It is 30 years ago since I stopped working as en editor for London publishers and took up the reckless life of a freelance writer of children’s non-fiction. My new home was on the eastern coast of Anglesey, Ynys Môn. I later moved across the Menai Strait to the magnificent slate heaps around Deiniolen, but then returned to the sunlit lowlands of the island, near Llangoed.
Former colleagues visited me as soon as I moved, and were unanimous. It would be impossible to maintain the supply of work in such a ‘remote’, albeit beautiful, location. I was reminded of this a year or two back when reading an account by Germaine Greer of her visit to an art exhibition in Llangefni, which she described as ‘remote’. Surely a strange description for a town just an hour or two from big cities such as Liverpool and Manchester, and an especially odd observation from a child of the outback! ‘Remote’ is a very relative concept.
Working from North Wales suited me just fine. There was the university library and archives in Bangor and pretty good county libraries in Llangefni and Bangor. I could take the train for meetings in London or Oxford when needed (and publishers gave you a decent lunch in those days). Working with firms based in the USA or Australia was no more difficult from here than from London, even if the clatter of those old fax machines did wake up the whole household in the middle of the night.
Of course, the instant global communication of the internet has changed everything. These days I may have an editor in Scotland or an illustrator in Italy. I have just been working on yet another title in Dorling Kindersley’s enduring Eyewitness series. The editor and the designer for this title were both located in Delhi. The economics of outsourcing such jobs baffles me, but evidently it makes sense to DK. So the global village has become a reality.
To some extent it always was. Neolithic stone axes from the ‘factory’ at Graig Llwyd, above Penmaenmawr, have been found as far away as France. The Mabinogi’s tale of Macsen links Caernarfon with Rome. The Renaissance scholar and doctor Siôn Dafydd Rhys of Llanfaethlu (1534-c1617) studied at the University of Siena. Europe’s Age of Enlightenment is represented in rural Ynys Môn by the likes of the mathematician William Jones of Bodafon(c1675-1749) or the multi-talented Morris brothers of Pentre-Eiriannell. At the end of the eighteenth century Mynydd Parys , in the north of the island, was the biggest copper mine in the world, attracting the international interest of leading scientists as well as speculators. Anglesey’s extraordinary geology was found to be of global importance. During the nineteenth century seafarers from Ynys Môn travelled the world, from Europe to California, by way of Cape Horn. George Borrow conversed with islanders who could speak Welsh and Spanish, but little English.
Of course not all international relations were friendly. This summer, visiting the castle at Avranches in Normandy, I was reminded that it was the fat Norman warlord Hugh d’Avranches, the Earl of Chester (known as Lupus, the Wolf), who built the motte-and- bailey castle of Aberlleiniog in the woods near my home in about 1088. Not a popular man hereabouts, back then.
So even before the internet brought us all together, North Wales was never isolated, but part of a bigger picture. For me, the arrival of the internet did mean far fewer work trips to a remote city called London, which was a bit of a shame. It always helps a non-fiction writer to meet the whole team on a book – the editor, designer, picture researcher, consultant, perhaps other authors working on the same series. Luckily face-to-face meetings have made a bit of a comeback, of late. Of course, lunches are now a sandwich and a bottle of mineral water while you work, but such are the times we live in. It is a pity, as I am sure a few pints fuelled a higher level of creativity! There lies one solution to the current ailments of children’s non-fiction publishing! Well, maybe not…