Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Travel Memoir and Landscape

It is seldom that bloggers as writers get the recognition they deserve. That's why I'm so keen for the course I'm co-tutoring at Ty Newydd writing centre to be a success.

There are still places available and because of some special bursaries Ty Newydd can now offer places at about half price.  So if you'll excuse what might appear to be a little self promotion, please consider if you or anyone you know might like to come along.
Feel free to blog it, tweet it, Facebook it, whatever .. even better, make a booking.

The course is an ideal opportunity to develop your writing in the company of like minded others,. For anyone whose not been to Ty Newydd or an Arvon centre before, it's a chance to write in a wonderful location supported by enthusiastic and talented tutors - and for a bargain price.

For further details phone or  email Ty Newydd at post@tynewydd.org Tel: 01766 522811, or visit the website on  http://www.tynewydd.org/english/home.html

Landscape Travel and Memoir - From Blogs to Books
October 24 - 29  
Rory Maclean and Mark Charlton
Guests: Fiona Robyn and Zoe Dawes
Residential from £250 (shared room) £300 (single room)

In October the acclaimed travel writer Rory Maclean joins the family, landscape and nature blogger Mark Charlton on a journey from books to blogs and back again. Through workshops, tutorials and discussions, Rory and Mark will look at how to create engaging and personal writing, exploring the potential for publication in both new media and more traditional forms.

The course is suitable for anyone interested in travel, landscape and memoir – whether that be through journals, essays, poetry or fiction. Both tutors are regular bloggers and have a particular interest in how the Internet and electronic publishing can compliment traditional publishing and create opportunities for new writers to reach a wider audience.

RORY MACLEAN is one of Britain's most expressive and adventurous travel writers.  His eight books include award-winners Stalin's Nose, Under the Dragon, Magic Bus (Penguin) and now, in a moving departure, Gift of Time (Constable) about his mother's final journey. Every week he writes a provocative, personal blog from Berlin.http://blog.goethe.de/meet-the-germans

 is one of Wales’ most acclaimed bloggers; his Views From The Bike shed has been widely praised for the both the quality of its writing and it’s honest, reflective style. Mark’s first book, described as a journey into fatherhood and landscape, will be published by Cinnamon Press in 2012.

Guest Readers:
Fiona Robyn's most recent novel Thaw, was published as both traditional book and a daily blog. She is a prolific writer, tutor and founder of the online writers network, Writing Our Way Home.

Zoe Dawes was recently named as Britain’s Best Travel Blogger. Her Quirky Traveler website has opened a huge variety of travel and writing opportunities that show the possibilities of new media for aspiring writers. http://www.thequirkytraveller.com

Sunday, September 25, 2011


 Estuary - M Charlton

I went to Laugharne the other Sunday. Every week I pass the sign at St Clears and yet it must have been five years since I last made the turn. The sky was dull as ash, drizzle on the windscreen; I quite fancy being underwhelmed, I said.

All day I'd taken quirky turns, zig-zagging my way eastward, even driving through Whitland for the heck of it. If you're familiar with Whitland you'll know how peculiar that is; if you don't, you probably get the picture. But in fact I rather like those bypassed towns you find throughout Wales - I mean the  term figuratively, though in the case of Whitland it happens to be literal too.

Laugharne isn't so much bypassed as at the end of the road.  It sits a mile of so from the mouth of the Avon Taf; round the point is Pendine Sands and eventually I suppose Tenby though few would go that way. If you took a boat in the opposite direction you'd glimpse Llansteffan which occupies much the same position on the neighbouring Towy. The two rivers mix their silts before reaching the sea aside the eerie and little visited west coast of Gower. It's what Dylan Thomas called the Heron Priested Shore. I've always thought it feels like reaching the end of one of his more turgid numbers.

You can probably tell I'm not a fan - of Llaugharne I mean; my son's named after the poet even if he does go on. Maybe that's what I don't like - all the fuss about a house he lived in for four years and a writing shed that would admittedly be a fine place to sleep off a hangover, but is hardly worth the trip. I've never liked those literary tourist trails - to me it's the words that count; the rest is pretty much incidental.

Except the landscape, to be fair that's important too. And last Sunday the tide was out and the spreading delta was covered in pale sea grass, spotted with gulls and the odd curlew. The sun broke through the purpling clouds, light shifted across the flats, and the serpentine river, deep in its sticky trough half a mile from the shore, sparkled with blue. It wasn't exactly sapphires and emeralds, but then Wales is never like that and I wouldn't want it so. What mattered was for the first time I saw the Laugharne estuary as something more than a tea stain and a misty horizon. I strolled with Jane to the boat house, past the castle that sits on a plinth of liver coloured sandstone, through the woods where Thomas walked on his thirtieth year to heaven.

There's a running feud between Laugharne and the fishing port of New Quay in Cardiganshire. Not literally of course, but as to which was the basis for Under Milk Wood. Thomas had lived in them both at one time or other. Laugharne can lay claim to cockle pickers, but there's hardly a fishing boat bobbing sea - even at high tide it's more of a shifting shoreline. My money has always been on Newquay, and when I saw, in the main street of nearby Aberaeron, that there's a Manchester House (home of Mog Edwards, the draper) it cliched it for me.

Laugharne's one main street is in a state of constant renovation such that I've never seen it without scaffolding. Browns Hotel, famous as Dylan's favourite taproom, is similarly closed and being done up; opposite is quite possibly the most miserable secondhand bookshop in Wales. There are few trinket shops and the ubiquitous SPAR in what passes as a square. The actor Neil Morrissey bought three pubs here a few years back - it ended in tears and debts and stories in the paper. The whole place feels like the tide has washed through it once too often.

Jane thought differently, she liked the Georgian buildings, and wondered why the street was so grand; why so few vernacular cottages? I understood what she meant, there is a sense of something different here, but to me it's something not quite right. As we peered through the windows of Castle House - all high ceilings and fancy plaster - it struck me I could just as easily be in Bath. I have no idea how much Welsh was spoken here, but the castle was in English hands for centuries and I wonder if Laugharne hasn't always has that split identity.

I should say in fairness, 'what do I know?' All towns and landscapes take time to understand, familiarity is essential to all but the most fleeting response. There are parts of Wales much scruffier than Laugharne, with less to offer and with far less Welshness about them - yet I like them very much.  That's not a cop out, it's an observation that passing through on a Sunday afternoon you can't hope for more than a superficial impression - and we should always be wary of that. Maybe Laugharne is like its estuary and there are rich pickings under the silt.

We left as the sky returned to ash; our journey home in ever heavier rain. Jane asked if I'd been suitably underwhelmed? Enough for another five years, I quipped. In a way I wish I liked Laugharne more than I do; if nothing else it's a place to stop before the motorway - before the reluctant though inevitable journey east.

Red Surf - M Charlton

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Clear September sky

The path from Whitesands to Abereiddy traces one of the longest unbroken stretches of the North Pembrokeshire Coast. For nine miles there is no access by car and with the exception of the smugglers cove at Pwll Caeorg the cliffs maintain their height throughout. At this time of year atlantic grey seals come here to pup and breed. It's the inaccessibility of the rock beaches they favour, seemingly untroubled by the storms that scour the granite and slate of all but barnacles.

Jane and I walked their yesterday. We saw the first seals at Porth Lleog, barely two hundred yards after leaving the car; they were two females, lolling on their backs in the sunlit surf. It was one of those breezy mornings, a jade sea, spotted with the shadows of scurrying clouds; bright one minute, showers the next.

To the west of Carn Llidi  is a hidden valley of ancient stones and feral ponies. It shortcuts St David's Head and leads to the sheltered cove of Gesail Fawr, which my minimal Welsh translates as the big armpit!  Here we saw our first pups, four of them sleeping on the rocks, their mothers basking in the clear water under the hundred foot cliffs. Two of the pups looked new born, a third so plump its features had lost all definition; the fourth, older again, had fur that was mottling from cream to grey.

By now the sun had chased away the showers and the breeze was at our backs. We made good progress toward Penberry, passing a few walkers on a sponsored hack. There were gulls and rock pigeons on the cliffs, a great skua floating in one of the bays - and on the landside, the last of the wheatears, their little 'white-arses' (their old country name) flashing across the field stubble.

Beyond Penberry we watched a kestrel hovering over the bracken. They are surprisingly scarce in Pembrokeshire, their inland territories lost to buzzards and kites - one birder told me the increasing numbers of goshawks played a part too. But they thrive at the coast and I often see them at the Head or the Porthgain quarries near my house. Of all birds of prey I think kestrels are my favourite; they remind me of my blind grandfather, his gnarled hands holding mine as we'd walk each other to the scrub fields by his house; windhovers he used to call them.

Beyond Penberry the path had been strimmed and I wondered aloud if it was a way of managing the wild flowers. Probably not, but it sounded plausible. As the sun warmed the bracken some butterflies came out: a small copper, a common blue, three tortoiseshells. I was telling Jane that it's been a poor year for butterflies, the numbers in the national count down by 11%. 'You know,' I said, 'I haven't seen a painted lady all summer. Two years ago, there were thousands passing here on a mass migration.'  And no sooner had I stopped talking than one opened its wings on the rocks by my feet, its auburn wings edged with scales of black mascara. That alone would alone have made my day.

There was a seal pup at Pwll Caerog too. We didn't realise at first, mistaking it for a rock in the stream that trickles to the pebbles. A young couple on the beach pointed it out. They were camping at the bunkhouse they said, but they had to dash because their friend was getting married in a hour - on the campsite above the cliffs. Jane and I were married  twenty years ago this week - we were meant to go to Rome but work intervened. Instead we came here, eating flapjacks and drinking tap water from a plastic bottle as we listened to the pup's mother calling in the bay.

At Abereiddy we bought mugs of tea from the van that is always there. The storms of a fortnight ago had carried thousands of rocks to the lip of the breakwater; the beach, normally black with shale, was a glistening ochre. 'Give me a kiss,' said Jane, 'and don't you dare pull away.'  The surf was spoiling in the wind and I could hear the jackdaws reeling above Blue Lagoon quarry. When I opened my eyes, the pools of an ebbing tide were bright in a clear September sky.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Books I'm reading # 11 - nature writing, new and old

It's a while since I've written a books post, and meanwhile I've read so many that I'm going to chose carefully. I'm also going to try (and no doubt fail) to tread carefully because there's a certain unease in reviewing a selection of 'new nature' books, when you're soon to publish something akin to it yourself.

I'm not sure there's a sustainable definition of 'new nature' writing. But for now, let's assume its signature is a mix of person and place: 'new nature' goes beyond mere description to include the author as central protagonist; it's as much a personal as a geographic journey. A couple of years ago Granta  published an edition dedicated to the genre, including pieces from some of its high priests, notably Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places, Mountains of the Mind), and Roger Deakin (Waterlog, Wildwood, Notes From Walnut Tree Farm).

Also included in that Granta selection was Kathleen Jamie, whose book Findings is a collection of essays based largely in the Scotland Highlands. Jamie is a poet and, as with many of the new nature writers, her command of language is enviable. The book starts with Darkness and Light, an amiable enough essay that moves between islands and mainland, churches and shopping malls, before settling on the ancient tomb of Maes Howe. It's a promising introduction, with hints of the reflection and observation that makes for good nature writing.

The trouble is, not much more follows; each subsequent essay (on peregrines, salmon, corn crakes, skylines, even Surgeon's Hall ) left me increasingly dissatisfied. Exactly what was she trying to say, I wondered? And in the end, I concluded, 'not a lot'.  That's a touch harsh, and there will be those who'll delight in her lyrical skill, but ultimately I wasn't sad to put the book down. I had to reread sections to remind myself for this brief review - never a good sign.

If I found Jamie's book disappointing, then Olivia Laings, To The River, was doubly so - at least on first attempt. And that, after I'd heard her talk at a local literature festival and rather liked her. The book describes a week-long journey down the Ouse in Sussex; it's the classic 'new nature' blend of  observation and personal story, padded with lots of research material - the Ouse is famous for the death of Virginia Woolf, the Battle of Lewes, Henry III and various other historical and literary connections which Laing weaves into the progress of her journey. The trouble - and I accept that others might take a different view - is that this deviation from the immediate experience is what I so dislike and mistrust about much of the 'new nature' genre.

In, To The River, Laing uses the landscape as a stage to display how intelligent and well read she is - a form that's been perfected by writers like Macfarlane (who coincidentally wrote the cover puff for the book) and Deakin. The trouble is, I don't care! And I'm not very interested in Virginia Woolf or Kenneth Grahame or King Harold - and if I were, I'd look them up elsewhere; probably in the same books that she did. What I'm interested in, is Laing's journey, her relationship with the Ouse, her perceptions of the river and her response to the wider landscape. I recognise that, at times, this might include her interest in Woolf or history or whatever, but for me, the balance is all wrong - and frankly, it doesn't ring true.

After abandoning the book I returned to it a few weeks later, and in fairness, if I skipped through the research material I began to enjoy her writing. Laing walked the Ouse having broken off a long standing relationship, and as her journey progresses the river becomes a metaphor for what she has lost, but also for new possibilities; for the sense that our past is always part of our present. And to my mind, this is the territory in which she is strongest, and of which I wanted to read more - she is also a fine observer with some echos of Annie Dillard in her writing. To my surprise, I found myself rather sad when she and the river had reached the sea.

The third book in this nature selection is the much lauded Edgelands, by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts. It was a book I'd looked forward to reading. Their idea was to explore those landscapes we often disregard - the railway sidings, car parks, industrial scrublands, derelict canals and brown field sites that fringe our towns and countryside - it seemed full of possibility. Sadly, the outcome is one of the most dreadfully pretentious books I've ever picked up. Strong stuff, but if Laing typifies the tendency to use the landscape as an excuse for other material, this book takes the concept to a new level. Behold the Emporer's new clothes!

This isn't a book, as its sub-title claims, about England's lost wilderness; it's a book about Farley and Roberts and how smashingly literate and clever they are. I don't believe for a moment that they have spent much time in the 'edgelands', and certainly not before they researched this nonsense. I have an image of the two of them wandering round a Midlands scrapyard on a drizzling Saturday, trying desperately to imbue some meaning before the rain comes on.. 'This reminded me of Yeats,' says one. 'I was thinking, TS Elliot,' the other replies...  at which point they nod and rush to their car as a group of yobs hurl stones in their direction.

Beyond it's over intellectualising, Edgelands also suffers from a peculiar format, in that it is two authors writing as one voice - evidently this was a conscious decision. The consequence is that there is never mention of 'I' - all observations are at a remove, deconstructed, extrapolated... For me, who comes from a Romantic tradition - who believes that our response, if it is true, will connect with others - this is a singular failing. Arguably, it takes the book outside the 'new nature' tradition, and given that I regard Edgelands as one of the silliest books I've read in years, I'm not sad about that at all.

After those three selections I was feeling a touch dejected. So let's concude with some old nature writing and two books which after I'd finished them, put me in a brighter frame of mind.

Robert Lockley's Letters from Skokolm is exactly what the title says - a series of letters to his brother in law John Buxton (also an excellent nature writer), written during the War. Skokholm is a bleak little island to the south of Skomer where Lockley made his home as a crofter in the Thirties. The letters give an intimate picture of Lockley's life there, of the birds and other wildlife, of his love of the place, his delight in the wild. The writing is not brilliant, at times the letters are repetitive, the images and words a little staid - and yet it reads true. It's not an vehicle for cleverness, just an honest story, simply told.

And lastly, William Condry's Welsh Country Essays. I'd long known of the late Bill Condry, the former Guardian nature diarist, but hadn't read many of his essays. These are the stuff of brilliance: sharp and heartfelt, deeply rooted in the landscape and beautiful in their simplicity. Condry is the George Orwell of the natural world - watching, wondering and gently educating as describes what he finds, and how it makes him feel. His writing is the sort that makes you pause for breath as well as thought. There's little if any research material in these essays, just a deep knowledge of Wales and what it means to be close to a land he loves. Utterly believable and absorbing. It cheered me up no end.