At the last minute of packing I swapped my warm Bluebirds hat for a baseball cap. It turned out to be a 'winter spring' day the next one.   That was the only prediction I got right last weekend.   Not that I actually stated (as everyone else did) that Cardiff City were going to get stuffed by Liverpool, because I never make predictions. Football is too likely to confound them.
   However, to myself I agreed with their unanimous pessimism: our recent form has been poor while Liverpool have played superbly. We are a hard-working team without world class talent, while they have internationals like Kuyt and Maxi on the bench!
   On the platform of Cardiff Central station we had abuse from Swansea rugby fans off to watch Wales v. England on the big screen at the Millennium Stadium. When we got to London, a few Cockneys told us to ' 'ammer them scousers!'
   The pre-match warm up session at The Globe on Baker Street (by now, our ritual) was full of cheerful chanting, as both sets of fans shared the same pub. Usually, the opposition are in the Metropolitan on the other side.
   The only untoward incident was when a pick-pocket tried to lift a Liverpool supporter's wallet and was pursued by the latter through a throng of beer-guzzling Bluebirds.
   Drink flew everywhere, along with some of the wallet's contents : coins and a condom floated in puddles of spilt brew.
   Some of the tourists on the open-topped buses enthusiastically obliged by doing the ayatollah. One woman wouldn't stop and was obviously amazed to find so many followers of the late Ayatollah Khomeini outside a London tavern.
   The police photographer needn't have bothered taking mugshots of just about every fan standing there. It was the antithesis of  stereotypical football hooliganism.
   I even saw a group of Bluebirds and scousers arm-in-arm and chanting about 'shitty Manchester'. I didn't like to point out that our keeper Tom Heaton, hero of the semi-final 2nd leg, came from there.
   And then.......we're so used to it by now, some have become blase.....that walk down Wembley Way and a carefree feeling of why-not-even-though-we-don't-stand-a-chance so unlike the Play-off Final v. Blackpool, with all its tensions.
   We check-listed all the omens. We weren't playing in black : a good thing. We hadn't seen Frank Skinner in person that morning: a good thing. We were,however, standing at the end where we'd lost twice before.
   When Glen Johnson's shot came off the cross-bar after 2 minutes we began to believe those predictions. Liverpool attacked relentlessly and Stewart Downing was making Kevin McNaughton look like his hair colour not his reputation!
   Moreover, Malky hadn't picked the team chosen by myself (and most fans) on the BBC Wales website. In my conceit now, I think that team might've won it.
   We seemed to surrender midfield and a team with specialist winger Conway instead of striker Gestede would, I think, have given us more quality there, releasing Mason to do more damage. Also, Miller plays much better when the ball's on the deck and he's not one to anticipate Rudy Gestede's flicks, which anyway went to Liverpool players.
   But I can't complain too much about Malky Mackay, who has been our best manager since Jimmy Scoular, a fellow Scot who was in charge when I started supporting CCFC.
   Joe Mason's goal was our first sniff and understandly sent us all ballistic. Unlike v. Blackpool, I didn't break my mobile ; another good omen, I thought.
   How we managed to contain Liverpool I don't know. They had more corners than we strung passes together. When Skrtel scored we feared the worst, but the rout never happened and Kenny Miller continued his recent poor League form by blowing our best chance with 4 mintues remaining.
   In extra time it was that class sub. Dirk Kuyt who altered the game, though I thought I saw Bellamy pass when it would have been much easier to shoot! Kuyt was direct and single-minded and when he scored I thought that was it.
   Last year, our team would've caved in and left the field to down a few jars.
   Under Malky things are different : the willingness never to give up was epitomised by the final ten minutes. Turner's header so close and Kiss's stabbed shot cleared off the line by.......guess who?.......Kuyt!
   We had a corner. Next to me, my friend yells 'Go for it Turner!' Four minutes to go and Ben Turner scores.  Jubilation, screaming, jumping, hugging.
   Surely now, it would be our day.
   Penalties and Heaton saves magnificently from Stevie G. Even after Miller hits the post, Charlie Adam skies his into the travelling Kop.
   At last , it's down to Anthony, cousin of Steven, to take our last hope pen. He must've been haunted by all those times he'd been made to play in goals in the street footie games of Liverpool . He missed and it was over.
   In the 'Western Mail' Steve Tucker tells us to feel proud. Malky talks about 'losing with dignity'. But I just want us to win at Wembley.
   Still, after losing to Portsmouth in the F.A.Cup Final I recall a friend saying 'We won't be here again!' He was wrong then. Let's hope he's wrong again!


                                     WEMBLEY  BLUES

On Cardiff Central platform
waiting for the Paddington train,
egg-chaser Swansea fans
calling us 'Scum! Scum!'

I got them
I got them
Wembley Blues again

few pints the night before
and we can really win ;
by hangover next morning
we're bound to be shat on

standing outside on Baker Street
tourists doing the ayatollah,
think we must be Iranian shi-ites;
us and scousers all together

all the superstitions keep returning :
did we eat the right things?
what colour shirts did we wear?
have I left those pants at home?

I got them
I got them
Wembley Blues again

I lose my voice, blow my brain,
before that corner
my mate yells 'Do it Turner!'
and I think he's got Superpowers

we're gonna lose, we're gonna win,
penalties and a familiar pain ;
we'll never be back here,
we'll soon return
     
 
 
   Heolgerrig : the rocky road. More pot-holes nowadays, though when you reach the very top the tarmac gives way to a rubbled lane all the way down the other, Cynon, side to Abernant.
   Heolgerrig. Mentioned only once in Mario Basini's book 'Real Merthyr' and then in the context of a Welsh-speaking football team playing on The Bont.
  Once Pen-yr-Heolgerrig : more accurate, as the road rises steeply from the town.
   It's a place where many of the old people spoke Welsh as their first language when I first arrived over 30 years ago. On the Merthyr Corporation buses (which actually ran on Sundays and evenings!) Welsh was as common as English.
   When the Thomases owned the Post Office, it was also regularly used there. Now it's more likely to be employed at school by a younger generation ; at Santes Tudful and Rhydywaun.
   Like Gwyn Alf Williams' precious Dowlais Heolgerrig is regarded as part of Merthyr, yet is fiercely proud and independent.
   In recent years alone, it's truly remarkable how much talent has emerged from here. The band Blackout all hail from Heolgerrig and even recorded one song using the choir from their old Primary school.
   Actors Jonny Owen and Richard Harrington both come from the village; the former making his name in the 90s ITV soap set in a Valleys town, 'Nuts and Bolts'. Jonathan is from the same street and also a Cardiff City fanatic, so when we meet the conversation is inevitably based on the round ball.
   When I rarely encounter Richard we chat about drama and literature and the latest projects. I followed him closely in the last series of 'Lark Rise To Candleford' and wonder if he'll end up in 'Pobol y Cwm'.
   Flautist Susan Thomas is the daughter of the couple who used to run the Post Office. She has done so well after a long, hard struggle to establish herself and, at present, is sub-principal at the London Philharmonic.
   Brothers Robert and Peter Sidoli also originate from Heolgerrig. The former is an ex-Welsh rugby international, of course, and I was surprised to wiki Peter and find that he now chooses to qualify in rugby for the Italy of his father's birth.
  I'm told there's a Plaid Cymru A.M. from the village and a Channel 4 reporter!
   It has a rich history relating especially to Chartism and Nonconformism ; the artisan Chartist leaders of the 19th century like Morgan Williams and the chapel at Cwmglo where early Dissenters met to avoid persecution.
   It's often described as the 'posh' part of Merthyr and there are certainly a few estates with exceptionally large houses. We have a pool in our garden.......when it rains constantly!
   However, signs of the recession are houses left unsold for years and some left half-built and one of the two pubs is up for sale , as is the village shop. In both shop and Post Office, stocks seem to dwindle daily.
   We're served by John's Buses and by drivers who know their customers by name. Of all the drivers, Ron is the most interesting character.
   He possesses a cackle worthy of Cwmgrach and fine line in wind-up comments. He drops off papers and parcels, leaves people by their doorsteps, chats with other drivers and holds up traffic, parks his bus to nip into the shop and might even be able to get you a 'tidee' second-hand car if you ask him.
   Ron is also a Plaid Cymru supporter who knows a thing or two about politics. On Facebook recently I nominated him as a future President of Cymru and certainly he'd be first choice for a Republic of Heolgerrig!
   In recent years, Heolgerrig has featured more and more in my work. My latest book of poems 'Moor Music' has many poems dealing with the Waun, the moorland once dotted with small shafts and drift mines.
   My novella for teenagers 'The Climbing Tree' is set in a future Heolgerrig, where that same Waun has been in a state of continual flooding.
   It is a village which has risen from its relative slumber many times to fight plans for  opencast mining. People have gathered and spoken out eloquently, signed petitions and marched, from the 80s right up to the present day.
   Some campaigners such as Tony Chaplin ( a regular letter-writer in the 'Western Mail' and local paper) have fought against opencast wherever it has raised it's ugly, dust- and fume-breathing head.
   Others have only bothered about their own patch, following the example set by our former MP Ted Rowlands, who opposed opencast on the west side of town, while favouring it on the east. Typical Ted: both-legs-on-either-side-of-the-fence!
   Perhaps Heolgerrig deserves a 'Real' book of its own. Certainly Basini has no intention of writing a 'Real Merthyr 2' and remedying his awful omission.
    I can't really complain. I was supposed to write 'Real Merthyr', but pulled out as I was teaching full-time then and couldn't get a bursary to do it.
   The following poem is very much a piece of Peter Finchesque psycho-geography. All the house names are genuine and I've organised them, fairly accurately, to begin at the top and work your way downhill.


HEOLGERRIG  HOUSE  NAMES

 

COALBROOK  :  across valley, good view of opencast site;
                             somebody was prophetic

MANJUSHREE : with a southern aspect
                             when it should be facing east

SAN REMO       : painted on bin ; half-finished
                             for decades ; home of builder

TY LLOEGR      : owned by a family called ‘England’
                             who, of course, are Welsh!

REESVILLE       : a whole town in a few rooms
                             (California, west of Merthyr)

MIRA-MONTES : sounds like a villa, looks like a dormer ;
                              had a great holiday in Majorca

BELLE VUE       : overlooks electricity sub-station,
                              DANGER OF DEATH

BRYN AWEL      : noise of school and road ;
                              how about BRYN SWNLLYD?   

ANFIELD             : BEWARE THE DOG ;
                                trained to eat Toffees

LLWYN YR EOS : poetically perfect,
                               but no sign of bird or bush

PENYBRYN         : once topped the road ;
                                has the hill grown?

HERBERT HOUSE : sign stuck on with tape ;
                                  one Herbert within

TARDIS COTTAGE : small terrace on outside,
                                    mansion once you enter

MARBRY                : when Margaret married Bryan
                                   they gave birth to pebble-dash

CASTLE VIEW       : with binoculars ; should be renamed
                                   RETAIL PARK VIEW

BROOKSIDE           : nothing to do with the soap ;
                                   stream somewhere, hidden

HASLEMERE          : wished it wasn’t here ;
                                   Home Counties, perhaps Royal Berkshire

 
 
      Why Ryan Adams and not Tom Russell? Why Tori Amos, not Ani Difranco? Why Elbow and not Witness? Why Laura Marling , not Thea Gilmore? Why Billy Bragg and not Robb Johnson?
   I could go on and on, a long list of those you've made it and those who haven't .
   For some there are obvious explanations, but relative talent isn't one. In the case of Witness, who released only two excellent albums in 1999 and 2001, they were dropped by their record company. Musically more adventurous and melodically more varied than Elbow, by rights they should've matched the Bury boys.
   Ani Difranco from New Orleans still produces vital and interesting albums, but hasn't sustained the edginess of her earlier work. She has always been fiercely independent, a socialist feminist unafraid to voice her views, but equally assured writing about relationships.
   It's extraordinary how Thea Gilmore has continued to release brilliant albums, threatening to break through into the 'Mainstream' (a title of an earlier song), but never quite doing it. She is far more original and diverse than Marling, who is a pale imitation of Joni Mitchell for the most part.
   Likewise Robb Johnson, who has never compromised his ideals like Bragg. Johnson is unashamedly leftwing and represents the anarchist/ animal rights alternative to Billy Bragg's cosy liberal leftism. Just as importantly, he's a witty and eclectic songwriter, using styles from punk to reggae to township music.
   Tom Russell I'll come to later, but as with the others I remain preplexed by his relative obscurity.
   So why the ones and not the others, especially as they can claim to be far more challenging musically and lyrically.
   Well, in most cases the explanation could arise from just that : there's an uncompromising stance, a desire never to kow-tow to the pressures and fashions of the music industry.
   But there's also the lack of a single fortuitous break: one song, one DJ or (dare I say it! ) one celebrity willing to take up their cause. Stephen Fry tweeted and raved about his favourite band at one stage, the Welsh group Toy Horses. I chased them up only to find a rather ordinary harmony band, a cross between Beatles balladry and Simon and Garfunkel. It only made me want to reach for the originals.
  In the case of Tom Russell, he has had many fine American singer-songwriters praising him and a eulogy from Beat poet Lawrence Ferlingetti, but hardly a recipe for wide recognition.
   Three weeks ago, when I was off to St. David's Hall Level 3 to see him in concert, the general reaction was  -  'Who?'
   Yet even as, album by album, Ryan turns into Bryan Adams and seems to have little to say, Russell's songs are always full of fascinating narratives and a deep sense of places.
   Ryan Adams, notably with 'Heartbreaker', rode on the early Noughties desire for Americana which the magazine 'Uncut' embraced fully. Yet on free 'Uncut' cds of that time are as many tracks by Russell as Adams.
   But Russell, like Dave Alvin ( who co-wrote some songs with him) wasn't the young good-looker who'd been in a band like Whiskeytown, rightly hailed as the best of that genre along with Wilco. He hadn't released an album about the traumas of a break-up.
   Instead, Russell's career goes back to the 70's and centres around songs about the way the Japanese were maltreated during the 2nd World War ('Manzanar'), an American Indian in prison ('Blue Wing') and the connection between Mexican immigrants and the risks of love ('Stealing Electricity').
   For me, Russell has been the John Steinbeck of American singer-songwriters, championing the oppressed and downtrodden ; he has had a special affinity with Mexico and often breaks out into Spanish in his gigs.
   From the responses of 'Who?' I expected few there. Yet Level 3 was packed. Were they all just regulars at the 'Roots Unearthed' series, or actual Russell fans?
   It turned out there were a lot more afficionados than anticipated. Above all, it was so fitting and enjoyable to go to the gig with the Bartzman, who introduced me to Russell in the first place with one of his famous compilation cassettes.
   Having said that, I was very wary. His latest cd 'Mesabi' isn't his best by a long way and contains a few songs which suffer the Adams factor. It's also rather samey thematically, with too many songs about fading, self-destroyed or forgotten movie stars.
   Musically it's too similar to its far superior predecessor 'Blood and Candle Smoke', with members of Calexico contributing backing vocals and mariachi horns.
   I needn't have worried one bit. Despite featuring many songs from 'Mesabi' in his first set ( the second was a selection from his long career), Russell's consummate stage performance raised the whole event : every song so much better than the album simply accompanied by the superb acoustic guitarist Thad Beckman, who often played Spanish/Mexican backing to great effect.
   Russell boldly began with his inspiration, a version of Dylan's 'Hard Rain' and then took us on the kind of narrative which is distinctive to his songs.
   His rapport with the audience was wonderful : from the moment he yelled out 'Bastard!' at a heckler (learnt in Belfast), to gibes about Seattle singer-songwriters with their falsettos and his digs at Ryan Adams........yes, it was he who drew the comparison with Bryan!
   He took us all the way from his hometown of L.A to El Paso on the Mexican border, where he now lives. He told us about singing 'Who's Gonna Build Your Wall?' ( about Mexican slave labour) in Tennessee, when the stage was attacked by off-duty militiamen wearing Sarah Palin stickers!
   Like no other N.American singer-songwriter, Russell is imbued with a sense of place and people.
   If the 'Guardian' Guide had bothered to turn up to one his concerts, then they'd never have described him as a troubadour with a 'simmering career'.
   There were so many classic songs and just as many he didn't sing that night, like 'Van Ronk' a spoken narrative about an unsung hero of the Greenwich Village music scene; a highly moving tribute.
   So why Ryan Adams and not Tom Russell?
   The Bartzman reckoned you could never come up with a single picture of Russell : he's a cowboy, a balladeer, a story-teller, a protest singer and, occasionally, a chronicler of foreign climes such as Africa, Norway and Canada.
   When he finished with 'Tonight we Ride' and included the plains of Cardiff and deserts of Norwich ( his next venue) in the song, we laughed and sang along.
   It was one of the most memorable gigs ever and next time, hopefully he'll be playing in the 'Big Hall' (as he dubbed it) and Spillers will stock his cds.
                                   ****************

   This is a poem in memory of an ex-pupil who died recently and who loved music as much as me.


                              
                                       IN MEMREE OF TOILET

Don' know why they called im that.
Not sif ee always ad a chain
danglin round is neck,
not sif ee wuz boggin.

I jest remember im, Beatles mad
an on about McCartney an Lennon
an George Arrison's great songs
ee said woz underrrated.

Ewsed t see im down town buskin
an ee could always be relied on
to supply mega lush weed ;
often ad a tidee girlfren with im.

With is long black air
an later a moush, yew'd swear
ee wuz part of a Beatles tribute.
One of-a many oo shoulda made it.

F'r-a time ee wuz livin
in-a Teepee village over by Carmarthen,
another ee seemed t be sortin
loadsa stuff f'r the Green Man.

I carn forget the fight ee ad
in class with Crumpy oo wuz inta Elvis,
it wuz all about mewsic, oo woz best :
don' think anybuddy lost.

Toilet. Eart-attack! So young
it don' seem right :
I'll play a song an think of im;
it's gotta be 'Blackbird singin in the dead o night'.

      
 
 
   Is it possible? A time-capsule back to the town where so much happened.
   Back to those digs in Trinity Place, where the church opposite would wake me every Sunday morning with its bells clanging in my hungover head, skull full of the boulders of Tanybwlch storm beach shifting back and fore behind my throbbing eyeballs.
   Back to the short walk every teatime to the nearby caff, just a few of us from the digs. Lads from the north of England mostly and one I recall especially.
   He was learning Welsh and spoke the language with a broad Yorkshire accent. In the cafe, he'd ask for - ' Cwpaned o de, os gwelwch yn dda!' to our great mirth.
   He was certainly a 'character'. Any unusual food at the digs ( and most seemed strange to him) and he'd ask us dead-pan, things like - 'Can leeks kill you then?'
   Looking back, he put us all to shame with his desire to learn the language. He soon moved out to Pantycelyn and joined the many protests of Cymdeithas yr Iaith. The last thing I heard about him, he'd been arrested and was up in Court despite his tentative grasp of Cymraeg.
   Yet.......the time-capsule is one song. The song I invariably put on that cafe's juke-box every time.

   A few weeks ago on a Saturday evening with nothing on television, my wife and I indulged in pure nostalgia by watching the 'Best of Top of the Pops'.
   There, amongst the predictable Glam and Soul offerings, was Rod Stewart and The Faces. Neither of us were fans of his, but I was gripped by his hamming performance of 'Maggie May'. John Peel had joined him in the studio to 'play' mandolin (miming very unconvincingly) and send up the whole show.
   Peel, of course, was a fan of Stewart and while I always liked certain songs, his finest and most lasting is undoubtedly the one he sang before any fame came along, namely Python Lee Jackson's 'In A Broken Dream'.
   I downloaded it expecting to be disillusioned. Time would surely have eroded its impact and made it a statement of the 70s, battered and faded.
   But no, it was as fresh as ever. Stewart's rough-hewn voice like Consti's rock-face, the guitar soaring high like a red kite over Heol Nanteos and the organ solo like waves smashing against the prom and stone jetty.
    The song still has everything. It evokes that sad elation so fundamental to great rock songs : at one moment it's defiant with 'Don't push your love too far', while at another it's self-pitying , 'I sit here in my lonely room'.
   It has a real sense of mystery : it is somehow never finished, like the monument on Pen Dinas or Aber's half-pier.
   It's about a writer who has lost out in love ( 'Paper cries, tellin' lies'), and the way he sings 'Drinkin' wine, feelin' fine' we just can't believe him.
   Because the moods of the song change so radically it would not work as a poem, yet as lyrics it transcends even a tendency to cliche.
   This song, more than any other, represents my undergraduate years at Aberystwyth. I could empathize with the writer and his struggle 'to find a sign'.
   Yet is it vital to me now simply because it makes my memories vivid, or could it still be relevant?
   Like all the best songs it combines powerful emotions, unique vocals, mind-winging instrumentals and thought-provoking lyrics. Above all, the title and refrain is so suggestive. It seems to crystallize those times when the idealism of the hippies was beginning to look jaded.
   'In a broken dream' symbolizes our times as well. For many (though not, it must be emphasized, in the Valleys) there has been boom and optimism which is falling apart.
   We're living in days of broken dreams and, like the character in the song, we move between very different responses and sometimes, we want to just give up - 'I don't care if I ever know'.
   There are few songs which can bridge past and present like this one and, though it calls me home, it speaks equally eloquently about today.



                                Calling Me Home



‘Raaaaaaaah – Boh!’
‘Raaaaaaaah -  Boh!’
calling me back,
calling me home.

At first I’d thought
it was a stray footie chant
reaching from the building site
through a slit-open window.

Then I was on the estate
contouring Pen Dinas
as horse and cart
clattered round collecting.

I was a child again
running behind the gypsy man,
with his clutter of metal
rattling like tins of Meccano.

I translate the years:
the tinkers, the didicoys
all around our village,
another Heol, another hillside.

Call of an extinct bird
as the white van pulls in –
‘Any junk?’ asks the man,
dragging a discarded drier.

‘Raaaaaaaah- Boh!’
‘Raaaaaaaah – Boh!’
a sad scat, a blues wail,
wind-bird blowing me home.