Tuesday 12 September 2017

These Things Are Like Buses

Poems come to me in batches, like buses.  You’d think that after all these years I would have learned how to turn the taps of creativity to make them spread themselves out like real work, like a job, a 9 to 5.  Get up, write the poem, then get on with other parts of your life.   But poems are not really like that like that.  All too often they come in darts and crashes with gaps as long as a country mile in between.

When I edited a literary magazine I regularly chased the late Dannie Abse for a contribution.  He was from Cardiff originally and strode large on the UK literary stage.     As a fan of Cardiff City football club he regularly returned to the Welsh capital and was well disposed to what I was trying to do with Second Aeon.  He’d suggest people I could ask, commented on the quality of what I’d already included and generally enthused.  But when I asked him to contribute a poem of his own he always found some excuse for not doing so.  “I’ll send you some at the end of the summer”.  But he never did.

Eventually I cornered him at a launch at Lears bookshop at the end of the Royal Arcade and he admitted that as poets go he was an incredibly slow composer and simply didn’t produce enough new material.  Demand always outstripped supply.  “I’ll try”, he said.  After the passage of what had to be a good six months he finally gave me The One Prayer, a poem about god and that perennial for poets, death.  I included it in issue 16.  Dannie Abse at last in there, in the company of William Burroughs, John Ormond, William Wantling, Edwin Morgan and Pablo Neruda.  It was an eclectic mix.

I used to worry about my own output.  Was I writing enough?  Why hadn’t I manage a new piece this week.  In the days of the weekly performance poetry explosions in Cardiff during the 1980s this need for a regular supply of new material became acute.  The stage was such a critical place.  If you were on it with any regularity then reciting your greatest hits simply wouldn’t hack it.  Your audience expected to be constantly entertained anew and not simply given reruns of stuff they’d already heard. 
I’d sit in my room banging hard the keyboard of my Alan Sugar Amstrad  for hour after hour in the hope that something worthy would eventually emerge.  Occasionally it did, too but what a stretch of dross lay in between.  The key is to own an Ernest Hemingway built-in, shock-proof, shit-detector.  Shove everything into it and expect most of it never to re-emerge.

These days now that the world’s poetry fury has subsided and to a degree I have less to prove I worry less.  If the page is blank and there’s nothing arriving to fill it then I move on to something else.  Psychogeography.  Essays about music.  Reviews of new books.  Blogs about the NHS.  Cleaning the car.  Rebuilding that falling down wall.

There are plenty of techniques for making yourself write when you don’t want to or don’t think that day you have anything significant to say.  They should be used with care.  My view is that the world   is now oversupplied with poetry.  Production has been on the increase steadily since Victorian-era publishing for the masses brought verse to the wider world.  What we don’t need this morning is yet another new volume  that will languish on the bookshop shelves unsold, unselling, unlooked at until stock check stock clearance consigns it first to the bargain bin and then the pulpers.  Who reads this stuff?  Admittedly more now than did decades back but never enough for the bestsellers.  Verse remains a Cinderella art.

How many digital copies of your latest book of shouting poetry have actually been downloaded? Does your poetry-filled blog get consumed by thousands of fans?  Probably not.  And while we are on the subject why does everyone interested in poetry also seem to write it?  I paint a dark picture. The poetry world is often brighter than this. 

If you are sitting there and want to poem to come but it won’t you could try automatic writing.  You could cut up some great work and see where the joy of random discovery will take you.  Will the banging together of words and phrases that previously never sat anywhere near each other now draw fruit?  If not then you could try intertextuality, the taking of the work of another and using it as the base for something of your own.  The problem here is ensuring that what eventually emerges is your own and not simply a retread.  Many poets including some of the famous have run foul dabbling here.
Failing everything then a walk in the stiff air and a look at the shape of the clouds is often enough to set the spark flaring.

I sometimes revisit my earlier books, the ones that are more than 20 years old and lost to me now back in the swirls of time and wonder  how  on earth I ever composed like that.  Did those things happen?  How did they?  What motivated me?  Was it all a fluke?  How could I ever do this again?  I puzzle.  I worry.  Then after a while I don’t.  Instead I look out the window at those clouds, still up there in glory, moving, not moving, full of colour, all dark, all white.    

Wednesday 7 October 2015

Roots Of Rock, Almost There

We are beyond the cover design, the proofs, the index, the acknowledgements, the changes and the re-checks.  It's now down to arguing about colours.  It'll be out soon.

You can read a bit more here:


The Roots of Rock - Peter Finch's journeys in the world of music - complete with playlists.  Rock on.

Friday 12 June 2015

The Stetson And Other Signs That You Are In The Country

I’m outside the twin-domed front of the Gaiety cinema on City Road.  I’ve got a mackintosh  over my back like a western cape and a stick for a gun shoved inside my elastic s-buckle belt.  Near as I can get to a fifties cowboy.  I’ve got friends with me, a whole gang of them.  It’s Saturday mid-day and we’ve just emerged from a few hours of bliss watching episodes of Flash Gordon, Laurel and Hardy and a full B-movie western.   Today it was Cody of the Pony express in his buckskin jacket riding the range and vanquishing all foes with a brace of six-shooters.  The mail, even out there in the arrow-filled desert wilds,  just had to get through.

Back at Peter Hughes’ house the only television in the entire district sat like a religious relic.  It was  encased in walnut and revered by all.  Before it we clustered.  On the black and white 405-line screen Hopalong flickered.  Black Stetson, silver studded belt.  There were others too.  Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, unexpectedly breaking into Back in the Saddle Again  while wearing an embroidered shirt with smiling mouth pockets and mother of pearl buttons.  Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys, in a Stetson and red bandana, galloping Trigger to the tune of Happy Trails or Cool Water.   There was something here, subliminally, about gun smoke and western songs, about the rhythm of horses hoofs and the thrumming of guitars, about Stetsons and country music. 

Western dress, de rigueur in the actual west, rarely surfaced in British fashion.  There were moments when cowboy boots, in particular cowboy boots for women, would be acceptable, even sexily racy.  For a time they were a feature on London’s Kings Road.  But these moments were not many.  Elements of western dress, in particular the bolo or shoe-string tie, moved as if by osmosis into the dress of teddy boys.  There were also times when fringes hanging down from the arms of your massively round-collared leather jacket in the hippie seventies recalled the kind of thing Indians habitually wore, or so the films said.  But if you wanted to see what cowboys dressed in then you needed to visit the places where they roamed.

The Stetson hat, which would make you look a little like Crocodile Dundee if you wore one on the streets of New York is common throughout the south.  It’s the big signal of western wear, this large, broad-brimmed,  and certainly not inexpensive headpiece.   Once thought to have been the hat of choice throughout the west during its wilder days, study of old photographs shows this to be entirely untrue.  If you were on the frontier as a pioneer in the first part of the nineteenth century then you were far more likely to be seen wearing a black derby bowler hat of the kind regularly seen on the streets of London than you were some wide-brimmed sombrero.  Despite Frederick Remmington, populariser of the image of the wild west in paintings and a whole host of Hollywood films, the Stetson did not make an appearance until around 1870.  

Its creator, John Batterson Stetson, himself the son of a hat maker, came up with the design for the first “boss of the plains” hat in 1865.  This had a wide brim to keep off the rain and sun, a high crown to hold in a pocket of insulating air and could, at a push, be used to carry water.  They were great for fanning recalcitrant trail side camp fires.  A version was adopted by the US Cavalry and the hat style took off right across the whole cowboy west. 

Sharp shooters adopted it.  So did sheriffs and just about everybody else with business attended to from the back of a horse.  When the movies finally arrived they depicted a western population where the Stetson, in both its black and its white incarnation,  was what you had on your head.  Some stars adopted wilder styles, innovating with the super-large ten gallon version, fine on celluloid, impractical on the plains.  There’s a photo out there of Tom Mix wearing one that’s taller than his face.  There’s another showing Gene Autry plus police escort leaving the Cardiff Capitol Cinema in 1939.  He has on his head a white ten gallon.  He looks more of a cowpoke than Cowboy Copas.  Copas stuck to a flat topped Stetson.  But he did go for enormously wide brims.

So, too, did most of the other singers in the emerging country and western style of music.  Didn’t matter if you were a steel guitar player with a western swing band, a mainstream Nashville country singer in the style of  Eddy Arnold, an outlaw like Waylon, a man in black or a Dwight Yokham Americana purveyor you wore a hat.  Alan Jackson, George Straight, Clint Black, Brad Paisley, Garth Brooks and other mainline 80s and 90s singers all did and became known as hat acts.  Man, guitar, and Stetson.  The style of dress persists.  

Turning the supermarket aisle corner in Food City in 2014 Dandridge, Tennessee, a sleepy tiny town on the edges of Douglas Lake, I bump into an oldster coming the other way.  He’s pushing a trolley loaded with pensioners’ goods – cheap meat cuts, packets of grits, large cans of beans.  He’s wearing cowboy boots, western jeans, a shirt with smiling pockets and black piping.  On his head he has a white Stetson hat. 

Country music, or at least its stage and TV appearance component, was the driver behind much of present-day western apparel.  Right across America there are stores that specialise in retailing hats, massively expensive tooled leather cowboy boots, embroidered  shirts, ranch buckle belts, string ties and the rest of the regalia.

The original cowboys dressed as they did for practical reasons.  Their hats kept off the sun.  They were tied to their chins with strips of leather or ripped-off hat bands.  Their brims were decorated with Indian beads, woven horsehair or rattlesnake hides.  Their boots could slide easily into the stirrup.  The high Cuban heel prevented them from slipping out.  The tall laceless style of the boot protected the leg.   Shorter versions with cut-down walking heels came later. 

The Cowboy’s  denim shirts, derived from the sort worn by Confederate soldiers, lasted well in a difficult climate.  They wore leather chaps to keep off the cactus spines or woollen ones as a hedge against cold wind.  Round their neck they wore a bandana to stave off dust.    

Early cinema  cowboys and country singers took the style and elaborated it.  Boots became increasingly ostentatious and were manufactured from alligator and rattlesnake skin or coloured highly decorated leather.  Shirts were tailored with contrasting yokes often outlined in piping and began to be embroidered with cattle insignia, stars and entwining roses.  Colour, which the real cowboys avoided for fear it might spook the cattle, rolled like a rash of rainbows.    Stripes, plaids, garish checks, bright greens, blues  and reds.  John Wayne, as the Ringo Kid in the film Stagecoach (1939),  wore a bib fronted Western shirt in a style adapted from those worn in the Civil War.  Casey Tibbs, the bronco rider, did the same.  In 1938 Denver shirt maker Jack A Weil replaced standard buttons with a  metal ring gripper snap made by Scovill of Connecticut.  The C&W shirt popper button.  The style caught on.

For many outside country music’s heartlands western apparel meant nothing until the advent of country rock and the arrival of The Byrd’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) and, in particular, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ album,  Gilded Palace of Sin (1969).  Here, on the album cover of the Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman show stopper, the band sport lavishly embroidered Nudie suits.  These show roses intertwined with  marijuana leaves which added a whole new dimension to the style of alt-country that this album was to launch.  There might not have been an immediate rush to appear on the streets of cities across the world dressed as country stars but the style of dress did become socially more acceptable.  Just a little. 

Today western dress does duty in many parts of America’s Southern States  as formal wear.  You dress in your alligator boots and your bolo tie to worship at church, sell insurance, go for a job interview, attend a funeral.   The style is so common no one notices. 

I track the outfit I’m going to buy down in a store in Pigeon Forge.  Boots, shirt, jacket.  There’s a range of footwear that runs two entire fifty meter walls.  Boots in just about every colour and style possible so long as they’re cowboy.  Levi jeans, tooled leather belts with elaborate decorated silver buckles.  Chaps seem to be missing which is understandable.  Urban cowboys do not look cool turning up wearing what look like giant fleece waders on their lower limbs.  

I try on a hat, a black wide-brimmed outlaw headpiece with a deep red hatband of the kind I imagine law breakers might sport in their desert hideaways in New Mexico.  It fits but I look ridiculous, even here in the heartland.   A Welsh-accented cowpoke with a face that lacks both beard and weather-beaten gnarls.  How it would be walking down St Mary Street back home I just can’t imagine.    I settle for a shirt with green and red roses intertwining across the yoke and those famous metal popper buttons.  It’s heavy, tailored,  and perfect for strolling down Nashville’s Broadway.  I love it.  It’s on a hanger now in the back bedroom wardrobe.  Preserved in a plastic bag.  Never worn it once. 

This is an edited slice taken from the forthcoming Peter Finch: The Roots Of Rock From Cardiff To Mississippi And Back, due for publication from Seren Books in the autumn of 2015.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Deeper And Deeper Into Roath

I’ve been looking for the traces great writers leave on a place and there aren’t many in Roath.  In my hand I’ve a copy of Dannie Abse’s  A Strong Dose Of Myself.  It’s a collection of the late poet’s essays.  It came out in 1983.  In the first, “Return Ticket to Cardiff”, Dannie recalls his youth in the district and then lists a range of houses in which he and his family lived. He was born in a smoky house (which he can’t remember) in Whitchurch Road.  The others, later residences, were all strung out along the fault line that divides Penylan from Roath.  “We were wandering Welsh Jews,” he writes.  Why move so often, he asks himself.  And then replies: because the bathroom needed decorating, because my  father’s fortunes had changed, because the mice had taken to chewing aphrodisiacs, or because it’s sometimes easier to move than to get rid of guests. 

The Rhys Davies Trust who put up plaques to the Welsh literary great and the Welsh literary good had asked me to check out Abse’s east Cardiff.  Would anywhere be suitable?   Dannie had listed three houses in Albany Road.  I visited each in turn.  The first was now an Estate Agents and hopeless.  At the second, a run-down property with evidence of heavy use by children, I could get no reply.  At the third a nice Asian lady asked me in broken English to come back evening.  See the  men.  

At Dannie’s one time Sandringham Road house in view of the site of Roath Mill the owners were in and were interested.  The Trust will be in touch, I told them.  Nearby was Waterloo Gardens.  It once held a wooden shelter inside which both Dannie and I, as schoolchildren of different eras, had gone to carve our names with a penknife.  When, in later life, he and I returned together to check this piece of synchronicity out we found that the hut had been pulled down.

Right now I’m at the planning stages for two cycle tours which might take this no longer there hut in.  They’ll run deeper and deeper into Cardiff’s east.  Roath, Capital of Wales, land of hills and waterways, lost mansions and holy wells.  Something like that.  The tour will be managed by Pol’s Cardiff Cycle Tours – check http://www.cardiffcycletours.com/ for more information.  It’ll take place on  Saturday 13th June, 2015 and then repeat on Saturday the 20th.  If you don’t have a bike then you can hire one from  Pol.

This new tour, I’ve decided, will take in lost holy wells, lost mansions, the site of the now  partially destroyed Roman Quarry, the place where Cardiff’s Corporation star observatory once stood, Cardiff’s equivalent to the Magdalena Laundries, the remains of a thousand year old mill and the place where the geese once roamed.  We’ll visit the island on which Jimi Hendrix once woke unable to tell the world just how he got there.  There’ll be sight of the graves of some of Cardiff’s most famous.  We’ll also take in the ghosts of the Butes and the hill fort that no one knows about.  I’ll enliven things with a few poems.  To the point and not.  But then you’d expect me to do that.

What I’ve not yet worked out is how able cycle tour attendees will be when it comes to actually getting up Penylan Hill.  That’s a long slope.  Welshman’s Hill as it was once known.  We could walk up but that might be regarded by the fit as cheating.  We could cycle the whole way but then I’d be too breathless to speak when we got to the top.  Maybe some sort of half and half operation, a long and  loping side street zig zag with a bit of bike pushing at the end would do it.  I’m doing a few trials shortly.  Watch this space to find out how they went.

For information on plaques for writers check here - http://www.literaturewales.org/writers-plaques/

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Even More Dylan Thomas

Readings are a stock part of the poet’s trade.  They are today, in the literate twenty-first , although I’m sure some can remember when they were not.  Poets are better on their feet than they once were.  They look audiences in the eye.  They’ve learned not mumble.  Down at the Swansea Grand Theatre from where I’ve just come the Dylanthon has been in progress.  This was an off the wall idea dreamt up by producer Michael Bogdanov and Dylan Thomas expert Jeff Townes.  Why not put on a reading of everything DT wrote?  The lot.  Poems, stories, letters, stumbles.  It would take about 36 hours to do straight through.  We could charge £150 a ticket for a show that long.    

If I’d been asked I would have said that getting Leanne Wood  invited round to sing for HMQ would have been an easier prospect.  
The event Bogdanov mounted was a triumph.  A well-attended, very well organised professional performance at a comfortable, central Swansea venue  featuring a cast of several score performers many of whom were extremely famous.  Who else could have got Jo Brand, Nicholas Parsons, Katherine Jenkins, Dai Smith, The President of the Republic of Ireland, Jonathan Pryce and Ian McKellen onto the same bill and without paying any of them anything? 

My slot was on the Sunday morning, right at the beginning when most people were still home reading the papers and eating toast.  But even at that time Bogdanov had managed to fill the theatre.  Punters were allowed to buy slightly cheaper  tickets for selected three hour slots.   The programme flickered between poetry and prose.  On stage were a stream of TV personalities, actors, singers, a very few writers,  plus the occasional MBE and politician.  It also included a range of school choirs who attracted their otherwise not that interested in DT parents and grandparents to the audience.  Tickets flew out the box office.

The readings began to roll.  Where I was at the beginning they were  heavily weighted   with selections from the often impenetrable mouth music of 18 Poems.  I went on four times.  I was  bracketed by Lisa Rogers, Lucy Owen, Rakie Ayola sitting resplendent in a leather armchair and reading a slice from a short story, The Flight, and Tony Lewis CBE, who doesn’t normally do this kind of thing, clearly, but made a decent stab.   I did I see the boys of summer in their ruin and then The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.  The words tumbled into the air and frothed all around me.  I didn’t own them. 

When  I got to When Once The twilight locks, my last presentation and so far faultlessly, I made the mistake of thinking briefly about something else as I was actually reading.  Fatal.  I did this on the penultimate line and, of course, stumbled.  Not to be defeated I repeated the word then added a few more of my own to give it resonance.  Dylan Thomas aided, as Marcel Duchamp might have said.  Did anyone notice?   No.

As a reading the whole deal was as professional as it could be.  You got a dressing room with your name on it.  A runner to bring you rolls, coffee, pies, etc., a fresh bath towel,  a piece of scented Welsh soap, and a basket of fruit.  What is more the audience appeared actually to be enjoying the whole affair.  In the style of those sixties art happenings where you all sat for eight hours watching a man holding a lit candle elements of Zen came into play.  Poetry was first exciting, then it was boring,  and then eventually it returned full of vigour, thrill and excitement.  Just as it should.

Up the hill afterwards at the Do Not Go gentle Festival presented at the Dylan Thomas birthplace.  5 Cwmdonkin Drive.  Here,  among the drizzle and the falling leaves and the freshly repainted windows,  I read again.  This was the new Nia Davies Poetry Wales experimental issue launch.  I did a reprise of my Altarwise by Owl Light mashup created for Radio Three, told a few stories and then did some Dylanesque sound pieces.  The house was packed right up the stairs.  Poetry certainly rocks in Swansea. 

Sunday 2 February 2014

Nigel Jenkins 1949 -2014

We were in a long room above a pub somewhere in Neath.  Nigel was teaching a creative writing class and I was the guest.  I was there to explain what sound poetry was.  This was the south Wales late 1970s and there were edges out there to be pushed.  Encouraged by Nigel I’d done a run of sonic recreations of Schwitters, Jandl and Cobbing and then finished with a blast of my own stuff.    At the back someone evinced the opinion that this was all, actually, crap.  A common perception.  TS Eliot would be spinning in his grave if he knew.  Dylan Thomas would be aghast.  However, this didn’t prevent one of Nigel’s more enlightened students from vocally disagreeing.  It’s not crap, he shouted, it’s good.  No it isn’t, was the immediate reply.   There was growling, a scuffle and then fists began to fly.  God this poetry is exciting stuff, Nigel told me, as he leapt forward to separate the fighting pair. 

And it was too.  With Nigel at the heart of it.

Throughout the rest of his long career Nigel kept himself there.  At the heart.  Whatever else he became famous for – and there were a great many things – he still called himself a poet.  First and foremost.   For Nigel poetry was the same thing as blood. 

Although never an avant gardist himself, not quite, he supported those who were.  If there was an underdog out there, someone not getting the right treatment, someone neglected or grossly misunderstood then Nigel would be the man to champion their cause.   He supported the work of extreme Welsh-Canadian concretist Childe Roland, for example, offering him readings, bringing him to Swansea, espousing his cause.  He supported the successful bid to get that writer offered full membership of the Welsh Academy. 
The mainstream was not where Nigel felt most at home and despite his not inconsiderable success out there at the top of the tree – the BBC, The Arts Council, the posher publishers of Wales – he never lost touch with the other way of carrying on. 

In America they loved the sound of his voice.  I was with him in upstate New York where he was fronting his poetry and music group Y Bechgyn Drwg.  Dressed in Stetson, long black coat and cowboy boots he could have doubled for Johnny Cash.  But it was the Richard Burton-like sonority of his voice that engaged his audience. 

In the latter part of his life the haiku, that three line form, seemed to take the place of his longer verse work.  He told me once, walking across Swansea Bay in early  2012, that he thought poetry had deserted him.  I just haven’t written much lately, he confessed.  Does that mean you are no longer a poet, I asked?  Certainly not was the immediate reply. 

We’d worked on psychogeography together.  His Real Swansea was a great success.  He’d followed it with Real Swansea Two and before he died had virtually completed Real Gower.  We’d wandered Mumbles together doing research for my Edging The Estuary.  Nigel was keen to show me the ancient roadways of Swansea, Celtic walkways that went out into the sea, wooden paths built millennia ago, unearthed by archaeologists and still magnificently there – except in the incoming tide we never found them.  We turned in circles.  Nothing.  That non-finding, as Nigel later pointed out,  was in itself a perfect psychogeographic act. 

It’ll be hard now not having Nigel out there on the other end of the phone and always ready to respond to emails.  Like me he was a hater of Christmas and in the early days did almost everything he could to be in work away from it all while the festivities rumbled elsewhere.  For many years we’d celebrate this fact by calling each other while the rest of the world was eating turkey.   He’d known John Tripp well, had written the Writers of Wales volume about him.  He was one of the few in Wales who’d followed the poetry wars of the 70s and was familiar with how verse was everywhere from Serbia to San Francisco.  He also understood and valued the little magazine and the small press.   He ran one himself, publishing unknowns and setting them against the prevailing mainstream tide.  He knew who Wales’s champions were, the real ones.   He possessed one of those Hemmingway devices, a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector.  He knew who our chancers were.   He tolerated them with ill-ease.

He valued our country and hated to see it maligned, misrepresented or  misunderstood.    He was patriot to the core. 

Others better qualified than I can write about his place as a travel writer, peace protestor, editor, encyclopaedist, teacher, critic, essayist, prize-winner, associate professor, publisher, champion, linguist, administrator,  walker, harmonica player, bon viveur, broadcaster and donkey jacket wearer.   The jacket, that one with the embroidered shoulders. He must have worn it for  forty years. 

Nigel, we’ll miss you.  We won’t be able to replace you.  You’re an impossible act to follow. 

an earlier version of this tribute appeared in the Wales Arts Review

Monday 2 September 2013

Edging the Estuary - What is all about?

Hemmingway knew how it went with new work.  You needed to keep your head down and do it.  In an interview with George Plimpton he told him “though there is one part of writing that is solid and you do it no harm by talking about it, the other is fragile, and if you talk about it, the structure cracks and you have nothing.”  If the book isn’t complete then talking it up isn’t going to get you there.  Explaining how it all fits together will ruin it.  So what’s the new book going to be about?  They ask me that at the pub.  I try not to explain too much.  It’s about the estuary, the river, you know.  What, another Real book?  Maybe

Actually what I’ve ended up writing  isn’t a Real book at all and although it most certainly is about the Severn Estuary it’s also about an incredible amount more than that.  Is it a psychogeography?  Maybe, it could be that.

I’d long been interested in the idea of the linear city.  This was something first proposed by Arturo Soria y Mata in the nineteenth century.  He proposed turning Madrid into an elongated rope of buildings which would follow the Rio Manzanares.  The Soviet planner Nikolay Alexandrovich Milyutin took the idea further but nothing actually got built.  In the late twentieth century the notion regained currency with proposals to run the resorts along England’s south coast together to form one continuous conurbation.  They were almost that anyway.   The fiction of JG Ballard’s dystopian future suddenly became real. 

Cities did not need to be lozenge shaped, walking suburbs had been outmoded by city metros, communities had become acclimatised to scattering.  Conurbations could be ninety miles long and half a mile wide.  Then I read about the Cardiff Custom House back in Tudor times.  The Custom House was the base for the king’s officers.  These were bold Englishmen sent out from London to collect taxes levied on all goods landed on the king’s shores.  And these Welsh shores belonged the English king.  All of them.  For ease of admin everything landed from Chepstow right down to Worm’s Head on Gower was controlled from Cardiff. 

Cardiff, that wide.  The linear city in place hundreds of years before its time.  It was a concept I could not leave alone.  I vowed to walk it and to write about what I found.  Edging the Estuary is the result.

The walk was completed in sections, done largely in the right order, east to west, always chasing the sun.  There were diversions.  Trips inland up rivers, the tracking of canals, the crossing of cities.  There were three of those – Newport, Cardiff, Swansea – and each deserved and got more than a single traversing.  Using a technique I’d exploited in the Real series I often got someone who knew the area well to travel with me, to tell me about themselves and their locale, about the place we were walking through.  Tony Curtis at Barry.  Robert Minhinnick at Porthcawl.  Nigel Jenkins in Swansea.  John Briggs at Newport.  Des Barry and John Williams in Cardiff.  Lynne Rees at Port Talbot.

It soon became apparent that this Welsh walk alone would not be sufficient to describe the great muddy estuary I was tracking.  I had to get to the islands, to the far tidal reaches up beyond Gloucester, to the bridges, the barrage sites, the boats that sailed on the waters and, most importantly, the much richer English side.

I needed to explore the literary connections – John Williams at Cardiff, R D Blackmore in the Doone Valley, Shelly at Lynmouth -  and the industrial ones - lime, asbestos cement, electricity, steel, coal, copper.

There were difficulties and deviations.  The electricity generators  alternated come on in welcomes with you are not entering these premises under any circumstances go aways.  I was given tea and tours in about equal number to chases off and no mate not without a permit, this area is forbidden, you’ll have to walk round.  Sometimes I obeyed, sometimes I did not.  This land is not entirely a free land, despite what you may read.

I met characters, chancers, owners, renters.  I talked to locals, to visitors, to workers just passing through.  Gareth Woodham told me about his Severn Lake barrage proposals.  Glyn Jones, the ebullient chairman of BARS, the Barry Amateur Radio Society, gave me Marconi’s history.  Paul Parker at the Severn Estuary Partnership explained just how the estuary worked, where its past was,  and where its future may lie. 

What came out of this was a community that lived and worked the greatest waterway Wales has residing cheek by jowl with a larger population many of whom barely understood that they lived on the coast and that the water out there beyond them was the world’s most powerful thing – the sea.

History underpinned everything.  I read of the Conquest and of the Normans riding down the Welsh coast from their base at Tewkesbury to invade the and subsequently subdue the Welsh princedoms.  I followed their route along the northern shore of the Severn – through Lydney towards Newport.  I tried to feel as they must have done galloping the flat Severn shorelands.  And when I got back home to Cardiff where Robert Fitzhamon had taken up residence in around 1093 I read of what actually occurred.  They came across the water from the direction of Bristol, by boat.

I wound what I discovered and what I experienced into a homogeneous whole, brightening it with memory and personal experience.  I digressed from the true course as many times as I needed.  This thing is be read.  So what is it about?

It’s about the difference between Wales and England, here in the place where the border is, where the one place runs out and the other begins.  Fishermen at Black Rock by the bridge speaking in clear Gloucester accents but declaring themselves eternally welsh.  Tourists at Lynmouth who barely knew that that was Wales over there through the sea mist.  Students in Cardiff who had little idea that they were studying in what was once the world’s greatest coal exporting port and still a city on the coast.
It’s about the history of the waterway – from its time in the age of the saints as a sort of sea motorway, its time as one of the greatest merchant sea routes in the world, to today when there are barely enough commercial sailings to warrant the existence of all our ports and docks and the most anyone sees are leisure craft and fishing boats.

It’s about the communities that cluster along these coasts: the farmers, the fishermen, the walkers, the industrialists with their docks and their container parks and their power stations, the leisure provider with their fair grounds and their family beaches, the caravaners, the historical remains, the castles and iron-age headland forts, the scrap-metal merchants, the tyre hoarders, the horse traders, the turf growers, the flatlanders, the heritage industrialists, the wedding planners, the lighthouse keepers , the harbours, the creeks, the sea walls, the muds, the conservationists, the nature reserves, the sites of scientific interest, the sewage outlets, the barrage builders, the atomic scientists, the b&b owners, the hoteliers, the surfers, the beachcombers, the time wasters, the manic, the retired, the wonderful, the hopeless, and the lost.

It’s got a map – I twisted the publisher’s arm and they provided that.  It has no photos.  The links to several gross of them are here: http://www.peterfinch.co.uk/Estuary/estuary.htm 

It comes out on the 19th of this month – September, 2013 – published by Seren books at £9.99.  the launch is at the Norwegian Church the same day.  7.00 pm.  I’ll be in conversation there with the former director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, author and journalist John Osmond. 

Start edging now.  

Thursday 25 July 2013


Sometimes people just vanish.  They are in focus for a time and then you stop looking.  When you look again they’re gone.  It happened to Cavan McCarthy .  Concrete poet, literary innovator, small press publisher with a mission to fill the little magazine information gap.  He lived in Bristol from where he published his experimental small mag, Tlaloc and its attendant LOC sheets of magazine information listings.  He also made rings in which were embedded concrete verse.  He came across to Cardiff to visit and travelled by hovercraft.  You could do that then.  The sixties were full of roaring and the sense that the walls that surrounded our worlds were falling down.

When I looked again forty years had passed and Cavan had vanished.  His publications lingered deep within a few specialist collections.  Most of his poetry had turned to dust.
What had endured was the anthology I published in 1972.  Typewriter Poems.  A Second Aeon co-publication with that leader of the American avant garde Dick Higgins.  At  Something Else Press Higgins had welcome the idea with enthusiasm.  There would be two editions – a UK version and a second with $2.95 marked on the back cover.  Several thousand were printed and bound  by Browns of Burnley.  The bulk of the American edition were shipped direct to Vermont. 

For reasons I’ve never understood and now won’t (Higgins died in 1998) the man took a dislike to the finished work.  In his introduction he says “And since one of the most interesting of serious magazine editors is Second Aeon’s Peter finch, he was in a position to make up one of the most exciting collections.  The ultimate, universal collections it is not – it makes no pretence at internationalism.  But a constellation from an epicentre of the whole concrete earthquake it is.  And it’s in that spirit we are proud to present it.”  But the American edition was poorly distributed, unaccountably kept in boxes, and then finally pulped.

Cavan’s contribution is zeeeyooosshhhhhh where a rocket of typewritten words zooms across the page to crash in a blackened woomph against the right hand margin. Hhhh h h h h h  and then a deep stack of ns - nnn n n nnnn.    It isn’t as good as his landmark plurble poem  but almost.

As a writer Cavan sits somewhere in that arc formed by John Cage, Andy Warhol, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Yoko Ono.  All of these artists whose largely post-modernist ideas came to focus in the sixties have repetition in common.  Warhol films the Empire State building in one take 485 minutes long.  The lights come on and go off again.  Yoko’s 1966 Film No 4 runs for 80 minutes and consists of 365 naked bottoms of the famous all shot from the same angle.  Cage composed pieces of silence presented as sonatas.  Stockhausen pioneered musique concrete where the electronic modulation of sound became more important than the sound itself. 

The great  constants were chance and repetition, the sub-text, the surface and minutiae found deep deep inside. 

Henri Chopin, France’s greatest sound poet fled the country during the riots of 1968.  His Le déjeuner sur l'herbe  delves into what he calls language’s micro particles.  The atoms deep inside a given  sound that make up what we eventually hear.  Chopin would find them by slowing down tape recordings, interfering with the erase head and speeding up the results.  You can hear the world inside his productions but it isn’t quite the one you know.

George Perec, a member of the Oulipo Group, hidden from the Anglo-Saxon world by the complexities of the French language,  wrote the ground-breaking La Disparition, a 300 page novel in which the letter e makes not a single appearance.  It took until 1995 for this 1969 masterwork to appear in English (brilliantly and painstakingly translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void).

If there are seeds  for Cavan’s work then these are they. 

In the notes at the back of Typewriter Poems Cavan declares “I have never published a separate book of verse, apart from an exhibition catalogue, and have never made an unsolicited contribution of poetry to a magazine.”   He was reticent even then.

Recently there has been a revival of interest in Typewriter verse.  Down the years I’ve kept copies of the original anthology in print and more recently made it available on Amazon.  Suddenly it has started selling again.  Its slim white spine refixed with new century carpet glue, padded-bagged and mailed to addresses across the globe.

At least two editors are now hard at work preparing new anthologies.  Marvin Sackner of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry in Florida is working on The Art of Typewriting for Thames and Hudson.  Barrie Tullet of the Caseroom Press is editing Typewriter Art for Laurence King.   Big books with hard covers and dashes of colour.  Cavan is in both.

I’ve tracked him down too.  Louisiana.  Via Brazil. Librarianship and teaching.  Although he has retired now.   His 1700 pamphlets plus supporting materials went to the Prussian Cultural Institute in Berlin.  I suggested to him that after all this time he should really consider putting together a book of what’s he’s done.  Taciturn as ever he said he’d think and see how it went.  

Wednesday 19 June 2013

By Bike

The situationist Guy Debord defined psychogeography as  “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.”  The medium was the message, as Marshal McLuhan suggested.  The city was a city because it was a city.    Its shape and its style came well before its use as an economic and social hub. 

Will Self had psychogeography as walking to New York from London, an exercise in discovering the personality of place itself.  Peter Ackroyd, says Self, “practises a ‘phrenology’ of London.  He feels up the bumps of the city and so defines its character and proclivities.”  Nick Papadimitriou looks for a place’s deep topography, hunting the minute detail of selected locales.  The label bends and moves.  It defines, I suggest, an alternative way of proceeding through space.  Follow the grid lines.  Listen to the noise the streets make.  Walk every road beginning with A.  Interview people wearing hats.  Use ancient maps to navigate the present.  Look below the surface and track what remains of the past.  Every place has a past.  Everywhere is rich in history.  Every local has a memory.  Tapping it is the prime psychogeographical act.

Saturday’s cycle tour (on which there are still places – book now – and if this Saturday is no good then we repeat the tour the following Saturday, the 29th) will have psychogeographic elements.  But don’t let that worry you. We’ll cycle and stop and hear a bit about where and what we are.

I’ll read Mewn/Mas – a poem about what’s in Cardiff fashion and what’s not.  I’ll do this at the start outside Bute Town History and Arts Centre at the bottom of Bute Street.  The Docks.  Now the Bay.  Everyone knows it as that.  We’ll cycle around County Hall – why is this place here with its pagoda style?  What did its arrival herald?  We’ll go up through Cardiff’s little Venice, along the development-fronted feeder following streets few Cardiffians know exist.  We’ll visit the magic roundabout that displays Pierre Vivant’s Landmark 1992, a wonderful assemblage of traffic signs that somehow sums up just how most of us feel about roads and what they do.

We’ll pass the Vulcan, or where it once stood, with the memory of its original use mixed with the memory of the long campaign to save it from being pulled down.   Under Churchill Way lies more of the feeder.  Can we see it?  There is a place.

At the psychic centre of Cardiff, just a little north of Kingsway, the ley lines cross and the past breaches the present.  On some dark nights there are sparks and ghosts.  We’ll stop and savour before crossing through the Park to view lost rivers, shifted bridges and gates that go nowhere.

Down Westgate Street where the Taff once flowed are the memories of quays and cannons and eventually at the back of the Prince of Wales of the glory that was once St Mary’s Church.  Near here were canals and foundries and ship builders.  Their memory remains in the sculpture outside the new central library.  I have a poem on the wall here.  I’ll air it to finish.
Join us.  The Hidden Delta – Estuary Cardiff You Didn’t know Existed.  Real Cardiff by Bike in the company of author Peter Finch.   Dates and price: 22nd June and 29th June. £12 for the tour, bike hire £3 extra. Limited places.
This tour starts at 14:00 from the Coal Exchange and ends at 16:30 at the cycle festival hub in the Royal Arcade off St Mary Street.  More details here

Thursday 21 February 2013

Drinking After Dark

Drinking a lot isn’t new. The world has always been filled with drunks.  But the idea has  got around that here in the burgeoning Welsh capital, the city that along with London, Los Angeles and Llanystumdwy  never sleeps, drinking has taken on epidemic proportions.   It never used to be like this.  That’s the complaint of our steady and suburban council tax payers.  They lie abed listening to the josh and clatter of inebriated youth staggering home.  In my day, they say, we’d have a pint or two, certainly.  But we always knew how to behave.  This barbarism they see, or think they see  in the city’s sparkling streets, is new.   They are worried.  It’s a respectable fear.  The world has once again gone wrong.  What can you do.

But is it all new?  Certainly the mass falling about in public is but then that’s what you get when cities are developed so that indoors and outdoors merge.  Today the centre of Cardiff is one great well-lit pedestrianized precinct.   The smooth oft-swept plazas are rich in street furniture – bins, benches, booths, revolvers, statues, billboards, plantings.  They are illuminated by lines of shop windows like giant televisions.  In fact in front of St David’s Hall there is a giant television.  Half the concert hall’s frontage now broadcasts rolling sport and news.  Some of these exteriors are now more comfortable than their user’s homes.  Little wonder we search for joy within them, ambling slowly in soft shoes. 

Public Houses across Wales, indeed right across the UK, have been closing at a prodigious rate.  This is nothing to do with the population losing its taste for alcohol.  It is entirely down to how we now   consume our drink.  We like it cheap, we buy it in supermarkets.  We drink at home.  Together, alone.  We drink with impunity in our gardens, leaning on our front walls, walking down the streets, swaying inebriatedly across the city’s centre with our open lager cans in our hands.  It’s an economic driver, a swift hit at a quarter of the price we’d pay in an old dark wood, wilton-carpeted public saloon.  So the Taff Vale and the Moulders Arms, and the Salutation, The Bristol Hotel, the Marchioness of Bute, The Vulcan, The Lifeboat and the Greyhound have all closed.  Their badly-shaven regulars, fags in hand, have gone to the winds.  The land the pubs once occupied have been redeveloped and profit has been made.  Cardiff’s stock of watering places has been severely reduced.

In those lost pubs drinkers of many generations mixed.  The old stager would be in the corner, the young buck with his brylcreamed hair at the bar, the travelling salesman in his cheap suit ensconced in the lounge.  There were darts and cards, crisps and conversations.  Behaviour was cordial.  The rising pissedness that alcohol brings was controlled by the generational mix.  These pubs certainly had their beer-fuelled moments but the norm was calm.  You could go into them and feel safe.  Nobody ever felt out of place.

Today in the recessing twenty-first century it’s different.  If we do venture out to drink  then it’s likely to be to a suburban tavern  near where we live.  These places mix food with coffee mornings and offer families a complete package:  games machines, sizzling steaks, bouncy castles, cakes, wine, death by chocolate, cider with ice cubes in it, high chairs.  The city centre with all its lights is too far off, you can’t park there readily, it’s full of marauding youth.

We’ve been here before, sort of.  In 1863 with a population a quarter of the city’s number today Cardiff had 211 places where you could drink – inns, pubs, hotel bars.  According to Brian Glover’s excellent Cardiff Pubs and Breweries (Tempus) Adam Street back then had seven pubs while Bridge Street boasted eight. The density of available watering holes was unmatched.  Working men, these pubs’ main clientele, would spend their entire leisure hours inside them, staggering home at stop tap through the poorly lit streets to their homes in the walking suburbs of Butetown, Grangetown, and Splott. 

Today this mesh of sawdust-floored town-centre drinkeries has been largely replaced by the new phenomenon, the vertical bar.  These gleaming palaces are spread throughout Cardiff’s revitalised heart.  They are vast and built from glass and aluminium.  They have pinewood floors and laser lighting.  In them you stand, vertically, in your hundreds.  You crowd their long bars and down shots and cocktails and lager stuffed with chillies.  You shout and yell.  You do it with your jacket at home and your skirt as short as it will go.  You have body art tattooed on every available surface.   You wear thumb rings and earrings and rings on your toes.  You enjoy it all.  You are young.

This is the new  and frightening to non-participant world for which Cardiff has become famous.     Cardiff is the UK’s epicentre for the stag and the hen do.  Coachloads arrive from Swindon, Gloucester and Portsmouth, dressed as nuns, or supermen or fairies.  They stay for days.  They have a blindingly staggering time.

Cardiff photographer Maciej Dakowicz has captured it all in his exhilarating night photography.  He has spent much of the past five years staying up late and not drinking.  He follows the revellers, men dressed as superheroes and women dressed as Playboy bunnies.  He takes  their photographs.  He depicts them from when they start, full of smiles and upright vitality, to when they finish, lying pale faced and dishevelled among Caroline Street’s discarded chip wrappers.

‘Photography is nothing’, the great photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson once said. ‘It’s life that interest me.’    That’s Maciej’s approach too.     In his collection, Cardiff After Dark,  the capital’s street nightlife is revealed in a way that many  will find both amazing and shocking.  Amazing because they had no idea that the city’s night life was this extensive  and shocking because they will no doubt disapprove of what they see.  Cardiff,  the binge drinking capital.  Cardiff, no simple centre of Welsh culture and Welsh government,  but the place you come to revel in and then be sick.

Maciej’s approach is to stay out of the action.  He awaits Cartier-Bresson’s moment and then he takes the shot.  He reached Cardiff in 2004 to study at the University of Glamorgan and as for  many of his compatriots found the city’s atmosphere to his liking and stayed.  Like Cartier- Bresson he takes an enormous number of photographs. On a good night, he says, he’ll shoot five hundred.  This splendid Thames & Hudson full plate and full colour hardback narrows that vast collection to ninety-nine.

Nothing is taken with an flash which gives the photographer the chance to slide around the action unnoticed.  The results are stunning.  Revealed in all their glory are the leisure times of the young: their pains and their joys, their rollicking up yours attitudes, their relentless pursuits of the hit and the high.  People sit and lie in the gutters, on pavements, on street furniture, in doorways.  They sprawl in ungainly fashion, grope each other, suck their cigarettes, drain their stomachs onto pavements, stare blind-eyed at their mobile phones.

In the queue outside Walkabout they simultaneously  text each other.   Outside the Prince of Wales they squat eating chips.  A woman in hair curlers and a respectable man in a double-breasted suit sit on a street bench as if this were a park. Around them the wash of Macdonald’s wrappings rises like an incoming tide.  On St Mary Street a mid-thirties couple in short-sleeve shirt and fawn jacket lounge on the pavement imagining the place to be Barry Island. Behind them revellers queue for  endless fast food.  There are pole vaulters, bench sliders, knicker revealers, head holding ill faces, dissolutes surrounded by police in high-vis vests, and men praying at the windows of patrol cars.  A woman carrying a seven foot plastic penis comes out of Wood Street to meet the man with the tennis racket from the 118 118 advertisement.  Blokes take their tops off, kiss each other, show their bums.  Captain America has his head up someone’s skirt.  A guy with red hair and the words “One Life One Chance” across his back leans on a bar.  There are inflatable women and inflatable men, fatties with their shorts bursting. Women wearing L plates.  Men dressed as women.  Women dressed as men. Waitresses out of their minds.  Dancers and singers.  Gropers and fondlers.  The young of this part of the wider world all having a good time.

Maciej Dakowicz spent seven years living here.  He founded the Third floor Gallery at the bottom of Bute Street.  He now lives in London.  That’s our loss.  He’s gone, the bars stay on.     

Cardiff After Dark by Maciej Dakowicz is published in hardback by Thames and Hudson at £24.95

An earlier version of this posting appeared in the magazine of the IWA, The Welsh Agenda