Nigel Jenkins Literary Award 2021

I was very pleased to be awarded the inaugural Nigel Jenkins Literary Award. It was presented at a Swansea Fringe festival event to celebrate the life of Nigel who sadly died of pancreatic cancer in 2014, and to launch a new book of his essays: Damned for Dreaming. The award, created and sponsored by Ali Anwar of the H’mm Foundation, was introduced by Jon Gower, and presented by David Britton (both of Swansea University), after which friends and family of Nigel contributed in music and song, poetry and anecdote. Unfortunately there are no photos of the event as the photographer somehow didn’t account for the fact that participants’ faces were all emblazoned with a bright stripe from a projector, creating a contrast that the camera apparently couldn’t cope with. So I may be instantly and ‘award winning writer’ but sadly there is no visual record of me accepting the very handsome award, created by Rodney Bender of Innovative Glass Products.

Itchings of Distinction

A couple of weeks ago this dropped through the letterbox.

MA Creative Writing  (with Distinction) degree certificate.

I knew it was coming, and I knew what result I’d got a couple of months earlier. I’d briefly considered, and quickly dismissed, sharing the outcome back then, and toyed longer with sharing a photo my foster daughter took of me holding the certificate the day it arrived. I could tell myself that wouldn’t be ‘showing off’, but a sweet little evocation of connection with these children that have come to mean so much to me, but are almost invisible to everyone apart from local friends as I can’t include them on social media. I could have posted the picture with a little self-deprecating jibe of the type that has become a prominent strand of my inner monologue (“At least someone is innocent enough to believe that a middle aged graduate paying thousands for yet another worthless piece of paper is something to be proud of.”)

Ant holding his MA  degree certificate

I might come back to what this qualification is “worth” at some point, but one fairly straightforward answer is that, for me, it isn’t worth much unless I make it pay. I don’t particularly mean ‘pay’ in monetary terms. I reckon the chances of recouping the financial outlay are relatively slim, and close to zero if you factor in the money I could potentially have earned while I was doing the course. But the hope of becoming a paid ‘career writer’ is not why I decided to do it. Whenever I mentioned to anyone about doing an(other!) MA, I usually mentioned something along the lines of having a more serious go at creative writing than I ever had before being ‘an itch I needed to scratch’. When I went to the first meeting of staff and students before I started the course, one of the tutors asked me about why I had joined the course. I said something about lots of people over the course of my life having made comments like ‘you really ought to write a book’, and ‘you should get this published’ on the rare occasions I offered anything up for public consumption. “Is that because you’ve had a particularly interesting life?” he asked. “Well, no – far from it,” I had to answer. “I suppose it’s because I can string words together in a way that at least some people find interesting or ‘clever’, but I’ve never pursued it seriously because I don’t think I have much worth saying.”

I’ve never felt (or perhaps have always suppressed?) the drive to be heard, or even the need to write for oneself, that seems to motivate most writers who do persevere through creative blockages and countless rejections to reach the point of being published.

If nothing else, however, doing this MA has given me… Well, I wrote ‘confidence’ there, but have had to self-edit immediately. I don’t feel ‘confidence’ at all. I feel a mix of things, including a degree of frustration and shame that I still don’t feel ‘confident’. It has given me the understanding that I have no right not to be confident in my writing, even if I can’t (yet?) feel it. It has, however, given me some external validation that I do have somethings to say and someways to say them. At the end of his feedback on my extended writing submission, my tutor quoted from Louise Glück (whom I had in turn quoted in an epigraph to my piece):

didn’t we plant the seeds,
weren’t we necessary to the earth,

the vines, were they harvested?

from ‘October’

The seeds have, I suppose, been long planted, and I have been given reason to think I may have vines ready to harvest. I suppose that putting this out there is an attempt to outsource the accountability I am so poor at holding to myself.

(But can I convince myself I am necessary to the earth?

Gerald English with The Jaye Consort: Medieval Music

This is the first record in the series that I bought myself, and still have in my possession. I can’t remember exactly when I got it, but I would have been in my teens, and do recall buying it from a record shop in the Arndale centre in Nelson. I’m not sure exactly what can have triggered an interest in medieval music, but it may well have been linked to a fascination with the history of the period and before (when I won the school Biology prize in 1983 I bought the book of Michael Wood’s ‘In Search of the Dark Ages’ with the book token. I suppose it was a bit of an odd Biology prize when I was presented with it at the awards assembly). I do remember that I sometimes used to tune in to Radio 3, although I’ve never developed a deep knowledge of classical music, and that it was most usually early music that I enjoyed. I remember hearing the name Emma Kirkby a lot, and being transported by recordings of her singing the music of Hildegard of Bingen. My lack of real knowledge was shown up when I started taping a Radio 3 recital on authentic reconstructed instruments, the shagbutt, minikin and Flemish clackett, only to find it was a repeat of a spoof originally produced by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1968 under the moniker Schola Polyphonica Neasdeniensis (and if anyone can find a way of getting this to play, I’d be really grateful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=irqERfuS-iQ). 

With regards to most music, regretfully, I’m really in the “I don’t know much about it but I know what I like” camp, and my knowledge of the ‘classical’ music field is still very patchy, but this record, when I go back to it, has elements that reach forward into all sorts of other things I’ve come to enjoy. There’s the sacred music here that reaches forward to Byrd, Tallis, Taverner and Palestrina, then on to John Tavener, Henryk Gorecki, and Arvo Pärt. There’s the world-music element, with many of these tunes apparently having common roots with Asian or middle-Eastern instrumentation, rhythms and melodies: the sleeve notes are testament to this, describing the sound as “not unlike an Arabian night-club band, and referencing instruments that are ‘played to this day in Tibet’. A particular favourite of more recent musical fusion that I discovered a few years later via John Peel was the German electro-rock-dance-world-fusion band ‘Dissidenten’, whose Krautrock underpinnings were elaborated by Moroccan musicians on their superb ‘Sahara Elektik’ album, and there other moments in this record that I think “that sounds like Tinariwen”, a Tuareg group that I’ve been fortunate enough to see play live.. One of my favourite bands from the 4AD record label that has been the source of my biggest musical obsessions, ‘Dead Can Dance’ drew heavily on medieval and world music: there’s a Saltarello on this album, and on their ‘Aion’ LP. My favourite musical artists by a far, ‘Cocteau Twins’ have, I’ve always felt,  a mediaeval feel to the rhythms and guitar treatment on their ‘Peppermint Pig’ EP, while the title of their song ‘Musette and Drums’ offers more than a nod in that direction too. 

Looking back at the roots of their nation’s culture is for some people a search for a an illusory purity (see all those social media posts featuring heroic knights of St George and white dragons). For me, this record was one of the first clear indicators of just how diverse the origins of ‘English’ culture are.