Here is an esoteric fact or two. According to Geraint Bowen in Welsh recusant writings (University of Wales Press, 1999), Sion Dafydd Rhys wrote a grammar of the Welsh language entitled Cambrobrytannicae Cymraecaeve Linguae Institutiones et Rudimenta (Thomas Orwinus, 1592). The text includes these lines:
“Eithr diweddbarth y Llyfr hynn a fyfyriwyd dan berthi a dail gleision mywn gronyn o fangre i mi fy hunan a elwir y Clun Hir ym mlaen Cwm y Llwch”,
which Bowen translates as:
“The latter part of this book was drafted in a small dwelling of mine in a leafy grove known as Clun Hir at the head of the valley of Cwm y Llwch.”
I find these lines very evocative – so much so that they once prompted me to locate the house, which sits in the shadow of Pen y Fan.
I am writing what will be my sixth book, Books on the cloud. I have just caught myself writing, no doubt subsconsciously in tribute to Rhys, the following:
“It is half past eight in the morning. I am writing this preface on my Chromebook, sitting in Caffe Nero on the market square, Cambridge, UK. It is June.”
The impulse – to evoke the physical context of the act of writing - is the same. Perhaps the time of year in each passage is similar too – Rhys’s grove is ’leafy’. But in every other way they are different. His setting is rural and remote (even today): mine is urban. He wrote at home, doubtless in spartan conditions (on my visit I found that the house had only recently acquired running water): I write in public and in comfort. Rhys was a recusant writer: I can write in the open. He wrote in the past tense: I write in the present. He wrote a manuscript: I write digitally, using a keyboard.
It is not only the writing that is different. It is also the circumstances of publishing. Rhys’ manuscript had to reach London, where it was Thomas Orwinus published it. It had to be printed (according to Bowen, the print run was 1,250 copies). And to be printed, the book required a sponsor (again according to Bowen, one Edward Stradling).
My text can be published as soon as I please. I need only to click on the ’publish’ button. I don’t need to find a sponsor and, for my text, the notion of number of copies is redundant.
In a sense, the text isn’t anywhere – or, if it is, I don’t know or care where (perhaps on a server in Switzerland or Iceland?). It certainly isn’t on my computer, which lacks a hard drive. And, as you read this online, it isn’t on your computer either. We may as well say it’s ’on the cloud’.
This text is being published on the day it was written and may be read in any region of the world. For most of the four centuries or so separating Rhys and myself, that would not have been true – or even imaginable.
For a digital non-native like me, all this is still miraculous. And even for digital natives such as my teenage offspring, this isn’t wholly unremarkable. Public wi-fi, provided free to the user; accessible authoring and publishing software, again provided free to the user; computers without hard drives – it isn’t so long ago that these things were rare or unavailable.
Now, in middle age, I find that my life straddles a number of publishing epochs. For most of my life, the publishing process that produced Rhys’s book has been recognisable (barring, perhaps, the sponsorship). Now, I find myself reading, writing, and publishing in a digital world – and, specifically, one in which the era of cloud publishing has dawned.
The aim of my new book will be to capture in verbal images the freshness of the morning and to convey the sense of possibility that it brings. In the words of Henry Vaughan (also of Breconshire):
Hark! In what rings
And hymning circulations the quick world
Awakes and sings