Fflur Dafydd and Rachel Trezise win the inaugural Max Boyce Prize (photo by John Fry)
Hello you pretty things. Did you miss me? I feel years have gone by since the last Literary It Girl blog, but it has been merely weeks. It appears that I have been rather busy, what with organising a 24 hour poetry marathon as a fundraiser for the Hay Poetry Jamboree, preparing new sets of my own for said event, and a scheduled performance at Blast House in Carmarthen next month, and moving palaces sans Prince Charming Dandylicious who is on some incredibly important quest in the black mountains or somesuch place. How does one pack chandeliers? So, this blog may appear more of a whirlwind than usual and will be dotted with a little less partying and more news than you’ve come to expect, but hang on in there, it’ll be worth it, and this Cinderella shall soon return to the glittery literary ball.
First up, before the moving madness, I did manage to make it along to the launch of the wonderful Stevie Davies’ new novel Into Suez. I hardly dared not to, especially as (1) Stevie is my former Creative Writing tutor, and helped me gain that distinction for the MA dissertation and (2) This is Stevie’s first novel released through Parthian, and we share a wonderful editor in Lucy Llewellyn (I have to say that, she’s working on making my collection look really pretty right-this-very-minute). Plus, I just happen to love Stevie’s writing. It seems I am not alone; Swansea’s Dylan Thomas Centre was packed with friends, colleagues (including a proud Nigel Jenkins and a radiant Fflur Dafydd), admirers and students of Stevie’s. Introduced by the Vice-Chancellor of Swansea University, where Stevie is Director of the Creative Writing programme, the writer was the receiver of much well-deserved praise. She then followed in giving involved explanations of the process of writing and editing the new book alongside some studied and enlightening readings.
Into Suez is a beautiful hardback – it is a rarity for Parthian to venture from paperback territory these days – and the contents are equally impressive. An epic novel, the fictional story draws on Stevie’s own experience as a child living in Egypt during the Suez conflict. She has written an informed passionate and violent love story examining class prejudices and casual British racism in 1949. The result is as engrossing and compelling and well researched as one has come to expect from this Booker Prize nominated author and historian. I won’t give too much away, but I shall inform you that the book is currently Hay Festival Book of the Month and you’d be daft not to read it. Listen to Stevie talk about the book on Radio 4’s Excess Baggage and catch her later this year at Hay Festival. A great launch and wonderful book was then followed by a fantastic late dinner with my darling publishers and Stevie’s agent Euan Thorneycroft (A.M. Heath & Co. Ltd).
In Chapters and the Big Read 10
Singing Bear @ In Chapters (photo by Matt Jarrett)
Next up, the latest outing of music and literature collaborative event In Chapters at Chapter Art Centre in Cardiff was once again well attended and wonderful, not least for the beer swigging, karaoke singing bear. Organised by John Williams and Richard James (The Laugharne Weekend) this month’s cafe-themed hour saw new stories performed by Matthew David Scott,Owen Martell and my good pal Rachel Trezise(‘The Blue Murder Cafe’). I’ll let you read Dylan Moore’s (The Raconteur) blog to find out more. Talking of Rachel, she has much to smile about of late, not simply the prospect of cooking me dinner next week. She only went and won another prize! As did another lovely former tutor of mine, rising literary superstar Fflur Dafydd. The pair won the inaugural Big Read 10 Prize for their English and Welsh language creations. The two winning books chosen by the readers of Glynneath were Dial M for Merthyr (Rachel Trezise) and Y Llyfrgell (Fflur Dafydd).
Talking prizes…Mari Strachan’s debut novel The Earth Hums in B Flat (Canongate), has been shortlisted for The Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award 2010. The Chair of Judges, literary editor Suzi Feay, commented: ‘We were looking for six novels that were deeply satisfying in their own right, but which also pointed the way to a significant future career. We wanted readability but weren’t prepared to compromise on depth, writing style and ambition. These are the books that have given us the most pleasure and fuelled our most passionate debates, and any one of them would be a worthy winner.’ The winner will be announced on Wednesday 7 April.
Mari is also a finalist for Book of the Year – Adult Debut in the USA’s 2010 Indies Choice Book Awards: ‘What sets these awards apart is that they are designed to reflect the spirit of ABA member booksellers in the IndieBound movement and their dedication to handselling, unique, thought-provoking, and engaging titles in all genres.’ So says the American Booksellers Association. Having met Mari and her hubby at the Laugharne Weekend and Hay Festival last year – bleary eyed and debating literary things with Peter Florence on Radio 5 Live – I reckon she deserves such praise; bright, lovely lady that she is.
Freshers vs. Ffreshars
Freshers by Joanna Davies (Honno)
Back to book launches, my new favourite venue aka Cardiff Arts Institute hosted the Thursday night party for the latest Honno release – Freshers by Joanna Davies. Welsh-speakers amongst you will already have had chance to read an earlier version of this book, Ffreshars telling of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll amongst four student freshers at Aberystwyth University in the early 90’s. I am assured that the English language version is not the same story, not a simple translation. Joanna explains: ‘It’s not the same book as I’ve added 20,000 words to the original story so it’s a ‘Director’s Cut’ if you like with even more action and sauce than the Welsh version! A lot of my friends who aren’t Welsh speakers were really taken by the extracts that I translated for them. So that inspired me to create an extended English version and with Honno’s support it’s been a brilliant experience… I hope I can publish many more novels in both languages.’ As you would expect, the launch was at a canteen bar venue a stone’s throw from Cardiff University, frequented by artfully dressed students and loud-as-you-like bands. Fun!
Imagine having one million fans. National Literary Treasures aka Academi welcomed its one millionth audience member at the ‘Meeting of Two Laureates’ poetry event on Saturday 20 March. The lucky lady was Euthalia Antippasfrom Cyncoed in Cardiff attended a sell-out event at the St. David’s Hotel in Cardiff featuring Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffyand National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke. The leading ladies, both swathed in black,read selections of their work before chatting about the similarities and differences of their two respective roles.
This is the history bit…In 1998, the then writers’ society, the Welsh Academy, won the franchise from the Arts Council of Wales to establish Academi – the Welsh National Literature Promotion Agency. They have had one million people attend their events etc. since that date. Queue some champagne cork popping. Now for the quotes… Academi Top Dog Peter Finch seemed happy: “to get to a million is a real achievement. Academi’s literary services – our events and workshops and our author visits to schools are certainly in demand.” Sell-out poetry gigs certainly give poets like myself hope for the future. Lucky Euthalia was as cheery as her red-edged neck scarf: “I am a fervent supporter of the Academi and it’s a real honour for me to be the one millionth audience member.” Here’s to the next million… and more bubbly!
Coming soon… I’m getting more than a little bit excited about www.thelaugharneweekend.com, my 24 hour poetry pyjama party and performing at Blast House. I am also trying to work out what will be Wales Book of the Year 2010. The longlist is announced on Tuesday 20 April 2010, while the £10,000 awards are presented to the best books of the year in English and in Welsh in June. Guesses/ suggestions are welcomed in the comments section below.
Knitters have been getting a bad rap in the letters pages of local newspapers across South Wales lately. Not just any knitters mind you, but knitters who yarn bomb in the name of humour, joy and community spirit such as Swansea’s Yarnachists. Another victim of ‘Knit War’ is Swansea artist Ann Jordan (a director of Elysium Gallery) whose giant blanket project – Cwtch – has been receiving hate mail for daring to create art and not spend her time better by knitting for charity. Perhaps the people writing such letters should have spent the time they took to write their letters of wrath more charitably, and used their hands to knit some blankets for good themselves, instead of spreading such disdainful malaise. Needles at dawn, anyone?
The Swansea yarnachists – a secret society of knitters who have vowed never to knit anything useful – meet in clandestine code-protected corners to knit subversively over wine of a weekday evening. Their first yarn bomb was for Valentine’s Day and saw the disguised bombers dawn raiding Uplands to hang knitted space raider hearts on railings and from trees and wrap up lampposts with loved up scarves. So far, so quirkily cute, right? Last Wednesday’s Evening Post had a letter from Llangyfelach Bethel Chapel knitting group calling the yarnachists ‘sadly self centred’ for wasting wool and talents by not knitting for charity! I imagine a future yarn bomb of community bonding loveliness is quite likely to take place outside Bethel Chapel. It sounds like the area needs such care and attention. At any rate the yarnachists promise to ‘spin more yarns in the future’ as they attempt to become Swansea’s eco-friendly answer to Banksy. Their latest Facebook status states: ‘Yarnarchists are love and peace people and want to be friends with everyone, including the church ladies of Llangyfelach and will take their …comments on board. Perhaps we could make amends by cheering up the streets of Llangyfelach…’
Tomorrow Ann Jordan will launch her new Black Mountain art project: Cwtch onto the public. Her giant white lambswool blanket has been knitted from 12 miles of wool spun by Ann with the help of volunteers. The 12 miles is significant. It is the exact distance that the coffin trail which has informed the work stretches — from Ystradgynlais to Llanddeusant. In the morning Ann and her audience will conduct a four hour walk which will trace this route, first installing the spiral-patterned blanket, allowing it to line a prominent Bronze Age Cairn on the summit of Y Garreg Las, overlooking the coffin trail. She is a contemporary artist who works to engage the environment with social histories and mythologies hugging all together in one big ‘cwtch’. How can she receive hate mail for something purely creative, personal and communal? For sharing a vision? Or perhaps it is for bothering with art at all, where such public reactions and controversies can become common place. Still, I wonder if there would be this much outrage over communal crochet or sock darning sessions?
So it is official, Knit-Purl is badass and wrong. Put down that crack pipe and cast on sinners.
I have recently been reunited with boxes of my possessions that had been shut away in storage for a year or two. Unpacking and sorting my stuff within my new and roomy home has uncovered forgotten notebooks and diaries, and loose pages of my old stories and poems. Some surprise me, and are collated into my current live performances, treasured. Others bring on the cringe yet still I can’t bring myself to discard them completely. Instead I place them into files alongside other disappointments on the off chance they may jar just the right thought or memory when stumbled upon in the future for a good story or a better poem. It hadn’t really occurred to me that others may read them at some indeterminable time in the future. It hadn’t – until I went to the opening night of The Devil Inside Him at the New Theatre in Cardiff on tuesday, and the delightful after-party at Cardiff Ats Institute for a dose of schmoozing afterwards.
This month’s production from The National Theatre of Wales is only the second to be made of John Osborne’s first ever play, recently discovered in the British Library Archives where it had been filed under ‘Caborne’ by Lord Chamberlain’s censors. The play was written in 1948 when Osborne was just 18 and several years off his breakthrough 1956 hit Don’t Look Back in Anger. Linking back to his Welsh heritage – Osborne’s father was born in Newport –The Devil Inside Him is set in a small, deeply religious Welsh village and calls into question whether God is to be found on the hillsides or inside the cold walls of a chapel. It also examines aspects of love from God’s love to maternal love, Huw cast as a boy on the brink of manhood who has been deprived of both affection and acceptance. Almost titled A Cry For Love, the play was penned with Osborne’s then-lover Stella, the 30-year-old wife of Patrick Desmond, in whose rep company both were touring. It follows the 1950s murder mystery rep conventions and yet the darker undercurrents of damaged souls, fear, repressed passion and societies were far before its time, messages which resonate today: ‘They’ve been killing the inside of me ever since I can remember. Is it worse to murder a body or a soul?’
Packed with poetic language and teenage idealism, it is an existential story not without learning curves in plotting for the young writer. Butcher and budding poet Huw is a believable angry young man, an outsider struggling to find his place in pious society. But the other characters’ reactions and relationships to him are not always convincing, especially in the post-interval wrapping up of the mystery. These niggles aside, the play is a powerful one, and where, with Volcano’s Shelf Life, it was the stage itself (The Old Library, Swansea) that got audiences gushing as much as the promenade skits, here it was the performance that took the spotlight. The stellar cast were superb especially Olivier Award winner Iwan Rheon’s hair-pulling, twitchingly manic performance as Huw, and the laugh-a-minute tittle-tattle Mrs Evans (Rachel Lumberg). The set and lighting were both equally stunning and atmospheric – well done to Alex Eales and Malcolm Rippeth.
Consumed alongside John Osborne’s autobiography Looking Back, Never Explain, Never Apologise – extracts of which NTW have kindly reproduced in the programme – it becomes clear how very autobiographical many of the themes in The Devil Inside Him are. Take these lines: ‘I assumed that being Welsh and believing in God were the darkest heart of religion.’; ‘Nothing ever strikes me with such despair and disbelief as the truly cold heart…’ and on existentialism and breaking off an engagement: ‘My untutored understanding told me that I was standing at a crucially existential crossroads. The problem was simple: how to get rid of Renee without causing her too much pain and me too much guilt, and how to leave home without my mother and manage to support myself.’
As Osborne had been so frank in his own autobiography, the unearthing of this earlier work would probably worry him less. Yet what would he feel about the quality of his work, and what is the view of other writers? Is finding out how great Carver’s editor was, for example, necessary in the reading of a text? Should all writers who discover they are to be published quickly destroy all evidence of inferior times and works, and personal diaries charting youth’s joys and misdemeanours? I have artist friends who burn huge bodies of their work when they feel they are no longer happy with them, or that having these pieces in their possession is preventing them from moving forward. Who is right? What do you do with your old writing – treasure or trash?
The Devil Inside Him runs at the New Theatre in Cardiff until 16 May 2010.
I hate trains. Or rather I hate trains on Sundays that turn out not to be trains but buses or trains that get halfway to their destination, then sit still in the middle of nowhere for two hours before returning you to the start of your journey to wait for a bus instead. This was my Sunday. It took me three and a half hours longer than it should have to get to Balloon in Cardiff where I had been booked in to read a short story, alongside Richard Milward andMatthew David Scott. A literary lunch event.
Richard Milward (photo by Matt Jarrett)
When I eventually made it to the Balloon event at Cardiff Arts Institutelunch was sold out, Matt had read and Richard was into his first set of the day. I was in a foul mood but Rich, wearing a mask of the cover of Applesstill managed to make me laugh with his tall tales of awkward teenage sex. He gave me prop envy too. After I read a new story about butterflies and mental hospitals from my forthcoming collection, Rich bounded onto the stage with a brightly painted cardboard model of a high-rise building propped on his shoulders. He then read a balloon-related section from his second novel, the drug-fuelled Ten Story Love Song. It involved laughing gas…And audience laughter.
The young hipster crowd then filtered out from the upstairs canteen and mooched about the Carboutique Sale downstairs while Ben Bryant, Editor of the South Wales listings monthly Buzz Magazine counted down his top 100 songs of all time. Some punters played with the canteen bar’s Lego wall. Others drank and gossiped. A fun day all in all, but it took me another nightmare five hour train/ replacement bus journey to get home again. Damn trains!
Blond(e)s with Brains
My previous weekend was luckier, travel-wise, as I headed west to the Academi New Narratives Conference atGellifawr in Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. An early start took me on one of my favourite train journeys (Swansea to Carmarthen) where I was picked up by the lovely Bronwen (Academi) and a very sleepy Joe Dunthorne (author of Submarine). We chatted about films, poetry and football as the roads grew narrower and quieter. At our picturesque destination we collected cottage keys, unloaded bags and dosed up on caffeine to prepare for the day ahead.
First up was travel writer and surfer Tom Anderson, who I had read with at Swn Festival in 2009. He talked confidently and insightfully about the blurring of fact and fiction in travel writing and explained the process of researching and writing Chasing Dean. Tom discusses the evolution of myths and journey storytelling and the truth behind Moby Dick. He ponders our ability to forget other people’s reality as long as our own is going alright. He quotes Salman Rushdie: ‘Sometimes legends make reality and become more useful than the facts.’
Next up was Swansea boy Joe Dunthorne who amused us with anecdotes of adapting his Welsh Book of the Year longlisted novel Submarine for the big screen. He tells us about Warp films and turning down the production company run by Lily Allen’s mum – she talked about her daughter too much. He was joined on stage by the actor playing teenage narrator Oliver, Craig Roberts from Cardiff who had been cast because of his funny face and deadpan delivery. Joe talked about filming scenes at his rival school, a cameo appearance as a drama teacher, and working with Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd, The Mighty Boosh) and Ben Stiller. He also spoke of the trauma of seeing his characters with real faces and bodies when he barely describes physical features in the book. The film is due for screening in early 2011.
Both talks were interesting and yet what were all the writers discussing over lasagne and salad? Keats? Shakespeare? Publishing conflicts? No, it was HBO series The Wire. Tom Anderson and his lovely girlfriend Briege are only on series Two. Niall Griffiths is a big fan, and nearly gives away future plots as he praises it again and again. Editor of New Welsh Review, Kathryn Gray declares the show’s creator David Simon as ‘better than Shakespeare’ and American Poet Carrie Etter, insists to the young couple that ‘the best is yet to come.’
The weather is kind to us and so, after lunch, we pile onto two minibuses to The Parrog – a beautiful coastal backdrop for readings from the Mabinogi, and the new Seren series reinterpreting the stories in contemporary settings. Afterwards we took a stroll, and the delightful director of BBC Radio Drama, Kate McAll led me on a chatty walk along the coastline.
Tom Anderson (photo by Peter Finch)
Trip to The Parrog (photo by Peter Finch)
Kate McAll (right) and Susie Wild (photo by Peter Finch)
Three Blondes: l-r Deborah Kay Davies, Holly Howitt and Kathryn Gray (photo by Stanislaw Szypowski)
Back to base we consumed more tea and coffee before Ifor ap Dafydd from the National Library of Wales explained the difficulties in the future of literary archives in a digital world. Plenty of food for thought on how we store our work and how much work is lost through computer crashes, poor file naming and upgraded software. Time to engage with our inner geeks and get tech savvy, me thinks.
Finally the day’s events were rounded up with lively, engaging poetry readings by Peter Finch, Joe Dunthorne,Kathryn Gray and Carrie Etter. Joe’s Valentine poem for Five Dials, ‘Future Dating,’ is fantastic, as are Carrie’s bold poems from The Tethers (Seren) including ‘Divorce’: ‘He remembers which sister/ I like least and asks/ how she is doing.’ Entertained, we break for dinner and a shambolic yet hilarious literary pub quiz (Thanks go to the poet and quiz master Ifor Thomas and his pink cowboy hat). Oh and my team won a prize for being the best dressed, naturally.
Sunday began with my favourite event of the weekend, How Short is Short? run by three blondes with brains.Kathryn Gray debated the current trend of shorter and more immediate fiction with Deborah Kay Davies and Holly Howitt. Deborah won Welsh Book of The Year 2009 for her wonderful collection of short stories Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful, while Holly has released a collection of microfiction (stories told in under 600 words) calledDinnertime and is now editing anthology of microfiction for Cinnamon Press. They talked about where you draw the line between prose poetry, the short story and micro or nano fiction – particularly relevant as we think about new platforms of delivery for our writing, and new modes of author-reader relationship thanks to social networking sites and twit-lit. Holly, who also writes longer fiction says she is not a poet, but that microfiction offers her a way to write poetically. Essentially this shift to the short had been aided by sudden fiction exercises and getting stories down to their essence so that the audience reads so much between the lines that they write lines. The micro mode of writing asks the reader to do some work, the words asking more questions than they answer. Life in the literary fast lane, a placethat seemed so far removed from the slowness of Gellifawr with the bliss of no mobile or internet signal that it offered. A chance to pause and reflect.
Finally the charms and qualms of Aberystwyth as a literary setting were investigated by the authors Niall Griffithsand Malcolm Pryce, sharing anecdotes and musing on why the place is a funny setting and why so many people arrive at end-of-the-line towns and never leave, trying to leave their problems behind they find the problems remain, there is nowhere else to run, so they just learn to talk about them in a different accent. Then tick tick tock — time is up and, inspired and invigorated, I write reams on another peaceful, sunny train journey home. Hurrah for better train luck. Hurrah for words.
Tonight I am off to the launch of Stevie Davies’ new novelInto The Suez, which I have also just started reading. I’ll blog about this and some other literati happenings soon. Watch This Space!