‘Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.’
– Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
One of the things I notice about Welsh, a language that I speak with the proficiency of a rather slow toddler, is that words have to work hard. It’s an old language – a primitive version of which once covered much of England and Wales. Unlike the language that supplanted it in England and drove it West, it remained relatively stable – it took in some Latin during the Roman invasion, but the Middle Welsh of the Mabinogion is more or less understandable to a modern Welsh speaker. The watershed for modern Welsh came in 1588 with a translation of the whole Bible by William Morgan (who was born a few miles from where I now live, in Penmachno near Betws y Coed). The revised version of this translation was published, after Bishop Morgan’s death, in 1620 and had an enormous influence on the language – something akin to the influence of the King James Bible’s influence on English, though perhaps even more long-lasting (a Welsh-speaking friend of mine maintains that it was a stultifying influence, though I’m not qualified to comment). But the point here is that Welsh words often have several meanings depending on context or their use within specific phrases.
The area where I live is Blaenau Ffestiniog and ‘blaenau’ is a case in point. The word can mean an ‘edge’, in the sense of a leading edge – the front edge. It can be the sharp edge of a knife or the sharp point of a pencil, even the apex of a plant emerging in spring – the tip of the bud.
Whenever I return from a trip away, usually from book launches in places like Cardiff or London or trips to catch up with one of my daughters (one a peadiatric nurse in Northampton and the other a fine art photography student in Hereford, and Cinnamon Press’s cover designer) I am always struck by how remote Blaenau appears. It can feel like the edge of the world and people frequently marvel that an independent press of any size can survive, let alone thrive, here. Yet thrive it does – perched at the foot of the Moelwyns in a rather higgledy-piggledy house that will be beautiful one day, but not necessarily in my lifetime, Cinnamon Press flourishes, even without access to a car.
The feeling of being on the knife edge is a familiar one – whenever I am waiting for the results of grant applications which, although extremely small in comparison to those lost by several presses in the recent Arts Council England round, are a life line to a press mad and passionate enough to publish substantial amounts of poetry and literary fiction that is brilliant, but too on the edge for the big presses to touch; whenever I get a new consignment of books and eagerly want to open the boxes and meet the new babies, yet fear that they might not be perfect; whenever I wait with an anxious author for guests to arrive at a launch; every week when I get a sales return email from Central Books (our distributor in England that works with the Arts Council England Inpress scheme for promoting small presses) and every month when I get a sales return print out from the Welsh Books Council (our distributor in Wales) and every time I check the bank account to convince myself that we maybe on a knife edge, but haven’t fallen over so far.
The edge is a precarious place. So what am I doing half way up a mountain in a remote corner of North Wales running a small press, fiercely guarding its independence, publishing superb books that are nonetheless risky for so many reasons? What am I doing living in this odd house with no central heating and so much renovation still to do? What am I doing? I’m enjoying the view.
People keep telling me that I will get inured to the beauty, but for ten years I’ve woken up, opened my curtains and thought how wonderful and how privileged it is to live here. And in the last year, going through the process of divorce and becoming more pointedly responsible for this press that is both on the edge and thriving, and for this quirky house that demands constant attention, yet provides a sanctuary, the feeling of wonder has only intensified. The edge, with its vistas, is a great place to run a press that looks for books prepared to take their own risks. Living on the edge has given me exactly the kind of perspective I needed to run this independent press that I love – and if the ground that it stands on is sharp and narrow, no matter – after all, as Archimedes is supposed to have said:
Give me a place to stand on and I will move the Earth
And, to paraphrase Kafka, that place only needs to be big enough for the two feet standing on it. The edge – Blaenau – is sufficient.