Night Shift

It had been a long, tail-chasing day as they all seemed to be those days.  He left the building where he earned a minimal wage as a desk jockey for the Department of Inclement Weather and walked towards the side street where his car was parked.  When he got there, he slumped behind the wheel in a robotic motion, took a deep breath and started to drive through the neon glare of fast food outlets, petrol stations and streetlights to join the country road home.

 

The traffic was light as the hour was late and he settled into the comfort of seating, air-conditioning, music and the gentle rise and fall, rise and fall of the way.  The occasional flick of the wiper blades punctuated the uneventfulness and hinted at more persistent rain.  The lights of settlements gradually grew less frequent as did fellow travellers.  He occupied himself in thought patterns concerning his employment, his twenty-five years in a black suit and, more urgently, a last-ditch attempt to win back the mother of his children.

 

He had to slow down when he approached a dirty estate car.  He saw the scarlet of his brake lights bleed briefly over the hedges behind and he knew that he would not be able to overtake this vehicle for several miles.  After a few minutes, his attention was drawn to what looked like a photograph taped to the inside of its rear windscreen.  He had difficulty in making it out so inched a little nearer then allowed himself to fall behind. He did this several times until he was fairly satisfied that the image was of a local woman who had been reported missing recently. He tried to recall the details that gossip and newspaper reports had half-taught him about the case.  The photograph reminded him of an icon as rain, now falling heavily in a formidable side wind, also hampered identification and aided mystique.  He seemed to remember reading that the woman had been found dead in a wood that lay a few miles from his present route but thought he may have been thinking of someone else.

 

A few minutes later, both cars were diverted by roadworks onto a narrow, twisting road which led through this wood.  Travel was slower now and the trees, whipped up by gusts, reached out their branches to touch the cars, scratching, scraping.  He sensed that they were the bony arms of witches trying to seduce him, to drag him into the undergrowth and leave him covered with moss, leaves stuffed in his mouth about which a horse-bit would be ritually arranged.  He laughed and shuffled in his seat, screwing up his eyes to see rain like arrows falling down on his wild imagination.

 

A cigarette butt was tossed from the other car and hit the wet tarmac in a brief, tiny show of embers.  He felt his hopes were becoming like this last breath of a drug discarded in a lonely place with only him as witness.

 

Suddenly, it became much darker with the sound of a storm replacing that of his vehicle.  He shivered and put his foot down but the car coasted to a halt at a crossroads.  He tried to restart the engine without success.  The trees, bent into contorted gestures by the wind, appeared to have moved nearer in a bridal train of leaves. In the gloom, he tried his mobile phone but there was no signal just the image of the woman in the photograph in the long-gone other car. He could see her smile knowingly at him until the battery expired in a brief blue steel blink and total absence of light reigned.

 

Night Shift image

 

 

Straight Out of Nowhere and Back Again

 

September 1977. Elvis was dead and it was time to go back to school. I had done well in my “O” levels but I was in the grip of the music and attitude of punk rock and the possibility of not conforming to the expectations of the authority figures that seemed to increasingly surround me.

 

I lived in the village of Llechryd, on the banks of the Teifi River in West Wales, a collection of two chapels, a church, a public house, a hotel, a post office, a primary school, a shop, and expanding local authority housing where my family home was located.  I spent much of my teenage years in the company of my near neighbour and best friend, Geraint Evans-Williams.  He was a year younger than me, the son of a minister of religion from North Wales. Rugby, fishing, weekend discos in former mansions, the radio and limited television were the only distractions on offer now that we had rejected God.

 

From his bedroom, we plotted our own counter-culture.  We formed a casual musical unit, Edward H. Böring, the umlaut chosen for effect, the name chosen as a satire on the pop group Edward H. Dafis who represented the straitjacketed and utterly tedious modern Welsh entertainment.  Geraint’s musical hero was Elvis Presley especially his early work while I was fan of The Adverts, The Jam and The Stranglers.  We wrote hundreds of short, pithy and irreverent songs, powered by acoustic guitars and twigs being struck against used Fairy Liquid bottles.  As we were bilingual, we wrote in both languages, and like many young people in that situation, experienced a kind of dual identity.  Our longest track, and the easiest to compose, was the psychobilly Gregorian chant Aberfan, an endless, lugubrious intoning of those three syllables, in essence an almost non-lingual sonic elegy to fallen children.

 

Though nearly all of what we crafted was a private, childish self-indulgence, we did have a moment or two of ambition and self awareness, a guess that our raw anti-music, our anti-talent, could be exposed to an audience.  We filled a C90 cassette with our efforts and sent it to Huw Eurig, a member of the then popular group Y Trwynau Coch ( The Red Noses).  We didn’t give our real names-Geraint became Dai Marw ( Dave Dead) and I became Capten Duw (Captain God or God’s Captain) and it is possible that we did not even include our address.  To support this submission, we pretended that we were a five member group by using two cassette players to make it sound like that number of bad musicians, embracing the do it yourself ethos of the punk movement.  I can remember only one pseudonym of the other three imaginary fellow travellers-Cleif Cleifion (Clive Patients).

 

We discovered in the Welsh language newspaper Y Cymro that our low tech and anonymous effort had caused some interest in the conventional world of our country’s emerging popular music.  As a result, we came out of the shadows for a short time to make our only contribution to this particular genre.

 

We were amazed to be invited to record a session for the BBC Radio Cymru show Sosban and were summoned to the Llandaff studio in Cardiff. Geraint’s father Arthur drove us on a grey February late morning in 1980 the twenty seven miles to the nearest railway station in Carmarthen.

 

Eurof Williams, the radio producer, was bemused and fairly patient in the 60 minutes or so allocated  to us. As soon as he heard us, he barred Geraint’s guitar as he felt its steel strings produced too strident a sound. Luckily, my Spanish guitar was acceptable to him though I couldn’t play it. We managed to record  two tunes but Eurof thought that one of them was unsuitable for BBC listeners. This was “Mistar Urdd” which was an attack on the mascot of the Welsh League of Youth or Urdd Gobaith Cymru, and the idea of marshalling young people in general. The chorus of this reviled, nihilistic, latter day nursery rhyme was simple and direct-”Cachgi Mistar Urdd”.  Cachgi means “coward”. Unforgettable but that’s all I can recall at this distance.

 

The one surviving track, Hen Wlad Fy Datcu (Land of My Grandfather), was an assassination of both the national anthem and the rules of mutation. The premise of the lyric was that, never mind our fathers, our country and its culture were still mired in the age of our grandfathers. A rambling interview accompanied our cacophony.

 

Despite the censorship, the truncated session was actually broadcast the following Saturday morning.  Richard Rees, the presenter, was a good sport, describing us as the “chwyldroadol” (revolutionary) Edward H. Böring!  I cringed as I listened, both glad and mad that no one in my home was listening with me.

 

We did not capitalise on our small success. My great friend and former fellow pupil David Edwards of the truly pioneering Cardigan rock group, Datblygu, once told me that he had been inspired to start his music career by our example.  Geraint and I went our separate ways, he to Charleville-Mézières in France in the footsteps of another of his heroes, Arthur Rimbaud, me to a Youth Opportunities Programme scheme at the local library. I consider my collaboration with him as a kind of apprenticeship, the beginnings of a need to conjure up some kind of literature, of not allowing the weight of having to earn a living erase all creative thoughts from my mind.

Paul and Geraint 1979 3

Non-Pacifist Fist Anti-Fascist: A Tale From My Family’s History

Like many men, I have always been fascinated by tales of courage especially in the theatre of war. I was thrilled when, at an early age, my father gave me the barest bones of a story concerning a member of his Treherbert family who was apparently executed in the Spanish Civil War.  My father didn’t know how this man had been related to us, didn’t even know his name, and believed this unlucky ancestor to have been a journalist.  When I began to become interested in my family history, my research, in the main, was to corroborate this tale but was to uncover a much more intriguing account.

 

Thomas Isaac Picton was born in Treherbert in 1896 and came from a family of Pembrokeshire miners.  His father, also called Thomas, shows up, aged 18, in the 1881 census living at 8 Tynewydd Huts in the Rhondda Valley, with his uncle John Coles who had been born in Landshipping, Pembrokeshire.  Landshipping was a heart-breaking landmark in the journey of the Picton family for on Valentine’s Day 1844, forty miners including women and boys died there in the Garden Pit Colliery when the eastern Cleddau river (Cleddau Ddu or Black Cleddau) burst into the shaft 67 yards below. Included on the monument to the dead erected by local people are the names of six Pictons and five Coles. Four of the Picton dead were a father and his three sons. Such bad luck doesn’t always encourage you to stick around.

 

Thomas Isaac Picton was also a miner.  When The Great War broke out,  he enlisted and stayed working with coal, becoming a stoker on the mighty battleships. He was twice decorated for his bravery including during the Battle of Jutland where he spent some time in the water.  His Royal Navy service record measured him at 5 feet 4 and a half inches with blue eyes and dark brown hair and swarthy complexion. It noted that he had a tattoo commemorating his mother in a cross on his right arm. He was discharged with “defective teeth” and had spent 24 days in cells during his war years and 14 days in detention.  The crammed calligraphy of a busy war observes in brackets that he “broke out” of the latter.

 

He was an avid boxer who was Wales amateur middleweight champion and he had also been the Navy light heavyweight champion.  He managed to get a small number of professional bouts but was primarily a bare knuckle mountain fighter. At least one of his confrontations led him to prison. On one occasion, he left Cardiff jail after serving a short sentence for assaulting a police officer, wearing the boots of a prisoner who had recently been hanged.

 

As was the case with large numbers of working class people of the inter war years, he became radicalised and was a close friend of Communist Councillor George Thomas of Treherbert. In his early forties, Tom joined the International Brigade, older than the typical volunteers, most of whom were also swapping the uncertainty of their blighted industrial zones for the uncertainty of the Spanish Civil War.  In common with hundreds of fellow miners from the South Wales coalfield, he made the choice to illegally leave his country to fight the rising tide of Fascism in a country he had never previously visited. For entertainment on the journey through France, he was put into a ring to wrestle a bear.  This seems an almost cartoon-like scene to the modern mind, a form of larger-than-life existence we have almost forgotten.

 

On their arrival at the barracks of the International Brigade, they were issued with ill-fitting uniforms and ancient firearms with ill-fitting ammunition.   Some would go on to fight Fascists in another war, facing opponents who had honed their skills in killing machines above Guernica and other memorable places. Tom, due to his First World War experiences and his prowess as a boxer, may have been better equipped for the fight than many of his comrades.

 

He fought in the Battle of Teruel and was captured soon after and imprisoned in Bilbao.  He was murdered by his jailers in April 1938 after he had punched to the floor a guard who was beating a fellow prisoner with his rifle butt. The Rhondda Leader newspaper of 29 October 1938 reported that he had been “put up against a wall and shot”.  His body was never found.

 

These  warriors are still remembered, still commemorated. Their sacrifice and their willingness to enrol in “the march of History” are still revered by those on the Left and their selflessness continues to haunt our unconfident, cynical age. I am proud that a member of my family was among them. Before I fully knew Tom’s story, I wrote a short poem, “Icons”, whose third line seemed to aptly describe his stance :

 

Not game footage

but I’ve outlived Stanley Baker

as non-pacifist fist anti-fascist

in humidity following Biblical rainfall

we all rust

Thomas Isaac Picton in Spain 1937

The Epynt Evictions or They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

World war by its very definition touches many people in many places.  Those tending the tranquil slopes of Mynydd Epynt and Mynydd Bwlch-y-Groes in Breconshire in late 1939 could have been forgiven if they thought that the war with Germany would not trouble them much especially as their’s were reserved occupations that made them exempt from conscription and their produce would be needed in the war effort. However, to their horror, the War Office requisitioned their homes in order to establish an artillery training range in preparation for the fight against Hitler and his allies.  

 

The process of official notification and the lack of consultation was marked by an authoritarian approach. Epynt was a largely Welsh-speaking area and Welsh language newspapers were vocal in resisting this move.There was, however, little real support from other newspapers in Wales. The only organisation to make a sustained resistance to the evictions was The Committee for the Defence of Welsh Culture who attended a meeting with Lord Cobham, Assistant Secretary for War, along with farmers’ representatives, MPs, and members of Breconshire County Council. The Government did not change its mind.

 

219 people were ordered to leave by 1st June 1940, exiting in carts with what they could carry. They never came home.  54 homes, a school, a church, a public house, and farmland were abandoned to create SENTA, the Sennybridge Training Area. One farmer was said to have “cried himself to death” on being evicted from the farm his family had worked for generations. It was reported that many of the middle aged farmers died relatively soon after being ejected from their farm houses. One continued to return to maintain the cemetery until 1985, travelling by bicycle, carrying a scythe and putting flowers on lonely graves.

 

Landowners were allowed compensation for the loss of property but the removed population received no support from the state in obtaining new accommodation, employment or schooling.  Some managed to settle near their former homes but the community that had enjoyed plygain, the eisteddfod and the co-operation of their neighbours was broken up.  Their fields became target practice ranges and their ploughs were replaced by howitzers.  Their buildings were blown up and superseded and parodied by the construction of a mock German town in the 1980s to better simulate fighting Soviet soldiers in an urban conflict.

 

Many now regard this official action as theft and ethnic cleansing. In this single act of military expediency, the boundary of Welsh-speaking Wales was pushed 15 kilometres westwards.

 

Epynt means place of horses and it was once an area renowned for that animal.  Occasionally, a stray horse would wander into the militarized zone following some half-remembered track-the last one to do so in 1954 was shot.

 

The memorial inscription at the site of the ruined chapel reads:

 

He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. ( Isaiah Book 2, verse 4)

 

Or in the language of the original custodians of that landscape:

 

Ac efe a farna rhwng y cenhedloedd, ac a gerydda bobloedd lawer; a hwy a gurant eu cleddyfau yn sychau, a’u gwaywffyn yn bladuriau; ni chyfyd cenedl gleddyf yn erbyn cenedl, ac ni ddysgant ryfel mwyach.

Slaughterhouse Wales

I grew up in a small village in West Wales.  The nearest railway line had been discontinued two years after my birth and the motorway never got close. My best friend was the son of a Nonconformist Minister of Religion.  As we were gradually shaped into nervous rebellion against our parents and the chapel, we became sucked  into the darker regions of counter culture.  We were especially interested in the Charles Manson story and quickly became aware that our little country seemed not to feature such a monster.  Perverse pubescent punks that we were, we bemoaned what we saw as a qualification lacking in the nation we imagined we were living in and for.

We grew up, we grew apart as assassins shyly made their entrance onto the stage of national horror:

Joseph Kappen was born in 1941.  He raped and killed 3 teenage girls who were hitch hiking home from nights out in Swansea in 1973.  He escaped justice but his body was exhumed in 2001 for DNA analysis which identified him as the perpetrator, the first time this procedure had been performed on a previously interred corpse.  The newspapers at the time of the attacks referred to the unknown assailant as The Saturday Night Strangler. Kappen had worked as a driver, a bouncer, and a “hobbler” in the black economy, and had a number of convictions for burglary, assault and car theft.

Lt Commander Neil Rutherford, DSC and bar, was born in 1922.  He killed 4 people in The Red Gables Hotel in Penmaenmawr in 1976, his victims his former employer, her daughter and son-in-law, and their family friend from Texas.  Rutherford had worked as the hotel’s gardener and had served in the Royal Navy during World War Two and the Korean War. After leaving military service he had taken over his father’s company before it was liquidated. Death by shooting with a handgun-he killed himself with it after setting fire to the building. Strictly not a serial killer as the murders did not happen over an extended period of time-the end result is the same.

John Cooper was born in 1944.  He too killed 4 people, in Pembrokeshire, a millionaire farmer and his sister in 1985 (he set fire to their home) and a tourist couple on the county’s coastal path in 1989. He appeared in the TV show Bullseye which helped in his later identification. Death by sawn-off shotgun. He won Spot The Ball in 1978, an amount worth about £400,000 in 2017, but soon spent that money on gambling and drinking. Following this, he began a career in burglary which resulted in him serving a 10 year prison sentence starting in 1998.  He was also convicted of assaulting a group of teenagers, raping one of them. He had worked as a farm labourer and claimed Social Security benefits.

Peter Moore was born in 1940. He killed 4 men in 1995 in isolated locations. He was the owner and manager of a number of cinemas in North Wales but his business was failing at the time of his offending.  Death by stabbing.  The press dubbed him The Man in Black and he was described as the most dangerous man ever to set foot in Wales at his trial in 1996. In prison, he befriended Harold Shipman, a former GP and Britain’s most prolific murderer.

David Morris was born in 1959. He was convicted of killing 4 members of the same family, all female, aged 8 to 80, in Clydach in 1999.  Death by blunt force and, once again, their home was set alight. He has always protested his innocence and DNA found at the scene did not match his. Initially, members of South Wales Police were interviewed in connection with this massacre. Morris had worked as a builder.

Sex, money, rejection, jealousy and power were among the motives in these slayings which occurred all over Wales, at rural as well as urban locations. The backgrounds of these offenders vary considerably but their choices were uncannily similar despite the perceived advantages of some of them.  

The first act of the United Kingdom Government in the year when these outrages began was to join the European Economic Community. In 1999, when this particular sequence of crimes ceased, the National Minimum Wage was introduced, Jill Dando was assassinated on her Fulham doorstep, and, on that terrible day when Doris Lawson, her daughter Mandy Power and granddaughters Katie and Emily met a bloody end in a burning house in Clydach, the Millennium Stadium was opened.

This slaughter commenced as we bored boys entered our teenage years. We should have been more careful what we wished for…

I Thought I Had More Time

30/11/14

A camera I had last used nearly 15 years ago and thus effectively antiquated reminded me that learned procedures are not always remembered. I accidentally destroyed a 36 exposure colour film on a rainy hillside last weekend by forgetting that a certain minute dial had be turned clockwise in order to rewind the film.

(Turning one’s head in bed in darkness in a certain direction because you feel that there’s someone there though you know it can’t be true. You expect to see it but prevent it from being seen by daring it to appear.)

One day words will come alive. Literally. They will decide whether to change their meaning. Thus they will become even more senior partners in the realm of the emotions, philosophy and science. People will live under a tyranny of syllables, unable to remember what any word means, used to mean or know what they will mean. The experience of thinking, speech and writing will have the intense second-guessing feeling of being forcibly subjected to a universal sort of predictive text of the mind at all times. Words will have this mobility and independence retrospectively, in effect rewriting history. But they will rule their letters benevolently?

01/12/14

What goes through people’s minds when they are choosing a name for a child? Mohammed, according to a free newspaper, is the most popular boy’s name in the UK. Do people name a child after a parent, grandparent or another important family member? Or after a contemporary singer or actor? Is there anyone alive today called Achsah, that name I see on the gravestones of 19th century Biblically-educated Welsh-speaking West Wales?

Black Friday or rather the 1st Black Friday of December. A woman hit by a falling television set in a Tesco store. Melees break out over discounts and people raid the trollies of others, haggling taken to new extremes. Watch out for the rain of 50 inch smart TVs.

04/12/14

Christmas shopping. Droves in streets which used to welcome and channel drovers. What to buy? The shops seem so replete with unnecessary objects which still are attractive to the buying throng. Giant illuminated red stars hang over the main roads, an ironic, unconscious nod to the former Soviet iconography. What appears to be a massive, stylised bolt of lightning has embedded itself in tarmac between a brand new insurance office block, a retail centre and the place I work. In all of this colour and activity I try to locate a music venue whose name is a reminder of my minority language in the capital city of the country whose language it is. I can’t find it…..

Commuter

My journey to work takes me past a mental hospital (“not A and E”). It looks like a Victorian construction, like an overgrown church with the tall, thin chimney of a crematorium. My drive is on the valley road, virtually the only road in and out. Local speed limits, traffic lights and a light drizzle add to the feeling of tedium. I am a little anxious as I am still getting used to a car which replaced one wrecked at one of the roundabouts on this road a few weeks ago.

 

I catch a train in a polite queue and find a seat. Most passengers are reading the free newspaper, books, their mobile phones or laptops. There is little conversation. One of the guards seems to have a voice a little like Dylan Thomas but then again maybe they all do in this centenary year. I look out at the fields, surprised at how green this formerly industrial area has become, at how tired I have become.

 

My reverie is ended by my arrival in the city to crowds of people carrying takeaway coffees as if they were lanterns, showing the way. The entrance to the station has a casual guard of three chatting policemen.

 

A short way from these officers, six street drinkers sit on steps descending to a car park. They look brown, happy and worn. A discarded rail ticket lies pasted onto the damp pavement as does a card with the flag of a country I can’t identify at the pace of the pack I am in, trying to do up a broken zip on my coat as I go.

 

At traffic lights, people take risks when the red man shows, when death could arrive in an instant from one of five directions.

 

In the shiny shopping centre, an old man with a white and yellow beard sits slumped next to a restaurant which is based on recreating USA youth music and food of the 1950s. He uses two sticks and talks to himself, the very antithesis of what this eating place trumpets.

 

I reach my office, a fairly large, squat building now being slowly dwarfed by the office block rising on legs of concrete across the road.

In The Spirit of Crazy Horse

Recently I heard of the death of Peter Matthiessen, the American author and naturalist at the age of 86. When I say “heard” I more properly mean “read” as it was on the internet that I obtained this sad news. One is more likely to receive news from this source nowadays rather than hearing of events as in former days or so it seems.

Like so many I had been introduced to Matthiessen’s writings by “The Snow Leopard”, a stunning physical and spiritual adventure set in the Himalayas. This is one of those books which remind me, in my godless state, of something other out there. I recall blue sheep, the incredible remoteness of destinations and Matthiessen’s strong, craggy, browned face staring back at me from the book’s cover like a latter day Saint Francis of Assisi.

I salute Matthiessen for his tireless work in the world of wildlife, his vivid travelogues, his skills as a storyteller able to engage, thrill and inform his audience, and his intelligent longevity. From the perspective of my cultural circumstances I felt there was something about him of the learning, the purity and the reverence for Nature of the early Celtic Church. It is the loss of a keen focus in a world where much does not get even a second glance.

Lunch Hour

It was Friday and the countdown to The Promised Land that promised to be the weekend was well under way. Ironic that Biblical concerns still had relevance in this age. It had been a difficult period of changing procedures and low morale and a colleague suggested we did something, went somewhere different in our lunch hour.

We waited for the traffic to stop then headed for a scarlet building hiding behind its much newer and taller surroundings, mostly hotels and South American restaurants. My friend said that it had been described as the city’s “forgotten” market. Climbing four storeys, we briefly took in the myriad of antiquities for sale until we were stopped in our tracks by a Bren Gun, big, lean, brown, with a light patina of rust, perched on a sustained firing tripod. We wanted this weapon though we knew we lived in homes too cramped for such supposedly unnecessary items.

We excitedly discussed this antique over tea and scones in a rooftop glass structure with views of railway tracks. My friend pronounced “scones” as in “cones”, I as in “cons”. I fantasised about a use for this inert gun, proposing that we would volunteer, as a developmental opportunity, to attend the next senior managers meeting. We would present the Bren gun wordlessly to the Area Manager and only briefly hang around to view the bemusement. We of course would expect to be dismissed though we suspected that the reason for this would not be fully understood by the decision makers. We chuckled, enjoying the last moments in this oasis in the heart of a city winding up for Friday night.