Frontier Visions

Embedded deep in the American consciousness is the idea of the frontier. The taming of the Wild West and the birth of the nation are part of American identity and it’s not for nothing that Captain Kirk and his Star Trek crew explored “Space, the final frontier”. While you may have heard of Buffalo Bill, General Custer and Dodge City you now need to make room for the forgotten tale of one of the most astonishing characters of the frontier myth.
John Evans may have been born an impoverished farmer in North Wales and he might have died a pauper’s death in New Orleans. However, in between those two events lies the tale of a trailblazer whose actions helped to change the course of entire country. And the person who has updated his story into the 21st century is arguably Wales’s most inventive and exciting creative talent, Gruff Rhys.

It’s not surprising that such a character might appeal to Rhys. Fresh from his exploits singing about, and dramatizing, the life of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli for Neon Neon, and a previous film, Seperado, on the journey to find a long lost cousin in Patagonia, comes his latest multi-media release on another intriguing character.

“I see him a bit like Jimi Hendrix” Rhys tells me about Evans. “Live fast, die young. There are some parallels with the musician’s life; between the ages of 22 and 29 he was ‘on the road’ continuously, and in the end it killed him.”

The project started not because Rhys saw any personal parallels with Evans, however, but because his father claimed that the explorer was a distant relative. “Whereas an album was recorded for Seperado but wasn’t released at the same time as the film, this time I wanted to tie them together,” he says. The result is American Interior, an album of material written as part of an investigative concert tour, following the path of Evans’s journey and a film documenting the tour and the trailblazer’s life.

And while Dylan Goch, who also directed Seperado, was editing the film, Rhys realised that “I needed to write a more detailed, contemporary history” of Evans’s exploits. Writing an album, a film and a book led to an app, “to tie the project together.” It makes Rhys’s wonderful collaboration with the National Theatre of Wales for Neon Neon’s Praxis Makes Perfect seem limited in comparison. “Most people eat their culture from a phone” he says practically, “and the app will allow them to explore it all in a different way.”

Despite one song on the album, 100 Unread Messages, obviously charting Evans’s journey and experiences in America, the songs stand on their own. Rhys’s creative output is quite extraordinary as is the quality of his work. Even though the title is American Interior, there is little of the Americana influence on the sound of the album. The title song gives a good indication of where the album is heading with its piano-led opening and showcasing the type of beautiful and playful pop sensibility that has been his trademark from his early days in the Welsh language band Ffa Coffi Pawb, on to Super Furry Animals and through to Neon Neon and his own material.

Rhys admits that none of this would have happened without storytelling and myth. Both of those elements are vital parts of Welsh culture, stretching back to tales like the Mabinogion, a lineage that Rhys himself seems to be part of. Another of those myths and legends is that long before Columbus, it was a Welshman, Madoc, who was the first to ‘discover’ America. This is just one of those myths linked to Evans that Rhys is so fascinated by.

“It was a revolutionary period. In the 1790s the Americans were fighting for independence, the French were getting rid of their royal family and there was a small window where people were talking openly about revolution. A radical generation had to leave Wales or face prison. John Evans was a follower of Iolo Morgannwg and they put their hope in a myth, searching for The Madogwy, a Native American tribe descended from Madoc, in a bid to set up a sort of Welsh utopia and start all over again.”

Rhys says the characters he’s looked at, from John DeLorean, Feltrinelli, and now John Evans, “All looked at the world as a whole rather than being introverted.” That parochialism that is so typical of the Welsh is not something that neither Evans nor Rhys would share. In fact, the singer again finds parallels with more contemporary sources as he begins to talk about the punk attitude that is still an inspiration.

“When I was growing up, Welsh gigs always ended with the audience singing ‘Hen Wlad fy Nhadau’. Someone like Anhrefn, a Welsh punk band from the 80s, changed all that. I was once kicked out of a Heather Jones gig at Clwb Ifor Bach for not standing up for the Welsh anthem because Anrhefn refused to stand for any anthem. They were extroverted rather than introverted, completely confident in their own culture as well as making room for all other cultures.”

Looking outwards rather than inwards is certainly part of Gruff Rhys’s attitude but that doesn’t mean leaving Wales behind. “One of the things I enjoyed most about the tour was explaining about John Evans’s life and about Wales to people who knew next to nothing about either.” This is one of the reasons he’s opted for smaller, more intimate venues for his tour with five nights at the Soho Theatre in London and a slot at the Dinefwr Literature Festival. He wants to tell a story.

When asked whether he sees his role as a sort of spokesman for Welsh culture he vehemently denies it, again underlining his punk credentials, “I don’t see myself as a spokesman for anything or anyone, apart from myself.” It strikes me that perhaps this is one reason he is so confident and creative, steering away from being bogged down by some political manifesto.

Like Evans himself, you feel, here is someone whose eyes are open to the richness of the world around him and taking on board the best of other cultures as well as keeping his own. It’s one of the aspects that make the film so watchable. Rhys doesn’t judge but rather lets people speak for themselves, revealing their own stories around the central thread of Evans’s tale.

The film is also testament to Rhys’s wry humour. At one point a couple at one of the concerts are uncertain whether Rhys is spinning a comedic yarn or whether there’s some sincerity in his explanation of Evans’s remarkable life. This may be partly down to the metre-tall felt doll of John Evans that accompanies Rhys on tour and the dry delivery of his PowerPoint presentation.

Perhaps the most memorable moment in the film is Rhys’s visit to the Mandan people, a Native American tribe. They were once, it seems, at the very heart of the American nation. People came from all over the world to trade with them at one point in their history and yet only one fluent speaker of their language remains.

“It was a profound experience,” admits Rhys. “There was a realisation of what it was like to lose a language, to lose a culture.” It was such a profound experience because the parallels with his own situation were also obvious. “We have a golden opportunity in Wales to save the language, yet people don’t take it seriously, there are no policies or plans in place. If we don’t take this opportunity, the same thing could happen to the Welsh language.”

The whole project seems to be based on these elements: Wales, the world and the stories of individuals who see beyond their own boundaries. During the film and in the press releases for American Interior, Rhys wears the head of a wolf. “It was because I was going to be turning into a werewolf during the film but we thought in the end that it was a tangent too far for audiences.” The interest in these extroverted individuals wasn’t too far away though, “The headgear was originally inspired by William Price from Llantrisant” he adds. Price was a true radical. He advocated the abolition of marriage was a Chartist, a Druid and wore a wolf’s head.

Rhys sings on the title track of the album, “Your visions carry me to a new world”. It’s the vision of John Evans that is the inspiration for the project but this is also what Rhys been doing through his music since the start of his career. He’s been breaking new frontiers, opening our eyes to what lies beyond our own boundaries. In that way, he too is a radical visionary and we are all the richer for having him.


A version of this article first appeared in the May edition of Buzz Magazine.

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The Sound of the Summer

“I’d like to see him…and them…and those…”

It only takes a brief glance at this year’s line-up at the Green Man Festival for Sweet Baboo to become enthused. In a summer packed full of festivals promoting his latest album ‘Ships’, the weekend event at Glanusk Park in August clearly holds a special place for the Cardiff-based artist. “I think I’ve been almost every year” he says as he goes on to reel off some of the bands and musicians he’s seen perform there. More importantly, however, seems to be spending the weekend with friends and enjoying the beautiful Welsh scenery. It all sounds like a perfect weekend.

Sweet Baboo, or Stephen Black in everyday life, is playing at the Walled Garden this year and it should be one of the many highlights of the festival. ‘Ships’ might have started off as a concept album about the sea but that “got lost somewhere in translation” he admits.  Still, the sea, “a classic image of escapism and freedom” runs through the album and if escapism is what you’re looking for, then it won’t disappoint.

Even if it’s raining this summer, the opening track, ‘If I Died…’ will conjure those long sunny days with its exhilarating pop. One of the reasons for this is the brass section. It influences every song, a development from his previous work. He matter-of-factly describes making the album, “I was listening to a lot Northern Soul and Dexy’s and Rob (Jones, the producer) happened to have bought a trumpet so we decided to put that on every song.” For a second, it seems as if it happened by chance but ‘Ships’ is nothing of the sort. The album’s success and the amount of airplay the singles have had, which has taken Black by surprise, are testament to that.

i put it to Black that he is the hardest-working-man-in-pop-music. But, despite playing for Slow Club and, amongst others, Jonny, Cate Le Bon, H Hawkline and Islet in the last couple of years, he’s having none of it. Perhaps part of that is because he doesn’t want to make “grown-up music”, he’d prefer to make music with an element of fun, just like those bands he’s always loved: The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Super Furries and Gorky’s. Part of that also seems down to the community of artists in Cardiff at the moment, “an inclusive thing which doesn’t have any egos” according to Black and reflected in the vibrancy of the music coming out of the city.

He doesn’t say it, but Sweet Baboo comes across as someone who thinks that making and playing music is primarily just for the sheer enjoyment of it. The success is just a by-product. It’s no wonder that it’s as if he’s continuously on tour, packing everything into an Astra estate and doing it all on the tightest budget possible or supporting Jonny Flynn on some sell-out dates. He mentions that for smaller gigs where they can’t afford the brass section, they’re trying to work out a way to stop playing for a moment, pick up the trumpet and saxophone, play them briefly, and then get back to the rest of the song. That playfulness runs through the album. It’s no wonder that he adds that his girlfriend tells him that he looks happiest when he’s up on stage, making music.

It sounds as if Green Man will be one of the highlights of the summer for Sweet Baboo. “You can take it for granted in Wales but the setting is spectacular and to watch bands in that atmosphere is pretty amazing” he says. But it also sounds as if Sweet Baboo will be one of the highlights of this year’s Green Man. When he plays, regardless of the weather, he will bring with him a perfect slice of summer pop. It promises to be a joyous occasion.

Sweet Baboo’s ‘Ships’ is available now on Moshi Moshi Records. Buy it from or from your local independent record shop.

This interview originally appeared in the August edition of Buzz Magazine

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Cultural Capital

Cardiff has never been handed the title European Capital of Culture but it hardly needs it. Take the city’s most striking landmark. Cardiff Bay might not be to everyone’s taste yet the poetry on the Wales Millennium Centre can’t fail to impress. And the words say so much about our vibrant home. Firstly, they are bilingual. There are more languages than that fighting for attention on the streets of Cardiff of course, but these two languages, Welsh and English, are at the heart of the nation itself. It suggests a cultural richness, a people existing in two languages simultaneously; it suggests a richness of expression, a richness of creativity. The fact that the words are windows suggests that we see creative expression as a way not only of looking out at the world and making sense of it, but also as a way of looking in at ourselves, making sense of who we are. It’s no wonder they light up the area at night.


The English words, ‘In These Stones Horizons Sing’ reveal more about Cardiff’s creative energy. Gwyneth Lewis, the poet who wrote the words in both languages, says that she wanted to capture how, “The sea has, traditionally, been for Cardiff the means by which the Welsh export their best to the world and the route by which the world comes to Cardiff.” What takes place within the centre, but also in the city itself, is reaching beyond the horizon while also bringing the international to our nation, to our city. Despite what some would have you believe, the Welsh are not an introverted people. Gwyneth Lewis is right. Take a look at the Bay’s history, the old Cardiff Docks and Butetown. It is a history full of international voices, singing.

These diverse singing voices are welcome here: there has always been space in Cardiff for others. The other is not a threat but a way of complementing and deepening the richness that already exists. ‘De Gabay’, The National Theatre of Wales’s recent production, explored Cardiff’s Somalian community. The interactive performance considered the geographical area as well as the cultural life of the people.  Again, poetry was central through the work of writers such as Hassan Pinero and Ahmed Yusuf and the performance meditated on the connection between a tradition handed down by ancestors and planted in the rich soil of our city.

Neon Neon

The National Theatre of Wales also played a central role in expressing Neon Neon’s latest album, ‘Praxis Makes Perfect’. Just a short walk from the Bay a secret location waited for those lucky enough to have picked up tickets for Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip’s latest collaboration. Exploring the life and work of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the Italian publisher and left-wing political activist, the night became one which fused the music with drama, politics and literature as we swapped books with strangers at the end of the night.

This cultural fusion between forms of expression is seen all over the city. Places such as Chapter Arts Centre and the Sherman Theatre are a hub of such activity where literature and music are often intertwined.  At Chapter you can listen to the best poetry from local publisher Seren Books or read your own work in the following open mic session on the first Thursday of every month. Sherman Cymru’s ‘Llwyth’ based on an international rugby day in Cardiff, by local playwright Dafydd James, travelled as far afield as Thailand.

A night out in Cardiff was also the subject of Lloyd Robson’s prose poem ‘Cardiff Cut’. The suburbs seem pristine but Llwyd Owen’s work suggests a darker current running underneath the surface. Want a creative taste of the city? Get ‘Real Cardiff’, a better buy than any travel guide, by Peter Finch. Finch is also a performance poet and again this fusion of rhythm, poetry, drama is seen in a group of younger poets excelling in the art form. One such name is Rhian Edwards. Her collection ‘Clueless Dogs’ won this year’s Welsh Book of the Year Award last week. Here’s a taste:

Arguably the city’s most famous poet, Dannie Abse, explores his relationship with the place in ‘Return to Cardiff’. In that wonderful poem he mentions the ‘smell of ripe, damp earth when the sun comes out, /a mixture of pungencies, half exquisite and half plain.’ He’s talking of his own roots which grew here and suggests that others’ roots will continue to grow in this rich, fertile ground. Some of his experiences were ‘half plain’, perhaps like the city at first glance – its McShops like any other British high street, its chain clubs and bars, overflowing on Friday and Saturday nights. Yet, that earth also created, and still creates, something exquisite, culturally diverse, rich in its expression and voice. A voice that is always singing.

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‘The Horror, The Horror’

There was a headline in the news recently about the cost of the war in Afghanistan. Apparently, we’ve all paid more than £2,000 for what seemed, even from the beginning, a futile exercise. What struck me was not the waste of money in times of austerity but what this story says about us. We seem to have become a society that measures things in terms of material cost and, specifically, personal material cost. If a government was trying to start the NHS now, it wouldn’t stand a chance. The true cost of war can never be measured in terms of capital. The true cost of war is immeasurable. A lost son, a daughter who will never hold her father’s hand, a mother left with all that desperate grief, a soldier whose moral compass has gone, the orphaned child desperate for revenge.

The title of Kevin Powers’ much-lauded debut on the Iraq war comes from a traditional U.S. Army marching cadence. However, the colour yellow, and birds, pervade the whole novel. It’s seen in the deserts of Iraq, where parts of the novel are set; it’s seen in a yellow ribbon tied around a bar at an American airport, a symbol of support for troops fighting on foreign soil; it’s seen in the tale of a miner setting canaries free from their cages, only to have them return to perch on the symbol of their captivity and cease their singing. That image alone tells you where this novel is going. It could have been called, ‘I know why the caged bird doesn’t sing.’

Written in fragments, moving back and forth between home and Iraq, Powers charts the story of two soldiers who become friends, Bartle and Murph, and Sterling, their slightly unhinged gung-ho sergeant who is a character not unlike Robert Duvall’s character in ‘Apocalypse Now, perhaps. Yet this isn’t an all-out action powerhouse, so beloved of Hollywood movies. Bartle, who narrates, spends much of the time reflecting on the abstract and describing in close detail the events on the margins as events lead, inevitably, to Murph’s end.

And death is at the heart of this novel. Death and human insignificance, ‘We thought that if we remained ordinary, we would not die. We confused correlation with cause…Our biggest error was thinking that it mattered what we thought…There were no bullets with my name on them…There were no bombs made just for us…Nothing made us special. Not living. Not dying. Not being ordinary.” It’s full of passages like this. Some of it doesn’t work and some images jar the reader. ‘Clouds spread out over the Atlantic like soiled linens on an unmade bed’ left me rather bemused. However, there’s a great deal of lyrical beauty in this novel, with a dream-like atmosphere being conjured in the midst of great sadness and tragedy. As Bartle struggles with returning from duty and faced with the sight and sound of his carefree friends, there’s a long sentence strung over two pages, ‘…that thing you started to notice slipping away is gone and now it’s becoming inverted, like you have bottomed out in your spirit but yet a deeper hole is being dug…’ It’s a little overdone perhaps, but it’s also incredibly powerful and moving.

But this isn’t a novel just about war. Its scope is far greater. The sense of futility, of war, of friendship, of promises, of life itself is beautifully drawn. And it’s that tenderness that makes it such an important novel. The tenderness in the relationship between Bartle and Murph, the tenderness in the way nature is used, the tenderness in the telling itself. And in a place that seems to make heroes of soldiers and celebrates its military pomp and power (and I’m talking of Britain, not America – just think Thatcher’s funeral), this book is urgent and vital.

I haven’t read a book in one sitting for a long time but I did with this, and I was left with an ache for all the beauty we have been given and all we have done to destroy it.

‘The Yellow Birds’ by Kevin Powers is published by Sceptre.

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Just Perfect

It’s a bright but cold Saturday evening, the first weekend in May. We pass the crowds of testosterone-filled, shirt-bursting men, the groups of hens, high-heeled, perma-tanned, their sense of volume control lost in the day’s drinking. We make our way beyond St. Mary’s Street and Mill Lane, beyond the train station and beyond those soulless office buildings that connect the city and Cardiff Bay. And we find ourselves at a warehouse, tucked away in a cul-de-sac. Here is the spiked metal fence, the open gate, the corrugated iron, and here is the bar, the bookshop, the rusting VW van emblazoned with ‘National Theatre of Wales in neon lights. Around us, an air of expectation as we gather to see NTW’s latest production, ‘Praxis Makes Perfect’.

Typically of NTW, this is no normal theatrical experience. We have been told to wear red and to bring a book. The bar is called ‘The Champagne Socialist’. If you want beer you have to drink Red Stripe. The bookshop is full of books about Communism and is well-stocked with copies of Pasternak’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’. That’s because the production is a collaboration between NTW and Gruff Rhys’ side project (with Boom Bip), Neon Neon, about the life of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the Italian publisher and left-wing political activist who seem to have been involved in many of the key events of the latter-part of the twentieth century. And everything we see reflects some part of this remarkable man’s life. Soon, someone stands on the van’s roof and like an old political rally calls on us through a megaphone to vote against the Italian royal family and for the people; the doors open and we enter the warehouse.

Neon NeonInside, we are met with news clips of Feltrinelli’s untimely death and the electronic sounds which open Rhys and Boom Bip’s concept album. Once we’re led into the main space itself there they are, at its centre, bashing on typewriters as we gather around them. Characters appear from a giant filing cabinet, the band move to the giant shelves which doubles as their stage. The action takes place on stages which are wheeled out into the audience so that wherever you are, you become part of the action. A giant desk lamp is used to reflect the CIA’s questioning of Feltrinelli in Bolivia, the Secret Police weave menacingly through the crowd, looking for the manuscript of Pasternak’s novel, smuggled out of Soviet Russia by the protagonist. Warhol’s studio is reincarnated with a naked woman and heart-shaped balloons which float around the audience, Neon Neon dollar bills are thrown, leopard masks are worn, photographs and words projected on to the huge doors fill in the gaps in the story, there’s a basketball game with a competitive Fidel Castro, Che Guevara makes an appearance and there’s plenty of politics and playfulness. And behind it all, is Neon Neon’s wonderful music. More than a soundtrack, it is the story itself.

eyeemfiltered1368877922095By the time Gruff Rhys exhorts us to hold our left fist in the air as Feltrinelli’s body is carried out we are entranced by the whole experience. Neon Neon burst into some songs from their first album, ‘Stainless Style’, the party ensues, placards are held and books are swapped. This really is a remarkable piece of theatre. As a teacher, it’s fairly difficult to get pupils to see that going to The Globe might have been a rebellious act in Shakespeare’s day, that drama has always been a subversive medium. It’s even harder to convince them when I take them to see performances that are filled with people like me: privileged, middle-class, white. I wish I’d brought them tonight. This is what the theatre is about: interactive, challenging ideas, getting you to think politically. And always entertaining. Tim Price from NTW who wrote the script,and the cast, should be praised while Gruff Rhys is a creative genius. Wales is lucky to have him.

Finally, we drifted off home past the goose-pimpled girls in their mini-skirts and the men in their short-sleeved shirts, past those still playing the game on Mill Lane. And we were filled with the thrill of being alive.

Reading is Resisting

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Modern Life

Do you remember that strange feeling you had when you first read the opening of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’? That’s exactly how I felt as I read George Saunders latest collection of short stories, ‘Tenth of December’. Saunders presents a world which is almost the same as ours but the language and the diction of those who speak as well as some of the situations he presents are slightly off-kilter. He deals with everyday people, often those who haven’t achieved their desires, often the sad, the lost, the unloved. But his way of telling the story, often through the first person, is strange and often very funny. Very funny indeed.

Al Roosten may never ‘make it big’ but he also lacks any self-awareness. The same is true for the father in ‘The Semplica Girls Diaries’ who is desperate for his daughter to feel loved by owning as much as the rich family in town. Characters take drugs such as MobiPak™, ViviStif™, Darkenfloxx™ or KnightLyfe®, which allows a character to speak in archaic English. In ‘Victory Lap’, the opening of the story is told by Alison, a teenage girl who might be Miss Small Town America. Her voice is typical of the way Saunders works, ‘Was she special? Did she consider herself special? Oh, gosh, she didn’t know. In the history of the world, many had been more special than her. Helen Keller had been awesome; Mother Teresa was amazing;’ Alison is both naive and desperate to be something else, something better.

Despite what seems to be a writer mocking these characters that he creates, the stories end with a great deal of sympathy towards them. In ‘Victory Lap’, for instance, Alison is rescued by the knight in shining armour she so desires, it’s just that it’s the boy next door. These are also satires on America and Western life. The way the father in ‘The Semplica Girls Diaries’ tries to show his love for his daughter raises questions about our own values and our consumerist society where a gulf is created between rich and poor. Like Orwell, Saunders uses these off-kilter worlds, voices and characters to reveal our own society, our own lives. The author appears at the Hay Festival this weekend. If there’s a ticket left, grab it.

‘Tenth of December’ by George Saunders is published by Bloomsbury.

Thanks to @Placidcasual27 for the recommendation. Diolch, gyfaill!



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‘The Last Hit’

There are certain images of Wales that are hard to shake: male voice choirs, coal miners, rugby, sheep, women in strange costumes playing the harp, the seriously-suited chapel-goer. None of these appear in ‘The Last Hit’ by Llwyd Owen, a previous winner of the Welsh Language Book of the Year. He is far more interested in the underworld, the seedy secrets that lie underneath the respectable veneer, a Welsh…er…Irvine Welsh.

The story of Tubbs, a sensitive man-mountain of a hitman, moves along at a rollicking pace. Left to avenge his mother’s death by finding her killer, he works for his surrogate father, T-Bone, a none-too-pleasant leader of the local biker gang. There’s clearly a dark secret involved somewhere and in the process of revealing it we come across a cast that’s great to read about but whom you probably wouldn’t want to meet. There’s the slapstick pair of Vexl and Gimp from Barry, Luca the rock star who resides in west Wales and Petra, the Merthyr girl with a heart of gold and nerves of steel. And there’s a great deal of drugs. Characters are rolling up,  crushing pills and snorting at every possible opportunity. And loving it.

There are some memorable set-pieces. The opening is enigmatic and atmospheric, whenever Vexl and Gimp appear there are some great touches of humour and you can’t help but root for Tubbs from the opening few sentences, even as he kills a far-too-talkative Scouser. But it’s not all action. There are some serious issues discussed: the nature of violence, domestic violence, corruption and prostitution. Even under the surface of the enjoyment of substance abuse there is plenty of sadness and tragedy, of how people’s lives get caught up in a web others have spun for them. Trapped and alone, with the foolishness of her own desire for Gimp and destroyed by prostitution and drugs is the tragic figure of Vicky. Tubbs himself is trapped and in Petra we see how easy people, women especially, can become victims of male power and violence.

However, this is a feel-good story and our hero is Tubbs. Owen enjoys telling the story and the novel is a page-turner, all leading up to a fitting climax as the various strands are drawn together. If you’re looking for a book to read on the beach this summer or, as might be the case, looking for a book to read while waiting for the incessant Welsh rain to stop, you should enjoy ‘The Last Hit’. It won’t win the Booker but strap yourself in, it’s quite a ride.


‘The Last Hit’ by Llwyd Owen is published by Y Lolfa.

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