Snowed in ; bound in snow. Whoever thought of a 'blanket' must've witnessed a very different scene.
This is a desert. Sun glitter moorland and waste-tips like sleeping polar bears. No tracks discernible except the birds.
Icicles forming on your nose. Icicles like transparent stalactites, swords ready to skewer. A new game of knocking them off with a brush.
Silence of the Close only broken by someone caught at the turning-point, like a fly in an icy web. No grit and spades are useless as they rev, burn rubber and skid.
Almost a week without the car and I join the other hunter-gatherers every day on the trek down to town, rucksacks ready ; lists as long as those icicles. Impossible lists you know you're never going to bring back home.
Throw off the turkey as ballast on the long trudge uphill. A trail of groceries left along the roadside, the heaviest first (except the booze,of course).
The best and worst of a sense of community. Few come out to dig their patch, though two men make sure their own drives are free of the white stuff. A Post Office van gets stuck and one young fella come to its aid armed with a penknife (not even a Swiss one!).
Yet, a few weeks back our engine didn't start and we were rescued by neighbours ; one with a tow rope and the other a Land Rover.
Two snowmen, ours and a rival family's, face each other in a stand off. Theirs leans precariously like he is drunk, while ours has weirdly got shells for eyes. I imagine them meeting at midnight half way along the Close, duelling with their carrot noses.
4 by 4's rule the roads, but I walk along them defiantly. A non-driver , I imagine a world without cars, but really need to learn to ski instead. One day I'm at the Retail Park and it's snowing fast : I'm the only one there and a buy a bath plug to celebrate.
For somebody into solidarity and sharing , I become a survivalist come snowfall. I gloat in my mountain boots as betrainered and stilletoed crazies slip and slide and stumble. I am a hunter-scavenger seeking out the early bread and avoiding the Christmas queues.
People suddenly discover they can communicate at bus-stops and on treacherous walks along ice-packed pavements. The topic of conversation is invariably the snow and how it is universally loathed.
This week, after the great thaw, I shall retrace my steps and try to find those discarded groceries. The turkey might still be hanging in that privet hedge. As a veggie, I don't really want to find it, though the container for the cake may be useful for storing the long icicle my young daughter has adopted and stuffed in the freezer.
The Bloody Snow
I ate the bloody snow
t me its jest a nuisance now,
slike God’s dandruff,
wish ee’d stop shakin is locks.
It’s orright on cards
or when it comes an goes,
but stickin dayz on end,
ands an feet never bin s cold.
Pavements like slidy glass:
angin onto walls an fences,
my ol rag n bone body
worryin down t the bus-stop.
In-a soopermarket mad panic
ev’ryone’s buyin undreds o loaves,
they mus be off theyer trolleys,
I on’y bought ten t freeze.
Tha’s all ‘ey talk about in-a queues,
yew’d swear we woz Eskimos,
it’s snow this an ice that
an ow it’s warmer in Vladi-bloody-vostock!
All very well f kids doin angels
an snowmen an sledgin down ev’ry slope,
but f me it’s getting my repeat
so’s I don’ ave a nasty turn.
I ate the bloody snow,
no matter ow many blankets at night
an wha will-a gas bill be like,
even-a sun carn make it go.
Fair play, some neighbours do ask :
‘Need anythin? Milk or bread?’
Others dig theyr own paths,
eads down whenever I pass.
Occasionally I end a poetry reading by doing 'Beefheart Blues', a tribute to the Captain and also to the blues-harp, with an intro from his song - 'Gimme dat harp boy/ It ain't no rich man's toy...' I explain briefly who Beefheart is.
Last Friday he died in California as a result of his MS, aged 69. Like the creator of The Simpsons Matt Groening (whose life changed forever when he heard 'Trout Mask Replica' ), my life has been profoundly influenced by him.
At 18, when I went off to Aber Uni.my two musical mentors became the DJ John Peel and one Pete Appleby. Pete was a scouser even though he came from Wallesy and had the most incredibly eclectic taste, anything from James Brown to Albinoni. Beefheart was one of his passions and Peel was an equally strong advocate.
I had never heard anything like it, not even the Howlin' Wolf that Pete also played. He possessed the record 'Strictly Personal' (not Beefheart's favourite, I later learnt) which, despite the over-production, was mind-blowing. It was primitive, raw, bluesy yet at the same time surreal, ethereal and full of extraordinary changes of rhythm and jagged guitar-playing.
From that moment, I was hooked. I went on to buy just about everything in vinyl, including 'Trout Mask Replica' in a torn sleeve hiding two immaculate albums inside, from a second-hand record shop in Barry. Looking back, there is an amazing journey from the gutsy 'Safe As Milk' to the jazzy poetry of 'Ice Cream For Crow'.
'Trout Mask Replica' is always lauded as his classic, but I don't see it that way. No one album encapsulates the restless experimentation and inventive wordplay. In this respect I'd compare him to Tom Waits, much influenced by Beefheart : there are so many albums which show his greatness and the two of them also shared one of the most original of all guitarists, Marc Ribot.
I shared a digs with Pete and others. Pete was a blues-harp player and left his 'gob iron ' around the place. With his permission I used to pick it up and have a go : I blew and blew (often along to Beefheart) till eventually I bent the notes and produced a worthy wail.'Gimme dat harp boy ' became my anthem. Together with Pete, who played a mean boogie piano and 'Red Mal' on acoustic guitar, we would embark on late night , drunken jam sessions.
During these I would sing improvised blues about just about anything, from stolen loaves to huge breakers. Of course, my vocal style of choice was very similar to the Captain's, that gruffly-weird wolf tone. It was the closest I've ever been to singing in a band, those raucous sessions always on the edge of chaos but never falling into the abyss, except the time when 'Red Mal' did collapse in the bogs next to his beloved guitar and was in no fit state to join in.
A lot of the music I listen to and love nowadays bears the unmistakable mark of Beefheart : the Super Furries, Nick Cave and , above all, Tom Waits. Many obituaries have been written, but I've heard nothing on television. Beefheart, for years a painter and recluse, was never a friend of fame. But he was a real one-off and in these times of so much manufactured music, we should look again to him.
No rich man's toy
high tone flier
no rich man's toy.
The students are revolting! I was once a revolting student. I underwent a rapid change from 6th form to university. As a school pupil my best friend was an avid Tory whose ambition was to be Prime Minister (mine was to be Rhyme Minister!). Mind, when he invited me to accompany him to the Garden Party of the local Tory grandee, I did end up lobbing glasses at toffs in their punts, so I must've been inclining leftwards then.
On arriving at Aberystwyth I signed up straight away for a spoof International brigade to fight General Pinochet in Chile. My best mate was a Commie from Yorkshire and we went to a Labour Party meeting in the first week, to be faced with grey besuited careerists. That was my first and last meeting of that political party.
My friends were all anarchists, Commies and Trots and the moment of truth came for us when one Neil Hamilton got elected as editor of the uni. newspaper 'Courier'. A Monday Club member, he was known as a posh right-winger from - of all places - Ystrad Mynach! I believe he went on to become a disgraced MP and minor celebrity.
This sparked the creation of 'Rasp', an alternative college paper, typed up and then rolled out during endless hours on a Gestetner in the Old Union building. Pipe-smoking Zen Buddhists, leftists and hippies banded together to produce a lively mixture.
An Irish republican, who later went on to serve a prison sentence for conspiracy, was a major influence. We exposed Hamilton and wrote about his attendance at neo-fascist rallies on the Continent. Years later 'Panorama' covered the same story, but were forced to deny it after Hamilton's complaints.
We didn't shy from involvement in local issues either and covered the poor conditions in rented properties in the Aber area. We poked fun at the setting up of the first ever Welsh language hall for students , Pantycelyn, by carrying a picture of Buckingham Palace on the cover!
I wrote a serialised and unfinished novel called 'The Purple Tang of Rasquar Spinach'. It was very weird and involved the obsessive use of 'anti-images'. One ex-Uni. friend has joked that it's about time it was reissued in Penguin Modern Classics! I think I managed to pull one Rasp-involved 'chick' on the basis of it. She thought I must've been on some very powerful substances to have written such a thing and was disappointed to find I was a mere beer-swiller ( with an occasional tendency to blow).
'Rasp' took over our lives, but there are aspects I very much regret. Why did we ignore the most powerfully militant group at that time, Cymdeithas yr Iaith? They were busy occupying buildings and destroying forms, in a concerted campaign of civil disobedience. In retrospect, we were Anglo-centric and too influenced by 'Private Eye' to see the things directly around
us at the time.
There was a squat in town where we sometimes gathered, there were marches and furious protests against dubious speakers invited by the International Politics department. We tried a couple of times to get to big demo's elsewhere, but broke down not far from town. 'The Revolution Ends in Capel Bangor' was our motto.
Only when studying for a PGCE did something very significant happen. A Labour Government was in power, but they had to turn to the IMF for assistance due to a debt crisis (sounds familiar). They insisted on a series of scathing cuts, especially on the teaching budget and we decided to occupy the Education Dept. I was proud to move the motion to do so.
It was here, during the few days of the occupation, that I fully realised that the most politicised and active students were those from Cymdeithas. They filled the place with their enthusiasm, experiences of direct action and their folk songs. What we achieved was publicity for the cause, but I certainly never trusted a Labour administration again.
So, I must admit to being very proud of the majority of students who have taken to the streets. Most will not be affected by the rise in tuition fees, yet have protested in large numbers.
The abolition of EMA's will have disastrous consequences. Many of the poorer college and 6th form students won't be able to remain in education, never mind going to uni. 80% cuts in teaching budgets mean that many departments and , quite possibly, whole universities will be closed down.
Any issues regarding police brutality and counter-productive actions by a few students should not detract from the central purpose of these protests.
How is higher education to be funded if not by its part-privatisation? Well, to begin with, students ( and their parents) have to pay for books and accomodation, so the cost is already very high without exorbitant fees. There must be no tuition fees at all.
When Keith Joseph contemplated their introduction under Thatcher he retreated, fearing revolt. But New Labour brought them in : too many of the upper echelons of the NUS being those besuited careerists. The money now spent on the monarchy and war, on nuclear weapons and subsidising banks which will end up privately-owned again in time, should all go to restoring EMA's and making higher education as free as possible ( i.e. no fees).
I've seen the spirit of 'Rasp' coming from students on the streets, caring more about the future for everyone than self-interest. It's 'The Fire This Time'!
The innocents pay for war
with many deaths.
The poor pay for destitution
with ill health.
Students pay for education
with lifetimes of debt.
Animals pay for their existence
by being killed and ate.
Unemployed pay for redundancy
by being forced into unpaid work.
Disabled pay for incapacities
by having their benefits cut.
The bankers pay for creating it
by putting their bonuses up.
Accent and dialect have always been fundamental to my writing and life in general, though I'm not entirely sure where this originates.
The comedian Michael MacIntyre has a great skit where he combines all his talent for observation, body-humour and mimicry. He describes how a journey across the 'country' ( he means England) produces the curious phenomenon of moving from a broad West Country 'Orrrrigh?' through a genteel Home Counties 'Hello!', to an equally thick East Anglian accent 'Orrrrigh?' again.
My early childhood journey from Aberystwyth to Cambridge was quite a shock. Arriving at the city with a strong Cardi accent I hated the piss-taking and soon fitted in, though never quite adopted the strangulated Cockney of the working-class of that university city. While walking to school, one boy greeted me every day by calling out 'Watcha mate!'. I was convinced it was a threat, just by the sound of it (I was certain he'd said 'Watch it!'). I never replied. He must have thought me stuck up.
My first real awareness of dialect combined with a distinctive accent came when we moved to the village of Horseheath, on the edge of Cambridgeshire. The burrs and deeply-rounded vowels were reminiscent of my grandparents hint of the Somerset where they both grew up. I made friends there from all classes, from the rector's son to farm and factory workers (I played for a local factory footie team). Their voices reflected the rolling chalk hills and densely packed barley fields. My brother - a student at Cambridge at the time - dismissed the accent I'd willingly taken on, with.... 'You sound just like a bumpkin!'
The same level of revelation came when I went to live in the town of my other grandparents, Barry. It wasn't really until I took a gap year to work at two garages there, that I came to terms with its accent. Working alongside pump attendants and mechanics I listened intently to them and soon my voice echoed theirs. I wasn't conscious much of dialect though, apart from the ubiquitous phrases such as 'good as gold!'
One pump attendant with a very strong accent was virtually indecipherable, but I loved his cynicism and contempt for customers with their posh cars. His squeezed and extended vowels were especially harsh, so he sounded like a human crow with his 'Whaaaaaaat?' In retrospect, it was like a mockery of the Cardiff accent.
Belfast was something else. Although me and my wife actually lived near Ballymena, we spent every weekend in Belfast and her accent and dialect were steeped in the Falls Road. I was fascinated by its richness and the fact that certain phrases were only used by the Catholic/nationalist/republican people : one being 'smile like a goat a-hanging' , which refers to the Puck Fair, where a goat is raised high as king. Most of the phrases, however, crossed the great divide, such as 'wee toady' (very small) and 'skrake of dawn'(early in the morning).
Belfast has never left me. I still use words like 'banjaxed' (meaning not functioning ) to the utter bewilderment of those around me outside my home. Ironically, I refused to speak at all when travelling in the black taxis of the Falls; afraid to arouse suspicion. The next year we moved to W.Germany and the irony was compounded by the fact that one fellow teacher of EFL dubbed me - 'the Belfast Welshman'. My weird amalgam of East Anglia/Barry/Belfast must have baffled the ear.
Merthyr has had the most profound impact on my work and my consciousness. In a tough Comp. the dialect was a tool of survival. When you were called 'Angin!' , you needed to know the degree of insult! I was interested to find the influence of the Welsh language as well, not just on the vocabulary (words like 'cwtch' and 'twti down'), but on the nature of the dialect, with its adherence to flow and sound. Instead of the exact 'going up the mountain', you have the running 'goin up-a mountain', much like mutations in Welsh.
I remember a review of my book of stories 'Wanting To Belong', written by a Rhondda writer.who questioned my use of 'wuz' and 'woz' as unnecessary. Yet, while it may not exist in the Rhondda, this features 'round yer', with the shorter 'wuz' and longer 'woz' both prevalent.
Though I definitely do not talk with a Merthyr accent, I use the greeting 'Orrigh?' all the time. I recall a particularly pretentious Deputy Head who always insisted on replying to this with - 'Yes, I'm fine Michael....and you?'
Moreover, there is always a voice in my head which drops all its 'h's' and 'g's from endings to perfection.
My mate Jazz said -
'I don' wanna be funny but.....
ave yew an yewer missis split?'
'Not that I know of,' I replied,
'unless she aven tol me summin.'
'Coz this woman I know
she comes up t me an sayz......
yewer fren, y'know, tha poet.....
well, ee've goh a profile on 'is website
'Well , it's not me, defnitlee.
Mus be the other Mike Jenkins,
American footballer, there's a whool website
jest dedicated to is girlfren's.'
'No, it woz yew! Ee int from Merthyr!'
My mate Jazz said -
'It's amazin what gets put on-a net....
las week this woman up-a road phones up.
'Yew orright, Jazz?' she sayz,
'coz someone seen on tha intynet
tha yew woz dead!'