Afternoon in Newport Central Library. John Frost Square. Benches and shut-down shops and no signs of a 21st century Charter. The children's library has been taken over by a local Primary who, after creating a group poem about a peculiar Leisure Creature, are intent on producing their individual versions.
They cover the entire floor with a creative buzz, drawing at first, before taking on the persona of their creatures whose bodies consist of parts of foods, places, sports, animals and objects. Bizarrely, one girl seems to associate leisure entirely with spiders!
Wonderfully, the teacher and her assistant, as well as a girl on work experience at the library, all join in. The teacher writes a poem and says she might make a poet one day. I tell her she already is.
Even more strangely, our starting-point had nothing to do with fantastic creatures, but was the poem 'Leisure' by Pill-born poet W.H.Davies, the original Supertramp. Sadly, the museum (on the same floor) seems to have no place for one of Newport's most famous sons, who was a real down-and-out in the States and Canada before acquiring a wooden leg whilst trying to hop on a train and ending up doing his tramping in London instead. He became one of the leading Georgian poets thanks largely to Edward Thomas, who took him under his wing. His autobiography tells all.
It was only when the teacher mentioned Friday afternoon as they were leaving, that it occured to me: this was that dreaded teaching time last-lesson-on- Friday-before-freedom- kids-even-more-hyper-crowd-control-how-about-a-leaflet-then?
I haven't missed such survival tactics since I retired from teaching a couple of years ago, nor have I missed the thrilling opportunities to get kids producing work they never knew they were capable of, simply because I get a chance to do that now in places like Newport Library.
But, as the public sector strike looms for November 30th and almost the entire workforce in education will be out in the fight for decent pensions, I have nothing but total admiration for friends, ex-colleagues and close relatives who remain on the chalkface ( well , interactive whiteboard seam).
As ever, I overhear conversations on the buses of the 'They get 6 weeks holiday ' variety and I really would like to say - 'Well, you try it! It's one of the most demanding jobs you can think of, if you do it properly. You have to possess endless patience and need to be on top of your game at all times. Above all, you really do need to care about every pupil.......even the ones who make your life very difficult!'
I can recall one teacher in Merthyr who had spent most of his life in industry before joining the profession. He used to sit in the staff room in a state of utter shock much of the time, because he simply hadn't anticipated how hard it would be.
'Waterloo Road' and 'Gwaith/ Cartref' couldn't be further from the truth. In both, you see mostly young glamorous teachers out partying all hours. In reality, many would be at home marking and preparing, or on the sofa sleeping out of exhaustion through the fantasies of 'Waterloo Road' and 'Gwaith/Cartref'! I think of my wife spending hours to make her lessons so stimulating for her class and having to fill in mind-numbingly pointless forms.
Teachers do so much work without any remuneration and one example is the many parents' evenings.Imagine if they were solicitors and they charged each parent according to time taken : they wouldn't need to be going on strike about the Government's callous cuts to their pensions.
The action is unprecedented. Even the hitherto reactionary NAS/UWT which supported SATs and teaching assistants(the latter now take many lessons which should be taught by qualified teachers, just as the NUT warned), are going on strike.
Remarkably, the ATL have even taken a lead in this. This is a trade union who are the descendants of the PAT ( we dubbed them the PATSIES), whose one policy seemed to be.......we don't ever strike!
As support is almost unanimous, it's appalling to see the nature of some resistance. A former colleague has told me about one teacher, over 50, who actually said to him - 'Oh well, it doesn't affect me, so I'm not supporting it!'
Those who fail to support a democratic decision should not benefit if there is an eventual victory for the unions. They will have taken their pay for one day and maybe crossed the picket lines. Like the example above, they have no principles and are totally selfish.
The attempts by the ConDem Government to divide and rule with their marginally improved offer have failed. Now they are trying to bully the unions into submission , with Liberal Danny Alexander at the forefront. Any views on this Kirsty Williams?
With minimal support from the Labour Party, it is surely up to us to make demands like the Chartists of old. I am not a reformist, yet I see them as a step-ladder to reach a window and , beyond that, a changed country. Here are 6 possible ideas for a 21st century Charter :-
1. Everyone must have the right to a decently-paid job.
2. Everyone must have the right to decent accomodation.
3. All forms of privilege to be abolished, including the Lords and monarchy.
4. The democratic nationalisation (i.e. elected management) of the utilities and transport services.
5. Radical redistribution of wealth, based on progressive taxation, such as the bank transactions tax.
6. Equal status for all historic languages and cultures of these Isles, such as Welsh and Gaelic ( applied to public and private sectors alike).
These should be the absolute minimum demands and I hope the likes of Frost and Zephaniah Williams would approve. Perhaps even William Henry's spirit would give them a nod.
W.H.DAVIES AT NEWPORT LIBRARY
By the Reference Library
(no place in the Museum,
though he could've been dug up
with that Medieval ship
from the mudbanks of the Usk).
All his possessions, two bags,
stuffed into a single seat ;
he was desperately trying to sleep.
William Henry, son of Pill,
classed in Wikipaedia as
'Poet, Writer, Tramp'.
Here, much darker
(maybe that mud?)
and, as far as I could tell,
without a wooden leg.
He was waiting for Edward Thomas
to discover him again
(wrong place, wrong century).
I wanted to say, 'If you're a Supertramp,
how come you're not crossing the sea?'
He handed me a scrap of paper,
genuinely shocked to be there,
it read - Too much time to stop and stare,
I could do without this leisure.
'Later With Jools Holland' is the only music programme of its kind on tv, as eclectic as possible. However, over the last two series there is an overall sense of the paucity of the music scene.
Despite the recent and mostly good 'Best Of...', it has failed to reflect the incredibly exciting albums which have been released, preferring to plump for average white bands like Coldplay or monstrous combinations such as Lou Reed with Metallica ( what next, John Cale plus Megadeth?).
I want to argue my choices for an alternative 'Not Jools' show. I would've included The Waterboys, but they recently appeared on it and I want to suggest those who haven't.
I have avoided the idea of a headlining band and gone for three groups who'd have equal status : young Welsh rock band The Joy Formidable, Richard Thompson and band and Gilad Atzmon & the Orient House Ensemble.
Two I was tempted to choose were Americans DeVotchKa, a unique combo whose music straddles the Mexican border and sounds like soundtracks to unmade films and Welshmen Super Furry Animals, whose 'Dark Days/ Light Years' is one of their best albums and is so musically diverse it's hard to define.
The Joy Formidable recently toured with the Manics and, by all accounts, outshone them.Their lyrics are often intriguing puzzles and the only time I took any note of one of my young daughter's fave programmes 'Waterloo Road', was when they played the whole of 'A Heavy Abacus'. They are intense and thrilling and one of the finest to emerge from Wales in a long time. The change of pace and tone in 'Llaw= Wall' and the quieter more reflective 'Maruyama' show they aren't afraid to experiment, which bodes well for their future. Like DeVotchKa, their passion is in every phrase and note.
Richard Thompson may have brought out 'Dream Attic' last year, but it remains one of his best ever. His voice may be an acquired taste , but he's unquestionably one of the greatest songwriters around and the album takes you through so many emotions, from the gentle love songs like 'If Love Whispers Your Name', to dark murder ballads like 'Sidney Wells' and the cutting satire of 'The Money Shuffle'. He is also one of the most original and tuneful guitarists living, his style imbued with his distinct marrying of English folk and Eastern influences.
Add to that, his band are brilliant musicians, with the likes of Joel Zifkin on violin and multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn ; their names alone onomatopeic!
Atzmon deserves far wider recognition: a writer and activist as well as composer and jazz musician. He's an Israeli who has been ostracized by his homeland for views which are very sympathetic to the Palestinians ( an unapologetic peacenik).
Two years back I read at Narberth and his pianist Frank Harrison was sharing the gig. I'd never heard at Atzmon then, I'm ashamed to say. Atzmon is Robert Wyatt's favourite musician : what better recommendation!
Here's jazz which, like Weather Report, crosses over into rock's territories without you knowing. It uses distortion, voices and street-sounds as background to Atzmon's extraordinary playing of saxes ( which place him in the West), clarinet ( bridging the oceans) and Shabbaabeh flute (rooting him in the Middle East).
Yet the music transcends high barriers, barbed wire dividing and watchtowers overlooking, to a place as in 'Prayer For Peace' where you journey far, without and within.
Two other guests would be Thea Gilmore and Lleuwen.
Astonishingly, Gilmore has never appeared on Jools, even though she's been recording marvellous music since the late 90s and has brought out a series of albums which represent some of the best songs written in the last decade : ''Songs From The Gutter',' Harpo's Ghost', 'Liejacker' and 'Recorded Delivery' are all classics and it's a crime she isn't HUGE.
But Thea would be singing from her latest offering 'Don't Stop Singing', an album of songs by the late, great Sandy Denny. Gilmore's highly emotive voice together with her affinity for Denny has made these songs as much her own.
She brings out all the pain and defiance of songs like 'London' and 'Long Time Gone' and, in contrast, the utter tenderness of 'Georgia'. Like Thompson, she has played with sensitive and subtle musicians for many years and none more so than her partner Nigel Stonier.
Lleuwen's album 'Tan' is an indication of just how exciting these times are for Welsh music and , along with the likes of Huw M. and Gwilym Morus, there is a real revival of Welsh language singer-songwriters.
'Tan' is more experimental than the other two, more jazz-tinged and much less clear on its influences ( though Meic Stevens must be one).She sings in Cymraeg and Brezhoneg (Breton), a voice of the sea and sometimes, the stones.
For my legend; a real one!
I was tempted to say Ry Cooder, whose latest 'Pull Up The Dust and Sit Down' is a revelation. He's been called a 'modern Woody Guthrie' but he's different, a man of many persona. It's the only album I've heard which hilariously rails at war and bankers alike.
No, it's .........Tom Waits!
He would inevitably play from 'Bad As Me', his recently released cd. It combines most of the many strains of the man over the years and , for any Waits-virgin, is as good a place to begin as any.
On it there are ballads like 'Last Leaf', the bluesy bawling humour of 'Satisfied' and one of the best anti-war songs ever 'Hell Broke Luce', a blackly-comic empathy with a soldier's plight. All this plus one of the greatest guitarists ever ( and I don't mean Keith Richards, who's on a couple of tracks), the incomparable Marc Ribot.
Waits is the closest you get to poetry in music and closest you get to the alien offspring of Beefheart and Howlin' Wolf in vocals.
So that's my line-up. Any other suggestions?
THE NOT JOOLS HOLLAND SHOW
Let's hear it for
buy their new album
making a comeback
for the first time on tv
all the way from
somewhere near Aberystwyth,
Llan- something or other
for the first and last time,
banned from every gig
thrown out of village halls,
once did a benefit
for the Free Wales Army
let's hear it
before they cut us off,
their latest song
'Carlo Rubs Himself On Trees'
the world famous!
(well, Borth famous)
catch them here
before they appear
at the Cardigan Bay Stone Skimming Festival,
let's hear it for.......
bollocks! they've pulled the plugs on them
like Seeger once did to Dylan.
I will never wear a red poppy and doubt very much I could wear a white one either.
For all the furore about the red poppy symbol not being political, it obviously is. It comemorates the dead of the British military only and is organised by the Royal British Legion, who support families of servicemen and women.
Any act of remembrance on Remembrance Day or homage on Armistice Day is to the military alone, not the so-called enemies, the many innocents who have died or the freedom-fighters who have fought against the British Empire.
With Armed Forces Day coming a week before, the whole week has been a show of British propaganda. There is the assumption throughout the media that British armed forces have fought for freedom. Many presenters and newsreaders used the phrase 'those who have given their lives for freedom', as if it couldn't be questioned.
Yet, in the 1st World War many were conscripts and this war was singularly futile, as those great anti-war poets Owen, Sassoon, Rosenborg and Read showed us so vividly.
In fact, Friday's Newsnight programme was particularly absurd as it introduced newly-found poems by Siefried Sassoon. An extract from one of these 1916 poems shows a triumphalist fervour more akin to Rupert Brooke, with lines like 'A host of swords in harmony.'
Sassoon's biographer Dr. Moorcroft Wilson then went on to talk about him as if he were some kind of heroic soldier-poet. However, early poems from the trenches by Wilfred Owen also illustrate this gung-ho spirit ( the key word in the Sassoon extract is surely 'sword', when bombs and gas were all around them). Wilson failed to even mention Sassoon's scathingly bitter and satirical poems which influenced Owen so much.
Sassoon received a Military Cross which he later threw in the river Mersey as a protest against the 'Great' War. He had a Soldier's Declaration read out in the House of Commons decrying the war and was then dispatched to Craiglockhart Hospital for psychiatric treatment.
The idea that the British military could actually be a force used against freedom hasn't even been entertained, as platitudes abound. Of course , there have been numerous struggles against imperialism from Cyprus to Ireland, which depict this starkly,but it must be remembered, we in Cymru have suffered, at crucial times in our history, under British military oppression.
When David Cameron argues that the red poppy is apolitical and then goes on to say ' it's about the pride of the nation-state', let us remember the working-classes of Wales killed by British troops, as they have fought for their rights.
From the Merthyr Rising of 1831, when they opened fire on unarmed crowds fighting against poverty and cruel ironmasters, through the Newport Uprising of 1839 when the Chartists were struggling for fundamental rights such as suffrage and on to Llanelli and Tonypandy in 1910-11 when the army was sent in to destroy strikes; the army was an instrument of brutality by that very nation-state.
I am reluctant to wear a white one, as much as I'd like to. The white poppy is associated with pacificism and the Peace Pledge Union, who in the 1920s requested that the British Legion add 'No More War' to their poppies and the request was refused. As I am not a pacifist, it would be hypocritical.
Ideally, all conflicts should be resolved though talk, as the one in n. Ireland was eventually ( though some would say, it is still unresolved with the very existence of the six counties).
In reality, however, I would certainly have joined the forces against Franco in the Spanish Civil War (as did George Orwell and many others) and fought alongside the Trotskyite POUM or the Anarchists. In apartheid S.Africa, there would have been no choice but to side with Mandela's ANC against the vicious, racist government there.
In our relatively relaxed situation we can sit back and pontificate about conscience; however, under a dictatorial, oppressive regime such choices are ones of luxury. Neither Franco nor the S. African government left any room for negotiation at all and ruled with the kind of police state I have only witnessed in n.Ireland.
Not the red poppies of the British military nor white of the pacifists.......not these, but others, as yet unplaced - maybe the yellow ones of my country - on the sites of the fallen who were killed at the Risings of Merthyr, Newport, Llanelli and Tonypandy.
Great night bird,
blade wings rotating,
a predator on human players
out on their missions.
I don't discriminate
between mice- and rat-men ;
I feed off their jittering,
their scurrying with packages.
My beam dominates,
seeks out suspicious movements;
I find a flash of flesh,
a couple tumbling down.
Great spy bird
with my eyes a screen,
claws belong to those patrolling,
hooked beak a pointed gun.
My call is not the rounded
vowel-echo of the owl,
but the staccato of the heart
of the dark's machine.
Why do certain things surface in your consciousness and demand to be written about? I'm pondering this because, during the last week, I've written a series of poems about northern Ireland.
Now, this a subject you'd think I'd written about too much already. My first booklets of poetry and stories (both published by Tony Curtis' Edge Press) were based entirely on my time there in the 1970s. Seamus Heaney quickly became my favourite poet and I was delighted to be able to study his work with pupils in both Merthyr and Cardiff.
So why now and to a place I haven't visited for quite a while? Of course, my wife's from Belfast, so it's never far away in her recollections and my anecdotes.
But the truth is, I can't explain it precisely. Perhaps our 35th wedding anniversary had something to do with it, as my mind returned to priests on the Falls Road (and one in Barry before I left) who, on hearing of my staunch atheism, gave our marriage ' 6 months at the most'; also, to the priest Father Ruari who was so kind, giving me instructions (more like one than the required ten!) in a relaxed fashion and listening to my heresies. It was Ruari who conducted our marriage and told everyone to kiss the person next to them in the congregation. He was the exception to narrow-minded clergy I generally encountered .
It's not as if n. Ireland has been in the news either, though Martin McGuiness (former Provisional IRA leader) did stand in the Irish Presidential election recently. He was grilled and at times condemned for his past and this brought home to me the degree of ignorance which existed in the South about the 'Troubles', as the war was euphemistically dubbed.
When I think about their lack of empathy on the whole for fellow Catholic/nationalist/ republicans it always seems symbolized by U2 and their song 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'. I recall Bono's words vividly - 'This is not a rebel song!', as if he couldn't possibly make a stance exposing the brutality of the British military presence.
I always identified closely with bands like Stiff Little Fingers who, even though they used the erroneous title 'Ulster' in one song, seemed part of what was happening and understood it so intimately. This was also true of a punk band called The Starjets, whose song 'War Stories' remains one of the best about that time. In my latest book of poems I even use it as a title for a series on n. Ireland.
I wanted McGuiness to win, but knew he wouldn't. To me, he represents just how far politics in the north has moved on from bullet to ballot box, even though his party , Sinn Fein, have lost something of their idealism and socialism along the way.
My desire to write about a time and events many decades ago undoubtedly had aesthetic motivations as well.
Though I made no conscious choices, there was a restlessness inside me. I wanted to return to dramatic monologues; to try to approach that war with wit and, above all, to shift perspectives from people to inanimate objects. I wanted to address the religious implications as I had in those stories 'In Enemy Territory', but not from my own viewpoint.
The intransigence of the clergy of both sects was evident the whole time I was there. I was sacked from my temporary post in a rural Catholic school because of pressure from the local priest. My crime was discussing abortion with a class of 15 year-olds : the fact I used an article taken from an Irish newspaper was ironic. I was accused of instigating a discussion on breach births as well ..........we were actually reading the story 'Indian Camp' by Hemingway!
Shortly after this another clergyman, Rev. Ian Paisley, led the unsuccessful Ulster Workers' Strike (the previous one had brought down the power-sharing administration). He played a vital role in the occupation of our nearest town Ballymena, with lots of farmers taking over the place with tractors and trailers. The RUC (police force) ringed the town and ensured that nobody drove into it, so we couldn't do our shopping! The complicity between police, UDA (Loyalist paramilitaries.....then not banned!) and a powerful clergyman like Paisley was apparent that day. My wife had been stopped on her way to work (I was on the dole by then) by a UDA roadblock.
N. Ireland was fascinating, frightening, fierce and fruitful all at the same time and I'm still haunted by images and words : I still use 'pockle' meaning an annoyance , for example. Still with a sudden loud sound my wife will react in a gesture of panic and alarm, arms flying upwards with a gasp of fear : all those years of street warfare and bomb scares have made their mark on her.
As significant as anything else, my weather-vane brain has been turned westwards by The Waterboys' latest 'An Appointment with Mr Yeats'. I am besotted with it : from the Irish mythology of 'The Hosting of the Sidhe', the antipathy to Britain's war in 'An Irish Airman Forsees His Death', Yeats' strong disillusionment with romantic nationalism in 'September 1913' and to that extraordinary pagan hymn of hope 'Let The Earth Bear Witness'. In fact, every track has been a road back to Ireland.
ALL THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS
Where do you live?
Where do you work?
What school did you go to?
What's your full name?
What foot do you kick with?
How would you cut turf?
Which side of the river
and which housing estate?
When you say West I'm not sure,
when you say East it's clearer.
You say 'Dead on!' for 'It's certain!',
but what's that 'Smile like a goat a-hanging'?
Tell me, are you really living
in Ulster, the six counties or N.Ireland?
Have you ever spoken Gaelic
or, indeed, played it?
When you pray, is it a direct line to God
or have you to get a connection?
Do you eat flesh and drink blood,
or prefer an Ulster fry on the Sabbath?