Thursday, 30 June 2011

Un Ddinas Dau Fyd, Llwyd Owen. Review by Dafydd Saer

As a confirmed Llwyd Owen addict, I was gagging for this latest offering, Un Ddinas Dau Fyd. His fifth Welsh language novel in as many years, this fast-paced thriller revolves around Emlyn, the middle class boss of a TV company, and Rod, who works in the Spar on Ely’s oxymoronically-named Grand Avenue. Both are literally in shit street: Rod is desperate to get away from his chronically alcoholic father and drug-dealing brother, who is under police surveillance. Rod’s only hope for salvation is his obsession with his video camera: he secretly films all aspects of Ely’s rich cultural heritage – especially the vicious gang fights between the Ely Boyz and the Caerau Crew. But with no way to edit his material, he repeatedly applies for jobs with TV companies in Cardiff. But his face doesn’t fit, and he gets nowhere fast.

Meanwhile in the putrid underbelly of middle-class Llandaf suburbia, Emlyn’s wife is up the duff while he’s trying to wriggle out of an affair with Beca, a psychotic self-harming nymphomaniac who is inconveniently married to Steffan Grey, the S4C drama boss whom Emlyn has to brown-nose to get any work. To confound things, Beca tells Emlyn that she’s carrying his baby. Awkwardly, Emlyn’s spectacularly naff new film needs the thumbs-up from Steffan before it can be aired.

By some curious twists of fate, shadowy double-dealing, and blackmail – not to mention the odd burst of violence – Rod and Emlyn’s paths cross, conspiring eventually to lift both out of their respective hells – and in Rod’s case, into some particularly steamy sexual encounters with a pretty young lady from Ceredigion.

Set against Owen’s trademark Kaaaardiff-Caerdydd backdrop, readers will delight in finding themselves immersed once again in an edgy world of Welsh middle class hypocrisy, working-class squalor, heroin, soapbar and cider. A heady mix of 21st century urban ingredients, it vividly brings to life a Cardiff that the city fathers would prefer to brush under the Cardiff Bay Barrage.

Shrewdly-observed, Owen writes with sympathy for the underdog: underpinning the main plot, there is a subtle social commentary, sometimes satirical, sometimes poignant. He has a clear understanding of the frustration faced by the underprivileged, and also of the self-righteous arrogance of those who believe that Wales belongs exclusively to the Welsh-speaker.

The relaxed familiarity with which Owen describes Cardiff suggests that he knows the city – warts and all – like the back of his hand. He portrays Kaaaadiff’s working-class nouveau-Welsh-speakers with ease, and the action shifts effortlessly between that world and the parallel world of Welsh language television, its self-important minor intrigues (which could have been culled straight out of the pages of Lol, the Welsh-language equivalent of Private Eye) emphasising its irrelevance to the bleak lives of some Ely residents.

Owen’s sparse style is easy to miss – it never gets in the way, the narrative moving hard and fast. He wastes little time on description, trusting the reader to use their imagination and make the reading experience more personal. Occasionally he does get carried away though, and uses rather obscure words – what the hell is ‘cywestach’, ‘dychlamu’, ‘cafl-ledu’ and ‘ceuled’? Owen apparently likes to learn new words daily in his other life as a translator and has a dictionary to hand, but few of his readers will bother to consult their University of Wales Dictionary app as they get swept along by the action.

I must confess that I didn’t understand the ending – I found myself leafing through the end, looking for missing pages. But the publisher assures me that there is nothing missing. Owen is known to make cross-references to events and characters in his previous novels, so maybe that’s what’s going on here. I have read all his novels, but can’t recall their contents sufficiently to make a connection. Nevertheless, I wasn’t that bothered, and I could happily read Un Ddinas Dau Fyd again, so much did I enjoy living on the edge in Llwyd Owen’s Cardiff.

Monday, 27 June 2011


Biographers, dealing as they are with lives passing, face time and death head on. Michael Holroyd, author of Augustus John’s life, among others, told his Hay audience that his privilege was to write a new book for a dead author. Animal Magic: A Brother’s Story, reviewed in NWR, does just that. Andrew Barrow’s brother Jonathan was killed in a car crash, alongside his fiancĂ©e, days before Jonathan’s wedding. Andrew took the dead man’s surreal, prophetic unpublished novel The Queue (in which the bride gets run over by a bread van), and reworked it into a highly original biography which reveals how in awe of his brother Andrew is, forty years after his bereavement.

In his memoir Ten Pound Pom, Niall Griffiths also looks back, to when his family briefly emigrated to Australia. But he struggles more to face 2007 – recounting all the pies that were eat and Ozzie killjoys met than the wildlife-loving boy he was in 1976. With its alternating ‘then’ and ‘now’ sections and setting of the boy’s story in third person, as though he were someone other than the author, the book suggests that childhood is a long way off. But the way Griffiths uses the present tense throughout makes the whole life accessible as a contemporary story. Still, though, we guess that Niall would rather be eleven than past forty. And know for sure he’d rather be home than Down Under. And how much did he fork out on excess baggage to wing that pastry-lined belly Waleswards?

Richard Gwyn is also skilled at splicing past and present in his memoir, The Vagabond’s Breakfast, which was one of a pair with Horatio Clare’s Truant at this year’s NWR Hay event. In our major online interview of both authors, ‘Plus Gainsbourg que Gainsbourg’, Gwyn describes how his experience of acute insomnia, caused by hepatitis C while waiting for a liver transplant, helped him dodge a traditional chronology. So the book’s structure lets him slip in and out of the past, conveying the ambivalence of being in a present while waiting for a life-saving operation: the only thing which would give him any future.

The Vagabond’s Breakfast mentions Montaigne’s account of a gravestone inscribed: Here lies so-and-so, who was dead when time was passing through the year twelve hundred,’ and riffs on the personification of time. In NWR, Gwyn explains how the philosopher is considered ‘the father of the essay’ and specifically ‘self-reflexive prose in which the thoughts and actions of an individual constitute the subject matter’. Could a sixteenth-century aristocrat, then, be blamed for the current glut of misery memoirs, sick lit, confessional and celebrity memoirs, not to mention blogging, FB and Twitter?


This was first published in the Western Mail’s Saturday Insider column, 25 June 2011.

Friday, 24 June 2011

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson. Review by K Blade

There are three easy steps to falling into the psychopath trap: first discover the Hare checklist for scoring psychopathic qualities, second apply the test to everyone, third realise that anyone you've had doubts about – including yourself if you are the anxious kind – is in fact a psychopath.

The Psychopath Test opens in the vein of a conspiracy thriller, with Ronson investigating mysterious deliveries of books to a worldwide selection of neuroscientists. This anecdote tenuously links in with the premise of the book, by reminding Ronson that there are some odd people out there.

The narrative fidgets back and forth through time, picking a path through assorted interviews, assignments and oddments of research, pulling them together to suggest there was a plan in place from the outset. There is a broad cast, Ronson draws in Douglas Hofstadter, David Shayler, Scientology, Broadmoor prisoners, Haitian paramilitary leaders – even Sean Connery makes a fleeting appearance. The Sunday magazine style of writing makes for easy reading, but suffers from heavy-handed pointers to the date by reference to world events and blatant product placement. Although why a coffee shop chain would want to be linked to psychopaths is never made clear.

Ultimately the story told is of the limitations and abuses of psychiatry, through electrotherapy, induced comas and mass LSD dosing to flawed psychological profiling and unwarranted imprisonment. Along the way we learn of mental disorders of times past that reveal much of society at the time and raise questions about the value judgements behind current categorisations. In the 19th century the disorder drapetomania, only ever seen in slaves, had one symptom namely the desire to run away from slavery. It was about 1980 before homosexuality was removed from the definitive text of mental disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Ronson's self-portrayal has a mocking tone, making it clear that conclusions he draws at certain stages are soon to be over-turned. He grabs the Hare checklist with glee, revelling in the power it gives him to unlock the secret signs of a psychopath in body language and nuances of sentence construction. Then, having diagnosed psychopath potential in himself he wonders how to act sane if he ever had to convince somebody – perhaps he would try too hard, how do you cross your legs in a sane manner?

In “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” the Voigt-Kampff test, applied by an expert, can be used to detect androids. Tell-tale signs are lack of autonomic responses to emotionally provocative questions. In the real world, the Hare checklist is used in much the same manner. Psychopaths are not believed to feel emotions, so they do not show normal emotional responses. On being shown a picture of a frightened face and asked to describe the emotion, one psychopath said he didn't know but it was the face people pulled just before he killed them. The consequence in Philip K Dick's story is death at the hands of a bounty hunter, here life imprisonment is more likely. Unfortunately, the test is often applied by people who spent the course twiddling their thumbs and doodling.

The spotlight turns at times from criminals to executives – suspicious because of their clinical lack of empathy – to journalists, cold-heartedly exploiting vulnerable members of the public to produce entertainment that reassures the rest of the public that there are others out there madder than them. Not just journalists, but also their interviewees score highly on the psychopath test – grandiose sense of self-worth, failure to consider consequences and a need for stimulation to alleviate boredom being likely reasons many agree to be interviewed.

Survival tips for psychopaths and non-psychopaths
Avoid London (psychopaths gravitate to bright lights)
To avoid your quest for world domination being uncovered be boring (journalists will never write about you).

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Profile of YA Author Ruta Sepetys by Anita Rowe

One night a few weeks ago I began to read Between Shades of Gray, a young adult book by first time American author Ruta Sepetys, and couldn't stop turning those pages until I finished at five a.m. as the sun rose over Cardigan Bay. The novel follows 15-year-old Lina, snatched in her nightgown from her home in Lithuania by Stalin's army in 1941, as she and her family are deported in cattle trucks to Siberia and eventually incarcerated in a prison camp near the shore of the Arctic Ocean with minimal food and no suitable clothing. This ethnic cleansing, in which over 300,000 Lithuanians were forcibly removed so that Soviet citizens could take possession of their homes and jobs is one of the least known stories of the second world war, and I wanted to know why and how Ruta had come to write this fictional account of it – such a welcome trend from the recent teen and YA obsession with fantasy. So I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to interview her.

At her London hotel she told me about a knock at her door late the previous night. But it wasn't the KGB.

A voice said, ' Ms. Sepetys? Please check your email for an important message from your US publisher.' She checked – and learned that her book had just made the New York Times best-seller list. It's every writer's dream. 'But this is not about me, it's about this previously untold story.'

Ruta was born and brought up in the USA. 'I always knew my Lithuanian father had fled his home country. And I learned very briefly at school that the Russians had occupied the Baltic countries during WW2. But when I tried to talk about it with him, or with my grandfather, who'd escaped to the US later, the conversation was closed.' In 2005 Ruta was able to visit Lithuania for the first time and meet her relatives.

Little by little, details emerged. When she asked to see photos of dead relatives heads were shaken. No photographs. They'd had to burn them all because Ruta's grandfather was a member of the Lithuanian resistance. Countless numbers had died in the forced labour camps while survivors dared not speak of their experiences. And those who escaped abroad suffered guilt about those left behind – hence the silences.

When Ruta decided to write a book about these atrocities she made two further visits to Lithuania for research purposes and went into it all very thoroughly, even to the extent of volunteering to be locked up in a Latvian prison which had been preserved from the era of repression. 'It was a simulation experience which some students in Latvia had requested for some research they were doing.' The very real violence used by her 'captors' left Ruta with a deep sense of shame about her behaviour – she had been too frightened to try to help her young fellow victims. 'Before that, I felt angry with the bystanders. I thought, how can you stand by and let that happen to your neighbours?' Afterwards she understood, and this empathy has informed her characterisation of several minor players in her story – those shades of grey which inspired the title.

Put in that situation I suspect that I, like most of us, would also have been a bystander.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Prince Philip, Royal Rings and Sharing the Spoils

First published in the Western Mail column The Insider, Saturday 18 June

Fiona Bruce caused a minor stir in our household the other night. First we spotted her at Aberystwyth station en route to the Antique Roads Show. Then she turns up interviewing the Duke of Edinburgh for the BBC interview, which was mildly interesting, actually. Prince P’s childhood exile both from home and family appear to have divorced him from the ability to self-reflect. No wonder his own kids’ marriages took a nose-dive; nor that The Firm’s spin doctors are maxing out on a royal wedding and PP’s ninetieth birthday to redeem the HM brand.

Our own National Poet Gillian Clarke’s invitation from fellow Laureate Carol Ann Duffy to participate in celebrating Will and Kate’s nuptials must have been a hard one to call. Duffy was warned by poet Wendy Cope to desist from writing to the occasion. And at the time of Andrew Motion’s appointment as Laureate, Glaswegian lesbian Duffy herself fumed she’d never kiss the royal ring. But Duffy’s chance to laud an unorthodox range of love vows, including civil partnerships, was too sweet to resist. And she is obviously a spindoctor in her own right, dodging opposition to her own royal wedding poem, ‘Rings’ by creating a veritable epithalamium-fest. She commissioned twenty plus poets to write on ‘vows’, among them rival Wendy Cope, Gillian Clarke, Scotland’s ‘Makar’ Liz Lochhead and northern Ireland’s Michael Longley.

Gillian Clarke, delivering the British Council lecture at Hay this month, was full of praise for Duffy’s inclusivity, sharing commissions, dinners, websites creation and soap box perches with her fellow female national poets. Clarke’s has been a similar, arguably feminine style: publishing Welsh translations by Menna Elfyn alongside her own ‘state’ poems. The lecture, broadcast around the world with live questions, was also pluralist by nature. Despite being, up to now, a poet for adults, Clarke has a fierce following among teenagers, not least those studying her ‘Field Mouse’ at GCSE. Via her website, she responds to students seeking cribs on those of her poems on the UK and international curriculum. As the exam season starts to crush our kids, I can only ask: may Clarke be our Adolescent Mental Health Laureate, while she’s at it?

Clarke, a political peace activist, is no establishment figure. But should she have joked, as a plane grumbled over the Hayfields, that it must be The Telegraph’s complaint at her earlier pro-Guardian comments? The former replaced the latter as this year’s sponsors: Peter Florence stayed pokerfaced. After all, Clarke did accept the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry at Christmas and membership to the Gorsedd of Bards last week. We all need our patrons, and literature more than most.

Gwen Davies

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Dai George reviews Moor Music by Mike Jenkins and Zen Cymru by Peter Finch

Moor Music by Mike Jenkins and Zen Cymru by Peter Finch, two volumes put out by Seren last year, share a lot in common. Both contain visions of dead international celebs moonlighting in unlikely spots across south Wales (Elvis at the Splott Mecca bingo hall for Finch; ‘Einstein at the Comp’ for Jenkins). Both use music to inspire the subject matter and forms of their poetry. Both are hopelessly in love with the narrow corridor of the world from Cardiff city centre to the Heads of the Valleys Road. Most importantly, both collections are object lessons in how to pole vault the complacency that can set in for poets once they’ve been on the scene for forty-odd years.

Of the two, Moor Music represents a greater departure from its author’s usual methods. Writing in open form, Jenkins has hit upon an expansive new mode for his demotic sketches. To demonstrate what I mean, here is the beginning of ‘Came the Ram’:




from a side lane came the ram

This ‘step’ effect characterises the volume: a line of what would ordinarily be about six or seven beats is decomposed, with each successive fragment placed one line down and a little further to the right. As a result, this book feels windblown. It is as though it has been composed directly on the gusty commons, moors and lakes of the poems’ settings.

One sometimes gets the feeling that Jenkins has chosen these forms in order to slip the leash of the copyeditor. (Why does he end ‘Chipoil Avenue’ with an unfinished parenthesis? This is not a collection for even the borderline obsessive compulsive.) And, to be sure, there is little true innovation here: Jenkins is not the first poet to untether his work from the left margin and regularised punctuation. Nevertheless, he is an adept convert, using the unusual space opened up by these forms to hint at the topography of his beloved home patch.

To say that it’s business as usual for Finch might sound like an insult. It shouldn’t. Finch has never been anything if not agile and improvisatory, and he remains both of these in Zen Cymru. The volume takes in many styles, from lists and dyspeptic bilingual experiments to fragmented sound poetry (the eponymous centrepiece of the collection owes more than a little to Edwin Morgan’s barmy ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’) and longer prose poetry (‘Clinic’, a panicked memoir prompted by a visit to the urologist, is particularly fine).

Among Finch’s usual varied fare, Zen Cymru sees him take a moving step into the terrain of conventional lyric elegy. There is a handful of superb poems about his aging mother and deceased father, including the closer, ‘Now You Can Again Be Your Father’. As if to underline where his poetry overlaps with Jenkins’, this last poem contains the following lines:

He never liked the moors, my father,

but I did

full of space and incessant air

Ironically, this is perhaps the best single line about moors in either collection. Indeed, it could double as an inadvertent blurb for Moor Music, a book which exploits this sense of ‘space and incessant air’ to great effect. Unusually, perhaps, for Finch, this phrase applies equally to some of the delicate elegies in Zen Cymru.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Grace Williams Says it Loud by Emma Henderson. Review by Charlotte Penny

Grace Williams is keeping me from sleeping. I put down this Orange shortlisted novel, Grace Williams Says it Loud, some hours ago, seriously impressed by Henderson’s literary debut and unsurprised that such a finely drawn novel had reached the Orange shortlist. It is utterly convincing in its presentation of time, place and character. Or is it?

Grace’s world and her life feel compellingly real and accurate. Her family, her fellow residents and the staff at the institution The Briar, in which she is placed as a child, are introduced and developed with apparent ease, and I recognised them all. I felt I sat on the bed with her mother and Grace as she held in her hands the balance of all their futures. I cried for her brother when in trying to retain some order and normality he removes Grace from the fragmenting home and is faced only with the cruelty of the outside world.

But though I was there at Grace’s side as she traversed a spectrum of experience, from brutal and inhumane neglect and abuse at the hands of (some of) the institution staff, to the adventure and exploration she shared with her soul mate and fellow patient Daniel, and though I felt it all, I did not feel it deeply. And I believe that dislocation and distance was the result of Grace’s first person narrative.

Grace is physically and mentally disabled. In her ‘real’ life she is unable to communicate beyond two-word constructs but Henderson (whose elder sister was disabled and institutionalised) gives her a voice, and an eloquent one at that. This is an empowering act, the author giving character to someone who could represents an unheard section of society, voice. So, why my struggle with this voice? Who is to say how Grace would have thought? What form her internal monologues would have taken? As a reader I am certain I have accepted more challenging conceits. And isn’t this a story I wanted to hear told?

I spent the first years of my life in the home for ‘Mentally and Physically Handicapped Children’ which my dad ran. Without siblings, children like Grace were my companions, along side them I learnt to speak. I found my voice whilst many of them never could or would find theirs despite receiving all the care, attention and stimulation that patients in The Briar did not. Amid all the fits and fights and piss and shit, I had one particular friend. Her speech was limited to echolalia (which Grace is suspected of having) but despite this we got along well. Most of the time. Occasionally though, my friend would become completely out of reach, all connection would vanish and she would rock into her self or lash out at me. She couldn’t express what was going on in her head. We were divided from each other by her frustration. And even though Henderson has given Grace the words that my friend never had, it is frustration I feel now. Her narration is matter of fact, unsentimental and without a trace of self pity. For some perhaps this makes it an uplifting read, Grace becomes a figure of hope, a survivor rather than a victim. For me however, though the narrative worked to present Grace as a person rather than a list of disabilities, it somehow kept me one step removed. But maybe that was the point, that even with words this was Grace’s reality.

I, for one, will be watching out for Emma Henderson’s future work and will be prepared for the challenge it may present me with. And also, perhaps, a little lost sleep.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Review by Dylan Moore: Africa Junction, Ginny Bailey

Even those Westerners who have ‘lived in Africa on and off for most of [their] lives,’ like Ginny Bailey’s character Louis are ‘wary of talking politics’: ‘somebody would inevitably mention the legacy of colonialism and borders drawn by rulers with no respect for tribal allegiances. They would lay the blame for Africa’s ills at the feet of the former colonial powers, or the modern equivalent, the multinationals. They’d talk about the lack of nationhood in Africa and they might go on to bring in the curse of oil and the stifling effect of protectionism and subsidies in the West.’ Louis is wary of mentioning all of this, but the oppressor’s guilt he feels in every freckle on his white skin means that, like many of us, he falls prey to ‘a kind of egotism in thinking everything was his responsibility.’

Fortunately for the reader, this passage is atypical of Africa Junction. Ginny Bailey, who edits both Riptide – a journal that champions the short story – and the Africa Research Bulletin, treats us to a realistic portrayal of ordinary lives in Dakar and Timbuktu, Cardiff and Exeter, Ethiopia and Mali. Stretching across continents and lives, Africa Junction draws on all of Bailey’s background in short stories. Episodic and fragmentary, most chapters of this highly ambitious debut would stand alone as short fiction. The attention to detail inherent in this structure and the constant flickering between the familiarities of the UK and the dry deserts and sweltering cities of West Africa accentuates the descriptions of each and gives powerful resonance to the nuances of difference that dictate our lives.

It is a clichĂ© to protest that the things that our common humanity is a stronger force than those things that separate us – material wealth, for example – but where fiction can sometimes be more powerful than all the facts in the world is by demonstrating rather than telling us of this truth. Africa Junction never shies away from darkness: its panoramic story – thirty years elapse between its first and last episodes – takes in child slavery, sexual exploitation, living with the threat of AIDS and civil war. It also touches on life experiences that we might feel are closer to home: the difficulties of growing up, failed relationships, the perils of online dating. Yet never do we feel there is a judgment being made; we never get the feeling that one set of hardships is more trivial than another.

That is because of Adele, the central character through whom Bailey weaves all of the various threads of the story together. Adele is a French teacher and single mother living in Exeter, but through the novel’s mosaic we learn of her youth in Cardiff and her childhood in Senegal. Africa Junction traces Adele’s quest to find her childhood friend Ellena – a kind of twin - whose memory haunts her to this day. It is an adventure story as well as a heartfelt meditation on how we can rebuild broken lives.

When Adele reaches the point where she is finally ready to move on, when she realizes that the past doesn’t always have to drag you down, that guilt and fear don’t get you anywhere near as far as love and hope and kindness, you get the feeling Bailey might be talking about Africa too.