Interview: Nigel Jarrett

A detester of bohemianism and about as politically Right as Josef Stalin: This is Nigel Jarrett, Welsh author of the widely acclaimed story collection Funderland. He speaks about short stories, journalism, finding inspiration and his own worst fault as a writer.

Nigel Jarrett is a freelance journalist and fiction writer.

Nigel is a freelance journalist and fiction writer.

WCC: You had a first story collection published by Parthian in 2011 and your short fiction continues to appear in literary magazines. Why short stories?

NJ: I’d always read and written but I first took writing fiction seriously when the American New Realists were entering the scene – Carver, Wolff, Ford, Phillips; that crowd. There was nothing like it in Britain.  I was subscribing  to the magazine Granta when Bill Buford was its prescient editor; he’d devoted a whole issue to them. As a newspaper reporter working sixty hours a week minimum, I didn’t have time to finish a novel – well, I did, but it was taking so long that I lost track of plot and character; it was hopeless. I could knock off a story at one sitting. It was just as well that the best short stories had no proper endings. The first adult book I read was a selection of stories by de Maupassant.

WCC: Was it difficult to get Funderland published?

NJ: Yes and no. You need the stories in a collection to have been published in magazines or to have won a literary competition, preferably not the East Newlyn Writers’ Circle Open. I was OK on both counts. But even then it’s difficult to interest a publisher. There’s this huge delusional thing going on. The Creative Writing industry teaches short fiction as a staple yet publishers are always trying to create a demand for it among a reluctant readership. The result is an unpublishable glut beside those collections that do make it and are over-exposed. Story collections are notoriously slow sellers unless the authors have done something else to warrant attention, such as having spent thirty years in Corrie or been the third member of a ménage a trois with Gilbert and George. It helped that, several years before, I’d won the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction. I was a finalist again last year. My stories were also liked by Richard (Lewis) Davies, founder and ringmaster of Parthian Books. That helped, too.

WCC: You’ve been a daily-newspaper journalist and you now freelance.  Is there a connection between newspaper work and writing fiction? Does journalism make fiction easier?

NJ: No connection that I know of. Few of my colleagues ever wrote fiction. (One could joke, of course, that all newspaper scribes write fiction as part of their investigation of facts.) Working on a newspaper does feed fantasies of being a ‘proper’ writer and the example of Hemingway and others, who both reported and wrote stories, sustains them. Writing for a newspaper and ‘subbing’ copy – I did both – should help in the writing of concise fiction, but I found that, freed of the daily imperative to watch the word count and the syllables, I was tempted by a Jamesian convolution that I had to resist. One of the best modern stylists was Evelyn Waugh, whose economy of means as a writer came naturally. I continually re-read him to find out how he did it.

It amuses me to think that I include fiction in the myriad of items I churn out as a freelance journalist. Sad to say, most small but influential magazines are too poor to pay their contributors. Had they done so at New Yorker rates I’d have a holiday home in Nice by now. Like Dr Johnson, I think writers should always be paid. I therefore write, inter alia, for the Conservative Salisbury Review because it pays me promptly. Needless to say I’m about as politically Right as Josef Stalin.

WCC: Newspapers are struggling. Do you see a future for writers in printed form?

NJ: I don’t see much of a future for print itself, but I think it will co-exist with digital for a while yet. The trouble with digital-only is that some magazine editors might ‘publish’ any old rubbish once their space, or cyberspace, becomes unlimited. Print magazines with an online element deny that their digital stuff consists, ipso facto, of rejects.  At the same time, they always have a hundred pages of publishable material to fit into forty. Therefore, when rejected by a print-only magazine it doesn’t necessarily mean that your work’s no good. Rejection by one with an infinite online presence means it probably is or that the editor thinks it is. The good news is that a vista is opening up for writers that offers the prospect of being able to self-publish professionally and sell books on a website. Literary agents and traditional book publishers will soon be developing the jitters. But there’ll also be a mountain of crud to sift through. I hope the reviewing journals, print or online, can preserve their integrity as well as their identity..

WCC: Where do you get your ideas?

NJ: From anywhere. In the early days, my style was an imitation of whichever writer I happened to be enamoured of at the time. Newspaper ‘In Brief’ columns are a useful source. Anyone who can’t construct a half decent story based on a ‘NIB’ shouldn’t be writing.  You always know when something you’ve heard, witnessed, read, thought about or experienced directly is going to turn into a story pretty soon. It’s an instantaneous feeling, though you have to want to do the writing, an activity always capable of being deferred by the claims of the coffee machine and the newspaper (I’m a ferocious newspaper reader). Someone, like me, who often sits in front of a computer screen not knowing what’s going to happen is undergoing a familiar and undeniable writerly ritual. Something will come, as Henry James (since I’ve mentioned him) used to say.

WCC: What advice would you give to a writer just beginning to be published?

NJ: Learn the rules, break them and get yourself a website. Treat advice from people ‘in the industry’ with something just short of disdain. Learn from people who’ve been published – ie, other writers.

WCC: Do you know what your writings are about in the sense that there’s a common theme to your work?

NJ: Tough one. I used to trot out all the definitions of art as answers to this question.The relationship between big events and unsung people, the War and Peace thing, always interests me.  Then I liked fiction as a means of giving voice to the inarticulate or mute.It’s not easy. Making a pattern out of an essentially patternless world can result in too ordered a transformation: happy endings, no untied strings – that sort of thing. Stories allow you to let the readers do more work than perhaps might reasonably be expected of them.

WCC: What’s your worst fault as a writer?

NJ: Sometimes making my characters say things as I might say them. Actually, I’m not sure if this is a fault in most cases. The accusation can lead to an inverted or concealed snobbery. In one story I have a traumatised teenager (his parents were killed in a car crash) meditating on his job at a failing wildlife park. Some of his speech might be thought too intellectual, too considered, for one who knows he’s been brutalised. I do hate it when some middle-class critic presumes to know how an uneducated butcher’s boy would speak. The lower orders don’t borrow books from libraries, do they? Well, they would in any other circumstances, and I’m creating those circumstances for them. They may not be able to say but they have feelings like the rest of us. My job is to allow them to speak their feelings, if necessary in words of more than two syllables.

WCC: What are you working on now?

NJ: I’ve just written a very short story called Blakemore’s Folly, which has been accepted for publication. I’ve completed a novel, a poetry collection and a second story collection, each of which is looking for a home on the page or on the screen (the vista is in sight!). Trying to publish things is more tiring than disappointing. The important thing is to write because you want to and you believe in it.I’ve just started a second novel and I’m in the middle of some flash fictions. Publishing/writing seems to be all about novels and stories. What about essays, plays, polemic, satire, documentary fiction, non-fiction, biography?

WCC: Have you any other interests?

NJ: Plenty. Apart from reviewing poetry and jazz for Acumen magazine and Jazz Journal respectively, I paint and draw. The questions thrown up by visual art have always fascinated me. I’m a psychiatric case in the sense that I only enjoy the things I can do myself, or think I could do given the time and space. I lost interest in cricket when I stopped playing it, though when I stopped learning to play the piano my interest in music and score-reading increased to the point where I’m pretty good at holding a tune in pitch and following Shostakovich’s Fifth. I told you I was a psychiatric case. I don’t collect stamps, for sure. I do go to the gym and swim regularly early in the morning. I’ve seen too many close ones die to want to follow them prematurely. In any case, I detest bohemianism and anything slovenly. Bohemianism is the triumph of lifestyle over ambition. I gave up smoking years ago. I need as much life as possible. I’m certainly interested in more living, more fresh air, in order to keep out of death’s dominion. For a while longer, anyway.

More info:

Funderland is available to buy from Amazon in both paperback and kindle editions.

See the Parthian website for reviews of Funderland.

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Should Welsh writing be subsidised?

Two articles from The Telegraph and The Guardian respectively argue the different points of view.
  1. So what do YOU think? Should Welsh writing be subsidised? Tweet your responses to @WritersCCymru

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David Ambrose: Storytelling and festivals

David Ambrose is both a storyteller and the director of Wales’ international storytelling festival, Beyond the Border. We meet for a coffee and a chat in the Welsh Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay.

David Ambrose is the director of Wales' international storytelling festival

David Ambrose is the director of Wales’ international storytelling festival

Middle-aged and disarming, he insists on buying me a coffee. As we settle down, a children’s orchestra strikes up from the Glanfa Stage in the foyer. Raising my voice above a lively rendition of Hark the herald, I ask him to tell me something about how Beyond the Border came into being.

Eager to oblige, he sets his flat white down and leans forward. “I first came across storytelling about 25 years ago,” he tells me. “I really didn’t know what it was but I recognised it immediately as something that had been in the background of my life since childhood.”

He was so taken with the idea of storytelling that he began promoting it for an adult audience. It grew until it could eventually be called a festival – and the first Beyond the Border was held in St. Donats in 1993.

A few years ago, support from the Welsh government and the Arts Council of Wales meant that it was added to the roster of major events in Wales. But it is not limited to a bi-annual festival – Beyond the Border also promotes storytelling events all year round (see below).

What is storytelling?

The backing track to our conversation has changed to the mellower tune of Away in a Manger. Taking a sip of coffee, I ask if he could explain what exactly constitutes storytelling as an art form.

He nods enthusiastically: “That’s a really interesting question …”

It is clearly something he has already thought about in great detail. Firstly, he tells me, it is not just reading aloud from a book and, furthermore, it is far more than simply reciting.

“Storytelling is basic human need,” he says. “It’s a need to communicate experience – and every human being indulges in it and has a need for it. By and large, we’re talking about the performance of traditional stories – but not necessarily a faithful or rigid retelling.”

And for anyone who thinks of storytelling as a cosy, comfortable pastime where the status quo never changes, they need to think again. “Stories can be quite subversive,” David insists. “It’s about creating a world where Jack can become King – the best stories involve change and transformation.”

Personal journey

I know storytelling is something that David not only promotes but also engages in. I ask why he started doing it.

Nodding thoughtfully, he tells me that he has always loved literature and once harboured dreamy notions of making a living through becoming a poet. He also has a background in performance; he ran away from university to join a theatre company and spent three years touring up and down the country.

“In many ways, I think I’ve started very late – I went into storytelling in my 40s,” he says.

And where does he find inspiration? Sometimes in books, he concedes, but the best inspiration is always listening to another storyteller. The greatest storytellers don’t just repeat stories; they create stories.

As O Come All Ye Faithful strikes up – loudly – I ask what advice would he give to an aspiring storyteller.

This time, he is very succinct. “Go to see as many storytellers as possible, cultivate your memory and – lastly – tell. Tell as much as you can. Tell a story every day.”

Further info:

The next Beyond the Border festival will be held on 4 – 6 July 2014.

Also, watch out for the monthly Saturday storytelling events on the Glanfa Stage in the Welsh Millennium Centre, storytelling in Milgi on the third Tuesday of every month and also regular sessions in Chapter Arts Centre.

Follow @BTBStorytelling on Twitter.

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Rhian Edwards on poetry, performance and persistance

The young Welsh poet speaks openly about the excitement of first-time publication, the unnerving presence of her mother in an audience and her abject refusal to listen to an iPod.

Rhian won the John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry 2011-2012.

Rhian won the John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry 2011-2012.

1. Congratulations on publishing your first collection of poetry, Clueless Dogs. How does it feel to have a collection of poems to your name? And where did the title, Clueless Dogs, come from?

There’s nothing quite like seeing your book for the first time and having all your A4 poetry drafts sifted and compiled with a cover and a spine and your name all over it; not to mention then having your own poetry book tucked between the multitude on the mantelpiece.

Strangely, I found it very difficult to read the book once it was printed and bound. I think once you’ve proofed your poems within an inch of the lives, you see your old poems more like an editor than the poet who wrote them.

The title comes from a line in one of the poems in the book called Outcast Hours.I settled upon the title Clueless Dogs quite early on, though was a little worried that it would attract the review line ‘Clueless Dogs was clearly written by one.’

2. You started writing poetry in your early 20s. What made you start? Was poetry something you enjoyed as a child and teenager?

I must admit feel I came to poetry quite late on. I wrote poems as a child but not as a teenager. I remember being blown away by Ozymandias when I read it at 15, but apart from that I rather loathed the way poetry was taught. The fact we would pick our way through every line of a poem and dissect it like a cryptic crossword in reverse. Treating poetry in this surgical fashion took so much of the feeling out of it.

It wasn’t until I met a tableful of poets at a late night bar in Soho in 2002 that I really discovered poetry. They had all been attending the poetry open mic ‘Unplugged’ at the Poetry Café and enticed me to come along the following week.

I thought it was amazing that this world existed where people congregated in a small cellar and shared their poems and more importantly had the confidence to share their poems. In my arrogance I simply thought, “Well, I can do this”, and it went on from there.

3.   Do you think of yourself as a page or performance poet, and do you think there is a gap between these forms?

I regard myself as a page poet who reads well. I initially started as a performance poet, but then I realized I was dumbing down my writing in a bid to be more of a comical, rhyming poet and more entertaining. (Even poetry audiences are secretly relieved when the funny poet comes on and they always guarantee the most applause).

It was around 2004 that I started making the transition. I wanted my writing to stand alone in its own right, irrespective of whether it was read well.

I think you can sometimes disguise bad writing with a good performance and by the same token you can sabotage good writing with a bad reading. There are plenty of good poets who are also good readers like Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope and Hugo Williams, yet you would never lump them in the category of performance poet.

I think there has long between a gap between performance and page poetry and I believe slam and hip hop poetry is its own brand of performance poetry. However, I do think the gap is narrowing. I think there is a new generation of page poet emerging, including the likes of Helen Mort, Joe Dunthorne and myself, who learn their poems off by heart, read at festivals, organise poetry events and, at the same time, get published in recognised poetry magazines.

4.   You performed with Benjamin Zephaniah on 1 December. How was it? Do you get nervous before you perform? 

It was a peculiar evening in many ways. I felt rather unsure of myself, maybe because it was a reading with just Benjamin and myself – and I was a tad in awe of him. Also, my mother was in the audience and that always unnerves me.

However, it went well and afterwards I was surrounded by a gaggle of 16 year old boys, complete with braces and incredible hairstyles from Monmouth Boys School, which was quite charming. A couple of them bought books, but mainly I was signing their reservation slips.

After nearly 10 years of performing, I still get very nervous beforehand. However, that nearly always dissolves the moment I get on stage or stand before the mic. Sometimes I worry that I’m going to forget the words as I tend to go up onto the stage without a copy of the book and rely solely on memory.

Rhian

Rhian has been performing poetry for 10 years – but still gets nervous beforehand.

5.   What is the funniest – or most embarrassing – thing that has happened to you while you were performing?

I once asked the audience at the Latitude Festival if any of them were having an affair. One woman put her hand up and divulged that she was in fact on a dirty weekend with her male mistress, who was sitting next to her, while her husband was at home. It was quite hard to recover or even revert to poetry after that admission. I just wanted to ply her with more questions. I was told later on that the confession did make the audience rather uncomfortable.

6.   Where do you find inspiration for writing your poetry? How much of it is based on personal experience?

I suppose I find the inspiration everywhere. I always have a notebook and pen with me. In my naffness, I refuse to ever listen to an iPod of anything, in case the music distracts me and makes me miss something. It’s almost all based on personal experience – apart from the cannibalism poem.

7.   Do you tend to craft your poetry on paper or out loud? Where and when do you do most of your writing?

It’s a combination of both, usually. A turn of phrase usually comes to mind which I then speak aloud and then note down. I tend to do just as much composition while speaking aloud and walking in the fields as I do sitting down in front of my computer at my desk. However, I constantly read each line out loud as a way of hearing the line, hearing its musicality, whether it flows or scans or whether it jars and falls over itself.

8.   Who is your favourite poet and what is your favourite poem?

My favourite poet is Hugo Williams. My favourite poem is by Matthew Francis and is called Blizzard.

9.   What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring poets?

My most important advice is to remain tenacious. Keep sending poems out to poetry magazines. Draft an Excel Spreadsheet with the titles of poems down the side and the titles of different poetry magazines along the top to keep abreast of what you have sent out and what has been accepted and rejected.

Attend as many poetry readings as you can to road-test new poems and also to network. The poetry community is one of the loveliest groups of people I have ever had the pleasure to meet. It’s also a great way of getting gigs. Other poets either recommend you or poetry organisers happen to be there in the audience, not to mention occasionally editors.

Also I think it’s really important to workshop your poems, even if it means showing your poems to a poet whose work and opinion you trust, once a fortnight in the pub. Workshopping and receiving feedback is a brilliant way of becoming a better editor of your own work.

Sorry that was more than one piece of advice – it all boils down to the same thing fundamentally!

Further info:

clueless dogs

Clueless Dogs is published by Seren and is available to buy for £8.99.

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Writer Kuen Shan: The cat who loved me

Kwong Kuen Shan talks about the cat who banished her feline phobia and inspired her to start writing.

Cat-Who-Loved-Me-front-cover

The artist and writer Kwong Kuen Shan is a self-confessed former cat phobic. “I feared everything about them,” she tells me brightly, over a cup of morning tea in Waitrose. “It was a very serious phobia and I spent most of my life trying to avoid the beasts.”

The irony is that this same woman is the author of the recently published book, The Cat Who Loved Me. It is an account of the path her life has taken and the unexpected intrusion of a farm cat called Healey – who not only cured her of her phobia but also inspired her to begin writing.

“Without this cat, I would never have started to write books,” Kuen Shan says. She leans forward, giving a little smile. “You know, Healey adopted me and I hated him. I ignored him, chucked him out, that sort of thing. But then, he won his way into my heart.”

And it didn’t stop there. The more Kuen Shan saw of Healey, the more intrigued she became. “He tenaciously adopted me; he was just there all the time. I realised, ‘Hey, cats are very philosophical animals’ and so I began linking cat behaviour with Chinese philosophy.”

Cats began to appear in her artwork, too. “I never paint cats I don’t know because it’s cold,” she says. “Every cat I’ve painted I have met.”

Background

Kuen Shan grew up in Hong Kong where she studied Chinese literature and philosophy. She is a professional Chinese brush painter and often combines her artwork with ancient Chinese quotes and sayings.

After a period of living in London, she moved to Monmouthshire in 1994 where she found artistic inspiration from her surroundings. But she is very clear about her identity. “Although I have spent most of my life living and working in London, and now Wales, I am essentially Chinese – nothing is going to change that,” she says.

Art and writing

Kuen Shan has been an artist for many years but it is only the past five years she has been writing books. In spite of this, her desire to write surfaced at an early age. “Language is fascinating, it’s absolutely fascinating,” she enthuses. “As soon as I could hold a pair of chopsticks, I had to learn to write.”

I ask whether her art and writing are closely linked. She is thoughtful, and concedes that they are both creative. But there is a difference. “With painting, the visual feedback is instant,” she explains. “You know straightaway if you’ve got the brushstroke right or not, whereas with writing it’s different. It’s very slow.”

So how long did it take her to write The Cat Who Loved Me? Stirring her tea, she tells me that she started jotting down ideas five years ago. “And how many times did I review the book, tighten things up? I can’t even remember!” she laughs.

Future

I ask about her future plans and she assures me that her writing is here to stay. She has the bug now and she’s certainly not going to stop. But it looks as though there may be something other than cats on the horizon.

“I have an idea about my next book – my mother. My mother was a fascinating, very traditional Chinese woman … her life story warrants a book of its own, so that’s something I’m thinking about,” she says.

Further info:

The Cat Who Loved Me – And Made Me Love Him is available from Amazon for £6.99 (paperback edition) and £3.08 (Kindle edition). Kuen Shan’s other book, Happy in My Shell, is available to buy from Kuen Shan’s website for £8, including p&p.

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Coming up …

So the festive season has arrived, bringing seasonal cheer and merrymaking in its wake! Happy Christmas, one and all.

But don’t forget to watch out for some exciting upcoming posts on here over the next few weeks. In the line-up, we have:

*an interview with the Welsh poet, Rhian Edwards

*a chat with David Ambrose, director of Wales’ international storytelling festival

*a conversation with Kwong Kuen Shan, a Chinese artist and writer based in Wales

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Cardiff Somali poets take to the stage

National Theatre Wales’s De Gabay will connect the streets of Butetown with the global Somali diaspora over a three-day performance.

somali poets1

Poets Ali Goolyad, Ahmed Yusuf and Hassan Panero have written a play about their experiences growing up in Cardiff as young Somalis

De Gabay (The Poem) will be performed over three days in the Butetown area of Cardiff, focusing on the lives of its young Somali poets and the generations that preceded them.

Beginning on Friday 1 March, audiences will be invited to move from busy streets to private living rooms to watch both intimate and large-scale performances, including two magnificent parades. Films produced by members of the community will connect the production to a wider audience across the world.

John McGrath, National Theatre Wales’s artistic director, says: “This is a hugely ambitious project that is very close to our hearts, and we want to share the experience of making it – and the joy of experiencing the finished project – with as many people as possible.”

The production is being directed by Jonathan Holmes, the director and founder of Jericho in London.

But the ideas for the performance were borne from a group of young Somali poets based in Cardiff with no prior background in theatre. Hassan Panero, Ahmed Hassan, Ali Goolyard and Ahmed Yusuf approached National Theatre Wales 19 months ago with a joint vision to write a play about their experiences of growing up in Cardiff as young Somalis.

Catrin Rogers, Media Officer for National Theatre Wales, speaks about what makes De Gabay special and the concept behind participatory performances:

Sandals to boots

I meet 25-year-old Hassan Panero to find out more about De Gabay’s lifecycle. Warm, intelligent and quietly spoken, writing has always been a hobby for Hassan. But it is only over the last 19 months that it has also become his career. I ask him to tell me more about the story behind De Gabay.

He speaks eagerly: “So basically it was National Theatre of Wales, they do participatory performances. We said, ‘We would like to write a play’, so they said, ‘Write one and bring it to the office’, so we did, and they loved it”.

The charitable foundation Calouste Gulbenkian awarded National Theatre Wales funding of £175,000 to develop the production over a two-year process. Now, with only three months to go until the performance, the excitement has not waned and Hassan speaks passionately about its themes.

De Gabay’s about the stories that come, that develop, in-between, from the sea to the land, and from sandals to boots,” he says. “Expressing it through theatre, others will tune into your frequency and feel that you are on the same wavelength and you feel that you’re finally not on your own.”

somalipoets3

Poetry has always been a hobby for 25-year-old Hassan Panero

Oral tradition

The Somali language has a long, rich tradition of oral poetry. The subject matters of the poems are endless, ranging from love to loss, sorrow to joy, victory to defeat and hardship to revolution. Hassan explains to me that the very nature of Somali poetry is multi-dimensional.

“Without downgrading poetry in other countries, it would have one angle, whereas Somali poetry would have 50 angles,” he says. “People will think it’s a love story – but really, it’s a revolutionary story. There’s hidden messages within the poetry”.

The layered depth of Somali poetry is linked to the oral culture. It wasn’t until 1972 that Somali was given an official written form, using the Roman alphabet.

Poetry may be something the De Gabay script writers are familiar with, but Hassan points out that sharing their personal poems was not easy at first. “We’re all friends and family and we’ve grown up together and it was like, ‘I didn’t know that person wrote poetry’, until we all opened up and showed each other and we encouraged each other,” he says.

Culture remix

De Gabay has become a tool for exploring and expressing the sometimes uncomfortable cultural space occupied by many young Somalis. Hassan tries to explain: “Us being young Somalis in the history of Wales, we feel like we’re in-betweeners. When we go back to our country, we’re foreigners and when we’re here, we’re foreigners”.

I ask how important their cultural backgrounds were in writing De Gabay – and Hassan replies that culture is the anchor of the performance.

“It’s what needs to be understood, by us first and foremost,” he explains. “Because we are not in sync with our culture – we’ve got a different culture to the Somalis in Somalia, and our culture is a mix of Welsh culture and Somali. So it’s expressing that – it’s like a remix of two songs”.

Building bridges

As well as being a cultural exploration, De Gabay also maps the relationships between the young and old, bridging the different generations.

Writing the play has been a participatory activity, engaging all the different age groups and segments of the community. “We conducted workshops, assemblies, idea exchanges – it’s a hands-on project, focusing on the present,” Hassan emphasises.

All of De Gabay’s writers felt that the good history of the Somali diaspora was unheard of unless people searched for it.

Hassan leans forward, looking earnest. “And what we decided to do, we could talk about the old stuff, but we think it’s more important to emphasise the new stuff because that needs to be documented, so instead of bringing out a revision, let’s bring out something new.”

Cardiff’s Somali community from past to present:

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