Saturday, 26 June 2010

How To Make The Job Work

What happens to columnists when they’ve done six hundred and find the place where they started coming round again? If you were Tom Davies then you’d simply carry on. Tom, novelist, raconteur, reporter, investigative hack and perpetual commentator on the vagaries of life in Wales has spilled the beans in his recent Berwyn Mountain Press paperback, The Reporters Tale. Davies was for many years a columnist on this paper. He was a firecracker of a journalist who delivered news and insight as often as he did outrage, indignation and shed loads of damning with faint praise.

His life as a regional journalist making good on the London nationals and then falling from grace and returning to Wales makes for exhilarating reading. The story of his trials and tribulations is almost as engaging as the stuff on which he reported. Davies began work on the Mail in grand company. Among fellow newcomers in 1966 were Geraint Talfan Davies, later Controller of the BBC, Meic Stephens, Director at the Welsh Arts Council and Rhys David, editor of the Financial Times. The Mail, it turns out, has much to answer for.

Tom went on to work on the Guardian, The Daily Express and The Sunday Times

with episodes as a coalman and a Christian evangelist in between. In that way of wayward creatives who are never happy where they are he ended up working as a novelist. There are sixteen fat titles listed on this ink man’s bibliography. One Winter of the Holy Spirit, the story of Evan Roberts and the 1904 revival in Wales is an excellent place to start.

Herbert Williams also did time with Media Wales although it was called the South Wales Echo back then. This much loved seventy something performing poet, novelist and historian can still be found making spirited forays onto the poetry platform. Phil Carradice has pieced together his life in a Writers of Wales series critical handbook. The Williams volume tells the story of an Aberystwyth-born Anglo-Welsh pioneer who tangled with news stories as often as he wove fiction.

Like Tom, Herbert found the place he began, the old Welsh Gazette, creatively stifling. He went to work on the Reading Standard before shuttling back to Wales to scribe for the South Wales Echo, the Wales Tourist Board and then the BBC.

Novels, poetry, histories of trains, stagecoaches and monuments spun out of him.

Try Davies The Ocean, the story of the great industrialist David Davies Llandinam or A Severe Case of Dandruff, his novel about the ravages of TB to see what a class journalist can turn out when he puts his mind to it.

These two are writers who made the job work. Check them out.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 26th June, 2010. #153

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The Sounds of Silence Once Again

What kind of silence do writers need? Absolute, according to some. Grahame Davies told me that even a creak on the stairs could foul up one of his couplets. Creativity only works when the world sleeps and there’s a seep of silence through everything. Not so for me, however. Unless I’ve got Miles or Jackson Browne on the player then nothing happens. Things that roar seem to occupy the part of my head that normally deals with distractions leaving the rest free to get on with the business of putting words in order.

Readers seem to find the same thing. Silence notices in libraries are a thing of the past. Bookshops fill their backgrounds with pop. It’s an age of multitasking. Many young people appear able to listen to their iPods, text on their phones and cycle on the pavements all at the same time. Do any also consume paperbacks? Allegedly they do.

Thirty years ago music and poetry rarely occupied the same slice of space time. Mike Jenkins might pull out a harmonica and do a Captain Beefheart impersonation between verses but he was an exception. Mostly music stayed on the radio. Today it’s another world. The new Welsh book has to have music at its launch. Readings without some sort of musical diversion are starting to become rare.

If it’s not Patrick Jones winding his words into his brother Nicky Wire’s sonic slipstream then it’s John Williams reading slices of his forthcoming biography of Shirley Bassey to jazzy riffs from Richard James. Llwyd Owen’s first English title Faith, Hope & Love swam into sight backed by The Gentle Good. Matthew David Scott’s Balloon events in Cardiff always mix music with text. The last time the literary scene was as musically rich as this was when John Tripp recited to the accompaniment of live music at the old Oriel Bookshop. Beer, jazz and literature made a heady mix.

Music journalist Will Hodgkinson’s The Ballad of Britain, an entertainingly written travelogue that follows the author’s treck around the UK in search of folksong, has a fair bit about Wales. Hodgkinson drives west to reach the rain-filled Dyfed triangle in the company of Cate le Bon. The eminent chanteuse is reported as having some disarmingly honest things to say about the Eisteddfod and the Welsh musical tradition. Hodgkinson also records a singing Gruff Rhys wearing noisy wellingtons in the car park of Brecon’s Green Man festival. Our heritage is enriched considerably as a result.

When the title was launched (at Laugharne, where else) the author interspersed his readings with singers. When done the audience were unsure if they should now buy the book or hunt out the accompanying CD. Do both. The book comes from Portico. The CD from Heron. It’s a new world.

Aversion of this blog posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 19th June, 2010. #152

Saturday, 12 June 2010

How Wide Is This Country?

How big is Wales? Our size makes a good media simile. “A region on Mars about as big as Wales”. “The fast approaching oil slick covers an area about the size of Wales”. “The Ganges Delta, a flood plain about the size of Wales”. Wales, of course, used to be much bigger than it is now. Check the Welsh sounding villages that riddle Herefordshire. Visit Catterick, once named Catraeth, home of the Gododdin, the earliest Welsh text. The whole of the north of Britain lapping into Scotland was once Yr Hen Ogledd, the Old North. Can you imagine how many Gogs there were then?

The size of Wales today, naturally, is readily defined. You can see the country’s shape incorporated into logos, t-shirts and the sides of builders’ vans up and down the land. What’s much harder to discern is the nature of the Welsh who live here (or elsewhere for that matter). How do you become Welsh? Be born here? Have Welsh parents? Speak the tongue. Have an uncle who visited once in 1910?

The more you delve the harder definitions become. For every rule there always turns out to be a valid exception. In the end you conclude, as Prof Tony Curtis once did in his hunt for a definition of poetry, that you are if you say you are. A poem is so because its creator has decided it is. In our massively mobile world so, too, it seems with identity.

At the Wales Book of the Year Prize, awarded for the best creatively written works in English and in Welsh, we’ve gone through a similar process of definition. Things are easy with the Welsh language. If the work is in that tongue then it’s considered. With English things are much tougher.

What should we do with significant writers, born elsewhere, but now entirely at home in Pontypridd and contributing to our culture? Or those who have lived and worked all their lives in Wales but now reside retired in, say, Orkney? How about Tynesiders, with accents to match, who have lived in Wales long enough to master the language and win Eisteddfod prizes?

How wide should our embrace be? As wide as possible. Are we not a welcoming country? Book of the Year stretches the borders. Nikolai Tolstoy, the Anglo-Russian historian and UKIP candidate from the English midlands is in. His book is about the Mabinogi, how much more Welsh can you get than that? Jasmine Donahaye, English, Jewish, but now living in Swansea and the new editor of that eminent Welsh journal, Planet. She’s in. So too is Philip Gross, Cornish, Estonian, but now at the heart of Welsh creativity in Glamorgan.

Watch out for the results. Wales Book of the Year Winners will be announced on 30 June 2010.

An earlier version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday June 12th, 2010. #151

Monday, 7 June 2010

Tweet If You Agree

Technology is wonderful. When it’s shown on TV it’s always in HD, runs at lightning speed and works everytime. Our heroes patch themselves without flicker directly into the city’s CCTV to watch fluid action on the city streets. The protagonist will open his laptop and with instant boot-up will connect via brilliant, colour enhanced and stable Skype to a fellow operator calling in from the Gobi Desert. Action will flow. Voices will sync. When M checks her email she can always remember her password and without a pause her account loads first time.

Workstations do not get viruses. Nothing gets in to take the embarrassing content of C drives and to mail it out, in fragments, to all the operator’s friends. EBook readers work in full sun and their batteries never run down.

On the train along the Welsh border it is not like this. Signal is as fictional as the novel I’m reading. Text messages are about as instant as old time letter post. By the time we reach Ludlow my battery, which I forgot to put on essential overnight charge, is down to 10%. I try checking the weather. The screen stays blank.

In the house it’s just as bad. Here I have to lean against the inside of the front door to get anything. And I don’t live anywhere odd. This is a standard city terrace not surrounded by big buildings. The tallest nearby thing would be a passing double-decker bus. There’s a better signal at the Writers Centre at Ty Newydd in Llanystumdwy. Although you do have to stand on a tree-stump in the top field to get that.

Pre computer the worst thing that ever happened was that through overuse keys on your typewriter stopped working. The poet John Tripp’s machine was famous for having most of the vowels type out of alignment. The lines of his verse wobbled as they sang.

The Oulipo group of writers developed a whole art form based around malfunctioning pre-computer technology. A typewriter which had the letter e missing was seen as a creative challenge. Could a novel be written using only words which avoided this vowel? George Perec’s “A Void” (La Disparition) was the result. “A familiar story of a drunk man waking up with his brain in a whirl”.

Do we do this kind of thing in Wales? The poet J P Ward has a letter to the editor of the latest Poetry Wales in which all the keys of his typer appear to be transposed. “Imno pqrstuvwx” he writes. “y za bcdefgh……” M could probable work out what he’s saying, no bother.

On the train near Newport the phone signal returns. Mark Taylor is the new WMC CEO an incoming tweet tells me. Progress at last.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 5th June, 2010. There is too much text for me to tweet.