‘Welsh Writing Sucks’ – New York Daily News,July 30th 2012. A Public Talk Dec 2012

By way of foreward, to date no-one yet from the Welsh writing establishment has agreed to meet with me and discuss the issues I have raised about tax-payer funding – in spite of umpteen polite requests.

They have all refused outright to engage in an open public debate. Indeed, only three weeks ago, Nick Capaldi (CEO of the Arts Council of Wales) finally  agreed to talk with me. His response? None of them were prepared to give me any ‘oxygen’ (his words) and that I had ‘singled out various Welsh writers’. In other words, albeit that his organisation is funded totally by the tax-payer, I had no right to subject both he and all these recipients of tax-payer hand-outs, to any kind of scrutiny and accountability.

He also advised me that the Welsh government no less (was I supposed to be scared off I wonder?), had tried to correct the articles written in both the Daily Mail and Telegraph (see Media tab on this blog) in relation to the above. Neither newspaper it seems, complied.

 

‘Welsh Writing Sucks’ – New York Daily News July 30th 2012.

The Tax-Payer and the Welsh Literati 

Welcome and thank you for coming.

Now, let me say at the outset that I have no issues with State funding for the Arts per se, neither indeed do I have any issues with State funding for the promotion of Welsh Language writing.

I do however have serious concerns where quality, scrutiny and accountability are concerned.

And this in fact applies to both English and Welsh publications.

No-one can doubt that we live in difficult times. Wales in particular is suffering more than the rest of the UK. For instance, where £2000 is borrowed for each Scot, £6000 is borrowed per capita in Wales.

Wales must, if it is to thrive in the 21st Century, start looking outwards and beyond instead of constantly obsessing about the past. It is only right that History teaches, but it must never, never rule.

If Wales is to thrive, if it is to have a future in the modern world, it must start being productive and competitive. It must innovate. It must seek new markets, new challenges. And more than anything else it must put education first. I will come to this last point later.

In this talk I am addressing the rather unique position that books,  of themselves, hold in the cultural backbone of Wales.

Tonight I am talking about subsidy for English language writing.

The argument for state funding for the Arts has largely been won. The prevailing view in the Arts world is that non-commercial activity ie say opera, theatre, museums etc can be good for tourism, hospitality, local economies and so on as well as driving inward investment and being a generally good thing for society.

Now, ‘Books’ are an entirely different matter.

In my view, they are purely (as far as I can see) a commercial activity and bring none of the above eg a collection of poems about Snowdonia is hardly going to add substance to societal endeavour, is it?

Yes, books can have something to do with promoting culture but in an entirely different way from say, the performing arts.

‘The promoting culture’ argument was used when S4C was in trouble and what was Jeremy Hunt’s response?

“ But no-one watches it!”

Where books are concerned or poetry for that matter, tax-payer funding is no longer needed, full stop.

There’s the ebook. No printing costs, no burden on the tax-payer. Under £100 to whack a collection of verse or a novel up on Amazon.

Job done!

Organisations such as the Welsh Books Council (by the way, no other country in the world has a ‘books’ Council, but Australia and America have ‘Children’s Book Council’s)and Literature Wales (formerly the Welsh Academy) are now the main conduits of tax-payer funding for Welsh writers and Welsh publishers  – both bodies I stress are unelected.

Now, in 1995 The Arts Council of Wales, which at that time was largely responsible for the funding of Welsh writing, was hauled before a Westminster Public Accounts Committee following complaints of serious mismanagement and procedural malfeasance.

The evidence against the Arts Council resulted in them losing the authority to distribute tax-payer money to the Welsh literati. Instead and perhaps somewhat predictably, this onerous public duty passed to the Welsh Academy, or Literature Wales as it is now called.

So, if you like, one quango just became another by a different name.

It is apparent that the Arts Council has learnt precisely nothing. My recent attempts at communication with its CE and Chair resulted in unreturned phone calls, prevarication and cowardice.

In other words they refused to enter into any meaningful dialogue with me. Albeit that their masters are ultimately you and me.

The concentration of patronage in the hands of one body ie The Welsh Assembly being the General and Lit Wales and the WBC being its soldiers (tasked with promoting Welsh writing and publishing in Wales), inevitably imposes some degree of standardisation on the character of tax-payer funded works. The only result being success for the mundane and mediocre and obstacles for the new and innovative.

Since the early sixties when the WBC and Lit Wales came into being and the roller coaster of profligate tax-payer funded subsidy began, I ask you all to consider this….where are the giants of Welsh writing?

Where are the Welsh Seamus Heaney’s and James Joyce’s or for that matter the Jeffrey Archers and James Pattersons? Or even the odd bookish shade of grey?

Did Lady Charlotte Guest or Dylan Thomas receive hand-outs from the tax-payer??

I’ll tell you where they all are……..in the surreal aspirations of academic endeavour and rarefied literary self-indulgence, that’s where.

Although, Welsh publishers will have you believe that they publish ‘good’ work ie Independent Bus Operators in North Wales, 5 books on ‘Real Cardiff’ including one on Cardiff by Bike’ (Peter Finch, ex CE of Lit Wales and Tony Curtis – neither are the actors!) Plenty of ‘Reality’ books eg Llanelli, Swansea, Pembroke etc. ‘How to make Welsh Cakes……oh and 120 books on Pembrokeshire, I’m not even going to start on Snowdonia!

Ten books on Welsh Place Names, ten books on Kyffin Williams.

The hunger to ‘create’ for an audience has been stifled, the warts and all of learning the trade have been burnt away, the cleansing of rejection and reality of commercial brutality is no more. And why? No Lit Agents in Wales etc etc.

Let’s write some stuff, to hell with the quality, I’ll get my £10,000 advance and be published by a Welsh publisher whatever happens. The tax-payer, the WBC and Literature Wales are dull enough to fork up!

The unwitting tax-payer has destroyed both incentive and true talent.

But be that as it may.

A few months ago I put Freedom of Information requests into the WBC, Lit Wales, and the Arts Council of Wales.

The data I received back for the years 2008 – 2012 was both astonishing and extraordinary.

It must be noted here that Liki Shenkin, CE of Lit Wales refused outright on three occasions to accommodate my requests.

Insert -another Welsh institution, the University of Wales, has been attacked (Wales on Line Sept 17th 2012)  has just been accused of a ‘disgraceful’ lack of transparency).

The right to remain silent has been removed from the criminal law, perhaps Parliament needs to reconsider the legal position in relation to tax-payer funded institutions. All the data I refer to can be fully corroborated by the Organisations I refer to.

Now, before I go any further, I need to point out in the interests of fairness, that just about every Welsh publisher operating in Wales was cordially invited to join me here today and take part in a panel discussion or debate. No-one apparently was available to attend, apart from Richard Davies of Parthian.

Insert – Kidwell-e Fest/No- one at Lit Wales, even Board members I have been told, are all either ill this weekend or abroad. Indeed Y Lolfa told me back in February that all their staff were sick, to which I responded ‘Good God, what on earth have they got? Delayed action Bird-Flu?!’

I leave you the audience to draw your own conclusions where their reluctance shall we say…..to raise their heads above the parapet, is concerned.

I must, in the interests of fairness, point out the Elwyn Jones of the WBC has been co-operative etc etc.

So, what was in this data I received? I won’t bore you with too much detail but I will give you a bird’s eye view.

Now, do please remember that we live in an Age of Austerity – but not so it would seem where the elite Welsh writing community is concerned.

I would like to deal firstly with the Welsh Books Council’s distribution of tax-payers’ money. 2008-2011

Seren Publishers – £557,078

Honno – £239,708

Y Lolfa – £687,507 who were recently quoted in the Western Mail as being enthusiastic about the ebook…..

Gomer Press a staggering £1,409,493 with more in the pipeline apparently.

One must ask here, why on earth they need all this money, the ebook etc etc…….the WBC doesn’t even use Amazon Kindle, too expensive apparently!

Welsh writers grants £1,409, 493

Giving a grand total of £4,000,000 – and this is just over the past few years. Imagine how much tax-payers money has been spent since 1961. Cost of Books £15-25 eg Gomer/Carolyn Hitts Rugby Diaries £16.95.

It’s frightening.

Allow me to give you some examples of   Grants paid to Welsh writers.

Mal Pope – £4000 (WBC) for his autobiography ‘Old enough to Know better.’ Well, that’s debatable!

Owen Money – £6000 (WBC) for his auto biography ‘Money Talks’ – doesn’t it just! Ghost written too!

Chis Needs, £7,500 (WBC) for his auto biography ‘And there’s more’. There certainly is.

Howard Marks – £6000 (WBC) for his autobiography on the lurid world of prison and drugs.

Boyd Clack – his auto paid for by the tax-payer.

As far as I am aware none of these people are short of a few bob, at least I don’t think any of them are signing on!

I must point out here, that some of these ‘writers’ are of course BBC Wales presenters – as if the BBC isn’t in enough trouble as it is! Nepotism, Srutiny? Accountability? You tell me.

Do please note that these particular recipients of tax-payer largesse are only the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds more.

To conclude then, the over-stretched public purse is expected to pay for Welsh celebrities to write and publish their life stories –or ego trips depending on your point of view.

We also it seems have a curious situation with our academic stars are concerned, particularly those of a poetic bent. Eg cost of self-pub etc……

Aberystwyth University -Dr Tffany S. Atkinson – £3,849 (Lit Wales – Poetry)

Bangor University– Dr Zoe Skoulding –

£6000 (Lit. Wales) (Seren)

Glamorgan University – Tiffany Murray  £4500 (WBC)

Swansea – Dr Fflur Daffyd £5000 (Lit Wales), £3500 (WBC/ Author Advance Grant)

Jasmine Donahaye – £5000 (Lit Wales) for a Collection of Poems titled ‘Misappropriations’. What a title!

Jon Gower – £8000 (Lit Wales)

…………

Hefin Wyn £23,500 (Lit Wales 4 Burseries) for such works as ‘A History of Welsh popular music between 1980 – 2000’ in Welsh of course.

Tony Bianchi £17500 (Lit Wales 3 Burseries) Welsh/English language novels/Poetry

Mr Bianchi is also being paid by the WBC at the moment to do a survey on the credibility of specialised Welsh Magazines –I hope he has more luck than me with the Wales Arts Review. No circulation figures.£1500 grant WBC

Geraint Lewis £15,500 (Lit Wales/Welsh language x 2 Bursaries)

Dr Matthew Francis £4500 (Lit Wales)

Insert –   Teaching Creative Writing, but No Commercial experience, No Sales.

Now please, don’t forget that not only are Welsh writers subsidised but so of course are their Welsh publishers. So you have a situation where firstly the writer receives a hand-out to write the book and then the publisher receives a hand-out to publish it. So, a double whammy for the tax-payer if you like. A double insult too. Extraordinary I know.

But the best is yet to come.

Some of these tax-payer gratuities are euphemistically called by Literature Wales ‘Buying Time Bursaries’.

In other words, to use good old fashioned ‘down to earth speak’,Welsh writers are given money from the public purse to stay at home and write stuff that few people are ever likely to read and that’s assuming it is even published, which it doesn’t have to be  according to Lit Wales’ own rules!  I mean it.

In England there are no writers’ grants unless you work for it eg a Royal Literary Fellowship of up to £13,000 but one has to teach for two days a week.

Welsh ‘writers’ however, whose work I may add, is never tested by rigorous commercial scrutiny receive thousands of pounds to stay at home and tap away at their so-called creative key boards! God forbid that the tax-payer should expect them to actually shift their backsides into the real world and actually ‘earn’ a living. Oh no, let’s give these people some glorified unmeans-tested dole instead. The tax-payer won’t mind.

It’s a disgrace and an appalling abuse of the hard-pressed tax-payer!

Self-publishing, risking their own money like thousands of other struggling writers across the UK is of course out of the question.

I mean, what the hell, the tax-payer can afford it.

As for the publishers, all they have to do to stay on the gravy train is to show that the title they are publishing will, and I quote from the WBC’s own website, ‘….be made towards expected deficits’.

Unbelievable I know, in other words the tax-payer is only to be nobbled for books that tank and don’t sell!

Failure it seems is the order of the day and it is to be celebrated and funded by you, the unsuspecting tax-payer.

(Block funding – NO SCRUTINY, NO ACCOUNTABILITY, NO QUALITY CONTROL)

Of course you won’t get any sales figures for all these subsidised titles, (lucky to do 100 copies) the WBC and Welsh publishers are far too modest. The reply is always the same. And yet again I quote –

‘That information is commercially confidential’

Well, I can give you one shining example. Geraint Talfon Davies’ (You know Chairman of Welsh Nat Op founder of IWA, former Director of BBC Wales etc etc His book  ‘At Arms Length’ (You have to chuckle at some of these titles) has sold 179 copies since it was published in 2008.. Nielsens. For the record, Seren, Mr Davies’s publisher’s were paid to publish his book by the tax-payer, as far as I am aware we have yet another ‘author’ who is not short of a few bob having his book paid for by the public purse.

Well oddly enough, only a couple of months ago the formidable Labour MP Margaret Hodge of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee was heard to say,‘Where public money is being spent by Companies they cannot hide behind ‘commercial confidentiality’. It is simply not good enough. It’s not on. It’s unacceptable!’

The Deputy Director Kirsty Davies and her staff have insisted that the IWA is ‘Independent? ‘We are not a publicly funded think tank’.That’s a laugh, the WBC funds their Literary Section and so far this year they’ve had £6000 from the ACW!

I now come to the funding of Welsh Literature Festivals. Something I know a little about on a personal level!

The Laugharne Lit Fest received £20,00 from the ACW and a further £3000 form Lit Wales, odd I know as Lit Wales is merely an agent of the ACW, so really it’s £23,000 from ACW. All from the public purse of course. Dinefwr £65,000 from Arts Council of Wales ie Lit Wales, yes I know they’re still at it.

Lauharne sold apprx 200 tickets and Dinefwer 300, albeit that both sets of organisers hailed the events as brilliant successes. Indeed Lit Wales’ own office told me personally that 2500 people attended the Dinefwr job.

So most of the people who attended (mostly Welsh ‘writers’ and ‘poets’ that very few people have ever heard of) were paid to attend……free tickets, fees, expenses of contributors etc etc

(£62,000 Dinefwr £20,000 Laugharne, both made net losses to the tax-payer of approx £50,000 in the case of Dinefwr and at least £20,000 in the case of Laugharne)

So, a nice £100,000 odd thousand pounds of tax-payers’ ‘hard earned’ for the elite Welsh literati to spend a few days showing each other how clever they are, albeit that no-one buys their work, but again what the hell, its only tax-payers dosh!

And what about this :-

One of the organisers John Williams of Laugharne has received a Creative Wales Award of £25,00 this year

(Insert- ten Welsh ‘poets’off on a ten day jolly to the Smithsonian, Washington, all expenses paid plus £100 a day spending money. One ‘poet’ even managed to extend the holiday on account of the generous expenses!)

One last point, The Wales Book of the Year is also heavily subsidised, this year  the £12, 000 awarded to Welsh writers and poets in cash prizes all comes from the public purse. And of course the submitted works are also paid for by the tax-payer eg Seren’s publication of Patrick Mc Guinesses The Last Hundred Days was one of 20 new books that Seren received a WBC grant of £94, 235 for.Please note that Mr McGuiness is also  director of Seren. A publishing grant of £2700 was received for Richard Gwyn’s The Vagabonds Breakfast (A drunk’s progress around Europe apparently, well I was more ambitious – the Middle East!). Jon Gower received an author advance grant of £8500 for his Welsh language title plus a publishing grant allocated out of the £118,000 Gomer has received to publish 48 new books. And do not forget that Mr Gower has already received an £8000 bursery from Literature Wales.

A £10,000 bursary from Lit Wales was awarded to poetry prize winner Karen Owen, this is on top of her publishers (Baathas) receiving a tax-payer grant of £34,000 for 8 books, and of course the Prize money. I’m assuming Karen Owen’s collections of poetry are included in this. No doubt her publishers will confirm or deny this in due course.

AGAIN NO SCRUTINY, NO ACCOUNTABILITY and NO QUALITY CONTROL. WHAT THE HELL IS TH WELSH ASSEMBLY DOING WHAT THE HELL IS THE ARTS COUNCIL OF WALES DOING?????

WHEN DOES NEW AND FRESH TALENT GET A CHANCE? IF YOU’RE NOT IN THE CLIUB BUGGER OFF

Liki Shenkyn (Lleuce Siencyn) the Chief Executive of Literature Wales, has said of the Awards, ‘The strength of the short-list manifests the flourishing publishing industry that exists in Wales today, defiant in the light of the current economic climate.’

A ‘flourishing publishing industry’! ‘Defiance’!

I nearly fell off my chair when I read this.

I was immediately reminded of Professor Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, of the Yale School of Management, when he said,

‘There are people who want to be rewarded as if they are entrepreneurs. But they aren’t. They don’t have anything at risk!’

The unbelievable arrogance, utterly deluded sense of entitlement, disingenuous denial of truth and total disregard of how the Welsh publishing industry is actually funded and the fact that it makes a huge net loss where Welsh GDP is concerned is astonishing, if not shocking.

There would be no publishing industry in Wales if it wasn’t for the tax-payer. End of story!

The Welsh publishing ‘industry’ is nothing more than a parasitical, elitist carbuncle on the hide of a struggling and failing Welsh economy.

(Insert – And what about the blatant nepotism and cronyism, that has been encouraged for years eg the same editors being used by Honno, Seren etc etc.

Insert -Jasmine Danahaye, ex editor of WBC and previous student of Wyn Thomas, Chairman of WBC. All the above). Now editor of ‘The Planet’ Arts mag funded by Lit Wales – c 300?

Of course one will never obtain sales figures for the winning works. I once again leave you the audience to consider the Awards credibility, in my view it is nothing more than a hopelessly exaggerated testimonial to Vanity publishing – which would be fine, if you, the tax-payer weren’t

The Health Service in Wales is in hock for 300 million. Cancer patients can’t get the drugs they need because they are too expensive. Wheelchairs are in short supply, families can’t get the care they need for their elderly relatives and yet the Welsh Assembly feels it is morally right to dish out millions of pounds of your money for a few people to propagate a Welsh ‘literary’ agenda that few are interested in, whose books, magazines and pamphlets patently don’t pay their way and most importantly of all, contributes precisely nothing for the overall good of society.

The Welsh education system we all know is in a parlous if not critical state, is on a par with Czecho etc. Funding for the Arts would be better served if it went into teaching our young about music, literature, theatre etc. Museums, theatres, art galleries all have a place, all have an audience. Promoting new talent. They are all a force for the good of society but what does this exclusive club of the chosen few do for the cultural well-being of our youth, our future, our economy, for it is our young who will one day be the arbiters of what is culturally civilising and what isn’t.

It is time Welsh publishers and Welsh writers operated under normal commercial rules. The State simply can no longer afford to indulge you. There are far more important priorities to consider.

And for all you Welsh writers out there, genuine talent will always prevail. Good writing will always be read and will always sell. If your work has these essential qualities then you don’t need the exhausted tax-payer to fund it – full stop.

Get out there and say ‘Hello’ to the real world! It doesn’t bite, you know.

This tax-payer funded farce, paid for by  many and yet to the benefit of so few, must stop. The cliques, the cronyism and whispered favouritism – ie money going to the same people, must stop.

In these hard times, where cuts in health, welfare and education are the order of the day, how can these payments from an embattled Treasury be justified?

It is all an unmitigated national scandal. But more than anything else it is downright immoral.

The same people have been getting the same money for years. The stench of corruption and jobs for the boys is in urgent need of some serious investigation. England 21%. So, if there are any investigative journalists in the audience please start digging. Your efforts I am confident will be rewarded and the tax-payer will be forever in your debt.

What should be done –

1 Restore the WBC to its original brief ie the promotion of Welsh language literature. The Welsh Assembly’s original goal of selling Welsh English language books outside Wales had patently failed.

2 Retain the Distribution Centre but on a commercial basis only.

3 Stop funding English language titles

4 Literature Wales should be funded for Welsh language titles only.

5 Make Local Authority grants voluntary instead of mandatory.

6 Retain Ty Newydd as a charity only – no subsidy.

Resources should be directed at new Welsh talent, not the old, and subsidised elites who wouldn’t even get past a London agents doormat let alone a publisher’s.

Professionals and administrators with solid commercial acumen and international publishing experience should be recruited to innovate and take Welsh literature into the future and see that it reaches a global audience.

It is a nonsense that ivory-towered academics who don’t know one end of a balance sheet from another should be running these organisations, they are not fit for purpose!

To conclude:-

Please note that the ACW has already been denounced in the past by both Houses of Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

It seems from the evidence I have adduced that it has learnt very little.

1 Funding patently doesn’t work – the books don’t sell!

2 It makes the funded writers lazy.

3 It makes the funded publisher’s complacent.

4 It eliminates any quality threshold.

5 There is no other country in the world that adopts this funding model.

6 It’s an inappropriate use of public funds.

7It belongs to the realms of the private sector.

8There is no competency threshold for Welsh publishers.

9 Welsh publishers simply don’t have the commercial experience or marketing expertise to succeed.

10 There is absolutely no advantage to our young or society as a whole.

The whole sorry system is –

Bad for the Tax-Payer

Bad for Welsh writers

Bad for Wales

Lastly, and perhaps more crucially, with the ebook and new technologies, are ‘publishers’ in the traditional sense needed at all? And how can printing costs etc  for tax-payer grants be justified???

Someone must stand up for the tax-payer and shout loud and clear,

‘It stops now, enough!

NB For further information and updates, please see my Blog julianruck.wordpress.com

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