Among my jottings from the Hay Literature Festival, which seems to be getting bigger and better every year, one of the highlights was Lionel Shriver explaining why she wrote My Big Brother.
It’s a simultaneously funny and tragic account of the main character’s older brother’s collapse into really gross super-obesity. It’s all based on what actually happened to Shriver’s own older brother. Her readings from it were even funnier when delivered totally poker-faced in her almost school-marmish Mid-Western accent.
When asked what has caused the epidemic and whether governments should intervene, she gave a very firm, no – it was all down to the individual needing the resolve and will-power to stop overeating.
There is a contrary scientific view, which puts a lot of the blame on High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). It came on the market in 1970 as a “natural” alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners. It’s added to everything now, bread, cereals, snackbars, pastries, soft drinks and so on.
The terrible thing about HFCS is that it may be “natural” but it messes with your brain in a new way. It doesn’t ever let you know when you’re full. This isn’t an argument for going back to old-fashioned sugar, but sugar on food does not switch off that bit of your brain that tells you when you’ve eaten enough.
The fact is that the obesity epidemic does seem to coincide with the spread of these apparently natural sweetener products. The American Mid-West is the worst place in the world for morbid obesity. That’s where this product comes from. It has come back like a boomerang.
Unfortunately parts of Wales are in the eye of the storm as well. If Lionel Shriver could find a way of writing a novel about the pernicious effects of High Fructose Corn Syrup, that would be quite something!
THE DYLAN THOMAS LITERATURE PRIZE
In this year of the centenary of the birth of the three Thomases, Dylan, R.S. and Gwyn, the Dylan Thomas Literature Prize has got itself a more solid footing by getting sponsorship from Swansea University.
When young Rhondda writer Rachel Trezise won the first one awarded seven years ago with Fresh Apples, it was entirely predictable that the Times looked down its lordly nose and said that it was indeed entirely predictable that the Dylan Thomas Prize should be awarded to a Welsh writer.
Actually it was the two American judges who absolutely insisted that Fresh Apples should win. The local judges knew what would happen. The London critics would all say: “Ha Ha. We know what the Welsh are like – and if you’re not Welsh, it’s not worth applying.”
It’s gone from strength to strength since then. I met Maggie Shipstead, the latest winner with her novel Seating Arrangements. She’s from Orange County, California. That’s about as far from Cwmparc at the top of the Rhondda Valley as you can get.
DANNIE ABSE AND CARDIFF CITY
In the year of Cardiff City’s promotion, it was inevitable that the club’s most famous literary fan would be asked about how close his relationship with the football club was.
He confirmed that Cyril Spiers, the Cardiff City manager around the wartime years had asked him to come down to play for the City reserves one Saturday. After that invitation, he and his father had boasted to all their friends about this great honour.
When he got there however, Oswestry Town had turned up for the game, a Welsh League fixture, with only 10 men.
Spiers asked Dannie: “Will you help out by making up the missing man on the Oswestry side?”
He couldn’t really say no. So he played AGAINST Cardiff City Reserves at Ninian Park, not FOR them.
He told a priceless story of his mother going down to Lear’s bookshop in St Mary’s St in 1953 to check on how the sales of Dannie’s first published collection of poems were doing. It coincided with Dylan Thomas’ first volume of collected poems coming out.
The manager of the poetry section told Dannie’s mother that his volume of collected poetry wasn’t selling as well as Dylan Thomas’.
“Well you know.” said the proud mother, “Dannie Abse is the Welsh Dylan Thomas!”
No answer to that, is there? Did Dylan Thomas ever play for Oswestry Town against Cardiff City Reserves in a Welsh League fixture?