Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Don't Hang About Because By the Time You Get Pen To Paper The Idea Will Have Changed

At the reading we get to that bit where there are supposed to be questions from the floor. Has anyone anything they’d like to ask, I enquire? Silence. I’ve been in the business for long enough to know that right now the best thing is to ask a question myself. And then answer it. Gets the ball rolling. But before I can someone is on their feet asking how we write. Do you just start?

Well, yes, we do. You open your computer and off you go. I’m on the platform with Dan Anthony, the children’s author and scriptwriter. I get so bored, he says, sitting there, watching the clouds go past the window that in the end I just have to start writing. Shelagh Weeks agrees. You think a bit and then you begin.

Do you plan? You do. Do you wait until inspiration strikes? Yes, no, sometimes. Waiting for the spark to arrive, though, can be like waiting for Godot. Start writing as soon as you can, that’s my advice.

Do you have a writer’s notebook, someone wants to know. I do. I’ve loads of these things and usually I’ve left them home when that idea comes. I can recall any number of occasions, walking the streets (and that’s when ideas usually arrive) to discover that I’ve nothing with me to write them on. I scrawl in the space left on the back of rail tickets, on my business cards, on the back of credit card slips and then, when those are all exhausted, I call home and leave my ideas on the answerphone.

Are these useful? Not really, says Dan. Most of the time the notes get ignored. But now and again they don’t. You can never be sure.

The problem with ideas is that they change. When they arrive you have to bang them down immediately otherwise they’ll simply morph into something else. If you plan to write them out as soon as you get home then forget it. By that time you’ll misremember what they were.

It’s like this with dreams. They are never the same when you wake in the morning. Although at the time they were so real.

I’m not sure the world is as casual as we appear to be with our unscheduled jottings. Robert Frost kept his in a pretty ordered style. They’ve now been brought out by Harvard University Press and offer a real insight into how the great man operated. In 2008 Ted Hughes’ collection of notebooks was acquired by the British Library and found to be full of unpublished gems. Some of these guys take jotting seriously.

In the back of my drawer are at least a dozen of mine. Mangled, mashed and bent. Worth keeping? Who knows.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #177

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Taking Criticism Seriously

A nation’s culture has come of age when that culture begins to talk about itself. In Wales we have a poor history of doing this but there are signs that things are changing. Back in the days when the poet laureate of the left, the late Adrian Mitchell, was resident writer at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, a bright examination paper compiler put one of the great man’s works on the syllabus for the GCSE. Mitchell was flattered and asked if he could try the exam himself. Permission was granted and, along with hundreds of schools kids half his age, Mitchell duly sat the paper. His entry was marked. He failed.

There was a gap between what the examiner thought Mitchell had meant and what the poet actually had. “The syntax of the last two lines…create tension and ambiguity by allowing both narrative closure and apostrophic openness,” writes the critic James A Davies in a discussion of Dylan Thomas’s keynote poem in Deaths and Entrances. Did Dylan have this in mind as he wrote? Or was he, instead, simply caught up in the magic tumble of words flowing from his fingers.

The new critics of Welsh writing in English are emerging in force from the departments at Cardiff, Bangor, Glamorgan, Aberystwyth, Swansea and Carmarthen. Kirsti Bohata, Matthew Jarvis, John Goodby, Daniel G. Williams, Damian Walford Davies, Francesca Rhydderch, Jasmine Donahaye and others. It’s the first time in a lifetime that Wales has been able to muster this many quality literary analysts, essayists, in-depth commentators, refiners and redescribers of our burgeoning culture.

Their work takes the literary surface and fixes it hard into the heart of the cultural engine. The Welsh Wordscape rolls on but now we know why, to where and with whom. We know every detail of our cultural nationalism, tradition, displacement, marginal colonial discourse and the way in which we have found ourselves flooded with post-modernists at a time when elsewhere the world seems to be giving up.

Seren’s Slanderous Tongues, a volume of essays edited by Daniel Williams, covers the past thirty-five years of our literary longings. Matthew Jarvis writes on poetry after the second flowering. Jo Furber covers gender and nationhood. Daniel Williams writes on Welsh poetry in the USA. Tudur Hallam looks at Menna Elfyn’s bilingualism. Nicholas Jones discusses Harri Webb and the place of literary nationalism. Hywel Dix ponders on the place of class.

In the middle of all this Nerys Williams looks at how the avant-garde has been managed in Wales. She concentrates largely on my own work. And, I have to say, largely gets it right. Critics rarely talk to their subjects. They don’t phone and check. They extrapolate from what you’ve written. She tells us what I mean and how I write. Would I pass the exam? I’m not saying.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #176

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Unknowable But Certainly Certain

One of the side benefits of watching ITV’s recent upstairs downstairs reinvention, Downton Abbey, was finding out why the upper classes used to like their newspapers ironed. There was me thinking it was to get the creases out while all the time it was to dry the ink. Can’t have his Lordship’s hands black, can we. Not that papers are like this now. New technology delivers almost dry ink to creaseless paper and does so at satisfyingly high speed. Books come off the presses more or less the same way. Clean, crisp, ready bound and, other than perhaps in their content, vaguely soulless. When was the last time you picked up a paperback from the racks at WH Smith and marvelled at how it felt? Checked that the margins were large enough to accommodate your thumbs, that the text did not vanish into the binding, that the paper looked paper and not packaging, and that the print was instantly legible, evenly done and with lots of space for the tired eye?

When books were produced by letterpress they were all like this. The text set backwards and then inked with a roller and pressed onto quarto paper. Books were slow coming into being and done by hand. The text was measured, edited to clarity, all waste removed. Now you wordily key it up as a computer file and the everything gets printed. Fat fast books when thin slow ones would obviously be better.

But a few old-style outposts remain. David Oprava, the genial larger-than-life American poet now settled in south Wales, sent me Sole, his latest collection. It’s full of intelligent, measured verse rich in William Carlos Williams’s American speech. There are poems on family, childhood, love, life and how the world works. A joy. Sole is also beautifully produced, hand letterpressed by Blackheath books in Narberth, Pembrokeshire. Hardly publishing’s epicentre.

The press was set up five years ago by Geraint Hughes as a reaction to blogging and podcasting and the closure of things this publisher felt dear. Local bookshops being one. Blackheath goes back to basics. No grant aid. Small, slow. Limited runs of chapbooks by mainly new writers individually sold directly by the publisher. Blackheath uses recycled paper and handbinding. Copies are all numbered and signed. They probably use a stack of housebricks to keep their pages flat. Nothing sells for more than ten pound. Geraint says he loves the smell of ink and the sound of the press.

With a couple of exceptions his list reads like a left-field roll call from Mars. New territory and worth following. There are books from Jonathan Grace, Benjamin Donnelly, Garrie Fletcher, Ptolemy Elrington, Adelle Stripe, and other newcomers. One exception is Blackheath’s edition of Billy Childish’s Unknowable But Certain. Check them at www. Blackheathbooks.org.uk

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in The Western Mail. #175

Friday, 26 November 2010

Life Has Five Plots Does It?

There are only about five plots in the whole of creativity. Almost everything fits into one of these. Rise to fame, fall from grace, win love, lose it and death. Can you think of anything that’s not covered by those? George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual - which is more a building plan than a novel - is one. Childe Roland’s 700 empty-page life story is another. The Widow Wadman’s state of mind depicted by a blank page inserted in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is certainly a third, although the author does go back to the use of a more conventional plot line later.

The real exceptions have to be books by outsiders. And here I am not talking about strangers who wander into wild west saloons and have the entire place turn and look at them but writers who have somehow positioned themselves beyond conventional society. The sort of writer described by Colin Wilson in his seminal The Outsider. Authors who are somehow dislocated and at odds with the conventional world, who see no way forward, are full of gloom, who see too much, too deeply, and simply can’t cope.

The classics of the genre is The Outsider itself, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea where the hero allows the inanimate world to overwhelm him, Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, and Franz Kafka’s The Trial. If you are outside society then you can all the more easily record what’s going on within. If that fails you can then drink or drug yourself into a stupor, as Malcolm Lowry does in Under the Volcano.

For many this is a beguiling path. Just check out some of the literature from the Beat Generation to see what Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and, in particular, William Burroughs managed. The drinking episodes of the UK equivalent – the Angry Young Men John Wain, Kingsley Amis and Stan Barstow - pale into insignificance by comparison.

In Wales the nearest we’ve ever come to all this have been Dylan Thomas’s drinking bouts. These, however, never actually appear in any of his writings. Does that mean that the Welsh have no outsider tradition? Despite the sight of any number of authors in a variety of states on inebriation at events we don’t actually have much written history here. Even the late John Tripp’s work largely sticks to the moral – try his selected writings in the recently published The Meaning of Apricot Sponge (Parthian) to see what I mean.

The forthcoming appearance of Richard Gwyn’s A Vagabond’s Breakfast will change all this. Gwyn, no mean author by any means, chronicles a lost decade of alcoholism, vagabondery, serial hospitalisations, laying on floors across Europe and a final resolution with a 2006 liver transplant. After this Welsh writing is not going to be the same. More strength to Gwyn, the ultimate winner.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #174

Friday, 19 November 2010

Dusty Things That get In The Way

My mother always had a deep dislike of books. They were dusty things that got in the way. They had to be stuffed from sight into the backs of cupboards. In the front room bookcase was a set of china dancing ladies, a carriage clock and a fruit bowl with no fruit. My books were upstairs, under my bed, in a box. How reading became my lifetime’s obsession I’ll never know. It could have been my uncle, who each Christmas gave me books about Poland. Or my father who’d offer me Dickens when no one was looking. Or maybe it was the local library where out of nowhere I found choice and freedom and endless science fiction.

Once this road had been embarked on there was, of course, no end. It was never a battle between reading or not reading but always one of what to select next. The massively politically incorrect Henry Miller, when I discovered him, offered a panoply of directions. Barely a chapter of any of his books went by without the author coming up with long lists of recommended works and the names of great authors that readers should follow.

In a dark corner I found the great fantasist John Cowper Powys’s 100 Best Books which offered a sort of road map. Better was Philip Ward’s mind-bending A Lifetime’s Reading in which a game plan for the next fifty years was delineated. This offered the reader an enthralling education through the consumption of five hundred books. Did I manage it, all 500? Certainly not. But I had a go.

How you decide on what to read next is, of course, a matter of enormous interest to publishers. Do you pick your reading matter by reputation of the author, because you’ve read about the book in the papers, heard about it on TV, liked the sound of title, or seen it in the hands of others, intently being read on the train? “I can’t understand why anyone would want to write a novel when you can pick one up for just a few cents” said an American journalist. And he was right. The market is glutted. The choice goes on forever.

Bookclubs offer one way out. Here you gather among friends, all having consumed the same title, to praise, destroy and discuss. Once that’s done you collectively select the next month’s read and off you go, a mandated title to explore.

Sometimes there’s a surprise waiting. At a club I attended I had the author secretly wait in the kitchen while the discussion rolled and then brought her out when all was done. Luckily the book had gone down well. But it might not have.

Book clubs are booming. Check your library for information about the nearest one to you.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #173

Monday, 15 November 2010

Dog In The Room

At the reading the jokes between poems didn’t quite work the way they should have. I could see the audience starting to laugh but not quite getting there. Smiles, hands over mouths, but no roaring storm as there can often be. Why? Stand-up comedians will tell you that no two audiences are ever the same and that the smallest thing can make all the difference. Dog in the room. Woman in a big hat. What you need is the crowd in a dense slab right in front of you. They should be relaxed. Among them should be a giggler who’ll set everyone else off. Drink beforehand will help. So, too, will a sense of being there because they’d chosen to rather than because they’d been sent.

What was different about my lot? They’d paid to come, chosen to come, wanted to come, had bought the books, read them, got me to sign a stack. Fine. But they were all sitting in a line, wider than deep. Felt exposed. Didn’t gel. So it goes.

I was in Liverpool, at the Bluecoat, first visit for a year or two and how the place has changed. We might be proud of our newest European Capital and its world-beating waterfront down in Cardiff but Liverpool’s revitalised skyscrapered dockland with its acres of space and feeling of the future knocks us sideways. You can see why it was they who got to be Capital of Culture in 2008 and not us.

My event had been curated by Gladys Mary Coles, operator of Headland Books. She proudly presented me with a stack of her latest. Headland walks the line between the established and the brand new. The books are well produced and reasonably priced. She’s just published David Woolley’s Pursued By A Bear and will be doing a collection by the silent for too long Sally Roberts Jones next. Among the pile I received were sets by Brian Smith, Sue Moules and Norma Jones, these last two poets in the same volume. Headland like the idea of double collections for those starting out.

Best of the bunch, however, was Headland’s anthology celebrating twenty-one years of the writing centre at Tŷ Newydd - The Listening Shell. Everyone in the book has either taught there or been taught there. National Poet Gillian Clarke, who doubles as Tŷ Newydd President, provides the foreword. The poets who follow demonstrate the range of Tŷ Newydd’s interests, the quality of what it does and the place it occupies in literary Britain. There’s work from Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, David Constantine, Philip Gross, Robert Minhinnick, Oliver Reynolds, Alicia Stubbersfield, Fiona Sampson, Sheenagh Pugh, Tony Curtis, Adam Horovitz and plenty more. Headland. £7.95. Order yours now.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #172

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Porn is Rampant and Nobody Reads Anymore

According to writer Gary Shteyngart the future of America is one where nobody reads and porn is rampant. Jobs in retail trump everything and the National Guard patrol Manhattan. How soon? Ten years. What happens in the US first happens to us next. On my recent visit to the American south I expected to see flags, southern Baptists and even more never-leave-your-car shopping experiences than I had last time. And, given the progressive nature of the land of the free, everyone would be using iPads and Kindles. Books, in paper form at least, would no longer be.

What I actually witnessed was rather different. To start with there seemed to be fewer drive-ins although given the increasing number at home maybe I’d simply got used to the phenomenon. The 9/11 marking at a festival I attended went by in perfunctory fashion with little of the national heart wrenching I’d seen on previous visits. Then there was the lack of iPads. Well, i anything actually.

Looking around the 2000-strong audience I spotted only one man holding an object that could be said to resemble a portable device. When I got closer this turned out to be a games machine. So much for progress. Nevertheless , a large proportion of these North Carolina festival goers were reading. Novels, collections of short fiction, paperbacked poetry. Out here the book certainly wasn’t in retreat. You wouldn’t experience this amount of mass open air reading anywhere in Wales, even at the Hay Literature Festival. Death of the paper book? Not yet.

Back home I found my Kindle waiting. Slim, elegant, very light weight and resolutely black and white. Would I get on with this? Could I use it in bed? As digital machines go it turned out to be pretty flawless. Operation was instinctive, the displayed text easy on the eye and pages changed at the flick of a fingertip.

Online at the Kindle Store masses of free content awaited. Dictionaries, science fiction compendia, the complete works of Dickens, classic poetry by the lorry load. There was also any amount of free blog-books by self-published literary wannabes content to forego professional profit just to be read.

In the commercial section titles turned out not to cost quite as much as I’d expected. Delivery was instant. Press the buy button and text would arrive by 3G in seconds - the cost recouped from my card virtually without me noticing. The future, certainly, but would it catch on? I got off the train at Cardiff Bay amid a rush of Sudoku players and window gazers. Ahead of me was a woman reading as she walked. That’s something you don’t see much these days. And what was she using? A kindle.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in The Western Mail. #171

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Men Only

Is the history of Welsh writing in English a male preserve? Did women take part? Or are the Anglo-Welsh a bit like the American Beat generation – men, men and then more men. Women hanging around the fringes, stringing beads and drinking wine while the men do writing’s real work. It’s certainly the case that Wales’ golden age of Anglo outpouring was managed almost entirely by males.

At a poems and pints night as part of this year’s BayLit Festival (held, amazingly, in Cardiff Central Library where books and beer have never before mixed) Aisling Tempeny told us in a very funny poem what studying the subject was like. Welsh writing in English consisted of blokes called Jones, Williams, Thomas, Rhys and Davies with first names like Rhys, William, Gwyn, and Glyn. There was a Gwyn Jones and a Glyn Jones and a Thomas Jones and a Rhys Davies, a Lewis Jones, a Lewis Davies and then even a Richard Lewis Davies. Men in a cymric blur. Women not present. How does the newcomer manage?

And I admit that I’ve found it hard, sometimes, to market such things with precision. When the Academi’s annual Gwyn Jones lecture was on the subject of Glyn Jones, both éminences grise , I did have trouble passing the message on. That’s the problem with Welsh names. Curtis, Webb and Tripp are the memorable exceptions.

The first set of free author postcards from Academi and the Rhys Davies Trust featured sixteen faces. All dead. These were images from the core of twentieth century Welsh writing in English. Brenda Chamberlain was one. The other fifteen were men. Jack Jones, Gwyn Jones, RS, Tripp, Rhys Davies, Glyn Jones, Raymond Williams, Roland Mathias. The authors on whom our tradition rests.

Were women missing because they didn’t exist, had been overlooked or simply never had their books published. They certainly exist - if you hunt literary history you’ll find dozens of female names. Women writers were overlooked by a generation of readers but are now back with a bang. Check the work of the English departments and the output of the reprinting presses for proof.

Academi and the Rhys Davies Trust have now launched a second set of free postcards, including images of a few writers who are still with us. Black and white images of Hilda Vaughan, Margiad Evans, Lynette Roberts, Dorothy Edwards feature prominently. There are also cards depicting Idris Davies, Caradoc Evans, Ron Berry, David Jones, W H Davies and a very youthful looking Dannie Abse. Two wear hats, one has beads and eleven wear ties. Another age. To get your free set send a large self addressed envelope to Academi, Writers Postcards: Set 2, Mount Stuart House, Mount Stuart Square, Cardiff CF10 5FQ.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #170

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Does All This Stuff Come From Above?

There was a time when the world thought that inspiration came from above. It arrived rather like those rays of sunlight in William Blake engravings. Touched your head and caused works of genius emerge. There are still hoards out there today who think that this is the way great things happen. Beethoven’s Fifth, Hamlet, Fern Hill, Good Vibrations. Went out one day for a walk, came home, sat before the keyboard and there the work was. Brilliance effortlessly emerging, a gift from god.

In a way, of course, this is how it happens. Genius flows. But to make it so the artist needs to have studied the work of others, learned the basics, practised endlessly, worked out how to identify crap and become willing, no matter how much effort has been expended, to throw things that don’t sound right away. Most of all, the creative individual needs to know how to be in the right place at the right time. Where magic operates. Where inspiration can be encouraged to spark. Where the stuff of art can be made real.

We’ve a place like that in Wales. For writers anyway. Tŷ Newydd, the writers’ centre, set just back from the coast in Gwynedd. A great white house overlooking the sea. A place where the ley lines of creativity intersect and where great works are born.

At Tŷ Newydd the ambitious open-minded spend a week in the company of a pair of experienced authors. There’s an element of teaching, explaining, readings, criticism and the passing on of technique, form and style. There’s a lot of inspiration and plenty of opportunity to try things out. There’s also a mid-week visit from a guest reader, just to brighten things. You are there with your fellow writers, eighteen of you maybe, accommodated in new en-suite rooms, with access to an unrivalled library, computers, healthy food and even healthier air. You get a chance to strut your own stuff, if you want to. You can talk to the tutors about your work, explain what you want to do and where things are right now. They’ll help you plan the future.

I’ll be up there at the start of November. My course, managed in tandem with that great Aberystwyth poet Tiffany Atkinson, is called Poetry from Nowhere. Is this possible? When there are no ideas in the mind, not the faintest touch of inspiration and the rain blows outside. What do you do? This week will explain. There’s a guarantee that you’ll go home with something new and with a head full of brightness that wasn’t there when you arrived.

Guest reader is Ira Lightman, fresh from Radio Three and full of unimaginable spark. Interested? Check www.tynewydd.org or call 01766 522811. Dates are November 8th to 13th 2010.

An earlier version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #169

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Magazines - the Revolution is Still On

Hard to credit it in a digital age but the literature magazines are still with us. Those printed bastions of cultural excellence that appear quarterly, hopefully, beautifully – their high season issues are now in the shops. The market for these things has been declining for as long as I can remember. There was a golden age, before the war, when anecdotal evidence tells us that almost every working men’s canteen, corner shop, tea room and parlour across Wales had its subscription up to date and lit mags were the talk of the town. Everyone read poetry. But now that poetry is too modernist to understand no one does. The world consumed short fiction. But with TV is in every room (not to speak of being on almost everyone’s phone) fiction no longer holds sway. Once the views of the reviewers cut cultural ice – now simply no one cares.

Yet the mags still appear. Small print runs, glossy and smiling, pushing literature on. And they do. Despite the paucity of their audience this is still the cutting edge.

In the latest Agenda, magazine of the IWA, cultural historian Peter Stead suggests that Rachael Trezise might just have written “the first draft of our contemporary history”. Wales 2010: year zero. Trezise as Gwyn Alf Williams.

Helle Michelsen’s Planet runs the tight line between politics and culture, one that you can track in Wales but that’s virtually invisible in England. The latest issue is a place where Ozi Rhys Osmond’s Art of the Valleys pushes up against Nick Bourne, Cynog Dafis and Julie Morgan’s debate on coalition. Craig Owen Jones’s take on Asians in space sits beside Stevie Davies on Dowlais Steelworks. And W T R Pryce’s fine analysis of Eisteddfod chairs follows Gillian Drake’s piece on open air swimming. Planet’s cultural Wales is nothing if not diverse.

It is in the new Poetry Wales, however, that revolution is really apparent. In the 1970s when the late Eric Mottram held the helm of London’s Poetry Review the English-speaking literary world was split into two mutually opposed factions – the traditionalists and the innovators. In the cause of progress Mottram favoured the work of the latter. In Wales space was only ever available to the former. My own Welsh work sank into the mist.

Thirty years on Zoe Skoulding’ s new issue turns the tables. London’s Poetry Review now represents English poetry’s calm centre while Poetry Wales displays enough innovative work for one to mistake it for an issue of Bob Cobbing’s And. Alice Entwistle interviewing Wendy Mulford, John Goodby on Welsh modernist poetry. Poetry by Lee Harwood, Ralph Hawkins, Geoffrey Hill, John Powell Ward, and a stream of innovators from inside Wales and without. I enjoyed every page. It’s taken an age but Wales might at last have caught the world up.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #168

Saturday, 9 October 2010

What Will The Future Look Like?

Hard to believe, given the number of festivals that Wales currently hosts, that there was an age when the only game in town was the National Eisteddfod. Food festivals, jazz festivals, story festivals, drama festivals, face painting festivals? Nope. And literature festivals? What on earth could they be? Wales didn’t know. That was until 1988 when Norman Florence and his ebullient son Peter came along and founded the Hay Festival. In its wake came others including the Welsh Academy’s festival in Cardiff. Suddenly there were gangs of poets in the urban streets, novelists on platforms and fictioneers in halls signing shed-loads of their books.

The Cardiff Festival brought writers and writing to the centre of the Capital. It was engaging, entertaining and expensive to run. Its street-wise offspring is the biennial Bay Lit Festival. Slick, sharp and innovative. It uses a multiplicity of venues spread across the fizz and flash of Cardiff Bay.

This year’s fest runs over the long weekend of the 28th to the 30th of October. Its theme is the shock of the new. “What will the future look like? How do we get there? What’s holding us back?” This isn’t just a festival of stuff on stage where the audience just listens but a rush of events and activities where festival-goers can actually join in. At BayLit you can perform on stage, start your own fanzines, send poetic text messages and thoroughly enjoy yourself. You can also argue about literature’s future. You can do that in the company of Dragon’s Eye presenter Adrian Masters and the editors of Raconteur magazine.

The Welsh Underground (and, yes, there was such a thing, once) gets a special issue of Angel Exhaust magazine. Co-editors John Goodby and Andrew Duncan will launch this at an event where academic lecture meets raging sonic performance. Can this still be poetry? It once was and in woken-up Wales once again is.

Parthian’s Bright Young Things, all four of them, will read from and talk about their 2010 novels. Jon Gower and Llwyd Owen will discuss the trend for new novels to get two bites of the cherry – first in Welsh and then the following year in English. Can the market stand it? With such blatant repetition is there any artistic point?

At the new library there’ll be a poems and pints night. The astute among this column’s readers will have spotted that the library isn’t in the Bay and doesn’t have a bar. But we’ll let that pass.

Y Glêr will present an evening of twenty-first century cynghanedd; Hannah Silva, Liam Johnson, Ceri Elen and Rufus Mufasa will push performance’s boundaries, and the Mabinogi will get re-worked by Owen Sheers, Gwyneth Lewis, Russell Celyn Jones and Niall Griffiths. There’s much more. Check www.academi.org for details.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #167

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Hard Times Again?

The arts flourish in hard times. Dickens didn’t quite say this in his novel of the same name. He was more concerned to reveal the conditions under which working people laboured and to expose the misconception that prosperity makes us moral. You reap what you sow. Mr Gradgrind discovers the use of creativity but ultimately fails as a MP. Josiah Bounderby is revealed as a hypocrite and a bully. Louisa grows old and childless. Only the circus performer, Sissy Jupe, really finds happiness. In Hard Times’s take on deprivation culture helps but cannot on its own save the world.

Yet Dickens himself certainly knew how to capitalise on times of industrial darkness. Hard Times was written in parts and sold as a serial. Like a Victorian version of Eastenders. The process allowed the author to hone delivery of cliff-hanger suspense which kept his huge audience completely enthralled. The he backed the book with a seemingly never-ending reading tour. Charles Dickens, a bit like the Rolling Stones, was forever on the road.

It was he, more than anyone else, who popularised the idea of live dramatic readings from works of fiction as a form of public entertainment. Pay your money. Come in and hear the writer speak. During the 1860s Dickens gave hundreds of performances from his work – first in America and then later up and down the UK. The shows were full of gesture, dramatic declamation, changes of pitch and of voice. Dickens worked propless. He was a great success.

Wales enters its own version of hard times with its literary readings machine operating at full stretch. At no time that I can recall have there been so many well-attended and well-organised public performances of poetry and prose put on at venues across the country. In the south-east it’s even possible to attend something of a literary nature every night of the week.

Owen Sheers, Nigel Jenkins, Mab Jones, Gemma June Howells, John Williams, Dave Oprava, Nick Fisk, Ifor Thomas, Mike Jenkins, Paul Henry, Liam Johnson, Menna Elfyn, and Catrin Dafydd work well and often. The National Poet, Gillian Clarke, engages in gruelling tour schedules of Dickensian proportions. The pay is little more than adequate. But audiences can be spectacularly good.

Hard times threaten all this.

Literature has seen more than a decade now of Welsh development. Such determined foundation building is now providing results. It’s cheap, too. Hour for hour poets tend to cost less than plumbers. Take the money away and, far from being more creative, a lot of them will have to turn back to teaching and other staples to keep the world from the door.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #166

Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Hemingway Look-a-Like Contest Winner

Every year at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, down in Key West, they run an Ernest Hemingway lookalike contest. Unlike the Elvis lookalike show at Porthcawl where contestants at least try to sound like the King Hemingway doubles don’t need to write. Looking is the deal. Safari suits, fisherman’s white-wool turtle-neck sweaters, round faces, Richard Attenborough white beards. Hats need to be doffed. Animals and birds are not allowed on stage. Bring your own cheering team. On the contest’s website are photos of winners going back to 1983. Does all this increase the great novelist’s sales? The jury is out.

In Wales the nearest we’ve ever had to a Hemingway doppelganger was Jack Jones. His writing style was certainly different but with his latter-day white beard and pugilist stature he did bear a vague physical resemblance. I imagined that when Jack passed in 1970 so too did the Hemingway look. No longer fashionable. Not really. That was until I came across a photo of the ex-pat Cardiff author Jon Manchip White. Put a beard on that man and he’d be contest winner for sure.

Manchip White now lives in the Appalachian foothills of Tennessee, a place as distant from Key West as it is from Wales. Not that this has slowed Manchip White as an author. His list of literary achievements goes back to the early 1950s and is as long as your arm. Novels, poetry, short fiction, works on ancient Egypt, the Aztec Empire, Diego Velázquez, France, the great American deserts, north American Indians and, not unexpectedly, Wales. His splendid The Journeying Boy: Scenes from a Welsh Childhood published in the States by the Iris Press is a great introduction to old Cardiff.

He’s descended on the one side from the Manchips, west country seamen, ship owners, merchantmen and on the other the very Welsh Whites. That line goes right back to Cardiff’s own centre-stage martyr, Rawlins White.

This White was an illiterate sixteenth century fisherman who stood up against the return of Catholicism under Bloody Queen Mary. For his faith (or, rather, because he chose to protest it) he was imprisoned in a squalid cell at the foot of Cardiff’s Cock’s Tower (now lost somewhere under the new St David’s shopping centre). He was subsequently burned at the stake near the end of Church Street. There’s a memorial plaque. This once adorned Bethany Chapel in Wharton Street, a building now subsumed by Howell’s menswear department. The plaque is still there. You can check it, it’s on the ground floor just behind the trouser rail.

Jon Manchip White has celebrated his illustrious ancestor in a TV play produced originally by Emyr Humphreys the tapes of which now seem to be lost. Undeterred he is now working on a version of the tale as a novel. Watch this column for news.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail #165

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Train Coming At Us Across the Plains

If the revolution doesn’t come down the street with its men in bandanas carrying guns then do it with words. Writers the world over have adopted this approach. The past is never good enough. The world cannot be allowed to stand still. Make it new, said Ezra Pound. “The artist is always beginning. Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery is of little worth.”

Upend what went before, the new is what sings. Never mind the tune.

At Parthian Books, our West Wales base for permanent insurrection, they’ve always had a good eye for this kind of thing. If the revolution doesn’t spin then make it. If the world is content then upset it. If there’s a bastion somewhere then storm it. The latest ruse is their brilliant pitched reinvention of the bright young thing. Four new fictioneers, Wales-based if not yet of entirely Welsh blood, have been packaged and pushed as the rising literary stars. And this year is the one in which they will shoot.

Tyler Keevil, a mid-Wales based Canadian, has Fireball a teenage thriller full of death and car plunges. Wil Gritten, a north Walian who has been round the world twice and is still under twenty-six, contributes Letting Go, a travellers tale that runs from Wales to south America. Susie Wild, habitué of the blogosphere and permanent follower of the Welsh literary event, has The Art of Contraception, short fiction full of the deranged and the fantastic. James Smythe, a Welsh-educated teacher, adds Hereditation, a tale of depravity and philandering in New York.

The set are packaged to perfection and promoted with their own web-wrap of blog, comment and clip (http://iconau.com/brightsite/?p=351). Is this the literary world actually changing? The books are out now. You decide.

In Cardiff Bay this October the Academi’s Bay Lit literature festival runs episode two of The Shock of the New. This is a celebration of those literary things which deliberately rub against the grain. The new, the left field, the experimental, the strange, the thrillingly shocking, the unexpected and the never before seen. Being new here means being at very least different. Not young, necessarily, but not been round the block too often either.

The 2010 event which runs from the 25th to the 30th is expected to feature workshops with iPad makers Apple, Hannah Silva and Liam Johnson live texting, the curse of celebrity culture, the unknown Tiger Bay, the melding of literature with sound, the Welsh Underground (remember that?) and the Mabinogion rewritten one more time. Watch the web for details.

It’s ironic that at a time when literature in Wales has never been so healthy that the downturn looms. It’s coming like Ashbery’s train, steaming towards us across the plains.

A version of the posting appeared as The Insider in The Western Mail. #164

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Book prizes? Still how it all should be?

The Wales Book of the Year - now that the dust has settled should we consider how this Award is doing? Established back in the mists of time this, our premier Welsh book prize, has been presented to cultural winners for several decades now. Book Awards mark out the best the nation can produce and celebrate the chosen in as much style as possible. In a wider-Welsh world that loves TV and rarely opens literature’s covers anything that publicises and popularises can help.

The Award, made with steady even-handedness, goes annually to the best Welsh-language and the best English-language books of Wales. To enter you need to either write in the language, be born here, live here or have the country as a significant component of your writing. The prize is for the best literary title, the best writing, rather than simply the best printed book. It goes to authors and not to editors, translators, ghost writers, or compilers. This means that recipes, sports compendiums, poetry anthologies, new translations of the Mabinogion, and political commentary are pretty much excluded. It also means that picture books don’t make it. Unless they also contain writing of significant quality.

This year both the Welsh and English prizes went, somewhat controversially, to books where the author had worked with a photographer. Philip Gross did this with Simon Denison for I Spy Pinhole Eye (Cinnamon Press), John Davies managed the same trick with Marian Delyth for Cymru: Y 100 Lle I’w Gweld Cyn Marw (Y Lolfa). Was this unfair on the photographers, both of whom undoubtedly made a considerable contribution to the books concerned? The Award’s judges were clear. The Wales Book of the Year Award is a literary prize. It was the quality of the writing that led.

But do the prizes make any real difference to turnover? Sales of Booker Prize titles always go up when there is some sort of controversy or public falling out between judges. I’ve no proof but I’m sure the same sort of thing happens in Wales. What I have seen, though, is evidence that being on the Book of the Year long list does shift more copies.

The perennial problem, of course, is that judges have to gauge novels against books of poetry and sets of short stories against works of literary criticism. How do you do this? Official guidance says that you must but is pretty silent on just how. It’s been suggested that the way forward is to return to the days of category prizes - best novel, best book of poetry, best work of criticism.

But then, in difficult and recessionary times, how might this be financed? And what would happen to the impact a single big win makes? If you have a view do let me know.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in The Western Mail. #163

Saturday, 18 September 2010


The world is made of numbers. Talk to the mathematicians and they’ll tell you that anything can be reduced to arithmetic. Computer programmers will explain that nothing moves in cyberspace without binary digits changing. The pulse is a numeric value, as is blood pressure and the rate at which air moves into and out of your lungs. Statistics have taken over the universe. When I took a fitness test recently – blow into a tube, run on the spot, have my weight recorded, my body fat index measured, checks made on how easy it was for me to bend and touch the floor - I was amazed by the amount of sheer data that emerged. Reams of the stuff. My life in figures - a portrait of Finch in equation, table, and chart. Everything, it seems, can be turned into numbers.

So too in the world of culture. How many entrants were there to the last Cardiff International Poetry Competition? 10,856. What’s the population of the UK - 61,414, 062. How many viewers did the World Cup England vs. Germany achieve? Eighteen million. A recent episode of Lewis attracted seven million. The TV production of Martin Amis’s super-popular cult novel Money pulled in one point one. As a people we are certainly consumers of small screen culture.

However, it’s not the same when you get to printed matter. Book production may be up with more new titles reaching market now than at any time since world war two but we appear to be spreading their consumption ever thinner. The world’s leading book awards like the Man Booker and the Orange normally get the names of authors and their books into the minds of most literate people. Sale should rocket- and in a way they do. But not as spectacularly as one might hope. Andrea Levy’s Small Island which came out fifteen years ago has to date sold 834,958 copies. Could do better.

Mass market best sellers – beach reads, thrillers, paperbacks with mirror covers that spin on stands at airports and in Tesco – can manage half a million copies in a good year. Literary novels, the more serious ones, sell considerably less. A first novel by a new starter can shift a few thousand copies across the whole of the UK and that is if the author is lucky. New Welsh interest novels do eight hundred or so on average. Poetry, that marker of all great civilisations, sells even less. A new UK promoted poet might sell into four figures but mostly don’t. If you are Wales-based then it’s less than half that total. Booklets, poetry’s mainstay, move in the low hundreds.

Around here all sales count, a thing worth remembering next time you attend an event. Buy the book, someone has to.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 28th August, 2010. #162

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Professional Eventually

Ah money. It makes the world go round. But maybe not if you are writer. Truman Capote, I think it was him, was asked by a stranger what he did. I write, replied the great man. Good, that can be a lot of fun. But what’s your real job? “The profession of letters is the only one in which once can make no money without being ridiculous,” declared Jules Renard back in 1906. And out there among the wannabees, the beginners, the slowly rising and the retired late starters are a hundred Welsh literary creatives who do it mainly for the love and the fame. Pay money to poets? Why would anyone need to do that.

The problem, of course, is that Wales has come late to acquiring its professional literary class. Hard to grasp is the idea that writers and their products add considerably to society, help us understand ourselves, help us see where the past has been and where the future is going. That they allow us to discover how the spirit can soar and face us with the truths of life that dance music and beer often fail to deliver.

To do this, and to do it consistently and to do it well, requires a bit more from the author than simply love of literary fame. It’s not enough to want to be a writer. You need to have the talent and to have put in a bit of practice. You also need the space and support in which to work and a financial underpinning which will allow this to happen. Authors need to be professional. Good ones do.

And in Wales a number are. But we are a small nation with limited markets and finding the resource to keep all we need on the road is hard. Writers being paid for what they do is still misunderstood. What did D H Lawrence’s father say when his son reported on how much cash he’d received from writing The White Peacock – “Fifty pounds! An tha’s niver done a day’s hard work in they life.”

But then again the maker of the paper on which the book was printed got paid. So too did the printer and the binder and the delivery man who carried the stock to the bookshop. The bookseller took a cut, and so did the electricity worker powering the fire beside which the book was eventually read. Why should the creator of the work itself not also be recompensed?

There are still those out there who imagine that literature is entirely something authors can churn out in spare moments. They should get proper jobs – in factories, in hospitals, in schools. Who needs books, we’ve got TV, where paying scriptwriters is regarded, somehow, as being different. There’s a lesson here.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 21st August, 2010. #161

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Garrulous Forever

Do you read these things? The ubiquitous blogger with their garrulous outpourings. Words to fill the silence, sentences to rattle in the air, verbiage to occupy every last empty corner of cyberspace. No good event goes by in 2010 without a resident blogger getting themselves attached to tell the connected world just how the thing is. During this year’s Guardian Hay Literature Festival Simon Mundy, a self-confessed total newbie, was installed as resident blog man. He was given the task of reporting daily (or more frequently if he chose and he sometimes did) on the doings of the world’s greatest literary festival. Simon Mundy’s Festival Frolics gave the inside story and did so in style.

With a certain prescience Mundy observed that blogs get consumed backwards. The reader alights on the latest instalment and then, if sufficiently roused, scrolls backwards through ever earlier entries until they reach the first. And it’s usually in this one that bloggers set out their stalls and explain what they are doing and why. Mundy’s blog was thoroughly entertaining, as one might expect. And it’s still there, out in cyber wonderland, where nothing ever gets finally erased. Bloggers take care, what you say won’t go away.

Wales has a growing stream of literary blogpersons. At Hay travel writer Tom Anderson, wrote the daily Writing Squads Blog for Academi. You’d see him in the café’s, dongled laptop before him, facing off Susie Wild who was engaged in a similar activity for Mslexia, both typing furiously.

Poet Mike Jenkins with space before him now that his teaching has finished, regularly expands his observations on the world with a pretty readable blog. The state of life in Merthyr with special reference to writing. The town has changed its name, he blogged recently, this place used to be Washingtub City of even Hooverville. Now “the town where the red flag was first flown at the Waun Fair, could easily be dubbed Tescopolis”. Too many branches of the red badged giant, complains Mike, and then follows this with a Merthyr dialect poem of his own hilarious making.

In the new 2011 edition of A&C Black’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, one of the two essential author’s handbooks, there’s a pretty informative section on writing and the online world. This includes an analysis of the ebook market (67% American with 65% of world product devoted to fiction and only 8.2% to business - which differs considerably from the predictions of futurologists), descriptions of how to launch a website, and an essay on writing a blog.

Blogs, of course, don’t cost anything to set up or to visit. Out there are loads covering just about every interest area there is. How much time do you want to waste following them? Select with care.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday, 14th August, 2010. #160

Monday, 9 August 2010

No Longer Quite So Anglo - Can This Be True?

One of the great things about the Anglo-Welsh in the new millennium is that they are no longer all that Anglo although it has to be said quite a number are not that Welsh either. Emyr Humphreys, eminence grise among our English-language novelists and the man who did for the slate quarries what Jack Jones did for the industrial south, was one of the earliest to take objection to the term. He was a Welshman, he declared, not an Anglo anything. RS Thomas agreed. The fact that this fluent Welsh-speaking pair chose to write in English was a matter for them. Nothing to do with racial origin.

There, I’ve used it, that difficult word, race. Does this actually mean anything these days in Wales? The flood of new books written in English flows unabated. They are Welsh books, written about Welsh things with Welsh backgrounds, set in Wales and often displaying an entirely Welsh sensibility. But their authors were not born here. Nor were their parents. They’ve arrived ten years back, forty years back, whenever. And now they belong. The world shifts. Wales changes shape. It is how nations mature.

Edward Storey, poet of the Cambridge Fens, founder member of the John Clare Society, erudite flatlander, moved to Wales more than a decade ago and has allowed our mountainous landscape to infect his verse. His Almost A Chime-Child, from the publishers Raven Books, celebrates the Welsh landscape – hill farming, sheep, the island of Ramsey, low tide at Laugharne and gardens at Presteigne fill his clear, measured poetry. Is he one of us? He is.

John Goodby, Dylan Thomas expert and re-treader of many things from the culture of Wales was born in Birmingham and has done time at English universities before settling as Professor at Swansea. His Wine Night White from Tom Cheesman’s Swansea-based Hafan Books is not for the faint hearted. Naturally not. Goodby never is. This latest fluctuating spray of verse denial takes the reader on board with care. His opening lines are almost conventional. But wine-driven winds of change soon knock all that over. Intelligence and chance. Goodby is one of the few writers in Wales who can combine both with ease.

Nigel Humphreys, is author of The Flavour of Parallel from Arbor Vitae Press (and still they keep appearing, these new small publishers, if it wasn’t for the internet this would be a golden age). He comes from Shropshire but has spent most of his life in the coastal west. He’s learned a fair bit from the twentieth century modernists but keeps his poetry accessible. Does he belong? He does.

Checking the stacks of the newly published it’s getting harder and harder to find anything that fits the old criteria. Unless, of course, we switch languages. Which takes us neatly back to Emyr and RS. So where next?

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail, Saturday 7th August, 2010 #159

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Without a Doubt

Was the great novel you’ve just read a fluke? Could its author do it again and would the new book be as good as the first? Doubt follows writers around like a ghost. It’s worse with verse. Can the poet ever again write a new poem as decent as the one just completed? Isn’t the whole business a catalogue of chance? Writers persistently doubt their powers and always need people out there to reassure them that, yes, they should carry on.

Years back when blues singers were being rediscovered living in shacks on the Mississippi delta they were encouraged, fifty years on, to record again in spanking new studios and on first class instruments. It turned out that all they wanted to know was how they’d done today. Had the track they’d just laid down been anything like as good as the stuff they used to make? They had no idea if it had been Cripple Hard-Armed Davies playing with them on that recording of Wuppa Wuppa Blues they’d made in Clarksdale in 1928. Who cares? All that matters is now. So, too, with writers.

Doubt comes in insidious forms. It sneaks up on you. Wales Book of the Year long listees sometimes wonder if they’ve got in there by mistake. Wasn’t the novel they wrote two years back, which got absolutely nowhere, actually much better?

Why are my poems not in your anthology, a well-known poet complained to me. The book I was editing collected work originated from Cardiff. He lived in Aberystwyth. I explained, or tried to. But his doubts persisted. There was a conspiracy, out there, against him. His work was not up to the mark. I had taken against him because of that dismal review he’d written of my work and published in Planet in 1978. As time had moved on his poems had become dated. He was on a black list somewhere. Anything but the truth. I needed material about the capital. He hadn’t written any.

Recently I discovered the work of Philip Roth. I read The Plot Against America, by chance, and found it spellbinding. Why had I never read this genius before, for genius he certainly appeared. The book was a thrilling meld of history, fantasy, personal demons and ideological battle. It was written with erudition and humour and had a plot which whistled.

When done I tackled Amazon and ordered a Roth bucket-full. The Ghost Writer, The Human Stain, American Pastoral. How often in life do you discover a new writer with so much published brilliance under his genius belt? Roth, an author possessed of no doubt whatsoever. His works stretched, glowing, towards the horizon.

And how did I find them? I’m not sure yet. Has doubt arrived? We’ll see.

An earlier version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday, 31st July, 2010. #158

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Finding Traffic

A little while back the sages of publishing predicted that the first thing to go in the burgeoning online world would be encyclopaedias, gazetteers and handbooks. Those textural tomes that break your wrist just to lift them. The AA Gazetteer Of Places To Stay. The Directory Of British Sub-Post Offices. The Whiskey Lovers Guide To The Scottish Islands. The Cyfansoddiadau. Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanack. And it’s mostly come to pass. The handbook has all but vanished, although maybe not yet in the case of the last two mentioned. The Cyfansoddiadau, Wisden’s for Eisteddfod-goers, looks as if it will never fade. Wisden’s itself, however, is morphing into an all-sports compendium and has an online version beckoning.

Barry Turner’s enduring and always vital The Writer’s Handbook has just published its 2011 edition. Tome it is, too. At 766 pages it needs a desk just to be read. It’s heavier than the iPad, but just as new and vital. Amid the advice on characterisation in popular fiction, how to get ahead as a ghost writer, how to write children’s books, do your accounts, command the network, produce a bestseller, settle your accounts and handle bad reviewers sits a cogent section entitled poetry.

This is compiled by the man behind Salt Publishing, one of the great short-run phenomena of the noughties, Chris Hamilton-Emery. Among his informative and useful advice Hamilton-Emery hones in on the ten changes he expects to see in the coming decade. In the order he lists them these are as follows: Print magazines will vanish. Criticism will move entirely online. Choice will drive the reader to compile their own anthologies, set up their own internet channels, make their selections the yardstick of poetry commerce. Books as the poetry unit will fade. Everyone will become their own publisher. The bricks and mortar bookshop will disappear. Poetry will become increasingly performance based and delivered by multi-media. Verse will return to its roots, “as the shared imagination of a specific online community”. Creative writing will produce vast and participative infrastructures and almost all poets will work within this industry. Getting published will cease to be the benchmark of success. Being read, “finding traffic” as Hamilton-Emery puts it, will be the indicator instead.

Some of this sounds obvious. Already the review in hard print has ceased to be the point of judgement. By the time your reviewed book appears in Planet, for example, you may well be out there promoting your next. In Wales we have never worried much about immediacy. But instant reaction via the blogosphere is seeing an end to all that.

Other of Hamilton-Emery’s predictions, however, do push the envelope. Will performance really become the only way forward? The Writer’s Handbook 2011 is published by Macmillan.

A version of this posting appeared in the Western Mail of Saturday 24th July, 2010 as The Insider - #157

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Instant Lit

How instant is this age we’re living in? A poet of my acquaintance, a pretty well-know poet actually, has just told me that his next collection, submitted to his not insignificant publishers in good time and in perfect form, has been accepted. They said it was a great book, he told me, something that would enhance his reputation. But it wouldn’t come out until autumn 2012. 2012! We could all be dead by then. The wave of tax-increases we face may well have induced mass Welsh suicide. The bomb might return and there’d be no Wales left. 2012. Three years away. By then the world’s last bookshop will have closed and literature will have been dropped from the school syllabus in favour of street-talk studies.

This is an instant world where it is expected that the email will elicit an immediate response and the text message be replied too almost as fast as it is sent. The whole population operates as if it were on caffeine overdrive. Only those who have phones “for emergencies” and never turn them on are excluded.

It once was that the advice to young poets was to write the stuff then leave it in a drawer for several months where, like cheese, it might mature. When you came back to it, a good distance now between you and the hot point of the work’s inspiration, you’d be able to tell if it actually worked. If you were onto something. Or was this, in reality, a piece of self-indulgence. Half the amateur poetry in the world actually is. No, that’s an exaggeration. It’s more like ninety percent.

What we seem to have lost in this rush of speed, scrabble for short, screen-readable sentences, and images which hit the spot as you read them is anything considered. Poetry works best when it opens slowly to reveal its wonders one by one. Not everything under the sun has to go bang. Too much of that and your ears will fail.

In the rush to contain costs many contemporary publishers have sacked their copy editors. No longer do we have someone on staff pointing out the difference between “principal” and “principle” or explaining when it’s right to say “most of her verse” rather than “the majority of her poetry”. With the aid of native wit and Microsoft the writer is expected to get it right first time. Many don’t. Take care who you copy. Just because it’s in print doesn’t make it right.

Which brings us back to the long wait until 2012. Why the log jam? All the publisher needs to do is add a cover and get the thing into the shops. And there may be the answer. How many of us actually buy? Clearly not enough.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 17th July, 2010. #156

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Real Bloomsbury

The Real series of alternative handbooks, histories and guides to the conurbations of Wales is expanding. South Pembrokeshire next. Powys soon. Then Bangor. But beyond that is another country. In preparation for the publication of Nicholas Murray’s book I’ve spent the weekend walking around Bloomsbury. Not a thing I usually do nor something, it seems, that all that many tourists do either. For a slice of central London this Georgian suburb of avenue and leaf seemed relatively deserted.

Bloomsbury is that region of London elegance stretching from the British Museum to Euston and the far end of Oxford Street to St Pancras, that new entreport for visitors from Europe. They arrive from their green French fields and their muscular German industrialnesses to gaze on what, until very recently, was the red light district of Kings Cross. Today those urban difficulties have been moved on. What remains is a sprawl of cheap eateries surreally enlivened with a statue of John Betjeman.

What I did find, specialist bookshops aside, was something we don’t see that much of in Wales – plaques. In Bloomsbury the bookshops are as diverse as they come – horses, Tunisia, the gay universe – and so too are the plaques. Circular inscriptions celebrating the fact that W B Yeats spent many years of his life writing in this back room. That Charles Dickens lived in Doughty Street for long enough to complete five novels. That the man who thought up the idea for the postal service did it while residing near Tavistock Square. That the Bloomsbury set itself – Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and Lytton Strachey – all lived, at one time or another, in the tall, beautifully proportioned houses of Gordon Square.

Back home the Rhys Davies Trust has been putting up plaques to the literary eminent for decades. John Tripp, Leslie Norris, Glyn Jones, Brenda Chamberlain, John Ormond, R S Thomas are all celebrated. More men than women but that’s the shape to which Welsh writing once conformed. But it’s slow progress. The unsubstantiated fear is that a plaque on the house will attract visiting hoards who will come to stare and trample on the tulips. As a nation we should be more welcoming.

To promote our native plaques – and despite what I’ve said there are still a fair number – visitors can use the Academi’s new interactive plaque finder web site at www.academi.org. There are also free of celebratory black and white postcards. Series one has sixteen cards showing some of our greatest including John Tripp, Roland Mathias, Raymond Williams, Brenda Chamberlain, Emyr Humphries, T H Jones, Jack Jones, Leslie Norris, and R S.

Sets are free and can be obtained by sending a large stamped addressed envelop to the Academi, 3rd floor, Mount Stuart House, Mount Stuart Square, Cardiff CF10 5FQ.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday July 10, 2010. #155