- This weekend as proved tha footie is the number one game in Wales.
   - Ow cun yew say tha? Didn we beat Italy........ an we could still win the Championship. An what about Becky James, eh? Ow about cyclin as the top sport?
   - Nah, it's gotta be footie. Swonzee win the League Cup, Cardiff go eight points clear, Wrexham get t Wembley an Newport are pushin f'r promotion.
   - Yeah, but the Welsh national team ave got a massive followin.....they represent the whool nation.
   - Remind me ow they got on against all them Southern Emisphere teams. Anyway, club rugby's doin opeless. All the regions ave failed miserably this season.
   - So, shull we agree on cyclin then?
   - Orright, but it's not the greatest spectator sport is it?.........Round an round an round!

   Football is now our national sport! The demeaning three feathers, with their monarchist 'I Serve' motto, has been replaced by the dragon.....swan, bluebird etc.
   Laid low with a bout of flu, I watched the Wales v. Italy game and, although the second half was marginally more open, I found it unremittingly dire.
   Football's all about possession (just look at Swansea against Bradford), while rugby, on the evidence of this game, is about kicking the ball into the hands of the opposition to gain territorial advantage.
   Italy never seemed interested in scoring tries (isn't that the game's object?) and players of both sides kept dropping the ball. Jonathan Davies blamed it on the conditions, as if Wales weren't used to playing in the rain.
   Points came courtesy of mistakes and there was only one moment of attacking skill, when Cuthbert scored a try.
   Rugby seems increasingly to depend on sheer muscle and power (just look at George North), whereas the great footballers are pure skill and hard work. Messi is hardly a muscle machine, is he?
   The Welsh national rugby team have a huge following, which the football team can only envy. Yet a large number of fans are more interested in 'the drinking art' than sport itself (as Robert Minhinnick once argued in an excellent essay).
   Football is followed throughout Cymru, while rugby is a game predominantly confined to the south and  south-west.
   The enormous achievements of both Swansea and Cardiff have captured the passion of the sporting public.
   There is simply no comparison between rugby at regional level - where a 10,000 crowd is seen as admirable - and football at club level, where both of our major teams play to over 23,000 on a regular basis.
   We have a world class player in Gareth Bale, who is now up there close behind Messi and Ronaldo, and Swansea's pan-European team have often been dubbed as Wales's Barcelona.
   Movement, passing and a strong squad ethic have become a really vital feature of Cardiff's success as well. In the last few years, they have reached Wembley three times : F.A.Cup Final, Play-off Final and League Cup Final last season, though they haven't won a trophy as Swansea have now.
    To cap it all, both Wrexham and Newport are doing exceptionally well. The former reached the final of the F.A.Trophy and are top of the Conference, while Newport are a couple of points behind and pressing for promotion.
   I recently read an article in the Guardian's Sport supplement about the demise of Welsh club rugby. It focused on Bridgend, but also mourned the loss of such an historic club as Pontypool. The situation was depicted as desperate and club officials castigated the WRU for their callous behaviour.
   This is a stark contrast to the impact of both Cardiff and Swansea this season. Swans' fans represent the hwyl of the country when they sing 'Hymns and Arias' (even adopting a rugby song) and Cardiff have 'Men of Harlech', though I much prefer 'I'll Be There' with its strong roots in the club's past.
   Despite having players from many nations, there are still key Welsh elements, with Ashley Williams and Ben Davies for Swansea and the inspirational Craig Bellamy for Cardiff.
   Of course I'm biased. Of course I've had this argument before.
   Yet now, of all times, it seems fitting to state my case : our national sport is the 'wendy-ball' and not the 'egg chase'!

                                      FOOTBALL, A POEM

Football, a poem moving :
ode to the glorious game.

Each player a stanza ;
the manager's imagination.

Every fan a reader,
analyzing or taken by emotion.

(The chairman sees it differently,
believes it's all accountancy.)

Each word a pass, movement a line :
the dramatic symbol of a win.

Old Dole Office, Pontmorlais

Old Dole
skinned mole
window hole

fence line
ivy climb
rubble and slime

facade standing
promenade crumbling
Pontmorlais stumbling

Old Dole
no goal
about to fall

walk by
the other side
or quickly drive

once called a Circus,
mill, shops and tram bus,
Theatre Royal grandiose

Old Dole
actor without a role,
valley without coal.

   I went there with Leslie Norris in mind, especially his evocative poem 'An Evening by the Lake'.
   The writer returned to a place after 20 years away : the school he attended ; the park he knew so well . The man and his white dog leading him from memory to memory.
   Walking past the newly-built miniature railway track and along the lake path I suddenly spotted a man with a dog ahead. It was like the poem come to life, though the man looked nothing like Norris and the dog a different colour.
   Many writers belong in places and there are a number you could choose for one of Merthyr's greatest writers (in my opinion, the most outstanding).
   It is admirable that there's a room at the Central Library named after him, but (as I have argued previously) for each of our town's finest creative sons (Glyn Jones, Gwyn Alf Williams and so on) what is needed are viewing platforms.
   Here I found the perfect place for Norris : an old bandstand just by the lake and raised enough to enable you to gaze over and catch those dog-walkers, duck-feeders, cyclists and joggers; those baby-pushers and anglers for fish or a moment of light.
   Norris was a writer who - like James Joyce - seemed always to return ,imaginatively if not physically , to the area of his birth and youth. He  came back so often both in verse and prose to bring alive those characters of his childhood and teenager years, and to move so seamlessly from the urban world of Merthyr town to countryside surrounding. Like our famous engineers, he built a bridge between the two, out of craft and inspiration.
   In my mind, I transformed this purposeless plinth into a homage to the writer.
   Here would be an image or sculpture of the man ; here an account of his life and the role of the Castle School ; here the poem itself or at least part of it -
                     '......walked this lakeside drive four times
                      A day when a boy, going to school
                      In a comic Gothic castle, built
                      For a fat iron-master. It turns
                      A stolid, limestone gaze down at
                      Me now. '
   I only met him twice and , like fellow poet, critic and fiction-writer Glyn Jones, he was a most genial man. He was also a captivating reader of his work and enthralled pupils at the school where I taught, with poetry and tales which drew so readily from places they recognised.
  One such story was 'Snowdrops' (with its strong sense of Pant Cemetery), which I studied every single year with classes. Despite its focus on very young schoolchildren and the naivety of the narrator, they always identified closely with the grief of the teacher and, the more imaginative ones, with the symbolism of the flowers themselves.
   'Elegy for David Beynon' and 'The Ballad of Billy Rose' were also two poems I studied frequently with pupils.
   The tragedy and heroism of the teacher Beynon, who shielded his pupils as he died in the Aberfan disaster, never failed to move both myself and even the most cynical of youths.
  'Billy Rose' as well - with its similar imagery of the cruelty of 'coins' - was to me the consummate ballad , telling the story of a man brought down to selling matches outside a football ground, because he had been blinded in the ring ; an  appalling act witnessed by the narrator.
   Norris had been an amateur boxer, yet his boxing poems and stories are the most telling indictment of that sport's sheer brutality that I know of.
   Instead of a disused bandstand, that concrete platform in Cyfarthfa Park should be declared a 'Stanza-stand'.
   Sadly, Norris is no longer on the syllabus, as his wonderful selection 'Sliding' once was. His time may well come again (along with the likes of John Ormond ) when the education system is truly our own, not a version of England's: with 'Ol Shakey' still a tyrant, like his apocryphal Macbeth.
   I have a copy of Norris's 'Selected Poems' which he signed for me, so much care put into his handwriting: the calligraphed 'e' of his first name appears before the ornate capital 'L'.
   I can imagine him sitting at a wooden desk in the Castle with metal quill, practising it again and again.
   Merthyr - the town he never forgot - must now remember him.

                                  CYFARTHFA  MORNING

These things I saw
from a bench by the mock castle
where the cannons were stopped
and children clambered -

flames rising up high
from tall chimneys,
the furnace mouths
with giants' tongues
rolling out iron

a lake shaped like a fish
with ducks for scales
and tree-island eyes ;
a truant boy swimming out,
stones thrown by yelling pupils

a rugby player, Beynon,
arms muddied, strong-tackling,
blackened by pitch's dirt,
no sense of what was coming:
a landslide of bodies

a man with round owl face
and hair like a whisper,
thinking in memory-layers
as leaf-fall recalls paper on paper ,
veins pulsing with metres.    


Overnight, God's balloons arrived
throughout the whole of Heolgerrig.

God declared his love through inflated hearts
for all our fences and gates.

He was Alpha to our Omega
(though some were pricking at dawn).

Last St. Valentine the main street,
surely next year the entire town.

When nobody else cared , at least
God had left us his red balloons.

Ours was released over the rooftops ;
others exploded, some let down.

By next day, God's love had disappeared :
they hung like burst condoms.

Flooks in Pontmorlais
 - This town's dead,mun. There's buggerall yer! I love it, but it's finished!
 -  Well, I got a job, so I int complainin.
 -  Yeah, but f'r ow long?
 -  Ow d'yew mean?
 -  Seen the News? Companee that owns yewer place 're goin bust!
-  What? I don' bleeve yew! There's loadsa orders left!
-  It's true, mun.
-  Bloody ell!......on'y experience I got is slaughterin animals. Oo's gunna employ me?
-  Yew could always apply yewer skills t ewmans......join the S.A.S.!

   In a week when yet another factory closure has been announced in my home town of Merthyr (300 jobs at forklift truck company Linde) , I was fully intending to write a diatribe about the Westminster and Cardiff Bay governments abject failure at dealing with unemployment.
   I was all ready to show a picture of the old Dole Office in Pontmorlais and depict its utter dereliction as a symbol of what has happened to our once great town.
   However - without wishing to minimise the dire employment prospects of so many here (particularly the young )  - I was drawn by a stark contrast in Pontmorlais itself.
   The so-called 'Circus' there was once the hub of the town, a bustling Piccadily of Merthyr. It's now full of boarded-up ruins, from the old YMCA building to the Theatre Royal.
   Yet, I was drawn by Flooks (pronounced as in 'looks'), which is a listed building and remained closed for years after the well-known jeweller's closed down.
   It's opposite the promenade, with its vista of dilapidation: facades of buildings (like the old Dole) which have become nothing more than pocked stone faces, wooden-eyed and mouthed, with trees and bushes sprouting haphazardly like unkempt growths of hair.
   Yet the facade and essential character of Flooks remains. If it was once a portmanteau word for 'fading' and 'looks', then now it is 'future' rather than anything negative, because it is a symbol of a small re-birth in Merthyr.
   Run by a charitable trust, its windows are adorned with  the craft work of local designers, artists and, yes, jeweller's.....all for sale.
   I was drawn, however, by the 'Cafe' sign outside and the prospect of coffee and cake. My stomach having magnetic properties!
   Inside, the renovated Flooks is so much more than an enticing cafe and shop.
   It was opened in October 2012 by our A.M. 'Ewge' Lewis, on one of his rare visits to his distant domain.
   The cafe is certainly excellent, with home-baked cakes and a wide selection of drinks, breakfasts and veggie options at very reasonable prices.
   However, this building is a veritable Tardis of ideas and ambitions, of care and creativity.
   There is a meeting room which can be hired, surrounded by a small exhibition by local artist Lee Price. There's free internet access to counter 'internet poverty' which can hamper people when looking for jobs. There even a kiln and opportunities for workshops.
   Upstairs are flats which house young people who have found themselves homeless and which give them a stepping-stone back into the wider world.
   Two young people have been given full-time employment here, while several others are being trained, working at the cafe, which has state-of-the-art equipment.
   The plans are numerous and especially involve reaching out to young people and involving them in a place which can give them a real sense of belonging.
   Their finance comes from both private and public sources and they are -as a social enterprise - a real example of what can be dome to empower people and make them feel valued in a society where they are increasingly cast as 'failures' by the education system, or simply never given an opportunity of working.
   At the Red Poets recent gig at the Castle Hotel, Tredegar, I found myself saying again and again ,in introductions, that an artist hailed from Merthyr. It made me very proud to think that this town has indeed produced so many talented individuals.
   Places like Flooks can give anyone a chance to discover new talents, whether they be artistic, practical or IT-related. It can also be a haven for the young homeless and refuge for abused women.
   Every estate and village needs a Flooks : a bridge, a leader, a giant of purpose, even in such a small space.

                                              PLACE  OF  HOPE

In the place of hope
a giant lies down :
not for the sake of war
any longer, but the tread
of desperate youngsters
and beaten women ;
might reach the other side.

His eyes are screens,
keys of his finger-nails,
he rests on owl-cushions
they've fashioned for him,
he's warmed by quilts
they have carefully designed.

In the place of hope
he holds a tiny tree
of abundant leaf-wishes ;
they sup at the river
and he clutches them
in case they fall in.

The Joy Formidable at Solus
   'Oh,don't miss The Turnaround'
        (The Joy Formidable)

   I wasn't sure if I'd be allowed in; whether someone on security checking bags would come across my bus-pass and declare -
'Ey oldie! No way you rockin' here!'
   So I searched the crowd for other old members of the pack, heartened by a few balding, greying senior wolves.
   Here I was at Cardiff Uni. , where I'd once seen Bowie , Beefheart and Bragg and a few not beginning with 'b', such as Kevin Coyne.
   Here to witness the night on which Welsh music had its renaissance.....well, to see The Joy Formidable.
   The rock band from Y Wyddgrug have been described as 'pop-metal' in a negative  Sunday Times review and as 'post-grunge-style indie' in the Guardian's guide section. The latter is closer, but still not quite there, as with any label.
   Beforehand, someone commented on their name -
   'Ow naff can yew get, eh?'
   'Well, ow about the Stereophonics, tha's the pits!'
   I wanted to say I liked the name, as it has echoes of the French 'formidable'. I wanted to defend the spirit of bands like this one and Future of the Left, who represent a fresh and increasingly confident Cymru, as opposed to the gloom of the Lostprophets and Funeral for a Friend.
   But I was unusually reticent, knowing that only two of our group were true fans and the others would  be persuaded by the music, or not!
   Solus was 'eavin' and the band were greeted by a very enthusiastic audience. Wales awakening , at last, to their latest musical phenomenon.
   It's a venue a bit like the old Capitol in Queen Street, all standing with bar at the back; notwithstanding some annoying columns blocking vision for some.
   The Joy Formidable were a real presence on stage, with bassist Rhydian Dafydd to the left and drummer Matt Thomas to the right, laying down prowling , menacing rhythms ; the centre stage taken  by Ritzy Bryan in gold-spangled attire staring with wild yet innocent wolf-eyes as she sang and played lead.
   Their live performance relied very much on their sheer energy and also the clipped delivery and tantalising mystery of songs like 'Cholla' and 'Heavy Abacus' (once, amazingly, played in full on tv's 'Waterloo Road' ).
   Though the focus is inevitably on Ritzy - with her power-chord style and ability to carry a melody where others might resort to being 'shouty' - Rhydian and Matt are hardly content to sit in the shade or simply run with the pack.
   I have no problems with their use of back-tracks - which gave some songs a fuller sound - simply because here were a band clearly relishing playing live and engaging with the crowd from the start.
   They actually played more material from the first album 'The Big Roar' than the latest 'Wolf's Law' and I was a little disappointed they didn't do two of the best tracks from the latter, 'The Turnaround' and 'Forest Serenade'.
   My one problem is the volume. To a band where lyrics are obviously so vital and where this and harmonies single them out, it's frustrating that most songs' words couldn't be heard distinctly. They could learn from Springsteen and still play at huge venues (presumably their ambition), without losing clarity.
   However, despite being 'Dud of the week' in the Sunday Times, 'Wolf's Law'  is an album which rewards the more you listen. I keep hearing Eastern  influences, as well as heark-backs to the likes of The Pixies.
   Above all, Ritzy's voice is emotional and powerful enough to bring off acoustic numbers like the atypical 'Silent Treatment', just as she did with their version of Roy Orbison's 'It's Over' on the e.p. 'The Big More'.
   The influence I didn't hear was Muse, though a comment afterwards by one of the sceptics was - 'They were the Welsh Muse!' 
   Sure, they were occasionally bombastic, as with the 'Maw Maw Song' and the rhythm-driven riffs were dominant, yet with such a loud and proud female singer (who shares songwriting with Rhydian) and leader of the pack, they are undoubtedly different.
   Like Cymru itself, they're only beginning to find their way. I can imagine future albums exploring the balladry suggested in two songs on the album ; and more duetting between Ritzy and Rhydian.
   Possibly, like the Super Furries, they'll have the confidence to include Welsh language tracks.
   But, for now, there are so many possibilities.
   Marianne Faithfull recently said,  'All pop music today is shite!'......I don't think she's heard The Joy Formidable.

                             BUS-PASS   ROCKER

May've been the oldest at Solus
but I wasn't the baldest.
Shook my hair to the blast
(well....all one of them) ;
a bus-pass rocker,
but no-one checking.

My ears full of giant bees,
my plastic glass vibrating
so I thought I'd got the shakes.

And here they were
to a howl and lit-up wolf sign,
whirling,twirling,buzzing, whirring :
trio yet sounding
like a roarchestra.

And even though the words
riddling paths through a forest,
were too often lost under cut trees,
they were a territory new-born :
pacing their spaces,together and alone.