Well, it’s that time of year again when we all go blank and realise we haven’t a clue what to give our friends and family for Christmas. As drastic as it might seem, why not do something really radical and brighten up the yuletide glut of television, tequila and turkey with the gift of a great book? Here at Bay, we’ve spared no efforts to bring you our favourites, each with a flavour of Wales (okay, the Russian folk tales might be pushing it a bit). If you really want to get into the festive spirit, why not buy them from your favourite local bookshop?
BAY BOOK OF THE MONTH
There’s something very special about old photographs and postcards that takes us into a pre-digital world when life was simpler, quieter and far less busy. Well that’s what I thought before I picked up David Gwynn’s brilliant ‘Lost Swansea’, a slender volume that shows us our fair city as she once was in images of a bygone age, accompanied by some fabulous historical detail and fantastic facts about a city that’s changed so much over the years. Once upon a time, Swansea was an industrial hotbed of national importance, seething with mines and metal works, producing coal and copper, lead and tinplate to export to the world. There was a spider’s web of railways and tramways, a pub on every terrace corner, cinemas and theatres on every main road, bustling docks and fish markets.
That was until industrial decline and the merciless Second World War aerial bombardment knocked the stuf-fing out of the town. What we have in Gwynn’s book is a window into a past and a glimpse of what might have been. ‘Lost Swansea’ does what it says on the tin, and it does it perfectly. What might at first seem to be a compilation of random images of yesteryear comes together in the reader’s mind to create a coherent portrait of a city that in many ways led the United Kingdom in its forward-looking adoption of systematic international trade in metal. There will be those of us that might have forgotten, or never knew, that Swansea was once called ‘Copperopolis’, a reference to the fact that the city’s prosperity was built on smelting copper. Some of the pictures of the industrial works along the Tawe have to be seen to be believed.
As do the photographs of how we used to live. Can you imagine Sketty Cross with only two cars parked outside a greengrocer’s and a locksmith’s? And what about the old Mumbles railway? Or the Constitution Hill tramway that had to be winched over the cobbles? ‘Lost Swansea’ is a superb look at Swansea past and the author has done a great job of it.
There’s no point denying it. The cuisine of Wales is tradition-al and delicious. Ask anyone what our national food is all about and they’ll list leeks, lamb and laverbread. Caerphilly cheese, cawl, cockles and of course Welsh cakes. In ‘Flavours of Wales’ food writer Gilli Davies cheerfully accepts that this is the case, presenting us with her fabulous recipes for everything you’d expect to come out of the Welsh kitchen. But she also widens the net, with authentic fish dishes for sea bass, salmon, sewin and even lobster. There’s plenty of lamb, pork and beef in beer. And for those with a sweet tooth, more traditional desserts, such as Welsh bread and butter pudding, are joined by the more adventurous apple and whinberry pie, pear gingerbread and an ambitious lavender, lemon and honey ice cream.
The Welsh are famous for their hospitality and always have been. As far back as the year 1188 the Arch-bishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Forde, was writing that “the Welsh consider liberality and hospitality among their first virtues.” Of course, history also tells us that as a nation we didn’t go around eating lamb shanks on a daily basis, with the everyday fare much more modest and even austere. But ‘Flavour of Wales’ is a celebration of what you can create when the larder is full. If you’ve got a bit of time and a few basic skills, you’ll be preparing some of the best food you can imagine. My favourite is the spring greens and carrot flan (the author tells us she first sampled this recipe at Fanny’s Restaurant in Llandeilo), that is not only wholesome and delicious, it actually tastes Welsh.
A beautifully presented cookbook of more than 100 recipes, accompanied by Huw Jones’s superb photo-graphy, ‘Flavours of Wales’ is the perfect present for the chef in your family.
Everyone loves a robin in the garden and, let’s face it, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas if the red-breasted Old World flycatcher didn’t put in an appearance near the back door of every Welsh kitchen garden. These little birds, as common as they are, hold a special place in the nation’s heart for their familiarity, their song and of course that famous flash of colour.
But what does the man of the Mumbles omnibus really know about them? The simple answer is not much. But by the time you’ve spent an hour or two with Jane Russ’s excellent ‘Robin Book’, you’ll be pretty much an expert on a bird that forms part of our Christmas folklore.
Right at the start, Russ says that the robin is so familiar that it would seem ‘laboured’ to describe it. But it’s a good job she does, because this famous ‘red’ bird is more accurately orange-breasted, while its young don’t have any fancy front plumage at all. While we might think of the robin as a type of thrush, as Russ says, this is pretty much old hat. Today, scientists armed with the latest DNA sequencing computer tools are starting to think that the friendly little chappie that comes bob, bob, bobbing along might be in a genus all of its own. Talking of friendly, they are of course fiercely territorial and scrappy with it. Russ also delves into the way in which the robin forms part of the fabric of our culture. She reminds us of the famous old ballad that in its earliest form has a ‘robin so red’ cover the bodies of two murdered children with strawberry leaves, all the while singing ‘poor babes in the wood’. Disney it isn’t.
Part of Graffeg’s Nature Book series, this latest instalment is, as we’ve come to expect, packed with superb photography. Pocket-sized, it really is the perfect stocking filler.
Wildflowers are some of our most important national treasures, free for everyone to enjoy while being somehow the perfect antidote to the digital blur of the age of electronic devices. They speak of the tranquillity and beauty of nature and they are the stuff of art, poetry and of course medicine. Wales is particularly blessed with having something like 1200 native or anciently-introduced flowering plants, conifers and ferns going right back to the last Ice Age. From the tops of our green mountains to the shores of our azure seas, wild flowers are everywhere. It goes beyond a shame that they’re under fire from all sides: climate change, overgrazing, habitat loss, soil erosion, air pollution, fertilisers, urban development and tourism. As the authors of ‘101 Rare Plants of Wales’ say, there are now at least 50 species of wild flower in Wales that are critically endangered. If you are looking for the Beacons hawkweed (please don’t), you’ll have a job on your hands because there are only two left.
It would be easy to dwell on an unfolding eco-tragedy, but to their credit Lauren Marrinan and Tim Rich have chosen instead to celebrate the richness of diversity of our flowering plants in words, maps and sumptuous photography. The accompanying text is also rich in scientific and natural history detail.
In what can only be described as a stunningly produced book (printed on responsibly sourced paper and with a neutral carbon dioxide footprint), the authors take us on a tour of just how beautiful Wales’s rare native plants are, while telling us in no uncertain terms that if we want to preserve this heritage for posterity we should stop moaning about it and get on with putting plans in place to protect it. But it’s an uphill struggle, because as they point out, ‘red kites and red squirrels attract more attention than red hemp-nettle’. All are equally important, a point that this extraordinary book makes abundantly clear.
Two books of not-very-general knowledge about Wales from the prolific and always entertaining Bay contributor Mark Rees. Also, two perfect Christmas presents for the local history nerd in your family (we’ve all got one, admit it…). First up is ‘The Little Book of Welsh Culture’ in which our enthusiast author literally crams a mass of information into a treasure trove of facts that really isn’t so little after all. In just under 200 pages he tells us just about everything we might want to know (and loads of stuff we didn’t know we wanted to know) about the Land of Song, from the origin of our flag to the fact that Richard Burton would rather have played rugby for Wales than Hamlet at the Old Vic. From Arthurian legend and the Mabinogion, right up to Swansea boy Russell T Davies’s resurrection of the Doctor Who franchise, Rees leaves no stone unturned in bringing us this unabashed celebration of what our poets, actors, musicians, artists and celebrities have done to make Wales special.
‘Wales is a weird and wonderful country’ says Rees (somewhat unnecessarily) at the start of his ‘A-Z of Curious Wales’. And if you ever wanted confirmation that ours is a principality with more than its fair share of bonkers traditions, myths and legends, then this will be the book for you. We’ve got the full hand of murders, fairies, lunatic asylums, highwaymen, poltergeists and magical Christmas trees. There are mystical islands, the truth about the disappearance of aviatrix Amelia Earhart and even more truth about the tale of Beddgelert. Talking of heroic dogs, Rees correctly assumes that no serious ‘A-Z of Curious Wales’ would be complete without a retelling of the tale of our beloved and highly decorated Swansea Jack, who famously saved the lives of 27 people by pulling them out of Swansea’s docks. Great stuff.
Christmas is a time for children too, and since here at Bay we assume that every youngster in Swansea already has a copy of Dylan Thomas’s ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’, we decided to look for something different to keep the kids enthralled while you’re serving up the turkey and sprouts. Once again Graffeg (just up the road in Llangennech) have come up with the goods in the form of the wonderful “Koshka’s Tales: Stories from Russia’, that will add an exotic element to your yuletide, bedside reading. For those (including myself) who don’t know who or what Koshka is, it’s simply the Russian word for a cat. Only in this case it’s a story-telling cat that dishes out the best traditional Russian folk stories, some of them so good that they’ve found their way into the operas of Rimsky-Korsakov, the ballets of Stravinsky and the soundscapes of Mussorgsky. And so, we have the familiar ‘Tale of the Snowmaiden’ alongside the perhaps not-so-familiar ‘Tale of Sadko the Minstrel’. We have the ‘Tale of Ivan, the Grey Wolf and the Firebird’, and we have the ‘Tale of Vassilisa the Fair and the Baba-Yaga’, all forming part of an anthology of tales wonderfully woven by James Mayhew, who continues the tradition of the story-telling cat, ‘retelling them in my own way, adding a few new touches, just like the storytellers of old.’ And a superb job he does of it too, creating with his quill a dreamlike world of magical atmospheres.
Every children’s Christmas book deserves to be lavishly-illustrated, a task taken on by the author himself.
It’s hard to say which are better, the words or the pictures. But at the end of the day, it hardly matters because they complement each other perfectly in a book that captures the essence of the old-fashioned Noel of traditional story-telling.