Januarys blog features an interview with prize winning author Robert Minhinnick
Island of Lightning collects together various kinds of writing about countries and places almost too numerous to mention, and yet there’s a coherence to the book. One of the reasons for this is a series of what appear at first to be occasional reports – ‘The Way They See It At Buba’s’, ‘The Outlook from Felin Gwcw’ and, in its way, ‘nok, nok, nokia on Heaven’s Door’ in Finland. What's the idea about these snapshots from and about a certain place and how do they fit into the greater scheme of the book?
Places are important to me. Their uniqueness compels me to write. One technique is to concentrate on one image. Thus Zagreb became a run down restaurant /bar. The people described are Buba habitués. I’ve been there on two visits and know it as part of ‘old Zagreb’, imperiled, maybe vanished. Because places disappear, as people do.
That essay also deals with Croatian fascism, the kind of writing that doesn’t interest me now, because it requires broad brushstrokes and research that dates horribly. Increasingly I’m a miniaturist, seeking concentration, trying to celebrate the particularity of life.
Felin Gwcw is my past: a ruined cottage in Cwrt Colman where I trespassed as a boy. I went back deliberately to write the piece. Heaven’s Door is the literary life as it was for me, and has a strong satirical flavour. It’s my attempt to say thanks for the aeroplane ticket, festival and Russian champagne. Again based on real people, this time writers and Finnish alcoholics who spoke chasteningly good English.
The book is full of a writer’s travels, from the US to Huangshan to Buenos Aires. (Yes, I’ve done a huge amount to contribute to climate change.) Equally important are distinctive parts of Wales: Felin Gwcw and Corris, while Cynffig is part of my ‘Mouth to Mouth’ writings, about the four miles between the mouths of the Ogwr and Cynffig rivers.
The scheme behind the book is trusting the detail, whether it’s satirically or imagistically expressed, and relying on my own eye to find that detail. The places might seem arbitrary but they’re not. This writing says ‘I was there. I saw and thought this.’ A kind of autobiography. Usually the process remains the same: look closely and then more closely. Magnify what’s seen.
Also, Island of Lightning coincides with my editorship of Poetry Wales, 1997-2007. Almost half the individual essays began as editorial pieces. When you’re a literary editor you’re obliged to write regularly. A magazine without an editorial is a car without first gear.
You talk about Wales and about travel as being central to the book (or perhaps journeying would be a better description), and in one of the longer the two come together. Provocatively titled ‘I Know Another Way’, this is also a walk through some of Wales’s industrial, cultural and literary heritage, and for me one of the most moving pieces in Island of Lightning. Is it fair comment to say that it is a reconciliation of past and contemporary Wales? You seem to be looking for signifiers of what it has been and is to be Welsh. ‘
I Know Another Way’ is an excellent title – that of a Gomer anthology about pilgrimage I contributed to in 2002. Also part of it is ‘Coal’ from To Babel and Back. Really it’s about my father (“the thin man”) and I travelling together.
Albert Minhinnick died in 1996, but he’s always in my head. He used to drive me to readings, especially all over the valleys of south Wales. He took pride in knowing how to get to places mysterious to me. But we also went to the Ty Newydd Writing Centre. It was a great experience to go with him into deepest Gwynedd: two Glamorgan men out of their element.
Of course ‘I Know…’ is imbued with weather, natural history, geology. But also with the realisation that change undercuts experience. Great change makes people doubt themselves, the truth they live by. What you remember is the past, and that’s subverted. Supermarkets, heritage centres, new roads stand where there were mines. A cliché, but true. Deal with it.
Albert worked for the National Coal Board in Tondu where he met my mother. His father was an Area Manager and people still enquire about my name, remembering ‘Minhinnick’ as a big boss.
Tondu has vanished utterly, the demise of coal staggeringly rapid. I’m a child of coal and can never forget it. Life after coal is less serious, more uncertain. Albert was a writer of short stories, indeed we were all writers when I was growing up in Penyfai. I think it’s inevitable a writer celebrates or bemoans his roots.
And “the thin man”? Albert weighed under eight stones when he returned from Burma in 1947. From then on he had malaria all his life. So, fevers and dreams have a big part in my writing. Lightning also contains ‘What They Take’ which is about my own meningitis…
I think that answer certainly gives a flavour of the variety of which Island of Lightning is comprised. It’s there in other ways too. I’m intrigued (and excited) by a book which explores with the legacy of Elvis Presley (and his imitators) on the one hand, and recreates the life of Argentinian modernist poet Alfonsina Storni on the other. That’s a creative couple some distance apart…
To me that couple are linked. My daughter, Lucy and her husband, Eamon, are photographers. I worked with them on an Elvis project, writing about the annual festival that takes place in Porthcawl. And they both figure as characters in the writing about Alfonsina.
They were students at the University of Buenos Aires, then lived in that city. I visited them, learning more about BA, the district of Palermo, and Borges, whose work I’ve always loved. He crops up in various ways in the book.
The Elvis essay demanded to be written. The festival dominates the town for a weekend, and is a challenge to a writer. Alfonsina was a poet in what even I considered a male environment, although BA is probably less macho than it was. But both Elvis and Alfonsina were victims, tragic in their ways.
The Alfonsina piece is linked, for me, with ‘CCTV Elegy for Rebecca Storrs’ and ‘Scherezade’ from To Babel and Back, and my versions of Nese Yasin’s poems. They’re about uneasy, even angry women, made unhappy by male constraint.
I mourn Rebecca Storrs and Alfonsina. Their deaths are an indictment of narrow societies. As to the Elvis festivals, I find them unhealthy. They’re saying something terrifying about the culture of sport and artistic impersonation, which always seem to involve hysteria, then intellectual exhaustion.
I find myself part of that culture. Maybe ‘The Key to Annie’s Room’ is an attempt at satirising it. But there is plenty of humour, too, in this collection.
I can certainly see the links between the cultures of the Elvis Fest and the sport of the pungent ‘The Key to Annie’s Room’, which although now almost historical in terms of date is still very much true. The Storni piece (which follows ‘Annie’s Room’ in the book) seems also to look forward to the title essay, an ‘account’ of a visit to Malta. The title – ‘Being a Description of Those I Encountered on my Sojourn on the Island of Lightning’ – sound like we’re going to read something eighteenth century, by Shelley or Byron on the Mediterranean, but the essay soon develops into something much, much more.
Around 2007 I began a residency in Valletta and lived for a month at the Manoel Theatre in Old Mint Street. The only times I’ve ever lived alone are residencies, and both Saskatoon (1994-95) and Malta were profound experiences.
I kept a Valletta notebook, and this long piece evolved. There was a good bookshop and at once I bought a Malti dictionary and translation of The Iliad, using them deliberately for my prose. I was supposed to write poems for the residency, but prose seemed essential.
Valletta was a fascinating maze, a limestone labyrinth. I think the Manoel is one of the oldest baroque theatres in Europe, and I’d listen to orchestral rehearsals, while actors would often knock on my door asking for costumes.
Valletta seemed a city from the Middle East with a layer of UK tat and hordes of English speaking visitors. I write about tat, of course. Porthcawl is full of tat. The Elvis fest, the fairground, with sand concealing so much, plastics and ancient history together, are conducive to Porthcawl dreams.
I’d walk every day in Valletta and explore. The indigo sea surrounded everything. I love Valletta’s cultural mix, but understand poverty is a problem. There was one place I never entered, imagining it a derelict bar. I’ve written about it in this title piece.
Malta is a nexus, a meeting place. It was where I began to formulate the ideas for The Keys of Babylon. In fact I published a story, ‘Omar’s Island’, based on the material in ‘The Island of Lightning’.
I didn’t know what to do with the fifteen thousand words. They began to get cannibalized by other projects. All the street names are Valletta streets, the ship names are vessels I saw in port. The names of the ‘fireflies’ are from a story in The Times, about women in Pompeii.
What I tried to do was imagine various strata of time running together. So we encounter Nelson, the QE2 and Phoenicians at the same moment. That seems possible in Malta, which has some of Europe’s most ancient remains. So there’s a dreamy and fragmentary quality to the piece. Malarial? That’s Albert Minhinnick’s life again, everything after the Fourteenth Army.
Maybe I’ve not been malarial enough in my writing. I’m working now on something that is permeated by dreams, to the extent that dreams and ‘the past’ are indistinguishable. But isn’t that what always happens?
I think the malarial has been an increasing element in your work over (with this hindsight) the past eight or ten years, and it sets you apart from many writers. I’ll certainly be interested to see your next novel, linked to Sea Holly. The variety of genres in which you write – poetry, stories, novels, essays – gives you many entries into your subject matter. It also keeps your writing fresh. You aren’t tied to one genre: you’re not the poet Minhinnick, or the novelist Minhinnick.
I told Carol Ann Duffy I was trying to write another novel. She seemed to think this some sort of betrayal, or an inferior project. But for me a novel is an extraordinary undertaking, surely as complex as directing and editing a film. Also, it’s ‘huge’, requiring total immersion.
Maybe I try things out as poems, then in prose. Thus, there’s the risk of repeating myself. But it’s all part of attempting to ‘get things right’. As I get older I realize it can never be ‘right’. But it’s wonderful to try.
There are parts of Island of Lightning which are poems. But I also want to include ‘poems’ in any future ‘novel’, written out as prose with no indication of being ‘poetry’. Hidden in plain sight.
Sea Holly, I’ve realized, can be a long project. It will be centred on Porthcawl, but permit its characters to be elsewhere. I think the central images of funfair and sand and sea will remain. These are universal, and will challenge new characters.
As I write, the imperative is to create interesting women. I’ve been writing from the perspective of male middle age, but if Sea Holly is to be successful, that has to be expanded.
When we meet we often talk about age and ailments – our parents’, our own – a sure sign that we’re old men now! I wonder if Island of Lightning has reached a certain point, perhaps related to this. Some of the people who populate the book, the Thin Man, Alfonsina, Zigmas, the characters in Malta, have an elemental aspect as well as a grounded humanity. Is there a sense that the people, the characters, the readers, are also islands of lightning?
We’re not old! I’m 61, you not even 60. We both attended Dannie Abse’s recent ninetieth birthday. Now Dannie is possibly ‘old’ but doesn’t seem it. There’s a section about him and Joan Abse in this book, called ‘The Reef’.
We both met the queen very recently – she’s 87, same age as my mother, Deci, who’s presently in a care home. Deci’s surrounded by Alzheimic people, which is disturbing for her. But I was brought up in Penyfai, once famous for ‘mental illness’, and will continue writing about such conditions.
I’m fascinated by the mechanics of hospitals, ‘locked wards’, care homes. The Keys of Babylon featured two migrants who work in such places. I think Sea Holly will examine the theme, as the UK is being engulfed by the tsunami of old age. Juxtaposing this with ‘youth’ is the imperative.
I love creating characters, and sat in my room in Old Mint Street in Valetta inventing the fifty people who appear in Lightning’s title story. But future Sea Holly characters will be different. I always talk to them and in my head they answer back. They’ll be as real as the people I work with. Maybe more so. Some will be heroic, some creepy. But which will be which?
Writing or compiling a book is an experiment. But reading it is too. Not every aspect of that book will succeed equally, and some will fail. But both writing and reading are enormous adventures, and long may they continue for us. .