Scraping away the past to find the present

Katie Harris talks to Peter Finch talks about his latest book, his development as a writer and his obsession with Cardiff

Peter Finch, 66, is a self-confessed Cardiff obsessive. While he is perhaps best known for his Real Cardiff series, he is also a poet, critic and literary entrepreneur. His latest book published by Seren, Edging the Estuary, tracks the course of the Severn Estuary.

“I decided I wanted to walk along the estuary from Chepstow to Worm’s Head to see what it was like,” says Finch, who is slight and intense. Dressed in a baggy white shirt and brown moccasins, he explains that the idea for the book was sparked by his desire to explore the Tudor city region of Cardiff, which stretched all the way from Chepstow to the Gower.


To the psychic centre of Cardiff by bike

Peter Finch takes us on his literary tour of the ley lines of the capital.

It comes naturally to Finch to scratch beneath the surface of the present and explore the past. “I tried to find the past that had to be there underneath the present,” he says, earnestly. “I wanted to find traces of things. I couldn’t imagine how the past could vanish altogether. I was looking for what was there before.”“This was a place where Tudor kings stationed their customs men–everything that landed between Chepstow and Worm’s Head was under their control,” Finch discloses.

Finch admits that the 138-mile route, which he did in stages over a period of six months, was full of challenges. “There are all sorts of forbidden areas you can’t get into. There’s always somebody in a uniform holding their hand up,” he laughs. “But I discovered a city region I never knew.”

That city region included towns, villages, power stations, castles, docks, beaches and stretches of rural coastline, all of which he describes vividly in the book. Yet he also goes beyond the landscape, charting encounters and gathering anecdotes from people he met along the way – from industrialists and builders to fishermen and dog walkers, from travellers and residents to environmentalists and writers.

Finch is not your average travel writer. Born and bred in Cardiff, his best-selling Real Cardiff series has caused him to be labelled as a ‘psychogeographer’, which refers to using alternative methods to describing a landscape or cityscape.

“It’s explaining the reality of a place instead of what tourist guides will tell you,” Finch explains. “And alternative guides are always important – the official line is usually one to be suspicious of, or it’s bland, or it doesn’t tell you everything.”

Although he is deeply creative, Finch has not always wanted to be a writer. He admits that he didn’t really have a concept for writing as a young man, but he did like the idea of singing and song writing. His music career, however, turned out to be short-lived. “I went to a pub that is now long gone, a bit of a down and out pub,” he reminisces. “I sang a bit, but I was so bad that they shouted me down and threw me out.”

With singing no longer an option, Finch tried to focus exclusively on song writing, which eventually turned into writing poetry. “Poetry, I discovered, is magic because you can do anything with it and anything in it – it’s not confined.”

In his early days as a poet, he was inspired by the beat poets such as Jack Kerouac. Science fiction also had an impact on him, with its whole notion of fantasy and of freeing the imagination. But perhaps the biggest influence on his writing is his native city of Cardiff.

Finch, who grew up in the Penylan area of the city, still lives there today. Although his South African partner finds it bizarre that he still lives on the same streets where he was born, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “My favourite place in the city is Waterloo Gardens,” he says. “It used to have a hut where the poet Dannie Abse had carved his initials, which I think gives a nice sense of continuity – he was there then, I’m there now.”

But although the past is an important part of Finch’s work, his head is firmly rooted in the present. “Once a work has gone to press, it’s the past–it’s gone,” he says. “You’re always in a new place. Once your book is done you’ve moved on and your head is somewhere else–you’re thinking about new ideas.”

Finch is already working on something else – something a little further afield this time. “My next book is a book about music and it involves tripping across America, which I’ve done about five times,” he says. “It’s about the music, the people and the players, more so than travelling.”

Katie Harris is a freelance journalist.

4 thoughts on “Scraping away the past to find the present

  1. ‘Dressed in a baggy white shirt and brown moccasins’.
    Normally I’d consider a description of what an interviewee was wearing to be superfluous, but in this case the mind boggled at Mr’s Finch’s courageous sartorial minimalism!

  2. Do you know where I can buy a copy of Peter Finch’s new book? Looking for a copy for a birthday present. Thanks

  3. Edging the Estuary will be published by Seren Books at £9.99 on 19th September, 2013. Copies should be available in all high street stores and through Amazon. The launch is at the Norwegian Church at 7.00 pm where Peter finch will be in conversation with John Osmond.

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