Monday, 29 June 2009

Restacking The Chairs Makes You Strong

I’ve just restacked the chairs and put them away. It seems as if I’ve been doing this all my life. Arrange the event, put the chairs out, fifty of them for a turn out of twenty. And then when it’s done put them all away again. The audiences don’t help. They arrive late. They scrape the things as they sit. Move them about. Make a big noise hunting in their bags just as the speaker begins. Their phones go off after ten minutes and they can’t find them. The theme from Eastenders done by Nokia slowly crescendos as the unfortunate hauls out cardigans, pencil cases, library books and newspapers in a desperate attempt to grasp the slippery beast and turn it off.

No one ever sits at the front. Always the back. And from there they inevitably can’t hear. Speak up please. A late arrival bangs in with a dog on a lead. It barks. Everyone turns to look but no one says a thing.

We had a literary bus trip once, to London, to hear Ted Hughes at the Poetry Society. Eternity ago. On the coach everyone tried to sit by themselves filling the seats next to them with bags and coats and papers. Didn’t work, of course.

While we were there we lost two on the Underground who had missed Earl’s Court on the District and then took great pleasure, maps in hand, in travelling right round London until the station came up again. The Underground map, as Mike Parker points out in his new book, Map Addict, resembles an electric circuit diagram. All straight lines with no real relationship with geography at all.

The map was created by Harry Beck a man who, according to Parker, filled his life with obsessive and reactionary views as he aged. This doesn’t stop his tube plan becoming a design gem. Many have tried to improve on it and, for that matter, to make art from it. Best known is Simon Patterson who replaced the station names with those of artists, writers and composers and reissued the whole things as The Great Bear. Buy prints of it at the Tate.

Somewhat less known is the now completely banned geek who created a version of the map with the station names rendered into anagrams. Crux for Disco (Oxford Circus), Written Mess (Westminster), Swearword & Ethanol (Harrow & Wealdstone), Shown Kitten (Kentish Town), Burst Racoon (Barons Court) This Hungry & Boiling (Highbury & Islington) and Queer Spank (Queens Park). Transport for London immediately had the thing banned and wiped from cyberspace. But Mike says it’s still there if you search hard. Mike Parker’s Map Addict, informative and hilarious in equal measure and written on an Academi bursary, is published by Collins.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 27th June, 2009.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

How Changing Your Name May Make Things Better

Changing your name ought to be simple enough. If your surname happens to be Bottom or Willie or some other potentially embarrassing body part the chances are that you are either pronouncing it in a way that is nothing like it’s written - Bowtham or While-ay maybe. Or you will have changed it years ago. Usually straightforward but not always. Eileen de Bont, a receptionist, fell foul of the Passport Office who refused to accept her legally changed by deed poll new name of Pudsey Bear. The rumoured John Jones of Abersoch who allegedly changed his to John Rocket Brother Big Bollock Splash in Cardigan Bay in celebration of his interest in both missiles and disarmament had no such trouble. He never went abroad.

If you want to go double-barrelled then that’s easier. The Smithson-Cumberledges and the Moledigger-Johnsons are on the increase. The Welsh tradition of the Vaughan Joneses and the Walford Davieses are there to fall back on. Triple barrel names also look like they might be in for a return. Although not, apparently, in Germany. There they’ve been declared illegal on the grounds that they might confuse. Germany, of course, is the country which once gave us the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas, a name abandoned at the time of the Great War in favour of the much more friendly sounding Windsor.

Name change among companies and their products is just as prevalent. And often just as difficult. Hands up those who have any idea who Consignia were going to be? That was the nice new brand name for the Post Office that most people thought sounded more like a Roman General or an ointment for piles. Snickered recently? They used to be known as Marathon Bars – a name dropped because it turned out to mean something rude in the local language of an emerging far eastern market. How about Aviva, Aveva, Avuncular, Celsa, Crispo and Corus? One of those might be the new name for the Norwich Union. Or I might be making them up. You choose.

Square – the music, poetry and new fiction magazine edited by energetic Nick Fisk and full of bright underdogs and exciting new voices - has discovered that too many other things are either already square or moving in that direction and has changed its name to Cool.

The new issue, still disarmingly square shaped, comes with a free sew-on lemon patch. Ideal for making literary headway, I thought. Content is an entertaining mix of music journalism and accessible verse. Chris White and Dylan Moore on the Stone Roses, Barrie Llewellyn on tattoos, Nick Fisk on artist John Squire.

Way back there was a plan to rename the WMC “Awen” – the Welsh word for “Muse”. But then someone discovered that in English it also meant a facial lump. A wen. Plan swiftly dropped.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 20th June, 2009.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

How Tea Can Improve Your Writing

I’m drinking tea. Around me is a disparate crowd of writers, artists, students, accountants, gardeners and housepersons. We are listening to a performance of Tracing Flight, the output of a local writers group presented by actors from the College of Music and Drama. The small crowd applaud enthusiastically. This is at the brand new Waterloo Gardens Teahouse, a stylish outpost of calm in Cardiff east. Next door is a hairdressers, the other side a sub-Post Office. Opposite are the gardens, home of dog walkers, smokers, sitters, kids on tricycles, old ladies with bags, men reading newspapers, and the occasional disaffected youth. South Wales suburbia. You can put on literature and get it to work where you like, it seems.

In the days of Ray Handy and Harri Webb poetry became synonymous with pints. You heard it chanted in pubs, between beers, surrounded by cigarette smoke and veneration. Today in Cardiff there are regular performances at Chapter Arts Centre and at the WMC. In Swansea they tend to happen at the purpose-built Dylan Thomas Centre – a home for literature in Wales’s second city. Bookshop, theatre, cafe, a regular literary programme put on in a set of dedicated performance spaces.

The Dylan Thomas Centre is a legacy of the 1995 UK Year of Literature, a status Swansea won against absolutely no competition at all from any other Welsh conurbation. The position was offered to Cardiff but the capital turned up its philistine nose. Dylan won again and with surprisingly successful and long-lived results.

Can we really put lit on anywhere? One-time media darling, Fiona Pitt-Kethley, editor of the much sought after Literary Companion to Sex, read her stuff to rush hour crowds arriving at Waterloo Station in London. Her publisher sold copies of her book hand to hand from a crate. They got rid of hundreds.

I’ve seen Peter Stead talking about his books in a cinema with a giant back-drop projection of his face in close-up on the screen behind. The Academi mounted a poetry stomp in the centre of Caernarfon Castle where the Investiture plaque had been swathed in bubble-wrap to protect it against anarchists. There have been literary performances in the lounges of cross channel ferries and standing on the decks of light ships and Campbell steamers. In poetry anything is possible.

But it’s also true that dedicated spaces are best. Such centres exist in Dublin, in London and in Edinburgh. But not in Cardiff. For the capital we add literature on, squeeze it between plays at the Sherman, perform it in the foyer of the Millennium Centre, listen to it at the Norwegian Church. Maybe users should start agitating. When they move the Vulcan to St Fagans, if they do, how about building a Literature Centre on the vacant site?

A stop press here: Vulcan saved for three more years. New lease signed by Liz the Landlady. A victory which for a while looked as if it just wouldn't come.

A version of the above appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday, 13th June, 2009.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Drinking with Ifor Bach

If you need to find something out chances are you’ll check with Google. Who exactly was Ifor Bach, for example. Has to be someone who did more than drink near Cardiff Castle. The Wikipedia tells us in about eight seconds that Ifor Bach scaled the walls of the Norman Stronghold at Cardiff in an act of glorious rebellion. But for info in greater depth a better place to look would be the recently published Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales. Here you’ll find accuracy, context and cross reference in reliable style. The Encyclopaedia has been a godsend to anyone with a concern for Wales. In the making ten years (when in hope and excitement the editors originally thought three would do it) but as comprehensive and readable as they come.

There are two editions, one in Welsh and one in English, compiled by a team of four editors and several hundred individual contributors. Entries in all fields of human knowledge and experience were commissioned, checked, cross-check, translated, amended and updated. John Davies, the eminence gris at the head smoothed the waters. Peredur Lynch, Nigel Jenkins and Menna Baines paddled furiously below. The books, published by UWP are certainly worth the wait. In their fine black covers they glow on the shelves. Every home should have one was the promotional slogan. To judge by sales so far almost every one has.

But the problem with works like this, glorying in their comprehensiveness, is that they can date. People die, things happen, the world moves. Anything printed can only ever be a snapshot of how it was and how it might have been thought of at a point in time.

Leaving aside the small number of inevitable infelicities reported to the publishers by keen members of the public - “The photograph you have on page 84 of the train leaving the station at Blaenau Ffestiniog is actually a photograph of the train arriving at Blaenau Ffestiniog” – some things will have to be updated.

In an age of digital everything from shopping to sleeping just how should this be done? Already Academi are in negotiation to trial a selection of the content on line. Faster access to greater depth when you Google. But the text, as it is, remains.

It has been suggested that the publishers might look at a sort of Wikipediaisation of the project. Put it on line, 1200 pages, more than 5000 entries, and then allow the public access to add and amend as they choose. An Encyclopaedia of the moment. Someone gets elected in a by-election and, instantly, details are added. A desirable possibility. But it would also be possible to add bogus facts and shift the weight of the scholarship. So Ifor Bach invented Brains, did he? What do others think?

A version of this blog appeared in the Western Mail on saturday 6th June as The Insider