Month: January 2013

To be or what to be…

For last night’s meeting of Renegades Writers Barry had written a radio play based on the idea I had used in Macbeth at the Writers Group. In his, Shakespeare brings Romeo and Juliet to be discussed. It was very amusing and I felt pleased someone had felt one of my ideas worthy of development.

I’m doing an interview with Karl Hyde of Underworld for a future blog. One of my questions to him is how he feels about the way others take their work and re-mix it. That is the norm in music, especially dance music. The use of images by one artist as the basis of their art has a long tradition. Many Roman sculptures are copies of ancient Greek originals. Lots of artists have reworked classical paintings, or since the early twentieth century utilised others’ images, famously Duchamp ‘shocked’ the artworld by putting a moustache on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. A much more serious reworking was Francis Bacon’s use of Valazquez’s Pope Innocent X in a remarkable series of paintings that have had a huge influence on painting. There are countless other examples.

The use of others work as a basis for your own is an important aspect of art but seems more frowned upon in writing. Last night we talked about how Jane Austen’s books have been rewritten to modernise them. We of course see many interpretations of Shakespeare to try to make it more relevant to a modern audience, or to try to draw out the meanings, with varied success! In films it has gone on since the very beginnings. Recently there was a shot by shot reworking of Psycho, which seems pointless and was fairly awful. Whereas the Dollar films add to the experience of the Japanese originals they are based upon, bringing a new dimension to what was then a very tired genre.

In writing you are always expected to have new stories, new twists. But there are only so many stories that can be told, The Bible probably had most of them anyway, and even that was changed so that in the King James version text was adjusted to make sure any parts questioning the place of the monarch were removed, and many what they saw as irrelevant books of the original biblical writings were not included.

As writers we can interpret the world through stories, poems and so on, using our own experiences and viewpoints. We cannot help to be influenced by what we read and watch, and it should never been seen as a fault, I would love to have the ability to write like some of my favourite authors, on the odd occasion I read through and think I’ve expressed something better than them, then I get some supportive criticism at Renegades and realise that well maybe not!

 One of the points raised in Barry’s play was Shakespeare’s use of other texts as the basis of the dramas, if he could do it then it must be ok!

Today’s photographs are of Newfield Street and just behind my flat in Tunstall on a very windy day, cold and sunny, taken around midday.



…out with the pigs

A book I ordered had arrived at Tunstall Library, Nat Tate – An American Artist by William Boyd. It is a spoof biography, I’m reading it as part of my researching as I write Traitor to the Cause, which is a novel written as if it is an autobiography. I am also reading The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s autobiography, but written as if of her best friend.

After picking that up I went to look in the literature/poetry section as I wanted a book about poetic forms, someone having borrowed my Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms many years ago and never been heard of again. Looking along the shelf the library numbering system created a lovely clash, next to Teach Yourself Creative Writing was a book called Working Ferrets.

As I wandered back to my flat with Working Ferrets in my bag alongside two William Boyd books, it led me to think how important the unexpected clash of objects, people, events creates a tension or humour in a piece of work. As (in my mind) a visual artist this is used all the time, whether to highlight or counterbalance. Much of surrealism depends on these oppositional elements. British humour has for a long time, look at how many plays and films depend on a working class character moving in the upper class and vice versa or the mistaken venue.

In my poem on the events around personal grief, Then Nothing to Do, I used this technique. The poem is in two parts set around the deaths of my father and mother 25 years apart. One of the things I find around these periods is how in times of the deepest grief things happen as a counterpoint.

When my father died my parents lived in Llanfair Caereinion in mid Wales. I rang the local funeral director and was told by his wife that he was ‘…out with the pigs’. Of course there were not enough people living in the large rural area to warrant a full time funeral director, but the contrast and breaking of a ‘spell’ made me and my mother (who was totally devastated), smile, it brought in a reality to the situation.

Over the years I have read quite a few autobiographies. It is an odd genre, how many are really and truly honest. How many of us could write about ourselves with the distance and understanding that a good biography has. I don’t read the footballers or stars writings, though I did read a Stanley Matthews’ 1947 book about his growing up as there are members of my family mentioned. One of my favourites is Luis Bunuel’s My Last Breath. In it he writes of his lifelong quest to find the perfect cocktail and at the very end of his life how he may fool people and ask for a priest, just to have the final laugh.

Gunter Grass has written two very different autobiographies. The first Peeling the Onion is a fairly straight story of his life up to the writing and publication of The Tin Drum. He writes about the fact he was a member of the Hitler Youth and a teenage soldier at the very end of the war, and how he was brainwashed by the Nazi regime. There is a lovely bit where he is hiding in a ditch with another young soldier who plans to become a priest, and thinks this may have been the current Pope!

In his second autobiography he moves into a very different sphere. The Box: Tales from the Darkroom, in this he uses the fantastical realism of his novels. The book is a set of gatherings where his children dissect his faults over meals which he lovingly describes. They use photographs that a woman who has lived with them has taken on her very special box camera, and show another hidden truth from often impossible angles. It is one of my favourite books of any genre and I realise I could slip towards it as my character in Traitor, Vincent, is a photographer opening up the deep yellow Kodak photographic paper boxes to find his past!

Perhaps a new line of work for Vincent will develop from reading Working Ferrets!

Today’s photograph is of the magnificent Victorian cast iron sign for Tunstall Library. A sunny mild windy day, I’ve made it black and white as it shows the workmanship better. The other two are inside the Library showing the linked motifs.





To read Then Nothing To Do go to

Sketching out the future

It was back to school again this morning. What was supposed to be one visit has now turned into three and could be a few more. I am doing this as a volunteer, but the repayment is from working with the children, their enthusiasm and their sheer hard work. Today we started on the self portraits, sketching their faces using mirrors, to then work on them next week with colour. First I talked about how art was central to many things we take for granted such as design, computer graphics, not just painting and sculpture. Not all people are ‘artists’ and the longer I go on I can see that. In my early idealism I thought anyone could be, but they are not. I don’t mean in an elitist way, just some people have mindsets and brains which see and function differently. I am not ashamed to say that I have absolutely no idea how a car works, as long as mine went I was happy, if it went wrong the garage would get it going again. Whereas, my brother lived for cars, when we both lived at ‘home’ as soon as he came in from work off would go the suit and on with the overalls, his friends would come and spend all evening taking cars to bits and putting them back again!

A lot of art of course takes great technical knowledge. In sculpture for instance you learn welding, casting, woodwork, carving, plastics, they are tools to reach your goal – the finished work of art.

At the end of today’s session two girls came to me and thanked me for teaching them how to draw, which was lovely. What it did show was the incredible developmental capacity children of this age group (8-9) can go through in such a short time, and they had. We looked at proportion in the face, the shape of the head, not just an apple or circle, but how to build from basic forms. It was hard and demanding work for them. Next week we go a stage further. At any age it is very hard to draw (or write) what you see, not what you think you see.

I have found it a very invigorating few weeks, that does not however mean I wish to use my qualifications and go to teach full time. No, I prefer the role I have just visiting. I am trying to add to the children’s educational experience in my visits, share my enthusiasm for the arts. The use of people from outside the school to share their skills is a vital but now underused aspect because of funding.

For too many in the government and its departments all they can think of are for pupils to become good worker fodder, what they don’t seem to realise is that Britain for 50 years has been in the forefront of design, theatre, visual arts, music. These may seem to be ephemeral but are huge earners for the economy – look at just how much tax and foreign income does our music and games industry generate.

I’m just repeating arguments here that many others have made for many decades, but the spark begins at schools like Summerbank and if just one of the children today has been enthused to think seriously about working in the creative industries then I may have achieved something. The arts are not just for an elite, creative minds come from a broad explorative education, an education which does not always tick boxes or add percentages to a school. Old fashioned, idealistic, unrealistic? I don’t think so. All children need to learn to read, write, add, subtract, multiply, know how things work and what they are made of, where-when-why things happened; they also need to learn the tools of creation and be confident about using them. Whether that is playing an instrument, acting, singing, dancing, wielding a paintbrush, creating a story. Artistic skills need to work alongside the scientific and mechanical skills if we are to develop our society.

Now get down off your soapbox Tim!

Today’s photographs are from this mornings session at Summerbank School.


Basques Abandoned

For quite some time I have wanted to record myself reading my ‘poetry’, after all much of it was written for performance. I have been reinvigorated to undertake this arduous task by the very fine and perceptive editor of Centrifugal Eye accepting my poem Macbeth At The Writers Group which has up to now only been ‘performed’ at Renegades.

Do I record my work as sound only or do I film myself performing? Or maybe I film suitable images and do a voice-over. I think just recorded is the best so I can invade people’s minds on their MP3 players.

I have a microphone. When looking it up online it is now seen as a ‘vintage’ microphone, I only bought it in 1981! I talked to my expert friend George and he recommended a preamp and things as the recording I can get through my pc is so low that the voice would be badly distorted to make it heard properly, maybe I should wait and find a recording studio or until I see him again.

Listening to poetry is how I became to properly appreciate it. My education between 11 and 16 was pretty poor, my own fault really, so I had little understanding of poetry and its beauty, form and formalities. Then when I went to Cardiff College of Art I found that Cardiff Central Library had the most wonderful record library. They had all the Argo recordings as well as a tremendous selection of music. The recordings opened up a new world and through the poet or actor speaking/performing I ‘got it’! I had grown up listening to Under Milk Wood, the wonderful 1954 Argo recording with Richard Burton, and fondly remember winter afternoons listening to this with my mother, but here was an even more delightful world.


There is a difference between actors and writers reading. I have a copy of Alec Guinness reading T S Eliot, which I prefer to Eliot’s own version, his voice just didn’t fit the rhythm of the words, which is odd, because most writers ‘fit’ their words, I would urge you to listen to Stevie Smith reading. It may be interesting to find an actor to read my stuff, just to hear it back, I’d probably end up re-writing it yet again! Some of what I write was started 10 or more years ago and revised and revised. I never actually see it as the ‘finished article’ at any point.

At the last Renegades Writers meeting I attended, Jem brought up the issue of improving the way we read our work. We often rush to try and fit a bit more in to the slot we have, maybe because we know it ourselves we don’t emphasise things enough. I remember attending a group, I can’t remember where, who passed their work to another person to read aloud, not a trained person, but a way of hearing how their work sounded. I remember organising a weekend of workshops, and we had the glorious Rosie Garland (aka Rosie Lugosi) who is a truly top class performer, we didn’t dress in thigh length patent boots, black stockings, figure hugging basques and flail whips (I am sure there were many who secretly wished for that!), but people did learn a lot about planning and presenting their public performances, using their voices better and improving stagecraft. The presentation of your work is important, whether in a workshop setting or in public, because a well read piece makes people notice it and give the supportive feedback we need to improve and develop.

So, sometime soon you will have the joy of being able to download not just the texts of my writing but me performing, so clear off those albums from your iPods, once you hear it nothing else will feel right.

Today’s photograph is the locked door of Tunstall Baths, built in 1890 for the people of the town and closed due to cuts in 2011 and probably never to open again. Overcast, windy, bleak midwintery, just about to rain, 1.45pm.


Searching for diamonds

Looking at the photographs I’m taking each day, like the one below, I see that in the main I am looking for abstract compositions in the often decaying human environment I am living in. My ‘eye’ was formed as an artist, my preferred artists people like Ben Nicholson, Mondrian, David Smith, artists who were abstracting nature into its constituent blocks.

I found when documenting work I did with children and young people that I was photographing humans successfully. But I just don’t have the ‘eye’ for people that someone like Cartier-Bresson had. So why is that?

It could be less interest in humans than abstract patterns. Perhaps it was an innate shyness, it takes considerable guts and self-confidence to photograph people outside a ‘confined’ situation such as a project creates where people are expecting to be documented. If you see movie film of Cartier-Bresson he works like a dancer. He used a lightweight small camera, and would dance on and off the pavement, people obviously hardly noticed him working.

Photographing people going about their everyday lives creates some of the finest and most interesting photographs. They show us a glimpse of everyday life, capture points of tension, relaxation, which even moving film has difficulty with. But they do impinge on people’s privacy. I remember in about 1976 walking past the old Cardiff Library, a fellow student took a shot of a very scruffy homeless man searching through a dustbin, a good subject, but he became aggressive and quite rightly so I feel, he was unhappy being photographed in what for him was probably a very distressing time. I could see what the photographer was intending, making a point that in the middle of a big area for consumerism someone was so desperate he was searching a bin for food/drink/money/diamonds. After a heated discussion it was settled by the photographer giving the homeless man a couple of pounds, who traipsed off down to The Greyhound, where I was on the way to.

So if you are expecting lots of pictures of people this year you may not get them, but I will try, maybe a few portraits of people I know, and even self-portraits.

Today’s photograph is near the park where a building is slowly disintegrating. It was windy, sunny, chilly, at about 10.15am.



Butters – that was a word one of my young ‘friends’ used on Facebook. Luckily another ‘friend’ didn’t know what she meant either, and she wasn’t too cool to explain – Ugly. She had a nice line – every time a guy gets rejected, the girl is either butters or a lesbian?

Butters – is it derived from the American slang butt? But butts are not ugly, they are a beautifully rounded piece of body, for many they are part of the shallow outward attraction for both men and women. I remember that in the seemingly endless life drawing I did the backside/arse/butt/bottom was lovely to draw, not awkward and angular like the hands or feet, but a glowing peach of a body part which could be shaded to find the shape.

I see from an online urban dictionary it means ugly and fat. Is fat so ugly? Marylyn Monroe and many other pre 60’s stars were at least a size 12, that today can be considered fat. Crazy! It is so easy to break people’s confidence, especially in the cattle market of teenage life when feelings are heightened. I know for many years as a teenager I thought I was very ugly then I got to a point and just didn’t care, I am what I am (cue Shirley Bassey in your head for the rest of the day!).

South Park has a character called Butters, it’s not a programme I’ve ever taken to, maybe when I was 14 I would have, but now it just seems a bit puerile. I know it is meant to offend, but for me it doesn’t, just leaves me wondering why bother!

In my story Underpainting the sinister character who seems some sort of property gangster is called Frank Butter. I got the name from looking out of my window at a For Sale sign which was for a property company called Butters, without the ‘s’ it had the sharp stabbing no-nonsense sound I was looking for, with the potential for working class roots – butter-maker. I started writing a sequal which sort of ran out of steam and I will one day continue, where all the bad characters (and there are many) are all called Butter, but making spelling their names in Russian, Polish, Serb, Italian and so forth, so they appear different. If anyone knew languages they may realise the intent, the eternal baddie!

How long will ‘butters’ remain in the language, hard to know, probably by the time I get to use it in a piece it will be naff, so gay, fuddy-duddy, unhip, prune-pit, uncool, démodé, old-school and so on. Maybe as writers we should leave off slang unless absolutely necessary unless of course you want to place a person in an era. So I will finish off and go and make some toast ugly…

Today’s photograph is a triptych of photographs I took around midnight last night at my front door when the snow fell, there has been some manipulation to make them clearer and one turned to greyscale.



Black oil in the mind…

E4 is not aimed at my age group, it is a channel for young people. I had read a very good review on My Mad Fat Diary, based on a real diary kept by a girl in her mid-teens. I wondered if the reviewer was just ‘getting down with the kids’. So I watched it and was surprised how very good it is, it isn’t perfect but it works and works well. Dealing with mental health issues is not easy; dealing with teenage issues of sex, body image and so forth is equally not easy; dealing with families is not easy. This was excellent, funny, sad, moving and has some great early 90’s music. It is excellent without being hung up just on the issues, it doesn’t preach and it deals with young peoples’ mental health issues in a way that doesn’t sideline, make them freaks, or figures of ridicule. The dialogue feels right and reminds me of how I have heard that age group speak to each other when I worked with them. Sharon Rooney the lead actor is superb and is surrounded by a very good cast.

The story is based on a real diary by Rae Earl. Teenage mental health issues for many years were swept under the carpet, as if they were just naughty children. There was a time you could not officially have mental health issues until you were an ‘adult’, and not get the help needed.  For most people whether teenage or adult finding you have a mental health issue is quite disarming. I have at times had a medium level of depression, it has made unwelcome arrivals when I felt like I had a thick black oil in my mind that was hard to see a way through, even though there appeared no outside reason. Things were very bad for a couple of years but luckily for the last three years it hasn’t returned with any venom. I keep a record of how I am feeling and when the chart starts to go up try and work on things to alleviate matters. I can tell that things are going a bit awry when I stop writing, watch daytime tv, have unwanted thoughts. It isn’t easy to readjust, but as I am able to see myself as another entity, I can normally work it out. The worst thing is when people say “Just pull yourself together”, it isn’t that easy. These feelings are not wanted, but arrive like a creeping weed.

I remember reading about how TV is a depressive. You take no active part in it. Attending theatre, dance and even film has positive effects on you. Speech radio is very good for your senses as you need to use imaginative parts of your brain. Even better is actually doing the activities, such as writing, acting, dancing, visual arts. So doing this has activated something in my brain and perhaps doctors should give prescriptions to writers groups and workshops (perhaps theatre tickets!).

Today’s photograph taken at 11am on a cold, overcast day waiting for snow. It appears James Bond has cut up his canoe and dumped it outside my flat!


The good, bad and ugly

With not attending Renegades Writers last night I feel a lack of inspiration for this Blog! I was at the hospital having some tests done, not much, but after a few hours of that my mind was numb! It meant I was at home to watch a quite fascinating TV programme about the history of model trains. I’ve always had a love of trains and model trains. Some of the layouts were amazing, beautifully scratch built, amazing craftsmanship and craftswomanship. World’s in miniature and as someone pointed out their world with people and places they have chosen to inhabit it.

My father was very keen on railways, my grandfather was a railwayman with the Midland Railway and later LMS. He had bits for a model railway he never actually built, though he built one for my brother and I to use; and my brother has again all the bits and maybe will build a huge layout one day! When I was little my father would often take us to watch trains, I remember a trip to Norton Bridge where two main line converge. We also went to see the bright blue Deltic coming out of Liverpool when we went to visit my great aunt and visiting an amazing model railway shop near to their home. So I am sort of steeped in it and find myself having feelings of excitement when seeing trains speeding through the landscape.

At art school when I began to make ‘experimental’ films I used trains as a source of imagery to break down. Looking down out of a moving train window gave movement and pulse which I then ‘abstracted’. A camera looking across a track as a train thunders by created a blur of visual information. I never had the wish and maybe ability to create the model trains from scratch, and perhaps not the motivation. I didn’t just want to copy something, idealise it, I wanted it to develop. But then when I think about writing stories aren’t we doing that? We create a world which we inhabit with people -the good, bad and ugly, trying to make them more than the frozen figures standing, running, lifting, swimming forever in one place on the railway layout. We place them in or set them against environments, sometimes these are just sketched out, sometimes written in photographic detail. We create our vision through words rather than bits of wood and plastic. The stories have a limited beginning and end, often like model railways going in circles! We break out of this by allowing our characters thoughts and faults.

Today’s photograph was taken at 12.05 in the nearby park, overcast, chilly as if the world has stopped and gone to sleep.


Damn Sans-Serif

I went to Tunstall Library today to pick up a book I had ordered back in October, John Burnside’s Glister, at last the person had stopped renewing it!

I went to the reservations shelf and it was a Large Print edition. Even though I have very strong reading glasses I find large print almost impossible to read, so handed back. It was the only edition they have, I asked why, and they didn’t know. Damn. I suppose I will have to buy the book.

So why couldn’t I read it in large print? Well this one was printed using a sans serif font, which gets very tiring, there is no flow. I fully understand why sans serif is used and understand the need for people with poor sight or with difficulties reading for such fonts.

John Burnside has become a great favourite of mine. His books deal with difficult subjects, they live and breathe the landscapes they are set in, and his poetry writing means his prose has a sparse beauty suitable for his subject matter. A Summer of Drowning published last year was one of the highlights of my 2012 reading. Set in the awful wastes of 24 hour daylight which means sleep can become impossible, shapes can appear in the sea, in the forest, in the mind which you cannot know are real or just the twilit imagination. It is an interior book set in a vast exterior. There are ancient beliefs and stories which clash with the modern age. It is a great book and a great experience.

Today’s photograph is another gate in the backs, a clash of styles creating a whole. Taken at 11.30, overcast, chilly.


Whiskers on kittens…

It was back to school again today. I finished what I had planned from last week. We looked closely at self-portraits and next week will be making some. The children are writing down what they like and what is important to them, they are going to bring some pictures of those to create a collage around self-portraits they draw. I have made a silly pronouncement again that I may join in and make one alongside them, oh dear!

Do I go in dressed like Julie Andrews dance around the room singing about my favourite things – whiskers on kittens and so on? Maybe not but the thought is entertaining. It was of course a very easy thing to ask the children to write a list of their favourite things, but then walking back I wondered what on earth I would put down.

Favourite things, how do you limit what they are. Are they things which have influenced one, and are favourite things what actually make you what you are, who you are? As an ice breaker when doing training or getting to know a committee I used to ask people to talk about their favourite place rather than about themselves, often something that is ‘set apart’ is easier to talk about in a group than going headlong into descriptions of what people do. My favourite place is I think Telegraph Hill in Llysfaen, North Wales. Why? Well associations of happiness, the light, the wind, the broad view one way of the Irish Sea, the other of Snowdonia and rolling hills. I’ve written a piece about it, that probably needs yet another edit.

Some favourite things are feelings, small events, as well as the objects such as films, music, pictures, buildings and of course people. And people change, but after many years they are a part of what makes you, you, even if those relationships have broken down or been forgotten about! I have always like that short section at the end of American Beauty when Kevin Spacey’s character is dying and he sees his wife and child, watches the sky, remembers them, and removes the bad times and sees what is most important.

Dermot Bolger’s A Second Life begins with the main character dying in a car accident and in the death process seeing all the people he knows. He is brought back to life and realises that he doesn’t know one of the people he has seen. As he is adopted he realises that that person was probably his mother and the book is then his search for her. This book, lent to me by a friend, was one of the reasons for me looking for my birth mother.

Do I put that book and film in my favourite things, perhaps, but probably not as they only just came to mind again!

We don’t half ask big questions of children don’t we! We just throw these things in and expect them to deal with it. Their school lives are a collage of contrasting skills to handle. For an hour they struggle with reading and understanding new words; then we expect them to sing a tune they may never have heard before; then tackle new concepts in math; after that perhaps find the capital of Honduras on a map. Whilst we struggle for 8 hours finding the right word in a sentence or colour for a title!

Today’s photographs are taken at around 10.30am. The sun is shining it is just around freezing. One photograph is of Summerbank Primary School where I am doing the art work, the other a splash of paint on a wall.