Last Saturday, in my usual pre-match ritual, I visited the art exhibition at St.David's Hall en route to ( I almost wrote 'Ninian Park' ) the Cardiff City Stadium. There were many works displayed as part of Welsh Artist of the Year, the winner being a conceptual piece which seemed to come from a philosopher who'd had an really bad time at IKEA. Perhaps, like my family once, he just couldn't find a way out! The second prize was a collage in rocks, with graphics at its centre and there were many clever photos, including a rounded version of Aberystwyth, which might have derived from the Camera Obscura.
Exceptionally-talented Merthyr artist Michael Gustavius Payne ( check out his website : mgpayne.com) is quite revolutionary in that he uses oils and can actually paint. Gus ( as we know him) has been in the Welsh Artist exhibitions four times, but not represented for the last two years. Conceptual art has taken over, but he says 'it's like judging opera against poetry'. His works are on the covers of two of my books : 'Laughter tangled in thorn' and 'Walking on Waste'. He's a Merthyr artist through and through, but not one who can be readily categorized as naturalistic. His characters ( both animals and humans) are often embroiled in vital relationships of struggle or support. His landscapes are symbolic, but do have resonances of the Dowlais so close to where he lives. Recent paintings reflect Welsh mythology and sayings and if you look closely at the series 'Dim Gobaith'
and 'Allan o'r cwd' , you'll sense his thoughts on the present state of society, with the small yet shining canary on the shoulders of an official-looking character ( maybe a banker ) who is always looking away.
I'm particularly enthusiastic about collaborating with a painter of this vision and richness of textures. However, such a collaboration will not involve him illustrating my work or me directly interpreting his images. Rather, it will depend on thought-waves across the valley of the Taf, from my west to his east. Hopefully, no mobile phone masts will interfere. In future, we are planning exhibitions and reading across Wales, with an anticipated beginning and end in the Valleys.
So far I've chosen to write in prose-poetry in response to Welsh place-names, adages and also resonant words. Some have turned out more narrative, while others are more akin to rhyming verse. The one below looks at 'Dim gobaith caneri' ( or' no hope like a canary'), which I wrote before I saw Gus's paintings :
DIM GOBAITH CANERI
I am the No Hope Canary, singing in the deepest gallery. Below vaults of borrowed money.
Trees rot eventually, become coal. But what of these notes ; surely they will explode.
These last years I have sung and people say - 'Listen how tunefully!' They do not hear truly.
If they did, they would find a seam of sorrow there.
I am left in my cage : no up and down. My beak a useless tool against iron.
Dim .........the lights are leaving. Who will listen , even when I stop my singing?
'Gobaith' has shine, but here the only gleam's on damp rock.
The seep of gas from above, from those vaults : the steep banks of paper carcases.
I am the No Hope Canary,dumb in the deepest gallery.
All this week I've been looking forward to the first match of the season at our brand new stadium, as The Guardian called it 'the imaginatively named Cardiff City Stadium' ( just wait till it's a 14 syllable Malaysian name!). I was very excited, yet uncharacteristically pessimistic. Maybe I should not wear my lucky scarf more often, because we lamped Scunthorpe with a bit of luck and plenty of skill.
As a writer I have relished writing about Cardiff City FC over the years. I wrote one story called 'Dead Hero Silence' which was based on an Away trip with fellow writers of the fanzine WTBF! ( aka 'Watch the Bluebirds Fly!'), which has recently been revived to challenge the dominance of messageboards. Away trips are always special ( I don't go on many), but this was extraordinary. Torquay's striker Justin Fashanu had just become the first ( and only? ) footballer in this country to 'come out'. He suffered a lot of homophobic abuse from sections of our numbskull fans. When he scored , he was magnificent : a true fingers-up moment to the dinosaurs in the our support.
I've also written about a character I call 'Orange-peel Man' , which appears in 'Laughter tangled in thorn' ( a small selected from Carreg Gwalch). He was an old bloke from the Valleys who used to stand behind a row of taller fans, yet seemed to know exactly what was happening on the field. As play progressed ( mostly 'regressed ' in those days), he'd lob orange-peel onto the field and complain loudly.
My most important sequence on the Bluebirds was 'Singing the Blues', eleven poems about the ups and downs of supporting them, including the opening poem called 'The Ayatollah'. I still don't know where our signature slap-chant originates, but some say we borrowed it from travelling Azerbaijanis. However, I do recall the very first time I witnessed it ( described in the poem). It was Away at Hereford and there was a long, rubbly area at the front of the away shed ( I wouldn't call it a stand). A fella called Big Nick ( actually a nurse at a Merthyr hospital), a well-built and tall skinhead, leapt up and down and across the front of the terracing hitting his pate, as everyone chanted - 'Do the ayatollah, do the ayatollah! Nah nah nah nah! Nah nah nah nah!'
More recently, I was delighted to be interviewed and to read on Radio Wales, several poems I'd written about our epic FA Cup journey. Now , I'm glad to have the fanzine once again to focus on and want to produce lots of poems and articles for it.
My son bought me a brick for my birthday which graces our new walkway. It's much better than being 'just another brick in the wall' and maybe I'd never want to be the Club's official poet, having to come up with
fawning poems like some Court Bard.
This one's the latest from 'WTBF!' , which still costs a mere 50 P and is brought out by the amazing Nick Shelton and others -
I twitch at the text
hopeful of the next big signing
to solve everything.
I sweat just thinking
of players leaving
or even our manager
(who I've vilified
for ignoring the 'diamond system').
I shake at Echo headlines
'City To Sign Star Striker!',
only to find it's Chopra.
I jabber and gibber
about friendlies, the new stadium,
position of our seating ;
touch the cold,hard plastic
of my season ticket
and wonder if the chanting
will ever become corporate.
I long for the first inhaling
of a Saturday afternoon atmosphere,
when, out of the tunnel of hope
they appear and I'm flying
with all the other footie-addicts
who never want a cure.
At times I feel the exact opposite to 'Famous' Seamus's dictum that all poetry proceeds from a received tradition. Sometimes I'm totally with the Beats and the notion that poetry's like be-bop jazz : you begin with an image , but have no idea where you're going to or when it will end. Like Kerouac's prose, it can blow hot or cold, but I'm excited by this because a poem can take over like that music and carry you away to places you never imagined journeying to.
The closest I've come to it musically is jamming on the blues harp, all brought back by last weekend's annual visit to my beloved Aberystwyth and the great cameraderie of old Uni. mates ( who weren't the jammers, but knew them). Inspired by a purpley haze we'd jam on the grass by the castle ; but, above all, there was our drunken return to my digs where myself ( blues harp, key of E ), Scouse Pete ( boogie piano and darts ) and Red Mal ( acoustic guitar and occasional vomit) would extemporize into the early hours. Luckily, there was no audience!
Poetry, however, requires a degree of sobriety and with an idea based on observing the filming of 'Dagenham Girls' in the now derelict Hoover factory in Merthyr, I had the rough outline of a poem in my head, which would switch from location to location in Merthyr examining the possibilities. I never expected it to work out as apocalyptic and, retropectively, I attribute that to Ffos-y-fran.
I'm plagued by this huge opencast site overlooming the town like the numerous coal and lime tips of old. It seems to demonstrate how little we've advanced, how we're still exploited for the 'black stuff' despite all the cosmetic greening. They would not allow such a site ( due to last at least 13 years ) in the leafy lanes of Radyr and Creigiau.
In the 80's, I led a campaign against opencasting and my most distinct memory is of a large public meeting at Merthyr College addressed by representatives of Celtic Energy, who were ready to opencast south of where I live. One man stood up and spoke most eloquently and emotionally - ' We've paid our price for coal at Aberfan. Surely, we should pay no more!'
Opencast is full of dirt, noise, dust and diesel fumes : it's an environmental catastrophe. Moreover, it reinforces our reliance on power-station coal at a time when we must look to sustainable alternatives. It puts off other, cleaner industries from investing in communities.
I cannot escape Ffos-y-fran. Over a year ago, I wrote a poem about the writer George Monbiot and other campaigners who dressed as polar bears and chained themselves to the machinery there. The land at the back of my house, know as the Waun, is under constant threat of opencasting. Both our AM Huw Lewis and MP Dai Havard have consistently failed to oppose its scourge. Hopefully, the Climate Camp, soon to be set up, will be a symbol of resistance.
MERTHYR FILM SETS
What about Ffos-y-fran
as a new planet for 'Doctor Who',
one called Devastation
with mutant creatures
trying to take over the Earth
with their poisonous dust?
What about all the empty shops
like Woolies being scenes
of an Apocalypse, after
the poison has spread
and many people are dead?
What about our politicians
suddenly appearing from Penarth and Afghanistan
like aliens in the town
baffled at the emptiness ?
What about the heroin addicts
with starved and young-old faces,
with craters in their eyes
full of that dust
and unable to cry?
What about those with metal sticks
as extra limbs prodding the pavements
and others hauling their own flesh
like bags of frozen food stitched
beneath elastic waists ; all searching
for a place not contaminated?
What about the cameras above the streets
recording ,unedited, as the rats and pigeons
scavenge on all the droppings
of the last people to leave
before the roller-blinds come down
and everything's sucked into a black hole above town?