Words and the sound of Wales

Michael Glover on Swansea's dreams for a literary free-for-all in 1995
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The Independent Culture
There is the dream - and then there is the reality. The dream is in the head of Sean Doran, director for the past 12 months of the UK Year of Literature and Writing 1995, which begins in Swansea on the stroke of midnight tonight and continues thro ughoutthe whole of the year. The festival itself, with over 1,000 events close-packed into a mere 365 days, is the most ambitious and wide-ranging literary festival ever conceived. Three weeks ago Jimmy Carter was appointed its Honorary President. In fa ct, it is not so much a matter of what is going to happen, as of what will not be happening in Swansea next year.

Will there be a month-long celebration of Swansea's most famous literary offspring, the wayward, cherubic-cheeky Dylan Thomas? Of course. Will there be a festival of American literature? Of course. That will run intermittently throughout the year. There will also be a mini-festival of Canadian literature (4-6 May), a mini-festival of Latin American literature (23-26 March), and a whole series of "themed" festivals that come and go throughout the year - on script-writing, for example, travel writing, theatre writing, sports writing, song writing . . . And so it goes on, this extraordinary mixing and matching of high- and low-brow literary entertainment.

But a literary festival was not enough for Swansea. There had to be some lasting legacy for the nation, something tangible. The name of that, according to Sean Doran and the festival brochure, will be Ty Llen - the National Literature Centre for Wales, which will be housed in the old Guildhall, a massive, pre- Victorian pile that stands on the quayside in the maritime quarter of the town. Work has been going on for the last year to convert this grand, derelict building into a state-of-the-ar t literature centre with an auditorium for live events, exhibition areas, a bookshop, a specialist library, children's activity area and much else. It will open on 1 March - St David's Day.

That, then, is the dream. A festival about not merely the appreciation of literature, but about the possessing and the using of it. A festival for two cultures: Welsh and English.

The reality is the ugly-lovely city of Swansea itself, which became designated Wales's "second" city as recently as 1958 (the Queen made it so by calling Cardiff the first city at the time of the Empire Games), and which had its status raised from that of a town to a city even more recently - at the time of Prince Charles's investiture. Being designated a second city means that you play second fiddle to the first - which is, of course, Cardiff. Once upon a time Swansea was much the bigger and the mightier of the two, but with the decline of its great industries came spiritual emasculation too - of a kind felt even more keenly by all those ex-miners grieving for the loss of their manhood up in the valleys.

Swansea is not a pretty sight on a drizzly day in December. The Luftwaffe did a very good job of flattening much of it; a whole generation of insensitive town planners have left a legacy of dreary, grey buildings thrown up in haste to avoid the embarrassment of holes. It is a city in search of an identity, some new, proud reason for being. Can literature help?

Swansea City Council may have thought so in 1991 when the city pitched for and earned the right to host the event. But once that victory was won there was little but trouble and strife. Sean Doran's predecessor resigned in fury and frustration, complaining of foot-dragging and unfulfilled promises. The plan to create a futuristic purpose-built literature centre in the heart of the town, at a cost estimated to be £14m, was never realised. Walking around the new building in a hard hat, with the press offi cer from the festival straining to catch the words of the surveyor through the din of power drills, it becomes apparent that a large proportion of it - at least a third - will be used as office space for the city and county councils. The "performance aud itorium" of Sean Doran's description is described in the architect's plans as a "lecture theatre", and has a seating capacity of only 150.

But the biggest suprise of all is the building's name. A great, windowless stretch of blind wall rises up to the right of the main entrance. "That's where the sign will be, on that wall," says the surveyor. "There'll be the big Swansea Coat of Arms - huge, three meters in diameter - and the name of the building in a circle around it: the Dylan Thomas Centre. Five metres in all. . ." The press officer corrects her. "No, it's Ty Llen," she says.

And that is indeed the name that has been ringing in my ears throughout the visit. Ty Llen. Ty Llen. The National Literature Centre for Wales. But she is mistaken. The words "Ty Llen" do indeed appear on the architect's plans, but in much smaller lettersaltogether, over the main entrance. It is the great Coat of Arms of the City of Swansea, made from iodized bronze, that will dominate.

What does this tell us about the long-term intentions of the City and County Councils? Do they have predatory designs? And consider this: the conversion costs of the building were in excess of £4m. Sean Doran's performance budget for the entire year is £600,000. No wonder the details are still sketchy.