Monday, 30 November 2009

Cataloguing Lives

When you’re famous and then you die, you could find yourself in the potentially awkward and deeply invasive position of having everything you own placed on public display, photographed, labelled and valued in monetary terms. Each and every one of your beloved and not so beloved possessions will then be sold to the highest bidder. It might not be what you wanted, although chances are you’re past caring, but for everyone else the opportunity to crawl through the detritus of your life is invaluable. For writers, I think there is something wholly fascinating about discovering the details of other people’s lives – and particularly which books people read. Think about it. If you were to discover that an actor, or musician or someone whose creativity you respected (I’m deliberately not including writers here as it is unthinkable that they wouldn’t have a book collection) had a shelf of books that added up to a Dan Brown, Ant and Dec’s autobiography (Ooh! What a Lovely Pair) and something called My Shit Life So Far by Frankie Boyle – all currently in Amazon’s top ten so obviously sitting on someone’s shelves – I think you would be disappointed.

On the other hand, when you discover, as I did recently, that a very famous film star’s library contained four hundred and twenty-four biographies and autobiographies (not to mention two hundred and twenty-nine books on politics and philosophy and three hundred and thirty-four books on self-help, health, psychoanalysis and psychology amongst many others), many of them annotated by the man himself, it’s both inspiring and addictive. The items were in a Christie’s catalogue – a tastefully produced paperback consisting of the contents of the film star’s house at the time of death. So, what do the accumulated objects of a lifetime tell us about the person? Graham Greene had James and Conrad and Evelyn Waugh on his bookcase in a fairly anonymous apartment on the French Riveria – are we surprised? Probably not. In Roald Dahl’s writing hut in Great Missenden we can see that he wrote sitting in a large armchair with a china pot of yellow pencils beside him – can we imagine him conjuring up the worlds he invented? Sort of. Visiting the houses in which writers lived and work is a popular leisure activity and across Britain; we can walk where Dickens, Austen, Wordsworth and Thomas once walked – these are the living catalogues. Rarely do we have the opportunity afforded to Jay Parini, biographer of Robert Frost, who lived in Frost’s house in Vermont for several summers and lay in the claw-footed tub, imagining the writer in the same bath, listening to the wind in the bushy hemlocks outside the bathroom window. But still, by absorbing the artefacts of their lives whether it’s online, in person or through the pages of a book we peek slyly (always uninvited by them) into their private space, and it’s illuminating.

Significant Others

There is a distinguished list of ‘significant others’ in cultural history – usually wives or lovers or sisters of celebrated writers, artists and musicians who are famous for their proximity to the celebrated person, rather than their own achievements (which are often in the same field). Scott Fitzgerald’s wife and daughter have both had biographies written about them (Zelda by Nancy Milford and Scottie, The Daughter Of... The Life of Frances Scott Fitzgerald Lanaham Smith by Eleanor Lanaham Smith) and although both Zelda and Scottie were published and performed writers, their names are seldom evoked without Scott’s. Milford’s Zelda was the first biography I can remember reading. My dad had been given it as a Christmas present by an American friend and, in the course of working my way through his books as a teenager, I came across it and loved it. Zelda Fitzgerald’s contribution to her husband’s work is well known – he used portions of her diaries verbatim in his novels and even directly attributed Zelda’s words on the birth of Scottie to Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby: 'I hope it’s beautiful and a fool – a beautiful little fool.' Although Zelda’s novel, Save Me the Waltz, is now regarded as ‘moving and fascinating’ and comparable to Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and her intense personality the inspiration for his female characters, she is still largely remembered largely for being the less significant half of a notoriously wild couple whose outrageous behaviour was in direct proportion to their alcohol consumption.

Zelda Fitzgerald had much in common with Caitlin Thomas who was thirteen years younger. They were respectively thirty-nine and forty years old when their incredibly famous husbands died. Both women shared unpredictable, fearless personalities, a passion for dance, the boredom and loneliness of whiling away the hours while their husbands wrote – and both drank copious amounts. They were also creative – Caitlin published three books; Leftover Life to Kill, Not Quite Posthumous Letters to My Daughter and, with George Tremlett, Caitlin – A Warring Absence, while Zelda, as well as writing, was also a painter, influenced by Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe, and whose work is now exhibited across Europe and America. What Zelda and Caitlin might have achieved if their lives had not been overwhelmed by the iconic literary geniuses with whom they lived is unknowable – indeed, it’s arguable that their proximity to the disciplined creativity they were engulfed in nurtured their own efforts which may not have surfaced otherwise. Their lives make fascinating material for biographers – and obviously not just as an invaluable insight into the personalities of the men they shared their lives with, although this is frequently where the interest lies. I recently changed the title of the biography I’m writing to reflect the ‘significant other’ – it was both liberating and perplexing – reflecting the complex feelings I have about the nature of ‘significance’ in the first place. What is it that makes some people’s stories of consequence and worth telling despite the trivialising of their lives by others?

Thursday, 26 November 2009

New Welsh Review 86 - Out now

New Welsh Review 86 is out now. Buy or subscribe now and enjoy the best new writing from Glyn Maxwell, Gwyneth Lewis, Kona Macphee, Jim Perrin, Tiffany Murray, Stevie Davies, Jon Gower, Tristan Hughes and more. To find out more, click here or click on the NWR cover to your left.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Borders on the brink?

Borders facing possible administration, the Guardian reports.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry 2009

I was one of the judges for the 2009 John Tripp Award in Cardiff last week. It proved to be a hugely enjoyable event for me and my fellow judges Deborah Kay Davies and Wiard Sterk. The venue was packed out, the inclusive and supportive audience ranged from in their teens to in their seventies, the atmosphere was right there. Who says there's no audience for poetry?

This year, the award went to Dafydd Wyn, whose charismatic presence, superb delivery and great poetry won our vote. But it was a tough call, with some terrific performances on offer – infused with wit, passion and, it should be said, staggering reserves of personal and professional courage. Spoken word is really putting yourself out there, on the line. Everyone did themselves real credit. Congratulations to them all.

Among the finalists, we spotted some hugely impressive younger talent, particularly in our runner-up (and the audience choice winner), Liam Johnson, whose machine-gun delivery and verbal pyrotechnics left us stunned, appreciative and me pondering how on earth he could remember it all. Maybe it's just my age.

Read about the event here.

Dannie Abse wins 2009 Wilfred Owen Poetry Award

Dannie Abse has won the 2009 Wilfred Owen Poetry Award for a distinguished body of work which includes notable war poems. Previous recipients of the honour include Harold Pinter and Seamus Heaney.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Questions of Identity

I’m writing a biography of a woman routinely described as Welsh and sometimes, more specifically, Cardiff – as in ‘Cardiff girl’, ‘Cardiff actress’ etc. To be fair, she has also, occasionally, been described as Irish – but my point is, she is rarely identified by the nationality she actually holds. She is now seventy-five years old and a full sixty-nine of those years have been spent outside Wales – including the first fourteen of her life.

This makes me think long and hard about what qualifies you (aside of the Vinnie Jones rule) to be claimed as Welsh.

For instance, at the other end of the spectrum is the distinguished writer Penelope Mortimer who was born in Rhyl, yet doesn’t merit an entry in either the New Companion to the Literature of Wales or in the Welsh Academy Encyclopedia of Wales. She does, however, make the following appearance in the Oxford Companion to English Literature: ‘MORTIMER, Penelope Ruth, nee Fletcher (1918...) novelist, born in North Wales and educated at London University; her works, with their emphasis on frankness about female experience, contributed to the development of the woman’s novel in the 1960s.’

Her career as a writer was actually far broader than this entry suggests; as well as publishing nine novels, a collection of short stories, two volumes of autobiography, a travel book and (bizarrely) a biography of the Queen Mother, she was also film critic for the Observer, an Agony Aunt for the Daily Mail and adapted Nigel Nicholson’s, Portrait of A Marriage, for the BBC in 1990. With her then husband, John Mortimer, she wrote the screenplay for the Otto Preminger film Bunny Lake is Missing and, in 1974, The New Yorker printed her novel Long Distance in its entirety – the first time they had done so since J. D. Salinger’s Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction a decade earlier. Hard to know then, given all that, why she has been wiped from the Welsh literary canon...

She, of course, may not have identified herself as ‘Welsh’ and she certainly didn’t set any of her novels here. She did, however, write about her childhood in Rhyl and the clergyman father who had lost his faith and used the parish magazine to celebrate the Soviet persecution of the Russian church. She also wrote about the universal experiences of women in the post-war world of illegal abortions, illicit affairs and paralysing marriages – experiences which were as familiar to Welsh women as they were to their English and Scottish counterparts. It’s ten years ago last month since Mortimer died – time perhaps to acknowledge her existence?

Sarah Broughton

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Arthur Giardelli

Celebrated artist Arthur Giardelli has died at the age of 98. David Moore's obituary in the Guardian outlines his life and career here.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

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Thursday, 5 November 2009

New look website

Our website has undergone (and continues to undergo) something of a refresh. We hope navigation of the site is now a cleaner, clearer and more enjoyable experience. In addition, you can now sample a selection of choice articles from New Welsh Review's twenty-one year history. Visit the website homepage and click on 'New Welsh Review Online' tab to the right. Articles are still in the process of being uploaded but there's plenty of excellent material already available. Enjoy!

New Welsh Review - Issue 86 - Coming soon

Issue 86 will be published later this month. This quarter, enjoy the work of Glyn Maxwell, Tristan Hughes, Gwyneth Lewis, Jon Gower, Kona Macphee, Stevie Davies, Tiffany Murray and Jim Perrin, among others. Available in selected fine bookshops or, alternatively, subscribe by visiting and get Wales's finest literary quarterly delivered directly to your door.