Snow is another country : a country of childhood, but also of danger and disruption.
My memories of Aberystwyth as a young child and later as a student are never covered in its white. Rather, the only association there is with Dylan Thomas's 'A Child's Christmas in Wales' on vinyl. His Swansea, only a coast away, was another continent, never mind country.
Living in East Anglia from ages seven to eighteen, we had a few white Christmases, one I recall playing footie with my brother and sister on the cricket field of Horseheath village. We played with a prize plastic ball, my favourite present that year. After, I made the mistake of drying it in front of our wood-burning stove. I returned later to find a melty mass.
Only in Merthyr and living in the Arctic zones of Aberdare Mountain, have I fully realised what snow can mean. Sledging on the Waun out the back and on the Beacons is always great fun and my older daughter Bethan was always the expert, once speeding all the way down a slope, through the gate at the bottom and onto the A470! Luckily, no cars were passing.
Perhaps her ability and that of my other daughter Niamh comes from being snow babies. Both were born in Decembers of big snow. Bethan was taken to Aberdare hospital ( Merthyr was full! ) through a thick snowstorm, while 18 years later she drove us all to Cardiff's Heath hospital while it fell heavily on the expressway : Niamh was born days later. My wife was literally snowed in with baby Bethan as I was tutoring a writing course in Devon : snow so high it covered the central heating outlet and froze it completely. A friendly neighbour cleared it with a blow-torch.
Vitally, snow also meant nor being able to get to work. In the early days as a teacher, you had to report to the local school, but they never bothered to use you. Once I trudged with a colleague from our side of the valley, down and uphill to reach Pen-y-dre High school, only to be told it was closed.
The new Head there had other ideas and refused to give in to the elements until one incident changed his mind forever. He was forced to abandon his car one time in the Gurnos and take public transport back to the leafy lanes of Pentyrch. When he returned to school his very expensive vehicle had been trashed. From then on, a single flake was enough to close down the establishment.
Snow brings us together, makes us kids again, helps us find our feet and certainly makes the sometimes drab Valleys as glorious as they are in autumnal colours. For me it will always mean two babies wrapped in blanket cocoons : two white butterflies emerging from winter.
First feathers falling. No sign of settling.
The great white bird turns from dark to light, spanning the valley. Sun on the east side, cloud on the west. Away in the distance, y Bannau with their icy crests.
I remember East Anglia and snow at Christmas : our family walks, pudding-bellied after dinner, plum-cheeked in the cold.
Where was the white bird then?
We tried to summon it with our speech: loose leaves of half-recalled poems, of ‘A Child’s Christmas’ on our tongues. We hardly touched the light and melting plumage.
The great bird has flown, but will soon return. Berries remain on hawthorn bushes.
It will leave the sky bare-skinned and plucked like a fowl for the oven, but when it flies you’ll hear it calling to ageless children : its repeated, excited invitation – ‘ Come! Come catch me if you can!’
If I'm in danger of repeating myself more frequently as I get older, I'd rather do it on purpose. If there were any justice this Christmas, then Thea Gilmore's seasonal album 'Strange Communion' would be number one. Slowly, the word is getting out and Caroline Sullivan in last Friday's 'Guardian' acknowledged its undoubted power ( Sting's latest got slammed).
All this follows seeing her perform live at Aberdare last week : a truly memorable gig. Apart from 'Fairytale of New York' I've got no time for Christmas songs at all ( I even resisted buying Sufjan Stevens' triple album of them ). Gilmore, on the other hand, avoids all the platitudes and twee Christian observations.
Her voice is as powerfully moving live as on record ( a rarity in itself ) and she's backed by fine musicians in Nigel Stonier (who co-wrote two songs) and Fluff on violin, who is up there with The Waterboys' Steve Wickham : fiery one song and full of feeling the next.
There are so many high-points it's hard to choose : great versions of Ono's 'Listen,the snow is falling' and Costello's 'The St. Stephen's day Murders' ; her poignant pagan hymn sung a capella, 'Sol Invictus' and the singalong 'That'll be Christmas', with its apt descriptions of all the contradictions.
Gilmore has a good line in self-deprecation - 'It could be the last time you see us in a venue like this.' When the band launched into 'Mainstream' from the album 'Avalanche' you were carried along by her ever-the-outsider stance, which I hope will never be lost, because it's created so many excellent songs like 'Lip reading' and 'Straight Lines'. Go along to her Wintertide tour and get your album signed with kisses after : can't see Lily Allen doing that!
One of the most amusing Christmas poems ever is Benjamin Zephaniah's 'Talking Turkeys' , which addresses them as friends in a Jamaican dialect, making a plea for them to be spared the ritual slaughter - 'It could be yu mate, an not on your plate'.
I once tried a similar thing with 'Turkeys aren't pets' which, together with 'The essence of presents' appears in one of Seren's best ever sellers,the 'Christmas in Wales' anthology. The latter's based very closely on the truth. My father was the specialist and did give me a rusty tin-opener which had belonged to my grandad! With a father like that, you'd think my mother would have compensated ; however, she was just as parsimonious and once sent my wife a pair of plain knickers, not even wrapped!
My sister carries on the family tradition, sometimes sending goods bought from charity shops ; all well and good, but they tend to be the grubby, tattered variety and my children didn't appreciate being sent text-books one time. This year, we had a envelope full of hazelnuts picked by a friend of hers, together with a scrawled recipe for vegan nut roast. Now where is that nut-cracker, or shall I just enlist the help of the local squirrel?
'Gavin and Stacey' isn't funny. For a romcom , it has lost its 'rom' and has very little 'com'. As a sitcom , it doesn't even approach anything by Galton and Simpson.
I've tried to like it ever since my son recommended it. He directed me towards 'The Thick of It' and I've found that hilarious at times, though he has been suspicious of 'Outnumbered', which is one of my favourites, with its usually interesting storylines, witty script and seemingly spontaneous exchanges between adults and kids ( in fact, a lot are improvised).
I ought to like 'Gavin and Stacey': I rate Rob Brydon highly as a stand-up and in quiz shows ; it's partly set in Barry where I used to live and on the Island, where I worked. Above all, it's a Welsh comedy which has actually crossed the border ( like the central romance) to ensure popular success.
Yet, the last episode with that appalling scene with the Welsh-speaking woman on the caravan site only vindicated my opinions further. It was truly insulting, prejudiced and also completely beyond credulity.The woman shouted out - 'Beth ydych chi'n meddwl chi'n wneud?' and then insisted it was her parking spot. To which Bryn answered ' Rdyw i'n hoffi coffi', obviously his only phrase of Welsh. What Welsh-speaker would come out shouting at English-speakers in such a way? It was absurd for all the wrong reasons. To make matters worse, when Gavin and his family arrive at the site later and he talks too loud, Bryn tells him to be quiet or the 'Welshies' might hear an Englishman and want to lynch him. In the credits, this Welsh-speaker is defined as 'Welsh nationalist'.
All this is pandering to the English visitors' stereotypical view of Welsh-speakers i.e. they are being offensive in the native tongue just by using it and they are anti-English to the point of racism and are basically akin to the KKK! Does Ruth Jones have to ingratiate herself so much to English audiences in order to get a BAFTA or even an OBE?
Apart from these dreadful scenes, 'Gavin and Stacey' has little going for it. Its plots are non-existent, its script rarely witty and its catchphrases repeated far too often. Only the acting raises it above the many failed sitcoms produced in Wales over the years. Not since 'Ryan a Ronnie'......
Though we now have first class stand-ups like Rhod Gilbert and Rob Brydon, I really believe that we should look elsewhere for our comic talent. The lyrics of the Super Furry Animals can be weirdly hilarious and the four funniest poets Mike Church, Peter Read, Peter Finch and Ifor Thomas are up there with those stand-ups. It's just a shame that poetry hasn't got its own programme on BBC Wales to prove it.
When I booked Ifor Thomas to read at my school in Merthyr in the 90's, it was his first ever gig at a school. They'd studied some of his work, including the 'cling-film classics'. In those days he was a full-blown performance poet, using all the props. I warned him not to go over the top, as he prepared for an audience which included all of Year 11, including one Smiffy (no relation) a fan of his, who also happened to be a National Front following Animal Rights obsessive.
Ifor soon got into his usual routine, tearing up Mills and Boons and taping them to a chair only to chainsaw it in half ( imagine getting that through Health and Safety nowadays?). Later, he launched into 'I like my clingfilm tight' and Smiffy was chosen to wrap Ifor in clingfilm as he recited. I thought he was going to pass out , as Smiffy wrapped it round his mouth and Ifor frantically tore it off!
Afterwards, Smiffy must've made a comment, because Ifor made out to throttle him and muttered the words 'You bastard!' The new Head of Upper School was there by now and looked ready to close down the whole proceedings. But Ifor carried on and the kids loved it, especially the finale when he did 'Life is like a toilet roll' and Year 11, in tiered banks, were instructed to fling bog rolls at each other. The Deputy's face was something like Ifor's chainsaw had been earlier.
Welsh literature has produced many fine comic writers, including Gwyn Thomas, Alun Richards and Dylan Thomas (of the short stories), not to mention the wryness of Dannie Abse in both prose and poetry. However, this poem was influenced by Chaucer, who relished innuendo -