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Writing for life

Playwright Julian Mitchell discusses the ups and downs of a difficult career choice with Katherine Elliott

Julian Mitchell rightfully points out that the career of a playwright is meticulously difficult. The successful screenwriter, playwright and not quite so successful novelist considers his triumphs fraudulent as he refers to playwrights he knows earning a mere £3,000 a year. The 74-year-old writer has, of his own admission, been uniquely lucky to have a steady influx of work since he first began writing. Only recently was he approached by a West End theatre manager for a stage adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Solider.

For Mitchell, writing has always been integral to existence, “I would die if I didn’t write,” he states with a stern composure, one which reveals just a little of the sheer determination and drive that must lie dormant beneath a more common front of flamboyant charisma and charm.

Indeed, Mitchell began writing at 12-years-old, “I started writing when I was at school, I tried to write a Christmas carol but I didn’t get beyond the first two lines. I wrote my first short story when I was 15.”

Mitchell went onto study history at Oxford University and on graduating was approached by MI6, a life-defining tale he regales amusedly, “It was very innocuous really, I got a letter from MI6 and went to meet them. They were talking about ‘collecting information’ but I couldn’t really think what they were asking me, then it dawned on me and I said, ‘Oh! You want me to be a spy!’

“I think they approached me because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t want a proper job, that’s how I stumbled into writing.”

And so it was almost by chance that Mitchell began his illustrious writing career, launching himself into poetry and writing six novels over seven years, something which he ashamedly admits was not right for him then, “I didn’t really know what I was trying to do writing novels, I thought, am I trying to change society? The truth is I didn’t know, so I lost confidence in myself. I most wanted to be a playwright.”

To date the now theatrically esteemed Mitchell has worked with some of the most pronounced dramatic figures in the UK, including Kenneth Branagh, Rupert Everett, Danny Boyle and the infamous John Thaw, who Mitchell worked with for an extended period of writing on Inspector Morse.

But his career has not been without its problems, “There are three works that I am most proud of, and two of them I mucked up.”

Mitchell insists, although he admits the cliché of it, that the two ‘mucked up’ productions were out of his control, “One was a production that Anthony Hopkins directed. He was very entertaining, one day he would direct as one character, the next as someone else, but he forgot to direct his own actors – the end result was boring.”

The second ‘mucked-up’ production was Arthur, for which Mitchell collaborated with The Kinks’s Ray Davies, turning a song about a carpet layer into a much anticipated teleplay, “Ray and I were brought together by Granada. We were getting along fine and had the actors confirmed when Granada called our producer for a meeting about the budget, but he flannelled it, he completely busked it. Another guy in the meeting said he watched our producer throw the play away, I never forgave him for that,” Mitchell pauses for a moment before he adds, distractingly jovially, “But I think he died or something, maybe he went to America.”

Thankfully, Mitchell’s third production survived any ‘mucking up,’ “My proudest work is Another Country, and the proudest moments of my career are the opening night and the last night of that production.”

Another Country examines public school life through its protagonist, Guy Bennett, looking at the effects of homosexuality and Marxism on his life. During its West End run the role of Guy was played sequentially by the then unknown actors Rupert Everett, Daniel Day-Lewis and Colin Firth, “We had no idea how the performances were going to go,” explains Mitchell, “We had great difficulty getting it on because we had no star. The only reason we got a producer was because his wife was a friend of ours. But on the first night, the audience went wild. Then on the last night, the production was sold out and I couldn’t get a seat. We didn’t sell the seats in the Gods so I went and sat up there on my own, and,” he pauses, “and I cried.”

Though he may select these three productions as his most memorable works Mitchell has written copiously for television, stage and screen and admits there are countless other works lying untouched in his Welsh home. And is retirement even a remote option? “I don’t think I would enjoy retirement. I want to see the whole world before I die.”

A written addiction

Gregson's second novel, entitled Empire of the Sun made it to Richard and Judy's shortlist for summer reads

Gregson's second novel, entitled Empire of the Sun made it to Richard and Judy's shortlist for summer reads

Julia Gregson has been a freelance journalist for Rolling Stone, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Sydney Morning Herald and Cosmopolitan. Her second novel, East of the Sun, has recently been awarded the title of Romantic Novel of the Year. 

Author Julia Gregson holds herself with a delicate elegance that reveals nothing of the fast-paced, thrilling career she has made for herself so prominently. The now 61-year-old journalist turned novelist has recently received the coveted award of Romantic Novel of the Year for her second publication, East of the Sun, and is already working on her next novel. But for Gregson, a venture into the world of romanticism has been bred by a life of travel, conflict and rock stars.

 As a journalist she travelled the world interviewing the likes of Bob Dylan and Muhammad Ali, the latter at just 24-years-old, “I stayed with Muhammed Ali for four days while he was training, it was a very challenging interview,” she explains as a reminiscent smile creeps across her face, “I never really knew what mood he was going to be in. “One day I would come down and he would be stood in front of the mirror in his satin shorts turning round to me saying ‘Don’t you think I’m the sexiest person alive?’ and the next he would be lecturing me on Islam and what rampant little foxes women are.

 “On another occasion I returned to my hotel room to find it covered in packets of unopened condoms. I think at the time I was very young and very well spoken, ‘like the Queen,’ Ali would say, I think he was trying to test me.”

Though Gregson refers to her interviews with Ali, Dylan and others of similar stature (including Ronnie Biggs) with a generic nonchalance, she doesn’t repute the fact her life experience has influenced her now renowned and popular fiction writing, “My inspiration comes from chance encounters with people and places that excite me, they are moments of creativity that turn me on.”

At 61, she is arguably older than the average writer to have their first work published, but she adamantly confesses there is no way she could have written the book in her 20s, “I couldn’t have written a novel when I first started writing, I didn’t have the belief in myself or even the desire.”  She amusingly refers to a 40-year-old friend of hers who has just written her first published piece as a, ‘young writer’ and admits success at an early age would have gone to her head, “People start being a lot nicer to you the minute you’re a success. Agents start taking you out for lunch and are very eager to please. I think if I’d had that in my 20s it would have gone to my head, and if I hadn’t kept up that success I’d have been left pushed off my perch.”

From her tranquil home in a small Monmouthshire village, Gregson is now working on her next novel, something which has hastily developed following the success of her most recent work, “The minute my book won the Romantic Novel of the Year award my publisher was after another,” she explains. 

Her latest tale is of a Welsh girl who travels to Beirut and Cairo. As part of her research Gregson has only recently returned from the Egyptian capital, “For me travelling to new places is the most blissful form of travel, my senses are on red alert and I get really excited by it.”

With a father in the Royal Air Force, Gregson spent her youth travelling all over the world, spending at most two and a half years in each place, “Travelling with my father made me very adaptable, and very sensitive to the atmospheres of the places we lived.”

She began her career as a journalist in Australia but was reluctant to stay settled for too long, “I like to scare myself, to push myself forward. There comes a point where you fall into a loop and end up doing the same things everyday.”

Gregson considers her journalism career as something to be treasured, “How much more interesting can life get than spending two or three hours with someone who has done something extraordinary? It would be many people’s nightmare to go to a party and know no-one, but I thrive on that, I am so interested in people.”

It is this unrivalled intrigue and interest that oozes from Gregson. She listens as though taking in everything about a person, she studies their mannerisms, their features and their words – but in the most unassumingly, placid nature – so as not to appear intimidating or obtrusive. I am sure it is these qualities that have gained her the respect and success she so unequivocally deserves, Julia Gregson was, undoubtedly, born to be a writer.

And is writing something she will retire from? “I hope I will never stop writing, I love it, or maybe love is not the right word, it’s an addiction. I am addicted to writing.”

Made in Margate

This is a piece I wrote for new craft magazine MADE.

Zoe and some pieces of her work

Zoe and some pieces of her work

It is not uncommon for designer Zoe Murphy to stay up working for 48 hours straight. In fact, the self-confessed workaholic barely has time to recognise the nationwide critical acclaim her uniquely captivating pieces of furniture have already started receiving.

Since the 22-year-old graduated from university last year her furniture design business has gone into overdrive, with spreads appearing in the national press – Grazia and The Observer to name but two – and orders coming in from as far flung as Bulgaria and Beirut.

But with her feet firmly on the ground, Zoe is quick to dismiss such high praises, “It’s hard to put into words,” she begins modestly, “but I just can’t appreciate all the attention fully because it’s almost like all this is a dream. I work so incredibly hard I hope I deserve the attention I get, but it just seems to pass me by in a flurry of hard work – does that make sense?”

Take a look at Zoe’s pieces and it’s easy to see why the young designer is becoming such a hit. Her designs are bright, kooky and – as Zoe is keen to point out – ethically sound. “I trawl flea markets and car-boot sales to find abandoned pieces of furniture I can revive. All my pieces are recycled, the environment is something I feel very strongly about.”
This ethical awareness is something Zoe feels has greatly influenced the level of media attraction she receives, “My work ticks all the boxes – it’s colourful, quirky and very ethical. The press seem to really like that.”

It’s personal

What also gives her work a particular uniqueness is the very personal edge Zoe devotes to all her furniture. “My work is inspired by my home town of Margate – which I absolutely adore. Most people who come here think it’s a bit grimy and run down but I just love it.”
She admits the run down seaside resort is well past its prime but insists this adds to its charm. “It’s quite amusing really. There’s a really ugly apartment block on the seafront which everyone here hates but I feature it in a lot of my work. So many people comment on how funky the pattern looks – little do they know!”

Zoe relies on a series of specialist techniques to produce her furniture the most frequent of which is screen printing – something she became expert at while studying at university. “Screen printing works really well on flat surfaces – which makes it ideal for all my tables and chairs. I also work with fabric dye a lot. I recently made a footstool out of dyed silk from wedding dresses.”

And what certainly cannot be overlooked is Zoe’s acute attention to detail. From the original hint of an idea, to the delivery. “I deliver many of my pieces to clients by hand,” she explains, “I’ll hire a van and drive it to people myself.” To many this might seem a tad over laborious, but for Zoe it is a chance to see her work come alive. “I love delivering the pieces to clients. I might not always have time to do so but while I can I’ll enjoy it.”

The design starlet admits starting the business so soon after university hasn’t been easy, “I have had to overcome a few skill-related problems. I am not a carpenter so remodelling wood furniture has proved difficult – but that’s half the fun of it, right?!”

What Zoe may lack in woodworking skill she can certainly make up for in utter determination to succeed, “I have worked incredibly hard for everything I have achieved so far. But it’s paid off – I can honestly say I am doing my dream job.” A dream job which has already got the design world begging at her feet.

Capturing Cardiff

Cardiff’s Hope for Welsh Independence

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A report published by the National Assembly Commission last October revealed a fifth of young people aged between 18 and 24 years of age were for a fully independent Wales. Surprisingly popularity for the movement was least apparent in South East Wales – including Cardiff – where only eight percent of the general population considered Welsh independence a priority.

As a capital city, Cardiff should be a patriotic representative of the Welsh people, their beliefs, their morals and their pride as a nation. Instead many young people making up Cardiff’s population feel not enough is being done to promote the real Wales, the Wales behind the the buzz of the capital. External influences are increasingly seen to be overtaking the traditional values of the Welsh people – as is Cardiff’s close proximity to the English border. These factors are now being blamed for a lack of support for independence apparent in Cardiff’s younger generation. 

Wales’s first movement towards independence came in 1997 with the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales, followed by the Government of Wales Act in 1998. The Government of Wales Act allowed legal separation between the National Assembly for Wales as a legislature with powers to pass Welsh laws and the Welsh Assembly Government as the executive body. These political milestones were seen as huge successes for the people of Wales who had frequently campaigned for such independent movements during the latter part of the 20th Century. The youth of today appear to hold none of the concerns their previous generation fought for so passionately. It is now up to those who did, and still do, campaign to ask why the young people of Cardiff appear to be so reluctant. 

“It has always been a challenge trying to get young people involved in politics,” says Assembly Member for Plaid Cymru – the Welsh National Party – Chris Franks, “there are too many other attractions for them.”

When the question of Welsh independence was posed to two youngsters shopping in Cardiff’s Queen Street the answer was immediate, “I think Wales should stay the way it is,” said 13-year-old Olivia Chinnock from Pontypridd, 12-year-old Shannon Gerry agreed, “I think it’s fine the way it is. I don’t think Wales should separate from England.”

Cardiff's iconic structures attract thousands of Welsh people but aren't seen to reflect the true heart of Wales

Cardiff's iconic structures attract thousands of Welsh people but aren't seen to reflect the true heart of Wales

“It is not the same in Cardiff”

Caryl Wyn Jones is a 22-year-old student from North Wales. She moved to Cardiff to study Law and Politics at Cardiff University and whilst there founded the university’s first Cymru X society – Cymru X is the youth wing of Plaid Cymru. Caryl believes a loss of basic Welsh values in the capital are to blame for a reluctance among young people to support Welsh independence, “I was brought up in North Wales where everyone speaks Welsh. It is not the same in Cardiff.

Young demonstrators gather in Cardiff to promote the Welsh Language

Rhys Jones is just one young demonstrator gathering in Cardiff to promote the Welsh language

“Children are not brought up speaking Welsh because their parents don’t speak Welsh and they don’t have that same sense of Welsh heritage as people from North Wales have. Plus we are so close to the border here in Cardiff, I think people forget they are in Wales.” 

Caryl’s feelings are echoed by other young members of Welsh societies based in and around Cardiff. Rhys Jones, 18, a sixth form student from Merthyftudful is a keen member of the Welsh Language Society. Rhys blames the university culture for a loss of  Welsh traditions in Cardiff, “The students who come here are not Welsh and do not speak Welsh. They influence Cardiff too much.” 

Even Cardiff’s modern landmarks are felt to misrepresent the true heart of Wales. Iconic structures such as the Millennium Stadium and the Assembly building stand as passionate reminders of a proud Welsh nation but both Chris Franks and Caryl Wyn Jones agree they do not represent the real Wales, “They’re great – they attract thousands of Welsh people,” says Caryl, “but they’re not Welsh in nature and heart.”

The Future

Both Plaid Cymru representatives feel a recent surge in bilingual prominence within the city will help promote Welsh tradition and hopefully feed a desire for independence in the future, “Give it five or ten years and Cardiff should be where we want it to be,” says Caryl. Chris Franks has no doubt Wales will see independence, “I don’t know how long it will take – but it will happen.

“Independence has not traditionally been on the agenda for Cardiff but there has been vast improvement over recent years and we will achieve independence in the future.”

Though arguments that Cardiff is not holding on to traditional Welsh values are abundant no one can truly doubt the sincerity and patriotism of the Welsh people wherever they might reside and whatever age they may be. Whether or not a nation once so set on independence will achieve what so many hope for remains to be seen. In the meantime Cardiff will continue to grow as a city set on modernities. But if the young people of Cardiff’s surroundings could say one thing to those living in their capital it would be – remember you are living in the capital of Wales. 

Proud to be Welsh?

Cardiff Google Map

Several of the interviewees I spoke to were asked to decide what part of Cardiff made them feel most proud to be Welsh. The answers are displayed below.

Good journalism?

I am interested to know what indeed people consider ‘good’ journalism to be? Is it journalism that’s quick? Or accurate? Or well-informed?

Leave me a comment and let me know.

I wonder if there will be a generic code for ‘good journalism’ or whether people require different traits?

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