All entries for December 2010

December 23, 2010

Welcome to Scranton.

Writing about web page http://www.welcometoscranton.com/home

I have been meaning to write a note here for a week or two about a new book out by a friend and colleague from my local critique group, Greg Halpin. Halpin’s new book is titled Welcome to Scranton and it tells the story of a group of men, who having been friends at high school, meet up again as adults and rediscover what they always loved and hated about each other.

Now, British readers may not know that Scranton, Pennsylvania, is the setting for the American TV version of The Office. This suggests that Scranton is the equivalent of somewhere like Slough in the UK where the British version of The Office was set. Scranton, however, is more like one of the South Wales coal towns fallen on hard times. It has a rich and varied history.

In Welcome to Scranton, Halpin cleverly taps into Scranton’s notoriety as the ugly-lovely town in The Office, telling the story of cafe owner, Hank, and his motley crew of friends. See the website here: http://www.welcometoscranton.com/ Halpin has some amazing photos of Scranton on the website too: http://www.welcometoscranton.com/photos


December 17, 2010

The Blue Pearl

Photograph Credit: The Blue Pearl by Byron Edwards

The Blue Pearl, Maesteg

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Sometimes moments of clarity appear in the unlikeliest of places. The last time I was back in Wales, I spent as much time as I could with my grandparents in Maesteg. My grandparents have lived in the old coal town all their lives. My grandfather was the safety officer at the local mine, and my grandmother ran the sweet stall for many years in Maesteg Market. Their jobs tell you all you need to know. (My grandfather is the most careful and cautious man I have ever met, and my grandmother is all about the sweet indulgences of life, especially food – she used to be nicknamed Norma “Two Sweets” – sweet here meaning dessert.)

A great deal has been said in the tabloids about the Maesteg and Bridgend area, mainly because of the spate of teenage suicides that have occurred here in recent years. Many wild theories were touted to explain why this kept happening, but the truth is that when the mines closed in the 1980s, the livelihood of the coal towns disappeared and opportunities for young people have closed down considerably.

What the British media cannot understand, however, is the real communities at the heart of these towns. Yes, there is unemployment. Yes, there is desperation. Yes, the towns can be run down. But there is still a very strong community there.

Take for example, Bryony Gordon’s article for The Telegraph:

Under a sky that is an unappealing mix of muddy brown, tinged with grey, an old man treads carefully past the charity shops along Nolton Street, in the centre of Bridgend. A couple of gloomy-faced teenagers, in Reebok Classics and hooded tops, hang out in front of the cut-price fashion stores, but otherwise the place is deserted. It is 9am and a thick mist swathes parts of this small town on the edge of the South Wales valleys, reducing visibility to a few feet. It is a ghost town in more ways than you could imagine.


This is such overblown writing, and it paints a ridiculous picture of Bridgend. I have been to Bridgend hundreds of time, and while it is not a heaving metropolis, I have managed to avoid encountering the dangers of “smackheads” or “being knifed” as described by Gordon. It’s the same old story – people coming in from London and writing about Wales through the tint of their snobbery and incomprehension.

When I read Gordon’s article, I immediately thought of a beautiful moment of clarity had during my visit to Maesteg last September. Battling the rain on Maesteg high street, I suddenly came upon the Blue Pearl fish and chip shop, pouring out light onto the grey street. At that moment, it looked almost heavenly and I laughed to myself at how such a mundane moment could be so beautiful. The Blue Pearl has hardly changed at all in the many years that it’s been here. It’s seen the mines come and go, and it watches now as we drift into recession again.

December 14, 2010

Hollywood Goddesses and my Christmas Tree

Christmas Tree Decorations

This year I decided to make some of my own Christmas decorations featuring my favourite women stars of Hollywood’s golden era. Here are my favourites…

Ingrid Bergman


From Hitchcock’s Notorious. This really is one of my favourite films, because Bergman isn’t playing the role of the pure one, but the woman with a reputation. The film really clarifies society’s disdain for women who don’t live up to society’s standards.
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Louise Brooks


Various clips. I remember seeing her in Pandora’s Box as a student and being very taken with her. Again she is playing one of those women who push at the boundaries of society.
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Greta Garbo


From Queen Christina.

And yet, in this deified face, something sharper than a mask is looming: a kind of voluntary and therefore human relation between the curve of the nostrils and the arch of the eyebrows; a rare, individual function relating two regions of the face. A mask is but a sum of lines; a face, on the contrary, is above all their thematic harmony. Garbo’s face represents this fragile moment when the cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty, when the archtype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces, when clarity of the flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism of Woman. -Roland Barthes

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Lena Horne


From Stormy Weather
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Katy Jurado


You are a good looking boy. You have big broad shoulders, but he is a man. It takes more than big broad shoulders to make a man, Harvey and you have a long way to go. (In High Noon)
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Kathryn Hepburn


From Bringing Up Baby
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Veronica Lake


From The Glass Key
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Nina Mae McKinney


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Eve Marie Saint


From Hitchcock’s North by Northwest
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Jean Simmons


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and my absolute favourite Rita Hayworth


From Gilda

December 08, 2010

Letter to Leighton Andrews about HEFCW Withdrawal of Funding for books on Welsh culture and in Cymra

Follow-up to Catastrophic Cuts to the University of Wales Press. from The Midnight Heart

Dear Leighton Andrews,

I am writing to you to express my concern at the HEFCW withdrawal of funding for University of Wales Press (UWP). The proposed changes which deny funding to books in the Welsh language and discussion of Welsh culture are, at best, misguided. I hope that you will read my reasons for thinking so and consider them carefully.

It is naïve to think that these kinds of projects can survive in the narrow world of academic publishing without support. The truth is that, if the funding is withdrawn, the books that would have been published by UWP will appear instead with lesser publishing houses, and fewer quality publications will mean less funding for Welsh academics. This is not to do with the projects’ merits, but, if we are honest, in the publishing houses beyond Wales, there is still a dubious suspicion that writing about Wales is too myopic, provincial or narrow to merit publication.

I hope that I do not have to convince you or HEFCW of why such writing is important and significant. Numerous Welsh critics and cultural commentators have described how the act of foregrounding and championing Welsh culture is a crucial task. I would emphasize too that though the readership of these books is limited, UWP is recognized internationally. I am currently living in the United States and imagine my pleasure when I found on the shelves of my local university library, Pennsylvania State, so many of the publications on Welsh writing in English produced by UWP: books like Katie Gramich’s Twentieth Century Women’s Writing in Wales, Diane Green’s Emyr Humphries, Harri Garod Roberts’ Embodying Identity and Matthew Jarvis’ Welsh Environments in Contemporary Poetry. These books and more are all here in the Penn State Library being read by American students and scholars, ordered by librarians who know that UWP though is funded, it produces quality.

I am a scholar of literature, as well as a poet, and, naturally, I write about Welsh literature. Although I studied at an English university for my BA, MA and PhD (Warwick University), I am from Wales originally and I always had a strong interest in writing about Welsh literature and culture. When I came to decide what topic to choose for my PhD thesis, groundbreaking works on Welsh writing in English published by University of Wales Press inspired me to write about poetry by women in Wales. Books like Stephen Knight’s One Hundred Years of Fiction and Kirsti Bohata’s Postcolonialism Revisited suggested to me as a young scholar that there was at least one publisher that appreciated accounts of Welsh writing. Had these books not existed, had this space for publication not been available, I am not sure that I would have spent three years and a PhD on a topic that would never be published. Considering today’s tough job market and the requirement for publishing work, it would not be a wise decision to write a PhD on Welsh culture at an English university—- that is if the changes that you propose go through.

This brings me to another point. Your plan is to pass on the funds that would have gone to the University of Wales Press to the universities in Wales to distribute where they see fit. This plan, however, makes some huge assumptions about who is producing academic commentaries on Welsh writing in English. I was a PhD student at Warwick University, where I had a funding package, and I now am affiliated to the University of Northampton. Someone like me will be excluded from publishing, because the funds available will be a closed shop with access only for those who have a job in Wales. Again, I would point out, that in the current job climate, it is unrealistic to imagine that every scholar working on Welsh culture will be able to find a job in Wales. I would add too that these funding arrangements are effectively excluding students and scholars who attend universities or find jobs outside Wales. This is the exact opposite of how things should be, because such students and scholars are taking the study of Welsh culture beyond the borders of Wales and emphasizing that Welsh culture is an object worthy of study in any university.

This will be the state of academics working on Welsh writing in English, but the cutting of funding for books in Cymraeg, the Welsh language, is just as bad, and it seems to break the very terms of HEFCW’s own Welsh language scheme. This scheme describes how HEFCW will “assess the linguistic consequences of any new or revised policies and initiatives when formulating them” and it explains that HEFCW will “ensure that new or revised policies and initiatives will promote and facilitate the use of Welsh wherever possible”.

I cannot tell you how short-sighted these cuts really are. As a possible future author of books that would normally be funded through this grant, it is true that my concern is personal. My objections, however, go beyond personal concerns. What you are effectively doing is putting books on Welsh writing in English in a ghetto, where the arbiters of quality research are university officials rather than experts in the field. Those students at an English university and those scholars who find jobs in scant supply in Wales will be excluded from producing quality monographs on Welsh writing in English. You are crushing the hopes of young scholars, and seriously damaging the study of Welsh literature as a serious topic equivalent to English literature. You have to ask the question, why would anyone be so foolhardy as to work in a research area where their enquiries would never be published?

I know that HEFCW only have the best interests of Welsh academia at heart and that this idea was probably supposed to improve that environment. I would, however, ask that you seriously consider the concerns of myself and other academics. There are serious implications to these cuts which can only be detrimental to Welsh scholarship. Please value the contributions that Welsh academics make to this area. The books may not make a huge amount of profit, they may not have as high a profile as some research, but they are fundamental to imagining a Welsh literature to challenge any on a world stage, to imagining a Welsh culture that is rich, multiple and vivid.

Please consider my views on this matter. I would be grateful if you would do me the courtesy of sharing this letter with the full HEFCW Council.

Sincerely,

Dr. Zoë Brigley Thompson

University of Northampton


Catastrophic Cuts to the University of Wales Press.

There has some awful news recently about the University of Wales Press, which is facing some detrimental cuts. Basically the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) has announced that no longer will it fund publication in the Welsh language or about Welsh culture. This policy seems at best, a mistake, and at worst, racist.

Here is what the scholar Kirsti Bohata says about it:

Without a viable source of funding for academic publishing in Wales, ‘Welsh Studies’ – that is scholarship about Wales – and scholarship in the Welsh language will be in an untenable position. It will be unable to perform in the Research Evaluation Framework (REF) and unable to take its place on an international platform. In order to understand its culture, interrogate its past and build a meaningful future, Wales needs its researchers and teachers. Without a means to circulate research, scholarship and teaching will fade and die.

Welsh scholars, however, have set up a facebook group with information to protest against the cuts. Here is what it advises:


WRITE TO HEFCW AND THE WELSH ASSEMBLY
The key issues involved in this issue are outlined below and we hope that as many people as possible will call for a reversal of HEFCW’s decision.
We suggest that you write to the following (contact details are given at the end of this document).
• Mr Roger Thomas, Chair of HEFCW Council
• Professor Philip Gummett, Chief Executive of HEFCW
• Leighton Andrews, Minister for Children, Education and Lifelong Learning in the Welsh Assembly Government
• Your constituency AM
• Your list AM
• Your MP
• A list of Council Members of HEFCW is given in a separate doc, do write to any you know personally.

We suggest that your letters to HEFCW ask that the full Council be shown your correspondence.

The group also lists issues of importance that you might find useful in writing your letter.

1. The grant money that used to go straight to the press will now be in the hands of university bureaucrats

The HEFCW Publications Grant has funded about 15 titles a year since 1999. It served (in HEFCW’s own words) “to boost research in Wales; to boost the standing of higher education and of higher education institutions in Wales; to fulfil the Council’s objectives in relation to Welsh language and culture, particularly in relation to scholarship in these areas” (from ‘Criteria for the use of the HEFCW Grant’). From now on, however, HEFCW proposes that these funds will be distributed to individual universities, which can then allocate funding for such publications “if they consider that publication of the kind hitherto supported by the HEFCW Publication Fund is an academic priority for them” (from HEFCW letter to UWP).

2. Why the new funding structure won’t work

In the short term, with the REF just around the corner, individual universities might allocate some funds towards Welsh publications. However, there seems little chance that this will be sustained. In the longer term, this money (which is not ringfenced) is likely to be used for other purposes. Welsh scholarship will be seriously damaged as a consequence.
bq. The new funding system replaces the block grant paid directly to UWP with a piecemeal system. This will leave UWP with considerably reduced editorial control, as it will increasingly have to make decisions based on funding attached to titles rather than on their intrinsic quality. This will undermine the planning and sustainability of key series.

Funds may not be allocated to the universities which are producing the best Welsh scholarship in any one year. Moreover, significant work in the field by scholars not based at Welsh universities will not be funded.

This is not to mention the fact that – shock horror – universities outside of Wales might have scholars who are writing about Welsh literature or even working in the Welsh language.

3. Why the withdrawal of direct grants to UWP is a disaster for Welsh scholarship

Welsh scholarship – both work in the Welsh language and work about Wales – will have no specialist University Press. As a result, very little scholarly research on Welsh subjects will be published.

Younger scholars, those based outside Wales and others not directly employed by universities wishing to invest in REF publications will not be able to publish crucial research.

A lack of research publications will be seen as a sign of academic weakness and will undermine scholarship in a diverse range of Welsh studies.

4. Why can’t UWP publish academic titles without a grant?

It is not economically viable. HEFCW recognises this under the new system when it suggests that individual Universities can provide publishing subsidies from the redistributed funds.

5. Why can’t academics publish elsewhere?

Publishers outside Wales tend to lack the interest or necessary expertise in Wales-related fields. As such, they are unlikely to accept Welsh-language material or books primarily exploring the history and culture of Wales.

These were the conditions which prompted the creation of the HEFCW grant in 1999 and the situation has not improved.

Contact Details

Mr Roger Thomas, Chair of HEFCW Council
Professor Philip Gummett, Chief Executive of HEFCW
Higher Education Funding Council for Wales
Linden Court, Ilex Close
Llanishen,
Cardiff, CF14 5DZ

Leighton Andrews AM,
National Assembly for Wales
Cardiff
CF99 1NA
Email: leighton.andrews@wales.gov.uk


December 06, 2010

Why Poetry Matters: Political Poetry —– November/December 2010.

I recently joined the Nittany Valley Writer’s Network in Pennsylvania, and I have been trying to convince some of the other members of the wondrous nature of poetry. Consequently, they’ve asked me to write a column in the newsletter on “Why Poetry Matters”, the title taken from Jay Parini’s excellent book Why Poetry Matters.

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Just a short one this month!

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Politics rages on at the moment. Here in the US, Democrats and Republicans are arguing about how best to kick-start the economy, while back in my home country, the UK, thousands of young people have been protesting on the streets against cuts by the Liberal-Conservative Coalition. Poetry can be a wonderful medium for unraveling political conundrums, but, by this, I don’t mean jingoism – the kind of writing that merely delivers a moralizing message.

More complex is poetry by Nirmalendu Goon (born 1945) from Bangladesh. When the Banglasdeshi President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated by army officers in 1975, Goon was one of the few who protested, even in a dangerous climate of violence. In `Firearm’, Goon describes the police stripping the local people of their weapons. They are now seemingly defenseless, yet Goon suggests otherwise in the final lines:

Only I, disobeying the military order,
am openly returning home a rebel,
still carrying with me
the most lethal firearm of all—my heart.
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Poem translated Sajed Kamul. You can find this and other wonderful poems in the anthology Language for a New Century, ed. Tina Chang, Nathalie Handel and Ravi Shankar: http://www.wwnorton.co.uk/book.html?id=1184

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The Midnight Heart

“Zona de plagas donde la dormida come / lentamente / su corazón de medianoche” – Alejandra Pizarnik


Night ramblings of insomnia, and day ramblings for the sleep deprived.

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