Monday, 31 October 2011

Halloween poetry, guest blog by Christien Gholson

The leaves are starting to fly from the trees in the park across the street, settling in pools of red and brown on the grass, and, for some reason, this makes me want to start reading poetry out loud. It could be that the coming of cold weather ignites an ancient race memory of those long winter nights when there was nothing to do but sit around a fire and listen to stories or the repetitive rhythms of an epic poem. Or it could be that everything currently on television has become so amazingly paltry.

I used to believe there was a universal conspiracy against the reciting of poetry. For years, every time I began reading out loud, suddenly a car would start revving its engine below the window, or the buzz of a vacuum in the flat next door would shake the wall, or a group of drunken students would wander out of the dark, singing exuberantly (and off-key) some pop-song-of-the-minute. Once or twice, a helicopter decided to hover over the neighbourhood. Really. No lie.

Because of this, I began to form a personal myth that the urban landscape had attained consciousness, was a kind of jealous god that didn’t want anyone stepping outside the perimeters of his noisy little fiefdom. This was a god dedicated to speed, to things rushing by too fast to ponder or think about them, to channel surfing, to the constant noise occupying the mind.

Reading or listening to poetry requires attention. So, in my myth, my crappy urban god was desperate to censor anything that would cause me to focus, to feel something beyond the change-every-three-seconds consumer frenzy. The poem recited creates a space outside all that speed and noise. Sometimes, when I look up from the page at the end of a poem, I can feel it resonate through the room, through my body, and am left - for a few seconds - with pure perception, blinking like a newborn birthed into an old world.

Can good poetry actually compete against speed culture? Following the actual breath measure of a poem slows us down, allows the poet and their times to inhabit us. Call it ‘poet possession’. You could do worse than be possessed by the breath rhythms of Shelley’s ‘Masque of Anarchy’; or Ginsberg’s ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra’; pretty much anything by Pablo Neruda; or (a new discovery for me) Lynette Roberts’ ‘Gods with Stainless Ears’.

With that in mind, as an antidote to all the chattering consumer noise this Halloween season, in honour of the coming of the dark, pick up some volume of a long dead poet and start to read out loud. See what happens.

This is a version of an Western Mail Insider books column published on Saturday 29 October 2011.

Christien Gholson blogs at and is available on cgholson[at] His story 'The Feed' appears in New Welsh Review 95, and his debut collection of prose poetry is On the Side of the Crow.

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Next week's blog: Tessa Hadley and Deborah Kay Davies in conversation with Gwen Davies at the Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea, Wednesday 2 November

Friday, 21 October 2011

Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending. Review by Paul Cooper

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’ latest novel and the book that (finally) this week won him the Man Booker Prize, is a thin book impregnated with fat ideas. At 150 pages, Barnes’ book only barely dodges the description ‘novella’, a designation that nowadays carries connotations of being somehow ‘lightweight’. If not with its size, Barnes’ latest offering self-confidently (although sometimes self-consciously) asserts itself as novelistic with its cerebral themes, its refinement of style, and the poised and precise prose that has become the hallmark of one of Britain’s most well-respected modern writers.

Barnes’s narrator, Tony, has grown old, his life consigned to mundanity after a failed university relationship and the suicide of school friend Adrian, an aloof Camus-quoting intellectual. ‘History isn’t the lies of the victors,’ Tony tells us, ‘It’s more the memories of the survivors’. But, as ever with Barnes, things are more complex than that. Veronica, an enigmatic, difficult girl, and the focus of his adolescent romantic troubles, was in a relationship with Adrian at the time of his death, and now, decades later, Veronica’s recently deceased mother has bequeathed Adrian’s diary to Tony, despite having only met him once. The only problem is that Veronica has the diary, and she won’t give it back. From this tortuous setup, Barnes weaves a steady and contemplative plot as Tony must relive those early, half-forgotten disappointments with the alluring promise of his friend’s diary, and some kind of answer to the mystery of his suicide, hovering always just out of reach.

The Sense of an Ending is peppered with strong insight into the inadequacies of history and the myths we build up around people. The choreography of scenes is often startlingly real, but at times reaching after poignancy leaves Barnes’ characters merely philosophising woodenly, with the first pages of the novel particularly seeing meditations on the crises of memory and questions of subjective and objective interpretation muscled with slightly too much force into conversations. Despite this tendency, some very real ideological conflicts are powerfully evoked – chief among them the contrast between what Tony perceives as Adrian’s unflinching ‘moral courage’ in committing suicide, and his own shying away from the philosophical imperatives of life: ‘I wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was’. There are also speculations as to whether the parallels between Tony’s particular regrets bear more than a passing resemblance to those experienced by Barnes during his public split with one-time friend Martin Amis.

The book is saturated with the mutability of memory, and Tony is an unreliable narrator in the style of Ishiguro or Faulks. Conversations are qualified with disclaimers such as ‘Was this their exact exchange? Almost certainly not’, and as the novel wends to its depth-charge conclusion, Tony is consistently reminded ‘You just don’t get it’, and neither, the reader increasingly feels, do we. The twist is clever and skilfully delivered, if a little perplexing, but it is a masterfully constructed plot, so much so that once a reader has finished the last page, they will immediately turn back to the first. After all, they have probably forgotten much of the detail.

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Next week's blog: Rory MacLean, Berlin ‘wild boy clubbers', nature writing, grief and belonging

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Catherine Fisher our new Young People's Laureate and other matters

Being pushed outside your comfort zone is salutary. In his piece on recent graphic novels in the winter issue of New Welsh Review, now at proof stage, David Thorpe mentions his friend, a comics ‘virgin’ who couldn’t work out whether to look at pictures or text first. Nor could her eyes gauge whether to follow the strips up, down, right or left. I must admit my sympathy, despite exposure to Japanese animation film (Howl’s Moving Castle, anyone?) and a lifelong love of children’s picture books. This essay ranges from literary adaptations such as Pride and Prejudice by Edginton and Deas (a challenge, as ‘a novel with little in the way of visual action’) to Catel José-Luis Bocquet’s original ‘linear’ biography Kiki de Montparnasse, whose subject, artist, muse and wife to Man Ray, defined the 1920s Paris art scene. This feature is literally an eye-opener.

I’ve no interest in omnipotence: my take on editing a magazine is that I’m learning alongside the reader. A fun part of that is using an essay such as Thorpe’s as a building block to creating a shared ‘moving castle’ with rooms that shift in vibe and location. So it is that I spent a morning researching Wales’ own emerging artist-authors for a future issue. The genre is now eligible for Literature Wales’ writers’ bursary funding, and is bearing fruit as Huw Aeron works on his first book, a dual-language version of the epic medieval elegy ‘Y Gododdin’, and US-published author Carol Swain (author of Foodboy) casts her dystopian charcoal-stick over an English story set on a Welsh hill-farm in Gast (‘bitch’). Huw Aeron led dual-language workshops on the graphic novel this weekend at Literature Wales’ October-long ‘Literature Lounge’, a family-friendly pop-up bookswap-shop within Cardiff’s St David’s Centre.

LW’s newfound emphasis on literature for children and young people is especially welcome and those of us banging the drum for YA literature are delighted at the news that Catherine Fisher is our first English-language Young People’s Laureate. The announcement will be made by Charlotte Church at the Literature Lounge tonight, Tuesday 18 October, and has been welcomed by Philip Pullman as well as National Poets Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy. Catherine’s first official appearance will be at the Young People Literature Festival, Theatr Soar, Merthyr Tudful alongside AM Huw Lewis, poets Eurig Salisbury and Mike Jenkins and others, this Thursday 20 October.

If you’re based in the north east, visit the Daniel Owen Festival this week at Mold. This celebration of ‘Wales’ Dickens’ runs from 16 to 22 October. Yesterday, Monday 17th saw the launch at Theatr Clwyd of Fireside Tales, the first English translation of Straeon y Pentan. Published by Brown Cow Publishing and Y Lolfa, this is Brown Cow’s second title in their ‘Daniel Owen Signature Series’ of all ten Owen titles. Translator Adam Pearce could have braved more linguistic risks, fought for fewer footnotes and assumed a core readership within Wales. But lovely English phrases are here, as well as Owen’s fascination for birds and his striking imagery such as the cat left to die hanging from a tree like a caged canary. One for Halloween.

A version of this was published in Gwen's Western Mail Insider books column on Saturday 15 October 2011.

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Next week's blog: Rory MacLean, Berlin ‘wild boy clubbers', nature writing, grief and belongings

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-personality by Elias Aboujaoude. Review by Susie Wild

The internet has been in popular use in the UK for 20 years. Now that is has, essentially, come of age, a string of books has been released examining the effects of the internet on humanity. Virtually You addresses the effect of the disparity between our online and offline personas on our psychological well-being and society. It is a welcome addition to the good arguments already put forth in Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier.

The author, Elias Aboujaoude, is a Silicon Valley psychiatrist who helped to lead the largest US study on problematic Internet use published to date. The study looked at the internet habits of 2,500 US adults and 'revealed alarming rates of online pathological behaviour'. This led Aboujaoude to conclude that while the internet is 'a force for good in many arenas', its dark side still casts a long shadow over society. He acknowledges that each wave of new media has had its detractors, yet believes that the internet's 'much deeper penetration into every aspect of our lives today makes it more insidious, and potentially more dangerous'.

The 'I' is omnipresent in contemporary cyberspace. Yahoo ran advertising last year with the strapline 'your own personal everything'. Today technology is all about the first-person singular pronoun iPad, iPhone, iPlayer. The centre of the webiverse is you, 'the new you', the virtual and improved you. The Photoshopped you. The avatar you. Your dangerous e-personality. In The Fountainhead in 1968, author and thinker Ayn Rand wrote: 'Civilisation is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilisation is the process of setting men free from men.' Today it seems that while, on the [inter]face of things, our online life is personal, we are actually reverting back to the savage and the dangers of mob rule.

Danger, as any good girl will know, is hellishly attractive, but spelt out by Aboujaoude, the dangers of the e-personality are anything but: delusions of grandeur, narcissism, viciousness, impulsivity and infantile regression. Each of these five foes gets a chapter of discussion in the book, before he concludes:

The part of our psyche that usually reigns in these instincts — what psychoanalysts have traditionally called the superego — finds a worthy competitor in the Internet-assisted id, with its infantile self-centeredness and its dark dreams that demand to be satisfied.

In a world where the concept of long-term planning and the future are becoming lost in favour of immersion in the present, selfishness and narcisurfing the act of googling oneself the consequences of our actions have apparently become a lesser concern.

Aboujaoude also draws on clinical work, personal experience and academic research to try and make sense of the psychological characteristics that define our e-personalities, the ways we behave and portray ourselves online. The blurring between our work and social lives, our friend circles, our online and offline lives have become such that we are 'living in the existential equivalent of a well-shaken vinaigrette.' The dangers of the e-personality play out to extremes, as given in examples of high profile tragic news stories: 13-year-old Megan Meier's cyberbullying-related suicide; Philip Markoff, the 23-year-old 'Craigslist Killer'; and the online live video stream OD of troubled 19-year-old Abraham Biggs.

Virtually You is also peppered with less extreme case studies from the psychiatrist's own clinical practice in the field of the Impulse Control Disorders. Aboujaoude's clinic in Stanford has seen a large increase in the number of patients seeking help for internet-related addictive and damaging behaviours. We are not all addicts, yet we are all affected by our internet use more than most realise. Often the bleed from online to offline behaviour is played out on a more minor scale: we become more impatient and impolite in our face-to-face interactions. We are less willing to work at it when the going gets tough in our personal relationships. We withdraw into our other virtual lives, lonelier but 'safer'.

Whilst most of the arguments in Virtually You are common sense, this easy-to-read book offers a decent, layperson’s introduction to the broad psychological effects of the internet. At times it is uncertain who the book is aimed at, as basic terminology from the fields of psychology and technology are painstakingly explained. At others, the author’s tone can come across as flippant, while some of the arguments provide more questions than answers. All these complaints aside, Aboujaoude still makes some important points:

Our e-personality cannot tolerate down time. There is always a discovery or a connection to be made; always some fun to be had. Yet idle time, when the browser is shut down, the smart phone is out of charge […] is necessary to our ability to reflect on the world around us and our ability to self-reflect […] to assess ourselves and our place in the world, as well as consider the downside of the new technologies that are keeping us so busy.

Aboujaoude does not call for the internet to be switched off, but he does ask us to pause, to take stock, and then to proceed with caution. Sometimes we need someone to state the obvious, for these are wise words indeed.

Susie Wild is the Associate Editor of The Raconteur and the author of the short story collection The Art of Contraception and the Kindle e-book novella Arrivals

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Next week's editor's blog: Graphic novels, Cardiff’s Literature Lounge and the Daniel Owen Festival

Monday, 10 October 2011

Smithy, Super Thursday and the evergreen gift book

Gavin and Stacey’s Smithy did shove up a Severn Bridge toll barrier to ‘break into Wales’. But when all’s said and done, he is no champion of Wales. Still though, James Corden deserves a golden daff just for co-creating the series alongside confirmed national treasure Ruth Jones, not to mention his latest Doctor Who outing as Craig. And I’m not gonna lie to you: Corden’s strip-off on YouTube (‘Get in the Car Smithy!’) is a sure-fire cure for SAD.

What with The Sun’s serialisation of his autobiography May I Have Your Attention Please?, though, and massive publicity for Super Thursday, even I may soon tire of his big smile. Corden’s is one of 225 hardback titles launched on 29 September for Christmas. Skirting the issue of whether comedian’s memoirs are ever as funny as their performances (I fear a tad for Rob Brydon’s Small Man in a Book, trickling out late this week on 13 October), news coverage spun a Death of the Hardback story, focusing geekily on how book dimensions relate to garnering reviews and word-of-mouth buzz.

Predictions of how digitisation will shift reading, shopping and publishing habits are still rumours in the dark. But whatever the discrete threats are to 3-D shops and tomes, the practice of giving books as gifts is safe for now. You may bribe your teenage daughter with a preloaded Kindle for a main present, or fob off a neglected nephew with an iTunes voucher. But a hardback scrawled with a coded (preferably literary) love message carries far more caché. (The difficulty of lending and sharing e-books; the threat to our fantastic heritage of book covers with their seducing suggestion of our impeccable taste; the expense, cost, risk and mess of letting kids’ sticky mitts on an iPad are other thankfully unresolved matters to which I may return another time.)

E ink editions cannot yet handle colour, complex design, tables nor illustration, which is why the proportion of Kindle titles published for the children’s and nonfiction market lags way behind romance and contemporary genre fiction (erotica is the fourth biggest category: advertising personal taste isn’t always advisable). For that reason, specialist art and design publishers such as Thames and Hudson, V&A, Phaidon and Visual Editions may still celebrate the physical this Christmas with linen slip-cases, loose postcards, pop-ups and revivals of the 60s ‘book in a box’ concept. Cheap they are not, but our use for books as display persists. Were I the show-off type, and if someone special bought me Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, with its gorgeous ‘lost’ Chicago pictures, I would let our coffee table shout out ‘Tasteful Cow Lives Here’ right up to Easter. And that cheeky inscription aint available yet in digital.

A version of this was published in Gwen's Insider books column in the Western Mail on Saturday 8 October 2011

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Next week's blog: Graphic novels, Cardiff’s Literature Lounge and the Daniel Owen Festival

Monday, 3 October 2011

New Critics Day and Seren at Thirty

Admin is the bane of our lives, whether we are teachers, nurses or literary magazine editors. At New Welsh Review our bid to the Welsh Books Council’s just gone in: our plan for a further three years’ funding. Not fun but instructive, since it pins down ideas, contributors, directions for digital development and how to face standstill budgets. Since our funding category is the ‘literary quarterly’, we’ve committed to our remit rather than straying into the general arts. Nevertheless, literature is rightly part and parcel of arts and culture. Recognising this, as well as bringing in new readers interested in general culture, is what my revamped magazine is about. We have new contemporary culture and publishing columns, for example, and match up authors with topics from philosophy to cooking traditions and psychology. We also invite theatre practioners, visual artists and radio producers to spill secrets on the way they work.

Writers are enrichened by exposure to hip-hop opera or photos of our ‘manufactured coast-scape’. Likewise, artists, venues and fans need elegant, enlightening commentary on whatever they produce, promote or experience. These beliefs, and a commitment to raising the level of arts criticism in Wales, are at the heart of a joint venture by National Theatre Wales and Literature Wales showcased on Saturday afternoon at New Critics Day, a free debate at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff.

This event marks the end of a pioneering scheme which matched four emerging arts critics –– Ben Bryant, Megan Jones, Dylan Moore and Adam Somerset –– to top mentors, Guardian critics Lyn Gardner and Elisabeth Mahoney, and offered them reviewing opportunities based around NTW’s first year of work. The fledglings shared their experiences alongside their mentors in a line-up including Matt Wolf of the New York Times; Arts Desk founder Jasper Rees; journalist and broadcaster Aleks Sierz; Arwel Gruffydd from Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, and academic Hazel Walford Davies. NTW Artistic Director John E McGrath will chair panel discussions on ‘the Welsh context’ (including the potential of our media outlets), how to write a good review, and the future of arts criticism in Wales.

So that was the cerebellum and Sat pm sorted. In the morning literary types loved their bellies at Seren’s all-day street party celebrating their thirtieth birthday at 57 Nolton Street as part of Bridgend’s Food Feastival [sic]. Cake; meet the editor surgeries; book trail with Robert Minhinnick and Mike Jenkins; raffle with signed new book prizes from the New Stories from the Mabinogion set to Patrick McGuinness’ Booker longlisted The Last Hundred Days; ‘open mic’ slots; Dannie Abse reading, and treats from Deli-licious! Happy birthday, Seren: hope you remembered to feed any passing critics: it pays to keep them sweet….

A version of this was first published in Gwen's Western Mail Insider books column on Saturday 1 October 2011.

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Next week's blog: Smithy, Super Thursday and the evergreen book as gift.