Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Holy Glimmers of Goodbyes - the poetry of war and peace

Looking out, not looking in ..

What a fantastic day at the Senedd in Cardiff yesterday; Literature Wales hosted a free, day long event to mark the close of Cymru'n Cofio 1914 - 1918 (Wales Remembers 1914 - 1918). But it wasn't just a day about the poetry of the past - it was about war and peace throughout the world, then and now; and it wasn't theoretical and academic, it was down to earth and sharply relevant to the world we live in and for which we have responsibility. Schoolchildren and refugees took part, reading alongside members of the Welsh Assembly. I wouldn't have missed it - and when my learner Welsh failed me, the simultaneous translation ensured I didn't miss anything!

Mark Drakeford, First Minister,
reading Wilfred Owen

Ifor ap Glyn, National Poet
of Wales

Ali Sizer, exiled Kurdish writer
and singer

Nerys Williams, poet and
Gillian Clarke, previous national Poet
of Wales

J. F. Kennedy is credited with the insightful remark "If more politicians knew poetry and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live" and I couldn't agree more. With the audience at the Senedd yesterday though, I did feel that in many ways the speakers were preaching to the converted; now it's up to us to get out there and to do something about it - deeds as well as words, to adapt the Emmeline Pankhurst motto.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

"Young Adult"

I was interested to read in the Review section of yesterday's Guardian of the significant fall in sales of Young Adult fiction in the last twelve months, put down to saturation of the market and a feeling that many of the books classed as such have become "too worthy". I neither read nor write Young Adult fiction so perhaps my views are uninformed. However, I interview quite a few writers on The Writer's Room who work in the area; frequently they speak of the paramount need to make their subject matter relevant to their reader's lives and they often cite issues such as mental health, relationships, substance misuse.

It's certainly a long time since I was a "young adult" but not all that long since my children came into that category. Thinking back to the books they really enjoyed at that stage, fantasy and magical realism seemed to figure large - books that took them out of their everyday lives, not ones that majored on them. I do appreciate that life can be very challenging indeed for today's young people and that anything that can help them navigate their way through their problems is more than valid. But reading should be enjoyable and relaxing too, and if fiction has become too "worthy" I can quite understand the resultant drop in sales.

Talking of my own young adulthood - a real blast from the past yesterday when, as I was clearing out the debris from the back of a wardrobe, I came across a coat hanger from more than fifty years ago.  It had "Gill Garrett, LVIM" inked on it and I couldn't think why. It was only when I turned it over and saw "Don Pedro" on the back that I remembered hanging my costume on it in the dressing room (ie. the school gym) for the bi-annual Shakespeare play; I was Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, in Much Ado About Nothing, in 1966, under the expert direction of Miss Johnson. I can't say that my schooldays were the happiest years of my life, but I wouldn't have missed those plays and Miss Johnson's input for the world. She was a teacher  par excellence, introducing us to all sorts of theatre, coaching us in different acting techniques, making lessons fun - and giving many of us a lifelong love of drama. It was only when I read her obituary a few years ago that I realised that in retirement she had lived quite close to me; I would have loved to visit her and to thank her for that great gift I feel she gave us all those years ago.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Stories beneath my feet

Three days ago I was shovelling snow - today I'm having to open all the windows in my writing room to get some relief from the heat of the afternoon sun! The vagaries of the British weather ...

Yesterday morning it was still bitterly cold, but there was a lovely sunrise as I walked along the seafront in Penarth. For the first time in years I walked out along the pier there - and found stories beneath my feet. But stories in miniature; stories that, like all the best stories, stay with you because they leave it to your imagination to fill in the details, to really enter into the world of the characters.

Of course plaques on memorial benches are familiar sights on coastal paths, in parks and in other beauty spots, but I hadn't come across ones literally beneath my feet before. There on the planks of the pier in Penarth were dozens of plaques, some with fairly standard inscriptions but several with quite different ones. Maybe in truth the lives commemorated were quite "mundane" (if any life could be said to be mundane), but maybe far from it; I was struck, though, by how, for writers, those few words that summed up a lifetime could conjure up any number of realities. Next time I'm asked for some writing prompts, I know what they'll be, although I may well have used them myself first! In fact, some research into "Dick Lueken, US Navy" is already proving fruitful.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019


Dawn over Steep Holm Island

A fair bit of research and a lot of looking back over the last week or so; I'm writing a series of scripts for "Those Were The Days", ten programmes about events in the 1960s for NHSound. Then on Sunday morning I had a return visit to somewhere I worked in the early 1970s - it was Sully Hospital at the time, it's Hayes Point luxury apartments now! As I walked through the grounds and stood down by the beach, watching the sun come up over Steep Holm in the Bristol Channel, I was reflecting how life has changed and how I and my writing have changed in the intervening years.

Unlike many of the guests I interview on The Writer's Room, I can't say that I've rarely had a pen out of my hand since childhood. But in my early twenties I did start writing seriously, primarily for various professional journals. It was whilst I was working at Sully that I had my first publication - it was an article about caring for a child with a complex heart condition that was printed in the Nursing Times and for which I was paid £30. I still have a photocopy of the cheque! And I can still remember the excitement of seeing my name in print for the first time ...

When I arrived home on Sunday I unearthed as much of my earlier writing as I could find and I've been looking back over some of the reports, articles and books that followed that first publication. Not infrequently in "how to" tomes on creative writing we read about the need for novice writers to "find their voices"; I've found it quite intriguing to see how my own has developed, initially in fits and starts, but helped enormously by the advice from, and the guidance of, the course tutors and mentors I've been lucky enough to have in more recent years. Perhaps, if you have writing from much earlier days, you might find it an interesting exercise too - you may find (as I certainly did) some cringe-worthy pieces, but overall a useful, and enjoyable, experience!

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Programmes, poems - and plants

In keeping with 95% of the country at the moment (given the total melt-down Brexit has precipitated), my plants appear totally confused. My Christmas cactus, which has flowered splendidly for more Christmases than I can count, stubbornly refused to sprout even one bud this year; my snowdrops aren't out yet but my azalea - always lovely for Easter - took it upon itself to start flowering on the coldest day of the winter so far. At my daughter's this morning I noticed her neighbour's daffodils in full bloom ...

No confusion on Thursday though when I was joined on The Writer's Room by the Newport author  Emma Smith-Barton. It was a great pleasure to have her as a guest on the programme and to talk about her forthcoming novel, The Million Pieces of Neena Gill, to be published by Penguin in July. Emma has written adult fiction under the pseudonym Amna Khokher, but this will be her first young adult publication. Having taught in secondary schools for several years, Emma has a strong interest in young people's mental health and the novel very sensitively explores the reality of living as a teenager with severe anxiety; it's certainly going to be a book to watch out for.

Earlier in the week - in a bit of role reversal! - I'd been interviewed for Corinium Radio's In Focus programme by Claire Finnemore. The programme has something of Desert Island Discs about it, interspersing discussion of the subject's life and writing with chosen pieces of music, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, listening to my great favourites from the 60s (Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen) through to the present (Welsh folk singer Gwyneth Glyn) and recalling their influence on me. I was also able to give my poem "The Present" its first airing - it's one very close to my heart and recently won the Bashley Prize. The programme is due for transmission in early February, so I'll let you know when it's been scheduled and it's coming up.

Preparing for my interview with Claire also gave me the opportunity to reflect a little on the books that have most influenced me over the years - all of which are still sitting on my bookcase. I was horrified to hear in a discussion of "decluttering" on the radio this week (following on from the incredible interest sparked by Japanese guru Marie Kondo on Netflix) that you should have no more than 30 books in your home! And that you should only keep ones that "bring you joy". Well, many of mine bring me joy - especially ones given to me as presents, ones written by friends - but how about all the others I use for research, dip into now and again, some I almost have a love-hate relationship with? OK, I'll admit that in some areas my life and my home could do with a little "rationalising", but my books are sacrosanct!

(PS. I was delighted that my poem "Becoming" was chosen for publication in this month's Snakeskin journal - do check it out on the website, it's in some great company there.)

Sunday, 6 January 2019

The year gets underway

A voice from the other side on my radio programme this week - a book dealer rather than a book writer for a change. I can never pass a secondhand bookshop without diverting in and, living not too far from Hay on Wye ("the town of books"), I'm rarely short of an opportunity to indulge myself. Joanna Chambers from Broadleaf Books in Abergavenny provided an interesting perspective on the life of a bookbuyer / seller; she spoke of the challenges new technologies and shopping habits have brought but also very engagingly of the enduring hold that physical bookshops still have over so many of us. 

My second guest on the programme this week was John Murray from Newport U3A Creative Writers. Again I was struck by the wealth of life experience that older writers bring to bear in their work; John's personal journey has encompassed life in an orphanage (narrowly missing designation to the child migrant scheme), fifteen years in the armed forces, work in a variety of different capacities, building his own home in a remote area of Scotland. So much from which to find inspiration, from which to conjure real and imagined tales - and John's were certainly captivating.

It was good to have such an enjoyable programme on Thursday after a less than successful day on Wednesday! With the weather forecast quite promising for early January, we'd decided to start the Usk Valley Walk, the 48 mile trek through some beautiful countryside that we'd been thinking of doing for some time. No problem for the first few miles other than slightly hazy visibility (see the above photo); then we hit Wentwood Forest. Fond memories of childhood picnics there will now be forever overlaid by far from happy ones of useless waymarking and (this may sound familiar to some readers) an intransigent partner insisting they were taking us in the right direction and getting us thoroughly lost. The light fades early at the beginning of January ...

But the whole episode certainly reinforced how the setting of a story becomes a character in it. No wonder so many chilling tales are set in dark, silent forests - the sense of isolation, the absence of sound and orienting features as night falls and envelops you in an alien environment, the shivers of fear that the close set trees engender. Not that on Wednesday I thought much of the potential for writing - how we reached civilization and in one piece is quite another story - but when I can review the situation more coolly (and feel more charitable towards my partner!) there's certainly some potential there.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Ring in the new ...

A dreamer is one who can only find his way by
moonlight and his punishment is that he sees
the dawn before the rest of the world.
Oscar Wilde

I was listening yesterday to the wonderful, late Sandy Denny singing "Who Knows Where The Time Goes?" and who knows indeed - 2018 passed in a flash. Watching the dawn rise this morning I was very aware of so many possibilities in the virgin territory ahead of us in 2019 - some to be grasped with both hands, some to be avoided like the plague! But, knowing my tendency to be overly optimistic in my resolutions, and how annoyed I am with myself if I don't keep them, I've resisted making any. Let's just live in hope and raise a glass to a good, healthy and productive year for us all.