Years ago, at the time of Citizen's Band Radio, Merthyr was known as something like Washingtub City or even Hooverville. Now, the town where the red flag was first flown at the Waun Fair, could easily be dubbed Tescopolis.
While most town centres suffer from out-of-town retail parks (when will they be called 'malls' or, at Sales times, 'mawls'?), we manage to be attacked by a deadly pincer movement of such parks (especially the newest, Cyfarthfa) and a Tesco Extra in the middle of town and dominating like a huge vacuum cleaner,sucking in shoppers.
People actually visit Tesco and not Merthyr now : students up on the train from Trefforest and , attracted by the 2 hours free parking, shoppers who never see the High Street, or what's left of it. Take away take-aways, mobile phone shops and cheapo Pound Shops and there's little left.
I can recall when Tesco was a mere food store, wedged on the corner by the bus-station, the scene of an infamous gangland battle when machetes were wielded between rival families and one old woman pushed her trolley between them demanding 'sliced meat'!
It was the scene of the arrest of the entire Cor Cochion Caerdydd in an anti-apartheid protest. We often picketed this shop and I remember once saying to this young woman - 'Don't buy South African goods!' To which she replied - 'Too right, love! I wouldn touch anythin andled by them blacks!'
The new Tesco has taken over. Our last independent baker has long gone and only market days bring people into town in numbers. You meet people in Tesco and it becomes the focal point that the precinct once was. Merthyr's ambitious 'Cafe Quarter' exists on a sign, but not in reality.
This megastore has been the scene of high drama and I always seem to just miss it. Not long ago, a woman deliberately set fire to clothing in order to get herself imprisoned, because she was so poor she needed decent food and shelter. She set off the whole sprinkler system and alarms and was badly burnt.
Tesco treats people with all the compassion of a multinational profit-machine i.e. none at all. Like Macdonalds, KFC and the rest of the junk food industry it feeds fat on the unhealthy lifestyles of the poor, with sheer shelves of pasties , pies and fizzy drinks.
The best form of preventative medicine in one of Europe's unhealthiest town's would be to close it down. Yet I shop there and add to the problem, longing for alternatives and wondering if they'll ever happen.
The poem below deals with another true drama and one involving a young man accused of shop-lifting...........
Yew wouldn bleeve it, I woz in-a soopermarkit jest by-a frozen peas n carrots when ev'ryone started goin mad.
'There's a bloke by there, an ee's strippin off!' 'Ee's off of is trolley!' (In is case, ee never ad one).
I followed crowds an securitee t where there wuz jeerin an jokin. This young fella, beard an long air, woz standin at-a top o Wines an Beers.
Too trew, ee wuz takin is clothes off an urlin em down at-a crowd oo cheered an clapped is striptease : somebuddy sayz - 'Do-a Full Monty!'
Ee grabs old of a coupla cans pops em and starts slurpin, then ee wuz yellin - 'They charged me! An I wern doin nothin!'
Before ee got down to is goolies ee'd bin dragged down by eavies. What a protest against shop-liftin, ee wuz pissed with all ee'd bin drinkin.
Read Finch's 'Zen Cymru' deep into the night accompanied by the sound of vuvuzelas. Compulsive reading. Recommend it. Master of staccato wit.
Turned off computer. Put out blue speaker-light. Contemplated writing poem beginning - The computer needs to be put to bed just like a human child. Never got round to finishing it. Probably good job. Too many Leffes. Woke up middle of night. Wrote this instead.
Yes, it has been Biodiversity Week in Merthyr and Thursday night's reading by Peter Finch from his new book, plus old stuff, plus daring new poems, was the final event. It was also a poetry and music Open Mic., the first time in three years of such nights at The Imp, Pontmorlais, that we've actually had a real mic. (well, two in fact!).
Maybe that's what put off the regulars. Terrible chest. Bad back. Low as you can get in Penywaun. No wheels. Work and workshops. They didn't show up.
We did have a 'tidee' audience though and the Council's Biodiversity Officer must've been pleased. Jim Davies, who is a regular ( Merlot, small bottles) read poems by his friend Mike Williams, a much underrated poet , who has been suffering a lot of ill-health of late.
I enjoyed local singer-songwriters Mike Morgan and Karen Moore and after playing a burst of the ol' blues-harp to follow the poem below, Mike (not everyone's called 'Mike' at the Open M__) asked me to join him for a jam, which was enjoyable, but not high on the Biodiversityometer.
The previous Sunday had been 'Woodlands and Wildlife Day' at the Wildlife Garden tucked away at the outer reaches of Cyfarthfa Park. My young daughter got to watch fire made with sticks, make a bangle from reeds, be stared at by inscrutable owls and , best of all, draw pictures on slices of tree. She was very proud of these ( a bat, butterfly and dragonfly) and took the latter to school the next day.
One person at the Open Mic. looked up 'biodiversity' on the internet :it's really a fancy word for Nature. Brings me back to the never-done computer-poem. What do computers dream about? Becoming human? Like we dream of flying or of breathing underwater? Hope they'd have more sense.
Blackbirds have nested outside Chateau Jenkins for generations (blackbird generations, that is).We first had a nest in the rapidly-growing conifers a neighbour (possibly Owen Money) planted next to our patio. It was so low that when my two eldest were young they could get on a step-ladder and observe the eggs turning into chicks. When it was abandoned I used it as an aid to creative writing. It's still in the garage somewhere.
A blackbird once made up a remarkable trio when those two played cello and viola together. It sat on the fence and sang. Star turn. Should've been booked for Glastonbury. Who needs U2 anyway?
Last Monday , I went to the Cardiff City Stadium to conduct poetry workshops there with two visiting Primaries, taking part in a Literacy Scheme.
It was a bad start, as workmen had pulled up many of the bricks on the walkway leading to the gate entrance on Sloper Rd., including mine with 'Bluebirds' Poet' on it. Hopefully, they'll soon be re-laid.
Moreover, the only trace left of Ninian Park was a pile of rubble once the Bob Bank, where my old seat used to be. The streets of the new housing estate built on it have yet to be named after the likes of Phil Dwyer or Brian Clark.
Approaching our stadium, there was litter all over the car-park and a few litter-pickers making little impression on the discarded cans, bottles and food cartons. I recalled that Stereophonics had played the first ever concert there the Saturday before.
I'd hoped to meet a hero of mine, Scott Young - now one of the main people behind the Football in the Community scheme - but he was off on holiday. As I waited in their office, one of the workers burst in with the news - 'I've just heard......Stuart Cable's dead!' No-one could believe it.
I remembered meeting him not so long ago at the launch ( in a microbrewery, then a pub) of the local anthology 'Merthyr Writing!' He was very down-to-earth and approachable. Then again, back in 2007, when we were invited guests in his area of the Liberty, as his band supported The Who. No doubt there were a few of his fellow Bluebirds there, who found it hard to keep their gobs shut after a few pints.
The workshops went well and the pupils (from Valleys' schools) were very responsive, but looking out on the stadium and the stage being taken down after the gig, only increased my sense of melancholy.
The Phonics first album 'Word Gets Around' was by far their best, with every song rooted in their upbringing and community and Cable's drumming was fundamental to the sound. Moreover, he was a Moon-like character in a group who came over as too mundane.
In the last few months the Valleys has lost two super rock musicians. The death of Micky Jones should've brought equal tributes at the very least. Jones was one of the finest guitarists ever and his band , Man, will one day get the plaudits they deserve.
Cable and Jones...........don't know if they ever met each other, but their backgrounds are very similar. Both were Valleys' boys who grew up in small terraced houses, one listening to AC/DC, the other to the likes of Quicksilver Messenger Service.
Stuart and Micky........I dream of a Rock School, somewhere between Aberdare and Merthyr ( maybe Llwydcoed?) which bears their names.
STUART CABLE'S NO MORE
Flowers on the roadside, flowers on his car : all quiet in Llwydcoed and shocked in Aberdare.
There's nobody up there, so it's no use speaking : thunder booms its bass drum, lightning's cymbals clashing.
Car-park's flooded with litter, broken bottles on the floor, barrels empty, stage dismantled and Stuart Cable's no more.
Though Merthyr is 99% white, it's a town comprised of many people whose families hail from other countries. These mostly trace back to the 19th century, when the ironworks and coal-mines drew in thousands from England, Ireland and , to a lesser extent, Spain. Italian and Jewish people have settled here for a century, though few of the latter remain. Today it is the Polish workers who have been attracted and we even have a Polish grocer's on the High St.
There has definitely been racial tension in the past, notably the animosity shown towards the Irish when they arrived, because they were seen to be taking lower wages and replacing local workers. However, the race riot described in Des Barry's novel 'A Bloody Good Friday' didn't happen in Merthyr, according to a reliable source, but in Cardiff and the writer has transposed it here.
Whilst teaching at a Merthyr Comp. for 20 years the worst form of racism was always the anti-Irish variety, venomous as a result of the war in N. Ireland and the Provos actions in England. 'Irish' was long equated with the word 'stupid', as in the phrase 'Tha's Irish, tha is!' There was some anti-Englishness directed at individual pupils who had moved here, but by far the most prevalent form was totally unquestioned anti-gypsy racism ( which is also depicted in Des Barry's book). 'Gypo!' was the worst possible insult.
Ironically, this was even more pronounced at a middle-class school where I taught for nearly 10 years and which was far more ethnically diverse. The attitude towards gypsies there was scathing and I could find no pupils (as I did in Merthyr) who defended them.
In the wake of yesterday's demo against the EDL/WDL in Cardiff, it is vital to counter such racism at every opportunity. It's important to remember the changes it has undergone as well. The glib propaganda which daubs them all as 'Nazis' fails to comprehend the link between their Islamophobia and the mainstream 'war on terror'. Like the Loyalist paramilitaries in N.Ireland, these groups see themselves as defenders of a way of life ( a barely definable 'Britishness') against the perceived onslaught if Islam. Prince Harry's comment about 'ragheads' is merely the upper-class manifestation of this bigotry.
I was particularly sickened in my final year of teaching , when three pupils in Year 7 (instigated by one whose brother was fighting in Afghanistan) began a chant about bombing the Taliban. I explained to them that many innocent civilians had been killed in that country as a result of the war there, but it made little impact. It's no accident that EDL membership is so high in the armed forces.
In the 80's in Merthyr we faced down the National Front on the streets. They were allowed to sell their abnoxious newspaper in the shopping precinct and the then Labour Council failed to do anything about it. It was up to local activists, Cor Cochion Caerdydd and quite a few members of the SWP to directly confront them with our chanting, singing and speeches.
I recall how ugly it got. Once a large ball-bearing was hurled at us from a balcony , only just missing! Eventually, several of the fascists walked towards us in the precinct. It was like 'High Noon'! We held firm, sang loudly and they retreated. Soon after, they gave up selling their paper and never returned again.