I'm always on look-out for the Next Big Thing, a singer-songwriter or band who are going to make a massive impact. I remember when teaching in a Merthyr Comp. telling lots of the kids there to watch out for a bright, new band from the Valleys called the Stereophonics. Nobody had heard of them! Their first album was the best ever to deal with Valleys working-class culture, though I've heard a firm story about who actually wrote the lyrics to that one. As they say 'Word gets Around'!
Sometimes you can be all ears and still miss it, that vital life-changing music. Certainly, it took me a long time to appreciate both Dylan and Cohen, preferring then the jazz-rock (or 'progressive rock', as it was dubbed at the time) of Soft Machine.
One voice I didn't miss last weekend in Cardiff was that of young singer-songwriter Jemma Krysa from Tairgwaith, who is big in Germany and Swansea apparently. At first I thought it must be someone well-known gigging in HMV. Her tones carried me down Queen St., her range as wide as Thea Gilmore's and voice full of power and emotion. Here's a person to watch out for, no doubt.
At times, however, I feel there's a certain futility in my constant search and I simply need to investigate my own music collection to renew my acquintances.
I did so recently with the work of Robb Johnson. When you mention his name , people either say 'Who?' or 'Do you mean the bluesman Robert Johnson?' No, Robb Johnson from London has been around far too long without the widespread recognition he truly deserves.
His lyrics are as witty, often topical and satirical as his mentor Leon Rosselson and Robb is like Billy Bragg if he were really left-wing ( Bragg once did a whole tour urging support for Blair and later went all LibDem!) and had a half-decent voice. He is a Bob Dylan ( circa 1960's) for these times and these Isles and maybe now - with protests and impending strikes, with appalling job losses and cuts - more will listen to him.
His album 'This Is The UK Talking', which includes songs from 1987-92, is a classic. It contains the hilarious 'The Animal Song', a swipe at meat-eaters and the equally funny and sensitive '6B Go Swimming' ; there is the hard-hitting political ballad 'The Herald of Free Enterprise' and the title track with its Eastern influence.
Robb Johnson isn't just a protest singer and I'm sure he'd wish to emphasize the many other diverse subjects he has tackled so well, including Tony Hancock in Australia and a girl alone on a beach.
In his more recent album 'Love, Death and Politics' he moves from an historical song in sea-shanty style 'The Spirit of '45' to 'Saturday Night in Albion', where the idealism of the first song has been demolished by the drugs and violent sub-culture of the second, a rough rocking number. As always, he writes particularly sensitively about children ( which derives from his time as a teacher) and 'Little Angels' follows songs like 'In Buttercup Class We Smile' to take on disturbing backgrounds of children, whose innocence is destroyed. He is never sensational or sentimental, always realistic and responsive.
Johnson has to be recognised one day, I tell myself. But who knows? There are plenty of bands and artists out there who never are. At least with i-tunes his stuff is instantly accessible, not like in the past when you had to scour all the little record shops to find one album.
The following poem shows the great influence Bob Dylan had on me in the 1970's.
In County Derry : ‘Masters of War’
We were singing ‘Masters of War’
at the piano in the classroom
the green-eyed Gaelic teacher
with her waist-long hair
and slim body a country
I’d come to know much better
singing together ‘Masters of War’
I stood behind her, voice rivering
deep below the strata of the choir,
at home now in the harmonies
in a strange land of pointed barrels
which had met me from the plane
where my mind recalled ‘Masters of War’
when the Deputy Head burst in
and spotted two pupils giggling,
he quaked and cracked with anger
punishing every one of them ;
pain made their voices louder
sensing the meaning of ‘Masters of War’
at the window an army helicopter
before it landed near the estate,
squaddies with machine-guns ready to fire,
to lift suspects and drag them away ;
houses where the tricolor was raised
none heard us singing ‘Masters of War’
and as long as that song lasted
we were marching, fists held high
like those of Burntollet and Derry City
who had stood against batons and bullets,
pounding riot shields with music and rhyme
the power of ‘Masters of War’.
Note - ‘Burntollet’ and ‘Derry City’ – scenes of Civil Rights marches in the 60’s.
If Ofsted, Estyn (or whatever you call the School Inspectorate) are pointless and costly and counter-productive, then Headmasters come pretty close in terms of being superfluous.
They used to be corrupt and downright dangerous in too many cases, often owing their elevated positions to membership of the Labour Party or Masons . The investigative magazine 'Rebecca' regularly exposed them in the 1980's,as they crazily imposed their weird views on schools across Wales.
Schools are meant to prepare pupils for democracy, yet they are generally dictatorships, a measure of the illusion of democracy in society as a whole. While Heads may seek Staff opinions and listen to School Councils representing pupils, they will only implement policies which fit with their narrow agendas. Just one example was when the majority of staff at one school where I taught voted to change the school day, to have one lesson after lunch. The Head duly ignored their wishes and did what he wanted to.
When things go well they take the credit, when badly they pass the buck. I recall one Head who appeared in the local paper taking sole credit for a creative writing programme I had organised. Yet when the same school was heavily in debt, the bursar and one Deputy Head had to carry the can for it!
Heads get away with things which teachers are severely punished for. Some take off school whenever they want, while Staff are refused permission to attend important family events. In one school, the Head was away on holiday in New Zealand on the last two days of term and when staff returned for an Inset Day in January, they were read a New Year's greeting from the 'absentee landlord' who was still in New Zealand!
Worse still, one former Head got away with cheating at coursework. Teachers are sacked for this, but this Headmaster took a class and had them all write much the same (largely dictated) essay on 'Macbeth'. When the Head of English objected, he was told - ' You do want us to get good results, don't you?' This dedicated and inspirational man left soon after to become a librarian.
I have never worked under a Head who knew his/her pupils well and didn't abuse their absolute power in some way.
In N. Ireland (see the poem below) that abuse took the form of extreme violence. In W.Germany , the Head was a distant administrator, unable to act when the pupils took things too far. When some older pupils lifted our Mini from car-park to main road, he did nothing at first. A mechanic told us that if we'd driven it at speed this could've caused a fatal accident, yet only when our friend (the art teacher) spoke to the Head on our behalf , did he make them apologize.
I've known Heads bully staff into resignation or submission. I can think of a number of excellent teachers who have been run out of the profession because of this oppression.
Criticism is all very well, of course, but what's the alternative to these mini-dictatorships?
Well, to begin with, a true democracy is one where participation exists at every level and education should be at the forefront of this. It's no good having School Councils and Staff Meetings which are mere talking shops, or where policies are only adopted when Heads and Senior Management happen to agree.
Schools should be places where pupils and staff actually determine their everyday running. Teachers should no longer be rewarded, as is the present situation, for leaving the classroom, but any management roles could be elected on a fixed-term basis, with a return to the classroom at the end of it. That way, no-one would lose touch with pupils and teaching itself, which is so vital to the well-being of schools.
All those administrative tasks performed by Senior Management, such as absences, supervision and time-tabling, could be taken over by non-teaching staff, in the same way as finance and examinations have already passed to them.
Should schools need figureheads (or representatives), then they too could be elected on a fixed-term basis, one by staff and one by pupils, with a constant right of recall in case their position becomes untenable.
The morale of both pupils and staff would improve greatly under such a system. Pupils would feel their voices were actually heard and that they could achieve real and lasting changes and staff would no longer feel constantly under observation for any signs of failure and enormous pressure to meet unrealistic targets.
Under successive Labour and Tory administrations, there has been a philosophy that giving Heads more power would solve everything and that simply replacing one would alter the nature of schools. This is a narrow-minded and false doctrine.
The wider vision is that identity and belonging cannot be stamped upon children through uniform and Levels and grades and teachers cannot be forced by fear to feel part of a team. There must be a revolution in education, the kind that none of our politicians are proposing : schools must no longer be hierarchies.
He ruled over the school
like his personal kingdom,
introducing me to cupboards he'd built
on my first tour around.
Locally it was known as 'Farrelltown',
his son was his Deputy,
several cousins were 'Masters' ;
in the 70's, the rule was the cane.
Ruddy-faced and round as Santa
with a booming voice to match,
he cared for his blind wife ;
owned a potato farm.
When, in the harvesting season
scores of pupils went on the mitch,
I discovered he did nothing
because they were all out picking!
Lunchtimes he drank and the Secretary
had to keep him in his room ;
if she failed he would roam
to canoodle young teachers, class aghast watching.
Once I saw him lose it completely :
a boy gave him cheek and he knocked him
all along the corridor, like a heavyweight boxer
with a punchbag in uniform.
'Hit me and I'll behave!' they'd say,
somebody left a stick in my room ;
but I'm glad I never gave in
to be a torturer at that 'Farrelltown'.
Racism is a relative rarity at football matches nowadays in this country. However, the recent BBC Wales documentary about the WDL (Welsh Defence League) succeeded in exposing that group as out-an-out racists. They claim to be defenders of the country ( meaning 'Britain', in whose name wars are fought) against what they see as the insidious influence of Islam. Under the guise of Islamophobia and ganging together with the EDL (English Defence League), they're determined to find scapegoats in Muslims, who they lump together as extremists, much as the Irish were all identified with the Provos in the past. The WDL claim to be non-racist, yet many involved have links with Combat 18 and other Far Right groups. The leader is a so-called Cardiff City fan.
Given the fact that in the Cardiff squad there is a Nigerian, a Hungarian, Chopra who qualifies for India, a couple of Irishmen and several Scots, the racist undercurrent is obviously absurd.
The WDL represent a very small minority of supporters both at Cardiff and Swansea. It is a long time since I encountered any racism on the terraces at Cardiff and then it was down to a few individuals mouthing off.
When it comes to anti-Muslim sentiment I haven't heard any and our announcer Ali Yassine is a Muslim whose family came to Cardiff from Somalia. Ali is a Welsh speaker and a very funny man. He isn't afraid to court controversy either and once played Dylan's 'Ballad of a thin man' after a game we'd lost badly, when going through one of our frequent dips.
The lyrics, which pointedly accuse 'Mr Jones' landed him in trouble.
My worst experience of racism at Cardiff was of the anti-Irish variety. Though I favoured the old Bob Bank, I occasionally sat in the Canton Stand.Frank Stapleton, the veteran Irish international, was playing and one man launched into him with a torrent of invective. I shouted out that we had our own Irish players and he should 'Shut up!' It did seem to do the trick.
Ironically, it was amongst the fans of Merthyr where I encountered far more racism. Ironically, because Merthyr is not only a town made up of immigrants from many countries such as Ireland, Spain and Italy, but it also has a reputation as a hot-bed of left-wing revolt.
Yet every time I'd visit Penydarren Park, a section of the crowd would single out and pick on black opposition players. The worst example was when I travelled away to see Merthyr take on Bristol Rovers in the FA Cup and their black striker challenged the Merthyr keeper Gary Wager, breaking his leg. The amount of racist abuse was appalling! It must be said that Merthyr fans changed rapidly once they signed black players like Cohen Griffith, a popular ex-Cardiff striker who lived and worked locally.
Homophobia, on the other hand, is quite another matter. The fanzine WTBF used to hold Player Of The Year get-togethers and at one I got to meet a well-known Cardiff player, who is now a radio pundit. He was scathing in his attacks on racism, but equally adamant in his condemnation of gay people.
Only one footballer has ever come out and that was Justin Fashanu. Fashanu was publicly disowned by his footballing brother John and totally ostracized at Notts. Forest by that 'great' manager Brian Clough. I saw him play once against Cardiff City.
The WTBF crew went to see us play Torquay away. I have written a story based on this called 'Dead Hero Silence' in my book 'Child of dust' (Gomer).
That day Fashanu was subject to vile homophobic chants by so-called City fans. Like the rest of the 'zine crew, I was totally ashamed. When Fashanu scored it is the only time I have been delighted to see the other team scoring. Years later, Justin Fashanu committed suicide in the States and many see him as a victim of homophobia.
As the rugby player Gareth Thomas has stated, there are undoubtedly more rugby and football players who are gay and are having to live a lie because they fear the consequences of declaring their sexuality.
The fight against racism on the terraces has come a long way, but the one against homophobia has barely begun. Regular abusive chants of 'rent boy' at visiting keepers and homophobic slurs at managers are unforgivably tolerated. There is a campaign called the Justin Campaign, but only when some prominent players actually come out and take a stand, will things begin to change.
WHAT YOU GONNA DO?
Ali's a Muslim,
what you gonna do?
shout him down
when he's on the p.a. summoning
SUPPORT THE BOYZ AN' MAKE SOME NOISE!
Ali's CCFC through and through,
cut him he'd bleed white and blue,
a Cymro Cymraeg
both Bluebird and Adar Gleision,
so what you gonna do,
send him home.........to Grangetown?
Ali's played the Super Furries
'The Man Don't Give A Fuck!',
he's annoyed visiting fans
with songs about tractors and spreading muck,
he's put two fingers up
to the posho prawn sandwich lot -
let's face it, he gives a toss!
Ali's a Muslim,
what you gonna do,
kick his head in
for what he believes in ?
In the 1970's, the Irish newspaper the 'Irish Press' would, every Saturday, publish a whole page of new writing . There would be a short story and several poems. Unknowns such as myself could rub shoulders in a national paper with prominent Irish writers like William Trevor ,the fiction writer, and poet Eavan Boland. It was edited by David Marcus, who went on to produce a book based on the New Writing pages. It was a bold and brilliant idea and gave many young writers their first opportunity to reach a wide audience.
Sadly, nowadays poetry is usually relegated to the review columns of newspapers. The 'Western Mail' used to entrust Peter Finch ( a regular columnist in their Saturday magazine) with the selection of a weekly poem. Now it's even rare for books of poetry to feature in their Books Page, let alone poems to be published. The 'Guardian' includes a poem in its Review section every Saturday, but that's an exception.
On English language radio and tv in Wales, poetry is virtually ignored. It used to have slots on both and also to feature occasionally on arts programmes, but an art form which has so many practitioners (though considerably less readers) is shunned. Poetry Societies may thrive, Open Mic.'s spring up in the most unlikely places and competitions attract thousands of entries, yet radio and tv treat it as the equivalent of underwater aerobics!
I have always imagined a tv programme which actually gave poetry its due. On Beeb Wales past the watershed, it would be called some awful pun such as 'A Bard Week'. It would include short films on individual poets or poetry groups and on poems themselves, employing the exciting creativity used on Tony Harrison's 'V'. Poets would be interviewed, books reviewed, there would be live studio performances and footage of important gigs. There could even be a regular competition judged by viewers in the manner of a Slam. It could be presented by Ifor Thomas who, having been through phases of clingfilm and chainsaws, would take to the bardic throne (not sofa) like a swan scooting across Roath Park lake.
Why should poetry be given any credence, I hear people say? In Cymraeg, poets are certainly raised on thrones, while English language poets can claim no such cultural significance.
Yet, in Wales especially, so many poets do identify closely with the places they live and often work in. To a far greater extent than England, Scotland and even Ireland, so many are inextricably linked to their communities : from Rob Minhinnick in Porthcawl to Nigel Jenkins in Swansea, from Christine Evans on the Llyn and Bardsey to Ruth Bidgood in Llanwrytd Wells. These and many more are all commited to the history and people of the places where they live. They may concentrate on the local, but their themes are universal.
There would be good reason to hold that poetry programme ('From Bard To Verse' or whatever) in a different location every week and focus on the work coming out of that area.
Of course, all this is mere fantasy. S4C may give whole programmes, or indeed series, to poets, but BBC Wales regards them with the suspicion afforded to anarchist vegetarian atheists (which some of us might well be!).
DARK GLASSES IN WINTER SUN
'It's lovely to ave the sun!'
said the man in dark glasses in wintertime.
'I wonder if the Pound Shop takes cards?'
asked the bargain-hunter down town.
'Der, these pavements arn arf icy!'
he commented, getting into his 4 x 4.
'Them stewdents re always drinkin anyway!'
he slurred after his 10th pint of lager.
'Them Taliban should be bombed to submission!'
he argued, threatening those who disgreed with him.
'Immigrants come yer, take ower jobs, live off Social Securitee!'
shouted Pat Foley, whose family once made that journey.
'What I ate are them oo re on'y Welsh rugby days!'
in his three feathers jersey, representing the monarchy.
'There'll always be rich an poor!'
declared the pie baron, from his spacious verandah.
'If people on'y followed Ower Lord!' said the Christian,
buying his own plot in heaven.
My life on trains - 'Click clack, click clack.'
Trains weren't that vital to me when growing up in Aberystwyth and then Cambridge. There was the narrow gauge Vale of Rheidol and that important link to Carmarthen cut by Beeching, but I mostly travelled by coach. This changed when, as a 6th former , I became a pupil-commuter and , at the same time, started following footie across the country.
I once brought my bike on the train to go to a party in the city and cycled
home for the first time at night, slightly stocious(think that's a Belfast word). Every time a car's bright lights hit me face on, I veered off the narrow country road into a hedge or ditch. How I made it back I'll never know!
For football, I travelled to Tottenham, West Ham and even Birmingham . One time I shared the same carriage with several Spurs fans who, after they'd finished devouring my packed lunch, launched into a very measured trashing of the carriage and also attempted to throw coins out of windows and smash greenhouses.The game was snowed off.
Three of my favourite musicians have great songs about trains. Captain Beefheart's 'Click, Clack' is typically deranged but with a bluesy base . It's a song about being unable to get his woman who, we presume, is the same one who has gone off to New Orleans and deserted him. They are on two separate tracks (the 'click' and the 'clack'), going in opposite directions. The music seems to derail the trains, much like my bike-riding at night!
Tom Waits' 'Downtown Train' was reasonably well covered by Rod Stewart at one stage, though nobody really does a Waits song like the man himself. It's a melancholic ballad steeped in the blues like Beefheart, with a strange twist in the final verse. It tells of unrequited love, but in an obsessive way, with the narrator virtually a stalker. The opening is very atmospheric ('Outside another yellow moon / punched a hols in the nighttime'), but the train is slow and steady and you feel for the loneliness of the narrator.
Thea Gilmore's 'Whistle & Steam' is from her highly underrated album 'Harpo's Ghost'. Like the Waits it's about distance and like the Beefheart about separation. This time it's from the woman's perspective : she is moving on and drawn to the train and though her lover may be the same, she leaves him behind. She appears to have no choice, unless she wants to end up like the down-and-out by the station. The beat is metronomic and reflects the sleepers themselves. Her voice captures a strong sense of the sadness.
I've been inspired to write many poems on trains or about train journeys. My book 'Walking on Waste' was full of them , as it concentrated on the many times I travelled home from Radyr to Merthyr. I wrote 'No Shame' about observing two teenage girls passionately snogging (it wasn't from my viewpoint though) and several sonnets such as 'Radyr Weir' and 'On the Floodplain' decribing what I saw from the carriages. My latest book 'Moor Music' contains the poem 'Dust Anybody?' about Tipexed graffiti I spotted in a train toilet on the Aber-Shrewsbury line.
Several of my favourite poems also feature trains. There is the famous 'Night Mail' by Auden where the words perfectly match the rhythm of the tracks. 'Intercity Lullaby' by Sheenagh Pugh (another non-driver poet) is a wonderfully tender poem with a keen eye for social comment, which is never obvious. One of the most neglected of contemporary Welsh poets, Dave Hughes from Swansea, wrote the rousing 'Flowers', a marvellous eulogy to graffiti artists who mural the drab walls and buildings alongside the railways.
Recently, train journeys have been really important to my work, as strange things have happened. On the magnificent Cambrian Coast line, a woman got on at Barmouth. She talked incessantly and in a manic way to someone opposite her. I strained to see who she was addressing. Nobody was there! I followed her crazy conversation a while and she referred to someone being 'killed' constantly. She halted her illusory dialogue to interrogate the trolley-man on his lack of sandwiches.
Later on the same journey, a Welsh-speaking woman was in the same carriage as her Brummie partner and two young kids. At Hereford, a man got on and she immeditely spoke to him in Welsh. The kids went and sat with him and he seemed to be her real spouse! She spent her time drinking lager with her partner and flicking paper at her kids. She then struck up a conversation with a Swansea-bound lad, who flaunted his 'prison card' and talked about various prisons, comparing them like hotels.
The poem below is a Valley Lines one and a real tale -
Two Quid, Two Socks
Two socks, odd.
Train to Bridgend,
this is the ticket,
slow train, short of the runways.
Last thing I saw of him.
Two pounds given,
one for each sock,
enough for a chip.
Shivered into carriage
winter in a shirt -
‘Warm in yer, innit?’
Spoke to a couple
life story in minutes,
talked to me about football.
Cops had bought it,
stuck him on the train,
overnight Ponty police-station,
man knew what he was on about,
been through it ‘for drivin‘ ‘.
‘I stabbed myself loadsa times!
Don’ ‘member nothin’ bout it!
Woke up covered in blood!’
Only seventeen, no job,
stepfather didn’t give a shit.
The slow train didn’t matter,
via Amsterdam, if only.
Two quid, shook my hand.
Two socks. Odd.