I can’t… you can!

Writing the the official Elvis Festival book whilst studying at the University of South Wales.

“Papers are here!” 

I looked up from a spreadsheet of figures at the man who delivered newspapers to the coffee shop I worked at.  

Emily in her old job as a barista

“Cheers!” I called after him as he disappeared through the door into Merthyr Tydfil’s shopping centre. 

I sighed and began laying the newspapers out for customers. It was a stormy day in May and like most works days I began questioning the direction my life had led me in. 

Why am I doing this job? I should be writing for newspapers. I can be more than this. Is thirty too old for university?

In that moment, I made a decision that changed my life and threw me into the journalism industry. It was a decision I would never regret. 

By the time September came around, I was a journalism student at the University of South Wales. One of my first tasks as a student was to gather stories at the Elvis Festival. I hadn’t even heard of the festival before. But, keen to impress my lecturers, in the week running up to the festival, I listened to Elvis’ music, watched his films and endlessly researched the King and the Elvis Festival.  

On the day of the festival, the students of the journalism courses at USW tumbled onto a coach and made their way towards the sea. The rain was lashing down and my hopes of interviewing Elvis tribute artists on a sunny Porthcawl seafront were quickly dashed.  

“How can we get stories in weather like this?” I asked my lecturer Craig Hooper. Always the joker, he replied, “What are you talking about? It’s like shooting fish in a barrel!”  

Image by Megan Ellis

Once at Porthcawl, we were asked which one of us wanted to interview the festival’s founder, Peter Philips. He allowed USW students backstage access every year to learn how to gather stories. I was confident, but not that confident. I shied away and pretended to be engrossed in the various Elvis memorabilia on display.

As the day wore on, I became disheartened. All that research and preparation for nothing! I managed to grab an Elvis tribute artist who was only too willing to stand outside in the rain for me to take a snap of him leaning back in the wind. The weather seemed to be keeping the crowds away and I gave up my hopes of somehow scooping an impressive story that my university could be proud of. 

There was always next year. Little did I know COVID-19 was waiting in the wings, ready to cripple the live music industry and festivals. 

During the Summer of 2020, at the end of my first year at USW I heard that festival founder Peter Philips was using the fallow year to write a book about the history of the Porthcawl Elvis Festival. He had one problem; he needed a writer!

I contacted Peter and told him I wanted to be that writer. I wanted to write about the people involved in the festival. I didn’t want it to be about the facts and figures of how much money it rakes in or how many visitors arrive sporting ducktail quiffs. Who were the people that made it happen every year? What was their story? Why did they do it? Peter loved the idea.  

“So, what are you thinking in terms of a deadline?” I asked Peter.  “A month…” he said. 

A month…to write a book! I gulped. I’m in way over my head. I can’t do this in a month. I rang my lecturer Craig Hooper. He began to calm my panicked ranting. 

Yes you can. It will come. Plan your interviews. Start with Peter. You can do it.

And so came the interviews. Thirty people, in thirty days. I started with the one I was most nervous about. Charles Stone. Elvis’s tour producer. He was friends with the man himself and interviewing Charles was a great privilege that would never have happened to me unless I had begun a degree in journalism at USW. 

I visited Porthcawl and interviewed the players key to the running of the Elvis Festival. Whilst interviewing Dave Jones, manager of the Hi Tide, he received a phone call. He spoke few seconds then held the phone out to me. “Owen wants to speak to you.” I took the phone and put it to my ear, the familiar voice on the other end said, “Hiya Emily, Owen Money here.”  

Writing the official book for the Elvis Festival was a very surreal time in my life. COVID-19 was ravishing the world but I had the book to keep me focused. Interviewing so many in such a short space of time honed my interview skills and made me more confident when speaking to new people.  

The book features work from photojournalism students, USW has been the official festival photographers for seven years now. There are comments from lecturer Becky Matthews and first-class photojournalism student, Matthew Lofthouse. Although it’s a book about a festival, there’s a great big University of South Wales stamp running all the way through it.  

When I first saw a copy of the book, I was so proud. I had done it. There was a book out there in the world, written by me. An opportunity that arose through being a student at USW. My worries of going back into education again whilst in my thirties were unfounded. I wish I had believed in myself more when I left school. But I’m here now, a mature student and I can say in all honesty, this is only the beginning.  

I dedicated Viva Porthcawl to my journalism lecturer Craig Hooper. If he hadn’t accepted me on my interview day to be a student at USW, I wouldn’t have written the book.

When one of his students says, “I can’t”, he always replies, “You can!” 

Words by Emily Price, images by students on BA Photojournalism.

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