Hospitals are places I've been very fortunate to avoid most of my life. When I was a child in Aberystwyth I had something wrong with the bones of my right foot and ended up with leg in plaster for months. I was wheeled around in a push-chair and had to learn to walk all over again after. It was humiliating! I loved the words 'orthopaedic surgeon', but detested visits and curiously blamed my malformed bones on walking over the awkward boulders of Tanybwlch Beach. Coincidentally, Bronglais Hospital ( where I was born) became like a medical magnet when I played footie at Uni. For years of playing for school and a factory team, I'd avoided serious injuries. Then came the dreaded Aber & District League and ,less dangerously, the Digs League. I cut my head badly heading the keeper instead of the ball, my knee was damaged when I was hacked down for a blatant penalty (not given by the local ref.) and, worst of all, tore my ligaments. I woke after a minor op. in Bronglais with a gorgeous-looking nurse standing next to my bed. I asked her if she was 'an angel' and it must have come over as a chat up line, because she instantly expressed suspicion of students who 'drank far too much, instead of studying!' Fitting that description, I dismissed my chances straight away. The plaster from my ligament tear was almost as annoying as my first one. It didn't stop me though. I recall bopping on one leg in the Great Hall at a Man concert (I've since met Deke Leonard and the late, great Micky Jones and failed to mention it!). I attended a demo against Government cuts (sounds very familiar) and decided to take matters into my own hands (or leg, in this case) and crack the plaster open on an Aber pavement, tearing it off later. An act of stupidity! Since then, my only visits have been regular ones to the Eye Clinic, except another of even greater idiocy. When my nephew and niece were young, we played chase around the house. At the time our front door was made of glass and I duly put my hand straight into it, smashing it, so my little finger hung off and gushed with blood like a scene from 'Casualty'. When my wife and young daughter watch this programme every Saturday I avoid looking at the screen, especially when glass is involved. I know how lucky I am when I listen to my good frien - a fellow Bluebird - who has been in and out of hospital for cancer treatment recently.he has told me of his utter despair, but also how part of him (as a mathematician, he gave it a percentage) is able to detach itself and observe his reactions. He's a person I greatly admire. I can't imagine having that detachment at all, only an overriding panic and depression. Yet, perhaps that very distancing process is a necessity : a psychological device to cope with such suffering. He has certainly acknowledged this possibility. The following poem is about another friend and comrade, who died of a heart attack. He was a truly remarkable man. Disillusioned with Labour he left because of their rightward course and joined Scargill's party, standing as a councillor. He soon left that as a result of Scargill's refusal to co-operate with others on the Left. He was a man of Derby, fan of County, expert on Cloughie, lover of good ales and political activist in the most meaningful sense. His acute diabetes never stopped him from imbibing the best brews.
SILENCE THAT FOLLOWS
i.m. Jack Gilbert
Jack mun, I still expect to see you
standing there on Quaker’s Yard station,
near where the Taff Trail goes, where you ran.
I still look out for your yellow fleece,
your head as bald as mine and Mr Magoo’s
and that cartoon squint at the carriages.
So much in common: heads of ales and strikers,
the jinking politics of the left-wing;
you had little time for theories.
You had a patience for committees
and all their inordinate procedures,
while I would fidget and doodle.
To you, there was always a community centre,
collection of allotments or loans to the poor
at the end of those long, rough tracks.
Older than me and fitter, your diabetes
stayed with you everywhere, those broken biscuits
you carried like crumbly tablets.
Atheist talking to atheist now you’re dead:
‘What bullshit! ‘ I can hear you joke,
your Derby accent like Kevin Coyne’s,
that singer-songwriter who ended up on a platform
in Germany, a guitar his sole possession
(like him, you knew of pointless directions).
So let it be the silence that follows this
that becomes your memorial, as the train pulls out
and you’re not joining me for a match again.
You should never be surprised when your heroes let you down. But when John Cale accepted an OBE I have to admit to being very disappointed.
Here is a man whose work I have followed avidly ever since my friend and musical mentor the Bartzman, taped the song 'Thoughtless Kind'. While I did admire his electric viola contributions to the Velvets, the band were never my favourites.
In characteristically obsessive manner, I went about acquiring everything Cale ever released (though there are a few gaps). There's so much to excite and amaze, from the acoustic 'Fragments of a Rainy Season' to the remarkably inventive 'Music for a New Society'and , above all, one of the most startlingly original cd's of the Noughties, the short yet fascinating 'Five Tracks'. On this, Cale's experiments with loops and samples show the classical composer and the singer-songwriter joining as one.
Cale always managed to connect with Wales, however distant he was physically and his settings of Dylan Thomas's poems are unorthodox and challenging. In short, he's someone who deserves to be honoured more highly in Cymru : a Gwyn Alf Williams Award perhaps ( there used to be one.......the great photographer Philip Jones Griffiths was the last recipient).
If the Dylan Thomas Prize were meaningful, then it would be given to an artist in whatever medium who furthered the spirit of Dylan, instead of under 30's writers whose work appears to have no connection. Cale would be one of the winners, I've no doubt.
However, to take the Queen's Shilling and an Order of the Brit Empire is truly ironic. His album 'Words for the Dying' comprises the Falklands Suite (featuring those interpretations of Thomas) and is an implied criticism of that war, fought to further an ancient idea of Empire.
So, has Cale changed, sold out, or merely thought - 'What the hell, it's about time I got recognised!' Either way, it's in stark contrast to another of my heroes, Paul Weller.
Weller's music has never again managed to reach the heights of the 90's, with 'Wild Wood' and 'Stanley Road'. Even the spirited and adventurous 'Wake up the Nation' often echoes those two fine albums. When I saw the programme showing the very best of 250 Jools Holland shows, Weller stood out with his song 'Sunflower' : a poetic, rocking, raw love song.........such a rare thing!
Moreover, Weller has always stuck to his principles and never been shy to voice them. In a recent Guardian interview, I loved his outspoken comments - '....... it had the investiture of the Prince of Wales. How fuckin' ridiculous that whole scene and system is. How fuckin' anachronistic and absurd. Especially as he's not even fuckin' Welsh! It's such an insult to the Welsh people.' No chance of an OBE for Weller then!
It was undoubtedly that distant echo of the Jam's 'Down in the Tube Station at Midnight' which came back to me when I wrote the poem below. Weller's always been a songwriter in tune with the streets -
DOWN AT THE BUS STATION
Down at the bus station
October is deceiving :
round the corner rain and cold winds.
Smokers sit in rows on concrete borders,
a yellowing space between
their bags and journeys home.
Cops have shifted dealers and addicts on;
there have been complaints, tussles, arrests
and no-one knows where they've gone.
A woman turns over boxes, searching
at the back of the greengrocer's,
finds a single carrot, diver with a pearl.
A girl's been done for shoplifting,
her parents with her ; the man who joined the army
knows it could easily have been him.
Taxis wait for customers in a curve
like a blade of black, their drivers
chat slices across the street.
Down at the bus station October's gossiping:
from bright to cloud in seconds,
appalled at the sky, its indiscretions.
Hay On Wye straddles the border, straddles minds, causes confusion. Google it and it comes up as being in Hereford. Though it's technically in Wales, you can walk down the road and cross the border without knowing. Pen-y-Park's on the English side, while Glasbury's on the Welsh one; street names suggest an English market town, with the exception of Heol y Dwr.
Last weekend I read at Kilvert's Beerfest , the first ever there; combining music, literature and many other events. Beers were predominantly from Wales, with names like Rhymney and Otley I instantly recognised. I was down on the programme as 'Welsh Poet & Author' as if the other contributors weren't quite. Local Bookbinder Mr Bradshaw read a chapter from his vast book based on the Mabinogion and, on a scale of Welshness, defeated me hands down.
Hay is still Britain's number one Book Town and I met the man responsible for all that, self-styled King of Hay Richard Booth, who regularly represents that other King ( Arthur Scargill) in elections. Booth has sold his main bookshop to an American woman who is less interested in the antiquarian aspect of it. His castle is dilapidated, but due for renovation as a museum, with the Mabinogion as important as books as an overriding theme.
Hay Book Town has, in the past, tried to sell its brand elsewhere, yet places like Blaenavon never really took off and were exploited by unscrupulous individuals. The Hay Literature Festival, however, has sold its brand throughout the world and there have been equivalent Hays in Beirut, India, Colombia and Spain.
Welsh Literature in the Hay Festival is as marginalised and largely ignored as the sense of Wales in Hay itself. London literati and media celebs transplant themselves there over Whitsun, with discussions and talks taking precedence over readings.
There are Welsh classes in Hay and many people do look west rather than east for identity. However, despite the impending demise of books themselves, this affluent little town is undoubtedly on another planet to the Valleys.
Borders do have that quality to confuse and confound. As a teenager, I often travelled during long summer holidays from Barry to Weston on the paddle steamer; not as an excursion, but from my gran's in Wales to my grandparents in England. It did accentuate the sense of two separate countries, this crossing of the sea (albeit a gentle Channel).
Yet, my English grandparents had spent much of their lives in Aberystwyth and had Nonconformist teetotaller backgrounds, while my Welsh gran was a High Church Anglican who always insisted on 'BBC English' ,as it was called then. My Somerset grandfather loved the dialect he'd used all his life and I can still recall the meanings of words like 'dabster' and 'oughts'( if that's the spelling) : 'liking something a lot' and 'leftovers' respectively. I'm sure his enthusiam passed on to me.
The blurring borders of nationalities in my own house were also bemusing. My Welsh father had always been fiercely anti-Welsh language as a result (he always said) of his dealings with farmers during his work in west Wales. My English mother was a devotee of Dylan Thomas and , having been brought up in Aberystwyth, told me stories about being taught by Gwenno Lewis ( Alun Lewis's widow) in Ardwyn Grammar and seeing Caradoc Evans walk around the town completely ostracized because of his book 'My People'.
THE KING OF HAY
The King's head is on the bar,
but that's not the name of the pub.
Roundheads have left it there
after their occupation of the town.
He's pale and bald and bespectacled,
the King of Books here, selling out to an American,
his castle in disrepair, dust accumulating :
soon a museum to the printed word.
In the beer garden a tent full of barrels
and inventive names, inscribed glasses ;
a musketeer explains the impact of shot,
one of the New Model Army deals with a traitor.
The Mabinogion-inspired bookbinder reads
from a huge tome he lovingly created,
£120 for one and only one edition.
The King is there in person, to listen.
I ask him about Arthur Scargill, another one ;
he replies in riddles about Bill Clinton.
He can hardly walk, his stick the moving
scaffold of his collapsing building.