Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Zen of Epynt

On the cover is a black and white photograph taken somewhere in Epynt. It shows a tree and a sort of corrugated sentry box. Inside the box, on guard against the elements, are two sheep. The pic is by Magnum photographer David Hurn. What does it mean? That’s like asking what the sound is of one hand clapping or the look of your real face before you were born. This is the cover of my latest collection of poetry, Zen Cymru. Hurn’s photograph sums that up. The zen of Welsh life, the unanswerable, the ever present, the one we know.

A friend, picking up this neat slim vol for the first time, told me that the cover was where the book’s strength lay. Support when you need it. The cover is the only part not by me.

The book collects new poems from the past several years. Age, passion, spiritual searching, house fires, hospitals, guns. Poems about hunting down Buddha, Christ’s arrival in Cardiff in 2005 and the title sequence, a pared-down haiku sequence that rolls from Splott to Abereiddi and back.

But that’s certainly not all. There are music poems. Folk singer, late Phil Ochs’s only visit to Cardiff. The trial of Phil Spector. Sightings of Elvis in Merthyr. The grave of Bela Bartok among the bushes in Hungary. On the train from Severn Tunnel Junction with John Tripp and Bob Dylan. I’ve always found music completely enveloping. I could never work without it, never compose without something playing out there, keeping my thoughts on their central zen track.

As expected a number of the poems have Cardiff concerns. Included is the text that makes up the acrostic construct made from the various ways the capital’s name have been spelled through history. The final version is in the paving outside John Lewis. The original of The Ballast Bank, a poem about the city population’s origins, sits carved in rock outside South Wales Police Headquarters on James Street.

Kerdif lists some of the city’s great street characters – Everyone from Peg the Wash to bin-banger Ninjah and Toy Mic Trevor.

Looking at the content with the detachment that distance gives – nothing more I can do now, the thing is out – I can see that there’s much about death and the fight of life against decrepitude. Miro is in there. So is Llywelyn Goch ap Meurig Hen. Unexpectedly for some there’s also a handy index to the Holiday Timeshare Sellers Handbook. Number of times they say it isn’t actually a timeshare – 432. References to luxury – 34. Mentions of rain – 1.

It’s a book that again treads the thin line between tradition and innovation. Just when you think you’ve got it the ground shifts. Then shifts again. Zen Cymru is published by Seren Books.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 29th May, 2010. Zen Cymru launches at Hay on Tuesday 1st June, 8.00 pm on the Dream Stage where Peter finch will be reading and in conversation with John Goodby.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Still Angry After All These Years

John Wain’s Charlie Lumley in Hurry On Down, an unemployable private detective cum window cleaner with Jehovah’s Witness leanings spends all his time in the pub. Stan Barstow’s Vic Brown in A Kind of Loving followed a beer-loving dance hall existence to get himself through the gritty day. “Jimmy tells me they’re all going out to the Lord Nelson, that’s a pub on the way to Bradford, for a booze-up….it’ll be a kitty do with everyone chucking ten bob in at the beginning of the evening and drinking until it’s gone.” Kingsley Amis’s Jim Dixon suffered from roaring hangovers. “His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.” That’s from Lucky Jim.

These were the Angry Young Men (and they were all men), the realists of the late fifties and early sixties, the British Beat generation. Beatniks without the hitch-hiking, the visions and the be-bop. Trad jazz revolutionaries. Looking back we might laugh but they set a style.

In a sense a lot of contemporary Welsh writing in English is following their path. Rachel Trezise’s award winning valley-set street level fiction may have different heroes, and ones who use drugs rather than beer, but the working-class dialogue-rich approach to story-telling is the same. “Wait ‘til ewe try iss stuff man, he’s saying, trying to keep his half-made joint under the lip…..” (Fresh Apples).

Similar territory is traversed in the work of John Williams, Sean Burke, Matthew David Scott, Suzie Wild, and Catrin Dafydd. The new generation no longer follows grand ideas. It does not chase revolution of any kind. Our world of overconsumption, inequality and political machination is skirted in favour of a coming to terms with what can be seen through the window.

Our new writers offer mirrors to the world they actually live in. This world, the Welsh world, the one turning through the streets of Cardiff and flowing over the mountains above Llanystumdwy. Understand that and you’ll know the universe.

John Updike, Richard Ford and Don DeLilo have spent life-times creating a fiction that reflects the every-changing America into which they were born. Ford’s sportswriter, Frank Bascombe, and John Updike’s rabbit, Harry Angstrom, are among the greatest characters of twentieth century fiction. For the twenty-first they need new faces. Des Barry, John Williams and Rachel Tresize are hard at work fashioning replacements.

Meanwhile A Kind of Loving turns 50. Pontardawe resident Stan Barstow’s masterpiece will be celebrated on BBC radio this summer. Serialisation and a feature on Woman’s Hour. And a reprint of the great work will come from Parthian.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday, 22nd May, 2010

Saturday, 15 May 2010

The Shoplifted Book Fades Away

The shoplifted book no longer has the value it once had. The days when the grey economy used the book as a sort of alternative unit of currency appear over. Have you tried to offload any old books lately? Even those charity plastic sacks which collect jumble are now marked ‘no books please’.

It’s hard to credit but at one time pre-owned copies of most things held their value. Even Book Club editions could be resold for something. Journalists with their review copy stacks could lug them to the market and get back at least enough for wine and a steak dinner. In the hippie era Abbie Hoffman published a guide to alternative life called Steal This Book. I had it on the racks in my shop. £4.50 a copy. How many actually left the store under people’s coats? Quite a few.

Copies of Stewart Williams’s much sought after Cardiff In Old Photographs were the book economy’s equivalent of the US dollar. Copies were stolen in quantity. Fly boys entered the L-shaped Cardiff arcade branch of John Menzies through the north door, lifted a handful of volumes and slipped back out silently through the exit to the south. The second hand store at the end of Bridge Street was their destination. Turnover was high and fast until the owner cottoned on to what was happening. Identifying marks were inserted in the backs of the books and the culprits apprehended.

Techniques varied. It was never the person you suspected, either. The man in the smelly greatcoat, the one with the shifty eyes and the long fingernails. Did he steal your art titles? Almost never. Those left, unpaid for, in the hands of neatly suited businessmen or women with prams.

There was a man who always came in chewing. He spent an age with books containing maps or prints. Always left buying nothing. We thought he was doing research, completing his MA here in store. He turned out to be chewing string. When this was suitably wet he’d lay it along the inside spine next to a desirable map. The dampness would seep into the paper and after ten minutes or so he was able to slide out the print without making any sort of tearing sound. Up his sleeve it went. Sold on to the antique market the same day.

Some worked in pairs. One would cause a diversion such as accidentally upending a spinner. In the ensuing chaos his partner would fill a briefcase with desirables. My shop always prosecuted. I always ran after miscreants. Off we’d go, streaming up the street with books flying everywhere. Make a scene and they won’t come back. Seemed to work.

Steal This Book has recently been reprinted. Copies sold vastly outrank those lifted.

An version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday, 15th May, 2010. Not many Western Mails get shoplifted, I'm told.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Less Land More Text

Poetry in the landscape is not a new thing. In the revolutionary sixties Edwin Morgan had verse on the sails of yachts floating on the Brighton seafront. Agitprop writers chalked text on town hall steps, planted slogans in daffodil bulbs in city parks. Apposite quotations, full of pith or sentiment, have been the staple of gravestones and school premise proscenium arches since the time of the Victorians. What’s new in the recessional twenty-tens in public poetry’s ubiquity.

Cardiff has long had bits of verse out there in its public face. In front of the Central Station stands William Pye’s stone block recreation of Cader Idris embellished with verse snippets by everyone from Dannie Abse to Rhys Dafis. On the waterfront of the Bay’s Inner Harbour John Masefield’s Cargoes is set in iron. “Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack, / Butting through the Channel in the mad March days…” It could well be the Welsh Capital at its industrial height he’s talking about.

And no one could ignore Gwyneth Lewis’s now world-status iconic lines staggering in ancient Roman form across the front of the Wales Millennium Centre.

My own poetry is now in four public sites. A bilingual incantation celebrating spuriel (rubbish) runs along the top of the Lamby Way landfill site. Weather and greenery are taking their toll. A large piece of R S Thomas reprocessed by PF for the digital age rises up the front and then carries on along the corridors of BT’s Internet Datacentre on the Ferry Road peninsular. Around the base of Renn and Thacker’s gleaming silver steel blue-lit lighthouse in front of the new South Wales Headquarters on James Street runs a poem about the races and languages of the city. The ballast bank replaced, the past brought back to life again. My latest, my largest concrete poem yet, is an acrostic made from the various spellings of the word Cardiff as recorded by history. Kerdiv. Cardaif. Gaerdydd. Kerdiff. This straddles the paving as part of Jean-Bernard M├ętais spike and ring L’Alliance outside John Lewis. My largest concrete poem ever, I announced at the unveiling. Doesn’t he know the slabs are made of granite muttered someone from the developers.

The National Poet, Gillian Clarke, is a central component of the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s Landmark Sonnets proposal. This popularist scheme, which apparently has the backing of Gordon Brown, aims to put poetry onto public sites right across the UK. Given the status of the organisers we can expect the verse to be excellent. The locations will be stunning. Gillian’s is already composed. It’s a verse of fish pass and people which will sit somewhere on the Cardiff Bay Barrage alongside a translation into Welsh by Menna Elfyn. Others will follow. Watch the Insider for news of progress.

A version of this posting appeared in the Western Mail as The Insider on Saturday 8th May, 2010 with the world still undecided, well the British world, and the skies full of dark clouds. #146

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Silver Devices

On a bench in the park sits a youth staring at a silver device. Bigger than a phone, smaller than a laptop. The sun’s up. He’s reading Dan Brown on his Sony Book Reader. The future has reached Waterloo Gardens in Penylan.

You can store a thousand titles on these slippery things, an entire library, more books than my parents ever had at one time in their entire house. More titles than my school games master read in his entire life.

They are not yet ubiquitous, these readers, but they, or something like them, will before too long. When the book is read you delete it or store it. And because of the publisher’s paranoid systems of digital rights management you can’t hand it on.

Oxfam won’t get it. The church jumble will be reduced. The second hand book trade is fast coming to an end.

There was a time when south Wales boasted scores of such stores. Backstreet warrens, market stalls. There was – and still is, because they haven’t quite vanished yet – a great pleasure in fumbling through stacks of dusty volumes hunting for bargains or enlightenment or that out of print title by Jack Jones you’d heard rumour of but never seen.

John Freeman’s vast enterprise on the corner of Bridge Street in Cardiff, more or less where John Lewis stands now, had more stock than Harrods. The place was a maze of stack, box and shelf. The owner professed an ability to locate anything instantly. Do you want to buy these paperbacked Ian Flemings, I’d ask. Nah, got dozens of those downstairs.

Nothing I ever wanted to sell ever appeared to have any value. The market, such as it was, was always for things I didn’t own. I’d drag myself back home with my box of ex-review paperbacks. I stuffed them once into a corporation litter bin on Queen Street. Left them in telephone boxes. Handed them for free to passing youths.

Today the antiquarian trade works out of web sites and auction houses. Stock is bought and sold without the trader ever having to leave his phone. On the net everything has a market value and anything is findable. Today on Abe books I located 1723 copies of things by Jack Jones. Admittedly some of them were by Jack Jones, the rhymer of cockney slang, a few were about Jack Jones the trade unionist, two were by a Jack Jones who’d written about John Lennon. But a lot were for Bidden to the Feast, Off to Philadelphia, Give Me Back My Heart and Rhondda Roundabout.

The thrill of the chase has gone. Jack is everywhere, if you want him. Although I’m not sure if he’s available yet for the Sony Reader. But I’d best check.

For those into these things the Rhys Davies Trust and the Academi have just published a free set of 16 black and white author postcards. One depicts Jack Jones. Call 02920472266 for your set.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday, 31st April, 2010. That's what the date is on my watch, a DKNY fashionista miracle.