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

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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