July 31, 2006

Granary Theatre, Wells - Report

Granary Theatre, Wells, Friday July 28 2006

So, the last tour date of the summer for Exile In His Own Country. (The next –and last - time you can see the full Exile show will be at the River Studios, West Acre on Friday November 3 2006, 7.30).

The schooldays poems (which I now do with introductions) got their best sustained reception of the tour. It is a bit spooky having the actual lectern of my old school in Wales (on loan from Abersychan) on stage with me. The Beatles section feels increasingly like an evocation of some shared moment in our culture, or certainly in the lifetimes of the 30s-60s. This was probably my funniest evocation of a teacher preparing for the visit of an OFSTED inspector, And the final summer love poem for Norfolk – After The Show - had a special resonance in this venue and at this time.

So, that’s it. I’ve hung up the Beatle wig until November and put the bookstall away for a couple of months. See you in October.

July 27, 2006

Review of Exile Book and Show


Exile In His Own Country by Gareth Calway, Chepstow Festival, July 22 2006

Chepstow, being both Fortress and Gateway, seemed fitting for ‘Exile In His Own Country.’ The poet enjoyed a special rapport with his audience. ‘I could hear you listening’. A Bristol-Welsh Bard sounding the changes of his personal journey through fifty years, he connected us with the past, often through the noble forms of poetic tradition.

The attractive printed programme explained the meaning of poetry in performance, and its journey, from Beowulf to the present time. The ‘sound-craft of a poem. . . is part of its larger meaning’. With a bit of help on the night from minimalist props, astute lighting and a great soundtrack.

A first memory at Bristol Zoo, at two years old, ‘A toucan’s eye/Explodes into I’ would be enough to exile anyone.

Indeed, bravery marked this performance. Not least for the reminder of school dinners! In ‘The Canteens of Moria’, he connects the ‘webbed, corrupted, gothic, grave-like things’ of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ to 1960s school canteen traumas , and realises we are always ‘part of what we’re forced to eat’. Ditto, Spiritual food, fed to engender everlasting lack of self-worth, in the humorous yet bitter ‘Dear God, ‘elp us to feel ashamed of our bodies’ - a reminder of those Sunday School misguided souls teaching humiliation instead of humility.

Faith was definitely a requirement, however, as any Bristol City supporter knows. 1966 is there all right, ‘refashioned as Hendrix . . . a minishort beauty born to die young’. So is Rugby. Terry Cobner of Pontypool and Wales taught Calway . . . very little, except the imminent ambush familiar to the Welsh. Ah, but Ma Kinnock ‘is as beautiful as the Barley Mountain in spring’ and anyway, ‘I don’t want to be Gareth Edwards. I want to be The Beatles’.

At seventeen -
‘The river’s prophet tongue I now understand;
I am heir to my druid realm at last’.
- Calway still needs ‘Help’ and a ‘real home’.

‘Student House’ poignantly expresses separation from childhood. the ‘cold but not keen’ nostalgia where telephone and door knob ‘hold no communion with (father’s) memory’. Perhaps it is the power that makes people afraid of poetry. Well, get over it – it’s worth it. Who could not relate to being ‘so very far away from the thing I burn for, I can almost touch it’?

The performance was haunted by the pounding hooves of the Ages of Romance, and the metred tread of Pilgrimage, carrying us on through the pain of first love lost: ‘My heart feels nothing of the sudden lance/That smashed its Jericho walls’- to the joust of ‘red knights tilting at perfection’. Football.

Here, the Bard of Bristol examines his own fervour of ‘the inferno of baying noise’ but then goes on to pitch us line after line of why the f-word, played out in ‘pavilions of banners’, continues to exact such consummate devotion. Calway shows it as one way a man can prove his loyalty - the pitch as a kind of tournament lawn on which physical skill combines with abstract virtues. ‘I know it’s all balls but I’m City till I die’.

The rollicking ‘Ballad of Ashton Gate’ is a carol, ending the first half with ‘The Atyeo End in excelsis . . .’

The second half kicked off with an energetic rap, an instant hit.

‘I came here for Eden and got Bill Gates.
Life is a Bitch, but the songs are great’

leading into Calway’s tribute to the ultimate hitmakers, the “toppermost of the poppermost” Beatles, complete with childhood mime playing Mam’s laundry slats to their “raw whoops of joy in four part harmony.”

There followed the ‘long siege’ of mock examinations, like watching a no goal match on ‘desk terraces’ in freezing classrooms:

Stoned on cold and boredom
With fifty-two minutes still to go’.

More laughter followed for Calway’s teacher waiting to be inspected by the ‘little blue-eyed men from Saturn’. Having now been ‘exiled’ in a Norfolk he loves for a quarter of a century, Calway is ‘subconsciously still waiting for teacher to come’ This was, for me, the most moving poem of the evening.

‘O Jesus! Still these discordant Years,
That carping torn, that gong-tormented Sea’.

Calway’s work is rooted and grown in real life. This means that, although the poems are written in demanding forms, they are fluent and require only to be heard. It’s a song of life that is sometimes ‘like trying to tune a pitchfork in a sow’s ear’ but includes the unexpected hilarities, -

“The assembly on healthy Norfolk won’t be given this morning
As both members of staff concerned are ill”.

- a whole life in two ‘halfs’ (as one audience member put it) Desperate but reaching for the stars, just as the ‘Star Teacher’ tells his pupil to do. Not bad, for someone once ‘marked for life’ by a teacher, lipstick matching her vicious red pen, who ‘delighted in Literature as some might in torture’. ‘Mark this’, says Calway, offering back Petrarchan sonnets, ballads, villanelles, iambic pentameter, and liberating free verse.

This is an heroic performance of warm, living, accessible - often very funny - poetry of great stature, which shows how extraordinary ‘ordinary’ life actually is.

Madeline Jones

July 25, 2006

Review Of The Exile Show

A Review of Gareth Calway Exile In His Own Country – The Drill Hall, Chepstow 22nd July 2006

Something odd happened in Chepstow on Saturday and I'm quite sure that the audience at The Drill Hall will never forget it. When I was at school, one of the highlights was the annual visit of the piano tuner, who unusually was deaf rather than getting the job via the then Government's sponsored 'Jobs for the Blind' initiative. Luckily for the appreciative audience on Saturday night, where Gareth Calway's one-man-tour had landed after visiting Bristol earlier in the day, Calway's recollection of his school-days is a lot funnier than my own and certainly not as off-key.
For those of you that don't know, Gareth Calway is a serious, high quality poet, but before you switch off expecting a pseudo-intellectual discussion of a dry poetry reading by a refugee from a 1970s Open University program, his approach is a little different to most.

Little, as in worlds apart.

Whilst his work stands up against the best on paper (his Exile In His Own Country tour is currently promoting his new book of the same name,) it is when you see him perform the work in a live setting that it truly comes to life.

To paraphrase Dervla Kiwan in her famous M&S adverts, this isn't just poetry, this is the finest hickory smoked, pine nut scattered verse-on-the-vine. This isn't just boring old fashioned classical da-di-da-di-da poetry, this is poetry that is about real lives, that is meant to be read by real people and has all that hear it nodding in recognition at its basic truths. This isn't just another detached academic discussing the ancient Greeks and the Roman gladiators, this is a football fan showing us exactly what it feels like to stand on the terraces in the near certainty that he will ultimately be disappointed, this is a music lover growing-up and then feeling discarded by his bedroom poster heroes to a soundtrack of the Beatles and the Stones, and this isn't the poorly recollected days of your own piano tuner, this is an acute eye detailing exactly what it was like to grow-up under the watchful gaze of teachers who were still allowed to bare their teeth and playtimes spent firing wooden guns and lobbing imaginary grenades.

But what of the show? Well, Calway's approach encompasses all of these things as he takes you on a whistle-stop journey from his schooldays in Wales, his exile in Bristol where he became the Official Poet Laureate of Bristol City - and given the attendance of the club's smiling Chairman, I would imagine he will continue to be so for a while longer - up to the modern, where as a teacher in Norfolk, the current reality of OFSTED and government interference provides a telling contrast to what had come before and the circle is truly squared.

All of this and much more is put across in an highly entertaining way to a lively Rock 'n' Roll soundtrack, without ever descending into amateur dramatic farce or stilted self-consciousness. Calway does what many see as impossible, he makes poetry accessible without 'dumbing down' and he tells it like it is without ever feeling the need to preach. It is an approach that should please all but the most elitist poetry lover and would give a couple of hours genuine enjoyment to young and old alike. In summary, highly recommended and if there are any TV executives reading this, you could, and often manage to, do a lot worse on a Saturday night.

Reviewed by: Erik Ryman, erik@erikryman.co.uk

July 15, 2006

Diss High School Workshop and Exile Show Tour Date, July 10 2006


So the joke was finally on me. I have written for years in novels and poems about a fictional school called Driftwood Comprehensive, situating it in a fictional Norfolk town called Dis Next the Sea, where all that can go tragic-comically wrong with a modern secondary education does. And on Monday July 10 I set off in beautiful summer morning sunshine through the gentle Norfolk countryside and peaceful woodland towards the A1066 (Not the A10666) where I would start the day in room 66 (Not 666) to encounter the real Diss High School.

Needless to say, Diss High School is a purposeful English/Humanities-led specialist college - and anything but the drifting equivalent of the one I’ve created in Dante’s underworld. The Head and the Head of the English department are inspiring and energetic and the school is obviously going places.

This time, I gave the football workshop to the Year Nines and the schooldays workshop to the Year Eights, the reverse of my arrangement at Abersychan. In both cases, I think the drama activities went down best. Some lively writing ensued. In the afternoon, I performed the full show either side of an afternoon break to the entire population of Year Nine (approx 200) on an old-fashioned heavyweight hardwood school stage that was itself as deep as some modern halls are long! It was very hot and muggy for performer and audience alike but being British we all survived. I noticed that the theatrical elements of the show went down best, particularly me being an infant reliving my first memory through the trellis (zoo cage) and being naughty at Sunday School.

The rap at the start of Act 2 got generous applause (despite some technical difficulties with the sound system) and as always the Beatles wig got one of the biggest cheers. It is a wry fact that a performer can spend a lifetime perfecting some unique combination of words, sound and movement but still it’s a silly wig that gets the plaudits! I was also engaged by the occasional heckle – eg Language! when I used a mild swear word and a word that sounded like Shipped vying between my chants of “England” in the 1966 poem. (This was the day after the 2006 World Cup Final that Italy won for the fourth time and we didn’t win – again.). The final writing tasks of the day included descriptions of “My Ideal Teacher.” Many of these were riveting stuff but, shall we say, the most amusing were not always ones you could put on a school display board!

There is great potential for excellent writing at Diss. There are plans to take the students off for a weekend retreat in some Norfolk stately home near the sea for an intensive creative writing experience next year and I hope very much indeed to meet students again on one of those. Meanwhile, thank you Diss High School for making me so welcome. And thanks for not being the Dis Next the Sea Comprehensive of my novel, poems and nightmares…

July 10, 2006

Western Daily Press Article

This article is reproduced courtesy of the Western Daily Press

How do you mark your 50th birthday? If you're Gareth Calway, you aim higher than you've ever done before as a poet, with a book that brings together all your best work, and then some. It's an exciting prospect, and Exile In His Own Country is due out in a few weeks' time, produced by the cutting-edge poetry publishers blue chrome.

It's his seventh book, and his admirers say it sums up all the qualities the late poet laureate Ted Hughes once praised in his work - strength, wholesomeness and the best kind of simplicity.

The publishers see Calway as an erudite writer, and one steeped in the lore of Eastern mysticism, myth, history, the East Anglia countryside - and Bristol City Football Club. And what? Yes, that's right, because in among all his other attributes, this head of English at a Norfolk high school is the official poet laureate at Ashton Gate.

His family is steeped in Bristol City fandom, even though Gareth himself was brought up in Frome and spent his teenage years in the South Wales valleys, escaping back this side of the river whenever he could.

One of the joys of living in Frome was seeing his winter idol John Atyeo in summer mode for the town's cricket team, though he was clearly not at the ground on the day Big John rose majestically and headed a rearing bouncer away for four byes.

Knowing Gareth Calway's taste for words and Atyeo, that single act would have been worth seven volumes of poetry in itself.There is certainly City aplenty in the forthcoming book, however, along with vivid memories of inedible Frome infant-school dinners in the early Sixties and the poet's first memory - of being attacked by a toucan at Bristol Zoo in 1958, at the age of two. Odd how one's first memories are so often frightening ones.

All that's a few weeks away, however. A new book of Gareth's is already out, and Bristol City from start to finish, is Sheer Paltry, published by the club at £5 and with all profits going to Ashton Gate. With its clever play on the Bristol "L" in the title, it's 40 years of football stories and verse, developed from the Calway CD Bristol City Ruined My Life - And Made My Day of a couple of years ago.

Though Calway is a mere stripling, born in 1956, the book is full of baby boomer lore, and rich in nostalgia for the Sixties and Seventies.

It's also an interesting insight into a man whose story is not unusual but speaks of an uncommon life, for all that: the alienation from working-class roots imposed by grammar school and university, an atavistic identification with one part of the world while becoming ever more deeply entrenched in another.

Gareth Calway is known to hundreds, if not thousands, in his adopted East Anglia as "a bald head of English", the man behind poetry anthologies and competitions for teenagers and sometime regional organiser for the Schools Poetry Association.

Yet he will still sit for five hours in his car to watch 90 minutes of who knows what at Ashton Gate, screaming and shouting with the rest of the lads - one of them, yet in some ways, forever one step removed.

So why be there? He writes: "If it weren't for the tightening in the stomach every match day. . . the shiver of the perfectly pitched pass, the tantalising tactical one-twos. . . the frantic flash of foot through frenzied ball. . . the red knights tilting at perfection. . . then I probably wouldn't bother. . ."

Sheer Paltry, price £5, is on sale in the Bristol City club shop or via the website: http://www.garethcalway.co.uk/purchasepage