Sunday, 31 March 2013

Five go to Big Pit

I confess that the inclusion of the word 'World' to the title 'Heritage Site' often bugs me, but as Dru pointed out, in the case of Blaenavon it is entirely justified. This is where the Industrial Revolution began.

It is three decades since Thatcher turned on the mining communities of Britain, and their struggle to preserve their livelihoods has passed into history.  Unfortunately the Tory party has not, and in the week preceding the biggest cuts yet aimed at the poorest in our society, Big Pit served as a reminder of the callousness of the right and its drive to preserve privilege at the expense of others.

(Again, most of these pictures are Dru's.)

When I was last up here, years ago, it was a hot summer day.  This time snow lent the valley an unwonted beauty, softening the bumps and bruises of excavation and turning the rusting relics into ghosts.  

Jan being a bit wary of going underground and John being cold to the bone and Dru being a kindly soul, only Colin and I opted to go down the mine.  The ex-miner kitting me out with my helmet, lamp and battery pack assumed I was a teacher, and when I told him I wasn't, he looked at me very straight and asked me what I was.  'A poet,' I answered and he said 'There's lots for you here'. 

The stories of working underground are not easily forgotten, but the ones that hit hardest are those concerning the children and the horses. 

Children would work 12 hour shifts, six days per week, from the age of five.  The youngest were 'trappers', tasked with opening the air doors to let the trucks of coal through when they heard them coming.  This involved staying alert for hours with no food (because of colonies of rats) in complete darkness.  Although the employment of children under ten in the mine was outlawed in the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842, in practice it lasted for decades afterwards
because there was only one mines inspector for the entire country.  

Horses were not so lucky.  They only worked one shift per year, but that was 50 weeks long - at the end of July each year, they had a two week holiday above ground - and probably the last horse to work underground, Robbie, retired from nearby Pant y Gasseg in 1999.  It was vital that horses were kept as injury-free as possible to minimise the likelihood of attack by rats, but the impossibility of keeping their feet dry in the wet conditions made this difficult and I don't like to think any further than that.  

We had a pleasant late lunch in the canteen.  

After the darkness of the mine, the snowlight was dazzling.  

Then we explored the outlying buildings, including the state-of-the-art pithead baths built in the 1940s, which must have lightened the load of miners' wives, who, in an earlier era, had a lower life expectancy than their husbands.  

A photograph from the exhibition at the Pit had stuck in my head for years, since my previous visit. It was of women waiting at the railings for news after a major accident at a nearby pit.  I knew I had to write about it but I couldn't remember which disaster it was, just the look on their faces.  I recognised it as soon as I saw it again - Six Bells Colliery Disaster in 1960, in which 45 men died and three were injured.  

This is the picture.  

                Dru Marland and poet, John Terry                                    John Terry and Jan Lane

Time had run away with us and it was too late to pop Dru's Partrishow cards into Abergavenny Tithe Barn, which, having vetted them for religious content, is going to sell them, so hooray! There's another trip in the offing,  this time hopefully taking in The Guardian Of The Valleys, a memorial to the dead of Six Bells.  

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Five Go to Crow Valley

Normally I would be heading south and west this Easter for my inaugural stay in the biscuit tin by the sea but it's far too cold for that.  So instead there'll be much sitting at home by the fire interspersed with a couple of day trips, the first of which was to a beautifully snowy South Wales.
All of the photos in this blog are courtesy Dru Marland, apart from the two that she's in, mainly because I upset a cup of tea over my dressing gown before we set out and my camera was in my pocket and subsequently got a bit stroppy.

Our first stop was Cwmbran, which might not seem like an obvious destination.  There is this lovely pub sign at The Crow's Nest, which is all the more pleasing because Cwmbran means Crow Valley, but the concrete of the new town is over-powering.

The impetus for the visit was a collaborative travelling exhibition at Llantarnam Grange in Cwmbran, between the poet Menna Elfyn and  the artist Iwan Bala.  It's on at this location until 4th May.  

With potter and print maker, Jan Lane
I loved this mix of words, worlds, layers, lost places, maps, names, memory, much in Welsh, of course, which almost awakened in me my old itch for learning whichever language I encountered (and led me, at one point, to study French, German, Latin and Russian simultaneously).  Thankfully, I'm more at ease with the unfathomable now. 


There was also a small exhibition of work by Jennie Sharman-Cox, which comprised wonderfully textured and very Gothick jewellery and four 'Boxes of Curiosity' which were just fascinating, oh and so very very covetable.  

From Crow Valley we headed north, through what will surely one day be known as Dru Marland country, for it was there she spent much of her childhood.  
As we advanced, there was a magical change from bitter grey cold to snowlight, freezing spring to still winter, the clock falling back just a few days before it was due to spring forward.  Obviously photos had to be taken.  
                                                                                              With Jan Lane and Colin Brown

Dru in action
Colin Brown and Dru
Then we resumed our journey to Blaenavon and Big Pit. More about that anon. 

Friday, 29 March 2013

R S Thomas Centenary

The great R S Thomas is 13 years dead and 100 years alive today.  Here is the text of his poem, 'The Bright Field', with an illustration by the also great Dru Marland.

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R S Thomas

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Poems for an Imperfect Pearl

This morning, after an appointment with my lovely orthotist, Qureishi, whose mum back home in Kenya writes poetry, I headed to St George's Church in town to see the exhibition 'Poems for an Imperfect Pearl' which is part of the Bristol Baroque Festival.  Most of the poems were written by members of the writing group I attend run by Colin Brown of Poetry Can, with two additional pieces by Kapka Kassabova and Deryn Rees-Jones, who are appearing at the Bristol Spring Poetry Festival next month.  

And most impressive they looked too.

After a while I could hear a soprano rehearsing - a-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha - and, resolute in my conviction that Baroque is not for me, I decided it was time I left.   After a quick visit to the ₤2 bookstore - where, ridiculously, I bought four books despite being in the process of downsizing my collection - I returned to the car, put Lucinda Williams on full blast and drove to Sainsburys, pretending all the while that it was summer and I was driving around the ring road pretending I was in Louisiana.  Thank God for an imagination.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Summoning the Past

My oldest friend - by which I mean my friend of longest standing - and I went to see our teacher yesterday, who taught us in third year infants when we were aged six, and who was the best teacher I ever had.  She is now nearly 89 years old and still lives in the house in which she was born.  I worked out that it was probably 45 years since I'd been there last. 

Also there was another teacher from the same school, in whose class I'd never been, although I remembered after a while that he had taught me one afternoon per week.  I recall a session of origami once, at which, lacking concentration and finding aural instruction difficult to follow, I hadn't excelled.  Also, that he started reading us 'Moonfleet' by J Meade Falkner, and by the time we'd got as far as the hero, John Trenchard, becoming trapped in the crypt and discovering the corpse of Blackbeard, his hair and finger nails still growing after death, half the class were gibbering wrecks and Mr Britton stopped.  As is often the way, the unfinished story haunted me for decades, and a few New Years ago I resolved to finish it.  And what an excellent yarn it is. 

The evening before I went to a reading at the Bristol Poetry Institute.  By some  miracle, Ciaran Carson had managed to fly out of a snow-bound Belfast and arrive just in time for the performance of poems from 'In the Light Of', his reinterpretation of Arthur Rimbaud's 'Illuminations'.  When he got out his tin whistle to bookend his set, I almost wept.  A direct link back over 660 years to my fictional storyteller, Amyas, from my novel 'Dart'.  Sometimes I can't quite believe how lucky I am.  

The Danger of Poetry

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Martin Figura: Whistle

There seem to be lots of poetry events on in Bristol and the surrounding area at present, and last night it was off to the Rondo theatre in Bath to see Martin Figura perform his show, Whistle.

Whistle is a collection of poems principally about Martin's childhood and the event which shaped the rest of his life for ever, the murder of his mother by his father when he was 9 years old.  If that sounds very challenging, well, it is, and while reading the sequence last week, I actually gasped, not so much at the murder (horrible as it is, you know as soon as you peruse the back cover that's what you're going to be reading about) but at the behaviour of his murdered mother's sister and her husband, who abandon their bereaved nieces and nephew and emigrate to Canada without explanation or farewell.

You might think this would make for a grim evening, but not a bit of it.  Accompanying the reading is a series of images and photographs which evoke British childhood in the 60s as well as providing a more personal context for some of the poems.  In addition, Martin links each poem with narratives that are warm and often amusing. I fell in love with Mrs Piggott, the matriarch next door who steps into the breach when the siblings find themselves dumped in children's homes and who apparently used to watch telly with a hen on her lap.

If you are in Liverpool on 29th March, Canterbury on 25th April or Exeter on 14th July, go and see the show.  If you think you don't like poetry, make doubly sure you go because odds are, you'll change your mind.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Jean Binta Breeze: Passion and Mischief

I had a lovely and memorable experience at the Central Library in Bristol last Friday night, when I heard/saw world-renowned dub poet Jean Binta Breeze read some of her poetry in support of the programme of activities for International Women's Day.

Ah, what passion and mischief!  If you missed it - and I suppose the odds are you did - here's a video of her reading a couple of years ago and starting, as she did on Friday, with 'Simple Things'.

Friday, 15 March 2013

The Black Death being a topical subject ...

Dead monarchs buried under car parks? Pshaw! This is the all-conquering Black Death, baby ... 

'Yet still the wind it blows, and it blows wisht.
It’s an unket wind that rolls and bowls
along the lonely drovers’ trails
in sunlight and in starlight
when ghostly owls make  moan.
And with it comes a frittening
like naught you’ve ever known.

Forget your bullbeggars, dragons and bogies,
Jack o’ Lanterns that dance over mires
those drear, drowned souls rising up from their depths
with slimy hands that beckon and clutch …
Forget the whispering spirits of All-Hallow-E’en,
your pixies and ogres and hags
Old Nick and his hell hounds that howl in the blackness
their eyes all a-flame …
They’ve long since been sung of in stories
and vanquished by name.

For now absence begets a presence
older than words, colder than ice at the heart of the fire.
A darksome sending – nameless, formless dread –
a shapeshifter that drifts and slides
beside its helpless prey
a displacement of air, a quickening, thickening
clotting and curdling into a shade
that isn’t fog or a cloud for it’s real, it’s alive
though it reeks of death and decay.

And soon you’ll reacquaint yourself
with one you’ve glimpsed before –
Bloodless and Boneless behind the door
but now it’s breathing through your keyhole
forcing fingers through
the cracks and chinks and squints.

And though it utters not a sound
you understand what’s brought it here
and its intention as it reaches through              
is boulder-cold and clear - 

             It’s come for you ... '

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Cover Story

I intended to post these pictures a couple at a time in a tantalising sort of way, but it's so interesting tracing their development by seeing them all together that I've changed my mind.  This is a record of how the cover for my putative second poetry collection, provisionally titled Map Reading For Beginners, came into being, courtesy of the talent of Dru Marland.  

Look at the configuration of wild garlic flowers ...

The lettering isn't definite yet; the poems aren't definite yet; even publication isn't definite yet, but one thing's sure, there's a lot to live up to ... 

Tuesday, 12 March 2013


One of my day-jobs is working in a school for deaf children and last week, to mark World Book Day, I went in to talk to the younger pupils about being a writer.  To make it a bit more interesting, I took my illustrator, Dru Marland, along with me, and Reg Meuross came too to sing and play his guitar. And if that sounds like a strange thing to do in a school of severely and profoundly deaf children, well, yes, it is.

But it seemed to work pretty well, thanks to the efforts of staff and children and especially our in-house interpreter, Helen.  In fact, it was a wonderful collaborative effort.  

First I spoke about the Black Death, the process of writing my book (one day a week for seven years!), and the story of how I became a writer in the first place (basically because I couldn't not be a writer), while Helen interpreted into British Sign Language for me.  

Then Dru showed the children her amazing pictures.  She explained how she put the cover components together on her computer and how she used Google Earth to draw the map.  She also showed them my dog Ted's Christmas card for next year while I burst with pride.

Then it was Reg's turn to sing his song The Boundary  Stone, which is about two lovers separated by the quarantine at the time of the outbreak of plague in Eyam in 1665.  Helen signed the lyrics and the children joined in the choruses.  

After that, some of the Year 5 and 6 children showed a PowerPoint presentation about Dick Turpin, after which Reg sang his song Lizzie Loved A Highway Man, the true story about Dick who was far from the folk hero he is made out to be.  

And then we swept up all the crow and skull confetti and crow feathers, put out the tables for school dinners, and Reg, Dru and I went down the pub.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Cover for my next poetry collection ...

... with the provisional title of Map Reading for Beginners.  

Artwork by Dru Marland. Watch as it grows ... 

Pootling at Portus Abonae

Have been hellish busy lately - I think I've definitely bwirtten offh mure thn I cn cherw. So although I've been out and about a lot, it's been more about doing stuff than assimilation.  And I need a bit of contemplation every now and then.

No time for jaunting again this weekend, but I did manage to fit in a bit of pootle with John Terry, Dru Marland and Ted, which is the next best thing.  And the place we pootled at was Sea Mills Dock, which the Romans knew as Portus Abonae, and the banks of the River Avon, after the gorge but before it meets the great Severn at Avonmouth. 

Low tide but no sun, which was a shame because when there is, it turns the mud gold and the whole scene is Klimtian, but there was a pleasing bleakness which is the sort of view that most accommodates the tired eye, I feel.  Well, mine, anyhow.  

To the right, then, is the River Avon, tidal and no longer the bustling thoroughfare it was when the city of Bristol was the main port, rather than Avonmouth.  To the left the always very busy Portway, leading from the city centre out to the M5.  Which means that this walk is far less peaceful than it looks, except that much like at Burwalls Cave, the white noise of the road is easily converted into the sound of the mighty ice age torrent that once cut the Gorge.  The land hasn't forgotten even if we have.

The dock has silted up a lot since its hey-day, so every now and then you get strangely positioned reminders of its previous life in unexpected places.  

One the the very considerable joys of jaunting and/or pootling with Dru is that you get to experience more wildlife than you would have otherwise, partly because of her attuned eye (I wander along in a fog) and partly because she can identify any bird who utters as much as a squeak.  So I can tell you that much of our journey was accompanied by the watery call of the sandpiper, and through her binoculars I saw a wondrously shaggy and sinister heron lurking on a bank in the river, which my feeble eyes had no chance of spotting unaided.  I hope she managed to get a good photo of it. 

 I don't need any help with enjoying the colours of a dull March morning, though. So muted, so beautiful.