In his book 'Real Cardiff' Peter Finch inexplicably dismissed Chapter Arts Centre in Canton for its chocolatey Belgian  beer. He couldn't have been further from the truth!   While it's possible to get that type in Chapter, there are lagers and beers from all over the Continent but, more importantly, real ales from Wales and beyond. In the last few weeks alone, I have imbibed the delights of Celt's golden ale, Tewdric's Tipple from Tintern and one of the best bitters around, Old School (named after Chapter itself).

    I am a devotee of real ales and have been for years, though I did go through a period of seeking out the strongest lager , as a means to an end.
Now recent reports tell us that more young people and women are trying them, especially the ones produced locally in microbreweries, which have proliferated in the last decade. Gone the archetypal Camra member in dubious t-shirt and sporting a pot-belly to boast about.

   From Breconshire Brewery in the north, to Rhymney micro in Dowlais, to Otley in Ponty and Zero Degrees in Cardiff, it seems like the whole of the Taff Trail could exist as booze landmarks for walkers and cyclists to wobble their way by the river. Now there's a really good idea for the Tourist Board : 'Booze Tours'!

    The place to savour the Rhymney beers is the Winchester in Merthyr, while The Bunch of Grapes in Ponty always has the various Otley ones in the barrel, with their highly distinctive Continental influences of weissbier and witbier ( OGarden being the best example). Like The Bunch, Zero Degrees doubles as an eating-place and is unique as you are surrounded by the machinery of brewing. I like the idea of sitting inside a micro and eating pizza and supping their unusual Black Lager. The ubiquitous fruit beers are not for me though : a bit like pouring squash into  fizzy lager!

    I very much like the Belgian and Dutch tradition of serving each beer in its own special glass. Perhaps S.A. ( or 'Skull Attack' ) could come in one shaped like a bomb and the Reverend James in the style of a chalice. Most of the lagers from everywhere would be better served in chamber-pots! It would, however, be a good idea to distinguish between the golden, bitter and dark with three separate glasses and when I open up my Merthyr ale-house, the Gwyn Alf, serving the best ales and veggie tapas, that will be the innovation.

   Wales used to be divided up by the larger breweries rather like feudal domains, with Brains in the south-east and Felinfoel in the west. At Richard Thompson's recent concert in Cardiff , he showed that influence. A heckler was giving him a tough time and though I didn't make out the gibes, I think 'O.B.E.' might've been mentioned. Thompson retorted by saying - 'Okay! We'll meet in the......er......Dragon after, to talk it over and have a pint of Brains........raw Brains!'

     The names and varieties of the microbreweries fare are so much more interesting and full of taste, with no two beers alike. I recently sampled one from Scotland called Blessed Thistle which is actually brewed using thistles and it's smooth as the flower of that plant.

    Unfortunately, the Winchester is an exception in Merthyr as elsewhere, despite the trends. The multi-nationals dominate with their bland brews.  Finch needs to visit Chapter again, try something like the excellent Tewdric's Tipple and then recant.



                                      NOTHIN  LAGER

I int no lager drinker,
but I ad no choice.

It didn taste o rat's piss,
it didn even taste o dog's piss.

It tasted o nothin at all,
not even bloody beer!

It woz cheap an alc'olic 'pparently,
but I couldn drink a pint ardly.

I kept thinkin a Cwrw Haf an Braf,
of O1 an OHoHo an ColumbO;

I kept thinkin o Rhymney brews
made in a Dowlais micro.

I kept thinkin oppy an barley:
golden summer, bitter autumn, dark winter.

Spring in Belgium, with Trappist ales
t get any monk boppin.

But it tasted of all them chains
o the Igh Street, o metal links joined.

 
 
   For once, the 'Western Mail' got it dead on in Chris Hall's review of what could well be Gwent Theatre's last ever production, a performance of 'A Pocketful of Magic' at The Melville, Abergavenny. The headlines read 'Swan Song Makes Arts Cuts A Nonsense' and merited the play five stars.

   Just a fraction of the WNO's enormous grant would save Gwent Theatre, with their proud and oh so creative history in so many communities in Monmouthshire and the Valleys.

   I had the privilege of being there and chatting with Gary Meredith, one of the founders, long-time artistic director and one of the remaining two actors. Gary and his fellow actor Jain Booth performed a play aimed at Primary schoolchildren to a predominantly adult audience, abled assisted by Stage Manager George Davis-Stuart, who once taught at the same school as me in Merthyr.

   Gary despaired at the future under the Welsh Arts Council's Cameron-like cuts, carried out by Nick Capaldi and that Labour stalwart Prof. Dai Smith. He explained how their business plan had been based on theatre in education , yet the WAC turned around and dismissed this area completely. As my wife - a Primary teacher for many years - rightly pointed out, theatre in education is fundamental to the development of literacy, supposedly a priority of the government in Cardiff.

   Yet Gwent Theatre, together with Theatr Powys and Spectacle in the Rhondda, will cease to exist because of these insane cuts which continue to favour elitist art-forms like opera.

    Gwent have a thriving Youth Theatre, visit numerous schools and have put on many superb productions for the public over the years. My outstanding memory is  of one of their earlier pieces, John Prior's 'Horns of the Bull' at Tredegar Comp.

   It was a play which altered my perception of Welsh theatre totally. Hitherto, I'd thought in terms of 'Under Milk Wood', yet here was a drama about Valleys' history played to a packed audience who were actually asked to decide the fate of the main character! It was a revelation and whenever Gwent Theatre performed at Bethesda Arts Centre in the 80's or Cefn Coed Community Centre after that, we would attend, relishing works about Chartism or the Merthyr Rising often written by Charles Way, one of Wales's greatest playwrights ever.

   While 7:84 and Hull Truck made a national impact, Gwent deserved to do likewise and certainly did so locally. It was the highpoint of theatre in the Valleys and venues like Bethesda made it possible. In June a new theatre opens in Merthyr at Soar Chapel, but I  wonder how many Welsh companies will be left to visit there.

   Gary and his Youth Theatre members have tried everything to keep it going, including a vociferous protest outside the Arts Council's offices in Cardiff. Dai Smith had recently written an article in the 'Western Mail' about the importance of protest throughout history, especially in the Valleys. When the latter was drawn from his office by the noisy chanting, he approached Gary Meredith and referred to the demo.
    'Yes Dai! You see, it's wired into the DNA of people in the Valleys!' Gary proceeded to quote Prof. Smith's own words back at him!

   In 'A Pocketful of Magic' we can all become children again, audience and actors together, realising the mythical and magical power of story-telling.

   I sincerely hope this particular tale will have a final twist : that the Wicked Wizard with axe made of gold will not chop off the head of the child he doesn't realise as his own! Dai Smith is a Man of Ponty, a supposed believer in the power of solidarity, but I seriously think he has forgotten where he came from.

   The following poem is from my book 'Language of Flight' and it references the play 'Bread and Roses' written by Charles Way for Gwent Theatre. Bethesda was run by volunteers for years, but eventually ( given no Council support) became a Job Club.

                                      BETHESDA HAS GONE

Where it used to be is a plaque,
colouful mosaic bearing the legend
'Bethesda Chapel', where Joseph Parry played,
not a sign of its second life.

Even the street's cut in half
by a ring road and the statue
of a town hero with brassy fists
tells of another way out.

But I recall those dramas
like 'Bread and Roses', the words
clear as prayers: how congregations
became audiences, the altar a stage.

In the vestry's dark room
prints would rise from the tomb
and a potter's wheel spun
the psalms of the unemployed.

Above, in the gods, many frames
were haloed, as every cause
from CND to Anti-apartheid
preached its gospels below.

Bethesda had to be saved.
We were its disciples, against
the Council's philistine force.
I sigh now, every time I pass.
 
 
   It has been a month of long journeys and the trek over to Llanhilleth seemed almost as long as that to Newcastle by train.   Of course, I ought to learn to drive and stop posing as a 'greenie'. My excuse of Aberbargoed hill cannot carry weight over the years, surely?

   Yet, it was a pant-cacking experience stalling on that steepest of gradients as my wife was bravely teaching me to drive in the Valleys. Our Mini stopped and the handbrake duly failed to respond! My wife had to edge out of the passenger seat and slide her foot over onto the brake to stop us flying backwards in fast rewind towards the mean streets of Bargoed. I don't expect it helped at the time that I should've been wearing glasses for my myopia.

   So, I have journeyed to Llanhilleth by bus and Toon-land by train to read poetry. The former was definitely the trickier journey, though it's only about 18 miles away as the crow flies. Unfortunately, I couldn't saddle up a crow! It was complicated by the fact that the place seemed to have many names, though I discovered 'Lan' to be most popular. I overheard the village of 'Swffryd' pronounced as 'Sovereign' and it was hard to imagine that here was the area of the Gwent dialect of Gwenhwyseg (now, sadly, expired).

    Mostly from my new book 'Moor Music', I read to the local Writers' Group at the Top Hotel there, an event organised by the energetic and enthusiastic Meg Gurney.  Seren's Poetry Editor Amy Wack kicked off the evening with a short talk about submitting poetry to publishers. I seemed to have broken every rule she set out, especially the ones on dashes and punctuation!

   My train journey to the north-east of England was very fortuitous. If I had caught the train I was meant to catch I'd still be travelling! I left early and was lucky to get the one train which wasn't cancelled due to the theft of copper wire cabling.

    I have to admit that the students at 9 a.m. were a lot more receptive  than the audience at the hotel. I was very impressed. In my days, early lectures were skipped or snored through,but this lot were up for it (one mobile-fiddler apart).

   As Peter Finch has said in his weekly column in the 'Western Mail' mag. , audience reactions can be inexplicably different. You can be equally motivated and desire to communicate, yet there is no telling why one lot are responsive and the other less. It could even have been the smell of steak lingering in the function room producing an unknown grimace on this veggie's features!

   Certainly- though I admit bias - the ones at our monthly Open Mic. sessions at The Imp in Merthyr are almost always responsive. Last Thursday , our guest was Neath poet Phil Knight, one of the best performers in Wales and another who has yet to win the John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry (like the amazing Chris Williams and Mike Church).

    Phil, Chris and Mike are all poets who have read regularly with the Red Poets in the past and are very funny , but also thought-provoking. Phil has many humorous poems, but I especially like his two about the Martian coming to Neath, a perfect blend of satire and innocence. All three need to have far more recognition on the 'circuit'. A Hay or BayLit event which featured them would be a must to attend.

    They have that uncanny ability to raise poetry to heights of hilarity, while rarely losing sight of its underlying messages. I believe comedy is much undervalued in verse, as if it were synonymous with frivolity rather than wit and satire. All too often what is praised is clever-clever irony, which is academically weighty.

   The encounter in this poem is true to life (not always the case, of course) and had to be written in dialect.


IN-A BUS SHELTER


I woz goin f this job
over in Llan'illeth, see ;
somewhere on the Mexican border…..
well, a bit south o me.



They tol me all-a wrong bus numbers:
X18, E4, P45, UB40 an OMD,
Traveline Cymru up in a North Pole
an-a drivers didn know nothin.



At-a bus shelter I arst er.
She woz sittin an knittin
what looked like a jumper ;
glasses an bright red air.



‘Which is the one f Llan’illeth please?’
I sayz, careful not t gob over er.
‘Cardiff?’ she replies, in a voice deeper
an much oarser than mine.



She woz an ee , sittin there
in daytime with a shoppin bag,
as I repeated ‘Llan-hill-eth!’
(Ee or she woz a Cockney).



‘Well, you can go to Aberbeeg an walk!’
Ee chwtshed at a baby in a pushchair,
never stopped knittin till is bus come.
Fuckin ell, Ebbw Vale’s weirder ‘an Merthyr!


  

  
 
 
   The big debate in Wales this week has been about education. Following Plaid Cymru's statement about four-week summer breaks, Senedd Minister Leighton Andrews has managed to be even more irrelevant , as well as contemptuous towards teaching unions.   As I have blogged previously, the priorities must be resources and class sizes. Until we have equal funding to England, no comparisons can be made.

   Moreover, funding is essential to improve school buildings and build new ones wherever necessary.Buildings can be so important : leaky, dilapidated schools aren't the best environments for learning. Many schools have totally inadequate IT facilities and Primaries are especially impoverished when it comes to sporting facilities.

   However, reducing class sizes must be the number one priority for any government. With falling rolls, the opportunity to decrease them hasn't been taken. Many Primaries have classes well over 30 and in Comp's there are also far too many classes of this size. This is seriously detrimental to pupils' progress. How can they be given individual attention in such circumstances? Private schools continue to operate with very small classes.

   Literacy and numeracy has rightly been targeted as essential, but Andrews has given no clear strategy how to deal with these problems. The Foundation Phase - the flagship policy of Jane Davidson - has not worked. Specialists in literacy and numeracy (SENCO's) have been sacrificed to employ the many Assistants required to help the teacher in this 'learning through play'.

   However, unlike the Swedish system, it is impossible to venture outside during winter and ,too often, the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic have been totally neglected. Until these are grasped, the pupils simply cannot access all the other areas of education. At present, Infant and Junior teachers are being asked to cover far too much ground, so it's no wonder that literacy and numeracy are deteriorating. Andrews has not addressed these demands of the National Curriculum, nor the ridiculous amount of paperwork foisted on teachers as a direct result of Inspection pressures. Less time on paperwork would mean more on preparation. He needs to listen to the unions he readily dismisses.

   A yearly test ( another of his hapless proposals) will mean more teaching towards tests and more pressure to wangle the figures. Any Comp. teacher will tell you that the Levels and targets handed over by Primaries are completely unrealistic.  

   Levels, grades, letters, stars.......what do they signify? Do they really define intelligence?

   After a lifetime of teaching, my conclusion is they don't. To give just one example, one of the brightest pupils I ever taught left school with a handful of CSE's (you had to get a 1 at CSE to call it a GCSE).

   He began school in what was then called the 'Remedial' class ( that awful word 'Rem' became the worst insult in school!), but was soon moved to the mainstream lowest Band. He soon developed into an articulate and creative pupil, more aware of the outside world than most academic kids and certainly more widely read ( he was an expert on Orwell's works). He spoke in debates and produced many excellent pieces of work, yet failed to achieve sufficiently high grades to be allowed into the 6th form.

   After leaving school, he was the singer and songwriter of one of Merthyr's best ever bands, whose cd's never managed to match their great live performances. They did appear on tv a few times, but never made it Big. He was not an exception either and for every one like him I have taught others with the ability to pass exams, who didn't care for subject at all.

   I recall one time when the National Poet Gillian Clarke was visiting the school outside Cardiff where I taught. When my Lower 6th attended the workshop she was doing in the Library, one of them rudely interrupted with - ' What are we doing here?' Unable to comprehend anything which didn't fit into exam preparation.

   What exams do, in the main, is test the ability to pass them. Schools spend most of their time training pupils the tricks to get the best marks and who can blame them? All the pressures are on teachers to produce the 'best' results. Everyone is graded and targeted. The shadow of failure looms over them like an executioner.

   What can be done to end this absurd obsession with testing and thinking of people as A*'s (pupils) or 1's (teachers and schools)? We are not letters or numbers. We cannot be abbreviated in this way.

   As a  writer, I'm especially interested in the way the writing of poetry is treated by our system. A pupil can go through the entire education process without the need to write a single poem, yet this is the very art-form so many choose to express themselves! Now coursework has been greatly reduced to combat plagiarism, it is rarely taught (except as a critical study) after Key Stage Three.

   Exams must be phased out entirely. Do not replace them with coursework done at home ( which is vulnerable to cheating), but with work done in school, albeit with room for research at home.

   Each pupil would accumulate a portfolio of their  varied work, showing what they can do. Exams too often find out what they cannot achieve! This would be a far better preparation  for a life in work, where any achievements are cumulative rather than dependent on a few hours of concentrated work at the end of the line.

    Of course, some of this would be done in pairs or in groups and there shouldn't have to be an exact balance from every year, allowing for late developers. Pupils should have much more input on what they want to study, as they used to on the old GCSE Lit. coursework. I remember reading one mini-thesis on Chatwin's 'On The Black Hill' which was full of remarkably original material. The opportunity to study local history, geography and literature would be highly stimulating, replacing the uniformity of the National Curriculum.

    Samples from these portfolios - produced over the whole period of education - could be presented to prospective employers or colleges for them to look at closely and base their interviews on.

    I believe such a system would motivate the many pupils who are now deemed to be failures from an early age and who have no hope of reaching that magical 'C' at GCSE. It would give a genuine sense of purpose to education, from day one.  Education would be much more for the love of learning, rather than the ability to do the correct things.

   Ban exams and maybe, just maybe, those 'Yes-men' and 'Yes-women' won't rise to the top and we will empower the many rejected, original thinkers such as that pupil I taught,  who are failed by our present system.

                                  A GOOD PREPARATION

My friend, the pointy-bearded Zen Buddhist,
when asked in a university test
'What is the meaning of Zen?'
simply answered - 'I don't know!'
proving an essay can be shorter than a haiku.


Then there was the girl when faced
with the question 'What is a simile?'
who just drew a smiley face :
a simile's much like a smile,
but she got nothing and a cross.


I can recall one very bright boy
who sat down for an 'A' level, brain bursting
so much he was paralysed in the room,
sat an hour, didn't even write his name,
was led from there gibbering.


Adrian Mitchell took a test on his own poem,
failed and after, refused for his work to be used.
It's learning the tricks and memorizing,
with minimum originality and imagination.
A good preparation..........for a life of conning!