Out Now!

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Simon and Garfunkel AND Manhattan Transfer

The classroom I taught in had a large statue of St Lucy in it. It occupied a niche behind me, just to my left. Occasionally I had the uncanny feeling that she was looking at me, but that was impossible since she didn’t have eyes, at least not where they should have been. Hers were on a plaster plate and resembled a pair of dusty poached eggs.

She had an interesting death. When the guards came for her they found her so full of the Holy Spirit she was too heavy to carry. They still could not move her even with the aid of a team of oxen. Lucy was indomitable. Even with a dagger through her throat she prophesied against her persecutor. And when her eyes were gouged out she was still able to see without them.

She must have suffered greatly and whilst no doubt confident of salvation, I doubt the thought ever crossed her mind that she would also occupy a classroom in College Point two thousand years later.

Morning registration consisted of ten minutes in Form base, listening to a homily piped into every classroom, followed by an address by Sister Kathleen. It was quite Big Brother-ish. I’m sure Lucy thought so, too. But I wasn’t thinking of St Lucy that Friday, September 18th. My mind was on Nancy Dillon.

The following day we were going to see the Simon and Garfunkel concert in Central Park AND Manhattan Transfer in Radio City Music Hall. Yes, conflicting concerts on the same night. It wasn’t completely my fault. The tickets for Manhattan Transfer had been bought on September 8th but somehow Simon and Garfunkel found out and decided to make things difficult for me by picking that night for their surprise free concert.

Planning was clearly going to have to be meticulous, sacrifices made. Not on the scale of St Lucy, but sacrifices never the less.

That Saturday, two friends of Ron – John and Clare Sexton – called at 4pm and invited me to their house in Coram Long Island for October 23. As they left Nancy and her sister, Michelle arrived. It was like a scene from Frasier. The subway was crowded with Simon and Garfunkel fans, Central Park even more so. Michelle somehow located her boyfriend and split, and I looked at my watch. We could spare the super-stars an hour – two at a stretch – then the Algonquin for cocktails, followed by the concert I’d paid for!. Can’t remember much about the Algonquin, except it was very ‘woody’ and the cocktails quite pricy.

Then two hours of magic in Radio City. Manhattan Transfer took to the stage, and Cupid struck. I was in love – I just didn’t know who with: The willowy, red-haired Cheryl Bentyne or the shorter, more feisty Janis Siegel. And then there was Nancy.
All in all a magic night, and a day to recover before Monday and St Lucy – who I was not in love with, but greatly respected.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Sister Vera Puzt

Sister Vera Puzt had a face carved from Polish oak, and she could speak without moving her lips. Occasionally, if something excited her, the side of her mouth would quiver. She was dry as though weathered in Utah and placed in a kiln for good measure, and she was funny and kind and never afraid of the truth.

‘Hey, Mike, you know you smell?” Her nose wrinkled, her mouth didn’t move. I was forced to agree. New York was hot and I was behind in my laundry. The girls had said nothing. Maybe they thought this was an English aroma.

Lesson learnt. No messing around with Sister Vera. Straight from the lip.

She would stand beside me in the corridor as the girls from St. Agnes Academic School walked between bells. A voice, dry like a desert wind, and as faint gave a run down on each of the girls that passed: ‘old German family’ – ‘Columbian drug baron’ – ‘Italian deli on 82 St.’ – ‘Grandfather ex matador’ ‘Mafiosi’ – ‘Fruit and veg’ – ‘family runs a bakery’.

The life blood of the city drifted by, oblivious to Sister Vera’s spare and precise analysis.

Strictly speaking it was the life blood of Queens. Even though Manhattan was less than 20 minutes on the subway they were remarkably ignorant about the city, nervous about going there. So much so the school organised guided tours, along with a brief history of major landmarks. The boroughs of New York then, and maybe now, were self-sufficient, insular and serene. Sister Vera was not insular, but as funny as hell.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Caesar would have enjoyed St. Agnes

Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look.
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous

Caesar would have enjoyed St Agnes, or at least been reassured. Management, embodied in the person of Sister Kathleen Waters, was both efficient and professional, much of it expressed through the medium of food. In one week I enjoyed more Danish pastries than I’d normally have in a year. I didn’t complain, but fought hard to maintain my lean and hungry look. The school was all about encouragement – to staff and students alike. The smallest act was rewarded with a written thank you on brightly coloured paper and, most puzzling to me, extended to exams.

My first social studies test resulted in outrage when students were awarded marks ranging from 28 – 81%. It was then I was told that students were not allowed to gain anything less than 48% in any test or exam. As a result there was, by British standards, a degree of grade inflation. Students with, say a mark of 85% (which would have more than satisfied a student back home) would see that as little more than half-marks and question why they hadn’t got more. It sharpened marking in that the teacher had to defend every missing mark, and it also developed confidence in the student, though sometimes misplaced.

I was also fascinated by Social Studies where the sophomore progressed from the Stone Age to the Cold War in the space of a year. A dental appointment meant you missed the Renaissance. But that’s the flip side of the coin. What the students learnt in the Medieval component, for example, was conceptual rather than narrative. So, instead of cause and effect, events and key dates, the student had two weeks to appreciate the ‘concept’ of Feudalism, which involved a comparison between European and Japanese feudalism.

And so the weeks rolled by. The classes were large – forty girls to a class - initially intimidating or exhilarating depending on mood; the text books were heavy and lavishly produced. Those books were brilliant. There was nothing like them in the British classroom – as Ron would testify.

But all this was in the future.

I was broken in gently with coffee – an endless supply – and Danish, more introductions and work related meetings. Thursday, September 10th brought in the first students - Seniors showing Freshers the ropes and the school, and culminating in a wonderful picnic in Cunningham Park and endless tugs of war which no doubt embodied something or other.

That night, a fellow exchange teacher phoned: Peter Stassi. His school was Henry St. Junior High. It sounded quite fierce. Because of muggings corridors were patrolled, and inhis first week cops had come in to arrest two kids. One class Peter taught hadn’t heard of England, which, I imagine, was the least of his problems.

I listened, chewing on a Danish,and agreed with Caesar. There’s nothing much wrong with sleek headed men that ‘sleep a night.’

Thank God for St. Agnes.

Some of my students. I wonder where they are now?


(Would you believe I couldn't find a picture of the school other than this link?)

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Dead animals stared at me from walls

Belmont Racecourse

From the day Ron and his family left to the day I’d first enter an American classroom, I never had time to think or be lonely. He’d left behind two guardian angels called Judy Freidman and Joanne Dillon.

Judy materialised, flushed and preppy in shorts, and wielding a badminton bat. She invited me to a party in Manhattan where we stood and listened to someone reputedly funny. He was leaning against a piece of furniture, drawling a monologue of loosely linked one-liners. But the real highlight of that day was sitting in a bar on 5th Avenue, looking out from behind a smoked glass window. New York traffic is slow but, as I watched, it crawled to a virtual halt behind a black guy in yellow T shirt and shorts. He was skate-boarding down the Avenue, blithely aware and supremely indifferent. Sometimes an image creates magic, ingrains itself with talismanic power; or perhaps it was just reminding me that Newport was three thousand miles away.

The day had its downside. The taxi home cost me twelve dollars. It was driven by a Turk who seemed to know even less of New York than I did – to the extent that I had to find 59 St. Bridge for him and direct him from there.

Joanne gave me a guided tour of Greenwich Village. I remember drinking in Jimmy Days, the Whitehorse, where for some obscure reason they served ‘Whitbread Bitter’, Reggios, Kenny’s Castaway – where a five piece band played, walked through Christopher Street, Washington Park, and ended the evening in a Chinese restaurant. Occasionally I thought of Ron in Newport, wondering what he thought of ‘The Three Horseshoes’.

It was hard to imagine I’d soon be working, easier to imagine what the next day might hold.

Never, for example did I expect to win 55 dollars at Belmont Park Racecourse. Had I my stakes been bigger I’d have won much, much more; suffice it to say, every horse did me proud that day. Bob, Tom, Marge, and Joanne Dillon were surprised and pleased for me. Two characters standing in front, who’d lost heavily throughout the afternoon, asked me my system. They didn’t look over impressed when I said it was done by ‘names’: Angel Cordero – loved the name, no idea who he was – and horses with equally interesting names; all dead now, do doubt, but as systems go it worked for me.

What didn’t work for me was eating fresh lobster on Long Island. Not until I saw others done up in oversized bibs was paranoia assuaged; they assumed everyone, not just me, was a messy eater. All I can remember is cracking shells with instruments that could have come out of the Tower of London, the rich taste of lobster flesh and butter, and a warm salty breeze playing around my neck and feet. The lobster was great; the surgery involved in extracting it less so.

Lobster was followed by a tour of Teddy Roosevelt’s house where a lot of dead animals stared at me from walls.

These days were coming to an end. St. Agnes beckoned.

T. Roosevelt's place

Sunday, 22 November 2009

When in a hole stop digging

The 22nd August was my first day alone. Term started on September 8th after Labour Day. On September 5th I found myself in trouble, an incident that could have gone either way. By then I was well on the way to mapping the mysteries of New York’s subway system. I’d run across rats the size of small dogs, and once fell asleep from drink and exhaustion on a train that was locking its doors for the night. I was awakened by a thunderous knocking on the windows by a crowd of concerned New Yorkers who had a greater concern for my welfare than I clearly had. Falling asleep in the subway in 1981 was not always wise.

I was on the subway most nights. In the morning there’d be news-reports of stabbings, muggings, gun crime on stations I’d blithely passed through - not always asleep. And yet I saw nothing. Statistics are fairly meaningless until one hits you.

On Saturday, September 5th I was still at the stage of making little hand-maps with written instructions on where to change and relevant platforms. I’d discovered that to reach The John Barleycorn and other Irish pubs, I took the IRT to Queensborough Plaza and change to Lexington; by now the puzzle was beginning to make sense and confidence ballooned.

That afternoon I bought my customary token at 74 St. Jackson Heights. As I made my way to the turnstile a young Jamaican appeared from the shadows, pleaded poverty in beguiling patois and suggested, quite convincingly, I thought, that two could as easily slip through the turnstile on the one token.

We’d barely made it through when an armed cop appeared from the shadows. (How many people are there in those shadows? Probably thousands.) Just over a week in New York and I was to be done for malfeasance. He ignored the Jamaican completely. In his eyes he was clearly damned – which, because I am stupid, offended my sense of fair-play. Instead the cop established my status in the USA.

Naively I began defending my partner-in-crime even as the policeman was trying to save my bacon by dumping the blame on the boy without a token. Almost too late, I realised I didn’t really want this to go any further and fell into line: I was, essentially, the innocent dupe, but then those who know me knew that all along.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Alone in New York

The creak and rumble of an elevator descending, voices growing more faint, the clatter and clang as it hit ground floor. Then silence.

I was alone in New York, sole occupant of a dimly lit and luxurious apartment. I stood there, excited and scared. Tomorrow would be the real thing; and the day after that, the day after that…

Days before we’d driven from Washington, and I’d experienced the powerful magic of the New York skyline seen for the first time. Ron pulled to a halt. Aladdin’s lamp broke the horizon: the iconic pattern in sun-baked beige and grey and black, squeezed between a pale blue sky and the darker glitter of the Hudson. I located the Twin Towers.

Then began a stately crawl, weaving from free-way to intersection; traffic lights on every junction reducing us, if not to walking pace, then at least to a well mannered jog. I drank it all in: the great green and white signs advertising exotic names like…Triborough

Communal gardens - and someone else cuts the grass.

A thousand cop shows flashed through my mind. I thought I saw Kojak strolling down Roosevelt. Then at last we reached home, Ron, Annette and Erica’s. Mine for a year. 76th Street, Jackson Heights.

Ron grumbled about the parking,but again I found myself in awe as a great Boeing 747 glided silently down, as if it too, was looking for parking. Annette saw me staring and smiled. “La Guardia’s just a mile or two away,” she said.

The apartment was on the fifth floor, accessed by an old fashioned elevator that opened directly into their main room. The elevator, we call them lifts, was a classic combination of metal and walnut paneling, and had a musty, woody smell. It smelt claustrophobic, as though I was breathing human odour collected over years.
I stared at the elevator a moment or two longer, knowing there was no escape that way for me. A good night’s sleep would have to do instead.

Ron and Annette’s bedroom made going to bed worthwhile: polished wood floors, dark blue walls and a four poster bed. Outside traffic hummed, sirens screamed. I put my head on the pillow, recollected all that had happened since hitting New York:

World Trade Centre, Rockefeller Centre, St. Patricks; I’d been to parties where I’d met Annette’s friends, and invited by one of them, Judy, to another party; met Ron’s family, and his sister gave me a mug, which I kept for many years until it was stolen. (Who’d steal a bloody mug?) I’d seen St Agnes for the first time, shared tea and Danish pastries with its Principal, Kathleen Waters, and shown round the school by Kevin Daley, professional, friendly, incandescent with energy. So far so good. Keep believing that. It works like a dream until you hit the ground.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Sitting on an old man's lap

I stared down at a mountain of ground, raw beef. It was the size of the great pyramid of Cheops, the colour of Petra. Shaven-headed priests sauntered in between colonnades of flesh, and Ron was expecting me to eat it. We were in an Ethiopian restaurant somewhere in Georgetown. A change from fried chicken at least.

The day had begun with a huge breakfast, followed by an exhaustive tour of Washington. At Arlington I was impressed by soldiers with ruthless haircuts, snapping to attention like razor-sharp robots, and at Arlington I saw a man cry over the grave of Bobby Kennedy. This was the sixteenth of August.

On the Seventeenth, the day was devoted to long and serious meetings, so serious I couldn’t remember a thing the following day. Washington, however, its white, austere buildings, sweeping green lawns, and bold blue sky, I remember very well, along with its intense and sticky heat. But in terms of statuary, one above all beats everything else. Jefferson and Lincoln looked cold and dead: Einstein on the other hand looked warm and alive. I loved the chocolate flake and ooze effect, the way his face changed from different angles, and how children sat on him and appeared at home as though on their granddad’s lap.

No time to wonder. Tomorrow New York.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

First Day in America

The air smelled different, the neon more vibrant, red and blue against a tropical night sky. There was a different rhythm to the way people walked. I felt out of place on the pavement. I had just escaped from Georgetown University and endless buckets of Kentucky fried chicken. Buckets and buckets of it. I’d eaten three buckets already from trepidation and boredom, knew that if I stayed I’d probably eat three buckets more. It was the 15th August 1981 and it was my first day in America.

Three days before I’d been walking down country lanes with Bernie White and Greg Thomas; two days before I’d thrown my own farewell party with a joint of roast beef almost bigger than the oven. I was packed and ready to go – on a plane for the very first time in my life. Shameful.

I sat next to another exchange teacher called Steven, who had drawn the short straw – depending on how you look at it – and was destined for a school in the lower east side. I tried to make ‘St Agnes Academic School for Girls’ sound tougher than it was, but failed. A young woman sat to my other side. She worked for Johnny Mathis and told hair-raising tales about his proclivity for children. She may have had insight, she may have been mad.

And now we were descending and my eyes began to ache and I no longer gave a shit about Johnny Mathis, or New York, or anything. Nobody had told me about this. My eyeballs were about to burst. I’d be tapping an alien classroom with a giant white stick.

Somehow disaster was averted and before I knew it I was securely ensconced in a sand-coloured room. I remember the University as very sandy, but memory plays tricks. We were welcomed to America in a series of speeches and then invited to devour a mountain of chicken. Soon after, I’d made my escape.

Only now it was time to go back. Ron and Annette, and their five year old daughter, Erica, were due to meet me sometime later that night, which they did.
A knock at the door…and the adventure began.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Childhood dreams coming true

I was going to America. For anyone to understand the excitement or the churned waters of a child's subconscious, words aren't enough. The pictures below are a fair representation of what made the man. Yes, I knew New York was not the Wild West but Sinatra and Manhattans never figured large when I lay on that hospital bed as child, and besides I'd have a year to explore some of the wilderness.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Words Have Magic

One November evening I turned round the corner of Cardiff Road and Commercial Street and bumped into three boys, John Mattioti, Bruno Romola and another boy I’d taught in the Junior Boys School. It was a cold evening, already dark, and a fierce wind had caught my eyes, making them water. It was hard to focus; I was shivering, and feeling tired; tired of teaching, tired of a routine that was slowly squeezing the fun out of life.

I sensed, or maybe imagined, the disappointment on the boys’ faces – only they were no longer boys, but men, bursting with promise – confronted with this jaded ghost of Christmas Past.

But little did I know that words were being spoken, magical words that would change my life and that of others.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in Jackson Heights, New York, Frank Griffiths, a man I didn’t know, was talking to another man I didn’t know - Ron Gonella. Ron was exploring the possibility of teaching in Britain on a Teachers’ Exchange scheme. How seriously I didn’t know then; I’m not too sure now. But the words had been spoken.

The words traveled over the Atlantic to Middleborough and exchanged with a man I did know: Richard Lewis, an old Swansea friend. I had talked once or twice about the possibility of a teacher exchange, but usually over a pint or two. Now Frank told Richard about a guy called Ron, and how he’d been talking about maybe coming over on some kind of exchange

That night I got a telephone call.

The wheels moved quickly. More phone calls followed as we exchanged house – apartment – school details, and got the necessary permission from our respective Head Teachers.

Thank you, God, I breathed. Ron, Annette and their daughter Erica had a magnificent apartment in Jackson Heights, and the school I’d be teaching in would be St. Agnes Academic School for Girls. He was swapping all that for a small three-bed semi and an entirely different kettle of fish – St Joseph’s Comprehensive.

I was called to London for an interview. The Central Bureau of Teacher Exchanges took these things seriously. The interview went smoothly; I mean we’d done the job for them, made our own match, everything. All they had to do was rubber stamp it - and rubber stamp it they did.

I remember traveling back on the London to Cardiff train. It was snowing hard and the train stalled for an hour just outside of Gloucester. Worse the heating stopped too. I stared out a grey window at an even greyer sky, and countryside blanketed in snow.

What I’d just signed up to, the enormity of the adventure ahead, was subsumed by a more immediate desire. What I wanted now, what I dreamed of, was a 16oz steak and a bottle of red wine. That image is still fixed in my mind, a white countryside, the fading plush interior of a Berni inn, a thick sirloin steak, and the most expensive red wine I could afford. I ate in silence, got a taxi and crawled into bed.

Thursday, 8 October 2009


Greg Thomas reminded me of a boy we both taught, Darren Jones. Young Darren got very excited over the fact that he wasn’t yet old enough to vote. He thumped the desk, his voice resounding through the classroom. ‘It’s a disgrace, a disgrace I tell you, an infringement on our human rights. Thirteen year olds should be allowed to vote! We have rights!’ He got more and more excited. Out of curiosity and perhaps to calm him down, Greg asked him who he would vote for if he was given the right. ‘I wouldn’t vote for any one of them. Bunch of crooks, that's what they are.’

We talked of others we remembered: Jack Hobbs who walked the corridors looking morose, sometimes ecstatic, but always puzzled. Occasionally he would leave the classroom to smoke his pipe, and towards the end of his teaching career, if rumors are true, had to guided into his coat and gently pushed out the door by a loving family who understood his reluctance to go. My favorite memory is bumping into him on only the second day of a new school term.

“Don’t you find term’s beginning to drag, Mike? I do.”

We talked of the short-lived but intense Tamagotchi craze, and the mayhem it caused in the classroom as kids who had never fed a dog before became enslaved to their new digital pets. They had to be watered and fed, played with on a regular basis. Failure meant death or starvation in less than half a day. These were not wholesome or healthy pets. These were digital divas and kids found themselves enslaved.

The school responded slowly at first, insisting that each of these egg-shaped monsters had to be handed into the Office at the start of the day. The problem was merely transferred as office staff became embroiled in the digital will to survive.

Typing would be punctuated by urgent but surreptitious sessions of feeding and playing, none of the women willing to confront a tearful child at the end of the day with the news that their pet had been translated into greater glory. In a Catholic school one wondered whether there was a digital heaven and hell, but there was most certainly a digital god. Its name was Tamagotchi and before him all bowed.

This was the school I was soon to leave - a year in America. My ship had come in.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

A Melancholy Moment

I don’t play now, at least not often. I write. It’s what I do, what I enjoy but sometimes….. Every so often I bring out my mandolin or mandola. The fingers are stiff, and their tips hurt after a bit. The strings are sulky. They sense I’ve lost my calluses and are making me pay for months of neglect. But the fingers remember tunes I can no longer name, and I persevere. I ‘workout’, practicing an hour a day, sometimes more until the calluses return and my fingers skim over frets with some of their old suppleness. It’s a fine moment, and then…. What’s the point?

A moment has gone.

Once I played with a band, lost in a shared sound, excitement, companionship.

I put the two instruments away, admire my new tungsten tipped fingers and return to the keyboard. Writing is a solitary pursuit.

It wasn’t always so. I enjoyed playing with the Welsh Dancers, following Henry on fiddle, the oomph provided by Lol on an old concertina, though now she’s become a grand old lady and plays the harp. Then one day, Henry suggested a drink in the Red Lion on the corner of Charles St. and Stow Hill.

Over a pint of Courage best bitter he and Lol announced their intention of forming a folk band, with the less than catchy title of Teithwyr Twmpath. We practiced religiously at home and together. Sheet music was used until we’d mastered a tune and then thrown away. Later the band’s name was changed to the more sexy ‘Devil’s Elbow’ (Though whenever we played at St Anne’s Parish Ceilidh, they always billed us as ‘Fiddler’s Elbow’. Religious dyslexia perhaps)

We had various guitarists: a suave mathematician called Nigel Stephenson, Mike, a loud and jolly, guy from Oxfordshire, and finally Quince, who possessed a melancholic, slightly flat voice but played the essential guitar. We attracted a flute player, another Nigel who later became a vicar, and a moody Dutchman called Theo who played the Uillean pipes. They made a lovely sound but hurt the ear when being tuned; like piglets in an abattoir. Finally there was Reg, who played Bodhran and Jug. He was a solidly built postman with a smile like sunshine and hair from the Seventeenth Century.

And yet, it must be said, we never became superstars, though we were big for a time in Abertillary

From left to right: Nigel the flute, Lol, Mike, Henry, Theo, Reg, and two friends. I'm taking the photo.

We were also big in O’Reilly’s, a wonderful, family owned pub in Baneswell. We played every Sunday lunch time, paid in Guinness, followed by a ‘lock-in’ when the pub ostensibly shut but the beer continued to flow. The wonderful thing about O’Reilly’s was discovering how alcohol aided the learning process. I think scientists somewhere have proved this, though it’s a case of swings and roundabouts. You can learn something quickly with the aid of alcohol - lose it when sober – and pick it up again when next time you’re drunk. So not ideal for airline pilots but effective for musicians. We played by ear, picking up new tunes from visiting musicians.

But what powered the band and no doubt ruined my teaching career were the weekly Ceilidhs throughout Gwent and sometimes beyond. They paid well, and negated the need for me to climb the rungs of teacher advancement. With tax-free cash in hand, along with my ordinary salary, I was earning as much as a Head of Department with beer thrown in, and none of the hassle. These were golden times.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Dead Flowers

Sometimes you do things, and things happen.

I bought a second hand violin in a Swansea junk shop. I think it cost me seven shillings and sixpence (pre-decimalization) 45 pence, new money, or about 75 cents. I bought it because it had the same tuning as the mandolin, which I could play; beyond that I had no idea why. It’s just sometimes good to listen to your voices.

A few years passed and I was sitting in my Newport bed-sit, time on my hands and thoroughly pissed off. The violin was in a case grey with dust and sat sulking in the corner. What surprised me was how easy it was to get a tune from it. The fingers worked by themselves; the bowing was something entirely different, more arthritic chainsaw than Stephane Grappelli. But I learnt, and the neighbours didn’t complain, at least to my face.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. It’s the only reason I can think of why I decided I was good enough to play the Rolling Stones' ‘Dead Flowers' on the violin at the school’s Christmas Concert. Fortunately I was rescued within two minutes by students who knew the words and covered my shortcomings.

I put the offending instrument away for a time.

Sometimes also, people come along.

Father Tony Hanson was an effete and cultured priest who, amongst other things, enjoyed match-making. He’d heard I ‘played’ the violin, knew of a Welsh dance group so desperate for musicians they’d sign on a paraplegic who could whistle, and introductions were made.

From then on I learnt how to look elegant in waistcoat, stockings and breeches, discovered a whole host of Welsh tunes, and spent summer weekends in country pubs and fairs while the dancers posed and twirled.

I could say my finest moment came when the troupe came third in the Welsh National Eisteddfod, but the truth was I was scared shitless, remembering an earlier debacle on stage with ‘Dead Flowers’. I just put my head down and played and hoped I wouldn’t be found out.

No, my finest moment, in this particular context, came when I met Henry and Lol Lutman, who had also (I think) been ‘fixed’ up with Welsh Dancers by Father Tony Hanson.

More musical adventures next post.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Sometimes God plays dirty

The second great love of my life was Moira McDowall. Unfortunately God got in first and she became a nun. If this had been a Hollywood film she’d have been played by Audrey Hepburn. Trouble is I can’t really see who’d play me. Harold Lloyd perhaps.

During the time when things were going wrong we continued with a cycling holiday in Brittany that we’d already booked. I spent a lot of the time in a tent reading Pickwick Papers. It’s supposed to be a funny book. I didn’t think so then. Other memories include a dry and kindly Dutch lady and a down to earth Belgian who didn’t bother with a handkerchief when he rode. His method combined elegance with efficiency. He’d turn his face to the road, and with a finger pressed against each nostril in turn, he’d blow with great force. I made a point of riding in front of him.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Mugged by Sheep

I’d met Dave Loney on my Moroccan journey. I’d grown tired of the brazen blue skies, longed for some cloud, anything to make the blue less boring, less powerful; cut it down to size.

Come to Yorkshire, he’d said. In fact we could do the Lyke Wake walk. It sounded good: cool moor-land weather, bags of atmospheric cloud, and a pint at the end. A year or two later I took him up on the offer.

‘You know how long it is,” said as he was tying up his boots.

‘No,’ I said, thinking of the pint at the end.

‘Forty miles from Osmotherly to Ravenscar on the coast.’

So that was why we were setting out at 5 a.m. Forty bloody miles? “Sounds good.’

‘You get to sign a book at the end. You’re officially a ‘Dirger’.


‘And if you walk it back again next day you’re called a ‘Double Dirger’.’

I wondered whether ‘Dirger’ was Yorkshire for ‘Fool’ but said nothing.

I can’t remember how we got there, but the bleak expanse confronting us is etched on my memory. I wince when I think on it. What’s so wrong with brazen blue skies?

The walk began and ended in mist.

Occasionally I’d look up from the uneven ground, the razor sharp grass, at Dave always ten paces ahead. His rhythm was steady, the small rucksack bouncing up and down on his back like a bloody metronome. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, my world reduced now to a dark strip of neck and a small green bag bouncing up and down, up and down. Couldn’t hate Dave. He was my only way out of here. I targeted my hatred on that bloody bag that found the walk easy and had learnt the art of the silent taunt.

“Tired yet, Mike?”

I’d gone beyond that. “No. You?”


I didn’t answer. Saw him shrug

The name of the walk has Viking origins. Lyke is an old word meaning ‘dead body’ – (peculiarly apt I thought as the walk came to a close.) and related to the German word Leiche. ‘Wake’ refers to the watch over the dead prior to burial. Bear in mind that RAF Fylingdales on ‘Snod Hill’ has as its motto ‘Vigilamus’ (We are Watching’) All terribly spooky to the walking dead staggering across the moor.

It was late afternoon when we stopped. The mist had cleared and three great white snooker balls dominating the horizon. Fylingdales – part of our early warning network against nuclear attack. Just then a four minute warning seemed attractive. Just enough time to finish our cheese sandwiches.

We’d tried eating them earlier but had been disturbed. Attracted by the rustle of paper, the aroma of bread and Wenslydale cheese, woolly wraiths emerged menacing from the mist. Cows are reputed to be dangerous when they’re in calf. They have nothing on the Yorkshire sheep in search of a cheese sandwich.

It wasn’t our finest moment, being mugged by sheep.

Friday, 4 September 2009

The voices take over

Me and Sheri Lamour were talking, shooting the breeze. Work was slow that week and there was little else to do. The office needed cleaning but one look at Sheri tells you everything you need to know about her. She don't do cleaning, her skills lie elsewhere, and mine mostly involve drinking and solving crime. We don't do cleaning.

“Anything out there?” I was talking about the news, not the stumblebums grazing on fried chicken or breeding the new feral horde. I didn't have much hope. My old Morgan radio had almost given up the ghost, regurgitating lie after lie from the slimeballs who now rule this once great country, either that or the salacious tattle from broads with more silicon than brain. Jeez. I like a broad with something to hold. I just don't want to be knocked of my seat when they turn.

“There's the Megrahi guy,” she said. Did I tell you that Sheri has a voice like honey and a figure to match?

A shiver ran up my spine. It was that kind of name.

“What's he done?”

“Blew up a plane.”

“Ours or theirs?”


A murderous mist enveloped me. It sure as hell wasn’t dust. “And the guy's not been fried.”

“He's been released on compassionate grounds.”

I sunk lower in my chair as I listened to Sheri's voice. Sweet though it was, it covered pure cyanide. As I worked it out this piece of pond-life had served less than a fortnight for each of the 259 women and children he'd blown from the sky. What the hell was going on here, and why was Sheri telling me this...? That last bit intrigued me. The dame knows me inside out and then some, and she knows Clay Cross likes mysteries to solve, not venting rage against the dark forces sucking all light from the world. I'm a reasonable guy.

“So what's the real story,” I said.

Sheri pouted, her lips like dark cherries holding a worm. "They say it's a cover up."

“You mean Megrahi's the patsy.”

Sheri shrugged helplessly as if to say what the hell do I know? You’re the detective, big guy.

I gave her my shark's smile, the one with teeth. "What else do they say?" I've always found 'they' useful. Rumour's cheap. Informers you pay.

“Witnesses perjured themselves.” She took out her lipstick. When she brought that thing to her mouth the world stopped, and she stopped talking; only I wasn't finished with her. Not yet. She must have seen it in my eye; anyway she stopped, gave that secretive smile of hers that makes me go whoozy.

"So why didn't the guy appeal?" Hell, you can appeal for jaywalking now, appeal for being born stupid.

“They didn't want him to. Every time he tried, they kept on stalling, and then the guy got cancer.”

Ghosts go whoo hoo. They don't appeal. I got it. "So why not let Megrahi die in prison?"

“Compassion,” Sheri snarled, as though the word offended her. “They said Megrahi would soon face a higher power, and that it was the right thing to do even though 'some hurt can never heal. Some scars can never fade.' She sounded like she was going to burst into song. She sounded like Hank Williams. The thought was distressing and I closed my eyes, even as she said the killer line. 'The deal was freedom if he dropped his appeal.'

The lyrics made sense. One thing didn't. What the hell was our government doing about this?

Sheri Lamour read my mind. The FBI thinks it's a pile of crock. Bob Mueller's furious.

Never trust a man who sounds like a yoghurt pot, they're either Gestapo or Red, and all three amount to much the same thing. Even so I don't prejudge; it's not the American way. "I bet he is," I said, waiting for more. We have a nuclear arsenal, Scotland has thistles. "What's he doing about it?"

“Well, he sent a strongly worded letter...after the bird had flown.”

The office was silent except for the grinding of teeth.

“Then Hillary Clinton got involved.”

“Jeeze, I bet the Scots were terrified.”

“But they waited until it was a done deal before anything was said."

The office suddenly smelt of fish. “Do you smell that?” I said

Sheri raised her wild cherry red to her lips. "You've done it again, Clay," she breathed.

“Time for a spot of Kentucky mash,” I said, taking two dusty glasses from the middle drawer. Sheri took hers, the one with the lipstick.

“Compassion,” I sneered. The man had been set up, and governments were doing what they do always do best, covering themselves in outrage.

I wondered who was really involved, and why they’d gone for the Libyan and not them, but Sheri was busy.

“And I bet there was a trade deal involved.” I said. Sheri gave me her secretive smile.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Forays into Swedish

I enjoyed Sweden. I enjoyed Swedish, and Dick’s patient lessons in what I came to see as a jigsaw language. I mean that as a compliment. For example I learnt that sick was sjuk and house was hus, so hospital was sjukhus. A mental hospital thus became mentalsjukhus. Hmm, so Huvud was head…where could I go from there?

I tried it one miserable night after trying to get drunk on two beers. A blond giant bumped into me. "Dumhuvud," I snarled.

He looked down at me, puzzled and benign.

"Did you mean to say that?" he said

I looked up at his chest.

"No," I said. "I don’t think I did."

The key to all this stems from the Scandinavian Diaspora of the C9th and C10th when much of North East England was ruled by Viking warlords with exotic names like Ivar the boneless and Harold Bluetooth – (who devastated the North with his Wi Fi axe.)

The Swedish words for Beer is Öl. The umlaut over the O gives it an ‘erl’ sound, and then and now, a thousand years later, a northern pub will sell you a pint of ale, the word pronounced much as it is in Sweden today. Skalle and skull are pronounced much the same, and I still prefer blek to bleak.

The two weeks went quickly and I ate well, but drank little. On the one occasion I bought two bottles of beer from an off-license I felt like a pervert. I carried them gingerly in their brown paper bag. On the bus I nestled them close to me but still the damn things clinked. A Swedish face can be both bland and disapproving, a very neat trick.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Eat when there's food


I was visiting my friend Dick, and learnt two important lessons, one I should have learnt already.

Dick Skinner lives in Sweden. He went there to teach English as a Foreign Language but somehow got side-tracked. He became a doctor through the medium of Swedish, married a beautiful woman called Asa and then, to cement his happiness, invited me over.

I took the ferry to Copenhagen. Searching for my cabin, I caught a glimpse of the dining-room, its tables laden with plates of ham and fish and all manner of food that made me weak in the stomach. I salivated, wiping the dribble from my chin, and made for the bar. A drink first, maybe.

At the bar a middle-aged lush grabbed my attention, well, he bought me a drink. He was a man that would make anyone standing near enough drunk, paralytic if you breathed in his fumes. ‘The buffet’s always there,’ he said. ‘Have another drink.’

Oh, easily led man, gull and buffoon. I believed him until my stomach rebelled. I had to eat! Five strong lagers on an empty stomach, rolling on the swell of an equally hungry sea…I had to eat!

I burst through the dining room door to find it empty and dark. It had a savoury smell, taunting me, rubbing home my foolishness. ‘Just think of breakfast’ the guy said when I returned to the bar in search of crisp, a fragment of nut. I did, going to bed and dreaming of cured herring and whole hams, salmon and white crusty rolls.

At first light I dived out of bed and raced to the dining room. Things looked good. It was open at least…only instead of the feast that had been there that night I was offered five different kinds of cereal and a choice of two fruit drinks.

I spent a day in Copenhagen, which is a very pretty city, but cold. A thin strip of water separated me from Sweden, more particularly Malmo where Dick then lived. There was a ferry that would take me over, which I just managed to get on. I couldn’t believe it. How could any ship be so packed? People were hanging on to gunwales, ropes, life-boats…clinging and drinking at the same time – some of them vomiting – managing all three. It was like a scene from hell, a circle that Dante had never got round to describe, and there was me, clutching my suitcase in case anyone tried to steal it for a seat or a bed.

The Malmo ferry

What I found out, too late, was that there were only five ferries to Copenhagen and everyone wanted the last one back. Denmark may have been cold, but Sweden was ‘dry’ and thirsty Swedes went to Copenhagen where they followed a circular route from bar to bar until, by the end of the day, they found themselves back at the dock in time for the last ferry.

Dick explained all this to me. Sweden had a reputation for permissiveness that stopped at alcohol. Very high prices turned a pint into a considered luxury, and though off-licenses were allowed, there was usually only one to a town, and drink, once bought, had to be hidden in brown paper bags.

Just then however, I would have been happy to find solace in a brown paper bag - live there - gnawing cured ham, salmon and crusty white rolls.

Friday, 14 August 2009

How do you lose a tunnel?

Newport has a rich underground life with cellars, many interconnected stretching from street to street.

None of these cellars, basements and tunnels are as yet inhabited by werewolves, vampires or ghouls but the premises are there, desirable and vacant to let.

One of the more interesting and persistent legends are those focused on the supposed secret passages in and around Newport Castle. One went under the river Usk to the parish of Christchurch. Who built it, or why is not explained, nor has the tunnel been found.

One tunnel was, however, and then subsequently lost. Only in Newport could you lose a tunnel.
Between 1890 and 1899 Newport castle was a Lloyd and Yorath brewery. Its water came from an old well in the old castle grounds but by 1891 its water had all but disappeared.

Harry Jones, the brewery foreman, went down the well to investigate, and there he discovered a stone-walled tunnel heading in the direction of Shaftsbury Street. With only a candle to guide them, Jones and another man explored the tunnel, wading through a fast flowing stream to its source at a well in Thomas Street.

In 1901 the last of the town’s wells (Baneswell) was closed and sealed. The water would have had a meaty taste because the well was clogged with dead rats. Rats not ghouls infested Newport’s underground. In 1920 16,000 rats were trapped or killed in the town. Three years later several babies were bitten in their prams by rats, probably in revenge.

But that didn’t stop the search for the ‘lost tunnel’.

In 1931 an employee of the Borough Engineers Department rediscovered the tunnel whilst draining an overfull well. His tunnel forked, with one branch going on to Thomas Street and the other going left towards the Old Green Hotel which then stood on the corner of High Street and Dock Street.

Again, who built the tunnels and why, have never been discovered, but at this point the question becomes academic because the tunnels were once again mislaid. Busy roads now surround the castle, but during their building no tunnels were found. In 1951 eighty five year old Harry Jones was asked to relocate the tunnels, but too old perhaps, he failed.
For those interested, Haydn Davis has written several interesting chronicles on Newport's history, all available in Newport Library. But my brief survey has now ended, probably not before time. Its only validity in what is essentially a record of one baffled spirit is that History is a consuming interest, along with the arcane. In Newport you have both.

Find the tunnel!

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Where the ghosts are placed

If I live in a place, I like to know where the ghosts are placed. If I lived in anyone of the three houses numbered, 27 to 29 Stow Park Avenue I’d like to know I was drinking my coffee on the site of the Motte and Bailey Castle that Robert Fitzhamon first built there shortly after 1093; look out my window and see my fifteen serfs and cottars cultivating my surrounding 150 acres of arable land. Further down I’d glimpse the brown river that periodically engulfed the land, dismal mudflats and marsh as far as the eye could see.

Walking down Stow Hill I’d join the ghosts of C19th Chartists who, without any clear plan of action, allowed themselves to be dispersed by gun fire from the West Gate Hotel, remember that Eddy Curran’s grandfather was working on the newly build St Mary’s Catholic Church as the Chartists passed.

In the main street I’d imagine the 247 burgages, cattle pens, fish ponds and allotments; see the more substantial castle guarding a ford on the River Usk along with the four major roads leading to it. Now it hums with traffic, then it held five watchmen, six mounted and ten un-mounted soldiers with a larger force of three hundred men held in reserve. Without buildings to hinder my vision I’d see Robert de Hais’ estate at nearby Basseleg and my other knight’s estates at Maesglas, St Mellons and St Brides, know that each of them along with others owed me forty days of castle service, mounted and in full armour.

Despite a population of less than 600, it would have been a busy place. Protected by a castle and positioned at an important crossroad, Newport was a natural market town. Pedlars were encouraged to set up shops which in time became the present High Street. The main market was held once a week, each stall holder paying a tax to the Lord of the Manor, and an annual 15 day fair was held the 15th of August – the Feast of the Assumption.

As the market became more established the Normans decided that the ford, the main access point to the market, was no longer good enough. A bridge was needed.
The first bridge was very narrow, just wide enough for two carts to pass. The timber would have creaked and groaned along the full length of its 500 ft span under the tremendous tidal stresses it faced. It also seems to have been burnt or damaged on a fairly regular basis.

In 1377, Hugh, the second Earl of Stafford granted land between Stow Hill and the River Usk shoreline to the Hermits of St. Augustine. They were called the Austin Friars and from that time on the people of Newport got used to the black gowned and hooded friars wandering around their streets. Pastry, shoe, and sportswear shops, the occasional pub, now occupy where their small abbey once stood. It was a place of refuge for the sick and blind, the homeless. The ghosts of the friars are still there amongst the pushchairs and shopping bags, the nightly drunks.

Perhaps, too, is the ghost of Henry II, Henry Plantagenet, ruler of an empire stretching from Scotland to the Pyrenees. Originally Duke of Anjou he inherited England and Normandy from this maternal grandfather William the Conqueror, swallowed up Brittany, and after snaffling up Eleanor on Aquitaine in marriage, controlled more of France than the French king himself. On hearing the legend that a freckled king who lost his freckles in the River Usk would one day rule all of Wales, he put the legend to the test, washing his face vigorously in the turgid river. His freckles remained but he seemed fairly philosophical with the result and Wales remained relatively free.

Ghosts however don’t have freckles so it seems unlikely that the turbulent king is still cleansing his face in the river, not when he has the Occitan to haunt. Newport is magical and seedy. It is also often wet and over crowded with ghosts.

The dispersal of the Chartists in C19th Newport

Friday, 31 July 2009

Owain Glyndwr - even worse than the plague

It was the black rat that spread the plague, but this rat, I think you'll agree, has attitude.

The best accounts of how the Black Death affected Gwent come from manorial rolls. These show that the Manors of Abergavenny, Monmouth, Usk and Caldicot suffered particularly badly with rent receipts less than a third of a normal year. There is no written evidence of how the Plague affected the small marsh settlement of Newport, then about 30 houses. What is of interest is that despite all the excavations and rebuilding of Newport, no plague pits have ever been discovered. This is either because so few people lived in Newport and/or we simply threw the dead bodies into the strong tidal waters of the Usk.

If there were only thirty or so houses in 1348 it was a different story in 1386 when Newport boasted between 200 – 300 burgages. Having said that, the whole town was only worth about £21 (32 dollars) in rent, and that included the mill and fisheries as well as the two hundred burgages, so rents must have been low.

But there were still further heights to climb. By 1400 Newport enjoyed a rental value of £57 (80 dollars).

A year or two later, the rental value of the town was assessed as nil.

The reason: Owain Glyndwr.

Owain's strategy was to burn and destroy anything owned by, or of use to, the English, and to leave nothing on the land to help a pursuing army. As a result ordinary people suffered badly, both from the violence and the local famine that always followed.

In the Summer of 1402 the Glyndwr hordes entered Gwent from the North and scorched the earth through out the Usk valley. After laying waste to Crickhowell and Abergavenny they arrived at Newport. Within the day they destroyed the castle, the mill, and the bridge.

They badly damaged St, Woolos cathedral and the Austin Friary, drove off all the livestock and burned acres of standing crops. Every church in the moors of Caldicot and the Wentloog levels were similarly destroyed. The townspeople who had hidden in the forests returned to find the town a blackened ruin. Owain was the torch of freedom for many in Wales. He was just a torch for Newport – a curse worse far worse than plague.

When in 1403 King Henry IV's army was billeted in Newport the king found conditions so dreadful that he sent messengers to Bristol ordering ships to be loaded with flour, ale, wine, and salt fish for the starving people of Newport.

for Newport, Duerer's The Apocalpyse might apply more to Glyndwr than the plague it is more usually associated with.