Out Now!

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

St Josephs Junior High School for Boys

So many things I missed about Swansea:

Richard Skinner who didn’t know you needed water to boil an egg but got a First in Russian, learnt Welsh on principle, went on to teach English in Sweden and became a doctor in Sweden through the medium of Swedish. Mercifully he regarded my more puny wit with amusement and a degree of benevolent tolerance, even though I was the one who taught him how to boil an egg.

Richard and Ruth Lewis who showed me that life could be comfortable and introduced me to Newport, a pint of Stella at the Green-man on the outskirts of Cwmbran followed by Sunday dinner, and, sometime later tea, with Paul Murphy, a future Secretary of State.

Peter Lloyd, now a script-writer, then an academic pursuing a PhD in Tudor History. I know he introduced me to Edward Hall’s Chronicle and a phrase that has lodged itself indelibly into my head. ‘History is the sucking serpent of ancient fame.’ Though, if you don’t have fame to begin with, you’re unlikely to be bothered by sucking serpents. Maybe the odd slow-worm.

Nick and Ness who showed me how rich life could be in a damp labourer’s cottage and later a caravan.

And last, but not least, Swansea University’s Refectory, its lamb curry, and spaghetti bolognaise. I sometimes dream about them at night and wake up hungry.

When you leave university it’s very much like jumping off from a fast moving merry-go-round. If you’re lucky you remain standing but most definitely disorientated. Certainty evaporates.

All I was certain of was an urgent desire to live in or near Swansea. Fate buggered things up a little.

A half-hearted application for a teaching post in Newport met with a polite rejection, until, a week later, the young woman who’d got the job discovered she was pregnant and withdrew. A polite rejection letter was followed by a swift request – we want to see you.

And so, despite mistaking the Head Teacher for the caretaker, and speaking with a still thick Liverpool accent, I got the job.

I’ve always been lucky in loving the places I find myself in. Aberystwyth was perhaps an exception, though the perpetual rain, a knife-wielding psycho, and a teaching course that bored me silly might have had something to do with that. But now I was in Newport, a vital, seedy place with its own dark magic. It suited me down to the ground.

The elegant hippy to the left is me. How on earth did I get this job?
To my right are: Alan Hicks, Mike Farley, Alan Kethro, Andy Phipps, Peter Williams, Mr Norville, (the real caretaker)and Danny Flynn, someone else with a Liverpool accent. Front row are: Mrs Oakley, (known as Annie) Judith and Judith (forgive me). The man sitting in the middle is Bernard Dunne, (Head teacher, not the caretaker,) Gerry Drewett, Paddy Landers and Mia Richards. Behind us is the school, now demolished; and behind that is the famous Newport Transporter Bridge, not yet demolished, hopefully never.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008


He squatted at the foot of my bed with a knife in his hands. “I’m going to kill you,” he said. I stared at him, still half asleep, and he stared back through pale eyes. It was Gareth, white faced and smelling of tobacco. He had lank greasy hair and a straggly moustache and he was moving closer, the knife pointing straight at my head.

It was the only bad thing about Aberystwyth; the only exciting thing.

Gareth was a frightening person, even more so when he was high, and I bunched up on the other end of the bed, cluching a pillow and ready to pounce, do anything really to avoid getting stabbed. I remember feeling puzzled and uneasy, scared too, but somehow not yet ready to believe I might actually die. There are some blessings in having a healthy ego. I wish I could remember how I talked him down from wherever he was. I do vaguely remember him walking off with two bottles of beer as payment for not killing me…for now. That was understood. I’m still waiting.

The incident took place in the attic bedroom in 19 Custom House Street run by the vibrant and hospitable Mrs Abrahams. She made great breakfasts.
Directly outside was the Castle Inn and you went to sleep to the sounds of their jukebox – usually Hawkwind’s Silver Machine, or Buffy Saint Marie’s Soldier Blue, Credence Clearwater sometimes, and invariably House of the Rising Sun, which seems to have dominated every jukebox in the country for almost twenty years.

But Aberystwyth. Aberystwyth was so intensely boring. You walked. You drank. You sheltered from the rain. Summer was nice.

The only other flicker of excitement involved a promotional event by a beer company called Watney’s trying to foist their foul ‘Red Barrel’ on to the Students Union, a midnight walk with Dick Skinner and sundry others where we got ambushed by sheep, and two five star eccentrics who prepared us for a career in teaching.

Of course there weren’t enough schools for teaching practise in Aberystwyth so me and another were farmed out to Milford Haven where we boarded with a very nice piano teacher who claimed to have taught the daughter of Tony Curtis.

Because of my catering background the school, Milford Central offered me History and some teaching in Cookery, which thoroughly baffled Dr. Trot when he came to assess my lessons. It was like a scene from St. Trinian’s the girls grinning like maniacs, tossing pancakes like Frisbees. Doctor Trot was deaf, knew little about cooking but the girls had nice smiles, offered him pancakes, and the lesson went well.

Milford Central was a warm and friendly school, its discipline, like much of the 1970’s, based on cheerful brutality. There was only one cane in the school and it was passed from classroom to classroom as and when needed. When a child was sent for the cane he or she had to knock on every classroom door until it was found. It was a bit like ‘Find the Lady’. By the time victim had located it the entire school knew, so with pain came also an element of public humiliation.

After Milford came a sixth form college in Oswestry where I was taken under the wing of Bob Strachan and inflicted economic history on those taking A level. At Owestry I boarded with Sandra who undercooked sour bacon. I almost looked forward to getting back to Aberystwyth – even if it meant Gareth.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

And yes, I love Anthony Trollope

Dylan Thomas country

It’s strange what lodges in the mind. One of the happiest periods in my life is encapsulated in just four things: a flat in Uplands with the window open, a sunny day, Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, and me lying on the bed reading W. H. Ainsworth’s ‘Rookwood’. It helped that there was a pub nearby, an Indian restaurant, and the café where I played chess with Sally Percival.

The road to this glimpse of Nirvana had some twists and turns. I’d wanted to go for an MA but failed to get a grant. In a fit of madness I applied to McGill University in Montreal, and in an equal fit of madness they offered me a place with a full grant. It was, unfortunately, a door too far. We were too poor as a family to afford the plane-fare along with other sundry expenses. I remember talking on the phone to an earnest and very friendly Canadian voice, exhorting me to come, but we were flat stony broke and so I said no. It’s perverse to feel regret because I’ve acquired what makes me happy on a different path, but part of me feels regret, the greedy part that would like to open every door simultaneously.

The problem was what to do? I’d never expected to get to University in the first place, never mind get a degree, but what to do with it? I pondered two options: University librarianship or teaching. The former appealed to the scholar in me…the latter, well it didn’t really appeal at all except in one respect. I’m a solitary animal with the social skills of a bear in hibernation. Skulking in the stacks of a University library posed the danger of reinforcing those traits. Teaching on the other hand offered the possibility of developing what I didn’t naturally possess, an extrovert nature.

I was pondering such things on a train to Swansea after an interview at Liverpool University library. It was then that God or the Devil intervened. A materialist would say it was momentary madness and a low afternoon sun.

An elderly man sat in the seat opposite. Passing Shrewsbury he began talking to me in a strong Welsh accent, and I confided my dilemma, teaching or librarianship. He became as one possessed. Perhaps he was. Leaning over, he positioned his face close to mine. At that precise moment the sun came out from a cloud. It shone fiercely on his gold-framed spectacles so that his eyes seemed to catch fire.

“Teaching my boy. Teaching. It’s God’s own profession.”

I felt strangely weak – like Isaiah after a visitation and three pints of beer. And so my fate was sealed. No McGill, no cool academic library. Teaching it was.

Only Swansea’s Teaching Department rejected me, confusing my Liverpool accent with a speech defect.

But the old man had spoken.

I tried Aberystwyth and toned down the accent. The good news was they accepted me; the better news was Swansea unexpectedly offered me the chance to study for an MA with a full grant. The bad news was their ‘suggested’ topic. ‘Anthony Trollope and English Landed Society.’ His mother, Fanny Trollope – bless her – had made pots of money by being rude to Americans.

In her Domestic Manners of the Americans, She criticised the mistreatment of Indians, corruption, the banality of American women, the hypocrisy of American men, “…one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves…their loathsome spitting…the frightful manner of feeding with their knives till the whole blade seemed to enter their mouths, and the still more frightful manner of cleaning the teeth with a pocket knife.” She hadn't seen Swansea University's refectory.

Written in 1836 just fifty years after Britain had lost her colony, the book was a guaranteed best seller, and helped finance her son’s education. She was a smart woman, knew what she was doing, but what about Anthony and his seventy or more books/stories/articles. Would he be near as interesting?

What can I say? He grows on you.

I spent a year in the basement of Swansea University library. In front of me was Peter Traves, studying the sermons of Lancelot Andrews, and in an adjacent desk was a Raphaelite brunette called Jane, who I lusted quietly after in between books.
Yes, there would be teaching…eventually. Aberystwyth was holding my place. But in the meantime Nirvana, Blue, Rookwood, and sunny days in Uplands.

My flat was somewhere top left in the picture

Thursday, 20 November 2008

An explosive Christmas

I dream vividly and in colour and, however weird, they always follow some kind of plot, a story that I never get to complete because, so far, I always wake up. Many of my dreams involve buses, usually green ‘Atlanteans’, and they often end with a journey past familiar landmarks that take me through Walton, then Aintree and the red-brick terraced house I grew up in. I never get there.

The dream probably reflects years of traveling from Wales to Liverpool, and journey’s end, my mother waiting for me with a plate of bacon, egg and chips. Four slices of bread.

She was always pleased to see me, on only one occasion was she worried.

It was Christmas in 1972, at the height of the IRA’s bombing campaign on the British mainland. The journey started off well. At Hereford, soldiers on Christmas leave burst into my compartment and shared round bottles of a peculiarly yellow drink – a kind of alcoholic egg-nog called Advocaat, It was interesting. I’d never try it again.

Some time after Shrewsbury the soldiers left, and an elderly woman took their place. She was looking forward to seeing her daughter and grandchildren in Liverpool, and as the evening drew in she itemized each present in her suitcase and her various bags.

“A ham for Julie because she never has enough meat and I don’t like to go into a house empty handed; it’s not nice is it. Then there’s Darren, always difficult to buy for. I always find men difficult. Settled for a shirt and some aftershave. I thought about a tie but then I saw some miniature whiskies – the kind they serve you on planes…What else…? Christmas pudding. They probably have one but you can never get enough of Christmas pudding…” And so it went on. She was a lovely lady, and I was about to ruin her Christmas.

We arrived at Lime Street Station and she was struggling with her two bags and suitcase even before she’d left the compartment. Yes, I offered to help, an unwitting tool in some demonic joke.

I staggered off the train with her suitcase and mine, a rucksack hanging from one shoulder, and joined the eager crowd straining for familiar faces on the other side of the barriers. I wished her a Merry Christmas, told her Darren was sure to love the shirt, and that she was right about never having enough pudding for Christmas. At the barrier I released the suitcase and darted off for the bus – which, as usual, I missed.

An hour later I was home. An anxious mother wrenched open the door.
“Thank God. I thought you were blown up,” she said.
“Why, what’s happened?”
“Bomb scare at Lime Street Station. Suspicious suit-case. There’s a police cordon.”

Over my egg and chips we got the late news. There had been a controlled explosion revealing not a bomb but what was left of a shirt, ham, Christmas pudding and various presents.

Poor lady.

I’d assumed she’d been behind me. Now I wondered who I’d been chatting to, staggering along the station platform, carrying her suitcase. Maybe several different people each getting a part of the conversation and thinking I was mad.

Recently I’ve been wondering whether she’s behind those dreams about green buses, and whether, should I ever reach my destination, she’ll be waiting for me, a grim expression on her face, brandishing a bottle of Advocaat.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

The McDonalds of Grandison Road

Michael and Frankie McDonald were my cousins, still are, I suppose. They were the children of my mum’s sister Mary and her husband Frank, someone else who went to sea.

I remember Frank as a thin man with a wry smile who smoked a pipe and was partial to whisky. I don’t really know Aunty Mary’s drinking habits. She didn’t smoke a pipe but had a boisterous laugh and served us salad teas. I remember mounds of lettuce and salad cream, cricket in the garden of 61 Grandison Road, and sometimes excursions to Walton Hall Avenue Park…where we also played cricket.

We never argued. Just did what our parents told us. ‘Play cricket, boys.’ I hated cricket. Thoroughly pointless game. But I loved going over to Grandison Road. I remember blue skies and an Aunty that always smiled.
A brief respite from cricket. From left to right, Michael,his aunty Roma, Frankie...I'm the chubby one with the watchful eyes, probably eating a cheese sandwich. It might have been banana.I tried to like banana sandwiches but with little success. To the left is my mum.
As we grew older I saw my cousins less often, but one thing I’ll never forget. On my twenty first birthday, I was presented with a huge brass key as big as a small dog. It was a coming of age present from Michael and Frankie. I’ve yet to find the door it will open, perhaps the entrance to a Babylonian palace…now that would have been nice as a twenty-first present…only I’ve grown attached to the key.

Later, Michael married and transformed a beautiful innocent into Anne McDonald. They settled in Church Avenue opposite the church where Aunty Irene had experienced her Christmas Epiphany, opened a successful pet shop, and had three children. My cousin had grown up and made it look so easy.

Their house is that little brown shadow in the background between the two other houses. I believe it is now boarded up.

Sometimes, on Saturday nights, we would drink cider and beer, tell dirty jokes and solve most of the outstanding issues of the day. At the back of my mind I wondered whether I would one day own a house, open a successful pet-shop and have three children. Eight years previous I’d played in a tree house on the railway embankment opposite. At least I’d known where I was then…not drinking beer, worrying about the future, and where that future takes us.
The tree-house has gone. Not even boarded up. Dismal sigh

Michael’s children inherited their father’s wheeler-dealer skills. The eldest, another Michael along with Kevin, the youngest, went into catering, ran a restaurant in Liverpool’s Albert Dock complex (sadly I never got round to bumming a free meal there) and now work on oil rigs in Norway and Egypt. Paul went into banking, lives in Australia and has embarked on a second and successful career in photography.

We have just grown older.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Paint it Black

The room was quiet. Candle-flame makes little noise. In the darkness we imagined the sound of itching. The landlady had psoriasis. In the morning we avoided the cornflakes and rarely looked at her legs.

“I got you babe,” whispered Mick.

“Love in vain” I said.

Mick persisted “Honey just allow me one more chance.”

“You can’t always get what you want.”

“Got to get you into my life,” said Mick.

"You never give me your money," I grumbled.

"You got the silver (man)" he added.

I gave him a severe look. Extra words were not allowed.

“Monkey Man” He hissed. “You got the silver…Monkey man”

“I get around,” I said, smugly.

“And your bird can sing,” he said

“For no one.” That earned me an approving look.


“Girl from the North Country,” I sighed.

“Polythene Pam?”

I shook my head. “Suzanne.”

“Good vibrations?” (We were on a roll)

“I want to tell you.”

“Somebody to love.” He nodded - a mixture of regret and approval.

“Satisfaction,” I allowed.

“Something.” He paused. “Tomorrow never knows.”

“Tumbling Dice” I agreed.

The End…? He said hopefully.

“Golden Slumbers.”

The Miners strike of 1972 had reduced us to this. No television, no radio. Blackouts. Drinking bottled beer because beer pumps didn’t work. You sat in darkened pubs given a medieval gloss in candlelight. Girls somehow looked more beautiful and you stumbled home in a pitch black world. Played word games because that was all there was to do.

The rules were simple: maintain a conversation for as long as you could using only song titles. (For the purist the above come from The Beach boys, Beatles, Stones, Dylan, and Jefferson Airplane) In the pub we played using Book titles. The problem with songs titles is that they’re over dependent on sex. You don’t want to be whispering ‘I want to hold your hand’ to your mate unless you want ‘Hard Times’ and go back to a ‘Bleak House’.

At least now, however, I know what to do when the lights got out and Armageddon comes. You'll find me muttering in the dark...'I want to teach the world to sing.'

Thursday, 30 October 2008

She looked nothing like Yoko Ono

“Boom avast!”
Or some such salty gibberish.
“Boom avast!”
“What the fuck?”
Crack! A great chunk of wood smacked against my head. The wood was attached to an over-excitable sail and nearly knocked me into the sea.
Why didn’t he just say “Duck?”
Or “Fucking duck!”

I knew why. He was Dave, and I was going out with his girl-friend – Kay Chestnut. She’d quarrelled with him, made a beeline for me at a University disco and set fire to my heart. Eventually she went back to him, and in time played international hockey.

In the meantime we had a pleasant few weeks, sometimes playing chess in a small café on the Uplands Road. The proprietor had chess boards hidden under the counter and would hand them out like they were illegal drugs. He’d look at us fondly, having no idea – like me – what it was all about.

I took Sally Percival there but I noticed the proprietor looked on her less fondly. He’d already worked out a future for Kay and me and saw Sally as some kind of Yoko Ono.

She looked nothing like Yoko Ono. She had a dirty chuckle and came from Polruan.
We moved on from chess to darts. She moved on to Liverpool and the last time I heard of her she was working as a criminal psychologist…hmm, that’s ambiguous.

There were other girls, all of them more beautiful than I deserved: Elaine John, who made me feel giddy; Sally Tovey, tall and blonde. She came from a Welsh family who were prone to singing around the piano; Kate (for once my memory fails me) was also blonde but shorter. She spoke with a clipped, slightly upper class accent, and her wealth and background worried me slightly. But then I was stupid.

We all moved on...debris on the shores of google. To this day I’m convinced all of us are guided…if we listen; but then I’m not just stupid but egocentric, too.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Uncle John and Auntie Irene

Uncle John taught me about whiskey, not its finer points but how much of it you could put away in an evening. Eventually they took over the tenancy of 24 Helsby Road, and turned the front room into a mini-bar, or so it seemed. They were immensely generous and great fun.

Irene liked to dance and retained a pre-war, slightly raffish air. Imagine Princess Margaret with a Liverpool accent. John always had a smile on his face, sometimes puzzled, wistful, but always a smile. One Christmas Eve, Irene had a sudden yen to attend Midnight Mass at St. Peters (a black and gaunt Anglican Church now knocked down and replaced by Sheltered Housing, where Aunty Irene eventually died) It was in an adjacent street – Church Road.

I was tipsy, she more so than me, but we made it in time and sang what might or might not have been the opening hymn. And then the Holy Spirit struck. Irene was riven with remorse, a bad attack of the religious guilts.

“I’ve been bad…Mike. I’ve not been good.” Delivered in a doleful whisper that carried the length of the bench.

“I’m sure you have.” A consoling murmur.

“Been bad, I know. I can’t help it Mike. I’m just a bad person.”

I was aware of a stillness peculiar to those who are listening. The two rows in front were occupied by mannequins, their necks turned ever so slightly to one side. The Vicar was extolling the joys of Christmas tide, but everyone wanted to hear what Irene might say next. The Christmas message and gossip as well.

“No, you’re funny and generous. You’re a good person.”

“No…No not me, Michael.”

Michael…? This was serious then.

Her head shook slowly from side to side. “Not me.”

“We’ve all been bad – at times.”

“Not like me.”

I think I dissuaded her from taking Communion. It was a long walk down. Instead we persevered with our ‘how sinful we’d been’ double act, until it was time to go home. Five minutes later we were back at the party where Irene was happy again.

John and Irene had two children: John, known as ‘Little John’ (in case we got confused) and Joan. I have two childhood memories

• ‘Little’ John had some kind of exam coming up and it was decided that I would coach him in English or something. I was considered as ‘bright’ because I wore glasses. On a hot summer’s day, two miserable boys were stuck in the front room, neither really knowing what they were doing there or why.

• A game at our house where we were chasing Joan around the room until she got upset. Hmm, that reads as though that was the purpose of the game. In truth there was no purpose; just a chasing game in a 12΄ by 12´ room and an excuse to run over table and couch. Laugh? We cried.

John Parry died of cancer. Irene died in 2007 in the care home that had once been a church.

'Little' John, I believe works in Rochdale and Joan is enjoying life in the Wirral. I doubt we’d recognise each other, nor probably chase each other around the room.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Morris Cerullo

It was a meat and potato pasty, two pints of beer, rainy day. A Swansea day. And we were walking past a barely visible Brangwyn Hall. Strange, I thought. All these coaches, all these cars, what’s going on? We drifted up the steps, much like the rain, and found ourselves in an alternative universe. It was Morris Cerullo and a brand of charismatic evangelism I’d never come across before. His sunny face beamed down upon us as an irresistible current of the converted pushed us along into the main hall.

We sat at the back.

Behind us sat a three generation family from the valleys: grandparents, parents and two children eating crisps and chewing gum. They were relaxed, expectant, happy. We wondered what we were doing.

A swelling of chords brought almost immediate silence. A little man, plump and dressed in a blue suit, strode on stage and seized a microphone. He looked like Napoleon and spoke with a Brooklyn accent. Like a gangster from God.

The technique however was exhilarating and mind-blowing. His trick was to speak earnestly in a low, intimate but amplified whisper, gradually building up in volume and repetition to a roaring and passionate frenzy. He spoke for two and a half hours orchestrating emotion like some celestial alchemist. He was no longer funny.

My friends I have seen the devil in a woman’s ankle, the curve of her knee.
I have seen the devil in a woman’s thighs, her hips.
I have seen the devil in a woman’s smile, the lascivious glint in an eye.
The devil is amongst us my friends, waiting his chance…waiting his chance.
Are you with Satan, or are you with Jesus?
Are you with Satan, or are you with Jesus?
Are you with Satan, or are you with Jesus?

The auditorium crackled in his screaming and an entire mass stood up thrusting their arms into the air: Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!

It was like a Nuremburg rally. The children behind us were also shrieking the Lord’s name…and so were we - bemused - wondering at what might happen if we didn’t.

Prove you love Jesus!
How much do you love Jesus?
The devil is in a man’s wallet my friends
He’s in there telling you all the things you can buy with that money.
Do you love Jesus?

Audience response: Jesus…Jesus…Jesus…
Well prove it, prove it my friends. Prove you love Jesus.
Cast Satan behind you. Now! Cast Satan behind you!

Cue men with baskets at the front of the stage.
Cue men and women, capering down with notes in their hands,
Cue us slipping out the back.

Time for one last pint.

Friday, 3 October 2008

If he wants to piss in your sink, it's all right by me!

I owe Mick Grey a big favour. It was, in my opinion, his finest hour, but not mine.

We’d been invited to Sue and John’s flat warming party. Sherry was on offer at the supermarket so we bought two large bottles. There were two or three hours to kill before the party kicked off, so we decided on a brisk pub crawl. It was my idea to sell the story that we were visiting our brother at university - that he’d gone off to some posh dinner leaving us…and we knew no one in Swansea. Drink flowed, life stories exchanged. Swansea was and is a warm and generous place.

We arrived at the party late but merry as hell.

Time for the sherry.

There are only two things I remember:

Bouncing off walls that, in a peculiarly Welsh way, defied known physics. (Maybe Cerne will figure it out) The walls sucked you in like rubbery cardboard and then at a whim bounced you across the far end of the room. People made way for me as I headed for the bathroom.

That’s the second thing I remember.

I climbed the stairs using the banisters like a rope ladder. Unfortunately I walked up one flight too many and landed in the bathroom belonging to the apartment above. I was peeing into a suspiciously high toilet – physics playing tricks again – when a woman screamed behind me and piss flew up the wall.

“He’s pissing in my sink!”

I turned, confused. This wasn’t Sue, definitely not John. “It’s all right. I’m sorry. I’ll clean it up. I grabbed at a cloth and began scrubbing.

“My face cloth!! A low, despairing wail.

At that moment Mick appeared, breathing heavily. He stood, legs apart and put the woman right:

“Listen, I have known Mike Keyton for three years…And if he wants to piss in your sink – it’s all right by me!”

Thank you, Mick, wherever you are.

The only other time I reached anything approaching that level of inebriation was after my final exams. I wish I could remember the name of that wine bar, which served only port, and made you sit on high stools that became more unstable as the evening progressed.

I do remember head-butting parked cars all the way home. (Had I been really drunk I’d have been head-butting the moving kind.) We were accompanied by two pleasant policeman, enjoying the spectacle, and probably concerned for our safety. Or maybe I imagined them.

There’s one thing about my drunkenness, I’m always benign – puzzled more than anything else and I lose any sense of direction – like a wobbly Sat-Nav. On arriving at our flat I staggered into the wrong room and collapsed on the bed. It was hard as hell and things fell on the floor. Again the shocked scream… and then laughter. It wasn’t the woman bemoaning her face-cloth then.

When I looked round I saw Mick Grey and the land-lady’s daughter staring down at me. I was in her room, lying on her dressing table, which by an act of divine mischief was positioned where my bed should have been.

I recount these stories now, with neither pride or shame. I’m describing a different person…I think.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Which bloody pedal?

Adrian Jones was a revolutionary socialist. He later became a union official, a hotelier in Scotland hobnobbing with lairds, and now possesses a golden chain as Lord Mayor of Wallasey. He was always a gentleman, partial to hunting dogs, Barbour jackets and Welsh choirs. Despite a broad, rolling Monmouthshire accent which gave gravitas even when ordering ice-cream, Adrian came from Newport, which has never been famous for its gravitas, only a mole-screw wrench and a Transporter Bridge.
Adrian had a passion for argument, books and good beer. He was also an idealist in that he thought he’d be able to teach me to drive. The first and only lesson took place on Mumbles car-park, dangerously close to cliffs and sea.

Everything started well. The door opened as it should and the steering wheel was in the right place. Adrian’s voice was measured and calm as he took me step by step through preliminary maneuvers.

The trouble started when the car began to move…at about ten miles per hour – too fast for me. I froze as we headed straight for the cliff and disaster. I knew a pedal accelerated, and another one braked, but which bloody one? The cliff hurtled towards us at – I know – 10mph – so close now that a wrong choice in pedals would see us in casualty.

Adrian’s face, too, was frozen in disbelief. I imagined the obscenities racing through his head, but his voice remained calm. “Middle one …hard, Mike.”

We stopped just in time.

I never drove again. Ever. But we both retained a strong interest in politics and beer.

At a Swansea Young Socialist meeting we were discussing Marxist dialectics; I attempted to explain ‘thesis, antithesis and synthesis’, and the limited role of individual choice in the historical process. I used the analogy of two caterpillars looking up at the sky as a shadow passed over them. It is a butterfly. One caterpillar turns to the other and mutters: ‘You’ll never catch me up in one of those things.’ It got a laugh. Only later did I realise that a person of faith could have used the same analogy, and may have got an even bigger laugh.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Anarchist Dogs

1968 has been called the Year of Revolutions. We had riots in America and Paris, a Spring in Prague, mass demonstrations against the Vietnam war. 1969 saw the ferment continue…in Swansea at least. Swansea students had mass sit-ins, and marches across a stretch of the Mumbles road. We fought for a pedestrian bridge and mixed sex Halls of Residence. Europe trembled.

There were stirrings in the Anarchist camp too. Ian Bone had an anarchist dog accessorized with a small red and black flag around its collar. The image may have sparked the idea, that or the beer. Why do we fight for the liberation of man…what about dogs?

Comrades, what about dogs?

Rhetoric turned into action.

Singleton Park encircled much of the University. Behind it was a compound for unwanted dogs. One dark night the compound was raided and the dogs released. Singleton Park resounded to the eager barking of dogs, packs of them roaming through bushes and trees searching for bones and Bakuninist truths. Not exactly Reservoir Dogs but a victory of sorts.

(With thanks to Rick Lewis)

Friday, 12 September 2008

Gendarmes and Anarchists

Red Star over Leningrad

Politics on campus was dominated by the Socialist Society or Soc Soc, a broad church of the left but in reality riven in faction. RSPGB fought IMG; both despised IS and all three despised the PLP. The initials say it all. There was also a thriving Anarchist Society dominated (if not led) by Ian Bone. He at least has remained true to the principles he espoused in 1969. Whether that is meritorious or sad is open to debate, but I doubt many other members of Soc Soc can make the same boast.

There was a difference between them and an old trade unionist I met in Liverpool. He had been a boy during the Russian Revolution and in 1926 experienced the General Strike. Later on in life he made his first visit to St. Petersburg (Leningrad). He described approaching the city by night, the bus hedged by forest to either side. Then, in the distance, he glimpsed a red star twinkling from the highest building in the city. As he told the story, his eyes became visibly moist, the image and symbol still so potent in his memory. I doubt former Soc Soc students will ever experience the same emotional response on seeing the Lewis Jones Hall of Residence peeping over the trees of Singleton Park.

Trotsky was asked what went wrong with the Russian Revolution. He answered in a parable. When there’s a shortage of bread you have bread queues. When you have bread queues you have police controlling them – and the police take the bread. One wonders what kind of Gendarme Trotsky would have made had he not been forced into exile by Stalin.

Anyway, the plum wine is strong tonight. Hmmm…sounds like a cold war password

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Anthony Wedgwood Benn

Sometime around 1969 / 1970 Anthony Wedgwood Benn who was then Minister of Technology, spoke at Swansea University. He was a man enthused, a man with a mission, possessed with the answer to everything: Technology. The Buzzword then was the ‘white-hot heat of technology.” Technology was the Alchemist’s Stone that would transform society, revitalising wherever it touched. Technology would dissolve class, or at least make its inequalities more bearable.

At the back of the hall was Terry Harrison, a Militant Activist from Liverpool, and a Cammell Laird’s Shop Steward at a time when Merseyside still built ships. He listened attentively, and when the talk opened out into questions raised his hand. There followed a searing analysis of the Minister’s idealism (or crap), its contradictions and flaws, and how it bore little relation to the daily life of working men. He concluded with how Britain was essentially dominated by 300 monopolies (A Militant slogan at the time) and how technology would primarily be used to exploit labour with greater efficiency. There followed a deadening silence and a subdued response from Anthony Wedgwood Benn. More of a burble than a response.

Shortly after that Anthony Wedgwood Benn became Tony Benn, a lucid leftwing firebrand, and in time, a ‘National Treasure’* - the status acquired when one is deemed no longer a threat. Mick Jagger is one, along with Cliff Richard – but I digress.

I like to think that Tony Benn experienced a Damascene moment when Terry Harrison spoke, and know it for conceit. We’d all like to think, that at least once in our life, we’d been touched by history. In the words of one who could turn the Lords Prayer into a soundbite "A day like today is not a day for soundbites, really. But I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders. I really do.” (Tony Blair) In my case it was probably dandruff.

Benn was, no doubt, blissfully unaware of Terry Harrison. He attributed his radical shift to his experience as a minister in the 1964–1970 Labour government. In his words:
As a minister, I experienced the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by use of the crudest form of economic pressure, even blackmail, against a Labour Government. Compared to this, the pressure brought to bear in industrial disputes is minuscule. This power was revealed even more clearly in 1976 when the IMF secured cuts in our public expenditure. These lessons led me to the conclusion that the UK is only superficially governed by MPs and the voters who elect them. British Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact. – Which helps put the Palin Mcain/Barak Obama and Joe Biden hoopla’ in perspective.

* A list compiled by the New Statesman in 2006, voted Benn twelfth in the list of "Heroes of our time"

Saturday, 30 August 2008

King Crimson

You could transform Swansea into anything you wished. Here I like to think of myself as a Russian nobleman silently contemplating his estate. In fact it's a view from the college building overlooking the Mumbles Road and the sea.

The soundtrack to my years at Swansea was dominated by King Crimson, and their album‘In the Court of the Crimson King’. It seemed to be on every night, the soundtrack to endless games of ‘Sweaty Betty’ and tea when the beer ran out.

There was other music, in particular Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’, which can only be really appreciated heard at sunset in Three Cliff’s Bay. There is no logic to that. Nor need there be. It just is. The Gower was rich in magic: hidden coves, ancient barrows, and soundtracks heard in the head without an IPod in sight.

I saw Love Sculpture performing Sabre Dance in a pub; saw a drunken Kevin Ayers fall off the stage. I stood between the two speakers as Wishbone Ash duelled guitars in the Junior Common room, and remember feeling puzzled when Paul McCartney’s Wings pulled up for a quick drink in the Woodman’s hotel, prior to playing a surprise gig at the University. We were so intent on arguing whether it was or it wasn’t ‘him’ that we missed the gig entirely. Story of my life, really.

The Woodman where an encounter nearly took place. Behind is the 'world famous Rhododendron Garden'...apparently.

The last Swansea gig I went to was in the Top Rank in 1972, but that was far from joyous. Stone the Crows were playing and midway in the set their guitarist Les Harvey began a frantic dance – or so it seemed to the semi-pissed standing far to the back. In fact he was being electrocuted live on stage. I never went to Altamont, but I imagine there was the same horrible, sour taste that would never entirely go away.

Next post will be on Swansea politics.

For anyone interested in rock trivia you may have to wait for a bit to find out Cher’s opinion of Cardiff (overheard in the toilets.)

Friday, 22 August 2008

The Hemlock could have come sooner

Even at the time I realised my lecturers were a rum lot, but I didn’t realise that one of them was descended from William the Conqueror
Other than being eccentric, Neville Masterman appeared unremarkable. Dressed in shabby tweed, occasionally odd shoes, and usually wearing bicycle clips, no one would have guessed that he was descended from the hero of Senlac Hill, or indeed that his father was CFG Masterman, a Liberal Minister in Lloyd George’s government.

We were taught some history by a Doctor Breuning, no descendent of the Conqueror but a plump and earnest lady, daughter of a Weimar politician: Heinrich Breuning, a Chancellor Hitler made short work of.

Equally rum was Doctor Price who sought to teach us logic at 8.30 am every Friday morning. I grew to loath syllogisms – especially at that hour – but learnt a more valuable lesson. It was important to avoid eye contact with him – at any price avoid eye contact. We studied floor patterns, ceilings, stared down at our notes, the neck immediately before us; we avoided his roving gaze as though he were some kind of psychic vampire, which in sense he was. Once locked in his sights there was no escape – an entire 45 minute lecture was addressed to you, and to you alone.

DZ Phillips taught us Aristotle and Plato and created in me an abiding dislike of Socrates. The hemlock couldn’t come soon enough.

I did however feel sorry for Colwyn Williams, a Marxist forced to teach the Idealist philosophy and Bishop Berkeley to ignorant first years. He paced the dais like a chain smoking tiger, and you could hear the sound of gritted teeth some distance away.

Then there were my two favourite lecturers:

Peter Stead loved words. In one lecture he dismissed Victorian architecture as a ‘junk-heap of discarded styles’. In another he referred to that same architecture as a ‘rich and diverse pattern of experimentation.’ He was also a kind man who persuaded me that it wasn’t Tudor history I wanted to pursue in my MA but ‘Anthony Trollope and English Landed Society’. Anthony who? I muttered, but there a love affair began – with Trollope not Stead – though I’ll always be grateful for his patience with my punctuation and the occasional infelicitous phrase. Peter Stead was also a member of the government panel that chose Liverpool as the European Capital of Culture 2008 – though I doubt he had me in mind.

Finally there was Doctor Sidney Anglo.
Ah, well; we all age.

He was descended from no one in particular, though he harbored the belief that it might have been Shakespeare. A print of Shakespeare hung on the wall directly behind him, and he sat at angle until both profiles aligned. It was difficult to tell whether he was serious. He was the funniest and most stimulating man I’d ever come across. Brilliant, mercurial, Dr. Anglo had the happy knack of being able to holding his group entranced through hour long tutorials. It may have been magic.

On one occasion he gave a lecture on Renaissance Demonology but delayed his entrance. His eventual arrival was preceded by a low and sinister chant, as he and two acolytes appeared, incanting a four hundred year old summoning spell.
In his book on Machiavelli he writes of the Emperor Maximilian, whose schemes were, as ever, shrouded in the impenetrable secrecy peculiar to those who haven’t the faintest idea what they’re doing. It’s one of my favourite lines probably because it just about sums me up.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Breath from Hell.

The early seventies could be seen as the Indian summer of the sixties, an over ripe period, which withered into autumn – winter - then punk. The seeds, had I known it then, were evident as I bounced down rickety steps beneath a bedraggled Union Jack. From two crackly speakers, music played: vaguely martial, too faint to tell. The Seventies were a shabby period, but I was glad to be home.

I arrived back in Liverpool late and decided to stay the night at Dave’s and Carol’s – my absurdly young uncle and aunt. Uncles then wore cardigans and smoked pipes, but not those two. They still don’t. I remember some hesitation as to where to put me. I could see their minds working…Tangier doss houses…probably hasn’t washed for weeks….bed-bugs…, but I think they were pleased with my gift of two stuffed camels.

I slept on the couch below a window under attack from a dangerously close tree. On the floor opposite me slept their incredibly ancient dog, Towser – a mongrel old English sheepdog - all hair and nose and sharp black eyes. Every time I woke up and turned he was watching me, occasionally sighing.

Outside the wind picked up, agitating the tree. With every gust the window banged and giant spider-like shadows played across the room. Towser stared reproachfully and pulled himself across the floor. With something between a leap and a scrabble he hauled himself onto the couch and positioned himself on my chest. Two black eyes stared down into mine, and breath that smelled of decomposing rat enveloped me.

I lay there trapped, aware of my debt. The effort had nearly killed him but he was bent on protecting a friend. I closed my mouth and nose, and breathed through my ears, remembering when Towser had been an excitable ball of fluff on a bright red lead…

I may have been eleven, and Dave had called round with this dog. Uncle John (he was someone else who didn’t wear cardigans, or smoke a pipe) had once brought us rabbits. I convinced myself that the dog, too was such a gift, and fell at once in love. We went on a long walk to the canal bridge, separating Aintree from Maghull, him tugging and me thinking of names. I had to have him…why else had Dave brought him…? The dog was mine.

I’ve had bigger disappointments.

Now here he was, breathing like a bad-breathed old man and protecting me from lay outside. Neither of us slept that night.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Spanish Angels

The Old Testament is full of Angels, materialising often as fairly ordinary people, which leads one to wonder how many ‘ordinary’ people are nudged by angels to do or say extra-ordinary things. There have been times when I’ve been in real trouble, and on each occasion someone has come along. Chance is a fine thing.

I had a train ticket from Algeciras to Bilbao and some money, but not enough for the ferry back home. Certainly no money to eat or drink.

I can’t remember how the conversation began, or who initiated it. I can vaguely remember his face - tanned, dark haired and a neatly trimmed moustache – like just about everyone in Spain at that time, though not the women. I also seem to remember he was a trainee hotel manager, based in the Madeira or the Canary Islands. So not a real, bona fide angel then, but had I been lost in the desert three thousand years ago I might have been convinced.

He was with a group of friends. Hell, for all I knew I might have fallen in with a convention of angels. They pooled their money, and made sure I ate and drank throughout the long and tortuous journey. It didn’t stop there. On reaching Bilbao they took me to the port where we discovered the next boat was in two days time. Where was I to sleep – eat – how make up the shortfall needed to purchase a ticket home?

Bilbao then was not a pleasant city at night, not if you had no money and it was raining. One of them remembered a distant relative and we trooped through dark and rain-sodden streets, winding our way up never ending steps to a sinister looking tenement. A woman holding a baby opened the door. She listened. Looked briefly sorrowful, and shook her head.

Eventually we found a hostel, and there followed another whip-around, which not only covered the cost but also what I lacked to buy the ferry ticket. There were a few coins left over to buy a bottle of coke and a packet of crisps.

Angels or human kindness, the lesson was indelible.

(Though my children might not believe I survived three days without food)

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Spanish Customs

The trip back to Algeciras was brief and uneventful. I stared at a receding North African shore and wondered how much I’d remember: Fez...the ‘Real Yorkshire Fish and Chip Shop’ in the middle of Tangier... the more real Yorkshire-man – Dave Loney – biking through and around Morocco. I remembered railing against the continuous brazen blue skies, longing for greyness and cloud, and Dave urging on me the beauties of Yorkshire, pot-holing and walking across moor-land. It sounded good, and I made a rash promise.

Just behind me, in the queue through customs, was a loud and very boastful American boy. He may or may not have been the son of an Embassy official in Madrid, but his voice soared above Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, playing almost as loudly on his sound box. To believe him, he was carrying enough dope to supply half of Madrid.

I shuffled on.

From the corner of my eye I detected movement.

A finger.

I turned to see a Spanish policeman staring at me. He looked like Lieutenant Doberman in Sergeant Bilko, only more sombre, even grim. He raised his finger again and curled it, beckoning to a small cubicle. The American boy went quiet.

I went through the usual pattern of body language: the widened eyes, head tilting quizzically, the finger on the chest. The policeman nodded and gestured me again into the small cubicle.

The body search was thorough and became even more so. He put on a pair of brown leather gloves.


He placed my hands on a facing wall and pulled my trousers down. A finger shot up my bottom, jabbed once or twice then went up and down following the natural curve of the crack. Should I have been outraged, embarrassed, perhaps humiliated? The mind is a strange thing. With each exploratory jab I was thinking what a great story this would make, and how best to tell it over a few pints in the pub back home.

When he had finished I waited. He had pulled my trousers down, he could pull them up, I thought, before better sense prevailed. The policeman watched impassively as I adjusted my dress and left.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

too hot to be a Hippy

I was in a dark narrow room, a pension in Tangier, shared with a thin but muscular hippy. He was the real thing, or so it seemed to me. I’d met others in Marrakesh, who’d spent their fare home, but retained enough to get by where the living was cheap. I had sold my watch to afford the early morning ferry Algeciras. Somewhere in my pocket was a train-ticket to Bilbao, but insufficient money for the ferry from there to Britain. I understood then the attractions of staying in Marrakesh.

“I will wake you up in time for your boat.” I can’t remember his accent. It may have been German. He needn’t have bothered. An early morning sun and the wailing of a muezzin from an adjacent Minaret did the trick. I opened my eyes to see him (the hippy, not the muezzin) sitting in a yoga squat humming gently. “It is six o’clock,” he said, and held out his hand. Real life hippies needed paying, I realised, but I had no money.

I shrugged and rolled up my sleeping bag. He shrugged in return, and resumed his low humming.

On the quay-side I decided to tackle the problem of how to pay for the boat-fare to England. I had a canvas sack of presents: beads, small drums, stuffed camels, small ornaments. I spread them out on the ground and squatted like a hippy in trouble but too cool to care. The good news was I sold them quickly; the bad news was it hit me that I wasn’t a hippy. I wasn’t cool. I was hot and bothered, eager to get back home.

I wondered what made a real hippy: the supply teacher in Liverpool who had inherited his mother’s house, brewed wine under the stairs and did just enough work (including a nightshift in Minster Minerals) to get by? The retired couple who lived in a caravan on the cliffs of Algeciras? They were nut-brown, sinewy and thin. They lived off bread and honey and small pots of yoghurt, and spent much of their time staring in contentment across the straits of Gibraltar. But me…? I had a degree course, a rented house in Langland, King Crimson and endless games of ‘Sweaty Betty’ with Brian and John² Andy, Ian and Mick, and Sue. But first I had to get there.

I packed what remained of my presents, mostly stuffed camels – not a big seller – into my sleeping back and boarded the ferry, not realising there was a Spanish policeman on the other side with a peculiar interest in my anatomy.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Lost in Space

Many elderly and very respectable Victorians professed shame and bewilderment for the excesses of their youth during the more hedonistic Regency period. Some offered excuses. None of that here. Mind you, if I was to go back in time and meet my former self I know I’d be irritated as hell with him, and he in turn would be appalled at what he’d become. He’d also be relieved at the relative prosperity he’d later enjoy, frightened at the sacrifices. No, the young Keyton was a suck it and see hedonist – naïve, in many respects stupid, but too scared not to try.

The only negative decision I consciously made was not to experiment with acid. I’d read somewhere that it re-arranged your brain-cells, and I was too egocentric to risk changing mine. Stupid, too, since beer does the job more effectively by killing them.

Most of my time in Marrakesh was spent in a narcotic haze. The day began with fresh bread, honey, and a slab of hash cake washed down by mint tea. The effect kicked in midmorning and was maintained by smoking it until late evening. The day ended with a thick bowl of vegetable soup in the main market square.

That in itself was hallucinatory enough, smoke and small fires, drums and dancers, acrobats, story tellers flickering in shadow, strangers pushing you this way and that, and above, a brilliant African sky.

The youth hostel never lived up to its promise but the hash did. One night I lay down on the narrow camp-bed and stared up at a less than brilliant ceiling. Slowly my eyes closed and I felt my body grow numb. It began with my toes and then feet, slowly spread upwards, until all that remained was a torso on the bed. My legs enjoyed a parallel existence; they were no longer with me on a grimy sheet in Marrakesh. The numbness spread until only a head remained, and I remember grinning until that option too was removed. Not even a head… on a pillow. Disembodied, floating in space. And still the numbness spread until only a tiny spark remained – me – whirling in a heavy and rolling darkness. It was better than ‘Space Mountain’.

I can’t remember if I slept and then woke up with all my limbs intact and in the right place, or it was gradual process of coming back down to earth but it was like nothing beer or even the finest whisky could hope to replicate.

There are horror stories of ‘soft’ drugs leading to ‘hard’ drugs but I think that is more a mix of temperament, genetics perhaps, but more probably peer-group pressure. When I eventually returned to Britain the only mild craving I retained was for tobacco which vanished after three cigarettes.

Of more immediate concern was money. My lack of it. Gradually it dawned on me that eventually I’d have to return to Britain…and walking it might take forever.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Don't believe all you read but...

The journey went on forever. The bus was hot, had little suspension and the seats were hard. We crawled over mountains; outside glimpses of paradise, deep sandstone valleys carved from water, and lush emerald green fields. Looking down I saw turquoise rivers and small brown children swimming and diving like thin dolphins. The water looked cold.

Inside it grew hotter. Occasionally the bus stopped in the wilderness. People got off; others materialized from thin air and took their seats. Sometime in the afternoon a small boy squatted in the central aisle of the bus and crapped on the floor. An American in front of me went ‘Wow,’ and turned the other way.

Eventually we reached Marrakesh, the goal of our journey. By nightfall we’d be sleeping in the infamous youth hostel so castigated by a sensationalist press. I imagined hippies and dope, orgies, wild sex, everything the papers had promised.

The hostel was a bungalow, once white but now the colour of porridge. There was a lawn, green and recently cut. It looked ominously quiet. The only evidence of naked sex was a toddler in a swimsuit watering the grass…still what would it be like at night…?

We opened the door and two disconsolate youths looked up as we entered. Both were from Bradford who’d read the same tabloid expose.

Don’t believe all you read, but enjoy the journey.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Don't dance with bearded men

Approaching Tinghir

A few days later I was in Tinghir, watching the bus disappear into a greying desert. It was late afternoon and I stood, scratching my head, in a small dusty square. It was then that a small boy approached. ‘You want to come to my brother’s wedding?’ I blanked him out but he was insistent, and then gradually, almost too late, I realised it was more than a scam.

I followed him into a maze of narrow paths and tall, baked-clay walls. The night was hot and black and I was walking into the past. Every so often, as though sensing my unease, the boy would turn. “You will like. You will like.” And I’d grin back, nodding my head, thinking Biblical thoughts, holding on to the story of the Good Samaritan. Occasionally John the Baptist would flash into my head, his eyes staring at me from a plate.

Imagine walking down this at night.

It began with the sound of drums and what I can only describe as a kind of joyous wailing. The drums grew louder and around the corner the wedding party came into view, bringing with it an army of shadows, eyes gleaming in torch light. The boy ran off and began whispering urgently to a white bearded elder. A moment later I was being hugged and swept away down yet more alley-ways to a small courtyard.
There were vast amounts of couscous and lamb, strange smelling pipes, and an absence of women. It seemed the wedding was an excuse for the men to party, free from any who might criticise. I wondered what the women were doing, and whether their party was as good.

And yet clearly their presence was needed - in one form or another. Drums started, followed by the sound of strings and pipes. An unconvincing woman materialised in the middle of the circle and began dancing. Osama Bin Laden in drag. She began pulling up people to dance alongside her. I smiled contentedly, puffed on the pipe, thinking how strange, how pleasant everything was - when suddenly a hairy hand appeared inches from my face. It pulled at my shoulder, forcing me up. A moment later I was dancing a peculiar version of the Twist to music more suited to a ‘belly-dance’.

Men-only-dancing was interesting, my dancing even more so, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The music went on and on, and so did I, wondering when the damn thing was going to stop. Imagine ‘Stairway to Heaven’ played twenty-three times…and continuing. What I didn’t realise - until almost too late - was that here the music didn’t stop until you stopped dancing - at least in this small village of Tinghir.
I slept blissfully in the company of strangers, slowly learning the lesson that hospitality costs little and is remembered forever.

The following day another village. I was sitting on an outcrop of rock. The village huddled in a terracotta landscape beneath a dark blue sky. Someone had seen me. A young girl trudged up the path, heading in my direction. She stopped two or three feet away and held out the most beautiful beaded necklace I’d ever seen. She named her price, which was pitifully small, and even more pitifully I proceeded to haggle. It was then that she gave me a look that humiliates me still, and makes me give that little bit extra to any and every appeal. She just looked and then turned, taking the necklace with her. I watched her retrace her steps and thought of all that she hadn’t and all that had been given to me. If I’d learnt nothing from Morocco, I learnt it now. A generous spirit makes life worth living.

This would be a good place to end, but there was one more lesson still to be learnt.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Generousity of Spirit - Part One.

Morocco was different. As soon as our feet touched the quayside we were surrounded by children speaking in tongues and begging. They were bright and sharp and maybe desperate. Within seconds they’d have your nationality and be bombarding you with any icon that might establish a bond. ‘Bobby Moore. I like Bobby Moore. Great footballer, the best.’
‘Elvis is King, right?'
'My sister likes Elvis’
'Charles De Gaulle, great man, the best.’
‘Australia. Kangaroos.’ Our loose coin went quickly, until eventually we walked through them, as though they were holograms. Money was tight and we didn’t have their talent if it ever ran out.

Some weeks later my money did eventually run out. It was in Quarzazate. The sky was a dark pink and I was wondering through the ruins of an ancient fort. A small boy appeared from nowhere, hand outstretched and smiling. I shrugged and pulled out empty pockets. Immediately the boy’s smile grew even wider. He pulled out his own pockets, also empty and patted me on the back.

There is a generosity of spirit in Morocco. That first day in Tangier we wandered through the winding maze of the old market. It was hot enough to dry spit. I made the mistake of pausing outside a small building, and at once a man materialised; he dragged the two of us inside. It was more oven than café with just enough room for a small table and four chairs. We were squeezed in and immediately craved the relatively coolness of the spit-dry street.

There was no menu, just meat, boiling away in a largest of large cauldrons positioned adjacent to the table. But it was cheap, and the two men manning the cauldrons beamed ecstatically, as though they were feeding angels.

This generosity manifested itself throughout the country and began to raise uncomfortable truths about my own capacity for meanness. Terry was heading for the coast and Agedir. I drifted inland.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

I Recovered My Cool In Morocco

But first I had to get there. The Rock of Gibraltar is so close you think you could swim across to it, and on a clear day you could see the shadow of Africa on the horizon. We took the ferry to Tangier but were turned back. They were conducting a purge on ‘hippies’ and my hair was too long. That same day we ended back in Algeciras, me thoroughly pissed off and dreading the prospect of re-appearing on the beach.

The following day I wandered around Algeciras. For a time I followed a band of policeman marching to drum and brass. They wore guns in case anyone didn’t like the music and I kept my distance feeling like ‘The Prisoner’ and expecting the bouncing ball to appear at any moment. What made it so chilling and surreal was the fact that it was mid day and they were marching through empty streets.

Eventually we parted company and I wandered towards a cake shop that was sensibly shut. In the window was a large golden bun glistening in syrup. An over-weight fly drifted somnolently over the range of cakes, as if choosing, then spiraled and landed on the bun where it vanished, sucked in by the golden marsh. I watched to see if it would reappear, wondering about the currants in the other cakes, wondering whether one day there’d be a musical called ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’, wondering whether Algeciras would suck me up over the summer, and what lies I would tell when I eventually got back home. ‘Morocco, it was great.’

Then the Canadians arrived, brother and sister, and took things in hand. My hair was hacked off, and I tried to convince myself that I looked good in a loud checked jacket and a louder checked shirt. A day later we tried again, this time via Spanish Morocco and the port of Ceuta. The official took one look at my passport and its refused entry stamp by a rival bureaucrat. He smiled, and I knew I was going to be okay.


His gaze flitted from passport to me in my bizarre Canadian Costume – thank God I wasn’t wearing the trunks – and the smile turned to one of pity, perhaps respect for determination, sacrifices made, a startling haircut. With a wave he passed us through. I was in Morocco. The fly was still in the bun.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

A Coarse Slime that edged slowly down to my knees

Green and yonderly, I proved the existence of Guardian Angels. This will be one of several posts of my student wanderings around Morocco.

It was London, a hot Sunday afternoon and every shop was shut. We tramped on, looking for anywhere that might sell a pair of swimming trunks. I had packed everything, two T shirts, two pairs of shorts, three of underpants, a towel and a toothbrush. All of it was neatly rolled up in the sleeping bag attached to my shoulder. But no swimming trunks.

We were on our way to Morocco, seduced by a tabloid expose with its tales of sex and wild orgies. It was all happening in a youth hostel on the outskirts of Marrakesh. We were students and it was 1970. The Paris train was leaving within the hour and hope was evaporating, when suddenly I saw it - a second hand shop. And it was open.

Terry was sceptical. “They won’t be selling second hand swimming trunks.”

Terry was wrong. Five minutes later I was holding up a pair of knitted trunks, navy blue and made from wool. They looked like a large tea-cosy, a badly made balaclava, but Terry was looking at his watch, and so I paid my 50 cents and stuffed them into my sleeping bag. On the train I forgot all about them, not knowing that they were biding their time.

Northern France is green but boring. For us the adventure began at Gare d’Austerlitz and the overnight train from Paris to Madrid - then on to Algeciras. From Algeciras, Africa was but a ferry-ride away.

The carriages were heaving with Moroccan and Algerian seasonal workers, taking themselves and their savings back home. We squeezed our way through a writhing mass of song and flesh and sweat, looking for the tiniest space that would allow us to both stand and occasionally breathe. Even the toilets were occupied and need was rationed by the reluctance to cause offence.

The singing never stopped; the red wine flowed and everyone around us insisted that the strangers in their midst would share their joy and wine. The lesson I learnt, as a pretty immature student who had never been abroad before was to trust in the goodness of strangers. That lesson was reinforced, time and time again as the journey progressed.

In the distance you can see Gibralter, and beyond - North Africa.

At Algeciras the sand gleamed as hard as gold; the sea glittered, and we looked ridiculous, two pale, underfed students adrift amidst lithe and beautiful Mediterraneans, haughty and bronzed. I scrambled into my second-hand trunks. My body looked as though it had been interrupted by a large hornets’ nest, knobbly and strangely blue. Woollen trunks; why had I bought them, what could I do? I looked straight ahead and ran as fast as I could into the sea, until only my head and neck showed.

It was the moment the trunks had been waiting for. They were alive, morphing into a coarse slime that edged slowly down to my knees. They were sucking the Mediterranean dry. I wondered how long I’d be able to carry the weight. Worse - how I was going to return to the beach wearing swimming trunks now down to my calves. I swam for what seemed like hours dragging a weight of wool behind me until eventually the beach began to clear and I made my escape. Terry had gone some time ago.

Next post: I recover my cool in Morocco

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Maria Zannini' - Touch of Fire

Between mage and man lies fire. ***************************************** Earth is a fusion of culture, language and religion, and the world is divided between plainfolk and the fae, Elemental mages who are born with the ability to manipulate one of the four great elements, earth, air, fire and water. The technology of the old world has been extinct for centuries. One man dares to resurrect it. And only one woman can stop him.

Great Cover. Great Book

Now all I have to do is figure out how to fiddle with layout to have a permanent side bar showing links and books - including some of my own, lesser publications. I hate computers, but can't live without them.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Oily and Necromantic

Swansea was a mysterious place where limbs would vanish to re-attach themselves at inopportune moments.

Alcohol figured large, whether it was the three pints of Guinness to settle me the night before an exam, or as the regular lubricant that passed away time. I didn’t 'do roaring drunk' except on big occasions like finishing my degree, or MA or something equally grand. Then the results were spectacular. Most days it was pints and darts somewhere in the Mumbles.

On one occasion, walking back home, we stopped at a fish and chip shop. At this particular 'chippy' we tended to inspect each chip - especially the fat ones - before we eating it. The owner was missing fingers on both hands, and after a few pints subconscious fears kicked in. How had he lost them? Were we eating one now?

It was with such thoughts that we passed a launderette and dry cleaners. Outside was a discarded plastic tub. Under lamp-light it looked grubby but had a chemical smell which reassured us that it was basically clean. Whose idea it was I can’t remember, but we all agreed, this would be ideal for making beer…endless pints of cheap and drinkable beer. The emphasis was more on cheap than drinkable, which was just as well.

The evening came at last to try our home-made beer. All forty pints of it. The look of it should have been some kind of warning. Necromantic and oily with little grey flecks, it had a smell that could awaken the dead. A sorcerer’s brew. Wiser men would have tipped it down a drain. We decided to have a drinking contest.

The taste confirmed we were drinking something unutterably bad – fermented bleach with an after taste of cabbage and decayed fruit. Like some horrible game of Russian Roulette we each drank a pint in turn, waiting to see who would be the first to drop out - in one way or another.

Eventually there was only me and John Davies left. Ill but defiant, having drunk so much neither of us was willing now to admit defeat. Some countries follow a similar foreign policy.

I’d drunk what was to prove my final pint when it was John’s turn to match it. After four painful swallows his face turned a peculiar shade of green and he ran to the bathroom with me in close pursuit. No way was he going to tip that pint down the sink.

He sat on the edge of the bath drink in hand and vomiting. I sat alongside, a commiserating vulture, the rest outside confirming fair play. Someone afterwards told me how good I was, comforting and encouraging John in his moment of pain. If only they knew I was whispering viciously into his ear: ‘Drink you bastard, drink.’

Two tormented souls like something from a Russian novel.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Hide and Seek and Swirling Stars.

A Swansea Bay

Ian Nairn was a fine journalist who wrote for the Observer newspaper. He did a series of articles on the most interesting towns and cities of Britain. I remember one comment he made about Swansea. It went something like this. “Not since leaving Liverpool have I seen such a display of sexuality and seedy vitality on the street.” So obviously I had done something right in making Swansea my university of choice.

A wonderful picture is conjured up of this lubricious and well oiled journalist peering down from the top of a Swansea bus at the crowded streets below. I remember the streets as being shabby and worn, and he didn’t mention the pubs which smelt of beer, unlike today; but everything else he said about Swansea was true.

What I don’t remember him saying is how breathtakingly beautiful the immediate area is, especially the coastline. We were fortunate living just over Langland Bay with other bays like Caswell, Three Cliffs, and Oxwich in easy reach. Each had their own peculiar magic that slowly seeped into you and never let go.

This picture reminds me of a Dennis Wheatley horror movie. It has something of the satanic ritual about it, but it's just us sharing a drink in the Langland House. I don't know who the woman is. I wish I did.

In our second year we rented a house in Langland. It overlooked the park where I rediscovered swings and slides, the potency of a roundabout at night when drunk, seeing how fast you could make the stars swirl round. In Langland we most often walked down to the Langland Bay hotel which had a dartboard and a pleasantly seedy bar. Alcohol bonds, allows a degree of telepathy, encourages schoolboy japes, disguises cruelty.

Langland Bay.

One night someone suggested a game of ‘Hide and Seek’ on the beach. Ian volunteered to be ‘Man’ while the rest of us hid. Nothing was said or planned; what happened just happened. We all crept quietly up the cliff path on our way home, listening to Ian counting up to twenty and then searching the rocks and chalets where we should have been hiding. We were on our second cup of tea when Ian finally reached home, thoroughly disgruntled whilst we felt thoroughly mean.

Rocks in Langland Bay

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Andy Stone

Andy Stone caught in the act - studying.


looks as if you have spent a significant amount of time working on your blog - looks pretty impressive. Some random reminiscences on Swansea you may ( or may not) remember or even agree with.

I'm not sure why we did not make it into hall that first year but we were allocated some boarding house accommodation by the Uni up past the Mumbles, in Langland. The address was 22 Higher Lane (you were right, I was wrong) & the kindest description I can conjure up is that is was a pretty odd establishment. A 3 or 4 story Victorian house inhabited by a near invisible old couple who had obviously decided that renting out some top floor garrets would enhance their income - however they would
rather not be directly involved & left contact with us aliens to their housekeeper. To my shame I cannot remember her name, but she had a heart of gold & was cheerful despite obviously having a pretty hard life. To use non PC but correct language, she was very short & had a pronounced hunchback.

In a way that I'm not sure happens today the house threw seven disparate students together, mixtures of middle, lower middle & working class revolutionary from up't north, midlands & south west. Not saying which fell into each category but as I recall there was, in no particular order:

John Stratford - from Cirencester on a Post Office sponsored
sandwich course doing Electrical Engineering.

Brian Moss - from Bolton (before it became Notlob) doing Mechanical Engineering who I think was a mature student & actually had a car - a Triumph Herald. I think he smoked a pipe, if not he prob does now.

Ian Jones - From Formby, a mountaineer & Geologist, who seemed to bear the brunt of many schoolboy pranks. If it is not too late for an apology, I think we owe him one.

John Davies - From Exeter doing (I think) Zoology. Very successful with the ladies & with a novel way of drying shirts. He used to put them on a baking tray in the oven. Maybe women find the smell of roast chicken irresistible? Who would have thought that Chicken OXO is an aphrodisiac.....

Mick Gray - From near Alsager near Sandbach, doing English? Very sporty jack the lad - always up for a beer & a game of football in the park. Had the heavy burden of supporting Crewe, who were as bad then as they are now.

Andy Stone - oops thats me. a very shy retiring las from the west country who found Wales a bit odd. Also like caving - god knows why. Electrical engineering - because it seemed a good idea at the time.

Mike Keyton - A bespectacled, intense lad from Liverpool. Instantly had some sort of kudos as that’s where the Beatles came from. Generally seen as a wild eyed revolutionary who sold The Militant and argued endlessly about the rise of the proletariat in a post capitalist peoples dictatorship etc etc. After some alarm we decided that he fitted the description later coined by Douglas Adams to describe the Earth, 'Mostly Harmless'.

Thats the cast list. Seven blokes thrust randomly into digs & attending a Uni about 5 miles way with uncertain public transport. I remember the first evening there was a gathering of all ‘freshers’ in the refectory to be addressed by the Chancellor (or at least someone in the far distance who looked important). Best years of your life, grasp the opportunity, world is yours etc. Every bloke there was thinking: where is the bar & what do the women look like?

Although they had just about mastered the art of drinking halves slowly (Starlight at 1s /10d a pint) skills for chatting up the ladies were non existent - with the exception of John Davies I think who met a girl called Sue (prob that night knowing John) & led her a merry dance for the next 3 years. Us mere mortals just gazed from a distance. With hindsight I now know that the girls were also in a similar state of unpreparedness - eying the motley crew with disdain.We then walked back to the digs along the beach, which seemed to take forever. Well it was 5 miles...

Thats all for now, if the creative urge returns I'll add a little more.


Saturday, 3 May 2008

There are faces I remember.

To misquote John Lennon 'There are Faces I Remember' This was one of my early ones.

I was desperate to leave home, excited to leave Liverpool not because either were bad but for reasons I still don’t quite understand. Maybe early hospitalization and rejection as the fat kid with glasses who couldn’t run were responsible. It made for detachment, and outsiders find it easy to move on. A less self absorbed motive might lie in the genes. Liverpool is a city of explorers, and it was the late sixties and like everyone else I just wanted to get out there.

I remember my father carrying my suitcase to the bus stop, and shaking my hand. Shortly after that he suffered a stroke and spent the rest of his life in purgatory. Along with my mum.

The train to Swansea had all the magic of the Hogwarts Express. We arrived at the station late evening where a University van was waiting to pick us up. Total strangers tumbled in the back and we were dropped off like World War II parachutists in flats and boarding houses all over the city.

I ended up in 17 Higher Lane, Langland, though Andy stone insists it was number 22. It was a boarding house with pretensions. The couple who owned it were silver haired and carried with them an air of pre-war gentility. They found us intrusive, but needed the money. The man always ate his breakfast alone and we were not allowed in until he had finished. The woman spoke to us as though wearing white gloves. They had allowed tradesmen into their house. All our needs were met by Beatrice a middle-aged hunchback who showed a fierce and undeviating loyalty to the woman with permed hair and the man who ate by himself.

17 Higher Lane.

The best thing about university is the people you meet and the manner in which social backgrounds merge and interact. I was a grubby scouser, tribal, parochial and convinced of ‘the truth.’ I shared a room with Andy Stone who spoke with a soft west country bur and tried to convince me that a band called ‘Love’ was superior to the Rolling Stones. He spoke of Keynesham ,and did imitations of a man called Horace Batchelor who spoke on Radio Luxemburg, selling his formula on how to win big on the Football Pools. Adjoining rooms were inhabited by John Davies, son of an Exeter University Professor. We envied his success with woman. A C17th rake but who settled down for a period of connubial bliss with the beautiful Sue, a red-head from Cardiff. Mick Gray from Alsager near Crewe; too old to be a puppy, he reminded me of an exuberant young dog. Brian Moss, possessed of a dry Bolton accent, was the prince amongst us because of his car, a white Triumph Herald.
Mick Grey, wearing his girl-friend's shower cap.

John Davies, the young D'artagnon with a lamp in lieu ofa sword

Finally, there was John Stratford from Cirencester who broke the stereotype of electrical engineers by having Stendhal as his bedtime reading, and Ian Jones who we treated with unwarranted cruelty and to whom I now apologize with all my heart.

Tomorrow there’ll be a post from Andy Stone and later, I hope memories of others who shared that house and later the much grander house on Langland Road with its ‘obviator’.