Love at first sound ; where, for days or weeks you totally inhabit an album or song and it lives in you. The music and words combining to fill full your days and dreams.
It doesn't often happen to me. It did when I first listened to Captain Beefheart's 'Strictly Personal', the intense feeling of something unique, at once a primitive voice of desert and swamp and then strangely, but almost always, married to lyrics which come from dreams, nightmares or outer space.
It did another time when I heard Kevin Coyne's song 'Turpentine', so out of time with the many oh-so-sensitive whining hippies who appeared on the 'Old Grey Whistle Test'. Here was a punk before it even happened, a bluesman with Derby accent who sang his pained and angry cry from the view of a boy who was a total nihilist.
Coyne was an outsider and revelation much like another singer-songwriter whose sounds I fell for at first hearing, Tom Waits. Living in W. Germany we'd go over the border to the Netherlands for music and tobacco (small cigars I smoked then). I also crossed the border imaginatively into the world of Waits, of bars and characters and the loneliness of being in a strange land : 'Tom Traubert's Blues' had all of these and more, with its remaking of 'Waltzing Matilda'.
Others I've grown to love, especially Dylan and Cohen, whose voices grated initially. How could they claim to be singers? I was so wrong and made up for my poor judgement by soaking up all their work later, though I mostly sang Cohen to myself around the house and there was a particular pub in Aber where Saturday nights were singalong and 'Bird On The Wire' was my favourite. For Dylan, I had to stand as my wife played piano and follow his intricate words.
Music has been so exciting of late. I have become intrigued by the lyrics of Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, at a time when few bands are not at all adventurous with words and likewise the peculiar phrasing and rhythmic impulses of Welsh band The Joy Formidable, whose lyrics sometimes remind me of the work of Peter Finch. I'm not sure if they'd count him as an influence though!
However, real love at first sound came from one of the finest albums this century without any doubt. It's an album which has swum and flown in my brain from first listening: full of birds and foam, of nymphs and dolphins.
I was uncertain about downloading The Waterboys' 'An Appointment With Mr Yeats' at first. The title seemed a bit awkward and Richard Curtis almost put me off. Yes, the Richard Curtis of all those famous romcoms which lacked the 'com' and had a lot of predictable 'rom'! It wasn't the fact that Curtis mildly criticised this album ( saying that he much preferred Mike Scott's own words) that made me wary; it was more the fact that if Curtis eulogized The Waterboys then maybe I should take stock of my great admiration.
One listen on youtube to their version of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' was enough to persuade though. Here was a bold, bluesy rendition of the poem, which should conventionally have been treated as a simple acoustic lament. This prepared me for the rest.
So much of what Scott and his bassist do with the poems isn't what you'd expect, yet there are still echoes of the very best of their music through the years, even the resounding piano chords from that classic, 'The Whole of the Moon'.
The music is taken to another level by their desire to do justice to Yeats' words and Scott's voice is even more passionate than on recent cds. He sings with such an emotional power throughout, that each word is given weight and I can only compare to early Cohen for anything like this. Thus the word 'mad' has such a quivering quality in 'Mad As The Mist and Snow',
while 'grave' in 'September 1913' is deep and doomy and 'copulate' at the end of 'News For The Delphic Oracle' is intoned with such lasciviousness.
In an age of endless singer-songwriters who moan in the inevitable First Person about the end of love affairs and little else, what price songs about the 'Four Ages of Man' or the myth of Niamh and Oisin? Interestingly, Scott chooses to alter the ending of the 'Four Ages of Man' and stop with 'at stroke of midnight'. There is no 'God wins' at all and it actually makes the poem more mysterious. I'm not sure if this is a later version of the manuscript or not.
I have never cried so much over an album and different songs affected me the more I listened. The first was 'Sweet Dancer', an example of the band's more folk-rock side, though Katie Kim's dueting vocals have more than a hint of alt. country style. Most of the album is definitely closer to the 'rock 'n' roll' Scott claimed on one tv interview.
'Sweet Dancer' doesn't work so well on the page and reads as rather slight. However, Scott and the Boys bring it to another dimension altogether with Wickham's winged and wheeling violin, the subtle harmonies and , above all, the way the refrain of 'sweet dancer' is sung over and over. It's such a visual poem and the flute at the end leaves with a sense of the girl ( seen as 'mad' by men in the house) drawing pictures with her movements on the lawn.
This album has so much variety of interpretation, from the chanting , leaping opening of 'The Hosting of the Shee' to the incantatory 'Let The Earth Bear Witness' with its musing on mortality.
It make me want to revisit my Waterboys' cds and also to re-read the work of W.B. Yeats. I have never been a fan of all his poetry and the later tendency to 'gyres' left me cold, but individual poems moved me considerably. Some, like 'Leda and The Swan' aren't featured on the album; others, like 'An Irish Airman Forsees His Death' are.
If you've never listened to The Waterboys before ( apart from that single) , then lend this an ear.......or two! Rock on, Billy Yeats! It might just be that Scott & Yeats are the best songwriting combo since Becker and Fagen ( who are they?.........another story!).
I make no excuses for digging up an old one for this occasion. The title refers to ' the autograph tree' in Coole Park and Yeats' house at Thor Ballylee. Yeats' friend, author and translator Douglas Hyde, signed his name ACA on the tree i.e. Gaelic for 'the most beautiful branch'.
The tree & the tower
There's a wide spread of petticoat
August auburn on the outside,
green facing in, where we hide
in that 'sensuality of the shade'
Yeats marked so delicately.
The first to initial that smooth
parchment of the copper beech.
Augusta Gregory in autumn
widowed in buffed red-brown :
WBY losing its clarity to time.
Weathering and the admiring palms
have rubbed so many autographs,
obscuring Hyde, An Craoibhinn Aoibhinn
his Gaelic name of the knife
and others queried or forgotten.
The tower remains, its gyring stairs
up to the stars, the ghosts of Normans
who built to oversee, while Coole
has long been left to fester down,
for uneasy spirits we're waiting on.
Over the tower's roof a sword in the east,
under the laefy dome we trace
a constellation of friends made myth ;
under the bridge blown in rebellion
the stream translates script-reflections.
The tragic events at Gleision drift mine near Pontardawe have been harrowing. The relatives of those dead miners must have suffered so much, waiting anxiously in Rhos Community Centre to find out about their loved-ones. And now they have to bear the grief. There have been so many of these tragedies in the past that few in the Valleys do not know someone touched by them. There was the terrible accident at Six Bells Colliery near Abertileri in 1960 ( now marked by an large, outstanding sculpture) and only a few years later the Aberfan Disaster of October 1966, when 144 died because a huge waste-tip collapsed onto Pantglas School.
Opencast coal-mining (much more like quarrying) looms over this town of Merthyr, with its constant threats of dust and diesel fumes and endless noise from diggers and trucks. A black hole in the lungs of the mountainside.
The Red Poets (who launch issue 17 on Sept. 23rd) have always been associated with the Valleys and our hardcore performers for many years have been Jazz ( from Penywaun) who once worked as a miner, Tim Richards from Abertridwr (who was very active in support groups during the last Miners' Strike) and John Davies from Maesycwmmer, an ex-Labour Councillor whose work is often influenced by the importance of mining to the Valleys.
As to myself, it has pervaded my work from the first day I set foot in the Valleys, staying with a miner and his wife in Tredegar , while doing teaching practice there. It was impossible to ignore his hands, each line engrained with coal and his lungs, rasping and gravelling with all the dust he'd breathed in.
When I moved to Merthyr, I couldn't fail to ignore the effect of the coal industry (especially from the 19th century) on the landscape of the Waun at the back of my house.
There had been many drift mines (much like Gleision) and also small shaft-holes which had become overgrown or plugged in. No openings remained on the slopes yet the topography has been shaped by them and the numerous slag-heaps now reclaimed by heather and gorse, by grass , wild flowers and bracken.
I have known men who worked at Tower Colliery , which was owned by the workers after the Strike and, for all their suspicion of the overbearing Tyrone O'Sullivan, they much preferred this pit to any run by the NCB. They knew that safety came first and would ensure that conditions were always as healthy as possible.
If we have to have coal mines at all, then at least let them be controlled by the workers themselves, in co-operatives similar to Tower.
Of course, it's difficult at present to be sure about health and safety matters at Gleision. Seeing pictures of the mine is like time-travel back to the 19th century, with wooden props and a mere two and a half foot high gallery to work in.
From listening to mining engineers on tv, it seems likely the miners dug into an old working which was flooded. Water from the old gallery would have rushed rapidly into Gleision. But was there proper equipment to detect such workings?
The solidarity and support of communities in the Swansea and Neath valleys for the miners' families shows clearly that caring and compassion haven't disappeared.
Mining is often only a few generations back for many of us here and my grandad's family from Cilfynydd (near Pontypridd) were hauliers at the mine whose site is now occupied by Pontypridd High School.
This sense of family history combined with the over-riding impact of coal on the geography itself means we cannot easily forget the past, nor should we.
The Empire that coal, iron and copper helped create through its engines of trade left most of us stranded as it collapsed, and seemingly without a purpose.
Yet, other people can give us a direction and I can only admire the many who came to Gleision to fight and try to save those miners lives. It is deeply ironic that Cameron ( featured uncritically on BBC Wales's 'Week In, Week Out' last night) is cutting the health and safety budget by 30% and attacking the pensions of the same fire-fighters he hails as heroes!
It's impossible to bring much light to relatives of those who died; however, messages from across the world bring comfort and the cwtsh of communities helps with glimmers in a long, dark passageway.
I could tell he was speaking about
the best and worst of times,
though his face had no glint of light
from lamp or end of the line.
There, in his warm taxi, the rain
tipping down outside, he looked back
into the dark gallery, couldn’t wipe
the wet away like his windscreen.
It was like ‘Coalhouse’ on telly, he explained,
that private mine on the slope above Tower;
production came first and safety after,
him and his dad looking out for each other.
With a mandrel at the face,
when it was dry the heat
would be like a furnace,
sweat like a plague of flies.
But in the damp was the worst,
days like today up to their thighs
hacking away……twice a collapse
and his dad dug him out of death.
Dust clogged like leaves in the drain
and notches in the rail like pot-holes ;
yet laughter was their second skin.
As he drove away, his voice remained.
The death of ardent Wales and Bluebirds fan Mikey Dye outside Wembley was a tragedy for the family and many friends he left behind. As yet, it's difficult to ascertain the circumstances, but a man from Redditch in Worcestershire has been charged with manslaughter and others have been arrested.
Violence at football matches is inexcusable. Sadly, some of those who have perpetrated it sell their books and gain notoriety and money by glorifying it. Having witnessed gratuitous and senseless attacks both by and on Cardiff City fans in the past, I can say that it is always shocking and painful.
One time, away at Wrexham, I saw a so-called Cardiff supporter lay into a much slighter Wrexham fan , who was walking on his own. It made me ashamed to be associated with the club.
My first memory of this kind of assault was when I used to follow Cambridge City and we were playing at Hendon in the Cup. My best mate Lart wore a black and white top hat which made him stand out. We were about thirteen and as slight as that Wrexham fan. Passing some Hendon fans, one very burly man just launched himself at Lart, who managed to struggle free, though he was bleeding profusely from his face. We were shaken and scared, but it didn't stop us going to see the sport we loved.
Thankfully, football has generally changed for the better, despite the malevolent influences of the English and Welsh Defence Leagues, who try to use it to recruit ignorant people to their obnoxious brand of Islamophobia.
Recently I attended the Huddersfield Carling Cup match and was delighted to see their fans drinking with ours outside the Ninian Park pub before the game. This was especially gratifying as two of my long-term friends are Terriers supporters.
Some 20 years back there was a totally different scenario before our League game with them. Walking on the pavement opposite to the same pub, I was there when a Huddersfield coach was pelted with bottles and glasses, shards flying and landing at our feet. The Town coach braked to a rapid halt and out piled loads of supporters who invaded the Ninian, where all hell broke loose.
Nowadays, we have become much more of a family club and this kind of violence is something I haven't seen for many years. Yet, I've read many postings on Facebook and messageboards by rugby fans praising their own sport for its lack of violence. If there are psychos amongst footie fans (and the police, it must be stressed), then in rugby they tend to be on the pitch. Eyes gouged out, bits of ears chewed off..........you'd need to bite off an opponent's goolies and spit them out in the ref's face to actually get sent off!
Moreover, three things brought home to me the violence which accompanies rugby. I have only ever been physically assaulted twice in my life for no reason and both times by rugby players (off the field).
In my last teaching post we were regularly visited a policeman, who used to work as an undercover cop in sport. He always told the pupils that ,in fact, the number of arrests of rugby supporters ( mostly at internationals) far exceeded football ones. Alcohol, freely available during the games, played a major role in this.
A friend and fellow poet Dave Hughes from Swansea, who worked for many years as a Social Worker, has written a vivid and disturbing poem called 'Grand Slam' about the domestic violence carried out by rugby fans, with their much more macho culture. He follows both sports , yet concedes that the influence of rugby - a sport which lauds physicality rather than skill in most instances - is appalling and the 'slam' itself becomes a metaphor for abuse of women in particular.
While I can't deny that football still has problems, important aspects like racism have been tackled head on and dealt with in this country in most cases.
It doesn't help anybody that the charging of an England supporter in relation to Mike Dye's death has been followed by threats of revenge in certain quarters. I'm sure his family and true friends would not want to tarnish memories in such a way.
For me, football has always been about passionately following your team whatever ; about the sheer thrill of scoring and winning and, as a Bluebird of many, many years, about appreciating the good times because I've known some really awful ones. It's about the hopes and possibilites that this season we will go one better, even though I'm cautiously optimistic.
My great friend Mike J. Jenkins, from the same village of Heolgerrig, was like-minded. He loved to stand on the terraces and join in the chanting. He was a generous , gentle and very funny man. His last words to me from his hospital bed were when I was walking to the Reading game ( second leg of the play-offs) - 'If we get to Wembley, I'll be there!'
Of course, we never made it. Neither did Mike.
(i.m Mike J. Jenkins)
I was sitting close to the curtain,
I couldn't even mouth 'Amen!'
I'm waiting for you as ever
comrade, Bluebird, friend
in the chapel you once gave a sermon
the priest praised a faithful Christian
I'll raise a pint of ale you loved,
namesake, Bluebird, friend
white cross of flowers on your coffin,
the standard blackness of mourning
we shared so much, even differences :
teacher, chanter of the terracing
the priest's tenor loudly resonating,
he spoke of a man of learning
you could tell stories defying any formula,
laugh-maker, math's man, friend
you were 'going home' he kept saying;
I heard you reply 'I belong here!'
I'm waiting for you, I'll be waiting forever,
my comrade, Bluebird, friend.
This week my young daughter started at Comp. We have spent more on her uniform than on a self-catering holiday in Kernow. There are trousers which are not boys, yet look the same as them; there is a jumper with badge on, and long-sleeved shirts far too hot for classrooms; there is a grey hoodie which can't be worn in class and is for sport alone, to be worn by girls and not boys in a breach of the European Declaration on Human Rights for certain.
There is a hockey skirt and I half expected a lacrosse outfit, except she's off to Ysgol Gyfun not Howell's! We bought the wrong one, a wrap-around affair like a mini-sari. I was sent to buy the right one called a 'scort' and nearly came back with a 'scart lead'!
At least she inherited ties from my two oldest, though one is unwearable as it's graffitied with 'MANICS'. We checked the other to see if it had 'MOZART' on it, but luckily didn't.
I loathe school uniform and always have done. From my days in Grammar School waering cap , ridiculous shorts and an enormous blazer handed down from my brother, right through to being a teacher and witnessing the inordinate waste of time spent spying on pupils, admonishing and punishing them for breaking petty rules.
Having taught in Germany which, in common with most of Europe, has no uniforms, I know that they're totally unnecessary, uncomfortable and very expensive. Moreover, German pupils had acquired a very sensible and practical approach, mostly wearing jeans and t-shirts. In summer they could wear shorts without fear of suspension. It was all very civilised, like the 6th form at Radyr Comp. (where I used to teach) and like Primary schools used to be in this country.
I'm tempted to take the whole matter to the European Court of Human Rights, as no school can legally force any pupil to wear uniform, many of which are fit for funerals ( black), or for mockery from other schools (red).
The only thing stopping me is the fact that my daughter would be a 'guinea pig' in this process and her schooling would be sacrificed for my principles.As with the tawse in Scotland and cane elsewhere, I dream of a day when uniform's banned forever.
It's all a legacy of the public school system : a reflection of the over-riding militarism in schools, which sought to impose discipline from above rather than foster self-discipline. The ConDems would return to this in a more obsessive way with their desire to appoint ex-members of the Armed Forces in all England's schools; conveniently forgetting the strong culture of bullying in the Forces, exemplified by Deep Cut barracks.
It's about time that we learnt from the likes of Finland ( whose system was excellently reported by a certain Ciaran Jenkins on BBC Wales last week) and trusted pupils and teachers to make their own decisions and that includes what to wear in both cases. I was once admonished by the Governors of a school for not wearing a tie, though thankfully my last school weren't so dictatorial. Pride comes from loving the whole school environment, not from brandishing the regimental badge.
The April Rising at Pen-y-dre High School in the 80's brought this home to me more dramatically than anything else.
It was the time of the Miners' Strike, Greenham Common and the teachers' industrial action. Every lunchtime we left school, as part of a work-to-rule, to demonstrate that the lunch hour was ours.
I believe all this influenced the pupil protest at Pen-y-dre ,which was highly organised, even if some criminal elements did exploit it to fling sausages at staff cars and smoke in the open. It was a reaction to a newly-appointed Head of Year who threw her weight around and banned white socks and donkey jackets ( maybe that's why white socks became so iconic in Merthyr).
About 60 pupils managed to chain and padlock the gates and sit down on the drive, having changed into 'civilian clothing'. Many more joined them later. Unbelievably, the only person allowed to leave was the Head, who had a meeting in Cardiff!
The police eventually arrived at the end of the school day to break it up and 200 pupils were suspended as a result. The local paper published a story describing it as a minor disturbance: the Head was a master of spin long before Tony Blair.
Contrary to myth, most pupils I taught were against school uniform, many vehemently so. There are also an increasing number of teachers with these views, often too afraid to voice them.
The financial argument is increasingly important, as many newspaper stories have illustrated this week. In 'The Observer' an article entitled 'Families 'break the bank' to pay for school uniform' shows clearly how the rising costs and cuts in grants have hit the poorest families hardest.
The argument that you cannot distinguish social class so easily is an absurd one. Pupils who are poorest inevitably stand out, with the tattiest uniforms. Pupils spend ages trying to defeat the system with its trivial rules about the colour of shoes or length of skirts. Energy better expended elsewhere.
How can they possibly have faith in an education system based on such futility? How can they show respect to staff who have to pounce on them for wearing trainers to school? It merely breeds resentment and that April Rising was symbolic of it.
Off To Grammar
At eleven, I was packed off to Grammar
wearing above-knee grey shorts,
a peaked cap and handed-down blazer.
I must've resembled a stunted jockey
desperately searching for his horse.
I might as well have had the motto
'I am a victim. Aim here!'
on the badge at my head and heart.
Yellow the colour of the crest,
yellow the colour of my fears.
The older boys would grab our caps
and hurl them onto bus-shelter roofs,
they'd giggle at our spindly legs
which weren't even sprouting hairs.
At least my blazer was in shreds.
Within a month I wore long trousers,
my tie was hanging off like fur moulting,
my jumper beginning to lose its skin
and my cap had become a rugby ball
tossed down the three-quarters of the bus.
The bright badge was darkening
like a love-bite shown off for boasts
and whoever invented school uniform
to rile and humiliate us First Formers
must've tut-tut-tutted at the constant abuse.