Years ago, every Boxing Day, huntsmen and women would gather outside the local pub in all their finery to drink the finest liquor, before riding off on a hunt over the Waun at the back of my house.
There were few villagers present and this hunt has now gone, with nobody mourning its passing.
I have lived in the countryside (though close to the urban environment in Merthyr) for most of my life : the village of Penparcau near Aberystwyth, in Horseheath then Whittlesford in Cambridgeshire and for the last 32 years in Heolgerrig.
When we hear shooting disturbing the peace on a Sunday, it is Clay Pigeon shooters at the farm over by the forestry. I'd far sooner the clay variety and any real birds, despite the noise pollution!
My own experience of rural life has been largely contrary to the picture created by Labour MP Kate Hoey , the chair of the Countryside Alliance and her predominantly right-wing supporters. It bears out a recent survey that 70% of people in the country are not supportive of fox-hunting.
In Penparcau, there was certainly some fishing going on, but most of the poaching was from fruit trees! Poached pears maybe! In Horseheath, the only form of hunting I encountered was 'rabbiting' , where local lads would follow combine harvesters with sticks and attempt to club to death any rabbits who ran into the open. I joined them one day and and saw more wasps killed than rabbits!
Now in Heolgerrig the hunt has gone and foxes can run free. I have rarely spotted them, but when I have I've been awe-struck by their unique movement and flash of ruddy-brown; following their instincts for hunting over the rough terrain.
It's their world, but it's our choice. And we can choose between destroying beauty or valuing it.
In all the years I've taught I have seldom come across pupils who have taken part in hunts. One girl, however , was very enthusiastic and described vividly to the class how she was 'blooded' in an initiation ceremony, where the fox's brush was smeared across her face after it had been cut off. The class were horrified!
Of course, there are serious problems with the legislation passed under the last Labour Government. There are far too many loopholes which the hunters can readily exploit. If Labour had been truly committed to banning fox-hunting then it would have been party policy and not a free vote where the likes of Hoey can rebel.
What is required is an act outlawing all fox-hunting, in the same way that other brutal so-called 'blood sports' such as badger baiting have been criminalised .
On Boxing Day there were 270 hunts with 91 foxes slaughtered. Most hunts operated legally, but some did not. Did the police try to enforce the law on this? No, they did not!
People can be jailed for first offences after the riots merely for posting messages on Facebook or receiving stolen goods, but there is no way the police are going to take on the forces of the Establishment who regularly snub the law in this way.
Cameron has pledged his desire to repeal the act and for there to be a free vote. He uses the complexity of the law as a pretext.
Hoey's Countryside Alliance talks about 'pride for rural communities' yet this is fundamentally a class question. The majority of hunts are organised for the wealthy by the wealthy; a load of posh toffs showing off, just as the Royal Family do with their tradition of hunting.
Mrs Windsor may be the patron of the RSPCA, but that doesn't stop her family from shooting birds at their Sandringham estate on Boxing Day. What a shame Philip Windsor couldn't join them!
If I were to do a leftie version of Jeremy Clarkson, I'd say we should be hunting them down and not the innocent animals they kill for no other reason than their so-called 'fun'.
If the right-wing Countryside Alliance actually cared about rural matters, then it would address the real problems : the terrible transport services, the poverty, closure of shops and post offices and depopulation of the young especially.
In Cymru, this still has many consequences, as young people leave the countryside for work and affordable housing. The Welsh language dies in these areas as a generation moves away.
In my own village there is the constant threat of opencast mining and the fact that the whole of the Waun could be decimated by the greed for cheap power-station coal.
Those foxes, like so many other wild animals, are a vital contact with the land and whenever we catch glimpses of them it's an insight into a wild world ( think I'm quoting Cat Stevens!) which exists so close to our houses.
Long may that world thrive. Most villagers look out on the Waun or walk over its long grass and reed-clumps and do not want it invaded by hunters on horses, armies of the rich who think the land belongs to them.
The following poem is about the sighting of a fox when I was teaching at Radyr Comp. near Cardiff. Amazingly, I was sitting reading Chaucer's 'Pardoner's Tale' ( in which a fox plays an important part) when I spotted him.
Fox in the School
Out of the staff room window
I see a fox stealthing
along the drive to the school entrance.
I am reading Chaucer
and so wonder, is he ‘daun Russell’,
a figment of my studying?
But he (or she) is so wintery,
so city-brushed with grey,
so unlike any choleric dream,
that I know he’s real
and heading for Reception
as if for an appointment.
I fancy him the guardian
of one of our slyest customers,
but then dismiss the stereotype.
He seems to sense my spying
and runs away, low and fearful
towards a gap in the fence.
I resume my reading, knowing
that fox will not be out-witted,
avoiding, as he did, any crowing man.
I think I almost discovered the Higgs boson subatomic particles which the Smiley One is busy searching for in Switzerland with the Large Hadron Collider.
Almost. Like him. A single peak. Not enough evidence however.
It wasn't during my 21st birthday celebrations in Aberystwyth, when I hitched a ride on a stolen tipper truck after falling in a ditch and sped dow Bronglais Hill.
No, it was the Zen experience described in the poem following this, because there is something strangely akin to Zen Buddhism about the search for the so-called 'god particle'.
At Aber Uni, in my third year and whilst still a trainee anarchist, reading 'Black Flag' and dreaming of fighting Franco (still in power in Spain), I immersed myself in Zen. Much of my poetry dealt with it, only to the extent that any mind-matter can approach something outside all reasoning.
At one stage, I was so involved that I seriously considered not doing my final exams at all! Even my mother, famously indifferent to the plight of her offspring, advised me against this.
It was undoubtedly a reaction to too much analysis and not enough creativity. The more I delved into literature, the less I knew and like Steinbeck in the 'Sea of Cortez', I wanted to find a vital link between everything in the universe. I was nothing if not ambitious!
It appeared that whilst outwardly demonstrating the world as 'a grain of sand' and pointing to an existentialist absurdity of all human struggle in the face of mortality, ultimately it didn't depend on emptiness, but an energy which filled the void.
The quest for the Higgs boson and that energy field which could have formed the universe - running through all matter - is remarkably similar to the aims of Zen.
The one major difference is that through Zen you can plug into this energy, a spiritual force : by meditation you can reach outside the confines of the human mind and all its theories.
It is an important difference, of course, but one which excites me ( giving me a smile like Prof. Cox ). Could our knowledge ever actually pinpoint this invisible energy field in the way that Zen can, in a single moment of enlightenment (the 'Mu' of the poem below)?
As an atheist intrigued by spiritual journeys, I would still veer towards the sheer thrill of scientific discovery, but that we must never believe we can capture the Ultimate Truth.
Religions believe they possess this Truth and Zen is no different, though it defies any book to do so. I think it's more humble to accept that we are in a constant state of doubt (does that make me an agnostic?).
Christmas brings to the fore this tension between spiritual significance and materialism. Like Gruff Rhys of the Super Furries, who has just released an 'Atheist Xmas' ep, I would say that Christmas has long ceased to have much spiritual significance.
While I do enjoy it as a time of family and of food and drink, even that is tempered by my vegetarian reaction to all those turkeys slaughtered needlessly.
I have definitely been a pain this year, saying things like - 'If I were a Christian, I'd have nothing to do with it! The commercialism has destroyed the message.' It's nothing new, but every year the shopping frenzy seems to get more fraught.
And on a wider scale, I can't help but thinking of those who are poor and who will get into terrible debt trying to buy what they have always bought, at a time of such deep recession.
If I were to pursue a spiritual life then Zen would be the way. My friend Alwyn, the subject of my poem in 'Moor Music' called 'Peacetime Yossarian'
always claimed to be a Zen Buddhist, but then would get pissed on Belgian beer and go to sleep up a tree!
I'm not sure I could deny myself those pleasures which would be necessary to live that religion properly, because surely the meaning of Buddhism is that the inner and outer lives must tally.
The LHC may never prove the existence of an energy field which has filled a vacuum, the very source of our being, and the Higgs boson may only be a signpost towards it.
We will never know everything and praise be for that!
SEARCHING FOR ZEN
I read 'Zen Flesh, Zen Bones'.
I liked those stories, like the one
about the thief caught stealing from the monk,
when the monk declared - 'You forgot to take the moon!'
At least, that's how I remember it.
I didn't own a lot,
but would've fought anyone
to keep my record collection.
I didn't like the way those monks
beat their pupils into enlightenment:
the opposite of meditation defying all logic.
Those puzzles turned themselves inside out ,
ended up insisting - 'We are only words
after all, part of the illusion.'
But there I was, reading about Zen
to find out its meaning!
The moment of truth came
when I decided to consult Al Green
who was resident Zen guru
in the Old Union Lounge,
smoked what he called 'herbal tobacco',
drew cartoons of Diogenes
for our underground magazine.
'Al?' I asked ( at his feet, like a disciple,
thinking about Bodhidharma and his long trek),
'Al.........what is the essence of Zen?'
Long pause. Stroking of moustache and beard.
Puffing out of perfumed smoke.
'Mu!' he went, like a soft-lowing cow.
Only that. No-thing. Beyond............
'The birds are the keepers of our secrets' sings Guy Garvey on Elbow's latest album 'Build A Rocket Boys'. I've read many poems about birds which have had a profound effect on me, many by Ted Hughes and R.S.Thomas, but there are few songs about our avian friends which do likewise.
Elbow's is certainly one, with its changing perspectives and two very different versions : I actually prefer the reprise sung by one John Moseley, as it's so unusual to hear such an aging voice on a rock song and one which fits so well with the reflective subject-matter.
Few songs about birds have stayed with me, though 'Blackbird' by The Beatles is an exception. Walking home late at night last week I heard a blackbird singing mellifluously. Immediately, that song sprang to mind and filled my head for the long trek uphill, with its remarkable words about the healing qualities of the birdsong.
Unlike my brother , I am no twitcher. While he travels the world in search of rare and interesting birds ( recently, a kiwi in the wild in New Zealand) and can identify any by song or call, I am an amateur watcher.
However, they have played a constant and vital role in my poetry, from my early 'Martins' right up to 'Birds On High Wires' (most certainly finches) from my latest book 'Moor Music'.
They also play an important role in Welsh 'idiomau' and the work I've written in conjunction with Merthyr artist Gus Payne is full of them. Just one example is 'Gwyn y gwel y fran ei chyw' ( 'the hen crow sees her chick as white'), where Gus's painting shows monkeys taking over a house, my prose-poem describes a mother who, like a 'hen bird' can see no wrong in her delinquent son, even when he ends up in prison!
Birds have told so much about the changing nature of this country; revelators rather than 'keepers of secrets'. Kingfishers have returned to our once blackened rivers, but sadly I've not witnessed them. However, I have regularly seen the still and elegant herons and the cormorants at Radyr Weir, messengers of the water clarity and the proliferation of fish there.
I'm always thrilled and astonished to notice red kites flying so close to major roads as you cross Cymru. This threatened breed seems symbolic of our nation itself, which has been saved from the brink of extinction, both politically and culturally.
And now, as early as five in the evening, when the sky's less cloudy and under a clearer moon, I often hear owls making their 'gwdihw' sound
( Welsh-speaking owls, of course!). Their calls reminding of the wild hunting-grounds of the Waun, how precious it is and how it must never be destroyed for an opencast mine.
Sometimes there are rare visitors, like Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, feeding at our garden oak for a moment. We have had homing pigeons who have used the garage roof as a stopover hotel and even one tamed jackdaw who would talk to you and land on your arm. I enjoy watching our regulars, like the pair of nuthatches who eat peanuts upside down like a couple of Antipodean headbangers!
On my travels I've always been on look-out for birds.
Everywhere in Japan there were black kites and in Hiroshima I saw footage of the scenes after the atom bomb was dropped. Above the devastation I could make out those same kites, circling like vultures.
I have had a few scrapes with birds as well in my time, but mostly from a distance. I've been shat on by a seagull in Scotland, rook in Ireland and a pigeon with the runs in Cardiff! None brought me luck! Especially not the last one , as I had to buy a new pair of jeans the damage was so great!
When trapped they can be terrifying creatures. I have managed to coax quite a few out of our garage, but my most petrifying Hitchcockian experience was when we lived in the Rhymney valley. Starlings got into the house when we were out and I returned home to the sight of them, perched at several windows, staring out as though the house was theirs. My wife refused to enter till I'd cleared the place and it took me ages of flapping ,fluttering and sheer panic to persuade them out of openings.
When I wrote the poem below I couldn't help but recall the man on the beach in Wales who was blinded in one eye by the injured gannet he'd picked up to try and rescue ( it had panicked because of his dog).
This seagull seemed more street-wise than anything ( well, platform-wise at least).
Anyone else got strange bird tales?
KAIRDIFF CENTRAL SEAGULL
I've never felt threatened by a seagull before,
but this one's got 'STREET'
written along its beak,
which suddenly looks sharp
as a Stanley knife.
I wouldn't be surprised
by its swagger and attitude
if it wasn't into NWA or Tupac.
It eyes up my food
as if it already owns it
and I recall those stories of seabirds
snatching pasties or putting eyes out.
Those days spent by Aber pier
throwing crusts to balletic birds
seem a century away,
this creature's Kairdiff Central
born and bred, could pick
a packet from the rails
just before the inter-city's in.
It struts around me :
I am surrounded by a single bird!
Its pupils are two barrels
aiming straight at my cheese and celery.
I gulp the sandwich whole
like a heron with a fish.
Bro Seagull saunters off
to mug a kid with a burger
There have been unprecedented, widespread mourning and tributes (notably in football circles) to Wales manager Gary Speed. By all accounts, he was a much loved and respected man and these are fitting. However, a massive question-mark remains: why did he commit suicide when so much in his public life seemed to be going well? Only that day he'd spoken on Football Focus about the future of Welsh football and even the most cynical of fans could only agree with his optimism. It's not just about stars like Bale, Bellamy and Ramsey, but the achievements of the team to play as a unit with a system which suited them to perfection. This should be seen as one of Speed's greatest legacies.
Why did it happen? Nobody has referred to bouts of depression, so we can only assume something truly terrible was happening in his personal life; something which may never be revealed. Perhaps he was a person who internalised everything and who, when it came to his own problems, felt he had no-one to turn to.
It's one thing to have friends you associate with and discuss the game, but another to have someone to confide in and trust, who can listen and proffer sound advice.
Though he appears not to have suffered from clinical depression, his action would certainly suggest that his mind was totally imbalanced. I think many have been close to that, but haven't taken that final step which shuns all rationality.
One year in particular in my life , I was often close to such despair.
I had left university with no idea what I was going to do next. I returned to live with my grandmother, who was rapidly deteriorating with Alzheimer's disease. In the same house, but living totally separately in the living-room he had commandeered, was my father.
He had always suffered from mental illness though it had never (looking back) been successfully diagnosed. He continually lived on the edge and was ready to take those nearest to him with him into the abyss. His violence was invariably of a verbal rather than physical kind, though he had been sacked from a few jobs for assaulting bosses.
I managed to get a job 'on the pumps' at a local garage and two lunchtime incidents illustrate the trauma of that period.
I returned home once to find my gran flat out on the kitchen floor. At first I thought she was dead, but quickly realised she was unconscious. A nurse lived opposite, but when I ran across she wasn't at home, so I phoned for an ambulance. The paramedics soon brought her round and it was only then that I smelt the strong stench of brandy.
Normally she drank sherry and forgot she'd had a glass, so would take another and another......the bottle had run out and she'd turned to the medicinal brandy, in the cupboard alongside the Rennies and TCP.
My grandmother had been a highly intelligent woman, a dedicated Primary teacher and literature-lover and it was tragic to see how this disease took over her whole life and destroyed her last days.
Another lunchtime and my father was unusually at home. After an altercation, he stood at the doorway preventing me from leaving. As I went to brush him aside, the next thing I knew we were wrestling on the floor. We'd never fought before, though he had threatened with knives and ,more often, used the car as a weapon by driving like a maniac when he completely lost it ( in Cambridge, he once ran a policeman down!).
He could be most charming and credible, a well-read person who was interested in both sciences and arts. He was also a total egomaniac, whose idea of conversation was a long monologue, without a pause.
That year, close friends saved me in Barry, but drink was also my regular companion and I used it for vital release as well as a need for oblivion. It was the latter's dark danger which made that year so close to the brink for me. I could easily have become dependent on alcohol to escape my predicament.
My father took strong tranquillisers to lessen the effects, while my gran could only turn to sherry to numb the pain. Like her, I followed that way all too regularly.
Looking at my family, I'm astounded how commonplace mental illness has been and how unresolved. It seems like the brain is the last undiscovered continent and for all our drugs and therapies it's probable that , in the future, our methods will be seen as akin to Medieval trepanning!
My sister fractured her skull falling on a mountain in Israel and was very fortunate to survive. She has never recovered from this and epilepsy has been one of the many awful consequences.
I was shocked to find that my mother had become addicted to temazepan in the 1970s, when she should have been weaned off it instead.
She had been someone who regarded mental illness as a sign of 'weakness' and all pills as unnecessary, so it was even more appalling to learn about this and her later admission into a psychatric hospital must surely have had something to do with those tablets.
When I think of my mother's addiction now, I 'm reminded of her scream. I was occasionally woken by its screech-owl pitch when I shared a house with her and my step-father. It seemed like all her repressed emotions had found a way out in the middle of the night.
We lived in a house of bones then :
it was a white house.
Bones of animals ground for glue,
a smell which clung like petrol fumes.
I always felt like a lodger there.
My shelf of books alphabetically ordered,
any adventurous dust rounded up
and marched into the garden.
A stain was a direct insult.
Sometimes I'd kick the walls
and try out new swear words
just to see if the bones would break.
My mother polished them every day
so they resembled chair legs.
My step-father ordered them
so they hung like a skeleton.
I was woken by a scream in the middle
of the night, my mother's scream;
as if she was being murdered,
a scalpel to her brain.
The house of bones became
a house of nerves and the white
became the face of my mother,
whose voice tore at walls and doors.
The morning after in that place
the gluey stench came back
and stuck my questions down.
Dust rose, like fo