Sunday, 20 July 2014

I See The Boys of Summer

Mark's cottage - St Athan
My twin brother’s recently moved to a rented cottage on the edge of St Athan. He’d moved to other rented accommodation in the village last year to be nearer to work. He’d been living in Llantrisant (unfairly described as ‘the hole with the Mint’) and driving down through the Vale of Glamorgan to Aberthaw Power Station.

The Vale is very different to the Valleys, of course. It’s green, leafy and with a glorious stretch of coast. St Athan’s different again, an RAF base, some housing estates and a central core of old village. 
A vast cement works looms close by and the Power Station squats amid banks of imported coal.
I visited earlier this summer, enjoying the cottage and its prospect of horses and cows. A brook trills by, like the one in Fern Hill, by Dylan Thomas.

And the Sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

It all sounds idyllic – for all the grind and clang of industry.

West Aberthaw Farm
West Aberthaw Farm overlooks the Power Station and a field humped and bumped with the traces of a medieval village. My brother’s friends live there, a colleague from the Power Station and his wife and daughter. They’re doing it up, slowly and laboriously, seeking to retain as many of the original features as they can. Imagine that ‘Restoration Man’ programme from the telly only with more bits and pieces lying around. They showed me round – the rafters and knotty beams, the sunken floor in what had become a reception hall, the wattle and daub, the bakery and the walk-in well. There are still hooks for the hams and shelves for the cheeses. You can trace all the phases, the punching through of staircases and the levellings off of bulbous walls. You can follow the whole thing through from the medieval core through the 17th and 18th centuries to the ‘Fab Four’ wall-paper lining a cupboard in the smallest bedroom.

My brother’s friends see themselves as custodians, preserving and utilising the craftsmanship of the past. The cottage lives. To borrow a phrase from Thomas, ‘O see the pulse of summer in the ice.’ 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Get Stuck In

'Shovel that ....'
Among the nice things that people say about me in my freelance work is that I'm prepared to roll my sleeves up and get stuck in. They tell me that I can do so whilst maintaining a strategic overview.

That's good to hear, and if you're looking for my professional website you can find it here.


Sometimes it happens outside of work too. I recently spent some of my poetry prize money on the 'Keeper for a Day' scheme at Chester Zoo. Add it to your bucket-list. I insist.

As Bill Bryson said about Durham, if you've not been, go there now. Take my car keys.

As soon as I arrived at the Indian rhino house and the keeper thrust a shovel into my hand I knew I was in for a good time.

Distracting a mother Black Rhino with a carrot 
Of course, people shake their heads in disbelief when I tell them I paid good money to spend a day shovelling rhino poo. But I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Yes, I did shovel a lot of poo, and sweep up annoying pellets of antelope droppings, but to get up close and personal (as they say) with these magnificent creatures was something else. Benny, the 2.4 ton Indian rhino is a big softee, and probably the biggest creature I've ever been up close to. He is immense. I mean huge ... I always thought of the Indian rhinos being a lot smaller than their African cousins, the black rhino, but they aren't. They are colossal. They are built like tanks, both Benny and his wife and daughter. Imagine my astonishment, then, when a wee slip of a female keeper had Benny lie down and roll over so that they could inspect his feet. I hadn't realised that they could train rhinos but yes, they can. Rhinos are brighter than you might think. I was smitten and can understand why the keepers on that section are so attached to them. They grow on you. They thrive on interaction with humans. Which makes their plight all the more poignant when you think of poaching and the sick trade in rhino horn for quack cures.

Not only did Benny lie down and roll over in exchange for a banana, he also backed up a few paces on request so that when he lay down his head wasn't wedged awkwardly against the wall of his shed. There's clever.

If the Indian rhinos were friendly, the Black Rhinos were flighty and jumpy. One of the female babies butted and charged me. They can pack a punch. By the afternoon, though, most of them had accepted me as they accepted the regular keepers and allowed me to feed them carrots as the keepers weighed and monitored their baby's growth. Rhinos can't see very well, of course, so they snuffle around you to get the measure of you with your snouts.

Feeding the tapirs and capybaras
The tapirs can't see very well either. But they have boxing-gloves for noses and pick up the mixed veg' from the feeding bowl before you have chance to scatter it.

Mongoose (mongeese?), capybaras, various deer and whopping big antelopes - much bigger close up than you'd imagine them to be, warthogs ... it was fascinating to muck them out and feed them.

I came away smitten with the rhinos and full of admiration for the keepers. These people know their stuff. Some of these guys have worked with these creatures for years and know everything there is to know about them. They've seen and experienced things the rest of us wouldn't have the first idea about - hand-rearing rhinos, watching them giving birth, watching them die. The next time you see a zoo keeper shovelling shit, don't think, 'Heck, what a job they've got ...' think 'There's someone living out a vocation, someone skilled, professional and thoroughly committed to the animals in their charge.'

With a hand-reared deer
The conservation work these people do is extraordinary. They deserve our respect.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Wheels & Withies

The Redstone Centre : Living willow structures
This ought to be good cycling country. It’s undulating enough to give you a few slopes to ride down and neither so flat that you can’t make headway against the wind nor so hilly that you have to stand on your pedals. Someone once told me that cycling across the Lincolnshire Fens was more difficult than it sounds. There were no slopes to give impetus.

So, with miles of winding lanes, old railway lines and canal towpaths it ought to be ideal here for my new hybrid bike. It should perform well on tarmac and go off-road when required. 

That assumes, though, that you're a good cyclist (I’m not) and good at mending punctures. I’m not good at that either. On my fourth trip out on my new hybrid bike I did it again. I must have ridden over a thorn somewhere along my 13 mile round-trip. The next time I fetched it out the front tyre was as flat as a pancake. I was all fingers and thumbs and broke the valve when I tried to pump it up. I swallowed my pride, took it to my friendly, local repair shop and he fixed it and put me straight.

While I was there, I had a rummage through his clearance bike-clothing. I came away empty handed. It was all very well and good, padded cycling pants and stretchy lycra tops ... but I’m under pain of death not to wear anything of the kind. My eldest has promised to ‘divorce’ her parents if I as much as look at lycra. She’s right of course. It might be sleek and streamlined but I’d look a complete prat. Or even more of one.

The thing is, I’m not as supple as once I was. I can no longer lithely swing my leg back off the saddle and clear the wheel when I stop – if ever I could. I sort of topple over or else catch my baggy trousers on the saddle. I’ve even collapsed in a heap of jangling gears and ticking wheels. I’m getting better at it though and once or twice have vaulted off magnificently – or at least, alighted without getting tangled.

I found the same thing when helping a friend with his willow harvest early this month. Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? Stooping down and cropping the withies close to the knuckle and close to the ground. He grows them for his basket weaving and willow-sculpture business. What else would you do with Grade 3 agricultural land on the edge of town? Why, run a basket weaving business, country-craft and management/team building centre of course.

Clipping the withies is one thing, straightening up afterwards quite another. But I felt the better for it after two days of honest manual labour (oh, alright, two mornings ...)

'It's gripped, sorted ... Let's ...'
Now I’ve got the bike back on the road I’m feeling even more virtuous. It’s the first time I’ve cycled for about 5 years – I got fed up of the punctures on my old reconditioned unisex bike. All I have to do now is go easy on those valves and we’re fixed, gripped, sorted ... As they used to say on The Fast Show, 'Let's off road.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Surprise, surprise ... I win Cheshire Prize for Literature

Roger McGough, centre left,with High Sheriff, extreme left, and me (to his left) with Clive McWilliam behind, Tonia Bevins to his left and Russell Morris on the extreme right. Not politically of course ...
You could have knocked me down with a quill-pen ...

Completely out of the blue, I found I'd won the High Sheriff's Cheshire Prize for Literature. I arrived at the award-ceremony late (road-works) and nearly didn't arrive at all. Someone ahead slammed on their brakes and the bloke behind skidded and swerved half-way across the road to avoid running into the back of him. I had to stand on the brake to avoid hitting him in turn ...

To be honest, I wasn't sure whether to go. I'd assumed entrants would be notified if they were shortlisted and, much as I like Roger McGough who was giving a reading and presenting the prizes, I'd hosted an event for him in the summer. Wonderful though that was, would it be worth driving all the way up to Chester on a cold, wet night to hear him again and so soon?

As it happened, I thought it was. I even put the bi-monthly Poems & Pints I host at The Lodge, Alsager back to next week. If you can get there, do so. Andrew Barrett, Stokie poet will be there and my twin brother form South Wales. It promises to be a great night. 8pm upstairs at The Lodge pub on Thursday 5th December.

I'd moved it partly because it was only a week after Bob Doughty's Nantwich Poets open-mic at Willaston Social Club and partly because I was curious to see who'd won. There's a thriving poetry scene here in Cheshire but we all tend to know each other from the various readings and events. I knew every single person who won a prize last night.

We meet again ...
Roger was in full flow and on form when I sneaked into the auditorium. He was excellent as ever and just as engaging in the Q&A which followed. Then there were some speeches from a former High Sheriff - what a terrific old card - and the current incumbent. Isn't it great to live somewhere where they have High Sheriff's? It's not all Lincoln Green and velvet these days, of course, but High Sheriff ... 'shire-reeve' ... a role first introduced for the collection of Danegeld. Stroll on.

Then Emma Rees the English academic who heads the judging panel said a few words about the competition and introduced the winners in reverse order. 'Worthy winners,' I thought, as they were called forward. 'It's no shame not to have been short-listed when writers of their calibre were receiving their just rewards ...'

Emma then said that she hoped the winner was in the auditorium as nothing had been said in advance. I must confess, I did have a flicker of intuition that might still actually be in with a chance. But that was soon extinguished when she started to describe the winning poem. This couldn't possibly be my poem. Full of allusions, obviously written by someone who read a lot of poetry, all about finding the ordinary transformed ...

It was only when Roger got up to read the winning poem that I realised it was mine! I was stunned. I still am.

Roger recognised me from the summer and seemed quite amused and genuinely pleased to find out that it was me. So there we were on stage, having our photos taken, Tonia Bevins, Russell Morris, Clive McWilliam ... Andrew Rudd wasn't there but he'd won something too.

As I can't talk about the poem just yet, I can talk about photos. My aunt Helen in Australia sent me a scan of one of my Grandad's family, the subject of my last (first) poem to win a first prize. I can't publish the winning Cheshire Prize poem online until after it's appeared in the anthology that'll come out in the spring. I'll give that a plug. Buy it.

So, belatedly, here's a picture to illustrate the poem Her People which won the Nantwich Words & Pictures Festival Prize - see previous post.

All surviving Tonks to adulthood (L-R): Olive, Dorothy (Dot or Doll), Elsie (Else), Hilda,
Beatrice (Beat), Harry, my Great-Gran Tonks (behind Nellie in the wheelchair, bless her), Great-Granddad Tonks, Lil (she preferred Lilly), Jack (my Grandad), Min. All 'golden'. 

Friday, 11 October 2013

Simon Says: 'Her People' for 1st prize

Simon Armitage is the handsome one on the right.
Ee, I'm right chuffed. To my surprise, I won 1st Prize in the Nantwich Words & Music Festival poetry competition.

I was even more chuffed that I won with Simon Armitage as the judge. It's not everyday that I get a poem selected for a prize by one of the UK's leading poets.

Unlike my good friend Roger Elkin, I don't have a track record on poetry prizes. Roger wins them all the time. I was a runner up in the first Stafford Poetry Competition in 2009 judged by Michael Hulse and have twice been among the winners of the regular competitions in Poetry News. But this was a first for me - getting the first prize. Simon kindly signed the poem and drew a 1st Prize rosette on it - which was a nice touch.

I always enjoy hearing Simon read. I've heard him about four times now and I once even saw his band, The Scaremongers, perform in a Huddersfield pub. I've chatted to him a few times about bands and my native South Wales, about book-signings and about his harrowingly moving Radio 4 piece Black Roses about the killing of the Goth teenager, Sophie Lancaster. On that occasion he modestly gave the credit for the impact to Sophie's mum for her incredibly brave and moving account. I doubt if Simon remembers those conversations, he must have thousands along similar lines. I only hope he doesn't think he's got some wierd little Welshman stalking him around gigs in the North of England ...

So here's the winning poem, Her People. It's about my Grandad's family on my mother's side and begins and ends with my Great Aunt Lil' sat at the piano. The title comes from the name of a classic memoir by Kathleen Dayus, Her People: Memoirs of an Edwardian Childhood. It won an autobiographical award in 1982 and became something of a classic sociological text. Dayus died a few days short of her 100th birthday, the age Great Aunt Lil' reached, 'the first and last of twelve.'

Dayus's book was all about her childhood in Hockley, Birmingham, the same area where my Grandad, one of those 12, grew up. He was born in 1912 so the period covered by the poem is slightly later than the Edwardian Birmingham depicted in Dayus's book, but the conditions were the same.

It was the only book he ever read. "Our Else gave it to me," he told us, "'Here, our Jack, read this.' You know I'm not one for books and reading but because it was our Else, I gave it a go. I could not put it down." He handed it to us as if it were a sacred text. "Here, read it. Every word in that book is true ..."

He's the Jack I've mentioned in the poem. It covers the period from after the First World War to the 1960s when we used to visit our Birmingham relatives as kids. His father was living in a high-rise then, all the surrounding streets had been bulldozed, with just the pubs remaining at the gable ends. He peered at us and prised two tanners (sixpences) out of a tin box. I remember my Grandad telling me how he'd filched the coppers and tanners that his eldest sister Lil had been saving for piano lessons and spent them down the pub. She used to play for coppers and everyone said she'd have been quite accomplished if she'd ever been trained.

Johnny ('Jack') Tonks, my Grandad, was a strict tee-totaller. Not for religious reasons but because he'd seen the effect of booze on the family's meagre income. They lived in a two-up/two-down with an outside loo and a tiny yard where his father nurtured rhubarb with the pee he fermented in a tin pail.

I never knew my Great Grandmother, but she was a saint by all accounts. She had to be, the life she had. Some of her 12 children died fairly young and two had severe disabilities. I'll never forget my Great Aunt Nell. She was said to have the most severe case of cerebral palsy in the Midlands. When I knew her she was couch-bound and corkscrewed around so that her head was facing over her back. She'd have a towel to catch the spittle the constantly dribbled down her cheek. She'd literally squeal with delight when we visited and press tanners into our palms. Poor Nelly. Bright as a button with a dry sense of humour - they all had that - and a thing for Bing Crosby. The Prayer Book she gave us when we emigrated to Australia as £10 Poms remains one of my treasured possessions.

I didn't get to her funeral but my Mum still fills up talking about it now. It was the 1980s and the surviving Tonks 'girls' gathered around the graveside to pray - she'd been buried alongside my Great-Gran. My Mum says it was like a collective electric charge of faith mingled with grief. There was love there so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Sometimes, I'm not sure about this poem. But if it conveys that much, it'll be worth more than any prize.


She practices her scales, feels the promise
beneath her hollow palms, how it rises
from within the shuttered case -
Ragtime, Rachmaninov, Clair de Lune.

As the bar fills with hubbub, boots and smoke
she rolls out the barrel, follows the van,
clings to an old rugged cross till closing time.

She stores their tossed coins in a jar,
the way her father stands his stale
and frothy piss in a bucket in the yard.

When the factory whistle melts the men
into side-alleys, back-to-backs,
he sends their Jack to fetch his snap
to him in the snug, only brings his slow
unsteady stomp homeward after dark.

When the coppers rise and reach the neck
he turns their silver promise into a bucketful
of froth, pours it on the rhubarb out the back.

Each week they help their mother
fold their Nelly into a leather chair,
wheel her where nurses pummel
her fixed limbs, hoist her into harness
to stretch and tune her straight.

We want redemption. And if it's found
in suffering it's not just Nell but Elsie,
abandoned by her husband in the war,
or Min's own Dicky Dale forked on crutches
since a football kick connected with his spine,
Olive lost to kidneys at the age of thirty-eight,
Stanley taken from them at sixteen.

If time's the healer, hear how the old man prised
two tanners for us from a tin box, how the nurses
left Nell to nature with nothing but love to tend her.

Listen to her laughter as they fill kettles for her bath -
Dot' and Hilda, Harry, Beat'. See the vicar bring her Jesus
once a week. And if faith, let's end this litany where it began,
with Lil', the first and last of twelve, closing the lid gently
on her own century, its sounds and faces, their names.