Thursday, 26 May 2011

Following The Grid Line

As I went up through Llandaf with an 1880 Ordnance Survey map of the district in my hand I wondered just what I’d find. Would the totality have changed? Would the old streets shown from a hundred and twenty years ago have vanished into the dust to be replaced by new structures, terraces, parking places, curry houses and shops? Not a bit. The grid was identical, it was just the detail that had morphed. How much had we added here in a century? Not as much as you’d think. I wrote what I discovered down.

This act, artificial, contrived, even faintly ridiculous, was one of psychogeography. I discovered this later when the book of which my Llandaf piece formed part was published. Real Cardiff. ‘Finch is clearly a flaneur, suggested one reviewer. ‘A situationist,’ remarked another. ‘A psychogeographer. One who lets the built environment inform his emotions, who has discovered new ways for the pedestrian to explore the city, someone who lets go and ambles, a literary explorer of maps.’ So that’s what I was. Amazing.

Will Self, I discovered, had for years authored a column called Psychogeography for The Independent. In it he wrote of his experiences walking to New York, using trains to reach sales conferences, living in an empty high rise on Merseyside. He was the embodiment of what turned out to be a growing popular movement of artists and activists who had for years been using such conceits to propel themselves across the planet.

There were those who used numbers, throwing dice to define a grid point and then seeing who could get there first. Others followed the grid lines themselves as they bisected the landscape. Could the line be walked? When it reached buildings could you go through them, into the window, through the door, over the roof?

Iain Sinclair, author of one of the seminal reworkings of the urban landscape, Lights Out The Territory walked the M25, staying within 300 meters of the roadway, and recorded his experiences. What was there, in this liminal landscape? Abandoned factories, mental asylums, storage tanks, waste.

My own psychogeographic amblings took me along the entire Cardiff route of the Glamorgan Canal. Gone for decades. Who knew where it had run? With photographer John Briggs I tracked the long vanished Roath Branch railway from Gabalfa into Cardiff Docks. In a single day I tried to climb as many of Cardiff’s tall buildings as I could. I visited every street named after a battle, planet or element. I drank in all the pubs of Canton.

This last episode took some doing and, I have to admit, is still incomplete. Progress is slow. The pubs are closing too fast. Check Seren’s Real series for progress.


Saturday, 21 May 2011

Gongs Again

Its’ award season once again. Those months of the year during which the Eisteddfod, the Wales Book of the Year, the Dylan Thomas Prize and all the other lesser events give out their gongs. Winners will proliferate. But is the achievement real? Prizes? You get them by chance, because you know the judges, because your name fits, because you were in the right place at the right time, because your publisher pushed you, because of bribery, because it’s a fix.

As far as I can tell this latter accusation may run true in America but has little foundation here at home. Scandal, however, is a prize season currency. If things do not go according to plan the press come out in droves, delighted. Book cock-ups make headlines and have been doing so for years.

Back when the Nobel Prize was virtually the only literary award operating its first winner wasn’t contender Leo Tolstoy but a minor French poet called Sully Prudhomme. How could the judges be so blind? Quite easily, as it transpired. In future years they went on to omit Hardy, Ibsen, Kafka, Proust, Valery, Rilke and James Joyce. Did the award signify outstanding literary talent and world-beating prowess, asked the press? Clearly not.

In 1974 conflict of interest mired the Booker Prize when one of the judges, the wife of Kingsley Amis, Elizabeth Jane Howard, short listed her husband’s Ending Up. In later years the same pattern repeated. Judges pushed works by their spouses, sons, lovers, agents and publishers. Can there be anyone on the scene who is truly independent?

James Kelman won the 1994 Booker with a novel in thick Glaswegian dialect, How Late It Was, How Late (in which the world’s favourite swear word appears more than 4000 times). It emerged that the judges had selected his book not because it was their first choice but rather to block the first choices of others. Judge Julia Neuberger broke rank after the ceremony and denounced the work as rubbish. The author, she said, “was just a drunken Scotsman”.

In Wales the Book of the Year attracts similar disturbances, although not quite on the same scale. Who will ever forget the Minister who read out the wrong name as winner? YouTube certainly won’t. In the long past there have been judges who have leaked and who have publicly disagreed. There have been writers who have been upset and those who have promised to give their award to charity and didn’t. And then there have been those who have immediately vanished from the literary scene without a trace thus underlining the award’s efficacy.

Overall, however this Welsh Booker has been a cracking success. Increasing sales, great winners, excitement, entertainment, literature as a horse race. The short list for 2011 is here


Monday, 16 May 2011

This Stuff Is Like Liquid Gold

What’s top of the loan list at libraries? What regularly rides high among the bookshop best sellers? Nothing less than that literary equivalent of a reality show, the biography. The life story, a tale pulled from the real world, from tangible events featuring named and actual people. How easy are these things to write? Very, if the number turned out by minor celebrities, pop singers, politicians and sports persons of every stripe is anything to go by. It doesn’t matter, it seems, how your earlier academic life might have gone. If you are famous then, by definition, you can write. Check out some of these wonders, they read like liquid gold.

The reality is, of course, that most are ghost written. The famous person’s manager sets it up. The famous persons speaks, the ghost takes notes. The book comes out and a million pounds are earned. The world simply can’t get enough of the truth behind the glitter. Or what they are told is the truth. And what might, to some, be glitter.

But not all biographies are done this way. Many are simply the product of a determined writer’s desire to tell a good story. John Williams’ recent biographies of Michael X and Shirley Bassey are cases in point. Both tell the tale of people who have had interesting and pertinent lives. And Williams recounts their stories with aplomb.

However, not everything always goes to plan. Here’s Dawn French: “I have had the unfortunate experience of having someone write an unauthorised biography of me. Half of it is lies and the other half is badly written. My feeling is that if I'm going to write my life story, I ought to have my life first.” Or, as Chris Eubank said when asked if he had ever considered writing an autobiography, “On what?”

These and some other problems that you may have encountered when trying to tell your own or someone else's story were the centrepiece of Literature Wales's Writing For Life conference at Blaenavon over the weekend. Howard Marks was the star, a man gone well beyond biography and now writing creative fiction. But it was Dai Smith who stole the show.


Thursday, 5 May 2011

Not Much Of A Spectator Sport

Why do we listen to poetry? Many of us don’t, of course. Verse recitation is hardly a great spectator sport . It’s thought of by many of as a minority activity in the same category as collecting diesel electric shunter numbers or participating in kendo. That’s the Japanese art of the sword practised while wearing head to toe black robes and metal head gear, if you were wondering. Poetry, when read out loud by its author, can give us not only music and magnificence, entertainment and elevation, but new insight into what the writer actually meant. If, indeed, they did actually have some content to impart and were not simply making an artistic statement.

The form has come a long way. When I first experienced it (decades ago, back bar, Park Hotel, A G Prys Jones in an armchair delivering somnambulant verse to a prim audience already mostly asleep) poetry readings seemed to be too intellectual an activity for their own good. Organisers were chastised for letting their poets on stage wearing anything less than a suit. Poets were asked to hand out written versions of their verses in advance lest the audience lose their way. Poetry was straight and it was quiet. We went home at 9.30 full of worth.

In the twenty-first century this is no longer how things are. In reasonably quick succession I have recently experienced the whole contemporary range. First up was a reading by the backwoods open-field master of the mystic, Chris Torrance. This was delivered by a hat-wearing, seated poet to the accompaniment of techno, treated guitar music from the inimitable Chris Vine. The event was as much a poetry performance as it was a musical adventure. I then attended a more traditional poets from the floor stand-up event which included readings (i.e. with bits of paper in front of the poet), recitations (here the poet recited from memory), along with a performance from one new-tech innovator who read from text flashed to his iPhone. The entire audience appeared to be participants. I began to wonder who the readings were actually for.

At the launch for The Listening Shell, a book of poems celebrating the writing centre, Ty Newydd, there was a large crowd. The poets, and there were loads of these, everyone from Samantha Wynn Rhydderch to Tony Curtis and Nigel Jenkins to Paul Henry, appeared on stage in managed order. No one read more than a single piece. It was all over by 9.00. The audience loved it. Exposed but not drowned. Less is more.

At the Spoken Word All Stars in the Pierhead the multiracial crew had not a single scrap of paper between them. Poetry, delivered from the hip by the hip and for the hip, flowed seamlessly for ninety minutes. The audience rocked, poetry rolled. Verse out loud, it still works.