Out Now!

Friday, 29 May 2009

What emerged from the marsh

The Transporter Bridge, one of only two in Britain. It's a prominent landmark in 'Lucy Silver'

It is behind and around The King's Head that 'Mr Nousel's Mirror' is set. It also figures in 'Lucy Silver'. Perhaps more important for many is that Van Morrison is a sleeping partner in the hotel, and has often performed there without fuss or ceremony. Mind you, so has Oasis.

Newport Castle, built by the Normans, turned into brewery by the Victorians. Inhabited now by goths.

Newport is a dark and magical place. I often say it, sometimes including the word ‘seedy’. These few pictures sum it up. I’ll leave you to decide which you’d label, dark, magical and seedy. What needs to be remembered however is that all of this was once marsh, and to marsh it may one day return.

The next posting will deal with aspects of Newport's history, along with some superb photos from Andy of South Wales.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Elegy to a cat

When I bought 381 Pilton Vale it came without carpets and curtains. The sellers had even removed the light-bulbs. But it was a happy moment. My first house. Those I’d bought it from had paid only £3,500 for it. (So they could have afforded to throw in the light bulbs) I paid, £10,500 for it, and soon after that the property market exploded, carrying me up with it. It was like surfing on money.

Still, it didn’t seem like it that first night, walking on bare concrete and chip-board floors with a candle in my hand. Neighbours must have thought Quasimodo had just moved in, or Wee Willie Winkie.

Stuart and Jennie next door came to my rescue with the gift of a coffee table and a very old black couch. As Stuart said, ‘you have to start somewhere…everything gets better given time’. He was a gentle and dry philosopher was Stuart.

And it did get better.

Somebody gave me a tiny grey kitten. It was small enough to fit in the palm of my hand and stared up at me, a ball of fluff with wondering eyes. The kitten, not me.

I called it Gladstone.

It seemed to me that something so small demanded a weighty name. We sat most nights on a rocking chair watching TV until it was time for bed. Gladstone slept in the hallway at the foot of the stairs.

When I came home at night I was forced to open the door slowly, inch by inch, because Gladstone, eager to see me (and be fed) was pressed against the other side, and didn’t have the brain to move.

Every night followed a similar pattern. We watched some great TV together, and I got used to the smell of cat-food. But Gladstone resented being left downstairs.

In bed, I’d hear a desperate scrabbling, then a bump; more scrabbling and a final bump. In the morning I’d find him splayed out on the second step of the stairs.
As the days passed he made it to the fourth, and then the fifth. Sometimes he’d wake up in the early morning and make it to another step before passing out.

One Saturday morning, pondering as to whether to sleep in for another hour or two, I heard a desperate scrabbling and a thump that seemed very close. He’d made it to the landing. I was sure of it. A moment or two later the bedroom door creaked open. I lay there, content. Gladstone had climbed the Matterhorn. What character. True grit! But wait, he hadn’t finished.

The scrabbling continued and stopped just below the bed. Part leap - part abseiling -claws raking duvet, Gladstone made the final ascent and landed on the bed.

His triumph and mine were short-lived. The effort proved too much for him and he pissed on the bedding. I grabbed him – still a neat fit in the hand – and went to hurl him off the bed. But he looked so happy, so pleased with himself; he stayed. I went downstairs and made some porridge.

Gladstone was a favourite with the children next door, who played with him in the garden when I wasn’t there. One day Gladstone vanished. Shane and Michelle scoured Pilton Vale, knocking from door to door and, to my great astonishment, Gladstone was found.

He’d been discovered coated in mud on the river bank, as though somebody had thrown him there. The poor thing was shivering but he was dry,hot to the touch, as though burning up.

I had no telephone, didn’t know where to find a vet, so that night I knocked the local doctor out from his bed and confronted him with my feverish cat.

The doctor, a gentle man close to retirement, treated Gladstone as though he was treating a child, and I left, fairly hopeful, with some tablets and a prescription for more. Unfortunately my kitten never made it to cat. The following day Gladstone died.

It was winter, icy, the ground rock hard and I didn’t then possess a shovel or spade. Every so often I looked at him. He lay stiff as a board, a tiny grey streak on the kitchen floor. I didn’t want to touch him, didn’t know what to do.

Eventually I put on my coat and walked out into a freezing cold night. A lane took me close to the river and a dense bank of nettles. I looked at him one last time, this cat that had once climbed the Matterhorn, and tossed him into the nettles. I cried.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Scottish Midge

The moon was once as smooth as a snooker ball until the Scottish midge arrived and set to work.

1976 was one of the great British summers. It is still talked about today, like Biblical Jews might have talked about the parting of the Red Sea many years after the event.

We were on the Isle of Skye at the very peak of the heat-wave and took it upon ourselves to climb what looked an accessible mountain. It may have been the Quiraing, I'm not too sure.

Several times we thought we’d reached the top, only to discover that it was merely a ridge and, invisible from the ground, lurked another elevation, followed in turn by another.

As we climbed we longingly looked below at these tiny locheens. They shone clear and blue, like turquoise chips scattered amidst the dry yellow grass. On the fourth ridge, we gave up and all but ran down, skidding on scree in great clouds of dust.

We stopped at the first locheen, looking as blue up close as it had from a distance. The midges looked less blue – a swarm of agitated specks homing in on us fast. We ripped off our clothes – not fast enough – and plunged into ice cold water until only our nose and eyeball showed above water.

It was one of the great experiences, along with that peculiar smugness that evolution and a superior brain had enabled us to outwit the midge. They hummed above the surface as we cooled down in crystal water, our flesh for the moment impregnable. Disgruntled midges, we sneered at them.

I realized something was wrong when my legs turned blue. Then I realized I couldn’t feel them, and that my teeth were chattering like small castanets. The midges were gloating, their victory dance an aerial jeer.

I lumbered out from the water, aware that brain size wasn’t everything, that evolution had flaws and that a thousand midges were diving towards me. Disgruntled midges are not to be trifled with, a thousand of them... Drying was a luxury we didn’t have time for. We were under attack. But dragging clothes over dripping wet bodies was no short cut. Fabric stuck to flesh like backing tape, normally docile clothing just point-blank refusing to cooperate. They had turned into a fifth column, the enemy within (or without) colluding with the midge until our snooker smooth bodies were cratered more deeply than the moon.
The midges of Scotland did for the Romans, and I understood why.

Friday, 8 May 2009

A jackanapes in Green

May 1976 I went to see the Stones in Bingley Hall Stafford. It was the Black and Blue Tour, and I was still mourning the departure of Mick Taylor, but never mind. It meant missing school, and not for the first time that day I felt momentarily diminished, like the schoolboy I’d once been.

At Bingly, with scouse ruthlessness, we pushed our way to the very front until we were less than three feet away from the stage. The Stones were late, a trick learnt from Nuremberg, and we stood watching an eerily lit, but empty stage. Then the lights went out; the stage vanished. We stood, tense, expectant. The lights went on –and there they were, standing like wax dummies. For a moment you appreciated pagan worship as icons came to life.

The thing kicked off with Honky Tonk Woman, Jagger looking vaguely disturbing in a frilly green top – more so since he was standing only three feet away. The concert remains only a blur now except for one moment which, for the second time that day, reduced me to an insecure child.

They were playing Midnight Rambler and halfway through Jagger knelt down, one hand holding a metal studded belt, the other pointing accusingly at the audience: to be more accurate, the front row. In time to the music he thrashed the belt on the stage and pointed directly first at one fan, then at another. He was working his way round. In three or four more beats…he’d be looking at me.

Ego wrestled with panic. What should I do? What face should I put on? Did I wink – a knowing one perhaps? Remain impassive…a slight smile…look over his shoulder as though Charlie had just done something particularly interesting on the drums? All these things passed through my mind as his finger came winging in to me.


His eyes were like those of a super-market checkout girl, blank, turned off. And then the finger moved on.

What looked orgiastic from a distance was consummate performance, the body in action, the mind somewhere else – anywhere but Bingley.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

The Who in Swansea demanded bladder control

36B Bryngwyn Road was a square room with a bay window. The carpet was faded, a grey and pink affair – dead flowers on corpse dust – the walls so nondescript I cannot remember. There was a dark wood wardrobe, a reasonable bed, and a sputtering gas fire fed by a meter. In that room lurked madness.

The weekends brought release. The White Hart, the Kensington Club, Concerts in Cardiff. I saw Cher there – that’s how desperate I was to avoid my mad little room. She played at Cardiff Student’s Union but was not impressed. “What a shit-hole!” she said. She should have seen my room.

Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen would not have fitted in my room. They played western swing and blew the place apart. It was the Seventies, pre-punk, a time when students took their music seriously. They sat on the floor in appreciatory mode. The band came on the stage and within moments the place was heaving in ecstasy. How could you resist a piano player in buckskin, looking like a greasy Buffalo Bill, trombones swinging in masturbatory glee, a double bass pummeled like it had cardiac arrest? There must have been at least seven people on stage and as they played I jiggled and twitched in what I imagine dancing to be, and forgot my little room in Bryngwyn Road.

The only concert I wish I could forget completely was The Who, playing in Swansea Football ground. It should have been great. A cold, blue sky morning turned into a baking hot day. Andy had six cans of lager. I went for cider, two large flagons of the stuff. It should have been great...

In the street leading up to the ground we saw people furiously drinking. What a party! At the ground we were stopped. ‘No alcohol allowed.’ You didn’t argue with a large bald man who breathed like Darth Vader.

We joined the ‘party’ in the street. Dante could have described an extra circle in hell. It’s no fun swigging down a gallon of cider and six pints of lager in under ten minutes, and then staggering into a football stadium with only four toilets - a slight exaggeration maybe, but only slight. Earth became swamp on a baking hot day. I didn’t care that Roger Daltry was screaming ‘My Generation’. I needed the toilet, along with a thousand or more others - 'hoping to go before they got old.’