Isn't modern technology wonderful? After a week of imploding Sky boxes, I was almost prepared to embrace singer-songwriter Tom Waits' Luddite tendencies when he mocked phones that take photos, along the lines of ' It's like my bike being able to make a cup of tea.'
But what would we do without those i-phones, which can do everything except mix cocktails? My son calmly records his TV programmes miles away from the set and we can be in a strange town and he can trace the local restaurants available and even download reviews of them. I am totally in awe.
As Facebook gives way to Twitter, I am definitely behind the times : I've yet to become a 'Twitter-twat' ( was Cameron actually right about something?). Of course, it's thrilling contacting like-minded people anywhere on the globe, to reach a fellow Kevin Coyne fan in South Africa
for instance. However, my most frequent friends on Facebook would seem to be buildings. I even met up with one recently on a trip to Tenby. It was a brief meeting and we didn't have a lot in common. The building wasn't very forthcoming and , to be honest, was rather tedious.
The song that keeps returning is Chumbawamba's very darkly funny 'Add Me' from their superb album 'The Boy Bands Have Won'. The chorus goes -
'Add me, add me
My mother says she wished she'd never had me -
Add me, add me
Would you like to add me as a friend?'
The character in the song is everyone's Facebook nightmare. Anyone who thinks of Chumbawamba as po-faced politicos should listen closely to this incredible CD : it's full of harmonies (often a capella), packed with humour and often underscored with sadness and righteous anger. It is one of English folk's finest ever, along with almost everything by Robb Johnson.
Texting can be very useful as well. Inheriting my son's phone I also inherited his predictive texting. I was completely baffled by something which seemed to have been devised by MI6. In the end, I switched to normal text, but haven't yet mastered the lingo : mine is generally a weird combination of text language and Valleys' dialect, something like - 'Whr u goin afta?'
When he was incarcerated in an asylum, the so-called 'peasant poet' of the Romantic period, John Clare, began to write all his letters in consonants alone. I once wrote a complete sonnet like that. In its purest form, text language must be similar.
What I like about texts is their minimalism, no fuss-arsing about with 'How are you feeling? ' or ' How many Sky boxes are dud ones?' I once texted my wife what she wanted for tea and her answer was '6' (no, it wasn't a takeway!). Better still her most recent to me, a solitary full-stop!
Next time Tom Waits does a London concert, I'll go on my bike with the built-in teasmade and record it all for posterity on my digital contact lens camera.
THE SKY PEOPLE
I sent you a text:
'Ok 2 giv ur no.
2 th sky pepl?'
I think you thought
I was going mad.
You replied in shock:
'Wot u on about?'
I think you thought
I was having visions
of angels, like Blake reborn;
that I wanted you
to be in touch with a spirit world
hovering above the clouds.
Till I texted back:
'Its £30 xtra 4 brdbnd'.
Your answer a single, meaningful full-stop.
All this week, lines of one song have resonated in my mind : Peter Gabriel's epic, prophetic 'Here Comes the Flood' from his eponymous first album (if you investigate, watch out........the first three are all called 'Peter Gabriel'!).
'Lord,here comes the flood
We'll say goodbye to flesh and blood'
Now more than ever the lyrics of this song seem to hold particular relevance. The tragic devastation in Cumbria , and especially Cockermouth, and the death of PC Bill Barker on a bridge at Workington that was swept away as if it was balsawood, bring home the consequences of global warming.
As ice caps melt and seas rise and our climate becomes wetter and weirder, the biblical references of Gabriel's song match with the statement of Workington's MP Tony Cunningham who claimed it was 'of biblical proportions'.
It takes me back to the 80's in Merthyr when the then Rhydycar cottages ( since re-built, in very different fashion, in St.Fagan's) were seriously damaged by flooding which caused a culvert to burst. Water destroyed their roofs and one person was killed. A precursor of things to come.
Only last September, during a spell of storms similar to recent days, the Valleys were hit by serious flooding. I was working at Radyr Comp. near Cardiff and received a message from my wife saying that her school in Trefforest was completely cut off and they were evacuating pupils. Likewise, my young daughter's school in Pontypridd was being evacuated and I needed to pick her up.
On explaining the situation to a Deputy Head, she replied -'You'd better go and sort out your personal problems!' I was ahgast and told her these were actually 'flood problems'. Luckily, public transport was functioning and I got a train to Ponty. However, the bus-station there was chaotic, with many buses cancelled and we finally got on the slow bus to Merthyr over the mountains. It took one and half hours to get home. In Fochriw, we watched one scally who threw himself fully clothed into a pond created by the heavy rainfall.
The background of my book for teenagers 'The Climbing Tree', to be published by Pont next February, is one of climatic catastrophe. It envisages a time when rain and flooding dominate the world and focusses upon two gangs of teenagers who try to cope with these conditions in very different ways. The heroine, called Low, is a Romantic, clinging to an oak above an increasingly bog-ridden Common, along with two friends who are less committed to the ideals of their gang.
LIVING IN TIMES TO COME
Every day now
living in times to come
beginning with messages
late August oak leaves
the rain turns houses to caravans
manhole covers sucked up
landslides toppling trees covering railways
roads submerged under a muddy deluge
bridges collapsing like brittle branches
this weather weirding
(we take the slow bus home
climbing up to the mountain-tops
looking down on a chasm of cloud
the patterned piles of drystone walls
with leaning blocks in lines
more resolute than many homes
sandbags gushed aside
like a tide on dunes
dead crows on pavingstones
the future rap-rap-rapping
at every pane
to be let in.
Stacks of cassette-boxes like mini musical blocks of flats and behind them CD's on shelves in terraced rows, from Captain Beefheart to Robert Wyatt.
Tapes for Marx's sake, in this age of the i-pod and i-phone! But these are all gifts from Ace Tapeman Andrew Bartz, friend and comrade ; the most avid and erudite music fan I know. For many years now, he has been giving me these compilations or taped CD's, sometimes taking their proper names, but mostly inventing ones such as 'The Frenetic Features' or 'But Stop Before The End'. Stereophonics should've employed him as their official album-namer, then they might've avoided the likes of 'Keep Calm and Carry On' (their latest).
I have to thank Andrew for my love of so many varied artists I find it hard to list them. To mention but a few whose CD's I have since sought whenever and wherever : Tom Russell, Sufjan Stevens and, of course, that great Welsh musical maestro with numerous diverse albums through the years, John Cale. And there are many bands I'd never have picked up on; notable among them being two from the 1980's, when so much of the mainstream was insipid : Carter USM and Fatima Mansions.
Only occasionally has he failed to convert and convince me. This is especially true of Welsh rockers Man, who he has followed since the 70's .
I actually preferred Deke Leonard's solo work to most of the group's output ( too many wayward guitar solos).
His tapes have taken me through many journeys ( often to Aberystwyth and back). On a long return flight from Japan I got very peculiar looks when fiddling with my Sony Walkman ; as if I'd stolen it from some Gadget Museum! On this flight, my brother asked me - 'How many times have you listened to that tape?' convinced I only possessed the one.
During all that time I can't recall being bowled over by a female singer-songwriter apart from Buffy St. Marie, who I'd liked in the past anyway. So it was strange and refreshing to listen on tape to Thea Gilmore's CD 'Songs from the gutter'.
I'd heard her before. I'd bought 'Avalanche' and 'Liejacker' and quite liked the former but was disappointed with the latter. But this album , from 2004-05 and apparently recorded very quickly, had a profound effect. The sheer range of musical styles is breathtaking yet not forced and while the influences of Tom Waits, Richard Thompson and Neil Young are apparent, they are never overpowering.
Above all, Gilmore's voice is emotional without any of the annoying vocal tics of so many others breaking on the scene and her lyrics are thoughtful and imaginative. She even does a Tom Russell ( see 'Van Ronk' from his 'Hotwalker' album) and recites her poem 'Don't set foot over the railway tracks' to atmospheric musical backing.
In a world of X Factor karoake blandness and manufactured pop, I hope that Billy Bragg's right when he says - ' I think the X Factor might be good for alternative music, giving kids something to push against.' Certainly, Thea Gilmore has been pushing for too long and deserves to be embraced (on the evidence of 'Songs from the gutter') as one of the best singer-songwriters around.
This is a fairly old one, but apt. A thanks to Andrew Bartz, heckler, doodler, artist and wizard of the cassette -
SONGS IN MY HEAD
There are no better tickets
than these gifts you give,
these rattling boxes
passed like illicit substances
at our occasional booze-ups.
I want to praise you
long before any elegy,
your studiously penned
funny and angry titles:
THIS TAPE KILLS 99%
OF ALL FASCISTS DEAD
and the NOT WHAT IT READS one:
you should've had a band
just for the covers alone.
Journeys unwind: the brown path,
the shining rails, the thin
road leading away
to Africa or Ireland,
obscure names like places
only you discover,
Marxman, Best Shot, Tarika:
villages into towns into countries.
The music of your recordings,
the passports never stamped,
the borders always open:
songs in my head flying.
Fellow poet Chris Meredith (who appears in the first 'Red Poets' magazine) once told me an intriguing anecdote. Meredith lives in Brecon and not far from the barracks there and one day a soldier knocked on his front door -
Are you the occupier? he asked.
No, you are! Meredith answered.
Today, Remembrance Sunday, we will no doubt hear much in the media about 'bravery' and 'sacrifice', but only the white poppies of the Peace Pledge Union will commemorate the many innocents who have died as a result of so many wars.
I cannot wear a red one, despite the fact that both my grandfathers were involved in the First World War : one damaged for the rest of his life by gas and shrapnel and the other who never spoke at all about his time as a stretcher-bearer .I know from the war poets whom I admire so greatly
( particularly Sassoon, Owen and Rosenberg) how futile this war was. So fitting that only this week Sasson's 'Soldier's Declaration', where he stated that the war was being carried on deliberately by those who had the power to stop it, should be read out once again in the Commons, this time pertaining to Afghanistan.
I know from witnessing the armed occupation of the Six Counties ( i.e. N. Ireland) in the 1970's, that all sides commited terrible atrocities, but that the British armed forces and RUC could do so with impunity. Tragically, the official inquiry into Bloody Sunday continues to this day : the day when 13 innocent civil rights protesters were shot dead by soldiers from 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (which is stationed in St.Athans). What fine bravery and sacrifice then, to murder them on the streets of Derry as they marched against a system of in-built sectarianism, discrimination and injustice!
Of course, I cannot forget that the Colonel-in-Chief of that very regiment is one Charles, Prince of Wales. Our anachronistic and totally undemocratic
monarchy is inextricably linked to the war machine.
The 'Troubles' ( it should've been called 'war' ) have been partly resolved through negotiation, as I always hoped they would. In the 70's, as successive Labour and Tory governments became increasingly repressive with the use of torture and 80's when Thatcher refused to acknowledge the political status of prisoners provoking the Hunger Strikes in the Maze, all talk seemed an impossibility.
So when the MP Paul Flynn proposes 'talking to the Taliban' , he shouldn't be scoffed at. In fact, discussions have already taken place with elements of that disparate grouping, just as they were (even in the 70's) with leaders of the Provisional IRA. Soner or later it must happen, if there is to be a resolution.
So today, when I think of those dying for 'Queen and country' I think -
' Yes, that's right. Sadly that is really what they are dying for.........a monarchy which represents a class system we've gone a little way towards dismantling in Cymru and a country, namely Britain, whose history is one of a falling Empire and wars against nations trying to fight for their independence against that Empire.'
I saw him on the train:
Prince of Wales insignia on his cap,
bowing to German motto 'Ich Dien',
ornate white feathers incongruous above flak.
He was only about eighteen ;
a woman with her shopping carriers
smiled proudly,as if he were her son,
but I frowned with memories.
I know I shouldn't have done;
maybe he couldn't have helped
joining the murderous profession :
kidnap threat of dole and debt.
Rehearsed a condemnation in my head:
he would've thought me mad,
like the daily traveller arguing with himself
about all the houses as we pass.
How could he know I saw Belfast,
his face blackened, his camouflage
a daily menace ; guns fired at innocents
under orders, or in the wrong place.
Both of us got out in Merthyr,
boarded-up pubs, buildings falling down ;
his badge insisting 'occupier', 'invader',
as he marched homeward in a familiar town.