Monthly Archives: January 2012

Writer of the Week Benjamin F. Jones

Benjamin F. Jones is a writing enthusiast and haiku extraordinaire. He has his own blog, Graphite Bunny, which contains a fascinating selection of poetry, prose and general musings. Benjamin is currently writing a novel called Changing Tree. It tells the story of a boy who only has one week to escape being sent to boarding school.

Taking notes. Copyright: Benjamin Jones

Taking notes. Copyright: Benjamin Jones

Can you tell me a bit more about yourself, when did you start to write?

I started writing angst fuelled poetry in my teens. I had a black book filled with rage. One night I was walking through the city. I was feeling an urge to put words on paper but I had already written about my internal anger in every combination possible. So I wrote about the snow-clogged city around me. That poem was a landmark for me, I realised I could capture a snapshot of the world.

What drives you to continue writing today?

The ability to communicate a moment and an emotion in time is what drives me on. When someone connects with one of my short stories, or a haiku, it makes it worthwhile. Sometimes I have to step back from the inevitable submission/rejection cycle which most writers go through and remind myself that publication is not everything, writing is fun.

Which writers do you admire most?

I like writers who have a touch of literary zing but still know how to drive a plot. I enjoyed Ian Banks’ early novels, they have great characters with an edge of insanity which keeps me interested. I love magical realism so Haruki Murakami is on my list of recommended reading. Ben Marcus appeals to my sense of humour. I like Bukowski’s grubby poetry and Nathalie Goldberg’s books on writing touched me as a writer.

Where do you go when you need inspiration?

Cafés and pubs are fabulous places to write. I feel like I am part of something without actually having to be involved. I love mountains

Morning coffee. Copyright: Benjamin Jones

and beaches. The other place I turn to is my notepads and folders. I keep files which contain names, fragments of dialogue, character traits, descriptive phrases etc. If I get stuck I flick through the relevant files and often find the spark that sets me going. It might be the smell of new carpet, the sound of a distant street cleaner or the feel of a chestnut fresh out of its shell. It is the shove I need to get my pen moving across the paper.

What do you think of Cardiff’s literary scene?

I lived in Cardiff for a long time and miss it now I am in the Rhondda. Public transport puts the capital further away than it really is. From my remote location I miss the buzz of creativity at places like Llanover Hall, Chapter Arts, Central Library and the Museum. I also miss having access to writing classes and the Cardiff Writing Circle. I find contact and feedback from other artists is vital to my growth as a writer.

Writer's corrections. Copyright: Benjamin Jones

Writer's corrections. Copyright: Benjamin Jones

How do you use the internet? Is this another way of making contact with writers?

I have joined an online writer’s colony called Litopia as well as getting myself set up on WordPress. I have met some amazing people with similar interests through both. You get back what you put in. I have had very useful feedback on several poems and my entire novel manuscript in a way I never thought possible.

I would encourage anyone unable to attend classes or groups to join a few online groups and become an active member. Fill in your profile page and make it clear what you are looking for in terms of criticism and friends. I went looking for writing groups on the internet thinking it was the poor alternative to meetings in the real world; nothing could be further from the truth.

Benjamin’s writing, Extract from Bread and Butter

“Are those baguettes ready?” Susan shouts over the noise of the kitchen.

Oven doors open, blazing the air with the smell of sausage rolls. Craig wishes she’d chill out; he was only five minutes late. Beyond the heat lamps he can see a clamour of hunger; a queue of hospital visitors backed up past the drinks machine to the swing doors– tray to tray impatience. He smiles; not his problem. He’s buttering baguettes, a change from sliced white bread. He works fast with the knife; butter almost liquid. He glances at the clock, 5 more minutes. In his pocket he feels his phone vibrate but can’t hear it over the rattle of cutlery. Another blast from the oven. The chip fryer roars. He dumps grated cheese and salad from plastic tubs onto baguettes spread open twenty at a time. Careless. His hands sweat in the blue gloves. Time moves slow as melted cheese… Up to the hour. He slams the butter-crumb knife onto the prep-area.

Writer's hand in monochrome. Copyright: Benjamin Jones

Begin. Dinner snatched and spilling contents. Twenty minutes of freedom– twenty five with a whinge from Susan. The fire door is propped open with a bucket.

“Oi, where are you…”

Craig feels sunshine before she finishes. He runs onto the bank of fresh cut grass that overlooks the shuffling car park. The smell reminds him of his grandfather’s lawn. The nurses from radiology are already there with cigarettes and sandwiches.

He joins them in the ash tree’s shade and bites into his prize; it tastes of fresh broken rules.

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Interviewing Phillip Gross

Philip  is a professor of creative writing at Glamorgan University and the author of The Water Table, which won the T.S Eliot poetry prize for 2009. His newest collection, Deep Field, was published last November and written after Philip’s father, Juhan Gross, after deepening aphasia deprived him of the power of speech.                                                                                                                              

Deep Field is inspired by your father, a wartime refugee. Can you tell me more about him?

My father reached England in 1946. He was born in Estonia, a country on the border of more than one country, occupied at different periods by Russia, Germany and Sweden. By the end of the Second World War one fifth of the population were either in exile or had been transported to Soviet labour camps, where many died. So he was not going back and never went back. I didn’t know most of this as a child; it was only in adulthood that he trusted me with his experiences.

Deep Field is not a narrative of what happened to him in the war, although there are enough echoes to piece a narrative together. The full story could be written at some point – my father wrote an account of his own. This book is an exploration of what was happening with his language, and about language itself.

How many languages did your father speak?

Before the war he was already learning English; like many Estonians then, he had an interest in English culture. Because of the war, he had no option but to learn quite a bit of Russian and German, a lot more Russian than he wanted.

He was an able learner of languages; he knew a fair amount of French. When he was young he learned a bit of Esperanto, which came from a vision of a universal language, like the hope that the League of Nations (the earlier form of the United Nations Organisation) would do away with war. That idea is quite poignant now, two world wars and countless conflicts later.

Philip Gross. Copyright: Stephen Morris

What happened when he started to lose his language?

As his only child I became his interpreter for the outside world. When you become the translator of another you acquire a lot of empathy. This was compelling for me, not just because he was such an important person in my life, but also because the issue was language, which is what I’ve built my life around.

I was imagining what it would be like not to have that bridge between you and the world- who would you be anymore? Language is what defines a person in our social world, and maybe inside ourselves, too. Without use of language, would we have a sense of identity?

How did Deep Field begin at this time?

I didn’t know that I was writing a book. That is the best way, I think, when you’re faced with something that you’ve got to think through –  doing a lot of writing. Gradually it became apparent that what I was writing was poems. It also became obvious that I was writing them for him.

The very first line of the sequence that runs throughout the whole book starts by addressing him by his first name. We did call each other by other by our first names (rather than my calling him ‘father’ or ‘dad’) but that poem insists on the fact that I am speaking to him, not about him. I was saying the things that I could not have said anymore because he was cut off by his speech loss and deep deafness. Some of the things also dealt with complicated memories and feelings, which at that stage at the end of his life he couldn’t have handled.

Were you able to overcome this communication barrier?

Sometimes (and this was something of a revelation for me) the answer is not words. Sometimes the person just needs you to hold their hand. Even if he could not grasp the message or respond, in a sense he did, because he was still an active part of the way I think. I think who we are is a very complex and interesting thing. We are partly made of – we internalise – the people that matter.

These deep problems of communication and identity are key issues for sufferers of illnesses like Alzheimer’s and their families. That’s why I’ve had such strong very emotional responses from people who’ve read the collection. It’s about the place where you could still meet… but not quite meet… or maybe you can. The last pages point at the ways we communicated beyond words.

More on the subject: Philip gives creative writing advice on YouTube.

Phillip has his own website, which you can see by clicking here.

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Blogs on the block

This week I want to share two blogs with you, written by my colleagues at the Cardiff School of Journalism. A term has gone since we started writing. Hopefully we’re on our way to becoming seasoned bloggers.

express lit is run by magazine journalist Emma Louise Vince. This fashionable blog will keep you up to date on the latest literary crazes. It features beautiful book covers, illustrations and even embroidered book clutches. My favourite is a recent post on altering books for art. I’m just too scared to scribble on my own copies….

Lady Chat and Tea is run by Broadcast journalist Rachel Webb. It takes you back to a different era, with posts on Lord Byron and etiquette advice. Rachel has a real enthusiasm for tourism and the world of stately homes, which comes from first hand experience. Last summer she worked as a costume actor at Warwick Castle.


An interview with Brian George

Brian George is the author of Blindfold, a new collection of short stories, published in December by Stonebridge Press. His first collection Walking the Labyrinth was published in 2005. I bought a copy of Blindfold at Brian’s launch party. Since then I have been dipping in and out of it regularly.

Brian specialises in flash fiction, stories which are even shorter than short stories. Each one is different, a snapshot of a time and place. They draw the reader in immediately, you become hooked by the strength of the characters Brian creates.

How long have you been writing? How did you start?

Brian George

When I was in my teens and early twenties I wrote a lot of very bad poetry and slightly less bad songs.  For reasons I still don’t fully understand I then stopped writing anything creative for about fifteen years.

Starting to write again wasn’t a rational, conscious decision.  I was working as a teacher in a local comprehensive school and one day I found myself with some spare time, during a lunch hour. Who knows why, but I sat down at my desk and started scribbling.

Memories and scraps of narrative came tumbling out. By the time the lunch hour was over I had the skeleton of what later became ‘Shaky’, the first story in my first collection. Once I’d started I couldn’t stop – writing short fiction seemed to fill some long-buried need in me. It became the way I tried to make sense of the world and my place in it. That was over twenty years ago, and I’m still at it!

You write flash fiction. Why do you choose to write in this way?

One of my favourite writers is the American author Jayne Anne Phillips. Reading her first collection The Black Tickets had a huge influence on me.  There’s a story in that collection, called Under the Boardwalk, which remains possibly the best piece of flash fiction that I’ve ever read.

There’s something about extreme compression, the ability to evoke a whole life, a whole world, through a few selected details. The concentration of emotion which Phillips achieves is quite overwhelming. Good flash fiction forces the reader to fill in a lot of the gaps themselves, to make connections and provide their own interpretation.

In very short pieces it’s possible to experiment with a range of new forms.  One of the pieces in Blindfold is what’s known as a ‘Fibonacci Sonnet’. Each sentence contains a precise number of words in accordance with the Fibonacci sequence, rising and then falling back to a single word sentence. I found that working within that sort of ‘cage’ helped to discipline and intensify the very raw emotional content of the story in question.

Finally, I think you can get away with surrealism in very short pieces, whereas it can be very difficult to sustain in longer stories.

Where do your characters come from? How do you make a character seem real?

I do observe people, not in a self-conscious I-might-get-a-good-character out of this kind of way, but just because I find people endlessly fascinating, sometimes inspiring, sometimes bewildering or even depressing.  I also have quite a good memory for little features or tics from people I might have known years ago.  These might find their way into a story.  Above all else a  writer needs to be a good listener, to capture the essence of people’s voices.  That’s possibly the most fundamental thing about fiction, in my view.

What I’m not trying to do is to faithfully reproduce people I know in my characters. Whether a character is based on a ‘real’ person is ultimately unimportant – what matters is that the reader should believe they might exist.

Are there places in Wales which have been a source of inspiration for you?

The Rhondda, a former mining valley, in 1910

I was born and grew up in the Rhondda.  Most of the stories in my first collection are set in the Rhondda, or the Gwent valleys, where I now live. Visiting the Rhondda now can still produce a visceral reaction in me.  It’s certainly not uncomplicated nostalgia – many of those stories which are set in the Rhondda have a dark, even grim aspect – but I found that those settings could provide a suitable mirror for the bleak internal landscapes inhabited by some of the characters I was dreaming up.

Strangely, only a few of the stories in Blindfold are set in the valleys.  More of them are set in Cardiff, where I lived in the late seventies and eighties.  I suppose there must be some kind of time lag for me between living in a place and exploring it in fiction.  Although many of the stories in Blindfold have settings which are non-specific, often surreal in some way.

Do you think the collection reflects some of your own personality?

I’m certainly not trying to dramatise my own life in my stories – I don’t think I’ve lived such a fascinating life that people would want to read a blow-by-blow account of it, to be honest.

Having said that, it’s also true that every one of the stories is concerned with something that interests me, haunts me, even. Often  it’s something out there in the world that interests or bothers me.

In the title story, for example, I’m trying to explore some of the effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, by looking at the relationship between two brothers.  I also realised after I’d written it that the central image of the ‘blindfold’ game in the story can be seen as a metaphor for the way we as a country were led into some of these conflicts by certain politicians.  On the whole, though, I prefer to let the readers draw their own conclusions.

A few of the stories obviously have their roots in my health problems – I’ve been living with cancer for nearly four years now – but even these are essentially fictions, not slices of autobiography.

Do you have some favourite stories in the collection?

I’m quite fond of Madame Ofsted and the fluttering hands because (I hope) it has a fair bit of humour in it, while still having a serious theme at its heart.  Of the shorter pieces Show me stars means a lot to me and I got absorbed in the character I created in Control Alt Delete.  I often find my female characters more interesting than the men.

If I had to name one piece in the whole collection it would have to be Sweet healer, guide my footsteps. The piece had its roots in the chaotic thoughts swirling round my head,  as I lay in the Royal Gwent Hospital, after major surgery three years ago. I wanted to create something out of that experience that would reflect the darkness of those days, but also provide something a tiny bit uplifting.  A lot of the people who’ve read the story think it works, that means more to me than anything.

Brian has his own blog, which you can find by clicking here. To order a copy of Blindfold contact Brian for more information: briangeorge711@btinternet.com

If you’ve enjoyed this post I’d love to hear from you. Please click ‘like’ or leave a comment.


Uncovering a spy, the story of Arthur Owens

The story of Welshman Arthur Owens, the first double agent for MI5 in World War II, is James Bond material. Film-maker Madoc Roberts rediscovered his story and spent six years researching it. The final result was Snow: the double life of a World War II spy, co-authored with espionage expert Nigel West.

Madoc first started writing in the late seventies for a punk band called The Tunnelrunners. He now has thirty years of experience of editing, producing, directing and writing for film and television. I was quite excited when he contacted me to share Arthur’s story.

Can you tell me how the project began?

I have a television company and I am always looking for stories. There were several references in books to a Welsh double agent called Snow. I decided to go back to source documents to see if there was more to this story. He was reported to have died, but I wondered whether he had any family. I had already made a documentary about Hitler’s relatives, who we found living in Long Island, so I started looking to see if I could find any living relatives.

It took you six years to research the book, where did you start?

Welsh double agent Arthur Owens. Copyright: Graham White

It isn’t easy tracing a master spy who decides to change his identity and vanish. It was equally as frustrating trying to decide what was true and what might be a myth. It is still quite frustrating that, although I have waded through thousands of secret MI5 files, newspapers still report these myths, instead of the facts.

A clerical error had recorded the middle name of Arthur Owens as George and this had stuck. It was impossible to find an Arthur George Owens the same age as the double agent codenamed Snow, who appeared in the MI5 files. I knew Owens had invented an improvement to battery accumulators in Canada. I decided to look at ships lists and found an Arthur Owens who was the right age and had travelled to Canada. I checked the patent records and found an inventor named Arthur Graham Owens.

There were lots of people doing family research looking for Arthur Owens. I found someone who claimed his father was the son of the spy called Snow. I contacted him and he turned out to be my man.

What was it like meeting Arthur’s son Graham?

Meeting the family of a man you’ve been trying to find for six years was surprisingly ordinary. This was due to the attitude of Graham, who is incredibly pragmatic. It is difficult when meeting people about whom you know something deeply personal that they don’t, so we went quite slowly. Graham remembers agent Snow as his Dad, which was just one of his many identities. He thinks that the world should know about his father’s contribution to the war, warts and all. To him this is part of history, if it isn’t told now it will be forgotten. As far as Graham was concerned he was the only living relative of Arthur Owens. I introduced him to many new relatives some of whom he has now met.

Patricia Owens. Copyright: Adam Nathanson

What other surprising discoveries did you make?

The biggest shock was finding out Arthur Owens’ daughter went on to become a Hollywood film star. I knew from the files he had a daughter called Pat, who had been born when Owens was in Canada. However, only relatives can get hold of birth certificates and the like in Canada. The only Patricia Owens I could find from Canada was a film star. I dismissed that as being too much of a coincidence. When I found Graham he said as a boy his mother had taken him to the cinema to see The Fly. She told him the lady on the screen was his sister. Later on I also discovered Patricia Owens’ son Adam still living in Hollywood and he confirmed everything.

Can you tell me more about the women in Arthur’s life?

Arthur Owens is often portrayed as a womaniser, this is often given as one of his main motives for getting involved in espionage. His Nazi handler Colonel Ritter says in his autobiography that Owens liked to look at women but went no further, so this might be another myth. He did take a mistress called Lily. He had a daughter called Jean with her, which led to the end of his marriage to Jessie.

Patricia Owens. Copyright: Adam Nathanson

While reports of Jessie are not favourable this doesn’t excuse his behaviour. He lost contact with his daughter, whose own relationship with Jessie was fractious. Patricia used acting as a way of escaping.  But if the Hollywood press had discovered who her father was her glittering career could have ended suddenly. Her son Adam blames Arthur for burdening her with the consequences of his past. She seemed to think someone might seek their revenge and kill him. He never contacted her to congratulate her on her success. However his son Graham says he was an ordinary father who was always pleasant. So his abilities  as a father and husband are a mixed bag, just like his career as a spy.

How dangerous was it as a double agent during World War II? 

If Arthur Owens had said something to make either side believe he was betraying them, then he could have been put up against the wall and shot. The German agents Owens handed over to MI5 were given the opportunity to become British double agents or be executed. Not all of them joined the allied side. Owens was given bombs disguised as batteries and fuses disguised as pens. He had a radio transmitter in a suitcase, but his best weapon was his mind.  He must have had an incredible memory. He had to recall all the lies he had told and keep up a consistent persona. Ironically it seems that everyone at his local pub knew he was a spy.

PRO Pen Bomb

Can his work for Germany be defended?

Arthur Owens set the pattern for all the double agents that followed. When the Germans started sending agents to infiltrate Britain they relied on Owens to help them out. He supplied the passports and ration cards; he even helped them out when they got into trouble. This meant by the end of the war MI5 controlled every German agent that had been sent here.

Everything that Snow gave to the Germans was vetted by MI5, or even given to him to send. They insisted he collect the information so that when he was questioned his story would ring true. His motivation in his early days was probably money; this is where the doubts about Owens seem to come from. He was taking money from both sides, while always badgering MI5 to take him on as an agent, but they didn’t want to know.

A writer’s instinct is to tell an interesting story and a researcher’s instinct is to relay facts. How did you balance the two when writing?

This was a real dilemma. It was my first go at writing a book and I didn’t have a particular style. The research I had discovered for this story had become too big to fit into a documentary. We were dealing with a world where deception is common place. Much of the material in the German sources was going to be false, because it had been sent to them in Snow’s nightly radio messages. These were used specifically to send misleading information. When Snow assumed the part of a Nazi spy it was difficult to unravel when he was in character and when he was being himself. Nigel West and I challenged each other over any statement we couldn’t prove to ensure that we didn’t get carried away with the story.

Madoc interviews Graham, Arthur’s son

Is this it? Or is there more to be discovered about Arthur?

Since the book was published I have been contacted by relatives of some of the people in the book, such as the daughter of Colonel Nikolaus Ritter, who Snow knew as Doctor Rantzau. Every family supposedly has a skeleton in the closet, but these people were professional liars.

I have always had my doubts about the way Arthur vanished and his death. After the war he had a new business. He had just invented a new form of lampshade, which was being used on the Queen’s yacht, when he disappeared.  In Ireland he attended Sin Fein meetings and applauded the speeches, although he couldn’t understand Irish. He had the perfect anti- British cover, having been interned during the war as a Nazi spy.

He died just weeks after the first article about the double cross system was published, naming him as a double agent. On Christmas Eve he gave his son a £5 note, rather than waiting for Christmas day. The next day he was taken ill. He is buried in an unmarked grave because Graham can’t decide what name to put on the stone. Even in death he remains a mystery, which is something I think would have appealed to him.

Snow: The double life of World War II spy can be bought on Amazon or at local book stores.

If you’ve enjoyed this post I’d love to hear from you. Please click ‘like’ or leave a comment.