Next Thursday (Dec. 2nd) I will be launching my latest book of poetry 'Moor Music' at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, starting at 7.30 pm.
It doesn't seem so long ago that we met in an empty and run-down school in Canton, Cardiff to talk about the future of an arts centre there. There was myself, writer Tony Curtis and someone from the Chapter team then. I recall wondering how those ordinary and fading Primary classrooms could possibly be transformed into the vision which existed for them. Yet that transformation has been remarkable.
At a time when cuts are rife and the Welsh Arts Council have dramatically and inexplicably wielded the axe to lop off many of Wales's finest theatre-in-education companies, such as Gwent Theatre and Spectacle ( with many others under severe threat); at such a time, it's so heartening to hear positive news from Merthyr that our old Town Hall (sold by a Labour Council in the past for £1.00) is set to become an arts centre eventually ,if things go as planned.
This historic building lapsed into dereliction for years, after it was a night-club closed down for all the dubious events and noise on the streets at throwing out time. It should be a highly suitable venue, if car-parking can be found. Even more optimistically, the people behind Chapter want to run the place.
The only problem is that Merthyr will soon have two theatres anyway: one at the College and one at the former Soar Chapel, due to be opened next June. A theatre may not be needed at the arts centre, but a cinema showing the kind of films shown at present in Chapter is essential, despite our new cinema complex at Rhydycar. We also need gallery space and a bar where people can perform ( poets, singer-songwriters and bands), along the lines at the 'Stute at Blackwood.
Of course, workshops and studios should be central to the arts centre just as they are in Chapter. Our last arts centre at Bethesda Chapel closed over 20 years ago and workshops in photography and pottery were important there. Bethesda was run wholly by volunteers and not supported by the Labour Council, who decided to take it over and run it as a Job Club. Sounds much like the utilitarianism of the present ConDems!
Chapter has always been a special place to read. One of my first major readings in Wales was there, when I supported Harri Webb and I replaced newsreader and presenter Vincent Kane ( the Kane fans were polite in their disappointment!).
I've read there many times since: at a Valleys v. Cardiff Poetry Slam, when 'we woz robbed' because one of the Kairdiff crew appointed all his mates as judges; and, one of the best Red Poets gigs was there, when we couldn't fit the audience into the side bar and I think they sat in layers!
I have used the cinema in Chapter a lot more than the theatre over the years and seen many foreign language films and others on limited release, which no other venue would show. Nowadays, I'm found more often in the bar and restaurant, sampling the delights of the real ales and veggie specials. Merthyr needs such a bar and eating-place, as it's as bad for veggies as France at the moment.
At a time when the cuts are widespread and the future's looking bleak for so many, we do need to create alternatives, ones where creativity and imagination thrive. Merthyr deserves this: there is so much talent here and I appreciate that a building isn't everything, but bringing people together can only improve the town.
This poem is from 'Moor Music' and celebrates the imagination -
'Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.'
No equation for imagination -
upon the stars
in a single grain
what shapes are fashioned there
no-one can claim
by deed or sign
the two heads of the atom
whose skulls are melded
the embrace of a bird
whose energy rings the world
space never to be walled
with mind of God
into discovery of doubt
a bed of dust
but always, always
the infinite layers
Let's have an 80's revival, OMD , Heaven 17 the lot of them. One of the better bands then, Big Country (guitars like bagpipes and not a synth in sight) are even back touring.
Let's have an 80's revival and close down every pit. No sorry, they've done that. So what's left to privatise or shut? The health service, education, the welfare state?
Let's have an 80's revival and Labour can pose as left-wingers: champions of the working-class they abandoned. Everyone can protest because that party will be on the marches with their decent speeches, forgetting to mention that they created this society ruled over by unregulated banks and with a property ethos which sees housing as investment not places to live.
But there are subtle differences. In the 80's there were a number of groups around in popular music who really did represent an alternative.One of the finest was Carter USM,hailed by DJ John Peel and a significant force in their time. They made the most unique sound ; a weird hybrid of punk and Phil Spector layers, their songs were always witty and often surreal and cutting. Another band who were dismissed by Peel were my favourites of that time, Runrig from Scotland. I even felt strongly enough to write to Peel putting their case. They were often full of nationalist fervour (two went on to represent the SNP, while singer Donnie Munro was a Labour politician), but had a number of songs steeped in working-class protest, such as 'Ravenscraig', about the closure of that steel-works. Like the Super Furry Animals and Glasvegas today, they sang in their own distinctive accents. At their gigs they always flew the red flag, blowing in a wind-machine.
Today, it's much harder to find voices of dissent and rebellion amongst the bands. Where are the new Pogues or , indeed, Christy Moore's singular and highly political folk-jazz combo Moving Hearts?
It is primarily from singer-songwriters that we find stirring and vital responses to our times. The two best examples are Richard Thompson's 'The Money Shuffle' and Thea Gilmore's 'We Built A Monster', two distinctive perspectives, though both rail against the capitalist system which is destroying us.
'The Money Shuffle' is from Thompson's latest cd 'Dream Attic' and interestingly takes the viewpoint of the banker in a Randy Newman manner. The banker begins the song by announcing his kindness and normality, but by the first chorus he can't disguise his overriding meglomania - 'I've got you right where I want you'. The exhortation to do the 'money shuffle' makes the listener think 'Yes, we've been had!'
Gilmore's song is very different but shares theb idea that 'we' have created this culture of greed and wheeler-dealing. It's all the more remarkable because it's from her album 'Harpo's Ghost' released in 2006, before the present recession took hold. Like Thompson's , it is uptempo yet scathing. While Thompson's is satirical, Gilmore creates an image which holds the whole song together, of a frightening monster, an all-consuming beast which 'can raise up armies it can blow 'em full of holes'. Certainly the war in Iraq must have been an inspiration, but the song focusses on the City itself -'hissing like a wildcat just about to fight'.
It's important there are voices out there, however rare they may be. I do believe that out of the drains and ditches,out of walk-outs and marches, out of our desperation for an alternative world, there will emerge a music 'never-been-done-before-yet-sounding-so-familiar'. Come the times, come the music.
In 'scissor,paper,stone' it's rock cannot be cut!
LAND OF THE SUPER FURRIES
I don't believe in Prince's Days,
in marching for a Christian Saint,
in eating leeks like Shakey's Fluellen
(he didn't even bother with the spelling!).
I don't believe in daffodils,
the wild poppy is Cymru's flower;
in pointless ancient Welsh kings
who wielded too much power.
I don't believe in celebrities,
rich exiles like Dame Shirley or Sir Tom,
in lickspittle doff-your-cap bowing
we're supposed to show to royalty.
I believe in the land of the Super Furries,
where the spirit of Gwyn Alf strides,
where the words of Gwenallt and Idris Davies
raise their fists side by side.
When the Royal Welch Fusiliers took the field at last Sunday’s south Wales derby led by their regimental goat, to the strains of ‘Men of Harlech’ (sung by Bryn Terfel, I’m sure), I seemed to be the only one in the entire stadium not clapping along. Cardiff and Swansea fans – despite the Bluebirds’ Welsh dragons and St. David’s banners and Swansea’s several Union Jacks – clapped in unison.
If my friend and comrade Jack Gilbert – a true socialist from Derby – were still alive, he would have stood with us in our motionless protest. As would another absent friend, missing the game, who has been on many anti-war marches.
On Remembrance Sunday, I wonder who I should remember. Should it be my Pontypridd grandfather, who fought in the trenches of the 1st World War, was wounded and gassed, but never really criticized the futility of it all? Or my Somerset grandpa who, because of his deformed spine, was a stretcher-bearer there and, according to family lore, was changed forever by what he saw?
I knew this grandpa much better than the Welsh one, who died when I was young. He never spoke about his experiences; in fact, I only heard from my brother about how seriously he was affected. It was so profound that, a lay preacher before the war, he never returned to a chapel after it. His faith must have been considerably questioned.
I also remember clearly from my close associations with N. Ireland (my wife’s from the Falls Road) those who have been killed by the occupying forces there, the British army. There was the man up my wife’s street, shot dead because his exhaust backfired and many joy-riders executed because they drove through road-blocks. There was the innocent roadie of the well-known group Bananarama killed in west Belfast after a night out and a young boy shot dead because his paint-brush was mistaken for a gun! Worst of all , there was one of the most appalling atrocities carried out there in Dublin and Monaghan, perpetrated by the UVF, who could not have bombed and killed so many without close collusion from the SAS.
It is precisely because I have seen at first hand the terror deployed by the British army as an occupying power, that I cannot join in these celebrations of ‘our boys’.
Not only that, but my wife’s former brother-in-law was actually in the British army, even though he was a Catholic from the Ardoyne. Once, we visited his house in West Germany and stayed there a short while. I have never encountered such a violent society. Fights, wife-beatings and downright animosity to local people were widespread. Army life reflected the nature of that profession: these were men and women trained for violence, for killing. Whenever I hear bland talk of ‘heroes’, I think of one officer I talked to there who expressed great support for Hitler!
If remembrance is ever going to be meaningful, then it must include all the victims of war: soldiers on every side and above all, the innocents who had no choice in the matter. At present Remembrance Day is used as propaganda, suggesting that only the armed forces have suffered. We need fewer bugles and more Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’.
TARGET IN HER OWN HOME
She twitched and her arms shot up
into the air, because of the war.
At any sudden sound from a pan
or door slammed very loud
there was an explosion in her head.
She had known it for years:
evacuated from the shop in a scare,
the man shot dead because of the back-fire
of the exhaust of his car, the soldier
at her feet near her front door
who swivelled to face her, gun cocked.
It made no difference that no-one
actually called it by its name :
‘The Troubles’ sounded so domestic,
till she thought about road-blocks
and army with blacked-up faces
so easily driven through at night.
Her twitch wouldn’t go away.
It followed her across the sea,
in every room whatever her mood,
whatever the news, her jerking upward :
target in her own home.
Books are prominent in our living room, but music has always dominated. Cd’s piled on top of my ancient yet reliable sound system, cd shelves and cupboards, tapes in stacks like multiple games of Jenga ready to topple any moment. All them given to me by the Ace Tapeman Andrew Bartz (to whom my new book is dedicated), who gives them imaginative titles like ‘From Kisses to Concrete’ and ‘Sand in my Pocket’. He should hire himself out as an album namer.
The piano, played at present by my wife and young daughter, is an anchored boat ready to be played afloat. The half ‘cello in the corner just waiting for its bandages to be torn off, its spirit released. The music of my family plays a vital part in my latest book of poems ‘Moor Music’. There’s a poem about my son’s performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, another in memory of my older daughter’s band Gilespi, who brought out one excellent album ‘Methu Chware Gitar’ and also about my young daughter dancing like a spinning top to a live jazz band at a family wedding.
There are poems written under the influence of strongly hallucinatory music, like ‘A Once Strange Face’ written while listening to EST and ‘Insomniac Jazz’ under the darker tones of the Tomasz Stanko Quartet.
The music of the Waun (or moor) at the back of my house is prevalent: the staves of wires where a large flock of finches once gathered and the many reeds playing in the wind. A well-known photo by the late, great Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths proved to be the inspiration for ‘The Boy & The Grand’, which depicts a young boy setting about destroying a Grand piano. Even the absence of sound plays its part and when we visited a magical place in Brittany called ‘Kreizenn ar son’ (or ‘centre of sound’) in a large forest, it turned into a celebration of multifarious sounds, but silence also.
Even the sequence about the war in N. Ireland (‘War Stories’) had a curious origin in music. The title being a song title by a forgotten punk band from Belfast called The Starjets, who released one very good single contrasting comic-book fantasies of war with the real thing going on around them. I can still hear the chorus in my head – ‘War stories, Captain Hurricane/ War stories - this is it, this is it!’
This is the title poem and crystallizes the connection between the moor and the music, all around us in the sonatas of streams –
These are instruments you cannot construct
reeds in winter wind
down down stream
the music you cannot notate
duet of ring doves
echo of the snow
a wind band of starlings
mimicking the other sections
and the sigh
always the sigh
of the oak’s lonely conducting.
My last blog went out as nothing more than the words 'Post Title' repeated twice. It was lost into the black hole of my PC. My older daughter berated me and fellow poet Iqbal Malik was glad to find out it wasn't an ironic post-modern statement! I've been having terrible computer problems , not so much a virus as a recurring sickness : a severe case of the IDS. I have disappeared from Twitterdom at the very time that Iain Duncan Smith was at his patronising and insulting best ,instructing the unemployed of my town to catch a bus to find work. If he'd done his homework, he'd know that in Cardiff alone 15,000 unemployed people are chasing 1,700 vacancies. How can Merthyr people travel for jobs which don't exist? Our biggest employer is the Council with over 2,500 jobs and many of these will be lost with the impending cuts. Our colonial overlords like IDS just do not comprehend the plight of places like the Valleys, neglected and abandoned by every single government. When I first came here over 30 years ago the town was literally surrounded by industries: household names like Hoover, Triang and Kayser Bonder. It was possible to wash your undies in a machine under a lightbulb after falling off your kid's trike, all involving local products. Now there's very little here except retail parks and opencast. All those cheap labour factories attracted by huge grants from the WDA have left for even cheaper labour economies. If the Labour Party has failed to change anything, then the Tories are much more open in their class warfare and IDS comment signifies this. Like the recent Sky documentary, there's a belief that many of the people in this highly creative town - full of drama groups, musicians, artists and writers - are actually feckless plebs who delight in living off Welfare. In fact, the vast majority would relish a job which paid decent wages if they could get one and most of those on disability are the direct consequence of years of heavy industry. Of course, the future is to look to ourselves for solutions, to build up locally run co-operatives using the many skills which still exist and producing sustainable goods. The backing of the Senedd must be crucial in this respect and in all the desire to react politically to the ConDems onslaught, we must never forget the importance of ideals.
IDS ADDRESS TO MERTHYR
Well, little Merthyr folk,
subject of much media vilification,
especially that Sky documentary (you know the one).
This is your friendly ex-Prime Minister,
I’m sure you remember
the great things I’ve done.
No? Well,there’s......and......never mind!
I’m here to inform you about getting a job :
with haste, get on a bus!
Stand 15, it’s the X4 to Cardiff
only £5.50 return, price of a latte in London,
one stop Pont-er-prid.....don’t get off....no jobs there either.
Why not walk along that Queen Street with a placard
advertising your qualities, I’m certain
you’ll fit everything on it.
Or you could just walk into an office
and say, not ‘Gissa job?’......what is it?
‘Any work yer , but?’ (my researchers googled it).
So, it’s easy little Merthyr folk:
get out of your wheelchairs, cast off walking-sticks.
After all, I did it once, equipped with tie and handshake.