Monks and Music

img002My new book ‘The Bardic Monk’ will hopefully see the light of day soon. It is to be published by Llanerch Press any day. Whilst I was writing it I had music playing. This is a habit of mine which goes back to school days when I used to do my homework in the dining room of our busy family house (four brothers all playing different instruments), where my eldest brother was doing piano practise. He played beautifully, and I loved hearing him play Liszt, Beethoven, Chopin and othermajor composers for piano. Sometimes just for fun he would play a bit of what he called ‘boogie’, which was of course jazz. I adored my brother and his playing, and the enjoyment of  the sound of music while working, which I have carried with me throughout my life I owe to him.  I have however noticed in recent years that I do tend to get fixated on a certain sound that goes with what I am writing and a lack of variety until the work is finished. It is as though the music immediately reminds me of the fictional place I am entering. For instance the Bardic Monk has been written exclusively to Karine Polwart and Bryn Terfel.  A Court in Splendour was written to Coldplay and Jose Gonzalez; The Dreamstealers trilogy was wider ranging but still within limits – and the Rules of Heaven, the first of the Grace de Savira mysteries was written to Travis and Satie. I find that when I am writing to the local council or other authority figures I put on either Barber or Monteverdi (do I need soothing or something?) Whereas when I am communicating with my far away family and friends I look for John Martin and Penguin Cafe…old, much-loved favourites. The curious link between hearing, thinking, imagining, and creating is a wonderful and joyous thing. So, the next book is another Grace book, From High Places, a wicked tale of murder and mayhem among town councillors, and so far it has been Michael Hedges and his sublime guitar, every day. Whatever next I ask myself.

Lloyd George’s Birthday

I am not old enough to have a personal opinion of the man whose birthday today is remembered by those who have read about him, or admired the stories told them. My experience of coming across his name,  was when as a child in North Wales, I learned my first ‘Nursery Rhyme’ except it was not quite ba ba black sheep, but a rant about a politician whose style or policies were not in accord with the adults around me. This was taught to me by an elderly Sunday School Teacher, with a strong North Walian accent. Subversive or what?

Lloyd George no doubt when his life ebbs out will ride in a flaming chariot

he’ll sit in state on a red hot plate between Satan and Judas Iscariot

Ananias that day to the devil will say my plans to precedence fails

So move a bit higher away from the fire, make room for this feller from Wales.

Actually, I do think they knew how to have a laugh up there, and I have never come across this rhyme anywhere else – who coined it I have no idea, but I have never forgotten it and always hear it in my mind’s ear when Lloyd George appears in the news, like today on his birthday – always in exactly the same tone and accent as when I learned it at five years old!

On a Raft with Emrys Williams

The artist now showing at Oriel Mwldan is Emrys Williams whose installation of a Raft on the Mwldan is a thought-provoking piece, based on the idea of the artist’s studio as a raft. When the artist is truly involved with his work he leaves the external space and floats in a timeless space. I recently interviewed Emrys, and what he said rang bells  for me as a writer. The way that time disappears when completely absorbed in the process of creation, is an extraordinary raft-like journey. The creative process is the exquisite marriage of yin and yang. to make a taoist observation. The yin is the rising of the ‘idea’ from the inner self, the yang is the lifting of the brush or the pen, to translate it from the inner into the outer. The following is the review I did for the Tivyside Advertiser.

Emrys Williams : Raft Afon Mwldan


In the latest exhibition at the Oriel Mwldan, enormous canvases twelve foot by eight foot, bearing images and glyphs mysterious and mundane, adorn the walls and create the surrounding  edges of a world in which the raft makes its epic journey. In the centre lies the raft itself and upon its surface are all those items the artist deems to be necessary to make his journey into the unknown, each of which is symbolic to an aspect of his life, his creativity and the elemental quality of its gift.

Its maker Emrys Williams talks fluently on the subject of this original mixed media installation which is based on the idea of the artist’s studio as a location set free from the confines of its surroundings, moving into territory hitherto unknown, as it lives in the mind of the artist until conveyed into the world.

The images on the raft and the paintings are drawn from many sources, and also, the artist himself explains in interview, directly from the collected images lying in the sub-conscious.

‘At times when I am painting I am taken with an impulse to place something, or put a stroke, just so, and I know it is a part of the topography I am seeking,’ he says.

Here and there on the canvases are words  which are taken from the ‘Six words of advice’ from Tilopa an early Buddhist Monk. These words relate to being in the present and not continually referring back, or trying to look forward. For the creative artist this meditative state of ‘here and now’ has always been a prized state of being and one which produces extraordinary work.

This is an unusual piece, thought-provoking and contemporary, though its modernity does not neglect its inspiration, which contributes a timeless quality. The artist acknowledges that he has been stimulated and inspired by the ancient Buddhist teachings and also by the Egyptian artefacts in the British Museum, where the precious objects were packed in boxes and loaded on to boats for the afterlife, symbolic and awe-inspiring enough to cause him to begin to record his own journey.

The installation runs at Oriel Mwldan until 23rd February.


Paul Steffan Jones Reviewed

Poetry Triggering Happiness

The new collection of poems by Paul Steffan Jones, touches on familiar themes that readers would have discovered in his first collection, Lull of the Bull. His clear poetic eye is trained on similar subjects, with a note of humour which appears here and there, as he introduces fresh ideas and treats the reader to some genuinely interesting variation of tone and use of language. At the recent launch in Cardigan Library those attending were treated to Paul reading from his new collection, once more published by Starborn Books and called The Trigger Happiness.  The event attracted a pleasing number of people, actually requiring extra seating, the evidence if needed of the popularity of the local poet and his work. How a man is seen in his own community is one of the curious aspects of being a poet, since poetry lays bare the man within for all to see, one reason many poets shrink from  performance. Paul has none of that trepidation, and stands fearlessly before the crowded room to read the words he has written, about love, about nationhood, about lives in turmoil or desperation, and enjoyed and admired by those who listen.

His manner is still self-deprecating, but more confident than his last appearance in the Spring of 2010. He reads well and is an impressive figure and  he has had sufficient accolades, and an award from the West Coast Eisteddfod in Oregon U.S., to be assured that his work is of a high quality and widely admired.

His popularity does not mean that his poetry is simple. It takes thought to appreciate it fully, and has depth; an eye for the universal in the personal. Take ‘Forty Four’ with its searing phrases dedicated to the everyman of middle years who hears the  ‘callous patois of mandarins’ and whose changing shape demands to be ‘lashed to the skeleton by belts’. Dead Foxes singes the page with its extraordinary combination of hot anger and cold logic, Christmas Lights is made for fun, but is also simultaneously ironic and celebratory. A part of his gift is in this cleverly combining two opposing views, weaving them together into something which makes the reader think, and even reconsider their own opinions with a fresh interest. For many who have read and enjoyed Lull of the Bull, there is already an awareness of Paul’s gift for original thinking, demonstrated in his poems. This one demands more, and gives more to the reader.

The Trigger Happiness by Paul Steffan Jones is £8.00 from all good bookshops.

Preparing for the Distance

I am not good at looking too far ahead. When I was a student and they asked us where we wanted to be in ten years, or twenty years, I just said ‘alive, hopefully’. I take on projects that have a reasonably short life, not because I don’t want to accomplish something of quality, but the restless energy that motivates me to take on projects is fickle. It’s a bit like a fire, in fact it’s a lot like a fire; burns hot, hot, and gradually slows down. Fuelled by adrenalin of course. So two years ago, when I took on the idea of turning my novel about Cardigan Castle’s historic First Eisteddfod, into a cycle of plays I began to burn for it to happen. I knocked on a few doors, talked to potential funders, sought support and all in all, two years on was in the exact same position as I was at the beginning. I’ve written already that on the point of abandoning it I found the support I needed from the external world  – and I am currently looking forward with a mixture of excitement, and terror, because this project does not even come to fruition until June 2014. It is a long time off, and I feel I should be in training for the distance. But the extraordinary thing is, I had an idea of the dream-team of local people to work with and here they are. They all said yes!  Sarah Jane Absalom has agreed to be Musical Director, Marion Vare – co-Director, Malcolm Gwyon – Set Designer, Heather Tomos – Wardrobe Mistress – somehow with this group around me I know more than ever that it is going to happen. Our first meeting will be at the beginning of February when we will consider the way forward.  Sharing the distance with others makes all the difference to its feasibility and I am genuinely looking forward to the process.


Writing a Play

During the Penfro Book Festival in September I attended a play writing workshop run by Derek Webb of (amongst other things) Pint-sized Plays. It was an enjoyable experience, and more than a little interesting for me, as I didn’t really think there was much for me to learn about writing plays as I had been doing it on and off for fifty years. My purpose in attending the workshop was to re-invigorate my enthusiasm for playwriting because I had gone off it as a form and moved more or less permanently into novel writing,  but knew that during the coming year a play was waiting to be written, and I really didn’t think I could do it. Well the workshop did the job, and worked to re-invigorate, but also gave me new clues to refining my construction, and improving any effort to write a play, so I really did learn something. Now the time has come for the play to be written. The suggestion made to me two years ago, became more pressing. This is a three-parter, a cycle of plays in fact, not a one-off. The aim is to use it to launch the restored Cardigan Castle in 2014, to recreate the events of Christmas 1176 when the Lord Rhys held a contest between musicians and poets. Now I am living with it daily, it is a continually evolving thing. The plot is already laid down, it is history. The First Eisteddfod. But the how and the why, and the who was there and the musical content, and all of the rest of it is crowding into my imagination and I know, that in spite of the doubts earlier in the year that I would not be up for it, I’m loving doing it. So thank you to Derek, to Glen and to Brenda, and to anyone else who was there at the workshop that day at Rhosygilwen, where my spirit was engaged again with the idea that I really could write a play, and would write a play, and am, in fact, writing a brand new, never seen before play!

Sifting Poetry Books

I have already mentioned that I part with some of my books from time to time. I do not want my home to be a place where no-one can move for books on every surface. I have three decent sized bookshelves, and that, it seems to me is enough.  The process of sifting through the books, thinning them out, as I was today, often throws up something I have forgotten entirely, especially very slender volumes, almost booklets, which have been swallowed up between bigger, fatter books. Poetry often comes in little books like that. Some of my favourites are written by relatively unknown poets and one of them I came across today was The Town Beyond the World, by my late poet friend Dot Clancy. Dot was a committed poet and this particular book was a love letter to New Quay where she lived as did my family and myself. It is in two halves, Summer and Winter and as I read it the acute memory of the seasonal extremes under which we lived rushed back to me.  Several hundred people live there throughout the year, making up what is called the population, but many thousands spend the summer there and their presence transforms everything. This she captured brilliantly in her book.

Somewhere in the world is a collection of Dot’s poems though I cannot trace it and she wrote several poems to me, which would not be included in it. When my late husband died after a long illness, she sent this one to me. It is typical of the flavour of her work and I am moved every time I read it. The simplicity of the words, the conjured image of a journey, the sense of new beginnings whilst clutched in the pain of an ending, and the undeniable lingering breath of sadness at the brevity of it all make it, to me, a perfect short piece.

The Life Train stopped

and Marsh stepped off

into new horizons

and only we left behind

heard the ticking time

and felt the mirrored pain

while destination bound

we picked over the pieces

and built his memory

to share and heal



Poetry – a High Calling

At times in my life I have wished I was a poet. I have even gone through periods where I tried to be a poet, where I wrote poetry constantly, day after day after day. The results of two of those periods stuck together are somewhere entitled ‘my collection’ amongst my files of reject material. They are the least bad, which I have kept to remind me that I did my best. But the truth is, I do not have it, the talent, the voice. One of my lecturers a long time ago, told me that poetry was a high calling and the preserve of the truly deep thinker. If so then I am demonstrably shallow as anyone who has experienced ‘my collection’ might witness. This makes me indescribably sad sometimes. It isn’t that I don’t like shallow people, I just don’t want to be one.

Writing for me is a variable pleasure and though poetry has figured here and there in my scribblings, stories have always been my thing. My favourite writing is when I am creating a good story, or novel, where characters, plot, expositions, landscapes, and the rest, are down to me. I want them to have depth, but I hear in the things said about my work, that it is, in fact shallow.

‘You do great dialogue’ says one. ‘You don’t waste time on describing too much,’ says another. Dialogue and lack of observational description are how we live our lives in a world full of activity and people, but they are not deep characteristics. They are, in a sense an avoidance of deep, as they are experienced through extroversion, not the silent thought of introversion, which, let’s face it, is the natural demeanour of the poet. I adore poetry, and have to regularly pass on books of it to others, not only to introduce them to new pleasures, but because I want to read new stuff, and if my bookshelf is weighted down with Yeats and Graves and all my other dead poet friends, I will keep lifting them out and revisiting them, not moving on and making room for the new which I am always interested to find. Only recently have I begun to understand that at the touch of a keyboard I can read new poetry and return to it as often as I like. So, I am currently following the blogs of two poets. They are Paul Steffan Jones on wordpress,  and Jackie Biggs, ‘a writer’s life’ on blogspot, both are distinct voices, quite different but equally not lacking in depth and quality – poets who have the good fortune to live with what might be termed a high calling.

The Best Made Plans

The restoration of our castle in Cardigan is moving on, and my own planned involvement, creating a drama event for the launch in 2014 with the adaptation of my novel ‘A Court in Splendour’ the story of the first Eisteddfod which happened there in the 12th century, has preoccupied my imagination for some time. Over the past two years I have looked into all the potentials for raising money to get a wonderful community production off the ground, moving from person to person and group to group, and because of the necessity for a constituted group alongside me to gain funding, it has been an uphill struggle. Yesterday I  came to the point of thinking it was not going to happen and I decided to abandon the whole idea. I became quite emotional about letting go of it, but when I woke this morning I had my daily ‘quiet time’ and accepted that without interest from others I must simply move on, so was more sanguine and okay with it. Then I simply emailed those whom I had tried to enthuse with my own interest saying I would not be pursuing the matter further. So much for the certainty of decision making. Within a matter of hours the whole project was back on, with a huge amount of interest, enthusiasm, backing and support and a fantastic sense of its relevance to the community. The interest was always there, I just didn’t know it! So in these early days of the new year my resolution is to make sure that when I make plans, I will communicate them clearly, and keep everyone informed and ask them to inform me…..oh what an exciting  prospect lies ahead for us, for the castle, for the town and for all the people who will visit and be given the show of a lifetime!