Knowing a country is like knowing a person : a fleeting visit, a chance encounter. Our first instincts can be so wrong. And then......when we get to know someone for so long we can easily take them for granted, stop trying to discover more and assume.
The country, like the person, changes gradually or radically and you believe you are part of that process; yet maybe you aren't and have distanced yourself, become impervious.
I visited the then West Germany before going to live there for a year in the 1970s and felt it was a place of the future, with its street sculptures ( in Hanover) and sense of purposeful energy. A place where tradespeople were valued as much as businessmen.
How mistaken I was! When I returned to live near the Rhine, I witnessed a very different country ; one before the emergence of the Green Party and movement. There was widespread pollution and unbridled consumerism which ignored the impact on the environment.
The old joke about lighting your cigarette on the river was actually close to the truth. In the nearby city of Duisburg waste tips smouldered daily and toxic smogs meant that townsfolk made for the higher buildings to avoid breathing in the fumes.
Meanwhile, the myth of Western freedom was exposed. Hitler could not be discussed in schools, radical teachers were dismissed just for attending CND meetings and the Baader-Meinhof Gang were hunted down ,as if the whole nation had become a schutzenfest (the hunting festivals we often came across).
Of course there were positives : no uniforms in schools and a German cinema in its heyday, with Wender, Fassbinder and Herzog leading the way.
Oh, and the tradespeople were as respected as white collar workers.
My impressions of that society are inevitably based on the 70s and I've only been back briefly since, not long enough to assess any change. Yet I could see just how the Green movement could become such a powerful voice.
Likewise in n. Ireland, where I also lived during that decade; though I did feel I knew it much better before I arrived. After all, one of my friends at Aberystwyth University came from there and was very much involved in the politics.
He has since become a Sinn Fein Councillor in Derry City and his passion and righteous anger inspired me, when he told me in detail about Bloody Sunday and Burntollet.
Later I was to meet the young woman who became my wife, also at Aber. She had grown up on the Falls Road and , through her, I came to understand intimately the degree of discrimination and injustice suffered by the Catholic population there.
Yet nothing could prepare me for the shock of the real : a police state within a so-called democracy!
Landing at Aldergrove that first day I was faced by fact that soldiers were everywhere. Being stopped by road-blocks manned by armed RUC officers pointing their guns at me ; seeing burning buses on the streets of the city; passing regular army patrols and experiencing frequent bomb scares.......all these soon became frighteningly routine, in a sectarian statelet created and allowed to exist by successive British Governments, both Labour and Tory.
I have only once returned and it was so altered that it seemed almost another country.
There were no watchtowers or even soldiers on the border and a complete absence of patrols and Saracens on the streets. It seemed to be a peaceful place, till you looked closer and saw the many 'peace-lines' still in existence, proof that deep divisions remained.
Sadly, despite Sinn Fein's influence education also seemed embedded in a pre-Comprehensive two-tiered system, which abandons so many at 11 to a prevailing sense of failure. This and unemployment could well bring the young people of n. Ireland into conflict with their representatives, especially as Sinn Fein have now become what the middle ground SDLP used to be.
And so to Brittany and to France, because Breizh is undoubtedly part of that nation-state.
We have visited Brittany many times over a period of over 20 years and have stayed in many areas, often coastal. I cannot claim to know it well ; it's like a friend you visit from time to time and enjoy the company.
Yet, even so, I did catch a glimpse of significant changes.
The recession has deeply affected Llydaw/ Breizh and , though the area was largely quite affluent and full of holiday homes, there were many businesses struggling or closed down. In the markets people weren't buying most of the goods.
Though this was a region where the Breton language and culture was less prominent, there were nevertheless numerous stickers over French-only signs with 'E Brezhoneg ' on, declaring the importance of Breton and recalling the campaigns of Cymdeithas Yr Iaith.
Large graffiti near where we stayed proclaimed, in English and Breton, anger against the use of pesticides and suggested a link between the language movement and other issues, which I had not been conscious of before.
I was dismayed to learn that Breton was treated with disdain in the French education system, like a relic of the past not a living language of any importance.
The culture of street markets and local, fresh cuisine had not altered in 20 years, yet there were small signs of something happening; an old friend taking a new course.
After all, whatever their age countries, like people , can suddenly strike out in different and unforeseen directions.
THE BOAT WILL RETURN
Even the tide is escaping at this time.
Shells are antiques washed up on shoreline.
Pesticides infecting the green algae;
tractors must scoop and load every day.
Breton and English graffiti side by side
in a warning, wall-high and white.
Le Rocher Rouge is long shut down,
its putrid pink plaster is fading.
Holding the menu like a Bible ;
the communion of food and alcohol.
Tasting crisp pages of the galettes
and bubbly apple tang on tongue's tip.
E BREZHONEG eclipsing the French signs :
on another tide the boat will return.
What will they do with all those Union Jacks now the Olympics have finished and the Jubilee presumably petering out? Hopefully, the Paralympics won't be accompanied by so much British 'nationalism'.
The grand finale of the closing ceremony culminated inside a giant Union flag, of course. If it had been North Korea there would have been horrified cries of 'Propaganda! Propaganda!'
Cymru was represented by the London Welsh Male Voice Choir and some dancing women in traditional costumes. Where were the green-wellied farmers chasing coy ewes, or blacked-up miners singing 'Cwm Rhondda' ?
The closing was as culturally imperialist as Boyle's opening extravaganza. It was all about English popular culture and , as such, only Elbow emerged with credit.
I was more excited the day before when the BBC actually used Thea Gilmore singing Sandy Denny's 'London'. I couldn't believe it : someone with genuine talent acknowledged at last!
I love watching sport, and even the unremitting chauvinism and Brand GB obsession of most of the coverage failed to put me off.
While I found it hard to bring myself to support Welsh athletes competing for a nation-state inextricably associated with conquest and anti-democratic monarchy; I still followed their fortunes with interest.
Unlike our footballers, they had no choice in the matter.
I was especially fascinated by those sports I was unfamiliar with : ones I wish I had taken up when younger. Handball looked a really thrilling sport : fast , skillful and very physical.
The illusion of harmony and cheerful spirit of volunteers and armed forces all working towards a common good was a temporary reality.
The Olympics and Jubilee have been used in conjunction to promote a false notion of a single British 'nation', very much as the Orange Order in n.Ireland brings together those of very different classes under a triumphalist banner.
Once the fervour dies down we are left with a Britain breaking up under the relentless strain of the cuts.
The more the SNP Gov. in Scotland and Labour in Wales try to resist these, the further away they travel from mainstream English politics and into decidedly social democratic alternatives.
Commentators can keep insisting on 'nation' for Britain, yet it is the desperately hysterical scream of an Empire drowning.
Gordon Brown's pathetic attempts to portray the success of the Olympics as a justification for the Union are a case in point. How can he say we do things better together when both Wales and his native land have so much more progressive policies on student fees for instance?
Surely, the political reality is the reverse : both Cymru and Scotland have achieved preferable systems by resisting widespread privatisation and refusing to implement reactionary education policies of the Gove variety.
Sadly, poets are sucked into this lie of inclusive Britishness perpetrated by all the media during this year of the Monarchist Banner.
Carol Ann Duffy is undoubtedly a very fine poet and also a lovely person. I had the pleasure of reading with her before she was appointed Poet Laureate and she was an excellent performer of her work.
However, like her great predecessor Ted Hughes , the worst work has been produced in immediate response to public events.
The way she feels compelled to pay homage to Mrs Windsor reduces her poetry not just to subservience, but to the kind of fawning propaganda associated with Soviet authors praising their regimes.
When she begins her poem 'Translating The British, 2012' ( on the front of the so-called liberal left 'Guardian') with... 'The Queen jumped from the sky / to cheering crowds.'
...she has fulfilled her role as poet of this appallingly rich woman who owes her position simply to hereditary.
Whatever sentiments follow - Duffy tries to present a case for multiculturalism and also bash the rich - are seriously undermined by the opening.
Like the British nationalist Labour Party, she takes swipes at 'pick-pocket' bankers, but never at The Windsors, with their vast wealth paid for by our taxes.
So when she concludes 'We are all in this together' , she is about as convincing as Cameron. Are those Windsors she serves suffering under these unnecessary cuts, as are so many working-class people?
Almost every shot of a British Olympian winning was accompanied by one of a member of the Windsor family in the crowd, as if their presence alone had deified the event.
If N. Korea had staged the Olympics it would have been their ruling family given free tickets to everything and equally ubiquitous on the television.
PROUD TO BE BRITISH
I am British because the Queen
is a lovely old lady who harms no-one
because the Jubilee brings us all together :
every class, creed and colour
I'm British because the Olympic torch
has lit up all our best tourist spots
and because Wil.i.am has held it
and Boris is a big laugh
I'm British because Usain Bolt
speaks fluent English courtesy of the Empire
I'm British because of Shakespeare
(even though in school it was gibberish)
I'm British because Tesco
stock everything with a Union Jack on :
cakes, eggs, pants, crisps
and especially Carling
I am British because we're winning
and beating the French and Germans
I'm proud because the Queen
jumped from a plane with James Bond
I'm especially British because Kate is lush ;
we've got the best music, sheep, hospital beds
we need a Royal baby or funeral next,
to stop my flag from going limp.
Hud o'r gegin,
hud hefyd o'r tafarn llawn:
y blas o'r swn.
The band's name are Burum (yeast) and last Thursday myself and my older daughter went to see them launch their latest cd 'Caniadau' (songs) at Cafe Jazz in Cardiff.
Before that we went to Cafe Citta in Church Street, a small family-run Italian restaurant and a joy to behold nestled in amongst all those pizza chains.
Here, in the baking oven heat of a summer finally come, I tasted the power of yeast and dough in the form of the best pizza in town and a tiramisu just right in its moist sweetness, not a bit cloying. My daughter's seafood pasta was equally fresh and satisfying, she insisted.
The owners are so friendly and chatty you feel you're a regular even for the first time.
From the plain of a pizza we walked a short distance away , to encounter a sense of hills and mountains ; the rising and browning of a unique music from Cymru.
They are definitely a rising band, if not yet fully risen. They have substance and air aplenty and both qualities are vital.
The substance comes from the piano, double bass and drums who operate as a tight trio (indeed, they also play as a separate entity, the Dave Jones Trio).
The piano seems like a messenger between earth and air: a bird which feeds off the land, then lifts up into clouds and currents of flute, trumpet and saxophone.
The air of the latter often floats on ballads such as 'Lisa Lan', or can be a frenetic storm of tones, as on 'Hen Ferchetan'.
Their unique nature comes from this reworking of almost exclusively traditional Welsh tunes (or airs?).
At a time when so many bands appear content to remain grounded and follow well-mapped routes, Burum have taken a bold course by fusing folk and jazz.
It is risky because folk purists might well long for the lyrics, acknowledge well-known melodies and then become frustrated when they are taken to new heights by the arrangements of band members, especially Daniel and Tomos Williams.
Jazz buffs however, could well be deterred by the strong folk influence provided by Ceri Rhys Matthews in particular ; more notably on the cd, where he plays Welsh pipes ( for some reason,he didn't live).
Burum do not always come together. Sometimes there's a jarring between those influences and Matthews' flute doesn't tally or the brass harmonies are too strident for the overall atmosphere of the song.
However, Burum are the real thing and Cymru ignores them at its own loss. I was shocked when Daniel Williams told the audience that only one track had been played on Radio Cymru!
This is a sure indictment of the way radio works, with music having to fit into distinct categories. This is ridiculous when the best music seeks to break down those old barriers.
What I relish about listening to jazz is the way it can lift you just like that piano-bird, whose call ascends first and is followed by giddy flight.
The wordlessness of most of the jazz I love releases unexpected images and phrases. As I was listening to Burum I was transported back to the kitchen of my gran in Barry......a keen amateur opera singer, she would have appreciated their Welsh airs.
I thought of the bread she baked so lovingly and joy of eating her tasty teas. As well as delicious white bread, she specialized in sponges, small almond cakes and 'teisen crwn', a large round cake cooked on a bake-stone and full of apples. In my experience,she's the only one who ever made it.
Music and memories joined like the two rivers of my childhood home of Aber : Ystwyth and Rheidol.
'aber' means confluence and also estuary and so much of poetry - for me anyway - happens at an estuary of imagination, a mingling of thoughts and feelings from two directions.
Freshwater and salt of the sea. The smell of newly-baked bread after the magic of yeast.
The taste of sounds of a summer evening.
My grandmother's knobbly hands
needing the flour and water ;
the simplicity of dough,
fleshy, belly-like, swollen
into the heat of the tavern,
the fists and pummel of bass and drums,
the shaping hands of the pianist
all along the keys
and into the brass basin
of trumpet and saxophone ;
flute a wooden spoon
mixing, beating ; in the oven
of the jazz cafe we taste
the crisp crust, the airiness
of soft white bread torn,
flour shaken from it,
just as my gran would make
in her Barry kitchen, knowing
the score of her recipe
by heart, a familiar song.
I watched the entire last series of Jools Holland. I had to, as they are no other even half-decent music programmes on telly.
I even watched both Tuesday and Friday shows just in case. It paid off a couple of times, especially when the best act in the series , Armenian jazz-folk pianist Tigran Hamasyan played different songs on the two nights, both of them very moving.
I waited in vain for Welsh groups or singers to appear. Two of last year's best albums were 'Tan' by Lleuwen Steffan and 'The Big Roar' from The Joy Formidable. But.......no way!
Unless of course there was a stray Welsh drummer or bassist , or I'd simply missed Tom Jones by falling asleep (does he count as Welsh anyway, as he's a tax exile?).
In the years following the musical explosion known as Cwl Cymru, there was a dearth of talent, with the likes of the Lost Prophets and Funeral For A Friend leading the way with their very predictable rock, and one song from The Automatic which was better off when turned into a Bluebirds' chant for Michael Chopra.
But now, things have changed radically. After The Joy Formidable's roaring album last year, the best album of 2012 is by Cardiff band Future of the Left and called appropriately 'The Plot Against Common Sense'. Indeed, everything about its strange words confounds any notion of common sense .
A few years ago, the Observer ran a series of pamphlets with the best lyricists in and Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys was alongside Dylan and Cohen.
I assume that Andy Falkous writes this group's lyrics and should be ranked up there with them. In fact, though there are many emerging stars of the Welsh poetry scene, I find this band's provocative and very funny offerings more intriguing by far.
It's not just lyrically they are imaginative and challenging however. I found a fascinating coming together of some of my favourites such as John Cale (the screams and repeated phrases), the Manics ( certainly the earlier days) and Beefheart ( guitar-playing going off at odd angles).
Despite their name they aren't overtly political, though there is a constant biting satire and surreal critique of our society.
I recently had a strange text exchange with a friend, when I mistakenly asked him what he thought about the 'future of the left'.
His reply was - ' I'm not the expert on politics to be honest.......Unless you mean left midfield, where I think Peter Whittingham can do the job just fine!'
However, they are scathing about the hypocrisies of world where the divide between rich and poor seems a growing chasm and the emptiness of popular culture as well, especially on 'robocop 4 - fuck off robocop'.
They are the most hilarious band around today by far, using hyperbole and weird juxtapositions expertly.
Their song about a couple of would-be footballers refers to 'the favelas of Nottingham' and 'failed olympic bid' mocks the overblown hype of it all -
' i've got a hole for sebastian coe
saddam hussein won't be needing it now'
If they are musically closer to the Manics, then they're lyrically more akin to the Super Furries, combining subtlety and swearing. Yet they have, without doubt, created their own sound.
One of the best tracks is 'beneath the waves an ocean' which is a typically surreal cafe scene where the chicken appears to 'make eyes across the table'. The fast and frantic chant of the chorus is a catchiness they often use.
Welsh music has been searching a long time for bands to emerge and herald a real renaissance.
With The Joy Formidable and Future of the Left we have the most talented and thrilling since those heady days of Cool Cymru, when many rose to prominence even if they did have little in common musically.
This week I'll be going to the launch of jazz-folk band Burum's new cd in Cardiff's Cafe Jazz. Burum means 'yeast' and I'm hopeful they will rise to the occasion.
I certainly like what I've seen of them on You-Tube. They remind me a bit of Moving Hearts, though without the Christy Moore type front-man. I really like the way they take a traditional Welsh tune and improvise around it, taking it to another level.
To return to Jools and that fine composer and pianist Tigran. I believe he was only there by accident as Sinead O' Connor had dropped out.
To listen to his latest album 'A Fable' is to realise how integral his country's folk tradition is to his jazz playing, which draws on American and European sources, but often looks East for its phrasing.
With the demise of Bandit on S4C, it is absolutely essential we have a new vibrant rock/pop/folk/jazz programme here in Cymru, with bands using Welsh and English, or both in the same song even.
There's a plethora of talent out there and the Red Poets will be performing alongside some of it when Chris Hastings & Huw Pudner sing at our launch on September 20th and Jamie Bevan a'r Gweddill play at The Castle in Tredegar on October 10th.
As the band rightly say - 'girls aloud were the new nirvana / then any old shit was the new nirvana'.
WALES HAPPENED IN THE 90s
Nobody's talking Cwl Cymru any more,
because Wales has had its day.
Wales happened in the 90s,
when everyone woke up and wanted to be...
when Newport was Seattle by the murky Usk,
when the Holy Bible was a worshipped cd ;
when Cerys Matthews' voice rolled in the hay
and the Super Furries drove tanks of peace ;
when the Manics climbed back up the bridge
and Kelly still recalled his market stall;
when the 60 ft Dolls were not forgotten
and Gorkys flew like Tenby's seagulls.
'There's a Revival!' someone proclaimed
in a blog or a Facebook wall ;
but nobody noticed if the future was left,
or the joy too formidable to take.
Lleuwen and Huw M sang in the wrong tongue,
as roses turned stone again on stage.