Artists from the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow
'Hey....you missed it! What a great night!'
'At St.David's Hall......Anti-Something Roadshow.....it was really brill!'
'Who was there?'
' Can't quite remember....oh yeah, there was that Leon Rosselson, remember him?'
'Thought he was dead! What a songwriter!'
'Yeah.....wish I'd bought the album though.'
This is an adaptation of one intro by singer-songwriter Roy Bailey urging us to buy the album of the tour, the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow, which appeared at Level 3, St. David's Hall a couple of weeks ago.
Fortunately, I'd already purchased it on the way in, so didn't have to be chivvied.
I made the right decision, because the cd gives an insight into many of the songs performed, as well as other artists who didn't appear on that night but who, presumably, do at other venues.
In the words of Rosselson - who has been creating pithy, punchy political songs for decades - ' the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow is a collective of singers and songwriters plus one magician, opposed to the ideologically driven austerity programme imposed by this millionaire government on all but the elite and in particular on the poor, vulnerable and disabled.'
Sounds rather dour and tedious? Not at all! There was an unexpected variety from the artists present : Grace Petrie, Jim Woodland, Janet Russell, Frankie Armstrong, Roy Bailey and Leon Rosselson.
Themes and motifs were reflected and exchanged as all took the stage and sang, sometimes accompanied by others, sometimes asking the packed audience to join in.
Grace Petrie was a complete revelation to me: a 25 year-old who echoed Billy Bragg, but with better vocals and that rare ability of combining the personal and political so seamlessly, very much like Wales-based Tracey Curtis. The highlight of her set was a song about the Spanish Civil War, a departure from her response to current events.
Making an equal impact was Jim Woodland (many of his songs composed for a theatre group). Woodland's an excellent singer,who sounds uncannily like the late, great Kevin Coyne at times, and a songwriter who can deal with diverse topics in an emotional way, full of wit and indignation. Unfortunately, his superb ecological ballad 'The Trees Are Leaving England' doesn't feature on the album.
Janet Russell from Scotland is a powerful singer who generally interprets others' songs, such as Woodland's very moving 'St. Peter's Field' about the Peterloo Massacre and Rosselson's 'Olive Tree' about the Israeli oppression of Palestinians. Russell really brought out their bitter sadness.
Frankie Armstrong is now based in Cardiff and she sand almost exclusively a capella, interpreting songs of freedom and resistance like Brecht & Eisler's 'Proletarian Lullaby'. Her voice is rich and deep, though I found the songs rather samey and the range of melodies limited. She'd have benefited from more accompaniment.
Surprisingly, Roy Bailey didn't perform any of his own songs ( as on the album). His funny intros were welcome and his interpretation of Martin Whelan's 'Bread & Roses' was a real highlight, with its link between the struggles of Connolly's socialist republicanism and other leaders throughout the last century.
For sheer cutting satire and also all-embracing humanity Leon Rosselson is unique. He may not have the strongest of voices or catchy of tunes, but his words carry more strength than most.
A typical example is 'Looters', where he caustically turns the tables (like Tim Richards' poems in 'Red Poets' magazines) and questions who really are the looters. His conclusion - arrived at with much persuasive historical evidence - is that 'The Brutish Empire built on looting' sets a very bad example to those who got imprisoned for stealing the likes of two left trainers. He sees many museums as the 'history of the world in loot'.
One day Rosselson will be up there in the pantheon of singer-songwriters, but we may need a Revolution first!
The same applies to the wonderfully-talented Robb Johnson, still a teacher and, like Rosselson, a singer-songwriter who deserves widespread recognition.
Johnson wasn't at this particular gig, along with a number of others who appear on the album 'Celebrating Subversion', such as Peggy Seeger.
His songs are so lively and engaging, and he's a master of the telling chorus ; he can be both hilarious and angry, often in the same song. 'Rosa's Lovely Daughters' is his feminist anthem which refers to Reclaim the Night, but is frighteningly relevant today.
If the concert was both rousing and optimistic, then the album contains even more variety, with poetry from Ian Saville and a marvellous Tunisian song called 'Babour Zammar', which summoned up the vitality of the Arab uprisings.
A loose collective of leftwing singers and songwriters? Why can't poets in Cymru do that? Call themselves the Red Poets.
Now there's a thought...............
COZ I WOZ STARVIN
On'y stole coz I woz starvin,
never bin done f'r nickin
on'y stole one sandwich,
think it wuz chicken
I int got nothin ;
cut my benefits, carn afford nothin
no jobs goin,
ones that are int worth avin
Securitee ad me,
grabbed an pinned me
knee in-a back,
arm yanked up an killin
like I'd murdered somebuddy,
a psycho gone loopy
face t the ground
an a boot in the ead
in-a nick I'll eat better
an ave a tidee bed.
holding a can
and giving a thumbs-up sign.
Not off flying
or North Pole dancing,
he's happy in the garden.
There are yellow stains below him
where a hound was cocky-leaking ;
marks of angels on the lawn.
His face has gone
but his hat's still on,
the drunken Merthyr snowman.
In Aberystwyth when I was younger, snow was so rare we even got excited about hailstones : gathering them up like small white pebbles that soon disappeared in your hands.
Only when we moved to England did I encounter proper snow.
The rolling chalk hills normally flecked with shards of white rock turned into waves of white and the lanes where we recalled Dylan Thomas's 'Child's Christmas in Wales' ,where it was always snowing on Swansea Bay.
On the village cricket field I once played with my main Christmas present, a plastic football ( geological eras away from those i-pods, pads and phones of today, it seems). I took it home, placed in by the fire to dry and returned later to find a mass of melted plastic.
I used to play both rugby and football games for the school in snow as well. With a bright orange ball in footie and hands so stiff in rugby that catching the ball I feared I'd lose my fingers.
Fast forward years to Teaching Practice in Tredegar and the real mountain variety, with the Valleys totally covered. With pupils there I shared my poem about a boy and a snowman who comes alive ( I like to think Raymond Briggs nicked my idea). In my narrative, the snowman gets arrested before the same ending as that famous story.
Fast forward again rapidly to Wales and two of my children born in the snow (well, not literally!).
For the first my wife rushed in an ambulance over to Abernant through the thickness of flake-fall.
For the third one, my elder daughter driving us down to the Heath in Cardiff, as it came down fast and settling.
Snow babies, yet neither named Eira.
In '82 it was so high that our central heating outlet kept getting blocked and neighbours came to our assistance with blow-torch! I was stuck in Totleigh Barton in Devon and lucky to get out just because one of the people on the course was married to a building contractor, who could dig us out.
At that time there were acts of looting ( described vividly in Rob Minhinnick's poem 'The Looters'), but equally there were many acts of kindness and community spirit.
As a teacher, the procedure used to be to report to the nearest school, which then invariably told us to go away, as so few pupils had turned up.
One time I remember trudging all the way down and up to Pen-y-dre (at the top of the Gurnos estate) with my late, good friend and namesake. Soon as we arrived the Deputy announced it was shut!
A Head there used to come up from Cardiff and at first didn't believe in closing because of the weather.
He left his very expensive car in the school car-park overnight and found it trashed by morning. After that, a sign of the white stuff and he'd shut the school instantly.
Some parents complain about teachers taking off because of snow , but it's the authorities and Heads who make the decisions. These are based on forecasts which are usually reliable ( as at present) , transport difficulties and Health and Safety concerns.
The latter isn't a mere bureaucratic requirement, but a realistic assessment of genuine risks to children should they attend.
It must be remembered that the last 20 years have seen a proliferation of litigation and those same parents who moan the most might well be the first to sue should little Johnny break his head open on ice in the yard.
A whole new part of the curriculum - the Foundation Phase at Infant level - is based on learning through play, using snowy Sweden as an inspiration.
In actual fact, the children don't get out that often, so what better way to experience this than days off in the snow, away from their ubiquitous screens, on sledges, making angels and snowmen, or having snowball fights.
And adults allowed to behave like kids again and join them.
I have one quibble with the forecasters : Red Alert?.......shouldn't it be White Alert?
like a thief at night
taking away our prize possessions :
our car rendered useless
under weight of white.
like a dream at night
giving a world of childish games,
our years rolled into balls
and launched into flight.
Heolgerrig = the Rocky Road. Once called Pen-yr-heolgerrig.
This is a road I often walk, leading to the broken track at the very top (see picture), at the official border with Rhondda- Cynon - Taf : no passport required, just walking boots or a Land Rover.
The spine of the giant whose name is Pen. Look closely, you will see his shadow.
At times an escape. Other times directly into the sun, blindingly of an afternoon.
It was once over and down into Abernant and a pint as a reward when you got there.
Once at the edge of a large opencast site, with its patrolling security guards, dubious 'lagoons' and old-fashioned blasting, which would shake the whole mountain like a fracking earthquake!
Up the road past the bus-stop, with only 'Republic' left from a poster someone pasted on back in the Jubilee days.
Up past the carpet man's house. He used to be a builder, yet his house has never been finished for the 30 more years I've lived here ( a toilet still waiting in his back-yard for installation).
Past a house with a swimming-pool and nobody ever using it.
Past the Protheroe's Funeral Parlour always flying Y Ddraig Goch and no Unionists outside creating havoc.
Past the bungalow where Barney the Boxer once lived (with some humans, I imagine!) : legendary hound of these parts who could nose-dribble a brick all the way down the hill to the Post Office and beyond. A Lionel Messi of dogs.
Past our large village's one and only playground, consisting solely of swings. In the trees and bushes behind, I saw for my one and only time a much-heard cuckoo.
Up past the last houses with nearby fields and their baths for horses to drink from, where the heather, gorse, broom and bramble don't bloom these dark days.
Up into the conifers and dumping ground, where you can witness suspicious meetings. If ever a series like 'The Killing' were set in Merthyr this is where furtive deals would happen ; secrets buried in the shade.
In summer, stooping low to pick wimberries. In autumn, carefully plucking blackberries from the nettle-nuisance hedgerows.
Up till the benchmark and you feel 'cerrig' beneath your feet, so much sharper than the rounded word of 'stone'.
Occasionally, you can meet and chat with the most interesting of characters on Aberdar Mountain.
Like the owner of the last house, with its tipper trucks and small cranes in the garden, who's always on look-out for signs of opencast, but who tells me he isn't opposed - far from it - he'd welcome the compensation.
Or the itinerant scrapman in his Bluebirds cap, who tells me his days are spent roaming the hills searching valuable wires and metals. He has a bag on his back to prove it and even claims to own a scrapyard.
I've written many poems inspired by this walk over the years, but it is very much the starting-point and an integral part of my next novel for teenagers entitled 'Question Island' and due out from Alun Books this September.
To the main character Andrew, this rocky road is definitely a means of escape. It's here, on the moorland off track, where he finds a stone which changes his life forever.
And near the novel's end, in the thick forest he has an encounter which has everything to do with his past and that object he found.
It is possible to become a giant there at the summit, as Andrew discovers, yet also to feel that your head is small while your body has grown huge, just like the 'cawr' Bendigeidfran in the paintings of friend and Merthyr artist Michael Gustavius Payne (which can be seen in the Canolfan on High St.).
Trudging upwards I feel my heart beating too fast, like a caged animal against bars. My breath short and snared : lungs in the sharp points of a trap. Knees creak and ache like the drag of rusted bolts.
Music helps so much. Shut off from birdsong, yet open to flocks of folk, jazz and rock taking my mind with them like the air-traceries of jets.
Downhill, only the songs and calls of birds, and the Expressway, with its quick-passing cars and trucks reaching from the Valley floor, like the foot-stamps of that giant himself.
It's possible to glide down, almost float : a bird released at last to follow the straight line ; a homing pigeon heading for the warmth and comfort of its coop.
Up there on the mountain
don't ask questions :
why else on a road
which leads to rubbled lane,
which has no destinations?
There, where there are no cameras
only buzzards hanging above moorland,
where police patrols don't go
except when their helicopters
hover like giant dragonflies.
Between prickly gorse and felty broom
under the shade of pines :
the low slink of vixen,
the night snuffle of badgers ;
a package passed, hands shaken.
Up there on the mountain,
where the tarmac is broken
and a dumped sofa sits in the clearing.
Don't look too closely into car-windows,
or disturb those hidden mounds.
'What if the news were nothing more
than the secrets of seashells on the seashore....'
(Karine Polwart : 'The News')
This is a place I've dreamt about. It's almost like the Aber of my childhood, except that we aren't on a hill, but the edge of a harbour.
It's heartening how this strange house gradually accepts us.
To begin with the front door just won't open and other doors are just as stubborn. In time their teeth unclench, stop their grinding.
I hear the house's spirit speak only once : it's an old lady's voice and it merely greets with 'Merry Christmas!' Nothing else.
I forgive the grandfather clock its hunting scene. The other one's stopped on 6 o'clock. The barometer hardly moves the whole time we are there.
Maritime weather : just as I recall those winters in Aber, with no snow but waves constantly crashing against the prom and huge breakers thundering onto Tanybwlch's storm-beach.
But it's at night ,more than any other time, that I'm taken back.
I hear that most distinctive of winds, straight from Cardigan Bay with it's high-pitching whistling as if it blows in the lost spirits of every sailor wrecked out there in the dark.
Though my body is steady and rooted firmly to the ground, my mind's at sea, as though the whole house were a ship set sail on a dream journey.
In Penparcau, on Pen Dinas, I often used to imagine my bed was a boat which could fly high, buoyed on that strong wind like a seagull balancing on its currents.
But unlike Aber - with its retail parks and supermarkets - here is a town to fit my head ; a town without a supermarket to speak of.
A town with a chippie called 'The New Celtic' where the chips are - dare I say it? - delish! A town with a bakery called Y Popty and bread of a morning risen with dawn, like those boulangeries of many a Breton holiday.
A beach full of driftwood for the hearth : gathering winter fuel this Christmas. Even one shop so white inside it snows felty, downy flakes on your hair at the window display.
Especially, a town where Welsh is everyday, not just for occasions : language of aisles, taverns and cafes.
Dylan and Caitlin stayed here and maybe Milk Wood was a farm nearby.
You can certainly imagine all those characters up to no good, or asking the sun to wipe its feet.
The town's cleaner with his broom-trolley looks like he walked out of that play for voices, as he trundles up and down the car-park and streets, ready to pounce on any stray chip or carton, like a gull at a train station.
To think, so many pass through to Elsewhere (as we always did), just north or south; somewhere grander or busier.
You can walk from here, but always come back. Along the river-path and on to the disused railway track, or down the coast to cliffs with their peculiar folds and faults.
I gaze out at night to see the bright string of lights of the Hive and they glow like thoughts of honeyed ice-cream.
If the shells of my ears are full of sounds of the sea, then my eyes are afire with memories.
My wife expertly twists our well-read newspapers into plaits to start the fire, where she lays sticks and logs in small pyramids. She too is taken back, to her Belfast childhood.
On the beach, across calmer water before the waves break, I skim stones, counting the number of times they bounce as though I were competing with my younger self.
Rain and sun, stillness and storm : changing so frequently in a town where so little alters.
A Welsh Balamory : pastel shades of houses like the flavours of that famous 'hufen ia blasus'.
'Manchester House' and 'Wellington Street' ; 'Liverpool' one side of the river and 'Birkenhead' the other : a place once wanting to be away from itself. Now, with its two tongues, a smaller version of what Cymru could be, once was and will never be again.
Living at the edge of the breeze,
at the brink of the harbour
with no boats coming or leaving
this storm-soaked winter.
At first, the front door refused us
like others in this eccentric house ;
the hall's barometer always read 'Change'.
conservatory roof beaten by the rain
I loved and loathed the whistling wind
which kept me awake at night :
down the road from Cardigan Bay
searching for a wreck to wash up.
We gathered kindle on the beach,
it burnt like pods of dry seaweed,
cracking and popping; flames telling
of shopkeeper and sailor, land and sea.
With beer-barrels for neighbours,
townsfolk like fresh, warm loaves ;
Afon Aeron and waves were conversation
mingling, freshwater and brine.
Note: Minawel - edge of the breeze