Glyn Evans: A Life on the Edge
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“You’re always an outsider on an island like this.” We see a close up of a metal halide bulb reflect in the mirrors of a powerful lantern. As the camera zooms out, the tower of a lighthouse is revealed, the white surf lashing against sharp black rocks. A ferocious wind rips through the air. We hear the voice again, shouting to be heard over the elements: “There is no interior!” The profile of a man’s face in shadow comes into view, the lighthouse receding into the background. “Only what’s in here!” he blasts, staring out across the channel between the headland and the lighthouse, tapping his temple. The lantern is glowing against the darkening sky. The light is fading. The picture is grainy. Another voice speaks, clearer, closer to the microphone. A voice of sudden concern: “I said, you want to step back from the edge?” The camera refocuses, blurring in and out, grappling with the last of the light as the man turns slightly toward the lens, buffeted by the gale, transfixed by the view out to sea. The man behind the camera raises his voice: “You don’t need to be quite so close to the edge…” He does not reply. There is only the sound of the wind. We fade to black and a caption fills the screen: Glyn Evans: A Life on the Edge.
Chimes of slow, stretched guitar unfurl in striking contrast to the sped-up footage from an in-car camera. We are racing through single track lanes and one street hamlets, past boarded-up churches and standing stones sprouting from fallow fields. We pass signs for the RAF, a nuclear power station, bed and breakfast and MOT. The sea wall runs alongside us now, rain whipping in. A dual carriage-way. Speed. The unexpected modernity of the rusty, dockside kind. Get in lane.
Narrator: “We’re on the main route to the ferry, Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire, but we’re going to turn off into Holyhead itself. This is no day trip to Dublin. We’re here to discover what it’s like to be a writer on the physical margins of Britain’s literary life. We’re here to create a portrait of Glyn Evans.”
The car is stationary. The indicator light tick-tocks. Thick gobbets of rain spatter the windscreen. We see the frame shake as the driver gets out and slams the door behind him. He is speaking to an elderly woman holding an umbrella she is unwilling to share. They are looking back down the road and pointing, making turns with their hands snaking in the air. It’s a rave in the headlights to the rev of the engine. Hunched, half-running, he is back in the car.
Narrator: “I didn’t know then that this film could never be finished. The contact details were vague: a postcode covering a wide area with few properties on the west side of the mountain, heading down towards Treaddur.”
Now we see the house. Looming on the headland overlooking Porth yr Afon, the neo-Georgian pile dominates the horizon. A battery of chimney stacks castellate the enormous roof. He is out of the car again and rushing up the steep pathway, consumed by the shadows of the imposing veranda. We catch a glimpse of the front door opening and he turns towards us before stepping inside. Again, we fade to black.
Narrator: “The chances are you’re not familiar with the work of the Welsh novelist Glyn Evans. Few are.”
The camera reveals a tight terraced street and the gates of an imposing secondary school.
Narrator: “Born in Ysbyty Gwynedd in 1984, Glyn Evans grew up in a single parent family here in Holyhead. While his mother Iris juggled a string of part-time jobs, Evans learned to be self-reliant at an early age and was often left to the prodigious device of his own imagination.”
We see an extreme close-up of a man (unidentified) in his early thirties squinting into the distance, speaking over the wind: “Oh yeah… fiercely intelligent. But you could tell he wasn’t motivated by what the teachers wanted, what they thought was best for him… nah, he was motivated by his own ideas…”
We find ourselves in a well-appointed living room, the grey sea visible in the distance through the window.
Michael Rhys, former head teacher: “He had enormous talent as a young student. Regrettably, he was never able to capitalise on that success academically. He lost his mother as he was applying for university… But Glyn was very much the autodidact, you know? School was just a place of access for him. He didn’t need a university to get where he wanted to go…”
A middle-aged woman enters a domestic study in conversation with the narrator. She sits behind a desk surrounded by framed editions of a literary magazine.
Narrator: “Despite this set-back, at a formative age Evans’ early writing showed promise. Clara Roberts, editor of Welsh literary journal, Pen/insula, remembers…”
Clara: “…clear from his early work, couple of poems, extracts from his first novel, that his ideas, his creative instincts, were fully formed even at that point. He guest edited an issue of ours and [laughs] immediately we were the ones hanging onto his coattails. Must have been all that wind on Holy Island. He seemed to take it with him wherever he went.”
Narrator: “It all sounded so promising…”
Here we cut away from Clara’s face. Again, we see the footage of the grainy blur of the narrator disappearing into the shadows of the veranda. Now we see a montage of stills, presumably rooms inside the building. A man of indeterminate age sits wrapped in layers of clothing, hunched over a desk obscured by papers, books, mugs, glasses, a screen and a keyboard. Slumped over his work, the photograph has been taken from behind as he half looks up through the window, out to sea. The shelves, tables and floor are almost entirely obscured by paraphernalia.
Clara: “Burdock picked up his first novel then got jumpy. The crash hit. Said they couldn’t take the risk, couldn’t promote him: bleak, literary fiction set in North Wales wasn’t chiming with the mood.”
We cut to a book-lined office with an airy, corporate feel. A besuited man sinks into a black leather chair.
Guy Wallace, former editor, Burdock Publishing: “I was replaced and despite the obvious visionary quality of his prose, Burdock and the partners got cold feet. Seen it happen before but this was vicious. There was a massive refocus as the redundancies hit. Evans’ first novel, The White Eagle, was a casualty of that era.”
Clara: “The fact that The White Eagle was published at all was incredible – the book itself was a force of nature – but the hardship and the isolation he endured, I don’t mean just physically but in his calling too… it’s remarkable that he finished it at all.”
We see the streets of Bangor now, back across the Menai Straits. The interior of a bookshop.
Angela Ginnis, Strait Reads: “The White Eagle is an extraordinary book. It was a slow burner and particularly unusual as we wouldn’t normally stock self-published titles. We made an exception and this is where it found its initial audience, amongst the students and then the wider readership – people crying out for something that speaks to their own vernacular. Within a few months it started to put this part of the world on the literary map. Genius really: the titular bird that’s not indigenous here, doesn’t really exist yet there are sightings, rumours. It’s between two worlds – I always thought it was autobiographical, surely?”
Clara is speaking again from her study. The ambient score has revived now, the strings swelling beneath the narration: “I guess it was despair at the lack of commercial success – you start to wonder if it’s your face that doesn’t fit… or maybe where you’re from?”
Angela: “Hard to think that in this digital ‘connected’ world these things still count, but I used to go and visit Glyn out there, in that wind and rain. It never felt very connected. Far from the ‘global village’ that we’re all supposed to live in these days.”
Fade to black. The footage from the start reappears. Evans’ voice: “You’re always an outsider on an island like this. There is no interior, only what’s in here!”
There is only the roar of the wind. The final frame freezes. Recommendations appear. Up next. Counting down. The revolving circle. Skip this ad in 5 4 3 2 1…
The Mancunian Way
Glyn Evans – The Final Interview
by Penny Meadows 20th January 2019 IN MEMORIAM
In the early days of the new year, I found myself watching and re-watching an unfinished documentary uploaded to YouTube about the Welsh author Glyn Evans. As rumours of his untimely death swirled around Twitter, the documentary was removed. His tragic death at the age of thirty-five comes only days after I travelled to Anglesey to interview him for my first major feature for The Mancunian Way.
Evans was a writer who had gained sudden cult-like status with his first self-published novel, The White Eagle. From the very first page, I became a disciple, preaching about the qualities of the book at every opportunity, long before the current talk of posthumous prizes and Bloomsbury securing the rights for further print runs. I think back to this scene from the start of the novel:
Downstairs, soap opera theme tunes soundtrack the night. One voice then two voices, jabbing, thrown like punches. A plate of food against the wall, doors slamming. Upstairs in the eyrie of my bedroom, I draw my knees closer to my chest, there is nowhere left to go. I blink – the single slow beat of an eagle’s wing – my eyes heavy and sore.
Seventeen-year-old Ceri reflects on the misery of her homelife and contemplates the fine line between the inner sanctuary of herself and the world around her. The White Eagle is a coming-of-age story, but it’s also about the constraints of growing up, as I did, in an isolated town where everyone knows everyone and all signs point back to where you’re already standing. Evans’ vivid realisation of this through the eyes of a young woman on the verge of adulthood resonated with me. His writing became a powerful agent of healing in my own recovery, knowing that someone else could understand and articulate the pain I too had felt.
Having spent most of his twenties knocking on the door of literary salons both real and virtual with little success, Evans became a notoriously reluctant interviewee, often refusing to participate in what he regarded as a London-centric media circus. “Ask around,” was the advice he sent me in lieu of an address, when to my surprise, he agreed to meet me – a rookie writer at the start of my career – to discuss The White Eagle and his forthcoming plans. I couldn’t believe my luck. It had been an audacious shot in the dark, but once it entered into my head I couldn’t resist the idea that my own anonymity might be the very thing to gain access to the author closest to my heart.
By the time I arrived in Holyhead, I was plagued by doubts: what was I doing? How could this work? Having scoped out the port in all of ten minutes, the paradox of my situation hit me with full force: there I was in a small town on the farthest edge of the island, yet it may as well have been a metropolis, for I had no real idea how to track Evans down. “Ask around” meant approaching random strangers. What would be the response? You’re a small-town girl, I told myself, that’s why you’re here. You know how it works: draw on your experience. Then I remembered the hostility and the constant judgement and the way that ranks would close. You can never truly forget. I felt the desperate need for a foil, a better reason to be there. What currency did I have with no address beyond the town itself and the hope that Evans would make good on his word whilst famously spurning the advances of real journalists? I started to rehearse my excuses to my editor. How could I ask Evans’ whereabouts without coming off like a stalker? Rumours were there’d been a few, none of whom were well received.
That special connection between the reader and the author that gets to you can never be one sided. A dialogue of sorts begins. You show up at the page, eager to see, to know and to share. Revelations abound that speak to your soul with words that confirm what you have always known but not yet realised. With every step I took on the streets of Holyhead, my dialogue as a reader with Glyn Evans the writer inscribed itself into reality. Hardly able to believe it, there I was: one foot in front of the other in the real world. I thought of the moment in The White Eagle, when Ceri is scrambling up the headland against the ferocity of the wind and we start to understand that she is also battling conventional wisdom on a much wider scale:
It was fenced off. Military land, private land – it was all the same to me. It was only when the planes had stopped that the bird had become more adventurous – that I had become more adventurous. The map was no good, too little detail for my purposes. Plus, I wasn’t going to be seen standing on the headland with an OS sheet flapping around like laminated wings of my own. I kept it folded in my jacket pocket. I rejected pages and print for the contours of an unfamiliar reality. I pushed down on the lower section of the fence where it was already sagging and ducked beneath the barbed wire. On the other side, the ground beneath my boots was the same and yet everything was different now. I was behind the lines in this hinterland where I no longer knew the limits of what was possible. I ascended the tufty incline, keeping my body low with one eye on the Nissen huts down in the valley, and at the top I slid straight down onto my belly, binoculars already in hand. Propped up on my elbows I surveyed the cliff above the bay. There it was, the tell-tale marking: white streaks on the rock beneath the ledge. I was getting closer.
Ceri believes the bird exists even though it’s impossible. Yet for her their connection is real, as she pursues it through the island’s hidden places, navigating by rumoured sightings, rural myths and her intuition. With the book open in front of me now, I trace my finger along the gaps between the words on the page: I had to find my own hidden places when I was Ceri’s age. The relationship between Ceri and the white eagle is private yet out there, exposed to the scrutiny of anyone who takes an interest because there is nowhere to hide in a small town. Ceri’s discovery of the white eagle is, of course, her own self-discovery. She cannot explain, she cannot even begin, but she knows that the path she is following is right. In pursuing the eagle, she has found a way to be herself: she is loosening the shackles of others’ expectations.
Approaching the random townsfolk of Holyhead like some dirt-digging tabloid hack was my own ascent of that ‘tufty incline’, cowering, yet in full view of anyone who noticed. Plunged back inside my teenage self, my own skin became an ill-fitting suit once more, my increasing desperation to gain someone’s attention, to start a conversation, meant eye-contact was now utterly beyond me. These were feelings of insecurity long since buried, far removed from the adult I am now, accustomed to negotiating Manchester city centre with ease. I had to dig deep, drawing on the experience and determination separating me from my younger self. I thought of those rare occasions when I did manage to engineer the freedom to pursue my own grand flights of imagination. It was only then that I found myself able to scale the fences that otherwise kept me penned in. Deep inside my own hidden place I still knew how Ceri felt as her own confidence waxed and waned in the book. Evans’ writing was the balm that soothed. Instead of sugar coating the bitter taste of experience, it offered an eloquent exposé of a sensibility I recognised all too well. In that moment, on Holyhead high street, it helped me to find the confidence I needed to pursue my own convictions about life and what I was doing, all over again.
It’s hard to believe that the first few people I approached had never heard of Glyn Evans, maybe they were protective of their sensitive poet, besieged by metropolitans. But finally, as my approach to striking up conversation became more relaxed, his name registered recognition and I was directed to an old boozer near the terminal.
There are no clear published photographs of Glyn Evans in circulation, just grainy half-shots and blurry stills from the recent and controversial documentary. When I found him, sitting alone staring out towards the sea in The Last Catch, he was wiry and more gaunt than I’d expected. Strands of greying hair curled out from beneath the woolly hat he kept on throughout the time we spent together. His eyes were dark, peering out from between a fortification of hat, hair and beard, and several collars formed concentric creases around his neck. When we spoke, I was calling to him, deep down beyond all those layers. I joined him with a pint of stout, placing another one down by his empty glass, waiting patiently for him to surface.
“Must be after something…” he said, still looking through the window.
Reflecting on the interview after his sudden passing, it would be a travesty to re-evaluate my impressions of Glyn Evans and pretend I was not shocked by what I discovered next. I had imagined finally meeting him to be the moment where the words of his novel would rise off the page to take human form, as when the Eagle first reveals itself to Ceri at the climax of the story. Instead, I found an old-school chauvinist who asked me if my husband knew where I was, while back in his rented room he slurred about “these snowflakes mis-under-standing my work”, barking at me to “put the kettle on, make yourself useful.” During several sessions over the time I spent in Holyhead, all I had learned about hope from that book corroded before my eyes, as even casual conversation was steeped in the dregs of a colonial mindset. I will never forget his last words to me as he steadied himself in the doorway, the whisky repeating on him as he looked me up and down: “How… d’you intend to pay me?”
It broke my heart to discover that the man who wrote so eloquently of escaping a certain kind of narrow-mindedness, embodied it so wholeheartedly in the flesh. The man was no match for the words he produced, yet the experience has somehow elevated the power of his craft – how could he write with such sensitivity, such empathy? The contrast is a testament to a lost, great writer that we never really had and a reminder why we should never meet our heroes.
You can read the final interview with Glyn Evans here.
Glyn Evans – A Life
Extract from the autobiography of Welsh writer Glyn Evans, published posthumously, Atlantic, 2064
You hear it less now, but back then it was the liberty bell that rang loudest, drowning out everything else. To my ears it always had a hollow ring. Everyone wants freedom, everyone wants choice: from your child’s school to the Dish where your MiSteak is grown. People want freedom for themselves but they just don’t want it for anyone else. They want you fixed right where they can see you.
I was fixed by other people’s expectations. The Eagle had done surprisingly well for a self-published novel, but sales had plateaued. I seemed to spend all my time trying to talk to people, leaving anxious voicemails, speculative emails, self-conscious requests to follow back. All that followed was silence. I wasn’t academic, I was raw. I wasn’t on the circuit, I was reading to a border collie who had nowhere else to go. I wasn’t English, I was Welsh, but I wasn’t Welsh enough. I could barely call it a second language – maybe a second language once removed. I cursed my own heritage. I would gaze across the Irish Sea towards Dublin, immerse myself in the briny memoirs of romantically exiled Orcadians, and obsess over Scotland’s literary giants, most of whom spoke less of their own languages than I did mine. It didn’t matter to them. They’d found a way to co-opt their own cultures and take them forward.
I decided to co-opt my own culture; I decided to use the weight of other people’s expectations against them. Darren Ginnis was an old school friend just a few vowels short of a far greater heritage. When Darren shared a rough mockumentary about Holyhead on a Facebook group, we got the idea of using his skills to create a short, promotional film about me as a writer. Our first efforts were direct and stagey. Even to ourselves we were dull. I began to see more clearly the kind of person this writer was expected to be: someone as far removed from the London literati as from myself. I had found a way to give them the caricature of the Celtic writer they craved. The problem was that I remained entirely unconvincing in my new role: writing is my forte, acting is not. So we created a promotional film in which the subject was almost entirely absent. To compensate for the missing author, Darren created a mysterious, fractured narrative, roughly edited and packaged as found footage waiting to be discovered.
The idea of a cantankerous, reclusive genius was pitched to prick the ears of literary agents in London. By referring to me in the past tense, and wheeling out key people from my life, rumours of my death gathered pace. Within a few days our film went viral. The literary world scrambled to say something, anything, about the tragic loss of this underappreciated talent.
It was a dizzying time. I was inundated with emails from agents and publishers high-wiring their words to balance restraint with lunges for the rights to The Eagle. No longer Glyn Evans, I became Sir/Madam, whom it may concern, the estate of Glyn Evans. Between the uploading of the film and my eventual engagement with the very publishers who had ignored my advances for so long, I watched the real me fall away from an increasingly vertiginous viewpoint. They were ‘sorry for my loss’.
It is still difficult to convey the utter joy of replying to United Agents, confirming that ‘contrary to popular rumour, I can assure you that Glyn Evans is alive and well and willing to discuss matters pertaining to representation and publishing rights regarding The White Eagle…’. What happened next still feels incredible, all these years on.
The bidding war for The Eagle ensured that Ellie Wolstencroft, my newfound agent, was able to drive the hardest of bargains in my favour. No need to explain about the rumours or the film, she assured me, nothing linked them directly to me. I wasn’t to be drawn on internet gossip. The marketing was taken care of already: the exposure and the audience were there. I was to concentrate on the final draft of Striations, my second novel and the cornerstone of my new agreement with Canongate. That was when I first heard the name Penny Meadows.
Canongate were increasingly nervous about the negative impact of an article circulating online from a little-known Manchester-based journal. The Mancunian Way had published a snide obituary of sorts linking to an interview with me, both written by Penny Meadows, a self-confessed ‘disciple’ of my work. Having made the pilgrimage from Manchester to Holyhead, Meadows claimed to have spent several days with me, trying to reconcile my “old-school chauvinism”, and “colonial mind-set” with the author to whom she had so deeply connected through the pages of The Eagle. In the wake of my ‘death’, the interview and article were an incredible coup for both journalist and journal. Both were undermined by one crucial fact: I had never met Penny Meadows.
Canongate wanted to instigate proceedings immediately. They felt the case for defamation was strong and the threat of legal action would be enough for The Mancunian Way to withdraw the piece and set the record straight. I was less convinced. The article had shaken me, the damage was done. My life was changing before my eyes and now all I could see was the prospect of lawyers, courts and more negative press. Success seemed so close, yet precariously balanced. Canongate were steadfast: it was a deal-breaker.
I had only known Ellie a few weeks, but we both knew from the start that our relationship would be more than business. She took a holiday let in Treaddur for a couple of days to ‘gain a real sense of who I was as a client’ and experience my ‘natural habitat’. Coffee and lunch over paperwork became a languid drive around the hair-pinned coast, pulling over at viewpoints and talking about anything and everything… except the book or the deal. I expected to return home at the end of the evening, but the end of the evening never came.
Ellie was smart. And fiercely protective. She contacted Meadows under the pretence of representing her and Meadows, predictably, was hungry for the bait. She first agreed to meet Ellie in a hotel bar, Manchester city centre, where she discovered that the prospect of representation was a ruse and I was still alive. Agitated, convinced by her own lies, she challenged Ellie to provide an alibi for my whereabouts when the interview supposedly took place. A barman approached the table, asked her to lower her voice and she was gone, storming out onto Oxford Road.
Some days later, Ellie tracked her down to a basement flat in Whalley Range. Caught off guard or just surprised to see Ellie’s face at the door, she seemed to accept that the game was up. She broke down and started to tell her sob story about the career that had failed to take off, the debts and the desperation, her need for some sort of recognition in the hope that it might finally bring what she thought Ellie had come to offer. The Mancunian Way pulled the article and deleted it from their archives. An apology was published, low key but definitive.
We formalised the deal with Canongate later that week. It changed everything. After the intensity of that period, I left the goldfish bowl of Holy Island. There were too many questions, too many intrusions, it became impossible to get anything done. At the end of May, Ellie found us our first apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where we lost ourselves in the metropolis. Where better to become anonymous than in one of the world’s most densely populated cities?
But I couldn’t forget Penny Meadows. In the late afternoons and early evenings, I would walk down the East River towards the beach or Transmitter Park, trying to iron out little creases in the plot of Striations, and I would imagine her approaching me in a side street or stepping out from a blind corner. Then she began to appear in my dreams, not often, but often enough. Nerves, perhaps? Now I’d got this far there were expectations, not all of them my own. Self-doubt gnawed away at me: imposter syndrome – the artist’s disease.
It happened less and less as time went by, but with the publication of each subsequent novel, rumours of a pay-off would resurface in the press, and for a while the nightmares would resume. In her own way, Meadows succeeded in keeping herself in the limelight, although her real name – Antonia Duckworth – remains as obscure as her motives for hounding me.
Based in Manchester, Lee Ashworth is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is also co-creator of the Manchester Art Authority, exhibiting original artwork at Home Open and Head to the Hills Festival. He has written on film and music for The Double Negative and Louder Than War, where he was also film reviews editor. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.