Thea Gilmore at the Globe, Cardiff
An eavin and jam-packed Globe on Albany Road, Cardiff and such a contrast from the last time I saw Thea Gilmore live, only a couple of years ago.
What has happened between-times is remarkable, as that gig in Aberdare was very sparsely attended.
At the time it was a big disappointment to the organiser Geoff Cripps, who I met recently at a full-to-brimming gig he had also organised, at the Muni in Pontypridd. When I mentioned I was going to see Thea again he commented that she had 'crossed over'.
I wasn't exactly sure what he meant, though her concert did suggest it to me.
At any rate her influence abounds, even though it may not be directly acknowledged. I hear it particularly in the songs of Milford Haven's Paper Aeroplanes and winner of Welsh Album of the Year for 'Year of Pines', Georgia Ruth.
Both acts deliver songs full of emotion, devoid of cliched lyrics and showing an admirable diversity of musical styles, just as Thea has through the years.
As someone who bought one of her first albums 'Avalanche' many moons ago at a now disappeared record shop in Cardiff, I recall the assistant advising me to get Neko Case instead.
I've never regretted that purchase, though it probably wasn't until I listened to the double cd version of 'Songs from the Gutter' that I truly fell in love with Thea's music.
Since the Aberdare concert she has acquired many fans as a result of Radio 2 exposure, the fact that her Sandy Denny song 'London' was played on TV during the Olympics and a series of catchy, tuneful singles.
The fact that she may have 'crossed over' into the very 'Mainstream' she once castigated on the song of that name doesn't greatly bother me. This is because, between the somewhat throwaway singles like 'Love Comes Looking For Me', there are so many songs to inspire.
Her vocals live are more intense than the recordings, especially the latest album 'Regardless' which, with a full string orchestration, is slightly over-produced.
The acoustic settings of her performance were far more spare, with just guitar or keyboard, cello and violin (with her 7 year-old son joining in on fiddle for one song.....a future star for certain!).
My one major quibble is that her own words weren't that clear, whereas her husband Nigel Stonier , who was a very good backing act, could be heard at all times. It may have been a matter of balance, because there was no problem at Aberdare, where the band was bigger.
For a fan like myself, accustomed to almost every song, this was less of a problem than for a first timer.
From the beginning, Stonier has played a vital role in Thea's work, producing her albums, co-writing songs and, also playing guitar and keyboards ( at the Globe, a borrowed one he coped with masterfully).
I liked the way she focused on more recent material and there is a real sense of maturity about it : a number of songs speaking to her children ( in an imagined future) such as 'I Will Not Disappoint You'.
I wish she had chosen to do two of the strongest songs on 'Regardless' rather than those singles : 'Let It Be Known' and 'Punctuation' are both deeply philosophical and full of original imagery........they may not have suited the acoustic setting though.
It was fitting that she included several of her Sandy Denny songs from 'Don't Stop Singing'. Together with Stonier, she put Denny's lyrics to music and, as her own vocal style is very close Denny's, this was an album which should've received a lot more acclaim. Some of the songs are very harrowing and relate to Denny's tragic life of lonely alcoholism when her child Georgia was taken from her.
As well as a powerful cover of Bowie's 'The Man Who Sold The World' were a few songs from her Christmas album 'Strange Communion', which is the only Christmas album (yes, not even Sufjan Stevens' epic!) I'm likely to ever play.
'Sol Invictus' and 'Cold Coming' are two of the most evocative seasonal songs you will ever hear; sadly, she only performed the latter.
I'm sure there are many out there who've never heard of her, though they may well laud the likes of Laura Marling, media darling.
Thea performed one song new to me ( in total antithesis to 'Mainstream' and 'Everybody's Numb' from the album Harpo's Ghost) ,which gave sympathy and sound advice to young aspiring artists in the music business.This was 'Beautiful Hopeful' from an e.p. called 'Beginners'.
The audience at the Globe would probably have stayed all night for encores: we were in no hurry to get home for our Horlicks and hot water bottles.
Thea Gilmore had undoubtedly conquered the Globe and , who knows, she could go on and do the same to its much larger namesake!
I hope that anyone who becomes Gilmorable will embrace her truly amazing back catalogue.
As she announced, with some astonishment, 'I released my first album at sixteen!'
She's now 35 and can write like a sage : listen to 'Punctuation' and you'll hear an earthbound psalm.
AT THE GLOBE
Here at the centre
of the Globe,
walls of ice-plaster,
heat of magma music,
a spiral of black and white
twisting, turning, rising.
If some words are lost
up into the balcony of rock,
we are still carried
on thermals of voice,
heads bubble and steam
surprising the stubborn surface.
Afta the final warnin
I woz late agen.
Straight up the office,
tol em I neally topped myself,
tol em I wuz on medication,
tol em I wuz further down
than they could imagine,
deeper than rats an sewers.
No arguin, put me on gardnin leave :
all theyer papers, my life in numbers.
Gardnin? I int got no garden,
on'y weeds in-a yard.
Leave me with-a dandelions
like a bee drunk on pollen.
Afta the final warnin,
a cracked concrete future.
Merthyr pub and cultural hub, The Imp
- I 'member when pubs woz pubs, but.....not like this one.
- Aye, proper pubs where yew could smoke.
- But yew never smoked.
- No, but it's a matter o principle see.
- An darts instead of all 'ese bloody screens!
- But yew never played darts.
- I know, I'm jest makin a point.
- Aye, an proper beer not this foreign muck.....Allbright, Guinness an Carlin.
- Orright, it wuz shite, but at least it woz Welsh shite.
- Yew knew ev'ryone 'en, not all these youngsters playin on theyer screens.
- Aye, an ardly any women......yew could ewse bard language no problem.
- Ave yew yeard my missis mind?
- Anyway it's my round......Wan' another o them cocktails? Sex on-a Beach?
- Not since I wuz a teenager!
In my teens we lived two houses down from a small village pub (there were more pubs than shops in my village).
As a weekend treat my mother often used to buy a flagon or two of cider and I got to have a glass or two. She was never strict about such things, unlike her own parents who kept to their Methodist upbringing.
I never ventured into that pub. The landlord's son was called Clarkie, a leather-jacketed youth several years older who, legend would have it, had just been released from Borstal.
He occasionally came to the Church youth club we all attended just for something to do on winter nights. Once, he sat the whole evening on a step cutting up a denim jacket with a knife.
A few months later I made the mistake of mocking him and he ran after me, pinning me down on the cow field we used for footie. I recalled that knife and nearly pissed myself!
Further up the road was a pub I used to go to when I got to the 6th form. We were all under-age, including two of the local landowner's daughters, one of whom I really fancied.
However, we never drank much (the rich girls weren't paying) , but the juke-box was magical. We could sit there and listen to singles banned from the radio like 'Je T'Aime' and even a ska number called 'Wet Dream'. It was like being in an alternative world.
At Uni in Aberystwyth the Old Union Bar not far from the castle was my regular watering-hole, with perfectly placed pinball, table footie and even a snooker room close by. We had many a political argument and much banter there. At times it seemed like each person had their own party or grouping, what with IMG, SWP, WRP, Anarchists and old-style Commies.
At that time Aber was 'dry' on Sundays and many friends joined obscure clubs just to get a drink......there were never so many members of the Sailing Club whose experience of that sport was limited to pedalos on a lake.
I was simply glad of a day to recover and sober up in the whipping winds at Tanybwlch beach or spray crashing over the jetty.
There was one particular pub I loved, situated near the town library (it's not there any more).
Here, every Saturday night, there was a singalong session with at least two guitarists ; an old-fashioned communal karoake. We became Leonard Cohen's 'drunken choir' and ,indeed, 'his 'Bird on the Wire' was one of the favourite songs.
This feeling of musical camaraderie has been replicated recently whenever Barry Taylor and Jamie Bevan play their songs alongside the Red Poets.
In Merthyr I experienced many pubs because of my father-in-law.
He would come over from Belfast to visit and , because it was too dangerous to go out at home, he insisted on going to a different one every evening. Ironically, he only ever drink one pint maximum.
The Court of Requests, Three Horseshoes, Pant Cad Ifor and , of course, the Red Lion and Six Bells in Heolgerrig were just a few of them. He never asked to go to the Wyndham, but had he know its reputation he have insisted......he was that kind of fella.
Because the landlords were open and supportive, it was The Crown at the bottom of High Street which became our community centre.
All the meetings were held there, from CND to Anti-Apartheid and numerous evenings of music and poetry ensued , all held in a
room thick with smoke like one of those killer London smogs.
I once did a performance poem which consisted of coughing my guts out and one of Cor Cochion thought I was having an asthma attack and opened the windows rapidly. When I explained it was for show, the smoking lefties weren't impressed.
The Crown had ridiculously late lock-ins, apparently due to the fact they supplied the nearby cop shop with sandwiches. I recall flying home on many occasions on Booze Air International, past the lime tip and under the old railway bridge, both long gone.
Once a meeting-place for Chartists, it was fitting The Crown should become such a focal point for us lefties.
It has never been fully replaced for its sense of community, but The Imp in Pontmorlais is the closest thing to it, with equally supportive landlords.
It has been the venue for many memorable evenings of poetry and music and also for more mundane meetings to plan and plot.
An ideal pub for me would be a place with its own microbrewery, serving up local tasty food and with an extensive menu for veggies. Its walls would be covered with photos and paintings by local artists and it would possess the kind of juke-box they have at The Castle in Tredegar where Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart feature on it.
Above all, it would have a weekly singalong to take me back to those nights in Aber : a musical massage for my memory!
This poem is about a really special bar in the States; in Cazenovia, Upstate New York.
SEVEN STONE STEPS
Seven stone steps down with the sun
to the brown tavern
the honeymoon hotel's nudging
closer to it than ever
and we are leaving the horizon,
the green lake and its layers
we are leaving the light
and water which doesn't turn over
seven steps down to the etchings,
the initials, names, love-longings
the knifed-out wooden
carved letterings surrounding
where the barman's hiding something,
his nose a shining blade
where we meet twilight comrades,
glass greetings of 'Iechyd da!' and 'Slainte!'
seven steps down with the sun
and no room for another name.
ONE WAY TICKET
'Know yew always wan'ed t travel,' she sayz,
'an ow yew always d' say
we on'y ever go t Tenby,
an if we're lucky Cardigan Bay.'
'Well,' she sayz with a loud smile,
'I booked yew an oliday
of a lifetime, summin special,
it'll be totelee unforgettable!'
I could ardly contain myself,
what a 60th birthday presen', eh?
Would it be the Caribbean
or maybe the sights o Rome?
'I carn come with yew sadly,' she explained,
'it'll on'y be f'r one.'
'C'mon love, urry up an tell me....
Beaches? City break? Cruisin?'
'Well, yew gotta go really far.'
'Australia? Canada? New Zealand?'
'No, I booked yew a one way ticket
to the lovely planet o Mars.'
- What yew think of ower bran'new one-way system, eh?
- Causin bloody chaos so far......I reckon it's a Council plot.
- Ow come?
- Well, people'll jest end up goin round in circles till they give up an afto stay in town.
- Cept there's nowhere to stay!
- Under the bridges, in-a bus station......
- Or the Castle Otel?
- Like I say, in-a train station....
- Anyway, it'll be better f piss-artists.
- Yeah, on'y one way t look.
- Mind, it's gotta be the right way!
- What yew need see.....like-a Retail Park... is a Drinkin Park, jest loadsa pubs an nothin else.....wanderin from one t the other like the missis out shoppin.
- Nah, yew'll never bring back the ol days o Merthyr town centre.
In the past few weeks the headlines of the local paper have become predictable.
Each week a different shop announces its forthcoming closure in Merthyr town centre : first W.H. Smith's and then Argos and now, I'm told, Shaws the drapers.
It's easy to guess what's next, as both Boots and Burton have outlets on the nearby Cyfarthfa Retail Park.
Although our plight looks desperate, it bears no comparison to other Valleys' towns like Tredegar, which hasn't even got clothes shops, travel agencies or mobile phone stores.
Even 'Wazzy Dazzy's Bargain Basement' has shut and whatever was 'wazzy' about him, it obviously wasn't enough.
However, we are caught between despair and hope at present and while many shops are rolling down the blinds for the final time, the Old Town Hall has opened up and the place where the Castle Cinema (and Inn) once stood is being turned into Dic Penderyn Square (as I believe it will be called).
What's needed there is a memorial to all those who were killed in the Rising of 1831, the 24 martyrs massacred by the British military. They deserve to be remembered as much as Dic Penderyn, as they were fighting for the same causes of nascent trade unionism, justice for workers and suffrage.
But to return to the town and its future.
Many would argue that the centre has none. The progression towards more supermarkets and retail parks is inevitable, especially given increased parking charges.
However, as Bristol has demonstrated, with imagination this decline can e not only be arrested, but reversed.
Bristol was the first place on these islands to devise and introduce its own local currency, the Bristol Pound, which can be used in many small independent shops and cafes, accessed electronically and even used to pay some local taxes.
It is deployed in close co-operation with the city's Credit Union and is fittingly unique in the home of Banksy!
A Merthyr Pound/Punt would provide a huge boost to our rapidly failing economy in terms of encouraging those small traders.
I can imagine some of the places I value so greatly like Flooks, Siop y Ganolfan and the indoor market utilising this fully and thriving as a result.
It would also be an incentive for others to set up shop here and hopefully fill the gaps.......we need a Deli, a top class bakery, restaurant using local produce and Welsh Crafts outlet.
Tesco's current monopoly needs to be challenged.
As with Bristol, it would keep money in the town (literally!) and make people think twice about going shopping to Cardiff all the time.
The other example to follow is Cardiff itself, with its Council-owned bus service; one of the few municipally-owned left in the country.
At present Stagecoach operate a virtual monopoly in Merthyr and their prices are far too high and services non-existent on evenings and Sundays.
Moreover, their customer services are dreadful and any promise of vouchers as compensation is invariably not met.
Though bus-pass pensioners wouldn't be affected, I believe a Council-run bus service would boost the numbers travelling to town. A fairer and cheaper pricing policy is essential and there's no reason why some evening and Sunday services shouldn't return.
It's ludicrous that buses to many places simply stop operating at about 6.30 pm! This does not happen in Cardiff.
Thirdly, Merthyr town centre must develop a unique quality which could draw in more visitors.
This already exists, but needs to be fully planned and encouraged.
Walking and Cycling Tours around town need to be clearly marked and a Toruist Information centre should be located more centrally. There should be a series of tours such as a Religious Tour, Literary Tour, Iron Tour, Rising Tour etc and , at certain times in the year, the Council could employ guides to take people around.
With the weekly announcement of closures the news does seem depressing.
Still , there's an economic up-turn according to the Governor of the Bank of England (only England?), so maybe we should just sit back and wait for it to hit Merthyr?
It was announced in the local press
that the town was about to shut down.
The one-way system
would now be changed to a by-pass.
The only buses to run
would go to 'SORRY NOT IN SERVICE'.
The pigeons would police
the wind-filled precinct.
The rats clear up
the left- over litter.
Charity coats, shirts and boots
would march up the hill and away.
The brand-new levelled square
occupied by wandering strays.
Roller-blinds finally close their lids
and a lost drunk slur 'Nosh da!'
Remember the victims Merthyr 1831
and, of course, northern Ireland.........
This is a poem about just one of them, a man whose funeral was attended by many pop stars of the time(1983), including Bananarama and Spandau Ballet and whose brother was the drummer for Stiff Little Fingers.
THE BALLAD OF 'KIDSO' REILLY
Kidso Reilly, do remember him?
Never a man of uniform,
not one to wield a gun
or get angry about the situation.
Kidso Reilly, a man of fashion,
his brother, the drummer, all the connections;
a man of music, a Celtic fan,
a roadie from northern Ireland.
A great craic, a charmer,
dab hand on stage with equipment
for Weller, Spandau Ballet, Bananarama ;
always plugged in, sorted.
Kidso Reilly, back home with mates
after a few jars and a carry out,
got to the top of the Whiterock,
an army patrol searched , interrogated.
Dressed in shorts and a t-shirt
Kidso walked 50 yards up Monagh
when the soldier knelt down
and shot him in the back, no reason.
In Court, Private Thain claimed
Kidso was carrying a weapon,
but the Judge called him a liar :
first soldier to go down for murder;
though many others had been guilty before.
Less than two years into his sentence
he was released from prison, Ian Thain :
his punishment, his old job back again!
His reward for murdering an innocent
was more than the Queen's shilling
and no-one has ever told the Reillys
if he ever returned to that scene.
So remember Kidso Reilly
whenever you wear a poppy,
a roadie, Celtic fan, man of fashion,
gunned down by the heroic British Army.
Never felt more like singin' the Blues
When Cardiff win and Swansea lose -
You got me singin' the Blues -
When we beat Swansea 1-0 last Sunday I didn't hear that chant, which is a pity as it used to be a favourite.
There were no chants for 'redbirds' or 'dragons' (except as a wind-up from Swansea fans) nor , indeed, have there been since the change and at the end - alongside the constant calling of Malky's Army, were the pointed chants of 'We're Cardiff City......We'll always be Blue!' just like our triumphant end to last season when chairman Vincent Tan appeared.
There were noticeably fewer red shirts in the stadium v. Swansea and this could not entirely be explained by the appalling weather ( i.e. wearing of coats). The mood has changed significantly.
I met one refusnik ( who has boycotted the club since Tan's red imposition) on the train down who put it succinctly - ' It's a laugh really! He strips the club of its history and identity and most go along with it, but now our manager's threatened people are actually questioning Tan's position.....It's a joke because some people - given a couple of bad results - would be calling for Malky's head!'
He emphasized - 'Fans are so fickle!'
The events of the last month, together with the disclosure about the signing of Etien Velikonja, have brought home to the majority what we have have saying all along : Tan is a megalomaniac who knows nothing about football yet treats the club as if it was just another of his Malaysian businesses, acting with total disdain towards fans, management and players.
It began with the sacking of head of recruitment Iain Moody. He was summarily dismissed without Tan even realising that in this country there are certain laws protecting labour rights and an appeal to unfair dismissal. Tan has supplied no reasons for his action, which was immediately altered to 'gardening leave' (he must have a very big garden!).
Derby's new boss Steve MacLaren showed his footballing knowledge by snapping up Moody!
The derby match was a victory for Malky's tactics, the team's spirit and determination and , let's not forget, Moody's invaluable contribution to the club (as Mackay intimated in his post-match press conference).
Our three best players on the day were Medel, Caulker and Theophile-Catherine, all signed because of Moody's excellent work. Medel, a record signing yet worth every penny, is the kind of defensive midfielder we have rarely had over the years : a player who reads the game so well. Caulker not only scored the winning goal, but was a captain who epitomized the way we played, with passion and power. Theo got more into the game as it went on and played with pace and vision.
Tan's appointment of his son's friend 23 year-old Alisher Apsalyamov was the ultimate insult to Malky, who was not consulted. His qualifications for the job were wall-painting at the Stadium and computer games, but not a work permit, so he cannot perform the role due to a Home Office investigation.
As with the meddling in team affairs - such as tactics and substitutions - Tan has behaved as he does in Malaysia, where his name has become synonymous with corruption.
The Guardian's expose about the signing of Velikonja for £1.7 million was equally revealing, as it illustrated just how far back Tan's interference has gone.
Velikonja was signed by Tan and football agent Mendes without Malky's consent. The agent was the same one who persuaded Man. Utd to part with an incredible £7 million for Bebe, when Ferguson hadn't even seen him play! He turned out to be one of their worst ever signings, just as Velikonja has been for us.
The present impasse has to be resolved, given the fact that Tan refuses to support Mackay and vice versa.
Had we lost to Swansea it may well have given the chairman an excuse to get rid of Malky. As it is, even the most fickle of fans can't fail to appreciate how quickly he has adapted to the Premiership and how the team has given everything for him.
Before the Swansea game I was wary of his predictably defensive tactics and had they scored in the first 20 minutes, when they dominated, I think they would've gone on to win emphatically.
However, the second half showed his flexibility and we played with a renewed confidence, our defenders like Caulker and Theophile bombing forward at every opportunity, something you can do with Medel always covering.
Remarkably, he got everything right and his selection of Whittingham in a central role was key to the whole plan. Whitts is so much more effective there : on the wing he just hasn't got the pace to trouble Premier defenders, yet his passing and understanding with Medel were crucial.
If Malky leaves (there are inevitably rumours about Norwich), there will be ructions at CCFC such as we've never witnessed before.
A few 'TAN OUT' banners will be replaced by thousands and there could be a mass boycott; though given the fickle nature of many.........
For now, the age of the ludicrous red dragon (which belongs on Wales football shirts) is fading and the Bluebird is on the rise again.
(Please join the march organised by Bluebirds Unite before the Man Utd game. It starts at 2 pm outside the Castle.)
HE DOES WHAT HE WANTS!
I am Super Vinnie Tan
I do what I want
I am what I am.
I appointed a painter
in charge of recruitment
called Alisha Apocalypse.
It had nothing to do
with him being my son's friend,
he is expert on Football Manager.
I signed Etien Veronica
for 2 million Euro smackers,
but he's hardly played since.
I own you and you owe me,
even Sam the Man agrees with me ;
without me, where would Mackay be?
We won because of the red
and nothing to do with the team.......
and now they no longer believe.
The dragon is really so Chinese,
we will sell more shirts in Far East,
brings in more money you see.
I am Super Vinnie Tan
in my bright red suit ,I grin :
I know nothing, have everything.
Top of Bald Mt. Photo by Dave Lloyd.
If you go on a trek up Bald Mountain in the Adirondacks National Park, NY State, you have to sign a book to say you've left. I went there with my friend Dave Lloyd and his family but never signed out. I sincerely hope the Rescue Services aren't still looking for my bald pate camouflaged perfectly against the bare rocky surfaces you have to clamber up and slide down.
In some ways, however, I do feel I'm still up there!
I'm drinking in that refreshingly cool breeze like water from a spring and gazing around in amazement at the forests and lakes spread out into the distance : a sense of space without borders.
I haven't come down yet and my dreadful experience at the Stephens & George Charitable Trust so-called ArtsFest in Merthyr only made me mentally want to stay there, eye-flying above those colours of the Fall, so many yellows, reds and browns I couldn't name them.
(The dark forces of anti-literature were out in force when the organiser and her assistant dressed up in black well before Hallowe'en managed to create a non-event I have rarely witnessed before. She was so skilled in the dark arts that she disappeared into thin air just when I was about to give her flak!)
So now I'm seeking the up-currents with the hawks, high over glacier-scooped lakes and ice-smoothed outcrops.
The USA is astonishingly beautiful and also sadly tragic.
For every sun going down over mysterious green water, there is an Arnold; the man we encountered at a bus-stop in downtown Portland.
He gripped a plastic bottle of piss-coloured liquid, occasionally taking a slug.He jabbered incessantly and manically about being in the toilet when somebody broke his arm and how he was determined 'to kill someone'.
Dirty and dishevelled, yet it was his tone which was threatening. His eyes were sunk in two wells, with no ropes to escape only the endless echoes of past voices blaming, cursing, full of hate.
Abandoned by a system which simply didn't bother, like so much of our 'care in the community' over here today.
And for every writer like Dave Lloyd and sculptor like his wife Kim Waale - trying to forge a unique way of expression which does not worship the ego - there is the other side of 'art'. There are those who operate strictly within genres with an eye to film rights, masters of online marketing and self-promotion. At Wordstock Festival we even met a film-maker who was looking for a book with graphic scenes of torture in it.
For every gas-guzzling SUV-owning flag-flaunting citizen, there are sensitive poets like Pat Lawler of Le Moyne College, a writer at the forefront of environmental activism, trying to expose the madness of the rush for shale gas , which will soon hit us here.
It was entirely predictable that the USA's first tentative steps towards a free health care system - at least for the poorest people - should be met with such animosity by Tea Party Republicans.
Any real progress towards a genuine Welfare State seems slow, even as Westminster moves alarmingly in the direction of an American system which fails to support its most vulnerable citizens.
Yet I learned that in Oregon there was a state bank and Portland had an office and cafe for the International Workers of the World (the 'Wobblies'), founded in the States with the objective of abolishing capitalism.
The USA's socialist past is a bit like England's republicanism (with a small 'r') : buried for a reason.
Going there I was supposed to feel more European, to possess an increased solidarity with the Continent and its weight of history.
In fact, I felt just as much (or as little) at home in America as I had in Italy ; perhaps more so, given the language and the over-riding influence of its culture on me for so long.
I kept reflecting back on Cymru and how such a new , ever-changing democracy as ours could be so limited in its powers.
If Obama was incensed by the needless shut-down, then what of our Senedd, at present so burdened by pointless austerity measures which will have a lasting and disastrous affect on so many, from the closure of libraries to the bedroom tax.
The more I became aware that the US Empire with its fracking, excessive capitalism and self-righteous patriotism only represents one side of that country, the more I became convinced of the importance of small and creative nations trying to express themselves in a world which seeks to flatten everything.
Not a Cymru preserved and bottled - as I experienced in the old Welsh community of Remsen in upstate NY, where 'y ddraig goch' was a mere emblem and chapel-going and Cymanfa Ganu still a way of life - not this , but a country modern and out-going , while still respecting its history and traditions.
I am not lost on Bald Mountain, just hovering awhile and when I finally come to ground I will find myself back on the Waun rejoicing the wonders of bracken and heather over those 19th century tips ; celebrating the fact that, at least here, they will never have to quarry for coal, to cut and blast and destroy so much.
BALD MAN ON BALD MOUNTAIN
I will always be there on Bald Mountain,
I never signed out
but no-one will be checking
a wandering, bald Welshman
adopted by brown bears, or eaten by them!
always there in the climb
along the whale-back elephant skin
of smoothed out erratics,
trying for a foot-hold on exposed roots
with forehead veins pumping strain
there in early Fall leaf-cover
in gentle company and reminscences,
dog-walkers exchanging breed conversations,
all the way up to meet the sun
and cooling breeze from the mountains
always a signature yet not missing,
balancing on dry rock ledges
back to a boy on storm beaches,
up to the shaky fire look-out
and forest distance, no walls or fences
there a stranger yet following
together as 'leaf peepers' our senses
knowing brittle colours of another leaving
and the stories of the lakes
deeper than we could dream.
The 3 Literateers above the Columbia River ( myself, Phil Rowlands & Chris Keil). Photo copywright - Gaabi Beckett
Leaving Syracuse I did feel some sense of achievement.
I had limited success as a missionary for the cause of Cymru. I had finished Jeremy Hooker's fascinating journal 'Upstate' about his year spent in that very city and the dog Molly had even managed to train me to do a game with her favourite, well-chewed squeaky toy.
Above all, I had reclaimed my luggage intact, though curiously opened by the TSA, who left their calling card.
I was greeted at Portland airport by Ceri Shaw of Americymru, wielding a placard with JENKINS on it.
I only knew Ceri and his partner Gaabi because of their formidable presence online.
They have created the pioneering website Americymru and organised events in the past, some for the Wordstock Festival and others for their own West Coast Eisteddfod.
Ceri is to the internet what Walter White of 'Breaking Bad' is to 'cooking'
( meth , not food!). Indeed, Ceri introduced me to that captivating drama series when I was in Portland and I became addicted.
Americymru is always looking to expand and Gabriel has become just as enthusiastic about Welsh culture. They now offer Welsh lessons and a 'Welsh American Bookstore'.
In a largely separate project, Ceri and Phil Rowlands edit the magazine of new writing 'Eto', which is into its second issue and always looking for new material.
What would I make of Portland, a city I'd been told was avowedly leftfield and full of creativity?
My first impressions were of distant volcanoes and volcanic mountains and many river bridges. Mount Hood resembled a huge cone of ash which looked as if it would erupt and send its contents to cover the streets any minute.
Even the bridges had the feeling of precariousness, as many could rise up in the middle to allow large boats to pass.
The sidewalks of the city bustled with jugglers, beggars and drummers who hammered out complicated rhythms on white plastic bins. Full of dynamism, it also portrayed the other side of US society as I'd never witnessed before.
I had never seen so many homeless people in one city: on grass, sidewalks or queuing outside the Mission; they sat defeated and without hope.
Where was the American Dream for them? More like the kind of nightmare depicted in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman'.
People abandoned by society and now as low as you could get. Would Obamacare save any of these? They desperately needed employment and decent homes and it would take a lot more than healthcare to solve this massive problem.
Portland also seemed familiar in some ways : it had Credit Unions and pawnbrokers and the supermarket even reminded me of Tesco in Merthyr ,in contrast to the one in Syracuse with its Organic section the size of a pie and pasty one in the Valleys.
While I'd only seen one public bus in Syracuse, Portland's transport system was geared for a less affluent, non-driving population and its regular trams and buses were reminiscent of Manchester.
Though, like Syracuse, the bike hardly got a look in and the States are playing catch-up (or should that be 'ketchup'?) on that vital mode of transport.
Like Syracuse, some roads were lined with junk food outlet after outlet, including ones I'd never heard of like Wendys and Jumpin' Jacks. I got to sample the delights of a heart-hammering, sugar-doping yet strangely finger-licking breakfast of hash browns , French toast and maple syrup.
My first event was at Portland State University and entitled 'Culture Wars', as it was based around Tracy Prince's book 'Culture Wars in British Literature' .
Tracy is a lecturer there and led a panel discussion with her well-argued proposition which illustrated clearly how peripheral Welsh Writing in English is in British Literature.
She linked it aptly with the marginalising of black literature and she put forward a strong argument for the greater inclusion of these within the so-called canon.
Given that British Lit. in American universities is largely English Lit., I have a lot of sympathy for her treatise. It is based on sound principles, though when she cited Mrs Windsor as an advocate for greater multicultural diversity I began to lose that sympathy. Like Ed Miliband, the monarchy just want to create a deluded sense of 'One Britain' ( clinging to the last strands of Empire).
My counter argument was that Welsh Literature should be seen as one entity and dealt with as such. In both English and Welsh there is such a tension, similarity and indeed on-going dialogue, especially now that more writers are using both languages, such as Jon Gower, Gwyneth Lewis and Grahame Davies.
I cited my friend at Le Moyne Prof. Dave Lloyd as an example of what could be done. As well as bringing a number of Welsh writers over, he has for many years taught Welsh Lit. ( on a par with Irish Lit.), relating the mythology of the Mabinogion to modern texts in both languages.
Like our Irish counterpart, we deserve a unique place on syllabi, not just in the USA but at home as well.
Taking part in this discussion made me think about the absurd situation in our schools and colleges, where Welsh Writing in English plays a negligible part in that subject English Literature (not even Literature, though it includes many American writers on the syllabus).
British Literature would not comprise one of the most important poets of our time, Seamus Heaney and you cannot divorce these terms from the rapidly-changing political reality. If Scotland votes for their nominal independence next year, where does that leave Britishness and,like Heaney, many Catholics in the six counties (N. Ireland) can hold Irish passports to match their allegiance.
A day manning the Americymru stall at Wordstock followed.
Wordstock is Portland's annual book fair and festival of writing, though Star Wars was a category on a par with Poetry and Fiction and we kept meeting Darth Vader on the road crossing.
There are stalls for individuals, publishers and even magazines on hen keeping! There are also many readings and interviews.
Listening in on a few of these I had the impression of the great I AM, with writers talking to wannabes and the public few and far between ( even the English media orientated Hay has many book lovers).
Writing was viewed solely as a career and the whole Creative Writing industry much criticised by the likes of Rob Minhinnick did seem out on force.
A lot of writers were researching Medieval Wales for their fantasy novels, but had yet to visit this country.
Sometimes, it was a rare pleasure just to talk beyond the sales of books and online processes , about real issues and the power of the vernacular.
The final event I took part in was a reading at Mount Hood Community College, organised by Ceri and Jonathan Morrow, a Welshman there who helps lectures and helps produce their magnificent creative writing magazine 'Perceptions'.
As with Downtown in Syracuse, it was the dialect poems which struck a chord , the tales of Merthyr in all its crazy humour and anger somehow relating to a place just as downtrodden and neglected.
I am grateful to Gaabi and Ceri for giving me these opportunities and also tipping me off about the mountain lions!
Also, to fellow scribblers Phil Rowlands and Chris Keil who made the stay so stimulating.
The Stereophonics conquered Portland that same weekend, but I'd like to think we did our bit for Cymru, showing that we do have a highly distinctive culture and not one which has to ape English literature.
As America once was, so are we a young democracy, trying to forge our own way despite the strictures of economic austerity imposed from London.
On the sidewalk of Burnside,
lying in mid-day drizzle
road a gorge cut deep
by speeding Chevvies, SUVs
the red hand of the crossing
bloody and staying on stop
she wouldn't get over,
there was no point
a cold, damp chrysalis
waiting for metamorphosis
anxious for those butterfly wings
crystal blue and white
her burnt and crumpled skin -
something in her bag keeps twitching
reading a dollar bill-sized book
it's title ? ?
Pour Whyte Trash at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Syracuse. Photo by Dave Lloyd.
Upstate New York in the bright Fall and maple leaves redden to a hue normally associated with ripe berries.
White corn on the cob, syrup and freshly-picked blueberries.....'the fatta the land' I recall from George and Lennie's dream in 'Of Mice & Men'.
But I am initially obsessed with my mobile.
(They have become extensions of our bodies; our thumbs will no doubt grow great lengths as we evolve and adapt.
Even our closest and dearest tweet and facebook as we try to speak to them.)
So, without a signal and worrying, I spent a wasted hour in a Kindle-impossible dialogue with some 'Guru Frank' ( probably in India) who asked me all kinds of questions I had completely forgotten the answers to.
In the end, I resigned myself and never once regretted its absence.
My day at Le Moyne College in Syracuse was interesting. Once a predominantly Jesuit-run university, the campus has a light feel to it, full of green thinking space.
Despite being fairly relaxed about my reception, I couldn't help having flashbacks of Columbine whenever I walked those long corridors armed only with books and poetry.
In the morning I talked with two groups of First Years (Freshmen) who must've been stunned into silence by the Merthyr dialect, one Welsh language poem each (with translations) and my explanations of a country which existed somewhere east of Jupiter.
They seemed the antithesis of typical American youth : reserved to the point of reticence.
Two stayed behind from the first group : one who wanted to know everything about the Premiership (he was a Chelsea fan) and a girl who longed to find out about England ( I had somehow failed there, I think).
The two afternoon groups were older, Creative Writing students and were much more confident and forthcoming.
One black student - who hailed from New York City - wore a t-shirt declaring 'Fight For A Living Wage' and I felt instantly at home.
I asked them what difference Obama had made to their lives and they shrugged and replied - ' Not much, far as we can see.'
Just like over here, times are very hard for students and I didn't expect to shift many books ( Dave Lloyd had warned me).
I performed later alongside him to an audience predominantly of staff and students and he read from his new novel 'Over The Line' ,from the viewpoint of a youngster growing up in troubled times in an area just like the one they lived in.
I read mostly from 'Barkin!' and 'Moor Music', as I did the next evening at the Downtown Writers' Center in Syracuse.
This was organised by writer Phil Memmer and his colleague Georgia, who have done a marvellous job building up the place with many workshops and events down the years.
This was a truly inspirational venue to perform in and I loved every minute of it.
I asked the audience if they had 'goolies' in the States and it was soon translated into 'balls'!
The dialect poems were received very enthusiastically and I met most of the audience afterwards (some with strong Welsh connections).
At last I realised that the street language of my home town could travel far and that people related to the characters and their stories, identified with the humour and tragedies.
The longer I stayed the more I began to adopt their version of English, even absurd words like 'Rest Rooms' for 'Toilets'. ( As the comedian Micky Flanagan quipped on 'Room 101' , who actually sits on the bogs having a crap and thinks of it as 'resting'?).
Syracuse slowly sank into me, as Dave told me tales of the notorious Southside and its gangs, though I only glimpsed its edges. I admired the series of white sculptures of waiting passengers on the old station and was bewildered by the ubiquitous horse sculptures (why not deer, whose country surrounds the city?).
Those sculptures were as white as the salt which was once the main product of the place.
Beer was a priority and we soon visited the Middle Ages microbrewery (complete with silly ale names) to sample the free brews ; a haven for wandering alkies. The IPAs were the best and so hoppy I was turning into an inebriated rabbit!
We went to Al's Wine & Whiskey Lounge one night (the wine has all but disappeared) to see Los Blancos (no connections with Real Madrid) one of the city's all-time best bands, who used to play a fusion of Latin and the Blues.
They seemed jammingly laid-back to the point of stonedom and I wasn't surprised when they announced their impending retirement half way through the set.
A ceiling-high wall of bottled shelves behind the bar was stocked with multitudinous whiskeys, spirits and even Belgian beers.
When Dave asked the barmaid (who was bursting out of her dress) if she stocked 'Penderyn' , she knew the exact spot it should be, but was no longer there.
In nearby Cazenovia we watched the sun go down over Green Lake, which appears that colour because it doesn't 'turn over' due to the different densities of water-layers.
Then off to the unique Seven Stone Steps Tavern, a cavern of wood with every inch etched by signatures, initials , messages and graffiti.
I wanted to ask the glum, taciturn barman Frank for a knife so I could add to them, but decided against it.
Here we met Hank (originally from the Big Apple) an Irish-American who had been to Ireland three times , but refused to set foot in the North because it was 'British'.
Explaining the current situations in Wales and Scotland found a ready ear and he knew nothing about any struggles for independence in these two nations.
Hank was later warned and threatened with expulsion for swearing by Frank , who the former described as 'a real hardline Irishman'.
One of the many highlights of my time there was undoubtedly at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, where we went to see the band Pour Whyte Trash.
Bars in the States have to serve food and we ordered a plate of sides to whet our appetites for what we anticipated as country music.
We were wrong.
Despite singer Terry Kohut's black stetson and their readiness to entreat 'Yeeee-hawwws!' from the crowd , they were more rock than country-rock, producing excellent covers of K.T. Tunstall and Janice Joplin, as well as thrilling originals.
They were at their height, wandering among us, playing and singing, but never straying from the melodies.
So struck with them - especially the presence and voice of Terry - I asked her after if they had any cds for sale.
Surprisingly, they had none and had no ambitions to make it BIG. I was shocked.
Here was a group who deserved to be heard by thousands - not just those in the bars of a few States - yet who seemed content just to gig.
Maybe they had a bigger plan?.......Or maybe they knew how impossible it would be to make that breakthrough?
'Have you seen the News?' Dave said.
When I did - the evening before I was due to leave for Portland, Oregon - I was astounded.
The USA was heading for shutdown! A small minority of Tea Party Republicans were attempting to thwart Obamacare even as it was about to be introduced whatever.
I saw first that Air Traffic Controllers would be out, only to find out online that this was false.
That night I had my first and only dream about flying.
The inside of the plane was like a farmyard, scatterings of muck and straw, as the passengers stumbled about like drunks in a bar.
I was sitting next to my friend the writer Chris Meredith (whose books include 'The Meaning of Flight', 'Air Histories' and 'The Book of Idiots' with its sequences describing flying).
He was calmly beatific as the plane proceeded to land on an uphill road flanked by trees and then veered dangerously straight towards a craggy cliffline!
I was in a state of utter panic till the next scene, where we walked towards the Baggage Claim and the contents of my case came out, sock after sock, onto the carousel.
Luckily this was not a portent.
for Dave Lloyd
At the Dinosaur in downtown Syracuse
at the corner of Reach-out Avenue
and Used-to-be Boulevard,
three blocks away from despair.
We were there with a plate of sides
for the songs and the IPAs,
one band no breaks into the late
and the future of rock, again.
POUR WHYTE TRASH, one black stetson
but no country twang,
just tight as couples necking
or wrapped up in a smooch.
Two men sat munching away
while it all hung loose :
singer and lead into the crowd
wooing them like serenades.
Terry the singer swaying, laughing,
mouthing and teasing, her voice
a range from fall to pine,
wide thru-way to wooded mountain.
And even when she performed
The Star-Spangled Banner
hat held low, making her vital point,
we could forgive her.
Line-dancers stepping out
and air-guitarist Hendrix impersonators,
at the Dino in downtown Syracuse,
music and singer our one-night Muse.