Monday, 23 February 2009

The Hayes Al Fresco Drinking Club

There is a rumour doing the rounds that in the days when the Hayes Island Snack Bar in Cardiff was known colloquially as Café Latrine and served tea so strong it would melt spoons a club called the Hayes Al Fresco Drinking Club used to meet on one of its benches. This regular get-together filled in the gap between lunch and tea when the licensing laws of the day caused pubs to shut. Secretary was allegedly Robert Minhinnick. Founder members were Nigel Jenkins and myself. Chairman was the late John Tripp. I say allegedly here because if pushed I’d need to say that I can’t remember anything about this. On the other hand writerly drinking things can often be like that.

The club will get a re-run in a marvellous new one-act play by the author and actor Peter Read. This premières on John Tripp day at the Wharf pub on Cardiff’s East Dock on Saturday 7th March. Peter Read, replete in cord jacket and baggy trousers, stars as the bard himself in John Tripp’s Tragic Cabaret, a fitting centrepiece for a day of 60s poetry revival.

Is it true that if you can remember the 60s then you weren’t there? At the same event the critic Matthew Jarvis will present Sing for Wales or shut your trap – All the rest’s a load of crap, a trip (if you’ll excuse the pun) through a Welsh version of that decade, putting the whole scene in place. Tiffany Atkinson will then present readings from the works of some of the period’s greats – Harri Webb, Sally Roberts Jones, Leslie Norris, Herbert Williams, Glyn Jones, Alison Bielski, and, no doubt JT himself.

One of the era’s best known young Turks and a poet who has now travelled the whole distance from upstart to gravitas is Tony Curtis. Tony, now Professor of Poetry at Glamorgan, knew John Tripp well and will be delivering The Meaning of Apricot Sponge – John Tripp’s Taste for Life – a talk that will put JT and his work into contemporary context. An outsider then, still somehow an outsider today.

For many years the work of JT has been kept alive with the annual John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry. Here performers battle it out in public and are scored on both content and style. Past winners have included Ifor Thomas, Mike Jenkins, Emily Hinshelwood, Clare Potter and Peter Read himself. A number will be present at the Wharf to give us a sample of how it is done.

The day runs from 11.00 am to 6.00 pm. Tickets cost £17.50/£15.00 which includes a light lunch. To be sure of a place call organisers, the Academi, on 02920472266 for yours. Or chance your arm at the door.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail on 21 February, 2009

Monday, 16 February 2009


And they shall all have prizes might no longer be society’s great plan. There are signs out there that everyone might not be equal to everyone else, at least not everytime anyway. We’ve had a couple of decades now where ability and personal achievement have been in retreat. Actually getting somewhere in the world has been regarded as, well, vaguely dishonest and certainly unfair.

Among the writers this has led to a slew of vast and seemingly never ending digital magazines where the poems slide about in their weakness like dead sardines. New books have fallen off the presses much in the style of the collapsing rocks along the Glamorgan Heritage Coast. Indiscriminately, in great impenetrable piles. At least, here on the inside, it has sometimes felt like this. I’m exaggerating, of course. But only slightly.

Real achievement, the ability to write and to do that well, has been regarded with suspicion in some quarters. At school the whole class get their work on the wall. The badge-winning Guides and Scouts have been banned. The non-competitive Woodcraft Folk have come to the fore.

But things are shifting. In Wales the Writing Squads movement has seen healthy growth over the past few years. Squads are groups of youngsters in a single geographic area who meet together four times a year in the company of a famous writer. For one term it will be Robert Minhinnick, learning about non-fiction, the next it will be with Gillian Clarke, learning how to craft a national poem.

Meetings occur off school premises, often in Libraries or community centres, and always out of school time. Participants, who start at around eight years old and often stay the course until they are eighteen, attend because they want to. That’s the first essential qualification. The second is that they have to be good.

In some sense squads are like county level sports teams. You get to join if you have ability. You can’t simply sign up. Traditionally, amateur writers have thought this kind of thing totally unfair. Down the years I have encountered many who write their first poem and having written it imagine that they are now ready for a whole book. Rather like men who buy a play-in-a-day guide to the violin at the start of the week and by the end have sent in their applications to join the LSO.

Squads nurture real talent. They are where the Welsh literary future lies. Academi has recently been given a Beacon Award in order to increase their number and to encourage activity. Currently, there are active Young People’s Writing Squads in Anglesey, Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Cardiff, Ceredigion, Denbigh, Gwynedd, Merthyr Tydfil, Monmouthshire, Newport, Pembrokeshire, Powys, Swansea, Torfaen and Vale of Glamorgan Expect more elsewhere in Wales soon..

An earlier version of this post appeared at The Insider in the Western Mail.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Magazines - Are They Worth Starting

Is this a good time to be running a magazine? Probably not. Research at the Institute for Welsh Affairs shows that newspaper consumption is in significant decline. The regional press more steeply than the UK nationals. On the net everything is free. Twenty-four hour news television is ubiquitous. Mobile devices that allow us access where ever we are – bed, train, settee, restaurant, street – are owned by increasing numbers. Against this background who would want to venture into print? And having ventured how would they sell their products? Yet in the Welsh literary world brave souls still do.

In English Planet, Poetry Wales and the new New Welsh Review still dominate. In Welsh Taliesin rides on alongside Tu Chwith. And Barn, the long-lived cultural heavyweight fights it out against Lolfa’s newcomer. No sign there, apparently, of circulation doom and mass transfer to new technology. But then the thumb-keying young who live by the screen have not yet taken over the world. But they soon will.

One of the great myths of Wales is that somewhere, out there, are thousands of untapped readers. All we have to do is find a way of accessing them and our Welsh periodical publishing problems will be over. It is a litany I have been hearing now for many decades and it still echoes on. When the late, great Robin Reeves edited the New Welsh Review he came up with the promotional scam of offering bone china mugs with poems on them to new subscribers. There was an R S Thomas and a Dylan Thomas, both in fine and tasteful white. You couldn’t buy them unless you also subscribed. Subs soared.

Things came to a head a year later when subscriptions came up for renewal. Readers seemed to be leaving the magazine in droves. A certain fall off is expected but not as much as the Review was experiencing. A bit of investigation threw up the fact that there were more china collectors in the UK than readers of literary magazines. Collectors were subscribing just for the mug and were throwing the print into the bin unread. Why am I doing this, Robin said to me. It would be cheaper if I just gave the magazines away.

Elsewhere further ploys are in use in the hunt for new sales. These include free chocolates, free beer mats, free pens, free hats, and a free first year so long as you sign up by direct debit. The money slides from your account, annually, almost by stealth. The Welsh Union of Writers’ magazine, The Works, which last appeared around ten years ago still has a number of dedicated subscribers resolutely paying by standing order. Despite what you hear the banking system is a wonderful thing. Where would magazines be without it.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail

Monday, 2 February 2009

Library of Wales

Did Alun Pugh leave us a legacy? In his time at the helm of Wales’ culture ministry the Clwyd West AM certainly maintained a high profile. His decision in 2005 to spend many thousands reviving the fortunes of the Welsh book trade was seen by some as clinging to the past. His centrepiece was the Library of Wales – a uniform series of inexpensive, edited reprints of Welsh classics. Editions would be uniform and would be distributed free to schools. They would concentrate exclusively on Welsh writing in English and would revive the fortunes of the lost Anglo-Welsh. The past would be shifted back into the present. Our heritage, and in particular our industrial working-class heritage would not be lost amid a welter of soft latter-day Bay-side living.

Leighton Andrews AM had been hunting in his local bookstore for a Rhondda novel by Jack Jones and was dismayed to learn that the great man had been out of print for years. How could Welsh valley communities be understood if their history and literary heritage was invisible? He argued the case in a piece for the Western Mail. Alun Pugh shared this view. A fiscal correction needed to be applied. Resource was found. Prof Dai Smith was appointed as series editor. History was back. A world was rediscovered.

Initial scepticism from some quarters soon vanished. The idea that reviving the past might reduce opportunities in the present proved to be a paper tiger. Dai Smith recruited some of our best contemporary authors to write forwards to each volume. Ron Berry, Gwyn Thomas, Lewis Jones, Alun Richards, Alun Lewis, Rhys Davies, Dorothy Edwards, Raymond Williams, Emyr Humphreys and Dannie Abse rode again. So too did some more unexpected voices. Indeed some of whom many of us had not heard: Jeremy Brooks, Howell Davies, Stuart Evans. Add to all that a pair of heavy-weight century-busting door-stop anthologies – Meic Stephens’s Poetry 1900-2000 and Gareth Williams’s Sport (a 2008 best-seller) and you have a list to be envied. It was the making of Parthian Books - a solid back list of unquestionable value with guaranteed upfront sales. People out there even began to collect them.

The latest crop continues Dai’s mix of predictable eclecticism. Another Gwyn Thomas, a Brenda Chamberlain, a not unexpected Geraint Goodwin and then, right out of left field, the wild and wilful The Caves of Alienation from Stuart Evans.

There’s a myth around that Wales never quite got its head around modernism and ended up refusing to join in. No James Joyce or Virginia Woolf or Gertrude Stein for us. We had Dylan Thomas. For many he was regarded as edgy enough. But out in the Welsh back rooms where David Jones and others lived new ways of looking at the world were in operation. Stuart Evans’s multi-faceted, many voiced approach was one. Ignored when it first appeared but justly celebrated now. The Library of Wales scores again.

A version of this blog appeared in the Western Mail on saturday 31 January, 2009