Monday, 31 January 2011

Refurbishing the Avant Garde

One of the good things to come out of 2010 has been the refurbishing of the Welsh avant garde. Avant garde! We don’t do that in this country I hear some of you say. And for decade after decade in Wales that’s largely been true. Anyone operating even slightly outside the straight line of the artistic straight and narrow has been derided. Eisteddfods celebrating maps made from mud have been declared a total waste of public money. Painters who don’t actually paint have been laughed at. Musicians making music without instruments have been silenced. Conceptual artists who sit in fields thinking have had their grants cut to the bone.

When Gwyneth Lewis’s now massively famous poem was first installed on the front of the brand new Wales Millennium Centre it took a bit of persuading some people that this wasn’t a giant size bilingual cut up in the style of William Burroughs. Yes, like many an avant garde piece of verse you could read the thing in multiple directions. Yet underneath there was a traditional, potent and appealing message. In These Stones Horizons Sing. The past pointing at the future. What we are moving towards what we will be. Beautifully done.

Most of the performance poets, with an honourable exception or two, have spent the past ten years roaring their articulate in-your-face verses much in the style of the pioneers who did the same thing before them. Energising, entertaining, and enjoyable - but rarely really new. Even the liberating possibilities of sampling have somehow found themselves side-tracked into hip hop. Rhys Trimble aside most Welsh-based stand-ups take the old fashioned route. I’m not knocking them, far from it, but offering poetry as a form of bar room entertainment is not at all new. Maybe new is not what we now need to be. Perhaps good would be sufficient enough.

But in Wales, at the end of the new millennium’s first decade, things are waking. It’s taken us forty years but now that we’ve opened our ears we are reborn.

In the past months I’ve spoken with at least four teams of researchers from literary magazines, university departments and media companies – all bent on uncovering Wales’s contribution to twentieth century literary modernism. Angel Exhaust has a special issue devoted to The Welsh Underground, edited by John Goodby and Andrew Duncan. “Each Aeon free after the first one”, it proudly announces. Zoe Skoulding’s Poetry Wales, filled with risk takers and contemporary boundary pushers, is now the magazine I’d always wished it could be.

Pretty soon the critical studies will appear and the barren and straight-jacketed Welsh past I lived through will appear instead to have been a liberal and prolific period, populated by dozens of Welsh experimenters playing to insatiable audiences. History is malleable. It’s always been so.

An earlier version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail #181

Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Kings of Egypt



You don’t really expect to find Swiss food in the heart of Upper Egypt but that’s how it is on Monday night at the Hotel Maritim Jolie Ville, Luxor. Rosti, Basler Mehlsuppe, Aargauer Rueblitorte, G'Hackets and Hoernli, emmental cheese quiche and √Ąlplermagronen. Swiss flags on sticks. Outside is the Nile, inside it’s Zurich. Not that we should really get any of this out of proportion. Apart from the hotel’s main buffet restaurant, one night of the week, the Jolie Maritim is squarely Egyptian. Doorways are arched, staff wear jallabia, there are palm trees and camels. Everyone smiles.

I’m on King’s Island, slipped into the Nile a ten minute car drive south of Luxor. This is an oasis of green and calm set in a desert landscape where it hasn’t rained for a dozen years. Luxor and its temples, Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the tomb of Tutankhamen, and the whole spectacular litter of the pharaohs are all minutes away. Luxor itself is a city made spoil tip by archaeological excavation. It has an economy that relies 85% on tourism. Egyptology drives. Around here touts proliferate, importuning visitors on every possible occasion. Carry your bag. Sell you postcards, water, fedora, straw boater, sunglasses, Pringles. Direct you to a restaurant. Find you a horse, a manservant, a guide. Change your money. Borrow your pen. Look at your camera. Smoke your cigarettes. Button your shirt. Hold your hand.

In Egypt it’s hard to know where to turn, or indeed how to turn. Smile at anyone and they’ll immediately begin the process that ends in you handing over cash. Persistent, irritating, pointless. But not at the Jolie Ville. Once you’ve crossed the newly installed road bridge, gone through security where men with mirrors on sticks check the undersides of your vehicle and the licence of the driver, you are free. Back to a world where a smile means a smile. You can cease muttering the mantra la shukran, thank you, no, go away, stop, don’t, please. Here service is delivered free. It’s part of the deal.

King’s Island was until a few years ago known as Crocodile Island – named after the reptiles that once swam the river here. Or maybe it was after the aged beast that lurked in the warm ponds of the Hotel’s zoo. Gone. The zoo’s croc sent on Egyptian government order to be set free in the waters of Lake Nasser. The island name changed because Kings sell better than reptiles. The island is a business after all.

General manager Urs Umbricht
and shoeshine man
Gamal Seddek Mansy Benjamen

Urs Umbricht, genial, fifty, is the King of Kings. He’s the Jolie Ville’s General Manager, the GM, forever present among his guests and his extensive staff. My predecessor, he told me, used to manage things by email, stayed in his office. I like to meet people and talk to them. The world spins better that way.

Urs has been in the hotel trade as long as he can remember. He began in the kitchens at his grandfather’s establishment, the Hotel Hasenstrick, in Zurich. He’s managed establishments across the world beginning with his first, in Kenya, at the age of twenty-seven. He’s a fixer. He moves in to manage change or to sort failure and then moves on. He was in Aswan before Luxor, and in Zanzibar before that. He’s been at the Jolie Ville for a year. Where next? Maybe my time of moving is over, he says. I’m getting older. Maybe I’ll stay.

The Jolie Vile used to be part of the European M√∂venpick chain but now it’s owned by an Egyptian, Hassain Khaled Salem. Salem employs Urs on contract. And if that contract says “make it work” then Urs has fulfilled.

The hotel, which occupies the entirety of King’s island, has nothing over two stories with most of its structure at ground level. It has a central reception and series of restaurants around which, in landscaped gardens, are set residential bungalows. There’s a gym, tennis courts, football field, giant chess, a crocket lawn, ping pong, boules, hammocks, pools, snack bars, and more sun loungers than even the Germans can manage to reserve. Mid-afternoon a man with a trolley comes and sells you tea, coffee and cake. There’s no background music. All the sun does is shine.

Does it ever change, this blue sky weather? Outside, in early January, it’s a steady 26 degrees.Occasionally you’ll get cloud, says Urs. You are here in our mid-winter. You might be in t-shirt and shorts but the Egyptians will be wearing jackets and jumpers. We had a dust storm yesterday, highly unusual, caused chaos. The storm lasted half an hour and on the roads nothing moved for a whole day. Visitors from the Red Sea resorts, brought here by tourist coach, had to stay overnight. Bad for them, good for me. I sold an extra 200 rooms. A few years ago when I was in Aswan it rained for ten minutes. Egyptian houses don’t have roofs. Electrics are exposed to the air. There aren’t any street drains. The town shut down for forty-eight hours while they sorted things out.

The change Urs has been employed to manage at the Jolie Ville is the construction of an extension to the facilities. This is by way of a series of two-story bungalows to the island’s south, a new infinity Nile-side pool, an enlarged restaurant, a new reception and shops, and a set of town houses for newly-weds to the north. How do you stay open doing this in the heat and dust of an Egyptian forty degree summer without upsetting someone? Truth is you don’t. Some of the comments on Trip Advisor have been bitter. “If you want a break in a construction site then this is it.” “An oasis destroyed. We won’t be coming again.” “How could they do this to us?” But most have been reasonable. “The management have screened building work off. The Jolie Ville is an oasis of peace. The new build hasn’t made any difference to us at all.”

By the time I get there work is mostly done. There are some diggers in the distance slashing into the dry Egyptian sand where the town houses are going but you need to peer through screens to see them. Elsewhere all is calm. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere as comprehensively silent and unhurried. In the week I’ve been here I’ve read five books. Peter Guralnick’s biography of Elvis, an anti-intellectual rock and roll king if ever there was one, E G Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, Paul Torday’s The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers, Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets, which turns out not to be what its title implies, and Tim Parks excellent study of urology, a subject dear to my heart, and meditation. It’s called Teach Us To Sit Still. A thing you do here, where stillness is omnipresent and sitting a joy.

But this isn’t really a place of the arts. It has little literary connection. Having said that Agatha Christie did come to Luxor before writing her famous Death on the Nile and the French decadent poet Arthur Rimbaud was here in the 1880s. His name is graffitied high up on one of the pillars at Luxor Temple. Urs Umbricht’s concession to culture is a regular classical concert played through loudspeakers at 6.30 pm. You sit on green baize covered steps. Beethoven is in your ears. The sun spectacularly descends. Herons fly in formation downriver. The feluccas drift. Vast five-storey white Nile cruise ships pass without making a sound. Fishermen cast their hand-made nets. You sip your sweet Egyptian tea. Bliss.

Change has been causing consternation among the Jolie Ville’s regulars for a year now. How much longer? Urs reckons four months but you never know, “Who can be sure. This is Egypt”. Returning guests are significant in the hotel’s business plan. Twenty per cent have been here before, some dozens of times. There’s one Swiss couple who have returned ninety-seven times. “I say to them,” says Urs, “ there are other places in the world, but they don’t listen.” The hotel sells to older guests and families with young children. There’s little here for young people. Target market is Germany, UK, Benelux, Switzerland, Scandinavia, France, a few Egyptians. I don’t want cheap drinking groups,” insists Urs. No fights round the pool, no raucous behaviour. No letting off of fire extinguishers in the corridors. There are no corridors after all.

In the Ascot Bar where, being a Muslim country, non-alcoholic cocktails feature strongly on the wine list, I’m downing a paper parasol festooned Nile Sundowner and feeling a bit like Del Boy. The Dusseldorf-based Downtown Jazz band are giving it a soft blow. It’s Tight Like That, St Louis Blues. Eighty-year old Ken Blakemore, former trombonist with Ken Colyer and more recently with the Crouch End All Stars sits in. The abundant Egyptian bar managers tap their feet. This is a feature of the Jolie Ville. The abundant staff rather than the foot tapping. Human labour is cheap so enterprises make good use. Your empty glass is cleared as soon as you put it down. You want peanuts? They arrive at lightning speed.

The recorded classical concerts and this bit of sloppy Dixieland are the most music I encounter all week. There was a belly dancer in the restaurant on New Year’s Eve and a spectacular demonstration of Dervish dancing. But mostly the Jolie Ville goes in for birdsong. I stuff my earphones back in and listen to John Lee Hooker. Crawling King Snake. The Mississippi boogie man. The antithesis of Upper Egypt.

On site the Jolie Ville offers free Egyptian Arabic classes. We sit in the shade sipping fresh orange juice as Gamal explains how basic greetings work. I learn a few which I later try out on Ali in the corner shop back home in Cardiff. He is from Yemen. “This Egyptian Arabic is different from my Arabic, you know”, he complains. Waed, the Jolie Ville’s Tunisian receptionist says the same thing. But Egypt is the country that makes all the films and TV programmes and these are broadcast right across the Arab world. So everyone understands.

Urs, amazingly, doesn’t speak Egyptian. Why should I, he asks. The language of the Jolie Vile is English. English it may be but there are still some Egyptian guests. Does he have a position on the advance of radical Islam? Has there ever been trouble here? No. In the past the occasional devout female swimmer will have demanded to go in the pool wearing her street clothes. The lot. But we don’t allow that. Now they have these head-to-foot Islamic bathing costumes so it’s okay. Does this happen often? No.

The Jolie Ville has 647 rooms and 780 staff. That might sound high density but it is spread over 660,000 square meters of island. Everyone smiles at you. They all speak. The secret of the operation’s success, apparently, are the “7 Jolie Keys For Happy Clients”, a hospitality Bible carried in the top pocket by all those working here.

Hospitality Key no. 3. Entering/leaving a guest’s room. Wait at least 5 seconds before knocking a second time. Wait again a moment before opening the door.

Hospitality Key no 1. Attending to the guest. Show initiative. Ensure eye contact. Listen carefully. Show interest. Mention guest’s name.

I try this out. Sabah el Kheer (Good morning), I say to a gardener. He makes eyes contact as instructed, gives me toothy grin, and replies in English. “Ah, you speak Egyptian.” I shake my head. La, I reply.

Come again? As this is the most reliably hot winter destination reachable from the UK at reasonable distance then yes. It’s a five hour flight into the bedlam of Luxor airport. Then half an hour by coach to the Jolie Ville’s five star peace. You can get a free boat or bus into town to spend an enjoyable day being hassled beyond as you negotiate the bazars, temples, museums, mummies, tours of the tombs, visits to the amazing Colossus of Memnon and the vast Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. You can fly over the lot by hot air balloon for eighty quid or visit Cairo for the day by plane for three times that.

But I’m here for lying down. According to Guralnick Elvis did a lot of this. Hanging out by the pool. I’ve just ordered a club sandwich and another glass of Egyptian Stella. Alcohol content 4.5%. I can imagine the King doing that.

The Maritim Jolie Ville Kings Island Hotel Luxor is at Awameya Road - Kings Island, Luxor – Egypt, +20 (95) 2274855, resort@lux-maritim-jolieville.com


In late January 2011 the Egyptian revolution reached Luxor and there are reports of trouble near the town’s big hotels. The ruling party’s HQ has been set alight, says a posting in the blogosphere. There are tanks on the streets. UK Foreign Office advice is to avoid travel to Egypt until things settle down.

Peter Finch

Saturday, 22 January 2011

How Late It Is, How Late It Is

Late starters – what are they? Later flowerers we know of. John Lee hooker coming back at the end of a long and slowly back-sliding career to barnstorm his way to the pop top again. Loretta Lynn, the coalminer’s daughter, making records with Jack White of the White Stripes at the age of 76. Emyr Humphreys, novelist of the Welsh north and the Welsh conscience, on the long list for the 2009 Wales Book of the Year at the age of 92. Ruth Bidgood, at 89, still publishing prize-winning collections of poetry with Seren. Dannie Abse at 88 is writing more now than he did in the energy and heat of youth. His Two For Joy from Random House follows hard on the heels of a fat New Selected from Hutchinson.

Those who have the life experience suddenly see the reaper up front and, if their health is holding, begin to exhibit a paranoia about leaving a decent mark. John Updike lived to the age of 76. His Rabbit books mapped out the route from life to death. I can appreciate the advantages, for a writer, of youth and obscurity”, he wrote in Aarp magazine, “You are not yet typecast. You can take a cold view of the entire literary scene.” Young writers have their as yet untapped youth still to work with. Their first and so vital twenty years. The older writer will have mined those experiences and be, as Updike puts it, “sifting” from the age of 40 on.

You want fresh then go for the young. You’d prefer life to be measured? Stick to age. But the late starter, product of increasing life spans and a culture that encourages creative writing, where do they fit in? Among the modules and courses in extra mural departments and cold school room night classes there are some who seem to have been attending for years. They turn up. They write. They come back again. Nothing ever seems to go anywhere.

According to Joy Howard, owner and operator of Grey Hen Press, everything is like this. Late talent is out there and in quantity. Her mission in life is to offer space to the writer over sixty and especially those who are less well known, who might have waited decades to reach the cutting edge.

Grey Hen’s anthology Cracking On, “poems on ageing by older women”, hardly sounds as if it will have the world by the throat. It is, however, remarkably engaging. Here is poetry of parental death, lost youth, dead lovers, failing limbs, and “the long blind alley of night”, sure. But there are also verses of hope and wonder. June Hall’s leap over the road’s last stile. Alice Beer’s young men in the kitchen. Ann Drysdale’s mastery of generational slip. Fight back. Write it all down. Not a bad idea.

An earlier version of the posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #180

Monday, 17 January 2011

Peter Finch Wins Ted Slade Award for Service To Poetry 2011

The Ted Slade Award is given annually to a person who is in the opinion of the selection panel has given unstintingly of their time and efforts over many years to promote poetry to a wider audience. Nominations for the award are made by members of Poetry Kit, and the selection is made from suitable short listed nominations, by an appointed selection panel.

This years award goes to Peter Finch, poet, critic and Chief Executive of Academi, the Welsh National Literature Promotion Agency. (www.peterfinch.co.uk)

Jim Bennett, who is a poet and Chair of Selectors, said, “Peter Finch has had a long and distinguished career, not only as a poet, but also as editor, critic and in recent years as Chief Executive of Academi, promoting literature. Peter has been an inspiration for many years and this award is given to acknowledge the tremendous contribution he has made to poetry.

THE TED SLADE AWARD FOR SERVICE TO POETRY

Ted Slade was the founding editor of The Poetry Kit, in every respect it was his vision and determination that saw the site grow to become one of the most visited poetry related internet sites in the world. This was done with the ethos of providing a service for readers and always putting their needs first when developing the site. For this reason Poetry Kit does not accept advertising or sponsorship and is run and funded by poets for poets. For all his work Ted received no official thanks and no payment, he did it because it was necessary and if he had not done it others with less integrity might have.

Ted died suddenly in 2004, and we always felt that we wanted to find a way to honour his memory and so we introduced an award in his name which is given to a person who has given their time and energies over an extended period to ensuring the continuance and development of poetry,. This will include people who have kept poetry as a presence in an area or community. Those who have pursued a poetic vision through a magazine or regular reading events. Those who have developed other media to explore its poetic use or have published poets who could not have otherwise found an outlet for their work.

In 2005 we gave the first TED SLADE AWARD and since then the following people have received it:

2005

Sally Evans

(Poetry Scotland)

2006

Gerald England

(New Hope International)

2007

Michael Horovitz

(Poetry Olympics)

2008

Connie Pickard

(Morden Tower)

2009

Geoff Stevens

(Purple Patch)

2010

Andy Croft

(Smokestack Books)

All recipients of the Ted Slade Award are acknowledged for their endeavour and dedication in the promotion of poetry. Without such people many of today's well known poets would not have had the opportunity to find a platform, develop their skills or find an audience. Recipients have their name entered onto the award and this will soon be on permanent display in a library in Liverpool.

PETER FINCH

Peter Finch is a poet, critic, author and literary entrepreneur living in Cardiff, Wales. He is Chief Executive of Academi, the Welsh National Literature Promotion Agency and Society of Writers. As a writer he works in both traditional and experimental forms. He is best known for his declamatory poetry readings, his creative work based on his native city of Cardiff, his series of books on Wales, and his knowledge of the UK poetry publishing scene.

He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Architects of Wales (RSAW), a Fellow of the English Association (FEA) and a Fellow of Yr Academi Gymreig / The Welsh Academy.

In the sixties and seventies he edited the ground-breaking literary magazine, second aeon, exhibited visual poetry internationally and toured with sound poet Bob Cobbing. In the eighties and nineties he concerned himself with performance poetry, was a founder member of Cardiff's Cabaret 246 and of the trio Horse's Mouth. This was work with props, owing as much to theatre as it did to literature. In the new Millennium he was worked on psychogeographies and alternative guides to his native city of Cardiff. The city has become his obsession.

Today he is much in demand as a reader as well as a lecturer at festivals and venues up and down the country. You can get into Finch's performances. There's little deliberate obscurity. His talks on Cardiff and how it is with urban living are always entertaining. In addition to the readings Finch also delivers a number of presentations on the poetry publishing scene (how to get yourself published - a demystification of the arcane world of books, magazines and the internet), on the history of sound poetry (which features histrionic performances of dada texts and the playing of numerous historical recordings), on the writing of short fiction and on the history of the small press. He works with schools and has led young people's writing squads in co-operation with local authorities.

From the early seventies until the late nineties he was treasurer of ALP, the Association of Little Presses. Between 1975 and 1998 he ran the Arts Council of Wales's specialist Oriel Bookshop in Cardiff. In 1998 he took up his current post as Chief Executive of Yr Academi Gymreig/ The Welsh Academy - the Welsh National Literature Promotion Agency and Society for Writers.

Peter Finch has published more than 25 books of poetry. His latest is Zen Cymru, published by Seren Books (April, 2010). His other titles include Food, Useful & Poems For Ghosts (Seren) and Antibodies (Stride). His The Welsh Poems appeared from Shearsman in 2006. His Selected Later Poems was published by Seren in November 2007.

His prose works include a number of critical guides including How To Publish Your Poetry and How To Publish Yourself (Allison & Busby) as well his famous alternative handbooks, guides and literary rambles, Real Cardiff , Real Cardiff Two and Real Cardiff Three (Seren). With Grahame Davies he edited the anthology The Big Book of Cardiff (Seren). He is currently editing titles for Seren's Real Wales series and has published a book that takes in the whole country - Real Wales.

Nerys Williams's essay on Finch's work appears as Recycling the Avant-Garde in a Welsh Wordscape in Slanderous Tongues - Essays On Welsh Poetry in English 1970-2005, edited by Daniel G Williams and published by Serten, 2010.

Until recently Peter Finch compiled the poetry section of Macmillan's annual Writer's Handbook. He continues to write the self-publishing section for A&C Black's Writers' & Artists' Yearbook. He is a book reviewer and writes articles on Cardiff, Wales and the business of poetry. His poetry and criticism is widely published in magazines and anthologies.

THE POETRY KIT - http://www.poetrykit.org/ The Poetry Kit is one of the worlds most visited sites dedicated to poetry. Provides links to resources for poets across the world.

Contact for further information;

Jim Bennett – Editor of The Poetry Kit (www.poetrykit.org) email info@poetrykit.org

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Buy It Now

Buying books is not what it once was. Bookshops with their hands-on shuffle among the shelves are in retreat. The supermarkets take the cream of the pop tops and sell them like fury. Just released shouts the roadside hoarding. And at £9.99 each this is a price no traditional bookshop can ever get near. Martina Cole, Jamie Oliver, Michael McIntyre, Peter James, Jilly Cooper. You know the score.

On the internet, the purchase interface of choice for most these days, you need to know precisely what you want. Browsing is a dying art. Once there, with your copy of Citizenship Today, a key stage four textbook at several pounds more than you imagined up on screen, you press the one-click purchase button and it’s done. A copy will be with you in two to four days. Left outside under the bush. Or with the bloke next door who by the time you discover this has gone on holiday. Then you spot it. 21 copies also offered new at £0.71 or chose from 7 used at 68p. How do BendyBeckhambooks and Snailryder do it? The profit has to be in the carriage charge.

This is a bookselling revolution. The world is its own Oxfam. As the value of books shrinks their availability spins. How could a second hand store with ordered shelves, paper bags at check out, heated and lit, well lit anyway, ever compete?

Not that the second hand trade, when we had one, was ever really like this.

Fry’s, down in the centre of Cardiff’s Bridge Street, corner of Barrack Lane, and long demolished, was more a specialist in the retail of Harrison Marks’ airbrushed b&w photographic nudes than it was actual books. In those sensitive times, however, and this was before Lady Chatterley, nudes officially did not exist. They were kept out the back. Fry’s centrepiece was a vast table sprawled with previously owned books of every kind. They slithered and they slid.

Among them I discovered Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, Alexander Cordell and Norman Mailer. Read as they were found, in battered copies, some with pages missing, or covered in ink markings and wine stains, or smelling of tobacco yet always vigorously exciting. These copies were all I could afford.

I guess it was the reading of copies as I came upon them that pushed my literary education along. The lesser Kerouacs before the famous ones (I’d done Dr Sax and Tristessa well before I found On the Road). Norman Mailer’s The White Negro before The Naked and the Dead. Could that happen today? Probably not.

I’ve put some of my surplus online recently. 10p a time plus £2.75 shipping. I’m Bashobooks. Have I sold anything? Not yet, but there’s time.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #179