Saturday, 28 November 2009

Will It Fit The Bookrack?

Publishing in Wales is nothing if not diverse. At the point where the demands of the market might have been considered uppermost – everything the same shape to fit the same shelves, the same size to fit the same racks and the same look so as not to frighten the horses – out come two new magazines that couldn’t differ more. In Bangor Sophie McKeand and Andy Garside, a pair of upstart poets and graphic designers, have set up the Absurd. What they like is the weird, the avant garde and the wonderfully creative. They organise cabarets, readings, put on bands, launch books, bring out albums and promote the kind of thing Ezra Pound would have loved, the ever turning new.

They also engage in a bit of publishing but being design adept and aware of what it can be like printing piles of things and then having them unsold under your bed they do everything online. Their ctrl+alt+del, is a free magazine that comes in the form of a pdf. You print it out, fold according to online instructions and find yourself holding what now looks like a traditional poetry mag. The content of the two recent issues is pretty wide-ranging. Richard Downing’s Jazz Haiku, Phil Maillard in the mist on a Sunday morning in Sully, a terrific piece of poetry history from Chris Torrance in which he recounts his early days at the core of the Carshalton mob and British beat generation. Ken Cockburn and Scott Thurston add a slice of twentieth century avant garde. Homan Yousofi encircles Jericho. Check for yourself at

By contrast and in Cowbridge, a place nothing like Bangor, Ric Bower and associates launch Blown, a magazine of cultural intelligence. The contrast could not be greater. This is a heavy 162 page full-plate and often full-colour glossy. It mixes a range of seemingly incompatible bedfellows – art, music, fashion, photography. Photographs play a huge part. Defining just what the mag does is intentionally difficult. A series of stunning photographs from Peter Finimore, Toril Brancher, and Richard Page are accompanied by tangential texts from Brennan Street, Catrin Dafydd and Diarmid Mac Giolla Chriost. John Beynon writes up the football casual. John Beynon snaps two likely lads at the gates to the ground and then screws his photos up and blanks out his subject’s eyes.

Elsewhere Michael Oliver deconstructs the language of council estates. Ed Pereira compares Scars with Basement Jaxx. Niall Griffiths goes to southern Ireland. Sarah Broughton interviews Sarah Waters. Ric Bower photographs the author and makes her look like a side lit elf. There’s a superb piece on the work of Diane Arbus accompanied by a raft of full plate reproductions. All this and more for £6.95. A new Wales. Get to Smiths now.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 28th November, 2009

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Shouting Down The Stairwell

National Poetry Day and here I am on the second floor of Cardiff’s brilliant new central library celebrating the publication of Jennie Savage’s Arcades. This Safle published compendium is a wonderful mixture of photograph, history, anecdote, map, discourse, reportage, plan and chatter (included on a CD stuck inside the back cover) and an absolute bargain at £9.95. But it isn’t poetry.

There’s certainly something odd about all of this. National Poetry Day is the time each year when verse rises to the top of people’s consciousnesses. The BBC run polls, poetry gets televised, verse is recited by news readers. All over the country poets move to the forefront. Somebody has already told me that, earlier, a shaven-headed man was seen shouting poems down the Library’s vast stair-well – Ifor Thomas as it turns out, employed for the day to encourage the versification of visiting punters. Out of the window, embedded in the paving in the front of John Lewis’s new store, are the letters of my new piece of Cardiff concrete poetry. From this vantage point you can read them in all their acrostic glory – how the town had its name spelled down the centuries – Kairdiv, Cardaiff, Caerdyff – spread out in a permutational square. It’s poetry but not there for verse’s national Day.

In the paper is a list of the top UK poets as voted on by those members of the public who could be bothered to fill in the poll. T S Eliot, an American, heads the list. Wales fares badly. Maybe I should create my own list. I put thirty names in a hat and then pull out ten: Gillian Clarke, Gwyneth Lewis, Robert Minhinnick, Ifor ap Glyn, Alan Llwyd, Twm Morys, Tony Curtis, Gwyn Thomas, Menna Elfyn, Dannie Abse.

What about a top ten outsiders? Nick Fisk, Charles Jones, Childe Roland, Chris Torrance, Lloyd Robson, Martin Daws, Ian Davidson, Idris Davies, Rhys Iorwerth, Aneirin Karadog. Or our funniest: Ifor Thomas, Mike Jenkins, Mab Jones, Peter Read, Goff Morgan, Emily Hinshelwood, Tiffany Atkinson, Jan Price, Ann Drysdale, Catrin Dafydd.

Maybe most republished would be more interesting? Dylan T. The best on harmonica? Nigel Jenkins. The most popular? Owen Sheers. If I had space I’m sure I could come up with a post-National Poetry Day list that included almost everyone. Maybe you’ve got your own favourites? Do let me know.

Meanwhile, with the great day safely behind us, we can now get back to the regular life. One where poetry rarely intrudes. Auden reckoned that poetry was the place where nothing happens. I disagree. I’m now expecting a few phone calls from those Welsh poets inadvertently excluded from my lists above. No insult intended. If you are not there then let me know and I’ll try to slot you in.

An earlier version of the posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 21st November, 2009

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Real As It Can Get

I’m in the real city again. Water south, hills north. A city of rhomboid sprawl. Where else would I be? I’m standing on the B4487 in bright early-morning sunlight. Traffic low. Birds in inner-city twitter. This was the Via Julia Maritima once, the paved Roman route west. A thousand years on it was the stage coach route to London. Full of ruts and mud. Then it was the hard-topped A48, when A roads meant something. Newport Road when I was a kid. Still is. New arrivals are walking down it now. The endless displaced. Heading up beyond Roath Court for the Refugee Council at Phoenix House. Fewer now that the recession has hit. The Polish Shop is having a hard time. The Czech version has already closed.

We always wondered why in Cardiff there was so much new housing. Apartments rising like wheat right across the boom city. Concrete mixers. Deliveries of brick. Tower cranes like locusts. Men in hard hats in every bar. What drew them to the capital? What were we doing that made them come? Nothing, it turns out. Investors are blind. Invest where walls rise and your money will climb in step. No need to sell what you’ve built. Let the vacant towers glitter. Let their apartments stand empty, value accumulating as prices soar. Manage a let if a visitor asks. Sell one to an executive needing a town centre toehold. Rooms with a water view for singles. Wasp territory. Audi in the undercroft. Wine in the rack. Families not needed. No toy cupboards. No gardens. No schools.

Now that boom has bust these investments stand barren. For Sale. To Let. Those not yet completed stay so. Across the city are half-finished metal frames, surrounded by fencing, waiting for the interest rates to rise once again. Build has stopped. Apart from the mega projects like St David’s 2, the new Ninian Park and the scatter of enterprise across the sports village on the Ferry Road. On the hoarding at the north end of St David’s 2 are graffitied the words More Yuppie Flats Please. Word on the street is that the blocks inside will stand largely empty. Shells. Unfixed, unfinished walls. A city waiting for the bankers to take control once more.

There have been many visions for this place in which Cardiffians live. Plans for the port to take ocean liners. For the rich to sail for America from Tiger Bay rather than Southampton. Passengers would arrive by Great Western. There would have been grand hotels, piers and custom sheds and deep-water berths, but the Severn’s giant tidefall defeated them all. Now the city has changed again. Enormously. You can see what I’ve made of it in Real Cardiff – The Changing City, out from Seren on the 26th November, 2009.

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A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 14th November, 2009

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Real Cardiff Trilogy

All three of the Real Cardiff volumes in one shrinkwrap - newly updated and reprinted - and for this offer signed too. £25 a shot rather than the usual £30. The perfect Christmas present.

Order from your bookseller, direct from Seren or turn up at the launch to get yours in person. Thursday 26th November, 2009 at the Parc Thistle Hotel, Park Place, Cardiff - 6.30 pm - all welcome. Peter Finch will be in conversation with the Wales Millennium Centre architect Jonathan Adams. Wine and talk.

Real Cardiff Three - view the photostream at

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Red and Then Red Again

Left-wing values cling to the young like a second skin - power to the people, equality for all. Almost every young writer I’ve ever met in thirty years amid the smoky workshops and pub back-rooms of the country has wanted somehow to bring the government down. Writers change the world. The world is powered by men with money. That’s got to be sorted. The writers turn out their poems and their novels. Better red than dead. They sing their socialist songs. Working Class Hero, Midnight Special, Ghost of Tom Joad, Maggie’s Farm. We Shall Overcome.

There’s a great list of these activists. Jack Kerouac, Kingsley Amis, Arthur Koestler, David Mamet, PJ O'Rourke, Nick Cohen. And they all shifted right as age came upon them. Fighting the system is an exciting, adrenalin-driven activity - getting yourself locked to railings, carried away from sit-ins, graffiti the sides of buildings, putting metal glue into the locks of the Welsh Office, pouring blood red dye into the fountains of Trafalgar Square. Easy when you are twenty. Harder to stay with once you’ve retired.

But Mike Jenkins, stalwart of the Welsh working-class left and a hero in his own right is still as true to his chosen position (Socialist republican) as he was when he started. Merthyr’s Red Poets Society is his stronghold. His magazine of the same name has now reached fifteen numbers. This is a journal of radical poetry from Wales and the world. System breaking stuff from the revolutionary road. It is financially supported by the Welsh Books Council, an agent of the state. The ambiguity of this situation is worn with a sort of wonky pride.

“How do poets respond to the total moral and ideological bankruptcy of most politicians who let the financial sector operate unfettered…” Jenkins asks. “With invective and satire” he then replies. Jenkins believes that poetry can still change our consciousness.

The magazine ripples with outraged protest. Poetry against war, tourism, fascism, the dollar, unemployment, government failure, nuclear power, Israel, the downturn, the banks, Gordon Brown, mammon, and then war and the bomb again. Nothing changes in the world as it rolls on, except maybe the names at the top and the order in which our difficulties come.

Phil Knight tracks the red streak he’s found in the work of Dylan Thomas, Dylan “the romantic socialist” willing to join in with anyone who believed in “the right of all men to share, equally and impartially”. There’s poetry from the late and much-missed Terry Hetherington along with an appreciation of his work from Alan Perry. Among the larger roll call sit Herbert Williams, John Evans, David Lloyd, Phil Carradice, Alun Rees, Mab Jones, John Gimblett and Robert Nisbet, all still sailing across the clear red water. Copies are available at £4. Check

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 7th November, 2009