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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.