Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Now I'm a Cyclist Too I Just Can't Cope

I’m slogging up Newport Road, Cardiff carrying two bags of shopping and with a rucksack on my back. It’s been raining and there’s water everywhere. A cyclist dressed like a praying mantis and going like a rocket barrels down the narrowing pavement as it passes under the Valley Rail line to Queen Street Station. Pedestrians scatter. But somehow not me. I end up with my carrier of apples, M&S ready meals, a CD by Jeff Beck and a DVD of Elvis’ first four films (reduced to ten quid so therefore essential) ripped from my hand and scattered to the four winds. The streaking cyclist vanishes into the distance. Par for the course, this course, so it seems. Newport Road, the eastern gateway, the route out of here to Wales’ first city, Newport. Then Chepstow, the border and centralist England beyond. The only place now without its own devolved administration, as a Tweeter recently said.

I’ve come along here, down the years, with any number of writers. Adrian Mitchell when he was resident author at the Sherman. Adrian Henri after the Liverpool Scene had played Charles Street. Hunting for a late night drink. With Czech grandmaster Miroslav Holub looking for a room. With sound poet Bob Cobbing heading to my house to sleep on my battered settee.

There seems to be something about this whole writers on tour business that is against proper hotels preferring cut-price put-you-ups instead. It’s happened to me. I’ve slept on z-beds, collapsed couches, mattresses with mammary droop, sleeping bags on floors and piles of blankets. When you are touring you get expenses, yes, but given the level of fee usually offered you need to spend them with care.

This is one of the essential difficulties with writing. Everyone expects you to do it for free, or for a fee so low it might as well be. There’s a notion that somehow your book sales will increase and you’ll get your costs back from the margin you make on that. Or that your publisher, rich beyond dreams, will magically cover whatever you spend. Limousine, five star, fine dining, multiple top end sandwiches in the first class on the way back.

Last time I got myself up to the level of entitlement to that it turned out that the line I was travelling on didn’t run first class carriages. And when I asked my publisher to pay for my overnight at the five-star Llangollen Hilton they just laughed.

Back on Newport Road I’ve reached the Four Elms, a place where Ifor Thomas once carved a stack of books into fragments with a chain saw. You could do that then. No health and safety. Another bike hurtles towards me. I hide in the bus shelter. Is the world getting better or worse?


Thursday, 21 April 2011

Gabble Rather Than Books

How many ways are there to read a book? You pick it up in the hope that you can lose yourself in it, that the story will grip you enough for you not to want to put the thing down. You hope it will illuminate parts of your life that have been dark for decades, that it will explain to you how you are what you are. You want it to be set in the world you live in, with characters like those around you, so you can relate. You want it to take you to places you’ve never been, worlds you don’t know, to give you vicariously experiences you could never get any other way. You want it to take the language in your ears and bend it into new and thrilling shapes. You want it to lift your spirit, to turn all the lights on and to make the world sing.

Reading can make us better people. Yet despite what you might hear there’s a crisis going on out there. Literature is in retreat – too elitist, too obscure, too non-productive, too economically backward, too difficult, too distant. What’s there to replace it? Immediacy, street life, gabble, things that engage for the shortest of moments. Literature has fought back with flash fiction (novels of fifty words or less), one word poetry, text message tales, life stories now told to camera but never written down.

At a literary dinner recently Ken Follett told us that thrillers worked only when there was a tension present that could be drawn out to fill the entire work. One that kept the reader engaged. He said that the life of his characters had to shift every five pages, just to keep the reader on board. Old stuff, sure. Dickens knew this. But still eminently true. Depicted life needs plot.

Glyn Jones was a great Anglo-Welsh poet and novelist. His classic tale, Island of Apples, will be reprinted shortly by the University of Wales Press. Glyn insisted that plots were best dealt with as core ideas. These things are like snowballs, he once told me. You get a concept, an image, an action, a name, and then you roll it forward and it attracts content as it goes. The novel as a glowing idea rather than a flowing line.

But it’s fiction with self-evident plot that sells, that gets borrowed the most from our shrinking libraries. Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth moves more than 100,000 copies a year. Glyn’s do only a fraction of that.

But don’t dismiss Island of Apples. This is a masterwork. A romantic tale without sex, the pre-adolescent angst of a valley schoolboy coming to terms with the world of the imagination. The reprint will be available in June.


Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Books As Buses

Buses come together, in gangs, like good films, like great nights out, like the men in the poet Wendy Cope’s life. But books, they roll and roll, in an ever rising tide. Of the making of books, as it says in Ecclesiastes, there is no end. Take a look, for example, at the lot of the judges of the Wales Book of the Year Prize. Back in the nineteen-nineties they would need to consider a hundred books and then make their choice. Today that number has doubled. This is the result of technological advance, an improved economy, a desire by funding bodies to see these things professionally hit market and a much enlarged producer base. The literature industry has been teaching creative writers how to do it in increasing numbers since the pale and dark nineteen-fifties. The consequence is more books.

There is evidence out there that, as a leisure activity, reading is on the increase. Book publishing, if not vibrant is certainly a viable activity. TV has not reduced us all to pulp. We turn it off sometimes and spend a few hours with a favourite author, thrilled, excited, enthralled, uplifted. Society has discovered that reading and writing can be acceptable alternatives to wrecking bus shelters, and can help combat depression by aiding feelings of self-worth. I write therefore I am. I read and I improve. The old adages return.

It’s the book prize season again. A time when the best books, or those the judges think might be, rise to the top. The Roland Mathias Prize has just been awarded while the Wales Book of the Year soon will be.

Bowing to pressure from readers who felt it inequitable that poetry should compete against fiction and non-fiction against verse, this year will be the last where that situation prevails. From 2012 Literature Wales will offer category prizes to the best work of fiction, the best book of poetry and the best work of creative non-fiction. From these three winners an overall Book of the Year will be selected. There’ll be a Welsh-medium award as well as one for works published in English. In keeping with these straightened times ceremonials will be minimized.

This year’s award, decided from the bumper crop of works that came out during the past twelve months, will be announced simultaneously in Cardiff and in Bangor.

Who might be in the running? Despite my current job I write I have absolutely no insider knowledge here. But it’s been a good year. Watch this space.

An earlier version of this posting appeared in The Western Mail as The Insider. #193

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Still Real Afters All These Years

It had been a good night at Chapter, proving that the cultural epicentre of the city hadn’t yet completely shifted to Roath. The night before I’d been at Market House, the art centre’s extension next door, a mess of studios, work rooms, offices for small arts companies, designers, publishers, dancers. I’d been talking up the capital, giving the assembled my take on what makes this great place tick, how it shines and shimmers, how it had been in its dirty past, how its Welshness works, how it fits into Wales, a post-industrial coal valley capital, growing ever larger over the hills that stand behind it, recovering land from the mass of tidal bog to its south.

“I bought your Real Cardiff when I first came here,” says the Turkish girl, smiling. “I thought it might tell me where I was”. I tell them about the lost wells of Penylan and the one with the shape of Christ’s knee on the rim. I tell them about the Butes being like Bill Gates and buying out anything that sprang up in opposition. The austere second Marquis with his docks and his visions. The Catholic third with his Victorian Disneyworld at Cardiff’s heart. I talk about the rivers, the Tan, the Whitebrook, the Canna, the Wedal, which we no longer have. We sup Cabernet Sauvignon and sporadically nibble at the crisps brought by the organiser. Some of the listeners buy books.

For many years I came here to the New Welsh Review offices, presided over, then, by the late Robin Reeves. Robin was a green-leaning socialist nationalist. Voice of understanding. Knew the world’s shape. He ploughed a liberal furrow with his literary magazine, NWR. You got a free mug if you subscribed. On these were the faces of Idris Davies and R.S. Mug collectors signed up and then threw the magazine away. The magazine itself has now moved to Aberystwyth and its former offices are occupied by men with drawing boards and computers and tubes of paint. Out of the window I can see early evening Market Road revellers, setting off for the pubs of Cowbridge Road – the Corporation, the Ivor Davies, the Kings Castle, the Admiral Napier. Places full of shine and light.

It has always been like this in West Cardiff. Before the Arts Centre came to Chapter in 1971 the buildings were Cantonian High School. Before that the space was used by the monthly Canton cattle market which ran from the Police Station to Carmarthen Street. Sheep and cattle pens, stables, slaughter house, meat market, manure, dust.

But today culture shines. Blown Magazine is based here and the theatre is the venue for John William’s In Chapters performances. NWR under its new editor Gwen Davies might even launch in the bar. Watch this space.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #192