Category Archives: childhood

Unhappy Child, Unhappy Adult

A recent Radio 4 programme ( ‘Unhappy Child, Unhappy Adult’ ) looked at a study conducted in the USA that suggests acute childhood experiences (ACEs) are a major cause of serious illness in later life.  The criteria for what constitutes an ‘acute childhood experience’ are listed here  – but briefly it means abuse and neglect.  The study showed that 50% of 69 year olds with no ACEs are free from serious disease. Of those with 4 or more ACEs only 20% are without serious disease.

This is fascinating enough. And also deeply worrying. Childhood poverty is increasing dramatically in the UK, and whilst we can’t assume that poverty causes abuse and neglect, only an idiot would imagine it plays no part.

But what the programme revealed next was even more incredible.  When the data was explored in more detail the researchers were astonished to discover that the very act of completing the ACE questionnaire reduced a subject’s likelihood of visiting a doctor the following year by a dramatic 35%.

The study suggests the importance of early intervention.  Even the most hard headed capitalist can see how early intervention will reduce costs to the health service in later years. But even more significantly the study suggests that exploring early childhood experiences with adults will decrease their need to see their doctor at all.

Stress makes us ill and for some of us talking about our lives helps us heal. How long will it take for these messages to reach the policy makers?

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The Hill of Dreams

Dominating the reclaimed marshlands of South Wales, Twm Barlwm stands as a barrier against potential invaders. I grew up below that mountain, in Newport, and every Good Friday a group of friends would undertake a strange pilgrimage to the top, an Iron Age hillfort, with its dome like construction at the summit.  We used to call it the twmp, or the pimple, but from a distance its not difficult to see the mountain as a reclining woman.  The pinnacle of Twm Barlwm is more like a nipple.

In The Silbury Treasure Michael Danes maintains that the Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire, and neighbouring Silbury Hill, the largest man made mound in Europe, is a Neolithic monument to procreation: the hill is a womb, the site, according to Dames, depicts a woman giving birth.

Neolithic peoples were the first farmers, and were well aware of the cycles of the seasons.  They sowed and they reaped, and the invention of agriculture gave rise to settlements of much greater complexity than those that preceded them.

Perhaps Twm Barlwm is a similar construction, on a gargantuan scale.  You can see the mountain from across the channel, in Bristol.   The Romans built a fort and amphitheatre at Caerleon, just a few miles to the south of Twm Barlwm.  I’ve often wondered if it was a base to lay siege to the mountain,  Twm Barlwm, Tump Bellum, hill of war.

I left Wales to go to art school in London.  There I discovered a tiny subculture of writers, poets and musicians who were admirers of the late nineteenth century Welsh mystic and author Arthur Machen.   Machen grew up in Newport, but his writing life did not begin until he moved to that same suburb I found myself, Acton.

His London Adventure is my favourite book of his, but here I want to concentrate on The Hill of Dreams, which begins with this wonderful sentence:

‘There was a glow in the sky as if great furnace doors were opened.’

The Hill of Dreams is Machen’s fantasy of his childhood, and the hill is, of course, Twm Barlwm.  It fictionalises Machen’s boyhood, much like my own, and his departure to London, where he attempts to make a living as a writer.

What pervades his books is a sense of the uncanny, of a belief that something more lies behind reality.  I read his books at a time when I was struggling to move forward.  On the evening I moved into a new room in a shared flat, it was a bitter winter, the heating failed, the pipes froze, as I was attempting to finish my first novel, a strong wind burst the window in my room, and when I reached down for my unpacked bag to find a jumper, I discovered the flat’s cat had pissed in it.

The cat’s owner had named it Crowley after the occulist, Aleister Crowley.  Crowley (the man, not the cat) was an admirer of Machen, but the admiration was far from mutual.  Aleister Crowley, I imagine, was the sort of man who would urinate in your bag and find it funny.  For weeks after I smelt of cat piss.  It felt like Crowley’s curse.

That first book was never published, but I did get a few encouraging responses form publishers.

Returning to Wales one spring, I decided to look for Machen’s childhood home, a rectory in Usk.  I went with a couple of friends.  It rained all day, and we got soaked.  It was April 1986.  A few days before the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine exploded, nuclear radiation rained down over Wales, a ban was placed on sheep and cattle movement that wasn’t lifted for four years.  Again, I had been pissed on. But this time it was serious piss.

During those difficult years, the struggle to make my way in the big city, Machen’s books brought me great solace.  His trails were my trials, and his victories, I hoped, would soon be mine.

Unlike Machen, I returned to Wales, and to the hills: the Brecon Beacons, the Black Mountains.  I find great comfort in their vastness and beauty.  Those early years of living under the spell of a mountain still permeate my every waking moment.  From Twm Barlwm to Pen y Fan, the mountains of Wales are all hills of dreams.


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Filed under childhood, mountains, Wales, walking, writers

The King’s Speech and Other Stories

Every time I see my father he tells me something that makes me laugh.  I saw him last week and he told me about a photograph he bought of ‘The Post Office’ in Bridport, Dorset.  A local told him that it that shut in 1901 after the postmistress was receiving a report, via telegraph, of the death of Queen Victoria.  At that moment the line was struck by lightning, the postmistress died, and the post office had to close down.

Here’s another royalty related story my father told me. It originally appeared on the Awfully Big Blog Adventure website.

 *    *    *    *    *

My mother is in hospital, so I went to have lunch with my father.  He’s a sprightly and intelligent man, he can string out a tale, and always surprises me.  We sat in a very ropey pub in a damp corner of Newport in south Wales.  For some reason we began talking about my father’s childhood, and the story of the King coming to Newport.  I wanted to rewrite it from my father’s point of view, trying to keep it more or less as how he told it.  The year is 1937.

  *    *    *    *    *

 Mother, or Mama as I called her, took me into town to see the King. I was nine, so I assumed it would be some sort of private conference, just me and him.  Perhaps he had something to tell me.  Of course it wasn’t like that at all. When we got to the centre of Newport, there was a huge crowd, but Mama, bold and obstinate, pushed through them all to the front.  And there was His Majesty, about to lay the foundation stone.

Suddenly Mama grew excited.

“The King,” said Mama, “he digs with his left hand.”

It was a grand day. A big cheering crowd. Mama had bought me a flag.

“I knew it,” said Mama.

I could see the King’s head but not the shovel he was holding.  I waved my flag.

“You don’t remember, do you?” said Mama.

“I don’t remember what, Mama?”

Someone started speaking, a very loud voice. There was a lot of clapping and cheering.  I couldn’t see what was happening and I needed a wee.

We went to the Kardomah.  Mama allowed me a lemonade.  She sat opposite me with her coffee.  The Kardomah was steamy and busy. It was nice.

“You don’t remember any of it, do you?”

“Yes, Mama,” I said. “You told me.” It was in the papers and on the wireless. I repeated her words exactly.  She’d said them enough times. “The King is coming to Newport to cut the first sod.”

“I don’t mean the King,” she said. She looked cross. The lemonade wasn’t very fizzy.

She stared past me. Perhaps she was hoping to spot someone she knew.  She knows lots of people. She is always stopping to talk about her sciatica.

“I was talking about you, not the King,” she said.  “When you started school the teacher wouldn’t let you write with your left hand.  Don’t you remember?”

“I think so Mama,” I said.

“You were forced to use your right hand and it made you stammer.  You stammered quite badly. We went to see Dr Harris and he said you must be allowed to write with your left hand. He wrote a note to school and straight away your stammering stopped.”  Her eyes were getting watery.

“I know Mama.”

“And the same silly people have done that to the King,” she said.  She looked cross again.

Cross but with watery eyes.  “He’s been forced to use his right hand, but he naturally uses his left.” “Poor King George,” I said.

“But don’t you see?” she said, as much to me as everyone else. “That’s why the King stammers!”


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Ten Again

It’s strange that even though I’m drawn to experimental art, to people and theories that challenge the status quo, again and again I come back to same things that I loved when I was about ten years old.  I was bewildered as a child, I didn’t know what was going on. I still don’t know.  I loved mountains and history, I loved music and football.  And here I am, decades on, after fancying myself as a rock and roll singer in my twenties, and an avant garde artist in my thirties, I’m back to the child I was, staring at the stars in complete astonishment at being alive.  I’m fortunate, I know, to have enough of what I need not to care about those things, so I am able to spend time just being in awe.

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