Karaoke King – A Playlist by Dai George

To celebrate publication of his new collection Karaoke King, Dai George has created a playlist of songs which tie in with the collection. Read on to find out what he chose and why.

The cover of Karaoke King shows a drawing of a white, teenage boy wearing a white shirt with a yellow and brown vest with horizontal stripes. He has his head on one side and his glasses are wonky. He is wearing a crumpled yellow crown.

This confident second collection by Dai George addresses the contentious nature of the times. Always deeply thoughtful but also alternately ebullient, angry, curious, ashamed, the poet moves through urban and digital spaces feeling both uneasy and exhilarated. As with the Auden of the inter-war period, there is a feeling of history shifting, as a younger generation confronts its ethical obligations, its sense of complicity and disappointment. Ecological crisis hovers in the background, glimpsed in the ‘Fooled Evening’ of a world whose seasonal rhythms have fallen out of joint. Karaoke King also contains numerous reflections on popular culture, culminating in ‘A History of Jamaican Music’, a sequence at the heart of the volume speaking to urgent contemporary questions of ownership and privilege, pain and celebration. 

Karaoke King – A Playlist

The Lumineers – ‘Ho Hey’

The Platters – ‘The Glory of Love’

Teddy Pendergrass – ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’

McFadden and Whitehead – ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’

Frank Sinatra – ‘New York, New York’

Big Star – ‘Nightime’

David Bowie – ‘Station to Station’

Treorchy Male Voice Choir – ‘Myfanwy’

Lord Laro – ‘Jamaican Referendum Calypso’

The Ethiopians – ‘Train to Skaville’

The Skatalites – ‘Guns of Navarone’

The Uniques – ‘People Rocksteady’

Alton Ellis – ‘Rocksteady’

Derrick Harriott – ‘The Loser’

The Paragons – ‘On the Beach’

The Techniques – ‘Love Is Not a Gamble’

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – ‘Croaking Lizard’

The Congos – ‘Nicodemus’

Bob Marley & the Wailers – ‘No Woman, No Cry’

The Uniques – ‘My Conversation’

Gregory Isaacs – ‘Soon Forward’

Sister Nancy – ‘Only Woman DJ with Degree’

Yellowman – ‘Zungguzungguguzungguzeng’

Sizzla – ‘Babylon A Use Dem Brain’

Count Machuki – ‘More Scorcha’

The Heptones – ‘Party Time’

I-Wayne – ‘Living in Love’

The Maytals / Sister Nancy – ‘Bam Bam’

Charles Trenet – ‘La Mer’

Bruce Springsteen – ‘Thunder Road’

Dusty Springfield – ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’’

Bob Dylan – ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’

In another lifetime, I tried to be a music journalist. A teenage pop nerd, I grew up reading too many issues of Mojo and the NME, and built my identity in large part around the songs that gave me solace, joy, a sense of difference. One way or another the journalism thing didn’t happen, but my new collection of poems, Karaoke King, maybe represents an attempt to grapple with the legacy of that obsession.

Poetry, of course, can’t offer what journalism can: it can’t give you facts, analysis, coherent narrative, or if it tried to do that it would be very bad at it. What it can do, though – maybe – is capture how songs hit the mind. It can sift significance, and work towards some understanding of how an individual stands in relation to these musical artefacts that are at once fixed, specific, culturally determined, and yet endlessly transmissible from radio to radio, mouth to mouth, ear to ear. From the liturgical prayers I heard being sung at Canton Uniting, my childhood church, to the Neighbours theme tune, Karaoke King is full of songs overheard, half-remembered, reapproached, transposed – hauntings and visitations. I thought it would be fun, and maybe interesting, to put together a playlist for the collection, with a set of ‘sleeve notes’ fleshing out the story of how these songs came to be there.

Close up photograph of a vinyl record  playing on a turn table.
Photo by Jace & Afsoon on Unsplash

The first four tracks all come from ‘Poem on 27th Birthday’. Set in a hilltop bar in Italy, and written more or less in situ in September 2013, it was the first poem I finished after wrapping on my debut collection, The Claims Office. I tried to be more open and porous in writing than I’d allowed myself to be till that point, and for me that meant tuning into the ambient sounds, letting them bleed into a collage. The dominant tune is an earworm blaring from a nearby car stereo, a sweet-natured, folky track I recognised but couldn’t place – later I found out it was called ‘Ho Hey’ by the Lumineers. It’s the sort of song that Adolescent Me would have scorned, but in a charmed moment it came across, in the words of the poem, ‘as nothing less than the Glory of Love’, a nod to the great doo-wop song of that name by The Platters.

The other songs filter in from a compilation of ’70s funk and Philadelphia soul that the barman switched on to replace the slick elevator jazz that had been playing till then. So we have a singer I recognised, Teddy Pendergrass, singing a song I didn’t know in the moment but later tracked down as ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’ – one of his first solo singles, a four-to-the-floor disco ripper about breaking somebody’s heart – and this soon flows into ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’ by McFadden and Whitehead. Songs touching songs, overlapping, building resonances. I most certainly did love the addressee of the poem, so it’s the McFadden and Whitehead song that takes over, its message of empowerment modulating through the speaker into gratitude for love.

More earworms, next, with Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’, overheard on one of my many circuits of Clissold Park in Stoke Newington over recent years. The poem it’s taken from is called ‘The Park in the Afternoon’, which unsurprisingly is about parks in the afternoon, but also the neoliberal cult of productivity that turns people into a political problem if they have nothing to do at that time of day. I loved the weird euphoria of this song, with its glitzy promise of inclusion – I wanna be a part of it! – being reclaimed as an anthem of solidarity or defiance.

‘Night Time’ by Big Star is one of the darker songs on this playlist, a theme tune for a run of poems in the first section of Karaoke King which map a hard time in my life – a dark night of the soul. The song itself is quoted in a poem called ‘Rock vs Pop’, an elegy to Roddy Lumsden. Roddy and I bonded originally over music, meeting on an internet forum called Black Cat Bone where debates like ‘Rock vs Pop’ could become seriously heated. Big Star were the sort of group that exposed how hollow that dichotomy is, and I know Roddy was a big fan of their legendary, troubled third album, Sister Lovers. It’s another song about wanting to be a part of it – At night time I go out and see the people – only this time there’s no Sinatra-esque bravado: the irony of that desire is painfully apparent the moment you hear Alex Chilton’s fragile, haunted vocal.

Photograph of boxes of vinyl records stacked in a shop.
Photo by Alano Oliveira on Unsplash

David Bowie’s ‘Station to Station’ is more literally about a long night of the soul – a long and disoriented journey. The poem I wrote about it for Alex Bell and John Canfield’s ‘Bowieoke’ night (and subsequent anthology Cold Fire) tries to capture the sense of blackout and damage on that record, but also to deconstruct the iconography of the Thin White Duke, his persona of the time. Whiteness is of course a part of that formulation, and it’s one of the tacit themes of this book that white pop music culture must grapple honestly with its numerous, often unspoken debts to Black musicians and Black musical idioms.

The place in the book where I’ve tried to confront this legacy, as openly as possible, is ‘A History of Jamaican Music’. The reggae songs on this playlist all offer up quotations and allusions from that sequence, and taken together I think they make for a great, roughly chronological listen. I’ve written about the genesis of this sequence before, so don’t want to belabour the point. All I’ll say here is that, just as these musical selections offer one, partial journey through the rich heritage of reggae, so too do the poems, from my own, very subjective perspective. I wanted to reflect honestly on my relationship to a music and a culture that is too often enjoyed in a passive or exploitative way by British people. These are indeed songs of joy – and songs that can, and should, be enjoyed widely, I believe – but also struggle and complexity; songs, moreover, that could never wholly belong to me, or anyone in my position.

Before we get to them, though, we pass through a song from a culture that is indisputably my own. ‘Myfanwy’ is beautiful, of course, and probably familiar to many people. The title poem of the collection remixes it as a death fugue, a mouldering totem for a certain dubious, romantic myth of Welshness – so I’m glad to pay tribute to it here as God, or the Treorchy Male Voice Choir, intended it. Reading that poem, the eagle-eyed might spot a few references to Twin Town, a film I still love despite its ridiculous, shallow, very unromantic vision of Welshness. (The title of the collection itself, Karaoke King, is a moniker given to the film’s hapless Elvis wannabe, Dai Rhys.) The film’s final scene of a sea burial serenaded by a suited and booted male voice choir crooning ‘Myfanwy’ sums up much of what is funny and pathetic about those old myths and their modern revivals. Maybe one day we’ll be able to hear ‘Myfanwy’ differently again, stripped of all the pageantry.

Photo of a colourful Bob Dylan mural on the side of a building in New York.
Photo by Weston MacKinnon on Unsplash

There’s a wistful turn to the final few songs on the playlist. Charles Trenet’s ‘La Mer’ wafts in like the last day of summer or the first of autumn, a mood I wanted to channel for a poem called  ‘September’s Child’. That in-between, nostalgic cusp state more or less represents the situation with my hair right now. ‘Poem in which my hairline recedes’ is the vessel for those (rather trivial) anxieties, and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’ is the sonic foil – another yearning cusp song, only this time one that stands on the brink of impossible self-realisation and success.

After that, yet more ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’’ from Dusty Springfield, one of my favourite singers. From my teens I’ve always been drawn to classic girl group pop and its soft-soul, adult-oriented offshoots – Dusty, Dionne Warwick, the songs of Bacharach and David, Goffin and King. I saw in this music a model for my own hopelessness in love: solace and fellow feeling in a woman’s voice, when it was women that I yearned for. The poem ‘Obsolete Heartbreak Suite’ is a type of farewell to all that, and an attempt to reckon with the gendered dynamics of the art form, with its unequal distribution of male and female creative labour. I still love all those Brill Building songs but the drama and intensity is second-hand now, thankfully.

Finally, we come to ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ by Bob Dylan. After listening to the glorious official version from Highway 61 Revisited, do seek out the alternate takes that are collected on The Cutting Edge, a box set covering Dylan’s time in the studio during the famous ‘Thin Wild Mercury’ years of 1965-66. It’s the sound of those false starts and early drafts that I wanted to capture in ‘The Mercury Mine’ – Dylan’s painstaking, instinctive graft as he toys with a phrase until he gets it right, rearranging speech parts, nudging them into better arrangements. It’s something of a cliché to talk about ‘pop perfection’, and I’ve loved enough brilliant, three-minute pocket symphonies to understand what people might mean by it. But I think a space for poetry opens up whenever we encounter pop imperfection – hesitance, provisionality, the formation of ideas. That’s one way into it, anyway. Another might be to follow what happens when we encounter perfect music amid the mess and imperfection of our lives.

Dai George

Listen to the playlist in full on Spotify.

Karaoke King by Dai George is available now. As this week is #IndependentBookshopWeek, why not buy through bookshop.org?

Friday Poem – ‘September’s Child’ by Dai George

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘September’s Child’ by Dai George from his new collection Karaoke King which was published this week.

The cover of Karaoke King shows a drawing of a teenage boy, with short dark hair wearing a yellow and brown stripped vest over a white shirt. His head is to one side and his glasses are wonky. He wears a crumpled, gold crown. The title is on a yellow-gold box at the bottom.

Dai George’s confident second collection Karaoke King, addresses the contentious nature of the times. Always deeply thoughtful but also alternately ebullient, angry, curious, ashamed, the poet moves through urban and digital spaces feeling both uneasy and exhilarated. As with the Auden of the inter-war period, there is a feeling of history shifting, as a younger generation confronts its ethical obligations, its sense of complicity and disappointment. Ecological crisis hovers in the background, glimpsed in the ‘Fooled Evening’ of a world whose seasonal rhythms have fallen out of joint. Karaoke King also contains numerous reflections on popular culture, culminating in ‘A History of Jamaican Music’, a sequence at the heart of the volume speaking to urgent contemporary questions of ownership and privilege, pain and celebration. 

September’s Child

Hormonally it ripens, tickling the blood, building
through the part of me that would be womb,

a premonition of loss or change, an over-fattened moon.
Saccharine and festive, it makes of me a boy in bed

failing to sleep on his birthday eve. Still I find myself
September’s child, bookish, mild, ever eldest in the year,

a connoisseur of subtle treats, like ravioli from the tin,
the adult jokes in Asterix, or better yet a malady

that softly lowers you to the settee but doesn’t stop
your eyes from lapping at a page. Every year,

sure as morning bell, I’d feel the bulge descend upon
my tonsil gland, as now I feel the blossoming

of an earthier and urgent need, a waft of chestnut
smoke at summer’s end. I don’t know what it is,

I only know it comes in August with a sky of schoolsweater
grey and declining light. My pinky custard

shivers, barely set within its rabbit mould. Sometimes
it only takes a bar of Charles Trenet unwinding through

‘La Mer’ and I’m awash. A salt of yearning rises
to my throat. Everywhere I look the children are

younger, or else I’m fatter and forgetful, still stumbling
on the brink of coming into something long deserved.

Karaoke King is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Extract from Fatal Solution by Leslie Scase

Fatal Solution by Leslie Scase once again sees Inspector Thomas Chard confronted with a murder in bustling Victorian Pontypridd.

On the face of it the case appears unremarkable, even if it isn’t obviously solvable, but following new leads takes Chard into unexpected places. A second murder, a sexual predator, industrial espionage and a mining disaster crowd into the investigation, baffling the Inspector and his colleagues and putting his own life at risk as the murderer attempts to avoid capture.

Once again Leslie Scase takes the reader back to a time and place where, despite the pretensions of Victorian society, life is cheap and passions strong. His research brings Pontypridd vividly to life, and historical events drive along the plot of this page-turning story of detection, as Chard navigates a way through the clues and red herrings, and a lengthening list of suspects, towards the poisoner.

Atmospheric, authentic, Chard and the reader are left guessing until the final page.

Our featured extract begins on page 24 of the novel, with Inspector Chard and his colleague interviewing local residents in the wake of a fire…

‘This is Mrs Griffiths who discovered the fire,’ said Scudamore by means of introduction.

‘Very pleased to meet you Mrs Griffiths, I am Inspector Chard. I hope you might be able to help me with my enquiries.’

‘Only too pleased to help. There’s not much that I don’t know,’ stated the woman confidently. ‘Not that I’m a gossip mind,’ she added.

‘Thank you. Now when did you notice the fire?’

‘Well, I had noticed old Mr. Jones go up the road, hadn’t I? Poor old soul, it’s the dust on his lungs, he hasn’t been well for ages. It takes for ever for him to get to the end of the street.’

‘What time would that be?’

‘Sometime after five o’clock then wasn’t it?’

‘Can you be more precise? I mean you must have been out on the street yourself so what time did you set off ?’

‘My old man has a bad cough so I was off to see Mrs Evans, wasn’t I?’

Chard was becoming irritable. ‘Very well Mrs Griffiths, why were you going to see Mrs Evans and how does that help us establish the time?’

The woman looked at Chard as though he was simple minded. ‘I was going to Mrs Evans to get something for my old man’s cough like I said. We don’t have enough money for doctors around here do we? We all have little gardens and grow our own natural remedies. I was short of a few bits and bobs so I was going to get some dried herbs from Mrs Evans. That’s how I know what time it was.’

‘What was the time?’

‘It was definitely sometime after five because I saw Mr Jones. I told you that didn’t I?’

Chard grimaced and decided a different tack.

‘Very well, did you notice anyone else about at the time?’

‘The light was very poor, but yes. There was Mrs Davies out with her little boy, horrible little thing as he is. Always pulling jibs.’

Chard glanced at Constable Scudamore who assisted by saying, ‘pulling faces, sir.’

‘Then there was Mr Phillips from the grocer’s shop, going about his business. He had his window smashed the other day, didn’t he? Now then, we also had Mrs Evans.’

‘The one that you were going to see?’ asked Chard.

‘No, different Mrs Evans. We have four in our street. There was someone I didn’t know, a scruffy looking man in a long coat. There were two men talking together, but they were too far away to see properly. Then young Tommy Jones, he is nearly twelve so will be down the pit soon.’

‘Is that all?’

‘Apart from Mrs Pearce’s children, she lets them run riot you know, not that I’m one to talk.’

Chard turned to Constable Scudamore. ‘Tomorrow morning trace everyone this lady has mentioned and see if they know anything.’

‘Can I go now?’ asked Mrs Griffiths.

‘Just one or two more questions. Did people get on with Mr Hughes, I mean was he popular?’

‘I am not one to cleck on others,’ said Mrs Griffiths hesitantly.

‘She means tell tales,’ added Scudamore helpfully, for even after a year Chard was still unfamiliar with the local idioms.

‘To be truthful, for I cannot tell a lie, Mr Hughes was not a particularly pleasant man. The only person who got on with him was his wife, and he was besotted with her.’ continued Mrs Griffiths. ‘No one else had much of a good word to say about him and he had been very mean spirited of late.’

‘So Mr Dixon told me,’ said Chard.

‘There’s another grumpy bugger. Those two didn’t get on at all. Why are you asking though?’ asked the woman with keen interest. ‘Do you think the fire started deliberately? You can tell me. I won’t tell a soul.’

‘We are keeping an open mind Mrs Griffiths so I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions. Thank you for your help.’

Turning away the inspector led Constable Scudamore out of earshot. ‘If this is murder then it doesn’t make sense. By the sounds of it he was unpopular but why not just slit his throat one evening? Why do it in daylight and then burn down the workshop?’

‘No idea sir,’ answered the constable, rubbing his chin.

‘There is evil here Constable, I can feel it in the air, but I will uncover it, you mark my words.’

Fatal Solution is available as a paperback or ebook on the Seren website

Buy the first Inspector Chard mystery, Fortuna’s Deadly Shadow, as an ebook: £7.99

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Bring a glass of wine or your favourite tipple and join us on Tuesday 25th May at 7:30pm for the online launch. Leslie will be in conversation with Matt Johnson and we’ll host an audience Q&A. Register for free via Eventbrite https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/154383153167.

Ed Beech’s Recipe for Orkney Fish Pie

Ed Beech is one half of Beech Building Services. He’s also a keen cook. Today we’re sharing his recipe for Orkney Fish Pie, one of his favourites. Here’s everything you need to organise prep do done.

Orkney Fish Pie

What you need.

A jug of milk.

Some shallots.

Three average cloves.

Eight hand picked Orcadian scallops.

A fillet of fresh Orcadian caught white fish, preferably tusk.

A small bag of smoked Orcadian mussels.

A lump of butter about the size of a lemon.

A lemon.

Two saucepans.

Some flour (enough to cover the palm of your hand).

Half a dozen tatties of varying sizes.

Knives and spoons.

A bowl of grated Westray Wife cheese.

An oven.

Sea salt and coarsely ground pepper.

Wine.

Nutmeg.

Jazz.

An ovenproof dish.

A cat.

What you need to do.

Put the cat out. Pour the milk into a pan, add the chopped shallots, the cloves and some salt and pepper. Cook the fish in this mixture for a couple of minutes and then let it cool and infuse for half an hour. Drink some wine.

Boil the tatties, mash them with butter, fresh milk and a fistful of the cheese.

Remove the fish from the milk mixture and set aside. Melt the butter in a pan, slowly add the flour and then stir the strained infused milk into the mix until you’ve got a good looking sauce. Let the cat back in.

Pour some of the sauce into an ovenproof dish and add some chunks of fish, four scallops and some mussels. Add some more sauce, the rest of the fish, scallops and mussels, and pour in the last of the sauce. Put the cat out again.

Spread the mash over the top, cover with some more cheese and bake until it’s bubbling and smells right.

Serve with the lemon, a small heap of spinach, some Dave Brubeck and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Cloudy Bay from New Zealand for preference. Let the cat in again. Remember that you forgot to grate the nutmeg over the mash before you put it in the oven. Drink some more wine. Do the washing up.

Ed Beech is one half of Beech Building Services. He’s based in Bermondsey but no job’s too small, no distance too great. So when he’s asked to do some work on a house in Orkney, he loads the van with paint, tools and sandwiches, and takes off. He gets nervous around farm animals and large ships, and he’s never been so far north, but when he’s joined by Claire, his client’s city banker sister, he discovers that in Stromness, anything is possible.

The Stromness Dinner is available on the Seren website £9.99

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We’re hosting the virtual launch of The Stromness Dinner next week on Wednesday 4 November. Peter will be in discussion with Duncan McLean followed by a live audience Q&A so come with your questions ready. Register for FREE via Eventbrite https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/122383543473

An interview with Angela Graham

Ahead of the launch of her debut short story collection A City Burning, we interview Angela Graham to find out more about the book and what inspires her.

In the twenty-six stories in A City Burning, set in Wales, Northern Ireland and Italy, children and adults face, in the flames of personal tragedy, moments of potential transformation. On the threshold of their futures each must make a choice: how to live in this new ‘now’. With a virtuoso control of tone, by turns elegiac, comic, lyrical, philosophical, A City Burning examines power of all types. The result is a deeply human book full of hauntingly memorable characters and narratives.

What is the meaning behind the title A City Burning?

In the opening story, ‘The Road’, a young girl witnesses her city blazing. She understands that this is a sign of the collapse of the status quo, of all the usual certainties. She is confronted with the need to react to this new situation. What values should guide her in this choice? I realised that this story encapsulates the theme of many stories in the collection – witnessing major change and having to work out a response. It seemed a fitting title for the book.

There is a theme of change in this collection, what, if anything, do you hope the reader can take away from this underlying message?

I haven’t thought in terms of such a message – at least, not while I was writing the stories. It wasn’t until late in the day that I saw that facing change was a link between them, and it took someone else, an editor, to point that out. In an important sense, I had to understand my own work from a more objective perspective. I’d like readers to recognise that ‘the given’ (whether positive or negative) can break down in very noticeable and in very subtle ways. One person sees a city burning, another sees some detail in a single photograph that opens their eyes. Usually, I believe few such opportunities for perception appear out of the blue. We have usually been sensitized to a shift in circumstances but we may be unwilling or unable to respond at an earlier point.

I’ve just looked up the etymology of ‘catastrophe’. The word comes from kata- ‘down’ + strophē ‘turning’. I imagine that as the point at which a wheel, goes into its irreversible downward momentum. We have watched the wheel move upwards and we know something has to give but we are not always prepared for it.

Words Flowering at Ty Newydd

There are a lot of different settings and ideas conveyed in these stories. Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Anywhere that’ll have me! To give an example, the story, ‘Life-Task’ which is set in northern Italy at the end of the Second World War came to me because a person who had just retuned from Italy recounted a story she’d been told by someone who’d had it from someone who’d heard it from the actual protagonist. It must have been brilliantly told originally to be so vivid (after passing through several tellings in this way) for it to reach me so powerfully that I could see the events as the story was shared with me. I went home and wrote it down. Of course, it helped that I had, for completely other reasons, been doing research into post-war Italy, had read Italian novels on the subject, and taken a particular interest in what happened in northern Italy when the Germans (the allies of the Italians) had been defeated. And, in writing a story, one has to aim for a satisfying balance between all the elements. This may introduce material which is not part of ‘the original’.

Do any of the stories draw on personal experience?

This is a book of fiction. It’s not memoir or autobiography. It’s all made up. But it’s true to experience, my own and that of many others.

Coasteering near Dunluce Castle, Co. Antrim

You engage with a number of different languages in the book including Ulster Scots in the story ‘Coasteering’. Why was it important for you to foreground these languages in the collection?

I have always been interested in languages and I’ve worked in Wales for a long time, a country where two languages are in use alongside each other. I learned Welsh as soon as I moved to Wales when I married a Welshman. In Northern Ireland I had much experience of the link between language and identity; even nuances of accent, in a city such as Belfast, are sifted for meaning. Whenever a chance has presented itself to get involved with a language I’ve tried to take it. For example, I did a crash-course in Romanian as part of the writing of a screenplay set in that country and it made a big difference, when I was researching there, that I could follow what people were saying. I learned Italian by ear when I was a teenager and, again, I wrote a screenplay, set in Puglia. Most of the time, people are pleased that one has made an effort to allow them to stay in the language in which they are most comfortable, most ‘themselves’.

In regards to Ulster Scots, that fascinates me. I have written the first draft of a novel in which two major characters are Ulster Scots-speakers and language, including Irish, is key to the book. Clashes over language and culture are deep-rooted in Northern Ireland but there is also great potential to overcome seeing language as an obstacle. I’ve worked with a number of Ulster Scots writers. My father’s family are Ulster Scots. It’s important to me that Ulster Scots takes its place in contemporary literary fiction.

Words from Ulster Scots displayed at the Seamus Heaney Centre, Bellaghy

What is your favourite story and why?

The Road. In its 800-or-so words I’d like to think it pushes that wheel up out of catastrophe; gives it a push into an upward turn.

You’ve added some new stories based on the pandemic in the last few months. Why did you decide to write about it and were they hard to write?

They were not hard to write in that I was fuelled by indignation at the plight of low-paid workers whose interests were not given proper consideration. I have personal experience of the ‘worlds’ of both stories and I felt able to depict them forcefully. I checked out facts, naturally, but the internal impetus was immediate. Once again, it seemed to me, the people who are considered ‘least’ in our society − least important, least powerful − were receiving least attention, whereas if their needs were a priority we’d have a better balanced society in which to live.

You turned to writing full time a few years ago. How did you first get into writing and what has it been like working up to publication of your debut collection during the pandemic?

I committed solely to writing because I was busy with media work and I felt the need to sharpen my focus. Writing is what I have always done, since I was about six years old. My first poem was published in a mainstream magazine when I was seven and I wasn’t one bit surprised at the time. I knew that was what magazines were for – publishing stuff. I had a very child-like view of things. Of course. Very naïve. It’s by no means easy to get work published. And that’s a good sign – there are so many exceptionally talented writers.

I’ve always written but usually for the screen. I’ve done journalism and radio work and non-fiction tv tie-in work and poetry. A City Burning is my first chance to pull a substantial amount of fictional material together into a coherent whole.

Once I’d negotiated the early days of the pandemic – the practicalities − the pandemic (because I was lucky to stay well) made no great difference to the practice of writing at a desk. There were fewer distractions. But there was no access to libraries and I had planned to do an in situ major piece of writing for a month and the restrictions made that impossible. I had to re-invent the form of the work. It’s a book on my childhood in Belfast, partially supported by a Support for the Individual Artist Programme award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the National Lottery.

Acquiring a cover photo was hard in the circumstances. It would have been lovely to have had the launch I had been hoping for in Belfast’s No Alibis bookstore and I would have had a small one in Ballycastle, County Antrim which is where I’ve spent lockdown. Ballycastle Library is accepting a copy of the book, I’m pleased to say. Filming and editing a promotional video had to be done by ingenious means by my director husband, John Geraint. Sending paper proofs back and forth was interesting because of blips in the postal service. But the attention from Seren’s staff has been the key thing and that was undiminished.

Angela Graham on Ballycastle Beach, Co. Antrim

A City Burning is available on the Seren website £9.99

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Join us tonight for the virtual launch of A City Burning which starts at 7pm. Angela will be in conversation with Phil George and there will be readings from the book by Viviana Fiorentino, Liam Logan and Geraint Lewis.

Lucy Gannon introduces The Amazingly Astonishing Story

Award-winning TV writer Lucy Gannon introduces her new memoir The Amazingly Astonishing Story which is published today.

By turns laugh out loud funny and deeply sad, The Amazingly Astonishing Story is a frank and surprising look into a child’s tumultuous mind, a classic story of a working-class girl growing up in the 60s. Her Catholic upbringing, a father torn between daughter and new wife, her irreverent imagination and determination to enjoy life, mean this really is an amazing story (including meeting the Beatles).

“The saddest, happiest, funniest book I’ve read for ages” – Dawn French

“In her own real life story she excels herself… she’ll have you in tears, barking in anger, and laughing out loud in the space of one beautifully crafted sentence.” – Kevin Whateley

One of the questions writers grow used to, and tired of, and flummoxed by, is “What makes a writer?” and another one is “Where do you get your ideas from?”

The answers I give are usually apologetic shrugs followed by lame and unsatisfactory suggestions, because both those questions are unanswerable. Until now. From now on, in answer, I can point to this book and say “I think the clues are in there.”

This book tells, of course, just the beginning of a long and eventful life. It’s a start, you could say.

Dickens was onto something when he said “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That’s life. And my life has been an adventure from first cry right through to now and Covid, losing my mother at 7, living through a crash landing at Orly Airport, nearly drowning in the Med, surviving a boating disaster in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, coming off a motorbike on an icy road, spending  Christmas Eve in a small tent in a gale on Beachy Head, going through a divorce, being broke, marrying again, becoming a Mum, winning The Richard Burton Drama Award, being widowed at 43, and going on from there to have a successful and happy career as a dramatist.

This morning, at 71 years old,  I stood on the beach, deafened by the roar of the wind, under a wild and beautiful sky, and it was as if I saw myself, on this small stretch of sand, on the edge of an ocean, and then as if I saw beyond and beyond – to the billions of stars and suns and moons and the wildness of the cosmos. My eyes saw waves and sky and wheeling gulls, but my mind saw everything.  My wonderful mind. Your wonderful mind. Our minds, eh? They reach out to each other. That’s what this book does. It reaches out. I hope it finds you.

I wrote it for many reasons, but the essential hope was that it would show that from the coldest of beginnings, life can spin into something rich and warm and wonderful. To say that there is more to every life than whatever we are going through at this moment, that the future can be tumultuous and exciting, and even that in the  middle of loneliness or need , we all have wonderful internal worlds, we can carry on a funny, loving conversation within our own minds, we can reach out and sense the eternal and the wonderful life force. We can meet that life force. We can meet God.

A rich life is made up of the best and the worst, both the greatest joy and the deepest sorrow. I am very, very blessed to have had both in great big spadefuls and I wouldn’t change a single day or hour of it, and I wouldn’t miss out on  meeting any of the rich characters in all the crazy episodes along the way.  

So, should I have called this memoir “The making of a writer”?

Maybe.

Lucy Gannon

The Amazingly Astonishing Story is available on the Seren website: £12.99

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Join us for the virtual launch on Tuesday 17th November from 7pm. Register for FREE via Eventbrite https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/125903521823.

An Interview with Euron Griffith

When he smiled it really did feel as if the chilly Caernarfonshire wind had stopped for a few seconds and as if the place had suddenly got warmer.

When Miriam fell in love with Padraig life seemed simple. But soon she discovered that love is a treacherous business. Everything changed when she met Daniel. She was taken down an unexpected path which would dictate and dominate the rest of her life.

Spanning three generations of a North Wales family in a Welsh-speaking community, Miriam, Daniel and Me is an absorbing and compelling story of family discord, political turmoil, poetry, jealousy…and football.

Miriam, Daniel and Me is the first novel in English by Welsh author Euron Griffith. In this interview, Euron tells us what inspired the novel and discusses what its like to bring a book out during a global pandemic. Scroll to the bottom to see the details of the virtual launch taking place this Thursday (30th July).

What was the inspiration behind Miriam, Daniel and Me?

Believe it or not, initially this was going to be a book about my lifelong obsession with the Beatles – a kind of ‘music memoir’ of how the band’s music reflected incidents in my own life. This seemed to make some kind of sense since I’d already written a short story collection called The Beatles in Tonypandy (which was a satirical fantasy on what ‘happened’ when the band moved to South Wales and took up pigeon fancying in 1967!) and so I wanted to write about them in a more personal and less surreal way. It soon became clear to me, however, that I was becoming more interested in the context of the piece – that is, my own experiences of my upbringing and my family history – than I was in the Fab Four’s peripheral and distant part in it. I found that the concept was becoming laboured and that I wasn’t making it come alive for myself and, therefore, it probably wasn’t going to work for anyone reading it. So the Beatles were soon rejected in a cruel, Decca-like fashion!

There were parts of my family history that I only had a vague knowledge of – my paternal grandfather for instance, whom I had never met because he died before I was born. I remember my granny and my dad telling me the story of how he had died suddenly in his chair after returning from the quarry one night but that was all I knew. I filled in the blanks myself – guessing here and there as to how things might have happened. The same was true of my mum. She had fallen in love with an Irishman before she met my dad but I didn’t know the whole story. As a kid I recall my maternal grandad showing me little bits of electrical handiwork this Irishman had constructed – little light switches etc. – so I knew he’d been an electrician and I’d seen photos of him so I knew he had red hair…but nothing much else. Only tantalizing fragments.

Once I’d stumbled across a photo of my mum walking down a street with him and, on the back, someone had written ‘Dublin’. She must have really loved him to go there for a visit. Especially in those days when travel wasn’t such a common thing. So here I did the same as I did with the story of my paternal grandad – I just tried to fill in the gaps. To make sense of it all. It soon grew into something of an obsession and, slowly, I saw that there was a novel brewing here. I weaved in my dad’s experiences as a poet and a goalie – how he had been invited for a trial with a big club once (in real life it was Bolton Wanderers but I changed it to Preston North End in this book…not entirely sure why to be honest!). Now, as I stand back and look at the finished piece, I can see that the overarching theme seems to be the notion of chance, often driven by love or passion, and of how it can affect the course of our lives.

The story is told through the eyes of multiple characters, particularly by three generations of Miriam and Daniel’s family. How is this inter-generational perspective important to the story?

The flippant answer would be that I get bored quite easily and I like to allow myself to dive into different characters and styles of narrative. But there is a more stylistic reason for it too. I love the way classic Victorian fiction such as Wuthering Heights and The Woman in White utilize a playful and effective way of presenting events through different viewpoints. I was also influenced in this by the films of Kurosawa and Quentin Tarantino. I was keen to hurl the reader back and forth without always giving an initial indication of when something was happening in ‘linear’ time because I thought it would heighten the dramatic effect. I suppose a simple example of this would be the rat poison incident (no spoilers!). The novel began with Miriam and Daniel’s story but, around this, there gradually grew the context of their lives- what happened before and what happened after (with the unnamed son). I played with time more outrageously in my last Welsh language novel Tri Deg Tri about a hitman where chapters were numbered in relation to the sequence of the central character’s ‘kills’ rather than to chronology. So I have form! Some readers found it puzzling but more, so I’m told, found it exhilarating!

My other challenge here – admittedly rather grand and insurmountable – was to try to write a kind of Welsh ‘bildungsroman’ – the story of a family and personal development featuring several characters. I was introduced to Buddenbrooks as a student and Thomas Mann’s masterpiece has stayed with me over the years. It certainly influenced me more strongly as this novel developed and the overall shape became clearer. Needless to say I could never come close to such a perfect piece of art but it gave me something to aim for! Aim high. Always aim high…

You build a clear picture of village life in 1950s and 60s Gwynedd by bringing in other members of the community and the events affecting their lives, namely the investiture of Prince Charles. Why was it important to you to bring this to life in Miriam, Daniel and Me?

It was a matter of context. Of filling in the canvas and making the whole world more real and multi-layered. I am a keen painter and there is a clear link, I reckon, between visual art and writing. Paul Klee once said that he liked ‘taking a line for a walk’ and that’s how writing begins for me. A line followed by another and, gradually (if you’re lucky), a world forms – a picture. Then it’s a matter of filling in the details. Picasso once said that the most difficult part of any painting was knowing when to stop. He was obviously right (when was Picasso wrong about anything??). In my own case I only recognise when to stop when it comes to re-writing. The first draft is always a sketch. I really don’t think you know what the book is until you’ve stepped back and studied the overall shape and pattern. It needs time. Re-writes. This novel went through at least three major re-writes! Curiously perhaps, this novel was also mainly written in London so there was an extra layer of distance there. James Joyce once said that he had to move to Zurich to write about Dublin. He wasn’t wrong about much either…

The book is coming out in very different circumstances to those any of us could have imagined but the BBC reported last week that Brits have been buying more books during lockdown. What makes Miriam, Daniel and Me a good lockdown read? What do you hope readers will take away from reading it?

Books and records are an obsession for me and if people are reading more and listening to more music then, in my world, that’s a good thing. Online trading is obviously booming in both these markets but I do worry about the wider context of physical retail – not only from the perspective of people’s livelihoods but also from a rather more selfish one. I really find wandering through shops and cities soothing and exciting so, in lockdown, I miss the bustle of the high street – the sights and sounds. When I was in London I would often hop on a bus in the afternoons and go to the middle of Piccadilly Circus and then wander around Soho just to soak up the atmosphere and work out things in my head to do with this novel and with other matters. I’m hopeful that things will return to normal soon.

In terms of what people will take away from this book there is the obvious factor of enjoyment of course but one of the reasons I wrote this book in English was because I don’t think north Wales and the ‘north Welsh experience’ has been explored as often in English language fiction as its southern counterpart. Most people when they think of Wales think rugby and the valleys but this is not strictly accurate. Rugby meant nothing to me when I was growing up and still doesn’t. Indeed, I vividly remember our PE teacher damning it as ‘a game for fat boys who are too slow for football’! My world when growing up was formed by television, football and pop music – the Monkees, The Man from UNCLE, Leeds United, Thunderbirds and Monty Python. Not by chapel or the Eisteddfod or Gareth Edwards. I never ‘got’ Shirley Bassey or Max Boyce and there were no coal mines in my part of Wales. I’m not entirely sure what ‘Wales’ is. My guess is that there are at least twenty versions of it and I didn’t think the story of mine had been told.

We’re hosting an online launch for the book later this week. What can attendees expect at the event?

Well Jon Gower is a perceptive reader and I’m intrigued to know what he thinks of the novel. He always has an interesting perspective on things. I’m thrilled that Rakie Ayola has agreed to read a few passages from the novel. She is such a brilliant actor. Hopefully the conversation and the readings will stimulate all the many thousands tuning in via Zoom to buy the novel and send it to the top of the Sunday Times best seller chart…

Finally, a question lots of writers have probably been asked recently, but have you found lockdown a particularly creative time? Is there anything you’re currently working on?

Writing never stops for me. After finishing this novel I immediately returned to a manuscript I started ten years ago and have been working on intermittently since then. I finally finished it just before last Christmas. It’s a peculiar, surreal ‘historical’ novel based on the adventures of a gentleman traveller. Influenced by ‘Don Quixote’ and more modern pieces such as ‘Life of Pi’ it features a man mistaken for Jesus, a three-legged cat, a serial killer and cannibalism. So it couldn’t be more different to Miriam, Daniel and Me! It’s called The Confession of Hilary Durwood. Since lockdown I’ve started another novel. I was up to 40,000 words before realising that it wasn’t much good so I scrapped it and started again. It’s much better now.

Before Covid struck I played regularly in my band Six Sided Men but, naturally, all that is on hold now. But I’ve been writing tons of songs and recording them myself on my little portastudio (driving my wife mad in the process as we have inadequate soundproofing!). I’m currently recording some Christmas songs I’ve written and will include these on a CD for friends when the season for merriment arrives…

I’ve also been painting and drawing. So yes. A worrying time in many ways. But I can’t say it’s been entirely unproductive…

 

Miriam, Daniel and Me is available now from Seren: £9.99

Join us for the virtual book launch – Thursday 30th July, 7:30pm. Euron will be in conversation with Jon Gower and actress Rackie Ayola will be reading excerpts from the book. Email sarahjohnson@serenbooks.com for the link. Full details here.

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