AT THE POINT OF TURNING
for Herbert Williams
Herb, I know how hard it is just to get out,
but I half-expected by the front
at the end of the promenade,
to see you and Dorothy again.
You always say – ‘I’ll try to make it!’
The Big C you write to laugh off.
This town which gave us so much:
Aber Boyz erioed erioed
(Parrys of the word not note).
Now it’s like different generations
side by side, yet not communicating.
Young and lively grandchildren
with their names yn Cymraeg,
with a sense of just-born pride.
The middle-aged hinterland
of trekking boots and retail parks
and photocopy geography of familiar signs.
Blanked-out windows and scaffolding,
joints swollen by the salt-damp
and just a stick or metal frame.
Herb, I tell myself it’s all for summer,
that paint will dry for another season
when I’ll meet you there, at the point of turning.
None of the main political parties in Cymru (and especially not the ruling Labour Party) offer the correct, lasting solutions to problems in education.
In the past I've blogged and given a whole variety of proposals which may have seemed revolutionary, but many of which work in what is regarded as one of the most successful countries in terms of their system, Finland.
The problem with the Labour Party's very limited efforts in Wales is their smugness in relation to a Tory-dominated England, where the ludicrous Gove is attempting to force their education back to the 19th century. With 12 times tables,learning by rote and the ascendency of Greek and Roman in Primaries, what next, compulsory 'fagging' in Secondaries?
Under Leighton Andrews in particular, Labour have merely gone forward by virtually standing still, with any reforms tentative and lacking any real direction.
I'd like to suggest some reforms which could be carried out more easily than my previous calls for schools to be democracies and for the abolition of exams and inspections.
We need a system intrinsic to Cymru and these would be just a beginning.
I would firstly alter the Foundation Phase(one of Jane Davidson's pet policies), which is rapidly creating a crisis in literacy and numeracy.
Learning through play in early years is laudable, but reading, writing and basic maths (not through formality, but enjoyable means) must be a priority and this focus should continue until all pupils can access the rest of the curriculum.
Assistants should be deployed - as far as possible - in these areas alone, rather than supervision of so-called 'controlled play'. The latter is vital, but must be part of a balanced approach.
Class sizes need to be rapidly reduced, with a norm of 20, by the appointment of more staff. In times of cuts this would seem an impossibility, but I'd advocate the evening out of salaries, so that rewards are given to those who remain in the classroom not those who seek to leave it.
At present, one of the most absurd aspects of the system is that the way to get on is to get out.
I recall one Deputy Head who was filled with horror and dread at the thought of the one lesson a week he had to teach.
What matters in schools is having excellent teachers who are committed to pupils' improvement. This seems self-evident, except the whole structure is geared towards attaining posts in management and all the energy of younger, ambitious staff channeled into learning administrative skills rather than classroom ones.
Not only must they be rewarded for staying in the classroom, but they must be empowered with regard to the curriculum.
Training Days should be largely devoted to producing new resource materials with the assistance of hands-on advisers and the sharing of 'good practice' with other schools.
With the re-introduction of the importance of coursework (all to be done in school time, however) then teachers could once again play vital roles in the development of both local and Welsh national curricula, as they know what is best suited to their pupils, not distant academics and examiners.
One sure way to combat alienation and truancy would be to involve pupils also in the framing of their courses. They need not merely to be consulted, but to have genuine power over both approach and content. This happened under GCSE 100 and 50 % coursework options and it could happen again, in a revised form.
If both teachers and pupils are freed from the ridiculous obsession with testing and league tables ( including Leighton Andrews' anomalous 'banding'), they could achieve so much more.
All it takes is a wider and more long-term view of what education entails and I am very disappointed with so-called progressive parties like Plaid Cymru for the complete lack of imagination in their policies.
Finally, I have spent the last month ( one session per week) at Coed-y-dderwen Primary, on the Gellideg estate in Merthyr.
Merthyr's education system has been decreed as 'failing' by the inspectors of Estyn, who have highlighted the local authority as culpable.
However, I experienced the exact opposite. Working with Years 3 and 4 I was constantly inspired by their enthusiasm and enormous willingness to learn.
Their work will be showcased at the Global Village in Cyfarthfa Park in May, when I am looking forward to seeing them perform the poems they created.
THE INSPECTOR'S ADVICE
Take down the poetry from your walls,
replace it with comprehensions.
Show me your attainment targets,
I want to see red marks strong.
Always keep your distance
and fill in every form.
You talk as if they're friends ;
they'll bring you down.
Your lessons need more focus,
those anecdotes are straying.
Show me your plans :
'You haven't written anything?'
Imagination's all very well
but it doesn't pass exams.
BUS STATION BLUES
i.m. John Martyn
I got them
bus station blues
some of us head for mountains
some for villages and towns
some to shop in the city
some to hospitals and surgeries
hoping we're not going to lose
got them bus station blues
down the tubes pigeons are winging
smokers sit on the iron barriers
dragging deep the days,
others dazed by mid-day booze
got them bus station blues
some of us are carrying too much
some are shrivelled with worry or disease
some can only move with sticks,
some cling close to each other
like a poet and the Muse
got them bus station blues
someone's waiting after the timetable's over
someone's waiting for the late night run
with no lights , no destination
pay with your life, you do not choose
I got them
bus station blues.
When my manuscript for my latest book 'Barkin!' was accepted by Carreg Gwalch I texted my daughter.
'Book just taken by publisher. Barkin!'
'Isn't that a good thing?' she replied.
Titles like this can cause confusion. I have to thank the Bartzman for his favourite word, who in turn blames his wife.
Even he asked me where the 'g' had got to, when he saw the cover.
'Barkin!' is fitting for a book which includes a plethora of either slightly or very crazy characters, including the collection of people in 'Owlin at-a Moon' who join in with a wolf chorus in the smokers' yard of a pub down town (see the photo above, where it's set).
I seemed to encounter a whole succession of people wandering around in various guises, such as the girl who dons a blonde wig on the bus, a posh pirate who invades our Open Mic. session and, above all, the infamous 'Dress-up Dave' who used to inhabit the Merthyr streets in multifarious disguises, one of his most intriguing being Dave Hitchcock, brother of the famous film director!
Dave - a native of Ponty - moved his one-man fancy dress show to Cardiff and then disappeared. I just hope he hasn't been locked away.
With the exception of the story 'Screwy' - written from a schoolboy's perspective - the vast majority of poems and stories take place in the town of Merthyr itself : bus station, Magistrates Court and supermarket for example.
Dialect is the closest way to express the language of these streets. My connection with the town now is through friends and also the time I spend in those very places where these are set. I have generally shifted away from the many school-based poems of my other two dialect books 'Graffiti Narratives' and ' Coulda Bin Summin' ( which one wag thought was in Arabic!).
There are still a few inspired by the classroom and one is 'All Poetree's Gay', where the narrator has won a poetry competition, but is overcome with embarrassment as his school friends dismiss poetry as 'gay'.
Humour is fundamental to the book, just as it is an important way of coming to terms with suffering and struggle. The main character in the story 'Bus-station Clinic' (to be featured in the website Americymru's 'eto' magazine) believes the bus-station's full of people who need curing. He devises various strategies and weird inventions to address this problem.
I know there's despair in the book as well, yet it reflects a time when many people are finding it increasingly hard to cope. One of the best examples is the narrator of 'Em'tied Lives' who is about to lose his house through repossession, after working so diligently to build up his family's life, sacrificing his relationship with his children in the process. It's all too familiar story nowadays.
While some of my poems are entirely fictional, such as this one, others describe a real incident and embellish it.
'In-a Bus Shelter' is about an encounter with a very gruff, deep-voiced Cockney transvestite when I was travelling from Ebbw Vale to Llanhilleth.
Sometimes a poem can begin with realism and then lift off into realms of fantasy, as in 'Ewman Advert', where I'm standing near to KFC in Cyfarthfa Retail Park.
The sheer intensity of the smell transform me into a standing advert (with more than a nod to Kafka), a weird creature with chicken legs and breadcrumb skin!
I am fascinated by taking a persona which is far removed from my own experiences, but also much more comfortable using a voice not far from my own, as observer. This is something I've embraced more readily, even though my own accent is definitely not the local one. Perhaps there's an inner voice ( I have one for Cymraeg at times also), which translates certain aspects of life into the vernacular.
The cover is the most arresting of any of my books ; the painting 'Blwyddyn o eira, blwyddyn o lawndra' by the brilliant Merthyr artist Gus Payne.
A thick-set man, arms outstretched, has his face open to a snowy sky, while his dog is obliviously intent on eating from a bowl.
He's on his knees and catching the fullness of the falling sky.
It's a 'barkin' thing to do, in front of railings which guard a chapel, on the grass with a wind-bent tree in the background. It's 'barkin' yet somehow right : a fitting celebration of feather-fall, of cloud-crystals downing.
It all makes sense in the same way as 'Doc Dyer' from 'Bus-station Clinic' tries to treat the drug-addicts with his own-made remedy . In a different dimension, his madness has an inescapable logic.
Lately I seen im
totelee without Fancy Dress.
It's like spottin
yewer footie idol
in a suit,
or some lush model
with all er clothes on.
Ee wuz carryin
full o shoppin.
Ee wore a grey suit,
white tie an shirt
with-a hankie in-a pocket ;
is silvery air
woz plastered down
in thick, greasy strands
tryin t ide is baldin,
it ung in a wiry web
right above is fore'ead.
Makes a change from D-Day Dave,
Mr. Universe Dave or Crocodile DunDave
with is corky at,
or April Fool's Dave with jester bells.
I wan'ed t peek in is bags
t see if they woz full o costumes
t keep us all cleckin -
'Barkin? Ee's-a definition o barkin!'
In this town, it shouldn't be so. All the economic indicators are lowest of the low. Anyone with any talent should up and go. And yet......I've a strange feeling. Something's happening here : in various art-forms, yet communicating, mingling, overlapping.
It all began with a bench. No ordinary bench, but one erected by SUSTRANS (the sustainable transport charity) on the Trevithick Trail for pedestrians and cyclists in Pentrebach, Merthyr.
As with their other Portrait benches, the three figures were chosen by popular vote to represent Merthyr, therefore Trevithick, Laura Ashley (on her bike , it would seem) and Julien Macdonald are the three rusted 2D figures shown here, with words of explanation you'd only find as part of a Treasure Hunt.
You can't argue with the vote and , apparently, someone even voted for me who wasn't a relative!
No boxers, historians, writers or musicians got a look in (I voted for Gwyn Alf Williams).
My mind rapidly moved on from this very real bench to an imaginary one, which may well have been based on this one, if only as a starting-point.
Gus (on his website it's Michael Gustavius) Payne's remarkable work 'Gormod o pwdin dagiff y ci' (too much pudding will choke the dog) is one of a series he has produced using Welsh idioms.
What's intriguing about this oil painting is that it doesn't describe the title, it anticipates it.
Here, on and around a bench, various characters, both animal and human, are depicted. The bench itself is precariously balanced, a motif in Payne's work where many of his subjects are barely balancing , even if they aspire upwards to a sky of possibilities.
The dog in the foreground isn't choking, but appears to have chewed into his very bony bowl, which is bloodied.
The perspective is from low down, as though from another passing dog's-eye view.
The dog's owner's legs are prominent, knotted into each other, blue and muscly in contrast to his small head. He's extremely troubled and holds his hands over his ears ( blocking out the sounds of the nearby tiger perhaps?), his left arm a map of wounds.
Like many of Gus's works, there's a young child present, but here she plays a less central role. She is concerned for the tormented man and clings to him.
The background figures appear to suggest reasons for the man's troubles : a black, hooded person, like an angel of death, lurks over him and the girl and, seemingly out of place, are an African man (dressed in snake-like clothing ) and a tiger, face raised to the sky.
If there is surfeit and choking, then that is to come. Instead we have drama (both internal and external), with those smoky, coal-dust clouds behind, as though they've been exhaled from the very cloth of the dark, hoodie angel.
What does it all signify? Ultimately, I'd prefer not to be too bound by the title itself.
To me, it's about physical and mental torture and how close we are to very deep primitive forces despite our veneer of civilisation.
This is just one narrative , of course. The spoilt dog and sky-roaring tiger also illustrate stark contrasts between two very different worlds and how our consciences are disturbed by these.
Merthyr-born designer Julien Macdonald has been awarded an OBE. He totally supports the use of emaciated models on the cat-walk, despite all the links to body image and to anorexia. He has also used animal skin and fur in his well-known outfits, without any qualms. He is obviously not affected - like the man in the blood-red jacket in the painting - by issues of morality and cruelty to animals.
From this extraordinary painting ( part of The Tabernacle Collection at MOMA, Machynlleth), I'd like to praise another Merthyr-grown work which I was discovered this week.
This is an e.p. from a mysterious new group/musician called twlc, called 'Radio/Dim Radio'. It can be found on twlc's Facebook page.
It is highly atmospheric music, sometimes tuneful, sometimes dissonant. Voices are distorted, so it's hard to make out the words and music is looped and layered. It reminds me somewhat of 'Godspeed You! Black Emperor', the Canadian collective.
It's not so much garage as cellar and roof-tile sounds, either descending into the stuff of nightmares , or ready to take flight.
At times, there's an edge of madness, at others of laughter.
Like the haunting figures in Payne's painting, it is never comfortable and challenges the listener to open their ears and spread their wings, or dig into the darkness below and wonder at the bones and fragments unearthed.
Payne's paintings and the music of twlc represent exciting explorations.
Walk into the frame. Sit down on the arched wooden bench. Listen closely to the music of hooded darkness and growl of the long-throated tiger.
After all, this is a Merthyr tiger.
What a time to be here
at this meeting place,
this confluence of rivers
no maps claim exist.
You will not find it
on Google Earth,
be able to zoom in
on its strange coincidence.
The river of oil,
of paint brushed seaward,
textures of colours
sculpted in solidified liquid.
The river of song ;
caneuon of the streets
and gwlis coursing
like water-made sound.
The river of poetry
creating the telling signs,
with letters of bird flight :
curve of gull, line of heron.
Here on the narrow join,
precarious with that surging ;
from under the canopies,
canvas, page and score, we're emerging.