Tag Archives: Cardiff

Santa Hemingway

23 Dec

Santa Hem

I was walking past this bar, called Revolución de Cuba in Central Cardiff (but seriously), when I spotted this sandwich board on the pavement advertising the venue with a picture of Santa Claus, which on close inspection bore a striking relationship to Ernest Hemingway. The only difference being that rather than bearing the gloomy, withdrawn, rather terrified features of Hemingway’s last couple of years on earth, this guy is looking really cheery. Like Santa Claus, in fact. Except that he’s Hemingway. Maybe.

I wonder how many of the winners of the annual Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest, held in Key West, Florida, actually resemble Father Christmas as much as, if not more than the man who in 1936 battered Wallace Stevens (a man twenty years his senior) to the ground in the rain in that same resort. Stevens, incidentally, did not look remotely like Santa Claus.

Which raises an interesting proposition: rather than have a look-alike contest, wouldn’t it not be more interesting to have an Ernest Hemingway/Santa Claus look-unalike contest? Sticking to males only (for the sake of simplicity) I would nominate Charles Hawtrey. Or Michel Foucault, neither of whom look remotely like the Hemingway/Santa Claus amalgam.

Charles Hawtrey

Charles Hawtrey

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

A story always tells two stories

4 Jul

Ed with sign

‘A story always tells two stories . . . the visible narrative always hides a secret tale’. Attempting an overhaul of my laptop’s photo collection, I come across a picture of Eduardo Halfon, standing across the road from Coffee a Gogo in Cardiff, in front of a makeshift sign that (miraculously) cites the opening lines of his book, The Polish Boxer. No one is sure how the signs got there, but we have our suspicions. Tellingly, the word ‘tells’ is missing. It reappeared by the evening of that day. I wonder where it went in the meantime, and what it told.

Meanwhile, from Bogotá, a photo from my hotel bedroom on the 13th floor, overlooking Avenida Septima. This distorted image – taken through a rather dirty window framed by outside bars – captured for me the fuzziness of arrival, and waking to a morning in the capital of a country whose catastrophic history tells so many secret tales that the visible narrative has almost disappeared entirely.

 

Bogota hotel

 

 

 

 

The cities within yourself

20 Apr

Paper Ship

This has been Turkish week, but also – and with a synchronicity that pleases me very much – Greek week. The London Book Fair had Turkey as its ‘Market Focus’ and two expeditionary groups of Turkish writers descended on the city of Cardiff (whose football team, it will be noted, are playing in the Premier League next season). Meanwhile, I have been immersed in the work of the Greek poet, C.P Cavafy, whose 150th anniversary we celebrate this year.

The first group of visitors were poets, three of whom I have been involved in translating. They are Gökçenur Ç, Efe Duyan, Adnan Özer and Gonca Özmen (the illustration above shows the cover of a booklet of their work, produced by Literature Across Frontiers, The Scottish Poetry Library and Delta Publishing). After an unforgettable lunch (which deserves a post of its own), the poets were joined by fellow-translator Zoë Skoulding and Literature Across Frontiers director Alexandra Büchler for an evening of poetry and conversation at Coffee a Gogo, just across from the national museum of Wales.

 Gökçenur Ç, Gonca Özmen & Efe Duyan

Gökçenur Ç, Gonca Özmen & Efe Duyan

Adnan Özer in Cardiff market

Adnan Özer in Cardiff market

Then on Thursday, we were visited by the Turkish novelists Ayfer Tunç and Hakan Günday for a reading and discussion of their work, under the heading ‘Alone in a crowd’. The idea was to discuss the theme of cities -  our citizenship, I guess – or experience as city dwellers. When preparing for my own contribution, I was immediately reminded of a line by one of the Turkish poets I hosted last weekend:

The more you travel the more cities you will find inside yourself

Which had led me to ask its author, Adnan Özer, how well he knew the work of Cavafy, a writer of whom I have been a fan, no, a devotee, since my mid-teens. Adnan told me that he admired Cavafy’s work, but that he was not a major influence, apart from in that particular poem.

The poem behind the poem, if you like, is this one:

THE CITY

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

(translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

And it seems here, as in Adnan’s paraphrase, that the city is a cypher for the self, reflecting our fragmented or multiple selves. We know that Cavafy is speaking of his own beloved Alexandria, but we also know that the city here is a state of mind, one’s personal predicament – and the human predicament also – from which one can never shake free.

At the same time as being surrounded by a crowd, we are all ultimately alone (in the city, as elsewhere), despite the onslaught of synthetic familiarisation on offer from  substitute communities such as Facebook and Twitter. On which theme, I was interested to read, in Russell Brand’s Guardian piece that he singles out one La Thatcher’s most devastating legacies in precisely this area. In the quest for personal advancement at all costs, in the elevation of blind greed as the most praiseworthy and rewarding of human qualities, we are almost duty bound to ignore the needs of those we share the world with. As her loathsome sidekick Norman Tebbit said, in reference to the defeat of the mineworkers’ union:“We didn’t just break the strike, we broke the spell.” The spell he was referring to (writes Brand) is the unseen bond that connects us all and prevents us from being subjugated by tyranny. The spell of community.

And if that all seems a bit random, Turkish week at LBF>Cardiff City Football Club>Turkish poets>Famous Greek Poet>living in the city>Thatcherism and its legacy – then please forgive me. It does connect, I promise. And if it doesn’t, well, like I said once before . . . blogging is a way of thinking out loud.

Odds and ends

13 Mar

Here’s a salutary tale. The past few days Blanco’s Blog has gone viral, thanks to the occurrence in a one-off post last summer – a film review of Hobo with a shotgun – of the word penectomy. Shit, I’ve done it again.

There are thousands of people out there, it seems, who get terribly excited when they get a sniff of a word like ****ctomy, and they then let all their chums know, and on it goes. A few of the more specialist sites, it seems, advocate different forms of self-mutilation, including auto-castration.

I don’t know what other clinical terms I should be avoiding, but no doubt if people send in suggestions, we might between us break my new all-time record.

On second thoughts, please don’t.

On a lighter note, I have been spending a lot of time toing and froing to the fair city of Birmingham these past two weeks. What friendly and plausible folk those Brummies are! Why on earth do they get such bad press? It can’t be due to their irrepressible chirpy good humour. It must be that, in sociolinguistic terms, they speak the most maligned and ‘disfavoured form of British English’, according to all opinion polls and surveys carried out since time began. According to one source:

A study was conducted in 2008 where people were asked to grade the intelligence of a person based on their accent and the Brummie accent was ranked as the least intelligent accent. It even scored lower than being silent …

Oops. People are such bigots. An entertaining and fair account intended to dispel negative stereotyping of all things Brummie can be found here.

Meanwhile, as we in Cardiff gear up for the Grand Slam showdown with France on Saturday, the London press goes on an adoration fest for the ‘England’ rugby team. Sure, the defeat of France on Sunday was admirable, but do The Times, Telegraph, Guardian and Independent really need to spend pages and pages describing the Sweet Chariot revival, and only a few column inches on the champions-in-waiting, when, after all, the best the Saeson can reasonably hope for is second place?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Monstrous Encumbrance

10 Feb

 

I’m not sure if there’s a suitable analogy in human terms, but imagine if ninety-five per cent of your perceptual faculties were concentrated in your snout, and then someone came along and stuck a bloody great fence around said snout, detaching your sensory facilities from the rest of your body and from the world. You would be distraught, would you not?

This is what occurred to Bruno the dog yesterday, following an operation on his front paw for an infected nail. Once the bandage was removed it was imperative that he refrain from licking his foot, the only task that interested him in the world now that he was unable to leap around and chase things.

Once we had secured the monstrous apparatus, the giant cone, around Bruno’s neck, he was so bewildered, so outraged at what had befallen him that he remained standing in the same position for three hours, without moving a muscle. For a creature that is normally a frenzied mover, an animal that proceeds with life at ninety miles an hour during all waking hours, this was some achievement. It was as if, cut off from everything that he knew and could identify, he were suddenly suspended in a kind of isolate hell. I had to go out to deliver some papers to the university, and have a swim, and when I came back, he was still there, stock still, waiting for the world to return to a recognizable form, for this ghastly hiatus to be terminated, for normal time to resume.

During the night a mournful howling awakened us, the embodiment, in sound, of infinite sorrow, and I stumbled downstairs to find Bruno in a state of abject misery. This is a dog that has never howled at night, even as a puppy. I grabbed a spare duvet and came and slept on the sofa, to keep him company, and he calmed down. I guess it must seem like some kind of torture to him. What is more, today he has to go to kennels, and quite obviously all the other dogs are going to laugh at him, I mean it’s only natural. They are like humans in that respect; mock the afflicted.

I woke up at a quarter to six after a few hours’ poor quality sleep, knowing that at four o’clock tomorrow morning Mrs Blanco and I are due to set out on a twenty-four hour trip, involving flights from Cardiff to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Panama – what kind of person flies the dodgy-sounding Panama-Amsterdam route? I will tell you some time, but it’s not pretty – and finally Panama to Managua: I’ve done it before and it’s a bastard of a journey, though it beats going through the US homeland security farce.

So, I woke up at stupid o’clock obsessing about the giant cone attached to my dog’s neck. During my slumber, the appalling encumbrance had become an allegory, had taken on almost spiritual dimensions, and once you begin obsessing there’s nothing to do, of course, other than sit up and start writing about it.

I realise that not all my readers are going to be interested in canine matters, but that is not the point; this is not about dogs, this hideous appendage is a metaphor for just about every encumbrance we put between ourselves and self-realisation. It is about ontological crisis, a state of pure existential terror. Think about it. Pity poor Bruno.

Not unrelatedly – everything seems related some days, don’t you think? – I found myself watching a Top of the Pops from 1977 last night. Musicians featured included Thin Lizzy, David Soul and the hideous Gary Glitter, gurning and winking at the camera as he implored someone (no doubt a nine-year old Vietnamese) to hold him close. I shuddered. And how weird everyone looked: did we all look like that back then? Did 1977 really happen?  Now, Gary Glitter, he would look good in one of those collar contraptions, and a padlocked gold glittering jockstrap . . . and there’s an image to travel with . . .

 

 

 

Seasonal Affective Disorder

1 Jan

 

Having gone out at the beginning of Christmas week and bought a box of a dozen (yes, 12) Krispy Kreme doughnuts and eaten seven (7) of them myself, I feel some changes are overdue.

Blanco actually has several New Year’s resolutions for a change but isn’t telling because clearly if you tell then you can be found lacking, whereas if you don’t tell no one is the wiser and you can still breathe the rarefied air that comes with being good. In any case, Blanco is fleeing the grey skies of Cardiff early tomorrow morning in order to spend ten days in a place far distant from the-land-where-the-sky-is-too-close-to-the-ground and although it will not be warm, there is a good chance of blueness in the heavenly vaults. And blue skies help Blanco to think, whereas the endless grey and drizzle of the-land-where-the-sky-is-too-close-to-the-ground only gives rise to a kind of anti-thought, a condition exacerbated by a constant need for potatoes and doughnuts and dumplings and chocolate and cake and biscuits and other stuff to feed the gap where thought might seep in if given half a chance or a modicum of sunlight.

Ah sunlight! I know we don’t have much to complain about compared with those poor bastards who live up near the North Pole, the Siberians and Norwegians and Finns and the Elfenfolk and so forth, but this isn’t a competition, I just need sunlight otherwise I start going bonkers and am liable to bite people, or even bite dogs, a habit I try to curb, but which flares up in an instant whenever my supply of potatoes/dumplings/doughnuts/chocolate dwindles and I feel the mordant urge creeping over me.  But neither do I wish to complain, it is always better to NOT complain.

So, on the brink of this new year I should announce that if there are no posts forthcoming in the next ten days or so it is because I am immersed in my work and because the house where I am going has no legal internet access, and neither is there mobile phone coverage. Which, all things considered, makes it a perfect place to go and write, or to read – or even to sleep. Or simply to disengage from the tweeting, gibbering world of nonstop noise for just a while and recuperate the forces that lie within.

And, to celebrate the wonderful Xmas gift I received from Mrs Blanco, the Mariachi El Bronx CD, here is a clip of the boys singing ‘Cell Mates’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

More mind manure plus Dylan Thomas

17 Nov

Here is someone trying to set up house under the bridge that runs between Tudor Street and Taff’s Mead Embankment in Cardiff, known – until the council decided to light it up in pretty colours – as Scary Bridge. Actually, my loyal readers will know that this bridge has already featured in Blanco’s Blog before – remember the swan in a bag story? But hang on a minute ….. how on earth are these big people going to fit inside this little house? And why is the man – who looks a little like Stan Laurel, or Rob Howley – wielding the roof in this ferocious manner? Really, I have no idea what is going on here, and that’s the way it should be. It kind of gives me space to improvise.

Sometimes don’t you just want to celebrate all the things you don’t know? Celebrate and give thanks for one’s own incalculable ignorance? What is this incapacity of the human brain to enter into and accept a blissful state of unknowing? After a day of meetings, in which colleagues (as one’s co-workers are nowadays known) struggle to trap mercury snakes, ceramic scorpions and slithering fat pandas, dissect, label and bottle them, so they can be sent to human resources and invested in an FTA progamme (subject to CPR approval), when I am surrounded by people pretending to know stuff that you wouldn’t want to know even if you were paid to know it, stuff that would bore the arse off blue-arsed monkeys, I return home with my head spinning, and in a state of vertigo. Am I exaggerating? Do other people share my feelings about meetings? Or is there simply an as-yet-undiscovered medical condition that specifically attacks the attendees of meetings at institutions of higher education (and no doubt elsewhere) whereby the victims are afflicted by a trance-like state with symptoms including torpor, displacement, excessive irritation (including itching) and possibly distemper (or does the last only affect dogs?). Why does my brain turn to jelly whenever we have a meeting at work? What is the purpose of meetings? Why is it whenever you phone people, there is someone at the other end telling you that the person you wish to speak to is at a meeting? Why can they never simply be having a chat in the next room, or taking a coffee break, or a dump? Why do people constantly lie  about ‘being at a meeting’ in order to make themselves sound more important than they are? Who do they think they are fooling? And as for so-called real meetings, they tire a person out so. I almost always know less when I leave them than when I begin them and I usually feel as though my brain has been sat upon by a particularly well-nourished diplodocus to boot.

Finally, here – on display last week at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea -  is a picture of the suit that Dylan was wearing in the last week of his life, presumably including the day that saw the downing of the famous 18 whiskies, or however many it was. Who, other than a complete wanker, would count the number of drinks he was downing? I was always suspicious of that story. Not that 18 whiskies is a lot, considering. Anyhow, apparently Dylan borrowed the suit off some fellow called Jorge Fick in the Chelsea Hotel before going off and dying in it. ‘Borrowing’ clothes was one of DT’s preferred activities. He was always ‘borrowing’ shirts after puking all over his own, and as for underwear etc, etc. An ex-girlfriend’s aunt used to go out with Clement Freud circa 1950 and they bumped into Dylan whilst queuing for the cinema in Soho. Dylan, whom they knew slightly, tried to blag the price of a seat from them but they didn’t have enough money. On another occasion, turning up at an acquaintance’s house to bum money/drinks/smokes, Dylan was answered at the door by the owner, who said ‘Sorry, we’re entertaining.’ ‘Not very’, quipped Dylan. Boom boom.

Nice suit though.

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking aloud about Borges

20 Oct

A comment on yesterday’s blog gets things churning as I walk the dog this morning along the sunlit banks of the glorious Taf (how lucky we are to have something resembling countryside within walking distance of the centre here in Cardiff: may the gods protect us from ‘developers’ and their lapdog councillors hell bent on destroying the city’s twin lungs).

Charles comments that Frank Bidart’s poem ‘Borges and I’ argues with the Borges piece I posted yesterday: (‘He had never had a self that wished to continue in its own being, survival meant ceasing to be what its being was’) and in which there’s at least one mirror (‘Secretly he [in this case Frank] was glad it was dirty and cracked’). So I look it up, as I am a diligent fellow.

Bidart’s prose poem, if that is what I am going to call it, as it appears in his poetry collection Desire and is written in prose, is a curious offering. Speaking of himself in the third person, and in the past tense, Frank first questions the veracity of Borges’ stance on his private and public selves:

The voice of this “I” asserts a disparity between its essential self and its worldly second self, the self who seeks embodiment through making things, through work, who in making takes on something false, inessential, inauthentic.

The voice of this “I” tells us that Spinoza understood that everything wishes to continue in its own being, a stone wishes to be a stone eternally, that all “I” wishes is to remain unchanged, itself.

But, argues Frank, who is really fooled by this? Most certainly Borges wasn’t, whatever he wishes us to believe:

When Borges’ “I” confesses that Borges falsifies and exaggerates it seems to do so to cast aside falsity and exaggeration, to attain an entire candor unobtainable by Borges.

This “I” therefore allows us to enter an inaccessible magic space, a hitherto inarticulate space of intimacy and honesty earlier denied us, where voice, for the first time, has replaced silence.

– Sweet fiction, in which bravado and despair beckon from a cold panache, in which the protected essential self suffers flashes of its existence to be immortalized by a writing self that is incapable of performing its actions without mixing our essence with what is false.

The illusion of an integral, perceptive ‘self’ which stands in isolate and unsullied contrast to the public face of the writer (in his case ‘Borges’) is therefore a conceit; even, very neatly, a literary conceit, one in fact I use on my students – as another of the commentators on yesterday’s post, ‘Vivian Darkbloom’ reminds me – to illustrate . . . something (what exactly?) about the other, the double, the doppelganger, the ‘secret sharer’.

Borges wrote two short stories about meetings with himself, one set in Cambridge, Massachusets in the 1970s, and a late one, set in 1983, both of them highly self-conscious and rather arch creations, the first better than the second. But they deal with a rather different notion, that of meeting an older or younger version of oneself.

I am concerned about the contemporaneous double, the secret sharer, as he is familiar to me. I came into close contact with him during the illness I describe in The Vagabond’s Breakfast. This is the one you get used to talking to in the delirium of illness, or the one that is conjured for you by the opiate deities. He is the absent other of the encephalopathic brain, and my first realisation that he was infringing on my sanity took place at a book launch in February 2007, when my mobile phone went off while I was speaking to the assembled public and my thoughts were if I answer, it will be myself at the other end, wandering the streets, asking where the event is taking place.

The second time that I was made aware of this concretisation of the other self was after a prolonged bout of insomnia, when I miraculously managed a full eight hours’ sleep one night, and woke with “a sense of panic, as though by sleeping for so long I had missed something essential; what precisely, I could not have said, but the closest I can get to an explanation for my panic, or guilt, would be this: that I had slept while the other me, the insomniac me, had suffered the night in terrible solitude, and that I (who had been asleep) should have been keeping him (i.e. myself) company.”

I believe, as I say in the book, that this is called the disintegration of the self. And I know that it was caused by a state of disorder brought about by illness and the effect of ammonia on the brain and so on, but I am equally certain that the potential for this kind of double-act (or hell, multiple division of the self) is only a step away from the apparent safety of the stable self, with its illusions of a fixed identity. As psychologists like RD Laing were saying decades ago.

Borges’ piece, with its leanings (some might say pretensions) towards a Tao whereby stones are stones and tigers tigers, alerts the reader to the doubleness of life for the famous writer Borges and his private, unassuming ‘I’ (who likes hourglasses and Stevenson’s prose for what they are rather than the affections they become in the words of ‘Borges’). But is this just too twee and self-congratulatory for its own good?

It certainly doesn’t cut the mustard if you have recently emerged from the gaseous belly of the many-headed beast, or crawled, wailing, through the dark, sticky entrails of the labyrinth, although, to be fair, this cannot be a reasonable judgement to level against a piece of creative writing: charging it for what it is not.

But am I, are we, in danger, in fact, of sanctifying Borges just a bit? After all, it has been argued, quite convincingly, that apart from some poems, not much of what he wrote after the 1950s was really much good. In his essay on Borges, Coetzee has written of some of the later works that “there is much tired writing in them; they add nothing to his stature” and: “The stories that had made him famous had been written in the 1930s and 1940s. He had lost his creative drive and had furthermore become suspicious of these earlier, ‘baroque’ pieces. Though he lived until 1986 he would only fitfully reproduce their intellectual daring and intensity.”

Anyhow, it gave me something to think about, along the muddy riverbank, as the dog wrestled with a big fish, which, on closer inspection, became a log.

 

 

 

 

The Promised Land

16 Oct

I have made a couple of references recently to The Promised Land, my favourite bar and hostelry, which can be found in Windsor Place, near the city centre, and which serves, amongst other things, the best coffee in Cardiff.

The Promised Land’s owner, Nick Davidson (pictured) set the place up in the style of a certain kind of city bar to be found in Manhattan or Madrid, places that serve quality drinks, fine wines and good food – often of a Spanish flavour – in a friendly, informal atmosphere, and which isn’t burdened by a particular social identity: lawyers, plumbers, painters and decorators, dropouts and even journalists, politicians, poets and the odd celebrity drop by and mingle, and there is a space upstairs for hire to private parties.

Which is the point I am coming to. In my other role, as Richard Gwyn, I teach on the MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University, and our Visiting Writers’ programme, supported by Literature Wales, is hosted by The Promised Land. Every few weeks between October and April we invite writers to give a reading, answer questions and share the evening with our students and other guests. The reading is followed by an Open Mic session for Cardiff University creative writing students, often work of a very high standard. The Promised Land provides evening meals, which you are welcome to enjoy before or after the guest reading. On October 3rd we hosted the first of the series, novelist Lindsay Clarke. The rest of the programme is as follows:

 

24th October, poet Clare Potter

14th November, Student event coordinated by scriptwriter-dramatists Othniel Smith and Tim Rhys

5th December, poet Peter Finch

6th February, ex-national poet of Wales Gwyneth Lewis

27th February, poet and novelist Owen Sheers

12th March, novelist Belinda Bauer

26th March, poet Douglas Houston

 

All events take place on a Monday evening at 7 pm and are free to the public.

 

 

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