Ex-pupils pop up everywhere! One is often off his head around Merthyr bus-station, but always has time to slur a greeting. Another - in a band who should've made it , but are still trying - always stops for a brief exchange. At Teso's tills, the Post Office and in the occasional pub it's inevitable having taught in this town for 20 years.
I wish I could remember names. They would have had to be totally 'beyond' or very gifted for me to recall them ; yet faces pose no problem. Ironically, when I was teaching I had no trouble with names at all.
It's always great to hear from past pupils about their own writing. One recently contacted me through Facebook initially and expressed great enthusiasm for poetry-writing. This is unusual, as most tend to stop writing when they leave school.
He expressed an interest in the 'industry'. I'd never thought of poetry like that really, as it has all the requirements for an old-fashioned craft (as Heaney would have it), yet also the inspirational dimension of a vocation ( to veer towards James Joyce). Sometimes the best poems arrive and we don't know where from : it might be explained as the subconscious surfacing. Certainly, I hope he keeps at it. I'd have done nothing else ( except maybe singing in a blues-rock band).
I'm more than willing to give advice to any former pupils on their writing.Several times a month I see one of them, who was one of the most talented poets I ever taught. He now works for the Council and I've given up inviting him to our monthly Open Mic. nights at The Imp. As a poet he was strange though : he never acted on advice, never sought to change anything. Now he has given up writing I believe; a real shame.
Two of my ex-pupils went on to play in bands which should've made it BIG. Both wrote the lyrics for many songs and this ability showed itself in their verse at school. Original Mind and Pink Assassin never became household names, yet should have been. Both wrote with intensity and never lapsed into cliche.
One of my prize possessions is a letter sent by an ex-pupil many years after he'd left school and become a professional golfing coach. It was full of praise and it's great to think that I could've had such an impact on someone. We shared a love for Heller's classic 'Catch 22', which helped. He was golf mad at school and I always remember the time he lost all his GCSE coursework just before the deadline, only to find it at the bottom of his golf bag!
It seems incredible to think that I used to go to football matches at Ninian Park with 6th formers. I still see one regularly on the train home from our games and he's there with his son, carrying on the tradition.
Others have emerged in less auspicious circumstances. One - also a Bluebird - returned to school to ask me to write a statement vindicating his good character, to be read out in court. He was accused of knifing someone at a nightclub down town and a 'calling card' had been found there incriminating him. He was a star in class and his own project work for English oral exams was especially interesting. One of them was in support of football hooliganism and included, as a prop, a Soul Crew 'calling card'!
The following poem is about an encounter with a past pupil who I see often and talk about things, especially CCFC. I can fully empathise with his situation.
I sit by-a river,
it's runnin all day,
my arm's in a plaster,
off on sick pay.
Wish I woz-a river
goin to city an sea,
instead of a watcher
on a bench in misery.
'leven years we bin married,
got a lovely ome,
I give er ev'rythin
an we loved ower son.
We wuz schoolyard sweet'earts,
I'm a famlee man,
now I'm back with my parents,
weekends with my son.
The water is rushin
down t the weir,
wish I woz a salmon
on a long journey from yer.
I sit by-a river,
carn get er outa my ead,
ev'ry Saturdiy she's clubbin,
arfta someone t bed.
It wuz some kinda madness
when she tol me t go :
'I don' feel nothin no more,'
she sayz,' I wanna be alone.'
Seein my boy is like-a flow
always movin away from me,
always changin as ee grows,
while I'm burstin with self-pity.
It has been a time of funerals and non-funerals ; by that I mean the death from cancer at the age of 62 of my friend, comrade , fellow Bluebird and namesake Mike J. Jenkins ( also from Heolgerrig) and that of my father, thirty years older, who never had a funeral at all.
It's hard to explain to those outside the family, how I felt so much sadness at the death of a friend and so little at that of my father. In fact, I felt guilty at being so empty of emotions and many in my family felt the same.
Mike died far too young. We used to teach together at Pen-y-dre High School in Merthyr and invented a third 'Mike Jenkins Science', to confound and eventually amuse pupils. As a non-driver, he often gave me a lift home and his company was invariably interesting and hilarious. He had a mind full of anecdotes and I recall how he told me about one teacher who'd lost it. She began to hallucinate one pupil who bugged her,seeing him in every lesson and Mike had once found her standing outside the classroom, staring at a light-bulb, unable to enter!
At that time ( the 80's) he was prominent in the local Labour Party and ,indeed, ex-MP Ted Rowlands as well as present one Dai Harvard attended his funeral. The former's phone went off in the middle of the Rev. Protheroe's oration and Rowlands took ages frantically pressing buttons to turn it off, as if it were an alien device. Mike would've had a real laugh at that one!
He was even in a Labour Party political broadcast then and the staff at Pen-y-dre teased him, calling him 'Mr Average'. Mike left the party totally disillusioned with the war in Iraq and Blair's wooing of big business and bankers alike.
Our political differences had come to the fore in 1979 when, at the school's mock referendum on devolution Mike took a Kinnockite line and led the 'No' campaign. Myself and Peter Griffiths (later to become Head of Llanhari and Rhydfelin) led the 'Yes' campaign.
Mike's views changed radically over the years and he became a staunch supporter of devolution. In conversation, he also backed those in Plaid Cymru who took a socialist, republican stance. Like me, only later on, he was very active in the anti-opencast movement in our village.
In recent years I knew him very well from football. He was the kindest person and always offered lifts without wanting any remuneration. He stood to watch Cardiff City on the old Canton and in the new stadium. The fact he liked chanting and often joined in was hard to tally with the Christian soul conjured by the Reverend.
Yet, there was never a hint of hypocrisy about the man: he was genuine , funny and generous, never pushing his undoubted faith on others. My last memory is his voice on the phone as I walked towards our mutual watering-hole before the Reading game. He was in his hospital bed and sounded perky, saying he was sorry he couldn't be there, but looking forward to the possibility of Wembley.
If there are still bricks to be bought outside the ground, then we must get one for Mike. I know he'd be proud.
My father's rites were very different . He had supposedly left his body to medical science, so there was no funeral. However, it was discovered later that he'd changed his will and wished to be buried in the family plot in Barry. It was too late though, unless the remaining parts can be rounded up!
He'd also changed his will to leave all his money to the NSPCC and the Alzheimer's Society. To anyone who knew him well, this had a dark irony.
A serious family incident had caused our separation for over a decade and only my brother kept regular contact. My sister and I had no communication at all, though in recent years I would have met him again if he'd proferred a hand.
Sadly, I've few positive memories and even these go back to the time when I was very young in Aber and are based on photos I've seen. What stands out from that time and the years following are traumatic occurences, like when he broke up my fishing-rod and threw it into the sea, driving home like a mad man and when he tore off all his clothes, except underpants, and stood on the kitchen table screaming and yelling at my mother.
Of course, mental illness is extremely problematic. What was him and what was the illness? Certainly, he blamed everything he did on his nervous breakdown (before I was born) and upbringing.
I wish I could remember him with more affection. Even a holiday together in Ireland when I was a teenager became more and more miserable , as he descended into anger, running out of money and phoning my grandmother to bail him out.
His propensity for disaster would've made him endearing, had it not been for the maniacal outbursts which sometimes involved wielding a knife. He destroyed three marriages and numerous careers by fighting physically and verbally with bosses. As a Security Guard in Barry he used to sleep during night-shifts and was eventually caught out and dismissed when there was a fire on his watch!
On this Father's Day I think of others I regard more as true fathers and regret we don't get to choose. I have learnt much from my own......by trying to do the opposite of what he's done!
My father was never renowned for generosity,
presents he sent included a blank tape,
plastic cheese net, even a rusty can-opener
which had previously belonged to my grandfather.
So, we had enjoyed a family meal together
in the wake of his death at over ninety,
my brother said his legacy would pay
(it was the first and last time he'd treated me).
We didn't toast his memory
after a decade separate and no apologies,
though my brother had visited regularly
but more out of a sense of duty.
'Is this a death meal?' my daughter asked,
as we thought of his final benevolence,
his body donated to medical science,
just as he'd always given blood freely.
It was difficult to connect now
this man being dissected, avowed humanist,
with the father who so often lost his head
and spat out such vile hatred.
If I weren't an equal disbeliever
I'd like to address him in the after-life :
'Look, dad, that was the best gift you ever gave....
your organs.....for research.......wrapped in flesh.'
Last Tuesday four Plaid Cymru AM's acted on their principles and boycotted the visit of E. Windsor to open the new session of our Senedd. They did so despite typical media sniping and acted by example, preferring instead to work in their constituencies while other AM's claiming to be republicans, such as Labour's John Griffiths and Plaid's Simon Thomas hadn't the resolve to make a stand.
The great English writer and socialist George Orwell used his experience of Buddhism to show that a socialist can only be worthy of that term if they live out their ideals ( the inner and outer life must be one). The four republicans who resisted the temptation to take the easy route and dress up as lickspittle imitations of Ascot-goers, are to be lauded.
On that evening, I was glad to MC and read poetry at an event in the Bay attended by two of them, Bethan Jenkins and Leanne Wood. Both took alternative oaths of allegiance to the people of Cymru and expressed the hope that they could one day do so in the Senedd in parity with members of the N.Ireland Assembly, with its many republican members ; in a Wales pledged to a future of greater equality ,not the representatives of an aristocracy identified indelibly with Empire and war.
Of course, there are striking differences between republicans. Some, like myself, want a socialist republic in Wales ( and Scotland, England and Ireland, for that matter). Others in Balchder Cymru even proposed a future Wales where the people could choose a Welsh monarchy : though where that would come from, I don't know! One questioner even asked what the new British national anthem would be if 'God Save the Queen' were to be replaced. Personally, I thought the very nature of Britishness was support for the Queen ( witness the Loyalists of the six counties).
I'm sure my views are much closer to those of the Plaid Cymru AM's, though I do believe that fundamental societal change can only be brought about by revolution, hopefully a peaceful one of strikes and civil disobedience.
However, the highlight of the whole event was undoubtedly the speech by Suzanne Campbell of Republic Wales, part of a UK-wide organisation which has only recently been launched here. Ms. Campbell was a superb speaker, combining clarity with wit and hardly using notes at all. Her contribution stood out like a lighthouse above a series of barnacled buoys
( I'd spent some time staring at the sea beforehand). She joked about the Queen Mother living so long because 'pickled things are well preserved', included fascinating information and advocated a system similar to Ireland, which had produced great ambassadors like Mary Robinson. Indeed, as she spoke, you could imagine Ms. Campbell filling that role perfectly!
Criticism of the monarchy is minimal in the media, so when it occurs it stands out. In 'The Guardian' this week writer and historian Sophia Deboick carved up the royal PR machine in a short article, showing how William and Kate have now completely abandoned the image of 'new generation' and reverted to type by advertising for housekeeper, butler, valet and dresser to serve them at their new home of Kensington Palace. This has received typically scant publicity and no doubt , in the public's mind, they remain the fairy-tale couple living simply in a cottage in Anglesey.
For the following poem I used information provided by Republic at the CBayRday evening. The enormous powers of the monarch to appoint the Prime Minister, dissolve Parliament, dismiss the Government and withold assent to legislation passed by Parliament are all frighteningly real.
THE TALE OF KING CARLO
The Government, those Commoners,
pass a law abolishing the monarchy.
Documents revealed, after all these years,
the truth about the death of Di.
The King (once Carlo of Wales)
withholds royal assent. Legal.
The Commoners make loud noises,
Lords ( still there ) are woken up, grumbling.
People actually take to the streets
demanding that the King stands down.
There are 2 million demonstrators in London alone
( police estimate numbers at 2 thousand).
King Carlo consults his personal advisor,
an old English Oak at Sandringham.
Like Edward in 1910, he dissolves Parliament,
Commoners turned instantly into Aliens.
He appoints the English Oak as P.M.
at a ceremony in Westminster. Legal.
The tree flies a Union flag from its highest branch;
nothing new about a P.M. with a wooden brain!
Carlo declares war on Wales and Scotland,
as they rise up against him. Legal.
Armed forces pledge allegiance to their Commander in Chief,
rally to support the knighted Sir David Tree.
Subjects, at last, call themselves citizens,
in a land of Levellers, land of treason.
In the Hay Media Celebfest last week, our National Poet Gillian Clarke called for poets to speak out. So that's exactly what I am doing and saying , in relation to Wales, she got it wrong.
I have enjoyed her work immensely for many years, both to read and to study with school pupils and she is a wonderful ambassador for Welsh poetry, who reads her work superbly and always conducts stimulating workshops. However, her statement at Hay was galling - 'In Wales,luckily, our Arts Council has cut some poeple's funding completely, but only failing organisations.'
Her attack on the Arts Council of England, which has carried out savage attacks on many vital poetry bodies like the Poetry Book Society, was totally justified. However, just because poetry hasn't been seriously affected by the WAC's cuts, it doesn't mean the arts in general haven't.
There is no way that the likes of Gwent Theatre, Theatr Powys and Spectacle can be described as 'failing' and it's an insult to do so. If poetry's 'Writers On Tour' had suffered the cuts that Theatre in Education had to take from Smith and Capaldi's Council, then Gillian Clarke would be up in arms.
Gwent Theatre has now ceased to exist and whole areas of Wales must depend on extortionate and unreliable alternatives or do without. It's not just the people who attended their many performances who feel the loss, but it's a tragedy for the countless school pupils who benefited from shows and workshops as they toured the Valleys and elsewhere.
Figures alone can only approximate their worth. It's laughable to think that a mere £250,000 would have kept them going ; a fraction of Welsh Opera's budget. In 2009-10 they delivered 220 performances to 14,213 young people in various schools; 81 theatre workshops with over two and a half thousand participants and their Young People's Theatre put on 7 productions.
Under any terms, this is successful not failing. It's an act of sheer philistinism by the Arts Council to axe Gwent, Powys and Spectacle. Gillian Clarke may represent poetry, but surely that doesn't stop her from seeing the wider picture ? Theatre in Education is just as vital as poetry workshops in schools.
Moreover, the cuts are already impacting on poetry in other ways. As Swansea Council prepare to alter the whole nature of the Dylan Thomas Centre, its rolling programme of literary events (unique in Wales) will be sacrificed. Schools have so much less to spend and visiting authors and visits to Ty Newydd will be first to go.
As public spending cuts reach more deeply, many organisations will stop schemes where authors read and run workshops. Cash-strapped universities will find it hard to deliver Creative Writing courses which aren't seen as lucrative and few writers will be invited to read there.
I was proud of Clarke when she rejected an OBE, following Zephaniah, though not seeking to make an issue out of it. When she accepted the Queen's Medal for Poetry ( citing R.S.Thomas's acceptance as a justification ) she explained that she did so on behalf of all the poets of Wales.
I'm certain there are many poets in Wales who, like me, would not want to be tainted by any association with the House of Windsor, that anachronistic, anti-democratic and money-wasting institution. There are many who would ask her to return their part of it, arguing instead for a forward-thinking Cymru with an elected President, who could, indeed be anybody, even a misguided poet!
CHOIR ON THE ESCALATOR
The Male Voice Choir are singing
from the town centre escalator.
There is no up or down,
shoppers stopped mid-bargain.
'Sosban Fach' and 'Hallelujah',
'Aberystwyth' and 'Calon Lan'.
Someone shakes a bucket
in time with their tunes.
Once, there were fights and ructions
at Valleys choir competitions ;
now they are fully blazered
with badges of identity like medals.
It's music that's ascending, descending,
with steps made from bass and tenor.
Some youths mock from the top,
smoking and gobbing as girls pass.
In the place of 'Myfanwy', white wheat
of their heads sways with the rhythm.