From Friday 3rd to Saturday 4th November, Dylan Thomas’s home town will be welcoming festivalgoers for the annual Do Not Go Gentle Festival, which is now in its sixth year. The location is changing from the Uplands part of Swansea to the city centre but the warm and lively atmosphere remains the same, as does the high quality of the acts and artists taking part.
I have been chatting with the festival organiser Pierre Donahue about the idea behind the festival, the ups and downs of the last few years, his favourite moments and the highlights of this year’s festival.
Question 1: What inspired you to start the Do Not Go Gentle Festival? Was it easy to introduce or did you face any hurdles?
One night in a local pub, I was telling friends how there was a lack of a good local arts festival, and with the centenary of Dylan’s birth a few years away there was a chance nothing would really happen in his hometown. One of them jokingly said “why dont you put on a festival!?” At first I laughed it off. But after a few minutes, I thought hang on, why not!?? I knew the Welsh music/arts scene through my many years as a musician, and had a huge love of Dylan, his work and the man himself. Within a few days, I had given it some serious thought, booked a couple venues, and started booking acts. The rest as they say, is history. Looking back, it was a huge struggle initially to get people’s support and to get word out there, but I have to say a big thanks to the venues, who were very encouraging from the start, the brilliant artists who came and gave wonderful performances for often much reduced fees and of course the public who came out in numbers to support us. All because they believed in what we were trying to do. It was a very moving and rewarding thing to experience. Still is!
Question 2: As far as I can see, you single handedly set up the festival, which is quite an achievement. Tell us a bit about you and your background?
Well I’m from a large artistic family. My mother is a piano teacher and my father an artist and sculptor. I grew up in a rural bliss down Gower near Caswell Bay. I’ve been a musician most of my life, travelled the world for many years, and lived in Australia and Germany for a time. When I returned, I travelled around the UK festival circuit in a human jukebox for 10yrs prior to the first festival in 2012. The Dukes Box was a converted 1960’s mini caravan. There was a panel of 35 well known songs out front, you pushed a button and myself on drums and a 4 piece band inside, would play the song. It was lots of fun and hugely popular. We were quite well known on the circuit. I think we played all the major festivals, big ones like Glastonbury, Bestival, T in the Park, Isle Of Wight and in others across Europe too. I was also the front man of a folk group – Out Of The Woods. We were quite well known locally and in Cardiff. Toured South Wales, Bristol, London. Also played a few live sessions, and had a Single Of The Week on BBC Radio Wales…
Question 3: Why did you choose the Uplands part of Swansea as the location?
I have to say there was never really any doubt where the festival would be held. Uplands made sense on so many levels. Not only was it the centre of alternative Swansea and had numerous cosy bars, cafes and pubs to use as venues, it was where it all began for Dylan. To have the house where he was born as a venue was magical. Uplands was and is his spiritual home. The area has a unique Edwardian character and hasn’t really changed much since his day. For me the best part of it, is that he wrote so much of his work right here, and he writes about a Swansea that I can still recognise today…
Question 4: Why have you had to change the location to Swansea City Centre? Has that been a popular move or has it created problems?
It was a hard decision to make, and not one we’ve made lightly. But the sad fact is that we’ve been a victim of our own success to some extent. Uplands has changed considerably in the last 6 years, and unfortunately not for the better. It’s become known as a drinking street, numerous new bars have opened up, while lots of the cosy cafes and shops have closed. It became a real issue at last year’s festival, and we had some trouble with rowdiness and minibuses full of stag and hen dos turning up. The atmosphere had changed.
Meanwhile Swansea’s High St/Castle St area has been rejuvenated. There is a real artistic quarter opening up, with some great venues like The Last Resort, Cinema & Co and Unit Nineteen. From a Dylan standpoint, it’s also just as relevant. He knew the area very well. Worked at the Evening Post, Broadcast from the BBC round the corner, drank at the local pubs, and Cinema & Co (our hub venue & Box Office) is located almost on the spot of the original and legendary Kardomah cafe! It will be different to Uplands, and Uplands can still have a role to play in the future, but to me town makes a lot of sense right now…
Question 5: What has been your favourite experience or best event since you started the festival in 2012?
That’s a tough one! The atmosphere at that first festival in 2012 will live long in the memory. It was all so new and exciting. But my favourite memory is probably our festival during the centenary year in 2014. We had been building towards that since the beginning, since that night in the pub when the idea of a festival was formed. And then to have a legend like Jo Brand come and headline was incredible. I’ll never forget that the queue for her show went out the door and round the block! Also that year we had a birthday celebration at the stroke of midnight on Dylan’s 100th birthday. Brilliant Danish band Eggs Laid By Tigers were on stage playing music. We handed out party poppers and a big cake with candles was carried through the crowd as we sang Happy Birthday to him. A very special moment. Hard to top that…
Question 6: Has it been smooth sailing or have there been challenges along the way? What was the trickiest situation you’ve faced?
I wish! There’s no doubt that it’s been a massive struggle every year. Ask my family and friends. But that’s the nature of the beast. I knew when I took this on, that it would be hard. It’s been run on a shoestring since the start. I often laugh, as people think that there is this large team behind us. While there is a big team during the festival (mainly voluntary), most of the administration is a team of one…me! But there have been so many people who’ve helped over the years. Whether financially or with advice – business wise and emotionally. The venues have always been great, and once again the acts who’ve agreed to come on reduced fees has been crucial. To be honest after every festival I go into a bit of a slump and wonder if I’ve got it in me to do another one. But then after a couple months, I start thinking about acts and it all starts again. I love it really…
Question 7: Apart from the festival, why is Swansea a good place to visit?
Swansea has a lot to offer. It’s always been better than the outside world gives it credit for, but lately it feels like the city is undergoing something of a renaissance. There are all sorts of funky new cafes and bars springing up, street markets, art galleries…
The two universities are positively bursting at the seams with new students, and like I mentioned, the city centre, especially High St/Castle St area is being transformed into a Welsh version of Bristol’s Stokes Croft or London’s Hackney. There’s huge potential here. It feels like anything can happen with some imagination.
Another thing, and it’s long been our secret, but the Gower is getting recognized internationally as one of the most beautiful places in the world. If all that’s not enough the long suffering Swans are still in the Premier League…just about!
Question 8: Is the festival featuring in the City of Culture bid?
At the moment not directly. But we are fully behind the bid, and have had some contact with them. Should it be successful, I’d hope we’ll have a big part to play.
Question 9: What are your mid and long term aims for the festival?
It’s hard to think beyond this year’s festival to be honest. With the change in location and a new team on board, we are going to learn a lot. With any luck, it will all go well, and then we will sit down and see where we can go from there. I’m very excited about the possibilities for growth. This area of town is buzzing, and while we are only using 4 venues this year, there is a lot of scope to expand to include more venues in the future..
Question 10: Can you give us some highlights from this year’s festival.
As mentioned it’s a whole new ball game this year. But we have joined forced with the lovely team behind the Uplands Markets and Unit Nineteen, and that support has been key.
While the atmosphere will be different, the venues are fantastic, with each one very unique. We are using two great old pubs that Dylan would have known well – The Last Resort (formerly the Adam & Eve), and The No Sign Bar ( features in his short story The Followers, and doubled as a New York Irish bar in Set Fire To The Stars), Unit Nineteen is a wonderful pop-up venue in an old nightclub, and Cinema & Co is a magical art-house cinema and venue on the site of the old Kardomah cafe.
We’ve gathered some impressive wordsmiths this year. Performance poetry takes centre stage, with acts including comedian/activist Francesca Martinez, punk poets Attila The Stockbroker and Luke Wright, Twitter’s poet laureate Brian Bilston, avant garde Canadian comedians Tony Law & Phil Kay, psychogeographers Iain Sinclair (interviewed by Peter Stead of the Dylan Thomas Prize) and Peter Finch, local writers/poets including Dylan legend Jeff Towns talking all things Vernon Watkins, Susie Wild, Natalie Ann Holborow, Emily Blewitt, Oliver James Lomax, Poets On The Hill, Uplands Poetry Collective and Swansea Poetry Slam 2017 winner Rufus Mufasa.
Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer deftly bridges the gap between spoken word and music, offering some tweedy and well-enunciated rapping on gentlemanly topics like cricket, curtseying and sartorial elegance. Other musical treats include Cardiff reggae group Junior Bill, Gower balkan beat masters Balkaneers, and Carmarthen’s Adwaith and lots more… The 6th year is going to be another cracker! We’ll not be going gentle..
Q and A between Hannah Ellis and Pierre Donahue, October 2017.
Hannah Ellis – 31st October 2017.
Hannah is a teacher, writer and consultant. You can learn more about her by visiting the website – www.lovethewords.co.uk