Archives for June 2012

Martin Amis: success, other people and the state of literature

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Phil Rickman Phil Rickman | 10:30 UK time, Friday, 29 June 2012

Sometimes you could get the idea that Martin Amis is not the most popular man to have come out of Swansea.

In the past few days, I've mentioned him to a writer, a publisher and a literary agent. In each case, you'd have thought we were discussing a particularly inventive serial killer.

Martin Amis in 2006

Martin Amis in 2006

But wait... you didn't know Martin Amis was Welsh? Here's the history.

The distinguished novelist son of the distinguished novelist Kingsley Amis was born while his father was working in south Wales and went to Swansea Grammar School.

Later, when Kingsley's career was soaring, Martin wound up at the public school Charterhouse, attended around the same time by the future rock star Peter Gabriel and the future crime writer Peter James who, in a recent newspaper interview, recalled:

"I was at Charterhouse School with Martin Amis, many years ago. I didn't see him again until an awards ceremony in 2010. I went up and said, 'You might not remember me, but we were at school together.' He said, 'No, I don't remember you - and you only remember me because I'm famous.'"

OK, there was probably some truth in that, but Peter James doesn't take a lofty put-down lightly. His next novel, featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, contained the following passage:

Amis Smallbone was, in Grace's opinion, the nastiest and most malevolent piece of vermin he had ever dealt with. Five foot one inch tall,* with his hair greasily coiffed, dressed summer and winter in natty suits too tight for him, Smallbone exuded arrogance.

See? How many other novelists can claim to attract that level of venom?

Not that Martin Amis had the best of starts. Becoming literary editor of the New Statesman at the age of 27, a couple of years after the publication of his first novel, was never going to endear him to fellow novelists who had to endure 53 publishers' rejections while working for the local council.

Nor, in later years, did his half million pound publisher's advance, secured by the agent known as The Jackal. Or the fact that he spent a substantial chunk of it having his teeth tarted up.

And now - can you believe it? - the oldest upstart in the book business has emigrated to New York and published a novel apparently sneering at Britain's decent, honest yob-culture.

Lionel Asbo is a fairly broad satire about a violent Londoner who looks a bit like Wayne Rooney before the hair-transplant and comes into nearly as much money as Wayne thanks to the Lotto.

I think it's the best Amis in years, demonstrating his talent for profanely-funny dialogue and unexpected descriptions... without those constant reminders that this is a man who's determined to make the English language gratify his every peculiar desire.

Looking back, you can see the problem. Amis Snr wrote literary novels, comic novels, crime novels, science fiction, a ghost story and a James Bond. The only way Amis Jnr could follow that was to try and extend the frontiers of literature.

So, after three amusing outings, Martin took to producing books in which the actual writing - and therefore the writer - emerged as vastly more significant than the subject or even the theme.

Sometimes it even worked. Often, it didn't. He came off the rails most disastrously, I thought, with Night Train, a hard-boiled American cop novel which pretended to be more important than the books it borrowed from and was actually kind of embarrassing.

His last one, The Pregnant Widow just... went on and on about the kind of upper class people you hoped you'd never have to meet.

You wouldn't actually want to meet Lionel either, but you'd enjoy listening to him in the pub, preferably from a table near the door. This is a novel with a good story, a lot of laughs and an unexpectedly suspenseful ending.

Prior to interviewing Martin Amis for this Sunday's Phil the Shelf, I wondered if he was going to accuse me, with a dismissive sneer, of only saying that because he was famous.

In fact, as you can hear in the programme, he was OK. And I came away thinking he'd become just like the rest of us: worrying about getting it right and giving the readers a good time... and not entirely sure that he was going to crack it this time.

*Martin Amis - as I now know by being able to look him more or less directly in the eye - is actually about five foot six... but you get the idea.

Listen to Phil the Shelf on BBC Radio Wales on Sunday from 5.30pm.

Owen Sheers pens film noir thriller inspired by Dylan Thomas

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Laura Chamberlain Laura Chamberlain | 09:22 UK time, Friday, 29 June 2012

A film noir thriller by Welsh writer Owen Sheers, which takes its inspiration from Dylan Thomas' final visit to America in 1953 before his death, has been snapped up by a UK production company.

Sheers' screenplay, entitled A Visit To America, has been acquired by the London and west Wales based Western Edge Pictures.

Owen Sheers. Photo © Charlotte Medlicott

Owen Sheers. Photo © Charlotte Medlicott

Set in 1953 in New York, the film's protagonist is a private detective. With his life in personal and professional crisis he takes on a new assignment for Time Magazine, who have tasked him with gathering evidence to defend a libel case brought against them by a British writer.

The British, or rather Welsh, writer is none other than Dylan Thomas, who has been named by the magazine in an article as a lecherous drunk; a label to which he has taken litigious exception.

Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas

The story follows the detective as he trails Thomas around the city detailing his behaviour and gathering evidence of his drinking, one would assume rather easily given his reputation, to use in the case.

Yet he is soon captivated by the poetry of the Welsh author, and as the blurb from the film's notes states, "the poet's words draw him in and start to cast his own torment in a new light."

Western Edge plan to shoot the film in New York in 2013 ready for a release date in 2014, which marks the centenary of the poet's birth in Swansea in October 1914. The film will link up with numerous Dylan Thomas centenary events in the UK and around the globe in celebration of the anniversary.

The chief executive officer of Western Edge Pictures is Vaughan Sivell, who grew up in west Wales. He said:

“It’s really exciting to be working with Owen on a project that will showcase such a great Welsh writing talent and Thomas’ impact in the States in a really creative and unusual way - it feels very much in the rebellious spirit of Thomas himself."

The production company were behind the 2010 film Third Star, which was largely filmed in location in Pembrokeshire and notably the beautiful Barafundle Bay. Take a look back at a gallery of photos from the film on the BBC Wales Arts website.

The film will mark Sheers' third foray into the cinematic world following Resistance (2011) and The Gospel Of Us (2012). The Welsh writer told us:

"This is an idea I've wanted to bring to fruition for many years and I'm thrilled to be developing it with such a dynamic Welsh production company."

Literature festivals in Wales this weekend

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Laura Chamberlain Laura Chamberlain | 15:01 UK time, Thursday, 28 June 2012

Love literature? Love summer festivals? Well you're in for a treat this weekend as three different literary events are taking place in Wales.

First up is the inaugural Dinefwr Literary Festival that takes place across the weekend in the picturesque setting of the National Trust's Dinefwr Park and Castle in Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire.

The festival runs from Friday 29 June to Sunday 1 July. Highlights will include performances by writers Gillian Clarke, Sir Andrew Motion, Howard Marks, Julian Cope and previous Wales Book of the Year winners Deborah Kay Davies, Philip Gross and John Harrison.

Newton House at Dinefwr. Image: National Trust Photo Library

Newton House at Dinefwr. Image courtesy of the National Trust Photo Library/David Norton

Other authors appearing include Joe Dunthorne, Pascale Petit, Alastair Reynolds, Paul Henry, Robert Minhinnick, Wendy Cope, Catherine Fisher and Horatio Clare among many others.

There's a host of musical events happening too, with Gruff Rhys, Emmy The Great, Georgia Ruth, Ghostpoet, Steve Eaves and Jodie Marie all on the line-up.

Weekend and day passes are available - for more information see

Meanwhile, the Beyond the Border storytelling festival returns to St Donat's Castle this weekend. The festival, which has an international feel with participants from across the globe, carries on the oral tradition that has been well versed in Wales over the centuries.

Beyond The Border is Wales' leading international festival of storytelling. The biennial storytelling festival, which began in 1993, celebrates the worlds of myth, legend and folktales with performances by storytellers, musicians, writers and artists from Wales and the world.

There are a number of themes running at this year's festival in addition to the individual artist performances. These include celebrating 200 years of Grimm's Fairy Tales and honouring the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

Plus there's a look at journeys along the Silk Road and an exploration of the myths and legends of Celtic Britain.

Beyond the Border in 2010. Photo: James Mendelssohn

Beyond the Border in 2010. Photo: James Mendelssohn

The art of storytelling is not a new one in Wales as the country has enjoyed a long history with the tradition: it was known as the cyfarwyddyd in medieval Wales. Wales can also boast an impressive literary history, with examples of texts dating back to the sixth century: browse articles on early Welsh literature on the BBC Wales Arts website.

Beyond the Border runs from Friday 29 June until Sunday 1 July. For the full line-up and ticket information visit

Finally, Busk on the Usk is a one day festival on Saturday taking place at the Riverfront Theatre and the City Campus of the University of Wales, Newport. It is the Welsh Contemporary Music contribution to the London 2012 Festival, but the festival also has a number of discussions and literary readings.

The team behind the Laugharne Weekend have helped to organise the literary side of the festival with authors including Pauline Black, Malcolm Pryce and musician, artist and writer Jon Langford on the line-up.

All the events at Busk on the Usk are free but ticketed, so for more information and the full line-up visit

The Exhibitionists and the National Museum Wales

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BBC Wales Arts BBC Wales Arts | 12:34 UK time, Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A new series where the National Museum Wales challenges the public to create their own exhibition from its treasures begins tonight at 10pm on BBC Two Wales.

David Anderson, director general at the museum, talks about the challenges the museum faced in taking part in the series, and what they hoped it would achieve by opening its doors to the cameras and contestants.

The five contestants from The Exhibitionists

The five contestants from The Exhibitionists at the National Museum in Cardiff

This week marks the end of an exciting few months for National Museum Cardiff, of working on the new BBC Cymru Wales series The Exhibitionists. It's the end of the road in terms of filming but just the beginning of the journey for viewers of the programme, our museum visitors and other keen curators.

Cwmni Da approached the museum back in September last year about the possibility of working in partnership with them on a television series, which gave members of the public access to the national art collection. Five exhibitionists would compete against each other for the opportunity to curate their own show at the museum. Although members of the public are welcome to come and see the collections in our secure stores, we've never worked with visitors in this way before!

Of course, there was some nervousness initially from the museum about taking part in a series described as a cross between The Apprentice and MasterChef. Our policy is to encourage new talent and skills and not pass judgement, which is why I turned down the invitation to become the ‘Alan Sugar’ of the programme! That role was given to two independent mentors, Osi Rhys Osmond and Karen MacKinnon who I've got to know well through this process.

I was, however, asked to listen to the hopeful candidates' ideas about their potential exhibitions, and was blown away by their fresh approach and stories which they drew from the national collection. I think all five participants deserved to curate their own exhibition at the Museum but for this series, there had to be a winner!

Until 19 August, National Museum Cardiff is home to an inspiring exhibition, curated by the two finalists of The Exhibitionists. Both have interpreted the collections in a new way, and haven't been afraid to share their own views and personal stories through their displays.

I've always wanted to undertake a project like this, which sees members of the public engaging with our collections, learn new skills and being a part of museum life. People's perceptions of art and galleries are varied. What we hope to achieve through this project is to convince other members of the public that art is relevant to them too.

I've already been asked if the museum would undertake a project like this again – The Exhibitionists Two? We believe this concept is a first for museums across the UK and would very much like to see it develop. I'm hoping Cwmni Da and BBC Cymru Wales will return to Amgueddfa Cymru, to delve into another part of the nation's collections maybe.

Tune in to the first episode on Wednesday, 27 June, BBC Two Wales.

You can see the paintings featured in the series on the Your Paintings website.

National Library prepares for Christopher Williams retrospective

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Laura Chamberlain Laura Chamberlain | 15:46 UK time, Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Staff at the National Library of Wales are gearing up for a major new retrospective of the works of Maesteg-born artist Christopher Williams.

The retrospective, which will feature around 150 paintings by the artist, is currently being set up at the Aberystwyth library ahead of the opening in July.

Inspecting a painting by Williams

Inspecting a painting by Williams

Removing one of Williams' pieces from Maesteg Town Hall

Removing one of Williams' pieces from Maesteg Town Hall

The curation of such a large exhibition sounds wonderfully artistic and creative doesn't it?

Yet there's some manual labour involved in the process too, if these pictures sent by the team at the National Library are anything to go by.

Williams is perhaps best known for his imposing classical subjects, including The Awakening of Wales and his large scale classical interpretations of the Mabinogion.

He was also a notable portrait painter and was commissioned to paint the portraits of important figures of the day, such as David Lloyd George, and commemorative paintings such as the Investiture of Edward, Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle in 1911.

This retrospective will also show more the spontaneous paintings that Williams made of the Welsh coast, some of which have never been seen, which give an insight into the artist's personality and his love of Wales.

Removing one of Williams' pieces from Maesteg Town Council

Removing one of Williams' pieces from Maesteg Town Council

Williams gifted many of his paintings to his home town, so the library has been busy transporting many of the paintings from Maesteg in readiness for the exhibition.

Pieces from private and public collections have also been gathered for the retrospective.

The sheer size of some of the paintings going on show make manoeuvring them into position a little tricky: when was the last time you had to erect a scaffold to remove a painting from the wall in your front room?

The exhibition, Christopher Williams 1873-1934: A Retrospective, will run from 7 July until 22 September 2012 and will be officially opened by artist and former MP Kim Howells on Saturday 14 July.

Howells presented the 2011 BBC Wales series Framing Wales, which featured Williams and his works. Watch this clip from the series, in which he talks to Robert Meyrick, head of Aberystwyth School of Art, about the artist.

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Fear and loathing in the Green Room

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Phil Rickman Phil Rickman | 10:41 UK time, Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Ten days at the Hay Festival can be like living in that old TV series where everybody in the street is famous. After a while you become almost celeb-blind. If not exactly celeb-deaf.

The Artists' Green Room is a tent with sofas and a garden outside, where nobody seems to pay for a drink. I walked in there yesterday in search of Martin Amis, past a table where actor Tom Hollander of Rev was sitting on his own, apparently rehearsing a script - aloud.

The day before, we had to squeeze past Bettany Hughes, Simon Schama and Tony Robinson, deep in discussion over something historical - presumably.

You also pick up snippets of conversation, like this one from BBC arts boss Alan Yentob on his mobile: "Is Salman here yet?"

Sometimes, they can get right up your nose. Last Friday I interviewed Eva Gabrielsson, long-time partner of the late Stieg Larsson, of Dragon Tattoo fame, on stage in front of an audience of about 500. We'd also arranged to record a long interview with Eva for Radio Wales, and producer Tracy Cardwell had reserved a little relatively-soundproof shed known as the Shepherd's Hut which is there specifically for the likes of us radio people.

Except it was already in use.

'It's Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary,' were we told. 'He had to take an Important Phone Call in private.'

This was rumoured to be from David Cameron but, hell, Ed Davey could have gone anywhere to take it on his mobile. Eva Gabrielsson had flown from Chicago the previous night and hadn't had any lunch. Plus Ed was keeping his own audience waiting.

After 15 minutes, I was about to storm in and throw him out of the shed, but he'd locked the door from the inside.

And that's why, when you eventually hear our long interview with Eva Gabrielsson, you might detect the sounds of a crowd of celebs chatting and clinking glasses. We had to record in the Green Room, made even less radio-friendly by the tent frame clanging under the force of torrential rain and a rising wind.

As Ed Davey is also the minister for Climate Change, I'm blaming him for that, too.

Our next interview was with Bafta-winning screenwriter and director Bruce Robinson, so we took no chances. As Bruce only lives a few miles out of Hay, we went to his place.

This is a remote farmhouse where you have to cross a bridge over a rushing stream to get to the front door. A bridge which, according to local legend, was crossed by Johnny Depp, star of Bruce's latest movie, The Rum Diary, an adaptation of the first novel by the late Hunter S Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Bruce wouldn't formally admit that Depp had actually come to Hay before they started shooting, but local people remain convinced that he did and I'm one of them, so you can count on it.

Either way, when we run the programme, you'll be able to hear some very amusing anecdotes about JD and the equally rich Keith Richards.

And later, on Phil the Shelf, you can hear Martin Amis. I did find him in the end. But guess what...
...the damn Shepherd's Hut was locked from the inside again.

So you can listen to Martin's erudite commentary on the writing of his very funny new novel Lionel Asbo over the clinking of wine-glasses, celebrity chat... and possibly Tom Hollander in rehearsal.


Eighty thousand gather for jubilee celebrations... at Hay

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Phil Rickman Phil Rickman | 10:36 UK time, Friday, 8 June 2012

So here I am at the Hay Festival, pale, blinking and practically word-blind.

One of an estimated 80,000 people expected to hit this massive site (on the Brecon Road, just past the fire station, if you haven't been before) by Sunday night.

It's the 25th festival - yes, another jubilee - and I suppose I must've covered most of the others for BBC Wales. And every year I forget how much work is involved.

We don't just turn-up, you know - doorstep people with the microphone: 'So, Martin Amis... you've done a new novel. What's it about, then?'

I mean, how insulting is that? Most of the authors here have spent over a year on their books. The least you can do, pre-interview, is read them. Which is a lot of reading. Usually about three weeks' worth. And I've still got three more books to get through before weekend - Martin Amis, Tony Robinson and Julian Clary, if you must know.

Realistically, the most one man can handle is about 20 books, covering a mere fraction of the 500-plus events, but more than enough for the hour-long Haylights programme scheduled for BBC Radio Wales on Sunday.

How do we choose? We usually have a generally theme running through it. Like, one year both Archbishop Rowan Williams and evangelical atheist Richard Dawkins were here, so I went round asking all the celebs one question: God or Dawkins? As I recall, only David Miliband declined to answer, so I think we know where he stood.

This year, appropriately enough for a 25th anniversary, the theme looks like being Hay itself. On Saturday, we talked to the Mayor of London about his book Johnson's Life Of London, in which Boris discusses all the people who've made London what it is today - ie the most influential city in the world.

But what's the most influential town? Could it be Hay, the only place outside London to house a monarch? We're aiming to look at several other reasons why Hay could be the most important town in the world, through the eyes of writers, musicians and other People Who Count.

It's surprising how many of them have made their homes in this one-time obscure agricultural backwater. People like cult movie writer and director Bruce Robinson (Johnny Depp was round his place a while ago) and Britpop pioneer Alan McGee. Bestselling novelist Mark Haddon spends holidays in the Black Mountains, where his new one The Red House is set. It describes Hay's Cinema Bookshop as a Battersea Books' Home.

Of course, King Richard Booth is not seen around as much as he used to be, due to health problems, so the last week has seen him handing over most of his workload to the first Prince of Hay. Another secondhand bookseller, Derek Addyman, apparently is Richard's illegitimate son, following a short-lived relationship with a scullery maid at the castle.

In true Prince Charles tradition, Prince Derek has emerged in a blaze of controversy by attempting to get ebooks banned from Hay, which has recently lost nearly a fifth of its 30-plus bookshops as more readers pack their Kindles to go on holiday. A banner now flies in the town announcing that Kindles are banned from the Kingdom of Hay.

Banner in Hay banning the Kindle ereader

I've been looking round, and so far I haven't seen a single Kindle at the Hay Festival where, when they're not attending an event, people do tend to read - sitting in deckchairs, lying on the grass, waiting for lunch in one of the eateries.

It's like being in some pre-digital time-capsule.

New BBC Cymru Wales arts series The Exhibitionists

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BBC Wales Arts BBC Wales Arts | 10:00 UK time, Thursday, 7 June 2012

What happens when a national museum opens its stores of treasures to members of the public and challenges them to curate their own art exhibition for the very first time?

A new BBC Cymru Wales programme reveals exactly what as it collaborates with Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales in a ground-breaking TV series launched today (Thursday 7 June) at the Hay Festival, Hay on Wye.

The contestants from The Exhibitionists

The five contestants from the new series The Exhibitionists

Soon to be broadcast on BBC Two Wales, The Exhibitionists is a four-part series which follows five individuals with no formal art background as they are set a series of tasks. It is the first time a museum has allowed such extraordinary access to its important art collection for members of the public to handle, discuss, and put on show.

The National Museum displays an outstanding collection of art that includes Van Gogh, Monet, Turner and Picasso as well as many hundreds of lesser known figures. But in the museum's secure stores is the rest of the collection, some works of art that the public very rarely get to see, until now. The five exhibitionists will be given unprecedented access to these paintings, sculptures and ceramics as they compete against each other for the final goal - their own show at National Museum Cardiff.

Helping them along the way are two esteemed figures in the Welsh art world. Osi Rhys Osmond is a highly respected Welsh painter and a lecturer at Swansea Metropolitan University. Karen MacKinnon is Exhibitions Curator at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, and has curated shows all over the world including the Wales pavilion at the most prestigious art show in the world, The Venice Biennale.

Art exhibitions can take several years to plan by professional curators, but the museum's next display is in the hands of the final two competitors of the series. The two finalists will have their own exhibition in the National Museum's new wing for modern and contemporary art, Gallery 24, from 23 June to 19 August, and it's those who visit the Gallery who choose the winner, as they are asked to vote for their favourite.

"I'm confident people will engage with The Exhibitionists and enjoy following their trials and tribulations as they compete to see their own exhibitions on show at the National Museum," says Phillip Moss, Commissioning Executive BBC Cymru Wales.

"BBC Cymru Wales is committed to supporting the arts in all its forms, and this exciting and original series is the first of a wide range of TV arts output from BBC Cymru Wales this summer."

David Anderson, Director General of Amgueddfa Cymru features in the series. He says:

"This series demonstrates how art and the nation's art collection, is relevant to everyone. It is a unique opportunity for five people from Wales to fully engage with staff at the Museum and experience, first hand, the role of a curator."

Also revealed for the first time at the launch were the Exhibitionists themselves. They are:

  • Julia Manser, from Swansea - a charity sector worker and keen Swansea City FC follower
  • Darren Edgley, a florist from Colwyn Bay who has a keen interest in tapestry and embroidery
  • Efa Thomas, a musician and Cardiff journalism student originally from Criccieth
  • Richard Simmonds from Monmouthshire, a factory worker and quiz master who enjoys karaoke
  • Colin Popp, a retired carpenter from Dowlais and a raconteur at the local antiques store.

The series is produced by the Gwynedd-based Cwmni Da TV company.

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