Schools which are run democratically by teachers and pupils, not the present mini-dictatorships of Heads. Schools where every pupil's achievements actually count for something and our unfair exam system is replaced by portfolios gathered through their entire school lives. Schools free from the paranoia and fear if inspections which create pointless and inordinate paper-work and , instead, where colleagues help and observe or you are visited by advisors (teachers on sabbaticals) who aid with resources and teacher exemplar lessons.

   All these I've advocated in more detail in previous blogs. Never more than today is the sheer absurdity of our examination system evident. The obsession with 'pass' and 'fail' is clearly not sustainable.

   With at least 35% of pupils branded failures at GCSE, how can that be any incentive for many to work at school? When they were initiated , GCSEs were supposed to be 'no failure' exams, without the A-C necessity. Now schools in deprived areas are lauded if their value added results are good. Yet even in many of these schools, up to 70% of the pupils do not get the magic grades. Such schools inevitably pour all resources into the borderline C-D pupils, often at the expense of others and staff are expected to take after-school classes and even study weekends, for no extra pay.

   Academics like Prof. David Reynolds (a WAG advisor on education) cannot see beyond the tip of his nose to actually question the viability of the system. In particular, the whole basis of learning and assessment must change, with an emphasis on group work rather than the individual.

   I say this not just out of an ideological belief in the spirit of co-operation alone - though that should be vital in fostering a caring and sharing society - but also with a strong pragmatism.

   Most, though not all, exams consist of the individual working in isolation, confronted by an exam paper they have been trained to cope with and have either learnt , or ignored, the necessary tricks to pass.

   Yet, in employment and life in general when are these skills of individual, solitary response required? As a writer perhaps,  but let's not pretend that exams ever gauge much in the way of creativity or imagination. Poetry, especially, is never examined.

   On the contrary, in most workplaces you have to co-operate with a group of people : take the lead maybe, take responsibility, agree to compromise and listen to others ; but not work individually with pen and paper.

   What happens at present with English Oral tests and Drama coursework should become commonplace. Group work has become an integral part of education over at least the last two decades, yet this is not reflected in the exam system.

   From my own experience, some of the very best work has been produced by such team efforts, with pupils supporting each other and imaginatively taking on roles to express views. At Key Stage 3, I recall one project where pupils in groups devised their own rock/pop/rap bands, with each a member ( not part of any National Curriculum, I'm proud to say). This led to interviews, reviews, lyrics and even, in some cases, cds and videos.

   Evidence towards the pupils' final portfolio of achievements could come in the form of tape or film, as well as the written word. Such projects are cross-curricular in the way Primaries used to approach 'themes' ( though they have never fully returned to this structure), with pupils making their own cds and designing stage sets and costumes.

   I'm not claiming what I did was unique. Teachers use group work in every subject and, as in English and Drama, pupils invariably have the power and choice to determine outcomes.

   What I'm proposing is, along with the abolition of a 'pass' and 'fail' culture, an elevation of group work when it comes to assessment. Working in groups can give less confident pupils the opportunity to thrive and each member can contribute according to their talents.

   The likes of Prof. Reynolds, who cannot see beyond one set of data to another, need to address the intrinsic failures of a system which condemns so many , making their entire school careers a waste of time.



                                    A POEM CANNOT BE GRADED

A poem cannot be graded :
it is not a 1 or an A*,
or even a 5 or a U.

It sticks its two fingers
up at all examiners,
ultimately refusing to be dissected.

Even if you put it on the wall
it will come alive after closing
and hare down corridors.

A poem can have no criteria
to box in assessement :
emerging like a dream embodied.

It can be googled for meaning,
caught  in the net and pinned;
but its words will grow new limbs,

so it jumps through open windows
into the rain, snow or sunlight,
tearing off itorm as it goes.s unif


  
 
 
   Merthyr Tudful is dying and being reborn at the same time. Perhaps it was always thus. In the heyday of the iron industry, when it was one of the  largest producers in the world, there were notorious slums like 'China' and cholera was rife, just as people poured in from the impoverished countryside.   Today there are examples of death and rebirth everywhere. Those of death are more familiar : the effects of the giant opencast coal mine at Ffos-y-fran and the impending environmental doom of the incinerator at Brig-y-cwm (unless it is stopped). More obviously are the many problems relating to poverty and unemployment, among them drugs , crime and serious health issues.

   Yet the rebirth cannot be underestimated : the old Town Hall will hopefully  be reinvented as an arts and training centre, the first ever Children's Literature Festival (bi-lingual, wrth cwrs) could well take place at the soon-to-be-launched Soar Theatre and there are a number of other projects, such as the Engine House in Dowlais, which bring so much hope to the young people of the town.

   Our latest guest reader at the Open Mic. at The Imp in Pontmorlais was author of 'Real Merthyr' Mario Basini, who bemoaned the fact that so much of the town, such as the famous 'Triangle' housing in Pentrebach and also Penydarren ironworks, had been destroyed by callous Councils. 

   While I agree with him,  we can't alter that. However, things can be done today and one must certainly be a comemorative monument at the site of the recently demolished Castle Cinema, where so much of the drama of the 1831 Rising happened. The brutal attack by the British army on unarmed workers who were fighting for their rights should be a focal point of our town's history. 

   Merthyr used to be synonymous with failure : the C5 built at Hoover factory ( a washing-tub on wheels!), the flights to USA fiasco of that same factory and the ski-slope with its snow-machine, which left a perfect runway for the hang-gliders by Troedyrhiw!

   Now, there's a vibrant creative arts department at Merthyr College, Soar's ambitious programme of events and a Town Hall where the rats will be piped away up the mountain by music and dance. A town realising its many talents!

   The greats of the past must not be forgotten either, as these can be an inspiration. I'd like to see 'viewing platforms' at various locations around town associated with these writers and historians, places where short biographies, photos and extracts should be displayed. Our museum at Cyfarthfa has done little to promote the town's rich heritage of writing, so people like Gwyn Alf Williams, Alun Rees, Glanmor Williams, Jack Jones, Glyn Jones and Leslie Norris should be celebrated and enjoyed  at these key points. Historical tours of the town could stop off at these places, like Dowlais for Gwyn Alf, the Morlais brook for Glyn Jones and Cyfarthfa Park for Leslie Norris.

   Which will it be, slow death or eventual rebirth? I feel the answer is, as ever, both. Economically , we will suffer disproportionately from the continuing recession with its cuts, unemployment, inflation and dwindling spending power. If the incinerator comes we will have pollution's most modern theme park: come and visit our landfill site, opencast and waste- burning for a day's spectacle on how to destroy the environment!

   Yet, long after Ffo-y-fran is either filled in and made into bare pastureland, or becomes a landfill mark II, I believe the Soar and Old Town Hall will be flourishing.  People have objected to the money spent on these projects and to that I'd reply - ' These places will grow, develop and become havens of hope.'


                                  FISH FOOT CLINIC

It's come t Merthyr at las,
we got one o them 'Fish Foot Clinics'
down town in a posh stewdio.

In-a local paper it boasts
'Probably the biggest in Merthyr'
(far as I know, int no other!).

An orready I yeard 'bout this bloke,
pissed arfta goin up-a Wyndham
(one of-a top 10 ardes pubs in-a land) ;

ee goes inta this Clinic
where there's all these women
avin theyer feet nibbled by tiny fish.

'I wan mine done!' ee demands,
'on'y make it fuckin piranhas,
not them poncy fish yew do ewse!

Aye, they cun feed off-of my tattoes.
On'y piranhas are ard enough
f'r a pair o feet like these.'

'Sorry sir,' sayz the manager, thinkin 999,
'we on'y got these ones,
Gara Rufa 're gentle as yew please.'

'No way!' ee replies,' I'll bugger off
up a Chinese Ealth Shop an ave
loadsa needles stuck in my balls!'

 

  
 
 
   This is surely a miracle! A tablet, a screen. A single memory-bank of songs the size of a coin! Only so much more valuable.

   If you'd told me just 6 months ago that I'd be an i-tunes addict, welded to my i-pod as I travel by train, walk or wait at various bus-stops, I'd have dismissed you outright.

   Then I was the ultimate Retro Man, taking with me on any long journey my old and trusty walkman and a bag full of tapes, all mixes made meticulously , in the very best of taste, by Merthyr's Ace Tapeman, Andrew Bartz.

   For years, I actually resisted the move from vinyl to tape, preferring grooved discs with revolutions every minute. But whatever the nostagia, they could easily scratch or warp. Still, casettes were rarely bought.

   Instead, I hopped a stage to cds, still relishing the artwork, booklet with background info and, above all, the lyric sheet. It's certainly true I miss all these with downloading. I like to follow the words as I'm listening and know about the band and songs. You can't replace something made, something tangible.

   Sound quality cannot match the cd, my Prog Rock fanatic friend has told me, yet with a great set of 'cans' I've found that music hitherto listened to on cd has opened up completely on the i-pod, whole layers and subtle background tones revealing themselves. Though it's true my everyday ear-phones let in too much outside noise.

   Of course, I'm aware of the dangers. We shut ourselves off from the cacophony of traffic, but also the songs of birds. We muffle out the shrieks of spoilt children, but also intriguing exchanges of conversation.

   While I've become too easily addicted to getting music online, I'm also fascinated by  the sheer availability of music which I might never have found in shops, or even been able to order.  From surfing the net I came upon two brilliant singer-songwriters, who I'd probably have missed otherwise : Jo Hamilton and Agnes Obel .I got their new albums instantly.

   They are as different as Bjork and Thea Gilmore, yet both have debut albums which are so much better than the highly-rated Laura Marling and the many Kate Bush impersonators such as Florence and the Machine. Hamilton's music ranges from jazzy ballads to songs full of her native Scotland and she has a voice as powerful as Jeff Buckley's ( which I never though I'd say about anybody!). On the other hand, Obel's music is very pared down, but her lyrics are more adventurous and obtuse . Her songs feature her excellent piano-playing, a cello and sometimes a harp. Her version of John Cale's 'Close Watch' is better than the original and her cover of 'Katie Cruel' is by far the best version I've heard (the Fleet Foxes made a hash of it).

   I'm excited by the way I can access Welsh language music, even if i-tunes do describe the highly emotive Gwilym Morus's songs as 'in a funny language'! I decided to revisit Geraint Jarman and download 'Rhiniog', realising once again what a major figure he is in the history of Welsh rock. Not only did he make reggae at home in Cymru, but with guitarist Tich Gwilym he produced a series of records which put him up there with the very best from Wales. Like the Super Furries, he can move from political to personal, from scathing to exhilarating with equal intensity and melody.

   On You-Tube recently I came across 'ice music' after reading a review of a concert in the paper. I downloaded a track, but it ,elted along the wires! Some music cannot be captured online.


                                                 ICE MUSIC

And the band played Ice Music :
they had come from Norway,
were used to interpreting glacial movement.

The venue wasn't cold enough,
so after every number their instruments
had to be returned to the freezer.

Ice bells were melting
as were ice trumpets, not to mention
the unforgettable ice marimba.

But the music was cold only
in the material of instrumentation :
every note a frost fern, waterfall stilled and hanging,

every phrase a caught crystal on tongue
and that voice of sunlight reflected
in a dazzle-dance from a white mountain.

That night I heard the icicles
growing from guttering drip by drip, chime
with cries only the snow could translate.
 
 
  In the run up to the Assembly elections last Thursday two friends, whose views I respect but don't always agree with, declared they'd be voting for Labour in their Cardiff constituencies and the Greens on the List vote.

   I took part in a somewhat desperate and pointless 'text war' to try to persuade them to vote for the leftist Leanne Wood, but to no avail.

   What makes it especially strange is that these highly intelligent voters chose Labour after rejecting that party totally during recent years, not just because of Iraq, but a disillusionment with their overall policies. One  explained to only ever having been a member of that party as a reaction to Thatcher and the other was committed sufficiently to the Greens to display their poster in the General Election.

   To fathom this change isn't just to argue that Welsh Labour have taken a different route from New Labour under Blair and Brown, because they have failed to do so on economic policy. Rather, it's a recognition that Labour had forced the agenda in last week's election.

   They had taken Plaid Cymru's usual mantra of 'standing up for Wales' and were seen as a bastion against ConDem cuts. The evidence of free bus passes, lower tuition fees and free prescriptions being maintained are obvious examples.

   It was as if they were voting from a party separate from the Westminster
one which had actually helped create the enormous deficit by allowing bankers free rein and the housing market to dominate people's investments, so a housing slump left them unable to pay mortgages or buy first-time homes.

   Plaid Cymru ,in particular, failed spectacularly to forge any link in people's minds between this Labour party and the one which had caused the crisis. A party which, had they won the General Election, would now be carrying out cuts similar to the Condem ones and dismissing the meek resistance of most Unions, except the likes of PCS and RMT.

   All parties failed to engage or appeal to the poor and dispossessed, most of whom didn't bother to vote simply because no government has ever  radically changed their situation of constant struggle.Ideals of full employment and the eradication of poverty simply aren't in the manifestos of parties who quibble about reformist minutiae. In other words, all the mainstream parties have virtually merged into one entity and it is a matter of tradition or tactics which dictate.

   Plaid, just like the Liberals in London, have been subsumed by the actions of their Coalition partners and subsequently lost their identity in the process. With the Welshification of each party in more than name, it was essential for Plaid to reassert it's distinctiveness as a pacifist, nationalist party with strong republican sympathies.

   Instead, we saw Plaid MP's voting in the Commons for military action in Libya, a refusal to countenance the idea if independence in Wales itself and - with the notable exception of two AM's -  take a British nationalist stance on the Royal Wedding akin to the Labour party (with Lord Elis-Thomas even attending it!).

   No doubt Plaid will attempt to re-fashion itself on the model of the SNP in opposition, though without an influential and charismatic leader like Alex Salmond that could prove impossible.

   Welsh Labour will continue to act as a Social Democratic alternative to right-wing policies emanating from Westminster, but will be tested by the sheer extent of the cuts. It will be interesting to see to what extent they support the inevitable strikes which will take place. No doubt they will distance themselves from the likes of Mark Servotka, who always argues against the need for any cuts at all. The Labour party pose of being a leftwing party always emerges in opposition to Tory-led London government, but it's never more than a pose.

   I dream of a party in Cymru which brings together socialists from many parties but, above all, from outside them. Am I dreaming of the past and the group to which I belonged for many years, Cymru Goch?

   It must be  a party rather than grouping, however, and one whose primary aim is to change the consciousness and lives of the people of this country through involvement in all levels of political action, by setting out a clear vision of what a socialist Wales would be like and how it could be achieved.

   The Welsh Socialist Alliance, which I was also part of, tried to do this very thing by bringing together those on the Left. Sadly, it ended up as yet another organisation the SWP manipulated for their own ends.

   Plaid Sosialaeth Cymru must be grander and embrace socialists within the mainstream parties as well. I can fully understand my two friends who voted Labour, but it strikes me as a reactionary move: a reaction against Westminster rather than a vote for any alternative vision of society.

   There were no election posters in Penywaun, a council estate near Aberdare where my friend, the poet Jazz lives. 'Welcome to the Bronx' he once wrote about the place and called it 'Giro City' in his screaming rant against unemployment ; written decades ago, but frighteningly relevant to today.

   None of the main parties offered hope to the people of Penywaun : long abandoned by Labour, ignored by Plaid, cheated by the Liberals and cut deep and left to bleed by the Tories.


                       NO WORRIES, THERE'S A ROYAL WEDDING!

Lost your job
lost your home
lost the will to ever sing?

no worries
cos there's a royal wedding

lost your benefits
lost the holiday you planned
lost to pawnbrokers your wedding ring?

no probs
cos there's a royal wedding

lost relationships
lost your head in debt
lost in dread when the phone rings?

no sweat
cos there's a royal wedding

lost your pension
lost your kids hopes of higher education
lost your life's very meaning?

no hassles
cos there's a royal wedding!                 
 
 
   Firstly, I'd like to thank poet and lecturer Carrie Etter for issuing the challenge to write a poem a day for National Poetry Month.

   I'd particularly like to thank her because I hadn't even heard of National Poetry Month and now look forward to a National Poetry Year.......every year! Responding to the challenge was easy, executing it a little harder!

   However, I'm glad I took the minimalist option of a haiku per day, so beginning the Merthyr 'haiku factory' (as my son's girlfriend called it so aptly). I just hoped that they wouldn't turn out like the infamous Sinclair C5, one of Merthyr's most maligned products and rightly so : a washing-tub on wheels!

   Having been to Japan for a couple of weeks a few years ago and vowing not to write haiku but ending up doing so, I fully expected to  rebel against myself and compose villanelles instead.

   It didn't work out that way though and I've kept to the strict discipline of three-line, five - seven - five syllables throughout the month of April. The most problematic ones were undoubtedly those in Welsh, where my limited vocabulary has been fully stretched and my desire to leave out words not always a possibility.

   Some of the haiku have been direct responses to observations and events, but by no means all. The first and last link up, of course, and there's room for a remembered full moon and the Windsor Wasters' Bash on the 29th( oh no, it's me doing my Chumbawamba tub-thumping.....I'll have to curb that!). Some are memories and some imaginings.

  I have cheated in that I wrote a spare one and now insert that, in retrospect, for the 24th , as the original didn't work out well.

   Inevitably, there are descriptions from my house, such as the first cuckoo and early visitation of the swallows. The return of horses to the Waun out back is much more significant than I could suggest in a haiku though. It means that the whole area is less likely to be made into a giant opencast mine in future.

   I am very grateful to anyone who has read and made comments on them. I am especially pleased that several Welsh speakers have said they liked the 'haiku Cymraeg' : it means they aren't totally 'lol' ( nonsense and laugh-out-loud).

  I'm just glad I didn't take on the challenge of writing a longer piece every day, as many would have turned out forced; though next April I'll have to do something different, perhaps a sequence or narrative.

   April has been the kindest month, an ideal time for lounging in the garden and going for leisurely walks 'up the forestry' near my home. Not surprisingly, they're predominantly rural, with only a couple from my sorties into Merthyr and Cardiff.

   Occasionally, lines have arrived and I don't know where they came from : these could well be either the best or worst of what I've written.

APRIL 1st

Thing about haiku,
after the five,seven,five :
they are never fin.........

2nd
Are they ears or mouths,
medicine for memory?
Petal skirts, straight stems.

3rd
Stream breathes the wild mint,
cress at every finger-tip :
wears the lady's smock.

4th
Breed under decking,
climb wire, cough up blue poison :
gnaw into our dreams.

5th
Y dosbarth Cymraeg :
dw i'n dringo yr ysgol,
heb yn gweld y pen.

6th
Horses graze and roll,
welcome friends, just visiting :
print 'C' of Common.

7th
Couples confluence
at oak-shade of horizon :
fences can't stop them.

8th
Smooth spoons of the broom,
thistle forks and knives of gorse ,
heather picnic mat.

9th
Youths light fires on moor,
hurry off, braying loudly :
beneath, seams crave flames.

10th
Sparrows under eaves,
one trails a piece of string,
ties up terracing.

11th
The white plastic bag,
flag of surrender on thorn ;
carcass of burnt car.

12th
Dw i'n chwilio
yng nghymoedd yr iaith :
sgrws a cyndadau.

13th
Old mine-shaft fenced off,
pupils of mud, lids of moss :
no sight to the past.

14th
Angler in river,
whip of his line as it flies :
rider of water.

15th
Green eyes to the sky,
reeds standing upright at last,
branches' lichen veils.

16th
Lone saxophonist
bebops bag-bulging shoppers,
lifts them to roof-tops.

17th
First cuckoo on Waun,
nest-filcher, clock of season :
ring-song of the sun

18th
'DANGER', 'DEATH' on gate :
below the buzzards and wire,
each step defiant.

19th
Smokers sit outside,
gamblers sucked into bookies :
days drop like dog-ends.

20th
Opening daytime
and closing with the twilight,
petals hide dark star.

21st
Agorwyd cegau,
mae geiriau yn hedfan :
gwenyn i'r blodau.

22nd
Today rotten wood,
next day dandelions grow there :
two journeys, visions.

23rd
Seen for the first time,
a bull's face in the oak tree :
once muscled on moor.

24th
These early swallows
scythe fly-furrows in the air :
east wind scatters them. 

25th
So full orange moon,
sky carnation, lost balloon,
floating fox-lantern.

26th
Bottle rolls downhill,
a runaway animal :
finds home in the drain.

27th
Tree memorial
bright with shirts, flowers, photos :
all colours of blood.

28th
'We' and 'this nation'
the tv keeps insisting,
so I feel foreign.

29th
'Windsor' not 'Wales',
monarchy moronity :
servile subjects slurp.

30th
......Isht! Night listening,
owl flies on tides of moonlight :
drip from its hook-beak.