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 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 Sunday 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

Friday, 11 January 2013

Eros Islanders

Back in 1965 the Evening Standard ran this:

Anne Sharpley meets…

The Eros Islanders

Everybody Has Seen Them …
So Few Know Them

Taken from The Evening Standard, Monday August 16, 1965

By your second day of sitting in Piccadilly you’ve stopped demanding to know who are all those people sitting around Eros?”  For a start they’re you and Moloch. And Peter and Geoff, and the boy from the Bahamas who reads William Tell in German all day, Luis Carlos, from Lisbon, and the rest of the semi-regular Eros islanders.

Lovely Lynne will be along later.  The Yorkshire miner who was so generous drunk last night that his Haig bottle orbited among us so fast he had to run to keep up with it, is certainly sleeping it off until he can summon up the first of his daylong chorus of “Eee, ain’t life grand!”

The plainclothes man is there again looking bored and vigilant- - which is what marks him off from the rest of us since we’re neither bored , nor vigilant.

The pigeons are there, of course, though you can never be sure with pigeons that they’re the same ones.  And there is a cast of hundreds with walk-on parts who just walk on the island, circle it, and walk off again.  You soon feel very safe on the island, although it can cost you your life getting on it.  Occasionally you see other would-be islanders running terrified among the traffic, baffled by those unbroken stretches of railing trying to reach the safety you are enjoying.

The traffic, after an hour of sitting there, stops being noisy and becomes simply a series of hostile stares.  They just hate you for being there, lounging and idling while they’re working.

You just go to pieces marooned there. You spread papers about, scratch, stretch, flop, gangle, open bottles and sleep.  You are an affront to London, particularly to the taxi-drivers who, it has been estimated, circle Eros six times in every shift – and they show it.  But after another hour you don’t even notice that.  After all, they are mere transients, you belong.

Moloch blows the cow’s horn he bought for a pound in Watford. It is as plaintive and primeval as he wants it to be.  He is 19, a nice quiet boy from Cardiff who wears wide hunter’s hat, pouched leather belt, armlet of white hide, white hide trimmings to his jacket, a heavy charm on a leather thong round his neck, a bracelet and three rings.

He is called Moloch after the Hebrew god to whom children were sacrificed because he has a “reputation for being cold and heartless.”  Inspired, and perhaps flattered by this, he has covered himself with Moloch images, including the huge charm round his neck that he made from fire tile cement.  “Peter calls it my biscuit, because he is obsessed with the idea that everything is for eating.”

Peter, his friend, wears a fez, a Jew’s harp round his neck and carries an ocarina, three harmonicas and two whistles.  They, and Geoff, the third of them, have made what they call an “exodus to sanity,” which means living largely on nothing and sleeping in the parks.  Peter has written a poem about sleeping out in Hyde Park.

A red sky in the night
With London’s neon brilliance …

He takes out one of his harmonicas, licks, pretends to bite it as though it were a bar of chocolate and plays Ripley’s Blues wastefully and unimpressionably into the traffic uproar.

Two little Cilla Blacks from Liverpool ask if they like the Beatles.  “You don’t We’ve seen Help ! 25 times,” they scream.

Lovely Lynne who is two yards tall and has a yard of lovely young brown hair, takes over the harmonica and plays.  Lynne lives by sketching other Eros Islanders for three shillings a time.

Her tight old jeans are smeared with paint, her small pale perfect face is weighed down with eye make-up.  Together they discuss cheap places to eat and stay, emigration to Australia, going to Africa, their hatred of society.  Near them stretched out insensible and stinking, is a tramp, round whom the short-term islanders tread with concern and caution.

“They’re the kings, those old boys.  Live free.  More of a man than all those office zombies,” says Moloch shedding affection all over the deep, rotten, needy sleep of the tramp.

The drunken Yorkshire miner is trying to persuade everyone to go to Belgravia with him.  “They’re smashing there, treat you as an equal.  Are you going grouse shooting?” he says imitating an upper-class soprano.  Luis Carlos from Lisbon, wearing an enormous pair of wrinkled jeans and “je viens de Portugal” on his pocket confesses he lives on cornflakes and milk but loves London.

The sun sinks over the Café Royal, as it has risen over the Criterion.  The Eros fountain like some ghastly Victorian weed with its bulb showing is surrounded by explosions of neon instead of the daytime junkyard of buildings that no one can decide what to do with.  Patiently, steadfastly, uncritically the islanders sit on …

Check the photo above.  Which one is Peter Finch?

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Foxed, Dust Marked, and Staples Rusted, But Still Hanging On.

I’ve got myself into the dark far reaches of the loft now.  The place where the flickering of the strip-light doesn’t quite reach.  It’s full of dust and that particularly black Cardiff soot that sticks to your hands, fills your hair and gets inside the collar of your shirt.  This soot is an echo of the city’s industrial past,  from the days when down the road they made steel and shifted coal and the air was dark with rolling smoke.  We might be clean post-industrial now but in Cardiff’s aged lofts what was still exists.

The box I open dates from the early 1970s.  It’s got an ancient Cyngor Llyfrau address label on the outside with my Maplewood Court address hand written on it.  Originally used, I guess, by the Books Council to return unsold Second Aeon Publications from the shelves of their Aberystwyth distribution centre.  William Wantling.  Typewriter Poems.  Bob Cobbing.  Found poetry.  T L Kryss.  J P Ward’s concrete verse.  The Second Aeon Travelling Circus’s rambling mash.  Twentieth century avant garde poetry never really went down that well in Ceredigion and Gwynedd.     Europe never was  Welsh.

The journal I edited between 1966 and 1974 was called second aeon.  Its name permanently, as the Bauhaus suggested,  in lower case.  In those pre-internet days there was a great information gap.  The world might have been full of poetry but finding it was a task.  Second aeon took upon itself the job is filling the gap.  Its large Small Press Scene, run at the end of each issue, tried to detail what was going on.  Magazine name, address and some information about the kind of material it contained. 

Back at Maplewood Court, my flat which doubled as an editorial office, I was deluged with booklets, books, journals, broadsheets and poetry newspapers.  At first from the UK and then as the name second aeon became better know, from the wider world.  Material flooded in.  Big fat yellow envelopes form America.  Bright packages form Europe.  Shabby bags from India.  Stuff from South Africa, Japan, Hong Kong, South America.  Argentina, in particular, seemed to be in publishing overtime.

And it’s all still here, part of it, that ancient echo.  It’s in the box, aged, bent, foxed, dust marked, staples rusted, but still hanging on in  all its edge-pushing, counter culture glory.  Atlantis magazine out of America’s Midwest, full of the  Upanishads, Khalil Gibran-recycled,  articles on reincarnation, Open Letters to Man – I am a Woman, and poetry from mystic Christians.  Peter Cash’s Gong from Nottingham with poetry by Jon Silkin, Owen Davis, Michael Lenihan, William Oxley and an editorial that promotes Joni Mitchell as the goddess she once was.  The Occasional Parish Butterfly, from Cardiff, a cyclostyled, set by typewriter multi-coloured thing  which managed to omit the names of most of its poets.  An Andrei Voznesenski  poem lifted for the back cover.  “There is no editor, bias, affiliation and no immediate policy” it says inside.  Ah the freedom of that vanished age.

I open a large yellow envelop which has the words CONCRETE KONGLOMERATI 5 LB.NET in red on its outside.  This is from Gulfport, Florida and contains a magazine, some stickers and a set of booklets.  The poets are Gerard Malanga, Richard Kostelanetz, Clark Coolidge and others.   They all flash their pre-LANGUAGE visual muscles.  Many once worked this way.  Now, mostly, they don’t.

Deeper in are editions of Lawrence Upton’s Good Elf, R&B Monthly, Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds, the super-hippie Oz, Arthur Winfield Knight’s beat generation reviver The Unspeakable Visions of the Individual (this issue devoted to Herbert Huncke), Alex Hand and Alan Turner’s Durham-based Iconolatre rich with the poets of that time – Charles Bukowski, George Dowden, Andrew Lloyd, William Wyatt, Michael Horovitz, Jeff Nuttall, Chris Torrance.  All men, you’ll notice.  Quark with its translations from the Spanish by Cid Corman and Clayton Eshleman.  Beneath this are some of Ruthi Blackmore’s Cardiff-based second aeon precursors Mainly, Cutley and Nicely.  Little hand-made magazines of local verse. Dust comes up in gouts and gushes. The magazines shine.

None of this happens now.  The small mag has gone, all but.  Replaced by geographically indistinct internet grab-alls that roll on for endless pages.   Editing a matter of putting everything in.  Reading something most people don’t.  For the publishers there are no more distribution hassles, visits to the post office with arms breaking under the weight of the envelopes.  No standing outside the library in the rain trying to sell the magazine to reluctant readers.  No hunting for the cash to pay the print bills.  No painful dealing with the rejected.  Poetry, who wants that. 

Poetry was a mystery back then.  It came from the skies, most thought.  Today it’s chanted in pubs, shouted by TV comedians and rapped into places where the written word would never penetrate.  Poetry is commonplace.  No longer the province of the fey and the limp wristed.  Poetry has conquered the western world.   And, of course, to do that, there has had to be a certain amount of dumbing down and an almost total abandonment of adventurous creation.  Like what you see?  Thought not.

I stick my head back in my dusty box.

Friday, 6 April 2012


I’ve never been one to win things or obtain honours. My books don’t get onto short lists. Not that I’m complaining. This is how it is. After at least forty years in the business I’ve barely a literary award anywhere in the house. There was a runners-up book token in a 1970s National Eisteddfod Concrete Poetry Competition. I was the only entrant and I still didn’t win. And a third prize in the 1982 Bridport Short Story Contest. I didn’t enter anything after that. Last year I got the Ted Slade Award for Services To Poetry. A significant boost. Maybe the times have turned.

Last time I got another. I’m now the officially adopted poet of the Institute of Directors. There was a ceremony at their headquarters, the William Burges-designed and rather splendid Park House Club on Cardiff’s Park Place. The building is going through a new promotion campaign and has itself wrapped in a giant pink bow. Could have been to coincide with my reading I suppose but I rather think not.

Getting companies to adopt poets is the idea of Ali Anwar, an Iraqui-born Cardiff businessman. He has set up the H’mm Foundation to promote his cause. Poets are cheap, announced the evening’s mc, the broadcaster and author Jon Gower. You’d be amazed how little they charge. He does us down. It’s true that many a bard will turn out for not much but in the end we all need to keep the same wolf from the door. In terms of remuneration a small rise in the level poets are paid wouldn’t go amiss. Current rates of anything between £50 and £250 for an evening’s show have been pretty much the same for decades now. But I digress.

Ali Anwar’s idea has a certain amount of brilliance to it. He’s determined to get poetry into the workplace and into places where it previously has never thought of going. Poetry at board meetings, creative writing classes for workers as an aid to productivity, verse as inspiration to sales teams, poetry in the PR departments, specially commissioned works for the annual conference, poets leading the workers in the singing of new company songs. Poetry that does something, poetry that earns it keep.

The room is packed. Directors, associates, company presidents, board members, Assembly members, innovators plus a few other writers here to see how the whole thing hangs together. I spot Ifor Thomas there, Clare Peat, and Clare Potter. We’ve all had some wine and are slightly mellowed, the mc has set the scene and now I’m on.

For me it’s a new audience. I give them a fair sampling from my greatest hits. With my own business background and with time spent in the corporate sector it’s not that difficult for me to build bridges. I start with a sound poem which predictably stuns and then follow with a found poem made from lines taken from North American Welsh ex-pat newspapers. I then add a few pieces about committee meetings, sales techniques, sending your offspring to university, meeting your wife’s lover and, for good measure, the political economy and future of that place we all love, Europe. Be eclectic. Stare them straight in the eye. Stay on your feet. Entertain, engage, make them laugh if you can. I do.

My cop out is to leave my new poem, part of a sequence about Assembly members drawn from their public pronouncements, Omaggio a Edwina Hart (The Welsh Government’s Business Minister) in my bag. Never yet done in public and still unrehearsed. It might have struck the wrong note. But given the nature of this group I doubt it. Next time.

Georgia Ruth, who amazingly worked as my personal assistant for my few last months with Literature Wales, rounds the event off with three song. Two of these are her own and one is a plaintive ballad from the American minstrel shows, Old Dog Blue. She’s got something, Georgia, a voice that lifts the spirit and an ability to write songs as if she were the reincarnation of Jackson Browne.

The other side of the applause I’m standing there with a glass in my hand, pleased I’ve managed my first real event in an age when I’m confronted by the smiling face of an academic not normally an attender of my events.

You know, he says, that was really good. I didn’t know you did things like this. Your books are, you know, okay, sort of. But hearing the poetry performed brings it alive. Ali Anwar and a small collection of others standing in the same circle all nod in agreement. It’s a compliment. Isn’t it? I’m not quick enough, of course. I should have replied, thank you, you know that’s rather how I feel about your own work. But I don’t. I smile instead.

It was a compliment, says Sue, on the way home. Just not that well expressed. She’s probably right.

This morning Robert Lloyd Griffiths, Institute of Directors secretary tweets “Thanks so much for your contribution to our even. Superb!”. Got through somewhere then.

Now for the hard part. Taking poetry on to where drink is absent and commercial success is paramount. A place where you don’t normally find poetry. At work.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Unrecorded Literary Past

The past is littered with them. My past is. Poetry readings, literary events, evening of live verse, of poets standing there expounding, shouting, declaiming, orating, performing, reciting, generating poetry into the thick book free air. Poetry live manages something that poetry dead, or at least poetry printed, simply does not.

The theory is that spoken poetry possess some sort of power that the stuff you experience silently by reading it from a book does not possess. Having the poet present adds value. The activity becomes an event, transcends itself, makes sparks.

Of course, as anyone who has been an habitué of the reading, and in particular the open reading, will know not all live lit is like this. There are the longeurs. The great spaces into which the untried and untested stumble. The spaces where the imperfect spout their material. Where the not that good spend time. Where the less than perfect flaunt their broken parts. Where the never to be really exciting try so hard to be something they are not.

But we’ll skip round that. It’s part of the territory. A necessary component of the great twenty-first century literary experience.

Hidden in this morass are the great readings. The outstanding events that happen once in a lifetime. The recitations by the great who are now dead. The sparkling performances by the rising and the recitations by those at the top of their games. I’ve been to these. Heard Sorley Maclean read with RS Thomas, watched John Ashbery smile, listened to Ed Dorn act out Gunslinger, bp nichol enthral a hard-bitten north London mob, Ian Macmillan make his audience laugh more than they knew was possible. I’ve listened to Yevtushenko electrify a stadium full of Russians, John Ormond thrill a Cardiff pub back room, Ted Hughes act like a great standing stone at the Sherman, and Bob Cobbing stun a room full of besuited businessmen. The great readings. The ones where something happens that’s out of the ordinary, where the poetry lifts and flies. Where the usual is totally transcended into something many thought it never could be.

And all of this goes unrecorded, the large part of it. Little is taped. Less filmed. The reading happens and then it’s gone. All that’s left is memory and mist.

When I began as a poet I sort of hoped that here in Wales at least we’d have our newspapers review literary performances. The one last night by Lawrence Ferlinghetti making a rare visit to the Oriel Bookshop, Jeff Nuttall falling off the stage at the Reardon Smith or Lily Greenham making truly amazing sounds at the Park Hotel. But no.

Soccer, running, fishing, horses, am dram, school pantos – all of that. But poetry readings? No. Never seen a one.

Julia Novak recognises this. Her Live Poetry – An Integrated Approach to Poetry in Performance (Rodopi) is the first study I’ve seen that sets about trying to provide academics with an apparatus with which they can discuss the poetry reading. Poetry readings have become an essential part of the writing and distribution of poetry during the past forty years. Why is it that “we know almost nothing about how specific poems, poets and types of poetry have been shaped by expectations of performance?”

The argument that performed poetry is somehow inferior to the printed kind or that the live reading is merely an extension of the written word no longer hold water. There are too many top end writers out there who make money from the circuit. They produce work specifically for those arenas. But it is their books that get reviewed rather than their performances. Check the Sunday papers. Gillian Clarke’s latest from Carcanet will get a complete discussion but not her full-on performance with Carol Ann Duffy at the Hay Festival. Barry MacSweeney at the Sandringham Hotel gets no mention but his great Wolf Tongue, that gets the full treatment.

Novak is nothing if not thorough. Her study encompasses not just the poet with a voice on the platform but offers a whole analysis of how arm gestures, stances, introductions, contexts and ways of actually mouthing the words can have an effect on the emerging poem. She offers ways of analysing the articulatory parameters of the poet’s verbal utterances. Pitch, movement, deviation from the printed text, body communication, accent, tone, range and context are all quantified. She concludes that there is a branch of artistic endeavour, of literature, being practised that has yet to be fully-engaged with by the academic community. She proposes that a start be made. She has something here.

Live Poetry gives us valuable insights into a reading scene that many know little about. The whole battle between street wise and studied, between black and white, between loud and quiet is explored. She says what she means. Live poetry “can be defined as emerging from the fundamental bi-mediality of the genre of poetry – i.e. its potential realisation as spoken or written word – as a specific manifestation of poetry’s oral mode of realisation, which is parallel to, rather than a mere derivative ‘version’ of, written mode.” It’s something different.

Back down at the Juno Lounge or Clwb Ifor or Chapter’s Media Point the latest open mic is in action. A cluster of newbies are there with poem in hand waiting for their slots. The main acts, the guests, brought there as the supposed reason for this night’s live event, have their audience swelled by the wannabes and the wannabe’s mates. In fact without the wannabes and their cohorts there may, on occasion, be no audience at all. It is how it is in the poetry world.

Sometimes someone will record something on an iPhone. Now and again there’ll be a camera on a tripod in the corner, its red record light winking. But generally the experience will sift off into the air once it’s done. We’ll talk about it for a bit in the bar. We might mention it when we get home. But after that it’ll be mostly forgotten. Poetry reading, gone.

The pic at the top is Ed Dorn reading at Buffalo