Saturday, 20 February 2010

The End of Bookselling

In the days when I was a bookseller February was like the grave. Who would have thought that six short weeks before the store had been a bedlam of buyers. People who never normally visited the shopping centres of cities suddenly there buying everything in sight. The last minute shopping rush was a joy to behold. Boxed sets, slab-sized coffee table tomes, multi-volume hardbacks, anthologies, books in slip cases with attached pens, maps, driving gloves, diaries or garden secateurs. They all went. Buy now or don’t buy at all. The world ends tomorrow.

But Feb was a different story. Hours of silence. A visit by a traffic warden stepping in out of the cold. An out of town visitor asking directions. Someone with a dictionary they’d been given ten years ago asking if they could exchange it for cash. Publishing dried up too. This might be a new year but nothing fresh was appearing. Who would be interested during the winter dark?

Today, however ,the digital revolution has seen an end to that. Bookshops barely exist in the way they once did. Stock is at a minimum and usually only titles that sales databases say will shift. Pulp bestsellers go at half price from the shelves of supermarkets. Customers no longer come in to ask for that book they heard about on TV the other night, not sure of the author’s name but he had a beard.

If punters really want a book they go for it online. Paper copies via Amazon, downloaded versions next. Goodbye Borders, Lears, Dillon’s, Menzies, Fopp. Hello Appleshop, Gameszone, Abercrombie and Fitch.

But, ever hopeful, the new breed of small independent one-person publishers continues to blossom. Their stock sells hand to hand, via Facebook, Twitter, over the counter in the local coffee shop and among the fake flowers and calendars at Greetingcards-Are-Us. The brand new Cardiff-based Mulfran Press has brought out Lynda Nash’s Ashes of a Valleys Childhood – poems and photographs that recall the 1960s Rhymney Valley and do so with a welcome lack of cloying sentiment. The Abbey on Caldy Island publish Echoes From A Far Shore, a book of reflective verse by the Cistercian monk David Hodges. God celebrated in seascape, prayer and the glory of the skies.

Dave Lewis’s excellently named Pont Press brings out Layer Cake, twenty-five years of vernacular, edge-walking and thoroughly entertaining verse. Antony Rowe helps Stuart Warner self-publish Echoes of the First Song, a set of West Wales poetry and explanation where the discussion often outguns the actual verse.

Chris Kinsey’s Cure for a Crooked Smile from Ragged Raven continues to enhance her reputation as a wildlife poet of the first order. Top of the pile is Philip Gross’s set of cracklingly brilliant retakes of Simon Denison’s pinhole camera photographs. Cinnamon Press. Rush for your copy now.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday February 20th, 2010. Who on earth reads this stuff, I wonder.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Our First City vs Our Biggest

Whatever happened to the untrammelled wilderness? That land the Romantic Poets loved. A place where wildness flowed and human intervention was nil. Today’s new landscapes are cities – places of concrete, glass, movement and dust. John Briggs, the photographer from Minnesota who has lived in Wales now for long enough to look local, has devoted his recent self to Newport. Wales’ First City reads a welcome sign at the unreconstructed bus station. There are nine-story tall hair grips holding up a slender new river bridge. The arts cluster in the skewed silver box that is the Riverfront. The cattle market, loved and lost, is gone.

Briggs, is a follower of Cartier-Bresson, the photographer who invented the decisive moment. He waits on the street, Leica in hand, for the photograph to arrive. His splendid collection, Newportrait, fresh from Seren shows how near to the border Newport actually is. A child is shown having “We love our queen” stencilled onto her cheek by her mother. Waving flags royal visit celebrants balance themselves on the Upper Dock Street road sign. Women wearing union jack aprons sit in deckchairs in the sun.

In between Briggs records a multi-cultural community at work and at play. His people shots bring warmth to his bleaker takes on the built environment – the night lit transporter bridge, the market, the white Germanic clock tower of the civic centre. The sense of the past hangs ever present in Briggs’ black and white work. Shops full of industrial clothing, the windows of the workingmen’s dining room, the austere and perfectly-framed take of dying Llanwern seen from the working terraces of the city itself. But ultimately Briggs is his own man. A seeker of the fading, a photographer determined to catch it all before it goes.

In contrast Brian Lee collects the old photos of others rather than make new himself. His Cardiff Remember When (Breedon Books) shows me things about the capital I’d never seen before. And I’ve made that city my special interest. The half demolished County Cinema in Rhymney. Norman Harvey’s car showrooms on Penarth Road with a real lioness in the window. Dante’s Inferno showing at the Empire Cinema on Queen Street. Sybil Marks and her hot-pants wearing dancers in the final of Come Dancing in 1971. The Salvation Army pop group, the Joy Strings, arriving at Cardiff Prison for a concert. If you are old enough these things echo. Like Briggs, Brian Lee mixes people with buildings, collecting a past that would otherwise be totally lost.

The city of this book looks completely parochial, despite shots of Harold Macmillan walking the streets in 1960, the Pope in his Dr Who-like popemobile in 1982 and even the youthful poets R S Thomas and Dannie Abse reading together in 1980. Cardiff you’ve come a long way.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 13th February, 2010

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Soundtrack to the City

Are there any people who have lives where music doesn’t play? Check any high street and there you’ll find scores of shoppers with headphones in their ears. Same with cyclists, dog walkers, people on trains, runners and park bench sitters. Our lives have soundtracks. Several years ago I stopped people on Queen Street in Cardiff to ask them what they were listening to. This caused consternation among some who thought I was from the local authority out to impose a new Health and Safety regulation. But when I told them it was research for a book all was okay. What they were listening to turned out to be dance music mostly. Lots of Michael Jackson. Whitney Houston. Mariah Carey. Rap. Guy on a skateboard playing reggae. No one listening to classical, no spoken word, not one person willing to own up to playing the bachelor boy, Cliff.

Many people can’t work without a soundtrack. Depends on your job but if you can manage it then you’ll have the player going or the radio on. Bankers might not but dentists, surgeons, mechanics, designers, and architects – they all listen. Martin Scorsese’s films display this to perfection – music seeps through the pores of his characters, rock belts through every scene. In New York Stories where Scorsese has Nick Nolte playing one of the Abstract Expressionist painters smashing paint onto giant canvases the soundtrack roars. The painter just can’t function without high decibel rock coming at him out of his speakers. The streaks and swirls of colour he manipulates are done in time to whatever is beating from his boombox. Couldn’t paint in silence. Without the beat there’d only be a canvas of empty white.

The novelist Nick Hornby has taken this idea one stage further and written his life soundtrack up as a book. Everything from Bruce Springsteen to Rufus Wainwright gets a mention with Teenage Fanclub appearing twice. You can download this set onto your mp3 player and listen while you read. Doing anything in silence is now antique.

Cities themselves have soundtracks. What sounds well in Rio doesn’t somehow work in Barry. Samba along the sands, Bossa Nova among the chips at the Codfather of Sole. This is how I think Cardiff sounds – a soundtrack for the city from the past fifty years: Twist and Shout – The Beatles. Cardiff Born – Frank Hennessy. Green Onions – Booker T. Cardiff Rose – Roger McGuinn. Do The Ayatollah – Cardiff City Fans. The Grangetown Whale – The Hennessys. Delilah – Tom Jones. Red Red Wine – Red Beans and Rice. The Brokedown Cardiff Blues – Cripple Hard-Armed Davies. A Design For Life – Manic Street Preachers. Siwgr Siwgr Siwgr – Euros Childs. Cardiff In The Sun – Super Furry Animals. Do you have a better selection? Let me know.

An earlier version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 6th February, 2010