Saturday, 30 January 2010

The Real Black Book

Launching a book is not like launching a ship. Not quite. Drink is involved in both cases, certainly. With the ship the bottle gets smashed over the bows. With a book the bottle’s contents get drunk. But there are similarities. Books, like ships, can be slow moving when they start and fine words get said as they slide down the ramp. Then everyone cheers and the builder relaxes. Just a bit.

So too with Real Cardiff. I’ve been on the circuit recently doing my best to promote. This has involved standing up in crowded shops, reading sections to milling crowds, visiting hotels and talking to assembled audiences of the great and the good, signing copies in hallways, on small tables, and in the street. Always smiling. Never stop.

At the Park Hotel big launch someone wanted to know if the HMS Tonypandy I referred to in the section on nuclear submarines visiting Cardiff actually existed. Jonathan Adams had already back-projected a shot of a WW2 sub with the name Tonypandy photoshopped onto its side so I said yes. And if it never existed then it should. Although Wales’s status as a nuclear free zone might mitigate against that.

At the Waterloo Gardens Teashop, recently and somewhat perversely voted Britain’s best coffee shop, I read the section that dealt with Cardiff’s thespian past. I told of Ray Smith and Ray Handy and how it once was with actors and directors and the National Theatre that has taken thirty years to arrive. I told also of Dedwydd Jones’s 1985 Black Book on the Welsh Theatre, a diatribe against state subsidy (or non-subsidy) and the way the establishment had allegedly held the whole theatrical world back. It was a ghost from a long past.

Grahame Davies, an enthusiastic Real Cardiff supporter (and author of the well received Real Wrexham) then went home to find an envelope waiting for him. Inside was a copy of that same 1985 Black Book, no letter, no explanation. Photos of Roger Tomlinson, Welsh Arts Council drama department head inside. The tired twenty-five year old arguments featuring a cast of characters largely now moved on to other pastures restated as if they were of today. Similar envelopes had apparently been sent to other literary and theatre figures across the country.

In Real Cardiff Three I discuss the fracture in time that runs right across the Oval Basin where Torchwood have their base. Fiction, of course. But seeing Dedwydd’s book winging through the mails again I’m now not so sure.

Back on the launch trail I sell four copies of the shrink-wrapped sets of the reprinted trilogy and sign another shed of the new vol. Will there be a fourth, someone asks? Maybe. Let’s see how this one shapes up first.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 30th January, 2010

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Reading the Landscape

What do you read when you travel? The Rough Guide? That would get you to some offbeat places. The Rough Guide to Ireland took me to Coleman’s Temple in the Bog, middle of absolutely nowhere at all. I’d never have found that on my own. Feet soaking. Wrote one poem. Chased by several cows.

It has to be said, though, that I prefer to be reading something actually set in the place I’m visiting. I read Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky when I first went to Morocco. Bowles’ take on the desert sands and the people who lived among them coloured everything I saw. For Sardinia I read D H Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia, a travelogue that told of mud-floored houses and brilliant sun. It was written back in 1919 – something I hadn’t clocked. By the time I got to look at the island most of what Lawrence had seen had been moved on.

For the Appalachians I had Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, the funniest travel book anywhere. His description of his overweight walking companion, Katz, throwing away his equipment and clothes as he slogged through the hard, north American greenness is difficult to beat. I came up through Tennessee and hit the trail north of Gatlinburg. Worst place on the planet, reports Bryson. The trail itself was long and tree roofed. I didn’t see anything but leaves for ten miles. When I checked with A Walk in the Woods for confirmation that I was on the same path as Bryson I discovered that Gatlinburg was the place that he came off. I’d inadvertently covered the only section on the whole 2167-mile trail that Bryson had not.

Next up will be a brief visit to Egypt and without even trying I’ve got two appropriate volumes on my hands. As a matter of professional interest I’ve been reading Ken Follett to find out just how literary this thriller-diller actually is. He’s a mega-best selling author with Welsh origins who ought to be better known in his home land. I’ve read Whiteout and found that engaging page-turner appropriately thrilling but hardly heavy weight. Now I’m into Triple, a tale of multi-national spies chasing each other over the Egyptian desert. The pages are turning like windscreen-wipers.

In my bag I have Stevie Davies’ latest, Into Suez, a novel about women “in a tumultuous world of casual racism in the run-up to Egypt’s revolt against its hated occupiers”. Stevie Davis is the Swansea-based Booker nominee with a reputation for class tale telling. Her take on Suez should be unputdownable. I propose sampling its pleasures on the banks of the Nile. You can read yours in Welsh rain if you like. Into Suez is published by Parthian.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 23 January, 2010

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Just When You Think They Are Finishing They Carry On

Jaci Stephen had this right ages ago in The Evening Standard when she dryly remarked about poetry readings – “just when you think they are finishing they go on…” And go on some of them do. Tell the poets they have a fifteen minute slot and inevitably they’ll attempt to read for forty. How much poetry read out loud does the world need?

I’ve been on the road recently promoting my new book, Real Cardiff Three, which ostensibly is not poetry. This is travel writing, history, memoir, psychogeography, story. I get onto the platform and talk about the city’s history, my take on how it has come into being and why it looks like it does. I discuss Cardiff’s peculiarities – the lost watercourses, the vanished holy wells, the ways in which the place has got itself named after metals, precious stones and the shires of England. I talk about its tall buildings, its sophistication, its hidden tunnels, its all-white cityscape, its place as Wales’ heart, stuck out like a fist, here on the south east border. My audience listens. Then I read one of Real Cardiff’s poems. The books have just a few. I do the one about the Russell Goodway Memorial Roundabout or list the books people never borrow from the new Central Library. A History of Minor Roads in Wales. The Joy of Splott. Highlights in the History of Concrete. Bombproof Your Horse. Did Lewis Carroll Visit Llanrumney? Caerphilly Cheese Problems Solved. The audience wakes up and falls about. Poetry gets to places where prose never can.

At the biennial John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry the other month the level of sophistication, invention and sheer linguistic verve proved once again that good verse could still thoroughly entertain. The place was packed. I don’t think I’ve seen a poetry audience enjoy themselves so much in years. Dafydd Wyn, the west Wales winner, gave us Anglo-Welsh poetry like it used be but with added oomph. Liam Johnson made the air flicker with his verbal virtuosity. Thaer Al-Shayei came on dressed as a gorilla and had the entire place falling off their chairs. Sally Spedding managed the same trick with her tales of medical misdemeanours. There were top end performances that embraced everything from football to fighting demons. Live poetry still does it. In two and a half hours I spotted not one yawn.

And if you look about you’ll see that this reading thing is going through a revival. Mab Jones and Ivy Alvarez rock at the Promised Land. The Absurd in Mold mashes music and bi-lingual verse into an entertaining whole. Seren take the high ground with their First Thursday series. John Williams works lit and music at Chapter this month. There are rumours of new poetry and music series starting up elsewere in the city. Poetry certainly has a future.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 16th January, 2010

Monday, 11 January 2010

Walking The Streets In Hope

I’ve been walking the streets again. Taking literature to the people. A thing which in my youth was an ideal but which the years have bashed about it. Here I am doing it again. The plan is to leaflet a whole district with invitations to the launches for my latest book. Get the news out there to those who normally hide when they hear the word culture. To those who haven’t read anything at all since they went to school. Who do you read, you ask, and like many a politician, they scrabble around in the depths of memory and then come out with it. George Orwell, they say. You can’t beat 1984.

Indeed not.

My leaflets are made of card to aid letterbox stuffing, and full colour to catch the eye. At the second house I visit I get chased up the path by a furious neighbour, ripping my card into shreds. Keep your rubbish, he shouts, scattering the thing across the road. There was a notice on his door which read “If you put another menu through this door I will never eat at your restaurant again” and above that a sign saying “No Junk Mail”. I’d ignored that. Same thing happened to me when decades ago I’d gone by delivering labour party leaflets. You are the cause of all my troubles, one large and tattooed householder had complained. People seem to enjoy ripping things up.

A few houses have sensible wide letterboxes set at hand height and a pushover to use. Most, however, have devices installed simply to make deliveries as complicated as they can be. I understand now why Postmen get so upset. The world has become paranoid about drafts. They don’t fear junk, they are afraid of cold air. Behind the letterboxes lie thickets of draft preventing brushes, deep-weave curtains, cloth flaps, springs, boxes, cages, bags. Post only gets delivered if you hammer it through. Or leave it on the mat.

On my afternoon’s round trip I counted eighteen hand-scrawled “the bell doesn’t work - knock loudly” notices, twenty-eight “we do nothing at this door unless you show us your birth certificate” printed commands issued by the Boy Scouts and at least ten “do not park in front of my house” signs masquerading as official dictates by having the words “Polite Notice” done in South Wales Police blue along the top.

The leaflets I was distributing promoted my latest book of psychogeography, Real Cardiff #3. The experience acquired has given me more than enough material for a whole chapter in Real Cardiff #4.

Will this happen? Seren, my publishers, have announced that number three is the last. But now I’ve opened a file for number four on my computer. Let’s see how that fills.

An earlier version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 2nd January, 2010

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Writing While Standing Up

There’s nothing to writing – all you do is sit down at a typewriter and open up a vein. That was the advice of early twentieth century songwriter Walter Smith. It’s a thing that fascinates many. Just how do you write?

Jeffrey Archer, now an amazing sixty-eight, hangs onto the older methods. He uses a pen, scratching his words onto a pad. His secretary then types the stuff up, triple spaced, for the great man to correct. He admits he’s old fashioned like many out there who still work like he does. But they are beginning to fade.

Being in command of your own keyboard and using the swift and spell-checkable skills that computer process comes with is now the way for us all. Those that don’t sing their words into digital recorders for transcription later that is. It’s true that I’ve had words come upon me while walking the streets in the rain and, lacking any other method, phoned the ideas home and left them on the answerphone.

Hemingway, apparently, could only ever compose while standing up. He had a special stool and table fixed onto the back of one of his boats so he could work from there. There are other writers, naturally, who can only ever manage anything while lying down.

William Burroughs, the drug master and major twentieth innovator, author of The Naked Lunch and creator of the cut-up, needed endless dope. Without the push and the haze that gave him he couldn’t write at all. Dylan T also demanded additional help, his however in liquid form.

There’s no one best method. Work out your own. Writers, not unsurprisingly, need to write. Not boast about it, talk about it, or remember how it once was. They need to get out there and start. Best advice in the world. Start and then go on.

I’ve always found the mornings the best time. Fresh from sleep. Don’t speak to a soul to avoid wrecking the mood. Set up a place where there can be no interruption. Unplug the phone, turn the mobile off. Have settled in advance all the things that might come creeping in at you. No visits by repair men or cold calls selling you cheaper electricity. Make mental space and use it all.

I know this system won’t hack it for much longer in the age we are now in. This is a time where communication is constant and instant. Sound drips from the pores of the world. To write today the author needs to be able to manage it between multiple distraction, in small and readily consumable slices. Attention spans are no longer the length of a chapter. The text message novel is gaining ground. Watch it come.

This posting appeared, or a version of it did, as The Insider in the Western Mail of 26th December, 2009