Thursday, 28 July 2011

Low Life Art Stuff

Beyond the Blue Dragon on Newport Road, familiar Finch territory, “Worst hotel in Cardiff - the bedding is appalling” or “excellent value for money !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”, both this month’s comments on Trip Advisor, take your pick. East of here, out front of the social housing, transient accommodation bed-sits, nineteenth century stone built three stories, gardens paved over, is the Slavic Bar. It’s opposite a house, buried deep in its unclipped hedges, now giant green and towering, called Dom Polski, Polish House. Our friends from the East.

The low garden wall is lined with Slavic faced, crew-cut drinkers. Trainers. Cans. Cigarettes. Laughter. One of them demonstrating to another how he’d managed to punch someone in some fight somewhere and the victim had gone down with a single blow. He weaves it into the thin air, this clout, wide-mouth laughing. Takes another pull on his can, gets his cigarette lit. They could have done this in the comfort of the New Dock Tavern at twice the price but that Broadway pub has gone the way of all its fellows – the Locomotive, The Bertram - unprofitable and shut. So they drink in the street, or just off the street, in trouble-free unregulated harmony, the traffic louder than they are.

I go by here with my notebook. There’s that thing about walking and writing. The two are so close together. Walk and the ideas come foaming up. Scribble them illegibly, try to decipher your gems when you get home. Half the time this proves impossible. I don’t know the answer.

I’ve tried making notes by speaking them into a recorder, or in times of great desperation onto my phone, but this is pretty hopeless. At home I hear mostly the noise of the passing cars or the wind or both. My voice in the mix but hard to clarify. Notes by hand, well we’ve been into that. You need to stop and write slowly. Then either it starts to rain or the moment of inspiration passes.

Ideas are such fleeting things. Hold then up for consideration and they crumble. It is as if you have to get them down without actually thinking. Such a hard act.

None of the drinkers write. I’ve seen no evidence of any of them with pens or paper. Bukowski, if he were alive and here, would have made a whole book out his observations. He would have been there with the can drinkers, knocking his back and encouraging his fellows to go for more. Garrulously smiling. Then he’d make a poem of what he’d seen and heard. A dying art. Or maybe by now, in the twenty-first century, we’ve read just too much of this low-life as art stuff.

Henry Miller started it. Sitting in Paris cafes with his wine and his notepad. Recalling the drunken mauls and women chasing he got up to among the bars of Brooklyn. Whole novels fell from his pen. Sit and wait and stare and the world will give you what you need. Why walk anywhere?

But I have to. It’s what I do. I reach the house and get myself in front of the machine as fast as I can. Turn it on. Will it to boot-up just that little bit more swiftly and then, there it is, the Windows screen and Word launched. I press the keys and out it comes.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Elvis - Dylan Thomas churning out Patience Strong

I don’t know why I’m doing this but I’m listening to Elvis again. The hard stuff. The fifties recordings, the famous Sun sessions, the early tracks he recorded for RCA. In fact pretty much anything that he laid down before disappearing at the end of the 1950s to Germany to do his US national service. Despite the big money backing him the Elvis of those days was still a rebel with a hand in the music he recorded. Try Elvis Presley As He Was Meant To Be Heard which is a four CD set containing his entire 1950s output. In mono, of course. Available for less than a tenner, now that the copyright terminator dateline has rolled another decade on.

When he died, August 1977, bloated and, as a creative force, completely worn I was standing in Buffalo Records on the Hayes in Cardiff. Buffalo was the nearest thing we had in Cardiff to a music superstore. Glass, light, albums everywhere. These were the days before Virgin. The racks were brimming with hand-made punk. Three chord garage music. Do it yourself, anyone can, and thousands did. Johnny Rotten was up there spitting at the world. The music dimmed and the store owner made a rare announcement. “The king has gone. Elvis Presley is dead”. The punks looked up. There was a pause then one of them started to cheer. Then another. It caught like a fire. The King is dead F*** him old fart hooray hooray. Not one of them realising that this man began right where they’d begun. Totally pissed with the staid music around him he created his own instead. Different chords but still only three. Pumped out lightning fast. Vocals screamed on top.

At Graceland last year, where I’d driven along Elvis Presley Boulevard, turned into Lonely Street and stopped just beyond Heartbreak Hotel, the car park was strung with speakers pouring out non-stop Elvis, 24/7. In the hotel my room had a TV set with three channels: Elvis on stage, Elvis films, Elvis songs. The phone was cocooned in fluffy pink cotton. There was a portrait of the great man smiling down at me from the wall. Around the heart-shaped swimming pool fans lounged – middle-aged to elderly, visiting the well springs of their youth.

The place was Elvis Disneyland, no contextualisation, no mention of the bloated, drug-addled state he’d ended up in. On the house tour you got to see all the gold discs, the rumpus room, the den, but for privacy purposes nothing upstairs. Could you get to the bathroom where the king actually passed on? No.

Why did Elvis never come to Europe, never play Wembley or appear at the London Palladium? Rumour was that he hated flying. The truth that his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was actually an escapee from Holland who couldn’t face going back or getting near anywhere near. The fat man with is cigar and his single artist was christened Andreas Cornelis ("Dries") van Kuijk. He never got closer to the Army than watching a military parade.

Elvis’s decline makes his 70s output painful to listen to. I’ve got the set on now, Elvis – Walk a Mile In My Shoes – The Essential 70’s Masters, 120 tracks for something like thirteen quid. I’m two thirds of the way through and I haven’t heard a single track that I’d want to play again. The voice is full of uncontrolled vibrato, unfocused, reaching hard for notes that just aren’t there. And then there’s the material. What on earth were they thinking of? It’s like Dylan Thomas churning out Patience Strong.

Could be, however, that the conspiracy theorists are right. In the same way that men never went to the moon and the twin-towers still stand, Elvis did not die. He’s among us still. Recording voice-overs for TV adverts, working at a petrol station in Dowlais, entering the Porthcawl annual Elvis look-a-like contest and losing. He’d be crap. And, as anyone who is a true fan knows, the king was never that.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Nobody Knows the Location of Ocean Way

There are people out there who have no time for maps. I know. I’ve seen them. They’re the ones who stop you along Newport Road, shouting out from the driver’s seats of Ford Escorts and asking if you know where Toys R Us has moved to, how to get to the Divorce Courts and for precise directions to Ocean Way. Nobody knows the location of Ocean Way. It’s the most frequently demanded and totally under signposted destination in the entire city. And, yes, I do know where all these places are but explaining how to reach them in terms turning left at the fourteenth set of traffic lights and so on always causes eyes to glaze. You can see the information I impart draining into the ground never to rise again.

And why ask me? I suppose I’m now old enough to look either knowledgeable or safe or even both. I’ve been thinking of having a business card made that says YOU HAVE BEEN SAFELY DIRECTED TO YOUR DESTINATION BY THE AUTHOR OF REAL CARDIFF. BUY YOUR COPY NOW. I might as well get something out of the deal.

Printed maps in the twenty-first century are unaccountably in decline. They are missing from guide books, rarely used by newspapers, not there in leaflets that describe country walks. I’ve hauled up Google mapping onto the PC screen, a great recent blossoming. Key in anything, zip code, post code, fragment of name, and the system will have a go at locating your destination. Porthkerry Park (where I've just been) pulls up ten or so red pins identifying everything from the Porthkerry Hair Salon to Porthkerry’s Church of St Curig. In the middle is the park.

These maps are instant, enormously wide-ranging but totally lacking in any topographical detail other than the road network with flat blocks of green to indicate open ground. No paths, no contours, no lines showing the routes of the national grid or marks indicating the sites of ancient battles. OS this is not. You can’t spend an evening reading Google Maps like you can an Ordinance Survey explorer with its rich mix of quarry (dis), sink holes, Church (rems of), sprs, brooks, bridle-ways, paths, national walking routes, abandoned railways, disused mine shafts, and blue marks the shape of beer mugs identifying country inns.

But press the button marked Earth and the world changes. This is Google’s attempt at world domination. They’ve blended world-wide satellite imagery, visible down to the level of identifying a back garden barbeque, with street level photographs of just about everywhere. You’ve seen them, the slow moving cars with tripoded cameras on top, and for more challenging terrain the same set up affixed to three-wheeled peddalo rickshaws and other third-world transport. I won’t get into the politic here although directly following any Google mapping intervention a whole raft of this hits the fans with locals fearful of their security and their privacy now that the twenty-first century has come down the road and pulled them in.

Are maps back? They just well might be.

This blog posting may well end up as a component of Peter Finch's next book. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


Out there in story land the form is shifting. Beginning, middle and end plots, written down, are no longer sufficient. What we classify as literature is moving ever outwards. People sitting on stools gabbling whatever comes out of their heads straight at the crowds are fine. So too are the guys who write their plot lines on separate bits of paper and leave them in in a trail across the bars of the city.

Any number of authorities in Wales, driven by money leaking towards Community First areas or by cash available to help people get to grips with new technology, are investing in what they call Digital Storytelling. Standing before a camera and talking about how it once was, about where they live, what they like, who they know, what they do. You Tube territory. Life recordable by mobile phone. No previous experience necessary.

All this is extremely laudable but it is hardly art.

Yet the word Storytelling is in there and that activity has a decent pedigree. So art this digital activity now is.

Mainstream storytelling where tellers regale audiences with wit and wisdom drawn from memory and change what they say as circumstances dictate has been with us for decades. How much this activity can be called literature is an open question, creative as it genuinely is. If literature is stuff you write down then storytelling certainly isn’t it.

However, as someone who pushes at boundaries, I’m still not thoroughly convinced. Back in the1980s the poet David Antin extended the boundaries of verse by entering the auditorium, sitting on a stool and then extemporising. Talking. What came out of his mouth, these Talk Poems , he declared, was poetry. The difference between this activity and classic storytelling is that Antin’s work was recorded, transcribed and then published. Sent out into the world as text. Literature old style.

How do we distinguish between storytellers who are merely out of work actors who’ve read a few classic tales and now regurgitate them in entertaining fashion from more considered operators? Great Welsh tellers such as Daniel Morden and Michael Harvey can dazzle with their innovation. But in the wide-church that is literature just where do they fit?

Are there any definitions out there? There are none that I can find.