FIRST PERSON: Newport writer can’t resist the pull of his home city
11:30am Wednesday 28th August 2013 in News
THE WAVE: Newport writer and teacher John Gimblett has published two detective novels set in the city, featuring several local landmarks
POET and teacher John Gimblett, 53, is the author who has created the Newport private eye Ed Wall. He talks to MARIA WILLIAMS about the sherry-drinking detective, his childhood in Bettws and travels in Asia.
"WHEN I was small, all I ever wanted for Christmas was either a typewriter or a monkey.
I didn't get them - I had to wait until I left school to buy myself a typewriter. I never got the monkey - and having seen them in places like India, I'm glad I didn't. They can be nasty creatures.
I grew up in Bettws in the 1960s and 1970s. It was thoroughly working class because everyone worked.
It was the era of Harold Wilson's Labour. When you went to somewhere like Pill in those days, where the houses had outside toilets, Bettws looked so modern. It was Europe's biggest housing estate when it was built.
Until I was eight I was an only child - I have a younger brother and sister - and was mainly brought up by my mother Avril Gerry.
We lived on the edge of Bettws and it was basically the countryside. Kids would go out in the morning, come back for a jam sandwich for lunch, and be back out in the afternoon, roaming the farmer's fields. When we had snow which cut off the estate, we would have to go out with a bucket and get the farmer to milk the cow for us.
My mother liked to read Catherine Cookson and Danielle Steel, and although there were not loads of books in the house, there were books. I loved Enid Blyton, the Famous Five and Secret Seven.
I remember saving up my birthday money to buy a hard-backed version of a Secret Seven book, because I had never had a hard-back before.
I started writing when I was around 15.
I was an Argus paper boy and when I was a teenager, I wanted to be a journalist because I wanted to write, and had a tour of the offices, saw the papers coming off the press. But though I have written travel articles and reviews, I never became a journalist.
When I was 18 I had my first short story published in a literary magazine up north. It was called The Insane Pelican.
When I was a teenager I went straight from Enid Blyton to the French existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Andre Gide.
In 1978, I left school with with 2 A levels and 5 O levels - they were poor grades though, so I went to evening classes a few years later and re-sat English, and added a third A level after that, law.
But people from Bettws then didn't do things like go to university.
I bummed around and stayed up all night writing. I was basically unemployable.
In the mid 1980s, I got so fed up with Thatcher that I bought a one-way ticket to India. Then I had to come back to Newport for family reasons.
I think there's an invisible piece of elastic around, say, the Transporter Bridge, which pulls me back.
Anyone from Newport will know you can never escape it.
When I moved to London later, a city of seven or eight million people, I met a woman from three streets away in Bettws and moved back.
But I went to India then Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Sumatra. for five months. It changed me, the humanity and humility.
You really won't find anyone more generous and kind people than poor Indians. I stayed in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, lived with them for a while. And I spent some time in Kashmir, talking to Imams, discussing the Koran. I am interested in different religions.
If I quote something from Christianity, Buddhism, Islam or Judaism, I do it because I have read the books and studied it. I call myself a best-fit Buddhist.
Now, things are different. I was talking to my best friend's daughter on Skype in the rainforest in Borneo the other day. Then, if you were in Kashmir, you had no link to the western world.
I worked for 14 years in Newport library, and I was writing the whole time. While I worked there, my first book of poetry, Mister John, was published.
The most-borrowed books there were always crime books.
People love them, and crime fiction is what I like to read for pleasure. I like Scandinavian crime novels like those by Henning Mankell, and books by Mo Hayder. I'm interested in the thriller side of crime fiction rather than the police side of it.
My best friend is a big fan of Elmore Leonard, who died recently, but I'm less interested in American crime fiction. I like European crime novels - I think of myself as Welsh and European. I don't just write crime novels - I also write novels for children.
Anthologies of my poems have been published in book form, and I have read my work at Hay on Wye and on BBC Radio Wales. All the time I was writing poetry I was also writing novels. But no publisher is going to publish a novel unless it was going to make them millions - and I'm probably not.
I got fed up sending my novels to publishers and waiting a year for a reply. Now, with e-books, technology has moved on.
Whereas you would find a few copies of my poetry books in a couple of shops in Wales in the past, now within 12 hours of uploading an e-book which has taken two years to write, anyone in Peru could be reading my novel for 77p.
When it came to my first Ed Wall novel We Go Down Slowly Rising, I didn't want to produce a novel which people had to think about and have to keep flicking back and forth to work out what was going on. I didn't want the reader to wonder why there were three chapters of philosophical reaction. I wanted readers to have something which they might be able to take on holiday or read at the airport.
But I do include Wall's unattributed quotes from writers like Gide which I hope will spur people to go away and look up the references. Twenty years ago, you'd have had to go to the library, look through books. These days, it's all there at the touch of a button.
This second novel, Watching For The Dawn, was much quicker to write than the first. And as soon as I finished the second, I started writing the third.
Ed Wall is a loner, but detectives are often loners. People ask if he's me, but he's a fictional character. It is always best, though, to write about what you know, so I would say there are elements of me in there. He probably looks more like my brother than me.
He walks around the city a lot at night. I don't know where that came from. I grew up in Bettws and he goes to a lot of the places we used to go to for walks during the day, like Henllys Church.
I don't think it is explicitly said in the novels, but Ed is very much from Bettws. He has my background and my politics. He's a Newport working class socialist. He quotes Lenin and sees women as equals.
He drinks sherry - anyone who has travelled in Spain will know that it's not a drink you buy for a couple of quid from a discount supermarket, it's a complex drink.
The new novel is set first in Swansea, then Cardiff, but moves quickly back to Newport. It's mainly set around Caerleon.
The first has a lot of local references in it, using local landmarks like The Wave, the Art College and St Woolos Church as murder scenes.
By chance, as I was doing some research for it with a map, I noticed some of the scenes were on a straight line - which fits in with my interest in ley lines - and I was able to weave that into the story.
There is less of that in the second novel, and I did worry about whether that was a problem for those who don't know Newport, but then I read Ian Rankin and I don't know anything about Edinburgh and it doesn't get in the way when he describes places there.
The second novel has a very strong female character and more blood than the first. It also involves the cult of Mithras, the religion which was once more widespread than Christianity.
I think it is true that writing is a compulsion. When my mum died two years ago, I cleared our her house and found a lot of stuff I'd written. I totted up that I must have by now written more than one million words of poetry and one million words of prose.
The difference between poetry and novels is that poems just come when they like, it's as if I'm channelling them, whereas with the novels, I can set aside three hours and know I can write. I write more prose than poetry these days.
When I was 40 I decided to make changes in my life, and I was then story-telling with children using a puppet. People told me I was good with the children and should be a teacher, and I had just spent six years completing an open university degree.
My then wife Sarah was working and supported me while I got my teaching certificate.
On the day of my final three-week teaching placement, my son Gabriel was born at 1am and I started the placement at 8.30am. And in that three weeks I went grey!
My wife had a full-time job and I was a supply teacher, so I spent a lot of time with my son, we bonded and I think that's why we're very close.
I am now a teacher at Maes Ebbw School in Newport, where there are children with complex needs. They need us and there is a great sense of achievement that we have helped somebody.
It's a brilliant school, and we are very, very good at our jobs - you won't find a better staff.
I had the option to go three days a week, which I took - helping me to finish this novel. Time is far more important to me than money. I just need enough to take my son on holiday and pay the bills.
My son is 11 and starts high school in September. He's interested in computer gaming, takes his own photographs and shoots video. And he loves books."
* Watching For The Dawn is published on Amazon for 77p.
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