Monthly Archives: June 2011

Is the future Google+?

So: currently being rolled out on limited trial is Google+ (what creative genius hit upon such an utterly marvellous name?), a new networking site that claims to offer greater ease at interface and greater ability to control how we share, and how much, to various individuals in ‘circles of our lives’. ‘Circles of our lives’ sounding remarkably like a line from ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’.

Facebook’s current privacy controls are a darned nuisance. It’s all or nothing, basically – which presents us with sticky situations as regards the way the personal, professional and, sometimes, political tend to all converge these days on Facebook – a problem only likely to further complicate, rather than simplify, our lives. We may want close friends to share in last night’s escapades, but we may not want others in our lives to be so well informed. On the other hand, we may want everyone to share our joy in winning Employee of the Year. Facebook, at present, only gives us the ability to share or not share updates. Period. Sharing photos to select groups will also, apparently, be far simpler than on Facebook. So it may be an end to the inner critic and the inner censor. A good thing? Erm. Discuss. But I can see the potential attraction of Google+ – particularly for the younger generation. Also for those, like myself, who seek to increasingly use social networking as a one-stop shop: a way to maintain their friendships – but also stay connected to people in their workplace or in their field (this latter objective unsatisfied by LinkedIn). 

The worry, for those who love social networking but also fear disclosure (well, paradoxically, don’t we all?), is that Google+ will encourage more information sharing, albeit to different ‘circles’ of our lives, than ever before. A feeling that you’re ‘safe’. Of course, you will be safe from certain people in your life knowing The Last Detail, but Google+ will know all. Google’s start-up mantra was ‘Don’t be evil’. But how many still believe that? And then there’s the option, rather strangely lauded and welcomed by Google+, to not use real names. We know that this happens on Facebook, but it is important that it is against Facebook’s T&C and can get you booted off. Just seeing the headmaster’s ruler on the table can be a powerful thing, sometimes. I can see avenues lined with sleaze and cans of spam in such a lax approach to user management. And what about online harassment?

Google+ also offers solid, additional features that I’ve been long looking for in Facebook’s evolution – but which have so far failed to materialise. Better and tailored streaming, for instance. And video chat would help me dispense with the need for Skype. Like Facebook Chat, video chat on Google+ will allow you to create controls for your availability to other users. And you can even group chat. I certainly actively use Facebook at present to keep in touch with friends in this great world, at home and abroad. I’d like to see their faces, too. I’d like to talk. And update. And comment. And like. All at the same time.

Or perhaps, on second thoughts, I wouldn’t.

At present, I can’t tell you how it is. I am not one of the gilded selected to try and to feed their experience back. But it’s coming soon. And, as we speak, Zuckerberg’s geeks are locked in a little room somewhere in Menlo Park, with beer bombs and the clock ticking. A piece on it here.

Update: I now have an invite, so I will report anon!

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Filed under googles on, social networking, the future

On Meetings with Great Men

Yesterday I met with Dannie Abse. It was business. But it was also a very great pleasure. Despite my dealings in the literary scene in Wales, Dannie and I have never before met.

Dannie has special significance for me. Way back in 1999, then a journeywoman poet (which I still am, which I always will be), a close friend had gifted me Dannie’s Twentieth Century Anglo-Welsh Poetry, an anthology containing many names regrettably no longer with us. I devoured the book, and it became my springboard to enter a poetry I had had little acquaintance with at school, save for, of course, the ubiquitous two Thomases. It’s a remarkably balanced anthology. R. S. and Dylan do not dominate, for one thing. And some great women poets to be found. In those pages, I formed my first friendships with certain poets who later became friends in person. And I discovered the work of the late, Swansea-born John Ormond, a poet I remain tremendously affected by and one responsible for two marvellous poems that have stayed with me since a first reading: the witty ‘Cathedral Builders’ and a celebration of Eros in marriage, ‘Design for a Quilt’. (A Collected of Ormond’s work is, incidentally, forthcoming from Seren, edited by Michael Collins – and I am glad to hear this.)

Later, Dannie would become important to me again. For he was instrumental in the foundation of Seren (in its early days, Poetry Wales Press): the press had initially operated out of a room at his house in Ogmore-by-Sea. And Seren became my home in 2004.

That summer following publication of my first collection, I went up to The Wordsworth Trust to read with Welsh star and friend Owen Sheers (though that was our first encounter). He was poet-in-residence at the time. We were both, I think – if I can speak for him, too – slightly starstruck to see, there in the audience, the great man Michael Foot. Michael, through the 80s, had been an early hero of mine. A maverick who had possessed a mind the size of some gigantic, as yet undiscovered planet, and who, it is whispered, was the only political sparring partner that made the Iron Lady frightened in debate. I had loved him and defended him passionately from detractors at school and later at university. So there we were. I took to the platform, six months pregnant and utterly terrified. I tried not to look at Foot, who looked up, politely, attentively. But there he was. And there I was, declaiming in front of one of the greatest political orators of the twentieth century. It was, shall we say, a tough gig. I am not sure I was equal to the task.

Later, at dinner, I found myself sitting next to him. We chatted. He told me that he liked my work. I was grateful for his kindness, but I suspected that he was putting the trembling young woman at ease. Then, a month after the reading, I received, through the post, a copy of his Uncollected Michael Foot, forwarded by The Wordsworth Trust. It’s a fantastic book. Michael had written as inscription: ‘For Kathryn Gray: August 2004. Good luck. See P.353.’ I was touched to tears that he had, given his enormous health difficulties at that time, taken such particular care and kindness with an insecure young poet. I made a mental note for the future – if the future ever happened to me. Action really is character. I turned to the page. It was a typically brilliant review he had done for the Observer back in 1997 – of Dannie’s Twentieth Century Anglo-Welsh Poetry. Title: ‘Wales to the World.’ Perhaps the phrase I’ve been repeating as a mantra ever since. How funny, I thought then. I took it as, somehow, meaningful for me – such is the arrogance unavoidable in youthful ambition, made worse by a sense of inadequacy, deep down. Now, I see it as meaningful for us all. The correct interpretation, my friends.  But you knew that already.

Meeting Dannie yesterday, I was struck by his cheer and his informality and interestedness. He’s also tremendously witty. Here was one of the elder statesmen of literature, a man who has been friend to them all – and we chatted as if we had known each other years. But, I thought, this is how you become a true success. Not by prizes alone, though, as we know, Dannie has collected many over the years. But by the way you are. By the grace. By being kind to great and small. By surviving the slings and arrows of the literary world – or in Michael’s lifetime, and perhaps even more challenging, the political world – with your integrity and your heart intact.

Dannie is 87 but shows no signs of slowing. Parthian, as part of the accclaimed Library of Wales series, will republish his incredibly engaging, moving and often hilarious autobiography Goodbye, Twentieth Century in the autumn of this year, which will also include a generous epilogue, taking in a momentous past decade. Look out for it.

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Filed under engagement, great men, great writers

When great things happen to great people

Today I enjoyed a wonderful lunch at the offices of Faber & Faber to celebrate poet Kona Macphee‘s award of the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. Fine food, convivial company, and some familiar, lovely faces. I was not the only person present to comment: ‘Why can’t we do this every day?’

Kona joins a distinguished list of poets who have won this coveted prize (it alternates between poetry and fiction), including Seamus Heaney, Hugo Williams, Tony Harrison, Alice Oswald, Paul Muldoon, John Burnside, Michael Hofmann, Geoffrey Hill, Don Paterson, Kathleen Jamie, Greta Stoddart, Glyn Maxwell, and my late, great teacher Michael Donaghy – Obi-Wan Kenobi of an almost entire generation of younger poets. Kona received the prize in recognition of a splendid second collection, Perfect Blue.

Kona and I go way back to 2001. The two of us appeared together in the anthology Anvil New Poets 3. It is difficult to convey now my joy then when first I held that anthology in my hands – oh, how clever I am! – or my shame when I leafed through and happened upon two devastating lines: ‘He grips the gather of her waist / and pours her like a ewer into dance.’ At the foot of the page, the poet’s name: Kona Macphee. I was so utterly incapable of such concise, entirely apt and beautiful imagery. The sophistication was staggering. Reading further, the depression simply grew. Kona Macphee, I thought, you are just too annoyingly talented. But, as with all true talents, Kona is a terrific person, with humility, generosity and a rich sense of humour.
Kona published a first, acclaimed collection, Tails, in 2004. And, in 2010, she followed this with Perfect Blue. I published some poems which later appeared in the collection in New Welsh Review, so I had an indication that Perfect Blue was going to be a book of incredible quality, integrity and maturity. And so it is. I am thrilled that Kona has won this award, which will push her to the front of things – where she belongs. Buy the book!

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Filed under poetry, prizes, success

What happens to the past

Technology. Double-edged. As someone who works from home, it’s true that I find Facebook, for example, indispensable. It connects me; it makes me feel part of a community, now that I’m far from the watercooler moments of office life, the beautiful communal suffering of the morning-long meeting, the quips around the kettle. It has its downsides, too. Facebook means that you can never quite run from the past. Vexations to the spirit you’ve long since wisely dispensed with In Real Life linger there, reminding you of Bad Things, like being angry. Being angry with the past. I spied, recently, by accident, a friend that I’d parted ways with some time ago. There they were, their reckless happiness beaming out. They had wronged me – terribly, irrevocably, without apology. But there they were, happy and living their life! The noive! And then there’s the shock of one particular friend suggestion: the boy who took me to Rain Man in 1988, whose reaction to my sensitively conveyed decision not to take our non-relationship any further resulted in some choice malicious slander that went on for years and years. I didn’t think much of the film, either. Is he still the person he was then? I take no chances – with his psychic stability or his taste in cinema. Block! And yet, there he is: on the block, on ice. He’s still there. Life goes on – or does it?

But, once upon a time, we did want to go back, we really did – even as we were in the moment. Affordable home filmmaking. A revolution of the 70s that has preserved us as we were, as we will always somehow be. My old schoolfriend Rich posted this wonderful video of his fifth birthday. I can be spotted in the opening frames, the chubby little girl sitting on the sofa to the left, wearing a fetching maxi party dress, staring off into the middle distance and then spontaneously jumping, as was my wont. I can subsequently be identified as one of the first in line for the scram. Life was so simple then: behold on the table, a plate of Pink Wafers!

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Filed under childhood, Facebook, the past


So now: the human heart.

One of the finest intellectual and social experiments of my life was when I went up to read German, way back in the day, at Bristol University. I was a wide-eyed Swansea girl – all too plain and noticeably brunette against the ponytailed young blonde goddesses who strode along Woodland Road, chased by young men inevitably called Toby. I also wore a lot of tie-dye. So it was an intimidating experience at first, particularly when one friendly girl in halls – with a foghorn voice that would give Celia Johnson a run for her vowels and a physique on her that assured me that I would prefer a climb in the Andes over a hockey match with her – confessed one evening that she couldn’t understand me very well. I can’t remember if it was that night or the night after that my accent began to accommodate. Whatever, the unsuccessful result is that when I go home to Wales I am considered English and when in England I am considered Welsh… And wherever I am, I don’t know what accent I do have, exactly. But I made some terrific friends at Bristol, across the social spectrum. It was one of the happiest times of my life.

And I was fortunate to have entered an academic department that was simply fantastic. I’ve never forgotten the great tutors I had during those formative years, who genuinely helped to shape my ambition and my values, and who made it very clear to me that you didn’t require a fee-paid secondary education to excel with them. Among these was an academic, Professor Frank Shaw. Frank was one of the two people who ignited an improbable and lasting passion for Medieval Literature in me. He was a kind and generous man, and one who combined an outstanding erudition with patient compassion for the lesser mortals that passed through his dedicated life, such as myself. He encouraged me greatly, once taking me aside to tell me I should go on to study in the field following a paper I had given. As an insecure young woman back then, it felt like permission. And, of course, it was. I set my mind to it.

I did go on to study in the field, but I never did become the academic of his example. I found, as we do in life, that I had wanted something different after all. And, it seems, I may have found it. But I never forgot his influence. He occurred to me especially this evening, and I thought that I might drop him a line, on a sentimental whim. Not sentimental after all, it turns out – but too long overdue. For I found that he had unexpectedly passed away in the spring. He was a true Mensch. I owe him a lot. We’ll settle the balance, I hope, in the great hereafter, over a glass of wine and the Nibelungenlied.


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Filed under beginnings, endings, teachers

On the Thought of Frivolous Things

I have been away. I have been here, there and everywhere. Moving furniture behind the scenes. Metaphorically speaking. Of which, I can say no more. I would sleep, but there is still more work to do. It is exciting work. So I cannot complain. I’ll update this blog with some bits and bobs of the usual persuasion soon. But that is for week commencing 13/06/11. Monday.

I will leave you with this thought. Behold my most treasured of shoes! I fondled them earlier. Couldn’t help it. I do this periodically. 

See how forlorn they look without me in them, dancing. But their time will come! I’ll take them to Paris, and we’ll stay up late – listening to bad acid jazz, drinking Ricard. I am just not sure when. For the time being, there is hope, love and always, always books.
Happy Weekend! And more next week!

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Filed under beauty, books, joy, literature, My So-Called Life