Saturday, 30 May 2009

Standing Right Next To Dylan Thomas

In the Irish author Flann O’Brien’s classic piece of invention, The Third Policeman, (certainly one of my top hundred books) one of the coppers becomes so obsessed by his bicycle that he begins to merge with it. As he sits on the saddle cycle becomes policeman and policeman becomes bicycle. The world changes by osmosis. Some writers view place with similar regard. Walk the rail tracks of Raymond Williams and you’ll access his thought processes. Visit the village of Gillian Clarke and you’ll understand her poetry. Stand where Dylan Thomas did and some of his power may seep into your soul.

This is psychogeography mixed with the sanctity of place. The poet Chris Torrance believed that a ley line ran right through his Pontneddfechan cottage and from it he could somehow channel verse. In the 80s the native American author, Thomas Rain Crowe, somehow got permission to stay at the Laugharne Boathouse for three whole months. The book he wrote there was a US bestseller. The spirit of Dylan infected every syllable. Didn’t do too well here, however.

There is an undeniable fascination with the tracking of places and paths important to the great and the good who have gone before. Seeing the world they saw increases our understanding of what they did. Standing at their desks or in their houses allows us to locate their works.

Visitors come from thousands of miles to visit Shakespeare’s Stratford, Thomas Hardy’s Dorset or Shaw’s Dublin. And those places have certainly capitalised on their associations. Shakespeare baseball hats, Thomas Hardy tracksuits and Oscar Wilde chewing gum sell by the shed load. This is something that Wales has yet to really wake up to. I did hear a rumour that someone was trying to sell Dylan Thomas trousers but found few takers.

This summer Academi are running coach tours which will take travellers into the heartlands of a range of our greatest literary creators. Days out for litterateurs. Anyone can join. We’ve already been to Pembroke in search of Waldo. In June John Pikoulis leads a trip to Talybont-on-Usk following the trails of the poet and historian Roland Mathias. In the same month Archdruid Dic Jones and National Poet Gillian Clarke will show visitors Ceredigion’s Talgarreg and Pisgah. In September there’s a trip to the red valley homelands of Cwmardy’ s author Lewis Jones. And in October there’s a Welsh-medium tour from Aberystwyth in search of Wales’ greatest Bard, Dafydd ap Gwilym.

The tours start from Cardiff, Aberystwyth and Carmarthen and cost £37 to join. Travellers will get talks, walks, readings, visits to significant hills, buildings, desks, windows, trees, streams and fields. Included in the price are lunch, tea, cakes, and numerous coffee stops. Call 02920472266 for a descriptive brochure or check the web site at

A version of this posting appeared in the Western Mail as The Insider on Saturday 30th May, 2009

Saturday, 23 May 2009

The Threat of Nintendo Gaming

For a time now the novel in English has been on the rise in Wales. Despite the ever-present threat from Nintendo gaming, talk shows, reality TV, vertical drinkeries and mobile internet fiction appears to be holding its own. The output from Welsh publishers has climbed steadily. New writers appear with the frequency of speed cameras and reinvigorated older ones pour the stuff out just to keep ahead. The short story, thought of by many as a relic from the pulp fiction past, has enjoyed a total rebirth. Entries to the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition these days exceed all predictions. Collections of stories dot bookshop racks. And rather than simply staring into space people have been actually seen reading them - in doctor’s waiting rooms and on trains. I spotted one man recently reading while cycling. I kid you not.

On the long list for the Wales Book of the Year are two fiction collections. Deborah Kay Davies’ pretty unsettling Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful and Gee Williams’ Blood Etc. There are also two novels – Joe Dunthorne’ s Submarine and Stephen May’s TAG. New authors all and making waves. Against them stand Dai Smith with his brilliant Raymond Williams biography, A Warrior’s Tale. How on earth will the judges make a choice among such disparate stuff?

They’ve also got the poetry complication to manage. Verse has rarely ever featured in the Awards. Too difficult. Too short. Too irrelevant. Can’t be compared to fiction. But things change. Poetry is again on the rise. Five whole titles have appeared on the long list. John Barnie, one of the Award’s three judges characterised the year as a vintage one for verse. Never has Wales produced so much consistently good stuff. Not in several decades.

Matthew Francis, Robert Minhinnick, Sheenagh Pugh, Zoë Skoulding and Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch are all now shifting their slim vols by the shed load and sitting in the garrets with baits in their breaths. Might poetry get onto the short list of three? That will be announced at the Hay Literature festival on the 25th of May. Could verse even take the £10,000 prize? That distant possibility now looks considerably probable. Do I actually know anything? Has someone spoken to me, quietly into my ear? Not yet. I’m just giving you a balanced and informed view. Poetry is certainly in the best place it has been for years.

If you’d like to check for yourselves ask for Not In These Shoes, Long-Haul Travellers, King Driftwood, Mandeville and Remains of a Future City at your local bookshop. There’s poetry here from the survivors of both sides of the ancient warring divide. And excellent it is too. Check as soon as possible.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 23rd May, 2009

Saturday, 16 May 2009


So it never actually did turn out to be the new rock and roll. That was merely a marketing ploy from the nineties. Poetry more popular now than soccer. That was the headline on a piece I read at the turn of the millennium. That didn’t seem to be true either, given the recent crowds at Ninian Park. But, and not wishing to be compared to a government finance minister, I have seen signs of new green shoots out there.

We have a new Poet Laureate and one who turns out to be best mates with our own National Poet, Gillian Clarke. Carol Ann Duffy, the radical choice and famous loose cannon is now actually the woman at poetry’s top. She’s no stranger to Wales, either, having toured here many times down the decades. And what’s more important, people actually enjoy what she does.

At the Hay Festival research showed that audiences like to hear writers talk to each other and reveal secrets about their private life. The work itself comes a poor second. I’m paraphrasing, naturally, but this doesn’t sound good for verse. Live poetry is an art form which scores by having itself read out loud, performed, recited, said.

Not that this hasn’t stopped Peter Florence including a whole raft of great versifiers in this year’s scintillating show. Among them are Imtiaz Dharker, Richard Marggraff Turley, Damian Walford Davies, Kevin Crossley-Holland, the woman tipped for the chair of poetry at Oxford, Ruth Padel, the nearly Laureates Roger McGough and Simon Armitage, Lavinia Greenlaw, James Fenton, Maurice Riordan and Carol Ann herself.

Back in the town, Lyndon Davies and John Goodby’s Hay Poetry fringe runs at Salem Chapel. This alternative jamboree majors on the sort of poetry that normally attracts men in great coats and women in cheesecloth dresses. However this year it could be that the alternative has come of age. The programme sets out Wales’s alternative stall in some style. John Goodby’s performance troop, Boiled String, the dynamic duo of Wendy Mulford and John James, Chris Torrance, David Greenslade. The inimitable Chris Ozzard. Even the Insider, Peter Finch. A complete roster of outsiders - one-time, actual and real. The only significant Welsh name missing is Llangollen’s tri-lingual Childe Roland.

The Jamboree has two lectures – Alice Entwhistle on women and Matthew Jarvis on recovering the history of other Welsh poetries. It’s a history worth recovering, too. During the Welsh avant garde’s formative years – pretty much everything between 1966 to 2000 - the Welsh literary establishment engaged in what can only be described as an act of determined denial. Few magazine appearances, not anthologised, missing from the criticism. It’s great to see the work now celebrated. The Jamboree runs 28th to 30th May.

A version of this piece appeared in the Western Mail on saturday 16th May, 2009.

Saturday, 9 May 2009


Twentieth century America has been defined by its photographers. The masters have crossed and re-crossed the continent and recorded all they saw. Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange made black and white images of rural hardship. Ansel Adams shot the American west. Weegee captured the naked city. Garry Winogrand photographed women on the streets of New York. Their pictures have become iconic, reproduced on hoardings, in Sunday supplements and in volumes with the photographer’s name on the front. Walker Evans: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Ansel Adams: Yosemite. Weegee’s Naked City. And with its introduction from the King of the Beats, Jack Kerouac, Robert Frank: The Americans. American Americans, a whole culture followed that.

The publishing industry was not slow to capitalise. The books came out in heavy hardback, often costing enough to keep the rural poor in food for a week. They sold in quantity to the emerging middle classes. No coffee table was complete without one.

In Wales, however, we see ourselves through different eyes. We are defined instead not by grand landscape but by our TV presenters, our rugby stars and sometimes by our poets. No surprise, then, that the photographer here is a rarer beast. In recent years, though, the digital revolution has started to hit home and the streets have been replete with snappers attempting to catch everything from the surging of our football crowds to the ubiquitous Welsh street preacher.

I’d like to report that our publishers have been quick to react, but they haven’t. It is only comparatively recently that the Welsh equivalent of the US coffee table doorstop has begun to appear. Parthian’s Coalfaces, for example, is a lovely full-colour compilation from the work of Tina Carr and Annemarie Schöne. These two documentary makers have recorded the townships of the Afan Valley as those lost places dealt with the end of coal. From the same publisher comes Shimon Attie’s The Attraction of Onlookers, a full plate colour study of the inhabitants of Aberfan. Black backdrops, hard poses and Welsh to the core.

Seren have gone to the top with Magnum Photographer David Hurn’s Living in Wales - duotone shots of Welsh greats – Bryn Terfel, Colin Jackson, Peter Hain. They have also published Anthony Stokes masterwork, The Valleys, a quirky, multi-coloured take on disparate and often workless communities. Iain Sinclair takes on the Kerouac role and provides the introduction.

Seren also publish the Real series. Books on conurbations by writers more used to the pen than the camera. Mario Basini, Nigel Jenkins, Niall Griffiths, Grahame Davies, Ann Drysdale and, soon, Jon Gower, have all snapped as well as typed. Check out their edgy and often unconventional results. Try Real Merthyr as an entrée. Move on to Real Wrexham and Real Swansea after that.

A version of this post appeared at The Insider in the Western Mail of 9th May, 2009

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Not On the Sat Nav Yet

GPS usually means something to do with phones and sat navs but in poet Ric Hool’s case it stands for Global Poetry Systems. Ric is from Abergavenny and is author of the excellent Voice from a Correspondent. He has recently been appointed to make a Welsh contribution to the new Southbank Centre plan to map the UK’s poetry world. When the irrepressible Lemn Sissay, the Centre’s poet in residence, decided to collect all the poetry available in the complex he discovered much more than a shelf of books. Lemn found text engraved in memorial signs, on stage in the words accompanied by great classical music, rhymes in the memories of visitors, poems from the greats in celebration of concerts they had attended, stuff on posters and graffitied on the walls. It struck him that verse actually penetrated much deeper into our psyches than we realised. It was all around us. Security guards wrote it in the depth of night. Parents sung it to their children. Students used it to change the world. He decided to do some mapping. He found poetry in quantity. The results were enormously encouraging.

The project has now been rolled out as a pilot right across the UK. A dozen poets and activists from Belfast to Birmingham will be devoting a week soon to collecting the poetry where they live. They’ll be scooping up everything from gravestone memorials to part-recollections of W H Auden and William Shakespeare, from poetry on the shelves in newsagents to brand new pieces made specifically for their locations.

Ric will be working his patch with diligence. He doesn’t have long. The results will be compiled into a Southbank Centre managed web site and, if things go well and funds from the Cultural Olympiad arrive as they should, there’ll be an exhibition right across the ground floor of Queen Elizabeth Hall. Cases of text. Works from the great and the good and the trying hard. Interactive posters. Giant maps that play verse recordings when you stand on them. Photographs of poetry in the landscape. Engravings. Poems knitted into bed quilts. Memories of books. Actual books. Words on the sails of yachts. Poems in newspapers. Verse workshopped by local school children, recalled by immigrants, written in paint and chalk across the city’s back lanes and city halls.

The precise extent of the geographic area Ric will be covering is yet to be agreed. Too large and poetry will get lost, too small and there won’t be enough. Expect it to be Abergavenny and environs. The town and the hills. The bookshops and the schools. The south-east Wales GPS project is a co-operation between Academi and the Southbank Centre. Dave Woolley will be running another will run from the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea.

A version of this blog appeared in The Western Mail on Saturday 2nd May, 2009 as The Insider