Jan 18, 2011

An Interview With Ambrose Conway - Author of 'Beyond The Reso'


Ambrose is a former secondary school teacher and educational consultant from Rhyl in North Wales who has a particular passion for developing positive reading habits among teenage boys who are so often lost to fiction. He has taught in rural, suburban and inner-city schools and has successfully tested out many of the ideas for 'The Reso' and 'Beyond the Reso' on his unsuspecting students.

Ambrose Conway

AmeriCymru: Hi Ambrose....many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by AmeriCymru. You have written two books for younger readers , 'The Reso' and 'Beyond The Reso'. Care to tell us a little more about them?

Ambrose: I’ve spent much of my adult life teaching in secondary schools and remember a teacher in my High School in Rhyl called John Ambrose, when a Welsh lesson had gone well, reaching for his copy of the Mabinogion and regaling us with a tale or two.

I tried to keep up the tradition in my own teaching and found that telling a tale at the end of the lesson worked well and that many of the boys, who would not normally turn to works of fiction, had magnificent tales to tell. The best was a child who told a tale of his father going ‘lamping’ (hunting rabbits with a torch and a shotgun) and coming across a strange creature which darted in and out of the light – he convinced all of us that there was a strange beast up on the moor!

I decided to try and write a book for those teenagers who don’t read books and ended up putting together stories from my own upbringing on the notorious Reso estate in Rhyl.

I was lucky in that I seem to have struck a rich seam with anyone who grew up in Wales in the sixties and seventies so I have a second readership there. People often comment on the depth of detail in the books but I have unlimited storage space in my brain for trivia such as the colour of Standard Fireworks boxes, long-forgotten television programmes, the texture of anti-macassars and foods which have disappeared. Unfortunately, my massive long term memory comes at a cost, so what day it is and where I put the car keys often eludes me. I tell you, I’m going to be an asset to the Nursing Home which finally accommodates me!

I know Rhyl families living in North America who have bought sets of the books to distribute to their families as a sort of testimony to their upbringing – I’m really pleased to have recorded something that others feel represented their childhood accurately.

I was surprised that young people felt that the past that I spoke of seemed much more exciting than their own – but I think that might be  a generation thing as the stories my parents told me always entranced me.

The Reso deals with  the Sixties when the hero is in primary school, whilst Beyond the Reso deals with the seventies and the awkwardn ess of adolescence.

The books are also  something of a morality tale as I always had too vivid an imagination and ended up chickening out of certain childhoo d rites of passage because I could see all too clearly the consequences. Although I’m not a Catholic, my mum had done the Devil on your shoulder number on me and I was always convinced my sins would be found out and I would be called to account. Sorting out personal morality amongst many conflicting views is a key and universal theme of the books.

AmeriCymru: Do you think that today's adolescents face radically different challenges to those of yesteryear? How different is growing up today when compared with the experience of the 1970's generation?

Ambrose: I think every parent’s generation feels that their children face the most challenging times. Certainly as my boys are now in their twenties, I worry about their future but hope that their relatively happy childhood will sustain them in the current tempestuous times.

However to put this into a realistic context, my parents grew up at the end of the Great Depression and had their early adulthood punctuated by six years of World War so we need to keep some perspective here.

I asked my younger son Owen what were his three key memories of childhood and, as a twenty one year old, he had no hesitation in citing, the Christmas morning when the Manchester United shirt and model railway arrived; the time that all his mates were playing in the local stream and the rope swing broke casting his friend Ben into the water for the third time in four weeks and the summer we spent on a beach holiday in France where the aged owner of our accommodation urinated in the street just before the firework display started. So I suppose things haven’t changed that much!

AmeriCymru: We learn from your bio that you have a 'particular passion for developing positive reading habits among teenage boys who are so often lost to fiction'. Do you think that computers and computer gaming have played a role in this regrettable development?

Ambrose: I don’t think that if there were no computers then these boys would necessarily be picking up a book. I think reading is a cultural and habitual thing which can be difficult to pick up if young children are not read to when very young. Having said that, despite a massive childhood diet, my older son Luke rarely reads fiction, indeed he has his review of Danny, Champion of the World by Roald Dahl on hand in case he is ever asked in an interview what he is reading. It served him well in school and he hopes it will be taken as an example of post-modern irony now! He is heavily into making music and painting and drawing, so I suppose he gets to develop his creative insights there.

I think computers are one of a myriad challenges for time and attention now which reading has to compete with nowadays. “Children are in a perpetual state of partial attention” is one of the thoughts doing the rounds here. One thing that has changed is that young people today never experience boredom – they are bombarded by a constant stream of information and invasive friends on their third generation phones. Bring back boredom I say – the horror of a rainy late Sunday afternoon, when all your mates had been called in for Sunday tea of potted meat sandwiches, fruit cocktail and Angel Delight and the weekend was slipping away from you.At that point getting your head into a black and white war film or a good book was really appealing.

Actually, I’ve tried to entice some male readers by placing interactive materials on the website: www.thereso.co.uk. I think boys tend to be more visually and image orientated which might explain why they find the prospect of reading less enticing initially. I believe we can blend routes into reading for young people using the best of new technologies but there is no adequate substitute for a book, not even a Kindle in my opinion at the moment. However I’m willing to be convinced.

A big issue in the UK at the moment is that these austere times are slashing government spending and one soft target has been libraries – some of which are now slated for closure. From my own experience, I can’t thank Mr Carnegie enough for establishing the trust fund which built Rhyl library at the bottom of the clock tower of the Town Hall. It was a treasure vault when I discovered it fully when in sixth form. In fact the librarian, who clearly monitored my reading, held back a copy of Lolita for me when she felt my sensitivities has developed sufficiently, and this was a lady who dressed in grey tweed and pearls. I was forever grateful (Having previously failed to find it on the shelves myself!).

AmeriCymru: Any more news on the film project that was in progress a year or so back?

Ambrose: Well, the change of government has put paid to the funding that we had spent an age putting in place for the project. Many aspects of cultural life including film, arts and books are finding themselves in a hostile environment at present.

The idea for the film came about as part of the regeneration of my seaside hometown of Rhyl. Jennie Walker of Rhyl City Strategy, introduced me to the filmmakers Huw and Lal Davies who had previously won a British Academy of Film and Television Award (BAFTA) for their work on Digital Nation – a process of training people to use the film technology and then letting them loose to film a slice of their life that they got to edit to a fifteen minute slot for national broadcast on the BBC.

Huw worked the idea up to work with marginalized young people on the Reso and the results were stunning in terms of beauty and authenticity. We were able to obtain funding to train a trial group of young people and we require more funds to complete the project. We have much footage in the bag, and Huw has captured some truly haunting images of the town, its beauty and humour to lace between the stories. I’ve recorded a number of readings from the books to act as a back drop. We are working on the mantra of “Next Year at Sundance!” as the completed film will be more a documentary of a time and place than a commercial action backed blockbuster….. that is not to say that I’m not looking for funding for a feature film based on the books.

Being from the south Wales valleys, poor Huw is still coming to terms with the fact that the rivers run north to the sea where he now lives in the Clocaenog Forest, rather than south as they do in the valleys. He notices things like that, which I suppose is what gives him the creative insight for filmmaking. When we first met in a café in Rhyl he noticed a pile of stones on a wooden ledge two storeys up on a building opposite. It is inconsequential in itself, but the story of how those stones got to be laid there sets the imagination off.

AmeriCymru: Where can our readers purchase your books and what online resources can you suggest?

Ambrose: I’m with Kings Hart publishers so one point of purchase is their website http://kingshart.co.uk/ .

Beyond the Reso was produced on a ‘print on demand’ basis which reduced costs and helped with distribution so they should now be available from any store by order, or from online booksellers. It might be against my commercial interests, but I always try to convince potential buyers to use a bookstore - these guys need and deserve our support and I’m afraid it is very much a ‘use it or lose it’ economy at the moment. Siop Y Mofa, http://www.siopymorfa.com , the Welsh bookshop in Rhyl, has recently shut its doors after bringing all things bright, beautiful and Welsh to the town for almost thirty years. Dafydd Timothy is continuing to trade online, but it is not the same for him, or for us, not having the experience of browsing for gems in the shop.

AmeriCymru: What's next for Ambrose Conway?

Ambrose: I’m working on developing the texts for use in schools and talking to contacts about completing the film projects. I’m also working on the third book in the trilogy, Resolution, which should be available ready for Christmas 2011. I’ve the bones of a few ideas ready to go after that, including a political comedy about Wales and nationalism and an exploration of the desperation of middle age which I think is particularly fertile territory.

AmeriCymru: Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?

Ambrose: It has been brilliant finding that there is such a vibrant cultural life for people of Welsh extraction in North America. I’ve always felt that the Irish and Scots had stolen a march on us there – I’m glad AmeriCymru is redressing the balance.

For those immigrants since the beginning of the sixties, I hope they have a chance to have a read of my books and that it brings a sense of hiraeth for the old homeland.


Interview by Ceri Shaw Email

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