavily, in both the novel and film. The unsettling ambiguity of the unreliable narrator and tension between maturity and absurdity is cleverly reflected in the landscapes of the south-west that inspire the semi-fictional settings of the film/novel; sometimes bleak, sometimes sublime and often both.
The idea of interrogating literature’s relationship with landscape is integral to each tour, offering a less uniform, more immersive experience. Visiting the locations vital to Dunthorne’s formative years and writing would offer not only an opportunity for new interpretations of the texts, but for many a mirror of the both the banality and brilliance of growing up in South Wales.
For more information on the programme, visit www.literaturewales.org