Fascinating yet, at times rather frightening, because there was often another side to their strangeness.
The first who made a great impression on me was undoubtedly 'Billy Sticks', who usually stood at the infamous Burton's Corner (where prostitutes were said to hang out).
Billy sold the 'Echo' and had a characteristically plaintive call. He was an emaciated man (hence the nickname) with long grubby mac and an inevitably disgruntled expression.
He is the subject of two of my earlier poems and also the writer Grahame Davies (once a reporter at the local paper, now lackey of the Crown) has an interesting story about how he once tried to save Billy from being attacked and was set upon himself.
On one occasion Billy ended up in Court after he was accused of pleasuring himself in front of several elderly ladies on their way to chapel. The judge appreciated double entendre and gave him an 'absolute discharge'! Few bought his papers again.
One of the other memorable characters was 'Omo' or 'Daz', a gypsy from the equally infamous Bogey Road, where he lived surrounded by old slag-heaps. His photo - superbly captured by Al Jones - is on the cover of my book of fiction 'Child of Dust'.
He looked like Fagin but was, according to Al, a gentle man. He never washed and was always black as a miner come straight from the pit ; he nickname a classic example of Merthyr humour.
I often saw him down town, as I did another whose nickname eludes me. He was an ex-boxer and spent his days railing at passing traffic and challenging cars with his raised fists. Everyone said he'd suffered severe brain damage in the ring, but he is one of the many casualties of boxing not recalled, as our town glorifies its contribution. You have only to read the poems and stories of one of Merthyr's best ever writers Leslie Norris (himself an amateur boxer) to realise the tragic consequences of that brutal sport.
In later years, two characters stand out. I often saw Dezzy down the bus-station, where he was regularly collapsed on the floor. The place was his home and when vaguely sober it was obvious he had many friends there. He died lying down under its plasticky tubing and the cops tried to raise him, believing he was in another drunken stupor. I have written about him in my story 'Bus-station Clinic' (yet to be published).
The most colourful character in recent years was Dave.......call him 'Dress-up Dave' if you like. I believe he came up from Ponty and now spends his fancy days in Cardiff.
I've also written a couple of poems about him and his various guises. He once dressed as a policeman and was in deep conversation with real cops in the Arcade.
My wife and young daughter encountered him one time in Walter's Photographers dressed as Edward Hitchcock, the brother of the famous auteur! This was one of his most original.
I witnessed him as Crocodile DunDave, Mexican Dave , Dave Atlas (not a pretty sight!) and even Michael Jackson Dave. He always wore a label of explanation, even when it was obvious.
He seemed to fit perfectly into the 'barkin' atmosphere of Merthyr Tudful and his move to Cardiff was baffling.
In school, there were so many characters it seemed like every other person was larger than life.
One who made his presence felt had actually retired, yet still appeared on the supervision list. He was a well-known amateur inventor yet once wrote an entire exam out on a roll of wall-paper and held it up in front of the class!
He was renowned for not knowing the names of pupils he taught and one Parents' Evening decided to bring along the photos of classes and ask parents which children were theirs.
Another teacher used to teach half of Pink Floyd in their Cambridge days. He was a genial charmer outside the classroom, who sometimes turned into a psycho inside it. Once he kicked a boy called Ratty in the goolies as he lay on the floor and another time chased a pupil down the corridor brandishing a chair leg, only to stop and greet a colleague with 'Good morning, Robert!' in mid-pursuit.
A fantasist teacher was well-known for his incredible stories and I did manage to incorporate him into a poem, though I changed the context completely.
He regaled both staff and pupils with his remarkable exploits : how he had played cards underwater, his feet trapped in a Giant Clam, or how he'd stood on the wings of a plane and kept balancing there even after it took off.
Another teacher nicknamed 'Dick Bow Dai' was the epitome of this Jekyll & Hyde syndrome. A dapper man with an array of bow-ties, he had a serious drink problem. All his wit and good nature could turn in a second to vicious temper and he would hurl board-rubbers at pupils.
I particularly liked one older teacher who often wore black beret and wellies to school (a Geography teacher, of course!). She had a distinct aversion to germs and at times wore a surgical mask in class ; when pupils farted she would instantly deodorize them.
As time passed, teachers' tortures were banned and rightly so. However, the greyness of conformity presided over education and such characters sadly disappeared.
Our Open Mic. nights at The Imp in Pontmorlais have attracted a few along over the years: a renegade actor from 'Pobl y Cwm', Gerhard the bodhran-maker who once played with The Chieftains, Bartzman the prize heckler and, above all, the Pirate who turned up in full garb brandishing his harmonica (check him out on our Facebook page).
I'd spotted him down town earlier heading for the Civic Centre
and thought he was a distant cousin of Dress-up Dave.
He enlivened the evening, even if he did end up picking a fight with one of our regulars.
There's a newclear scientist
lives up Dowlais Top
oo knows wha's goin on
an there's a pirate,
a fully-fledged buccaneer,
walkin round ower town
there's a cannon up by Cyfarthfa
an ee sits astride it,
but ee int firin nothin
there's-a Council always yappin
bout the colour o bags f re-cyclin
an there's a pirate oo's watchin em
there's a trolley stuck in-a river,
Tai Kwando at-a Leisure Centre,
but ee int sailin or fightin
coz ee's buyin a cheapo cutlass
an a small inflatable parrot
from ower best Pound Shop
once stood 'gainst a well-known Tory,
ee knows the tewn o 'Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau'
an ow to ambush poetree
picks barneys with minin engineers,
leaves nex day soon as ee can ;
posh pirate leggin it f'r Englan'.