Saturday, 24 April 2010

Laugharne As Plasticine

The walls between our languages seem to be bending, at least they were in Laugharne the other week. There was a time when what went on in Welsh stayed that way. And if your song or your poem was in English then your audience would inevitably be English-speaking monoglots. Wales stumbled towards the free world of the future with a system of cultural apartheid firmly in place.

But here in the no longer booming two-thousands the world is a different place. For a time now the number of Welsh-speaking writers willing to address English audiences has been on the increase. Menna Elfyn, Grahame Davies, Elin ap Hywel, Gwyneth Lewis, Catrin Dafydd, and others have all straddled the language divide and found that, having done so, they did not wake up as traitors. “I am only willing to speak in English to fellow Welshmen outside our borders”, a famous novelists was once heard to say. “I have no interest in anything other than Welsh literature”, retorted another. “I am never speaking the English tongue again”, declared the Anglo-Welsh poet Harri Webb. These polarised and provocative positions do not resonate now as they once did.

At the Laugharne Weekend there was an exciting and rich mixture of new music (Fionn Regan), cult authorship (Niall Griffiths), revived renegades (The Fall and the Slits), musicologists, poets, fictioneers and prize-winners of all sorts. Here the two languages of Wales banged up against each other naturally, as if we were a balanced bi-lingual nation. One where the product was more important than the process. What you’d said more significant that the language you used. How you sang more enjoyable than the tongue you employed.

Hoards of visitors from other parts of Wales (and even more from beyond) flowed through our most surreal of townships. This is the place where the chip shop closes at 8.00, festival or not. There’s no tourist information centre. And the memory of Dylan hangs on in the well-preserved writing hut: new walls, new doors, new floor, new windows and re-roofed recently but still as it always was.

Bill-toppers were Roddy Doyle, Martin Carthy and Howard Marks. In the Fountain Inn Keith Allen, wearing a kaftan, ran three episodes of Laugharne’s Got Talent. I didn’t have the strength to stay to see who’d won but it might have been the nine year old singing Gwenith Glyn.

The afternoons of singers blended languages and literature as if the world was plasticine. Richard James, The Gentle Good, the amazing Katell Keineg, Charlotte Greig with her Freud reworkings, Mark Olsen and others did the sort of thing with song that Rachel Tresize, Dan Rhodes, Louise Welsh and Patrick Jones did with words.

The Laugharne Weekend is a real addition to Wales’ cultural calendar. Long may it continue.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 24th April, 2010 - #144

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Five Vodkas Help

After the reading to promote Zen Cymru, my new collection from Seren, in the round gallery where my voice had echoes and the audience seemed impossible to get close to I am surrounded by punters. This is that part of the literary scene called Q&A where audiences get to question the speaker on whatever they like. This is usually about the work. Although not always. What’s your position on the bomb, I was asked at one event. Do you have any pets? What’s your favourite TV programme? Do you know what time the next event starts? This question asked at a festival by a punter eager to get me done and to move onto Ian McEwan.

Tonight, however, my interlocutors stick to the literary script. Most of them are students of one kind or another, beginners on the literary ladder, keen to get ahead. And there’s a pattern to the things they ask.

Copyright is the big one. Simultaneously the most powerful and misunderstood piece in our panoply of state-managed protective legislation. Copyright is something you need do little gain, I tell them. You just write and the form of the words you choose are your copyright. Automatically. But, unfortunately, not the idea behind them. Did Shakespeare think up the plot for Romeo and Juliet? Probably not. But it’s his words we all remember.

At this point the urban myth of the play someone once sent in to the BBC rears its head. In this tale a play is submitted by a keen beginner only have it either ignored or immediately rejected. Several months pass. The still keen proto-playwright is at home idly listening to the radio when on comes his or her play. It’s beautifully produced, but attributed to another. When you pursue this sorry tale it inevitably turns out to have happened not to the myth recounter but to someone else. My sister told me. It happened to her best friend’s uncle. Chase it and the sorry tale vanishes into the sand. Nothing is ever proved or even provable. Unless you are Dan Brown or J K Rowling, that is. At the level they work claims that you’ve nicked your ideas are legion.

Beyond the worries over ownership are concerns about public presentation. Isn’t performance difficult? How do you stop yourself shaking? I share with them advice given to me by a famous broadcaster. Have a drink beforehand, he advised. One but no more. It’ll take off the edge. Have two and you’ll be on the road to garbling. At the event I was running the famous broadcaster then drank five vodkas straight and did the funniest show I can remember. Practice, I guess.

There were questions about style and substance, publication and plot but none on cash. Chasing fame remains up front. Why else bother.


Monday, 12 April 2010

The Literature of Sport - Full of Mud and Fog

Do sport and creative writing come from the same planet? Can sports journalists ever make the Booker? There’s a suspicion that, down the years, great writers have always been those who dislike ball games. The ones who hung around the radiators in school when they should have been out there in the rain on the pitch. Those who lock themselves in the library when the six nations are on. The ones who think David Beckham is a game show host and Ryan Giggs a sandwich shop owner. There’s a gulf and our national Welsh propensity to compose poetry about agriculture doesn’t help.

Of course if you dig down you’ll find a whole raft of quality writing based around sports. David Peace’s brilliant The Damned United and Nick Hornby’s unputdownable Fever Pitch being two recent examples. And if you really want to find out what literary Wales’s take on ball games really is then Gareth Williams’s anthology in the Library of Wales series, Sport, should show you.

Yet the suspicion persists. Sportspeople don’t write, writers don’t play. The common ground between them remains full of mud and fog. Dave Collins, who edits the magazine Welsh Football, pointed out recently that his magazine is full of new Welsh writing. Reports on games, on players, on clubs, on history. The Day Arsenal Came to Winch Wen, The FA Amateur Cup of 1893, a list of the injuries received playing in the Welsh league. However, even Collins admits that the ultimate literary merit of his material might be questionable.

But all is not lost. When faced with a class of reluctant readers, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah simply takes them out into the yard to kick a ball about. Is this poetry, sir? It will be when you write about it, Zephaniah replies.

In the south Wales valleys Academi has been pushing this idea as hard as it will go. Reluctant writers in Merthyr have been encouraged to mix sport and creativity by Peter Read and Mike Church. Phil Carradice has shown pupils how sports journalism works. Daniel Morden has mixed story-telling with sporting prowess. Mick Jenkins has used photographs of sporting action to inspire new verse. And Scott Quinell has shown pupils that even legends can have slow literary starts. He’s had had whole schools engaging with his Quick Read Aim High.

In Cardiff the Bluebirds have worked with Academi to get pupils from the south Wales region to visit their new stadium and to mix literature with soccer. All Skilled Up – Read It, Write It, Play it. To date 700 pupils have benefited, working with John Tripp Award winner Peter Read to create a new giant football poem and then to work on match commentary and reporting. Future stars for Dave Collins’s magazine. And after that novels and goals of their own.

A version of this posting appeared in as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday, 10th April, 2010. #142

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Books for Your Wardrobe

Innovation and literature have always been fellow travellers. As the great art movements of history rang the changes across the world writers took note. Viewpoints shifted. The religious tract gave way to the novel. The novel itself changed from serial to single volume. It took on board stream of consciousness, turned to pulp, abandoned its chains and left the library shelf. It got carried around in pockets. Books became easy. Dropped their hard covers. Took on the role of diversion as much as education. Became places for play as well as places for art. And, more significantly, became so much cheaper to make.

Innovation flourished. During the latter parts of the twentieth century books appeared in a myriad of forms. There were novels in boxes, famously B S Johnson’s The Unfortunates which had twenty-five chapters printed as pamphlets. The order they were read in was up to the reader. Opal L Nations published a volume of poetry with a coat-hanger bound into the spine. You could hang this in your wardrobe with your shirts. There were volumes with pieces of carpet as covers. The tiny books published by the Fluxus Movement came inside match-boxes. J L Carr’s series of pamphlets, were small enough to shove up your sleeve, ideal, he insisted, for reading during sermons. Wales’ Philip Jenkins produced a book that consisted of cleverly placed holes done with a punch. Llangollen’s Childe Roland had a novel that consisted of 300 bound blank pages. Bob Cobbing published anthologies in plastic bags. Tom Phillips made his masterwork out of the printed pages of another. A Humument (available now from Thames & Hudson) is a painted book made directly onto the pages of W. H. Mallock's Victorian novel, A Human Document.

The high water mark for all this activity seems to have been the mid-nineties. Innovation at this point shifted to the net. New ways of writing were created, forms and styles made possible by the digital revolution took over. The hand-made book in a tin, in a bag, or on rolls of wallpaper faded from view. More’s the pity. But not completely.

Former Welsh resident Stewart Brown has for the past thirty years been making the word visible. He paints and collages it in a kind of post-concrete, non-digital mêlée of colour and bending font. His masterwork, a seemingly endless series of morphing letterforms and wailing colour is called Babel. Pretty appropriately, I’d say. “Beautiful, unsayable, meaningless, profound” is how he describes it. Babel comes in large canvas form, on gallery walls and in frames. It also comes loose in book shaped boxes. Lovingly presented and a total delight to open. Investigate Catalyst Press on the web. Buy Babel as card or as box. Expect to be dazzled.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 3rd April, 2010