Friday, 26 November 2010

Life Has Five Plots Does It?

There are only about five plots in the whole of creativity. Almost everything fits into one of these. Rise to fame, fall from grace, win love, lose it and death. Can you think of anything that’s not covered by those? George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual - which is more a building plan than a novel - is one. Childe Roland’s 700 empty-page life story is another. The Widow Wadman’s state of mind depicted by a blank page inserted in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is certainly a third, although the author does go back to the use of a more conventional plot line later.

The real exceptions have to be books by outsiders. And here I am not talking about strangers who wander into wild west saloons and have the entire place turn and look at them but writers who have somehow positioned themselves beyond conventional society. The sort of writer described by Colin Wilson in his seminal The Outsider. Authors who are somehow dislocated and at odds with the conventional world, who see no way forward, are full of gloom, who see too much, too deeply, and simply can’t cope.

The classics of the genre is The Outsider itself, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea where the hero allows the inanimate world to overwhelm him, Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, and Franz Kafka’s The Trial. If you are outside society then you can all the more easily record what’s going on within. If that fails you can then drink or drug yourself into a stupor, as Malcolm Lowry does in Under the Volcano.

For many this is a beguiling path. Just check out some of the literature from the Beat Generation to see what Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and, in particular, William Burroughs managed. The drinking episodes of the UK equivalent – the Angry Young Men John Wain, Kingsley Amis and Stan Barstow - pale into insignificance by comparison.

In Wales the nearest we’ve ever come to all this have been Dylan Thomas’s drinking bouts. These, however, never actually appear in any of his writings. Does that mean that the Welsh have no outsider tradition? Despite the sight of any number of authors in a variety of states on inebriation at events we don’t actually have much written history here. Even the late John Tripp’s work largely sticks to the moral – try his selected writings in the recently published The Meaning of Apricot Sponge (Parthian) to see what I mean.

The forthcoming appearance of Richard Gwyn’s A Vagabond’s Breakfast will change all this. Gwyn, no mean author by any means, chronicles a lost decade of alcoholism, vagabondery, serial hospitalisations, laying on floors across Europe and a final resolution with a 2006 liver transplant. After this Welsh writing is not going to be the same. More strength to Gwyn, the ultimate winner.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #174

Friday, 19 November 2010

Dusty Things That get In The Way

My mother always had a deep dislike of books. They were dusty things that got in the way. They had to be stuffed from sight into the backs of cupboards. In the front room bookcase was a set of china dancing ladies, a carriage clock and a fruit bowl with no fruit. My books were upstairs, under my bed, in a box. How reading became my lifetime’s obsession I’ll never know. It could have been my uncle, who each Christmas gave me books about Poland. Or my father who’d offer me Dickens when no one was looking. Or maybe it was the local library where out of nowhere I found choice and freedom and endless science fiction.

Once this road had been embarked on there was, of course, no end. It was never a battle between reading or not reading but always one of what to select next. The massively politically incorrect Henry Miller, when I discovered him, offered a panoply of directions. Barely a chapter of any of his books went by without the author coming up with long lists of recommended works and the names of great authors that readers should follow.

In a dark corner I found the great fantasist John Cowper Powys’s 100 Best Books which offered a sort of road map. Better was Philip Ward’s mind-bending A Lifetime’s Reading in which a game plan for the next fifty years was delineated. This offered the reader an enthralling education through the consumption of five hundred books. Did I manage it, all 500? Certainly not. But I had a go.

How you decide on what to read next is, of course, a matter of enormous interest to publishers. Do you pick your reading matter by reputation of the author, because you’ve read about the book in the papers, heard about it on TV, liked the sound of title, or seen it in the hands of others, intently being read on the train? “I can’t understand why anyone would want to write a novel when you can pick one up for just a few cents” said an American journalist. And he was right. The market is glutted. The choice goes on forever.

Bookclubs offer one way out. Here you gather among friends, all having consumed the same title, to praise, destroy and discuss. Once that’s done you collectively select the next month’s read and off you go, a mandated title to explore.

Sometimes there’s a surprise waiting. At a club I attended I had the author secretly wait in the kitchen while the discussion rolled and then brought her out when all was done. Luckily the book had gone down well. But it might not have.

Book clubs are booming. Check your library for information about the nearest one to you.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #173

Monday, 15 November 2010

Dog In The Room

At the reading the jokes between poems didn’t quite work the way they should have. I could see the audience starting to laugh but not quite getting there. Smiles, hands over mouths, but no roaring storm as there can often be. Why? Stand-up comedians will tell you that no two audiences are ever the same and that the smallest thing can make all the difference. Dog in the room. Woman in a big hat. What you need is the crowd in a dense slab right in front of you. They should be relaxed. Among them should be a giggler who’ll set everyone else off. Drink beforehand will help. So, too, will a sense of being there because they’d chosen to rather than because they’d been sent.

What was different about my lot? They’d paid to come, chosen to come, wanted to come, had bought the books, read them, got me to sign a stack. Fine. But they were all sitting in a line, wider than deep. Felt exposed. Didn’t gel. So it goes.

I was in Liverpool, at the Bluecoat, first visit for a year or two and how the place has changed. We might be proud of our newest European Capital and its world-beating waterfront down in Cardiff but Liverpool’s revitalised skyscrapered dockland with its acres of space and feeling of the future knocks us sideways. You can see why it was they who got to be Capital of Culture in 2008 and not us.

My event had been curated by Gladys Mary Coles, operator of Headland Books. She proudly presented me with a stack of her latest. Headland walks the line between the established and the brand new. The books are well produced and reasonably priced. She’s just published David Woolley’s Pursued By A Bear and will be doing a collection by the silent for too long Sally Roberts Jones next. Among the pile I received were sets by Brian Smith, Sue Moules and Norma Jones, these last two poets in the same volume. Headland like the idea of double collections for those starting out.

Best of the bunch, however, was Headland’s anthology celebrating twenty-one years of the writing centre at Tŷ Newydd - The Listening Shell. Everyone in the book has either taught there or been taught there. National Poet Gillian Clarke, who doubles as Tŷ Newydd President, provides the foreword. The poets who follow demonstrate the range of Tŷ Newydd’s interests, the quality of what it does and the place it occupies in literary Britain. There’s work from Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, David Constantine, Philip Gross, Robert Minhinnick, Oliver Reynolds, Alicia Stubbersfield, Fiona Sampson, Sheenagh Pugh, Tony Curtis, Adam Horovitz and plenty more. Headland. £7.95. Order yours now.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #172

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Porn is Rampant and Nobody Reads Anymore

According to writer Gary Shteyngart the future of America is one where nobody reads and porn is rampant. Jobs in retail trump everything and the National Guard patrol Manhattan. How soon? Ten years. What happens in the US first happens to us next. On my recent visit to the American south I expected to see flags, southern Baptists and even more never-leave-your-car shopping experiences than I had last time. And, given the progressive nature of the land of the free, everyone would be using iPads and Kindles. Books, in paper form at least, would no longer be.

What I actually witnessed was rather different. To start with there seemed to be fewer drive-ins although given the increasing number at home maybe I’d simply got used to the phenomenon. The 9/11 marking at a festival I attended went by in perfunctory fashion with little of the national heart wrenching I’d seen on previous visits. Then there was the lack of iPads. Well, i anything actually.

Looking around the 2000-strong audience I spotted only one man holding an object that could be said to resemble a portable device. When I got closer this turned out to be a games machine. So much for progress. Nevertheless , a large proportion of these North Carolina festival goers were reading. Novels, collections of short fiction, paperbacked poetry. Out here the book certainly wasn’t in retreat. You wouldn’t experience this amount of mass open air reading anywhere in Wales, even at the Hay Literature Festival. Death of the paper book? Not yet.

Back home I found my Kindle waiting. Slim, elegant, very light weight and resolutely black and white. Would I get on with this? Could I use it in bed? As digital machines go it turned out to be pretty flawless. Operation was instinctive, the displayed text easy on the eye and pages changed at the flick of a fingertip.

Online at the Kindle Store masses of free content awaited. Dictionaries, science fiction compendia, the complete works of Dickens, classic poetry by the lorry load. There was also any amount of free blog-books by self-published literary wannabes content to forego professional profit just to be read.

In the commercial section titles turned out not to cost quite as much as I’d expected. Delivery was instant. Press the buy button and text would arrive by 3G in seconds - the cost recouped from my card virtually without me noticing. The future, certainly, but would it catch on? I got off the train at Cardiff Bay amid a rush of Sudoku players and window gazers. Ahead of me was a woman reading as she walked. That’s something you don’t see much these days. And what was she using? A kindle.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in The Western Mail. #171

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Men Only

Is the history of Welsh writing in English a male preserve? Did women take part? Or are the Anglo-Welsh a bit like the American Beat generation – men, men and then more men. Women hanging around the fringes, stringing beads and drinking wine while the men do writing’s real work. It’s certainly the case that Wales’ golden age of Anglo outpouring was managed almost entirely by males.

At a poems and pints night as part of this year’s BayLit Festival (held, amazingly, in Cardiff Central Library where books and beer have never before mixed) Aisling Tempeny told us in a very funny poem what studying the subject was like. Welsh writing in English consisted of blokes called Jones, Williams, Thomas, Rhys and Davies with first names like Rhys, William, Gwyn, and Glyn. There was a Gwyn Jones and a Glyn Jones and a Thomas Jones and a Rhys Davies, a Lewis Jones, a Lewis Davies and then even a Richard Lewis Davies. Men in a cymric blur. Women not present. How does the newcomer manage?

And I admit that I’ve found it hard, sometimes, to market such things with precision. When the Academi’s annual Gwyn Jones lecture was on the subject of Glyn Jones, both éminences grise , I did have trouble passing the message on. That’s the problem with Welsh names. Curtis, Webb and Tripp are the memorable exceptions.

The first set of free author postcards from Academi and the Rhys Davies Trust featured sixteen faces. All dead. These were images from the core of twentieth century Welsh writing in English. Brenda Chamberlain was one. The other fifteen were men. Jack Jones, Gwyn Jones, RS, Tripp, Rhys Davies, Glyn Jones, Raymond Williams, Roland Mathias. The authors on whom our tradition rests.

Were women missing because they didn’t exist, had been overlooked or simply never had their books published. They certainly exist - if you hunt literary history you’ll find dozens of female names. Women writers were overlooked by a generation of readers but are now back with a bang. Check the work of the English departments and the output of the reprinting presses for proof.

Academi and the Rhys Davies Trust have now launched a second set of free postcards, including images of a few writers who are still with us. Black and white images of Hilda Vaughan, Margiad Evans, Lynette Roberts, Dorothy Edwards feature prominently. There are also cards depicting Idris Davies, Caradoc Evans, Ron Berry, David Jones, W H Davies and a very youthful looking Dannie Abse. Two wear hats, one has beads and eleven wear ties. Another age. To get your free set send a large self addressed envelope to Academi, Writers Postcards: Set 2, Mount Stuart House, Mount Stuart Square, Cardiff CF10 5FQ.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #170