How does childhood shape your later days? Why are certain traits and interests developed and kept and others jettisoned on the way? In Penparcau, near Aberystwyth, I was left to roam the countryside and only once did my parents show signs of panic when it was getting very late and my brother , much older, was sent to find me.
There was no set time to be back and no limits to how far I could wander. I'd climb trees, make dens, knock on doors, filch fruit and, above all, play war games and Cowboys and Indians. Films from America dictated our days and guns were the most vital toys.
I had a few bows and arrows made for me, but my prize possession was a plastic machine-gun which even made the noise of shooting. Given this, I should've ended up in the SAS, though it was very common for boys to be honourable British soldiers killing off the nasty Jerries or Nazis.
Films and the weight of recent history moved our fantasies and not all the hide 'n' seek or skimming stones or fishing with pieces of string could detract from our bellicose pastimes.
When my family moved to England and I began to read the 'Jennings and Derbyshire' books set in an English Public School, these took over and I should've gone on to become a master at Eton! Even the huge impact of The Beatles and our singalongs brandishing racket-guitars couldn't deflect from this.
Yet of all the games I played in those days it was football which grew and grew to dominate my life.
It began on the streets of Penparcau and the park down the road; I borrowed my brother's old boots with nailed-in studs which cut into my soles so they bled. I loved tackling bigger boys and their annoyance when I beat them and scored.
Rugby was virtually unknown there in west Wales, where you'd have expected it to be king. Only on a few occasions did we fling this odd torpedo to each other and it never became a game.
I was let loose and my parents never discouraged me from pursuing any interest in things military ( strange, as my mother had been prominent in Aber CND!) and showed no interest in my footie fanaticism.
Many years later I managed to press-gang both my mother and father to matches( on separate occasions, as they were divorced by then) and both ended up as extremely tedious 0-0 draws, as if their presences had jinxed the games.
Coincidentally, the height of my own playing career was reached at the same point as my son many years after. I played for Cambridge City Schoolboys at 10 and 11 just as my son did for Merthyr and both of us on the left-wing........even though I am a right-footer.
My passion for footie has been handed down to him. The only thing my parents gave me was perhaps my mother's great admiration for poetry, especially Dylan Thomas, who died the year I was born. None of my father's many crazes had any effect on me simply because they were for him alone ; he never tried to enthuse me in painting, yoga, sailing, horse-riding, judo, photography, motorbiking, gliding etc etc. Some I might have taken to, though I never got to meet the horse he kept in our garden at Barry!
My dreams of becoming a professional footballer rapidly disppeared at Secondary School, as I began to realise that all the other boys were getting taller , tougher and hairier! My squeaky-voiced refusal to grow meant I was soon replaced as captain, though I did enjoy playing for a local factory team when I was 15, where many of the players were slower and balding! I relished the battle with pitches which turned into quagmires and recall one corner-flag which was downhill and couldn't be seen from the centre circle!
Why did my endless enthusiasm for footie continue and develop, yet all those other games cease to matter?
Perhaps it was just to do with finding a talent. If I'd joined a Shooting Club, my early love for guns could've found an outlet. More significantly, I believe it was the imaginary worlds we created which appealed to me.
My brother was obsessed with aeroplanes and especially RAF ones and soon joined the ATC, where he thrived on its sense of order. He became a nascent engineer, making endless model planes and flying them. He went on to become an engineer in the RAF! My father loved planes and had always wanted to join the RAF in the 2nd World War ( he couldn't because of his involvement in agriculture) :he no doubt encouraged my brother.
Those fantasy worlds of war and Public Schools later translated into football fields, where I saw myself as one of my heroes. After the World Cup of 1966 ( I still lived in England), Alan Ball was the all-action midfielder I wanted to emulate. I remember telling this to the top goal-scorer in our school team who simply dismissed 'Bally' with - 'Yeah, he runs around everywhere, doing nothing!' I think the remark was aimed at me.
As a teenager I created my own sport called 'Balloonball', initially an indoor variety and later transposed to our garden in Cambridgshire. It involved a lot of being tackled by trees and playing one-twos with the garage door. But I invented leagues and players and Bees were one of the top teams!
I wrote about 'Balloonball' once for a school story and received much praise. I think the teacher thought I was making it up!
A ONE-BOY TEAM
This is the place I want to be
(to others it's just a park, a field),
but when I'm here
the crowds cheer :
I'm who I want to be,
Chops or Jay or Bellamy.
This is the place my head's a crowd
(to others only the birds sing loud),
but when I'm here
the fans are chanting :
I'm speeding down the wing,
I'm Whittingham, I'm Burkey.
This is the place where I'm scoring
(to others it's green and boring),
but when I'm here
it becomes a massive stadium:
every leaf is an eye watching
and I am a one-boy team.
The man on the bus to Rhymney looked out the window disdainfully.
' It's a total waste o money!' he declared to a friend opposite, who nodded agreement.
'Ow cun the Council spend all tha money on a ewseless thing like tha? It's problee funded by Ewrop!'
He was commenting on a sculpture/memorial near Butetown, Rhymney, which I have interpreted in the poem below.
Of course, the £180.000 spent on it could have been put towards hospitals or schools, but why not cut needless jobs like school inspectors or headmasters and save that way?
Instead, councils of whatever hue - from Labour Brent busy closing most of its libraries, to Plaid Cymru Caerphilly which has recently got rid of the excellent Schools Library Service - are carrying out the ConDem cuts with little consideration for the longterm future of the arts.
There's no name on that sculpture, nor does it say who created it; but google it and you'll find it's called 'Simnai Dirdo' (Twisted Chimney) and was made by famous New York sculptor Brian Tolle. Every time I pass it fires my imagination, changing its meaning according to the angle it's seen. Like the best of art, it can alter people's consciousness forever, if you really look closely.
I'd like to have replied to that man - 'Look and you'll see........and if you don't see at first, keep looking!'
This has been a week to focus on the arts in Merthyr. Over a week ago I appeared on the Radio Wales Arts Show presented by Nicola Heywood-Thomas and this was the topic. All three of us in the studio: novelist Des Barry. Prof. Dai Smith and myself agreed that not only is the future much brighter for the arts here, but that a great deal of talent exists.
We were optimistic despite the inevitable vox pops which expressed views like - 'There's nothin t do yer!' and ' Ev'rythin appens in Cardiff!'
How wrong they are! Theatr Soar offers a full and eclectic programme of events in both Welsh and English and the anticipated opening of the Old Town Hall in Spring 2013 will give the town another dimension. I would like to see a first class exhibition space there, a cinema giving alternatives to the Hollywood production-line and a bar (selling real ale, of course) with a performance area for local bands, singer-songwriters and poets.
October 20th in Merthyr Tudful gave just one indication of the vitality of literature especially, in a town with such a strong literary tradition.
It began with the first Young People's Literature Festival held at the Soar and adjacent Canolfan. As this was my brain-child some months ago, I was particularly pleased to see it come to fruition.
This was down to the Committee and notably the really hard work of Louise Richards of LitWales. A much longer festival was envisaged with months of workshops culminating in a final performance and anthology of pupils' work. Indeed, this could still happen in future, though it may not be in Merthyr.
The day began well when local AM and Assembly Minister Huw Lewis pulled out of his short introduction as one of his children was unwell. This was fortuitous, as I might have been tempted to heckle him with - 'Did you find your way up from Penarth?'
Renowned writer and illustrator Jez Allborough kicked off the day ( after the usual stirring intro from Phil Carradice) with an entertaining session. His work is aimed at much younger children than those present and I felt that Welsh writing for that age-group ( Years 6 & 7) should've been spotlighted, especially as newly-appointed Children's Laureate Catherine Fisher was present.
Six schools attended (four English and two Welsh language) and pupils were very enthusiastic and responsive throughout. Most of the writers concentrated on their own work at workshops, while some got the children writing poetry. Many books were sold and signed and the entire day was undoubtedly a success.
All this was not covered by the local paper, nor was the evening launch at The Imperial Hotel of Mike Williams's first poetry collection 'The Acolytes', a very good publication from Mulfran Press.
Mike's may be a Pontypool boy originally, but he is an adopted literary son of Merthyr, having appeared in anthologies produced by the Council's Arts Officer Gus Payne and become a regular at our Open Mic. session at The Imp.
Mike's reading and explanations were fascinating. After a long and distinguished career as a scientist he began writing poetry in 1992, inspired by visits to Ty Newydd. It was fitting he should launch the book among friends and supporters.
One day in Merthyr doesn't prove we have a cultural renaissance. However, it is a beginning and shows that despite the doom and gloom of cuts and unemployment, there are positive developments in the Valleys.
THE CHIMNEY SNAKE
Thick twist of brick-look steel
close by the roadside,
no name defining
and nobody makes a claim.
The geometry of it,
sharp lines turning light!
It's a curved chimney
with a door never opened.
It's a snake, venom gone,
its head emerging
a plinth for anyone.
If you could enter,
if only you had the key :
full of soot and ash
from terraces, furnaces, collieries.
It has definitely been a year for commissioned poems and it began earlier in the year in Newcastle, where I met the PhD student organising my reading there and her fiancee.
They happened to mention needing a poem for their wedding and on the slow cross-country train back home I duly obliged, writing one based only on a fleeting meeting with them ( the real ale pub may have swung it!).
They liked it so much they said they'd use it at their wedding and I was 'wrth fy modd'. I had written before for the marriages of my neice and nephew, but never for comparative strangers, so this was pleasing.
Following this, I responded to poet and lecturer Carrie Etter's challenge for US Poetry Month, to write a poem a day for April ( well, a haiku in my case). If there are such things as one-line poems, then I think I'll try them next year!
A more direct commission was the one below, written for Merthyr Fairtrade Week. It was supposed to appear in the local Council-produced magazine 'Contact', but never did. However, I'm assured that 100s of copies were given out at Merthyr's Fairtrade stall down town. Just hope they weren't re-cycled into paper aeroplanes!
I was later asked to write a piece to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Snowdonia National Park on October 18th, the title being '60 Wonders,60 Writers, 60 Words'. I loved the challenge of a 60 word poem and chose a photograph of a woman swimming in Lake Mymbyr near Yr Wyddfa; only her head was exposed in the water.
I think I could write about most things to order. This contrasts considerably with my notion of the organic development of a writer.
While I like to respond directly to such challenges, I always feel my writing must not consist of a deliberate or conscious effort to forge new styles or approaches. I arrived at writing in Merthyr dialect through a convergence of times and influences : the language of my pupils on the Gurnos estate and the 'Swonzee' poetry of Dave Hughes, lyrics of Bob Marley and my close interest in the works of James Berry and Derek Walcott. I never thought to myself - ' Yer! I mus write about the way they do talk round yer!'
Sometimes recently, I have even commissioned myself to write things. Despite being cynical about the Valleys' cliche of Male Voice Choirs, I still wrote about Dowlais Choir singing on the escalator in the precinct. I gave it to the accompanist of that choir. I tried to write a haiku in Welsh about the newly opened Theatr Soar and handed it to the organiser there.
My most satisfying poem was written last week and handed in yesterday to the librarian at Rhymney. Every week I take a Creative Writing class there and, as you enter the library, there is a cabinet of exhibits about the town's greatest son, poet Idris Davies.
Right opposite the library is a plaque on the terraced house where he died in April 1953 and I did try to seek out his grave in the local cemetery, but the gates were padlocked. My poem's a tribute to one of the finest poets from the Valleys. Ironically, I've lived close to Rhymney for years ,yet never sought him out except in books.
I have a confession to make. Not an easy one for a socialist : I watch 'Dragons' Den'!
I happen to admire all those characters with their oddball, imaginative inventions, some very useful and others which seem designed purely to accomodate the whims of the inventor.
I particularly liked the suit of chainmail armour for roasting chicken which appeared recently. I am a veggie, but still have to cook for the carnivores, so this seemed eminently practical. Needless to say, the woman received encouragement but not a ha'penny from the Dragons, due to her dodgy business plan.
I envisage myself appearing in the Den with the idea of a website in which I respond to requests for poetry. One of the Dragons, probably Theo, will dismiss me with - ' What you're asking is for me to invest £100,000 in you and not a business as such. Also, I've read your blog and I wouldn't give you 2P for your 'Everyday Verse' website. I'm OUT!'
Duncan has been writing down lots of sums - ' What's your net margin projections for the next two years?'
' Probably........ 20 sonnets, 43 haiku and , unfortunately, a couple of villanelles.'
Duncan will declare himself 'OOT!'
Despite my hopeless case for a slot on 'Dragons' Den', I do harbour some hopes. It would be nice to have my words on the front of a very large building, like Gwyneth Lewis's , in Welsh and English , on the Millennium Centre in Cardiff.
In actual fact, when that was being commissioned my older daughter and I did try to come up with appropriate phrases for the competition. However, instead of twenty letters I thought it was twenty words required! My entry would have filled the entire roof and probably stretched to the Senedd building nearby!
STORY OF THE LEAVES
If you do not believe me,
look closely at the leaves,
they tell a story.
They tell of trade
with no chwarae teg,
of children diseased and dying,
in a country of cities and industries
growing like plantations of buildings :
stalks of aerials, fronds of wiring.
Yet read the leaves of another cup :
a few pence more for the shine on skin
of toilers in the tea-gardens.
The shape that they make
is a full face fed and nurtured :
a story with plot and purpose.
It's happening! But it's not happening on television, except a by-the-way item on the News. It's like the late, great Gil Scott-Heron once sang - 'The Revolution will not be televised.' It's happening! Yet you'd hardly know it from the newspapers. I search in vain 'The Observer' and the 'Sunday Times' (not mine) for one column even.
You begin to question, begin to wonder. Yet Youtube and Facebook tell a different story and there you can read and witness the postings.
At first, the pictures seem strangely dark and oppressive and it makes me think of times of the Depression.
But no, this is New York City on Saturday and there's an occupation of Wall Street. It's a massive protest replicated in many other places across the USA, against the bankers, the share-gamblers who trade in people's lives; who shift money round the globe without caring about the consequences.
Against the ones who caused this whole economic crisis in the first place, given total freedom by Bush , Blair and then Brown, to play the markets with their 'Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed' to quote the folk band Show of Hands.
700 protesters were arrested as they tried to stall traffic on Brooklyn Bridge, but you'd hardly know about it. And elsewhere, inspired by it, plans are afoot in Canada for similar occupations. They may well have
chanted ' The people united.....will never be defeated!' in the States instead of 'Workers', but they have had enough like many others across Europe.
And, like the students when they marched in London, the many public service Trade Unionists who rallied and even ( whatever their motives) the rioters in England over the summer........they have nothing to lose.
Why has this been given so little coverage? If it were part of the Arab Uprisings things would be different. Is it a fear, under Government pressure, of all this spreading? Or is it just that it doesn't fit their formula, like the recent protests in Egypt against the military government there, who are acting just like Mubarak before them, with a ruthless totalitarianism? This too , has been given scant coverage.
Yet the British media over-estimates its influence. They should know from the huge impact of Facebook and Twitter in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya that people will get to know things far quicker now than any of their cameras and presses can deliver. Already , a similar occupation is planned for London on Oct. 15th, with a call to occupy the Stock Exchange.
Where will all this lead us? Cynics might say, I've seen it all before and it comes and goes away. In the 1960s we witnessed widespread rebellion, often based on student protests, anti-Vietnam War marches and Civil Rights movements. In N.Ireland and the USA, these have had lasting repercussions.
Today , things are significantly different. Although the so-called 'underclasses' ,who are most seriously affected by the cuts and price rises,
have yet to take to the streets, there is a much wider force for change which comprises green activists, Trade Unionists and students. Once these rise together, they could prove the most potent force since the opposition to the war in Iraq.
The ConDems responses are minimal, of course. They are committed to class warfare and their scathing attacks on the Welfare State, public services and pensions are just a part of this. Just as Thatcher used unemployment as a weapon to beat down the workers, so Cameron and Clegg are using the deficit to cover an onslaught on
those who struggle most.
Labour cannot be trusted to take a lead. Ed Middlengland and his cronies fail to back the very Unions who placed him in power and , like Blair and Brown before him, he woos the 'squeezed middle' while completely ignoring those at the bottom whose poverty and daily grind is worsened every minute.
Here in Wales, Plaid Cymru offer no solutions. They merely advocate private investment rather than the immediate nationalisation of Welsh water, railways and all energy suppliers at the very least. How else can we be expected to control the exorbitant prices now being charged? There isn't even any competition and share-holders and executives are the only ones to gain.
I'd like to think that the uprising of the people will overtake the politicians and take them by surprise, as many reject the traditional notion of party politics and take history into their own hands. As someone posted on their Facebook wall - 'If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.' ( Desmond Tutu )
It's happening now
in cities in squares
sitting down to stand
facing the Feds the cops
their helmets and truncheons
their water cannons
their CS canisters
with dollars pounds -
showing their features
of secret cameras
in the places
where it all began
the money markets
where the gamblers
with lives far and near
risk someone else's skin
shop-floor sweat shop workers
not to be re-cycled,
flung onto landfills
they have risen
from piles of debris
waving the flags of new-found flesh
ripping the bills the notes
from their lips
'Yes! It's happening!
We are ourselves and one!'