Saturday, 30 May 2009

Stephan Fry loses..

Weight actually. He looked very svelt, fit and tanned in the Green Room at Hay last Monday. And unlike me didn't have to worry about winning anything. We were there for the Wales Book of the Year Shortlist announcement from judges Mike Parker, Tiffany Atkinson and John Barnie. For those who don't know about this prize it's a kinda Heptathlon for the current year's books. If you've got a book of short stories out (as I have) it competes with all the other wonderful literary output of Wales from this last year. Perfectly formed poetry collections, forensic literary criticism and biographies, travel writing and of course the fictional hammer throwers, the novelists.

So to find myself on stage in the final three had a lucid-dream quality to it. Was it real? Deborah Kay Davies and Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch were with me- I knew though if I caught sight of the Queen, say, and Lady Gaga sharing a joke in the front row this wouldn't be a good sign. But no- it seemed to be kosher- we seemed to be the shortlist. I have some memory of talking about my book (sadly not too lucidly) and actually heard myself saying 'of course I left Flintshire when I was eighteen.' I think someone hissed. Sad when Blood, etc is pretty much a celebration of the people I grew up with. And why didn't I add what I always do at this point? That my house is a single field's length over the border and though I may sleep in Cheshire I'll always live in a Wales of the Mind? That's the trouble with dreams though. Weird stuff happens. Should have asked either the Queen or Stephen Fry to pinch me.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Glenda by the sea

To one of my favourite towns on Friday: Rhyl on the Welsh coast (actually the favourite because I'm writing about it and it's just- well, brilliant) to hear one of my favourite writers, Glenda Beagan, launch her new collection The Great Master Of Ecstasy (from Seren). There's been a long wait for this book- worth it, we are hoping.

Glenda is one of those meticulous craftsmen whose poetry and prose never gets out the door before it's thoroughly burnished- and then brought back roughened around the edges and repolished. (In her introductory speech her editor Penny Thomas will make the point that this is her first collection for ten years - and she still needed two extensions to her deadline. WTG Glenda. No apologies necessary.)

Outside, as an audience gathers, Rhyl turns on its coloured lights and their glitter is kind to all the town's daytime faults and flatters the Promenade into that magical place from everyone's childhood. We're early- I'm impatient to hear my friend read, after all, so David and I walk the perimeter of the deserted Marine Lake. The quiet is a positive thing, anticipatory. Even the boats tethered along the Foryd Harbour are making less fuss about wind and water.

As Glenda's a self-effacing almost reluctant performer, I worry for her - but once she stops the hard part of explaining why and how and reads, the atmosphere in the room becomes charged. Here is someone that many people outside Wales will never have heard of who has had a long break in her writing career dealing I know with challenging stuff thrown at her by life. But no one there on Friday evening in Rhyl's small gallery could be left in any doubt by the time she sits down. She always was and still is The Real Thing.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Worth watching

Peter Blair and Ashley Chantler from the English Faculty of the University of Chester emailed me recently to tell me about their new venture Flash- The International Short Story Magazine and asking for a piece for it- 360 words (including title). I love commissions but don't always want commissions- specially now when the current novel has been dragged to a plateau of 60,000 words and there's at least another 20,000 waiting to be added- then another maybe 30,ooo to take out and a new 24,872 at a rough guess to go in its place - and all before October.
But I knew straightaway I was going to do this.
For a start Chester Uni is a Good Thing. I like it. It has above averagely attractive students who are usually cavorting in the Cheyney Road, Fountains Roundabout area of town and remind me how much I enjoyed my student days and how lucky I am not to have a proper job. And when you go there to do a reading those same students stare with beautiful uncynical eyes and write a few things down. Really comforting, that, on a bad day. But mainly it's this whole small literary magazine thing that does the damage. They really are Good Things. Years ago I heard a short story 'We All Begin in Little Magazines' on Radio 4. Can't remember by whom- can't be bothered to Google it- but the title says it all. Getting published never gets any easier- nor should it. But you've got to at least give people a point of entry- if they're rubbish then editors like Peter and Ashley will give them a strong hint. If they've any hope, they'll get a bit of yeah, well not too shabby from someone who isn't a blood relative. That's what you need.
I thought I could be a poet only after the late, great Alan Ross - who NEVER published a single piece of mine- wrote: 'You might be worth watching.' Same sort of thing happened with the short stories just a different editor.
You can check out Flash at You can find out if you might be not too shabby by submitting. In April you can even read my 'An Alternative History of Rhyl' there - unless you really ARE from Rhyl in which case don't look. It'll only upset you.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

So what?

A fellow guest on Radio Wales 'Something Else' programme yesterday told me that 'Shakespeare was tosh'. All of it. Oh and old-fashioned and crude and...more stuff like that my brain couldn't be bothered to remember.. (It's permanently full of the new book, there's a lot of competition for space). I guess that's a point of view- no what am I saying? It's the opposite, it's a bluntness of it's a bluntness of partial-sight. All these terms - opposites in this case- we could do with words for. One of the great things about Shakespeare was that when he couldn't find a word he made one up. A pity he couldn't have left me with the two I needed yesterday.
Considering the English language has more words than it knows what to do with, I'm still surprised to find gaps. Children spot them early on. They regularly get asked questions along the lines of 'What's your favourite...?' Fair enough. But of course what they want to tell you is the opposite- and what's available? Not much. My least favourite...the thing I don't like most of bete noir (ok not really). So they do the Shakespearean thing. They use unfavouritest.
It still leaves me wanting a pithy, ouch sort of word to use when someone (sorry can't remember your name) thinks it's big and clever to say Shakepeare's tosh.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Horse sense

This time last week I didn't win the James Tait Black Fiction Prize- but what a buzz losing was. Rosalind Belben's 'Our Horses in Egypt' did win and she read beautifully from the first part of the story following Philomena, the horse requisitioned and shipped off to be used in the First World War. (That's Rosalind herself, on the left in the pink hat, at the post-prize book signing. I'm coping with what seems like a forceful fan of fiction on the right- really though she was a delight). I have no complaints. Both Ms Belben's writing and subject matter were especially pleasing to someone whose twin manias are horses and fiction. But give her a try even if they're not yours. Philomena's is a story you probably won't know and it's strange and needed telling. (AND visit if you have the inclination- nothing changes, huh?)

And the Edinburgh Book Festival was bliss if your business is books: readers and writers filling Charlotte Square from morning till night plus the academic squad from the University: the professors, librarians, graduate students et al. They gave such a great party - especially welcome to an undeserving fictioneer who finds research a real trial. So much easier to invent and inhabit your own universe where standards of accuracy are up for continual renegotiation.

The champagne and head-patting aside, a visit to Edinburgh certainly tops up the reserve of something always threatening to run dry in my case: the belief that what I do on writing days is a decent way of spending my life.

So I discover another Stevenson fan and his wife- nice to meet you and Erin!- get my reading done despite the hangover and wander up and down Princes Street in the sun with husband and friends to take in the the acapella singers, bands and magicians (sic). Not QUITE perfect. Because not only didn't I win, the BBC4 crew fail to arrive in time to film my being brave and performing with enthusiasm despite the disappointment. So the country will never get to see just what a good loser I was. So I'm telling you.

Monday, 30 June 2008

Don't Get Bitten, Don't Get Kicked

Only true gentleness can master horses.
Pull and their strength will enter your flesh like
a butcher's hook and force the joint awry.
Never tense. Your fear will balloon and mewl,
come flashing over the fields, a simple brain's
switch of horror that may destroy you both.
Keep your voice low - you are fodder for the threshing.
Think with your senses: one can be spry death
in half a second from smelling the new spring.
Balance is your handrail. Gravity the strap.
Hold that light boneless seat men find so sexy.

Always remember: on the grass you are dead meat.

Seam Poetry (Issue 5)

My horse Ianto died this week. I was away and my friend Vivienne (and Bryan and Verity, but especially Vivienne) cared for him heroically. Probably best- horses know nothing about ownership. To Ianto I was a sort of officious health visitor: enquiring into the state of his feet, dosing him, insisting he take exercise. Vivienne on the other hand was meals-on-wheels: beyond kind, calm, a giver of sweets. I know who I'd rather have.

Thanks Ianto - we had some wild times. I've never met another creature on four-legs that was a stand-up comedian.

Thanks Vivienne.

Saturday, 31 May 2008


While I'm writing fiction I try not to read it. Terrible insecurities surface if I do- not to mention the fear of unconscious theft. (This isn't really a problem because your own ideas, phraseology, scenes and of course characters have such a strong essence of yourself that - just like the penguin chick in the thousand-strong rookery - they call to you above the racket. Still...)

I suspect this abstinance has more to do with sympathetic magic than anything real. Like fasting before taking communion - or no sex before The Big Game.

I can't pretend it's easy- it's positively hard because, in common with most people who write fiction, I can't get enough of the stuff. I could eat three courses of fiction for every meal. (Starter: Michael Frayn, main course Joseph Conrad, pudding Martin Amis...and yes, I could manage another slice). An addict, I need some every day. I need some NOW. So I go through this ridiculous bargaining process with Mephistopheles. Obviously, I wheedle, a new William Boyd, say, if there is one- I'm not saying I've checked- but if there were one it'd be out of the question. I'm not even mentioning a title because I understand how not acceptable a William Boyd would be. But- but (it's early morning, my husband isn't awake to torment, even the dogs are still dreaming of very slow hares gambling innocently through Dog Heaven) but (here I come up with my lowest offer, ever) what about an old Colin Dexter- hang on, hang on, before you say No, what about an Inspector Morse that is so-o old I can mime the dialogue when it comes around on ITV3, so old that John Thaw playing Inspector Morse doesn't have a limp, so old and so familiar I can remember who did it? So old the traffic in the Oxford background is actually MOVING. Can I read that?

No, he says.

I turn on the laptop.