Self Portrait – Hunan Bortread

Introduction:

You’d been told about him. Something to be going on with the boss said. You’d been told he’s five foot nine and slim. And you’d been told he’s been doing yoga exercises every morning for thirty years. Before breakfast it seems. You’d been told he’s married with two grown up sons and two grandchildren. Like you he’s into fast cars. (VW’s) Unlike you he’s bilingual. You’d also been told about his music background and of his lifelong obsession with understanding why people are the way they are. But you’d been told to stay clear of all that. You’d even been told to stay clear of the King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table connection. Stick with his book the boss said. Get a take on ‘It’s Never Goodbye’. And don’t forget to ask about Ioan Gruffudd; where exactly he fits into all this … 

The Creative Urge:

You arrive on time. A few minutes early even. You’d been told he’d like that. And he does. He’s so ready to meet you he gives the impression he was waiting at the door all night, hand on the handle. That’s another thing you’d been told: He’s only happy when his hand’s on the handle.

 

He greets you warmly. Someone shouts hi from the kitchen. It’s his Mark-one wife he quips. The Welsh Cakes are just out of the oven. The apartment is big. Victorian: High ceilings, modern interior, minimalist. You comment on the unique hall furniture. It’s something he has in common with Phillip Pulman he says – working with wood, trying to satisfy the creative urge in different ways perhaps …

On the way through to the lounge with its massive Victorian bay windows, wide balcony only yards away from the promenade and the Irish Sea, he adds that while building his last home in Harlech (a spectacular elevated plot overlooking the Plantagenet Castle) he’d often greet Miss Enid Jones (Pulman’s teacher) and explain the plan or show something new.

 

Did he talk books to her, you ask. No, not at all he replies, though later, when he was some way through ‘It’s Never Goodbye’ he told her about it and he remembers she particularly liked the sub-title he had in mind at the time – ‘Six Characters in search of Themselves’: She made the Pirandello connection straight away. 

So he wrote most of this book while living in Harlech? Yes. Yes he did. The ‘Round-window view of Snowdon’ (mentioned in the book) is fact, not fiction. One minute he was helping workmen move building blocks, the next he’d jot an idea down, or write a list of building requirements for the next day. And when he was finally finished – the house that is, he devoted all his time to the book. 

But he likes the name he gave the Harlech house – ‘Dros Y Castell’ – Over the Castle, because in Welsh the complete address reads, ‘Over Harlech Castle’. The Welsh language can be subtle he adds – like the car registration he saw recently DI ENW, which in Welsh reads, ‘Without Name’, or ‘Anonymous’.  Now how subtle is that?

 

(Ohmygad! Now that is really cool. This is what you want to talk about: Cars! This is why you parked your 1990 red Mk 1 VW Golf Clipper Convertible under his balcony. But the only VW you’re allowed to talk about is Virginia Wolf …)

 

Ok; so did he regret leaving the landscape and the rich historical heritage of Harlech behind him and saying ‘goodbye to all that’ in order to down-size to his present Victorian apartment further up the coast?

 

No. No, not really. Though like many who lived in Harlech – from Owain Glyndwr, who after taking the castle in 1404, established the first Parliament of Wales in the house that once occupied the adjoining garden of ‘Dros y Castell’, to Robert Graves (who had lived only yards away), he’d found it an inspiring place to be.

 

Education and Jazz:

                                                    

As you make yourself comfortable in the lounge you see more of the self-made diagonal and curve furniture. It sums him up, he says. He was never a man for straight lines. But now he spends all his time writing? – It’s his new curve in life? The pun doesn’t impress. He hides the grimace behind a sip of tea then a long ‘So’ …

The tea’s too hot. But yes, his music background (He was in charge of a very large Music and Drama unit in Liverpool) was more or less abandoned when he retired at the age of fifty-two he says. (You’re not too sure where the new train of thought came from) He sits cross-legged. His free foot twitches from side to side. It’s an indication he’d rather be someplace else perhaps? He doesn’t regret the end of his professional career, but he does miss having young people around him and his life-long involvement with playing mainstream jazz, which ran alongside his formal teaching commitments. (He has a Cert. Ed Oxford, five music diplomas and an MA York) You’d been told to talk books: Not cars, not jazz. You don’t want to hear any of this. He’s going to tell you anyway. 

He was never happier than when playing Jazz Festivals at home or in Europe.  He shoves an out-of-date publicity sheet to you. It gives the opinion of one or two people – composers and writers even, who listened to him in those days: ‘Those days when youthful narcissism ruled the roost’. Look at it later he says. Your nod promises to do just that.

 

Jazz  Performance:

(‘He has that elusive quality in his playing, poetic lyricism’ - New York stride pianist Dill Jones.  ‘There’s no one in Europe playing like this man – so original and happy’ – Ken  Rattenbury, author of ‘Duke Ellington, Jazz Composer. ‘A brilliant cornetist in the Beiderbecke/Hackett mould’ Professor Wilfrid Mellers, author of ‘Music in a New Found Land’.  ‘His jazz playing is intellectually refined’ Professor Reginald Smith-Brindle, author of ‘Serial Music’) 

Music and Books:

He has a habit of parting his lips slightly while placing a finger behind his ear and rubbing gently as if attending an itch. It’s his aide-memoire you conclude.

 

What happened in the jazz world is difficult for young people to understand, he starts.  Imagine a world where thousands of writers write and just about everyone in the world reads them and makes value judgements accordingly – everyone in the world is an authority in some way or other. But, suddenly, overnight almost, there are very few of these creators left. And, much, much worse – there’s no one in the world who can even read anymore. The audience has disappeared. This is what happened to jazz. That really was a curve: a tough one to take.  The players who were still around had to hang up their horns … They had to bury their talent. But he couldn’t hang up his urge to create, he adds – hence the writing.  At last! You’re back on track. Books! So … the writing you start. Well there’s not much difference between jazz extemporisation – juggling with notes spontaneously, and juggling with words he explains. You give him a wow nod that tells him you’re going to think about that for the rest of your life. So, the writing, you try once more – he’s just as happy now as before? Happier. With words, nothing leaves him until he’s ready to let it go. With words he’s got more time to get it right. Though one never truly does … Larkin explains that nicely, doesn’t he? You stay clear of the wow nod. This nod tells him you’re going to look it up: Definitely.

 

He’s touching behind his ear again. You bite into another ‘organic’ Welsh Cake and trust your munching to bring more. It doesn’t.

 

So how was ‘It’s Never Goodbye’ written? you splutter, all the time shifting the rest of the cake to the side of your mouth. How long did it take? Where did the detailed knowledge of each character come from? How does he approach writing? Mornings? Afternoons? Nine to Five? Longhand? Laptop? And, and … 

He waits for you to run out of questions then looks at his watch. He notices that you are looking at him looking at his watch. It wasn’t expensive he says pointing to the blue-dialled Alessi strapped to his wrist. Have nothing in your house that isn’t either beautiful or useful, he says, quoting William Morris. Or cheap, he adds, quoting himself presumably. You’d noticed on your arrival a large bright yellow kitchen clock, also Alessi, above the yellow twin-cactus shaped kitchen radiator. (You turn your wrist over to hide your fake Rolex)  His foot has stopped jiggling. He’s happy where he is. He’s back to your question. His face contorts as he tries to work out a one-size-fits-all answer that won’t take as long as your questions. In the long silence that follows he could have answered your questions twice over, you think. His answer finally trickles out. First, four words: 

It didn’t just happen, he starts. He’d always been in the habit of jotting down ideas, themes … it all goes back to childhood, he supposes: Words as well as music. You ask for more and discover that there’s a huge analysis of American Popular Song (gathering dust) and many thematic files, articles and commentaries – all concerning the human condition, somewhere in the apartment. But he also has large detailed note pads of ideas. In the event of a fire he’d grab these first. (You can’t help but wonder whether Mk1 wife knows this) He suggests you also look at the acknowledgements page of his book.

 

The Human Voice:

You want to know more about psychological slants on the human condition. Well, he starts; people don’t just judge visually: they listen to each other’s voice, so reaction, one to another, is aural: It’s equally important to him, certainly. He feels there’s no aspect of human behaviour more revealing, more emotionally charged, than the human voice. It can’t tell a lie, like the face. Perhaps his music background helps him better hear these distinctions? Maybe so he muses; maybe so. But it’s there for everyone to pick up on. We’re all members of the Central Casting Agency of life. We know when to run a mile from someone – we know when to get close, give chase even. It’s not just the subconscious that does it – it’s the ear. Sexual desire is brought on by it. Remember Jamie Leigh-Curtis in ‘A Fish called Wanda’? The mere sound of a foreign language can do it! It’s the unwritten notation of human relationships. We perform without the dots. We play by ear. And none of us is tone-deaf.

 

More Welsh Cakes arrive. Enough to feed Napoleon’s retreating army you think. Take your pick he says. He too picks one up. You both munch. You deserve the break. He picks up where he left off. 

Finding your voice as a writer is one thing, but finding the voice of the character is the ultimate challenge he feels. In the world of acting, some people fit so well that they play the same part for life. Others; like Meryl Streep, Anthony Hopkins, can get into a lot of voices. But that’s not the point. It’s the voice you have in the first place that charms him. Listening to people’s voices stimulates his brain into vigorous activity! 

You’re almost too frightened to speak. But you have to. This is your job. You clear your throat and pitch it down a bit. So, Ioan Gruffudd, you croak. Mk1 wife pops in to say goodbye. She’s going on a long hike with like-minded friends from her reading group. He’s forgotten your question. He answers a question you didn’t ask.

 

The words on the page gives the actor a kind of eye-map of the character to be played he supposes. But for him, the task is to hear first, then attempt to give the reader further help by providing the idea of timbre, pitch. Pitch is a many-sided word. It isn’t simply the height or depth of sound or emotion. It’s to do with the innate quality of sound each of us possesses in the first place – before we put false effect or affectation into it – the sympathy gathering tricks of life: We all do it. If you’re a pretty honest kind of person, other people will hear from the sound of that non-acting voice just how hurt or happy you really are. We have an ear for sincerity. It’s all in the sound of your voice. 

You give him another wow nod: this time to tell him you’re going to attend aural-training classes at your local kindergarten. But your next question is dumb – straight out of your kindergarten brain in fact. You ask him about his filing system of all things! But he’s not at all thrown by your query from the cuckoo’s nest. 

His filing system is second to none he says … none would be one better. You try to wipe off the puzzled look on your face and replace it with your very best look of earnest contemplation. And while you’re trying to look like a Rodin sculpture you start wondering whether that was that a Groucho Marx quote you just heard. You wonder whether you should laugh. You play safe. You bring up a half-smile while still wondering. It’s got you thinking you’re thinking at least … Although you think that the thought you had first isn’t the thought you have now. Leave it you think. You can’t think further than the next question. ‘It’s Never Goodbye’ you start … He shoves another sheet to you across the curved coffee table. It’s the back cover of the book he says:

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